Friday, January 6, 2012

Indochine Adventure pt.1 - Hoi An to Phnom Penh

          Beginning several days ago and for most of the next two weeks, I'll be traveling in Southeast Asia with my family during their Christmas and New Years visit.

Claira has fresh lotus seeds at the side of the road in central Vietnam
          On December 24th, after spending four days showing my family my adopted city of Hanoi, I awoke early from my slumber. We had originally planned on taking the train from Ha Noi down to the city of Da Nang on the central coast of Vietnam, but that plan didn’t pan out as the train was full and we would have had to split the five of us into three different rooms. So instead we were decided to fly early that next morning. My parents and sisters were staying at a hotel in Hoan Kiem (near the lake) and I was at my house. The airport taxi got there a little after six, and I said goodbye to my host family for the next two weeks or so. I was now on my way to an Indochinese adventure that would take me first to the ancient trading village of Hoi An in central Vietnam, then briefly to Saigon before flying across the boarder to the still exotic capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh (where I am now). Next, I'll travel by car to central Cambodia and the ruins at Ankor Wat to spend four days visiting the temples and other sites in the area around Siem Reap. Following Cambodia, I'll travel to a third Indochinese country, Laos, where I'll spend five days in Luang Prabang visiting remote villages along the Mekong river, learning about their culture, and will likely be forced to consider the lasting legacy of the bombing carried out by the United States during the war in Vietnam.  Following Laos, it'll be just a quick plane ride back to home-sweet-home in Hanoi.

Hoi An, Vietnam
            But back to the 24th...  After an hour or so in the cab, I arrived at the airport, and met up with the rest of my family, who had driven in just a minute or two ahead of me. We checked in and went to wait for the plane. While in the waiting area, my sister Emily wasn’t feeling too well, so we had to deal with that before boarding, but during the flight she started feeling better, so it must have been something she ate. The flight was very short, only an hour in the air, and it was about noon when we arrived at Da Nang international airport, which used to be one of the main US bases during the Vietnam War. Now the airport is much more peaceful - the only fighting happening now is the cab drivers arguing about stealing customers from each other. After about 45 minutes on the road to Hoi An, it became apparent that the driver had no idea where he was going, as first he slowed the cab before eventually calling someone on his phone. Shortly after that, a woman drove up, walked over, and asked us which hotel we were staying at - then launching into a marketing campaign for us to visit her clothing store in Hoi An. After about 5 minutes of sales talk, she finally led us to the hotel.

Christmas dinner treats
            The hotel was located right in the town, an easy 5 minute walk from the tourist infested market. It was Christmas eve, and the town was bursting at the seams with tourists here for the holidays. Most were Australian, but there were other nationalities present as well. After a walk about that afternoon in the town, famous for its tailors, we prepared for Christmas eve dinner at the hotel. There was a big celebration at the hotel, with music and performances and a massive buffet with everything under the sun. After enjoying our Christmas eve banquet, we retired to the rooms, and fell asleep.

Emily visits the market in Hoi An
            This year’s Christmas was anything but traditional for us. Usually, we have big family gatherings either in Santa Barbara or in Salt Lake City, but this year, since we were in Vietnam, that kinda limited our tree options as well as the presents. I only received a few smaller presents (the ones my mom could fit in her bag) because shipping things is super expensive from the USA (but all that said, my parents paying the school tuition for me to spend a year abroad is one huge Christmas present!). For the rest of the morning, my sister Emily worked on her applications for Cate and Thacher schools, and my mom and Claira and I went out for a walk around the town. It was a bit chilly as it had been raining off and on throughout the morning so we brought umbrellas and jackets with us on the walk. Of course the weather was nothing like New York or Boston, but for me, after four months in the tropics, it was a bit on the chilly side. We saw some of the sites around Hoi An, including the famous Hoi An bridge (I don’t know if it’s actually famous, but it was really pretty), the town market, where Mom and Claira got their nails painted, and the all the boats parked at the dock - where were asked numerous times if we wanted to take a boat ride. As I already mentioned, Hoi An is famous for its tailors and custom made clothing, and my mom and Emily were happy to have some dresses and skirts made to order. We had Christmas dinner that night at a restaurant near our hotel. While we were eating, a group of people who were in their late 20s walked it, and they were dressed in the most ridiculous suits any of us had ever seen! One had a floral suit with giant shoulder pads, matching pants, and a lime green shirt - another had a flowing bright green suit with coat tails and a hat - and still another had one half of the suit in plaid, and the other half in a totally different fabric. After taking a picture and talking to one of them, we found out that they only cost 60 USD, which is very cheap for any kind of suit.

Hoi An, well known for its fine tailoring?

This little piggy goes to market...
            The next day, we boarded a plane very early bound for Saigon. It was only about an hour or so down the coast. We originally thought that we would have a two-hour layover, but that turned out to be false. Right before boarding, there was an announcement saying that the flight would be delayed due to a mechanical problem. A few minutes later we saw being towed by the gate to the maintenance area. That’s never good. So it turns out we have to wait another 3 and a half hours, and get on an entirely different airplane, and we ended up missing our tour covering the recent history of the Khmer Rouge and the atrocities they committed against the Cambodian people, including a visit to the Killing Fields. We all were disappointed, but we still got to hear our guide’s amazing story of survival against all odds on the ride from the airport.

            He was only 3 years old when the Khmer Rouge invaded Phnom Penh. After his family was chased out of the city with the 3 million other residents, he was separated from his parents and family. The soldiers told the citizens of Phnom Penh that they had to leave immediately, and that the US was going to begin bombing any minute, which was entirely false, and they were driven into the countryside, where they were put to work on prison-like farms. After the evacuation was complete, the population of the city fell from 3,000,000 to under 100 individuals. Our guide was too young to work for the first two years of the Khmer Rouge, but when he turned 6, he was put to work in the fields. The ultimate goal of the Khmer Rouge was to turn Cambodia into an agrarian utopia, in order to do that, they had to kill every educated person in the country, leaving only the poor, uneducated peasants, who could be more easily manipulated. Every doctor, lawyer, teacher, office worker, was summerly killed. Even people who simply wore glasses were killed, as it was reasoned that if they wore glasses, they must be educated. The Khmer Rouge targeted young, poor farmers to be their soldiers, anywhere from ages 10-18. They would brainwash the children, and tell them that they no longer had a family, and that everyone was their brothers and sisters. They were told to report parents if they did anything wrong, like own a book. Eventually though, after just over 3 years, the Khmer Rouge were defeated by the Vietnamese, and the people could return to the city. Our guide was reunited with his mother and most of his siblings; he never did find his father or one of his brothers. They were most likely killed by the soldiers. So after 3 years of Khmer Rouge rule, they were toppled from power, but there was a civil war that didn’t end until 1998. During the height of power of the Khmer Rouge, from 1975 to 1979, about one in five Cambodians, 1.5 million people, were killed by them.

            I hate to end this episode with that sad story, but that's where I am right now - sitting in a hotel in Phnom Penh thinking about the life of the man I just met...  Next up, it's on to the ancient Khmer civilization and the massive temple complex they built at Ankor.

1 comment:

  1. Happy New Year, Andrew! I loved reading your latest blog about the family visit! What fun! For me, too, I miss the big family Christmases in SB. I talked to your mom yesterday -- she and Em were just back in LA -- they said they had a wonderful trip and how great it was to see you.
    Looking forward to the grand film in February -- enjoyed the preview -- and loved the one of Em in traffic.
    Nice to see your other family too -- and Uncle Aaron!
    lol mm