28 September 2009

War Remnants Museum

This particular topic is emotionally charged to say the least. What I write below are only my perceptions from a post-Vietnam generation perspective. As my parents suggest, people growing up and living through the Vietnam War may have different perspectives than my own. And I welcome comments to this regard!

I should have braced myself for the grand entrance into a communist nation, not to mention a nation that doesn't exactly call Americans friends. Perhaps it's because the Cold War is over and the communist era has taken a backburner to other international issues, I expected Saigon to be alive with all modern conveniences, industry-ready, and tourist friendly. After all, they are opening a Hard Rock Cafe–Saigon this month!

Though modern in many ways, this former South Vietnam stronghold seems to exude sadness. Few smiles are seen on the street; billboards display the hammer and sickle conspicuously alongside Vietnam's flag; and Saigon's main attraction (the Reunification Palace) stands as a daily reminder of communist presence (now reality) in Saigon. But what I saw on the streets did not prepare me for what I saw in the War Remnants Museum.

Formerly know as the Museum of American War Crimes (need I say more), its galleries bear names such as "Aggression War Crimes" and "Historical Truths" gallery (hmmm...can history really be considered "true"?). Within the walls of this museum were photos, captions, stories, and accounts of the atrocities committed by American soldiers during the American–Vietnam War.

True, there are always two sides to every story. But what disturbed me most wasn't what I saw. After all, American soldiers don't have the best reputation for playing fair during wartime. Rather, it was what I didn't see that upset me. There was no mention of South Vietnam as its own sovereign country. There was no mention of civil war. There was no mention of the fact North Vietnam killed their Southern counterparts, too. There was only mention of "liberating" the South from the hands of "the aggressor." It's as if the roots of the war were erased, South Vietnam never existed, and the reality for South Vietnamese was that of complete oppression by the United States.

The artifacts and exhibits themselves I found troubling as well. Captions for many photos created a picture of torturous, violent American soldiers injuring and killing innocent Vietnamese soldiers. At the risk of sounding pithy, this was war, people would die, and it wasn't just the Vietnamese who were dying. Also, many of the photos on display could be left open for interpretation. And with unattributed captions, could we really be so sure that the child was "begging the American soldier to not kill her father."

In content as well as presentation, the museum focused on grains of truth turning them into generalizations and reality. It amplified the actions of the "oppressor" while almost erasing North Vietnam's own participation in wartime activity. It didn't record history, it created history...a history that generations of Vietnamese will now come to know, learn, and believe.

24 September 2009

Life Begins

Traversing the Cambodia–Vietnam border is like crossing from the United States into Mexico. The differences slap you in the face! Not expecting to see much contrast (after all, we were traveling by boat and how much can you really from a riverbank), it became immediately apparent just how different these two neighboring countries are.

Except for borders distinguished by mountains and oceans, I've always thought of territorial lines as a bit arbitrary. A random line drawn by someone a long time ago to distinguish what is mine from what is yours. But as you leave Cambodia and enter Vietnam, the river seems to know it's entering a whole new world.
The wide-set banks quickly contract; the unchanging landscape becomes a smorgasbord of chaotic vegetation; and the desolate banks become centers of activity. I found myself wondering if we were on the same river!

Where life along the Mekong in Cambodia saw little activity, the lively banks of Vietnam are a testament to its expansive population (85 million to Cambodia's meager 15 million). Stilted houses sprinkle the Mekong all the way to Chau Doc. Rickety wooden boats with palm leaf canopies transport people and products down, up, and across the river. Those using less traditional methods of transport depend on river ferries to get them and their motorbikes from one side to the other. Even the rice fields come right up to the Mekong's waters.

With few expectations of what
life and livelihood is like in Vietnam, traversing the border by boat gives you a taste for what is in store.

20 September 2009

The Killing Fields

The following blog is a bit graphic in its description, so please read with caution.
For anyone taking a visit to Siem Reap, a quick trip to Phnom Penh is a must. If not for your own enrichment, for respect of those who died and acknowledgement of what the worst of humankind has done and still does

S-21, the former Khmer Rouge security prison, was our first stop in Phnom Penh. Housed in a former high school (a concrete testament to Angkor's abhorrence of education and intellectuals), the prison remains much as it was 30 year ago. Barbed wire fences surround the make-shift prison; former classrooms are still divided into tiny bricked cells; wood-framed beds with plaited-metal surfaces alongside iron shackles...all hint at the recurrent tragedies that occurred within its walls for almost 4 years.

Outside, a wooden frame once used for student physical education stands inconspicuous to the uninformed observer. Angkor used this and the pots nearby for hanging and head dunking tortures. Though no prisoners remain, hundreds of prisoner mug shots taken upon entrance to S-21 morbidly reflect just how massive and tragic this 4-year period was. Of those not imprisoned, tortured, and executed in S-21, another fate threatened them just miles outside Phnom Penh. Barely clearing the city's limits lie hundreds of mass graves where thousands of Cambodians spent their last moments of life.

The Killing Fields stimulate all the senses with traces of what once happened. Immediately you notice a subtle yet omnipresent stench of decay. On the walk toward the mass grave sites, you must be careful where you step. Bones, teeth, tattered clothing, and other remains scatter the path. And if the immediacy of the smells and sights doesn't stir your heart, the sounds of times past will. Hanging near the holding sight where most awaited death were speakers that blared music. Music at an execution site may seems like a cruel irony. But bullets were a commodity so bludgeoning
(evidenced by the hundreds of cracked skulls on display) was used as a more cost-effective method of execution. You see, the music was necessary to muffle the screams as hoes, hammers, and axe handles hit their victims.

Angkor took to heart its mantra "clearing grass, it shall dig its entire root off." Adjacent to the mass graves stands a tree where the "roots" of the family were destroyed. Soldiers would hold babies by their feet and swing the child's head at the tree.
And for children not killed, they were recruited as Angkor soldiers to support the Khmer Rouge and commit these horrendous deeds.

Those who were not subjected to these philosophically-motivated atrocities had a fate of starvation and disease in the work villages of the Cambodian frontier. It was a time when no one was safe, everyone was suspect, and families were torn apart. It was a time not to be forgotten.

17 September 2009

Remembering the Past

While visiting Cambodia, it is easy to get caught up in the sight-seeing bustle: temple touring, exquisite eating, and night-market souvenir shopping. But reality for the older generation is not a Cambodia prospering from tourism or educating its young for a multi-cultural, multi-lingual world. It is a Cambodia with a painful past.

Pol Pot and his Khmer Rogue regime came to power in 1975. The transfer of political leadership was welcomed by most as the country sought an end to the looming civil war. Marching through Phnom Penh in victory, the black-clad Khmer Rogue soldiers were greeted at first with cheers. Within the week, however, the regime evacuated the entire city warning of impending American attacks to the city. They would return after 3 days when the city was safe, the soldiers told them. But most never saw their beloved home again. During the 4 years of Pol Pot's reign more than 2 million Cambodians (about 1/5 of the country's population) died...half by execution and half by disease or starvation.

As I visited the capitol city 30 year later, I looked into the eyes of many Cambodian locals and wondered what those eyes had seen. Were their parents executed? Were their children killed? How many bodies did they bury because of starvation? How close did they come to death themselves? For the younger generation, I wondered what they knew of their country's riddled past. Do they believe the accounts of those who lived through it? Or to them are they just stories?

When we tell our children what happened they don't believe us, our tour guide said. Only when they come to see (the Killing Fields, S-21) and learn it in school do they start to believe. And those who lived through it still wonder how fellow Cambodians could commit such acts against their own people. Of our tour guide's 50 relatives retained by Angkor (Pol Pot's ruling body), only 3 survived.

How quickly the world forgets, and forgetting begets repeating. That is why one survivor visits S-21 whenever time permits to tell his stories and show people the tragic history of his country. We were lucky enough to speak with him during our museum visit.

One of only 7* to survive the brutal torture of the notorious S-21 security prison, Chum Mey managed to avoid suspicion and accusation because of his mechanical prowess, fixing cars and other items for Angkor. But when friends were arrested, they falsely accused him as a mere matter of survival. CIA, was what his friend told Angkor, and our survivor was tortured until he admitted it, too. Electric shocks, hanging by hands tied from behind, and head dunking into pots of dung were common methods used for "persuading" accusations and confessions. Pol Pot's regime ended before our survivor met the fate of the 16,000 other prisoners held within S-21's walls.

Throughout the year, Chum Mey walks back into the same rooms and faces the brutal memories of those 2 years spent in S-21. If for no other reason than to acknowledge his experience, his nightmare, his pain, we must remember the past.

*According to Wikipedia, there were 12 known survivors of S-21. We were told 7 during our visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh.

14 September 2009

Cambodia: The Personal Touch

Entering Cambodia is kind of like leaving Texas for Oklahoma. While Thailand boasts bustling cities, cultural prowess, and beautiful terrain, it is easy to see that Cambodia can't compete. But what Cambodia lacks in luster it makes up for in personality. You can't leave the country without feeling personally touched by the friendliness, genuineness, and kindness of the Cambodia people.

The terrain itself (unchanging landscape with rice paddies, palm trees, and little else) seems to foreshadow a dull and struggling existence. But the minute you interact on the personal level, you know you've crossed the border. Laughing, smiling, and genuinely curious and friendly, the Cambodian people make you feel welcome everywhere you go.

Though vendors persistently vie for your business in and around Siem Reap, a friendly decline will usually send them smiling about their way. One child approached me and asked where I was from. Being loyal to my home state, I said Texas of course. "Capitol Austin," he replied. A stream of child laughter followed from his friends in tow and a dumbfounded look on my face probably scared him away!

The "big city" of Phnom Penh is a mere shadow of what Bangkok offers. Though boasting a beautiful grand palace and a scattering of museums, this city of 2 million is a humble version of its rival capital to the west. But what Cambodia has to offer goes deeper than museums, monuments, and looks...just visit the Phnom Penh Grand Palace Promenade and you'll see. Residents sit on the lawn enjoying food purchased from nearby street vendors; local boys flip and dive off a metal embankment into the Tonle Sap river; an elephant stops traffic on the main thoroughfare between river and city and onlookers feed it bananas and water. The Cambodian people seem to run on a naturally up-beat pulse, enjoying life at every turn.

Family, friends, and general camaraderie seem to be of utmost priority. On weekends, groups of acquaintances meet to catch the local soccer match in a roadside field. Armed with blankets, snack, and drinks, hundreds sit as spectators while sharing each others' company. Even the size of families here pays tribute to the importance of relationships...a family of 5 is considered small by Cambodian standards!

Things run at a slow pace, but that doesn't mean service is slow or things don't get done. Cambodians are incredibly hard workers and know how to keep customers happy. Rarely do you wait more than 15 minutes for a meal, and on more than one occasion I was given too much change because the vendor didn't have the correct amount. On my final day in Siem Reap, I hired a tuk tuk driver to take me out on my own. Despite ominous clouds and torrential rain, he clad himself in an industrial-strength poncho, drove head-first into the downpour, and still opened my door with a smile.

In every situation, every location, and every person, you can't get away from Cambodia's personal touch.

10 September 2009

The Stories of Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat's claim to fame is its status as world's largest single religious monument. Coupled with the more than 200 intact wats that surround it, this is what attracts tourists (more than 2 million every year) to Siem Reap. But if you take your time, strolling through the wats, observing the people, and spending quiet time within its walls you'll find more than exquisitely detailed Khmer architecture here. The Temples of Angkor tell a story...a story of war and strife, a story of praise and destruction, a story of life as it was and life as it is. You see, even today, the Temples of Angkor are alive and ready to reveal their truths.

It is a story history, both in its construction and destruction. The extravagance and sheer scale of its construction reflect an unprecedented prosperity in Khmer history from the 9th to 14th centuries. But many years of neglect as the Khmer empire fell left the temples vulnerable to overgrowth and erosion. And later the destructive tendencies of wars and Pol Pot's regime left many temples a mere shadow of their once held beauty.

It is a story of religion, as it unfolded and changed. In its most obvious aspect, Angkor Wat served a religious purpose dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. But even its architectural layout is symbolic of the religious beliefs of the time. Built with three main levels (bottom for laymen, middle for religious officials, and top for royalty), it is indicative of deification of kings and high regard of religion. As you look closer, however, Hindu symbolism mixes with Buddhist representations in art and sculpting telling of the Khmer religious conversion in the late 13th century.

It is a story of innovation, in both character and technique. Though using familiar architectural schemas such as roman-like cylindrical columns and towered, castle-like structures, Khmer architecture is very much its own. Intricate carvings in every wall and crevice and tiered towers in cascading cone-like shapes make Angkor Wat's facade unmistakeably unique. Even the materials used, ranging from mountain-stock sandstone to bricks processed from termite hills, reflect innovative retrieval and creation methods.

It is a story of life, both past and present. The grounds once used as the commercial, political, religious, and monarchical center is the heartbeat of present-day Siem Reap. Children come out to play within its walls when the rain lures them out. They sing, tell stories, and build sandcastles resembling the cascading towers that surround them. Tuk tuk drivers, souvenir vendors, hotel owners, and restaurateurs depend on this massive tourist attraction for their living...and quite a living it is. (The people in Siem Reap seem comparatively more prosperous than in other parts of Cambodia.) Even today, rice paddies maintain their important agricultural status as they are interspersed between wats within the complex.

For us, the wats were "discovered" by the French 200 years ago. But for Cambodians, Angkor Wat has always been there telling its stories of the past and reflecting the stories of today.

07 September 2009

Siamese Surprises

Whether you could take Bangkok or leave Bangkok, one thing is for certain...this Siamese city is certain to surprise.

From chaos to contemporary this city always seems to change. Despite its rather unorganized infrastructure, fast (and I mean really fast) internet was easy to find. Whether it be Thailand's push to keep up with the modern or the popularity of internet gaming among Thai youth, the quality of the internet cafes were some of the best I've seen. And though Chinatown and Ko Ratanakosin seem to reflect time of ole, take one step into Siam Square and the modern will maul you. Slick contemporary architecture, the latest in fashion, and restaurants where you want to be "seen" all find their home in Bangkok's business district and surroundings.

Though Siam Square is the sure bet for guaranteed good eats, elsewhere in Bangkok diamonds in the rough await. With a humble sign pointing down a dark alley in Chinatown, some of the best Indian food I've had awaited me. And with curiosity being key, I navigated serpentine alleys only to encounter some simple street food with riverview seating...a perfect afternoon meal.

On more than one occasion, taking a wrong turn turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Between the river and my hotel were 3 blocks of continuous flower vendors. Beautifully exotic and colorful arrangements of every shape and size seized the eye of even the most banal passerby. And when I was about to throw in the towel after Bangkok's less-than-navigable streets got the best of me, just a block away and over a bridge lie the Golden Mount...a Buddhist temple with a skyline view not to be missed!

Curiosities, cuisine, and unexpected cultural shrines are just a few of the surprises Siam has in store.

03 September 2009


As you have probably gathered from my posts, I'm in love with Thailand...well, Bangkok at least. But let's be honest. There are still some things that makes it a bit undesirable for more than a vacation commitment.

Traffic: Whether you are in the car or out, traffic can be a major pain in Thailand's capitol city. On the way to dinner one night, I sat in a cab for 45 minutes with my end-point just in sight. As the meter reached the hour mark, I finally decided to bail..an easy 15-minute walk got me to my destination. But walking presents its own set of challenges. Crosswalks are mere suggestions to the speeding cars and motorbikes, and filled-up sidewalks require you to join traffic on the street more often than vendors on the sidewalk.

: Though weather is conducive to flip flops and tank tops, these are not necessarily the best choices. Flip flops, though comfortable and cool, leave unsuspecting tootsies vulnerable to soiling and injury. Puddles of mysterious substances litter streets and sidewalks and often are deep enough to submerge an unsuspecting pedestrian foot. It's also a bit more hygenic to wear covered shoes onto the water-covered floors of squat toilets (for obvious reasons). And on more than one occassion while trying to cross the street, I nearly lost a couple toes to a speeding motorbike tire.

Tank tops present their own set of challenges, too. Sunscreen is an obvious essential for exposed shoulders. But more importantly, Wats, museums, and other tourist attractions often require ladies' shoulders and knees to be covered.

Getting scammed is the easiest way to ruin a holiday.
Lucky for me I did my homework before my visit to Bangkok...the same scam was tried on me 3 times! Being overly friendly and helpful, a local Thai (often a tuk tuk driver) will inform you that the attraction you wish to see is closed. (I was told the National Museum was not open, the Grand Palace was too crowded this time of day, and the Grand Palace was closed for "Buddha Day.") Fortunately, the local is happy to assist you. He knows of all the good Wats and attractions around the city that are open and is eager to transport you. Convenient enough.

In truth, the attraction you wished to see was in fact open, and the tuk tuk driver will take you on a LONG days excursion forcing you to visit a number of stores from which he gets kick backs. Luckily, I was able to curb this scam politely and decline their friendly invitations.

Zoning: Or should I say lack of zoning. To the Thais, streets, sidewalks, and alleys seem to all be used for the same thing. Motorbikes drive on sidewalks, cars park there too, and pedestrians (and their vending carts) plant themselves where ever there is space. Even the streets seem to succumb to this chaotic zoning. Streets are not always labeled, they change names at almost every intersection, and they twist and turn until North turns to South. A good map and some street-wise courage are necessities for getting from one place to another in Bangkok.

Despite Bangkok's wealth of history and tourist friendly atmosphere, there will definitely be some Thai-Ups for the novice and seasoned traveler alike.