"Unless you enjoy traveling by ox cart, it is extremely difficult to get to Preah Khan between May and November." The Lonely Planet guidebook warns…"Only very experienced bikers should attempt to get to Preah Khan on rental motorcycles, as conditions are extremely tough from every side. Take a wrong turn in this neck of the woods and you’ll end up in the middle of nowhere.”
So, of course I had to try.
I just spent the last 4 days exploring the popular Angkor Wat Temple complex in Siem Reap that attracts flocks of tourists every year. However, very few ever make it to these more remote locations.
In route back to Phnom Penh to return the Honda 250cc motorcycle I rented for the week I knew I wanted to see something off the “beaten path” and from the limited information I could find online, Preah Khan sounded like just the ticket for a real adventure.
After several months of traveling across Southeast Asia we would like to declare that we have a winner for Best in Show…Vietnam! From the majestic waterfall on the northern border with China, to the postcard picturesque island of Phu Qouc off the southern coast, Vietnam was 5 weeks of some of the most dazzling scenery we’ve ever seen. Below are the highlights from North to South.
See our full album of photos here.
Ban Gioc, the largest waterfall in Vietnam. You can see China on the other side.
On her last morning in Southeast Asia, Kristin had but one request: Durian. For those unfamiliar with this infamous fruit, durian is a regional delicacy that is best known for it’s pungent aroma. Some claim it possesses a stank so strong that both curious foreigners and locals alike gag on the powerful smell before the fruit reaches their lips. (High end hotels even have prominent signs expressly forbidding it from being consumed on the premises.)
Fortunately, we love the taste and partook in its deliciousness as a special treat after our weary travels. This morning, before boarding her homeward bound flight Kristin summed up the top three things she would miss most about Southeast Asia: 1) Durian, 2) Street Food, 3) Markets.
The durian experience magically combines all three of these.
In the garden of dead flowers, the elderly farmer told me of the flood that ruined his livelihood— yet somehow, he was smiling.
All around us, brown orchids rotted in the debris left from late last year, when the worst floods in half a century ravaged Thailand. Nearly 400 people died, millions were displaced, and two thirds of the country was inundated by October. This canal community near Bangkok, where small boats connect wooden stilt houses, was especially devastated: old sandbags are everywhere, and on many buildings one can see the telltale watermark, a blurred brown reminder of how dire the deluge had been.
This orchid farmer, and scores of Thais who fled the rising waters, know that climate change is real. They’re already feeling the effects.
The fat, hog-tied sow kicked and squealed as the slight men hoisted her up onto their shoulders and walked towards us. Teeth gnashing and foaming spittle spraying from her open snout, she screamed in fury and terror. The men swung her toward where I sat in the truck’s passenger bed. Instinctively, I leapt aside.
They stopped short of the bed, however, and landed the beast with a thud on the rear bumper, by my feet. Struggling for her life, she squirmed as they strapped it to the metal grate. I returned to my seat on the edge of the bench that was already packed to overflowing with passengers. Her eyes wide and seething with fear, the sow looked up at me for help as we took off and careened up the dusty, treacherous mountain roads. I tied my hankerchief across my face to keep from choking on the thick plumes of dust and black exhaust, hanging on tight to avoid being bounced out the back of the truck.
The young man across from me in a green soccer jersey smiled and explained it all in one word: “Basi.”
Basi is an ancient animist ritual practiced in Laos. Humans are believed to have mulitple souls that occasionally wander off, causing an imbalance within the person. The ceremony reunites these souls in the body.
This new ATM in Nong Khiaw, a sleepy mountain village in Laos, is the perfect symbol for Southeast Asia’s transformation; it’s a region caught between two contradictory worlds.
When we arrived, they were just smoothing out the wet concrete on the first ATM on our side of the river. Locals came to marvel at the device that freely dispensed large sums of money to foreigners— and that night, they had a party to inaugurate this magic money-making machine.
Tourists venture to remote places like Nong Khiaw to escape the Western bubble and to experience something “traditional.” The irony is that our very presence permanently alters the places we are visiting. For me, this ATM also symbolizes the tension between western modernity and ancient values. Seeing the proliferation of technology like this fills me with conflicting thoughts: On one hand, I want more money to come into this impovershed village, but at the same time there’s a sadness that this unique, quiet place will never be the same. Rapid globalization is forever altering and homogenizing a world of beautifully diverse cultures, eliminating indigenous knowledge and begging everyone to worship at the altar of the iPhone. (You can buy paper iPhones to burn as an offering to your ancestors. No joke.) But at the same time, I love my iPhone. How can I fault someone else for wanting one, too?
We spent three days trekking through the mountains of Laos near the Chinese border, walking from village to village with a local guide delightfully named Bounsy. This is a wild place where few foreigners go and many villages are connected only by steep footpaths.
This is the time of year when farmers burn their rice fields, and the air was thick with smoke; in some places, ash rained down from the sky like feathers. Although I know very little about slash and burn farming, I can’t help thinking that there must be a way for families to feed themselves without destroying these mountains.
Here, each family has its own plot of land, and so farming can be lonely work. During the rainy season, the families move to a temporary hut in their field, to be as close as possible to the rice that will feed them for the next year.
We trudged up a particularly steep hillside that was blackened and smoking, and saw the obscure figure of a bare-breasted woman materialize from the smoking ashes. A child ran out from behind her, calling to someone, and then they both disappeared again. The air in those mountains is thick with superstition.
The villages consist of a collection of small wooden huts with dirt floors, each with its own storage of rice, and yards full of pigs, chickens, dogs and children who would follow us, shrieking with delight each time we tried to speak. The only bathroom is in the woods, and the pigs are happy to clean up after you.
Laotians are very reserved—tribal people in particular—and often we could see women peeking out at us from their doorways. They wear fabulous costumes embroidered with colorful beads, electric pink stitching and old French coins. They dislike being photographed, so we have almost no pictures.
Here’s one I found online that’s very similar. (Photo Credit: Loic Brohard)
From my seat in a bustling sidewalk restaurant in Yangon, Burma, it’s hard to imagine these same streets just 20 years ago. In August 1988, thousands of students, fed up with years of repressive military rule, protested for democracy and were brutally slaughtered by government machine guns. Yesterday’s fair election of opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to Parliament is a promising step for Burma, but the road to true democracy remains long.
On this day, I’m joined by two soft-spoken, smiling graduate students in their mid-twenties, Tin and Htet, who goes by the nickname “Pinkgold.” We converse freely in English about their environmental activism amid the restaurant’s clatter— a freedom that would have been impossible not long ago because of the threat of government spies. As I fumble with my chopsticks, they begin to tell me what it’s like to organize in one of the most repressive countries in the world.
Htet has been passionate about social issues from an early age. But it wasn’t until 2010, when government restrictions began to ease, that she felt there might be enough political space for organizing to make a real difference. She formed Myanmar Youths In Action (MIYA), which seeks to empower young people to tackle some of the country’s most pressing issues, including environment, health, and poverty. For their inaugural event, they joined with thousands around the world for 350.org’s 10/10/10 Global Work Party by planting 50 trees.
In a country where most people scrape by on less than a dollar a day, why did they decide that the environment was the most pressing issue facing the youth of Myanmar? For Htet, the answer is obvious: “Young people know that our entire future depends on a safe climate and clean environment.”