The rest of Cambodia and Vietnam

I can’t believe it’s been more than six months since we visited Cambodia and Vietnam. I started the series of posts on Cambodia, but never managed to finish them. I don’t think I ever will! This is what happens when I had seriously neglected my travel diary and didn’t take a million pictures of every single moment of the holiday. But there are still a string of holiday memories that are still crystal clear in my mind.

  • The awesome and hectic public holiday celebrations. We were lucky enough to arrive at Phnom Penh during the King’s birthday. Apparently Cambodia has the most number of public holidays of any country in the world, and they definitely celebrate in style. The streets were all closed off to cars and even the most effective means of transport for us tourists (the infamous motorcycle taxis) were not allowed to enter the main streets.  After a long and hot walk into the city centre, it was a relief and a surprise to be offered the VIP treatment in a giant marquee right next to the river. So what’s going on? Dragon boat racing! All the foreigners were allowed to sit in the breezy marquee to watch the fanfare whilst the locals had to endure the heat. I soon understood the locals’ persistence as periodic thunderous cheers erupted along the riverbank and I see television screens broadcasting the race to the rest of Cambodia. But the weather was insanely hot, and I had to quickly find refuge in an air-conditioned cafe.
  • Visits to the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh.  Many people are familiar with this dark period in Cambodia’s history. Here was a stark contrast to the majestic temple grounds of Angkor Wat or yesterday’s spectacular King’s birthday celebration. The Genocide Museum is based in a former primary school where the Khmer Rouge converted classrooms to torture chambers and jail cells for their captives. This notion alone is disturbing but I never expected to have tears in my eyes as I walked through the various classrooms, many of which still had blood-stained floors. It was immensely confronting, although compared to the Killing Fields this was just the beginning.  At the killing fields, nothing is left untold. We could see clothes debris embedded into the ground that we walked on, hastily buried after the victims were executed. Beneath that earth, there were hundreds, perhaps thousands of skulls and bones. We saw deep pits that were used to bury the victims, even babies. Walking past a tree, the guide pointed out that the soldiers would smash babies against its wide trunk and bury them in the pit nearby.
  • Ton Le Sap. We were extremely lucky to have visited Cambodia at the end of the wet season. This meant that this largest lake in Cambodia was still fully flooded (otherwise it reduces its size dramatically) and we could visit the floating villages. The village was built on stilts. During the wet season, villagers travel around in small boats across town. We got on some boats and went on a tour around the place. I even rowed for a bit.
  • Luckily, that was the best and worst of Cambodia. The next day we boarded a motor boat across the Mekong into Vietnamese border.
  • To me, Vietnam was totally different to Cambodia. For one thing, it was obviously more prosperous, and the capital, HCMC, actually resembled a modern city. Memories in HCMC include stepping into the bustling night market and having delicious street food which never made me sick; eating delicious deep fried spring rolls with noodle soup and copious amounts of chilli in a shop that only sold those two dishes, and getting seriously sick the next day; sipping my $30USD cocktail in the Caravelle Hotel; learning the art of crossing the streets without being run over by hundreds of scooters; writing postcards in the General Post Office and watching bridal photo shoots across the road outside the Cathedral…
  • I seriously loved Hoi An. Ok, I admit that a major part of it was the excitement of getting my own tailored clothes, shoes and bags, all within a mere 24 hours.  But Hoi An impressed me with its nostalgic Chinese buildings, the remnants of wet-season floods that blocked off the section of the road that led up to the riverbank, and the great local food. The hotels was also a lot cleaner than the hotels in the big cities and the mahogany-coloured furniture was just lovely.
  • The night we spent on a junk at Ha Long Bay was something else altogether. I had seen Ha Long Bay in many pictures, but they didn’t even come close to the amazing scenery, the giant limestone formations and the sheer amusement of enjoying it all on a junk. There were some drunken karaoke indulged that night, all thanks to (fake) Hanoi vodka and the terrible terrible ‘death shots’ someone came up with.

There were obviously ups and downs when you travel with a tour, but it was a great experience. I got to see parts of Cambodia and Vietnam that I would never have seen otherwise (like eating dinner at a local’s house and riding on the back of a truck on unsecured bench seats)! Oh, and my Vietnam photos can be seen here.

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