For 3 weeks I traveled around Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. I tried to push myself to see as much as I could and experience as many things as possible. I ate every manner of worms, larva, grasshoppers, frogs and even two scorpions. There was 3 different times I got sick, even though for most of the trip I was taking antibiotics. Few of the places I stayed had any amenities like hot water, a flushing toilet or even toilet paper. I was constantly uncomfortable, traveling on the back of motorcycles, in school buses with wooden floors, in Tuk-tuks, taxis and trains. A poisonous snake attacked me while I was trekking in the jungle and I got stuck in a hailstorm where the hail was the size of golf balls. Through all the discomfort, confusion and unpleasantness I managed to create a truly unique experience, which was my own. I will carry these memories and experiences with me to the grave. This document is intended to inspire others to get out in the world and travel, and get more of the same kind of experiences. Leave the comfort of your feather bed and your espresso maker. Get out in the world and see what it’s all about.
Koh Chang and Koh Samet in Thailand were two islands that reminded me of some kind of bizarre theme park for over-privileged foreigners. Everywhere you look there is an overweight white person with sunglasses tooling around with a very young asian woman on the back. These women look like some kind of weird accessory that comes with the bike when you rent it for a few dollars extra. Prostitutes in Thailand act more like girlfriends for hire than real hookers. They seem to be everywhere you look, including the men who are ‘altered’ to look like women. Everywhere you go, they are trying to get you to let them give you a ‘massage’ for the ridiculously low price of about $2.50/hr. Although I don’t think too much about kayaking over a 40 ft waterfall that no one has never run, I think it’s a little too risky HIV-wise to indulge in that kind of recreation. There are obviously hordes of foreigners that feel differently than I do, and that’s fine too. These islands are more like Disneyland than third-world countries and the sunburned tourists all wander around looking for something, anything, to spend their money on. In some ways it’s the same thing as the American Strip Malls with a slightly different setting. The Thais are all to happy to oblige these lost tourists and it seems like anything the modern monkey-man could possibly ever want is only about 3 steps away.
The coconuts make a very loud thump as they fall 70 feet from the trees and land on the ground. I wonder how many tourists die ever year by getting whacked by a falling coconut. They fall without warning and instill fear into my pale little white boy heart. I met a woman on the beach and fell in love. Her name was Gonja and she was from Turkey. It was good to get the falling in love thing out-of-the-way early because then I felt like I could get past it quickly and move on to other endeavors like seeing what I came to see. The day was perfect and we spend it on the beach, making mazes in the sand and racing hermit crabs. I taught her English and she taught me how to be a kid again. She was perfect in everyway, like all women that I meet are. I buried her in the sand and then dug little holes in the sand and dropped hermet crabs in the holes to make her squirm.
We walked along the beach at night and chased the sand dollars. We fought with our sneakers on our hands and covered each other head to toe in mud. It was a perfect day, by far the best day that I had traveling. The next few days she was sick and seemed less interested in spending time with me and more interested in sleeping. I explored the whole island by motorbike and brought her back strange and wonderful gifts in the evenings. Nothing sexual happened with her, but it was so nice to have someone to be with, someone to share some memories with. Even if I never see her again I will still always have those memories. The last day we were together we went into the mountains to ride the elephants. We both had mad fun and the next morning I left.
The gas stations in Thailand are large 55 gallon drums with small hand cranks that you turn to fill up a glass container at the top. You pump however much gas you want into the top then you drain the gas out of the pump and into the scooter. They also pre-fill large 20 gallon containers so if you want the gas quick they don’t have to stand there for 5 minutes cranking the handle and instead can just siphon it right into your tank. They also fill up coke cans with gas and sell those. The coke cans make the gas look so good you could almost drink it. Those pretty red bottles make any poison look good.
In Koh Change I went to use the rest facility of the nicest restaurant/hotel I could find. While I was sitting on the John I saw the biggest cockroach I’ve ever seen in my life running around. The sucker was over 4” long. I took pictures of him scurrying around the walls, then I squashed him with my shoe and took one last picture of him. The whole time I stayed in places that were like $1-3 US a night and I never saw a roach and yet in this >$100/night place there was the biggest roach I had ever seen. Sucker was fast too.
I was hiking up a waterfall in the middle of the jungle when I heard a rustling to my left. Looking over I saw a huge snake that was over 6 feet long. It was brown and green and was coiled up to strike and was looking me right in the eye. I stood there for a second looking at him and my world froze. I could not move and I knew if I tried to move he would attack. Suddenly he attacked and in slow motion I whacked him in the head with my day-bag. He sat there dazed looking at me like “No one has ever done THAT to me before”, then he slowly slithered away. Checking later with the owner of the bungalow’s I found out that the snake was indeed poisonous. Lucky me. I may be unlucky in love, but I sure am lucky with snakes.
The jungle elephant rides were very fun and very cheap, about $8 for 40 minutes. I loved riding on the elephant’s neck. I was very happy and at the end I was very sad. I cried as I thought about the elephants and what big and beautiful creatures they were and how gentle and sweet they were. There was a baby elephant chained up alone over by my bungalow. When I approached him he charged me and hit me with his truck. At first I was very surprised and kind of hurt, but then I realized how unhappy this baby elephant must have been to be separated from his mother at such an early age and chained up in the middle of nowhere. I fed him some leaves before his owner showed up and shooed me away.
In Thailand the roads are perfect, huge superhighways with 8 lanes and not a pothole in sight. A startling contrast to Cambodia where there are no roads, only dirt paths with potholes so big you could fit a car inside them. So if you can park your car in it and not see it is it still considered a pothole? When does it become a temporary car wind shelter instead? The bus broke down on the way to Siem Reap. An 8 hour trip quickly became a 20 hour trip. When we stopped I enjoyed playing with the local children. The village children were very sweet and a lot of fun. I chased them around for hours playing games. I talked to over 5 different people later and found out that every bus that travels the stretch from Poi Pei to Siem Reap breaks down. Must be part of the tour. That way when they get to town very late and arrive at the guesthouse that is owned by the bus company you are so tired you just take whatever room they have and don’t ask any questions or look for another place to stay.
Cambodia was a hard country to travel in. Everywhere you look you see the hopeless and the poor. I saw thousands of landmine victims and young children that were more destitute and sad than any I had ever seen in any country. When you are eating the children just sit and stare at you. Actually they just stare at your food, they watch every bite leave your plate and enter your mouth. You can see how much they want to have what you have, in every way. The wealth, the ease, the happiness, the luxury anything other than the life they lead of begging and sniffing glue out of plastic bags on the curb. To these children, every tourist is rich beyond their wildest dreams. Although the average yearly income for a Cambodian is $290, I have to confess I found it hard to get by on $20/day. $20/day is an absurdly huge amount of money to most of these people. Everyone in Cambodia tries very hard to scam the tourists out of every cent they have. It seems to be the favorite pastime of the locals. You have to negotiate the price for everything or risk paying 20 times what something is really worth.
The temples of Ankor Wat were simply amazing. I’ve really never seen anything like it in my life. They were simply gargantuan and made me really get in touch with my humility. The first day we rented a car, which was nice. The driver waited for us at each temple. The next day I took a moto and just walked from temple to temple. They were very far apart and I remember being quite exhausted by the end of the day. In may ways I could not believe that a culture that had been brutally controlled by the Khmer Rouge could ever have been one of the most powerful and rich countries in IndoChina, capable of creating one of the greatest wonders of the world.
There is a quiet desperation present with the Khmers. Although they are an amazing and positive people for what they have been through, you can still see the wounds of 30 years of brutal rule. There are deep scars right below the surface. Phenum Phen is the Capitol of Cambodia and was quite an amazing place. There was $150/night high rise hotels bustling with tourists and ½ a block away the dimly lit alleys were filled with Khmer’s selling everything you could possible imagine. Many Khmers live right on the streets, with only small hammocks hung up to sleep in. There were no tourists in the back alleys, yet the energy was amazing. It was so thick with people you could barely move and the smells and sounds were enough to make you think you were on some alien planet. The people in Cambodia are always laughing and their children play in the streets at night. It feels good to be here.
The Killing fields and the S-21 Khmer Rouge prison are both intense places that are well worth seeing. Like the Nazis, the K.R. were very good at their documentation. They carefully documented and photographed everyone they sent to the prison camp and everyone they killed and tortured. I think the most gripping photographs were the ones taken right after the torture sessions. You could hardly recognize the pile of blood and broken bones as a person at all. These children, the K.R. were truly horrible to the Khmers in a way that is hard to explain in words. 3 million Cambodians died under the rule of Pol Pot and in the S-21 camp out of the 30,000+ detainees only 7 survived. When I see the way the prisoners were treated and the conditions they lived in I am surprised that any of them survived. Under Pol Pot everyone was evacuated from the cities and send into the fields to work. The whole country was working 16-hour days with hard manual labor and people were still starving and dying by the thousands. The army was made up of 10-15 year olds who were brainwashed into distrusting any adults, including their parents. Many of them became brutal killing machines over time, and often even killed their own parents. It was like the book ‘Lord of the Flies’ on a massive scale.
At the killing fields there is a building that holds over 30,000 human skulls that were dug up from the ground. They are sorted by age with the youngest skulls at the bottom. Many of the skulls are broken from where the K.R. used hoes and sticks to kill people instead of wasting precious bullets. The tower is over 120 ft tall. It really makes you realize the scope of the whole problem when you stand there and look up at this huge monument and realize that the skulls you are looking at is only 1/100th of the people who were killed under this regime. It makes me realize how thankful I am to be an American and to be born in these relatively peaceful times of history. Cambodia changed me. My lat night in Cambodia I had graphic dreams of people torturing the people I loved. Their skin was peeled back to the bones and they were begging for death. I took up arms against my aggressors and killed them all with extreme prejudice. For someone who is a very peaceful man, I was surprised to have such a dream.
The food in Cambodia is interesting, they are far less limited in what they classify as food and far more resourceful in general. Pork, Beef and Chicken are reserved for tourists only and the price on such foods are astronomical by Khmer standards. A piece of chicken will cost $3, which is over 15 times what a normal meal would cost. Most of the Cambodians eat more interesting cuisine. I bought what I thought was a soft-boiled egg and as I carefully cracked open the top I saw a baby bird inside. I was shocked, but decided to eat it anyway. It was very tasty and there were no tough parts that I could taste like the beak. I also ate a plate of worms that I thought were noodles. I continued to eat them even when I was told they were worms because they were so darn good! There were giant spiders that I chose not to eat as well as barbecued rat, but I did enjoy lots of varied cuisine that most Americans probably would not want to eat. The grasshoppers were my favorite; they tasted a lot like Doritos. The scorpions made me sick though and I ended up throwing up at the border to Laos after over 30 hours of traveling.
Laos was incredible, especially Vien Vang. I went to Vien Vang on a local bus, which had a wooden floor, and everything you could imagine piled high on the floor. TO get to your seat you had to climb over beer, boxes of nails, linoleum flooring and many other boxes of god knows what. Halfway there we hit the most insane storm I have ever been in. The wind was blowing over 60 Mph and hail was coming down the size of golf balls. Many of the windows in the bus were broken and I asked another Lao person behind me if it always was like this and he said yes. Amazing, over 90 degrees and hailing, I thought I was in one of those end-of-the-world-due-to-global-warming movies. The Bus had to stop and hide under a big tree, which was fortunate because about a mile ahead another huge tree had fallen in the road anyway.
Vien Vang was a nice little touristy town tucked away in the mountains of Laos. There was many limestone caves there to be explored as well as Kayaking, Biking and Tubing that you could do. I rented a bike on my first day and rode it to the furthest caves from town I could find. It was about 15 Kilometers and my bike broke down ½ way there. I had to work very hard to get the bike to get to where I was going, and by the time I got all the way there the bike was so messed up that there was no way I was going to get back. The caves were very nice, the first one was an underwater cave and you sat in an inner tube with a car battery on your lap and flopped around in the water. The cave went for more than 1 Km so it was very cool and I took lots of pictures. The next cave was a more traditional walking cave that had very big ceilings and many nice stalactite and stalagmite configurations. That cave also went back about ½ kilometer into the mountain. The guide proceeded to try to scam me and I paid him $5 (half of what he was asking for) and started the long walk back. I left the bike locked up and managed to lose the key in the water cave. That was the 2nd key I had lost so far this trip. I walked for many miles and got to the point where I was waving money at the passing cars trying to get them to pick me up, but no one would stop. Finally I got a ride with a bus, which was a huge relief. I went back to the people who rented me the bike and I gave them a new lock and told them where their bike was. At first they were very angry and said I had to go get the bike, but then I started talking about the tourist police and they said “No Problem”. In Thailand and Laos there is a special division of the police force that is only for protecting tourists from getting ripped off. A fine idea that comes in quite handy in situations like this one. The last day in Vien Vang I went on a kayaking trip with 8 other South Koreans for about $8 US. It was fun and I got to see 2 more caves. There was also a huge rope swing over the river, which was really scary and really fun. 3 or 4 people would pull you back until you were about 50 feet up then they would let you go and you would go screaming out over the river at like 40 MPH and at the end of the swing you jump! It was a lot of fun for stoned and drunk tubers as well as kayakers.
After 3 days in Vien Vang, I went back to the capitol of Lao, Vientienne. Vientienne was not as nice as Phenom Phen or Bangkok and I wish I had spent more time in Vien Vang. After 2 days there I headed back to Bangkok. When I was in one of the markets I ran into a friend of mine from Ithaca and spent the day with her and her family and her friend Michael. We had a lot of fun tooling around in a boat along the canals of Bangkok. Then we went to the biggest mall I had ever been to, there was this one area where there was hundreds of shops all selling cellphones and accessories. It was unbelievably big, like a huge maze for people where anywhere they went they would get to spend their money. How I love the never-ending destructive cycle of commercialism. After hanging out with April I got very sick and spent a whole day in bed. I started taking antibiotics again and within a day I was fine. The last day tooling around Bangkok was quite enjoyable; I even ordered 3 custom suits in really obnoxious colors. At 4:30 AM I left for the airport and returned home.
All in all it was an amazing trip. Every country I visited was well worth checking out. If I had to pick a favorite it would probably be Thailand. Although traveling in Cambodia and Laos can be difficult and exhausting at times, both countries have a lot to offer for the budget traveler who is willing to rough it a little bit. When I look back on my travels I realize that this trip has changed me, especially Cambodia. Cambodia made me really appreciate what I have got and what I don’t have to endure every day. My life is amazingly good and there are so many things that I am thankful for. From now on I am making a choice to feel more joy and less fear, anger, shame and sadness. It is truly amazing that I am even here and that I am alive and that I can write this letter in the hopes of inspiring others to travel as well. There really is no end to the wonder that is being alive.