KAT // FIN

Dream. Do.

2-days biking trip in Kratie

After Phnom Penh we decided to take some time off. We travelled to the city of Kratie, located approx 200km north of Phnom Penh. We rent bicycles in Kratie and arranged our own 2-day trip to the nearby villages of Kampi and Sambor which is 35km away from Kratie. All these villages are located next to river Mekong so we got to enjoy great scenery all the way.

DSC_2228 Biking team ready!

DSC_2231 We saw many signs of ‘Cambodian People’s Party’ on the way.

DSC_2232 Biking through smaller…

DSC_2243 …and bigger villages.

Local fisherman in Sambor took us and our bikes to an island of Koh Pdao which is the biggest island in Mekong. Koh Pdao seemed very remote island with only a few other tourists. Perfect! It’s funny how you start avoiding any pre-arranged tourist-tours after you have travelled for a couple of months. Success in doing something ‘on your own’ feels sometimes a great accomplishment. With this I mean something like buying your transportation ticket in stations instead of doing the easiest way and booking them in your hostel. Travelling in South-East Asia has been made very easy and every hostel offers you almost anything you can ask for from tours to transportation tickets and pick-ups. We enjoy when we have to search information ourselves and actually make an effort for getting things done.

DSC_2244 Koh Pdao port

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DSC_2260 Biking in Koh Pdao in the morning light…as if it was midsummer in Finland!

DSC_2261 Koh Pdao

Our own biking trip felt as an adventure – we didn’t have any reservation made of where we were going to sleep and didn’t have any maps with us either…we just wanted to believe that everything would sort out on the way. When arriving in Koh Pdao and seeing these dusty roads and only local people who didn’t speak a word of english, made us doubt the success of our trip for a while. Was it wise to come to a remote place like this in the late afternoon with no idea if there even was any guesthouses or homestays there? We knew that darkness would come after one hour so we started to make jokes about sleeping with chickens and pigs in a shed. Have to admit though – I was keeping an eye of some abandoned houses just in case…Since locals didn’t speak almost any english (if you don’t count those ‘hellos’ we often heard) we had to use bodylanguage to show that we were looking for a place to sleep. After some searching we found a sign of a homestay approx 4km away from where our boat had left us in the first place. We were so happy we didn’t have to sleep in any abandoned shed!

DSC_2246 This homestay we found after several searching

Our homestay was a local cambodian house lifted up from the ground. Below the house the family stored their motorbikes, kept their animals and hung their hammocks. Floor was made of sparse bamboo braches and walls were made of bamboo panels. They warmed the house from below with open fire (never mind about fire safety…) For them it was cold (it was maybe 25 degrees in the evening and they were wearing woollen hats). They wondered how we could wore only t-shirts. Toilet and bathroom were separate buildings, also made of bamboo. We got to wash ourselves old fashioned way without running water. I washed my hair carefully, it felt so great. (We noticed that when trekking in Vietnam they had some ‘westernized’ standards to homestays. Places where we stayed at Sa Pa had running water and they were serving banana pancakes for breakfast.) To me this homestay in Koh Pdao felt more real, more authentic. There was 9 people of us sleeping in that house; the owner couple with their 4 months old baby, owner’s parents and her two brothers. They separated a ‘room’ for us with curtains from a bigger space. There was an own ‘room’ for owner couple which walls were made of plastic mat. We had rice for dinner served with vegetables and some meat. After, owner ‘Mom’ showed us her wedding photos. She had 8 different dresses in the pictures! It was completely dark after 6pm so we went to bed early. We were the only ones who were sleeping on a mattress, others had just tatamis. In the morning we were waken up by a rooster.

DSC_2250 Sunset in Mekong, Koh Pdao

DSC_2256 Sunset in Mekong, Koh Pdao

Our one-night-stay in Koh Pdao cost 16$ from 2 person including dinner and breakfast. Homestays in Koh Pdao are part of a Cambodian Rural Development project and can be booked also in Kratie’s Cambodian Rural Development Tours-office. Our food was cooked by another family and homestays actually have travellers in turns. They have a sign ‘My Turn’ if it’s that homestays turn to take travellers. This way more people benefit and money will spread more widely.

What was really funny to notice during our trip: almost anything can be carried here by motorbikes! On the way back from the island we travelled with a huge pig at the same boat. Pig was put inside a cage which was attached to a motorbike. It was interesting to observe how they got that carriage inside and out from the boat…

DSC_2265 We shared a boat with this interesting load…

DSC_2235 Stopped here on the way back to Kratie.

DSC_2266 And found great place to take a nap and enjoy afternoon swim in Mekong.

-Katariina

Many sides of Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia, surprised me. I had imagined it would have been dirty, unplanned and that there would have been rats and cockroaches running wild wherever. That image many fellow travellers had been bolstering after they had travelled in PP and that’s propably the image which comes to most peoples’ mind when they first hear the name Phnom Penh. We arrived by Mekong from Chau Doc Vietnam and crossed the border first time by boat! What greeted us was a city with modern architecture and shopfronts made of glass, well-kept parks and adoring streets lined with trees growing through roofs of buildings. Phnom Penh seemed pretty westernized…we found brands like KFC and Make Up Store for example. Teenagers in PP seemed to use smartphones and dress like any teenager in western world. People seemed amazingly friendly and you got back so many smiles if you’d smile to people. What we found beneath this surface during our 5 night stay was horrible and hard to understand.

DSC_2191 Central Phnom Penh

DSC_2196 Central Phnom Penh

DSC_2149 Central Market

DSC_2220 Picking mangos one evening with Noreen

DSC_2218 Buddhist spirit house detached to a mango tree in the yard of our guest house. They believe that keeping the spirit happy your life will become happier. They give him offerings in order to do so. We gave him some finnish salmiakki.

DSC_2216 Noreen took us to a Botum Watei temple one evening. We met a 90-year old monk.

WP_20150117_008 Evening with fellow travellers

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Imagine that Phnom Penh had been a ghost city for almost three years between 1975 and 1979. During 1975 communist party called Khmer Rouge collapsed the present government led by their leader Pol Pot. By getting power, Khmer Rouge forced all people living in the cities to go to the remote countryside for working in conditions close to slavery. In just three days, Phnom Penh was emptied. Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot’s aim was to make Cambodia self sufficient, peasant-dominated agrarian co-operative. They saw educated people as a threat and recruited people from countryside who didn’t have the knowledge to questionize Khmer Rouge’s goals. Khmer Rouge burnt market places, abolished monetary system, eliminated national culture, destroyed monuments and pagodas…even schools! One school in Phnom Penh was turned into a prison. Khmer Rouge used that school building to detain, interrogate and inhuman torture. Educated, intellectual people were systematically wiped out – having glasses or speaking a foreign language was reason enough to be killed. Their main prison in Phnom Penh they called Security Office 21 (S-21). There were around 20 000 people arrested and brought to this prison. After, almost all of them were taken to Choeung Ek killing site to be executed and buried into mass graves. And these aren’t the only sites for these horror acts. They have found over 120 mass graves in whole Cambodia. Almost one third of the whole population (estimated 1,7 million people!) was executed or starved to death before Vietnamese troops collapsed Khmer Rouge’s regime and established the new government in 1979. (text from archives of S-21 and Choeung Ek)

DSC_2187 S-21

I saw a man in the wheelchair one day. He had lost both of his legs from below knee and was now selling books to make his living. When I asked how he lost his legs he said he walked to a landmine (there is still a lot of unexploded ones in Cambodia…they are result of American bombings during Vietnamese war). It’s crazy to travel here and not being able so buy a book from each man like that.

I don’t feel like explaining more about this genocide Cambodia faced just 40 years ago. There is many sites which explain way better than me. I just want to tell that we visited both of these sites, S-21 and Choeung Ek. After both of these days I felt sad and silent. You might think why anyone wants to see things like this but I think it’s important if you are travelling in the country which has a history like this…to understand the country better. To me travelling isn’t just about spending money and partying in different locations. It’s also about widening my perspective and learning why things in the world are like they are. There has been many great accomplisments mankind has done that we have seen already but oh boy…there has been so much darkness as well. I feel that I have learnt already more about Vietnamese war (for example) than I ever learnt back in high school. And what it comes to Cambodia – I don’t remember that they ever told us at school what had happened here.

Worse was yet to come…We had heard about Stung Meanchey waste dump where all the garbage in Phnom Penh is dumped. It’s the largest waste dump in Cambodia. I wondered already in Vietnam where they dump all the garbage they produced in Ho Chi Minh City. There is no recycling systems and they use plastic to everything. If you buy a bottle of coke, they give it to you in a small plastic bag, if you buy a take-away coffee, you will have it in plastic bag. Whatever you buy – they pack it to a plastic bag. It’s the same in Cambodia. They overdose plastic so much! So we asked about of hostel-keeper one day if we could arrange own trip to Stung Meanchey. We didn’t know where it was located. Our hostel keeper Noreen negotiated with a tuk tuk driver who was willing to take me and Auli there. We dressed to our shittiest clothes, left all our ‘extra’ belongings to our hostel, just took some money with us and went. We bought a 50 kg package of rice and without any expectations left to see this dump. We drove maybe half an hour, don’t know exactly where. Our driver took us to somekind of a back entrance of the dump because the main road was guarded. There was a community of 17 families living in the corner of the dump. We had to go through their slum. They had built their houses from whatever they had found from the dump, walls were made of corrugated iron and plastic bags of different colours. Children were running naked without shoes. They told our driver that we could go to the border of the dump but couldn’t walk any further or climb up the dump. Some other ‘tourist’ had walked up and had lost his camera to a local person living in the dump. Yes, when we approached the dump we could notice human silhouettes walking at the top of the dump.

There was a small group of people below the dump. One of them was washing plastic bags in a dirty water-pit. One of them was hanging washed bags to somekind of a clothes line. One was packing dried bags. We didn’t see the one who was collecting used plastic bags from among the other waste atop of the dump. One was obviously a mother. Her children were at the ages of 14, 11, 9 and 2. That 2 year old boy was completely naked and didn’t have shoes. He was running around and playing with broken something that once used to be headphones. Our driver translated our questions to these people and translated their answers back at us. They told they are living among the community of 17 families we saw earlier. They told that they are working here at the Stung Meanchey. They collect plastic bags amongst the other waste and they wash, dry and pack them. Then there comes a car which collects these packages and takes them to Vietnam. Vietnamese buy plastic from Cambodia since it’s cheaper than back in Vietnam. They told that 4 person can collect 30 kilos of plastic in a day. 1 kilo is worth 1200 riels which is basically 0,25 euros. Oldest children went to school but came to help after school and during weekends.

This actually wasn’t the worst destiny there in Stung Meanchey. They told that there were 500-600 people actually living in the dump. That means they don’t necessarily have any shelter, they are sleeping just in the garbage. That 14 year old girl offered to climb up the dump and take a photo for us because we couldn’t climb there and see it ourselves. We had left our camera to the hostel and I think it’s better that way. Many pictures of Stung Meanchey can be found in internet. We left that package of rice to this community of 17 families. Maybe they could feed them all with 50 kilos. To us it cost 35$ which is basically reasonable day budget for 2 person here in Cambodia. Still…you can’t feed all of them. I became so sad when I noticed how happy these children still seemed. This 2-year-old was playing around like any other 2-year-old back in our country. But he wasn’t playing with any fancy toys, just with one broken headphones. He just doesn’t know that things could or should be any better.

The garbage dump in Phnom Penh, Cambodia Stung Meanchey (http://www.maciejdakowicz.com/)

All the time we are thinking new ways of making our lives easier and more comfortable in Western countries. We have been joking with Auli how we even have these motorized king-size beds in Finland (here many common people are sleeping just on the floor). When it’s time to questionize if we really need all the conveniences we have? Even the poorest person in Finland doesn’t know a poverty like this.

-Katariina

Morning in Mekong

Pictures taken this morning in Cai Rang floting market, Can Tho, between 6-8am. Loved that morning light!
Some pictures show vermicelli noodle making to which we were introduced during the same trip.

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Tomorrow we head to Chau Doc in order to cross border to Cambodia by boat on wednesday!

-Katariina

Saigon shakes

After three months of travelling arriving to Ho Chi Minh City (unofficially known as Saigon) felt like bumping suddenly into the more sophisticated world we had been for a long time. We had just travelled 26 hours by sleeper bus with one bus change from Hoi An. Our goal was to reach HCMC by New Years and that’s what we did. ‘Sleeping’ places in our bus were that type that could fit easily one slim 1,50cm tall asian person but try that with 1.65cm western person! So after many sleepless hours we arrived to HCMC which welcomed us with warming breezes of +30 degrees. It was definately time to get rid of that fleece which I had bought in Sa Pa!

First we noticed bright lights from skyscapers glimming in the horizon far before reaching the city. That was the first obvious and exciting sign that we were about to enter the real Asian city soon! As soon as I stepped out of the bus I sensed hot and humid temperature and traffic chaos of motorbikes. There is a little bit less than 10 million people in HCMC and almost everyone ownes a motorbike. City isn’t quite prepared for the traffic with so many motos…there’s isn’t really parking spaces as we know them in western countries. Many times you just park in the streets. Another funny thing which works perfectly here but would be hard to imagine having back in Finland is lack of traffic lights. How can all these people deal with this traffic without traffic lights, I first wondered? As I got to notice soon…easily! It’s most difficult for pedestrians as you might feel like kamikaze when you try acrossing the street first time with motorbikes bustling fast around you! The secret is to walk slow enough and not to stop nor speed up. Bikers will surely give you way. Stay calm and keep on walking seemed to work with me…

DSC_2084 Mid-day traffic in HCMC

DSC_2064 Stylish coffee shop

DSC_2068 Reunification Palace

DSC_2075 They had painted this classical General Post Office with this crazy orange colour! :D

DSC_2077Cool floor tiling at Notre Dame Cathedral

HCMC is very modern metropol and as Hanoi is Vietnam’s political hub, HCMC is Vietnam’s economical hub. People seem very stylish, educated and determined. I suddenly felt an great urge of getting a new hair cut and getting my nails and toes done. Haircut we did at Toni&Guy’s but I finally gave up the idea of having either pedicure or manicure. There isn’t really point of having them when you will soon travel to Cambodia where it’s propably wiser to look like a guerrilla. One really selfish and expensive purchase (in terms what is suitable for a backpackers wallet) I did here anyway as I heard there is especially good tailor in the city…I bought a woollen winter coat which was tailored to me according to my instructions. That coat together with 8 packets of world’s best vietnamese coffee Trung Nguyen I sent to Finland afterwards (with fingers crossed that customs duty won’t do any greater inspections in finnish border…)

DSC_2057 Winter coat fitting at Phi Phi Tailor’s

DSC_2024 Propably the best coffee in the world…

Have to say though that after going to the War Remnants Museum which is amazingly good (and horrible) museum about Vietnamese war I couldn’t feel more guilty and more like a ‘western person’ because of these egoistic desires I had been fulfilling…Seeing all that horror Vietnam has been going through for decades made me feel like an imperialist of an new era who just comes here to spend money as everything is so much cheaper that back in Europe. Luckily one-night-visit to the tourist street of Pham Ngu Lao made me realise that I wasn’t the bad white guy. Seeing so many drunken western tourists in one area behaving really disgustingly made me want to stop travelling for a while. I didn’t want to have this ‘badge’ over me being ‘one-of-those-western-tourists’. Especially bad feelings gave one thing we saw in the middle of the night in New Years Eve in Pham Ngu Lao. A young vietnamese girl dressed to a blue bling bling top and miniskirt was showing the way to a young western boy in the middle of the night. They were walking fast to a scruffy hotel and there was no doubt it was only about prostitution.

DSC_2013 Pham Ngu Lao area in daytime

After travelling three months and sleeping almost every night in guesthouses or hostels makes you really miss very basic stuff from your ‘normal’ life. Things like doing your own laundry, going to grocery store and making yourself a cup of coffee or a slice of bread. If you are feeling slighly hungry you can’t just go to your fridge and crab something…you have to go out and find every single piece of food or drink you put to your mouth. As Auli has kind of relatives living in HCMC we were excited! Finally we could just enjoy for a ‘normal’ life for a while. Trung and Nam has been amazing hosts for us in the very centre of HCMC. We have enjoyed every night we have been able to sleep in the tatami of their flat and every cup of morning coffee which have been waiting for us in the kitchen table after Trung and Nam have already left for work (this started when Trung noticed we really couldn’t make decent vietnamese coffee). We have enjoyed those days we have just stayed ‘at home’ instead of going to the city and we have enjoyed a lot every time Trung and Nam have taken us for dinner with their motorbikes. When I asked Nam if he enjoyes riding motorbike in the evening after dark in this dazzling city he replied that maybe twice a week. He is just so used to it and hates all the traffic jams and polluted air. Of course Nam’s point is easy to understand but for us riding those bikes has been magical. It was so horrible every time…to notice those familiar ‘landmarks’ showing that we were already near our place. Because we just didn’t feel the ride should never end :)

DSC_2047 View from Trung’s ‘yard’. I used to look at this and drank my morning coffee. This is where all the neighbors gathered every morning for ‘Bun Rieu’ – noodle soup with a lot of stuff a.k.a one type of a breakfast here.

DSC_2049 How much can you enjoy just being able to do your own laudry?

DSC_2052 One day when we stayed at home and got to deal with local police…that’s another story though. Nam doing presentation for his final thesis

DSC_2054 Having finnish dinner one evening with Nam, Tak and Trung

DSC_2055 Finnish meatballs and mashed potatoes can be prepared in Vietnam as well! Raspberry soup wasn’t as big success…Trung was wondering how can we eat something so sweet

DSC_2006 Picture taken when we were seeking for a dinner place one evening. Something we did almost every evening. Nam went to ask the way and I got my chance to be a paparazzi.

We owe you big time guys!!! -Katariina

Weekend trip to Vũng Tàu

Vũng Tàu is small (~500 000 inhabitants so it’s small in vietnamese scale) city in the coast, situated 120 km from Ho Chi Minh City. We took a weekend break away from HCMC to meet Auli´s ‘vietnamese family’. Vũng Tàu is famous for it’s beaches, fishing and oil. It is popular weekend destination mostly for people living in HCMC. Not international tourists – we liked it! Atmosphere and traffic is more relaxed than in HCMC, it was easy to move around by bicycles in the city centre. We spend 3 peaceful days in Vũng Tàu with Nguyen family, biking slowly around the city, climbing 811 steps to the statue of Jesus, swimming and enjoying morning run on the beach.

DSC_1952 Vũng Tàu seen from the top of the Jesus statue

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DSC_1934 Famous statue of Jesus on the top of the hill

DSC_1937 Stairway up to the statue was so narrow and crowded

DSC_1940In the arms of Jesus

DSC_1954 Doorway to Jesus’ arms was tiny!

DSC_1997 Friendliest people in Vietnam! Nguyen family and us

-Katariina

From Hué to Hoi An by motorbikes!

The best way to explore the coast of Vietnam is definately done by motorbike! We met two Austrian girls in Hué who had came from Hoi An by motorbikes…they sounded super-excited about the trip and since motorbike is ‘the’ vehicle in Vietnam we wanted to do the same. So we rent motorbikes with drivers (called as Easy Riders here) and did the 100 kilometer trip in total of 6-7 hours. We stopped a couple of times which made the total travelling time longer but without stops it can be easily done in 3-4 hours. The route was scenic crossing famous Hai Van Pass (‘ocean cloud pass’). It had been raining last days in Hué so we were prepared for the worst and were really heavily dresses against the rain. Luckily weather wasn’t rainy and we were able to enjoy the amazing views. You just sense changing landscape and weather so much fuller than from bus window…and you can sense the freedom!

Easy Riders can be easily found from Hoi An and Hué. We paid 50$ each for the trip. In case you wish to continue your trip further, Easy Riders will take you all the way to Ho Chi Minh City (approx 1000 kilometres from Hué, it takes 7-10 days depending of your stops) for the price 50$ a day including petrol. That is definately recommended way to enjoy the beautiful coastline of Vietnam (compare this with crowded tourist buses full of western people) and if we wouldn´t been in a rush to HCMC we would have continued the trip with Easy Riders for sure! I can imagine only driving motorbike yourself would beat this way of travelling!

Hai-van-pass-Nguyen-Minh-Son-Photo- Hai Van Pass by http://paowmagazine.com/Nguyen-Minh-Son-Photo

DSC_1871 Our group properly dressed!

DSC_1900_edit Some scenery from Hai Van Pass

DSC_1903 Even backpack could travel this way easily…(I was surprised my backpack didn´t look any more hazardous!)

DSC_1911 From the highest point of Hai Van Pass…it was windy!

-Katariina