I’ve made three border crossings by land on this trip. Actually, when I got to Europe I made several bus and train crossings, but they were all seamless, and all but one were in EU countries, so I don’t really count them. The ones that stand out are Thailand to Laos, Cambodia to Vietnam, and Canada to the United States. Guess which one was the most aggravating?
I’m used to either shuffling through the EU, where they glance at your passport, grunt, and move on; or flying into a new country and standing in a long line at border control, to have an official scan my passport through some criminal system, take my fingerprints, sometimes even snap a photo. The land crossings I made on this trip fell somewhere in-between these types.
Thailand to Laos
Crossing from the town of Chiang Khong, Thailand to Huay Xai, Laos was pretty simple. I walked up to the small hut near the bottom of the hill, filled out the card that border control had stapled to my passport when I entered the country, and turned it in to the guard, who literally did not look up from the pile of papers he was stamping. He just stamped my card and waved me away. At the bottom of the hill I bought a ticket to cross the river, waited until there were enough people for a full ride, then climbed in the skinniest boat I’d ever been on.
I suppose that technically this was a water border crossing instead of a land one, but whatever, the main thing is I hardly breathed as that tiny boat skimmed across the Mekong River. Once on the other side, I filled out a long form and helped a Japanese guy fill his out; he had a little English, but not enough to navigate the customs questions on his own. An Israeli chipped in when I had trouble explaining a concept, and then we all went up to the window to get our visas. Most Westerners owe $35 (except for Canadians, who owe $42—what did Canada ever do to Laos?). I had crisp tens and twenties, as I had read enough to know that beat-up bills might be rejected, and then you’re screwed, because they want payment in US dollars, and where are you going to find an ATM with US dollars on the western border of Laos? I had read it was good to have exact change, but not necessary. Well, for me anyway, they wanted exact change. I had two flimsy dollar bills and was wondering whether to insist they take three tens and give me five back, or just tell them to keep the five, when the Israeli next to me in line said he could help out. He gave me $3 with a smile. I peeked in the office and saw three officials standing around and two creating visas, which seems a standard ratio of layabouts to workers for government offices worldwide. Eventually, I received my visa, shiny and pink, and I was officially allowed to stay in Laos for 30 days.
Cambodia to Vietnam
My bus from Phnom Penh was mostly full of Cambodians and Vietnamese, which I think explains why some aspects of the border crossing that are infamous on internet boards were absent in my experience. No one charged me an extra dollar or three for a “health exam,” for example, and I didn’t get taken to a fake border control office. Unlike in Laos, the bus didn’t drop me off a kilometer or two from the actual border, forcing me to hire a tuk-tuk to get to my actual destination.
Instead, our bus pulled up to the Vietnamese border control office (we never did anything to say goodbye to Cambodia), and we were waved off and told to bring everything with us, including our bags from the hold below. We stood in a clump in the mercifully cool border control building and watched our driver hand over a stack of our passports to an official, who then stamped each one without a glance or a scan anywhere. The driver then called out people whose passports were ready. I grabbed my passport, walked past an empty “health exam” window, and put my bags on an x-ray belt. I picked up my bags on the other end, showed my passport with its stamp on my visa to a guard slouching in a folding chair, and walked to the bus, which had been moved to the other side of the border. Voila!
Crossing from Cambodia to Vietnam was pretty painless. Officials didn’t hassle me or anyone on my bus, and security was light. The bus was carrying goods for some small businesses, and they must have checked those while we were inside, because when I put my bag back on the bus, everything was back in there, customs approved and ready to go.
Canada to the United States of America
Here’s where it got annoying. Trying to get from friendly neighbor Canada to my home country was way harder than it should have been. They are strict! And by “they” I mean the US Border Office. The bus I was on breezed through Windsor, Ontario and took the tunnel under the Detroit River. When we popped up on the other side, the bus pulled over at the super clean border patrol office. We unloaded our gear and stood in line. Probably it would have been fine if it hadn’t been for one officer.
This guy was a total tool, almost stereotypically power tripping. He targeted me and two other people, all of whom had backpacks instead of rolling suitcases. I showed him my US passport and he waved me ahead, but the woman from New Zealand and her boyfriend from South Africa, these needed special attention. He demanded to see their visas; the Kiwi said she had the waiver that she’d filled out online. Nope, doesn’t count, he made her fill it all out again on paper. Isn’t the online form supposed to save us from wasting time like this? He grilled the South African on just why he wanted to visit America anyway—what were his intentions? He didn’t plan to stay, did he? Worse was when it was the Kiwi’s turn. She explained that they were couchsurfing in Chicago, and that they’d been traveling for nine months. Why would you want to travel for that long, and what is this “couchsurfing” you speak of, etc., etc., and all in a smarmy tone. He leered at her as he talked, and when we got back on the bus she said it felt like he was hititng on her. While making her feel small and trying to find a way to keep her out of the country. Ugh.
Even I got a bit of a hard time from the officer checking my passport. Where was I living? How long had I been gone? Why had I gone to so many countries? I just want to go home, yeesh! Then I sat in the row of hard chairs with the rest of the people from the bus (about 15 of us) while we waited for any one of the four free officers to turn on the x-ray machine and run our bags through them.
The South African and the Kiwi were camping for much of their trip, so there were pots, a tent, and a large carving knife in the guy’s bag. The officer pointed out the knife to a civilian standing next to him at the x-ray machine and said, “Huh, wonder what’s up with the knife” and waved him on. So that seemed like a secure process. Not that it had been any more secure at the Vietnamese border, but they weren’t pretending it was, and the US officers were definitely treating us like we were all smuggling in kilos of drugs and AK-47s, while not really checking to make sure we weren’t; but they still did their best to make us all—including the American citizens—feel super unwelcome.
Ancient temples clambered upon: 14
Times the A/C went out at my guesthouse in Siem Reap, on days when it was 90% humidity and 90*F out: 5
Times I said “oh my god” in horror at Choeung Ek and S-21: 15
Times I said “oh my god” in wonder at Angkor: 15
Teenagers who chatted with me over a couple hours of lunch: 3
Water bottles purchased so those same teenagers wouldn’t lose their day’s earnings: 3
Fish spas undergone: 1
Contented pizzas consumed: 3
Friends who I first met in Laos and then had meals with in Cambodia: 4
Total money spent: $706
Number of days in the country: 11
Average amount spent per day: $64.18
Total money spent, minus the flight from Laos: $514
Average amount spent per day, minus the flight from Laos: $46.73
Times I nearly passed out from the heat: 3
Times I complained about the heat, then and since: innumerable
Seconds I’d take to consider going back and seeing more of this country: 5
Every totalitarian regime has an apparatus for maintaining control: trusted government officials and spies, torture facilities to get information from those the spies turn in, secret prisons to stash uncooperatives away. Every totalitarian regime finds that the paranoia this system engenders results in the very same officials and spies who turned people in being themselves brought in on charges of sedition. If your government is run on fear, that fear is going to turn against the government and the people who work in it.
Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime was no different. Pol Pot and his top advisers, including Comrade Duch, set up prisons throughout the country. I visited S-21, a high school that was converted to Security Prison 21, now called Tuol Sleng, which apparently means “Hill of the Poisonous Trees” or “Strychnine Hill.” Unlike the killing fields at Choeung Ek, S-21 wasn’t torn down during the liberation. Instead, it looks like the prison was left exactly as it was when the prisoners were freed. The bed frames sat at an angle in the center of the floor, the doors creaked on the hinges of the wooden barracks built in classrooms. The floors were dirty and the walls covered in grime and what was probably dried blood. It’s like the prisoners who were here only just left. History as recent as yesterday. Ghosts in every room.
S-21 is a complex of buildings. Most of them were open to the public but unlabeled, and only a few had placards explaining what went on in there. One building had thin metal frame beds, small lockboxes used as chamber pots, and shackles along the wall. Another building had cells made of wood on one floor and cells of brick on another. They were tiny, barely big enough for me to stand in, and I don’t think I could stretch out my legs if I sat on the floor. The cells were built as the regime brought in more and more prisoners, accusing more and more people of crimes against the state. They needed room to put them.
Some rooms were emptied of artifacts and filled with fading posters explaining who the leaders of the Khmer Rouge were and what the status of their trials was as of 2011. So far, Comrade Duch is one of the only ones to be convicted of war crimes. The posters included snippets of communication between the top Khmer Rouge officials and their families; these letters were filled with rants against capitalists and those who opposed the regime.
One floor showed photos of victims and of guards, and copies of statements they signed when confessing crimes–seeing as how some of the guards became victims as the paranoia of the state increased. One binder included confessions by foreign nationals who happened to be in the country at the wrong time. A popular crime to confess to was working for the American CIA.
One floor was dedicated to peace; it had photos of a place that was the site of the only land battle in Japan in WWII, and also a room of drawings by kids calling for peace. All in a building with barbed wire strung in front of the balconies so prisoners couldn’t attempt suicide by jumping. In the courtyard, plumeria trees bloomed.
There were signs posted outside some of the rooms with a person smiling/laughing and a line through it, but I can’t imagine who would go through these rooms and have any desire to smile. Outside, a poorly translated sign proclaimed the rules of the place, which included “While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all” and “Don’t make pretext about Kampuchea Krom in order to hide your secret or traitor.” Duch said the Vietnamese who set up the museum at Tuol Sleng invented these rules, but others claim they were real.
In one disconcertingly bright room, past a row of rusted foot shackles used to immobilize prisoners, down a long corridor of bricked-up cells barely large enough to fit in sideways, behind the barbed wire fence, I saw a graffitied message a tourist had left at some point. It was a hard message to read in that horrible place, one that seemed nearly impossible under the weight of this very recent, very terrible history. But it was vital to see, and to keep close when returning to the recovering city outside: Give us hope.
Today’s post contains some disturbing imagery of the remains of victims of Pol Pot’s reign in Cambodia.
The sites were chosen for their relative isolation. Space was cleared out in the middle of farmers’ fields, fences erected to keep the curious out and the doomed in. Prisoners arrived in the dead of night and dug their own graves. Patriotic music blasted from loudspeakers–there were no gunshots to hear, but the shrill music covered the dull thud of machetes hitting flesh and the screaming that followed. In the morning, guards sprayed the graves with DDT to ensure everyone in them was dead, and to cover the smell of the corpses. These were the killing fields.
During Pol Pot’s reign in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge murdered somewhere between 1.7 and 2.5 million fellow Cambodians. Most of the murders took place in what have come to be known as the killing fields. There were dozens of such sites, mostly concentrated around the capital, Phnom Penh. So many people died, but there are very few records that show names, which is part of the reason it’s hard to get an accurate number. After the defeat of the Khmer Rouge by the Vietnamese in 1979, one of those sites, Choeung Ek, was made into the memorial for the dead.
I visited Choeung Ek in March, and I was impressed by the audio guide, which was one of the most thorough and thoughtful I heard on my whole trip. The guide took me past dusty stretches of land, which once contained a small hut to house prisoners when there were too many to execute in one day, and several sheds that held the machetes, hoes, knives, hatchets, cart axles, and other weapons. Bullets were expensive, so while farmers in the surrounding fields grew crops with shovels and hoes, the guards used the same implements to hack humans to death.
None of the original structures remain. They were all destroyed in 1979, upon liberation. Now, the fields are dusty brown and empty of buildings, except for the Buddhist stupa towering over the dry grass and containing 17 levels of human skulls recovered from the mass graves here. The path went along a few fenced-off areas, where the museum had grouped some victims, such as children who were beat to death against a nearby tree.
Perhaps the most upsetting thing for me, during this hugely (and rightly so) upsetting visit, was when I stumbled over human bones. There are so many bodies buried here that they haven’t finished exhuming them all, so even though I didn’t walk on the mass graves, I twice found myself looking underfoot to find a piece of bone sticking out of the path. The skulls in the stupa, even the bones piled haphazardly in a glass box on the path–these were hard to see, but they were behind glass, they had been processed by officials, they had been counted as part of history. The bones I trod upon in the path were raw reminders of the brutality that took place here, over and over again, and the enormity of trying to order and record it, and the futility of ever knowing who died here.
When I removed the headphones of the audio guide, I heard nothing. A little noise from neighboring animals, a man quietly selling flowers for people to place outside the stupa, but otherwise–silence. I’ve seen hungover, loud tourists at just about every place I’ve visited, but not here. The horror was too great, the history too recent. Everyone maintained a respectful silence for the barely buried victims, whose screams echo in the humid air.
Sometimes you just have to go full-on backpacker. I spent my last few days in Cambodia in Phnom Penh, the capital city, which has a reputation for being a more dangerous place to be a foreigner than most other Southeast Asian cities. I’d just spent a week in Siem Reap, absorbing the beauty of the temples of Angkor, eating at the mostly-locals food shack down the street, and sitting very still in my air-conditioned bedroom during the worst heat of the day. I was about to go to Vietnam and dive into the history of that nation. Not to mention I was mainly in Phnom Penh to visit the Killing Fields and S-21, two sobering monuments to the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime. For a couple days here, I needed a place to retreat, reflect, and relax.
I stayed at The 88, a backpackers’ hostel not particularly close to the sites of the city, but just down the street from a fruit market. Also, it didn’t matter that you couldn’t walk to much, because it was entirely self-contained; the hostel had a full restaurant and bar, a pool, and a raft of tuk-tuk drivers willing to take you on any of the pre-set tours the hostel’s laminated sales sheets described. Of course I enjoy exploring neighborhoods on my own and meeting people along the way, but when you’re in need of a mental and physical break, there’s a lot to be said for a hostel that makes everything easy for you.
So when I wasn’t sightseeing, I was holed up behind the hostel walls, lounging in the pool, drinking cocktails with the girls from my dorm room, eating Western and Khmer dishes from the hostel restaurant, sending my laundry away to be done, and waiting for my Vietnam visa to be processed. I hung out with a Spanish couple, who felt like old friends by this point–we’d met on the slow boat to Laos, seen sights together in Luang Prabang, and had dinner in Siem Reap.
I say “going full backpacker” because I saw many a backpacker who spent all night partying and most of the next day recovering in the hostel common room, hardly leaving the hostel at all to explore the sights of the city they’d flown halfway around the world to visit. It was remarkably easy to be sucked into this lifestyle, and it’s important to recharge like this from time to time when you’re on long trips, but I wouldn’t recommend it for the long-term. Otherwise, why even bother leaving home?
When I got to Ho Chi Minh City a few days later, fresh visa in hand, I returned to more adventurous ways. I left my hostel to explore the area and interact with the people who lived there. But for a couple days in Phnom Penh, it was nice to remain isolated and regroup.
This temple is called the “lady temple” because it’s shorter than the other temples, lady-sized. No one seems to be sure why it was built on such a small scale. It’s built of red sandstone, rather than the mix of sandstone, laterite, and brick used in some of the other temples. It’s also covered in beautiful decorative carvings, and because the buildings are only a little taller than eye level, it’s easy to admire the art.
More than other temples I visited, Banteay Samré seemed like it was missing water. Everything was raised off the ground–the outer walls, the inner libraries, the inner temple–and since it was all closer together than Angkor Wat or similar, I got the feeling that there should have been water filling in all the empty spots. Like a floating temple. This was just what I wanted, though, and probably isn’t at all what it would have looked like in the 12th century.
A royal lake, and a long walk through some pretty marshy areas to get to it. Tiny temples at the lake.
One of my favorite memories of the temples of Angkor doesn’t involve the temples at all–it involves a sticky plastic seat, a table in the shade, and two hours of conversation. After a morning at a couple temples, I took my driver’s advice and ate at the little restaurant across from Banteay Samre.
Two teenage girls took my order, and their mother brought out a delicious fish amok soup. One of the girls disappeared in the back with her mother, but the other one stayed out with me and chatted. My My, as she introduced herself, was sweet and silly, giggling after every sentence. Her friends, Jo and Tui, joined us, and they talked with me about school–which they sometimes go to and sometimes skip–and boys–one of My My’s friends, age 15 like her, has just had a baby. Tui’s English was almost perfect, but Jo and My My were able to hold a conversation just fine as well. I brought out a packet of coconut crackers and handed them around for everyone to share.
But as with nearly all the friendly conversations I had with locals throughout Southeast Asia, I felt an undercurrent of discomfort because the income inequality was always so evident. All three girls were trying to sell me something over lunch; My My had bottles of water and Tui had little ornaments. For me, the two hours we spent talking over my soup were a midday break, a relaxing lunch, but they were still on the clock. Every so often, one of the girls would break into the conversation with “Buy this one, just one, please help”; Tui, especially, was persistent. I didn’t buy anything til I was leaving, at which point I bought a water from each of them. They were very clear that buying just one water would only help that one girl; is there a system of quotas going on? I’m not sure if I shouldn’t have bought a lot more things, or overpaid by a lot, or if that would contribute to their staying out of school even more often, or what. Not sure what the Good Tourist move was.
But before I bought the waters, My My ran into the back and came out with large pieces of paper. I loaned them my pens, and each girl drew a picture, which they then gave to me to keep. I played several games of tic-tac-toe with Jo and My My showed me how to write her name in Khmer script. They teased me about not having a boyfriend and turned shyly away when I asked them if they had boyfriends. We took a photo before I left, and My My shouted my name as I got into the back of the tuk-tuk and the driver headed down the road.
I was a walking wallet but also a source of fun for them. To me, they were an intimidating reminder of how much I have and how much others don’t have, and also lovely individuals with personalities I can clearly remember now, months later. I hope we were something good to each other and that they had as much fun as I did laughing over soup and crackers.
Angkor Thom was the first stop on my first day in the park, and it turned out to be my last stop of the day, because there’s so much to see and it’s too hot to move quickly from one site to the next. (Have I mentioned how hot it was in Southeast Asia yet? Don’t worry, I’ll be sure to dwell on that point for the next several weeks, because even summers spent in muggy Michigan swamplands and concrete-baked Chicago porches could not prepare me for the humid heat of this part of the world.) Anyway, heat aside, Angkor Thom was a great introduction to the wonders of the park at Angkor.
The South Gate
The south gate is the main entrance point for modern visitors, and it’s an impressive introduction to King Jayavarman VII’s city-temple. The bridge over the moat is flanked by two rows of figures–gods on the left, demons on the right–and each group of figures holds the body of the rainbow naga, a giant serpent, which is either meant to bridge the world of the gods and the world of humans, or to show the creation myth the Churning of the Sea of Milk, making the center of the city the created world. That’s a difference between Angkor Thom and most of the other temples in the area–there’s no moat or wall around the main temple inside, Bayon, so archaeologists theorize that the whole city is meant to represent Mount Meru, rather than just the temple, which would seem to bring up a lot of theological questions in terms of the inhabitants of the city, what activities were and weren’t holy in the city, etc.
Anyway, this is how I reacted to these interesting archaeological and theological questions:
The Bayon is a weird and wonderful temple. Its central portion is filled with face towers: large blocks of stone with a face carved in each of the four sides. The faces might resemble King Jayavarman VII or Lokesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion in the Buddhist tradition, or they might resemble Jayavarman as Lokesvara. There’s a long tradition of rulers around the world having their likeness dressed up as historical heroes or religious figures; it lends majesty. Apparently there are 216 faces in this one temple alone, but there used to be more, or maybe less. It’s hard to tell with all the renovations made over the centuries. So there may have been some significance to the number of faces found in the temple, but it’s hard to know what it would be.
The many face towers contribute to the crowded feeling of this temple, since there’s a tower cropping up just about everywhere you turn, unlike at other temples, where there were carefully planned distances between the considerably fewer towers. Apparently, the Bayon was just added to and added to over the years, and built up higher than it was originally intended to be, so we see more towers, and also narrower hallways, than at other temples.
The Bayon also has one of the most extensive collections of bas-relief friezes in the park. Like Angkor Wat, the Bayon does include friezes depicting mythological scenes from Hindusim, but there are also huge walls of bas-reliefs showing everyday life in the late 12th century in Angkor, as well as some historical events. There’s a wrestling match, a chess game, a cockfight, and a market scene, among many others.
There are also naval battles between the Khmer and their traditional enemies the Cham, and some processionals involving Khmer generals atop their elephants. I really enjoyed poring over all these scenes.
Here is where my guidebook’s last update (2003) came in sharp contrast with reality. The book shows photos of a grass-covered mound, and vaguely describes the massive temple as once more impressive than even the Bayon. Reality shows a completely restored, impressively massive temple, complete with ridiculously long bridge with a couple ponds on either side, and my first introduction to just how steep the steps of Angkor temples can be.
The Royal Palace and Phimeanakas
I tried to follow my guidebook’s plan to get to the Elephant Terrace after the Bapuon, but found myself going through a side entrance to the grounds of the Royal Palace. Tucked back here is the Phimeanakas, the temple of the king. It wasn’t in great condition and couldn’t be climbed on. A dusty path led away from the temple toward what was left of the gate of the palace.
In a small grove of trees to the right, I saw a group of Cambodians eating lunch and resting from the heat of midday, kids running around playing games and screeching as kids do. Pretty much everyone I saw touristing at Angkor was white or East Asian, so I guessed these families were working here, and were taking a break. Then I saw a couple of the women stand up and grab plastic bags and long poles and realized that they were part of the crew I’d seen picking up litter all along the roadways on the way here. They were why Angkor was so much cleaner than most tourist sites I’d visited in Thailand.
I left the palace and went across the road to find some refreshment. As soon as I started crossing that road, at least three women started screaming out for me to visit their stall. I headed across the field toward the large tree under which the snack stalls were set up, but the women literally ran toward me in order to be the one to get me to buy a $1 bottle of water. It was disconcerting to be the focus of such a ferocious sales pitch, and saddening to get to the shelter of the tree and buy my mango slices and bottled water from the 10-year-old daughter of one of the women who had run to greet me. Several girls vied for my attention and my dollars, and they all talked to me in good English. They’d all learned English by selling snacks to thirsty tourists, and none of them could be spared by their parents to go to school, or if they could be spared, they couldn’t afford the uniforms required to attend.
I swallowed my privileged American white lady guilt along with the mango slices and went back across the road to see the rest of the structures, but I’d lost the enthusiasm I’d had earlier.
I admired the Elephant Terrace (so named for the long-trunked animals carved into the side of the terrace) and smiled as kids chased each other through the narrow walkways of the Leper King Terrace (so named for the king of legend who had leprosy, whose likeness might be seen in one of the carvings–or who might be called to mind simply because the lichen has eaten away the carving of the king figure here).
Then it was time to catch a sunset at Angkor Wat and head back to the air-conditioned comfort of the guesthouse before another day in the splendid ruins.