Goodbye Vietnam, Hello Cambodia

May 16th, 2011

My father served primarily in two regions during the war, Dau Tien and Cu Chi. Dau Tien is known for nothing except rubber trees now, but Cu Chi is a major tourist attraction for it’s wartime significance. It is particularly well known for an underground network of tunnels that protected civilians and guerillas from bombing, also making the Vietnamese combatants very difficult to find. The people could do most of what they needed to do underground. There were infirmaries and dining halls, and there were even babies born in the tunnels.

The bus ride from Ho Chi Minh City is a couple of hours, and I got a guided tour with a group. We saw traps that US soldiers could fall into that were full of spikes. There were points where we could enter the tunnels too and crawl through them. I’ve asked before in this blog about what life was like for Vietnamese soldiers during the war, and now I know that it was uncomfortable, dirty, and scary. The tunnels were extremely short, narrow, and generally claustrophobic, not too mention totally dark. Some people from my group refused to go in, just from looking at the entrance. (For tourists, they’ve added some exit points along the tunnels, in case anyone gets sick or panics.) It’s hard to believe that the tunnels were a major part of daily life for people for years. I actually found a way to crawl through them without getting my pants dirty. I was quite proud of myself, though it made my legs sore and had to look ridiculous. I also like to think that I wasn’t the first to discover this way of waddling through the tunnels. There had to be Vietnamese soldiers who, like me, didn’t want to get their pants dirty. My father told me he had to climb into various tunnels and pits to look for guerillas and weapons. It was always very risky, because you could easily get shot upon entering.

Entering the Cu Chi Tunnels

Oddly, there is a firing range as part of the Cu Chi tourist attraction, where people pay to fire pistols, machine guns, etc. I opted out of using the weaponry, and had some ice cream instead. I will say though, that the sound of guns added to the atmosphere. It’s probably a little bit how it sounded during the war.

My father was wounded at Cu Chi on Feb. 11th, 1968 during the Tet Offensive and earned a Purple Heart. He recovered fully.

May 18th, 2011

I woke up early in the morning to perform for people with disabilities, many of them linked to Agent Orange exposure. There were all types: partially paralyzed, completely paralyzed, kids who, without close supervision, would throw themselves into walls and scream all day, one who habitually banged his head against a steel pipe, etc. I have no idea what people like this are thinking when I play, though some of the one’s with lesser disabilities were very appreciative. I particularly enjoyed watching one guy who was tapping his hands against a table and bopping his head. He seemed kind of like a beatnik with Downes Syndrome, though I’m not sure if that’s his exact disability. Another one struck up some conversation and told me that he dislikes Obama, though he didn’t really explain why.

I’d never really known too much about Agent Orange before. I went to perform for these victims and other disabled people to do a service for them, but I think there is also service in telling all Americans that they need to learn more about Agent Orange and how it’s impact has been multi-generational in Vietnam (and to US vets who were exposed.) Today, we consider ourselves a leader in the fight against weapons of mass destruction, but we are so deluded to think so. We are in the middle of a war in Iraq, the premise of which was to protect the world from the most dangerous kinds of weapons, and to my knowledge, we have done almost nothing to compensate the victims of our own chemical weapons. Not to mention that Iraq didn’t even have WMDs. The Vietnam Veterans Association of America has been a leader in providing services for Agent Orange victims, but the government and the chemical companies have stubbornly refused to help. Even our own soldiers who were affected had to fight and struggle for too small an amount of compensation. I don’t want to turn this blog into a political tirade, but I would still like to add that while the government and the chemical companies might refuse to help, the many tourists who visit Vietnam might want to spend part of one of their days here with victims of Agent Orange, volunteering and learning about them.

In the evening, I had my grand finale parade in Ho Chi Minh City. It started at the Sun Wah tower, went by the Opera House where we picked up a few followers, then on to the Vincom Towers mall, and ended in the 30/4 park by the cathedral. It was quite nice. I was joined by Minh on violin for parts of it, and some people followed us around, and in general a lot of people applauded from their motorbikes and offered thumbs up.

Pausing to chat at Vincom Towers

Minh and Me

Finishing up at the 30/4 Park

I’ve much enjoyed my time in Vietnam and have found it a hospitable place to work, with sympathetic and well-organized collaborators. I also really like the energy here, and feel that in two weeks, I’ve hardly the tip of the iceberg for the potential of the Parade of One project here. So I hope to be back! Tomorrow, I move on to Cambodia.

Onward to Cambodia

May 20th, 2011

Upon my arrival in Phnom Penh last night. I was immediately amused by this vehicle they call a tuk-tuk here. It is a motorbike with a carriage on the back to transport multiple people or cargo. I took one from the airport to my guesthouse, and they are quite fun. It’s like riding a horse and buggy, but with a motorbike instead of a horse.

My guesthouse is called You Khin and it’s connected to a school for kids age 1 through 12 called the Seametry school. It’s quite nice, the kids use the pool here for swimming lessons and the lobby for dance class. Muoy the principal lives on the top floor. I feel very lucky to be staying here. This morning I did a saxophone and clarinet demonstration for the kids, which was very fun. They voted on whether they liked saxophone or clarinet better, and most of them liked saxophone. But when we tested them, by having me play from around the corner so they couldn’t see which one I was playing, I think they struggled to tell which was which. They probably said they liked saxophone better, because it’s so funny looking. I’ll probably be seeing more of these children while I’m here.

In the afternoon, I got a guided tour of Tuol Sleng, which was a prison during the rule of the Khmer Rouge. The KR had completely emptied out the city and sent people to work in the fields, and even burned or destroyed much of the infrastructure. The only remaining things in Phnom Penh were government operations, including the S-21 prison (now called the Tuol Sleng prison museum.) Before the KR, it was a school. It might be worth noting that this is the second former school I’ve visited that became a genocide memorial, the other one being the Murambi Technical School in Rwanda where thousands of people were massacred in 1994. I actually think there is something about the architecture of schools that makes it easy to organize people for virtually any purpose, not just classes. Thus, the killings and torture. (Though at Murambi, the victims actually organized themselves, by taking refuge in the classrooms.)

There is not a lot of rhyme or reason to why people ended up in S-21. Some were members of targeted religious or ethnic groups; others were just victims of Pol Pot’s paranoid methods of staying in power. Even some of his top colleagues were held and killed there. And there are still others who were tortured and killed for seemingly no reason at all, like garment workers with no political aspirations or anything. (Not that any of the discernible reasons are good.) Even many guards and children who worked at S-21 were later tortured and killed there, maybe because they knew too much? What’s for sure is that S-21 was more of a killing center, than a prison. The goal was to torture the inmates into making a confession, so that it would be legal to execute them. The levels of delusion of the KR leaders had to be immense. They knew they were going to kill all the inmates, and they got confessions just to make it seem legal and righteous. (Of course, all the confessions were attained through torture.) Anyhow, it’s not the type of thing anyone is going to succeed at making sense of. That’s just the problem; the KR leadership was only making gestures toward logic and sense. All they really cared about was their own power. Of all the thousands of inmates, only seven survived, and three are still alive today, one of whom sells his book on the premises. At Tuol Sleng, you can see the cells, the torture machines, the skulls of the dead, photos the KR took of the inmates, even dried blood splattered on the ceiling of one room.

The Khmer Rouge lost control of Cambodia in 1979, but continued to occupy pockets near the border with Thailand until 1998. Pol Pot is already dead, but now over ten years after their capture, some of the other top officials are being brought to trial. “Duch,” the man in charge of S-21, was recently sentenced to 35 years in prison. Obviously, not every pawn in the Khmer Rouge killing system will be brought to justice. There are too many, and it would be destructive of the country’s social fabric. Some of the lower ranking KR are useful as witnesses against the “top dogs,” and many of the (then) child soldiers from the KR have been absorbed into the current Cambodian army (which is in some border clashes with Thailand as we speak.)

In the evening, I had a little parade at the riverfront where there is a long pedestrian walkway with street vendors etc. The length of it makes it ideal for a parade. I was followed by small children, who at times tried to touch my horn. At one point, out of the corner of my ear, I heard a drum. I turned and saw a middle-aged blind man with a hand drum who was trying to join in. I walked over and we got some grooves going. It was pretty cool. Unfortunately, he didn’t speak English, and I don’t have a proper assistant here yet, so we were unable to communicate, other than through the music.

My new drummer friend. Just wish we could talk!

May 21, 2011

Today, I payed a visit to the Choeung Ek “Killing Field,” about twenty minutes from Phnom Penh. This is where the prisoners from S-21 were taken to be executed after their torture-induced “confessions.” About 20,000 people were killed here. My tour guide was very knowledgeable, and interested in the fact that I was the grandson of a Holocaust survivor. There is a sort of tower packed with skulls and bones of the victims, and he asked that I take photos to show people, so they can see what happened. He also wanted to know if there was something similar at Holocaust memorials, which there isn’t. (Most of the bodies were cremated by the Nazis, plus Jews rarely stray from strict burial customs.)

The bones of the Khmer Rouge victims

Moving on from the tower of skeletons, I was shown the mass graves, from which they excavated the bones. These graves were discovered by nearby farmers who smelled the decomposing bodies. The Khmer Rouge tried to keep the killings as secret as possible by using blunt objects, instead of bullets, and blasting loud music to cover the screams. There are still clothes and bone fragments, coming to the surface of the ground, after the rains, and my tour guide pointed them out, a piece of a hip-bone there and jaw over here. This stuff was all over the place, and he’d become quite good at identifying them. The keepers of the memorial regularly collect these bones and clothes as they come to the surface. We had to watch out about stepping on them.

The Khmer Rouge used music for evil

In the evening, I spent some more time “marching” along the riverfront. At one point, I got rushed by a handful of street kids. I think one of the younger ones wasn’t wearing pants. They were basically doing the kid thing, trying to stick their ears into the bell of the horn, etc. Later on as I was walking and playing, one gentleman strolled by and had the gumption to poke me in the belly as he passed. Of course, my reflex was to giggle (while playing,) then I turned around and saw him, also giggling with this smug grin, like he’d pulled a good one. He kind of had. That’s one thing that no one has done to me before yet. It really was quite funny. I also stopped by a group of high school students who I noticed were being very attentive, and I showed and explained what circular breathing is. It took a few moments, but they understood that I wasn’t really not breathing, but using a technique where you can inhale and blow at the same time. This was my second evening playing at the riverfront, and I am starting to see some patterns emerging. One is that a male father or grandfather, carrying a small child, follows me for a while pointing and trying to focus the child’s attention on me. There was an instance tonight in which this actually completely distracted the child from whatever he was crying about. I’ll be trying out some different places soon, but I’m sure I’ll be back at the riverfront. I also need to focus on finding a proper Khmer-speaking assistant who can also take some photos of this stuff!


5 thoughts on “Goodbye Vietnam, Hello Cambodia

  1. Hi Jeremy,
    Fantastic blog! You and your drummer were able to communicate without words through music. That’s what it’s all about. Very informative.
    See you soon.

  2. You’re doing a great job connecting with a lot of people in a short time. I hope you get to play at Ankor Wat.

  3. Hi, Jeremy.

    This looks fantastic! Safe travels on the rest of your Southeast Asian journey.



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