Open Water, Temples and After Dark Disappointment

...my brief and ipod parting experience in Vietnam, witnessing magic in Siem Riep, and things I wish I hadn't seen in Phuket...

So after a lovely few weeks in Cape town I flew over to Ho Chi Minh, however instead of flying directly from South Africa, to save quite a bit of money I decided to fly Cape town to Johannesburg to Istanbul to Toronto (with enough time to see my orthodontist and do laundry) then from Buffalo to Chicago to Tokyo to Bangkok (with a 14 hour layover) and finally to Ho Chi Minh… I have learned that from this point forward no amount of savings is worth a 6 day commute the wrong way around the world, it probably took about three days just to figure out what day it was- bonus though I think this one leg of my trip alone has accumulated enough air miles for a toaster… When I finally did I didn’t exactly have the most pleasant of stays in HCMC, while the food and pho at the markets was some of the best and cheapest noodle soup I have ever had, I was robbed, nothing bad happened, I was completely safe – I do give credit to the guy because he was on his motorbike and didn’t even slow down to grab my ipod out of my hand (I was checking directions to my hotel). So having had no sleep and losing all of my family photos that I travel with I decided perhaps that bitter wasn’t the best way to see Vietnam and planned to leave the following morning to Cambodia – though I do plan on returning to Vietnam at the next possible opportunity.

Cambodia is a country that has always been very high on my list to visit, and I was upset in 2007 when Angkor Wat got beat out by Corcavado for the seven world wonders, no worries I still wanted to come and see it and immerse myself into the culture. It is a very young country, having lost majority of its elderly and intellectuals thirty five years ago, talking to the locals you sense the optimism, hope and pride they have for their homeland and its promise in the future. The Khmer people are extremely hospitable, approachable and if you sit down with one of them their stories will both make your heart smile and eat you up inside. A country with a history both inspiring and depressing, an enchanting land where Angkor Wat, though beautiful comes bundled with trauma, poverty, corruption and deforestation The Khmer people have been to hell and back, and their story is both inspiring and depressing, but thankfully as a nation they have an unbreakable spirit and have prevailed through all of the poverty, trauma, corruption, genocide and dark years with an infectious optimism.

So for those of you who may not be too fluent with the history here. On April 17th 1975 Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge implemented a 3 year 8 month and 20 days regime of terror during which they had one of the
worst ethnic cleansings in the world through forced slavery, execution of any and all intellectuals and people who may have been a threat to the people in power.

My first stop in Cambodia was the capital of Phnom Penh where we got to see the Palace and Royal Gardens; however the highlight for me having studied history was the S-21 Museum and the Killing Fields. This next paragraph may be very history heavy so feel free to skip ahead, but my view is that the best way to prevent history to repeat itself is to make sure we know just how recent some atrocities are. So after touring the lovely gardens, palace and waterfront I went to Tuoi Sleng museum (S-21). This museum was originally Tuol Sway Prey High school located right in the middle of the city. After the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh, it was taken over by Pol Pot’s security forces and it was changed instead into a security prison (the twenty first one set up by the regime – for short it is referred to as s-21). The school from the outside looks like most elementary schools that we attended in North America, simple three story concrete buildings with an area for playgrounds and a courtyard. Once the forces took control the classrooms were quickly converted into individual torture chambers and stocked with various instruments and equipment to inflict pain, suffering and death to people of all ages and genders who posed a threat to the regime (even children were killed as the government wasafraid of political views being passed down through dna), most of the instruments and classrooms were left as they were found when the Vietnamese army liberated Phnom Penh in early 1979. When they entered s-21 there were only 7 prisoners alive all of whom had used their skills such as painting or photography to stay alive. Imitating and glorifying the Nazis, the Khmer rouge leaders were meticulous in keeping records of their barbarism and each prisoner who passed through s-21 was photographed. It was used as the largest incarceration centre in the country and the long corridors are hallways contain haunting photographs of the victims, their faces staring back eerily from the past.

From the city I proceeded to the killing fields of Choeung Ek about 18 km away. This is where most of the 17000 detainees that had been held at s-21 were executed. Prisoners were often beaten to death to avoid wasting precious bullets. It is hard to imagine the brutality that took place here when wandering through this peaceful, grassy former orchard. The mass graves which still spit out pieces of cloth or bone fragments after heavy rains and the memorial erected snaps you back to reality displaying most of the 8000 skulls of victims and their ragged cloths as they were found.

Wow very heavy, not sure I want to write more about that, sorry for the history lesson, that being said it was worth seeing despite emotional reactions to humankinds capabilities of expressing hate. From Phnom Penh, I continued inland to Siem Riep which showcases Angkor Wat, the ultimate expression and proof of Khmer genius. So in Siem Riep, despite the 2 – 3 million tourists that visit every year to take in the temples it is in one of Cambodia’s poorest provinces were children are taught to beg and sell souvenirs from the moment they can walk to help the tourists sympathise and part with their money. The city centre itself is your typical backpackers haven, with Pub St (very Bourbon St like) boasting all the watering holes and buckets any thirst quencher desires, it is cheap and you can get a fish pedicure for 2 dollars, a curry for 1 dollar and the world’s best massage for 6 dollars performed by a blind person (since the end of the war the government has taken blind people blinded by birth or land mines and has trained them to be masseuses so they can become financially independent of the government).

I spent about 6 days exploring the various temples associated withAngkor Wat. Seeing the beauty that is Angkor Thom, Bayon, Baphoun, Phimeanakas, Banteaysrei and a few others as I daily kept catching glimpses of Angkor Wat itself. Having seen the main 10 temples of interest I finally gave myself 3 full days to dedicate to Angkor Wat on its own and take over 1400 photos. Ahh Angkor Wat – the main purpose of my trip’s extension into Asia – it is the heart and soul of Cambodia and the largest religious structure in the world. It is the Khmers’ national symbol, the epicentre of their civilisation and a source of national pride.
Unlike other Angkor monuments, it was never abandoned to the elements and has been in virtually continuous use since it was built with the local population making sure it is kept clean and maintained throughout the centuries (sort of like Timbuktu). The temple was built by Suryavarman 2 between 1113-1140 who unified Cambodia and extended Khmer influence across much of mainland southeast Asia. He also set himself apart religiously from earlier kings by his devotion to the Hindu deity Vishnu to whom he consecrated the temple – built coincidentally around the same time as Notre Dame.
The structure itself was modeled to replicate the spatial universe in miniature. The central tower is Mt. Meru, with its surrounding smaller peaks, bounded in turn by continents (the lower courtyards) and the oceans (the moat). The naga serves as a symbolic rainbow bridge for humans to reach the abode of the gods from outside the moat. The moat itself is 190m wide and forms a giant rectangle measuring 1.5 km by 1.3 km and used to house crocodiles amongst other animals to help protect the temple’s security. It’s absolutely stunning and both sunrise and sunset there as the temple reflects its magnitude into the moat and ponds takes your breath away – you sit there surrounded by hundreds of people all in complete silence as this wonder humbles you and makes you realise just how beautiful moments in life can be. I went back to this temple about 6 times just to sit and stare, its enlightening in many ways, doesn’t provoke any life changing thoughts but sitting there puts the turmoil that are my thoughts into some sort of order that makes everything seem at peace.

Any who from Siem Riep I headed through Battambang to cross into Thailand and arrive into Bangkok for one night along Khao San Road for some authentic thai food and one last night of city and lights before boarding my vessel. Bangkok I only briefly spent time in and plan on returning in about a week for two nights of floating markets, puppy farms and shopping before heading home. I flew to Phuket the morning of the 20th to board a catamaran for a week. The catamaran is about a year old and houses 8 passengers as well as our skipper Frank (a German guy who is funny, sarcastic and an all round great guy) and our cook Pan (whom everybody proposed to as she is the best chef any of us have ever encountered – the extra 7 pounds I gained will attest to this fact). We sailed around the Andaman Sea stopping at places like Koh Ping Kan, Koh Yao N Toi, Poh Phi Phi, Bay Nai Harn, Koh Yao Yai and Koh Racha. The beauty about living, sleeping and eating on this catamaran is that we were able to anchor in beautiful inlets, snorkel in completely secluded beaches and hit the tourist destinations hours before the first ferries or long tails arrived. That and I got to sleep outside every night listening to the waves, smelling the sea water and staring at the moon – this was my utopia – put me near water and I am in my domain and what better part of the world to sail through then the Andaman where the water averages 27 degrees, the clarity is divine and the constant cruising allows you to give up wearing shoes for a week!

After a week of fattening up on the boat (its amazing how quickly the body will change when you are eating twice the amount and doing ZERO activity) I headed off with a friend of mine to Koh Phi Phi for four nights where we explored the island, went rock climbing (my forearms still hurt and I maybe climbed up 5 times), did some diving, some beaching and of course enjoyed all that Phi Phi Don had to offer. This is an island that I can see appeals to alot of people and is truly beautiful, but is much to overcrowded for my liking, everywhere you go you are being heckled for money, a massage, drinks or a tuk tuk – not really my idea of paradise (its basically Mexico with better food and slightly less people) but still an interesting experience. I think for myself it is still hard to adjust to the constant hustle and bustle of big cities (though phi phi is small) and dense populations after so many months through Africa.

But alas, I am here in Asia and after a few days in Phi Phi thought I was finally ready for the madness that is Phuket and Patong Beach. I have been here the last two days and am still not sure what to think of it. By day it’s beautiful, you have this beautiful sand beach along the coastline then followed by some of the best food I have ever had and shops to cater to your every need, whether it be a tailor, a massage, a toy helicopter, fried squid, starbucks (finally had a good latte) and cds dvds and electronics everywhere – this part of Patong – Bang La road, during the day. At night however, and this is solely my opinion, I am disgusted at what it becomes, I have always known that Thailand is famous for the sex industry and prostitution but I didn’t realise or prepare myself for how openly hedonic the culture is, it is disturbing to see young (like late teen early twenty) thai girls dressing like hookers and dancing on stages all to catch the attention of significantly older western males. I have never had issues with strip clubs, but this here is disgusting as most of the girls cant dance, are drugged up on something or other and are publicly disrespecting their bodies by allowing men not just to oogle them but to touch them in places that really should be left more intimate. We walked into one bar that from the main road looked like it was a good spot, good music, cheap cocktails lots of bodies, it was only on closer inspection that I realised it basically operates as a legal brothel, I walked in with a white male and with the exception of two other pairs of people every couple in there was a white male over the age of forty and a thai girl barely over twenty. Its sick and I know, different strokes for different folks, but if older men back home cant get love and have to resort to travelling across the world to shower girls with no English with gifts and money for attention then its likely that male deserves to be alone– I know its life and the way the world works here, and I know I cant change it but I can be vocal about my disapproval – not my cup of tea at all and likely a reason why I will never return here at night.

So on to happier things, I have just finished packing up my suitcase and am about to hop on a plane to Hong Kong for four days (random last minute plan) to continue my goal of doing the world’s highest bungee jumps. Tomorrow I will be free falling 233 m off of Macau Tower – hopefully it will clear my head.

Happy December everyone
Xx

Lil Miss Jumps of Stuff (planet)