Archive for the ‘ Indochina ’ Category





The perils of popularism 


Keyvan Tabari


Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2009. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise  distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.





Our guide at the National Museum of Cambodia [1] began her introduction by saying that “the Khmer civilization is the oldest in South East Asia, as it dates back to the first century.” That was when Indian traders brought with them Sanskrit, Hinduism and Buddhism to the Funan area in eastern Cambodia. The Khmers were a mixed race who had themselves migrated here some three thousand years before from India, China and the islands of South East Asia. The Funan Kingdom was replaced by the Chenla rulers in the 6th century, who in turn lost power in 802 to Jayavarman II. He proclaimed himself devaraj (god-king) and was followed by a long series of god-kings until the 16th century.

We were impressed by the collection of artifacts in the Museum, but also a bit confused by the mix in their provenance. These Hindu and Buddhist treasures (mostly sculptures) did not follow chronology. “This is because the kings changed from Hinduism to Buddhism and then sometimes back to Hinduism” the guide said, “and people followed them, just like you are following me!”

Soon I found myself more interested in why the Cambodian people followed their more contemporary rulers. This is when we were visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum [2]. Formerly a high school, Tuol Sleng was where the Khmer Rouge regime, which ruled from 1975 to 1979, detained and interrogated at least 14,000 people [3]. Ten “regulations” of interrogation addressed to the prisoners were listed on a sign. “You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time,” one regulation read. “If you don’t follow the above rules, you shall get many lashes of electric wire,” warned another. The third said: “While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.” [4] Pictures of many detainees hung on the walls. They were tortured and executed with very few exceptions. Among the few who were spared were “a painter and a sculptor who made a portrait and a sculpture of Pot Pol, the leader of the Khmer Rouge,” our guide said. The picture of the sculptor was on the wall too.

Pot Pol called himself Brother Number One. Most of the prisoners here were the victims of internal purges that consumed the Khmer Rouge regime. Many were arrested following tips  given by those already in prison under torture. Subsequently, family members and associates were caught in a widening net to root out suspected enemies. The charges against them were: “CIA agents, KGB agents, traitors,” our guide said.

There was one more picture of note on the prison wall, that of Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, the former commandant of Tuol Sleng prison [5]. Duch had been a school teacher himself. After the demise of the Khmer Rouge regime, he disappeared in 1979. A British journalist found him twenty years later living in a small Cambodian town. Under international supervision Duch’s trial –the first of any Khmer Rouge leader- began on February 17, 2009 in Phnom Penh, just a few days before we arrived. Duch is expected to be a cooperative defendant, eager to tell his story. He says that he has converted to Christianity. He has implicated four other co-defendants who are the last surviving members of the Khmer Rouge leadership. Referring to them, Duch has told the investigators “I always reported to the superiors.” Duch has stated that he and his superiors were “skeptical of the veracity of the confessions” obtained under torture which were nevertheless used as “excuses to eliminate those who represented obstacles” to the regime. Many were marched for elimination to Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields), ten miles away.

An estimated 1,700,000 people have died during the Khmer Rouge reign due to execution, starvation, overwork, or disease. “I fled Phnom Penh and lived anonymously in my husband’s village while he farmed,” our guide said. “But my two brothers were killed and my three- year old son died of diarrhea because there was no medicine.” Pol Pot emptied the cities. His vision of an agrarian utopia required the building of a system of canals, ditches and dikes modeled after a combination of the medieval Khmer network and the Chinese Communists’ harnessing of the Yangtze River Delta. All Cambodians were mobilized for this work. The poor and uneducated peasants were easy recruits. The urban and educated were often forced; they were deemed mostly corrupt anyway.

Sister Mary

When we later met Sister Mary (not her real name), the American nun who has been teaching in Phnom Penh for the last two decades, she reminded us that before the Khmer Rouge, many Cambodians “had run to the countryside and joined the nationalist movement, out of nationalism, against General Lon Nol,” who had gained power in 1970 and ruled until 1975. That exodus was “also to avoid the American bombing,” she added. The U.S. was then fighting the North Vietnamese who were using the Cambodian territory to move troops south. Nol and his party, the Khmer Republic, had overthrown the King. That monarch was Prince Sihanouk whose time of reign in 1960-1969 was “the golden age” of modern Cambodia, according to Sister Mary. “Sihanouk called on people to support the Khmer Rouge, out of nationalism.” In fact it was he who gave them that very name, Khmer Rouge! He was the pioneer of modern Cambodia’s politics of “popularism,” harnessing the power of popular support.

For the last 25 years Cambodia has been ruled mostly by Hun Sen who was himself a Khmer Rouge commander before deserting when he suspected that he would be arrested by a suspicious Pot Pol. He fled to Vietnam and returned when the Communist Vietnamese invaded Cambodia. First gaining power under their protection, Hun Sen has continued in office by winning elections held after the Vietnamese departure. For a while (1993-1997) he shared power as the “Second Prime Minister” with Sihanouk’s son, Prince Ranariddh who was the “First Prime Minister” because his party had won more votes. In 1997 Hun Sen staged a coup and removed the First Prime Minister.

Many observers believe that the Cambodian government is not anxious to revisit the Khmer Rouge events. The pressure comes from the outside world. To prevent “local favor,” the “hybrid” tribunal trying the Khmer Rouge leaders, consisting of two U.N. appointed judges and three Cambodian judges, has been set up to rule by super majority. The waning local interest was also shown in the fact that there was no Cambodian visitor in the Tuol Sleng prison on the day I was there. Perhaps the shock wears out. I saw a few of the Western visitors spending more time in the prison’s souvenir shop which purveyed unrelated items.


In the lobby of Phnom Penh’s fashionable Raffle Hotel Le Royal, a picture of a smiling Jacqueline Kennedy and her beaming host Prince Sihanouk, riding in a convertible, adorns the wall next to the dinning room where in the 1960s the Prince gave a State Dinner for the First Lady. At the brand new United States Embassy a few blocks away, a spokesman told us that the Americans were once again wildly popular in Cambodia. “The U.S. has 85% approval rating in Cambodian, the highest of all nations.” The American policy toward Cambodia changed after the Khmer Rouge was gone and the Vietnamese ended their occupation.  The United States is once again training the Cambodian military but it also has a “strong AID (Agency for International Development) program in health, education, and democracy training for internal governance of the political parties,” we were told. At different times there are “60 to 70 Peace Corp volunteers in 8 to 10 provinces of Cambodia, mainly teaching English.” Cambodia annually exports “some 2 billion dollars to the United States, mostly in textiles.” It is still a poor country with “$500 per capita GDP; one-third are below the poverty line, at subsistence living. But it has lots of water.“


Phnom Penh is located at a four-way water intersection [6]. Called Four Faces (chattomukh), this is where the upper Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers merge and split into the Basak River and the lower Mekong flowing to the South China Sea. I walked the few blocks from the American Embassy to Phnom Penh’s waterfront. This is a crowded city as ten percent of Cambodia’s 14 million population live here.

In the main city park there was an elephant for fun rides. The park is built around a small hill, the only one in the city. According to legends, Phnom Penh got its name from a temple built in 1372 on this hill (phnom) by a rich woman, called Penh, to house four Buddha statues swept to her in a tree during the flooding of the Mekong. The spirit house in front of the City Hall was a reminder of the continuing influence of pre-Buddhist religions. The women in head scarves at a café on the side street were Muslim [7].  Not far away was a big Mosque [8]. Alongside the Mosque was a guest house. It was called “Same Same But Different” and offered rooms at “$2/$3/$4” with Cable TV [9]. In the café next door, the TV screen was showing an Indian musical. To the right of the café was the “John Lennon Bar & Hair Dress” [10].

Not many of Phnom Penh’s professional and skilled residents survived their exile by the Khmer Rouge. As Sister Mary told us: “Only 3 teachers of the university and 30 of its students came back.” Many new arrivals are from the rural areas. I sat down to talk at length with one.


With a smile of modesty, he said that his Cambodian name translated into English as “Excellent” -not altogether inappropriate as he was among the few who had won a scholarship to Cambodia’s only public University (Royal University of Phnom Penh). Only three percent of students are so chosen. “They are the best and the brightest,” in Sister Mary’s words. They constitute 30% of the University student body, the rest are paying students. The University depends on their payments to sustain itself. “There are private schools too but this public University is considered to be the best,” Sister Mary said.

The scholarship was only for tuition; Excellent had to come up with his living expenses. He did not work because, he said, “there was no job for him.” His father was a farmer and they lived in a village 200 kilometers north of Phnom Penh. Excellent was lucky because his grandfather’s sister lived in Phnom Penh. Excellent stayed at her house. The Great Aunt’s husband had been a taxi driver who had retired when his son got a job as a teacher. He said “now my son has to support me.” Excellent bicycled to school which took him thirty minutes. “Those who have motorbikes are the rich students.” They were lounging on the lawn as we spoke [11].

Excellent said he “worked especially hard” to learn English well. He had taken two years of English outside high school when he lived in his village. In Phnom Penh, he sometimes went to where the tourists were to practice his English. He was twenty years old and in the second year of the University. He would love to have a chance to study abroad. “Best is the US because of the high tech,” he said. Excellent was taken aback when I asked if he “dated” girls. When he recovered he said emphatically, “No. Some break the rules. Not me. Not until I get married.”

I wanted to know what Excellent thought was happening in his country. “Cambodia has progressed, especially in education and agriculture,” he said and added “nobody now supports Pot Pol.” He repeated what you hear from many in Phnom Penh: “three million were killed.” Excellent said that “100% of his village voted for Hun San.” His explanation was that Hun Sen “is a powerful man.”  Excellent volunteered that “they also love the King and Sihanouk; independence from France was Sihanouk’s great work.”


The King of Cambodia lives in a palace compound not far from Phnom Penh’s Central Market, which has many buildings in the traditional architecture of “tiered roofs and topped by towers which are symbols of prosperity.” In May he comes out and with the Royal Ox symbolically plows a field in the compound while the Queen spreads rice seeds. On the day of my visit the King was not in his residence [12]; he had gone to China to see his ailing father, Prince Sihanouk. Now 84, Sihanouk has been suffering from cancer for the last thirty years and, hence, in 2004, abdicated in favor of the current King, Prince Norodom Sihamoni. Some say that by abdication Sihanouk was expressing his displeasure with the state of affairs in Cambodia.

A map of Khmer in its golden years is on prominent display in the Palace with a saying by Cambodia’s most revered King, Jayavarman VII of the medieval times: “The King was suffering from the disease of the subjects more than his because it is the pain of the people which makes the pain of the King and not his own one.” [13] Sihanouk himself is memorialized in a pavilion dedicated exclusively to his colorful career as a politician who since 1941, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, has served in a greater variety of political offices than any other person on earth. These included two terms as King, two as sovereign prince, one as president, two as prime minister, and one as Cambodia’s non-titled head of state, as well as numerous positions as leader of various governments-in-exile. There are pictures of Sihanouk here with many of the major world figures whom, at different times, he befriended and denounced. In contrast, the current King’s coronation photograph, also on display in the Palace, shows him as almost overshadowed by the man standing sternly behind him, Prime Minister Hun Sen [14].

The French colonial rulers have also left a memorial of their glory in the Palace grounds which were established in 1886 after the capital was moved from Oudong to Phnom Penh. It is a gingerbread building first erected in Egypt where it was used to accommodate the Empress of France on the occasion of the opening of the Suez Canal [15]. Neither is Buddhism left out in the Palace grounds. All the pavilions are painted yellow and white: “The yellow represents Buddhism and the white represents Brahmanism.” A great hall serves as the forum for the ranking monk in the country to deliver a sermon four times a month. They are the days before the new and full moon and when the moon waxes and wanes. This columned pavilion is without walls “so that the moonlight can shine completely inside.” On the day we were there, four musicians were playing traditional Cambodian music [16]. Another aspect of the traditional Cambodian culture was on view in another room: small silver elephants commonly given as royal gifts with beetle nuts inside [17].




The local guide who met us at the Siem Reap airport was blurry-eyed. He had not slept the night before because his wife was giving birth to their second child. On the way to our hotel, we passed the hospital where the baby was born. There was a big crowd outside. “These are the relatives of the patients. They come and stay in the hospital too,” our guide said. “Hospital Jayavarman VII” was a hospital “only for children.” It was by far the preferred one in town. It was private but it was free. It was funded by an Austrian doctor (Beat) who was also its main physician. He was called Beatocello because he also played the cello. In fact, he supported the hospital by his fund-raising concerts. In our hotel we saw a poster announcing his next concert, “Music by Bach, Songs by Beatocello” [18].

Siem Reap is Cambodia’s most popular tourist destination. Last year more than 2 million visitors came here. The attraction is the nearby Angkor Wat which together with less famous other temples constitute the largest collection of religious ruins in the world, dating from the middle ages. Siem Reap has rows of luxury hotels; it is a destination for the rich and famous. “That one is the most exclusive hotel here,” our guide said as he pointed to Amansara. “It charges about 1,000 dollars a night. Its owner lives in Indonesia. He does not welcome American guests.”

I ran into some Americans who could certainly afford Amansara’s prices in the fashionable Elephant Bar of the Raffles Grand Hotel which was just across the street. They were on the National Geographic’s private 18-day jet tour around the world that cost each person over fifty thousand dollars. I complemented a woman among them for the exquisite scarf she was wearing. “This was a gift under my pillow when we arrived in our room last night,” she said. That tour had such perks! She was a widow. “But what made me come on this tour was my brother-in-law’s recent death from cancer,” she told me. “Seeing how my sister suffered, reminded me that life is short. What other ways could I spend my money better?”

Not all hotels in Siem Reap were full. “There are about 10,000 hotel rooms here. Many of them are owned by top Cambodian government officials,” our guide said, “and they don’t care if the rooms remain empty.” He explained: “These are for money laundering purposes.” The rigged accounting for the alleged income from the rooms, he said, provides cover for the wealth of the corrupt owners “stolen from the government.” Our guide pointed out “there is a similarity between the Cambodian government and the hospital where my child was born. They both depend on foreign aid.” The guide estimated that “two-thirds of the Cambodian government’s budget come from foreign aid.”

In our guide’s opinion there was “legal corruption” in Cambodia. By that he meant that free elections resulted in the victory of the incumbent party because it was able to win the majority of the votes in the non-urban areas by showering “the rural communes and its head with gifts, money, and some infrastructure construction.” As we drove around the Siem Reap Commune we noticed campaign posters from past elections on billboards. Curiously, some of them were in English, as though to win over foreign observers. The poster for the majority party showed three somber looking men with glasses in dark suites and ties. One was Hun Sen, the others were the leaders of the Senate and the lower house [19]. There were posters for two opposition parties. “They won in the cities,” our guide said, “but Hun Sen’s party won the overwhelming majority of the seats with rural votes. This is a one party democracy.”

The Siem Reap area was once a stronghold of the Khmer Rouge. Their presence continued until recently. As late as ten years ago, our guide said, “tour groups had to have the escort of a truckload of men with AK 47s to protect them against armed Khmer Rouge young men who controlled those areas,” he pointed to the fields we were crossing. “There you can now see government development projects, including a golf course being built.”



Contrary to some misconceptions, Angkor was never a lost city. It was too big to be lost even in the dense jungles of western Cambodia. It is the visitor who gets lost in Angkor. There are still close to 100 structures, including 44 temples, that remain from the capitol of the mighty Khmer kingdom which flourished here in medieval times. At its zenith it was the biggest city in the world, covering 155 square miles with about one million residents.

Angkor was the victim of the increasing significance of global navigation in the 16th century. The rise of the much more accessible Phnom Penh on the Mekong River led to the decline of Angkor. No longer the country’s capital, it fragmented into small villages. Its neglected monuments were soon engulfed in the jungle. In the ruins only sturdier materials survived. We saw sandstone structures on laterite foundations, but their wooden doors were missing. The evidence of decay was visible in colors — green caused by lichen, black by moss, and red from oxidation.

The biggest temple, Angkor Wat, is the only one that has remained in continual use. Around it, we saw some faint traces of a once bustling city life, such as streets that marked the living quarters of the residents. The temple itself had been off limits but to the royal family, their entourage, and the priests. Its four gates had each admitted a specific group. “The steep difficult steps [20] were to make the temple look like mountains. It was not for all to be able to reach god,” our guide said. “People lost ears or fingers as punishment for entering a temple where they were not allowed.”

King Suryavarman II (1112-52) built Angkor Wat in a size commensurate for celebrating his vast expansion of the Khmer empire into what is today Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. Angkor Wat is the world’s largest religious structure, covering 22 acres and rising 213 feet. It was conceived as a Hindu house of the gods, with its five towers symbolizing Mount Meru surrounded by a vast square-shaped lake symbolizing the primordial ocean. The tallest tower was the home of Vishnu. Angkor Wat’s most famous bas-relief, on the western wall, is about the “Churning of the Ocean of Milk” from the Hindu epics in which Vishnu is shown churning the ocean with the help of gods (devas) and demons (asuras) to obtain an elixir of immortality. The bubbles have turned into apsaras (heavenly nymphs).

Suryavarman’s legacy was surpassed by a later Khmer King. Jayavarman VII, who ruled from 1181 to 1219, was the true master builder. He founded the citadel of Angkor Thom (Grand Angkor) which contains many of Angkor’s other impressive monuments. “He built 100 temples, 120 rest houses, and 102 hospitals,” our guide said. Jayavarman VII was a Buddhist and this accounts for the horizontal design of his temples; there are no towers symbolizing Hindu mountains. Instead, there are enormous faces of Avalokiteshvara (the Buddha of Compassion) carved everywhere, all likeness of the smiling King Jayavarman VII himself. We saw them on the arched entrance to the Angkor Thom, and in the Bayon, the King’s state temple. “There are 216 such faces in Bayon,” our guide said.

Jayavarman VII also erected a temple to Shiva (Ta Phrom), dedicating it to his mother, and another temple to both Shiva and Vishnu (Preah Khan), dedicating it to his father [21]. I found these two temples unusual as they contained inscriptions, a rarity in Angkor monuments. The Sanskrit writing on the walls of Ta Phrom says that it once contained many precious stones and golden dishes. The stele in Preah Khan identifies it as a monastic site.

More can be learned about Angkor from its carvings. Garudas (mythical birds’ heads on human figures) were carved on Preah Khan’s entrances to ward off evil spirits. The mythical animals of Hinduism and Buddhism are also present on the balustrades of the bridge to the south gate of Angkor Thom (giants and serpent nagas), and the gate itself (an elephant). The carvings of the sacrifice of buffalo [22] related to “a ceremony customary before and after battles,” our guide said. The large bas-reliefs in Bayon glorified Jayavarman VII’s war against the Chams. That tribe from central Vietnam had rebelled against the Khmer king in 1177, and occupied his capital. Then a mere exiled prince, Jayavarman VII was able to defeat and expel the Chams three years later. In the carving, “the Chams are shown wearing helmets, the Khmer fighting without helmet,” our guide pointed out [23]. In Bayon there were also bas-reliefs that told us about the daily life in King Jayavarman VII’s court. Some others depicted laborers at work, and even men at leisure playing chess [24].

The elaborate artistry in the carvings, however, was most refined in Banteay Srei (Citadel of the Women) outside of Angkor Thom. This temple to Shiva predated Angkor Thom by two centuries. On its pink and yellow sandstone walls one finds Angkor’s best preserved carvings of vines, flowers, and miniature temples as well as violent scenes of Hindu epic legends [25.1, 2]. These were drawn “based on Hindu documents,” our guide said, noting that at the time Hinduism was the religion of the kingdom. There were also inscriptions in the ancient Indian languages of Sanskrit and Pali and the old Khmer [26].

The splendor of Banteay Srei had an unsavory influence on Andre Malraux who came to Angkor in 1923 when he was only twenty two. The future first Minister of Culture of France stole four carved Apsaras from the temple. He was arrested by the French colonial government, given a year’s suspended sentence and forced to return the treasures. Malraux’s interest in Angkor was only in line with his earlier illustrious countrymen. A French missionary, Father Charles-Emile Bouillevaux, is credited with having rediscovered the long forgotten Angkor in 1850, and a French naturalist, Henri Mouhot, is credited with creating the Western fascination with Angkor with his report on his expedition to Angkor in 1860. This is not to say that Angkor had not been known to others. Portuguese explorers had come across Angkor three centuries earlier, and Zhou Daguan, an emissary from China, which had commercial interests in Khmer, wrote a book in 1312 on his observations on the “customs of Cambodia” during his one year stay in Angkor Thom. Zhou Daguan’s observations were used by our guide. Pointing out a building across the Elephant Terrace in Angkor Thom, he told us “according to the Chinese Ambassador, if there was a dispute, the two parties to it were put in that building until one got sick and came out first; he was ruled guilty” [27].

One Angkor temple, Ta Phrom, is a especially popular temple with tourists [28] because it is most covered by the huge trees of the surrounding jungle [29.1-3]. Walking around in 43 degree centigrade heat and 83 percent humidity, we saw trees growing out of the temple [30]. The face of an Apsara looked at us from the roots of one tree.  Our guide said, “trees attacked this temple more because it was on the ground and not on a hill and no one took care of it.” He pointed out the tree types: almond, mahogany, and ficus (silicon cotton).


Angkor is dear to Cambodians. Angkor Wat is the symbol of the Cambodian state which even the Khmer Rouge respected and chose as the logo for their flag. Admission to the “Angkor Archeological Park”  is free to Cambodians who often come here to picnic; we had to pay forty dollars for a three-day pass.

There are some 40,000 Cambodians living in the park. “They live in ways often not much different from the times of the Angkor temples,” our guide said. As we drove to Banteay Srei we saw farmers’ houses built on stilts for ventilation. There were hammocks under the buildings. “It is cooler there during the day; at night they go upstairs to escape the mosquitoes.” These villages have no electricity. “They use kerosene lamps. They use car batteries for TV and cassette players.” Their water comes from wells. Most do not have toilets, “only open air in the bushes,” the guide said.

The landscape was flat except for one hill with a temple on the top, which is “now a watch tower for soldiers,” we were told. The fields are flooded in the rainy season of May to October. Rice is grown here but with “the help of cattle, not machines.”  Men farm one-half of the year and “rest the other half, or go to the jungle and collect woods for charcoal, or go to town for construction work at two to tree dollars a day,” our guide said.  Women “raise chickens, garden vegetables, and take care of kids.” The guide continued: “most marriages are arranged. Girls marry around 18 and boys around 22. Parents negotiate how much the boy has to pay for the wedding. The girl has to be virgin.” Villagers eat more fish here because it is cheaper than chicken. “But there is no restriction to eating anything. They eat anything that is edible. In the jungle they use sling shots to kill snakes and iguanas which are used to make soups. Crickets are common food as are water beetles.” We stopped on the road to see how sugar was made here. In a big wok a man was boiling the sap of the sugar palm to make syrup [31].  We bought some sugar palm juice from a woman who had a dark mark on her forehead. The mark was from “cupping,” a traditional medicine treatment for headache in which a cup with alcohol is put on the forehead [32].

Back in our bus we were now riding parallel with boys on bicycles, wearing in uniforms of a white shirt and blue pants, coming back from school. Elementary school is free, but there are still living expenses. In the parking lots of the temples we were besieged by many boys and girls urging us to buy their trinkets with the refrain: “one dollar, one year of school! [33]” There were insistent beggars too. A young German tourist stopped me to ask, “How do you say no to them politely?” A friend warned me about an intolerable sight he had just seen “a horribly disfigured beggar up the road.” He was shocked but also felt guilty that he had not given the beggar money.

Siem Reap has the densest concentration of land mines from the Soviet Union, China and the United States which were put in the ground by various factions in the wars from the 1970s to 1995. Near the Angkor temples I saw small groups of musicians who had lost limbs, playing traditional Cambodian music [34]. It was boisterous. The central instrument was khim, the Khmer version of the santoor, a hammered dulcimer that originated in ancient Persia [35]. They had CDs for sale which on the cover said (sic): “Buy one CD of the cripple is that you have supported the cripple musians projested in Cambodia.”  I bought one; the recording is equally poor.

“Some farmers are lucky,” our guide told us. “Wealthy people want to build vacation homes here. Occasionally land is bought from the farmers for such homes that could cost up to $50,000.” The “Royal residence” of the King in Siem Reap faced our hotel. A few blocks away there were massage parlors with their soliciting young girls sitting on the sidewalks [36]. I asked directions to the old market from a man who was walking his motorcycle. His accent indicated that he was European. He said he was a volunteer with a “Christian Church group. There are several such organizations here.”


The Mormon Church’s missionary work in Cambodia has been notable recently, but the Catholics have long been the biggest Christian group. At 20,000 they constitute still a very small fraction of the population. The first Cambodian Catholic Church I saw was floating on the Tonle Sap (Great Lake) [37]. Its congregation was from the Vietnamese minority of Cambodia [38]; the women wore the distinct Vietnamese conical straw hats. The unique aqua culture of the Great Lake is related to its connection to the Mekong River. Monsoon rains of the autumn cause flooding in the Mekong which flows through the Tonle Sap River to the Great Lake, expanding its normal size nearly ten times. The flow is reversed in the rest of the year. This process results in an ideal breading ground for fish. “There are over 300 different kinds of fish in this lake,” our guide said. “In my grandmother’s time there were even Dolphins here. They made oil from them.”

Nearly ten percent of the population of Cambodia are fishermen. Many of them are in Tonle Sap which supplies the Khmers with some 80 percent of their protein. We boarded a boat on the shallow canal [39] in the swamp near Siem Reap which led to the 120 kilometer-long Lake. It was February, in the dry season. Houses floated on rafts near the banks [40], anchored by mere sticks [41], fish nets hanging on their sides. “They are pulled up to the ‘hills’ in the rainy season,” our guide said as he pointed to about five places that served as unpaved launching areas for this feat. On one, workers were bringing white bags of sand for crocodiles to lay eggs [42]. This reminded our guide of the carving of crocodiles in the Angkor temples. “The battle with the Chams you saw in those carvings was on this lake,” he said.

All was peaceful now in the floating village which was engulfing us today. There was a market, a food vendor [43], a mechanics shop [44], a school [45]; and a white boat belonging to the fisheries police [46].  A new Buddhist temple was under construction.  There were solar panels on a Catholic church [47], TV antennas on some houses, vegetable gardens attached to others [48], and even a basketball court on a floating raft [49].



Before there were paved roads, foreign visitors to Angkor boarded steamboats in Phnom Penh that had to await the tide and the ebb of the flow of the Mekong into Tonle Sap. They would then use the connecting narrow waterways to Siem Reap. Those waterways are now not navigable because of the many bridges since constructed over them for local roads. On the more prosaic bus we drove faster to Siem Reap, but we found a page from a gifted writer of those leisurely bygone days on our hotel bed which had been turned over for the night. This is how H. W. Ponder described his first impressions of Angkor Wat:

No one who has ever watched, from the inner causeway [50], the dim grey mass of the huge temple gradually taking shape and emerging from the darkness, will be likely to forget the sight. Long after all the other stars are extinguished, the ‘Morning Star’ shines on ever more faintly till it too dies in the strengthening light; and vague figures move like ghosts across the colourful scene, taking this way to the village so as to place a flower or a taper at the feet of one of the temple gods: in utter silence save for the bamboo water-containers slung from someone’s carrying pole, which clack softly together as they swing to and fro.

That night we watched Cambodia’s folkloric dancers recreate the construction of a different stone causeway across the ocean to Lanka City by Hanuman (the Monkey King) with the help of the Golden Mermaid to free Queen Sita. This was a story from the legend Ramayana. There were other dances in the performance. The dancers in the  Blessing Dance “prayed and wished good things to happen to the audience [51];” the Coconut Shells Dance was about the ethics of courtship between young couples, in which “women use coconut shells to keep misbehaving men away;” the Peacock Dance “observed the nature of the peacocks [52];” and the Apsara Dance depicted “friendly and playful Celestial Dancers who are featured by the thousand in the Angkor temples performing for the gods to encourage rain, good crops, prosperity and protection of the Kingdom [53].” I joined them on the stage to say Amen! [54]


The article entitled Cambodia ;  Perils of Populism was published on the Website of on August 11, 2009, which has the related pictures.

Laos: Life is still simple


Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2009. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.





Pastoral royal

The country of Laos has one airline. The airline has six small propeller planes. We took the one with capacity for 60 passengers to fly from Hanoi to Luang Prabang, the former capital of the Kingdom of Lan Xang (the Land of a Million Elephants). When we landed we walked on the tarmac to the terminal while the porters hand-carried our luggage. The terminal had two rooms. In the first room we applied for a visa and received it in about five minutes after paying the one dollar issuing fee.

The air outside smelled of farmland. The two-lane paved road to our hotel meandered through farms and ended a few miles before we reached it. We continued on a dirt road. “Ninety percent of the Lao live about six kilometers from a paved road,” our guide said. “And remember, the word is Lao and not Laos or Laotian. It is the name of the people, the country, the language, the music, everything.” Everything looked quaintly simple as that!

A “spirit house” from the old animistic tradition stood before the entrance to our hotel (Villa Santi Resort), to ward off evil. From the veranda of the hotel the vista was purely pastoral. Rice paddies stretched to the mountains in the distance. A water buffalo grazed freely in the fields, while an elderly man limped behind. Several women and men were clearing the irrigation channel, cutting overgrown bushes with primitive tools.  


In the restaurant of the hotel, we shared a meal of “sticky rice” with chicken and pork in spicy tomato sauce with a noisy group of Frenchmen. They sat in the veranda, enjoying the gentle breeze that tempered the heat, just as their countryman, Henri Mouhot had prescribed. He was the first European to reach Luang Prabang in the mid 19th century. Presently, a group of Italians arrived in the lobby of our hotel. This place was clearly favored by Western tourists. We saw no Lao guests.

Our hotel was owned by a man who personified quite a bit of Laos’ modern history. Santi Inthavong was the son of Dr. Somphavan Inthavong, a sometime Minister and Auditor General of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. When that Communist regime decided in the 1990s to allow such things, Santi was among the first to establish a privately-owned hotel in the Lao PDR. His partner was his wife, Princess Sawee Nahlee Savang, the daughter of the last Crown Prince. The Crown Prince along with the King and Queen and several other Royals had perished, probably in 1980 (nobody knew for sure), in a remote re-education camp to which the Communists banished them in 1975.

The “Lao Royal Family” consisted of the ruling family of the country from 1904 to 1975 and close relatives of the founding monarch. These relatives were also allowed to use royal titles. It was one of them, Prince Souphanouvong, who overthrew the Royal Government and became the President of the new Communist Republic. Even before that, his brother Prince Phetxarat, then acting as the Prime Minister, had deposed the King’s father in 1945. The French colonial forces soon reinstated that monarch, but for the next thirty years those two Princes, along with yet a third brother, Prince Suvannaphuma, were the key political players in Laos.

Many of the Royals have fled from the Communists to France where some have been working to change the regime in Laos. Princess Sawee Nahlee remained in Laos and married Santi Inthavong, who had returned to Laos after spending “many years overseas” and being educated in France and Thailand. The couple opened their hotel in the former residence of the Princess’s mother in Luang Prabang. They called it Villa de la Princesse, but changed that name soon thereafter to Villa Santi. Some say this was because the Communist government “pressured” them. The politically incorrect name, however, survives in the hotel’s “Princess Wing,” “Princess Balcony,” and “Princess Restaurant”. I noted that there is also a “Royal Wing” in the hotel.

When several years later, Santi decided to add a bigger resort to the hotel, he simply called it Villa Santi Resort. Nor did he need the royal inheritance. He was given a loan by the International Finance Corporation in 2001. The amount was $1.15 million, but because of the IFC loan the local banks provided the additional $1.61 million needed to complete the project.

The Lao Royal family is remembered in the statue of its founder, King Sisavang Vong, in the garden of his former royal palace in Luang Prabang. However, the palace, now called the Royal Palace Museum , is more noteworthy because it houses the precious golden parabang Buddha sculpture. That revered Buddha image is the namesake of the city. It also became the symbol of the Lao kingdom after being brought here by the Buddhist teacher of King Fa Ngum who established the first Lao state when he was crowned in this city in 1353.

Mekong river valley


My room had a mosquito net over the bed, allowing me to leave the windows open. Roosters awakened me in the morning. We set out early for a boat ride on the upper Mekong River .  The graceful long-tailed boats were locally designed; our guide did not know of a specific name for them. They ran on a regular service all the way to the “Golden Triangle” –bordering Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, and near the Yunnan province of China–, which took two days.  The Lao first arrived in this river valley from South China in the middle of the 8th century.

The water of the Mekong was muddy. The boatman maneuvered to find the running stream in the shallow river which was only two to eight meters deep. In the rainy season (May to October) the river would flood. Now, in February, the fertile soil of the exposed banks for about ten meters hosted crops of beans, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, and peanuts [10]. There were also water buffalos in those narrow fields [11], and even a few elephants. 

Our destination was the Pak Ou Caves at the mouth of a Mekong tributary called Ou, an important local Buddhist pilgrimage site. Even before Buddhism spread to Laos, as the official sign at the Caves said, these caves were used for religious purposes by the local people who “worshiped Phi, or the spirits of nature.” The Pak Ou Caves were “associated with a river spirit.”  By the 16th century, these caves had begun to receive the special attention of the Royal families of Laos who had adopted Buddhism. Until 1975, the sign continued, the King and the people of Luang Prabang “made a pilgrimage to the caves as a part of the New Year religious observances. Sculptures were commissioned by the royal family.” Reports describe those pilgrimages as dazzling candlelit processions. There are many Buddhist carvings in the Caves dating from 18th to the 20th centuries. The piles give the impression of a warehouse of unwanted Buddha sculptures.

 Mercantilized village

Our boat next stopped at a nearby village on the Mekong where street vendor capitalism ran rampant. While men lounged  and looked, all women and children had been mobilized in the sales force . Age was no limit. Elderly women  and the smallest children  were engaged. At one stand there were three generations. The school teacher used our visit to arrange a makeshift fund-raiser. The “mercantalized” kids were summoned from the street to sit behind empty desks in the bare class room, making funny faces while we took pictures  and the teacher talked. When it was over, they rushed to their selling stands pushing trinkets. Some pedaled a special offering: for one dollar you could buy the right to let free a bird from the cage they held. This was to “make merit” in the Buddhist tradition. Alas, the wings of the birds were clipped in advance so that they could be recaptured for the next tourist.  


A special person sat near the school room with a big smile, some papers, and white strings tied around his wrist. As the school teacher explained, he was the government official who had come to register plots of land belonging to the villagers. The strings were baci tied so as to prevent spirits from escaping his body.

Baci ceremony


Back in the hotel lobby they had organized a full baci ceremony for us. As my guide informed me, among Lao it is more commonly called su khwan, meaning “calling of the soul.” Spirit worship remains the dominant non-Buddhist belief system in Laos. “Lao believe that everyone has 32 spirits, known as khwan, each of which acts as a guardian over a specific organ or faculty. Khwan occasionally wander away from their owner. This often happen when a person is about to embark on a new project or journey from home. Then it’s best to perform the baci to ensure that all the khwan are present.

We made a circle in our chairs around two “village elders (maw phon)” who sat on a carpet facing a center piece (pha khwan) on a white cloth. This was a canonical-shaped arrangement of banana leaves, flowers and fruit. It had about eight sticks all with white string hand bands. The maw phon began a long Buddhist mantra to call in the wandering khwan. Just behind them sat several women who formed a chorus with their chants and clapping. Further back there were seven musicians with traditional Lao instruments. They were all male and seemed to be in their teens. Subsequently, several dancers came and performed the local version of the Sanskrit Ramayana saga (Pra Lak Pra Lam) in which the hero Rama is portrayed as an incarnation of Buddha, not Vishnu, although the demon king is still Ravana .

After the dance was over, led by the maw phons, several of the women from the chorus came around and tied the white cotton strings around our wrists, warning us to keep them for several days lest the spirits leave us. “If they leave, you risk dying,” we were told! Some of us kept the bands for the duration of our stay in Laos. To close the ceremony we were invited to sit with the maw phons on the floor. We accepted with difficulty as our leg muscles were not accustomed and we had to be careful not to direct our toes toward the pha khwan which is considered disrespectful.

The merits of alms

The folk religious elements of Laos are embraced by many of its monks. Lao Buddhism is a unique version of Theravada as it is often closely tied to animist beliefs and belief in ancestral spirits, particularly in rural areas. This was pointed out to me by a fellow traveler who was a scholar of Japanese Zen Buddhism. His curiosity about Lao Buddhism was infectious. I benefited from his learning which inspired me to learn more by using the sole computer in our hotel with its often interrupted connection to the internet.

In Laos there is a difference between the practices suitable for a lay person and the practices undertaken by ordained monks. The possibility of significant enlightenment by laymen is deemed considerably less. The lay people have been traditionally occupied with “merit making” activities which comprise offering food and other basic necessities to monks, making donations to temples and monasteries, burning incense or lighting candles before images of the Buddha, and chanting protective verses from the Pali Canon.

Merit making has been called kammatic Buddhism. Kamma (karma), more than devotion, prayer or hard work, is believed to determine one’s lot in life. Theravada philosophy is a continuous analytical process of life, not a mere set of ethics and rituals. It focuses on the Four Noble Truths, described as the problem (suffering), the cause (craving), the solution (detachment) and the pathway to solution. The Noble Eightfold Pathway is sometimes stated in a more concise version, known as the Three Noble Disciplines. These are known as discipline, training of mind, and wisdom. Meditation which means the positive reinforcement of one’s mind is the key tool. “Scholar monks” undertake the path of studying and preserving the Pali literature of the Theravada (Tripitaka). The “meditation monks,” on the other hand, are expected to learn primarily from their meditation experiences and personal teachers.

In Luang Prabang lay persons made merit daily by giving alms to monks. The monks accommodated them by coming out to the streets first thing in the morning and passing by their houses to receive alms. We left our hotel at dawn to participate. A thick mist that lurked overhead made the air cold. In the alleys of the old town women sat on the ground waiting for the monks with their offerings ready at hand. A crowd of tourists was also present. In fact there is a fear that this is a tradition in danger of becoming a tourist production. Luang Prabang’s authorities have posted notices with instructions to the tourists:”take part in almsgiving ceremony by protecting its dignity and its beauty, … contribute an offering only if it is meaningful for you, … observe the ritual in silence, … (cover) shoulders, chest and legs, … do not make any physical contact with the monks.”

The monks came in processions beginning around 6:40 in the morning. Their arrival was heralded by the beats of drums. Most wore saffron colored robes, but some wore red and some brown. They all dye their robes themselves. Therefore, the color differences are related to their age, as the colors of the older monks’ robes have darkened. The monks were all male. In the groups that day many were in their teens, some as young as eight. Most were “temporaries.” They came from up country to the monastery for free food and education. They leave the robes after acquiring an education.

The monks were silent and looked serious as they approached us in single file. They had bare feet and one bare shoulder. When they were next to us, they lifted the lids of their bowls so that we could put our offerings in them .  We offered them sticky rice which our guide’s sister had made that morning. The monks then disappeared by entering into a temple (Vat Nong Sikhounmuang) near where we were standing . They would eat once and spend much of the rest of the day meditating, we were told.

The Buddha of rain

Laos has had a small population, now 5.6 million, scattered in a land of mountains. These mountains have further disrupted communications by rapids which interrupt navigation on Laos’s sole waterway, the Mekong. Correspondingly, Laos’s contribution to culture and arts has been modest. Textile designs from Laos, especially by its highland tribal minorities, are noteworthy. We were driven to a dusty village near Luang Prabang where textile shops had those designs on display. While the visitors seemed to be all from the United States and Europe, curiously, the largest store here had only a framed picture from the visit of the “Vice President of Vietnam” on its walls. A neighborly gesture, one might think. The caption under the frame awkwardly identified the dignitary as “the woman in the picture.” Next door fresh elephant dung was on exhibit in a demonstration of how it was used in a mixture with leaves of mulberry tree to produce traditional Lao paper.

The traditional art and architecture of the lowland Laos are mostly religious in nature. To see them we went to Laos’s most traditional Buddhist temple, Wat Xieng Thong (the Temple of Golden City). It was built around 1560 on the bank of the Mekong where the Nam Khan, a smaller river runs into it. This location is believed to be where two hermits had founded Luang Prabang. The site was sacred because of the union of the two guardian water spirits (nagas). Wat Xieng Thong is a complex of chapels (sims) with steep, low roofs  and a four sided, curvilinear stupa (thaat). On the eastern gate of the compound stands the royal funerary carriage house with the carriage inside. There are also several urns for the various members of the royal family, all reminders that this place was where important state ceremonies, including the king’s coronation, were held. To the mix of Buddhist and royal arts here, in the 1950s were added colorful glass mosaics on the buildings’ walls, depicting popular folk tales and daily activities of a Lao village .

The temples were full of Buddha images in uniquely Lao mudras, or gestures, such as the one calling for rain. This was a standing image with a rocket-like shape and hands held rigidly at Buddha’s sides, fingers pointing towards the ground . Also unique to Laos was a highly valued reclining Buddha here that dates from the construction of the Wat, a pose showing Buddha lying down and welcoming death, after which he would achieve Nirvana . Finally there was a Buddha image with his hands facing up, preaching reason.

Wat Xieng Thong has a living quarter for monks. Its temples are daily visited by the believers. On the day of my visit a woman was genuflecting in the temple before a big and several small statues of Buddha all sitting in the meditation pose . In successive moves she stood, went down on her knees, put her hands under her head while it touched the floor and her feet were crossed. She did this in silence. She repeated this ritual with exactly the same sequence of motions for over fifty times. Our guide said that she was from South Korea. “Lao don’t do that many, we are less energetic!” There are no Buddhist nuns in Laos, unlike Korea which has an Order, descended from the Order established in Sri Lanka by Emperor Asoka’s daughter in the 3rd century BC.

Backpackers’ station

Luang Prabang with its 60,000 inhabitants is a town in transition. It gives a glimpse into the Lao traditional life. You may still see a monk in his traditional dwelling (koutis) through a hole shaped like a lotus or buy recordings of classic Lao music. However, the graceful residential buildings in the old town’s “protected zone” are fast turning into hosts of stores, and its two main streets are full of restaurants and shops catering to tourists, especially backpackers. They could get their laundry done for a little more than one dollar for a kilo, after a kayaking trip, hiking, or elephant riding. A hand written sign for a longer such back country group adventure was typical: “February 22, need 2″

Not that the capital city of Laos, Vientiane, is much different. One early morning there I walked on the near empty major street where the “Lao National Cultural Hall” is located. A plaque at the entrance to this museum oddly commemorated “Polio Eradication 2000″. Next to it was a big sign advertising the country’s most famous libation product, Beerlao [51]. There were very few cars or motorbikes. The driver of a parked cyclo just smiled and said sabai-dii (Hello) [52]. The driver of a tuk-tuk was even more laid back; he was taking a nap in the hammock hung inside his vehicle. Next to him was the sign for the “Relax and Dream away Guesthouse” .  In the park nearby, at the bank of Mekong River, I heard soothing music. This was from an all Lao women Tai Chi class . Behind them, a boy was kicking a soccer ball.  A disheveled French man was looking at Thailand which was across the river  . Backpackers, three women and two men, were up and planning their day. Ali’s Restaurant was open for “Indian fusion cuisine.” Three Monks were sweeping the sidewalk in front of a temple.

When the Communist regime came to power it banned senior clergy from preaching. As a consequence, the chief monk, the Sangharaja of Laos, fled to Thailand in 1979 by floating across the Mekong on a raft of inflated car inner tubes. Since then the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge has been built just a few miles south of Vientiane. Now many Thai tourists come across because the food is good and cheap here and there are many religious sites.

Under the Lan Xang Kings in the 17th century, Vientiane (Viang Chan) became a great center of Buddhist scholarship with many temples. Monks came from Siam (Thailand) to study in those Wats. The most important memorial of that era in Vientiane is the gold-colored Pha That Luang (Great Stupa) . The construction of its original building began in 1566, but it has been destroyed several times. The latest version was built by the French in 1931. The Stupa is a symbol of both the Buddhist religion and Lao National sovereignty. Its image appears on the national seal. There is another important monument of Vientiane which is also a legacy of the French colonial rule: a replica of Arc de Triomphe. Its incongruous prominence in the post-colonial Laos is baffling. One could not help but muse that the French once considered this still seemingly innocent land a backwater of their empire.


This Article entitled Life is Still Simple; Journey to Laos was published on the website of on May 22, 2009, with related pictures.

Bangkok: The City of Angel, etc., etc., etc.


Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2009. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.


In March of 1978 at Bangkok’s Oriental Hotel I declined the receptionist’s offer of a room at the swank newly opened tower. I asked to be lodged, instead, in the hotel’s fabled old building. I followed the porter who carried my luggage past a maid in uniform who said “sawadee ka.” I reciprocated with my own greetings: “sawadee krup,” self-consciously using the proper male speaker gender ending. Never mind my accent, the heretofore reserved porter was delighted and felt free to speak to me. The suite the maid was cleaning, he said, was where the writer Joseph Conrad used to stay when in town. I was given another suite on that same second floor of the 19th century building. This one had been used by Somerset Maugham. The entrance to the suite was a foyer between the bedroom and the living room, both heavily wood-paneled. When the sun rose tomato-red early the next morning, I stood at the window of the living room and watched the farmer’s and fishermen’s floating market of boats on the Chao Phraya River. I was mesmerized by the full pallet of colors which must have also beguiled those two master painters of words.

That building has since been turned into the “Authors Residence,” a museum complete with a “Reading Room,” and “Authors’ Lounge.” The tower has become much more posh. The almost equally legendary general manager of this hotel, currently in his 41st year of reign, likes to say that his yearly budget for the flower arrangements in the Oriental is about one million dollars. This is where visiting foreign dignitaries like to stay. To be seen with the Lonely Planet here is considered gauche, although the “backpackers’ guidebook” grudgingly acknowledges that this is considered as “one of the best hotels” in the world.

Today the Oriental is “owned by the Chinese,” as our Thai tour guide said wistfully.  It is a part of the Mandarin hotel chain. “We Thais by nature are not confrontational,” continued Ron, the guide. “I don’t know if it is because of Buddhism; you know, ‘next life.’ For us everything is very slow. Very easy. Chinese who came here 100 years ago with nothing now own many things, restaurants, hotels. The Chinese were working for Thais, now it is the other way around.” I looked hard for a trace of irony in Ron’s voice, as we had been told that he had stopped being a monk recently when a turn of his family’s fortune forced him to try to earn a living as a guide.

Our boat was plowing the Chao Phraya and the criss-crossing waves that this and other boats were creating  resembled the dynamically unstable city scape. Tall new towers jutted up behind the haphazard assemblage of older homes and industrial sites . Together with the traffic of cars and “tuk tuks” they showed a stage of “Westernization” more advanced than the neighboring South East Asian countries. The substructure, however, continued to be “Oriental.” We were now in the typically “Asian market” that fronts the river next to the grounds of the Royal Palace in the old Ko Ratanakosin district. The main business here was food. “Thais love to eat,” the guide commented. There was an ample variety . . —  ; ,  . Food was cooked right on the street , sold at the stands , and eaten standing up or walking . The dirty dishes and pots and pans were then washed on the sidewalk . Hair dressers were also busy   . An exhausted elderly seller of sandals was taking a nap, spread on the pavement just a few hundred yards from the Palace.

Chinese merchants used to occupy this area when the king decided to build his palace here in the late 18th century. Back then he was able to simply relocate them. Looking around, one could make a case that art truly imitated life: like the market the many buildings in the palace grounds presented a bewildering bazaar of architectural styles. Indeed, the place was a canvass for the Thais’ artistic exuberance. Marble steps of the Library were engulfed in highly stylized banisters .  The gold of gilded Stupa  and the multi-colored mosaic tiles of the many pillars were dazzling. Ron’s halting, sometimes disjointed, commentary only added to our confusion. “We did not have our own architects. They were from India, Cambodia, and China,” the guide said. There were also some buildings in European styles. One was a mixture of European and Thai motifs . “The general plan might be like the Cambodian palace complex in Phnom Penh. But those are 1000 years old and ours is only 200,” Ron said. “The eight towers of that building is like in Angkor Wat. That lion we brought from Cambodia  and the Cambodians are not happy about this.” On the other hand, Ron reminded us, “we had bigger Buddhas in our old capital, Sukhothai, but the invading Burmese destroyed them.”

Even these relatively new Thai buildings required repair. “The repairs have not been done well and by good craftsmen,” Ron pointed out and rubbed his fingers as he continued, “no money.”

There were cooking pots and facilities next to the main chapel . “Many Thais come here and cook for their offerings to the Buddhas,” Ron said. The chapel is called the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew). It is a shrine to a thirty inch high Buddha image. Despite its name, the Buddha is in fact “made of jade”, Ron said. “Some say it is jasper.” This Buddha is revered by the Thais who had to fight to recapture it in 1782 from the Laotians who had taken it to their land. Ron said that “the present King used to come and change the Emerald Buddha’s clothes three times a year: in summer, winter and rainy seasons. Now he is old and the crown prince does this duty, instead.”

The murals inside the hall of the Temple, Ron said, “are about the stories of Buddha before he became Buddha” . Outside, there were statues of colorful characters from Thailand’s national epic, Ramakien, which is derived from the Indian Ramayana epic. Giant yaksa demons –mythical gods who had been enemies of religion before converting to Buddhism after hearing Buddha preach– stood guard at the inner perimeter to prevent the entry of evil spirits. More such demons held up the Gold Stupa (chedi) on their outstretched arms in the courtyard of the Temple . Next to them, there were several graceful sculptures of male and female  kinnorn –mythical creatures living in the caves in the foothills of Mount Krailas, the abode of the gods. High on the buildings were the kroot, the Thai form of the Garuda, the mythical bird that transports Vishnu, the Hindu god, on its back.

The kings of the present Thai dynasty have assumed the title of “Rama,” an incarnation of Vishnu. Surrounding the roofs of their Grand Palace — the oldest building in the complex– are the ribbon-like chorfah (sky tassels) meant to mark a bond between heaven and earth. “The King and Queen do not live here now. They live seven kilometers from here,” Ron said. “These buildings are used only for ceremonial purposes. When the King’s son died in the recent Tsunami, he was laid in state here,” Ron pointed to one building. Inside another building there were a nine tier umbrella for the King and a seven tier one for the Crown Prince. “The Monarch was crowned here,” the guide said.

The King’s great grandfather did live in this compound. He is the Thai King –Mongkut or Rama IV, from 1851 to 1868– who is best known to the world because of the movie, the King and I. “The government does not allow that movie to be shown in Thailand,” Ron said in an approving  voice. “I will not see it even if it might be available in DVD. Many Thais don’t want to see it because it does not show proper manners. I think in one scene the King is shown kicking someone.”

King Rama IV gets credit for the final version of the name of Thailand’s capital. The Thais do not call it Bangkok. They call it Krung Thep, which is the short version of the official name, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon (The City of Angel), which itself is the short version of the capital’s full ceremonial name, the world’s longest for any place:

Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit .

“Thai school children are taught the full name,” Ron said, “but they do not fully understand all the words in it.” This is because many of those words are from the two ancient Indian languages of Sanskrit and Paali. The full name has been translated into English as follows:

“The city of angels, the great city, the eternal jewel city, the impregnable city of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarn”

The Thais are said to love their current King, Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX). Crowned 63 years ago, “he is the longest reigning head of state,” Ron pointed out with pride. The King’s ascent to the throne was unexpected. He was studying in Switzerland to become a jazz clarinet player when the incumbent monarch who was his brother mysteriously died in his bed. Duty compelled him to accept the throne. King Bhumibol Adulyadej has managed to stay above the militarized politics of Thailand. His success may prove to be a liability now that his influential constituencies of the educated privileged elite are at loggerheads with those who have benefited from the Thai version of democracy. Not uncommon in developing countries, democracy has been redacted to popularism. The multitude of poor have supported the elite’s nemesis in the elections, a tycoon called Thaksin Shinawatra whose amassed wealth ironically shields him in popular imagination from the temptation of further corruption in a suspect environment that created him in the first place.

In 1978, a student drove the taxi that took me from the old Bangkok airport to the town on a two-lane rural road. He was highly critical of the regime, a radical and a pessimist. This time I went back from the town in a van as the guide sang the praise of the King whose humble visage adorned the many banners lining the wide boulevard leading to the shining new airport. I imagined the guide to be the contemporary avatar of the student. His type had occupied this airport late last year preventing all departures in protest against Thaksin.

As it happened, our own departure was now halted for more than an hour at the passport check window. The lines were extraordinarily long . I had never seen such a time-consuming control of the departing passengers’ passports. No explanation was offered. When we were finally seated on the plane, I noted another inexplicable oddity. The Muzak that the Thai Airways chose to pipe into our cabin on this late February day was a familiar Christmas song: “You better watch out, you better watch out, Santa Clause is coming to town,” sang an American crooner.


This Article entitled Bangkok: the City of Angles, etc., etc. etc. was published on the website of on April 3 , 2009, with related pictures.

Vitenam: The land of China plus one


Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2009. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.



The Ghost of the Past

“The runway that you just landed on was the world’s busiest in the late 1960s because many of the American soldiers and much of the war materiel came through here,” our guide reminded us while we were waiting for our luggage in the Saigon airport. Soon we were taken to our hotel, the Caravelle. This was where, the guide pointed out, “the American mission everyday at 5 P.M. gave a progress report on the war.” For visitors of a certain generation from the United States this type of introductory comments about Vietnam is common. The Vietnam War is the part of your memory that demands immediate attention if this is your first visit. Only by addressing it fully can you exorcize its ghost. The Vietnamese seem to have done it. For them, the “American War,” as they call it, is no big deal anymore, what with their much longer “French War,” not to mention the prior “Chinese War.” As the guide put it, “we were at war with China for a thousand years!”

The “Saigon Saigon Bar” of the Caravelle, where we were having this conversation, looked nothing like the bustling venue for the American military’s daily press briefings which it had once been. It now had almost the languor of the French colonial days. Warm and humid air came through the doors open all around this room at the building’s top. It made it easy to lounge in the armed chairs and ignore the harsh sound of a novice band playing American pop music. You could overlook the noisy travelers from the U.S. and let the windows of the old Hotel Continental across the plaza beckon you to the space where the novelist Graham Green had created his Quiet American.

In the plaza, Ho Chin Minh City clung stubbornly to one’s image of the old Saigon. The Opera House has been renovated to the modest glory of its French days. On this evening the program was by Verdi conducted by a Danish maestro. On the Dong Khoi street facing the plaza, young women were distributing handbills for massage parlors. A man on a cyclo followed me as I walked on a side street toward the Saigon River, offering “women, young girls, close to here!” It was nearly impossible to cross the busy road, Ton Duc Thang, which separated me from the river. Westernization has invaded Saigon with vengeance in the form of motorbikes . “There are probably as many motorbikes here as there are people,” my guide had said. The overwhelming majority of the riders were men but there were also women, wearing masks against the fumes as well as the sun . Nobody obeyed traffic rules. Venturing into the traffic behind a local pedestrian, I tried to practice the “art of crossing the street,” as our guide had described it, “never walk back; walk steady.”

A few blocks away, pedestrian sidewalks were taken up by idle motorbikes. Shops on the streets were full of merchandise but hardly any customers. Near a school, parents on motorbikes had congregated waiting for their children  blocking the passage which was already truncated by a neighborhood produce stand. The much bigger Ben Tranh covered market which was closed to motor vehicles was where Saigon  shopped  —  —  . On the adjacent sidewalks cobblers repaired shoes , mechanics toyed with motorbikes, barbers cut hair, and manicurists polished nails

I entered a bookstore which also had English language books. It displayed works by one American prominently. John C. Maxwell was apparently a big hit among Saigon’s readers. His several books were on subjects such as “teamwork and leadership” . Not far was the only statute of the country’s famous leader, Ho Chi Minh. It was big but a simple one, depicting him as a benign Ho sitting down in an avuncular pose . There were no visitors here. People have reverted to the old name for Saigon; “only government officials call it Ho Chi Minh City,” our guide said. Behind Ho’s statute loomed the city hall building of “The People’s Committee.” As Hotel de Ville it had been the headquarters of the French when they ruled the city.  


The Saigon Cathedral is still the busy citadel of the Catholic religion which the French brought here . Close to it was what had been the communications nerve center for the French colonial government, Bureau des PTT de Saigon. The famous Gustave Eiffle designed its distinctive metal framework. The Vietnamese gave it the name “Steel String House,” our guide said. They have also given it an ancient function not envisaged by the French: as we watched a scribe sat on a bench writing a letter dictated by an illiterate client . “He can write in three languages: French, English, and Vietnamese,” our guide said about the scribe who was ”an old time” fixture of the place. 

The communication technology in the last office that the President of South Vietnam occupied consisted of three rotary dial telephones; one was pink, the others were white and red . The war room in his palace was commensurately primitive compared with that of his ally, the United States of America. It was no bigger than 10 by 15 feet, with a map of Vietnam on the wall indicating the location of troops , and not much more. The working desks in the palace were grey standard issue American army. On April 30, 1975, the day after the world saw the emblematic picture of Vietnamese clamoring to climb on the helicopter of their evacuating American employers, their President also faced his unpleasant fate. The Communist colonel who rammed his tank into the presidential palace brought the hapless President to the balcony  facing the American Embassy in the distance down the street . The President tried to save face. He said “I transfer power to you,” our guide said. “No! You could not transfer what you don’t have,” the colonel responded. “‘You say I surrender!’ The President obeyed.” From that balcony we could see those tanks  which have been left on the grounds of the palace that has since been renamed the “Reunification Palace.”

Our guide had sided with the South in the war. “We could not win the war because we did not have a clear target. The north had reunification: fight till win. The south just defense and not winning,” he said. We were now driving to the Cu Chi Tunnels which became legendary for their contribution to the Vietcong’s control of the rural district only 20 miles from Saigon. The use of these tunnels began during the French war, but there were only 25 kilometers then. They were expanded to ten times as long toward the Cambodian border during the American war. The Vietcong, “defining themselves as “workers for the Viet people,” our guide said, helped the local farmers dig them “because they had to hide,” our guide said. There were three levels in the tunnel. “The upper level was kitchen, etc.; the bottom level connected to the river for escape,” our guide said. American bombs, artillery attacks, and ground operations could not eliminate the tunnels. We saw disabled American tanks , a crater made by a B52 bomb, and several types of booby traps made of bamboo . “The same kinds had been used in the past to kill animals,” our guide said. “They were used here to slow down the enemy soldiers.”

We were led into a room to see a video about the place. Maps on the wall showed American bases, South Vietnamese bases, and areas of fighting  A young woman who wore the simple black pajamas of the women fighters of the day, with sandals made of abandoned car tires, was our host. “She is the granddaughter of a guerrilla,” our guide said. “Look at her scarf, checkered black and white, like Yasser Arafat’s   ”. She showed us the simple tools used to dig the tunnels , and then introduced a video which was a grainy black and white film from 1967. A woman narrator talked about the “bombs from Washington, several thousand miles away which were dropped here and killed women and children.” Two American women from among us walked out to take pictures. The others remained silent.

We could hear shots outside. “These are by tourists. You could pay and try the old rifles,” our guide said. We went to see one of the tunnels. The narrow opening was camouflaged . I went in . It was dark. Several feet later there was a drop which I could not see and I fell. I limped for a while but the injury proved to be minor. In the war when the bombing proved ineffective, defoliants, “especially agent orange, were used here,” our guide said. The landscape, however, now looked normal with rubber plants . “They grew back faster than expected,” the guide said.

Many of the refugees who left Vietnam after the war are coming back.  After the demise of the Soviet Union, Vietnam has actively sought Western investment. The U.S. established diplomatic relations in 1995 and has encouraged Americans’ participation in Vietnamese economic development. “A large part of foreign investment in Vietnam has been by Vietnamese ex-pats in the U.S.,” a guide briefed us.  “The largest private employer in Vietnam is Nike. It has 8 foreign employees but 25,000 local employees here.” This is “the China plus one foreign investment policy of Western companies – in case China goes bad.” He reported that “Nike pays its workers about 70 dollars per month. They are hired through Korean-owned contractors. 75% of them are women. There is a long waiting list of applicants.”

In the spa of the hotel, I met some prosperous Vietnamese guests. I asked one what his profession was. “I am a banker,” he said. He had studied at Cornel. He said he had been in Los Angeles the year before to “make a memorandum of understanding with the East-West Bank, but then the economic problems in the U.S. happened.”  He was optimistic: “it will be O.K.” He pointed out that in Vietnam most banks are government owned, “Our system is communist.” His bank, however, was privately owned. I asked his opinion about the editorial in that day’s Saigon newspaper recommending that since Western countries economic problems reduced their trade with Vietnam, this country should actively promote neighborly “South-South” trade. The banker said he doubted that it would work.



If the bustling Saigon projects the future of Vietnam, the almost somnolent Hue reflects its past. As in Saigon, the Chinese, French, and Americans have left their influential footprints in Hue.

We crossed the moat that surrounds the old Citadel and through the gate marked with a flag pole entered the Imperial Enclosure with its six meter high walls. Here amidst a number of bare gardens were several ceremonial buildings which at one time served as the government palace of Vietnam. Hue has been called Imperial City as it was the capital of the Nguyen dynasty. The Nguyens were the lords of this area ever since the 16th century, but it was only in 1802 that their new chief, Gia Long, called himself the Emperor of Vietnam. He claimed credit for having united Vietnam for the first time in more than 300 years, although dynastic rule had begun in the 10th century, following 800 years of Chinese domination.

Gia Long who began the construction of the Citadel in 1804 modeled his private residence, Forbidden Purple City after Beijing’s Forbidden City. The only servants allowed in were eunuchs so that the king’s concubines would be safe. The Nguyens styled themselves as the Emperor of the Southern Imperial Court implying that the Chinese were the northern Lords. Similarly, in the various names which they gave to their realm, the reference was always China. Gia Long preferred Vietnam (southern Viets); while Minh Mang chose Dai (Great) Nam, and Bao Dai called his domain The Empire of Vietnam. 

Vietnamese rulers’ attitude toward China has always been complex. It is far from abject submission. As our guide summarized it “we say receive, reject, adopt from China.” Long before the Nguyens, the Trung sisters (12- 43 A.D.) gained a heroic reputation as the Queens of Vietnam for their resistance to the Chinese. The Nguyen kings had another foreign power to worry about. They enjoyed independence for some 80 years, but when they tried to extend their writ to the French missionaries in their realm, they gave the French government the pretext to land forces and in quick order subject them to French control.

When the long tenured Emperor Tu Duc died in 1883, the crisis of successions which saw four Vietnamese kings in one year facilitated the French objective. Vietnam signed a Protectorate Agreement with France that year. When the new Vietnamese king rebelled against the Agreement, the French arrested and deported him to their African possessions. This was also the fate met by two other future Vietnamese monarchs. The French recognized the Nguyens as no more than the ceremonial kings of just a part of Vietnam, called Annam which included northern Vietnam (Tonkin) and Annam proper (central Vietnam). In fact, they were puppets of France.

We were discussing this history in the Imperial Enclosure at a site which happened to be the scene of a bloody battle of the American War during the Tet Offensive of February 1968. Our guide wanted to talk about that battle, but not before he told us that once when he was telling the story of the French colonial humiliation for a group of French tourists, a French woman protested: “It was not my fault!” Then the guide told us about an American sergeant who returned here 30 years later to remember the 15 men in his platoon who died in the Tet Offensive. “He sobbed,” our guide said, “and told me ‘they were inexperienced and did not listen to me.’” The guide was reflective: “in the Tet battle, Ho told the Vietnamese to ‘fight for independence till the last man and the last bullet.’”



The Nguyen kings were intent on building monumental tombs for themselves. There are seven such tombs in Hue, one for each of the 13 kings except the 3 who died in exile in Africa, and 2 who together reigned less than a year, and the last king who abdicated before his death. “We celebrate death days; we don’t celebrate birth days,” our guide said. “In my calendar I have marked March 16, as that is the date of my father’s death. On our father’s death we go to our village and remember him. When two women get into a fight at the market, they insult each other by saying I swear on your father’s tomb.”

The Minh Mang tomb and the Tu Duc tomb both consisted of several buildings. They are considered to be the best examples of Vietnamese architecture of the mid and late 19th century. Minh Mang’s is in an expansive park like setting. Tu Duc’s, which he is said to have designed himself, has a lake and an island. “He often went to that island to write poetry,” our guide said. When the Emperors died their concubines and attending eunuchs continued living in those compounds. There are huge idealized statues of the kings’ major counselors in the entrance courtyards of Tu Duc’s. On one side is their military general: fierce looking and dark. On the other side is their Mandarin advisor. He is white and scholarly. “Rumsfeld and Connie Rice,” our guide said, oblivious both to the fact he had the colors wrong and that they were no longer in office.

Emperor Khai Dinh’s tomb was built in1923. It combined traditional architecture and some Western elements. His picture was on the mantel with a sash in the royal color yellow slicing in front . Another picture of him doing Chinese Calligraphy was on the wall. Our guide could not read the script because Vietnam now uses Roman, but he pointed to the characters on the entrance to the building which he said meant “purity and peace for peaceful thoughts!” The

tombs were directed according to the Vietnamese tradition, our guide said, “Head toward the mountains, feet toward the sea.”

All of this looked modest but at the time the Khai Dinh’s tomb was built it caused an outcry among the Vietnamese nationalists and Communists. Khai Dinh was considered to be especially subservient to the French and he imposed an unpopular tax demanded by the French; he used a part of the proceeds to finance the building of this tomb. Ho Chi Minh, his contemporary, wrote a popular play, called the Bamboo Dragon, mocking the Emperor. Our guide said “there is no monarchical sentiment in Vietnam today. The kings are considered to have collaborated with the colonial French against the interest and independence of their own people.”

The High School

The residence of the French commanding general in Hue is still standing on the other bank of the river from the Tombs and the Citadel.  It is called La Residence. In the American war it became the residence of the American commanding General, William Westmoreland.  Almost facing this edifice on the other side of the street is Vietnam’s most famous high school, Quoc Hoc .

When Khai Dinh was king, Ho (whose original name was Nguyen Ai Quoc) went to this high school. He was expelled because of his activities in opposition to the government.  Another student at this school was Ngo Dinh Diem who became the President of the South Vietnam government in 1956; indeed his father founded the school. Diem was an ardent Catholic and it was during his rule that the Buddhist monks played a significant role in opposition. Hue was the center of Buddhist opposition to Diem. When a Buddhist immolated himself in Saigon the picture became an iconic symbol of the politics of Vietnam during the early 1960s. We saw the car that drove the monk that day to the site of immolation. Preserved in the peaceful grounds of Tien Mu Pagoda, it is a jarring reminder.

A third notable student of the Quoc Hoc high school was General Vo Nguyen Giap of the Dien Bien Phu fame -the battle that finally convinced the French to leave Vietnam- and also the successful strategist of the American war. On the day we passed by this school, there were some students who were wearing red scarves. “They are the Communist Elite,” our guide said. “They are chosen from the best students and they will become government leaders as members of the Communist party. There are only 3 million Communist party members and they rule this nation of 87 million. There is only ‘ism’ left of communism, like Black Label on the empty bottle of Scotch. There is election but the candidates are selected by the Communist Party. It is like we are told we could have only rice or noodles, not hamburgers. We have gotten used to it. We are pragmatic. We don’t deal with government. When I have a quarrel with someone, I don’t go to court. We settle it ourselves. I don’t know what a lawyer does. I have never sued or been sued.”

Our guide said that he was a high school student in Hue during the American War. He was eager to learn English and had done some work for the American forces. On the day Hue fell, “I rode my bicycle home and got rid of all my English books. For some time the only English words I used were those the Russians had made current: imperialism, solidarity, Sputnik -and not Apollo.”  Only a long time later, when “Vietnam opened up to the Western tourists, I saw another American language text. It was a copy of the New York Times that a guest had left behind in your hotel.”

He arranged for a cyclo to take me back to my hotel. I got in front of the cyclo only reluctantly as the driver seemed too old to be able to peddle. He surprised me by his vigor. I could not fully appreciate his efforts to be a tour guide. He kept tapping me on the shoulder and pointing out sites as we went along the street, but his descriptions in Vietnamese were incomprehensible. I only figured that one place he was pointing to had been heavily bombed during the war as he kept saying “boom, boom, boom!”

Valentine’s Day

Hotel Morin was an establishment that was successfully renovated to recapture its “colonial charm.” Many of the tourists were from the Colonial motherland. The hotel brochure quaintly promised such amenities (conforte de la chambre) as desk with a lamp (bureau avec lampe) -alas, it was too dim for reading. In the halls of the hotel with an old picture of one of the Morin Freres looking self-satisfied , the speakers played the same music, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, incessantly. In the hotel’s spacious dining garden the show was folkloric music and dances. Later I went for a walk along the Perfume River fronting the hotel. From the bridge, the river was majestic . A man on a motorbike pursued me. He rode against the Bridge traffic as I strolled on the sidewalk of the bridge and called out “ride?” I said no. “Woman?” I said no. He repeated and received the same answer. Then he said “boys?” I repeated, no! I exhausted his patience and he drove away.

A few minutes later a sign welcomed me “to the Valentine’s Day .”  Young girls were sitting on the wide sidewalk of the boulevard by the river , selling flowers , while older women were selling grilled corn . Our guide said “this is new. My generation knows nothing of Valentine’s Day. For us heart is not the place for love. It is our stomach.” Then he proceeded to tell us how his parents met and got married. “My father was a member of Vietminh, which means ‘alliance for independence of Vietnam,’ in the fight against the French colonial government. He was arrested and sentenced to collecting garbage from the French General’s house. My mother was good in embroidering and had been hired by the General’s wife to work in their house. My mother felt sorry for my father always looking underfed. She started leaving potatoes and eggs at the bottom of the barrels of the garbage. Then eventually she begged the General to set my father free. The General released him. He came back and married my mother. See, our love is through stomach!”


There was no sign of famine in Hue’s bountiful Dong Ba open market. This was a true farmers’ market, established by the Emperor some 120 years ago outside the walls of the Citadel at the intersection of the Perfume River and Dong Ba Canal. In the mist of the early morning I could see boats transporting people and cargo against the backdrop of the city  to the market on the bank of river. In narrow walkways of the market, women were dicing, cutting, preparing  and selling produce , meat, fish , fruit , vegetables , and cooked food.  Men were hauling goods , and then taking a rest . Vendors also took time to eat . Much garbage was produced . There were no toilets. Men and women were discharging themselves in the open. Younger women had cell phones .  The older ones posed for me. One turned her friend around for pictures. She then pursed her mouth, opened her purse and pointed to some money. I offered her some bills. The amount was not enough for her; she took out bigger notes of the hugely inflated Vietnamese currency and waived them at me. 

The boats that had transported the cargo were now empty and anchored at the bank of the river.  A woman in one offered rides to the hotel across the river. I chose to walk back on the bridge . The sun was rising faintly red against the damp air . Men  and women  were using the poles of the bridge for calisthenics. The food kiosk on the other bank of the river near the hotel had not yet opened. Several men had brought their own tea and were sitting down to drink and chat. A big mural of Che Guevara on the closed door of the kiosk loomed behind them .



Our bus snaked up the green mountain  that separates North Vietnam from South Vietnam. The serene lush green fields of rice  belied the ominous appellation of the region. This was the “DMZ,” the demilitarized zone five kilometers on each side of the Ben Hai River –so called, after the French left, to mark the border between the warring Vietnamese Communist and anticommunist factions. It was the battlefield not only during the American War but also in others before because of its strategic location. The natural beauty of the area was capped by the Hai Van Pass, at a peak so often shrouded in its namesake “ocean clouds.” We were fortunate as today there was visibility. Soon we could see the South China Sea in the distance.

For some eight hundred years beginning in the late 2nd century this was the land of the kingdom of Champa, before it was absorbed by the Vietnamese in their relentless southward expansion. Once claiming a magnificent civilization, the Chams are now a small minority of about 100,000 in Vietnam. In Danang, by the sea, we visited the Cham Museum which with its world’s largest collection of Cham sandstone sculptures is a principle source of our information about the Chams. As the golden afternoon sun painted an arabesque of tree branches in the courtyard , we wondered through these 300 pieces of telling sandstones laid out in open air .

One was a distinct three- in-one stone lingam symbolizing Shiva in its smooth round surface at the top, Vishnu in its octagonal rough middle, and Brahma at its bottom, reflecting the Chams’ belief in Hinduism . Such belief was also echoed in the many- breasted sculpture symbolizing fertility . The sculptures of beautiful Apsaras, “the nymphs of Indra’s Heaven,” spoke of the Hindu legendary story of their causing war between their rival suitors, Gods and Asuras (Demons) . In a sculpture of polo players, the Chams’ origin from the islands of South East Asia was evidenced. As in the art of Java’s Borobudur, the horsemen here were animated in contrast to the size and weightiness of the horses .

Danang was the main base for the American Navy during the war. Looking out toward the South China Sea I sat to listen to the war stories of a fellow traveler. Jack spoke of the ships, planes, and choppers; of ambushes, patrol, and rescue missions. He was not a “regular,” just a “draftee.” He said that even the Vietnamese made the distinction. “We got your number,” the boys taunted the “regulars,” as the fortunes of war turned against the Americans. Jack was grateful to his “regular” sergeant, however, who saved his life in his last days of service in Vietnam. “You don’t need to go on this last mission so close to the end of your tour,” the sergeant told him. As it happened, hardly anyone came back alive from the group that went on that patrol assignment.

A loud roar woke me up that night. I thought of helicopters, but in the dark of the sea outside my room I could not see much. As the noise did not stop, I called the hotel’s receptionist. He did not have an explanation but said that he would find out. “It is the fishermen in big boats going out to the sea,” he said when he called back.

When the sun pierced the haze of the morning , it revealed miles of unspoiled beach . Ours was a big resort  and there were plans for many more on the China Beach of Danang. After a recent storm, the government moved many of the small houses further away from the water and widened the street, allowing a future project “by South Korea to build almost a city here,” our guide said. In the manicured garden of the resort, a German tourist had a few things to tell me on that subject. “Too much production,” he said. “I have two cars and all the clothes I need; no one wants to buy.” This was his diagnosis of the economic crisis gripping the world in this February of 2009. He blamed the Americans. He said he was an engineer and had gone to study business administration in Chicago. “After one year, I told my wife ‘this is bullshit.’” Look what is happening, he said to me, “35 million dollar bonuses; people could not afford health care. I had a tooth ache in Chicago, doctors wanted cash to pull the tooth. The best German banks were enticed to be in the business of selling real estate as securities, claiming they were rated triple A.” His outpouring was due to an exasperated frustration at what he considered global excesses.

The market on the road just outside of Danang was a universe apart from the imploding world of business school geniuses. The squatting farmers were selling piglets  and chicks  which they raised to make a living. They integrated the intruding signs of the modern world in the form of the helmets they wore on their traditional straw conical hats . They wore masks against the sun to keep their skin pale. “Dark is bad,” our guide said, “and so is hair. People with hair are called monkeys.” Some women, on the other hand, had painted their teeth black. This was a form of make up, as our guide explained. “It is a sign of beauty; they believe only animals have white teeth.” He said “it takes ten days to dye the teeth so that they look like watermelon seeds.”

These farmers also spit red on the ground . This was due to chewing a mixture of areca nut, betel leaf, and lime. This is a stimulant but with a more profound cultural significance. “In my parents’ generation,” our guide said, “marriage proposals began with beetle nuts.” In fact, we were told, in Vietnamese the phrase “matters of betel and areca” is a reference to marriage. Chewing the areca nuts begins the conversation between the parents of the couple about the wedding. According to our guide, the folklore is that “combining the betel leaf and areca nut is so good that they should never be separated, just the same as for an ideal couple.”

A few miles from the market a bridal party had assembled for picture taking before the 14th century Japanese Covered bridge in Hoi An . This small town was lucky because it was spared from damage in recent wars as it lacked “strategic significance.” Paradoxically, its picturesque old buildings have their origin in the times when Ho An was a strategically vital trading port in the global maritime commerce that replaced the silk trade road in the 15th century. For the next four hundred years ships brought silk and other fabrics, spices and food stuff, and medicine to this river city for international exchange. Recently, it has become a center of commerce again, this time as a tourist destination. The enthusiasm for foreign visitors seems to have no bounds. Banners strung on the main street of the little town, included the flag of Paraguay , presumably to appeal to the unlikely tourists from that far away land.

“That was the site of the first French Catholic Church in Vietnam,” our guide pointed to a building in Ho An. The French missionaries came here in 1624 and introduced Catholicism to Vietnam. We found the Chinese influence more elaborate. In a Chinese temple  we observed preparations for a funeral; a banner on the wall said “We wish 1000 farewells.” The expatriate Chinese-Vietnamese are renovating their ancestral homes here. We entered one where we were welcomed by the residents who served us tea. “In Vietnam they give you tea first thing,” our guide said “even before they interrogate you as a suspect.” Pictures of the ancestral suspects were on the wall. The host pointed to the similarity between the shapes of his ears  and theirs  . There were jars of salt, rice, and water in the house and the industrious women were making spring rolls for the garden restaurant in town where we later had lunch. The spring rolls were superb, but what made me an aficionado of Vietnamese cuisine was the meat and noodle soup pho with its multitude of rich flavors.

Presently, we were guided to a tailor shop where we made purchases of sur measure clothing so affordable none could resist. Mine was a silk shirt with dragon embroidered on it which was delivered the next morning to our hotel some 20 miles away. Our guide was also sending some clothing to the United States. He lived in Danang and his wife met us in the airport to give us a package for their daughter who was attending a community college in Texas, studying nursing and rooming with “17 other Vietnamese girls.” An exceptionally attentive and intelligent young waiter had befriended me in the hotel. In our limited conversation I told him that he should go to college and become the manager of the restaurant. He said that was impractical as his means were limited. On the last day, his parting words to me were: “May be you will help me come to America.”


The road from the airport to the city of Hanoi was flanked by rice paddies, the common landscape that graphically connected this ancient Capital with the rest of Vietnam. “We are the second biggest rice exporting country in the world,” our guide claimed. The relatively small plots of farm were divided by dirt ridges, sometimes with a low mound over them. The mounds were the “graves of our fathers,” the guide informed us, “they are there to make sure that the inheriting sons would not leave the farm. Respect for our dead fathers keeps us there.” Farming framed the world view here. “We use the expression ‘your view does not go beyond the hedge of the bamboo,’ to mean ‘you are narrow-minded’,” the guide continued in his introduction to the local culture. In Hanoi this was a culture dominated by the water of the Red River, so called because of the color of the silt. The delta of this river here was the cradle of the Vietnamese civilization.

Hanoi is almost exactly 1000 years old. That is what the big digital clock in downtown told us as it counted the days in English and Vietnamese to October 1010 . Hanoi literally means inside the bend of the river. The city is in fact under the water level of the Red River. It is protected against flooding by a series of dikes. We went to see the distinct manifestation of its ancient culture in the Hanoi’s famed Water Puppet Show. The picture in the lobby indicated that Ho Chi Minh himself once conducted its musicians . This evening, to the accompaniment of the music of several traditional instruments and two women singers , we saw a total of seventeen dances by puppets in a pool used as a stage. They ranged from Dragon Dance to Catching Frogs, Rearing Ducks, Fishing, Boat Racing, to the famous Legend of the Restored Sword -which is supposed to be in the Hoan Kiem Lake right in the center of Hanoi  —  —  —     . At the end the eight puppeteers came out knee deep in the water and took a bow by joining us in the clapping .

The oldest monument in Hanoi is the One Pillar Pagoda, which was first built in 1049.  Its architecture of a lotus of purity emerging from an ocean of suffering is unique. On the day of our visit art students were sketching it  as a class assignment. Worshipers were burning effigies in the kiln outside  the adjacent Buddhist temple . “This is a good example of Vietnamese religious promiscuity,” an American Buddhist scholar who was traveling with us pointed out. “Look at the clergy in the temple; he is more a Chinese Taoist priest, certainly not a Buddhist monk.” The Buddhism practiced here was mixed with Chinese religious traditions, including Confucianism. It is “the late Chinese style of the Mahayana version” which is different from the Theravada version of Buddhism common in neighboring Laos and Cambodia on the other side of the Annam mountains.

To our local guide, the differences were in the communal aspect: “driving alone in a car on the right lane is Theravada; car pooling with others and not alone is Mahayana,” he said. “At meals, we bring our plates to the common food dish, not the other way around. No wonder communism succeeded here.” In Theravada there is a Buddha for each era; there have been seven so far. In Mahayana there have been Buddhas all the time and everywhere. The basic concept of Buddhism was present in Vietnamese beliefs, our guide stated: “There is an ocean of suffering; the cause of the suffering is desire (lust, greed); the solution is to stop the desire and so stop suffering and reach Nirvana in this life, not in the other!”  The Vietnamese Buddhas, which are carved in wood  and not in sandstone, are “fat, because we suffered one thousand years of starvation; so our Buddhas are shown as having many layers of neck.”  The guide continued: “our Buddhas have many eyes better to see and many arms better to help” The American scholar explained that the most popular Buddha figure here was Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara who cares about your mundane problems with a thousand arms and a thousands eyes; he is active and seeing and helps everyone.

Hanoi is only 100 miles south of the border with China. The Chinese invaded this area in the late 2nd century and stayed for almost a thousand years. The Vietnamese response was a mixture of resistance to the Chinese rule and adoption of the Chinese ways. “We have always feared and learned from China,” our guide said. “They demanded loyalty.” This was true even after the Communists took over Vietnam. The Chinese did not like the new Vietnamese regime’s overly friendly relations with their rival the Soviet Union. “They decided to teach us a lesson of loyalty,” our guide said referring to the 1979 invasion of Communist Vietnam by the Communist Chinese forces. “The Chinese general reminded us of the big difference in our powers,” our guided continued. “The general said there were so many more Chinese than Vietnamese that all the Chinese had to do was to line up at the border and piss; that would drown Vietnam.” The war was over in 17 days. The lesson was learned. “The first thing the new Vietnamese Prime Minister did was to visit China,” the guide concluded.

Tonkin, which was the old name for this area, literally means eastern capital in Chinese, Beijing being the northern capital. Vietnam’s oldest institution of learning is the Temple of Literature in Hanoi. It was a Confucian academy. On its portal we saw a carp and a dragon. “The carp eventually becomes dragon, in Vietnamese beliefs,” our guide said. “Here the carp represents the freshmen at the Academy, but it also meant Vietnam. We dream of becoming like the four dragons, which are China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Carp can only swim but dragon could do several other things too.” 

Inside the Temple of Literature were 82 steles, each stone tablet marking the accomplishments of one of the best students. They had been chosen, in the Chinese Mandarin tradition, for high administrative posts by the emperor as long as Hanoi remained the capital. Our guide said: “These remaining steles are national treasures, our most valuable. They have defined our national identity since the 14th cent.” The steles were each on a turtle which signified “patience.” Over the turtle in the steles was the design of a crane “which symbolized heaven,” the guide said. In the crane’s mouth was a pearl which was “for longevity. When we die they put a pearl in our mouth” the guide said.

In a Hanoi art gallery later that day I bought two hand colored pictures from a French newspaper (Le Petit Journal, Supplement Illustre), dated July 28, 1895. One depicted the imaginary scene of testing in “Tonkin,” perhaps in the Temple of Literature itself. A handful of students were sitting on the ground engaged in Chinese calligraphy while three proctors in raised towers hovered over them and two more walked among them . The formalistic education of the Vietnamese Mandarins exposed them to charges of being greedy fools, a dominant theme of Vietnamese humor as told in the Trang Lon (Doctor Pig) stories. The second picture from the same edition of the French Journal juxtaposed the examination of young women in France. A woman was at the black board drawing geometric shapes . The Vietnamese no longer use Chinese characters. Our guide could not read the writing on the stele, his cherished national heritage. At that cost, Vietnamese is now written in the easier Latin script, unlike Laos and Cambodia where the script is still “like worms,” in our guide’s opinion. The change in Vietnam was brought about by the French missionaries; they did not target the other two countries of Indochine.

The picture of the man who gets credit for “inventing” Romanized Vietnamese as a national script, a French Jesuit priest called Alexandre de Rhodes (1591-1660), was in the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology  which we visited next. The French had not been especially careful in distinguishing the diversity of the Vietnamese population of 54 ethnic and linguistic groups. The Museum labeled as the “Kinh Coran, ” a Qur’an in the Arabic script of Kufi on palm leaves, which was in fact a Cham artifact  rather than a Kinh (the specific Vietnamese ethnic group). While the Kinh pushed the Chams southward, the other minorities represented in the Museum  had been mostly pushed up the mountains. A striking example was the arts of the Giarai, now of the central Highland in Vietnam. The sexually explicit carvings and those of pregnant women encircling a Giarai tomb on display in the Museum were symbols of fertility for Austronesians, a linguistic group originally from the Southeast Asian islands.

The prominent esthetic legacy of France in Hanoi are the wide leafy boulevards and the old colonial style houses  which are mostly in the neighborhood emanating from the central plaza that is anchored by the venerable Opera House  and the Metropole Hotel. Around the corner was the Faculty of Chemistry of the Hanoi University of Science, established by the French in 1904, where the students’ dining room still consisted of long tables and short stools outdoors in an alley .

Ho Chi Minh

Our guide said of the French that they came to Vietnam “with Bible in one hand and a sword in the other hand.” That pretty much summarized the sentiment of resistance they met here. Hanoi was the capital of the French Indochina and its Government House here was their seat of power. When Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam’s independence from France in 1945, he refused to move into that building, saying that “the Government House smelled of Colonialism,” our guide said.

The most successful resistance to France came from the Communists who were first organized by Ho in 1925. They were also the group that put up a serious resistance to the Japanese occupier in WW Two, and defeated the French efforts to reassert control after the war and the American campaign following the French. “We all love Ho, even the Southerners who fought him,” our guide said when we were touring the abode that Ho chose instead of the imposing Government House. The bare and austere bedroom, dining room , and office  could not be simpler. Even after Ho moved to a stilt house next door in 1958, the rooms were no less modest . This was one place where we saw many Vietnamese visitors: old women , students , be-medaled people who were mostly teachers  and veterans.

Ba Dinh Square where Ho read Vietnam’s declaration of independence is now the site of a lotus-shaped mausoleum bearing his mummified body which is refreshed by Russian technicians every September. This is against Ho’s wish as he wanted to be cremated and his ash divided three ways in north, south, and central Vietnam, symbolic of his cherished unification. As we entered the mausoleum to see Ho we were instructed not to stop, laugh, have our hands in pocket, or take pictures. To enforce these admonitions there were uniformed soldiers, notably taller than the average Vietnamese, and men in black suits. A woman ahead of me was told to take her hands out of her pocket. Ho’s body lay with his arms on his sides in a recessed area. Four soldiers stood on his corners. A flag of Vietnam and a flag with a hammer and sickle were on poles above his head.

Outside, a banner hung on the face of the mausoleum recalling a saying by Ho: “Nothing is more important than liberty and freedom”. On the left of the Mausoleum was this writing: “Long live the Socialist Republic of Vietnam;” on the right: “Ho Chi Minh lives forever in our memory;” and in the middle on the top the man was identified as “President Ho Chi Minh’ .”

“In Vietnam some make Ho to be a saint,” our guide said. “They even say ‘he did not ever need to go to toilette.” The guide continued, “There are rumors that the current Secretary General of the Communist Party is Ho’s son from a mistress. But there is no proof.” Ho was a celibate and told his countrymen that they should not do “two things as I did: smoking and being celibate,” our guide concluded. That night, in the book Reminiscences of Ho Chi Minh by 21 of his Vietnamese comrades, I read the following summation by the sole French contributor: “Ho Chi Minh was possessed of these virtues of the Vietnamese people to a high degree: he was modest, frugal, hardworking; he tilled the land like a farmer and caught fish like a fisherman. His (sic) incontested authority came from his political acumen as well as the example he set.”

The guards at the Metropole were shooing away street vendors from the front of the hotel as its Western guests walked to the row of cyclos which would take them to see the city that once was Ho’s capital. By far the biggest building in sight now was the Ministry of Finance.  The center of commerce still was the “the Guild District” with clusters of shops selling the same merchandise. Food was served on the low stools of red and blue on the sidewalk . McDonald’s was expected soon to open where Bobby Chinn, a long-time favorite restaurant of the American expatriates, used to be. The Vietnamese receptionist at the Metropole was delighted with this development: “about time!” she said. The visiting matron from Bryn Mawr turned to me: “Such gentle people; despite the war they are so nice to us.” There is already a Hilton Hotel in Hanoi. I did not see the more famous “Hanoi Hilton” that housed the prisoners of the American War. Instead, on the way to the airport we stopped at a marker by the lake which indicated where John McCain’s plane had crashed. He was saved from the threatening mob by an elderly man who insisted on leaving the matter in the authorities’ hands. As the guide related this story, he said that the U.S. also refrained from bombing the dikes that would have surely drowned many in Hanoi.


The article entitled The Land of China Plus One was published on the Website of on September 1, 2009, which has the related pictures