The history of Southeast Asia is filled with crucial events and cultural advances. Wars decided the fate of nations and rewrote the continent’s maps, protests rocked governments, and atrocities were committed both by and against the region. Southeast Asia is known for its beauty, cultural diversity and friendly locals. But it is also steeped in a dark and violent history, things that you might not have been exposed to in Western society, but once you visit these places on your travels, and hear the stories, the lessons of this history will stay with you for the rest of your life.
The Stray Asia hop-on hop-off travel route explores Northern Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Along the way there’s lots of time for adventure activities, awesome cultural experiences, incredibly beautiful scenery, delicious cuisine and fun times with your new travel mates, but there are also a few very special places that teach you a deeper story about the region you’re travelling in, and give you a new understanding of the culture, the people and why things are the way they are today.
These places are:
- The COPE Centre in Laos
- The Killing Fields and S-21 Prison in Cambodia
- The My Lai Memorial in Vietnam
The COPE Centre – Laos
The COPE Centre is in Vientiane, the capital city of Laos. This centre is extremely well set-up and the people there do some truly incredible work. It serves to educate visitors about the long-standing effects of the war on Laos, and the on-going effects it still has. “What war?” you might ask. Well, the sad fact is, Laos wasn’t even involved in the war that made them the most heavily bombed country in all of history. Laos just happens to be next to Vietnam and during the Vietnam war the US dropped a planeload of bombs on Laos, every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years. They did it to try to stop supply routes to Vietnam and simply to empty their planes before coming into land so they didn’t land with live ammunition.
Many of the bombs were landmines (which you can see in the picture above), the size of tennis balls, designed to settle into the fields, rivers and crops, and lie in wait until a farmer, a child, an animal disturbed them, when they’d explode. Much of the land in Laos is still covered with these active bombs. This makes it extremely difficult to safely develop the country, clear bush for farmland and many people all over the country have lost limbs, eyesight and lives, from the bombs, and continue to do so. A lot of these people live in villages so remote, that they don’t have access to medical care, and this affects them and their families for the rest of their lives, as they can never work again. The Cope Centre provide support and medical care for these people who have been affected and are working to clear the country of landmines, but it’s a big job that will take many more years. The injustice of what has happened to Laos, and is continuing to happen, makes you realise the awful effects of war on the innocent.
The Killing Fields and S21 Prison – Cambodia
The Killing Fields in Phnom Penh in Cambodia and the S21 prison tell the extremely violent and horrific story of genocide in Cambodia in the 1970’s when it’s estimated that 1.4 million to 2.2 million Cambodians were killed by the government at the time.
The Killing Fields might look tranquil and peaceful as you walk around the grounds, but if you listen to the audioguide the narrators tell the horrific history of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge so you can really understand what happened at this place. It is a harrowing and humbling experience. The fields are actually a mass burial ground where people deemed to be traitors by the Khmer Rouge and their families, including their children and even babies, were killed here in mass graves. ‘Traitors’ were generally intellectuals – schoolteachers, university professors, doctors, and scientists. At the end of the tour you’ll see a monument that contains the skulls and bones of just some of the people killed here.
To learn more about the Khmer Rouge regime, visit the Tuol Sleng S21 Prison. The Prison was actually once a school. When the Khmer Rouge took power they made it into a prison to house the ‘traitors’ before taking them out to the Killing Fields. The Khmer Rouge were finally driven out of power in 1979 and the Prison has now been turned into a museum for the education of citizens and tourists and contains hundreds of pictures of the victims and terrorists that spent time there. You can walk through the cells and around the grounds to learn about this terrifying history. At the time Cambodia’s borders were closed to foreigners and world media and so it’s appalling to think that this was taking place and the world did not know it was happening. The extensiveness and the recentness of this genocide is deeply shocking.
My Lai Memorial – Vietnam
My Lai is a small Vietnamese village on the way to the popular tourist town of Hoi An. This unassuming little town is home to a museum, which explains the history of the region and the atrocities committed there by a company of American soldiers during the Vietnam War (or The American War – from the Vietnamese peoples’ perspective). Most people visit the Cu Chi Tunnels just out of Ho Chi Minh and learn about the War, but as one of the lesser-known aspects of Vietnamese history the story you learn at My Lai gives a deeper realisation about the truly awful ways this war affected the Vietnamese people.
On entry to the My Lai Museum you’ll be shown a documentary on the My Lai Massacre. The film details the experiences of the ‘Charlie Company’ a team of American Soldiers who were sent to My Lai, and the events that lead up to the tragedy. It will give you the facts about the cover-up by the American Army, the subsequent investigation and how the soldiers involved are dealing with their memories years after the disastrous attack. Afterwards you’ll be shown the grounds of the museum, which includes a reconstruction of an actual house in My Lai and a powerful and emotive commemorative statue which is a symbol to all, that this event will not be forgotten, and nor will the brave souls who suffered there.
Overall, travelling in Asia is a wonderful experience – you’ll learn so much about yourself and the world travelling this part of the world! Most of your trip will be spent creating happy and positive memories but it will also be punctuated with incredibly moving historical visits and insights into the intricate and complex past of Southeast Asia, which may just change you and the way you view the world as a whole.