While planning our five-year anniversary trip I realized that I haven’t written anything about our travels last year (2015). To celebrate our fourth anniversary we went from the chaotic, modern hustle of Bangkok to the bucolic, dusty, wild, wild east of Cambodia. Melissa had worked all summer in Europe as a tour guide, and met our friend Scott in Japan before traveling on her own a bit in Malaysia and Thailand in the fall.
This time in Bangkok we saw a lot more of the contrast between rich and poor, between the modern transit system, iPhones, Mercedes automobiles, luxury malls and the ramshackle huts lining canals and railroad tracks. Poverty is not front and center in Thailand, but it’s there. I got sad on this trip thinking about the millions of people in Bangkok and all over southeast Asia, with all their tuk-tuk’s, two-stroke motorcycles, diesel buses, stoves and air conditioners spewing out pollution. We find it all so novel, so fascinating as tourists, but they live out their entire lives in all that noise and congestion. In the small towns and even in Bangkok, they live with a fair amount of pollution that we’re not used to – garbage, stinky sewers, rough, obstructed sidewalks. I often catch myself wishing that places I visit were less developed – fewer cars, tourists and power lines to obstruct the view. Of course that’s a bit naïve, arrogant and selfish. It’s almost like wishing that the Laotians, Cambodians, Nepalese and the like were stuck in squalor and poverty. The world is becoming a smaller, more homogenous place. It has already become so. In practical terms that means that it’s easier to visit Bangkok in order to see amazing things like the Loha Prasat temple. It also means that when you get there, you’ll see Thai people walking around completely immersed and absorbed in the 3” world of their smartphone, or waiting outside in their air conditioned Toyota – just like you would find outside the Portland Art Museum.
We found plenty of chaos in Siem Riep, and busload upon busload of tourists from China, Europe and Japan. We came to see Angkor Wat (and so did they). It is one of those places that is worth seeing in spite of the hordes of tourists. The sheer scale and size of it combined with the intricacy of the carvings was really mind blowing. It’s hard to imagine the amount of work that went into the construction. It seems to be right up there with Machu Picchu, the Pyramids, the Mayan ruins – all so hard to fathom so many centuries before industrialization. The scale of these works is just so audacious.
These days the locals don’t seem so ambitious. It’s a dusty, sleepy, calm place. They love hammocks. You see them strung up all over, even inside the motorcycle tuk tuk’s while the drivers are waiting for a fare (or just sleeping through the afternoon). There seem to be too many tuk tuk’s relative to the number of customers, and the guys will just wait for you outside of a restaurant while you eat a $30 meal so they can get another $3 fare. That’s not a great feeling – like being waited on in Nepal by the Sherpas. We really are that spoiled in the first world. These motorcycle tuk tuk’s are the preferred mode of transit, as they offer great views, seem quaint, rustic and provide the very real benefit of a slight breeze when putt-putting down the road at 15 mph. It gets really hot in Cambodia.
One afternoon Melissa took a break in the shade at the base of the temple. I went on to climb up and around the few flights of stairs to the top of the ruins. When I came back she was chatting with an Australian woman. A small white cow grazing nearby made a beeline for the three of us, walked right up and started licking my leg! Evidently I was the closest thing to a salt lick that afternoon. As we were walking out, a young orange clad monk stopped us so he could take our picture.
I woke up before 5am on our last day to follow the herd of tuk-tuk’s heading out to Angkor Wat to see the sunrise. Even with the hordes of people, it was a pleasant, peaceful experience. The dew, morning light and cool temps brought out the serenity and beauty of this place, which is still amazing some 800 years after it was built. I’m still awestruck by the incredible amount of effort that was devoted to its’ construction and decoration. The stone carvings went on for yard after yard – flawlessly.
Some small percentage of the temple was never completed. It could be my imagination, but it looked like you could still see the outline sketches on the bare, smooth stone where the bas-relief carvings were incomplete. The people who did all this work must have been either completely enthralled with their king, or working like slaves. I guess it wouldn’t have to be one or the other.
From Siem Riep we took a long, slow bus ride west and then southeast to Battambang. Green rice paddies and patches of trees stretched flatly in every direction, barely punctuated by low hills or villages. Rice harvest was starting, with small Kubota combines gleaning the paddies. The grain dried in the sun and was hauled to large, modern grain elevators and mills in large sacks. The roadside formed one barely interrupted strip of development. Traffic was reasonably orderly for the variety of vehicles, animals and people along the way.
The resourcefulness of the Khmer was evident on the roadways – from bicycles to large five axle trucks and everything in between: motorcycles, motorcycles pulling all kinds of trailers, makeshift trucks and “cow machines” – small, two wheeled, plow-handled tractors. Right off the bus they were selling stir fried crickets and Cambodia style fried chicken – from beak to claw.
From Battambang we made a spur of the moment decision to visit the peaceful enclave of Luang Prabang in Laos. This town sits on a bend of the Mekong River, surrounded by hills. Just a few degrees cooler than Cambodia, it was somehow much more relaxing. We settled into a groove of just walking around the city, stumbling into temple after temple. We rented a motor scooter for a short drive through vegetable farms and rice paddies to visit high waterfalls with mineral pools at their base. Aside from that, no motor transportation was required until we left for the airport. Luang Prabang is extremely walkable, and incredibly enjoyable on foot – very peaceful, tranquil, picturesque.
We spent our evenings at Icon Klub. Melissa befriended the Hungarian bartender/owner, and every night held new conversations with Americans, Swiss, Australians, a Korean woman from the island of Jeju. The real gems of travel are discoveries like this place (both the town and the club) – unknown before your visit and unforgettable thereafter. In fact we liked this place so much that we didn’t want to leave. I had a work trip to Singapore. We had planned to leave together but Melissa stayed behind a few more days, and went back again this year for a few days.