Travels in Cambodia and Vietnam

Halong Bay

Cambodia and Vietnam (2006)

Words: Jeremy Miles Pictures: Hattie Miles 

FOR someone whose earliest memories are of torture and genocide   Sothy laughs a great deal.  The cheery 32-year-old works as a freelance tour guide helping to establish Cambodia on the tourist map. 

He specialises in taking English and American travellers to Angkor Wat and other ancient  temples near his home town of Siem Reap. His informative lectures about the kingdoms, wars and civilisations of the past are punctuated with little jokes and he always seems to have a ready smile.

Yet despite his cheerful demeanour and relatively tender years Sothy is a survivor of Pol Pot’s brutal regime, the crazed dictatorship that, in the mid to late 1970s, saw literally millions starved, beaten, interrogated, tortured and put to death. 

Sothy

Sothy was only a child when the Khmer Rouge came for his mother.

Accused of trying to  exchange a shirt for a bowl of rice, she was thrown in jail. They took the boy too.  And, with his mother’s screams echoing in his ears, Sothy was stripped naked, tied to a tree and smothered in ants. 

He remembers the fear and confusion and he remembers the sores that festered until he was half crazy but he can recall little else. Three months later they were released. 

 “My mother says I cried all the time,” he told me. “That I had a big head and a little skinny body but  when I ask her about it she cries.too” He says he doesn’t know why they were spared but there’s a haunted look in his eyes as he talks about it.  

Cambodia is a fascinating, beautiful and rewarding country to visit. It’s magnificent emples are its main attraction but tourists are also confronted with the  ghosts of the all too recent recent past and the legacy of Pol Pot’s insane Maoist-Leninist experiment. 

We had arrived in this beautiful but battered country at the end of a fascinating 10 day, top-to-toe tour of Vietnam with the holiday company Archers Direct. That trip had taken us from Hanoi in the north  to Ho Chi Minh City in the south.  With knowledegable guides and extremely comfortable accomodation, it was a great way to see a fascinating part of the world.

Touching down in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh at the start of a three night Kingdom of Cambodia extension to our holiday we found oureslves embarking on an eye-opening experience. The first thing you realise is how extraordinarily poor the place is. The escalator at the airport  (one of only two, we were told, in the entire country ) is a prime destination for family outings. Not surprising perhaps. For when a schoolteacher is lucky to earn US$25 a month, a ride on a moving staircase must represent a rare and affordable luxury 

Photo by Michiel Verledens  Pexels.com

Next stop was the Genocide Museum – a thought-provoking guided tour of Pol Pot’s feared S21 secret prison. Housed in an unremarkable  looking  former Secondary  School building, it still boasts the iron bedsteads that they manacled the prisoners and a gruesome variety of instruments of torture that led to the deaths of almost all who were taken there. Of the 14,000 plus men, women and children dragged through the doors of S21 only seven emerged alive. Inside the old schoolrooms the dead  are still present in the form of hundreds, maybe thousands of  prison photographs. The victims – Pol Pot’s supposed political enemies – each hold a number. Their crime was being educated, able to read, inclined to question. Some were tortured and executed simply because they wore glasses. Others because they had nicely manicured nails. They were beaten to death. Bullets were deemed too expensive to waste on mere prisoners.

Around both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap the notorious Killing Fields are easy to find. They are not, as I had naively imagined, remote, discreet and distant but right there on the edge of town. In fact those same fields – the last resting place of literally hundreds of thousands of innocent victims – are now sprouting four and five star hotels: a cash crop to feed the burgeoning tourist industry.

Such information can of course prove disquieting  to holidaymakers who simply believe they are jetting into an, until recently, hard to visit place to see some old and interesting temples. And so it should. I was impressed and proud of the fact that the party we were with embraced the fascinating and salutary history lesson that was Cambodia with enthusiasm and intelligence. 

The temples too of course were quite amazing. Lavishly  carved and dating back a thousand years or more the most impressive are  clustered around the ancient Khmer capital of Angkor. 

Vietnam

There was the magnificent jewel in Cambodia’s tourism crown – the towering, beautiful and well-ordered Angkor Wat – so much bigger than we had imagined – in fact an entire city five miles in circumference.  But there were many other treasures too, like the massive carved heads and huge gateways at Angkor Thom and the Bayon with its bas reliefs showing ancient battles, real and mythological.  Best of all perhaps was Ta Prohm which is still half-consumed by the jungle. It’s ravaged walls and tower’s entwined in the roots of giant self-seeded banyan trees.

Cambodia offers astonishing sights, including some places that even the locals have been unable to access for years. Away from the tourist trail, the country is still heavily mined. Hidden explosives continue to claim between 600 and 700 lives a year and until very recently travel in the leading carriage of the local trains was free of charge because it doubled as a minesweeper. 

In Vietnam they also bear scars of terrible times but, while what they call The American War is far from forgotten, this is clearly a young, vibrant country looking to the future. Sure ageing hippies can still find The Doors and Jimi Hendrix on countless juke boxes and you can buy  “battle scarred” Zippo lighters,  scuffed and battered and bearing such legends as “When I die bury me face down so the whole world can kiss my ass.” It’s tourism though, not history.

Girl on a motorcycle, Saigon

Flying into Vietnam via Bangkok, our  journey started in Hanoi, a bustling city with quite literally a million mopeds. Having learnt to cross the road – an art that requires courage, blind-faith and and the acquisition of a deep sense of fatalism, we spent a couple of happy days exploring street markets and stalls, temples and tourist sites.  

We then drove briefly north towards the Chinese border for a sailing trip among the towering limestone pillars, rocky outcrops and caves of Halong Bay.  

After an overnight stay we flew down to Da Nang – base for a huge US military presence during the war and still  a magnet for  veterans revisiting their past. We spent a couple of days in the idyllic  and ancient riverside town of Hoi An where tailoring is a speciality – they’ll knock you up a perfect suit, shirt, dress, you name it in next to no time – we also ate perhaps the best croissants of our lives – an indication of the culinary impact left by years of French rule. 

We drove form Hoi An  to the ancient capital of Hue.  Packed with history and war damage, it delivered some haunting images, not least the shattered remains of its astonishing 16th century Citadel most of which was smashed to dust and rubble by American troops during the Tet offensive in 1968. 

Hoi An, Vietnam

“What a pity!” said our guide. Ironically this  had been the exact phrase used by a previous guide back in Hanoi when informing us that Uncle Ho was not receiving visitors in his mausoleum because his mummified body was undergoing “technical maintenance”. It all seemed a rather undignified for fate for a man who specifically asked that he should be cremated. 

We did however get the chance to visit the Presidential Palace  and the “simple house” in its grounds where  Ho Chi Minh, president from 1954 to 1969 and leader of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam through the height of the war, chose to live. 

He claimed that it proved he was truly a man of the people. I’m not so sure . While based on a traditional peasant stilt house, it is relatively spacious and very attractive with lots of highly polished wood and a pleasing open-plan design.  If it hadn’t been for the special shelf for Ho’s tin hat and hotline telephone and the padded door next to his bed leading to the bomb bunker it wouldn’t have looked out of place in Homes and Gardens. 

Finally we flew to the vibrant and buzzing melting-pot that bears his name. Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as the locals still insist on calling it, is a brilliant, bustling metropolis full of sights, sounds and sensations. To reach them required more death-defying road crossing.  It really is difficult to get your head around the concept of stepping in front of 70 or 80 motorcycles which you know are not going to stop.  The instruction was “Just walk slowly and they’ll go round you” Astonishingly they do. 

Hattie in Vietnam

In 10 days in Vietnam we saw a beautiful country, wonderful street-life, pagodas and palaces. We enjoyed river trips and the hospitality of gentle friendly people, wonderful food  and of course many reminders of a war-ravaged past.  In Ho Chi Minh City we spent an afternoon at the diplomatically renamed War Remnants Museum (it used to be called The War Crimes Museum). After viewing, among other horrors, exhibits and first hand accounts relating to the My Lai massacre there was something particularly chilling about  returning to a very comfortable four star hotel switching on CNN and seeing footage of an American Marine casually blowing away a wounded and unarmed insurgent in Falluja.  Nothing, it would seem, changes.  Just the names and the places.