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Just Back: Cambodia and Vietnam

In what may be the most grievous packing oversight of all time, I believe I left half of my brain on the other side of the International Date Line.

It’s the only rational explanation for why, since I returned to my regularly-scheduled time zone more than a week ago, I haven’t been able to think clearly, or put together a coherent (or correctly spelled) sentence on the first attempt; and why thoughts of motorbikes and vermicelli noodles keep popping into my head at frequent, inconvenient moments.

I’m also pretty sure I lost part of my gluteus maximus on the final 12-hour flight.

But apart from that, my trip to Southeast Asia was nothing short of extraordinary.

I don’t think I’ve ever been on a trip where almost every single thing we encountered was completely new and different. If you’re familiar with the odd-but-exhilarating sensation of arriving in a city that looks unlike anywhere you’ve been before, multiply that endorphin rush times a hundred, and that’s what a First Visit to Asia feels like.

Since I’ve never been much of a diarist, I won’t attempt to give you a day-by-day recounting of the full two weeks. Instead, here are a few snapshots and notable moments from my travels. You’ll definitely hear more about these adventures in the future, including next week, when I’ll touch on philanthropy in Cambodia.

  • A river cruise is an excellent way to see this part of Southeast Asia; it gives you access to small, rural towns that would be otherwise difficult to reach, and in particular, it allows you to explore Cambodia’s remarkable floating villages, communities that build their lives along the river and literally rise and fall with the water. A river also provides a capsule view of a country’s economic development. In Cambodia, the riverbanks were largely undeveloped, except for those floating villages, and were dotted with Buddhist temples. The moment we crossed into Vietnam, the river filled with commercial vessels and the banks became crowded with industrial buildings.

  • Although the namesake temple Angkor Wat, outside Siem Reap, Cambodia, is impressive for its sheer size and its intricate stone carvings, the temples I found most inspiring were the ones that have started to succumb to nature. There is something otherworldly and magical about the mingling of ancient, manmade stonework with trees and roots and vines. The temple at Ta Prohm is best known for this (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was filmed here), but I found the lesser-known Beng Mealea equally mesmerizing. Beng Mealea sits in the jungle an hour from the rest of the Angkor temples, and as recently as five years ago, the area was still littered with landmines and off-limits for tourists. Now, you can safely wander among the moss-covered stones and collapsing walls and feel a bit like a tomb raider yourself.

  • I liked Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon, if you don’t mind) more than I expected to. At its heart it’s a modern, gleaming city, albeit one that is swarming with millions of motorbikes (I believe Saigon’s traffic is the technical definition of “ordered chaos”). On its edges, it retains the flavor of traditional Asia. Including actual flavor: one of the best meals we had (a bowl of vermicelli noodles, fried spring rolls, and sausages) was at a tiny counter in the jam-packed, sensory-overloaded Chinese Market.

  • I’ve never had so much fun on public transportation. First there were tuk-tuks (open-sided “carriages” pulled by motorbikes) in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh; then a trishaw (an open seat on two wheels, pulled by a bicycle) in a small Cambodian village; and finally a “cyclo” (an open seat pushed by a bicycle) in Saigon. (Only the oxcart, for its slowness and cramped quarters, left something to be desired.) The tuk-tuk was the most exhilarating, because you zoom along at the same speed as the cars and motorbikes, with the benefit of a breeze and the helpful illusion that you’re somehow protected from the traffic by your little carriage. Not that we ever really feared for our safety: it was just too much fun to worry about. As we were being pushed in our bicycle “chariots” through the insane Saigon traffic, forcing motorbikes and cars and even buses to make way for us, a tiny part of my brain was protesting, “This is surely not a good idea!,” but the rest of it just thought, “Weeeeeee!”

  • Meaningful moments can come from unexpected sources. Outside of Saigon, we visited the Cu Chi tunnels, which were used by the Viet Cong during (as they call it) “the aggression war against Vietnam.” One of the gimmicks they promote at the site is the opportunity to fire actual Vietnam-era machine guns. I thought it was a silly ploy to make money, and all of us women rolled our eyes and moved on, while the men eagerly queued up. But before we could leave the area, someone fired a gun. And then another, and another. The shots shattered the peace of the quiet jungle and suddenly it was impossible not to imagine what it would have been like to be surrounded by hundreds of those guns firing simultaneously. Their “gimmick” made the war feel more real than any exhibit in a museum ever could.

All the ancient ruins and adventures aside, our travels would not have been nearly so pleasant were it not for the delightful Cambodian and Vietnamese people. Part of the fun of riding our alternative modes of transportation was all the people who smiled and waved at us as we passed, the children calling out “Hello! Hello!” I think I may start waving at the tour buses going by in Washington. It really is so much friendlier that way.

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