Asia – The Ultimate Wheelchair Challenge!
By Jane Sowerby
I haven’t been properly ‘travelling’ in the backpacker sense for a good few years now, so decided it was about time I went somewhere I’d never been before for a bit of an adventure. Asia has long been on my hit list; Vietnam & Cambodia ended up being the countries that made the cut. I’ve just returned, and what a fantastic experience it was!
I did a lot of research beforehand, as Asia is not exactly the most accessible place on the planet. It made me realise how incredible sites like Tripadvisor are for finding great places to stay and suggesting not-to-be-missed activities. However, the more I researched, the more I felt like I was the first wheelchair user to ever embark on this mission! Of course, I’m not, but I think a lot of wheelchair users are put off by the challenge.
We flew into Ho Chi Minh City, what a crazy place to start! The roads have to be seen to be believed – 95% of registered vehicles are mopeds or scooters, and there doesn’t appear to be a great deal of rules or regulations. The only way to cross the road is to slowly edge out in front of the traffic, and just wait for it to go around you. A little daunting the first time you try it!
I’d arranged a tour with Saigon Street Eats, which takes you off the beaten track to sample real Vietnamese street food. Our guide had emailed me lots of questions about my wheelchair & capabilities beforehand, which I was happy to answer, as they didn’t have any experience with wheelchair users. It all went smoothly, we learnt a lot about the history & culture of Vietnam, as well as the food.
The next tour was to the Cu Chi Tunnels, an immense network of connecting tunnels used by the Viet Cong for hiding during combat with American forces. Although I couldn’t actually go down into the tunnels, there was plenty to see on the surface and I still got a sense of how terrible the conditions must have been for the soldiers.
After this, we escaped the hustle and bustle of Saigon and were whisked off to a hidden oasis of calm in the Mekong Delta. The Mekong Lodge is nestled on an island, only accessible by boat. The boys helping me on and off the boat were incredible; nothing seemed to faze them. They just lifted me in my wheelchair and I felt perfectly safe. We got an insight into the day-to-day lives of the locals living by the river that sustains them.
After a few more days exploring Vietnam, including a trip with a 4.30am start to visit a huge floating market, we took the 5-hour ‘speedboat’ over the border to Cambodia. I really enjoyed spending so much time on boats, what a lovely way to travel.
Our next stop was Phnom Penh. We spent an emotional couple of days visiting the Choeng Ek Killing Fields and Security Prison-21, learning about the incredible atrocities carried out by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, unbelievably less than 40 years ago. It’s estimated that over 2 million Cambodian lost their lives under the regime, due to execution, disease, starvation and forced labour. Although distressing, I feel it’s important that we know what happened, although understanding why it happened is almost impossible.
Emotionally drained, we boarded the bus for 6 hours to the beautiful sleepy city of Battambang to recharge. One of the main tourist attractions here is the ‘nori', the Cambodian bamboo train. The ‘nori’ is so lightweight that when two meet on the line, the one with the lighter load is dismantled and lifted off the track so the other can pass. I, of course, got special treatment! Unable to stand and walk, I was allowed to stay on while the rail workers lifted the platform, with me on it, off the track. Lots of fun and we got to see some beautiful countryside.
Final stop on our itinerary was Siem Reap, to experience the magic and wonder of the Angkor temples. Our guide was excellent and adapted the schedule to meet our requirements. Obviously it’s very difficult to get in and around the temples in a wheelchair, but he took us to the most accessible entrances to sites and gave assistance when I needed it. We even saw Angkor Wat at sunrise, an unforgettable experience.
Disabled people wanting to visit this part of the world shouldn’t be put off, but should also be aware that it is definitely hard work, the ultimate wheelchair challenge! Getting around is quite tricky, the kerbs are the biggest I’ve ever seen and the pavements are an obstacle course of parked vehicles and potholes. However, it also has some of the most smiley, friendly people I’ve ever encountered.
People were always willing to help, and didn’t have the same ‘health & safety’ restrictive way of thinking as in the UK, which can sometimes be frustrating here. I loved the challenge, I loved the experience, and now can’t wait to plan my next adventure!