Siem Reap (and Angkor Wat)

Siem Reap is a reasonably-sized city in western Cambodia, but it’s generaly known as the gateway to Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is the single largest religious building in the world, but really it’s just one in a series of temples and ancient cities north of the great Cambodia lake of Tonle Sap. We spent two days exploring temples in various states of restoration, ruins entangled with jungle, soaring Hindo-Buddhist towers, incredibly detailed stone carving and crumbling statues.
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It’s tough to describe the scale of the ancient Khmer capital, there are giant reservoirs and extensive irrigation systems throughout. Much of it was built in the 8th-12th century and is an incredible example of what could be achieved then.
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We also headed out onto the Tonle Sap lake. This lake spends much of the year at ~2500km^2, but during the wet season, the Mekong flows so fiercely that it reverses the course of the Tonle Sap river and swells the lake to ~11,000 km^2. There are a number of floating villages on the lake, of Cambodian and Vietnamese origin. Every few months, the houses relocate, depending on the waxing and waning of the lake. It plays out as a wonderful natural counterpoint to the architectural glories of Angkor.
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Phnom Penh (and Cambodia in general)

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Amy has already mentioned this, but Phnom Penh and Cambodia in general have been very emotional for us. I think it’s fair to say I was totally unprepared for this. 
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There’s an Eddie Izzard sketch where he talks about how difficult it is for people to process the actions of mass-murderers, and in particular the perpetrators of holocausts. If you kill someone, that’s murder, you go to prison. If you kill 10 people, you go to Texas and they execute you. If you kill 20 people, you go to a hospital and they look at you through a small window. But 100,000? How do you even start? Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge killed, at a conservative estimate, 1.5 million Cambodians, through execution, disease and starvation. Their enforcement of a twisted communist dream of nation of farmers and workers destroyed the culture and infrastructure of a nation in four years from 1975-1979. Four years.
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Of course, blame can be extended in many directions, in particular at the French, Vietnamese, Americans, Chinese, and other Cambodians, but it remains the fact that a quarter of the population was killed in a tiny amount of time. And they were killed by bitterness, ignorance, fear and vicious stupidity. I strongly urge everyone to read ‘Survival In The Killing Fields’ by Haing Ngor (and Roger Warner). I devoured it in little over a day, and there is little like it to educate you to the mean tragedies of this story. Some of the wonderful little touches on this are that the Khmer Rouge were still in possession of a UN seat and treated as the official government until 1998, and Pol Pot was at large for much of this time. Cry and be angry.
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We arrived efficiently in the capital, Phnom Penh and our pleasant hotel in the ex-pat area. Travelling by bus through the countryside from Vietnam, it had appeared certainly poorer than Vietnam, but the area of the capital we stayed in was modern and lovely. Nearby were a row of lovely restaurants, cafés and bars and n general the food has been excellent here. We visited the National Fine Arts museum and a couple of markets and other places around town – but our main visits were to Tuol Sleng – a former prison and site of many atrocities, now a genocide museum. In this convert school, 17,000 people were held and eventually sent for execution, only 7 survived. They were taken outside the city in trucks to mass execution sites, known as The Killing Fields. Here we visited a memorial stupa, where the skulls and remnants of the dead have been exhumed, cleaned and detailed into a grizzly tower, a harrowing sight. The place itself seems quite peaceful and pastoral now, but the monsoon rains bring fresh bones and scraps of clothing to the surface every year.  The lake and trees seem cooling and sheltering, but the lake hides more bodies, and the trees were used, literally, to dash babies and small children against.
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After a few days in Phnom Penh, we headed east, to Siem Reap and the famous temples.

Bones of Phnom Penh

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We took the Mekong Express bus from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh – an elderly, but comfortable service which carefully shepherded us over the border at Bavet, one of the few crossings where you can reliably get your Cambodian visa for the prescribed $20, rather than being shaken down for more. Although the official currency of Cambodia is the riel, in practice the entire Cambodian economy operates on the US dollar: ATMs give out dollars, all price labelling is in dollars, and the only time you’ll see riel throughout your time in the country is when receiving change smaller than a dollar. We swapped our remaining Vietnamese dong to riel via the no-doubt-highly-inaccurate rates provided by the women changing money at the border, but we might as well not have bothered.

One of the little joys of travelling in Southeast Asia is the neverending uses to which a motorbike can be put. At various times in the trip, I’ve spotted them being used to transport crates of live ducklings, heaps of flowers, and several mattresses. Just over the Cambodian border, a man had strapped a whole dead pig across the back of his bike. The rural Cambodian ‘bus’ also made an appearance: a long trailer pulled by motorbike, with planks tied across it for seats. Rural Cambodia made an impression immediately as somewhat poorer than Vietnam, with an economy much more based on fishing; still, maybe that’s just because our route ran alongside the mighty Mekong. But on arrival into Phnom Penh, after seven hours, my expectations were confounded again. We were staying just off a street of bright, modern shops and pretty shaded restaurants, in what turned out to be an expat area of the city. It reminded me to be careful of judging from appearances; by all accounts Cambodia is still a desperately poor country, but you wouldn’t know it from much of Phnom Penh.

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We began our time there with a visit to Tuol Sleng, the former S-21 prison maintained by the Khmer Rouge. No visit to Phnom Penh can avoid confronting the spectre of the Khmer Rouge, and the four years of their radical communist regime that left the country ravaged and a third of the population dead. Tuol Sleng, a former high school, looks exactly like many other French-built schools dotted around the capital, but the inner courtyard is lined with the graves of the seven prisoners still alive when the prison was liberated in 1979. There is a jasmine tree growing alongside, and its sweet heavy smell permeates everything.The wooden frame once used for exercise by the pupils was used to torture prisoners by hanging them upside-down. The old classrooms and cells are now nearly empty, except for dusty bedframes; on the walls are grainy pictures of emaciated figures shackled to the bare frames, sprawled in pools of blood and vomit. I felt sick, and my throat started to close up.

One of the most gut-wrenching parts of the museum is the pitiless detail in which the Khmer Rouge documented their victims. Numbered photos, numbered tiny cells. The prison displays many photos; ID ones , photos of corpses after torture or death from disease, pages and pages of written and taped ‘confessions’ that broke my heart. “Please, I’ve told you everything… I will never disobey Angka again… my brain isn’t working, if I could just have some rice to eat…” On finishing, we went guiltily for a palate cleanser of lunch at the Phnom Penh Foreign Correspondents’ Club, overlooking the river. In the afternoon, we visited the National Museum, which is dominated by art and sculpture for the Angkor period, when the city of temples and palaces was being built near Siem Reap. While the sculptures lose some of their majesty in a museum setting, it allows you to understand some of the influences and artistry that went into them, and learn about the distinctive “Angkor smile” – the wide-lipped, benign expression that’s characteristic of the Angkor temples.

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The next day, we girded ourselves for a visit to the Choeng Ek Killing Fields. There are many, many sites of killing fields around the country, but Choeng Ek, a ten-kilometre journey by tuk-tuk over dusty, rutted and bumpy roads, has been curated as a memorial site. It’s a quiet, peaceful place, with chickens scratching and puppies gambolling, and a small placid lake in the centre. Under that lake are further mass graves, which the historians and curators of the site have chosen to leave in peace. Little remains on the site now in terms of buildings, except a tall memorial stupa, but an audio tour guides you around the site; the spot where the guards’ hut stood, where trucks dumped out blindfolded prisoners with their hands tied every night, the mass graves of headless Khmer Rouge soldiers, and the one composed solely of naked women and children, besides the tree against which soldiers beat out children’s brains. Every now and again, new fragments of bone, teeth and cloth come to light after rain and shifting of soil, and every few months the curators collect them. I found a scrap of worn blue cloth half-buried near a tree root, and stood staring at it for a few minutes before moving away. A few feet away, a glass case held many of the smaller bones that have been dug up and for which there isn’t room in the memorial stupa. In with them is a standard blue Tupperware container, about two-thirds full with teeth. I’m not sure why this was the thing that broke me, but it was; tears started to run down my face behind my sunglasses. The stupa itself is filled with the skulls and large bones of the victims, level on level on level of them; seventeen stories high.

As you walk towards the gate to leave, the audio guide mercilessly lists off the mass genocides of the past – Jews, Armenians, Native Americans, Rwandans – and warns that we’ve probably not seen the last. What I struggled with most in understand the Khmer Rouge at first was simply what everyone involved was thinking. How was any of this orchestrated? How did a small group of communists manage to drive everyone from the cities and force them into rural collectives and semi-starvation? Who could possibly even think that this could work? Atrocities occurred in Vietnam only a few years before, for sure, but I felt that – to a degree – I could understand the thinking of the American GI’s, and of the Viet Cong. I couldn’t make any sense of the Khmer Rouge at all. Or maybe I didn’t want to.

Vietnam Reflections – Amy

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I don’t normally write a separate reflections post on a country, preferring to weave them into my normal posts, but after Loz’s slightly gloomy verdict on Vietnam, I thought I’d offer a counterpoint.Vietnam is a backpacker’s playground – well-developed, dedicated to tourism, astoundingly cheap, and comparatively very safe (except perhaps from road-traffic accidents). The people are friendly, and the level of hassle and scamming is lower than, say, India or China. It’s easy enough to glide along the surface, taking advantage of the English spoken everywhere and the ubiquity of cheap beer, cheap food, cheap tours, and cheap-yet-very-good accommodation. But I think that we slowly got to see some of the culture of the country underneath, as well as the many parts of it that are stunningly beautiful.

Vietnam is, I think, not so much scarred by war as hardened. In the 20th century, they fought pretty much everybody – the French, the Americans, the Chinese, the Cambodians, each other. There’s an immense and quiet pride in having won against these superpowers and established Vietnamese independence; it’s there in the flags everywhere, the resurgence of the ao dai as national costume, the art that we saw, and the lack of embarrassment that there is in displaying the craters and jagged edges of the conflict. That said, the extent to which the country has regenerated and rebuilt since the end of the civil war and the conflict with the US is phenomenal. Hanoi and, in particular, Saigon, are modern cities with glitter and culture. The trains may be noisy and a little worn, but the transport infrastructure is strong. That said, this is not the West; the police keep a tight rein on crime and disorder, which makes the country very safe for Westerners. It’s not necessarily very safe for Vietnamese people to report a crime, though. It’s still a one-party system with a heavy layer of propaganda.

One of the things I think I began to understand there, on a more visceral level, was how the concept of ‘face’, so important in Asia, manifests. If you lose your temper with a Vietnamese person, you can see them become visibly embarrassed; they have lost ‘face’ and must now find a way to restore the conversation to an even keel. Shouting is not the way to make things happen. Vietnamese is a subtle language, too – each syllable can be inflected six different ways to indicate six potentially different meanings. Although it’s the first country that uses the Roman alphabet we’ve visited since Lithuania, it’s considerably easier to understand Russian than it is to translate Vietnamese.

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I like to try and learn something about a country’s history while we’re there, so in Vietnam I downloaded and read Kill Anything That Moves, a study of American atrocities in Vietnam. It argues persuasively that My Lai was not an isolated incident but the way that the US and South Vietnamese forces routinely operated. It’s honestly surprising to me that Vietnam ever re-engaged diplomatic relations with the US, although I would guess that politically, they didn’t have much choice.

I loved Vietnam, honestly. Ho Chi Minh city was a writeoff for me personally, and I never did get to do that vegetarian street-food tour, but I loved Hanoi’s crazy mix of old and modern, I loved the beauty of Cat Ba and the striking landscape of the karsts, I loved the remainders of the thousand-year-old empires at Hué and Hoi An, I loved the tailoring and the crafts, I loved the coast of Mui Ne even if the resort itself would have been prettier if a little less developed. I got wet occasionally, but I’m Northern Irish. I’m made of Gore-tex.

I really do object to cockroaches in my hotel room, though.

Vietnam Reflections

Sigh. That’s my primary reflection on Vietnam. It’s very strange, the people were friendly, the food was generally excellent, there was loads to see, but… it just didn’t end up going our way. The weather was fairly poor for our first week (and then horrific in the middle). Some mild scooter-based incompetence in Mui Ne caused me to graze my arm and leg and meant I couldn’t take advantage of opportunities to sail there. Our hotel there was nice, but it was just a bit far away from everything. Saigon was vibrant and interesting, but we were exhausted from travel and an awful hotel in the backpacker district.
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Hoi An seems like a really cool little town, but we could only stay one night and were drenched when there. Hué it rained so much as to actually be funny. Hanoi was actually quite nice, but there are limited things to do there.
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The country itself seems pretty well off (at least, the more populated areas that we passed through do). The roads were well paved and in good condition (much more so than Nepal or India). The cities are modern and the armies of scooters that roam the streets are generally helmeted. The food is of generally excellent quality, the transport links (bus, rail and plane) are efficient and promptish. Everything’s pretty cheap really, we were rarely paying even £10 for a full meal and drinks for the two of us. It’s astonishing to think that there are 90 million people living there, but there you go.
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The signs of Communism are still pretty strong. Hammers and sickles abound, as do ‘inspirational’ posters exhorting the masses. The face of ‘Uncle Ho’ is as everpresent as (and strikingly reminiscent of) Colonel Sanders in the US. The museums still abound with propaganda about the ways in which the Viet Cong waged war. America is still widely, bitterly, but understandably resented.
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One thing I really loved was the huge amounts of art galleries everywhere. While mostly selling reproductions of classic or western paintings, there was much modern and contemporary art. All the cities had loads of mini-galleries to entice and inspire you. If we hadn’t been travelling I’m sure I would have picked up a few canvases.
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I don’t know, I just couldn’t settle comfortably and relax. We had some great times (especially kayaking around Cat Ba, and being drenched on motorcycle rides in Hué). But I’m happy to move on now.
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Sleepless in Saigon

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When we left Danang, headed for Mui Ne, latest information indicated we were barely in front of Haiyan, still predicted to be a Category 3 typhoon. By the time we actually arrived, around noon the next day, the storm had slowed significantly and turned north. By the time it actually hit, closer to Hanoi than Danang, it had reduced to a tropical storm and it was well over 24 hours later. I felt a little silly, but it would’ve been sillier to ignore the weather forecast. I was certainly grateful to have scored berths in a four-person compartment, but this was the shabbiest yet; though, when you board a train at 11:30pm, your focus is largely getting things stowed and getting to sleep. Vietnamese trains also gave us the new experience of a squatting toilet which was simply a hole over the tracks. We got used enough to squatting toilets in Nepal to be largely indifferent to which kind we use, but this was still… interesting.

Mui Ne is a beach and sport resort on Vietnam’s south coast, and we planned to spend a few days there doing not much other than swimming. This plan went successfully. While we scored a very nice room in a small hotel with pool, it was some way out of the central strip (and the town is a single, long strip), and we had to take taxis to get to the watersports area. Mui Ne is a big kitesurfing destination, and I will admit to feeling jealous of the clouds of kitesurfers, shooting across the waves with often only the stabilising fin touching the water. Looking down the beach in the late afternoon, the sky is a cloud of brightly coloured kites, drifting almost lazily, like birds.

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Another strange element to Mui Ne and its nearby resort Phan Thiet: the Russians. “Everywhere is the Russians now,” said our taxi driver the first night, as he picked us up. “Fighting all the time.” We didn’t see that, but our drive through Phan Thiet showed almost every shop front labelled in Cyrillic, and drunken Russians demanding things of largely uncomprehending Vietnamese shop owners was a semi-regular sight.

To round off our time in Mui Ne, we took the “jeep tour”; seven people in a rackety ancient jeep that visited the shallow “fairy stream” through dramatic sandstone hills, the local fishing village, and the “red” and “white” sand dunes, where you can sandboard or rent a dune buggy. By the time we hit the red dunes, the sun was going down and the wind was up, and while wind patterns on sand are beautiful, it is akin to having the skin slowly scoured from your body. All of our exposed skin was covered in a thin coat of sand by the time we returned.

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In Ho Chi Minh City, things didn’t go as planned. Already tired from the long bus journey, we found that our good-value hotel room in the backpacker district was windowless and smelled distinctly musty. The backpacker area itself was lively, but more pounding bass and flashing lights than I’d expected, or particularly appreciated. Saigon is a distinct contrast to Hanoi; more developed, louder, and arguably more modern. Still, things were going well until about 10pm, when we settled down to sleep and the music from the clubs nearby ramped up. Earplugs did nothing. Around 4:30am, I gave up entirely and took my laptop and a book into the bathroom. Unfortunately, the bathroom turned out to be the domain of a whole clan of cockroaches during the night. At 5:30am, the music finally stopped; at 6am, we decided to spend our second night at a different hotel.

And so it was that I spent almost the entirety of our single full day in Saigon asleep in the (delightful, since you asked) Northern Hotel. I’m not sorry.

Saigon

We took an early bus from Mui Ne to Ho Chi Minh City. Technically only a section of this city is still Saigon, but the name is still used pretty much universally. We were staying in a nice seeming hotel in the backpacker district. Amy was feeling a bit knackered from the journey, so I stepped out to wander around the district. It was a bustling little street with bars, restaurants, galleries and shops. I plonked myself down to watch some rugby highlights, and later to chill out, read and watch the world go by. All seemed right.
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Amy roused from her slumber and we headed out for dinner at a nice Veggie restaurant around the corner. As we headed back we walked past two bars opposite each other, absolutely blasting their music at each other. ‘How silly’, we laughed. Sadly, it was a sign of what was to come.
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As we settled down to sleep, the pounding from a nearby club shook our (interior, windowless, fourth floor) room and kept us awake. Oh well, surely it would ease at midnight? No such luck. The thumping kept going until nearly 6am. Amy briefly took refuge to read in the bathroom, only to discover cockroaches scuttling about. Thoroughly tired and grumpy we checked straight out of that hotel and went to a nicer, quieter hotel across town. Amy caught up on sleep that afternoon, while I headed out to the art museum (which, for some reason, refused to turn their lights on). We finally got a decent night’s sleep, before heading on the bus out of Vietnam and across the border to Phnom Penh in Cambodia.