Monday, May 27, 2013

Vietnam, in Vignettes

I'll admit it: it took us a little while to warm up to Vietnam. In Saigon, we felt hustled by taxi drivers and aggressive touts. When we left Saigon for the quiet mountain town of Da Lat, Nod came town with a bad stomach bug that forced us to lay low for two days. By "lay low," I mean that Nod spent some 36 hours heaving in the bathroom while I fed him ice chips and beat every single level of "Plants Versus Zombies" on my iPad. Not the Wazis at our finest. Da Lat is also the honeymoon capital of Vietnam, which meant that we were surrounded by inescapable adorableness even as we were feeling rotten. Here we were, slumped over in a swan-shaped paddle boat, or holding our stomachs on the scenic gondola ride overlooking the pristine rose gardens. In our sickness, we felt taunted by the ever-present cuteness.

Furthermore, Not many people speak English in the big cities (though we've been relieved to run into more English speakers in smaller towns). We know it's our responsibility to learn the languages of the countries we travel to, but Vietnamese is a tonal language with six different tones, so it's not a simple thing to pick up. It turns out that when we thought we were saying "Hello!" we were really asking, "Would you like rice soup?" So the potential has been high for both the joy of cultural immersion and the frustration of misunderstanding. For the first few days, we were feeling more of the latter.

In addition to all that, traveling from Cambodia to Vietnam meant traveling from former war zone to former war zone. In actuality, being in Cambodia was much emotionally heavier for us than it has been for us to be here in Vietnam, at least so far. I think what it really comes down to is that Nod and I can only emotionally process one thing at a time. We visited the Vietnam war museum in Saigon only two days after we visited the Killing Fields, and it made our heads spin to hold so much war in our minds at once. It has been difficult to allow ourselves to deeply reflect on the role our country played in Vietnam's recent past, and the violence that was brought about because of it. When given the chance to stay at a beach near the site of the My Lai massacre, I opted out. My heart is just still too heavy.

All the same, I still feel shy to let Vietnamese people know that I'm American, though they don't bat an eyelash. When we've asked people how they feel about American tourists, they just shrug and say "The war was a long time ago." I keep wondering what people really think, deep down, but people seem genuinely happy to see us. And I suppose that is the cycle of life: countries go to war, and later they become friends again. I suppose I should celebrate this as a good thing, but I still felt a bit strange getting a manicure in a country we recently napalmed. But then again, maybe time is a better healer than I thought. Could it be possible that in forty years Americans will have their honeymoon in Fallujah or Kabul as easily as we went to Vietnam? It seems so unimaginable, even scandalous.

But things in Vietnam have been looking up for us again as of late: we've tracked down some decent vegetarian food this week, along with some free bicycles. Now that we're feeling better, there has been much to enjoy and appreciate: the surprising public dance and aerobic classes in the park in Saigon, the flowering bonsai trees and songbirds in the country's many gardens, syrupy sweet iced coffee, stunning sunsets that turn rice paddies orange and pink, colorful lanterns floating romantically down the river in Hoi An. 

Wandering the streets of Saigon

Yay, Vietnam!

But enough of an introduction: here are the stories of our recent exploits, told in vignette form. Read below to discover why bicycles are best, how to change a flat tire, and why you should never, ever try the ginger sauce.

One: On the woes of being a vegetarian in Vietnam
When ordering food in Vietnam, especially as a vegetarian, there is one rule to remember: never assume anything. I myself am not an official vegetarian, though I trend that way, and Nod is nearly vegan in his eating habits. In any case, I'm often wary of eating meat in foreign countries: eating beef steak is well and good, but eating cow brain is not, and I want to have the language skills to know the difference. We started off our journey in Vietnam overly ambitious about our ability to order street food with zero language skills whatsoever. Nod ordered a vegetarian sandwich and got beef liver instead. At a bus stop, what we thought was tofu with tomato sauce turned out to be slices of pork covered in oxtail stew. That was enough to turn our stomachs for the remainder of the bus ride (though on the mountainous roads we've been traveling, that isn't hard to do: I was handing out Dramamine like candy to fellow passengers during our last trip from Da Lat).

But when things go wrong with Vietnamese food, they can go really wrong. I was made to sample something the other day that our host described as "spicy ginger sauce." Its secret ingredient? Pulverized rat. As if by way of clarification, the old woman selling it made little squeaky rat sounds and pantomimed how she barbecued and then bludgeoned the rat with her mortar and pestle. Fabulous.

Other foods in Vietnam that we have dodged more successfully: fried crickets, snake wine, cat, boiled eggs with baby chickens inside (this was billed as a great snack for a night of drinking), scorpions, dog, and monkey brain. 

Yum: Fried crickets with a side of chili sauce.
Happily, our hostel directed us to a vegetarian-only street food cart last night and we had the most delicious pho soup yet, so we're feeling more hopeful about the cuisine again.

Day #5: our first good vegetarian meal. Hallelujah!

Two: Not what we bargained for

Seasoned travelers though we may be, bargaining is its own art form that requires good humor, quick math skills and--above all--knowing how much something is actually worth. Nod and I honed our skills in countries we actually lived in, where we knew the language and the prices. Then haggling turns less into a contest of wills and becomes a form of market entertainment. I once spent two hours bargaining in Arabic for a rooster statue in Egypt (meant to be the crown jewel in my dad's extensive rooster collection) and when we finally came to a deal, the shopkeeper shook my hand and invited me to stay for lunch. It was my greatest achievement with that difficult language.

Arriving in a new country, especially when you don't know the language or the currency, feels like you're flying blind. And so it was on our first day in Saigon, when we tried to find a taxi that would take us to a network of old Viet Cong tunnels a few miles outside the city. We were still at the point where we needed to pull each bill out of our wallet to remember how much it was worth, and kept forgetting the exchange rate. We were hardly in our best form, but we never expected the human drama that would unfold over a simple afternoon of site seeing.

The first taxi driver we approached might have been certifiably insane. He was pacing the sidewalk outside of the Vietnam war museum, angrily biting off a chocolate Popsicle and barking to his friends sitting in the shade nearby. His face was red and his eyes were opened wide as flecks of ice cream flew out of his mouth as he spoke. He was not the kind of driver we would ordinarily approach, but his eyes locked on us as soon as we came into view, and his ferocious gaze shrank our willpower to walk away. We were cornered. As he approached, he tore the Popsicle wrapper off its stick and threw it on the ground separating us from him. The gauntlet was thrown. We gulped. As he slid the last bit of ice cream over his tongue, we tentatively asked, "Cu Chi tunnels?" He grunted. We named our price. After turning his head to bark something unintelligible to his friends, he agreed and started to herd us into his car. Stunned that he agreed to our price so quickly and a bit turned around by the rapid turn of events, we sat wide eyed in his stifling taxi, wondering how we had just agreed to spend our afternoon with the angry ice cream man. Luckily, he gave us an out soon enough: we had scarcely pulled away from the curb when he locked all of our doors and demanded a 10% increase in the price. Not eager to be extorted all afternoon, we forced open the doors and fled onto the sidewalk.

The next two taxi drivers we spoke to were blessedly calm and sincere young men, but the language barrier was formidable. Which is to say that the only word in English they knew was "okay," and the only word we knew was, "pho soup," entirely irrelevant to the negotiations at hand. More than once during our feeble attempts at sign language, the drivers would pull out their phones and start dialing someone. We assumed they might be calling a friend or colleague who spoke English and who might translate, so when they held out their phones to us to speak, we answered with an English "Hello?" But on the other end, there was only ever silence, or sometimes a man speaking Vietnamese. We never fully understood what that was about. But after pulling out maps, calculators, and cellphones, we finally found a nice, professional young guy who seemed to understand where we wanted to go for a price we were willing to pay. We relaxed into the seat of his taxi, grateful for the cool air conditioning and looking forward to seeing these remarkable tunnels used during the war. True, some miscommunication still happened and we ended up driving some 20km the wrong way for a while, but we eventually arrived and, with lots of sign language, tried to communicate to the driver that we would meet him again in two hours.

The tunnels were impressive: built by local villagers over 20 years of war--first with the French, later with the Americans--they added up to a system 200 km long and so deep in parts that outsiders visiting them have died for lack of oxygen.

Crawling through the relatively spacious first tier of the tunnels

Used both to permit village life to continue under heavy shelling and also to aid their fighters, they built underground schools, hospitals, kitchens, meeting rooms, and bomb shelters. Hidden tunnel entrances dotted the jungle, giving fighters the chance to snipe at enemy soldiers unseen. It was a bit unsettling: a 1967 propaganda movie showing at the visitor center praised a girl from Cu Chi for being a "#1 American Killer," and our guide showed us all the booby traps these guerrillas used against the Americans, usually made out of nails, sharpened bamboo, or unexploded American bombs. I could appreciate the hell it must have been for these drafted American soldiers to be sniped at in the jungle by an enemy they couldn't see--though it certainly wasn't the same hell the Vietnamese faced when their country was invaded and bombed (with more bombs than were dropped in all of WWII, I learned), with two million killed just during the American phase of their longer war for independence.

So we spent two hours crawling through tiny tunnels and learning about life during the war, and then happily found our taxi driver waiting for us as promised. We began to relax--ha ha, we thought, how absurd our first ice cream eating taxi driver had been, how easily everything had worked out in the end. Our trip home came during rush hour, when even the back streets we took through village markets were filling up with motorbikes and drivers jockeying for some space in the crushing flow of traffic. It was right about then when we felt a thud, and our driver's eyes widened in alarm. He forced his way through the traffic over to the side of the road, where he parked, and then flung himself running into the oncoming cars. Left alone without explanation, we slowly made our way out of the car to assess the damage: a flat tire. In the distance, we saw our driver running back toward us just as maniacally, waving a hub cap in his hand victoriously. How he managed to find it and pluck it off the road without being run over, we will never know. Nod and our friend David set to work assisting our driver--whose sharp looking uniform was now covered in grease--with the car jack and the spare, while our friend Erin and I were left trying to divert traffic safely around the three guys. 

Nod also thrust his camera in my hand to document this unfolding scene of craziness, which had me wading through puddles of rain water and motor oil to stand among the swerving cars to get a good angle. I have never felt more like an intrepid photojournalist. It was right when I was putting back on the lens cap when I noticed a large bus barreling towards us. Nod and David looked up just in time to dash out of the way. By now the bus driver realized he hadn't given us quite enough clearance as he tried to inch past the car without scraping it. He ended up clearing it by less than an inch.

When all was finally fixed, we passed around kleenexes as our driver futilely tried to wash the grease off his tie with a bottle of drinking water. When we climbed back in, our driver--who had earlier driven us in silence, turned on techno remixes of 1980s love songs and blasted them as loudly as he could. I guess we all have our different ways to unwind. 8 hours after we had first begun negotiating a taxi, we finally returned to our backpacker hostel--filthy from the tire change and from climbing through the muddy tunnels. It had hardly gone as we had planned, but then, I don't think we would have changed a thing.

Three: Vietnam on Two Wheels

Our best days abroad have been spent on two wheels--bicycles and, recently, motorbikes--that allow us to venture off into the countryside and do our own exploring. We rented bicycles when we were in Cambodia and relished the freedom and fun we got from our bikes. In Hoi An, we wobbled on our bikes over back country dirt roads to ride by vegetable gardens and rice fields in surrounding villages. One sunny day at high noon, our road dead-ended into a flooded coconut grove. Woven bamboo boats shaped like teacups hovered in the water, where farmers would paddle out to check on their crops. 

Round basket boats

We happened to run into an old woman who motioned that we could get in her boat with her, and so we spent an hour floating between the palm fronds in an area that once housed a secret base for the Viet Cong.

In Nha Trang, a German man offered to let us ride his gorgeous, never-ridden mountain bikes and take a class at his wife's yoga studio for free in exchange for Nod taking some promotional pictures of their businesses. We rode our bikes out over rickety wooden bridges and through village roads for three hours in search of a famous Buddha statue nearby.

It was the day of the full moon festival, so families and monks filed into the temple to bring their prayers and offerings. It was a lovely and peaceful day.

But in Vietnam, we've also upped the ante by a few cc's in the form of motorbikes.

I am the worrier of this relationship. I fret when the bicycles we rent don't come with helmets. I worry about unseen potholes, the carelessness of other drivers, the hazards of braking too quickly if we come across an unexpected water buffalo in the road (true story: we saw a Vietnamese family take a spill after running into one of these mighty creatures on the road at night. Everyone was alright, I think). 

Hazards of the road in Vietnam

Despite my efforts at yogic breathing and the calming mantras I repeated in my head, all of these anxieties were magnified when we agreed to go on an all-day countryside tour of Da Lat--on motorcycles. The tour came very recommended to us: our guide was born in a hill tribe village, where their customs and language differ radically from most Vietnamese. The area we were in is famous for coffee groves and market places, and our guide promised to show us life inside his hard-to-access home village. All of this would be done on motorbikes.

Now, Nod had been as very patient as he could. All through Thailand, I cited the risks of driving motorbikes when he petitioned for an afternoon ride. "The crazy traffic!" I said. "It's on the wrong side of the road!" We agreed to a truce on the motorbike question for the duration of Thailand, and in Cambodia, I was able to persuade him to join me on a bicycle instead. "It's better for the environment!" I protested. "You love the environment!" In Vietnam, Nod finally had the chance to jump on the back of a motorbike taxi to tour some temples in Saigon as I spent a morning working on our blog. He came back breathless and ready to drive his own--and shouldn't I try one, too? 

Nod and his motorbike driver in Saigon

In Da Lat, I finally relented, though my vision was still to ride on the back of someone else's bike--preferably driven by someone Vietnamese who had been riding a motorbike since the age when they could first stand. Nod decided to ride his own bike during our tour, and spent a half hour during breakfast practicing with the bike in an alley behind our hostel. "It's easy," he said. "Just like a bicycle--with a lot more power." I nodded grimly. That was precisely the problem.

When the moment came, I climbed on the back of our guide's bike, and Nod and three other guests followed along behind. I held on with sweaty palms, trying my best not to visualize flying off the back of the bike and ending up splattered on the roadside. It's a bad habit of mine. Nod, in the meantime, was loving life, secretly hoping to fall behind the group just ever so slightly so he would have an excuse to come roaring back, accelerating through the admittedly sparse traffic in the mountains.

After an hour on the bike, even I started to relax. We couldn't have been going very fast--maybe 35 mph at most--so it was soon very comfortable to just sit back and enjoy the scenery--though I still kept a sweaty grip on the guide's jacket. We made several stops: at a cricket farm where we declined to sample fried insect treats, to a family's silk worm workshop, and through a local market. 

The day seemed so carefree by now that I mentioned in a sort of swaggering way that I could probably ride on the back of Nod's bike, seeing how easy this whole motorbike thing was. I secretly hoped that I could still claim dibs on my old spot on the guide's bike, but another girl in our group quickly took my place. So here we were: the Wazis on two wheels, though not in our usual pushbike fashion.

I believe this was taken early on in the day, before I had reached near panic attack levels

To my credit, I'd like to say that I did very well for, oh, the first hour. Sure, I tensed up whenever we accelerated, and I found myself whispering in his ear more than once to slow down, please, if he wouldn't mind, thank you. But the scenery was so gorgeous that it took my mind off things: we were ducking in between green, forested mountains with the sun sometimes jacketed by whispy clouds that kept us cool. Coffee trees lined the roads, and families hauled out their private supply of fresh rice kernels to dry in the sun by the side of the road. We stopped to admire a cascading waterfall.

But after some time of riding on these gently curving, broadly paved roads, we took a turn onto a narrow dirt track. Rain and motorwheels had gauged out stretches of the path, leaving us to totter across narrow strips of passable road with our feet down on either side. Tractors and supply trucks competed for space between stretches of farmland, leaving little room for us to work around. Each pothole we hit wound me tighter, until I had to start wiping the sweat of my palms onto Nod's shirt before resuming my death grip. My supplications to slow down became more insistent in his ear. I knew I had to be stressing him out, which doesn't help him drive any better, but I had lost that cool confidence I boasted of earlier in the day and was now simply focused on my survival.

Decidedly less enthused as the day wore on

My panic was given an afternoon respite when we arrived at our guide's village and got to spend a few hours on our feet, rather than the bike. We met his family, ate some delicious vegetarian noodles (prepared by his sister, who is a Buddhist nun and therefore vegetarian as well). But the best part of the day was when he decided to have us drop in on some neighbors to see if we could find some villagers who would be willing to entertain a couple of foreigners for the afternoon. So we literally started going door to door, calling to see if anyone was home.

The house we ended up staying in was originally just a one-room wooden house, though the government had paid to have some concrete additions put on to help better house the 13-member family. Since it was the middle of the day, the men were all working in their farms, leaving behind a group of mothers and sisters-in-law who ranged from ages 84 to 36. It was here that I was made to eat rat paste (best paired with fermented rice left in a gourd for four days, which the 84 year old woman gulped down with apparent glee). But we also had a chance to ask them questions through translation, where we learned that this village was a matriarchal society: women purchased their husbands, kept the family property, and passed on their names to their children. (When asked which of the men in our group would make the best husband material, one of the middle-aged unmarried daughters stood up, stared each man in the face only inches from them, and eventually concluded that on account of Nod's facial hair and high energy, he would probably do). When at the ripe age of 13 or 14 they gave birth to their first child, they would deliver their children in their home or in the fields where no one was allowed to touch the new mother and child for an entire week. It was no surprise, then, when these women lit up a cigarette midway through our conversation--I might need to take the edge off, too, after giving birth all alone.

I should mention here that our guide's translation services were not always keep true to the original meaning. He took endless pleasure in telling the older women to repeat after him, and then slowly having them say "I love you" or "Gangnam style," and then watching as they would turn to beat him after discovering what they had said. 

Now, there are a number of poisonous snakes in the highlands of Vietnam, and the most deadly is a small green snake that likes to live in coffee trees. We had already learned that our guide kept a small rubber snake in the pocket of his track pants after he flung it at Nod in a coffee grove and caused us all to fall over in panic. These village women were not to be messed with, however. When our guide repeated his antic and threw the rubber snake at their feet, one woman was already pulling off her shoe as the snake was mid-flight, and then proceeded to beat it until she was sure it was dead. I have no doubt that she would have been able to tear a lion apart with her bare hands if it had come to it. In the end, I'll place my bets every time on the women who deliver their own babies in a field.

Four: Summer nights

Three days ago, Nod and I flew to the seaside town of Hoi An. This was definitely the softcore way to travel: we could take a 16 hour bus ride through the mountains, or we could pay $100 for a 55 minute flight. I thought over this decision for, oh, 0.3 seconds. (Had we taken a bus, though, as we did from Saigon to Da Lat, we could have enjoyed the most beautiful sleeper buses in the world. My queasy stomach just thought otherwise).

Bunk beds on the bus!

So we arrived, and soon after we hopped on a few free bicycles provided by our hotel and aimed for the nearest beach. As soon as we got there, we knew we had been wasting our time the previous 2 days when we had twiddled our thumbs at a resort beach overrun by Russian tourists. The beach in Hoi An was quiet, ringed by mountainous islands, with warm water lapping up on a stretch of sand populated overwhelmingly by local families. We sank into the waves and enjoyed a peaceful afternoon of swimming and dodging little sand crabs.

Around 5pm, Nod tapped me on the shoulder. "Did you notice how crowded it's gotten?" In my relaxed stupor, I hadn't seen the steady stream of Vietnamese families filing onto the beachfront, carrying coolers and ordering bowls of rice soup from vendors that had popped up out of no where. Teenagers off of work ran into the water with their uniforms still on, girls played with each others' hair, fathers carried naked babies over the shoulder and into the shallow waves. Soon the beach was packed with family picnics, so Nod and I settled in at one of the impromptu restaurants, ordering coconuts and lemon juice as we sat and watched in little plastic chairs that sunk lopsided into the sand. Above the din of conversation, we heard someone play recordings of Debussy and Rachmaninov.

And then the full moon rose. I didn't see it at first, as transfixed as I was on all the family scenes around me and on the pink swirling clouds of sunset to the west. It was as the sun had just dipped below the horizon that I turned the other way and thought, for a moment, that the sun had somehow flown across the sky to rise again in the east. The moon was brilliant orange and huge, so much larger than the sun could ever be. It hovered low against the horizon and slowly changed from a vibrant red to a vermillion, shrinking again as it climbed higher. I have never seen anything like it before. At first I thought that all these families had come because of the moon--many of the places we've traveled to have special full moon festivals. But no, as I later learned: like us, they had come because the summer nights are hot and the seafood is cheap. So we all sat together, enjoying a summer evening.

And now we've finished our first week in Vietnam, and we still have much to see. Later today we'll fly to Hanoi, and then admire the famous beauty of Halong Bay and the terraced rice fields of Sapa. And though some of you at home may have realized that, technically, our time abroad will soon be coming to a close, Nod and I still prefer to keep our eyes firmly glued to the present. No need to start counting down the days when we still have yet to see Malaysia and Japan! Many more adventures still await us in our final weeks. And once our travels are over, we will die of happiness to see you all back home once again.

Until then-!

Monday, May 20, 2013

Cambodia the Beautiful, Cambodia the Tragic

Nod and I fell in love with Cambodia. It charmed us from the beginning: gorgeous green countryside, incredible warmth and hospitality from everyone we met, breathtaking temples, delicious food, a sense of calmness and quiet all around. Our week of slowly cycling through the cities of Siem Reap and Phnom Penh was one of our very best and most cherished on this trip.

But it wasn't just Cambodia's shy charm that gripped us and has us planning a trip to return. Beneath Cambodia's stunning beauty and apparent tranquility is a dark and tragic history that Nod and I are only just becoming more aware of. The more we learn, the more we can't turn our heads away. What started as a quick glance into a Cambodian history book has turned into a crash course on Pol Pot and genocide, with both Nod and I reading late into the night, even now after we left behind Cambodia for two weeks through Vietnam.

Our thoughts and reflections are so mixed up in these two faces of Cambodia--the idyllic and the horrifying. Even the most sublime moments--watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat, cycling through red dirt roads in the countryside--were interrupted when we remembered that somewhere close by were buried land mines. Somewhere close by was a mass grave. Even our most pleasant interactions with people were colored by our realization that everyone we met over 35 years old had personally witnessed the horrors of genocide, and later of civil war.

And then again, even the darkest horrors we discovered about the Khmer Rouge were tempered by the beauty we saw, and by the kindness and peace we experienced. It's too difficult to discuss these two different aspects of life side by side, so today I bring you a post in two parts: Cambodia the beautiful, and Cambodia the tragic. Choose to read whichever parts you'd like as we try to bear witness to all that we glimpsed here.

Cambodia the Beautiful:

I'm just going to come out and say it: Cambodia is the best. Their food is even better than Thailand's. (Say that sentence out loud to yourself to let it sink in. There is something in the universe even better than Thai food! Who knew it was possible?) We're scouring the web for Cambodian restaurants in Washington, DC, but this is my advice to all you investment bankers out there reading our blog: run out and find a good Cambodian chef to start a new restaurant ASAP, because once word gets out about this, it's going to be huge.

And the food is only the beginning-- their ancient temples at Angkor Wat are more stunning than anything in Egypt, Peru, or Petra. We spent three days riding our bikes and exploring some two dozen temples, and we hadn't even begun to see them all. Their beauty, intricacy, and sheer size and number took our breath away. In short, we have a serious travel crush on Cambodia.

Life was a little hectic before we arrived. We were in Bangkok right before we came to Cambodia, and as I wrote about in last week's blog, Bangkok pretty much tried to kill us with its heat and congestion. We were sweaty, frumpy campers as we boarded a van to take us to the Cambodian border, trying to rest our frizzy heads against the car windows and soak up the blessedly cool air conditioning we hadn't felt in two days. We spent two hours at the border crossing on foot, waiting for harried bureaucrats to stamp our passports and fighting off slick-talking hustlers who were trying to sell us over-priced visas.

Crossing borders on a bus...never fun.

Working out our visas

Once we were across, we buddied up with a chatty Canadian who looked and sounded like a Bill Murray character from a Wes Anderson movie, who entertained us with travel stories for the next two hours and lifted our spirits a bit. The flat, tropical scenery was fringed by red dirt and dotted with water buffalo. We knew almost nothing about what to expect from the town of Siem Reap, but we were glad to feel the urban bustle of Bangkok melt away and excited to begin to explore a country we knew almost nothing about. Perhaps it was because we had no expectations, so everything we saw and learned was a brilliant surprise. Perhaps it really is the best place on earth. But for Nod and I, at least, was love at first sight.

Our first day, we used our hostel's free bikes (+10 points for Cambodia right there) to do a long, lazy 20-mile loop to see the smaller temples built by the Khmer Empire some 700-1000 years ago. As opposed to the anarchic frenzy of traffic in Bangkok or Saigon, Cambodian traffic kind of saunters, especially in a small town like this. People on motorbikes cruise around at 30 mph, just not in that big of a hurry to be anywhere. I passed cars on my bicycle. Even in the busiest traffic we saw in Siem Reap--heading home from Angkor Wat after sunset with every tourist and half the Cambodian families living in the vicinity--a Khmer college girl biked up next to me and rode beside me the whole way back, just to be sure I was safe. Riding on our bicycles in this slow, quiet town gave us a fresh breeze, a tranquil way to appreciate the scenery, and a sense of childlike joy to just be pedaling around again.

(I should mention that riding our bikes in Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, was another matter entirely. Sure, the traffic looked pretty low key, and I was riding a boost of confidence from our quiet days of pedaling around back country roads in Siem Reap. Renting bicycles was even my suggestion. But actually jumping into the thick of traffic with motorbikes weaving around me, traveling any which direction and often against the flow of traffic, had me feeling like a little minnow in a big sea on more than one occasion. My supportive partner, having easily zipped across a busy street of traffic ahead of me, lovingly took footage of me stranded in the middle of an intersection. I believe that I was repeating "I am a strong and confident woman. I am a strong and confident woman" over and over as I tried to summon up the courage to dart head first into traffic. In the end, I had to commit the major faux pas of actually just stopping traffic so that I could scoot across. Fail.)

Looking decidedly out of place in city traffic

A look of mock horror to mask the real horror of weaving through Phnom Penh's rush hour traffic

To be fair, though, this was the scene that I was looking at in fear. Navigating this was a teensy bit more harrowing than DC's gorgeous bike lanes.
Around Siem Reap, smaller temples were practically empty when compared to the more famous complex at Angkor Wat itself. Nuns tended Buddhist shrines inside some of the temples, offering incense sticks to visitors. There are basically no ropes or barriers marking spots off limits or unsafe, so we had full reign to duck into every doorway, examine every intricate carving up close, climb to the top of the temple towers, and examine its beauty from every angle. And this went on and on and on--the first day alone we saw as many as a dozen temples, and by the end of our trip, we had seen maybe a dozen more.

Local kids came up to sell us guide books and coconut water. It was steamy hot, especially by the middle of the day, so Nod and I bought a water or a coconut at every single stop we made. We think we drank about two liters of water each, ate nothing (heat=no appetite for us), and never actually needed to go to the bathroom all day. The Wazi travel diet was definitely in full swing.

Coconut water = the elixir of life

One of the loveliest things about these temples is the fact that Cambodians love and visit them even more than the foreigners. In so many other places-- Egypt's pyramids, Machu Picchu in Peru, Petra in Jordan--admission prices are high, the sites are far away from most people, and many nationals never have the chance to visit.
A Buddhist shrine inside one of the temples
 The main temple of Angkor Wat has been in nearly continuous use, and it's a symbol of national pride. At sunset, Cambodian families had picnics on the banks of the moat outside the major temples, and we met several Cambodians who come to visit most every weekend, or for family holidays. Even near the backpacker joints and noisy hostel bars where they advertise foot massages for a dollar, or where you can have fish nibble off your callouses (a kind of unnerving experience, I don't actually recommend it), Cambodian families would also come to get a shoulder rub or a pedicure, or to sit down at the same street side restaurants. The effect was to feel like part of the family, a welcome guest in a Cambodian town, rather than part of an invading hoard of tourists.

Local monk that Nod befriended
And then the food...well, you'll just have to try it to believe me.

Cambodia the Tragic:
In 1975, the Khmer Rouge took power in Cambodia. The previous regime was seen as corrupt, dependent on the Americans, and responsible for allowing Cambodia to be dragged into the Vietnam War. 200 days of American bombing in Cambodia had ruined lives and livelihoods, and people were hopeful that a change in regime would bring peace, national dignity, and a return to normalcy.

Instead, Pol Pot and his part instituted a murderous and extreme form of tyranny in the name of achieving a kind of ultimate communist society in only four years. In two days, every city was evacuated, and every citizen assigned to a labor collective in the countryside. Families were split up. In the collectives, people worked as many as 20 hours a day with little food.  Professionals were the first to be singled out: any doctor, school teacher, engineer, professor or intellectual were all murdered. Anyone with ties to the former regime were murdered next. As the party's paranoia grew, they turned on themselves, killing party cadre and Khmer Rouge soldiers suspected of failure or disloyalty. Torture prisons were used for interrogations, but people were killed in the cover of night in so-called Killing Fields that dotted the country. There, victims would be bludgeoned to death to save bullets. If one person was suspected of a crime, his or her entire family would usually be killed along with them, including children. 

The Khmer Rouge was only in power for three years, eight months, and 20 days. During that time, they murdered at least two million Cambodians, out of a population of only eight million. At least one million more Cambodians died during the Civil War that followed, and victims continue to be claimed by landmines and unexploded bombs littering the countryside.

In 1979, Vietnam invaded to overthrow Pol Pot. Pol Pot fled to the Thai border, keeping as much control over territory and civilians there as he could. That area is now one of the most heavily mined in the world, as Pol Pot and the new Cambodian government fought a Civil War for the next twenty years. 

There has been so little justice for the horrors suffered by the Cambodian people. Because Vietnam installed Cambodia's new government (which was made up of a different faction of the Khmer Rouge that had fled to Vietnam), the U.S. and most western countries refused to recognize it. This meant that Pol Pot's group continued to represent Cambodia at the U.N. and receive western aid until the mid-1990s. In 1998, Pol Pot died under house arrest at the age of 72.

In 1999, four main leaders of Pol Pot's group were arrested. The first trial began in 2007. To date, only one has been convicted. Members of the Khmer Rouge still make up the current government. Most received amnesty.

Nod and I still cannot begin to process all that we have seen, all that we have learned. Our education into Cambodian history began just two weeks ago, when I picked up a book about Pol Pot and the Killing Fields. I picked it up because I had heard these names before, and because I remembered that something like a genocide had happened in Cambodia. But beyond that, I didn't know much.

By the time we arrived in Cambodia, we had read enough to be horrified by the scale of these dark events, shocked by how recently this all happened, how these perpetrators have still not been brought to justice, and ashamed at our own ignorance. And then when we went to the idyllic, beautiful, peaceful town of Siem Reap with all these stories of death and Pol Pot in our head, we realized that we understood even less about what it means to be a post-conflict society. We were awed by the resilience of people, the ability to continue living and starting anew despite the years of horror. But we didn't know, and we still don't know, what it's like for victim and perpetrator to live side by side now in peacetime, or what it's like for the younger generation who grew up after the worst of these horrors had subsided. And so we're still learning, still reading, still reaching out for understanding. 

When we were in Phnom Penh we went to two different places: a former torture prison known as S-21, and one of the Killing Fields nearby where inmates of this prison were killed and buried in mass graves. 20,000 inmates came to S-21. According to researchers, they think only 137 were ever released alive.

One of the survivors of S-21, who has written his memoirs about his experiences under the Khmer Rouge

We were fortunate to meet two of them, who work at the prison now by sharing their stories. The rest are buried in mass graves in the fields outside the city, which were discovered after the Vietnamese recaptured the city.

Prison S-21

When the Vietnamese liberated Phnom Penh and found prison S-21, they documented everything they saw. A few children were left alive there, who had hidden when they heard the Vietnamese fighting forces. Otherwise, all that was left were the bodies of 14 Khmer Rouge cadre who were killed in one last outburst of paranoia--the leaders were worried to leave anyone behind who knew too much about their operations. The Vietnamese buried the bodies, but left everything else. The prison was opened as a genocide museum only a short while later. There are still blood stains on the floor. Prison cells are filled with photos of the victims, taken from the Khmer Rouge's files left behind.

A room in S-21 where a body was found after the Vietnamese liberated Phnom Penh

Prison cells

Photograph of a prisoner and victim of the regime

We had a guide take us through the prison--she was 14 years old when the Khmer Rouge first came to power. From her, we learned how her family was taken away from her and never seen again; how she ate live frogs in the field to keep from starving to death; how she was tortured and threatened whenever she fell too ill to work. She takes sleeping pills at night to keep the nightmares at bay. 

The prison itself was housed in a former high school, a sickening twist that made the whole place more surreal. The sun was high in the sky and glaring down on the dirty white walls, making everything too bright and leaving us dizzy and with dry mouths. I remember that there was a stench to the place, but this smell could only have been a product of my mind as the stories we heard became too vivid and overwhelmed us.

Barbed wire prevented prisoners from killing themselves by jumping off the railing

A prison cell

I have been in difficult, somber places before. At the holocaust museum, for example, I remember how my stomach tightened and my throat closed to see victims' clothing, to see the ovens. Museums that so faithfully recreate places of suffering transport you there in a meaningful way. But never before had I actually stood in a place of death--it took some time before I could make myself understand that it was here that bodies were found, it was here they carried out torture, it was here that people saw there last glimpses of sunlight behind wooden cell walls before they were secreted away to be killed. We have been haunted by what we saw.

When we had seen all there was to see, we hired a tuktuk to take us out to the killing fields. I remember that we didn't speak much on the trip. It was a relief to let the scenery go by us, to look at anything green, anything living. When we arrived a half hour later, I was sorry that we had gotten there so quickly--everything we had seen in the prison was still causing a wave of nausea to rise in my throat. 

There are some who rightly raise questions about this kind of so-called 'tragedy tourism.' But when the moment came, I didn't feel that way. We came to pay our respects, to be a witness to those who had none at the moment of their death. These were the two thoughts that made it even possible to enter, to willingly take on still more sights and stories of tragedy than we had already witnessed that day.

There are more than 300 known killing fields in Cambodia, some of which are marked with memorials, and some of which are buried deep in the jungle or surrounded by land mines. The ones outside of Phnom Penh serve as the largest memorial site, and the field has taken on some of the peaceful, hushed tones of a place of reverent remembrance. But the park-like feel of the fields only removes some of the edge from the shock of what you see: bones still crunching under your feet, bits of cloth surfacing in the mud, empty graves once filled with bodies, loudspeakers once used to blare revolutionary music and drown out the screams of the dying, pits where babies were thrown in alongside their dead mothers.

Bones that still wash up from the killing fields

That night I couldn't sleep. We find ourselves with more questions than insights, so many basic facts we still don't know, and even less that we comprehend. 

When we were in Siem Reap, we visited a land mine museum. It's run by a man who was once a child soldier of the Khmer Rouge, and who later switched sides and fought with the national army during the civil war. As a child and as an adult, he had been tasking with laying thousands of land mines. Now in peace time, he works to clear landmines and rehabilitate children who have been injured and maimed by the blasts. It gave us the idea that we could return to Cambodia sometime soon, perhaps to providing some physical therapy, perhaps only to learn, witness, and respond as we are able. In the meantime, we remember our still more important task is to witness for the atrocities still ongoing, such as those today in Syria, and do what we can to try to bring them to an end. We join our prayers with others for peace.

Finally, to close this ever-long blog post, I wrote this journal entry the night we returned from S-21 prison and the Killing Fields. I thought I'd include it here as a more raw response to all that we had seen, a different kind of witness less tempered by time and clear thoughts.
Journal Entry, May 16

It's not every day that you calculate the worth of a human life. It's a hard thing to look brutality in the face and wonder how it got there, to ponder what motivates someone to throw a baby against a tree or torture a neighbor with electric wires. Just to hold these thoughts in your head makes your legs grow weak and your head pound.

I am not a political scientist. I am not well equipped for discussions about the best military strategy to stop bloodshed when it breaks out, nor do i have much patience for dry academic arguments about why, usually for cited reasons of national interests, we've sat by as so many massacres have been carried out in the world. These debates have always seemed so abstract to me anyhow, so devoid of what war must always bring about: heavy lead bullets, the rip of flesh, dry mouthed fear, the death of dreams.

I am a historian-- my task is to understand life as it happened, not to prescribe what should be. And all I see is that human lives are too often the currency used to buy and sell the cheap thrills of political glory. It's an economics that I refuse to understand. It's a marketplace that I will not abide by.

The twentieth century saw waves of blood shed caused by political leaders eager to sacrifice the lives of others for their own fleeting glory or misplaced sense of purpose: Europe's wars and holocausts, Stalin's purges, China's famines, Chile's dirty wars, Darfur and Sudan's civil strife, Rwanda's genocide, and--most on my mind-- Pol Pot's murder of nearly one-third of Cambodians in the span of only three years. The slogan 'never again!' rings bitterly hollow as we watch the horrors of Syria unfold nightly on our TV screens, knowing that--once again--the wanton slaughter of civilians proceeds apace. Once again, the leaders of the world must carefully weigh the relative cost of human lives: those of far off victims, those of our own soldiers. In these calculations, foreign civilians are cheap, expendable by the millions, so it seems, unless compelling state interests are involved. From far away in marble state capitols and mahogany war rooms, a single human life can be worth very little, indeed.

We went today to the Killing Fields and to the prison of the Khmer Rouge. We went to pay our respects to the dead. We went as students, trying to learn about the madness of humankind, about the evidently irrepressible urge to murder one another that the world is so plagued by. We left haunted by the swiftness in which Cambodian life turned ghoulish, by the decades it took before the harm ended. Our feet crunched over bones from mass graves that rain and earth have not yet filled in because it has all been too recent. Had we been born in another place, these could have been our parents.

Cambodia is so recently scarred: the cities that were evacuated and abandoned to forest growth are still a raw jumble. The missing limbs of amputees and land mind victims remind you of the danger that persists, how the land itself has been poisoned by those that sought to maim and terrorize their own people. International tribunals have only just begun to bring any sense of justice or closure. Men and women wake with nightmares or lie sleepless in their beds, remembering those they lost, unable to erase what they saw.

To this, to everyone we've met, to all who were touched by these chilling years, we say: we see you. We are witnesses now; we cannot unsee you or forget what we have learned. So this today is our first testimony, our first account and faithful recording.