Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Phnom Penh Ain't Got Nuttin' on Saigon

So, we thought the traffic in Phnom Penh and Bangkok was pretty crazy. That is, until we reached Ho Chi Minh City (or as everyone here still calls it, Saigon). The amount of motorbikes on the road in Vietnam's southern city is simply unimaginable. Every time we hop on the back of a motocab, we join a swarm of hundreds of thousands of ever-moving motos. The flow is truly incredible, it ebbs and flows just like a human artery at the cellular level.


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Daytime traffic from the back of a moto

There are a couple of key differences between traffic in Phnom Penh and Saigon: First, the sheer number of motos in Saigon is overwhelming. Second, there's usually only 1 or 2 people per bike here, rather than the 3-5 you see in Cambodia. Third, people here grudgingly wear helmets thanks to a recently enforced helmet law. Plus, Saigon is beautiful. Zipping around on the back of a moto is exhilarating (for me anyway. Kyle can't handle being a passenger. He hangs on so tight his knuckles turn white).


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Nighttime flow of traffic

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

We ran out of photo space

We used up all my storage space on Picasa and it's $20 to buy more, so now we're going to start putting our photos onto Kyle's Picasa site. The link is picasaweb.google.com/kylepatrickbutler, and we added it to the blog's sidebar for easy access.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

How to Bargain like a Local

If you're gonna survive in SE Asia, it's important to know how to bargain well. Almost every transaction is conducted through an all-out, drama-filled, no-holds-barred haggle. The price of just about everything can be negoitated, including but not limited to: clothing, produce, souvenirs, taxi rides, boat trips, hotel rooms, street food, and guide services. Here are a few tips to make this work in your favor:

1. Before you go, know your price. If you haven't set a maximum price you're willing to pay before you approach your target vendor, you'll get cleaned out in no time. Also, be sure you know the price in both dollars and the local currency. If possible, try to conduct the haggle in the local currency, or you could get had again on the exchange rate. If you don't know the price, lowball. They won't sell it if they're not making money on it, and if they see you don't know what it's worth, they'll sell it for triple it's value every time. It's an important to know that here theft is considered dishonorable, but ripping someone off is not. Also helpful is knowing how to say the numbers in their language. This will help you get a better price every time.

2. Don't appear too interested, and be prepared to walk away. Approach your vendor and ask the price, but be sure to appear somewhat disinterested. If they sense your want or need, the price immediately goes up. The walk-away is your most valuable weapon, and you should use it liberally. If you think it's a bad idea to play hard to get, consider two things: one, they always want your money, no exceptions. If they didn't, they'd be at home. Two, there's always someone else at the market selling the exact same thing, and competition is fierce. If they see you'll look elsewhere, they'll drop their price. And don't worry about giving them a raw deal. They won't sell anything at a loss.

3. Once they name their price, you should name one of your own. Yours should be far below what you actually expect to pay. Theirs is far above what the product/service is worth. You should settle somewhere in between, and usually you're going to settle more towards their end. That leads to an important cultural point: In Asia, saving face is everything. They have to look good in front of their friends, who are either standing very close by, or are maybe even involved in the bargaining process. In order for everyone to be happy, they want to "win" the bargain, which means in the end you'll accept a price they've named. In order to get them to name a price you like, you have to qoute one that's much lower.

4. Drama is everything. The bargaining process here is as much about acting as anything else. When they name their price, you should be visibly shocked at how expensive it is. Even if it's only 10 cents above what you want to pay, since 10 cents is worth something here. You must appear disinterested in the product at all times, as if it's not really something you want or need, just a little luxury. Never keep the product in your hand. You should always hand it back to them, and if they don't take it back (a common ploy), you should set it down. This is a powerful reminder that you haven't decided to buy it yet.

If they don't drop their price to your satisfaction, you have to walk away like you mean it. 9 times out of 10, they will call you back within 5-6 steps, agreeing to a more reasonable price. It's a battle of wills, and if you don't stick to your guns, they won't waver. Remember, you hold the money and they want it.

5. Be polite. Never get angry or raise your voice, even if they seem rude or pushy. Losing your temper causes everyone involved to lose lots of face. Then, when the price is agreed upon, the polite thing to do is offer the money using both hands. Also, try to have small bills. Nothing smacks a vendor across the face like haggling over 50 cents only to be handed a $20 bill. That's a lot of money here, more than most people make in a week. Remember, it's very important to them to save face, and nothing smarts like being reminded that you're rich and they're poor.

If you think that it's all too much work to bother with, be prepared to have your wallet emptied 2-3 times a day, no exaggeration. Besides, it gets easier with practice.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Even though I quit the band, I still remain a musician. I've been writing some songs as we've been traveling, and I had my manager/wife/Christin put together a myspace site. The music is still a work in progress, but I thought everyone might be interested in hearing what I'm doing. If you are, go to myspace.com/kylepatrickbutler.

If at first they don't understand, yell louder

In every other country we have been in, we have avoided booking our bus trips through travel agencies, preferring instead to go directly to the bus station and buy the tickets ourselves. Usually this is cheaper and easier and language difficulties are easily overcomable. Turns out Vietnam is different.

We needed to get from Hanoi to Hue, which is about a twelve hour bus ride. We asked around at a few travel agencies in old town and got some prices we weren't happy with. Besides, they always want to take you to the guest house they are in cahoots with and do everything they can to nickel and dime you along the way.

So we went to the Hanoi bus station. Immediately we were hit by an army of touts. Even at the ticket counter, it was hard to tell who actually worked for the bus company and who was making unrealistic promises in hopes of a commission. There were no more buses to Hue, but we were told that the bus to Danang (about 50km south) would drop us off there. The price was about the same as we would have paid at a travel agency.

Our bus was a sleeper, which meant that instead of seats it had two levels of reclinable "beds." All the rest of the passengers were Vietnamese. Usually this is a good sign.

The bus started rolling and the ticket guy came up to us. He wanted 250,000 dong each. The guy at the bus station had said 235,000. I asked why and he didn't understand, so I grabbed a pen and pad and wrote, "235,000." He said something in Vietnamese that I didn't understand. I looked at him quizically and he just shouted the same thing at me. Then he grabbed the notebook and wrote it in Vietnamese.

At some point, through hand gestures, I figured out that he wanted us each to pay 15,000 dong for food. We're both vegetarians and you have to be careful for scams, so I shook my head no, but he didn't understand. So I grabbed the notebook and crossed out the Vietnamese he had written and circled "235,000." Finally he agreed.

So I pulled out 500,000 dong, but he only had 20,000 to give me as change. With some difficulty we agreed that he would give me the rest of my change later.

A little bit later Christin had to pee. She went over to the toilet on the bus and opened the door. It was packed to the ceiling with something that looked like a plastic bag with a comforter in it. So she went to the driver and pointed to the toilet in our picture communicator book. At first he tried to blow her off, but when she insisted he just waved at the road ahead of her and laughed with his buddies. She had to sit back down and endure the extremely bumpy ride with a full bladder.

Finally we got to the rest stop. Christin went back to the toilet and found a tiny concrete square surrounded by a four foot wall. All the women were squatting on the floor and their pee was running over their shoes and into a hole in the corner. I found a similar situation in the men's room.

We came back out front and the bus operators started insisting that we eat. It was extremely confusing. We had refused to pay for the food, and now they wanted us to eat. We hesitated and they just poked us pushed us, and yelled at us in Vietnamese as if we were stupid. Finally we just agreed to eat and decided we would be willing to pay for it if they insisted later. Luckily there was some tofu and water spinach.

We got back on the bus and Christin got really involved in the movie they were showing. It was about some girl from Hong Kong who was a badass fighter and then had to go to Japan and got involved with a totally inept crew of gangsters who she constantly had to bail out. It was actually pretty good. Then, in the middle of the last scene, they inexplicably turned it off. Apparently it was bed time.

And apparently bed time in Vietnam means it's time to blare Vietnamese pop music in your ear. We fell asleep to some girl repeating "I love you" in broken English from a speaker that was two feet from our heads.

At some point in all this, the ticket guy came back to me holding up a 20,000 dong bill. I thought that he wanted me to pay the difference for my meal, so I pulled out two 10,000 dong bills and handed them to him. He got impatient and started waving the bills in my face and saying things in Vietnamese. I didn't understand so he said it again louder. I thought he wanted more money so I started to get angry, when finally the guy in the seat next to us jumped in.

Turns out he wanted to give me the 10,000 he owed me, but he only had a 20,000 bill. I don't know why he didn't just put the proper amount in my hand and walk away. I guess he thought that a better strategy would be to explain the situation to me in a language I didn't understand.

Anyway, later on I was asleep and dreaming about living on the back of a bumpy FedEx truck when someone woke me up by shaking my foot. It was 4:45 am and we were in Hue. We were supposed to have arrived at six.

I was understandably groggy, but the guy kept snapping at me in Vietnamese. For some reason he wanted us to rush off the bus with all our bags even though we had just woken up from a deep sleep, we were being yelled at in a language we didn't understand, and we were over an hour ahead of schedule. When we got to the front of the bus we saw that it was parked next to a sign that read, "Hue 14km" and had a small group of eager moto drivers next to it.

Of course we had to pay an inflated price to a guy who kept insisting that Hue was 20km away, despite what the sign behind him said. But the ride into town almost made the whole experience worthwhile. The sun was rising over the rice paddies as we sped to town. In the distance, mist surrounded the low, green mountains. The locals were just waking up and we got to see Hue coming to life. As we crossed the bridge over the Perfume River a bunch of old people were engaged in a series of ever weirder stretches. The last guy was about five feet tall, quite round, and was flailing his arms from below his waist to above his head.

The moto driver of course dropped us off at a different guest house than the one we wanted. They do this in hopes of getting a commission from the guesthouse, just like the bus drivers. We just decided to walk to our guest house from here. It felt good to finally be back in control of our destination.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Bay the Dragon Made

For my birthday, we decided to splurge a little bit and take an overnight luxury cruise on Halong Bay. The Bay is north of Hanoi, and is famous for imposing limestone karsts that rise dramatically out of the emerald-green water. We happened to catch it on a rainy weekend, which shrouded everything in mist and mystery.

View of Halong Bay from outside Amazing Cave

Legend has it that the bay was created as a dragon mother and her young fled recklessly through the area. They were in such a hurry that their swinging tails smashed and knocked the limestone, carving a deep bay which eventually filled with water. Evidence for this myth exists in the large cavernous caves discovered by French explorers in 1901 in the form of stalagtites shaped like baby dragon skeletons. Another variation has the dragons spitting out the karst formations as protection for the Vietnamese people from Chinese invaders. Either way, mama dragon was named Ha Long.

One of the many beautiful karsts

The area is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and has been nominated to be on the list of the new 7 wonders of the world by The New Open World Foundation, something that countless billboards reminded us to vote in favor of on the drive back to Hanoi.

A Floating Village on Halong Bay, replete with floating fish farms for food

Our boat was a large, multi-decked luxury junk outfitted for 24 guests that only received 5 (including us). It was both beautiful and luxurious. Our guide, Long, implored us to please relax and enjoy, as he would take care of everything. It turns out that this really means that we will have to put no thought into our trip, as he had a tightly managed tour schedule that included kayaking, timed meals, and visits to a floating village and Amazing Cave. For us, this endless parade of timetables was somewhat stressful, and served as a reminder of why we perfer to travel independently. As Kevin can attest to, Kyle and I hate to be kept on a schedule and can never manage to do anything within our alloted time. Turns out that we avoid luxury tours not only because we're cheap, but because we hate to be told what to do.

Amazing Cave (huge!)

Not to say we didn't enjoy ourselves. The bay was gorgeous, and even as puttered and kayaked our way around it for hours, it never lost it's mystery. Even though I got stung by a jellyfish (Happy Birthday from mother nature), the trip was a fantastic one.

View from the top deck

Hanoi and Uncle Ho

My first impression of Hanoi was exactly what every cold war era movie taught me to expect from a Communist capital city. The day was totally overcast, and the entire city was nothing but shades of grey. On the outskirts of town, plumes of smoke spewed out of giant factories. The city spread out over the entire horizon, no discernible skyline and no skyscrapers. Every two hundred meters or so we would pass a billboard with a smiling Uncle Ho.

The streets flooded, but the motos never stopped

Then we got to Old Town and the entire scene changed. The cramped, unplanned streets were filled with bright, colorful signs advertising for the endless rows of stores selling everything imaginable. Different streets in old town specialize in different products. So, for example, on paper lamp street you find a bunch of stores selling paper lamps. We arrived tired and hungry at the height of rush hour and couldn't seem to find our way off of "power saws grinding against large sheets of metal" street.

Old town at night from the back of a moto

We were taking a stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake, which is famous for a giant golden tortoise that reaproppriated a magic sword given to the king by the gods (but I don't want to go into too much detail), when a crippled beggar hobbled up to us playing a flute with his nose. I gave him about four times as much as I give the average beggar. Later on we saw him jogging briskly across the street. Oh well, the dude could still play the flute with his nose, and I think that's worth 20,000 dong any day.

This is actual footage

That night we stopped by bia hoi junction. Bia hoi is draft beer that is delivered fresh every day to little store fronts all over the city. It is very light and extremely cheap. Think natty light with more water and no bad after taste for about a fifth of the price. The junction is an intersection in old town with about six or seven bia hoi joints crammed onto the four corners. Vietnamese and foreigners sit side by side on tiny plastic chairs and drink endless glasses for 3000 dong each. ($1 US = 17,800 dong)

Bia hoi junction

The next day we went to Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum to see if we could catch a glimpse of the man himself. They actually have his body encased in glass just like Lenin in Moscow (or maybe St. Petersburg, I don't really know). Unfortunately, it was closed. I guess we'll have for the Russian leg of our trip to stare at the creepy remains of a communist demagogue who just simply refuses to rot.


This is as close as we could get to the man

After a stop by the temple of literature, Hanoi's 1,000 year old university where the graduate's names are engraved a stone slab held up on a turtle's back, we headed to the extremely disappointing Museum of the Vietnamese Revolution. I enjoy sifting through piles of propaganda as much as the next guy, but this place was downright confusing. It mostly consisted of a bunch of old pictures of Vietnamese communist leaders and French and American atrocities with no context or timeline so that you could follow the evolution of the revolution. I was lucky that I already knew that Ho Chi Minh (which actually means "bringer of light") went by a series of different pseudonyms or else I would have had no idea why so many of these dudes looked exactly the same.


Actually, the Temple of Literature was one of the most beautiful places we visited in Hanoi

Here's the funny thing about propaganda: There were plenty of pictures of dead Vietnamese children who had been killed by American bombs. There's no argument that this is a terrible thing. But there was also a picture of a row of smiling children in military uniforms with the cation, "Child soldiers of the People's Revolutionary Army" as if it was to be viewed as a source of national pride. What it didn't show was what happened to these kids when they went into battle.

Then, at 4:15, the museum closed and we were promptly rushed out. We never did get to find out how this whole revolution thing ended for the Vietnamese people...

Friday, May 8, 2009

She got a job, and I'm going back to school

Looks like we won't run out of money after all. Christin has been offered a job at Maebashi Language Acadamy in Maebashi, Japan. I just found out (literally one second ago) that the city was founded by a samurai. Sweeeeeet.

And I never thought I'd be saying this, but I'm going back to school. I have been accepted to the next CELTA certification course at ILA Vietnam in Saigon. This is the same ESL teaching certificate that Christin has. It is a Cambridge University program, which means that it is hella prestigious. We're are going to be making some mad fat cash teaching in the Middle East now!

The only downside is that my course ends three weeks after Christin has to leave for Japan. This means we will have to be apart for the first time in our marriage. We are not looking forward to this, but we feel that it is necessary for my professional development.

Tomorrow we are going to Halong Bay to live it up. Expect to be seeing a flurry of blogs early next week!

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Tuol Sleng: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine

In 1975, shortly after taking power, the Khmer Rouge converted Tuol Svay Prey High School and an adjacent primary school into Security Prison 21 (S21). Tuol Sleng, as it is now called, means, "Hill of the Poisonous Trees" in Khmer. It was used a prison and torture center for the remainder of the Khmer Rouge regime, and an estimated 17, 000 people were imprisoned here from 1975 to 1979.

A former classroom converted into a prison cell

Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge who suffered from serious paranoia, required that all victims entering the prison be documented and photographed, and is said to have personally reviewed all the records. The people who were detained here were part of the one quarter of the population killed as part of the genocide for being, "enemies of the state." Prisoner's families were often brought here en masse, and then later shipped to the Choeung Ek extermination center, or the Killing Fields, where they were brutally beaten and thrown into mass graves.

When S21 was discovered by Vietnamese forces in 1979, there were 14 dead bodies in the prison cells (killed hours before their torturers fled), and extensive records including photographs. A Vietnamese combat photographer, Ho Van Tay, was the first to document the Tuol Sleng atrocities for the world when he followed the stench of dead bodies to the prison.

One of the bodies found in a cell by Ho Van Tay

When we visited today, the rooms were cleaned but otherwise untouched, with a photograph of each body found inside hanging over the rusty bed frames containing various instruments of torture. In addition, they also have large displays with photographs of all the victims, many of whom were children, and most of whom still remain anonymous.

"Enemies of the State," children who were imprisoned and killed at Tuol Sleng

A elderly victim of S21

To assuage Pol Pot's paranoia, each prisoner was photographed alive, then dead

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Kep

Kep is one of the most bizzarre places we have visited so far. This is going to require another quick Cambodian history lesson.

Kep used to be the swanky coastal vacation spot for rich French colonialists and Cambodian royalty. They even used to truck in white sand for the beach from Sihanoukville before Sihanoukville was Sihanoukville. Because of this, the Khmer Rouge held a special grudge against Kep. So when they came into power, they basically just destroyed the living shit out of it. (See. I told you it would be short.)

A bombed-out villa in Kep

Clotheslines: a sign of squatters

Years later, Kep is just now starting to recover. On the way to the coast, you pass the bombed out shells of once grand colonial French villas, now occupied by grazing cows and squatters. The collection of statues in Kep includes the Giant Crab, the Monkeys, the Golden Chickens, and the Naked Fisherman's Wife.

The naked fisherman's wife beckons the fisherman back home

The best site in Kep (not that there's all that much to see in Kep) is King Sihanouk's unfinished palace. He was going to make it his coastal getaway, a place to schmooze foreign dignitaries, but the whole Khmer Rouge thing kind of threw a monkey wrench into that plan.

Now, when you pull up the driveway the groundskeeper (who is doing an excellent job, by the way) comes up and asks you for one dollar in exchange for free range of the palace. It's worth it. You step through the front door into a large circular foyer with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Gulf of Thailand. The entire room is empty except for these large bird-like kites that have been carefully arranged around the circle for no apparent reason.

The entrance hall of the unfinished palace

King Sihanouk is long gone, but his palace is not totally deserted. A family (presumably the groundskeeper's?) is squatting here now. There's even a mosquito net over the bed in what would have been Sihanouk's bedroom. So someone lives in the palace, even if not like a king.

The hallway leading the occupied master bedroom