I left off at Cambodia. Wow. This is certainly not a country I ever imagined I'd ever visit. I remember going to school with kids from there when I was little, remembering stories about them and their parents escaping the country so I never had great assumptions for the country.
We crossed into Cambodia by boat. We went on a Mekong River cruise that started in the Mekong Delta (Vietnam) and traveled north to Siem Reap, Cambodia. For 8 days Colin and I explored fishing villages, towns, pagodas, palaces and factories, what a fantastic way to explore a country! It was so neat to see whole villages on the river...literally on the river. The houses were built as small barges so they could float on the water. This is helps them avoid major flooding that ensues after the river swells in the winter.
Some gorgeous pagodas (temples)
We had the pleasure of visiting an orphanage and elementary school as well as fair trade and weaving villages and rice paper and puffed rice factories.
They even let me try my hand at rice paper, all I can say is I better keep looking for a job. :)
At the end of the cruise we were dropped off in Siem Reap. Siem Reap is home to Angkor Wat. Angkor What?? Haha, a few people have said that. Angkor Wat is a tenth century temple in the ancient city of Angkor. The city, about 60 square miles big was once home to over a million people back in the 900's. It literally outgrew itself and eventually gave into disease. The jungle took it over and was hidden until the late 19th century. Since then various projects have been conducted to restore this incredible city. Angkor Wat is the main temple of the city and is absolutely amazing. If this place were in the West it would be roped off and preserved to the nth degree. However here, for $40 you have three days of full access. We spent three days climbing in, out, up, down and around the structures. Just standing at the top of a building that was once a "city hall" over a thousand years ago is truly a privilege.
Terrace of the Elephants...and me.
I think this is Bayon
We climbed to the top of this puppy, whew!
Still however, amongst all that amazing, gorgeous history it was painful to watch how some of the country's people spend their days. I don't know what brought me more tears, the children peddling postcards and scarves ("Pretty scarf for pretty lady?" "10 postcards! 10 for one dolla!") when they should have been in school or the young father crawling like a gorilla on his hands and knees because his two legs were blown off by a land mine. Colin and I stopped at a bar for lunch and sat up on the deck while we watched foot traffic below. I couldn't help but stare at this man who wore a basket full of postcards around his neck as sat against a wall hoping to make a sale. I was in tears when I saw him crawl by our restaurant, soaking wet during dinner in a massive thunderstorm. No raincoat, no jacket. Never had I seen such hopeless poverty. This is a country that has suffered for a long time. Earlier in the trip we stopped at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh:
and got to see some amazing ornate buildings, jewels and artifacts. It baffles me to see a five foot Budda made out of pure gold, a pagoda's interior floor made out of pure silver or millions of dollars in precious jewels sitting in glass cases when there are people who fight to make less than a dollar a day. More tears but hope for progress came on when we visited the Tuol Sleng Prison and Killing Fields as well. It was incredible to witness a place that played host to such mass murder 35 years ago. I cannot even BEGIN to describe the nausea brought on by such a sight. Seeing bones, skulls, clothing matted into the dirt all while learning that some of the mass graves we were looking at had yet to be excavated, was overwhelming. You can still see the sadness in people's eyes, they will never forget (nor let their offspring forget) what happened to their parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and friends.
Thousands of skulls preserved in a memorial Stupa
Mass grave sites at the Killing Fields
While Malaysia brought some similar experiences, it certainly didn't have the poverty rate of Cambodia. Malaysia seems to be on the rise, we checked out Kuala Lumpur and Penang. KL is a rising metropolis. A crazy one at that! They failed to build the city on a standard grid so a map of the downtown area sort of resembles a three year old's sketch of his spaghetti dinner. None of the bus or subway lines connected (they're all owned by separate companies) so we spent a lot of time getting lost. A LOT. We did however hit Chinatown, a shopper's mecca. Even Colin enjoyed the shopping here so I think that says a lot!
Penang was pretty cool. It took us two cabs and 2.5 hours to make it from the airport to our hotel (plus the hotel lost our reservation) but the ambiance of the island made up for it. What a beautiful, quaint island! We shared our hotel with a good portion of the Saudi Arabian population. Apparently this is where they vacation! I had never seen a burqa in real life before and I was met by a sea of them! It was most certainly a culture shock. I no longer felt all that comfortable walking around in my tank top and shorts when these women only dared to bare their eyes. Some of the more liberal women chose to don swim burqas. The gift shop even sold them! I wanted a picture but it just didn't feel proper to snap photos of these women donning hot pink spandex. We did enjoy seeing the town, celebrating our 1 year anniversary (oddly enough, on our 1 1/2 year anniversary) at an unbelievable restaurant and hanging out by the pool in Penang. A great segway to Singapore!
Singapore was flat out amazing. After all the chaos of our trip Singapore was like a breath of fresh air! Our hotel sent a mercedes to pick us up and we felt like a honeymooning couple all over again! We stayed in an amazing hotel, ate some incredible food and just took in the orderly amazingness of this city. We could cross the street without fearing for our lives, purchase a meal knowing it's fully cooked and we're getting a fair price and enjoying clean streets and sidewalks! It didn't take long for us to figure out why Singapore takes order to the extreme. Surrounded by poverty, corruption and struggling economies, this country has done everything to ensure they do not end up that way. We loved everything here. The zoo, the Singapore Flyer, malls, everything. It was a great way to wrap up such a big trip.
Some people have asked if we felt this was a relaxing vacation. I have to say that it wasn't necessarily a relaxing one. And I don't think we really intended for it to be. Purposely cramming five countries into four weeks is enough to make a traveler dizzy but we wanted to experience as much as we could in the time we had. I almost think I would have left with an excess of guilt if I chose to relax in some of these places. Knowing what poverty and pain we walked amongst everyday is a real wake up to the realities of much of this world. This is definitely a part of the world our history books did not focus on nearly enough, a shame really.
Not to try and depress you my friends, I just want you have an idea of what our trip was all about. Our church is planning a mission trip to Cambodia this fall and we had the honor of sharing our trip with the congregation. I'm excited for more people to learn about this part of the world, it certainly deserves the recognition.