Category Archives: Travel

Location Review – Cambodia

I’ve spent two weeks in Cambodia, so some quick thoughts with the context that I  definitely haven’t seen everything.

Cambodia is a striking country, perhaps best known for the stunning temples around Angkor Wat. Indeed, Angkor Wat is just one of over 100 temples in the area, ruins easily among the world’s best, along with places like Machu Picchu and Petra. Its food is excellent (though interestingly – and to my mind disappointingly – not spicy: it predates the arrival of the chilli with the Portuguese), its people are friendly, and its beaches and countryside are beautiful. It’s also inexpensive! I’ve been paying around 5 dollars a night for accommodation.

Equally interesting, if more morbid, is its recent dark history. Forty years ago, a quarter of the Cambodian population – 2 out of 8 million – died under the Khmer Rouge. Anyone with an education, anyone who could speak a foreign language, even anyone who wore glasses was executed, as they pursued their quest to empty the cities and form a completely agrarian society.

That history provides an interesting (also horrible and depressing) contrast to its neighbours. Singapore has dedicated itself to the formation of human capital and the development of their population; for a time, Cambodia did the opposite. The effects of such a colossal loss in human potential are catastrophic. Today, Cambodia feels far poorer than its neighbours, and i suspect its loss of human capital in that generation and the difficulty in training the next play an important role in that.

Jared Diamond has advanced the point that studying early cultures allows us to consider other ways of organizing our society. In a different way, so does travel. Our home countries have adopted one set of laws, norms, and values, and travel can give us insight into alternatives, though globalization sometimes limits the diversity. To that end, Cambodia provides an interesting case study.

I’m not sure I’d live here: the total disregard for traffic lights and laws by individual drivers trying to speed up their trip ensures that everyone is inconvenienced and worse off, and in some ways that is emblematic of a larger failure to collaborate over public goods that is a bit frustrating. Definitely worth a trip, though!

Location review – Myanmar

By special request, I’m going to try something a little different, and review not a book, but a trip: Myanmar! Summary: post-apocalyptic capital, amazing temples, phenomenal people, all changing at breakneck speed.

I’ve been backpacking for two weeks in Myanmar, and it’s been great. By far the best thing is the tremendous kindness of the locals; tourist infrastructure is a bit thin on the ground, but its more than made up for by the willingness of people to help.

It’s also a fascinating time to visit. Seven years ago, a sim card cost upwards of 5000 dollars. As little as two years ago, they cost $175, well out of the reach of most citizens. Today, they cost $1.50. In the last two years, internet access has gone from almost nonexistent to universal: every single person has a smartphone and uses 3G. It’s an enormous, almost unprecedented, leap, and is fuelling a dramatic country-wide evolution.

And it may change more. In November elections are due, with the results unknown. Regardless, people seem eager to talk about politics, a very positive change.

I can highly recommend Bagan, in particular. A plain littered with 2000 temples, the view at sunrise and sunset is utterly phenomenal. Yangon is quiet for a se Asian city, but rich with history and interesting. Lake Inle, a tourist hotspot, is well-beloved, but for me it was simply a nice lake, similar to ones elsewhere, and not unique to Myanmar like Bagan.

My highlight was the capital of Naypyidaw. Almost no tourists go, so transport is a little tricky, but it is unique. It was built ten years ago, in secret, and civil servants were given two months to pack up and move after the announcement. Apartment buildings are colour coded based on which employees should live there-green for the ministry of agriculture, for example. Though the official count is one million, many still commute, and so wide, ten lane streets are utterly empty of traffic. It feels post-apocalyptic, complete with forests still growing between various ministries.

I recommend it highly, and now is a good time to go. By the time you blink, it will be totally different again.