Throughout my trip every seasoned traveler of SE Asia I spoke with insisted Northern Vietnam was one of their favorite spots. They said the scenery was incredible, the people were fantastic, and the hiking was superb. I had seen some breathtaking views in Thailand, Cambodia, and Ha Long Bay so I was excited to see if the hype was real over N Vietnam. One location that came highly recommended was a small town that looks over the Muong Hoa Valley in  the Northwest called Sapa. Situated close to the Chinese border in the Hoàng Liên Son Mountains, this village is a popular starting point for trekking.

Colleen and I decided we wanted to experience an authentic trek with a local guide. The Mountains surrounding Sapa are home to many of Vietnam’s minority groups including the Hmong, Dao, and Tay tribes. Friends in Hanoi recommended doing a trek and home-stay with a certain woman from the Black Hmong tribe. Her name was Mama Mu and she spoke English but could not read or write the language. To set up the trip we had to call her the day before we wanted to visit and she agreed to meet us in the morning at the bus station. From there we would do the trek up to her village in the mountains and spend the night at her home.

I was a big night bus fan during my stay in Vietnam, but the first overnight bus I took was a nightmare. My sleeping pod did not fully decline, I had no Valium, and the space was just too small for me. It was a long trip to Sapa and I arrived exhausted. We met Mama Mu in the town square and she took us for a local breakfast where we met our trekking friends from Holland. I felt a little more sprightly after breakfast but that would all turn when the weather moved in. A dense mist quickly overtook the mountains just before we started our trek around 7:30am. With ponchos on and very little visibility we began our 6hr ascent into the mountains. Our group did about 9miles uphill in the cold mist. There were no stunning views. Moral was low.

(night bus)

We arrived at Mama Mu’s village around 3pm. The home  was exactly what I had expected. It was a true tribal village. The bamboo house sat above the rice terraces on a large plot of farm land. As we approached we were greeted by goats, chickens, pigs, a water buffalo, cats, and about 8 puppies. The interior was extremely simple. The floors were dirt and the cooking fire dominated the center of the main room. There was no furniture aside from the small plastic chairs that circled a small wooden table. The beds were surprisingly comfortable and we were able to get a much needed nap.

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After resting we hung out with Mu’s three young children and her husband. A massive feast was prepared for dinner and we ate around 7pm. The food was insanely good and there was way too much. We washed down the meal with countless shots of homemade rice wine. We learned that Mu and her husband married very young as is customary in the small village, and at 28 she already had 3 children. She learned english by offering trekking tours and homestays (the rest of the family did not speak english). It was inspiring to learn more about this family and their way of life. While it was a very simple way of life, one that many at home would look down upon, the family seemed genuinely happy. They also had plenty of questions about our lives back home. After a few more rice wine shots we went right to sleep and its a good thing we did…

The next morning we were treated to an enormous stack of pancakes and were joined by a pair of Czech hikers. Its a good thing we ate up because there was a LONG day of trekking ahead. Luckily the clouds broke as we began our journey and we finally got a glimpse of the stunning views everyone had raved about.  It was a magnificent decent into the valley below. We stopped off at the local school that Mu’s kids attended and grabbed raw sugar cane to munch on. When we made it to the valley floor, we rested at a massive waterfall before continuing to a few of the larger villages. Then we began the long trek up the other side of the valley walls to Sapa. Not that I’m a huge outdoors-man, but this was easily the most grueling hike I had ever been on. In total we did 12 miles that day, and more than half of those miles were up the steep mountain pass. Our reward was gorgeous views of the terraced valley below.

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We arrived back in Sapa in the early evening, exhausted and filthy. We said our goodbyes to Mu and she left us with a few parting gifts. After a hot shower and a quick rest in a hotel we went out to explore Sapa. The town had the vibe of a ski village. Obviously the region was in the midst of a tourism boom with construction all over, but it still had a very quaint vibe down town. It was filled with cafes, small shops, and little restaurants.

Sapa was one of my favorite experiences in all of SE Asia and certainly had the biggest impact on me. Being able to live and explore with a member of a local villager was a blessing. Our guide was such a strong willed and inspiring woman. Though Momma Mu and her family lived a simple life, they seemed to be comfortable and happy. People in the states may look down at a situation like theirs and think it is no way to live. They would be wrong. This family opened their home to strangers from the other side of the world, welcomed them with food and drink, and spoke to them like friends. Think about that in context to whats happening in our own country.

Back in Hanoi

As I’ve mentioned before, Hanoi was my home-base. I spent a lot of time in this city and managed to see quite a bit. While I could have a post for each of these sites and experiences individually, I think it’ll be easier if I just outline a few of the highlights.

Hanoi Hilton: Not the hotel. It was the tongue-in-cheek name for the notorious Hoa Lo Prison, given by American pilots imprisoned there during the Vietnam war. The prison is much better known in Vietnam as a symbol of national strength and perseverance. It’s easy to remember that America’s war in Vietnam was just part of the greater struggle within the country. Decades before US troops found themselves in the jungles of SE Asia, the people of Vietnam had been struggling for independence. Hoa Lo prison was built by the French in the 19th century and housed thousands of  Vietnamese revolutionaries. The name Hoa Lo can be translated to ‘fiery furnace’ or ‘hell’s hole’ and presumably was not a pleasant place. One of the signature features of the prison, standing as a reminder of its bloody history, is the French guillotine that is displayed in main room. While touring the prison, it was interesting to learn about a war from the oppositions side. History of war is typically written by the victors, and Vietnam portrays the ‘War of American Aggression’ in the way they find appropriate. The line between fact and anti-American propaganda is thin. For foreigners visiting the prison-museum who know nothing of Vietnam, the US would be seen as a nation of war criminals (and I’m not saying this is an incorrect depiction of the US in the 60’s and 70’s). Meanwhile the Vietnamese explain how humanely they treated American prisoners at Hoa Lo during the war. They would play basketball, write letters home, eat Christmas feasts, listen to music and more! I’m not sure John McCain would agree with that version of POW life, but creative license is awarded to the victors.

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Cuisine: The food in Hanoi needs its own paragraph. Its delicious. Some of the more prominent dishes I tried were Pho Ga (spiced noodle soup with chicken), Bun Cha (rice vermicelli soup with pork), Cao Lau (noodles with fresh greens and meat), and plenty of Banh Mi (sandwhiches). For a more exotic dish, I enjoyed steamed chicken feet with a side of rice for lunch on two separate occasions. The feet had an unusual texture and I would not get them a 3rd time.

One of my favorite meals in Hanoi was at a local joint recommended to me by the bartender on the Ha Long Bay cruise. It was made famous by Anthony Bourdain’s ‘Parts Unknown.’ In the most recent season, Bourdain meets with president Obama during his official visit to the country this past spring. The pair ordered the local bun cha with a side of spring rolls and a beer. After the meeting, the establishment changed its name to ‘Bun Cha Obama,’ offering the presidents order as one of their specials. The walls are adorned with photos from the evening. Another fun characteristic of Vietnamese dining was that excellent places to eat are set up on the side walk. The streets of old town are lined with tiny plastic tables and chairs, no more than 12 inches off the ground. We associate this furniture with a child’s set in the States, but its a common setup for local Vietnamese joints. Anyone over 6ft had a more difficult time eating in this setting.

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Other points of interest: Hanoi is a great walking city once you figure out how to cross the busy streets. Old town can be crazy but it has a great energy. The colors and smells mixed with the continuous honking of horns can be invigorating. While the toutes can be nagging, the people are extremely friendly for the most part. You’re sure to get smiles along the streets. The city also has quite a few parks and a beautiful man-made lake. You can find the One Pillar Pagoda in one of the more prominent parks. This is one of the most iconic Buddhist temples in the country. While its appearance is a little underwhelming, it has a long history. It survived 900 years perched atop its lone pillar until the French spitefully burnt it to the ground in traditional colonial fashion during their withdrawal from the country in 1954. Close by is the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum which I did not visit due to the insanely strict rules, and the fact I think its bizarre to display the embalmed body of your former leader in a GIANT memorial. Did not need to see that. Plus you have to silently walk through in lines of two, wearing respectful attire, without crossing your arms or putting your hands in your pockets. Downsides of communist rule I suppose.

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Overall I’d say Hanoi is my favorite of the three capital cities I visited on this trip. Certainly a spot I would return to (and with a full year visa, I might just do that).

Ha Long Bay

There’s an incredible amount of beauty in Vietnam. It’s nearly impossible to see all of it in just 1 month, but Ha Long Bay is a destination that can’t be missed. With Hanoi established as a base camp, it was time to venture to the the sea. There were 2 options for doing Ha Long Bay (actually there are about a million but whatever). The first option is to book a 2 day / 1 night cruise on the bay which typically includes swimming, kayaking, and exploring. You’ll have your own cabin on the cruising boat (‘junk’) and meals are included. The second option is the Castaway’s tour. For the hostel crowd, this is by far the most popular option. People insisted it’s the best time they’ve ever had.  It’s a giant 3day / 2 night party on a private island in the bay. Essentially its spring break on Vietnam. Guess which one I chose…?

Well you’re wrong. It’s sad you think about me that way. I’m an adult. A grown man. I’ve done spring break in Mexico and it was enough ‘spring break’ for a lifetime. My European friends were shocked I chose to forego 3 straight days of inebriated revelry. To be fair their university experiences are vastly different than ours in the States. Luckily my good friend Colleen had also done spring break Mexico 2014 and did not need to repeat it. I don’t think anyone needs a repeat of Puerto Vallarta 2014 to be honest. Anyways, we opted to take a 2day / 1night cruise.

The tour company arranged pretty much everything for us. We were picked up from the hostel in the morning and driven to the harbor at Hai Phong where we caught our ‘Junk’ boat, the Imperial Legend. It didn’t look like much, but it floated and the cabins were actually pretty nice. Plus they had a huge lunch ready for us.


After an hour of cruising we were out in the midst of Ha Long Bay’s beauty. The bay itself consists of more than 1900 limestone islands, topped with mini rain forests. It’s truly one of the natural wonders of the world and has been a UNESCO world heritage since the 90s. The name Ha Long bay translates to descending dragon bay. Our guide Ling attempted to explain the significance of this, but his english translation was slightly vague. It had something to do with dragons being a symbol of protection in Buddhist tradition. The boat meandered between the islands until it dropped anchor in a small inlet. From here we took off to explore in kayaks. It was a beautiful day and the emerald water was absolutely stunning.

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After returning to our boat, we were treated to some spectacular sunset views before dinner.

The dinner consisted of multiple courses of chicken, beef, noodles, rice, seafood and more. It was delicious and by the end we were stuffed. An awkward hour of Karaoke followed dinner. No one was into it. It was borderline painful. My rendition of Hotel California did not get the crowd going despite me sounding EXACTLY like Don Henley. Colleens perfect Abba performance could not win the audience over either. The Chinese tourists on the boat did not only refuse to participate, but they also refused to smile, speak, and possibly blink. The European tourists abandoned us and thankfully karaoke fizzled out. I chatted with the bar man for a while before bed. He gave me some cool spots to check out on my return to Hanoi.

The following day, Ling led a cooking course after breakfast. It lasted 12min and we just wrapped up spring rolls so I’m not sure why he billed it as a cooking class. After a hardy lunch we arrived back to the harbor and were taken back to Hanoi.

The overall experience was fantastic. In Ha Long Bay, beauty is all around you. The limestone cliffs reflect off the emerald waters while the setting sun dances between the small islands. It’s a sight that can truly take your break away. As one of the highlights of Vietnam, its a destination that can’t be missed.

Vietnam: Hanoi arrival / Snake farm

After Cambodia I headed northeast to Vietnam. I took a sketchy prop plane (in true Cambodian fashion) from Sihanoukville to Ho Chi Minh city and then jumped on a jet engine plane to the north. I wanted to start in the capital and spend more time in the North before moving down through the country. I was able to meet up with my friends from Thailand and an old friend from home! Colleen happened to be exploring SE Asia and had crossed into Hanoi from Laos just a day after I did. My friends and I used Hanoi as a base camp while touring the north. Between trips to Ha Long Bay and Sapa I had quite a bit of time in Hanoi. In total, I spent about two weeks jumping in and out of the capital and I ended up loving it. It is right up with Chiang Mai as one of favorite cities in all of SE Asia.

I think what I loved the most about Hanoi was its energy. To be totally honest, it can be a little overwhelming at times. It isn’t for everyone. The traffic can be downright insane. There are over 7million people in the city and about 5million motorbikes. Crossing the street in Hanoi was the most dangerous adventure I had undertaken to date. The crosswalks mean nothing, stoplights (if there are any) mean nothing, there are no traffic cops and there are seemingly no traffic laws / speed limits. It’s the wild west of driving. My mom would love it. After about a week I finally realized that the only way to get across was to put your head down and just walk at a normal steady pace. The cars and motorbikes adjust to your speed and move around you. The WORST thing you can do is hesitate, stop, or speed up. That’s how you end up being hit by a motorbike or van (it happens a lot).

So what was there to love about Hanoi? For one thing, the food was incredible. Everything was made from fresh ingredients. Nothing was processed, nothing was fake. I ate pho, bun cha, bun thang, and plenty of chicken banh my. I also ate my weight in rice noodles. Beyond that, I enjoyed local rice wine, terrible home brewed beer, steamed chicken feet and snake. I suppose my culinary journey through Hanoi began with one of the crazier experiences I’ve had… the snake farm.

While in Pai, Thailand I was walking through the night market with some friends. A street vendor was selling different skewers of meat. One skewer consisted of 7 chicken hearts. I made a pact with a friend that we’d come back the next night, have a few shots of the local poison, and split the hearts. Unfortunately the next night there were no hearts! Chicken hearts were the Wednesday special. We agreed that if we met up again in Vietnam we’d have to eat something crazy. So on my second night in Hanoi we joined the group headed to snake village… for dinner.

About 5 miles north of the city is the village of Le Mat. It is home to more than 100 snake farming households. Our group arrived at one of the more prominent farms / restaurants and explored the many cages of snakes. Most of these are cobras which have been de-fanged and no longer have venom. We are able to touch them and drape them around our necks. The worker also brought out a massive king cobra from a special cage in the back. We were instructed to stay back. I happily complied. The group was then seated around a large table while the staff brought out the large pots of rice wine. Shots were certainly needed to calm the nerves. Next came the 3 large snakes we would be sharing for our meal. They were still alive and slithering. The group gathered around for the infamous ritual, while three brave souls from our group stood forward. What happens next is a little disturbing. The staff cut open the underbelly of the live cobras and one by one the volunteers stepped up to bite the beating heart out of the living snake, washing it down with a shot of rice wine. It was insane and a little disturbing. Next the workers drained the snakes blood and bile into two separate chalices of rice wine. Each member of the group received two shot glasses; one bright red shot of snake blood and one florescent green shot of snake bile. With a chant of ‘Mot, hai, ba!’ the shots were thrown back one after the other. Full disclosure the bile shot tasted horrible. I suppose I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I will not be welcome at PETA meetings moving forward.

After the gruesome cocktails were finished, the 3 snake corpses were taken into the kitchen. When they returned, they had been turned into a 4 course meal. There were grilled snake short-ribs, stir-fried snake with veggies and garlic, snake spring rolls, and snake with rice. For a restaurant that only serves snake, they sure know how to do it right. Everything was delicious! The sauces and the spices were well balanced and everything went down smooth with glasses of rice wine. Snake had an odd texture, somewhere between chicken and fish. It was a delightful dinner and there was plenty of food.

Overall the snake farm was a unique and fun experience. It was something out of the norm and out of my comfort zone.  Snake meat has been a popular cuisine in Vietnam for years and snake is used for pharmaceutical purposes. Its blood is considered to be a powerful aphrodisiac. I’m not sure the science behind all of that, but I do know that my time at Le Mat was a wild introduction to Vietnam!

Koh Rong Samloem

Phnom Penh had taken quite a bit out of me. It was emotional, morally confusing, and uncomfortably hot. There was so much to digest. I decided the best thing for myself was to make my way to the beach. Lucky for me the Cambodian islands are little known gems. Koh Rong and its smaller neighbor Koh Rong Samloem are less traveled than the Thai islands but still contain similar beauty. I opted for Koh Rong Samloem as it was the more secluded of the two. It had no cell service, no wifi, no problems. It sounded perfect.

The only issue I had was getting there. Per usual, Cambodian transportation was not ideal. I played it safe; knew the last boat to the island from Sihanoukville was at 3pm, knew it was a 3-4hr ride from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, took the 8am bus. I should have gotten to Sihanoukville between noon and 1pm. I planned to roam around, maybe pick up a new pair of swim trunks. Unfortunately, this was not to be.

About half way through my mini-bus ride, we pulled over. I was sitting in the very back (which I hate) and the driver went around to check out the engine which also happened to be in the back. It seemed as though nothing was wrong. When he started the bus again, a large plume of white smoke erupted from the engine. It seemed as though something was DEFINITELY wrong. He stopped the engine for a moment, started it again, and began to drive. Things were not good. Considering that if the engine burst into flames I would be roasting above them, I was alarmed. As he continued to literally steam along, the smoke got worse. It turned darker and seemed to get heavier. After about 2min of this, I led a mutiny from the rear. My band of back seat riders would not resign ourselves to this fiery fate. Basically we just yelled at the guy along with the rest of the bus until he pulled over again. Through a translation we found out he was upset we wouldn’t let him make it the final 5km to the rest stop. We apologized for not wanting to burn to death. He said ‘just smoke, no fire’. Apparently the old adage ‘where there’s smoke there is fire’ has yet to reach Cambodia.

A former UN employee from the UK owned the rest area and came with his pickup to ferry us to the stop. Once there, we waited another 3hour for our replacement bus. We had all lost hope of getting on the 3pm boat. When we finally arrived in Sihanoukville it was about 3:45. Most of the bus crew was heading to the big island, while I was headed to Samloem (a little more difficult to get to). Through an odd sequence of events we all managed to arrange a weird speedboat to take us to the islands. He said he would stop at both. The ride was terrible. The boat was absolutely flying and I wish that was a figure of speech. The swells were so big and we were moving so quickly, the boat actually launched out of the water. Plus it was quickly becoming darker. I was the first one to be dropped off. There are very few docks and I knew I had a dilemma ahead of me. The driver actually had me point out on the map where I wanted to be dropped off. Considering I am not from Cambodia, and I am not part of the crew, this was difficult. When I got out on my pre-selected dock, I was completely alone. Bad choice Eric. Bad choice. There I was on a deserted pier, connected to a deserted beach, on an island that is legitimately just beach and jungle. Oh it was also dark by this point. And the worst part was that I KNEW this was going to happen…

The hostel I was staying at, Mad Monkey, owns its own beach and small bay on the island. However, the speedboat ferries can’t drop passengers there. Therefore when the last official speedboat arrived around 4pm, the hostel had a longtail boat waiting for guests. Obviously I was not on that boat, and there was no one waiting there for me. I could always call or shoot and email, but like I mentioned earlier, this island was totally disconnected. For about 30min I was Tom Hanks in Castaway but I didn’t even have a volleyball to bounce ideas off of. My options were to walk a half a mile down the beach to spend the night in one of the ultra-fancy resorts for about 150$ a night, or trek 45min in the dark through the jungle (that was never going to happen). However, I tend to be unusually lucky in situations where I’m just winging it, and there was a blessing on the horizon.

It was supply night baby! Once or twice a week the supply boats come to Samloem from the mainland, and when those big boys come steaming in the bay comes alive. Every resort sends their own little boats to pick up the supplies they ordered. And wouldn’t you know it, hear came the Mad Monkey longtail boat chugging around the rocks in the distance! Its beautiful monkey flag was flying like a beacon of hope. Rescue was on its way. I was saved by the supply ship!

The boat moored just off the beach and you wade in the rest of the way in knee deep water. I could have practically kissed the ground when I arrived, but I did not because its sand and that is gross. Instead I went straight to the bar, ordered a beer and checked into my bungalow. It had been an adventure and it was worth it.

The island was perfect. It was a legitimate paradise. I had booked a room for 2 nights but I stayed for 5. The accommodations were bamboo huts with beds covered in mosquito nets. The common area was a giant bar and lounge overlooking the turquoise blue water. There was no need for electronics. People just mingled, made friends, played cards, read books, relaxed. On a typical day I would wake up, go for a swim, eat breakfast, read my book on a hammock, move to the beach, read my book on the hammock in the water, take a walk to the waterfall in the jungle, take a nap, get dinner with friends I’d made and then drink and laugh late into the evening. Then you’d dive into the water when the moon hid behind the clouds. In the darkness, the bio-luminescent plankton would sparkle where your splashed and swam.  There was no stress. You didn’t hear about the outside world, and you didn’t care. There were no politics, no fights, no cultural disagreements. There was just genuine conversation and universal acceptance. On that island we were all just people. Koh Rong Samloem was as close to perfection as a person can come. If I hadn’t booked a flight to Vietnam I might have still been there now.

PS. I should have taken more pics but I barely even touched technology while I was out there. Sorry. No cameras in heaven.

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Cambodia Round 2: Phnom Penh

After 4 days in Siem Reap I was ready to move on. The Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh awaited me. The ‘Pearl of Asia’. All that stood between me and that city was a 6 hour minivan ride through the countryside. I sat in the middle seat, between 2 individuals who smelled of old spaghettios and urine, in a van with no AC. Things were not great. I did not have a fun time. Eventually I arrived in the big city of dreams.

Phnom Penh was different than any city I’ve been to. It’s a city that seems to be at the crossroads between the past and the present. The shanty towns and shacks along the river are less than a km from the financial centers and government buildings. The streets are littered with trash and covered in dust, but it has its charms. The loud markets are vibrant and bustling with merchants selling everything under the sun. The people are friendly and smiling. The city seems to have a rapid pulse. This is a miracle in itself when you think about what happened in Cambodia 40 years. I would spend most of my time in Phnom Penh learning more about the atrocities that took place during those years of despair and sorrow. It was a time for personal reflection. A time to appreciate the resiliency of the Cambodians and strength within people in general.

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The two points of interest in Phnom Penh are the Killing Fields and the Genocide museum. I hired a tuk-tuk driver for the day, and decided to take on these attractions on my own. I knew it was going to be a heavy day and I preferred to be solo.  I knew what I was in for. I had studied the Cambodian genocide at University while obtaining my unbelievably useless degree in International Relations. It was surreal to actually be walking the streets where one in every four citizens were killed between the years 1975-1979. It seems as though this part of history is left out of the high school history books back home. Perhaps its just another piece of SE Asian history we’re not too proud to have been a part of. Americans seem apt to want to forget our unsavory actions.

During the Vietnam war, the United States began to secretly bomb eastern Cambodia. Northern Vietnamese forces were using routes through Laos and Cambodia to supply Southern Vietnamese resistance with troops and weapons. Between 1965 and 1973, the US dropped over 2.3 million tons of bombs in ‘neutral’ Cambodia, killing thousands and displacing millions more. To put that in perspective, the United States SECRETLY dropped more bombs on Cambodia than they did during all of WWII. Most of these bombing sorties targeted ‘unknown’ targets (aka; indiscriminate carpet bombing) During this time, communist party of Cambodia gained power under its leader Pol Pot. Known as the Khmer Rouge, the party would capitalize on the desperation of the rural people and take control of Cambodia in 1975. Immediately his party undertook a project of mass social engineering. The cities were emptied and millions were marched into the countryside. The vision of the Khmer Rouge was to create a perfect communist state, completely free of class identity. The people would only be peasants and workers; ‘The old people.’ In a single step, the government would do away with the ‘bourgeois’ who they saw as oppressors; ‘The new people.’ All citizens were forced to become farmers and laborers. The goal was to create a completely self-sufficient state, and the regime imposed impossible quotas. The entire population was worked to the bone. For 4 years the Cambodian people would face mass executions, starvation, widespread disease, and continuous hardship. All opposition to the regime was eliminated. Anyone seen as one of the ‘new people’ (estimated to be around 2.5million) faced the most severe oppression. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, businessmen and bankers were all executed. If you wore glasses, knew foreign languages, or even quoted poetry you could be executed. In total, more than 2 million lives were lost under the Khmer Rouge in just 4 years, roughly 25% of the total population at the time.

The Killing fields were sites where mass executions took place under Pol Pot’s regime. The most famous was Choeung Ek, just outside of the capitol. Thousands were killed here. No guns were used as the ammunition was considered to be too precious. My trip to the site took about 2 and a half hours. I listened to the audio guide and heard the tragic stories of that horrific place. The light rain that fell seemed fitting for such a harrowing site. You could see the pits where the bodies were thrown. When it rains, bone fragments still bubble to the surface of these mass graves. In the middle of the field lies a Buddhist stupa filled with more than 5,000 human skulls exhumed from the surrounding field. It sits as a stark reminder of the violence and terror during those years. The beauty of the stupa helps to honor the victims of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.


From the killing fields I traveled to Tuol Sleng detention center in the city. This is the official genocide museum of Phnom Penh. During the rule of the Khmer Rouge, a detention center was set up at a local high school in the city. It became known as Security Prison 21 (S21). Within its walls, the truest horrors of the Cambodia genocide took place. Over 20,000 entered the dreary concrete prison. There they would languish for weeks or months. The torture they endured was indescribable. They were forced to ‘confess’ to crimes that did not exist and implicate their accomplices. Many confessions were given just to end the torture. While touring the prison and listening to the stories, I was truly moved. It’s nearly unfathomable to think that humans could do such things to other humans. S21 was one of many such detention centers set up around the country. Of the 20,000 who were imprisoned there between 1975 – 1979 only 7 are known to have survived.

Overall, it was a powerful day. I can’t imagine the people of Cambodia ever anticipated the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. The Cambodian genocide is a grim reminder that worlds can change overnight. It was a reminder that humans are capable of incredible barbarity. It was a reminder that there is still evil in the world that needs to be kept at bay. However, while reflecting on my day while riding back to my hostel, I looked at the people in the streets. The markets were busy. Children were playing and laughing in the streets. Cars were whizzing by and men in suits were sipping beers at a local cafe. Cambodia had prevailed. After only four decades the capital city was vibrant once more. Scarred for sure. But the country was healing. What I learned in Phnom Penn was that even when there is incredible evil in the world, the resiliency of the human spirit will always overcome. Even when the whole world seems to burn because the hatred of a few, the love of the many will always rise and rebuild.