Tag Archives: Cambodia

Breaking up with Asia

Well here it is, the end. I’ve procrastinated writing this post for a few reasons. 1) because one of my most unfortunate qualities is that I have procrastinated everything my entire life 2) because this post marks the definitive end of my adventures across Asia, a fact that I have been woefully ignoring 3) because I feel an overwhelming need to justify my 5 month experience in one final post, a task which I am completely incapable of. That being said, here we go!

Before I get too deep (yeah, we’re getting deep today friends), let me tell you about my final week in Asia! I think I use this particular adjective too much, and it’s a loaded word, but here I go again- my last week in Asia was perfect. Just like the rest of my adventure- inspiring, chaotic, overwhelming, fun, humbling, flawed, spontaneous, easy, difficult, beautiful…. perfect! I have always been a perfectionist (yuck.), but this word now has new life for me. I used to think perfection meant I had to be good at everything- but that’s BS. Perfection is not at all the absence of fault, my adventure had plenty of faults (none of which I regret); but rather the ability to embrace the bad and the good equally, recognizing that one could not be without the other. Too much good is- boring, unfulfilling, annoying. Too much bad is- depressing and useless. In the right amounts, a natural balance of the two is- perfect. Alright now that we got that tangent out of the way (do I have ADD?), let’s get back to Cambodia.

One thing I would like to share about Phnom Penh is the horrific history of the Khmer Rouge and their deadly regime. For those of you who don’t know, the Khmer Rouge (led by dictator Pol Pot) took forceful control of the country in the 1970s. They spent three years in power, during which time more than 25% of the population was ruthlessly murdered by the government. What a disgusting statistic. Imagine if your government just wiped out a quarter of your population, one of every four of your friends is now dead. These innocent people were beaten, starved, and worked to death. No one was spared. The educated, successful, ambitious, intellectual, and creative citizens of the country were sought out and arrested. They were tortured for months before eventually being executed. The more poverty stricken part of the population, who weren’t thrown in jail, were put to work 12 hours a day to increase the government’s profits on exports. Since they were busy selling all that was produced, there was literally not enough food left in Cambodia to feed the people. Even the people that worked for the Khmer Rouge were at risk of sudden execution. Anyone could be killed at anytime for any reason. My friend Helene and I spent an entire day at both the killing fields and the infamous s-21 prison while in Phnom Penh. It was the kind of day that leaves a lump in your throat and a knot in your heart. The amount of human suffering that occurred during this time in Cambodia is almost incomprehensible. An entire generation of intelligence and leadership was taken from the Cambodian people. To put the ruthlessness in perspective for you, of the 17,000 people that were arrested at s-21 prison (one of countless such prisons in cambodia), 7 made it out alive. If you ever have the chance to get to Phnom Penh, I implore to spend a difficult day learning about the heartbreaking history of the Cambodian people. It will likely leave you shaken, but also with a renewed desire to spread more good in the world.

A cell block inside the S-21 prison
A cell block inside the S-21 prison
All prisoners of the Khmer Rouge were photographed upon their arrest, here are a few of the innocent faces
All prisoners of the Khmer Rouge were photographed upon their arrest, here are a few of the innocent faces
A tribute to the lives lost at the killing fields. Many victims remains are still found around Cambodia today.
A tribute to the lives lost at the killing fields. Many victims remains are still found around Cambodia today.

After Phnom Penh, we left for Siem Reap to experience another important (and more impressive) part of Cambodian history at the temples of Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is a stunning complex of ruins from the Angkorian Empire that ruled much of Asia during the 14th century. We spent 3 days exploring these beautiful and mystifying structures with some new friends from Phnom Penh. Together we were a group of 6- from USA, Denmark, Australia, Scotland, and Holland. We hired a tuk tuk driver to take us around for our sightseeing excursions and really had an amazing time exploring this breathtaking place. The place truly has an air of magic that is palpable to its visitors. You could really spend hours wandering each temple. I would definitely say it should be considered one of the top sights in the world. You should absolutely make it a priority to get here in your lifetime. In our time outside of Angkor Wat, we enjoyed the creature comforts of Siem Reap. Siem Reap is the city closest to the temples and as a result has grown in size and activity as the number of tourists has increased. Although it lacks the true Cambodian character, it is a fun town with great restaurants and lots of energy. We happened to be here on the weekend, so we were able to take advantage of all the excitement that the very entertaining ‘Pub street’ had to offer. Pub street closes its block to cars when the sun sets every night and turns its music up as the other bars close their doors. What results is an international dance party in the middle of the street that continues until the sun comes up. I never made it that far, but it was good fun anyway. After taking full advantage of our last Cambodian destination, it was time for my final visit to Bangkok. An ironic place to end my trip, considering 7 years ago it was the city that started it all! In 2006, I spent 5 weeks volunteering in Bangkok. Thus beginning my love affair with Asia, and eventually leading to my desire to return to this part of the world! Anyway, because I can’t seem to leave anywhere on time, I obviously changed my flight and much to my mother’s disappointment bought myself an extra day in Asia. I realize, I have an Asia problem. Oh well. In the end, I did board my flight and reluctantly said goodbye to my asian adventures.

Exploring the temple complex by tuk tuk!
Exploring the temple complex by tuk tuk!
Ornate Angkorian architecture
Ornate Angkorian architecture
Exploring with friends ( thanks Pete Williams for the photo!)
Exploring with friends ( thanks Pete Williams for the photo!)
Angkor at sunrise
Angkor at sunrise
Missing Cambodian nights out with my travel buddy
Missing Cambodian nights out with my travel buddy

So, here it is- this is where I say goodbye. Now I won’t promise I’ll never write again, because I kind of like this blogging thing. But at least, this is where I close the chapter on the last 5 months of my life. Some of the best 5 months of my life. For obvious and less obvious reasons, it’s a hard chapter to close. The best way I can think to relate it to you is that it’s like mourning a break up. Breaking up always sucks and it just takes a while to get over it. Although in the end the break up may have been for the best, it’s still requires adjustment and figuring out how start your new days with a positive attitude. Some moments, I want to burst into tears I miss traveling so much, other times I am so excited for everything that is next to come. Essentially, I spent the last 5 months in a relationship with myself.  I realize this is incredibly selfish and a completely unsustainable way to live, but for 5 months it was beautiful. Ultimately I cared only about myself every single day. I gave myself what I wanted and what I needed, without giving much to anybody else. I put all my energy into looking after me and I am so grateful for that experience. During this relationship, I took myself on a lot of really awesome dates across the world. Now, I will go back to Utah where I will spend the majority of my energy giving to my patients, my boyfriend, my family, and my friends. Don’t get me wrong, I love all four of those things immensely and it brings me much happiness to give to these incredible people. But the last 5 months reminded me that we have to spend an equal amount of energy loving ourselves. After all, your relationship with yourself is the longest relationship you will ever have, might as well commit to making it work. While mourning my breakup, I will learn to find a balance between caring for myself and caring for others. Often, we forget that this is an essential part of a good life. I encourage you all to nurture your relationship with yourselves. Some of you may disagree, but I think we all deserve 5 months of selfishness at some point in our lives. I now know myself better than I ever have before and in turn, am able to give more of my ‘whole self’ to the people around me. The last 5 months have given me so much happiness in my heart, I have even more to share with others. So my advice- be selfish, take care of yourself first. It will make you a better person. To my friends, apologies in advance that I might be the really annoying girl who won’t stop talking about her ex for months to come. What can I say, Asia has my heart.

Now I’ve just realized I lied to you all. This isn’t my goodbye. I have a lot more to say and I guess I don’t shut up easily. My family and coworkers will definitely vouch for me on that one. So now that you understand my separation anxiety from Asia, I will share more next time on the adventure itself. Asia is a gold mine and I want to tell you all the secrets. At this moment, I am still playing tourist and en route from NYC to Philly. I will travel the northeast USA for the next 3 weeks before finally returning to Salt Lake City. The adventures continue…

Tuk tuk lady

That’s my Cambodian name. Everywhere I go, I am greeted by eager (read: desperate) waves and happy ‘tuk tuk lady’ greetings. (For those of you who haven’t been to Asia- a tuk tuk is the motorcycle-pick up hybrid used for a taxi.) Every man in Cambodia with a set of wheels knows my nickname and I can’t actually walk more than half a block without attracting masses of tuk tuk lady fans. It’s like being a celebrity, except that no one wants my photo just my money. Okay so maybe it’s not like being a celebrity. But still, being the tuk tuk lady gives you instafame in Cambodia and even with a tan, I am still not successfully able to hide my identity behind a pair of sunglasses. I am recognized everywhere. Angelina, I feel ya. No okay so I’ll stop making myself sound importnant because in reality, I am not unique. All foreign women are known around here as tuk tuk ladies. I imagine it began as a proper question with infliction and everything- intended to be read as ‘tuk tuk, lady?’. These days the concern for proper english grammar escapes the tuk tuk drivers and the phrase has instead turned into a nickname that lovingly refers to us chicks as oversized motorcycle-cars, capable of carrying 6 passengers in our bellies. “HEEEEY, TUK TUK LADY!!!!” But really, everyone should get to Cambodia at least once- just to experience the prestige of being the elusive, but highly sought after tuk tuk lady. Well when I put it that way, I guess it’s more like being a rare bird. Finally someone sees me for what I am!! 😉

So, what haven’t I been up to since arriving in Cambodia! Aside from an abundance of tuk tuk ladies, this country is also full so many other good things. After our harrowing crossing of the border from Vietnam (just kidding. Even though I was mentally prepared for disaster, it was the easiest thing I’ve done in Asia.), our first stop was Kep. Kep is a small fishing town with not much going on except for seafood and sunsets. Not a bad thing after having spent the previous week inhaling the toxic fumes of Saigon’s very polluted air. In Kep, I reunited with my very lovely norwegian friend Helena whom I met at a yoga class in Sri Lanka. We will travel Cambodia together before going our separate ways in Bangkok next week. (AH Bangkok next week- tear.) After just two nights in Kep, we made our way to dusty little Kampot where we spent just one night as a layover on our way to the very south. For such a small, random town, Kampot has a surprisingly large expat community and I swear there must be something in the water. I know of more than one female backpacker who has decided to make Kampot their home, in the name of Cambodian love. Kampot moms- you raise good sons, well done. In Kampot, Helena and I rented bikes for the day and explored the backroads of the nearby villages. This was my first taste of real Cambodian life and we had a beautiful day getting lost with the locals. Also I just have to give another shout out to Kampot chefs- thanks for the BEST omelet I’ve had in Asia. If you ever find yourself in this charming little town, go spend an afternoon or a day at Cafe Espresso and order everything on the menu. Cambodia is the first Asian country I’ve been to that serves real cheese and I am now in culinary heaven. Merci beaucoup, French colonization!

Helena, enjoying everything in cafe espresso
Helena, enjoying everything in cafe espresso
Adorable girls on our adventure in the villages!
Adorable girls on our adventure in the villages!
Sunsets in Kep
Sunsets in Kep

Next, we were off to Sihanoukville for some serious beach bumming. On the way Sihanoukville, I found out that Cambodians seriously know how to pack em in (like, as a country, they would probably kick ass at Tetris) and have a commendable ability to get their money’s worth. We were at least 20 in what I can only assume was a 12 person van. Every time we thought we were full, there was another traveler squeezing their bum into a seat I didn’t know existed. Our bags were roped to the trunk in some sort of impressive spider web fashion, and even though I had my doubts (cars have trunk doors that shut for a reason) all of the bags arrived in Sihanoukville. We even passed a van that had gotten really efficient and turned the exploding bag mess into extra seats behind the van. So people were actually sitting on floating bags that weren’t even inside the van, Cambodians really know how to tie a rope. Anyway I spent the trip to Sihanoukville with a fortunately petite and kind Canadian girl on my lap. After 2 hours of awkward spooning and sharing equal frustration over our unfortunately large bums, how could we not be friends? So Helena and I, with our new friends Jesse and Cole arrived in Sihanoukville and wandered off to Otres beach to find our very own beachside bungalow. Sihanoukville is itself a city, which is then divided into several different beaches; with the most popular being Serendipity beach. Thanks to the masses of tourists, it’s not so serendipitous anymore and fortunately some girls I met in Vietnam had recommended Otres. Otres is the free spirited hippy sister of the somewhat skanky, definitely boozy but very popular Serendipity. So we settled for a wooden shack with just enough room for 2 beds and fully equipped with mosquito nets and fans. That’s all you need when you pay $6 a night and can roll out of bed to the beach. After 3 days here we were then easily convinced to join our Canadian friends for a few days on a mostly deserted island called koh rong.

Fresh coconuts and warm waves, life is good on Otres!
Fresh coconuts and warm waves, life is good on Otres!
Snorkeling off Sihanoukville
Snorkeling off Sihanoukville

The only way I can capture our arrival off the ferry on to the white sands of koh rong is by comparing it to the very cliche scene from Leo DeCaprio’s ‘The Beach’. Not even kidding, that’s how we felt. This is a hidden paradise and definitely had to consider if I really wanted to share the secret with you all. You’re welcome. As you get near to the pier, it becomes quickly obvious how pristine this island is. Minutes later, you find yourself with your feet sinking into the silky white sand surrounded by happy beautiful young people swimming, dancing, and playing to groovy music while enjoying their sunset cocktails next to turquoise blue water and palm trees. It really is too picture perfect and if it sounds like I am describing something directly out of your dreams, it’s because I probably am. Koh Rong is the beautiful beachy heaven of young travelers. The street is nothing more than a beach and the hotel rooms resemble the treehouses we had in our backyards as kids. The locals are friendly, the food is delicious, the beaches are deserted, and the cocktails are endless. It is not yet marred by any resorts and the majority of the ’employees’ at these bar-guesthouses are fellow backpackers who’ve decided to stay put for a month, entertaining the short time vacationers in exchange for room and board. Not a bad deal. You won’t find any families here and certainly no one that is looking for a high level of customer service, also hopefully you don’t mind rats. After a few days, Helena and I had to drag ourselves away from this hotel California-esque paradise before we got sucked in forever. Anyway- go there, before it becomes the next Thailand. And take me with you.

Arriving in our beach bliss!
Arriving in our beach bliss!
Sunset cocktails
Sunset cocktails
HEAVEN
HEAVEN

So, next we were off to Phnom Penh; the rapidly growing capitol of Cambodia. In a nutshell, Phnom Penh sucked us in and then spit us back out. But it was a blast and I would go back in a heartbeat. We got an unfortunately unpleasant welcome to the city after arriving at almost midnight and going out for a short walk to find a drink. Given that we had no map and definitely no bearings, this turned out to be an expensive walk when a few minutes later I found myself standing jaw-dropped without a purse. Yup, fell victim to my first Asian scam theft (jury is still out on who was responsible for the missing iPhone). Anyway, we realized after that these 2 guys on a motorbike must have been stalking around behind us for a little while, waiting for their chance. My purse was a tiny thing that I really didn’t even think was noticeable from the street. And like a responsible traveler, I had my bag facing the inside of the sidewalk and the strap across my chest. These guys have SKILL. I thought he was just a terrible motorcycle driver and wasn’t looking where he was going. Then my bag was gone and so was the motorbike. It was like magic. All I have to say to you motorbike thief- karma’s a b*tch. He only made off with $40, my southwest card (pretty sure that’s not gonna help you out in Cambodia, buddy), a room key, and my Burt’s bees. Overall I’ll cut my losses and consider it a win. I used to carry around my passport and all of my bank cards like a big dummy. Phew. So- I got over it quickly and we had a really good time in Phnom Penh. Our next days consisted of mostly wanderings around chaotic Phnom Penh- lots of really good food and unique shopping, with plenty of spontaneous local experiences. Our nights consisted of new friends, too many cocktails, and an excessive amount of dancing. I have definitely not been a regular participant in the Asian nightlife scene, but I’m pretty sure Phnom Penh has got it going on. Between generous happy hours, a myriad of rooftop bars, and what naive me considers a raging club scene- it was really good times. Also it should be said that nowhere else in the world exists such an eclectic crowd of booty shakers- I’m talking broke backpackers in dirty clothes, flawless lady boys, weekend warriors on short holidays from Europe, rich old creeps, Cambodia’s elite, and petite ladies in more petite dresses looking for rich old creep love. Interesting. My liver hurts just thinking about our revelry. It’s my last week in Asia, might as well go out with a bang yeah?

Being a fake foodie and enjoying delicious organic food in Phnom Penh :)
Being a fake foodie and enjoying delicious organic food in Phnom Penh 🙂
Phnom Penh market
Phnom Penh market
Phnom Penh from above
Phnom Penh from above

Now, after barely making our minivan (apparently, on 3 hours of sleep, you don’t hear a 7am alarm clock) to Siem Reap, we have arrived at our final Cambodian destination! I will post again soon because I still have much to stay about the Khmer Rouge regime and my heart aching experience at the killing fields and the notorious S21 prison. But that’s heavy and i’ll save it for another time. I will be in Siem Reap until Monday or Tuesday, exploring the famous temples of Angkor Wat and soaking in all the Asian culture I can get. I’m not ready to leave.