349 days, 36,000 miles, $15,000 USD, half my body weight in sweat, one motorcycle purchase, one camera dropped in a bowl of Balinese chicken soup, one 3AM shoulder dislocation, one 4:30AM shoulder relocation (thanks Justin), one dengue fever scare, one violent bout with food poisoning, one too few bowls of khao soi, one too many late night 7/11 toasties, several hundred dollars worth of cha yen, a rediscovered love for two wheeled vehicles, and a newfound one for sharks – these are a few things that come to mind when I think about this past year. It’s impossible to sum up my trip in a two and a half minute video, but I tried anyways. Enjoy!
Leaving sucks. I had three weeks left in Asia that I knew would fly by just as quick as the first 47 did. I can safely say though that these three remaining weeks were some of my favorite. Following my All Hands experience, I traveled to Padre Burgos, a coastal town at the southern tip of Leyte, Philippines. A group of us stayed at Peter’s Dive Resort, which was beachfront and super tranquil. There was awesome visibility and quite a few resident turtles right out front at the house reef….zero complaints.
In the past Padre Burgos has had a reputation for being a wonderful place to swim with whale sharks. Of course, this had me buzzin’. Ever since I touched down in SE Asia I’d been dreaming of the day I’d swim with these ever-elusive giants. Unfortunately, once I got down to Padre Burgos I discovered that sightings have been extremely rare the past couple years. Some think the eco-system was disturbed so heavily by Typhoon Haiyan that they’ve migrated elsewhere.
So I decided to put the whale sharks on the backburner and head to Malapascua Island to chase a different pelagic species I’d been dreaming about: the thresher shark. Threshers have these enormous scythe-like tails that they use to stun their prey – they’re mesmerizing. They usually hang out in extremely deep waters, but during the early mornings at Monad Shoal off of Malapascua, they come up to shallower depths of ~30 meters to get cleaned by the sucker fish. It’s a symbiotic relationship where all parties benefit: the sharks get cleaned, the cleaner fish get fed, and the humans get to watch in absolute fascination.
^Peep this on Youtube in 1080 if you actually want a clear visual of the thresher.
I had an interesting last night on Malapascua. I’d sort of put the whale shark idea to rest for this trip. Donsol – the preeminent place to see whale sharks in the Philippines – was far, and it was too early in the season to bank on seeing the whale sharks there. Then I met a girl named Liza, who’d just come from there. She told me exactly what I needed to hear: the journey to Donsol is easily doable on my budget, and the whale sharks are out and about already.
And that’s all it took. Bright and early the next morning, I was off for the Cebu airport, rushing to catch a flight that I’d yet to even purchase a ticket for. Chaos ensued, but I managed to catch the flight and was on my way to Legaspi. One of my favorite things about this leg of the trip is the volcano you’re greeted with when you touch down there. It’s massive, currently erupting, and wildly close to the runway:
A short van-van away from Legaspi is Donsol, home to the butanding (whale sharks) that roam the area from December to May. A group of friends and I hired a boat for two days, persistently seeking out the whale sharks, with zero luck. Our third day was my last chance. We set out on the mini-catamaran early in the day, determined to find us some butanding. When the chatter picked up amongst the spotters and they started pointing across the horizon, all of our hearts began to race. The driver throttled the engine up and we all scrambled to get our gear on. After complete pandemonium on deck, we hopped in the water, my heart beating at a speed I didn’t even know it was capable of. Then we spotted it – a dim grey shadow moving against the blue abyss. Here we are, these five humans with awkward flippers and snorkels on, kicking like absolute madmen to try to keep up with this gargantuan ten meter, twenty ton sea animal. The whale sharks coast through the water with ease, in an almost ethereal manner. This is surely the most exhilarating thing I’ve ever done.
The next day I was headed back to Bangkok for my final few days in Asia. Where did time go? It feels like it was just yesterday that I was taxiing out on the SeaTac runway. This whole experience has treated me incredibly well. To those I spent time with on my travels, thanks a billion for adding in one way or another to this highlight reel of a trip – it’s been an absolute dream.
After a few weeks in Burma, I returned once again to Bangkok to prepare for an experience I’d been seeking out for awhile. I was headed to the Philippines to volunteer with All Hands, an international aid organization that started Project Leyte in order to help the people of Tacloban City after Typhoon Haiyan (known locally as Yolanda). This super typhoon displaced some 4 million people and wreaked absolute havoc on the Philippines’ Eastern Visayas region. During my week in Bangkok, apart from exploring more of the city’s legendary street food, I stocked up on the items most essential at base: plenty of mosquito spray, a mosquito net, rehydration salts, and work gear. By October 8th, I was off for Tacloban City to join All Hands.
Settling into base was intimidating – I was greeted by a group of sixty volunteers who all seemed to click and know each other like a tight-knit family already. I soon realized that this happens very quickly here. You’re around each other 24/7 – living together in small dormitories, dining communally, and working side by side eight hours a day, six days a week. My state of intimidation turned to utter euphoria. By the end of week one I was settled in and wholly immersed in the project. There’s an intense and abundant energy that flows here. People are motivated, they’re living with intention, and there’s a strong and intimate connection to the community that’s being served. And the locals of Tacloban – they’re another breed. The warmth with which I was received astounded me. The people give their thanks through radiating ear-to-ear smiles, heart-wrenching stories of their loss, and warm words of appreciation. To say that their resilience is inspiring would be a colossal understatement.
There were quite a few sites that were in the works during my three weeks at Project Leyte:
Anibong // This is a waterfront barangay (neighborhood) that was devastated by the storm surge. The massive ships that washed up ashore are evidence of the typhoon’s sheer power. The barangay’s local elementary school was rendered unstable following the typhoon, and we assisted local workers in the deconstruction of the old structure and foundation digging/pouring of the new. Working at this site made me seriously appreciate the manual laborers who do this stuff day-in day-out. In developed countries, we’d use a tractor to dig ten of these massive 50″ x 50″ x 50″ holes in the compacted dirt. Doing this by shovel and rockbar is a whole ‘nother deal though.
That’s the lower half of a huge 100 foot vessel that washed ashore during the storm surge. The bow of the ship can be seen towering over the main street in the photo below.
New Kawayan // This is a transitional housing community built by the local government that All Hands was making improvements to, primarily digging gradient trenches to avoid stagnant water (dengue is a huge risk). The locals housed here were always lovely to us. This site presented me with the humbling opportunity to meet some of those most affected by the typhoon, which made the work that much more redeeming.
Tzu Chi //All Hands provided a team of laborers to the Tzu Chi Foundation, a massively funded Buddhist organization out of Taiwan. This worksite was a blast. We were alongside tons of local workers, putting together two and three bedroom transitional homes.
San Isidro // Another transitional housing community that All Hands and local workers coordinated together on.
Decon for the Kids // At this site, we helped an orphanage clean and clear their property of debris, so that they could build a soccer field for the kids. Awesome site!
We were told by the owner of the orphanage that when the storm surge was hitting it reached the top of those shipping containers in the background. He and the orphans waited on the roof of the orphanage for hours for the water level to drop. Unbelievable
The culmination of my time volunteering with All Hands was on November 8th, 2014 – the one year anniversary of Typhoon Haiyan. The day started out with a 5 AM walk to the city astrodome – where survivors gathered and lived after the typhoon – and it ended with a candlelight memorial that stretched region-wide. The city was bustling with energy, and to my surprise, everyone was smiling and almost seemed to be celebrating. This day was a really a wonderful way to end my time at All Hands, and it reassured me that I’d spent the previous four weeks very wisely.
To the volunteers I shared my experience with at Project Leyte, thanks for being so kickass. I can’t think of any other time in my life where I’ve been surrounded by so many genuinely great people. This is a memory I look back on daily and hold very close to my heart.
And to all who contributed to my fundraising, I really appreciate it. My time on Project Leyte was easily the most enriching experience I’ve ever had, and I feel proud to have friends and family that helped support this community that I grew to love.
If you’re interested in volunteering on Project Leyte (free bed and meals, helluva deal!), or you just want to learn more about the Leyte typhoon response, peep the All Hands website.
Part of Burma’s appeal to me is its mysteriousness. A country closed off from the world for decades, led for the greater part of the past century by a corrupt, democracy-repressing, and heavy handed North Korea-esque military junta. On top of that, the country is facing one of the worst and longest-running civil wars that the world has ever seen. Burma – controversially renamed Myanmar in 1989 by the military regime – is home to 135 distinct ethnic groups, many of them fighting tenaciously against the illegitimate government for their own autonomy. What has resulted is a constant and bloody clash between some of these ethnic rebel groups and the Tatmadaw (Burmese army). There are countless reports of the Tatmadaw infiltrating villages, shooting and killing those who try to escape, raping the women, and hauling off the remainder of the innocent villagers to labor camps. The situation is ugly. Numerous international organizations have called on Burma to clean up their human rights situation, to little avail.
Because of all of this, travel to the hermit country has been controversial in recent years. The National League for Democracy – Burma’s leading opposition party to the ruling military – called for a tourism boycott in the mid-90s until 2010, requesting that foreigners stay out of the country, as visiting it would essentially support the generals and validate their human rights abuses. Today, the military generals who once ruled the country are no longer in positions of ruling power (a taxi driver of ours claimed that they are “holding the tail of a tiger”), but it’s said that their deep pockets have funded a massive amount of the tourism infrastructure within the country – including tour and taxi companies, bus lines, and hotels. This means that the uninformed tourist who spends his/her dollars in Burma without doing a fair share of research could unknowingly line the pockets of these criminals without even knowing they’d done so.
But we in the states don’t want to be characterized by our grim past, and neither should the Burmese. This country is full of intriguing beauty. The people are some of the most fascinating I’ve encountered anywhere. And Burma possesses a degree of innocence that’s very absent in Thailand, its neighbor to the east.
Our first stop was the former capital Rangoon (Yangon), a bustling city of five million in southern Burma which I found to be riveting. I vividly remember walking through the city center in the sweltering 2pm heat, feeling like we’d just been chewed up by some monstrous animal, tossed around in his belly, and spat out several blocks later sweaty, hungry, and confused as all hell. This city is raw, rich in culture, ungentrified, and it heightens the senses with startling immediacy.
This is the Sule Pagoda, where on August 8th, 1988, during a peaceful pro-democracy demonstration, the army massacred an estimated 3,000 people
This right here is probably one of my favorite things I ate in Burma. A super greasy form of roti sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. Plus the dude serving it looks like a Burmese Jesus.
Our next stop was Mawlamyine, a coastal city 300 km southeast of Rangoon. This turned out to be my favorite spot in Burma. The city has seen little tourism so far, and as a result the people were super curious and friendly to us.
One of my highlights of the trip through Burma is our time spent at this BBQ stall. We attracted a warmhearted crowd of people who I’m pretty sure – by the looks of it – rarely see a western tourist eat grilled chicken
While in Mawlamyine, Tara and I rented a scooter to explore the surrounding area. The highlight here was definitely seeing the Win Sein Taw Ya Buddha, the largest reclining Buddha in the world at 180 meters long. The Burmese tourists there were so ridiculously happy and enthused to talk and take pictures with/for/of us – it was a really memorable experience.
The yellowish white paste you see on their faces is called Thanaka. It’s a cosmetic paste that protects from sunburn and cools the skin. Both men and women alike wear the Thanaka
From Mawlamyine, Tara and I took a bus up north to Bagan – a dusty ancient city scattered with some 2200 picturesque temples and pagodas.
One of my favorite parts about Burma is its affinity for tea. Hot, extra-sweetened, and milky – you can find tea shops serving these little cups of glee on just about any block. During the morning, afternoon, and late evening, these shops are completely packed (interesting though – only men). My guess is that this tea-time tradition is one that was picked up during the British rule from 1824-1848.
After several days of cruising around Bagan, we headed towards Lake Inle, which by comparison to Mawlamyine is a tourist mecca. The lake is gorgeous and is home to 70,000 people, many of whom live on wooden stilt houses on and around the lake.
We explored the lake and one of its local markets by a hired longtail boat with a pushy tour guide…which was super unfortunate. But the lake itself and the commerce that moves on and around it is remarkable.
Our trip to Burma ended with an overnight bus ride to Mandalay, where we caught our early flight back to Bangkok. Altogether I really enjoyed our time here, and I’m stoked that the country has opened its doors to tourism.
Next up: The Philippines
In terms of natural beauty, Indonesia tops my list. The country spans 5,000 kilometers – about the distance from California to Bermuda. Within the massive archipelago are some 17,000 islands and 127 active volcanoes, which seem to soar above the clouds in every direction you look. There’s just way too much to see here, and never enough time to see it.
So, with 30 days left in the country, we got right to it. Tara flew in from Australia, and the following morning we took off on a flight for Flores island, East Nusa Tenggara.
We spent our first night in Labuan Bajo, a port and stopover town which most visitors to Flores inevitably end up passing through. I found this predominately Muslim town a distinct contrast to my first month of Indonesian travel on Hindu Bali and Nusa Lembongan. The town itself isn’t anything to write home about, but the views out to the surrounding islands are superb and made me feel like I was visiting Mars. I vividly remember watching this sunset from the balcony of our bungalow, while the nearby mosque’s adhan blared over a crackling loudspeaker – a tune somewhat foreign to my ears. Looking out over the vista, I felt like the whole experience in that exact instance was so fitting: this new region we’d never before visited, the unfamiliar sound of an Islamic call to prayer, and this consuming desire to see what lie just over the horizon.
Both Tara and I wanted to beach it for some time. We’d heard of this tiny private island called Kanawa, but seeing as the island limits the number of visitors and reservations are required weeks in advance, we assumed it’d be a no-go. In some ridiculously lucky turn of events though, we ended up being able to book a cheap beachfront bale bale for two nights and a tent for a third.
The reef in Kanawa was an absolute dream. 30 meter visibility and some of the most vibrant and rich coral I’ve ever seen. And plenty of fish! But unfortunately our three-day search for the sharks was unsuccessful.
Nights were quiet. There was one restaurant on the island, and unfortunately the food was expensive, mostly western, and mediocre. That’s my only qualm about this place though! If Kanawa had a decent local-cuisine restaurant, we probably could have stayed there for a week. But it didn’t – so after 3 days of eating overpriced shit-spaghetti, we were ready to head back to the mainland to plan out the rest of our time on Flores.
While at first I was impartial to the small city, I developed a liking for Labuan Bajo after being introduced to my first nasi ayam goreng (rice and fried chicken) at a local makasan padang (restaurant) there.
I was worried that after spending months in Thailand where the pork is heavenly tasting, I’d have trouble going cold turkey in a Muslim country like Indonesia. Turned out to be a piece of cake. All in all we must have eaten this dish a solid 20 times during our month here. And it’s easy to do that, cause every joint cooks it up a little differently.
Generally, you get a piece of fried chicken (ayam goreng), and a scoop of white rice (nasi putih). The small circular nugget on the plate next to the chicken is called perkedel. Think of mashed potatoes dipped in egg yolk and then fried. Perkedel is an absolute must with this meal. The red chili salsa in the top right is called sambal – also 100% necessary. You won’t be served a meal without the stuff here. The small bowl of soup is called gulai, and is like a jackfruit coconut curry – I’d argue it’s what holds the entire meal together. The result of combining all of these is an unbelievably tasty mouthful of flavors and textures, all for right around $2-3 USD.
Following our discovery of this culinary masterpiece, Tara and I decided to take a tour out to Rinca island to see the Komodo dragons. Unfortunately, the only way to see them is by taking an organized group tour. Ours was fine – except for the the obnoxious and condescending couple that spoke to the locals like they were misbehaving six-year-olds, and the uptight couple with an “appointment” they needed to be back for at 3pm – they got real fussy when they realized we’d be cutting it tight. The dragons were impressive though! They were massive, and sort of just laid there and stared at us as if they were trying to decide between taking another nap or eating the pudgiest person in the group.
During the boat ride out to Rinca we’d be cruising along and all of a sudden would just come up on these electric blue patches of water with dry arid islands in the background. Once again…I’ve never seen a place like this. For the Washington locals, it almost reminded me of a super tropical Lake Chelan.
Following the Rinca tour, Tara and I decided to rent a motorbike for a week and try and make it to the Mt. Kelimutus crater lakes, some 400 km east across Flores. We set off and were instantly stoked to be exploring by bike. As Labuan Bajo’s drier surroundings gave way to the rural low-mountain villages, the people became friendlier and friendlier. Little kids scampered across their family’s farming land shouting “hey mister!” between their beaming smiles of just a few teeth. By Ruteng – 100 km later – we were overwhelmed by the utter warmth of the people. We’d stop on the side of the road to snap a picture and would make a handful of curious new friends – there was almost always a group of little kids with ear to ear grins laughing uncontrollably at who knows what, and several times a random driver or two would pull over just to make sure we were alright. I’ve never encountered this type of genuine affability before, and I’ll always remember how welcoming the people of Flores were to us.
Unfortunately about 100 km into our route Tara put her calf down on the scooter’s literally piping hot exhaust, which normally has a plastic cover over it. It turned out to be a seriously gnarly burn that got infected and sort of dictated where we ended up going later in our trip through Indo. Moral of the story: no more renting motorbikes unless they have exhaust covers.
Our first night on the road was in Ruteng, a cold mountain town where Tara and I stayed in a nunnery. There’s a strict 9pm curfew when the nuns close the gate, and we were gently woken up at 5:30 am by the choir’s dreamy hymns emanating from a nearby hall. There were no double beds in the entire nunnery, and it seemed that the sisters had a vested interest in making absolute sure that Tara and I were sleeping separately in our room’s small single beds. Needless to say, this was a super unique experience.
Of the 250 million people living in Indonesia, 87% are Muslim, making it the most populous Muslim-majority country in the world. But Flores island, due to its early beginnings as a Portuguese colony, is predominately Roman catholic. I found it pretty intriguing to see such deeply-rooted Catholicism in an elsewhere Muslim-majority country.
Following Ruteng, we rode 140 km east to Bajawa, a mountain town both colder and foggier than Ruteng, which for me was already frigid after having acclimated to the humid 90° SE Asia heat over the past 9 months.
At this point, both of us just wanted to be back on Kanawa. It was cold, wet, and foggy on nearly every leg of our trip so far. But we couldn’t turn back now that we’d made it this close to Mt. Kelimutus. So we moved onwards towards Moni, which was the base for exploring the mountain and its apparently epic colored crater lakes. Thankfully the route brought us back down to sea level through Ende, where we could finally take off our heavy jackets we’d purchased in Ruteng.
That was short lived though – it wasn’t long before we were back up in the fog and drizzling rain, climbing our last leg to reach Moni by nightfall. But…we made it! Moni is a tiny little mountain village that’s constantly in the clouds, and it was literally wet for the entirety of our 48 hour stay there. So we waited and waited at our guesthouse for some of the fog and rain to clear, and decided to make our way up Kelimutus to see these lakes that we’d traveled 400 km for.
Once we’d made our ascent, we peered over the railing to take a look into the crater at the marvelous lakes, and this here is what we were greeted with:
This is what it looks like on a clear day:
Deflated and disappointed, we hopped on our scooter and began the return voyage. Four days later, we were in Labuan Bajo once again, bummed to have not seen the crater lakes, but stoked on the experience itself of driving the 800 km journey. We headed west back to Bali, where we spent our last twelve days in Indonesia between Ubud and Amed – two of my favorite places I’ve been thus far:
Tara and I then headed to Bangkok for a week to sort out our Burmese visas and eat (the latter of utmost importance):
Next up: Burma
By the end of my trip through Cambodia, I’d started getting really homesick. Luckily for me, I’d be spending 11 days in Thailand, between Surin – where some Thai friends and family of mine live – and Bangkok, which – despite earlier in my blog I dismissed as lackluster – I’ve really grown to love. I’m always excited at the thought of returning to Thailand, even if it’s just for a few day layover. My friends in Surin never cease to remind me exactly why fell in love with Thailand in the first place: the warmth of the people and the unparalleled tastiness of the food. 11 days there turned out to be exactly what I needed to recharge a little bit and cure my homesickness.
So after spending a week in Bangkok organizing my Indonesian visa and stuffing my face with copious amounts of Thai food, I set off for the famed Indonesian island of Bali. I started off in Kuta, which is definitely an exception to Bali’s allure for me. The surf there is good – but that’s about it. My buddy Justin met me a few days after my arrival and that was when my Indonesia leg of the trip really felt like it took off. We started out with a few days of (attempted) surf, then headed out to Nusa Lembongan, an island off the coast of Bali boasting gorgeous natural beauty. The majority of Bali and Nusa Lembongan’s residents are Hindu, as opposed to Muslim – Indonesia’s predominant religion. I’d never been anywhere like this before. Hindu offerings – usually little woven plant trays filled with fresh flowers, candy, lit incense, and small coins – lay everywhere; at the base of the stairs, in the restroom, in hallways, on the sidewalk outside of the house/restaurant, you name it…the offerings were everywhere and at all hours of the day. I was told that the offerings were set out, and that in exchange, the bearer wished for good things to come to their friends, family, and patrons. This ubiquitous aspect of Balinese Hinduism really adds to the island’s easygoing and warm atmosphere.
Photo by Kokkai Ng
Following Nusa Lembongan, Justin and I headed back to Bali for a motorcycle trip around the island. Unfortunately it’s difficult to find anything larger than a 150cc available for rent, so we settled for two KLX 150s – not too shabby 🙂
Our first day’s route took us from Kuta to Ubud, a culture rich and evergreen oasis north of Denpasar. Our hotel was super close to the Monkey Forest, so early every morning we were woken up by these pesky macaques wreaking absolute havoc on the well-kept hotel grounds — super entertaining.
Our second leg of the trip – Ubud to Amed – was gorgeous. Open sweeping rice fields surrounded us, and there was much less traffic than on our first leg. We made it a point to take a detour to Gunung (Mt.) Agung, a 10,000 foot volcano located on the northeast side of the island. Turns out it was way too foggy to see a thing, but it’s all good, as we were plenty satisfied with the view from afar.
Amed was easily my favorite place on Bali. It’s a sleepy little string of coastal villages with black pebble beaches, killer snorkeling, friendly locals, and this view of Gunung Agung that I’ll never grow tired of:
From Amed, we cruised north along the coast through Singaraja and on to Pemuteran – the base for exploring the rich waters of Menjangan island. Visibility was incredible and the coral and marine life was super vibrant. Plus, you can spot a few of neighboring Java’s massive volcanoes from the boat – really adds to the beauty.
After a couple nights in Pemuteran, we were ready to head out on the last leg of our trip some 160 km along the coast back to Kuta.
Justin’s trip was coming to a close – we planned to have two nights back in Kuta to surf a bit before he took off back to Seattle. But at 3 am, I woke up with a dislocated left shoulder. No clue in hell as to how it managed to slip out in my sleep, but I’m damn thankful that I had a friend there to help relocate it. Thanks Justin! I spent the next couple weeks between Ubud and Amed, resting and recuperating in order to get my shoulder back in usable condition. I’ll need surgery once I’m back stateside, but all is good so far as I’m here in the Philippines using my shoulder strenuously on a daily basis. Keep sendin’ the healthy vibes my way!
I crossed from Vietnam into Cambodia at the Ha Tien border – the southernmost crossing that the two countries share. I was fully expecting to have to shell out some exorbitant amount of money because I was a foreigner crossing on a motorcycle, but the border guards were super friendly and let me right through without even taking a single peek at the paperwork for the bike.
I had just finished motorbiking 2700 km through Vietnam, and I seriously needed a break from two wheels. I’d heard people rave about this beautiful little island off of the Cambodian coast called Koh Rong, complete with soft white sand beaches and clear aquamarine waters…you’ll never hear me say no to that combination. It turned out to be exactly the type of reward I needed after spending a solid month on Vietnam’s highways. I left my bike at a hostel in Otres Beach, Sihanoukeville, and I was off for Koh Rong. I ended up sticking around the island for a week. Here’s why:
Some local Khmer fishermen invited us on their boat for whiskey and fresh crab at 9 in the morning. What resulted was an absolute shitshow by mid-day and probably the highlight of my trip through Cambodia.
Once my time had expired in Koh Rong, I headed back to the mainland and sold my bike, without even so much as a moment of hesitation once the offer was on the table. As much as I loved my time on that bike, I was ready to part ways. Monsoon season was in full swing, and riding on the highway in torrential Asia downpour is pretty much a death wish. So for the first time in months I hopped on a bus, from Sihanoukville north to the country’s capital: Phnom Penh.
I ended up really enjoying this city, which surprised me since I’d heard quite a few people hate on it earlier in my travels. It’s certainly not filled with air-conditioned shopping malls, donut shops, and fried chicken stalls like Bangkok is; I found it to be a bit eye-opening and rough around the edges. This is where my visit to Cambodia became more sobering, and rightfully so. I took a visit to S-21, a former high school turned Khmer Rouge prison, which is now a museum, as well as the Killing Fields, one of the 150 mass grave sites that has been unearthed across the country.
I can’t even illustrate how harrowing visiting these two sites was. Some 20,000 Cambodian prisoners passed through S-21, and only 12 made it out alive. The prison grounds have such a heavy and somber vibe that you can almost stick your hand out and feel it. Our guide explained to us that his mother and her aunt were the only survivors in their family. This just reiterated to me how viciously the genocide took from every single person. Visiting the Choeung Ek Killing Fields was the rotten cherry on top after S-21. Skulls from the mass graves have been assembled into a stupa, loudly reminding you of the brutal things the human race is capable of.
From Phnom Penh, I made my way up to Siem Reap – the base for exploring the Angkor temple complex. I spent five days here, two of which I pedaled around on a bike. This place is heaven on earth if you’re a temple nerd. You could spend a week touring and still there’d be more to see. It’s crazy.
My experience in Cambodia was a bit heavier than anywhere else I’d been in Southeast Asia. Poverty is endemic throughout the country, and the genocide under the Khmer Rouge was always lingering at the back of my mind. I couldn’t help but see the impoverished conditions that so many lived in as a result of this relatively recent tragedy. The Khmer Rouge mercilessly wiped out 21% of the country’s population only 35 short years ago. I’m not too sure about any of you guys, but many other tourists that I spoke to in Cambodia shared the same feeling of embarrassment that I felt knowing barely anything of the Khmer Rouge or its atrocities. Perhaps this is a piece of history that isn’t encouraged in grade-school history teachers’ lesson plans because it sheds poor light on the US? We did have somewhat of a loose coalition with the Khmer Rouge after all. There’s no reasonable excuse for my lack of knowledge on this subject prior to arriving in Asia…and I’m not looking to pass the blame for my own ignorance. I guess that I just felt a little surprised and peeved that I didn’t hear a single thing about this during grade school. Perhaps plenty of kids did learn about Cambodia’s brutal history during their schooling and I’m one of the oddballs that didn’t. But talking with young tourists in Cambodia – North Americans and Europeans alike – I realized that I was not alone in feeling the way that I did.