Cambodia, a capitalist kingdom of Buddhists, and Vietnam, a Communist republic still heavily influenced by Chinese Confucianism, are about as different as two neighbors could be, but their fates have always been tangled up with each other.
The greatest empire in Southeast Asian history, from its capital at Angkor in Cambodia, ruled much of Vietnam. In 1970, the U.S. tried to salvage its war in Vietnam by invading Cambodia. Four years later, just weeks before totally withdrawing from Vietnam, the U.S. pulled out of Cambodia. In 1979, Vietnam lost patience with the genocidal rulers of Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge, although both countries were controlled by fellow Communists. Vietnam invaded Cambodia and occupied the country for a decade. Two years before leaving, Vietnam installed Hun Sen, its protege (and a former Khmer Rouge leader) as president. After 31 years, he is still there.
Today despite opposing political ideologies, the two countries share a great deal. They are both hotbeds of aggressive and unregulated capitalism. The true engine of both countries is the same city, Saigon, officially Ho Chi Minh City. They are both dependent economically on the Mekong Delta, which covers the southern part of both countries.
Finally both governments are dictatorships that operate in secrecy and have reputations for corruption.
For all these reasons, as well as the geographical logic of visiting the two countries in succession, my wife and I juxtaposed visits to Vietnam and Cambodia. I am glad we did, for we were greatly surprised by what we found: Despite the obvious similarities, the experiences we had there were nothing alike.
Although Vietnam and its clients in Laos and Cambodia were our enemy longer than anywhere else in the world has ever been, my wife and I were hard pressed to detect any sign of hostility in Indochina. The former foes have discovered they need each other; hatred is a luxury that neither the U.S. nor Indochina can any longer afford.
Vietnam is proof of the importance of context in travel. If I had gone only to Vietnam, I would have unqualifiedly admired and relished the country, with its ubiquitous carefully cultivated and terraced paddies like a lime-green garden, with its ancient Confucian-based culture lending a sense of dignity and order, with its spry, agile, slender people laboring in their conical hats and, when formally garbed, women wearing graceful, deeply split ao dai dresses. Ever ready to forgive the unforgivable past in their hope for peace and in their quest for a more prosperous future, almost every person we met made us feel welcome.
Vietnam, however, suffers in some ways in comparison with its neighbors. Competitive, hard-working Vietnamese lack the Buddhist motifs of modesty, charity and earned merit that animates Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, whose cultures derive not from China but from India. With its densely packed rural areas, its expansive cities and its nearly 100 million people, this crowded country lacks the rest of Southeast Asia’s spaciousness and openness that are such a pleasure for an American like myself, used to my own spaciousness back home.
There are of course exceptions to almost any generalization, including this one. It would be hard to find more spaciousness than in the Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark, more genuine friendliness than in the small city of Kon Tum in the Central Highlands. But these areas, where tourists seldom venture, are not readily accessible and highly visible like coastal Vietnam, and in important ways they are not the true Vietnam. The frenetic, undisciplined traffic of Hanoi is more typical of Vietnam’s present—and undoubtedly too of its future—than the gentle harmony of mountain villages dotted along narrow paths beside rushing streams.
We entered Vietnam via a seldom-used back door, the city of Dien Bien Phu, where French rule in Indochina collapsed, and went on to Sa Pa, a pleasant small city that is the tourist center for Vietnam’s northern mountains and its myriad indigenous villages. Although the area has been almost entirely stripped of its primary forest, what has replaced it glows with a different kind of beauty: immaculately terraced fields and lush rice paddies dotted with small settlements. The difference between the mountains of Vietnam and those of neighboring Laos is like the difference between a sculptured French garden and an untamed American woodland.
The journey by bus from Sa Pa to Dong Van Karst takes two days of hard travel on back roads. Tourist facilities and even public buses are almost entirely lacking. The government makes you register with the military and buy a special pass. It is the only place in Vietnam or any other country we visited with such tough security. The reason is that in 1979 Chinese invaded the area and Vietnam had to fight a hard, bloody war to dislodge them. Today, tension over some rocks in the South China Sea nourishes Vietnam’s continuing concern over the security of its northern border.
With all these obstacles in their path, it is hardly surprising that almost no tourists make their way to the park. It’s a shame, though, for it is one of the most dramatic mountain regions anywhere in the world. Karst hills, rising nearly vertically and covered with greenery, are the foreground for the high forested mountains on the Chinese border, home to indigenous villagers who have survived the homogenization of most of the country.
After a couple of weeks in Vietnam’s beautiful and highly developed coastal cities, we left the country via another seldom-used back door, taking buses through the northern Central Highlands of Vietnam and the largely barren hills and plains of eastern Cambodia.
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Cambodia is not a happy country, and won’t be for a long time. America’s destruction of the entire eastern half of the country, via massive bombing and a ground invasion, the Khmer Rouge’s murder of 3 million people, about a third of the population, the years of warfare between the Vietnam invasion force and the remnant Khmer Rouge guerrillas (supported by the U.S.), and now the corruption and greed of a government that has sold most of its natural resources to foreign interests—all this has left this tiny country and its amiable Buddhists a mess, physically and psychologically devastated, the third poorest in Asia. People are still dying, literally, from these wars. Just this month two cousins, 12 and 14 years old, were bird hunting when an old Russian-made rocket-propelled grenade exploded and killed them.
For my wife and I, however, Cambodia was something else entirely. We first made the tourist stops—the ruins of Angkor Wat, perhaps the most spectacular ancient site in the world; the capital city of Phnom Penh, with modern high rises and terrible slums alternating at a beautiful bend of the Mekong River; and Sihanoukville, the lively beach city on the southern coast, where old women grill fresh squid, octopus and prawns at our table while we sip Angkor beer and watch Cambodians play in the gentle waves and kick soccer balls on the beach.
On a more profound and tragic level, in Phnom Penh we toured the genocide museum and an old school where the Khmer Rouge imprisoned and massacred 30,000 people, some of them because they wore glasses, some because they were related to someone who wore glasses. The implicit cry, the explicit scream, of these places was two words: Never Again. But viewing these terrors, I sadly knew otherwise.
Beyond the horrors of its history, however, Cambodia remains a wonderful land of beautiful and gracious people and the kind of adventures that Thailand and Vietnam no longer offer and Laos cannot yet proffer. Here we had a chance to do things that had eluded us elsewhere.
We relaxed for several days on the appropriately named Lonely Beach on Koh Rong Island, where we stayed in one of the eight traditional huts that a tiny guesthouse has built on a remote beach nearly an hour’s walk from the nearest village. Phosphorescent plankton lit our nights. Small brightly colored fish hid among the rocks. The calm sea was a bath in sensuality. And every night we picked away at a whole fresh-caught fish on the patio of the guesthouse.
From there we went by boat, bus and motorcycle to the real jungle, where we hiked and camped in Southeast Asia’s largest remaining rainforest, the Cardamom Mountains, the only forest in the country that has not been destroyed. These mountains are vast and remote. They still shelter wild elephants and exotic large mammals that are unknown elsewhere. On a tree, we saw the marks of a tiger’s claws. The streams still run fast and clear—and for the moment without dams, although the Chinese and Cambodian governments have grandiose plans to change that.
We slept on a platform in the jungle during an overnight storm, whose persistent thunderous violence hour after hour was a symphony unlike anything I’d ever heard or seen.
Returning to the idyllic village of Chi Phat—where all commercial activities are managed as a cooperative, eliminating competition and price gouging—we stopped beside a broad and fast river. On the other side lay hundreds of ancient burial jars that we had planned on seeing, kind of a second cousin to the famous Plain of Jars in Laos, except these urns are almost unknown to the outside world. But the previous night’s storm had made the river dangerous. We were tempted to cross anyway, despite the obvious reluctance of the two Cambodians accompanying us.
However, we finally decided we had had enough adventure for one trip and headed back on a circuitous route that would eventually return us to where we had started, the Bangkok airport. The burial jars will be a good excuse to return to Southeast Asia some day for more adventures.