Southeast Asia open for tourism
Cambodia and Vietnam, long off-limits to American travelers, are gradually becoming more attractive destinations for adventurous tourists.
After many years of turmoil in Cambodia, we felt it was safe to visit Angkor Wat in the northwestern part of the country. The Khmer Rouge lost control about three years ago, but there are still land mines in certain areas. Cambodia’s economy is now being built around the expected tourists, with Angkor Wat as the main attraction.
Siem Reap is the small town that provides the tourist facilities for Angkor, the complex of wats (temples). Its unpaved, rutted streets are busy with motorcycles, bicycles, pedicabs and some cars. New hotels are being built or planned to accommodate the hoped-for influx of tourists. We were there in high season, but due to the East Coast terrorist attacks, the few tourists were mostly European.
Angkor, three miles from Siem Reap, is a large complex of wats that were part of the capital of the Khmer kingdoms from the 800s to the 1100s. From the mid-15th century until they were rediscovered in 1860, the temples were looted, vandalized, and reclaimed by the jungle. Anything wooden vanished long ago with only huge stone structures left in various stages of collapse. Some restoration is under way.
Angkor Wat is the main part of the complex, surrounded by a wide moat, and is fairly well restored. The walls and large temple in the center courtyard are in good shape. We climbed (crawled up!) the extremely steep, narrow stairs to the top of the main wat and viewed the sunset.
An unrestored wat nearby shows how the jungle trees can break down even huge stone structures. Angkor was not damaged by the Khmer Rouge, but now is threatened by tourists. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992.
South of Siem Reap, we visited a floating fishing village on Tonle Sap (Great Lake). Homes, school, store and restaurant are built on floating bamboo rafts. The monsoon floods the lake and the entire village moves several miles into the flooded countryside. With the monsoon over, we saw homes and businesses being towed by boats into the lake.
Vietnam is also opening up to tourism. Hanoi, a city of more than 3 million, has a new airport hoping to attract many tourists and boost their economy. We did not see any signs of the war and people were extremely friendly, especially if they had something to sell us. We were told, “The war was between governments, and we are the people.”
About 90 percent of the heavy street traffic is motorcycles and bicycles with very few cars. Motorcycles and bicycles carry impossible loads of everything imaginable. Pedestrians crossing the street walk slowly, letting the traffic avoid them. We tried it and, to our amazement, it worked.
Motorcycles, imported from Thailand, are limited to 100 cc engines so they cannot outrun the police. The import tax on motorcycles is 100 percent, and for cars it is 100 to 200 percent. No wonder you see almost no private cars.
In addition to what is transported on motorcycles and bicycles, tiny barefoot women of all ages carry baskets suspended from each end of a shoulder pole. These loads are unbelievably heavy with fruits, vegetables or almost anything else. Street traffic is so incredible that while we thought we would watch it for about five minutes, we stood fascinated for a full hour.
Ho Chi Minh, the revered Communist leader of Vietnam, is enshrined in a mausoleum like Lenin in Moscow. People wait in long lines to view his body. Vietnam is very much communist. TV, radio and newspapers are closely controlled. Our guide said he needed to be careful about what he said to us, in case it might be reported to the authorities.
We made a grim visit to the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison. Two-thirds were demolished for a high-rise office building. A sign in the remaining part states that American pilots were detained guests, well cared for, and, at the end of the war, returned to their families.
We were led to believe the prison atrocities were committed by the French on the Vietnamese. Our POWs must have made up their stories. A few blocks away beside the opera house is the very elegant new Hanoi Opera Hilton Hotel.
Hanoi reflects the years of French influence with wide avenues, tall French-style buildings and restaurants, but the French language is not evident. The pre-French part of Hanoi is a maze of crowded narrow streets and tiny shops spilling onto the side walks, selling everything from trinkets and food to caskets and headstones.
In the countryside, we saw small family plots populated with water buffaloes. Rice is a major crop, with everything done by hand, including the irrigation. Two people stand on either side of a canal with a basket suspended on a rope between them. Water is scooped from the main canal into a smaller ditch. They were interested to hear how everything is done mechanically in our California rice fields.
We saw rice fields in all stages from bare ground to harvest, as well as neat fields of green onions, garlic, lettuce, cabbage, green beans and sweet potatoes. There were many shrimp and fish ponds. Neighborhoods or private homes often have their own fish pond. Women wear conical straw hats and, frequently, a mask to protect against the sun. Light-colored skin is desirable.
“Thit cho” means “dog meat,” and we saw it near cages holding dogs. Dog meat is a special, expensive delicacy. They used to eat cats and snakes – that’s now illegal with the increase in the rat population. However, our guide’s pet cat had been stolen the day before. Rats are eaten in the countryside.
We met three young Swiss couples at the airport, each with a 2-month-old baby they were adopting. Many people were in Vietnam then adopting, because at the end of 2001, the government stopped all adoptions for a while.
Cambodia and Vietnam are interesting and comfortable places to visit. With tourism just opening up, we are glad we visited before the rush.
Dorothy Peavy lives in Grass Valley.
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