By Paul Archer
Since we had left Europe five months previously, we hadn’t really drunk alcohol nor had much contact with Westerners. Eastern Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan were dry countries, and aside for a small handful of evenings in random places in Nepal and China we hadn’t partied much all that time. Now we were entering the Backpacking circuit of South East Asia and it looked like things were going to change. This circuit seems to be the process of flying out to a country where alcohol is dirt cheap, morals are loosened in the constant pursuit of hedonism as the sun shines all day, interjected with the odd temple visit and elephant ride to show one’s parents that they’re expanding their horizons and are experiencing culture.
We had just arrived in Vang Vien for the ‘Tubing’ experience; floating down a river on a rubber inner tube and stopping at countless bars on the way, it definitely fell into the hedonistic categories of backpacking activities. Feeling like we deserved the break, we immersed ourselves into tubing with gusto!
My two sisters had flown in from England to meet us and all six of us made our way with our tubes to the top of the run. There were hundreds of westerners on a wooden jetty, all drunk, all in swim wear and all raving it up to British dance music; this was a world apart from central Asia and bloody brilliant!
Avoiding actually floating down (The river was in flood, flowing dangerously fast)[Johno: for Paul, Leigh and the girls, not for Matt and I]; the first three river side bars provided enough entertainment for us as we danced around, invented the gin-and-tonic-and-snake wine (complete with a real snake in it) cocktail, the beer bench and had too many laughs to count. Rising a bit dusty late the next day, we found Matt (who had no recollection of where he stayed) and went and did it again. Floating down this time as the river level had decreased, we played on the numerous swings, slides and river surfing devices that litter the side of the river. Tubing was one of the strangest, simplest yet brilliant tourist attractions ever invented and something which seems to be putting this lovely little country firmly on the tourism and backpacker radar.
It does, however, have its drawbacks and some of them pretty serious as we found out. Swimming around in a flooded, muddy river in the tropics can be harmful to your health (aside from infecting any mosquito bites or cuts you may have into a puss filled mess), deaths by drowning as drunken tourists try their luck at swimming with no tube are regular and we later met a girl who had to spend weeks in hospital as flesh eating bacteria was surgically scooped out of her leg.
We bounced along from Vang Vien, feeling a little worse for wear after our ‘Tubing’ experience, heading for the Laos capital, Vientien. The capital is a relatively unremarkable place, a few pretty French colonial buildings house various different business fronts and restaurants, all being run in the laidback manner that makes up life in Laos. Driving was becoming a challenge for me, I had managed to lodge a piece of glass deep in the heel of my foot and it was really starting to hurt. I had to get it removed before it got too infected (very easy in the climate), and after attempting an operation in the hotel room, it was too deep in so I limped to the city hospital. The air was heavy with bleach and rows of beds lined each wall; some with curtains pulled around and you could hear the sound of retching and the odd moan of pain and agony permeate through the thin fabric barrier. Most of the equipment seemed to hark back to Florence Nightingale’s era and paint flaked everywhere, showing the bare concrete or rusted metal beneath.
My bed was basically a green vinyl surface to lie on, obviously designed for the average Laos patient’s height as my few feet stuck out a few feet over the edge. A doctor smiled a big grin, nodding that he would be with me in a moment and he turned to the patient beside me. He was no more than a metre away from me, a middle aged, over weight patient with a boil of some variety blushing, bulbous and red on his lower back. The doctor injected some sort of anaesthetic into the lump before taking his scalpel and delving deep into the boil. The anaesthetic clearly had little effect as he moaned and the doctor cleared over teacup full of bloody puss from his back and threw the waste into a bin a few inches from where my head stuck out from the short bed.
This, combined with the shit state of the hospital was too much for me, I tried to get up and leave, landing heavily on my bad foot and wedging the glass further in. Remembering that this was the best hospital in the country and refreshing my memory, painfully, why I was there, I reprimanded myself for being a pussy and settled back down. Once the doctor was finished, he washed up, bought over a fresh tray, put on fresh gloves and went about anaesthetising and cutting open my foot with brand new needles and scalpels (I checked each one myself, much to his puzzlement). Cutting down about 2cm into my heel, he rooted around and came up and showed me what he found.
“You want?” he asked me, holding it in front of my face. All I could see was a bloody pair of tongs.
“Glass, see…” I could just make out the tiniest shard, 2mm squared.
“No thank you” not really sure how I would store it for safe keeping “I think there is more, that seems too small to cause that much pain”
He looked, there wasn’t. I was just a pussy.
I was given antibiotics, spare bandages and Paracetamol and sent on my way after parting with $7 for the lot!
We all went our separate ways for a few days, Johno, Matt and Leigh went to Vietnam stayed with my sisters, all meeting up with Hannah to head to Thailand.
As soon as we passed the Thai border, the roads improved dramatically. Smooth duel carriageways cut through the country allowing us to cross from North to South where beautiful beaches and islands lay. Things are never easy when you’re driving Hannah though, even with the smooth roads we had to repair a ball joint on the steering arm, fit a brand new shock absorber and replace a suspension plate before we got to the southern island of Ko Chang where we were going to chill for a few days. There I met a lovely English couple, Iain and Mish, who offered to show me a great place to stay. Wood huts lined the palm fringed beaches and we sat in a bar and drank beer with white sand beneath our feet. They turned out to be some of the most interesting people I’d met on the whole journey, they lived in Cambodia and volunteered for a charity out here called www.mloptapang.org. They are working to stop the child sex trade, rescuing children and teenagers and giving them an education. Iain’s job in particular shocked me. In his own words he’s a ‘dodgy looking bloke’, his greasy black hair is down to his chin and he has the red complexion of a man who drinks a vodka orange for breakfast. His job is to act as a ‘John’ in sting operations to catch madams peddling underage sex, and also to go with the police to arrest Western men in the act and to make sure they don’t get the chance to bribe their way out (apparently a mere $2000 is enough to ensure the police and the child’s family get paid and heads look the other way).
Oh, and apparently his other job before this was as somewhat of a rock star, he played session bass guitar in the bands Massive Attack and The Prodigy (and to my delight, four shows with one of my favourite bands, The Smashing Pumpkins!).
A few beers turned into a few more and we agreed that we would give them a lift back to their place in Cambodia.
A few days later, after Hannah had had enough of the sea air, we picked up Iain and Mish from their hotel and headed for the Cambodia border, it was 10am but Iain had stocked up for the ride with beer and cigarettes. We had easily enough time to make theirs by nightfall, which was a good thing as both headlights were broken from their dousing in Laos. However, as we rolled off the ferry, we carried on rolling! The brakes had sprung a leak so we had to keep refilling them with brake fluid every few hours. The border then turned out to be a nightmare, border guards inexperienced with foreign car paperwork incorrectly stamped everything and it was almost three hours before we were off again. Leaving Thailand’s smooth road behind, we bounced along the potholed strewn, but empty, coastal road to Sihanoukville. Darkness fell, we were still 100km away from our destination and we were stuck in the middle of nowhere with no lights. We only had our two spot lights in the middle of the bumper so we looked like a motorbike to the trucks that veered onto our side of the road not expecting a full sized car to be coming. I used every torch I could find in the car and lashed them onto the car along with high visibility vests and our warning triangle to give the impression of our real size.
Three nerve wrecking hours later, having succeeded in not hitting any wayward pedestrians, wild dogs or articulated Lorries, we arrived in the town and was introduced to the folks who lived in Iain’s hostel. It was a random mix of the loveliest people, united by the fact that they were all complete wreck heads who had come to the town for a few days and ended up staying months. There were students, rock stars, lighting rig fitters, bums, drug addicts and even a contestant of ‘Britain’s Next Top Model’. The town had a great ‘Wild West feeling’, where hedonism met the numbing poverty and unbridled corruption of Cambodia. As part of a grand scheme for supplementing the local law enforcement’s wages, it was illegal to drive during the day with your headlights on (although, ironically, not illegal to drive at night with them off…), which was not so good for tourists on scooters which had the headlight permanently switched on. A fine of $150 was slapped on the unsuspecting rider, which often got paid (although $5 would usually do it, or less if your skirt was short enough and you smiled sweetly, I’ve been told). All of this and $0.50 a beer meant that Sihanoukville was a big, wild party town.
Cambodia was ravaged by one of the most brutal regimes on the 20th century until 1979. Pol pot and his Khmer Rouge cronies killed and starved 21% of the country’s population, often for no real apparent reason, picking out anybody who posed a possible threat; famously killing everyone who wore glasses, a sign of intelligence and therefore a threat. Driving north from Sihanoukville, we visited the S-21 museum. An old school which was used to interrogate and detain 17,000 prisoners. There were only seven known survivors. This was a grim and sobering experience, but well worth a visit, especially when you realise it really wasn’t that long ago.
Our destination was Ankor Wat, one of the seven wonders of the world. However, we had no map of Cambodia (in fact, we have no maps of anywhere, we left them back in England and after a few weeks without any we decided we’ll see how long we can go without using a paper map. We’re in Australia as I write this). We knew there were two routes from Phnom Pen to Siem Reap, the town by Ankor Wat. We took what looked like the fastest route, but it soon turned into a very wet, tiny causeway across a lake. The whole country seemed to be in flood.
Buddah Face, Angkor Wat
We turned around and went the other way and proceeded to get truly lost for the first time on the expedition. It took us two days. On the way we met a French man and gave him a lift. Kevin (imaginatively nicknamed ‘Frenchy’ by us) had a deep tan, long curly hair, an acoustic guitar and was so laid back he was virtually horizontal; he worked for months in Oz and was making the most of the strong currency to travel around Asia and using his French charm to sleep with as many impressionable young backpackers on the way. Eventually arriving in Siam Reap, we were dining on a Cambodian frog speciality (very tasty indeed!) as Leigh bet me $10 I wouldn’t put my face into the fish tank used for ‘fish foot messages’. I acquired my $10 with gusto, (although I also acquired a slight fishy odour too) and it clearly looked like fun as Leigh asked another fish message place advertising ‘no Smile, no pay’ if he could dunk his face too. The man just smiled and Leigh submerged his face into the water filled with little fish and bits of foot skin. To all our entertainment, the fish swam the other way, clearly hungry enough to eat people feat, but not for his face! The owner asked for the full message payment, Leigh laughed, and he replied with ‘see, you smiling, you pay’.
Ankor Wat was one of the most impressive places I’ve seen on the trip. Sticking out fo the jungle, we spent the day driving to various different temples within the huge complex. A picture paints a thousand words, and I’ve already been blabbing on for too long, so here are some of Johno’s shots…
Going Tomb Raider
Next up, the rest of South East Asia