Cambodia!

I’m running out of words to describe all the beautiful places and temples I’m seeing, but I’ll give this a shot.

I took the bus to Siem Reap from Cambodia and did my first ever land border crossing: it was a fun experience, and the Cambodian side has some really nice looking entry point art.

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Siem Reap is the gateway to the famous Angkor Wat and its surrounding temples, and this place alone made my trip to Cambodia worthwhile.

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The famous Angkor Wat.
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Bayon temple.
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Bayon again.
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Entry point to a cluster of temples.

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Tomb raider temple.

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I stayed at the Siem Reap hostel, and I can’t recommend them enough. It’s a lovely hostel, and pretty much everything you need is taken care of by them. They have an arrangement with the tuk-tuk drivers, so you can just tell the reception the kind of tour you want to do, and they will have a tuk-tuk driver waiting for you the next day, no price negotiations necessary. The food was amazing, and they even have a pool! I think it’s a Cambodian hostel thing, but literally all the hostels I stayed at had pools.

The Cambodians suffered a lot under the Khmer Rouge rule, and the Siem Reap hostel, as well as a lot of restaurants I went to across Cambodia, employ and help victims of the land mines, their children, etc.

Cambodians eat insects as a part of their normal life, and it would be a shame if I came all the way to Cambodia and didn’t at least sample some of them. I found a place called Bugs Cafe that was very well rated. I got the platter, which consisted of: spring roll with ants, a feuillette with red ants, a tarantula samosa, crickets and silk worms wok, and an insect skewer consisting of a scorpion, a tarantula and water bug that looked like a cockroach.

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From Siem Reap, I went down to Kampot and spent time at a hostel that doubles as a water park. They had those massive water slides that throw you a few feet up in the air!

And then my final stop: Phnom Penh. The capital city of Cambodia. I’ll keep my description of Phnom Penh brief because of the strong emotions I felt while I was there. The Khmer Rouge was a communist party that governed Cambodia in the 1970s under the directions of their leader Pol Pot. Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge committed mass genocide. They followers of the Khmer Rouge believed (or were led to believe) that the main cause of suffering of the Cambodians were the educated class and the people who lived in cities. Armed by their leaders, they arrested, tortured and killed anyone who was educated or lived in a city. A large number of people fled the cities to avoid being slaughtered. The ones who were captured were made to work in the rice fields. The Khmer Rouge government made absurd demands in the amount of rice that these workers had to produce – a feat not possible even if they actually knew how to work in the fields. People were randomly arrested, tortured barbarically until they signed confessions naming other people they had no links with – just so that the torture would stop.

They even had killing fields… a few hundred of them across Cambodia. I visited the killing fields of Phnom Penh, where they found mass graves of hundreds of people, including women and children. Since this was mass genocide, they didn’t have enough bullets to kill all these people. Plus bullets were expensive. So these barbarians had victims kneel and smashed the back of their heads with axes, swords, sticks, poles, and basically anything they could find. They would then slit their throats to make sure they were dead, and then toss their bodies in a pit filled with dead bodies. For the children, they held them by the ankles and swung them so that their heads smashed against a tree and they died. They were then tossed in the mass graves with the others. It was terrible. They say that 1 in 4 Cambodians were killed in that brief period of the Khmer Rouge rule. That’s millions of people killed for living in a city or having an education. They even arrested and killed you if you wore glasses!

The Khmer Rouge was finally overthrown with the help of the Vietnamese, but internationally, and even in the United Nations, the Khmer Rouge was recognised as the ruling party for many many years after that. That’s world politics for you. The leaders of the Khmer Rouge are still under trial, and it seems very unlikely that any of them will be brought to justice while they are alive. They’re all very very old now. The leader, Pol Pot died under house arrest, and it’s very unlikely that he was made to suffer even a little for his crimes.

I was so emotionally overwhelmed that I didn’t even bother clicking pictures at the S21 (high school converted to a jail and torture chamber) or the killing fields. Besides, I don’t think clicking pictures at places like these would even be appropriate. They exist today as a reminder of what happened, as a memory of the millions that lost their lives, and as a warning of the horrific consequences of genocide. But is the world really listening?

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Bangkok (again), Ayutthaya (again), and Pattaya

After Myanmar, I spent another week in Thailand, meeting friends and eating a lot of delicious Thai food.

The whole monastery experience left me skinnier than I started out, and I needed new clothes – Bangkok being the obvious place to shop. I did sample some new restaurants, my favourite being the Veganarie Concept. I’m not vegan, nor am I usually a fan of vegetarian food, but this place was amazing. They prepare their food with vegan ingredients that appear and taste just like meat. It was so so good. If they made all vegan food like that, I’d be happy to go vegan. Definitely going back the next time I’m in Bangkok.

While walking around Sukhumvit, I also chanced upon the best cafe in the whole wide world. A cafe with coffee and fluffy dogs! Exactly like the cat cafes I’ve visited through this trip: you buy a drink, enter the cafe, and play with the animals, only this was better because it had dogs. It was just like heaven.

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I did have a few nights out, and strangely, Khao San Road seems to have changed in the few months I was away. A crackdown at one of the bars on Khao San led to the cops discovering a lot of drugged tourists (like they didn’t already know), and they are now enforcing an old law that only permits establishments registered as a night club to be open beyond 12 am. Most establishments only have a simple restaurant licence, and save a few places, Khao San Road is now pretty dead by 12 am… bummer.

I then visited a super fun friend I made earlier in my trip, who now works in Ayutthaya, and checked out the temples I couldn’t get to the last time. I also managed to see one of Ayutthaya’s giant lizards – who happened to cross the road while I was on a scooter. It took me a while to register what I just saw and I obviously forgot to click pictures. But he was huge. Like a dinosaur.

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Friend + fluffy cats.

I also visited Pattaya – a place I had visited when I was 9 years old – to see what the place was like now, and also to go to the Ripley’s museum that I couldn’t go to when I was a kid. The museum was amazing, as were the rest of the malls and the little sliver of a beach that Pattaya has. What wasn’t amazing was the constant accosting from Thai hookers. I only had some memories of Pattaya from like 17 years ago, and they were all pleasant. What I saw was nothing like it. Lines and lines of bars, each riddled with hookers trying to get you to their bar for a drink (and more). They even have something called go-go bars, where you can get a beer, have the company of a female who works there, and if you like her, pay the bar the price of a beer, and take her away for a few hours. What you pay her for her services is directly to her and extra – but it’s a fully established sex racket, and old men from all over the world were aplenty. I spent both my nights there by getting to my hotel room relatively early because I was neither interested in being catcalled (they do that), dragged by my arms to a bar (they also do that), and groped (yep, they do that too).

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One of Pattaya’s bar streets – picture from a distance because I’d get grabbed by hookers if I were closer.

This visit was supposed to be a transit, but it ended up being so much more. Onto Cambodia…

Yangon

If you want to see the day-to-day struggle of the Burmese, go to Yangon. For a city this bustling, and that is so full of people, it’s a bit surprising that they are still more or less in the British era. The buildings in downtown Yangon seem old and worn out (with the exception of a few government buildings, banks and courts – which have well maintained British built buildings), the roads are dirty and crowded, and the electricity lines are archaic. Yangon suffers massive power outages – it consumes 5/6th of the total electricity generated in Myanmar – and even then, the supply hardly matches demand. There are massive generators on the streets to help this, but it’s just not enough. It’s the worst during the night when it’s very, very hot, and for some reason the hostels in Yangon (like most of Southeast Asia) have no fans – only air-conditioning – which can’t run on a generator all night long! They are progressing though… I guess when you’ve been suppressed for so long, first by foreigners and then by your own people, it takes time to recover – and they only just opened their borders to tourism a few years back. It can only get better from here; I just hope they don’t sell out to tourism like Thailand did, and still retain some of their Burmese charm.

A funny thing I learnt about the Burmese is that when the British left, and the military junta government took over, they decided they needed change of any kind from the British. Top of that was a change in the side of the road they drive on – just to make sure they’re doing the opposite of what the British do. What they didn’t change however, is the side of the steering wheel in their cars – both old and new. So now they still have right hand drive cars, but they drive on the wrong side of the road. That tells you all you need to know about how the military junta ran the country.

The city centre is marked by the Sule Pagoda, and the area surrounding it is bustling! It’s full of government buildings, offices and betel leaf stains on the road. I don’t know what it is about the Burmese, but they really love chewing the betel leaf (it’s a leaf stuffed with tobacco and some other herbs and leaves you with blood red saliva that you spit constantly, anywhere you feel like spitting). Their red teeth, one local told me, was something Burmese women find attractive in the men. Apparently the ‘red smile’ is a turn on (YUCK).

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Sule Pagoda at night

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There’s the famous Shwedagon Pagoda; which is the highlight of the city, and it’s absolutely beautiful around sunset. The history to it is that two merchant brothers met the Buddha, and the Buddha was so pleased with them, that he gave them 8 of his hairs. These hairs are enshrined in the Shwedagon Pagoda. It’s of great historical importance to the Buddhists, and the Shwedagon is also likely to be the most famous Buddhist pilgrimage site in Myanmar.

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Lighting of lamps at the Shwedagon around sunset.

There’s a looping train you can get onto which takes you all around the city including some exteriors) and it’s a great way to see the real Burmese way of living (basic, and to put it crudely, primitive – also, a lot like rural India).

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They have a lot of cheap bars and restaurants and some newer, fancier restaurants serving international cuisines at international prices. My only complaint – the food is guaranteed to be oily all over Myanmar. Not a few extra drops oily, but floating in oil kinda oily. I don’t know if it’s because the food stays out a long time in the heat and they use the extra oil to stop the food from spoiling, or if they are fond of the taste, but it’s quite disgusting. I did love the taste of this dish called Shan noodles though – really flavourful noodles topped with relish, chicken and some broth.

All in all, from all the places I visited in Myanmar, Yangon was my least favourite, mainly because of the crazy amount of people everywhere. Yangon is no longer the capital of Myanmar. It used to be the capital under the British rule – under it’s old name, Rangoon – but the military junta government changed that as well. Their current capital is a place called Naypyidaw, where literally no one ever goes. Google it – it’s a ghost city. Yangon is still the de-facto capital city of Myanmar, and definitely worth a visit anyway.