I. Out of Thailand

Are these transpacific flights getting longer and the seats smaller? It sure seems so. A LONG trip over. JAX-MEM-NRT-BKK. I get cheated out of an upgrade on the Memphis to Seattle leg because it counts as part of a Memphis to Tokyo flight with "an equipment change." On the video screen Northwest is attempting to battle economy class syndrome by demonstrating exercises for sardines in a can. Come on, is wiggling your fingers and rolling your neck really going to prevent deep vein thrombosis

As usual, at least half of the other passengers are Asians, a good number of whom appear to be students heading home for Christmas break. At least they are small, quiet, and well-behaved. No 300 pounders, aisle loiterers, complainers, or screaming kids. Three unspeakably bad movies for entertainment. It's amazing how some people can just stare forward for 12 hours.

An aviation first (for me): an all gal crew. Good thing they have a relief crew so non-affirmative action pilots will be landing the plane. Once out over the Pacific we pass the jurisdictional limits of the anti-peanut nazis, so we can have proper snax with our drinks.

Transferring passengers are rescreened in Tokyo. This was the previous practice, but nowadays, the cute girls in uniforms and perky hats are assisted by men. They still are unfailingly polite. At the x-ray, all loose objects are placed in trays which are then covered to prevent anything from getting lost. Contrast that with the innumerable reports of thieving X-ray screeners in the US.

The scheduled layover is less than, and we arrive late. When I get to the gate for the Bangkok flight, I see a sign requesting volunteers. Alas, I am too late. No upgrade either.

Arrival is at midnight, Friday night. Last time when I landed at this hour the temperature was 90?. This time it's a balmy 79?. I check into my perfectly acceptable hotel ($21.50 including breakfast.) It's a once upscale, but now tired, hotel, but well located in the Siam Square area, a big shopping district.

Saturday morning I pop by the malls. It's 10 days before Christmas but I don't see many shoppers, and even fewer buyers. I congratulate myself on having the foresight to bring my soon to expire European currency. The exchange booth at the mall has decent rates and no commission. I get rid of my French francs, my Belgian francs, and my German marks, but they won't take pesetas or drachmas. Not enough Spanish and Greek tourists, I guess. Siam Square is also the movie district but all screens are showing either Harry Potter or Monsters, Inc. both of which I've already seen. (Grades: Harry Potter, B; Monsters, Inc., A-.)

There is considerably more activity at Pantip Plaza, a seven floor computer and pirate software mall. A DVD of any movie you want, $2. Well, actually not any movie, Harry Potter and Monsters, Inc. cost $4.

When I was first in Bangkok three years ago, they were working on the skytrain, an elevated, automated train ala Disney World. (Jacksonville has one, enabling the bums can ride between the rescue mission and the Salvation Army and panhandling points in between in comfort.) It's been open for two years now, but having ridership problems. It is way too expensive for the locals: fares run 25? to $1.00, many times more than the bus and about half cost of a taxi. I see that it goes to the big weekend market, where I haven't been. For me, 70? for a 12 minute trip vs. a one hour bus ride is a no-brainer.

I find the missing shoppers -- the market is a seething mass of humanity. And it is enormous. There are four basic categories: food; clothes; stuff; and junk. There are lots of foreigners loading up on junk. They are paying more than it would cost to buy the same items in an air conditioned mall, but then they would be missing out on the bargaining experience. There are supposed to be exotic animals for sale, but all I see is laundry baskets full of puppies. (Not for dinner -- they don't eat dogs in Thailand.) The savvy local merchants are covering both bets: you have a choice of Osama Bin Laden as hero T-shirts or Osama face in a bullseye.

I don't buy anything. Is it the Buddhist influence taking hold, eschewing worldly possessions? Or is it that I have enough stuff already? Probably the latter. Plus, it's the beginning of the trip and I already have plenty to lug around for the next two weeks

Internet connection is 70? an hour and reasonably fast. The only drawback is that the place is also a computer game parlor. A few tourists silently tapping away while in front dozens of kids are blasting away at various bad guys, enemies and aliens at full volume. It sounds like the siege of Tora Bora. Next to me an attractive Thai lass is writing to a long list of names. She asks me a spelling question and I look at her screen. She is sending electronic missives of love containing passionate declarations of devotion coupled with demands that the monthly checks keep coming.

On Sunday I transfer to the joining hotel located on Khao San Road, backpacker central. The dump I am staying in would be $5/night in any other part of town. I decide to escape and head to Vinanmeak Mansion, a Victorian era royal residence now museum. Its claim to fame: it is the "largest Golden Teak building in the world." (Gosh! Bigger than those found in Moscow or New York?) Outbuildings exhibit gifts to the king. Clinton's gift: a book of photographs of jazz musicians. His Fraudulency probably was unable to sell it for campaign contributions or donations to his legal defense fund so gave it to His Majesty.

I return to the hotel around dusk to find an elephant parked in front. Not just any elephant, but one with a 6 ft. menorah on his back. The Lubavitcher Chabad House is across the street. They light the giant candles, then, in traditional Thai Hanukkah fashion, parade Jumbo through the streets.

That night the group meets up. We are nine: 1 Dutch, 2 Scots, the rest assorted Ozzies and Kiwis. Ozzie leader, The gal from Glasgow sounds like an cast member from Trainspotting -- I can't understand a word. The Scotsman who now lives in London serves as our interpreter.

On Monday we take a bus to Trat, 160 miles to the southeast. It's the last town before the border and the jumping off point for Cambodia. We stay at a small, friendly guest house.

Not much happening in Trat. It's a quiet night, which is just as well since we depart Tuesday at 5:00 am. It a 1 1/2 hr. ride to the border in a pickup truck. When the back starts looking kind of full. I volunteer to ride in up front in the cab. The crossing opens at 7:00 am and we need to be there on time in order to catch the 8:00 boat to Sihanoukville.

The border crossing is what you would expect between not so friendly neighbors: lots of barbed wire and soldiers. On the Thai side a long line of hand carts loaded with produce wait for the gates to open. An equally long line of people can be seen on the Cambodian side. The first through are school kids in uniform coming over to school in Thailand. Beats me what the story is there. Thai customs subjects us to an exit baggage search. Actually, it's more like a zipper inspection: the guy slides the zipper open, and then closes it. No inspection at all on the Cambodian side.


II. Everything's a Dollar

Small open boats take us across a wide estuary to Koh Kung where the big boat awaits. It looks like a jetboat/hydrofoil. The choice is between freezing in the overly air conditioned cabin or getting broiled and windblasted out on deck. It's a four hour ride to Sihanoukville. It is possible to travel overland, but the road is so bad the journey takes at least 12 hours. The water is as smooth as glass, although on some days it can be very rough. Per my trusty GPS, cruising speed is 25 mph. The fare of $15 excludes anyone but foreigners. Another first: Russian tourists -- 2 girls dressed like hookers tottering around on high heels.

Sihanoukville, port city of Cambodia, was founded in 1964; before that all goods came up the Mekong from Vietnam. For 30 years it did a nice business landing arms for first the Vietcong, then the Lon Nol regime, then the Khmer rouge, and then the Vietnamese occupiers. These days the traffic is aid shipments

It is a quiet, unassuming place located on a peninsula with a downtown inland from the beaches. We stay in a nice little hotel close to the beach. It's called the Orchid Guest House and lives up to its name. The front of the place is an orchidarium.

The afternoon schedule is a bush walk. We begin by crossing over a rickety stilt bridge built of poles that shakes like an earthquake. The walk along the beach and through the jungle are OK, but the rest of the scenery is unexceptional. We are warned to keep an eye out for snakes: in Cambodia there are 33 kinds of snakes, 31 of which are poisonous. Near the beach are large areas with concrete enclosing nothing but scrub. The explanation: land tenure in Cambodia is by squatter's rights. If you can enclose and defend the property, it's yours. Local people can afford to do neither. Those that can -- government and army officials -- have scarfed up all the prime sites for future development.

The walk is pretty pointless,. Afterwards we take a canoe ride through the mangroves for dinner at a tiny village. About six huts. Cute kids, pigs wandering loose, etc. These folks are unspoiled by tourism. They have nothing. We bring the food.

The next day, Wednesday, we go out on a boat to a nearby island. It is billed as a wet landing, which in this case means jumping overboard into 10 ft. of water and swimming to the beach. Or what would be the beach if it were not high tide. When the ebbing tide finally exposes a couple of feet of wet sand, we are introduced to the sand lice. That, along with the broiling sun and complete absence of shade, makes for a miserable experience.


 We come back in to port just as the fishing fleet is heading out. Dozens of vessels form a line. As they pass the harbor police outposts a net is extended into which they place their daily contribution. We do not participate because our boat makes its payoff to the police on a monthly basis.

The Cambodian economy is completely dollarized. There is a local currency, the real, which is anything but. Actually, these days its value is stable, but it is only used as small change. Greenbacks rule -- everything is priced and all transactions are in dollars, including admission to government museums and sites. When you buy stamps at the post office, the postage is denominated in reals, but you pay in dollars. Even the local people buying food in the market use dollars.

The reason that the real is stable is the flood of aid money. Apart from a bit of tourism, the entire economy consists of transfer payments -- administering them, skimming them, and scamming them. Nothing is manufactured or exported; everything is imported or, more likely, smuggled. The result is Cambodia is far and away the most expensive country in southeast Asia. You pay twice as much for half of much as anywhere else.

The corrosive influence of the dollars is very evident. Real jobs are few and salaries are low. Everyone is trying to make the easy buck. Quite literally. Everything is a dollar. No matter what you want to buy or do, the quoted price (for tourists) is a dollar. On smaller items the price is 2 for a dollar or 3 for a dollar, and so forth.

There are swarms of motorscooters in front of every hotel and restaurant hoping to charge a tourist a dollar for the one mile ride into town. (For that same dollar you can take a metered taxi half way across Bangkok.) Why work as a school teacher or a laborer for $20 a month if you can hustle a tourist into paying you $5 for a one hour tour around town? It is completely inimical to the work ethic. That is why the road is buzzing with scooters cruising endlessly. Walking into town I am asked every five steps whether I want a "moto." No matter what the distance, the price is still a dollar.

Thai food and Vietnamese food are both distinctive and world renowned, but there is no real Cambodian cuisine. The verb "to eat" translates into "to eat rice." The food is palatable, and the fresh seafood is very good. There's no trick to ordering since the menus are only in English. (A reliable rule: anyone who doesn't know English cannot afford to eat in a restaurant.) But one does needs to learn the pronunciation difference between Angkor beer (Cambodian, $1) and Anchor beer (from Singapore, also $1).

The third day is a free day. I explore a bit. The market is very relaxed and on a human scale -- no tourists. Some of the buildings in town still in ruins from the war. The 7 story Independence Hotel looks like it belongs in downtown Beirut (or do we now say downtown Kabul?). I spend the afternoon at the beach. Very nice. All agree that this day is better than the previous one at the island


III. Tripping Lightly Through The Killing Fields

On Friday we take the bus to Phnom Penh. Thanks to competition, he buses are clean, comfortable and on schedule. The highway is first class, having been recently rebuilt by U.S. taxpayers. There's not much along the way. Population statistics: 1975, 5-7 million; in 1980, 4-5 million; 2000, 9-10 million. The numbers are variable and unreliable for two reasons: there was no real census, just estimates; manipulation of results for political purposes (just like with "the homeless" in the U.S.).

Despite the good road, it takes four hours to drive to Phnom Penh. The driver takes it slow. Everything is slow, even in the city. This is not a hustling country.

The change from country to city is gradual. There was not a whole lot of infrastructure before, and the Khmer Rouge did a pretty good job of wrecking that. Only the main roads are paved. The longest street is Mao Tse Tung Blvd., which was paved by the Chinese. As governments change so do the street names. I don't see a Ho Chi Minh St. or de Gaulle Blvd., although I am sure they could found on an earlier map. You won't find too many places outside Korea with a Kim Il Sung Blvd., but they got one here just waiting for a new donor. If we sent them some asphalt, I am sure that they would be pleased to rename it George W. Bush Blvd.

Former colonial mansions are now occupied by government ministries and various NGOs. Our hotel, the former court of appeals, is directly across from the royal palace. It's full of atmosphere, but not real modern. Also, they only have one set of towels, which they sent out to laundry in morning and don't get them back until the evening, so don't plan to shower during the daytime. I have no doubt that someday after a few million dollars of refurbishment it will be a great $300/night place. In the meantime, it is overpriced at $40. The tourist part of the city is pretty much limited to a small area near the river, where the flags of the IMF, World Bank, and Asian Development Bank flutter alongside of various donor nations.

The streets are full of luxury cars belonging to government officials and shiny new Land Cruisers belonging to the NGOs. There are no old cars, but swarms of motorscooters. There are no taxis: locals couldn't afford to take them plus there is too much crime. It's much too dangerous to walk at night except along the quay, so tourists desiring transport are forced to pay Tokyo taxicab prices to hire hotel cars.

The hassle factor is high. There are many, many beggars and amputees, but not many targets. It's a bit deceptive -- there are zillions at the few tourist sights, and none nowhere else. (You can't make a living begging from poor people.) The amount requested: $1.

Phnom Penh is not the wide open place it used to be, but the firing range near the airport will let you try out rocket launchers ($200) and grenades ($10) as well as the more prosaic AK-47s and M-16s ($1/round). These days you are limited to paper targets -- you can no longer shoot at cows. "Casinos are illegal"; my guide book notes, but "those who think it surprising to find two in the heart of the city are clearly new to Cambodia." Drugs are also illegal, but the "happy herb" at Happy Herb Pizza is marijuana.

A "must do" for tourists is a drink at the Foreign Correspondents Club. It's as phony as a Clinton. Supposedly, the hangout for the hard-bitten journalist crowd, it's nothing but a tourist trap selling t-shirts, baseball caps, watered drinks and absurdly priced food. There's about as much chance of meeting a real foreign correspondent at the FCC as of meeting Mick Jagger at Hard Rock Cafe or Ah-nold at Planet Hollywood. Yet, if you want a seat, you had better get there early.

Saturday we're off to the killing fields. After the Khmer Rouge were chased out in 1979, an area of mass graves was discovered on the outskirts of town. That was where the enemies of the revolution were taken and executed, usually by having their skulls smashed. The skulls have been exhumed and placed on a platforn grouped by estimated age and sex. The platform is now enclosed to protect against the weather. It's all pretty ho hum, but I do buy a "danger, minefield" T-shirt at the gift shop.

Far more interesting is the torture museum in Tuol Sleng prison, a former high school. Twenty thousand went in, seven survived. Everyone educated was suspect, not only political opponents. Prisoners were kept in unspeakable conditions and tortured until they confessed or died. The average stay was 2-4 months before being shipped to the killing fields. After their confessions were recorded on paper, they were taken to the killing fields. Each prisoner was photographed, as were the guards. The photographs line the walls of the cells. The victims are ordinary people of every stripe. The guards were mostly 12-15 year old boys trained to act without conscience. The guy who ran the whole operation, Comrade Duch, is scheduled to come up for trial soon, unless it's delayed again. But he has found Jesus and is now a devout Christian and has repented, so it's all OK.

Other Khmer Rouge officials live in retirement or have government jobs. Twenty-five years of civil war ended when the Khmer Rouge were "absorbed" into the government in 1995. The official and oft-repeated designation for the Khmer Rouge reign is the "Pol Pot time." Everything is blamed on Pol Pot, who is now conveniently dead. He did it all, or so they would like to believe. That way they can avoid facing unpleasant facts such as the ruling Cambodian Peoples Party is merely the renamed Cambodian Communist Party. They have not repudiated its ethos of totalitarianism but, like China, have directed it towards pursuit of profit.

Contrary to popular impression in the west, the Khmer Rouge regime was not a time of mindless mass killing. It was simply an extension of the ideology put into practice by Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Ho. The difference was one of degree: the definition of "class enemy" was expanded, and the Khmer Rouge didn't believe in rehabilitation. Instead of being sent to die slowly in the gulag or in "reeducation" camps, enemies of the revolution were simply killed outright. But not everyone, the rulers needed educated and literate apparatniks to run the system. If they deemed you, useful you lived; otherwise, off to the killing fields you went.

The culprits are, for the most part, still around and living large on international handouts. Surprisingly, there is little or no revenge. The people are tired of war and killing. They tend to take a Buddhist view, and are willing to let punishment be meted out in future incarnations. Plus, this life is short, much time has been lost, and revenge killings earn a 10-20 prison sentence. This "it's time to move on" attitude is one which the present regime has a great self interest in promoting

In the afternoon, we visit the royal palace, which suffered some looting, but is mostly intact. Then, the national museum where all the exhibits should all be relabeled as "stuff from the last time we achieved anything, a thousand years ago.

Dinner is at our guide's house. It is a veritable banquet. The food is bountiful and superb. The building is an interesting place: over 100 years old, it belongs to his father-in-law, and houses 72 people in 5 families (all related). Our dinner is in a large common room. In the Pol Pot time it was used as a security office and during the Vietnamese occupation as a hospital. Is it the ancestral manse now returned to its rightful owners? Hardly. In 1979 after the Khmer rouge were chased out the city was deserted. It was squatter's rights, first come, first served. If the former owner got there second, tough luck. That probably didn't happen too much anyway since anyone who owned property in Phnom Penh was automatically a class enemy and probably went to the killing fields.


IV Angkor What?

Sunday morning we leave at 5:30 am for our flight to Siem Reap. Domestic departure tax $10. Job creation in action: 2 clerks sit side by side at the desk: the first collects your $10 and hand you a receipt; the next guy takes the receipt from you and tears off the stub. At least he didn't ask for a tip. (But if he did, he would expect a dollar.)

Siem Reap, in the northeast, is the gateway to Angkor. From about 800 to 1400, Angkor was the center of the Khmer civilization. The walled city of palaces and temples was larger than anything in Europe. The population is said to have been one million, but, then as now, no one was counting. Accordingly, the ruins and temples spread out over a vast area into what is now jungle. Until recently, it was the heart of Khmer Rouge country. It is still land mine central, although the temple areas have been cleared.

The road from the airport is lined with luxury hotels either owned by or are on land leased from generals and government ministers. Our hotel is not so grand, but is quite decent. After checking in, we head out to the archaeological area.

But first, we need photo IDs for a multiday pass. We have to sit in a straight back chair for a mug shot. Shades of Tuol Sleng! But not to worry, we are essential to the new regime: we have money to spend.

The first temple we visit is just so-so. The second is not much better. The third, Ta Phrom is a winner: totally Indiana Jones, Tomb Raider. Giant strangler fig tree roots engulf the masonry so that the jungle and the temple are one. It's the one you always see in photos, movies, and on tv.

Our leader doesn't want to overload us on temples on the first day, so we visit a school supported by Intrepid (our tour operator). The kids put on a traditional dance show. It's enjoyable to watch. Because they are doing it because they want to and not for tourist dollars, its many shades moe enjoyable than the typical tourist show.

 We continue out to Tonle Sap, the largest lake in southeast Asia. It is a limnological oddity in that it acts as a flood plain for the Mekong hundreds of miles down stream. The Tonle Sap river runs south to the Mekong and drains the lake 6 months of the year; the other 6 months the river runs backwards to fill the lake. The lake area and shoreline fluctuate enormously over the year with the annual flood, and resulting silt depositation led to an agricultural bounty that sustained the Khmer empire.

It's a 20 mile trip to the lake. Along the shore dozens of boats are assembled to transport tourists, but only a handful are engaged. And the ruins are not crowded either. There are supposed to be 2 million foreign visitors to Angkor this year. No way. The hawkers outnumber the tourists 3 to 1.

Aboard our boat, we glide past fishermen and floating villages. Just because you live on the lake doesn't mean you can't keep pigs in a floating sty. During the Pol Pot time the fishermen were barred from plying their trade so that by 1979 the fish were huge. Unfortunately, the big ones have been since caught and they're back to the traditional practice of no fish is too small to eat.

On Monday we visit the big enchilada, Angkor Wat. It lives up to its billing. It is the central temple of Angkor. It's also in much better shape than the others because after the city was abandoned Buddhist monks continued to reside there and helped keep the jungle at bay. Angkor Wat may have been "lost" in the jungle, but was never engulfed by it

Afterwards we visit Angkor Thom, the main city. It is large and spread out. Different buildings are in various stages of decay and partial reconstruction. It mostly prosaic but for the gates and the Bayon, an agglomeration of hundreds of giant carved stone heads. Too bad there was no one else around to give a sense of scale to my pictures.

Finally we climb a nearby hill to watch the sunset. To the east the towers of Angkor Wat rise dramatically from the jungle canopy. We are far from alone. Sunset from the hill is part of the mandatory experience and the hilltop temple ruins hosts the full census of tourists.

Tuesday is Christmas morning. Uncomplainingly, we depart at 5:00 am to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat. We should have stayed in bed. Forget about a red dawn. The sun rises behind the temple, and by the time the solar disk emerges it is high and burning white hot. Because of the intense backlighting, photography is hopeless; at no time can any detail in the temple be discerned. Then we go bouncing along some terrible road for an hour to get to an outlying temple, this one made of pink sandstone, which would be OK if it were across the street.

Siem Reap having been the heart of Khmer Rouge country, for many years people were concerned that the temples of Angkor would fall be wrecked (they are already ruins). Although there are bullet pockmarks evident in some places, there was very little actual fighting in the area, so the monuments are largely unscathed. One temple had been disassembled by French archeologists in order to reconstruct it, but the plans were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. For over 15 years the blocks constituted the world largest jigsaw puzzle, but with the aid of computers and a couple of years work they have figured it out and are now reassembling it.

The area was heavily mined. Even now visitors are warned not to stray from the path. It is estimated that some 10 million mines were laid in Cambodia, of which 3 million are left. In addition to many amputees, it has created the third pillar of the Cambodian economy: mine disposal.

There are several ways to clear landmines. One way is to run a herd of cows through the suspected field. If there are any mines, you soon find out. You then finish off the wounded animal and take it to the butcher. Another way is to walk along with a wooden rod probing the ground at an angle (so as not to trigger the pressure switch on top). When you locate a mine, you carefully pick it up and unscrew the fuse. It then is safe. No special equipment needed, no big budget. That is how the guy who runs the mine museum in Siem Reap has personally found and removed 10,000 mines.

A third way is to bring in highly paid experts from the west and give them big trucks and fancy equipment. They then stand behind shields probing every inch of ground with slender rods while dressed in flack suits. That is the way the Halo Trust (the Princess Di charity) does it. When a mine is found explosives are attached and it is detonated in place. Big budget, big employment. The freelance guy does not enjoy government favor.

It being Christmas, we have taken up a collection and purchased some sports equipment for the school. In the afternoon, we go out to deliver it. These kids are genuinely thrilled and overjoyed at having volley balls, soccer balls, and badminton sets to play with. Previously, they had none.

On Wednesday morning it's back to Phnom Penh. The weenies take the plane. The true adventurers ignore the travel advisories and opt for the boat. These days there is little danger of getting shot, but the boats are prone to breakdowns and running aground.

It's another jet boat. This time we get up to about 33 mph. It's a five hour trip down the lake and river. At first, only tourists get on, but at the last minute a bunch of locals board. I am sure they didn't pay the full $25 fare. The trip is uneventful but very scenic.

I catch up on local news from the Cambodian Daily:

? Prime Minister/President/Maximum Leader/Generalissimo Hung Sen has proposed using tanks to flatten karaoke parlours as a public nuisance. (Seems like a good idea to me.)

? In Viet Nam officials are cracking down on nude karaoke bars. (Too bad. Sounds like they have found a way to make karaoke bearable.)

? The rival Evening News, published by the Cambodian Peoples Party, is ceasing publication. (What a surprise! Who would have thought there wouldn't be a market for an English language house organ for government propaganda and press releases.)

? A TV commercial for a breast enhancing pill has been banned because it "degrades women." (Puritanical commie holdovers! They are probably don't just want their womenfolk to have bigger boobs.)

V. It's All About Me

Thursday we drive to the Vietnamese border. The road is terrible. It is like being in a paint shaker. It takes us 6 hours to cover 100 miles.

We have crossing from the land of smiles to the land of glowering looks (at least at the border post). Another customs inspection: the first two people in line have to empty their bags; the rest of us get a zipper check.

Cambodia is poor and laid-back. Vietnam is also poor, but industriously working to become less so. Unlike its neighbor, in Vietnam the land intensively cultivated, economic activity abounds, the streets are crowded with traffic, the rooftops are forests of TV antennae, and the roads are good. Vietnamese peasants sport conical hats instead of the head scarves worn by the Khmers.

We stop for the night in Tay Ninh. Our Russian designed and built hotel looks like a cross between a conference center and a prison, constructed of vast slabs of now-mildewed concrete. Soviet (lack of) craftsmanship throughout. The waste basket in my room has a very tropical theme: a horse drawn sleigh.

We stop for the night in Tay Ninh. Our Russian designed and built hotel looks like a cross between a conference center and a prison, constructed of vast slabs of now-mildewed concrete. Soviet (lack of) craftsmanship throughout. The waste basket in my room has a very tropical theme: a horse drawn sleigh.

I am starving, so I pop into the restaurant next door. They don't speak a word of English, so I play it safe and order rice ("cam"). Only later do I learn that the word "kangaroo" on the menu means just that. There I was eating plain rice when I could have sampled an extensive selection of marsupial dishes from Down Under.

We are off to Black Lady Mountain, a solitary granite peak which dominates the otherwise flat terrain. During the war, there were US observers at the summit, an ARVN base at the bottom, and VC in the caves in between. These days we don't need to chopper up to the top; a cable car has been constructed. Knowing that they like to be self reliant, I wonder on the way up if this is version 1.0 from the Vietnam Cable Car Company. It's with a bit of relief at the top when I spot a placard showing Swiss manufacture.

Afterwards, we visit the Cao Dai, the home-grown sect with six million adherents who venerate Julius Ceasar, Victor Hugo, an Sun Yat Sen. They are as weird as ever. I think the Catholics should take a cue and use more neon in their churches. And colorful party hats. At the conclusion of the service the berobed acolytes exit the temple, light up their fags, and zoom off on motorbikes. We head to a pho shop. There is only one thing on the menu, and it's not kangaroo. I'm not very hungry, but at 30? I can't go wrong. The pho, a traditional Vietnamese rice, noodle, vegetable, and beef soup is quite good.

The next day we continue on to the Cu Chi tunnels, another repeat for me. The exhibit is getting tired. They are still showing the same 1967 black and white propaganda film with the worn out soundtrack. The guides are unenthusiastic. The problem is that the over 60% of the people have been born since "The American War" do not want to dwell on the past, especially when it is obvious that American culture has triumphed. But I do learn something new: in Vietnamese, the word for American is My, pronounced "me." Accordingly, it is entirely accurate to say that when I visit these war exhibits it's "all about me."

We continue south into the Delta, where we are to spend the night. To get to our homestay we travel on three boats, each progressively smaller. After crossing the mighty Mekong into Ben Tre Province, we stop a coconut candy factory. I thought it was going to be one of those fudge-factory-type tourist traps, but to my surprise the stuff they produce is unique and good. We all buy some. The amazing thing is that everything is done by hand, from squeezing the coconut flesh in a press, to chopping the candy into squares, to wrapping it, to packaging it. The final assenbaly line looks like the famous "I Love Lucy" episode in which Lucy and Ethel go to work in a candy factory.

Dinner is superb, consisting of local seafood and produce. Although we sleep in a bamboo hut, we have cots and mosquito nets, and there is electricity and flush toilets. Near the dock is a muc nung factory. That's where they make the fish sauce which is an essential ingredient of Vietnamese cuisine. It is used as a marinade, is served with everything, and it is really quite tasty. However, the place were it is made smells like a combination tannery, rendering plant, sewage treatment facility and fish market offal heap. I attempt to approach the rotting fish in the tank to take a picture, but am unable to hold my breath long enough.

On Saturday, the last day of the tour, we drive into Saigon. It takes a long time to get through the city traffic. The official population is 5 million, but unofficially 8 million.  The population of Vietnam has soared past 90 million.

We take a pedicab (bicycle rickshaw) tour which ends at the War Remnants Museum (f/k/a the American War Crimes Museum). The name may have been changed, but the exhibits haven't. My favorite gallery shows "international support" for the war, consisting of propaganda from regimes now on the dustheap of history. Not surprisingly, the visitors are 100% foreign tourists, no locals. Maybe a branch of the Tuol Sleng museum could be opened next door to illustrate the practical application of the victor's ideology.

My last act, other than loading up on counterfeit Raybans at the market, is to purchase a ticket for Bangkok. I have often read that buying a one-way ticket for cash the day before a flight gets one on the terrorist suspect list. I guess I'll find out. I am piqued by the $5 "security charge" added to the price of the ticket. Security is what you are supposed to already have in a totalitarian society, the benefit received in exchange for lack of freedom.

Sunday is departure day. Unemployment must be pretty bad: a sign in the taxi on the way to the airport: "Please do not pay in case taxi meter is out of work."

At the airport, no strip search, no barium enema, but an hour-long queue at passport control. None of the planes can leave on time because the passengers have been ticketed, checked in, and their luggage loaded, but are waiting for bored and indifferent clerks to stamp their passports. The flight itself is fine. Back to Bangkok, a decent hotel, and a long flight home.

Trip date: December 2001