Walking down the steps of the airplane in Siem Reap, we immediately felt the rest of the world melt away. The airport itself invoked the feeling of a Polynesian get-away with its sweeping high-pitched roofs and tropical foliage. We had not scheduled a transfer from the airport to our hotel, so after clearing customs, we headed to the taxi station where we paid an attendant the fee he quoted and then were introduced to our officially-licensed taxi driver. He spoke English well and told us stories about his life in Cambodia and the current governmental situation as we navigated the chaotic street traffic to our hotel. Upon arrival, we were greeted by hotel staff at our taxi, our luggage was whisked away and we were checked in by an attendant while we sat on a lounge couch with cold towels, a welcome drink and a snack. Everyone was smiling, helpful and beyond kind. What a welcome to Cambodia!
Hannah and I were not able to join the land add-on of our river cruise, which meant we were going to miss seeing the greatest sight in Cambodia, Angkor Wat. When our taxi driver heard this, he immediately chastised us. We couldn’t come to Siem Reap and stay 5 miles from Angkor Wat without seeing it. I explained our time limitations and he suggested we go for the sunrise visit, so we could at least visit for a few hours. We agreed on a price and he assured us he’d be at our hotel at 5 am so we could purchase a ticket and visit the temple at sunrise.
Sure enough, at 5 am the next morning, our driver drove up and escorted us to the ticket office and then to Angkor Wat itself, giving us all kinds of advice along the way. He waited for us, keeping our luggage safe, while we toured this UNESCO World Heritage site- one of those “must see” destinations on most of our lists. The overall beauty of the design and what is left of the intricate carvings and statues give you a good idea of how breathtaking Angkor Wat must have been between the 12thand 14thcenturies. It was also a good reminder of the rise and fall of kingdoms, as Angkor Wat had been a thriving and wealthy city before deforestation, over-use of the crop land and attacks from the Thais caused many of the Khmer people to abandon the city, leaving it to the ravages of nature until archaeologists began clearing it in the late 19thcentury.
By 7:45 am, we were at our hotel meeting point, ready for our 5-hour guided motorcoach ride to the Tonle Sap tributary, where we’d embark on our luxurious ship. Along the way, our guide taught us about the houses (all on high stilts since this is a country of major flooding every year), the family life, the schooling and the sanitation of the Cambodian people today. He also told us about his personal experiences during the Cambodian Holocaust and how it affected him and his family. Each of our guides on the ship has a unique, sad, and fascinating story to tell about the 1970’s, when Cambodia suffered from both the Vietnam War and then the Pol Pot regime of the Khmer Rouge. At each rest stop, we were able to see some of the specialty foods of the towns through which we were passing, such as crocodile or buffalo jerky and roasted crickets, cockroaches, worms, ants and beetles.
By the time we embarked on our river cruise ship, we had time for a quick, late lunch, followed by a walking tour of the tiny village where our ship was moored, called Koh Chen. This town is known for its silver and copper products. Almost the entire village is engaged in producing engraved pots, jewelry and ceremonial fruits used in traditional weddings. The housing and lifestyle are typical of a rural village in Cambodia.
Cambodia, known to the Khmer people themselves as Kampuchea, is a country of water, as much as of land. The Tonle Sap river and Mekong river both swell during the rainy season to the point where much of the land is underwater. This is great because it replenishes the land for rice production. However, it also means that for much of the population, living on the land means simultaneously living on the water for part of the year. There are even complete communities that live exclusively on the river, creating floating villages made up of house boats tethered together in rows, such as this one called Kampong Chhnang, which we toured by local boats.
One difficulty with this type of life is that sanitation is a real challenge. Between the poverty resulting from the Vietnam War and the terrifying period of rule by the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979), many people spent decades just trying to survive. Education was a luxury. The result for many Khmer people is a lifestyle that is not able to, or sometimes does not know how to, properly dispose of waste or keep food and water safe for consumption.
An agricultural tradition still in use today is to use oxen with carts to plow fields, carry hay and transport both animals and family members (or tourists, when the opportunity arises!).
Everywhere one goes in Cambodia, there are Buddhist temples. From the tiny villages to the large settlements and cities, gold-colored Buddhist temples dot the landscape. The largest is in Oudong, the former capital of Cambodia from 1618-1865. Oudong once boasted huge temples, palaces and other large buildings, but most were destroyed in the early 1970’s, when President Lon Nol ordered air strikes to fight the Khmer Rouge soldiers living there. A few monasteries survived, but the largest Buddhist monastery in Cambodia, called Vipassana Dhura, is brand new. The monastery is not only a place of worship, but also of study and refuge for homeless, widows, orphans and others in need.
One of the great advantages for tourists visiting Cambodia is that many of their traditional trades have remained intact. We benefitted from visiting Koh Chen earlier, which gave us a sampling of copper and silver craftsmanship. Today we were able to visit beautiful Oknhately Village on Koh Dach (or “silk island”). We boarded Tuk Tuks for a pleasant ride through rural countryside filled with emerald green rice paddies, fruit orchards, and vegetable farms until we reached the thriving Oknha Tey Village. Here the local artisans begin with raising the silk worms, move on through the entire process of spinning silk and coloring it, to the final step of weaving it into fine silk material for scarves, ties, clothing and household items like table cloths. After observing the entire process, we had a true appreciation for the loving care, skill and hard work that goes into each item.
From there, we were privileged to visit a local elementary school. Its cement walls with no air conditioning reminded me of my elementary school on Guam. But the lack of resources for learning was a major difference. We were divided up into small groups and each group was invited into a classroom. We sat down with the students on their benches and used very basic English to ask them about themselves. They were so welcoming and pleasant. I sat with a little 11-year old girl and boy. They shared their names and took out their worn-out readers to read a little to me from their Sanskrit language. The little girls took out her slate and searched for a while until she located a tiny stub of chalk, which we used to write out our names (mine in English and hers in Sanskrit) for each other. Then we drew pictures and laughed as we used English words to try to guess what the other was drawing. Finally, our guide asked them what careers they dreamed of having and they sang “If you’re happy and you know it…” to us in English as we joined in with singing and clapping, stomping, quacking or shouting “HOO-RAY!” The school is funded by international donations. I keep thinking about how long it took for the little girl I met to hunt down a tiny bit of chalk for her chalkboard so we could write our names for each other.
In the evening, our encounter with children continued, as we were treated to a sampling of traditional and more recent cultural dances by several dance and music students from Phnom Penh.
Today was a somber one. While the poverty may be sad, there’s a sense of hope for the future along with the beauty of the country, the richness of fish and rice production as well as artisanal products, and a renewed emphasis on education. But this was a day for remembering what brought the Khmer people to this devastating condition after centuries of flourishing. We headed solemnly to the Killing Fields and S21 detention and interrogation center. We quietly walked along the fields, listening to the stories of how and why people were summarily executed. Music was broadcast on loud speakers so the neighboring village couldn’t hear the screams or moans. Our guides throughout the time we were on the river cruise in Cambodia each have a personal story to tell. They all lived through this Holocaust period. Most were young children who lost many family members. One was taken from his family, conscripted into the Khmer Rouge and continues to battle nightmares to this day. Each story is uniquely sad and terrifying. Touring the killing fields and seeing thousands upon thousands of skulls and bones, knowing each one had a story to tell, just as our guides did, was heart-rending.
Following the visit to the fields, we toured S21 (Security Prison 21), where we walked through the interrogation cells (converted out of a former school) and learned about the methods of torture used to force confessions that were often false, just because the prisoners had to say something. Many named every family member and friend they could name through the intense periods of torture. Even while not being tortured, these prisoners were suffering from starvation, lice, ringworm, rashes and many other ailments. We traversed the rooms filled with photographs of every man, woman and child brought into the center. None escaped. Only 7 men and 5 children survived. The 7 men survived because they had useful skills which were needed in the center. The children were not yet killed when the center was liberated.
Two of the adult survivors return daily to S21 to tell their stories and sign books for visitors. Similar to visiting concentration camps from WWII, it’s depressing and emotionally draining to tour these sites. But it’s an important part of the Cambodian story and a piece of history from which we all can learn. It’ll influence the way I hear and interpret news from this part of the world from here on out.
In the afternoon, we changed gears to look at the present and future of the country. We toured the Royal Palace, built in 1866, by the great-grandfather of the current king, and residence of the king once again. Cambodia has an interesting mix of royalty as a figure-head combined with a prime minister with true ruling power, akin to the British system. Elections for the next prime minister are scheduled for this summer. However, the party in power is making moves to eliminate its opposition party. This should be an election to watch.
Many of us on our river cruise noted that there aren’t a lot of museums, palaces and amazing structures to tour in Cambodia (with a few notable exceptions such as Angkor Wat). But touring the villages, meeting our guides and the villagers, learning about the local culture and customs, and eating the best famous local cuisine has made this an incredibly rich and satisfying tour thus far.
Entering southern Vietnam along the Mekong
Finally- a day to rest a bit! Visiting Cambodia and Vietnam by river cruise provides the chance to learn while cruising from one town to the next, with lots of stops and visits. Today we’re onboard all day, but it’s far from boring. Aside from the chance to sleep in a little and spend some time reading or chatting on the sun deck, we’ve been treated to a fascinating history and culture lesson, with personal stories interspersed, by our Vietnamese tour director. Later, we attended a cooking lesson where we received recipes and learned how to make two well-known Vietnamese dishes.
Crossing the border into Vietnam doesn’t bring many changes in landscape, but there are a few notable differences in the housing and boats. Many of the houses along the river are still elevated on stilts, but the materials tend to be cement or aluminum sheeting, rather than wood. Even the house boats floating on the water tend more toward aluminum siding, except for some beautiful large wooden boats.
Today is the second day of the New Year celebration, so many families are all gathered together with all generations at the family house. Everyone is in a festive mood and celebrating. We took rickshaw rides through the town, creating a parade of sorts, and dodging all the families (often 2 adults and 2 small children per vehicle) riding their motorbikes.
A few people are working for several hours because of us tourists visiting their town of Tan Chau. We had a demonstration of the automated silk looms, which work off pattern cards, but still need to be tended. Their production is about 4 times that of the hand-and-foot operated looms on Silk Island in Cambodia. Apparently very few families are continuing in the silk and mat weaving business in Vietnam. Perhaps it will help those who have remained in the industry to increase profits for the hard work and tedious work.
On our final full day on the cruise, we have had the opportunity to drive through a Vietnamese version of the floating markets that we already saw in Cambodia. However, since it’s still the New Year celebration, almost everyone has gone to their ancestral home to be with all the generations of family to celebrate. There were some families out of the river splashing and playing in the water off their porches. Since there generally isn’t air-conditioning, the covered outdoor spaces are a main feature of the houses and we saw hammocks being used pretty often, especially by the older generation.
We toured another fresh food market in Sa Dec. The produce and fresh meat looked like really high quality, especially compared to some of the other meat markets we saw. We were squeamish watching a lady skin frogs alive. They were trying to hop out of the basket AFTER being skinned. I guess every culture has its own idea of freshness and convenience.
Sa Dec is also where Marguerite Duras lived and the basis of her French novel, The Lover. We visited her house, but skipped the opportunity to watch the movie. Our guide tactfully said that if we watched it, we should watch with one eye opened and one eye closed. Another cruise passenger who watched it bluntly called it soft porn. Regardless, it was a taste of how the French lived in Vietnam while the country was under their control and the mixture of French and Vietnamese architecture that resulted from their influence is very pretty. The French are also responsible for the current Vietnamese alphabet replacing the Chinese characters and for the tempting baguettes and pastries found in the markets.
From Sa Dec, we drove out to Xeo Quyt for a walking tour of the former Viet Cong Army Base that was basically in swamp land. The underground bunkers were constructed little by little using thick walls and non-porous wood during low tides and then were submerged under water during high tides. They were a tight and dark, but very effective, hiding place. In fact, this base was located only 1.8 miles from an American military base, but was never found. I could hardly imagine foreign soldiers (our American military) trying to survive in such tangled, swampy, mosquito-ridden forests. It was a strange feeling touring it as a war site because it’s become a park with entertainment, boat rides through the canals and pavilions for large family picnics and celebrations.
Later in the day, we visited Cai Be, the Kiet historical house, and actually met the owner. Built over 150 years ago, this elaborately decorated house demonstrates the traditional architecture with intricate wall carvings, wooden pillars, ceilings, doors and gates and ceramic products. The focal point of the house is the front, which has many tables for entertaining family and guests, with some convertible to beds for sleeping.
For our final tour, we visited a family confectionary of sorts. They demonstrated making rice paper for eating, rice candy and sticky coconut milk candy. I had no idea rice could be popped like popcorn, but mixed with black sand in a wok over high heat, rather than in oil.
That evening in our lounge, we were treated to local musicians and story-teller actors. Though the wistful tones of the traditional music aren’t to my taste, I appreciated the experience and their talent.
On our final morning after breakfast and good-byes, we headed to Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh city. It’s sprawling and modernizing quickly. Our guide explained that the houses on stilts along the rivers have been torn down in most areas, with the rest slated to be torn down, in order to create clean walkways and prettier views. The people who lived there have been moved to apartment buildings. Those who made their living selling products or services could no longer sell from their homes, unless they were the lucky few located on the ground floor. The others on higher floors had to find new ways to earn a living. He also explained that having 2 children is considered perfect for Vietnamese families who don’t live on farms. Those on farms are allowed to have more children. It’s even a law that 2 adults and 2 children 13 and under are allowed to ride one motor bike. Three adults on one motor bike is illegal. So it’s not uncommon to see entire families with young children all riding along the streets strapped in one way or another to the motor bikes everywhere we go!
Both the Vietnamese and Cambodian people have lived through some terrible destruction, governmental control and terrors in the recent past, which has certainly set their countries back in development and education. But it’s heartening to see that the people are industrious, hopeful and working toward a better future. I’m glad I got to see these countries at this point in history. As wealth arrives, I wonder what cultural customs will disappear to make room for modernization?