What's cheaper and more exciting than backpacking through Europe?
Backpacking through Southeast Asia!
On December 31st 2009, my family and I arrived at the Bangkok airport in Thailand. As we were picking up our bags at baggage claim, the clock struck 12 and we heard "Sa wa de be mai kop, Happy New Year."
After 30 plus hours of travel, it barely even registered to me that I was on the other side of the world, and that I had entered 2010 a full twelve hours ahead of my friends back in the states.
Southeast Asia is not only far away geographically, but culturally as well. I have never been somewhere so foreign to me in my whole life, and I loved every minute of it!
Our first day was a little rough because of jet lag, so we didn't do as much exploring as we would have liked.
We did however visit a temple called Wat (which means temple in Thai) Po. Wat Po is home to a giant reclining Buddha statue, possibly the largest in the world.
Despite my fatigue, I was fascinated by the scene around me. Most of the people at the temple were not western tourists, as I would have imagined, but rather Buddhist worshipers lighting incense and praying to the Buddha for New Years.
They were also performing other rituals that were more unusual; they covered mini models of the giant reclining Buddha statue with gold leaf, and dipped branches in water and splashed themselves with it.
Our next stop was Laos, a country I don't think I even knew existed before this trip. We stayed in the old French colonial city of Luang Prabang, which turned out to be one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen.
Imagine riding around on bikes, waving to saffron-colored robe-clad monks, picking up a baguette for lunch at the market and sipping tea overlooking the Mekong river surrounded by palm trees and farming monks.
Then take a boat over to the other side of the river and cautiously traverse a bridge made entirely of bamboo, and then climb up a mountain and into a cave filled with thousands of little Buddha statues, with child monks following all the while.
We traveled back to Thailand by boat, arriving in Chang Rai, where we took day trips to visit different villages, fed wild monkeys and rode elephants through the water.
The next stop was Siem Reap, Cambodia, whose tragic history I had only just learned about before the trip. My dad insisted that my sister and I watch the movie The Killing Fields, about the oppressive reign of the Khmer Rouge and the genocide that they perpetrated against their own people in the 1970s and 80s.
The remnants of this horrible period in Cambodian history are still very visible throughout the country, especially in the attitudes of the people.
While they are all very kind and welcoming, there is a permanent sense of bitterness for all they had to suffer through and all that was lost.
On a happier note though, Cambodia is home to some of the most beautiful ruins in the world: Angkor Wat, one of the largest religious buildings in the world.
Built in the 12th century, this temple complex also served as state capitol of the Khmer Empire (not to be confused with the Khmer Rouge).
The main temple was originally dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, but later became a Buddhist temple. You may recognize parts of the site from the movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.
While in Cambodia we also visited a floating village, where everyone lives in colorfully painted house boats and everything from gardens to schools to basketball courts are located on floating platforms.
So now that you've realized just how cool Southeast Asia is, you're probably wondering how do you get there?
For starters, it's important to note that January is the best time to be in South East Asia because it's warm but not too warm (it's also a lot cheaper to fly to Asia in January rather than December).
CIEE offers two programs in Khon Kaen Thailand with focuses on development and globalization, and community public health.
They also offer a summer program in Siem Reap Cambodia where students learn the history of the country from ancient times to present day as a foundation for the study of geopolitical issues.
Study abroad programs in Laos are much more difficult to come by, though they do exist. If it is something that you are interested in, ask someone in the study abroad office to help you find a legitimate program.
And to help pay, look into the Freeman Awards for Study in Asia and David L. Boren Scholarships. Bon Voyage!