Wasting Away in Sihanoukville…

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On yet another early morning we woke up early to take another public bus (still clean and spacious, this time double decker) to the tiny beach town of Sihanoukville in the South. If you don’t know the geography of Cambodia (and let’s be real, do any of us?), Sihanoukville faces South West, bordering the Gulf of Thailand which lets into the South China Sea. The water here is an oddly beautiful murky turquoise, its turbidity adding to the mystery and the enchantment.

This is a real place.

When we arrived to the sleepy village, we quickly realized that suddenly we were a majority. It seems that Westerners really latched on to Sihanoukville and as they rightly should have. The place is paradise. The town is small enough that it feels completely manageable and seems to depend on the constant drive of Western tourism. Since we are currently in the off season, the beaches were still populated, but not the least bit crowded, but instead dotted with dinner tables and comfy chairs looking out to the beach.

Since all anyone wants are the pictures, here are a few of the beach at sunset on our first night. Both nights there I spent an hour and half or two just walking along the beach at sunset taking pictures. See for yourself.

Okay. So maybe I used a filter on some of these. It’s still beautiful!

The next morning, we set out for an adventure through the mangrove forest. We boarded one of those small flat boats and pushed through up the river. After stopping at an overlook tower, we sailed on until we ran aground on a sandbar in the world’s warmest water. We waded ashore and then trekked through the jungle for about half an hour, passing a couple of small local houses and a school, all located in the Ream National Park. Finally, we emerged onto a private beach where there were tables and chairs and bar set up, but no other tourists. We had our own. private. beach.

The private beach.

There certainly were no amazing clashes of cultures or any funny little anecdotes so this post, I’ll let the pictures do the talking. Once more, I’ve updated my Flickr so you can see even more photos if these are not enough.

Phnom-enal Cambodia!

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Cambodia has really turned out to be a surprise. When I would think of Cambodia, I would think of starving people, a brutal genocide, and maybe some rainforest. Certainly all of this is true, but that is only what Cambodia is outwardly. Once here, we’ve seen a totally different place. The people here are the friendliest and kindest people, always eager to help out a dumb foreigner and show us true hospitality. One of the really interesting ways that this shows itself is in the traffic. While traffic in Bangkok was a nightmare, in Cambodia everyone seems to work together. Let’s say you are trying to pass someone on a two-lane road. You go into oncoming traffic to pass them and the front car will move into the shoulder to give you more room. It’s an extremely efficient and cooperative method that only comes from the kindness of others.

Friendliness on the streets of Phnom Penh

We saw this kindness first hand when we took a bike ride through Siem Reap before leaving that afternoon. We pedaled through the town and headed to the outskirts, passing by farms, a hundred stray dogs, and even some locals setting up for a wedding ceremony. We briefly stopped by a man’s small house where he made rice wine in his yard when one of the girls felt ill. It turned out her bike had a flat tire and she had been pushing right on through. When our group went to the neighbors house, she poured us all coconut juice from the coconuts from the palm trees in her backyard!

Our guide Kim using a giant bamboo scythe to cut down a coconut.

Upon returning, we made our way to the capital city of Phnom Penh on a public bus. This was not nearly as scary as it sounded (or I’m sure will be in the future). They played American movies with no sound and Cambodian subtitles and I had plenty of leg room! We hit a little bit of traffic so we didn’t finish our 6 hour bus ride into Phnom Penh until about 7PM. Our hotel, however, was right on the main hot spot of Phnom Penh, the riverside boardwalk. The Mekong River shimmered at night, surely reflecting the touristy restaurant street lights off of the polluted water. That night, when I got back to the hotel room, there was a gecko waiting for me behind the door… fun.

Little old Gloria Jean’s is apparently a sensation in Cambodia.

The next morning, I woke up with a stomach ache, but I was determined to see the sights of the day. Most of our day was spent studying the genocide that took place in Cambodia 40 years ago under the Khmer Rouge reign of Pol Pot. We first visited Tuol Sleng 21, a “security office” where Cambodian prisoners were tortured for information. Under Pol Pot’s communist regime, he smartly understood that knowledge was power, and he was the only one who could have power. Therefore, his genocide targeted only the educated; doctors, engineers, academics – basically anyone who could outsmart him. In the country of only 7 million people, the Khmer Rouge regime put 3 million to death. After visiting the prison we headed to the Killing Fields. These fields were used strictly for extermination. The mass graves there didn’t look like much until you noticed that white flecks in the dirt were actually pieces of bone left from the bodies. All in all, it was a difficult morning. (And just for fun, the Khmer Rouge continued killing people long after Pol Pot’s official reign until about 1998. Even then Pol Pot was only found, captured, and then he mysteriously died in 2004. It’s really alarming how recent this happened…)

Behind the barbed wire of Security Office 21.

To pick up our spirits with no less brutality, that afternoon we took a tuk-tuk to the outskirts of town to attend a Cambodian boxing match. Admission was free and two apparently famous boxers were headlining the match, so needless to say, it was packed. We started by pushing our way through the crowd in order just to see the ring from afar. To our surprise, the first match was two female fighters. Cambodian boxing is extremely similar to Muay Thai (Thai boxing) in that they use a lot of kicks and elbows in addition to punches. The two girls fought hard and everyone seemed to be into it.

Our original view at the boxing arena.

Just when I thought I found the perfect vantage point on the floor, we found out that in Cambodia they like to welcome Westerners with even more hospitality than we were already used to. We were taken right up on to the stage to sit in nice couches with the best view of the ring. Apparently, all westerners are automatically VIPs and  get special treatment so that we have a good time and spend money. It worked. We had an absolute blast. I took tons of pictures, we got to witness a great match, and I also got to adorn the fighter with a necklace of roses before his match. It was all very surreal to be in a boxing ring on Cambodian TV, but that’s just a Sunday afternoon in Phnom Penh!

 

Angkor What?

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On Thursday morning we crossed the border into Cambodia. The ride from Bangkok to the border was pleasant, but from the Cambodian border crossing to the city of Siem Reap was actually beautiful. You could notice a distinct change in the scenery. Cambodia has turned out to be a pleasant surprise in every way. The leaves are a little greener, the sky is a little bluer and the people here have been incredibly friendly. We were really lucky because the road we were driving on for four hours in Cambodia had only just been paved 2 years before. It was a dirt road before that and it took 8-10 hours to do the same drive then – yikes!

A random house on the highway from the border of Cambodia to Siem Reap.

We made it to Siem Reap that afternoon and after a little bit of time to rest, we visited a nearby orphanage and battered women’s shelter. The charity, New Hope, was eager to give us a tour of their new school and let us help teach English in the classrooms. We were surprised at how old some of the English-learning students were. I talked to a “kid” who was 20 years old and had only been learning English for a month but he could hold a basic conversation with me. I was truly impressed by how eager everyone was. They also fed us at the restaurant associated with the charity and we were served some local delicacies.

Tori and our new best friend Hoo An, the monkey boy.

Crickets! And I hate to say it, but they taste nothing like chicken.

The next day was the big highlight of Cambodia – Angkor Wat. This complex of beautiful temples was built in the 12th Century making it 900 years old! We woke up at a still hot and humid 4:30AM to get to the temple by sunrise. The temple looked ancient and mystical in the dawn light as we stood with some 500 tourists watching the complex slowly illuminate in the purple sunrise.

Ooooooh. Aaaaah.

The three temples we visited over the course of the day were Angkor Wat, the most well preserved and the most famous; Angkor Tom, the biggest, decorated with 49 towers and pensive carvings of faces on every tower; and Ta Prohm, a temple so picturesquely overcome by the encroaching jungle that the Tomb Raider movie with Angelina Jolie was filmed there (now you know why she adopted a Cambodian baby).

The gate to Angkor Tom is staring at you.

After a quick lunch, we drove South to a canal that led us to Tonle Sap Lake, one of the biggest freshwater lakes in Asia. Here we took a little boat cruise down the canal and saw the floating village that has situated itself here. The families here build their houses on boats and tie them to each other and the land. Then, when the rainy season comes, their houses just rise with the water and they don’t have to move. The water was just a couple shades more brown than the Erie Canal (zing!) but that didn’t stop any of the Cambodian children from splashing around. The beggars of Cambodia are also particularly resourceful. The families would motorboat on up next to our boat and a child would climb on to our boat selling water and Coke. A couple of times, boys would boat up holding pythons and try to charge in order for you to take a picture of them or hold them.

Tori was not pleased that the snake was so close to us.

This Saturday afternoon, we are about to board a public bus that will take us from Siem Reap in the North to the capital city, Phnom Penh in the South. It should be a noisy six hour affair, but I’ll report back on that later.

I’ve also started a flickr to put up more photos than I can here, but I’m not too good with the new technology. I’ll post a link here, but with any luck, things will start to look more organized there in a couple of weeks.

If that link doesn’t work… oops.

Bangkok Surprise!

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We were only in Bangkok, Thailand for one day before setting off on our journey, but here are a few brief sketches of The City of Angels… the other city of angels.

We started off walking through the neighborhood next door to our hotel – Chinatown! The cramped streets and the crowded pedestrian sidewalks made it a fun place to stroll around. It was even more fun because every couple of blocks you would randomly stumble upon something like this:

 

Walking through Chinatown, perhaps too obviously, reminded me a lot of China. I could read many of the storefront signs and understand a lot of the local conversation. What I liked better about this district of Bangkok is that everything seemed more accessible. Thai pedestrians were eager to help us as we struggled with a map (that it turns out we weren’t even on).

We moved on to the National Museum of Thailand where we learned more about Thai history than we could ever know. Here’s a primer:

  • Lots of Elephant Warefare
  • Constantly fighting off the Burmese. Constantly.
  • The only person to match King Rama II in virility and fertility was his son King Rama IV. 50+ Children a piece.
  • King Taksin was the shit. He basically put Thailand back together again after the Burmese succeeded in defeating it in the 18th Century.

That’s about all that we did before feeling exhausted at 2PM. We eventually met up with our tour group and went to be promptly at 9:30PM. I woke up at 6 AM this morning and I’m writing this from Siem Reap, Cambodia. I’ll update after we visit Angkor Wat, the 8th Wonder of the World.

Bangkok, Ho!

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What just happened?

Four years ago I was in Blue Cross Arena, graduating from high school, determined to make the summer before college the best ever.

That September I was starting college, moving into Roble and starting my freshman year with 3 roommates, and a hall full of people far more over eager than anyone else at Stanford. I also joined an a cappella I was certain I would quit.

Three weeks ago, The Mendicants had their Spring Show and I performed for one last time.

Yesterday, I graduated college.

Today, I’m starting an adventure. There’s not really any other word for it. I’ve talked to many of my friends about how this trip has started and it’s true that it just snowballed away from me. A trip around the world was never something I had considered. The plan was Harvard Business. The new plan was Columbia’s Climate & Society Program. The “dream” as we called it was New York City. Instead I’m in a middle seat on a flight to Tokyo en route to Bangkok, Thailand.

Graduation week is filled with lots of emotions. There are hundreds of “This is the last time we ever…” and “Let’s do this thing I never did!”, but there is also a lot of time for reflection. For college application essays FIVE years ago I was asked to list the five words that describe me best. I think I said:
• Ambitious
• Competitive
• Independent
• Musical
• Zany

These are five words that certainly described me then, and for the most part they really do describe me now. But I’d like to add five words that I’ve added to the mix since then.

Addictive – It’s not like I wasn’t easily addictive before; I just embrace it now. I watch a lot of television and a lot of movies. Part of what I’ve learned to do at school is take meaning from the things that I get addicted to.

Opinionated – Again, certainly not new, but one that I’ve come to believe is not a bad thing. If we all shared the same opinion, life would start to get incredibly boring. I’m allowed to dislike that thing you all love (The Avengers, Mad Men, Guacamole). Yes, sometimes I say I’m allergic to mushrooms just so they are never near me and people don’t understand that mayonnaise is just fat and should never be on a burger. I’m opinionated. It’s fine.

Geeky – This is actually something I forgot about myself for four years. I was so happy to be a place where everyone was a geek in some ways. Maybe they were a fantasy baseball geek or perhaps it was for Jane Austen novels. I was surrounded by geeks and I was able to forget myself as one. Now, I must reclaim that moniker for myself, but I’ve realized it’s not bad to be geeky, in fact it’s incredibly fun. I’ll just have to start seeking out other geeks.

Supportive – This is the first word on this list that I never would have used years ago. In high school I had great friends, but we all did the same things so I had never had to go out of my way to be supportive. In college, my friends did a thousand different activities. I was so fortunate to find the world’s greatest group of friends. If anyone had an important soccer game or a big presentation, we showed up. And if anyone had a difficult breakup or just a bad day because of an awful class, we showed up. I’m also continually humbled that my friends and family have been so supportive of me throughout my four years. Thanks.

Adventurous – It’s become difficult to avoid. I’m definitely adventurous. If going to California for college wasn’t adventure enough, in the last 2 years I spent 6 weeks in China, 6 months in France, and then 3 weeks driving cross country alone. After each trip I’ve tried to take a moment and be thankful for all of the travels I’ve been lucky enough to do. I loved adventuring so much I started going on adventures in my daily life, taking risks, going to new places, and I’ve loved this philosophy so much that I’m not looking back.

So there you have it. It would really only make sense that with a new found sense of adventure that I would want to take one unfathomably big. For 6 months I’m going to be travelling around the globe, trying to figure out what it is I want to do with this crazy life I’ve had.

First stop: Bangkok with my twin sister Tori.