Hanoi, Vietnam – In 1975 the ruthless communist dictator Pol Pot came to power in Cambodia, ushering in the reign of the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot’s vision was one of an agrarian society founded on equality and self sufficiency. To achieve his goal, Pol Pot exiled everyone from the cities, closed the country’s borders with land mines, disbanded modern institutions associated with education, medicine, free trade, and the media, and forced all people in Cambodia to move to collective farms (ie. work camps) throughout the Cambodian countryside. The mass migration from the cities tore families apart and forced people to leave all of their belongings behind, while the loss of all social institutions completely halted the Cambodian economy and led to great sickness and starvation.
Hanoi, Vietnam – Cambodia. The name conjures contrasting images and feelings – part sobering reality, part uplifting hope and humanity, and part organized chaos. Less than 20 years removed from their last coup d’etat, the country is going through massive change while continuing to heal from past wounds. At times it felt like I was in the Wild West – a place where anything goes – which can make traveling quite an adventure until you get used to the cadence of daily life. However, the people were very open and caring and helpful (and most spoke English very well) which made the adjustment as smooth and painless as possible – turning the uncomfortable into the thoroughly enjoyable.
Hanoi, Vietnam – Voluntourism. The word and the concept – to volunteer while on holiday abroad – has the world of travel abuzz and the world of non profits seething. Open any Lonely Planet travel guide, and you’ll probably come across at least a small section on how to volunteer while vacationing to gain a more “real” experience with the country’s culture and people. Go on a travel forum discussing voluntourism and you would think the world is coming to an end because some kid on his or her gap year wants to travel and volunteer. Considering I’ll be voluntouristing (not sure if that’s word, but I’m running with it) in Vietnam, I thought I would share my thoughts, viewpoint, and expectations on the eve of my start date and see how they change by the end of my time here.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia - I have a confession to make. On the boat ride back to the pier after the sea canoe tour in Phuket, I had more than just a “pinch me” moment. I had one of those magical moments when everything in life comes together, the big picture comes into focus, and a path emerges through the forest. A moment of true clarity, if you will. I know, it probably sounds cliched or corny, but something happened on that boat that solidified my perspective of this trip and brought me great inner peace.
Siem Reap, Cambodia – As mentioned previously, the sea canoe tour I embarked on while in Phuket was absolutely amazing. The gist of the tour was to enter two hongs (open lagoons in the middle of a few of the limestone karsts) in Pha Nga Bay via sea cave during the day and then re-enter one of the hongs at night using only three forms of natural light. The only catch with the whole thing is that for most of the sea cave passages, you need to lie flat on your back – with the ceiling only inches from your face in some instances (good luck if you’re claustrophobic) – to glide through the cave without nailing your head. There was a guide with each canoe to do all of the paddling so you didn’t need to worry about it while trying to keep from smashing your face.
Bangkok, Thailand – Now this, this was the Thailand I was expecting. My time in Phuket was three days of in your face sensory overload. Of course, I stayed in Patong – the party capital of Phuket – which explains a lot of the high octane energy coursing through the place. But, there was still the beach, the sun, the food, the people, the hagglers, the “massage parlor” girls, the Tuk Tuk drivers, the constant noise. You name it, it was there, and I loved every minute of it. To top it off, I went on an amazing sea canoe tour in Pha Nga Bay that provided several more amazing moments.
Phuket, Thailand – I’ll start with a full disclosure: I didn’t leave the hotel my first day here. After almost 23 hours of flights, layovers, and delays I was exhausted and extremely jet lagged. And, arriving to the hotel at 1:30 AM most certainly didn’t help matters either. I was in need of some rest and relaxation, and I took it. However, I’m guessing that much needed R&R played a role in forming my initial impression of Bangkok, which was just, well, meh.
Well, this it. In approximately 15 hours I will be on the way to Bangkok, stop one on the world tour. I’m excited. I’m nervous. I can’t wait for this adventure to begin. I think the band Whitesnake said it best in their hit Here I Go Again (which I’ll leave you with below). To all my readers out there, I can’t wait to share the adventure with you. To all my friends and family, I guess I’ll see you when I see you.
How does one pack for a five month trip, especially when traveling abroad? It’s a question I’ve been hearing quite often lately, and my answer is quite simple: keep everything to a minimum (insert laugh track here). To help reduce the load I can do laundry along the way, go to the store for unexpected needs, and ship things home if my bags start to get a little on the heavy side. However, I’ll still need to be prepared to deal with weather (it will be the rainy season in Southeast Asia), a range of temperatures (summer in Southeast Asia to winter in South Africa), mild maladies and injuries (colds, traveler’s diarrhea, sprained ankles, etc.), and differing airline luggage requirements.
As much as I’m looking forward to the next five months, there will also be things I’ll miss about home along the way. Ironically, it will probably only take me a couple weeks to adjust to life on the road and forget all about this stuff (well, everything except the part about not being able to drink the water). So, here’s the ten things I’ll miss most over the next five months (or couple weeks):