Backpacking Teacher

Travel, teaching and things in between. Saigon is the focus for now.

Archive for June 2009

Paris: Charles de Gaul Airport by TGV to Biarritz

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Arrived at Paris CDG airport – what an airport, efficient, clean, bright and, dare I say friendly, the antithesis of Heathrow.

The TGV station is in the same terminal (2) as Vietnam airlines so a short walk, a quick line up and I’d collected my tickets to get to Biarritz. I’m planning to get off at Bayonne to catch a local train to my jumping off point.

I’m now on the TGV which is comfortable, and in which I hear a multitude of languages being spoken. As you can see from the photo below my seat companion doesn’t look the friendliest of fellows. Next stop Bayonne,



On the connecting TGV to Bayonne I spot the first indicator that I’m on the Camino de Santiago, a backpack sporting a shell. The shell is an indicator of a pilgrim on the journey to Santiago de Compostela.


I’ve had a lot of luck with connections. At Bayonne a few minutes saw me catching the connecting train to St Jean Pied de Port. And then … it hit me … sitting on my backpack on the floor as if I was in an old sub-continent rattler I looked up to see pilgrims, pilgrims and more pilgrims. I can see there ain’t gonna be much solitude on this trek.


— Posted from my phone

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June 30, 2009 at 7:08 pm

Waiting on a flight: Saigon to Paris

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Ah Saigon airport and it’s horrendously priced Illy coffee. I quite like the airport here, it’s small, clean and friendly. There’s not much to do but the coffee, though expensive, is decent.

I’ve just checked in – total weight 8.5kg which I think isn’t too bad. About a 1kg of that is trail food, nuts & muesli bars which I’ll wittle down. I will have to add water though so walking weight is close to 10kg. No doubt that’ll soon feel like 100kg 😉


Well about 30 hours or so I should be in St Jean Pied De Port and, all going well, the next morning I’ll be on the Camino. Can’t wait!
— Posted from my phone

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June 30, 2009 at 6:59 am

The journey starts at Notre Dame Cathedral in Saigon

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I fly out later tonight and am now busily transferring money at the bank. Earlier this morning I played tennis with friends then headed off into town to meet a friend before going to the Dutch consulate to see if I could get my Dutch passport renewed.

We’d arranged to meet at the nearby Notre Dame cathedral, a Saigon landmark. I took the opportunity to go inside – it somehow seemed fitting that on this day that I headed off to do the Camino de Santiago. I parked my bike, circled the high red brick walls, wound my way round the rosary seller, dropped some money in the donation box then looked around. Once again I found myself enjoying the peace, the calm that pervades churches. Last night when I put my pack on reality began to set in but today I felt, in that brief visit to the cathedral, that my journey had begun.



— Posted from my phone

In Saigon planning for a long walk across Spain – El Camino de Santiago de Compostela

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So here I am having a coffee and looking down on Saigon’s Le Loi street towards the Opera House. I’ve spent the morning looking for trekking gear. A smallish trekking shop in the backpacker district of Pham Ngu Lao got me a fleece, some shirts and trousers but the two key things I need, trekking socks and a lightweight sleeping bag, still elude me in Saigon.

In any case I’m not too concerned after all part of the el Camino Frances (the name if the particular route I’ll be taking) is overcoming challenges. I’m sure I’ll manage to pick up what I need in the jumping off town for the trek St. John Pied de Port.

Time for me to head off for lunches and dinners with departing friends. Did I mention school’s out and all the teachers are scattering in the wind across the globe. I love my job 🙂

I’m also using this post to check out a new iPhone app that will, hopefully, allow me to blog while I’m on the long walk.

— Posted from my phone

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June 28, 2009 at 1:58 am

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I’m excited about an 800km walk

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I’ve just had a blinding urge, not sure exactly why, to go and walk 800km. This isn’t normal I know ……but it’s been something I’ve been thinking about for a while and had begun (in my head) to plan for … next year. Then suddenly this weekend I realised that this year might be my best opportunity to take this walk as next year I still don’t know what I’m doing and I may just as easily return to Oz as stay in Saigon. I’m not usually given to such bold spur of the moment decisions (although I’ve hardly shirked from big decisions in my life) but I honestly feel like this is something that I need to do.

The 800km walk I’m talking about. Well, it’s called the Camino de Santiago de Compostela and is something I’ve always wanted to do since a good friend of mine waxed lyrical about it after he’d done it a few years back. A quick synopsis of the trip is that I will, if I can arrange flights at such a late stage, fly from Saigon to Paris, take trains from there down to Southern France and to a town at the base of the Pyrenees called St. Jean Pied de Port. From there I will walk across the Pyrenees into Spain. Crossing Spain I would hope to be able to walk through the towns of Pamplona, Burgos and Leon before finally arriving, some 30 days later, in Santiago de Compostela. The trip is an old pilgrimage route that still serves pilgrims. Not being religious this isn’t my reason for going, though I do enjoy religious symbolism and have some affinity for Catholicism, I’m going because it sounds like a test of character and, dare I say, something that sounds good for the soul.

I know I’m crazy. I’ve done no training. I have no real trekking gear and little chance of finding it in Saigon in six days. I have no real plans beyond getting to Paris and then figuring it our from there. I may not even be able to book the flights ….. but I am stoked (that means excited for the non-Australian’s amongst you). I cannot wait …..I will genuinely miss not going back to Oz to see family and friends this holiday but I will see them at Christmas. A pilgrimage calls …whooo hooo.

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June 22, 2009 at 9:16 pm

Phnom Penh – West of Saigon and slightly wilder

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Phnom Penh has this reputation as being slightly wild west’ish. It has a reputation for unbridled corruption, girly bars, gary glitter expats, locals with guns and other assorted depravities and vices. What many people fail to mention is that while some of the above may exist in The Penh it’s easily avoided and hardly indicative of this charming town.

I sat atop a puttering boat on the Ton Le Sap river, drinking a few beers with friends watching Phnom Penh drift by. Sipping my Beer Lao I watched tiny Mekong style boats throw out fishing nets. Father to steer the boat, mother to unfold the nets into the muddy water and youngster to get in everyone’s way. Rounding the bend we came across a little fishing village, with it’s corrugated shanty town type roofs and wooden quays for boats to tie up. Across the river and into an eclectic little bar, officially called Maxines but more well known as Snowy’s place, named after the Australian owner, artist, long time PP expat and all round easy going guy with good music and a cosy bar anyone would love to own. The sun set and the lights across in Phnom Penh flickered on and cast their shadow puppet like rays on the shifting waters. A dinner that night riverside with dancers who look like they’ve just fallen off the wall of Angkor Wat and come to life. I marvel at the lithe dexterity of this flower holding beauty as I dig into my meal of water buffalo. A 45 minute flight from Saigon but I felt a world away.

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And then again the next day I felt a world away again as I viewed big skulls, medium skulls, tiny skulls, their jaw bones missing, craniums caved in and teeth missing all piled atop another in a gruesome yet affecting memorial to the victims of the Khmer Rouge. I wondered at the skulls, the eyeless staring sockets, the empty places where noses are meant to be. How could there be so many. So many in one place and there were many places like this. When I say this ….I mean a killing field. Just outside of Phnom Penh, a tourist tuk-tuk ride away another tourist site to be visited until you see the skulls. There are layers of skulls in this museum to the dead and all I can think of is wishing they’d stay buried….but then perhaps it wouldn’t feel so real. It suddenly makes the overheard tour guides story of babies being beaten to death by being swung against a nearby tree feel less like a story and more real …..and yet …..so unreal …could someone really do that I kept thinking. I guess the evidence was before me.

I returned to town, my thoughts washed away by a brief turn through the Russian market with it’s freshly slaughtered animals and beheaded fish with tails still flapping. Walking along the street I stop at a street vendor’s to look at the fried spiders a friend had told me to try (she’d even claimed they were delicious). I looked and looked and looked …. I thought about it, thought about it some more and finally … I just chickened out and walked on …I didn’t even try the snake on a stick, the handfuls of maggots, the fried cockroaches or even the thumb sized grasshoppers …I leave slightly disappointed in myself …here I was determined to have new experiences and there (on a stick even) was a new experience and I just passed it by …..

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phnom penh 046 Later I sat with friends in the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) and watched the river float by while we downed gin and tonics. I doubt the club sees many journalists today ….perhaps they ought to rename it the NGO Club for that’s what most expats here do. A town full of people who work hard all day, party and eat well at night, get frustrated at corruption that’s endemic and soul destroying but return to work the next day. They’re a stubborn, hopeful bunch these NGO’s and while they sometimes despair it’s clear to the visitor that Phnom Penh is the better for their presence. I think these things as I sit in a leather seat and watch an elephant trundle past down below.

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It’s a great little town is PP. It’s not quite the wild west but it is undeniably interesting, relaxing and thought provoking. I heartily recommend a visit.

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June 2, 2009 at 11:30 pm