Phnom Penh: Confronting A Gruesome History

Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia was radically different than any city we visited in Vietnam. There are a lot more people with cars, making traffic more chaotic, and actually causing backups, which never happened in moto-crazy Vietnam. There are a lot less people in Phnom Penh, 1.5 million, compared to almost 8 million in Saigon and 6 million in Hanoi. On the surface, this disparity is due to the fact that Cambodia is a lot less populous than it’s neighbor, but digging a little deeper, you discover there’s much more to it than that.

Almost everyone in the world has likely at least heard of the Khmer Rouge, probably the second most famous thing about Cambodia. While their regime lasted less time than a U.S. presidential election, they managed to kill a quarter of the Cambodian population during those years.

During our time in Phnom Penh, we visited both the Tuol Sleng Prison Museum, and the Cheong Ek Killing Fields, where we were confronted with the brutal truth about the Khmer Rouge and how the aftermath of their reign still has a great impact on the Cambodian people today.

The Tuol Sleng museum is actually the site of the former prison, which was a high school before the Khmer Rouge disbanded schools, hospitals and places of worship. It was so eerie to walk through the actual rooms where prisoners were tortured and interrogated. We saw hundreds of photos of those that were held there, many of which were women and children. The eeriest was walking through the building of the school that had been used to keep the prisoners, as tiny makeshift cells had been made in the former classrooms out of brick and wood. Although many horrible things were happening here, in the middle of Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge had completely evacuated the city, so no one except government officials would have been able to hear the screams of the tortured prisoners. Most people held there were convicted of ‘crimes against the state’, which in many cases meant that had an advanced educational degree, or were falsely accused by a neighbor trying to prove their own loyalty. Of the 20,000 kept in these tiny buildings from 1975-1979, only seven survived.

Cheong Ek, which is also known as the killing fields, is about 13 km outside Phnom Penh. Obviously, we decided to rent a moto to get there. This turned out to be quite the adventure, as the road leading out of the city is not entirely paved, and lots of construction was going on. We were constantly dodging cars, trucks, big work trucks, tuk-tuks, bicyclists and other motos. There didn’t seem to be any flow of traffic, people were pretty much driving any way they wanted in whatever side of the road they wanted. It was crazy!

I had been slightly disappointed by the Tuol Sleng museum, as it was not the most informative or engaging presentation of information. Cheong Ek, however, fulfilled that need. Out in the country surrounded by rice paddies, what was once a place where horrible atrocities were committed is now a kind of memorial to those that died and were buried in mass graves there. You enter, get your own set of headphones, and are able to walk peacefully around the are listening to an audio your narrated by a survivor of the Tuol Sleng prison. At your feet, you can see scraps of cloth that once was clothing of the victims. You pass by large sinks in the ground that were once graves holding hundreds of bodies. Birds chirp, and the place has a very peaceful feeling to it. It is somewhat difficult to imagine what it would have been like under the Khmer Rouge. At the center of the grounds is a large stupa, filled with skulls of bodies that were exhumed from the graves to give them a proper burial. There are signs telling you how people died, but it is not difficult to figure it out on your own. People have placed offerings there, and it is a nice memorial to those who lost their lives here. The most difficult pat of the visit for me was seeing the tree the Khmer Rouge used to kill babies and children, before tossing them into the mass grave next to it.

It is incredibly difficult for me to understand how human beings are able to commit such atrocities against their fellow human beings, and country men. What is even worse to think about is that this genocide was carried out right under the world’s nose, and no one did anything to stop it. Even though the U.S. knew about it, having just gotten out of Vietnam, we didn’t have the resources to stop a version of communism that was actually awful. For me, this notion bears a lot of resemblance to the current situation in the Middle East, where Bashar al-Assad is carrying out an atrocious genocide, and the U.S., caught up in debt from the fruitless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, is reluctant to intervene and stop this horrible tragedy.

What I think is the worst about the Khmer Rouge, was that even though their reign lasted only four years, they were still recognized by the U.S. and the U.N. as the official government of Cambodia until 1990, which is in my lifetime. What’s even more absurd is that Pol Pot, the leader and mastermind behind the deranged vision of a communist state, was never tried for committing these crimes and died peacefully in 1998. Since then, former leaders of the regime have been out on trial. While most of the time I think that America is great, and I am proud to be from there, there have been many instances on this trip when I have been ashamed to be an American, as I have come face to face with atrocities committed by my country, or those that happened while we sat idly by.

Anyway, enough with the serious political stuff. We also had a lovely visit to the Royal Palace, which was built by the French in the late 19th century. It is an extraordinary work, a beautiful building that has a great Buddhist influence with a dash of Hindu influence thrown in.

Stay tuned for stories of the famous Angkor Wat, biking until we drop, a dried up lake and a journey into Thailand.

Saigon

From Hoi An, Zak and I took a flight to Saigon, also known as Ho Chi Minh City. While I wish we could have slowly worked our way there over the Central Highlands, there was simply not enough time. Although the distance from Hanoi to Bangkok initially seems small to any westerner, upon further investigation one will find it is actually quite long.

We arrived in Saigon early in the afternoon and our first challenge was finding our hotel. Saigon is famous for the mazes of alleys that snake their way through the center of every city block, and our hotel happened to be right in the middle of one such maze. As the official navigator of our trip, I was armed with a screenshotted map of the alley and ready to take on this challenge. Luckily, it wasn’t as difficult as originally thought. The alley location turned out to be probably my favorite of any place we’ve stayed. A plethora of local people live there, and each time we walked through we got an insight into their lives, as front doors were often open and people sat on their small plastic stools chatting with neighbors. We even made friends with the cutest little puppy there who would eagerly come to greet us each time we passed by.

That afternoon, we roughly followed Lonely Planet’s walking tour of the city. We got a little distracted by the shiny Bitexco tower rising out of the rooftops, so we took a slightly expensive detour up to the top to see the sights of Saigon. It was beautiful, and I’m glad we did it. A storm was rolling in, and the clouds were incredible.

We continued walking, past the Opera House, the coffee shop made famous in A Quiet American, the People’s Committee Hall and the Reunification Palace. Although we didn’t get to go inside any of them, I was happy to just appreciate the outside and think about the rich history of all.

The second day we visited the Jade Pagoda, which was a small Buddhist temple in the middle if the city, ad clearly one of those places where actual Vietnamese come to pray. People had left offerings of money, fruit, moon pies and burning incense, and some worshippers were visiting while we were there.

We also visited the War Remnants Museum, which features displays from the Vietnam war. There were planes, tanks and boats in the courtyard, and inside were several exhibits, one featuring photographs of those journalists who covered the war, a gruesome and disturbing one covering the last effects of Agent Orange, a defoliant the U.S. sprayed over much of Vietnam and still contaminates soil and water sources and causes birth defects in children and grandchildren of those exposed. Other exhibits covered the escalation and deescalation of the war itself. One photo that stuck with me was an aerial shot of land in northern Vietnam, dotted with hundreds of small lakes that are actually bomb craters. We passed many of these on the trip to Halong Bay, and it saddens me that many years later this country still bears many scars of the invasion. Although the museum is a one sided view of the invasion, what struck me throughout our journey was how the country and it’s people do not harbor any obvious resentment toward the USA or Americans. I’m not sure why that is, but I think it is truly incredible just how forgiving humans can be.

Both evenings there, we walked through a beautiful park to go eat dinner at the nearby market. Both times we were approached by young Vietnamese students (college age) and asked if we spoke English and would be willing to talk to them. We relished this opportunity, and it is probably my favorite memory of the trip. As a tourist, you tend to get a very one-sided view of the local people, the ones who want you to buy something from their shop or food stand, get a massage or take their tuk-tuk or moto. I loved having the opportunity to talk to people around my age and see a different side that you are so rarely exposed to as a tourist. One girl was about to graduate, and was looking for a job, so we were able to connect a lot over the struggle of finding employment. It was wonderful to be able to help them practice their English and ask questions we had been wondering about Vietnam and the Vietnamese people.

Photos (may not be in correct order): selfies in the park, Ho Chi Minh statue in front of People’s Committee Hall, Notre Dame Cathedral and the Central Post Office.

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Hoi An: Sweating Through Our Clothes

Hoi An was the third city we visited in Vietnam. Although there are a lot of tourists there, Hoi An has retained it’s sleepy charm and was a delightful small city to visit. Hoi An is located up a river just off the coast, so it is near beaches and the beautiful river runs right through the gorgeous, historic Old Town. Another fun fact about Hoi An is that it shares exactly the same letters with Hanoi, just arranged differently!

Hoi An is most famous for its tailors. There are literally hundreds of them in town, and they are known for their ability to churn out high quality custom suits in less than 24 hours. Because of the exceptionally cheap price, Zak and I had some clothes made at Mr. Xe’s tailor shop. We went through 3 or 4 fittings each. There was no air conditioning in the shop, and even though here were several fans pointed at your already sticky, sweaty self, it was absurdly hot and humid. This atmosphere made it very difficult to try on clothes. Let me just tell you that pulling pencils skirts over sweaty thighs is not easy and requires the perfect combination of strength and finesse. I really felt more sorry for Zak however, as he had to put on pants, long sleeve shirts and a suit jacket before being turned around, picked at and fretted over by Mr. Xe and his flock of women trying to evaluate the perfection of item.

After many fittings, one in which Zak had to walk several blocks in his suit ( this is where the title of this post comes from), we finally had finished products. Zak had a suit, two button down shirts and a silk tie, while I had two pencil skirts and a suit dress. All that for $250 made us feel pretty successful and much more ready to look the part in the big city. As of now, I’d highly recommend Mr. Xe’s shop, but the real test will be to see if those items are still holding up strongly in a year.

Other than going to fittings, we did a lot of biking in Hoi An. Our hotel gave is free bikes, and it was a great way to get around. We enjoyed going to the beach one day and soaking up the sun and emerald green water. I think I’ve been in Asia too long now, because I sat in the shade most of the time and applied liberal amounts of SPF 55.

We are banh my (pronounced me) sandwiches every day of our visit there. Banh my is a legacy of the French in Vietnam and it is delicious. It is a sandwich traditionally on a small roasted baguette with pate, grilled pork belly, cheese, green onion and other deliciousness. A woman in Hoi An was featured on Anthony Bourdain’s TV and she might have made the best meal I had in all of Vietnam. We added fried egg to our sandwiches and extra chili sauce for extra flavor. These sandwiches only cost us $1.25 a piece and they were extremely filling. By our last day, she recognized us and knew exactly what our order was, which I count as a small tourist victory.

I could write more about the Old Town, but all you need to know is that it’s beautiful and historic, crowded with locals and tourists alike. We visited some temples and old houses, which were beautiful. We then flew to Saigon to enjoy our last few days in Vietnam.

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Half & Half

We are now halfway down Vietnam and nearly halfway through our trip. Vietnam is a very, very long country, with over 3,000 kilometers of coastline. I wish we were able to continue traveling south over land and see more of the country, but time will not allow. Tomorrow morning we will fly to Saigon.

After we left Hanoi, we headed northeast to Halong Bay. Named on of the 7 new natural wonders of the world, and named a UNESCO World Heritage site (I wish I had a quarter for every one of those I’ve now visited), it is every bit as beautiful in person as it is in photos. What makes the bay so majestic is that is is dotted with small limestone mountains that jut right up out of the water and are covered in beautiful greenery. We went on a 1 night/2day cruise around the bay. We were settled on a junk style ship, and I was pretty impressed. Our cabin was spacious and we had a really nice shower with hot water, and a window to look out on the scenery as the boat cruised. We toured a cave (which unfortunately had a lot of dead limestone in it from being touched by so many people), hiked up to the top of one of the mountains (no easy feat), swam at sunset, enjoyed cocktails and backgammon in the evening, tried to catch squid at night, and took a short kayak tour through a small floating village. The cruises through the bay are pretty touristy, but they are worth it!

After returning to Hanoi from Halong, we took the night train to a city called Huế. The train was definitely interesting, as we booked too late to get a sleeper car and ended up with seats in the same car as about 80 loud Chinese tourists. But with earplugs and NPR podcasts downloaded, it turned out to be fine. I woke up around 5 am to the most beautiful purple and red sunrise over a valley.

We stayed in Huế for only one night, as we added it to the itinerary late, but I’m glad we made it there. Huế used to be the capital, as it has a nice central location in the country. There is an old citadel there that used to be the palace of the Nguyen Dynasty emperors until it was destroyed by war in 1947. The complex is incredibly extensive and we spent the good part of our afternoon ambling through it. Parts of it had been restored, but a lot was left in the original state, crumbling stone and brick nearly covered in weeds in some places. This juxtaposition led to a unique feel that I really enjoyed, although overall I think I like original ruins/remains rather than restorations.

We enjoyed bún bo Huế for dinner, a noodle soup whose broth is simmered with lots of lemongrass and finished with chilis to give it a very unique, and delicious taste. Definitely different from all the phố bo we had in Hanoi.

The next morning, before catching our 1300h bus to Hoi An, we rented a motorbike to go and visited some tombs of emperors past that were far outside the city. The helmets they have us looked like old army helmets and mine was so big that I don’t think it would have done much had we crashed. It was really fun to cruise around the countryside. We visited the Khai Dinh tomb and the Minh Mang tomb, both very beautiful and very different.

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Closing One Door, Opening Another

Yesterday, Zak and I closed the door on our 6 week chapter in Korea. We opened a new door when we flew from Incheon to Hanoi, Vietnam by way of Guangzhou, China.

I am mostly glad to leave Korea behind. Looking back, I think I would say I am glad I went. I love traveling and learning about other cultures, and I’m thankful I had the chance to immerse myself there. I’m thankful for Max, a Korean instructor who was always willing to talk about Korean culture and politics with us. The students I worked with at Chadwick International were amazingly smart and sweet kids. I’m glad that they got some form of Outdoor Ed this spring.

Although I like looking back and focusing on the positive things, the altered Outdoor Ed trips caused a lot of stress and frustration for myself and all of the other instructors, and those feelings are what I’m happy to leave behind. Delivering OE in an urban setting as an after school program does not work. There is a reason that we take students in Korea and the US into the backcountry.

Fortunately, all the extra time we ha with Internet access allowed Zak and I to plan out virtually our entire itinerary for our Southeast Asia tour. In my adult life, I have never really travelled with an itinerary, I’ve mostly just kind of shot from the hip when I arrive. While that strategy has worked before, with the limited time we have and the great distance we have to travel (Hanoi to Bangkok by way of Saigon, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap), I am confident that having an itinerary will allow us to make the most of our days soaking in the places we are rather than researching hotels, places to see and things to do.

We have now been in Hanoi for still less than 24 hours, but I’m already falling on love with the place. We are staying in the Old Quarter, which has narrow, tree lined streets, and is crowded with shops, restaurants and Vietnamese on motorbikes. The streets are totally chaotic, and the lack of pedestrian walk signals makes crossing each street la little bit like Frogger in real life.

We are noodles for breakfast, lunch and dinner today. Chicken soup noodles for breakfast, beef pho for lunch, and bùn ca (cold, angel hair rice noodle with pork patties and a variety of herb and lettuce leaves) for dinner.

This morning we visited Hoa Lo prison, which was built by the French to house pro-revolutionary Vietnamese. During the US invasion of Vietnam, many American pilots whose planes were shot down, including John McCain, were kept here. It’s fascinating to see this history from the Vietnamese point of view, and devastating to me as an American that my country destroyed so many people, buildings and important cultural landmarks here because they didn’t agree with the politics. I know I’m simplifying it a little bit, but I feel strongly that the war in Vietnam was an enormous error on behalf of the US. Much of the farmland, and many people here are still adversely affected by the lasting effects of the B52s that rained down from US planes.

After the prison, we walked up to the lake that is in the middle of the city. We were pleasantly surprised by its incredible beauty. Lined on all sides by walking paths and benches that were shaded with enormous and beautiful trees, the lake is an oasis in the heart of the city. There is a Buddhist temple in the middle that is reached by crossing a beautiful red bridge. Small koi fish fill the emerald green waters of the lake and surface to feed on the crumbs of delicious looking French bread.

Although chaotic and humid, Hanoi is charming and I’m excited to continue to explore more.