I’m sitting in our hostel, Me Mates Villa, in Phnom Penh, the buzzing, conflicted capital city of Cambodia. Since I posted last, I’ve traveled through Thailand with my sister, Kate, and her friend, Abby (Part One). Then Kate and I traveled to Myanmar for a week, exploring Mandalay and Bagan (Part Two). Kate left Bangkok in mid-October, and I took off to meet fellow teachers for two weeks traveling through Cambodia (Part Three.)
So that’s the short version, divided into three parts. I can’t imagine trying to encapsulate all of the last month into one blog post, but I’m giving it a go. So consider this the highlight reel.
PART ONE: Thailand. From teacher to backpacker in 24 hours.
Though that first week of October feels like about four years ago instead of just four weeks ago, we had a wonderful tour of Thailand. I met the girls in Bangkok after my whirlwind week of goodbyes in Suphanburi, and in true jetsetter fashion, we went straight to the SkyBar for intricate cocktails that cost the equivalent of 15 dinner meals for me in Suphan. Our hostel also had aircon, hot water, and comfy beds; I’m sure both Kate and Abby were entertained by my enthusiastic exclamations (!!!) about how AMAZINGLY PERFECT the temperature of everything was. Coming from my hot Suphan apartment with it’s slightly sketchy bathroom, and after eating pad thai/green curry/tom kha for 30 baht almost every day for the last five months, I felt like I was reemerging into modern civilization. Which I was, actually.
On the wings of Air Asia, Kate, Abby and I went from BKK to Chiang Mai to Phuket over the course of seven days. We learned how to make pad thai and mango with sticky rice in Chiang Mai, and cruised the seedy streets of Patong on Phuket for entertainment when our island time turned into a non-beach vacation due to the moody monsoon skies. We had the chance to catch up with family we hadn’t seen in ten years on Phuket, which was an unexpected bonus. Then Abby was homeward bound and Kate and I laced up our adventurous boots and caught a plane to Mandalay, Myanmar.
PART TWO: Going back in time. The intersection of slow and FAST in Myanmar.
Kate and I landed in Mandalay and all of a sudden Thailand felt like a very developed country. The streets of Mandalay reminded me of India – a muggy cacophony of bikes, motorbikes, dusty foodstalls, colorful processions in the streets and chanting at all hours, smiles, smells and barefoot children.
We spent the evening wandering the city a bit, and changing money – quite a process in a country with dual currencies, where no one accepts a U.S dollar with even the slightest bend or crease, or credit cards, for that matter. The next morning we were off for a five-hour ride to Bagan, an ancient city of temples on the Ayerwaddy River. We allowed ourselves to spend a little more on our hotel and checked into the Bagan Thande Hotel. And it was totally worth it, because here was the view:
We joked that we were on “Sistermoon 2013”. Which it definitely felt like as we sipped whiskey sodas and watched the sunset over the river, a muddy expanse of water peacefully moving by. I felt like Don Draper on vacation in Southeast Asia. What a contrast from Mandalay.
The next day we hired a kind and persistent (thus, the hiring) horsecart driver, Su, who toured us around the temples of Bagan. It was stunning, and unreal – spires the color of red clay dotting the landscape for miles, and only a sprinkling of wandering tourists. (It was the first job for Su in 10 days.) A guidebook will tell you this is what Angkor Wat used to be like.
I feel fortunate that Kate and I had the chance to explore Myanmar, and I think we were both treading carefully, cognizant of the systematic oppression and current human rights issues in the country. I’ve started reading Aung San Suu Khi’s “Letters from Burma” and am starting to get a grasp on Myanmar’s history and culture, slowly.
We were awed by the contrast of old and new: the giant, gleaming expressway with everyone driving like it was the Autobahn because they’ve literally never been able to drive this fast, and so they drive a wobbly, frightening 120 km / hour — but with cows idly crossing, and a woman picking flowers out of the concrete on the shoulder, squatting squarely in the lane of oncoming traffic.
We were surrounded by men, women and children wearing the traditional longyis (sarongs) and thanaka (a face paint / makeup / sunscreen that I came to see as quite beautiful). We were handed ancient scrolls while visiting a monastery to touch and feel – in America, these would be behind some sort of treated glass, sterilized and encased for our children’s children. Everywhere the Burmese people became our impromptu tour guides, an eight year-old boy popping up at my side in Bagan telling me about Buddha, and our horsecart driver first telling us the name of his horse (Michael – how sensible!) and then the name and history of each temple.
Travel in a country where the government is questionable, shall we say, and you realize how much you subconsciously rely on the general predictability of infrastructure and law. It’s luck and a privilege to live in a country where these things are expected. Myanmar does not have this. And the Burmese people have been isolated for so long that it is easy to fall into the trap of finding them charming, in an antiquated way. This would do their history an injustice. So as I flew away, I thought about how more communication, more education, more transparency, more government accountability – is always better than less. The irony of the U.S. government shutdown at the time was not lost on me, either.
After Kate and I parted ways, I spent a few nights in Bangkok getting my sea legs back and was surprised to discover how much the sprawling, flashy, congested megalopolis felt like home. I treated myself to a nice Indian dinner at a restaurant in Silom and asked to sit outside, soaking it in. Six months ago I would have been safely ensconced in the aircon, away from the exhaust and noise of the street.
But I was not in Bangkok for long – there was still two weeks left in my month of wanderlust. And Cambodia was up next. Off to Siem Reap.
PART THREE: Cambodia. Inspiration and devastation.
I’m not sure where to start with Cambodia. I spent my two weeks in three very different cities: First, Siem Reap, the growing, vibrant city that funnels thousands through the spectacular temples of Angkor Wat every day. Next, off to Otres Beach, a divinely mellow beach near Sihanoukville, on the south coast of Cambodia. Finally, I ended my trip in Phnom Penh, where I was entranced by the openness of the Khmer people and carved out by visits to the S21 Prison and The Killing Fields.
Cambodia is a land with visible and invisible scars created by its heart-breaking history, unstable government, and an uncertain future. It is also a country of contrasts; the grandeur of Angkor Wat is unmatched on this planet, but Cambodia remains one of the poorest countries on the globe. But my conversations and time spent with Khmer people were my most treasured experiences of this month of travel, and those conversations gave me reasons to be optimistic. So here is how it went.
Siem Reap is a hip, bustling town with all roads leading to Angkor Wat (literally). I arrived in the small, surprisingly immaculate airport, hopped in a tuk tuk, and with a new friend was off to see Angkor Wat straight away. But here is my recommendation if you go to Siem Reap – do the opposite of what people tell you to do. If all the drivers tell you to go to Angkor Wat for sunrise, go to Ta Prohm or Bayon for sunrise. I found the temples most intriguing when I wasn’t clambering for space and could wander and enjoy the mysterious pathways and steep, moss-covered stairways on my own. Angkor Wat and the city of Angkor Thom, and all of the temples surrounding these two complexes, are beyond words. No photo can do them justice. You simply must go.
After connecting with a few friends in Siem Reap, we made a last minute decision to go south to the Sihanoukville area for a Cambodian beach vacation. I hadn’t done proper beach time since late May (a crime in SE Asia, really!) so four days digging my toes into white sand sounded fantastic.
One 14 hour karaoke-filled bus ride later, I arrived on Otres Beach, a place where people go for two days and stay for two years. It wasn’t hard to see why. Our $15 / night thatched roof bungalow stepped out onto the sand, facing the warm, turquoise sea. The food was amazing and cheap, the people relaxed and authentic. No infinity edge pools or cabana boys here. Perfect.
Sufficiently relaxed, and with a backpack full of sandy clothes, I headed to the capital of Phnom Penh for my last few days in Cambodia. First, I cannot recommend my hostel, Me Mates Villa, enough. I’ve never met a friendlier group of people, both staying in and working at this little place. Add delicious chicory coffee and a shaded, quiet patio – and I could’ve easily moved in for a couple of weeks.
But that was not the plan. I had three full days in PP and spent one day exploring the city, which was much more approachable than I had envisioned. Busy, yes – but also filled with fantastic restaurants, a thriving expat scene and green space. It’s known for bag-snatching and we were reminded by our tuk tuk drivers, without fail, to hold our purses and not walk alone at night. But with common sense and a little extra care, I enjoyed the city of Phnom Penh quite a bit.
It is impossible to visit Cambodia without being confronted by and devastated by the history of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge, and the genocide of three million people that took place from 1975-1979. One out of every four people in the country was murdered at the hands of the Khmer Rouge in less than four years. This history wasn’t ever taught to me, and it wasn’t taught in Cambodian schools until 2009. The trials of the upper level generals in the Khmer Rouge literally ended TODAY (October 31st, 2013), with all of them denying guilt. So this isn’t just recent history in Cambodia. It is happening now.
I visited the S21 Prison (Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum), a former high school in Phnom Penh where the Khmer Rouge imprisoned and tortured more than 20,000 people. And then spent the next morning at Choueng Ek Genocidal Center, or “The Killing Fields”, one of more than 300 sites across the country where the Khmer Rouge brutally murdered millions of people. My words sound hollow and empty when I attempt to write about this, but please read more about it. Especially if it’s as unfamiliar to you as it was to me.
So that was my October. One full month of travels. Meeting friends old and new. I found myself thinking again how lucky I am; how most people on the planet, no matter where they live, will never have the time to explore and the means to do it. The choice to do what they want.
On that note, I’ll be unplugged for most of November, doing my Yoga Teacher Training at Wise Living Yoga Academy in Chiang Mai, Thailand. 2013 continues to be an awe-inspiring year for me, at every turn – and I’m sure an intensive month of training in classical yoga will be challenging and awesome, in the true meaning of the word. I am brimming with wonder and gratitude already.
So I’ll report back in late November / early December. Until then, Namaste.