When I was in middle school, my family spent three years living in Kuala Lumpur as expats. My early years spent in Southeast Asia led to a love of the culture, food and scenery of the region. For years, I yearned to go back. I’m fortunate enough to have just returned from a long-awaited visit to this part of the world – Cambodia as a first-time visitor and Thailand after a 16-year hiatus.
My travels began on a highly comfortable note as I was lucky enough to be upgraded to Business Class on Emirates. A lie flat bed with a cozy blanket and a full lounge/bar area at the back of the section certainly starts your trip off right!
The journey started in Cambodia in the capital of Phnom Penh. Most people visit Phnom Penh to learn about the Khmer Rouge regime in the late 70s. Our guide shared his own story of being forced into their army at age seven as he took us to the famous Killing Fields and S21 genocide museum. It was a very somber part of the trip, but an important piece of Cambodian history.
We were then off to lush Siem Reap – home of the famous Angkor temple complex. We visited four different temples and remarkably, the famous and largest Angkor Wat was not even the highlight of them (in my opinion). Banteay Srei, known as the Citadel of the Women, while much smaller in size, had incredibly intricate carvings covering the site. Ta Prohm (often recognized as a location used in the Tomb Raider movie) has several 100-year-old trees growing out of it, and the roots have woven their way into the stone to make for a beautiful mesh of nature and architecture. Finally, Bayon is covered in carvings of over 200 smiling faces. For a taste of modern culture, we took a boat ride out to Tonle Sap, the largest lake in Southeast Asia, to see Kompong Khleang Floating Village. These houses on stilts are over water half the year and over land the rest of the time. It was fascinating to ride through the area and see how the community lives.
After our time in Cambodia, we began our adventure to Thailand. We started in the bustling city of Bangkok. Our hotel had a beautiful view of the river that is heavily trafficked, so it was fun to look down at the various barges and water taxis constantly floating by. The country was prepping for the cremation of their late king, so our visit to the Royal Palace was unique. Thousands of locals lined up to pay their final respects.
While we were in Bangkok, we also experienced Maeklong Market, located outside the city where a train rumbles through the center of the everything at 11 am every day. The vendors know it’s coming and simply pull their fruit or veggies away from the tracks just in time. Bangkok is a great city for food lovers as well. We took a tour of several tiny local restaurants by tuk tuk (motorcycle taxis) to experience the “best Pad Thai” in Bangkok, among many other local specialties.
We then headed north to Chiang Mai. In addition to experiencing more beautiful temples, my favorite part of the trip was spent at the Elephant Nature Park. This initiative rescues elephants from sad trekking and logging situations and cares for them while allowing tourists to respectfully interact with the animals. We wandered around as guides told us each elephant’s story and petting the friendlier residents before bathing them in the river. It was refreshing to see they truly take care of their elephants (there is no riding or cruel training for tricks like painting and circus acts as you see at some other elephant camps).
I finished my trip on the beautiful island of Koh Samui. It was lovely to enjoy the pools and white sand beaches. The snorkeling off Ko Tao (another small island) was an amazing experience as we watched a variety of very colorful fish. And, of course, I indulged in a few of the incredibly well-priced massage treatments found all over the region.
Cambodia and Thailand can each be fascinating destinations on their own or paired with other countries such as Vietnam and Laos. The entire region is home to rich culture, great food and lovely, welcoming people.
Has Southeast Asia been on your bucket list (or is now!)? Email Erin at ErinG@PiqueTravel.com to learn more about this intriguing part of the world.