So, Thailand and Cambodia…Where do I even start?

We started and ended our sojourn in Bangkok, mostly out of convenience, but I’m really glad we spent time there. Bangkok is pretty polluted, crazy in parts, and occasionally tough to navigate (they didn’t get the memo on the grid system, apparently), but it’s a city teeming with life and a lot more tranquil than its population estimate (nearly 12 million) would suggest. The neighborhood where we spent most of our time (Banglamphu) was a quiet, leafy place populated by people just going about their daily routine. Nonetheless, we were welcomed warmly and found plenty of excitement. The temples were absolutely stunning, the food was phenomenal, and the way of living there was at once relaxing and invigorating.

After a few days in Bangkok, we flew up to Chiang Mai in the far northern section of Thailand for a week of even more relaxation and a chance to take in the beauty of the hilly jungle terrain. We spent time exploring Chiang Mai’s temples, hiking on Doi Suthep, taking a cooking class, whitewater rafting, and zip-lining. Chiang Mai is a college town, and really gave off a laid back vibe that Bangkok could never pull off. The street food there was insanely cheap (sometimes as little as 10 baht, or 30 cents for a plate of food) and yet still fresh and flavorful. The Sunday Walking Street was a particularly attractive activity as it brought out people of all types, old and young, rich and poor, Thai and farang (foreigners), and the food area brought forth a bounty of delicious food that I still dream about.

We spent a night up in the far reaches of Thailand in a small town called Chiang Dao where we ambled among winding roads, climbed up to a mountain temple in the shadow of Doi Chiang Dao, the 3rd highest mountain in Thailand (and part of the Himalayan foothills), and explored an interesting cave with a local guide. Our B&B was not only cozy and welcoming, but also the home of one of the best restaurants in the whole country. While it felt odd to be eating European-style food (I’m not one of these people who seeks the familiar while on vacation), it was so delicious that I didn’t care. There was something so satisfying about feasting on amazing food, stumbling to our bamboo hut, and falling asleep in the cool peacefulness of a winter’s night in Thailand. Our stay in Chiang Mai was also very relaxing, with stylish, comfortable rooms and world-class service.

After a week in Northern Thailand we took a flight to Bangkok to catch a flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia. I don’t think I was really prepared for what we experienced in Cambodia, but nonetheless, I’m glad we went. The first clue was that when we stepped off the plane, it was brutally hot. We were greeted at the airport by our driver, who took our luggage and led us to a tuk-tuk. For those of you not familiar with this mode of transportation, they look kind of like this. I enjoyed riding around, but the dust was almost unbearable in places. Our hotel was very nice and had everything we really needed, although there were a few snafus here and there. Then again, that’s to be expected at a hotel in a country with a tourist industry in its infancy and a decades-long legacy of poverty, war, and totalitarian brutality. What hit me hardest was the widespread abject poverty endured by what seemed like everyone there. Children selling trinkets swarm visitors to the temples as soon as they open the car door, and hound them persistently with a desperation borne out of extreme poverty. Babies and toddlers walk around mostly unclothed, usually cared for by mothers who appear to be nearly children themselves. Most people live in very simple bamboo or palm huts, some with a well with access to clean water. Families are large, and education is rarely obtained past the primary level. There were a lot of reasons to feel hopeless and helpless.

Yet, people smiled, and worked tirelessly to welcome the hordes of tourists to their country. They knew that the money these people brought in would hold the key to rebuilding after war, the Khmer Rouge, Vietnamese occupation, land mines, and colonization. Cambodia hasn’t been in such a state because of their own failings, that’s for sure. The Khmer people are kind, hard-working, and smart, and I look forward to returning one day when all of the misery they’ve experienced is nothing more than a distant memory. They certainly deserve better than what they have, and I have no doubt that they can make it happen.

The Angkor temples were really mind-blowing. It’s amazing to see what humans are capable of doing, especially in the absence of modern tools and knowledge. I enjoyed seeing the different architectural styles employed by the various Angkor kings, and seeing the beautiful carvings, majestic towers, and mysterious ruins. There are currently some issues with the way that the government is managing the temple sites, and there’s concern that the ruins may be sustaining serious damage from over-visiting, tour bus exhaust, and people climbing on the temples themselves. I hope something is done, and soon, so that these beautiful temples will survive another 1000 years.

Our return to Bangkok felt like coming home after the hot, disorienting chaos of Cambodia. We spent our last full day taking in as much as we could before turning in early and flying home on the 6 am flight.  I was incredibly sad to leave, but I feel as if my life has been enhanced by the time I spent there, and I look forward to returning in the future.