Feb 11 – March 1, 2017 – Ho Chi Minh City
Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
Suddenly it struck us! One more country to explore – Vietnam – and then our six-month journey would be over! We had one Big Question … Where had the time gone?
We traveled from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City by bus, a journey that takes about seven hours. Two different bus companies drive this route and the one we chose was OK but Bill found it very cramped. One reason for our decision was that there was an English-speaking Tour Guide on board who would give commentary along the way. It was helpful that he spoke English at the border crossing but we only had two brief announcements enroute! The journey was uneventful and the border crossing, which took about an hour, went smoothly.
The first thing we noticed was the Hammer and Sickle flag flying next to the Vietnamese flag. The brilliant color is quite eye-catching and reminded us that – Yes – we were in a Communist country!
Ho Chi Minh City
By now our arrival time was delayed an hour and our Airbnb Hostess was meeting us at the bus station so the guide kindly phoned her with the new arrival time. Expecting a regular bus station, we were taken by surprise when the bus drew alongside a Park and bags were unloaded (actually more like ‘dumped’) on the sidewalk! With the help of our hostess and a friend of hers, we retrieved our bags and walked across the park where she called for a “Grab Car” (more on this later) to take us to her home.
We were in store for a very special welcome to Vietnam!
We had booked the Airbnb for three nights, with plans to move on to a guest house or hotel after that. Our hostess decided to meet us at the bus station because her house is located in an alley away from the center of the city and, knowing that we were ‘older’ she felt that we would have a difficult time finding it. She was right!
The car left us at a point where the road narrowed so only scooters and pedestrians could navigate! We continued on foot for some four minutes turning right and left several times down the alleys until we came to her lovely, new (3 months old) house. She served us tea and cake then told us to go upstairs and rest until dinner was ready. This is not part of the service of a B&B and we felt very spoiled! That evening we enjoyed a delicious home cooked meal and slept soundly in a very comfortable bed. We immediately felt at home here in Ho Chi Minh City.
Not surprisingly, we bonded quickly. Our hostess spoke perfect English and has worked at upscale hotels in Macau. She is married to an American who is currently in the U.S. She and her friend helped us get a Sim card for the cell phone and explained how the Grab Car system worked.
Grab Car is similar to Uber and a little cheaper than a taxi. When you order it you receive the plate number of the car on your phone and also have to confirm with the driver. This proved a little difficult for us since most of the drivers speak no English. We did use Grab Car on a couple of occasions but had to get help from other people due to the language barrier. The cars looked brand new and were spotlessly clean! Using their GPS they can get you wherever you want to go. You can also use Grab Bikes (scooters) to get to your destination but we decided not to try this!
We were pleased to learn that our room was available for additional nights so set about exploring and doing some sightseeing. We quickly became familiar with the neighborhood and spent time in different coffee shops – just like the locals! There was so much to see on the streets and sidewalks of this hectic, noisy city!
War Remnants Museum
When in Ho Chi Minh City we think it’s important to visit to the War Remnants Museum https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_Remnants_Museum (originally named The Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes). Be prepared for a one-sided view of the war, known here as “The American War”.
The horrors of the war are shown in displays of weapons and vehicles used, as well as photos – some of them from Life Magazine – and with which you are probably familiar. Many of the photos are graphic and moving, in particular photos of the results from the use of Agent Orange and cluster bombs. Obviously both sides of the conflict were guilty of terrible acts, however, the actions of the Viet Cong are not covered at this Museum.
Cu Chi Tunnels
Taking package tours is not our favorite way to travel, however, it is the best way to get to the Cu Chi Tunnels, some 29 miles (46.2km) from the city. We decided on VietFun Travel for the tour and were at their offices across town bright and early for an 8am departure. After stopping at a couple of hotels to pick up other passengers we threaded our way through heavy traffic to the outskirts of town.
Our guide was very pleasant, quite funny and did a good job explaining the history of the city. The bus was modern and clean and the drive was comfortable. A short black-and-white propaganda video was shown on the way showcasing how the people of the region fought against the aggressors – the Americans.
One look at the parking lot at the Cu Chu Tunnels and we knew the crowds would be huge! Two large groups of students from the International School in Ho Chi Minh City were waiting to get tickets and we soon found tourist groups milling around with tour guides talking to them in different languages in loud voices or on loudspeakers. There was virtually no chance for us to be on our own with our guide.
We saw some of the tunnel openings and learned how the Viet Cong brought air and water into the tunnels and hid the smoke from the kitchens. We also saw samples of the traps the Viet Cong set to catch and kill US and Vietnamese enemy soldiers. The traps had previously been used to catch large animals such as tigers and bears.
The entire scene was far removed from what Priscilla remembered on her visit here several years ago and we learned that this new location was opened in 2000. Unfortunately, it has taken on a Disney type atmosphere with one of the “attractions” allowing visitors to pay extra to shoot AK47 guns.
Those who wish can go into tunnels – which have been enlarged and fortified for tourism – and Bill did this. He had to crawl on his hands and knees and even then his back scraped the roof. Priscilla chose to sit this one out!
We feel it’s important to see the tunnels since they played such an integral role in the war but we were not enthusiastic about our experience.
Our tour, like most others, included a stop at a Lacquer Factory on the way to the Cu Chi Tunnels. A guide explained the process which entails working with egg shell and mother of pearl to create intricate, beautiful pieces. At this ‘factory’ the items were being hand made by individuals injured during the war by Agent Orange, cluster bombs and landmines.
The way out, of course, was through the shop where we were followed closely by a very aggressive sales lady who changed from being sweet and polite to hostile when she realized we were not big spenders! Some of the bigger pieces go for thousands of dollars which, of course, “Madam, can be shipped anywhere in the world at very little cost” !
A friendly welcome awaited us when we returned to our comfortable home in the afternoon. Next time we’ll share with you our unexpected life in the alleys of Ho Chi Minh City.
Links to Photos: https://goo.gl/photos/7GXrm4ov9wBM1PYA9
Jan 28 – Feb 11, 2017
Love it! Or hate it! We got both these reactions when talking to other travelers about Phnom Penh! We actually liked it and wished we’d spent more than a week there.
There is a sense of energy and excitement in the city and yet along the riverfront life takes on a slower pace during the day, with coffee shops and restaurants inviting tourists like ourselves to sit a while and watch the boats along the river. At night the street turns into a backpackers party mecca!
It was here, one lunchtime, that we met an interesting couple from Chicago who had sold their home and all their possessions and had been traveling since 2015, house-sitting as much as possible. They gave us the name of the agency they used to find house-sitting “jobs” and had our heads spinning with great ideas about our possible next adventure!
Situated on the banks of the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers, Phnom Penh has been the capital of Cambodia since the French colonization in 1867. Today it’s the center of commerce, government and diplomatic missions, attracting international business travelers as well as tourists.
Once known as the Pearl of Asia due to its beautiful French colonial buildings, today you have to search them out amidst the new buildings and traditional Cambodian houses. Everywhere we looked we saw cranes rising into the skyline erecting yet another skyscraper – either a hotel, apartment complex or office center.
As in most Southeast Asia cities, markets and street food stalls abound offering food that is inexpensive and delicious.
A note about Visas in Southeast Asia
The first thing we needed to take care of when we arrived in Phnom Penh was our Vietnam Visas. Vietnam requires that visas be obtained prior to arrival so we used Facebook Messenger to contact about a dozen travel companies in town to see who could assist us. Within a few minutes we had a reply from 2World Travel and arranged for a Tuk Tuk to take us there, fully expecting to spend about an hour filling out forms, producing passport photos, etc.
Much to our surprise, the agent took our passports, gave us a receipt for payment ($60 each for a 90 day visa) and said the visas would be ready in three days! No paperwork or photos required! We had taken copies of our main Passport page with us so we had identification while we were without our Passports. Three days later, as we were enjoying breakfast at our hotel, a courier arrived with our Passports duly stamped with our Vietnam Visas! Wow … we were impressed! This was the most painless Visa process we had experienced on our trip!
2 World Travel also offers tours within Cambodia and throughout Southeast Asia and if their tour service is anything like their Visa service, we feel confident their clients will be extremely satisfied.
Unlike Laos, where the Royal Palace is used as a Government building and not open to the public, the Royal Palace compound in Phnom Penh welcomes visitors. The King, currently His Majesty Norodom Sihamoni, lives in the Palace which is also used for Court Ceremonies.
We decided to have a 45 minute guided tour and, although our guide spoke good English and was knowledgeable, we think it would have been better to use an audio tour instead so we could take it at our own pace. The Palace closes at lunch time so it’s important to get there early to avoid being forced to leave!
The grounds and buildings are beautifully maintained and, in fact, reminded us of the Royal Palace in Bangkok. Within the Palace grounds are several Stupas, the Throne Room and the spectacular Silver Pagoda, so named because the floor is inlaid with 5,329 solid silver tiles! It contains priceless treasures including the Emerald Buddha made of Baccarat crystal dating back to the 17th century and another Buddha statue decorated with 198lbs (90kg) of gold and over 9,000 diamonds!
Shoes off and no photos in this building! Although it was quite crowded inside, we were still able to appreciate the splendor of the building and its treasures.
We were fascinated with the mural on the inside of the compound wall which, we found out, was the Khmer version of the Ramayana. Restoration work was in progress and, when finished, will add greatly to this superb Royal Residence.
What Else Did We Do in Phnom Penh?
After traveling through three countries and twelve cities, each one claiming to have the most famous Wat (Temple), one gets a little leery about visiting yet another! Wat Phnom, located on the only hill in the area, close to Riverside was worth a quick visit to see the temple sanctuary and grand staircase guarded by lions and nagas (snakes). An event was about to take place and many monks were arriving which made an interesting scene.
We also visited the National Museum of Cambodia, just north of the Royal Palace. The striking traditional style building sets the stage for what is considered the finest collection of Khmer sculpture in the world. It’s a good idea to have a guide here to explain the many different pieces otherwise they all look alike after a while!
Of course there is plenty more to see and do in Phnom Penh – more wats, more markets, river boat cruises, etc. but we also needed time to relax so these will have to wait until next time!
Cambodia has a long and at times violent history and we expected it to be obviously Communistic. However, we learned that it is a Constitutional monarchy governed under a Constitution enacted in 1993. The Monarch is chosen by the Royal Council of the Throne from among members of the Royal Family, and the Government is headed by a Prime Minister. It’s interesting to note that the Prime Minister, Hun Sen, is an ex-member of the Khmer Rouge!
Cambodia is also listed in the top 20 most corrupt countries in the world although, as visitors, we were not aware of this. The country has much to do to fight widespread poverty, lack of political freedom, damage to the environment and low per capita income, however, it has the fastest growing economy is Asia and the tenacity of the people leads us to believe that – with time – these challenges can be overcome.
As is so often the case, it’s the People who leave a lasting impression and, for that reason, Cambodia is definitely a favorite of ours!
Photo Link: https://goo.gl/photos/Ncd4jZdDanQSVNNs6
Jan 28 – Feb 11, 2017
As expected, our time in Battambang was relaxing and refreshing. We’ve learned that we need time every now and then to unwind, get laundry done and catch up on computer work. This was the perfect place!
Pronounced Bat/dam/bong, the town is the second largest city in Cambodia, surrounded by scenic rice fields which produce enough rice to feed the entire country!
Woken early one morning by the sound of cymbals crashing, drums beating and firecrackers exploding, we realized we were there for the Chinese New Year Celebrations! Hurrying downstairs we watched the Lion Dance, a traditional New Year dance performed for Good Luck.
This time of year is also the Wedding Season and one afternoon and early the next morning we were bombarded by chanting and loud music blaring out from a loudspeaker strategically placed on the street under our window!
We didn’t do much in the way of sightseeing during our stay but the highlight was our visit to a Buddhist University located on the grounds of Wat Damrey Sor. Having walked around the town in the heat of the day, we sat on a bench under a shade tree and two monks stopped to talk to us. They pointed out that the building behind us was a Buddhist University and asked if we’d like to see the Library. First they had to eat a meal because it was getting close to 12 noon and they cannot eat anything after that time.
We waited comfortably until they returned, removed our hats and shoes and spent 45 minutes in the Library which contained dictionaries in hundreds of languages, thousands of books about the Life of Buddha, students’ theses and the teachings of a famous monk called Maha Ghosananda known as the Buddha of the Battlefield. We’ll talk more about this experience in a later blog.
Phnom Penh, Capital of Cambodia
Our plan was to experience all the different modes of travel during our six month journey so we chose a Minibus to take us from Battambang to Phnom Penh. The trip would get us there faster than on the large buses and, other than being a little cramped because a lot of the luggage had to be shoved under the seats, we were satisfied with the trip. 180 miles (290 km) for $12 per person including a bottle of water each.
We had read on line about crazy drivers and the potential for accidents but our driver didn’t take risks and we had no close calls! A tuk tuk took us to our hotel on arrival in Phnom Penh and we set about exploring the area and find a place for a late lunch.
There is another sinister and deadly aspect to Cambodia’s past, and a visit to Phnom Penh brought this home to us in an unforgettable way. From 1975 to 1997, after years of conflict, the country was under the unbelievably violent rule of the Khmer Rouge headed by Pol Pot.
A warning: what follows is hard to read and comprehend but we hope you’ll stick with us.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
You cannot fully understand Cambodia until you’ve visited the Tuol Sleng Prison (also called S-21) and witnessed the terrible work of the Khmer Rouge under the rule of Pol Pot. This prison was one of nearly 200 prisons across the country where people were tortured by the Khmer Rouge. Between 12,000 and 20,000 people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng alone and there are only twelve confirmed survivors. We saw two of them on our visit. It is estimated that around 3 million people were killed by the Khmer Rouge – one in four Cambodians.
The question is: why did this happen?
We are not historians and our information comes from tour guides, the Internet and what we witnessed so we recommend you check out History http://www.history.com/topics/pol-pot which we think does a good job of explaining the events leading up to Pol Pot’s rise to power and the atrocities authorized by him. Wikipedia is another good resource.
The first people to be detained and interrogated at Khmer Rouge prisons were the lawyers, doctors, teachers, religious figures and those who wore glasses – anyone who was, or looked, educated and professional. From then on, everyone was at risk for being arrested and interrogated. Books were banned, as was religion.
As a result of U.S. bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War, people fled to Phnom Penh from the countryside. Pol Pot seized that opportunity to put in place a forced evacuation from the city to the countryside where people were required to work in the rice fields for extended hours, with one meal of porridge a day to sustain them. Anyone who failed to work as hard as the Khmer Rouge guards expected was arrested and taken away – never to be seen again. Untold numbers of people died from malnutrition and illness.
Link to Photos: https://goo.gl/photos/U9Qpjfr3ffy6N6sb6
A Survivor’s Personal Story
One morning at our hotel we met a Cambodian couple from Vancouver, Canada, who were bringing their teenage daughter to Cambodia for the first time. The husband explained to us that when he was a young boy he, his parents and his siblings were forced from their home in Phnom Penh and marched out to the countryside.
At some point his father decided to go back to the house for rice and other supplies and the rest of the family continued to their destination. It took his father many months to find them and by that time he had aged so drastically it was difficult for them to recognize him.
During their time in the rice fields, he told us his younger brother developed a wound on his leg. There was no medicine and not enough food and it soon became difficult for him to work. The Khmer Rouge guards said he was lazy and took him away. They never say him again.
When the Vietnamese Army overcame the Khmer Rouge Forces and the family and other workers were released, they returned home to Phnom Penh to find people living in their house. With no title to the property, they were forced to seek accommodation elsewhere. Eventually, after living in a Refugee Camp for many months, a relative in Canada sponsored them and they moved to Vancouver.
We are sure harrowing stories like this are not uncommon and it will probably take many more years before Cambodia can completely recover from the damage caused by Pol Pot on the people of Cambodia.
The Killing Fields
Unfortunately, Tuol Sleng was not the end of the road for most of Pol Pot’s victims. When they had been tortured almost to the point of death and forced to admit to whatever the guards wanted to hear, they were packed into trucks and driven some 24 miles (15km) southeast of the city to what is the most well-known of 300 Killing Fields throughout Cambodia.
The area is peaceful today but the horrors of the past are clearly visible. An audio tour leads you through the grounds, from the arrival point where the victims, barely alive, were hit on the head with hammers, hoes, palm stems or anything hard and thrown into mass graves. Bullets were scarce and too expensive to waste on killing the victims. Toxic material such as DDT was sprinkled over them, many of them still living, and the grave covered over with soil.
Loud music played from the “Magic Tree” to cover the groans of the dying so no one in the surrounding area knew was what going on. Babies and young children were killed at the “The Killing Tree” and thrown into a mass grave as well.
Starting in 1980 the remains of nearly 9,000 people were exhumed from mass graves, leaving 43 of the 129 graves untouched. As you walk through the site you see bone and cloth fragments which rise to the surface as the soil is washed away by the rains.
A Memorial Stupa was built on the site in 1988 and is the resting place for 8,000 skulls and bones of the victims. The remaining victims rest where they are, with no plans to disturb them. We did not enter the Stupa but sat on a bench under a tree and tried to make sense of what we had seen.
Photo Link to Killing Fields
It may seem morbid to visit these two places but it is a key part of Cambodia’s history and a reminder that we have a responsibility to prevent this type of activity ever occurring again.
Phnom Penh is a vibrant city and we found the people of Cambodia to be very welcoming and friendly. Many spoke English, and the dominant currency is the US Dollar so we felt right at home! There’s still more to see in Phnom Penh including the beautiful Royal Palace and the spectacular Wat Phnom. We’ll share that with you next time.
Photos: Travels Battambang to Phnom Penh