TBS Crew - August 31, 2017

Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam: When the people are the true wealth of a place

Normally, when I come back from a trip I try to think of one word that encapsulates the experience I just lived and the places I have seen. I had been dreaming about this trip to Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam for so long that even before I left home, I’d already come up with a word (actually, two): friends, and backpacking. But reality never corresponds to pre-departure expectations, and it always turns out that the words you thought would describe your trip do not describe it appropriately.

First step: Bangkok. We land into the capital of Thailand at 2 pm, right on time for a few hours of relax in the hotel and getting ready for the evening. As real tourists and sort of cliché aficionados, we treat ourselves to a drink at Sirocco, the skybar famous for its breath-taking location on the 63rd floor of the Lebua Hotel, but even more famous for being the location of some scenes of The Hangover Part II. And you do feel on the set of a movie there – one with a wonderful setting. Tall skyscrapers with their lights and two large rivers: the Chao Phraya (the actual river) and the car lights on the street (a golden river of light); Bangkok’s special welcome to us. The following day, we start exploring the most popular spots in the city: Wat Phra Kaew; the Grand Palace with the sunlight reflecting on its golden walls, creating a magical atmosphere; Wat Pho and the famous Reclining Buddha. Our last day in Bangkok is dedicated to exploring its neighbourhoods and the population of the city: Chinatown and its goldsmiths and street food during the day, Khao San Road in the evening, where the party mood wins us over. At the end of this first stop, I think my word for Bangkok is CONTRAST: as in the contrast between the magnificent temples and the noisy, crowded neighbourhoods, with rivers of people moving through what seem to be very narrow spaces.

We head towards Vietnam: a short flight and we are in Hanoi. We book a tour with the guys at “Ciao Vietnam”, an association of Vietnamese students of Italian who offer free tours in exchange for an opportunity to practice the language. Over one day, they show us the wonders of Hanoi, from the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum at the Temple of Literature, while in the evening, they take us on a food tour of the city. In the Old Quarter, we order Buncha (a typical Vietnamese noodle soup – and Barack Obama’s favorite dish!) and fresh rolls, after which we head over to a historical café in the Old Quarter (which has stayed exactly the same for the past 40 years) for a typical egg coffee. After this first day, I already know what my words for Vietnam are: MOTORBIKES and SOBRIETY; the reasons for the first one are easy to explain: out of the average 10 million people living in Vietnamese big cities, 9 million own a motorbike. Walking through the city requires courage, you need to be quick and resolute. My second word is inspired by the people of Vietnam: only recently getting accustomed to tourism, but so welcoming, and calmly and kindly so; people who take great pride in their history.
The following day, thanks to the good weather which you can’t take for granted this time of the year, we board a 2-day cruise in the Halong Bay. Here, we discover a different Vietnam, dominated by the sea and uncontaminated nature. After the cruise, Ho Chi Minh City (old Saigon) is waiting for us. After the war, the city was entirely rebuilt and now it’s almost all made up of tall, modern buildings. We set out for a DIY tour of the city on foot including all the iconic landmarks of the city, including City Hall, the central post office, Notre-Dame cathedral, and Reunification Palace. Hunting for even more authentic spots, we follow a taxi driver’s suggestion and visit the old street of artisan craftsmanship by the Ben Thahn market, where we buy a few (real or fake, we have no way to know) antiques from the Vietnam War. Our next stop is the Củ Chi Tunnel, about 20 miles from Saigon, one of the districts that suffered the worst destruction from the bombing and poisoning during the war. Củ Chi has the largest network of tunnels excavated by the Viet Cong: during the war, they constituted a city in itself, with kitchens, dormitories, and meeting rooms. Parts of these tunnels can now be explored by brave tourists, and we of course accept the challenge. It’s not easy, and while we walk bending over in the darkness, we try to think what this place must have been like before the tunnels were enlarged to facilitate tourist visits.

The following day, we board a flight to Cambodia. The humidity and heat are a constant presence here, too, but the thick vegetation and the city, which has a lot less traffic, make air easier to breath and the torrid heat easier to bear. Our first stop in the country is Angkor, Cambodia’s most important archeological site and one of the most important on the planet. The area is home to hundreds of Hindu and Buddhist temples, 80 of which are the main temples and of many other only some remains can be found. I was never particularly into archeological sites, but this is different: s soon as I step into the area in my sarong, I can definitely feel the captivating magnificence of this place and its timeless spirituality. These ruins tell a story about the present and the past. The following days and temples keep giving the same emotional gift. The following day we leave at dawn to visit Angkor Wat, the most important temple of the area and the symbol of Cambodia. It’s hard waking up at 4.30 am but we feel very smart and privileged. Who would ever wake up at that ungodly hour on vacation to see the sun rise over a Cambodian temple? Well, apparently almost all the tourists in the region! I had envisioned a sort of “private show”, and I find myself walking in the dark on a floating bridge together with hundreds of other people towards the grass around the temple, a sort of Woodstock Coachella mixed experience. After this, we explore other wonderful temples: Ta Phrom and Ta Som, the former famous for hosting the set of the Tomb Rider movie (Angelina Jolie is sort of a national symbol and there’s a cocktail with her name), the latter less famous but just as beautiful.

The final days we dedicate to getting to know this city and its people better; we go to Kulen Mountain for an authentic Cambodian religious experience. Kulen is a green national park that doesn’t get much western tourism, with wonderful waterfalls where we stop to bathe in the water and take some photos. Kulen is, however, also and mainly a place of prayer, one of the most important ones for Cambodians. People come here to pray and find comfort in religion and each other. I think it was here that I found my word for Cambodia and its people, only one word but a strong one: INTEGRATION, for how religious symbols and the roots of the trees co-exist happily, and for how people always smile and help each other, in their awareness that happiness and fortune are a common possession. Those who have the least are the most generous: like Songha, our guide, who offered the tip we gave him to a Buddhist monk and to an elderly man doing roadwork on the path we were walking on, and then bought four animals made with palm leaves from a group of 4- or 5-year old girls. He explains that you should never give money to children, but rather teach them the concepts of work and remuneration. I follow his example and buy two small animals too from a 5-year old who greets me and chats with me in almost-perfect Italian. Her smile makes my heart happy. On the plane back to Milan, I have that melancholic but beautiful feeling that travels always give you at their end. It reminds me of how I feel as I read a book I love: I can’t wait to know how it ends, but I also never want it to end. Today, I keep re-reading the last line of this beautiful book that was my trip, waiting for the (for me and my fellow travelers) much-awaited sequel.

Words and pics by Chiara Magnaghi

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