Cambodia and Vietnam
A MURKY river cluttered with litter marks the official border between Thailand and Cambodia and the boundary between modern Asia and the third world.
The contrast between the gigantic, choking sprawl of the Thai capital Bangkok and the scattered wooden huts on stilts that dot the Cambodian countryside less than 100 miles away could not be more stark.
Cambodia is a lush green country that often seems to be empty of people – you can drive for miles without seeing anyone or any sign of human habitation, except for the occasional stooped body of someone working in a flooded rice field.
The main roads are often dirt tracks which become rivers of mud after a torrential downpour, making car and bus journeys an excruciatingly uncomfortable experience.
A journey of a hundred miles can take an entire bone-juddering day, but travel by road does have its charms with intermittent stops to cross a river or lake on a makeshift ferry made from oil barrels and planks of wood lashed together.
The Cambodian government opened the country’s borders in 1998 in a bid to tap into the massive tourist trade in neighbouring Thailand, with the spectacular ruins of Angkor as the bait.
For centuries the temples at Angkor, which date from between 900 and 1300 AD, had been reclaimed by the jungle and were only rediscovered in the 19th century and the foliage cut back.
Angkor Wat is justifiably the most famous structure, but the much older Bayon with thousands of stone carved faces is also worth clambering over, while Ta Phrom which is still surrounded by jungle has a ‘just-discovered’ feel to it.
The Cambodian capital Phnom Penh is not the most endearing place in the world, and although the royal palace and Bhuddhist temple in the city centre are spectacular, memories of the country’s recent violent past haunt the streets.
An estimated two million people were murdered during the rule of Pol Pott and the Khmer Rouge during the late 1970s and the violence continued during the following decades.
In Phnom Pehn itself you can visit S21, a former school converted by the Khmer Rouge into a prison and interrogation camp. It is distressing to wander through room after room where manacles and clubs have been left lying and sinister stains blot the walls.
Standing inside one of the closet-like cell and pulling the door over and listening to the nonstop chirp of geckos beyond the barred windows can only hint at the dark terror of the thousands who were brought here, interrogated, hung on the gallows outside or ultimately taken to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek to be slaughtered.
Choeung Ek is about 10 miles outside of Phnom Pehn, and an estimated 17,000 people were brought there from S21 to be butchered by gun and knife or simply bludgeoned to death and buried in mass graves.
Many of the graves have been exhumed and the evidence of brutality put on display in a glass tower which contains thousands of human skulls recovered from the site, arranged by sex and age.
In a way the rows upon row of numbered shelves numbs the shock of what you are seeing… it is much more difficult to stare at the vacant eye sockets of a single cracked skull in a tray labelled “females 16 to 20″ and try to picture the terror of the girl who was brought here to be murdered.
Walking round the site it is even harder to come to terms with the scattered bits of bone and fragments of clothing that still lie in occasional clusters beside the excavated pits where the bodies were buried.
Boat travel is a much more comfortable option in Cambodia than road travel and there are daily sailings from Phnom Penh along the Mekong River to land across the border at a market village called Chau Doc in Vietnam.
The bright coloured clothing of the Vietnamese and their pointed straw hats are the first things that strike you after the dark military style dress of many Cambodians.
Chau Doc is a vibrant market town surrounded by rice fields, while the nearby Mekong Delta also provides a livelihood and many people still live
and work on floating villages.
The roads in Vietnam may be surfaced but my journey on a minibus to Saigon was one of the most terrifying things I have ever experienced.
The favoured means of transport in Vietnam is motorbike or moped and these weave in and out between one another, while the buses, cars and lorries honk incessantly and drive straight towards each other.
The streets of Saigon (officially known as Ho Chi Mihn City) are a seething mass of bikes, and crossing the road is an act of faith where you have to edge out on the road and shuffle across while traffic zig-zags around you.
About 30 miles outside of the city you can crawl through the Chu Chi tunnels were the Viet Cong operated – literally under the feet of US forces and carried out covert operations. Saigon was the capital of South Vietnam until April 1976 when the communist Viet Cong finally entered the city and US troops left.
The War Museum charts the bitter Vietnamese war in pictures and some very disturbing artifacts.
The use of gases and sprays to defoliate areas of jungle occupied by the Viet Cong caused widespread death and horrific mutilation to humans, and many exhibits in the museum provide graphic testimony to this.