Phnom Penh

phnom penh: wats, royal palaces, & killing fields

Wednesday, January 19: The breakfast buffet at Villa Langka is a still life, redolent with tropical fruits: melon, papaya, bananas, mango, pineapple, passionfruit, dragon fruit.

breakfast at the villa langka ~ I love this place:-)

breakfast at the villa langka ~ I love this place:-)

My plate is so artfully arranged, I don’t want to disturb it.  I linger, sitting by the poolside surrounded by tropical abundance, savoring these jewel-fruits, these bursts of mellow sweetness.  A perfect start to my day.

Mr. Lo is waiting for me with his tuk tuk.  We start off by heading to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the former high school turned prison and interrogation center in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital.  It served as Security Prison 21 (S-21) for the communist Khmer Rouge regime from 1975-1979, the years when they were in power.  The regime converted the buildings by enclosing them in electrified barbed wire.  The classrooms became tiny prison and torture chambers and windows were covered with iron bars and barbed wire to prevent escapes.

mr. lo and me in his tuk tuk

mr. lo and me in his tuk tuk

I walk around the former prison, which has been kept in the state it was when the regime fell in 1979, except cleaned up.  It’s haunting.  I first walk through the larger rooms where people were strapped to beds, tortured and interrogated.  Nearly every room contains one metal-framed bed, a few torture instruments and a black and white photograph of someone being horribly tortured.  When prisoners were brought here, they were stripped, and all their possessions taken.  Then they made confessions of all their activities from the moment they were born until they were arrested, which were transcribed by the prison officials.  Often these confessions would be thousands of words and would interweave truth with fictions of spying for the CIA or Vietnam (probably obtained under torture).

a horrifying picture of torture

a horrifying picture of torture

Men, women and children alike were tortured by horrible means:  beaten and tortured with electric shocks, searing hot metal instruments and hanging. Some prisoners were cut with knives or suffocated with plastic bags.  Other horrible means of torture were used as well, including waterboarding and pulling out fingernails while pouring alcohol over the wounds.  Often the confessions obtained through such tortures included the names of hundreds of the prisoner’s friends, family or acquaintances who were guilty of some crime against the Khmer Rouge.

rows of tiny cells in the prison

rows of tiny cells in the prison

It’s such an incredibly distressing place.  So dark, you can almost feel the evil that once lurked here.  After the torture rooms, I go to another building where there are rows and rows of tiny rectangular cells, the size of long skinny closets, where prisoners were shackled to the tiled floor.  In other rooms, there are giant boards of black and white photos of young and old, male and female, Cambodians staring desperately at the camera.  It’s deathly quiet in the museum.  Deathly.

The Khmer Rouge apparently kept detailed records of every prisoner, every confession, every action they took.  All this is on display at the museum.

faces of victims

faces of victims

It’s estimated that anywhere from 17,000-20,000 prisoners were held here during the Khmer Rouge reign, with 1,000-1,500 at any one time.  Prisoners initially included people from the previous Lon Nol regime:  soldiers, government officials, as well as academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, engineers, etc.  Later, the Khmer Rouge paranoia extended the killing to those within their own ranks.  Most prisoners stayed for 2-3 months, after which time they were killed and buried near the prison.  When space eventually ran out, the regime transported prisoners to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek.

one of the tiny closet-like cells

one of the tiny closet-like cells

When I leave this horrible prison, Mr. Lo drives me in his tuk tuk to  Choeung Ek, about 15 km outside of Phnom Penh.  I follow in the footsteps of around 18,000 people who were transported from Tuol Sleng to The Killing Fields and brutally murdered.

It’s a slow drive in a tuk tuk to the Killing Fields.   I am all eyes and ears as we ride along, motorbikes buzzing all around.  Again, as in Vietnam, we pass businesses of every sort imaginable operating out of concrete cubbyholes with rusty corrugated metal roofs.  In store fronts, there are racks of old-fashioned and dirty Pepsi bottles filled with a yellow-green liquid.  I can’t help but wonder what is that liquid the color of urine in those dirty bottles.  Later, I find out they contain gasoline for motorbikes.

street scene on the way to the Killing Fields

street scene on the way to the Killing Fields

on the way to the Killing Fields

on the way to the Killing Fields

Barber shops seem to be everywhere, men standing with scissors in hand snipping away at customers wearing bibs around their necks.  Children run around on the streets in dirty clothes with naked bottoms exposed.  In the midst of the poverty, shiny cars with LEXUS emblazoned on their sides cruise the streets.  Women walk the streets in cartoon-covered pajamas while men play billiards in open air concrete garages.  In open-air movie-theater type rooms, sparse groups of people sit in plastic chairs watching a community TV set.  Huge carts of stinky durians and leafy greens and bamboo and sugar cane are pushed by little old ladies in colorful mismatched outfits. Men covered in black oil toil away at engine repair shops, steel welding operations, or tire shops with corrugated tin roofs.  Dust settles, permeates, resides.

the commemorative stupa at the killing fields

the commemorative stupa at the killing fields

We buzz on.  I have my backpack clutched between my legs on the floor of the tuk tuk because Mr. Lo warned me against keeping it on the seat.  I have read that people snatch bags from foreigners as they drive by on their motorbikes.  Corncobs cook on carts.  Hyundai Porters (like I see constantly in Korea) and Toyotas roll down the poorly maintained streets.  Surprisingly, I see a garbage truck, the first one I’ve seen in either Vietnam or Cambodia.  I also see garbage dump-type places. The debris is not as prevalent here as what I saw on the fringes of Hanoi.  The Cambodia-Japan Friendship Skills Training Center buzzes with people-in-training.

Forty-five minutes later at the Killing Fields, I face the entrance gate and a giant commemorative stupa.  I discover later that the stupa is filled with the skulls of 8,000 victims who were murdered here.  I go directly to the tiny museum where a film is in progress about the history of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge regime and of this place.  The film is brutally honest and doesn’t try to gloss over the barbarity of this horrible regime.  I find often in my travels that museums try to downplay the despicable actions of their country or to gloss over history.  For example, in Musée de l’Armée in Paris, there is hardly any mention made of the Americans liberating Paris after WWII.  You would think when visiting there that the French single-handedly defeated the Germans.  Revisionist history.

the khmer rouge uniforms

the khmer rouge uniforms

The film here at Choeung Ek  is truly sickening and brings me, and many other tourists, to tears.  After the film, I collect myself, and walk around the grounds where I see some of the mass graves that were unearthed.  There’s a grave where only naked women and children were found.  Another grave contained headless corpses. Yet another only miscellaneous bone fragments. There is a tree where the regime would hold babies by the feet and bash their heads against the trunk.   Their rationale for killing babies was so that the children of victims wouldn’t seek revenge on the regime when they grew up.  One sign says that this particular tree held a loudspeaker to drown out the screams of those being bludgeoned, so as not to disturb the neighbors.

one of the mass graves

one of the mass graves

Mass grave filled with headless bodies

Mass grave filled with headless bodies

Choeung Ek

Choeung Ek

To save ammunition, the prisoners at  Choeung Ek were usually bludgeoned to death with iron bars, pickaxes, machetes and many other makeshift weapons.  Others were killed with poison, spades or sharpened bamboo sticks.  Prisoners were often forced to dig the mass graves themselves, but as they were weak, the graves were often shallow.  Even now, decades later, it’s said that clothes, teeth and bones surface during heavy rainfalls from the huge numbers of bodies that are still buried there.

8,000 skulls in the stupa

8,000 skulls in the stupa

Human skulls at the Genocide Museum

Human skulls at the Genocide Museum

on the grounds of the Killing Fields

on the grounds of the Killing Fields

After this depressing morning, which is educational but emotionally draining, Mr. Lo takes me back to town and we go to Wat Phnom, meaning Hill Temple.  It’s set on the only hill in Phnom Penh, more like a mound at 27 meters.  The locals swarm all over the place.  Here Buddha worship is taken to extremes; it’s big business.  Inside the temple are hundreds of Buddhas, each of which is holding on its crossed legs or in its arms several Cambodian Riel, bananas, oranges, flowers, or little skewers of white flowers that smell like freesia (I can’t find the names of these flowers anywhere!).  I walk behind a young Cambodian guy who devoutly walks around the perimeter of Buddhas, bowing and placing a Riel on each Buddha.

Wat Phnom

Wat Phnom

Wat Phnom

Wat Phnom

There are easily 25-30 people within the temple busying themselves arranging or collecting or distributing the multitudes of offerings.  Others are on their knees praying.  Outside in the back are other smaller Buddha statues in front of which, on a beautifully colored quilt, other food and fruit and flower offerings are placed.  As soon as the quilt gets full, a man promptly gathers up the offerings.  Further back on the hilltop behind the temple, I find schoolchildren eating the fruit that has been removed from the Buddhas.  On the far right of the temple is a production area where people are arranging flowers, cutting fruit, burning incense, slicing raw meat and offering these items for sale.

the buddha clutches his offerings at wat phnom

the buddha clutches his offerings at wat phnom

I come across several stone dog figures with panting mouths; in their mouths are strips of raw bacon and under their sitting figures are raw eggs that have been cracked open and are slowly hardening in the heat.  Then I see other men and women come by to take away the bacon and the eggs.  It’s commerce at its liveliest, this Buddha offering activity.  All abuzz.  It’s like the altar guild decorating for Christmas Eve service in an Episcopal church, except this occurs every day.  Outside the temple are young boys with birds in cages.  I ask someone later what that’s all about; apparently they sell the bird’s freedom to people who want to earn merit with the Buddha.  Later, the birds return to their cages, where they are resold and resold and resold, an infinite number of times.

the production center where offerings are bought and sold at wat phnom

the production center where offerings are bought and sold at wat phnom

Legend has it that in 1373, the first temple at Wat Phnom was built by a lady named Penh as a home for four Buddhas that she found floating in the Mekong River.

Mr. Lo then takes me to Wat Ounalom, the headquarters of Cambodian Buddhism, which is beautiful but deserted.   Apparently it has one eyebrow hair of the Buddha himself, but I didn’t see it.  Later, when we leave the Wat and are cruising down the main road in Phnom Penh, two ladies and a child on a motorbike drive by and strike up a conversation with Mr. Lo.  After they speed off, he tells me, “That was my wife!!”

the riverside restaurant where i have lunch

the riverside restaurant where i have lunch

While we have been cruising in the tuk tuk around Phnom Penh, I see a riverside restaurant that reminds me fondly of the Grand Cafe on the Nile in Ma’adi, a suburb of Cairo.  I tell Mr. Lo I want to go to this cafe for lunch and since the Royal Palace doesn’t open till 2:00, he drops me off here.  I have about an hour and a half, so I order a Tiger beer, which they serve with miniature peanuts with the skin still on them, smothered in salt.  The surrounding tropical plants whisper in the breeze.  I hear the buzz of construction activity on the river, the roaring engines of cranes moving the mud in the river, the clanking of an anchor on a riverboat.  In the restaurant, I hear the nasal sounds of Asians talking, the whining Khmer music.

my view of the river

my view of the river

My meal of fresh steamed fish in lime juice arrives, artfully prepared, with three banana leaf cups full of peppers and sauces.

lunch of steamed fish with lime juice & leaf bowls of sauces

lunch of steamed fish with lime juice & leaf bowls of sauces

Later, as I write in my journal and watch the people and the activity on the river, I have a glass of red wine.  It’s quite lovely and relaxing, although the roaring cranes on the river ruin the ambiance a bit.  The Grand Cafe on the Nile it’s not, but it’s pleasant all the same.  I’m alone here after my first four days in Hanoi, where I was surrounded by people, but so far, I enjoy the solitude.   I’m feeling a little buzz because of the beer and the wine, but it’s a relaxing wait for Mr. Lo to return for me.

elephants march through the restaurant

elephants march through the restaurant

Though fellow travelers had told me Phnom Penh was nothing special, I would have to disagree. I find it quite pleasant.  It’s warm, the skies are blue brushed with wispy white clouds.  I see less pollution, less trash, a better infrastructure.  It’s so civilized and genteel.  Even though it’s poor, Cambodians seem to have a grace and elegance about them, much like the carvings of apsara (woodland spirit) dancers on their ancient temples.  When they greet me, they put their palms together in a prayer position, bow their heads and say “Hello, Madame.”  It’s quite charming.

drinks for sale in front of the royal palace

drinks for sale in front of the royal palace

I realize that I’m happiest in travel when the temperature is just right and I’m dressed appropriately.  If there’s a breeze, I’m even happier.  If I’m comfortably seated or lying down, or walking along and it’s not too hot, if I’m clean and surrounded by relative cleanliness.  If there is a sense of aesthetic around me.  Although I find myself fascinated by the impoverished street scenes, looking at the commerce and people scrambling for a livelihood, I know that I couldn’t live in this environment.  I’d be miserable for any length of time in such squalor.

In Korea, I live a very simple pared-down life, with just a small room, a few of my clothes, only a few belongings.  It’s possibly one step above a monk.  Maybe if I had to live like this forever, I wouldn’t like it.  But of course I know I can go back to my 3-story house in Virginia, where I have beautiful furniture, lovely and comfortable surroundings.  We in America are spoiled this way.  We’re lucky.  Most Cambodians and Vietnamese, even many Koreans, are not so.

the royal palace

the royal palace

more of the royal grounds

more of the royal grounds

Finally, after lunch Mr. Lo returns for me in his tuk tuk and takes me to the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda.  The Royal Palace is a complex of buildings that serves as the royal residence of the King of Cambodia. The Kings of Cambodia have occupied it since it was built in 1866, except during the tumultuous period of the Khmer Rouge.  Now, in the afternoon, it is quite hot.  The Royal Palace is lovely, all yellow buildings with curlicue roofs, in classic Khmer architecture.   Making my way through the throngs of uniformed schoolchildren on field trips, I walk through the Throne Hall, where today religious and royal ceremonies are held.  The students are chattering, giggling and yelling, putting their spin on the relative peace.  I snap a photo but a guard yells at me that no photos are allowed.  Too late.

the Royal Palace

part of the Royal Palace complex

on the grounds of the Royal Palace

on the grounds of the Royal Palace

Later I walk around the gardens looking for the Silver Pagoda, but I don’t see any silver buildings.  Finally, I ask someone and they point out a building I have already been inside, which certainly does not have the silver exterior I expected.  Inside the building,  no photographs are allowed.  It houses a beautiful 17th century Emerald Buddha, which I certainly WANT to take a picture of, but with all the guards hovering, I don’t dare.  It also boasts a near-life-size Buddha studded with 9,584 diamonds and dressed in royal regalia.  Apparently, before the Khmer Rouge, the temple floor was inlaid with 5,000 silver tiles, thus the name Silver Pagoda.  Most of this floor today is covered up with carpeting.

the silver pagoda

the silver pagoda

a mini shrine in front of the silver pagoda

a mini shrine in front of the silver pagoda

painted murals at the royal palace

painted murals at the royal palace

I spend quite some time wandering through the Royal Palace grounds, checking out the gardens with their beautiful flowers and topiary, the faded murals on the walls, Buddhas sitting serenely in little gardens, and the elephant room with its decadent elephant thrones.

on the grounds of the Royal Palace

on the grounds of the Royal Palace

a Buddha in the garden

a Buddha in the garden

the elephant room with the elephant thrones

the elephant room with the elephant thrones

Later, I exit to find Mr. Lo patiently waiting.  He takes me back to the Villa Langka.  I had told him originally I’d give him $20 for the day, but knowing that he has patiently waited for me all day, taken me far afield to the Killing Fields,  and been genteel and polite beyond anything I could have expected, I give him $25.  This is quite a killing for him, as I understand you can generally rent a tuk tuk for the day for $8.  I think the fact that I saw his wife ride up on the motorcycle also influenced my decision.  He has a family to support; I saw a personal side to him….  I can’t help but wonder if this was a ploy on his part, to have his wife ride up beside us.  But somehow, fool that I may be, I don’t believe this to be the case.

Lotus blossoms at the Royal Palace

Lotus blossoms at the Royal Palace

At the Villa Langka, I put on my bathing suit and lie outside by the pool for an hour or so, reading The Eaves of Heaven.  This is a great book, about the Vietnam War years from a Vietnamese perspective, but this afternoon I’m burned out from hearing and reading about war and violence and hatred.   I so desperately need a love story, but alas, I have no such book with me.  And I have no one here to be my actual love story.  Sigh.

the stunning restaurant Malis in Phnom Penh

the stunning restaurant Malis in Phnom Penh

After relaxing by the pool and then taking a little nap in my daisy-petal white bed, I venture out to the Lonely Planet-recommended restaurant Malis, where a seated Buddha greets me at the entrance.  The setting is stunning, a low-lit open air courtyard around an L-shaped pool brimming with lotus leaves. Giant palm fronds and bubbling fountains create a peaceful atmosphere.  I can see the kitchen staff in bright white baseball caps bustling about in the gleaming modern kitchen.

my ugly but delicious fish dinner

my ugly but delicious fish dinner

I have a glass of red wine because the dinner I order, baked goby fish with mango dips, takes 45 minutes to prepare.  Since I’m alone and 45 minutes goes by slowly, I have another.  The fish arrives with scaly skin and a viciously ugly head, but the fish flesh is tender and delectable, especially with the refreshing mango dips.  For dessert I have the Malis Signature Mousse, a “delicate mousse infused with jasmine, ginger and Khmer honey with a side of fresh fruit salad.”  Mmmm….

my last night at the villa langka :-(  ~ the pool by night

my last night at the villa langka 😦 ~ the pool by night

I’m tired from my full day, and I have to leave tomorrow morning for Siem Reap, so I go back to my room and stretch out.  I can’t get motivated to read my war book anymore, so I watch The Bachelorette on TV, a tiny taste of a love story gone awry (as most of mine do!).  Sleep, precious sleep.

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Categories: Asia, Cambodia, Killing Fields, Phnom Penh, Royal Palace & Silver Pagoda, Tuol Sleng, Wat Ounalom, Wat Phnom | Tags: , , | 3 Comments

the security regulations at tuol sleng

Wednesday, January 19:  When I first enter the Tuol Sleng prison, I find the following security regulations on a board:

the security regulations at tuol sleng prison

the security regulations at tuol sleng prison

1. You must answer accordingly to my question.  Don’t turn them away.

2. Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that, you are strictly prohibited to contest me.

3.  Don’t be a fool for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.

4. You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.

5. Don’t tell me either about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.

6. While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.

7. Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders.  If there is no order, keep quiet.  When I ask you to do something, you must do it right away without protesting.

8. Don’t make pretext about Kampuchea Krom* in order to hide your secret or traitor.

9. If you don’t follow all the above rules, you shall get many lashes of electric wire.

10. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.

the rules in khmer

the rules in khmer

*Kampuchea Krom was the southernmost territory of the Khmer empire, once known as French Cochinchina.  It is now the southwestern part of Vietnam.  Besides the Vietnamese, there are other people living in Kampuchea-Krom, including the Chinese, the Chams, the Mountgards, and many other small ethnic groups.

no having fun??

no having fun??

In addition to these rules, I see a sign of a big smiling face with a big red X across it.  Does this mean you can’t laugh, you can’t talk? You can’t be human?  Here in this place, all humanity was stripped away.  People ceased to be seen as people.

Horrible.  Simply horrible.

Categories: Cambodia, Phnom Penh, Tuol Sleng | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

phnom penh via guangzhou: monks and boat noodles

Tuesday, January 18:  Another travel day, from Hanoi to Phnom Penh.  I have to be at the airport at 6:30 a.m. for an 8:30 flight on my favorite airline:  China Southern. 😦

the pool at the villa langka in phnom penh

the pool at the villa langka in phnom penh

The Hotel Ngocmai calls a taxi for me, and back through the dark, through the yellow haze we go.  I pay the hotel in advance for this taxi; I’m told the hotel pays the taxi directly.  When we get to the airport finally, the driver asks for his tip.  I look in my wallet and the smallest thing I have is a $10 bill.  I am all out of Vietnamese dong.  It’s not a problem here in Vietnam as they take dollars just as readily as dong.  I take out the $10 and ask the driver if he has change, in dollars.  He looks in his wallet and has only a few dong; not enough to give me change.   And no dollars.  I say, I’m sorry.  I can’t give you a tip unless you have change.  I am not about to give him $10 for a tip, when I’ve paid the hotel $15 already for the ride.  The taxi driver whines: My tip, my tip!  Where’s my tip?  I don’t know what to do, but I cannot afford to give him $10.  It’s mean, I know, but I tell him I’m sorry.  And then I walk away.

the villa langka in phnom penh

the villa langka in phnom penh

This bothers me the rest of the day.  It still bothers me today.  Should I have just given him the full $10?  That didn’t feel right to me.  But it didn’t feel right to leave him in the lurch either.  At the time I was worried about my flight and checking in on time, etc.  But later, I think, I should have gone searching in the airport for change.  I feel like I committed some petty crime.  If I had done this one thing right, I probably would have saved money on the rest of my trip.  Because from this point on, I find myself giving bigger tips to everyone else I meet along the way as recompense to that poor taxi driver in Vietnam.

my room at the villa langka

my room at the villa langka

Sometimes we can embarrass ourselves by own behavior.  Believe me, I have done this many times in my life.  I did something not good and it haunts me later.  There is no shaking it.  All I can do is to try to do better next time.  That’s all we, as humans, can do.

The flight is uneventful until I get to my all-time favorite airport of Guangzhou at 10:55.  I’m worried because I only have one hour between my flights and I know they put you through unreasonable rigmarole at that airport.  I feel relieved when I get off the plane because a woman from the airline is holding a card with my name on it and “Phnom Penh.” I say, yes, that’s me, and she ushers me to a special desk where she issues my boarding pass.  I think, it’s going to be easy!  But when she’s done she sends me through immigration after all, where the serious Chinese officials spend a great deal of time inspecting my passport and then they take it away and tell me to have a seat.  I say, Where are you going with my passport?  Of course, no one can speak English so I am left waiting and worrying what on earth could be the problem.  After what seems like a long while, they finally return with my passport, and I go back into the cold basement of the airport to wait for my 11:55 flight to Phnom Penh.

Wat Langka

Wat Langka

Another cramped flight with bad food, and a lot of turbulence.  I don’t often worry much when I fly, but this flight is so rough, I’m doing a lot of praying.  Finally, I arrive in Phnom Penh at 1:50 pm, where a driver from my hotel, the Villa Langka, is standing in the airport with a sign.  I walk outside and am hit by a wave of heat.  Oh, it feels so good.  After being cold and getting sick in Vietnam, I’m thrilled to be warm.  In the van, I strip off my layers and check out the streets of Phnom Penh from the airport to the hotel.

Wat Langka

Wat Langka

Ohm.

Ohm.

It’s a much more sedate and classy version of Vietnam.  There are motorbikes aplenty, but not nearly the numbers as in Hanoi.  It’s bright, colorful, cheery, but also poor and scattered with rubbish.  Not in-your-face rubbish, but rubbish nonetheless.

Looking out from the temple at Wat Langka

Looking out from the temple at Wat Langka

We arrive at my hotel, which is beautiful for $42 a night.  There is an open air lobby with tropical plants, an outdoor cafe next to a blue pool surrounded by leafy trees.  I check into my room, with two white-covered canopied beds pushed together, making a huge inviting expanse of sleep-beckoning glory.  I lie down for a bit, then go out and sit by the pool and have a glass of red wine.  Feeling quite happy by this point, I take a walk around the neighborhood.

two nice monks i meet outside of wat langka

two nice monks i meet outside of wat langka

Directly across the small side street is Wat Langka, one of Phnom Penh’s five original wats (pagodas).  Founded in 1422 as a sanctuary for Holy Writings and for a meeting place for Cambodian and Sri Lankan monks, it escaped destruction as it was used as a storehouse by the Khmer Rouge.  As I walk around, I am impressed by the huge Buddha statues, the offerings of fruits and incense, and the serenity on the grounds.  As I leave there, I run into two monks in orange robes, one of whom speaks English and asks me where I’m from and how I like Cambodia.

Wat Langka

Wat Langka

the shrines at Wat Langka

the shrines at Wat Langka

Back outside the hotel, a couple of moto-remorks and their drivers are waiting patiently for customers.  A remork is a cute, often fringed, canopied trailer hitched to the back of a motorbike.  It can fit about 4 people comfortably.   Tourists also refer to these vehicles as tuk tuks.  A Mr. Lo introduces himself and asks me if I’d like to rent him for the day tomorrow.  It seems I read you can hire one of these for $8/day, but I know I want to go to the Killing Fields and they are quite far out-of-town.  I offer him $20 for the day; he agrees to meet me at 8:00 a.m. on Wednesday morning.

mr. lo and his tuk-tuk

mr. lo and his tuk-tuk

After leaving Mr. Lo, I take a walk to find the Lonely Planet-recommended restaurant, Malis.  Walking along the street, I am captivated by the roar of the motorbikes, the tropical lushness, the bright-colored buildings in yellow, lime green and royal blue. I love the Cambodian lettering on street signs.  When I arrive at Malis Restaurant, I find it is closed for some kind of renovation.

Phnom Penh street scene

Phnom Penh street scene

I then seek out the restaurant Boat Noodles, a two-story wooden open air restaurant abundant with greenery.  From the second floor, I can see all the activity on the street corner below, the motorbikes, the tuk tuks, the cars, tourists and locals meandering along the sidewalks.  I order a Tiger beer and a Cambodian specialty called Grilled Amok fish wrapped with banana leaf.  It’s served with some light sauces, fragrant with cilantro.  So far, I am loving the food in Vietnam and Cambodia!  I try to take a picture of my meal, but I get the message again: CARD FULL!  I have the new card I just bought last night in Vietnam, so I switch the cards.  Then I take some pictures of my stunning meal before I gobble it down.

Boat Noodles Restaurant ~ amazing food :-)

Boat Noodles Restaurant ~ amazing food 🙂

After dinner, I look for a massage place recommended by a woman my age who is also staying at the hotel.  On the 2nd floor on a nondescript street, it’s difficult to find, but after riding up and down the street several times in the tuk tuk, I find OM, where I get a great hour-long massage by a tiny and limber Vietnamese girl for about $8.  She doesn’t use any oil or lotions ~ I would have had to pay more for that.  I feel my tight muscles turn to mush and when I leave, I’m floating.  I know I’m going to sleep well tonight.

I’m tired from having been sick the last couple of days, and from my travel day, so I get in my white fluffy bed early and read my book, Eaves of Heaven, falling asleep in the dream world of Cambodia.

the lush setting at boat noodles

the lush setting at boat noodles

Categories: Asia, Boat Noodles, Cambodia, China Southern Airlines, Guangzhou Baiyun Airport, moto-remorks, OM, Phnom Penh, Travel, Villa Langka, Wat Langka | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

imaginings of vietnam & cambodia ….

Here I am, Tuesday, January 11, 2011, sitting in Daegu, Korea and finalizing the details of my trip to Vietnam and Cambodia.  I leave this Thursday, January 13;  my plane takes off at 2:15 pm from Incheon and arrives in Hanoi at 11:15 the same evening, after a 5 hour layover in Guangzhou, China.  As usual, I am stressed out, as I always am before I travel; thinking of all the details makes my head spin. In addition to the regular stress, something has happened to my back; I didn’t do a thing, just got out of my bed after a nap on Sunday, and voila, I couldn’t move!  Why is it that I always get sick or get some physical pain right before I leave for a vacation?  So, in addition to being stressed because there’s not enough time to get everything ready, now I have to take the time to visit the hospital for physical therapy on my back!

I’m excited, as I always am, to travel to an exotic land.  But, I’m also feeling a little melancholy about this trip, mainly because of the extensive reading I’ve been doing to prepare. Vietnam and Cambodia are countries that have suffered unbearable trauma, some of this trauma in years that fall within my own lifetime.  I am a child of the Vietnam War-era; though I was too young to know & understand everything that was going on at the time, I remember the frightening images of the war on T.V.  I remember the student protests on U.S. college campuses, especially the Kent State massacre.  It seemed to me that the world was a crazy and scary place in those years of my youth.  In later years, in one of my writing classes, I read a great short story by Tim O’Brien, “The Things They Carried;” it told about the things American soldiers in the Vietnam war carried with them and the meanings behind these things, which in essence told the greater stories of the soldiers’ lives and the horrendous war they were part of.

Vietnam

There is still a lot I don’t know about Vietnam and Cambodia, but in the last several months, I’ve tried to immerse myself in the culture from afar, reading novels, guidebooks, memoirs, historical books and watching movies.  Before I started my recent reading binge, I had seen one movie about Vietnam that evoked a peaceful and slow-paced culture.  The 2000 movie, Vertical Ray of the Sun, was about 3 sisters and their families and their loves.  The movie is full of lush greenery, drenching rains, romantic scenes.  This movie has colored my imaginings of Vietnam since I saw it nearly 10 years ago.  Of course, when I was younger, I also saw violent Vietnam war movies, such as the 1979 film Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Good Morning, Vietnam, Born on the Fourth of July and others.

My Korean friend Kim Dong Hee had seen the movies Indochine and The Scent of Green Papaya, so she was determined that I should see those movies.  One night we went to the DVD bang and watched the 1992 French film Indochine, with Catherine Deneuve and Vincent Perez.  Set in 1930s French Indochina, it tells the tale of a love triangle between a rubber plantation owner, her adopted daughter and a younger French navy lieutenant.  The rising Vietnamese nationalist movement is the backdrop of the movie.   It’s a great movie that gave me a feel for Vietnam under the French Protectorate.

In that same vein, I’m currently reading a book by Uyen Nicole Duong called Daughters of the River Huong, that tells of 4 generations of women in the same family, beginning with the story of the Mystique Concubine of the King at the time when the French were in charge in Vietnam; the love story continues through to the modern-day.  I adore this book so far and am getting a feel for the beauty and the mystique of Vietnamese culture.

On the other hand, I read Catfish and Mandala, a memoir by Andrew X. Pham, a Vietnamese-American guy who bicycled all around Vietnam to explore his heritage.  He and his family escaped Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975.  This book tells a true story of Vietnam from a victim’s perspective, with no gloss or glimmer.  The horrors visited upon families during the war are depicted here; when he returned to his home in 1989 for this trip, Vietnam was still a very poor country, rife with corruption and filth.  It’s a memorable and sometimes disturbing personal story of war and a search for roots and identity.  Some parts were difficult to read, but I’m glad I did, because I could really feel for Andrew’s struggles and the search for peace in his life.

When my son Alex came to visit in Korea, he brought me two movies, The Scent of Green Papaya and Three Seasons.  Finally, this past Friday night, Kim Dong Hee, who has been dying to see The Scent of Green Papaya for months, went with me to dinner at Little Italy across the road from my apartment.  We shared an entire bottle of wine and then took my DVD to 3 DVD bangs before we were able to find one that could play an American-made DVD.  We settled in to watch it.  It’s really a mood piece, depicting the simple daily lives of a Vietnamese family and a servant girl.  It has very little conversation and even less action.  After all the wine I drank, I’m sorry to say I fell asleep and missed parts of it!  Kim said it looked to her like I slept through the whole thing, but I think she’s mistaken because I remember a lot.   A lot of lush green leaves dripping with dew, green papayas, cooking, scrubbing of floors, and ants.  Taken from Wikipedia, here’s a plot description:

A young girl, Mui, becomes a servant for a rich family. The family consists of a frequently absent husband, a wife and two young boys. When the husband leaves, he takes all the household’s money. As Mui grows up, the family falls on hard times, and eventually she becomes a servant for a pianist who befriends the family. That man is engaged to be married, but he prefers playing the piano to spending time with his fiance. One night, after blowing off his fiance yet again, the pianist sleeps with Mui. The engagement is broken off. The pianist starts teaching Mui how to read and write. A pregnant Mui reads to her unborn child.

I read another book by Duong Thu Huong called Paradise of the Blind, the first Vietnamese novel published in the United States in 1988.  It is currently banned in Vietnam because of the political views expressed.  It tells the story of a girl whose family is torn apart by the Communist takeover, including the land reforms and the so-called Rectification of Errors.  The girl’s uncle is the primary culprit in the novel and is really the personification of the evils of Communism.  It’s a powerful book; it infuriated me to read it.

Last but not least, on Christmas Day, Myrna lent me her computer, since mine crashed two days before Christmas, and I watched the 1999 movie, Three Seasons, a movie that takes place in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, well after the war.  It tells intertwining tales of different Vietnamese characters in a changing Saigon, including that of an American ex-soldier who comes in search  of his lost daughter and a cyclo-driver who falls in love with a Vietnamese high-class call girl.  The movie may be somewhat romanticized but I found it also depicted the dark underbelly of the city, especially in the story of a little boy, Woody, who lived on the streets.  But the story was also a hopeful one, one that shows a Vietnam on the verge of a new life, caught up in modernization and globalization.

Finally, when I leave here on Thursday morning,  I will take along another book by Andrew X. Pham called The Eaves of Heaven, which I plan to read while I’m traveling, in between writing, seeing the sights, floating on a junk in Halong Bay, and eating some great Vietnamese food!

Cambodia

When I originally planned this trip, the only place I had in my imagination was Angkor Wat, in Siem Reap.  I had heard from various people that it could take 3 full days to see all the temple ruins, ruins that are engulfed by huge trees and their immense snake-like roots.  Pictures of this place have fired my imagination for years.  I really knew nothing about it except that it looked mysterious and beautiful.  Angkor Wat is a temple complex in Cambodia built for King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century.   It was originally a Hindu temple, then Buddhist, and is now the world’s largest religious building.   Restoration of the temples started in the 20th century, but was interrupted by civil war and Khmer Rouge control of Cambodia during the 1970s;  amazingly little damage was done to the complex during this time of upheaval.

I’m embarrassed to say I really didn’t know anything at all about Cambodia.  I remember hearing of America’s bombing of Cambodia during the war, but I didn’t understand Cambodia’s involvement or why we were bombing them.  My first introduction to the horrors of the Khmer Rouge was through the non-fiction book called First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, written by Loung Ung, Cambodian author and survivor of the Pol Pot regime.  It’s an intense and highly disturbing account of her personal experience during the years of Khmer Rouge rule.  I was so shocked by this book, and especially shocked by my own ignorance of what happened during these years of the 1970s.  These horrors were happening in Cambodia shortly after I graduated from high school and during my college years, while I was partying and studying and enjoying life to the fullest.  How could I have been so blind to what was happening in the world at this time?  Loung Ung was a mere 5 years old when the Khmer Rouge emptied the entire city of Phnom Penh and sent everyone to the countryside to work in the fields.  She saw her parents and siblings die in the Killing Fields of Cambodia;  she saw horrors no child should ever see, suffering starvation and humiliation under this terrible regime.

Here is Loung Ung’s personal website: Loung Ung

In the midst of reading this book, I became intensely curious to know more and so I watched another horribly upsetting 1984 movie, The Killing Fields, which I had never seen before.  The film opens in 1973 in Phnom Penh when the Cambodian national army is fighting the Khmer Rouge.  The story follows three journalists, two of whom include Cambodian Dith Pran and American Sydney Schanberg. Later the movie moves ahead to 1975, when the international embassies are being evacuated in anticipation of the Khmer Rouge invasion of the capital.  When the Khmer Rouge demands that all Cambodian citizens be turned over, the other journalists try desperately to forge a passport for Dith Pran, identifying him as a British journalist.  Their attempts fail, and Pran is turned over to the Khmer Rouge; he barely survives the next years under the horrible conditions as a captive of the totalitarian regime.  He endured four years of starvation and torture before Vietnam defeated the Khmer Rouge in 1978.  Dith Pran died at age 65 in 2008, years after he managed to escape from the Khmer Rouge death camps. He coined the phrase “killing fields” to refer to the clusters of corpses and skeletal remains of victims he encountered during his 40-mile escape. His three brothers and one sister were killed in Cambodia.

Finally, I read another book by Cambodian author Somaly Mam, called The Road of Lost Innocence.  Somaly herself was sold into sexual slavery at a young age and endured a horrible existence in the brothels of Phnom Penh.  She managed to escape with the help of a French humanitarian worker who became her husband.  She has worked tirelessly in her adult life to help other Cambodian girls who have been sold, often by their own parents, into sexual slavery, and she founded the organization AFESIP Cambodia (Acting for Women in Distressing Situations): AFESIP

Here is an article written by Mariane Pearl about Somaly Mam in the August 2006 issue of Glamour magazine:  Global Diary: Cambodia

All of these books about Cambodia were intensely disturbing and opened my eyes to a part of history I’m sad to say I knew nothing about.   With so much depth added to my body of understanding and knowledge, I actually became more curious about Cambodia and decided I wanted to explore Phnom Penh as well as Angkor Wat.  Thus I changed my plans to spend 5 1/2 days in Cambodia and 4 days in Vietnam, as opposed to splitting my time evenly as I first planned.

The last thing that happened very recently was the mass stampede at the Khmer Water Festival that killed over 300 people in Phnom Penh on November 22 of this year.  Apparently, according to a Cambodian journalist, the panic was caused by police firing a water cannon onto a bridge jammed with people.  He said police fired the canon to get people to move off the bridge when it started swaying, which caused a panic.

So much sadness in Cambodia and Vietnam.  I am hoping to find more optimistic places on my journey.  Hoping to believe in, to find evidence of, the resilience of the human spirit!

Here is my itinerary:

January 13-14 & January 17-18: Hanoi Ngoc Mai Hotel: Address: : 07-17 Cua Dong str., Old Quarter, Hoan Kiem Dist, Hanoi, Vietnam

Tel: (84-4) 3923 1931/39231932 – 3828 6236/38282605
January 15-16: Indochina Junk on Halong Bay (The Dragon’s Pearl Junk): Indochina Junk

January 18-20: Villa Langka in Phnom Penh: Villa Langka

January 20-23: Auberge Mont Royal in Siem Reap: Auberge Mont Royal d’Angkor

Categories: Angkor Wat, Cambodia, Halong Bay, Hanoi, Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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