Saigon to Phnom Penh: The human rights trail
Saigon is blessed with some fine French architecture hotels, the Opera House, the replica Notre Dame and the gorgeous Post Office. It is especially evocative of the Vietnam War, called the American War here by a country that has seen off many invaders. There is the American Embassy, from which the last of the US personnel was airlifted during the fall of Saigon. And there are the gates to the Palace which were stormed by the Viet Cong, beyond which lies something that would fare well in a competition for the world's ugliest building.
But most of all, Saigon is one of those places that brings you face to face with your values. At the War Remnants Museum, the effects of napalm and defoliants on people and unborn foetus' are displayed in graphic detail. An image that will always remain with me was a photo of villagers at gunpoint. The photographer noted that he stopped the soldiers from killing them just long enough to take the shot and "then I walked away. I heard gunshots and turned around to see bodies falling". What is it called when you prolong other peoples' agony for your own gain?
Leaving Saigon behind and travelling towards the Cambodian border is a village that makes rice paper. Nearby, the Cu Chi tunnels are so small that few Westerners could enter them, except for those made specially for tourists. Later, we were confronted by one of the most enduring images of the Vietnam War a little girl running along the road screaming in agony from her napalm burns. Stopping for lunch at the modest local restaurant owned by her parents, we watched a video made by her. This time, the photographer did not ignore her plight, instead ensuring she got proper medical attention and, eventually, helping her move to North America. Her story, one of triumph over adversity, is heart breaking and it was difficult to keep the tears at bay. Worst of all was the image of a baby in his mother's arms. What appeared to be shreds of clothing falling off him were in fact skin, and he was already dead.
After witnessing a service at the fascinating Cao Dai temple, we bunked down for an inauspicious last night in Vietnam. It's the price of going this way. One needs to conserve energy for the emotional roller coaster ride that is Phnom Penh.
At the border, the differences are immediately apparent. Vietnam is lush with rice fields, yet on the other side of No Man's land is a dry dusty grass plain dotted with palm trees. Tar sealing also gives way to a dirt road of intersecting potholes; something like a lunar landscape. The dust goes everywhere through the air conditioning and into your lungs, and progress is excruciatingly slow.
Stopping at a small town waiting for the car ferry, we were besieged by local children hawking their goods. A public bus arrived, overflowing beyond belief with people and goods. Next was a utility carrying live chickens. Bunches of three were tied together by the legs and hung from the vehicle at every conceivable point. More were packed onto the roof and in the back. Buckets of water were poured over them, presumably to cool them. If the killing methods in the markets were not already enough to turn any determined carnivore into a vegetarian, this might do it.
Eventually we arrived in Phnom Penh. Slower than the Vietnamese cities, with many unsealed roads that topdress you in dust, a good dose of French eccentricity, great food, chilled red wine, gorgeous children, hospitable people, lawless by night
and I LOVE it. Within two hours of arriving, I had decided to return at the end of the trip for my precious few spare days.
Thanks to the illegal bombing of Cambodia a neutral country - by the US during the Vietnam War, it is heavily land mined. It has the highest number of amputees per head of population of any country in the world, and beggars abound. Many children are also accomplished touts and beggars who speak good English. Some have a third language as well. This is accomplished despite a low level of education. Visiting a local school that is supported by Intrepid Travel for a dance performance, it was heartening to see girls there in abundance. Only about 60% of girls receive an education, and even then it is generally only to primary level. A truly memorable experience, some of the kids were real characters, and the local band accompaniment added considerably to the ambience.
Tuol Sleng, the infamous S21 prison of the Khmer Rouge, was first up the next morning. A converted school, only seven prisoners survived when the Vietnamese rolled into town. The photos and captions tell a shocking story of abject cruelty and indescribable suffering. The Khmer Rouge kept ghoulishly meticulous records and photographed every prisoner some on arrival, some during torture sessions (of which there was no end to their creativity) and others upon their death. Of the latter, some looked happy to die. Most poignant of all was when our local guide stated that his father had died here, then abruptly turned and went through to the next room.
At Choeng Ek, the Killing Fields Memorial, almost 9000 bodies have been exhumed. This is just one site, and every time it rains more bones are washed to the surface. Even in the dry season, bones and teeth are clearly visible in the dirt paths. Today the stories of how people were executed silenced our normal jocularity. I've got the t-shirt, read the book and checked the statistics. Every decade, more civilians than the entire population of Australia die as a result of war. Sadly, genocide just keeps happening Rwanda, the Balkans, East Timor, Afghanistan. If someone fleeing these circumstances were to join the queue for resettlement in a safe country, he or she would reach the front in 120 years time. I know I wouldn't join that queue.
Further north, near the town of Siem Reap, lie the 14th century temples of Angkor. Hand cut stone was hauled to the site by elephant; every available wall has been decorated. Bas-reliefs depict scenes from ordinary life that, in many ways, has changed little since. Others depict war scenes with prisoners bound by the neck, yet others the revered dancers.
In one day, one can watch sunrise at Angkor Wat, have lunch at a butterfly café, visit the magnificent Bayon and Ta Phrom, climb the hill on elephant back to watch the sun set, and eat dinner while watching a performance of the royal dancers. My favourite temple is Ta Phrom, with trees growing on the ruins, their roots growing down over the walls. It evokes a sense of wonder and mystery that is rare in our science-oriented world. We also stopped at a village that specialises in making sugar cane candy. It's like fudge but sweeter, and it's delicious. Bonus brownie points go to anyone who can manage more than two at a time without drinking vast volumes of water.
The group trip over, I headed back to Phnom Penh alone. A 5.30am departure took one and a half hours on little more than a goat track to reach the ferry. Floating villages that service the ferries move with the rains. People poured onto the ferries for ages, and still they poured on. At 8.30am, the 7am sailing was off, leaving behind the ramshackle customs house.
An ancient motor boat towed the ferry into the lake, past floating houses where home deliveries also arrive by boat. Lake Tonle Sap is only about a quarter of its mid-summer size at this time of the year. For some time, the shores were not in view, giving a glimpse of just how big this lake is at its peak. As well as the fascinating villages, plantations and towns along the way, I was also entertained by some fellow travellers who were giving the Mekong whisky something of a nudge.
Back on the streets of Phnom Penh, within an hour of arriving I ran into a large group of motorcyclists and what appeared to be a peaceful protest. By evening it had turned ugly. The Thai Embassy was burned down, as were about six Thai-owned businesses, making it into the international news and causing a breakdown in diplomatic relations between the two countries. Gunfire could be heard until the early hours of the morning. Thai nationals were flown out of the country the next morning and the airport closed, followed by the road border. Rumours were rife amongst the ex-pat community. One such rumour had it that the airport would remain closed for two months. I hoped that this was true.
The next day, the Phnom Penh Post was surprisingly candid, given that this is a communist country. Conspicuous for their lack of action the previous day, the police and army were out in force, patrolling the town by the truck load. I hired a moto driver for the day and headed across the river, from where the smoke from the still-smouldering embassy was clearly visible. A Navy officer, my moto driver took me to the base. The gunships are aged, abandoned US marine vessels in original condition. All government jobs pay USD20 per month. Typically, this is not sufficient to feed a family, so like many others, he works the other two days as a moto driver. I am still glad that I did not bother to haggle about the fare for the day. The extra couple of dollars I paid meant nothing to me but did mean something to him. I was more than amply rewarded. Two days later, he pulled up as I was walking and gave me a lift to my destination. Refusing payment, he explaining that it was on his way home. This example of the generosity of those with few worldly trappings is something that struck me regularly while travelling in the region. It is also mirrored on the international level. For example, Bangladesh gave as much to the UN Afghanistan appeal as Australia.
Phnom Penh is an amazing place and the riots did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for it. Around town, the National Museum is simply gorgeous. The exhibits from Angkor and beyond are fantastic, and the building itself is stunning. Built around a central courtyard, it's the most tranquil place in town. The Royal Palace complex also showcases beautiful architecture, and the art galleries offer some excellent pieces. In the evenings, there are great restaurants serving food from all other the region. The local delicacy is amok, a curry dish that is really delicious and must be enjoyed often. There are also plenty of bars to choose from, including one that satisfied something I had been missing for weeks - Aussie red wine that is not chilled.
Estimates vary of how many people perished during the Khmer Rouge era vary; anything up to half the population. Certainly, 54% of the people are now under 21. The local delicacy is amok, a curry dish that is really delicious and must be enjoyed often. Despite its terrible past and the poverty, the Cambodian people are absolutely delightful in their warmth, friendliness and generosity of spirit. It made me laugh, it made me cry, and the strength of the human spirit displayed by its people made my soul soar. It got under my skin; I will return.
Laureen travelled with Intrepid Travel.
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