While people back in the United States usher in spring snow storms, here in Cambodia April is the hottest month of the year. Given the sweltering temperatures, it’s fortunate that April also marks the biggest and longest Cambodian holiday (and I say that for a country that knows how to celebrate its holidays). Khmer New Year, although technically only three days, actually dominates most of the month of April, with schools and government ministries closed for two to three (sometimes longer) weeks. In Cambodia, despite the duration of the holiday, it tends to be a quiet affair. Most people leave the towns and cities to go back to their relatives in the countryside. The days are spent drinking and playing cards for men, and cooking (women) and spending time with family and close friends.
For me, it’s a good time to flee the heat and travel a little. If you’ve been reading this blog for almost two years (hats off to you, and thanks!) then you know last year at this time I travelled the length of Vietnam. This year I headed off to Thailand! I’d been to Thailand back when I was in…7th grade, I think, travelling with my family and some family friends, however, my memories of the country are largely dominated by the palaces and many pagodas that we visited. Buddhism and the temple architecture to go with it are pretty similar in Thailand and Cambodia (though not exactly the same), so I was interested in broadening my experience in Thailand beyond the pagoda scene.
Thailand also marked, unbelievable though this seems, the first time I was really travelling alone. Upon reflection, it turns out that despite having travelled a great deal I’ve always travelled with or to someone. I was excited to see how I felt about travelling solo, and so on April 9th I set off to Thailand.
Getting from my site to Bangkok is an arduous journey unless you fly. It can be (and was for me) over twelve hours on a bus just to get to the border. Once across, travel becomes easier – Thailand is well set-up to handle the ever-increasing flow of tourism to the country. However, I didn’t stay in Bangkok, instead starting my trip by flying (in country flight can cost as little as $35) up to the northern city of Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai is a rather laid back city. The center is a square delineated by the vestiges of the old city wall, and inside that square everything is basically within walking distance. There are over twenty pagodas within the old city walls, so I did see some of them (you’d have to be blind not to). In addition, Chiang Mai is the ideal place for backpackers keen to spend the day with elephants or flying gibbons, or go out trekking in the hills. I signed up for a day-long bike tour around the outer parts of the city, which was a fun way to get outside the tourist bubble of the inner city. Some of it was very familiar to me—rice fields, sticky-rice and mango snacks, etc.—but we also visited a candy-making factory (they make the candy with rice flour and palm sugar), and saw more of the old ruins of the northern empire. Somewhere between the Angkor Empire of present-day Cambodia and the Siam Empire of present-day Thailand there was also a northern population called the Khon Mueang people of Lannathai, and even today many people in northern Thailand speak Lanna in addition to Thai. It even has a different script, and my guide spoke of how he wished that they were separate from Thailand. Interestingly, that desire for freedom from Thailand didn’t conflict with his own distaste for Cambodia. When he found out that I lived there, he made a face. “People in Cambodia don’t want to work with us. They’re not friendly.” He told me. I refrained from telling him that people in Cambodia say the same thing about Thailand.
From Chiang Mai I took the night train (loads of fun – we should have more trains in the US) back down to Bangkok in time to meet up with my fellow PCV and friend Christine for a day. It was good to have company because I arrived just in time for Thai New Year (which, surprise, coincides with Khmer New Year). Called Songkran, the holiday is also a very big deal in Thailand, where people turn out in the streets armed with buckets and water guns to drench one another in water, and cover anyone foolish enough to be on the streets with baby powder. Spoiler: baby powder turns into a pretty nasty paste when combined with all that water. Together, Christine and I managed to survive the celebrations, but it’s not a tradition I’m planning on taking home with me.
Bangkok is an amazing city, particularly coming from my perspective of having been in small-town Cambodia. The most exciting part for me was the public transportation. There are two different subways, an underground, a city-wide bus system, taxis, tuktuks, and an express ferry. The last one is the best deal – for fifty cents you can ride the entire length of the Chao Phraya river that cuts through Bangkok. It’s like a river cruise, only people actually use it as a means of transportation. Bangkok also is the place to go for shopping. In addition to have the Chatuchak weekend market – said to be the largest market in Southeast Asia – it also has tons of giant shopping malls, the crowning glory of which is filled from top to bottom with designer stores. Want to hit up Gucci, Chanel, Valentino, and Hermès all in one go? No problem.
Another fun element of Bangkok is all the different people. People from all over the world are there, and the city is full of young people rocking a variety of styles. Bangkok also seems like a pretty friendly city for gender bending and people of all different gender and sexual identities. Setting aside the famous trans-cabaret shows, people just going about their day-to-day lives appeared very comfortable interacting with and expressing their own homosexuality, heterosexuality, transexuality, pansexuality, you name it. It was a nice change from an environment where every week I get asked if I’m married yet and why not. Obviously, I’m giving the rose-tinted perspective on Bangkok, given I was only there for a week, but the immediate visible range of different people was fun.
Ultimately, travelling alone was less dramatic than I’d expected. I think in part it’s because I was travelling in Southeast Asia – a region known for being a good place for single women traveling, and very much in my comfort zone despite the differences between Thailand and Cambodia. I also think that, though I haven’t been literally travelling alone before, much of Peace Corps prepares you for many of the things that might mark travelling alone. I was already used to taking the initiative on almost all my decisions, figuring out how to get around, operating in an unfamiliar environment etc. I enjoyed Thailand immensely, but I’m probably not going to explicitly seek out chances to travel solo. There’s something motivating for me about sharing the experience with someone else in the moment.
Coming back to site truly marks the beginning of the rush towards the end. Come May there is another teacher training workshop to plan, and a Camp GLOW organized by the volunteers in my province. Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) is a global Peace Corps initiative in which volunteers work with young women and girls to help build self-esteem, educate on health issues, and give them tools/resources for future careers etc. We’re hosting ours at the end of May and if anyone feels inclined to donate I’m sharing the link below. Donations would help pay for the cost of lodging for the girls, food, resources like pens, markers, paper, etc. and transportation and venue costs.
Come June, my parents will arrive in Cambodia and I’m excited for the chance to show them my life here. July will be my final full month in Cambodia. Although initially we were told to plan on being in country until October, timing for incoming groups, as well as staff resources, and the Cambodian teaching schedule means that I will be leaving Cambodia in at the beginning of August. It’s hard to believe that the end is only three short months away.
Finally, I want to thank everyone for their thoughtful and insightful comments to my previous blog. I really appreciate everyone who takes the time to read about my experiences here, but I especially appreciated the responses to my last post, all of which help my ongoing attempt to process my life here.
Read more about Camp GLOW/donate here!
Check out more Thailand pictures (including me with a manikin dressed entirely in condoms) here.