Thanksgiving is a day we express gratitude for all that we have.
It’s a uniquely American holiday and my friends overseas often are kind enough to extend wishes to my family and me at this time of year.
It also is a time to remember. And today I am remembering a particularly exciting Thanksgiving holiday.
I spent it far from home. I didn’t talk to my family that day. I was traveling in what once was a war zone and the site of one of the 20th century’s most infamous episodes of genocide.
Thanksgiving Day 1989 was spent traveling with fellow editorial writers and editors from Phnom Penh, Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The day ended in grand fashion, for which we all gave thanks at the end of a harrowing overland travel experience.
The day began in Cambodia, where our group of about 20 journalists had toured several chilling locations, including killing fields, the infamous Tuol Sleng prison and where we met with survivors of the Pol Pot’s murderous reign of terror that ended nearly a decade earlier when Vietnam invaded Cambodia and ousted the dictator’s Khmer Rouge regime.
The country had been decimated. Two million Cambodians had been exterminated. The country’s infrastructure was in shambles. The people — beautiful as they are — were still in shock. The capital city of Phnom Penh was virtually empty.
We set out that day in several vans full of people and luggage along a crowded bumpy road. Ho Chi Minh City would be our destination. But first we had to travel several hundred treacherous miles.
The “highlight” of our journey occurred when we reached the Mekong River. We boarded a “ferry,” which in reality was hardly more than a motorized raft. Aboard that so-called ferry we loaded our vans, along with Cambodians traveling with carts, animals, loads of fresh fruit. The river, as I recall, was running fairly swiftly and I began to fantasize about overturning in the middle of the Mekong. I read an imaginary headline in my mind: “U.S. journalists killed in Cambodia ferry disaster.”
We made it across the river and then continued on our way.
Finally, several hours later we arrived at the Cambodia-Vietnam border. The line of traffic getting through the militarized checkpoint was quite long. We had a young guide, who we called Vibol. As with most business in Cambodia, a lot of it is transacted underground, under the table. Vibol collected some cash from all of us and then greased some palms at the gate. Suddenly, without explanation, our party was moved to the head of the line.
We slid on through to the Vietnamese side of the border, where we noticed a vision in the form of the young Vietnamese guide who had escorted us through Vietnam at an earlier portion of the trip. Her name was Mai and she was, as one might say, a sight for sore eyes — if you know what I mean.
Mai then escorted us the rest of the way to Ho Chi Minh City — which, by the way, the locals still refer to as Saigon.
We reached the city. Got to our hotel, unpacked our vehicles and were informed that the hotel staff had prepared a special dinner for us that evening.
We got cleaned up and went down to eat later. Awaiting us in a very nice dining room was a meal of what one of my colleagues called “road kill duck,” mashed potatoes, peas, rolls and a cake for dessert.
Was it the kind of Thanksgiving meal to which we were accustomed? No. But it was served with all the love and good intentions imaginable. Our Vietnamese hosts wanted to recognize our special holiday.
For that we all were thankful beyond measure.
After the experience we had endured that day, and in the previous days in a country decimated by war and untold inhumanity, we felt almost at home in a faraway land.