The Highs and Lows of the Tour

After Thailand, my parents and I had two more stops in SE Asia on our tour: Luang Prabang, Laos and Siem Reap, Cambodia. Little did we know they would prove to be my favorite and least favorite parts of the journey.

Luang Prabang sits up in the mountains of Laos, so not only does it have beautiful rugged terrain surrounding it, it is also quite a bit cooler than other places I’ve been in SE Asia. Backpackers have made it there, bringing good coffee shops and some more diverse food. But it hasn’t been overrun with tourists, and still feels inherently Laotian. At least for now. A fellow traveler said it reminder her of Chiang Mai… 25 years ago.

There are plenty of temples to explore, featuring wonderful mosaics. We strolled through a couple, even though we were starting to feel temple saturation by this point. We even woke up early one morning to participate in the ritual of giving sticky rice to the monks that go around collecting their daily rations. We also went to the cave temples on the outskirts of town, down the Mekong.

Cruising along the river for the afternoon was for me the highlight of the trip. It was hard not to enjoy the fresh air and fabulous scenery. In fact, I could easily see myself returning to explore some of the incredible nature around… or sitting in a cafe all day, doing nothing but soaking up the laid back atmosphere of the town.

Siem Reap is a whole different story. It’s hot. It’s humid. It’s flat, with little of geographic interest. The food doesn’t match up to its neighbor to the west (Thailand). It’s dirty. As you head out of town, it gets dirtier. Roads are bad. Tonle Sap is a disgusting body of water that smells like open sewage. Yes, Angkor Wat is an extremely cool place, and I enjoyed learning about the ancient city and seeing the beautiful temple complexes covered by carvings and jungle. It is impossible not to feel the sense of history here.

But Siem Reap moves into my #1 position as least favorite place I have ever been. A spot formerly occupied by Cartagena.

It did have me wondering, though, about development and the role that recent history, culture, and attitude play in what countries look like today. I can’t help but compare Cambodia with Colombia. Both struggled through really dark times were violence and murder was the norm, the government was completely corrupt, and the people were left behind as power hungry men pursued their own interests.

But to look at Colombia today, you almost wouldn’t know that there were ever any struggles (and the height of their dark days is more recent than in Cambodia). Sure nothing is perfect – the agreement with FARC goes too far for some and not far enough for others, there are parts of the country where instability continues to reign, and thousands still mourn the loss of their loved ones. But whereas Colombia seems determined to pull itself out of the shadows, Cambodia appears resigned to be there.

Maybe it’s just me. Some people I have talked to really love Cambodia. Travel bloggers rave about how “authentic” it is. But authentic doesn’t mean beautiful. Authentic doesn’t mean pleasant or enjoyable. Authentic doesn’t even mean interesting. I am sure it’s not fair to judge Cambodia by this one corner of it, just as it wouldn’t be fair to judge Colombia by Cartagena… But with so many beautiful places in the world to see, I can’t say I am in any rush to go back.

What’s Wat, Sweaty Crap, and More In Thailand

Wow, I feel like it has been ages since I have sat down and reflected on what I have been up to. And since I have last posted I’ve been playing absolute tourist, moving fast, in five countries. But I am getting ahead of myself…

After Indonesia, I made my way to Thailand where my first stop was Phuket. I didn’t love it. There were more Russians than Thais, the beaches were meh, you couldn’t get away from touristy restaurants and massage parlors begging you to come in, and the whole thing really had me missing Virginia Beach (and VA Beach is nothing to get excited about). Don’t get me wrong, I did get my fair share of massages and still relaxed on the beach, but where I stayed (Kamala then Kata) lacked charm and any sense of place.

One thing that was super fab was, after many years pending on the bucket list, I obtained my PADI Open Water certification for SCUBA diving. That was pretty awesome, and it sounds like I will have to return to Malaysia and Indonesia for some of the world’s best dive spots.

After a week of chilling at the beach, I made my way to Bangkok where I met up with my parents and we began a two-plus-week tour mainly through Thailand. I was super-thrilled to see them and we did get have some wonderful experiences in Thailand, including visiting the modern art spectacle that is the White Temple, getting family Thai massages, and watching lanterns floating into the river and the sky for Loy Kathong.

I also took a cooking class with mom in Chiang Mai. I have always enjoyed Thai food, and now my appreciation of the food has expanded, and I *may* even have enough confidence to try out a few dishes when we get home. But overall Thailand was… as meh as the beaches in Phuket. There wasn’t a single city or town that I have a need to go back to, not even hipster mecca Chiang Mai. I feel overloaded on temples, or “wat” in Thai. And the pictures of the King everywhere and (legally mandated) positive vibes towards him is downright creepy to me.

The most interesting part of Thailand to me was the language. In addition to all the “fun” jokes about ‘what wat?’ that one can make in Thailand, men also great people by saying sawadee krap. It sounds like “sweaty crap” in English (which, with the heat and humidity, is probably what you are feeling like). But the interesting thing is that men say this. Women would say sawadee ka. This is the first time I have come across a gender distinction in language based on the gender of the speaker rather than the thing/person being spoken about. And it extends to about every utterance. Not just “hello ka,” but “thank you ka,” “how much is it ka,” and so on.

While in Thailand we actually also took a day trip to Myanmar. The difference between Myanmar and Thailand is sharp. In Thailand, roads are perfect and paved, the countryside is litter-free, and everyone looks happy and healthy. In Myanmar tuk tuks rattle over rutted dirt roads, rolling by rivers clogged with trash, and some of the most grim looking street dogs I have ever seen. The temples were beautiful, though, and honestly if I had to live in Myanmar I would become a Buddhist nun and live in one.

At the end of the day, I can’t say I was unhappy to leave Myanmar and come back to Thailand. “Meh” was looking pretty good. Here are some fave pics from the trip.

And Now For Something Completely Different

While looking at a map of Malaysia and Singapore I realized just how narrow the Strait of Malacca looked, and figured that a trip to Sumatra, Indonesia would be easy. Why Sumatra? In addition to that delightful coffee at Starbucks, which is probably where I first encountered the name of this island (and maybe even its neighbor, Java), I know that Sumatra is one of only TWO places in the world where you can still see Orangutans in the wild in their natural habitat. The other being Borneo. (Thanks, Tina!)

The word orangutan come from Indonesian/Malay for “people of the forest,” and thus to the forest (jungle) I was heading! I flew into Medan and headed straight for Bukit Lawang, a delightful tourist village at the gates of the Gunung Leuser National Park. To get to my accommodation, I had to cross a swaying wooden suspension bridge. Other than that, we were on solid ground. It was humid, and the start of rainy season meant I was in for some impressive storms, but I really enjoyed my visit there.

In many ways, Indonesia is not entirely different from what I saw in Malaysia. A predominantly Muslim country with similar language, plant life, and food (SO much fried rice). But being able to see the orangutans in this way was something truly unique. It even made sweating and hiking through the jungle all day worth it.

It was also one of the most difficult places for me to travel. I’ve reflected in the past on the comforts of American life I can do without: AC, microwaves, clothes dryers, 24/7 electricity, etc. But I found my limit. I do not enjoy being without regular access to a real, WARM, shower – with running water and everything. Bucket showers are not for me. And access to a western toilet is clutch.  Litter everywhere, crazy traffic, and everyone always smoking were not my favorites either – but that’s par for the course in much of the world.

I also went to Lake Toba, a giant crater lake, and stayed a night in Medan. The lake was beautiful, but Medan was nothing to get excited about.  Driving around the countryside, seeing dramatic volcanoes and endless palm oil farms was a combo of amazing yet troubling. After a week there, I was ready to leave. But I am hoping I will be back for another visit. There is, of course, Eat-Pray-Love-famous Bali to see. Java is apparently chock full of fabulous temples. And maybe one day I’ll see the dragons of Komodo.