By Watt Miller
Editor’s Note: We are happy to present an exciting series of six stories of two Johnson City natives who traveled to Southeast Asia this past January returning safe and healthy before the pandemic struck. Each week make the journey with them through four countries and off the beaten path as Watt researches Asian customs and history for his next novel.
Flying into Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, the first time visitor, as Duke Hall and I were, is greeted with the unexpected. From my window seat I saw soaring high-rise buildings and cranes looking like giant praying mantises looming over construction sites heralding the city’s entrance to the 21st century.
When Duke and I left Laos for Cambodia, we didn’t know what to expect. When I was based in Asia as a foreign correspondent in the mid-1970s – late 1980s, Cambodia was ravaged by fallout from the Vietnam War and the infamous Pol Pot and his bloody Khmer Rouge regime.
But I had never set foot in this Indochina country sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam. I was turned down for a visa the few times I applied but no reason was given. However, I suspected it was because of Cambodia’s recent history of political instability and warfare.
This also was Duke’s inaugural visit to Cambodia. He served with the Marines during the Vietnam War but had not traveled anywhere else in Southeast Asia.
I embarked on this journey to Indochina to learn more about the people, customs and history for my next novel set mostly in Laos but also Cambodia and Thailand.
Duke and I were old friends from our early years living in Johnson City. Knowing of his interest in Asia, I asked him to join me. Some friends and family members may have thought it an imprudent undertaking for two aging baby boomers. Be that as it may, we set off with reckless abandon fully aware this would be an adventure of a lifetime.
The flight on Vietnam Airlines from the Lao capital Vientiane to Phnom Penh was a quick 40 minutes. I doubt Duke ever imagined that one day he would be flying the airline of the country where he fought in war 52 years ago to a country that had a significant role in that conflict as did Laos.
Phnom Penh reminded me of Bangkok in many ways: its vast size, swarms of people, nonstop traffic coupled with clouds of diesel exhaust, deafening noise, pungent river odor mixed with aromatic street food flavors such as grilled fish, chicken and beef. And walk down any side street and you’re overwhelmed by countless bars, honky-tonks and eateries both large and hole-in-the wall.
Our hotel, the Amanjaya Pancam, was smack-dab in the middle of the cornucopia of this fascinating capital that rose from the ashes of war like the legendary phoenix. Our spacious room had a balcony providing clear view of the Tonle Sap River and the numerous cruise boats, fishing vessels and cargo barges. An easy stroll down the riverfront brought us to where the Tonle Sap River empties into the Mekong.
Just around the corner from our hotel was the Wat Ounalom, headquarters of Cambodian Buddhism which was founded in 1443. A little bit further down the street is the National Museum of Cambodia.
But what really grabbed our attentions was the pulsating activity along the riverfront day and night. Families with young children, couples, friends and singles strolled back and forth all hours of the day. Some used the basic exercise equipment, others sat on benches chatting, eating or playing cards.
A popular activity was sunset cruises on river boats decked out in multicolored lights looking like Christmas trees. Some offered drinks and food.
One evening we headed out looking for a place to eat. Taking a left down a side street we encountered bars with names like Angry Bird, Butterfly, Oscar, Tiger and Do Do Bar. We had our choice of food selections, ranging from pizza, burgers and fries and Cambodian street food like fried ants, frog legs, eels and octopus.
On another early evening we set out in search of one of the grand dames of Asian hotels, Raffles Hotel Le Royal which opened its doors in 1929 and scion of the famed Raffles Hotel Singapore which welcomed its first guest in 1887. With its cream-colored façade and red-hued ocher roofs, Le Royal harks back to the days of Western colonialism.
However, our main interest was Raffles famed Elephant Bar. This has been the premier watering hole for the famous and ordinary folks like Duke and me since the hotel first opened. The bar advertises the Femme Fatale as its signature cocktail, first served to Jackie Kennedy during her visit to Cambodia in 1967. I can’t attest if it’s worthy of that distinction because Duke and I settled for beer.
The following day we ventured outside Phnom Penh to visit one of the horrible legacies of the Pol Pot regime, the killing field of Choeung Ek. Pol Pot’s reign of terror started when his Khmer Rouge forces captured Phnom Penh in April 1975 after eight years of civil war. His genocidal control lasted nearly four years before he was toppled by Vietnamese forces on January 7, 1979.
Pol Pot fled to the jungle along the border with Thailand where he died in his sleep in 1998, having never faced trial for his crimes against humanity. In fact, for three years beginning in 1979, the United States, China and the United Nations supported Pol Pot’s anti-Vietnamese crusade and his exiled Khmer Rouge as Cambodia’s representative to the U.N.
Choeung Ek was one of many Khmer Rouge extermination camps. Today, this former orchard is a memorial site to the more than 17,000 men, women and children killed and buried herein mass graves during Pol Pot’s reign of terror. The area’s pastoral sitting belies the horror of what happened here is told in a detailed, graphic audio tour.
As we headed back to our hotel, we were lost in our thoughts of what we had seen and learned. Especially haunting was the Memorial Stupa where more than 8,000 skulls, arranged by sex, were visible behind clear glass panels.
We spent the rest of the afternoon along the riverfront opposite our hotel. A gentle breeze was soothing and relaxing as we watched boats sailing up and down the river. After dark we went to the hotel’s rooftop bar and joined young Cambodians enjoying drinks and the bright lights of tourist boats.
The next day I visited one more legacy of Pol Pot’s madness, Security Prison 21. The Khmer Rouge had converted a high school into a torture and death prison. Today, it’s the Tuoi Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crimes. Men, women and children were hauled to the former school and tortured until confessing to crimes they never committed. If they survived, they usually were taken to Choeung Ek and killed.
Fleeing Phnom Penh to escape the invading Vietnamese, the Khmer Rouge failed to destroy voluminous written records and photographs of their torture and murders. When the Vietnamese discovered Tuoi Sleng, the bodies of some victims were still chained to their beds. Officials estimate Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge killed two million Cambodians or 20 percent of the population.
From Phnom Penh we took a 30-minute flight to Siem Reap, the gateway to the remarkable and fascinating ancient temples of Angkor. Our hotel, Steung Siemreap, is located in the old market area and a brief walk to the Siem Reap River.
This is a terrific spot for restaurants, bars, nightclubs, spas and shops. We spent our first evening wandering the streets packed with tourists, Cambodian and foreigners. From a rooftop bar we heard a trio of Lao singers belting out local songs to a lively crowd. One popular activity we noticed involved thrill seekers inserting their feet in a rectangular water trough where small fish could feast on their dead skin. We gave it a pass.
Our main purpose for coming to Siem Reap was to experience the splendor of Angkor Wat and other nearby ancient religious sites. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has drawn countless visitors for centuries. Like the Grand Canyon, the Taj Mahal, the temples and shrines of ancient Kyoto, Angkor Wat requires a personal visit to be fully appreciated. UNESCO says Angkor Wat is “one of the most important archaeological sites in Southeast Asia.”
We hailed a tuk-tuk (motorcycle with hooded carriage) outside our hotel for the 15 minute ride to the entrance of Angkor Wat. This is the main draw to the Angkor Archaeological Park which also includes Angkor Thom, the Bayon Temple and scores of other religious sites. The entire area is an enormous 100,000 acres.
We spent the better part of a day exploring Angkor Wat and its surroundings. In all, we walked 10 miles on a clear, sunny, hot day.
Angkor Wat and the other various temple sites thrived from the ninth to the 15th centuries. Known as the “temple-mountain,” it was constructed as the spiritual home for the Hindu god Vishnu. Beginning towards the end of the 12th century, Angkor Wat transformed from a Hindu center of worship to Theravada Buddhism. Monks in saffron robes continue to live in Angkor Wat today.
By the time we returned to our hotel we were exhausted – and thirsty. After a quick shower, we headed to a nearby café for a cold Angkor beer.
The next day we flew to Bangkok for one night and then on to Hong Kong, the place I called home for five years.