Saigon - Phnom Penh
22.08.2007 29 °C
As I was saying...
so the Cu Chi tunnels would have been pretty terrifying, accounting for the bombing and disease of the thousands of inhabitants in the 1.2m high tunnels. In fact 40,000 Vietnamese fighter and civilians perished during the construction and use of the tunnels, which brings me neatly onto a familiar rant about the audacity of certain tourists....
Given that so many perished during the war, at the end of bombs or guns, our jaws dropped when we were offered to have a go a 'shooting a gun', and dropped further when some guys took up the offer to fire some rounds at a haystack near the tunnel. I honestly struggle to understand the mentality of someone who sees something as horrific as the remnants of war who then decides 'hey, I'll go shoot something'. Why!? So we can recreate the sounds of gunfire and pretend we're in 'Nam? Similarly, in Cao Dai some people were praying and this tourist chap with a big camera lens was taking the most invasive pictures, right in their faces, as if their faith and existence was laid on for his particular entertainment. Cao Dai is pretty unusual, to say the least, but we westerners seem to have it in our heads that everything's just there for our amusement.
Anyway, back to the sprawling Saigon for a final night in Vietnam. I liked Vietnam a lot, although the level of state influence really took me aback. I was vaguely expecting the socialist realist propaganda (and really, some of them were real beauties), but the red banners with yellow slogans hung on every street, and over archways leading off the roads were quite unsettling, clearly some sort of party slogan... And the 'public announcement' speakers hung at every corner.. it's quite easy in Vietnam to pretend that you're in any other holiday destination, especially somewhere as touristy as Hoi An. But although Vietnam is economically capitalist, the society is still well and truely under party control. There are no free elections, no freedom of speech, no real free use of the internet. We tried to e-mail pictures to Vietnamese people we met, and all of the e-mails to Vietnamese were returned. Just recently, a young guy was arrested for viewing websites about democracy (I read that through Amnesty). So, a very interesting country to visit, and people were friendly and make fantastic food, but socially it's not unlike it's former cold-war self.
The next day was an early bus to Phnom Penh, a relatively zippy 6 hrs away, including border controls, so not bad. My passport is looking absolutely splendid now, with stamps and visas all over the place! For the tender young age of 22, it's actually quite indulgent, and as we rolled into Cambodia I marvelled at just how lucky I am.
Cambodia is so much poorer than Vietnam. Even on the major road between the two capitals we were treated to sections pot-holed dirt track. The party archways turned into some splendid carved stone ones, just casually positioned at the side of the road. Phnom Penh is remarkably likable, and seemed to crop up out of nowhere after field upon field of paddy fields and flatness. Thursday is Lucy's 21st birthday, so we decided to curtail our stay in PP to spend today (weds) on the bus so that Lucy's birthday could be spent in Angkor Wat, which actually worked to our advantage. Given our late starts and general scattiness, we figured on a rapid 'Phnom Penh on acid'(as Lucy called it), paying 5US to zip us around the sites and see everything. Amazingly, we managed to see the things we wanted to see in one day, but without feeling hurried.
Phnom Penh's attractions, for want of a better word, fall into two categories: beautiful, and gut-wrenchingly miserable. By the former, I'm referring to the Khmer arcitecture of the Royal palace, which is rather 'bling' and extremely photogenic. The latter, of course, refers to the museum and memorial to the events of 75-79, and the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. Just outside of PP is the Cheong Ek Killing Field memorial, where the skulls of some 8500 victims exhumed from the (tiny) area are displayed in a memorial building. They're just the tip of the iceberg, and throughout the site are clothes and bones poking up through the ground. Signs explain what buildings were situated where, and their purpose as part of what was essentially an execution centre for, well, pretty much anyone. After the Khmer Rouge rolled into town in 75, city dwellers were evacuated en masse to the countriside to realize the ludicrous dream of a completely agrarian society. 'Year Zero' was declared, 'God is dead', and gradually intellectuals, doctors, teachers, foreigners, people who wore glasses were packed off to detention centres, tortured and exectued at sites like Cheong Ek. The madness of the Khmer Rouge regeime defies belief or understanding. Once the slaughter began, even KR officials and combatants themselves were targeted. Interrogators were murdered by their replacements. For four years the country turned into an anarchic nightmare of starvation and murder, and surprise surprise, nothing was done about it. In fact, after the regeime was finally overthrown by the Vietnamese, the US, UK and Thailand actually supported the KR in hiding. The US re-equipped them, the Thais provided them land and protection and the KR received SAS training courtesy of Her Majesty's Government, despite the fact that the KR perpetrated one of the worst genocides of the last century, if not ever. Aside from all that, in the grips of the cold war, what amazes me the most is the subject's absence from the UK history curriculum. I thought I'd studied modern world history, yet a genocide just before the beginning of my own existence seems to not be considered important enough to teach. How offensive, that after arming and training the KR, we can't even include the murder of nearly 3m people in the education of our own citizens.
Tuol Sleng, the interrogation centre, was just as depressing. Although such places are not enjoyable to visit, it feels more like one should and despite their misery I'm glad I did.
Onto more cheerful topics, we've taken another super-short 6hr bus to Siem Reap this morning, and have bagged a rather good bargain at 7US for a triple room (no a/c though, nice). Tomorrow we'll be heading off to check out the ruins at Angkor Wat,and the surrounding temples, which will take about 3 days in total. Yum yum. It's nice to be stationary for a little while, at least.
Anyway, since I've brought you up to right now, I might head off and find myself some much.
Hope everyone's well,
lots of love