I'm back! I just can't keep away from Thailand. This time I arrived to join another trek with Intrepid Travel. Their "Road to Angkor (Eastbound)" trip departs from Bangkok, visits Angkor Wat and Phnom Penh in Cambodia, and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.

After the trek I returned to the island of Koh Samui. Probably the closest place I've found to heaven on earth.


I had a few days to myself before joining the tour, so I spent some time exploring some more of Bangkok.

Subject: Good morning from Bangkok
Date: 7-Feb-2003


Well, it didn't take long and I'm back into the swing of Bangkok. I arrived safely on Wednesday night, and even though I was tired I recognise most of the sights, sounds, smells (particularly and especially the smells) of this amazing city.

I am staying at the same hotel that I stayed last time I was here, so I'm familiar with this area. This is the Banglampu district of Bangkok, centred on Khao Sahn Road. KS is surrounded by backpacker hostels, so the nightlife around here is... interesting.

KS has changed in the five years since I was last here, though. It seems to have gone upmarket a little. Gone are may of the older cafes that I remember, and most of them no longer play (pirated) movies on big-screen TVs any more. I think that Thailand has probably cracked down on piracy in the last few years, which is probably fair enough, but it means that I need to look around the surrounding side streets to find a movie.

But the area is still fun, with many of the bars not opening until about midnight. No, I don't know what time they close. At any time of night the streets are filled with hundreds of English tourists, German tourists, completely insane Japanese tourists, and one slightly elderly Australian. I think I'm the only person here without a tattoo, piercing, hair in braids, dreadlocks, or cornrows, or a drug habit. Maybe one day.

I spent yesterday exploring Bangkok's river taxi system. I didn't get time to do this last time I was here, and I've discovered that that touts are just as vicious on the water as on land. They'll tell you that a ticket costs 150 Baht (which you can buy from them), but when you get to the ticket counter it's actually 2 (two!) Baht. As I write, the exchange rate is about 25 Baht to the dollar.

But you can get away with a lot when you're a tourist ("tourist" being recognised world-wide as another word for "idiot"), so I ask the boat's conductor a lot of questions about routes and prices, using my own special brand of linguistics, which is to speak slowly and clearly in English and point at maps a lot. It seems to work. Eventually.

I visited Wat Arun (the Temple of the Dawn) which is a pretty amazing place, and returned to Wat Pho for a second look at the reclining Buddha. Yep, he's still reclining.

I also discovered a place that gives Thai massage lessons. I think I'll give that a go.


Wat Arun
Full-size picture (56 KB)
Looking up the steps towards the top of Wat Arun, the Temple of the Dawn.

Unfortunately, you are not allowed to climb to the top. Maybe it's just as well -- the steps are very steep!

Stone warrior
Full-size picture (55 KB)
Stone warrior at Wat Arun.
Temple roof
Full-size picture (63 KB)
Part of the roof of Wat Benchamabophit.

This temple is made of white marble, so it is also known as the Marble Temple.

Fasting Buddha
Full-size picture (36 KB)
Fasting Buddha statue at Wat Benchamabophit.

This is very different to the usual chubby depiction of the Buddha. The plaque below the statue reads:

"An image of the Buddha seated cross-legged in the attitude subduing himself by fasting. This image, which shows the (Greek) style of Gandhara sculptures, was cast after a stone original kept in the museum at Lahore, Pakistan."


We travelled overland from Bangkok to Cambodia, entering Cambodia at the town of Poipet.

Subject: Hello from Siem Reap
Date: 10-Feb-2003
(Pronounced SEE-am REE-app)

Well, the last couple of days have been pretty busy. I spent my last day in Thailand just walking from the hotel and seeing where I end up. I think I got horribly lost (as you would with a plan like that), but I hailed a tuk-tuk to take me back to the hotel. It turned out that I had been walking in a circle and was quite close to the hotel, so I was horribly ripped-off by the tuk-tuk driver. Never mind.

Anyway, on Saturday night we had a group meeting of everyone on the Angkor tour. There are ten of us, including a group of four older (like 65-75yo) people from a hiking club in Melbourne.

On Sunday we began the tour proper. We travelled by fairly cramped mini-bus from Bangkok to the Cambodian border. Crossing into Cambodia was an eye-opener: Thailand is a clean, modern society by comparison. The streets of Poipet were unpaved, rough, and very dusty. It was stinking hot, and we had a six-hour drive ahead of us. Fortunately we had a larger air-conditioned bus.

Cambodia has had a pretty horrific history in the last few years. This was bought home on the drive to Siam Reap, where the fields along the road had landmine warnings posted. Trust me, they take "Do not dig" signs very seriously in Cambodia. The road was unpaved and narrow for most of the way, but after six hours bouncing around we arrived at Siem Reap.

Siem Reap is the second largest city in Cambodia (after Phnom Penh). In the last few years the Cambodian government has realised what an amazing tourist attraction they have in Angkor, just a few kilometres up the road. I am fortunate that I have arrived now, because they are throwing up hotels along the main road as fast as they can pile the bricks. A year or so from now the place will be completely given over to tourists. And the world will be a lesser place for it.

For at last I have seen Angkor with my own eyes! Today was our first day at the Angkor complex, and I admit that I completely underestimated its size. The entirety of Angkor covers some 50 km2, and there are several hundred temples. Most are quite small, of course, and we won't get to see all of them. Today we visited six (I think -- I lost count) of the larger ones, except the actual Angkor Wat temple itself.

As for the temples themselves... alas, any description I could write would not do them justice. You'll just have to see them for yourself.

So I will simply state the facts: they were all built between the 11th and 13th centuries, as the balance of power shifted between the Khmer, the Chinese, and the Thais. They were built using sandstone (from a quarry 50km away) and volcanic rock (from 120km away). Each new king built his own temple. They are all huge, all completely covered with intricate and detailed carvings, and are now all in various advanced stages of decay. In their days they must have been magnificent beyond words.

It was very hot at the temples, and everyone in the group was very tired by the end of the day. Tonight our tour leader has organised a Khmer-style banquet at a nearby restaurant. I'm looking forward to that.

Tomorrow we visit Angkor Wat in time to watch the sunrise, then spend the rest of the day exploring this the largest of the Angkor temples. I'm looking forward to that even more.


Poipet street
Full-size picture (35 KB)
The main road of Poipet, our first glimpse of Cambodia. Very hot, dry, and dusty.

We were besieged by the usual collection of beggars and merchants as soon as we left the customs office. This picture was taken from the safety of the bus.

Cambodia countryside
Full-size picture (21 KB)
Driving through the Cambodian countryside.

The sign is a landmine warning.

Siem Reap
Full-size picture (19 KB)
The street outside the hotel at Siem Reap.
Angkor south gate
Full-size picture (48 KB)
Looking along the causeway toward the south gate of Angkor Thom.
Angkor gods
Full-size picture (62 KB)
The causeway is lined with Gods like these one one side...
Angkor demon
Full-size picture (57 KB)
...and Demons like this one on the other.

This is a recurring theme in Khmer art: the Gods and Demons opposite each other, representing the battle between good and evil.

The Bayon
Full-size picture (29 KB)
The Bayon, the first of the Angkor temples that we visited.
Bas reliefs
Full-size picture (75 KB)
Bas relief carvings on the walls of the Bayon.

The entire temple is covered with these detailed carvings. Each panel depicts a story of event in Khmer history. Much too many for me to remember all the details!

Angkor face
Full-size picture (69 KB)
The enigmatically smiling face of Angkor.

This face appears on almost every tower on the Angkor temples. All four sides of each tower have a face like this, aimed in each of the cardinal directions.

Full-size picture (61 KB)
The Phimeanakas, or Royal, temple.

Here the king came to perform his devotions.

Jungle temple
Full-size picture (72 KB)
The jungle temple, overgrown with the roots of a banyan tree.

This is why restoration of the temples is so difficult: the vegetation is destroying the temples, but if it was removed the buildings would collapse.

Overgrown buildings
Full-size picture (66 KB)
More overgrown buildings at the jungle temple.
Angkor sunrise
Full-size picture (25 KB)
Sunrise over Angkor Wat.

This is what I came to see. Was it worth it? Oh, yes!

Full-size picture (64 KB)
Apsara (celestial nymph) figure on the wall of Angkor Wat.
Central tower
Full-size picture (60 KB)
Myself, at the foot of the central tower at the top of Angkor Wat.
Bantay Srei
Full-size picture (75KB)
Intricate carvings like these cover the entire surface of Bantay Srei Temple, a few kilometres away from Angkor Wat.

Because only women were allowed to enter, Bantay Srei is also known as the "Citadel of the Women".

After leaving Siem Reap we flew to Phnom Penh, on an very dodgy aeroplane. The cabin started to fill with thick white mist before we even left the ground! For a minute we were a bit worried, but it was just condensation from the air conditioning.

Subject: Hello from Phnom Penh
Date: 13-Feb-2003

Another very interesting, though slightly overwhelming, day... We visited S-21 (the Khmer Rouge's secret jail and torture centre), and one of the killing fields at Cheong Ek. There were several thousand bodies in mass graves here, and there are several hundred such killing fields around Cambodia. That's why our guide told us that Cambodia is the killing field.

S-21 is pretty scary. The things that the Khmer Rouge did to their victims there was just horrific. Once you had been accused of a crime against the Khmer Rouge (where "crime" means "anything we don't like") you were pretty much dead. So was your family, who were also tortured until they confessed your crimes. Some of the torture implements were on display at S-21. There were just seven survivors (of the 14,000 that passed through S-21) still alive when the Vietnamese arrived to liberate Phnom Penh. The Khmer were busily killing people at S-21 up until the Vietnamese arrived.

After victims had confessed they were told they were being relocated to another prison: in fact, it was the killing ground at Cheong Ek. They were marched, blindfolded, hands bound, and feet manacled, to kneel at the edge of a big hole. Then they were clubbed or stabbed with a bamboo stick. They fell into the hole and were buried dead or alive. There were about one hundred mass graves at Cheong Ek.

The killing grounds are being excavated, and most of the bodies (skeletons) have been removed. In the centre of Cheong Ek is a pagoda. Unlike every other pagoda I've seen around SEAsia, this one contains shelf upon shelf of skulls. Each skull is damaged: pierced by clubs, bayonets, or bullet holes.

And do you know what I found was the most ghastly thing? The grounds of the killing field are mostly grassy, except for the paths, but the grass is scattered with bits of clothing. They weren't thrown there: they just keep being washed up by the rains.

May their owners rest in peace.

And just to fill out the afternoon, we visited a shooting range, where for US$20 I shot off a 30-round clip on a Russian AK-47 assault rifle. This was definitely not recommended by the Intrepid guide... but we understood that if we tried it, it would be quite an experience. And it was; those things are loud. But I managed to hit the target. Even in full-automatic mode, at about five rounds per second. I recommend this to anyone who wants to try their hand at an AK-47, M-16, Colt-45, heavy machine gun, "Rambo" gun (that's what the range master called it -- watch the movie), hand grenade, or rocket launcher. Yes, rocket launcher. All yours for only US$200 a shot.

Now tonight the wife of today's tour guide has prepared a traditional dinner for us, so I had better go. Until next time...


Interrogation room
Full-size picture (42 KB)
Interrogation room at the Khmer Rouge torture centre, S-21.

That steel bar in the foreground is a set of leg irons. They weigh about five kilograms, and prisoners were never allowed to remove them.

Pagoda at Cheong Ek
Full-size picture (47 KB)
Pagoda at the Cheong Ek killing fields.
Firing an AK-47
Full-size picture (34 KB)
Myself, doing something dangerous (and very loud) with an AK-47 assault rifle at a firing range outside Phnom Penh.
Phnom Penh
Full-size picture (54 KB)
Phnom Penh street corner.


We continued our tour overland into Vietnam.

Subject: Good morning from Saigon
Date: 17-Feb-2003
Well, the tour ended on Saturday, and right now I'm a bit toured-out. It will be good to get to Koh Samui, where I can stay in one place and not think about much for a while. It's been a strange last couple of days -- I've known the people in the group for only a week, but travelling is such an intense experience that as people leave one by one I feel that a part of me is going, too.

It's amazing how much contrast there is at the borders between countries. I normally enter a new country by its international airport, and all airports look the same. Crossing a land border is a different story. Cambodia's border offices consists of a row of huts. Only one had a guard in it, so our tour guide made us hustle to get into the queue before another two loads of buses behind us. Even then it took about 40 minutes to get the 11 people in our group out of Cambodia. A few Cambodians tried to jump the queue, with a few thousand Riel tucked into their passports, but our group turned our backs and with a few subtle hip-and-elbow moves managed to shove some of them behind us. They didn't like that.

Then we walked across the hundred or so metres of no-man's land to the Vietnamese side. The Vietnamese border building is a real cold-war relic: blocky, ugly, and topped with a huge red and gold Communist insignia. Again, our tour guide shoved all of our passports at the (lone) customs officer before anyone else could get in front of our group. She also advised us to have "nothing to declare"; apparently if you declare anything they go through all of your baggage with a fine-tooth comb. That's what experience does for you. At least the building had wall fans around the queue area.

Once in Vietnam we found our Vietnamese guide, who said we could call him "Mick Dundee", because his Vietnamese name sounded vaguely like that and he was given that name by a previous Australian tourist. Actually I think he just liked the name.

As usual it was stonkin' hot, and we were all pretty tired from standing around in the heat, so there wasn't much conversation on the bus as we travelled into Vietnam. More on road travel in Vietnam later. But as usual the Intrepid hotel was nice.

We visited the Black Lady mountain temple (and almost suffocated in the incense smoke), and later that evening attended a service at the Cao Dai temple. That was pretty amazing: the chanting starts to get to you after a while, and the temple is more ornately decorated than many other temples in SEAsia (and that's saying something!).

Then we went for dinner. Now, fortunately, I had a slight stomach upset so I didn't eat much, and I certainly avoided the snake wine when it came around. Yep, snake wine. Take something alcoholic (eg: some home made rice wine), add one whole snake to the jar, and bury it for about two years. Exhume and drink.

On Saturday we visited the tunnels at Cu Chi. This was really interesting; these tunnels were dug over the 40-odd years before the Vietnam war, and were used by the Viet Cong to outflank and confound the South/US/allied armies. They're a bit of a squeeze for a westerner to get into, and must have been even more cramped during the war. But they did the job. At their height the tunnel complex stretched over 250 km! We also saw various booby traps that the VC placed through the jungle. Nasty.

The Cu Chi complex has a video that shows how the plucky and resourceful VC outwitted the stupid and lumbering Americans (always Americans -- I don't think they know that anyone else was in the war). One woman (I assume she was American) behind our group stood up and left, muttering "I don't have to listen to this", which struck me as pretty stupid. Did she really think that Americans have the only point of view worth listening to?

Perhaps George Dubya Bush should spend some time here.

The tour officially ended when we reached the hotel in Saigon. There were no tour functions organised in Saigon, but on Saturday evening we had a final group dinner at which I tried my first scorpion (I only had a claw -- tastes like eating an eggshell), and finished the evening at the bar next door. That was fun. Our tour leader says that she has never been so drunk with a group before, so we all assume that was a compliment. BTW, six or seven pots of Tiger Beer is bad, mmmkay?

Or maybe it was the Vodka shots...

So here I am winding down in Saigon. A couple of people have gone: some have headed home (and are probably at work today); some have continued travelling; some have joined another Intrepid tour. And tonight I fly to Bangkok. This time tomorrow I should be on a beach on Koh Samui.

Before I go, a word on driving in Vietnam. It helps to realise that everyone on Vietnamese roads is a visually-handicapped psychopath with a death wish. Outside the cities people overtake in front of oncoming traffic at something over 100 kph. At least twice our bus driver had to swerve quickly to avoid a high-speed, head-on collision -- not easy when the sides of the roads are taken up with pedestrians, pushcarts, motorcycles, and the occasional cow. In Saigon it's just insane; people (most are on motorbikes) basically ignore a red light until the group of people crossing in front of them is too heavy to ride through. It's an experience just to stand on a street corner and watch the traffic.

As a pedestrian, you cross a road by waiting for the traffic to thin a bit, then walking at a steady pace across the road while motorbikes, cars, and pushbikes whiz all around you. Just remember, they're not actually trying to kill you... As with many other things in Asia, the best advice is to not think about it.

Now, I want to do some shopping. Prices here are ridiculously low, but the quality seems quite good. I suspect these are genuine articles, and we're buying directly from the sweatshops in which they are made. I've seen a AU$300 backpack here for US$22.


Black Lady Mountain temple
Full-size picture (64 KB)
The Black Lady Mountain Temple.

That's incense smoke coming from the upper level. The air inside was almost unbreathable!

Cao Dai temple
Full-size picture (69 KB)
Ornate interior of the Cao Dai Temple.
Cu Chi tunnels
Full-size picture (68 KB)
One of the entrances to the tunnel complex at Cu Chi, just outside Ho Chi Minh City. No wonder the Viet Cong gave the allies such a hard time with these tunnels. When the trapdoor is closed it is all but invisible. They're almost too small for a Westerner to enter, even without full combat gear.

Hi, Gary!

Full-size picture (42 KB)

At a Ho Chi Minh restaurant to mark the end of the tour.

Clockwise from left: Glen, Marge, David, Eva, Amanda, Darren, Gary, Amy (our leader!), Merrell, and Noel.

Hi, everyone! Thank you for a great trip!

Historic aircraft
Full-size picture (55 KB)
Some aircraft at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City.

I wonder why the Allies left this stuff behind? They must have left in a hurry!

Deformed babies
Full-size picture (27 KB)
Babies deformed by exposure to defoliants, on display at the War Remnants Museum.
Tall narrow hotel
Full-size picture (33 KB)
A tall, narrow, hotel in Ho Chi Minh City.

The street frontages of all these shops is pretty small. So, if you need space, you have to go upwards!

Ho Chi Minh street
Full-size picture (55 KB)
Ho Chi Minh City streetscape.

Koh Samui

After the trek I left Vietnam and went back to Thailand, where I returned to the resort island of Koh Samui in the Gulf of Thailand. I stayed at Montien House on Chaweng Beach, the same hotel where I stayed five years ago. It's in a great location near the shops, cafes, and bars of the shopping area.

Subject: Hello from Koh Samui
Date: 23-Feb-2003


For the last few days I've been relaxing in Koh Samui. Motivation has become a bit of an issue, so please forgive the lateness of this e-mail.

Samui has changed in fairly predictable ways since I was here five years ago -- unfortunately. The main road has now been paved and there are reasonably good footpaths all the way through the main shopping strip (and you know you're an experienced Asia traveller when you notice that sort of thing). There's now a McDonald's and a Burger King, and Hagen-Daaz and other upmarket ice-cream stores have outlets here. The Internet cafes compete with each other to advertise that they have the fastest connections. In other words, Samui has now been civilised.

But the biggest change that I noticed is that the nightclubs now close at 2:00am! WTF?! Last time I was here I was assaulted by a Thai prostitute (she threw a stick at me) while staggering home at 5:00am after giving her the brush-off. I cannot understand this (the curfew, not the prostitute); is it some misguided reaction to the bombing in Bali, or some sign of moral rectitude among the powers that be? In any case, it took about one day to find the "after parties" that continue from 2:00am, so that was all right.

Now I've settled into the usual Samui routine: sleep until 10:00am; beach until 3:00pm; massage until 4:00pm; pool until 6:00pm; dinner until 9:00pm; nightclub until loss of consciousness. Repeat until bank accounts exhausted.

One thing I have noticed is that the 2:00am closure seems to have eliminated all the characters that used to hang around the nightclubs with their Thai girlfriends until all hours of the morning. These were usually expat Poms or the occasional Aussie, usually in their late 40's-50's, inviting me to discuss their lifestyle choices in front of the girlfriend because "she can't understand English well enough to follow the conversation". Who said chivalry was dead!

I wonder what happened to those guys?

I admit that I have mixed feelings about the development of Samui: on the one hand, it's great to be at a resort where you can get things and do things, where the shops are stocked and open until late; on the other hand, I feel it's kind of a shame that everywhere is going to end up being thoroughly westernised. But for the moment I want to relax, so the fewer hassles the better.

One of the problems that I encountered last time I was here was the lack of bookstores. Once my reading material was exhausted I was scouring tiny shops looking for anything that was less than five years old and written in English. That problem has gone away; now there are a couple of large-ish shops that have a wide variety of both new and second-hand books, in various languages. I bought a couple of books describing the expat experience in Asia -- about 400 anecdotes from various people working and living around SEAsia. Very funny reading, particularly when you're in the area and can relate to exactly these experiences.

So my time here on Samui has settled into a fairly predictable routine, but that's okay; sometimes you get tired of making decisions. I assume that life here is pretty much like any other resort, so I won't describe it here. I will make one observation though: the English tourists I've encountered (likely lads from London, usually) are so pale! Compared to everyone else around here they look as though they'd glow in the dark.


Lion fountains
Full-size picture (46 KB)
Lion fountains beside the pool at Montien House, Koh Samui.

Now look more closely -- how many water jets are spraying from each lion?

Samui beach
Full-size picture (49 KB)
The beach in front of Montien House.

In fact, I didn't spend much time lying on the beach -- I was too comfortable lying around the pool.

Massage pavilion
Full-size picture (44 KB)
The massage pavilion, Montien House.

Oh, this was gooood...

Buddha shrine
Full-size picture (67 KB)
My final photograph of Koh Samui: dusk falls over the Buddha shrine at Samui's airport.


Home again. I sent this e-mail about a week after I arrived.

Subject: Hello from Melbourne
Date: 6-Mar-2003

Well, I'm home... I flew into Melbourne on Thursday afternoon. I didn't sleep much on the plane and I stayed awake until late to kick my body clock around to Melbourne time, so when I did go to sleep I slept for 13 hours. I was still having trouble sleeping for the next few days, though. I wasn't falling asleep until 2:00-3:00am, so I think that my body was stubbornly clinging to Thai time. But I think it's getting better.

I know that I should be glad to be home, but I'd really rather be on a beach in Thailand. I think I've gone off the whole 9-to-5 thing. Unfortunately I'm not yet independently wealthy, so it's back to work I go...

I have developed my photos and have spent the last couple of nights arranging them into an album. Now that that's done I will be looking to corner anyone who stands still for too long, to tell them all about my travels. So watch it.

For the last few days I've been trying to compose this e-mail. Motivation is still a problem, but I decided I really should do it when some of my friends were surprised to discover that I was back in the country!

This e-mail will be the last that I send for my holiday. So, by way of a summary, I wanted to share a few memories that didn't make it into previous e-mails.

I had a terrific time, saw some pretty amazing sights, and generally enjoyed myself thoroughly. I always enjoy Thailand: I love being in Bangkok, and Samui is pretty close to heaven on earth. But I think that I had the most fun in Cambodia. Cambodia was the least developed of the places I visited and also the most interesting.

I always wanted to see Angkor, of course. The Angkor Wat temple is the largest religious structure in the world. That they were built so long ago -- nearly 1,000 years -- and then lost in the jungle blows me away every time that I think of it. How could a civilisation rise to the point where it can spend 200 years, and about a million slaves, building these temples, and then disappear and "forget" that they existed?

While in Phnom Penh we dropped in briefly at the Heart of Darkness. This is a PP icon, and probably the coolest bar/nightclub I have ever seen -- maybe because it's the only bar I've been where the security guards pat you down for weapons at the entrance. This was the night after we went to the firing range, so the memories of AK-47 fire were still fresh and added a certain frisson to the evening. We didn't stay late so the place wasn't really jumping by the time we left, but I can still see the dim red lighting and hear the music even now.

BTW, "Heart of Darkness" would be a great name for a book that could be turned into a cult movie.

The other fun place was the Foreign Correspondents Club, on the riverfront facing the Ton Le Sap river. Another PP icon, this is three stories tall with a decent pool table, and open-air dining on the roof. A very pleasant way to unwind after the heat of the day. On the way to the FCC, we had dinner at the local "Happy Pizza" restaurant. The pizzas range from pleasantly genial to wildly ecstatic, depending on the amount of "herbs" they include...

Maybe Cambodia sticks in my mind because it makes you realise just what a living nightmare the country had to endure for so long. There are so many people missing limbs, and so few old people -- 50% of the population of Cambodia is under 15yo. Every single family was touched by the Khmer Rouge, sometimes losing half of their members. Families broke up, and children were told to say that they were orphans to prevent the KR from killing them when they killed their parents. You have to wonder how that kind of insanity can take hold in a country.

And, as usual, I return to Australia deeply aware that we have never had to endure anything remotely like it -- and probably never will.

There are many beggars in SEAsia, of course, and there seems to be more than average in Cambodia. After a while they fade into the background. You get so used to brushing them off that you almost stop noticing them. At the killing field we were followed by groups of kids hassling us for money. As usual I ignore them, trying not to feel like an indifferent bastard. I think I was succeeding, until a little boy came up to me in his dusty clothes and bare feet, and with great big eyes and his palms raised towards me asked, "Pencil? Go to school?"

This poor kid, with nothing to call his own, just wanted to go to school. And I, who by quirk of fate was born into a safe, prosperous society with everything I could ever want, didn't even have a pencil to give him. I suddenly felt that I was a complete prick after all, and felt I should sponsor at least five World Vision children and donate about $10,000 to Amnesty International.

Or maybe the cunning little sod was immediately flogging the pencils to the local gift shop... In Asia, first impressions are rarely correct.

I felt something similar in Vietnam, visiting the Viet Cong tunnels at Cu Chi and looking around Ho Chi Minh City. It's interesting to hear the "other" side of the war. The pamphlets at museums all refer to it as the "American" war -- as though it would never have happened if the yanks weren't there. The "War Remnants Museum" recently changed its name from "The Museum of American War Atrocities". Apparently the Vietnamese government is now mindful of the value of visiting American tourists.

The war's cost in human lives was enormous, of course, and reading the history of the war makes me think that it should never have happened. Certainly the west should never have been involved. Vietnam is now supposed to be a communist country, but around HCMCity you couldn't tell -- it's just as bustling with stalls, shops, and crazy traffic as any other SEAsian city I've seen. Of course I'm seeing HCMCity with the benefit of hindsight, but really, what was the point of the war?

And Samui... On the flight leaving the island I was plotting my return.

Many thanks to everyone who e-mailed me while I was away. It's great to receive messages from home: I don't feel quite so isolated from everyone. And special thanks to those who've said how much they enjoyed reading my e-mails. I just hope that I have inspired you to one day visit this crazy wonderful place that is SEAsia.

See you soon.