‘BURMA’

December 1, 2011

IN 2010 I travelled to Burma on holiday, to see for myself a country that had intrigued me for many years.

Riding in a ‘bicycle side-car’, Burma 2010

Growing up in Australia, viewers were lucky to see several minutes a month on the Government funded ABC (Australian Broadcast Corporation) nightly news devoted to coverage of Burma and the antics of its military rulers. The commercial networks, never touched it.

I decided to become a cameraman-journalist after reading a biography about an adventurous Australian journalist named Neil Davis. Davis was renowned for his coverage of the Vietnam War and filming the North Vietnamese tanks as they rolled through the gates at Saigon’s then Presidential Palace.

For me, the trip to Burma was in small part an attempt to follow in Davis’ footsteps. It was an Asian country, ruled by a military dictatorship and shut-off from the world. When Cyclone Nargis hit Burma in 2008, flooding the Ayeyarwady Delta, killing thousands of people  and left two million people without shelter – the military Government prevented foreign aid agencies from entering the country. After seeing ‘Monk’ protesters brutally attacked in 2007 and now Cyclone Nargis, I knew I had to go and see Burma for myself.

I entered Myanmar via AirAsia on a direct one hour flight from Bangkok. With my occupation, ‘carpenter’ written in my arrival card, my passport was stamped and I walked out into a muggy Friday afternoon with $500 US cash in my pocket. Although it was 2010, there were no ATM’s or credit card facilities in the country – so budgeting was key.

‘Breakfast’ – Sei Taing Kya Teashop

As I say in the video piece above – it was like stepping back into the 1980’s. There had been no foreign western investment in the country for almost three decades and it showed. No Coca-Cola or McDonald’s – it was a rare sight.

I like a can of Coke just like the other guy, but it was refreshing to see the virgin landscape free of commercialism. The downside is locals pay for it. No foreign investment meant the average Burmese had no chance of improving their standard of living. I met many friendly Yangon residents who shared a ‘Burmese Tea’ with me and never once complained about their predicament.

Two months after my trip, an election was held and it was won by former military leaders who had simply removed they uniforms to become instant honorable civilians. A week or so later, famed Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and as I write,

Crossing a river – near Ngwe Saung Beach, Burma 2010

Ms Suu Kyi in preparing to host a meeting with United States Sectary Of State Hillary Clinton.

In preparing for my trip to Burma I purchased a Lonely Planet edition about Myanmar (Burma). I was taken aback while reading a section called ‘TO GO OR NOT TO GO’ which suggested ‘you’ should ‘rethink’ your planned trip to Burma. The main argument was that it was highly likely 20% of your spending would go into the pockets of the military junta. What about the 80% which would go directly to locals? I’ve since folded that page in half.

A few years ago there was a travel commercial on local television promoting the Northern Territory of Australia as a holiday destination. The catch phrase was – “If you never never go, you’ll never never know.” That’s my advice about Burma – take a chance or you’ll never know.

Go have a look for yourself.

 

 

 

 

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‘CHEAP CHARLIE’

April 30, 2010

‘Uc dai loi, Cheap Charlie .. He no buy me Saigon tea ..’ is the first verse of a song sang in Vietnam by Australian soldiers and bar girls going about their trade.‘.. Saigon tea costs many

'Long Tan Memorial'

'Long Tan Memorial Cross'

many P … Uc dai loi he Cheap Charlie ..’. It was with this song running around in my head, that I made my own‘Cheap Charlie’ dash from Vung Tau to the site of the Australian war time base at Nui Dat and the memorial cross at Long Tan.

Long Tan – two words etched into ANZAC folk law alongside names like Gallipoli, Fromelle, Changi and Kokoda.

I visited Gallipoli in 1997 and being in Ho Chi Minh City earlier this month, I felt the same attraction to see Long Tan – the site of our bloodiest battle during the Vietnam War.

It was a ‘Cheap Charlie’ trip because I didn’t want to take the official $48US Long Tan tour. (Four hours departing at eight o’clock, air-conditioned coach, lunch included along with a collectors edition embroided hat!!!) It wasn’t the money, I just wanted to see and experience Long Tan at my pace. I’d read online that the Long Tan Memorial was on a private property and access is granted only with an official guide. But, I thought: “..this is Vietnam, I’ll take my chances”.

So, arriving in Vung Tau by hydrofoil from Ho Chi Minh City I first rented a motorbike for 200,000 Dong ($11US) and enquired with the taxi drivers about Long Tan? Immediately a guy said Australian soldier’s, then a moto-taxi driver named Trin said he knew where it was and in two minutes we’d negotiated a private tour for 300,000 Dong ($16US). Then we were off … on a ‘Cheap Charlie’ run, without the limited edition hat and no time limits.

Site of the former Australian Army Base at Nui Dat, Vietnam

'Nui Dat' - site of the 1st Australian Task Force base

Thumping along at 50 to 60 kilometres an hour, passing the scenery not too unlike the diggers would have seen minus the paved roads and satellite dishes, in around 45 minutes we’d covered the 30 kilometres to Nui Dat. Now open fields and rubber plantations, there isn’t much to see. Two brown brick columns mark the entrance to the old Australian base. Buried in rubber trees are a couple of brick bunkers and gun emplacements. Trin said later, a cement company called ‘Long Dat Cement’ now owns the area. He says the plan is to remove the soil and gravel to manufacture cement.

Several kilometres away is the Long Tan battlefield.

Riding on, navigating the dirt tracks .. crossing the former base and 20 minutes later a large sign appears in the distance – ‘THAP TU GIA LONG TAN’ – with an arrow pointing to the left it says ‘Long Tan Cross’. The area is rubber plantation country – trees as far as the eye can see. A few minutes along another dirt road and Trin pulls over – pointing into the trees he says: ‘there .. there it is’. 150 metres from the road, is a lone white cross standing tall protected by a metal chain barrier, concrete wall and gate – surrounded by thousands of rubber trees.

Once the bikes are turned off – deep in the middle of the rubber plantation it’s dead quite and in an odd way peaceful. Trin, in broken English says: ‘.. many fighters .. Long Tan fighters .. many were Nui Dat and then Long Tan here .. VC here and ‘Uc dai lam’ (Australian) Army over there .. fighting you know .. boom boom boom .. very very sad .. before .. very sad’. I invite Trin to join us at the memorial, but he declines. Either he’d seen it one time to many or it just wasn’t his thing, it’s a memorial to foreign soldiers.

'Long Tan On Two Wheels'

'Long Tan On Two Wheels'

Walking the short distance from the road, my mind began to think about what the men on both sides went through that afternoon in August 1966. Where did they hide? Did they cover behind that tree or in that ditch? Officially, 108 diggers including three New Zealander’s from D Company 6RAR repelled attack after attack of between 700 and 1500 Viet Cong soldiers. For five hours, frightened, staring death down a gun barrel – they fought for their lives until reinforcements arrived from Nui Dat as night fell on the battlefield.

18 Australian’s were killed during the battle – all between 19 and 22 years old. 40 diggers were wounded. Three of the dead were married, the rest single, seven were National Servicemen called up for duty and the 11 other men were volunteers. Estimates to the number of Viet Cong dead range between 47 to 245, the official number. This higher number is disputed by Terry Burstall, a Private who survived the battle. Burstall claims only 47 VC were killed and around 700 North Vietnamese soldiers took part in the battle, half the official account.

But, do the numbers really matter? Saying we killed 29 or 227 more Vietnamese than Australian’s, does it make the victory more palatable or justified? People were killed – men who had lovers, wives, kids, families, friends and parents. There is one constant is all the battlefields I’ve visited and the same goes for Long Tan too. Years after the fighting’s ended, I always end up asking myself; What was so important about this ground that cost so many lives? Was it worth it?

Trin - Freelance Moto Guide

'Trin' - the freelance moto guide

On the way back to Vung Tau – we stop and grab a ‘café su-nap’ (Vietnamese coffee). I learn Trin is 48, a father of two grown boys and a girl. We talk about life. He tells me how good things are now compared to during the War. ‘We had very little to eat ..’ He says his father was killed by a mortar or bomb, leaving him to fend for himself with his mother. Never given the opportunity to go to school, Trin is now happy – his children are working and studying in Ho Chi Minh City, he tells me. I ask if he has an email address, ‘No’ he replies, ‘but I’ll give you my son’s ..’ . He writes it down and I promise to email his son a few photos and this story.

I saw Long Tan the way I wanted to see it – the wind in my face surrounded by the smells and noises of South Vietnam. Meeting Trin was a bonus. But as I said goodbye and rode off I could almost hear him hymning – ‘Uc dai loi, Cheap Charlie ..’ at the 100,000 Dong tip I’d given him!

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This article first appeared on Ninemsn:      http://travel.ninemsn.com.au/article.aspx?id=1043483 

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TRAVEL ADVICE – VUNG TAU AND LONG TAN

In Ho Chi Minh City, board the hydrofoil to Vung Tau. Cost is 180,000 Dong ($10US), trip takes one an a half hours. If you plan to return that afternoon to Ho Chi Minh City, it’s worthwhile for peace of mind to buy the return ticket at the same time.

In Vung Tau, you’ll be offered a motorbike to rent by moto-taxi riders as you walk out of the port arrivals building.

Motorbike rental is around 200,000 Dong ($11US) per day.

Enquire with the rental guy or the moto-taxi riders across the road about Long Tan, ask for directions and then offer to pay for someone to guide you there.

It is worth paying the 300,000 Dong ($16US) for a guide. Then you can ride along enjoying the sights without the worry of getting lost!

The old Australian Army base at Nui Dat is approximately 30 kilometres from Vung Tau, less than 45 minutes on a motorbike. The Long Tan Memorial is a few kilometres further on from the base. Allow between three to four hours for the Nui Dat-Long Tan tour. Wear a helmet and don’t be a ‘Cheap Charlie’ , make sure you have travel insurance!

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The multi-media video clip ‘Long Tan on two wheels’ was filmed with a Olympus 6 megapixels stills camera using the movie mode.

The photographs and movie clips were first imported into a folder on the desktop and then the folder was imported into Final Cut Express 4.

‘Long Tan On Two Wheels’ was edited in Final Cut Express 4. A sepia effect was added to the finished timeline to compensate for the washed out quality of the original video images, as well as to create a 1960’s era feel to the multi-media clip.

Road To Long Tan

'dirt road enroute to Long Tan Battlefield' Site of the Battle of Long Tan, 16th of August 1966

 

 

Site of the Battle of Long Tan, 16th of August 1966

Site of the Battle of Long Tan, 16th of August 1966

 

Long Tan rubber plantation

'milking a rubber tree'

 

'Long Tan Memorial Cross'

'Long Tan Memorial Cross'

 

Poppies at the Long Tan Memorial Cross

Poppies at the 'Long Tan Memorial Cross'

 

Directions to the Long Tan Memorial Cross

'Sign directing visitors to the Long Tan Memorial Cross'

 

Trin - Freelance Moto Guide

'Trin' - the freelance moto guide


‘THAT PEDOPHILE THING’

November 2, 2009

Hung-over like a mongrel three-legged dog with no tail – I stumbled into ‘Crazy Kim’ English language school

'The English Teacher'

'The English Teacher'

wondering what I had committed myself to the night before.

I’d been drinking at ‘Crazy Kim Bar’ in Nha Trang, a coastal holiday town in Vietnam. Now, 7 hours later I was the official beginner’s English teacher. Walking into the classroom the 30 plus students – aged between five and 50 years old were just as surprised to see me, as I was nervous and unsure what to do.

The regular Vietnamese teacher then handed me a thick book and said .. ‘just work from the text, write the exercises on the blackboard – don’t worry, they can’t understand you. It’s a beginner’s class .. they don’t understand English’. So, I was on safe ground!

The free English language school was established by a tough, confident woman with a flirtatious smile named Kimmy Le. Aka: ‘Crazy Kim’. Ever the businesswoman, attempting to teach the class how to read an English menu .. she yelled: ‘Make sure you teach them about the Government and restaurant taxes!’

'The Students'

'The Students'

Her story is one of survival, passion and smarts.

As a teenager she and her older brother fled Communist Vietnam onboard a wooden boat packed with fellow escapees. After three months at sea – the Le’s found dry land, refugee status and safety in Holland. A University education led to meeting a boy, a short marriage in Canada and a new passport.

It was past mid-night .. we sat chatting at the Bar when Kim said: ‘… I did it because of that pedophile thing!!!’. It didn’t need explaining.

Now in possession of a Canadian passport and no longer married Kim returned to Vietnam and started teaching Information Technology at the Nha Trang University. What caught her attention were the children living on the beach – selling what they could, sometimes themselves in order to get enough money to buy food.

According to Kim – her lunch times were spent at the beach, warning boys and girls about the men who gave them money for sex. It was one woman’s personal war on pedophiles. 

She soon quit teaching – and brought a rundown bar around the corner from a ‘woman holding a baby who was desperate to sell’, according to Crazy Kim – ‘She wanted four million dong .. I talked her down to 2 and a half million dong’  .. so began her career as bar owner and anti-pedophile campaigner. 

'Crazy Kim'

'Crazy Kim'

English classes were taught to the street kids inside the bar.

‘I slept on the pool table for a month and had a shower installed in the toilet’ .. Kim remembers: ‘.. I started playing music and the place became packed’.

Outgrowing her beginnings – the now Crazy Kim Bar has a dance floor, three bars, a garden area and two classrooms.  

“Hands off the kids” is her motto – as she rides around Nha Trang on her pink motorbike nicknamed the ‘PEDOPHILE BUSTER’.

But, I’m quickly reminded it’s still Vietnam and the old ways still exist. A police officer came in demanding to see the staff list. One new staff member wasn’t on the list – a fine, it was then decided the music was too loud and the lights too low. The police officer demanded $100 US – a sort of on the spot fine to clear up the breaches.

By now the dozen female Dutch students in Vietnam to experience the culture decided with the European dance hits no longer playing, it was time to go and so followed the five Aussies blokes who had been gazing the girls. With the western dollars gone home, Crazy Kim stood her ground and refused to pay. The police officer left empty handed, we stayed and drank, no music and with the lights a little brighter.

'Saved'

'The Children's Wall'

The lights shone on a trophy wall of sorts at the entrance to the Crazy Kim Bar. Photographs and headshots of the children Kim had saved, the people who had helped and a brief outline of Crazy Kim’s story.

‘People want me to write a book and make a movie about my life’ she said. I asked what she would do with the money and without hesitation Crazy Kim answered: ‘.. I’d build a new English school for the kids’.

If Crazy Kim is willing to accept a hung-over mongrel three-legged dog with no tail like myself .. she’ll have no shortage of English teachers.  

 

 
'The Pedophile Buster'

'The Pedophile Buster'


‘MEMORIAL DAY’

May 24, 2009

(VIDEO STORY ABOUT MEMORIAL DAY AT THE LOS ANGELES NATIONAL CEMETERY)

The best way to describe Memorial Day to an Australian – is to say it’s the American version of ANZAC Day without the pub crawl! A time to remember those who have fallen in battle, survived to come home and anyone who has served.

An American Flag

An American Flag

An American tradition on Memorial Day, is to place an American flag at the grave site of past soldiers, sailors and airmen. No small task considering the numbers. At the Military cemetery in Los Angeles an army of volunteers is enlisted to answer the call – usually Scouts, Cubs and Girl Guides.  

From a foreigners point of view – it’s a very powerful and moving sight .. thousands of kids, American flags in hand – following tradition and struggling to push a 50 centimeter long flag into the soil. 

One of the 58 thousand flags placed around the LA National Cemetery

One of the 58 thousand flags placed around the LA National Cemetery

I asked a mother dressed as a Scout Leader why are American’s so patriotic? She replied .. ‘American’s come from everywhere, we believe in what this country stands for  – today is about respect, honor and freedom. Australian’s have fought for freedom .. you are just like us’. I agreed. Although, patriotism seems easier for American’s .. the colour combination of ‘red, white and blue’ lends itself to self promotion – unlike Australia’s ‘green and gold’ and that ‘Aussie Aussie Oi Oi Oi’ chant which makes me wish I was Canadian!

Back to Memorial Day .. the Mum summed the morning up best in five words that followed our conversation – (referring to her son, hand on his shoulder) ‘.. his father is in Iraq’. You may not agree with the decision .. but you support the troops. 

America is at War – Waring at a level not seen since Vietnam.

Walking around the LA Cemetery and looking at the headstones, one name soon blends into another. Many of the men buried there lived long lives – into their 70’s and 80’s .. they fought for their Country .. and they came home. But, what jumps out

21 years old

21 years old

is the unmistakable difference between a new headstone and an old one. The faded weathered lettering .. compared to the black stenciled look. 

Private First Class Jin Su Ong stood out. Ong an American, born in 1987 was just 21 when he died in Iraq this year. It made me think .. in 1987 I was in College living life and at 21, I was traveling the world. What would you have missed out on if your life had ended at 21? No disrespect to the other veterans .. but Ong lived in my time. 

For all the symbolism of today, most of the Scouts who playfully raced to plant the flags at each headstone are too young to understand the meaning of Memorial Day – that’s a good thing. PFC Jin Su Ong was forced to grow up too early.

(BELOW ARE ADDITIONAL PHOTOGRAPHS TAKEN AT THE LOS ANGELES NATIONAL CEMETERY – JUSTIN O’BRIEN, 5/23/09)

 

'The Scouts'

'The Scouts'

 

'Flags On Guard'

'Flags On Guard'


‘EASY RIDER’

March 4, 2009

 

'Saigon's On Two Wheels'

'Saigon's On Two Wheels'

If you saw the movie ‘Bucket List’ starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson, you’ll know what I’m blogging about .. ‘things to do before you die!’ It can be an endless list – but there is no prize for having more or less, the best thing about it is – it’s ‘up to you’.

 I’ve just filled another on my list – riding a motorbike around Saigon (that’s Ho Chi Minh City if you’re from the North). I’d by lying if I said I wasn’t daunted at the prospect of racing along Saigon’s streets surrounded by 10’s of thousands of fellow riders with little more than a horn, blinkers, acceleration, anticipation – all held together by an eight dollar helmet for survival.

The Eight Dollar Helmet

The Eight Dollar Helmet

Having done the self-taught method of learning to drive a car on my parents farm courtesy of a 1966 FB Holden (a three speed colloumn shift or ‘three on the tree’), then studied the art of flooring it on LA’s 10 freeway on-ramps to not look like a tourist – Saigon with it’s noise and flooded river traffic flow is something to be enjoyed.

Even if you’ve done Bali or Phuket on a scooter – it doesn’t quite prepare you

The Masked Bandits

The Masked Bandits

for that moment heading into a four-way intersection at 40 kilometers an hour and you find yourself staring at someone else doing the same thing – only problem is he or her is coming straight at you! Unlike driving in New York where size matters and you have to stake out your territory, the best advice in Saigon is – go with the flow. You become a mind reader, asking yourself – Where is he going? Do I have enough time to get in front of that truck? Is the footpath moving faster than the street? As well, you grow eyes out the side of your head.

Red lights and even green lights for that matter are usually only obeyed in District One or when a traffic cops is about – I’m told bikes are automatically impounded for a month for the smallest road in faction.

'I'll be there in 10'

'I'll be there in 10'

But, what is a road in fraction in Saigon? Riding while talking on a mobile phone, no worries if the person on the other end can hear you. Guide books talk about the American War Museum, Ho Chi Minh’s house or the Cu Chi Tunnels – try the free sightseeing tour just outside you hotel room door. A 125cc family on wheels .. Dad at the front – three kids jammed in the middle and Mum at the back holding on. One of the craziest things I saw was a guy balancing two large wooden doors on his head, while a mate steered at 40 kilometers an hour.

Enterence fee to this museum with no Monday closing is the price of a bike rental. I suggest if you’re going to hit the road, get the fastest and newest bike you can. Pay the extra two dollars a day – it’ll will pay-off on a rural road when you want to accelerate in front of a cattle truck doing 60 Km’s. Stay at home if you think travel insurance is too expensive and buy a helmet. They come in all shapes – US Army, Safari hat, Construction worker – express yourself. 

A Balancing Act At 40 Km's

A Balancing Act At 40 Km's

Try riding at night – the river becomes a different world. The neon lights, bike lights along with the action off the streets make it feel like you’re lining up for the Monaco Grand Prix.

'Grand Prix'

'Grand Prix'

 

Now – if you’ve got the confidence and want to give Saigon a go on two wheels .. Good Luck finding a park!