February 2010. The Winter Olympics are in Vancouver. It is a good time for Craig to be away. Not much happening work-wise. A friend of a friend who lives in Coquitlam is only too happy to house/cat sit so close to the Olympic action. All systems go for a trip.
Vietnam is all the rage. The latest hotspot. A must-see land of wonder. We plan 5 weeks. Include Laos and Cambodia.
We start in Cambodia via Bangkok. Siem Reap, the town closest to Angkor Wat, the temple we are here to see, is a fairy tale place. Has to be seen to be believed. So beautiful. Typical south east Asia architecture and aesthetic. Lots of silk in luminous colour. Sandalwood carving. Incense. Buddhist monks in saffron robes. Because of the proximity of Angkor Wat and the volume of tourists, Siem Reap is also replete with creature comforts. Comfy hotels, cozy restaurants, lively craft markets.
The ruins at Angkor Wat, a temple complex and the largest religious monument in the world, are spectacular. On a site measuring 402 acres it was originally constructed as a Hindu temple of god Vishnu for the Khmer Empire and gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple towards the end of the 12th century.
It is blistering hot. A humid tropical hot. Very uncomfortable. The temple guards insist that my shoulders be covered, making it even hotter. Our hotel, the Bhopha Angkor, has a small pool, where we take refuge in the afternoons. A sweet place.
A day trip to Tonle Sap lake is fascinating and a bit distressing. The inhabitants live in floating villages, sustaining themselves with fishing. In the past decades the lake has been inundated with Vietnamese who fled the war and the post-war communist government. These refugees are desperately poor and not well integrated into the community. They approach our tour boat in a variety of small vessels, and beg.
From Siem Reap we take a bus south to the capital, Phnom Phen, through the Cambodian countryside. It is very green. Lush. Verdant. Fecund. Large fields of workers bent over crops. A lunch stop provides an opportunity for Craig to eat the bugs he’s been intent on trying. At the last minute he loses his nerve and we opt for chicken fried rice at a roadside cafe.
Phnom Phen is crowded and hot. It has a few buddhist temples in the style of the royal palace in Bangkok. A tub-tuk tour gets us to the main sights.
The next morning we board an old wooden craft for a trip down the Mekong River. There are about a dozen of us, the boat captain and his wife, who hands out snacks along the way. We cross the border into Vietnam and enter a smaller tributary of the Mekong that takes us to Can Tho.
Can Tho is a bit of a dump. Or maybe it is just our accommodations? Part of the tour, which only cost $50 per person, including the boat, border crossing and breakfast, the hotel is, not surprisingly, cheap, cheap, cheap. On the second floor of a motorcycle shop, on a street of automotive supply and repair shops, the only window looking out onto the hall, a double bed shoved against a wall, no sheets, towels, soap or toilet paper, one bare bulb in the ceiling, the walls dirty with grime, blood and other splatters of indiscriminate origin. No air conditioning. Broken fan. We find an upscale hotel, lingering in their river-side patio restaurant as long as we can, reluctant to head back to our dreadful room. I should have taken a photo just for memory’s sake. As it is, there is a photo of us arriving in Can Tho and one of us leaving, but nothing in between. Apropos of the experience.
Although we spend only a week in Cambodia, we learn much about the tragic history of this small country. The Khmer Rouge, the followers of the Communist Party of Kampuchea in Cambodia, wreaked havoc on the country for many years. It was formed in 1968 as an offshoot of the Vietnam People’s Army from North Vietnam, and allied with North Vietnam, the Viet Cong, and the Pathet Lao during the Vietnam War against the anti-communist forces from 1968 to 1975. The Khmer Rouge emerged victorious in the Cambodian Civil War, overthrew the military dictatorship of the Khmer Republic and installed their own government, Democratic Kampuchea in 1975, led by Pol Pot. This was followed by the Cambodian genocide which occurred from 1975 until 1979, when the Khmer Rouge was finally removed from power by Vietnam in the Cambodian–Vietnamese War. The military power of the Khmer Rouge organization was not broken however, and a long era of guerrilla warfare involving large swaths of the Cambodian countryside began. Many different military factions were involved in the guerrilla war era which ended around 1994.
We see evidence of the war in people’s missing limbs. The poverty. The lack of people our age. But the people themselves are welcoming and friendly. Their gentle natures seem at odds with the horror inflicted by the Khmer Rouge. The buddhist religious iconography and art starkly juxtaposed on a land that has seen much blood.
The same is true for Viet Nam, where the violent history feels impossible in this country of hard-working, family-oriented, spiritually-inclined gentlemen and women.
We spend two weeks in Vietnam. The stories and photos from that portion of the trip can be found under the title “Vietnam 2010”.