Tom Butt
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  54 Years Ago Today --Adventures in Cambodia
March 19, 2024

54 years ago this week, in 1970, I had completed my year as a combat engineer and arranged an Army discharge while still in Vietnam so that I could visit the famous temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, still a “neutral” country in March of 1970, whose eastern border regions nevertheless hosted the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail. I boarded an Air Vietnam flight in Saigon, and in less than an hour I was in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, an intact relic of French Indochina colonialism -- a little slice of France in the Far East.

I checked into Phnom Penh’s historic “grand” hotel, Le Royal, a little worn around the edges but still proud. I sat at the bar with French ex-pats, ordered aperitifs and tried out my rudimentary French. If I squinted, I could almost see Graham Greene at a table in the corner. I walked the grand boulevards, drank wine and ate moules et frites at the corner cafes.

And then things changed. A mob attacked, burned and sacked the North Vietnamese Embassy. The streets were teeming with angry protesters, and It was time to get out of Dodge.

54 years ago today, March 19, 1970, while Prince Sihanouk was touring Europe, the Soviet Union, and China, he was deposed, and the National Assembly granted “full power” to Premier Lon Nol, declared a state of emergency, and suspended four articles of the constitution, permitting arbitrary arrest and banning public assembly. Lon Nol and First Deputy Premier Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak had conducted a coup against Prince Norodom Sihanouk and proclaimed the establishment of the Khmer Republic.

My primary destination in Cambodia was still Angkor Wat, so I left seething Phnom Penh, joined several other westerners and rented a station wagon with a driver to take us to Siem Reap, 318 km north -- a day’s drive.

I wrote to my parents:

16 March 1970

Dear Folks,

I have for three days now been in Siem Reap, which is the town near the temple complexes of Angkor Wat. For reasons that I will relate when I have more time and paper, I left Vietnam with substantially less money than I had anticipated, so I am not exactly traveling in the grand style – but at the same time enjoying it more.

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. 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 see 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.

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.

Love, Tom
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Envelope for letter above

Fishermen on the Mekong River between Phnom Penh and Siem Riep (Angkor Wat)A person in a boat with a net    Description automatically generated

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Ferry across the Mekong River at Kampong Cham, between Phnom Penh and Siem Riep (Ankor Wat)

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 Above, Angkor Wat main entry, March 1970..

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Cambodian currency

After running out of money in Siem Riep, heading west to Thailand via land was my 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 in Aranyaprathet, just west of Poipet.

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

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