Wednesday, February 29, 2012

hamster roulette

Governments are evil. As soon as people start enjoying something the government passes a law that makes it illegal. They take all the fun stuff away from their people. Alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, you name it. Alcohol for example is illegal in countries like Sweden or Saudi Arabia. That's right: Sweden. Ever tried to buy a bottle of wine in Sweden on a Sunday? You can't, since the government controlled system bolaget stores are not allowed to open on a Sunday to sell you a bottle of Bordeaux. In Saudi Arabia it will be impossible on the other six days of the week as well. Minor details. Some countries even go so far that they won't allow you to drive your car as fast as it possibly can on its motorways.
Now, the Vietnamese love gambling. Guess what? It's illegal in Vietnam! Now lucky enough there are usually loopholes to find your way around the law to get what you want. In Sweden you can go to a pub or a restaurant on a Sunday and order a bottle of red (let me know if you find out how to order a pint in Saudi Arabia...). And if you want to test the speed limits of your car all you have to do is to drive it across the border to Germany and off you go. The same goes for gambling in Vietnam. Cross the border into Cambodia and the first thing you encounter on the other side is a casino. But there are also other ways of bending the law and bet your money within the country. On a bus ride from the Cambodian border to Saigon, our bus stopped in the middle of nowhere. There was a passenger terminal of the bus company with a food court and outside the terminal was a small fairground with a stage and some booths selling food and drinks.
And then there was hamster roulette. A big round table that had a lower section with a smaller diameter and doors around it with numbers on them. In the middle of the table there was a bucket upside down that had a rope attached to it. The rope went straight up, around a roll and down to a bloke standing besides the table. People started to place their bets on the numbers around the table. We are talking dong, millions of them. Once the bets were placed the bloke next to the table would pull the string and the bucket would lift up. Under the bucket was a hamster. The hamster started running to the edge of the circle. It picked a door and took the exit. The lucky person who bet his money on that particular door won. The next morning in Saigon I bought ten buckets. I'm going to open a casino.

What gambling is to Vietnam, are late nights of drinking in bars to landlocked Laos. There's a curfew. All pubs and bars have to close at 11.30 pm so that the customers can be at their registered home or hotel by midnight. There's one exception though: bowling alleys. The party goes on in bowling alleys until the early morning. Also, there is a law in Laos that forbids foreigners to have sexual intercourse with locals, unless they are married. I am not sure if there is an exception if you do it in a bowling alley, though...
I left the Kingdom of Cambodia a day later than originally planned. It was Tet, as Chinese New Year is called in Vietnam, and according to my "travel agent" who had his "office" set up on a street corner in Kep there was no transport on New Years Day. So I had to spend another day eating crab with Kampot pepper before crossing the border to Vietnam...
the "office" of my travel agent, Mr. Pharis in Kep

Hatien Vegas, first stop in Cambodia for the Vietnamese

good bye, Cambodia, last casino before the border

good morning, Vietnam

gambling room in the independence palace in Saigon, 70s style,
the president was a gambler, too.

I left Kep in the morning and four buses, several Mekong delta crossings and a hamster roulette break later got into Ho Chi Minh City a.k.a. Saigon when it was almost midnight. I had my first pho straight away from a street food stall. I thought I had seen mad traffic in many places I've been to before, but Saigon is just mental. You can't see the street for the mopeds. The Tet celebrations were to continue for days to come. Since 2012 is the year of the Dragon, the city had dragons installed in many locations and every moped in HCMC was on its way to one or another dragon. Chúc mừng năm mới - Happy new year!

Moped madness, Saigon
Happy Year of the Dragon!

Vietnam telecom. surprisingly it works.
Before leaving Saigon I went to see the Cao Dai temple at Thay Ninh. Cao Dai is a religion that mixes concepts of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, blends it with a dash of Hinduism (Brahma, Shiva and Krishna are sitting on the temple's roof) and honours a wild bunch of saints and holy spirits including Victor Hugo, Jesus, Shakespeare, Buddha, Jeanne d'Arc, Mohammed, Napoleon, Descartes, Churchill, Lenin and Tolstoi. If religion is a buffet, this is it. That's me in the corner, choosing my religion...

prayer time, Cao Dai temple
Prayer time is four times a day: 6 a.m., noon, 6 p.m. and midnight and this is what it sounds like.

Cao Dai temple, Tay Ninh
On the way back to Ho Chi Minh City we stopped at the tunnels of Cu Chi. During the Vietnam war the Viet Cong guerrillas built a network of more than a hundred kilometres of tunnels that served as routes for supplies, homes and even hospitals underground. It was probably due to these tunnels and the booby traps built around the area that Vietnam became a war the U.S. troops could not win. Some of the tunnels have been restored and can be visited. We were told that they have been somewhat enhanced in size (so that over-sized tourists fit) but they are still very claustrophobic and get narrower and narrower as you crawl through the tunnels for the final exit (there are several exits before that just in case you panic...).   

wrong door. booby trap, bamboo spike version.

Cu Chi tunnels: I am disappeared

Claustrophobic Cu Chi tunnels

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Killing fields, supporting lifes

On April 17 1975 the Khmer rouge took Phnom Penh and proclaimed it year zero. Led by Saloth Sar, better known as Pol Pot a.k.a. Brother number one, the Khmer rouge renamed Cambodia to “Democratic Kampuchea” and transformed the country into a land of farmers. Within a few days the inhabitants of Phnom Penh and other cities were deported to the countryside and forced to work on the fields for more than 12 hours per day. Intellectuals were the enemy of the state. Wearing glasses, being able to speak a foreign language or having soft hands was reason enough to be arrested and detained, no need to mention being a doctor, an engineer, a buddhist monk or a teacher...
Detention centres were set up throughout the country. One of the biggest, the former Tuol Svay Prey high school, was transformed into S-21 (Security Office 21), which today hosts the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The former classrooms of the four buildings A, B, C and D were transformed into torture chambers and holding cells , building A being reserved for those cadres of the Khmer rouge who were suspected to plan an uprising against Pol Pot.


S-21 Prison cells

holding cell in S-21

The sign says that you're not supposed to laugh in S-21. There's nothing to laugh about here, really...

S-21 buildings

Victims of S-21

In early 1979 the Vietnamese army liberated Phnom Penh and found only seven prisoners still alive at S-21. Two of them are still living today. They returned to S-21 to tell their stories.

One of the two survivors of S-21 who is still alive today
Those who confessed under torture to crimes they did not commit in S-21 were taken to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, outside of Phnom Penh, which were just that: Killing fields. Taken off the trucks that brought the victims there they were clubbed to death to the soundtrack of a diesel generator and a P.A. playing propaganda songs of the Khmer rouge. Bullets were too expensive and not available.

the killing tree

Killing fields

The killing fields of Choeung Ek

The shocking thing is that even after the Vietnamese conquered Cambodia, the UN still accepted the Khmer Rouge as the official government of Cambodia for a few years to come. And even though there is now a UN trial things are moving slowly, very slowly. The UN trial has been going on for years now and only one sentence has been passed. The current Cambodian government is still blocking further trials against former Khmer rouge members. Some may still be part of the current regime...

Want to make a change and help someone to live a better life? Love good food? Like shopping? It's as easy as that:

Friends International is running two restaurants in Phnom Penh where street kids are taught how to become a chef, a waiter or work in the service industry.

Daughters of Cambodia is an organization that helps girls that have been trafficked to exit the sex industry and supports them in finding alternative ways to live a self-sustained life by teaching them sewing, clothes design, photography, jewellery crafting etc. They are also running a cafe called “sugar and spice” where the girls are learning cooking, baking and working in the restaurant industry. Additionally daughters of Cambodia provides them with medical and counseling services to give them the pride and confidence back that they lost and helps them to lead a healthy and safe life. They run a shop in Phnom Penh where their clothes, arts and crafts are sold, really cool designs and very different from all the fake copies found anywhere else in the capital. Worth having a look and making a change in somebody’s life.

Watch this video to learn more about the amazing job that they are doing.