From Hanoi to Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh

Sept. 20, 1954

Dear Dad and Russ:

I hope by this time you will have received my letter from Hanoi.  I sure am happy about this posting to Phnom Penh.  P P is really the most fantastic city I have ever seen in all my life.  It is the heart of the Buddhist religion in Cambodia and all local customs, architecture, etc., are governed thereby.

I liked Hanoi pretty well as far as the city itself went.  But right at this time it is a very sad city.  Everywhere you look there are refugees fleeing the city with little bundles of personal belongings.  Great mansions of the well-to-do Vietnamese have been left vacant and even after this short time you can see signs of deterioration.  So as you can see, Hanoi was not a very happy place to be living.  I must say, however, that our rooms were certainly very nice in the best hotel in town.  The meals were quite good also but pretty monotonous.  We have been advised by local doctors and doctors in the Commission itself, to drink good French wine with all our meals.  This not only tends to sharpen ones’ appetite and make food tastier, but also serves  as a germ killer.  Sounds quite logical.  Between meals we are advised to drink either tea or the local beer.  Beer is mostly advised because of its food value and also because of its thirst quenching qualities.  Since I have been in Indo-China I have had only two glasses of water and both of these were treated with a special iodine tablet before drinking.  These tablets certainly kill any germs that might be in the water, but they also nearly kill you with their taste.  Also, there is no such thing as fresh milk here.  The only milk available is canned condensed milk which is only good for cooking or with tea.  The local coffee is horrible.  One nice thing about Hanoi was the swimming pool at the Cercle Sportif.  We were allowed to use this pool anytime we wanted to and it certainly was a grand way to cool off.

Now, about Phnom Penh.  Well as I said before, P P (short for Phnom Penh, by the way) is really quite fantastic.  The temperature down here is much cooler than in Hanoi, for what reason I really cannot imagine because we are about 500 miles nearer the equator.  However, the climate is really very pleasant.  Just like an average summer’s day in Ottawa.  We are still in the Monsoon season here and every day around 2:30 in the afternoon everything gets quite dark and a terrific wind, nearly typhoon strength, comes up and it rains for about half an hour.  Now when I say rain, I really mean rain!  It is absolutely impossible to go out in this rain even with an umbrella, and it’s a little too warm to bundle up in a rain coat.  So the only thing one can do is stay in bed until it’s over.  Oh, by the way, I should mention here that my working hours are from 8:30 a.m. till 12 noon, and 3:00 till 5:00.  This gives us three hours for lunch and time for a siesta which everyone takes.  I certainly am going to find it hard when I get back to Ottawa to miss having a sleep at noon hour.  It certainly picks a person up and refreshes you.  I am living at a Chinese hotel called the “Cambodia Hotel” with five fellows who work in Army Signals.  They’re really good guys and we have a lot of fun together.  One of the fellows is Gordon Happy from the Ottawa YMCA.  He knows Mr. Buckley quite well, so if you get a chance Dad, mention it to him that I met “Hap” out here in Cambodia.

The rooms at the Cambodia are very nice and clean.  All the beds have great mosquito nets that cover the entire bed.  At night I find it necessary to even sleep under a sheet, it gets so cool.  Each room has a balcony with a beaded bamboo curtain covering the door.  From these balconies you can look for miles and miles off into the country.  On clear days it is possible to see a low range of mountains rising up from the great central plain of Cambodia.  Reminds me very much of the Gatineau.

The meals however, at the Cambodia are all Chinese so we have to go to the Hotel de la Poste to eat.  This hotel is situated on sort of a village square right opposite the local post office.  The dining room is really a sidewalk café sort of place and its really very interesting to watch the passing population while you eat your meals.  The food here is really, really good.  It’s all prepared by a French cook, and we can get such things as steak, roasts, and delicious French pastries.  Honestly, I think that I’ve put on about 10 pounds already with all this rich food.

The Headquarters of the International Commission is an old theatre fixed up into offices.  In this building there are Canadians, Indians and Poles all working together.  The language problem isn’t too bad because we all use French.  I’m honestly surprised by how much French I really know!  Haven’t had a bit of difficulty yet.  I’m even starting to think in French!  French is the only language outside of Cambodian that anyone understands or speaks here so the only time I can use English is at work.  Occasionally, even at work, I find myself slipping into French.  I never thought it would come to this.  One of the Signals fellows is French and he says that I’m the only one of the bunch who can talk French with any degree of fluency!  Well, wonders never cease.

Now, about my office.  I am (no fooling) private secretary to the Acting Canadian Commissioner to Phnom Penh!  My office is in what is known as the “Canadian Villa”.  And that’s just what it is – a villa.  The villa consists of a large living-dining room area and a pantry downstairs.  There is a long winding staircase going upstairs where there are two bedrooms, each with a shower, and a toilet.  My office (private office) is in the larger of the two bedrooms and the other one is used by Army Signals.  The villa is the last word in a modern home.  I’ll send you a picture of it soon and I bet you won’t be able to tell if I’m in Indo-China or Hollywood!

You know sometimes you see what we call a “phony” Hollywood movie, with all sorts of weird temples and great staircases, gaudily decorated and laugh to ourselves and say “now that’s utterly ridiculous”?  Well here in Phnom Penh are just such temples and staircases as you might see in any Hollywood movie.  For example, one of the signal boys and I took a walk to the top of a hill smack in the middle of town yesterday to visit a Buddhist temple.  To get to this temple you had to climb a great long pink (yes, I said pink) staircase!  This staircase was decorated with all sorts of strange animals and little statues of different gods, Buddhist, I guess, and the central flight of stairs had railings in the shape of two pink snakes, each with a dozen or so heads!  All around the temple we were greeted by Buddhist priests, dressed in bright yellow toga-like robes and carrying white umbrellas.  These priests all have their heads shaven and do not wear shoes!  However, they were quite friendly and were very eager to show us around.  Maybe they had intentions of converting us or something (ha ha).  I didn’t have my camera with me yesterday but I certainly will take some pictures of this temple and staircase and send them to you.

Just down the street a block away from the villa is what we fellows call “our club”.  It is the Phnom Penh Cercle Sportif.  We all have memberships now for the club and have use of the lounge, pool room, tennis courts, and one of the most beautiful swimming pools I have ever seen in all my life.  It’s too wonderful to describe so I shall just have to send you a picture of it also.  In front of the club are about a dozen royal palm trees.  Real lush.  By the way I never realized there were so many different varieties of palm trees!  Some of the local palms are in the shape of a perfect fan!  Everywhere you look, besides palm trees, are weird jungle flowers growing wild.  One of the prettiest flowers in P P is the hibiscus.  They grow in bright scarlets, yellows, and a great variety of shades.  It’s really like a tropical paradise, sort of like something you might read about and then shake your head and say it really couldn’t be.  But it is, I can assure you.

The only means of transportation in P P is by “cyclo-pouse”.  This consists of a three-wheeled bicycle, with the passenger sitting in a very comfortable chair up front and the driver peddling like mad behind you.  They are very well constructed and are very comfortable to travel in.  The cost is only 3 piasters (about 8 or 9 cents) for anywhere in town.

Well, I have so much to tell you it would take a book to do it in, so I guess I’ll just have to wait till I return to Ottawa and tell you about all my wonderful experiences bit by bit.  Whatever you do don’t worry about me one little bit.  We’re living like kings here and enjoying every minute of it.  The only thing wrong with all this is that I’m apt to get spoiled with all these luxuries.  I think I told you in my last letter that the Commission is paying for all our hotel accommodation, meals, laundry, etc., so I expect to be a millionaire by the time my two years are up in Indo-China.

Bye for now, and do try to drop me a line soon.



P.S.  As the Commissioner and I are the only two Canadian civilians here and because all the Army personnel have moustaches, I have grown one also.  Looks quite good, too, the way I’ve trimmed it.  I’m seriously considering keeping it.


Our Mister Nixon with his new ‘stache



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