Southeast Asia

August 9, 2010 — I’m back in Hong Kong after three weeks traveling through Southeast Asia. This was the final adventure during my year here and the last chance to see a new part of Asia before I return to Portland at the end of the month. A few weeks ago, as I was planning this trip, I decided on a circular route through Southern Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia to be followed by a week of diving on an island in the Gulf of Thailand. The objectives of this trip were to travel part of the way along the Mekong River, see the temples at Angkor, do some reef diving, and get off the tourist track for at least some the journey to experience a bit of village life in this part of the world.

I arrived in Bangkok around midnight on July 17th and spent the next day wandering around the riverfront near the Wat Traimit and Wat Pho temples. I had less than twenty-four hours to soak in what is among the most modern and energetic cities in all of Asia, but I knew that this whirlwind stopover was not the last time I would be in Bangkok during my trip so I didn’t feel pressured to do too much or to move at a frantic pace. That afternoon I booked my airline tickets to Koh Tao for later in the trip and then later in the evening I boarded an overnight train. I got to the Thai-Laotian border early in the morning and then crossed over by bus and arrived the town of Pakse that evening. Pakse is the former French capital of southern Laos; a pleasant town situated on the banks of the Mekong River. The center of the town contains an old French church, some colonial-era office buildings, and two very beautiful Buddhist seminaries. The novice monks were dressed in day-glow orange robes and all of them looked really young—some barely teenagers. I had dinner that evening at an open-air restaurant along the riverfront and watched the sun set over the Mekong River.

The Mekong River is main geographic and commercial artery of this region. It runs the length of Southeast Asia from its headwaters in the mountains of Yunnan Province in China all the way through Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia, finally fanning out into the Mekong Delta in South Vietnam where it empties into the South China Sea. Many of the region’s most important cities are located along its banks. This river is to Southeast Asia what the Danube is to Europe, the Ganges to India, the Amazon to South America, and the Mississippi to North America. The water is often a rich brown color and the currents can be quite strong. During the Vietnam War, US Navy riverine squadrons that patrolled the muddy and dangerous waters of the Mekong Delta were known as the “brown water navy.” Though I was not returning to Vietnam, I was nevertheless determined to travel the river’s length from Pakse to Phnom Penh in Cambodia.

The next morning I took a bus to Si Phan Don along the border with Cambodia. This is a point where the Mekong expands into a web of smaller rivers that reconvene about fifty km downstream from the point where they first split apart. The result is cluster of small islands and sandbars within the Mekong system, many of which support small fishing and farming villages. The waters here contain crocodiles as well as the small Irrawaddy dolphins, a rare and endangered freshwater species. From the bus stop at Ban Nakasang I took a motorized sampan out to the village of Ban Hua Det on the island of Don Det and then checked in to my guesthouse.

I had planned to explore the village and surrounding waters that afternoon, but I was feeling really exhausted and instead lay down for short nap. When I awoke it was dinnertime and by then I knew something was wrong with me. I had a fever and every part of my body ached. I was also starting to get a bad headache. I tried to eat dinner but the smell and taste of what would have otherwise been a delicious meal made me nauseous. I returned to my room and tried to sleep some more but was now in severe pain. I had a high fever, cold sweats, and it felt like every bone in my body was breaking. My headache was now so intense that it was like my skull was in a vise. I thought I might have malaria, but I had been dutifully taking my Malarone tablets so I didn’t think that the symptoms could be so severe or their onset so sudden. The next morning I awoke and tried to get down some breakfast and a bit of tea. The guesthouse owner, a Frenchmen, gave me some Paracetamol tablets for the fever and brought me water throughout the day as I convalesced in his hammock under a palm tree near the river’s edge. The fever had passed that morning and the aching and chills were diminished. That evening I was well enough to eat dinner and the next morning I was able to walk around the village and the neighboring farms. The next morning I had almost completely recovered and was able to leave Don Det for the trip to Phnom Penh. I had hoped to make that journey by boat, but my health was such that an air-conditioned bus seemed the wiser if less romantic option. I never did find out what knocked me out for that forty-eight hour period but given the symptoms as well as the speed of onset and recovery I am almost certain it was dengue fever. A sobering reminder of the risks involved in traveling in the tropics. I am glad that I recovered as quickly as I did and that it wasn’t more serious.

Once I arrived in Phnom Penh I checked into a really lovely boutique hotel converted from an old French colonial villa, had dinner, and went to bed. The next morning I walked to the waterfront and begin to explore the city. Phnom Penh is really charming and cosmopolitan—though on a very small scale compared to Bangkok, Hanoi, or Ho Chi Minh City. It is hard to imagine that in 1975 the entire city was forcibly evacuated by the Khmer Rouge. That was also the year that the pro-US republic in South Vietnam finally fell apart. In Cambodia, almost at the same time, the US-backed government of Lon Nol collapsed after years of a devastating civil war against the pro-Chinese communist insurgents of the Khmer Rouge. Within days of their triumphant entry into Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge instituted one of the most terrifying and genocidal totalitarian regimes in modern history. Nearly the entire population of the capital and other cities was forced out into the countryside and condemned to backbreaking labor in a nationwide system of agrarian communes. The Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, executed his enemies in the Lon Nol regime and continued by eradicating the entire intellectual and political class of Cambodians. Summary executions were carried out for people with professional degrees and positions in government, law, journalism, medicine and academia. Anyone who resisted was killed as was anyone deemed by the Khmer Rouge to be even remotely suspect. It got to the point where people were killed for wearing eyeglasses. Entire families were executed along with individual suspects.

From 1975 to 1979 as many as two million people were killed in Cambodia. Like many episodes of genocide in the last century, the exact number is impossible to know for certain. The intent of the Khmer Rouge was to wipe the slate clean and restructure every aspect of society into a single Maoist agrarian utopia. The country was renamed “Democratic Kampuchea,” all currency was abolished, and the new calendar was set at “Year Zero.” Everyone wore plain black pajamas while Khmer Rouge party members adorned themselves with red and white checkered scarves to distinguish them from the rest of the population. The entire country became a giant prison camp almost completely cut off from the rest of the world. Anyone who resisted or whose cooperation appeared less than enthusiastic was eliminated. Hundreds of thousands perished in the torture/interrogation centers spread throughout the country or in at the site of mass graves out in the countryside. This history is well portrayed in the 1984 film The Killing Fields about the news photographer Dith Pran and his imprisonment and escape from Cambodia in the 1970s.

On my second day in Phnom Penh I visited the dreaded S-21 Security Prison, more commonly called “Tuol Sleng” (Strychnine Hill), which had been hastily converted from an old secondary school. The prison is now a memorial to the victims of the Khmer Rouge genocide and is probably the most disturbing place I have ever visited—even worse than Auschwitz. The rooms are shabby and dirty and nothing has been done to sanitize them—either physically or psychologically. Placards describe every detail of the dehumanizing prison routine and the unspeakable tortures inflicted on thousands of people. The torture chambers and detention cells (crates, really) were bad enough, but the worst part of the experience were the thousands of black and white photographs of prisoners taken by the prison staff at the time of their incarceration. Like the SS during the Final Solution, the Khmer Rouge were meticulous record keepers. In Tuol Sleng, dozens of photo boards contain individual portrait shots of desperate and terrified men, women and children with their arms bound behind their backs staring into the camera. To see row upon row of these photos was truly upsetting. Really, the stuff of nightmares. It is unbelievable how cruel this regime could be to its own people.

After Toul Sleng I needed a break from sightseeing. I went back to the hotel and took a nap and then went out for dinner. The next day after breakfast I steeled myself up for the second Khmer Rouge site on my list: the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Located about 10 km outside the city, the pleasant rice paddies of Choeung Ek give no indication of the horror that took place there during the rule of the Khmer Rouge. The Killing Fields are the site of several dozen mass graves that contain the remains of thousands of people, most of them taken there from Tuol Sleng to be executed. The memorial tower contains thousands of exhumed skulls and mountains of clothing scraps worn by the victims. Many of them were driven there in the dead of night and shot or bludgeoned to death (bullets were too valuable to the impoverished government). Sometimes mothers and fathers saw their children killed immediately before they were. Many of those killed during final years of the regime were Khmer Rouge officials whose loyalty had become suspect as Pol Pot and his inner circle became ever more paranoid. In 1979, the Khmer Rouge collapsed when Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia. In 1982, the exhumation of the Killing Fields began, as did a full accounting of the genocide.

To walk the grounds of Choeung Ek was a chilling experience. The sun was shining and the birds were chirping. Wild flowers were in bloom and swayed in a gentle breeze. It is impossible to get one’s head around what happened in this very same spot a mere thirty years ago. Even more sobering is the knowledge that the executions that took place in the killing fields were a fraction of the total deaths at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Hundreds of thousands more died from famine and disease because of government mismanagement and ideological inflexibility. Countless people died from lack of medicine and access to the most basic medical diagnoses and treatments (Western medicine was forever suspect and most doctors were killed). To secure the country against invasion, the Khmer Rouge laid millions of land mines, making Cambodia the most heavily mined place on earth. It has taken many years to clear these most of these mines and many areas are still off-limits. In the meantime thousands more Cambodians have been permanently maimed years after the collapse of Democratic Kampuchea.

When I returned to Phnom Penh from Choeung Ek I tried to clear my head by walking around the city center near the main market. It was amazing to see people happily going about their lives; children playing and young couples strolling hand-in-hand. Upscale restaurants, hotels, and art galleries line the streets and boulevards. To me, this was an incredible sight considering that Phnom Penh was a dead city and virtually deserted when the Vietnamese liberated it in 1979. I often found myself looking at older residents, imagining what they had lived through and how they survived it. As in Vietnam, I also wonder if the younger generation really understand and appreciate what their elders had to endure. I suppose, though, that nobody can understand it really.

The day after I left Phnom Penh, the UN-backed Cambodia war crimes tribunal handed down a verdict on one of key figures in Pol Pot’s inner circle. Kaing Guek Eav, or “Comrade Duch” as he is more commonly known, was the head of “Special Security” in the Khmer Rouge government and the commandant of Tuol Sleng prison. Of all the Khmer Rouge defendants, he was the one most clearly implicated in that regime’s crimes against humanity. After a trial lasting several years, Duch received a 35-year sentence with sixteen of those already served. He is 67 right now so if he lives past 86 he will be a free man. The surprisingly lenient sentence was met with disbelief and anger by many Cambodians whose relatives are counted among the tens of thousands that disappeared in Duch’s prisons.

After three days in and around Phnom Penh I boarded a bus for Siem Reap, the site of the world famous Angkor temples. This is a dream destination for most travelers and I was eager to see it finally. As the bus made the nine-hour journey through central Cambodia I was able to enjoy the scenery rolling by (see below). Central Cambodia in the monsoon season is a patchwork of emerald-green rice paddies and palm glades with gentle hills rising in the distance. During the monsoon, the often dark-gray skies actually bring out the color of the vegetation better than the hazy sunshine that one usually sees when it is not raining. Actually, I found traveling during the monsoon to be quite pleasant. Often it was cool and refreshing; the rains, though heavy, came only in short bursts during the day.

Angkor was magnificent; it really does live up to all the hype. The temple complexes are enormous and sprawl out over a distance of at least twenty miles. I spent three days on bicycle trying to see as much as possible while spending enough time at each site to really appreciate it. The exquisite beauty, refinement, and humanity of the artwork and the sheer majesty of the temple buildings were a stark contrast to the squalor, banality, and inhuman cruelty of Cambodia’s recent rulers (see below). It was a pleasure to be transported back 900 to 1200 years to a golden age of human achievement among one of the world’s great civilizations. The centerpiece of the temple network is Angkor Wat. This is by far the most beautiful and well-preserved complex, but it is also crawling with tourists. The outlying temples, though more modest, were more to my liking and often had only a handful of visitors when I was there. Some were a bit overgrown and dilapidated, but to me that added to their appeal. If I let my imagination go it almost felt like I was the one discovering them.

From Siem Reap it was a one-hour flight to Bangkok where I connected to another flight to the island of Koh Samui in the Gulf of Thailand. The next morning I took the catamaran ferry to yet another island, Koh Tao. There I spent a wonderful week diving the reefs and the open ocean around the island. It was a marvelous way to end what had been a stimulating and at times overwhelming journey. After suffering through a bout of dengue, enduring exhausting days of travel, and coming to grips with mass torture and genocide, it was nice just to relax. Each day I went out on the boat and made two dives, then afterwards lounged around on the beach in the late afternoon and read my book. Dinner at the dive resort was usually freshly caught seafood that was cooked on an open grill out on the beach. The reef diving was not as spectacular as what I have experienced in Tanzania and the Philippines. Many of the reefs I saw around Koh Tao were badly bleached, a consequence of a slight rise in the summer ocean temperatures this year. The ocean diving, on the other hand, was incredible. My dive group and I would submerge about fifty feet into the open blue amid giant schools of mackerel, jack, and barracuda. Thousands of fish would swim close together and move in unison so quickly that they appeared as one large silvery cloud changing shape in an instant as we approached. No whale sharks or manta rays, though; not the season, alas.

On my final day I caught the catamaran back to Koh Samui and boarded a plane to Bangkok. I spent the next few days enjoying that city before returning to Hong Kong. Bangkok was a lot of fun and, like Hong Kong, it is a culinary paradise. There is a seemingly limitless array of delicious and fresh food readily available on street stalls throughout the city. In Bangkok one can eat like a king for days on end and never set foot inside a restaurant. The stalls sell fish and prawn balls, chicken and beef skewers along with broth seasoned with fresh lemongrass, cilantro, ginger, coconut, and chili paste. A cold Singha beer or lemon soda is an excellent accompaniment. In addition to the food, Bangkok is impressive in many other ways. Thai art and architecture can be really exquisite. The buildings I visited were magnificent, though at times a bit over-the-top. The gold and mirrors in some of the pagodas, temples, and palaces were overdone and seemed a bit gaudy. I actually prefer the more subdued and elegant architectural style of Cambodia and Laos. I also found Bangkok to be a much more modern city than any others I have visited in Southeast Asia. It is not as sanitized or modern as cities like Hong Kong or Singapore, but at the same time it does not feel like the “developing world.” The international airport is a brand new state-of-the-art facility that outclasses just about any US airport. The same is true of the subway system. The highway network around the city and the skyscrapers are also really impressive. Yet some of the neighborhoods along the waterways with their stilt houses and corrugated metal roofs evoke an older, more exotic Asian city. It is reassuring to see that in pursuit of modernization and prosperity, Bangkok has not lost its character and distinctiveness.

After two days in Bangkok I flew back to Hong Kong. I am now less than seventy-two hours away from my final departure home and the reality is beginning to sink in at last that this grand experience is about to end.

Rice fields of Siem Reap, Cambodia, 27 July 2010

Ta Keo Temple Complex at Angkor, Siem Reap, 28 July 2010