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

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Snakes on a Train

As I boarded the train in Quang Ngai to Muong Mang with food poisoning last week, I made a crack on twitter about it being just like a Samuel Jackson movie, but without the really cool black guy. Or any toilet paper. Little did I know it really could have been a sequel to his movie, 'Snakes on a Plane.'

The story was all over the Vietnamese newspapers this week. Today its caught on in the international news media. A man tried to smuggle 45kg of venomous snakes (mostly king cobras) on board a passenger train in Quang Ngai. Here in Vietnam, wildlife trafficking is so common they don't count the number of animals--they count the number of kilos.

The deadly snakes were stuffed in mesh bags, apparently underneath the seat (or bottom bunk). When discovered, they caused such a commotion that the smuggler supposedly fled the scene without being caught. That or he paid someone off.

Some news media have reported that Vietnam is now 'on alert' over the incident, searching for other smugglers. I assure you, this is a gross overstatement. Local authorities mentioned that they would be keeping an eye out for similar smugglers on the train or highway for a grand total of... about one week following. Don't get your hopes up.

Other media have also reported that the snakes mouths were sewn shut and that after being confiscated, they were released into park land. According to sources, the cobras weighed about a kilo each. Can you imagine the smuggler sewing the mouths shut on 45 king cobras? How about untrained, probably unqualified park rangers removing the stitches on the mouths of 45 cobras? I sure can't. Lets use common sense. I don't really believe either of these claims.

Some have remarked that its really no big deal because the snakes must have been secured. In fact, train attendants never check baggage on the train. If they noticed the snakes at all, it means they weren't secure.

Cobras are protected under Vietnamese law. Yet we have a thriving industry selling bottles of rice wine with dead cobras stuffed inside, and serving cobras beating hearts and bile in glasses of wine to tourists. You can even ask all the most popular celebrity chefs, travel show hosts and guidebook publishers. They all recommend--put it on their TV shows and in their books. Yet these animals were all trafficked from the wild. Sadly the people who should be protecting Vietnam's last shred of wildlife are all turning the other way.

So before you buy that souvenir snake wine (which incidentally will potentially carry hefty fines should you be stopped by customs when you enter your country), consider the additional cost of that bottle: riding with, Snakes on a Train.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Quang Ngai's Cham Connection

The Province of Quang Ngai, home of Vietnam's "Great Wall," was once part of the Champa Kingdom. Apart from the hidden Chau Sa citadel walls, and some hard-to-find ancient temple ruins, the Cham connection isn't immediately obvious. On my most recent visit to Quang Ngai this month, I stumbled upon some interesting links though.

Above a Vietnamese shaman, or spirit medium, summons the spirit of 'the godess' (likely 'Tien Y A Na,' a deity borrowed from the Cham and known to them as Po Nagar) and dances around the room. Just a couple of weeks earlier, Cham holy men do exactly the same thing for the Cham New Year festival known as Rijanugan. I don't think this is a coincidence. Vietnamese have borrowed the religious activity from the Cham. See the Cham version of the dance here.

Thien An Pagoda, on a small mountain between the city of Quang Ngai and Chau Sa citadel, overlooks the Tra Khuc River. As such it meets the ideal conditions for an ancient Cham temple complex. Indeed, though the Vietnamese apparently destroyed the temple when the took over the area about 500 years ago, scholars have determined there was indeed a very large temple complex on this site. Interestingly, Vietnamese president Huynh Thuc Khang is buried on top of this ancient holy site.

This Vietnamese temple is kept by a local family, and honors the first Vietnamese governor of Quang Ngai, who ruled the area about 500 years ago.

His idol is pictured here. To his left (not pictured) is the idol of a man said to be his friend and assistant. Also honored and worshipped. The dark-skinned man in red turban and robes very clearly appears to be a Cham dignitary of some sort.

Quang Ngai, the Lost Photos

While in Quang Ngai I did some scouting to get photos from the Province's lovely countryside and visit their beautiful hill tribe villages. I'll just say it was a very eventful day.

Following the river along an ancient trade route into the mountains. It was used by Chinese merchants to trade with hill tribes like the Hre, Ca Dong, Cor, Sedang, Bahnar and others. These villages still exist.

The river valley extends in the other direction to the far distance, where a village of stilt houses sits on its banks.

This was one of the rare villages I've encountered where the residents spoke very little Vietnamese at all. I don't just mean they had their own, separate minority language. Thats normal. These people could hardly understand any of the Vietnamese my local friends were speaking at all.

Carving the road out of the mountainside and clearing landslides. Difficult driving.

Shall we cross?

Beautiful storehouses in a hill tribe village. In other villages inhabited by different tribes, these don't necessarily serve a practical purpose. In fact they may hold offerings for spirits.

Inauguration Ceremony of the Long Wall of Quang Ngai

Earlier this month I was invited by the government of Quang Ngai Province to attend the inauguration ceremony of The Long Wall of Quang Ngai to become a National Heritage Monument. This included a seminar on 6-7 May about the development of the Long Wall for tourism, followed by the actual ceremony on 8 May. Below are photos from the event.

Here I am at a 500-year-old fort near the wall.

Local Hre ethnic minority members, invited to the ceremony and holding the National Heritage certificate.

The National Flag, adding some, perspective, to the event.

Exaltation of the National Heritage certificate.

Drummers imitating the ethnic Hre musical style.

Christopher Young from English Heritage making recommendations on preservation of the wall, based on his experience with Hadrian's Wall in the UK.

Here I am (you can see my bald head on the left in the middle) at the government meetings about The Long Wall. I'm so generously seated on the left, next to the VIP speakers. On the right are the 'old guard;' that is, the retired government leadership who still wield considerable influence. Standing up in the middle is Mr. Son, the Vice Chairman of the People's Committee (the governing board of the province). To his left is Dr. Hardy, the remarkable archaeologist who discovered The Long Wall.

Again you can just barely see me seated in the middle left. These two photos above come from the local newspapers.

For more, check out other entries on this blog for Quang Ngai, as well as the new website for the Long Wall at