Growing up as a Korean American who spent most of my childhood and teenage years moving from city to city and constantly changing schools, I became accustomed to that feeling of being different and not looking like most of the kids in my class/school/town. Even as an adult with the exception of family weddings and funerals, it’s rare to be in a room with people who look like me. I recall fantasizing about the idea of traveling back to Korea and having that experience of being the “norm” rather than the exception and there have been moments in LA or San Francisco when I’ve had glimpses into that reality. I was excited about spending time in Asia for many reasons and this childhood fantasy was just one of them. Despite what we all see and hear in movies, TV and outdated jokes, not all Asians look alike and are interchangeable and spending time in these southeast Asian countries gives me an appreciation of our cultural, historical and even physical differences as well as gaining an understanding of what we all have in common.
I started in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, a country I knew very little about aside from a brief lesson in high school history class and movies about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge and the maniacal leader Pol Pot. I had a really sweet and friendly driver named Thon who waited in the morning to drive me around the city in his tuk-tuk and we communicated to our best ability with our limited language commonality.
The most memorable and certainly most haunting experience in Phnom was visiting Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, one of the most famous sites known as the “Killing Fields” where the Khmer Rouge massacred well over 1 million of its own people from 1975-1979. The site is now a memorial where over nine thousand bodies have been discovered on the grounds with unmarked graves and a massive Buddhist temple that houses many of the bones of the deceased. The museum does a remarkable job with an audio tour that takes you along the grounds through the history of the rise of Pol Pot and this authoritarian government and each stop feels more terrifying and tragic than the previous one as they explain how men, women, and children were taken prisoner, forced into labor and cruelly tortured and massacred. As I wandered silently through this serene and even beautiful place where some of man’s worst atrocities took place, I began to sob hysterically mourning the senseless loss and injustice particularly when I reached the tree known as the Killing Tree where the soldiers literally executed babies and children bashing their innocent heads into the tree. I know it’s mind blowing and horrific to describe at this level of detail, but it’s an image that I don’t think I will ever get out of my mind and none of us should as it is a reminder as all of the horrors of history are warnings about what can happen when people allow governments to rule without mercy and without any kind of checks and balances. I learned that Pol Pot like many dictators, rose to power using charisma and appealing to those who felt “left out”. He was a teacher who became a ruthless dictator and once in power, he and his regime started to roll out his plan to eliminate the “elite” which consisted of anyone in the country who was educated (doctors, lawyers, his fellow teachers), artists and creative people, the media and more and more people were targeted as undesirables.
I couldn’t believe that with this recent history of unimaginable horror, that the Cambodian people are some of the gentlest, warmest and most welcoming that I have met. They are not cynical, angry or resentful. And even when the government leaders were finally put on trial for their crimes against humanity, the people did not demand equal and cruel retribution but rather imprisonment. I find their ability to survive, forgive and be gracious incredibly humbling.
The rest of my time in Cambodia I was in Siem Reap where the temples of Angkor Wat and the many other ancient, famous temples of Cambodia are located. I stayed in a great boutique hotel called Green Leafe run by a Canadian who started the hotel as a non-profit business that helps train and employ locals as well as supporting a community orphanage. Siem Reap is a great town, you can walk around the city and peek inside the many tourist and local shops, stroll along the river, or enjoy the many food options that include western tourist friendly options like Mexican (totes had a margarita and nachos), Italian and much more.
The temples in Siem Reap are unreal — and seeing sunrise and sunset at Angkor Wat is one of those experiences that lives up to the super-hype. Climbing up, down and around these ancient temples in the unrelenting heat and sun makes you feel a bit like Indiana Jones or Lara Croft (and yes Angelina filmed Tomb Raider at one of these temples).
I was also excited to meet up with my friends Rob and Andrew who were traveling through Asia for their honeymoon/anniversary and were kind enough to let me intrude on their romantic time for a night out. Rob and Andrew are great friends to meet up with on a trip because they’ve already scouted out the best food/drink options and you can just ride on their fabulous coat tails. Rob arranged a 5 stop food tour where we feasted on a course of Cambodian cuisine chased with a cocktail. Everything about the night was delicious, particularly the company. And they were meeting up with new friends they met out the night before, a ridiculously fun couple from Sydney, James and Jonathan who later invited me to join them for Christmas Eve dinner at their fancy hotel. For two unforgettable nights, I ate, drank and danced with gorgeous, smart, fun gay men and felt like I transported myself back to my old life in Chelsea (NYC). It was the best Christmas gift EVER.
After an amazing time in Cambodia, I went to Bangkok a city I visited years before when my best friend Tiffany was doing her own solo travel adventure. It was a very different trip this time as I wasn’t with friends and the city was busier and more crowded than ever. It was also around this time that I caught a terrible cold/flu that knocked me down with a fever, chills and an inability to eat anything without fear of dire consequences. Oh and it was also my least favorite holiday, New Years Eve. So as I laid in bed shaking with fever, alone in Bangkok on New Years Eve, I also started to reflect on those people I lost in 2016 including my stepdad Richard, my grandmother, and two of my aunts. I was fully miserable physically and emotionally and felt truly alone for the first time in six months. It was in this weakened state that I thought for the first time since leaving the U.S. “am I done with this? Do I want to go home? Where is home?” So I took a random assortment of mysterious cold meds from the Bangkok pharmacy, slept for two days and when I awoke, felt a bit better and less sad. I also Facetimed with my family and friends, which did a lot to rejuvenate my spirits. And I gave myself permission to not be a tourist in Bangkok and I went to see 3 movies in the theater, including the new Star Wars (LOVED IT BUT DAMN IT WAS SAD). It felt so nice to just sit in a movie theater, eat popcorn and zone out for a few hours.
I also did a lot of wandering around the city, walking everywhere and getting some good people watching in. The sky train is a great way to get around the congestion of Bangkok and gives you a great, clean and air conditioned experience to boot. I have to be honest, BKK isn’t my favorite city and I know that many of my well traveled friends love it and I totally get it. I’m sure part of my impression is due to my own physical and emotional breakdown while there, but there’s also a seediness to the city, a darkness that I felt was palpable and kind of disturbing. You get the feeling many people around you have secret and probably sketchy sex lives and Thailand much like other southeast Asian countries has a major problem with sex trafficking women and children so that probably adds to my negative lens about some of the tourists and expats. But there are also great attributes to the city, the food, the energy and for many the shopping is some of the best anywhere.
I was excited to explore Chiang Mai after Bangkok as I have heard such great things about the city and I was ready to leave behind the hustle of the big city. I often get this feeling immediately when I get to a new place, even as soon as I land and that initial buzz often turns out to be pretty accurate. And my initial feeling was really positive and it turns out that I really loved Chiang Mai. The city is small, walkable and just much more relaxed. It’s set near the mountains so you have a beautiful view of the mountains from the city and there are temples on just about every block. The food is incredible and the shops adorable. I went to yoga several times while I was there and really felt like I was putting myself back into a more positive plane. I met up with my friend Vicky whom I met during Vipassana meditation prison and the two of us shared beers, good food, tales from our travels and even took a fun cooking class together. I’ll be ready to make you some killer green curry when I’m back in the US.
Tiff also insisted that I sign up to go to the Elephant Nature Park, which is a sanctuary where rescued elephants live freely and are rehabilitated and well cared for by the workers and volunteers. The park is in this vast and gorgeous open area in the mountains and they keep about 60 elephants that they’ve rescued from circuses, trekking, logging, and street begging. They educate the visitors with one of those rip-your-heart-out videos and give you information about how harmful these tourism and other businesses are to these magnificent creatures. We are taught how the brutal trainings, tricks, and riding these animals can cause long term and terrible harm to them physically and emotionally. We got to feed, touch and even “bathe” (really throwing water from buckets) on some of them. It’s a truly special place and I have had a bit of a love affair with elephants since I saw them on safari. The more you know about these special animals, their intelligence, their emotional connections to each other, the way they grieve loss, etc., it’s unfathomable that anyone would want to harm or hunt (WTF) them. They are truly special living beings and we have so much to learn from them.
I am so grateful that I got to spend time in Chiang Mai and put myself into a place where I could start to recover physically and emotionally. And in some ways it was normal and healthy for me to check in with myself about this trip even if I wasn’t at my optimum strength and clarity of mind. I know that getting to spend six months traveling is more than I could have ever imagined, but the truth is that I want to keep going. There are still so many places that I still want to see and I am fortunate enough to be able to move on to the next destination.