21 Cambodia, Lao, Vietnam

INDOCHINA (Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam)

Our route in South East Asia was: Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore.


Land mines & Temples

Once through customs and immigration at Poipet we set of on “the most dangerous road in Cambodia” (according to our guidebook). First there had been the soldiers of the Khmer Rouge Army and then there were the out-of-uniform armed guerrillas.. The road, though subject to bandit activity, was opened to foreigners in 1998.

We were endeavouring to reach the famous Khmer temple of Angkor Wat.

The dirt road had enormous potholes. The first make-shift bridge had some loose rattling logs. The next stretch had been washed away, bridge and all. We had to take a deviation through the rice paddies. Reports of the 6 million undetonated landmines came to mind. On one bridge a large truck had broken through the struts and was still stuck with wheels protruding. Through the rice paddies again! After a very rutted, bumpy section we reached a long bridge. This time there were only two strips of planks, wheel-width, lengthways across the cross members. A man walked backwards, gesturing; indicating how many millimetres from plunging into the river we were. On the other side we were relieved and quite happy to pay him 4000 Riel ($1). It was humid and hot. The 150km to Siem Reap took the entire day.

All though we were tired, we drove on to see breathtaking Angkor Wat at sunset.

The next days we explored the vast rainforest park with other monuments built by kings of the mighty Khmer Empire a thousand years ago. Some had not yet been rescued from the jungle and had strangling roots and vines growing over the carved masonry. We often returned to admire the grandeur of Angkor Wat, the 450 m causeway over vast moats and the detail of decoration stone sculpture.

The Khmer Rouge, under Pol Pot (of “the killing fields” infamy), had destroyed all art, musical instruments and books. Education was thought to be bourgeois. They killed teachers and even people wearing glasses (presumed to be educated). Consequently the country is now trying to catch up the tremendous backlog in education. There is also a revival of former arts, including shadow puppetry. We enjoyed a splendid dinner and a traditional royal dance performance at the French colonial Grand Hotel d’Angkor.

French influence could also still be seen in the excellent “baguettes” eaten with meaty soup for breakfast. Local ‘Angkor’ beer was good and a lifesaver in that climate!

Although April was the dry season, we suffered quite a few mozzy bites at the open-air theatre. As Cambodia also has a chloroquin and proguanil resistant strain of malaria, we were on a regimen of doxicycline and paludrine daily and chloroquin weekly.

There were many hotels being built in Siem Reap. Tourism has great potential. For now, Cambodia survives mostly from foreign aid. We found Cambodians smilingly friendly. Even post card pushing children were charming and limbless beggars quite tolerable. At one in 250 of population, Cambodia has the largest number of amputees; landmine victims.

We took the same bad road over “aim-and-pray-bridges” back to Thailand. This time they were working on the road. When we encountered an obstruction, impatient Jan decided to venture off road through the ploughed fields (land mines!). At the next river it required low range first gear to get back onto the track. (The on board chassis welding equipment was to come in handy again later.)


The officials at the shantytown border post were easy going and laid back, like all of Lao. We soon saw wide-open spaces and water buffalo wallowing in the mud. There were only occasional wooden houses on stilts. In the shade underneath, women were weaving on foot looms. Babies were in baskets swinging from the rafters. Children found a cool place on a slatted platform. Men seemed to laze around in hammocks all day. A new bridge brought us to Pakse. A former Lao Royal residence had become a mediocre Communist style hotel. The lunch was awful but the teak interior wall panelling was still superb. The new tar road ended soon after, and became a series of atrocious muddy deviations as the road along the Mekong to Vientiane was being rebuilt with Japanese aid.

Blissfully sparsely populated Lao has vast natural forests. Lunch and overnight stops, in the jungle and next to rivers were easy to find. Nights were hellishly hot. It was a toss up between a slight breath of air outside with lots of bugs or the inadequate fan and heat within Dipli’s protection. One night in the middle of nowhere, guys with torches came to collect bullfrogs. The next day we saw the “catch” at the market. The choice, covered in flies, was: deep-fried, barbecued or hopping about in a basket.

We noticed that the women all wear hand woven sarongs. The French had taught the Lao to bake baguettes and they have them, sliced in half lengthways, drenched with sweetened condensed milk.

We entered the Lao capital, Vientiane, through a mock up of the Arc de Triomphe. The city was named by the French and has retained the name under Communist rule. It has a sleepy atmosphere with faded French colonial buildings and some run down Soviet style places. The Buddhist temples (“wats”) were beautiful and brightly painted. One temple had 6500 Buddha sculptures. We were pleased (after some effort) to spot the typical Lao-style ones. In a main street a man flagged us down to chat. A few blocks further he stopped again to invite us to stay. He was an Ozzy with a Burmese wife. It was great to have good company, a nice garden and house with all the mod cons plus e-mail and home baked bread. One “sunny” afternoon, we were all spruced up to visit the Consulate of Myanmar (Burma). As we touched the gate, two of the three dogs shot out down the road. The next second the heavens opened with a tropical monsoon thunder storm. After searching the busy roads we, soaking wet, dragged back our hosts’ drenched pedigree beasts through ankle deep mud.

We set off again but received unwelcome news: Myanmar borders are still closed to overland travellers. (Myanmar has a military dictatorship government and there are many anti government refugees along the Thailand border. There is also opium smuggling in these areas and regular skirmishes take place between Thai and Myanmar soldiers; with the latter often involved in the drug trade.)

The local market had a large variety of high quality hand-woven cotton and silk sarongs.

After a hot day in Vientiane, the best part was watching the sun set over the Mekong River sipping a cold ‘Beer-Lao’. Each country in SE Asia has it’s own writing system, of which only Malaysia and Vietnam use the Roman alphabet, so finding one’s way is always ‘interesting’!


Vehicles with steering on the right are not allowed into Vietnam. Before entering the country, Jan had to change the steering again from right-hand drive to left-hand drive. As RHD is used in Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Australia & New Zealand, we would not otherwise have bothered to change it for the relatively short part through the ex-French Indochina. (A 1999 Land Rover expedition from the UK to Singapore, upon reaching Vietnam, had been compelled to rent trucks at great expense to move/piggy back their vehicles through the country.)

Rumours about difficult officials and corrupt police made us uncertain about whether we would be allowed into Vietnam; but as it turned out a recent order to the police to “be nice to foreigners” ensured that we had none of the notorious hassles of the past. At the border we had to line up with rows of trucks taking timber from Laos to Vietnam. We were sickened at the sight of loads and loads of logs; one 200-year old tree in three pieces on one truck! The officials were efficient. It cost only $1 (or 14 500 Dong) each, as bribe, and we were in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Then it was down the winding misty mountain pass. At the town of Vinh we stopped to buy the famous peanut brittle in rice paper. There we met our first staring squad. Children surrounded us and hung onto Dipli. Four little slant-eyed faces were even pressed against the windscreen. They told us that there were two school sessions each day. At midday both sessions were on the roads. The narrow way was absolute chaos. Some scholars on bicycles were riding four abreast. There were also thousands of motorbikes and heavy loads on two-wheeled vehicles. When honking trucks and buses came, there was nowhere to go because the rice grows right up against the kerb. It felt like India all over again!

They all wear black or navy trousers; not a single dress/sarong to be seen on a Vietnamese woman! Property tax is based on street frontage, so that houses have only a single room-width facing the road – stretching like a double storey tunnel towards the rear; even obviously expensive and well built houses had this unique format. Vietnamese seemed to be very industrious, particularly after Laos! It is also one of the most densely populated countries in the world. As we approached Hanoi the mayhem and noise increased.

This picture shows the street frontage of FOUR properties!

The bright green rice fields were picturesque, though, and the women in conical straw hats, carrying shoulder slung bamboo poles supporting two baskets, very photogenic.

They all wear black or navy trousers; not a single dress/sarong to be seen on a Vietnamese woman! Property tax is based on street frontage, so that houses have only a single room-width facing the road – stretching like a double storey tunnel towards the rear; even obviously expensive and well built houses had this unique format. Vietnamese seemed to be very industrious, particularly after Laos! It is also one of the most densely populated countries in the world. As we approached Hanoi the mayhem and noise increased.

This picture shows the street frontage of FOUR properties!

It was nearly 1st of May and red Communist hammer and sickle flags were lining the main roads. We were relieved to reach the new 5-star Hanoi Horizon Hotel. We ordered lunch and went to see the manager. He said we could stay for free - in their parking lot.

It was conveniently located to explore the narrow streets of Hanoi’s old quarter, with traditional trades and crafts. After tales of war, the parks, lakes and treelined boulevards with French Colonial buildings were a pleasant surprise. The first days we were petrified to cross the streets but we learned to walk over in slow motion, so that the vehicles had enough time to avoid us. Internet was cheap. Our favourite restaurant was “Indochine” with traditional music and décor. Excellent dishes were ‘meat cooked in bamboo’ and ‘beef rolled in toasted coconut’. We avoided the area which had about 60 dog meat restaurants…

Water puppets

A delightful entertainment was seeing the unique Water puppet performance. Figures and characters and vessels appear from, dive into, and sail upon water. Behind a screen, the puppeteers stand waist deep in water, moving poles and pulling strings.As we did in Moscow, to see Stalin, we stood before the mausoleum in line for an hour to file past Ho Chih Minh’s pale embalmed body. He had been the founder of the Vietnamese Communist party and led North Vietnam for 23 years. A very modern museum about his life; and art symbolising his philosophy was most impressive; glorifying their leaders as is usual in Communist regimes.

Vietnam also has areas with attractive unique scenery. The karst formations of limestone hills form islands in the sea or in rice fields. Erosion of these formations produces interesting caves. We were appalled to see lots of stalactites for sale by the roadside.

On the way back we looked for bomb craters and other evidence of the American war. All we saw were heaps of scrapped sandladders. We filled up with diesel. In the office where we had to pay, two people were sitting on the floor counting a heap of money - waist high. (14500 Dong to the dollar but the largest notes are D5000).

Our odometer (since leaving home) turned to 100 000km in Vietnam, but it would be another 5000km before we reach Singapore and the end of the road in Asia.

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