Asia October 1992 to December 1992

I stayed with a work colleague from the Canadian Embassy in Manila, Dexter Bishop. After a few days, I joined several others from the Embassy who were traveling up to the terraces of Banaue, ten hours north of Manila on the island of Luzon. I then went on to Sagada and on to the hill station of Baguio. While urban Philippines presented some of the worst slums in the world, by contrast, the countryside that Filipinos and Filipinas were fleeing looked like the epitome of a rural tropical paradise. I later went to the islands of Cebu and Bohol in the central Philippines. While the Philippines has lots of variety, is logistically easy to move around, and travel is easy and convenient due to the widespread use of English, there were not many other travelers. Part of it is due to the location of the Philippines, not really on the Asian circuit, that places such as Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia represented. From the Philippines I flew up to Hong Kong, then arranged to go to Hanoi.

This was late 1992, and both Vietnam and Cambodia, long inaccessible since the early to mid-1970s, had suddenly opened up to backpackers again. In the early 1990s, comparing Vietnam with traveling in China a few years earlier, I noted to other travelers that visiting Vietnam at this time was like “China without the tears”. It was surprisingly friendly, safe, inexpensive and exotic. I flew to Hanoi, traveled by local train and bus to Haiphong and Halong Bay. I then took a local train down to Hue, went with a group to both sides of the 17th parallel, the demilitarized zone and dividing line between North and South Vietnam during the war years. This included visiting the caves of Vinh Moc north of the 17th parallel, which in the late 1960s represented what Helmand, Kandahar and the border regions of Pakistan now represent – the front lines of what the USA then determined was the location of “the enemy”. Like my visit to Khe Sanh, an isolated very poor place in the south near the demilitarized zone, in the late 1960s it was a place of war and conflict, but now was an almost forgotten backwater left neglected to its isolated poverty. The only economic activity were locals picking up ordnance to ultimately be turned into scrap metal. Of course, this was in the immediate aftermath of the end of the Cold War. My sense then was that the world had reached a point where common sense and wisdom would prevail, we could enjoy a peace dividend, and resources would go to international development and respecting the environment while providing a decent standard of living for the people of the world. Alas. Our guide made this slightly haunting observation “Before liberation, I went to Hong Kong, Thailand and Australia. But since liberation, I never leave Vietnam”.

From Hue I went to Danang by train and then flew to Saigon. By the early 1990s, Saigon was starting to revert to its image of the 1960s, entrepreneurial and slightly decadent compared to the comparative austerity of Hanoi. Although it was still an adventure destination, for the first time since Irian Jaya, I was sharing my experience with groups of young backpackers again that drew parallels to my experience of traveling in my mid-20s.

I flew from Saigon to Phnom Penh. A major UN peacekeeping mission, UNTAC, was in force with close to 20,000 peacekeepers from around the world, and totally dominated Cambodia. During my time there, I estimated that at least half of all of the vehicles on the road were United Nations vehicles. Cambodia was only recently recovering from the trauma of the Khmer Rouge years, followed by a decade of international isolation when the Vietnamese moved in and overthrew the Pol Pot regime. The visit to the Tuol Sleng prison camp and the killing fields of Choeng Ek were powerful, if ghastly, reminders of the cruelty that could be bestowed by a group of fanatics on a hapless population.  The United Nations was setting up the country for elections, yet the Khmer Rouge still were active in parts of the country.

I flew up to Siem Reap to visit the legendary temples of Angkor Wat. Siem Reap in 1992 was then a quiet village that evoked some wonderful images of a southeast Asia before motorcycles and vehicles. Walking along the river banks leading to the Tonle Sap in the late afternoon sunshine was an unforgettable experience. One evening I stopped for a beer at one of the bars and met two Canadian soldiers from Petawawa, not too far from my home in Ottawa – Wayne and Mac. They mentioned to me that they were driving back to Phnom Penh, which would take two days, the following day, and offered me a lift. I was very grateful for their kindness in offering this to a fellow Canadian. The following day we drove to Sisophon, probably less than 40 kilometers from the Thai border and then back to Battambang. At the small hotel we stayed at in Battamband, we met a Cambodian from Minnesota named Kim. He had been in Phnom Penh in 1975 when it fell to the Khmer Rouge. He was immediately separated from his existing family with whom he had lost contact and had spent seventeen months in a Khmer Rouge prison camp before escaping to Thailand. He had heard somehow that one of his daughters was still alive, but had not seen any other members of his family in seventeen years. He had come back to Cambodia to see if he could find her. The following day we saw the touching event of Kim, finding that his entire previous family had survived, with his former wife and all three daughters meeting again for the first time since 1975. Although he had remarried, he was hoping to take two of the daughters to America with him.

I was impressed with both Vietnam and Cambodia. Later, when I returned to working back at the Department of Foreign Affairs, I became the desk officer for Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia between 1993 and 1997. It was one of the best “round-peg, round-hole” jobs of my entire career. I was to return to Vietnam and Cambodia on a number of occasions during that period.

From Phnom Penh, I flew to Bangkok and then transferred to Hong Kong, and stayed with Ann Argyris and Don Myatt, two colleagues with whom I had worked in India eight years earlier.

From Hong Kong, I flew to Beijing, to experience my first blast of cold air since Canada many months earlier, and even first blast of cool air since the highlands of New Guinea. It took about a week there to arrange for my trip along the Trans-Siberian Express. The rapid degree of change in Beijing, contrasted with my earlier visits to the city in 1983, 1986 and 1988. When I first visited Beijing in 1983, most people were still wearing the ubiquitous “Mao jackets”, and there was only limited traffic. By late 1992, the transformation of China into the world’s manufacturing factory had begun, a construction boom was underway and consumer goods were everywhere. Many of the shoppers appeared Slavic. I stayed with Y.C. Pan, an extremely intelligent fellow, who was head of the CIDA section at the Canadian Embassy. Back in 1986, I had served on temporary duty in the development assistance section of our Embassy, had gone on mission to help design an agricultural project near Xilinhot in Inner Mongolia, then took a month off to travel to Ningxia, Lanzhou, Golmud and Lhasa, then continued by land to Kathmandu. With Don’s help, I managed to book a berth on the train to Moscow.

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