Just like parents who “equally” love all their children, as a traveler I don’t like to admit that I have a favorite, but I do. Out of the eight countries visited in the Asia series, Cambodia was my favorite. I knew from the beginning that this was a different place.
Landing anywhere in Asia makes a recess of an elementary school look like naptime. It’s just that chaotic. When you leave the airport you might as well be walking onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange right before the closing bell. As I leave the shelter of the airport I always brace myself for the onslaught of people asking if we need a ride or a guide. My attention is more focused on navigating an errant luggage cart topped with four heavy pieces of baggage plus a tripod or lens case while following the other 5 members of my crew with equally temperamental carts as we try to locate the person who is officially our guide and ride. Whew. But as we left the airport terminal in Cambodia in Phnom Penh the glass door slid apart to reveal a scene of utter calm — just as many people who are always congregated outside an airport but they all stood there with soft eyes and slight smiles. That’s when I knew I was going to love it here.
I had some advice to brace myself for Cambodia, a country just coming out a vicious and cruel civil war still showed a lot of scars physically and mentally. I was told that adults and children missing limbs having been victims of land mines would be begging in the streets. I thought I was walking into a country depressed and floundering and that the only reason to go would be to see the great city of Angkor with its now famous temple Angkor Wat. I was wrong. I never saw those with missing limbs although I don’t doubt they’re there and as for homelessness and those very down on their luck? Sure, but that’s a problem we all have. In fact, as I write this I am back home in Portsmouth, NH where for the first time in 30 years I saw a man with a cardboard sign at an intersection. Travel teaches you that there’s always a difficult side to any destination and that you never look down on another person (or country) but show compassion. There’s no reason to pity Cambodia, the people have an amazing sense of themselves and that they are finally going places.
I found the Cambodians to be the easiest people to talk to. I call them the Irish of Southeast Asia. On the whole they speak a lot of English, which I wasn’t expecting and an overwhelming curiosity about Westerners since it’s only been recently that we’ve been allowed to come. That’s not to say the ancient city of Angkor isn’t a showstopper. I’ve seen it from pages of my National Geographic but really just had no idea what an amazing place it is. Experts say it’s on par with the Pyramids of Egypt (I wouldn’t know, unfortunately I’ve never been — hint, hint Travel Channel) but I would say its worthy of the bucket list. I should mention in the interest of full disclosure that I did not spend the night in the tent on the beach. As awesome as it was after seeing that spider and then being told by the guide that a jaguar or some large Travel Channel-host-eating cat was walking the beach the other day I thought best that I just go back to the hotel. I know my limits.
I arrived in Hong Kong with the energy of a bag of cement. Our shoot in Vietnam was an extremely ambitious and strenuous itinerary that left me physically and emotionally empty. With Vietnam, I gave everything I had so coming to Hong Kong gave me the feeling of being through a tough break-up where emotionally you just don’t want to start “dating” again.
I had big plans for my day off. Like the rest of the Asia series this is the first time I have been to this destination and there were restaurants and shops I wanted to try, and hiking I wanted to do. But I bagged it all and just walked zombie-like through a city of jackrabbits. Shooting this Asia series reminds me that my travel muscles have gone soft. For the past two years I’ve been working on Great Weekends and traveling throughout the U.S. is a cakewalk. Two weeks in Asia and just coordinating the time to talk to my husband and family is enough to make me wish for my next series to be Samantha Brown’s Florida.
Days off have two purposes 1. To rest and 2. Get prepared for the next show. It doesn’t look like either is happening so I do what I never do on a day off — I get a massage. I ask for the 2-hour massage and when they hand me that clip board where you are supposed to check off problem areas — I mark every box.
I love where we are staying which is a few neighborhoods past the tourist areas and in more of a residential area. The fact that I can drop off my laundry to a small closet of a shop around the corner and pick it up after 5pm is the type of mundane everyday task that I truly enjoy. I know it sounds strange but this for me is what anchors an experience. I don’t do well in totally foreign environments but like bits and pieces of familiarity here and there. Also the fact that we are in one place for 6 days as opposed to 8 places in 10 days makes me feel like normalcy will be returning to my life soon.
One of the best trips we made was to Lantau Island, which is considered Hong Kong yet a world away. The highlight was the fishing village of Tie O. Around for over 300 years, it still holds the traditions of the past. Homes built on stilts line a main waterway. The narrow streets uncover even more gems of traditional life: wide shallow baskets with layers of lime skins drying in the sun. Storefronts seem to be empty, but in the back healthy loud games of mah-jongg are taking place. Men only play with men, women play with women. Time goes on in Hong Kong while time stands still in Tie O.
Thailand is one of those places everyone dreams of going to. Even its slogan sounds alluring: “Land of 1,000 Smiles,” although, the recent events in Bangkok might put a small question mark on that statement. We started off in the capital city, moving on to Chang Mai and then Krabi Province. So we start with chaos and end on a beach. Sounds good to me.
When it comes to an overwhelming sense of chaos, Bangkok doesn’t disappoint. Asian cities’ brand of metropolitan are far different than their Western counterparts but even in the craziness there’s an orchestrated choreography that you begin to marvel at as if you were watching some spectacle that even the geniuses of Cirque du Soleil couldn’t pull off.
The Grand Palace is certainly grand and so Disney-like in its veneer that it would fit right into Epcot, which has both China and Japan but no Southeast Asian pavilions. Let’s start a petition! It really is quite pretty with every inch of it decorated like a wedding cake but I did found myself a bit disappointed with how “new” it looked and actually wished it had more of a patina of age to it. And yet that is what is so impressive about the Thais who unlike a lot of their neighbors just finding their way in the land of tourism have been doing this for 30 years. The Thais are polished and have their act together.
While taking a break on one of the benches I began to realize something rather odd: everybody was dressed … awfully. They were the worst dressed travelers of all time. I’m no fashion icon myself (need professional help to look good) and never turn my nose down on how people dress but the questionable outfits en masse were embarrassing and unavoidable. The Grand Palace is the number 1 attraction in Bangkok receiving visitors from around the world. How could it be that collectively the whole world was just one big fashion faux pas? Surely there were some impeccably dressed Italians in the mix? But just about everyone regardless of origin was wearing strange pants with loud patterns and colors, sort of the Thai version of the Hawaiian shirt but in britches. Then I figured it out: they HAD to buy the pants outside the gates of the Palace to be considered appropriately dressed enough to enter. OOOH right. It’s a Buddhist temple so you have to cover bare knees and shoulders. OOOH right. At that point I thought what was worse?
Moved to Chang Mai and staying at the unbelievable Dhara Dhevi Resort, a replica of an entire ancient Thai Kingdom with a working rice paddy field in the middle. Kevin my husband is joining me and we are so excited to find our accommodations is a two story Villa where the bathroom is larger than our Brooklyn kitchen and living room combined. We have a great day off exploring Chang Mai, eating too much and going for a swim. The next day is going to be even better as we are shooting at an Elephant orphanage and sanctuary called Patara, where I will get to take care of an elephant, bathe it and go for a ride.
At about 5:30 in the morning Kevin’s cell phone rings. He answers it and immediately jolts up breathing very heavy. Our house is on fire. Back in September, Kevin and I bought a beautiful 180-year-old farmhouse in upstate NY. It was not only to be an escape from the city but a promise to ourselves, to slow down and start a family. And those dreams were literally going up in smoke. In my mind I just went to the worst case scenario that our house was gone knowing if I could come to terms with that then I could handle anything that came after and so as Kevin was deciphering the news I got into the shower and got ready for the day. There’s nothing quite like having to go on camera while part of your world is crumbling, but this is why I love my job. As we were driving thru Chang Mai and the country side on our way to meet elephants I began to cry not for my house, it’s fate still unknown, but because I realized how damn lucky I am. That even with this very bad news I was still in one of the most beautiful countries in the world and as our crew van made its way every person I locked eyes with whether they were people opening up their stores, women sweeping pavements and children hanging onto the backs of mopeds all smiled. I also got to spend the day fawning over an elephant named DoDo, feeding it bananas and scrubbing its toupee of brillo hair on top of its big knobby head. Goodness knows I needed every one of Thailand’s one thousand smiles that day and I got them, even from a teenage elephant.
(Note: the house was saved! It suffered fire and extensive smoke damage but we should be able to live in it by August. Fingers crossed.)