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Sihanoukville, Cambodia

It’s been more than a month on the road now, and I think I’m finally getting the hang of it. Living out of a backpack, booking buses from city to city, cursing Lonely Planet for leading the traveler astray–I can do it. I can’t say the long-term backpacker life appeals to me. I’m much more comfortable traveling with the knowledge that I have a home base, be it Seoul, New York, Prague, whatever. The constant on-the-road thing has worn on me, though I must admit, I’ve gotten good at it. Always carry a spare roll of toilet paper. Check the sheets before taking a room (learned in an unfortunate incident in Vientiane). Don’t buy from kids on the street. Try the local food. (Assuming the local food is, you know, not fried insects. But then again, I guess it depends on how adventurous you are.) Know that more often than not, fellow travelers are friendly and eager to talk. It doesn’t matter how long we’ve been on the road, we’ve all got stories. Yesterday on a snorkeling day trip, I found myself surrounded by Brits headed to Laos. I had plenty to tell them, advice to give, answers to their questions. As a journalist, it’s your job to ask questions and listen and follow up those questions with more questions. Í  feel like I’ve always been the one to ask questions, to listen intently and to learn from other people’s experiences. For the first time in a long time, I was the one with the answers. It was a strange and unfamiliar feeling to have half a dozen pair of eyes on me, asking questions that a month ago I was asking others.

Sihanoukville’s been lovely–the sea is warm, the people friendly and the desserts phenomenal. (I say that having eaten a slice of caramel pie with a biscuit crust covered in whipped cream and bananas a couple hours ago. Do I mean 4 p.m.? Maybe I do…)

After an early happy hour a few days ago, I took to the streets of Sihanoukville, searching for Sweeney, a friend and fellow teacher from Korea. After a fine pizza dinner, I attempted to get home by catching a ride on the back of a Khmer guy’s motorbike. Fun fact about the road my guesthouse is on: rainy season has completely washed it out. There are few things scarier than clutching onto a stranger as he speeds down a mostly dirt road paved with rocks. Big rocks. Because that’s how things work in Cambodia. Half the road is a ditch for rainwater en route to the sea, the rest rocks and dirt.

Our days have been filled with beach-lounging, amok-eating and turning away the dozens of Khmers who approach us every day. (“Massage, miss? Pedicure? Manicure? Threading? OK, maybe tomorrow?”)

Tomorrow we’re headed to Phnom Penh, where I’ll say farewell to Jeanette in a few days before heading off to Vietnam. We’re planning to meet up with Sweeney again to visit the Killing Fields and S-21, the infamous building where the Khmer Rouge tortured and killed nearly everyone who entered through the doors.

Before this trip, I was most nervous for Cambodia. A country that had seen civil war in my lifetime, that experienced genocide in my parents’ lifetime, that is so notoriously corrupt on every level–how could I not worry? But Cambodia may very well be my favorite country. It’s a mish-mash of cultures, of poor Khmers with wealthy expats, of old ideas and fears of government combined with the hope for a new generation, of rickety tuk-tuks whizzing past some of the most extravagant hotels I’ve ever seen. I love Cambodia, much differently than I loved Laos and Thailand, and indeed every other country I’ve been to. There’s something special about this place, and I know that I’m lucky to experience it. The Cambodia that I’m in will not be the Cambodia my children will know, nor is it the Cambodia that we watched on the news in the early 90s. It is constantly changing, turning over new leaves and building itself into something better.

Sihanoukville, Cambodia

I keep forgetting to put datelines here. Not sure if that’s important or not. Probably isn’t, right?

So after a 10-hour bus/minibus ride from Siem Reap, we made it to Sihanoukville. I’ve spent the last three days at Angkor Wat. What is even left to say about it? Words continue to fail me, and so I continue to fail as a journalist. How does one sum up a day, much less three, at the ruins? We scaled rocks that haven’t moved in several hundred, in some cases a thousand, years. Rocks that were put into place to honor Buddha and the Khmer king are now a playground for the adventure-seeking tourist and families on holiday. This once-great capital of an empire is now a money-making tourist attraction owned by a Japanese company. What will become of America’s great sites? In hundreds of years, will the Lincoln Memorial be anything more than a fenced-off pile of marble? What of the Empire State Building and Independence Hall and all of the other places that mean something to Americans? Are they built as well as the pyramids, the Acropolis and the Coliseum? Will they survive centuries of wear and tear, hurricanes and blizzards, the rise and fall of governments?

I know this blog has gotten a lot less fun and a lot more reflective in recent weeks, but when you’re on a bus for seven hours and your iPod is dead, there’s not much to do but think and plan the next blog entry. And let me tell you, there are a lot of long drives.

I knew very little about Cambodia before I decided to include it on my backpacking agenda. As a senior at Maryland, I convinced myself that I was going to move to Cambodia after graduation to work for one of the newspapers here. Then Korea happened and Cambodia became a distant memory.

Through some stroke of luck and Jewish geography, my path crossed with that of Bethany Murphy. I swear, she and I were destined to become friends. We’ve got mutual friends, mutual romantic pasts and mutual Hebrew names. She’s here in Siem Reap teaching for a year, and the first time we ever spoke, back in May, she invited me to stay at her apartment the moment I mentioned I’d eventually be in her neck of the woods.

That was five months ago.

Flash forward to now. After a flight from Vientiane and the world’s lamest layover at the Savahnakket airport (where, by the way, everything is under construction), we landed in Siem Reap and were greeted by Bethany’s tuk tuk driver, Mr. Loaung, who took us straight to the apartment to get settled.

Everything has been perfect since we got here. Mr Loaung takes us wherever we want to go, whenever we want to go there, Bethany showed us downtown Siem Reap and then cooked a delicious dinner, and we got to sleep in a bed without having to worry about bedbugs, lizards or snails.

Determined to make the most of our first day in Siem Reap, we went to bed fairly early last night. We woke up this morning, met Mr. Loaung at the front gate and set off for Angkor Wat. The temple complex is massive, absolutely massive. It took us a couple hours to get through a fraction of what there was to see, and by mid-morning it was too hot to see much else. We headed to Angkor Thom, the last capital of the Khmer empire, and one of the filming sites from Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.

Stop reading now. Navigate away from this blog and onto Expedia. Book a ticket to Cambodia. Now. I know journalists are supposed to be able to convey things through words, but it is here that words absolutely fail me. Angkor Thom was like nothing I’d ever seen. Parts of Bayon, the temple in the complex, rise up over 100 feet. The towers, rooms and statues are beyond impressive–and then you get a closer look. Everything in Bayon is made by stacking blocks of stone on top of each other. Somehow, thousands of small blocks get you the enormous temple, with its stairs, alters and sculptures. Even the gigantic faces are made from the rock, cut to make eyes and noses and lips. I walked away from Angkor Thom amazed at what was has stood the test of time. These ruins, streaked black over centuries, have seen multiple empires, French imperialism, American bombs and the bloody reign of the Khmer Rouge. It’s incredible to think about what had already existed here for hundreds of years by the time Christopher Columbus first set foot in the Americas.

We’re headed back to the temples tomorrow, and I’m hoping I can bear the hot weather. I’ve been just schvitzing my way through the past month. It almost–almost–makes me long for a nice New York winter…

I love Laos. I can’t say it enough. Walk into a cafe and forget you’re in Asia. Walk back out and the cafe latte you just drank seems a continent away. It’s a total mindtrip, but a good one. There’s only been one real downside to this country, and I have history to thank for that one. Everyone knows about the Vietnam War, about the Vietcong, the threat of communism, and a few people even know that we lost the war. But nobody knows about, or at least talks about, the “Secret War,” the American involvement in the Laos Civil War. For more than half a decade, American planes dropped bombs all over eastern and southeastern Laos in an attempt to stop communist forces from expanding into the country. Thousands died in the bombings, with many more losing limbs.

Forty years later, 30 percent of the bombs are unexploded, still buried in Lao soil. These UXOs still pose a deadly threat to the Laotians who live in the eastern provinces. Laos being an an agrarian society, farming is impossible unless the land has been completely cleared of mines, a taxing and lengthy process. Children run the risk of being maimed and killed just by playing in the mountains and fields outside their small villages. Meanwhile, American kids sit in their air-conditioned classrooms, learning about hippies, civil rights and ‘Nam, completely unaware of the bombings in Laos and the constant threat posed to kids their age here.

On the Plain of Jars tour, we walked single- or double-file down the dirt paths. To our left and right were brick markers, signifying the safe zone. The areas beyond the safe zone have yet to be cleared of UXOs. We walked past craters the size of backyard swimming pools, the results of bombs dropped decades ago. In the mountains between Luang Prabang and Phonsavan, brown patches and absent vegatation surrounded by lush grass reminded us of the constant attacks this country endured. It was only 12 years ago that the U.S. government even admitted to bombing Laos during the war.

I’m floored by this, and you should be too. It makes me wonder what Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan will be like in a half-century. When my children visit the Middle East someday, what will they learn? What won’t they have been taught in American schools? Most importantly, how will history look on today and on this generation?

I do love Laos, but I’m disheartened by the constant reminder of America’s arial bombardment. Restaurants and guesthouses all over Phonsavan use uncovered missiles as decoration, fencing and even as key-holders. Each tourism office has hundreds of missles and bombs, rusted with age, on display. I’m ready for tomorrow’s destination, Cambodia, where I can learn about the wrongs of the Khmer Rouge rather than the American government.

I’ve been pretty awful at updating since I got to Laos, but let’s blame that on the slow Internet connection here, OK? We spent our first few days in Luang Prabang. The town, full of cafes and al fresco restaurants, reminded me of a quaint European town. Even the architecture is styled after European buildings, showing France’s lasting influence on one of its former colonies.

We lazed our way through Luang Prabang (much as we’re lazing through the entire country), cafe-hopping and checking out the night market. On our last day, we headed out of town to play in some waterfalls and a swimming hole.

We decided to venture east to Phonsavan to see the famed Plain of Jars. The seven-hour minivan ride was just awful. Phonsavan is only a few hundred kilometers from Luang Prabang, but the only way to get there is by winding and swerving through mountains. We finally got to Phonsavan around dinnertime and searched for a guesthouse for the night. Lonely Planet recommended the Kong Keo guesthouse, but I can’t imagine why. We got there and looked around for the reception desk, only to find a man pissing on the outside wall of the bar. He got us a room and apologized for his drunken state (“Sorry, I have problems.” “Women problems?” “Yes, how you know?”). We met up with two guys we met on the van ride up to Phonsavan for dinner and drinks before calling it an early night.

The Plain of Jars was just that–plain. These jars, ranging from 1-3 meters in height, have been littered around the area for thousands of years, but nobody knows why. To be honest, there’s not much to do at the sites except take funny pictures of yourself popping in and out of the jars. We also visited the former capital of the province, which now exists as a few small shacks and a wat bombed into oblivion.

After our day trip in Phonsavan, we boarded another bus to Vang Vieng. The seven-hour trip on a public bus meant several toilet stops along the way. And by “toilet,” I mean, “everyone gets out on the side of the road and does their business simultaneously.” Weirdest. Experience. Ever. Especially when I stepped too far back and mooned everyone left on the bus. Still not the most humiliating part of the trip–that came a few minutes later, when an old Lao woman got back on the bus after the toilet stop and pinched my arm and grinned. I have never been so mortified.

Vang Vieng was an alright city. It would have been better had I not contracted food poisoning within half an hour of arriving. Note to self: Do not eat chicken from a street vendor in Vang Vieng. Big mistake. I was in bed sleeping the whole of the next day, absolutely miserable. I slept it off fast enough, and on our second full day, we made it tubing. Tubing is the only real attraction in the town. It’s tubing on a river, nothing strange there. The only difference is that every 50 meters or so is a bar. They rope you in, give you free whiskey shots and occasionally free food, and let you swing/slide/jump into the water. One place we stopped had a gigantic slide. We’re not talkin’ your mama’s country club pool slide here, folks. I went soaring a good 15-20 feet up in the air before landing in the water and being roped back to shore. Ridiculous.

Now we’re in the capital, Vientiane, which is likely going to be our last stop in Laos before moving on to Cambodia. Will post again before we leave, but for now, there’s a croissant with my name on it! Thank youuu, French colonization of southeast Asia! (Did I mention my six-dollar steak last night? How about the three-dollar carafe of wine?)

Greetings from Laos! Let me tell you, getting here was one hell of a trip. We left Chiang Mai Friday morning. The minivan ride to the border town of Chiang Kong took about five hours. I’m sure the ride was a lovely one, but I was crammed in between two Dutch women and couldn’t see out the window. Upon arrival to Chiang Kong, we were too tired to try and find a guest house for the night. As luck (or Thai businessmen) would have it, we were dropped off at a guesthouse that books trips straight to Luang Prabang. We coughed up the 60ish bucks to take a speedboat down the Mekong River. That night, we hung around and had a few beers with some people at the guesthouse.
 
We woke up the next morning and after a quick breakfast were shuttled onto minivans to take us down to the ferry crossing into Laos. After sweating it out at immigration, the six of us signed up for the speedboat headed down to the river. Have you ever been on a speedboat? How about a speedboat that’s undoubtedly several decades older than you are? We boarded the boat, along with two Israelis, a Portuguese guy and a Japanese dude named “Shoe.” The ride wasn’t awful, especially when compared to the 12-hour, two-day slowboat trip that our friends took. We’re still waiting for them to arrive in Luang Prabang, mind you. The view from the boat was absolutely stunning–mountains jutting out of the water, tall grass coating the hills, and of course, the murky brown water of the Mekong. Edit out that last part and you have a gorgeous six hours. Oh yes, six hours crammed into a tiny speedboat traveling through Laos. Typical. Did I mention that our boat broke down twice? Small bits of fog and rain gave way to bright blue skies for most of the trip, which was great, except that I forgot to put on sunblock. You’d think that after a week of browning in Phuket, I’d be immune to burning. At least, that’s what I thought. Yep, and I was wrong. My beet-red face (awkward sunglasses-whiteness included) is a testament to that one. The trip was definitely one for the books, and despite my awful sunburn, I’m glad we decided to go that route.
 
After settling into our guesthouse last night, we headed down to the water for some grub. I went for a six-dollar steak and was not disappointed, though Jeanette’s barbecue chicken literally crumbled at the touch. Met up with our Portuguese friend from the boat, Vasco, and hung out until we were all too tired to do much more than collapse into our beds.
 
After a rough sleep last night (blame goes to the malaria pills for that one), we wandered around Luang Prabang’s main strip. There’s not a whole lot here, especially compared with the bigger cities in Asia, but it’s a good city to chill out in. We settled in at a cafe for some coffee and croissants (former French colony, what what!!) before finding a fantastic guest house for the next for days. Let’s just say that I don’t anticipate having to kick any cockroaches off my feet tonight. Yep, last night was one for the books.
 
Now we’re headed to another cafe for dinner, and will hopefully (eventually?) meet up with our slowboat friends later on tonight.

Never in my life did I think I’d be hanging more than 100 feet off the ground, held up my some rope, whether I lived or died in the control of a crazy Thai guy named Mr. Aussie.

Of course, never in my life did I think I’d be traveling Asia at the age of 22, either.

The past two weeks have been a mix of old and new, mostly the latter. A couple days ago, we rode bikes around the city, checking out the wats (temples) that dot Chiang Mai. I haven’t gotten on a bike in years–we’re talking around a decade–and was convinced it would end badly. Somehow, I made it through the day unscathed, albeit very, very sweaty. Yesterday I indulged in a favorite pastime–shopping. We hit up the market and I went a little crazy. A few vendors spoke to me in Hebrew as I passed, though I’m not sure why. I could only pick out a few words–“Ma nishma?” “Sababa?”–but when I looked in the direction of the voice, I’d find a vendor staring right at me. All that Hebrew put me in a mood for some Middle Eastern food, so I dragged a tired and weary Jeanette to an Israeli restaurant I’d seen. Oh falafel, how I’ve missed you.

As opposed to the past few days, today was a day of brand new things, starting with a successful trip to the consulate to add pages to my passport. In Seoul, this would take an entire afternoon, plus all the stress of having to courier it back to SEV. In Chiang Mai, I was in and out in half an hour. This afternoon, we headed out to the boonies for our most adventurous afternoon yet–ziplining through the jungle. (Sidenote: According to Wikipedia, ziplining is also known as “death slide.” Hardcore!!) We opted to go with Jungle Flight as opposed to Flight of the Gibbon, despite the latter advertising all over the damn city. We were joined by a British couple and a guy from Jersey–a solid group, I think. Our  instructors were two friendly Thai guys, Mr. Aussie and Mr. Boston (cue I Love N.Y.) who loved to unexpectedly push us off the ledges. No injuries, no deaths and an afternoon soaring through the trees. It was awesome and freeing and all, but to put it bluntly, I was scared shitless. I hate heights, and being suspended by some wire a hundred feet above the jungle floor is damn scary. The most terrifying parts of the course were when we would go straight down 10, 20 or 40 meters. Those drops were the worst because we had absolutely no control over them. Aussie and Boston controlled how fast we dropped, if we swung around and how much we jerked around before touching the platform. Scary as hell–but also exhilarating. Ziplining was nothing like I’d imagined–soaring hundreds of feet through the air at lightning speeds. But it was a chance to throw caution to the wind and jump from high trees, knowing I wasn’t going to fall to my death. That’s not to mention the killer view of the lush green forest and mountains further in the distance. And that’s not too bad, is it?

Tomorrow we’re heading to the border–a six-hour van trip–and spending the night at the border town of Chang Kong before ferrying across the Mekong River into Laos. A few pics from the trip thus far are already up, thanks to Jeanette’s patience with old-school Facebook uploading. I think there’s some surfing, some tigers and the ziplining crew in there. Next time you hear from me, I’ll be in Laos!

The best tourist attraction up here in Chiang Mai, where we’re staying this week, is Tiger Kingdom. Nearly a dozen former SEV teachers have been there on visits to Thailand. It’s what I’ve been looking forward to ever since January, when I saw Erin’s pictures from her trip there. On the flight up here, Jeanette and I decided that would be our first stop the next day.

We woke up this morning and headed down the street for breakfast. The street that our guesthouse branches off of looked remarkably different than it did last night. For one thing, I nearly got hit a few times trying to cross it this morning. Last night, the street was full of vendors and food stalls, all a part of Chiang Mai’s famed Sunday night market. Jeanette and I went to town (or to market? ha!) last night, buying light cotton clothes to make the 95-degree days bearable and picking up a few holiday gifts for family.

So this morning, decked out in our new backpacker attire, we got a tuk-tuk to take-take us out to Tiger Kingdom. Once we got there, we got to hang out with baby lions, newborn tigers, big tigers, and really big tigers. The tigers have all been tamed and for the most part just slept while we were around. We got up close and personal with them, stroking their fur, laying on them and high-fiving their paws. The lions were a bit friskier than the tigers and didn’t appreciate being pet. I may have shrieked and jumped back a few times in the lion pen.

The drive from Tiger Kingdom back to our neighborhood only took about 20 minutes, but that short drive made me realize what it is that I like so much about Thailand. I can walk down the street here without being heckled and hit on, save for the taxi drivers asking if I need a ride somewhere. We drove for miles down some streets without seeing any English signs. This is the real Thailand, much more than Phuket was, with its Club Med, overpriced food and barely legal Thai girls at every bar waiting to pounce on the next senior citizen who walked through the door. Sure, here the backpackers hit up the tourist spots and flood the night market, but walking down the street in their beat-up cotton rags, they blend into the scenery. As much as westerners are out of place in Asia, it doesn’t feel that way here, and that’s a nice change.

Jeanette’s been talking about getting surfing lessons in Phuket since we first decided to come here. Though not terribly keen on the idea, I smiled and went along with it, because, why not? This trip is all about trying new things, right?

After getting over her stomach sunburn (and let me tell you, this was the worst sunburn I’ve ever seen), Jeanette decided yesterday would be a good day to try the waves. We made our way to a surf shop and 20 minutes later were in the water. Anyone care to guess how good I was at surfing?

Awful. As expected, really. A lack of coordination combined with a lack of upper-body strength meant that I was a surfing failure. I did manage to stand a few times, but fell down pretty quickly. My instructor, a Thai guy with decent English, joked that I was 20 percent surfer. Every time I got knocked off, I’d turn around to see him mid-laughing fit. After our hour-long lesson was up, they offered to let us use the boards for free for another hour. Jeanette took them up on it; I continued to work on my world-class tan.

This morning, I woke up sore all over. It hurts to move, to grab my bottle of water that’s sitting a foot away, to put one foot in front of the other. We’re about to head down to the beach, and the first order of business will be to get a massage. The pain is awful, but well worth it. Will I be surfing again? Likely not. But is it infinitely cool that I can say I learned to surf in Thailand? I daresay yes.

On deck for today: massage, more curry, more beach time (the sky is an amazing blue at the mo’) and hanging out with a couple Brits we met last night at a bar on the beach. Tentatively we’re off to Chiang Mai tomorrow, but seeing as how Chiang Mai doesn’t have a beach and we’ve yet to book our tickets, we may not be out of here until Sunday.

I was going to blog about a million different things–the day trip we took today, the monkey that scratched me deep enough to draw some blood, the dollar banana-chocolate pancake I just ate as dessert to my pad thai dinner, but once I got to the Internet cafe, my fingers had a different idea.

At dinner, a little girl came around to all of the tables at the open-air restaurant Jeanette and I settled down in. She was wearing a pink top with matching leggings, a flower necklace around her neck. She moved from table to table with an armful of roses, singing in a whisper. At each table, she was waved on without so much as a second look. Right behind her was a man selling watercolor paintings; he carried a sign saying he was deaf and needed money. Again, a wave of the hand and on to the next table of tourists.

I’m not sure what surprised me about this. In the Philippines, the begging was everywhere — on the sides of the road, when tuk-tuks were stopped in traffic, anytime a foreigner was within earshot — done by dirty children in tattered clothes; here, the man and girl were clean and looked to be healthy. Maybe that’s the only difference between them, maybe not. In reality, I know nothing about the lives of the Thais or the Filipinos. I know what it is to be a tourist in southeast Asia, to haggle over dresses and eat street food that costs as much as a pack of gum back home. I don’t know what it is to serve drinks to foreigners sunbathing on the beach; I am the foreigner sipping cocktails in my lounge chair.

It’s easy to feel like a millionaire here, where a meal costs only a couple dollars. But then you look up from your green curry and see the people who are here forever, people for whom this is not a vacation, but life. In a couple months, I’ll be back in the States, driving my Subaru around and eating mac and cheese on my couch, flipping through hundreds of channels on TV as I text friends and futz around on my Macbook.  The people I’ve met in Phuket will still be here, shouting their wares to every white person who walks down the street, offering a good deal or a new bargain if the foreigner would kindly come inside. I’m fortunate to have grown up in the west; we all are. We waste so much time complaining about the most trivial things, but we don’t know how good we have it. None of us has had to beg his way through a restaurant. We haven’t walked up and down a hot beach mid-day with a fake smile plastered on, trying to sell cobs of corn. We haven’t spent our lives trying to eke out a living from the millions of people who leave our home just as soon as they came. It’s important to keep that in mind as I make my way through this part of the world.