In the past three years (37 months to be precise), I have been been fortunate enough to extensively travel through seven different countries on three different continents. The original purpose of my first trip was to relive the journey and spiritual awakening that Christopher McCandless experienced during his pilgrimage throughout North America (documented expertly by Jon Krakauer in his book, "Into the Wild"). Like McCandless, I went on this trip and subsequent trips by myself with the hopes of learning what the universe had to offer.
This first sojourn revealed many beautiful sites from the glaciers of Southern Argentina to the massive waterfalls of Iguazu to the breathtaking beauty of Torres del Paine. I returned to the United States much like McCandless had - enthralled with the beauty of nature but disgusted with the seemingly backwards priorities of my fellow countrymen. When I traveled to Africa for my second expedition, significant life events and the accompanying maturation endowed me with the gift of empathy. I had returned from Africa after three life-altering months and finally understood that my countrymen did not have the same priorities that I had gained because they had not seen all that I had seen. I had essentially received an education that they had not. I was forcing the lessons that I had learned on individuals who were not yet at a place to receive these teachings. Instead, I decided that I would reflect without bias on my experiences in the hopes that these adventures abroad may catalyze others to think about how they influence, and are influenced by, the world around them.
Like McCandless, there were numerous times where I was in trouble, lonely or witnessed breathtaking spectacles in solitude. Overcoming my fears, solving difficult problems and even having my life threatened were just some of the things I went through. The most important experience, however, was also McCandless' most important discovery. He had set out with an abhorrence for material things and the system that promoted them, but he learned that these things were independent from what was most significant in life - the love and companionship of those most important.
Much like Thomas Bayes, I have used these journeys and the lessons learned to refine my way of seeing the world. Therefore, I have decided to announce that this trip will be my third and last solo journey. I hope to forge new and wonderful memories with the person most important to me, whether it be trekking in the Outback of the Northern Territory, diving among the reefs of Costa Rica or relaxing on a gondola in Venice. I am excited for this new chapter and sincerely hope that you join me and my partner on our next expedition so that we can act as a conduit for showing you all of the wonderful things that the world and its peoples have to offer.
Koh Samui, Thailand and one last hurrah in Bangkok
29.12.2012 - 01.01.2013
As you have probably noticed throughout the course of this blog, my vacations are typically very fast-paced. The excursions can be fun, but they can be even more exhausting than my schedule back home. After 15 days of early morning, day-long excursions, I was ready to relax for a few days. The last stop on my trek was the island of Koh Samui off of the Eastern coast of Thailand. My plan was to sleep late, lay on the beach, wade in the clear and tropical water and reflect on my journey. I booked a nice resort which afforded me with my own space, and as I found out, even my own pool!
My beach abode
The weather was extremely windy the first full day I was there, and there weren't many people in beach attire. I walked around the resort and the beaches, taking pictures of odd things here and there and watching the kite surfers whimsically sail by. Although I wasn't especially enthused about hanging out on the beach with the overcast and windy weather, my beach cottage provided a nice sanctuary for reading my books. I immersed myself in Nate Silver's "The Signal and the Noise," pondering my application of Bayesian statistics and savoring the wonderful commentary on observation bias. In between reads, I watched English Premier League and Al Jazeera, ate a ton of Thai food and talked with Danielle.
Not exactly beach weather
The gathering storm
A beautiful seashell
A kite surfer in the distance
Relaxing with my book
The second day was more of the same, this time with heavy periodic thunderstorms. I fell asleep about three hours before the New Year's countdown and woke up to the sound of several explosions being set off fairly close to my once-peaceful bungalow as the locals brought in the new year.
The resort was nice, but it was not for me. I missed the camaraderie of hostels and their proximity to numerous things within town. The food was nice, but it couldn't be the numerous street stalls selling pork on a stick that were practically ubiquitous in other locales. I figured out that I really did prefer hostels to resorts, adrenaline adventures to poolside relaxation and street food to five star restaurants. The two days of relaxation was definitely nice and gave me an opportunity to recharge, but I was ready to do something exciting again.
Due to numerous travel issues that I will not cover in this blog (my loved ones have already heard an earful), I ended up leaving Koh Samui at 8 AM on January 1st to arrive in Bangkok at 9:15 AM. The only problem was that my flight back to the United States didn't take off until 2:20....AM. That left me with about a 17 hour layover, and I decided I would venture into Bangkok one more time to explore the sights that I had not gotten to see during my first tour.
Bangkok is actually a shortened version of the city's name. The full name is 167 characters, achieving the distinction of being the longest name in the world for any country's capital city. The full name loosely translates to "The City of Angels." As many of you know, Los Angeles shares this same meaning; probably another reason why I felt such a great affinity for the city. After one rail link from the airport, and two sky train lines within the city, I arrived at the home of the legendary Jim Thompson.
Jim Thompson was born in Delaware in 1906 and following his completion of secondary school, enrolled at Princeton University to become an architect. He worked as an architect for many years and volunteered for the Army when World War II broke out. Towards the end of the war, he was sent to Thailand and fell in love with the culture and people. In addition to his architectural prowess, Mr. Thompson had a shrewd business sense. He saw a few of the locals spinning silk and inquired about the process and the strange material they were weaving.
A fountain on the grounds
A beautiful visitor
He brought samples of the fabric back to New York to show respected members of the fashion industry, and subsequently took these samples to Milan and Paris where they were taken up almost immediately by various designers. His products appeared in the movie "The King and I" shortly thereafter, and this virtually catapulted the international market for the commodity which still flourishes today. After renting a house for a few years in Bangkok, he decided to build a home in what is now the Sukhimvit district of Bangkok. He built the structure out of numerous old building panels that he had imported from the ancient capital of Ayutthaya. He had nine separate buildings in all to house his personal belongings as well as his vast collection of Burmese, Khmer, Chinese and Thai artifacts and tapestries that he had amassed during his time in the region.
An ancient porcelain stool used in China; In the winter time, hot coals would be placed inside and the heat would radiate through the vents to warm the posterior
Although his house was very much in classical Ayutthaya style, Mr. Thompson still preferred numerous Western amenities. For instance, many Asian cultures typically eat meal sitting on the ground, but he wanted his Western guests to feel comfortable. Therefore, if one looks closely, his dining table is actually two mahjong tables that have been pushed together since the European tables were few and far between. Mr. Thompson also used his creativity to make lamps that would suit him. He took ancient Burmese drums, turned them over, and then used the flat parts of the drums as bases for various lamps throughout the house. And of course no 20th century mansion would be complete without at least one chandelier. Pictures were prohibited insides the house itself, but I managed to take a shot of his living room which was open to the outside. You can faintly see one of the chandeliers to the left as well as one of the specialty lamps on the right hand side of the second picture below.
A view from the outside
The open living room
The former garage
The house was exquisite, but it left my feet tired and my belly ravenous. On the recommendation of a friend, I headed over to the "Cabages and Condoms" restaurant. The founder of the restaurant is an effervescent man by the name of Mechai Viravaidya. In the 1960s, he realized that few Thais actually went to the doctor for contraception, but all of them went to vegetable stands to buy groceries. He knew that there was a considerable amount of stigma attached to contraception in Thai culture, so he literally decided to open a stand that sold vegetables and condoms side by side. Subsequent and innovative efforts on implemented on a massive scale have allowed him and his organization to be extremely effective at lowering the population growth rate from 3.2% in the early 1970s to 1.4% in the early 1990s. As of the writing of a 1994 article, 95% of Thais agree with birth control and 73% practice it.
...And the establishment's catchy slogan
His tiny vegetables stand has grown into a 300 seat restaurant in downtown Bangkok where instead of a post-meal mint, a condom is delivered with the bill. His awards and articles detailing his philanthropy fill the restaurant, along with a few quirky statues and historical "reproductions." I enjoyed a fabulous duck dish with tamarind sauce over steamed rice and felt inspired reading all of his articles after my meal (I literally read every single one). All of the proceeds from the restaurant go to the non-profit Population and Community Development Association which he helped found. The only sad part was that I could not share the experience with my wonderful advisers, Drs. Don Morisky, Paula Tavrow, Catherine Sugar and Marjan Javanbakht or any of my other sexual health allies of which there are thankfully so many to name. I walked away inspired and reinvigorated to return to the field and the work that I absolutely cherish.
A wonderful duck in tamarind sauce
The man himself
History with a twist
Yep, that's Mona Lisa with a condom on her hand
Only the coolest superhero ever
Seasonally dressed for the occasion
A question for Tiger
My after lunch gift...
...And an explanation of said gift
The organization that the proceeds support located next to the restaurant
My last stop was the Paragon shopping complex in the middle of Bangkok. As the name implies, this shopping mall was top shelf. I don't love to shop, but I was awe struck by the sheer size and modern qualities of the mall. The Mall of America was impressive, but this place was even more stunning. I went up a seemingly endless number of escalators gawking at the sheer selection offered. Just to provide an example, there was a whole FLOOR that was just cosmetics. It also had just about every type of restaurant and food imaginable. When I ascended to a floor that was so high it seemingly required an oxygen tank, I decided to head over to the movie complex to see if the reviews stacked up to the hype.
The Siam Paragon Mall
Hello darkness, my old friend
Cosmetics as far as the eye can see
I honestly never go to movies in foreign countries. I think the last movie I saw in a foreign country was a subtitled version of "The Sandlot" in Cuernavaca, Mexico circa 1994. When I go to a foreign country, I like to see what's unique to their culture and clime. After all, I LIVE in the city that produces the most movies in the world and is quite famous for its awe-inspiring cinneplexes. However, many travelers that I had encountered gave rave reviews to this theater stating that it provided immense luxury at such a bargain cost. My feet were tired from walking throughout the city and this seemed like a relaxing end to the day. The movie lobby demonstrated much of the opulence of the rest of the mall, and it was readily comparable to the amazing cinemas like the Century City Screens (near Beverly Hills, California), City Walk (adjacent to Universal Studios) or Rave (a movie theater that contains the most impressive IMAX screen in Southern California). These L.A. movie going experiences are the epitome of luxury, and you often pay a cool $15 for the privilege. In contrast, the Thai version of said experience cost me a mere $7.
Almost looks like it's from the future
Yep, that says "Privilege Chair"
The theater itself was not that stunning on the inside, but the chair was like something Captain Piccard would bark orders from on the Starship Enterprise. I felt simultaneously comfortable and master of my domain. As the movie engaged (sorry, couldn't resist), there were some striking differences. There were literally 25 minutes of previews and advertisements interspersed with one another. I was practically asleep by the time the movie started. Then a thunderous noise bellowed over the loud speaker and everyone stood in unison. I quickly figured out they were playing the Thai national anthem and with quite a bit of video propaganda. The whole song was in Thai with no English subtitles, aside from the very end. The last set of frames contained a caption that said, "The King is great. Long live the King." I'll let you digest that one.
When the movie was over, the clock had stuck 8 PM and I decided it was time for me to get back to the airport to wait out the rest of my layover and end the day on a high note. I solemnly boarded the Sky Train and then transferred to the airport rail link with a bitter sweet taste in my mouth. In just 19 days, I had experienced a significant amount of Thai and Cambodia history, culture and the natural wonders they had to offer. Although Bangkok is often times overcrowded and maddening to many travelers, I came from a big city where I knew that you needed to look deeper than the surface to find the real beauty in the locale. The city had given me Muay Thai fights, ladyboy extravaganzas, delicious streetfood and unforgettable temples. It was my favorite stop on my trip, and fitting that it would be at the introduction and conclusion of my trip. Asia's City of Angels, and her surrounding kingdom, had captured my heart, but it was time to finally return to my own.
Anyone who travels internationally knows that there are certain occupational hazards that come with any trip. Getting sick from new types of food, having luggage lost en route from one location to another, being ripped off by locals because you don't speak the language and cons from taxi cab drivers are just a few of the all too common mishaps in the developing world. It's usually not a question of if one of these things will happen, it's just a matter of when. I have been pretty lucky so far this trip. My flights have left and arrived on time and my baggage has come safely; I literally let out a sigh of relief every time I see my pack pop out on the conveyor belt. I have not gotten sick despite numerous occasions trying the local street fare. Every Thai that I've interacted with has even been extremely honest and has given me exact change - I'm looking at you, MEXICO! There have been a few misunderstandings here and there, but there really has been nothing that has altered my plans or caused me any huge inconveniences. Once I arrived in Phuket, I realized that my luck was about to change.
Phuket is infamous for its Spring break-like atmosphere that exists seemingly year-round. The majority of the island in reality is quite sleepy, and this drunkenness and debauchery is confined to a small district known at Patong. I made sure to stay away from this area, and enjoyed a nice peaceful sunset and quiet dinner when I arrived on Christmas day.
Phuket Sunset on Christmas Day
The next morning I woke up at 6 AM to be shuttled off to Phang Nga bay for snorkeling, spelunking and sightseeing. I packed my camera and GoPro and arrived at the dock with a considerable amount of excitement. Over the course of this trip, I have been using one SD card for my camera and GoPro since my new netbook does not read the second SD card. This means that I have had to change the SD card between the camera and GoPro every time I want to switch from pictures to video or vice versa. This has been a minor annoyance, but it's not caused any major stress.
I used the GoPro during my morning snorkel to take some great video footage feeding the local fish with a few bananas the tour guide had brought. Later that morning, we went to another island and took a nice walk through the jungle taking in numerous sites. Later that afternoon, we went to the island famous for its appearance in the James Bond movie, "The Man with the Golden Gun" and took some great shots there. The coolest hike of the day was through a cave on a neighboring island where we emerged from the other side to see numerous monkeys playing in the treetops which made for some more great video footage. At this point you might be asking, "that sounds really cool, but where are all the pictures?"
During the last stop of the day, we decided to put on our bathing suites one more time and dive in to the warm water for a final swim. I took the GoPro and got a great video shot of my first dive into the drink using the head mounted strap. I decided to go up for a second dive, and when I dived in this time, the video camera popped off my head and now rests somewhere at the bottom of the Indian Ocean. I was really panicked because the camera was $300, and more importantly, I had ALL of my vacation photos on the SD card that resided inside it. Luckily, I have backed up my photos on my laptop every single day since I got here because I was paranoid the camera would be stolen (never mind my potential for error). That being said, I really only lost the photos and video from that day and a $300 camera. Let's just consider it a sunk cost. I only got one with my other SD card, but despite not having photos, it was definitely a great day.
The sole picture from the islands
I decided to take it easy the next day and set off for a day at the beach. Accompanied by a few newfound hostel friends, Norman and Jong, we embarked on the local bus to Kata beach on the West Coast of the island. The bus ride was pleasant, but it definitely struggled to get up a few of the hills. There were a few times where we glanced at one another wondering if we might need to eventually get out and push. The beach itself was quite pleasant and I even got a shade darker in the afternoon sun.
Our not-so-glorious chariot
That night we trotted off to a famous eatery called "The Cook" in Phuket town. Tired of big resort cooking, the chef decided that he wanted to make delicious food that was affordable to all. I had an amazing garlic pork dish and shared another wonderful entree called Tom Yum pizza. The pizza was essentially shrimp, squid and mushrooms with a spicy sauce underneath. It was absolutely sinus-clearing, and was a fantastic end to the night.
Tom Yum Pizza (emphasis on the "yum!")
The cute store front
The last day in Phuket was spent on the Phi Phi Islands just off the East coast. The Phi Phi islands (pronounced "pee pee," go ahead and chuckle) was the last spot on my To Do list, and Jong decided he was also up for the journey. The first stop was a beautiful island between Phulet and Phi Phi where there were over two dozen types of fish that inhabited the shallow reefs. I snorkeled for about an hour and then it was time to be transferred back to the mother ship. The dock to the island was made out of numerous plastic jugs that were strung together and looked like an oscillating bridge that would be found in a Super Nintendo era video game. I kept a low center of gravity and luckily made it to the transfer boat, thanking all deities in the process.
Sites on the way
A nice little beach shack
Becoming one with the fish
Taking it in
The precarious foot bridge
The second snorkel spot was Maya Bay which was South of the main island. The fish were nearly as plentiful, and there were a lot of spots to explore. We even managed to snorkel through a cave which was really neat. After a short shopping stop on the main island and one delicious pineapple shake later, I arrived back in Phuket town, had an amazing dinner of street food and then promptly passed out. It's off to Koh Samui and more island adventures, more to come soon.
My friend, Jong, on the boat
It's amazing how good blended ice and pineapple can taste
Chiang Mai is a mountainous town tucked away in the Northwestern corner of Thailand. It is close to the borders of both Laos and Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) and is famous for its beautiful geography, temperate climate and the wonderful wildlife that inhabit the area. My first stop was to a beautiful refuge for the mighty Asian elephants located just 40 miles outside the city.
In 1989, Thailand passed legislation to ban logging in order to prevent further deforestation. Many elephants were employed in this industry to haul logs from one location to the other and were put out of work as a result of these laws. Some were taken and forced to beg on the streets to appease their owners whereas others were outright abandoned. The Elephant Nature Park was established by Sangduen "Lek" Chailert in 1996 as a sanctuary for abused and abandoned elephants. The sanctuary started out with just two elephants but is now home to over forty resident pachyderms.
The first elephant that I worked with at the park had been one of the first rescued by Lek. This elephant's calf had fallen down a steep bank and died rather young. Depressed and distraught, she refused to work for her owner at the time. The owner was angered by her insolence and stuck a rod into her eye which effectively blinded her.
We gathered the food needed for breakfast, and she slowly sauntered to our position to commence feeding. As I picked up each banana bunch, I had to touch her trunk softly to indicate that I was going to hand her food since the incident left her with severely limited sight. When she felt my touch, I extended the bananas so that she could grasp them with her trunk and place them in her mouth.
Time for breakfast
Gently placing the bananas in her trunk
Smiling at the success of the handoff
After breakfast, we took a journey to the pen to see the newest arrival to the herd. Baby Navaan was born on October 28th, 2012 and weighed 213 pounds (97 kilograms). When he was born, the entire heard trumpeted in unison to celebrate the birth; a common practice in elephant communities. The staff had only rescued the mother 9 months prior and had no idea that she was pregnant until she began to have contractions (elephant pregnancies last between 18 and 24 months). The baby seemed happy and healthy and is only being kept in the pen so that he is not trampled by his older kinsmen. Once he is large enough, he will be allowed to roam with the others in the 2,000 acre open space of the sanctuary.
The two-month-old calf, Navaan
As we observed the new edition interact with his mother, I noticed that one of the elephants was seemingly tossing dirt at me. I asked our guide if I had somehow offended the creature, and she reassured me by saying that it was actually throwing dirt onto its own back. Elephants do this for many reasons including a way to keep cool in the afternoon heat and protect themselves from mosquitoes.
Adding a layer
We had lunch and then put on our swim trunks so that we could go bathe their trunks. We splashed water on them (and a little on each other) as they patiently stood by. Once they had had enough, they trotted off seemingly to dry themselves in the hot afternoon soon. We found them only five minutes later playing joyfully in a puddle of mud. Although I don't have children yet, this is probably the frustration that comes with trying to clean a slightly rambunctious child.
A family of elephants migrating to take a dip in the river
...And then getting dirty again
A good end to the day
The next day was tailored a bit more towards my adrenaline side. Those of you who have followed me before know that I have a slight penchant towards the physically extreme (for those of you who haven't seen the In Vivo film, Check it out here). While this trip has been fantastic so far, it wouldn't be complete without at least one activity where I needed to sign a death and dismemberment waiver.
A van arrived at my hostel early in the morning and took me and 8 other individuals to the Flight of the Gibbon Zip-line adventure in the mountains of Chiang Mai. While the gibbons were sparse to say the least, the flights were definitely plentiful.
My guide for the day was a slightly unhinged and hilarious man named Cash. He would often shake the line as we went through the jungle and crack jokes to make those afraid of heights feel a bit more at ease. There were 18 zip-lines throughout the course with the longest measuring over 2,400 feet in length. This last zip-line is the longest in Asia and shot me through the jungle with dizzying speed (video below).
Ready to go
Hooking up to the first platform
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has nothing on me
The 2400 Foot Monster
A nice view from the top
Me with the man in black
On the third day, I hired a car to take me on the three and a half hour journey North to the town of Chiang Rai. Chiang Rai is a sleepy hamlet that has recently gained fame as the site of Wat Rong Khun (translated as "The White Temple"). In 1997, famed Thai architect Chalermchai Kositpipat decided that he wanted to give something back to his place of birth and embarked on a mission to build a new age Buddhist Temple in Chiang Rai. He has labored on the structure tirelessly and has taken on 67 disciples to assist in the completion of his vision. This temple is still very much a work in progress with an estimated completion date of 2070.
The edifice is purely white with small reflective pieces used to accentuate the elaborate statues. As I approached the temple, I noticed a small bridge that I needed to cross over before I arrived at the main structure. Underneath the bridge were dozens of arms reaching up from a pit which is meant to symbolize hell. As the artist puts it, "to reach heaven, you need to pass suffering." The image was powerful, but it would not prepare me for the darker images that I would see later that day.
At first glance
The exhibition of suffering
From the depths of hell
Once I passed over the bridge, I was flanked by two angels that guard the entrance to the temple itself. I gently removed my shoes to enter the temple and marveled at the incredible interior as I walked inside.
And incomparable beauty
Entering the temple
The interior was nothing short of otherworldly. However, I began to notice odd quirks that distinguished it from the more ancient temples within the country. The mural within the shrine has been under construction for over three years. A large Buddha image is surrounded by tiny figures from American pop-culture including: Michael Jackson; Bumble Bee from Transformers; Leonidas from 300; Neo from the Matrix and a picture of an Angry Bird next to a collapsing World Trade Center. Other oddities include a Predator writhing in agony as well as a few peculiar traffic cones just outside the main hall.
No pictures are allowed inside, but I managed to capture this blurry photo. You can see Neo to the upper left, the speeder used by Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars, Episode I; Bumble Bee from the movie, Transformers and one of the dragon-like creatures from Avatar.
More like prey
Not your average traffic cone
The project has cost the architect over 10 million US dollars since its inception in 1997. He raises money through the sale of prints of his paintings as well as pendants. After a pendant is purchased, the buyer writes the name and birth date of the person he/she wishes to bring luck and hangs it on special trees within the temple grounds. This ritual is a common practice among native Thais, and there are literally thousands of these pendants hanging throughout the park.
One of the pendant trees
Hanging the newest pendant
Dedicated to Danielle Davis, born nearly 26 years ago
Just 15 miles up the road from the White Temple sits a structure in stark contrast, Black House. Whereas the White Temple emphasizes purity and heavenly ideals, Black House is filled with items highlighting death and suffering. As I approached the first massive black pagoda, I literally felt like I was walking into hell. The entrance hall was barren aside from a few possessions carefully arranged within the cavernous interior. The most imposing piece was a massive table that is over a hundred feet long that straddles the front and back entrances. At the heads of this table sat massive chairs make of tusks and horns from various animals. The table itself was adorned with numerous table runners made out of snake skin and still containing the heads of the vanquished creatures. The periphery contained numerous massive wooden pillars which depicted animals in their final moments of life with skins carefully strung across them.
The infamous and imposing Black House
The door to hell
The chair of a fallen angel
A table runner complete with snake head
Not optimized for comfort
Heads of dragons
Beyond this entrance hall sat numerous other pagodas in the same signature black coloration. The most disturbing was a pagoda enclosing a table seemingly set for meals. Turtle shells rested where the plates normally were placed, and the centerpiece was a likeness of a man who was near death from overwhelming hunger. The chairs surrounding the table were in the same sadistic style as the main entry hall, and I could just stare in morbid fascination at the sites that were laid before me.
Elephant bones carefully placed
Cryptic signs pointing to nowhere
Carving out the sky
A demonic table set
An ironic center piece for a feast
As I walked through the grounds with my visibly shaken tour guide, she whispered to me that the artist was sitting near the main pagoda talking to a few other visitors. I decided I wanted to pay my respects to this man, and I ventured over to meet him. As I approached, I became more scared of the figure that sat before me.
The master of his domain
"May I take your picture?" I sheepishly asked, not fully sure he understood English.
"It would be my pleasure," he gently responded.
I fumbled with the camera, but eventually took his picture all the same. "Where are you from?" He asked me with an affable smile.
"Los Angeles, California," I responded, eyes pointed towards the ground.
"I have a house in Pasadena, but I decided that I wanted to be among my things if the world did in fact end on December 21st," he mused.
We exchanged smiles, and I began asking him questions about his career, his current work, the 36 year labor that was before me, and the inspiration to start it all.
"In my twenties, I was inspired by Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. I was later inspired by Francis Bacon and other thinkers in that period. But one day I was talking to Jackson Pollack, and I suddenly didn't care what anyone else thought. In my forties, I became enlightened, and I just created what was in my heart," he said with a peaceful smile.
I thanked him for his time and bowed in reverence as I took my leave. I entered the car and began to think about what I had seen for the long ride back to Chiang Mai. I had seemingly witnessed heaven and hell, and I reflected a considerable amount about my own mortality. I struggled to determine why a man would create something so frightening and simultaneously be so at peace with the work. Was it an outlet for his inner demons, or was it just acceptance that death was as much a part of the world as living?
Where the White Temple brought inner peace and childlike fascination, the Black House brought turmoil and fear of the unknown. I don't know if I will ever truly understand the magnitude of what I witnessed today, but I know that I am deeply grateful for the lessons that this experience afforded. It's off to the Southern peninsula and the island of Phuket, more to come soon...
DISCLAIMER: My goal with these entries is to give you accurate insights into the places that I have been fortunate enough to explore. Sometimes these accounts are not easy to read, but they depict my reflections in a raw and honest manner. Please note that this post contains disturbing history and pictures that may be difficult for some to view. However, I encourage you to view this post in its entirety as it contains important history and possible ways we can make our future brighter than our past.
When I arrived in Siem Reap, I was met at the airport by a lovely Cambodian man who simply introduced himself as Mr. Jim. Mr. Jim was tasked with taking me from the airport to the hostel which was a somewhat perilous journey for the uninitiated such as myself. Although the highway is only one lane in each direction, the locals have implemented a three-lane system in each direction with rampant precarious passing. The best way I can describe it is a constant game of chicken...but on a freeway.
The talented Mr. Jim
When I finally arrived at the hostel, I thanked god for retaining all of my appendages and began to formulate the details of my plan for this stop in the journey. The main purpose of my trip to Cambodia was to visit the ruins of the ancient Angkor empire. I have been fascinated by this kingdom ever since I read a brilliant account given by Jared Diamond in his book, “Collapse.” The kingdom was founded by King Jayavarman II in 802 CE and was finally sacked by the Siamese kingdom of Ayutthaya (see previous blog post for history of Ayutthaya) in 1431. Research was recently published showing that it was in fact the largest urban center in preindustrial times with the civilization covering over 1,000 square kilometers (Evans et al., 2007).
The Angkor kings invested a considerable amount in an extremely sophisticated irrigation system that spanned the empire. When the population finally exceeded its carrying capacity, the water table fell below the line of irrigation system and critical parts of the kingdom were deprived of water resources. This resource shortage was instrumental in the eventual victory of the Ayutthayan empire over the Angkor empire. Following the fall, the population migrated to Longvek. The grounds of Angkor would lay untouched until French explorers discovered the massive kingdom in the late 19th century.
I set off to explore the ruins with Mr. Jim at the wheel after I had unpacked and gathered the necessary gear. He first took me to the Banteay Srey temple at the Northeastern end of the former empire, and we worked our way through the numerous sites in the fallen civilization. I was impressed by the intricate stone carvings that adorned the doorways, pillars and wall panels in each of the sites.
The road to Angkor
The massive stairs at Pre Rup
The smiling faces of Bayon
Bathed in sunlight
One of my favorite sites was Ta Prohm, a former monastery and university formed under King Jayavarman VII. This temple is unique because many massive trees have grown through the ruins with the roots artistically covering the base structures. This site is also renowned for its appearance in the movie “Tomb Raider” with Angelina Jolie.
Masonry at Ta Prohm
In the shadows
A view unobstructed
On closer inspection
Mr. Jim took me to a lovely traditional Khmer restaurant when I decided I finally needed a break. I had a delicious mild green curry with spinach served nicely in a coconut.
Eating a delicious traditional Khmer dish
...And apparently making a friend in the process
Two Cambodian girls playing outside
When I finally felt refueled, I headed out to my last stop on my Angkor trek - the famed Angkor Wat. This was the main temple of the civilization, and the massive size of the structure is nothing short of impressive. I was able to explore the structure a bit before sunset and found countless sandstone murals throughout the edifice.
A view from afar
Serpent guarding the temple
From the inside of the complex
The sun starting to fade
It wasn't exactly an easy walk down
When the sun was about to clock out for the day, I hurried outside of the structure so that I could get a few shots in the remaining light. I positioned myself just to the right of the temple and got a few great shots as the sky shifted through the spectrum.
It was just a bit humid
Angkor in all its majesty
The silhouettes of Angkor
The sun making its final descent
I was also fortunate enough to learn a considerable amount of contemporary history during my time in Cambodia. To give myself a break from the temples, I visited the local War Museum which was staffed by former soldiers in the conflict between Cambodia and the Khmer Rogue.
In 1970, the United States feared that an underground Marxist uprising would soon allow Cambodia to fall into the hands of Communists. As a prevention tactic, they supported and financed a coup d'etat of the ruling government by General Lon Nol. The general successfully drove the Communists to the North, but financing from China allowed the Communists led by Pol Pot to take the capital in 1975. Pol Pot began a process of "social re-engineering" which placed people from urban areas into forced labor camps in the countryside. It is currently estimated that during the 15 year war, Pol Pot was instrumental in over one million people dying from torture, starvation or disease. Pol Pot's Khmer Rogue and Vietnamese army (composed of forces from the United States, Vietnam and Cambodia) laid over 16 million mines during the conflict.
My guide at the museum was a former soldier named Sonh, who had lost his left leg to a mine during the war. He said that there were between 4 to 6 million mines still left in the country. You read that correct - 4 to 6 MILLION. We talked at length, and he recommended that I visit a museum in the North end of town to learn more about the clean-up effort.
Different forms of ordinance that have been unearthed by the Cambodian Government
My guide at the Military Museum who was brave enough to share his story
The Siem Reap Landmine Museum details the efforts of Cambodian activist Aki Ra and his organization, Landmine Relief Fund, to demine Cambodia. Aki Ra was a former child soldier who was given a gun at the age of 10 and forced to fight as a child soldier for the Khmer Rogue. He was also forced to lay mines (also known as ordinance) and became an expert at working with numerous types of explosives. He would later defect to Vietnam and fight against the Khmer Rogue until the war ended. In 1993, Aki Ra joined the United Nations in their efforts to demine Cambodia. He would later start his own organization which has cleared over 50,000 pieces of ordinance since its founding. In 2010, Aki Ra was honored at the CNN heroes banquet for his efforts and accomplishments in landmine disposal and removal.
Arriving at the museum
Munitions disposed by Aki Ra and his team
Warning sign found in front of numerous fields in the rural areas of Cambodia
Another warning sign but tailored to children; an overwhelming number of landmine victim are small boys
Speaks for itself
CNN Heroes Award presented to Aki Ra in 2010
When I arrived at the museum, I was admittedly a bit surprised to be greeted by a cordial American wearing Vietnam-era BDUs. He introduced himself as Bill Morse and began to tell me his story. He had been in the Vietnam war and had heard about the efforts of Aki Ra from a friend back in the United States. He was so inspired by his story that he flew to Cambodia to meet Aki Ra. He told Aki Ra that he would help the demining efforts in whatever way he could and began to raise money for the organization in the US. He grew such an affinity for the cause that he and his wife decided to move to Cambodia to assist full time in 2010.
My guide at the museum, Bill Morse
Bill and his wife, Jill
My visit to these museums profoundly affected me. It reinforced my belief that war is an awful thing where many innocent civilians and combatants die for causes that are often unclear. However, there are still many people in this world dedicated to ensuring that atrocities like these are prevented in future generations. Cambodia has one of the highest amputee rates in the world as a legacy of this awful war with an estimated 40,000 amputees living throughout the country. There are unfortunately new casualties every month from these destructive devices (see story below), and I applaud the efforts of organizations like these to prevent further casualties from occurring.
From October 2012
It is easy to quickly regress from a desire for activism to despair when I experience things like this. Although I know I cannot help this cause directly at this time, I decided that I could show my support through a $50 donation to their mission. I urge you to be unconventional this Christmas and give someone a gift by making a donation in their name to a cause that you support. Whether its the Landmine Relief Fund or another NGO, individuals fighting for those less fortunate work tirelessly to make the world a better place. Whether it's $5 or $10,000, your contribution could make someone's holidays just a little brighter and could even save a life.