Exploring Hanoi City: A Tropical, Colorful, Communist Tokyo (Part 1)

Since I’ve lived in Japan for over 4 years now, I often wonder what the country would be like if it hadn’t radically reconstructed after the destruction caused by World War II.  Of course the US military including General MacArthur was responsible for political and social reforms in Japan, and eventually the economy stabilized, but what if the country had been left to ruin and was forced rebuild itself from scratch like Cambodia?  I believe it is thanks to the hard work of Japanese people and the influence of the pre-existing constitutional monarchy that Japan was able to modernize itself.  Whether you agree with Japanese politics or not, the way this island country restored itself is incredible.

Then I look at countries like Vietnam who also went to war against the US but are controlled by a Communist government.  While I was in Hanoi I visited the Hỏa Lò Prison and learned about the history of the Vietnam War.  Unlike what happened during World War II, the North Vietnam military still wanted to overtake the South.  Let’s take a look at what happened in Vietnam after Nixon signed the Paris Peace Accords…

“By the early 1980s, Vietnam’s government was coming to realize that communism would not provide a miracle cure for rapidly modernizing the country and growing its economy.” Goscha, The Penguin History of Modern Vietnam, pp. 398-99

Since Communism is clearly flawed, a new market reform called “Doi Moi” was introduced to the country.  This type of market revolves around supply and demand.  This means sometimes people receive more than others, but essentially the work you put forth will eventually pay you back.  Thanks to the farmers and exporters, Vietnam was able to gradually rebuild its economy.  Additionally this type of reform helped Vietnamese citizens fight poverty:

“At the end of the war, 70 percent of the people in Vietnam were living below the official poverty line. Today, that number is estimated to be less than 20 percent.”
Asia Pacific Curriculum

As of right now, many people in Japan are beginning to live on the verge of poverty, and work motivation lower than most developed countries around the world.  Though they make less income on average, you’ll notice that citizens in Vietnam have a much more positive outlook on life.  And it’s not just due to cultural differences.  You have to stop and think, why is this?

In my next article, I will be highlighting some of the places I visited in Hanoi including the prison and exploring these ideas now.  Thank you all for reading!

Hanging out at the Imperial Palace of Cambodia

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The Imperial Palace Brightly shines brightly in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

On my last day in Cambodia, I decided to take a walk to the Imperial Palace in Phnom Penh and try some aesthetic food at the cafes nearby.  What an amazing trip this was!  I had the opportunity to visit the killing fields and learn about the brutal history of Cambodia, rave in a jungle on Koh Rong, volunteer with bears, and also see the historic temples of Angkor Wat.  I ended my trip by coming to the capital city to see how it has reshaped itself since the rule of the Khmer Rouge.  Phnom Penh reminded me of a smaller Ho Chi Minh City because there were a lot of motorcycle commuters and international travelers with tiny shops that lined the streets.  It was a bit harder to traverse on foot compared to Siem Reap with all of the traffic, but it is definitely worth checking out.

Since I had done a lot of traveling in this country, I spent a lot of time relaxing in my room at Lovely Jubbly Villa, which I highly recommend staying at.  They have an excellent bar by the pool with a happy hour every night and the staff are extremely friendly.  Plus the panda mascot is so adorable!  The perks of coming during the off season is that it is very easy to make friends and go out with the Cambodian locals here.  My hotel was able to help me book cheap tuk tuk rides and a ride to the airport, and they had cheap tours you could book the day of.  It was such a pleasant stay and I was sad to leave, but 10 days here was enough for me to see everything that I wanted.

Overall I was extremely impressed by the warmth and friendliness that everyone showed me here.  Most people that come to Cambodia have already been to Thailand and are looking for a different experience.  I was able to meet a lot of cool people that inspired me to travel to other Asian countries as well.  It’s amazing how much this country has built itself back up since its destructive civil war in the 1970s.

If you have any questions about traveling to Cambodia, please see my original itinerary, or feel free to ask me in the comments.

Visiting the Killing Fields in Cambodia: A Gruesome Past We Must Never Forget

Warning: I’m going to talk about some gruesome topics in this article as to thoroughly explain Cambodia’s history, so please be wary of this when reading.

While I was staying in Phnom Penh, I decided to visit the Killing Fields and Genocide Museum to learn about the gruesome history of Cambodia.  I booked a cheap bus through Get Your Guide and arrived to Choeung Ek, the largest of the killing fields which is now a memorial, in the early afternoon.  Though I knew this visit was going to be a sad part of my trip, I didn’t expect the audio recordings and personal stories from some of the victims to move me to tears.  The reign of the Khmer Rouge was a truly horrid part of Cambodia’s history, and many of the country’s own people were trained to become merciless assassins and slaughter innocent victims that were targeted or framed.  It’s a miracle that some of them are still alive today, so I think that this is an important part of history we should never forget and never let me repeated.

The Khmer Rouge reigned in Cambodia from 1975 – 1979, but in these 4 years they caused more damage to the country than what anyone could truly realize.  During this time 1/4 of the Cambodian population was killed by cruel and unusual punishment, disease, and starvation mostly by the hand of their own kind.  Toul Sleng, which is now the genocide museum, was the prison where “enemies” of the Angkor were sent for questioning and torture.  However, most of these people were innocent and the Khmer Rouge just wanted a confession from them so they could control the country in an extremely corrupt way.  This was mostly due to paranoia as the Vietnam War and secret bombing campaigns were simultaneously occurring, but this also shows the darkest side of communism.

Once taken the the Killing Field, the soldiers would blindfold and smash the heads of victims into spears as to not waste bullets, then dispose of their bodies in mass graves full of thousands of people.  While they were being killed, eerie symphony music would be played as to mask their screens and keep other prisoners from overhearing.  Children were beaten to death against “The Killing Tree” so they would be unable to take revenge when they grew older.  This tree is now adorned with colored bracelets in memory. Very few people survived or were spared, and those that did have lived with horrible memories from this inhumane place.  The skulls have now been moved to a memorial in the center of the museum to serve as a reminder of this terrible reign.  However, there are still many fragments of bones around the fields as the devastation of this tragic event still affects this country to this day.

Those who weren’t sent to the killing fields were forced to work on communal farms in harsh conditions.  Anyone educated or that stood up to the Khmer Rouge were immediately sent to the fields or prison for questioning.  This is comparable to the Nazi concentration camps as it resulted in a mass genocide and left many people without families or hope for the future.  So how exactly is Cambodia doing now?

Fortunately Cambodia has received aid from other countries, and tourism there is gradually increasing, but most Cambodian people live in poverty and it is far from becoming the democratic society that it was promised.  Yet, while I was staying there I noticed that a lot of Cambodian people are quite kind and are usually smile a lot when talking to you.  They are far less aggressive than people in Vietnam or Thailand, and I didn’t fall into any major scams while I was here.  Why do modern day Cambodians appear happier than a lot of other people in Asian countries?

As a fellow traveler examines in The Happiness Plunge:

“When you live through a genocide, life is kind of like a miracle. And maybe the people here live each day like it’s a miracle.

I suppose when every day is a miracle, you see things you wouldn’t otherwise see – things that make you smile.”

A very important lesson we can learn from the Killing Fields is to appreciate our currents lives and carry on each day as if it were a miracle.

Exploring Koh Rong Samleom

After my wild night of raving in the jungle of Koh Rong and frolicking on the beach until the early hours of the morning, I still couldn’t sleep so I decided to take the first ferry from Koh Touch to its sister island Koh Rong Samleom.  This ticket cost about $8 and there are 4 ferries that depart from Koh Rong daily depending on the boat service you choose.  I decided to get off at Saracen Bay because it has the prettiest beaches and most bars and accommodations.  M’pai Bay is more lively at night and attracts a lot of backpackers with its parties and cheap accommodations.  However, Saracen Bay and the other parts of the island are quite relaxing and carefree in comparison.

The atmosphere here during the day was definitely more quiet and reserved than the main island, but it had a lot of restaurants and places you could stop for a massage as well as snorkeling equipment available for you to rent.  Wifi is scarce here due to how remote this island was, but I was able to score it for a bit from a local restaurant I ate at.  It was definitely the cleanest area in Cambodia I had been to and I was very impressed with all of the great views:

Similar to Koh Rong, this island also hosts jungle parties on Friday nights and Half Moon Parties during certain times of the year.  Though I wasn’t able to attend one here this year, I’d really like to come back and go in the future.  I loved staying at Treehouse Bungalows on the main island, but I would like to trying staying here in the future so I could get to know more of the locals.  The island really has a great vibe and is off-the-grid so you can definitely make it your own.  I just went here as a day trip, but I wish I could have stayed longer.  It was great to relax here and reflect on all the crazy things that happened the night before.

For more information on Koh Rong Samleon, please check out the island guide from Don’t Forget to Move!

Resurface to Reality: Raving in the Jungle of Koh Rong

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Resurfacing to Reality at Police Beach, Cambodia.

When caught up in work, stress, and a maze of relationships, it’s often easy to lose sight of yourself and forget what is important.  Though I love living in Tokyo, I find it often hard to relax here and there is an endless amount of events occurring which really places a lot of pressure on my life.  Spending 4 days on the small Cambodian island of Koh Rong in Koh Touch, a small village that only stretches for about a mile, really taught me taught me some valuable lessons I will treasure for life.

It was here where I went to my first old-school rave in the jungle and learned to live frugally compared to my extravagant city life.  The villagers were extremely kind and I was always surrounded by friendly people that took care of me despite the fact that I ventured here completely alone.  My time here really helped me let go of a lot of anxieties and insecurities I had that were holding me back recently.  Though I have many caring friends in all the countries I have visited, being in this setting helped me resurface to reality and form an entirely new perspective so I could enter a new mindset that I couldn’t reach before. I am still trying to find the proper words to convey exactly what happened, so I am just going to start from the beginning and write it all as I feel it.

The night began I as I wandered from my treehouse from around 9pm to a local bar called Karma, just because it had a lot of pretty murals, dank music, and was the designated pre-game spot before the rave in the jungle.  The best way to find out where these places are at is by word of mouth (simply by asking someone that works at the bar what’s going on for the night).  Here I met a crazy diverse group of people (one banker, one bar owner, and one government worker) who I really hit it off with so they ordered me some happy cookies, shots, and some Turkish coffee (which is just really strong, delicious tasting coffee) to keep me awake.  We all just had the same vibe–this was our first time in Koh Rong and we wanted to go out for the night but didn’t know what to expect–so we stuck together.  Fortunately all of us were experienced travelers who had done the Fullmoon Parties in Thailand already and were looking for something different.  And an absolutely insane night full of neon lights, fantastic music, and important self-discoveries was ahead of us!

If you haven’t heard, the main reason that people flock to Koh Rong is because of their weekly beach parties on the un-ironically named Police Beach.  In addition to the vivid nightlife, there is a ton of unspoiled nature and beaches to explore.  The reason I love Koh Rong is because unlike other places, it usually only has one event going on per night such as beach parties, bar hopping, or game nights between small groups of people.  There is no competition between events and everyone that shows up is generally friendly and looking to have a good time.  I did not encounter one unpleasant person while on this island.  I came during the off-season in October, but the weather was still sunny with only mild rain.  It was perfectly suited for me because I never felt like I was missing out.

We arrived almost at the start of the party because we were already buzzed and ready to dance.  I wasn’t extremely familiar with any of the DJs but they did a great job of mixing really classic techno songs.  I liked the venue because it had an indoor area that protects you from the rain, lounge chairs where you can relax and smoke joints, and nicely-sized dancefloor, and an outdoor area where you could relax on the beach but still hear the music.  It wasn’t anything fancy because it was partially in the jungle, but it was perfect for what it was.  I have been to many clubs in Asia so I was looking for something different like this.

Basically anything goes at this party–it preserves the old rave culture that is lost to Japan and many other places.  If you’re looking for something, then you’re likely to find it if you make friends with people beforehand.  I also loved the fact that wild dogs would roll up to the party and fall asleep on the ground (they were friendly and nice).  While I was at this party I really had a lot of fun twirling on the dance floor and running across the beach.  I felt relaxed, energized, and full of life.  It reminded me of being in college again, so I messaged some of my old college friends and told them I was thinking of them while I was there (since it was day time in the US and they were awake we had some great convos).

I stuck with the group of people that I had met earlier, but also was in my head for the most of the night.  To be honest I don’t remember a lot of things, but I was able to reach a level of thinking where I could compartmentalize my stress and anxieties and manage them a lot better.  That in itself made the entire experience worth it.

When the clock struck 6am, we climbed down to the beach and watched the sunrise.  It was breathtaking.  The sun looked like a red beady dot that was emerging from a sea of clouds, just like how we were all slowly trickling out of the jungle to the beach.  Earlier that night I had put a lot of effort into my appearance but at this time of morning I didn’t have a single care in the world.  I felt like a mermaid as I swam in the cool water.

When the party ended, I didn’t go to sleep.  I ran back to my treehouse and blasted my favorite songs from my balcony.  I met one of the bartenders on the way walking his dog and we had a lovely conversation.  Then I waded in the water until the first ferries arrived and sailed off to Koh Rong Samloem Island (which I will cover in my next post).  Overall, this was one of the best party experiences I had in my life, and I am so grateful I made the decision to come out here.

Compared to the beautiful islands I traveled to in Thailand, this was like an off-the-grid, undiscovered, party paradise that only the true backpackers make it to.

As an article on Matador Network puts it:

It’s not as if Thailand lacks an authentic culture…but the country, especially its islands, has been inundated with foreign tourism for so long that it’s far more difficult to forge sincere connections than it was on Koh Rong.

The biggest issue with islands in Thailand is that they are sometimes overcrowded with tourists so it’s difficult to partake in genuine Thai culture while you are there.  Plus because their Full Moon parties attract a large number of tourists, there are always other smaller underground parties going on at the same time as competition.  If you are only in Thailand for a short time, then it’s really impossible to hit up all the events.  However, at Koh Rong you never have the fear of missing out and can really learn from the culture of the people there.  The parties take place away from the hotel area so you can easily escape them if you need to.  There is a sense of peace and balance on Koh Rong that you’d never find elsewhere.  From what I’ve heard, Thailand used to be like this in the 80s, but this kind of culture is starting to fade away with the huge tourist boom.  However, I am extremely grateful I had the opportunity to travel to both countries and make friends.

Will I come back to Koh Rong to resurface to reality again in the future?  Perhaps one day.  Next I have my sights set on the Philippines and Indonesia which I likely will traverse next year!  But this has been my best island experience by far so I likely will try to go again.  Thank you to everyone for reading my heartfelt post.

Koh Rong: The Happiest Place in Cambodia

Koh Rong, a tropical island in the Sihanoukville Province of Cambodia, is an extremely attractive destination with its white-sand beaches, jungle full of waterfalls and wildlife, and its weekly parties on Police Beach.  Though the island is about the size of Hong Kong, most of it is undeveloped so it feels like an untouched paradise.  Most of the villages here only stretch for about a mile so everyone recognizes one another and knows each other by name.  I compare a lot of the islands that I’ve traveled to The Legend of Zelda: Windwaker, but this actually felt like an island straight out of an RPG the way it was laid out.  There are tons of places you can freely explore on foot, and you can also take boat taxis to access more remote parts of the island.  Or just stay in the main village and enjoy drinking with the locals every night on the beach!

Similar to Koh Phangan in Thailand, there are Full Moon Parties thrown here that attract a lot of backpackers, but the atmosphere of this island is truly rural and more off-the-grid than any other island I have ever traveled to.  Most of the people I met here had already been to Thailand and were looking for a different experience.  I learned a lot from the observing the life of the villagers here and am extremely excited to share my experience!

Getting to Koh Rong

In order to reach Koh Rong, you must fly or take a bus to Sihanoukville and take a ferry  because there are no airports on the island.  I opted to take an overnight bus from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville that I booked through 12goAsia for $25.  The journey was 10 hours, but I actually slept quite well on the bus because I was exhausted from exploring Angkor Wat and the floating village.

When I first booked this bus, I was expecting to meet some strange people (like those you see riding the MegaBus in America), but I was surprised to see that actually everyone riding this bus was quite normal.  Everyone around me were international backpackers trying to save money, so we opted for the cheaper route.  I even cheersed the guy that was holding a beer beside me with my tiny bottle of wine.  After about an hour, almost everyone was asleep so it was a pleasant ride.

Sihanoukville itself is a strange town full of construction and Chinese-owned casinos.  The roads are absolutely chaotic, and though it has beaches, the ones in Koh Rong are much more beautiful so I would not recommend staying here.  Go straight to Koh Rong and experience life in paradise instead!  The ferry ticket there was only $11 and the ride was about 30 minutes long.  Though the overnight journey took a while, everything I was about to discover on the island would make it worth it.

Staying in a Treehouse

Since the village of Koh Touch is near the weekly Police Beach parties, I opted to book a private room at Treehouse Bungalows.  I paid around $50 a night for this room, but in my opinion, the stay was worth it!  Not only is it quiet and more private than other hostels, but it also has a great view of the beach.  I enjoyed playing music from my balcony and being up in the trees.  There is a wonderful restaurant down below, and a massage place on the beach that I went to nearly every day.  For those looking for cheaper options, please check Hostelworld (some dorms are only $5 per night).

I made a somewhat funny video to commemorate my treehouse stay which you can watch below:

Chasing Sunsets

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Sunset on Long Beach, which I was informed by one of the islanders is the best beach to watch the sunset.

During my first day at Koh Rong I decided to explore the beach nearby my treehouse called 4K beach, and I also hired a motorcycle driver for $30 to take me to some of the other remote beaches.  What amazed me is how truly undeveloped this island is.  Most of the roads are made of dirt and some twist through the jungle, so I would recommend hiring an experienced driver or a boat taxi your first time.  These can easily be found within the village, and the bartenders can also recommend you where to get a cheap ride.  There is also a lot of abandoned property on the island.  I really hope it is put to use someday, because the atmosphere of this island is lovely.

Sweet Dreams Beach was the first place that we ventured to. It was extremely gorgeous with its swimming pool and paved road to the beach.  I saw a few families staying here because this is a safe and relatively quiet location away from the main village:

The next place we went to was Long Beach so I could go swimming and watch the sunset. My driver told me that in the fall season this is the only place where you can clearly watch it, so I was grateful to see this on my first night.  I think this is one of the most beautiful beaches on the island because it is extremely quiet and pristine.

In addition to the beaches that I visited, you can find a fantastic Koh Rong Beach Guide here.  There is also a nearby island called Koh Rong Samloem with a nice vibe that I will be covering in my next post.  Overall I really loved staying on the main Koh Rong island due to all of the nice people that I met and the privacy of my treehouse.

Finding Happiness

Throughout the main village of Koh Touch (and other locations in Cambodia) you will see signs advertising “happy” consumables that you can buy, but also signs reminding you that you cannot buy happiness.  What do these things all mean, and what is happiness to Cambodian people and travelers on this island?

Happiness is Khmer is “សុផមង្គល” (so ph mongkol), but rarely will you see the word written in anything but English.  Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world, and many of the country’s people were slaughtered by their own kind or forced into slavery during the rule of the Khmer Rouge.  The country is still rebuilding itself from those times and the devastation from the war is very apparent.  However while traveling here–especially on this island–I saw nothing but smiles from all of the local people.  As a fellow traveler examines in The Happiness Plunge:

“When you live through a genocide, life is kind of like a miracle. And maybe the people here live each day like it’s a miracle.

I suppose when every day is a miracle, you see things you wouldn’t otherwise see – things that make you smile.”

A lot of backpackers come here to escape life and party on the beach to find happiness, as well as consume psychedelics and cannabis to forget their worries, but the miracle of happiness and life that Cambodian people have cannot be replicated by this.  However, staying on this island gives everyone a chance to connect with one another and appreciate nature while learning about the culture of this country.  This feeling cannot be bought because happiness is not a concrete thing or consumable, but it can be shared a celebrated with others and found within yourself.  Though the horrors that Cambodia has faced in the past cannot be erased, we can do our best to pay our respects and look forward to a brighter tomorrow.

Happiness is both a journey and realizing to be thankful for what you have in life.  Whether it takes a happy cookie or a long journey to realize this depends on you.  But if you make it all the way out to Koh Rong, likely you will find happiness in some way or form.  Life here is so different than living in the city or a first-world country.  People have simple lives and because of it they are relatively carefree.  You can learn a lot by simply spending a few days here.  If you are living a high-stress life, then coming here may simply be the cure.

In my next article, I will be writing about the techno rave in the jungle I went to while I was here for my birthday and re-examine happiness once more.  Thank you for reading.

 

Aesthetic Food Finds in Cambodia

As an avid lover of all things that are aesthetic, searching for unique restaurants and trying the most colorful foods around the world is one of my life goals.  Besides the infamous Happy Pizza this country is famous for, here are some of the best foods that I tried in Cambodia:

Siem Reap

Though Siem Reap is mostly famous for Angkor Wat and its other historical monuments, there are actually a surprisingly decent amount of delicious and healthy restaurants around.  My personal favorite was Artillery that had falafel waffles and vegan dragon fruit cake.  They were both amazingly satisfying after a long day of exploring ancient temples and working up an appetite.

I also recommend heading to the Fresh Fruit Factory which is nearby.  They have amazing fruit parfaits and shaved ice you can try with a friendly and welcoming atmosphere:

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My favorite street food that I tried near the night market here was hands down the Strawerry Hokkaido Cheese Toast.  Since I’ve been to Hokkaido twice this year, I felt obligated to try it.  Say cheese~  Surprisingly, I liked the flavor and texture of it.  They also have green tea and other unique flavors here, along with bubble tea.

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Koh Rong

Koh Rong Island is a lot more rural than other areas in Cambodia, but I still managed to find some great food in the small village of Koh Touch!  I tried a falafel wrap from Sky Bar which was extremely fulfilling, and also ate a lot of my meals at the Treehouse Restaurant where I was staying.  I had some delicious seafood noodle soup, muesli with yogurt and fresh fruit, and also some chocolate pancakes with banana.  I was impressed with how fresh the food was and fortunately was able to eat healthy every day while I was here.  They are a number of western-style restaurants that serve pizza and burgers here as well.

Phnom Penh

The capital of Cambodia has no shortage of food options.  My favorite restaurant  was a cozy cafe near the imperial palace called VIBE.  Here I had some delicious avocado flatbread and a delicious chocolate smoothie bowl served out of a coconut.  This gave me a lot of energy for the day so I was very happy to have stumbled upon it.

As far as fast food goes, I found a wonderful cafe called J’ADORE where I had a huge avocado shake and mini prawn burgers.  They were easy to eat and were surprisingly packed with flavor:

Though Cambodia is less-developed than other Asian countries, you can definitely find a restaurant or cafe here that suits your taste, and most food is very affordable.

Exploring a Floating Village in Cambodia (Kampong Pluk)

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The friendly villagers of Kampong Pluk offer rowboat tours to travelers.

During my 2nd day in Siem Reap, I decided to go on an adventure to a floating village way out in the countryside of Cambodia called Kampong Pluk (which means “Harbor of the Tusks”).  Earlier this year I visited a fishing village in northern Kyoto called Ine, and this village actually had some interesting similarities to it.  Like Ine, Kampong Pluk primarily relies on fishing as its main source of income and is quite remote from the main part of the city.  Though it’s a popular tourist destination, it has an extremely rural feel to it and a lot of ground to explore.

I booked an extremely cheap group tour from GetYourGuide and it was actually a very pleasant journey.  I was transported to Tonle Sap Lake by an air-conditioned bus where I later boarded a longboat to explore the stilted village.  It was really amazing to see all of the different buildings there!  I saw a floating church, hospital, and several temples in addition to many brightly painted houses.  You can even opt to stay at a floating guesthouse if you feel adventurous enough to do it.

The longboat will eventually pull up to a plot of land that you can walk around.  Here you can learn more about the culture of the village and see how exactly how people live here.  It was interesting acquainting myself with the way people live in the countryside of Cambodia, but it was also disheartening to learn that a lot of people live in poverty here and depend on fishing as their sole source of income without higher education or many other options.

I was also informed by my guide (who used to live here) that some families live off rice and develop alcohol and smoking issues, so while the trip was fun, I couldn’t help but feel a bit melancholy…  Another sad thing is not much of the money you pay for the tour goes to the village.  I think they should offer more volunteer programs for tourists here so the villagers can benefit in some way.  I donated a bit, and I’m not sure how much it will help, but all we can really do is continue to be grateful for the things we have in life.  The trip to this village really taught me to be thankful for my ability to travel, and also everything I have.

The tour ended on a very enjoyable note as we watched the sunset on Tonle Sap Lake.  There is literally nothing obstructing your view so you can see it perfectly.  You can also go swimming in the lake if you want to cool down because the boat stops here for quite some time.

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Cambodia is a great country to explore just because it has a lot of untouched nature and is safe for young backpackers.  Most of the people on this tour were in their 20s (around my age) and were all interested in learning more about this country’s culture, so it was easy to converse and make friends.  I listened to music a lot and reflected on life.  It was hard to believe that this was only my second day, because a lot more adventures were about to come!

Free the Bears: Volunteering as a Bear Keeper in Cambodia

Whenever I travel to a new country, I like to spend a day doing volunteer work with animals.  Not only does it help support them, but it also gives me the chance to meet rare species and learn more about the culture of the country I’m visiting.  In Thailand I signed up for a program at the Elephant Sanctuary, and I just recently visited the Cleland Wildlife Park in Australia.  While I was researching animal programs in Cambodia, the Free the Bears volunteer program really caught my eye.  In this program, you will become a bear keeper for the day and get the chance to meet some extremely fascinating Cambodian Sun and Moon Bears!

About Free the Bears

Free the Bears was founded in order to help bears that had been neglected throughout Asia in “coffin-size” cages and milked for their bile, which could be used as an ingredient in medicine.  Fortunately this cruel practice is becoming illegal, but many bears are still being held in captivity.  This program helps educate volunteers on what we can do to save them, and also gives its participants to safely interact with them.  In addition to Cambodia, there are also other locations in Laos and Vietnam.  The Cambodian location is within Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre, and free transportation is included when you sign up for the program.

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Several Moon Bears feast on a nutritious lunch of vegetables and honey.

Itinerary

When I accepted to the program, I was sent the following itinerary via email:

09.30 to 10.00 – Arrive at the centre and have introduction and welcome.
10.00 to 11.00 – Guided tour around the bear sanctuary and introduction to the bears.
11.00 to 12.00 – Preparing bear enrichment.
12.00 to 13.00 – Lunch.
13.00 to 15.00 – Tour of other animals at the centre.
15.00 to 15.30 – Helping keepers put out enrichment, feeding bears etc.
15.30/16.00 – Leave centre and return to Phnom Penh by approximately 5.00pm.

Being a Bear Keeper for a Day

My day began with a cheerful tour around the wildlife center.  I lucked out because I was the only person on the tour and that gave me the chance to ask a lot of questions.  All of the staff was very friendly and spoke English.  I got the chance to meet several of the bears and they all seemed well-treated and happy.  Unfortunately you are not able to pet the bears, as their claws can be quite sharp, but you can get pretty close to them and take pictures with them.

After I met all of the bears, we started preparing meals for them.  I chopped up some vegetables and stuffed them in bamboo and plastic balls.  After the meal prep, I was guided to a fence where I could toss the food balls over to them, and pass them the bamboo sticks through the fence.

Watching them eat was extremely adorable:

We also took bits of food and scattered them across their playground.  This gives the bears a chance to exercise their bodies, and they actually looked like they really enjoyed going on the hunt:

I learned that sun bears are actually the smallest and rarest of the bear species.  My favorite bear was this extremely rare one that looks like a lion:

However, all of the bears I met were extremely cute!  I thought that some of them may be in rough condition, but all of the ones I saw had no visible injury or scarring.  They looked like they were living a happy life, and that made me extremely grateful.

Meeting the other Animals

In addition to bears, Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre is home to many other species of animals including gibbons, tigers, elephants, and more!  This was my first time ever seeing a gibbon, and I was extremely impressed seeing them climb and swing with their long arms.

In addition to the gibbons, I also met the most beautiful tiger in the world:

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Who knew such hidden beauty existed here in Cambodia!  Seeing this tiger was absolutely breathtaking.

Overall Review

I was overall extremely satisfied with my experience with Free the Bears, and would recommend the program for all animal lovers.  It doesn’t matter how much previous volunteer experience you have, because being a bear keeper here is actually quite easy!

The program costs $90 for which is a bit expensive, but you receive a free T-shirt which is actually quite stylish, and lunch and transportation is also included.  If you put things into perspective, Cambodia is an under-developed country, and these bears are in need of help so this is a good investment.  I took my money here rather than shopping at the night market, and feel extremely enriched because of it.

I really liked traveling in Cambodia, and I am happy that I made my money count here.  If you have any questions, feel free to ask me!

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Temple Hopping through Angkor Wat after Eating Happy Pizza (Part 2)

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The famous Cambodian temple Angkor Wat; meaning “temple city”.

After having my first successful night out in Siem Reap, I decided to go to temple hopping during my 2nd day in Cambodia and learn about the history of the Khmer Empire.  I booked a very affordable tour through Get Your Guide that took me from my hotel to the three most famous temples in the area: Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, and the Bayon Temple with the smiling Buddha faces.  To enter these places you must pay a fee of $37 for a joint ticket at the gate, but the amount of nature and exploring you are able to do for the day makes the price worth it.  Expect this tour to last 6-10 hours depending if you want to stick around for the sunset or not.  You can also opt for a sunrise tour as well.

Angkor Wat was originally founded as a Hindu temple but later became a Buddhist temple by the end of the 12th century.  Though today it serves mostly as a tourist attraction and the largest religious monument in the world, it also represents the harsh reign of the Khmer Rouge that all of Cambodia will forever remember.  I enjoyed the aesthetic hike through the historic former capitals of the Khmer Rouge because learning about Cambodian culture was very eye-opening for me.  I will write in detail about the horrors of the Killing Fields in a future update, because I think it is a very important part of history that should be further brought to light.

What I loved about Angkor Wat and its surrounding temples is there was a lot of room to freely explore the area, and it didn’t feel like a tourist attraction–it actually felt like a genuine adventure.  Compared to temples in Thailand and Japan that I have visited, these temples were a lot less crowded and I didn’t feel rushed during my time here at all.  People from all around the world gather to marvel at these temples, and although they are somewhat remote they are worth the journey if you’re up for the challenge!

Ta Prohm was the location where the original Tomb Raider movie was filmed, and I definitely felt like Lara Croft as I climbed several flights of stairs and over rocks to get the best views possible here.  Historically this area was the last capital of the Khmer Rouge, and is now abandoned and left to nature.  That is why this temple is extremely beautiful in both design and architecture due to the moss covering the temple walls and the tree growing from within it.  Ta Prohm shows what nature can do to a place if it is left alone:

The last temple that I visited was the Bayon Temple, which was a lot of fun to explore due to all of the Buddha faces hidden in the intricate architecture.  Everywhere you look there are heads to be found, but ironically a lot of Buddha statues within the walls of the temple are missing their heads!  I was told by my tour guide that they were stolen by thieves for money and destroyed during the Khmer empire, but there is also the possibility they may have been stolen by foreign tourists and now be on display in international art galleries.  Little is known about their whereabouts, which gives Bayon an air or mystery and sadness masked behind carvings of happy smiles.

What amazes me about the temples of Angkor Wat is that many of them were abandoned due to superstition (such as when lightning struck or a natural disaster occurred), but are still standing today.  I think it would take nearly three full days to explore all of them, but I felt extremely satisfied with what I was able to see within a day because I learned a lot about the culture.  My recommendation is that everyone that has interest in exploring temples comes here.  You never know what you may discover!