Where I’ve Been Where I’m Headed

Sapa, Vietnam

I realize that it has been ages since I last gave an update, so here it is.

Laos and Vietnam

After Cambodia, I spent a few weeks traveling around the north of Laos: Luang Prabang, trekking in Luang Namtha, a trip down the Nam Ou River from Muang Khua to Muang Ngoi to Nong Khiaw, back to Luang Prabang, out to the Plain of Jars, down to Vang Vieng, and finally through the capital, Vientiane. I will (I hope) have more details to provide eventually.

From Vientiane, at the end of March, I came to Hanoi, where I gave a lecture on how Jewish people raise their children, in between visits to Halong Bay, Ninh Binh, and now Sapa. I head back to Hanoi this afternoon.

Thailand

Then it’s on to a weekend at the beach in Hua Hin, Thailand, a couple of days in Bangkok, and then up to Khon Kaen from April 13 to 16 to enjoy Songkran, the Thai new year festival. After that, I’ll have a couple more days in Bangkok, then head south to Phuket — I’m already booked for the Passover seder at the local Chabad on April 22 — and Krabi, and maybe some other beaches too.

Singapore and Indonesia

When I finish up with South Thailand, I’ll pop in to Singapore for a few days, probably around the end of April. From Singapore, I’ll fly to Bali and begin a month in Indonesia. You cannot possibly see all of Indonesia in a month (or ever, really), but I intend to spend a week or two in Bali and Lombok, beginning with the cultural heart of the island in Ubud. When I wrap that up, I want to visit Jogjakarta and some of the historical sites around it, and if there’s time, I’d like to visit Kalamantan (Borneo) as well. Jakarta I can skip, or so everyone tells me.

America

I’ll probably circle back to Bangkok to catch a flight to the US, probably Los Angeles. From there, it’s a quick hop to Phoenix on a local flight, but I might spend a couple days in LA and environs, if anyone wants to put me up and can accept my jet lag. I’m expecting that to happen around June 7, more or less.

I’ll be in Phoenix probably through June, and would like to visit NYC in July. Anyone have a place for me to stay?

Korea and (maybe) Japan

And then? Well, school starts on September 6, so I need to get to Korea before then and find a place to live (and furniture, and Internet, and cable, and, and, and … eep!). But I might spend August touring around Korea beyond Seoul, and possibly even Japan. Again, anyone who has a place for me to stay should let me know.

Cambodia

Luang Prabang, Laos

The first memorable thing I saw in Cambodia was the body of a motorcyclist, lying helmetless in a pool of blood behind a large truck. Two or three men stood around, motionless. There was nothing to be done.

Ghosts and fever

Photos

Phnom Penh was better than I expected. I suppose I was expecting Mandalay, but the Cambodian capital is in decent shape, with some signs of development. It’s sleepy and pleasant, even if most of its major sights — the royal palace, Wat Phnom — feel like lesser versions of similar monuments in Bangkok.

On my last day in Phnom Penh, I visited Tuol Sleng, a high school that the Khmer Rouge turned into a prison. Of the 27,000 inmates who passed through, there were twelve known survivors. The rest were sent to the killing fields, if they survived the torture and starvation inside the prison long enough. Tuol Sleng is just one small piece of the Cambodian genocide — a genocide the nation more or less committed against itself, killing two million people, or a quarter of the population, between the emergence of the Khmer Rouge in 1975 and its defeat by a Vietnamese invasion in 1979.

Later that same night, I stumbled onto a Dengue Fever concert. Dengue Fever is an LA band with a Khmer singer, and they’ve revived Cambodia’s amazing psychedelic rock from the late sixties and early seventies — the years before the genocide. The crowd consisted of just about every white hipster expat in the country, or so it seemed. There were also quite a few Khmers, including my companion, whom I’d met a couple of days before on a Tinder date. She’d never heard of either Dengue Fever or the music they’d brought back to life, but by the end of the concert she was grinning, running up to band members to have her picture taken with them, and declaring, “I love all of them! I love each one of them!”

Special friends and heavy metal pirates

Photos:

The temples of Angkor are famous for a reason. Opened to the public only a few decades ago, they now see more than two million visitors a year. I don’t need to tell you how incredible the temples are, but if you happen to be passing through, make sure you spend time at Bayon, which was my personal favorite. But the temples have their eerie qualities too. They are, after all, the legacy of autocratic military rulers, and their decline the result of a catastrophic series of defeats. There’s something Ozymandian in the many stone faces of the king that gaze down at you from the ramparts of ruined temples long forgotten and overgrown by the jungle. And the haunting Khmer music you often hear drifting through the trees and ruins is played by little bands of landmine victims who sit at the temple entrances and collect a bit of money.

I spent a total of four days at Angkor, the first two with my Khmer “special friend” — her term. On our second morning together, she decided to have bread and butter at the hotel breakfast, and I learned that this was her first time trying it. She had been to the Angkor temples once before, but she had never been out of the country, and once, as a plane flew overhead, she pointed to it and declared that any Cambodian who rides on one is very, very lucky. She makes more than three times the national average income as an au pair for a foreign family, but the national average income is around a thousand dollars a year. She went to school through seventh grade. Not too long ago, she was bitten by a snake. My Khmer special friend isn’t the first person I’ve dated in my travels, or the first local. But never before have I felt so acutely the gap in opportunity between myself and the person I was was with.

The remainder of my non-temple time I spent hanging around a weird little pirate-themed heavy metal bar for expats, well away from Siem Reap’s gruesome Pub Street. I’d met an Australian expat who’d become the bar’s manager — the owner is French — and I found myself sitting with the kind of expat who is happy to have discovered a place where he or she can drink more or less at will and not be bothered. I did meet a music producer who happened to have been responsible for the Dengue Fever visit, but many of the other expats seemed just to be lost, or hiding out, or running away from something.

All in all, despite the wonders of the temples and the pleasure of connecting with my special friend, Cambodia left me off-balance and shaken. After a brief eight days — my shortest visit to any country on this trip so far — I was ready to leave.

 

 

Tet a Tet

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

A long one, and the pictures aren’t up yet either, but there’s a lot to say. 

La Viet en rose

On the first night of the Tet holiday, my Vietnamese friend in Saigon took me to a Latin music club. It’s true that I came to Vietnam for Tet without clear expectations of what it would entail, but this was a surprise.

Even more surprising was how good it was. The entirely Vietnamese band at stylish, candle-lit Carmen Bar — three acoustic guitars, drums, bass, percussion, keys — plays with polish and flair, everything from Latin hits to bachatas to the occasional disco number for a request. They back up a rotating set of singers with different specialties: a sexy chanteuse, a hammy lounge singer type, a trio, a heavyset guy in a sombrero backing two Filipinas until he stepped forward to do a passable Louis Armstrong imitation for “What a Wonderful World.” It could have been merely cheesy, but there was a level of musicianship and a knowingness that made even the silly bits feel sophisticated, cosmopolitan. Maybe it’s just that I don’t know about it, but I never found anything this worldly, this hip, in Bangkok, or anywhere else in Southeast Asia. Vietnamese culture has a certain depth that I find compelling.

Late in the evening, a mustachioed guitarist began to play French rock and pop from the sixties, which resonated with the mostly Vietnamese audience, especially the older people who grew up in South Vietnam when the French influence was still strong. My friend, who is a bit younger than me, knew all the lyrics to many of the songs, though she didn’t know what they meant; they were the records her parents played when she was young. Some people in their sixties got up to dance. An older woman from the audience was invited onstage to sing a rich and rousing “La Vie en Rose.” The club was less full than usual, with so many people gone to their hometowns for the holiday, but that gave the place a kind of intimacy. It felt like a private conversation, like old friends reminiscing over what was and what might have been.

Red envelopes

Of course, there’s more to Tet than Edith Piaf covers. Tet, the lunar new year, is the biggest holiday of the year in Vietnam. From Saigon, much of the population disappears to the countryside, to their home villages and elderly relatives. And they bring flowers with them — yellow flowers, mostly, sometimes whole trees with yellow flowers on them, hauled along on moterbikes from one of the many flower markets that spring up all over the city in the days before the new year. (Buying an entire tree as a holiday decoration and then throwing it out a week or two later seems crazy to me, but I’m Jewish.) Throughout Saigon, shops and buildings, streets and parks are decorated with symbols of the festival: representations of old Chinese coins, flowers, pictures and statues of monkeys for the Year of the Monkey, displays of traditional Vietnamese village life, and especially red banners with the phrase “Chúc Mừng Năm Mới,” happy new year.

In any case, our trip to Carmen Bar was Saturday night, the first night of the national holiday. The following night was the real thing, the last night of the lunar year. My friend took me to her parents’ house, where we ate on the floor because they didn’t have a table big enough for everyone, and we looked at old family pictures: of my friend and her brother as babies and as teenagers, of the aunt who was a movie star, of the French grandfather in his military uniform. Then it was time for the giving of the red envelopes, in which elders give envelopes of money and blessings to younger family members, amid much hilarity. My friends’ parents gave me an envelop too — yellow, which they said was extra special because it’s the royal color — and it contained a series of bills, which my friend’s mother explained: a 1,000-dong note (roughly a nickel), which if you give to a beggar, he won’t say thank you; a 2,000-dong note, which you can give to a beggar to get thanks; 5,000, which can get you salt for ban mi bread; 10,000, which can get you the bread itself; 20,000, which can get you a bowl of pho; and  100,000 (just under $5), which can get you a whole meal.

Later my friend’s brother and girlfriend met me on District 1’s Walking Street to watch the midnight fireworks. There I learned of the ancient Vietnamese custom of resting your arm, weary from holding up your iPad to video an empty sky, on the head of the foreigner standing in front of you. At last there were fireworks, and they were pretty good fireworks — “good, but not Sydney good,” as I heard an Australian say behind me — and then it was over, and the crowd broke up, and we went our separate ways into the Year of the Monkey.

Bác Chio

The next day, like everyone else in Saigon, I left town. Along with my friend and her two daughters, aged ten and five, I headed for the beach on Phu Quoc, a charming resort island just south of Cambodia that once held South Vietnam’s largest prison and was briefly captured by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.

It was fun to hang out with kids at the beach. The older one speaks English pretty well, though she’s shy about it, and the younger one understands a great deal, though she was happy to chatter away at me in Vietnamese most of the time. As the days wore on, though, she began using more English with me, starting with the moment at the beach when she held up a bunch of wet sand dripping from her two hands and declared, “It’s so yucky!” The older one called me “Uncle Josh” — “uncle” is a common term of respect for an older male, as it is in Korea — while the younger one turned that into “Bác Chio,” pronounced as something like bah jaw. We went on a snorkeling tour, and I reassured the skittish ten-year-old that she could in fact learn to snorkel in five minutes, that the coral would not slice her to bits, that there were no sharks. She and I bonded over our shared seasickness on the long boat ride. We spent a day at the beach, and then another day at a water and amusement park called Vinpearl Land, which was cheesy and ridiculous and good fun, and the bruise on my elbow from that one twisty water slide is healing nicely, thank you.

War remnants

Back in Saigon, we decided to take a tour of the Cu Chi tunnels. Cu Chi was a jungly crossroads not far from Saigon that became a Viet Cong stronghold. It became a free-fire zone, and a place where US bombers returning from sorties to the North would unload any remaining bombs before landing on aircraft carriers.

There were people down there.

The Vietnamese response was to develop a system of tunnels and booby traps as a means of survival and to continue to challenge and ensnare the enemy close to its capital in Saigon. The Cu Chi tunnels are presented as examples of the hardscrabble genius of the Vietnamese fighters and villagers — the distinction is blurry — who survived and fought there. That’s accurate as far as it goes. They turned bomb fragments into metal spikes for ingenious, terrifying booby traps that would ensnare and mangle the bodies of those who stepped on them. They sawed open unexploded bombs to get the materials to make anti-tank mines. They dug tunnels, some as much as ten meters deep, all by hand, and created bamboo breathing tubes that they camouflaged under fake termite mounds. They dug special tunnels to dissipate the smoke from cooking fires. They made sandals out of old tires, and for the rainy season, when their steps would leave tracks, they devised backward sandals that made it look like they were going the opposite way.

It’s all very impressive and very clever, and if I were a GI sent into that jungle to look for VC, I would have been terrified all the time: every step could mean agonizing pain or death, and VC could pop out of a hidden hole just about anywhere and shoot you in the gut or face or slash you with a hoe. But then you realize that this was a response to massive aerial bombardment, and that the US soldiers came in with hand grenades and rocket launchers and flamethrowers and teargas canisters and sniffing dogs, while the Vietnamese hid in holes in the ground and hoped the bombing would stop before they ran out of air.

The Cu Chi experience is made all the more vivid by the rattle and pop of gunfire from the attached shooting range, where you can try out some of the weapons that were used in the war. I took the opportunity to fire an M-16 and an AK-47, just to feel what it’s like to use them. They’re both easy weapons to fire, with a soft trigger and not too hard a kick.

A couple of days later, I went to the War Remnants Museum in Saigon, which presents the war from a Vietnamese Communist perspective, propaganda and all. The displays accuse the Americans, rightly, of counting any dead Vietnamese as Viet Cong and ignoring civilian casualties, but they tend to count any dead Vietnamese as patriots. There is, of course, no mention of any North Vietnamese or Viet Cong acts of torture or aggression, which can lead to odd gaps: a prison display that includes tiger cages used by the South but never mentions American POWs; an odd gap between the peace agreement establishing a North and South Vietnam and a war in which America was defending southern “puppets,” the actual term the museum uses for the government of South Vietnam. There’s a display aimed at branding Senator Bob Kerrey a war criminal — he probably was — that suggests he confessed, which he never did. (It was good to have Wikipedia on my phone as I walked around the museum.) There’s a reference to the Bertrand Russell Tribunal as if it were an important international body rather than an informal gathering of leftist philosophers in France in 1967.

The propaganda is unnecessary: the accumulated evidence of American stupidity and brutality is overwhelming. It’s hard to look at the accumulated evidence — the tonnage of bombs dropped, the pictures of victims, of suffering Vietnamese, suffering GIs — and not see that this was something the US created. I am not sure that anything could justify the kind of bombing we did in Vietnam, incinerating whole communities. I think the bombing we did against the Nazis and the Japanese in World War II went well beyond what was right or justifiable, but at least we were doing it as part of a larger war that had purpose. Even in Korea that was more true than not. but our strategy in Vietnam never made much sense. We were defending first a terrible, unpopular, ineffectual regime, and then no regime at all. And we were fighting in a place of minimal strategic importance — unlike Korea, which was sandwiched between Mao’s China, the Soviet Union, and Japan. There was no one brave or wise enough to see that Vietnam was more like Angola or Afghanistan, less like Korea or Berlin — and that was because McCarthy’s witch hunt had driven all the China scholars from government, blaming them for China’s fall to communism, as if the failure of the Kuomintang were somehow the result of biased academic writing. 

Yes, the US was probably right to try to block the spread of communism in Vietnam, but not through full-scale military intervention. Yes, the US was right to fear that its failure there would send a worrying message of weakness to our allies around the world, in Taiwan and South Korea and Japan and Greece and West Germany, which is the US should never have staked its reputation on Vietnam in the first place. The US should have done what it did in China, which was to recognize the absence of any viable counterweight to the communist forces and give up. But that was politically impossible in post-McCarthy America. The suffering we inflicted on the Vietnamese people in the name of a flawed geopolitical strategy is unconscionable, as is a lot of what we did in the process: My Lai, Agent Orange, Napalm, ignoring torture in South Vietnamese prisons, and much more.

These are old debates, but maybe worth thinking about if you haven’t done so in detail. The issues are still relevant. “It became clear then,” said Robert McNamara, the principal architect of the war, speaking in 1995, “and I believe it is clear today, that military force — especially when wielded by an outside power — cannot bring order in a country that cannot govern itself.” Is he right? If so, what does that tell us about how to deal with Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan?

What stays with me, though, are the pictures of American GIs, muddy and terrified and miserable. Yes, what the Vietnamese endured was far worse, but like it or not, the GIs are my people. My father could have been one of those GIs, but he engineered a way out of the war. My ex-girlfriend’s father went to the front, and he spent the rest of his life waking up screaming at night.

A holiday in Cambodia

In speaking to my Vietnamese friend about the war, we could agree that for all their flaws, the major leaders on both sides — Ho Chi Minh, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon — had been trying, in their flawed ways, to do the right thing. And we agreed that the same cannot be said for Pol Pot, who was just batshit insane and about as evil as they come, and who managed to make enemies of the United States and communist Vietnam both. Tomorrow I will be on a bus to Phnom Penh, the capital of what was once the Khmer Rouge’s nightmare state of Kampuchea.

No, I’m not in Southeast Asia on a war-and-genocide tour. But I want to understand this part of the world as I travel it, and these things, as much as the mountains and temples and culinary traditions, are part of what has shaped these nations and their people today. So I’ll go, and I’ll see the height of Khmer genius at Angkor Wat, and I’ll see the depths of Khmer depravity too. The world is a complicated place.

Back to Backpacking

I’ve had a bit of an interlude away from backpacking: first a stay in Thailand, relaxing and seeing very little, and then a long visit with a friend in Vietnam over the Tet holiday. It’s not that I haven’t done any touring — I will have a blog post soon about Saigon on Tet, Phu Quoc Island, the Cu Chi tunnels, and the War Remnants Museum — but it’s different when you’re hanging out with a local who handles the logistics.

I’ll be back to solo travel tomorrow. I’m headed to Phnom Penh for a couple of days, and then Angkor Wat for pretty much as long as I feel like staying. Cambodia will get a short stay so I can have more time in Laos, which seems like a lovely place to chill, maybe trek again, enjoy nature. Then it will be time for Northern Vietnam, and I’ll finally be giving that lecture on how Jews raise their children on March 27 in Hanoi. Let me know if you want to come. And after that, I plan to visit Thailand again for Songkran in mid-April.

It has been nice relying on locals and taking a break from the backpacker trail. I’m a little apprehensive about getting back out there. But I know it will be great. I will meet new people, see new things, have new experiences. That’s what I’m here for.

Travel and Vacation

There’s travel, and then there’s vacation.

After a long stint of travel in Myanmar — buses, trucks, taxis, boats, trekking, and hotels with odd flaws like bathroom odors, water that pulses hot and cold, wheezing pumps near the room, etc. — I’ve been on a bit of a luxury vacation in Thailand, first at Cape Dara in Pattaya, and now for a few days in Bangkok at the trendy and spot-on Aloft Hotel. On Monday I didn’t even leave my hotel until evening. I had lunch in the hotel restaurant and sat in the rooftop pool for a while. These are not backpacker joints. They’re fancy hotels, pleasant and stylish, and a bargain for the price.

Heaven. For a while, anyway.

Tomorrow I’m back on the road, to Saigon for Tet. I don’t know what it will be, but I am hopeful it will be something. I needed some nothing for a few days — a chance to catch up on my writing and blogging and photo posting, to lie around, to feel zero pressure to go be a tourist and see the sights — and now I’ve had my fill.

The second half

I suppose this is a kind of halftime lull, even if it’s a few days before the midpoint. Plans for the second half are starting to come into focus:

  • Vietnam for Tet and then a little beach time until mid-February.
  • Cambodia, Laos, and Northern Vietnam from mid-February to mid-April.
  • Back to Thailand for Songkran in mid-April, with maybe some South Thailand beach time before or after.
  • May in Singapore and Indonesia.

Now’s the time to get in touch if you want to join me for any of those places.

Housekeeping

Myanmar and Vietnam galleries are up. There will also be a trickle of Myanmar blog posts over the next few days.

Myanmar (January 2016)

Vietnam (December 2015-January 2016)