A moving journey
29.01.2009 - 02.02.2009 31 °C
We left the beach, stayed one night in Sihanoukville Town and then headed on the local bus to Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia. What we had heard about the city was mostly negative, that it was noisy, crazily busy and unsafe. What we found wasn't that bad at all. We didn't encounter any hostility, the traffic was a bit all over the place and certainly busy, but no more so than school run traffic we had encountered as kids. The streets were clean and although there were a few overpriced restaurants and bars, we eventually found a couple of nice places to hang out. The French influence was even more evident here, with avenues with large colonial houses, and colourful flower displays at the window. We walked to the silver Pagoda and Presidential Palace, but thought the entrance fee was a bit steep, so went and sat by the Mekong and watched fishermen and children playing in the water. The Mekong is the lifeblood of this whole region and stretches through China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia. It provides so much for so many, and it was lovely just to sit and watch boats glide by and locals milling about.
The mighty Mekong
The purpose of our stopover in Phnom Penh was a visit to S-21. If you're unfamiliar with the recent history of Cambodia, you can find some information here . In brief, Cambodia was ruled by a communist dictator, Pol Pot, in the 70's. His bread of communism was very extreme, and he and his supporters believed that intellectuals were to blame for discord in the country, and the citizens, and ultimately himself, could benefit from the eradication of this group. Along with this, of course, the general population should all be made equal, in line with the usual communist thinking. What this led to, was the execution of 3.5 million people over roughly three years. This included monks, children and even those who wore glasses. Those that were left were separated from their families, and sent to work the land. The capital city was evacuated by the government and all citizens were sent to work. During these years a detention and torture prison was set up - S-21, in the buildings of a school in the heart of Phnom Penh. These buildings now house a museum depicting the events that took place, and a stark look at the victims. We'd had reservations that the place might be to serve morbid curiosity but we found it quite the opposite. The buildings have been changed very little since the prison was discovered after the regime. 13 bodies were discovered, and you can walk right into the rooms where they were found.
One of the torture rooms, where a body was discovered
One of the tiny cells
The cells are still there, and we were free to walk around them, giving us a real feel for how confined the space was. In one of the buildings photos of those who had passed through were displayed, filling several large classrooms. Sketchy black and white mug shots, which were discovered in the grounds, show hundreds of scared, defiant and confused men, woman and children. Some of the people looked very similar to people we had met in Cambodia. Looking into the eyes of so many condemned people was hard, but we made an effort to take our time and really try and comprehend the truly horrific events that took place here.
Some of the many photos on display. Don't think we'll ever forget the picture in the centre. Can't imagine how young he is.
The next day we took a bus to Ho Chi Min City, Vietnam. Our first land border crossing was very straightforward, and the journey was hassle free, not to mention cheap. We had purchased visas in Sihanoukville, the process had only taken five minutes. Our bus pulled into the centre of the tourist district and we located the hostel we had booked, very quickly. Vietnam was yet another place we were warned about with tales of rude locals and bag snatchers. Yet again our apprehensions were unfounded, and we loved place instantly. We were warned that the tuktuk and moto drivers were the most persistent here, but compared to Cambodia they seemed, well, polite. The city was named Saigon until the end of the war, and then renamed Ho Chi Min City, after some chap from the North. However, people rarely refer to it as this, and the name Saigon is still used for everyday discussions, with Ho Chi Min used on official forms. Another French influenced, and massive city, there are some parts that are very beautiful, very green and the huge colonial houses making an appearance again. In District 1 there is a small collection of streets where bars and cafes and other backpackers can be found. there are other areas where the wealthy tourist will frequent, so this little enclave is kept fairly reasonably priced. The food is very similar to Cambodia, with big plates of rice or noodles with chicken and vegetables.
Crazy electricity supply
Our first stop in Saigon was the War Remnants Museum. In the UK we are slightly detached from the Second Indochina War, commonly known in the west as the Vietnam war, and known in Vietnam as The American War. Most British people's knowledge of the conflict is provided by films and TV etc, and is therefore fairly tainted by propaganda or a glamorised version of events. Before coming to Vietnam, we both took the time to research the history of the war using the Internet, and of course watched a few war films. No amount of research could prepare us for the facts of the war laid out in this museum. Starkly aware that a government run museum would give a biased opinion, we found that the atrocities of some of the American soldiers uncomprehendable and inexcusable. The quotes displayed were admissions of guilt given by the Americans and there was very little in the way of outlandish propaganda. It seemed very understated, the photos and facts speaking for themselves. Along with newspaper articles, picture of soldiers and display cases of artillery and guns used, were the images of the effect of Agent Orange, a chemical used by the Americans to wipe out thousands of innocent people. The after effects of this chemical are appalling and how the use of it was sanctioned is uncomrehendable. People were effected for years after the chemical was released, with babies being born up until quite recently with deformities. We were greatly effected by what we saw, and we had an overall feeling of complete incomprehension how human beings could commit such evil things.
Tank outside the War Museum
We didn't take any photos inside. It didn't feel right.
The Chu-Chi tunnels were next on the agenda. Although we wanted to avoid tour groups, it seemed quite reasonably priced, and it was quite hard to find by public transport by all accounts. During the war the residents of the village of Chu-Chi, near Saigon, built an enormous network of underground tunnels, to hide insurgents and to gain un hindered access to American camps. Before we toured the site, we watched an old scratchy information tape. The footage was from the war and the translation produced a titter or two from the group, especially when the winner of an award for killing the most Americans was presented to a beaming twelve year old girl. The tour guide led us around various displays, including the various traps made to kill and maim the opposition. They were pretty impressive, and very brutal. The guide showed us an entrance to the tunnels, a well covered small hole, which Brads fitted easily through. We saw bomb making workshops and fake tunnel entrances, and even got to walk through a tunnel passage, and even though it had been widened for western tourists, it was still an incredibly tight fit. It seemed the resistance was clever and resourceful, and we can imagine the American soldiers would have felt very scared and jumpy with all the traps and tunnels around. The brutality and ruthlessness of the American Soldiers is perhaps a little more understandable given the enormous fear they would have felt towards this hidden army, right on their doorstep, but obviously still does not excuse the atrocities committed.
Brads popping up through an entrance to the tunnels
Anna and the insurgents
We wanted to travel for many reasons, one of which was to appreciate what we have and the lives we lead. The things we saw both in Cambodia and in Vietnam, brought home to us how lucky we really are, to live in a county, and an age where we don't have to fear for our lives. Things are much better in these countries than a few years ago, but still there is a lack of things that we have now taken as granted as our right, rather than a luxury. Drinkable water from the tap is the most obvious example. Being able to wear glasses without getting executed, is another example, even if it seems extreme. It also brought home to us how incredibly calm and tolerant the Cambodian and Vietnamese people are, to have experienced all of this so recently. We saw no aggressive exchanges or raised voices. It is part of the culture here never to show when you are angry, it is seen as a sign of weakness. When we think of how our nation, and this includes us totally, seems so angry all of the time, we feel ashamed that really we have nothing to feel so angry about. We are all pretty lucky really. We can both be aggressive, and this feeling can come on very quickly over the smallest thing. Being here, and having to be calm when faced with something that would usually rile us up, has had a massive impact on us. We have to be nice and smile when all we want to do is get cross and shout.
On our last day in Saigon we visited Dam Sen Water Park. Not covered by local tour operators, we caught the local bus from the market, which was a breeze. Although the park has signs in English and a separate area for foreigners to change and sunbathe, we only saw four other non-Vietnamese the whole day. We realised quickly that the reason they had a special area for foreigners was that locals do not sunbathe. In South East Asia, it is more desirable to be white, rather than having dark skin. This leads to quite a few curiosities, like people bathing totally dressed, which we've seen everywhere we've been, even at the waterpark. It also leads to women walking around in the scorching heat with long trousers, a jumper, a hat, face mask, gloves, socks, flip flops and an umbrella. It also means that it is almost impossible to buy any beauty product that doesn't have a whitening chemical, including deodorant and sun block! The water park was really fun, even if there is a lack of stringent health and safety laws here. The rides were fast and at times quite scary. It was nice to emerse ourselves with locals having fun, rather than going to something that is designed for tourists.
Brads having fun at the water park
We have two weeks in Vietnam to make our way up the coast and then cross into Laos, over another land border crossing. There is an excellent network of tourist buses here, and we booked our first bus journey using Singh travel. Our first destination is Dalat, in the mountains.