As I mentioned in my last post, I had no clear vision for what I would do in South East Asia – or even what the major ‘tourist attractions’ were within each of the countries. I knew Vietnam for its war, Cambodia from a Dead Kennedys song, and Thailand for its world-famous ladyboys. Today? I could tell you the best place to get a Vietnamese visa in under two hours, recommend coffee shops in Phnom Penh, and have seen enough breast implant scars on ladyboys to last a lifetime.
From the floating fishing villages of Ha Long Bay and the dangerously twisted mountain roads up to Da Lat, Vietnam is a country I both explored and survived while (illegally) commanding a 135cc Yamaha scooter across more than 750 miles of roads covered by potholes and overrun with locals and their suicidal driving tendencies. Using the sun to navigate countryside roads that cut through farms abundant in rich green rice patties, I became consumed by the sights of uninhabited white beaches in pristine condition and rural Vietnamese villages made colorful from the patchwork of rusty tin siding. One of my biggest regrets of the last nine months is that I viewed each day riding through Vietnam as the act of getting from ‘Point A to B’ and not as an act of exploration. I lost sight of the fact that I was in Vietnam for the journey, and not because of a destination.
Just as amazing as the country of Vietnam itself, were the people I met along the way in each of the Vietnamese cities I visited. I discovered a countless number of Vietnamese citizens who wanted to hear what I thought about their country, take me to karaoke, practice speaking English, and simply share a few beers.
My fellow travelers were just as fascinating – a Canadian couple honeymooning through South America and eventually up through South East Asia, a French-Vietnamese girl (or Vietnamese-French?) I met and drank with in Saigon as a result of her randomly finding this blog, a group of guys I continually ran into in Cambodia, Thailand, (and almost Australia), and the girl from California (that I traveled with for a month) I introduced to a guy from Chicago (who previously lived in Madison and was getting ready to start work at a Cambodian NGO I later visited) …who are both still dating as a result of the very simple question, “you guys want to party on this balcony tonight?” (A question that eventually led to a night of shenanigans culminating with a Russian man in his underwear yelling a group of hotel employees and backpackers – some still wearing underwear – to get out of the pool and be quiet.)
There are two Cambodias. One exists in the realm of reality and is home to 15 million people living in the shadow of a genocidal regime that systematically murdered more than two million people for crimes such as speaking a foreign language and wearing glasses. The other Cambodia is a fantasyland where tourists lie on the beach drinking 50 cent beers while complaining about the children incessantly selling bracelets for $1, or the uncomfortable beds in their $2 dorm rooms. Strange sentiments arise at the intersection of these two countries. As a tourist you feel an overwhelming sadness in the presence of children carrying babies and begging for money, but you’ll also have the opportunity to experience overwhelming inspiration through involvement with the multitude of organizations working to create a better Cambodia.
“Fantasyland” truly is the correct word to describe Cambodia. The gorgeous white beaches, purple sunrises, and pristine blue waters have to be seen to be believed, but the horrors of Pol-Pot, omnipresent poverty, and stories of child prostitution feel ripped straight out of a nightmare. Traveling through Cambodia, one of the stories I regularly heard was that the children selling bracelets and other trinkets would be transitioned into child prostitution as they got older, or if they simply weren’t selling enough. It sounded like a story designed to generate sympathy and donations – not one that could so savagely be true. Unfortunately, as CNN has reported recently, it appears all too true that children are being sold for weekend rape sessions.
As I think back on my time in Cambodia there are so many faint memories that all seem too ridiculous to be true. Did I really meet the 2009 World Series of Backgammon champion (an atheist Iranian living in Norway working as a taxi driver) and have a lengthy discussion with him about the legalization of drugs? (Yes!) Did I really share a beachside bungalow with a stranger from Montana while a thunderstorm raged so fiercely outside that our two windows and front door flapped like tree limbs in the wind while lightning flashed like strobe-lights at a techno show? (Absolutely!) What in the world was going in the noisy room next to me at the extremely shady $6 massage parlor I visited in Phnom Penh? (I probably don’t want to know…)
And then …Siem Reap. This city is a microcosm of Cambodia.
During the day you can roam the mystical temples of Angkor Wat and watch as they are slowly reclaimed by the Earth. Along the way through each of the temples, you’ll be greeted by children selling everything from water to fresh coconuts, and old women who will guide you around by hand before asking for a donation.
You can also spend your days donating time at one of the many organizations around town. I stopped by Feeding Dreams for a few hours one day, and in hindsight it feels like I shortchanged myself by not going back a many more.
During the evening you can imbibe in $1 beers, $3 fishbowls of sugarwater (and supposedly alcohol), and dance the night away in an Angkor Wat themed nightclub. If dancing to the pounding beats of Top-40 Dance hits until 3 AM isn’t your thing, there are a dozen other bars in town that are willing to accommodate your every need.
Thailand can only be described as the intersection of hedonism and religion. Only on Bangkok’s Khao San Road – a mere mile from the most sacred Buddhist temple in Thailand – can you rent hookers, eat scorpions, buy Viagra, or negotiate the price of watching a woman shoot ping-pong balls and darts out of her vagina without leaving the comfort of your favorite bar stool. On the island of Koh Tao, Sunset becomes a religious experience as the sky burns orange, red, and purple – while stars usher in an evening of fire dancers, laughing gas balloons, and the anticipation of drunkenly sharing the morning’s sunrise with another group of strangers. Achieve nirvana deep in the jungles of Koh Phangan to pulsating bass beats as a DJ rhythmically guides your mind and body toward enlightenment, or Experience modern-day Gomorrah as 20,000 backpackers make a monthly pilgrimage to the Full Moon Party and drink brimstone from plastic buckets before passing-out face first into the pillar of salt known as Haad Rin beach.
I loved every second of it.
During my 9 months of travel, I can look back on Thailand as the point when I started to embrace the ‘slow-life’ and learn to enjoy the mere act of sitting. From the mountains in the north to the islands in the south, Thailand is a place that can awaken a calming inner peace within anyone looking for a reason to find it. When presented with the thousands of Buddhist temples and countless island beaches of Thailand there will be no shortage of places to simply sit by yourself (with a book, headphones, emotions, or a blank piece of paper waiting to be filled) and reflect.
Along your way through Thailand you’ll experience the joys of a 12-hour train journey equipped with a squat-toilet, the misery of a hangover during 3-hour boat rides in choppy water across islands, and fearfully gripping a handle bar with ten other people as you’re all packed into the back of a pickup-truck that has been converted into a taxi. Perhaps you’ll be at a beachside bar when a fierce thunderstorm knocks out the power and everyone around you begins stripping and moves the party into the ocean. Certainly you’ll learn that all tables are dance floors, but will you use one for a pushup competition in the middle of a fancy restaurant? It’s at these exact moments when you realize the pure insanity of what it is you’re doing in Thailand. It’s at these moments when you realize – “I am alive!”
Even today as I type these very words, I still believe it’s a small miracle that I actually l left Koh Tao. (In truth, I was one day and a very serious 4AM conversation away from getting an apartment for two months and signing up for another 60 days of island life…) The island IS the most magical place on Earth, and reading what I wrote six months ago still brings me back:
…At this point happy hour beers have led to “Drink Specials” on buckets of alcohol. The most common of these are the 2-for-1 buckets of SangSom (Thai Whiskey) and Coke for 200 Baht – $6. Everybody around is a budget-conscious backpacker, so naturally these are seen as the most cost-efficient way to have a good time. Soon you realize it’s difficult to dance while carrying a bucket of mixed-drink without spilling it on yourself, but you’re on a beach and everyone is getting wet so it’s not a big deal. You continue dancing.
It’s 3am and ‘American Pie’ is being blasted over the speakers at the bar you’re at. Everyone is singing; nobody really knows the lyrics. It’s closing time but the night is just getting started. You’re enjoying the company of the people you’re dancing with, although there isn’t a chance in hell that you remember more than one of their names. It could be the buckets of alcohol, the fact that over the music “Lu” sounds like “Sue”, or the headache you’ve got from sucking one too many balloons of laughing gas. None of this matters though, the most important task at hand is finding somewhere else to go because the lights just turned on and the music was turned off. Someone mentions something about a pool bar that’s open late and you follow.
It turns out that “Pool Bar” is only half truth. There is a pool, and there is a bar – but there is no pool bar. You look across the pool and see a dozen people in the pool who are thoroughly enjoying the company of someone they met earlier in the night. In the other direction you see a group of six lady-boys enjoying drinks after finishing their last cabaret show of the night. You try not to get caught staring as two of them go to the bathroom and you anxiously watch to see which ones they use.
Eventually you may find a way to escape Koh Tao – to get off the island and continue your backpacking through Thailand. It will, without a doubt, be at a date later than you originally expected. When you finally leave you’ll think of returning. You’ll think of the Koh Tao Experience. You close your eyes:
The sky on fire. Faces illuminated by kerosine. Memories blurred by balloons of SangSom and buckets of laughing gas.