Friday, June 5, 2015

Day 17...or the day I almost got thrown out of the War museum

Sometimes, I exaggerate...but you'll see.

Walking around with communist stuff everywhere is odd
Today was a museum day.  Ho Chi Minh City is full of them and I wanted to see more of the

communist's perspective on the Vietnam War.  However, all of these museums have super weird opening times and these all happened to close for an hour and a half for lunch.  Since I didn't want to walk all the way there, visit one museum and be stuck for an hour and a half waiting for the others to open, I hung out for a few hours at the hostel and got to chat with Jeff, which was lovely as always!  I walked the 40 minutes to the museum as when I showed up, it started POURING!  I made a gamble on this trip that rainy season

First, I went to the War Remnants Museum.  It's really odd to walk into a museum in Vietnam and be surrounded by U.S. military vehicles and planes, but that's exactly what happens when you walk into the War Remnants museum!

Odd to see the Declaration of Independence used to chastise against a war
The museum is huge, three stories, and filled with a lot of good information, but is very very one sided. It was odd to see the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army being referred to as the "Liberation Army."  The perspective that France and the U.S. were colonizing and conquering the country for brutal reasons was very different than our perspective of trying to help South Vietnam remain free and spread that democracy to North Vietnam.  The idea that fighting the U.S. as dissidents was for "national salvation" struck me particularly hard. It was really strange to think about how committed the communists were to their cause...I mean I always knew that, but to see it and understand it more from their perspective was quite striking.

Another part of the museum showed the effects both in Vietnam and the U.S. of Agent Orange. There were any pictures of kids with birth defects that were really difficult to look at. There was a small tour group of grade school kids and one of the boys walked away and told his female classmate to be careful because the pictures are "scary."  And they were. It's terrible to know that we inflicted that kind of long-term damage to Americans and Vietnamese.

My rule-breaking photo
After the museum, I walked through the courtyards and checked out all the military vehicles. I
couldn't do it on my way in since it was raining. At one point, I decided to take out my Hooligans for Heroes scarf and asked someone to take my picture. She snapped a shot as a guard was running right in front of me to yell at another small group of people taking pictures with a sign. I gathered that pictures with signs weren't allowed from his broken English and kind of stuffed everything back in my purse really fast and walked away.  Luckily, they didn't catch me!

After the war museum, I went to the Reunification Palace, or Indepedence Palace.  It was the former
The Palace
home of the South Vietnam president and a place where American advisors met frequently.  Now, it's used for big cultural events.  After the fall of Saigon, the Palace was renamed to the Reunification Palace and underwent some renovations to repair damages from bombing.

After the museum, I went to Mass!  It was in a huge auditorium with SEVEN priests, including a bishop from the Phillipines.  The Mass was lovely and the bishop's sermon was really beautiful.  Behind me, there was a girl by herself that I noticed was crying quite a bit.  I've spent my fair share of time crying by myself in churches in different countries so I stopped her after Mass and offered to get dinner so she could talk.  She turned out to be Vietnamese and nothing in particular was wrong, but she was just very moved by Mass!  It was a really nice dinner and I learned more about Vietnam first hand, which is always cool.

Bonus Pictures
The Conference Hall where many big and important receptions were held

The view from the top of the palace

A shooting range for the president!

Where the palace was bombed during the Vietnam War

The Archdiocese's complex is gigantic

A surprise visit from the bishop!

Friday, May 29, 2015

Day 16...or the day I got stuck in a Vietnamese rebel tunnel

The entrance to the tunnels
Today, I took a tour to the Chu Chi Tunnels. These are over 250 kilometers of tunnels that the Viet Cong used during the Vietnam War to fight U.S. soldiers.  The tunnels included kitchens, bedrooms, etc. They provided the VC with everything they needed to live and fight during the war.

The tunnels are about 50 km outside of Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon as most Americans know it as).  It took almost 2 hours by bus though because traffic in Vietnam is SO BAD.

The whole experience was rather odd. Obviously, the communists won the war, so there is a lot of talk about how terrible Americans were and how heroic the Viet Cong guerilla fighters were.  I've always known there are two sides to every story, but even with things like WWI and WWII, I've experienced a different version of the Allied's story.  It was bizarre!
Aaaand I got stuck. See below for more

Secondly, the tunnels and Vietnam in general are a jungle, quite literally.  The foliage was so dense at times the breeze just disappeared and all you're left with is suffocating, hot, humid air. We hear about how terrible the conditions were for American troops, but seeing the area first hand it wasn't hard to imagine how absolutely awful it would have been to be drafted and dropped into the middle of this jungle with all the military equipment and VCs literally popping out of the ground to kill you.

While the Vietnamese didn't have a whole lot of artillery and planes, they did have ingenuity.  Many Americans died in various types of pit traps.  The VC also disarmed bombs that failed to explode and used the gunpowerd to make landmines.  They then used the shell of the bombs for toilets. When the bomb was full, they'd take it out of the tunnels and into the river.
Inside the tunnels, that's a 6'5" guy in front of me

Part of the tour let us climb into the tunnels, part of the tunnels at least. I went the full 100 meters we
were allowed and it was SO hot and gross.  When we were done, the tour guide said the Vietnam government had expanded the tunnel size for tourists. In reality,the tunnels were about half the size. The only way to get through them was crawling and being Vietnamese-sized.  One of the reasons the tunnels were so small is most Americans couldn't get into them.  Only realyyoung soldiers, 19 and 20 years old, had a slender enough build to maneuver through the tunnels.

When we got back to the hostel, I asked the receptionist if she could locate an address for the archdiocese's pastoral center.  They supposedly have a Mass at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday according to the archdiocese's website. Since my flight to Hanoi is at 8:30 a.m. on Sunday, I need to make Mass tomorrow.  She called the cathedral and they didn't really know about the Mass, but said there's one at 9:30 a.m. on Sunday. Not helpful. Then they mention that there is daily Mass at 5 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. every day.  It wasn't clear though if that still happens on Saturday afternoon because it wouldn't be a daily Mass!

So I decided to walk to Notre Dame Cathedral (about 30 minutes away) to see if there was an
Notre Dame Cathedral...modeled after the one in Paris
information desk that could be more helpful.  It wasn't. Although I'm fairly convinced I could go to Mass in Vietnamese at 5:30 p.m. tomorrow, I'm still not confident.  So I decided to get creative and started searching for Catholic blogs about attending Mass in a nearby coffee shop. I found one about Christmas services and it had directions to this mythical "Pastoral Center." Well, it had an address. Except, the address didn't work in Google Maps.  But the blog post also mentioned a huge trade center across the street and that worked!  BAM. That worked and I headed off for another 20 minute trek, even further from my hostel.

I got a little lost, but I saw a lot of the city.  I finally arrived at the pastoral center and peole there actually spoke some English.  Turns out there IS Mass tomorrow night in English in the center.  Good thing I checked though, because it's at 6:00 p.m. and not 6:30.  This is probably the most work I've ever put into ensuring I can attend Mass.  Hopefully it's a good one tomorrow!

I had thought about going to the water pupper show tonight, but I left the hostel around 2:45 and returned at 5:30 so I was pretty much pooped out.  Mind you, I walked the vast majority of that time!  So I just chilled out on the couch for a little bit and grabbed dinner down the street.  I did have to pass a Burger King on my way, but as tempting as it sounded, I opted for Vietnamese Pho.  It was delicious and cheap. Right after I ordered, a really nice girl from Kentucky sat down next to me at the bar. We enjoyed each other's company for dinner. She just graduated and I had some (hopefully) useful insight into life after undergrad.

Everything here is so cheap. During my city adventure, I bought Vietnamese Gatorade (salty lemon flavor), a bottle of water, and a banana for less than a dollar.  It's a breath of fresh air after Cambodia!


Going down

Down a little further
Where'd she go?!

The actual size of some of the tunnels the Vietnamese utilized...ours were definitely expanded!

Destroyed U.S. military equipment  on display. Five Americans died in this tank via a landmine. Watching people climb on it and in it just felt weird.

There is ONE shooting range in all of Vietnam. Bullets cost at least a dollar a piece and you have to buy in sets of 10.  I didn't shoot anything cause a trip to DC to visit Jonathan is better anyways.

A large crater where an American bomb exploded. The trip was littered with huge craters like this.

Heading down into the tunnels from one of the bunkers

The main post office is really well known for its architecture. It's one of the many sights I accidently ran into during my Mass search. 
There's some kind of big celebration going on...the streets are lined with flags and streamers. I just haven't figured out what it is yet since I don't read Vietnamese

The Reunification Palace...more on this tomorrow because I'm going back to go inside, but it was a pretty picture during my walk.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Day 15...a boring day of transit so here's what driving in Cambodia looks like

These videos were taken on my way to the airport. They're not even that bad compared to some of the crazy I've seen.

It's a lot different seeing it through a video becaues you miss out on the peripheral vision.  It's insane. Try crossing a never know where a car's going to come from. Or a bicycle. Or a motorbike. Or a tuk tuk.  But, they all seem to work together and break appropriately and such.  It's absurd watching this happen.

Pay attention though.  You'll notice all sorts of crazy things. Cars and motorcycles cross the center line all the time. I'm fairly certain the lines are more to make westerners feel better. Sometimes there will be three lanes of traffic going one way and only one the other.  Most of the time it's two-ish lanes.  However, a "lane" could be comprised of three motorcycles or a motorcycle and a car or any outlandish combination of vehicles.

You'll also see cars and motorcycles going the wrong way on the other side of the road. There are no stoplights at most intersections, so people cross traffic when there's an opening if they need to turn left and go just a little further on the wrong side of the road.

This is also true of crossing streets.  People just kind of edge their way into an intersection into oncoming traffic.

Traffic's so crazy that businesses actually hire people to help drivers back out onto the street.

Horns are super important because they communiate...something.  I've decided the horn indicates, you're in my way, move as well as I'm in your way and I'm not moving.  Not sure how that really works, but it seems to be pretty consistent.

So the videos:

This one illustrates what happens at intersections without stop lights. It's a free for all to see who gets through first.  And yet, no one gets run over or waits an inordinate amount of time.


Look closely to the left in this one.  You'll see a van driving down the wrong side of the road for a substantial period of time, attempting to merge into my lane of traffic.  As the van merges, a gaggle of motorcycles decide to cut in front of it and turn left.


Last, but not least.  A normal traffic light anything but normal. Tuk tuks and motorcycles attempt to fill in all the spare space, including the shoulder...and then merge back into traffic after the light changes green.


Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Day 14...or the day I don't really want to talk about.

Usually, I process well through talking and writing. Today's visits the the Genocide Museum and
Killing Fields leave even me without words or the emotional capacity to want to process it. I will spare you the details of most torture and killing methods I learned about and only give a brief overview. This honestly might still be too much for you.

One wing of the Genocide Museum
I started the day out with the Genocide Museum. When Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in the 70s, it instituted a dismal form of communism.  All schools, churches, museums, libraries, and temples were closed. All the cities where closed, including Phnom Penh. City dwellers were forced into the countryside to join labor camps. Family relations meant nothing. Children went to child labor camps. Mothers to women camps. Fathers to male camps.

The Genocide Museum was a school before it became a prison. This particular prison encompassed a square kilometer of residential areas, but since everyone was driven from their homes, the KR had no problems.  The
museum is divided into three former school buildings. Two are converted into museum displays. One filled with pictures of 1,000 of the 20,000 victims of this prison. The other with more information about the prison, the torture, and the KR regime.  The third was the most difficult because it is still in the same condition as when the Vietnamese Army found it, including blood on the floor. Nothing has been cleaned or touched.

A small shelter protecting a former mass grave
After that, we went to the Killing Fields.  As the leader's paranoia grew, the KR couldn't bury bodies out of the prison fast enough. So they made the prison only a holding and interrogation area. Every day a few hundred people were brought to the killing fields where they were beaten to death one by one.  A loudspeaker drowned out the screams with revolutionary music and chants.

It was even worse than going to Auschwitz. Bone fragments still wash up after big rains and I saw some.  I actually had to step over someone's leg bone. I can't even articulate how awful this was.

The stupa memorial
Another area had a large tree with excavated graves of women and children. In records, they discovered most of the children died by being held by their feet and having their heads bashed into the tree.

A large monument contains skulls of many of the victims. You can go inside and pay respects. They have many marked with stickers indicating age, gender, and the method of murder. I couldn't stay in to walk around the whole place. It was too much.


There is little rhyme or reason. My guide kept saying the country is still searching for answers. Many people were arrested and tortured until they wrote false confessions about being members of the CIA or KGB. I think that might be the most awful thing, it was so senseless. Khmer Rouge pressed young villagers into service and made them do increasingly heinous things. Eventually, Cambodians were killing Cambodians in the most brutal fashion.

Some might ask why go? Why subject myself to these horrific things?  Two reasons.

A quiet area for reflection
One, it is a major aspect of Cambodian history. 1 in 4 Cambodians were murdered for seemingly no reason. The KR had no real intelligence branch and just arrested people that *might* be a threat. When one person was suspected, the entire family was murdered. My tour guide at the museum said when she returned to her village, she had no idea where her mother or father or sisters or brother were. It was only after a few years that her mother returned to the village. Thousands of Cambodians still live with the strain of not knowing for sure their loved ones were killed by Khmer Rouge.

Two, this happens everywhere. From Nazi Germany and the Jewish Holocaust, to the Rwandan genocide, to the U.S.'s treatment of Native Americans. By experiencing the horror, there is a little part of me that hopefully is strengthened to stand up against genocide today and in the future.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Day 13...or the day I was rescued by a tuk tuk driver

Inside the National Museum
After my looong trip from Siem Reap, I let myself sleep in some today.  I rolled out of bed around 8:30, but lounged around for awhile talking to Jeff cause well the 11 hour time difference isn't kind to relationships.

One of the guys I talked to at the airport said the Royal Palace closes for lunch, which I assumed meant around noon.  So I headed down to the palace to see cool things. Turns out, the Royal Cambodian Lunch (idk if that's a thing) is from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.  So I now had three hours to kill and no idea how to spend it.  AND the tuk tuk drivers are quite bored since this is low tourist season so everyone is trying to give me rides different places. I JUST WANTED TO SEE THE PALACE!
The National Museum

I spotted a Costa Coffee (like Bigby coffee) and grabbed an iced coffee and got on the wifi. Turns out the national museum was right around the corner, which was totally great!  I finished my coffee and headed out the door.

Now, in my few days in Siem Reap, I didn't ever experience very good English so I wasn't expecting
Royal Palace from the park
much out of the translations in the museum, but they turned out to be very good!  A lot of the museum focuses on the time period immediately before and during the building of Ankgor Wat so it was really neat to have already been there.  One of my favorite parts of the exhibit were animations by students at Monash University in Australia that depicted various parts of life surrounding Ankgor Wat during its heydey.

After that, I decided to get lunch because it was still only about 12:30. I still had an hour and a half to
kill before the Palace was open again.  During lunch I was sitting next to what could very easily have been part of the Russian mob. I jokingly mentioned it to Jeff and he's like, "Oh yah, Cambodia's huge in the drug smuggling market."  Well, that turned out to be not so funny.  For dessert (I don't often indulge in dessert) I had mango ice cream. Holy crap. I can't even begin to describe how good anything fruit-related is here.
Inside the Royal Palace

Walking into the "palace" I notice it's still closed. A ton of tuk tuk drivers are telling me it's closed and not open until 3 p.m., which I knew wasn't true and I just assumed it was a scam so I sat down and waited until the ticket window opened.  Well, a really sweet tuk tuk driver came in and pointed out the palace and I was in the wrong place. I felt SO STUPID cause I had already been in the palace. He tried to convince me to not go because "the palace is closed in the afternoon for the king's nap." But I stuck to my guns and headed towards the palace...or so I thought.  I was going in totally the wrong direction and he drove up to me and said for $1 he'd take me.  I couldn't argue  because I was very turned around.
As close as I could get to the king.

Finally, at 2:30 I arrived at the Royal Palace, over four hours after I left my hostel.  I paid for an
English speaking tour guide cause...well sometimes it's just nice to hear stories.  The king still lives in the palace area, but we (obviously) don't get to visit the royal living quarters.  In Cambodia, like Thailand, the king is more a figurehead for the country and not so much a political leader. Still, the opulence that surrounds the grounds is astounding when considering Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world.

The Silver Pagdoa
Also in the palace area is the Silver Pagoda. This is a temple that has a floor made of silver. Literally, over 2000 tiles weighing over 1 kilo a piece of silver.  It houses an emerald Buddha, as well as the famous standing Buddha. The standing Buddha is 90 kilos of solid gold (almost 200 pounds), encrusted in over 2000 diamonds, including a 25 and 20 carat diamond. I wasn't joking when I said the place was opulent! Interestingly, only foreigners calls this the Silver Pagoda. Cambodians refer to it as the Emerald Buddha Pagoda.

By the time I was done at the Pagoda, I was dying from the heat. Cambodia is hot, plus Phnom Penh is a big city so it traps the heat and doesn't let go.  I came back to my hostel and took a shower and stood in front of the a/c for a good thirty minutes.  And then decided to wander through some shops.

Well, there were a couple nondescript silk stores that I didn't buy anything in. Buuuuut I found a wine
Wine tasting
tasting store!  They make wine from Palm tree sap.  I got to taste a few different flavors, including pineapple and ginger.  As well as taste a few of their traditional sauces and seasonings.  For a cooking, wine drinking girl like me this was pay dirt!  I ended up snagging a bottle of wine to celebrate my homecoming with my parents next week.

When I got back, I checked to see if my clothes were clean. Last night when I arrived, I asked the front desk how long the laundry would take. He said if I brought it right now, he would have it tomorrow afternoon. Well, he called the lady and told me it won't be ready until tomorrow. I've been wearing dirty clothes for a few days now, so it's not a big deal, but I had gotten in my head how nice clean clothes would feel so I'm a little disappointed. I'm also marginally concerned that if I don't get the clothesback tomorrow, I only have one skirt, one shirt, and very limited socks left for the next week...which would be interesting.  But, positive thinking like Mom J taught me, clothes will come tomorrow.

After that, I've just been hanging out in my hostel for a few hours, writing up three blog posts for you lovely people :)  I'm grabbing dinner with a girl from Chile who is in my hostel and going to bed. My tuk tuk driver is picking me up at 9 a.m. for the killing fields and genocide museum. Tomorrow will be a very sober day.

Day 12...or the day I wasted $5 on a plane ticket.

In my travels around Cambodia, I talked to some different people. Most of them said my plan to take a bus was fine BUT it wasn't the safest or cleanest or reliable.  Two of them were older men who had taken many trips to Cambodia, so I listened and booked a flight through a travel agent with a cheap airline. It was about $50 more expensive, but would take 2 hours instead of 6-10 and I didn't have to worry about breaking down in the middle of Cambodian countryside.

I had to choose between a flight at 11 a.m. and one at 2 p.m.  I figured if I took the morning flight, I would have some extra time to figure out my surroundings and make sure I got a good meal so I chose that one even though it was $5 more.  WRONG DECISION!

The flight was delayed from 10:55 to 5:55 p.m.  It was super duper hot outside and I have my backpack with a laptop and everything in it so I decided to just hang out at the airport (at least it was air conditioned). While eight hours in one place sounds maddening, it really was kind of nice.

A day without tuk tuks yelling at me.

A day with air conditioning.

A day of reading about the going ons in my world back home.

It went by surprisingly fast.  And once I got on the flight, it was only 35 minutes to Phnom Penh. Unfortunately, while I was waiting...I watched everyone for the 1:30 flight board. And the delay forced me to break my cardinal rule of traveling...never arrive after dark.

I rolled into my hostel around 7:30 pm absolutely starving.  Since my flight was at 11 a.m., I hadn't eaten a big breakfast and planned on eating a big lunch when I got to Phnom Penh.  Well, thankfully, the airline gave me a meal voucher so I had a good lunch, but I was still STARVING.  The hostel, again, wasn't super helpful with finding food, but it turns out that there's a KFC right around the corner.  I ate it without shame.  And it was delicious and one of the cheapest meals I've paid for in Cambodia.

Money is weird here.  I pay in USD and end up with USD and Cambodian Riehl in change.  They
only use paper money, so 1000 Riehl is about 0.25 dollars.  I have a wallet full of 100 and 500 notes that are literally almost worth less than the paper they're printed on.  Take a look at my wallet, all of those notes are about $40 total.  It's so weird, but I've gotten the hang of it and even stopped someone from ripping me off the other day.

All those bills equal ONE dollar

This is what my wallet looks like.  It gets pretty darn confusing.

Day 11...or the day of landmines

Landmines are a really big deal in Cambodia. The landmines are remnants of the U.S. war against Vietnam as well as the Khmer Rouge party during the Civil War during the 70s. Vietnam utilized Cambodia to supply its trops and unforutnatley many of the bombs the U.S. dropped didn't explode on impact and still litter the countryside. The bombs that actually exploded are estimated to have killed over half a million civillians.  The Khmer Rouge army used many land mines, which only explode when stepped on or touched.  The Cambodian Mine Action Centre estimates up to six million mines and unxploded ordance might still exist, mostly in the Cambodian countryside.
The number of targets the U.S. had in Cambodia from 65-73

Today, there are many NGOs working to disarm and return villages and farms back to safety. However, it is still not uncommon to read a story about children playing in the field who step on an anti-personnel mine and lose their foot/leg/arm at best and their life at worst. Most of the mines are in very rural areas especially farms, which means that there are additional complications for land mine victims in obtaining proper care.  Cambodian officials estimate 15% of victims have to travel over three days to a proper hospital.

Different types of landmines
The Cambodian Landmine Museum was started by a man who was responsible for laying landmines for the Khmer Rouge regime during the Civil War. At 10 years old,  Aki Ra's entire family was killed by the rebels and he was forced to be a soldier for the Khmer Rouge army.  When Vietnam invaded Cambodia to depose of the Khmer Rouge regime, Ra defected to their army.  He later elisted with the army of the new Cambodian government. In this role, he laid many landmines on the Cambdoian-Thai border.

After his service, Aki Ra began defusing landmines in Cambodia. He was trained by the UN but left their program after one year to return to Cambodia. As a deminer here, he had no tools for demining.  He defused bombs with a knife, a hoe, and a stick.  These methods were not approved and Ra was
imprisoned twice for failure to comply with demining regulations.  In the mean time, his collection of defused bombs continued to grow and tourists started hearing about Ra and his house filled with old landmines. Ra started charing a dollar for admission.

After his second incarceration, Ra attended a demining school and obtained official certification.  He used the certificate and his many years of experience to establish a NGO "Cambodian Self Help Demining".  Official demining certification is important because the metals from the bombs and landmines can be used for scrap and so many less skilled Cambodians were dying trying to defuse bombs to sell the metal for money.  This is the main reason the Cambodian government cracked down so hard.

A view of the school area
The museum is also now a boarding school where at-risk children from rural areas, whether landmine victims or just very poor, can come for a good education. The school's funders also provide students who finish the school scholarships to study in any of the Cambodian universities.

The whole story of Ra's soldier days to deminer was very interesting. It shows a path of redemption that is often missing when we talk about the atrocities of war. While he had little choice at 10 years old and even 15 or 16 when he planted the landmines. As an adult, he had a choice, and he chose to make his country a better place and strive to undo the damage he caused, both as a deminer and as a philantropist caring for children.

One story in the museum that I think highlights some of the ludicracy of war was of Ra and his uncle.
 "I like to tell those who are interested about a little unusual story which occurred during an encounter that I had when I went into battle with the Vietnamese army against the Khmer Rouge.   
One day, I was shooting across a field against the enemy when through the sight of my weapon, I saw my uncle who I was ready to shoot. This startled me and in surprise, I lowered my weapon. However, my uncle didn't recognize me and continued to shoot at me from 50 meters away.   
I hid in the grass and upon noticing my reluctance to shoot, my friends asked my why my accuracy, which was normally good, was now not good. I told them I had a headache and couldn't shoot straight. I had to shoot back however, so I just shot over my uncle's head until he ran away.   
Only many years after the war ended did I tell my uncle what happened that day and we had a big laugh. Now we both live in peace and are happy.  Today, my Uncle Raine lives at the Cambodia Landmine Museum and helps me care for my chidlren and his older sister, my aging aunt whom I call mother."

Some of the villages inside Ankgor Wat park

The countryside is quite beautiful

Typical countryhouses...less wealthy. Some of the bigger houses are built of stone

Remember not all live in peace.