Sorry for the delay of posting pictures after writing about my trip to Phnom Penh with my parents. But they are now posted to my picasa website, so please take a look and enjoy! Depending on whether or not my mom can figure out how to upload the pictures she took in Phnom Penh to the internet and send them to me, there might be more pictures posted later. I will keep you all updated if I end up adding more!
At the moment I’m sitting in my apartment in Singapore in the loudest and hardest storm that has hit since being here, while my parents are visiting ruins in Angkor Wat. It’s not at all fair, but at least I got to spend a few days with them at the beginning of their 2 week trip. Their first stop was Singapore, and they had the morning to explore by themselves before I met them for lunch after my first class. I took them to a typical hawker center, and like I had guessed, they had no idea what to do, what to order, or where to sit, so they just relied on me for all the information they needed. After lunch I took them on a walking tour down by the marina, the CBD, and both quays (boat and Clarke). It was excruciatingly hot, so I must admit that my dad convinced me to have my first Starbucks since coming abroad. After the tour of pretty much half of the city, my parents continued on to explore, while I sat through my afternoon class.
I rushed home to change and meet my parents for a nicer dinner out on the town. I was all excited because I haven’t eaten in a real restaurant yet, and I was curious to see exactly how good the food in Singapore actually is. We went to a Japanese restaurant on Orchard road near my parents hotel called Aoki, and it exceeded my expectations. It was very traditional with everyone sitting at the sushi bar talking to the sushi chefs, and the waitresses were all wearing kimonos. We ordered a seaweed salad and baby squid for appetizers. My mom made us order the squids, but once she saw them she refused to try one, even though my dad and I kept telling her that they tasted great (and they really did). The sushi itself was also amazing, but I probably could have eaten 3 times as much as we ordered. Because of the small amount of food, we stopped at a desert bar close by. The chocolate cake that I had was the perfect filling desert for the tiny meal.
The next day I had class until 3, and I met my parents afterwards to show them a little bit more of the city before dinner. I took them to Little India on the MRT (the metro), and again, without me they would have been completely lost… especially when we had to change lines. Little India is all lit up with Deepavali (festival of lights) signs and decorations, and the streets were very crowded, even though it was raining a little. I needed new headphones so we went to Mustafa center, which is a huge indoor mall with everything you may need. The aisles are tiny, it’s incredibly crowded, they give you twisty ties so you can’t steal anything, you pay with a slip, get a receipt, and then pick up your item, and it’s open 24 hours. It was insane, and my dad couldn’t get enough. Luckily we had to meed my roommates for dinner, so we were able to escape the madness.
While walking around Little India earlier we had picked a restaurant for dinner, but when we got there it was one of the only restaurants without people in it. So we chose the one next door that was very crowded, and by the end of the night it was packed. And I understand why, because it was so good. The food is served directly on banana leafs, so you eat right off of them, even with your hands if you choose (since my parents wanted to use forks, Pauline, Joy, Blair, and I followed suit… it would have been very messy anyways). We ordered a ton of food, all of which was great, and left the restaurant stuffed. We walked back to my apartment to show the parents where I’ve been living for the past 2 and 1/2 months. I think it was exactly what they expected: white walls and messy rooms, and they weren’t at all surprised. They then went back to their hotel after a quick email to my brother, and I went to bed early so I could get up to meet them in the morning.
I woke up and went to their hotel for breakfast on the top floor of the hotel. It was a great 360 view of the city, so we could see everything. I looked for my apartment building, but I think it was blocked by the many other, taller apartment buildings that surround it. We then headed over to chinatown, which was the only part of town my parents hadn’t seen yet. I took them to the Chinese heritage center, and had to drag my mom through the market because she wanted to look at or buy everything there. I kept having to remind her that there would be many more markets, and the more she bought now the more she would have to carry through her trip. On the way back to the hotel to gather our luggage we stopped for a quick chicken rice and bubble tea at my favorite place. I thought it was essential for them to have chicken rice before leaving Singapore.
Stacy, my roommate who travelled with us to Phnom Penh met us at the hotel to ride to the airport. For the first time we were in the fancy terminal in the airport, and we spent a good 30 minutes trying all of the free samples in the different stores before we had to get on the plane. We arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia with only a little bit of daylight left. My parents had their driver and guide to take them to the hotel, but Stacy and I followed in a cab. My mom and dad were in complete shock at the difference between Singapore and Cambodia. My parents checked into their hotel while Stacy and I checked into our $5 a night hostel a few blocks away. I refused to show my mom where we were staying because she would have freaked out, but my dad just laughed at how cheap we could stay. After we were all settled we walked to a restaurant called Friends for dinner. It’s a training restaurant for street kids who learn the basics of being a waiter, and some learn to cook as well. The food was great, and it was a completely different dining atmosphere than I am used to while traveling, because we usually just eat on the street.
We ended up watching Mary Poppins on the Disney channel on our TV in the hostel before going to bed. Even though we had a queen size bed in a private room, it was one of the worst nights sleep I’ve gotten in a while. About an hour into our sleep we were awoken to cats fighting and screeching, and knocking over trash bins outside our window. This lasted for about 2 hours before the pouring down rain drove the cats to find some shelter, but the sound of the rain and thunder was just as hard to fall asleep to.
Ron, our tour guide, picked us up from the hostel in the morning after a breakfast of toast and jelly. After getting my mom and dad we drove directly to the Royal Palace. It is a huge complex where King Sihamoni still lives. Parts of the palace are closed to the public, and they were setting up for a ceremony later that night while we were there. Inside the palace walls is the Silver Pagoda, which includes the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, and various stupas and other buildings. The ground of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha is covered with 5 tons of silver (5000 tiles), and the solid gold Buddha (that weighs 90 kg) inside the temple has 2086 diamonds, the largest being 25 carats. The stupas in the complex are pyramid shaped structures that contain the ashes and relics of various past royal families.
After hanging out with the king we took the drive up to the killing fields of Choeng Ek, which was the site where the Khmer Rouge regime and their leader Pol Pot executed approximately 17,000 people during their reign from 1975 to 1979. There are old clothes and bones still lying around the site buried in the dirt, and grass now covers what used to be 129 mass graves for men, women, and children. The regime would kill their prisoners by hitting them on the head with bamboo or decapitating them; they did anything they could to execute their prisoners without wasting their precious bullets. It is a very creepy and emotional site, and the stupa that contains almost 9000 human sculls and clothes that were found during excavation only adds to how terrifying the field is. Across the street from the killing field, barefoot children were playing in the dirt road and walking home from school. Looking out the window of the van on the ride to and from the killing fields was half the experience in itself.
We then made our way to the Russian market, and while my mom shopped for scarves I was followed around by 2 little boys. One was trying to sell me a guide book to China (it was kind of my fault because when he showed me a Vietnam book I asked if he had China, and he said yes and ran to get it), and the other was a street kid asking for 1 dollar for food. After helping my mom bargain down the prices of her scarves, and bargaining for little Buddha trinkets and a Buddha mask for my dad, we left the market to grab some lunch (after I gave both of the boys a little bit of money because they were too cute not to). We were all exhausted from our busy day, but our fruit smoothies during lunch perked us up.
After lunch we had another emotional stop, which was the Tuol Sleng Museum. The Tuol Sleng Museum was the prison that the Khmer Rouge kept prisoners before sending them to the killing fields. The average length of stay was between 3 and 6 months. It used to be a High School before Pol Pot turned it into Security Prison 21 (S-21), the largest torture and detention center in Cambodia. The classrooms were turned into prison cells and one building had rooms that contained a single rusty bed, the container they used to relieve themselves, and the chains that were on the prisoner’s feet. Many also have a black and white photo of some of the terrible things that happened there. The other buildings contain smaller cells that were only big enough for one person. Some of the cell walls have fallen, but blood stains still cover the floors. If the prisoners died before being sent to the killing fields, they were buried in mass graves located inside the prison grounds. There were only 7 survivors.
Pol Pot trained 10 to 15 year old boys as guards to the prison and soldiers in the Khmer Rouge Army. They started off as innocent young boys, but were quickly transformed into terrible people torturing innocent victims and their families, who the Khmer Rouge believed were involved in “free-market activities.” In the beginning the soldiers were afraid of what would happen to them if they didn’t follow orders, so they tortured the detainees instead of being tortured themselves. Prisoners were not only Cambodians, but people from other Asian countries, and westerners as well. There were pictures of many of the prisoners, and disturbing pictures of the prison itself. We didn’t want to touch anything because we were walking and standing on blood stains from all the terrible things that happened in the prison.
We then left the high school turned prison turned museum, and went to the central market. This market had a huge indoor section with hundreds of jewelry and watch stations. Stacy bought a watch, and my dad almost ate a spider until he saw how big they were. I was expecting small little spiders that you could fit whole in your mouth (so I told him I would eat a spider with him)… but these were huge tarantula spiders, and there was no way anybody was going to eat one of them.
Our last stop of the day was the National Museum, which has a huge collection of Angkor-era sculptures and Khmer artwork. We were all exhausted, so we took a quick tour through the museum before heading back to the hotel for a nap. My dad and I sat on the balcony watching the intersection down below. He couldn’t believe that we didn’t witness an accident because the drivers are so reckless and just plain crazy. Nobody uses blinkers, there are usually 3 or even 4 people riding on a motorbike (often with their young children), and nobody stays inside the lanes. We joked about how it would be to learn to drive there. When it got dark we walked to the FCC club for dinner, which is a popular tourist restaurant on the river. We had one more desert and tea at my parents hotel before saying goodbye and heading back to our hostel. My parents left early the next morning, but Stacy and I had another half day.
We slept in, and after wondering what we were going to do all day (since we did everything the day before), we saw a sign for a cooking class in our hostel as we were returning the key. We signed up for the class, but we had about an hour before it started. Instead of waiting for the class to start we walked around the insanely busy streets of Phnom Penh. At night the streets are empty, but during the day they look completely different just because of the amount of people that are walking around. We took a wrong turn, which ended up being one of the coolest things I saw all trip. We were walking in the back alleys of the city where the Cambodian people actually live. During the entire trip I had been wondering where the people who work on the street live, and it was great to be able to see this area. They were cooking for their families, and sitting in their houses, and even playing cards in the alleyway. There were tons of clothes hanging out to dry, and many children running through the streets. It was amazing to see.
We made it back to the hostel just in time for our cooking instructor to pick us up. His name was Poon, and he was 27. He took us in a tuk tuk to the cooking school, which was the 2nd floor of his apartment (where he lives with his 20 year old sister) on the balcony; we had a great view. Our first dish was a cold noodle dish, which would have been easy to make if we didn’t have to grind all of the ingredients together by hand to make the sauce. It ended up being delicious. Our second dish was fish and tofu amok, which is a traditional cambodian dish. The entire dish was making the yellow curry (which was more grinding-luckily Poon helped us with that), and once we mixed in the fish we put everything into a banana leaf cup and steamed it for 30 minutes. It was delicious, and it even could have been a little bit more spicy. Our last dish was a pumpkin custard for desert, which we had to scarf down because we were a little bit late for our ride to the airport.
While cooking we found out a lot about Poon that was very interesting. He is a student, and he used to work for a fancy restaurant as a chef until he opened up the cooking school. He is very educated, and knew almost as much as me about the presidential election (he wants Obama to win). Even though he doesn’t like to read novels that much, some of his favorite movies are the Tomb Raider movies and Harry Potter. He also knew a lot of celebrity gossip, and informed us that Angelina Jolie has a house in Siem Reap.
After a deliciously filling 3-course meal, we rushed back to our hostel to grab our bags before catching a tuk tuk to take us to the airport. We were supposed to have a driver from our hostel take us, but the lady at the desk forgot about us, and gave us our money back. The tuk tuk ride was 2.5 dollars cheaper. It was just our luck to get the only cautious driver in all of Phnom Penh (he even wore a helmet), and we were the slowest vehicle on the road… by a lot. Because we were a little late, and we couldn’t remember how far away the airport was, we were a little nervous we weren’t going to make it. I tried to tell our driver to hurry and speed up because we were in a rush, but there was a slight language barrier, and he didn’t understand. The ride, however, was incredibly amusing. The roads were so crowded with cars, motorbikes, tuk tuks, and even regular bikes; one girl had a bunch of live chickens tied to the back of her motorbike. The road all the way to the airport was incredibly busy, and I was again surprised I didn’t witness an accident.
Phnom Penh is an amazing city, and it is crazy to think that during the reign of the Khmer Rouge the entire city was cleared out and empty, because now it is so over-crowded. It was an emotional trip, but it was also amazing to experience the chaos of the city and witness the Cambodian lifestyle.
Even though we spent the majority of our time in Bangkok, the best part of the two weeks was Chiang Mai and our three day hilltribe trek. From Bangkok we took a 13 hour overnight train to Chiang Mai and arrived early in the morning with the whole day ahead of us. Pauline and I dropped our bags off at the hotel, and met our guide for our bike tour. We were the only two who wanted to go biking, so we basically had a private tour guide for half the day. We biked outside the city so we were able to see village life, rice fields, and places we would never get to otherwise.
We made a few stops along the way where our guide gave us information about Chiang Mai and the different areas we went. Our first stop was an old leprosy colony where disabled people still live and work in the community. They all live in private huts where they pay for electricity and water, but they don’t pay for the small building itself. Many of the people who live there work making a variety of crafts that they sell in local markets around Chiang Mai. We got to see the man who won an award for being the best wood carver in Thailand 2 years ago. We even saw the meddle that he won.
After the leprosy colony we made a short stop at the town crematorium, which was just a crematorium site with a covered pavilion with seats about 40 yards away. There is also a basketball court on the grounds where children sometimes play. During a funeral the body is placed in a coffin and it is set atop what looks like two sets of stairs that are about five feet away and facing each other. We stood about two feet from where this happens, and we could see charcoal marks on the stone, which was very creepy. Family and friends come to watch the ceremony, but afterwards they head straight home to their own houses.
We then made a stop at a temple that houses a monk that has been dead for two years. He was a monk for over 80 years of his life, which is very commendable, so when he passed away they wanted to honor him in some way. When he died they wrapped him in a robe and covered his remaining skin in gold leaf; his face, neck and shoulders are all gold, and the robe covers the rest of his body. They did not expect his body to last this long without decaying, but he is still in the temple in a glass case. Many people visit him in the temple to pray.
Our guide took us to a local restaurant for some of the best fried rice and noodles that we’ve had so far. She also brought us fruit and banana bread, which was all delicious. While still digesting from our huge meal, we rode through the old city of Chiang Mai to see the ruins. Chaing Mai means ‘new city’ and it became Chiang Mai after it succeeded Chiang Rai (meaning old city) in 1296. On the ride back to the hotel we passed some very large, fancy houses across the river. They were extremely out of place, and our guide told us that the prince’s ex-girlfriend lives there with their children. She is not supposed to, or allowed to talk about them because of the controversy or she could go to jail. She gave us a little information until a man in uniform showed up a few feet away from us; she said he probably didn’t speak English so she would be fine, but we kept cycling just in case. It was a great day and it was great to see outside the city walls since we knew we’d be walking around the city in the afternoon.
Pauline and I met our group and guide, Dong, to go on a walking tour of the city of Chiang Mai. He took us to a few temples, and we got to see the majority of the city inside the city walls because it is so small. It is so different from Bangkok because there are no tall buildings, and the buildings are a lot older. It is also a lot less busy with less people, and less insane. From there we went to the trek shop to rent gear for our three day trek in the hills north of the city. We all rented the essentials, which included a sleeping bag and small pack, and bought other important items like toilet paper, plastic bags for waterproofing, a lighter for removing leaches or burning our used toilet paper, and tiger balm (anti-itch cream with an extremely potent smell).
After renting pretty much everything we would need for the entire trip, excluding our clothes, we headed towards the night market, which was one of the best I’ve seen. There were very nice clothes and jewelry that you would actually wear, for dirt cheap. It was also in a nice setting with lights and large aisles, and some of the stands even had mirrors. Pauline and I bought a few smaller items before going back to the hotel to listen to Thai people do karaoke to Thai songs (they all sounded the exact same). At least until one of the Irish guys from our trip took over and sang Greace and the YMCA. We closed the place down and went to bed to get up to travel north to the hills.
We woke up early, got breakfast from a local bakery, and packed ourselves into two taxi’s, which are basically pickup trucks with padded seating in the pack with a covered roof. We were driven to the Mork-Fa waterfall for a little dip, so we all changed into our suits to go for a swim. The water pressure from the waterfall was a little painful at times, but only directly under the falling water. It was nice to cool off before lunch and starting the trek. The drive to lunch was very bumpy and along winding roads, and we all were getting car sick. We stopped at the lunch site just in time, because if we had continued driving without a break I probably would have gotten sick or passed out. But lunch was only a short break before we had to get back into the ‘taxi’ and drive to the trail head. It felt great to be able to not breathe in the dirt air anymore once we finally made it.
The start of the trek was pretty much straight uphill and on a dirt road. We were all confused because we thought we’d be walking through the woods. Well, we only walked on dirt for about 15 minutes before we were walking through the muddy, slippery, wet, and leach infested forest. The entire time I had to look down at my feet so I could remove the leaches from my shoes before they could make it into my shoe. I missed two, which both got into my shoe at the same time, and sucked my blood through my sock. Luckily I felt them bite, so I could get rid of them before they sucked all of the blood out of my foot. They were tiny little leaches, but they were everywhere (only on my shoes-only one other person on my trip had a leach the entire hike. I was very unlucky). Our local trek leader, G, helped remove the leaches from my shoes every time because I was afraid of touching them. G and Dong both made the hike fun, and they made us all matching leaf hats and taught us how to blow bubbles from the stem of a certain leaf.
We arrived in our first village a little bit before dinner time. It was amazing. Everyone there lives in huts, and they walk around barefoot, and all of the children help out with cooking and farming and family chores. Pauline and I toured the village and everyone was preparing dinner. I ended up playing with two little children for a good hour before we had to go back to our hut for dinner. They were obsessed with my digital camera because they had never seen anything like it before, and they would constantly repeat things that I said in English, even though they obviously didn’t have any idea what I was saying. I didn’t want to leave them to eat dinner because they were so adorable.
G and Dong, along with some other locals in the village cooked us soup, sweet and sour chicken, and pumpkin for dinner, which all tasted amazing. We then sat around the campfire and listened to G and Dong sing and play guitar before heading to our two person private hut with a mosquito net for bed. The huts were on tall stilts and we had a candle at the top of our stairs for a light. It was very camp-esque.
Everyone woke the next morning to roosters crowing, a lot earlier than we had planned on waking up. But there was no going back to bed, so I packed up and had smoky tasting tea and toast for breakfast to fill me up for another day of hiking. The good news was that there would be no leaches on this hike. I was super excited about that because I wouldn’t have to continuously stare at my shoes all day waiting for a leach to latch on. We tried sugar cane and cucumber from places along the trail during one of our breaks. The cucumber was so refreshing, and the sugar cane was sweet, but you only chew it to get the flavor and then spit out the actual cane, so it was a little weird.
After the break we had to hike up the ‘mama hill’ which we were warned was about 20 minutes of straight uphill walking. It was definitely a hill, but one of the guides carried two backpacks of the girls on the trip, which I didn’t feel was necessary. Many of the people on the trip were not athletic at all, nor did they have any idea what they were getting themselves into when they signed up to do this tour with a hilltribe trek. But everybody made it, and then we had a short, flat walk to the elephant camp. We had lunch before all getting on our elephants for our hour an a half ride. In the beginning Pauline and I (who were on the same elephant) thought we were going to fall off because we had no seat belt, and pretty much nothing to hold on to. It felt especially unsafe when we went downhill, but it ended up being really fun, and our elephant was very stubborn. He was constantly eating, and he didn’t want the elephant behind us to pass him. Every time we would get to an open area they would basically race to get in front of each other. Again, it was frightening at first because we were riding on a running elephant about 15 feet off the ground, but it ended up being very entertaining.
We arrived in our next village, and we had the opportunity to play soccer with some of the local village people, so a few of us went to the soccer field to play. Some of them were pretty good, and most of them didn’t have a pair of shoes. Some were playing completely barefoot, while others shared a pair of shoes by wearing one each. I felt over-privileged, but none of them seemed to care while playing because they were having such a great time.
The group ate another great dinner in our area of the village, and then we all played silly games that involved drawing charcoal on the persons face who messed up. In the end we all had black smudges all over our faces. We were also taught the elephant song (which sounds a lot better in Thai) and we were forced to do the elephant dance. Dong also gave us a few riddles, which not many people were able to solve. We then got into a big discussion about marriage in the villages. Dong told us that a woman will ask a man that she trusts and wants to be her husband, and it would be disrespectful for the man to decline; the woman only asks if she knows the man will say yes because divorce is not allowed. The people in the village also marry very young-around 15, and they must ask their parents before being allowed to marry. G lives in one of the villages, and Dong is from also from one of the hilltribe villages, but in the southern hills of Chiang Mai. After story time we all went to bed in our communal sleeping area.
Everyone woke up to roosters crowing again and we all got ready for bamboo rafting. You might be wondering what a bamboo raft looks like… Well, it’s about 10 or so long pieces of bamboo next to each other and tied together with other strips of bamboo. There was also a structure that stood on top of the raft to keep our backpacks from sinking or getting soaking wet. We had two for all of us, and we either stood on the raft or sat. We stood for a while, but it was more fun to sit while going through the ‘rapids.’ I was also thrown in the water by our scrawny guide who was probably a good five inches shorter than me. But what can ya do.
After the bamboo rafting we had another long and bumpy ride in the ‘taxis’ before arriving back at our hotel. We had a little over an hour before meeting the group for dinner so Pauline and I went down the street to get massages. It was very relaxing and extremely cheap for an hour massage. Then the whole group grabbed dinner, went to a bar, and then headed to a club. The music was too awful (way too techno) to handle, so Pauline and I went back to the hotel.
It was a good thing that we got to bed at a relatively decent hour because we wanted to wake up in the morning for a Thai cooking class. There were five other people in the class that we met up with, and we had one instructor. We first went to a local market where we got to buy some of the ingredients we would be using in our cooking. We bought noodles, chicken, mushrooms, and tofu, and we also got to see how fresh coconut milk is made. I then bought some prepared snacks to try on the long train ride we had later that night.
We then went to the cooking school, which was outdoor, but covered. There was a cutting station, a cooking station, and an eating station for our class. Everyone had their own stove and ingredients so we were all able to make everything exactly the way we wanted it. Our first dish was pad thai with chicken, which tasted better than any pad thai I’ve ever had, our second dish was tom yum soup, which I was able to make exactly how spicy I like it, and our third dish was red chicken curry (we could pick either red or green). They all tasted great, and I really enjoyed it-it’s so much easier than it seems. For desert we had bananas in coconut milk, which has become one of my new favorite dishes on the menu.
After eating all of that food Pauline and I got another massage (I got a thai massage this time) before our 13 hour train ride back to Bangkok. The thai massage hurt while I was getting it, but I felt so relaxed and loose afterwards that it was perfect before the train.
We arrived early in the morning in Bangkok and we said goodbye to our group members before heading out to find Stacy and Blair who were meeting us there. All of the internet cafes were closed because it was 7 am, and they weren’t opening until at least 9, so Pauline and I decided to do a half day trip to a floating market. We got in a car and went to Damnoen Sakuok, the floating market. We arrived in a little house along a canal and we got in a small paddle boat to head to the location of the market. They provided us with hats because it was so hot and we were going to be on the water for a few hours. We had a guy in back and a guy in front paddling us to the village. When we got there it was fun to be in a boat with all of the markets, and be right in the middle of the action. There were so many boats selling so many different things. It was interesting also just to see the women selling their items and food directly from their boats. It was unfortunate because there were a lot of tourists there, but it was still really interesting and fun to see.
When we got back to Bangkok we were able to check our internet to find Stacy and Blair, so we met them at their hostel, and checked in ourselves. We had seen everything there is to see in Bangkok (with the exception of one temple that we had to go to the next day because it was already closed), so we decided to just walk around a do a little bit of shopping. We basically ended up just walked up and down Khaosan road a bunch of times until we got sleepy enough to go to bed.
On our last day in Thailand we walked to Wat Pho, which is the temple of the reclining buddha, which is a huge, gold buddha lying down with mother of pearl designs on its feet. It was excruciatingly hot out, but it was completely worth bearing the heat to see the buddha. By the time we walked back towards our hostel we only had time to grab one last pad thai from the street before we had to go to the airport to head back to Singapore.
Overall, the trip was amazing, and I learned so much about Thai culture and the people, and the country itself. I’m in the process of planning a trip to Phuket and some of the southern islands, so hopefully I will end up making it there as well before the semester is over. My parents are on their flight from St. Louis right now to come and visit, and we’re going to Phnom Penh, Cambodia for a few days over the weekend, so look for that update in about a week. I can’t wait to go back to Cambodia!
Since I spent about 13 days in Thailand, this was about to be the longest post ever. But since I don’t have the time to sit down and crank out everything there is to say about Thailand in one sitting, I’ve decided to split this post into 2 parts. Bangkok was our first destination, and we had a few days there before starting our 8 day intrepid tour. It ended up being significantly more time in Bangkok than I needed, but I was able to see pretty much everything there is to see there. This post is going to be everything Bangkok, and the next post will start with our travels up to Chiang Mai with our group.
Stacy, Blair, and I arrived late on Wednesday night and we stumbled around the part of town our hostel was in until we finally found it… it wasn’t where the directions said it would be. We were all exhausted from the flight, but we couldn’t go to bed without seeing at least a little bit of Bangkok by night. Our hostel was located in the Patpong district in the southern part of Bangkok, and there was a decent night market only about 2 blocks from our hostel. We arrived around midnight, but everything was still open in the market, including food, fruit, and drink stands.. which are absolutely everywhere in the city. The market was a lot more enjoyable because the vendors don’t hassle you or try and get you to buy something. They just sit in their stalls quietly, minding their own business as you walk by. And then you have to bargain. But the markets and the shopping was a lot nicer than anywhere else we’ve been because it was the first time I felt like I didn’t have to buy anything if I didn’t want to.
The next morning we woke up and took a walk towards the river. We passed so many amazing Wats (temples) and street vendors. The vendors set up their stations right on the sidewalk, and they make everything from fried rice and noodles (including great Pad Thai), to fruit and smoothies, to candy and snacks, to spring rolls and an assortment of other fried foods. Our meals on the streets the entire trip were less than $1. We finally made it to the canal where we took an hour and 1/2 river cruise along the river. It was the 3 of us and our driver, and we got to see village life outside the city and small floating markets. It was very relaxing, and a great way to see part of the city. We ate dinner near our hostel where a vendor made noodles especially for us. He also introduced us to his daughter who is trying to learn English. She asked us for our email addresses so she could email us to improve her English–I haven’t heard from her yet, but I’m hoping she follows through.
We woke up early on our 3rd day so we could get the complementary breakfast in the hostel. Chinatown was our first stop, and it was very similar to other Chinatowns that I’ve seen, but a lot bigger, and the market there was enormous. It was a huge outdoor mall basically. There was a vegetarian festival happening while we were there (it is bigger in Phuket), and we passed the temple where they were celebrating. Everyone was in white. Apparently it is insane in Phuket, and the people are put into trances and pierce their cheeks; this was not happening in Bangkok. After this we got a tuk tuk to take us to the bus station so we could get to a floating market in a town a little over an hour away. He said, “I help you out, you help me out.” He told us he was going to take us to 2 stores so he could get gas vouchers. He said we didn’t have to buy anything if we didn’t want to, but we just had to go in. So we went with him.
The first store was a suit store where the men kept asking us if we wanted a custom made suit. We quickly left and the second store was a very fancy jewelry store so we walked in, around the counter, and then right out. After this our driver told us that we needed to stay for 10 minutes so he could get his voucher. He took us to one last clothing store, and for 10 minutes we were shown booklets of dresses and fabrics, and we pretended we would buy something until we sprinted out after the 10 minutes were up. It was a very uncomfortable situation. Our driver ended up not even knowing where the bus station was, so we left him without paying him anything. We later found out that all of the tuk tuk drivers will do this in order to get gas vouchers. They will offer to drive you around for an hour for like 10 cents, but pretty much the whole time you are sitting in stores being asked to buy things that you have no interest in buying. The tuk tuks were the most annoying of any place we’d been.
When we got back to the hostel the guy at the front desk wrote down the name of the bus station and the town we wanted to go, in Thai, so we would be able to get there. We showed about 5 taxi drivers where we wanted to go before one would take us there because it was a little farther away. When we got there we were sent to 7 different counters before we found the right one to get to Ampawa (a town with an afternoon floating market). The bus took about an hour and and half, and we were literally dropped off on the side of the road in this middle of nowhere town. We decided to worry about how to get back to Bangkok later so we could do some exploring. There was a one road market about two blocks away selling traditional Thai goodies. Nobody spoke English, which is why it came as a surprise when we ran into two English speaking girls. We told them our situation and asked them if they had any idea where we were. They were studying in Bangkok and they were there with a group from their school and a guide. They told us to come with them, so we followed them to their vans. We hopped in and drove to a boat dock. We were going to go on the boat ride with them until their guide told us we should head to the bus station or else we would be stranded in Ampawa. She told us the bus station closed at 6–it was five till. This concerned me a little, but their drivers took us to the “bus station,” which was just a bus on the side of a different road. The bus didn’t leave for 2 hours, but we got back to Bangkok safely and in time for a late dinner. We got chocolate banana pancakes from a vendor and fruit. It was great.
When we booked our tours there weren’t enough spots for the 4 of us (Blair, Stacy, Pauline, and I) to go on the same one. Blair and Stacy’s tour started on our fourth day in Bangkok, and Pauline and I didn’t leave until October 5th (a day after). I spent the day alone exploring, and I got free vegetarian food at the oldest mall in Bangkok (Siam square mall). After that I went up to the weekend market, which is the biggest market in Bangkok, and probably the biggest outdoor market I will ever see. It has 15,000 stalls with an estimated 200,000 visitors a day. There are both locals and visitors roaming the market and bargaining prices. There are even restaurants where people can take a break from their shopping and get something to eat. I had amazing Pad Thai.
On my way back towards the hostel I saw the victory monument and then spent time walking in Lumphini Park. Many people were out running or hanging out, but the majority of people were doing the free aerobics classes that happen in the afternoon. There were about four different ones all happening at the same time in different parts of the park. It was hilarious to watch, as most people were really into it and trying to get a good workout. It was very entertaining. After walking around the park I went back to the Hostel to wait for Pauline to arrive.
The next morning we had to meet our group to start our tour. Again it took us a while to find a taxi that both knew where our meeting spot was, and wanted to take us there. Not many people speak English in Bangkok (especially taxi and tuk tuk drivers, and the street vendors), so it was very difficult to get around and find out what we were eating. But we finally got a taxi and checked into our hotel meeting point. We had all day until our group meeting at night so we started our day at the National Museum. Our hotel was in a much better location because it was within walking distance from all the main attractions in Bangkok, and there were also a lot more backpackers in the area. For lunch we ate Pad Thai on Khoasan road, which is the main backpacker road in Bangkok. Their are lit-up signs all down the street, many vendors making Pad Thai, pancakes, selling fruit and even pizza and falafel. There are also shops all up and down the road selling typical cheap Thailand attire and souvenirs.
After lunch we walked passed a great flower market to Wat Benchama Bophit (the marble temple). It was gorgeous and it had many Buddha replicas in different positions, which all represent different things. On our way back we took a different route, and we ended up on a guarded street where everyone was wearing yellow shirts that said, “I love the King” and “I love Thailand” and someone was speaking on a loudspeaker. We were the only white people to be found. We quickly made our way through the madness and climbed the golden mount for a great view of the city. Bangkok is absolutely huge, and there are an insane amount of Wats it is ridiculous. We could see so many temple roofs. It had a great view, and a great breeze.
We made it back to the hotel to meet with our group and tour guide. Our guides name was Dong, and he is a 44 year old from a hilltribe village south of Chiang Mai. There were 12 of us in the group: 2 from Australia, 2 from Ireland, 1 from Scotland, 1 from Holland, and 4 from England. Everyone was really nice and really fun. After meeting the group and getting a brief outline for the trip, Pauline and I went to dinner with one of the guys on the trip. We had fresh snapper and walked along Khousan road, which is even more lively at night. It was a long day and we were getting up early to see the main sights of Bangkok in the morning, so we went to bed early.
Dong had arranged a meeting for the group to walk around, so we met up with some of the other group members, and we all took a 20 minute boat ride up to a local market. Parts of it were very smelly from the meat, fish, and even frogs (which were disgusting), but it was interesting to see because it was all local people buying their groceries. Then we went to the Grand Palace, which was amazing. It is a huge royal complex inside a white wall with temples and towers inside. Everything is gold and colorful and beautiful. There are even paintings covering the walls with gold paint. One of the temples inside is Wat Phra Kaew, which is the temple of the emerald buddha. Everyone is very respectful of the people praying, and you sit on the floor while people filter in and out to see it. It is such a big complex that you could spend all day there and not see everything there is to see. I also took typically tourist pictures with the guards, which was a great end to the hours we spent there. The palace was by far the most grand place we saw in Bangkok. We then had to rush back to the hotel to meet our group for our long overnight train ride up to Chiang Mai (luckily we had time to grab some snacks on the way).
This is where I leave you… for now. What we did in Bangkok is so different from what we did in Chiang Mai, and I spent about half of my trip in each city, so it is the perfect stopping point. By the time you read this, my next post will hopefully already be up!
I am extremely sorry for the delay, but I have so many things to write about that I need a good few hours to sit down and blog about my Thailand adventure, which I haven’t had since arriving back in Singapore late Monday night. Expect a very long post by the end of the weekend. But in the meantime, my pictures are uploaded to my picasa website, so take a look at those for now. I am warning you now that there are a lot! but it comes with the territory of spending 13 days in Thailand, and you definitely don’t want to miss them!
Despite what many of you may think, there actually are Jews in Singapore. Granted, there are only about 1000 of us out of a total population of 4.5 million, but the community is loud and proud. I’ve been to Chabad a few times now since coming to Singapore, including last night for Rosh Hashanah Services and a great, home-style, Asian-Jewish fusion meal. Blair, Stacy, and I discovered Chabad from a combination of Stacy’s dad emailing the Rabbi, and meeting a few Israeli students who had already been once we had heard about it. It is incredibly convenient because it is literally across the street from campus, and they are extremely welcoming and friendly, especially towards exchange students. Out of the over 300 exchange students, we have met almost all of the other Jewish ones–there aren’t too many of us–and many of them are frequent Chabad attenders. Most of them go to university in Israel, but a good chunk of them are actually from France.
Our first Chabad experience was a goodbye dinner for the old Chabad boys (there are new ones now that recently arrived). During the year, there are a group of boys (usually American and European) that come to live in Singapore and help out with the community by putting together events and doing community service. They are the Chabad boys. We walked into the dining room and were immediately greeted by other Americans willing to show us the ropes because they knew (somehow) that we were first-timers. The majority of the Jewish people here are American, with Europeans and Asians showing a slight presence (and few Israelis as well). Everyone was interested in meeting us, and excited about seeing new faces. Everyone is in Singapore for different reasons; some are working here, either for a few months or a few years, or permanently with their families, and there are a decent amount of students here for the semester. It was the first time where we were not the minority in a group of people all gathered together in Singapore, and it was a strange feeling to suddenly be in a room again with all Americans.
After that night, I was hooked, and when we got invited to ‘Singles and Shwarma’ night, there was no hesitation in deciding to attend. We were all excited for some good ole Shwarma, and Stacy was finally able to get her protein because the meat was kosher. A few days later there was a small event at a coffee house, organized by one of the Chabad boys. Because of the time, location, and size of the venue, only about 15 students showed up. We all got free lattes (or your drink of choice), a free meal, and a variety of free chocolate deserts. I was in heaven. It was a much more intimate setting than the louder, more crowded Chabad events, and we all sat around the table discussing our different experiences in Singapore. We stayed for about 3 hours laughing and talking and drinking (coffee that is), and I had such a great time that I couldn’t wait for the next get together.
But Chabad is not just for socializing (well, it sort of is). Last night we attended 1 of the 2 synagogues in Singapore for Rosh Hashanah, which is next door to Chabad. The services were an hour and a half, with the men downstairs, and the women upstairs. It was laid back and relaxed, and you could individually decide how much praying you wanted to do. There was a combination of orthodox Jews with their top hats, beards, and tzi-tzit, all the way down to some reform Jews dressed in jeans. Because it is such a small community, everybody knows everybody, and there is a good amount of catching up happening, especially upstairs with the women. When the service ended, everyone filed into the dining room for dinner. Dinner started with a variety of prayers obviously for the wine, challah, and apples and honey, and then many others that I had never heard of like pumpkin, green beans, fish, and pomegranate. There were 120 people gathered at tables conversing and eating and meeting others in the community. We ended up staying until 11 p.m. and we were the last people in the room talking with a few of the new Chabad boys, who are from Chicago and California. It was a great meal, and a great service, (and I met the lead singer of the reggae band The Wailers), and we’re going back tonight to do it all over again. Except this time when dinner is served, we’re getting in line immediately so the food doesn’t run out.
This is my last post for 2 weeks because next week is my recess week, so I’m heading to Thailand for about 13 days. After that look for multiple posts because only one is not going to be sufficient for the amount of information that I’m going to want to share. Start preparing your eyes for the long posts now!
This past weekend I spent 3 amazing days exploring the temples and villages around Angkor Wat, and observing the Cambodian people and lifestyle. Siem Reap is completely different from any other city that I have visited-the small city of Siem Reap is only a few run-down, dirty streets mainly filled with shops and markets and food stalls, with a few restaurants and bars (which are all for travelers). There are no tall buildings, and few actual houses. Most of the people that live in the city or right outside the city live in small huts that are certainly not big enough for their entire family, but they manage to squeeze. The Cambodian people as a whole are amazing people; they are so poor, yet they are always smiling and playing and laughing, and they are incredibly nice to tourists. Many of them walk around barefoot and don’t have enough food or clothing to live a decent life, but they don’t complain about their living situation. Every day we spent there I continued to be more and more impressed by their positive outlook on life.
There were 7 of us total who made the trip to Siem Reap, which included Stacy, Blair, Justyna and Sylwia (Polish), Hannah (French), Maria (Portuguese), and I. When we arrived at the 1-room airport we were met by our drivers who were provided by our hostel. We all assumed that we would pile into a car to make the drive, but instead we climbed into 3 tuk tuks for the short drive to the hostel. Tuk Tuks are small carriages that hold between 2 and 4 people depending on the amount of padded seating, that are pulled by a driver on a motorbike. That was the first of many tuk tuk rides through the streets of Siem Reap. I was immediately surprised that when we arrived at our hostel we were in the middle of Cambodian life. We didn’t have to travel outside the city to villages in order to see how the Cambodian people actual live and what they do during the day because there is no separation. For the first time I felt like I was actually in a 3rd world country experiencing their lifestyle.
Once we got our rooms we still had all day to explore because our flight was so early in the morning. We hired 3 tuk tuks for our 3 days to take us wherever we wanted to go, for a fixed price. After we settled the price, which was incredibly cheap, we started our journey to the temples. We bought a 3 day pass (for $40 US), which was probably more expensive than everything else we bought during the 3 days we spent there combined. The riel is the actual Cambodian currency, but they accept and prefer the US dollar because it is better for the economy. It was very strange using the dollar again because we were using familiar currency, and we knew exactly how cheap everything was. This made it difficult to bargain, because you can’t get much cheaper than $3 for a silk scarf, or 3 bracelets for $1.
The first temple we went to was Phnom Bakheng, which is a temple at the top of a small mountain, which we had to hike up to get there. It was completely worth it. The temples are all ruins and boulders, and it’s amazing how they have not been completely destroyed after all of these years. We realized that we could climb to the top of the temple also, but the stairs were so steep and narrow that it took us a while to figure out how to get up there. We finally just climbed up the stairs on all fours to reach the top, which had a gorgeous view of the countryside, Siem Reap, and even Angkor Wat. It is ridiculous to think that people used to climb the stairs every day, probably carrying baskets or something on their heads. It was even more difficult to climb down.
Bayon was our next stop, which was a temple built in the exact center of Angkor Thom at the time. On the many towers in the temple there are 216 faces of Avalokiteshvara (an enlightened being who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas). We had read that there were faces, but when we got there we weren’t sure of where to look for them… until we glanced up and saw all of the faces staring down at us from the top of all the towers. They were amazing, and the temple itself was incredible with intricate carvings on the majority of the walls depicting scenes from daily life around the year 1200 (when the temple was built).
From there we walked to Baphuon, a temple that is basically a big jigsaw puzzle; after the temple was taken apart by archeologists after the civil war, the Khmer Rouge destroyed their records, so the exact placement and organization of the temple is unknown. It is still being restored, and there is a lot that has yet to be put back together. We walked through the rest of the temple complexes in Angkor Thom, which are all very close together, and are all very similar as well. The temples blended together basically creating a huge village of ruins. This had taken all morning and a most of the afternoon, so we all rested for a little over an hour before eating dinner and walking around town. We headed to bed early in order to get up for sunrise at Angkor Wat.
Going to Angkor Wat for sunrise is extremely popular for tourists, and even though we had to wake up at 4 am, it was more than worth going that early to see what all the hype is about. We got to the temple gate while it was still pitch black, and we found a seat for watching the sunrise. A little boy brought us hot chocolate while we waited, and as soon as the sun started to rise and light up the sky, Angkor Wat became more visible, and it stood out like a silhouette in front of the colorful sky. There was an amazingly perfect reflection of the temple on the still pools of water in front of the temple. We followed the crowds with tour guides to find the best place to watch.
Angkor Wat is the largest religious building in the world, and the actual temple is absolutely outstanding and incredibly well-preserved. The architecture is gorgeous, and their are long passageways with carvings of warriors and elephants and life in Cambodia covering the walls. It took an hour and a half to walk through the 3 levels and many passageways of the temple, and it could have taken 3. I also discovered a small monastery next to the temple, where the community was all gathered in the main hall, sitting on the floor eating breakfast. Most of the children were walking on the muddy ground with no shoes, and there were many monks roaming around in bright orange robes. It seemed like they all worked and lived for the greater good of the community, and depended on family and religion as the 2 most important aspects of life.
The 2nd and last temple of the day was Banteay Srei, which was about an hour tuk tuk drive away. The scenery and drive was just as interesting as the temple because we got to see a lot of the countryside, and a lot of different villages with people working in the towns and fields with cattle and rice. The temple was a lot smaller, with smaller scaled towers, but it was worth going up there because it was different from the temples that we had seen the day before. There were amazing decorative wall carvings on red sandstone of daily scenes, and a lot of intricate Hindu writing. Every wall was covered.
On the way back to Siem Reap we stopped at the land mine museum, which was very small, but really interesting. It was in a small courtyard with 3 different small rooms filled with deactivated land mines and some history and information. The museum is owned by a Cambodian couple; the man was an orphan and child soldier in the Khmer Rouge, then the Vietnamese army, and then the Cambodian army. He started deactivating mines in 1995 and he estimates that he has cleared over 50,000 mines. Other than just a museum, it is a place for orphan children or kids who’s family cannot support them, or for those who have nowhere to live. As long as they go to school and are serious about continuing their studies, then they are able live there. The owners of the museum feed and clothe the children, as well as send them to school. All of the stories of these children are heartbreaking. One girl’s mother drowned because her father could not save her. Her dad then became an alcoholic and often wouldn’t recognize the girl or her siblings when he was drunk. She ran away, and found a home at the museum. Another boy said that him and his family of 8 lived WELL on $2.50 to $4.50 a day from selling their fish. This income was a lot better than most, and it fed them and kept a roof over their heads.
Even though it was raining pretty hard, our tuk tuk drivers drove us through the flooded streets to a floating village. Along the way the children were playing and laughing in the water, and everyone went along with their day as if nothing was happening. People were still driving their motor bikes, and walking through the streets carrying their shoes (if they had them) in the at least knee-deep water. It was incredible that even the pouring rain and flooded streets didn’t phase them.
We finally got to the floating village, which is a community that lives on a lake; their homes, school, market, and even a basketball court are all on the water. During the wet season, everything floats on top of the water, and during the dry season if the water level has dropped very low, the huts will rest on the ground. We could see a lot of families in their tiny huts hanging around, and we even saw a few traveling markets. The market is one woman in a paddle boat with and foodstuffs and goods, and she travels to the different huts to sell to the families.
We had the opportunity to buy school supplies for 6th graders at the Vietnamese school. Stacy, Blair, and I shared a pack of notebooks to give to the children. We went to floating school and handed out the notebooks personally to the kids. They were so grateful and so happy to have received the Disney theme notebooks. Even the 6th graders take a small paddle boat to get to school every day.
After the floating village we went back into Siem Reap, and I walked around for about 2 hours. I went into a beautiful Pagoda, which is a place of worship and study. many of the people come from the countryside, and they go to the Pagoda if they have no family in Siem Reap, and nowhere to go or live. They stay there, take classes, and pray. I also saw a boy fishing in the very muddy river for eel for his dinner. He was so proud of his catch and fishing abilities.
Food in general in Cambodia is extremely cheap, but for dinner we ate at outside stands for $1 a person, and it was really good. After our cheap meal of rice and noodles we headed to a club/bar. We wanted to experience the Cambodian night-life, but we soon realized that the only people in the club were tourists. All of the clubs and bars in Siem Reap on ‘bar street’ are there for the tourists to have something to do at night. There are no Cambodian people there because they all have to go to bed early in order to get up in the morning to do their day’s work. It was fun, but it was more interesting just seeing how empty the streets became as it got later and later.
For our 3rd and last day, we had a few of the main temples to still visit. We started with Ta Prohm, which is the temple from Tomb Raider. It is a Buddhist temple with many corridors and crumbling stonework, and many trees that engulf the stonework–the trees look as if they are growing from the stones. It was absolutely gorgeous and amazing until we exited the temple. We were immediately surrounded by people and children trying to sell us things. This had been happening the entire time, but it was a hundred times worse at this temple. I was surrounded by 8 young girls at once who were all trying to sell me bracelets. They were all yelling, “3 for 1 dolla ladyyy,” and shoving the bracelets in my face. There was nothing that I could do to escape. I finally bought bracelets from the one girl who was just standing there with her basket not saying anything. But that made another girl cry, so I just gave her a dollar because I felt horrible. Even after I bought the bracelets, another girl kept following me trying to sell me her bracelets. She stood next to our tuk tuk while I was sitting in it waiting for Hannah, and just kept repeating her price. I needed ear plugs.
Our second stop was Ta Som, which would have been more interesting if we hadn’t just been to Ta Prohm. It is a long temple, but the main attraction is a gateway with a tree engulfing it at the end. It was very cool, but similar to Ta Prohm, which was much more amazing and extravagant. We played tic tac toe with the kids trying to sell us post cards, and they would try and get us to buy if they beat us.
Then we went to Preah Neak Pean, which was a simple temple surrounded by pools of water. Some of the areas were dried up, but it was neat because it was so different from the other temples, and the temple reflected beautifully onto the pools of water.
Preah Khan was our 4th temple, and it was a huge, amazing temple that used to be a Buddhist university. It is one of Angkor’s largest complexes, with a maze of many corridors. It was easy to get lost and lose your sense of direction while walking through it. It is a fusion temple of Buddhism and Hinduism, and it was so large and intricate with all of the passageways, that it would be hard not to love this temple.
The 5th temple we saw was Ta Keo, which is a very steep pyramid. We didn’t understand how the stairs could have been any steeper than the ones we had already climbed… but it was possible. There was even a danger warning in front of the stairs. Once we made it to the top, the view was incredible, and we felt like we were on legends of the hidden temple while climbing to the top.
We went back to the food stall for a $1 lunch, and then we headed back to Phnom Bakheng (our 1st temple of the trip) to watch the sunset. We were worried we were going to miss it, so we basically ran up to the top. The view over the countryside, town, and mountains was beautiful with the sunset. It was nice to watch, but it is the most popular temple to visit for sunset, so the entire temple was covered with swarms of tourists taking pictures and running around.
At dinner we got to watch traditional Cambodian dance-Apsara dancing. The dancers wear intricate costumes, and move their fingers and hands in very particular ways. They make no facial expressions, and some of the dances have story lines that include the men and women, and they even dress up as horses and tigers. It was very slow paced and repetitive, but it was interesting to watch for a little.
Cambodia and its people are absolutely incredible, and it amazes me that they can make a living and survive on their income and living conditions. I can’t wait to go back in less than a month with my mom and dad.