As a boarded my plane with more luggage and less credit cards than I left with, having bid goodbye to my friends as they made their way to northern Vietnam, I was filled with a lot of thoughts and emotions. Happy to see my family, sad to see my adventure come to an end, excitement and anxiety as my job’s start date approaches, there’s a lot to feel and think about. I learned a lot about myself this trip, and I learned a lot about perspective. It’s amazing how some people can have so little and have so much happen I them and yet they still have their Cambodian smile, their Thai laugh, their Malaysian generosity, and their Indonesian sense of unity with the world. It means understanding that one cannot feel anger when getting bit by a shark, because in the water you’re in their world. Understanding that the acceptance and tolerance of all cultures results in a melting pot of unbeatable cuisine. Understanding that because something isn’t human doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve your humanity. Understanding that your past doesn’t define your present. And understanding that you have to take life with a grain of salt. Hopefully when I come home I’ll take the words of the tuk tuk drivers, the monks, the scuba instructors, the backpackers and everyone in between with me and with that I’ll move closer to the person I hope to be. Looking forward to seeing you, America. Yours truly, Brooke.
Our hostel in HCMC is like all most buildings in Vietnam, a tall skinny place, barely ten feet across and seven stories tall. In the basement we graves breakfast (eggs, a roll, and tea) before venturing out into the city. Buying tickets to a tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels, we were excited to see a different perspective of a war we’ve learned about and see what the Vietnam war was like for the Viet Cong. Starting the tour, our group sat through a propaganda video from the early years of the war. Immediately it was very clear how different the perspective of war is for Americans vs Vietnamese. In America, our heroes receive the “Medal of Honor” or the “Purple Heart”. However, in Vietnam the VC would earn the “American Killer Medal”. As awkward as that and a few other slanderous terms thrown around were, it didn’t prepare us for how incredibly rude and insensitive and delusional our tour guide would be. He made jokes about dead soldiers and how “Vietnam won after America surrendered” the war. WHAT?! Clearly this guy has no idea that Vietnam was fighting ITSELF and America AMONG OTHER COUNTRIES were helping the non communist side because DUH communism is stupid. Among horrific jokes made about hunting Americans, my friends and I were livid, especially knowing that the guide knew we were American. It was at this point that I decided that I will never visit Vietnam again. I was so disappointed that their people held such intense anti-American sentiments and that they were so rude and lacked so much respect for the fact that BOTH countries should have moved on by now. Frustrated we went explored the city with bitter hearts and ended our night at a club called Apocalypse Now. Filled with prostitutes and white men attempting to hire them, I decided Vietnam was not for me and went to bed.
After a quick breakfast on the river, we grabbed a tuk tuk and headed to the killing fields of Cambodia. It was in this place that over 3 million people were killed en mass from 1975-1979 during the Pol Pot Regime. Now a memorial for the lives lost during that dark period of Cambodia’s history, visiting was touching and horrifying at the same time. At these mass graves, bones and rags from the bodies of victims still slowly emerge from the ground as rainy seasons erode away the soil covering the mass graves and as roots grow through, dragging remnants to the surface. Learning about the brutality a government could inflict upon it’s own people made me so grateful to live in the country I do with the liberties that I have from birth. No country is perfect, but we are so much better off than other places in the world. After a heavy morning of site-seeing we hopped on a bus headed to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. After another seven hour bus ride, we made it through the border and walked about the city, eating at various locations, eventually stumbling upon a massage place where I got my first hot stone massage. Relaxed and tired we made it to bed and passed out.
We packed our bags and had a farewell breakfast at a beautiful place overlooking the river, Sister Srey Cafe, before hopping aboard our van headed towards Phnom Pen, Cambodia’s capital city. After seven hours of travel, we arrived only to drop our things and explore the city as thoroughly as possible in the little time we had.
Waking up slow, we got breakfast at our guesthouse before hopping in our tuk tuk to head back to the temples. First we started with Ta Prohm, otherwise known as the Tomb Raider temple as that was where it was filmed. It was really cool to see how nature always wins - people attempted and still attempt to control and dominate nature, but in the end, the trees grow out of the ruins and roots uplift walkways and what man once made always drift back into the natural world. After Ta Prohm, we made our way to Sra Sarada****, the royal bathing ponds. Massive, big enough to sail boats, the engraved steps lead into the water, flanked by statues of winged creatures of different shapes and sizes. After grabbing some dinner we climbed “The Hill” and ate on the steps of the temple, watching the sun set. Another evening of exploring Siem Reap, we decided our day was complete.
Waking up so early it was nearly unbearable we hopped on our tuk tuk and made our way up to the temples of Angkor Wat. Watching the sun slowly rise over the wings of the grand temple I’d learned so much about was nearly the academic equivalent to a religious experience. After breakfast on the grounds, we wandered the stone halls and spires and I reveled in getting to touch something I had wanted to visit for over 6 years. After a massage, dinner, and exploring the city we happily slept like babies.
Train, tuk tuk, bus, tuk tuk, van, tuk tuk and 26 hours later we made it to our Guesthouse in Siam Reap, Cambodia. A lively little city with a beautiful canal running through it, I very quickly fell in love. After ditching our bags, we went out to pub street (the main drag) to grab some dinner. Bellies full of good and bags full of gifts for friends and family, we called it a night.