Editor’s note: This story is one in an occasional travel series by Dr. Robert Burke, a longtime Central Texas pediatrician and author who is sharing his adventures with his wife, Bonnie, during a recent trip to Southeast Asia. To find out more about Dr. Burke and his glob-trotting adventures visit bobnbon16.wixsite.com/ website.
Travel changes us. But not just us. Travel also brings change and new insights for those we meet. Global tourism changes cultures, which develop by blending unique languages, skills, products, and beliefs. Following are some of the insights that Bonnie and I have gained from our recent three-week trip to Southeast Asia, visiting villages along the Mekong River and touring capital cities in Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Viking was our tour operator, connecting us with diverse global travelers.
Mekong translates in Lao as “mother of rivers”. This river, the longest in Asia, winds for 2,700 miles from the Tibetan plateau to the China Sea just south of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Like a mother, her rich but seasonally variable waters nurture the people along her banks. She is the lifeblood for fishing and agriculture. The Mekong defines some international borders and has spawned capital cities. Both cultural conflicts and cooperation have sprung forth from her nurturing.
This part of Southeast Asia is a very populous region with a diversity of languages, beliefs, practices, and religions that link the ancient past to the present. Many ethnicities bond here in ways not easily understood by westerners such as us, despite the fact that we live in one of the most culturally diverse and populous countries in the world. Perhaps that is because our diversity is united by a single language, and most of us identify with a single religion, Christianity, which is a minority religion in SE Asia. Nevertheless, American fashion, food, fine arts, sports, and holidays such as Christmas are noticeable everywhere we traveled. Poverty is universal here, but less so in those who have embraced entrepreneurism. Although westernization in Vietnam has been progressive, Hanoi (north) is a decade or two behind Saigon (south). Interestingly, China seems to be nurturing an economic dependence throughout SE Asia. “Emerald Island” in Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia, is an example of Chinese-funded development of high-rise condos and cultural amenities creating the backbone for its booming economy.
Bangkok, capital city of Thailand, lies near its Gulf, far from the Mekong River that forms its border with Laos. But, Bangkok has a socio-economic dependence upon waterways. Like a coronary artery, the Chao Phraya River traverses its heart, and its 600 miles of canals are its life-sustaining blood vessels. Our canals tour was a highlight of our visit here. Tours of the Grand Palace, the riverside “Temple of Dawn” and other majestic temples (“wats”) were insightful, as they create the link to its past, its religions, and its politics.
Our tour of Vietnam stood in stark contrast to my recently deceased brother’s Vietnam “tour” as a US Marine in 1968. We learned much about the wonderful people in this country, their perceptions of life before-during-and after our engagement in its wars and politics, and their life now in a time of peace. We learned about French Indo-China and the war for independence. The influence of French culture is evident throughout Saigon and Hanoi with colonial architecture and broad tree-lined boulevards through main streets, as well as in foods, fine arts, and fashions. Still, the Vietnamese culture is unique in its language, foods such as pho, dependence on motor scooters, clothing and conical hats, small shop and street vendors.
Our panoramic tour of Ho Chi Minh City included walks through China Town, flower markets, central markets, old colonial Saigon, past the Notre Dame Cathedral, through the Reunification (Independence) Palace where Saigon fell, and past the CIA building known by the iconic photo of helicopter evacuations as America withdrew. We visited a lacquer factory and the beautiful wares of its artisans. Just outside of Saigon, we toured the famous Cu Chi Tunnels, duck-walking our way through the subterranean passageways to chambers used as secret supply routes, hospitals and living quarters of the Viet Cong.
Scenic cruising along the Mekong included a visit to Sa Dec, formerly the largest port city in the Mekong Delta, and to Tan Chau a border town near Cambodia. By sampan boat we visited “floating markets” at Cai Be Village, took a rickshaw ride through Tan Chau and a boat ride to a floating fish farm and to Vinh Hoa (“Evergreen Island”) where we met with local farmers, artisans, and visited a typical home. All along the Mekong, prominent rice paddies and lush agricultural landscapes were seen as were boats of all designs and villagers fishing. Almost all agricultural products, fish, and other goods are sold from boat to boat in small and in large floating markets.
Hanoi is an amazingly vibrant city with eight million folks blending the old ways with the new. Daily life of city dwellers seemed hectic, as our open-air electric car took us through the Old Quarter, where folks sit on small plastic chairs on sidewalks eating food and socializing, outside of hundreds of very small shops. Motor scooters transport all manner of goods through congested streets, and pedestrians continuously move to avoid being hit. On a guided tour to the Ho Chi Minh Memorial Complex we passed by his mausoleum, the communist party headquarters, the state department, and the congressional building. A solemn visit was made through Hoa Lo Prison, the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” where American POW were held captive. The Museum of Ethnology gave us insight to the astonishing 54 cultures influencing Vietnam. The Temple of Literature, dedicated to the teachings of Confucius, hosts Vietnam’s first national university and its thousand-year-old structures.
Despite their poverty and the history of horrors they experienced under the Khmer Rouge, Cambodians seemed genuinely happy and engaging. Children jubilantly followed us along our walks through small villages. We were welcomed into typical simple village houses built on wooden stilts with bamboo slatted floors, seeing the minimalist amenities. Our guides ensured our exposure to the everyday lifestyles of Cambodians. They enlightened us as to Cambodia’s history, geography, economics, healthcare, education, and politics.
In contrast to Thailand where healthcare is universal, easily accessed, very affordable, and of high quality, Cambodians have no such care. Some vaccines are available, but there is no other preventive care available. Doctors are few and poorly trained. Pharmaceuticals are not readily available or well regulated. Education is not affordable to most. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge had killed all but a few doctors, most educators and all those with ties to government, and everyone else with any education, striving to begin a totally new civilization counting 1975 as year zero. The Cambodians were liberated in 1979 by the Vietnamese, but the struggle to recover has been slow. Fortunately, tourism and peace are now helping Cambodia’s recovery.
In Phnom Penh, we enjoyed a fascinating city tour in individual Tuk-Tuk cyclos. We visited the magnificent Royal Palace Complex where ceremonies occur. The horrors of Cambodian genocide under Pol Pot were revealed at two memorials that were sobering. The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is a former high school where the Khmer Rouge imprisoned over 12,000 Cambodians, torturing them to extract false confessions. The walls are currently lined with faces of many of the prisoners who died there. The cold, dark cells evoke unspeakable feelings of Cambodia’s cold, darkest hours. Those who did not die from the torture were then exported to the Killing Fields of nearby Choeung Ek, which we visited. Bonnie and I were fortunate to visit with Chum Mey, an 88-year-old survivor, one of only 11. His story was quite moving. He survived in part because he was a mechanic whose skills were useful to the regime.
At Amica, we gained intimate exposure to Cambodian village life. We watched folks dry rice on tarps in front of their homes, saw others working in rice fields, and interacted with artisans and weavers at work. In Kampong Trolach we visited Udon Monastery, one of Cambodia’s major Buddhist monasteries. A high priest there blessed us with a shower of jasmine petals during a ceremony in the ornate temple, and we saw nuns, priests, monks, and others going about their routine activities. We visited the Twin Holy Mountains of Phnom Pros and Phnom Srey, learning of the myths, walking around the buildings, guilded Buddhas, and beautiful gardens. At Siem Reap, we enjoyed tours of the Old French Quarter and attended an Apsara Dance performance that recounts classical myths or religious tales and culture back to the Khmer Empire in the 7th century.
Exploring the ancient kingdom of Khmer, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was fascinating. Angor Wat is a 12th century Hindu temple at this famous archaeological site and is a destination dream for most Cambodians. It is one of the largest religious buildings in the world, surrounded by a huge moat. To visit the ancient city of Angkor Thom, we crossed a bridge lined with stone faces. The Bayon is at its center, with 54 towers bearing more than 200 huge, carved stone faces. A remote temple complex known as Banteay Srei had exquisitely detailed carvings in red sandstone reproducing Hindu teachings. At Ta Prohm, an original Buddhist monastery, we walked among ruins partly engulfed by the roots of giant banyan trees.
Our tour of this part of SE Asia was brief, but it gave us great insight to the people who currently inhabit this part of the world, their daily trials, their resilience and dreams, their religiosity, and their ties to the past. The beauty of travel is how it connects and bonds us to other humans despite our differences, and how it shatters myths while blending expectations with reality.