So, after two months in Thailand, I’m getting ready for the grand tour of Southeast Asia: crossing to Cambodia through the land border at Poipet, two weeks in Cambodia, two weeks in Vietnam, two weeks in Laos, then back to Chiang Mai, Thailand, and two weeks of volunteer work on the Burmese border. Then I’ll be back in Bangkok for a few days before leaving for India.
In Cambodia, I’m probably going to focus on Angkor Wat, which is–from all descriptions and photos–one of the most impressive sights anywhere, and one of the top ten archaeological/historic sites in the world. Angkor Wat is one of about 100 temples in the Angkor area–at about 500 acres and about a mile on a side, it’s the biggest and most impressive one. But there are lots of other temples in the area, in many different architectural styles. The photos are stunning, and the complex itself is supposed to be more impressive than the photos. (Just as Ansel Adam’s best efforts don’t really capture Yosemite, I imagine–a photograph just can’t capture the scale.) There’s a fair amount of tourist infrastructure in Siem Reap (the gateway to Angkor), so I’m not too worried about traveling there. I plan to get a one-week entrance to Angkor and spend a week there, photographing and reading about the complex.
After Angkor, I’m planning to go to Phnom Penh, the capital–primarily to look at their Holocaust Museum. Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 suffered through the rule of Pol Pot, who (from the brief histories I’ve read) makes Hitler look positively civilized. During his brief reign, Pol Pot literally emptied the cities, slaughtered almost all the minorities in Cambodia (“ethnic cleansing”), murdered everyone with a trace of education, and destroyed most of the country’s infrastructure in an attempt to return the country to his rural ideal. (He even abolished money, because he thought barter was better.) It’s estimated that between 1/5 and 1/3 of all Cambodians died under the Khmer Rouge–many gruesomely. (Disemboweling, burying in sand, ripping to pieces, etc.) And all that was before the land mines.
So Cambodia today is still recovering from a nightmare. The roads are unpaved (“resemble a BMX track” says one guidebook), armed banditry is still a serious danger, corruption is common, there’s almost no money to do anything, and one out of every 250 Cambodians has lost a limb to landmines. There are so many landmines in the country that it’s estimated it will take 30 years or so to clear them all…since the government doesn’t have the money to do it, most of them will be “discovered” by Cambodians (thus the number of amputees). There’s very little infrastructure, and the sewage etc. systems are similarly undeveloped (back to cold showers…*sigh*). The good news is, the locals (at least the unarmed ones 😉 ) are very friendly, and the scenery’s supposed to be terrific. And, of course, there’s Angkor, one of the great sights of Asia.
(Not only that, but in Phnom Penh there’s a shooting range that will let you practice with AK-47s. Apparently you can buy them in the market there for about $20–yes, of course I’m tempted, but how on earth would I get it home??? It’s really too bad I couldn’t have brought one back to Thailand for the body painting–barbarian princess with AK47 would have been hilarious. However, I must of course try actually firing one of these things. )
Safety-wise, it’s apparently (mostly) OK to be wandering around Angkor and Phnom Penh, although they say that armed banditry is a real danger at night in Phnom Penh (no late-night bar-hopping for me in Cambodia…I’m SO disappointed… 😉 ) and that traveling outside of the three major tourist areas is strictly at one’s own risk. I plan to stay pretty much on the beaten track in Cambodia; as much fun as it would be to get kidnapped by bandits, I have a schedule to keep, so don’t plan on being sidetracked. 😉
(Actually it may not be that bad. Lonely Planet says it’s safe, Moon Handbooks says not. I’m not sure who to believe, but I figure I’ll inquire once I get there. In any event there’s almost no infrastructure, so *getting* to those places would be complicated anyway; and landmines are much more dangerous/common than bandits.)
From Cambodia, I’m moving on to Vietnam. Not sure about the itinerary there yet–it’s supposed to be very bicycle friendly, so I may try renting a bicycle and touring part of the country by bicycle. I think it’s better not to do too much preplanning, though, as, from experience, preplanning is largely useless. I’ll read through the guidebook, get an idea or two of the big attractions, and then see what turns up.
Someone remind me to write about Thai classic dance later–I spent yesterday morning watching a dancer taking lessons from her teacher, and it was really fascinating. Thai dance is a bit like T’ai Chi–in the hands of a beginner it looks mincingly overdone and a string of weird poses, but with an experienced practitioner it flows straight from the chi, and is beautiful in a very understated way. I also went to a dinner performance of Thai dance last night, but wasn’t nearly as impressed–I don’t think the dancers’ heart was in it; the teacher’s was.). I did take some good pictures of the costuming, though.
Thai dance in general seems to fit with the Thai perspective/approach, which could best be described as fitting oneself into a known format and merging with the format, whereas the Western approach is to create one’s own format. But that’s a much longer discussion, and I have to get to the Vietnamese Embassy today to get my Vietnamese visa…I’ll probably leave Bangkok early Thursday morning.