Archive for February, 2008


Angkor, the Sanskrit word for “city,” was by far the largest city in the world in the pre-industrial era, covering an area of over 1,000 square miles.  Between 900 and 1200 AD, the kings of the Khmer empire built over a thousand buildings in Angkor, from small, nondescript temples now reduced to rubble to Angkor Wat – the largest single religious monument in the world.  When the Frenchman Henri Mouhot came across Angkor Wat in the mid-1900s, he said that the Angkor Wat temple “- a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michelangelo — might take an honourable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome, and presents a sad contrast to the state of barbarism in which the nation is now plunged.”


The Khmer empire began its decline in the 14th century ((There are several theories as to the cause of the decline, including repeated invasions by Thailand (its neighbor to the West) and urban mismanagement, leading to an inadequate supply of water for its hundreds of thousands of inhabitants)), ultimately leading to an abandonment of the city in the mid-1400s.  Without upkeep, the buildings began to fall apart and to be overtaken by dense jungle.  It wasn’t until the early 1900s that a French team began to restore the buildings of Angkor.


After years of war and political turmoil, tourists have descended on Cambodia – usually staying for 1 or 2 days in Siem Reap, a small town only a few miles from Angkor.  Last year alone, two million visitors visited Angkor Wat and, considering the tremendous construction of hotels and restaurants in the area, more are expected.  ((The growth in Siem Reap has been extraordinary.  When I first visited the city in 2004 – just four years ago – there were only a handful of hotels and restaurants.))  For those who make the trip, they will not be disappointed.

We joined the droves of tourists for the obligatory sunrise viewing of Angkor Wat.  Arising at 5:30 a.m., we made our way to the pond located to the front left of the temple.  In a spontaneous moment of genius, Shanna suggested we get away from the crowds and go inside the temple complex before the masses arrived.  Incredibly, no one else had this idea.  We entered the deserted temple, snapping pictures with reckless abandon.  After a few minutes of blessed solitude, we finally came across two tourists – Virginia Madsen (one of the stars of the movie “Sideways” – she played the character “Maya”) and her son.  After a quick conversation and the obligatory photo with a celebrity, we sprinted back to the pond to snap a few sunsrise pictures.


We spent the next two days visiting temples in the early morning and the late afternoon, choosing to relax by our hotel’s pool and avoid the hot, midday sun of Cambodia.  ((For those planning on visiting, Angkor is best done in 2 or 3 days, even though most tourists try to see it all in one, exhausting day.  You can get temple-fatigue very quickly, so a more leisurely pace is highly recommended.))  In the evenings, we ate some amazing (and cheap) meals at restaurants that seemed out of place – with the decor and quality that would make many New York and Paris-based diners very jealous.


While many of the temples are worth a long visit, my favorites are obviously Angkor Wat, followed closely by Ta Prohm and the Bayon.  In order to give visitors a sense of the state of the temples when first visited by the French explorers in the mid-1800s, Ta Prohm has been left mostly in its condition when found beneath the jungle overgrowth.  Literally, trees had overtaken the temple and the distinction between stone and tree becomes blurred.  This leads to an eerie quality that was recognized by Hollywood filmmakers and led to the filming of Tomb Raider (starring Angeline Jolie) at the temple.

The Bayon temple, located in the walled city of Angkor Thom, is extraordinary due to the dozens of towers constructed with bas-relief faces pointing in all directions.  Each face, considered by many to be the face of Jayavarman – the greatest of the Angkorian kings – has an all-knowing look and a smile that seems content that his legacy, while forgotten by the world for over 500 years, is ensured of never being forgotten again.

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Our travels thus far have taken us to a number of places marred by the aftermath of politics gone wrong.  In no place, however, have the wounds from such wrongs been as raw or as recent as the ones we witnessed during our time in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Cambodia was engulfed in a civil war that created a power vacuum into which an orthodox Communist group called the Khmer Rouge ((More than 90% of Cambodia’s population is of Khmer origin and speaks the Khmer language.  “Khmer Rouge” means “Red Khmer” in French.)) stepped into in 1975.  Over the course of the next four years, the Khmer Rouge carried out a radical program that included isolating the country from foreign influence, closing schools, hospitals and factories, abolishing banking, finance and currency, outlawing all religions, confiscating all private property and relocating people from urban areas like Phnom Penh to collective farms where forced labor was widespread.  During this time, the Khmer Rouge, under its leader, Pol Pot, overworked and starved the Cambodian population, executed those who ostensibly had the potential to undermine the new state (including intellectuals or even those who exhibited stereotypical signs of learning, such as eyeglasses) and detained and killed many others for even minor breaches of their stringent rules.
We spent a day visiting two of the sites where many of these atrocities took place.  We toured a former high school that was commandeered by Pol Pot’s forces and turned into a prison camp known as S-21.  Approximately 17,000 people passed through the camp, which is now known as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, before being executed.  (Of all those imprisoned at S-21, only ten are known to have gotten out alive.)   The school’s classrooms were converted into tiny prison cells and larger interrogation centers, where prisoners were tortured (mostly by Khmer Rouge children aged 10 to 15) and forced to confess crimes that they had never committed.
Once condemned to death for their “crimes,” the detainees were sent to be executed at one of the many killing fields that the Khmer Rouge established throughout Cambodia.  We visited Choeung Ek, one such field and the place where more than 15,000 people were believed to have been murdered and buried in mass graves.  A powerfully disturbing memorial at the site features a glass case that contains the skulls and bones of more than 8,000 of the victims.
The Khmer Rouge was ousted by Vietnamese forces in 1979, but it retreated west to a safe haven near the Thai border, where it remained (and ruled) for the next ten years.   Party infighting led to its eventual disintegration and to the imprisonment (by house arrest) of Pol Pot, who died in 1998.  While many other Khmer Rouge leaders either surrendered or were captured, some are still believed to be hidden in Phnom Penh.  Interestingly enough, Cambodia’s population is very young, and so, by 2005, more than 75% of its population was too young to remember the years during which the Khmer Rouge held their nation under siege.

Those who live in Phnom Penh now walk the streets of a surprisingly cosmopolitan town that is the wealthiest and most populated in Cambodia.  While the city is rife with poverty, most of the short-term tourists (ourselves included) who populate its trendy cafes and bars remain, for better or worse, almost completely isolated from the city’s modern-day troubles.

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No one ever said that independent travel is easy.  For the uninitiated, it can be painfully stressful.  Piecing together the logistics of getting from point A to B to C and so forth can test the patience of even the most laid-back of individuals. 

For most Americans, vacation is the chance to escape from the stress back home, to relax and have everything taken care of.  The most difficult decision the typical traveler wants to make is whether to order steak or fish.  I’m wired differently.  Oddly, my relaxation and recharge comes from making decisions on the fly, from getting out of my element and testing myself.  In all of the vacations I’ve taken over the past decade, I’ve eschewed planning in advance, preferring rather to show up and see what happens.   Sometimes that means that there are no rooms in your hotel of choice, the plane is full or the bus doesn’t leave until tomorrow – these inconveniences have usually led to my favorite travel memories.
Our experience a few days ago is a great example of the complexity and tribulations that independent travel can entail.  After a couple of days on Phu Quoc Island off the coast of Vietnam, we wanted to make it to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  After consulting our guidebook and an online travel forum, we discovered that we could cross the border into Cambodia via boat.  I’ve never crossed a border via a river, so it sounded like something I needed to add to my travel checklist.

After checking out of our guesthouse, we caught a bus to the island ferry.  Unusually, we had taken the step of reserving a seat on the ferry in advance.  Typically, this is unnecessary in Asia since they’ll pretty much let anyone on for the right price. (As becomes important in a second, however, we only had the receipt from the travel agent to prove that we’d already purchased tickets. The agent had assured us that we would be able to exchange the receipt for tickets once we arrived at the ferry dock.) 

As we attempted to board the boat, the ticket taker asked for our tickets. We handed him our receipt from the agent; he said this wasn’t valid and that we needed actual tickets.  After 20 minutes of conversation in broken English and approximately 13 phone calls with our travel agent, it was clear that we weren’t getting on the boat (the last one of the day) without a ticket.  In fact, they refused to even talk to us, physically blocked the ramp to the boat and started to lift up the anchor to set sail.  As all hope quickly vanished, I spotted our white night riding a motorbike down the pier.  As he dismounted, he flashed 3 shiny boat tickets.  Without hesitation, I grabbed them from his hands, brushed the boatman aside and boarded our vessel. 
Upon arrival on the Vietnamese mainland, we needed to get to the bus station.  The taxi drivers at the boat dock were part of a monopoly that would have made Microsoft and Comcast proud – the price was fixed at exorbitant rates.  After some unsuccessful bargaining, we noticed several motorcycle drivers who were standing near the taxis.  Within a few seconds, we (and our large backpacks) were each on the back of a Honda.  After racing through the city, we were dropped off at a gas station where our bus had stopped for a quick fill-up.  The friendly motorcycle drivers helped us carry our bags onto the bus. 

Three hours and two buses later, we arrived at the bus station in Chau Doc – a Vietnamese/Cambodian border town.  Since it was dark, our border crossing would have to wait until the next morning.  Thus, we flagged down some motorcycles and made our way to a guesthouse referenced in our guidebook.  Luckily, rooms were available for a hefty $6 a night. 

The next morning, I awoke early to my first bout of food poisoning on the trip.  It was not one of my greatest moments.  As I tried to piece together my food consumption from the prior day in order to locate the vile culprit of my violent regurgitation, I realized that I had not eaten any meat the prior day – only bread, corn and fried rice.  Since this was probably the first day in twenty years that I have been completely vegetarian, I swore that I would never forsake meat again.

As I was lying incapacitated on the bed, Alyssa entered the room at 7:26 a.m. and told me and Shanna that our 8:00 a.m. boat to Cambodia was actually leaving at 7:30 a.m.  I’ve seen television shows where humans exhibit super-human powers in times of great emotional distress (e.g., lifting a soon-to-explode car off of a trapped passenger), but I never knew that I was capable of such powers.  However, within 84 seconds I was off the bed, packed and headed towards the door.  We grabbed a cyclo (basically, a guy on a bike with a seat behind him) and were off to the boat dock.  Arriving at 7:32 a.m., we sprinted to the dock desperately hoping that the boat driver had also fallen prey to the sickness caused by forsaking meat.  Luckily, he had.  The boat didn’t leave until around 9:10 a.m.!

The remainder of the journey to Phnom Penh was pleasant – passing simple villages on the banks of the Mekong and leaving Vietnam and entering Cambodia via the river. 

They say that getting there is half the fun; for me, it’s more like 73%.

We’ve been traveling for almost six months now and among the many lessons we’ve learned is this: travel can sometimes feel like a full-time job. Okay, like a really good job where we have neither assignments, deadlines nor specific working hours, but all the same, finding places to sleep each night, navigating new places every day, deciding where to eat every meal and making sure that we see everything we can in every place we visit can take its toll after awhile. Happily, we have the freedom to leave all of that behind for a few days and take a vacation within our vacation. And that’s just what we did for two days in Nha Trang and a few more in Phu Quoc.
A westernized beach town on the southeast coast of Vietnam, Nha Trang boasts rows of hotels where guests lounge by the pool by day and a plethora of beachfront bars and restaurants where they migrate at night.  We were pleasantly surprised by Nha Trang, as other travelers had given it fairly mixed reviews.  Although it’s certainly not the place for you if you’re looking to experience “Authentic Vietnam,” the long stretch of beach is clean and dotted with manicured gardens, making for a picturesque escape from the bustling, pre-Tet crowds in Vietnam’s larger cities.
A better choice for those looking to steer clear of the beaten tourist path, Phu Quoc Island sits in the Gulf of Thailand, off of the southwest coast of Vietnam.  Rumor has it that huge hotel complexes are headed its way in the near future but, for now, laid-back beachfront bungalows share the island with forests, mountains and a sizeable military base (necessary to prevent Cambodia, which claims the land as its own, from encroaching on Vietnamese interests).  Derek and I spent a day scuba diving ((Our review of Phu Quoc diving: Enjoyable, but not alone worth the trip to the island.  The water was so clouded with sediment that, at times, we felt like we were swimming through a snow storm.)) and the rest of our time lazing by the beach and walking the miles of sandy shoreline.  At the end of our time in the sun, we were fully recovered from any travel-related stresses and ready to continue on with our adventure.  

When I first visited Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon) with my parents back in 1996, I was mesmerized.  Decades of French rule ending in the mid 1950s and a massive presence of American military during the 60s and early 70s have combined to create a city steeped in history.  In 1996, the streets were jammed with thousands of people heading to various destinations via bicycle, with the occasional motorcycle ridden by the Vietnamese elite.  The only signs of Western influence were the few French-era buildings and hotels that were mostly in need of renovations and a paint-job.
Wow, how things have changed!  In the past 12 years, the economy of Vietnam has skyrocketed.  With investments flowing in from around the world (including the United States), the Vietnamese have been able to increase their standards of living exponentially.  Bicycles have been replaced by countless motorcycles, and the Vietnamese elite now drive European sedans.  On almost every corner, there is a French bistro, sushi restaurant, boutique hotel or jazz club.  The city is virtually unrecognizable from a little over a decade ago.
Our time in Ho Chi Minh City coincided with the climax of Tet, the Vietnamese New Year (for all of you rat-lovers, you’ll be happy to know that this year is the Year of the Rat).  Our guidebooks had warned us that the city shuts down during the holiday as families spend time together in their homes; the streets would be deserted.  Lies!  The roads (and sidewalks…) were filled with motorcycles, typically carrying 3 or 4 passengers ((After witnessing 4 passengers on one bike, we were intent on finding a bike carrying 5.  Luckily, a 5-passenger bike was spotted soon after our search began, followed by a 6-passenger bike a few days later.  I’m not sure the good people at Honda knew that a family of 6 would utilize its scooter for a family outing.)), and Vietnamese families packed the streets much like New Yorkers pack Times Square on New Year’s Eve.  At many times, it was difficult to even move.  You could feel the excitement of a people who know their country is in good times and only headed for better.
The city is renown for its many pagodas, or temples.  Little did we know that it is a tradition to visit the pagodas during Tet.  As we arrived at a nearby pagoda, we were overwhelmed with the throngs of Vietnamese who had come to show respect to their ancestors.  Inside the pagoda, there are small plaques with the name and picture (and, in some cases, an urn carrying the ashes) of a deceased relative.  The visitor waves a few sticks of incense in front of the plaque, bows and, in some cases, leaves an offering of an item that the ancestor enjoyed (e.g., fruit, cookies or even beer).

The remainder of our time in the city was spent at the other main sites including the Presidential Palace, where the President of South Vietnam resided prior to the end of the Vietnam War, and the War Remnants Museum, a museum displaying some fairly brutal and grotesque pictures from the Vietnam War, with captions that were only a bit more objective than the ones we had seen at the DMZ.

Given its vibrant culture, its energy and the many opportunities it offers to experience history firsthand, I can’t help but think that we’re going to Miss…Saigon (pun most definitely intended).

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Our visit to Vietnam would not have been complete without a trip to the demilitarized zone, or DMZ.  This strip of land, which is approximately two miles wide, divided North and South Vietnam before and during the Vietnam War (or, as it’s called here, “the American War” or, depending on the speaker, “the War of American Imperialism” or similar). It thus separated Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Cong (VC) in the north from the American and South Vietnamese forces down south.

Nearly every American of our generation has friends and loved ones whose lives the war changed forever.  Our uncles and our fathers served there (as did a few thousand women), and we’ve seen its lasting impact on them.  We’ve grown up watching movies about the battles waged from 1963 to 1973 and hearing stories about the discord the war prompted back at home.  While Derek, Alyssa and I knew the basic outline of what took place during those troubled years, there was nothing like a field trip to the actual war zone to make it all hit home.

At 6:00 a.m. one morning, we boarded a bus full of tourists (some American, some non-) and set off for the DMZ, not really knowing what to expect.  At the end of the day, we had not only seen the sights, we had learned an important lesson about how cultural perceptions can influence the retelling of history.
Our pint-sized guide (he maybe came up to Derek’s elbow) had a father who fought for the North and uncles who enlisted for the South. Like his American counterparts, he had grown up in the shadow of the war, only–given his geographic location—much more so.  Born and raised in post-war Vietnam, he saw on a daily basis the physical destruction that the war caused, and he told us that his father died from the effects of Agent Orange.  Needless to say, playing witness to the war’s devastation left him less than impartial: many of the facts he recited to us contrasted sharply with those in our Australian-written guidebook, and he peppered his spiel with adjectives that made the Americans on board bristle a bit.

For me, one of the most interesting parts of the tour was the time we spent at the Khe Sanh Combat Base.  Americans of our parents’ generation will remember Khe Sanh as the marine stronghold that President Johnson, in 1968, feared would soon be the site of a massive Viet Cong siege.  The media took up the cry; Newsweek and Life both did cover stories on the impending attack.  Huge supplies of planes, troops and ammunition were amassed to ward off the threat from the North, but it never really materialized as planned (the siege was much smaller than expected).  Many scholars now believe that the VC threatened to attack Khe Sanh in order to distract US forces while the VC readied itself to launch the now-famous Tet Offensive. As it turned out, the comprehensive attacks that the North launched during the Tet holiday that year severely wounded the US and its allies and, according to many, mobilized American public opinion against the war.
Khe Sanh now plays home to a small museum that prominently features pictures of Vietnamese soldiers doing various activities that, according to the captions, “Caused the Americans to flee in panic.”  The comments in the museum’s guestbook were at once intriguing and heartbreaking.  In addition to the usual “Peace Now” and “Down with the American Imperialists” messages were words from widows of American soldiers, from a mother whose son had been killed at Khe Sanh and from a U.S. Brigadier General named Tommy Bell: “I fly 243 missions here during 1966-1967.  We may have killed two million Vietnamese.  For this I am very sorry.  I will never fight another war.”  Those comments will stay with me far longer than anything I might have read in a history book.
After brief stops at the Rockpile and Dakrong Bridge, our bus pulled up to the Vinh Moc tunnels–almost 2 miles of underground passageways in which North Vietnamese women and children lived during the war, largely protected from the bombs that rained above their heads.  Not a place for claustrophobics, the dark tunnels are about five and one-half feet tall and maybe three feet wide.  They form a sort of warren, complete with meeting rooms, living areas and a maternity ward where 17 babies were delivered during the war years, only to spend the first years of their lives entirely underground.

All in all, our day in the DMZ allowed me to glimpse the vast differences between American and Vietnamese perceptions of the war.  Particularly given the debates over our country’s current involvements on foreign soil, it also afforded me a timely and much-needed history lesson. Now it’s time to hit the books in search of answers to the many questions raised by our time in a place where so many soldiers–American and Vietnamese alike–gave their lives in service to their country.

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After Hanoi, we flew to Hue, a former imperial city on the banks of the enigmatically named Perfume River.  We spent a mist-filled afternoon exploring the Citadel, a section of the city that is surrounded both by a moat and by tall, thick walls.  These safety precautions did little to defend the area from the Vietnamese-American War; huge swaths of the Citadel were razed during one of the bloodiest battles of the 1968 Tet Offensive.  Tourist dollars are helping to fund ongoing restoration efforts, and the results are already visible throughout the complex.  The Imperial City, a Citadel-within-a-Citadel that once housed the emperor’s residence and important state buildings, looked like a run-down version of Beijing’s Forbidden City but was remarkably free of the hordes of tourists that we’d seen there.
Hue is known for its food, and we were all eager to (over-)indulge.  We didn’t find too much worth, um, writing home about, but perhaps we were just looking in the wrong places.  We did discover some great snacks at the local market, which buzzed with frenetic shoppers making last-minute purchases for the upcoming Tet celebrations.  Armed with sugary coconut strips and dried, shredded beef (it’s good–seriously…), we left Hue for what, we hope, will be the sunnier skies of Southern Vietnam.

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Carrying cumquat trees for Tet
Hanoi is a city difficult not to love.  After finding a hotel in the Old Quarter, we set off exploring its narrow streets.  Historically, each street in the Old Quarter was devoted to selling a certain product, from which it received its name – Flower Street selling flowers, Shoe Street selling shoes and Fish Street selling an array of freshly caught fish.  Around every corner, you are bombarded with sights and smells that are quintessentially Asian.  Outside the Old Quarter, you will find a fairly modern city filled with government buildings (Hanoi is the capitol city of Vietnam), beautifully restored temples and French colonial buildings and gorgeous, tree-lined lakes.
Streets of Hanoi
For us, Hanoi’s vibrance was only enhanced by the upcoming holiday of Tet.  For the Vietnamese, Tet is THE holiday.  Celebrated on the days before and after the start of the Lunar New Year (which falls on February 7th this year), it is when almost everyone returns home to their families.  For a traveler, it is a unique time to be here.  The whole city of Hanoi was filled with vendors selling flowers on every empty sidewalk, markets filled to the brim with shoppers buying food made only during this time of year and streets packed with motorbikes and people trying to make all their last-minute purchases.

In addition to its many temples and lakes, one of Hanoi’s big draws is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.  Ho Chi Minh is a hero without rivals in Vietnam.  After founding the Community Party in Vietnam, he made it his mission to expel the French colonists from the country.  Ultimately, the French left Vietnam after being defeated by Ho and the gang in 1954 at the battle of Dien Bien Phu, ensuring that Ho would be worshipped as Vietnam’s saviour for generations to come.
Streets of Hanoi
You can’t walk 100 feet in Hanoi (or in virtually every other city in Vietnam) without seeing a statue of Ho or a building or road named after him.  The ultimate memorial is located in a beautiful park in the center of the city where, in a small building, Ho Chi Minh’s body has been embalmed and is open for viewing.  It is an odd memorial to a man who lived a fairly simple life and had specifically requested a basic cremation.

As you are rushed through the small room where his body lies, you are required to dress appropriately, walk quickly, not carry anything with you (especially cameras and phones) and maintain complete silence.  I was especially concerned with this last requirement since silence has never been a virtue of Shanna’s.  Sure enough, within seconds of entering the mausoleum Shanna began talking only to be quickly hushed by one of the many gun-wielding guards.  As I walked past Ho’s body, I was struck by the peaceful nature he exhibited and by his remarkable resemblance to Colonel Sanders.  Perhaps KFC Vietnam has found its mascot?







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Hai Au Queen Boat in Halong Bay
In the green-gray waters of the Gulf of Tonkin sit the more than 3000 limestone karsts that combine to form the wonder that is Halong Bay. The bay has long been a draw for tourists visiting mainland Vietnam; most of us hop on buses in Hanoi and, after a long ride through rice fields and pastel, dollhouse-like homes, step aboard rickety boats (called “junks”) for some time on the open water. That’s exactly what Derek, Alyssa–my best friend who’s traveling with us for a few weeks–and I did a few days ago.  Hurrying through the fine mist that has seemed ever-present during our stay in Vietnam, we boarded the Hai Au and set off to explore the karsts.
Halong Bay
Derek and I had biked through karsts in Yangshuo, China, but seeing them by boat was a different experience entirely.  The tiny, colorful fishing boats anchored in front of the towering karsts create a stunning, almost ethereal landscape, and rumors of a Halong Bay-based Loch Ness monster only increase the intrigue.  (Sadly, if he’s out there, we never spotted him.)

The junk stopped at the three-chambered Hang Sung Sot cave, known to tourists as “Surprising Cave,” likely due to the, err, adult nature of one of the rock formations within.  After exploring the cave, we braved the chilly air and paddled kayaks through a tunnel in one of the karsts and into an idyllic lagoon.  Later, we warmed up over endless games of Uno, which is quickly becoming my favorite travel pastime.  Our captain dropped anchor in the bay for the night, and we all fell asleep to the sound of waves lapping against the boat–not a bad lullaby at all!

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