Never an Idle Hour: Cu Chi and Can Gio

  • One of the many booby traps that the National Liberation Front left for American soldiers during the American-Vietnamese War.
  • Rice paper left out to dry at Cu Chi. Rice-based paper and alcohol are now some of the products of the once-war torn region.
  • The communist forces at Cu Chi would use old termite mounds to hide ventilation holes for their complex series of tunnels three meters below the surface.
  • Tapioca root, which was a staple during the American occupation.
  • A variety of locus in bloom near Cu Chi.
  • One of the dozens of monkeys that inhabit Monkey Island in Can Gio National Forest Preserve.
  • The old Viet Cong military base deep within the mangrove forest.
  • A sunrise over the Pacific at Can Gio.
  • One of the many varieties of lizards found in Viet Nam.
  • The ferry ride on the way back to Ho Chi Minh City from the forest.
  • Today, locals are allowed to use the forest to create a living as long as they also help protect it from timber poachers. This stand is selling water coconuts, a fruit that grows within the mangrove forest.

Living in Ho Chi Minh city is exhausting. First of all there is the heat, a predictable daily high of at least 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Then, there is the traffic situation with every street crossing involving a never-yielding onslaught of speeding motorbikes, honking busses and panicked cars. Finally, there are the crowds of people everywhere on the sidewalk. Fitting the population of a mega-city in an infrastructure designed for 3 million is chaotic work! Basically, Chicago looks like suburbia when the two are compared side-by-side.

Luckily, the group and myself has been getting some much needed breaks into the calmer, rural areas around HCMC proper. Cu Chi and Can Gio are both districts that are preserved due to their historical and natural importance. Cu Chi is now a forest with a large number of rubber plantations, however, during the war the district was so heavily bombarded that nothing grew. The village and its surrounding fields served as a head quarters for South Vietnamese liberation fighters, or the Viet Cong as they are known in America. What made this particular area of resistance so special though is that was the technique that the communist forces used to survive the constant bombing of the Americans. For over twenty years, they lived in an elaborate series of underground tunnels. In spaces no larger than two feet by one, men would crawl for miles to transport weapons and supplies to various areas around the American military bases.

Today the Cu Chi Tunnels as they’re now known attract hundreds of tourists each and every day. Over the course of a day we explored some of the tunnels that had been widened to accomodate Western tourists’ larger statures and learned about how the southern resistance fighters lived in such a hostile human and natural environment. We even got to try boiled tapioca root, a staple of the army because of its high calorie count and its ability to be grown right above the tunnels.

The other excursion we have recently taken is to the Can Gio mangrove forest on the opposite side of the city. Mangroves are trees and shrubs that are crucially important to coastal regions because they protect the soil from erosion, people from tsunamis and floods, and maturing animals from predators. They also clean up water through storing heavy chemicals in their leaves. Unfortunately, Can Gio like too many sites around Viet Nam is the site of American atrocities committed in the name of fighting communism. The entire forest was completely decimated by toxin defoliate chemicals during the Viet Nam War in an effort to prevent the National Liberation Front from using the area as a base of operations. This tactic of completely destroying the natural environment did not work that well, however, and the Viet Cong managed to keep a base deep in the forest for the duration of the war.

After visiting this base, the group visited “Monkey Island” where reintroduced, semi-wild monkeys live off of tourist-donated peanuts and the nearby beach.

A Need for Service

  • Some of the kids at Smile practice their yoga as the others practice their English in the courtyard.
  • Phil and Salem with some students.
  • The empty yoga room.

I always knew that I wanted to study abroad. Increasingly, it is becoming an expected part of the undergraduate experience and I had been thinking about it since I first toured Loyola’s Lake Shore Campus, but I also knew that I wanted to be intentional with this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I did not want to just go somewhere I could easily travel to as a tourist or a place made famous through glamorous movies. I knew I had to choose somewhere that would be challenging and that I did not already know a lot about. These criteria intersected at a few study abroad sites, but Loyola’s Viet Nam Center stood out because it provided all of these things and the opportunity to engage directly with the local community through service-learning work.

Viet Nam is a beautiful country filled with incredibly diverse physical environments, people and ways of life, but it can also be a harsh place. In twenty years it has risen from one of the poorest nations in the world to one of the fastest developing. Sai Gon (officially Ho Chi Minh City) has exploded to nearly ten million people, a third of whom live here illegally. Free trade has brought jobs but it has also exaggerated already rampant corruption, increased cases of worker exploitation and exacerbated social ills, including intravenous drug use and prostitution. In many ways the poor majority of Viet Nam is being trampled by this surge of global, socio-economic activity.

A lot of the members of this silent majority make their living through informal sector work, selling street food, fixing motorbikes and selling lottery tickets. Although they provide vital services to all types of people in the city, they are forgotten by those in power and often actively opposed through attempts to “civilize” the city’s population and economic activity. A Vietnamese person working at a high-power international corporation makes only $400 dollars a month due to how low labor costs are in Viet Nam, so it is easy to see that someone working on the streets often has trouble making ends meet. As in too many places around the world, there is great need here and much work to be done.

I do not think that anyone on our program has any grand delusions about sweeping in and solving these problems. It would be unrealistic and presumptuous to think we could and ultimately these are issues that only the Vietnamese can address themselves after asking some hard questions of their government. The consortium of non-governmental organizations that Loyola has partnered with are more focused on the type of small to medium sized community building that individuals can have a large impact on when engaged.

Some of these groups are general in their approach, giving out funds and organizing neighborhood-based projects such as Helping Hand and the LIN Center for Community Development, while others are quite specific in who they help or what they do, such as KOTO and the Smile Group. Together they form a tight knit community of social justice advocates and community organizers who are trying to give individuals the tools to do better for themselves and their families in a fast-moving and unforgiving social climate. We as students at the Loyola Viet Nam Center get to help them in their missions but also get the opportunity to engage in a unique cultural exchange with new friends, peers and mentors. During the time that I have left here, I plan on sharing some stories and news from these unique sites of global learning. Enjoy!

Below is a short description of the service-learning sites Loyola University Chicago students are working at in Viet Nam during the 2012 Spring Semester:

Sai Gon Children’s Charity: Focuses on helping children who have been affected by urban poverty through providing access to educational opportunities.

Helping Hand: Works with both local and international volunteers to focus charitable aid into small-scale projects where the impact is greatest.

Smile Group: A community center and support group that seeks to aid children and families who have been affected by HIV/AIDS in the Sai Gon area.

LIN Center for Community Development: Serves as a support group for numerous local charities through organizing volunteer staff and a small grant giving process.

KOTO (Know One Teach One): A not-for-profit restaurant and culinary learning center that gives formerly homeless children an opportunity to learn service skills and receive a formal education.

Society for a Divine World: A Catholic community similar to the Jesuits that is preparing young men for youth ministry in various parts of Viet Nam. Volunteers here are leading an English club to help the future priests learn the language.

Food Rules

  • Our delicious soup consisting of squid, shrimp, vegetables, noodles and pinapple from “The Lunch Lady.”
  • A meal in for the evening (a hamburger from the local bakery, bubble tea and instant noodles).
  • These are the types of alleys where the restaurants we typically go to are found.
  • The bakery across the street from our guest house. The owner speaks English and gives us little tips about living in Sai Gon when we visit, which for me is every day.
  • Justin tries to eat the duck egg-fetus.
  • A buffet we had in Cambodia with every type of Asian food imaginable.
  • “Hot pot” a type of do-it-yourself stew where you choose what ingredients you want from an array of goat meat, intestine, okra, greens and noodles.

Today is the first time I had a really unfortunate experience with food. I was feeling cocky and went to a random restaurant in the alley near our guest house alone. I ordered, or at least thought I ordered, a bowl of rice and chicken, but I what I received was a bowl of porridge with various cow entrails, dried blood and a mysterious black meat. I politely ate at the rice porridge but really could not do the intestine. The waiter at the restaurant seemed confused as to why, but I did not stick around to explain and quickly went to my favorite coffee shop down the street to get something to wash down the unpleasantness.

Food has definitely been a constant theme throughout my travels through Sai Gon, Viet Nam and larger Indo-China, but it is almost always more positive than it has been today. (Two of my friends in the program also thought today would be a good day to try hard boiled duck fetus and chicken feet.)

Obviously, the prevalence of food makes sense. You need to eat no matter where you are, but the past two months have been more than making sure I eat breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. In the States, I never really think about eating. I usually eat at my home. I know what I like and occasionally I will get creative and invite other people over, but for the most part it’s nothing fancy. It’s usually wheat-based, with lots of vegetables, and some milk or bean protein.

Here, this rather simplistic prescription has been turned completely on its head. I do not have access to a kitchen. (My home is more a hotel room than an apartment.) I had no idea what I liked when I first got here and I still don’t really know what most things are called. Finding foods that are good and that I enjoy is not some horrible struggle, but it is definitely something that I have to think of constantly.

Most days I will spend about $7 or 140,000 dong on food. This consists of a breakfast of bahn mi (bread) with eggs, cucumber and pork, a lunch of rice or noodles, a dinner of the same, and two to three cups of coffee throughout the day. I have found that, at least living with our roommates, it is hard to get away from noodle soups. Of course, there is pho, but there are also a whole assortment of similar tasting soups that have slightly differing styles of noodles. Each dish the Vietnamese assert are completely different from one another, but to most Americans I think they would seem, at the very least, closely related.

When we do succeed in escaping the noodle soups, a daily trial on my part, there are fried noodles (which I particularly like), simple rice dishes with beef, chicken or fish, spring roles, Vietnamese egg pancakes (which are nothing like American ones) and fried snails with rice crackers (another personal favorite). No matter what the dish, a healthy helping of various greens, many we would never think to eat in the West, are served along with fish sauce, limes and chilis. Pork and beef are by far the most common meats, but fish and chicken are close seconds. Meat is pretty much in everything so good luck trying to be a vegetarian here. I once ordered rice and tofu and it had a beef meatball hidden in it.

Another reason food is such a prevalent part of my trip so far is that it is everywhere. You would be hard pressed to find a street that doesn’t have at least one vendor, usually a woman, selling fruit, noodles or drinks. (That’s another thing, the fruit smoothies are amazing here.) These informal food merchants sell such a variety of quality, cheap snacks it is impossible not to try a whole host of new things. My favorite food outing to one of these folks has been to  “The Lunch Lady”, a small pho stand on the boarder between District One and the Binh Thanh District that has become internationally famous after a visit by celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. Despite being nearly impossible to find in the back of a winding alley, the small shop was packed with backpackers and tourists in the little red plastic stools that are so ubiquitous in Saigon.

Food is a powerful force in Viet Nam. Meals are often humble but served with much more meaning that in the States. The act of eating plays a central role in most religious holidays and ceremonies and thousands of people in Ho Chi Minh City make a living off of preparing their grandparents secret recipes for pho, bun, bahn and my for their neighbors.   Personally, I think I’ve felt the most connected to Vietnamese culture while sharing food with both our new friends from here and my fellow Loyolans.

A Place Called Home?

  • A typical larger Sai Gon apartment building.
  • Graffiti on the side of the cafe that I usually visit.
  • The students at Smile Group.
  • An old colonial home next to more modern buildings.

If there are any avid readers out there, I have to apologize for the large gap in posts. It has nearly been three weeks! But do not fret! I have not abandoned the blog!

The past few weeks have been that point in my experience between novelty and this second emerging part where I attempt to figure out a regular schedule in a place that is now familiar but not quite home. Since Cambodia, I have started to fill my days with some weekly activities; however, this calm is not going to last long since March is filled with trips and visits. Overall, I have a routine but the fact that this than pho is so different still takes a lot out of me everyday. It is definitely no Chicago or Saint Paul and I imagine it would take years to fully adjust to life here. One of my professor’s has been here off and on for 15 years and even he described still having “why moments”, where you just ask why things have to be so difficult.

Part of the reason I haven’t been writing as much is that I actually have a somewhat full week now! Besides class, which I have Monday through Wednesday, I also go to yoga on Monday evenings, a recreational expatriate dodgeball league on Wednesday nights, and my service learning placement on Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings. Yoga is taught by Elisabeth, the woman who helps manage my service learning site. I have only gone once so far but I have thoroughly enjoyed the relaxing, yet physically demanding sessions. Elisabeth is very talented at the traditional style in which she was trained. By the end of the semester I hope to be able to do a meditative headstand, which is apparently very good for you because it allows the blood in your body to flow in the opposite direction for a while.

The dodgeball league is called Sai Gon Dodgeball and it is organized by a group of British and American citizens living in Viet Nam. Everyone pays a small fee to play, the money going to the renting of a court, and the games usually go on for a good two hours. The people there every week are fun and welcoming for the most part. (A few of the guys have an alpha complex and put way too much into what is usually a children’s game.) Lately, the group has been attracting a good mix of expats and their Vietnamese friends. All of the Loyola students have been encouraging their roommates to come and it has been pretty hilarious teaching our friends how to play the game, of which they know nothing about.

Finally, I have my service-learning placement for the semester. I asked to and was given the opportunity to work with Smile Group, an NGO that serves as a community center for children and young adult affected by HIV/AIDS in Sai Gon. Elisabeth and some other committed volunteers work to keep up a small house in the middle of District Three for their clients to come play games, take lessons and eat meals together. I just started last week but I am looking forward to helping out with their valuable mission. You can read more about Smile and the service-learning process in this section of my blog.

It is simultaneously a relief and strange that being here is starting to make sense. I no longer am startled by the traffic, sites and smells of this large, ever-moving city. In fact, some of the aspects of living here are even wearing on me a bit. It’s hard to constantly have to fight past bikes, carts, chairs, tables, and other people on the sidewalk and the temperature increases a bit every day.

Also, it’s been difficult to negotiate with some of the cultural paradigms we are working with in class, especially my gender studies course. There are wonderful aspects of being a family-oriented society, but it can also create situations that seem impossible for individuals who do not quite fit. Learning about how potentially abusive age and gender hierarchies are has made me very appreciative of my cultures’ strong emphasis on the individual perspective; but, then I return to all the problems American society has because of that very perspective. Somewhere between the Vietnamese tendency towards fatalism and the blind American belief in the power of specific men and women, there is a healthy balance. I am just still trying to figure out where it lies.

Khmer Khabar (Part Two)

  • One of the entrances to the temple complexes that is still used to this day.
  • Trees have sprouted up in the middle of temples and cities since Angkor was inhabited centuries ago.
  • A stela of a Khmer woman.
  • The central tower of Angkor Wat.
  • The remains of buddha statues that are still venerated today.
  • One of hundreds of smiling buddha faces found through out Angkor.
  • The group at the door that was featured in Tomb Raider. It’s sad that pop culture has traveled this far.
  • Angkor Wat.

The second half of our trip to Cambodia was much lighter than the first. After about three days in Phnom Penh, we boarded a plane and traveled to Siem Reap in the north-western portion of the country. Today, Siem Reap is a small tourist town that must get nearly 90% of its business from hotels and tourist trapping gift shops. Driving around the city there is not much else besides a few small bike rental shops and restaurants, but the city’s nameactually refers to the defeat of the Siamese (Thai) army by the Khmers in the 17th Century. A common theme of Thai-Cambodian-Vietnamese history is war between the different groups. Of course, the reason for our visit to this area was to see the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat and the surrounding Khmer temples. As soon as we got unpacked at the hotel, we were off with our tour guide to see the park.

Chris decided that we should take tuk-tuks for the day because the open carriage allowsyou to see more than a tour bus; so after we tracked down enough to carry the whole group, we were a caravan of four carts each being pulled by a motorcycle. It took a while to drive into the park. The entrance is placed pretty far away from the temples and despite there being over 300 temples in the immediate area, it’s a bit of drive between some of them. After about fifteen minutes of riding through the jungle, we came up to our first destination.

The thing that is immediately apparent about Angkor Wat is the moat. As you drive upthrough the jungle the road abruptly turns to run alongside it. The water then quickly turns away at a 90 degree angle, revealing that is it in actuality man-made. The trail shortly follows the turn and then on the right-hand side the towers of the entry gate begin to rise from behind the trees. As you get closer, you realize that there is a giant cluster of tuk-tuks, buses, cars and bicycles all trying to park as close as they can to the bridge that crosses into the temple complex. Throw in dozens of Cambodian sellers of trinkets, drink and food into the mix and you have a bit of a circus.

Despite all the commotion, the complex was incredibly impressive. Our tour guide was in a bit of a hurry to show us everything, something that a few of us rectified by coming back the next morning, but we managed to see and learn a lot. Angkor Wat means temple-city, although the actual complex that the world thinks of as Angkor Wat was in reality just a temple. The way that the towers rise up out of a square courtyard represents how the mythical mountain home of the Khmer gods rises up over the physical world, which is defined by the four cardinal directions or four corners of a square. All the temples that theKhmer built face East, except for Angkor Wat, and no one really knows why this is the case. When the Khmer’s were using the temple for worship, the different levels of the complex were segregated in terms of class, with only priests being allowed at the top.

After we left Angkor Wat, we got back on our tuk-tuks and drove around to see some ofthe other famous temples, including the one that Angeline Jolie made famous in Tomb Raider (hurray!) and another that is known for housing hundreds of depictions of the Buddha. This later one included a huge dark room in the center of the tallest tower that was housing what had to be hundreds of bats.

One of the most interesting things about the Angkor complex was the fact that it was at the center of the conflict between Hinduism and Buddhism. Viet Nam, which was never heavily Hindu, was saved from these conflicts, but in ancient Cambodia there was a lot of bloodshed between the two religious groups. This is evident in the ancient templesbecause some are built to Buddha, others to Shiva and some started off serving one and were later retrofitted to host the spirit of the other. In the end, Buddhism won out with the vast majority of Cambodians today being Buddhist. Many of the temples at Angkor were also active religious sites with monks attending to various altars for the Great Buddha.

After a whole day climbing around temples we headed back to the hotel and the pool. Some of us had not had enough, however, and we got up at four the next morning to visitthe park again and see the sunrise at Angkor Wat. When we got back to the temple it was still pitch black but that hadn’t stopped a handful of visitors from coming to the temple. At five they let us cross the long, stone bridge to the man-made island. The only thing that lit the way across the uneven stone road was the other visitors’ flashlight and my iPhone. Once we got back to the temple, we set out to see the places we were forced to rush through the other day. Exploring the long halls and giant rooms of the temple alone in thedark was completely worth getting up so early. It was an entirely different experience than visiting in the middle of the tourist-filled day. In the quiet and the dark the temples’ steles and sculptures seemed closer and more real. It was much easier to imagine the people that had once built and used such an important space.

After we got to the courtyard with the highest towers, we may have bribed the security guards to let us climb to the top of the tower before it officially opened at 7:30. Weexplored the top floors for a good hour before the sun rose around 7. Unfortunately, it was a cloudy day and the sunrise was not much, but the experience of getting to sit withone of the world’s most famous sites almost completely alone for hours was well worth the trouble and a few dollars.

One Quarter

  • In the courtyard of the compound are large flowering trees. Visitors would take the flowers and place them around the prison to remember the people who were brutalized there.
  • A photograph of a victim who passed through the prison.
  • An average cell at the school-turned-prison.
  • Numbers painted on the wall at Toul Sleng were used to organize the keys to prisoners’ cells.
  • The tall stupa that holds the bones of the Khmer Rouges victims. In the foreground are the excavated grave sites.
  • Paper cranes left as a prayer by Japanese visitors.
  • The branches of the “Magic Tree” that was used to hang speakers that drowned out the noises of the Killing Fields.
  • A Chinese gravestone that attests to the older use of Choeung Ek.

It is hard to travel to Cambodia and not have mixed feelings while there. If you have traveled to other South-Eastern Asian countries you will notice the poverty and lack of investment in infrastructure, public institutions and people. Despite a growing population Phnom Penh appears largely like it did fifty years ago. Although the nation has a wealth of historical and cultural treasures, many of them are ran and funded by organizations and companies from other parts of the world. Instead of in Viet Nam, where the people seem to  have struck a balance between tolerating visitors and holding onto their own traditions, Cambodia reminded me of a family that is forced to sell its oldest heirlooms in order to pay the mortgage. Everywhere there are people, especially children, being abused by and forced to cater to tourists because there is still no better option.

Much of this has to do with the recent history of the country. I had the urge to not automatically associate everything I learned about Cambodia with the civil war and genocide the people have endured, but it is nearly impossible to not do so. The lack of stability, growth and opportunities all stem from the fact that for sixty plus years conflict raged. Our trip to Cambodia focused heavily on the history of the Khmer Rouge, the ultra-communist group that ruled during the late 70s and perpetrated genocide against its own people. Although it was hard to be immersed in the places where these atrocities took place, what we learned was that much more powerful because of that proximity.

There are two main locations in Phnom Penh were visitors can learn about the history of the Khmer Rouge Genocide: Toul Sleng Prison and Choeung Elk.

Toul Sleng was a high school that was turned into a mass prison and torture center by the Khmer Rouge. The large compound is made up of four or five plane, white concrete buildings and two large courtyards. Much of the space has been left intact from when the Khmer Rouge were forced to flee Phnom Penh after Viet Nam invaded to remove the government. There are a good deal of artifacts left, beds, chains and weapons used to torture, but what stands out most are the hundreds of photographs of both victims and perpetrators that are displayed on the walls. The Khmer Rouge left meticulous records and the center now uses them to educate visitors on the scale and severity of their crimes.

We were guided through the center by a woman who had lived through the period. She told us about the horrid conditions and disgusting methods that were used to gain “confessions.” Basically, everyone who was educated, urban, belonged to a minority or the upper class was rounded up and brought to this or similar centers. Under the guise of trying to protect the perfect classless society, young brainwashed cadres would inflict any type of misery they could think of on these people and then take them to Choeung Ek to be killed. It’s hard to write about this in any sensible order, as if there was some logic that was underneath these actions. Instead the entire period was just defined by insanity.

When we came to the end of the tour there was a room with a large map that showed where the Khmer Rouge had driven out urban populations to live on large farm communes in the country. Here our tour guide quietly and without emotion showed us where she and her family were taken from a mid-sized city, separated and driven all around the Cambodian countryside in various worker parties. She was the only one who survived out of a family of four.

Surprisingly, our guide’s story of coming back to work at one of the very places where the worst crimes were committed was not unique. I got the impression that many of the people working at the now Toul Sleng Genocide Museum were people deeply affected by the Khmer Rouge. With a quarter of the population being killed, between 1.5 and 2.5 million people, it is hard to imagine that anyone was left unaffected, but these people have the rawest and most intimate connections to these places. Bou Meng, one of the few survivors found by the Vietnamese at the site, was even present selling his memoir. I had the greatest respect for these people who have committed their lives to teaching others about what the Khmer Rouge did. I do not know if I could of made the same choices they have.

Choeung Ek, or the Killing Fields as it is more colloquially known, was the next location we visited. Originally a Chinese cemetery, the large area of fields and tree groves is where the Khmer Rouge brought their thousands of prisoners from Phnom Penh to be executed. The site is now dominated by a large stupa, a Buddhist worship structure, that holds the remains of over 20,000 people and large spans of excavated mass graves. I found the site important to visit and see but again the touristic aspect bothered me.

The site is run by a Japanese for-profit company and even the Cambodians have to pay a small fee to enter. The museum and grounds are also not kept up to the standards of a memorial. There are hawkers and beggars in several locations and chickens running around the mass graves. I wondered if a Western terministic screen was causing me to pass judgement and miss the point. The entire time I was there I found myself asking, “What is an appropriate memorial?” but I could not help but be bothered.

It was a challenging and hard two days in Phnom Penh. There was a lot of things to process emotionally, both from the past and present. However, I am glad that I got to see these important sites. It is crucial that they are preserved and people are learning about them and those facts made it easier to deal with rougher aspects of our visit. I am hopeful that these spaces continue to be protected and improved upon.

Khmer Khabar (Part 1)

  • Typical building style in Phnom Penh.
  • The skyline of the capital city, which really only includes about half a dozen buildings over six or seven stories.
  • The gatehouse to the Royal Palace that sits along the Mekong River.
  • The tuk-tuks or motorcycle powered carriages we took all over Phnom Penh and Angkor Wat.
  • A delicious chicken burger with pesto mayonaise that I had at the Friends  Restaurant , a NGO that takes in children living on the street and trains them how to be chefs, waiters and restaurant owners so they can earn a decent living. The organization also runs a school next door.
  • The international flag of buddhism that is found all over Cambodia and Viet Nam. These flags were flying over a pagoda in Phnom Penh.
  • The Royal Palace seen through the gate. The palace was only open to the public between 2 and 5 PM and women were required to cover their knees and shoulders. Because of the restrictions we never made it inside.
  • The Cambodian Independence Monument is an example of classic Khmer architecture. The figures covering the structure are nagas or sea serpents, which represent the sea god are found all over Cambodia.

Sorry for the delay everyone. It has been a crazy last week traveling around Southern Vietnam and all over Cambodia, but I have not forgotten about you and the blog! I have pictures, videos, and plenty of news ( or khabar to continue with the alliteration theme) and stories to share.

My trip to Cambodia started a week agotoday. We were meeting as a group in the backpacking area of District 1 (the central part of the city) to catch a bus to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. However, I had to leave a bit early to head to the doctor and get an ongoing throat issue cleared up. (Don’t worry I’m fine now.) After my appointment I walked out of the modern office building that the clinic is located in and began searching for a taxi. Since this was the third day of Tet the streets were deserted and there were not that many options from which to chose.

At the end of the street I found a man lounging on his motorbike though and he asked, “Ride!” Since the streets were deserted, the driver looked respectable and had a helmet and I had the address I was going to written down on a piece of paper I decided to give a motortaxi ride or xe ohm a shot. As with a lot of things in Vietnam and Cambodia, we had to haggle about the price first which I was agreed upon at 30,000 dong or ba moui dong. The drive was nice and scenic, going past many of the city’s main sites. I had luckily picked a good driver who wentslow and I managed to enjoy the ride.

When we got to the bus station (which is really just a street filled with buses), I got off and tried to pay the driver but he insisted that we had really agreed upon 40,000 dong. I still am not sure if this is because 3 and 4 sound similar in Vietnamese, being ba and bone, or if he was just taking advantage of an obvious newcomer to the country. Unfortunately he was holding my bag hostage and I wasn’t in much of a position to argue. Also, the different of 10,000 dong equals about 50 cents so I ended up giving in rather quickly. Afterwards, I managed to find the other Americans and we boarded the bus for Cambodia.

The ride was rather uneventful. It started with the playing of calming music and video-recorded scenes of Vietnamese wildlife (a staple of travel no matter what type of transportation you are using here) and ended with an intense and incredibly long Chinese kung-fu movie. At the Cambodian-Vietnamese boarder we had to disembark three times, once on the Vietnamese side, again on the Cambodian side to get out visas and immigration paper work figured out, and finally to eat lunch at a rather questionable Cambodian road-side restaurant. (I’m still amazed that the only thing that has given me food poisoning up until this point is a Ho Chi Minh City Pizza Hut.) For being one of the poorest countries in theworld, Cambodia has a pretty elaborate immigration system with fingerprint scanner, digital cameras and rapid medical checks.

When we got to Phnom Penh after 6 hours on the bus I was struck by how different it is from Ho Chi Minh City. The streets are far less crowded with maybe only a third the traffic of Saigon. Instead of blocks that house dozens of smaller apartments, stores and pagodas all stacked on top of each other, each city block is taken up by one large, Soviet-looking concrete building. A few French colonial buildings remained but they were far and few between. The most noticeable buildings in the area were definitely the Buddhist pagodas which all had large courtyards and tall red and gold roofs. On some of the larger boulevards there are large monuments that celebrate Cambodian independence, the monarchy and “friendship” with Viet Nam. (The two countries have a bit of a conflicted history.)

Overall, the city definitely had some beauty, especially in the large public parks along the rivers and near the King’s palace estate in the downtown area, but it was simultaneously obvious how depressed Cambodia is. Phnom Penh and the country as a whole is not developing nearly as fast as Viet Nam. The buildings are of a poorer quality, there are far fewer businesses, more people sleep on the street and beggars can be found on every corner that also has tourists. I had wanted to mentally separate the current country I was visiting from the long history of civil war and genocide that usually come up when people think of this place, but it was incredibly difficult to do so. It was clear that Khmer people are just recently emerging from a long struggle and that the outside world is just beginning to take notice.