I’ve come to understand that truths behind words such as family, love, happiness, home and freedom are all based on a feeling versus a tangible place or object. During our travels people ask me where is home and it always takes me a minute to respond. There are so many places that are home to me, from the mountains of East Tennessee where I grew up, to the Philippines where I spent my childhood, or Chiang Mai where we have called home for the past few months. This past week we spent it on the island of Koh Lanta. It’s always a surreal feeling when you see familiar faces in completely foreign place. Aaron’s childhood friend Patrick came to visit, and though it has been years since we’ve seen him, our conversations felt like it hasn’t skipped a beat. Last time we saw Patrick was in our college apartment, bonding over cheap 40’s while him and Aaron played video games. Today we are here watching the sunset on an island in Thailand, (still drinking cheap beer), and catching up. The way he chain smokes and laughs is like deja vu, and seeing him felt like he brought a piece of our other home to us. While here, we stayed with our friends who were our neighbors in the same zen compound we once called home in the fall of last year. They invited us down to the island to catch up, so we invited Patrick to join us and for the first time since we left home, we are with familiar faces in a completely different place. I can’t pin why it felt like home, maybe it’s the island vibe that we connect to, it could be reuniting with Patrick after all these years, or sharing a small space with close friends again. Home is such a beautiful feeling, and its what keeps us traveling. We have found our pieces of home, friends, love, and freedom sprinkled in different places all along our journey.
We consider ourselves slow travelers, only after a couple weeks in a place do we really feel that we begin to crack its shell. This is when we start to know the personality behind faces, the story behind the past, and know which dusty roads leads to surrounding villages. I write this during our revisit to Cambodia, as we walk to the sandy coastline of Kampot and as we board a tiny boat to the small island of Koh Tonsay. This charming island inhabited by only 7 families, had no electricity but rather generators that ran a few hours a day. No clocks or wifi and all the food consumed is the food caught from the sea and eaten from the land. No matter how slow we go, there’s something about island life that flows even slower, steadier, and in the most content pace. Our days here felt like a constant state of meditation. The walls of our huts were only halfway connected to its straw roof allowing the breeze to follows us indoors. When I hear noises in the night that move about on our roof, or right outside our thin layers of leafy walls, I clinch our sheets and wonder why us humans have found ways to separate ourselves so far from nature. Why do these noises from other inhabitants of this earth sound so alien to me? Have I gotten so used to the chaotic sounds of the city, that I fall fast asleep during honking horns and drunken rambles of the street, yet lie awake at night to sounds of night creatures? Every step of this journey has been a rewiring of balance. I realize this worlds vastness, as I look up I almost get dizzy with the starry display of an even bigger cosmic world that reflects on the serene ocean. As it washes ashore against my feet, smile as I reflect myself to be a dust-like particle in this vast space and I couldn’t feel any smaller.
There’s something about Cambodia that makes it stand way out among the other SE Asian countries we’ve visited so far. It’s something I’ll probably forever struggle with trying to put into words, but there’s a unique feeling I get here that I haven’t felt anywhere else. It’s a mixed feeling of nostalgia, mystery, enchantment, anger, sadness, sympathy… maybe it’s just my subconscious speaking of the country’s dark history, but even before I really learned about all that happened here, I knew this place was something special. It’s the kind of place that continuously triggers thoughts and evokes emotions.
During the Khmer Rouge era, people living in Cambodian cities were forced to evacuate their homes to become slaves in the countryside. The regime’s mission was to solely create a population that was made to work as laborers in one huge federation of collective farms. Anyone in opposition (this meant all intellectuals and educated people) must be eliminated, together with all non-communist aspects of traditional Cambodian society. So in 1975 the beautiful capital city of Phnom Pehn was completely deserted, leaving it to be the world’s largest ghost town. In the end nearly 3 million people or 1/3 of the country’s total population was killed.
In a strange way it almost seems as if time stopped here in the 1970s when all of this happened. Charmie and I visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former high school in Central Phnom Penh that was converted into a torture prison in 1975. Nearly 20,000 people were tortured here before being hauled to a killing field about 14km away. On display at the museum were hundreds of documented “mugshots” of the innocent prisoners held there. The faces I saw on the walls looked exactly like the people I see on the streets of Phnom Penh today. They appear to wear the same outfits, have the same haircuts, use the same expressions…. it honestly feels like the majority of people have not changed one bit from that time. It makes it seem like the mass genocide took place only yesterday. It’s as if the Cambodian people just went back to their old homes after the reign was over and acted as if nothing happened.
I look for emotions in the eyes of people I pass on the streets. When I see anyone that looks over the age of 50, I try to imagine the type of life they’ve lived….the terrible sounds and scenes they’ve witnessed. I think about the people close to them that were lost. When I pass someone around my age I wonder what their childhood was like. How did their parents raise them with that darkness still lingering?
You see corruption everywhere you look and you know it’s not stopping anytime soon. Entire families sleep on the sidewalks while policemen drive brand new Range Rovers. The roads leading to the capital city are ridiculous…large portions aren’t even paved. The people of Cambodia are continuing to be dealt a shit hand, but I think now they’re simply content with finally having a sense of peace and quiet. Finally not having to lock their doors in fear of who will come knocking.
I know I’m not the only passing tourist that wonders what this place would look like if the war never took place. This place is wild. The people are beautiful. I can safely say Cambodia has been my favorite stop of the journey so far.
This past Saturday we spent it on the busy streets of Chiang Mai for their annual flower festival. Exotic flowers and traditional music filled the streets as beautiful traditionally adorned Thai locals showcased their culture. When we first heard about it, we were told it started at 8AM, so being the night owls that we are this was a challenge to be up and fight a crowd. Funny thing is, it didn’t start until after 5PM! haha We’ve gotten used to the relaxed concept of time around here, so we didn’t mind at all. We spent most of the day temple hopping, sipping smoothies, and finding new discoveries in our own neighborhood. At sundown, the exotic blooms made its way down the streets of Tha Pae. The parade was a beautiful representation of their vibrant culture through people, through artsy floats, music, and yes, their beautiful ethnic threads!
This is the longest we’ve sat still in the past year and we’ve gotten to know the four walls of our apartment very well these few months. We love how the sun shines in through all our open windows and the noisy street noises remind us of the chaos that sits right outside of our balcony. We had found our groove, found our work and life routine, and even made some neighborhood friends. And then it hits us. We’re antsy to leave, antsy to pack and ready to hit the road, the sky or the sea. Not that Thailand is any less exciting since we got here, but our cameras has had time to collect some dust, and blank pages of our journals are still left blank awaiting more stories to be told. Wanderlust, you fickle thing. It’s time to go once more, so we booked a train and it’s leaving Tuesday.
The month we spent in Cambodia, we spent some time visiting Aaron’s cousin in Battambang. Cambodia’s 2nd largest city, yet small enough where everyone seemed to know everyone. Tourism can really change a place and we were happy to see the lack there of in Battambang felt as if we were seeing it in it’s essence. We were enchanted by the feeling as if we have stepped back in time. Old French buildings still standing amongst dusty roads, small outdoor markets and with a short ride up to the mountain you can view the entire city. With each trip we always try to see something new, but Cambodia intrigued us so much we’re planning another visit in a couple weeks!
Misty mornings by the boat dock
Small villages amongst breathtaking mountain landscapes of Laos
Incredible layers of mountainsides made for a scenic ride
A temple within a cave
Through film: Temples along the river
Through film: At the boat dock
Through film: Monks accompanied our long boat ride. It was interesting to see them meditating while on the boat!
Through film: Temp rooftops over the Mekong
Sundown on the Mekong
One of the biggest realizations we’ve had on the road is the reality of being rich with time. All of a sudden I am happily hand washing our clothes, when it used to be such a chore sticking them in the washing machine and pressing a button. It’s an incredible feeling to get up early, to listen to bird songs, watch the sunrise and write in my journal. Quite a contrast to the days where I’m frantically running out the door and listening to beating horns of early morning traffic. Now I slowly sip my coffee throughout the day for the aroma and bold flavors, not to “have to get through the day”. The more I see different walks of life, the more I realize that the unmarked paths are there for you to create your own. Knowing that has been such a freeing feeling, and I don’t think it’s anything I would have understood without seeing it for myself.
We decided to take a “slow’ trip to Laos. We had nowhere we had to be at any time and creating an itinerary just seemed unnecessary. The slow boat took two days slowly riding the current of the Mekong river. There’s something so therapeutic about sitting still for hours as the wind blows your hair, and views of the majestic mountain regions of Laos pass by. We live in such an “instant’ society where you’re expected to do more with less time. We can answer 10 emails in one hour, but it’s hard to establish any true connections that way. It’s getting harder and harder to sit still, because it’s seen as lazy or unproductive but reflection is imperative in clearing your mind and centering your priorities.
As the sun started set, the boat came to stop at a small riverside village for you to sleep and find some local food. We came with no expectations therefore everything became a discovery. Some good, some so-so. I’ll have to save our story of when we played pin the tail on the map of Laos and ended up in a village where we felt stranded. Or that guesthouse where all you could smell was cat pee. We laugh about it every time, and can honestly say these moments color our travels.
Our first 30 days in Thailand were about to expire so we planned to take a trip across the border into what many now refer to as the “Wild Wild West of Southeast Asia”, Cambodia. I can’t even begin to express how much I loved our time there (i’ll save for another post), but I do strongly encourage anyone who is in this part of the world to be sure and pay a visit to this beautiful kingdom.
Getting from Chiang Mai to Siem Reap is a fairly cheap and inexpensive trip. Although there aren’t currently any buses running directly to Cambodia from Chiang Mai, there is a new government-ran bus serving connecting Bangkok to Siem Reap. I found a lot of good information on various posts/forums sprinkled throughout the interwebs, but I wanted to compile a quick run-down of how we got from Chiang Mai > Bangkok > Siem Reap all in one post.
Chiang Mai to Bangkok
In Chiang Mai we purchased an overnight VIP bus ticket to Bangkok from the Arcade Bus Station, located 3 or 4 kilometers east of the old city. There are several travel offices located around the old city, but don’t fall for their dirty tricks. Most charge double the rate you would get as opposed to going to the bus station in person and booking yourself. Chiang Mai is such a small town, getting to the bus station is well worth the extra time and effort. When you arrive to the station, you’ll immediately be blown away by all the Thai women yelling at you from their little ticket booth windows. Have no fear, they’re shouting because ticket prices are not a flat price and will vary slightly from agency to agency — so be sure to shop around to work the best deal. We ended up booking a super comfortable double-decker VIP for 550 baht each. And when I say “VIP” I mean VIP! Each seat had its own LCD monitor with a great selection of movies to choose from, they all reclined waaaay back and had an electronic massage function built in! Needless to say we both fell asleep very easily and woke up 9-10 hours later in Bangkok.
Get your ticket before leaving Mo Chit! You’ll arrive to the Mo Chit bus terminal in Bangkok, and this is also where you can purchase your ticket for a direct bus ticket from Bangkok to Siem Reap through Transport Co Ltd Bus at booth 22. As of September 10, 2013, the agent at the ticket counter confirmed that there is only one bus each day, and it leaves at 9:00 am. So plan on staying at least one night in Bangkok after reserving your ticket for the following day. The tickets can be purchased from booth 22 on the ground floor, for 750 baht ($25 USD) each.
Bangkok to Siem Reap
We only stayed one night in Bangkok. I booked a dorm room at the WE Bangkok Hostel because it was the most affordable option that was located within walking distance of the BTS (Bangkok’s Skytrain) line. Staying near the BTS made it super easy to get to the Mo Chit station the next morning without having to fight rush hour traffic jams. From BTS Mo Chit station catch the 11 bus to take you to the terminal.
This direct Bangkok to Siem Reap line opened in February 2013, so a fairly new luxury. In the past, you would need to change to another bus service (Cambodian run company) at the border. With this direct route, however, you will be traveling on the same bus and with the same driver and staff the whole route. From Bangkok you’ll drive to the border where the bus stops for about 20 minutes for passengers to arrange their Cambodian visa. They also provide a small boxed lunch to snack on throughout this stop. From here, the bus will drive you a little further to the Thai immigration office. The bus will drop you off here and you’ll walk through Thai immigration to get your departure stamp. You’ll then walk to the Cambodian side to get your arrival stamp and the bus will be waiting for you on the Cambodian side. Welcome to Cambodia! It was another 2-3 hour ride from the border to Siem Reap. Enjoy the bumpy ride along the beautiful countryside. Can’t wait to make this trek again. 🙂