Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Heart-Wrenching History Lessons

Well, Mikaela and I took a bus, a train, a plane, then a tuk-tuk, but we finally made it to Phnom Penh, the capitol city of Cambodia. What a place! It's loud and hectic, with painfully obvious poverty, yet I can't help but love this country. Cambodian history is not pretty. They have been under colonial rule, subjected to American bombs and landmines(along with the rest of the countries we have visited), and then when the rest of SE Asia was finally able to start putting the pieces back together after the end of the war in Vietnam, Cambodia was experiencing its greatest tragedy: a civil war in which the country was overtaken by a crazy, blood-thirsty regime called the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge sought to rid the country of anyone even mildly associated with the previous regime (and their families), intellectuals and an upper class, and systematically exterminated everyone they thought fell into those categories. The whole of the nation suffered, as this meant no doctors, or medicine. Between intentional killings, food shortages and a lack of medical care, almost 1/4 of the country's population died. This is one of the many reasons it blows my mind that everyone we meet is wonderfully friendly, in spite of everything they have most likely had to endure. The tourist industry provides for many who would otherwise have no way to support their families. This makes for a lot of people in your face pushing tuk-tuk rides or tourist trinkets, and while overwhelming, I am made constantly aware that these are people working very hard just to get by. And the lack of bitterness at the hand they have been dealt, there are just no words. Obviously, I have seen poverty and witnessed people who are struggling over and over again on my journey through Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. But here, they fight tooth and nail for a job taking you across town for a couple of dollars. And they do it with a smile on their face. And if you reply, "No Thank-you" to their well-intentioned pleas, they respond by welcoming you to their country anyway. And all the while that you are experiencing this over and over again, you are in a beautiful country with extraordinary architecture and cuisine, both the native Khmer cuisine (somewhat similar to Thai) and western cuisine that has been heavily influenced by the French colonial rule. Combine this with the ever-present gentle breeze of warm, sultry night air, and how could anyone not love this country? Of course, our time in Phnom Penh was not just about good food and good times. While we did have our fun, we also could not avoid a visit to Tuol Sleng, or S-21, the Genocide Museum. What is now a museum began its history as a public high-school, before the Khmer Rouge turned it into a prison for the torture and execution of anyone they deemed worthy. What can I write about standing in a place where 20,000 people were subjected to tortures I cannot even begin to fathom, then sent to dig their own grave before death by blunt-force trauma in order to save bullets? What words are there to describe viewing the entry photographs of the children that died here, innocent smiles on their faces because they had no idea what lay in store for them? Needless to say, Mikaela and I left Phnom Penh for Siam Reap with heavy hearts.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Finding Nemo

I was apprehensive about leaving Ton Sai, we had had such a good time there that it seemed logical to stick around for as long as we could. But we headed over to Koh Lanta anyway, lured by the promise of amazing diving and the beaches of Koh Phi Phi. Koh Lanta delivered in spades. We stayed right on the beach in an amazing bungalow. The next day I went diving at Koh Haa, on possibly the most amazing dive I have ever been on. To be fair, my dive in Austrailia was almost 10 years ago(!) and it's possible I don't remember it as thoroughly, but I was absolutely ENCHANTED by Koh Haa. Perfect crystal waters, warm but not too hot, and an AMAZING diversity of marine life. It was like diving in the Pacific Coral Reef exhibit of the Seattle Aquarium. Large, colorful schools of fish, shoals of barracuda, sea cucumbers and starfish and corals carpeting the sea floor. So many different kinds of pufferfish, including the large porcupine pufferfish that curiously follow you around like a yellow spikey puppy. What I was really hoping to see was a whale shark, but I was almost to distracted by all the vibrant colors teeming around the reef to bother to gaze out into the distant murky blue for what might be swimming in its depths. Turns out, I did see a whale shark. While I was on the boat, eating lunch. Oh well. Someday, I will see one while diving, but at least I saw one with my own two eyes, even if I wasn't in the water while it showed up. The next day, Mikaela and I went on a snorkeling/beach tour around Koh Phi Phi. The beaches were absolutely as phenominal as the hype makes them out to be. The snorkelling paled a bit in comparision to Koh Haa, but was still decent. We went snorkelling in Monkey Bay, and stopped at the beach where we were immediately surrounded by a troop of monkeys! They came right up to us, in all honesty, I was more timid about the whole thing than they were! So our time in Koh Lanta paid off, and a bit sadly, we left for Cambodia. But we weren't to sad about it, Cambodia is an exciting prospect in itself!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Soaking Wet

After two night trains and part of a day in Bangkok, we arrived in Ko Phangan in the POURING rain, which continued for the entirety of our time there. Not too much fun. But we met some cool people and drank beer and had some late night pool parties in our beach front infinity pool, as the rain seemed to only subside well after dark. Eventually, the monsoon-like atmosphere proved to be too much, and we jumped ship for the Adaman Coast before our originally intended departure date. We missed the famous full moon party, but still had a great time under the moon nonetheless. November's full moon is when Thailand celebrates New Year, so we lit a candle on a boat made from leaves and flowers and sent it off into the ocean with our bad luck, along with everyone else at midnight. It is such a beautiful holiday. Ao Ton Sai is an amazing place. Everyone is laidback, both the travelers and the locals. The beach next door is one of the prettiest in Thailand, plus there is amazing kayaking and rock climbing, so we were well taken care of. We made some new friends on our first night, and hung out with them all week. We left today for Koh Lanta, where we are essentially staying right on the beach, another gorgeous one. Tommorrow I will go diving at Koh Haa and the day after, Mikaela and I will day trip to Koh Phi Phi for some snorkeling.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Yes We Can

The conclusion of my time in Chang Mai will live in my heart forever. I took an amazing cooking class and ate the best thai food, and I made it myself. I went trekking in the mountains surrounding Chang Mai and swam in waterfalls and rode an elephant. I met people resisting the urge to join modern society and instead holding on to unique and beautiful cultural traditions and ways of life. I met amazing people both from Thailand, living abroad in Thailand and just visiting Thailand like me. In every country we visit, Mikaela and I have paused to marvel over the very fact that what we are expiriencing here in Southeast Asia will live deep within us for the rest of our lives. I just never thought I would be so truly moved by America while so far away from it. In a bar in Chang Mai, we watched the election with what felt like every American in the city. In that morning, we met far more Americans than we had in total since starting our trip. At 9 am, we all showed up to watch the election on CNN and were immediately greeted with good news. Obama was way up, and we were waiting to see how Ohio and Florida would unfold. As everyone is well aware, we won them. The whole bar errupted in cheers again and again all morning. We were shouting and laughing and drinking and crying and celebrating. As Obama addressed the crowd in his speech, I was embarssed to realize I was crying, until I noticed that there were very few dry faces making up the room. "We are Americans!" we kept telling each other. And I knew without question that I would remember clearly that final morning in Chang Mai.