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Culture Shock in Cambodia

I want to warn you in advance that this post is going to be text-heavy. I decided to write about something less concrete and less photograph-able than my past posts.

Before I studied abroad in college, I was warned about culture shock. But as I was moving to study in Italy, the culture shock was very minor, just the odd frustrating moment here and there. Even going to Thailand wasn’t too overwhelming due to the huge tourism industry and the fact that I was always surrounded by other Western travelers. But for me, my first night in Cambodia was really tough.

Visiting Siem Reap was a very exciting prospect for me as it is the home of the famous Angkor Wat temples. But to be honest I didn’t know much about the country of Cambodia going into it. I’ve had some great experiences in the past, showing up in countries that I know nothing about with no preconceived notions, and loving every minute of experiencing a new culture. In fact, Poland and Hungary are now two of my favorites countries based on my experiences there after going in completely blind!

While I was both nervous and excited to get to Cambodia, I made it to Siem Reap and got in line for my visa upon arrival at the airport. After filling out a couple forms and waiting in a couple different lines, my passport, photos, and documents were taken from me and I was told to wait at the end of the counter with a handful of other tourists.

The immigration officer on the other side of the desk was a middle aged man, probably a supervisor. He was funny and tried to entertain us while we waited for our visas to be processed. After a few minutes he started speaking about his king and all the wonderful things he has done. He even asked if we wanted to see a picture of his king. He pulled out his phone and showed us a majestic photo of the King of Cambodia on his throne. It was actually the background on his phone. In Thailand I saw countless images and monuments dedicated to the Thai king, but I had not experienced any Thai people randomly bringing up the king in conversation like this. I was standing with a Canadian family with two young kids. I could tell from their expressions they weren’t sure how to react to this either so we all smiled and nodded. The officer was beaming with pride.

King Norodom Sihamoni

I got my visa and headed for the airport cab stand. A woman at the cab stand desk assigned me to a cab driver and we headed off to my hostel.

As a solo female traveler, I have all sorts of little rules and guidelines for myself. Most of them are second nature but at the end of the day I just want to make sure I’m safe. One of those rules is I try not to arrive in a new place at night. It just makes things more difficult and can also be a little eerie trying to get around on my own at night before I understand the lay of the land. However, the flights into Siem Reap were more expensive than I would have liked and I went for an evening flight that arrived after dark. So for that reason I made sure I took an official airport taxi with a licensed and documented driver, even though it would be more expensive than a tuk tuk or public transportation.

The driver took off out of the airport parking lot and the first thing I noticed was how dark Cambodia was. At first I thought maybe he was taking some sort of creepy back road but then I realized that there just weren’t any streetlights in this area between the airport and the city. The roads were really bumpy and clearly unpaved.

While I was silently taking in all this sensory information in the backseat, my very friendly driver was trying to chat and get to know me. I tried to chat without revealing too much about myself. He then asked me what I was doing tomorrow and when I would be going to see the temples (the main reason tourists go to Siem Reap). He started trying to get me to hire him as a driver to take me around to the Angkor Wat temples. Later, I would realize this is the norm in Siem Reap. Every taxi and tuk tuk driver wants to capitalize on the tourists coming to see the temples. But in the moment, I was starting to feel uncomfortable by his hard sell plus the fact that we were clearly driving through the middle of nowhere at night and I couldn’t even see  anything out the windows. He even made a strange comment about driving me around to dinner and drinks after the temples. Again, now that I’ve experienced Cambodia, it all seems less weird to me and he was just trying to get me to hire him. But I have to say that first taxi ride into Siem Reap was the only moment I felt nervous and uncomfortable while traveling alone in Asia.

When I started to see the lights and bustle of Siem Reap coming into view I breathed a sigh of relief. Once again, I’m glad to have a healthy sense of paranoia to keep me on my toes but at the end of the day my anxiety is mostly due to cultural differences. We pulled up to my hostel and he tried to get me to commit to hiring him. I told him I’d take his information and I’d be in touch. He gave me his business card, which I stuffed in my wallet and wouldn’t look at again until months later. Just last week I realized I still have it in there!

I dropped my stuff in the hostel and went out to find food before bed. Walking through the streets of Siem Reap was something else. It’s difficult to describe how it is both similar yet very different than what I’d become accustomed to in Thailand. The hustle and bustle was definitely similar, with tuk tuks, motorbikes, and people everywhere. But many of the roads, even in the middle of the city, were just dirt and mud. Siem Reap is not the capital of Cambodia, but it is one of the largest cities and a massive tourist attraction. I was surprised to see the lack of modern infrastructure. Any sidewalks they had were cracked and crumbling. The poverty level was striking and it’s the thing I remember most about my time in Cambodia.

Then there were the tuk tuks. Tuk tuk drivers in Thailand would of course ask if you need a ride but I’ve never been accosted the way I was in Siem Reap. If there were 10 tuk tuks all parked in a row along a street where I was walking, every. single. driver. would call out to me (LADY! TUK TUK?? LADY!!!) despite me clearly ignoring all of them or explicitly telling them NO. I also didn’t know where to go to get food and even if I wanted to use a tuk tuk, that night I wasn’t planning on giving any of the drivers the time of day out of pure stubbornnness so I insisted on walking around aimlessly until I found a restaurant. After a long day, my patience was growing thin, having (what seemed like) every tuk tuk driver in the whole city asking if I needed a lift.

Cambodia culture shock

Excuse the poor quality photo from my phone!

I found that I was actually angry at Cambodia for being so obnoxious. I had never felt unsafe in Thailand but all of a sudden I felt like I was on high-alert in this new place. For the first time I actually missed home and how easy everything is there. I think this was my first instance of pure culture shock in my life.

There came a point, once I was back in the hostel, where my emotions of being on my own for so long and being so frustrated by everything around me that I shed a couple tears. But that’s exactly what culture shock is and what it does to you. Luckily I had prepared for this moment and I knew that everything I was feeling were textbook symptoms of culture shock. I knew that I would be fine once I had some sleep and had some time to adjust. I texted one of the friends I had made in Thailand during my mini-breakdown. She gave me some great advice: book myself a nice, comfortable hotel room at my next destination. Sometimes hostel life wears you thin and you need to recharge after a while. Of course she was right and I instantly booked a room for myself at a hotel in my next destination, Phnom Penh. Knowing that I would soon be in the lap of luxury (my own bed and bathroom!) in a few days’ time, I slept well and the rest of my stay in Siem Reap was much less dramatic. 🙂

Cambodia is not a terrible place but this was just my instantaneous reaction to it. I can’t say I ever really fell in love with this country but it certainly wasn’t as bad as I’ve just made it seem!

Once again, a not-so-happy post but I promise my next post about the rest of my time in Siem Reap and visiting the temples of Angkor Wat will be more positive and will have more photos!

Have you ever experienced culture shock like this in a new place? How did you overcome it?

 

Chiang Rai: the White Temple & the Golden Triangle

The next day after my elephant experience, I had booked a full day tour that would take me up to Chiang Rai to see the famed White Temple and the Golden Triangle. I signed up mostly to see the White Temple and to get out of Chiang Mai for the day. I didn’t know anything about the Golden Triangle until I got there. It’s kind of a strange place!

This day trip was less pleasant than the previous day. Not only was it a LONG day of driving, I was the only solo traveler in the group and the other people on the tour were not only unfriendly, but even rude at times. The group varied greatly in age, which I think was a problem and where some of the tension came from. I put my headphones in and tried to ignore all of them after a while. Needless to say, I didn’t make any friends that day!

I did my best to enjoy the day and our tour guide was very nice and very patient with our group. I tried to stick with her at times because she was the only one who spoke to me all day. I took this quick video in the tour bus. Sorry about all the background noise, but she is explaining the history of the Lanna Kingdom and the origins of Chiang Rai. I’m no video/sound editor so sorry if you can’t hear her clearly!

I don’t even have many photos because my camera was stolen in Cambodia not long after this, and I hadn’t had a chance to upload my photos from this day before it was taken. Most of the photos I’m posting are from my iPhone or Google. Just a disclaimer: all photos on all my future posts about my trip to Asia will be from my iPhone unfortunately!

Anyway our first stop was to the White Temple, officially called Wat Rong Khun. I had seen photos but in person it was truly spectacular, although smaller than I’d imagined. While it may look from afar as if this temple is completely traditional like any other ancient temple you might see in Thailand, this temple was completely redesigned and renovated in 1997 by artist Chalermchai Kositpipat. Looking at it up close, and visiting the interior, you will see countless modern elements and modern pieces of artwork.

I tried to get a photo without tourists but that was never going to happen! Admittedly my photos are terrible – if you really want to get a sense of it’s beauty, I suggest a quick Google image search!

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The most interesting part of the temple in inside where you’ll see a mural depicting a fantastical battle between good and evil. It depicts all sorts of “modern heroes” from pop culture, literature, etc. It’s almost like a “Where’s Waldo” drawing in that the more you look at it, the more details you pick up on. The room was small and crowded so I couldn’t view the painting for too long, but I spotted all sorts of recognizable characters, like superheroes (Superman, Spiderman, Batman, etc.), Hello Kitty, Harry Potter,  Ninja Turtles, Jack Sparrow, Michael Jackson, Sailor Moon, Minions, the Jigsaw puppet, Yoda, Luck Skywalker, Transformers., and Kung Fu Panda.

We weren’t allowed to take any photos unfortunately

Next we headed toward the Mekong River to visit the Golden Triangle, which is the area in which Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar (Burma) all meet

Here’s a quick video about modern drug trafficking in the region. To be honest, all of this was news to me, the tour made it seem like it was a place where a lot of drug trafficking happened in the past. We didn’t hear about any modern drug problems in the area!

Although I did learn from my tour that it is called the Golden Triangle because there is a small island in the Mekong that functioned as a no man’s land. Back in the day (or maybe this still happens??) opium deals would take place here between these three countries. They would use gold as a common currency, hence the name.

And here it is! My crappy Snapchat that I saved. You can clearly see the three countries from the river which is pretty cool.

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We took a boat across the river from Thailand into Laos. It wasn’t really an official visit so they took our passports away until we got back to Thailand so we couldn’t flee I guess? Sadly we didn’t get a passport stamp 🙁

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Quick selfie because ya know, #nonewfriends

Our brief stop in Laos was underwhelming. I definitely don’t count that experience in the list of countries I’ve visited. As far as I’m concerned I haven’t actually been to Laos. It was just a giant tacky market. So many knockoff handbags and general silly souvenirs. But I had to get a little something to commemorate my terrible opium tour 🙂

img_8194Once we were back in Thailand, we hopped back in the van and that’s when the market vs. Black House debate ensued. There was an issue in the tour van at the end of the day about whether to go to a market (as scheduled) or to go visit the Black House as a special treat, highly recommended by our tour guide. I personally had no idea what the Black House was but it sounded much more interesting than going to another market for the millionth time. The decision needed to be unanimous in order to diverge from the official itinerary. I was in awe of how inflexible and unpleasant these strangers could be to each other. There was one German woman who didn’t understand why we couldn’t just go to the market but everyone else was happy to visit the Black House instead.

It was a long drive so there was plenty of time for certain individuals to make passive aggressive comments to each other. I was sitting next to a middle aged American couple, who although I agreed with them in that we should visit the Black House, they were incessantly whispering loudly to each other about how rude and selfish the German woman was being because they were just SO excited to see the Black House. They were behaving as if she couldn’t understand them but she was sitting right in front of them and spoke perfect English. I don’t even know who I disliked more. In the end the German was very bitter but finally gave in and we headed for the Black House.

When we arrived I learned that the Black House was the personal property of the same artist/architect who designed the White Temple. The grounds were pretty vast and included all sorts of interesting structures and buildings. Even the interior design and decor was very modern and included a lot of animal bones and furs and wood. I walked around on my own and it was nice to have a peaceful stroll after the stress of the day.

I apparently don’t have a single photo on my phone of the Black House and I guess I had taken all my photos on my real camera that was stolen!

I was glad to be back in Chiang Mai and very glad to say goodbye to my fellow tour-mates at the end of the day. Luckily I was able to connect with some friends I had made the previous day at the elephant sanctuary for some drinks that night. They told me they had an amazing day at the Chiang Mai Grand Canyon swimming and cliff jumping. I was bummed and wished I had done that instead since I was off to Cambodia the next day, but I had to remind myself that travel isn’t always sunshine and roses. You’re bound to have a rough day once in a while, but you’ll almost always get some good stories out of it!

We had a fun night drinking beer and chatting with even more cool people. And we even found a “Tacos Bell”! A happy ending if I ever heard one 🙂

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Elephant Jungle Sanctuary

As my time in Thailand was coming to a close, I decided it was finally time to do the one thing I’ve always dreamed of: visiting an elephant sanctuary! I did a lot of research to make sure I was going to a quality sanctuary, and decided to book it for Valentine’s day. Because why not treat myself to something special! It was one of the most expensive activities I booked during my trip to Asia (2,400 THB or around $69 USD), but it was SO worth every penny.

I don’t want this post to be overly preachy but I do have something to say about the treatment of elephants in Asia and elephant tourism. Before I left for my trip, I was sitting at home one night around Christmas time and scanning the TV guide for something to watch. I found a program on Al Jazeera America regarding the treatment of elephants in Southeast Asia. I don’t remember the name of the exact program, but a quick google search on the topic will give you hundreds of results on this topic I’m sure.

Here’s a BBC article about the elephant trade and abuses in Southeast Asia

And here’s one about elephant abuse in India

 

For this reason I was extremely excited to visit a sanctuary for abused circus and riding elephants. I booked my day trip through Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, which had tons of amazing reviews. While I did hear some stories about sanctuaries that only pretend to be sanctuaries, while continuing to abuse the animals and raking in money from tourists like me, I don’t believe the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary was like that from what I saw. However, you never know what goes on behind closed doors.

I was picked up from my hostel early in the morning. I was expecting some type of little tour bus/van that are popular for day tours in Thailand. But what pulled up in front of the hostel was an old pickup truck. The bed of the truck had a little roof over the top and I could see a couple people sitting on benches in the back. As usual during my trip in Asia, despite my moment of terror, I went along with it anyway, crossing my fingers that this is normal. And, as usual, everything turned out fine. I met three lovely Canadian tourists in the back of the truck, before we went to pick up two English girls and an Australian couple. The group of us were all fairly close in age and got along famously during the long, bumpy ride into the mountains.

Once we finally reached our destination, we joined up with another pickup truck full of tourists for a quick trek down to the camp where we would meet the elephants!

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We reached the camp site, which had a few small wooden buildings and canopies where we would leave our belongings and where we would come back a little later to have a traditional lunch. The spot overlooked some dried-out rice terraces and a small river that flowed through some rocks and rapids, before letting out in a pool below us.

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First we set off to meet the elephants and feed them some bananas! We were all given traditional shirts to wear for the day that were made by the Karen hill tribe, who run this particular camp. We also got little purses to keep as souvenirs 🙂

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I'm not sure how much the elephants enjoyed posing for photos with us but they really like the snacks

I’m not sure how much the elephants enjoyed posing for photos with us but they really liked the snacks

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Elephant skin was so different than I’d imagined! Very dry and rough, and they are covered in prickly hairs

The elephants were as amazing as I’d hoped they’d be. One thing that struck me is that they moved faster than I’d imagined. And how big and powerful they are. That sounds obvious, but it wasn’t until I was face to face that it really hit me. As much as I was in awe of them, I was also just a tiny bit afraid that I would get in an elephant’s way and have one step on my foot and crush all my bones! Luckily that didn’t happen. Here are some more photos because I just couldn’t get enough:

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The day wouldn’t be complete without a Valentine’s kiss!

After we’d run out of bananas to give them and we had taken enough photos, we headed back to the camp for a delicious lunch. Then we changed into our bathing suits and were told to leave our cameras behind for the mud bath… things were about to get messy. Luckily the sanctuary provided a photographer to document the mud bath so we didn’t have to ruin our cameras and phones!

I have no idea what exactly we were standing in and I’d rather not think about it. It was so slimy and slippery. The guys that worked at the sanctuary would go around and splash mud all over us if we weren’t dirty enough, so there was no escaping it. We splashed mud all over the elephants to cool them off. As disgusting as it was, it was a pretty good time!

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After we were all sufficiently disgusting, we headed down to the river to rinse off the elephants (and ourselves).

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Note the baby elephant flopping around in the water on his side! I was scared he was going to accidentally kick one of us as he enjoyed his swim. Luckily we all managed to give him enough space!

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You can probably see why this was the best day of my entire two months in Asia and one I will not soon forget. I’m not sure how any future Valentine’s day could top this one! Not only did I have a magical experience with these beautiful creatures, but I also met a bunch of really lovely people who I got to share my experience with.

If anyone is looking for an unforgettable and ethical elephant experience in Thailand, I would highly recommend Elephant Jungle Sanctuary!

Chiang Mai

After my adventures on the islands of southern Thailand, I booked a flight up north to Chiang Mai to finish up my 30-day tourist visa. I had heard so many wonderful things about Chiang Mai from fellow travelers and bloggers alike. I ended up booking six nights there to take me up to my last legal day in Thailand. Turns out six nights may have been a few too many for such a quiet little city so I decided to book some day tours to fill the time.

 

Chiang Mai itself is a quaint city shaped like a perfect square and surrounded by moats and old city walls, with one gate into into the old city on each side of the square. My hostel, Potae’s House was located just across from the northern moat.

 

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Since I had booked such a long stay, I ended up getting to know the owner, Potae, a little. She was seemingly just a few years older than myself (maybe her late 20s or early 30s). She owned the property herself and lived there by herself with her cat. It was so clean and in such a great location, I was always so impressed! Her English was great and she gave me lots of travel advice. She even went all the way to the Chiang Mai train station on the other side of the city one day to book a sleeper train for me because let’s be real – me trying to do that myself would have ended with me accidentally booking a spot in the cargo hold or something awful. I was so grateful she did that but unfortunately all the tickets were booked for my date. She then sat with me and helped me book a flight. I was nervous about the land crossing into Cambodia that I was scheduled to undertake, but she convinced me to spend a little more money and fly there instead. Overall, a GREAT decision.

The downside about the hostel was that the other people staying there were not as outgoing and friendly as I had experienced in other hostels. So for the most part I spent time on my own, at least for the first few days.

The days I spent in Chiang Mai were used for wandering around aimlessly, reading, and working on my blog in little cafes. I soon found out there’s not a whole lot to see in Chiang Mai in terms of tourist attractions. But all the little streets are lined with buildings covered in plants and there’s a never-ending supply of temples and markets to stop in and visit.

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So much cool street art too!

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On one of the day tours I booked (more on that in another post) the tour guide was telling us about the local cuisine of Chiang Mai. She mentioned Khao Soi as the quintessential dish of the region. Naturally that night I sought it out for dinner and it ended up being one of my favorite dishes in Asia. The level of spiciness was a little more than I could comfortably tolerate but I powered through anyway. Just look at it!

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It’s a noodle soup in a creamy coconut curry broth. Complete with red onion, plenty of cilantro, and those little crunchy things on top. I ended up going back to the same restaurant another two times to eat as much as I could get my hands on before heading off to Cambodia!

Overall, Chiang Mai was much different than I had expected but it was nice to wind down in one spot for a while after moving around so much the previous 30 days. It was a great way to enjoy my last bit of Thai culture and reflect on the month I spent in Thailand. My next post is going to be about one of my absolute favorite days of my trip: my visit to the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary just outside Chiang Mai 🙂

Ao Nang & Railay Beach

 

My first in Ao Nang, I met two lovely Swedish guys. They were best friends traveling together and they were staying in the same dorm as me. We got to talking and they asked if I wanted to join them for dinner. There comes a point when you’re traveling by yourself that you will eat dinner with literally anyone. But luckily these two were genuinely cool so I was happy to accept! The three of us went out to a nearby place for a couple beers and dinner. I remember discussing Swedish holidays vs. American holidays at length with them. I learned all about their St. Lucia traditions and slowly realized what they were describing to me sparked a memory of the American Girl Doll, Kirsten, who wore the candles on her head!

I then tried to explain Thanksgiving to them, although I think I made it sound a bit boring. We grabbed some dessert at a classy restaurant nearby before heading back to the hostel. They would be getting up early the next morning to get to their next destination so I added them on Facebook and wished them well! I’m slightly bummed I never got a photo with them, although of course I made sure to get photos of the desserts 🙂

The next day I headed over to the iconic Railay Beach! I spent the day alone but I wasn’t bothered. I took the boat over and relaxed while enjoying these views:

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Even managed to snap a couple selfies

Even managed to snap a couple selfies

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It was touristy for sure, but why wouldn’t it be?  I can’t blame anyone for wanting to visit. It was also there that my fear of monkeys was solidified. I had seen some cute little monkeys in Phi Phi and I was able to keep my distance. But the monkeys at Railey were bigger and not afraid to jump out of the trees in front of you while you’re innocently walking down the sandy walking path. I had to turn around and walk the other way at one point when a bunch of them appeared out of nowhere just a few feet from me!

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That night I met some newcomers to the hostel, one American guy and one Welsh guy. They had met not long before and decided to travel together for a bit. It was great to hear the stories of where’d they’d been and where they would be going next. We all ate dinner together before buying a bit of alcohol to bring back to the hostel. We drank and played cards in the open-air lobby for a while while trying some exotic soda flavors as mixers, with mixed results. It was a relaxing night of swapping travel stories and learning new card games. This time I was the one headed off early the next morning so after adding them on Instagram, we all said goodnight and headed to bed. Again, I didn’t get any photos that night except for one of a gigantic spider we spotted in the hostel. Bummer.

It’s nights like these that make me miss traveling. It’s exciting never knowing who you’re going to meet or dine with the next day. Maybe you’ll never see them again or maybe you’ll end up traveling together for a few weeks!

That morning I flew from Krabi up north to Chiang Mai. I have a lot to write about regarding my time in Chiang Mai so hopefully I’ll have a new post up soon!