It’s quite strange how travel takes you to the most unexpected places. As I write tonight, I’m sitting on a rooftop balcony in the middle of Hanoi, Vietnam drinking free beer. A place I never dreamt I would see. The room is abuzz with backpacker chatter. “Where are you from?” “Where have you been?” “How long are you away?” and “Where are you going?” It amazes me the number of people here who can all sit together, drink beer, eat BBQ, and play pool. We all come from different backgrounds, different countries, yet we find a common ground in that we are all restless souls. More afraid of not living than dying. Ready to take on a new adventure around every corner. Fearless out of necessity, brave by sheer will. That’s the world I live in. It’s full of uncertainty, yet empty of concern. And it is a wonderful life. It can take you to beautiful places, allow you to meet beautiful people, and enable you to find the beauty within yourself. As Martin Buber said, “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” While I never expected to be in Vietnam, I don’t think that’s what he was referring to. Rather, the destination is within oneself. It’s a new confidence, a new outlook, and a new self-awareness that was previously unknown.
Anyways, enough of me expounding on the philosophy of backpacking. I know I’ve been really terrible at keeping you all updated via this blog. My life is sweet right now and finding time to write is difficult. There is always someone new to talk to and travel with. But for tonight, I’m an observer and a writer. Tomorrow is another adventure with new friends. So, how to describe the last two weeks? Amazing would be the place to start I suppose.
Laos is pure paradise. It’s relaxed. It’s French. It’s massive fun. I spent four days in Luang Prabang seeing the purest blue waterfalls of Kuang Si, exploring caves filled with old Buddha statues, and riding bikes from temple to temple. It’s a relatively small city. 10% of the population is monks, making it one of the most religious cities I’ve ever visited. In particular, the alms ceremony is delightful, although overly touristy. Every morning, the monks collect food from the villagers. They must live on this food for the day. Recently, the tourists have ruined the ceremony by making it about a photo opportunity and less about local custom. The tourists definitely do not know how to respect local culture and tradition. I must admit, though, I did snap a few photos while I tried to obey Buddhist tradition.
Vang Vieng has a completely different feel. We didn’t get caught up in the backpacker party culture there too much during the day. We spent some time biking to the Blue Lagoon, which wasn’t really blue because of all the rain, and motorbiking around the country side, discovering caves too dangerous to explore because of the rain. At the end of the second day, we did go tubeless tubing. This may be the worst idea ever. If you are imagining tubing in Indiana on a slow creek, you’ve got the wrong idea. It’s a mighty and fast river. And you float from bar to bar on it. Or rather, you are dragged in to different bars by employees who throw you a line and haul you upstream. There are also waterslides and mud pits to enjoy. Needless to say it’s dangerous with a couple drinks in you, but also massive fun. I ended up with some form of pink eye that is incredibly common in Vang Vieng and spent the next two days recovering.
After I cured my eye infection, I set off on a 36 hour bus ride to Cambodia. I rode eight different buses and crossed a border by foot during this journey. Cambodia is the most corrupt country I have ever visited, and it is clearly visible. At the border, I had to pay four different people to be allowed to enter the country. The local people will also tell you about how they have to pay off the police to let them stay in business. However, while a lot of the people want money from you, most of them are good at heart. We spoke to many rather optimistic Cambodians with heartbreaking stories of genocide and war. It is incredible the joy these people have after everything they have survived.
Siem Reap was unbelievable. The temples of Angkor are unforgettable and an experience everyone should have before they die. It’s truly like being on the set of an Indiana Jones or Tomb Raider film. These ruins survive in a jungle that is very much alive with monkeys, threes, and other wildlife. I spent two days taking nearly 500 photos of these temples and I could never quite capture their majesty. There’s no better way to say it than just go and see for yourself!
Phnom Penh, on the other hand, is utterly depressing. In recent history, the Pol Pot regime committed a mass genocide against its own people with the goal of eradicating all the educated from their society. Just talking to the people shows you how recent it was. Most can remember family members disappearing or being forced to work in the fields, eating very little each day. It was terrible and for me, the worst part was that the United States did nothing about it. Cambodia didn’t like Vietnam, so why would it want to prevent Pol Pot from taking power? As if I didn’t feel guilty enough about being American, it was around this point that I decided to come to Vietnam.
Like I said before, it really is funny where life takes you. I left feeling uncertain about travelling on my own, only to find that while travelling you are never truly alone. Not only are there always loads of people around, you always have yourself and the people who love you to support you. Although I’m sure they would rather have me home (or at least I’d like to think that J), I am thankful to my friends and family who support me whilst I travel. You all have kept me going when I doubted myself and constantly remind me that I’m making the right decision. You know how indecisive I am! I am also thankful for the new friends I’ve made in SE Asia. You all are my family here, my support system. I wouldn’t have stayed without you and I definitely wouldn’t have experienced so much if I’d never met you. Some of you have been good fun during a night on the town, some of you have helped me look inward and realize that there’s something beautiful in there, some have taught me how to truly feel again, and yet others have hugged me while I cried over something silly and listened as I waffled over a decision that now seems meaningless. I thank you all from the bottom of my heart. I am a better person because of you.
This is surely not the last time you will hear from me, but if I can leave you with one piece of advice, it is this – “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” ~Mark Twain.