Reflections on Cambodia & Vietnam

I think it’s time to put a final wrap on our time in Southeast Asia, and what better way to do that than with a ‘reflections’ post!

It’s been 4 months since we hopped a plane from Amsterdam to Phnom Penh, Cambodia (someone needs to step up their blogging speed…) which brings me to my first point.

Double-decker planes would be much cooler if you were in business class.

It was on my lifetime bucket list to fly on a double-decker plane. I’m not really sure why, I think I’m just memorized by the fact that something that large can get off the ground and transport people and cargo thousands of miles. And when I say large, I mean TOO large. Since our trip, it’s been announced that the Airbus A380 will be discontinued. Economy was certainly nice, the legroom a non-issue, and the flight attendants impeccably dressed, but I imagine it would have been an entirely different experience had we been upstairs with full amenities…

But hey, at least I got to see the stairs, right?!

Cambodia has come a long way since the Khmer Rouge,

but they still have a long way to go.

A quick recap, the Khmer Rouge was the name for the communist party, lead by Pol Pot, which ruled from 1975 to 1979. During this time, over 2 million Cambodians died from starvation, disease, or were flat out murdered by the regime.

We learned about this time in Cambodia’s history when we visited the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, but even more impactful was the Killing Cave in Battambang. Our guide lost his parents at the age of 5 to the Khmer Rouge, and told stories of how kids – his friends – were regularly manipulated into giving information about their (or other) families so they could be tracked down and murdered.

Cambodia has gotten back on it’s feet in the years since the Khmer Rouge was defeated, although you can still see the effects of losing an entire generation of people. Especially so, when the majority of those people were the ones who would have passed down knowledge. You see this day to day in the food (traditional recipes don’t exist like they used to), in the education system (undervalued, underpaid, and corrupt), and in the medical system (the “good” doctors are foreign trained).

But Cambodia does take pride in it’s heritage and you can see this in the care and preservation they put into their temples like Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom in Siem Reap (although, money is tight so other countries sponsor this).

Sunrise at Angkor Wat.
The faces of Angkor Thom.
The Japanese government safeguarding the temple until 2022.

And relatedly…

Cambodia may technically be democratic, but it’s very much a one-party system.

As evidenced by the last general election, where the current prime minister won by a landslide, but when you essentially force the competition out of the running that’s to be expected. And the prime minister makes sure you feel the “support” of his party (CPP) at all times. There are signs everywhere reminding you of CPP.

For instance, notice the sign next to the entrance of the night market?

It’s no surprise that such corruption ultimately holds back the re-development of the country and prosperity of the general public.

Interestingly enough, in Vietnam, despite being a communist country, never once did we feel this looming government presence like you did in Cambodia.

and if you were wondering…

No, the ‘American War’ was not held against us as tourists.

Yes, we (as Americans) know it as the Vietnam War, but in Vietnam (go figure) it’s the American War.

We visited the War Remnants Museum when we were in Ho Chi Minh City, which gave us an entirely new perspective on the war – that of the Vietnamese people. We also visited the history museum while we were in Hoi An, which touched on the war in relation to Hoi An and nearby Da Nang. This was also interesting (and kind of like a punch in the gut) to see how proud the Vietnamese were to shoot down American planes/helicopters and capture the pilots.

The seat from a US helicopter shot down in near Cam An village – found in the Hoi An history museum.

Despite the atrocities committed on both sides and the resentment the Vietnamese people could rightly harbor, never once did we feel unwelcome or an attitude of hostility. At the end of the day, two governments fighting in the past should not equate to individual hatred today. People are people, and if you, as a tourist, act with kindness and respect then that’s generally what you get in return.

on a lighter note…

Same same, but different

This phrase turned into the motto of the trip. And in other words, whatever your expectations are while in Cambodia, go ahead and lower them by about 50%.

And honestly, I don’t think that it’s for lack of trying on Cambodia’s part. I think, especially as a Westerner, you expect payment to equal a certain level of the service. So, if you embrace ‘same same, but different’ and change your expectations then you can thoroughly appreciate the experience for what it is!

This was the “light bulb moment” I had in Koh Rong on our boat tour around the island. The day started out not at all how we expected, but we stopped trying to fight it and had a great time.

Driving in Cambodia is my father-in-law’s worst nightmare.

Another motto that emerged on this trip was “embrace the suck”, which was most often used during our road travel in Cambodia. Driving in Cambodia felt like you were in real-life Mario Kart. You slam on the gas to get ahead of everyone else, slam on the brakes to take a corner (avoid a scooter, pedestrian, slow car…), and in the meantime dodge all the bananas (potholes) Bowser keeps throwing at you. It’s not surprising that we ended up on the side of the road on the way to Kampot.

Part of the road on the way to Kampot, Cambodia.

And despite terrible roads (at least in Cambodia)…

Scooters are to Vietnam as bicycles are to Holland

They were everywhere in both countries, but more-so in Vietnam. I never stopped being amazed at the sheer numbers of them. Even their ride-share company, Grab, has an option for you to be picked up in on a scooter.

We had good intentions of renting scooters for a day to explore the surrounding areas, but, to be honest, it was a little overwhelming to think about trying to do that in the cities (since we aren’t experienced scooters) and when we were in Hoi An, Vietnam the weather wasn’t in our favor. Scootin’ in the cold rain wasn’t so appealing. We did have a small scootin’ excursion getting to and from our guest house in Ben Tre, Vietnam – I guess that will have to suffice.

Your normal commute in Ho Chi Minh City.

If you’ve seen one market, you’ve seen them all.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t check them out! You can find the typical souvenirs (elephant pants, anyone?) but also less mass produced items. And, it’s a chance to really see how locals shop as there’s generally a meat/produce/food section.

I’m all for the market shopping life (it’s how we primarily shop in the Netherlands), but I did have a hard time with the meat. No refrigeration and out all day…

Oh, and put your negotiating pants on and be prepared to get haggled. It’s just a fact of market life. It can be kind of overwhelming, but you might also end up with a badass shirt for cheap.

Vietnamese food is to die for!

This requires no explanation – just a gallery of deliciousness. My favorite dish? Hands down, Bun Cha – a Hanoian specialty.

The bum gun is a life-saver.

Bum gun?? What is a bum gun??

BOOM. That’s a bum gun!

Not a bidet, but a squirt hose connected to the toilet to uh… clean the boo-tay after well, ya know. Pooping.

I will be the first to admit that this entirely grossed me out and I just could not really see the logistics of it all.

It seemed messy. And wet. I resisted for a long time.

But, when one finds one’s self in some digestive distress the bum gun becomes your best friend on account of the toilet paper can be compared to sandpaper (if it’s even available) and well, there ya go.

Bum gun + Whitney = BFFL

I will freely admit, by the end of the trip, I liked it! I dare say I even miss it back here at home. The boys were such fans that there was a lot of discussion on how to popularize it in America, and the invention of the bum gun addition – a filter of sorts, placed over the top of the spout, that would provide the user with a blast of menthol with the water for a tingly fresh & clean feeling*.

*Patent pending (just kidding).

Bottom line (ha! see what I did there!), bum gun. Try it, you won’t be disappointed.

and finally…

Cambodia & Vietnam are two beautiful countries worth a visit.

I sincerely hope that we are able to go back one day and explore new areas of both.

Temples surrounding Siem Reap, Cambodia.
On the river in Kampot, Cambodia.
Views over Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Riverside in Hoi An, Vietnam.

And, in case you got tired of reading and just scrolled through for the pictures…

You can see our entire trip in video form!

Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3!

See ya later!

Dutch biking skills paying off…

Tot ziens,

Whitney

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We are two Americans living in the Netherlands with our fat cat, Meatball. The Shwits is a diary of our time abroad!

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