Good Morning Vietnam/Goodnight Saigon

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Streets of Saigon

When I was a boy, back before Desert Storm, Desert Shield and basically any other U.S. involvement with wars in the desert, the war most often depicted in movies and on television was the conflict in Vietnam. As a result, I grew up seeing and hearing more about a backwater country in Southeast Asia far more than an average Long Island kid ordinarily would. Among my favorite songs growing up was Billy Joel’s (another Long Island kid) haunting ballad Goodnight Saigon. Sure the references went right over my head, but it – along with other classic rock tributes – served to create a mystique in my young mind. Sadly, I’m not a young boy anymore, but it was still subconsciously satisfying to see this mainstay of 80’s pop culture references firsthand just last year.

Upon landing it felt like I was in a scene right out of the war, as throngs of Vietnamese swarmed the arrivals gate like it was the last chopper out of Saigon. I’d say that the scene was surreal, but with the million percent humidity I’d more accurately describe it as ‘sticky’.

Since my party was due to meet up with our cruise ship docked in nearby Phuy Muy, I thought I’d make the most out of the full day at our disposal in this, the largest and most congested of Vietnamese cities. So I booked us a city tour to catch the highlights and – more importantly – avoid navigating the choking traffic and general chaos on the city’s roads.

The War Remnants Museum

Though the war ended decades ago, its effects still reverberate today. Fortunately, today the social climate is far more welcoming toward visiting Americans, and even though the Vietnam conflict is not considered to be a chapter of great pride in American history, the majority of visitors to this tasteful museum were Yanks who slogged it halfway around the globe to see it firsthand.

Inside the building, there are displays showcasing a vast gamut of American military memorabilia such as uniforms, weapons, ordinance and personal effects. There are also photo galleries documenting the horrendous toll American bombing had on the local civilian populous. Due to the graphic nature of the images, those with a low trauma threshold might do well to skip this portion.

The conflict was presented from the point of view of the victors (isn’t it always?) and instead of gloating and portraying the atrocities in a way to foment rancor, it focused mainly on the idea of self-determination. Regardless of anyone’s personal views on the causes and issues the war was fought over, no one can leave without shaking their heads at the senseless carnage wreaked mostly upon innocent civilians.

For those interested in more serious ‘hardware’, surrounding the grounds are various tanks, aircraft and other military vehicles that were left behind, which can make for some interesting photographic backdrops.

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War Remnants Museum

Other Buildings of Interest

Saigon (technically Ho Chi Mihn City) isn’t exactly dripping with famous monuments, but on a city tour you’ll likely be brought in front of the Reunification Palace for a photo op and to the Central Post Office. It is here at the latter that you’ll see a strong example of French architecture, hinting to its past under French colonial rule. It’s not exactly a not-to-miss destination, but is an interesting place to stretch your legs and take in the atmosphere. You can also buy a few sticky doughnuts from vendors carrying them around in a giant conical heap atop their heads, if only to just say that you did (they’re tasty without being too sweet).

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Reunification Palace, Saigon

Lunch: Your Highlight…Trust Me

Included in our tour was lunch in a literal back-alley restaurant called Cyclo Resto. Here we were able to sample some fantastic Vietnamese cuisine family style, including some delicious Vietnamese egg coffee. While the landscape and culture in Vietnam is both fascinating and appealing, I think you’ll agree with me that the food is what launches a visit here to the top of a traveler’s list.

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Try some amazing egg coffee

A Farewell

After some extremely sticky shopping in the close quarters of a tourist flea market, it was time to make our way out of the city and out in to the Mekong Delta to catch our ship. While Vietnam is an amazing tourist destination, I can honestly say that Saigon does not belong on a list of top sights. But if you have a day to kill and want to see a city that has been immortalized in both film and song, take the time to say “Good morning Vietnam” and the inevitable “Goodnight, Saigon”.

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Rafting with the Wild Man of Borneo

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The Rafting Party, Borneo, Malaysia

Often, the term “Wild Man of Borneo” is in reference to the orangutan, which is native to the island of Borneo and whose human-like mannerisms and intelligence beg for such a comparison. In my own context, that term has an entirely different meaning, referring instead to a reckless whitewater rafting guide whose antics potentially jeopardized an otherwise fascinating visit to this amazing island. But before divulging that particular story, let me share a few important details.

Where is Borneo and how do you get there?

The island of Borneo is located approximately midway between Southeast Asia and the Australian continent, and just slightly southwest of the Philippine archipelago. The island is shared by three countries: Malaysia, Indonesia, and the small nation of Brunei. Most tourists arrive via the coastal city of Kota Kinabalu, situated in the northern reaches of Malaysia’s Bornean real estate. Kota Kinabula – often shortened to just ‘KK’ is serviced by many Asian airlines, though to my knowledge there are no direct flights from either Europe or North America. Alternately, it is a port of call for various cruise itineraries – including my own which brought me to this primordial tropical paradise for just one day of exploration.

What is Borneo like?

Borneo is likely just as wild and exotic as you’ve heard it rumored to be. It is a rugged natural wonderland of ancient jungles and intriguing rock formations, as well as home to the tallest peak in Southeast Asia – Mount Kinabalu, where you can escape the steamy tropical weather via altitude. The city of KK has all the modern conveniences that have blurred the lines of culture, yet just outside the city you can find lovely islands  with turquoise beaches, trek into the jungle to watch the comically-endowed proboscis monkey or seek the humongous (and smelly) Rafflesia bloom – the world’s largest flower. You can also sample exciting whitewater rafting through ancient stands of rain forest, which was the option I chose for my limited sojourn, and which brought me face to face with my own version of the “Wild Man of Borneo”.

What can be expected on a whitewater rafting trip in Borneo?

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Rafting the Kiulu River, Borneo, Malaysia

I had arranged a whitewater rafting tour ahead of time with a reputable operator, who arranged for my party to be picked up at the port (though there was confusion as to where, but that’s another story) and taken about forty-five minutes into the foothills of Mount Kinabalu, clad in rugged swathes of thick rain forest only lightly bearing witness to the presence of man. We were brought to a secondary starting point due to high water levels during that time, at a tiny village on the Kiulu River, which is ominously pronounced similar to the Kill-You River. More on that in a second.

It was at this point that we met our guide, who told us his name was ‘Dude’. Unless his mother was a pot-smoking skateboarder totally taken aback by the act of giving birth to him, I’m inclined to believe that this was a self-appointed moniker. Along with his assistant – a Mr. Kudu (again likely a pseudonym) – we were given equipment and instructions on paddling, emergency procedures, and what to do if you fall out of the boat. Little did I know then that this was more of a preview than a preventative lesson.

We set out into the greenish-brown waters under an overcast sky. The river was rather wide, but the aforementioned water levels meant that it was moving swiftly – a good thing for those not looking to paddle the whole time. Inevitably, with bends in the river, there were moderate rapids, which were fun and sufficiently exciting for most. Apparently Dude and Mr. Kudu didn’t find them stimulating enough, and while the rest of us paddled furiously to avoid crashing the raft into the hefty boulders lining the riverbanks, they guided us with expert skill right into them, time and again.

I was the first one to fall out of the raft when we slipped vertically up the side of a boulder. I spun to face downriver as instructed but still wound up being pummeled by a few submerged rocks. On the next bend, while enjoying the rapids, we again found ourselves inexplicably up against the boulders, where this time it was my mother who was dumped into the frothing water. Fortunately she (and the rest of us) escaped serious injury, but it soon became clear that despite his enthusiastic shouts of where and how hard we should paddle, Dude was steering us right into the spots that would make the trip more ‘interesting’.

Now, let me just say that I am fully aware that rafting has an inherent level of risk, and if it weren’t exciting, no one would want to do it. However, it really annoyed me that we were being subjected to unnecessary risks, ones that would not only would jeopardize the rest of our vacation, but our health as well. So it was at this point, after rowing furiously away from the rocks and looking back at our guides doing just the opposite, that I shouted in no uncertain terms that we didn’t want to crash anymore, and would they please refrain from doing so. Considering that for the rest of the trip we managed to navigate the swirling vortexes of turbulence without any further upsets, this only served to prove that my earlier suspicions were correct.

With the threat of imminent death or dismemberment removed, we were able to more fully enjoy the panoramas that unfolded around every turn; the massive tree limbs being strangled by hefty creepers that overhung the riverbanks; the occasional waterfalls trickling out of the jungle to add to the swollen river; the rickety rope bridges that connect one unseen village with another. At one particularly calm stretch , I was allowed to hop into the river and drift along freestyle, to serenely take in the scenery. And when we eventually arrived at our take-out point, the deafening chorus of insects and pungent smell of the wet jungle left me desperately wishing I had more time to spend in this primeval paradise – with or without a suicidal guide.

Would you recommend such a trip for a first-time visitor?

Yes, I absolutely would, though I would first explain a few caveats:

While you wouldn’t need to be in superb shape (such as would be required for those looking to summit Mount Kinabalu), there is a level of physical exertion inherent in the sport of whitewater rafting, and rafting Borneo is no exception. Be ready to paddle, either for your life or just to move forward more quickly.

If you’re afraid of nature, water, potential danger and/or being out in the sun, then perhaps this activity is not for you. But if you wear waterproof sunscreen, brace yourself for the possibility of a few bumps and bruises and embrace your inner sense of adventure, you’ll not only be just fine, but will have a great bucket-list item to casually boast about back home (“that reminds me of that time I was whitewater rafting back in Borneo…”).

How would you sum up a visit to Borneo?

I would say that a trip to Borneo is likely to be the highlight of one’s travels – provided said traveler has an appreciation for nature in the raw and at least a moderate sense of adventure. Just saying the name Borneo conjures images of untouched jungles and exotic flora and fauna. Visitors who venture into the interior will find all of that and more. I highly recommend putting Borneo on your list of future destinations, and even more highly recommend spending at least a week or more exploring the plethora of natural and soft-adventure options that the island offers.

And in the event that you do come, and run into my friend Dude, for your own sake, just tell him that you’ll be taking your next tour without him.

 

 

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Touring Manila Without Pushing The Envelope

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A quiet corner of Manila, Philippines

Now that I’ve been able to get the whole Manila envelope pun out of the way by means of the title, I invite you to read on about what to see and do in the Philippine capital if you’ve only got limited time.

Overview

Manila is a sprawling metropolis characteristic of many rapidly-growing Asian cities –  filled with chaotic traffic, ramshackle development and increasingly Westernized modernization in the form of glitzy shopping malls that could rival anything back home (I’m talking about you, Mall of Asia). One could rightly argue that such things are reasons why a person wouldn’t want to visit. But at the heart of it all – just a few blocks off of Manila Bay in fact – is a relatively peaceful enclave that lends character to an otherwise indistinct urban conglomeration. It’s called Intramuros, and for those with limited time, it should be at the top of your trip itinerary

Intramuros

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Step inside the walls of the past in the Intramuros, Manila Philippines

Meaning ‘inside the walls’ this is the historic center of Manila – one that was home to its colonial past, and the site of some of the most dreadful devastation the country suffered during World War II (an estimated 100K died during the ‘liberation’ of the city). In fact, most of it was leveled by the intense fighting, and what exists today are mostly reconstructions. Regardless of the exact age, the overall effect is one that gives an appropriate nod to the past and the juxtaposition with the modern development on the outside is a welcome contrast.

What to See

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Exploring the grounds of Fort Santiago, Manila, Philippines

Fort Santiago – overlooking the Pasig River – is the top draw for visitors to Intramuros. This was once the stronghold for the Spanish, Americans and Japanese as they took turns as acting overlords. Today you can admire the mossy bastions of the fort’s walls and crumbling buildings, with intermittent peeks at the darkened dungeons that sit below. It doesn’t have the gravitas of other former fortresses around the world, but is worth at least an hour’s exploration.

Just down the road is another worthy destination – the Casa Manila museum and its surrounding complex. The museum was closed the day I visited, but the network of stone courtyards, flowery passageways, small cafés and shops were right out of colonial times, and if you get the sense that you’re waiting on line on Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean you can be forgiven for the comparison.

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A rooftop view around the Casa Manila Museum, Manila, Philippines

Rizal Park

Just south of the Intramuros is Rizal Park – the Philippines’ answer to the National Mall in Washington D.C. – complete with their own obelisk. Around the open expanse of lawns and fountains are small alcoves with themed gardens accessible for nominal fees. For some relaxation amid the noisy chaos of the city, I’d recommend the Japanese gardens. For some tacky but fun photo opportunities in a Jeepney (the ubiquitous highly-artistic stretched-Jeep public transport option) or rickshaw, I’d recommend the Orchidarium, though you won’t find more than a few examples of its namesake.

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Take a ride on a Jeepney, Manila, Philippines

Practical Advice

Bear in mind that being located within the tropics, any visit to Manila is likely to be a hot one. I’d say you’d be baking in the sun, but with the humidity its more likely you’ll feel sauteed. That said, take in lots of liquids (available at one of the many 7-11s) and don’t be afraid to duck into air conditioned shops to cool down and perhaps pump a few pesos into the local economy.

There is a decidedly third-world feel in many places, and while you need not be overly concerned with safety during the day, it’s always a good idea to be mindful of your surroundings and belongings. That said, I found the Filipinos to be a friendly and engaging people and encourage you to find that out for yourself. All in all, one day is sufficient to see what needs to be seen, and if you have more time and care anything about military history, sites such as Corregidor and the military cemeteries will be worth your while.

Conclusion

With so many amazing places to see and visit in Southeast Asia, I would be hard pressed to recommend going out of your way to include Manila. Far more appealing is the resort island of Boracay not far to the south. But if your travels bring you through the Philippine capital, you might as well make the most of it, and a visit to Intramuros and Rizal Park will likely leave you feeling satisfied – without having to push the envelope.

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Mantas Need Showers Too – Diving Nusa Penida

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Me and the Manta, Nusa Penida

It had been over seven years since I had gone scuba diving when I got onto  a speedboat on Bali. I had heard that getting back underwater was like riding a bike, that it would all come back to me – and without all that tiresome pedaling. My destination was the nearby island of Nusa Penida, located about halfway between Bali’s east coast and Lombok. My objective was to see giant manta rays in action.

Getting There

If you’re staying on Bali, a dive trip to Nusa Penida is most easily arranged from the east coast. Many hotels can book you on a tour, and if you’d rather go it alone, just stop in to one of the myriad tour agencies sprinkled around the shopping districts, or even the dive operators’ offices themselves. The aptly-named Manta Point will be one of your options and a two-tank dive should cost you roughly $100-$120 U.S. Chances are, this will be your most expensive tour, so budget accordingly.

My particular operator drove guests to their boat, which was moored at gentle Sanur Beach on the east side of the island. From there it was a choppy 45 minute ride to the hulking silhouette on the horizon.

Nusa Penida

The island of Nusa Penida can also be visited by non-divers as well, but be warned that though there is a nice beach on the southern shore, waves and currents are strong. If you don’t believe me, just look at the towering cliffs being pummeled by spray.

Manta Point is close to the aforementioned spray-pummeled cliffs, and if you made it through the crossing without throwing up, get ready for your breakfast to make a reappearance once your forward motion stops and the boat starts pitching and rolling. I’m quite proud to say I made it to the end of my second dive before my breakfast revisited me.

The Dive

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Soaring together at Manta Point, Nusa Penida

Why are manta rays so consistently found here? It’s because of the existence of what is called a cleaning station. In basic terms, this means that the mantas know that over a certain large dome of coral located here, smaller fish will emerge as they cruise by, ‘cleaning’ them by eating any parasites and dead skin they might be carrying around. This is sort of like a fly-by shower, or drive through cleaning service. It is also a great reason for us to visit, as mantas are usually here in numbers.

Visibility was around 50 feet or so when I splashed down. As promised, my dive training and instincts came back to me as I eagerly peered into the blue. For this I was glad, because when I saw the first of what turned out to be a dozen mantas gracefully swooping around a large coral patch, my only focus was on them.

The site is rather shallow, allowing for long bottom times and plenty of opportunities to see the mantas up close. These particular mantas were at least 12 feet across and the same if not longer from head to tail. It’s quite humbling to be in the presence of animals so much bigger than you. It’s also kind of flattering to know that you’re not the fattest thing in the ocean.

For their part, the mantas are rather undisturbed by the daily presence of divers, and on several occasions I got very close – almost so that I could touch one – though I would heartily recommend that you avoid doing that. They may not eat you, but these are wild animals all the same. Content yourself with a bucket list experience of observing these majestic creatures up close, and for everyone’s sake keep your hands to yourself.

The Sideshow

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Tutrle, Manta Point, Nusa Penida

With a dozen mantas swirling around you, it’s hard to drag your attention away. But if you do, you will not only see swarms of colorful fish darting around various types of coral, but other denizens of the deep like turtles, stingrays, and if you’re truly fortunate, a mola mola, or ocean sunfish (think a fish, dinosaur and dinner plate all fused together).

Good to Know

Besides the potential of seasickness, be aware that currents are often strong. In practical terms, that means that you will be exerting lots of energy as the wave action pulls and pushes you (and the mantas) back and forth. It is not an easy dive by any means. You will come up tired, nauseous, and likely low on air, but if you are dive certified, thinking of becoming dive certified, and are planning a trip to Bali, you will not regret a trip out to Nusa Penida and back. Take comfort in knowing that you can take your own shower at your hotel.

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Mantas everywhere

 

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