Indochina and Siam
A road trip in South East Asi
a - part 2

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(This is part 2 of a report in 3 parts)

In Phnom Penh we came face to face with the Khmer Rouge killing machine.

The Khmer Rouge, a cruel and extreme fundamental communist movement, under their lunatic leader Pol Pot took over Cambodia in 1975, "year zero". Money was abolished, markets, schools, books and healthcare outlawed, cities abandoned and Cambodia was transformed into a peasant-dominated agrarian cooperative.

During the next four years hundreds of thousands of Cambodians were relocated to the countryside, tortured to death or executed. Thousands of people who spoke foreign languages or wore spectacles were branded as parasites and systematically killed. Hundreads of thousands more died of malnutrition and disease. It is estimated that between 1975 and 1979 more than two million people, equal to 20% of the country's population at the time, died as a direct result of the acts of the Khmer Rouge. One of the worst genocides in history.

The years of fear and loathing are over, but two of the most horrific sites of the killing machine regime are opened as museums. Maybe making the crimes of the Khmer Rough public will help preventing new Pol Pots from emerging in the land of Cambodia. Almost half of the population is aged under 20 years and probably at least 80% are too young to remember the holocaust. A visit to these places helps in understanding Cambodia's past and present.

We visited Tuol Sleng prison or Security Office 21 (S-21), now converted to Tuol Sleng Genocide museum, and The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, now a memorial and officially called Choeung Ek Genocidal Center.

Pol Pot's security forces turned a former school into Tuol Sleng prison, designed "for detention, interrogation, torture and killing - after confession from the detainees were received and documented". Almost everyone held here were later executed at the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, which we also visited. Those who died during torture were buried in mass graves inside the prison grounds. During early 1977, S-21 claimed an average of 100 victims per day.

A monument has been built at the Killing Fields, rising above the 129 mass graves. 17,000 men, women and children were executed here. 9,000 sculls, found during the excavations, are encased inside the monument, many of them bearing witness that the victims were bludgeoned to death.

Bush elephant at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh
A cute little street vendor, Phnom Penh
The sights of Phnom Penh highlight the contradictions of Cambodia. All around one will witness both splendour and sorrow. The Royal Palace is a world away from the horrors of the Killing Fields. Hidden behind protective walls and under the shadows of shining buildings, it's an oasis of calm with lush gardens. Malla was not permitted to enter dressed as on the photo above right. She bought a t-shirt (above left), which made a big difference at the gate, but she complained about the heat.
Photo for Vietnam visa
Route planning
Vendors attacking the bus
Overtaking a local transport

In Phnom Penh we got our visas for Vietnam and boarded our second bus on this journey. Saigon, here we come.

A nearly mythical place in my imagination, thanks to TV news in the 1960s and 70s and all the American war movies. Everybody living there calls it Saigon, although officially it is Ho Chi Minh City (or HCMC) today.

Many wear masks covering mouth and nose
War Remnants Museum
Photos of the Vietnam War

Vietnam has been dealing with a rapid transition after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The pace of social and economic change is said to be on overdrive, partly because the country is now a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Vietnam has the 13th largest population in the world, almost 90 million people, with 65% under 30 years old. The Vietnamese are hard-working, people of all ages work from sunrise until late in the evening, seven days a week, all year round.

Vietnam is not a democray, there is only the Communist Party. However, it certainly does not look like a communist state, at least not on the surface. All the typical capitalistic goods are on display and in great numbers: jewellery, electronics, household appliences, electronics. Also the green markets are well stocked with fruits and vegetables. In the evenings, all pavements and open areas are filled with food and market stalls and people socialising over small meals. Saigon is definately a city that never sleeps.

Mobile restaurant, Saigon
Xih lo (Cyclo) driver takes a nap, Saigon
Cable tie, anyone? Saigon
Vietnamese Water Puppet Show
We immensely enjoyed ourselves in Saigon just by people-watching, there's not that many interesting sights that we became aware of. A visit to the War Remembrance Museum is probably mandatory, and we found it interesting to see how the Vietnamese display their view of the war.

The cultural highlight was an evening at a Vietnamese Water Puppet Show. This ancient art is more than 1,000 years old and was developed by rice farmers, who used waterfloded rice paddies as their stage. Wooden puppets are manipulated by puppeteers under the surface and the performances are accompanied by music played on traditional instruments. The show was wonderful and a lot more entertaining than the Shadow Puppet show we experienced in Bali.

Lao version of the Arc de Triomphe
Old colonial house ..
.. in Vientiane, Laos

From Vietnam we flew with Vietnam Airways to Vientiane (pronounced Vien-Chan), the Capital of Laos, a surprisingly charming and friendly backwater studded with old French mansions, Buddha temples and bouganvillea-blooming alleys.

Laos has a turbulent history, for more than 1,000 years it was variously abused by Siamese, Burmese, Vietnamese, Khmere and French conquerors. From the 14th to the 18th century it was called Lan Xang, the Land of a Million Elephants. After 100 years under French rule Laos gained independence in 1953 but 20 years of caos followed. In 1975 the Communists took over, but by the end of the 1980s, the regime understood to soften socialism to allow for private enterprise and to open the doors for foreign investors.

Beautufully restored houses, Luang Prabang
The French Connection, Luang Prabang
The former Royal Palace, Luang Prabang

A 10-hour bus trip took us north over the mountains to Luang Prabang, a Unesco-protected World Heritage city, voted by readers of UK's Wanderlust magazine as the World's Top City destination, four times during the last five years.

A citation from Lonely Planet: "From the fascinating history of the Royal Family to it's myriad stunning wats (temples or monuments) glittering in emerald and gold, this once sleepy capital is perhaps the most sophisticated, photogenic city in the whole of South East Asia. With it's orange-robed monks, and fantastic food at the many bistros, cafés and night-market, Luang Prabang is a wonderful place to kick back for a few days."

Board game, Luang Prabang (above)

Jam session with classical Khmer music
Luang Prabang lies on a peninsula formed by the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers.
Painting of a bridge crossing the Mekong river near Luang Prabang

From Luang Prabang we flew with Lao Airlines to Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand, see next report.

(Note: A few photos on this page are from frames exported from video tape, therefore of low resolution)