Cambodia is one of the most interesting national dualities I have seen in a while. On the one hand you have the Angkor complex which is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Asia, and on the other you have the legacy of the Khmer Rouge. In order to get to the capital, Phnom Pehn though I had to suffer one more night bus on Cambodia’s terrible roads. This time though I was a little more clever and instead of having a random neighbor to share a bed with, I bought two tickets, since they were only $4 each, and thus I had my own “bed”. I arrived in Phnom Pehn around 6 am and as usual, all the white people on the bus got assaulted by tuk tuk drivers and hostel touts. Let me tell you, this is one the most annoying things when traveling, climbing off a bus, 30 seconds after rudely waking up and then having 20 aggressive locals trying to usher you off to their “hotel” is something everyone should experience at least once. My Canadian friend, Eddie, was staying in a hostel down town so I went with him to drop off my bag. I was not staying the night but I didn’t want to lug my luggage either. So we hired the driver that was nicest at 6 am for the whole day to show us around.

The two places I wanted to see were the Killing Fields and the notorious S-21 prison. We went to the Killing Fields first. Like any other place of the genocidal nature that I have ever been to, this place was incredible depressing and brought forward the darkest possibilities of human nature. This place was different though for a number of reasons. The Khmer Rouge were eliminating their enemies in the late 1970’s. So it was pretty recent, but on top of that, the enemies were anyone from a city, anyone with an education, even people who wore glasses because they might appear to be smart. The extreme communist ideology of the Khmer was cult-like and twisted as only mass murdering inhumanists can be. The killing fields are

not big, this one is only 15 acres or so. The victims were offloaded from trucks and killed only a few steps away. In order to save bullets, the victims were not killed by firing squad, or some automated murder device, no, they were pretty much executed with old farm implements, axles, or whatever heavy thing happened to be available to smash a skull. In the case of babies, they would not even use a tool, instead the executioners would just swing the baby by its legs and bash it against a tree. This is probably one of the most gruesome things I have ever heard of, and I am pretty sure I will think about it for a long time. The fields are full of mass graves. Old clothes still blow about as the rain drives the bones, clothing and teeth to the surface. At the center of the area is a monument to the massacred. It is a pagoda 5 stories tall, with glass walls, filled to the brim with the skulls of the victims. This is a place humanity should not forget, but it is also one not one wants to remember.

In order to cheer us up, the driver took us over to the S-21 prison. This is an old school that was converted into the prison where the victims of the Khmer Rouge where tortured and later taken out to the killing fields. This school is right in the middle of the city but since Pol Pot closed all the cities, it was not hard to hide this place. Few prisoners survived the cruel Khmer. The pictures of all the victims are posted. It is thousands of people, all in the same pose as there was a certain chair they had to sit in for their indoctrination photo. Then they were shackled and tortured in all sorts of ways until they confessed as being enemies, indicted their family and neighbors and then off they went to the killing fields. This was all getting to be too much, so I decided to head to Vietnam.

After a very exciting motorcycle ride across the city to the bus station, I was on my way. The bus ride was uneventful and the border crossing easy enough. The difference between Cambodia and Vietnam is pretty incredible, Cambodia is really third world and you can tell. Vietnam, by contrast, appears modern and western. As the bus moves towards Saigon or Ho Chi Men City (as the commies call it) traffic just gets worse and worse. Before you know it you are surrounded by mopeds. So many that the two-stroke exhaust is suffocating. This made me realize that the two-stroke motor might be one of the worst inventions ever. Saigon is huge compared to the backpacker cities I have been in recently and I was a bit overwhelmed, so I hung around a few hours and then retreated to the French-colonial mountain town of Da Lat.

Da Lat was especially nice because it was so much higher than the surrounding flat lands that it was about 10-15 degrees cooler. The weather was really nice. I took a tour of the city and found that there really was not much to see, just what you would expect from a French mountain town – mansions, a lake, some bakeries and a train station. It was getting time to move on but I couldn’t find the bus station. I asked a random shop keeper. The woman was more than happy to help, even though she spoke only a little English. She told me to wait and so I did. It was interesting since her store sold live frogs and live eels. So there were things crawling about. Then a bus showed up to pick me up and took me to the bus station. What a very kind stranger to help me. Off to Nha Trang I went, which was really just a beach town. Having seen enough beaches since I left the US, I decided it would be best to hop on the night train to Hoi An.

The overnight train trip was not so bad, except that I didn’t get a bed but instead just a seat. No problem except the lady who came from the third class seats sitting in my second class seat didn’t want to move, and a fight with the conductor ensued. I think she might have gotten kicked off the train. Hoi An though was a really great place and probably one of my favorite places in Vietnam. The down town is a UNESCO site, and for good reason. The streets are narrow and look like what you would expect to see in Vietnam 100 years ago. The charming streets are lined with vendors of all sorts and tea houses and old hotels. You could imagine that this place was full of brothels and opium dens not so long ago. The canals and rivers around the town allow easy access to the sea and provide a never ending supply of fresh delicious squid. Even though this is a tourist town now, it is still very relaxing. I stayed there a few days and then decided to take a motorcycle ride to Hue.

The ride went along the coast. The driver turned 18 the year the Vietnam War (called the American War here) ended. He would have fought for the South and had a lot to say about the commies. When I told him that my dad was in the war and was here during the 1968 Tet Offensive, he really opened up. He told me quite a bit about that particular nationwide battle. Apparently his father was killed by the commie neighbor during the uprising. Part of the offensive was that all the commie cells would rise up and kill anyone who was not loyal to the north. This meant neighbors killing neighbors. He also drove me through the huge base at Danang and showed me China Beach. We stopped at a lookout pass and he told me more stories. It was very interesting and he was very pro-American. He dropped me off in Hue at a hotel run buy a woman who was half-Vietnamese and half-American.

Hue was a great city to visit. It was very large, but the cultural area is really concentrated. And the hotel was in the middle of it all. The first thing I did was to hire another bike to take me to all the attractions just out of town. This mostly consisted of tombs of former kings. These places didn’t take long to see, but were a nice ride into the country. What was a bit surprising about all the tombs and kingly retreats and pagodas and such though was that none of it was particularly old. Vietnam has a very confusing history and so much has been destroyed that you only get to glimpse the last 200 years or so. The final stop of the day was the forbidden Purple City in the Hue Citadel. This could have been amazing, but almost the entire former palace is under construction.

The next day The same driver took me through the DMZ (demilitarized zone, the area along the 17th parallel that separated North and South Vietnam). This driver though, unlike the one who took me to Hue, was much younger and not so knowledgeable about the war. Most of the places that we stopped were bombed to bits by the Americans and full of understandably anti-US propaganda. The museums though were hard. This is the first time that I have been anywhere and been considered the “enemy”. In the Pacific you heard how American liberated the islands from the Japanese for example. Here it is the other way around. Except I don’t think Americans ever massacred any Pacific Islanders after WWII but the North killed everyone who disagreed with Uncle Ho when whatever city was taken over. Never the less, the tour was probably highlighted by seeing the tunnels at Vinh Moc. This was a supply base for
some islands that was moved underground to protect from bombing. The interesting thing is that the tour guide insists the village people stayed there by choice. But I asked why they wouldn’t move if they were being bombed all the time. Of course they had to support the soldiers, was the reply. Had to? I probed deeper and the guide realized he caught himself in a logical trap. So much for ideology. On the way back to Hue, we stopped at the Ben Hai River Bridge, where the North met the South, the old border. This was interesting, and full of communist propaganda and anti-Americanism. On the South side, all remnants of the South Vietnamese and American bases were gone and replaced with victory monuments in the massive blocky-concrete style that only a commie-artists can sculpt. The tour ended after a few more sites and I found my appetite for understanding the Vietnam War better a little unsatisfied. The guide refused to take me anywhere I really wanted to go. So it goes. And I left, for Hanoi on a night bus.

After the usual morning assault by taxi cab, tuk-tuks, moped drivers and hotel touts I made my way down to a hotel in the old part of Hanoi. Narrow little streets and shops and feral-restaurants on the sidewalk pretty much summed up by new neighborhood. There were only a few things I wanted to see in the commie capital. The first stop was the Ho Chi Min complex. I didn’t see any reason to go into the mausoleum but I was more interested in the cultural museum. Everything inside was an over the top display of the triumph of communism over capitalism and how the failed ideals of free market and free-dom have led to the down fall of the western (read American Imperialist) world. Poor Uncle Ho, if only his preserved eyes could see what how little communism still exists in Vietnam and how the only remnants of his ideology are not found in the hearts of the people but only in the carryover propaganda from the late 70’s and 80’s.

After the bazaar museum I headed over to the “Temple of Literacy”. This was actually a surprise, I thought it was going to be a commie piece of hypocrisy. But it turned out that it was actually a very pleasant old university of sorts. I am surprised that the commies didn’t destroy this place as it seemed like the type of thing they would ideologically be opposed to. In any case, it was nice. And that night I went to see the water-puppet show. This is something that is uniquely Vietnamese. Basically the puppets exist on the end of bamboo poles and they perform on the water with the puppet masters behind a screen. The puppets then tell stories from history or fairy tails. I think this is the first puppet show I have seen in 30 years, but I am not sure.

The next day I went to the museum of military history. You can only imagine what this place is all about. Actually it is pretty obvious. It is full of the weird little weapons that the North used to defeat the “American Imperialists and the Illegal Puppet Government of the South” and all sorts of captured American stuff. Captured Tanks, Hueys, the bits of a shot down B-52, and this defeated by bazookas made from bamboo and home made mines, oh, and lots of surface to air missiles and Kalashnikovs. Once you get over the propaganda though it is actually an interesting museum. And speaking of propaganda, my last stop was the infamous Hanoi Hilton, the POW prison that housed John McCain among others. The prison was actually made by the French colonialists. According to the exhibits, the French tortured the Vietnamese criminals and kept them in terrible conditions (probably true). However, the same exhibits show how shot down American pilots where treated in the most humane of any POW in history. There are pictures of them playing basketball and eating huge meals. At some point, I had enough and headed home.

Vietnam was a really great country. And I think it might actually have been my favorite one in South East Asia. The people are friendly in the south and hold no animosity about the War. In the north people are a little more rude, at least in Hanoi. It is diverse and beautiful. I think that visiting this country, while it is different today than 1968 helped me understand more about my father, who never told me much about the war. He hated the country, I didn’t. But then again, no one was shooting at me. Seeing some of the places though that he visited under much different circumstances gave me a certain insight. In any case, I will probably return to Vietnam one day, I doubt I will ever go back to Laos or Cambodia, and probably not Thailand.

I caught a night train to China. At some point in time I caught a cold and still have it. I even lost my voice for a few days. The border crossings occurred between 3 and 5 am and took some time. So there was not much sleep. In the morning though, riding through the South Chinese country side was a contrast of beautiful limestone kaersts and rice fields combined with factories pumping black soot into the atmosphere and about one in ten of the kaersts being mined and quarried for raw material. We arrived in Nanning and the confusion began. No one spoke English, and the crowds and lines were tremendous.

It took me almost an hour in line to get my ticket to Guangzhou. I hung around the transit town till evening. I was sick which made it much less fun, and the only tickets I could get for the night train were in the lowest class. That’s fine. I am sure I have had worse. The night train was long and slow and very very crowded. In fact everything in China is crowded, or under construction. The ride was interesting though as every half hour or so a man would come out to sell something, like socks, tools, toys and even an electric muscle stimulator. I was the only white person on the train and became some what of an attraction. At some point there were many people coming to have their pictures taken with me and it was kind of funny, and luckily there was a high school student who spoke some English.

Guangzhou was a big industrialized city. I was actually surprised at how modern the city of 5.9 million was, it was clean and efficient. Less construction than Nanning anyway. I did get really ripped off by the taxi cab though, he charged me ten fold what he should have. And waited to till we were on the highway to tell me he was going to screw me. In hindsight I should have not paid him, but I did. The hills around Guanghzhou are very nice except that there was a thunderstorm. Also, the very tall Guangzhou tower was closed. After a few days it was off to Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is a pretty fantastic city, but I will save that for the next post. In the meantime, I am waiting for my visa to Russia and will need to get another one for China. I decided to just have Slick delivered to a marina in Turkey, so I don’t have to fly there and back. She is about half way there now. I am finally feeling better too, but I still have not gotten my voice back, its lost and I hope I find it soon.