From Cambodia, we flew back to Bangkok for our final evening and farewell dinner. Pat, while a bit better, was not up to dinner on a traditional rice barge. She missed a lovely final dinner with our group and a twilight view of Bangkok. The night lights of Bangkok were truly spectacular, as was our adventure to all the sights, sounds, and tastes of Southeast Asia. Nonetheless, we were ready to head home the next morning and return to our warm and welcoming homes in Vermont and Maine.
We reached Siem Reap late in the afternoon and went straight to our hotel, the Angkor Paradise Hotel. By now, it was very hot and humid. We were delighted to know that we would be able to stay in Siem Reap for three nights. However, by the beginning of second day, Pat began to feel quite ill, having a fever, chills, and nausea. Unfortunately, this sickness lasted for the entire visit to Siem Reap, causing Pat to spend the entire visit in bed.
Sandy spent one day catching up with Julie and Jeremy, with a much needed rest at the hotel, enjoying the pool and then later visiting the night markets and going out for dinner. Julie posted about this reunion in her blog — http://howtocatchagoatbyitstail.wordpress.com/2013/03/16/a-weekend-with-mom-in-siem-reap/ — so we won’t repeat it here.
Sandy visited Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom with the group on the final day in Cambodia. It was fun, but just not the same without Pat to enjoy it.
These photos just don’t depict the incredible architecture of the Angkor Temples. For a more complete description and additional photos, please visit Julie’s blog at — http://howtocatchagoatbyitstail.wordpress.com/2013/03/20/the-amazing-temples-of-angkor/.
From Phnom Penh, we traveled by bus to the city of Siem Reap. Along the way, we stopped at various places, even crashed a wedding ceremony (which the family, bride and groom did not seem to mind!). Our new guide, Jack, joins our group and we learn how tarantulas are caught and cooked. Sandy even ate one to the surprise of everyone, including herself!
The history of Phnom Penh and the devastation that occurred here became the focus of our visit here.
Walking through the peaceful countryside of Choeung Ek it is almost inconceivable to confront the nature of true evil. Most of the 17,000 detainees held at Security Prison 21 were executed here, 14 km southwest of Phnom Penh, in a place now known as The Killing Fields. Prisoners were often bludgeoned to death so as to avoid wasting bullets. As we wandered through this shady land it was hard to imagine the brutality that unfolded here. But the Buddhist memorial displaying more than 8000 skulls brings it home. More than 1.7 million people were victims of the Pol Pot genocide. Choeung Ek is one of many execution sites throughout Cambodia.
The Toul Sleng Prison Museum is a grim reminder of Cambodia’s bloody past under Pol Pot. Once a school, it was taken over by Pol Pot’s forces in 1975 and transformed into torture chambers and renamed Security Prison 21. At the height of its activity some 100 victims were killed every day. The Khmer Rouge were meticulous in keeping records of their victims so each prisoner who passed through was photographed. Today haunting photographs of the victims are displayed down the long corridors of the museum. We were fortunate to meet Chum Mey, one of only a handful of survivors who is frequently available at the museum to greet visitors and answer questions. He is in is 80’s. To this day he wonders why he survived.
Julie and Jeremy also visited these sites separately from us. To read Julie’s blog, see:
We leave our hotel and began our journey toward Cambodia. Before leaving the Village of Chau Doc, we took a boat ride to observe the floating markets on the Mekong. Here we observed once again, daily life on the water, and the system of trade of the people.
After the visit to the floating market, we board a speed boat which took us five hours up river to the Cambodia border and then on to Phnom Penh. We had to disembark the boat to go through customs at the Cambodian border. We observed many things along the river, but noticed much new construction as we approached the city of Phnom Penh.
Sandy’s daughter, Julie, and her son-in-law(Jeremy) were already in Cambodia, doing volunteer work for the Trailblazer Foundation. We were able to meet up with Jeremy and Julie at our hotel (Almond Hotel). They were staying in Siem Reap but had came to Phnom Penh to get their visas renewed.
Ho Chi Minh City is a place we never dreamed we would be. It is Vietnam’s largest city. While many locals still call the city Saigon it was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1976. Vietnam remains a communist country but capitalism seems to be full steam ahead and the country is consistently one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. With a population of 5.38 million HCNC is on the move with a world of constantly flowing motorcycle traffic you can never imagine. Rules of the road: small yields to big (always) and vehicles drive on the right-hand side of the road (usually). Bus drivers rely on the horn as a defensive driving technique. Pedestrian survival rules when crossing the street include starting across slowly, very slowly, giving the motorbike drivers sufficient time to judge their position so they can pass on either side. They won’t stop or even slow down but will try to avoid hitting you. Don’t make any sudden moves!
Our tour of the city included the beautiful French Quarter and the Catholic Cathedral of Notre Dame which looks like a miniature of the Paris Notre Dame. The Cathedral was built between 1877 and 1883 and stands regally in the heart of the Government Quarter. It is said to stand on the site of an old pagoda. Dating from the same time period is the majestic Post Office featuring two enormous murals depicting maps of Vietnam as it was many years ago. We also visited the Ben Thanh Market. Everything anyone could ever need is available and when night falls the market moves outside and even more food and necessities stands sprout up.
The War Remnants Museum documents the atrocities of war. It is a strange experience, of course from the Vietnamese point of view, and very sobering. On display are retired artillery pieces and an array of photographs of the victims of war–those who suffered torture as well as those who were born with birth defects caused by the use of defoliants. Also displayed are photos of the numerous journalists of many nationalities who lost their lives documenting the war.
Equally as troubling and fascinating are the Cu Chi Tunnels which facilitated the Viet Cong control of a large area. At its height the tunnel system stretched from Saigon to the Cambodian border. In the district of Cu Chi alone there were over 125 miles of tunnels where thousands of fighters and villagers hid and fought during the Vietnam War, referred to by locals as the “American War.” The multi-level network includes mess halls, meeting rooms, an operating theater, a tiny cinema, small factories, vast ammunition stores and even a birthing room allowing the Viet Cong to control large areas near Saigon. The tunnels actually went down three stories. Parts of this remarkable tunnel network have been reconstructed and it is possible to descend into the tunnels themselves. Along with some of the others Sandy was brave enough to explore some of the open tunnels gaining an idea of the living conditions.
On our last evening in HCMC we had the opportunity to ride the city’s busy, narrow streets in a cyclo-rickshaw, a very fun adventure. Our destination was a local theatre to see a traditional Vietnamese water puppet show. Vietnam’s ancient art of Mua Roi Nouc (water puppetry) originated at least 1000 years ago. Developed by rice farmers, the wooden puppets were manipulated by puppeteers using water-flooded rice paddies as their stage. The performance is accompanied by traditional music.
Here are a few short clips taken at the water puppet show.
We had a day long drive to Chau Doc with many interesting stops and sights of life along the way. En route to Chau Doc we visited Cao Dai Temple. It stands nine stories high and wildy mixes styles and colors and designs of every Asian religion and culture.
And a note about eating. Ranging from cheap, tasty meals at street stalls to upscale epicurean experiences, we have had it all. Food has been abundant at every meal, fresh and varied. It is said there are nearly 500 traditional Vietnamese dishes. Pho is the Vietnamese name for the noodle soup that is eaten at all hours of the day, but especially breakfast. Every meal, breakfast, lunch and dinner starts with soup. For the brave there are many things to try, like Hot Vit Lon, steamed fertilized duck egg in varying stages of development, all the way up to recognizable duckling, eaten with coarse salt and bitter herb. Duck blood salad was enjoyed by some too. Sandy ate a fried tarantula but that is a story for another post!