Phnom Sampeau, Cambodia – An Essay in Pictures and Video

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These figures represent about how Stax and I felt the day after our crash. Image (c) 2014 Stacy Libokmeto

What do they say about motorbikes? You’ve gotta get back on them? Or is that horses?

Even after all our failed attempts to reach Wat Banan, Stax and I aren’t willing to let ourselves be deterred by a minor life-threatening crash or two. No way, not us. We hop directly back on the motorbike the very next day, injuries and all, to explore the mountain realm of Phnom Sampeau.

A long and steep climb by motorbike – the same one we crashed the day before – up precarious cement pathways choked with weeds and potholes brings us finally to the top of this large block of limestone that dominates the view of the countryside just west of Battambang.

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Beej and the Suzuki at the top of Phnom Sampeau. Image (c) 2014 Stacy Libokmeto

Wat Phnom Sampeau, meanwhile, is among the most spectacular- and peculiar – sites we will encounter in Cambodia. From the rocky peak, the golden spires of the Wat gleam over sheer limestone cliffs and caves, while to the north, Tiger Mountain rears up out of the flat ricelands and afternoon field smoke like some ghostly green monster rising out of a lake.

I should mention, we never would have found the narrow route to this viewpoint without the impromptu guidance of a monkey-like 9 year old kid with a dirty baseball cap named Than who starts walking alongside us as we approach the Wat. At first we don’t understand where he is trying to guide us. The narrow path he walks toward appears to simply dead-end at a sheer cliff.

He flashes us a look of annoyance, pointing again – these dumb Farang and their petty fears! – and we decide what the hey? Good thing. Along the cliff’s edge is a stony path leading to a steep wooden ladder someone has nailed into a gap in the limestone. Following the scrawny kid, who’s scrambled up and down the ladder three times already to see what’s taking us so long, we squeeze our way through the gap and scramble over the sharp rocks to a stunning overlook.

Tiger Mountain from atop Phnom Sampeau. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer
Tiger Mountain from the peak of Phnom Sampeau. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer
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The golden spires of Wat Phnom Sampeau from the peak. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer

The kid gets bored waiting for us to marvel at the view and clambers down back to the Wat with his buddies, but not before signaling them of his whereabouts.

Inside Wat Phnom Sampeau, the scenes from the Buddha’s life and ministry are presented in absurdly vivid, almost Marvel comic-book style.

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The ceiling frescoes of Wat Phnom Sampeau. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer
The Buddha compassionately observes the stages of a man's life - with a peculiarly morbid emphasis on the after-death stages! Photo (c) Benjamin J Spencer 2014
death2 The Buddha compassionately observes the stages of a man’s life – with a peculiarly morbid emphasis on the after-death stages! Photo (c) Benjamin J Spencer 2014

Outside the Wat lies a steaming primary deciduous forest – one of the only primary stands we will see in logging-ravaged Cambodia – filled with mischievous monkeys, barefoot children who run about the temples as if they live there, and colorful flora. flowerphnomsampeau copy We finally head down for the day with the sun sinking below the haze. But before we can turn onto the highway back to Battambang, one more surprise awaits us. Two million bats are poised to fly out of the pitch-black caverns deep below Phnom Sampeau and out into the sky to feed in a nightly ritual. (Sorry, cell phone video so it’s not great quality).

Saigon/HCMC Vietnam: Pham Ngu Lao-cious

by Beej McKay

23/9 Park in the Dark. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer
23/9 Park in the Dark. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer

The 23/9 Park across from Pham Ngu Lao street in Saigon’s backpacker district is swarming with activity from 6 am on.

This being a large Vietnamese city where authority is centralized, most of the activity is pretty tightly regulated. The first day we’re there, dozens of organized groups are kicking the shuttlecock around; the next day, everyone – I mean everyone – is rollerblading, and it’s as if the shuttlecock never existed.

The slight oddness is amplified doubly by the fact that we’ve arrived while the entire park is being used as an advertisement for Vietnam’s tourist industry. A garish live concert, as loud as at any arena, is being held at the east end. Vietnamese pop singers extol the wonders of the country’s natural beauty in song while images of waterfalls and beaches are projected on a giant screen behind them.

The singers strain their hardest to get the packed and seated crowd worked up. They dance and sing with tremendous flair and energy. This being a reticent Southeast Asian country, though, and not prone to outward celebratory expression, the pop stars’ raised fists and triumphant smiles at the end of every song occasion no uproar.

No, instead there is dead silence once the music falls silent. Not one spectator betrays any sign that they have just witnessed a performance at all, no matter how slam-bang the spectacle. It makes me feel bad for the performers giving it all, but I’m sure they’re used to it.

Pretty sure this girl was there? Not positive.

The rest of the festival is mostly just booths hawking Malaysian cruises and temple tours and such. The only other highlight occurs when we run across a large group little kids dancing to a  great DJ spinning hardcore hip-hop tracks (think an F-bomb every five seconds) while their parents look on. The DJ is so good, in fact, that Stax and I have a hard time stopping ourselves from joining the kids. The dour expressions of the parents as they stand around put a damper on these inclinations, however.

Despite these peculiar goings-on, the park is very pleasant at most hours and usually full of Vietnamese students  eager to speak English or French with foreigners. Don’t deny yourself this experience – you will get more out of the exchange than the kids themselves probably will.

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Since we returned to Saigon from our mountain retreat in Dalat, we’ve been staying at the Vy Khanh Guesthouse down a maze of  back alleys just off the main street.

Shadows in the back alley. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer
Shadows in the back alley. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer

Vy is really nice and helpful and her guesthouse is too fancy for what we are paying. She’s also great to talk to, and the setting of her place is pretty awesome.

The alleyways of Pham Ngu Lao. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer
The alleyways of Pham Ngu Lao. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer

The steaming narrow alleys of Pham Ngu Lao, jam-packed with guesthouses and family residences and noodle stands and herb shops, wouldn’t be out of place in a movie like “Big Trouble in Little China”. I could easily picture  Lo-Pan and the Storms facing off against their rivals right outside our guesthouse.

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Ah, my dear misadventurists…make yourself at home in my Saigon alley. There is nothing to fear!
Why, thank you Lo-Pan! What a nice older gentlema....AHHHHHHHHHHH!
Why, thank you Lo-Pan! What a nice older gentlemAHHHHHHHHHH MAKE HIM STOP

Stax and I waste no time in finding the best Pho and the best fruit and yogurt smoothies in the neighborhood. The stage is set for a very pleasant five days in Saigon before we head  across the border to Phnom Penh. But as soon as I open my guitar case –  for the first time since our bus trip from Da Lat – I realize that not all will go as smoothly as I hope.

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Part Two of Saigon update soon!
To Be Continued…

Dalat, Vietnam: Shizz be ca-RAZY at Crazy House

Before the Misadventurists visited the Hang Nga Crazy House in Dalat, we suspected it might be just another overblown tourist trap not worth the entrance fee.

By way of explanation, some of subpar “attractions” exist throughout Vietnam, their reputations inflated by overzealous tour organizers who want to add another paid stop on the merry-go-round (personally I would add most of the Mekong “floating village” tours to this list. Others may disagree.)

These attractions, some little more exotic than your average Denny’s parking lot (and not even the David Lynch “Mulholland Drive” parking lot) must be weeded through if one is to avoid blowing all their cash.

But mainly because Crazy House is located only a few blocks from our guesthouse, we decide to give it a chance. And believe us…Crazy House is worth visiting, if only to feel like you’ve floated outside of your body into a bizarro alternate universe.

Or maybe you want to recapture the feeling of being a baby, when your neural paths were not yet set and your silly-putty brain couldn’t just take for granted what a “house” should look like. You know, door here, roof here; a giant eagle is not a normal occupant of someone’s bedroom.

Crazy House is a combination of the weirdest hotel you’ve ever stayed in – in fact, it is a functioning hotel – a Dali-esque architectural fever dream, and Injun Joe’s Cave on Disneyland’s Tom Sawyer Island.

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Just one of the many Crazy House “houses”. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer

In fact, the whole complex is like one of Walt Disney’s peyote trips (of which several are well documented. Don’t bother Googling that, the Internet is secretly owned by Disney).

An interesting fact about Da Lat Crazy House: the architect is the daughter of Vietnamese aristocracy and she created several huge Soviet-block style Party buildings before hatching the idea (perhaps at a local bar after one too many) to build her own personal wonderland in Da Lat.

A big fan of Gaudi, (which will surprise no one who has seen Gaudi’s work in Barcelona) she says she built the house to honor the harmony of nature and architecture. In practice it looks like a gigantic mud creature with monstrous vine-arms is consuming a whole village.

Tourists climbing through, up, and around Crazy House. Image (c) Stacy Libokmeto
Tourists climbing through, up, and around Crazy House. Image (c) Stacy Libokmeto
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Melting Ogre Face house. Image (c) Stacy Libokmeto

By the time we’ve hiked through all the caves and climbed to all the roofs, we’ve probably covered over a mile of distance. A few buildings are under construction, although guests are still allowed to explore these sites freely.

Beej crawls to the roof of one five story brick behemoth with narrow stairways and beams stretched over long drops which would undoubtedly end in death with one wrong step. Let’s just say that building safety codes are not the strictest here in central Vietnam.

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And up some more… (c) Stacy Libokmeto
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Beej, doing a bit of roofing at the main house. Image (c) Stacy Libokmeto.
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Enchanted woods. Friend or foe? Image (c) Stacy Libokmeto
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Long way down. (c) Stacy Libokmeto

Back down on the ground, we enter a maze of spider-web shaped lights in a mini-fairytale forest.  The forest is centered around a mosquito-infested pond containing giant living bullfrogs who croak deeply and incessantly. We can’t see them, as it’s almost totally dark in the spider-web forest, but we can hear their heavy slimy bodies splashing into the pond as we approach.

We peek into a few of the rooms, which are just as weird and cool inside as the house is outside.

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Path to one of the rooms. Image (c) Stacy Libokmeto
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The spiders protect your hotel room from invaders. (c) Stacy Libokmeto
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A typical room at Crazy House. Image (c) Stacy Libokmeto
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Bear protector in one of the hotel rooms. Image (c) Stacy Libokmeto

It’s dark, and Crazy House is kind of creepy after dark, especially with the recorded Vietnamese orchestra music blaring from the somewhere in forest, so we decide to split. Before we leave though we stop by the wall of tribute to the architect, who apparently REALLY likes  1970s-style matte portraits where she is in fields of  flowers.

To read more about Crazy House visit the official website here, and if you’re up for a trip to south Vietnam, book yourself a room. It’s cheap and you’ll remember it much better than your run of the mill luxury Hyatt.

But stay away if you’re prone to psychotic breaks.