ON THE ROAD WITH ANN – Early reflections on Vietnam and Cambodia, pt. 2 of 2

Click here to see pt. 1 of this post. And double click on images to enlarge.

Cambodian krama

Ingenuity – People in poorer countries have, of necessity, highly developed ingenuity to use what’s at hand for multiple purposes. We saw many examples in both countries, none perhaps more impressive than the traditional Cambodian krama, a humble but sturdy checkered scarf, hand-woven in rural communities and used by all for endless purposes.

Cambodians claim that there are more than 60 documented uses for krama. They are worn to provide protection from sun, dust, wind, cold and rain, and they may be wound around heads, necks, shoulders or hips. Wherever you go in Cambodia you will see them wrapped, knotted, slung casually over the shoulder or worn as elaborate turbans – often in conjunction with hats. They are also regularly pressed into service as skirts, sarongs, aprons and even shorts.

Krama are also good for carrying things. Mothers use them to carry babies, children use them to heft kittens and puppies around, women going to market use them to carry bundles of chickens and other small livestock. They make excellent shopping bags; they are useful as covers for pillows, beds and chairs; they can be used as improvised fly-whisks and can be strung across the hood of a cyclo to rest the head of a weary driver. Folded, they form ideal cushions for the head on which large or heavy loads can be placed en route to market. In a sadder capacity, they can be used for leading blind people around as they seek charity. Click here to see a demonstration of uses I found on Youtube.

Composure and calm– In both countries, we were struck by the equanimity of the people. Traffic in the cities is a chaotic tangle of

Hanoi traffic

motor scooters going every which way, without regard to lanes or lights. Yet, we saw no road rage, no arguments or even raised voices. When we experienced some turbulence on internal flights, local passengers sat quietly, seemingly unperturbed. It was hard to imagine either the Vietnamese or the Cambodians as combatants at war.


Life along the Mekong

Hope for the future and contentment with the present– I may be way out in left field by surmising a lack of discontent. Given years of war, torture and near starvation, those we talked with said life was good and the future promising.

Cambodian village kids

Children, even in remote villages, seemed healthy and happy. In the rural areas, I had no sense that people longed for lives other than those they were living. I suspect that an urban job behind a computer in a cubicle would be considered a bad trade to most. In the city, especially in Saigon, aka Ho Chi Minh City, Western material aspirations seemed more evident.

The primacy of an ordained social structure versus our Western individualism may result in greater acceptance. Belief, by many, in karma and reincarnation may also contribute to both a sense of fate and the possibility of better luck next time.

Letting bygones be bygones – This trip got me thinking about the use and abuse of history and trauma vis a vis the Vietnamese and, maybe even more, the Cambodians, whose first-hand memories of Pol Pot and other despots are still fresh. They seem unimaginably able to let bygones be bygones and move forward without crippling resentments. I had the same thought in India. Is that a good thing? It makes me wonder how history should be treated to document and learn its lessons but also to heal and move on. The uses and abuses of history is an unsettled question in my mind.

Since I arrived home, I paid what felt like an obligatory visit to an exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum. Observance and  Memorial recounts the 20th century atrocities of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and underscores the need for historical awareness, political will and advocacy in addressing large-scale human rights abuses. Do we in the West regard history differently from the Cambodians whom I learned question the importance of preserving the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh and killing fields sites.

Ways to travel – We encountered other travellers whose itineraries were similar to ours. But I am even more convinced that our pre-reading and our discussions, both with and without our local guides, deepened our experience. Sightseeing alone has less and less interest for me.

Still, I am uneasy with walking through poor villages, wondering what the locals make of us with our wallets and our cameras. Here are the opening lines of “The Words of the Tiger in the Zoo,” a Vietnamese poem written by The Lu about the colonial presence of the French.

Gnawing upon our resentment, we stretch out in an iron cage,
Watching the slow passage of days and months.
How we despise the insolent crowd outside,
Standing there foolishly, with tiny eyes bulging,
As they mock the stately spirit of the deep jungle.
Here by misfortune, shamefully caged,
We are no more than a novel sight to amuse them, some plaything,
Forced to endure exhibition, just like the oafish bears,
Put next to a penned pair of panthers, carefree in their captivity.

Practical footwear

How we look to them – Last night, only a few hours after I got home, I went to a talk that, given my eyes trained on Cambodia, gave me a glimpse of how absurd we might look to them. The talk was about shoes. We heard how women (Western women) practically take out a second mortgage to buy a pair of Manolo Blahnik or Christian Louboutin or Jimmy Choo (all terribly uncomfortable). Some even stand in line to have the soles autographed by the designer. But when knock-offs come on the market, the prized originals lose their exclusive value and are tossed aside. In Cambodia, we bought a pile of plastic flip flops for children, being advised that these are the most functional footwear: cheap, waterproof, good tread, and accommodating considerable foot growth. Wouldn’t they be miffed or amused by our inclination to rank a person’s social standing on the basis of expensive, non-functional footwear?

These are my own impressions. My fellow travellers will have theirs. I hope they will add them here for you to read.

East meets West

PS Guess whose shoes are whose? (The red heels belong to a Hanoi local; the comfortable sandals belong to Anne Dychtenberg of Toronto.)

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