After 31 days of traveling throughout Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, Mads and I made it back safely to the Northern Beaches of Sydney, Australia. Our journey was an extremely humbling experience, and our main focus was to immerse ourselves in the South East Asian culture as much as possible. Fortunately we were able to capture some images that reflect the daily life of many of the local people by staying with hill tribes deep in the heart of the jungle, making friends with some of the less fortunate, and giving back to the community when possible.
Vietnam was first on the list, providing our initial glimpse into the lives of the chaotic city people and the humble hill people. Avoiding the tourist circuit the best we could, we traveled up the lengthly coast of Vietnam by bus, plane and train. Vietnam is a country with two extremely different temperate climates in the north and south, which only know wet and cold or hot and dry. We hit the heat and sun of the deep south and the cold fog and rain of the far north. Even the simplest tasks like crossing the street, in the cities especially, requires serious confidence and guts. There are no traffic lights (that drivers yield to at least), no cross walks, no lanes (even the sidewalk is fair game for a motorbike), there are no rules. Eye contact and a steady walking pace is your only chance for survival, as crossing the street anywhere is like walking into a swarm of incredibly fast moving and lethal metal bees ready to sting at any moment. Miraculously when you reach the other side, you breathe again and wonder how those hundreds of motorbikes flying by within inches of you have left managed to leave you unscathed. Riding on the back of one is an even greater experience, as that is the cheapest way to get around each place. Transportation in Indochina is not for the faint of heart, to say the least. I've never heard so much horn honking in my life, because it is used when approaching, alongside, passing, and greeting other vehicles and pedestrians like a unanimous language that everyone mysteriously understands. Tourists have their own special prices, which are meant to squeeze extra money out of the more fortunate. After the conversion to dollars it's only a few cents, and we were happy to part with the extra money to someone who makes in a year what most make in a month or two. But, haggling is expected, as the first offer is usually twice what they hope to get. Plenty of Lacoste alligators missing tails and misspelled Adidas (Abibas) jackets can be found in the markets and on the streets, but the majority do a really good job at making the fakes look real… that is until they hit the laundry and the stitching comes out. The Vietnamese are a mix of those that are bitter and stone faced towards Westerners because of their troubled past and also the abundance of annoying tourists, and then there are tons of genuinely hospitable and smiley people who will help you out with whatever you need in the best English they know. And lastly, like all of South East Asia, the amount of garbage in every direction you look overwhelms all your senses. It's very sad because the facilities for proper disposal and education for the youth are not in place to teach the younger generation the right way for our planet. Thankfully UNESCO has stepped in at select unique locations all throughout South East Asia and deemed them World Heritage sites, culling the destruction and overpopulation that is most of this beautiful area's future fate.
We saved some time and flew to Laos next, which ended up being our favorite country that we visited on the trip. The people here are so genuine and laid back it's hard to find someone not smiling. I think we first got that impression when we arrived and a senior customs officer had given his 5 year old son the task of handing out the important customs forms upon arrival. Laotian people still try and squeeze a few extra dollars out of you in the bartering process, but in the end everyone's laughing and a fair price with a happy smile is delivered with gratitude. Brightly colored monks abound the beautiful city of Luang Prabang, as well as a French influence in not only the architecture but also cuisine. Never in my life did I think that I would be having the best baked goods in my life every morning for mere pennies. While in Laos, we participated in a protection and preservation project called the Gibbon Experience, in which our money goes totally to the salary of park rangers who protect a percentage of Bokeo National Park. This is home to an extremely endangered species of monkey called the Gibbon monkeys, and some of our group had the privilege to see these beautiful creatures… but that is only half the fun. The Gibbon Experience is home to one of the largest network of zip lines in the world, and I believe the longest single zip line as well. Soaring over 1,400 feet in length and above the canopy level of the rainforest a good 350 feet, it was not only an adrenaline rush but an amazing view above the lush Laos rainforest. We got to sleep in tree houses at the canopy level of the rainforest as well, which was just icing on the cake. It was probably the worst place possible to have the dreaded stomach bug from the water, but I pulled through after another friendly traveler slipped me some miracle drug, which I still have no idea what it was. And if anyone ever tells you to not take a speedboat in Laos, listen to them. We did it because we were pressed for time, but the wooden canoe meant for 2 people that held 7 (knees in throats, side by side) with luggage and a 4 cylinder car engine strapped on the rear, is about the least comfortable way to travel for 10 straight hours. The provided crash helmets and childrens life preservers only added to the madness we embarked on upstream the Mekong river in dry season. But once again, we got there unscathed and laughed at the fact that we were still living to tell the story to friends and family. Don't worry, videos will follow shortly. And the only way to end ones stay in Laos is to travel to Vang Vieng, internationally renowned by backpackers everywhere for the crazy party along the river. After renting a tube and getting dropped off upstream by a tuk tuk, ravers and boozers alike embark down the bar clad river bank while avoiding people flying above on slides, zip lines, and trapeze swings plunging into the water from heights better left to the professionals. Beer courage goes a long way, and so does the original red bull that abounds South East Asia, which had to be Westernized because of the presence of amphetamines in the ingredients. Needless to say, darkness approaches quickly in this partier's utopia as you float downstream and a bamboo stick on a rope lands next your tube, beckoning you to come have another drink and partake in a game of mud volleyball. Vang Vieng was definitely an unforgettable experience, and a great way to leave an amazing country.
Cambodia was the last stop on our journey, and after reading a couple highly recommended books (The Killing Fields and First They Killed My Father), was an extremely humbling and unreal country to visit. The recent genocide led by the Khmer Rouge which ended in 1978 contributes to the astounding 50% of the population that is below the age of 22. Landmine casualties and injuries still have a huge presence, which contribute to an extremely large and in your face culture of begging throughout the country. With all these seriously recent troubles within the country, it's amazing how friendly and happy many of the people are. The temples of Angkor in Siem Reap blow your mind with the intricacy of detail and massive size of the stone monuments. They were actually abandoned for a few hundred years, which gave huge trees time to grow on select temples, leaving roots clinging down the walls and meeting the rubble ridden ground. It is truly a unique place that everyone should have the privilege of seeing some day. Siem Reap city is also home to many "delicacies" that we were hard pressed to find elsewhere, such as fried crickets, massive spiders and other odds and ends. Given that dog isn't eaten as openly as it is in places like Vietnam, a pig roast on the street is all too common, as are fried rats and ducks with beaks, heads and all. The city does have an amazing Pub Street, which we managed to find faster than a speeding bullet, that serves 50 cent draft beer for the whole day at many fine establishments. And finally due to a bit of an overplanning error on my part, we ended up with a few extra days for relaxation, which we spent in the southern beaches of Sihanoukville. This place is the undiscovered gem of South East Asia, which is why the government and Russian investors alike have caught on and are building up the beachfront like no tomorrow. Bars and guesthouses line the different beaches in the hundreds, offering cheap beer, bbq fish, and a number of other things. We were lucky enough to get in while the prices still reflect the rest of South East Asia.
All in all, we had an epic 31 days traveling through these three beautiful and unique countries. Below is a collaborative slideshow of some of Mads and my better images, played to some of the beautiful music made by the Victims of Landmines, who play mostly in Siem Reap around the temples. I'll be posting another group of images without a slideshow that didn't make the cut within the next few days, as it takes a while to edit through over 2000 photos!
Make sure you watch it in High Resolution and supersize it!