$99 Trip to Paradise

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We were unsure about what $99 and a group of strangers could really get us, but there probably isn’t one thing that could have gone better. We signed up for a boat trip to Halong Bay at the front desk of our hostel, Central Backpacker’s Hostel ( by the way, awesome hostel- free beer during happy hour, sharpies to write on the wall, and people from around the world with one common goal- to have fun). The five of us were hooked right away with the trip, but then five became eight and eight became eighteen within an hour and we ended up with a 10% discount and the best group ever. Six Americans, some Londoners, a few Australians, New Zealanders, one Canadian, two Dutch girls, and a Swedish guy were thrown together and it clicked.

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Photo credit: Austin Banks

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Photo credit: Austin banks

There was no wifi on the traditional junk boat, but there was a lot of drinking, a decent amount of good food, a few poor attempts at squid fishing, and a whole lot of people looking to have fun, play games, and sing along to the music of a ukulele.

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We kayaked , swam, and explored limestone caves in the bay during the daytime and at night, the stars came out and so did a woman in a small boat to secretly sell cheap beer to us through our cabin windows.

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Photo credit: Austin Banks

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Photo credit: Austin Banks

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Photo credit: Austin Banks

The morning after our stay on the boat, we transferred to a smaller, rockier vessel. Maybe the foreshadowing of what would turn up later on, or maybe just some ordinarily large waves, but as our new Aussie friends would put it, Christiana and I were “spewing” overboard in no time. Okay, I guess not everything went perfectly. Given the choice to either continue boating to Monkey Island, or begin swimming, we quickly stripped down to our bikinis and jumped off the deck; it’s funny how seasickness can be cured by jumping into the sea.

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Photo credit: Austin Banks

Another boat trip accompanied by one more bout of seasickness brought us to a tiny beach resort on Cat Ba Island, closed in by rocks and dotted with wooden bungalows.

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Photo credit: Austin Banks

Another fun-filled day of kayaking , volleyball- well, I watched and took pictures while everyone else played- swimming, eating every variation of seafood, and sunbathing, turned in to another night of drinking and good conversation, backed by the sounds of waves and the Red Hot Chili Peppers coming through portable iPhone speakers. No cell service, no wifi, no connection to the world and it’s worries.

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Photo credit: Austin Banks

3 AM brought typhoon winds and rain, thunder that sounded as close as our front porch, one very scared younger sister, a loss of power, and uneasy half-sleep. The cove’s water drained enough to give us thoughts of a tsunami, but the locals showed no signs of distress. Morning came, breakfast was served, and the group of eighteen new-found friends loaded the boat. It seems that all good things do come to an end, but the memories (and photos) make it worthwhile.

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The Killing Fields

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It was fitting that the day was grey. The place is called the “Killing Fields” so I guess you go into it with a pretty good idea of what you are going to see. You travel the same roads out of Phom Penh that the thousands of victims traveled from S-21 Prison, where they were tortured and beaten because of crimes they didn’t commit, except you’re riding in an open-air tuk-tuk in broad daylight, not blindfolded in the back of a crowded truck during the night. You get out of the vehicle and listen on your headset for the story of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge, and what went down at this remote and eery location only three and a half decades ago.

Here’s a clip from this website – http://worldgenocides.wikispaces.com/Summary+of+the+Cambodian+Genocide -to give some background:

The Cambodian genocide resulted from the years of 1975-1979, in which a great number of people lost their lives and it was one of the worst human tragedies of the last century. The genocide was an attempt by Khmer Rouge army leader Pol Pot to form a Communist peasant farming society resulting in a great number of deaths by starvation, overwork and executions. Cambodia was once ruled by Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Later the country was taken over and controlled by Pol Pot, his army of Khmer Rouge, and teenage peasant guerrillas forming the Democratic Kampuchea. Pol Pot seized control of Cambodia beginning in the capital city of Phnom Penh. His ideas were similar to Maozedong’s, a Chinese communist ruler in that Western culture, religion, foreign influences should be extinguished to form an extreme peasant communism. Foreigners would be expelled, embassies closed, foreign economic or medical assistance was refused, use of foreign languages banned, TV and newspapers were shut down, even money was forbidden, education halted, and thus Cambodia was sealed off from the rest of the world. Pol pot eliminated the old society which included the educated, the wealthy, Buddhist monks, police, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and former government officials. Cambodians who were accustomed to city life were forced to work in the fields while many died of overworking long hours, malnutrition and disease. Anyone who was suspected to be disloyal to Pol Pot was killed. The vast majority of the victims included in the mass slaughtering and torturing are from Cambodia but also include people from Vietnam, Laos, India, Pakistan, UK, France, U.S.A, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, and Muslims and Christians. Eventually In 2002 Australia, France, Japan, and the US passed a resolution calling for a tribunal of the senior members of the Khmer Rouge for crimes against humanity.

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Over the course of three years, it is estimated that the Khmer Rouge killed 3,300,000 people.

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So by now, there is hopefully a point of reference and recognition coming from a high school or college class. I know I owe my knowledge to 10th grade genocide class and Mr. Boyde. A textbook chapter and an accompanying video don’t quite do the trick, though. One minute you are in a dark classroom watching a ton of people blind-folded in a single file line being led to their end and you’re definitely feeling pretty sad and beginning to hate mankind, but then the bell rings, the light switch turns up and you remember how hungry you are and thank god it’s lunch period. You may sit at the table picturing the looks on the faces of the Cambodian children as you eat, but by the time lacrosse practice rolls around, those images are wiped clean. Not much of a lasting impression.

There really is no way to give the full effect of an event to an outsider, but the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center does a good job of bringing you close to the stories and memories. When you arrive, you receive headphones and an audio device to walk you through the site. You begin where the prisoners began, at the truck stop, then move through the detainment space and the check-in area (the Khmer Rouge made sure to double check the whereabouts of each victim- there would be no escaping) and into the huge area of mass graves. Roped off are a few that still churn up bone fragments, teeth, and cloth. Other graves are indicated by divots in the earth.

All along, the audio is telling the story. For some reason, hearing the words from Cambodian accents directly into your ears makes it more real and personal. The marked-off mass graves are lined with bamboo fencing and thousands of bracelets hang on the posts as little symbols of respect and remembrance of the dead. It’s just the traveler finding a way to leave a piece of him/herself behind.

You then walk around the lake listening to stories of survivors, not of the killing fields, but of the S-21 prison. There were no survivors of the killing fields because if whatever murder tool the Khmer Rouge guards used for slaughtering (usually farming tools or hammers) didn’t accomplish its goal, DDT would finish the job. Individuals would kneel in front of the hole, blindfolded and forced to sing songs of the regime, before being hacked/beaten/stabbed to death and falling into their grave.

Children had another story. Yes, children. Pol Pot believed that in order to be successful in offing a “traitor,” the accused person’s whole family must also be killed, or else there would be someone left to seek revenge.

That’s where the “Killing Tree” comes in. This picture says more than a thousand words. After the tree, the infants, toddlers, and small children were thrown into the mass grave with their mothers. I placed my string bracelet on a piece of bark and walked away.

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Well I think that’s about all I can handle writing about the Killing Fields. It wasn’t easy to see but it was well worth the experience. Not only did I gain knowledge of Cambodia’s history, but also endless respect for the people who lived through it.

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Putting the World of Religion Above Your Own World

People give so much to religion…

A few days ago now, we arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia by minivan after a six hour-reckless ride. For our group at that time, Phnom Penh was not the ideal place to be but it was a necessary stop along the way back to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

With a lack of ideas and only a couple of suggestions from the guide book we decided to wander around the city in search of cheap food and entertainment. We walked over to Wat Phnom, a highly recommended Buddhist temple in the middle of a park on an island surrounded by flying cars.

After paying “$1 for foreigners, “walking up about thirty steep stairs and taking off our shoes, we walked inside.

The temple on top of the hill was small but vibrated with color. Vibrating from one mural filled wall to the next. Not a spec on the wall was empty. Designs danced from corner to corner. The piled statues glistened as people kneeled before them in prayer. The amount of effort put into building even this small holy-structure was unmeasurable.

Rumor has it this landmark, dating back to 1373, was discovered and designed by a wealthy widow, Daun Penh. Inside a Koki Tree, on the river, Penh found four small bronze Buddha statues. To honor her finds she built a shrine on top of an artificial hill, with help from the local village people. That shrine grew over the years into the delicate, colorful, holy-place it is today.

After driving through Cambodia and Vietnam I have seen a little of how much the people put into religion. Each house, restaurant and shop has a small shrine. The shrine is a place to pray and give offerings such as coffee and fruit every morning and evening. The temple shines above the slums, with fluorescent towers reaching high up into the sky while brown, tin-roof huts act as homes below.

It’s not only in Southeast Asia but all over the world that I am beginning to recognize how much people dedicate to religion, whatever religion that may be. From human sacrifices dating all the way back to the Aztec tribes to the deaths resulting from over 100 years given to the building of Angkor Wat. The most incredible buildings in the world such as Hagia Sophia, the Vatican, Taj Mahal and the entire city of Mecca are all religious. These structures are engineered with intelligence and grace because they were not just for the people but something they felt was greater, deserving of the best.

While these building stand proud and tall I can’t help but notice the trash on the streets below them in Cambodia. Men toss plastic bags across the street so that they won’t be in front of their own home. Kids kick cans and woman toss garbage over their shoulders onto the floor. It’s hard for me to understand how they could be comfortable with keeping their own world so dirty when they are capable of creating so much beauty. Every morning households offer soft drinks and food to the Buddhist statue in their kitchen, store, backyard, or place of work. If everyone spent an equal amount of time picking up the garbage from below their feet, the streets could glisten with color as well.

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Gem Around the Corner

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I think this trip has gotten better everyday. Not because we are seeing better sights or going on more exciting excursions, but because the five of us have gotten more comfortable- more comfortable with each other, more comfortable with the culture of Southeast Asia, the heat, the rain, the sun, the mosquitos, the rain again, the haggling, and the overall discomfort of being in an environment so drastically different from home. We know what beer to order, how much a pair of genie pants should cost, we know the exchange rage of a Riel or Dong, and we know what “karaoke and massage hotel” really means.

Christiana and I stayed back from the group to spend the day roaming, reading, writing, relaxing, and of course, eating. We found a place to call home at the Blue Pumpkin, a traveler’s dream-come-true: cool air, clean water, big, white, fluffy couches, gelato, free wifi, and cappuccino that looks like heaven and comes with a tiny chocolate chip cookie. After a long day of scorching heat, blazing sun, and hazy memories of countless temples at Angkor Wat, it is just what we need.

Every guide book and individual, local and tourist alike, will point you toward Pub street- a crowded, but laid-back string of hopping bars, trendy-looking restaurants, and $1 foot massages- but hell, this gem around the corner from all of that seems pretty perfect to me.

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Angkor What?

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Angkor Wat. The largest religious monument in the world. Sounds like a pretty big deal but a lot of us haven’t even heard of it. Maybe because it’s halfway around the world, in a country with about 14 million people, only 300 million less than the population of the United States. Or maybe it’s because the significance of the temples stems from the Hindu and the Buddhist religions, about which many westerners are not familiar. Whatever it is, this 203-acre plot of land is important enough to Cambodians to be the only image on their flag. It represents integrity, justice and heritage. Millions of people from all over the world come to these temples to try to understand a fraction of their importance. Chinese tour groups covered from the sun, frat stars wearing their PIKE tee-shirts, young French families bravely toting their young (beautiful) children, and of course, curious backpackers like us, all roam around snapping pictures of a world so unfamiliar to them.
There are over a thousand ruins scattered all over the land, but very few have the time and attention span to see even the top ten.

What to do there:

Pretty basic. You go and look. Look at the stone friezes carved into the temple walls, telling stories of the Hindu religion, the 5 massive towers reaching towards the sky and the monks paying their respects. The friezes tell stories about Rama and Sita and their challenging love, stories of different wars fought hundreds of years ago. There is also a lack of stories destroyed by later wars fought within the temple walls. But it’s much more than pretty rocks and with our tour guide, “Suk” we had the opportunity to learn that.

We traveled by tuk-tuk from temple to temple only stopping at the three most significant because the heat exhausted us pretty quickly. Each temple varied slightly and told a different story on why what remains, remains.

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The first, Angkor Wat stands tall and strong because of support from countries such as Japan, Italy and France.

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The Second, Bayon stands with much less, as a result of one of the several Hindu and Buddhist wars. Only about a dozen Buddha faces remain on the top of the towers, where there was once forty-nine.

The third stop, Ta Prohm, faces destruction from nature. Massive spung trees take over and surround the concrete and stone. They twist and turn through the ruins creating their own thick walls, growing both within and out of the ruins.

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At the gate of each temple, wide-eyed children wait for the tourists, offering dollar tee shirts, books, water and toys. One dollar! Most travelers say no anyway- it’s an automatic reaction at that point.