Cambodian and Vietnamese History: How Much is Too Much for Kids?

The Vietnamese Army's Newest Recruits

The Vietnamese Army’s Newest Recruits

We all know, as adults, that Vietnam and Cambodia have traumatic pasts. And the people of those countries haven’t forgotten either. We’ve just arrived in Phnom Penh and with only one day here, we’re wondering what museums and memorials are appropriate to take kids to. S21 – the prison where the Khmer Rouge tortured so many prisoners before their execution – clearly not. The Killing Field, though? It sounds crazy to suggest a mass-execution site and pile of 8000 human skulls as somewhere to take children, but it’s an important part of this country’s history and a reminder to us all of how dangerous political extremism can actually be. Should we also not teach our kids about the Holocaust for fear of upsetting them?

When I was a child, my family were living in Iran when the revolution happened. I remember being shot at by soldiers of the Revolutionary Guard. It was confusing and frightening but it was also real. History doesn’t pass children by. It sweeps them up, along with everyone else. In many ways, children were the greatest victims of both Vietnamese and Cambodian conflicts.

We had the same decision to make in Vietnam. At the War Remnants Museum there were galleries devoted to the effects of Agent Orange: walls of shocking photographs showing deformed children, and jars containing still-born human fetuses. Needless to say, we didn’t take our kids in.

But we were in a war museum, and I really didn’t want to just show them the cool tanks and fighter planes and have them come away thinking how exciting and glorious war is. We did let them see photographs of carpet-bomb blasted landscapes and American soldiers flame-throwering villages. And we talked about how the war came about; about communism and Americas “domino effect” theories; and we tried to point out ways in which the museum was biased, only showing things from the victorious North Vietnamese perspective.

But maybe the Khmer Rouge’s Year Zero atrocities are just a little bit too recent. I’d have no qualms in telling my kids that thousands of slaves died building the Ancient Egyptian pyramids. But Year Zero happened in my lifetime. There are still people alive for whom it was the defining event of their lives. It’s a personal tragedy, not just a statistic.

[NB. I wrote the following part later, as we were leaving Phnom Penh…]

In the end, we decided against visiting S-21 or the Killing Field. I’m mostly certain that my girls could have handled it, and would have come back having learnt something important. But it wouldn’t have been fair to run the risk of traumatizing them.

Instead, we went to the National Museum where we laid the groundwork for our visit to Ankor Wat by learning more about Khmer history, then we went to the royal palace to see how the royal family live nowadays, as well as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha where as well as the “Emerald” Buddha, there is more gold reliquary than I’ve ever seen in one place and the vast hall is floored with 1kg solid silver tablets.

It’s better, I think, to stick to ancient history until their older.

A Treat

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The monsoon is really starting to kick in here in HCMC, with driving rain every afternoon sending street vendors scurrying and causing mopeds to pull over so the passengers can put on their 2-headed ponchos.

We’ve finally gotten wise to weather and went out this morning to the Ho Chi Minh City museum, getting back to our hotel in time to do afternoon homeschool while it bucketted down outside.

Once the weather had cleared and the girls’ brains couldn’t take any more educatin’, we figured we deserved a treat, so walked up to the nearest ice cream parlour: Fanny Ice Cream.

If ever a sign deserved a photo…

Fanny Ice Cream At the Fanny Fridge

There Can Be Only One!

Can you help us resolve a family dispute? This is serious. Without your help I don’t know what we’ll do. Normally, we can sort out differences as they occur but this time, I’m not sure anyone is willing to back down. We need outside help.

See, the problem is this: who was the best Bruce Lee when we visited his statue in Hong Kong?

Here’s the evidence:

Ferg vs. Bruce Lee

Ferg vs. Bruce Lee

Janet vs. Bruce Lee

Janet vs. Bruce Lee

Jemima vs. Bruce Lee

Jemima vs. Bruce Lee

Scarlett vs. Bruce Lee

Scarlett vs. Bruce Lee

Evie vs. Bruce Lee

Evie vs. Bruce Lee

So? Who is the ultimate martial arts master?

Sleep Pile

The Croods sleeping in a pile in their cave – how it sometimes seems when we're in a small room

The Croods sleeping in a pile in their cave – how it sometimes seems when we’re in a small room

Tonight I feel a bit lonely.

For the first time in many months of travelling with children, my kids aren’t sharing my room. In a bid to combat the travel weariness we’re all feeling, we have decided that it might do us good to stay still for more than 3 days at a time, so on arriving here in Hoi An, we have booked into a “bungalow”* for a whole week.

It seems huge. Me and Janet have our own bedroom. Our girls have their own bedroom. And what’s more, there’s not just a separate living room but a separate kitchenette, too! All very exciting.

Except I miss the snuffles and shuffles of my little girls moving around in their sleep. I won’t know if they wake up in the night. And when I wake up first tomorrow – as I usually do – I won’t be witness to them coming to.

Personal space is something I always felt I needed, but its necessity has faded somewhat in nine months of being squashed together with Janet and my kids in a variety of small hotel rooms. And all the tiny, single-room houses we’ve seen, sometimes with whole families sleeping in one bed or just on floor mats, I guess have normalized the experience.

So, while it’s nice to have some space, to be able to stretch out and not tip-toe around after bedtime… the thought of going home to a whole big house seems perturbing. What will we do with all that space? Will we drift apart?

It’ll seem lonely without occasionally hearing Evie fall out of bed, Jemima start sucking her thumb or Scarlett wriggling around as she struggles to drop off to sleep.

It’s undoubtedly trying to all squeeze in together – just the thought of all the evening spent reading my kindle in the dark while shushing overtired children in the next bed or sorting out the umpteenth argument over who’s elbow touched who’s bottom makes me feel awash with frustration. But it does have its compensations. I really appreciate our current closeness. And I’ll miss it when it’s gone.

PS. The title is a reference to The Croods, where the whole family sleep in a big pile in their cave. Not something I have much trouble relating to, having spent much of the last eight years covered in triplets.

* The term Bungalow is used very loosely by our hotel – we are on the ground floor of a three floor building.

Spot the Komodo

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Trekking across Komodo Island, our guide managed to spot every dragon we passed but  I have no idea how.They’re incredibly well-camouflaged against the dry forest and grasses of the island.

This was taken from the path we were following through a forest clearing. There’s a komodo dragon in full view here, using their preferred hunting technique – remain completely still and rely on camouflage until prey wanders close enough to leap at,

Spot the Komodo Dragon 1

Not seen it? How about a closer shot?

Spot the Komodo Dragon 2

No? Here’s another. Of course, by now, you’re well within leaping distance…

Spot the Komodo Dragon 3

Food, Glorious Vietnamese Food

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After a month of eating “Indo”, arriving in Vietnam has been such a relief. A relief I can describe in just two words: vegetables and not-deep-fried.

Indonesian food had some pleasant surprises. Tempe – fermented soya beans – is delicious, a much tastier, meatier alternative to tofu; I don’t know why it’s not more well known.

But generally it was an much more extreme version of other SE Asian cuisines we’ve tried. The fried food was very, very fried, anything with shrimp paste used so much that your cheeks imploded, the chilli paste served with most meals (sambal) reduced your tongue to ashes, meat was prepared using Malaysian-style attack-it-madly-with-a-cleaver filleting techniques… but what got really tiring was how difficult it was to buy any food containing vegetables or that wasn’t battered and deep fried. It was like being in a tropical Scotland, and after a while mealtimes began to become something of a chore as we pounded the streets looking for something that wouldn’t make us sink like a brick if we went swimming afterwards. When we saw deep fried ice cream on our last day, not one of us was surprised.

And the fact that food hygiene doesn’t seemed to have reached much of Indonesia didn’t help. Oily meat and fish prepared who knows how many days earlier sitting in the baking sun in tin trays amid small troops of flies made even my hardened stomach wary.

But here in Vietnam we’ve had not only veges but salad! And there are noodles that haven’t been immersed in oil! And fresh, light, balanced flavours! And the cafés and street stalls look clean. It’s heaven.

Plus, Vietnamese coffee is amazing. I had no idea before we got here, but coffee is massive in Vietnam, and apparently it’s the world’s second biggest producer. Coffees I’ve bought on street corners here have been some of the best I’ve ever drunk: rich, chocolatey, dark.

We loved lots of things about Indonesia, but the hassle and food got rather wearing; travelling with children there is tough for everyone. We’re only three days into Vietnam and but we love how chilled out and delicious we’ve found it to be so far.