Barb and Ben Dietrich, recently retired, travelled through Southeast Asia for three months last year and sent emails “home” describing the journey.
Cambodia is a country that leaves a special spot in your heart. Cambodians have lived through decades of war and conflict and this has left them as one of the world’s poorest countries. Many of the streets in Cambodia are not paved so there is a lot of dust and dirt. The air is polluted, particularly because of the many motor bikes. We really noticed it in our lungs and it was suggested that we wear the masks to help with breathing.
I will try to give you the “Coles notes” version on the genocide, as it was a big part of our Cambodia travels. I apologize to those people who are familiar with this if some of my info is not totally accurate, but this is what was shared with us.
In 1975, Cambodia went under the control of a very paranoid communist leader named Pol Pot. He separated families, sending them to different parts of Cambodia to work in conditions of slavery. He recruited young Cambodian men as his soldiers (they had no choice or he would have them killed) and their job was to bring random Cambodians to interrogation and torture places, which were set up in different parts of Cambodia. The one we visited was S21 (which was a former high school). The men brought here were from all trades—it didn’t matter who you were or what you did. The soldiers would brutally torture these men in order to get them to confess of betraying Pol Pot, which they eventually would for the sole purpose of stopping the torture.
Once the confession was made they were told they would be going to a better place. They were then blindfolded and taken to the Killing Fields where they were beaten and many buried alive. Loud music would be played so that no one could hear the screaming. This went on until 1979. When the killings finally stopped, almost a quarter of the Cambodian population had been murdered and by their very own people. How sad is that.
Many of the people that we spoke to had actually experienced this first hand. Yet despite all they had been through, they were generally very happy and caring people. One would think there would be a lot of bitterness and anger but not once did we see that. They were just trying to rebuild their lives.
After visiting S21 and the Killing Fields, which were just outside of the city Phnom Penh, we headed north to Siem Reap. Siem Reap serves as a small gateway town to the world famous heritage site of the Angkor temples.
The history of the Angkor Kingdom starts at the beginning of the 9th century and for about 600 years several hundred temples were built, the most famous temple being Angkor Wat. It covers 37 square miles and is on the Cambodian flag.
These temples are amazing to see. Many have crumbled over the years and have large trees growing in them. The limestone blocks are huge and one could only wonder how they got them 300 feet in the air. The rock carvings are intricate and most tell a story about daily life or about legends back in the day. You could spend days wandering through the many, many different temples.
Our next stop was the Island of Phuket in Southern Thailand. Patong, where we stayed for two nights, is known for its beautiful beaches, nightlife, bars, restaurants and sex trade. As they say, seeing is believing.
The beach at Patong isn’t busy in the morning because the kids don’t start showing up until after lunch and then the beach is packed. Serious people watching can be done here.
We headed down the coast to the village of Nai Hairn, which is almost on the southern tip of Phuket. It was a much quieter spot and another beautiful beach. I sprained my ankle so we ended up staying here for 6 nights and we really did not move much from the hotel.
We continued on to Phi Phi Don, a small island off the west coast of Thailand. Cars and motorcycles are not allowed on the island, which was a treat because motorcycles get very tiresome after a while. The island is well known for its excellent diving and partying and there were a ton of young backpackers here. Each night there were great fire shows all along the beach, free of charge. It was amazing to watch the natives twirling, throwing and swallowing fireballs.
One day we climbed up to a lookout where we could see the entire island and the view was stunning. There was a display there showing pictures of Phi Phi Don before and after the tsunami that hit on Boxing Day in 2005. They say people did not know why the water was going out and that they were actually running around picking up the fish that were left on the bottom of the ocean floor. Sadly, much of the town was wiped out but it didn’t take long to rebuild.
During our stay at Phi Phi Don we took a boat trip out to the island of Phi Phi Lee, which is not very far away, and went snorkeling at this amazing spot.
After two nights we headed back to the mainland and stayed in the town of Ao Nang near Krabi, famous for rock climbing. I think you would have to be fearless to do this.
We went on an organized kayak tour through mangrove forests by the limestone rock walls and it was stunning. Sometimes we would hear screaming because a monkey had jumped into a kayak to steal food or water bottles that weren’t hidden. Thank goodness it wasn’t ours!
Transportation in the waterways is done mainly by long, narrow, wooden boats run by old car engines, with a drive shaft and propeller on the end of it. Talk about pollution.
That pretty well sums up our Southern Thailand travels. Stay tune for Malaysia, soon to follow.
Barb and Ben’s 3-month trip through Southeast Asia: A classic travel itinerary for Southeast Asia
Barb’s letters are reprinted with permission; the content has been condensed and edited.
Photo credits Barb and Ben Dietrich
© Riding the buses 2014