Before I get to the glorious details of my travel around Southeast Asia, let’s jump back to where I left off.
The week after IST and before my travels, I did as I had promised myself and became productive. I refinished a desk and the bed frame I found and painted them black!
Now isn’t that better? Still needs a mattress though…
After feeling good about finally getting something concrete accomplished, it was time to go! I hit the road with only a backpack (and I don’t mean one of those huge traveling packs, I mean like a book bag backpack. It has a laptop pocket and everything. Which I used for shoes) and my purse. It was a long haul to get to Kunming (12 hours) where I met up with my friends Ward and Katie, who I would spend the whole trip traveling with, and our other friend Kelly.
At the airport – our before (bundled up for China’s cold weather) and after photo! Ready for Bangkok!!!
For your convenience (and my memory), I put together a map of our trip and where/how we went. Please see below!
Round, round, get around, I get around…
We only spent two nights in Bangkok. As we left the airport and were getting to our hostel, I was immediately reminded of Brazil. The weather, being surrounded by beautiful people, and the smell. My first impression of Bangkok was that it was CLEAN. A fantastic change from China’s disgusting streets.
We checked into our hostel and got situated and then went exploring on Bangkok’s metro system. We ended up at a night market and we walked around for a long while. Sketchy little Thai men kept telling us to go see the ping pong show! Eventually, we went to check it out. We walked up these narrow stairs into a small, dark strip club. As I got to the top, I looked over to see only the back side of a woman, as she was bent over, and she was honking a bicycle horn using her feminine parts. At first I laughed and we got out of that dingy place pretty fast. But later, as I was reflecting on it, I realized how degrading and awful it was. And the fact that Bangkok tourism helps support such a sexist, objectifying industry is depressing. We never did see the ping pong show, but I’m sure I can take a wild guess at what it entailed.
In any case, we were all pretty tired that first night from our travels, so we headed to bed early. The next morning, we went exploring in the streets and found REAL coffee. Using espresso beans and everything. It was so delicious – they used condensed milk to sweeten it and it was so amazing. We ate at a noodle place (not my favorite, but not terrible). Our friend Taylor met up with us later and we all went on a boat tour of Bangkok!
We’re on a boat!
We stopped at a random temple, we went in to where the largest resting Buddha was, but it was kind of expensive, so we didn’t go in, and we made it to the outside of the Grand Palace. As far as sightseeing goes, I felt that Bangkok was kind of lacking. But once again, what do I know – we didn’t really go in anything to fully check it out.
Later that night, we hit up a food court in a mall that served Thai food. I ate Tom Yum (delicious) and had mango with sweet sticky rice for desert (also delicious). We went back down to the night market and walked around for a while. We were waiting for Katie’s friend, Kelsey, to get in from America. She had gotten a really nice hotel and we thought we could all stay there, but 2 was the limit. So Ward, Taylor, and I decided we would just stay up all night since our bus to Cambodia left at 6am anyway.
It ended up being a pretty interesting night. We headed to the Red Light District – the only part of Bangkok still awake. We walked around. Some of the men there disgusted me. But in general, the working girls/ladyboys seemed pretty happy to be there – who knows if it was all a facade though. We spent a couple hours there drinking beer and then were meandering to another part of town when we found a Mexican place open where we could eat unlimited chips and salsa. So, we stayed there until it was time to head back to the hotel. I don’t think chips and salsa have ever been so amazing.
The next day was hell. Partially because we were exhausted and partially because it was a whole day stuck in buses, mini-vans, and tuk tuks. From Bangkok, we took a mini-van to a city called Trot, “near” the Thailand/Cambodia border. We then had to take an hour and a half tuk tuk ride to the border.
In the back of the covered truck, or tuk tuk
Finally, once we got to the border, the government officials tried to scam us twice (once by trying to make us pay U$D20 for a “medical check” and trying to tell us the visa was more expensive than it was supposed to be). We finally got through, though. Once we were in Cambodia, we had to get ANOTHER mini-van to take us to Sihanoukville, our beach destination in Cambodia. That was another 7 hours.
Once we FINALLY arrived and got checked into our hostel, which was on the beach, we went back into the city. Sihanoukville was packed with foreigners. There were probably more foreigners around that Cambodians. Normally, I might have felt jipped of a cultural experience or something, but it was a really nice change from being so isolated in China. There was also Western food abound along the streets! We feasted like kings.
We eventually headed down to the bar area near the beach – it was awesome. It was just a row of bars along the beach and every one offered a free shot or drink just for going in. The very last bar was more of a dance club with huge speakers set up out in the sand and little stage. So we danced the night away on the beach and had a great time.
The next morning, needless to say, we woke up late and spent the whole afternoon on the beach. It was so relaxing. And I didn’t get sunburned!
The second night, we went back into the city, but called it an early night. And then our last morning, we again spent on the beach and then left in the afternoon to head to Phnom Penh!
When we got to Phnom Penh I couldn’t believe all of the Chinese everywhere! But apparently Phnom Penh is the economic center of Cambodia. We got there late and headed out for the night – another night of shenanigans. The next day, I went to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
I want to take a minute and talk about this seriously. Before I had traveled to Cambodia, I had never even heard about the genocide that occurred here in the 1970’s – so I hope you, as my readers, will take this moment to learn from my ignorance.
Let me explain – in the 1970’s, a communist group called the Khmer Rouge and their leader, Pol Pot, took over Cambodia. They shut down schools across the country to limit education. This particular school I visited, which is now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, was turned into one of the most notorious detention centers in Cambodia, previously called simply S-21. Of the 20,000 prisoners, only 7 survived.
Wooden cells built in a classroom
The Khmer Rouge targeted intellectuals, religious leaders, ethnic Vietnamese, civil servants, and anyone else they considered a threat. They would not only take the individual, but their entire family. They would take children and infants and beat them against a tree until they died because bullets were too precious to waste. They would torture and beat the adults, washing their wounds with salt water, and repeat until they starved to death or were executed.
The Khmer Rouge, like most deranged leaders of genocide, kept countless records on their prisoners. The museum had hundreds of photos of the prisoners in various states of declining health. The museum also had the original torture devices on display.
And in the last room, they had hundreds of bones. Human bones. Fragments from skulls, tibiae, femurs. It was terrifying. I wouldn’t call myself a very emotional person, but I was in silent tears walking through this museum. I guess standing in a cell where, just under 50 years ago, another person was crying out of hopelessness and fear after being tortured can do that to a person. I imagined if it had been my family being taken and the paralyzing terror of not knowing where you were being taken or what would happen to you. And then the desperation of wanting it all to end once had been tortured repeatedly and the rest of your family had been killed.
And then the fact that I had no idea any of this had happened really got to me. Where was this in my history classes? I had to learn all about the god damn Missouri Compromise, but where was this? Where was the section on how 1.5 million Cambodians either starved to death or were executed in a four year period from 1975 – 1979? And what makes this any less significant than the genocide that occurred during WWII? The fact that the US wasn’t involved didn’t make it worthy of learning about? But that’s why I’m writing about it here and now. Hopefully someone will read this and learn something new today.
In 1979 a Vietnamese army came in and ousted the Khmer Rouge. But their leader, Pol Pot, died much later (1998 if I remember correctly) comfortably in his home, never having been brought to justice.
After the visit to the museum, I was feeling pretty solemn – we all were. So we just slept and used the WiFi at the hostel until our overnight bus came to pick us up.
We arrived in Siem Reap very early in the morning, so we had to wait to check into our hostel until later in the morning. That afternoon, we explored the neighborhood. Ward and I got Cambodian massages – which are pretty intimate. They climbed on top of me, wrapped their leg around my leg, and used their feet to massage my leg. But it felt pretty amazing.
That night, we went down to “pub street” nearby which was also kind of like a night market with little shops selling touristy stuff. Once again, the Western food wasn’t lacking. We ate dinner with some fellow China PCVs we met up with at a restaurant that had a free traditional Cambodia Apsara Dance. (Sorry for the crappy video quality!)
I loved how the dance was so focused on movements in the hands and feet. It was something so unique and that I’d never seen before. We had set up a tuk tuk driver to take us to Angkor Wat the next morning to see the sunrise, so we didn’t want to stay out too late.
We got up bright and early to head to Angkor Wat. We secured spots very close to the lake and just waited around. It was PACKED with tourists. But that didn’t take too much from the beautiful sight of watching the sun rise over the ancient temple.
We tried to outsmart the other tourists and once the sun was fully up, we went to the second temple on the “temple route”, Angkor Thom. The second one wasn’t as impressive. The third one we went to was called Ta Prohm and it was my favorite. The temple was slightly in ruins and had large trees growing over the rubble of the formerly majestic temple. There were also less “off limits” areas in the temple, so I felt like and adventurer. No wonder they shot parts of Tomb Raider at this temple!
I was basically Lara Croft for a day
Later, we went back to Angkor Wat. As clever as we thought we were, it was still packed with tourists. Angkor Wat was huge. There were holes in the stones, which I later found out they used to tie rope through and tie to elephants to haul the huge stones to the site. And the walls had such intricate carvings. We climbed to the top of the temple and it was beautiful.
I’m in there – can you see me?!
We were all pretty exhausted after seeing temples all day – it was a lot of walking. We spent the afternoon by the hostel’s pool. That night, I bought a bunch of souvenirs and later, we met up with some other China PCV’s and had a glorious Mexican dinner, complete with margaritas and a night of dancing.
The next morning, we kept it pretty low key and ate some delicious Indian food. Our flight left that afternoon to go to Laos.
Off to Laos!
Due to a booking error, Ward, Kelsey, and Katie ended up going to Luang Praban for a night on an overnight layover and I flew directly to Vientiane. So I got there alone. Thankfully, I’m resourceful. I found another guy heading to the same hostel as me and we split a cab.
I explored a little bit, but not much. My first impression of Vientiane was not a positive one. It seemed kind of trashy and not very well kept. There was a definite French influence though, from Laos’ days of being a French colony, I would assume. I found a restaurant called Via Via and ate, no exaggeration, the most delicious lasagna of my entire life. Reminiscing about it now is making my mouth water. The rest of my crew arrived the next morning. They agreed with my initial impression and we decided to leave later that afternoon. But with the little time we had (6 hours, I think?), we saw a lot.
We went to Vientiane’s Pha That Luang temple.
Pha That Luang
Then we went to the COPE Visitor Center. Once again, I’d like to take a moment to share this experience, as I was unaware of this piece of history before visiting the COPE Center. During the Vietnam war, the US covertly sent millions of bombs to Laos to stop supplies from getting to Vietnam. Of these millions of bombs, 30% never exploded. So in Laos, still, to this day, there are unexploded bombs. Thousands of innocent people have lost either their lives or limbs to unexploded ordance (or UXO). The COPE Visitor Center is located on a hospital campus and helps provide funding for victims of UXO to receive prosthetic limbs and healthcare. Fortunately, cluster bombs, the kind of bomb that was used, is a thing of the past. But it still doesn’t make all of those lost lives and limbs any less tragic or forgivable on behalf of the US.
A map of the bombings in Laos
A recreation of a cluster bomb – all of those small bombs are encased in a large missile that releases them mid-air.
Homemade prosthetic legs that were donated to the center by UXO victims after they were provided an authentic prosthetic leg.
I donated what little money I could, feeling the guilt and embarrassment of being American heavily. We left the center and went to find something to eat. We had Vietnamese Pho, which was okay, and then headed back to get on our bus.
Our next stop was Vang Vieng. I think it was my favorite city out of all of our travels. I had a great time there and really liked the vibe. We got to there in the evening. We checked in and then went to explore. We went out that night – I got a free shirt for buying two drinks at one of the bars.
The next morning, we rented bicycles and rode out into the countryside. We went to a blue lagoon – which truly was blue. The water was bluer than any I’ve seen in my life. There was a tree you could climb up to jump in and swim. We stayed there for a little while.
Then we went and got lunch at a special restaurant called the SAE Lao Project. It was located out in the countryside on a farm. Actually, it’s a program that accepts international volunteers to live and work with them. The volunteers teach English to monks and help with their organic farm, planting and growing vegetables, etc. They also promote sustainability within the community. And their food was really tasty! (For more information on the SAE Lao Project, please go HERE!)
We continued biking around the countryside and stopped off at another little swimming pond with a great view of the mountains. We went swimming for a while and drank some beers and just relaxed after biking all day. We had seen a sign for a cave across the road, so after we rested up, we went in. We started climbing up to the cave and a little Lao guy started following us. I think he only knew about 3 English words (yeah, no, and photo). I wasn’t sure why he was going with us at first, but once we got inside the cave, I knew why. It was small and felt unexplored. Obviously, I’m sure many tourists had gone in there, but it was still scary and dark. We crawled through a tiny tunnel and came out on the other side.
Our guide even showed us a huge scar on his stomach where he mimed that he fell down into the cave. It was crazy. There was also a spider as big as my head on the ceiling of the cave. Once I saw that, I knew it was time to go.
We went back to the pond and took some pictures and snapped this fabulous candid photo of Ward, Katie, and I. This might be my favorite photo from the whole trip.
Best travel crew eva’
We eventually got back to the city. I ate tomato soup and a baguette. Oh! I forgot – all over Laos and most of Cambodia – there were SO MANY baguettes. I couldn’t get enough. Real bread is so hard to come by in China. For breakfast every morning, it was either a baguette and butter and jelly or a baguette with ham and fresh tomatoes and cucumber.
I also loved that at every hostel/restaurant on the main street, they had chair/beds and tables instead of traditional ones. You could lay back and relax and eat or watch TV (every single place had Friends on. I have no idea what the obsession was)
We hung out until our overnight bus left later that night to take us to Luang Prabang. I was really sad to leave. I had really wanted to go tubing, but we just didn’t have time for it. I really enjoyed all of the time out in the country exploring and taking nature in.
We get in the tuk tuk to go to where the bus was and then there was a huge fiasco. The overnight SLEEPER bus we had bought turned into a typical seated bus. We were all exhausted from our adventures and were pissed off that we had bought a sleeper bus to get put into a regular bus. Some guy tried to explain that the other bus broke down and this was all he could do. I asked him if we would each at least get two seats to ourself and he said yes. We all reluctantly got on the bus. As time went on, more and more people started getting onto the bus. One of the other passengers and I got into a huge argument on the bus over seats (tensions were high and everyone had bought sleeper tickets and didn’t get a sleeper bus) and finally, I just said to hell with it and got off. My friend Kelsey couldn’t get off because her flight back to the US left the next day in the afternoon and she couldn’t risk missing it by getting off. I thought I’d be trekking alone, but Ward got off with me. We got refunds and got back to the city. We thought about it and decided the whole thing was a scam. On a typical sleeper bus, you can fit about 25 people. There were probably at least 40 people on that bus. There is no way the real sleeper bus “broke down”. Otherwise, they would have only had 25 people show up. So I was angry, but happy that at least my money wasn’t going to support those scammers. Thankfully, there was another bus that left a little bit later and we got to Luang Prabang the next morning.
We explored the city a little bit and got some great food called Lap. It was finely diced, almost ground, chicken with fresh lime, lemongrass, mint, green onions, and other herbs and spices and you eat it in a lettuce wrap. It was amazing. Then we said goodbye to Kelsey as she went off to go back to the US.
The rest of the afternoon, we went to Kuang Si waterfalls. It was beautiful! I’d never seen a waterfall in person before. I really wanted to go explore under/behind it, but it was all roped off. The grounds Kuang Si waterfalls was on was also a bear reserve.
Later that night, we went to the night market and bought our tour for the next day! We ended up at a bar called Utopia which was really cool. It was all outdoors and it was right on the river.
Utopia & heart to hearts.
One of the cluster bombs on display at Utopia.
But we called it an early night because, in the morning, we got up early to take a boat to a whiskey village. In the village, they made their own whiskey, which we got to try. There were two types, clear, or “white”, and red – both made from rice. The red whiskey was actually pretty good – sweet and not too strong. The clear whiskey reminded me an awful lot of baijiu and burned on the way down.
The village also had quite a few girls and women at looms and making scarves. I saw this little girl working at the loom and couldn’t help but by a handmade scarf from her.
The boat next took us to the Pak Ou Buddha Cave. It was immensely overcrowded, especially by annoying tourists, and not that amazing. There were just two caves full of Buddha statues.
Buddhas for days
So we headed back to the boat and it took us back to town. Katie and Ward had to head out earlier than me, so I was there a little while on my own. After they left, I met two Swiss girls and befriended them. We got dinner together at a French restaurant and chatted. I ordered French cheesy potatoes, thinking they would be like the kind my Dad makes (AMAZINGLY DELICIOUS), but they were just okay.
The next day, I went kayaking on the Mekong River! Since I was alone, I got paired up with a Lao kayak guide. I had never been kayaking before and I really, really enjoyed it. And I made a friend!
We kayaked for a while, stopped off for a photo op…
Peace, Love, Travel
and then went to the next portion of the tour – elephant riding and bathing! I was pretty excited! I got paired with a couple of girls from Chile. The elephant took us down into the river and was spraying us with water from his trunk.
The elephant sat down in the water and I almost fell off!
Everything was going great, but then we saw the Lao worker using an elephant hook and hitting the elephant to get it to go back up to the elephant site. We all yelled at the worker to stop using it, which he did, but he started again as soon as we got off. I felt like a bad person for having supported a place that still uses elephant hooks and exploits elephants pretty shamelessly, but I guess it’s better than having them be killed or exploited worse somewhere else. They didn’t have any open sores or cuts on them, but the elephant hook still seemed primitive.
We headed back to the city, I showered and waited. The kayak guy and I had made plans to meet up for beers later that night. I figured the night would either be a really fun, authentic Laos experience, or I’d end up dead in a ditch or worse. But I had gotten a good vibe from this guy. He picked me up and we ate some buffalo and bean sprouts with a side of bamboo soup first. Not my first choice, but apparently it is renowned in Laos. Then we headed to a bar where I was the ONLY foreigner. And that was pretty cool. The music they were playing was fun and I got to watch all of the Laos people dancing and having a good time. He took me back to my hostel early and it ended up being the fun, authentic Laos experience I had wanted. And I definitely wasn’t dead in a ditch.
The next day I relaxed all day, ate pizza and Indian food, drank more amazing coffee, and read a book until my 24-hour sleeper bus back into China to Kunming the next morning. I got on the bus and I had forgotten how rude Chinese people could be. That bus was a hell worse than any I’ve known so far. It left really early, about 6am. I was put in a double bed, but no one was put with me. I was so stoked! Those beds are so short and I’m so tall. But with the full bed, I could lay diagonally and my legs could be straight! So I fell asleep.
I was rudely awakened by some random girl crawling into my bed and pulling the blanket off of me onto herself. I was immediately pissed off. So I tried asking her in Chinese what she was doing. I was asleep, so I thought maybe more passengers got on the bus, but that didn’t make sense because we weren’t stopped. I figure out she moved from another bed to my bed and she wasn’t supposed to be there. So I start yelling at her in any language I think she’ll understand to get out of my bed. I said Go, qu, zuo, bye bye, zaijian, anything I thought she could figure out. But she wouldn’t budge. Finally, I just sat up in the bed and resorted to glaring at her. She got the hint and got out and moved into someone else’s bed. At the time I didn’t know what she was doing or why.
About an hour later, we stopped for a bathroom – and when I say bathroom, I mean side of the road, and I heard yelling. Apparently, the same girl that had tried to get in my bed had thrown up all over everyone’s shoes and bags that were on the floor of the bus. No wonder she wanted to move. There was hollering until she finally went back and cleaned it up.
Another hour or so later, we stopped and more people got on the bus and I finally had to share with a young girl. She was okay. But then as I was drifting off to sleep, I smelled cigarette smoke. There was an older guy that had just lit up a cigarette on the bus. On the enclosed bus. Among 25 other human beings that had to deal with it. The rudeness and ignorance of some Chinese people is just astonishing. Some woman had a chance to yell at him before I did, thank goodness for him. I was at a breaking point. Like I said, the bus ride back was hell.
The bus from hell.
I fell asleep on the bus and woke up to an empty bus. Apparently, everyone had gotten off and no one had bothered to wake me up! But it didn’t matter, I got on the metro, got to the train station, and got tickets back to Kaili. All of this was during the Spring Festival, or Chinese New Year. I magically got the last sleeper bed from Kunming to Guiyang, but had no seat back to Kaili. I got back to Kaili at 5am and went straight to sleep.
So I’ve been back in Kaili for about 2 weeks now. It’s been pretty rough being back in China. Having seen three other Asian countries, I can’t comprehend why China hasn’t figured out baguettes, lime, coffee, cheese, being friendly, being clean, forming lines, the list is endless. Before going outside of China, I thought that all of Asia suffered the same problems. But now I know that simply isn’t the case. And it makes me even more bitter and angry at China for not opening its mind to manners and at the very least, foods. I realize it isn’t every single Chinese person that acts like this, but from my experience living here, I know it is the majority. I just hope someday they’ll understand how much easier and pleasant life is with a bit of civility. I realize this is pretty intense criticism, but I’m at a point where I just need to say it without a filter.
My first week of classes is already over too! I wasn’t sure before, but I have the same students from last semester. That has some pros and cons. I already know all of the students and their names, who the stronger students are and who the weaker students are, and the class dynamic is already set. But it also means I have to come up with completely new lesson plans. Which is an awful lot of work.
In any case – this weekend is my birthday! On March 8, I’ll be 26. I’m heading to Duyun to see my lovely friend Ward. He has the best birthday gift you could give someone that likes to cook in China – a microwave! And carpets! I think my bff Jordan is coming too. I’ll be spending my birthday with my two favorite people in Peace Corps and I couldn’t be happier.
But turning 26 has gotten me thinking a lot about the timeline of my life. I still want to go to grad school. Settle down. Get married. Have a few years just being married. Have kids. But I feel like by the time I’m done with Peace Corps, finish grad school, settle down etc. I’m going to be like 35 or something and I don’t want to be that old when I start having children. I’ve honestly been feeling really stressed out about my whole experience here, but I suppose it’s best to just take it a day at a time.
After this weekend with my besties, the next Guizhou meet-up is March 21 for St. Patrick’s Day and I’m really looking forward to that. I’ll also be helping my friend, Yann, with a special project that I’m also really looking forward to and you should keep an eye out for in the coming weeks.
Other than looking forward to future events, I’m just trying to lesson plan and get ready for the coming semester and adjust back to life in China again. On that note, I’ll leave you with a Happy Chinese New Year message we shot in Sihanoukville for my students: