You may question my slight hiatus – I put it down to  expensive and poor internet connections and the allure of a beach! We pick up the adventure in Saigon…

Ho Chi Minh City aka Saigon. The big economic motor of Vietnam, it isn’t as nice as Hanoi I thought but many people prefer it. I went to see the Reunification Palace which used to be the Presidential Palace before the south lost. Really impressive building and lots of interesting history of where some bombs were dropped down the main staircase in 1975, the two tanks that were filmed smashing through the gates in April 30 1975, forcing the surrender of the South, the receiving room where such luminaries as Helen Clark and the Hungarian Prime Minister were received, underground bunkers and the party floor where the Prez had a gambling room, cinema and dancing floor installed. Also the War Remnants Museum which documents the effects of the war with a focus on Agent Orange and other defoliants (and the horrific side effects on children born of those exposed), cluster bombs and napalm. The pictures they have here are truly awful. There was a fascinating section on photographers who had died during the war. There was also an area which covered the prison camp system of the south where they interned captured NVA and Viet Cong and tortured them. All in all, its somewhat amazing how the Vietnamese of both sides can seemingly move on from this awful time and not still harbour resentment against those who inflicted so much pain. For example it is embarrassing how little the US Government provides for land mine clearance, both in Laos and Vietnam. Maybe there is a story there.

Cambodia – Phnom Penh. We scuttled into the backpacker hangout of ‘lakeside’ which despite the swank sound, is a rapidly disappearing lake used for overflow when it rains. The Cambodian government is reclaiming about the middle third of the lake with massive pumps that go night and day in order to develop it. Such shortsightedness! Sitting on the edge of the lake on a pier and looking out at night you could imagine how delightful it may have looked in earlier times. More specifically it really is the theme of my stay in Cambodia – a country really f*cked up after many years of civil war and a now deeply embedded corruption which does the people little credit. The capital is developing at breakneck speed with enormous office blocks being built left and right (including some outrageously impressive buildings for Government agencies and persons such as Prime Minister Hun Sen and his daughter…). There is also a nice Silver Pagoda chock-a-block with hundreds of gold and silver Buddhas.

S-21. Anyways, of course there are two main destinations for travellers in Phnom Penh. The first is Tuol Sleng aka S-21, the largest torture centre during the plague of the Khmer Rouge. This is now a place of contemplation and a shrine and I strongly believe that it is incumbent upon us as world citizens to travel to these places of death and see and understand and communicate how these things were possible. S-21 is slap bang in the middle of town, a former school with four blocks, each three stories high. It has been left largely in the state in which it was found by invading Vietnamese forces who put a stop to the slaughter. All those windows looming over you is very eerie and you can imagine the screams of those tortured echoing around the playground (so as not to worry the neighbors they installed glass windows – fortunately the city of 1.5m had been reduced to 40,000 as Cambodia was being dialed back to  year 0). As you walk through the school you can see the instruments of torture, places where prisoners were held and also the infamous rows and rows of pictures of those detained. They stare out at you in black and white and projected emotions of fear, shock, distrust, blankness and sheer horror down to me. There were many young children amongst the prisoners, its hard now to understand how this was possible. All in all, a powerful experience I am glad I undertook. Today, there is an international criminal tribunal underway to prosecute those responsible, or those still alive (whole story in there). Our very own Dame Cath Tizard is one of the judges. They are currently prosecuting Duch, the chief prison warden of S-21.

Choeug Ek killing fields. The second major destination is the Choeug Ek killing fields which are 15km south of Phnom Penh and this is where the detainees of S-21 were shot, strangled and bashed to death, roughly 18,000 of them. The crazy thing is when you think that although this is the most prominent site, it houses only a fraction of the total killed through this killing system in sites across the entire country (not to mention the hundreds of thousands who died of starvation). It is a peaceful place when we arrived, wonderful weather and no noise from traffic. The place is dominated by an enormous Buddhist stupa which houses about 5,000 skulls and other bones. I lit some joss sticks and placed some flowers, it seemed the right thing to do. As you wander around the place, there are holes everywhere where they dug up mass graves and disinterred the bodies. They haven’t dug up all the mass graves either. The other thing which really brings it home is that as you walk along the dusty paths between the graves, you see scraps of clothing and pieces of what I at first took to be white stones. In actual fact the whole place is littered (scattered?) with bone fragments of the murdered.

Finding Face. I met up with Paul, a friend of Richard L. who has been living in Phnom Penh for the last two years. He kindly invited me to a film screening of a documentary which is partly set in Phnom Penh and addresses two areas in Cambodian society, the culture of impunity prevalent here; and female acid attacks. I know, pretty hard core for a traveller! The movie was kept secret as there were fears it would be shut down otherwise. The title was Finding Face and in brief it concerns the story of a beautiful 15 year old girl who becomes the mistress of a senior Cambodian Minister and when his wife finds out, she finds the girl and pours a bucket of acid over her face and body. Horrific stuff but the catch is that due to the Minister’s connections and position, his wife 10 years on has not been prosecuted. I could write screeds on the stories of corruption I have heard but I shall refrain! In short, nothing is ever what it seems in any developing country and I thank Paul for opening my eyes to this scourge which incidentally is not limited to Cambodia, also being prevalent in India, Bangladesh and other countries where the ultimate destruction of a women’s self, begins with her primary asset (as reckoned in most third world countries), her beauty.

I am now in Siem Riep after a short stint at the beach in Sihanoukville.

Advertisements