After 24 extraordinary days, 8 hotels, 7 cities in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, and trying to calculate 6 currencies in our heads, my wife and I are safely back in Abu Dhabi, UAE. It was so cheap -- costing about what 10 days in Europe would have cost us -- and mind-boggling, veering between paradise and hell on earth, sometimes in a single day!
Hell: Desperate, muddy poverty at the Thai/Cambodian border, in the towns of Aranyaprathet, Poipet and Siem Reap; the Choeung Ek Killing Fields Memorial of Cambodia and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh; the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, evoking horrific memories of the American war; the Cu Chi Tunnels used during that war to outwit the Americans; the Khe Sanh battlefield and American airstrip, now abandoned. Even though these were not exactly pleasurable experiences, they are historically important, fascinating, challenging and unforgettable to experience.
Heaven, or Nirvana: Magnificient Buddhist temples (Wat Pho; Wat Arun, Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok); the re-discovered empire of Ankhor Wat in Cambodia; a Mekong Delta tour in Southern Vietnam; the beautiful resort town of Hoi An in central Vietnam and the magnificent Halong Bay in Northern Vietnam's Gulf of Tonkin, where we went on a three-day cruise; and lots of cheap, delicious, Asian food.
We had to navigate among six currencies, calculating and recalculating the value of Thai baht, Cambodian riel, Vietnamese dong, Bahraini dinar, UAE dirham, and American dollars. That kept our heads swimming. At first it just seemed like so much Monopoly money, but in time we mastered the cost if not the value of most things.
I've started a small slideshow on Facebook of photos and observations from Vietnam:
and Lucia has posted highlight photos of our trips to the three countries:
The photos are classified as public but you may not be able to access them unless we are Facebook friends.
Lucia writes: After some harrowing experiences, we had a good, exhaustive day of touring Bangkok. Luckily - and by pure chance, since I did virtually no reading about Bangkok before landing - our guest house is right by the top sights of the city.
These are 2 temple complexes. The temples were exquisite. European, Chinese, Nepalese influences (the stupa domes) were worked into delicate spires, and the interiors held beautiful mother-of-pearl panels. There is an interior painted mural that surrounds one entire temple complex, telling the epic of a queen captured by demons, "Harry Potter and Helen of Troy" is what the guide said, and rescued by flying monkey figures. The work on the wooden-paneled mural is about some of the best history and art I've ever seen. Really among my top observations, along with the Hermitage.
The exterior colors, stonework and the interior pictorial depictions are some of the most highly-detailed, breathtaking work I've ever witnessed. We also went to a temple where there is the famous, mammoth recumbent Buddha, resplendent in his gilding. We took many pictures; Jim wanted some to show the dimensions of the Buddha; I wanted to show some of the details of the painted epic. It's rather wonderful to have your breath taken away by beauty when you had no inkling and really no expectations (again, read nothing before landing).
I am sending this from phone so a bit constricted. Tomorrow we head to the Cambodian border where we must avoid many scam artists before retiring to a nice hotel on Siem Reap and exploring Ankhor Wat. Once the world's largest city.
...Now in Siem Riep, Cambodia, staying at a resort co-owned by a Canadian midget named Mitch who worked on the Obama campaign in North Carolina and met Barack in Charlotte in 2008! As we were sipping beer and eating dinner next to the pool, with the music of Rolling Stones and The Who ("Tommy") blaring from the sound system, it was easy to think that the Americans had won the Vietnamese/Cambodian war.Outside the resort, however, the dirt roads and shacks of the peasants remind one of the abject poverty of the country. While we were touring Ankhor Wat, a child hid in one of the Buddhist shrines, popped out and asked me for a donation. I gave him a dollar, which may be more than his parents make in a day.
Very strange dichotomy: nice Western resort hotels next to abject poverty of the locals, babies not wearing diapers, some beggars on the street, a number of locals wearing masks to presumably protect themselves from viruses. We're very relieved we got so many vaccinations before we left.
It's kind of like living in a movie. Tourism has definitely raised the living standard of Cambodia, but it's got a long way to go. This is the most foreign place I think I've ever been, close to the poverty I imagine I'd see in India.
Lucia writes: Yes, it's poor, but the people live like hundreds of years ago, Angkor Wat was tops with me, I loved being driven through the jungles with the breeze blowing through the tuk-tuk.
Son Matthew replies: "The masks are a sign of respect, as they are not breathing bad germs onto people. It doesn’t mean they are sick, or that they are worried about germs. It is quite common in many countries in Asia. Also some of them wear it as they don’t like to inhale the fumes from the motorcycles while riding."
Day 4: Norodom Sihanouk
One of the reasons my wife Lucia wanted so much to visit Cambodia was that she remembered the idyllic tales her uncle and aunt told of life there in the 1950s. From 1955 to 1957, her uncle, Metcalfe Walling, served as director of the United States Economic Aid Mission to Cambodia, and worked closely with Prince Norodom Sihanouk. The Wallings tutored the royal family in English.
I remembered Sihanouk from Indochina War history, but needed a refresher, which Wikipedia provided.
Wow. Sihanouk was quite a wily fellow, allying himself at one time or another with the French, the Americans, then become a neutral (viewed as hostile by US). To Johnson's irritation, he hosted Jackie Kennedy in 1967 to tour Ankhor Wat just as Bobby was criticizing LBJ's Southeast Asia policy. Nixon had a hand in overthrowing him and replacing him with Lon Nol. Sihanouk then allied himself with the Khmer Rouge, a fleldging group. After "the Killing Fields" he became king again in 1993 and retired in 2004. He's still alive!
Lucia writes: Angkor Wat was sublime. One day you take the Petit Ciruit with your tuk-tuk (motorized surrey with a fringe on top) driver waiting as you explore each spot. They were wonderful workers of sandstone and laterite, carving epic murals with heavily influenced Indian gods and heavenly goddesses, elephants, monkey soldiers, demons, and so on. The ruins ranged from the 10th through the 13th century. The next day we took the Grand Circuit. You drive through lovely, uncluttered jungle road until you come to certain sites where there are plenty of tuk-tuks and motor bikes. You're supposed to spend 16 hours on the two circuits, but I think we took about 12 hours. A few of the temples have been left to the jungle, so you get those fantastic pictures of gnarly trees ensnaring ancient temple columns and foundations. I am so glad I got to see this wonder in my life time.
I am reading a grim book called Cambodia's Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land, by Joel Brinkley, a former New York Times correspondent and fellow student at the University of North Carolina in the 1970s. If I had read this book before visiting Cambodia, I probably wouldn't have gone. He depicts a lawless society in which international non-governmental organizations enable corruption and shore up the retro communist government of Hun Sen, who has been leader of the country since 1985.The annual per capita income of Cambodia is less than $600. A large part of the population suffers from PTSD, passing it on to their children. There are only three or four licensed psychiatrists in the country of 14 million people. A recent writer said he saw a schizophrenic being "treated" by being roped to a tree.
"Vietnam is a nation going places. Fast. Its people are energetic, direct, sharp in commerce and resilient by nature. This is an outrageously fun country to explore, the locals love a laugh (and a drink) and you’ll have plenty of opportunities to socialise with them and hear their tales.The American War is over, and yet its impact endures – you’ll find reminders of that cataclysmic conflict everywhere you travel. That said, the country was never broken and emerged with its pride intact. Poor in parts but never squalid, Vietnam is developing at an astonishing pace. For travellers, there are issues to consider (including minor scams), but little real danger – on the whole it’s a safe, wonderfully rewarding and incredibly varied country to explore." -- Vietnam Travel Guide (Country Travel Guide). Lonely Planet. Kindle Edition.
Never thought I'd say, "I can't wait to go to Vietnam!" But in a few days I will be there, ready to challenge or update those television and movie images from my youth of "the horror, the horror" -- jungles, quicksand, napalm, the Hanoi Hilton, Hanoi Jane, an unwinnable war, and falling dominoes.
Southeast Asia fascinates me because it is so different from what I as an American am used to, so different from our way of thinking and being. And all that ideological dogma I was fed as a child and teenager about falling dominoes and the ruthless march of global monolithic communism -- the Maoists and the Stalinists united -- has turned out to be, pretty much, BULL CRAP.
My mother-in-law reminded me that her nephew (and my wife's first cousin)Lewis Walling Jr. was one of the first Americans to die in Vietnam, in 1962, and what a promising young man he was. Indeed so, if one follows the link on his name. Many Americans remain sensitive on the subject of Vietnam, she said, and aren't particularly interested in how the country is doing after we left, since our side lost.
Is it inappropriate to vacation in what was just 40 to 50 years ago a place of terrible sacrifice, essentially a graveyard for nearly 58,000 Americans, a source of bitter division within the United States, and enormous psychic pain for the veterans who returned and their families, not to mention for millions of Vietnamese?
In retrospect, I have mixed feelings about Vietnam. I know "our boys" were treated terribly when they returned home after serving their country. One might ask students of history why the Vietnam War did not turn out like the Korean War? The latter, though technically a draw, has worked out pretty wonderfully for the South Koreans in terms of their standard of living, democratic freedoms and contribution to the world economy. I take it as a given that modern-day, successful South Korea was the original vision that the naive but well-intentioned architects of the Vietnam War had for South Vietnam.
It is perhaps understandable that those architects over the decade of the 1950s developed a pretty hard-core case of hubris as they watched post-war Germany, Japan, and South Korea emerge as economic and political miracles. The allies had essentially transformed these former enemies and remade them in our own image. In the heady fifties and early sixties, why wouldn't it seem possible to remake Vietnam like we did Germany, Japan and South Korea?
That was not to be.
In the long history of Vietnam, the South Vietnamese government lasted only from 1946 to 1975 -- 29 years. The unified Republic of Vietnam has already endured for 37 years.
The Vietnamese today lack the democratic freedoms and economic riches that South Korea has and that they might have had if the American vision had been successful. Vietnam today is one of the world's poorest countries. As it has moved away from rigid communist dogma with "free market reforms," it is achieving one of the world's fastest economic growth rates.
Irony of Ironies, America today is one of Vietnam's strongest trading partners, and Vietnam hopes for stronger economic relations with the US so it is less economically dependent on China, which it fears from centuries of imperialism.
I do not believe the sacrifice of Lewis Walling and other Americans who died or served in Vietnam was in vain. They died so that others may live -- America since Vietnam has become far more cautious, far less arrogant, in putting large numbers of American forces in harm's way. Some 57,000 Americans died in Vietnam in about 12 years; "just" 4,409 Americans died in Iraq in nine years; and less than 2,000 Americans have died in Afghanistan since 2001. America has become far wiser in laying out clear, limited, attainable goals for its troops.
It remains to be seen what the long-term outcome of American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan will be. Whatever it is, the men and women who served or died there have not served or died in vain either. The value of service to one's country is not diminished if the mission is not completely successful. Indeed, if the mission was not difficult and success was guaranteed in advance, the value of the service and sacrifice would be diminished.