Preface: Recently I had the opportunity to travel to South East Asia for 3 weeks. It is a trip that I have dreamt of for years, but finally had the chance make happen. My goal all along with this trip was to see both the real life side of these countries, but also the beaten path tourist spots; this brought me to some realizations along the way. My wife and I booked the trip with Buffalo Tours, but before you dismiss this hear me out. When I hear the word "tour" I tend to have a negative reaction, and picture this flood of annoying people getting off a giant bus...a nightmare.
That is not at all how Buffalo Tours operates. Every day we did something, and over three weeks we saw almost an incomprehensible amount of places, taking 5 flights, 2 over night trains, and countless vehicles. For the majority of the time (when reasonable) it was the two of us and a guide. Having a local guide to tell us facts, along with a person to just talk too and discuss perspectives and traditions was invaluable. I have no connection to Buffalo Tours, but I highly recommend them for both the personal touch and for all of the transportation coordination. Our trip, covering the ground we did, would not have been possible without them.
For my favorite photos from the trip check out the portfolio linked on the left, this blog is meant to share the story and background in more detail.
Cambodia - The Cambodian leg of our trip was the shortest, but by far will have the most impact. We spent 4 nights based out of Siem Reap, including two days and one night doing a homestay in a small village (+/- 400 people) an hour or so outside of town. Cambodia has a fucked up not so distant history to say the least, but the people we met and talked with were all upbeat and nice to us, even if they were somewhat hesitant to speak openly at first.
I loved Cambodia, and I hope to go back one day with more knowledge. With that said, I came to two revelations on this part of the trip that are not really related to Cambodia and should not be seen as a negative to Cambodia, but something about Cambodia makes you look a little deeper and reflect.
We started at the Angkor complex, more specifically Angkor Wat. Seeing Angkor Wat was a dream, a place I had seen so many images of over the years and none of them truly prepare you for how amazing it is. The details in the ancient sandstone and carved into almost every inch of every temple in the complex is just mind blowing. The hero images from this area rarely include any of this, but it is such an important part of the experience.
The classic image of Angkor Wat. We could not go and not get this photo that literally hundreds of people take each day. Being a photographer I know how much photography can lie, or tell a artificial reality. In my naivete I always saw an image like this one and thought of how serene it must have been to see, how it would offer a moment of silence to reflect on life. Nope, its hundreds of tourists, including some pushy ones, around a little lake. The farthest thing from what I imagined.
I want to make it clear I am not saying this as a negative towards Angkor Wat or that you should not visit, I think any large tourist attraction in any country is the same way. It just hit me like a pile of bricks how shaped the portrayal of something can be just by whats left out of the frame. Beyond the obvious back lighting of the temple I would be more than happy to bet the reason a lot of photos are silhouetted is because it hides all the people. With that said though, the complex is so big and everyone spreads after sunrise that the rest of the day we could walk in temples and barely see anyone.
The Bayon Temple is where again my naivete got the best of me. Its not hard to find images like the one above and I simply love them, there are some great ones. But, from what I saw it leads me to the conclusion that they are all fucking fake. When I saw images of munks at the old temples I always assumed they were there and parts of the temples were off-limits to tourists and they still worshiped etc. From my time (limited I know) two photographers were shooting images like the one above and clearly asked, but most likely paid/donated based on the way they were directing them like models, or groups of munks were on trips to view the temples in the same way we were. It was one of those moments that just sort of crushed me, when you feel like you have been led to believe a false reality, lied to by magazines and photographers.
Homestay - The homestay perfectly exemplified my ideal form of traveling - local, real. The owners of the house were very nice and cooked amazing food. One of my favorite dishes from our trip was the last meal before leaving to go back to Siem Reap. Basically, it was pork with big chunks of ginger and onion, I have tried to recreate it but have not gotten the seasoning just right. One regret I had was not talking more with the owners, I tried to think of good questions and conversation starters but even by this point a week and half in I felt so disoriented with all the travel. Thank you so much to everyone that made it possible. It was an experience I will never forget.
I love rice. I dream about rice. If I had my way I would eat rice every day. When most kids had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I had a thermos of rice for lunch. We started our homestay by walking in the rice fields on the way to a local woman's house where she showed us how the rice is separated from the husk, it was more labor intensive then I thought.
We also stopped by one of the local farms, he was growing all types of plants, however the green onions were the cash crop that would be sold at the market along with cucumbers. For the family, they grew long beans, pumpkins, peppers, various fruit, and lots of herbs.
Earlier in the day it was brought up that we were going to teach English to a class of kids, yes me, the person that wrote this blog and has possibly the worst spelling was going to teach English. We "taught" at the community center (photo at the start of the blog). We don't have kids or are really around kids, so inside I felt slightly numb. Becky came through though and we just ended up singing the "if you're happy and you know it" song because its the only one we could remember. That turned into a game of Simon Says, which ended up working out great to teach body parts and movements.
After the class we relaxed and then had dinner and drinks and talked into the night. Dinner was amazing like the other meals, followed by lots of drinks and talking followed by snacks like dried fish, sausage (kwah ko maybe) and what was either a bat or some other night bird... I did not get a clear answer, it was good though :) The next morning we used some of the school kids' bikes to tour around the village and the next village over.
I wish we could have stayed longer, but just like that our homestay was over and we headed back to Siem Reap for one last night/morning before heading to Thailand. People told us that we should check out Pubstreet for a drink. We did, I wish we did not to be honest. It would be fun, maybe I am just getting old, but besides some obvious differences it could have been anywhere in the world, any college town bar street. Filled with tourists, I just could not really get into it. We did enjoy walking through the markets and comparing the experience with those we walked through in Vietnam.