Phnom Penh

Cambodia Travel Route: Phnom Penh – The Killing Fields

“I remember my mother taking me as a very little kid to the roof of our home in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to look at the bombs exploding in the distance.  She didn’t want us to be scared by the booms and the strange flashes of light.  It was her way of helping us to understand what was happening.” – Tammy Duckworth

Who were the Khmer Rouge?

There are many myths about the Khmer Rouge’s bloodthirstiness and brutality, but there was one place where all the tales were real:  S-21, the infamous prison and torture center, now famously known by the name: The Killing Fields.   Between 1975 and 1979, the Cambodian people were subjected to some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century, committed by their own rulers – the Khmer Rouge and their deranged leader, Pol Pot.  Approximately 1.5 million people (nearly 25% of the entire population) died during that time either by execution or indirectly through starvation or disease.  Pol Pot’s big idea was to create an agrarian society that lived solely off the land – and anybody who potentially stood in his way, such as “intellectuals” – who were identified as such by sometimes only wearing glasses or knowing a foreign language – were murdered, along with their entire families. 

The official slogan of the Khmer Rouge was: “To destroy you is no loss, to preserve you is no gain…”  This is the ultimate manifestation of the famous expression coined by Hannah Arendt, “The banality of evil.”  Banal evil is characterized by a belief that what one is doing is not evil.  Rather, what they are engaging in, is a behavior that is, or has been, normalized by the society in which they reside.  She used the phrase to describe Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi bureaucrat who hastened millions to their deaths.  There are striking similarities between Eichmann and many of the Khmer Rouge officials, indicating just how universal the propensity for evil is.  The book “Cambodia – Stricken Land” by Henry Kamm helped me understand all of that.

Vietnam Travel Route: Hoi An – Danang – Hue – Khe Sanh – Vinh Moc Tunnels

Hoi An

A coastal city in central Vietnam has an amazingly preserved old town and canals that wind and weave their way through the city.  UNESCO recognizes it as a World Heritage site.  Hoi An has a laid back ambiance; walking around, I felt lost in time.  The old town looks and feels like one big boutique store.   The city preserves and banks on its old characters – it’s all about shopping.  I rented a bike and got lost for a few hours listening to Morcheeba’s music.

Da Nang

While on a two-hour wait in Da Nang train station, I was offered a motorbike tour to some sites in the city; of course, I did not understand where the driver planned to take me, but we agreed on a price, he loaded my backpack between his legs and off we went.  Often these unplanned, unexpected excursions are the best.  Marble Mountains’ pagodas are ok, but what caught my eyes are the hundreds of marble sculptures at its base, which reminded me of the amount of work it took to chip away and smooth this rock.

Hue

Hue is at the center of Vietnam, a city known for its rich history, particularly between 1800 and 1945.  The town is near the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), which was established in 1954 as the partition line between North and South Vietnam.

While traveling, I listened to “Vietnam: A History” by Stanley Karnow and “A Bright Shining Lie” by Neil Sheehan.  The books are about the centuries of Vietnamese’ fight for freedom and independence from foreign invaders but also about the arrogance of power.  I hired a tour guide to take me to some of the places mentioned in these books.  I felt that a visit to some of the famous battle sites would bring a different understanding and feeling of what happened.  The American bases and the famous Ho Chi Minh Trail have long vanished, but the jungle and the terrain are just the same.

The Battle of Khe Sanh

The Battle of Khe Sanh began on January 21, 1968, when forces from the People’s Army of North Vietnam carried out a massive artillery bombardment on the U.S. Marine garrison at Khe Sanh, located in South Vietnam near the border with Laos.  Cut off and surrounded, about 5,000 Marines successfully defended the base from being captured by an overwhelming North Vietnamese Army of some 20,000 soldiers.  The siege lasted 11 weeks.  The original combat base is long gone, but the history is still there along with a few left-over helicopters, tanks, and aircraft the Americans left behind.  The broader context of the Khe Sanh battle was to divert the American commanders’ attention and the president away from the goal of the Tet Offensive, which aimed to strike a blow in urban areas and end the war.

“Vietnam was a country where America was trying to make people stop being communists by dropping things on them from airplanes.” – Kurt Vonnegut

What are the Vinh Moc Tunnels?

Located near the DMZ, the local villagers of Vinh Moc built tunnels to protect themselves when the area was bombed between 1966 and 1972.  The Americans were under the impression that the village supported the North Vietnamese forces with food and supplies and wanted to force the villagers out.  In the beginning, the local people dug the tunnels 12 meters underground.  In response, the Americans designed a bomb that could hit targets 12 meters under the surface; so, the villagers kept digging and eventually established a second level at 15 meters deep, then the third level at 23 meters deep.  Every single citizen of Vinh Moc Tunnel survived the war.  It is a place to visit and reflect on courage, sacrifice, blood, sweat, and tears.