Looking back – history ancient, and recent

As I consider the options for this year’s journey, I revisit the memories of the year prior. What were my goals?  Did I attain them?  What goals are at the head of this year’s list?

Last year, the priorities were these:
1. See whether I can travel solo and independently.
2. Get a feel for the four countries in mainland SEA (Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam); find a sense of how they are similar and how they are distinct.
3. Visit, with some thoroughness, the famed Angkor (before the stiffing heat of March)
4. Debride the scars left on my generation by the war in Vietnam.

In the backward glances, I see that these priorities guided me well.

1. See whether I can travel solo and independently.

Yes, definitely.  This sort of independent travel suits me well.

2. Get a feel for the four countries in mainland SEA (Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam); find a sense of how they are similar and how they are distinct.

Spending a couple of weeks in each country was the perfect way to begin to understand mainland SEA.  Same same but different.  This common catch phrase makes real sense now.

3. Visit, with some thoroughness, the famed Angkor (before the stiffing heat of March)

Angkor, oh yes!  Six nights in the nearby town of Siem Reap, a day and a half spent in Angkor by tuk tuk, and two and a half days by bicycle.  The crowds melt away when you anticipate where the tours will be and organize yourself to simply avoid their schedules.

4. Debride the scars left on my generation by the war in Vietnam

This was a major priority.  All throughout Vietnam I talked with the Vietnamese about their feelings and their memories of the war (known locally as the American War).  From Dien Ben Phu, to Sapa in the northwestern mountains, to Hanoi.  In the central part of the country, the DMZ, Hue.  And in the south – Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), with its War Remnants Museum, and street beggars who are as likely as anything to wear the tragic damage of napalm and Agent Orange.

These three regions had markedly different experiences and the feelings of the people in each of these distinct regions are quite different now as well.  In the north the party line is espoused with good cheer.  The young people do not seem to carry the pain in their hearts.  In the south it is not so.  There is more resentment toward Americans as well as toward the north Vietnamese, and the thirty year olds never forget their parents’ loss and pain.

But most searing was the central region of the country.  It is here that people were used as pawns for both sides.  Their land was decimated, their families ripped apart.  In the daytime the South Vietnamese came into the villages.  In the night, they were forced to feed the Viet Cong.  Under their beds and their tables they were forced to dig tunnels so the VC could hide.  Both sides demanded loyalty.  They had no choice but to pretend it, as survival demanded it.  When either side suspected them of harboring the other, they were murdered.

Some of the Vietnamese I met from the central region had fled to the US after the war.  One couple was returning to Hue for the first time since leaving.

Funny how in Vietnam they call this the American War, yet once there, it makes perfect sense.  Before this there was the French occupation.  And for a few hundred years before that, the Chinese incursions.

Southeast Asia shows evidence of centuries of powerful and warring kingdoms: the Cham and the Lanna, the Kymer, the Siamese, the Burmese, the Chinese, the Vietnamese.  Stunning ruins of these civilizations dot the countryside throughout the region.  All this was new to me last year.  Slowly as I visited a variety of ancient sites, the history began to build into a structure in my head.

So what is my goal this year?  I think most of all, I come to it with more understanding of the dynamics which have shaped the region.  Gathering the history, the religions, the cultures into a more coherent sense; that is my goal.  Building on what I so gradually began to understand last year.

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One Response to Looking back – history ancient, and recent

  1. Brodie says:

    I had to spend some time on Wikipedia to find out what Angkor was. Fascinating. I found a web site World Heritage Convention listing the World Heritage sites. So much to learn! Oh I just learned that Siem Reap is a province (thought it might be a city). This is so much fun even though I won’t be traveling there, at least any time soon. Thanks for opening up my world, Christie!

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