Exploring the Wonders of Vietnam

January 27, 2006
Poor Phnom Penh

The recent history of Cambodia is among the saddest on Earth. This quiet land up the Mekong was part of French Indochina, an ancient kingdom jerked into the horrors of the modern world by forces greater than its poor and peaceful Buddhist population can ever understand, even today.

To hear a Cambodian talk about the period from 1970 to the present—and we heard several—is to cry for a country that has not yet recovered its balance or its identity after a genocide that killed 2 million people in the years 1975 to 1979, followed by a series of governments that remain beholden to outside forces, especially ascendant Viet Nam.

It is an old, old problem. The current Kingdom of Cambodia (a monarchy that is a curious blend of totalitarianism and tradition) can trace its history to the great Khmer Empire of the 9th to 12th centuries—a civilization that ruled much of present-day Thailand, the Malay Peninsula, Laos, and southern Viet Nam. Looking at a map of Khmer influence at its height is a little like looking at those maps of the Roman Empire found on walls near the Roman Colusseum—they recall a history that, for modern Italy and sad Cambodia, is proud but totally lost.


Although its population is about 4 million, Phnom Penh seems like a much smaller city than Saigon or Hanoi—and much poorer. There are beggars everywhere, from little barefoot children just 3 or 4 years old to badly damaged older men and women who somehow managed to escape the killing fields.

The first stop here was a genocide museum—a former high school that the Khmer Rouge turned into a prison in the late 1970s. Here, they tortured their enemies and "processed" them before shipping them outside the city to be killed. Like the Nazis, they photographed everyone and kept meticulous records of the "confessions" exacted under torture. It was pretty hard to take.

All three of our guides here (one on the bus, one at the art museum, and a third at the Royal Palace) talked guardedly about history and politics. One came right out and said that it is dangerous to talk politics here under the current regime. Another talked rather openly but only after assuring himself that we were in a quiet, private place. He kept glancing over his shoulder. But these Cambodians, who were educated and had good government jobs as guides, clearly wanted to tell their stories. Everyone over 30 in Cambodia has a story about the Pol Pot years—deprivation, murder, dislocation, and a great pall of unknowing that, despite efforts to bring those responsible to trial, remains largely unresolved.


The big question about Cambodia today seems to be the role of the Vietnamese in the present government. Although Cambodians are thankful that the Khmer Rouge nightmare was ended by a Vietnamese "liberation" (you might also hear the word "invasion," depending on the political context) they are loath to question the current authoritarian—and Viet sponsored—regime.

The streets here are wide and beautiful, very tropical, with palm trees everywhere and a lovely promenade along the river. There are actually three rivers here, so there's water everywhere. We had little time, but in addition to the Genocide Museum, we saw the National Museum and the Royal Palace compound. The National Museum is where we saw the map of the Khmer Empire as well as a wealth of great art from the Khmer period, much of it widely removed from the temples up north. The palace buildings, including the Silver Pagoda (so named because its floor tiles are made of silver), with its gold Buddha and royal treasures, are pretty and delicate, following a traditional Cambodian aesthetic. It struck me that this royal compound was nothing like its counterparts in Beijing and Hue—no Forbidden City here. (My camera batteries failed just before this visit, so no pictures just yet. I bought post cards.)

Leaving Phnom Penh on the final leg of the trip—home via Singapore and Frankfurt—was a relief for the 16 travelers who added Cambodia to the Viet Nam trip. We've been on the road for more than 2 weeks, and most of us are very tired. A few are sick. But the rewards have been great, and all of us are grateful for this wonderful opportunity to visit these lands.

I am writing this aboard Singapore Airlines flight, a 12.5 hour hop from the Malacca Strait to Frankfurt, then on to New York from there. We're just west of Astrakhan. I can see lights below, lining the coast of the Black Sea. Later today, I'll write one more post from over the Atlantic later today and send it when we get back.

About This Site

In January 2006, a 40-person contingent of Swarthmoreans is traveling to Vietnam as members of the Alumni College Abroad. The trip, led by Associate Professor of Religion Steven Hopkins, will focus on the history, religion, and the vibrant culture of contemporary Vietnam. A smaller contingent will accompany Hopkins to Cambodia, including a tour of the famous temples of Angkor Wat.

Jeffrey Lott, editor of the Swarthmore College Bulletin, has joined the trip to write about it for the magazine. This site is a series of reports filed by Jeff from Vietnam and Cambodia during the trip. Your responses are invited.

Vietnam 2006 Itinerary

List of Travelers

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Blog Entries

Leaving Tomorrow: Jan 9, 2006
From 35,000 feet: Jan 11, 2006
Ho Chi Minh City: Jan 12, 2006
Museums of Vietnam: Jan 14, 2006
Temples and Tunnels: Jan 16, 2006
Stories and a Poem: Jan 17, 2006
Skipping School: Jan 18, 2006
Dateline Hanoi: Jan 19, 2006
Three Days in Hanoi: Jan 20, 2006
Winding Down: Jan 26, 2006
Poor Phnom Penh: Jan 27, 2006
Chuc Mung Nam Moi: Jan 29, 2006