Southeast Asia Part 2: Ho Chi Minh City, Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and Returning to Kunming

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The rest of our time in Southeast Asia was filled with traveling and sightseeing, and so I’m finding it hard to condense everything we experienced into one blog post. I’ll elaborate on some of my experiences while skimming over others, and offer some reflection on the end of my semester in Kunming.

Ho Chi Minh City

After departing from Hanoi, we flew to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to spend the next several days. One of the highlights of our time in Ho Chi Minh for me was the War Museum. With several floors and various rooms, the museum focuses on the American phase of the Vietnam War. I had learned about the war in high school and college, but learning about it in one of the war’s major cities was an entirely different experience. After arriving at the museum, we all split up and wandered on our own. The images portrayed and stories told were so emotionally powerful; I couldn’t help but be silent for my walk through all of the rooms. One of the exhibits showed photographs and firsthand accounts of the American phase, while another showed the after-effects, still present today, of Agent Orange. Seeing the photographs made me feel repulsed, but that showed me how powerful a story the museum portrayed. It wasn’t just a history lesson, but a solid reminder of what humans are capable of.

Phnom Penh

After our time in Ho Chi Minh City, we made our way down to the Mekong Delta. We spent several days in the delta performing research in a small commune called Vinh Long. After some time in the commune and in Can Tho, our last stop in Vietnam, we took a six-hour boat ride up the Mekong River to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. My first impression of Phnom Penh was how unbelievably hot and humid it was. Vietnam’s weather was hot enough for me, so adjusting to Cambodia’s heat took some time. Despite the heat, though, we did plenty of sightseeing in Phnom Penh. The architecture in this city was unlike anything I’d seen before. Because Buddhism is Cambodia’s national religion, and a significant part of its history, much of the capital city’s architecture reflects that of religious temples. Two of the more memorable sites we visited here were the killing fields and Tuol Sleng Prison, two of the country’s most infamous places under the rule of the Khmer Rouge. These sites were the two most well known execution sites during this period (1975-1979), when a communist party came out of hiding and claimed rule over the country. During this period, the party executed nearly a third of its population at sites such as the killing fields, imprisoning them before death at Tuol Sleng and other prisons. Cambodia has seen repeated violence and political struggle, especially during the 20th century, but its ability to recover amazes me. Phnom Penh and other cities lost so much of their culture during the 1970s, but they have become beautiful cities once again. You can see some of what remains from prior to the Khmer Rouge, mixed along with what had to be rebuilt. Phnom Penh has made progress and continues to recover from its past, and is today an interesting place to explore with such an eventful history.

At Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace

Architecture of the Royal Palace

Architecture of the Royal Palace

Siem Reap

Our next stop in Cambodia was Siem Reap and the surrounding area. Siem Reap is a smaller city than Phnom Penh, and much less modernized. The surrounding area of the city center is rural, which we got to see firsthand in our two-day trip to Kampong Kleang Village. This is one of the villages that sit along the Tonle Sap Lake, Southeast Asia’s largest lake and a major source of livelihood for many in Cambodia. I wasn’t sure what to expect on our bus ride to the rural village, so I was a little taken aback when we arrived. I’d never seen a community like this one, and I think the people of Kampong Kleang were equally as surprised to see us foreigners walking through the main road of their village. One of the families was kind enough to let all twenty of us stay with them for our one night there. We went on a boat ride on the river before all eating dinner together. The next morning, our earliest day of the entire trip (and my 21st birthday!), we woke up at 4:00am for a fishing trip on the lake. We were able to see the sunrise over the lake – one of the most beautiful sites on the entire trip. I don’t know that any other birthday will top that one. I may never get to spend more time along the Tonle Sap in a rural village in Cambodia, let alone on my birthday.

Although I enjoyed our time in Kampong Kleang, I couldn’t help but feel saddened, and maybe a little guilty. I felt as though we shouldn’t have been there unless it was to benefit the village in some way. I was saddened to see the level of poverty in the village, probably the poorest place I have ever been. During the country’s wet season, the lake’s water level rises significantly, so the homes sit on ten-meter tall stilts. Flooding is still a problem occasionally, however. A majority of the families here make a living fishing in the lake or growing rice, but with an average family size of 7 or 8, most don’t make enough to live comfortably. The children don’t have much to play with at a young age, but they’ve learned to be entertained with what they have. Pollution and overfishing in the village are major problems, but with many families struggling to support themselves, environmental issues aren’t the most pressing concern. With spending such a short period of time there, I was disappointed to leave feeling as though we hadn’t made a contribution that was meaningful to them. Although I may never return to that specific village, I hope that the work I do some day will help people in similar situations.

Fish massages in Siem Reap

Fish massages in Siem Reap

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Kampong Kleang Village, along the Tonle Sap River

Kampong Kleang Village, along the Tonle Sap River

Sunrise on the Tonle Sap Lake

Sunrise on the Tonle Sap Lake

Returning to Kunming

After a few days in Siem Reap, we flew to Bangkok, where we stayed for one night before flying back to Kunming. We learned a lot during our 19 days in Southeast Asia; I saw so much more than I ever thought I would have in a semester abroad. After almost three weeks of travel, I was ready to return to Kunming. When we returned, we spent the last two days of the semester working on our regional symposium, the largest project in the program. Those last two days flew by, and I’m still a little in disbelief that the program is officially over with now. Most of the students have returned home, so I’ve had to say goodbye to some incredible people. I’m so grateful for having shared this experience with all of them. I’m also grateful for this last week or so that I have to spend in Kunming. This city has become home for me; I’m so happy to be back. With the last of my time (for now) here in Kunming, I want to travel, unwind from a hectic semester, and prepare myself to leave this special place and return home.

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