Snap judgements on Vietnam

It hardly seems real, but I’ve landed in the last country on the K10 travels – Vietnam. I’m leaving a bit earlier, for a number of reasons, so I won’t be going from Saigon to Hanoi as previously planned; instead, my dad and I started south of Saigon, in the Mekong Delta, and hit up HCMC right before heading back. (AAAAH!!!). It’s going to tie with Laos for the country I’m spending the least time in – just about 3.5-4 days, depending on how you count it. (Laos was about 3.5 days, Cambodia was about 11.5 days, China was 8 days, and Thailand got a month and a couple of random days, that saucy minx.)

Since I have so little time here let’s play a game of Judge a Book by its Cover! 
The people in Vietnam: SO NICE and REALLY family-focused. (At least in the south.)
Far and away the friendliest people on my trip have been in southern Vietnam. The first day my dad and I walked down the street of Chau Doc (a tiny town that was our stopping point between Phnom Penh and Saigon), people kept waving at us and shouting HELLO! My suspicious mind assumed they were just touts trying to get us into a boat/motortaxi/taxi – and sometimes they were – but most of the time it was just friendly people and adorable children saying hello. It might have something to do with the fact that as Westerners, we were a bit of an oddity in this small town. Either way, it was lovely.

They are also very, very family-focused. Every time we talked with a Vietnamese person, they would ask almost immediately if I have siblings, why Dad’s wife wasn’t there, etc. We did an awesome street food tour and the lovely owner of one of the carts was very interested in setting me up with her son. Apparently she thought I was very beautiful and that I have the ideal look: very white skin (CHECK!), tall, and a narrow nose. Oh, go on then.

(Side note re: touts: we would also get stopped in the park by people asking if we wanted a shoe shine. We would just look down at our sneakers and go “…what are you going to shine?!” Total mystery.)

My future mother-in-law

Motorbikes are the way to travel
As mentioned, we did a street food tour where we zoomed around on the back of motorbikes through the crazy streets of Saigon. Words can’t describe how crazy traffic is in Saigon. Waiting for a break in the scooters is a losing game; instead, you just walked slowly and steadily across and trust the motorbikes will go around you. (This does NOT work for buses. They will NOT go around you.) Riding around on the back of one was the perfect way to see the city.


Life is lived on the river

At least in the Mekong Delta. We took a speedboat from Phnom Penh to Chau Doc (definitely the way to travel), and as we approached Chau Doc around dinnertime the river was peppered with people cooking over fires, bathing, or just enjoying a twilight swim.

Luxury hotels are truly luxurious
For our stay in Chau Doc, Dad booked a luxury resort (luxury for Vietnam; the prices were what you would pay for a Hampton Inn in the States. Hampton Inns do have great bedding, though. It is indeed like sleeping on a cloud.). This meant we didn’t do much else except soak in the luxury. I spent a full afternoon languishing by the pool that overlooked the river, having food and drinks brought out to me. It’s the kind of place that hires a musician to play in the lobby to set the mood. It has its own pier. I could get used to this.

Vietnam is a-okay with me! 
You guys, I’ve really enjoyed Vietnam. It might be the fact that it is at the very end of my trip and so I’m excited to be going back and looking at travel nostalgically; it might be that the food is great and I spent half my time in this country staying in a luxury hotel; it might be that one time when Dad and I went to cross the street, a police officer immediately hurried over to escort us across and at the end said, “Welcome to Vietnam!” It’s fair to say I am going to try to make my way back here, friends.

Welcome to the Jungle: Glamping in Kep

I woke up at 3.30am, desperately needing to pee (there’s your ladylike lede right there, folks!). I tried squeezing my eyes shut and convincing my bladder it could wait another few hours, but no dice. I carefully untucked the mosquito netting wrapped around my bed, groped around for the flashlight on the floor, and tiptoed across the wide-paneled wooden treehouse down the wobbly stairs slick with rain. After paying a visit to the garden (read: open-aired) bathroom and examining the back of my leg for a possible mosquito bite, I crept back up the stairs and shrieked loudly as a bat – yes, a bat – flew at my face suddenly before veering away. Yes, folks: I went glamping in Cambodia (that’s “glamorous camping,” for those not in the know).

As I type this, I’m sitting in one of those wicker round chair things on our treehouse balcony looking off into the valley as the sun dips lower and birds chirp merrily around me. I have to admit, my life could be worse. 
When my dad first started planning his part of the trip, he immediately booked a treehouse in an “eco-resort” in the seaside town of Kep. Yes, I keep saying treehouse. We are in a bona fide, no-fourth-wall, perched-up-on-stilts, treehouse. I promise you it isn’t as glamorous as it sounds. And that whole eco-lodge thing means that electricity is mostly for lights – no A/C – and WiFi in a non-starter. We decided before arriving to cut our trip short a day, in order to split up our travel to Vietnam over two days. So when we arrived to find our, ahem, rustic accommodations, I was glad we were only staying for a day and a half.

Even though I was eager to leave, I have to admit that all in all it was a pretty relaxing 36 hours. Although we had to endure several bumpy tuk-tuk rides on the very rutted dirt road leading up to the lodge (I can’t even begin to describe how bumpy that road is), we had some enjoyable relaxing time on our balcony, rode in a tuk-tuk through the countryside to a pepper plantation (Kampot pepper, guys, it’s a thing), enjoyed some meals on the sea, and most importantly, sussed out restaurants with WiFi and went crazy.

So the verdict on glamping in Cambodia? Definitely not something I’m eager to do again, but it certainly has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience to kick off my last week abroad.

P.S. Re: my Facebook query a few days ago, I did decide to start taking malaria pills. Can’t tell if I am having wildly hallucinogenic dreams or not; my dreams have certainly been vivid, but I’ve always had pretty vivid dreams. Bummer, huh? But no malaria yet (touch wood!).

Laying down some TRUTH on SE Asia

With less than one week to go before I am back in the U.S. and enjoying a delicious meal of Hamburger Helper (CRAVINGS I HAVE THEM), I’ve been reflecting a lot on what it is like to travel in this region. I’ve been bouncing around here for the past two months, minus that interlude in China. (Oh yeah, that thing.) Southeast Asia is a tourist mecca for a number of reasons – there’s a well-trodden backpacker’s trail, plenty of varied food options in the larger cities, relatively cheap costs (you can live a mid-range lifestyle for well under $50/day) and you can always find someone who speaks enough English to help you out when needed. Plus it’s a pretty gorgeous region.

Despite that, I was surprised by the unexpected difficulties and just how foreign this region can be. Crazy concept, huh? The very act of walking outside is an assault on the senses. It’s oppressively hot (and yet Cambodian women most often wear jeans, two long-sleeved tops, a scarf, and GLOVES when I would rather be naked than wearing shorts and a top I stole from my friend last year). The act of walking down the street is hard, as you navigate broken or missing sidewalks – and where there is a sidewalk, it’s usually covered with parked cars and scooters – forcing you to walk on the street. Dirt kicks up and cakes your skin as you pray no cars hit you. You can’t go two steps or stand still for five seconds before being ascended upon by tuk tuk drivers shouting and waving “TUK TUK? TUK TUK LADY?!” And saying no once doesn’t matter, because the thirty after him still think maybe I’ll say yes to them. Even if you navigate the streams of people, the exhaust spewing out of vehicles, and the heat, the smell of trash, street food cooking, and just plain humanity is enough to knock you over. So, who’s ready to go visit?!

It’s not a surprise that I’ve often taken refuge in places that exude the calm environment or the atmosphere at home. My dad and I were giddy walking through the nicest hotel in Phnom Penh after drinking at the bar, inventing our alter egos in case anyone asked. Even now, I’m happy as anything sitting in a huge Western-style coffee shop, sipping on an iced chocolate coffee and tapping this out on my phone.

I partly feel like a failure for wanting to escape to the nice when so many around me don’t have the option. I recognize I should be more adventurous when it comes to getting out of my comfort zone. But I have had my share on perching on a plastic chair on the street eating food from a cart and walking steadily across the street without getting hit. Sometimes baby needs to reward herself by sitting in an awesome café and watching the Lizzie Bennett Diaries (everyone, please. Watch them.). Cause you know what? That gives me just enough juice to jump back into the next level of crazy and prepare myself for this last week abroad. 

The light and the dark of Cambodia

Along with Laos, I knew incredibly little about Cambodia before making the decision to come here. Heck, I couldn’t even pronounce the name of its capital – Phnom Penh – until a couple of months ago. (For the record, it’s Pa-nom Pen.)

To me, Cambodia is a layered country, especially from the point of view of the tourist. Phnom Penh in particular is full of these contrasts around every corner. At first glance, it’s a gorgeous capital city with tree-lined streets set in a friendly grid pattern (thank you, France). The luxury hotels are truly luxurious, with graceful bars, soaring lobbies, and multiple infinity pools by the veranda. 
Dig a little deeper, and you see the rough edges of Phnom Penh, the indications that this is a poor country in a poor region of the world, beset by environmental challenges, diseases, and the ravages of war. Traffic is insane, but most people drive their family of five around on a tiny and cost-efficient motorbike. As you ride through a tuk tuk around the city, you pass streets teeming with food carts and open-air markets, trash and suspicious smells. I finally understand the phrase, “Assault on the senses.”
Then you dig even more, and hit the core of Cambodia, that which darkens its past, colors its present, and defines its future: the Khmer Rouge and the horrors of the 1970s.
I don’t know about you, but I knew nothing about the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot except the vague understanding that it was a bad thing somewhere in Asia a while ago, and Pol Pot was referenced once on Gilmore Girls. Before arriving, I tried to read up on that period to have a better idea of what happened. But nothing can prepare you for visiting the sites of tragedy. 
In a nod to the phrase dark tourism, visiting sites where tragedies have occurred has become quite popular, whether for educational purposes or memorial purposes. Two such sites rank as the top attractions in Phnom Penh, despite their sadness: S-21, or the Tuol Sleng Prison, and the Killing Fields. 
You can read more about the Khmer Rouge and the atrocities they committed on your own – I’m certainly not educated enough about them to educate you. What I can share were my thoughts upon visiting these sites. Rather I should say, I wish I could share my thoughts. But all I can summon are brief impressions that profoundly impacted me. 
Things like walking around a school-turned-torture-chamber-and-prison, where the museum curators have posted dozens of walls of pictures of the prisoners. Hundreds of faces stare out at you: some boldly, some accusingly, some with tears in their eyes. All I could think of to whisper was, “I’m sorry.”

Things like the museum exhibitions with pictures of Pol Pot and the other leaders – and their faces have been angrily scratched out by visiting Cambodians over the years.
Things like walking past the two-foot-wide wooden prison cells, the doors swinging open. Touching one of the doors softly and realizing who had touched it in the past.
Things like walking past the groups of visiting Cambodians, from the elderly to schoolkids on a trip to young children. Realizing that these events are entirely in the memories of all Cambodians, that we are only a generation removed. 
And that’s the thing: these atrocities were so recent. Trials for the leaders still haven’t concluded. In 2013! In fact, a big news story today is that one of the leaders who was on trial just died. 
But despite the heartache and the soul-crushing tragedy, Cambodia goes on. It certainly is a place for everyone to visit, if only to learn more about the worst of humanity but how goodness overcomes and marches on.

Next Life

To kick off our tour of Cambodia and Vietnam, my father and I decided to start out big: exploring the temples of Angkor. This massive area in the western part of Cambodia was the original seat of the Khmer empire and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the world’s largest religious monument, and the site of historical and cultural significance in Cambodia and, arguably, in all of Southeast Asia.

We hired a car and a tour guide (I love getting to splash out now that Dad is here. Hello, rose and lemongrass martini.) and set off exploring on Dad’s first full day in country. Just to make sure he would really feel the jetlag, it was – as always in SEA – miserably hot by approximately 11am and a hellish inferno by 1pm.

Despite the oppressive heat, we managed to explore quite a few temples over the two days we had our tour guide. From intricate narrative carvings, to temples of thousand faces overlooking the area, to jungle temples with trees entwined as part of the landscape, to taking in the mass of the famous Angkor Wat, I think it’s safe to say I can call myself a tomb raider. (Fact: Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider was filled over two months in the temples of Angkor. I know this to be true because our guide said this fifty thousand times, and Cambodia in general is fairly obsessed with that fact as well. As Dad and I have not seen that movie, we can neither confirm nor deny.) It’s also safe to say that by the time I get back, I’ll probably have bug spray permanently affixed to my skin. My hypochondria has kicked in big time, you guys.

As we wandered the temples, we also chatted with our guide about his life and experiences. One of the things that struck me the most was how he would often say “Next life!” with regards to a specific experience he had not had. I’m not sure if he was being glib about it, or as a man living in a Buddhist country, referring to a deep-seated religious belief.

Either way, the things he had never experienced but hoped to in his next life, if his karma sticks out, ranged from amusing to thought-provoking.

“Do you get snow in your home town?” [Exclaims over a photo my dad shows him of 3 inches of snow outside the house] “Ooh! I never seen snow! Next life.

“Those apartments over there [really gorgeous three-story townhouses] are very expensive. $11,000 a year! Next life.”

“How long was your flight here? THIRTY HOURS?! Wow! I never take a flight before. Next life.” 

[In response to my dad’s question if he has ever been out of Cambodia, such as to Thailand, which is an easy bus ride away] “No, all my money saved to pay for kids’ schools. I never leave Cambodia. Next life. 

[After asking if we would come back to Cambodia and in response to my dad saying he should come to the United States] “Next life, I will be BORN in the United States!” 

Needless to say, it was a humbling experience. I’m sure I will have more to say about the challenges of being seen as a walking ATM but also about understanding more about the incredible poverty modern-day Cambodians face, on the heels of the horrors the country has experienced so recently. But even this side-comment by the guide had me thinking about both the privilege I have by simple virtue of where I was born, and also the importance of doing what is possible in this life with what I have been given. Considering those things include watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat, I am a lucky girl indeed.

At this point I’m basically just cycling across Asia

I am fully aware that my bicycle tours are just getting ridiculous. After doing a night tour in Bangkok and a half-day tour in Chiang Mai, I figured I would be prepared enough for the big mama of bike tours: a full day, 37 km ride around Vientiane, Laos.  As a side note, 2 out of 3 times on these tours my guide was from Holland. At first I was surprised by the coincidence but considering the Dutch are literally born cycling out of the womb, I guess it’s not so weird.
Obviously that assumption that doing an eight hour tour would be fine was totally false, because I’m Kristen after all, but I did learn some good tidbits about Laos (and myself) throughout this day – even if by the end I was ready to just call a cab.
More templey-goodness and the lives of monks


In Southeast Asia, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a temple or a monk (or is it throw a dead cat? Either way, if you have a dead cat, a temple is nearby). It’s no surprise that I have been to a fair few temples and seen a lotta Buddhas on my bike tours. I also learned that monks only eat twice a day (once early in the morning and once around lunchtime)… FOREVER. Or at least as long as they are monks. That just wouldn’t fit in with my grazer stomach and tendency to pack yum-yums wherever I go. As an example, at this moment I have a package of butter biscuits, a box of crackers, two apples, a muffin, a pack of Thai chocolate wafers and half a bag of M&Ms. All in my bag. At this moment in time.
Of course, there are many reasons why I couldn’t be a Buddhist nun, the least of which being that the sole purpose of the nuns is to serve the monks. Girl’s gotta do her own thang, you know.
Also, there is such a thing as a Buddhist pope. I don’t know if the guide meant the head monk in Laos or what, but this is where he lives.
Thai/Laotian Pranks 


Thailand and Laos are basically full of a bunch of pranksters. This statue is of a famous Lao king or prince or something (my services are available as a tour guide, you guys), on the Mekong River. In Vientiane, the Mekong separates Laos from Thailand – and it’s surprisingly narrow at that point. So this statue is not facing the city, but has its back to the city and is facing Thailand. While I thought at first his outstretched hand meant he just wanted some skin, our guide told us that this is basically like giving the big “F.U.” and the finger to Thailand. In retaliation, a little while ago some Thais snuck up the statue and tried to saw the hand off. This is basically like letting chickens loose on the hallway during senior week. (CHICKENS! IN THE HALLWAY!!!). Or like William and Mary putting a statue of TJ facing away from UVa. I love it.
The eternal question – what to do with all this cement?!
In the 1950s, the U.S. was all over Laos like sticky on rice (sorry) but then decided to pull out, halting a lot of airport construction plans. They left behind a whole mess of concrete meant for an airport. The Laotians took it and decided to build a monument fashioned after the Arc de Triomphe. This baby is called the “Vertical Runway” and, amusingly, a “monster in concrete” – literally on the sign on the side of the monument. Apparently they copied the entry out of the English Lonely Planet book without translating it first. It’s been up there for years.
All the bumpy dirt roads… not great for the bum.
In contrast to Bangkok and Chiang Mai, we rode almost exclusively on dirt roads – meaning bumps, rocks, and holes. All that bumpiness meant a very sore bum the next day. But happy, tired muscles.

DON’T YOU WORRY – more bike tours to come!

Little Laos

Before I decided to come to Laos, I knew literally nothing about it, except where it was roughly located. As I did my research, I learned a little bit more: former French colony (the “backwaters of Indochina,” as it were); current communist nation; one of the poorest countries in the world.

Most importantly, and most tragically, Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita in the world in history. 

For nine years, bombs were dropped every eight minutes, 24/7.

The country that did the bombing? The United States, during the Vietnam War.

Now, I don’t know about you, but in most of my history classes we extensively covered up through WWII, then rushed through the major events of the latter half of the twentieth century before taking the state exam. (I still don’t really know what happened in the 1980s and 1990s. Complete blank.). As I got my degree, I was lucky enough to take a bunch of different history classes, but most were either of a wide breadth – like International History of the Cold War – or way back in history, like the Roman Empire (guilty of majoring in IA and minoring in Classics). So while I learned about the Vietnam War quite often, it was never in depth enough to know about the role Laos played – and the effects the country still faces today.

VERY simply put, in what was called “the Secret War,” U.S. troops heavily bombed Laos during the Vietnam War in order to try to damage the Ho Chi Minh Trail. (This is a massive simplification – you and I both know that events have far more causes and effects, for both sides, than can be boiled down to a few words).

What is easy to describe, but not easy to swallow, is the impact that the bombings continue to have on the nation. See, a lot of bombs didn’t go off when they hit the ground. A quarter of villages in Laos are still contaminated with UXOs; post-war, 20,000 people have been killed or injured by bombs, 40% of them children.

A number of international groups and a government national group are tasked with clearing the lands and diffusing the bombs, which I am sure you can appreciate takes a lot of time. In the meantime, despite the education people receive on the UXOs, people are killed and injured far too often. Some find a bomb and try to sell the scrap metal for pennies to feed their family for three months. Some are simply farming and hit a bomb by accident. Some people have even been killed when they have been cooking over a fire in their house, not realizing a bomb – activated by heat – is buried below.

I learned all of this when I paid a visit to the COPE Center in Vientiane, an educational and rehabilitation center for amputees. What surprised me is the lack of blaming that I saw in the exhibits – the U.S. was referenced maybe only once or twice, and never in a negative way, simply factual. (This is in contrast to the Lao National Museum, which only referred to the U.S. as the “U.S. Imperialists.” It’s cool, guys.

I know this isn’t chipper or shiny, but it’s the truth about Laos. Despite the horrors that the country faced, there’s still hope, especially with the help of centers like COPE.

Sculpture made out of old bomb metal…

And yes, the U.S. has done terrible things to other countries. But I’ve never seen the point of feeling ashamed about what my country did in its past. What is important is the positive impact that I can have in the future. More than ever, I’m loving my role in life as an educator. There’s so much I don’t know about the horrors of human history, but by educating myself and then educating others… maybe, just maybe, I can have an impact. When you travel, I encourage you to peek under the tourist veneer and learn more about the heartbeat of the country – its scars and its spirit.