Elephants

Yesterday I went to an elephant sanctuary, Into the Wild Elephant Camp near the city of Chiang Mai.

I knew I would it, but the experience was much more meaningful than I expected. Elephants are really big, even the babies, and they’re clearly intelligent in a way that’s very different to humans.

An elephant’s skin is leathery and tough but still supple. The hairs on their heads and backs are stiff and bristly. Their trunks are surprisingly dexterous, and incredibly powerful. And they’re remarkably quiet, their huge flat feet muffling their footsteps, to the point that this camp puts wooden bells around their necks so they can’t sneak up on you.

Into the Wild is well known for its ethics – their two adults (of a herd of 5) are both rescued working elephants, and they have a big tact of jungle far from the city where the elephants roam. It’s still not quite a natural setting. The herd has a few handlers to keep watch over them and keep them from harm, the camp buys much of their food to avoid over-grazing the land, and of course they spend a lot of time interacting with tourists, which pays most of the camp’s expenses. But there’s no riding, and it’s a lot closer to a natural state than many such attractions.

As they gave us the rundown before the elephants arrived in the morning, the camp’s owner asked us why we think it’s important not to ride the elephants. After all we ride horses, camels and donkeys, or use them as draft animals, in other parts of the world without thinking twice about it. Elephants are far bigger and stronger than those animals, caring a human would be almost trivial for them. What makes elephants so special that they can’t be ridden or worked? Do we truly care, or is it just easier to pass judgement on a foreign culture far from home? It’s a tricky question, and I don’t know that I have a good answer.

Seeing elephants was one of the big items on my list for this trip, and I would say I’ve checked it off in a major way. Spending a day with these incredible animals was one of the highlights of my trip, and I’m glad that I was able to do so responsibly.

Phnom Penh, Bangkok and Thanksgiving

Hi! It’s been a minute since my last post, so here is a quick update about what I’ve been doing.

I successfully made it from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh without any trouble – an day riding on an air conditioned bus was easy to handle. I spent the next day exploring Phnom Penh, visiting the prison museum and the killing fields that are the legacy of the Cambodian genocide 40 years ago. I’ve been working on a blog post describing those events, but it’s depressing enough that I’m making little progress, which is part of why you haven’t seen an update in so long. Suffice to say it was horrific, and Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge deserve all the scorn you can muster.

I finished my long day with a late flight to Bangkok – by the time I was through customs and in a cab to the city, it was almost 2 AM.

Unfortunately wandering around in the sweltering heat all day wasn’t the best thing for my still tender tummy. Nor was eating a bunch of super spicy Indian curry for lunch (tasty, but not wise). That night my traveler’s sickness returned with a vengeance. Fortunately my Bangkok hostel was comfortable, quiet, and had plenty of toilets, the perfect place to hunker down for a few days. This time I was determined to stay until I was truly better.

I should describe this hostel, since it was the setting for my time in Bangkok. It’s name is Luk, it’s a new-ish hostel run by experienced hosteliers, and it’s located right in the heart of Bangkok’s spectacular Chinatown. Instead of a common room it has a nice, slightly expensive rooftop bar/restaurant, mostly patronized by hostel guests but open to the public. They had live music most of the nights I was there. I would describe the vibe as “cool” but not “relaxed”.

My first day in Bangkok was Thanksgiving. Outside of venturing out for some noodle soup (which turned out to be fantastic), I barely left my bed. In the evening, feeling somewhat bored and somewhat sorry for myself, I ventured up to the rooftop looking for some conversation to cheer me up. What I found exceeded my wildest expectations: the staff cooked up a big Thanksgiving dinner, and everyone ate together. It was truly wonderful, and a bit of turkey and mashed potatoes did my stomach good.

Yes the turkey is wrapped in bacon, and yes it was delicious.

On Friday morning I called my family to wish them a happy Thanksgiving. It was good to see everyone and chat a bit, and of course to get a ton of sympathy for feeling like crap. Otherwise day 2 passed much as day 1 had. I felt a little better in the afternoon and walked the kilometer to the train station to book a sleeper ticket north to Chiang Mai for Monday night. I had heard they sell out fast, but I managed to get the last one.

Finally on Saturday I felt well enough to do some tourist things. I wandered around the old town to a couple of the bigger wats, took a river boat back to Chinatown, and had a delicious afternoon nap. In the evening I ventured out to Yaowarat Road, a haven for street food. Bangkok’s street food scene is famous for quality and safety (there’s even one that’s Michelin starred), so I wasn’t worried about triggering a third wave of illness.

You know what they say about Buddhas with big feet…
Bugs anyone?

On Sunday, finally feeling properly myself, I caught a motortaxi and a quick ferry to Bang Krachao, Bangkok’s “green lung”, where I rented a bicycle and pedaled around for the day. Here a meander in the river almost creates an island, and the district is preserved as a carefully managed jungle in the heart of the city. There are some homes and businesses, as well as many oddities like a floating market and a Siamese fighting fish gallery, but for the most part it’s green space, a pseudo-wild space amidst the concrete jungle. It’s kind of like Discovery Park in Seattle if it were tropical and had a giant permanent farmers market in the middle. The kind of place where middle class Thai families bring their kids on the weekends as an outing. It was a lovely way to spend a day. In the evening I did a food tour of Chinatown, which was fantastic as always.

Much of the area is only accessible via narrow concrete trails raised above the swamp.
You can see from the satellite view why they call it the “green lung”.

Monday I walked to and hung out in Lumphini Park, Bangkok’s equivalent of Central Park, then caught the train in the evening. 14 hours later I was in Chiang Mai.

I really liked Bangkok. It’s a beautiful, clean, well-organized city. It has incredible food, a good metro and it’s the first place I’ve been in months where they actually clean the streets. I stayed out of the touristy areas (didn’t even visit Khao San Road), which I think was for the best. If you want somewhere exotic and different but still safe and easy to travel to, I don’t think you could do better. It was a very good place to recover my strength and confidence.

Bangkok from the river – a well-developed, modern city.

On the other hand, Bangkok is the only place in Southeast Asia where I’ve noticed people sleeping on the streets. It’s also the only place I’ve been approached by actual beggars – even in Cambodia people always wanted to sell me something. Just here and there, not nearly as many as back home, but it is obvious that this country’s prosperity hasn’t reached everyone. It’s also true that this is the first non-communist state I’ve been to in the region. It’s just a couple data points, so don’t go drawing conclusions, but it’s definitely something to think about.

Chinese Investment

Sihanoukville, Cambodia is perhaps one of the strangest places I have ever been. I am staying in a neighborhood called Otres, a long flat stretch of land along the beach to the southeast of the old town on the hill. Once it was a sleepy fishing town, the only tourists western backpackers particularly far off the beaten track. Now it is an entire city under construction all at once.

Every long block, sometimes up to 3 or 4 streets back from the ocean, is covered in the frames of high rise hotels, jockeying with each other for the best views of the ocean. Every road is under expansion, often doubling or tripling in width. The air is filled with the clang of hammers, the fumes of backhoes and dump trucks, and the screech of cutting metal. An endless stream of construction traffic clogs the highway out of the city, bumper to bumper as far as the eye can see through the middle of nowhere.

The money, of course, is Chinese, as are the anticipated tourists. So too I imagine are the architects and civil engineers, the steel and electrical components. An investment by China in China, though nominally outside its borders.

And yet the investment is taken gladly. It is sorely needed. Cambodia is the poorest country in Southeast Asia, and it certainly feels like the poorest place I have ever been. It is distressingly dirty, its waterways are choked with plastic garbage, its forests and fields riddled with landmines. A third of its children suffer from malnutrition, and it’s GDP per capita is just over half that of Laos, the next poorest country in the region (source). Tourism may not be the most noble industry but it beats the hell out of subsistence farming, and it certainly brings benefits. Electricity, roads, 4g and good plumbing are improvements that apply to locals and foreigners alike. And while Cambodia is known for corruption, I would bet that the expectation of profit and associated scrutiny does more to discourage grift than any number of government programs.

All the commerce of the city is squeezed into the small bits of land not marked for construction, perhaps one lot in three or four. Signs and menus are in Khmer and Chinese, scarcely a Latin glyph to be found (though dollars are still preferred to the local currency, and yuan not accepted). The usual apps are useless – half the restaurants on TripAdvisor are now holes in the ground, and Google Maps shows both roads that have been torn up and those that have yet to be completed. I don’t know how the tuk tuk drivers do it.

It makes me think of the book Rolling Rocks Downhill, by Clarke Ching. Small batches, he says, are the key to meeting tight deadlines when the stakes are high. This is just the opposite, an entire city built through waterfall. Maybe that wisdom doesn’t apply here – perhaps this is little more than an outflowing of excess industrial capacity, pocket change and hobby projects to the titans that built the glimmering east. Perhaps it has been arranged that should it fail the Cambodians will be the ones left holding the bag. Or perhaps, to the Chinese with their teeming megalopoli, this is a small batch.

What will they do, I wonder, when the seas rise? I have wondered this in many places on this trip, but here it seems an especially pressing question. The main town of Sihanoukville is on a hill, but the beaches stretch out along flatlands to the southeast, and this is where the new development is concentrated. Two meters would erase the beach entirely, a third would bring it to the steps of the hotels. What of ten, or twenty (edit: see footnote)? Will they build a wall, far out to sea, protecting their investment? Or will they allow it to sink into the waves? If the later, do they design with that in mind, buildings cheap enough to abandon after just a few short decades?

I think I would like to return, if that is in fact the case. To kayak down the avenues and marvel at the rotting carcasses of buildings that I walked between when they were but growing skeletons. It would be a humbling experience, perhaps a tourist attraction in its own right.

This is not Cambodia, really, not any more than Cabo is Mexico or Kuta is Bali. This is (or will be once its finished) a slice of China, injected here with the expectation of a full return on investment. The slice of human nature it represents is mirrored in America, in Australia, in Europe – it is the slice that seeks to extract, to use without understanding, to view a foreign people as a material resource rather than as potential friends. It is the slice that got us into this mess in the first place. Fitting, then, that it should sink beneath the waves.

But what then of the Cambodians who built it, who sweat under heavy loads in the hot sun, who set pipes with filthy water over the tops of their gum boots, who grind angles on umpteenth floors with neither harness nor goggles? Or of those who will follow, kowtowing before their Chinese customers for the chance to give their children a better life? Will they lament as the waters take this sudden metropolis? Only time will tell.

Edit: I got romantic when I wrote the post, then followed up and did my research. Even the most pessimistic climate scientists don’t predict more than 2.5 meters of sea level rise before the end of the century. Maybe I mixed up meters and feet in my memory? Or maybe it’s just easy to get caught up in your own side’s propaganda. A meter or two would leave Sihanoukville extremely vulnerable to storms, but not actually flooded. Looks like I won’t get to make my kayak trip after all. source 1 source 2

This makes me think of another recent read, Factfulness by Hans Rosling, the main thesis of which is that people, especially well-educated people and even people who are experts in relevant fields, consistently overestimate how bad things are in the world. Looks like I’m guilty as any.

Ko Ta Kiev

Ko Ta Kiev is a remote island off the southeastern coast of Cambodia. It is all but undeveloped – there’s 4 or 5 bungalow resorts catering to backpackers, but no roads, no electricity, and no running water. The next island over has a cell tower, and if you hold your phone at the right angle at midnight under a full moon you can just pick up a signal.

The island is gorgeous, with clean sand beaches, unspoiled jungle, and a laid back atmosphere. It was the perfect place to relax for a few days after that REI trip.

My first glimpse of Ten103, the resort where I stayed.
The view from my bungalow in the morning.
Ten103’s bar. Note the wide variety of libations for sale.
View from another of the resorts. Each one had a slightly different vibe and different gimmicks. For example, at the Last Point you can participate in Klang-30, where you pay for one Klang beer but get to drink as many as you can over the next half hour. They had a little bell to start it off and everything.
Ten103 definitely had the best sunsets.
The line through the center is the Chinese Road, a broad straight path cut through by a Chinese developer years ago. They never got around to paving it, and now the jungle has reclaimed all but a particularly easy to follow footpath.

The only trouble with all this is that I got sick! It came on slowly, day by day, but by my last night I was tossing and turning with a fever. When the only bathroom is a squat toilet 150 meters away from your bungalow, it gives a whole different meaning to “the trots”.

I don’t know if it’s something I ate, or just the accumulated stress of 2 months of traveling catching up with me. But, a couple of people in the REI group had something similar the last couple days, so I’m hoping it will follow a similar pattern and resolve quickly.

I have now returned to the mainland on schedule. My original plan was to head to Phnom Penh, spend a day or two there, then fly to Thailand. That still might happen, but right now I am holed up in a budget hotel in Sihanoukville. It’s clean, it has AC, and it has a private bathroom with a western toilet. Here I will stay until I feel well enough to manage the 6-hour bus ride to the capital.

Update 11/26: I’m feeling much better after 24 hours of bed rest, and have a bus booked this afternoon to Phnom Penh. Onwards the adventure!

Glamping

The penultimate day of our REI Adventure was a hike with an overnight stay in the Phnom Kulen hills north of Siem Reap. We woke up early, tossed our gear in the van to meet us in the evening, and began to hike. We passed through rice paddies and taro fields, drawing ever closer to the hills.

Finally we reached the hills, and then it was up, up, up a long set of stairs past a spectacular (modern) Buddhist temple to the summit. There we found a gorgeous waterfall, along with another temple perched atop a huge sandstone boulder.

Then we found our campsite, at a beautiful spot along the river. We spent the afternoon swimming and relaxing, then the staff cooked us up a proper feast and we ate and drank late into the evening. Not quite a proper backpacking experience, but a tremendous amount of fun.

They set out dozens of little tea lights along the river.

The next day (yesterday) we took a bus to Kompong Khleang, a village built on stilts on the shores of Tanle Sap, Cambodia’s great freshwater lake. They use the stilts because the water level changes dramatically between the rainy and dry seasons. The landscape reminds me of the Louisiana bayou, but the stilts made me think of a ski village with doors on the second floor so you can get out when there’s 12 feet of snow.We took a boat ride out to a little floating village. Apparently these are full of Vietnamese refugees who fled after the fall of Saigon – Cambodian law doesn’t allow them to own land, but says nothing about building a house on the water.Last night we returned to Siem Reap for our farewell dinner, took one last wander around the night market, and said our goodbyes. Everyone else is flying home today – some even have work on Friday! It’s an interesting feeling to know that our circles intersect for such a brief moment – a little sad, a little lonely, but also very glad for the experience and aware that we may well meet again.And like I said before, it’ll be nice to get back to my own cadence. Tonight I take a sleeper bus (boo!) to Sihanoukville in the south, where I catch a boat to the island of Koh Ta Kiev for a few days on the beach (yay!). It’ll be a nice change from biking through the jungle and hiking over the hills.

Siem Reap and the Angkor Ruins

Hello from Cambodia! The REI group has been based in the town of Siem Reap in Northwest Cambodia for the past couple days, bicycling our way through the ruined temples of the Khmer civilization.Choy is still with us, and we’ve picked up a Cambodian guide named Bun who is also pretty cool.Some facts I have learned about the Khmer:

  • Their civilization lasted roughly 500 years, from the late 800s to the early 1400s.
  • The Khmer emperor was considered a god-king, with divine right rooted in the Hindu and later Mahayana Buddhism.
  • The Khmer had a deep mastery of water management, and used this mostly to grow lots and lots of rice, regularly achieving 4 harvests a year (without intentional water management you get 1 or maybe 2).
  • This incredible agricultural bounty supported the largest city in the world before the industrial era, with a peak population of up to a million people.
  • Their civilization went into decline as a result of pointless and costly wars with their neighbors, coupled with extreme climate instability, decade-long droughts followed by years of intense flooding, followed by more decades of drought.

Somehow we missed taking about them in high school history class. The group put on a podcast on one of our long van rides through Laos, so I was able to brush up.The thing that surprised me about the ruins is the pure number of them. Angkor Wat is the biggest and most visited, but there are literally hundreds of other temples scattered throughout the area. The biggest just barely poke above the tree line, but most are hidden amongst the jungle. A mountain bike is absolutely the right tool for exploring.This part of Cambodia is flat as a pancake, which makes for a strange contrast with the endless rolling hills of northern Laos. Its principle geographic feature is a huge freshwater lake, covering hundreds of square kilometers to an average depth of just one meter. It shrinks and grows substantially with the dry and rainy seasons, and managing this was the secret sauce of the Khmer.I keep having to remind myself that this is all real – it’s not the set of a movie or video game, these are real ruins built by real people hundreds of years ago, and I’m really walking through them right now.Wrapping and coordinating the temple visits, bicycle routes, kayak rentals and the rest has been this REI tour. I have been very impressed so far. We have stayed in excellent hotels, had perfect itineraries, worry-free support for all the activities, and oh, the food! Set menus from delicious restaurants, course after course of incredible, delicious, artfully plated food. I have never been so well- (or over-) fed.It took a little while to get used to it, after living in the dorms for so long. Based on my budget from the 5 weeks I spent in Vietnam, the price of this 12 day segment would be almost enough to get me through the entire 3-month trip on my own.Now I’m coming to the conclusion that it was worth it. This segment is the anchor of the trip. It was the first thing I booked and having this as a backstop made it easier to get my courage up about several months in a strange and distant part of the world. And, it’s nice to have a break from slumming it with the dirtbags for a while (no offense, dirtbags). Soft beds and delicious meals, and not having to organize a single piece of it myself, is a very nice way to live.Still, great as Choy and Bun are, I think I’ll be ready to go back to my own rhythm when the time comes.

Laos and the REI Adventure Tour

Hello from Laos! I’ve spent the last few days in the town of Luang Prabang, exploring first on my own and then with this REI Adventure tour.

Sunrise over the town

LPB is home to no fewer than 32 wats (temples), which have a distinctive, almost Nordic style.

On the evening of my second day I met up with the tour, putting my vacation on rails for the next 12 days.

This group is interesting – I’ve been struggling a bit with what to write about it. My first instinct is to complain, and I’ve got to let at least a bit of that through. With an average age in the late 50s the group is quite a bit older than I expected, with two big ramifications. First the pace is much slower than I would like, both athletically and of the tour in general. Second I feel like I’m hanging out with a bunch of my parents’ friends – they’re fun people, but we don’t have a whole lot in common.

I think I was hoping I would find “my people”, the next step for those who are footloose and adventurous but old enough that the backpacking game doesn’t appeal, and well off enough that they can afford something a little fancier. People who have got the career thing sorted out but haven’t quite settled down yet. Maybe a nice woman about my age who wants the same things out of life that I do. I don’t know quite what I’ve found instead, but it’s not that.

That said, I’ve been having a pretty darn good time so far. Our guide Choy (Lao for “skinny”, though I think “slim” might be a more flattering translation) is top notch, and he’s done a great job of herding us cats. Most of the activities have an option to extend, like biking both to and from a waterfall instead of taking the van one direction, and I’ve taken them all. My roommate Michael is the one other millennial on the trip (only one decade older than me) and we’ve become quick friends. And honestly, the whole group is pretty darn good.

Choy with his too-cool-for-school dad. (credit: Ron Cohen)
The whole crew.

So what did we do in Laos?

We explored Luang Prabang.
We played piton (bocce), very popular in Laos due to French influence.
We fed a bunch of monks at sunrise.
We rode bikes…
…to a beautiful group of waterfalls.
Credit: Ron Cohen

We took a boat ride (credit: Ron Cohen)…
…then hiked to a remote farming village.

Michael and I climbed the wrong mountain (one of those extra activities), got a great view, then got caught by the sunset and had to hike down in the dark.
We kayaked down the mighty Mekong River.

We saw a cave full of thousands of tiny Buddha statues.
And we found paradise.

I have been incredibly impressed by Laos so far, and would highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in traveling to Southeast Asia. It’s beautiful, culturally rich, and way off the beaten track. I also don’t think it would be too hard to navigate on your own.