Monday, 4 February 2013

The War and More

I’m closing out my month of travelling with a stop in the city formerly know as Saigon – now Ho Chi Minh City.

Having been to crowded, chaotic Hanoi, it was quite a surprise to arrive in a sprawling city that has a modern look to it. HCMC, with 12 million residents, shades more toward Hong Kong than Hanoi, with a number of upscale shops and fancy hotels mixed in with mom and pop establishments and the central markets common in Asia.

I am here as the city prepares for Tet, the lunar New Year, and everywhere I turn, there are workmen and landscapers preparing the public spaces for the major holiday of the year. Neon and more neon, as well as flowers galore seem to be the order of the day, and it’s so colourful.

This is the city that was the stronghold of the republic during the Vietnam War – or American War, as it is called here. In fact, a coordinated attack throughout the country during Tet in 1975 led Saigon to fall to the communists and to the U.S. withdrawal.

The war and the government’s attitude towards it are very much in evidence here at the War Remnants Museum, where displays talk about the American Imperialists, show the genetic damage done by Agent Orange – something that continues to be ignored by the U.S. government and the chemical manufacturers – and present the tiger cages where U.S. prisoners were often held. No real attempt at balance here!

Nor does one get and understanding of both points of view during a visit to the Cu Chi tunnels outside the city. These amazing underground structures were the hideouts for the North Vietnamese as they wrecked havoc on Saigon and U.S. military bases in the south. Dug deep in the ground and not large enough for us super-sized Westerners to inhabit, they were places where the guerillas ate, slept  and manufactured weapons. They are dark and stuffy and a tribute to the determination of the North Vietnamese, who lived and worked here for a decade, booby-trapping the ground above the tunnels so that U.S. forces couldn’t get to them easily.

Our visit to the tunnels started with a 1967 North Vietnamese propaganda film – very interesting from a historical perspective – talking about the peaceful village of Cu Chi and how its residents were fighting back against the evil Americans and were rewarded for their kills. Egad. There was a retired U.S. Navy man in our group and he was having a difficult time not choking as the film played on.

The war is also a presence at the city’s Fine Arts Museum, an amazing colonial structure that is as beautiful as the art it contains. Many of the paintings and sculptures from the past 50 years have a war theme, whether depicting brave fighters or villagers uprooted and brokenhearted by the conflict.

Although Communism may have won the day, capitalism is very much in evidence, as a visit to the Ben Thanh Market quickly proves. The hundreds of stalls under the roof of this centrepiece sell fruits and vegetables, meat and seafood, as well as everything a tourist might desire: leather goods, shoes, T-shirts, lacquer ware, silk – you name the articles made in Vietnam and they’re certain to be on display. The hawkers aren’t shy, either. Thousand of cries of “Madam, madam, what are you looking for?” reverberate as I walk the aisles. There’s no such thing as discreet browsing!

It’s a lively place, and I’m glad the war is over so I am able to see that first-hand.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

The King and I

The King and I

No, musical fans, this story isn’t about Yul Brynner and Thailand; it’s about Cambodia in mourning.

By sheer accident, my trip to Phnom Penh coincided with the ceremonies leading up to the cremation of King Norodom Sihanouk, a beloved father figure to Cambodians. He died in October, apparently, but the state funeral was postponed until February. In fact, he has been lying in state at the Royal Palace for the past few weeks as his subjects pay their last respects.

I was in the capital for the procession that kicked off the events preceding the funeral. The parade of people accompanying the king’s casket wound through the streets, to a Buddhist temple for prayers and back to the Royal Palace. My hotel was a couple of blocks from the palace, and it was right at the start of the procession route, so I made sure to be there.

It has been interesting to watch the preparations for the procession and the funeral/cremation. The Royal Palace has been readied, draped in white – the Buddhist colour of mourning -- and adorned with huge bouquets of white flowers, with platforms erected to seat dignitaries.

Throughout the city, billboards draped in black and white, featured the likeness of the late king, and many buildings, both public and private, displayed his photo draped with mourning colours. 

Bomb-sniffing dogs were checking the street Friday and along the nearby riverfront, a search for hidden bombs below buildings was also underway.

The area was crawling with police and military, some of whom were stationed on the roof of the hotel for the procession. Men with machine guns were not an unexpected sight. Loudspeakers were set up along the route so mourners could listen to the television/radio commentary as they waited.

And wait, we did. The original word was that the procession would start at 6 a.m. I awoke at five, and since I was restless, I dressed in my official Cambodian mourning gear -- white blouse and black pants or skirt -- and went downstairs. Women were already seated on the sidewalk in front of the hotel, and uniformed troops were gathering: army, navy, bodyguards and others, ready to march in the procession.

My group of onlookers was  joined by some elderly Buddhist nuns with shaved heads dressed in flowing white robes. Soon, some of the hotel staff joined us, too. I was the only Westerner in the group, and few of my compatriots spoke English, but it didn’t matter. Sign language and smiles ruled the day.

By six, we were more than ready, and so were the troops. But word came that the action was delayed, probably until 8 a.m. I slipped into the hotel to fortify myself with breakfast, but returned in plenty of time. The actual procession didn’t start until 9! We were waiting patiently on the sidewalk, and the troops – in uniform in the hot sun – gave in and sat down in the street.

The procession lasted about 45 minutes, with contingents of military, civil servants and scouts in uniform following the army band and the palace guards, who wore glittering regalia. 

Then came the golden floats with open pagodas sheltering their guests, who were also shaded by attendants holding lotus leaf-shaped fans: the prime minister and some high-ranking officials and the late king’s coffin, golden, too, and borne on a massive pedestal high above the crowd.

His daughter-in-law  came afterward, wearing mourning robes and blessing rice, which she threw on the street to the people. 

Finally, the other female family members passed by, followed by more dignitaries, and the procession had passed. (The current king, Norodom Sihamoni, son of the late king, stayed at the palace with his widowed mother, waiting to welcome the procession’s return.) People waved their pictures of the king, and one of the nuns sitting nearby broke out in sobs. People felt a real connection with him.

The event lasted until about four hours as it moved slowly through the area, and most stores were closed until it was over. Even then, many places remained closed out of respect. In the tourist district, where I’m staying, there were many locked doors. But by evening, the promenade was even more crowded than usual, since so many people had the day off. Many still wore their mourning clothes for their stroll along the river. A welcome respite from the sad tone of the day, I imagine.

Today, as I left Cambodia for Vietnam, people were wearing mourning clothes, hoping to gain entry to the palace in a final chance to pay their respects. Vendors were selling mourning badges and photos of the late king, and police were preparing for the arrival of numerous dignitaries.

Here’s hoping this marks the beginning of a new era for Cambodia, one of prosperity and peace. It's long overdue.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Bearing Witness

Once my colleagues convinced me that Angkor Wat should be on my travel agenda, it made sense to make a stop in Phnom Penh, too. After I researched it a bit more, I realized that I would have the opportunity to visit the Killing Fields, site of many horrors perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge. Being Jewish, I knew it was a responsibility to do so -- it’s so important to ensure that victims of genocide don’t go unnoticed and are not forgotten.

It’s so sad to think that genocide continues, even after Hitler and after Rwanda. Apparently, evil does walk among us, and it knows which buttons to push to ensure its plans are carried out. Past horrors provide different lessons to different people: the decent ones want to prevent genocide from recurring; the dictators learn how to kill efficiently. Pol Pot’s regime took lessons from the Nazis, recording the names and photographing every victim and burying them in mass graves.

Yesterday, I visited Tuol Seng, site of S-21, a former elementary school turned into a prison where supposed traitors, people with an education and those involved in cultural pursuits were imprisoned and tortured. It’s a shocking juxtaposition: a seemingly benign series of concrete school buildings around a verdant courtyard where trees are blooming, but inside, narrow cells, shackles and instruments of torture.

I happened to latch onto a tour being given by a woman of about 40 or 50 whose two young siblings disappeared, never to be seen again. More than two million people – one quarter of Cambodia’s population at the time – were murdered by the Khmer Rouge in fewer than four years during the late 1970s. Anyone with an education, anyone who wore glasses (looking smart), anyone in government ... they and their families were rounded up and killed. Lots of little children were included, because Pol Pot didn’t want anyone left to seek revenge. Eventually, he even turned against segments of his own army.

This morning, I went to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields, one of 300 or more such sites throughout the country. The prisoners who didn’t succumb to torture or who were otherwise left alone at S-21were blindfolded and handcuffed, shoved into trucks in the dark and driven to these sites, where they were executed, either immediately or the next day. Bullets were too expensive for the Khmer Rouge, so they used whatever was at hand: clubs, hoes, machetes.  ...  Those who weren’t dead were still pushed into the mass graves and covered with DDT, thus killing them. Soldiers didn’t waste weapons on babies; they simply smashed them against trees.

Horrified? I certainly was, and saddened, too. Such a waste of life, so much pain and suffering for both victims and survivors. Such a waste of human potential, both on the side of the victims and that of the killers, often young men and women without education who were easily brainwashed.

Cambodia has not forgotten – and I won’t either.

Thursday, 31 January 2013

Taking in the temples

Growing up, temples to me were Jewish houses of worship where I went for Friday night services. Back then, I knew nothing about Hinduism and Buddhism, but these days, I’m clear on the fact that temples come in many flavours. Two of them are the focus at Siem Reap, Cambodia’s centre for Hindu and Buddhist ruins, and what an amazing range there is to be found: small and large, limestone and sandstone, dedicated to Vishnu or Shiva or Buddha, reasonably intact or crumbling. All awesome in their individual ways.

I mentioned sunrise at Angkor Wat, the largest temple, in my last post, but it is equally impressive during the day.  The carvings on the walls tell tales of Cambodian history and of Hindu mythology, and the visitor can follow along. The towers offer views of the surrounding jungle, and there are still some remaining statues of Buddha there to worship.

Although I knew very little about Angkor Wat and the other temples when I arrived, an afternoon at the Angkor National Museum, a day with a guide and some reading have brought me up to speed on the meaning and symbolism. But there is also the sheer scale of the ruins at which to marvel! Apparently, Angkor Wat was built with the help of hundreds of elephants hauling blocks of limestone from mountain quarries, and there must have been thousands of stone masons involved to build something so intricately decorated in only 37 years! Think pyramids and you’ll get the idea.

The Angkorian period in Cambodian history lasted from the 9th century to the 13th and I also visited Angkor Thom, a city constructed late in the period, that contained Bayon, a temple for the king, as well as temples for the commoners. Bayon offers 216 faces looking out at the visitor from four-sided heads – quite a daunting site, but wonderful! 

And the Tomb Raider temple was also on the agenda for the day. I envy Angelina Jolie and her crew for having the entire place to themselves as they filmed. It must have been magnificent; apparently, at night, it is home to thousands of small, green parrots!

On the final day of my visit, I took a tuk-tuk (a motorcycle pulling a cart with a seat in it) out to Banteay Srei, a temple 37 kilometres away from temple central. It was worth the drive. The temple itself is a marvel. It was created from red sandstone and done on a small scale, so it is more or less human size. Its reliefs were carved more deeply than those at Angkor Wat, and so many of them are intact! It was a gem of a place to experience, and given the distance, there were few visitors.

The outing was also remarkable because it gave me a real glimpse of the local countryside. It took me a while, as I passed shacks with thatched roofs and shacks on stilts for use in the rainy season, to realize what was so different: no electricity!!!!! That likely means no indoor plumbing and no real kitchen facilities. 

Houses had wood stacked up at the front, and I saw people cooking at the side of the road. Women were making palm sugar candy in huge bowls over coals, stirring and pouring it into moulds. Wow.

I was also lucky enough to catch a glimpse of traditional fishing, using bamboo traps to cage a fish and pull it out of the river shallows. Quite something.

Great food, too! I’ve discovered amok, a Khmer dish that is so wonderfully spiced, it’s to die for. And their salads with fresh fruit and meat/fish are also so different and flavourful. Yum.

It was a wonderful stop on my travel circuit, and the Cambodian people were so warm and kind. It was a pleasure to talk with them and earn a smile or two. Phnom Penh isn’t quite as welcoming, but that’s a story for another day.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Travelling and temples

After spending two weeks travelling alone in China, I had the impression that solo travel was very solitary. I spent lots of time talking to myself, since I knew no one and there weren’t many English speakers around.

It seems that circumstances can make it a much more social experience: here in Cambodia, and also in Vietnam, there are tons of Western travellers, and it’s not hard to have a chat with someone or occasionally, find a dinner buddy. I’m starting to get the hang of this solo routine!

Today, for example, I encountered two young men fumbling their way through the dark, as I was, to reach the sunrise spot at Angkor Wat, the standard for all temples in this area. It turned out that they were from suburban Washington, D.C., one of my old stomping grounds. Even better, one was teaching English in Shenzhen, China, the city near the Hong Kong border where everyone goes for discount goods. And better yet, the other was a serious Baltimore Orioles fan – gotta love it! I watched the sunrise with them, then went on with my plans, delighted by the chance meeting.

 And last night, I had dinner with a teacher from Norway who is staying in my hotel and offered to show me the way into town. It was delightful to pass a few hours learning about life in a place I’ve never visited.

And that’s just the people. The temples are another story entirely, one that will be continued. I have just scratched the surface with a brief look at Angkor Wat, bordered by a lily pond and rising out of the jungle like a wedding cake gone wild. Amazing stone work, all done before mechanization.

This afternoon, I rented a bicycle and rode down to the Angkor National Museum to learn more about the background of the temples and the symbolism they contain. The Khmer people were once Hindu, but converted over to Buddhism under a king that ruled more than 8,000 years ago. Angkor Wat was originally built in homage to Vishnu, the Hindu god, but became a Buddhist temple over the years.

There are so many stories, I don’t know if I’ll ever keep them all straight, but tomorrow, I’ll have the help of a guide. I’m preparing to stuff my head full of information!

Now, it’s back to town to find some dinner and check out the night markets.

Friday, 25 January 2013

City Mouse, Country Mouse

The past two days couldn’t have been more different from each other, as I explored various sides of Vietnam.

Yesterday, Hanoi and Vietnamese history were the focus; today, it was rural Vietnam.

Visitors to Hanoi all make the obligatory stop at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where the embalmed body of the leader who helped drive out the French and Americans and unify the country lies in state. It’s a weird pilgrimage, to be sure, and even getting there is a challenge. Signs lead visitors around the block, down the street, around another corner and into the complex. Respectful dress is mandatory: no short shorts.

The line is long, but moves quickly, and it takes you past a glass coffin bearing the body of the former leader, who looks as if he is simply asleep, so real is his skin’s pallor. Apparently, he is sent to Russia annually for a tune-up by the folks who perfected embalming for Lenin’s remains. (One of my guides said today that visiting other countries is too expensive for many Vietnamese, but even though he’s dead, Ho Chi Minh gets to travel!) Soldiers stand at each corner of the coffin, and we all file silently by. Very odd, but there’s a compulsion to visit.

Afterward, it was off to see a house nearby where he had lived and worked while the presidential palace was under repair, then to the Ho Chi Minh Museum. Many of his writings are displayed, along with photos of his years in office. He is the George Washington of Vietnam, father of the modern country, and his principles were firmly socialist. Removing the bourgeoisie from power was one key goal, and constant improvement was another.

I had lunch on the street – I’m getting to be an old hand at this – at a bun cha stop. Bun cha is noodles, a vinegary sauce, roast pork and salad, which the diner mixes together. Eating on the street means sitting on a low plastic stool at a tiny table, and lots of local workers were doing the same.

Afterward, it was on to Hoa Lo Prison, aka the Hanoi Hilton, where American pilots shot down during the Vietnam War were kept, including Senator John McCain. Interestingly, most of the museum’s displays focused not on the Americans, but on the Vietnamese insurgents who were locked up here during French colonial rule, and those who lost their lives during that period. There’s even a guillotine, which, given the dark, damp rooms, is ultra-creepy. There is a shrine to the Vietnamese imprisoned there and their names are inscribed on plaques. Conditions were primitive, at best.

I had dinner at a restaurant that served local cuisine, and was seated with a young French woman travelling on holiday. We had a lovely chat as I enjoyed some wonderful clams saut̩ed with basil and garlic Рdouble yum!

Today, off on an excursion to the countryside outside Hanoi with a guide and driver. We did about an hour and a half of cycling through farm country and rural villages, looking at rice paddies, pineapple fields, banana crops and tea fields. I’d never seen tea growing before and we stopped to chat with some of the women harvesting the leaves. 

Next, we visited a retired local farmer for tea from leaves grown locally and dried and prepared by his family. His land had once been a chicken farm, but he found it to be a losing proposition, and now he grows some fruit of various kinds. In fact, his peach blossoms are in demand as decorations for the upcoming New Year.

Back on our bikes and off on dirt roads, where people were burning the remains of last year’s corn crop, and other fields were being prepared for a change from corn to bananas for export: more lucrative, apparently. It was such a treat to be breathing fresh country air and getting a glimpse of life outside the bustling city.

 After joining up with our driver, we headed to a 400-year-old village for lunch – Vietnamese specialties, including spring rolls and sesame pork – and a visit to a temple dedicated to their local gods and a pagoda where Buddha is worshipped. My guide, Thung, was a graduate of a tourism program at university and was full of information about religion, history and life in Vietnam today. It was such a treat to get the local perspective.

Tonight, Friday, many workers leave Hanoi for weekends in their villages; jobs are much easier to find in the city, so they do what they must. However, the Old Quarter was still bustling, and I wandered through the night market, along with lots of locals and other tourists. With Tet (the lunar New Year) only a few weeks away, red and gold decorations were much in evidence.

Dinner – my last in Hanoi – was at another local restaurant featuring local cuisine. I tried buffalo meat and actually enjoyed it. I also sat with a woman from Australia who was travelling alone – dinner with strangers is getting to be a trend -- and we exchanged stories. It’s a great way to meet people and to discover which attractions are most interesting in the places I’ll be off to next.

Tomorrow, it’s off to Siem Reap in Cambodia, home to Angkor Wat and the many smaller Buddhist temples, another site that is unanimously recommended by all and sundry. And back to the heat, too: 30 (90 F) degrees and up. Was it just a week or two past that I was shivering in Beijing? Hard to believe.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Hooray for Halong Bay!

There were no thoughts of Halong Bay when I put Hanoi on my travel agenda. Halong who? What? Where?

However, the instant I mentioned to any of my Hong Kong that I planned a stop in Hanoi, their first response was, “Oh, you must go to Halong Bay. It’s amazing!”

With such unanimous endorsement, how could I refuse? I pulled out the trusty Lonely Planet guide – on loan from a colleague – and crosschecked it with Trip Advisor to come up with a reliable tour operator,  then booked my trip.

Two days later, I was on board a mini-bus, one of a group of 16 heading south for an overnight cruise on Halong Bay, three-and-a-half hours south of Hanoi. We were an interesting crew: ages ranging from 21 to 60-something, and quite the mix of nationalities: England, Israel, Austria, Germany, Australia, the U.S. and Canada. A number of my compatriots were on trips of four months or more, some taking a year off from work to see more of the world. Others were “youngsters” travelling before settling into “real life”: one of the Israelis was a young man doing a gap year after finishing his army service.

We arrived at our ship, the Treasure Junk, and were greeted with a welcome drink of fresh mango juice before checking into our cabins. The ship is quite new, appointed in dark wood, with a main passenger deck, a dining deck and a sunbathing deck on top. My cabin was on the dining floor, and I was lucky enough to have a balcony. Worth the splurge to read outdoors after dinner and watch the scenery slip by.

But back to Halong Bay! It is a bay dotted with more than 1,900 limestone rock formations (“islands”) rising steeply from the water. A few have tiny beaches, a few others have caves, and most are dotted with bamboo and other vegetation. It reminded me very much of the Broken Islands, the national park outside Ucluelet on Vancouver Island, minus the whales and sea lions, but the islands here are much greater in number.

The setting is spectacular. As the boat chugged along, there were islands everywhere I turned; at night, we slept anchored in a bay ringed by islands. Absolutely breathtaking.

Even better, we had a sunny day, the first they’d had in weeks! After lunch, everyone changed into sporty gear and bathing suits and set out for a kayaking excursion. I have only been in a kayak once before, in Newfoundland, but luckily, I was teamed up with Carly, a young college graduate from Pennsylvania, who grew up kayaking on rivers near her home. Lucky me – all I was required to do was to paddle – Carly had the chore of steering.

The scenery, which is amazing from shipboard, is just as awesome close up. We churned our way through the passages between islands, and the only sounds were our chatter, our paddles and eagles screaming overhead. After the cacophony of Hanoi, the silence was even more stunning.

We stopped at a small sandy beach to stretch our legs. The water was cold, so no one went for a swim, but I conducted my usual shell hunt. ( I make a point of saving shells from all the beaches I visit, and my oversized brandy snifter is getter fuller by the year.) Surprisingly, I had two fellow shell enthusiasts: a French gentleman and Clare, a teacher from England. So nice to know I’m not the only shell junkie!

We paddled back towards sunset, passing a heron taking flight, and Carly and I enjoyed the setting sun from our kayak. What a treat.

This morning, we started the day with a tai chi lesson on deck and felt suitably energized. It was followed by a trip to a floating village, created by the government to promote fish and pearl farming. Amazing to see the tiny huts built on platforms atop oil barrels that keep them afloat. There’s even a floating school for the children.

We also got a glimpse of cultured pearl production, a process that can take up to three years, with only 30 per cent of the oysters producing pearls, and only 10 per cent of those suitable for jewelry.

After a brunch back aboard ship, it was time, alas, to take a last look at the amazing scenery and hop back aboard the bus for a return to the pace of the city. My colleagues were right: no trip to Hanoi would be complete without an excursion to peaceful, scenic Halong Bay.