Sunday, July 27, 2014

"It's Good to Have an End to Journey Toward; But it is the Journey that Matters, in the End"

Two weeks ago Alyssa and I boarded a plane in Bangkok (just barely, we almost missed the flight!). After another 10 hour layover in Tokyo, spent checking out the "Time Square" of Tokyo and finding more sushi, we were finally on our way home. 

A brief look at our life, from afar:

We spent time in cities like Phnom Penh, Bangkok, and Tokyo while also trekking in the jungle of Thailand, biking through the jungles surrounding the temples of Angkor (at 5 in the morning) and taking bumpy train rides through the Thailand countryside. 

We dove head first into the fruit here. Our favorites being mangosteens and a fruit whose name in English means pain and suffering. We drank enough juice, shakes, smoothies, and lassi's that I now cry tears of mango juice. 

We were adventurous with street food eating scorpions, maggots, khao soi, and unidentifiable things while also having moments of weakness and eating pizza and fries. 

We haggled our way into buying shirts for 1 dollar and entire curry meals for under a dollar, while also being swindled into buying 3 tiny bananas for 5 dollars. 

We walked countless miles, biked over 20 miles, kayaked at least 6 miles, climbed a few routes, and splurged on Tuk Tuks.

We carefully weighed our options to get the most our of our money. . . and seemingly threw money at people in an attempt to 'just get us to our guesthouse!'.

We took boats, planes, songthaews, Tuk Tuks, bikes, trains, and buses. 

We took countless cold showers when cold water was all that was available, and turned the hot water off the few times it was available. And paid $10 for a half hour shower in Tokyo. 

We took 3rd class commuting busses and took busses with air conditioning that included free water and cookies. 

We met countless new friends, some we met up with again, some we have plans to keep in touch with, and many that we will never speak to or know ever again. 

We used "Western" toilets in Tokyo that played sounds of waterfalls, had heated seats, and dryers. And, more often, we used squat toilets with large buckets of water next to them that are used to clean yourself, wash your hands, and flush. 

By the time we learned to carry toilet paper everywhere we went, we had learned how to use the buckets of water or hoses to clean ourselves. Though I never did learn how people then manage to get dry!

We did the touristy things like riding elephants, petting tigers, and getting a guide to explain Angkor Wat. And we took opportunities to get off the beaten path, ate dinner with locals who shared their culture with us, kayaked to national parks, and forwent the Angkor Wat sunrise in favor of a quieter temple. 

We stayed in 9 dollar a night bungalows that only have electricity at night and splurged on a night in a hotel with air conditioning and cable tv. 

We spent days relaxing in that hotel room watching movies, poolside in Siem Reap drinking mango daiquiris, and going to the movies to see Begin Again (in English). While we also spent days completely horrified and overwhelmed while visiting the Genocide Museum and Killing Fields. 

We stepped out into busy oncoming traffic holding our breath as we stay a steady path and motorcycles weave around us (it really is the only way to get across!)

We remained safe while also making dumb choices, like forgetting to respect the ocean until we were literally battered against boulders. 

We greatly underestimated distances while kayaking to an island that we figured was only 1 mile away, in reality it was at least 3! And hopped in Tuk Tuks for a 5 minute trip because I didn't want to get wet walking in the rain. 

Alyssa was the only one to have gotten sick. Luckily she didn't miss much, she was only sick on our biggest travel day. Involving a 4am wakeup, a 6 hour 3rd class train ride (complete with locals coming through the aisles selling pungent foods), Tuk Tuk drivers badgering us to get our business (even as Alyssa is puking in the grass), avoiding fake border crossing scams, legit border crossings that involved paying off officials because we didn't have extra passport photos, waiting in a dirty bus station for two or more people to join us to make our trip cheaper (with Alyssa horrifying everyone by laying on the ground), paying extra to not wait for that extra person, finally getting a minibus that would take us straight to our hostel, stopping at a shop for refreshments and a bathroom that you need to purchase something to use (this is where the $5 for 3 tiny bananas comes in), and finally getting a Tuk Tuk to our guesthouse. 

We arrived on time for busses that left almost an hour and a half late, missed a bus completely, and almost missed our flight back to Japan because we were at the wrong airport!

We hit 3 countries in 5 weeks, albeit we only spent 30 hours in Japan. And gazed across the Mekong into Laos and Burma. 

To say this was a trip of a lifetime does not do it justice. 

Thanks for being by my side throughout this journey Alyssa

"It's good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end."
Ernest Hemingway

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Goodnight Bangkok

Our last couple of days in Bangkok were spent exploring the reclining Buddha and shopping for souvenirs in the same weekend market that we started off our trip in! Before I share the last couple pictures I'll share about our adventures traveling from Phnom Penh to Bangkok.

Instead of taking a plane from Phnom Penh to Bangkok, Alyssa and I decided to save some money and take a bus ride instead. We were able to book the bus through our guesthouse so we would also be picked up.

At one point during the ride the bus pulled over onto the side of the road and everyone got off the bus. There were no buildings around only trees and forests, it didn't take us long to figure out why the bus had stopped. Toilet break! Everyone found their own patch of grass to water and then we all piled back on the bus.

A few hours into the trip (and still many many hours from the Thailand border) the air conditioning on the bus BROKE. This wouldn't have been too big of a deal, we've taken plenty of busses by now that don't have air conditioning, expect that the bus windows weren't built to open! So the driver drove the remaining hours to the border with the door open in an attempt to get some air moving. It was uncomfortable to say the least but we eventually got to the border crossing.

We were ushered onto a Tuk Tuk almost immediately even though many others were waiting before us. It's ridiculous sometimes the special treatment we get just because of the color of our skin. While on the Tuk Tuk the driver handed me his cell phone. He had called someone who spoke English so they could give us instructions on how to go through customs and what to do after that!

Getting through customs took an incredible amount of time (because we weren't in the line that was 'paying to have faster service') to the point that we almost missed out bus into Bangkok. While looking for the bus a small Thai man came running up to us telling us we were late and needed to get on the bus! Alyssa joked that he was probably instructed, "Go find two white girls with backpacks!"

Luckily we had booked a guesthouse in advance because we didn't get into Bangkok until almost midnight. It had been a very long day.

The next day we took the sky train into Bangkok to see the Reclining Buddha!

After Angkor Wat these temples felt tacky and gaudy

The Reclining Buddha!

Hard to fit in one picture because of it's immensity. 

Artwork on bottom of feet

You never know when it might turn on you!

After checking out the Reclining Buddha Alyssa and I decided to try to find "The Giant Swing", we weren't sure what it was but it sounded interesting. 

3 headed elephants 

The Giant Swing was less than impressive

After being thoroughly disappointed Alyssa and I decided to head back towards out guesthouse and to try to catch a movie. We ended up seeing the movie, Begin Again. It was wonderful and I recommend seeing it!

The next day we went back to the weekend market that we went to on our first day in Thailand! I remember the market being one of intensity; intense smells, intense sounds, and intense people. I was concerned that going back may be overwhelming as well but that wasn't the case. After spending 5 weeks in Asia, Alyssa and I were totally prepared for this market and were able to easily finish up our shopping!

This was one of my favorite signs from the beginning. Throughout the trip any time I would leave my bag, whether in a hotel room, in the luggage of a bus, or in an airplane I would say, "Be careful bag!".

Packing to go home. So many new clothes and souvenirs. 

All fitting into one tiny backpack.

Goodbye Bangkok!

A Tragically Beautiful Mess

*This is a post I started when returning to Thailand from Cambodia but forgot to post.

Alyssa and I are back in Bangkok for our last few days. It was strange coming back to Thailand. It almost felt like I was back in the states. I found myself marveling at the lines on the road, at what great shape the roads are in, and how clean and organized everything is. When I first arrived in Thailand I wasn't taking pictures because everything was so new and strange I truly felt like I was in a different country. . . Now I feel like it's normal. Crazy how traveling changes perspectives so much.

The state of the roads in Cambodia was surprising to me from the beginning. These pictures were taken in Phnom Penh, the capitol of Cambodia. I secretly enjoyed the state of the roads while bouncing around in a tuk tuk. It always put a goofy smile on my face. Though it was a stark reminder of what this country has been through not so long ago.

The difference in infrastructure between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap was mind boggling. Simply put, Siem Reap is valuable to foreigners and foreign investment because of the tourist gold mine. Phnom Penh is not.

Pollution and trash has been a major theme on our trip, whether it's the lack of trash and pollution as in Japan, or the overwhelming amounts of trash that can never get truly cleaned up, as in Cambodia.

While walking around Thailand, Alyssa and I would generally see bags of garbage on the street corners, we would laugh and joke that it must be trash day. . . everyday. Cambodia had a very different feel to it, we would round a corner to find trash taking over an area. In Thailand it was conceivable that someone was picking up the bags of trash and disposing of them 'properly' but in Cambodia we could not fool ourselves with such naive thoughts. This trash is not going anywhere. 

Traffic in Cambodia was a beast all it's own. Whether we're talking about the way Cambodian's manage to fit many people into tiny spaces, the amount of motorcycles in the road at any given time, or the complete lack of street lights or stop signs. 

Riding on top of the truck

Carpooling is taken to a whole new level in Cambodia

 Tourists are generally not permitted to rent motorcycles in Cambodia because there are such high rates of accidents and injuries. Part of this is due to the lack of stop signs or red lights. When coming through an intersection with very few other vehicles, the person who expects the right of way will honk to let others know that they are 'coming through'. Strangely enough this appears to be incredibly effective. Every driver in Cambodia needs to be paying attention and making eye contact with drivers around him constantly. Drivers also need to commit, if someone honks to let others know they are coming through, they better follow through with that because other drivers are going to time their actions off the assumption that they have committed to this action. Not to say, of course, that accidents don't happen because we did see one, luckily no children were involved. Though they seem few and far between considering how many motorcycles and cars are weaving in and out constantly.

You may find yourself asking: If driving is so difficult how does one cross the street? Well, take a deep breath, grab your cajones, and step into the street. Walk at a steady pace and do not for any reason stop or try to weave in and out of traffic. Honestly, this would probably be an easier feat with your eyes closed!

Alyssa crossing the street. 

I'm not kidding. Crossing the street is largely a mental battle. It's important that when taking those first couple steps into the road that you're fully committed or you may cause an accident or be hit yourself. Theres not much room for error but this guys are pretty good at what they do, they somehow manage to weave in and out, not hitting the pedestrians or the other vehicles on the road. 

Notice the driver wearing his helmet, though his passengers are not.

Strangely enough we saw more motorcycle drivers in Cambodia wearing helmets than in Thailand. Though only the drivers wear helmets the passengers do not, I don't know why or what purpose that serves.

Typically young children or toddlers ride in front of the driver like in the picture. If there are two young children then the oldest child will ride in back, while the youngest rides in front. Babies that are not yet old enough to sit on their own are held either by the driver or another passenger. It is not unusual to see 4 or 5 people on a motorcycle together.

Essentially an omelet with bean sprouts, greens, and a yummy sauce

Figuring out the correct way to eat elicited laughs from the owners of the street cart

Food in Cambodia was strangely hard to find. Phnom Penh didn't have nearly as many street carts as we have become accustomed to. Cambodia also doesn't seem to have many meals that are considered to be Cambodian. Perhaps this is related to the invasions and wars between Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam? 

Tuk Tuk drivers don't seem to understand maps. When given one they turn it in multiple directions and generally elicit help from others.  

Alyssa and I in a Tuk Tuk

Hot Yoga!
 (In our room in the guesthouse)

Approximately $7.25

As I mentioned before Cambodia accepts Cambodian Reals and US Dollars as currency. I had known this prior to entering Cambodia, though I hand't realized how commonly they be used together. Cambodia does not use US coins so any change smaller than a dollar is always given in Riel's (pronounced reals). Sometimes when paying in Riel's we would get change in USD or vice versa, and its totally acceptable to pay with a combination of both. 

Cambodia has absolutely stolen my heart. The people were beautiful and their resiliency is something I hope to never forget. 

The border crossing

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Choeng Uk Killing Fields

I find myself doing everything possible to distract myself from sitting down to write this blog post. I just checked my email for the 5th time. I'm not expecting any emails and it's only 5am on the east coast of the United States right now. Everyone I know and love back home are still sleeping soundly. . .

We just returned from visiting the Choeung Uk Killing Fields. After visiting the Genocide Museum yesterday part of me naively felt that today would be easier, since I've gotten the initial shock out of the way. But I was wrong. Today was just as intense as yesterday, in a different way.

Choeng Ek was chosen as a site for mass burials in 1976, because there wasn't enough space to bury prisoners executed in the Tuol Sleng Security Prison. Generally, after getting signed confessions from the prisoners, they were loaded into trucks and brought to Choeung Ek. Often the prisoners were loaded into the trucks around 6:30pm just as it was getting dark, they were blindfolded and their hands tied behind their backs. They were told that they were being 'transferred to a new home' in order to prevent any panic.

"After double checking the name on the list from S-21 to make sure that no prisoners had escaped the executioners brought one handcuffed and blindfolded prisoner at a time to be executed mercilessly and cruelly at an already dug pit. When arriving at the grave, the executioners ordered them to kneel down about 1 meter away from the rim of the pits. Then the executioner used an oxcart axle or metal hose to strike the back of the neck of the prisoners and later they used a knife to cut their throats. Then the dead bodies were thrown into the grave. After the prisoners were killed, the executioners immediately filled up the grave without waiting until the dawn broke or the next day."

Walking through the gate, this gorgeous white stupa is impossible to miss

At the gate we were given headphones connected to an audio tour. I was relieved to see that this is becoming more of the general practice. Yesterday, we had the option of having a tour guide at the Prison but I couldn't imagine trying to pay attention and take in new information while feeling such a  rush of emotions. Here I was able to pause the guide whenever I felt that I wasn't truly experiencing the place or needed more time to collect myself. While still learning a few things I wouldn't have known otherwise.

The tour started by taking us to areas where there had previously been buildings. They had been torn down in the early 1989's. This included the 'dark and gloomy detention' where prisoners arriving from Tuol Sleng were kept until the guards had time to execute them.

Another building had held chemical substances such as DDT. These substances were scattered over dead bodies after execution to prevent the inevitable stench (and avoid suspicion) and to kill victims who were buried alive.

Before being used as a mass burial site, Choeng Ek was a Chinese cemetery. The Khmer Rouge defaced many of the Chinese graves. It's mindblowing to see anyone have so little respect for others.

Chinese grave pre-1975

In order to save ammunition, the executions were often carried out using poison, hoes, axes, sharpened bamboo sticks, bayonets, or whatever else the guards found. A quote from Pol Pot: 

"To keep you is no gain. To lose you is no loss"

Even this palm tree was used to cut prisoners throats to kill them. 

Strange that this even needs to be said 

In Tuol Sleng the air of the buildings was heavy and toxic. Everywhere I turned there was evidence of the monstrosities and everyone around me seemed to be feeling the same thing. While walking around Choeng Ek there was the constant sound of children, laughing, playing, and chanting, from a nearby school. Do they even know what is on the other side of their soccer fields? It was strange to be in a place that has changed so much. . . For example, the mass graves have been excavated and are now regularly mowed. It was hard to imagine what had happened in this place, I was constantly struggling with wanting to imagine and then immediately wanting to push out these horrific thoughts and images.

First mass grave we came to 450 victims

Photo of the original excavation

Every depression is another mass grave

Please don't walk through the mass graves. 

More mass graves

129 mass graves have been found on site. Including many that have not been excavated because they are currently under water. An except from First They Killed My Father: 

"The soldier pushes on Pa's shoulders, making him kneel like the others. Tears stream out of my eyes as I whisper thanks to the Gods that the soldier has blindfolded Pa. He is spared from having to see the executions of many others. 'Don't cry Pa, I know you're afraid', I want to tell him. I feel his body tense up, his heart race, and see tears flowing from under his blindfold. Pa fights the urge to scream as he hears the hammer crack the skull next to him, smashing into it. The body falls on top of the others with a thump. Other fathers around Pa cry and beg for mercy, but to no avail. One by one, each man is silenced by the hammer." 

Beautiful lake. . Yet there are still mass graves covered by that water. 

I spent an inordinate amount of time walking along this quiet path trying to get my thoughts and feelings straightened out. 

A speaker was hung from this tree which they used to play music loudly to drown out the screams and moans of victims while being executed. 

As Pol Pot's perfect agrarian society began to fall apart the Khmer Rouge began to get paranoid and to suspect everyone was working against them. Including guards within their own ranks. Soldiers began to turn in others to prevent suspicion from being turned towards them. It appears no one was safe. At one point we came to a mass grave that contained 166 victims that had been decapitated. They were all Khmer Rouge soldiers. Maybe they were decapitated to show an example to other soldiers?

166 victims

Visitors paying their respects

During the rainy season there are still fragments of bone, teeth, and clothing that come up to the surface. It was important to watch my step, I almost stepped on a bone sticking out of the ground multiple times. The groundskeepers have been collecting these fragments since 1980. A quote from the audio tour:
"It's as if spirits of those that died here will not lay still" 

Victim's clothing 

Recently found fragments of bone and cloth, probably from the most recent hard rain

Notice the tooth

Bone fragment sticking out of the ground in front of a mass grave

Clothing fragments

The next part is without a doubt the hardest part I saw and experienced today. I don't have the words to be able to properly explain. . . I wish I spoke multiple languages so I could pick and choose the correct words. Maybe then I could properly express myself. So instead here is another excerpt from First They Killed My Father:

 "She wraps her arms even tighter around Geak and squeezes her eyes shut, praying for mercy. The soldier reaches down and grabs Geak's shoulders. The two of them scream a loud shrill scream that echoes through the air, but the soldiers do not stop and pull Geak from her grasp as they cling to one another, yelling to each other not to let go. The soldier tears them apart until only the top of their fingers hold them together, then that chain too is broken. All villagers cry and beg and start to get up off their knees. Suddenly, the rattling sounds of rifles go off and bullets pierce through their bodies, silencing the screams. 

Geak runs over to Ma's slumped over body with her face in the mud. Geak is only six years old, too young to understand what just happened. She calls Ma and shakes her shoulders. She touches Ma's cheeks and ears, and grabs her hair to try to lift her face out of the mud, but she is not strong enough. While rubbing her eyes, she wipes Ma's blood all over her own face. She pounds her fists on Ma's back, trying to wake her up, but Ma is gone. Holding onto Ma, Geak screams and screams, not stopping to take any air. One soldier's face darkens as he lifts his rifle. Seconds later, Geak too is silenced." 

Tree where babies were literally held by their feet and beaten against the tree
"They found bits of hair, blood, skull, and brain matter in the bark of this tree."

The bodies were then thrown into the pit. 

Women and children were found naked in this grave

Another quote from Pol Pot explaining the murders of childrenand babies: 

"To dig up the grass one must remove even the roots."

After getting thoroughly overwhelmed and exhausted the tour brought us back to the beautiful white stupa at the beginning of the center.


On closer inspection the white stupa is not as innocent as it first appears. The inside of the stupa has 17 levels. The first 10 levels are lined with human skulls, the next levels are lined with large bones. The Buddist religion believes that a body needs to be laid to rest in a peaceful place for the soul to not be tormented.

Victims under 20 years old

Many of these were skulls were smashed with hammers

"Better to kill an innocent by mistake than to spare an enemy by mistake" 
Pol Pot