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 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.
I had heard some pretty scary things about traveling in China: that it was just a really difficult country, that Westerners were stared at relentlessly, that the pollution is enough to literally knock you down.
Despite all that, I made a last-minute decision to skip exploring more of Laos in favor of heading north to Beijing, where I could crash with family for a week. A decision made partly out of loneliness and partly out of the attitude of, “Well, if I don’t go to China now, I’m never going,” turned out to be one of the best choices I’ve made on this trip.
Simply put, China was awesome. I had spent the past five weeks traveling solo – which, in Southeast Asia, is easy to do and there are plenty of people to talk to, but the simple act of having to navigate new cities and figure out places to eat and sort out sleeping arrangements is really exhausting. By this point, I had done it in five different cities in two countries.
By contrast, I think I had the easiest tourist trip to Beijing that anyone has ever had. I stayed in a beautiful, huge apartment with my cousin and his wife and finally experienced a bed that wasn’t Asia-style rock hard. I mean, the floors in the apartment were even heated! AND since they have a DPO box they can get deliveries from Amazon for all their non-perishables – hello, Crispix. Allow me to eat this entire box over the next week.
|I even got a welcome gift bag! Chateau Pierson is so classy.|
Besides experiencing the comforts of home, I just had a deliciously easy and relaxed week. I didn’t have to make a single restaurant choice, and when I did go out to eat, it was with two people who speak Mandarin. More than that, I got to do exquisitely normal things – after more than a month of every day being exciting but challenging, this was incredible. I went grocery shopping with my cousin (and got to watch him charm the fruit ladies with his Mandarin and as a result get tons of free fruit to munch while we shopped). We went out with his friends and played trivia over pizza and beer. I lazily watched a bunch of (totally legal) movies. And did I mention the heated floors?
And yes – the weather was cold and the pollution pretty terrible, at least for the first few days. My second full day there, the day started at about 520 (the scale to measure Air Quality only goes up to 500, by the way). That afternoon was a bit more clear but SO windy that I think I saw a woman on a bicycle flying by. But the bonus of that wind? It shoved all the pollution out, giving us some gorgeous blue sky days right as the weather warmed up to the 60s.
I managed to do some touristy things, namely the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, and the Temple of Heaven. But besides that, I just took it supremely easy, indulging in Reese’s Cups, trips to their gym, and a Chinese massage that literally involved hammers (much to my surprise).
It was with reluctance that I left such a comfortable environment. But it was time to head south so I could continue with the final leg of my trip – Pops and Daughter McCarthy take on Cambodia and Vietnam!
Before I left, I had two faces that I would put on while discussing my travel plans. One would have me discussing my precise itinerary, while the other would feature a much more relaxed Kristen saying “Ohhh who knows? We’ll see what happens!” (That’s kind of the persona I put on when I was talking about my plans in this post.)
In both instances, and even when I left, I told people that I had my lodgings and plans set for the first few days, but after that I was going to see what would happen. Look how casual I can be!
Well, within just a few days traveling solo, I quickly realized that all of my assumptions were incorrect.
I basically upended my travels plans within the first 48 hours. I couldn’t spend a week in muggy, chaotic Bangkok, and escaped down to the coast of Thailand faster than I thought. I can’t stand the thought of having to move around more than is necessary, lugging my bag from place to place, so island hopping is out too. Instead, I parked myself for two weeks in Koh Lanta. And then – surprise! – I did get up to northern Thailand, specifically Chiang Mai.
The biggest surprise to me? I decided to go to China.
China had been part of my original itinerary, but then cut out when I decided to stick to SEA. Literally two days before leaving when I was in the throes of WHAT AM I DOING THIS IS CRAZY I AM GOING TO FAIL (which was really fun for everyone involved, I think), I decided that if it all got to be too much I would use going to Beijing as a crutch. (I have family living there.)
Within a few days of arrival, I decided to go ahead and book China. At that point, I was still using it as a crutch, the quintessential, “Okay, only two more weeks of traveling solo before I’m in the bosom of family,” and so on.
Traveling solo is funny; specifically, the wildly vacillating emotions I go through on a daily – nay, hourly – basis is almost comical. One hour I receive bad news and want nothing more than a hug from someone who loves me; the next, I’m wandering down the street, musing about how I could have totally done solo travel for another week.
I’m almost glad for that realization, and the realization that I’ve already been in Thailand for a month alone without even really noticing. While I could have easily done another week, two weeks, or probably even more without breaking a sweat, I’m glad that I will soon be with family (as is my mother). I can explore an entirely new place and receive a bit of comfort at the same time. I don’t have to be on all the freakin’ time.
Babies pooping on the street, terrible air pollution, and suspicious food – I’m coming for you!
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.
After doing the delightful night tour of Bangkok by bicycle in my first few days in the country, I decided to give it a go in its neighbor to the north, Chiang Mai. This time around, I booked a half day trip cycling around the northern Thai countryside in the early morning (well, early for someone who has been unemployed for the last three months, at least…). The conclusion? I’m basically Lance Armstrong, minus the scandal. And some other bits.
So what made this tour so special?
In case you couldn’t guess it, Thailand is full of a lot of temples. I’ve found that these are best viewed in moments of quiet – like what you get when you arrive at one far away from the city center at 9 in the morning.
The guide totally knew his audience and took us to a number of places for noms, including a market, a bakery, and a candy factory. Besides getting to see the teeniest little puppy on the planet in the bakery, I also got to discover just why diabetes is such a health risk in Thailand (every wonder why pad thai is so delicious? BECAUSE OF THE 15 TABLESPOONS OF SUGAR, THAT’S WHY!).
Not that I’m complaining. After all, eating a sugary butter roll during a bike ride is basically like eating celery – it’s negative calories.
THE LESSER-SEEN THAILAND!
In addition to the typical sites, we also got to explore some of the bits of Thailand I would have never seen otherwise: rice paddies, cauliflower fields, banana tree plantations.
And my favorite bit, going to a Thai school! Normally I dislike going to places that feel like they are catering to tourists, or where we may be disrupting normal life. But the tour (of a very small group) was timed perfectly to when the kiddos were at recess, and the guide has been coming to this school for the past four years – he’s basically a member of the family. So many little girls came up to him begging to the thrown into the air (which was particularly funny when the older girls, who have known him for years, would come up and demand the same!). The little girls crowded around us while the boys pretended to be too cool for school. I quickly became the “flower lady,” as dozens of giggling girls scampered up to give me a flower and a shy smile – soon my hands were literally overflowing! Of course, going to this school had me itching with dozens of questions about the public/private/religious school divide in Thailand, the system of education, and the tracks from primary to secondary to tertiary education – but the international education nerd in me will just have to look that up 🙂
This tour is also when I had my first This is your life, Kristen moment. Strangely enough, it happened when I was watching the guide throw food to some catfish in a pond (CATFISH!) and laughing. I looked at my clock and realized it was 9am on a Wednesday, and the only thing I was doing – the only thing I had to do, at that moment, was enjoy the simple pleasure of seeing scarily large creepy fish jumping up for food.
After that, we rode down small paths cutting through the fields and past small, simple houses with the sun shining down. Every time we passed someone, they shouted, “Sawatdee!”, smiling and waving vigorously. Everywhere I looked was an explosion of color, as tropical flowers bloomed proudly along the side of the road, and banana trees gracefully lined the path.
This is your life, Kristen.
You guys, something weird happened to me in Chiang Mai.
After settling in for a few days, I decided to do a treat-yo’self day (you know… to relax from my busy life of being unemployed) and spring for a spa package. I was promised pick-up and drop-off at my lodging, a body scrub, massage, and facial, all for about 1/4 of what I would pay in the U.S. AWESOME!
On the day, everything seemed to proceed normally – although I did feel a bit overwhelmed by just how accommodating everyone was. It’s Thai culture to give a bow after serving your customer – even for something like at the supermarket – so pump that up to the max at a spa and there I am sitting in my throne, having my feet carefully placed into a flowery water bowl by a kneeling Thai woman.
I blissed out for a couple of hours as my skin became silky-smooth and my limbs turned to rubber. As we wrapped up with my facial, I figured the experience was just about over. NOT SO FAST.
First, the masseuse started to gently untangle my hair. Okay, pretty normal – it was just up in a hairnet for my body scrub (DON’T WORRY I HAVE A PICTURE) and a headband for the facial, so it’s a little tangled.
But soon the untangling grew into a sensation that was very familiar… what…? Why, yes, she IS braiding my hair across the crown of my head. Well, okay, go on then.
I had no idea why it was happening but figured I would go with it. After finishing, she wrapped the blanket around me and gestured for me to sit up… so she could sit behind me on the table in a sort of Thai slumber party and finish the hairdo, of course!
Cue her putting my hair up into an elaborate updo… including flowers tucked into the top, of course.
Then, just when I thought I was leaving… they present me with the most delicious thing to come out of Thailand, mango with sticky rice. And of course my masseuse gently washed my hands with a hot towel, lest I have to do anything myself. Well, I did have to feed myself.
I decided that yes, this was a little weird, but who am I to complain over having an impromptu hair styling session? Plus it meant I was the prettiest girl at yoga that evening!
After languishing for two weeks on a beautiful beach in Koh Lanta, I knew I wanted to take advantage of the myriad of activities available in and around Chiang Mai. Top of the list? The Elephant Nature Park.
This beautiful park, 60 km outside of Chiang Mai, is a sanctuary for elephants (more on that later). Set in a valley surrounded by mountains and with a river flowing at the foot of the park, it’s easy to see how it got the name of “Elephant Heaven.”
So how did I spend my time with the largest mammals on EARTH?! (To be fair, the Asian elephant is only the second largest land animal, after the African elephant. I was going to make a really off-color joke about that but in deference to my mother, I shan’t. Just know it’s there.)
After being picked up at my hotel and loaded into a van, we took the 1.5 hour bumpy drive out to the conservatory. Our guide briefly explained what we would do and then popped in a video that Animal Planet made on elephants in Thailand, including a highlight of the ENP, to prep us. My favorite part of the video is that the entire time they kept teasing about the “conservatory music video” they would be showing at the end, which was basically just shots of Thailand and elephants rolling through music and credits.
After arriving at the park, we jumped right into feeding time! This basically involved hesitantly putting the food in the elephant’s trunk and then delighting as they stuffed it into their mouths, or rejected it (elephants are quite human-like in that some just don’t have a taste for watermelons or bananas, for example). Also… the inside of an elephant’s trunk feels kind of weird, you guys.
After that, we did a tour of the sanctuary – including the medical area where we all got to feel an elephant’s tooth, which I think should be added to Clue as a possible murder weapon. It was Colonel Mustard, in the library, with the ELEPHANT’S TOOTH!
One of the highlights? A very hairy baby elephant had been born four months ago! A few fun facts:
1) This may not be true for all elephants, but at the park a lot of the babies will have both their elephant mom and an elephant nanny who basically decides to be an auntie to the baby, and they all hang out together and protect the baby. I can’t wait for Hollywood to make the movie Elephant Nanny, personally.
2) It’s pretty impossible for us to know if elephants are pregnant – they can assume if the elephant is getting fatter and her breasts are, you know, milky, but they don’t really know – and didn’t know in this case – until the kid pops out. I’ve heard this one before.
After tucking in to a delicious vegetarian Thai buffet, we came to the main event: bathing the elephants. Essentially this involved standing in the river and throwing buckets of water over them.
At one point, someone in our group mused, “Do you ever think the elephants are like, ‘…Why are these humans doing something to me I can do myself?'” But as they sat there munching on their watermelons while getting bathed, I thought, you know, I wouldn’t mind that lifestyle.
So why does this sanctuary exist? Despite the veneration elephants receive in Thai culture, and the important role they have played in Thai history – both warfare and work – they have an exceptionally tough life. The elephant population in Thailand has dropped 95% over the past century. However, only wild elephants are counted as endangered; domesticated elephants are considered livestock and have little to no rights, and there are very few legal punishments for misuse or abuse.
As logging was made illegal in the late 1980s, elephants who previously had been used for work have been shifted to tourism – trekking, rides, and street begging. However, the methods used to break the elephants of their connections to their mothers and make them submissive is absolutely horrifying. I won’t preach at you, but I encourage you to do your own research into the technique known as elephant crushing.
Anyway, the vast majority of elephants who have been rescued by ENP had pretty tough lives before – broken backs from giving rides (or from men elephants getting too rough with the females…), broken legs from logging or chains, blindness from their cruel owners shooting rocks into their eyes to try to get them to work faster, or from the lights at elephant shows. You can see the previously broken back of one of our elephants below – once they are broken, they can’t be reformed back into proper shape.
So to round out this kind-of-depressing post… I’m so glad I did this. It was by far the most expensive thing I’ve done on this trip, but knowing what the money goes towards – and seeing how happy these elephants are – made it worth it. Once these elephants get to the sanctuary, they get an awesome life of just romping around, forming herds, eating, and getting love.