Beyond the Chimera

On a Saturday morning in early June, I went camping with my friend Duck at Ban Huai Krathing, Loei, about 100km northeast of Lom Kao. The lake house’s name translates to House of Clams, though the locals fished the lake empty of clams years ago.

In northern Thailand, property owners with lakes typically open a restaurant and build large rafts to host visitors on the water. Small fishing boats are used to cater to the guests. Most locals prefer to eat a meal, enjoy the view and leave, but Duck prefers instead to make the most of the trip (and the cost of renting the raft) by bringing a tent along and spending the night on the water. Other than the swarms of mosquitos that lasted the duration of a wildly stunning sunset, we had a great time.

Duck is curious, energetic and opinionated, and an absolute riot to hang around. For the past two years, Duck lived and taught English in Lomsak, but he recently moved south to Chonburi. He’s the friend who calls you spontaneously to propose the next adventure. I quickly learned I could relax when it came to these plans of his, knowing he’d most likely already arranged the details.

It wasn’t until I spoke with Duck in Siem Reap about our separate holidays in Cambodia that something clicked in my mind: as a traveler, the choices you make will entirely define your experience and perspective. There’s an enormous difference between entertainment- or relaxation-seeking travelers and travelers who venture to immerse themselves in local culture and history.

For two and a half weeks, Jenn and I bussed through Vietnam from the north to the south. We then bussed from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and finally to Siem Reap.

Throughout the trip, Jenn occasionally browsed through Tinder looking for potential travel buddies. Surprisingly, Tinder has become a common way for backpackers to connect, as the app functions based on your current location. In northern Vietnam, Jenn met a Delta airline pilot on Tinder named Brian. He accompanied us on a three-day motorbike journey along the Ha Giang trail. Since this was Brian’s second attempt of the trail, he was already full of tips to help us through the almost 400km-long adventure.

Laying on the couch of our AirBnb in Siem Reap, Jenn said, “Did you know Duck is in Siem Reap?” I gave her a confused look. She turned her phone around to show me: Duck’s tinder profile had come up as being 5km away.

We met Duck at Pub Street, Cambodia’s version of Bangkok’s Khao San Road or Hoi An’s nightlife scene. Most tourist hubs in Southeast Asia have a variant of a walking street market along side rows of restaurants and bars all advertising Western or “farang” (foreigner) food and endless happy hours (yes, I agree, that is a contradiction). Definitely not my scene of choice, but I suppose it’s important to me to have the experience. To observe the throngs of foreigners buying things they don’t need but think are necessary as a momento of the occasion, to observe the way the drunk foreigners speak to the locals… and to observe the way the sober foreigners speak to the locals. The longer I live in Southeast Asia, the less I judge locals for judging foreigners.

Fran (left), Jenn, myself and Duck (right) enjoy beers at Pub Street in Siem Reap.

We sat down in a bar with Duck’s friends – Fran, and another man whose name I can’t remember. I think my brain must have decided to forget it purposely because his presence gave me a bad taste in my mouth from the moment I sat down. When the topic of my work at the elephant camp came up in conversation, the man not worth remembering said, “Can the elephants paint?”

“You know, you’ve seen videos on social media, haven’t you? They hold the paint brush with their snout thing and you can buy the art. I have one hanging in my living room. They’re definitely not as cool if they can’t paint.”

I remember thinking, What an awful person.

The first thing I usually choose to address when speaking to tour groups at Into the Wild Elephant Camp is how challenging it can be to define what is ethical vs unethical in animal welfare, like teaching elephants to paint, for instance. Tourists typically experience only one side of the story through viral social media videos that pull at the viewer’s heart strings without acknowleding relevant historical and cultural explanations.

In this way, social media has a tendency to filter very complex shades of grey to a polarized, black-and-white fragmented reality. As the new Netflix documentary The Great Hack exposes, mass personal data collection has allowed private companies (and political campaigns) to uniquely construct each individual’s interaction with technology. While our connectedness may be constant, it is also chock-full of selective exposure with financial and political interests placed above our own right to data privacy.

Today’s traveler no longer leaves connection to home behind, though their feet are taking them elsewhere. These same filters begin to accompany our reality everywhere we go – limiting our actual engagement with the world around us and simply relocating our narrow-minded and self-confirming bubbles.

When you enter a room, the vast minority are those who aren’t staring at a screen. How many of us are ever actually where our feet are anymore?

In most areas of Thailand, video games hold the most prominent form of screen addiction. PUBG and ROV are among the most popular games, both based in violence. When smartphone technology was first introduced, those calling the screen obsession an “addiction” were often viewed as extremists. Now, it’s simply undeniable.

When Jamie attempts to take phones away from her preteen-aged students while they are playing video games in class, a handful of her students are so addicted that they will throw tantrums – full-blown screaming hissy-fits, sometimes even wrestling with Jamie to retrieve their phone.

In Luang Prabang, Laos, the Kuang Si Falls flow from a limestone-rich jungle to form three cascading tiers of aquamarine pools. This stunning work of nature is deservedly known as Luang Prabang’s main tourist attraction. Walking through the park, I passed a picnic table with around ten travelers. A perfect view of the second tier awaited them, yet every single person at the table was looking down at their phones.

Later, over a few Lao Beers, I brought this up to Jamie and our new friend, Aaron. He related to what I was saying immediately:

“It’s crazy how often I have to remind myself to put it down. I’m in Laos on a backpacking trip I’ve always dreamed of – why am I scrolling?”

Duck and his friends told stories of Cambodian beaches and drinks, swimming pools and nice hotels. It sounded like they had an absolute blast. They described a vacation that resembled the definition I used to know when I thought about travel – relaxing on a beach somewhere, not necessarily ever interacting with an environment outside of the hotels, attractions, bars and restaurants catering toward foreigners. Not really ever breaking through the Chimera of fabricated signature experiences and treat-yourself splurges, without ever considering the local human expense of the luxurious travel you’re indulging in.

Perhaps not every traveler wants to understand the history and culture of the place they’re visiting. Like Duck and his friends, some people only want to enjoy themselves and have a relaxing break from their usual reality rather than learn about a more harrowing one.

Jenn and I love nature and don’t like to pass up opportunities to appreciate islands, yet when we learned we would only have time to spend two days in Phnom Penh and three in Siem Reap if we wanted to stick to our travel plan, visiting the museums and temples in the cities took priority over the scenery. I felt a responsibility to dedicate the time I had available to understanding this recent atrocity – Cambodia’s genocide was only 40 years ago. And prior to this trip, I hardly knew about it.

It’s been incredibly interesting to witness the difference in how countries record and retell history.

Growing up, I was taught that the US is a heroic nation, only involving itself in foreign matters when its help is needed. In reality, the US government has committed terrible atrocities, has stepped in places it never belonged, made tragic messes and left without helping to clean up. Like a hit-and-run, but with war and genocide.

The history textbooks I remember reading in Florida public schools conveniently omitted the enormous role our own government had in war crimes and crimes against humanity, in both domestic and foreign relations.

During the war in Vietnam, over 16,000 mass concentration camps were implemented to maintain strict control of civilians. Vietnam became an experimentation field for the American science of destruction.

From 1961 to 1971, the US Army conducted 19,905 defoliant missions, spraying about 80 million liters of toxic chemicals in Vietnam. 61 percent of the total defoliants sprayed were Agent Orange, classified by modern scientists as the most harmful and toxic chemical ever discovered by mankind to date.

The effects of dioxin extend far beyond initial impact, causing birth defects and lifelong health issues through generations. Of the almost five million Vietnamese initially exposed to Agent Orange, around three million people are still living with its effects. Agent Orange also severely damaged the land, a lasting impact on Vietnam’s livelihood and economy.

The United States action in Vietnam has the same aim as its Santo Domingo operation. In both cases, it is a military intervention to prevent the evolution of a people.

Will napalm, phosphorus bombs and other similar means enable a foreign power to achieve from without what the Gestapo (Secret police of Nazi Germany) and concentration camps enabled a government to achieve from within? Such is the question posed by the US intervention in Vietnam; it is the problem of external fascism.

Maurice Duverger, professor at the Paris Law Faculty – Ie Nouvel Observateur, Feb. 9, 1966.

Exploring the impressive Angkor Wat and surrounding temples in Cambodia, watching a gorgeous sunrise over the massive temple with my mom by my side, learning about Hinduism and Buddhism’s overlap and the curious influence this has on temple architecture and renovations through generations of upsets in power – these memories are ones I will always cherish. These memories, however, are also the idealistic Instagram traveler’s incomplete picture of an impoverished country with a rich culture and a painfully recent history.

While touring Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples in Siem Reap, we were lucky enough to hire a friendly and bright tour guide named Kosal, Sal for short. Sal genuinely respected my work as a teacher, as this is also his full-time job. Giving tours and educating tourists about Cambodian history beyond the temple architecture is a passion he pursues on the weekends.

Sal was only 7 years old when the Khmer Rouge killed his parents. His mother was an engineer and his father was a doctor – this alone was the cause for their death sentence. Sal survived the genocide by seeking shelter in a monastery.

On several instances throughout the weekend we spent together, Sal expressed his appreciation for the relationship my mom and I are fortunate to share. Too often, Sal guides groups of tourists who are ungrateful and disrespectful toward their caretakers.

“I find myself wishing they could understand what it feels like to live life without my parents. I would give everything to have my mother back.”

The audio tour of The Killing Fields, The Choeung Ek Genocidal Center in Phnom Penh, ends at a memorial stupa that preserves the remains of victims. Standing next to this massive structure filled with human skulls, reading the causes of death and ages of the victims, I circled the tiny observation space between the case and the walls of the stupa. It was crowded. I felt short of breath.

The Khmer Rouge regime, under the leadership of Pol Pot, is responsible for killing 24 percent of Cambodia’s population in under four years.

Statistics pall after a time. We’re not programmed to register more than a hundred corpses. In heaps they simply become a landscape feature.

The Tent – Horatio’s Version, Margaret Atwood

Pol Pot’s nationwide brainwashing strategy convinced the Cambodian people to turn against one another: those with any form of higher education were demonized and killed. The uneducated villagers were forced to join the radicalized army, to torture and kill their own people.

Rebuilding a country whose entire educated population was murdered only forty years ago is no small task. Sal ardently supports education in Siem Reap’s surrounding communities, fiercely advocating for access to education for all.

For the impoverished families who are denied this access, the throngs of tourists visiting Cambodia’s major cities provide an alternative: begging.

Begging children sometimes learn the basics of 15 or more languages. Grabbing a tourist by the arm, staring into their eyes and pleading for money in that tourist’s native language is a surefire way to bring dinner home that night.

The problem is – every time a tourist gives in to the puppy dog eyes, that child is encouraged to continue begging rather than to pursue an education that is often far out of reach.

Walking through The Killing Fields, the audiotour directed our attention to a tree with hundreds of colorful bracelets tied to the branches. The Khmer Rouge guards were convicted of taking babies by the ankles and smashing their skulls against this tree to kill them quickly before throwing them into a mass grave.

I remember standing in the gas chambers at Dachau Concentration Camp in Germany when I was 17 years old. Trying to make sense of the incomprehensible cruelty, I felt like all the oxygen had been sucked out of the room and the emptiness of the space somehow made gravity weigh heavier on my body.

I was taught this history in high school. I already had a chance to digest the knowledge of this genocide from a textbook, but standing in the memory itself was a schocking contrast. I thought this might be the most painful place I’ll ever visit.

And still, nothing has compared to visiting Tuol Sleng Geneocide Museum at Prison S21 in Phnom Penh, the center of a network of 200 torture prisons.

It may be futile and disrespectful to compare such horrors. Yet, the immediate killings brought by the Killing Fields or even the gas chambers brought a confusing, revolting, empty version of peace – at least their release from pain was soon after capture.

After about an hour of listening to the audiotour recording describe the regulations and punishments of prisoners at S21, I had to remove my headphones and focus on my breath.

Dazed and zombie-like, I walked to find the toilets. The shock my body was in would soon lead to my being sick to my stomach. As I kneeled, holding back tears and my lunch, I had a moment of clarity. This is the side of travel that not enough people openly share, or perhaps care to experience in the first place.

The barbaric torture I learned about at Prison S21 shook me to a deeper core than I knew existed in my own soul. Prisoners begged guards to let them die. They were forced to live through torture that I can’t bear to describe here.

Of the nearly 20,000 people imprisoned, there are only twelve confirmed survivors.

List of rules imposed on torture prisoners at S21.

I was previously unaware that this level of extreme monstrousness could exist. And looking into the eyes of prisoners who lived this ultimate horror is something that will never leave my memory.

While traveling through Vietnam and Cambodia, I read Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Much of the fantastical novel’s backstory was based on World War II, telling horrific stories to make you question morality of war.

Being fully consumed in a war story while visiting war remnants museums through Ho Chi Minh and Phnom Penh was eerily coincidental. One theme remained constant through it all – through the reality, and the fictional tales – determining where to place guilt in the face of war is largely impossible, one of the grayest areas of all.

Cambodia has permitted investigations only of “senior leaders” who were “most responsible” for the regime’s crimes, thus protecting untold numbers of former cadres who were integrated back into Cambodian society.

Meixler, Eli. “Cambodia: Genocide Ruling May Be Khmer Rouge Tribunal’s Last.” Time, Time, 30 Nov. 2018, time.com/5467567/cambodia-genocide-verdict-court-last-verdict/.

Only three defendants were actually sentenced, and the man behind it all, Pol Pot, died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 72.

Like the Gestapo most famously demonstrated, in times of war, attempting to avoid commands to inflict violence is only a recipe for getting yourself killed.

American GI soldiers pose with beheaded Vietnamese patriots.

The Army can really fuck over your mind if you let it.

It’s up to you, you can put in your time just trying to make it back in one piece or you can become a psycho who really digs this kind of shit. It’s your choice.

War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

At the UXO Lao Visitor Center in Vang Vieng, Jamie and I were invited to watch a short film before starting the museum tour. Local villagers described their personal stories with unexploded ordnances.

While digging for worms with his friends, a toddler uncovered a UXO and was blinded on impact. His family was too impoverished to afford a doctor. His wounds were treated with herbal medicine and a traditional healer.

One 17 year-old girl started a fire to cook dinner with her family. A UXO was buried in the soil underneath. Her sister was killed instantly. Her own arm was badly injured. Her mother pleaded with the doctors not to amputate. She now lives with some functionality and chronic pain.

While scavenging for scrap metal to sell, one young man accidentally uncovered a UXO. He lost his eyesight and his arm and hand were amputated. A piece of scrap metal is valued at about 3,000 Kip. Just 34 cents.

The impact of UXO in affected communities extends far beyond those directly affected by a single accident.

The fear of UXO in villages, fields, forests – a community’s entire environment – can stop people using land for agriculture, reducing their ability to feed their families and earn a living. Going to school can become a deadly exercise. A trip to the hospital can be fatal. Building vital infrastructure – roads, telecommunications, etc. – can be halted. And economic development projects such as mines and forestry can be delayed if not stopped entirely.

It therefore is not surprising that poverty is directly linked to the presence of UXO in an area.

One person is killed or injured by UXO almost every two weeks in the Lao PDR.

Life with UXO, UXO Lao Visitor Center, Vang Vieng, Laos

A young boy was hunting birds with his friends for dinner. He was using a slingshot, grabbing stones quickly to have the best aim. Except one of the stones was not a stone, it was a UXO. He lost his eye sight and the ability to use his arms – along with the ability to support himself and his family.

He stared into the camera and said, “I don’t enjoy myself anymore.”

In Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, large percentages of the population still suffer daily. The resulting poverty is a deep pit with no visible ladders.

The United States forces flew more than 500,000 bombing runs over Laos. More than two million tons of explosive ordnance were dropped on the country – more tonnage than was used during the whole of World War II.

Close to 240 million bombies alone were dropped over Laos during the nine years of conflict. It is estimated that as many as 80 million bombies failed to explode and remain scattered throughout the country.

Laos as a Battlefield, UXO Lao Visitor Center, Vang Vieng, Laos

Of course, though these countries are still dealing with the lasting impacts, none of this is to say that these countries are still defined by the atrocities inflicted upon them.

Traveling through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos was also accompanied by incredible hikes and views in nature, impressive architecture, sharing meals and conversations with locals.

The majority of my memories are happy and full of awe, completely mesmerized by the beauty of the land and the people.

But what I know will stick with me most is not the time I spent hiking in the jungle, despite that being my favorite thing to do. It’s not the waterfall that poured powerfully next to me, or even the hot air balloon ride that lifted me over Vang Vieng.

It’s the determination to keep moving forward and the openness of a people to forgive. To welcome foreigners as guests, tourists from the same countries that terrorized their own. Even if that means serving wealthy travelers who are more interested in the lattes and viewpoints than the painful road from which these people continue to triumphantly forge ahead.

6 thoughts on “Beyond the Chimera

  1. What a marvelous and uplifting way to start the day and week … reading another of Sam’s beautiful and informative blogs. Your writing is so expressive and to-the-point and the photos place us in another land traveling with you. I love the picture of you and your mom holding hands on one of your many treks. We are so very proud of you, what you have accomplished and how you are taking advantage of every opportunity and minute to ‘explore’. We love and miss you so much. Gram

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Superb job of keeping all your travels and observations in order. Seems the phone addiction is everywhere – one of the unanticipated consequences of technology – your description of tourists glued to their phones and missing the beauty of the waterfall says it all – but then on the other hand, you have the marvel of Tinder networking which is a godsend to the the vagabond traveler (“tourists” would never grasp the value of the app) searching for kindred adventurers. It is sad that we forget very quickly the atrocities of Pol Pot and Vietnam but it is also amazing how quickly humankind and Nature rebounds. Good always seems to conquer evil.

    I think by sharing your thoughts, you can keep it all in perspective . It will be interesting in the future when you look back on these experiences. Love PapPaw

    Liked by 2 people

  3. As always, your blog brings so much depth and perspective to your travels. The contract between the stunning views and the tragic history , breaks my heart. I am so glad you took the chance to embark on such an incredible journey. I am blown away by this blog!!! You are an amazing writer and unique soul. XOXO Mindy

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Oh Sam how much I miss you my beautiful yogi friend!! This was so awesome to read, I know of the suffering of the world I cry every time I think of how blind our nation is of whats happening outside, Just came back from South Africa and what a trip, Oh My God the land, the people, the culture and their history is incredible and so sad to see segregation still rules this majestic land. I can’t wait to go back to Thailand as my heart and taste stayed there forever.
    Thank you, so much for sharing this beautiful Journal.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. You are growing inside…it shows in your writing and in your heart…wisdom comes from witnessing the horrors of the past and seeing the future with an unbridled mind…this is who you are now…becoming a whole being…have you read The Prophet by Khalil Gibran? It became my bible as I grew…

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Keep up the excellent writing Sam. I like the blog layout! My brother was ground combat there in 1968 and to this day he talks very little of those times. I do know some of his stories, though. ‘Kinda like a horror movie.

    If you write a book I’d like a signed copy.🌿🌾

    Liked by 1 person

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