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Published: August 18th 2005
Two more weeks and here I am in Thailand. It's hard to believe that I've been traveling for 1 month already. Since my last update, I've tasted the glory of an ancient empire and the horror of more recent decades. But there is more than history to see here and I was able to enjoy the sun too. SOUTHERN VIETNAM:
Watch my Southern Vietnam VideoBlog
I was in Nha Trang when I sent my last message and, before leaving that city, I treated myself to a boat tour: $6 US for the day, snorkeling, dinner and all-you-can-drink wine (see Nha Trang photos).
It's been more than 25 years since the "liberation" of Saigon by the communists but the city's new name of Ho Chi Minh City doesn't seem to have fully caught on. A museum dedicated to the American War is interesting due its new (for me) Vietnamese perspective. The war photos were touching and troubling, particularly because I have developed over the last 3 weeks an appreciation for the optimistic, hard working and smiling people of Vietnam. The faces shown in wartime photos showed very different emotions: fear, sadness or rage. I even recognized some places that
I have visited, except that tanks and barbed wire replaced the fruit vendors I saw.
I spent two days in the Mekong Delta before going up the river by boat to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. See photos of the floating village where fish farming is done beneath the floating houses and the Cham (Islamic Minority) village.
The Mekong River boarder crossing into Cambodia is far from busy. There were 7 of us on the boat and we were the only ones at the boarder for the 3-4 hours that it took 7 Cambodian boarder guards to check our passports, one of us at a time and one agent at a time, while the other guards watched and waited their turns. Patience is important while traveling and can let you seen the humour in an otherwise frustrating situation.
Watch my Cambodia VideoBlog
! PHNOM PENH:
Phnom Penh can easily be depressing. The buildings are still suffering from their years as a ghost town when the Khmer Rouge forcefully evacuated the city. My visits to Tuol Sleng and Choeng Ek were profoundly disturbing. Until 1975, Tuol Sleng was a high-school in a residential neighbourhood of Phnom Penh but under
La vie est belle!
the Pol Pot regime, the classrooms served as torture and detention chambers for more than 14,000 enemies of Angkor, meaning anyone with an profession or education (doctors, teachers, monks, diplomats...) and their extended families. It was difficult to look at the walls covered in prisoner photos, many very young and terrified, meticulously documented by the Khmer Rouge. Only 7 of the 14,000 prisoners at Tuol Sleng survived while the rest were sent to the killing fields, extermination camps such as Choeng Ek, where almost 2 million people were brutally murdered; this in a country with only 8 million people. I won't describe what I saw at Choeng Ek, it was too horrifying.
Peace is still relatively new in Cambodia but the effects of continuous war linger with 140 mines per square km and 150,000 tons of unexploded bombs, there are between 100 and 300 new victims each year. You can see the results everywhere: thousands of amputees. I spoke to some Cambodians and their optimism is impressive if not justified. ANGKOR UN AUTRE WAT:
The ancient capital of the Khmer Empire at Angkor, inaccessible for so long, easily justifies its reputation as one of the most impressive
Food on boat trip
marvel of Asia (see photos of Angkor). Unfortunately, Angkor Wat is the only reason that most people visit Cambodia and the Cambodians are trying to make the most of it. Several large tourist hotels are under construction at Siem Reap and I fell asleep each night with echoes of "meesta meesta, you buy, you buy" in my head. Despite this inconvenience, Angkor is a must-see for its 40 different 1000-year old ruin sites that can keep you busy exploring for days. Each temple (wat) is covered in bas-relief illustrating daily life and great battles of the era.
The bumpy minibus trip from Siem Reap to the Thai border must have reorganized my internal organs. What a contrast on the Thai side! The relative richness of this country is astounding, but that will be the subject of my next update. THINGS THAT I SAW BUT DECIDED NOT TO EAT:
IMPRESSIONS OF CAMBODIA:
- Raw pork wrapped in banana leaves and ripened for several days (they sell them everywhere). I almost bought one before learning of the ingredients.
- KFC (in Saigon) I've eaten some pretty disgusting things on this trip but I have my limits!
* Young people are obsessed with learning English, a language that they consider to be their passport to success in life. They hang around tourist sites looking for foreigners to practice on. At one point I felt like Socrates on the steps of the temple, surrounded by young Cambodians, some with English grammar books, looking for western wisdom or at least how to pronounce "tour guide". I learned that "engineer" in Khmer sounds something like "vexvikor" but believe me it's not written like that!
* Life in rural Cambodia has not changed much in the last 1000 years. I recognized the same style of stilted houses on the bas-relief carvings on ancient temple walls, the same clothes and farm implements.
* Young Cambodians are proud to recite the 3 things that they know about Canada: capital is Ottawa, population is 30 million and we speak 2 languages.
* The annual per-capital revenue is about $60 US compared with $320 in Vietnam and $3100 in Thailand.
* It's HOT! - 30 degrees at night and 40 during the day. I was surprised how I acclimatized to the heat after a few days, no longer leaving a river of sweat
on the ground behind me.
* I had lunch at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Cambodia in Phnom Penh for a contrasting environment compared to the surroundings.
My next update will be on Thailand and Laos.
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