Patuxai and Post Offices | Vientiane, Laos

What can I tell you about Vientiane, Laos? Not a lot, actually, because I was only there for a day. I think I mentioned the hellish journey out of the city once or twice… Anyway, what I did see was really nice!

Patuxai, Vientiane, Laos from outside

This is Patuxai, which is a war memorial dedicated to those who died fighting during Word War II and for Lao independence from France in the late 1940s. It was broadly inspired by the Arc de Triomphe (ironic) and was built between 1957 and 1968 with cement donated by the USA that was intended to build a new airport. Apparently some people still call it the ‘vertical runway’.

The mural on the ceiling is of the gods Vishnu, Brahma, and Indra, according to Wikipedia. I love a ceiling mural. If I ever own a house there will be some serious gold leaf-adorned illustration on the kitchen ceiling.

You can also go up on the roof (after walking through a couple of floors are not-quite-finished and mostly full of people selling souvenirs) and enjoy the view of the city. GOD IT WAS HOT. POSSIBLY MY MEMORIES ARE CLOUDED BY THE HELLISH JOURNEY THAT FOLLOWED THIS LITTLE EXCURSION.

The only other part of Vientiane that I really saw was a scrummy Indian restaurant which introduced me to the god blessed beverage of soda water with a slice of lemon, and the post office. Which looked like a post office. I should have taken a photo, in retrospect, because every post office I’ve ever been to abroad is nicer than the ones in Britain. The one in Hoi An in Vietnam had furniture decorated with mother of pearl. Saigon’s main post office looked like a train station. One in Barcelona boasted ceiling murals. The one in Southend is attached to a WH Smith and its main decoration is a glass case with limited edition stamps.

I feel a post dedicated entirely to post offices on the horizon.

I won’t mind if you don’t read it.

Next up in the occasional SE Asia series: Phuket and the Soi Dog Foundation!

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The Nervous, Jetlagged Backpacker’s Guide to Surviving Hostels

I haven’t shared a room since I was about eight, so three months of  12-people dorms with shared bathrooms was in my top five Reasons I Should Maybe Call This Off. By the end of our time in Asia I had mellowed – I even spoke to some of my roommates – but my bedroom and the space that came with it was the thing I missed most other than family. I know that a lot of people who are thinking of going backpacking are put off by the dorm situation so here is a handy guide I put together!

The Basics

If you’re nervous about sharing a dorm, or if you’re jetlagged or tired or just not feeling it, don’t share one. Maxim and I got a room to ourselves when we first arrived in Bangkok because we knew we were going to arrive and pass out. The first few days of another timezone is what I imagine hell will look like when I get there, so invest in two or three nights of not dorms while you get your sea legs. By time we went home I was happy to sleep in a 30-bed dorm with two bathrooms, but I worked up to it.

In Otres in Cambodia one of our dorms was open air with about 20 beds, and one morning I overhead and English guy book a private room because some stoners had sat out smoking with a stereo on all night and he hadn’t slept at all. If you can’t beat them and won’t join them, get a private room. I  kind of wish I’d had the budget to have a private room – or to stay in a hotel, come to that – because there are some days when the thought of sharing a toilet with 20 other butts does not appeal. I met one guy who had been on the road for two years or something like that, and all I could think was ‘do you never get tired of waking up to the morning breath of eight nationalities?’ Self care is paramount, kiddies. Speaking of self care, if you want to have sex – either with yourself or other people – book a private room. Most hostels have signs up banning sex in dorms with little reminders that they offer private rooms specifically for you to go do that. No one wants to see, hear or have any hint of you boning, ever.

Hostel Bathroom Sign Vietnam
It’s been four months and I still have no idea what the Q-Tip bag was.

Use the tools you were given

Unless you’re pretty chilled about where you sleep or pretty militant about backpacking like they did in the Stone Age, use the Internet. Hostelworld has a really good search and filter system, so when I booked ahead I never stayed anywhere that didn’t offer security lockers and/or working plumbing. If you’re short on money or don’t know how long you’ll stay somewhere, book one or two nights in advance then pay cash for extra nights once you’re there. It’s cheaper – no added fees for the booking site – and you can up and leave if you want. We stayed in a few places that other people recommended either in person or online (I’ll do another post with names of hostels in SE Asia to head for/avoid) and they were usually bang on the money. If you’re happy to rock up to a destination and mooch about until you find a hostel then ignore this, but if you’re anywhere near as neurotic as me then utilise the Internet and enjoy bedbug-free sheets.

Use your common sense

You’re in a room full of strangers. Don’t leave anything lying around that you wouldn’t want to replace. Most travellers own smartphones, portable chargers and headphones, and most of those tend to be kind of gross, not to mention really cheaper and easier to buy than they are to steal. Your stuff probably won’t get nicked, but don’t flaunt it. Use lockers and padlocks and don’t leave your bag wide open (dirty laundry probably works as a deterrent, but don’t hold me to that).

Let sleeping backpackers lie

If a person is wearing earplugs, headphones or an eye mask, has constructed a curtain on their bunk with a towel or sarong so you can’t see their face, is reading a book or appears to be asleep, leave them the hell alone. Unless there is a fire, you think they are dead or there is a general emergency, do not approach them. Ever.

 

Hanoi Hostel Vietnam
I am 90% sure that typeface is the one I use in a line of stationery. Also, don’t be the guy who throws toilet paper in the toilet.

 

Look, just don’t be a dick

Dorms are pretty nice places generally. People chat, they exchange money with travellers going to/from somewhere they’ve been, they give out their stuff if they’re going home. A guy in Hanoi who was heading back to Europe gave me bugspray I still have, when I left Bangkok I gave a spare bag to an Indian dude and in Chiang Mai I swapped some Lao kip for Thai baht with an American who was travelling the other way. I’ve got dinner with roomates, swapped destination recommendations in the lobby and lost my temper exactly zero times. I nearly lost my temper once or twice, but you are talking to someone who has thrown phones at walls and remote controls at heads in her lifetime, and it never came to that. That being said, there is some etiquette you should probably live by:

Don’t leave your stuff in the bathroom. Partly because other people will think your bar of soap is disgusting (your hair looks like hair to you and like pubes to everyone else), and partly because someone might use it and then you’ll be on the receiving end of Pube Hell.

Turn out the main light after 10pm and don’t hold loud conversations in the dorm between 10pm and 7am unless you want your roommates to accidentally tread on your phone (some fuckers in a different place in Otres came in drunk at 3am, started a fight with another guy and left the goddamn ceiling lights on as they did so and it’s the only time in my life I’ve wanted to wake up to a room full of corpses).

There is never enough room for your giant backpack, but you can do little things like not leaving it at the foot of a bunk ladder or in the middle of the floor, to improve the rooms ambience and to avoid your roommates constructing a voodoo doll of you.

Okay now I’m gonna leave you with a photograph of the canyon in Pai, Northern Thailand, and go and remind my dogs that it’s not dinner time yet so quit staring at me. I’ll compile that list – and the blog about Hue and central Vietnam – in the next few weeks. In the mean time, if you have any pressing questions about hostels (or dogs) ask away.

Pai, Northern Thailand
Look at that tranquillity. Can you tell it’s rainy and miserable in England right now.

In Which I Am HOME

Afternoon. And it really is the afternoon! Except my body thinks 4pm is 10pm so I feel like I have the flu by every dinner time… but I AM HOME. And home looks okay.

I gave myself a few days to chill out and finish my Christmas chocolates (one perk of leaving the country on 5th January is eating a giant chocolate Rudolph on 6th April) and from today I have been BACK AT WORK. Ish. I’ve been cleaning up my CV, looking for a job and trying to sort out things I’d forgotten about, like hair appointments and recycling and my wardrobe.

My mum took the time I was away to redesign the kitchen, do up the bathroom and install a downstairs toilet, so neither of us know where anything is and for once we’re both in complete spring cleaning mode (usually she wants me to chuck out my grungy t-shirts and I want her to leave me alone). But it turns out everyone was right when they said I’d get back and realise I have too much stuff. When I first had a shower when I got back (and couldn’t work the shower) I couldn’t decide what to wear because I own too many clothes. Way too many. Why did I have so many socks? I only have two feet. I spent three months with five pairs of socks! I have thrown out most of them since I’ve been back because they disintegrated some time between Angkor Wat and Chiang Mai, but whatever. I am a born again non-materialist. I HAVE SEEN THE LIGHT. I am giving away or selling what I hadn’t worn or used for more than six months before I left, and although my room looks like a charity shop, I feel, like, free. That being said, a lot of my clothes were falling apart anyway, and I’m a bit concerned that if I get rid of everything I secretly hated/never wore/wore out, I will have no clothes. Which brings me back to looking for a job. The good news is that I’ve been more or less constantly occupied since I left school. The bad news is that although I have discerned a great deal of responsibility in my previous roles, I can’t actually spell ‘responsibilities’.

I am not looking for anything solely concerned with proof reading.

It’s nearly five, which means I need to sit down and nurse a large glass of water if I want to stay awake long enough to eat dinner and wash my hair.

 

Phnom Penh Part 3: the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek & Tuol Sleng Museum

We only really went to Phnom Penh for two places, and those places are horrible. But I’d be a terrible person if I didn’t talk about it, so…

SOME HISTORY: in 1975 a radical communist group, the Khmer Rouge, seized power of Cambodia’s government with a vision to turn Cambodia into a ‘communist agrarian utopia’, aka a nation full of rice farmers. Their methods included forcing everyone out of cities into the farmlands, whether they knew how to grow rice or not, and killing anyone who might disagree, like intellectuals and spies (they identified intellectuals by whether or not a person had glasses, soft hands or spoke a foreign language, and spies by whether or not they looked fishy). SPOILER ALERT: it failed. People can’t grow rice having eaten two spoonfuls of gruel in a day. Murdering a quarter of your population demoralises the troops. Communism is a fucking terrible way to run a country. By 1979 the regime had collapsed (it didn’t help that senior members kept offing one another in paranoia) and the Khmer Rouge were overthrown by rebels and the Vietnamese; what was left of the government fled to Thailand. Because Vietnam was involved, the United Nations actually continued to recognise the Khmer Rouge as Cambodia’s rightful government for years – they received aid and sent representatives to UN meetings. One day I will write about western countries ignoring genocide and send the manuscript to the Trump administration… Today is not that day but if you want to read more about the Khmer Rouge, go here. Anyway the Khmer people are very open about their past and are preserving and sharing it nationwide (unlike Nazi Germany, no one’s going to get away with denying this shit happened). The two biggest and most heartbreaking museums are both in or near Phnom Penh.

The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek

There are killing fields all over Cambodia, but the largest is at Choeung Ek, which used to be a Chinese graveyard and orchard a few miles from Phnom Pehn. We visited there first and just arriving was odd, because the road goes through what is now basically a suburb – it felt a bit like having a war memorial at a corner in central Southend. Once you’re in, though, Choeung Ek feels more like a nature reserve than a genocide spot. There’s an audio tour that takes you to various points, and they’ve let a lot of the space grow naturally back into an orchard. There’s even a pond, although if I remember correctly there are still a lot of bodies under it. Speaking of bodies…

Choeung Ek Killing Fields Cambodia
This means that someone, at some point, did.

Because the Khmer Rouge wanted to save bullets, they had people killed using what was lying about instead. Think farming equipment, knives, tyre irons and the like. As a result, the corpses uncovered since aren’t exactly intact; every now and then bits of bone and skull and clothes work their way up to the surface and museum staff take care of them. What they have found has been examined and organised neatly in a memorial stupa, which is simultaneously very beautiful and very creepy.

Choeung Ek Memorial Stupa
I forgot to take a photo of the stupa so this is from Wikipedia. Those shelves contain at least 5,000 skulls.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

After lunch we headed to Tuol Sleng in central Phnom Penh, also known as Security Prison 21. For what it’s worth I found the museum harder to deal with than the Killing Fields, and I’d recommend doing Choeung Ek second. There’s more fresh air, less graphic photos and more space to sit by yourself while you try to process what you’ve just seen – the building was originally a school, so it’s quite compact and overbearing. There’s an audio tour for the museum as well so you can do it at your own pace, but I still wanted to inhale a bottle of gin by the time I was a third of the way around.

They request you don’t take photos of the inside rooms, which was fine by me. Just, imagine a tiled room that used to be a classroom, with a rusting iron bed in the middle. In its heyday, it would have been a nice bed. The iron is wrought into patterns. It was an interrogation room, so add rusting iron shackles and perhaps an iron bar. Finally, turn to one wall and add a large black and white photograph of that very room. Attached to the bed is what used to be a person. It’s an old photograph, taken straight after the prison was discovered, but you can still tell that that used to be someone’s head and that was someone’s stomach, and that is where their stomach ended up. Then multiply the room by four or five because when the regime fell, the prison staff knew they had very little time to flee. They stopped torturing that day’s suspects and killed them to avoid future identification – but they couldn’t risk gunshots being heard, so they hacked their prisoners to death then skedaddled.

That’s just the first part of the museum.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
This is the only photo I took that wasn’t of something mightily depressing, and that’s only because there’s a palm tree in it.

There are several rooms full of photographs of prisoners and several pieces of torture equipment, including one which was originally used as gymnastic equipment for the school. The Khmer Rouge were meticulous about records, but they destroyed a lot toward the end; what’s left is quite enough to put you off believing in any sort of benevolent deity. Most pictures are just of people when they arrive, but there’s a few of prisoners mid-captivity. There were only seven people found alive when the prison was liberated, and one was an artist who went on to paint what he saw, so there are also canvases of torture and general death in glorious technicolour. An estimated 20,000 people were held at S-21 during the regime. Seven were found alive.

We ended up rushing a little toward the end of the tour – well, I did. Maxim finished way quicker and was impatient to leave because we needed to get bus tickets for Shianoukville. Part of me was irritated for skipping the exit, because two of the surviving prisoners were there signing books, but part of me was very relieved to be given a reason to leave. I could easily go back and spend a day making notes, listening to every extra on the audio tour and piecing together everything that’s there (with a break for lunch and the gin) but I could also quite happily never set foot in Phnom Penh again. It’s not that the city  – and Cambodia in general – isn’t vibrant and bustling and very ready to be more than just four years in its history. It’s that in my head, once I’d seen Choeung Ek and S-21, it was hard to see anything else. I kept thinking ‘that building’s definitely been built since the seventies’, ‘that building hasn’t’, ‘this guy looks old enough to have lived through the genocide’. Anecdotally, there are no old people in Cambodia; statistically, one in four people died under the Khmer Rouge either from malnutrition, disease or execution.

It feels very relevant that I’m writing this the day after Holocaust Memorial Day, and the day after the Trump administration signed an order banning Syrian refugees from entering the US. Incidentally one of the factors in the Khmer Rouge’s rise to power is that America dropped more bombs on Cambodia during the Vietnam War than it did during the entirety of World War II; the resulting poverty and civil unrest stoked support for the party. I could keep drawing parallels between Pol Pot’s Cambodia and Nazi Germany, and parallels between them and the rhetoric Trump and his supporters are spewing, but if you’re reading this you’re probably smart enough to draw them yourselves.

Phnom Penh Part 2: the Grand Palace & Our First Day Bus

We hit up the palace on our last morning in the city, because our bus to Shianoukville was too late in the day to just bum around while we waited (we made up for it by bumming around in Sihanoukville). I haven’t forgotten that I haven’t blogged about the Killing Fields and S-21 museum, it’s just taking some time to turn a day of horror into a coherent blog. In the mean time, meet the Grand Palace of Phnom Penh… and a bus.

Entry to the palace was $10 plus a tuk tuk, so the little part of me that’s been keeping a budget – okay, a big part of me – thought ‘this place had better be something’. It was. Not in a grandiose Bangkok Grand Palace kind of way, although there are similarities. It’s more understated, much quieter and far smaller. There were quite a few parts scaffolded off for renovation, but you can easily spend a morning wandering about the buildings. There’s another emerald Buddha (again, I don’t think it’s actually emerald), some lovely little shrines and trees, and some museum buildings with ceremonial clothes and whatnot. Lots of elephant statues. Every time we see an elephant statue Maxim points out that we haven’t actually met any elephants yet; I’m using that as leverage in my quest to get us to an elephant sanctuary back in Thailand. We managed to miss the famous silver pagoda completely – yeah, I didn’t think it would be possible to miss a pagoda, but we did – so if you go I recommend paying more attention to your map than we did. Possibly take advantage of the palace guides.

Grand Palace Phnom Pehn, Cambodia
Spot the face.
Grand Palace Phnom Penh, Cambodia
I have no idea why they put a model of Angkor Wat in front of this building, but it was very satisfying to say I’d already been.

The bus from Phnom Penh to Shianoukville takes about four hours, so it’s not really worth getting a night bus, but it is definitely worth charging your iPod and practising your meditation before you board. I thought I had the long straw, because my seat was right at the front and Maxim was squashed down the back, but there’s not really a long straw when it comes to travelling by bus. Especially not when your seat doesn’t come with overhead locker space or legroom, because it’s right next to the luggage hold.

Bus from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, Cambodia
I know I don’t have long legs but come on. The giant foot belonged to my neighbour… or possibly the titchy feet belong to me.

We stopped off at a restaurant which was probably one of the nicest places we’ve been. It’s literally on the side of the road but it had water features and a garden area and toilets backpackers dream about (don’t look at me like that. You spend a couple of weeks living out of a rucksack in rooms with at least five other people and clean toilets really start to have an emotional impact). I nearly took a picture but instead here is the view:

road-to-sihanoukville
I felt like I was in a Western, and I don’t even like Westerns.

Up next: Sihanoukville and Koh Rong Island. Teaser: there are beaches and glorious sunsets. Or I might finally finish the Killing Fields. WHO KNOWS. What’s the best/worst bus journey you’ve ever been on?

Phnom Penh Part 1: Night Buses & Morning Walks

Good morning, or evening, or whatever it is. I don’t know what time it is here, because I haven’t been to bed since the day before yesterday. I think. We arrived in Phnom Penh about half five this morning; we caught the night bus from Siem Reap at 11:30pm last night and although I slept for about five hours, I’m not what you’d call fully functioning.

Night Bus Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, Cambodia
A bunk with a view.

 

I’d never been on a night bus before so my only reference was Harry Potter’s experiences with the Knight Bus… we were not offered hot chocolate or a toothbrush and no one vomited, but our conductor did remind me a little of Stan Shunpike. If you’re getting a bus in Cambodia any time soon, I can recommend Giant Ibis – they have wifi, arrived on time and had an almost-completely-normal toilet on board (I nearly took a photo but I didn’t want to touch anything as there was no soap. Or sink).

Night Bus Siem Reap to Phnom Pehn, Cambodia
We stopped for a bit around 1am; the light was almost nice and arty but not quite (sounds like a metaphor for this place).

We didn’t realise how early we would arrive, and had neither the details of our hostel nor any map to get there, because stupidly I hadn’t downloaded the info before the wifi drove away, so we sat on a bench on the waterfront and watched the sun come up. Well, I watched. Maxim dosed as I kept an eye out (Backpackers have belongings stolen while they nap is not a headline I want associated with my name). I did not see anyone who looked remotely like a baggage thief, but I did see three rats (or one rat three times), several bats, some finch-type birds and two gentleman urinate on a verge. The shrub in that verge was far healthier than the shrubs in neighbouring verges, so I can only assume communal weeing is part of their daily routine.

Phnom Penh Waterfront, Cambodia
I just noticed that’s wonky. In my defense, I felt a little wonky at the time.
Phnom Penh Waterfront, Cambodia
I think that might actually be *the* verge.

We got breakfast as soon as it was light and walked to our hostel by about 9am, which was interesting. Traffic here is busier than Siem Reap but with a similar relaxed attitude, and my bag was heavy. Heavier than I remembered. Too heavy for an exhausted five foot nothing who hadn’t had enough water that morning. God forbid any hostel should let you check in before 2pm, so we collapsed into a couple of chairs and haven’t really moved since. Well, that’s not true. I had a shower as soon as we had room keys, and Maxim is asleep in his bunk right now. Today has become a rest day, which I think I will make compulsory following all travel days. Or nights. There is no way I have the energy to go to the Killing Fields today, or the S-21 museum, or the regular museums… so as I have no book, my magazine disintegrated and I haven’t got any postcards to write on, I thought I’d say hello. Maybe I will meditate. I don’t want to fall asleep, because I’m just getting over my jetlag. Perhaps I will write a short story, or start a conversation with a fellow backpacker.

Who am I kidding, I’m terrified of other backpackers. They’re all so tanned.

If you guys are bored or stuck with a lot of time, what do you do?

South East Asia T-Minus One Day: Mild-Moderate Panic

Evening. I really shouldn’t be blogging now. I should be treble-copying flight times and working out the best t-shirts to take and deciding which pens to put in my non-existent pencil case and cursing myself for not doing any of that sooner.

I also need to get some toilet paper, in case there is no toilet paper in Bangkok. How many hairbands do I need? Are there hairbands in Bangkok? What if there are hairbands in Bangkok but none in Vientiane? How many toiletries are too many toiletries? I love toiletries. I need many toiletries but I do not currently have enough muscles to carry them all around.

I possibly have not thought all this through.

See you in Thailand. Or the airport. WHO KNOWS.

How much MCR merch is it okay to take backpacking?

All I Want for Christmas is Eight Hours Sleep, Peace of Mind & An MCR Singalong

Indifferent Ignorance has started snowing, so it’s time my darlings for this classic carol.

And this one.

Honestly if I don’t post these somewhere at this time of year, assume I’ve died. Anyway now I am actually feeling quite Christmassy. The sun sets at 4pm; the shop I work part time in is full to the brim with stockings, cinnamon candles and novelty bedspreads; my freelance work is nearly done and I have even managed most of my shopping. I accidentally bankrupted myself in the process, because my brother and I are getting presents between us but I went a bit overboard with my debit card before he gave me any cash, but still. Christmas is nearly here and I’m not completely immune to the odd Micheal Bubble song.

That being said, I am worried (and by worried I mean ‘just fending off panic’) about the following:

  • Getting visas in time for Asia
  • Getting cash for petrol so my mum can use my car when I’m in Asia, thus making my extortionate insurance worth having
  • Selling as many notebooks as possible this side of Christmas because they take up valuable wardrobe space (minimum orders of 100 units always seem like a great idea)
  • Selling as much from my shop as possible this side of Christmas because although my mum has offered to send things out while I’m away, I’d rather clear as many of those 100 units as I can while I’m in the country because I have an irrational inability to delegate tasks and I’m not sure if I’ll be able to cope watching someone else parcel up my precious merchandise
  • I’m on overtime at the shop next week (so byeee Christmas spirit) but because I’m leaving at New Year and I’m almost done freelancing I’m going to probably be broke as a joke when I’m back from Asia
  • I’ve already eaten too much chocolate and it’s only the 14th.

I have control over roughly two-thirds of that list, so I’m going to nip back to freelancing, text my brother about visas and work on holiday promotion. And by work on holiday promotion I mean remind you all that UK customers can get free postage on orders over £8 with the coupon SNOWFLAKE16 until 3rd January, and that shipping will be UK-only from January through April so if you’re overseas and you like something, get a move on.

Happy holidays!