Tom Butt
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  52 Years Ago Today....
March 8, 2022

… I traded in my jungle boots and frayed fatigues for civilian clothes and bought a ticket on Air Vietnam to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  I always wanted to see Angkor Way, so instead of taking the Freedom Bird east, I headed west.

Figure 1 - Goodbye, Vietnam!

Figure 2 - Right, entry visa for Laos, which I did not use, and right, exit visa from Vietnam that I needed to get out of the country as a civilian

Figure 3 - Entry visa for Cambodia with entry stamp (upper right) dated March 10, 1970, and departure stamp from Poipet (lower right) dated March 15, 1970

Phnom Penh was a time capsule, seemingly unchanged since the days of French colonialism. I wrote to my parents:

My first leg out of Saigon took me to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, which was only 20 minutes by air. It could as well be halfway around the world by appearance. I was at once impressed by the cleanliness and friendliness of the city and amazed at what a different attitude the Cambodians seem to have about taking care of their environment. The Vietnamese hold the Cambodians almost in contempt and consider them to be culturally inferior – but quite the opposite is true. Phnom Penh is a real pleasure. There are broad boulevards and many parks – and all very quiet with little motor traffic, congestion and smog. Every street is completely lined with trees and flowers, and on every corner is a sidewalk café in the best European tradition. The people are a mixture of Khmer (true Cambodian), Vietnamese and Chinese – and most speak varying amounts of French. English is not too common except around the hotels – and for the first time in ages my old French is really getting a workout and doing quite well.

The only westerners I saw in Phnom Penh were all French – and there were a good many Japanese.

While I was Phnom Penh, there was a coup in which Prince Sihanouk was overthrown. From what I could see, it was essentially bloodless, and the public display consisted mainly of crowds marching through the streets. The North Vietnamese Embassy was burned (see below).

In March 1970, when Sihanouk was touring Europe, the Soviet Union, and China a mob attack against the North Vietnamese embassy, initially planned by Sihanouk as a demonstration to pressure Moscow and Beijing, commenced but was led out of control by government agents who managed to organize the complete sacking of it. In it a contingency plan was found for the Communists to occupy Cambodia, which further inflamed the government in Phnom Penh which engaged in combat with the Vietnamese and demanded their withdrawal. Instead of returning to Cambodia to confront the growing crisis, Sihanouk continued his tour of Communist nations.

On March 16, the Cambodian Secretary of State and police chief, Mannorine, was questioned by the national legislature about corruption occurring under Sihanouk. Worried that prime minister, Lon Nol, was preparing to depose Sihanouk, he attempted to depose Lon Nol only to be defeated by the army and arrested. Lon Nol's deputy, Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak, then advised Nol to remove Sihanouk from the government.

The next day, the army took up positions around the capital. A debate was held within the National Assembly. The assembly had been purged of leftists in the 1960s by Sihanouk and was made up at that point almost exclusively of rightests. One member of the assembly walked out of the proceedings in protest and was not harmed after. The rest of the assembly voted unanimously to invoke Article 122 of the Cambodian constitution which withdrew confidence in Sihanouk. Lon Nol then took on the powers of head of state on an emergency basis, while much of the government of Sihanouk remained the same. This marked the foundation of the Khmer Republic.


My primary destination in Cambodia was Angkor Wat, so following the coup, I joined several other westerners and rented a station wagon with a driver to take us to Siem Reap. I wrote my parents:

After a couple of relaxing days, I took a taxi (station wagon with 16 people in it) to Siem Reap and I am now staying on the roof of a Chinese hotel. This roof is known far and wide as “the place’ for budget travelers in Cambodia. You get a cot, one sheet and one thin blanket for $1.00 a night. It’s really quite nice. Most of the patrons are ex-Peace Corps types from all over the world. You can feed yourself for less than $1.00 a day at the local market on tasty tidbits of dubious quality and cleanliness. The temples near here date from the 10th to the 12th Century and are one of the most impressive things I have ever seen. Reclaimed from the jungle starting over 60 years ago, most have been partially rebuilt in painstaking detail. They are huge beyond belief – and the walls, gateways and artificial lakes spread out through the jungles for miles in every direction. The main roads are laid out so as to form a series of loops by which you can se each of the major complexes in series. This is the place that is famous for temple rubbings – and I have purchased a number that I am ending home from Thailand in a day or two. I paid less than a dollar apiece for them. They are probably worth much more in the states

Figure 4 – Angkor Wat Minin Entry, 1970

Running out of money, I needed to get to Bangkok where I could withdraw money from my bank account. I wrote:

Tomorrow, I am going to Thailand by bus, taxi and train via the overland route between here and Bangkok. After a few days in Thailand, I’ll probably fly to Hong Kong and Japan where I really have to make a big decision. For only a little over $200, I can take the railroad across Russia in a trip that includes food, lodging, etc. I think this would really be fantastic! I would have to stay in Japan for maybe up to a month to get my visa and all plans worked out with Intourist. But the trip across is only 10 days from Vladivostok to Moscow. I could then catch my free ride back to the states from Germany, Spain or England, according to how things work out. I’ve got another big temptation to take a trip down the Malaysian peninsula through Indonesia and visit Bali, which is the really “in” place in Asia and also very cheap. But I don’t think I’ll do it at the expense of my Russia trip.

Anyway, I‘m thoroughly enjoying myself and enjoying being a civilian once again. I’m eager to come home, but there is so much to see in this part of the world. I don’t see how I can afford to miss it. Will keep you informed as I move around.

Heading west to Thailand via land was our only option, as the airports remained closed following the coup. Again, with a small group of westerners, we rented a station wagon and a driver and headed west. At some point, the roads became too bad and too narrow for the car, so we engaged a driver of a motorcycle with a trailer (tuk tuk) to continue the trip. Finally, as we neared the Thai border, we had to get out and walk across a bridge over a small river where we passed into Thailand at a decrepit border station.

At the small Thai border village, we boarded a steam train with wooden cars pulled by a wood burning locomotive. Within a few hours we had traveled from the heart of the jungle to downtown Bangkok.

Figure 5 - Entry visa for Thailand (upper left) stamped March 16, 1970, at Aranyaprathet, Thailand, just west of Poipet, Cambodia