- 01. To The Rescue
- 02. Last Minute Minutia
- 03. Spiritual Me
- 04. A New Approach
- 05. Cruising Cambodia
- 06. Ox Cart Aerobics and Buddhist Blessing Yoga
- 07. My Great Cambodian Depression
- 08. A Day on the River Limbo
- 09. Lies, Damned Statistics, and Tourism
- 10. Saigon Reunification
- 11. The Way to Huế
- 12. A Hot Time in the Old Town
- 13. An Hanoi-ing Experience
- 14. Southeast Asian Rescue
This trip breaks precedent on many fronts, but I suppose if Alabama is recognising same-sex marriages, well, we live in interesting times indeed. Generally we start planning our adventures a year in advance, which is something of a necessity if one is using frequent flyer points, or want to book a popular place and time at a reasonable rate. This time, without gainful employment, we jumped on a “last-minute” bargain, booking the 19-day holiday in less than two weeks.
It has been a harrowing experience. With time, one can order and pay for things in rational sequence, limiting risk: first visas, then flights, then accommodation, then everything else. Without time, one hands out credit card details to anyone who asks, then prays for divine intervention. Having paid for the entire trip but not yet having received our Vietnamese visas, we spent a morning in absolute panic when we re-read the visa application instructions to realise they wouldn’t accept the personal cheque we had sent. World-class bickering and recriminations followed.
Happily the panic lasted only the morning because our visas arrived that afternoon, amazingly only two days after we had express-mailed the applications! Apparently the folks at the Vietnamese consulate hadn’t read their website correctly, either. While my lack of spirituality may become a running theme in these posts, even I consider that divine intervention.
The bigger problem with accelerated planning is that it leaves little time to read up on the destination. It helps to know why I’m going to see what I have decided to go see. Moreover, when I stay more than two days in a country, I like to know some basics of the language: “Hello”, “Goodbye”, count to hundred, “How much?”, “Too much!”, “No, really, too much!!”, “Where’s the toilet?”, “I would like a cold bottle of dry white wine immediately!” and that favourite from every language-for-travellers course, “It has been a long time since I have seen you last!”, which always leave new acquaintances at sixes and sevens (whatever that means).
I did discover that we were visiting in the hottest month of the year (what kind of place is warmest in April?), with an average daily high temperature – average, mind you – of 35 degrees Celsius (approximately ten zillion degrees Fahrenheit).We did decide not to visit beaches, because since becoming Australian, foreign beaches inevitably disappoint. I did track down a trusted referral to a surgeon at Ho Chi Minh City’s oldest and most renowned dental teaching hospital, where I hope to save a couple thousand dollars on a new crown – a key part of the financial justification for this trip.
Beyond that, I have done very little preparation for this trip. While I knew that the Khmer Rouge was not a facial make-up, we were in flight before I realised Khmer was the language, not to mention the descriptor of all things of Cambodian. It is awfully difficult to understand, respect and appreciate a culture when you don’t know a damned thing about it. Still an American at the core, I decided not to let it bother me.
Every two years Frank Lee and I renew an age old argument about whether my Qantas Club membership is worth the price. We used to have this discussion annually, but determined that it was too expansive a review to put ourselves through that often, so have been buying two-year renewals for the past decade or so. My current membership expires in May, so our biennial dialectic is underway.
Our costs/benefits analysis is increasingly hampered by the fact that while the cost of the Qantas Club is clear (about $900 for two years), the benefits grow harder to understand, much less predict, much less quantify. It may surprise you to know that the benefit I most value is not entry to the club with the free booze and food, but the entitlement to check in using the Business Class line on any One World airline. This has never failed us, and usually saves at least an hour waiting in line for international flights (for which generally one cannot check in on line).
Interestingly, the Business Class check in works with any airline, not just Qantas or its One World affiliates. We just rock up to the Business Class desk, slap down our passports with my Qantas Club card, and voila! Our economy class boarding passes are returned with a smile. To be honest, I am uncertain the card makes any difference. Two balding middle-aged white men will usually get what they request as customer service agents have more things to do than argue with them, er, us.
The entry to the club with the free booze and food is second on my list of favourite benefits, though, and the rules regarding what qualifies one to enter have become entirely impenetrable. I wrote some of this sitting in the Malaysia Airlines Club at Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport, awaiting this One World airlines flight to Kuala Lumpur. Oddly, my Qantas Club membership did not entitle me to enter the Qantas Club. The customer service representative guarding the door did provide a lengthy and confusing lecture which between his pauses to sigh and roll his eyes, was ostensibly intended to explain why that made sense. He also explained that Malaysia Airlines wouldn’t let us in their club, either.
We ignored his advice. Sure enough, the good folks at Malaysia Airlines accepted my Qantas Club card, welcoming us into their Melbourne facility. Later, after a nine-hour flight and a five-hour layover in Kuala Lumpur, before boarding our flight to Siem Reap, the good folks at Malaysia Airlines rejected my Qantas Club card. Go figure.
I have given up trying to predict what benefits might accrue from being a Qantas Club member. One can only look back and judge whether it was worth it. The answer continues to come up “yes” although it gets closer every time. I will pay for another two years, and continue to assume it entitles me to anything I want, pounding on doors and cutting lines until the customer service representatives capitulate or tell me otherwise.
We took the five-hour layover in Kuala Lumpur as a chance to reacquaint ourselves with a city we hadn’t visited in seventeen years. The newish airport train, KLIA Ekspres, whisked us into the city in less than half an hour, a dramatic improvement on the hair-raising taxi rides experienced there before. Unfortunately, little else seems to have improved, and not for lack of trying. Kula Lumpur is a fast-paced, modern city of gleaming skyscrapers, yet try as it might, it remains a poor cousin to its regional competition, Hong Kong and Singapore.
Geography doesn’t help this landlocked capital, as it is always hot and muggy in KL. One guide book implores visitors to abandon all hope of remaining dry; as touring KL means swimming in sweat and rainfall alternatively. We were lucky this morning which remained merely oppressive, not monsoonal.
No discussion of Malaysia is complete without some reference to its formative former leader, Dr. Mahatir Mohamad. Even the American press was compelled to cover the Good Doctor’s regular diplomatic salvos, they were so irresistibly indolent. Perhaps you recall his attribution of the 1997 Asian currency meltdown to “Jewish moneychangers”? Whatever you think of the man, his administration has presided over enviable growth, prosperity and modernization.
Seventeen years ago we happened to be visiting when The Good Doctor imprisoned his Deputy Prime Minister, Anwar Abrahim, on charges of sodomy. During his long reign, Mahatir ruled a Malaysian quasi-democracy with an iron fist, creating a regional economic powerhouse in the doing. Folks like Anwar had some difficulty with Mahatir’s willingness to play fast and loose with the rule of law. Today, The Good Doctor has long since retired, yet his legacy lives on, perhaps best reflected that Anwar Abrahim was recently jailed again on charges of sodomy. I have to conclude the “rule of law” debate maintains an unenviable level of relevance.
Kuala Lumpur remains one of the world’s worst cities for pedestrians. On arrival we found the new train station surrounded by construction sites, leaving us little choice but to walk atop of rubble through deserts of debris and to dart across highways of speeding traffic. The few footpaths that exist in KL are usually storm drains covered by concrete slabs, making them unnoticeable unless one is standing in a doorway waiting out the rain, watching where all the water is going. Dashing between doors in the rain, or out of traffic, or in the dark, one can happen upon a spot where a concrete slab has abandoned its post, offering the opportunity to stand in an open sewer with a broken leg in the rain in the dark in the path of speeding traffic. Luckily, our near misses were just that.
“Open sewer” would turn out to be a recurring theme, nevertheless we enjoyed a chance to soak in the city. “Kuala Lumpur” is Malay for “open sewer”. Well, not exactly. It really means “muddy confluence”, a reference to the city’s origin at the junction of the Klang and Gombak rivers. These rivers indeed served as open sewers for centuries, but that would seem a thing of the past. We found meter-wide sewerage pipes at eye level now paralleling the walking drains on the banks of the muck.