High/Low

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So. We’ve been back now for nearly three weeks, strange as it seems to think about. The trip home took somewhere in the region of 36 hours, and involved perhaps three or four hours of light dozing. I won’t describe Dubai airport at five in the morning, local time, hiving with disoriented travellers from all over the world. If you’ve ever been in that place – sleepless, so dislocated that you no longer have any idea what your personal time is – you can imagine it.

We’ve done surprisingly well with jet-lag, all things considered. We arrived home around 1:30pm London time on Friday, after leaving our hotel at 2pm New Zealand time the previous day. Thankfully, Loz’s lovely parents, Sue and Pete, picked us up at Heathrow and drove us home. At 2:30pm, I decided to go to bed. “Oh, I’ll sleep for three hours, and then stay up until bedtime,” I thought. At 5:30pm, I turned off the alarm and didn’t wake up again until 4 the next morning. I saw 6am while drinking tea at my kitchen table for several days in a row, but it could have been much worse.

There are two questions that we’ve been asked repeatedly since we got back, and I’m going to write a post that covers each of them. One is, “So what were the best and worst parts?” The other is, “So, is everything, you know, different now?”

Question 2 might take a while to answer, but I think I can tackle Question 1 now.

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Loz’s answer might be different, but the best part of the trip for me was Nepal. I was answering this question for a friend over lunch a week or so ago, and while talking about the stomach ailments and the myriad effects of altitude, she cocked a sceptical eyebrow at me: “You’re not really selling this, you know,” she said. But I think the fact that this portion of the trip involved some physical hardship made it more of an achievement. Nepal was almost certainly the poorest and least developed place we were, and I don’t want to sentimentalise the “unspoiled” nature of a place where the capital city is overcrowded and polluted and the power cuts out nightly. But the Himalayas are beautiful beyond description, and travelling through the villages and valleys exposes you to a friendly and largely peaceful life. The Annapurna circuit is a long and demanding trek, and being with the same group throughout builds a companionship and sense of achievement; our guides also helped us to learn a little Nepali and a great deal about the economy, culture and lives of the people we met, from Tibetan refugees selling handmade jewellery to teahouse owners. The challenges of our two weeks in India directly afterwards threw some of the contrasts into sharp relief; we travelled in far more physical comfort in India, but the hassles and pressure we experienced, and the effect of being insulated from the day-to-day life of the cities, were much harder to deal with. I was happier between the flimsy, chilly plywood walls of remote Nepali teahouses than in a five-star Delhi hotel.

Some of the other high points:

  • Standing on Brahma ghat in Pushkar, Rajasthan, for the “fire ceremony”. There is a spirituality to India that I can’t put into words; you breathe it like you breathe the smells and the colours. Pushkar is a beautiful town with less hassle and sensory overwhelm than a big Indian city, and that undoubtedly helped, but that’s not it either. I will never be able to explain quite what I felt when I was listening to the chanting and the bell ringing out across the lake, crushing petals between my fingers, and that’s fine with me. I don’t need to.
  • The New Zealand scenery. Watching the sun go down and the moon rise while sitting on a hill above Lake Wakatipu. The volcanic landscape of Tongariro. Floating down the underwater rivers of Waitamo in the faint unearthly light of a ceilingful of glow-worms.
  • Leaning out against the heeling of the racing yacht Cave Canem as we sailed out of Hong Kong harbour.
  • Watching zebrafish swim almost between my fingers at the Great Barrier Reef and thinking, “It’s a Monday afternoon”.
  • The people that we met on trains. Young, older, experienced travellers or newbies, generous, thoughtful, figuring it out as they went along.
  • Seal shows. I don’t know what it is about seals offering me a high-five that reduces me to an overawed and delighted five-year-old, but they do. This effect was enhanced at the Nerpinarium in Listvyanka by the impenetrable quality of the Russian narration, but I defy anyone to watch one seal romance another with a bouquet of roses and not cry tears of pure joy.
  • Cat Ba island, Vietnam. Kayaking around and between the karsts, jumping off the roof of a houseboat, eating simple fresh food at the village restaurant, and riding a motorbike through the fields to the harbour with the wind streaming through my hair.
  • Getting overcome with giggles in a Beijing hotpot restaurant, looking at the plates and plates of unidentifiable foodstuffs we’d been brought and clinking beer bottles. Finding ways to surf the bizarreness of Beijing and coming out feeling exhilarated.
  • Seeing in age 30 with a dawn flight around the jagged summit pyramid of Everest.

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There were lows too, of course.

  • The cheap, uncomfortable, sleepless red-eye flight from Delhi to Hong Kong on India Air.
  • The staring in India. I think I could have handled the noise, the traffic, and even the heat more easily if it had not been for the incessant staring by men. It wears away your fortitude somehow.
  • The costs of Australia and New Zealand made me wince. A beer tended to run you around £5, and the current exchange rate doesn’t help.
  • Emerging out of Beijing Central station into a storm of people and smog.
  • Sleeplessness: in Saigon, Cairns, Nelson, Irkutsk, Kuala Lumpur. Noise, humidity, and cockroaches.
  • The endless, sweltering Russia to Mongolia border crossing: almost eight hours in place. Boredom, hunger, mosquito bites and immigration shakedowns.
  • In a way, I hesitate to describe this as a low, but: Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I’ve never been anywhere where I was confronted with the consequences of cruelty and misuse of power in quite the same way, and I don’t want to forget.

If I had to pick one moment, though, I can, without difficulty, and it was the “high point” of the trip in more ways than one. At Thorong Phedi, 4500m above sea level, casually looking upwards as I emerged into the freezing darkness of 3:30am, and staggering backwards under the weight of a thousand jagged glittering stars.

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Counting Down – Auckland

Auckland at sunset, from Paul and Morag's deck

Auckland at sunset, from Paul and Morag’s deck

We arrived in Auckland on Sunday afternoon, knowing our flight out was on Thursday. It was a strange feeling to have reached our final stop on the trip, and I had a very mixed bag of feelings: sad to have come to the end of it, nervous at the prospect of finding a job again, happy at the thought of seeing home and friends and not being transient any more. We had also both started to focus on reviving our CV’s, talking to our networks, and everything that’s involved in getting back into a career mode, which makes it harder to stay in a “holiday” mood.

On the plus side, we earned so many hotel-booking points in Southeast Asia that we were able to use them to book into a fairly decent hotel, with pool and gym, in Auckland as a final treat. We also had a commitment to have dinner with my ex-colleague Paul and his wife, and so on Sunday evening we drove out to St. Helier alongside Auckland harbour. Paul and Morag’s house has to be seen to be believed; incredible floor-to-ceiling plate glass and a deck overlooking the water and the city. We saw the sun go down while barbequeing on the deck.

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On Monday, we drove out to the Coromandel Peninsula, which has a rocky, forested spine surrounded by spectacular beaches. Our particular destination was Hot Water Beach, another delightful literal description. The beach is a lovely surf beach in its own right, but at low tide an area of sands is exposed under which geothermically heated water is constantly welling up, and with a small spade you can dig yourself your own personal spa pool. Even walking through the surf around this area is quite pleasant: the combination of seawater and boiling hot spring makes the shallows a lukewarm temperature. The beaches in New Zealand are not quite as deadly as those in Australia, but mainly because there’s no poisonous sea life; the currents and rips are pretty much as bad. Still, we had a pleasant swim, paddle, and laze, but Loz was tired out by the nearly-5-hours round trip drive.

In the morning, we had to return Shadowfax, which we did sadly, having put more than 4,000 kilometres onto his already formidable total. While he lacked audio facilities more sophisticated than a tape deck and complained bitterly about having to go up hills above 70kph, he had proved a noble and reliable steed. We spent the day in central Auckland, principally at the Auckland Art Gallery, which had some of the best curation we’ve seen and a collection of New Zealand art from the 1830s on thoughtfully arranged and explained, with individual artists spotlighted. It also had an outstandingly sentimental collection of Victorian art and some modern landscape photography. Auckland was, to my mind, the only “real” city we visited in New Zealand, and the only one to have more than a few kilometres of motorway – all our driving around the country was on winding, single-lane roads. Even Wellington, although a lovely place, has the ambience of a large town much more so than a “real” capital. I’ve really enjoyed some of the cities we’ve been to, but if this trip’s done anything, it’s reinforced my love for London. Apart from my time living in the rural US, I’ve never lived outside a city – and some of them, like Oxford and Cambridge, punched above their weight from a cultural perspective – and I’m too spoiled now to go back.

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On Wednesday, we didn’t do much, by choice. Each of us had begun to feel that we were mentally focused on coming home more than exploring Auckland, so we took it easy and took advantage of the hotel’s facilities while we could. At the end of the day, we had twin appointments with some of Auckland’s best needle artists, and we both came away with beautifully done mementoes. On Thursday, we rose and checked out, then spent our remaining time at the New Zealand Maritime Museum, which is filled with full-sized ships, boats, and vessels of all kinds, from Maori waka and Pacific Islander canoes to the enormous monohull sailed by New Zealand in the controversial Americas Cup in 1988. The museum tracks the full history of sailing from the arrival of the first Pacific Islander explorers a thousand years ago, through the immigrant experience to New Zealand as a competitive sailing force. I didn’t have time to see it all, but I’m pretty sure Loz loved it.

Then it was a cab to the airport, and now here we are, at the end of a long continuous journey, with a trip of many hours to go: Auckland to Brisbane to Dubai to London. I have a lot to say about what the trip has meant and how it’s gone, but I’ll save it for a retrospective. See you on the flip side.

Wordless – Queenstown

There’s one way in which New Zealand is not really working out for me: it’s making me feel like a failure as a writer. I search for adjectives and come up bankrupt. “Stunning”? Used it two sentences ago. “Beautiful”? How bland. “Breathtaking”? Well, yes, but now I sound like a Visit Scotland PR puff piece.

So, the hell with it. I present to you Queenstown, New Zealand, on the shores of Lake Wakatipu:

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The drive there had its non-ugly moments as well. Here’s a sample of the kind of road we found ourselves rolling down:

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We’d planned to pull over at Wanaka on the drive to Queenstown to have coffee and trade places, and as we reached the outskirts we saw a sign for “Puzzling World”. We exchanged glances and threw the car into the car park. We started with the outdoor maze, where you have to find your way to each of four corner towers, then went inside for the rooms of optical illusions. Unfortunately, the “tilted room” where water seems to flow uphill made me so dizzy Loz had to keep on driving for the rest of the afternoon.

The glorious weather didn’t hold completely; our first day in Queenstown was grey and rain-spattered. We had booked a Lord of the Rings location tour, and were picked up in a battered jeep by Cameron. A lot of the locations used are actually composite, where several, sometimes miles apart, were combined by computer into one place, but nevertheless, he was able to drive us to the tiny town of Glenorchy at the top of the lake, and also to the plain that became Isengard and the woods where Boromir was shot. Cameron pulled out a couple of blunt swords and grey elven-cloaks for photographic posing at the latter. In between stops, he told us funny stories of the filming; of his boss getting hired to play one of the Rangers of Ithilien as an extra, but then knocking himself out on a take and ending up as an orc, the generous fees paid by Weta to farmers for use of their paddocks and their donation of barely-used machinery afterwards. Evidently, the Weta crew are highly popular around the area. I also had to laugh when I got out of the jeep and spotted its licence plate: BOMBUR. Cameron’s boss had taken the initiative to buy up licence plates of all Tolkien’s character names before the films came out, and now uses them for his tour vehicles.

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On our second day, we had booked a tour out into the glorious Fiordland of the west coast. Rather than the more famous Milford Sound, we opted for Doubtful Sound, which is quiet and untrafficked. (It was named by our old friend James Cook on one of his voyages around the region; he was doubtful whether, if he sailed in, he’d ever be able to get out.) Getting there took some doing – a two-hour bus journey was followed by a catamaran across Lake Manapouri, then another ninety-minute coach trip over the Wilmot Pass to get to the cruising boat. Along the way, the tour takes in the hydroelectric power station burrowed deep into the mountain above Deep Cove. The fiords are serene and uninhabited, other than by a rich variety of wildlife, and are spectacularly carved by glaciers, with waterfalls, steep green peaks, and hanging valleys. The environment is unique; the fresh water that pours into the Sound is stained brown with tannins, and sits on top of the seawater because it’s less dense. This means that the waters of the Sound are unusually dark, and many creatures who normally live in very deep waters survive here close to the surface. For an area where it usually rains two days out of three, the weather held sunny, with hardly any cloud.

On our last day in Queenstown, the weather was utterly flawless, and we felt like some activity after twelve hours of near-motionlessness the previous day. We hired mountain bikes and set off around the Queenstown trail, an exhilaratingly hilly walking and cycling trail along the lake. We saw the day in drinking some New Zealand craft beer at a rooftop bar, well satisfied.

Painting the Town – Melbourne

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And so on to Australia’s second city. We got a good deal through Qantas for our internal Aussie flights, which gave us the pleasure of fully-automated check-in and bag drop, as well as an individual iPad for in-flight entertainment. Nice. I got engrossed in the documentary I am a Girl, which follows six teenage girls worldwide; one in Cameroon, one in Afghanistan, one in Australia, one in New York’s Projects, one in Papua New Guinea, one in Cambodia. The one that stayed with me most powerfully was Kimsey, the Cambodian fourteen-year old whose work as a prostitute was the sole source of income for herself, her abusive and ill mother, and her newborn baby. She had been beaten and gang-raped in the past, but when she comes home without having made enough money, her mother cries and rails, saying Kimsey doesn’t love her. I had to get off the plane without finishing the documentary, and it’s still haunting me.

In Melbourne we had the pleasure of staying in the beautiful restored Victorian terrace belonging to Dan, Charlotte, and their son Max, where we had a sitting room of our own in addition to our lovely bedroom. A stunning place to stay, and lovely hosts – Airbnb can really give you great opportunities.

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On our first day in the city, our first destination was the Immigration Museum. Australia has been regarded as “a nation of immigrants” since the 18th century, but this, of course, glosses over the existence of the indigenous Australian population, who were not counted as Australians until the 1950s. There have been significant efforts in the last twenty years to undo some of this erasure and injustice, but it still exists as an unhealed wound. The Immigration Museum made me simultaneously furious, devastated and hopeful. It begins with a short video highlighting all the reasons people have emigrated to Australia – economic opportunity, family, escape from injustice and oppression. What had me in tears after ten minutes was that I felt it evoked a sense of pride in being a nation that opens its doors to immigrants, willingly and generously. It’s so long since I saw that perspective represented; I think it possible I never have.

The museum follows specific families who came to Australia in the different waves of immigration; Irish intellectuals in the early nineteenth century, Russian Jews escaping Stalin, Greek and Italian families in the 1940s and 50s, Vietnamese and Cambodians escaping the violence of the 1970s, African, Iraqi and Afghanistani people in the 1990s and 2000s. You could learn, for instance, the story of two Iraqi brothers who had worked as university professors before coming to Australia, who managed to build a business after buying a taxi licence for $17,000. The musem also points out some salient facts; for instance, most “illegal immigrants” are not asylum-seekers but people who enter under legal visas and then overstay them, and the largest proportion of those are British and American. Two other displays stuck with me; one replays typical immigration interviews of different eras, and then asks you to rule according to the immigration laws of the time, whether an individual or family should be accepted or rejected. The other plays out an instance of racial microaggression on a city tram, and then replays the incident from the perspective of several people. It doesn’t present any easy solutions. After that, we headed out to Federation Square, in the centre, where a church displayed a huge banner reading “Let’s Make Refugees Completely Welcome”. It made me feel a little better.

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While Loz was at the cricket, I spent the morning at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, which runs through the history of film and TV, with a particular focus on the development of the Australian film industry. While running through history from the pantograph to the “talkie” to the Hollywood blockbuster is fun, I was mildly disappointed by the lack of prominence of Aussie films like, say, Muriel’s Wedding and Priscilla Queen of the Desert. The exhibition also highlighted important TV moments of the last hundred years: the moon landing, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and, of course, Scott and Charlene’s wedding on Neighbours. In the afternoon I’d booked a street art tour, and duly joined a group led by the baseball-hatted Chris of the Blender Crew. One of Melbourne’s attractions is its “laneways”, the narrow streets in the city centre that have become warrens of bars, coffee shops, boutiques, and galleries. Chris led us through a selection of hidden alleys, pointing out the history of particularly famous “pieces”, the areas where new artists have traditionally tried out their techniques, the work of all-female artists and crews, and more. Although he had a tendency to enthuse about “the really dope K in this guy’s tag”, he was an experienced artist himself, who gave us a view into the techniques and history of the work that covered the walls, and of the semi-feudal and tribal “crews” that are the backbone of the culture. Since street art operates in a semi-legal space at the best of times, disputes and conflicts tend to be handled in a robust and unofficial way. The tour, after winding through the city centre and Chinatown, finished at the crew’s studio in “Blender Lane”, where every square inch of wall and pavement is painted, and works by Banksy and the 80s legend Blek le Rat are represented. In an incongruously bourgeois touch, we were then served cheese and wine.

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On our last day in Melbourne, the temperature plummeted back to 21C with some wind-chill after the previous day’s 34C scorching. We spent it visiting the famous Brunswick Road, the centre of Melbourne’s caffeine culture, where I finally scored a proper bagel to put to use with my vegan cream cheese. In the afternoon, we used one of Melbourne’s other distinctive features – the trams – to head out to the beach suburb of St. Kildas. Despite the chill and stiff breeze, many brave Aussies were either wading or sunbathing in bikinis, but we opted to keep our sweatshirts on and go for a shoreside walk. At the crack of the next dawn, we were up to move on to Brisbane for New Years.

Phuket All Your Worries

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In Sukhothai we stayed at a small guesthouse called the Baan Georges. “Baan” in Thai simply means “house” or “home”, and that’s exactly what it was – a house run by a blunt but helpful Belgian called Georges, who had married a Thai woman. While driving us to the bus station for our onward journey, Georges asked where our trip would be taking us next. When we mentioned Phuket, he frowned in the rearview mirror. “Oh, I wouldn’t go to Phuket,” he said. “I was there ten years ago. Full of Russians. They say only 3% of Russians ever leave the country, but they are the worst 3%.”

Georges was, shall we say, not wrong – at least, about the size of the Russian contingent on the island. We had planned Phuket in to be a week of relatively mindless beachiness, and had selected a reasonably quiet resort near the more restrained Kata Beach, and while Russians were everywhere, wearing miniscule swimwear, cultivating tomato-hued sunburns, and swilling beer with enthusiasm, they were perfectly polite beach and restaurant companions. The sleazier side of the island around Patong, though, likely had a different face to show.

This brings me back to an issue I’ve been chewing over since Bangkok; the sex industry in Thailand. Thais are famously fairly sanguine about the antics of farang (white foreigners), but I can’t help but think that that view must be considerably skewed by the not-small contingent of foreigners who go straight from the airport to the skin bars of Patpong and Pattaya. While it’s helpful that standards of female modesty are not as stringent as in much of Asia (I got a little tired of Loz being free to wander around in nothing but shorts if he chose, whereas if I displayed any shoulder or knee I’d be dangerously salacious), it’s hard not to feel a nasty exploitative undertone to the way Westerners use Thailand.

Something else that clicked for me, shamefully late, in Phuket; people in Southeast Asia who work outdoors all day, whether it’s in the fields, as tour guides, or as roadside hawkers, cover every inch of visible skin. Despite the 30+ degrees of heat, the souvenir-sellers on the beach wore socks with their sandals, long sleeves and trousers, gloves, and broad-brimmed hats with scarves swathing neck and face. That’s how closely light skin and status are interwoven.

Kata Beach in Phuket, it has to be said, is wonderful; a long golden stretch of sand with moderate-size surfable waves rolling in on a soft shelving shore. While the beach is covered in loungers and surrounded with bars, it’s very possible to have a chilled and enjoyable time there. I spent some time riding the surf next to a pair of Aussie teen boys, who seemed to be revising for a political geography exam:

“Okay, which states are currently growing economically, and which are in economic decline?”

“Uh, Sydney?”

“I said states, idiot.”

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On our first night, walking back from a restaurant, we were startled to see a speeding Jeep pushing a downed motorbike along with its front bumper, with a shower of sparks and a terrible grinding noise. Despite a number of security guards quickly giving chase, we never did find out what had happened. Loz’s theory was that the driver had knocked over a biker and was panicking; certainly the driver either had to know the bike was there or was drunk enough to have no business behind the wheel of a toy car.

On our last day in Phuket, we stumped up for the “flow rider”, a bar by the beach which offers a kind of artificial surfing experience. You ride a small board against a powerful uphill current, with instructors helping you balance – and the current is strong enough to wash someone of Loz’s size uphill with speed, and to body-slam me into the foam back if I wasn’t careful. Unfortunately on my third ride, I wiped out and hit my head hard enough to give me a headache for a day and a nasty stiff neck for three. I think I’m better at actual surfing.

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Bones of Phnom Penh

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We took the Mekong Express bus from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh – an elderly, but comfortable service which carefully shepherded us over the border at Bavet, one of the few crossings where you can reliably get your Cambodian visa for the prescribed $20, rather than being shaken down for more. Although the official currency of Cambodia is the riel, in practice the entire Cambodian economy operates on the US dollar: ATMs give out dollars, all price labelling is in dollars, and the only time you’ll see riel throughout your time in the country is when receiving change smaller than a dollar. We swapped our remaining Vietnamese dong to riel via the no-doubt-highly-inaccurate rates provided by the women changing money at the border, but we might as well not have bothered.

One of the little joys of travelling in Southeast Asia is the neverending uses to which a motorbike can be put. At various times in the trip, I’ve spotted them being used to transport crates of live ducklings, heaps of flowers, and several mattresses. Just over the Cambodian border, a man had strapped a whole dead pig across the back of his bike. The rural Cambodian ‘bus’ also made an appearance: a long trailer pulled by motorbike, with planks tied across it for seats. Rural Cambodia made an impression immediately as somewhat poorer than Vietnam, with an economy much more based on fishing; still, maybe that’s just because our route ran alongside the mighty Mekong. But on arrival into Phnom Penh, after seven hours, my expectations were confounded again. We were staying just off a street of bright, modern shops and pretty shaded restaurants, in what turned out to be an expat area of the city. It reminded me to be careful of judging from appearances; by all accounts Cambodia is still a desperately poor country, but you wouldn’t know it from much of Phnom Penh.

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We began our time there with a visit to Tuol Sleng, the former S-21 prison maintained by the Khmer Rouge. No visit to Phnom Penh can avoid confronting the spectre of the Khmer Rouge, and the four years of their radical communist regime that left the country ravaged and a third of the population dead. Tuol Sleng, a former high school, looks exactly like many other French-built schools dotted around the capital, but the inner courtyard is lined with the graves of the seven prisoners still alive when the prison was liberated in 1979. There is a jasmine tree growing alongside, and its sweet heavy smell permeates everything.The wooden frame once used for exercise by the pupils was used to torture prisoners by hanging them upside-down. The old classrooms and cells are now nearly empty, except for dusty bedframes; on the walls are grainy pictures of emaciated figures shackled to the bare frames, sprawled in pools of blood and vomit. I felt sick, and my throat started to close up.

One of the most gut-wrenching parts of the museum is the pitiless detail in which the Khmer Rouge documented their victims. Numbered photos, numbered tiny cells. The prison displays many photos; ID ones , photos of corpses after torture or death from disease, pages and pages of written and taped ‘confessions’ that broke my heart. “Please, I’ve told you everything… I will never disobey Angka again… my brain isn’t working, if I could just have some rice to eat…” On finishing, we went guiltily for a palate cleanser of lunch at the Phnom Penh Foreign Correspondents’ Club, overlooking the river. In the afternoon, we visited the National Museum, which is dominated by art and sculpture for the Angkor period, when the city of temples and palaces was being built near Siem Reap. While the sculptures lose some of their majesty in a museum setting, it allows you to understand some of the influences and artistry that went into them, and learn about the distinctive “Angkor smile” – the wide-lipped, benign expression that’s characteristic of the Angkor temples.

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The next day, we girded ourselves for a visit to the Choeng Ek Killing Fields. There are many, many sites of killing fields around the country, but Choeng Ek, a ten-kilometre journey by tuk-tuk over dusty, rutted and bumpy roads, has been curated as a memorial site. It’s a quiet, peaceful place, with chickens scratching and puppies gambolling, and a small placid lake in the centre. Under that lake are further mass graves, which the historians and curators of the site have chosen to leave in peace. Little remains on the site now in terms of buildings, except a tall memorial stupa, but an audio tour guides you around the site; the spot where the guards’ hut stood, where trucks dumped out blindfolded prisoners with their hands tied every night, the mass graves of headless Khmer Rouge soldiers, and the one composed solely of naked women and children, besides the tree against which soldiers beat out children’s brains. Every now and again, new fragments of bone, teeth and cloth come to light after rain and shifting of soil, and every few months the curators collect them. I found a scrap of worn blue cloth half-buried near a tree root, and stood staring at it for a few minutes before moving away. A few feet away, a glass case held many of the smaller bones that have been dug up and for which there isn’t room in the memorial stupa. In with them is a standard blue Tupperware container, about two-thirds full with teeth. I’m not sure why this was the thing that broke me, but it was; tears started to run down my face behind my sunglasses. The stupa itself is filled with the skulls and large bones of the victims, level on level on level of them; seventeen stories high.

As you walk towards the gate to leave, the audio guide mercilessly lists off the mass genocides of the past – Jews, Armenians, Native Americans, Rwandans – and warns that we’ve probably not seen the last. What I struggled with most in understand the Khmer Rouge at first was simply what everyone involved was thinking. How was any of this orchestrated? How did a small group of communists manage to drive everyone from the cities and force them into rural collectives and semi-starvation? Who could possibly even think that this could work? Atrocities occurred in Vietnam only a few years before, for sure, but I felt that – to a degree – I could understand the thinking of the American GI’s, and of the Viet Cong. I couldn’t make any sense of the Khmer Rouge at all. Or maybe I didn’t want to.

Vietnam Reflections – Amy

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I don’t normally write a separate reflections post on a country, preferring to weave them into my normal posts, but after Loz’s slightly gloomy verdict on Vietnam, I thought I’d offer a counterpoint.Vietnam is a backpacker’s playground – well-developed, dedicated to tourism, astoundingly cheap, and comparatively very safe (except perhaps from road-traffic accidents). The people are friendly, and the level of hassle and scamming is lower than, say, India or China. It’s easy enough to glide along the surface, taking advantage of the English spoken everywhere and the ubiquity of cheap beer, cheap food, cheap tours, and cheap-yet-very-good accommodation. But I think that we slowly got to see some of the culture of the country underneath, as well as the many parts of it that are stunningly beautiful.

Vietnam is, I think, not so much scarred by war as hardened. In the 20th century, they fought pretty much everybody – the French, the Americans, the Chinese, the Cambodians, each other. There’s an immense and quiet pride in having won against these superpowers and established Vietnamese independence; it’s there in the flags everywhere, the resurgence of the ao dai as national costume, the art that we saw, and the lack of embarrassment that there is in displaying the craters and jagged edges of the conflict. That said, the extent to which the country has regenerated and rebuilt since the end of the civil war and the conflict with the US is phenomenal. Hanoi and, in particular, Saigon, are modern cities with glitter and culture. The trains may be noisy and a little worn, but the transport infrastructure is strong. That said, this is not the West; the police keep a tight rein on crime and disorder, which makes the country very safe for Westerners. It’s not necessarily very safe for Vietnamese people to report a crime, though. It’s still a one-party system with a heavy layer of propaganda.

One of the things I think I began to understand there, on a more visceral level, was how the concept of ‘face’, so important in Asia, manifests. If you lose your temper with a Vietnamese person, you can see them become visibly embarrassed; they have lost ‘face’ and must now find a way to restore the conversation to an even keel. Shouting is not the way to make things happen. Vietnamese is a subtle language, too – each syllable can be inflected six different ways to indicate six potentially different meanings. Although it’s the first country that uses the Roman alphabet we’ve visited since Lithuania, it’s considerably easier to understand Russian than it is to translate Vietnamese.

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I like to try and learn something about a country’s history while we’re there, so in Vietnam I downloaded and read Kill Anything That Moves, a study of American atrocities in Vietnam. It argues persuasively that My Lai was not an isolated incident but the way that the US and South Vietnamese forces routinely operated. It’s honestly surprising to me that Vietnam ever re-engaged diplomatic relations with the US, although I would guess that politically, they didn’t have much choice.

I loved Vietnam, honestly. Ho Chi Minh city was a writeoff for me personally, and I never did get to do that vegetarian street-food tour, but I loved Hanoi’s crazy mix of old and modern, I loved the beauty of Cat Ba and the striking landscape of the karsts, I loved the remainders of the thousand-year-old empires at Hué and Hoi An, I loved the tailoring and the crafts, I loved the coast of Mui Ne even if the resort itself would have been prettier if a little less developed. I got wet occasionally, but I’m Northern Irish. I’m made of Gore-tex.

I really do object to cockroaches in my hotel room, though.