With another couple of days until our flight to Thailand and some time on the beach we decided to strike out on our own, without joining a tour (yes kids we’re just that crazy) and head to see Tam Coc, the so-called “Ha Long Bay of the rice paddies”. Despite being told by the staff at our hostel that you can’t get to Ninh Binh, the closest town to Tam Coc unless you’re part of a tour, we bravely set forth to the bus station.
Upon arrival at the bus station, I’d barely even got my pack out of the cab when a guy came up to me, beckoning me to follow while repeating “Ninh Binh” over and over. “How the hell does he know where we want to go?” I thought, but then of course you get suspicious, especially when another two or three people approached us all beckoning us to follow them and saying the same thing. That’s one thing I’ve got quite tired of while traveling – you have to be on your guard all the time and assume that the first price that you hear isn’t reasonable because more often than not someone is trying to take you for a ride. I don’t like to have to think the worst of people all the time, but that friendly cab driver who asks if you’ve got a reservation at the hotel you’ve asked him to take you to isn’t concerned for you, but more likely to be trying to take you to a hotel of a friend of is where you’ll pay through the nose for a sub standard room. That random “friend” of the cabbie that just got in and says he’s a student and is just getting a lift home, is actually working for another hotel scam. That bottle of water doesn’t really cost $2, that tuk tuk ride to your hotel won’t really take 10 minutes so that price is too high. And on and on. It’s not something that I think I can ever get used to, but I digress.
Our very persistent friend took us through to the ticket counter which is the same counter for all the buses so we couldn’t really see the scam, especially when the tickets turned out to be the price that we were expecting. We can only think that a number of small companies ply the same route so they have touts at the station to try to get you on their bus rather than someone else’s because he was on and off the bus constantly, both in the bus station and also once we got on the road, each time beckoning to other people (all local) who would join the bus. Sitting at the back of the bus on slightly raised seats with zero leg room, (even my knees touched the seat in front) I really noticed our blondness and our fellow passengers kept turning round to get a good look – it was a little like being monkeys in the zoo.
Arriving in Ninh Binh after probably the least comfortable journey on our travels courtesy of our seats at the back and the fact that our chosen vehicle had zero suspension, we were greeted by a fairly characterless town with practically no tourists. We found the hotel we were going to stay in, confirmed we could hire a motorbike the next day and then set off to see what Ninh Binh was about. While there weren’t the restaurants and cafes etc that we’ve been used to, it was a pleasant change to be in a city that isn’t set up for tourists. We walked around the streets for a bit and then through the local market that basically sold everything from food to kitchen appliances to clothes, everything we would usually find in a supermarket at home. All around us life went on, catering to the locals and unaware of tourist dollars.
The next day we were up bright and early, in possession of our little scooter for the day and a hand drawn map courtesy of our hotel and off we went. I should have known from looking at the map where a road marked 4km was the same length as a road marked 8km, that it wasn’t going to be the most accurate of guides. It probably took us an hour longer than it should have done to find Tam Coc as we were, on the advice of our hotel, trying to stick to back roads instead of braving the insanity of highway one but the turnings we were looking for just never seemed to materialise. In the end we admitted defeat and went the main road way, thankfully living to tell the tale.
The way to see Tam Coc is via boat which is rowed by a local person using their feet! We were marveling at their dexterity and decided that we should really give it a go ourselves. As is to be expected I think, neither of us are naturally gifted in the foot-rowing department and the pictures of me having a go are not in the least ladylike so I certainly won’t be sharing them here.
The scenery of Tam Coc is breathtaking. We had a couple of people doubt whether it was worth going to see it after we’d already seen Ha Long Bay but to me that’s like saying it’s not worth going to the Alps if you’ve been to the Rockies. We had got there early in the morning so that we missed the crowds of day trippers from Hanoi so we rowed peacefully along the river while on either side people were preparing the rice paddies for the next crop. You even get to go under some of the immense limestone kasks through caves, dodging stalactites while your comedy (and devilishly handsome) boat buddy calls a sinister “Mwa ha ha ha ha” which reverberates around you. One guess people.
After the boat trip we headed for a nearby pagoda, though upon arrival it was clear that I wasn’t dressed for the occasion in my shorts so I had to let Clive go on ahead. Apart from some scrambling to get to the top for a viewpoint it doesn’t sound like I missed much, but fortunately there was another monument nearby that you could climb up to and gave a panoramic view of the route that we’d followed in the boat. Definitely worth the puffing and blowing it took to get to the top. Side note: apparently eating and drinking for four months and no exercise is detrimental to your stamina. Now we know.
After checking out the view we headed back to our digs and on back to Hanoi, for one more night’s sleep before hitting Thailand for some well deserved (I’m sure you’ll all agree) R and R on the beach 😀
After our sojourn in Sapa we had another stop-gap day in Hanoi before heading off to Ha Long Bay, one of the final must-do episodes of our trip.
Ha Long bay is well known as an area of stunning geography where thousands of limestone karst islands jut imposingly out of the sea to give one of the truly magnificent sites of natural wonder the world has. With it’s Unesco world heritage designation it is also well and truly on the tourist map and as such is one of the most visited and busiest places to see in Vietnam. We had read that the best way to enjoy the bay was to stay on a boat rather than do day trips from Halong City which apparently is quite a seedy and exploitative tourist trap. Herein lay our dilemma as we had also heard some horror stories from the Aussies we met in Sapa about unscrupulous tour operators massively overcharging, and hundreds of tourist boats going round in a well worn trail, queuing up to see caves and bays, with party boats moored up together pumping out loud music and drunken antics long into the night. Maybe we’re getting old but this was not the experience we were looking for….
Fortunately, I’d read about Bai Tu Long bay which is the lesser known area north of Ha Long Bay but still has the same stunning scenery. After some quick research we found out that there was only one company that had a license to operate in the bay and if true the trip promised to be far more the gentile experience we were after. We booked up and kept our fingers crossed – one thing our travels has taught us is to not bank on anything being as its supposed to be until you actually see it in front of you!
The next morning, after another day of manic motorbike dodging on the Hanoi streets and a slightly bizaar experience at the Water Puppet theatre, we were picked up from our hotel to be transported to Halong in a smart new minibus – things were looking promising. Three hours later we arrived in Halong City at Indochina Junks’ dockside reception. Minutes later we were slipping from the dock, in a tender launch with 13 other guests eager to board our new home. When we arrived aboard I was very impressed, this was no piece of floating junk but an elegant wooden vessel with a hint of old world nostalgia that made me think of Agatha Christie’s depiction of a Victorian Nile cruiser. Our cabin was a charming wood paneled room complete with double bed and generous en suite bathroom with rain shower. We had lucked in.
As we gently set sail out of the bay, the mayhem of Hanoi was left behind and we grabbed a beer and headed up top to the sun deck to lounge and meet our fellow cruisers. Before long we were called down for lunch in the dining room – something which turned out to a veritable 5 course feast of Vietnamese delicacies, each tantalizing our taste buds. By the time we had finished we were well and truly out in the bay and the impressive karst islands were slipping by like slow-motion scenery being pulled across a page. The peace and serenity of this seascape was truly mesmerizing and we really began to appreciate the marvel of these natural formations, actually formed by a massive limestone plateau that has been sinking, eroding and flooded over millennia to leave us with this maze-like archipelago.
Our first stop was at a sandy beach, where we could enjoy a kayak around the islands and visit a cave once inhabited by the local fishermen for generations, it’s caverns provided a cool shelter in the summer and a warm enclosure in the winter and monsoons. We lounged and explored for a few hours until the sun was setting before returning to our luxurious Junk and setting sail for our overnight stop. As the light faded we enjoyed sundowners on the deck and before long the karsts around us became forboding silhouetted masses like giant castellations looming over us both imposing and protecting as we weaved our way silently through.
Dinner was another culinary extravaganza, this time seven courses of edible delectableness, with each of the main courses introduced with an amazing food sculpture prepared by different crew members, one taking nearly 5 hours to make! At the end of the meal our on-board representative introduced us to the crew and the captain before a little surprise was presented to Jo and I in the form of an elaborate cake, baked in honor of our Honeymoon (I would like to take credit for sneakily arranging this behind Jo’s back but this was a spontaneous effort from the crew after they had learned we were on our honeymoon). It was a lovely gesture, and typical of the genuine effort the crew and the operator made to make the trip special for everyone on board.
The next day, we were summoned to breakfast for 8am as we effortlessly got underway for our morning excursion – a visit to a floating fishing village and pearl farm. When we arrived, we were ferried to a docking platform before being allocated a local to row us through the floating village, itself situated in a sheltered and almost fully enclosed karst bay. We were told that there were nearly 200 people living in this community and that many of them had never been to the mainland and have grown up living a fisherman’s life, trading their catches for whatever else they needed. It was an intriguing take on an idyllic subsistence lifestyle but one that I’m sure was underpinned by hardship. After a brief stop to see the local floating school, and an obligatory attempt to be extorted by the tourist gift shop, we rejoined our fishing dinghy and were rowed on through the bay. Being me of course I insisted on taking a turn on the oars to give our local lady a rest, so I donned her traditional bamboo conical hat and rowed us on for a bit. After a half-hearted attempt to engage the other rowers into a race, and before I was utterly humiliated by being overtaken by what must have been the Vietnamese teenage Olympic rowing champion in the making, our lady wished to regain the helm and guide us back to the landing platform. She probably just wanted to save face with her peers rather than watch me snake us haphazardly towards the dock like some drunken sailor.
After a quick but interesting look at the pearl farm, I managed to entice Jo away before she had the chance to add pearls to her list of jewelry purchased on our travels. Sadly, this was our last stop before making our way slowly and elegantly back to the port in Halong city. And as we sailed back, we reflected that this had been one of the highlights of our trip, and exactly what we had wanted from the Ha Long Bay experience – we’d avoided the crowds and enjoyed 2 days of tranquil sailing in one of the most beautiful and remarkable seascapes on the planet. Magic!
We left Hoi An just as the rains really set in and it was probably lucky that we did as the road leading to the town was already under some serious standing water and I felt really bad for the cyclists that our driver mercilessly sprayed as we went past.
Hanoi is a much smaller city than Saigon, only 3.7 million to Saigon’s 7 million and I immediately liked it more, especially because it didn’t have nearly as many 4 lane roads to navigate while scooters buzzed you like angry bees. We based ourselves in the old quarter where the streets are narrow and bustling with street vendors and places serving bia hoi (draught beer) for pennies. This was far more the Asian city that I’d imagined and even had the added bonus of a number of lakes where you can walk uninterrupted by traffic.
One of the big attractions in Hanoi is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where you can visit the embalmed corpse of the man himself – fun! Sadly for us though we’d arrived just after he’d gone to Russia for his annual “maintenance” – bummer.
Our main reason for heading to Hanoi was that it is the gateway to Ha Long Bay and Sapa so our focus was on finding trips to these places that would fit into the few days that we had before our trip to Thailand to hopefully hunt down some sun.
We had a recommendation from our friends Gareth and Leora in Canada for a Sapa trip that they did through the Hanoi Backpackers hostel so we dutifully headed off to investigate. I have to admit that I was a little reticent to book a trip through a hostel especially when their Ha Long Bay trip promised to “rock long, rock hard” and included drinking games and nude midnight swims. Yes, the thought of spending 3 days on a boat with a bunch of drunk 20 year olds fills me with horror – if that makes me old, I can live with it. However, we reasoned that a walking trip to Sapa that included a homestay with a local family probably wouldn’t interest the beer pong and shooters brigade so we signed up.
We turned up at the hostel at 7.30pm as directed and were escorted to the train station where we were to catch the night train. We had already been looking at cabins on the night train before we opted for the all-inclusive trip and had seen some really nice ones, so the bunks were a bit of a disappointment, very basic and a squat loo (something I most certainly will NOT miss when we leave Asia) but seeing as we were literally just sleeping on the train, I managed to avoid being a princess about it and just suck it up.
We arrived in Lao Cai at about 5am and the first issue was the fact that there was nobody holding a sign with our names on it as there was supposed to be. You know that feeling as everyone else is being ushered into their transport, the crowd is thinning and still you’re standing there without a clue as to what is going to happen next? Yes? That was us at 5am. Bleugh. Fortunately a guy who seemed to be in charge saw our Hanoi Backpackers envelope and got us into a bus that delivered us to Sapa where finally we saw Joaneruge written on a sign – imagine the relief!
As we drove the 35km on winding mountain roads the dawn was just breaking and gradually the mountains and their rice terraces were revealed to us. I hadn’t realised until that moment just how much I’d missed being in the mountains and was looking forward to the trek.
After a shower and breakfast we met the rest of our group, 2 Aussies, 2 Danish, 2 Norwegians, a German and our guide, a tiny little 17 year old local girl and headed off. We hadn’t got more than 10m before we were accosted by a group of local women in traditional costume carrying wicker baskets on their backs who became our chaperones for the morning. Basically they walk with you for a couple of hours and help you if you need it and then try to sell you things that they have made when you get to your destination. This cycle repeats itself in the afternoon with a new group of women and again the next morning, so it does become a bit tiresome.
The trek itself wasn’t exactly difficult and was more like a gentle stroll in the countryside. Once I’d realised this and changed my expectations of the trip (I’d been expecting it to be more like a proper hike as we’d done for the Gibbons) I could enjoy the spectacular scenery and the fact that we were finally out in the fresh air.
The town of Sapa lies at an altitude of 1600m and is part of the Hoang Lien Son range of mountains that forms the eastern extremity of the Himalayas. The range includes Vietnam’s highest mountain, Fan Si Pan, at a height of 3142m above sea level. The scenery was nothing like we’ve seen so far in Asia – instead of being deep in jungle we were on the side of a mountain with vistas to go with it and wonderful fresh air to breathe. The terracing on the sides of the mountains is spectacular, even after the harvest when it’s all brown instead of the lush green that you associate with rice paddies.
Our home for the night was a village in the valley that a local family live in but is set up with lots of extra beds for tour groups just like ours. I wasn’t expecting the level of comfort that we ended up with – a double bed with thick, warm blankets and a mosquito net and privacy curtain – as this is nothing like what the locals actually have themselves, as evidenced by our guides house that we visited on the way, which seemed to have only one large bed for a number of people, including the girl and her husband (yes, married at 17) and her sister and kids. Clearly set up specifically for the soft tourists.
After a delicious breakfast of pancakes the next morning we set off to cross the valley and visit a waterfall before being picked up on the other side and taken back to town. It was a short trip, but a good one and yet again we were thankful for an interesting group of people to share it with. Oh and I should of course mention that Clive managed to find some partners in crime (the Aussies of course) who willingly followed him up the waterfall and over an Indiana Jones style suspension bridge which was accessed through almost impenetrable brush (I say almost) and closed off with barbed wire. But since when has that been enough to deter him?
We returned to Hanoi for a day before heading out to Ha Long Bay for a night and sampled some more delicious Vietnamese food and also caught our first glimpse of anything Christmassy – one small block in the old quarter seems to be dedicated to Christmas decorations. Most odd when you’re still in shorts.
We also took a couple of pics of scaffold and electrical wires. Odd? Us? Check out below.
We arrived in Hoi An and immediately relaxed. A city of just over 70,000 instead of 7 million, low rise replaced high rise and even though the driving didn’t improve, crossing the road with some level of decorum was possible as the number of scooters hurtling towards us was massively reduced.
We had come to Hoi An for two main reasons – food and clothes. My two main reasons to do anything really. But it wasn’t me that ended up the centre of attention, instead that role fell to the Bolt. We decided that he needed a new suit because the only black suit he has he bought for $100 so you can imagine what that looks like, even after another $100 worth of tailoring.
There are over 400 tailors in Hoi An so the choice is overwhelming and the prices differ enormously – you could pay as little as $80 for a full suit and up to $400 – with commissions being hidden in the costs if you’re referred from hotels etc and some tailors jacking up the prices because they’ve earned a good reputation over the years. We did our research on sites like Trip Advisor and ended up going to Wall St Tailors and were thrilled with the results. After an initial meeting where fabrics and styles were chosen and measurements taken we went back just the next day for our first fittings (I did get a suit jacket and tailored white shirt as well – can’t let Clive have all the fun!). I think we had 3 fittings in total, paid less than $400 and walked away with one full suit and six work shirts for Clive and a jacket and shirt for me – bargain!
The other thing that drew us to Hoi An was the food as I’d mentioned and it didn’t disappoint. We had everything from authentic Vietnamese to chocolate brownie cheesecake and it was all to die for. We also finally got around to doing a cooking course and I’m thrilled that we kept it for Vietnam because I definitely think it has the most interesting cuisine of the countries that we’ve been to on this trip. Although, most “out there” dish has to go to Cambodia where I saw a recipe for fried tarantantulas, the first step being, “kill the tarantula by pressing down hard on the body with the heel of your hand and remove the fangs” – riiiiiiiight.
Our cooking course started with a tour of the market in Hoi An which is a site to behold, with the meat and fish areas being the most remarkable to a Westerner as everything is just displayed on slabs with no refrigeration and no covers and everyone seems to have their hands on it – slightly different to back home! We then headed back to the “Morning Glory” restaurant where we were doing our course. Side note; for those with their minds in the gutter, morning glory is a vegetable.
Our teacher for the day was a 31 year old woman who had already been working in the restaurant for 17 years. She was awesome and delighted in telling us stories about her mother-in-law, who she had been living with for the last year as tradition dictates in Vietnam that you do this after you get married. Cooking for the mother-in-law is a big deal in Vietnam and helps to decide whether she’s going to approve the marriage – lucky it’s not like that in the West!
Our menu for the morning was:
– Clear soup with prawn dumplings
– Fresh spring roll
– Crispy prawn and pork pancake
– Marinaded, grilled chicken
– Mango salad
Everything was delicious and some of it even looked like it was supposed to look!
The rest of our time in Hoi An, when not at the tailors, dining in the various restaurants or eating the delicious street food, was spent chilling out and wandering around the lovely town or cycling around the streets. It reminded us a lot of Luang Prabang in Laos with the same laid back vibe and colonial architecture. Clearly something we’re both drawn to.
Our main reason for visiting Saigon was to visit the Cu Chi tunnels where the Vietcong hid out during the war and mounted a very successful opposition to the forces of the South and the USA. Our visit to the tunnels was preceded by a visit to the War Remnants Museum which was quite a harrowing experience.
The museum showed us yet another chapter in humanity’s history of doing evil to each other. This was a rendering of the Vietnam War that was told from the point of view of the Vietnamese, which isn’t one you’re really exposed to growing up in the West. The level of anti-US propaganda is very high here but even if you take a giant cellar of salt with everything you read there has to be some truth there.
Phu Quoc island according to our guidebook is everything that a tropical island should be, fringed with white sand beaches, lined with swaying palms and gently lapping turquoise waters. But it was also home to one of the big prisons used in the Vietnam war where prisoners were subjected to all manner of torture, including being placed in “tiger cages” on the beach which were effectively metal rods wrapped in barbed wire, too small for a prisoner to sit up or lie straight.
One of the exhibitions told the story of the chemical warfare that was waged in the area, including use of the famous “Agent orange” and this display was finally too much for me. It focused on the effects of these chemicals on generations of children that have been born since the war and the photographs were horrifying. We hear so much about the second world war growing up in Europe and the atrocities committed in the concentration camps and you think that we would learn, but the fact is that history has repeated itself over and over again. I had no idea before I came to Asia of the horror that has happened even in my lifetime.
The tunnels were definitely less harrowing and focused more on the ingenious nature of this resistance by people who were basically peasants used to working on the land. Again we had to take everything with a pinch of salt as the tone of the video that we watched, anything that we read and the spiel of our tour guide was incredibly anti-US and pro-Vietnam but you can’t fail to be impressed by the achievement of a relatively small group of peasants who built a network that comprises an incredible 200km plus of tunnels that are at 3 different levels, 3m, 6m and 12m deep.
Part of the tour gives you the chance to go down the tunnels which was an experience I wanted to have but wasn’t something that I was necessarily looking forward to as I don’t exactly love being in confined spaces. We had a plan to go down the tunnel right at the front of our group to try to limit the chance of having a fat American backside in our face (thanks for the tip Rob) but sadly there were so many tourists there that no gap ever really open up. With a deep breath though and the Bolt holding back the hordes I headed down into the dark and I genuinely cannot believe that people lived and fought down these little rabbit holes. The entrance had to be opened up to allow our large white selves access – you can see in one of the pictures below how they used to access the tunnels back in the day – and you have to crouch/crawl your way through. They had put in multiple exits at 15m, 30m and up to 120m but I was done at 30 – enough for a taste and to realise I would have been no use down there.
Daily life as well as fighting took place in the tunnels and they had to be constructed to support this. Complex ventilation was built in with air shafts made to look like termite mounds on the surface. Cooking was only done in the morning when mist lay on the ground, so that the smoke from the cooking fires could be camouflaged. Tunnels were built down to the Saigon river so that people could bathe and also enter and exit undetected. Of course the tunnels were also boobytrapped to deal with the cases where they were discovered by the Southern army and the way that they used simple materials like bamboo to construct quite frightening traps was something to behold.
Definitely worth seeing but I was ready for some slightly more upbeat traveling for a while, so thankfully our next stop was the lovely town of Hoi An.
From Pnomh Penh we headed to Ho Chi Minh City, otherwise known as Saigon and unknowingly took our lives in our hands. HCMC is a city of 7 million people and every single one of them seems to own a scooter and drive around at high speed without a care in the world for signaling, road markings, other vehicles or pedestrians on the road. They must have had a surplus of white paint when they laid the roads because I can’t see any other reason that they have pedestrian crossings, nobody takes a blind bit of notice of them.
Rules for driving in HCMC (or any other major Asian city):
– Drive on the road, unless of course there’s too much traffic, in which case drive on the pavement and honk your horn.
– Drive on the right, unless of course that doesn’t suit you, in which case just drive on the left and honk your horn.
– Red light, green light, it’s all the same. Make a gap, punch it and honk your horn.
– There’s always a gap, don’t stop under any circumstances and it’ll definitely open up for you, especially if you honk your horn.
– A scooter is a great family vehicle. Three kids and two parents on the school run? No problem.
– Raining or too sunny? Use one hand to drive the scooter (make sure its the horn honking hand) and the other to hold an umbrella.
– A scooter is a perfect heavy goods vehicle. Those lengths of lead piping/sacks of rice/gas canisters will be at their destination in a jiffy. Carry them across the scooter and honk your horn.
– Those yellow lights on the side of your scooter that blink on and off when you flick that switch are for decorative purposes only.
– Approaching a four lane roundabout is a great time to text your girlfriend to tell her you miss her. Just make sure your other hand is on the horn.
– HONK. YOUR. HORN.
Rules for walking in HCMC (or any other major Asian city)
– As a pedestrian you are lowest on the transportation evolutionary ladder. Be afraid.
– Get out of the way.
We’ve pretty much confirmed on this trip what we already suspected, we’re not really city people, so while we’re glad we went and experienced it, because you really have to experience an Asian city to believe it, I can’t say it was the highlight of our trip. In the spirit of list making however (which I get from my Dad who has always made lists in tiny indecipherable letters on scraps of paper) here are some other things of note about Saigon:
– Beer is cheeeeap. Like the budgie. The more uncomfortable the seat, the cheaper the beer.
– The buildings here have completely different proportions to those that we’re used to in the West and stand packed together like slices of bread before the cellophane has been undone. Every spare centimetre of space is utilised so don’t blink if you’re looking for a specific address because you’ll soon find you’re miles past it.
– Vietnamese ladies seem to have a penchant for the floral equivalent of double denim and anything that looks like pajamas. I tried to get some pictures to illustrate the spectacular examples that we saw but I fear I really didn’t do these ladies justice.
– Pavements do exist in Saigon but they’re largely used for parking scooters, seating for restaurants or roaming street vendors, pushing pedestrians further into the street with the insane drivers.
– The cleaning of flip flops is a serious business. We watched a guy go through about 6 different steps to clean a customer’s flip flops including using polish…
– You thought Notre Dame was in Paris? You fool! I just saw it in Saigon.
We also nearly had our first major disaster of the trip on our journey from Phnom Penh to Saigon which obviously involved crossing the border from Cambodia to Vietnam. I was clearly prepared and knew that you had to have a Vietnamese visa in advance of getting there and so had bought one for each of us back in Canada all those months ago. It was these pieces of paper that I somewhat smugly handed to the driver of our bus to Saigon when we got on. Not so smug when a moment later I was informed that these visas were only valid for entry via an airport and wouldn’t be any use at a land crossing. To this day I don’t understand why you have to have a different visa, but you do and we were unceremoniously turfed off the coach with our bags. Bugger. We were on a schedule and needed to be in Saigon so what the hell were we going to do? Simple as it turns out, all we had to do was give our passports and another $120 to a bus company employee and off he toddled, returning just under an hour later with two new Vietnamese visas and we were on the next bus. Sweet.
Hot off the heals of our temple extravaganza in Siem Reap, we decided to add a few days to our short time in Cambodia to include a trip to the capital, Phnom Penh. The main reason for this was my desire to visit the Tuol Sleng prison and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek in a effort to learn more about the legacy of the Khmer Rouge.
I must confess that my ignorance going into Cambodia was fairly monstrous apart from a vague knowledge of the name Pol Pot as “some Asian communist dictator”. He was leader of the Khmer Rouge which was originally an indigenous rebellion force raised to help the exiled King Sihanouk regain power after a leftist revolution had seen the army’s General Lon Nol seize control in March 1970. What happened when the Khmers eventually took control of the country in 1975 has become the worst episode in the country’s history.
The mass genocide inflicted by Pol Pot’s regime on it’s own people, involved turning the country into a mass agrarian society of slave-like peasant farmers and the systematic detention, torture and execution of everyone considered to be educated, from doctors, politicians, accountants to even people who just wore glasses or who had soft hands and simply looked “intellectual”.
The Tuol Sleng prison, was originally a high school and was taken over by the regime and converted into a detention centre for some of the most barbaric torture. Classrooms were converted into cells, some no more than 6ft by 3ft in size. The school now is preserved almost exactly as it was found, complete with prisoner shackles, rusting barbed wire, instruments of torture and even blackened blood stains on the cell floors. It is a truly haunting and sombre place and a graphic reminder of these atrocities that were carried out just at the beginning of my lifetime.
Like the Nazis, the Khmers kept meticulous records of their torture, interrogation and “processing” of over 20,000 victims that passed through the prison (one of several hundred similar prisons throughout the country) in the 3 years of rule. One of the classrooms displays photographs of many of the victims, including women and children, as well as some of the Khmer guards who worked there, themselves mostly of frighteningly young ages. In the courtyard, where the school children used to play games, there are now 7 graves – these are for the only victims found (dead) when the prison was eventually abandoned, the rest were sent to the Killing Fields for execution.
The next day we hired a tuk tuk driver and headed out of the city to Choeung Ek, a former Chinese burial ground that became known as “The Killing Fields” for the mass execution of the detainees from the Tuol Sleng prison. Again, this was one of hundreds of killing fields throughout the country but has been turned into the focal point for remembering this period. After the torture of Tuol Sleng, prisoners were told they were being transferred to be released to rejoin their families and work in the fields and were loaded into trucks 30-50 at a time, still blindfolded and shackled and driven the 30km out of the city to Choeung Ek. Here they were led in small groups in front of the mass graves that had been dug and brutually murdered, often bludgeoned to death with nothing but bamboo sticks, metal bars, hoes, hatchets and other tools of the fields, this being deemed more cost effective than wasting expensive bullets.
Nowadays, the Killing Fields have been respectfully turned into a monument of remembrance to those who lost their lives there and throughout the whole country. There is a very poignant audio tour that allows visitors to walk around the grounds, now a peaceful area of fruit orchards surrounded by fields and a lake on one side, and take their own time trying to understand the horror of what went on there. Listening to this and walking amongst the multiple mass graves, now shallow hollows in the grassy areas, was without doubt one of the humblest and most moving things I have done.
Although over 8000 bodies were exhumed from the graves for respectful re-burial following careful inspection and cataloguing of the deaths, many were left untouched and throughout the grounds you can see fragments of bones, teeth and even clothing protruding from the dusty soil as they are exposed by weathering over the years. These fragments are continuously collected by the staff but only serve as a macabre reminder of the extent of the massacres. The memorial Stupa (traditional Cambodian burial memorial) is a 100ft tall tower ornately adorned with traditional symbolic carvings and having glass walls on all four sides. Within this are stacked the skulls and major bones of the victims that have been exhumed, a graphic and haunting representation of the results of the genocide.
Leaving the site and returning to the city, we were feeling emotionally drained by the visit. It was definitely strange returning to a bustling city, full of enterprise, energy and motorized chaos and realizing that almost everyone around us would have been directly affected by the events of Pol Pots reign which actually only ended in the 80’s – estimates state that anywhere between 1.7 and 2.5 million people were killed from a population of only 8 million.
Arriving back in Phnom Penh, we tried to force ourselves out of this reflective mood by visiting the Royal Palace to remind us that the Khmer people (not to be confused with the Khmer Rouge) have a proud and civilized history outside of the Pol Pot years. The Palace itself is set in magnificent grounds of landscaped courtyards, walkways, imposing and ornate temples and pagodas and is a tranquil oasis of calm in the heart of this boisterous noisy city. The highlights included a 90 kg solid gold Buddha decorated with over 2000 diamonds and the Silver Pagoda, so called because its entire floor is laid with 5000 silver tiles weighing over 1kg each.