Siem Reap: More than just Angkor

Arriving at Siem Reap, the town at the foot of the Angkor temples made infamous by Tomb Raider, I expected a small, dusty town trampled by tourists as they did their token three days at Angkor Wat before they moved on to bigger and better things.

Walking among giants. Siem Reap, CambodiaI was wrong.

Siem Reap is a huge tourist destination (about 3 million visitors a year) but this means it’s actually quite expanded. On top of that, because of its history – Siem Reap means a “flat defeat” of the Thais for one thing – there is quite a lot of culture lurking beneath its touristic façade:

First, there’s the exquisite French Quarter which houses the fancy resorts, the National Museum, and a stunning park lined with tall imposing trees filled to the brim with bats.

Then there’s the lovely riverside for strolling along, dotted with colonial style houses and local restaurants, bars and coffee shops.

There’s an Old Market area where the locals shop for fruits, seafood and clothing, which is also filled with food stalls and souvenir stalls and almost any-trinket-you-can-imagine stalls.

There’s the Night Markets, where women weaving traditional Cambodian scarves blur with local entrepreneurs selling original printed teeshirts that blur with everyone in between hocking patterned dresses and souvenirs.

Walking towards the Night market. Siem Reap, CambodiaAnd of course, there’s the silk farm you can tour, the Artisan center, a floating village, a bird sanctuary and performances of the traditional Apsara dance that you can view.

And for some nightlife, there’s Pub Street, which, yes, has a large red neon sign that points to it, but is actually not that horrible, and has decent restaurants and bars including the Temple Club which features free (and good quality!) Apsara dances every night.

Angkor Wat...reconstructedThe reason most people visit Siem Reap is for the Angkor Archaeological Park, and the temples are well worth checking off the tourist to-do list.

But Siem Reap was an unexpected darling in Cambodia that offered not only temples fraught with history and religion, but also a steady dose of culture and nightlife that I just wanted to inhale.

I wish I stayed longer. And I definitely hope to come back.

the twelfth month: no better place to be [phnom penh, cambodia]

Already! I remember thinking about this day when I first left, hoping I’d make it this far. I had so many dreams and yet had no idea what to expect. Did I think I’d be in Cambodia writing this update? Absolutely not. But I couldn’t have asked for a better place to be. And so, the twelfth month summary.

The Twelfth Month

The twelfth month was one of the fullest and most enjoyable months of the past year for me.

For those of you keeping track, the twelfth month saw me leave my scuba diving “camp” of Koh Tao for daytrips in Bangkok (Death Railway, Kanchanaburi and the Amphawa Floating Market), followed by the old capital of Ayutthaya (photo below) en route to cooking classes and temple visits in Chiang Mai in the north.

Yourlocalkat in Ayutthaya, Thailand

Then it was time to leave Thailand with an absolutely lovely boat trip down the Mekong (photo below) into Luang Prabang, Laos, which, if you’ve read my post, you know that I absolutely loved it, and honestly, could’ve easily spent a couple more weeks there.

Then it was a whirlwind route down to Vang Vieng for caving, Vientiane to see the capital and then Don Det to relax and celebrate my one-year-traveling anniversary while tubing on the Mekong and watching the sunset. (Yes, I’m rubbing that in).

Boat trip down the Mekong to Luang Prabang, Laos

Why I Loved It So

The twelfth month was particularly fantastic for two reasons:

1. The people I met and traveled with: From reuniting with two good buddies from Bangkok and Chiang Mai, to traveling longer term with two brilliant women I now consider very close friends, it was amazing to connect with what I’ve started terming “good people” – and I barely considered myself a solo traveler because of them in the past month.

2. I had relaxed: I was more used to backpacking, being on the road, and traveling alone – a variable that simply couldn’t have been present in my first week in southeast Asia – and I realized that to stay sane I require time for myself, time to write, and space to think every once in a while.

I also let go of all control and all expectations – one of my favouritest parts about travel. Once I started to go with the flow not letting anything phase me, it honestly cast a glow of euphoria on everything I did.

Mekong sunset tubing. Don Det, Laos

Of Blogging

Thank you to everyone who’s subscribed already. Seriously. THANK YOU.

If you haven’t already, I have my first newsletter coming out at the end of this month, and all you have to do to receive it is fill your name and email at the top of the sidebar at the bottom of any page on the site (like this one).

What you’ll get is an email a month with:

  • a personal update like this one
  • some posts of note to check out in case you can’t keep up as I churn ‘em out
  • a little something extra – tips, advice, a photo, a story – you’ll have to subscribe to find out!

Oooh and please – comment! Let me know what you want to read about! Share! Always share! Sharing is sexy! Sharing is caring! You sharing takes me to a very happy place.

Yourlocalkat with the adorable Khamu hill tribe kids, LaosWhat’s next?

The next month, which will no longer have its own update (*tear) will be spent here in Cambodia, learning about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Penh, admiring the beauty of Angkor Wat, and then writing and relaxing somewhere in the south on a beach before I head to Battambang.

After that? Well…let’s just say I’ve got a few things planned ;)

Amateur Spelunking: The Caves of Vang Vieng

I’ve always wanted to be spelunker! Mostly because it’s such a ridiculous word, but also because exploring caves seems absolutely thrilling.

Luckily for me, Vang Vieng offered more caves than I could dream of exploring and many were within a short motorbike ride from the town center. I visited four during my two day stay.

The route to Lusi Cave. Vang Vieng, LaosLusi Cave was an easy but long 8km walk from the town. We scrambled up a bunch of rocks and ladders after a local guide (not English speaking), and then followed him into the cave. It was pitch black, wide and satisfyingly deep, making it both a good introduction to caves in the area, and also a worthwhile visit if you won’t be able to see other ones. 10,000 Kips. Worth it. Exploring Lusi Cave. Vang Vieng, Laos. Photo by Saji S.

Tham Phu Kham (?) was even better than Lusi Cave, though I didn’t think that was possible. I was in a group, but we were without a guide, and it was as I expected: absolutely thrilling.

We couldn’t tell which way to go. The mountain cutout we walked into looked like a dead end until someone cast a light on a slit in the wall inside. It opened into a narrow tunnel that led down a bamboo ladder.

Someone behind me said they couldn’t see anything and that’s when I realized that the only reason I could was because my headlamp was turned on: we were barely two meters into the hole and it was pitch black already!

Tham Nam was further away, but similar, and promised a natural swimming pool, like they all do. We had to crawl through tight crevasses, narrow tunnels, climb through tiny holes, and up and down precariously built bamboo ladders that all led to deceptively transparent pools of not-so-swimmable water that all somehow happened to have a lone tube eerily floating inside them. (Deceptive because I almost climbed a ladder right into one!) Both 10,000 Kips. The former, worth it. Tham Nam, lasting only 30 seconds of exploring, not so much.

Flashlights are an absolute necessity and many caves have extras to loan you, but you’re best off with a head lamp so that you’re hands free to climb and scramble (and you will have to climb and scramble). Not for the claustrophobic.

Oh, and the last cave was Tham Chang. Up a hundred or so stairs, this was the big one, the one designed for tourists equipped with guides, mood lighting and carved out tunnels, though for adventurists the main appeal will be the view from the top. 15,000 Kips gets you up and inside the cave, but first you’ll need to pay 2,000 Kips (+ more for motorcycle, etc.) to cross into the Vang Vieng Resort where the cave happens to be. Worth it.Tham Chang, Vang Vieng, Laos

The caves were all damp, and hot, and yes, there were a few (*ahem*) larger spiders, but honestly, the whole thing was amazing.

To be able to visit these caves the way they were meant to be explored was absolutely thrilling. I came out a bit filthy but with a huge grin on my face. They may have been baby caves but I felt like I was alive.

So if you ever wanted to be an explorer, go spelunking! You can do it in Vang Vieng!


Photo of the Week: Baby Monkey

It’s actually tough for me to make a judgement call on all these wild animals being kept in captivity throughout Asia.

I can hear you gasping. What?!

I get your confusion; I understand your judgment – I was there, too. But it’s not so black and white.

Curious monkey. Vang Vieng, LaosThis little guy is now the second monkey I’ve seen kept by a family with a string tied around its body. At least this one had the string tied around its waist and not its neck, and wasn’t using it as some sick hanging and swinging device.

He was attached to a tree that was part of a ‘restaurant’ on the side of the road in Vang Vieng, right across the street from one of the caves we happened by in the area.

He was just a baby – translucent skin, fair fur, giant eyes. He was docile, soft; curious in a way that wasn’t intrusive or conniving, and was still at that phase of wanting to put absolutely everything in his mouth – beads, lighter, toilet paper.

But seeing him on a string leash was tough, and I confess, I judged. “Poor little thing.” I thought. “He probably wants his mom.” I brooded. And then his keeper spoke.

Tiny monkey. Vang Vieng, Laos

“He no have mama. Mama die. I take care of heem.” The woman is Laotian, in her fifties, with a traditional woven skirt under a yellow cardigan. She unties the leash from the monkey’s waist and lifts him onto her chest and he hangs on, both hands clutching her sweater like a lost child.

“People, they -” She motions a gun with her fingers and my group nods in understanding. They shot her. She nods. “I take care of heem.”

The monkey scampers down her skirt and climbs up onto the picnic table where we sit, and she feeds him rice from her hand. He eats grain by grain, totally consumed by the moment.

Monkey close up. Vang Vieng, LaosAnd I stopped judging.

Was this really that awful? Was she really so evil? Or was she going out of her way to take care of an animal that wouldn’t otherwise survive on its own? Do we not confine dogs to leashes, and children to cribs?

I don’t know…Thoughts?

Free the Bears: You can help put a stop to Bear Bile Farming

I could never quite stomach looking into the issue of bear poaching – the images of bear snouts desperately sniffing out of cages was always more than I could handle.

Foraging bear. FreetheBears Sancuary, Luang Prabang, Laos
Bear foraging.

But while visiting the Kuangsi Waterfall Park near Luang Prabang, Laos, there was a bear sanctuary there that dealt with the very issue, and this time I was ready to learn.

What You Need to Know

In Laos, the Malayan Sun bear and the Asiatic Black bear are illegally poached and traded into China. Poachers go into the jungle where the bears can be found, fencing off wide areas with only a couple of openings where they can then capture the bears.

Sun and Asiatic bears. Free the Bears sanctuary, Luang Prabang, Laos.
The Sun and Asiatic black bears: the two types of bears found in Laos.

Occasionally, the bears are killed, especially if they are older, for their organs, fur, or meat, and many are dismembered, with their paws used in whiskeys sold at whiskey farms as a specialty.

Some are taken illegally as pets, and kept in small cages either in homes or restaurants. But most commonly, they are captured and used in bear bile farming.

Bear Bile Farming

Bile is a fluid secreted by the liver that aids digestion. First believed to reduce fever, dissolve gall stones, and improve eyesight, bear bile (containing more ursodeoxycholic acid than that of other mammals) is now sold to China and other parts of Asia as a cure-all traditional medicine for everything from headaches to heart diseases.

The captured bears are confined to “crush” cages in which they can barely move as tubes are stuck into their bodies so that bile can be tapped every day from their gall bladders via drip method.

It is a life of terrible pain and suffering.

Free the Bears

The Free the Bears Fund was started by Australian Mary Hutton in 1995 when she learned about these practices, and now has branches in various countries in Asia including Laos, Indonesia and India. The bears at the Kuang Si sanctuary have all been donated by owners or rescued from poachers by Lao authorities. When they arrive at the sanctuary they are often suffering from neglect, disease and malnourishment, and consequently stunted growth. They are all victims of the illegal wildlife trade.

Mokiyup, one of the rescued bears.
Mokiyup, one of the rescued bears.

The (Other) Worst Part

This isn’t actually illegal! Trade laws in Laos dictate that using animals bred in captivity for medicinal purposes is allowed, and so the most that organizations like Free the Bears can actually do is continuously raid bear bile farms in order to regulate them: make sure that the number of bears in a farm doesn’t exceed the number the farm is licensed for as that would mean that additional bears were actually captured in the wild.

And the (next) worst part is that bile is actually potentially harmful to humans (!) and there are both herbal and synthetic alternatives to bile which are cheaper, safer and more effective, so this is all completely unnecessary! A huge part of Free the Bears Fund’s effort is to educate people about exactly this, so that new generations don’t repeat the same atrocities, and so this can stop before it’s too late.

Foraging for food. Freethebears, Luang Prabang, LaosFree the Bears strives to keep their bears safe, happy, and fulfilled, while continuously exploring the possibilities of their reintroduction into the wild.

Want to help?

Everyone can help take a stand against the illegal wildlife trade.

  • Never buy or consume bear products.
  • Report poachers and illegal wildlife trade.
  • Sponsor a bear at the rescue center in Cambodia, India or Laos.
  • Support the projects by donating to the Free the Bear Fund.
  • Share what you learned with family and friends.
Free the Bears t-shirt
My Free the Bears t-shirt!

For more information, photos, or to donate, please visit: Free the Bears Website | Free the Bears Facebook

And please, spread the word!