A Trip to the Mall: the museums of DC

The bus to Washington, DC probably wasn’t that long (I’ve definitely had worse experiences with buses), but considering the way I was feeling after the previous evening it felt like the journey was never going to end. Getting out of New York City alone took us almost an hour, due to the sudden torrential downpour that had created havoc in the traffic and sent most of Manhattan into gridlock. What was generally a four hour bus ride would end up taking almost six hours, not including our rest stop at the border between Pennsylvania and Delaware. I got off the bus and wandered around the small shopping centre that was there, partly because my hungover self was craving a chocolate chip muffin, but mostly just to be able to add another state to the list that I had technically visited.

There's probably more of Delaware to see, but we were only passing through.

“Hello, I’m in Delaware.”

After that it was back on the bus to plough through the dreary weather for another several hours before finally making it to Union Station in Washington, DC, where I would be meeting my Couchsurfing host for the next few days. His name was also Robert, and he was a server at one of the restaurants inside the station. I had messaged ahead to let him know how late my bus was running, but it turned out that he had been caught up at work anyway, and he didn’t end up finishing until shortly after I arrived in DC, so I guess the delay worked out for the best in the end – though not for my fragile condition. When he finally finished and we’d met and done our introductions, Robert led me towards the underground metro system that would take us back to his apartment across town. The DC metro has a tap-on/tap-off system which requires you to purchase a plastic card to top up with money. There was no paper ticket alternative for short term visitors, and the system had no way to return the card after your stay, like you can with the Oyster Cards in London. But the card itself was only $2, so at worst it was still a cheap souvenir.

Robert lived in Northwest Washington which was, with the exception of the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, a mostly residential area. He explained a little bit about the layout of the city and where all the major attractions and fun things to do were, but when we got home that evening I was completely exhausted from the painful experience of travelling with a hangover. Robert’s apartment was beautifully decorated but also quite small – the Murphy bed that folded up into the wall during the day meant that the living room was also the bedroom – and I lasted as long as I could before eventually passing out on the couch, planning to properly starting my DC visit the following day.

***

 I’d arrived on a Thursday evening, and Robert had to work on Friday. He’d offered to take me on a tour of the famous monuments in the city when he had time on Saturday, but today I would have to entertain myself. Luckily for me, there were plenty of things to see and do in Washington DC, and even better is that a vast majority of them are free. Firstly, I went with Robert on the metro towards Union Square where his work was, then bid him farewell for the day and made my way over to Capitol Hill. It was a gloomy morning, but I still stopped to take a couple of photos and a cheeky selfie with the Capitol building.

Approaching the Capitol building.

Approaching the United States Capitol building.

Capitol selfie.

Capitol selfie.

The US Flag atop the Library of Congress.

The US Flag atop the Library of Congress.

After that I made my way around the building and down to the National Mall, a promenade situated to the east of Capitol Hill and flanked by a handful of different museums that are all run by the Smithsonian Institution, a government ministered body that organises a range of museums, research centres, and even the zoo here in DC, as well as having affiliates in a number of other states. Because all the museums in the city are essentially provided by the government, they are all completely free to enter. During my time in Europe I had begun to suffer from a term I coined ‘museum fatigue’, but the last museum I had visited had been in London and I decided that perhaps it was time to put on the tourist cap for a little while, visit some free museums and soak up some of the knowledge. First stop was the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, which was known to have some impressive exhibits. It was the main rooms that held all the visually impressive displays of early aircrafts, more modern jets and planes, satellites, rockets and a host of other spacecraft, while the rest of the museum had more details about the science and history of aviation and space travel. The museum is also home to a huge IMAX theatre, and I bought a ticket to watch a short documentary called Hubble 3D, in which I learnt a great deal about America’s history of space exploration while being soothed by the sweet voice of the narration provided by Leonardo DiCaprio.

The Capitol building as seen from the side the National Mall.

The Capitol building as seen from the side the National Mall.

Space shuttle in the Air and Space Museum.

Space shuttle in the Air and Space Museum.

Satellite.

Satellite.

The halls of the museum were full of air and spacecraft dangling from the ceiling.

The halls of the museum were full of air and spacecraft dangling from the ceiling.

After the Air and Space Museum, I headed over to the other major museum that lines the National Mall: The National Smithsonian Natural History Museum. Some of my biggest passions or interests as a kid were dinosaurs and animals, especially marine animals and sea life, so natural history museums are always a bit of fun for me. There were multiple levels with halls full of animal displays, as well as some interactive exhibits about evolution and the history of the human race. And of course, there were the dinosaur displays, and I tested my own remaining knowledge from the countless hours I spent learning about dinosaurs as a child. There was even a section in the dinosaur wing with researchers and scientists working on uncovering and treating fossils. The walls were made of glass so you could see them in action, and television screens showed the samples they were working on under their powerful electron microscopes. In the insect wing, I also arrived in time for a demonstration with a couple of spiders, including a tarantula. When they volunteer running the show asked I was afraid of them at all, I had to resist the urge to tell him that I’d eaten them for dinner in Cambodia.

Elephant in the main lobby of the Natural History Museum.

Elephant in the main lobby of the Natural History Museum.

Dinosaur fossils.

Dinosaur fossils.

One of the scientists working on uncovering a fossil.

One of the scientists working on uncovering a fossil.

Tarantulas in the show among the spider exhibits.

Tarantulas in the show among the spider exhibits.

I spent several hours at the Natural History Museum, until my feet and back began to ache from all the walking around. I left the National Mall after that, and wandered around central DC for a little while, just exploring some of the streets and getting a feel for the city. It had a very American vibe, but it was still nothing like New York – the streets were exceptionally clean, and it reminded me of Canberra, my own country’s capital city, although DC seemed to have a little bit more excitement going on than Canberra did – which, let’s face it, isn’t too difficult to do.

***

I made a few other visits to the National Mall during my time in DC. On one afternoon I visited the National Museum of the American Indian with Robert, mainly because he’d recommended the restaurant there. It was a cafeteria style eatery that served different kinds of traditional foods from all over the Americas: North, Central and South. However, that day there were also some events on to celebrate the beginning of a Latin American awareness festival, or at least a culturally educational event of some description. Whatever it was, it became dinner and a show.

Show and dance featuring featuring some traditional native North American culture.

Show and dance featuring featuring some traditional Latin American culture.

The main Smithsonian Institution building on the National Mall.

The main Smithsonian Institution building on the National Mall.

The other place that I almost visited was the National Gallery of Art, but I was there on a day when the weather was warming up, so instead of going inside I wandered around the grounds of the gallery, which was displaying a range of contemporary sculptures and artworks.

Sculptures outside the National Gallery of Art. This one is a 3D optical illusion brought to life

Sculptures outside the National Gallery of Art. This one is a 3D optical illusion brought to life

Metal Tree.

Metal Tree.

Pyramid sculpture.

Pyramid sculpture.

This one was my favourite. The rabbit gave off a very 'Alice in Wonderland' vibe for me, but his pose almost seems to be mimicking that of 'The Thinker'. A curious work of art.

This one was my favourite. The rabbit gave off a very ‘Alice in Wonderland’ vibe for me, but his pose almost seems to be mimicking that of ‘The Thinker’. A curious work of art.

There are a large number of other museums around DC, but unfortunately I only visited the main ones located around the National Mall. Some of the other ones are less famous and not as well advertised, but I have to admit that while I do find them interesting and love to take a break from the relaxing kind of holiday to actually learn something, there’s still a limit to the amount of museums I can take. So after a full day of touring the museums on Friday, a headed back to Robert’s in the afternoon for a nap to rejuvenate myself for the night out we had planned.

First Impressions: Phnom Penh

I was a little nervous as I climbed off the boat and onto the dock at Phnom Penh. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Cambodia. I was under the impression that it was a relatively poor country, but so far on my tour through South East Asian countries I’d been surprised by the diversity of living conditions and levels of development within single cities, let alone entire nations. Phnom Penh is the capital city of Cambodia, but in the back of my mind I was quite certain it wasn’t going to be anything like Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City, and most definitely not like Singapore. And I wasn’t wrong.

It’s hard to describe. It wasn’t a city in the way that Bangkok was a city, it with networks of public transport and numerous towering skyscrapers.There was certainly some parts of the city that were more built up and developed, with busy roads and crazy traffic, but there were also smaller streets with a slightly suburban feeling, though not without busy roads and crazy traffic. As I would later learn during my stay in Phnom Penn, while most of the time the locals make it seem like a fine tuned art from, driving in pretty much any major South East Asian city is a perilous affair.

View of the street from my tuk tuk to the hostel.

View of the street from my tuk tuk to the hostel.

Ultimately, what made Phnom Penh different was the not-so-seamless integration of tourist attractions, middle class living, and extreme street poverty. In Bangkok, the city is almost separated into layers like a rainforest, with the wealth in the canopy descending down to the poverty on the forest floor, and Saigon has a tourist-focused centre which sprawls outward to the more authentic and local experience. From what I could gather, there was no method to the madness with was the design of Phnom Penh. The official currency is the Khmer riel, although US dollars are so widely accepted that menus and price lists of everything are shown in dollars, and even the ATM machines dispense dollars rather than riel. The use of the dollar, however, meant that I found Cambodia a little more expensive than Vietnam. I’m no economist so I can’t even try to explain the way it works, but that’s just a little something that did surprise me.

***

I decided to spend my first day in Phnom Penh seeing all the major tourist attractions, so I enlisted the help of a tuk tuk driver who would take me from place to place and wait for me while I visited each destination. We came to an agreement, though only after several minutes of myself insisting that I did not want to visit the shooting range and fire a bazooka. The driver seemed disappointed, but nevertheless took me around for my day tour of the city. The first stop was the Grand Palace, the home of the current king of Cambodia which doubles as a beautiful tourist attraction. As I wandered through the various temples and buildings that the public was allowed to visit, I noticed that a lot of the architecture was similar to the Grand Palace in Bangkok. They even had murals on the inner surface of the walls that surrounded the silver pagoda – named for its floors of solid silver – which depicted the same epic poem from Hindu religion. However, unlike the murals in Bangkok, these ones were not so maintained, and there was fadedpaints and cracks in the walls, and the whole thing had more of an ancient wonder appeal to it, rather than the glittering magnificence of the palace in Bangkok. There was also an Emerald Buddha in the silver pagoda, and like the one in Bangkok, it was actually made of jade, and I wondered how many more trends there could have been between two such temples in completely different countries.

The silver pagoda.

The silver pagoda.

Elephant statue near the old elephant stables.

Elephant statue near the old elephant stables.

Nagas are mythical serpents that frequently appear in this holy South East Asian architecture.

Nagas are mythical serpents that frequently appear in this holy South East Asian architecture.

In front of the main temple.

In front of the main temple.

After the palace was the Killing Fields, which was about a half an hour drive out of town. The trip there was an experience in itself, as it had rained heavily the night before, and some of the dirt roads had turned to mud and were littered with puddles and pot holes. We had definitely reached the outer limits of the city, and there were no pubs, hostels our other tourist attractions. “Definitely not in Kansas anymore”, I muttered to myself, watching the mud fly and cursing myself for not wearing ruby slippers – or at least more appropriate footwear.

The muddy trek out to the Killing Fields.

The muddy trek out to the Killing Fields.

The fields themselves weren’t so muddy though, so my canvas slip-ons would live to see another day. The 3 million Cambodians who were brought here by the Khmer Rouge during the rise of Communism, however, did not. As I entered the complex and purchased my ticket, I found myself surrounded by the group of Americans who I had met the day before on the boat from Chau Doc to Phnom Penh. I had a quick chat with Mike, one of the guys I’d spoken to at length during the boat ride, discussing how our first nights in the city had gone down. They were just on their way out as I was arriving, so when it came time for us to part ways again, Mike looked around gloomily and said, “Well, I’d tell you to enjoy… but that’s not really the right word for this place. But go and soak it in, it’s pretty intense.” He bid me farewell, along with the rest of the group, and I set off to see the fields.

Mike has been spot on when he had described the place as intense. It was such a harrowing experience, to walk through the site and learn of the atrocious acts of genocide that occurred here, all because the victims didn’t want to subscribe to the Khmer Rouge Communist regime. It’s a little frightening to realise how unknown these tragic events are on an international level, with I myself only truly learning about the history of this genocide for the first time. Even worse is that it happened just over 30 years ago – worse that we still don’t know more about it, and even worse that these kind of things were still happening in such recent history. There is a real emphasis in this place on remembering the tragedies and the stories, so that future generations will learn, and not make the same mistakes of the past.

Depressions in the earth that used to be mass graves for the genocide victims.

Depressions in the earth that used to be mass graves for the genocide victims.

Broken and shattered skulls of victims, now housed in a memorial shrine.

Broken and shattered skulls of victims, now housed in a memorial shrine.

The monument that holds layer upon layer of the skulls and bones of the genocide victims.

The monument that holds layer upon layer of the skulls and bones of the genocide victims.

There is also a torture museum back in the city of Phnom Penh, but after spending so long at the Killing Fields I was feeling quite exhausted, both emotionally and physically, so I spent a short while looking around the school-turned-prison and house of torture. It was the place where many people were tortured, interrogated, and made to sign false confessions before being sent to the Killing Fields to be thrown into a mass grave. In the end it was too much for me, and I ended up heading back to the hostel to debrief myself.

***

My time in Phnom Penh provided me with a handful of peculiar tales that deserve posts of their own, but one thing that defined my time in the city in general was the acquisition of a new friend, Laura. On my second night in the Phnom Penh hostel, I stumbled into the dorm after a few beers – in order to change my outfit before going out again – to discover that someone new had checked into the hostel. She was sitting down on the bunk next to mine, unpacking her things, so I said hello and gave her a smile as I rummaged through my bag. Rather than the passing “Hey” mumbled under herbreath before returning to what she was doing, something not uncommon in these situations, this woman was very receptive to my greeting. We briefly introduced ourselves and had a quick chat before I had to head out again. It was nice to have met and got along with someone so quickly and so easily, though the fact that I had been drunk, and thus prone to random babbling at strangers, wasn’t lost on me.

I saw Laura again the next day, and we properly introduced ourselves and had a bit of a chat. She was a backpacker from Newcastle in England, and had been travelling around South East Asia for a few months now, in the similar unplanned method that I had been employing. She was also travelling alone, and so while we spent our days separately, doing our own sight seeing at our own paces, each night we would catch up for a few drinks, sharing our stories and experiences of both Cambodia and the greater region of South East Asia, and one night we even hit up the night club across the road from the hostel, which had been surprisingly busy for a Wednesday night.

Laura and I sharing a drink.

Laura and I sharing a drink.

On my last night in Phnom Penh, we had gone to a nearby restaurant that was run by disadvantaged youth and street children who were receiving training in hospitality, and was also known for serving some interesting foods that were considered Cambodian specialities. I have to admit, I was a little nervous at first, but I found the crispy fried tarantulas to be delicious! The legs were my favourite bit, tasting like crispy fries with chicken salt. The thorax was also nice and crunchy, but the abdomen was a little chewy for my liking, though still tasted fine.

Fried tarantulas are actually quite tasty!

Fried tarantulas are actually quite tasty!

***

Further into my travels through Cambodia, I met people who had not spent any time in Phnom Penh. After a girl had insisted that she couldn’t visit the Killing Fields because she knew she could not handle it emotionally, I had to agree with her assertion that she hasn’t missed much by simply passing through. Yet I feel as though I definitely grew as a person during my time in Phnom Penh. I was faced with quite a few challenges that I doubt I would have come across many other places in the world (which will appear in forthcoming blogs). So in the end I’m glad I made it a destination on my travels – it definitely ranks up high with the rest of my memorable cities.