Friday, January 07, 2005

final hello from southeast asia

hey all -

i'm here in singapore waiting for my connection to sfo. it's been a long travel day (or actually 2 or 3 days) with overnight trains, 3 flights, etc. etc., but all worth it. this is the final installment of my travel e-mails.

thank you all for checking in on me regarding the tragic tsunami here in asia. i'm sure it's big news there as well as here. i'm sorry i didn't get a chance to respond to all your e-mails, had a crazy week this week, and didn't get a chance to check internet. i was nowhere near any ocean or beaches when it hit, and was actually in cambodia at the time. i did meet other travellers though who were heading to phuket since i first started this trip, and i hope they're all ok. this past week, i did a 3 day trek up in chaing mai, thailand and met a new zealander who survived being swept away by the waves of the tsunami. amazing story of the force of it, and how they survived because they all climbed up to higher ground nearby. very fortunate.

anyway, since i last wrote on christmas, i've been through cambodia, bangkok, and up into northern thailand. spent a few days in phnom penh cambodia. found a really nice lakeside guesthouse, where i ended up spending a lot of time just chilling out. the main sites around phnom penh have a lot to do with the evil pol pot/khmer rouge regime and the massive genocide they inflicted - around 2 million cambodians systematically wiped out. i visited the tuol sleng museum, the main place of interrogation and torture during the khmer rouge period in the late 70's. it was originally a high school that was converted into a torture hellhole. on display were the cells that they were kept in, shackles and torture equipment that was used, and you could still see blood stains on the ceilings. they inflicted torture techniques such as pulling off your fingernails, hanging you upside down till you passed out, then dunking you in water, chinese water torture amongst just general beating and breaking of bones. when they did kill people with guns, in order to save precious bullets, they'd line people up front to back of about 10 or so deep, and shoot the front guy in the head with the bullet continuing all the way through. the saddest part was seeing all the photographs of the cambodians. they were individually photographed prior to entering the interrogation building. really really sad looking. then followed that up with the killing fields where mass graves were found. there's a stupa at the site, with 12,000 human skulls found nearby. messed up.

but overall phnom penh is a great city. seriously, i'm not kidding.

people in general in cambodia are some of the warmest and most genuine people that i've ever met. they never hesitate to smile, lend a hand, and love to be photographed. even though they all have known someone in their family who were affected by khmer rouge and the killing fields.

after phnom penh i headed to siam reap in cambodia to visit angkor wat (the largest religious building in the world) and the other 40 or so temples of angkor nearby.

angkor wat could be the greatest manmade thing i've ever scene. built in the 11 century (i think) the khmers were incredible builders, sculptors and artisans. it's quite dramatic to walk through the complex. it's like a procession over a moat through the causeway and entryway before getting to the building. lots of stuff have been looted during wars and the collapse of the khmer empire, but it is still quite magical. something incredible about smelling incense burning and colorfully draped buddhist monks walking by, despite the hordes of tourists there. i also visited about 15 other temples over a 3 day period. to get around you hire a moto driver to take you around, and it's pretty cheap, and they give you some insight about the temples. the temples were only rediscovered in the late 19th century when they were eaten up by jungle. there's one temple that was used in the angelina jolie movie, tomb raider. the tree roots are growing into the stone temples and have taken it over. it's a giant maze to go through.

after that i took the bumpiest dustiest longest hottest nastiest bus ride of my life. from siam reap to bangkok is a mere $9 bus ticket. you change busses at the thai - cambodia border. cambodia is known as the dustiest place on earth for good reason. for about 7 hours, the bus bottomed out on potholes the size of national park designated canyons. it's a tiny 13 person bus that through us around nonstop. i equate it to a 7 hour mechanical bull ride. of course the a/c didn't work, and of course the passenger door didn't close all the way, so all the dust on this dirt road came inside. all us passengers had to put a piece of cloth or bandana to cover our faces from the dust. we all looked like bandits. it was funny though, you can tell that thailand is a major westerner tourist place, because the bus on that side was a big double decker with a toilet, fully reclining seats, etc. and most importantly, paved roads. it was new year's eve, and after starting the bus trip at 7 am, i finally got into bangkok at 10 pm. bangkok was already going off with new year's celebrations, and i felt like the sober guy walking into the party.

the backpacker area in bangkok is weird. more westerners than thais, and all sorts of fast food places from america. i have a feeling vietnam in a couple of years is going to be similar, and cambodia will probably follow the tourist transition in 5 or 6 years. anyway, didn't spend much time in bangkok. had my fill of dirty southeast asia cities for one trip.

met some friends in bangkok and headed up to the north, in chaing mai. did a 3 day/2 nite trek to see some hill tribes, ride an elephant and raft down a river on a makeshift bamboo raft. the 6 of us on the trek bonded together really well and we spent the last week together going out at night, and spending 3 hours on the big asian tradition of karaoke. don't ask me why we spent 3 hours there. i've just come to accept it as a portion of my life that i can never take back.

anyway, i'm sorry this log isn't as humorous as the previous. i'm just so exhausted right now, and have averaged about 2 or 3 hours of sleep the past 3 or 4 nights.

anyway anyway, vietnam cambodia and thailand are great places to visit, despite the recent dark history in both vietnam and cambodia. and the food in vietnam and thailand are incredible.

thanks for reading, and i hope to see you all soon once i've rested and can tell the stories with more spice. as soon as i sort through the 1300 photos i took, i'll post the good one's on line. thank god for digital technology.....