Friday, April 17, 2009

one night in bangkok (parental guidance suggested) [this is like ira glass saying it on this american life. it's not that dirty, but be warned.]

and the world's your oyster. Indeed, this may be true. After killing myself in Siem Reap with a bicycle and the most famous temples in the world, I was looking forward to some relaxation and craziness. The craziness began straight at the Thai border, where I was picked up by a madman driving a minibus. Now bus drivers in Asia, if I were to generalize, are much more willing to take risks than their Western counterparts. I have grown accustomed to that fact, and it doesn't much bother me when a bus driver takes a blind corner at high speed while overtaking a car. This is because the bus drivers are involved in what they are doing and mindful of doing a good job. A good job here means not killing anyone.

This bus driver was different. At the beginning of the trip, he took interest in another passenger's hat, and for the rest of the journey, he was putting it on, taking it off, and playing with it as he drove. He also spent a good amount of time texting, much to the dismay of most of the passengers. He stopped about 8 times, often in quick succession. He would stop to buy himself a snack, and then ten minutes later, he'd stop so he could go to the bathroom. He didn't let anyone else out, mind you, he just went on his own. At one point, a German lady asked him to drive more carefully, at which point he started driving at about 60 kph, leaving us vulnerable to rear end collisions. Then the German woman said you don't have to drive slow, just more carefully, and he went back to the way he was driving before. At the end of the trip, he hit a curb, and that was it. I plan to complain, but I'm not sure who to complain to.

But we all arrived at Khao San Road with no bodily harm. Khao San Road is the haven of all backpackers in SE Asia. It was built up quite a bit. I expected craziness from all sides...which I got, just not the type of craziness I expected. We arrived at the tail end of Thai New Year or Songkran. This means a giant waterfight. People armed with water pistols (big ones, like super soakers) and waterbottles with holes in the top push through the streets spraying anyone that catches their eye. That means if you're soaked you've been attracting attention, which I think is cool. The other side of this is the flour. Vendors are set up along the street selling bowls and little hard pellets of flour. You take some ice water, which is set up in giant coolers periodically down the street, and mix it with the flour to make a paste, which you then smear on others. I took it as a blessing, but there were some tourists who didn't go with the flow, and ended up screaming as they were sprayed with water and plastered with flour. When in Thailand, do as the Thai.

Then we went to Gulliver's Travels, a bar, for a fellow traveler's birthday. Now, I'm a bit awkward around working girls. I will remind you of a quote from a woman I met at Eric Weisbrod's 21st birthday party: 'What do you think this is, a library?' If you don't understand the context of that quote, please email me, and I'd be happy to explain. So the bar, at it's peak, about 90% of the female population was probably not there for pleasure. They were there for business. Well maybe they were there for pleasure, but not theirs. Or maybe they depends on who you talk to.


We were having fun, dancing and drinking, and at this point of the night, most men in the bar are paired up with one of these women. Now this thought has crossed my mind before, but not often: I'm afraid I'm an uptight, northeastern prude. I mean, you can do what you want, and I will not judge you. But man, the thought of a barful of people watching me begin courting someone explicitly only after my money leaves me cold. I can't do it.

So after perusing the bar for a bit, I thought I had found three Thai girls who were not there for business. After dancing a good long time with the three of them, one of the girls asked if I worked at the bar. This was a strange question to ask, but I told her the truth. Then she told me that they all worked for the bar. I bolted.

Now upon reflection, I wonder if what they meant was they were servers, or barbacks, or bartenders on a night off. If that's the case, I regret leaving them high and dry. But as I like to say, and you know I say this all the time, 'Err on the side of caution.'

'One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble.'--now if you don't know this quote, get Chess, the original cast recording, and listen to Murray Head wail. He is a legend. Legend.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

cambodian smackdown

Phnom Penh is quite aggressive with its poverty, at least with the backpackers. Getting off the bus, I was given a choice between two places: the cheap and the not as cheap. I chose the cheap, and a tuktuk took me to a travelers ghetto on the side of the lake. Once you reach accomodation, the guest houses are very relaxing, many of them with wooden decks out over the lake. To get there however, you must travel through narrow streets with touts whispering about girls, marijuana, ecstasy, cocaine, heroine, and crystal meth. I am still shocked that enough foreigners decide to do crystal meth in Phnom Penh to make asking that question a feasible endeavor.

After checking in and relaxing by the lake until sunset, I decided to get further into the city. I walked down the back alley from my guest house and at about 15 feet from the alley's entrance a dark heavy bass beat begins to strike the brick walls. Echoing and reflecting down this tiny alley, it seems absurd I couldn't hear it from my room.

Turning the corner, I'm faced with a group of 12 young Cambodian males standing around, bashing their ear drums in. For good measure, there is a 8-year-old girl destroying her ear drums as she dances innocently to an ugly back beat. Past them tuktuk and moto drivers will take you anywhere you want to go...this phrase is more literal than it usually is.

To tell them you're walking is a crazy enough answer to avoid any further question, aside from drugs and prostitutes. Clearly, I have not cultivated my school boy innocence enough to avoid these queries.

The smart, blond-haired 10-year-old offers books for sale. Here is where I become torn. It is terrible that she is out at 9pm on a school night bartering and bantering with foreigners, but damn! she's selling books and speaking pretty good English, albeit a bit catchphrasey for my taste.

I just hope she sticks with her literary pursuits.

Monday, March 30, 2009

oh the malaysians

Instead of burning on the beach today, I decided to take a ride out the other side of town...maybe take some pictures of the landscape, get away from the tourists. I ride out, pedaling furiously, as I do, and I pass a guy who was dressed in the fashion of a Chinese tourist wearing a Beijing Olympics cap. I didn't yell at him, but I wanted to.

After spotting and stopping for a nice photo op, he passed me, and at that point I yelled at him, 'Are you Chinese?' in Mandarin. He answered no, but in Mandarin, which is better result than I might have expected. He told me he was off to see a pottery village, and invited me to join him.

A more invasive tourist than I am, he was a joy to travel with. Where I would never presume to take a picture, he would snap away, allowing me to grab a few quick, discreet shots while the locals were distracted. We watched the locals make handmade roof tiles--awesome process--and throw pots. Then I threw a pot. My high school art classes did not fare me well...although, they didn't really fare me well back then either.

Then we went to the wharf, where we watched fisherwomen boil herring? sardines? some small fish. For the measly cost of 1,000 dong, I had the pleasure of eating a whole fish, with my Malaysian cameraman snapping away. It was a great trip, but ended sadly. I stopped to snap a pic of some nice blooms I saw on the edge of the road, and by the time I was done, he had gone. Weird.

Still, all in all, best tourism day yet.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

vietnam list continued.

6. Coffee. Unlike the coffee in China which is either instant or exorbitantly priced, the coffee in Vietnam is everywhere and delicious. I spent a few rainy afternoons sitting in a cafe watching the motorcycles go by.

7. Water tabacco pipes that are actually used for tabacco. Who knew? Seems like a terrible idea, but pretty interesting to see a Vietnamese dude on the side of the street take a tabacky rip straight to his dome.

8. I walked around with a tag on a new pair of pants and no one noticed. Sure, you say, 'maybe they noticed and didn't tell you.' I'm an optimist. Leave me alone.

time flies when you are having fun...

So, I was planning on being a bit more proactive with the blogging, but it's been a bit hit or miss with the energy at the end of the day. Miss mostly. In Hoi an now, I've traveled through Ha Long Bay, Hue, and the DMZ.

Ha Long Bay was one big party. I should have seen it coming, and perhaps a part of me did. It was a lot of fun, but without the trekking I was hoping for. Met a good group of people that I've met up with along the journey throughout. Much like the karst of Guilin, Ha Long Bay's main feature is the limestone islands jutting out of the bay covered in green. Beautiful, if you can see it. Our first day, it was pea-soup, so we didn't. The kayaking was the highlight of my trip. Out in tandem kayaks, our group explored the karst overhangs and caves. At one point, we paddled through a cave to a pristine bay...the quietest place I've been to in ages.

The rest of it was swimming and drinking and having fun.

Hue was not a great spot for me. Near the DMZ, it has little historic value of its own, but for a citadel of the Ly Dynasty. The touts riding cyclos (a bike with a chair on the front) were quite persistent in trying to get you to do illegal things. I hate peer pressure. The best one is when they say, 'Hey, friend! What's your name? etc. etc. Hey, I give you a ride for free. We're friends, free ride!' I always made it clear I was happy to walk (which drew some curses, by itself) but I saw an unfortunate Frenchman dealing with the same tout, shouting, 'You said it was free!' Poor bastard.

The DMZ tour was interesting. It's always interesting to see things from the other side...the Viet Cong valiantly pressuring the Americans to leave. Very heavy, but I'm glad I saw it. Part of the tour included a cave system that the North Vietnamese used. It was only for air raids and attacks, but it seemed like a terrible way to live for even part of six years. It also made me realize I have to read more about the Vietnam war...I'm not sure if I understand it from my country's side.

The food in Hue was good, though. There was a very meaty pork soup that was delicious, albeit some unpleasant after effects, and a chicken embryo, which as very much like a baluut, although not as far along.

Now I am in Hoi An, taking it easy. The beaches are lovely, the vendors friendly, and it was a great place to spend Earth Hour. All the lights in the city were shut off, and all the Vietnamese and most of the tourists gathered around the river. Using paper boats, people put lit candles on the water, making such a beautiful spectacle. When the lights were turned off, a bonfire was set alight--which was a bit ironic to me: it's Earth Hour! Let's get those carbons up in the atmosphere. The people danced and sang, and we were luckily invited to join. After the dancing ended, a game of Simon Says began. Playing Simon Says with a good caller can be difficult, but I will argue playing it in Vietnamese is harder. Inevitably, the three foreigners in the group messed up (mostly due to not knowing what 'simon says' is in Vietnamese) and were hustled into the center of the group. We were then made to hop like bunnies around the fire in a chain with a few other unfortunate Vietnamese. Great fun was had by all.

Although Hue was a bit of a bummer, Vietnam is still my favorite Southeast Asian country I've visited.

Friday, March 20, 2009

vietnam: the happiest place on earth?

There are a few reasons I am proposing this:

1. The food here is ridiculous. I have been eating every three hours like clockwork, and I don't feel weighed down, like I would in China, or god forbid the US.

2. The vendors, while bugging me all the time to ride their motorcycles and buy their fruit, don't bother me too much. It's a fairly mellow type of hawking that suits my style. They look at me, smile, point to their motorcycle, pineapple, holographic decal, etc. I say no, they smile and ask again, I say no again, they might ask me again, I say no, they go away. If these events happened in China, I'd flip out. I don't know if it's the way they do it, or just that I'm Chinaed out, it doesn't bother me.

3. Hanoi has these great horns that instead of honking a straight, piercing note, modulate between two tones. This makes honking mellow, as well. Instead of turning around, staring the driver in the eyes, and walking slower across traffic, I turn around, smile and wave at the driver, and walk slower across traffic. It's great.

4. I had my three favorite Vietnamese dishes, pho, bun (rice vermicelli), and banh mi (a pate and pork sandwich on a bastarized baguette) for about 5 bucks. (author's note: while I am pretty sure I could have, I did not eat them all at once.)

5. Walking around the night market, I stopped to watch street food being made, as I am wont to do. A cute girl was getting a handful of what I will call mini banh mi, which are made with a small baguette about the size of a breadstick and filled with a tiny bit of pate and dried meat. It looked good. The girl then turned to me, and with pretty darn good English, asked me if I wanted to try one. This is the part that makes me love Vietnam. Before I could order it myself, she took one of hers, handed it to me, and walked off. I shouted thank you at her, but she didn't even turn around...random act of kindness. It was awesome.

Preliminary verdict: Vietnam is mellow, and so am I. Let's see how the next 68 days of my trip go.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

travel options

The basic hard sleeper trip is this—you get on the train, you make friends with your compartment-mates, you eat a meal, lights out at ten, you wake up, share breakfast, and if you’re lucky, you’ve arrived by eleven. 

The soft sleeper has none of that.  You get on the train, you get in your bed, you plug in your headphones, you watch tv, some dude turns out the lights.  If you’re lucky, you don’t wake up. 

On my way up to Harbin, on the hard sleeper, I had a great conversation with my bunkmates.  They told me what to see in the city, that Harbin girls were, “beau-ti-ful” (which was pretty self serving, as they were Harbin girls). I told them about the States, and they gave me the required compliment on my Chinese.  Just say nee how to anyone here, and they’ll compliment you on your Chinese…just as long as you aren’t of Chinese descent—god help you then—your Chinese better be good. 

My way back, I rushed on to the train just as it pulled out, out of breath.  My bunkmates (there are only 4 bunks in the soft, as opposed to six) were all sitting on their beds looking at the wall.  I threw down my bag used the restroom and returned.  It was then that I realized they were all watching television.  Man, I love that effing box. It always stimulates conversation so well.  So I jumped in my bunk, and no one said a word to me.  I opened my book, and tuned out. 

On a hard sleeper, I often don’t have a chance to open my book.  You start talking to one Chinese person, and then the rest of the people in the car come over to introduce yourself.  At the time, it can be a bit frustrating, but sitting in my 4 person cube of solitude, I missed it. 

One thing that is nice about a soft sleeper compartment is you have a door and control over your lights.  If you had for buddies going on a train trip, it would be a pretty sweet deal.  Otherwise, they just go out whenever the person sitting closest to the switch wants.  There is no communication, so no discussion.  I have my own reading light, so I don’t complain.

Let me explain why I was traveling soft sleeper.  1. It has been a life goal since I was 24 to travel all four classes on the Chinese trains.  Hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper, soft.  I have finally crossed that monumental goal of my list.  2. It was the only space left on the last train out of the city.  3. I am a sucker for Chinese television. 4. The beds in the soft sleeper are so much nicer.  5. The high class company.  6. The no-snore guarantee.  7. Stimulating conversation.  8. Control over my own lights. 9. A locking door.  10. Did I mention complimentary headphones?

As you may guess, the first 2 are the only reasons.  The last 8 are very sarcastic.   I missed the first train I had a ticket for because I misread the ticket.  Luckily, I ran into a scalper that had tickets for the last train, and since I was most likely going to be the only one buying, gave me a good deal.  Not bad for finishing a life goal.

By far the worst part about the soft sleeper was the snorer in the bunk below me.  It was incredible.  Huge racking snores, punctuated by fairly articulate sleep talking, broken up by stints of just not breathing.  I was supposedly on the most comfortable compartment offered by a Chinese train, and I slept for all of two hours.  I was super pissed. 

No one else seemed to be bothered.  I don't understand.  Maybe after another 3 years in China I could sleep through that too.