Today we visited the killing fields, where from 1975 to 1979 the Khmer Rouge regime executed thousands of men, women, and children. Anyone who was deemed as a threat to the revolution was sent to prison, tortured until they “confessed,” and then sent to the fields to be killed. Victims included former government officials, ethnic minorities, religious minorities, monks, nuns, merchants, teachers, writers, musicians, anyone who could speak a foreign language, even anyone who wore glasses. As Pol Pot became more paranoid, literally no one was safe, and the bodies of Khmer Rouge soldiers have been found in the graves as well.
I don’t even think there are words to describe how sad it was. There is an audio tour to go along with the visit and, while I normally think audio tours are cheesy, this one was really well done. Along with historical facts and details, it played stories told by survivors of the regime. Basically, whatever horrible and disturbing things you can imagine were routinely done. Bullets were too expensive to use, so the victims were beaten or stabbed to death and then thrown in mass graves. Today where the graves are roped off you can see bits of bone fragments, teeth, and shreds of clothing. Babies were bashed against trees and chucked in the pit with everyone else, because the regime didn’t want them to grow up and avenge their families. And all of this was done with music playing over loudspeakers, to try and drown out the screams of the dying.
Many of the remains have been exhumed and are now on display in glass cases in a memorial pagoda. I don’t know how many skulls are in there, thousands probably, all arranged by sex and estimated age at death, the closest thing to a tombstone that they’ll get.
Seeing these things was absolutely chilling, but I’m glad we went. It’s important to learn about this sad history, not just to prevent future genocides, but also to try to understand the national psyche here. With all that Cambodia has been through, I’m amazed it’s in as good of shape as it is. Yes, there’s a lot of poverty, but it seems to me like they’ve done a good job of getting back on their feet and carrying on. I think Cambodia is on the upswing and I certainly hope it stays that way. After enduring so much tragedy, the people here deserve some happiness.
We saw the grand temples of Angkor and, to be perfectly honest, I have pretty mixed feelings about the whole thing. Most people gush about how great Angkor is, so let me explain a little. The temples themselves really are incredible, no doubt about it. They are beautiful, detailed, and enormous. We spent hours exploring some of them. Even the park itself is huge and driving between the temples takes up a lot of time. My favorite parts, though, were the murals carved in the walls. Most of them are of mythical war scenes, but a few show scenes from daily life. Some of them are so intricate, you can see tiny details like the different pieces in a chess game.
Our favorite temple was the very last one we saw, Banteay Srei. It’s about an hour’s drive away from the others and we decided to see it at the last minute. I’m so glad we did! Made out of pink sandstone and covered in decorative carvings, it’s like a miniature, dainty version of the other temples. It’s all very well preserved, too, possibly because they have it roped off and you can only see parts of it from a distance. Even from a distance it was still my favorite, though.
So it wasn’t the temples that let me down.
What left a bad taste in my mouth was how the area is managed. For example, one morning we got up to watch the sunrise at Angkor Wat. ??Unfortunately, I was pretty disappointed by the whole experience.?? There were hundreds of people there, all crowding around the lake, talking, taking flash pictures, and generally being obnoxious. Locals were selling coffee and spaces on blankets to sit on. Then touts were bugging us, which is pretty much constant all the time, but super annoying.?? And then, to top it all off, the sun started to rise and it was really beautiful at first, but then as it was getting lighter we could see tons of scaffolding and tarps covering up part of the temple! Biggest disappointment ever. To be fair, I was expecting a really peaceful, magical, moving experience, but as Brad said, “I think we’re here 30 years too late.” It is definitely not an undiscovered gem!
The people here are extremely proud of Angkor Wat. It’s even pictured on the nation’s flag! Since it’s such an important national treasure, I feel like they should take better care of it. Limiting the number of visitors, not allowing touts to bug people, and cleaning up trash all seem like good ideas to me. It would also be nice if they didn’t have so much construction going on during peak season. Maybe my expectations were too high, but I had a much more pleasant time exploring the temples in Ayutthaya. I don’t want to sound like Angkor is a waste of time–it’s not–I just wish I had been better prepared for all the crap we had to deal with. Anyway, check out our pictures and judge for yourself.
The Aranyaprathet/Poipet border crossing between Thailand and Cambodia has a bad reputation among travelers, but we didn’t have any problems. I think all of the problems associated with the border (corrupt officials, scams, and onward transportation) are no longer an issue.
It’s crazy how a line on a map can change everything. The countries in Asia really are as different from each other as the countries within Europe are. One of the first things I noticed is how much poorer Cambodia is than Thailand. There’s more trash and filth in the towns. The roads are in bad condition, which is a little ironic, since everyone says the roads are much better now than they were twenty years ago. (I can’t imagine how bad they must have been then!) A fair amount of people ride actual bicycles, not motorbikes. Touts and beggars are out in full force again, something we haven’t really had to deal with since Indonesia.
Other things have changed as well. The food has, in my opinion, taken a turn for the worse. Grilled meat here is excellent, but most dishes seem to lean heavily on cucumbers and onions. (Maybe they’re cheaper?) I don’t dislike cucumbers and onions, but they’re not my favorite vegetables. At least bread is common here, probably because we’ve reached former French Indochina territory. I didn’t realize how much I missed bread until I bit into a freshly baked??baguette.
Money is pretty confusing here. They have a local currency, the riel, but mostly use US dollars. That sounds simple enough, but they don’t have any US change, so they use the riel as change. The exchange rate is about 4,000 to $1, so if your bill is $6.25 and you pay with a $10, you’re going to get $3 and 3,000 riel back as change. And to make things even more confusing, they also use the Thai baht, so prices can be given in dollars, riel, baht, or a combination of them, and we have to figure out which one is the best price.
The language is different, of course. The people look different. The tuk tuks are different here. In Thailand, tuk tuks are small, three-wheeled vehicles with the driver in front and a bench in the back for the passengers. Here, tuk tuks are chariot-like trailers pulled by motorbikes. The dirt is red and dry, like it was in Australia. Everything is dusty. It even smells different here, but I have no idea how to describe the smell. It’s not bad or stinky, just different.
And, sadly, there is evidence all over of Cambodia’s tragic past. After enduring war and genocide of an estimated two million people by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime, the country faced a new problem: land mines. Until recently, Cambodia was one of the most heavily mined countries in the world and right away I noticed how many amputees and handicapped people there are. The land mines also stopped people from using large areas of land, which is partly why Cambodia is less developed. (If you want to read more about land mines in Cambodia, I highly recommend this National Geographic article.)
Clearly Cambodia is going to be a whole new ballgame. Most tourists blow right through here, stopping only in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, but we decided to stay just a little bit longer to see more. It may not be as pleasant or fun as Thailand, but I’m looking forward to learning more about Cambodia.
Way back when we were planning our trip, we knew that we wanted to spend a lot of time in Thailand. It’s known as one of the best spots in the world for independent travel. Our experiences certainly met, maybe even exceeded, our expectations. This was a difficult country to recap, not only because we spent so long here, but because we had such a great time.
Top three experiences?
- Scuba diving in the Andaman Sea.
- Celebrating New Year’s on the beach in Koh Lipe.
- Seeing the ruins in Ayutthaya.
- Diving in the Andaman Sea.
- Ayutthaya. Walking around in these ruins, we got the sense of how impressive this city used to be, and how a mere 400 years can change things so profoundly.
- Ko Mook, especially the Emerald Cave. Plus, with the surprise snorkel trip we got out of the ferry ride, it was a great day.
Bottom three experiences?
- Ko Phi Phi. It was almost impossible to find a place to stay and the town was just filled with obnoxious teenagers.
- Dealing with transportation in Bangkok. The metro and skytrain are nice, but they don’t go to the main tourist areas. Boats are useful, but obviously they’re limited to the waterways. The buses are hard to figure out and all vehicles get stuck in traffic. Motorbike taxis can dodge the cars, but are dangerous. And walking, even if it is the fastest way, is very unpleasant with the broken sidewalks, traffic, heat, and car fumes.
- The cheesiness of Pai.
- Ko Phi Phi. Okay, the area around the village was beautiful, but the atmosphere itself sucked, and even if we did go to The Beach beach, it would have been overrun with hungover Australians in Chang singlets.
- Getting our Chinese visas. We waited in line outside the consulate for two hours, inside another hour, then five days to pick it up.
- Being sick in Chiang Mai. Not fun at all.
Nikki: Thai food is incredible! I really can’t pick out one particular meal, but I guess if I have to, I’ll say the pad thai in the night market in Ayutthaya.
Brad: Too difficult to decide! The food was amazing, whether from a roadside cart, a shopping mall food court, or a restaurant. I’d have to say the chicken and rice dish I had at the Chatuchak weekend market in Bangkok. The rice and the chicken were both unbelievably good for some reason.
Nikki: Not many bad meals. Had a pretty bad fried rice dish, but I can’t remember exactly where that was.
Brad: Although the mall food courts here are generally very good, I did choose a let-down in Bangkok for lunch one day: cold, tasteless curry. Worse was that Nikki’s lunch looked really good.
Favorite person we met?
Nikki: This is also almost impossible to answer, because we’ve met so many great people. I’m going to say May, because she was so kind and interesting and she gave us a free ride to Khao Sok.
Brad: Tough question. I’ll say May from the dive boat, who offered to drive us up to Khao Sok. We learned a lot about Thailand from her.
Nikki: No major problems, thankfully. When we first landed in Chiang Mai, our hotel told us they didn’t have a room for us, even though we had made a booking. We were really mad, but then they called the cab driver about fifteen minutes later and said they actually did have a room for us.
Brad: Being sick in Chiang Mai. It started as just a very clogged up nose traveling to Chiang Mai, but the day after I had a fever and the chills, and spent most of the day sleeping. We did go out briefly, and it was a complete disaster. I started feeling tired, and when we started heading back, my sandal strap broke, so I walked back several blocks with one foot bare. But then I didn’t watch where I was stepping with that foot, and landed right in a big pile of dog crap! That was one of the worst days of the trip so far. Fortunately I felt much better the next day.
Favorite place we stayed?
Nikki: The Jolly Frog in Kanchanaburi. Cheap, clean, great people, and a nice lawn by the river.
Brad: The 7 Century guest house in Chiang Mai. It was just a simple room, but it was very cheap and in a great location.
Worst place we stayed?
Nikki: The rafthouse in Khao Sok. Beautiful views, but I don’t enjoy swarms of mosquitos and bathing out of a bucket.
Brad: Ko Phi Phi. We almost didn’t have a room at all, until Sven, a Belgian, told us about a room for three. We overpaid for the dingy, small, and dirty room, and it was loud all night long. The worst part was Sven’s backpack. He was hardly in the room, but his backpack was emitting the most horrid stench imaginable. We had to keep the room’s door open to get the smell out.
Best thing we didn’t blog about?
Nikki: Seeing the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok. It was very cool, though much smaller than I thought it would be.
Brad: Phang Nga Bay. Cruising around in the mangrove swamp and between sheer rock cliffs was great.
Nikki: While we were eating dinner in Trang, a man with an elephant walked in. You could pay him money to take a picture with the elephant or to feed it. Now that I think about it, I’m not sure what’s more weird: an elephant just wandering in or the fact that I didn’t even mention it in my post about Trang. Man, am I getting jaded.
Brad: The longtail boats. They look like homemade mechanical monstrosities, and yet it’s the standard for getting around on the water in Thailand. The propeller is teen feet behind the boat and swinging through the air half of the time. I imagined bringing one of these to Lake Mendota, but it probably would be illegal because it’s too loud and dangerous.
Statistics for Thailand
- Days in the country: 47
- Days in Bangkok: 11
- Places we stayed: 18
- Rainy days: 2
- Blog posts: 9
- UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 1
- Photos taken: 1167
- Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 354, 30% of all photos taken
- Geocaches found: 3
- Scuba dives: 13
- Islands visited: 6
- Hours on bus, train, or ferry: 55
- Plane flights: 1
- Pairs of sandals Brad broke: 2
- Pairs of sunglasses Nikki broke: 2
Statistics for the Trip
- Countries visited: 6
- Days on the road: 166
- Places we stayed: 79
- Rainy days: 30
- UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 9
- Photos taken: 6009
- Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 1353, 23% of all photos taken
- Geocaches found: 6
- Scuba dives: 27
- Hours on bus, train, or ferry: 171
- Plane flights: 8
- Countries we’ve eaten McDonald’s in: 6 (100%)
In Kanchanaburi we went to see the bridge over River Kwai. Yes, it’s the bridge in the movie, but the movie is mostly fiction and it wasn’t filmed here. In real life, during WWII, the Japanese needed to build a railway through Thailand to Burma. They did all the engineering themselves, but brought in mainly Australian POWs to do the physical labor. So many people died building the railway and bridges that it’s now called the Death Railway.
The bridge was cool to see, but it’s mostly overrun with tour groups. Then we saw two POW cemeteries, which were much more moving. Walking down the perfectly manicured lawns and reading the ages on the tombstones–23, 27, 31, 25, 28, 25, 24, etc.–made me cry. After that we went to the excellent museum that really documented the brutality and awful conditions in the camps. It was all very interesting, but terribly sad. There’s no way around it, war is just horrible.
Then at night we had dinner with the most random group of people. There was Liz, an 80-year-old who has travelled her whole life and doesn’t really have a proper home. Now she spends her time mostly in Malaysia, Thailand, India, Nepal, and Laos. She confided in us that she worries about what she’ll do when she “gets old.”
There was also Judy, a retired woman from England that kept insisting to me that she has no skills. She loves India, but hates Thailand and Vietnam. She has also never had any desire to visit America because she thought “it was just a bunch of fat loudmouths.” (After talking with us, she’s reconsidering her??opinion.) Her whole family, including 10 grandchildren and one great-grandchild, lives in the same town. Apparently Brad looks just like one of her grandsons.
Then there was Caleb, a 24 year old park ranger from Oregon. He is just beginning a bike trip through Thailand with his friend Tanner, a part time river guide and a part time drug dealer from California. Tanner was a very Indie, hippie, herbal, “the-man-is-out-to-get-you” type. Caleb was much less paranoid and more rational.
Meeting such a diverse group was fun (I mean, an 80-year-old, a great-grandmother, a park ranger, and a drug dealer? It sounds like the setup for a joke), but it also made me realize that literally anyone can backpack. You don’t have to be young, or single, or wealthy, or brilliant, or anything, really. You just have to be willing to go.