Cheoung Ek Genocide Memorial

Visiting the killing fields is something we wanted to do but not something we looked forward to.

The tuk-tuk ride from Phnom Penh took about 30 minutes and as we approached the edge of the city, blue skies turned to black clouds. Rain lashed down, turning the road into a river, while thunder boomed and lightning cracked overhead. We decided to brave the weather and carried on regardless. Eventually city roads turned into gravel paths and we were bouncing along through villages and past temples.

The rain had started to ease as we turned in to the car park but the thunder and lightning continued on unabated. Neither of us were sure what to expect. We walked in through the small side gate and paid for our ticket. A friendly worker gave us our audio guide and an umbrella. Placing on the headphones and being sheltered by the giant umbrella, I realised that this would be a very solitary and personal experience. Walking down the path, I saw the grey and yellow memorial stupa; both beautiful and sombre. Each of the four sides is made up of glass doors and windows. Moving closer I could see seventeen levels inside, each one layered with bones from the excavated graves. The sandy path took me away from the stupa towards a series of sign boards marking where buildings stood during the genocide. Each sign had a story and only added to the magnitude of the situation.

The entrance to the killing fields and mass grave site was marked by a boundary of trees and we followed the path through a small gap.

Despite the number of tourists walking around, this area was eerily quiet. Patches of sunken earth marked where excavations had taken place, reminding me of the battlefields of the first world war. Much of the field still held grave sites and were marked with wooden huts to protect them. On the wooden posts marking the grave boundaries, visitors had left coloured cotton bracelets as a sign of respect and memorial. Other sites had concrete boundaries. Narrow paths worn in the grass wound their way past the graves. At each excavation site, black and white photographs showed the evidence of the work that had taken place. In several places there were chains cordoning off certain areas. This was where scraps of bone, teeth and clothing were rising to the surface. The memorial caretakers carefully monitored the fields for such occurrences and then collected them to be kept safe in the large glass cases. In one such case, we saw evidence of bindings used to secure the victims and material used as blindfolds. Every piece of evidence was collected so those victims could be remembered and the atrocities never forgotten.

One of the mass graves held victims of the Khmer rouge- defectors who were decapitated.

Towards the back of the field was a man-made lake. It also held four submerged mass graves that the authorities had left. There were seats overlooking the water and we took a few minutes to sit down and reflect upon what we had learnt and seen so far. Under any other circumstances, this would have been a peaceful lake-side spot.

The tour took us full circle to the stupa and this time we spent a little longer  appreciating it as a memorial. The doors were locked so we walked around the stupa several times trying to comprehend what we were seeing. Each layer of the towering glass case held bones, weapons or fragments of clothing. Each skull had been subject to forensic testing and coloured dots marked out an array of information: whether the skull was male, female, their age range and the type of fatal wound received. I was taken aback by the depth of analysis and it took four circles of the stupa before I stopped reading the signs and started to notice the skulls and bones for what they were.

It’s not difficult to understand why the Cambodians have documented this genocide in such detail. The dead are to be remembered and the living should never have to experience such an act again.

With a greater understanding of the genocide and heavier hearts, we walked in silence back to our waiting tuk-tuk driver.

Vietnam Retrospective

Looking back on Vietnam, I am amazed at just how much we were able to see and do in such a short time. We started by stomping around Hanoi’s time-worn roads, visiting coffee shops and wartime palaces before moving on to the turquoise waters of Ha Long Bay and the thick jungle and rolling hills of Cat Ba island.

Next our journey took us south along the coast before we arrived in Hue. This city is placed on the Perfume River and was just south of the DMZ in the war. The Citadel there was damaged badly by bombing runs but recent renovations allowed us to enjoy the few buildings remaining.

Hue Citadel Steps Hue Citadel Grounds

We stayed in the cheekily named Google Hotel (lots of Asian hotels and restaurants use names like Facebook Grill, or Myspace Tower) where I was treated to free beers all night as long as I bought a meal. Bargain! It was here that an odd waiter took to serenading us every breakfast time, with a rendition of ‘The wind beneath my wings’. After a few days of this I think he sensed our bemusement, and moved onto some fresh tourists.

We pressed on to Hoi An – a beautiful town poised on the mouth of a river. The old buildings and wooden vessels had a definite charm, and we enjoyed several days of walking the narrow roads and exploring the many small shops offering a variety of local arts and crafts. The food and drink here was a notch above the rest, and we met up with Nicole’s sister Lynne and her boyfriend Andy for a change of pace and relaxation.

Hoi An Riverfront

Hoi An is very much a tourist town, the locals dress in traditional wear, and some artsy businesses have started up. One particular favourite was a shop that sold hundreds of scale models of wooden ships, all built to exacting standards. We spotted the HMS Victory and regaled the shop attendant with news that we used to live next to the real life ship.

As we were walking back to our hotel, a voice called out my name. I looked over and a classmate that I used to sit next to during Biology lessons during senior school was sat having a few beers outside of his hotel. Amazed at the remote chance of this, we stopped and spoke for a while.

Hoi An is famous for its tailors and many people come here to have suits made. For as little as $100 you can get a tailored suit and quality increases up to about $300. Andy had planned ahead specifically for this, and made a bee-line for a tailor of notable repute.

This town is on the World Heritage list, and the locals definitely make the most of this, with prices set much higher than elsewhere in Vietnam. Even so, I would happily return some day to soak up the atmosphere once more.

Hoi An Riverfront 4 Hoi An Riverfront 5 Hoi An Riverfront 2 Hoi An Riverfront 3

Hoi An River Lady Hoi An River Man

After bidding farewell to Lynne and Andy, we took the train south to Nha Trang. This beach paradise has been somewhat let down by rapid development in the town. Massive high-rise hotels tower over the long beach, and the sound of hammers and drills fill the air, sometimes drowning out the crash of waves. Whilst the beach was pleasant, I wouldn’t go back.

From Nha Trang we took a sleeper train down to Saigon. After reunification the name was officially changed to Ho Chi Minh City but the people in the south still call it Saigon.

Saigon was the polar opposite of Hanoi. A modern city; it was also very busy. Wide avenues replaced narrow streets and luxury shops lit up the city at night. Nicole and I took the opportunity to visit the Saigon Saigon Bar at the top of the Hotel Caravelle for a drink one evening, and spent an hour looking out over the city. This bar was where all the war correspondents used to drink; far enough from the bombing targets but close enough to see the action across the river.

View from Saigon Saigon

We also looked around the Reunification Palace, which used to be the seat of power in the south, before the north stormed the grounds with tanks, an event that marked the handing over of power at the time. Under the palace lay the bunker and command centre. This made for an interesting sight, and meant we had seen both of the authoritative desks in the country during the war.

The South's Command Room

The South’s Command Room

The North's Command Room

The North’s Command Room

Before leaving Saigon we happened across our new American friends, Eric and Diana, sat at one of the little cafes on the side of the road. These cafes operate out of people’s front rooms, a patch of lino covers the pavement and hosts a load of small red stools or cushions. We spent the evening drinking thirty pence beers.

Overall Vietnam was probably my favourite country so far. The people are both friendly and accommodating, but also take no nonsense. They have a fierce independence and the country is moving quickly into the modern world. It’s not as developed as Thailand, but has that great mix of old and new. Despite the frantic nature that inhabits most of Asia, I still found plenty of time to chill out and enjoy the atmosphere in the many excellent coffee shops. I’m already looking forward to my next visit.

A Harrowing Experience

Today we took a trip to the Saigon War Remnant Museum.

This large open-plan building exhibits both armaments and photographs taken from the American war. Outside the front of the building were examples of the various war machines that rolled across the country. Howitzers, tanks, helicopters and planes all bristled with long barrels and an uneasy silence extended inside the building where visitors viewed the exhibits.

The experience was quite appalling. The photos showed the elements of war which people are used to glossing over or ignoring. There was the usual propagandist rhetoric on each signboard, which spelled out the crimes of the aggressors and the valour of the people’s army, but more to the point, the photos themselves showed indefensible horrors. GIs posed in front of decapitated bodies and the corpses of children; villages were set to torch by flame-throwing tanks, the ravages of napalm were detailed on the victims and by the time we had walked around that room I felt both numb and sick.

The next room showed the repercussions that stemmed from the use of Agent Orange.  Originally intended as a defoliant which would help expose the jungle, it was used as a chemical weapon throughout the war. A series of challenging photos showed the children that had been born after their parents had been exposed, and as result, exhibited severe deformities such as dwarfism, paraplegia, being born without eyes and mental illnesses such as attempting to chew and swallow anything to hand. We were both shocked to see in the middle of the exhibit, a tank filled with formaldehyde which preserved a collection of mutated foetuses. This was a little too much and we left the museum having seen enough horror for one day.

Vietnamese Dong


The Dong currently stands at 35,000 to a pound. Therefore it is fairly typical to withdraw 2,000,000 (the maximum allowed) from a cashpoint when we run low!

Denominations higher than 5000 are made from a polymer rather than cotton, and have a small window in each note. Every note features the face of uncle Ho, and the reverse shows a selection of national monuments and rural scenes.

I much prefer the plastic notes as they stay clean, don’t really break, and just feel nicer than the older sort. I’m looking forward to 2016 when we start getting plastic notes in the UK.

Cat Ba Island

Travelling east from Hanoi we arrived in Ha Long Bay where we chartered a boat to take us on a tour. The boat weaved in and out of a few of the many hundred limestone karsts which give the bay it’s Unesco World Heritage status and distinctive look. It was quite overcast, so the waters were not as emerald as the postcards like to show but the area was stunning nonetheless.

Ha Long Bay Karsts Ha Long Bay Karsts 2 Ha Long Bay Karsts 3 Ha Long Bay Karsts 4

The boat was functional, and lacked the romance of the traditional junk boats of which we saw very few. I think that they are reserved for the tourists with the most money to splash. Still, we got to spend an afternoon passing between the towering cliffs and alighted for a quick tour of a massive cave within one of the karsts.

Our Boat Inside the Cave Rock Formation Rock Formation Inside Karsk

Setting off from the cave, we continued past small fishing boats and further into the maze of limestone rocks. There are so many karsts, that there is barely any tide, even though the bay faces out into the sea. As luck would have it a huge bird of prey flew past and I managed to get a shot in, capturing it mid-flight. Then, before we knew it, we were pulling into the small wharf at the top of Cat Ba island- where we planned to spend the next few days.

Bird of Prey in Flight

Travelling through Cat Ba was like reliving the first time I watched Jurassic Park as a child. Rolling hills thick with forest surrounded us on all sides, and a single road cut through this unspoiled terrain. Buffalo would call in the distance, and we took to calling them triceratops just for fun. Nicole and I hired a motorcycle and set off into the core of the island. The frenzied sound of crickets and cicadas surrounded us at all times.

Take a look at the photosphere below, you can click around it to see all around!

From one of the nearby jetties we hired a kayak for a day, and took to the waters, paddling through the floating village just off the coast. Residents would look up as we passed and throw us a wave or a smile, and dogs would run up and down the interlinked flotillas as their masters prepared for, or cleaned up from the fishing expeditions that left in dirty motorboats or traditional wooden boats.

Nicole Paddling Toward Floating Village Floating Village

On the island we made friends with a couple who were visiting from California. Erik and Diana had arrived with climbing ropes and were determined to conquer the local rock climbs- for which Cat Ba is famous, and to also try a sport called deep water soloing. The idea is to climb up one of the limestone karsts without ropes, and when suitably high, throw yourself away from the cliff and into the deep water below. They kindly offered to take us along, but as neither of us particularly like heights we decided to enjoy their company along with dinner and beer instead.

Sunset from Cat Ba

Water Puppet Show

Hanoi offers the chance to see Water Puppetry ,which is a traditional art form that originated in the countryside and would be performed in the flooded rice paddies.

We turned up at the last minute and settled for the cheaper tickets in the aisle, but still had a good view of the stage. The show lasted for about an hour and showed scenes of country life and historical legend and was entertaining as well as being skilfully produced.

Ho Chi Minh

The outside of the structure was a vast, imposing, mass of heavy grey stone and towering pillars, but once inside the massive front doors, a red carpet led the way through a more subtle hallway, and into the resting place.

The cold tomb was dimly lit and walled with great marble blocks which belied a tempered opulence that you could not imagine from the outside. 

The back wall had two giant vertical banners which showed a hammer and sickle on the left one, and the communist star on the right. Both stood authoritatively over proceedings and an air of stark utilitarianism filled the room. There were no signs of spirituality anywhere. No candles and wreaths were present. No religious iconography.

Below our red-carpeted walkway – which skirted the room, was a pit in which stood a glass casket built into a black monolith. Where the casket met the obsidian base, dark, cherry lacquered wood formed an intricate weave of roses which sprang to join the glass. On each corner of the casket stood a guard, attired in white uniform and armed with a rifle and bayonet.

Interred inside the casket lay the mortal remains of Ho Chi Minh, his body embalmed to last through the ages. Dressed in black, only his hands and face showed as his lower torso was covered with a blanket. A spotlight casting a yellow hue focused attention on his face. His skin was pale and waxy, taking on the likeness of a mannequin. Silver hair spilled from the back of his head and was combed back. A styled, short beard was cropped under his chin.

The Vietnamese in front of, and behind us, made no sound. There was no praying or mourning, no offerings were made, the queue just proceeded, all eyes fixed on their previous leader.

As we filed past, four new guardsmen marched into the pit, silently and efficiently taking the place of their comrades who left in just as quick a fashion.

And then we were out of the cyclopean structure and back under the hot sun. The chill from the tomb quickly evaporating, but the memory lingering, surely for a long time to come.


The difference between Laos and Vietnam is startling.

Day to day in Laos’ small capital Vientiane was docile and relaxed, and considering it was the capital, weirdly quiet. Most days were spent languidly walking between coffee shops, and along the banks of the Mekong which offered a clear view of Thailand on the other side. It seemed odd that just across that stretch of water, a society which prized commercialism and progression thrived and yet here a country existed which put limits on trade and ownership, leading to a much more basic lifestyle.

Laos people are quiet, they don’t call out, shout or prompt tourists to see their wares, instead they level a granite stare and wait for you to initiate proceedings. At midnight a country-wide curfew comes into effect and the streets clear completely, adding to that sense of stillness. After a month in Laos I was feeling fractious and bored, and longed to get back into the thick of it.

Enter Vietnam.

Arriving at Hanoi was a breath of fresh air (pollution notwithstanding). The city was large, with sprawling districts cut up by multi-laned roads and a constant stream of two-wheelers weaving in and out of the less frequent car, sometimes they rode up onto pavements and past pedestrians who seemed unphased by their mechanised antics.

Road-works thundered in the background along with the hooting of horns, and street traders would accost us with a shout of “Hey you, you buy?” In some ways it was like being back in India, with the constant hubbub. Indeed one of the best things is just being able to watch ordinary citizens going about their business; a natural modern city abides here, not one where everyone waits and contests for the business of tourists, but one where tourists fade into the background as yet ‘just another person’. Unlike India however, the Vietnamese are heavily into fashion. Everywhere you look, clothing stores hang a vast range of items on petite mannequins, and the people here have stark individual style – this being in contrast to Thailand where a homogeneous fashion presides. Dogs seem to be a particular accessory, with many small, fluffy-haired, rat-like creatures being led around on coloured leashes.

Walking around Hanoi shows a sense of pride. From the many flags hanging from homes and businesses, to the cleanliness of streets – where armies of street cleaners are out in force, and men with pressure washers keep the pavements in check, you see a city that the inhabitants are proud of, and one that they care for.

So far I love this city, full-on as it is. The Vietnamese have been incredibly welcoming, and always make an effort to ensure you are well. Over the next few days we will explore the many local attractions, including the traditional water puppetry – which imports from the countryside, the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh and the military citadel, which all add to the distinct flavour and feel of the city.

Tubing in Vang Vieng

Before reaching Laos, let alone Vang Vieng, we had heard about tubing. It was pitched to us as an absolute must-do activity. In fact, if some reviews and guides are to be believed it’s the only thing to do in Vang Vieng. After some controversy surrounding drunken accidents, tubing in it’s original form has all but disappeared with rumours of it having been disbanded completely . It’s only been replaced with a cleaned-up version. After hearing all of this though,I still didn’t really know what tubing was. The only way to find out, I guess, was to try it.

Upon reaching Vang Vieng we saw bedraggled looking tourists, arms covered in cotton bracelets and marker pen, slopping their way up the main street come dusk. In the morning they were replaced by happier, enthusiastic, much drier looking individuals. What on earth had happened to them?

On our chosen day, Hugh and I donned our outfits of choice – swim shorts and bikini (I’ll let you decide who wore what) and headed off to the tubing office. The sign at the entrance informed us that tubing during dry season would take about two hours.  At the first desk we signed a waiver saying we would behave (or else) and at the second desk we paid our deposit. Then our waiver number was drawn on our hand in indelible ink (presumably so they could identify us if anything bad happened) and the waiting group were ushered into a tuk-tuk which whisked us away (top speed 30 miles an hour) to a spot three kilometres upstream.

As we unloaded, the driver handed us a tube – the inner tube of a tractor tyre- and drove off. There were eight people on the rickshaw and we stood looking at each other until a voice offered some guidance, “Come and get your free whisky shot over here!” Nestled under the trees, behind a fence, was a makeshift bar; the first of many on our tubing trip. Walking in, we were handed a shot, followed by a cotton bracelet and left to our own devices. Beer pong was happening to our left and Jenga to our right. Hugh and I opted for Jenga. Sitting down, we got chatting to a couple from Manchester. Hugh took his Jenga turn first only to find out there were instructions on the block. I turned around to find Hugh doing push-ups with a straw in his mouth and half full cup of whisky on the floor. We weren’t even on the river yet! Soon after we decided it was time to get going so we slung our rides for the afternoon over our shoulders and headed down to river bank.

River bar Drinking whisky - Hugh style

Getting in to the tube took several attempts. The manoeuvre wasn’t as easy as you might think especially as I was trying not to spill my drink or lose the tube. After several minutes of trying to graciously lower myself into a rubber ring that is moving with the current, I gave up and threw myself at it. I wasn’t exactly seated but at least the tube wasn’t drifting away downstream without me.

Tubing Nicole Tubing Hugh

Not long after we set off, there was a cry from the river bank and two Laos boys were waving a plastic bottle attached to a rope. I waved back and the bottle was thrown to me. Hugh grabbed me, I held on tight to the rope and we were pulled in to our first riverside bar. The disembarking process was a well oiled machine and we were pulled out of tubes and up the rocky bank by a series of people as our tubes were simultaneously thrown up and stacked ready for our return. More free shots and bracelets awaited us at the bar. Sitting down at a bench to dry off in the sun, towering limestone karsts and thick jungle foliage surrounded us, providing a breathtaking and surreal contrast to the very western party scene before us.

Gotta love LaoLao I love Lao

The bar was noisy  with loud pop music, groups of people and entertainment such as sprinkler basketball (see the sprinkler bar from my last post), hula hooping and a dance area. More people arrived and several hours slipped past while we shared travel stories with our original group from the first bar. Having no idea of the time, we all decided to get back on to the river. Getting back in the tube was easier said than done. In our wisdom we decided to skip the next bar and instead load up on drinks here. Reaching the river bank was not a problem – getting in the tube with drinks in both hands was. We provided a lot of entertainment for the Laos boys. It was also about this time I realised my market – bought shorts had ripped quite spectacularly and I was no longer ‘dressed politely’ as the locals say. Luckily for me this wasn’t the worst of wardrobe malfunctions to happen while tubing.

Beautiful Nam Xong Nam Xong view

The river flowed on lazily and we floated along past bars, swimmers, kayakers, fishermen and plenty of tubers. Where the river was shallowest we bumped over rapids and slalomed between rocks that pock-marked the river; paddling and splashing to awkwardly manoeuvre the tube. Other times we followed the meanders, bobbing from left to right.  It was at one of the shallowest points that Hugh floated into a rock and had to stand up to reposition his tube on the river. At the same time a group of kayakers went sailing past and started laughing and smiling. I thought they were just having a good time until I spotted Hugh. His sodden swim shorts had stuck to his legs when he stood up and Hugh was now mooning everyone on the river. Thankfully those free whisky shots had taken the edge off the situation.


It wasn’t long before dusk fell and we were still quite a distance from Vang Vieng. Luckily our flotilla had grown in size and we figured there was safety in numbers. The bars had long since disappeared and we started paddling some more to speed up our travel downstream. Rounding a corner, we saw the lights of Vang Vieng but more to our relief there was a man standing knee deep in the river only a few metres from us. “Tuk tuk to town,” he shouted and there were several happy replies. One by one the driver grabbed hold of our tubes and pulled us to the low river bank. We threw the tubes on the tuk-tuk roof and climbed in.

A view from the bridge

Ten minutes later after tubes had been returned and deposits repaid, Hugh and I made our way back to the guest house. Passing the open-fronted cafes, new arrivals to the town stared at our soggy, ripped clothes and the footprints our drenched sandals left on the pavement. I can only imagine what they were thinking.