September 10, 2007

Cambodian Crossing

Well, the suit turned out pretty good.

From Hoi An I took a trip down to see the memorial at My Lai, which was as you might expect something of an emotionally draining visit. I was the only visitor so I got a personal guided tour from an earnest young woman who took me around the reconstructed house foundations where the hamlet once stood, and I stood by the ditch where Lieutenant Calley's soldiers cut down 107 civilians. (Its banks have been reinforced with some molded concrete now, which I think maybe detracts -- slightly -- from the impact... but, still.) Probably the most emotional part was watching a short documentary they showed which featured the helicopter pilot, Hugh Thompson, who stopped to rescue 10 civilians and who returned 30 years later to meet two of the survivors. On an otherwise very dark day, his courage and humanity were inspiring, and it was very moving watching these (now quite old) women thank him for an act that was at once amazingly brave and also very simply the right thing to do. I can only hope the United States continues to be able to produce men (and women) of his heroism.

I came back to Hoi An to catch a bus south to the small beachside port of Quy Nhon, once home to a large US and South Vietnamese military base, where my father was stationed. Today the city is one of Vietnam's quieter beachfronts, with few foreign tourists (who mostly go further south, to Nha Trang) and many fishing boats plying the bay. It appears there's nothing left of the old base -- not only have things been stripped away and recycled, but the area where it once stood has actually undergone some major redevelopment, with hotels and a supermarket / shopping mall and a wide flat boulevard lined with trees where the airstrip once ran. After an evening shower, I took another walk along the beach in search of a seafood restaurant this evening and passed a large segment of Quy Nhon's young male population out playing soccer or volleyball in the sand; many young kids were out with there parents as well and I was fairly bombarded with "hello!"s until it got too dark for them to notice I was a foreigner.

It's been planes, cars, boats, motorcycles, and many, many buses thus far this trip so for a change of pace I took the train from Quy Nhon to Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City -- which made for a very slow pace, as it turns out. I was in a narrow berth with six bunks with about an inch slab of padding on each; I was on the top bunk which meant I had about two feet of head clearance, so I spent most of the trip lying around, dozing, reading, listening to the iPod, and eating Oreos. We arrived in at around 9:00 in the evening and I took a taxi to a place that actually ended up being the most expensive place I've stayed at in Vietnam, $17 for a double. It wasn't as nice as the place I stayed at in Quy Nhon, either, which was a nice beachside backpacker place run by a friendly Kiwi expat; but still, I can't complain all that much.

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Although I'm sure Saigon has some hidden charms, I got the hell out of dodge the next day, with yet another bus ride, this time over the border into Cambodia's capital of Phnom Penh. My first evening I took a short walk and had a dinner of delicious hot and sour soup before returning to my (very budget) guesthouse by the lakeside. Then the next morning I took a motorcycle out to the Killing Fields, which are maybe 15 minutes ride outside of Phnom Penh.

As we pulled down a dusty dirt road that led to the grounds, I heard the loud echoing of monks chanting broadcast over a PA system, mingled with jangly Cambodian music ... perhaps coming from a restaurant nearby, I'm not sure where exactly, but it made for a strangely appropriate soundtrack to wander around the place. The "fields" are actually dotted with copses of trees, and paths leading under them pass by many sunken depressions, their bottoms filled with small pools from the high water table (the land here is flat and low, formed from alluvial silt from the mighty Mekong River, whose bay once split Vietnam and Thailand into two separate peninsulas before filling in to form Cambodia) -- these were the mass graves, some of which have since been excavated. Along the paths there were still tattered scraps of clothing fallen from the many victims. A tall monument, maybe 30 feet in height, stands a short walk from the entrance gates, with arching spires and intricate carvings in the Cambodian temple style; the glass walls inside house a column of human skulls, victims who were brought here after being imprisoned in S-21 prison, interrogated, tortured, and finally disposed of.

The prison, which I visited that afternoon, was once a high school, with yellow paint still on the pitted concrete walls and rusting bars covering the windows. The rooms where they kept prisoners were mostly bare, with the occasional metal bedframe on which the interrogators worked. A torrential afternoon monsoon rain came down as I was passing between buildings and so I spent some time looking at pictures of the many men, women, and not a few children who passed through this place. I bought a book about the Khmer Rouge regime, and how Pol Pot's group effectively kidnapped and decimated Cambodian society after their overthrow of Gen. Lon Nol, which I'm reading now. I studied Cambodia a bit back in college but feel I need to refresh myself on the history some more. "Madness" is too simple of an explanation for what brought these things about but it's hard to think otherwise.

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Now I'm in Siem Reap, home of the mighty temples of Angkor Wat, for what will hopefully be a big change of tone. After yet another very long bus ride from Phnom Penh this morning, I arrived around three o'clock and was immediately set upon by the most voracious crowd of tuk-tuk drivers I've had the misfortunte to encounter yet. I was the only single foreigner on the bus (there was one Brit couple who had thought to book a ride to their guesthouse ahead of time; the rest were all locals) and so I ended up literally pinned and surrounded by about twenty guys waving signs as soon as I got off the bus. I finally broke off with one of them, whose "free" ride to my choice of guesthouse turned into $1.25 when I passed on his offer to drive me around the temples tomorrow. Instead I'm going to rent a bike from the place where I'm staying and head out at the crack of dawn tomorrow to try and fit in as much as I can... I have to book it to Bangkok by the 13th for a flight out of Asia so unfortunately I don't have enough time to take a more leisurely survey of the area.

And here comes the monsoon rains again.

1 comment:

gday_naoko said...

hajimemashite,
This is Nao from Saga, Japan. I liked cambodia and have been writing about my time there on my weblog.
Anyway, I've just wroto about the photo contest in takeo at saga jets site again. Please check it out!