Temples and Tuk-Tuks: ETA-ETA di Kemboja dan Negeri Thai
A Tuk-Tuk is a motorbike with a wagon-like rickshaw for passengers at the back. They are convenient and cheap, ubiquitous in both Cambodia and Thailand, and served as the main mode of transportation during our two week holiday.
One tuk-tuk ride took us through the temples of Angkor, breaking down and overheating about every five/ten minutes, at which point the driver would run into a nearby villager’s home, and throw buckets of water on the bike. We would wait for our sturdy tuk-tuk to cool down and would then go on our way. Though some drivers seemed like they had a death wish, I grew fond of the tuk-tuk’s open air, cramped cabin. I felt more at-one with the streets, and perhaps with the pollution.
Let me just say that I found Cambodia far more breathtaking than I thought I would and Thailand far more disillusioning than I thought I would.
We began our whirlwind Southeast Asian jaunt in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. This capital city is no Kuala Lumpur, but it was a respite from cities littered with shopping malls and shiny things.
Cambodia is rife with poverty, child labor, prostitution, and HIV-AIDS. Shoeless children try to push their wares on you as you walk down the street or sit at a café. They follow you, repeating their pleas, both desperate and bored. One small girl, who couldn’t have been more than 4 years old, rang out the so often shouted: “lady, lady!” But what followed seemed to resound in my head again and again. For one dollar she was selling ten bracelets. With her eyes glazed over, she read off “one, two, three…” then “uno, dos, tres,” German, French, Japanese. This little girl was programed like a robot to sell things. She couldn’t carry on any sort of meaningful conversation in English but had been forced to learn how to sell her bracelets in a dozen languages. Cambodia is heartbreaking. Like the children on its streets, it is well-worn and tired, but beautiful and hopeful. While there, we were able link up with a couple NGOs- two amazing organizations in particular: Daughters of Cambodia, which helps victims of sex-trafficking, and MithSamlanh Friends, which works with street children.
When I returned to my classroom in Malaysia I taught my students about the Khmer Rouge- a terrible era in history that many Malaysians or Americans are not even aware of. The lesson began: “Cambodia has a very sad history…” In the years 1975-1979 more than 1.5 million Cambodians were brutally imprisoned, tortured, and murdered by the insurgent ruling government of extremist Communists. Cambodia’s bloody past can be revisited at the killing fields at Choeung Ek, just outside of Phnom Penh. Choeung Ek, once home to mass graves, now is a place for somber remembrance. A monument stands in the center of the surrounding trenches- a tower filled with the skulls of men, women, and children. A gloomy tour of the capital continues at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a school transformed into a giant prison under the rule of Pol Pot. Thousands of photos line the hallways, faces haunted by fear- ghosts of the so-called ‘revolution’. 100 victims were killed a day at this prison alone. Since my visit to the Holocaust museum in D.C. when I was 15, I have never felt this much nauseating sadness.
Despite all of this hardship, the people of Cambodia have a spirit to them. Once night we were at a café with a group of local men. They were giggling and drinking pitchers of Angkor beers, all saying “cheer up!” instead of “cheers!” I like that. Also, Cambodia has “happy pizza” restaurants, which serve special pizza- think green herb. “Happy Pizza” is right next door to “Ecstatic Pizza.”
Our visit to Cambodia began in Phnom Penh, a city nearly destroyed by its recent history. We continued on deep into Cambodia’s past to Siem Reap, the taking-off point for Angkor: an absolutely enormous and awe-inspiring place, worthy of its title as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, unofficial eighth wonder of the world, and the national symbol of Cambodia. Angkor was the center of an ancient empire ruled by god-kings. Do I even need to describe the temples of Angkor? I just will say: they were stunning, mysterious, breathtaking, and all at once exhausting. The temple complex sprawled over miles and miles of this lost civilization. We rented bicycles and rode through tree-lined streets between 12th century ruins: temples with Hindu and Buddhist statues and wall carvings, palaces with grand gates, surrounded moats, tree roots gripping the walls.
My Francophile eyes started to bulge: there were Baguettes everywhere! I was disappointed to find their texture much chewier and airier than their counterparts in the west. But after countless disappointments I have given up on baked goods in Asia entirely. These baguettes are vestiges from the French colonial past of Indochine. In Siem Reap I was able to fulfill my fantasy of riding a bike, with a basket, with a baguette!
The national dish of Cambodia: Amok- a coconut milk and fish curry dish- yummy but akin to most Malaysian food. What was more inspiring was the Loc Lac – A whole cow roasts over a spit- stuffed with aromatics (something you don’t see every day). Cubes of this scrumptious beef are served alongside lettuce, cucumbers, onions, and tomatoes with a dipping sauce made of lime juice and black pepper. Mmmm…beef.
Side note: One frustration of Southeast Asia: oppressive heat combined with conservative dress leads to a very sweaty existence. I still had to cover my legs and shoulders when entering temples. I hate to quote Lady Gaga, but come on- I was born this way- and I think that clothing should be for either a) cold weather or b) fashion. During my experience in Southeast Asia there has been a serious lack of both.
I left Cambodia for Thailand, yet another deeply spiritual and breathtakingly beautiful place, proud in its history and cultural heritage.
Bangkok: Sweltering and Hectic
Fasten your seatbelts. Oh- your tuk-tuk doesn’t have seatbelts? Well enjoy the wild ride that is Bangkok.
I met my sister, Leigh and her boyfriend, Glenn in Bangkok. It was so nice to see family, family who I haven’t seen since New Year’s. It was Leigh and Glenn’s first time to Asia. Thailand is the so-called land of smiles, but it is also the land of scams. I guess this is the white man’s burden. Thailand has been in this business so long; why not take advantage of those silly tourists? Perhaps Bangkok isn’t exactly the best place to ease one into travel in Asia, but they dealt with the cockroaches and sticky hotness quite well. One thing I have learned to say in Malay, panas babi gila (hot as a crazy pig), can easily be applied to Thailand. Yet, the Thai language is so incredibly foreign from anything I’ve ever experienced. The script’s loops and curves lend vocally to tonal sing-song sighs. Like the prego in Italy- which can mean anything as, the Thais seem to have a counterpart in the word kah. Women would point to their wares, to a chair, to the bathroom door with a whiney exhale of kah. As you walk down the street you can hear kahs here and there.
Tuk-tuk drivers hound passersbys and offer trips to see the infamous Patpong ‘ping pong’ show. Take one woman with unique skills in manipulating her body parts, one ping pong ball, and one epic red-light district and you get a room full of dirty men with their Thai Bhat ready and their chins dropped to the floor, indulging in what many people come to Thailand for- the booming sex tourism industry.
Thailand has been leader of Southeast Asia in the tourism business. But there are plenty of sights to see in Bangkok when the sun is out and the night crawlers of Patpong are asleep. Our trip to Bangkok, included these G-rated musts:
~Visiting the Royal Palace complex- gold, glittering, and grand
~Taking a boat ride through city canals on the River Taxi, which serves as an extension of Bangkok’s bustling public transportation system
~Getting a glorious Thai massage from the nation’s premier massage school at Wat Pho, which will leave you feeling rejuvenated, as all your aches have been rubbed or cracked out of your body
~Drinking super swanky cocktails above the Bangkok skyline, at the Banyon Tree Hotel’s 60th floor rooftop Vertigo Bar
~Shopping at the frenetic Chatuchak Weekend Market- the largest in Southeast Asia, with more than 8,000 open-air stalls- where you can find everything under the sun; my favorite being the boutique fashion steals and hipster deals
~Going on a food crawl through Bangkok’s sprawling and battered Chinatown- sitting on plastic chairs in narrow alleyways slurping up pork soup and Chinese-Thai curries
~Meandering through the Amulet Market- where street blocks are lined exclusively with small Buddhist charms, worn by Thai men and women alike
Bangkok lies at the intersection between Thailand’s past and future; between the venerable and the cutting-edge. Ancient temples and royal palaces stand beside upscale urban supermalls. You get the all the smells of New York on the hottest day of the year, but you also get the exotic cultural hub of Southeast Asia.
Lay Back in Chiang Mai
After a 14 hour overnight train ride through northern Thailand, a party in the dining cart, and multiple bottles of Singha and Chang beers, and “Red” wine, we arrived in Chiang Mai- a place to cool down, kick back, and soak in traditional Thai culture. The old quarter of Chiang Mai is walled within a square moat, inside narrow soi- alleys branch off the main roads, leading to tranquil guesthouses and secluded temples. The city has more than 300 temples! The mountain of Doi Suthep, home to northern Thailand’s holiest shrine rises over Chiang Mai. Monks wander, cloaked in robes of saffron, turmeric, and curry.
The city- which gives off more of a quaint small town feel – has a lot of shopping opportunities. Bangkok’s shopping seems junky compared to the craft markets of Chiang Mai, like the famous Sunday Walking Street. The national anthem rang out at the night market, and everyone stopped what they were doing to stand quietly and respectfully. The Thais have fierce pride of their nationhood.
My new found love for Thai massage continued in Chiang Mai where we had the experience of receiving a massage from a former female inmate. The Chiang Mai Women’s Prison Massage Centre trains prisoners in traditional Thai massage, providing them with real job skills for when they reintegrate into society.
At night we opt for a show- a Muay Thai (kickboxing) fight. Muay Thai is the vicious and entertaining national sport of Thailand. Young teenage boys circle the ring performing pre-fight rituals to honor the ancestor Muay Thai masters. The fight begins with the cry of traditional musical instruments, throws of knees to the face and heels to the chest. The fighters are small and compact as sweat pours from off their hard bodies.
During the day we went for a cooking class at Thai Farm Cooking School. We started out with a trip to the wet market to learn about Thai ingredient staples. On a little farm, well outside city walls, we spent the entire day learning how to make Thai culinary classics: yellow, red, and green curry, tom yam, coconut soup, papaya salad, spring rolls, pad Thai, mango and sticky rice, and bananas in coconut milk. Lemongrass, ginger root, and galangal leaves wafted through the open-air kitchens and I salivate remembering our all-day feast.
Chiang Mai serves as a base for excursions into the hills of northern Thailand: trips to hill tribe villages, trekking, extreme sports, elephant rides, etc. await the active traveler. I didn’t feel quite right about parading around an indigenous tribe’s village, taking photos of their National Geographic-staged way of life. But what I did want to see in Thailand: Elephants! The Elephant Nature Park is one of the only sanctuaries of its kind- part elephant preserve, health clinic, and advocacy organization for the humane treatment of our pachyderm friends. One woman has spent her life devoted to saving and rehabilitating elephants, which have been injured or abused by human hands. Although her nickname, Lek, means ‘small’ in Thai, her love for elephants is immeasurable. Visitors come to the sanctuary for the day to feed, bathe, and just hang-out with elephants and their babies surrounded by the 150 acres of rainforested hills and wide open pastures. We actually went into the river to wash the elephants. I even got an elephant kiss!
Cambodia and Thailand are magical places and I hope someday you can experience it all for yourself!