Mainland Retrospective: A Photo Essay

In the summer of 2016 I traveled across Southeast Asia, starting with Java and Bali in Indonesia with a stop in Singapore. After a month getting used to being back in Malaysia, I set out for the Mainland with my first stop in Siem Reap and ended up in Bangkok some weeks later. Here is a small photo essay/album with 12 photos that best explains and describes my thoughts and observations during the journey.

The God Kings

Southeast Asia has traditionally been an immense melting pot, with influences arriving from its neighbours in the west and the east. Indian culture has shaped much of the mainland’s religions and culture. During the days of Cambodia’s Khmer Empire, a massive state which at its peak encompassed much of the region. Its Hindu rulers, like many others in the region, styled themselves Dewa Rajas-translated as God-Kings. With great divinity came the need to construct magnificent monuments, chief among them Angkor Wat. This photograph comes from the ruins of the Bayon temple in Angkor Thom (the Great City), constructed by Jayavarman VII at the start of the spread of Buddhism through the kingdom. Serene stone faces of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara gaze down on devotees, but it is suspected that they are modeled on the face of the king in an enduring experiment in creating a cult of personality.

Lady Penh’s Hill

According to legend, Cambodia’s current capital got its name from Lady Penh, who built a temple atop a hill after discovering religious statues floating down the river. The temple, Wat Phnom, sits above Phnom Penh’s chaotic traffic, where few traffic lights appear and pedestrians are relatively unusual. From the temple a view of the boulevards that earned the city its reputation for beauty during the French Indochina era come into view, but the magnificent buildings of the Hotel Le Royal and the American Embassy soon give way to the cluttered buildings dominating today’s city. Purged of its inhabitants during the monstrous years of the Khmer Rouge, when more than a million people were killed by starvation and executions, the city is gradually returning to life and currently home to hundreds of NGOs. The city’s Cham minority, with their linguistic, cultural, and religious ties stretching to present-day Malaysia and Indonesia, once had their own state that stretched along the Southern Vietnamese coast. Champa all but vanished as the Vietnamese and Khmer states, and the minority Chams are concentrated in South Vietnam and southeast Cambodia.

Security Prison 21

Upon their arrival in Phnom Penh en route to overthrowing the Communist government, horrified Vietnamese troops arrived at S21, headquarters of former mathematics professor Duch’s reign of terror. Thousands of prisoners, many of them ‘intellectuals’, were tortured and killed at the grounds of the former school, staffed by teenagers from the countryside. An atmosphere of fear permeated the area and after its discovery it has been left as is as a memorial to the victims. The grounds have steadily resumed an air of normalcy in recent years-in the evenings when the grounds are closed to tourists, the neighbourhood children arrive to play badminton in front of former cell blocks while men gather around the television for sports. In the meantime Bou Meng, the painter who survived the camp but returns to speak to visitors, takes his leave for the day.

Evening on the Mekong

The Mekong is one of the great rivers of the world, starting in China’s Yunnan Province before winding its way down the mainland, through Laos, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and eventually meets the sea in Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh City, still colloquially called Saigon, surrounds the river. It is still primarily a working river, plied with ships navigating its bends, but the promenades are a popular walking spot in the evening. With Vietnam’s opening to globalization the city has been growing tremendously with the immense Bitexco Financial Tower rising over the city’s French architecture. South Vietnam’s bustling cities and liveliness marked a huge contrast with the relative silence of Cambodia when I crossed the border.

White Sands

Danang is quiet in the afternoons, its highways not yet enveloped by motorcyclists and commuters during rush hour. At times it is hard to imagine that this is Vietnam’s third-largest city, but with the afternoon sun overhead the beach is mercifully quiet. The city’s fabled white sands, with an uninterrupted view of the South China Sea, made it a popular R&R destination for American troops during the Vietnam War (locally referred to as the American War). Pitched bombings of the north were launched from its nearby airfield, which at one point was so overrun with bomber jets, fighter planes, and helicopters that it was one of the world’s busiest airports. With the eventual US withdrawal and the rapid collapse of the South Vietnamese government and army, the reunification of Vietnam was completed in 1975 when North Vietnamese Army tanks rolled into the grounds of Saigon’s Presidential Palace, where defeated government officials announced their surrender.

Coffee culture

The streets of Hoi An teems with whispers from the past-the Chinese, Japanese, and Chams exerted their influence over the centuries. Naturally it has become a popular tourist destination and a UNESCO World Heritage Site while avoiding the massive crowds and tacky cosmetics of China’s ancient towns. Just like Vietnam’s big cities, makeshift cafes line the pavements, in front of distinct yellow buildings, where coffee is served. Coffee culture in Vietnam, first started by French colonials who encouraged plantations in the highlands, is widespread.  And like differences in vocabulary and accent along the length of the country, coffee preferences change subtly from south to north. For me, I enjoyed the egg coffee at the famed but notoriously well-hidden Giang CafĂ© in Hanoi best. For higher-end drinkers, there are various hipster coffeeshops opening all around the city, as well as various chain shops. A good example is the chic Highlands Coffee, started by a Vietnamese American entrepreneur from Seattle inspired by the success of his hometown’s own global brand.

Ocean Cloud Pass

The geographical and historical dividing point of Vietnam, the Hai Van Pass cuts across the forbidding mountains just north of Danang. A network of tunnels, railways, and winding highways link Danang with the old imperial capital of Hue in the immediate north. Up on the pass the weather changes remarkably, and its mountains act as a buffer against the cold Chinese winds that gives the north its humid winters. At one point this was the historical division between the Dai Viet and the Champa kingdoms, and more recently it is close to the demilitarized zone drawn up between North and South Vietnam until 1975. The stretch of the Reunification Railway that skirts the edges of the Annamese Mountains is regarded as the most beautiful point of the journey as coves, tropical forest, and the perfect blue of the sea come within sight of the carriages as the train makes its slow journey along the treacherous slopes.

The Old Quarter

Leaving Hue behind on the overnight express, I finally arrived in the capital city, full of revolutionary names and homages to Bac Ho. I arrived in Hanoi without really knowing what to expect, and I found myself drawn to its narrow, winding streets around Hoan Kiem Lake, the city bisected by an elevated railway line and humid summer heat that made me sweat harder than I ever had along my journey. Essentially rebuilt by the French after they took control of the city’s vast citadel, the city’s thousand-year history is largely invisible. Only the Old Quarter truly retains any sense of antiquity, with tall narrow buildings winding along streets where the famed 36 guilds operated. To the edge of the city, next to the Red River, the French built a new town with vast boulevards and an opera house modeled on the one with Paris, and a fancy hotel that would one day host various luminaries like Andre Malraux, William Somerset Maugham, and Francois Mitterrand. I spent many days wandering the streets, happily getting lost on the cluttered pavements while motorbikes sped by incessantly.

On the Bridge

The Long Bien Bridge, formerly known as the Paul-Doumer Bridge, spans the length of the Red River. Built in 1902 and becoming a city landmark, it was one of the many structures that contributed to Hanoi’s beauty. Under the French it was used as a mechanism to secure control of the northern regions bordering China, and during the Vietnam War it was the main connection to the port of Haiphong, and thus subject to various bombing raids. Former US Presidential candidate John McCain was shot down over Hanoi during one such attack and imprisoned in what would later be termed as the ‘Hanoi Hilton’. The bridge, heavily patched together in the intervening years, creaked and trembled under the weight of traffic as I carefully made my way across, gingerly stepping on paving stones that looked ready to give way to the river at any moment. To the locals it was just another day on the bridge, casually crossing the tracks with little support beneath them. They stepped off the tracks just as a slow train from the north arrived with little warning, diesel engines slowing down as the carriages thundered to a halt at Long Bien station, en route to Ho Chi Minh City almost 2,000 kilometers away.

Ruins of Empire

Following Hanoi I arrived in Bangkok, where a commuter train took me up to Ayutthaya, the former capital of Siam and once one of the greatest cities in the world. Today Ayutthaya is a small, sleepy city surrounded by farms, almost silent in the drowsy afternoon heat. Low rises and quiet streets are hallmarks of the island where the old city sits. Much of Thailand is relatively quiet, with most Thais drawn to the enormous stretches of Bangkok, which is at least 20 times the size of the country’s second-largest city (which is itself a suburb of Bangkok). But at one point Ayutthaya was well-known and renowned for its beauty and temples, but during a devastating war against the Burmese in 1767 it was utterly destroyed, the spoils making it way back to Burma. It was only relatively recently that Rama V (King Chulalongkorn) ordered a historical investigation into the fall of the ancient capital. Despite the city’s devastation, impressive monuments and ruins remain behind, a quiet, peaceful change from the sprawl of the capital. At this point I was exhausted and worn-out from my travels that just walking through the parks, peering at the ruins with no plan in mind, proved a good antidote to the non-stop pace in Cambodia and Vietnam.

Backpacker Capital

This is Khao San Road. No. 1 stop on the elephant harem pants and banana pancake trail. Capital of the world’s backpackers. Thronged by languid visitors, serviced by locals providing everything needed for survival; fried scorpions, American music, fake Harvard degrees, foreign restaurant chains, and Westernized Pad Thai. The street exists almost as a ghetto of sorts in one of Bangkok’s older districts, with English-speaking cabbies and tuk-tuk drivers charging exorbitant rates and freelance tour guide operators waiting to pounce on unsuspecting visitors and the creaking local buses are rarely an option. The visitors live in what is almost a contained area, largely contained from the quieter neighborhoods surrounding them. The street and its surrounding area is everything the foreign traveler pictures about Thailand, and staying here is simultaneously living in your own world. Khao San is yet another artificial tourist hotspot like Kuta and Las Vegas, places which exist in their own separate bubble.

East Meets West

Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia to have remained independent while the French, Dutch, Spanish, British, and Americans proceeded to carve up the region amongst themselves in the greedy days of the 19th century. King Mongkut, who was unflatteringly portrayed in the musical Anna and the King, opened the doors to modernization, and his son Chulalongkorn was determined to complete his father’s vision. A visit to Europe convinced him to build the Dusit Complex, a series of European-style palaces at odds with traditional Thai architecture. The grandest example is the Dusit Palace, decorated with Renaissance-style murals of the King arriving at the docks, as well as an ornate statue of the Buddha surrounded by praying monks. Thailand’s tumultuous, complex modernization is best exemplified by the magnificent grounds, hosting buildings so out of place with the spires of the Grand Palace and the surrounding temples.