Guest Blog for Sueño Documentary Films!

Check out a guest blog that I did for Sueño Documentary Films:

http://www.suenodocfilms.com/guest-blog-rob-hanley-off-the-beaten-path/

Sueño is currently working on a documentary about reviving the arts in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia. The film is called Year 33 – check out the trailer below. It looks pretty incredible.

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New Video for Eastern Cambodia

The new video for Eastern Cambodia is finally up! Click here to watch. I finished it a week ago, but couldn’t find an internet connection strong enough to upload it until today.

Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri Provinces are Cambodia’s “Wild East”, filled with beautiful rolling hills, cascading waterfalls, and super-friendly Khmer people. I’ll do a short written post to accompany the video when I have more time.

For now, enjoy the video. It’s a shorty, but a goody.

(in case you missed it, click here for the Angkor Wat video from last month)

Battambang and Post-Angkor Chill-Out

The temples of Angkor were a lot to take in. They were the most amazing man-made sights that I have ever seen and after four days of such extraordinary mental and visual stimulation, Johanna and I wanted to relax. We had our eyes set on the white sandy beaches and turquoise waters of Cambodia’s southwestern coast, with a stop in the small city of Battambang along the way.

BATTAMBANG

Battambang is F.L.A.T.

Battambang is F.L.A.T.

Battambang is very similar to Phnom Penh in its riverside location and French colonial architecture, but it is only one tenth of its size. After checking into the Royal Hotel (for the royal price of $8/night) Johanna and I took a stroll and were surprised to find that we had walked the city corner-to corner in only an afternoon. We happened upon a small place called Cafe Flirt and joined Jonathan, the brutally sarcastic British owner of the establishment, and Jaime, a traveling Los Angeleno, for a few glasses of Angkor draft. As the sun set, we exchanged a few travel experiences and received some tips for our trip down to the coast. Jonathan highly recommended a journey to the isolated island of Koh Rong, claiming that the mainland beaches were becoming dirty, overdeveloped and extremely seedy. This was not the first time that we had heard this exact advice, so we knew it would be wise to take it to heart.

At some point, a lanky drunk Frenchman with a week-old beard and bags under his eyes crash-landed in the chair across from us and lit the first of many cigarettes.

“Oy, William!” Jonathan perked up. “Mate, where have you been the last week and a half?”

“I am sorry, my friend. I was working.”

“I dunno how you do it, man.” Jonathan turned to us and pointed across the table at his friend, who seemed to be doing a silent imitation of the Mad Hatter. “This one works as a graphic designer for shampoo or perfume labels or whatever, gets locked down at his computer in a dark room for weeks at a time and then THIS shows up at my cafe. Watch, he’ll hang around here for a few minutes and then he’ll go inside and make dollar bets on the pool table with my Kitchen staff.”

William found all of this hilarious and could not contain his laughter. We tried to get more of his back-story but it was difficult because he would begin a sentence and then immediately forget what he was trying to say. Eventually, he grew bored of us and went inside to start a game of cutthroat with the two Khmer bartenders. Why William chose Battambang of all places to telecommute to work, I’ll never understand.

The next day, Jo and I hired a Tuk-Tuk tour guide named Smey to show us some of the attractions around Battambang. As we left the city, we drove past the statue of the Stick King, Dambong. Legend has it, a simple farmer discovered a magic rosewood stick and used it to became the powerful King Dambong (Dambong is the Khmer word for “stick”). After a seven-year rule, the son of the previous king reclaimed the throne and Dambong threw the magic stick into the Sangkae River where it was never found. “Bat Dambong” (or “Battambang”) literally means “loss of stick”. The locals often leave offerings at the base of the statue, not so much for the spirit of King Dambong, but for the stick.

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Battambang locals laying small offerings down at the base of the statue of King Dambong.

Our next stop was the famous Battambang Bamboo Train. The French built an extensive rail system in Cambodia during the colonial period, but much of it was destroyed during the Khmer Rouge. A decent amount of track still exists in Battambang Province and the Khmers have been using small engines and bamboo platforms to transport people and goods for decades. Now, sections of it are used as tourist attractions.

It was a beautiful day to whip through the local rice paddies, but our train sped through several swarms of gnats and other small bugs that stuck to my face and legs. Johanna and the locals thought it was hilarious.

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Bug face.

After I wiped all of the insect guts off of my face, Smey took us to a small farming village by the river so that we could check out the orchards, gardens, and fields. Because it’s the wet season, most of the farmers were focusing on growing rice instead of herbs and vegetables.

A river-side farm.

A river-side farm.

Phnom Banan was next. Battambang Province is almost perfectly flat, with a few large hills/small mountains freckling the landscape. Buddhist temples, such as Phnom Banan, adorn the tops of most of the mountains in the area. A long narrow staircase led to the towers at the top.

Stairs leading to the top of Phnom Banan.

Stairs leading to the top of Phnom Banan.

You can’t have a tourist attraction in Cambodia (or most places in Southeast Asia, for that matter) without groups of kids aggressively hawking snacks and useless trinkets, or just straight-up asking for money. At Phnom Banan, the kids followed us up every step to the top and fanned us with large traditional fans. I realized what was happening after a few steps, and told the young girl to please stop fanning me because I didn’t have any money to give her. It’s heartbreaking to see stuff like this, but it (sadly) becomes easy to ignore after visiting enough places.

Temples at the top of Phnom Banan.

Temples at the top of Phnom Banan.

After that, we headed to Phnom Sampeau. Smey accompanied us on the long walk to the top to visit the complex of temples there and to lead us to the Killing Caves where Khmer Rouge cadres killed an unknown number of victims of the revolution. An erie feeling overtook me as we descended a narrow trail and staircase from the top of the mountain to the mouth of the cave. The opening now has a tiled floor where a holy man sits during the day to collect offerings and say prayers near a large statue of Buddha. The space was dead silent and perfectly still – the only movement came from the smoke dancing off of the ends of sticks of incense.

The mouth of the Killing Cave.

The mouth of the Killing Cave.

Smey pointed up, guiding our eyes to a large opening in the ceiling of the cave about 35 feet above the floor. He explained that when prisoners were sentenced to death, they were led to the opening to be bludgeoned and hurled into the cave below. The bones and clothing of the dead were collected years ago and placed in displays at both ends of the cave. Just like the Cheung Ek Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, I thought this memorial was very well done. Both are deeply stirring homages to those whose lives were lost during the Khmer Rouge and both make for unforgettable visits.

The ceiling of the Killing Cave.

The ceiling of the Killing Cave.

Later that night, Jo and I hopped on a bus and began our journey to Koh Rong Island. Two buses, one tuk-tuk taxi, one sprint along the docks, and a two-hour ferry ride later, we were in paradise.

KOH RONG

We probably would not have made the trip out to Koh Rong had we not heard about it from people like Jonathan in Battambang, our hostel owner in Siem Reap, and a bunch of other people along the way. Most guide books don’t include any information on Koh Rong and the Lonely Planet added a tiny section on the island just last year. But oh boy am I glad that we made it out there.

Koh Rong is approximately 10 miles long and 5 miles wide and lies West of Sihanoukville, Cambodia’s infamous beach city. On the South side of the island, there is a short pier that juts out of a 100 meter stretch of restaurants, bars, and guesthouses, with a few clusters of bungalows further down the beach. The rest of the island is pretty uninhabited except for a few small fishing villages. I believe the population of the island hovers around 150 people (including travelers like us).

Water buffalo in front of Monkey Island with "town" in the background.

Water buffalo in front of our bungalow with “town” in the background.

 

Walkway leading to the restaurant.

Walkway leading to the restaurant.

After checking out a few bungalows, Johanna and I decided to rest our heads at Monkey Island. Monkey’s consisted of a large open-air restaurant/bar surrounded by twenty or so thatch-roofed bungalows 100 meters down the beach from “town” where all of the restaurants and bars were. Close, but not too close.

Our beach bungalow.

Our beach bungalow.

We checked in, dropped our packs in our bungalow, and jumped in the ocean. After 18 hours of non-stop travel, that felt incredible.

When people ask us what we did on Koh Rong, we can’t really help but glance at each other and chuckle. We did almost nothing for 5 days…and then we asked Monkey Island to extend our stay. We spent a lot of time swimming, eating, playing cards in the bar, and lounging in hammocks. Hands down, the most relaxing place that I’ve ever been in my life.

Johanna doing what you're supposed to do on Koh Rong.

Johanna doing what you’re supposed to do on Koh Rong.

One of the Koh Rong waterfalls.

One of the Koh Rong waterfalls.

We did go on a couple of short adventures while we were there, though. We explored some other beaches on the island, hiked through the jungle, and went on an afternoon fishing trip with a local fisherman named Davi. He showed us how to hold the line in our hands and wrench it up when we felt a fish below. We caught about a dozen fish in an hour using this method. Afterwards, he brought us back to his family’s restaurant and grilled the fish for us. No filet, no gutting, no oil, no salt or pepper, just super fresh fish thrown directly on a charcoal grill. Delicious.

Johanna fishing, Davi and his nameless assistant in the background.

Johanna fishing, Davi and his nameless assistant in the background.

Our fresh catch on Davi's grill.

Our fresh catch on Davi’s grill.

Some of the staff at Monkey Island were worried that Koh Rong would become the next Koh Phi Phi or Phuket (notorious party beach locations in Thailand). Apparently developers are purchasing quite a bit of land on the island and are planning on building resorts using more than just bamboo and palm leaves. It’s a shame, but a place as beautiful as Koh Rong can only exist under the radar for so long.

Leaving paradise. Not happy.

Leaving paradise. Not happy.

Nha Trang, Vietnam

The overnight bus from Saigon pulled into Nha Trang’s city center at 6:00 AM and many of the locals were already awake, chatting in the shade over pho, coffee, and tea. Johanna and I collected our packs and set out to find the Truang Giang Hotel, a little place that came highly recommended by Vy, the owner of our hostel in Ho Chi Minh City. Located near dozens of restaurants and shops and only two blocks from the ocean, Truang Giang was easy to find. We checked-in, ate breakfast, and had our toes in beach sand in no time.

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A thatched umbrella and two beach chairs here ran us a little over $2.00/day.

We spent one day traveling the city on bikes that we rented from the hotel. We headed north along the beach up Tran Phu Road to peep a few sites just outside of the city.

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After stopping at the not-so-impressive Hon Chong Promontory (a large rock near the harbor), we made our way to the Po Nagar Cham Towers. These bad boys were built roughly 1000 years ago and Cham Buddhists still visit them to pray and leave offerings. The site also provided some amazing hilltop views of the city below.

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The North Tower, built in 817.

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Looking south on Nha Trang Harbor.

Next on our hit-list was the Thap Ba Hot Spring and Mudbath Center. No photos of this experience, unfortunately. We shared a mud tub with a Russian couple who managed to keep the mud out of their eyes (more than I can say for us) and then we baked in the sun until our ceramic outer shells were dry. Then rinsed off, took a long soak in a hot spring mineral water bath, and biked back to the city feeling like a million bucks.

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Biking back from the mud baths.

We stopped at a harbor-side seafood restaurant on our way back for a late lunch. We reviewed the menu and decided that it would be cool to try a lobster hot pot…until they set the thing in front of us and we realized that we didn’t have a clue what we were doing. The servers observed us from a distance until we admitted that we needed help. Lots of help.

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“I…think…this goes…in here…”

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Showing us the ropes. It was delicious in the end.

Another Nha Trang highlight was the snorkeling trip, which was led by an energetic guide who insisted that we call him “Happy Buddha”. Happy Buddha had an uncanny passion for snorkeling, and was the first person in the water and the last person out at every reef that we visited.

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Here’s Happy Buddha doing what he does best.

All of the reefs that we saw were breathtaking and the sun was out all day, so the visibility was spectacular. We saw dozens of species of fish and coral, and got to see a sea snake and a lion fish (upping my underwater street-cred a little bit).

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The lunch that the crew served was very impressive, and it was all prepared on-board.

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Nha Trang was a great place to visit but it is quickly shedding its history as a quieter/more rustic beach town, which is what brought us there in the first place. Small, family-owned hotels and guest houses that boasted ocean-view rooms only a few years ago now lie in the shadows of cranes, steel girders, and high-rise resorts. It is still a beautiful and laid-back vacation destination, but just about everything in the city exists exclusively for tourists like us, and it lacked any kind of culture of its own. This will be a very different place in a decade.

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HCMC Continued

Last Saturday morning proved to us that we had not fully adjusted to the time difference at all. Johanna and I slept in until almost 2:00 PM before we began the day. After a quick breakfast at a bakery near the hostel, we walked to the Vietnam War Remnants Museum. I don’t think we were fully awake by the time we got there, but we were at full attention after a few minutes in this place.

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Vietnam War Remnants Museum courtyard.

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The courtyard is filled with US aircraft and tanks that were used in the war, a light-hearted preamble to the displays within the museum. The most difficult sections to get through were the torture displays and the agent orange exhibit, both of which consisted of dozens of graphic photos and horrific first-hand accounts of what went down less than 50 years ago (and, in the case of agent orange, what is still going on today).

After the museum, Jo and I were in desperate need of a pick-me-up so we bought some Vietnamese iced coffees (French drip dark roast coffee mixed with sweetened condensed milk and poured over ice) and began planning some activities for the next day. Within 20 minutes, we had the next 3 days fully planned. Vietnamese coffee is STRONG.

On Sunday, we woke up earlier and joined a tour group on a bus out to Cu Chi, a large rural area outside of Saigon that was heavily dominated by Viet Cong guerillas during the war. Our group was led by Mr. Binh, a veteran of the US Navy and long-time tour guide in the area. Mr. Binh explained that the VC controlled this area by utilizing an immense underground tunnel system that they dug by hand. The bombs that were dropped on Cu Chi over the course of the war destroyed most of the tunnels, but some outlasted the attacks and were even reinforced by the heat from the blasts and napalm.

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Rice and cattle fields on the drive from Saigon to Cu Chi.

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Mr. Binh giving us a lesson on the VC’s underground tactics in Cu Chi.

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A VC booby trap used to kill American tunnel dogs in Cu Chi.

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More VC booby traps.

 

The tunnel that they send tours though is roughly 3 ft. wide by 4 ft. tall and runs a little longer than 100 yards. I took some video of us crawling through the tunnels, but they didn’t come out very well, and you can hear my terrified claustrophobic breathing in the background. I’ll post more pictures soon.

When we got back that night, Jo and I went to an awesome authentic Vietnamese restaurant and chowed down on some local fare.

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Clockwise from left: fried pork and shrimp rolls, grilled clams, banh xeo pancake, vegetable stir-fry.

We spent our last day in Saigon doing some (very) light shopping around the city and then hopped on a bus out to the Binh Tay Market and surrounding neighborhoods. Remember the Ben Thanh Market that I mentioned in the first post? Binh Tay is where the Ben Thanh vendors go to purchase their goods wholesale.

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A large section of the market was taken up by mountains of sandals.

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The largest cinnamon sticks that I have ever seen.

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Sunflower seeds. Johanna’s thumb for scale.

The interesting thing about the Binh Tay Market was that it was one of the most crowded places that we saw in HCMC, and yet not a single local vendor approached us asking “do you want to buy?” like they would have anywhere else in the city. I guess they already know that there aren’t that many foreigners interested in purchasing a 50-pack of fake Lionel Messi jerseys.

After the market, Johanna and I headed back to the hostel to pack and get ready for our trip to Nha Trang, our first ride on a sleeping bus.

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Jo getting comfortable.

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Trying to get comfortable…

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This is a sleeping bus.

That’s all for Ho Chi Minh City. We’ve been in Nha Trang for two days now and I’m hoping to find time to upload some pictures tomorrow.