After Thailand, my parents and I had two more stops in SE Asia on our tour: Luang Prabang, Laos and Siem Reap, Cambodia. Little did we know they would prove to be my favorite and least favorite parts of the journey.
Luang Prabang sits up in the mountains of Laos, so not only does it have beautiful rugged terrain surrounding it, it is also quite a bit cooler than other places I’ve been in SE Asia. Backpackers have made it there, bringing good coffee shops and some more diverse food. But it hasn’t been overrun with tourists, and still feels inherently Laotian. At least for now. A fellow traveler said it reminder her of Chiang Mai… 25 years ago.
There are plenty of temples to explore, featuring wonderful mosaics. We strolled through a couple, even though we were starting to feel temple saturation by this point. We even woke up early one morning to participate in the ritual of giving sticky rice to the monks that go around collecting their daily rations. We also went to the cave temples on the outskirts of town, down the Mekong.
Cruising along the river for the afternoon was for me the highlight of the trip. It was hard not to enjoy the fresh air and fabulous scenery. In fact, I could easily see myself returning to explore some of the incredible nature around… or sitting in a cafe all day, doing nothing but soaking up the laid back atmosphere of the town.
Siem Reap is a whole different story. It’s hot. It’s humid. It’s flat, with little of geographic interest. The food doesn’t match up to its neighbor to the west (Thailand). It’s dirty. As you head out of town, it gets dirtier. Roads are bad. Tonle Sap is a disgusting body of water that smells like open sewage. Yes, Angkor Wat is an extremely cool place, and I enjoyed learning about the ancient city and seeing the beautiful temple complexes covered by carvings and jungle. It is impossible not to feel the sense of history here.
But Siem Reap moves into my #1 position as least favorite place I have ever been. A spot formerly occupied by Cartagena.
It did have me wondering, though, about development and the role that recent history, culture, and attitude play in what countries look like today. I can’t help but compare Cambodia with Colombia. Both struggled through really dark times were violence and murder was the norm, the government was completely corrupt, and the people were left behind as power hungry men pursued their own interests.
But to look at Colombia today, you almost wouldn’t know that there were ever any struggles (and the height of their dark days is more recent than in Cambodia). Sure nothing is perfect – the agreement with FARC goes too far for some and not far enough for others, there are parts of the country where instability continues to reign, and thousands still mourn the loss of their loved ones. But whereas Colombia seems determined to pull itself out of the shadows, Cambodia appears resigned to be there.
Maybe it’s just me. Some people I have talked to really love Cambodia. Travel bloggers rave about how “authentic” it is. But authentic doesn’t mean beautiful. Authentic doesn’t mean pleasant or enjoyable. Authentic doesn’t even mean interesting. I am sure it’s not fair to judge Cambodia by this one corner of it, just as it wouldn’t be fair to judge Colombia by Cartagena… But with so many beautiful places in the world to see, I can’t say I am in any rush to go back.