“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” -Mark Twain

Sunday, February 21, 2010

To Miss or Not to Miss

Things I'll miss about Thailand & Cambodia:
  • Flipflops every day
  • Mango sticky rice
  • Street food - any food, any time
  • Breakfast: egg omelet w/ scallions on rice w/ chili sauce, sitting on a plastic stool on a sidewalk, for $0.75
  • 3 meals a day for $5 total
  • Bargaining
  • Friendly people, greetings
  • Taking shoes off before entering a home (maybe I'll start this)
  • Chicken soup in coconut lime broth
  • Fast, clean, cheap Bangkok public rail transit
  • Bangkok - clean, green, friendly, alive
  • Heat - a nice change from Chicago
Things I won't miss:
  • Smelling like mosquito repellent
  • Taxis that don't use meters - negotiating rates
  • Scheisters - "One more stop first in tuk tuk ride" or "temple closed today, but I'll show you other temple" or taxi drivers that the longest way around
  • Being hassled by pushy vendors
  • Living out of a suitcase
  • Doing laundry by hand
  • Calculating monetary conversion rate in my head
  • Heat - and changing clothes 3x/day because of it

Cambodia's Tragedy

Since we spent Thursday discovering Cambodia's ancient past, we spent Friday morning in recent history with a visit to the War Museum in Siem Reap. "Museum" is a liberal term. It looked like someone's overgrown backyard full of rusty tanks, helicopters, an airplane, Howitzers, ammunition, and land mines.

Cambodia's civil war was approximately from 1970-1975, then the Khmer Rouge wrested power from the democracy and established an egalitarian state of the cruelest kind: emptying cities and forcing the population into the fields to toil for little food. Many died of malnourishment and from the labor, and the others were executed: mostly intellectuals, journalists, artists, anyone who could threaten power to the KR. Since bullets were expensive, the KR chose to execute people without the "luxury" of a quick death by bullet. In 5 years, 3 million people were murdered, the rice paddies filled with their bodies, hence "The Killing Fields." This was one fifth of Cambodia's population. Traditional arts, crafts, music, knowledge, and other trades were nearly eliminated.

How did the KR obtain their weapons to overthrow the government? They purchased second-hand weaponry from WWI, WWII, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, along with the assistance of the Chinese government, who supported the KR's extreme communist vision. Much of the heavy equipment was Russian- and Chinese-manufactured, and at least half of the firearms and bomb casings were American. What was that feeling when I held an AR-17 rifle in my hands and saw "Colt. Manufactured in Hartford, Conn" in my hands? Shame. Shame that this very weapon that was made in our country, that our government purchased, then sold, and ended up in the hands of the Khmer Rouge, used in the largest genocide since the Holocaust. I was pained to see the 500 pound bomb casing lying nearby with American markings, wondering perhaps if it was dropped during Nixon's secret bombing campaign in the country. Who did this bomb kill? Or those rifles? The family of our guide, who lost 3 fingers while attempting to defuse a landmine, and is still harboring shrapnel beneath his skin? Our guide's family who were all killed during the war and the KR regime, and saw his friends at age 10 and 15 blown to pieces by land mines? Despite the efforts to defuse 10 million mines in the country, it is believed that another 3 million still lie in wait for another innocent victim.

And it made me think, what are we contributing to the world? Sure, we export vaccines, technology, food, and humanitarian assistance. But we're also exporting weaponry, what countries are we selling these to, that after they outlive their usefulness, they're resold on the secondary market? Then used to what purpose, and in whose hands?

The last Khmer Rouge stronghold finally collapsed in 1998 along with the death of Pol Pot, but unfortunately, corruption still permeates this alleged "democracy." Former KR officials now hold office in the government and the courts. Despite local and international efforts to both defuse the mines, as well as nurture and preserve the near-dead Cambodia arts of apsara dance, silk weaving, ceramics, and shadow puppetry, this country has a very, very long way to go.

Our feelings were mixed as we left Cambodia. How did we help? We pumped plenty of cash into the local economy on handicrafts, paid directly to the merchants, but what about that $25 departure tax? A government-imposed fee that puts my money directly into their pockets. Am I helping or hindering? Is this fishbowl tourism, visiting a place to see how differently they live, then I hop on a comfortable plane and relax in my air-conditioned hotel room and call for room service. What kind of footprint did we leave behind?

If anything, travel has shown us our good fortune as Americans, and opened our eyes to what is so blantantly in our faces: poverty, child exploitation, corruption, scams, and lack of historical preservation. Travel creates awareness, but one must be prepared for how that awareness can be more of a downer than an uplifting vacation. On the other hand, it has opened our hearts to causes we had otherwise never considered. Cambodia may be experiencing a rebirth of sorts, but their tragic recent history is still within our generation, too soon perhaps for significant change.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Angkor Temples

Angkor Wat
Today we awoke at 4am to grab some bikes to trek up to Angkor Wat to catch the sunrise. Despite our will to sleep in, we knew we'd miss an opportunity. The ride up was pitch black. In town there were lights, but as soon as we left town, no lights, few cars, and just a couple tuktuks (reameau in Cambodia), and a few other bikers. For a while we were operating blindly through the jungle hoping a dog, monkey, or whatnot wouldn't jump out at us. Couldn't see a thing. Arrived safely, locked up the bikes and camped to watch the sun come up over Angkor Wat. Google-image it. Amazing, breathtaking. A few thousand other people had the same idea, but it was manageable.

Following that, we explored the stunning temple complex a bit more, then biked up to Angkor Thom to explore The Bayon and the Terrace of Elephants, then to Ta Prohm (see also: Tomb Raider). The jungle has really swallowed and destroyed that complex.

We completed the small loop around the temple park, now we're back in Siem Reap planning the evening. The hotel is showing a movie on the rooftop (a Khmer Rouge documentary) so we might catch that, then head to the night market to finish shopping and catch an apsara dance show. Tomorrow we might head down to the floating villages on Tonle Sap lake, but I hear the waters are low this time of year. Shall see.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Elephant Nature Park and Live from Cambodia

When was the last time I posted? How many days ago? Am losing track. Today it's Wednesday, and I'm writing from Siem Reap, Cambodia. But before we arrived, I'll begin where I left off.

Saturday was George and Anna's wedding, which was held at the Anantara Resort - gorgeous! The reception was back on the beach at the Muang Samui and we partied like pros in the sand late into the night. Nothing beats a great beach party. Sunday we departed for Chiang Mai.

It's a quaint little city, old, and free of the Bangkok's noise and Koh Samui's hustle. We stayed in the old city inside the ancient walls and moat at a lovely boutique hotel. Monday Jeff and I visited the Wat Prah That Doi Sutep shrine atop the mountain which towered over the west side of the city. A tuk-tuk ride, a pickup ride, and 300 steps later, we climbed to the top of the golden shrine that overlooked Chiang Mai. Tourists and pilgrims alike were visiting, and monks giving blessings in different areas of the temple. We then spent the afternoon lounging in Chiang Mai. I can't even remember at this point what we did that evening.

Tuesday we took a 1.5 hour ride north into the Mae Tong region to the Elephant Nature Park. ENP and the founder "Lek" Chailert rescue orphaned, abandoned, injured, sick, and abused elephants. This is an amazing preserve with a small elephant hospital with 2 vets on staff, guest houses for volunteers, a river, and acres of open pasture for the elephants to roam. This is no zoo, people. It brought tears to our eyes to see how much love and care they're given, and I will never, EVER again patronize a circus, any elephant rides, or the like that have a history of elephant mistreatment. These beautiful animals belong in the wild, not lugging tourists or balancing clowns on their backs. They had two babies which were playful and mischievious little critters, with quite the personalities. We fed them, bathed them in the river, and got a wet, sloppy kiss on the cheek (Nette was "blessed" with a kiss to the chest!).

That brings us to today... Matt and I arrived in Siem Reap for some serious shopping (silks, carvings, and shadow puppets), plus an entire day at the Angkor temples. We're getting up to grab a couple bikes at 5am and ride up to the Angkor Wat to watch sunrise. Then we head to Angkor Thom, then Ta Prohm (see: Tomb Raider), then probably back here for a nap, followed by more shopping (I have a list), and drinks at the FCC. This city is beautiful, not quite urban, a touch of tourism, but you can still see the poverty, the dirt parking lots, dilapidated buildings, and crumbling infrastructure, although I hope this is on the rebound. There's something about this town that has touched me already, to hear some people's stories about how they lost their hands while trying to battle the Khmer Rouge, or the children in the streets, or the fact that this city was completely emptied not 30 years ago by the rebels. What other stories lurk behind the faces of those that lived through that era, and survived the genocide? It's almost an eerie feeling to be walking the same streets that saw blood flow in my lifetime.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Beach

Two days ago we took a boat ride 1 hour out to the Ang Tong Marine Park, where we went snorkeling and swimming, then kayaking around the islands. There are hundreds of these tiny islands with tall limestone cliffs. After a hearty lunch on the boat we moved down to another island where we docked off a beach, then climbed the cliffs up to an overlook where we saw The Beach. Rather, the isolated landlocked saltwater lagoon that's not visible from the ocean, the lagoon that inspired the movie The Beach. The climb down brought us to lake level where we saw barracuda and sea urchins. Later we relaxed on the beach ocean-side before heading back to Koh Samui.

We found a tiny Thai food shack around the corner from our resort that the entire group frequents. The curries are delicious, the staff very friendly, and the price can't be beat. Koh Samui is pretty expensive by Thai standards so we're trying to keep the damage to a minimum to save our pennies for a shopping extravaganza in Chiang Mai. We head up north in the morning for a few days.

Yesterday we had nothing on the agenda so spent the day mostly on the beach and in the pool. It felt good to have nothing to do for a whole day. Today we have a few hours of leisure before Anna and George's wedding this evening on the beach.

It's fun travelling with a group. Every day is a new adventure with a different person, and the next day at breakfast we reconvene to hear the stories from the night before. Let's see, Matt has a stalker chick, each day at least one person is nursing a damaging hangover, stories of "those crazy Aussies,", and the goods and wares from the beach vendors certainly differ between night and day.

I'm also digging this custom of taking your shoes off before entering a room, building, and sometimes a shop. I want to live in a world where I wear shoes only half the time.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Bangkok in the ER

Street Food
"This is quite possibly the best idea we've ever had" ...per Matt Cardoni. We arrived in Koh Samui today and we barely left the incredibly small, quaint, open-air airport of Koh Samui when we were struck by its beauty. We were promptly brought to our hotel/resort where we were greeted and seated, adorned with orchid leis, and treated to fresh coconut milk still in the coconut, and given cold wet towels scented with lemon and mint. This is when Matt stated, "This is quite possibly the best idea we've ever had." Word. They checked us in to the resort right there on the sofas in the open-air "lobby". The room... the room is off the hook. A massive suite where we can wander in a circle and my roommate Kate and I never bump into each other. Our patio doors open to a teak walkway over a coy pond to a private patio. The shower is open to the jacuzzi that was already prepared with oils and orchids, and the rest of the bathroom... well you can always tell an amazing room by its loo, I believe. This does not suck. The rest of the resort winds through more private villas down to the infinity pool which looks upon the soft white sands of the Gulf of Thailand. The sun is warm, the breeze is soft, and I'm in paradise. It's currently 11:45pm and I'm sitting in an internet cafe on the main road in Chaweng Beach. I hear pulsating club music behind me, the horns of so many scooters dodging between traffic. This place makes Spring Break Panama City look like childs play. Fireworks are going off above our heads from the all-night beach parties just a few meters away. This is exactly as I had pictured Koh Samui: idylic by day, debauchery by night. I'm hard-pressed to find Americans, as we're surrounded by every color of the globe represented. It's more international here than Manhattan. Amidst the chaos, Jeff pipes in with, "So there are quite a few ways to die here, I see." Word #2.

I had forgotten to add in the first entry. At 8am the PA speakers in train stations play the national anthem. Ever see those guerilla dance parties on YouTube break out in Grand Central Station where everyone dances at once, or freezes at once? That happened when the national anthem played. Everyone in the entire station froze. When it finished, went about their business.

Reclining Buddha
I pick up yesterday when most of the group took off for the floating markets up north. Jeff and I stayed behind in Bangkok and decided to check a few items off the list from the "1,000 Place to See" book. We stopped at the Oriental Hotel for pictures, then walked to the pier to hop on a river taxi. Was it the right pier to take us to Wat Pho? Would the right boat show up? Which direction would it go? How much did it cost? We didn't know, but got on the first boat that showed up. Travel Tip #1: Know where you are and where you're going. We got out at Wat Pho temple and the shutterbugging commenced. Spent 3 hours in there snapping hundreds of pictures, including the Reclining Buddha.

Monks at Wat Pho Temple
That evening Kate and I decided to hit the Soan Lum night market - I needed a new bag (my Mexican bag broke from the stress). On the way back we got kidnapped by a taxi driver that had NO CLUE where he was, where he was going, or where our hotel was. We were in a figure 8 for a half hour, until he stopped to ask directions. Long story short, we were delivered as planned after furious hand gestures and only paying half the fare.

At 3am I woke practically blind. Long story very short, eye infection, and I paid a visit to the most gorgeous hospital (private, international, expat) I've ever seen. Antibacterial eye drops, ER visit, and Rx: $40. No wait. When I get back I'll get on my soapbox about the state of American healthcare.

I'm off to the hotel now to rest up for a 7:15am call for kayaking. Sawat dii ka!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Bangkok, Day 1. Or 2. Or 3.

We've done so much on our first day that it feels like 3 days. Awoke at 6am to go to a local expat sports bar to watch the Super Bowl. It felt a little odd to be around so many Americans (and Chicagoans!) in a bar in the early morning watching football in 90 degree weather. They had a free breakfast buffet so that helped get us started. On our way there, we passed so many street food vendors! Now I know where I'm getting breakfast tomorrow - this city smells fantastic, the smells of different cooked foods roasting over coals or in woks out in the open. On the way to the train we also saw some monks begging for their morning alms. Men and women in suits dressed up for work were buying them food to put in their bowls, then taking their shoes off and kneeling right there on the sidewalk in front of the monks - for a blessing I assume? It was humbling, the spirituality of this city. Shrines of all sizes are everywhere, in every nook. Near our hotel on the corner is a large shrine where people gather to lay garlands of flowers, burn incense, and pray. Today a Chinese dragon dance was being performed, and a human pyramid built.

Later we set off for Baghlampu area, to Thanon Ko Sahn (sp?) which was chock full of colorful shops hocking bags, jewelry, shoes, knicknacks, and everything in between. Lots of foreigners to match the variety of goods. We popped a squat on the sidewalk after ordering some fresh pad thai from a street vendor, grabbed a Pepsi, and relaxed in the shade watching the tuktuks and backpackers go by.

Next we headed out to the river and took a longboat to another pier and passed the Grand Palace and some huge, gorgeous wats/temples. We'll visit them tomorrow. The day brought us back to the hotel to unwind in the pool, shower, and catch a disco nap. Around 9pm we headed out to a eastern neighborhood to a night market we heard about. We stopped in at one little makeshift garage of 4 street food vendors and ordered up some crab noodle soup and beers. Delicious! Hung out for a while, as a little baby pitter-patted between the tables.

On the way back a rat ran over Jeff's foot, and 3 cockroaches chased Ivann. This evening we're winding down for the night, with some people heading out to a floating market in the early morning, and the rest of us to the Grand Palace and Wat Pho.

This is a beautiful city, much cleaner than I had expected, and less congested, as well. Not much different than rush hour in Chicago. It has helped to know a few Thai words, know the map, and figure out how to give directions and get back home. Smiles abound and we're having a blast. And it's so CHEAP here!

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Orient Express

Rather, the Far Eastern Orient Express, and that's where we're headed. In 5 very short days, I'll be off on a Southeast Asian adventure with 10 other lovely friends. I'll be live blogging from the road every few days (where an internet connection permits), but this is our basic itinerary: