A Love Letter to Trans Jakarta

Dear Trans Jakarta,

You are probably my favorite part of living in Jakarta.  There I days when I truly wonder if I would have survived living in this city, if not for you.

IMG_2587I love your cool, air conditioned cars.  After walking along the streets of Jakarta for mere minutes, sweat drips down my back and my face, soaking my shirt and putting streaks in whatever makeup I was foolish enough to try to wear.  (What can I say?   I am a northerner trying to live in a tropical climate: my body still isn’t sure what to do with this equatorial sun.)  Stepping into a trans car is a blessed reprieve from the heat, and as soon as I naik (board), I feel my head clear and my skin give a soft sigh of relief.

I love how much of the city you have already reached.  I know that I am lucky to have recently moved to Jakarta, because not long ago the bus corridors did not reach as many places, and the lack of connecting corridors made the travel time for many too long for them to feasibly use the Trans system.  But as you continue to expand and more people are able to ride the system, it will make sustainable public transportation options truly feasible for more of Jakarta.

I love how cheap you are.  For IDR 3.500, I can go from one end of the city to the other.  Transportation in Jakarta does tend to be quite inexpensive, at least when compared to other capital cities around the world, but I the only options I have found that might be cheaper than the Trans are the rickety Kopaja buses overflowing with passengers that still pour back smoke into the air, and my feet.  As someone who is paid by American standards, but whose friends are mostly Indonesians being paid Indonesian wages, this is especially important: while I arguably could take a taxi wherever I wanted to go, my friends cannot; but with the Trans system, we can all travel in comfort, together.

IMG_2590I love that you have spaces that are khusus wanita (special for women).  Whether it is the front of regular buses, or the bright pink female-only buses with the massive lettering on their sides proclaiming “These Girls are Smart!,” I am so thankful that this spaces exist.  I plan so many of my days around trying to avoid street harassment, and knowing that I can travel from one part of the city to another in the relative comfort and safety of female company is one of the reasons I feel able to explore all this city has to offer.

Jakarta is not my favorite city that I have ever lived in, but there are interesting elements of the city very much worth exploring.  But the pollution, heat, and harassment of this city often make it hard for me to convince myself to leave the clean, cool, safe confines of my apartment.  I have long conversations with myself, trying to persuade myself to leave.  There have been days when the TransJakarta system is the piece of the puzzle that gets me out of the house, and I would have missed out on so much, if it did not exist.

Thank you, TransJakarta.  There is little in this city that I will miss when I leave.  But I will miss you.





“F#$% you, Mister, I love you!”: My Experience with Street Harassment in Indonesia

Eyes sparkling, smiles stretching from ear to ear, bare feet kicking up dust, the three boys chased after me as I passed on my sepeda (bicycle).  “F#$% you!  F#$% you!”  They shouted.

As an English Teaching Assistant in Gorontalo, this was an almost daily occurrence, as I always passed the same areas during my bike rides.  I often stopped, and tried to teach the boys other phrases in English, and to explain to them that what they were saying was tidak sopan (not polite).  I began to hear “Hello!” and “How are you!?” much more frequently as my grant continued, but I was never quite able to eliminate their cheerful calls of “F#$% you!  F#$% you!”

There were days I was able to remain amused by this, and recognize that this phrase was probably one of the few phrases these young boys, probably no more than eight years old, knew in Bahasa Inggris (English), and that their intention was simply to be friendly.  Those were the days I would stop, engage, and try to educate.  But there were also plenty of days when I simply could not stand hearing them, when their favorite phrase would grate on my soul.  Those were the days I would grit my teeth as I forced a smile, and passed by with simply a nod in their direction.

My different responses to these three boys depended almost entirely on how much I had been harassed that day.  Now, to be clear, harassment was not the only factor that might cause me to be frustrated: feelings of homesickness, frustration with co-teachers, embarrassment at cultural misunderstandings, or perceived failure in my capacity as a teacher might all make it much harder for me to be my usual happy self.  However, I must confess I was immensely more adept at reflecting on these feelings, learning from them, and letting them go.  But the feelings of lack of safety and being so intruded upon that stemmed from being harassed were much more difficult for me to let go, and this was in part due to the frequency of the harassment I experienced.  While I might have whole days where I felt I was beginning to understand the culture I was in, or I might finish the school day feeling that the day’s lesson was successful, there was not a single day when I did not experience some form of harassment.  This daily struggle throughout my three years in Indonesia weighed down on me, and without reprieve, there were days when I invariably broke.

While I don’t want to imply that certain forms of harassment are harder or easier than others, there is no denying that the harassment I experienced was not always the same.  I have spent hours reflecting in my journal, and through conversations with fellow ETAs, trying to piece out what forms the harassment I received might take, and the motivations behind them.  This is not easy task, as harassment, especially in Indonesia, especially of foreigners, is immensely complex, and my constant inability to draw any conclusions is part of the reason it has taken me so long to write this post.  However, I eventually concluded that there were three forms of harassment I was most likely to receive: sexual, gendered, and race-based harassment.

The sexual harassment I’ve experienced in Indonesia was, frankly, the same sh@# I regularly contend with at home in the U.S., even if the way it presented itself was somewhat different.  Cat calls do have a different sound in Indonesia, more closely resembling a sharp hiss than the whistles that are more popular in the U.S., but the intent, and the way men look me up and down, undressing me with their eyes, is the same as that which I have been experiencing in the U.S. since middle school.  More than once I have had men on the street, whom I have never met before, ask me to have sex with them, sometimes in English, and sometimes in Indonesian.  The first time I experienced the dreaded “palm scratch” (this is when a man scratches the palm of a woman’s hand when they are shaking hands in greeting; it is an offer for sex), I’ll admit that I did not let another man shake hands with me for weeks.  For a few months during my second grant, there was a man who would follow me to and from school every day, throw rocks at my door—shut and locked because of him, even though I would have preferred to maintain the open-door policy so common in Indonesia—in the evening, shouting for all to hear that he planned to marry me, and stand, smoking and leering, outside the windows of my classrooms while I was teaching.  Though I was able to enlist the help of neighbors and teachers to keep him away from my house and the school grounds, I was unable to eliminated his presence in my life fully until he moved to another city, and even then, I never truly felt safe in and around my neighborhood.

The packaging may be somewhat different, but inside this sexual harassment is the same.  In Indonesia, I was just as likely to be harassed if I was wearing conservative clothing bought at a Muslim boutique as I was if I was wearing a t-shirt and cropped pants (which is as much skin as I dared show in my conservative ETA sites), just as in the U.S. I was just as likely to be harassed in my unflattering convenience store uniform as I was in a sundress; and in both places, if I complain about harassment, one of the first questions I am asked is “What were you wearing?”  Also like much of the U.S., there is the assumption that this treatment is permissible, and that women have the responsibility of dealing with it, of thinking of it as a compliment.  It seems we women cannot escape the “culture of men,” as one Ibu in Malang put it, shaking her head as she explained to me[1], “Actually, they should not be this way.  Malang is in Java.  Javanese culture teaches men to respect women.  But they do not.  Malang is majority Muslim.  Muslim culture teaches men to respect women.  But they do not.   It is because of the culture of men, which somehow is stronger than the other cultures these men belong to.”

This “culture of men,” or what would be called male culture in the Western world, not only was most likely one of the root causes of the sexual harassment I experienced, but also played in to what I have decided to call gendered harassment.  I want to differentiate it from gender harassment, although I probably experienced that as well, as I wasn’t necessarily being harassed for my gender, but rather was experiencing a certain level of harassment because of my gender.  The difference is slim, but I do think is there.  Often, this harassment mirrored the harassment I would experience as a foreigner, which I will get to in a moment, but it was more persistent than what I believe men might experience.  Someone might follow me on my walk to work, pestering me with questions, asking for photos, even after I had repeatedly said that I wanted to be left alone and was trying to walk as fast as I could, practically leaping over the holes in the Jakarta sidewalk, in an attempt to be rid of the person.  I am very much convinced that people would not be so adamant in harassing me if I was a man.  I am not saying that a man will never experience this kind of harassment, but there is something in the power a man inherently holds in society—especially in a place like Indonesia, where gender roles are much more divided than they are in the U.S.—that means he is usually listened to when he says no.  As a woman, I do not command the same respect, and so it is harder for me to stop the harassment aimed my way.

Perhaps the most common form of harassment I receive is race-based harassment[2]Bule is a term used for Caucasian foreigners in Indonesia, and it is a word that I have heard shouted at me every. single. day. since I arrived in Indonesia.  Because I am a bule, people call out “Mister!” at me wherever I go[3].  Teachers and students pinch my nose, squealing “Mancung!” (this literally means “long nose”), telling me how much they wish their nose was like mine.  I have more than once had babies pushed into my lap when trying to lesson plan in cafes, and I cannot count the number of times I have been in the middle of a conversation with friends when someone has come up behind me a dragged me into a photo with them, without asking permission and without introducing themselves.  Kenalkan dulu,” (“Introduce yourself first”) has become my mantra when it comes to photos.  I am not going to let someone take a photo with me, so that they can post all over social media and gain social points with their peers, if they aren’t going to at least tell me their name first, and listen to mine.  If the people are asking are clearing in high school, I make them ask me for a photo and introduce themselves in English, as I know that all high school students in Indonesia are required to study English.  Sometimes I have to help them, and that is fine, but I feel they might as well get something more valuable than just a photo from meeting me (though they may not see the value of these two things the same way I do).  And if people don’t ask, and try to force me into a photo, they don’t get a photo, but get a lecture on politeness instead.

I was once at a lampu merah (red light) on my motorbike when a man pulled up beside me and shouted, “Mister!” at me; I nodded in his direction, but kept my focus on the traffic light.  After shouting at me a few more times, and being clearly unsatisfied with my response, he reached across the space between us and pushed me.  Mostly due to my shock at this treatment, I and my motorbike fell just as the light turned green, and were pushed forward by the car in front of us.  Somehow, I managed to escape with only scrapes on my hands and what I am pretty sure was a broken toe, all of which I was fortunately able to treat on my own with supplies from the local alpotek (apothecary, or medicine shop).  While not all forms of race-based harassment are so physical or so extreme, the fact is they can me just as dangerous as other forms of harassment.

The bule treatment, as I have come to call this race-based harassment, is not only the most common form of harassment I receive, it is also by far the most complicated.  I am targeted and harassed because of the color of my skin, but part of the reason why I am harassed is because of years of colonialism and Western media causing Indonesians to internalize the idea that I am more beautiful because I have lighter skin.  The harassment I receive is different from that received by foreigners of color, again largely due to history and media, and even the harassment different people of color receive is never quite the same.  Someone who is African-American, for example, would be subjected to harassment that looks different from that experienced by someone is or presents as East Asian.  The issue of colorism[4] is one all ETAs must contend with in different ways throughout our time here, and the way it plays into harassment is just one of them.

The lines between these kinds of harassment are not always clear cut.  For example, I am more likely to be sexually harassed in Indonesia than an Indonesian woman because I am foreign: Western media portrays women as highly sexualized and sexual, and while I recognize that is some ways this can be empowering, the way it has been interpreted in Indonesia is that Western women always want sex, and this adds to the idea that men have permission to harass women.  The intersection of these different harassments and is why I eventually realized that I would always experience the most harassment if I was alone, a little less if I was with a foreign female friend, yet again a bit less if I was with an Indonesian female friend or with a male foreign friend, and almost none if I was with a male Indonesian friend (though being alone with a man after dark could, in turn, create endless gossip if I was in a smaller community).

If there is one thing that is simple and clear about harassment is this: it sucks, and I, and no woman, no person, should ever have to deal with it.

I have learned to stop feeling guilty when the harassment makes me angry, and I “lose face[5]” by yelling at someone on the street.  I have tried to educate when I can, and where it is appropriate for me to do so[6].  But truthfully, these are not skills I should have needed to learn.

I see amazing work being done by scores of women, both in the U.S. and in Indonesia, to rid the world of harassment.  I live in stubborn hope that someday girls, and every human, might not need fear walking out on the street alone, wherever they live, and whatever they wear.

For now, I keep my head down on the street, necessary self-protection, but keep my fury alive, fueling my motivation to play my role in creating the world I want to live in.

Go ahead.  Hiss in my direction.  Call me “Mister,” one more time.  See what happens when you do.

I mentioned in a footnote a few Indonesiaful pieces by ETAs of color, speaking to the treatment they receive while in Indonesia, which is very different from what I receive.  I want to put the links to those pieces again here, in order of publication:

“Black Sweet: Grappling with Skin Color in Indonesia” by Nina Bhattacharya

“Where Are You Really From?” by Julius Tsai

“Experiencing Colorism in Indonesia” by Kayla Stewart

[1] I am translating here from Indonesian.  I also want to note that this Ibu was quite special, in the way she thought about these things.  Rarely did I come across women, especially older women, who would place the responsibility of harassment on men, rather than on women.

[2] It took me a long time to decide what to call this form of harassment.  It’s root cause is absolutely in my race: the color of my skin, the texture of my hair, etc.  However, I did not necessarily want to refer to it as racial harassment, due to the connotations racial harassment has, especially in the Western context, and the fact that I do not share the same experience.  However, I was also hesitant to call it “white harassment,” or something along those lines, as that seem to add to the idea of white exceptionalism (why do I get a special name because I am white?), and because it seemed to echo the idea of reverse-racism, an idea I was obviously not trying to convey.  After speaking with several American friends who have also lived in Indonesia, one of them suggested race-based, and feeling that this language offered something of the complexity I was looking for, I decided to use that terminology.

[3] I don’t exactly know why Indonesians only seem to know the male form of address in English.  I always try to correct people, explaining that it is better to say “Miss” or “Missus” to women.  Some days I can find being called “Mister” a bit amusing; other days I want to throw up my hands and shout, “I am a g@# d@#& woman, and proud of it.  So, call me ‘Mister,’ one more time, and see what I do.”

[4] There have also been several good pieces written for the ETA online magazine Indonesiaful by ETAs of color regarding their experiences, such as “Black Sweet,” “Where Are You Really From?” and “Experiencing Colorism in Indonesia,” and I would encourage people to read them.  I also reflected more in-depth about my own whiteness during my first grant, in a blog titled, “Warning, Visibility May Vary, or, Being White in Indonesia.”

[5] In many Asian cultures, including many of those in Indonesia, becoming noticeably angry is a huge cultural faux pas, and one should always exude an exterior that is calm and content.  When excessive emotion, especially of the more negative sort, is shown, a person is said to have “lost face.”

[6] I am a foreigner, and Indonesia is not my permanent home.  I have recognize that such social justice education is better led by an Indonesian, and whenever possible, I take the back seat.

Snapshot: Kota Manado

20170302_165341I have never had the chance to stay in Kota Manado (the city of Manado) for very long.  The first time I made it to Sulawesi Utara (North Sulawesi), I ended up staying in Pulisan, which is a beautiful coastal area, so I am not complaining one bit.  My second visit to Manado was to help judge a couple of WORDS Competitions earlier this year, and my final visit was just recently, to visit friends who have moved to Manado on my way to Gorontalo.

Manado is probably most famous amongst foreigners for its incredible diving.  In order to reach Pulau Bunaken (Bunaken Island), possibly Indonesia’s most well-known diving spot, one must pass through Manado.  Even parts of the city butt up against the ocean, and there are several points that apparently offer great snorkeling without needing to leave the city.  After falling in love with the ocean while living in Gorontalo, I always loved ending up by the ocean whenever I had a chance to visit Manado.

20170305_112320Kota Manado is, without a doubt, a city.  Amongst those who live on Sulawesi It is perhaps most famous for its abundance of malls.  And there truly are a number of them.  Traffic in Manado sometimes echoes that of Jakarta, although my friends tell me the traffic in Manado is largely caused by the excess mikrolet or angkot (a form of public transportation), rather than merely due to overpopulation.

Manado is one of the few majority-Christian areas in Sulawesi, which does make it somewhat different from the places I have lived, all of which have been majority Muslim.  There are churches, rather than mosques, around every corner, and Christmas, I have been told, is a months-long affair in Manado.

Religion may also play a role in the diet of many Manadonese as well.  Pork, of course, becomes an option in a non-Muslim area.  But the Manadonese are famous for eating “anything that walks on land, swims in the sea, or flies in the air,” and there are markets in Manado famous for selling such delicacies as bat, scorpion, rat, and snake.  RW, or dog, is also a common dish in Manado.  Many of these are also not permitted to be consumed if one is Muslim, as they are considered kotor (dirty), but these particular dishes probably have less to do with religion than the cultures of the area that existed long before Christianity or Islam was introduced to Indonesia.

Manado is an interesting place, very different from the rest of Sulawesi, but at the same time it also still feels very much like many of the other areas in Sulawesi.  It is a fascinating place, one I wish I had been able to explore further.

A Little Time in the Big City: Bangkok, Thailand


The Reclining Buddha.

Bangkok was, for the most part, a place I passed through to reach other cities in Thailand and Cambodia.  For my two weeks of travel, I chose to only fly in and out of Bangkok (the most inexpensive flight into the region from Jakarta), and to use buses (to and from Siem Reap) and trains (to and from Chiang Mai) for the rest of my travel.  Though buses and trains are slower, there are a much more environmentally friendly option.  When traveling in Indonesia, because it is a country of islands, I usually have to fly.  When presented with other transportation options, I of course took them.

I had considered spending more time in Bangkok, but many familiar with the region told me that Bangkok was essentially the equivalent of Jakarta.  Because any trip I take is usually to escape Jakarta, I decided to only give myself one day in Bangkok, to see some of the main tourist attractions, before moving on.  Later on, I had a morning to explore a bit of Jakarta again, prior to boarding my afternoon flight back to Jakarta.


You find these shrines with pictures of the king around every corner in Thailand.

I have to note, that I do not agree with the assessment that Bangkok is just like Jakarta.  I can certainly see the similarities: both are large, crowded, SouthEast Asian mega-cities, accosting the senses at every turn with the honking of horns, the smell of street food, and the chatter of throngs of predominantly friendly faces.  However, I found Bangkok generally far less polluted, far more organized, and far less traffic-y than Jakarta.  Talking to the folks who ran the various hostels I stayed in, they claimed the city owed these differences largely to the MRT, the underground system in Bangkok, which they said drastically changed the city, and for the better.  Jakarta is currently building its own underground, and I can only hope its completion has a similar effect.

I began my full day in Bangkok by visiting the National Museum.  Much of the museum was closed during my visit, as they were restoring many of the rooms and exhibits.  (This was a bit of a bummer for me, but I really don’t want to complain, because I think the upkeep of historical sites and places like museums is so important.)  The exhibits that were open were quite impressive, and the many of the placards with longer explanations gave good insight into the history of Thailand and the larger region.  I do think it is better to have some understanding of Thai history and culture before going to the National Museum, as it doesn’t necessarily always act as an introduction, per say, but even with my own very basic understanding of Thailand I was able to learn a lot from spending time there.  The museum is also on the grounds of what used to be a viceroy’s residence, and so the buildings and grounds themselves are truly incredible.

1 museum

The National Museum.

My next stop was to the Grand Palace, which was an overwhelming and magnificent stop.  It is a somewhat large complex, and it was quite crowded when I went.  (I do think this was in large part due to the recent passing of the Thai king, as many Thai citizens, dressed in black mourning clothes, were coming to pay their respects.)  Every surface of the elegant and intricate buildings of the Grand Palace was covered with colorful, complex tiling, and I spent my time there mostly trying to decide if it was better to stand back and try to take in a building as a whole, or to get up close and personal with the details.  I certainly did not have time to do either thoroughly, as I am certain it would take days to truly explore the Grand Palace and all its wonders.

2 grand palace

The Grand Palace.

I ended my day of Exploring Bangkok at Wat Pho (the full name of which is Wat Phra Chetuphon Vimolmangklararm Rajwaramahaviharn, so I can see why people shortened it), the royal temple probably most famous for the Reclining Buddha (Phra Buddha Saiwas).  This was my favorite stop in all of Bangkok.  I am not sure if it is because I was there in the heat of the afternoon (I confess I spent a lot of time seeking out shade during my visit to Wat Pho), or if the temple is generally less crowded than the other tourist attractions in the area, but I found Wat Pho to be quite peaceful, a word I rarely find myself able to use in such a large city.  It was humbling to stand before the Reclining Buddha, which is somehow so much larger in real life than in pictures.  And I was especially fond of The Great Pagodas of the Four Kings (Phra Maha Chedi Si Rajakarn), as I found the almost-simplicity of their structures, combined with the beautiful pastel tiling decorating their surface to be a calming sort of beautiful.

2 Wat Pho

Wat Pho.  The Great Pagodas of the Four Kinds are in the photo on the far left.  The smaller pagodas around Wat Pho seem to echo their style.

On my last day in Thailand, I visited the Temple of the Golden Buddha, as it was within walking distance of my hostel.  It was an impressive temple, but I was even more intrigued by the two museum exhibits you could opt to visit as part of your tour, which gave insights into the history of the Chinese-Thai citizens of Bangkok, as well as the process of how the Golden Buddha was created, found, and transferred to its current location.  It was certainly a wonderful place to spend my last morning in Thailand.

4- golden buddha

Temple of the Golden Buddha.

Of course, in between visits to austere temples and palaces, I wandered the main streets and back streets of the areas of Bangkok in which I found myself, hoping I would not get lost (and usually getting lost anyway), and eating excessive amounts of delicious Thai food.  While I am glad that I spent most of my time in smaller cities, I am also glad that I took the time to visit Bangkok, and see a little of what this city has to offer.

I Came for Elephants, But Got So Much More than I Bargained For: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Similarly to the way I ended up in Siem Reap in large part because I wanted to see Ankor, I ended up in Chiang Mai due to its being the base for the and elephant park, which I very much wanted to visit.  But while I only needed one day for my plan to visit the elephants, I gave myself three days in Chiang Mai, as I knew it would offer so much more.  I traveled to and from Chiang Mai via train, taking in beautiful views of endless rice paddies while we were closer to Bangkok, and basking in the majesty of the mountains, the foothills of the Himalayas, when we were closer to Chiang Mai.

My first day in Chiang Mai I got up bright and early to join a cooking class at Asia Scenic Cooking School.  I had initially planned only signing up for a half-day course, so that I could use the remainder of my day to explore the city, but upon perusing the website, I became so enraptured with the concept and the self-descriptions of the women who run the operation that I decided to go for the whole day.  It was well worth it.  The day included a trip to the market, a tour of the gardens at the farm, and a full course meal (we each made six dishes of our choosing).  There was only one other person who joined the full-day course on the farm that day, a retiree from Paris names Marie who was planning on setting down in Chiang Mai.  Though her English was limited and I only know a few basic greetings in French, we shared enough kitchen vocabulary that we could share our joy of cooking.  Our teacher, Gassby, was humorous and patient, and simply lovely.  I thoroughly enjoyed spending the day with the two of them.

IMG_2297As a bonus, because there were only two of us in the course (there can sometimes be up to fifteen), we were able to head back to town a bit early, giving me plenty of time to rest, grab and early dinner at a café, and head to one of Chiang Mai’s many night markets.   The Anusarn Market was very close to where I was staying, in the Grace Hotel (yes, I did ultimately choose my hotel based on its name), and it was a good introduction to the Chiang Mai market scene, as it was much calmer and less overwhelming than some of the other markets I visited later on.

My second day in Chiang Mai I spent most of my day in the company of elephants.  Since coming to South East Asia as an English Teaching Assistant in Indonesia, I have wanted to spend some time up close and personal with these incredible creatures.  However, many of the parks in the region for elephants are not ethical at all, and in many cases, abuse the elephants.  I wanted to avoid being a part of that, and so I did careful research regarding the options I had, and eventually concluded that the best option for me was the Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai.  The Elephant Nature Park rescues elephants at risk of being put down from the tourism and logging industries, and allows them to live out their lives in the peace of the sanctuary.  Almost all of the elephants are female (males are extremely expensive to house, and the park unfortunately cannot afford to do so), and most of them are much older, with the oldest elephant estimated at being over 90 years old.  Some of the elephants have given birth, so there are a few babies running around as well.  Because so many of the elephants were rescued after spending their whole lives being mistreated, many of them have broken limbs, missing ears, or are blind.  But because each elephant is assigned a mahout to ensure the animal’s well-being, the staff of the park believe that they can all live full lives, despite the disabilities they may have.  As visitors, we were able to assist with the feeding and bathing of the elephants, and learned the ins-and-outs of elephant care, depending on an elephant’s needs.  It was such a privilege to spend a day learning more about the elephant, in the very presence of such amazing animals.


That night was the Sunday Night Market in Chiang Mai, which was by far the most crowded market I visited during my stay.  The street was absolutely packed with tourists and locals, but the handicrafts present were well worth the visit.

I also treated myself to a proper Thai massage that evening.  Prior to coming to Indonesia, the very thought of a massage made me extremely uncomfortable (I’m not overly fond of being touched by strangers), but I have slowly become accustomed to them, and I do find a Thai-style massage quite helpful after extensive travel.  After so much time on buses and trains, I decided my body was in need of some help, and opted for my massage while in Chiang Mai.  I went to a place called Lila Massage, which, in addition to offering one of the best massages I have ever had, trains female inmates in the art of massage and offers them employment upon release, something I find really wonderful and admirable.

My final day in Chiang Mai was dedicated to temples.  In Chiang Mai, there is a wall around the older part of the city, and I had found a list of temples within the walls that were worth visiting.

IMG_2275I started at Wat Phra Singh, a beautiful temple on the other side of town from where I was staying, and apparently the most popular temple to visit within city limits.  I almost failed to pay for my entry at this lovely temple, as I must have missed a sign somewhere for the ticket booth, and no one caught on that I wasn’t supposed to be where I was.  I did eventually find a ticket booth, however, and had a good laugh with the woman selling me the tickets, who understood enough English to get my jokes about how “I promise I’m not trying to be a criminal.”


IMG_2309Wat Phan Tao was probably my favorite of the more popular temples to visit.  An older, more unassuming temple built of teak wood, it was certainly not as shiny and colorful as some of the other temples I visited, but I loved it all the more for its humble simplicity.

Wat Chedi Luang is right next to Wat Phan Tao, and it is an impressive temple that includes massive ruins of a much older potion of the temple.  But what made my time at Chedi Luang so memorable was that the temple offers daily Monk Chats, in which you can sit with a monk and ask questions about Buddhism, the daily life of a monk, and even Thai culture.   I joined a larger group, and though I did not ask any questions myself, I learned a lot from listening to the varied questions others had, and the monk’s responses.

2 chedi luang

IMG_2388Wat Chiang Man is supposedly the oldest temple in town, and it was in a slightly different section of Old Town than the other temples.  It was small and simple, and best known for older glass and bronze statues of the Buddha, encased in a shrine.

There was one temple that I visited which was not on any list, but which caught my eye nonetheless.  Wat Buppharam was very close to where I was staying, and I passed its entrance several times searching for supper or on my way to the markets.  Wat Buppharam attracted my attention because at the front of the temple there was a Donald Duck statue, something I found quite peculiar.  I decided to try to take a peek, and on finding that there was a ticket booth for tourists (I try to avoid imposing on temples that are not already set up for tourism, although I am sure I would be welcome), headed on in.  Wat Buppharam has some of the most detailed and interesting statues I had seen yet at a temple, and the few plaques I could find spoke of royal connections to the temple.  What I did not find, however, was any explanation as to why there was a Donald Duck statue outside the temple.  That remains a mystery.

On my final night in Chiang Mai I went to the daily Night Market.  The bottom floor of one of the buildings had some truly beautiful artwork, though I couldn’t bring myself to buy any, as I could not devise a way to bring them home without them breaking.  But I loved perusing the pieces and admiring the artist’s creativity.

And then, all too soon, it was time to board the train back to Bangkok, bidding Chiang Mai goodbye.  In many ways, I wish I had given myself more time there, to better explore the city and the surrounding areas, but I suppose this just means I will need to visit Chiang Mai again someday.


Food and Fabrics and Traditional Dance: Siem Reap, Cambodia

I’ll be honest: I chose Siem Reap as the city I would visit in Cambodia because I wanted to visit Ankor Wat.  But I didn’t want to be one of those tourists who only goes to the city for the ancient temples, without experiencing anything of the culture that is still very much alive.  I gave myself a few extra days in Siem Reap, and planned the three days in which I was at the temples so that I only needed to be at the Ankor Complex in the morning, and could then explore Siem Reap in the afternoon.

Traditional Cambodian or Khmer Culture was very much at risk of being destroyed during the Khmer Rouge, but it is slowly making a comeback, and many claim that Siem Reap is the center for the revitalization of the arts and handicrafts for which Cambodia is so famous.  I was thankful that I was able to explore so much without needing to go to another city.

I love to explore fabrics in the various places I visit, and this led me to Artisans Ankor, which, while also a higher-end shop, is also a workshop and training center for handicrafts and arts.  Local Cambodians from the surrounding villages are brought to the training center and educated in the arts of metal work, stone carving, and weaving, among others.  Artisans Ankor also has a silk farm, to which it offers daily free tours.  It was fascinating to see the silk-making process from beginning to end, and our guide and the women weaving were terribly patient as we asked endless questions.


I was also interested in seeing traditional Cambodian dance, and was able to see two shows during my time there.  Temple Bar, in the more touristy part of Siem Reap, offers free dance performances on their second floor every night, so long as you order food or drink.  Bars are not usually my cup of tea, and I tend to avoid them, especially when traveling alone, but I made the exception in this case, and I am glad I did, as the performance was quite good, and we were able to meet the dancers afterwards.  In between numbers we were able to hear the dance music from the bar below, which made for an interesting contrast with the performance, but I embraced it as part of the experience.


I went to another performance later on at a restaurant near my hostel.  This time, the performers were children from a local NGO, Krousar Thmey/Nouvelle Famille, which seeks to provide education opportunities for children with hearing and seeing impairments, as well as low-income children from surrounding villages.  The performance began with shadow puppetry, which was very similar to the wayang I am more familiar with in Indonesia[1].  The children were incredibly talented, and the people running the show even let us take a peek at the behind-the-scenes.  The shadow puppetry was followed by several dance numbers, which were especially amazing to see as one of the dance troops was made up of children who were all deaf or hearing impaired, which meant they followed the signing of one of their teachers in order to keep time.  It was truly a privilege to see such talent.


The performance with Krousar Thmey was made even better by happening to meet an English Teaching Assistant (ETA) alumni from my first cohort that day.  She was also traveling in Southeast Asia, and my last day in Siem Reap happened to be her first day.  It was absolutely wonderful to catch up with her, reminisce about our time as ETAs together, and share this new experience in Cambodia.

I spent many of my evenings wandering the streets and markets of Siem Reap, admiring the handicrafts and, of course, eating the delicious food.  Because I loved all of the food that I tried so much, I also took a cooking course at Le Tigre de Papier, during which I learning how to make Cambodian-style fired spring rolls and Cambodian curry.  I can’t wait to see if I can replicate the recipes at home with my family.

I truly am glad that I took a little more time in Siem Reap, to explore all the city had to offer.  In truth, I probably could have spent more time there.  But eventually it was time to board a bus back to Thailand, and I had to bid farewell and give a heartfelt aw kohn (thank you) to Siem Reap and Cambodia.

[1] It was actually fascinating to me just how similar the traditional performing arts in Cambodia were to those in Indonesia: not only was there shadow puppetry, but the dances were also very similar in form and costume.  This probably shouldn’t be so surprising, as both countries are part of the Southeast Asia Region, which has a long, shared history.  The Srivijaya Kingdom, for example, covered much of Java and Sumatra, as well as parts of what is now Thailand, and also extended its influence over parts of modern Laos and Cambodia (if what I have read it correct).  That Indonesia was once a majority Hindu and Buddhist land, and much of mainland Southeast Asia remains so, is also most likely a reason why these cultures are similar.

Exploring Ankor

I have wanted to see the temples of Ankor for a long time.  Magazine articles celebrating the sheer volume of temples in the complex and the smallest of details in individual temples captured my imagination, and I hoped that someday I might be able to witness their magic in person.  If you had told my younger self that I would be merely twenty-five when I would have the opportunity to do so, I wouldn’t have believed you, but as the fates would have it, I was blessed to be able to travel for two weeks in Thailand and Cambodia after my most recent grant in Indonesia, and my sole stop in Cambodia was Siem Reap, with the intention of finally seeing the temples and other structures of Ankor up close and personal.

My exploration of the temples actually began the days before I visited the complex, when I went to the Ankor Museum in Siem Reap.  I opted for the audio tour, and spent hours exploring the artifacts in the museum and listening to details of Ankor’s history.  The audio tour also drew my attention to details in the artifacts: markings that meant the statue had once been adorned with jewelry, and subtle differences in the forms of certain carvings that might give some idea as to when exactly the carving was made.  Armed with this information, I felt much more prepared to take in the wonders of Ankor.

So I bought a three-day pass[1], and began my journey.

Day One

My first day was my quietest day at the temple.  I rented a bike from my hostel, and headed around the edge of the main complex (a route known as the grand tour) to see some of the smaller temples.  I ended up biking almost thirty miles that day, so I must say that biking around this portion of Ankor is not for the faint of heart.  But though I definitely needed to stretch my muscles the next day, I wouldn’t have chosen another mode of transportation for this part of the trip.  Taking the bike slowed me down, and I was able to appreciate not only the temples, but also the long stretches of jungle, with monkeys resting on the side of the road and birdsong echoing through the trees.   On a remorque (the Cambodian word for tuk-tuk), much of this is missed.  And while by midday it was quite hot, in the early morning the air is cool and fresh, and after living in the polluted city of Jakarta for a year, I so appreciated this immensely.

I was able to visit four temples on my first day.  The first was Pre Rup, which was completely deserted when I arrived (most tourists start at the larger temples and only reach the smaller temples by midday).  Climbing up a temple in the early morning, with not another soul in sight, is truly a magical experience.  I also visited Neak Pean, a tiny temple floating in the middle of four pools, and Ta Som, a small temple tucked into the jungle, its entrance so easy to miss if you are not moving slowly.


Pre Rup, Neak Pean, and Ta Som.  

My favorite temple on my first day, and possible my favorite temple overall (it is so hard to choose), was Preah Khan.  The temple has seemingly endless corridors, parts of which are in excellent condition due to reconstruction, and parts of which are crumbling and slowly being reclaimed by the jungle.  I spent hours wandering around the ruins, trying to take it all in, finding surprises around every corner.


Preah Khan. 

Day Two

I decided to hire a remorque (or more specifically, a moto-remorque) for my second day at the temples, because I wanted to visit one of the temples that was farther out, and I knew I wouldn’t quite have the energy to go by bike.  This was my first remorque ride since coming to Cambodia, which was exciting, but what really made the ride special was the driver, who spoke English well enough that we were able to strike up a conversation about the changes Ankor had undergone since tourism started taking off, the recent elections around Cambodia, and the art of growing up on farms on opposite sides of the world.

I started by day at Banteay Srei, a smaller monastery farther out from the main complex.  The temple itself is unassuming, but Banteay Srei is famous for its extraordinarily detailed carvings, which truly are a sight to see.


Banteay Srei.

My driver next took me to Ta Phrom, one of the more famous temples of Ankor, for the way the jungle is slowly overtaking the structure.  It truly was a beautiful place, and a reminder that nature does not care for even the most impressive of mankind’s creations, and will always take back what it hers.  It was also the busiest temple I visited that day, because it is one of the more popular sites to visit.  The contrast was palatable between Ta Phrom, covered in tourists, and the other smaller, quieter temples I had seen.  But it was still wonderful to visit.


Ta Phrom.

Next we stopped at a few other smaller temples.  Thommanom and Chau Say Thevoda sit right across from one another, and are surprisingly still relatively intact.  Ta Keo towers towards the sky in a pyramid-like shape, but its walls are surprisingly bare.  According to my driver, its carvings were apparently taken by various countries to be placed in museums: because it is a smaller temple, it was not seen as being as important to preserve as some of the larger temples in the complex.  Ta Keo is what is left over after displays of beautiful carvings are put together at museums.


Ta Keo, Thommanom, and Chau Say Thevoda.  

I ended my second day at Ankor Wat, probably the main attraction at the Ankor complex.  Ankor Wat is incredible, and has everything someone interested in ancient temples could dream of: the temple itself is massive, and almost completely restored to its former glory through reconstruction.  The carvings within the temple are beautifully detailed: the Churning of the Sea of Milk is simply amazing, and I spent quite a bit of time walking up and down its lengths.  I went during midday, which meant the site was relatively quiet, as most tourists were eating lunch, and I was thankful to feel as though I could explore this temple at the pace I chose, rather than being pushed forward by large tours.  Because the temple was relatively deserted, my quiet footsteps echoed down the corridors of the temple, and it was easy to feel as though I had been transported back in time, and that I might meet King Suryavarman II and his train around any corner.  A storm approached as I was ending my visit to Ankor Wat, which only made the temple all the more majestic.


Ankor Wat.

Day Three

My final day at Ankor began with sunrise at Ankor Wat.  The temple was packed with other tourists, but that didn’t stop the sunrise from being absolutely incredible.


Ankor Wat at sunrise.  

I then spent the better part of the morning exploring the Ankor Thom complex, including the famous Bayon, with its many smiling enigmatic faces, Baphuon, Phimeankas, Terrace of the Leper Kings, Terrace of the Elephants, and Prasats Suor Prat, which most tourists just passed on by, but which were actually quite lovely to walk among.  Even hundreds of years after it’s fall, Ankor Thom remains an impressive city, and I cannot imagine what it would have been like in its prime.


A few of the sites within Ankor Thom: Bayon, Baphuon, Phimeankas, and the Terrace of the Elephants.

I ended my time at Ankor with a brief visit to Banteay Kdei, another monastery, and with a refreshing coconut by Sras Srang, an incredible reflecting pool.


Two views of Banteay Kdei (left and right) and Sras Srang (center).

The sky was blue and the clouds a perfect work of art (the weather had been blessedly clear during my visit to Ankor), and I enjoyed just sitting by the water, reflecting on all I had seen during my three days at Ankor.  It’s still a little unbelievable that I had the privilege to see such a place, and I am incredibly thankful that I could do so.


[1] A lot of people planning to visit the region have asked me which ticket they should get, and while everyone has different goals for their travel, I can say that I was really happy with my choice.  I would spend my mornings at the temples, returning to Siem Reap around one or two o’clock, and then exploring the city.  This allowed me to more fully take in the sites, and not feel overwhelmed by temples.  And throughout the three days I explore Ankor, I was able to visit seventeen separate sites (if you count the structures within Ankor Thom separately), which, for the price of 62 U.S. dollars, seems to be a fair deal to me.