Vietnam & Cambodia — Travel Impressions (Part 2/2)
Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world. It is also one of the busiest tourist destinations on our planet. The name Angkor Wat means in Khmer, the Cambodian language “City Temple.” It was built by a Khmer King in the early 12th century. First it was a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu, later when the Khmer converted, it turned into a Buddhist shrine. In the 15th Century the Khmer kings abandoned the city and moved to the coast. They built a new city, Phnom Penh, the present-day capital of Cambodia. More than 300,000 workers and 6,000 elephants took part in the construction and yet Angkor Wat was never fully completed. I am sure some of my friends who are real-estate developers might say that something is wrong about this situation.
I first met Ahmad from NY on the cruise-boat in Halong Bay, it was a surprise to meet him again. Together we hired Mr. Batman, a three wheeled taxi (tuk-tuk) driver, who turned out to be the wildest and happiest taxi driver in town. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the size of Angkor Wat but Mr. Batman made it a delight. We toured the temple’s middle circle and inner circle over two days. The highlight of the visit was waiting with hundreds of tourists early in the morning for the sun to rise over the temple’s silhouette. I have never been so impatient for the sun to rise; it was kind of hilarious to be caught up in the anticipation.
Siem Reap — Sihanoukville — Koh Rong Island
I arrived at Sihanoukville early in the morning after a night ride in a sleeping bus which was not exactly sleepy for me. A local taxi driver suggested some island 2–3 hours away as the best destination around. I double checked with couple of other tourists and to the island I headed. The boat ride was quite an adventure as the ocean was very choppy, some of us got soaked some vomited. The island I found is best described by the Lonely Plant book: “this is paradise the way you dreamt it: endless crescents of powdered, sugary soft sand, hammocks swaying in the breeze, photogenic fishing villages … It’s seems too good to last, so enjoy it while it does.” It is a romantic place, unfortunately I was alone. Instead I did five dives and got the advanced PADI certification.
On the Island a group of Westerners are staffed in variety jobs such as bartending and diving instructors. They share some common features: scent of youth, freedom, possibilities and lots of tattoos. Among them are many young Israelis, we celebrated Chanukah’s candle lighting together. The engine stopped mid-ride on the way back from the Island. A second boat arrived couple of hours later and towed us to shore. Just another little adventure in Cambodia.
Phnom Penh — The Killing Fields
Who were the Khmer Rouge?
There are many myths about the Khmer Rouge’s bloodthirstiness and brutality, but there was at least one place where they all were real: S-21, the infamous prison and torture center, now called The Killing Fields. Between 1975 and 1979 the Cambodian people were subjected to some of the worst atrocities of the 20th Century by their own rulers — the Khmer Rouge and their deranged leader, Pol Pot. During that time approximately 1.5 million people (nearly 25% of the entire population) died, either by execution or indirectly through starvation or disease. Pol Pot’s big idea was to create a totally agrarian society that lived solely off the land — and anybody who potentially stood in his way, such as “intellectuals” — who were identified as such by just wearing glasses or knowing a foreign language — were murdered, along with their entire families.
Hoi An — Danang — Hue — Khe Sanh — Vinh Moc Tunnels
Hoi An — A coastal city in central Vietnam has an amazingly preserved old town and canals that wind and weave their way through the city. It is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage site. Hoi An is laid back, walking around I felt kind of lost in time. The old town looks and feels like one big boutique store. The city preserves and banks on its old characters — it’s all about shopping. I rented a bike and got lost for a few hours listening to music by Morcheeba.
Da Nang — While on a two hour wait in Da Nang train station I was offered a motorbike tour to some sites in the city; of course I did not understand where he planned to take me but we agreed on a price, he loaded my backpack between his legs and off we went. Often these unplanned, unexpected excursions are the best. Marble Mountains’ pagodas are ok, but what caught my eyes are the hundreds of marble sculptures at its base, which reminded me the amount of work it took to chip away and smooth this rock.
Hue — A central Vietnamese city, this place is known for its emperors, particularly those between 1800 and 1945. It is nearby the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) established in 1954 as the partition line between North and South Vietnam.
While traveling I listened to “Vietnam: A History” by Stanley Karnow and to “A Bright Shining Lie” by Neil Sheehan. The books are about the centuries of Vietnamese’ fight for freedom and independence from foreign invaders but even more about the arrogance of power. I hired a tour guide to take me to some of the places mentioned in these books. I felt that a visit to some of the famous battle sites will bring a different understanding and feeling of what happened. The actual American bases and the famous Ho Chi Minh trail are long vanished, but the jungle and the terrain are just the same.
What happened in the Battle of Khe Sanh?
The Battle of Khe Sanh began on January 21, 1968, when forces from the People’s Army of North Vietnam carried out a massive artillery bombardment on the U.S. Marine garrison at Khe Sanh, located in South Vietnam near the border with Laos. Cut off and surrounded, about 5,000 Marines successfully defended the base from being captured by an overwhelming North Vietnamese Army of about 20,000 troops. The siege lasted 11 weeks. The original combat base is long gone but the history is still there along with a few left-over helicopters, tanks and aircraft the Americans left behind. The larger context of the Khe Sanh battle was to divert the attention of the American commanders and the president away from the goal of the Tet Offensive, which aimed to strike a blow in urban areas and end the war.
What are the Vinh Moc Tunnels?
Located near the DMZ these tunnels were built by the local villagers to protect themselves when the Americans were bombing the area between 1966 to 1972. The Americans were under the impression that the village was supporting the North Vietnamese forces with food and supplies and wanted to force the villagers out. In the beginning, the local people dug the tunnels 12 meters underground. In response, the Americans designed a bomb that could hit targets 12 meters under the surface so, the villagers kept digging and eventually established a second level at 15 meters deep, then a third level at 23 meters deep. Every single citizen of Vinh Moc Tunnel survived the war. It is a place to visit and reminisce on courage, sacrifice, blood, sweat, and tears.
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