Hue really reminds me of Luxor in Egypt, only not as magnificent (not to mention 3000 years late). As the former imperial capital of Vietnam, a whole succession of kings ruled from and died here, leaving behind a whole lot of beautiful ruins. To see as much as we could in one day (really, one afternoon after we had to spend the morning getting the computer’s power cord repaired), we hired two moto drivers and set off.
Our first moto stop: The Citadel, the former central city. It’s an enormous walled compound, stretching for miles on all sides and guarded by enormous gates. Through these impressive fortifications exists an entire city of temples and royal palaces. The buildings were beautifully ornate and adorned with gold. The grounds were vast and beautiful, with ponds filled with lotus flowers and koi accompanying vast tree lined avenues and the aformentioned buildings.
Our time here, unfortunately, was cut short by a wicked thunderstorm that kept us captive in the main gate’s tower for a good half hour before we braved it and moved on (with the help of ponchos from our moto guides).
Second stop, Thien Mu Pagoda. Apparently a very famous Vietnamese landmark, it’s a rather basic stupa and pagoda if you ask me. But the grounds are quite lovely, it does offer some beautiful scenery overlooking the Perfume River, and the studying monks behind the pagoda were fascinating to watch.
We then meandered down to two separate royal tombs, those of Tu Duc and Minh Mang, rulers during the 19th century. Reportedly the two most beautiful, I found them remarkably similar. They were both laid out over a large tract of naturally landscaped grounds, creating in effect a beautiful park. Tu Duc’s was apparently his retreat for reflection during his life, while Minh Mang’s was built solely after his death. They then had large carved stones detailing the activities of their lives written in Mandarin, accompanied by a courtyard of stone servants. Behind this was a temple for those wishing to worship these rules. There was then a landscaped pond followed by a burial chamber — the only particularly noticible difference between the two. Minh Mang was buried solely underground, after his body was brought to the site completely underground (16 kilometers) via a now collapsed tunnel (crazy what these rulers get their subjects to do!). On the other hand, Tu Duc was in somewhat of an altar inside a series of decorated walls. Both were really beautiful parks, but dropped the ball a little bit on awe-inspiring impressiveness.
At that, our one day tour of Hue was over, and we prepared to head on into Laos.
Since we’ve entered Southeast Asia, I’ve been excited about our stop in Hoi An, a town in central Asia known among travelers for one thing: it’s abundance of tailor shops. Somewhat of a legend among travelers sick of their stinky zip-off pants and dingy tank tops, Hoi An is rumored to be the place to go to have clothes made. Anything you want, it’s yours. Fancy a new suit? An evening dress? A copy of your favorite designer jeans? A replica of a dress right off the runway? All you have to do is show one of the million or so tailors in Hoi An a photo or sample of what you want, and ta da, 24 hours later it’s yours. And even better, rumor has it that you can have it all and not even make a serious dent in your wallet.
I had visions of getting a dress made for a friend’s wedding we are attending just one week after we return to the States (and prior to our return to my parents’ home in Kentucky where all of our clothes are located). Jeff wanted a new suit. We thought maybe we’d get some jeans, some work trousers, and who knows what else. We had big plans.
And then we arrived. Yes, there were tailor shops everywhere. But other than that, it wasn’t quite what I expected. A lot of the sample items honestly looked pretty shoddy. A few people we ran into had stories of fitting after fitting without improvements until they were finally just forced to take a piece of clothing they were never going to wear. Many of the dresses looked like something I could get at H & M for $9.99 (and with the chance to try it on before I committed to it it, thus knowing whether it was a good look for me or not). And when I showed some of the more reputable tailors a print-out of the dress I wanted made and then picked out the fabric I liked, the price they quoted me was more than I would spend at home. Sure it would supposedly be made to fit me exactly, but again I wouldn’t be trying it on until after I’d already committed to buying it. What if the dress I liked on paper looked like crap on me?
So after one day in Hoi An, I’d ordered absolutely nothing. Instead of being the fantasyland I’d imagined, I found it to be a frustrating place. I’d also forgotten that really I’m not much of a shopper, and I’m certainly not a fashionista. Perhaps Hoi An is a great place if you typically buy high-end clothes and can get replicas of them made for significantly less (though not cheap), but it wasn’t really for me. so in the afternoon as I walked through the Old Town, I quit looking at all the sample clothes in the storefronts and appreciated the buildings themselves, beautiful examples of French colonial style. I took a stroll along the waterfront and watched as a local fisherman cast his net and brought it in over and over, and I admired the reflections of passing bicycle riders and the old houses in the river as the sunset. when I spent my money it was on some of the beautiful silk lanterns that were made as we watched. I liked this Hoi An better. It didn’t stress me out.
But we didn’t actually walk away without any new clothes. We’re not that immune to temptation or that easily put off by an overabundance of options. Jeff got the suit he wanted, and I have to say it looks pretty damn good. It’s really nice fabric and a great fit. It wasn’t dirt cheap but it was much less expensive than such a suit (or really even a low-quality suit) would be at home. To go with the suit, Jeff also had two dress shirts made. And I, well, I didn’t get the dress I wanted or any dress for that matter, but I did get a coat. It’s cute, doesn’t fit like a box (like most coats I find at home), and the price was right.
Unfortunately, the wedding we’re attending requires that I probably wear a bit more than a coat, so it looks like one of my first destinations at home will be the mall. Or maybe I’ll just have my mom mail a dress I already own to Seattle. Shopping and I just really don’t get along.
There’s a good reason Halong Bay is one of Vietnam’s greatest tourist attractions. The natural scenic beauty makes you feel like you’ve jumped into Lord of the Rings or King Kong. A tour takes you to various places (we went with Kangaroo Cafe, who did a nice job), like a cave and a beach, but the real experience is simply sitting on a boat passing through the myriad of islands, taking in each new kaleidoscopic view. So with that, I’ll let the pictures do the talking.
When our overnight train from Hanoi pulled into the station in Lau Cai, we rolled from our hardsleeper berths* and out into northwestern Vietnam. China was a mere 3 kilometers away, though it wouldn’t get any closer on this trip as we boarded a minibus at the train station and wove our way through the mountains to the town of Sa Pa. The buzz of motorbikes, a constant companion in the bustle of Saigon and Hanoi, became fainter with every twist and turn. Even more welcome was the decrease in humidity as we climbed to an elevation of about 1,600 meters.
Built by the French in the early 1900s as a hill station, Sa Pa is now the jumping off point for travelers wishing to visit some of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities, hill tribe groups such as the H’mong, Dao, and Tay. Surrounded by stunning mountains often shrouded in fog, Sa Pa feels a bit as if you’re in a Swiss mountain town…at least until you put in your contacts and notice that each of the mountains is beautifully terraced with rice paddies and worked by water buffalo and women in traditional conical hats.
While picturesque, the town itself is not quite relaxing as local children and women accompany you everywhere, offering to sell you their handicrafts (which, at least, are actually things they made and not things you’ve seen in every other market in Asia). And unlike many of the street vendors of Asia who simply yell “Buy something” at you as you pass, the Sa Pa sellers are often quite cute and seem to have some genuine interest in talking to you, finding out about where you are from, and showing off their English skills (which are incredibly impressive, especially considering that all of their English has been learned from interacting with visitors).
Wanting to see firsthand how some of the local people live (when in their villages and not on the streets of Sa Pa), we ventured on our first afternoon to Cat Cat, a H’mong village just an easy 3 kilometer walk from the center of Sa Pa. And as people like to say, you get what you paid for. Being so close to Sa Pa and so accessible, Cat Cat was a bit too touristy for our tastes. While we got a few glimpses of local life, such as a boy riding his water buffalo between the rice paddies and lots of cute little kids playing, we mainly saw stand after stand selling weavings and other local handicrafts. It wasn’t all that different from town.
So the next morning we went in whole hog. We shunned the hotels and tourist agencies offering to organize for us a trip to local villages a bit further afield, and hired one of the H’mong girls we found in town to show us around. Sun, who was 18 years old and carrying her 7 month son Binh on her back, took us first to the market to buy supplies for a lunch she planned to cook us when we arrived in her village of Lao Chai.
And then we set off out of town on foot, stopping frequently to snap photos of the bright green terraces and cloudy mountain tops.
As we walked Sun told us about her life. We learned that she was married at 15 and like all female H’mong left her village at that point to live in her husband’s village. She noted that fortunately her home village is only a 1.5 hour walk away, and she goes there often. Her sister, who was to be married soon, wasn’t as lucky as she would be moving to a village farther up the mountain. She pointed out the various crops growing in the fields, explaining that she and her husband grow corn and rice, all for sustenance not sale. She also showed us the indigo that the H’mong grow to dye their clothes the deep dark blue that so easily identifies them. We talked about school, learning English, having kids, what a local wedding is like, the feast she cooks every year for New Year, and more. With each step, we got a little glimpse into her world.
And then we arrived at her house, a simple three-room bamboo structure with a view to die for.
She offered us a seat on the tiny stools that made up the house’s only furniture and then set to work making us lunch. She fed long sticks of bamboo into a fire over which she cooked rice, pork and onions, and morning glory (a Vietnam favorite served like spinach). All the while, as she chopped, got water, cooked, and served, she carried Binh on her back. While people in the Western World talk about being tied to their children, she literally was. She didn’t do anything or go anywhere without him on her back. Luckily he was a happy little guy who seemed to enjoy the ride.
After what turned out to be a delicious lunch and a chat with her 21-year old husband (of three years) Jinh, who arrived home right as we finished up, we descended through the terraces to explore the rest of her village and then entered the neighboring village of Ta Van.
By mid-afternoon, we were all hot and tired but at the same time happy. We felt as if we had actually gotten to see authentic life in the highlands of northeastern Vietnam. We felt as if we had spent a day with a friend. It was exactly what we had hoped for when we boarded the train in Hanoi, the mountains of Sa Pa still a 10 hour ride away.
*The preferred method of travel on Vietnam trains is soft-sleeper, but it’s pretty hard to secure your own soft-sleeper berth for the trip to Sa Pa as all the travel agents snatch them up. We found that for the trip to Sa Pa hard-sleeper is plenty nice as you are literally just travelling overnight. It’s a bit cozy, but the AC works well and the bed isn’t as hard as the name makes it sound. For longer trips, ones in which you would be awake for a significant part of the journey, such as the trip we later took to Danang. I’d go for soft-sleeper as you have more space.
As I’m pretty sure everyone is familiar with, the US has a fairly sordid history in Vietnam that we as Americans don’t particularly enjoy talking about. There is no doubt about the fact that the US did some pretty evil things in Vietnam – for example, napalm and agent orange were used to defoliate the thick vegetation where there just so happened to be people living. Not to mention the basic act of the US imposing its will unilaterally. Guess we’re still making that mistake. But let there be no mistake here – in my opinion, the US certainly weren’t the “good guys” in this war.
But, well, we lost the war. And the North Vietnamese won. Communist/socialist regimes (though I’ve actually found myself delighting in the fact that they are more capitalist than America these days) are no stranger to presenting one sided stories, and the Vietnamese are no different. The Vietnamese government thoroughly presents its view on the war at three sites we visited – the Reunification Palace and War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and the Hoa Lu Prison Museum in Hanoi.
Reunification Palace began life as Norodam Palace, for use of the French Governor of Indochina. Then it became Independence Palace in 1945, I’m sure you can guess why. It was bombed by a North Vietnamese secret agent and destroyed, then rebuilt in 1963. And since 1975, its been called the equally obvious Reunification Palace. There is allegedly Chinese character symbolism in the design of the central column of the building, forming characters for good fortune, etc. It’s really not very clear if you ask us.
Out front, the tanks that crashed through the gates on April 30, 1975 permanently rest. They and the crew that guided them are commemorated for their role in the “liberation” of the south. The inside of the Palace is beautiful, as I suppose most palaces are. But the most fascinating area I saw was the basement bunker, where war operations were conducted. All of the old radio equipment remained untouched, the maps presumably the same ones. It was eerie but captivating. We then arose into a room on the history of the Palace and further down, a video room. It was here we got our first view of the Vietnamese perspective.According to the Vietnamese government, the war was fought between all Vietnamese people and the Americans. It was a war of “Imperialist Aggression” against the Vietnamese people. No South Vietnamese people fought against the North, and the reason it took them another two years to capture Saigon after the Americans ostensibly left was not really discussed. Furthermore, and I find this odd for a socialist regime, the Vietnamese people are not glorified. Instead, the US is denigrated. The video and history display repeatedly talk about the tactical mistakes Americans made, their failed bombing runs, their failed war policies. Rarely did they mention how valiently their own soldiers fought, how they exploited weakness and kept the tactical upper hand, or anything or the sort. It was quite the opposite of what I expected.
Leaving the Palace, we headed to the nearby War Remnants Museum. The first exhibit was a haunting display of the photographs of the photojournalists killed during the war, often including their last frames from just minutes (or less) before their death (oddly, this exhibit was almost fully sponsored by Louisville based companies … the Courier-Journal, UPS, KFC, the Bingham family, LG&E, etc … can anyone explain this?). It was an amazing exhibit. But after that, the museum focused on detailing fully the atrocities of the Americans. This consisted of five separate exhibits. Now, make no mistake, the Americans did many horrible things worthy of these exhibits. There’s what Agent Orange has done to thousands of children, just tragic. There’s the endless and quite indiscriminate bombing campaigns. The torture and deadly beatings of prisoners at Phu Quoc island. The infantry attacks that left villages empty. And so on. Feel pretty lousy yet? But the activities of the North Vietnamese soldiers during this whole sordid “war” business is strangely absent. There certainly is no mention of the horrible things their soldiers inevitably did.
Now, I’m willing to concede that on a tally of war crimes and failed war policies, the US won handily. So these first two museum, while one sided, were not on the wrong side of truth. But Hoa Lu Prison, perhaps more familiarly known as the Hanoi Hilton, definitely crossed that line. Since the prison was built by the French, it was first used to house Vietnamese criminals and dissidents. The first half of the museum glorified the communist party members who suffered there under the “horrible atrocities” of those evil French imperialists, which included the worst cuts of beef and pork at mealtimes and a nine hour workday. Theresa and I both looked at each other and said “sounds better than a lot of free people’s lives.” Course, a fair number of prisoners were executed, so I suppose that’s not so great. The two best rooms in the museum, however, dealt with the treatment of American POWs. One room focused on the northern bombing campaign and how evil it was, complete with John McCain’s flight suit!
The other room dealt with how wonderfully the Vietnamese treated the American POWs. There were photos of them celebrating Christmas, a curio case with the guitar they were allowed to keep, the Americans playing basketball, and finally, the Americans being released. All the while declaring how the gracious Vietnamese government, despite the horrible things the Americans had done, treated these prisoners so well and gave them a “home away from home.” Now, I don’t think I’ve ever heard an American POW tell a story that would corroborate that tall tale. We had a good long laugh at that. But as they say, history is written by the victors, so I guess there must be some other reason John McCain can’t use his right arm.
Every few months, it seems we need a reminder about why we do not like tours. Our latest lesson came as we made our way from Phnom Penh to Saigon via the Mekong Delta. Thinking it was the most efficient way to get ourselves between the two while seeing the Mekong, we signed up for a tour through Capital Guesthouse in Phnom Penh, ostensibly run by Delta Adventures. Let’s just suffice it to say we do not recommend them.
We started by taking the fast boat down the Mekong from Phnom Penh to Chau Doc, undeterred from our Battambang boat experience. This boat was better, faster, and actually took the advertised five hours. No complaints yet. It was a bit odd when we arrived in Chau Doc and our “guide” mentioned getting up at 6 am to go somewhere for sunrise and a free rest of the day, then promptly disappeared. We never saw him again (It seems pretty common in Asia to get shuttled between guides). With our free time, we asked the hotel to take us across the river into Chau Doc in a boat (which they did provide free of charge at least) and walked around and found the town quite lovely and authentic. There wasn’t a whole lot to do there per se, but the ambiance was nice and the people very authentically friendly. We found a Vietnamese hat for Theresa for ~50 cents and some dinner and watched the sunset in a pleasant riverside park full of great people watching.
Then we headed back to the hotel.
Now, we did realize we would not have A/C at the hotel, but we did not realize just how hot the Mekong is, and just how stifling the room could be with only a tiny wall mounted fan and no other air moving anywhere. So we won’t belabor the point, but we didn’t sleep much. Annoying, but not the worst thing that can happen.
I think day 2 was the real kicker for the silliness of the tour. We woke up, as our previous day’s guide had mentioned, at 6 am ready to go out for sunrise from Sam mountain. These were the activities outlined for Chau Doc on our tour itinerary pamphlet:
-hike up Sam mountain (don’t worry, its not very big) for views over Cambodia and Vietnam and
visit it’s pagoda and cave
-a rowboat trip through a floating village
-visit to an incense making village
-visit to a weaving village
-fresh fruit snacks
Here’s what we got:
-a motorboat trip with 25 of our closest friends along the other side of the river from Chau Doc
-a stop at a “fish farm,” a hole in a floating house where they kept fish and let you throw food pellets at them. In reality, quite disgusting.
-a second stop at the “weaving village,” where one lady sat at a loom and they sold the same fabrics we’ve seen since Bangkok.
-a walk through Chau Doc, which we had already done since we throught our tour consisted of other things.
The no trip to Sam mountain was a big disappointment, as the views were supposedly beautiful.
So then we headed to Can Tho, a city three hours downstream by boat. We reached it around lunchtime (which gives you an idea of how quickly we hurried through all the crap in Chau Doc). The guide had us carry all of our bags with us down to the restaurant, then pestered us the entire time we at lunch about whether we were ready to go to the hotel yet, annoying us to no end (we later learned this was because he had people to pick up he was taking back upstream, not that that justifies anything). He then hired motos to take us and our bags essentially a block away from we got off the boat. I mean, I know they get a commission for bringing us to this crappy restaurant, but just maybe it would’ve been smarter to have us drop our things at the hotel, then make us go down to the restaurant for lunch? And, in the best part of the ordeal, my moto driver got lost. I didn’t know the hotel, he didn’t know where the hotel was, so we drove around town for a while. Eventually, he went back to the restaurant where they helped the poor idiot out. Upon arriving at the hotel, I witnessed a Theresa nearly in tears screaming at our guide. Aparently his response to losing me was to shrug his shoulders and try to get his other group together and go. Theresa was having none of that.
We had another free afternoon, which we spent doing logistics, as Can Tho itself really seemed like a pretty industrial, soulless place. But again, our free time was much more enjoyable than our tour time.
Our final day was definitely our best, as we were paired up with a group out of Saigon (we were passed along to different tour groups every day). The guide was the first one who shared his name, who seemed to care what he was doing, who took some time to explain what we were going to do and what we were looking at. We went downriver to the floating market, which was definitely more cool than touristy. Vietnamese farmers bring their produce downriver and camp out on their boats and sell it. Kind of like a market. On a river.
We also visited a more forgettable rice factory and rice paper factory. After a four hour bus ride to Saigon with the necessary useless tourist trap half hour restroom stop, our tour was finally over.
So the lesson here is: go to the Mekong. The scenery is beautiful (though there are definitely factory heavy stretches these days), the people are authentically warm and friendly and there are some nice things to do and see. But don’t do the tour. Hop a bus, or a boat. Then do what you want or hire who you want once you get there. You’ll be in control of what you see and do and where you stay. We had to learn this lesson again the hard way.
Back in 1945, as the world came to comprehend the width and breadth and depth of the Holocaust, as we came to understand that nearly six million Jews (along with millions of other minority groups and perceived enemies of the Nazi Reich) were methodically and maniacally killed simply because they were born Jewish, we collectively uttered the phrase “Never again.” Though I don’t have evidence of it, I’m pretty certain this wasn’t the first time the world had said “Never again.” It wasn’t the first time we vowed to stand up against hatred and violence, to refuse to let people be killed simply because they had blood or ancestry or beliefs that a more powerful group did not like. It wasn’t the first time we said it, and it wasn’t the last time we failed to keep our word.
Unfortunately, “Never again” has proven time and again to be an empty promise. Witness Darfur. Witness Rwanda. Witness Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.
In 1975, amidst the chaos of the war in Vietnam, which had spread into Cambodia, and the surge of communism in Southeast Asia, the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia. For the next four years, they would rule the nation, taking a country that seemed on its way to a golden age back into the stone age. The goal of the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot or “Brother Number One,” was to turn Cambodia into a nation of peasants, all equal laborers in the rice fields. He abolished money, ended all education, destroyed vestiges of culture, and emptied the cities, moving all city-dwellers into the fields. He also divided up families and created a fear that made everyone suspicious of their neighbor and quick to report any misgivings to the authorities.
But he didn’t stop there. As with all megalomaniacs, Pol Pot was obsessed with threats to his power, both real and imagined, and went to all ends to eliminate his enemies. In his case, anyone he considered an intellectual was a threat, and his definition of intellectual was insanely broad. Work at a school, and you were an intellectual. Speak a language besides Khmer, and you were an intellectual. Wear glasses, and you were an intellectual. Fit his description of an enemy, and you and your family were eliminated.
During the reign of the Khmer Rouge, over two million Cambodians died. Some died from malnutrition and overwork. Others were brutally murdered by members of the ruling party. We played witness to this horrible history while in Phnom Penh, visiting the Tuol Sleng Museum and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek.
It isn’t hard to imagine Tuol Sleng as the school it once was, but what stares you in the face is the prison that this school became. The tile-floor classrooms have been subdivided into tiny cells, barren except for a cot and the manacles that kept prisoners immobile as they were tortured. The balconies through which students once moved as they went from classroom to classroom are enclosed with barbed wire, intended to keep the desperate from throwing themselves to their deaths. The playground now houses eleven tombs holding the bodies of the last people killed here as well as instruments of torture used to coerce confessions from prisoners. What is most haunting, however, are the rooms simply covered in photos of the people held prisoner here. The photos are of men and women, boys and girls, even babies. Some look like people you passed on the street earlier in the day. None look dangerous or threatening. And practically none of them, once their photo was taken at this prison, had a chance of survival. Of the thousands and thousands of people that passed through Tuol Sleng, only about seven survived. The rest either died while being tortured at the prison or were taken on to the Killing Fields.
The Killing Fields, located about fourteen kilometers outside the city center of Phnom Penh is an eerie place. Today birds and butterflies flutter about, kids at a nearby school sing and shout, and farmers next door plow rice fields with their water buffalo. Look closely at the green fields, however, and you’ll see grass-covered crater after crater, each the site of one of the 129 mass graves found here. From the ground, pieces of bone and tatters of clothing peek out, exposed by two decades of erosion. A monument in the middle contains the unearthed bones of some of the 9,000 victims found here. Buried alive, beaten to death with blunt objects, hacked to death with machetes, swung against trees until their skulls were smashed (in the case of babies), or sometimes mercifully just shot in the head, many of the victims of the Khmer Rouge were killed here, in what once was, and is again becoming, quiet countryside.
As you wander amidst all the horror, you wonder many things. You wonder how anyone could perpetrate that kind of violence on another human being. You wonder how the world could stand silently while it happened. You wonder how the U.N. could continue to recognize the Khmer Rouge as the official government of Cambodia until 1992, fourteen years after they were overthrown by the Vietnamese army. And you wonder just exactly what “Never again” means and when those words will apply to all people in all places.
According to our friend Maryann, who lives and works in Cambodia, most visitors to Cambodia stay for only three days. They jet in from the more popular locations in the area—Thailand or Vietnam for instance—, marvel at the wonder that is Angkor Wat, and then promptly exit. At first, I felt like I could understand why. Though Angkor is amazing, I found Siem Reap, our first stop in Cambodia, to be soulless. I felt like the extent of my interaction with locals was limited to “No, I don’t need a tuk-tuk. No I don’t want to buy 20 postcards for $1. No I don’t have a need for a silk scarf.” No one wanted to just interact with us; they wanted to sell us stuff. And while many tourists love Siem Reap for its countless comforts—Pub Street with its 50 cent beers, restaurant after restaurant serving good Western food, and abundant wi-fi—it felt sterile to me, as if I could be in any country, any where.
But then we ventured down (via a very long boat ride) to the town of Battambang, officially Cambodia’s second largest city, but what felt like a rural village. As we walked along the river, through the market, and up and down the streets of the very compact city, locals would stop and smile at us. They’d ask where we were from and then not follow it up with “Capitol: Washington, DC; President: Barack Obama; Buy my postcards.” The children would yell out hello and giggle contagiously when we returned their greeting, wanting nothing more than a wave from the strange white people walking past their homes. The market sold a few souvenir-type items, but for the most part it sold what locals needed for their everyday life, and it wasn’t spiffed up and polished with a fancy bar in the middle for foreigners who might need a cocktail as they browse. This was authentic Cambodia, and we liked it.
So we dove in deeper, hiring a tuk-tuk and a driver (who called himself Nick to foreign tourists, but whose actual name was Sambath) to venture into the countryside. Our itinerary was anchored around sights—caves that had once been used for theatre productions but had been hijacked by the Khmer Rouge for the killing of enemies, mountain-top pagodas, Angkor-style temples, and a ride on the bamboo train—but what we most enjoyed was the insight into regular, everyday life in Cambodia.
We witnessed a kid get a haircut under a tree in his front yard, right next to a pond full of blooming lotus. We watched a man plow his field the old-fashioned way.
We observed workers stooped over in a field picking and transplanting rice.
We marveled at the family herding ducks.
We waved to little boys running around without a bit of clothing and little girls wearing nothing but skirts. We passed bicycles laden down with more kids than you would think possible and entire families on motorbikes.
We stopped for petrol at a stand on the side of a road, where the bright yellow, red, and green fuel was sold from used soda bottles. We paused at a pagoda and witnessed the funeral of a monk and talked to another monk who was anxious to practice his English and learn about us and our travels. A monk for 18 years, he was well-educated and spoke many languages, but had never ventured out of Cambodia, and he giggled nervously throughout our conversation. Later, as we climbed up to the temple of Wat Banan, we met another monk, who happened to be our driver Nick’s brother.
At the end of the day, as we flew down the tracks of the bamboo train–a strange platform contraption invented by locals to move items from village to village by way of the existing rail lines–passing rice paddies shimmering in the setting sun and laughing village children, we realized just what people miss when they only stay in Cambodia for three days. It’s not lost time at the temples, exploring their intricacies; it’s time with the people of Cambodia, who, despite a haunting recent history, have bright eyes, dazzling smiles, warm hearts, and so much to offer if you only have the time.
Jeff and I love Asian food. And we also like to cook. I’d say that back in our “normal life” we eat food we prepared in our own kitchen about 90% of the time. But it’s rare that we cook Asian food. We cook some curries and stirfries; we’ve made our own dumplings; and we’ve tried plenty of times to create the perfect Pad Thai. But generally when we want Asian food, we eat out. In fact, most of the 10% of eating out we do is at Asian restaurants.
For me, cooking Asian food is intimidating. Well, I’m not sure it’s the cooking so much as the shopping for ingredients. Asian food requires items that aren’t necessarily pantry basics; items that sometimes can’t be found at the regular grocery store. Now D.C. has no shortage of Asian grocery stores, and I have ventured into them, but usually I leave empty handed. The store is full of items that, to a good ol’ southern girl like me, look weird and smell even weirder. And to top it off all the writing is in Asian script and the staff rarely speaks English, so I usually don’t have any idea what the weird thing I’m looking at, smelling, and poking actually is. I once did manage to find shrimp paste, a necessary ingredient in some recipe I was trying. I swear I’ve never smelled something so bad. Apparently the dish tasted fine (according to Jeff); personally I couldn’t eat it because I couldn’t get the smell out of my nose. When it was time to move out of our D.C. apartment, it was the one jar that I didn’t recycle. While I emptied out, washed out, and recycled literally every other bottle and jar in our refrigerator, I wasn’t about to open that one.
But not wanting scary shrimp paste to permanently scar me and prevent me from making some of the dishes we love most, Jeff and I decided that we’d dive into some cooking classes while in Asia. Up first, Cambodian cooking in a half-day class at Battambang’s Smokin’ Pot.
We started out with a trip to the market, which made the Asian supermarkets in D.C. look as non-threatening as a Care Bear. We scuttled in between women deep-frying crickets and fish flopping out of buckets and wiggling toward parking lot puddles. I tried not to wonder how long the huge slabs of meat had been hanging there, and I only asked Jeff once if what I was looking at was noodles or worms. By the time we exited, we were all laden down with bags full of the ingredients we would cook—lemongrass, eggplant, chiles, garlic, chicken, fish, snake beans, and more—as well as tips on what to look for when shopping and a pretty good idea of what all the fancy packaged ingredients in the U.S. look like before they’re nicely preserved.
And then it was time to cook. Our first dish was fish amok, a curry that is probably the most popular dish in Cambodia. This wasn’t cheater-style curry; we actually began by making our own curry paste, a feat that required much chopping and then some stone mortar and pestle action.
Ingredients prepared, it was off to the stove, where we sweated (very literally) over a flame, as we mixed our homemade curry with our hand-squeezed coconut milk and our hand-chopped veggies and fish. As soon as most of the coconut milk was boiled away, we transferred our food to plates and chowed down on the best fish amok we’d had yet.
I was stuffed after cleaning my plate, but we were just beginning. Two more dishes awaited. The second was a spicy basil stirfry with beef that required us to throw ingredients into our wok at astounding speed while making sure that nothing burned. I felt very chef-like, and I must say that my dish could have made the menu at any of the Asian places we frequent.
And to end the day, we made a soup, one of my favorite kinds–a sour-spicy lemongrass chicken soup. Though normally I’d say it was too hot for soup, and though I was already stuffed, I finished it off anyhow. Delicious.
And though I’m still not sure I want shrimp paste in my refrigerator (or fish paste for that matter, which we used in our amok), I don’t feel nearly as intimidated about cooking (or shopping for) Asian food. We’ve definitely got three new dishes to add to the rotation, and I bet there’s a few more we’ll like in the cookbook they gave us at class’s end. Maybe if you’re lucky we’ll invite you over for dinner once we return home.
There’s a definite appeal of boating along in the watery world that is Cambodia. The Tonle Sap, a giant lake literally through the heart of the country, is the lifeblood of Cambodian life. Entire villages exist floating on the lake, and there is nary a shoreline or rivers edge without a house alongside it. Before the roads became paved, boats were by far the best way to get around. But times they change, and buses now zip between the major cities in less time and for a fraction of the cost of the boats.
But wanting to have the experience, we opted to take the boat from Siem Reap to Battambang, through floating villages and along some of the most scenic waterways of Cambodia. We were told it would last between five and six hours. And for five hours it was great pretty great. We passed slowly through countless villages along the river banks full of local life. There were floating restaurants, floating shops, floating churches. It was beautiful.
Unfortunately, the boat took 9 hours to get to Battambang. The last three got a little tiring. Beyond the simple notion that you somewhat expect to get there around when you’ve been told you’ll get there, and therefore are only mentally prepared for a certain time, there were a few downsides to the boat. For example seating was simple wood benches. The options for seating were either on these benches in the open air (read: no cooling of any kind) cabin rattling with the sounds of the engine or on the roof of the boat in the hot sun. There were only so many times we could go back and forth before both felt pretty uncomfortable. Throw in a few issues with the propeller and there were a few issues.
So was I happy we did it? Sure. Would I do it again or recommend it? Probably not. Maybe in the very wet season when they claim it only takes three hours to get there since they can go very directly (though I’m sure not sure I’d believe it). And the thing is, there would be very easy things they could do to make the boat so much more comfortable. Like put some padding on the seats. Or put some sound dampening on the engine so that the passengers could have a conversation while the boat was moving. Or even putting a second level with a few seats or some padding and a sunshade. Really easy things that would really make the trip more worthwhile. But I’d definitely recommend getting out to see some floating villages, and preferably the less touristy ones. It’s a pretty beautiful and different way of life.