There is an intense beauty along the Mekong, among the people who rise each morning to offer incense to Buddha, who, silhouetted against a glowing dusk, fling circle nets into a slow-dancing current; of a woman washing herself on the back of a delta big belly. And the river itself, one of Asia’s central sinews, slings itself south in torrents and placidity, in a youthful, roaring energy through gorges as startling as anywhere, in panflat repose fingering islands like a magician’s coin trick, in a splay of final glory and abundance.
--Edward A. Gargan, The River’s Tale
A flight across the Pacific to Asia on a moonless night is a long slab of dark. It begins well enough with a communal search for comfort, as passengers remove thin wool blankets from plastic bags and thumb their skimpy pillows. The cabin lights go down after the clamor of a late repast, and the flight attendants withdraw to their private society at the back of the plane. One settles into a Zen state, wedged into a narrow seat now in full recline. The foolish check their watches, but they are no longer friends. The hours become abstract and lose all meaning—even the date evaporates. It seems that the night, suffered in tight places with rocky bits, will never end. One is supposed to sleep through this close incarceration, an elusive task. The steady roar of the plane’s engines offers a blanket of sound, a complement to the impenetrable dark outside the window. Four seats over, someone is chuckling into the ghastly light of a video screen on the back of the seat before him, while nearby another is leaning over a book, languorously turning pages in a pool of light. The eyelids go down again, deliberately. This too will pass—that is one consolation, however thin. The thought that a century ago such a passage would have been unimaginable is another.
The non-stop flight from San Francisco via a Cathay Pacific 747-400, filled to the gills with newly prosperous Asians, took just over thirteen hours. We landed at the far edge of night in Hong Kong and, numb from travel, were caught up in the flow through the airport’s dazzle and teeming modernity. Here we met several members of our group who had flown in from Los Angeles and New York. They shared our pleasure that the last leg of our journey to Vietnam was nearly at hand. Our transfer to the flight to Hanoi via Vietnam Airlines followed a Chinese efficiency, and two hours later we arrived at our destination, a blast of hot, humid air greeting us as we stepped off the plane onto the tarmac. We had moved in an instant from a refrigerated confinement to the wilting hothouse of Southeast Asia; clearly, the heat would be something we would need to reckon with now. Once through customs with our luggage in tow, we were met by our tour manager from High Country Passage, Barbara Batey, a tall, well-spoken, cheerful manager from Montana, and our Vietnamese guide, Nginh Thanh (“Tan”), an affable young man capable of good humor and understandable, though at times curiously enunciated, English.
Since Tan knew that not all of our rooms at the elegant Sofitel Metropole would be ready at this hour he instructed our driver to take his time on the transfer into the city. During the ride, Tan gave us several interesting facts about Hanoi in particular and Vietnam in general—Hanoi’s population was four “millions” while all of Vietnam had 85 millions within a nation 1,000 miles in length but only 350,000 square miles in area. The ride informed us visually as well. We passed many mature rice paddies, yellow-green in the sun, farmers bent over the lush plants in harvesting them under immense billboards proclaiming Vietnam’s new partnerships in the burgeoning economy of the Pacific Rim. The traffic of whining motorbikes, small cars, and heavy trucks swelled as we approached the city, hazy in the distance. Tan directed our attention to the Than Long (“rising dragon”) industrial park, a vast complex of windowless rectangulars sprawling over former rice fields. Economic muscles were popping up all over the place. Then, just before arriving at the three-mile long Than Long bridge, built by the Russians in the ten years following the Vietnam War, we passed a newly constructed neighborhood of houses belonging to Vietnam’s new millionaires, rising dragons all.
The bridge carried us high over the Red River, broad and opaque with silt from recent rains, and down into the city’s outskirts. The teeming industry of Vietnam was clearly apparent in the buzz of activity in the shops and small businesses we passed along the way. The streets were crowded with hundreds of Hanoi’s two million motorbikes, all of them driven by modestly dressed people intent on some irresistible direction, which they managed to retain at every swarming intersection. It was a wonder how they avoided collision. The press of Hanoi’s unstinting commerce as well as its densely woven traffic kept us at our windows, with Tan’s colorful, sing-song narrative explaining it all. This was another world, a people on the move, a road-level glimpse of Asia’s economic boom.
We arrived just before noon at the Sofitel Metropole, Hanoi’s finest hotel (ca. 1900), a white imperial elephant that stands virtually without grazing space in the midst of the pressing neighborhoods of the city’s Old Quarter. We were directed into the hotel’s poolside bar area for a refreshment while room keys were distributed. Here, some of us lingered for awhile until our rooms were cleaned and ready for occupancy. It was good to sit still, moving as little as possible in the oppressive heat and humidity of mid-day. Following a few hours of unpacking and rest, most of us gathered again for a stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake, a lovely, tranquil expanse surrounded by a narrow band of park with trees. It proved to be a settling familiarity to be walking among the Vietnamese here and not to feel entirely strange and unwelcome, though we faced a bracing hazard to find this comfort, for one had to cross the street, after all. Tan had assembled us in a loose phalanx at curbside to accomplish this, with the cheerful advice that we not hesitate once we commit to crossing. To remain steadfast and not to hesitate—the most useful tenets of Eastern philosophy come to one obliquely.
Soon after the walk we convened again in the lobby for a stroll over to the Press Club for the first of our welcome receptions. Here on an upper terrace, we enjoyed a choice of beverage and several exotic hors d’oeuvres along with pleasant conversation over recorded music meant for Western ears. Soon suppressing the latter, we attended a brief series of introductions, including some words from Barry Machado, W&L’s faculty escort, and some advice about the following day from Barbara Batey. Few lingered beyond the hour, for the beds of the Sofitel Metropole were calling. We soon found a welcome dark at last.
A hard rain fell during the night, flooding the streets near Hoan Kiem Lake. During the optional early morning walk (5:30 A.M.), we could see small piles of debris already being attended to by sidewalk sweepers. The main thoroughfare along the lake was already busy, of course, the dim headlights of motor scooters streaming through the twilight. A small group of us followed Tan around the lake, observing many citizens of Hanoi engaged in Tai Chi, or loose versions thereof. Slender Vietnamese of all ages were out to wave their arms and legs or to stretch their backs for the day’s labors ahead. Some moved in groups to the sounds of recorded music, others just moved their hands and arms in silence as they gazed out across the lake. The air was much cooler this morning and fresh with the scent of recent rain. This promised some welcome relief from the heat and humidity of yesterday.
Breakfast at the hotel was ample and lovely, an international buffet of exotic and familiar staples. We were happy to discover here the Lindsays and the Kellys, last night’s late arrivals, as well as Gil and Wendy Smith, who had spent yesterday on a private excursion to Ha Long Bay. Thirty-four of our thirty-six travelers were now accounted for. Missing still were Tom and Lucy Lee, whom we thought we would find at the Hong Kong airport yesterday. No word had yet been received as to their whereabouts.
At 7:45, we convened at the Press Club for a lecture by Barry Machado. Barry’s talk on the Vietnam War, “Marching through Quicksand,” offered a cryptic summary of the war’s cost in human lives and capital: 58,000 Americans killed, 155,000 wounded, with at least ten times that number in Vietnamese casualties; and the expenditure of $150-200 billion (back when a billion was “a billion”) on what ultimately proved to be a colossal misadventure, “a nightmare,” he declared. However, out of twenty-seven million Americans of military service age in the years 1954-1975, only two and a half million Americans had passed through Vietnam in some capacity as part of the war effort, and barely 325,000 had seen combat. With the number of men and women actually fighting the war relatively low, why, Barry proffered, does the Vietnam War continue to haunt the American psyche, arguably more than it does the Vietnamese, who suffered vastly greater losses? Have the ghosts of Vietnam been exorcised? Not completely, he suggested, for among Americans who remember the war the majority are still confused over the reasons for our failure in Vietnam. Was it a failure of will, the will to win? Not, he argued, for a nation that dropped more bomb tonnage on Southeast Asia than had been expended in all previous wars fought by America. Barry’s thesis was that, while the American government certainly possessed the will to win—short of engaging in nuclear war—it failed to understand four key components: the American people, the enemy, our allies, and, more specifically, the nature of containment. On the latter, he argued that the Vietnam War was, at its core, not a “war of northern aggression” in which we had to contain Chinese communism, but a Vietnamese civil war for which our government had no political solution nor the right nor the practical ability to impose one in the first place. What would Vietnam look like today, one asked, if America had won the war? “Look about you,” Barry answered, referring to the bustle of commerce in today’s Hanoi and to the array of international corporations represented in the billboards outside the city. Today, America is Vietnam’s principal market. It is one of history’s many dark ironies, he mused. On the whole, Barry’s talk was well received, as difficult as the subject remains for the older generation of Americans who remember America’s success in World War II and Korea. We all knew that for this particular trip the questions he raised were unavoidable. In the end, it was good to have an informed reflection.
Following Barry’s talk, we embarked on the great adventure of a pedal rickshaw ride through Hanoi’s Old Quarter. After a short stroll from our hotel to a nearby park, we found a long line of “cyclos” parked along the avenue, a set of contraptions fashioned by marrying the rear wheel, seat, and power train of a bicycle with a broad aluminum trough upholstered, affixed with a canopy, and set upon a pair of bicycle wheels. Each of us selected a cyclo as we approached the line, not knowing quite what was in store, though trusting in Tan’s intentions. Each of the rickshaws was manned by a veteran driver who wordlessly appraised the burden he would be pedaling over the next hour through the Quarter’s tight streets—mine seemed to go into a coughing spasm as I approached. Once aboard, we set out single file into the weaving traffic, a comical sight, perhaps, of bewildered, somewhat apprehensive Americans off on a pedal safari through a stampede of motorbikes and honking cars. But if we had inhibitions over this curious event, they soon gave way to the fascinations that followed. With the silent, unflappable navigation of our drivers pushing us along, we rolled for an hour through a dense and colorful array of shopping districts, each district devoted to a particular product: shoes, appliances, blue jeans, jewelry, faucets, door handles, mirrors, custom sheet metal, Chinese herbs, restaurant stalls, souvenirs, etc. Each establishment vending these products had a sidewalk exposure no wider than 10-15 feet, with perhaps 30 feet extending back into the shadowy depths. The mercantile array was quite strange: how could a shop vending the same material as several others in the same block expect to succeed? Here in a world as far distant from Wal-Mart as possible, merchandizing had applied a different strategy, a numbing, irresistible redundancy.
Meanwhile, we were captivated by the sheer thickness of life visible on the streets and along the sidewalks of the Old Quarter. With the intense color, variety of activity, fragrance, and commotion at such proximity, it was as if we could now behold the broad tableau of Hanoi’s daily life. It was a life of staggering intensity lived shoulder to shoulder by an urban populace utterly different from any we had ever known. Hanoi claimed a population of four million, but here the teeming masses suggested a citizenry grown too numerous to count let alone locate. And yet, as the myriad motorbikes beeped and weaved around us or paused beside us for traffic to clear, one could peer momentarily into the faces of individuals and glimpse a human story. Behind the stoic expression of the drivers and their passengers, some of them even with small children wedged between them, one could catch perhaps a flicker of longing, the set jaw of perseverance, and the compelling bond of family ties—the latter still the strongest force in Vietnamese society. But the ride was, on the whole, just plain fun, a sort of “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” for grandparents. When the excursion ended, we were all happily exhausted. “That ranks as one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had in my travels,” Hardin Marion enthused.
Our drivers eventually delivered us to one of Vietnam’s reliable tourist stops, the Hoa Lo prison, the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” of the American war era. The hour spent here was somewhat sobering. Prisons are not usually on the tourist route, though this one has been made famous by accounts from John McCain and Pete Peterson of their incarceration after having been captured from planes shot down during bombing runs over Hanoi. In the spirit of rapprochement with Americans, perhaps, the Vietnamese emphasized here the many abuses suffered by Vietnamese prisoners incarcerated during the era of French colonialism and the revolution that followed. Hoa Lo offered a healthy serving of the macabre, with plastic figurines of Vietnamese shown shackled to bed platforms, exhibits of torture devices, “rat hole” cells for the condemned, and, as a final slap at the French, an ageing guillotine, one of two imported by the French to dispatch heroes of the revolution. We listened respectfully to Tan’s narrative through our headsets, though there was a clear tendency on our part to keep moving.
The visit may not have been the best preparation for lunch at the Wild Rice Restaurant, but it had been a long time since breakfast, so we were happy to move on. The contemporary restaurant was quite lovely, Asian in design and décor, with muted colors playing softly against wood, terra cotta, and glass. We had a room to ourselves for an ample repast of Vietnamese cuisine served with beer, wine, and soft drinks. The highpoint of the meal, however, was the sudden arrival of Tom and Lucy Lee and the warm reception by their former traveling companions. An explanation followed: rather than having been kidnapped and sold into slavery in Hong Kong, the Lees apparently had misunderstood the scheduled date of departure from the U.S. and so had purchased air tickets for the day following the group departure. But all was well now. Their spirits were high—Lucy had made her dazzling entrance, Tom his shrug of nonchalance, and together they appeared to be reasonably well rested.
Following lunch, we visited Ba Dinh Square, site of Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. A taller and more stately version of Lenin’s tomb, the mausoleum is constructed on the spot from which Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam’s independence in 1945. The Japanese had just been defeated, and the French had not yet reclaimed their colonial possessions. Ho’s declaration was not honored by Western powers, of course, and bloody revolution ensued until the final defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Large banners flanking the mausoleum proclaim the glories of the revolution and Vietnam’s conquest of its oppressors. We paused for a group photograph here and then moved on under the day’s increasing heat to the shade of a nearby park. Here we heard Tan tell us more about Ho and viewed the imposing baroque palace built for the French governor. With the departure of the French, Ho Chi Minh occupied the palace for a short while, but somehow the workaholic bachelor never felt quite at home there. He removed to simpler quarters that had been reserved for palace servants until his own “House on Stilts” could be built. The latter construction, fashioned of ironwood, has a handsome simplicity. Beside it is a concrete bunker once favored by Ho as a residence during American visits. The beloved “Uncle Ho” died in 1969 before the end of the American War. His wish that his body be cremated was not honored by his followers, who instead sent it to Moscow for embalming. Whatever remains is not on display. He lives on in the hearts of the Vietnamese as their George Washington.
Thereafter, Tan offered us a choice of returning to the hotel or a brief stroll through the Old Quarter. Most of the group chose the latter, fascinated by a further view of Hanoi’s constant hive of commerce. In the buzzing chaos of this passage, Tan wisely discouraged us from any individual shopping, though several of us surely felt the impulse. We kept together as a group, mainly for the task of crossing busy streets, and returned to the hotel weary from the day’s excitement at 3:45 P.M..
After a rest, we gathered again at 7:00 for our transfer to dinner at the five-star Wild Lotus Restaurant. Barbara had suggested that we dress appropriately, though not too well (?), for the special occasion. Most of the men thus donned their blue blazers as if members of a glee club, the attire serving well enough as a backdrop for the more colorful selections by the women. On arrival at the pretty restaurant, and after ascending two flights of stairs to what we had assumed would be a private banquet room, we were greeted by a small orchestra of young women playing traditional Vietnamese music. It was interesting to observe the actual production of Asian sounds and to discover their various instrumental sources. The lilting quaver of a stringed instrument familiar in the music of the Orient was traced to the “bocquyen,” a narrow wooden box with a single string plucked while a delicately curved lever at the end of the string is manipulated to produce slides and vibratos. The music was lovely and the performance quite adept, or so it seemed to Western eyes and ears. The room, however, was quite busy and somewhat close. It was good that we had scheduled a more private reception on the previous night for introductions, for this venue would not have served the purpose. Wine and beer were liberally dispensed by our hosts, and the spirit of the group seemed well restored by the afternoon rest. Conversation was quite intense. The eight course meal was exotic but entirely appealing in its presentation and array of flavors. At the end of the banquet we celebrated Jeannie Lindsay’s birthday with a large chocolate layer cake and a monumental bouquet of orchids. W&L passengers are well advised that in completing registration forms with passport information their birthdays are duly noted as opportunities for festive occasions . . . and chocolate.
Our tour today began with a visit to the Temple of Literature, established in the year 1070 to honor the Chinese philosopher Confucius. As a temple, it is a place of worship, but it remains better known as a place of study. Over eighty stele record the names and a few personal details of scholars who passed examinations here during the Middle Ages. The giant stone stele stand atop immense tortoises carved from stone, symbols of wisdom. The Temple consists of five courtyards with pools covered with lotus blossoms, lawns shaded by ancient trees, and a symmetrical pattern of walkways. Set apart from the commotion of contemporary Hanoi, the Temple offers a place of tranquility as welcome today as when it was first constructed.
It proved to be a place of peace and learning for us as well. After meandering through the courtyards, we gathered at a far pavilion for a lecture by a local historian Dr. Huu Ngoc, a time-weathered, wispy-haired octogenarian, somewhat frail in appearance, who has published extensively on Vietnamese culture and history. He has also written a popular book on American culture, the cover of which displays images of the Statue of Liberty and Mickey Mouse. Following a respectful introduction, Dr. Ngoc gamely summarized 3,000 years of Vietnamese history, referring frequently to a whiteboard chart on which he had demarcated Vietnam’s principle epochs. He associated the birth of Vietnamese culture with the Red River rice civilization that once flourished in this very neighborhood. A thousand miles to the north was its counterpart, the Yellow River civilization. It was clear thus from the beginning that Dr. Ngoc would establish clear differences between Vietnam and China. “We are not Chinese,” he asserted repeatedly in his thin voice, “we have never wanted to be Chinese.” The civilization to the north along the Yellow River, he explained, is associated with the bronze urn while for the Red River people the archaeological symbol is the bronze drum. In Vietnamese lore, the latter culture depended crucially on rain to sustain their agriculture and thus would use the drum to call upon the gods’ favor. Dr. Ngoc then spoke of Vietnam’s domination by people from the north, the 2,000 years of “Chinese occupation” that lasted until the arrival of the French in 1858. Moving his slender, pale arms together and apart, he characterized Vietnam’s relationship with both the Chinese and the French as periods of attraction and resistance, acknowledging that Vietnam drew some of its culture from outside influences yet also struggled to preserve its inherent cultural identity. The French period ended with the arrival of Ho Chi Minh in 1945. Ho, he explained, originally sought freedom for the Vietnamese people within the French sphere of influence. That denied, Vietnam undertook a struggle for its independence that would take 30 years to achieve. In that period, over 5,000,000 people would die in the effort.
Dr. Ngoc spent considerable time at this point recounting the life of Ho Chi Minh. The account proved to be rather more of a beatification than an historical narrative. Still, one must acknowledge that the aged need their heroes as much as the young, and every nation requires a founder cleansed of the darker aspects of liberation. The eyes of his audience grew rather starry for several minutes. More relevant to the present occasion was his explanation of several major challenges that the Vietnamese have faced since independence in 1975: feeding itself, catching up with the rest of the world, overcoming its own economic crisis, and preserving its national security. Vietnam’s economic salvation has been rice and oil, goods that have helped sustain a market economy, promote privatization and competition, and welcome foreign investment and exchange. The hazard of the modern period, in his view, has been the threat posed by Vietnam’s open door policies to her cultural identity. Dr. Ngoc is clearly nervous over the concepts of individualism and human rights. He explained that traditionally the Vietnamese people have defined themselves in terms of family and society. Rather than a crass singularity in first and second person pronouns, the Vietnamese language has over 30 personal pronouns, each incorporating family, cultural, and social identity. Rather than human rights, the Vietnamese have traditionally embraced human duties, a Confucian predisposition. The value of this sense of self, he explained, is that the Vietnamese are never alone philosophically, psychologically, and culturally.
Dr. Ngoc concluded his remarks with an explanation of several new challenges resulting from Vietnam’s increasing wealth and position. These include the questions of how to assimilate a newly rich population, how to maintain a strong defense against its neighbors (China again), how to assure equity among its citizens, how to fight corruption, how to promote democracy, and how to preserve its cultural traditions. As an historian, he felt no need to supply measures to overcome these challenges, only to affirm what must be preserved. But his clarity and general optimism as well as his obvious warmth toward his audience endeared him to us. We gave him enthusiastic applause, for he had provided us with several useful paradigms for understanding Vietnam as well as a living exponent of the very ideals he espoused.
During the final few minutes of Dr. Ngoc’s remarks, we could hear the high-pitched, happy voices of small children playing in the courtyard outside the pavilion. When we emerged from the lecture, we could see them, lining up now with their teachers bent over in supervision, preparing them to make a proper exit. Fortunately for us, they lingered for a few minutes so that we could greet and photograph them. It was a fitting conclusion to Dr. Ngoc’s message, this brief, precious encounter with the newest generation of Vietnamese waving and smiling at us, welcoming our interest and good will. Starry eyes all around.
The rest of the day was somewhat anticlimactic. We lingered for several minutes on the grounds of the Temple of Literature, attending first Tan’s description of the importance of the stele, and then just moseying about on our own, peering into the great pavilions, photographing the many expressions of the Oriental picturesque to be found here, shopping for souvenirs, or resting in the shade with friends new and old. Thereafter, we took a leisurely coach ride through more of Hanoi’s neighborhoods, pausing briefly by Truc Bach Lake, where John McCain’s fighter went down. We then took our lunch at a restaurant named Nam Phuong, another pleasant establishment apparently owned by our principal greeter and server, a strangely tall, rather robust Vietnamese gentleman sporting a long flowing gown of purple over curling slippers. He breezed confidently about the room with a certain lightness-of-foot. Several photographs along the staircase displayed many images of our host posing in garments of increasing flamboyance beside various prominent patrons.
Thereafter, we visited Hanoi’s newest museum, the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology. Our guide here was a Dr. Thuy, an anthropologist and ethnologist, who explained—somewhat to our dismay as well as surprise—that Vietnam comprised 54 ethnic groups belonging to five ethnolinguistic families. The tour that followed was at first impressive as we surveyed the vivid exhibitions demarcating the various ethnic lines in Vietnam’s cultural heritage. But soon the visit grew rather tedious. It was difficult if not impossible for our large group to follow Dr. Thuy about the crowded galleries and to understand what quickly became a bewildering catalog of separate anthropological roots and cultural traditions—where was Dr. Ngoc when we needed him! Add to this the basic challenge of visiting a museum directly after lunch. But here, after all, was a new spin on our understanding of the people of Vietnam, their distinctive rituals and folklore. No more an amorphous herd of motorbike commuters, the Vietnamese carried in their blood a thousand colors. The Museum of Ethnology deserved much more time and attention than our schedule allowed. There was much here to ponder. Further, with its array of meticulously reconstructed ethnic houses and communal structures, the grounds of the Museum presented equally impressive exhibits. By this point of the day, however, the heat was beginning to bear down on us. Few were late for the departure at 3:30.
We then attended a private performance of water puppets. The show today afforded us seats in the shade as well as a dramatic introduction to another Vietnamese tradition. One of Vietnam’s most ancient performing arts, water puppetry dates back to the twelfth century. Traditionally, it is associated with peasants who favored water puppetry as a distraction from their labors in the rice paddies. On our visit, Tan took us first through the process by which the wooden puppets are carved from the wood of fig trees and painted with sufficient density of lacquer to endure many months of three shows daily in the water. We then went back stage to meet a few of the puppeteers clad in their wetsuits. The performance itself, accompanied by two vocalists, a percussionist, a flute player, and a string player, lasted 30 minutes. Afterwards, three of the puppeteers waded out from behind the stage to demonstrate the means whereby they manipulate the puppets and to answer any of our questions. Especially noticeable to us were their muscular forearms and hands. Arguably, water puppetry is a cultural tradition more readily enjoyed by Vietnamese children than by American adults—some members of our group attended the show with their chins resting on their chests. But, if the shades were up, here was another window onto the colorful cultural landscape of Vietnam.
On the drive back to our hotel, we got immersed in Hanoi’s rush hour. The slow pace was helpful for a closer study of the life of the streets and the remarkable adroitness with which young and old alike maneuver their motorbikes through Hanoi’s crowded intersections. Several exclamations by those sitting in the front seats of our bus were heard in the back seats. Apparently, the maneuvers are harrowing at times and not always successful—hence, the government’s decision to require all motorbike riders to wear a helmet beginning in December. Tan reported that traffic cops are well paid, both above and below the ticket pad, as it were. Though we spied a few along the way, their effect on the organized chaos of the streets was difficult to detect.
Dinner this evening was independent. Several stayed in the hotel and ordered hamburgers.
The morning broke clear and bright on moving day. We were heading today for the muggy south. Although a change of scenery on such a progress would be welcome, folks had come to feel oddly at home in Hanoi. And leaving such clear, relatively mild weather behind for the tropical climate of Saigon was not an altogether favorable prospect. Following breakfast, we packed our luggage and set it out for collection, Barbara Batey laboring mightily to keep an accurate count while fielding numerous questions. Before departure, we had a visit from the Travel Assistant at the United States Embassy, Nguyen Minh Quan. Mr. Quan was not the representative we had hoped for, but he served well enough for those who could hear his soft voice out on the hotel’s noisy pool deck in answering questions about tourism today and life in Vietnam.
At 11:00 A.M., we met in the lobby of the Metropole, dodging the myriad bellhops and hostesses, the latter sylph-like in their slender grace and ao dai attire, and awaited our final instructions. Barbara’s reliable smile was ready. The bus arrived on time, we deposited our carry-ons at curbside, and boarded the bus for our next stop, lunch at the Seasons of Hanoi restaurant on the way to the airport. The meal was not a culinary triumph, but the place was clean and the company good.
Hanoi’s domestic terminal is impressive—contemporary, efficient, and relaxed. We arrived barely an hour before departure, sufficient time, apparently, for a nation untroubled by threats from Al Qaeda. The flight to Saigon via a Vietnam Airways 777 was full. Most of the passengers were quiet young Vietnamese men, neatly dressed and no doubt intent on free enterprise. The flight took less than two hours. Our descent was long and somewhat tentative, for the pilot had to navigate a thick layer of cloud. Eventually, new geometries of urban and rural life emerged below us, somewhat less tightly organized than Hanoi’s, but seemingly just as densely populated. Once on the ground, we passed quickly through arrivals since we didn’t have to worry about luggage. Our awaiting bus soon carried us through a new maze of streets. A light rain began to fall. Gradually, the horde of motorbike riders paused one-by-one on the shoulder of the road to put on rain ponchos. Life in Vietnam’s largest city continued apace.
We checked into the five-star Caravelle Hotel, famous from the Vietnam War era and now an elegant high-rise business hotel. Tan was obviously happy to be back in his home town. For one thing, he would be able to spend a couple of nights at home with his wife and five-year old son—another son would be arriving in December, he beamed. But Tan is also a “southerner” and much prefers the life style, atmosphere, and attitude of the Saigon area. He also prefers Southern cooking. “Wait until you see the restaurant tonight,” he teased. “The food and the presentations very nice! Be sure to bring your cameras.” We certainly were not disappointed. Dinner at the Mandarin Restaurant was clearly the best meal we had had thus far on the trip. Every one of the several courses was lovely and delicious, from the soft shell crab to the grouper—even the tofu was tasty. The presentation, as Tan had promised, was artful, indeed—here, packaging was equal in importance to flavor. It was a great evening, though the rain was beginning to plague us with its persistence. Tan later explained that a monsoon was off the coast in the China Sea and would likely affect our weather for a couple of days. So much for the pattern of 20-minute rains followed by clear skies.
Once back at the hotel and fortified by our meal, several of us repaired to the legendary Saigon Saigon Bar on the top floor. Just inside the door, a local rock band hammered out popular rock songs, two lithe young women in black dancing with microphones as they sang cover songs. The room thrummed with rock ‘n roll, a singles scene. Here the new Vietnam had embraced a culture far removed from the memory of war and nationalism. America was alive and well with this generation through its principal export, popular culture. Several of us, including the aging Professor Machado, succumbed to the temptations of the dance floor.
Barbara had announced a choice two days ago of two options for this day: a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels, followed by a city tour in the afternoon, or a longer city tour in the morning followed by a free afternoon. To our surprise, even with Tan’s rather discouraging description of the tunnels and claustrophobia, the large majority of the group chose the Cu Chi Tunnels option. The 90-minute drive to the Cu Chi district northwest of Saigon gave us a good chance to view more of the daily life of the city and its surroundings, as well as to hear more of Tan’s explanations. We departed at 7:30, so part of what we saw was the phenomenon of rush hour by motorbike—literally thousands of motorbikes forming rivers of wheeled humanity surrounding relatively sparse automobile and truck traffic, pooling up behind stoplights as far back a the eye could see, then surging forward at the changing of the light like the flood from a broken dam. Traffic thinned somewhat at the outskirts of the city, though again the Vietnamese were everywhere. Life was lived on the street here, and every storefront or shop seemed as much a social center as a place of commerce.
Once outside the city, we saw lush green fields with grazing water buffalo, though, unlike the countryside around Hanoi, the landscape of the south suggested a persistent advance of forest vegetation, as if a tropical jungle were trying to reclaim its former hold. The word “Saigon” translates “forest of gon,” Vietnamese for the kapok trees indigenous to the area. We arrived at the Cu Chi Tunnel complex shortly after 9:00. Clearly, the Vietnamese government had invested considerable sums in making the place a tourist venue. The entrance complex is a large, modern building with ample space for conferences, shops, food emporia, and public restrooms. After Tan purchased our tickets, we drove into the new growth forest—much of the original forest of the area had been destroyed by Agent Orange during the war. At our stop, we were joined by a 61-year old guide, a veteran of the Viet Cong who had fought for many years in the Cu Chi district, losing his arm in the process though surviving many years of engagement as part of the subterranean guerilla army. Over 50,000 Vietnamese had lost their lives in the Cu Chi District alone, nearly as many as all the Americans during the war.
We walked along some paths in the forest for awhile, pausing to look at a stack of unexploded bomb shells and a manikin display of some Viet Cong regulars. Then, while we sat at a shelter displaying a map and a side-view model of the tunnels, Tan translated our guide’s description of the 150-mile tunnel complex, a multi-layered transit system that included large chambers for habitation, dining, medical care, and meetings. The first tunnels were carved out of the hard clay of the region in the 1950s during the war against the French, then later expanded during “the American war.” A large American military base stood virtually above one of the tunnels. One could imagine at once the extreme difficulty the Americans had faced in fighting such an enemy and, on the other side, the difficulty of living in such a claustrophobic environment.
At the end of the presentation, the guide offered a message of peace, a reminder of our human brotherhood, lest we find, perhaps, any boasting in the crude technology of the Vietnamese victory. Most of the group ventured into a couple of tunnels, stooping over to manage the single-file passage from the entrance to the meeting chamber at the end. Although the tunnels have been enlarged somewhat to accommodate tourists, they offered a glimpse of what life must have been like during the dark days of warfare. Near the paths one could still see several B-52 bomb craters. Some of these had managed to collapse portions of the network during the war, though the Vietnamese rebuilt the tunnels as soon as they were destroyed, using the craters as holes for the fill removed from underground. Also on display here were several examples of jungle traps used to kill and maim ground forces. These were especially chilling reminders of the ingenuity of the Viet Cong as well as the extraordinary hazard faced by American ground troops on patrol. While we were visiting one of the exhibition shelters displaying a variety of these traps, a heavy rain began to fall. Although it made a mess of our visit, at least it offered some distraction from the macabre. Folks donned their plastic ponchos (three for a dollar) and headed out through the inevitable gift shop back to the bus parking lot, bidding our guide farewell.
After the long, rather sleepy return to the city, we met up with the few who had chosen the city tour option and then took lunch at the Nam Kha Restaurant, another elegant establishment with a fine array of specialties, though it is becoming apparent that some members of our group are beginning to weary of Vietnamese fare. Thereafter, the tunnel group had the option of a brief visit to the War Remnants Museum, a harrowing experience for some with its galleries of graphic photographs reminding visitors of the carnage suffered by the Vietnamese at the hands of the American invaders. Afterwards, people used the free time to nap at the hotel or shop, though the typhoon off the coast of the China Sea continued to make the weather rather dicey.
At 6:00 P.M., we enjoyed an informal gathering with a W&L alumna of the Law School, Lee Mason Baker, class of 1986. She had agreed to meet us for a drink at the Saigon Saigon bar. Lee and her husband have lived in Saigon for twelve years, moving here after Hong Kong had been turned over to the Chinese. She worked for several years as a lawyer for the U.S. Vietnam Trade Council, then served a term as president of the Saigon Chamber of Commerce. She is now employed by an Australian law firm to help with foreign investment contracts, though she and her husband devote much of their time to managing five small but “thriving” businesses. She recounted how the early years of their life here were boom times, but then the bubble burst and many American enterprises either left or lost interest in investing in Vietnam. Recently, however, prospects have begun to recover. The region’s economic development has been steadier and trade relations have been stabilized by the formal U.S. Vietnam trade agreement of 2001. Lee allows that she and her husband think about returning to Lexington from time to time with their two children, aged seven and ten, though the opportunities here are hard to forego. She also believes that her two children, now fluent in Vietnamese and French as well as English, are receiving an excellent education and have a more promising future here. The children are educated at an international school. The Bakers live in a regular house (“though we cannot own it, of course”) with a nanny for the children and a driver for the car. “I’ve never owned a motorbike,” Lee offered, shuddering at the prospect.
Following the gathering, during which Lee circulated well among the various tables as an expatriate ambassador of her adopted country, we took some photos for the Alumni Magazine (“Where in the world is Lee?”), then dispersed for independent dining. Some ventured out for another go at the Mandarin Restaurant, but most took a light meal in the hotel and retired early in anticipation of our Mekong River cruise tomorrow. It is safe to say that we were ready to depart now. Our visit to Saigon had been largely about the Vietnam War—“ain’t gonna study war no more” rang in our minds. Now was the time for another view of Vietnam, the timeless one of life in the Delta.
I’m sitting on the rattan chair outside my cabin on the R.V. Mekong Pandaw as it plows upriver from My Tho. It is the first afternoon of a seven-day river cruise that will carry us some 500 miles from My Tho, Vietnam, to Siem Reap, Cambodia. The warm wind is steady and cleansing. The muddy red-brown Mekong slides by, bearing its traffic of sand barges, crowded ferries, sampans, and the small, narrow tuc-tuc boats, called “tac rang” by the Vietnamese. These latter are the ubiquitous runabouts of Southeast Asian waterways, one- or two-person craft powered by noisy outboard engines connected to long, adjustable drive shafts that enable the boats to navigate shallow waters as well as deep. Lush clumps of water hyacinth glide by, snippets of a giant watercress salad upstream. Some of these will be collected by the people along the river as further bits of the river’s bounty. Everything that the Mekong delivers is useful in some way—the word “Mekong” itself is a contraction of “Mother Nature’s bounty.” The river, rimmed by a low green forest, is as broad as a lake at this point on its long course down from its headwaters in the snows of Tibet. The Mekong that bears us is one of nine branches coursing through the Delta, an alluvial plane of its own making, on its way to the South China Sea, some 30 miles farther downstream. The sky is an enormous canopy of hazy blue with a few distant cumulus sailing high over the horizon. The monsoon that affected our weather in Saigon evidently has blown through. Everything is at peace now. After days of intense urban encampment, this is a mighty fine place to rest a spell.
Our final day in Saigon began with a lecture by Barry on Ho Chi Minh. Basing most of his remarks on William Duiker’s biography, Ho Chi Minh (2000), Barry set out carefully to dispute a few of the sanitized accounts of Ho’s life as offered by Dr. Ngoc a few days ago. Particularly galling to Barry was Dr. Ngoc’s comparison of Ho with Gandhi: “mind the gap,” Barry noted, referring to the distance between actual history and the uses, or “misuses,” that interpreters make of it to suit their own purposes. In summarizing the major events of Ho’s life, Barry referred often to the extraordinary good fortune that Ho enjoyed at a number of turns in the long winding road of his political life. He was born in 1890 in the village of Hoang Tru in central Vietnam near Hue to a Confucian scholar of the Mandarin class. An exceptional student, Ho became fluent in five languages, including English. Giving himself a calling at a young age, Ho set out to liberate his people and remained devoted to the task his entire life, despite 33 years of travel abroad, 1911-1944. While in Europe, Ho fell under the spell of socialist ideologies and might well have been subsumed in the Stalinist camp of the communist movement—proponents of which were notoriously short-lived—had not World War II arrived. That Ho was saved thus by Hitler, and later by the estrangement between China and Russia, is part of the irony that somehow charmed and preserved Ho’s life—“while executions, fatal illnesses, and general mayhem were happening all around him,” Barry noted wryly, “Ho always landed on his feet. A complex Machiavellian, he brilliantly navigated communist waters as they roiled and boiled between Beijing and Moscow.” Never in any way a disciple of Gandhi, Ho sought to smash his enemies. “He accepted Lenin’s morality, even though he later denied that he was a communist. . . . Mainly an ardent nationalist, Ho used communist alliances to achieve Vietnamese independence.”
Throughout the talk, Tan stood with a faint smile of intelligent curiosity. His hands held the Chicago Cubs tee shirt that Barry had presented him with obviously sincere gratitude for his service on the trip and, perhaps, as a preemptive consolation for any distress his remarks on the Father of Vietnam might cause Tan. But Tan seemed untroubled by Barry’s “corrective reflection” and, at the end of the session, grateful again for the gratuity that he received from the group for his five days of excellent service to us.
We left Tan and Saigon at 9:30 for the 60-mile drive to My Tho. Joining us for the drive was Thoai (pronounced “Tu-oy”), the first of two guides who would lead us on the three-day Vietnam portion of our river trip. Thoai’s enthusiasm for his job became quickly apparent. Indeed, he seemed to suffer from an excess of happiness in describing much that was already apparent to us, as well as a good deal of what was not. Most useful, perhaps, were extended disquisitions on tonal variance in Vietnamese language pronunciation, rice agriculture, and fish farming. These he delivered with such gleeful emphasis that his style occasionally seemed to triumph over his subject. But we had much to survey as we rolled out of the city and out into the broad, flat countryside of the Mekong Delta. We made a stop halfway along to photograph a line of rice farmers replanting rice stalks into orderly rows “to increase production, yah!” Tuoy exclaimed with a broad, toothy smile. It was good to get off the bus as well and just stand beside the road as the incessant traffic of Highway One buzzed by and to peer into a few roadside establishments and to be at eye level with their proprietors. Perhaps one of the instances of inevitable awkwardness felt by Americans in visiting Vietnam today is that we seem to pass through the country “above the ground,” as it were. Travelers on foot suffer less often from this, of course, but we were definitely not following the backpacker route.
The port at My Tho is, like virtually all of the towns we had passed through, a place of hard work and little glamour. Indeed, if there was one phrase that could be applied universally to what we had seen on our two-hour transfer this morning it would be “steady industry.” The quay where we found the Mekong Pandaw was stacked with evenly cut poles, slender trunks of the melalucca tree, the dense, waterproof wood that is used here to shore up structures built along the shore or as fences for fish farms. Some young men had found several loose poles and were dragging them out of the brown current at the shore. They smiled up at us from their labors, curious about our curiosity.
The Mekong Pandaw itself was not an offense to the area in its appearance—no dislocation of sensibility here. The pandaw boat design is modeled on the river craft built for the British in the nineteenth century for travel on the Irrawaddy River in Burma. Several years ago, an enterprising Scot named Paul Strachan seized on the likely appeal of this sort of antique conveyance, thoroughly modernized, of course, for Western travel. The first boats were built for the Irrawaddy, but two were sent to Vietnam in 2002 and have been busy every since. Somewhat chunky in appearance, the pandaw boats hold between 40 and 60 passengers, who have a choice of cabins on three decks. The top deck—the sun deck—runs the length of the ship and is generously furnished with deck chairs and a bar. The interior of the vessel’s public spaces is pleasant: the beadboard paneling and hardwood floors give it a rustic appearance, the rattan furnishings provide a tropical ambiance, and the fabrics are muted, clean, and practical. The cabins are nicely appointed with all of the conveniences, including a large shower, substantial though occasionally balky plumbing, new air conditioning, fairly spacious twin beds with firm mattresses, a hair dryer, and fresh flowers. Service on board is outstanding; the crew is a mixture of Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Burmese men and women, all about the height of 13-year olds. The lunch that was served to us shortly after arrival offered considerable reassurance for the remainder of the voyage.
Our first call that afternoon was Cai Bei some 30 miles upriver from My Tho. The Mekong Pandaw dropped anchor at midstream on the river, running its engine against the ten-mile an hour current so as not to put too much strain on the anchor chain. Boarding narrow wooden tenders at 4:30 P.M., we crossed the river and entered the tributary that serves as Cai Bei’s main street. We encountered a great deal of river traffic here. Most of the houseboat freighters, somewhat dilapidated in appearance, had already taken their place in the channel for the floating market tomorrow. On some boats, families had gathered on the small aft deck to do household chores. On others, the work of the day continued in loading or offloading fruits and vegetables and all manner of products. Common among the boats was a pair of eyes painted as decoration on the bow. Thoai explained that the tradition is centuries old and extends the myth that boats must deceive the creatures of the sea into thinking that dragons passed overhead. So the boatmen had the eyes of a dragon painted in such a way that they appeared to be peering into the depths. Ancient boats also sported a dragon’s tail painted on the rudder for added protection. The cruise up the channel was made fascinating by the colorful life that we found on the water and the crowded shoreline. Indeed, there was no place familiar to rest the eye except the sky. It did not matter, for this was a visual feast, a veritable smorgasbord of Vietnamese river life. Cameras clicked incessantly.
After about a half hour of this absorption, we landed on shore for a short walk through Cai Bei to the town’s oldest house. We passed through a neighborhood of small open houses and patios along a narrow path of concrete slabs. From time to time, we would step aside to let a beeping motorbike or bicycle by. We never encountered any impatience. Thoai, an extraordinarily knowledgeable guide, would talk about virtually everything on our path, from the local business of loganberry baking to the immense variety of plants that we met along the way. Most interesting to us, no doubt, were the faces of the townspeople, young and old alike—certainly nothing exotic to Thoai’s way of thinking, but to us the face of a wholly different people, a wholly different life. After about 15 minutes of strolling, we reached our destination, a colonial structure, much of it restored, housing a vast variety of antique furniture and objets d’art left over from the French colonial era and handed down, Thoai explained, through succeeding generation’s to the family’s youngest daughter. We met the present owner, a wizened old lady, thin as an eight-year old girl, chewing betel nut, the energizing, somewhat addictive confection of Southeast Asia. She smiled and bowed self-consciously as we idled through the rooms crowded with the remnants of empire. Behind the house was a garden that Thoai, a thorough-going botanist, was eager to share with us. This we enjoyed also, wondering at the strange fruits and beautiful flowers. Gradually, the light began to fade toward twilight, so it was time to begin making our return.
The cruise out of the town was equally picturesque. It was as if the citizens of Cai Bei were hastening home, however humble their circumstances might be. Everyone in this homely little corner in the human family seemed to have a place to go before night fell. As we glided out of the port at twilight and onto the river, the western sky showed the embers of sunset. In the distance, we could see the lights of the Mekong Pandaw, our new home waiting for us.
Soon after we were aboard, the boat’s purser Jude gave us a briefing over cocktails on the activities for the following day. The schedule was difficult to follow, for every place was “foreign,” and many of us were still somewhat dizzy with wonder over what we had just observed. The dinner that followed had an excellent variety of Vietnamese dishes. Table conversation revealed in its volume and good humor not only an excitement over the day but obvious pleasure in the company and the meal at hand. The evening program called for a performance of traditional Vietnamese cultural music following dinner, but few stayed for the entire show. The singers and the musicians were charming, but the music required a more thorough introduction to atonality and unfamiliar rhythms of Asian melodies. We were well tired, after all. Some of us could hear the strains of the music through the ceilings of our cabins—close enough perhaps, and so good night.
At breakfast this morning, most people reported having slept soundly. We had been rocked gently on the breast of the Mekong and were now well restored. That was good news, for we had a full morning planned today.
We boarded our local tenders at 8:00 A.M. and motored across the busy river to Cai Bei again to tour the floating market. The river was crowded with more houseboats and rattletrap wooden freighters vending a great variety of agricultural and forest products: a watermelon boat, a recycled lumber boat, a small boat filled with bananas, another with bags of ash used for fertilizer, another with neatly stacked melalucca branches used as poles for fish traps. Wending among them and snapping photographs, we even managed to spy the odd phou noodle vendor dispensing his savory delectation from the kitchen of his boat. Territorial dogs perched on tight footing barked at our passing, ragamuffin children waved back at us while mothers glanced up for a moment at our passing, visitors from another galaxy. Meanwhile, lean, muscular men, bronze to the waist, lifted and heaved, a tropical sun hammering down on them even at mid-morning. We were transfixed by it all. Like town markets everywhere in the developing world, Cai Bei’s floating market was a timeless expression of a community’s cooperative effort in the race against starvation. But passing this close to the life lived in that exchange gave us, the citizens of the supermarket world, a more vivid sense, however fleeting, of its sweat and grime, its fresh, unfrozen texture.
Following this fascinating glide through local commerce, we visited Cuu Long (“nine dragons,” the Delta’s name for the Mekong). The establishment is a loose amalgam of small factories and shops devoted to loganberry baking, rice popping, rice treat and coconut candy manufacturing, and rice paper production. We toured the dimly lit complex for a good hour, learning from Thoai the different food product production processes. Especially interesting was the rice popper, a young man who wordlessly went through his ballet of heating black sand in a huge iron bowl, then pouring a scoop of dry rice into the sand, stirring it as it popped, then scooping the puffs out with the sand, sifting it so that the sand could fall back into the bowl, then transferring it again to another sifter for the removal of the rice husks. He barely acknowledged our interest. At a nearby station, two men working in close tandem stirred a sweet syrup into the puffs in another large bowl, then rolled out the sticky mixture in a large pan for cutting and stacking—rice crispy treat! Life in the Delta had its confections, after all. We sampled the sticky, warm mass as well as wee bits of the coconut candy manufactured in the next station, then photographed the amazingly simple process by which rice paper is produced. Looking back, we could see that all the workers continued at their jobs, their focus and the rhythmic movements of their repetitive labors apparently undisturbed by our visit. Thereafter, we accepted the inevitable cup of tea supplied by the retail end of the market, then shopped among products mostly unrelated to what we had just studied. Every group of tourists is fair game. Several succumbed.
Boarding our tenders again, we motored further downstream to make a brief visit to yet another garden, then headed out across the river for our next stops, Vinh Long and Binh Hoa Phuoc Island. Thoai wanted to show us more of the natural world, so after winding through some canals we pulled in near the village of Vinh Long, where we took another stroll to visit a Bonsai garden and enjoy some fresh fruit and a cup of tea. One of the locals arrived with his pet python, a massively thick serpent, cool and dry to the touch, for a bit of show and tell. A few members of our group were eager to know its heft, so the snake handler draped the python about their shoulders while cameras clicked and the wedge-headed serpent flicked his tongue. Not everyone, apparently, had a chance to try his nerve, for the demands of our schedule soon called us away. On Binh Hoa Phuoc Island, we took a long ride through the island’s narrow canals. Thoai identified the island as a stronghold for the Viet Cong during the war. It was easy to imagine the difficulty the Marines and later the Ninth Division had in patrolling the dense forest and bushwhack canals. Even in peacetime, the narrow channels made it seem somewhat treacherous. At one point, a red-banded viper wriggled across the surface of the canal as if intent on nipping our boat—no invaders are welcome here.
Thereafter, we motored out onto the river again, crossing it to the southern bank for a tour of a brick and pottery factory. Giant kilns dominate the interior, each one baking over the course of two months tens of thousands of bricks and other ceramic products. The fires are fed by tons of rice husks, the ash used for fertilizer—“nothing is wasted in Vietnam, yah!” Thoai pronounced with a broad smile. The factory, a private enterprise, employs about 40 people by Thoai’s estimate. No forklift, Tom Herman observed. “Right,” Thoai nodded, “we have handcarts. Very efficient.” Today was Sunday, the workers’ holiday, no doubt a welcome opportunity for back massages. Except for the occasional barking of a guard dog, the place had a spooky quiet. The faces of the clay lions and elfin Santa Clauses, fresh from their molds and awaiting the kilns, seemed to gaze in frozen anticipation toward the myriad destinations of Vietnam’s surging world trade.
We returned to the Mekong Pandaw for lunch and then a leisurely afternoon of cruising. We were heading for Chau Doc, a good 90 miles upriver, a voyage that would take us the rest of the day and well into the night. Several used the time for reading and napping on the sun deck or just watching the steady traffic of the Mekong. We passed several cranes wheeling about on barges, dropping their enormous jaws with a splash into the brown river, and then, with a roar of their diesel engines and groan of cables on pulleys, lifting dripping loads of black sand, and swinging them about onto awaiting barge transports. Apparently impressed by such industry and unable to rest, a few in our group decided to speed walk around the deck for an hour or so.
At 4:30, Thoai and Thanh offered tandem talks on the history and modern economy of Vietnam. Thoai spoke well and clearly for 50 minutes, tracing the long history of Vietnam’s ultimately successful struggle against successive invaders, from the Mongols and Chinese to the French and Cambodians. Not surprisingly, the major part of his talk was devoted to Ho Chi Minh, familiar territory by now—Barry’s eyebrows twitched at several intervals. Thanh’s talk was less successful, though, mercifully, not as long. The room grew dim and chilly as the afternoon sun went down. Still most folks stayed for the question session. The subject here was Vietnam’s curious marriage of communist government with a free market economy. Thoai and Thanh seemed untroubled by the paradox, while we were clearly preoccupied by it.
The menu for dinner this evening offered some Western options: grilled chicken mashed potatoes, and egg plant. Folks chose that option almost unanimously over the “marinated river fish”—yikes! Dessert was a fruit crêpe, though the menu listed it as a “pancake.” “Have you noticed,” Barry observed, “how thoroughly the Vietnamese have expunged all traces of the despised French language?”
Jude’s summary of today’s itinerary last evening was hard to follow. He had used so many strange words to describe visits to odd places that it was difficult if not impossible to know quite what we were getting into today. But the day turned out to be wondrous strange in the doing.
We departed the Mekong Pandaw at 8:00 A.M. via a 60-passenger local tender, a narrow, noisy powerboat that took us on a one-hour cruise to Chau Doc via the Tan Chau Canal. The ride itself was a pleasure, the steady thrum of the engine, the rolling swirl of the wake off the bow, and the endless fascinations of the Mekong landscape teasing us into a meditation on alien lives. As always, the company was good as well. Never one to miss an opportunity for edification, Thoai used the time to explain the unusual environment of the region. The low-lying land on both sides of the canal had long been a flood plain between two large branches of the Mekong River. In their unstinting drive for additional habitable land, the Vietnamese had long ago dug a series of drainage canals, building up the land on both sides so that the land might accommodate houses and modest fields for single-crop agriculture. According to Thoai, maps of the area show a landscape that looks like “etched leather.” The floods still come annually between mid-September and mid-December, following the snow melt in the high Himalayas of Tibet and the rains that deluge the Mekong River Basin for much of the late spring and summer. Water level variance can be ten feet or more. Canals help to drain the land, though life here remains challenging, especially for the chronic shortage of clean water. Most of the grounded houses that we saw along the way were built on stilts. But the majority of the residences were fish farms, simple, one-story houses constructed of corrugated sheet metal and placed on rafts made of empty barrels, bamboo, or kayaks along the canal. Below each house were several lower chambers—a submarine hothouse—devoted to commercial fish production. Thoai estimated that the Chau Doc area has over 2,000 fish farms. The average production of fish by each farm is 45-50 tons annually. Thus, the area produces some 100,000 tons or 200,000,000 pounds of fish each year, much of it for the export market.
We arrived at Chau Doc at 9:00 and once ashore divided into two groups, Thoai’s group nearly twice the size of poor, well-meaning Thanh’s. Thoai’s group set off on a stroll through the market first, while Thanh’s took the trishaw (or bicycle rickshaw) ride through the town. For the riders, once we were able to accomplish boarding in the rather unwieldy seat behind the driver, the trishaw experience was great fun. We rolled through the narrow streets of Chau Doc, causing a momentary stir of curiosity among the townspeople as we passed, though only the children attempted to greet us—“hella, hella!” Thanh narrated part of the route, pointing out recent construction for the newly wealthy and an impressive kindergarten building. Like other towns and cities we had seen thus far in Vietnam, Chau Doc was busy with commerce, from dress shop owners to the humblest sidewalk food vendors. All was in motion, and everyone had something to sell.
Once we had reached the town center, we abandoned the trishaws to the walking group and began our stroll through the nearby market. This was a very intense experience, an occasion ripe for agoraphobia. Some members of our group adjusted their handbags to keep them close, while others worked on steady breathing exercises. We ambled single file down a narrow lane through crowds of diminutive townspeople chattering in the high-pitched tonal lilt of the Vietnamese language. The lane was flanked by vendors, some on raised platforms just above eye level, who welcomed our passing regard in words we could not begin to understand—“no thanks, just taking photos.” Some stalls along the route were hung with decorative lanterns, parasols, and myriad bright unnecessaries. “Who buys this stuff?” The path was often wet and slimy from spillage and litter, the flotsam and jetsam of commerce in close spaces. At one stall, a woman was having her left arm festooned with a great number of small suction tubes, a kind of acupuncture, Thanh explained. By now, blood had seeped into each vial. A glance down side streets revealed the same inescapable clutter of trade traffic—we were just in it and had no place to go but through it. Not surprisingly, much of the market was devoted to fish. Varieties of fresh, pickled, and dried fish, the muddy Mekong’s bounty, were available on both sides of the lane: orange fillets laid out in glowing rows beside limp, whiskered catfish and suckers still slick from the catch, gelatinous mounds of pickled fish bits, and headless wedges of desiccated perch, their fins as crisp as Doritos. “Who eats this stuff?” Almost all of the vendors were women, most of them smiling at our curiosity. Though to their minds we might have come from another planet, they were not dismayed, for they had lived here a thousand years and had long ago learned to endure visits from strangers. Children running freely about or helping at the store, a thousand different faces young and old, the bizarre variety of natural and manufactured products, and the intense color and thickness of the palette—the market was a photographer’s general store.
We met the other group shortly thereafter at a riverside inn, used the facilities, then stepped across a rickety wooden pier (OSHA would be aghast) to board water taxis for a visit to a fish farm. We were careful to keep balance in boarding the water craft, minding our heads as well as the distribution of weight, but once we were settled the pilot fired his outboard engine we roared off on the Tan Chau Canal again. The fish farm that Thoai had chosen was one of the larger ones in the area. As simple and spare as the interior of the house seemed, the owner’s family at least seemed clean, healthy, and prosperous. On the open porch of the house, a grated floor panel had been pulled back to reveal a chamber roiling with juvenile red snappers. In the muddy water of the Mekong we could see only fins as the fish vied for space, but when the owner’s wife tossed in a scoop of fish pellets the water boiled with a feeding frenzy. Thoai explained that this particular farm produced 60 tons of fish a year, earning about $35,000 for the owner annually, a good living in these parts.
Our taxis next took us to a Cham village, where we visited a mosque. We entered the village by means of another wooden pier, stable enough though even more precarious in its appearance than the previous one. The pier carried us up through shoreline houses on stilts and over the flood plain, where the Mekong, with its grimy detritus of standing water, had already begun its advance. We were greeted by children, some of the girls wearing head scarves and selling plastic-wrapped pieces of waffle as a confection. How could such beautiful children be denied? The mosque was only a short distance from the pier, though it required the hazard of crossing a street beeping with motorbikes—Allah be praised! At the mosque we removed our shoes and entered its immaculate interior. The floor felt cool to our feet.
Returning to the pier area, we visited a weaving shop. Here in the relatively cool shadows of a room beneath the family’s lodging we watched a young Muslim girl working a loom to produce silk scarves. Her dark eyes darted toward us occasionally as she manipulated the loom, dropping the comb and shooting the shuttles of silk back and forth with steady, repetitive movements of hands and feet. It would take her days to complete a single six-foot scarf. But she had a trade, after all, in this hardscrabble life above the seasonal floods of the Mekong. It was not difficult to imagine that someday soon she would have a husband as well, and then perhaps daughters whom she would teach to work the loom that she herself had inherited, and together they would weave silk against the poverty of their village. Several bought scarves at five bucks apiece.
It was time to return to the Mekong Pandaw, so the taxis ferried us back to our tender and off we roared down the Tan Chau Canal, gazing at the life along the passing shoreline. Nature abhors a vacuum, and Thoai abhors silence. After a service of beverages, bananas, and cookies, Thoai offered further comments about the area, then decided to share a repertoire of songs. Among them were a few songs with Spanish lyrics or phrases, all of them superbly performed with a pleasant baritone voice and animated facial expressions. The guy is amazin’. Barry leaned across the aisle to ask, “Where does he get his happy pills?” Alas, he and Thanh would be leaving us today, as we would soon be crossing into Cambodia. I thanked them on behalf of the group, and they received heartfelt applause for their good services. They slipped away on the tender, bound for Saigon, shortly after our return to the boat.
Following lunch, many napped or read on the sundeck. We were moored at midstream on the Mekong while Cambodian border police checked and rechecked our records. The examination, done in casual attire, no doubt included a social hour and other gratifications as well, for the process took at least three hours to complete. At 3:30, one of the chefs offered a demonstration of vegetable carving—de rigueur for idle times on cruises. At 4:30, we gathered in the lounge for Barry’s discussion of the Vietnam War. Rather than delivering a formal lecture, Barry elected to field questions. To all of these he offered informed, sustained responses, covering a variety of diplomatic miscues, the folly of nation-building and the containment policies of the Kennedy/Johnson administration, the bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Cambodia and the rise of the Khmer Rouge, McCarthyism, Robert McNamara, the Tet Offensive, the role of the press and public opinion, and the overall evolution of the war through four presidential administrations. At W&L, Barry had taught a class on the Vietnam War for 30 years. Now, for the first time in the very place of his subject, the long effort to understand and interpret the War was in its final chapter. Not surprisingly, the War in Iraq hung over the room, though Barry, however tempted he might have been to do otherwise, wisely chose to avoid the subject: “That war still belongs to the journalists. It will be years before historians have enough material to analyze it adequately.”
Immediately following the discussion, we repaired to the sun deck for a “sunset cocktail hour.” The western horizon was a little murky by this hour, however, so the orange sun retired early. At 7:00, Jude briefed us on the heavy schedule of the day ahead, our first full day in Cambodia. Meanwhile the Mekong Pandaw plowed upstream on its 60-mile journey to Phnom Penh. The voyage would take most of the night.
Jude had invited us to arise early this morning to watch the sun rise on Phnom Penh. While only a few folks were topside at dawn, those who took their coffee before breakfast were able to see the exotic cityscape bathed in fresh light. The air was soft, and across the still surface of the Mekong we could hear with bell-like clarity the distant voices of the fishing folk on sampans and the first rattle and sputter of river traffic. Just before breakfast, the Mekong Pandaw spied its smaller sister ship, the Ton Li Pandaw chugging downriver from Ton Li Sap. Our boat raised anchor and began a slow advance up the Sap River from the Mekong toward a meeting at the main pier of the city, where for the next 24 hours or so they would tie up side by side, a commuter marriage. It was good to stand at the bow on the sundeck as we glided toward the pier. The air was clear and the breeze refreshing. Everything seemed at peace.
This proved to be a day of light and dark, of yin and yang. In Phnom Penh, we would come to know the world of Shiva, the creator and destroyer. Near the gangway just before departure, we met our new Cambodian guides Minea (pronounced Minny) and Milky. They had driven down from their homes in Siem Reap and would remain with us through the end of the cruise. “Milky” would seem to us something of a misnomer. A slender, dark-haired, diminutive man of perhaps 50 years, his face and physique seem to have been carved out of mahogany. Much softer in appearance though just as slight, Minea is a young woman who has been guiding British and American groups for five years. She and her husband have a four-month old son. “He very happy,” she smiled.
We spent the morning touring several of the grander structures of the city, the Royal Palace, the Silver Pagoda, and the National Museum. The architecture of these fanciful buildings is truly marvelous. Like many of the Kingdom of Cambodia’s official places, the exterior of the Palace and Pagoda are painted in yellow and white to signify the loose union of Buddhism with Hinduism in Cambodian culture. The structure of the buildings themselves seems to soar high above the streets and gardens of the city, with steeply sloped, elaborately decorated towered roofs with tiered gables, layered in tile and peaked at the ends by extended ornamentation signifying the tail of the Naga, a motif meant to evoke the spirit of flying dragons. The central towers, delicate spires that dominate the skyline of Phnom Penh and give it a mystical air, are layered like the Cambodian parasol. The Palace grounds are beautifully laid out with plazas and greens, along with several imperial stupas, lofty, symmetrical, intensely ornate though colorless piles of concrete in which the ashes of previous kings and family members are enclosed for eternity.
A constitutional monarchy, Cambodia retains a king, Norodom Sihak Muny, a pious single man of some 50 years who will not, apparently, be leaving an heir. The current king is the son of Norodom Sihanouk, who abdicated in favor of his son several years ago, a curious pattern of kingship in Cambodia that suggests the role may not have lasting appeal. The King was in Phnom Penh today, though when we arrived he was about to run an errand, so the grounds of the Palace were closed momentarily while he made his departure. The Palace complex includes an odd array of smaller buildings. The first one we toured houses many coronation objects, including the crown jewels, though the latter are not available for viewing—not even by the King himself—except on coronation day. A two-story building nearby was once used as the official station for the mounting of elephants. After removing our hats and shoes, we were admitted into the coronation room, a gallery meant to dazzle, obviously. The golden royal throne sits near the end of the long, opulently appointed throne room, while behind it another, slightly higher throne is meant for the queen, appropriately positioned behind her husband. Especially impressive—beyond the sheer tonnage of gold—were the elaborately detailed, marvelously painted ceiling frescoes. One comical element here were two enormous mirrors flanking the chamber that were placed in such a way as to give the visitor one last chance to check his appearance before presenting himself.
The Silver Pagoda is so named for the several tons of silver that were used to produce the Pagoda’s floor tiles. More impressive in this single hall are the Emerald Buddha and the golden, bejeweled figure of Seametrey, in Buddhist lore the deity who would succeed the Buddha after 5,000 years of the Buddha’s reign on earth. The building houses objects of extraordinary craftsmanship and value, and it is very popular with the inevitable gawking tourists. We shared the space with several Asian tour groups, one a crowd of young Chinese businessmen who pushed through the exhibits with great jollity and, one now easily assumes, newly acquired confidence.
We next toured the National Museum, a beautiful red sandstone building constructed in the early 20th century with traditional Cambodian architectural motifs. As at the Royal Palace, our group was divided between two local guides, in this case of unequal knowledge and eloquence. The Museum houses a collection of stone figures of the Buddha and of various kings from the distant Khmer era and is set around a lovely open courtyard garden with a pool. Weaving through the crowd in several galleries were women handing out tiny bouquets of jasmine meant to be presented to the various stone renditions of the Buddha. Next to the vase in each case was a small dish for cash gifts. The better of the two guides offered a truly engaging introduction to the collection, brightening the Museum’s rather dim interior and enlivening the mute serenity of the stone faces with her lilting voice and delicate, apsara-like hand gestures. Late in the tour, she made brief allusions to her youth during the era of the Khmer Rouge and the years that followed. The Museum was even darker then and seldom frequented by visitors. She explained that she would collect bat guano from the floor of the Museum and sell it to farmers. Eventually, as the Museum came back, she was hired on as a docent—the Cambodian equivalent to “starting in the mail room.” Perhaps, she wanted us to know her path to success. Like most Cambodians today, she was not inclined to elaborate on the subject of life under the Khmer Rouge and what her parents must have endured. It is best not to discuss nightmares—for fear of making them seem true again.
We had a few minutes at the end of the morning, so, despite the day’s oppressive heat, we decided to make a short visit to Phnom Penh’s central market, a chance to walk among the locals and to observe their habits and tastes. We were met almost immediately by pathos, several victims of landmines and the many other hazards and cruelties of life in Cambodia. It is especially difficult for Americans to pass by such misery and do nothing. Somehow these victims survive, living on the dole during the tourist season and probably doing relatively well in a country where the average teacher’s salary is $30 per month. Within the market, we encountered a great many display cases that offered a glittering array of knock-off watches—fake Rolexes may be one of Southeast Asia’s major industries. Beyond these and other jewelry cases staffed by drowsy young women looking forward to the mid-day break, we entered the labyrinth of clothing dealers and food merchants, shoe racks and hardware items, all of it densely compacted in the available floor space of the emporium’s vast interior. We had agreed to reconnoiter promptly in fifteen minutes. At the meeting point, however, one of our members turned up missing, so we spent the next 15 minutes in an unsuccessful, rather anxious “search and rescue.” She was later discovered to have returned to the bus on her own well before meeting time. The market and its denizens had overwhelmed her.
After lunch, we had a visit aboard the boat by Jeff Daigle, the Public Affairs Officer for the American Embassy. A cheerful, rather boyish foreign service careerist from Louisiana who has found a comfortable posting here, Daigle spoke offhand about the American mission in Cambodia. He cited its principal objectives as cooperative work with the Cambodian government in counter-terrorism, health issues such as HIV, education and good governance, and fighting rampant corruption through strengthening the justice system. The U.S. also provides indirect funding in support of the anti-genocide tribunal, which, he observed, may never actually try the few Khmer Rouge officers who have been arrested. Suspicions are that testimony from these defendants would ultimately lead to indictments of former members of the Khmer Rouge who are in the government today, including the current Prime Minister. Daigle helped us to understand some of the facts about Cambodia that we had already heard from our guides: that the national population fell drastically during the reign of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979; that, with the return of refugees and a soaring birthrate, it has risen since then from 3,000,000 to 14,000,000; that 72% of the population is under 30, 55% under 20. Cambodia, he claimed, is very pro-American. Its ruling party is the Cambodian Peoples Party, whose leader is Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge general who defected to the Vietnamese and then was appointed by them to important posts during their ten-year occupation of Cambodia. According to Daigle, Hun Sen has done a fairly good job running the government. He has held a firm grip on power for 25 years.
The Khmer Rouge had become the irrepressible theme of the afternoon. So we made the obligatory visit to Tuol Sleng, the former high school that became the notorious prison where those whom the Khmer Rouge suspected as disloyal—i.e., virtually anyone who could read—were interrogated and tortured. The prison is now a museum. This was a grim passage of time. Our guide took us quickly through several rooms where the prisoners were held, then through larger rooms bearing extensive displays of individuals who disappeared, young and old men and women, children, babies. The faces, recorded in the macabre photographic cataloging by the Khmer Rouge themselves, looked back at us hauntingly. It was a gallery of man’s inhumanity to man, but in this particular instance also a numbing portrayal of the exhaustion and confusion of those unaware that they were about to perish. Some returned to the bus silently thereafter, while a few went on to view crude but heart-wrenching paintings done by an eye-witness who somehow survived and recorded the means of torture. Also on display here were several instruments of torture and a glass cabinet full of skulls.
After this we took the 30-minute drive out to the Killing Fields, a place made famous by the American film of the same name. Chen explained that the burial site is only one of 343 sites across Cambodia that were selected for the extermination and disposal of the perceived enemies of the Khmer Rouge. Each site consists of several mass graves. It is estimated that there are 19,440 mass graves in all. At the Killing Fields, 86 mass graves have been identified, each one holding up to 450 bodies. Milky explained that the remains of nearly 9,000 victims have been recovered here from the 65 graves that have been excavated. The rest have been left in peace. The ground reveals bone fragments and bits of clothing left over from the disinterment. Over the mass graves left untouched, the grass is thicker and taller—nature’s fitting epitaph. At the center of the Killing Fields stands a human epitaph: a towering cenotaph with glass walls enclosing thousands of skulls reaches into the sky.
During the latter stage of the visit, Barry sat glumly on a concrete bench under a tree. He had found it curious that the site was now owned by a Japanese firm as a commercial enterprise. He was doing the math: two to three truckloads a month, each one with 30 to 40 prisoners. “It doesn’t add up,” he said flatly. He noted also that the Vietnamese had brought world attention to the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime partly to justify their invasion of the country. How many victims does it take to stir up a sufficient level of moral outrage? The Vietnamese and the Cambodians may have guessed a high number. “In the next five years,” he said, gazing away so as not to make the point too harshly, “you can expect a revisionist history on the actual numbers killed by the Khmer Rouge.” It was a messy business all around—skulls in the tower, angels on the head of a pin—but history would have to get it right.
Later that afternoon back on the boat, we were joined by another commuter from Siem Reap, Thina Ollier, who gave us a talk based on her personal experience as a native Cambodian now repatriated after several years in the U.S. Thina fled Cambodia with her parents in 1975 during the relocation process by the Khmer Rouge. They had left Phnom Penh on a ruse from the Khmer Rouge that the city would soon be bombed by the Americans. Sino-Khmer by birth, she was warned by a Khmer Rouge from the same heritage that she and her parents would need to be careful. Fortunately, her mother had brought the family’s passports, which eventually enabled them to escape across the border into Vietnam. In time, her family reached Paris, and then, following the divorce of her parents, her mother brought her to the U.S. She was educated at U.C.L.A, and then accepted a teaching position at Bowdoin College in Maine, where—obviously a long way from home—she taught French colonial literature. She revisited Cambodia during an academic conference in 1999, then decided to return permanently in 2002. “Mine is another voice in the sea of faces you have seen on this trip,” she said, her Chinese eyes closing with her modest smile and bow. But it has been an active voice. She has already edited an anthology of essays with contributions from several academic colleagues here, Expressions of Cambodia: Politics of Tradition, Identity, and Change. During the rule of the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodia’ intelligentsia was virtually eradicated. Now as a refugee returned to her native soil, she would join forces in trying to revive an educated elite.
We were curious about the changes Thina has observed in Cambodia—the very subject she had prepared for us. She listed as major developments the flow of foreign aid, the opening of a market economy, the importing of Western notions of democracy and good governance, the flow of foreign business investment—mainly from China and Korea into the garment industry, the migration of people from the countryside to the city, and globalization through internet and improved communication. “This is an exciting time,” she observed, “but there are still problems.” Among these she listed corruption, a stodgy infrastructure, the hierarchical pattern of society, an indigenous megalomania, and a stultifying traditionalism and superstition among the mass of people. “So I alternate between optimism and pessimism.” But Thina is intent on remaining in her native land. She met and married an Irish-American in the U.S., adding that he had come to Cambodia several times before she had met him. He also plans to stay. Her talk was deservedly well received as an intelligent, multi-perspective view of a people and a land that we could only know as “a sea of faces.” She encouraged us to write to her at email@example.com.
Thina stayed for dinner that night on the boat, musing with Barry on the cliché of misery in Cambodia and the misery of clichés. She would spend the night as well, then leave for a flight back to Siem Reap at dawn. Several others decided to eat in town and reported some success with the desserts at the Phnom Penh Press Club. Following dinner, a troupe of young female Cambodian dancers performed on the sundeck. After such a full day, many of our folks found it difficult to remain awake, despite the charm of the delicate, apsara-like movements of the girls. Most of us had the good sense to retire early in a Cambodian effort to put well behind us what we had seen earlier in the day.
The Mekong Pandaw pulled away from her night with the Ton Li Pandaw at 8:00 A.M. bound for another stretch of the Mekong River north of Phnom Penh. We would be covering over 60 miles today on our way to Kampong Cham, pausing along the way for visits to the villages of Chong Koh and Peam Chikang. This stretch of the Mekong presented some of the best scenery that we had observed thus far on the cruise. Once we had moved beyond the suburbs of Phnom Penh, the landscape along the shores became more pastoral. The banks were dotted with Brahma cattle, solitary farmers, and groups of children. The green freedom of this life was seductive to the eye—and to the imagination. Some said that such bucolic beauty begged a golf course, others thought of housing developments with five acre lots, still others may have recalled, as I did, a carefree boyhood spent in a similar landscape, playing in infinite green fields, far away from the house and under a friendly sun. A landscape for dreaming, it gave back to you what you wanted to find there. But there was pleasure also in just watching such a limpid, idyllic countryside slide by as mile after mile we motored up the Mekong.
Our first stop was Chong Koh, a village of weavers. The pilot eased the Mekong Pandaw to shore, but only after a local fisherman removed, with some consternation, a variety of fish traps that he had sunk near the landing. He was no doubt well compensated for his trouble. The crew then constructed a gangway off the bow. Meanwhile, scores of adolescents had gathered along the shore and on the landing, each one bearing bags of silk scarves and cotton tablecloths, haling us with “hello, hello!” Their excitement grew as we approached the gangway. Here, however, we were advised by Minea and Milky not to make any purchases until the end of our visit. The sellers were informed of this plan, but they were not discouraged. They mixed comfortably with us, soliciting our interest in their wares and doing their best to elicit from us a promise to buy a product from them at the end of our visit. Most of the sellers were girls, somewhat older than we might have guessed. Perhaps it is the protein deficiencies of the Cambodian diet that keeps them small, or just good living in a gentle environment, with only the once-per-week arrival of foreign visitors to cause them any stress. A few could speak English, which they applied to special advantage: “Please, sir, you buy scarves from me so I can study more English?”
We toured a couple of houses: low, one-story structures open to the neighborhood for light and air, with a loom or two as the major piece of furniture. Near the looms, an area with a large platform bed with a couple of hammocks strung between roof poles is used as a gathering place for family. Several of the young women watching us from there were holding babies. Behind them was a kitchen area with one or two very large ceramic pots used for the collection of water during the rainy season. While our guide explained the process of weaving, some of us ambled over to the family to engage and photograph them—to admire them, really, for their natural maternal beauty and the wide-eyed curiosity of their babies, along with the color and apparent simplicity of their lives brought to mind the world of Gauguin.
After these visits, accompanied again by young people selling scarves, we wandered through the neighborhood to the Buddhist temple. This was an extraordinarily imposing structure, both for its relative size and the brilliance of its exterior design. It dwarfed every other building in the neighborhood, including a nearby school, making the village seem like a place out of the Middle Ages, a village in France or Italy dominated by a cathedral built for the centuries surrounded by a cluster of impermanent and rather puny houses. The roof of the temple adorned with tails of the Naga soared above the trees. The seven-headed cobra flanked the staircases leading into the temple. The walls and ceiling of the interior colorfully depicted tales from the life of the Buddha. At one end of the huge room a great many statues of the seated Buddha returned our gaze, smiling, their languid eyes fixed on us. It was rather startling. Suddenly, we the observers had become the ones observed. It was another instance of the Orient’s turning the West on its collective head.
After putting on our shoes again and descending the steps of the temple, we were fair game for the vendors. They knew it was just a short walk back to the boat, so they made good use of the distance and seemed to do a brisk business, though the supply of scarves and tablecloths was clearly endless. They followed us to the boat, clamoring around any one who expressed even the slightest interest in their wares—Heather Marion drew the largest crowd. Despite the unaccustomed pressure of these rather frenzied transactions, the whole affair remained good natured. Most of us returned to the boat with tactile memories of Chong Koh and, perhaps, a few lingering mental images of closely engaged eyes and smiles, the personal encounter that street trade inevitably requires, the faces along with our American dollars that we would never see again.
We shoved off just after 10:00 A.M. and headed upriver for Peam Chikang, arriving there well after lunch. We used the interval of time for a good long survey of the life lived in fishing villages along the passing shoreline. Jude also showed a beautiful documentary on Burma in the lounge. Meanwhile, a cloudbank had begun to follow us, and by the time we disembarked to walk through the village the sky had assumed the color of mica streaked with dark bands of low hanging cloud. We divided into two groups, one heading for the Buddhist temple, the other for the local school. To our relief, the children greeting us here did not have anything to sell, but they did want to engage us so that they could practice their English. Most of them were on bicycles, stumbling through rehearsed pleasantries while they kept their difficult balance.
As we approached the temple, we could hear the chanting of Buddhist monks, an intoxicating monotone set to a tonal pitch that vibrated the sternum. The language of the chant is Pali, a version of Sanskrit that has 26 consonants and 43 vowels, giving it a complex syllabic structure, though the monotone made the litany seem to us simply a wall of sound. We climbed the steps of the temple, took off our shoes, and padded across glazed tiles to stand behind the small congregation seated on the floor, their hands pressed together in supplication. The saffron-robed monks, most of them young, watched us without breaking their chant. Periodically, two of the monks would sprinkle water on the nuns and the elderly seated across an open space before them. It was an enthralling moment: the splendid thrum of the chant vibrating within us, the shaved heads of the monks and the devout untroubled by our curiosity, the elevation of the room and the window it provided on another version of the soul’s path to paradise.
We then walked more quickly to the school at the edge of town. A light sprinkle had begun. By the time we arrived, the English teacher explained that most of his students had left school because of the impending storm. The rain did come in torrents shortly thereafter. The few children still in the area dashed under the portico where we had engaged their teacher. We enjoyed conversing with them, providing them our ages and occupations, sharing with them a few large, basic facts about our travels. A few minutes later, as the rain began to let up, Minea suggested that we begin our return to the boat. We did not get far before the downpour returned, pelting our umbrellas with heavy drops. Within moments we were thoroughly damp, so we pressed on. Children soaked to the skin rode their bicycles beside us, laughing together at the free thrill of it all. We sloshed down the main street of the village, stepping through muddy puddles, townspeople smiling out at us from under the porticos of their dark shops and humble houses. Once back on board, the crew took our shoes for cleaning before we waddled back on the rain slick decks to our cabins. It had been an adventure, an invigorating summer rain that had restored some youth to our limbs—or at least a recollection of it.
Once everyone was aboard, the Mekong Pandaw shoved off again into the turbulent Mekong, the day settling into the shadows of a lingering overcast. It would be good sleeping tonight.
This was another great morning. The steady breeze wafting across the sundeck during the early morning coffee hour was sweet and cool, a harbinger of good fortune. It was such a balmy beginning to the day that folks seemed reluctant to leave it for breakfast. But by now the routine of breakfast and departure had a firm grip on us. We had spent the night tied up just north of Kampong Cham. Just before 8:00, the pilot fired the engines for the short distance farther upstream and the visit to Wat Hanchey, the temple on the mountain—really a large hill—called “Hanchey.” We were happy to see Nancy Staniar on her feet again at breakfast after a 24-hour battle with a traveler’s malaise, though she was wise to hold back for another morning.
Disembarking at 8:30, we divided into two groups, one following the road winding up behind Wat Hanchey, the other walking in the opposite direction for the staircase route (291 steps) up to the temple mount. Here in the ancient flood plain of the Mekong, the hill of the temple complex is an anomaly—the remnants of an ancient volcano long extinct. The lengthy concrete staircase built only ten years ago had already begun to break up, as if nature in an alliance with the Hindu god Shiva, for whom the first temples were built, had riven the earth with the profounder forces of water and vine. We labored up the steps in the day’s increasing heat, Milky encouraging the huffers and puffers periodically that we had nearly reached the top, as we all did eventually, somewhat the worse for wear. We were very fortunate to arrive here on the first day of the annual 15-day Festival of Giving Sticky Rice to the Hungry Ghosts. The Buddhist holiday provides an occasion whereby citizens are able to feed the spirits of their dead ancestors, who are said to return from the underworld well before dawn each morning to the Wat Hanchey pagoda for an annual meal prepared with the sticky rice. If the “hungry ghosts” do not find a meal there on one of the 15 days, they are said to wander from pagoda to pagoda hungry and forlorn. Whole families from the surrounding villages spend a day during the Festival in the ritual preparation of rice for the offering, the most elderly in each family charged with the essential task of breaking the cooked rice into tiny bits—evidently, the dead have trouble chewing. Meanwhile, the children are free to run about and enjoy various entertainments. The hilltop has a carnival atmosphere during the festival. A pair of giant papier-mache puppets circulate among the crowd, both frightening and delighting the children. The grounds include a great many ancient and modern stupas and colorful pavilions. A loudspeaker blaring chants from the temple adds to the general commotion.
The history of Wat Hanchey dates back to 628 A.D., when Isana Varman I, ruler of the Upper Chenla kingdom decided to erect a monument to the god Shiva here at a vantage point several miles from his capital at Bhavapura. The 38-foot victory tower is built of bricks originally covered in stucco. At the door of the tower is a stone tablet inscribed with an obscure dialect of Sanskrit, still legible though understandable only to a few scholars. For us, the panoramic view from Wat Hanchey had sufficient eloquence. From this elevation we could follow for several miles the lazy sweep of the brown Mekong on its long journey to the China Sea. Across the river lay a sublime resplendence of green fields awaiting the peak of the rainy season and cultivation in mid-November. Way off down river, a small cluster of fishing boats sat reaping the bounty of the mother Mekong. Beyond them stretched the broad, welcoming horizon, the threshold to Vietnam that Cambodia need no longer fear. It was all so grand. Whatever the victory was that Varman commemorated some 1,400 years ago, whatever he may have been fighting for, it was here before us now still well in hand.
Before leaving the hill, we had the good fortune of watching a festival parade of monks filing past a long line formed by hundreds of awaiting celebrants—almost all of them women, young and old, interspersed with a few adolescent children. The women had removed their shoes, as if the spirit world were present even here on the carnival midway. Dressed for the most part in white blouses or shawls over black pajamas, each of the women spooned out clumps of rice into the bowls carried by the monks, who paced by slowly, a prayer on their lips. Other children walked along the line with the monks, collecting bits of paper currency also given to the monks, mainly by the adolescent children. A Cambodian violin, called a “tro,” scratched out a tune accompanied by drums. We watched with great wonder and delight the whole ceremony pass before us. Finally, after the last monk strode by, the dogs came out to lap up whatever grains of rice had escaped the large collecting bowls. And then a single, monastic gibbon swung down on long arms from the upper branches of the trees for whatever tidbits he might find, a black-faced ghost from the overworld come with a comment on the most rudimentary value of the occasion.
We had been well satisfied by this visit—the climb to the top of Wat Hanchey had been worth the exertion. On the long decent, the 291 steps were easier to manage, though still somewhat precarious. Once we were all aboard again, the Mekong Pandaw wheeled about and headed south for Kampong Cham. We had reached the northernmost point of our journey on the Mekong River. After a visit to Kampong Cham that afternoon, we would head for Phnom Penh again and then north on the Sap River toward Ton Li Sap and Siem Reap.
We reached Kampong Cham in the early afternoon. From a boat, the port reminds the visitor that a large human settlement generates a great deal of litter as well as the normal mess of traffic and human squalor that we had come to associate with urban areas in Southeast Asia. Kampong Cham is Cambodia’s largest city on the Mekong, and the district that it includes is Cambodia’s most populous. The main intersection near the pier was unpretentious, even rather homely. Urban redevelopment had not yet arrived, though a handsome bridge, a recent gift from the Japanese, soared across the Mekong River nearby. Minea said with a wink, “The rubber plantations on the other side are big business for the Japanese.”
We boarded our bus for our afternoon tour at 2:30, heading first for the 12th-century Angkorian temple of Wat Norkor west of the city. The temple was constructed during the reign of Jayavarman VII, the Khmer Empire’s most powerful and most productive ruler (1181-1215 A.D.). It was Jayavarman VII who built Angkor Thom some 160 miles to the northwest. According to Milky, the Buddhist temple was built for the god of compassion for the further glorification of his family—“VII” would indicate a lot of important ancestors. Although a ruin, much of the temple is intact, including a couple of corbel arches. In the center of the ruin stands a more modern Buddhist temple, with a brightly painted interior, much in contrast to the blackened basaltic stone of the Temple’s exterior. Wat Nokor is surrounded by other working Buddhist temples and a Buddhist monastery. The grounds are picturesque with green fields and ancient walled pools, now almost entirely covered by lotus pads. The mood was relieved somewhat by the close presence of Brahma cattle apparently at home with eternity and a fat sow reminding us that the present world has abundant comforts if one is not too fastidious in ones diet.
Our itinerary next promised visits to the twin holy mountains of Phnom Pros and Phnom Srey (Man and Woman Hill), though fortunately it was only Man Hill that was accessible by bus. Apparently it is common practice for Buddhists to build a temple or a stupa at the top of any promontory in the landscape—most of these are ancient volcanic cones. The visit to Man Hill was dominated by a deafening racket of traditional Buddhist music, a percussive tinkling resembling a steel drum band. “Is that music,” A.P. Smith would later ask, “or is something being repaired?” The place was not especially remarkable, except for the enormous Buddhas given recently by Hun Sen at the bottom of the hill. Also here was a small shrine staffed by an elderly Cambodian sitting near a pile of skulls from one of the nearby mass graves left by the Khmer Rouge—lest we forget.
We next made a brief visit to the Orphanage of Kampong Cham. The orphanage, founded by the Assembly of God Charities, has a population of 65 children, ranging in age from two to 18, most of them children of HIV victims or divorce. The owner of the Pandaw cruise boats is a strong supporter of the operation and makes it possible for passengers to contribute to the Orphanage through a donation box on board his vessels. After visiting their sleeping quarters, we toured the sewing and painting rooms. Some folks purchased items for sale here. Then we gathered in the courtyard on plastic chairs to meet the principal and attend a song of greeting from the children. They were clustered in familiar groups on the other side of a table bearing gifts contributed to the Orphanage in our name from High Country Passage. After applause and brief conversation with a few of the orphans, we returned to the bus for our trip back to the boat. Along the way, here as before, we noticed a few very fine houses interspersed with tumble-down shacks, visible evidence that Kampong Cham’s economy is achieving periodic growth spikes. Whether any of the orphans, upon release, would have a fair shake at one of these was anyone’s guess. At least they were receiving an education, which most likely put them ahead of the children we had met in the villages—or so we hoped.
It began to spit rain just after we returned to the boat, so the timing of the afternoon excursion was fortunate today. By now a large bank of black cloud had come over us. The wind and rain increased in intensity as we reassembled in the lounge for a DVD on the Vietnam War, “Two Days in October,” brought by Hardin Marion from Lexington. Through a sudden rash of difficulty, it soon seemed that we had achieved the perfect storm: the DVD player for the television could not read the American format. After re-routing the DVD through a computer, a screen much too small for the entire lounge, we could not get sufficient volume for the entire room. In devoting the lounge to the performance, we had denied our Spanish traveling companions and those grown weary of the War vital access to the bar. The weather increased to such intensity that the sundeck bar, which we had set up for such a contingency, could not serve. The racket in the lounge from the violent thunderstorm made our efforts to concentrate on the DVD even more difficult. And, of course, the subject of the program—one perhaps not altogether essential to this portion of our itinerary—was relentlessly grim. But through Jude’s efforts and the good will of everybody concerned, we were able to get through the 90-minute program well enough. The fabulous meal served shortly thereafter by the Pandaw’s unflaggingly cheerful crew soon restored the general mood.
The run of the Sap river between Kampong Cham and Ton Li Sap has some of the loveliest scenery in the world. The riverine landscape is tranquil and bucolic for about 40 miles north of Kampong Cham, and then it begins to dissolve slowly into a vast floodplain shimmering out beyond the banks of the river to an expanse of perhaps five miles on either side of the main channel. The area is still well populated. For many miles on this stretch of river, rice farmers and fishermen still maintain their stilted huts, busy with a life lived within narrow quarters during flood season yet ample for the sheer breathing space of the territory. Rice farmers, Milky explained, are able to grow up to three crops of rice a year here. Now they were cultivating small patches, waiting for the flood crest to nourish the soil of their paddies. Among the fishermen, we saw many sampans laying deep nets across the channel of the river while others were setting crab traps and fish traps in the watery grasses on the far side of the levees. Children waved to us from the banks of the river as we passed. Across the still water we could hear above the steady thrum of the engine their tiny, piercing voices calling out to us. Other sounds included the crow of an occasional rooster, the lowing of Brahma cattle, the rattle of sampan motors, and the twittering of birds. In time we saw snowy egrets breasting the wind, and then a flock of marabou birds in a clamor of wings. The air was clear and soft and the morning sunlight gentle, though in this watery, luminous world the light seemed to come from all directions.
The palette of this region is silver gray streaked with various shades of green found in patches of grass and small islands of water hyacinth. The sheen of the water is dotted with clumps of scrub and low undulations of earth and cross-hatched with lofty palms leaning with their freight of coconuts and splayed leaves. Some areas are checkered with the brown thatch and weathered lumber of tiny homesteads, their windows flecked with bits of red, blue, and yellow laundry hung out to dry. The sky is huge here, with low hanging white and gray cloud scudding across the azure dome and, building on the horizon, stupendous towers of cumulus, a rainy season sky. Under them in the blue distance, perhaps some 20 miles away, we could begin to see the first peaks of the Pacific Rim of Fire, the long range of volcanic mountains that runs down through Asia to the far reaches of Indonesia.
The Mekong Pandaw was able to follow its course upstream by tracking the thin banks of the river still remaining above the surface of the river. The expanse of water seemed to increase throughout the morning until all habitation vanished. Then, late in the morning, we spied the city of Kampong Chhnang rising out of the wetlands. As we approached the city the river seemed to find greater definition. The banks, if not entirely visible, were lined with habitations for the area’s fishing culture: on the left were floating houses while on the right the more substantial houses of permanent residents constructed on pylons.
After the pilot dropped the anchor, we boarded small eight-passenger launches for a tour of the floating houses. These were occupied, Milky explained, by Vietnamese immigrants, who had brought the floating house concept to Cambodia. Much of this we had seen before, though the boat tour gave us a clearer window into the “living room” of life here. Several of the residents were preparing or gathering for the mid-day meal. We always seemed to attract the interest of children, who waved at us reliably, though our proximity—we could virtually reach out and touch many of the houses—stunned a few of them into a wide-eyed wonder. The dogs were somewhat more aggressive in protecting their territory. To us it may not have seemed much of a life, even for a dog, but the Vietnamese appeared to be quite at home, and the men and women returned our regard with a confidence and curiosity that matched our own. On the other side of the river were larger residences belonging to the Cambodians. Here the civic infrastructure was on firmer footing, as it were. It appeared to be both more complicated and more clearly defined: in addition to larger domestic structures, we found various shops, mechanics, gas stations, and a temple with a long boat tied up out front (monks travel in groups). Still, as we motored by, we stirred the same excitement in the children on this side of the river and the same curiosity in the adults as we had among the boat people.
After about 45 minutes of this, we pulled up to a floating pier for a walking tour of Kampong Chhnang’s market. Disembarking was a challenge for some, but, miraculously, they managed it well enough—no pinched fingers, no banged knees, no sudden fatal dip in the murky harbor. The stroll through the market was quite riveting. Milky gave us a more thorough introduction to the food and other products than we had had on previous market tours. Several of the proprietors were happy to let us take their photographs as we wove through the line of stalls, careful to keep our footing. Along the way, we encountered three members of the boat’s crew sitting down for what we first assumed was a lunch of hard boiled eggs. They turned out to be duck embryos—best eaten with a variety of seasonings, apparently. They seemed to be enjoying the meal. Suppressing mild horror, we photographed them and moved on. Shortly thereafter, we felt a few drops of rain and noticed another dark cloudbank heading our way. This gave us sufficient reason to break off the tour at this point. We headed for the pier at the far end of Kampong Chhnang’s main street and piled into our boats again. The sprinkle grew heavier. We were in for a heavy afternoon rain.
The storm did arrive eventually, and it remained with us, on and off, for the rest of the day and most of the evening. Leaving Kampong Chhnang, we were now moving onto the lake, Ton Li Sap, though again during the flood season no shoreline is visible, so where the river ended and the lake began was anyone’s guess. We saw a few sampans bobbing in the waves, their passengers hunkered down in the wind. Some of the small fishing boats were tied up to scrub trees near rows of stakes anchoring nets. Following a north/northeasterly direction, we were heading into the teeth of the wind, and as we pushed further out onto the lake the flat-bottomed Mekong Pandaw began to rock and boom against the three foot swells. Folks were getting a little nervous. Jude had arranged for small group tours of boat operations this afternoon, so for a brief time these tours offered us some distraction from the weather. We visited the remarkably small galley and the laundry room, each time welcomed cheerfully by staff. Heading down iron steps, we toured the deafening confines of the engine room, then the crew quarters, the water purification room, and finally the pilot house. Everything seemed to be in good order. Now what? Fortunately, we had Barry to distract us further.
Barry divided his final presentation into three parts: French colonialism; an interview with Ed Grimes, a veteran of the Vietnam War who was traveling with his wife independently on the cruise, and further comments about “Two Days in October.” Barry’s comments on French colonialism were not especially complimentary to the French. The mission in Southeast Asia, he explained, could be traced back to the 17th century and the arrival of the Jesuits “who came to harvest souls.” Catholicism was not universally well received by the indigenous population, so in time the missionaries encountered organized resistance. This, he explained, was sufficient motivation for the French government to send troops in 1862. The territory held by the French spread from Saigon to the surrounding provinces. Soon, the French government sought to control all of Indochina. The empire never achieved pacification. Instead, the presence of the French rekindled a Vietnamese passion for independence. Finally, World War II helped to make independence possible by weakening the French grip on the country. The battle at Dien Bien Phu closed the matter.
Turning to the Vietnam War, Barry began what soon became a group-wide interview of Ed Grimes, who spent all of 1968 in combat in Mekong Delta. A native of West Texas, Ed was soft-spoken and kind enough to give open and thoughtful responses to the questions he received from several individuals. One had a sense that his visit to Vietnam was intended as a kind of exorcism of personal demons. It was obvious that the War had affected him more profoundly than it had any member of our group. But there was no swagger or boasting, or, on the other hand, any evidence of unmanaged anguish. Both Barry and Ed used the “Two Days in October” video to illustrate attitudes toward the war and the experiences of soldiers in combat. Ed himself had encountered several of both. The program, which most of us had strained to follow, thereby helped to lift some of the scrutiny from Ed, which he bore remarkably well. Periodically, the boat would slap into a big wave, bouncing the furniture in the lounge along with some of the folks sitting farthest forward. The sudden bangs relieved some of the tension, reminding us perhaps that now as then we were moving through troubled waters.
We had been scheduled to have a final sunset cocktail party that evening, but the increasing wind and the rain discouraged that. Instead, we gathered again in the lounge from 5:30 on. The Mekong Pandaw was now laboring against a strong headwind. A few strong bumps actually brought down the windows with a bang at the front of the room. No worries, we thought, as long as there was no breakage. Closing them again, we wedged some pillows into the space between the sill and the sash. This seemed to fix the problem, restoring the room to its festive air. The members of the Spanish group, light-hearted to the end, arrived at the occasion dressed in Cambodian attire. The room continued to rock. Eventually, the pilot decided to drop anchor some distance short of his intended location on the lake. This reduced the noise, though the boat continued to rock and roll. At 7:00, Jude made his well-intended, mostly comprehensible announcements for the following day’s arrival in Siem Reap. We were off to dinner soon thereafter. Things settled down a bit here, so we were able to enjoy a wonderful final repast. Over dessert, Jude introduced all of the members of the crew. On behalf of the W&L group, I expressed our appreciation to the crew and presented the group’s gratuity. Several came forward at that point to pose for photos with the crew and to express their personal appreciation. It had been a wonderful voyage, despite the current ruckus, and we had been truly well served. Still, we were looking forward to Siem Reap. It would be good to find more stable quarters on land again. Sleep tonight could well be difficult.
The pilot fired his engines again at 6:00 A.M. to complete the 110-mile leg of our journey across Ton Li Sap from Kampong Chhnang. The weather was still overcast, but the lake had calmed somewhat. At breakfast, folks inquired about all the banging in the middle of the night. It had been a bumpy night, indeed, with closet doors and windows rattling during a midnight storm. For some it was a damp one as well, as apparently a few of the sundeck floorboards had chinked in all the chattering, causing some leakage into the cabins below. Obviously, the Mekong Pandaw was not built for high seas cruising. After breakfast, we busied ourselves with packing, then gathered in the lounge for a 60-minute video on Angkor. The promotional program was well narrated in English, though the subtitles, a wholly unnecessary distraction, were hilarious—apparently done by a Japanese taking imperfect dictation. As the program drew to a close, we could hear a long, solitary blast of the Mekong Pandaw’s horn. When we peered outside, we could see the brown promontory that signals the location of Siem Reap. We had arrived at last.
At 10:30, lining up for another precarious disembarkation, we said our goodbyes to the boat’s crew. Such an abrupt farewell seemed a poor expression of the affection that we had developed for them over the past week. Suddenly, we were never to see them again, these charming, diminutive, hardworking citizens of a world accessible but inevitably alien to us. What would happen to them when the season ended, where would they be in five years, who were their families? We would never know. We waved away the Grimes and our Spanish traveling companions, the first to depart, and then boarded our water taxis for the city, gazing back for the first few hundred yards at the crew still waving to us from the rail of the Mekong Pandaw.
The transfer along a busy channel to the spit of land where our bus was waiting required a good 30 minutes. It gave us a final glimpse of life lived close to the bone on the waters of Southeast Asia. The poverty and squalor of the people who live along the lake have yet to reveal any residual benefits from the recent growth of Siem Reap. Once mainstream, they are now the marginalized people who continue to live their lives according to the old ways of hunting and gathering—fishing, eating, and breeding. We were soon to learn that Hun Sen, in an effort to repopulate Cambodia, had authorized a cash incentive to those having multiple children. Whatever the people of the lake were earning through this bonus, they were not putting it into the neighborhood.
As we boarded our bus for the ride into the city, we met our two new guides, Kim and Chen. Kim offered some introductory facts about Siem Reap as well as our impending visit to Angkor Wat on the way into town. The neighborhoods definitely improved as we made our way to the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) for lunch. From the number of splendid new houses, it was clear that Pacific Rim economy was taking hold here as well. Lunch at the FCC was a long table affair. Some of the men located newspapers and sat down to catch up on the world. It was here that A.P. and Ham Smith learned that their plans to continue on to Burma after the trip would have to be abandoned, for bloody street riots were all over the news from Rangoon. Would the long tyranny of the military junta finally end, we wondered, or would the relatively free world cave in to the economic interests of the status quo? Before departing for our hotel at the end of our meal, we celebrated Mary Anne Large’s birthday with an ample birthday cake, the second of the day for one who seemed, by her slender figure, the least likely of all to partake of birthday cake.
The Grand Hotel d’Angkor is the grand dame of hotels serving clients who wish to visit Angkor Wat. Built in 1932 by the French and now a Raffles property, it retains an old world elegance while serving up all of the modern amenities that a traveler could wish for in this part of the world. We were greeted at the door by weightless flower maidens offering leis of jasmine, and then another pair bearing a silver tray of cool, scented washcloths, and then a couple of toy-sized gentlemen with fruited beverages. Check-in was prompt, so we quickly found our rooms and tested the plumbing, which was most vigorous, and then the bed, which was truly grand. As a place to end a trip in, this would do quite nicely.
After a 90-minute rest we headed out to visit Angkor Wat in a pair of trolley-sized buses. The first stop was the ticket office, which required that we each have a photo taken for embossing on our three-day pass—photos that would also admit us to the Ugly Farm. On arriving at Angkor Wat, we were immediately made aware of why this “single largest religious monument in the world” is one of the wonders of the world. Its size is remarkable: across a placid moat 200 yards wide stood the grandest pile of ancient stone in Asia. The total area of Angkor Wat, including the moat, is one square mile. An impressive causeway with balustrades of hewn stone shaped into huge serpents led the eye across the moat to a colonnaded entrance complex flanked by hundred-yard long galleries, each weighted at the corner with additional entrance pavilions with stone plazas and staircases, and then, far and high in the distance, the five towers emulating in Hindu lore Mount Meru, the dwelling place of Hindu gods, the center of the universe. Built in the twelfth century by Suryavarman II, who reigned over the Khmer Empire from 1113 to 1150, Angkor Wat was dedicated to Vishnu, Hindu god of creation. Evoking an assumed perfection in universal design, the temple complex uses a Hindu mandala as the basis for its astonishing symmetry. Though it has obviously suffered the ravages of time and humanity over the 850 years since its construction, it remains essentially intact. For travelers in Southeast Asia, it is a must-see—our guides estimated that over two million visitors would visit Angkor Wat and the neighboring Khmer capital Angkor Thom in 2007. At 40 bucks for a three-day pass, the Angkor monuments are a major source of revenue for the Cambodian government.
Our guides worked us through crowds of Korean, Japanese, and Chinese tourists as we crossed the causeway and entered the temple complex. It was difficult to take a fair photograph of the place, since Angkor Wat is so immense. But our fellow visitors from Asia were content to take pictures of each other—the relentless photographic souveniring of Asian travelers. The initial focus selected by our guides Kim and Chen were the amazing bas-reliefs covering the walls of the western and southern galleries. The first set depicted in remarkable detail the battle of Kurukshetra from Hindu myth, hundreds of warriors bearing spears and swords, some of them on the backs of perfectly rendered elephants, engaged in the unending battle between good and evil. The southern gallery is just as numerous for figures, though these depict the military glory and various state processions of Suryavarman II. We stumbled along the uneven stone floor, gazing in wonder at the extraordinary accomplishment of rendering a vast population of figures and attitudes in two dimensions and yet with a foreshortening that gave the depiction depth and relationship. There is nothing quite like this stonework at this period of western history. How did it happen here, and what produced and sustained the artistry? It was an easy temptation to run our hands over the bas-reliefs and somehow connect with the mysteries and passions of the ancient world, but a rope fence held us back.
Our visit to the sanctuary at the rear of the central plaza involved a labyrinthine route through stairways, narrow passages, and shadowy corridors, all the while weaving among crowds of mainly Asian tourists. Once at the rear of the sanctuary complex, several brave souls from each of our groups decided to make the steep climb up to the entrance doors of the towers. Let it be recorded and remembered from this day forward that Buddy Derrick, septuagenarian bon vivant and world travel connoisseur, was the first to make the ascent. The hazard of this and similar ancient staircases is the descent: the steps are shallow, the decline precipitous, and the height dizzying. Acrophobia sets in quickly with queasy, chest-tightening effect. But, happily, no one suffered from the potential paralysis, and, after enjoying the view, all made it down again without injury. Unlike the other group, those in our group were not made aware of the safety cable on a separate staircase that provided a much more confident means of descent. Further kudos to Chen’s Bus #2.
We left Angkor Wat shortly thereafter, joining the horde of visitors making their exit across the causeway. We met up here with Bob Stroud, who had gone off with camera on his own to find and capture the place in its many attitudes. Darkness was falling fast. The ride back to the hotel through the creeping shadows was under a sunset so splendid that it arrested all conversation. Someone noticed a scattering of bats flitting against the darkening sky, the night shift come to collect a mess of insects. The mood grew pensive. Perhaps at this point, we had had a surfeit of spectacle, and yet in another sense we may well have already mentally begun our return home, the brilliant sunset drawing us away to more familiar glories. Sunday,
Answering the challenge issued the night before, about half of the group elected to rise before dawn for a view of sunrise at Angkor Wat. At 5:00 A.M., we wobbled out across the freshly waxed floors of the hotel lobby, met our guide Chen, and boarded our bus supplied with boxed breakfasts. Once the bus had arrived at the site, Chen distributed flashlights and led us across the causeway, past the ubiquitous security guards eyeing our passes at the entrance. After managing some precarious footing along the inside wall of the Western Gallery, we took our seats in the pre-dawn twilight to await the spectacle. Chen had happily announced that on the way to the hotel that morning he had seen the morning star, which augured a clear sunrise. But the sky over the five towers of the Central Sanctuary looked fairly murky when we arrived. Standing on the lawn below us, Chen nattered on about Cambodian politics for several minutes, casting a wary eye over his shoulder. The ceiling did not improve. Finally, as the east assumed a brighter gray, he announced that sometimes the sun is shy. He offered to take some photographs of the group as we sat on the wall—perhaps to record our disappointment—then led us away across the causeway to our awaiting boxed breakfast beside the moat near our bus. Even that was uninspiring—clearly, the lie-a-beds had won this round.
Later we met the second group at the South Gate entrance to Angkor Thom, the focus of our tours today. Founded in the late 12th century by King Jayavarman VII, the city was the former capital of the Khmer Empire. Covering an area of four square miles, Angkor Thom once had a population of nearly 1,000,000 inhabitants within its walls. All that remains of Jayavarman’s great city are the impressive, somewhat mysterious ruins of eight temples. Gigantic kapok trees (called “spong” by the Cambodians), a relative of the gum tree, have returned much of the area to forest where once the wooden habitations of the citizens stood. At the South Gate, we strolled on foot across the causeway that crosses the moat that once surrounded the ancient city. Flanking us on either side were 154 stone statues, many of them missing their heads, holding the weighty girth of a giant Naga. It was a mystery that none of us seemed able to fathom: both Ken and Chen labored to explain that the figures—gods on the left, demons on the right—are depicted in Hindu lore to be stirring a sea of milk. No help here. The South Gate itself is surmounted by a tower that depicts in the four cardinal directions the placid face of Jayavarman himself—a sort of Big Ben with a face in place of a clock. Flanking the gate, the high walls run off into the trees.
The first temple we toured was the Bayon, Angkor Thom’s most renowned temple ruin. Shortly after arriving, we gathered for a group photograph, then undertook an hour-long tour of the site, focusing first on the many bas-reliefs on the walls of the Eastern Gallery. These depicted most prominently Jayavarman’s leadership of a huge force of spear- and sword-carrying warriors in a titanic battle with an equally large force of Cham warriors. The bas-reliefs in the Southern Gallery, though somewhat less intricately detailed, showed more familiar scenes, a more pleasing window onto the daily life of the ancient Khmer, including depictions of festivals, cockfights and dogfights, meal preparation, and market scenes. After studying these, we entered the labyrinth of the temple’s upper elevation, climbing narrow stairways into the realm of many towers, each bearing several likenesses of Jayavarman’s serene visage. More than 200 of them adorn the 50+ towers, each smiling placidly, eyes closed, on the wonder of his creation. Throughout the temple’s higher levels we also found several apsara, the nubile, sprightly dancers rendered with obvious affection for the female form.
After the Bayon, we drove past the immense Terrace of Elephants, pausing to photograph from the windows of our bus a group of Buddhist monks adjusting their saffron robes under a stand of tall trees: a shot of brilliant color stirring above the high, age-darkened walls of stone, a timeless image. We then headed on to Ta Prohm, the temple made famous, Chen repeated, by the American film “Tomb Raiders,” starring Angelina Jolie—none of us could seem to recall having seen or heard of it. The visit required a long walk down a forest lane, where we paused for a few minutes to listen to a small group of Cambodian musicians seated on the ground. They all had been injured by Khmer Rouge land mines. Two appeared to have been blinded, the rest were missing limbs.
Ta Prohm is perhaps the most visually arresting of the Angkor temples, as it has been left in a state of suspended restoration. Immense kapok trees long ago established themselves in various areas of the temple grounds, as if heedless of the temple’s original function, knowing only their own twin objectives of water and sunlight. Their huge roots extend over the walls like the tentacles of a giant squid and grip the stones, alternately splitting and coalescing them. The original French explorers who rediscovered Angkor Thom in the 19th century, hacking and slashing the forest back away from the temples, wanted to keep one site in a state close to the one in which they found it. The choice of Ta Prohm was apt, for one can catch here a sense of how Angkor Thom slept for so many centuries in the close embrace of the forest. The kapok trees also vividly illustrate the power of the natural world over the world of man. All is vanity, they seem to say of the works of man. Behold your god Shiva, creator and destroyer, come in the form of a tree.
We wandered around and through the temple for a good half hour, stepping over mossy stones, ducking under low lintels, and creeping through dank chambers, snapping photos of the ancient masonry fractured and clutched by the enormous roots. As much of a hazard as the footing were the hordes of Korean visitors. Something of a xenophobe in his own right, Chen had warned us of the “K groups” as we toured the sites on this day. Here he drew us to a corner of the temple grounds while an especially enthusiastic group of young Koreans laughed and rushed through the narrow spaces, positioning each other for photos in front of the roots. Chen also was excellent at pointing out special camera angles for photos—some of us are likely to share many of the same photos when we get back home.
By mid-day, we had had enough of temples, though the morning had been more engaging in some ways than the prior afternoon. Angkor Thom, after all, had been constructed on the human scale, while Angkor Wat, in its staggering dimensions, had seemed the province of a theology too vast and remote to embrace—and too much the province of tourists. In any case, we were looking forward to some free time on our last afternoon in Cambodia. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at Les Artisans D’Angkor School for an introduction to traditional Cambodian handicrafts. The skill of these artisans in woodworking, stone sculpture, and weaving was truly exceptional. Mindful of the quality of the pieces produced here as well as the promise that money spent in purchasing these artifacts would help to support the school, several of us made purchases in the gift shop that were especially satisfying.
Following lunch on our own in the hotel’s airy cafe, several indulged themselves in extended massages (a major industry here), or hopped on a motor rickshaw for shopping at the old market, or just took it easy. In the early afternoon, a thunderstorm swept across the city, delaying some departures, drenching the patio and lawns, but it moved on as quickly as it came. Undaunted, Tom Herman began his 2,000-yard swim in the hotel’s 50-meter pool during the downpour and ended in sunlight much later.
At 7:00 P.M., we gathered for the farewell cocktail party in the hotel’s Elephant Bar. Barbara had encouraged us to dress up for the occasion, so the room was ablaze with fabulous outfits worn by the women, made all the more vivid by the subdued blue blazer background supplied by the men. The main topic of conversation was the hotel’s balky electrical system. Several had experienced power failures while dressing for the evening. Hank Goetzman had gotten caught in the shower when the room went dark—“Janie, I’m still in here, don’t turn off the lights!” The power winked a few more times during the 30-minute party, but the room was already well illuminated with candles. Buddy Derrick, with characteristic aplomb, made a gracious remark about the trip and its management. Soon thereafter, we made our way up to the hotel’s formal dining room for our final dinner, an exotic menu artfully presented and superbly well served. Over dessert, Barry thanked the group for their attention throughout the trip; I thanked Barry then announced the winners of various prizes and scholarships established during the trip:
On receiving her award and the gift box that came with it, along with rousing applause from her many charges, Barbara thanked the group, then, switching gears, stumbled through options for tomorrow morning prior to departure. Despite some light-hearted confusion at the end, good time was had by all.
For the final hours in Siem Reap before the long journey home through Bangkok, we had a choice between a tour of another temple or a morning of leisure at the hotel. Half the group chose the temple, Preah Khan (the Sacred Sword), built in 1191 A.D. by Jayavarman VII for his father as a monastery and a center of learning. The complex lies some distance beyond the walls of Angkor Thom, again in a clearing of the surrounding kapok forest. Recent study and restoration of Preah Khan has been supported by a great many sponsors, including the Stanford University Alumni Class of 1998, who are listed as having made a gift in excess of $100,000. Our 45-minute tour of the site quickly persuaded us that the project is worth the effort. A single-story complex with several intact corbel vaults, Preah Khan possesses many of the features we had come to appreciate in other ruins: a balustraded stone bridge over still water dotted with lotus flowers, fine apsara dancers in bas-relief, an impressive garuda, and several stone altars complete with lingas and yonis for ceremonial ablutions. A special feature of the architecture was the extraordinary alignment of the rooms and entrances, such that one could stand at one end and shoot a photo through a long corridor of concentric doorways. This was possible at the intersection of several side galleries as well. The whole of Preah Khan seemed extraordinarily well planned, with only the violence of time and the titanic weight and musculature of kapok roots to unsettle the design. Here was a classroom for attending the teachings of Hindu and Buddhist scholars, here a hall for instruction in dance. Here young novices, clad in rough home-spun wool, their heads shaved in a further mortification, attended the mysterious rites that would permit them to enter into the order, while tiny, sylph-like girls, chosen for the size and grace to please a king, rehearsed the acrobatic elegance of the apsara’s art. Today, many of the walls have collapsed, and the blocks that once stood rank upon rank to the further glory of the Khmer Empire lie scattered in a perplexing disarray, black with age, clammy from the sweat of the rainy season.
Noting the architecture, the fine masonry and intricate carving, Barry asked the historian’s question: “Where did they go? I mean, surely a people with the genius and skill to carve these stones must have found further work elsewhere.” Affecting the face of Jayavarman, Chen simply smiled. He was at peace with the mystery. For Barry, it was perhaps a peculiarly American quandary, a question borne of a people with a relatively short history, faithfully recorded on paper throughout, without the lacunae of lost civilizations or the ambiguous silence of ancient stones.
* * *
It was a good place to end. In the two weeks of our travels, we had discovered both the old and the new worlds of Southeast Asia. Vietnam had surprised us with its civility, its vigorous economy, and its intense pace of life. In its turn Cambodia had recovered from the horror of the Khmer Rouge and was now poised to pursue the achievements of its prosperous neighbor, though perhaps with the inhibitions of a wounded innocence. We had paid due diligence to the patriot’s task of understanding the tragic misadventure of the American mission in Vietnam. And, in a tremendous leap backward in history, we had discovered a remarkable civilization rarely noted in our history books. This seemed enough for now. We had enjoyed the happy fellowship of our traveling companions but now felt a longing for the familiar. Those on delayed returns seemed to envy the folks who were already setting their watches to American time zones. With a short flight further west to Bangkok on the first afternoon of October, we began our long journey home on the morning of October 2, carrying with us many memories and a few reconsiderations.
It is said that travel rekindles our capacity for wonder. Two weeks in an utterly foreign place had stirred in each of us some amazement along the way. But, beyond any enchantment with things strange and antique, the exposure to the people of Vietnam and Cambodia had also inspired much good will in us and reminded us of the virtues of hard work, the enduring hold of home and family, and the renewable fellowship of man.