Changing landscapes... Cambodia & Vietnam
Alan and Fiona Brener recently re-visited Cambodia and Vietnam after a long gap. Here they share with us some of the differences and highlights.
There was no helicopter firing flares this time to attract heat seeking missiles as our plane landed at Phnom Penh.
Nevertheless, it was with some trepidation that Fiona and I and our son, David, set foot on the tarmac. Last time we had been met by a line of soldiers and escorted to the tin shed that masqueraded as the airport terminal. That had been back in 1989 just as the civil war to oust the remnants of the Pol Pot regime ended and Vietnamese troops had left. Fiona and I, all those years ago, had been the only westerners in the country other than a couple of UN officers from Canada and France who had arrived at the same time to monitor the ceasefire.
There were no direct flights and we had had to travel to Laos to enter Cambodia, but that is another country and another story. Back then we had flown to Siem Reap on a day trip to see the temples of Angkor Wat. We could not stay the night since the only hotel was a burnt out shell. With an armed guard, we walked through the deserted temple complex, staying on the paths to avoid the still active land mines.
The people of Phnom Penh had suffered dreadfully under the Khmer Rouge regime and the wounds in 1989 were still raw and visible in the city with the population much reduced in number following the genocide of those terrible years. How everything has changed. The city is now gleaming with new developments and excellent hotels and restaurants. Every other car seems to be a brand new SUV. And again in Siem Reap we marvelled at the number of tourists both from south-east Asia and beyond who streamed to a variety of awe inspiring sites across a huge expanse of forest. I would recommend that you get there as early as possible in the morning – dawn is best - to avoid the crowds.
Even later on you need only walk a few yards away and you will find yourselves alone. The mines have all been cleared and the forest is safe. There are, however, many mine victims who make ornaments to be sold in the hotels or who have formed traditional bands, which play in some of the temple areas.
We also took the opportunity on our recent trip to return to Vietnam. We were last there in 1995. We revisited Hanoi and Hue; a couple of our favourite cities in Asia. Here, the changes were less marked and the mass of moped and scooter traffic is a sight and an experience. We walked across the Red river rail bridge designed and built by Eiffel at the end of the 19th century and bought some bananas from a trader on the bridge. I highly recommend that anyone visiting this part of the world read Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and Marguerite Duras’ The Lovers. It is not difficult to envisage a time not that long ago especially staying in the wonderful art deco colonial hotels that have been superbly restored in both cities.
We spent some time at Halong Bay, which, aside from the spectacle of the limestone islands, was fascinating, since on Christmas Eve the restaurants were full of Vietnamese having Christmas dinners with all the trimmings and Christmas markets, carols and snow made by bubble blowers! All in all an amazing trip which we highly recommend to the discerning traveller.