Climbing Ancient Temples: Cambodia Part 1

In October of 2016, I got the opportunity to travel to Cambodia to visit a friend of mine, Lea, who was studying abroad there. I never thought about going to south east Asia before this because I didn’t know much about the region or Cambodia until I met Lea through my internship at the time. Little did I know at the time of booking my ticket, that it would be an adventure that would have me zooming through city Phnom Penh on tuk tuks, surviving bus breakdowns, and taking a sunset river cruise in Kampot…but I will get to those stories later.

In pure Cynthia fashion, when Lea mentioned to come visit her in Cambodia during her spring break, I jumped at the chance once I realized how cheap it was to fly there (about $600). I will never forget the looks on my professors faces when I asked for work early because I was taking a week off to travel to Asia. Their reactions were the similar, “Wait what? Cambodia? As in Asia?” and I just smiled and shook my head until they got over their shock. But sure enough, within 2 weeks, I was on a plane flying 8,825 miles (14,201 kilometers) from JFK in New York to Phnom Penh. I remember sitting on the plane and talking to the people sitting next to me telling me about how they were traveling solo through south east Asia for a few months and feeling both amazed and fearful for them. I thought that traveling alone would be scary and unsafe. But now, almost a year and half years later and traveling Europe by mostly by myself for 6 months and preparing to live in Ethiopia for a year, it is something I get to do in the future. After 48 hours, I finally stepped foot in Phnom Penh and into the tuk tuk with Lea.

Now when I say how CRAZY it is riding in a Tuk Tuk in the middle of the city where there seems to be no traffic rules, I mean that I was legit holding my breath for the first 5 minutes preparing for my imminent death. It was a HUGE wakeup call for this part of the world. After zooming throughout traffic without must direction (or so it seemed to me but at this point I was just trying to take in everything), we arrived at this beautiful temple surrounded by gold and gems, Wat Penh Nom. Lea explained the custom of coming here and lighting incents in increments of 3’s or 5’s and lay on the ground to say a prayer. I decided to light 3 incents and prayed to whichever higher power is up there to keep us safe and said how thankful I was to be there. From the Wat we got a traditional lunch of rice noodles with this beef type of stew called lak lak (at this point I was still eating meat). It was spicy but refreshing after not sleeping for almost a day. The thought crossed my mind about how safe the meat was to eat, but I figured I’d take the chance and ordered like a local. From the restaurant by the river, we went to Phom Penh Palace where the king lived. In Cambodia, the Prime Minister has all the power and there has been a power struggle issue. The palace was magnificent with vibrant colors of yellow and orange with statues of Buddha and the King everywhere. This was old my first encounters with not only monkeys who were aggressively trying to steal from the people passing by, but also came to the know the harsh reality of prostitution in Cambodia. While we were walking around the perimeter of the palace, a Monk came up to me and took my hand. I was taken aback at first, but Lea explained how he was saying a prayer over me and he gave me a yellow and red bracelet that was supposed to symbolize good luck throughout life.  The last stop of the day was the National Cambodian Genocide Museum.

You know that feeling when your hair stands on end and you know something is wrong? This is the feeling I experienced as soon as I stepped onto the property. Even after all this time has passed since I’ve been there, I can still vividly remember this feeling and the sights as we walked through the site. The only other time I would feel this way was walking through Auschwitz- Birkenau in Poland to give you some perspective. For those who are reading this and don’t know, from 1975-1979 a communist regime, the Khmer Rouge, under the control of Pol Pot killed approximately 1.5 to 3 million Cambodians or about 25% of the population in the country. The regime forced people into labor camps and the people killed during those times were buried in placed known as the, “Killing Fields”. One of the main stops before going to these camps or the killing fields, was Tuol Sleng Centre which was a mass prison- the place of the National Cambodian Genocide Museum. I got chills as I walked through the rooms with pictures of the way the prisoners were tortured with the intent to die. In many of the rooms you could still see the blood on the walls. I think the most intense aspect of this site was the fact that the prison was a converted school. The guards would use the remains of the school, like the bars where the children would have recess. They would hang prisoners from their nails and put on display until they died in agony. It was so heartbreaking and not something I was prepared for, though thankful that I could pay my respects to those who lost their lives and learn more about the dark side of the culture. Next, we solemnly rode the tuk tuk back to her apartment for the night. It was hard to go to sleep after hearing about such a tragedy.

The next morning, we woke up early to the sound of cooling rain as we jumped on the bus to Kampot. Along the way I continued to try traditional foods like dragon fruit (although I now know I can get it in the States) and stuffed bread with shredded meat inside. The further we traveled into the country side, the more it hit me that I was half way across the world and traveling like a local. There were no other tourists on the bus and it was such an amazing feeling to be immersed in the culture. The bus traveled on the dirt roads mostly with motorbikes whizzing by and rice fields seemed to go on for miles. Once we arrived in Kampot (a 2-hour bus ride magically turned into 5 but welcome to Cambodian travel everyone), Lea and I wanted to explore so we walked around the streets where we saw the South China Ocean Bay. We rented motorbikes but that turned out to be a HUGE failure because it is sooooo much harder than it looks to steer it! WE tried multiple times as the locals in the nearby restaurants stared and laughed at us. Eventually giving up, we rented traditional bikes and rode along Kampot river and throughout the city. It was so freeing to be able to see the city in this way and to feel the cool wind hit my hot face. I remember thinking that biking in Cambodia, DEFINITLY better than class.

We decided to book a river cruise that provided dinner and drinks at stops along the way. I tried another staple that night of Cambodian beer which tasted like a sweeter version of Bud Light The views were breath taking as we floated down the river passing little villages with different colored roods and the mountains in the background. I tried to stay in the moment and just take in all the sights, smells, and sounds of the birds chirping as the sun started to go over the horizon. As the night sky started to appear, lighting bugs danced on the water and I couldn’t tell where the mountains started, and the water began. I felt as peace and harmony with the world around me.

We woke up 6:00am the next morning to start our journey to Siem Reap. Little did we know, it would not be as simple as riding the bus. BUT that’s for another blog post.

xx, Cynthia

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Descending into the Parisian Catacombs

Who wouldn’t want to walk down 135 stairs into tunnels full of dead people on a random Wednesday afternoon? Well me being me, I was up for anything and my roommate Meredith and I decided to adventure into the Parisian Catacombs. I hadn’t heard about the catacombs in Paris until one of my favorite Youtubers, FunForLouis, had gone with his Live the Adventure crew into the thousands of tunnels under the city to see the bones of the departed. They stumbled through water up to their waist and ducking their heads in order to fit into the small tunnels. I had no idea what to expect when my roommate and I got onto the line outside the entrance of the Catacombs (it was a pretty long line to get in, so if you’re thinking about going make sure you get there early).  IMG_6732

Winding through the tunnels, I was amazed to see the seer amount of bones just on display. For what seemed like kilometers (it was only about 2), the the tunnels led me deeper and deeper into them. In the old quarries from when Paris was being built, the tunnels were lined with heads and all different types of bones. I had no idea more than 60 million bodies were houses under the streets below were I have been living for the past 4 months. The city continued to collect bodies within these tunnels between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when graveyards were being closed because of sanitation reasons. A majority of the bodies came from “Cimetière des Innocents” graveyard, but soon the number grew and included bodies from the surrounding hospitals, people dying on the street, and from local morgues. During the French Revolution, the catacombs were used a final resting place for victims of the war.

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The cold, stale air added to the eeriness of the walk, as Meredith and I stared in wonder about the lives of the people in the Catacombs. I could not help but think about they types of lives these people had. Were they children? Mothers? Fathers? Bankers? Lawyers? Being living on the street? What were their stories? Who were they? It is easy down there to just get lost in the volume of the bodies, but all of them had lives just like us. Lost in history, their bodies had been placed here due to just circumstance. Do their families know they’re here? Where are the relatives now? Do they even have relatives? You might think I’m over thinking these questions, but these people never received a proper burial and I doubt they knew their ruins would be on display for hundreds of years after their death.

It was interesting to see all the bones displayed in different formations and to hear how the bones get rotated every so often to ensure they don’t get damaged. Maybe it was the dreary, rainy day or the fact that I was tired from taking a final exam earlier that morning, but I left the Catacombs with an unsettled feeling. But I enjoy eerie things (shoutout to American Horror Story) so descending into the Parisian Catacombs allowed me to get my fix of creepy things during my time here. If you’ve been to the Catacombs in Paris or somewhere else, let me know your thoughts!

P.S: We were not up to our waists in water and the walk was very easy!

Happy travels, Cynthia

Paris Bucket-list

Before I left for Paris I researched both the city and the country to find what to do here. For countless hours I read blogs and watched vlogs on youtube showing places to see and things to do in and around Paris. Here is my list:

1. Climb the Eiffel Tower: I mean seriously? How can I not?

2. Spend and afternoon at Shakespeare and Company: a well known English bookstore that has been visited by  famous authors like, Earnest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. (I may or may not have spent more than one afternoon AND I may or may not have an obsession)

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3. Visit the Louvre- This museum has one of the best collections of artworks in the world.

4. Go to the top of the Arc de Triumph: The views are spectacular and one of the view places where you get a view of Paris with the Eiffel Tower

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5. Visit the Pablo Picasso Museum: He is one of my favorite Cubist artists and he lived in Paris for most of his life.

6. Go to the top of Sacré- Cœur and wander through Montmartre: The arts district of Paris where Picasso, Monet, and Pizarro used to hang out. In the heart of the district, there is a beautiful basilica with views of the city.

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7. Visit Notre Dame and climb to the top: A beautiful gothic church in the center of Paris. (I really just wanted to see if Quasimodo was still there)

8. Visit Sainte- Chapelle Church: The stain glass windows are breathtaking, so made sure you go on a sunny day. IMG_4168.jpg

9. Discover a secret restaurant

10. Visit Musee D’Orsay: A museum with one of best collections of impressionism in the world.

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11. Stroll through Tuileries Garden

12. Day Trip to Palace of Versailles: The famous Châteaux that Louis XIV built that has amazing gardens and The Hall of Mirrors.

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13. Try escargot: It was sorta slimy but I covered it in butter so I mostly tasted that. But when in France right?

14. Day Trip to Mont Saint Michel: A monastery that is sometimes completely surrounded by water when there is high tides. The place is a holy spot with an Abby at the top of the island.

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15. Visit the Catacombs: Who wouldn’t want to hundreds of year old bones and creepy heads under the streets of Paris.

16. Day Trip to go Champagne Tasting

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17. Read in Jardin du Luxembourg

18. Walk along Champs- Elysees

19. Try macaroons from Ladurée: It’s a must do for anyone coming to this amazing city

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20. Climb the Palais Garnier staircase

21. Spend an afternoon in Le Marais

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22. Design my own perfume in Maison Guerlain

23. Eat a crêpe: The Nutella ones have been my favorite, although a “jambon et fromage” (ham and cheese) savory crêpes are good too.

24. Drink the hot chocolate at Angelina: I have gone 4 times and had to stand in line BUT it was sooooo worth it. Best hot chocolate I’ve ever had, try the egg croissant- also amazing.

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25. Climb the Montparnasse Tower: Beautiful views of Paris at night.

26. Day trip to Disneyland Paris: I wanted an excuse to be a kid for a day.

27. Visit the love lock bridge

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There is my list of everything I hope to accomplish in France before I leave on May 15th!

Happy travels, Cynthia