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  • Alison Merrill

Cambodia and Vietnam – Creating a New Identity


One of the many views on our motorbike tour through Sapa, Vietnam. Not pictured - the helmets we wore the entire ride.

Sam and I drove down the winding and bumpy roads of Vietnam after staying with May and Sieu, a lovely couple who are a part of the Hmong people in the vast mountains of Sapa. As we passed by huge rice fields, gorgeous green mountains, and small local shops, feelings of freedom and tranquility came over me. I turned to Sam and said excitedly, “This is the first time in my life where I am not thinking about what is ahead.”


To elaborate, I have always been forward-thinking when it comes to the future – especially goals related to my career, hobbies, and lifestyle. He looked surprised by the comment (to be fair, it was a random outburst), but in typical Sam fashion, eager to discuss. “What do you think the changing point was?” he questioned. I responded by saying, “I am just really excited about where I am right now.”


Change Takes Time


Time - the one thing we cannot buy more of. For anyone that has started a new job or moved to a new city, they know It takes time to adjust to new surroundings – not just physically (getting settled into a new apartment), but even more so mentally. Dreams and thoughts of our past circumstances - a favorite dish at our old neighborhood café, a regret of how we handled a situation with a former colleague, or the missing of a close friend who we used to see daily and now only talk to once a month, float in and out of our conscious and subconscious minds long after the change has happened.


Sam and I have been traveling for four months and it feels like now, traveling has become a major part of my identity. After experimenting, learning, and having a lot of time (the ultimate luxury), I feel deeply in touch with what this experience has to offer. As we continue to push ourselves beyond what we thought was possible, there is no denying this wanderlust life will come to an end soon – or will it?


Cambodia and Vietnam:

We flew from Langkawi, Malaysia to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

After 2 days in Phnom Penh, we took a six-hour bus to Siem Reap and stayed for 2 days.

From Siem Reap, we flew to Hanoi for 2 days (the capital of Vietnam) and then took an overnight bus to Sapa for 3 days. After Sapa, we bussed to Hanoi and then to Ha Long Bay for 2 days - our final stop in Vietnam before flying out of Hanoi.

Cambodia and Vietnam were two countries that had been on my travel list for years. I had heard stories of friends who motorcycled the Hai Giang Loop in Vietnam, visited the legendary Angkor Wat Temples in Cambodia, and read about the ominous historical events in both country’s recent past. Vietnam and Cambodia had long enticed me with beautiful landscape and culture (unlike anywhere in the United States) as well as the opportunity to learn about history firsthand - all at a convenient price. Can you say, private hotel room with breakfast included for $15 USD? Count me in.


Neither place was on the original itinerary. However, I was hoping that Sam and I would enjoy Malaysia so that we would feel confident going to Vietnam and Cambodia (see the recent post about reclaiming Southeast Asia for context). Once Sam and I saw the flight prices from Malaysia as well as the cost of living in both countries, the decision was a no brainer. Five days in Cambodia and eight days in Vietnam were added to our agenda.

View from one of our treks in Sapa with our host, May. Photo: Alison.


The coolest rest stop on our way from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, Cambodia. Photo - Sam.

Cambodia - Dark Past, Hope for the Future


October 16th - October 22nd, 2019


When compared to Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodia is a more “off the beaten path” Southeast Asia backpacking country. But do not be fooled - the country is no secret either. Cambodia has seen a boom in tourism which is quite an impressive victory given its recent past. From 1975-1979 the country suffered under the regime of Pol Pot where one-fourth of the population was murdered in the genocide.


Angkor Wat ranks as Cambodia’s number one tourist attraction, being the largest manmade religious monument in the world and one of the eight wonders of the world. However, the country has more to offer than just Angkor Wat - travelers are exploring the beaches of Koh Rong, the capital city of Phnom Penh, and learning more about Cambodian history and culture at the national museums.


Sam and I spent two and a half days in Phnom Penh and two and a half days in Siem Reap. While our time was short, we were happy with what we experienced and learned.


Some of our experiences in Cambodia:


Siem Reap:


1. Biking Angkor Wat – Who needs to be carted around from temple to temple in a tuk-tuk when they can bike through the jungle? We did a day-long bike tour that hit the three major temples: Angkor Wat (no explanation required), Prohm (where the movie, Tomb Raiders was filmed), and Bayon (the temple with many faces).


2. Phare, The Cambodian Circus – This circus blended modern dance, acrobatics, and storytelling - rivaling any theatre, dance, or circus performance I have seen. The organization was founded by nine men coming home after the Khmer Rouge who found refuge through art therapy. They later established a school, Phare Ponleu Selpak’s, to help kids with emotional trauma and skill teaching to lift them out of poverty.


Phnom Penh:


3. Buddhist Meditation –When Sam and I saw there was a free meditation session at one of the local temples, we hopped all in. Fun fact - 95%of Cambodian's population is Buddhist.


4. Khmer Rouge Killing Fields – During Pol Pot’s regime, an estimated 1.5 to 2 million Cambodian people were killed across 20,000 mass grave sites. Cambodians of ethnic minorities, people in suspicion of working for foreign governments, and educated people (doctors, lawyers, teachers, artists, anyone with soft hands) were put to death along with their families.


5. Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum – Pol Pot’s army turned an old secondary school into Security Prison 21 (S-21) where they imprisoned, tortured, and executed at least 12,000 people. This was one of 150 centers across the country.


Angkor Wat. Photo - Alison.

Angkor Wat post jungle bike ride.

Phare, the Cambodian Circus. Photo - Sam.

View of the lake at the Killing Fields. Visitors get a headset that guides them on a tour explaining the history of the fields and Pol Pot. Listeners are encouraged to find a quiet place to sit as they hear stories from the victims. Photo - Sam.

Vietnam - Backpacker's Paradise


October 22nd - October 31st, 2019


Every traveler that told Sam and me to go to Southeast Asia (about nine out of ten) referenced Vietnam as their favorite or “must-see” country. Whether the advice came from backpackers, seasoned travelers, or honeymooners, we would have been dumb to ignore the suggestions. With eight days, Sam and I decided to take it slow (relatively) and keep our focus in the north – spending a couple of days in Hanoi (the capital), the mountains of Sapa, and a cruise around Ha Long Bay.


Some of our favorites in Vietnam:


Hanoi


1. Water Puppet Show –Sam and I sat front row center and enjoyed the traditional Vietnamese art of water puppetry with beautiful music. Bravo!


2. The Ultimate Spa Day – One-hour massages for $18 USD equals heaven on earth.


3. The Note Coffee – Vietnam is famous for Vietnamese coffee and egg coffee. We got to taste both while getting a gorgeous view of the lake and reading post-it notes by travelers from all over the world.


Sapa


4. Homestay with May and Sieu – Dare we say, this might have been our favorite place we stayed on the trip. May and Sieu were our hosts and took us trekking, motorcycling, and made delicious home-cooked Vietnamese meals with vegetables from their garden. We truly felt a part of their family on their farm in the mountains of Sapa.


6. Trekking - Two different hikes with May through various Hmong villages, rice patties, and farms.


7. Motorcycle Tour: Exploring Sapa we went over mountain tops, more rice fields, and waterfalls. We even got to have lunch with May’s extended family where Sam made a baby cry during an aggressive game of peek-a-boo.


Ha Long Bay


8. River Cruise - A two-day and one-night cruise on Ha Long Bay. We got to enjoy kayaking, swimming at sunset, and a cooking class (we can now make spring rolls… maybe). The highlight surely was the group of people we met. Shout out to our friends Ben and Bella from NYC who are traveling the world on their honeymoon, Anne – an aid worker in Pakistan from Kenya, So Won who is traveling through Southeast Asia and staying in Korea for the next month with her grandmother, and two Turkish boat captains who have been attacked by Somalian Pirates. We really do meet the coolest people traveling.


The Note Coffee shop in Hanoi. Photo - Alison.

Vegan spring rolls wrapped in rice paper with spicy peanut sauce. Our favorite bite in Vietnam!

Trekking through the Hmong villages with, May. Photo - Alison.

Rice fields and mountains galore in Sapa. Photo - Alison.

Sunset at Ha Long Bay. Photo - Alison

Highs, Lows, Best Bites, and Lessons Learned:


Sam


Highs:


1. Trekking through the rice fields of Vietnam with May, our host Mom.

2. Taking a sleeper bus from Hanoi to Sa Pa.

3. Jumping off our boat and floating in Ha Long Bay during sunset.


Low: Leaving my phone in a tuk-tuk in Siem Reap. So stressful. Got it back.


Best bite: Fresh and soft vegetarian spring rolls and peanut sauce from the best vegan restaurant in Hanoi.


Lessons Learned: 1. There is nothing better than a homecooked healthy meal. 2. Less is often more.


Alison

Highs:


1. Motorcycling through Sapa.

2. Biking through the jungle and temples of Angkor Wat.

3. Cruising through Ha Long Bay.


Low: Rabid dogs all over Sapa.


Best bite: Ditto on the spring rolls.


Lesson Learned: “The purpose of life, as far as I can tell, is to find a mode of being that’s so meaningful that the fact that life is suffering is no longer relevant” - Jordan Peterson. Source, 5-Bullet Friday by, Tim Ferris.


So, when are we coming home?


Sam and our plan originally was to return to the United States in December, but surprise – the world is big and we have loved seeing it! We are extending our travels through either the end of January or February (tentatively).


“But aren’t you guys tired yet?”


Thank you for your question, Katherine. We are starting to slow down (a little) and are considering finding a place in South or Central America to "settle into" after Japan, China, and Argentina. Ideally, this would be somewhere that we can pick-up surfing because, why not?


With love,

Alison


Ha Long Bay river cruise.

The infamous Hanoi to Sapa sleeper bus. Thank you to everyone who voted via Instagram. Despite popular votes supporting "no sleep", we did manage to get 4 hours of shut-eye. We will be following up with prizes for those who voted in favor.

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