Monday, October 29, 2012

Phnom Penh: The Cambodian Capital

The wireless connection has generally been unkind to me over the past few days, but at last I've found a signal with a little backbone. To be fair, it hasn't particularly helped that the Thai islands, although inspirational, don't bode well for those looking to accomplish great feats. And let's be frank, a blog isn't a "great feat," but it does involve taking a few moments of time not directly touching the sand (which is a feat in Thailand as far as I'm concerned). On my last post, I wrapped up my trials and tribulations in Vietnam, so now it's on to Cambodia. In Cambodia, I wasn't entirely sure what to expect, but it really surprised me in the best of ways. The people there are filled to the brim with kindness, and they're eager to share some of it with you. It's impossible to mention modern day Cambodia without considering its past (both brutal and brilliant), but its modern day formation also lets you consider its future, and it could be bright under the right leadership. Our journey through Cambodia began, rightfully enough, in Cambodia's capital.

Phnom Penh

People had told me that Phnom Penh "didn't really have much to see," which, in my opinion, is a condescending way of saying that it wasn't flashy or interesting enough. There is plenty to see in and around Phnom Penh, but a good portion of it will be difficult to stomach. This is largely due to the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rough in the mid to late 70's, who were notoriously led by Pol Pot. I actually just finished reading Loung Ung's novel of her memories of those events "First They Killed My Father." It is breathtakingly sad, but it's worth reading memoirs of a story that has so often gone untold. I learned a tremendous amount about the genocide while I was there, and I've continued to learn more since. It's remarkable how little I knew about it all. 

The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek are located about 20 kilometres outside of Phnom Penh, but they feel worlds away from a functioning modern society. They are a relic of a horrid time under a sadistic regime, and they evoke tremendous sadness and contemplation. However, this kind of contemplation is so important, especially coming from a peaceful country like Canada. The world is a vast place where miraculous things have happened, but it's also a place where merciless tragedies have occurred, and sadly will occur again. 

In mass graves, like those above, around twenty thousand people were executed. If that number is shocking, then consider that around two million people died between the years of 1975 and 1979. Pol Pot valued the "base people," or essentially the farmers or people of the rural areas. That didn't necessarily spare them, but the cities (like Phnom Penh) were almost entirely cleared out. Anyone who could be considered a threat to the regime, essentially anyone intelligent, were eradicated. In the novel I mentioned earlier, Ung notes that even people who wore glasses could be killed because of their "perceived intelligence." For those who haven't read that book, there is a comprehensive audio-guide, which you can receive for free with your price of entry. It is one of the better audio-guides I've ever heard, and it is a must to follow the map and listen to each respective track number on the guide. It's difficult to imagine that some of the events actually happened, but they did. The audio-guide helps you realize why and how. I also would highly recommend Luong Ung's powerful novel. 

While I was looking at these sites, there were a few pieces of information that I couldn't get out of my head. The first piece of information was about how the executions were done. They often made the victims kneel forward, blind-folded, then hit them in the head with a blunt object to save bullets. I was blown away that to the Khmer Rouge a person wasn't even worth a bullet. The second thought was a quote from Pol Pot that I heard on the audio-guide. It is roughly as follows, "it is better to kill an innocent by mistake then spare an enemy by mistake." It blew me away then, and it still blows me away now. Towards the entrance, in the middle of the complex, stands a large stupa which is filled with the skulls of over five thousand victims. It is haunting, but I believe it captures what it is supposed capture, and it conveys even more than that.

The Killing Fields aren't something that you necessarily look forward to seeing, but they are something important to see, and something I'm happy I witnessed, and am beginning to understand a little better, if such a thing can ever be understood.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is yet another site where you can begin to visualize what Pol Pot's regime meant for the Cambodian people. It was originally a high school that was converted into a prison during the reign of the Khmer Rough. It was known as Security Prison 21, or more famously, simply S-21. As such, it isn't necessarily a "museum" in the traditional sense of the word, but more a former Khmer Rough site that is being used to educate, and also to remember those who were housed here, and spent their last days here.

As with most things in Cambodia, there aren't a ton of restrictions involved. You have free reign to investigate the cells in which people were kept, and generally around the grounds themselves. Unfortunately, some people took that freedom as an invitation to vandalize, which is pretty inconceivable to me. Graphic images of torture methods etc... are strewn about, but I found the room containing black and white mugshots to be the most troubling. These were the pictures taken by the Khmer Rouge jailers of the prisoners when they first arrived, and they show a wide range of emotion in their eyes. I believe of those many mugshots I witnessed only about seven survived, as many ended up at the Killing Fields. As with the Killing Fields, it isn't an enjoyable stroll by any means, but it's necessary to see, and I was really captured by it all.

S-21 was another learning experience for me, and I believe both Bri and I felt it was a place we had to visit while in Phnom Penh.

It's important to remember that all the sights in Phnom Penh aren't just depressing monuments to the Khmer Rouge regime, and no place more proudly agrees with that statement then The Royal Palace. It's a fairly large complex of buildings that serves as the royal residence for the king of Cambodia, and has since roughly the mid 19th century. It's a wonderful place to meander around and enjoy the gleaming gold of the buildings. The sun seemed to produce a lovely sparkle on the buildings, ensuring that you could only hold this complex in the highest esteem. The complex exuded an aura of purity that I can't entirely explain, but perhaps the following pictures can.

The Moonlight Pavilion
Phochani Pavilion
Silver Pagoda

Honourable Mentions

Although it's not one of my typical "honourable mentions" seeing as it's not a sight, I'd say that it's worth mentioning that Cambodia operates almost entirely on American currency. They do have their own currency, but you'll generally only receive it as change for a transaction in American money. Even the ATMs and banks dispense American currency, which struck me as quite peculiar. This ended up persuading me 
to spend a little more as I wasn't as hard a bargainer when the price was three dollars (as opposed to 60,000 dong as it would be in Vietnam). You can bargain when the price is 60,000 dong, but you just feel cheap bargaining a taxi driver down from three to two dollars.

The nightlife down by the riverside was surprisingly lively and fun. There are a plethora of restaurants down there that often have a great happy hour, and reasonably priced grub. At this moment, I must give a big shout-out to two friends we met in Phnom Penh that we took full advantage of the nightlife with. Tory (from Canada) and Lil (from Australia) are great people that we had a wild night with in Phnom Penh. I believe we wound up eating grilled cheese sandwiches at a mysterious restaurant at an undisclosed hour. It was glorious, just like the happy hour prices. We ended up continuing our friendship in both Siem Reap and Bangkok. They've gone back to Western Canada now, but I sincerely hope we cross paths again, and I have a good feeling that we will.

Wat Phnom doesn't have anything on The Royal Palace, but it worth the long walk there. Personally, I thought it was most impressive from a distance, as a cobra ornament at the entrance swoops up to a long staircase that leads to the spiral tipped Wat Phnom.

Phnom Penh may be overshadowed in some right by Siem Reap, and by proxy the Angkor Archaeological Park, but I found this city to very inviting and enticing. Yes, it has had a difficult and trying past, but it has also has a lot going for it now. On the riverside there's a sign that says "Phnom Penh - The Charming City." They could have used a lot of other adjectives to describe this city, but perhaps "charming" does suit it best. I loved Cambodia, and the love affair rightfully began in and around its fascinating capital. 

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam: Conquest and Controversy

My oh my. It's been quite a stretch of time since I've posted on my blog, but I'm not surprised, nor disappointed. The last twenty days or so have been remarkable, and often included extended periods where it simply wasn't possibly to post anything. Laos was relaxed and jam packed with unreliable internet access, and here in the Thai islands, productivity isn't entirely at the forefront of my thoughts. However, I've found a quiet moment here in Koh Tao to write a little something about Ho Chi Minh City.

It seems like an absolute eternity ago that I was in Ho Chi Minh City and in many respects it was a long time, but it feels much, much longer than the 6 or so weeks it has actually been. That's primarily due to the fact that the last 6 weeks have been a busy time. Weeks full of information, transportation, fresh faces, international visas, reasonably priced cuisine, and cheap beer. I'm quite literally bursting with stories to write about, but primarily for myself I'd like to write it all chronologically, however long that may take. I can only hope that I'll keep up with writing when I return back to Canada, as it's been a tremendously fruitful last year or so for my blog, thanks to my trusty readers (I appreciate the false sense of importance you impart to me!). So, let's talk about Ho Chi Minh City. Firstly, I'll quickly note that (for the most part) I'll be calling it Saigon in my blog, as it's often referred to anyways by the Southern Vietnamese people. The name Ho Chi Minh City was assigned to the city by the North after the fall of the South around 1975, so I'd rather refer to it as Saigon. Also, for some reason or another, Saigon has a certain ring to it that I've come to love, and it also happens to speak volumes more to me than Ho Chi Minh City. I actually spent time thinking about some sort of peculiar Canadian equivalent for something like this, and concocted the idea that it would be like Quebec taking over Toronto and renaming it Samuel de Champlain City. I know it doesn't entirely fit the bill, but it gets the brain moving, doesn't it?

Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)

Saigon stands as Vietnam's largest city, and I'd also venture to say that it's probably the country's most well known metropolis. It felt like a city of greater magnitude than anything I'd experienced prior in Vietnam. The population sits around 9 million people, and it's fair to say that most of these citizens own a relatively loud motorbike and/or scooter with an even louder horn upon it. Saigon, like Hanoi, has a reluctance towards silence that is only matched by a toddler who has consumed far too much sugar. And as for the pace of this city, it resembles that of a rogue adolescent.

Firstly, I should mention that we were CouchSurfing in Saigon with a kind Swiss-Filipino fellow who has been living there for just over ten years. He was gracious enough to let us take the spare bedroom in his apartment, which was conveniently located near District 1, for a whole three nights. I can't possibly recommend CouchSurfing any higher, as it's a fantastic community. You meet intriguing and generous people, end up getting invaluable information on the city from the host, and often partake in activities that you'd otherwise snub. Take, for example, the fact that Bri and I joined Jerry for his swing-dancing class on our first night there. That's the stuff that CouchSurfing is made of if you'll allow yourself to accept those challenges, and occasionally embarrass yourself slightly in the name of a new experience. We'll actually be CouchSurfing again in about two weeks in Brunei with a brother and sister who seem to be teeming with kindness.

The beginning of a burgeoning dancing career?

Saigon isn't necessarily the best city in which to walk around with a check-list while carefully ensuring you've "seen everything." It's more a city to walk around and hopefully get lost in while purposely ignoring your map, especially in the central districts. Although, like every city, there are certain sights which shouldn't be missed. Here's what I found along the way.

The Reunification Palace was actually one of the sights that I didn't want to miss, as per its historical value in the formation of Vietnam. Not surprisingly, it wasn't always called the Reunification Palace, but rather the Independence Palace (when the South used it as a headquarters during the war). As with the changing of the city name, the South seems to still refer to this place by its original name. Long before either of those names, it was the Norodom Palace, and it was constructed by the French Colonialists in the 19th century. The bottom line is that names change upon conquest, and this usually creates a bit of tension. Anyway, my absolute favourite part about this place is that it serves more or less as a time capsule. The building that stands today was built in the early '60s, and hasn't been renovated or touched really since it was built. It wasn't even really touched after the North burst through the front gates in 1975 (a monumental event that ended the Vietnam War). Perhaps I'll need verification from my parents, but this place looks to mark its place in the '60s era with an exclamation mark.

The boardrooms were neatly drawn up and simplistic according to the standards of the '60s, and the recreation rooms were downright groovy, also according to the standards of the '60s. The first picture will show you the former with the cabinet meeting room, and the second picture will show you the latter with the gambling room. Needless to say, the gambling room is hands down my favourite room in this complex. It looks like it's straight out of an Austin Power's movie.

The War Remnants Museum is something to behold, and it will unquestionably leave an impression. This is by far the most anti-American exhibition I've ever experienced. To be honest, I was blown away. The first floor of the museum essentially just displays what a united front of protest there was against the US "aggression in Vietnam" (this is the term they use throughout the exhibition). The subsequent floors paint a dark, disturbing picture of what the United States did during the war. They hold back no graphic content when displaying pictures of the effects of agent orange, and maybe they shouldn't. It's interesting to note that the original museum was put together in 1975 and was called the "Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes." Then, in 1990, it was changed to the "Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression." Finally, in 1995 it was changed to its current name. From what I can gather, the names were changed, but the content inside remains just as striking and condemning as it ever was. Quite honestly, there really isn't much defense for what the US did in Vietnam, and this museum was proof enough that Vietnam hasn't forgotten about the atrocities that occurred...and they likely won't.

The Golden Dragon Puppet Theatre is the premier place in Saigon to watch some ancient water puppetry in action. Water puppetry is famous around Vietnam, and has been since it originated in the North around the 11th century. It was a 50 minute long show depicting events of cultural importance to Vietnam, and managed to be entertaining even though I don't speak a word of Vietnamese. I wasn't discouraged by the lack of English, and in fact would have been very discouraged had it been in English as it's a Vietnamese show (and has been that way for hundreds and hundreds of years). They handed out a program to try to help out their English audience, which I adored because of the straightforward titles for each specific act. My personal favourites were: "4. On a buffalo with a flute," "7. Rearing ducks and catching foxes," and my top choice goes to "15. Unicorns play with ball." The acts tended to follow the descriptions pretty closely, so you can imagine the show as nothing if not entertaining.

Honourable Mentions

The Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica seems out of place in this modern Asian city, but only until you remember that the French colonized it. In fact, all the building materials were brought from France in the mid to late 19th century. I think it compliments this modern metropolis pretty nicely, and adds a bit of class to the city's sometimes dirty exterior. 

Also in the eloquent French style is Ho Chi Minh City Hall, perhaps more appropriately known as Hotel de Ville de Saigon. I wouldn't necessarily plan my day around a visit here, but it was definitely worth walking past and taking a moment to appreciate. You can say what you want about the French, but their architecture speaks for itself, even when it's halfway across the world.

One last note on transportation. All around Saigon you'll find gentlemen who will transport you on the back of their motorbike for next to nothing. It's common practice, it's exciting, and it's a true Vietnamese experience. I certainly couldn't do it every time I wanted to get somewhere, but a few times gave me that extra special feel for Saigon.

Well, I've officially written about all the destinations I visited in Vietnam (Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Hue and Hoi An, and Mui Ne). Seeing as I'm on the road, I'll dare to call that an accomplishment. It's simply an impossibility to think that I'll be able to write about all that I've done while I'm travelling. However, it's a comfort to know that I've officially knocked one country off the list. Vietnam won't stand as my favourite country on the planet, but it was a fantastic experience. Hoi An, specifically, will always remain a city on the forefront of my mind as long as I live. In the past, Vietnam has been a country that has been colonized, invaded, and generally exploited. It's fair to say that now Vietnam is creating their own destiny and has an exciting future ahead of it. Whatever direction Vietnam is heading, I'll always have warm feelings for that bustling, beautiful country.