I know its been a little longer than normal since my last post. In fact I have been in two countries since then! I have about a week to relax until I head back out for a 15 day tour of Northern India. I decided to get out of the city and landed here in Bang Saray Beach at a small family owned hotel called Willkris Resort. I don’t intend to do much while I am here other than this blog post, a little reading, some swimming, possibly a scuba dive or two and maybe even some time for introspection. I have seen a lot – both good and bad – on this trip so far and I haven’t taken much time to process it. I am really glad to have some downtime after constantly moving for the past 35 days straight.
My last blog post left you in lovely Hoi An where I thoroughly enjoyed my time. After Hoi An we took a short flight to bustling Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh city. After relaxing in a small town it was a brash shock to the senses. More honking, crazy scooter drivers, and constant movement were there to greet us. Ho Chi Minh City is now the most populated city in Vietnam and you could tell. The streets were even more wild than in Hanoi!
We threw our things into the hotel room and went out for a tour of the city on a cyclo bike. It was a nice slow way to see the city and we cruised past a handful of sights including reunification palace, Notre Dame cathedral, the city post office, and a walk through the Ben Thanh market on our way back to the hotel.
We arrived back at the hotel and after a quick shower we grabbed some dinner and I headed back to do a bit of laundry! I took a quick picture of my clothes line so you could get a chance to see what it’s like to do your own laundry by hand in a hotel room! I have a rubber clothes line that seems to have unlimited stretching power. Here I had attached one end to the security chain on the door and the other to the handle of the closet door. It’s not fancy, but it works!
The next morning we were up bright and early to take a mini-bus to see the Cu Chi Tunnels. I will once again borrow from wikipedia for the description: The tunnels of Củ Chi are an immense network of connecting underground tunnels located in the Củ Chi district of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam, and are part of a much larger network of tunnels that underlie much of the country. The Củ Chi tunnels were the location of several military campaigns during the Vietnam War, and were the Viet Cong’s base of operations for the Tết Offensive in 1968. The tunnels were used by Viet Cong guerrillas as hiding spots during combat, as well as serving as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for numerous guerrilla fighters. The tunnel systems were of great importance to the Viet Cong in their resistance to American forces, and helped achieve ultimate military success.
Let’s just say they are very proud of these tunnels and I really struggled as they talked with pride about killing the enemy soldiers. Knowing these enemies were often 18 and 19 year old Americans, many unwillingly drafted into service, left me feeling a little teary eyed. I kept a stiff upper lip by reminding myself that I was in their country. The jungle around the tunnels was riddled with B52 Bomb Craters and many of the trees were new having all been grown in the last 30 years. We all loaded back on the bus and went back to the city. I was feeling a bit melancholy so I just laid low and after dinner with the group made it an early night.
The next day we took a long drive during which we crossed over into Cambodia. Border crossings by land are interesting, I think I prefer the airport variety…
Let’s talk about Cambodia. If you are of a certain age you associate it with genocide, Pol Pot, and the killing fields. The younger generations will likely associate it with Angkor Wat and the beautiful temples seen in movies. After spending the last three weeks with Limny, our Cambodian tour guide, and hearing about various things that were “Better in Cambodia” I had high expectations. For example, when we had asked about seeing Thai fighting in Chiang Mai, he replied with a “You can see it here, but its better in Cambodia and it’s free.” When we asked about buying souvenirs in Vietnam, he replied with, “They have the same in Cambodia and they are better because it’s cheaper.” It became a standing joke that “Everything is better in Cambodia” but I do have to admit that he was right on several accounts.
I can’t even hope to begin to give you a full understanding of Cambodian history in this blog. What I can tell you is that their high points have been sky high and their low points have involved some of the worst human atrocities in modern history. I have taken a few points from Wikipedia and added a few things I learned to keep it short and simple, but here are the cliff notes. If you don’t know the basics of it, you should take note because it is something that we have a responsibility to make sure never happens again.
First let’s start with some of the high points. The people of Cambodia refer to themselves as Khmer and not Cambodian because the golden age was during the Khmer civilization. It was the period from the 9th to the 13th centuries, when the Khmer Empire, which gave Kampuchea, or Cambodia, its name, ruled large territories from its capital in the region of Angkor in western Cambodia. This is the period when the majestic temples of Angkor Wat were built. Soon after that, a slow decline started from the 15th to 19th centuries where they lost a lot of territory to Thailand and Vietnam. There was a period of French and another of Japanese rule, but the next most notable step was during the Vietnam/American War.
Neutrality was the central element of Cambodian foreign policy during the 1950s and 1960s. But by the mid-1960s, parts of Cambodia’s eastern provinces were serving as bases for North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong. As NVA/VC activity grew, the United States and South Vietnam became concerned, and in 1969, the United States began a 14 month long series of bombing raids targeted at NVA/VC elements, contributing to destabilization. Prince Sihanouk, the current leader of Cambodia, fearing that the conflict between communist North Vietnam and South Vietnam might spill over to Cambodia, steadfastly opposed the bombing campaign by the United States inside Cambodian territory. Prince Sihanouk wanted Cambodia to stay out of the North Vietnam-South Vietnam conflict and was very critical of the United States government and its allies.
Bill Clinton revealed in a statement when he was in office stating “From October 4, 1965, to August 15, 1973, the United States dropped far more ordnance on Cambodia than was previously believed: 2,756,941 tons’ worth, dropped in 230,516 sorties on 113,716 sites. Just over 10 percent of this bombing was indiscriminate, with 3,580 of the sites listed as having “unknown” targets and another 8,238 sites having no target listed at all. . . . [T]he total payload dropped during these years to be nearly five times greater than the generally accepted figure. To put the revised total of 2,756,941 tons into perspective, the Allies dropped just over 2 million tons of bombs during all of World War II, including the bombs that struck Hiroshima and Nagasaki: 15,000 and 20,000 tons, respectively. Cambodia may well be the most heavily bombed country in history…[T]he bombing forced the Vietnamese Communists deeper and deeper into Cambodia, bringing them into greater contact with Khmer Rouge insurgents . . . [and] drove ordinary Cambodians into the arms of the Khmer Rouge, a group that seemed initially to have slim prospects of revolutionary success.”
Simultaneously, throughout the 1960s, domestic Cambodian politics became polarized. Opposition to the government grew within the middle class and leftists including Paris-educated leaders like Pol Pot, who led an insurgency under the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK). Sihanouk called these insurgents the Khmer Rouge, literally the “Red Khmer.” Prince Sihanouk went abroad for medical reasons in January 1970. In March 1970, while Prince Sihanouk was absent, General Lon Nol deposed Prince Sihanouk in a coup d’état in the early hours of March 18, 1970.
Which brings us to what I believe is one of the darkest periods of modern history. On New Year’s Day 1975, Communist troops launched an offensive which, in 117 days of the hardest fighting of the war, collapsed the Khmer Republic. Immediately after its victory, the CPK ordered the evacuation of all cities and towns, sending the entire urban population into the countryside to work as farmers, as the CPK was trying to reshape society into a model that Pol Pot had conceived.
So this is where I ask you to please take a minute to look at your life and appreciate your freedom, comforts, and safety. I will spare you the worst details of the horrible things that this political regime put the Cambodian people through, but I can tell you that walking through the prison camps and seeing the killing fields was one of the most heartbreaking things I have done in my life.
The first stop on our tours around Phnom Penh was the Tuol Sleng Prison, also called S-21, or the Cambodian Genocide Museum, and it is one of the largest tourist attractions, after Angkor Wat. Under the French, the building had housed Public School 21. Imagine for a minute living in a country where the second most popular tourist attraction was a museum dedicated to the slaughter of your people with intact cells and still visible blood stains on the floor.
After the Khmer Rouge outlawed education, the school was converted to a torture and confession center for Khmer Rouge members accused of treason. Prisoners were subjected to the most inhumane torture until they finally broke, at which point they would sign erroneous confessions.
One of the more common confessions was to being a member of the CIA or KGB. The fact that many of the agents were between 12-15 years old and had no idea what CIA or KGB were, was of little consequence. The confession was all that mattered. After the confession, the prisoner was executed. They were taken out to the killing fields where they were routinely executed and dumped into a mass grave.
The rest of the people in the cities were driven out to work the rice fields despite the fact that most of them had little to no experience working in an agricultural environment. They were allowed to eat once and maybe twice a day and were given an extremely small portion of rice after working in the fields for 12-16 hours a day. Many people starved to death. Gathering your own food from fruit trees or fishing was considered private enterprise and there was only one real punishment for violating the communist rules, regardless of the severity, and that punishment was the death penalty.
Modern research has located thousands of mass graves from the Khmer Rouge era all over Cambodia. Various studies have estimated the death toll at between 1.4 and 2.2 million, with perhaps half of those deaths being due to executions, and the rest from starvation and disease.
By 1979, the Khmer Rouge had fled the country, due to the Vietnamese removing them from office. Since 1990 Cambodia has gradually recovered, demographically and economically, from the Khmer Rouge regime, although the psychological scars affect many Cambodian families and communities. It is noteworthy that Cambodia has a very young population and by 2003 three-quarters of Cambodians were too young to remember the Khmer Rouge era.
Very few people were ever prosecuted for the genocide and many of them have died safely in their beds of old age. Limny, our team leader personally lost his father and two of his brothers that he never knew. His father was a diamond trader and businessman. He is not sure how old he is as he was born during the regime, sometime around 1977-1978, but his family has shared the stories in remembrance of his father and you could see the scars were deep as he told us the story over lunch.
One of the things you may have heard of or seen on TV is the bizarre things that some Cambodians eat. Crickets, Tarantulas, Dogs, Cats, Frogs, Rats, baby chickens and just about anything that moves are all on the menu here. Rat is a delicacy in Lao and has been for a long time, Dog and Cat are rarely eaten, but are considered a delicacy by some of the Vietnamese immigrants that brought the idea of eating them here to Cambodia. Frogs are commonly seen on menus, likely a habit left over from the French rule of the country.
The eating of insects on the other hand is a direct result to the starvation during the Khmer Rouge regime and it stuck after the regime ended. Apparently deep fried insects are “munchies” here and they eat them like we eat potato chips. Limny was happy to let us film him eating some of these gross little critters and a few of the braver people on the tour tried them. Others fled to the other end of the table just in case they were not sufficiently fried…
That night Limny arranged for us to take a tuk-tuk over to a local arena to watch some local kickboxing matches. After a day of depressing sights I was happy to go to anything that wasn’t about death. Cambodian fighting is known as Pradal serey. In Khmer the word pradal means fighting or boxing and serey means free. Originally used for warfare, pradal serey is now one of Cambodia’s national sports. Its moves have been slightly altered to comply with the modern rules. Cambodia is making an attempt to market their style of boxing at the same caliber as Muay Thai even though its status as a fourth world country renders a lack of financial funding. Numerous gyms have opened and large masses of students, local and foreign, have come to train in Cambodia.
There are weekly matches held, the majority televised live, and many of Cambodia’s best have traveled internationally to compete. There are currently approximately 70 boxing clubs nationwide.
The arena was thriving and everything was being filmed live. A match consists of five three-minute rounds and takes place in a 6.1 meter square boxing ring. A one-and-a-half or two minute break occurs between each round. At the beginning of each match the boxers practice the praying rituals known as the kun kru. Traditional Cambodian music performed with the instruments skor yaul (a type of drum), the sralai (reed flute) and the chhing, is played during the match. Modern boxers wear leather gloves and nylon shorts.
After an emotional couple of days in Phnom Penh I was ready for a brighter part of Cambodian life. I was in luck because we had a homestay scheduled for the next night. We took a bus to a rural Cambodian village where we met up with the family that ran the homestay house and saw our accommodations. In order to bring tourism to this rural area they have built five room traditional houses for tourists to stay in the area. We split into two of these houses and immediately went out to explore the area. We started with a visit to one of the temple ruins in the area.
They were actively being reconstructed and worth a visit. Many of them were crumbling under the weight of the huge trees in the area. None of the temples really held a candle to the temples near Angkor Wat when it comes to details and condition, but it was nice to not have to fight crowds in retrospect. We walked around the temple complex while being escorted by a small pack of local kids selling scarves and books. We had been asked not to purchase anything from them since that encourages them to not go to school. It was really hard to refrain because they were sweet and cute, but in the end we walked away empty handed.
We then headed back to the homestay for a quick turnaround to go see some of the locals making rice noodles and rice milk. You could see the extreme poverty in the rural areas of Cambodia. Most of the nicer houses were made up of woven bamboo walls and they were all lifted up on stilts to keep them safe during the wet season and give them a place to hang out under the house during the day. At night they would tie their livestock under the house and either use smoke or mosquito nets to keep the bugs away from them.
Most of the households only make enough food for their own families, but if they have any excess they will sell it at the market. The making of various things like noodles and rice milk is a longer process than I previously had thought. I am sure in the modern world we have some magnificent machine dedicated to these tasks, but here they only get their electricity from car batteries as there is no public utility service in these communities. To make rice noodles or rice paper they first make a slurry out of the rice by using a pounding device as shown in the video below. They then press it through a strainer for the noodles or they paint it onto a mat for rice paper and let it dry in the sun.
Another major resource here in Cambodia is the palm trees. They drink the palm juice, eat the coconuts, and eat the palm fruits as well. They climb the trees twice a day to harvest the palm juice and it is a great source of hydration in a land where nearly all of the water is contaminated.
They were kind enough to climb the tree to show us how it was done and you couldn’t help but be impressed by the man’s agility in climbing! We thanked them for their hospitality and walked back over to our homestay house where Limny treated us to a home cooked meal of traditional Cambodian food.
Limny hopes to have his own restaurant some day so he was full of pride when he recited how to make Beef and Lemongrass and Chicken Soup. It started to get dark and there was very little lighting around the camp so the last part of the cooking was hard to see. All of the cooking was done over the wood coals outside. There was not a gas or electric burner to be seen for miles!
We enjoyed the meal together and around 7 PM some loud music and singing were heard next door. We thought at first it was a wedding, but found out that it was actually a celebration of an old woman who had died three years prior. It was all about loud music, dancing, and drinking in memorial. A few people went over to watch, but ended up being the spectacle rather than the spectator. Westerners were not common here and we were stared at everywhere we went.
Several of us went to bed, but sleep was hard to find with the loud music, thin walls, and very little air movement in 95 degree weather. So I spent a night listening to my ipod and hoping sleep would come. The rooster started up around 4:00 so I gave up on sleeping and got up for a walk. After a nice walk others started to rise and we had a simple but nice meal of bread and some eggs with veggies. When we went to leave everyone lined up for a photo.
We took a ride down to Siem Reap and wasted no time heading back out to see the local sights! We headed by boat to see what is called “The Floating Village”, and actually named Chong Khneas. The catch is that it wasn’t floating because it was the dry season.
It sits on the shore of Tonle Sap which is the largest freshwater lake in SE Asia and absolutely crucial to Cambodia’s survival. When the lake backs up during the monsoon season it can raise its level from 1 meter to around 9 meters – thats a 24 foot difference, which is why these villages were built on stilts.
We went back to town and caught a traditional Apsara dance show before getting a good rest. In 2003, UNESCO named the Apsara dance a “Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Culture”. We all enjoyed the show much better than the last one we went to in Vietnam. It was very entertaining to watch the graceful men and women and their well choreographed moves. When you take into consideration that most of the traditional dancers were some of the first to die during the Khmer Rouge it is amazing that they have been able to perfect the dance based on the last few survivors that were able to continue the tradition.
After the show most of us headed back to the hotel and a handful went out to explore the town. We were all pretty excited to start exploring the temples in Angkor Wat the next day and I was no exception!
The ruins of Angkor are located amid forests and farmland to the north of the Great Lake of Tonlé Sap and are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The temples of the Angkor area number over one thousand, ranging in scale from nondescript piles of brick rubble scattered through rice fields to the magnificent Angkor Wat, said to be the world’s largest single religious monument. Many of the temples at Angkor have been restored, and together, they comprise the most significant site of Khmer architecture. Visitor numbers approach two million annually.
In 2007, an international team of researchers using satellite photographs and other modern techniques concluded that Angkor had been the largest preindustrial city in the world, with an elaborate system of infrastructure connecting an urban sprawl of at least 1,000 square kilometres (390 sq mi) to the well-known temples at its core. Although its population remains a topic of research and debate, newly identified agricultural systems in the Angkor area may have supported up to one million people.
The day was a whirlwind of temples and beautiful areas throughout the Siem Reap area and without another three pages of writing, I would not be able to tell you all about them! On the first day we visited five temples. I could post a thousand pictures and you would still not have a good feel for what we saw in the temples, so I will try to let a handfull of pictures tell the story. So here goes…
Day two of temple visits started early with the sunrise over Angkor Wat, the most famous of the ancient temples. It was pitch black when we first walked down the long pathway to situate ourselves in front of the water lily covered pond in front of the temple.
We fought the crowds for our great vantage point and were witness to poor behavior from several nationalities – including what I suspect was an American who yelled, “Down in front!” when a woman stood up. Regardless of the harsh interactions by some of the other observers, the beauty could not be denied.
After running around the temples for a couple of days straight we had a fun night out visiting the night market, having a drink on pub street with a Mexican food dinner that was actually really good.
We got on board a minibus for the cambodian border the next morning and stopped at a silk cultivating and dyeing facility along the way. There we had the opportunity to see how they went about processing it here in Cambodia, which is pretty much the same as in other countries, minus a few machines. After what has to be one of the longest, most painful border crossings from Cambodia into Thailand we arrived right back where we started at the Vieng Thai hotel in Bangkok. We all got together for a final dinner before we all went our separate ways the next day. A few people were staying in Thailand, but most everyone was headed home soon.
I headed to Bangsaray Beach and have been recovering from a long month of rapid fire touring throughout Indochina. Overall it was a enjoyable tour where I was lucky enough to have met a wonderful group of people from all over the world and see some incredible sights. I am glad to have a few days off to relax a bit before the whirlwind of India begins next week. I won’t be blogging until I get to India which is only in a few days as I don’t plan on doing anything blog worthy this week.
Take care and know that I miss you all and have really enjoyed the voicemails, emails, and facebook messages. It means the world to me to stay in touch with my nearest and dearest! Love you all!