July 07, 2004

South Vietnam - July 7, 2004

*** The war's true heros ****

After spending three days sick, curled up in a ball, feverish, and delirious, I finally recovered and went to the Cu Chi tunnels, the famous VietCong tunnel network southwest of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City).

The Americans, in their infinite wisdom, built a massive base right on top of the tunnel network (despite the south vietnamese army warning them of this network's existence), and then couldn't figure out for a full year why their infantry kept getting shot and killed at night. My tour guide was a former south vietnamese soldier who had fought alongside the americans and had been condemned for seven years in a "re-education" concentration camp after vietnamese reunification. He told us some pretty scary stories of being stuck in the jungle for two weeks, waiting for the american choppers to come rescue him. After those two weeks, he spent four months in the hospital, recovering from all manner of infections.

"99% of American soldiers were high on heroin," he claimed.

Before we could crawl through the (widened for tourists) tunnels, we had to watch a propaganda movie which intoned "The imperialist American Devils could not overcome the patriotic pride of the VietCong. The foreign cowards found themselves fighting our glorious peasant women, who went to school during the day and fought bravely by night. The true heros of the American Imperial War of Conquest was the Vietcong woman. Young, beautiful, and true to her country, she killed and maimed thousands of american enemies and drove the invading criminals from her land."

The tunnels were an experience. Well camouflaged (i was standing on top of an entrance and didn't even know it), they were damp, dark, and small. Even though they had been widened, I found them extremely claustrophobic. As I crawled the 150m (I was the only one of the tour group who did the entire length), large bats brushed against my face and water dripped on my hands. I emerged gasping for air, covered in sweat, and somewhat wild-eyed.

I ended the day by visiting the American War Crimes museum. This relatively small museum contained thousands of photos mainly taken by Western photographers. Most of the photos had been censored by the American Military, but were proudly displayed here to chronicle many of the atrocities commited by American soldiers. Some of the more graphic photos showed americans tying up and dragging suspected Vietcong sympathisers behind jeeps or tanks. Another one showed a grinning soldier giving the thumbs up as he held up two decapitated heads. The bodies were also in the picture. Others showed american soldiers killing old men, old women, and babies. There were also hundreds of pictures of deformed babies who had succumbed to the ill-effects of agent orange. Overall, quite a sobering experience.

July 04, 2004

Cambodia - July 3, 2004

*** Spotty Safety record ***

Faced with the prospect of spending 40 hours in the back of a pickup truck, navigating muddy, washed-out roads and braving torrential rain, I decided to fly from Laos to Cambodia. The old russian-made turboprop did nothing to evoke confidence, nor did the unscheduled stop at a small town in the south of Laos ("simple maintenance," said the pilot). However, I did make it in one piece to Siem Reap, Cambodia - where I found the roads flooded under six inches of muddy rain water. As soon as I was settled in at my hotel, I checked on Laos Aviation's safety record... second worst in the world!

*** Toothless, smiling, and wildly famous ****

After 12 hours of non-stop rain, the skies finally cleared enough to allow me to rent a motobike guide for three days of exploring the spectacular (10th - 13th Century) Angkor Temples. With over 70 well-preserved temples within 50km of each other, there was a lot to pick from. A lot of the temples were in remarkable shape after having been lost to the jungle for over 500 years and i had some of the less popular ones all to myself. It was a bit surreal, tramping through the underbrush to find partly collapsed temples looming against the tropical foliage. In the afternoon of my first day, I was at the Ta Promn temple (where parts of Tomb Raider were filmed). Suddenly, it started to rain. Really rain. I rushed into an antechamber to take cover and found myself next to a smiling, bald man. He had really big ears, no teeth, and spoke in low, slow tones. We chatted for half an hour during the downpour as he asked me "where you from?" "what you do?" "how much you weigh?" Then, as the rain subsideded, he tapped my pocket where I had stored my Lonely Planet guidebook. Thinking he was going to recommend another temple, I pulled it out and started to open it. He shook his head, smiled, and pointed to the cover. There he was, smiling, stooped, and posing happily for a picture. He was a local legend!

**** "Hey you, motobike!" *****

After Siem Reap, I headed down to Pnomn Penh, a crazy city where anything goes. For a fee, you can fire rocket launchers or AK-47s, then go watch Khmer kickboxing (much, much more violent than Thai Kickboxing) and finish off your day at the local brothel (most guesthouses have a ladyfriend for hire).I spent my first afternoon at the Genocide museum. It was a sobering, somber visit in which I learned of the Khmer Rouge's atrocities. It was difficult to stomach, but very educational. Even more difficult to stomach was the motorbike ride back to my guesthouse, during which my driver insisted on breaking his last record. He flew into oncoming traffic, through congested alleyways, and onto crowded sidewalks. Sadly (for him), he didn't break his record.The next day, I opted to walk. One of Pnomn Penh's charms is that it's full of people with motobikes to hire. You can't walk for 30seconds without hearing "hey! motobike!" with a smiling khmer pointing to his ride. It soon became very tiring, saying "no thank you!" especially to those drivers who insisted on riding next to me as I walked, imploring "cheap price, get on!" Finally, on one particular street where I was harrassed by 7 drivers in a span of 20seconds, I lost patience. "Now why the hell would I want a motobike now after I just said no to 7 others?" I exclaimed to the eighth driver. Grinning from ear to ear, he simply patted his bike and said what he knew in english "ok! motobike?" How to argue with this logic? Sighing, I climbed on and paid him 10 cents to take me to a cafe.