The never-ending adventures of a travel writer in Vietnam, Cambodia, New Zealand and throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Hat Boi: Traditional Vietnamese Opera in Phan Thiet

Below are photos taken of Hat Boi (or Hat Bo), a traditional form of Vietnamese opera. The performance was hosted in a local whale temple. Van Thuy Tu is the most famous such temple in Phan Thiet, but there are perhaps a dozen such whale temples in Phan Thiet alone. The temples occupy a similar position in the lives of local fishermen as the old Chinese assembly halls have had for Chinese merchants in Vietnam's port towns. Whale temples always have stages for performances, making them an ideal place to perform these operas.

The announcer and story teller wishes wealth and happiness to the elders of the community, calling them out by name, one by one, with melodramatic ceremony.

The first performer comes singing out in a flamboyant costume, with drummers on either side, and a traditional orchestra just out of view.

Notice his elaborate head dress with peacock and pheasant tail feathers.

The central character is joined by his co-star.

Throughout the performance the audience (mostly male elders in the community), throw bunches of sticks at the performers. I'm unfamiliar with the meaning and ceremony behind this but I suspect this character is a villain and throwing sticks is akin to throwing tomatoes. Boys sit on either side of the stage, continuously cleaning up the sticks.

All photos (as always) copyright 2010 Adam Bray. Photos may not be used or republished without written permission. All rights reserved.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Phan Thiet Barn Owl

Barn owls are seen as evil omens and harbingers of death by the Vietnamese. If they can get their hands on one, many Vietnamese are likely to kill them out of spite. It's a sad thing because of how graceful, shy and beneficial the birds actually are. As everyone knows, these beautiful birds of prey feed on mice and rats, which are in ample supply due to Vietnam's sanitation problems. Barn owls are not afraid to live in cities, and can be seen and heard all over town--if a person is actually paying attention. Barn owls have the largest range of any bird species. The same species is also found in North America and Europe.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Elephant Fragments of a Fragmented Elephant

A privately owned work-elephant that I met recently in my adventures in Ratanakiri, Cambodia.

Curiosity breaks through sad eyes

Every few years the tusks will be trimmed, and the ivory sold across the border in Vietnam.

A life in bondage

He's lucky to have tail hair. Vietnamese & Cambodians pluck elephant tail hair to make good luck rings and amulets, leaving elephants with a very sore nub and nothing to swat the flies.

At least we know he's regular

Friday, September 17, 2010

A Fist-Full of Amethyst

...and I've got big hands. 

In Ratanakiri, Cambodia, they measure these stones by the kilo. The better the color and overall quality, the higher the rate. Miners get between US$5-10 per kg. Then gems are then cut, fit in jewelry and sold in Ban Lung or Phnom Penh for much higher prices.

Are you planning to visit Cambodia? Check out Insight Guides Laos & Cambodia and Thomas Cook Travelers Cambodia. I undated both current editions myself, and so give them my personal endorsement. Click on the images below to view the books on

Traveller Guides Cambodia, 2nd (Travellers - Thomas Cook) Laos and Cambodia Insight Guide (Insight Guides)

Friday, September 10, 2010

I Was "Featured" at TED & Never Knew It

I accidentally stumbled upon a video at the TED "Ideas Worth Spreading" series that is so en vogue now. In it, Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh (who I might add is as pleasant to work with as her name sounds) presents some recent highlights of her work with Kanzi and other bonobos in her language research program. The video was presented in 2004. I worked at their Atlanta lab in 2001, where I took care of Kanzi and the other bonobos. There are two shots, it just so happens, where I appear in the background. Can you spot them?

See the video here:

New Species of Parakeet Discovered in Vietnam?

While photographing the regular illegal wild bird markets that we have in Phan Thiet, Vietnam along the riverfront, I came across this bizarre yellow, red & grey parakeet. The coloring does not match any known species of parrots in Vietnam, but there is in overall similarity in pattern to the red-breasted parakeet. Is this a new species? Unknown color phase? Or simply a really good dye job? Any ornithologists out there care to weigh in?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

What Happens to Baby Monkeys When Cambodian Children Have Idle Time

Can small children kill the "souls" of baby monkeys?

"My daily itinerary include dress-up, make-up, spankings, picking fleas and cowering under my mistress. Please kill me."

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Eat Me! ...and All My 8 Legs!

Doesn't he just scream "Eat Me!"? No? He sure does to a lot of Cambodians. Is it ethical to eat these tarantulas though? Apparently most or all are caught from the wild, and are consumed in large numbers. I don't think anybody breeds them in Cambodia. It's hard to imagine there are THAT many left in the wild, but I don't know. I've been all over the jungles in Vietnam, and a little bit in Cambodia, and never seen a wild one myself.

In case you are wondering, this fellow (or is it a she?) was docile & gentle--a lovely creature actually. But then again he'd had much of his spirit pounded out of him by the little Cambodian girl who had played with him for hours. I'm not sure if they are more aggressive when first caught. He certainly showed no interest in biting me.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

My Cham Temple-City in Ratanakiri, Cambodia

While in Ratanakiri (northeastern Cambodia) on assignment last month, I took a day off and asked me guide to show me some things that were "off the radar." I told him that I was especially interested in ancient temple complexes. My guide consulted an elder Jarai man who told him that he knew about a dozen undocumented temple ruins spread around the province. Delighted, we asked him to tell us how to get to the one closest to town. "Closest" turned out to be a few hours away, and deep in the jungle.

The complex was massive, with an enormous earthen rampart (citadel wall) and elevated road leading up to it. The walls were nearly 7m (20+ feet high above the jungle floor). Here we are walking on top the wall, with a drop-off on either side.

Inside the walls was an enormous moat system, shown here with trees that don't mind their roots a bit wet, growing in the middle.

Inside the moat was an enormous man-made mountain, also about 7m (20+ feet) above the moats. The grand expanse of the mount can be partly seen here, with a flat plateau on top.

My guides had led me to think that they were taking me to see an Angkorian temple. It was however, when I saw piles of red bricks, that I knew immediately that this was no Angkorian ruin. This was a Cham temple city. More importantly, the only Cham temple city that I am aware of in Cambodia, and perhaps the largest individual temple complex in all of Champa (if one views My Son as a collection of seperate temple complexes rather than a unified whole, for the purpose of this comparison). Most of the structures in the complex were now entirely collapsed. However some vestiges of brick walls, towers and building foundations remained.

No temple complex ever escapes looters. This hole was dug--so I am told--by thugs employed by very well-connected individuals. Temple thieves commonly remove gold and jeweled objects, steles with written histories, statues and other invaluable relics.

Stone flooring panels which once covered the looter's hole.

My guide looking at the vestiges of a baked red-brick wall. Red bricks are the primary (nearly excursive) building material of the ancient Champa Kingdom. Though Khmers did use red sandstone in the Angkor Kingdom, most temples were made from laterite. The Khmer's Funan (pre-Angkorian) Kingdom used red-baked bricks, but their range was much further south. it is likely that the Cham acquired this architectural building principal of using red bricks from the Funanese.

A pile of rubble: red bricks covered in moss and lichen.

Though difficult to see, the pile of rubble under the greenery is a collapsed red-brick tower: a hallmark of Cham temples.

The find is very exciting and if acknowledged and further studied, could alter the history of kingdom expansion and territorial boundaries between the Khmer and Cham. It may also shed light on the development of Cham temple architecture. Though possibly one of the largest single structures now known in Champa, this site is not without precedent. Other Cham citadels exist in Vietnam within provinces such as Quang Ngai, Binh Dinh and Binh Thuan.

Many questions remain. What was this place? Why live here in the middle of the jungle (infested with malarial mosquitoes I might add), far from water sources and known cities? How did the inhabitants travel between this place and other populations? Are there more temple cities like this in the vicinity? Will we ever know?

Friday, September 3, 2010

Nghinh Ong Festival Video

As much as I hate watching myself on television, here is a good video from local news on Phan Thiet's Nghinh Ong Festival: .

An accompanying newspaper article (in Vietnamese) is here: