Category Archives: Journal

[Final] Status Update: My S[e]oul Whispers of Reclaimed Heritage

PWALLE’s Final Resting Place: “Long Time, No See, Korea”
[thoughtfully peaceful, told by backpacker ready to root again..for now]

A deep breathe and a quick assessment of my surroundings. I am sitting cross-legged in a bright-colored ka koi, on a low mattress futon in a comfortably spartan dorm room. I am punching short bursts of keys on a road-weary netbook while sipping Chinese pu-erh, a bitter tea that drives away the morning fogginess and sharpens the slurried marinade of thoughts and emotions upstairs. Now and then, I stop to reflect—stir up the pot—and stretch away the soreness of yesterday’s rock climbing session. When I look up from Miranda I see a squeaky black chair and a wobbly Ikea desk covered in unfinished postcards, Korean language books, Won coins of varying denominations, and a half-gutted router (one of many ongoing projects). The two small windows of my dorm are open; they let in the warming morning air and the faint hum of city traffic punctuated by the staccato notes of songbirds. Outside is a maze of green foliage stemming from gnarled pine branches, which shelters the even rivulets of traditional roof tiles (기와 – giwa) of the neighboring building and frames glimpses of the high-rise cityscape beyond. My stomach gurgles, a reminder that moments are not infinite, and brings my attention back to the blinking cursor on the screen.

I am in Seoul. More than four months have passed since the beginning of my travels. I have raced, ambled, traipsed, and stumbled my way through sixteen cities in four countries: Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, and China. My trip has been exciting, thought-provoking, and harrowing at times. Now it has landed me in South Korea as a worn, sleep-deprived, and somewhat bewildered backpacker, stripped of the comforts and routines of home. And I feel that such trappings are wholly fitting for my arrival here, in the country of my birth.

Traditional roof tiles of Changgyeonggung Palace

Traditional roof tiles of Changgyeonggung Palace

South Korea is jarring. Some moments I feel like a perfect tourist, wandering through the elegant courtyards of Changgyeongung or strolling atop the cobbled Seoul fortress walls, gawking and snapping pictures on my smartphone camera. But when I ride the whirring metro trains or push about the delicate cuts of meat that lie simmering on a Korean BBQ grill, surrounded by black-haired, dark-eyed—often spectacled—slight figured Koreans whose gratuitous smiles and goofy laughs and wide-eyed facial expressions….[every time I try to write this paragraph, I end at a loss for words here. Maybe that is well enough, as what is left unsaid is often more telling than what is said, I suppose.]

At any rate, this country would be jarring to any foreigner. Seoul is a force—a sprinting, caffeine-fueled, future-minded (and perhaps future-blinded) metropolis whose life blood pulses along its streets and railways, and blitzes through meals and drinks in cafes, restaurants, and hofs with eyes glued to the chrome-encased screens held in their hands—the portals of streamed media and telecommunications packets packets packets that buzz within an ever-growing cloud of connectivity. It is a bipolar mesh of the old and the new: lightning fast WiFi serving up free content beneath ancient tile roofs, and proprietary formal manners and culture attired in tomorrow’s edgy fashion and style. [Ripped from journal] Seoul life is a sleepless race amidst towering clusters of gleaming skyscrapers nestled within the historic fortress walls, nestled in turn within the ancient mountain peaks—ancient encasing old encasing bleeding-edge new. [end note]

Does this look like a place where you could easily get free, lightning speed WiFi?

Does this look like a place where you could easily get blazing fast free WiFi?

I did not have to force a feeling of kinship to South Korea; the bonds emerged quickly and naturally. The public-facing lifestyle and mannerisms suit me, as well as the attention to detail, decor, and cleanliness—surprising, but refreshing. Even Seoul, the hectic epicenter of over 25 million people, isn’t too oppressive for this dirty son of the woodlands. Occasionally the crowded city life becomes too much for me, and I must flee to the refuge of quiet mountain paths where I can be [mostly] alone. When such an urge beckons, Seoul rewards me with a metro line that I can take practically to the first steps of trailhead—no small comfort.

I am not implying that I fit in here, or naturally belong here at all really. Far from it—at last I share the sentiments of countless 교포 (‘gyopo’ – Korean foreigner) testimonials regarding expat life in Korea. The feeling of in-betweenness…it is impossible to describe this sensitivity in any other way than an endless saga of stories that glance sideways at the truth like Zen parables. I will not engage in such fruitless laments, at least not right now. There is too much to do, and indeed much to be gained from embracing this fencepost status while it lasts—does it ever end, I wonder?

But I am happy here. Every minute I spend here strengthens a part of me that has been lying dormant, quietly sleeping, for 25 years. I can feel myself growing immensely [toss out for my fellow nerds: like a Level 25 Cyber Mech Swashbuckler who decides to dual class Zen Ninja Mage]. And with this new parallel growth, I am further grateful that my past has my back: my American upbringing and education, my outdoor-minded and travel-eager adventures, my host of rockstar friends and contacts back home, and most of all, my loving family. 살것갈다 indeed: it is damn good to be alive!

Ready to do a demo of 'Yum Bowls' .. Korean style.

Ready to do a demo of ‘Yum Bowls’ .. Korean style.

PWALLE’s Last Rambles: A Blitzed Account of My Korea Travels
[caffeinated recollection, told by the last breaths of a settled backpacker]

I hit the ground running in Seoul: romped around Jongno-Gu and Mapo-Gu, gorged on BBQ and Soju, sang myself hoarse in a 노래방 (‘noraebang’ – private karaoke room or literally, singing room), and sweated away a hangover in a 찜질방 (‘jjimjilbang’ – public sauna/spa or literally, heated bath room)—just like a good tourist ought. All the while I fired question after question at local contacts and watched the crowds ebb, flow, and conduct their daily lives with vigor, and smartphones in hand of course. It was during this first landing in Seoul that I discovered the mountain trails: scores of steep wooded walking trails in Bukhansan National Park and elsewhere that lead the bar-worn Seoulite straight from the streets up to scenic lookouts that would take your breathe away, if you had any left. Plunge back down the mountain, blast the dirt off your precious shoes at the complementary pressured air tanks, and head right back to the madness. Like Bangkok before, the city threatened to consume me so I fled south to the ‘quiet’ seaside city of Busan. As a couchsurfing guest, I further explored the lives and habits of young adult Koreans, all the while casually observing as, how to say, little pieces of myself emerged.

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As expected, I continued to travel impulsively. A chance couchsurfing invite brought me to Busan and there, random conversation led me onwards to Gyeongju. I was sitting outside at a beachside cafe, chasing away the AM fog with espresso, morning sunshine, and the crashing surf. A trio of Koreans came over and sat at a nearby table, and conversation sprung up. I was shocked and amused to hear that they had wandered over from the beach on the impression that I was a Korean movie star—apparently such sightings are not unheard of in Busan and truthfully their first impression was made from quite a distance, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t flattered. [Side note] I’m really growing fond of that burnt red smoking jacket. [end note] After a brief conversation I learned that their hometown, Gyeongju, was a historical must-see for any tourist, so I resolved to make it my next stop. On such whims I arrived in Gyeongju by bus a few days later.

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The chance encounter and recommendation did not disappoint. Gyeongju is a municipal museum, much like Ayutthaya in Thailand before. Once the capital of the Silla Dynasty, the city and surrounding area are spotted with tombs and shrines, and its rivers and mountains adorned with historic pagodas and temples. On Day One I made my way to the Namsan area, a vast system of mountain trails that take one back in time. Atop the first peak, which I headily sprinted up in jeans and a tshirt past bewildered Korean hikers sporting fashionable trekking packs and apparel, I perched atop a rocky outcropping and gazed over the rugged profiles of the surrounding landscape. [Heady scribble ripped from journal] I feel home. [end..I’ll spare you the accompanying drawing—nothing more than a crude sketch done by a novice artist who’s clearly high on endorphins and caffeine]

Eventually tearing my eyes from the view, I turned around and beheld..a young Korean woman, resting alone and reading a book. My my my, think I, have I just found a pretty girl who climbs mountains to read a book? What luck! I should say hi. But of course, I didn’t, for at that moment a gust of wind scattered all the loose pages of my journal across the mountaintop. After frantically gathering each page, I was dismayed to find that the attractive trekker had gone! I shrugged away the loss, and hustled down the mountain. But at the trailhead I received a second chance, catching sight of her heading to the bus stop. I played the tourist card and asked for directions, chatted a bit, and happily accepted her invitation to dinner back in Gyeongju. She and I explored a series of attractions—the tomb of General 김유신 (Kim Yushin), Yangdong traditional village, and the nearby coast—for the next couple days. We shared stories and laughs in halting English (often accompanied by illustrations), and I traded my backpacker’s sense of direction for her language proficiency in finding places and ordering meals—I’m truly grateful for the latter, since they [the meals] were delicious, novel, and entirely beyond my ability to order by myself. After three days we caught a bus back to Seoul, and I returned to the capital in high spirits.

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Two weeks had passed, and a desire to stay awhile in Korea had grown into a conviction (yeah yeah, there’s a pretty girl involved but let’s not forget the more personal reasons). With such enthusiasm, I lugged my backpack to Ilsan, a small ‘hamlet’ of about 1 million people just outside of Seoul (a metro line takes you right to Ilsan, and continues much farther beyond). Here I have spent the last two weeks as a volunteer guest of Holt Children’s Services, serving as an activity leader for the residents living onsite. My weekday 9-to-5: I push wheelchairs, organize sports activities, distribute coloring books and crayons, play comical guitar concerts, supervise snack time, and give tours for the frequent English-speaking visitors. It’s not as glamorous as jumping off seaside cliffs, maybe, but it’s meaningful to me. Holt’s residents are all disabled—some mentally, some physically, some both, and more than a few severe cases. It is both humbling and jolting; the work makes me aware and grateful of the joy of merely breathing, moving, talking, and thinking without encumbrance. More than that, the work connects me to my past. Holt is the same foundation that accepted me from my poor birth mother and adopted me away to my new life and family 25 years ago. It is part of the origin narrative that I am now building.

This is Han-U, one of the residents at Ilsan. He's learning the slide---quite a milestone, no doubt.

This is Han-U, one of the residents at Ilsan. He’s learning the slide—quite a milestone, no doubt. I can’t help watching him and imagining myself…eh, now’s not the time.

I pour this appreciation into spending my free time wisely: studying 한글 (the Korean language), learning Korean culture, hunting for a job, and hedging my bets by tutoring English—the gateway to TESL. I am back on a normal sleep schedule, and am booking my calendar weeks in advance—mostly with Skype calls with friends and relatives back home, but I welcome the signs of productivity at least. On the weekends I explore a new area of Seoul, go rock climbing, and spend time with the friends I’ve made thus far. Yes, I am pleased to find that this new beginning of sorts also functions as an excellent happy ending for my travel narrative—one book ends, another begins. If only my college essays had been this easy to write.

Traveling around Asia has been a unique and exhilerating adventure, full of excitement, challenge, and growth. But it is now time for me to enter a new phase of life: reconnect with my heritage. Much of my trip has been guided by chance and whim, but I feel that it has led me to Korea, inexorably and beautifully. PWALLE’s travels began as a freewriting exercise containing more raw energy than cogent direction, and through various twists and turns it has sketched itself into a work of art, full of human imperfections that I wouldn’t dare dispense. I am grateful to begin exploring Korea with the headiness of a four month adventure at my back. Here am I: poor and alone in a foreign country, with too few possessions to fill a dorm room, facing a host of new challenges and uncertainty..yet I am happy and confident. It is not unlike the exhilarating dream of being reborn, yet retaining all the wisdom and experience of one’s previous life; in fact, I contend that it may be the nearest neighbor to such a privilege, if we ignore the possibilities of devout spirituality.

Or drugs. Let’s not go there.

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PWALLE’s Ending Thoughts: “Next Time, Bring The Damn Travel Guitar”
[humble reflection, told by green backpacker who brought too many meds]

It is difficult to properly explain what indeed I’ve learned on this five month journey. For one it’s hard to imagine my state of knowledge prior to the bumps, bruises, surprises, and discoveries that brought me to what I know today. But indeed, I’ve learned a great deal so I will try to enumerate.

  • I’ve learned and spoken tidbits in six new foreign languages and tightened up my chopstick game. Further, I’ve learned that not all Asians even use chopsticks. Thais use a fork and spoon, for example, though they typically use the fork to prod food onto the spoon for consumption. I did not learn to stop stabbing food with my fork.
  • Further still, I’ve learned that language is a practical ability. Like playing a sport or performing an instrument, the ability to speak a foreign language ebbs and flows with practice and application. I was astounded to find that my Thai was quite foggy after only two weeks in Malaysia, yet it surfaced briefly again when I met some Thai backpackers in China. More interestingly, I’ve learned the concept of ‘international English,’ an omni-language that chucks the frilly words and adapts its form and grammar to the listener. I’m relieved to see my fluent American English revive itself when I meet Americans or work on my blog.
  • I’ve learned to ride a motorbike and I’ve learned that I thoroughly enjoy riding one. Further, I’ve learned that travel can quickly fill your motorbike resume; I’ve now ridden one everywhere from highways to rutted mountain trails to crowded city alleys.
  • Further still, I’ve learned that the motorbike (or the scooter) is the gateway to expat living and extended travel in developing countries, or at least here in SE and E Asia. The motorbike forces you into close proximity with local culture, and necessarily sharpens your sense of orientation. And, nothing beats the thrill of arriving at your destination on your own accord, without the hassle of overcharging taxis, hectic and confusing local buses, or the like. As an aside, though, this country boy has learned that metro trains are awesome.
  • I’ve learned that culture shock can be alleviated by just plain talking to people. The repeated episode that I starred in countless times went something like: (Me) “In America we do [x] because we believe in [z].” (Local) “In [foreign country] we do [y] because we believe in [z].” In other words, the values of those I encountered really weren’t terribly different, though their resultant behaviors and policies might be totally foreign. The differences come from a myriad of things—geography and climate, political development, rice in place of corn, etc. Are you keen on checking out Shanghai, but terrified of Chinese—how do y’all say it?—‘hive mind’ culture? Perhaps you could try to imagine your value systems shaping themselves amidst 1.3 billion citizens. It doesn’t make other cultures any less different, but it can smooth the edge of culture shock.
  • Further, I’ve learned that humor is your greatest weapon and balm during travel. Trains sometimes ‘not come’—there’s probably a great explanation, but the ticket teller’s English ability can only afford those two curt words. Or perhaps an elderly waitress may shunt your vegetarian order and give you pork spare ribs because “you look skinny.” Above all, cultures are different, and politeness rituals are part of culture! Just saying hi to a girl in a club who smiles at you could get you punched in the face by a meaty biker thug (especially if he mistakes you for a local). Just laugh it off. No amount of fuming and arguing is likely to resolve the situation favorably, and it definitely won’t make you any friends. I’m aware that there are dire exceptions to this rule, but for the majority of cases, humor reigns.
  • I’ve learned [the hard way] that losing your passport sucks..especially when coupled with losing your wallet. As a result, I’ve learned the heady experience of being a broke and unidentifiable alien in a foreign country. I do not wish to repeat the experience. Ever.
  • Lastly, I’ve learned that the travel bug is addicting and can strike you at any point in life. I’ve met countless backpackers who hammer out vacation sprees for one or two months or more, then huck it home (or Australia) to the grind so they can feverishly save money for the next trip. I’ve met seniors with walking canes sporting backpacks no smaller than mine and staying in no better quarters. But, all these people were incredibly happy, and so I’ve learned that life-long travel addiction can be very rewarding.

It would be grossly unrepresentative to call the above a complete list, but there’s too much to cover. Some last coverall statements: I’ve learned that every culture I encountered is lovely and intriguing, I’ve learned that there are beautiful places everywhere I’ve been, and I’ve learned that there is way more to see here (in SE and E Asia, and in the world at large really) than I can fit in my lifetime.

What will I do differently next time? Well, I normally don’t get much gratification out of hindsighted litanies but here’s some important points:

  • I will buy and bring my own camera. Using your smartphone camera—despite its 20 megapixel hella-zoom Photoshop trick features—becomes irritating. For one, if you’re using your phone for directions, music, and communication (whodathunk?), the battery will die quickly. Sure, buy an extra battery..then forget it at the guesthouse when you go on that epic trip with the sunset mountain view when, all of a sudden, an explosion of tropical birds emerges from the trees. Yeah. My strategy involved seeking travel companions who brought their own camera and enjoy taking pictures, which was ok, but sometimes said travelers are few and far between..or sometimes they don’t enjoy sharing pictures..or sometimes, their pictures just plain suck. Anyway, I’d buy and bring my own camera.
  • I will force myself to blog every day. In all, I’d say I gave this blog about 67% effort. As my first major solo backpacking trip, there were too many distractions and adventures for me to devote as much time as I’d have liked to writing. I wish I’d written more—the events that I actually blogged about sit much more clearly in my memory than those I didn’t. But, I kept a shorthand private journal besides so maybe those other events will make their way into stories someday.
  • I will never, Never, NEVER again leave my credit cards in my passport wallet. Losing one is bad. Losing both is utter chaos. Never again.
  • I will travel with close friend[s]. Traveling alone was wonderful. I made some incredible friends and met some bizarre people. I could plan my travel easily and whimsically. I could go where I wanted and do what I wanted, always. But, at least once, I will travel again with a close friend or friends. I met many pairs and groups on my travels, and while the tradeoffs are many, I saw enough positives in their journeys to justify giving it a try. Further, I discovered that you can always leave your friends, as many of my travel companions did.

Well..that about does it. PWALLE’s travels have officially ended..or have been put on temporary hiatus. I may post some thoughts and scribbles from time to time, but in large part I’m calling this a finished project. It’s been very fun, very rewarding, and very real, so thanks for following along. Until you hear from me again, keep smiling and dreaming.

~~~PWALLE

I don’t write about
everything I do-
but-
everything I write about
I’ve done

That's all, folks.

That’s all, folks.

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….Stays on Khao San Road (Bangkok Pt 1.2)

Calm Before the Storm: “Wander Awhile With Me, Said Wind”
[just recounting, told by an optimistic and much recovered backpacker]

January 17, 2014. I woke up like a child on holiday—a polite footfall outside my room brushes away my dreams. My eyes snap open like the shutter of a camera. Warm anticipation brews. I take a deep breath, quelling the surging feeling that I’ve already wasted time sleeping. It’s day two of many, I think to myself, no need to be frantic. Indeed, yesterday I’ve told many curious travelers that I hope to travel for about a year or “until the money runs out.” Plenty of time left. With that thought I begin what will become my Suk 11 morning routine: breath through light yoga, dress, deep breath, and walk downstairs.

In the main room, I’m greeted by a cast of morning characters that will soon become quite familiar—sleepy (or hung over) travelers on their various Cyberspace Age devices, and a greedy gang of bloodthirsty mosquitoes. I sustain several bites within minutes of sitting down at the communal WiFi table…which interestingly has a dead zone in exactly one human-sized corner of the bench seat that is inexplicably closer to the router. An irritated German business traveler confirmed this several times with executive zeal: “I sit here for nearly an hour yesterday, and I have all zees emails to write, and it no work and argh!” Pardon the digression: as a computers guy I remember these things, and the mosquitoes suck (pardon the pun) but whatever.

Breakfast is gloriously free..if you pay for the [possibly overpriced] room at Suk 11. One cup of coffee or tea, two slices of toast, and two pieces of fruit. The fruit is the winning showcase: a slice of refreshing watermelon and a wedge of pineapple that drips glucous, fresh and sweeter than your first kiss. It’s good to be in the tropics; the plentiful fruit carts around here tempt you with vibrant local treats. Some I can identify: pineapple, mango, papaya, star fruit, pomegranates, bananas, and–my favorite oddity–pitaya or “dragon-fruit”. Others remind me of action figures from the Pixar movie Monster’s Inc: mangosteen (มังคุค), rambutan (เงาะ), and durian (ทุเรียน) to name some (more here). Enough food porn, though.

SAMSUNG
Ok last bit: fruit carving is an art here—this Suk 11 employee states that “she no good, beginner” yet she makes watermelon flowers that look too beautiful to eat.

My Swedish friends from yesterday soon join me and ask if I’d like to explore with them, to which I gladly agree. They exemplify my (biased?) opinion of good backpacker friends: well-balanced, personality-wise; both friendly and thoughtful; and each will go separate ways eventually–David to Malaysia and onward for coastal adventures, Anton to the Himalayas for trekking and climbing. For me, I’m more keen on their genuine interest in avoiding touristy haunts, so I join them.

And indeed, we soon sample bits of everyday life in Bangkok. First is a crowded ride on the BTS skytrain, which is quite like any other modern public transit—same same but different, as they say, where different for me is the overwhelming numbers of Asians, the table turn of ethnic majority. Indeed, it’s a bit odd traveling with a couple of white Europeans as an Asian American. I feel as foreign as they do, surely, yet the locals will often address me in Thai as if I’m a Bangkok expat or a tour guide. I think I’ll hold off more thoughts on the subject of being an Asian American in Asia until I have a bit more experience and thoughts on the matter.

SAMSUNG
The view from NaNa BTS platform–Bangkok is a very green metropolis, flora-wise.

After a brief business stop in the Hua Lampong train station–really just a bare plaza filled with sitting, squatting, and lounging Thais and foreigners–we set off to find food. This lands us at a local restaurant a few blocks down the street. Here, another “not in Kansas anymore” moment. The restaurant is actually the garage of a townhouse (presumably the owner’s) filled with haphazardly colored plastic tables and seats reminiscent of Fisher Price toys. Out front, a simple food cart containing a display case for the vegetables and meat and a heated wok identifies the restaurant. Despite the restaurant’s modest appearance, the food is both delicious and cheap; we dine hungrily in the sweltering heat next to the owner and her employees, who are chattering about the televised news of the Bangkok riots blaring from an old TV.

SAMSUNG
The food here is amazing and cooked right in front of you. Also, this is not the restaurant we went to, fyi.

After lunch, we dive into a narrow and cluttered alley that brings us to a local neighborhood. We enter a courtyard between towering apartments, lit by a hazy afternoon sunshine that filters down through the maze of drying clothes strung between the verandas of the opposing apartments. Local Thais lounge under shaded verandas and eye us with harmless curiosity. It would seem that these locals don’t work in the tourism industry, or at least not directly; they seem pleased to “talk” with foreigners (“where you from?” “do you like Bangkok?”) and a little bemused. An older inhabitant makes a remark to his wife, and both chuckle. My hypothesized translation: “My goodness, those poor foreigners are lost.”

We decide to end our daytime quest and prepare for the backpacker party chaos that is the infamous Khao San Rd. But on our way back, we have one more adventure in store! The sky train empties us above Sukhumvit Road, which is a seething, shoulder to shoulder mass of protesting Thais. It’s part of the Bangkok protests! I almost laugh at the Western press’ over-exaggerated clucking about the risk for tourists. Largely, the “riot” here (and most places away from the government sectors) is very akin to an outdoor rally [1]. Roadblocks thwart traffic and stage—alternately hosting a Thai rock band and a megaphone’d speaker—sits prominently in the center of a major intersection. The crowd cheers and blows whistles, sings national anthems and songs in unison, and shouts responses to the speaker. Enterprising vendors line the streets, squatting on blankets next to their “Shutdown Bangkok, Restart Thailand” paraphernalia–armbands, headbands, t-shirts, whistles, and flags all themed with Thailand’s red white and blue stripes.

SAMSUNG
Bangkok protest @Sukhumvit. Better picture (at night) later.

Anton and David are content to watch momentarily and then return to the hostel for a siesta. I stay briefly to buy a t-shirt and mingle with the crowd, but not for long. I’m remarkably tired—jet lag aside, traveling lifestyle has a way of sapping your energy. It’s not just the excessive walking and moving; it’s the drain of contextual novelty, the mental calories that you end up burning because everything is different. [Nerdism] In truth, it starts from the fundamental monad of looking for traffic in the opposite direction before crossing the street and—moving up the chain of complexity—compounds demands on your body and mind [End nerd]. But it’s blissfully exhausting. Anywho I’m waxing..or waning (can never remember the distinction)..but definitely wabbering, so I’ll leave off. Up next is part one point three: the chaotic and hopelessly Western people safari of Khao San Road. Deep breathe.

Footnotes for the Curious Reader

[1] Indeed, there have been serious acts of violence and fatalities at the more aggressive riots (see here). My thoughts and condolences go out those injured or killed and their families and friends.


….Stays On Khao San Road (Bangkok Pt 1.3)

Feature Presentation: “….Stays on Khao San Road”
[wholly bemused, told by American college graduate who’s had his fair share of fun]

If you Google “Bangkok backpacking,” Khao San Road will likely be featured in all the top hits, from blog posts to hostel bookings to Wiki articles (assuming you don’t have wickedly draconian parental controls or something). In conversations about Bangkok with past and current travelers, I’ve heard the entire gambit from “avoid Khao San at all costs” to “you shouldn’t stay anywhere else.” The important commonality: everybody at least mentions it. Well, that’s enough hype for me to at least “check it out” for a night.

Anton, David, and I set off for Khao San around 9pm, armed with backpacks, cameras, and a token beer each. We hail a tuk tuk, haggle the driver down to half the offered price, and with a splutter of black smoke we’re off, weaving through the Friday night Bangkok traffic. Us three passengers converse idly to pass the time and dampen the high-speed exposure of tuk tuk driving [1]. Our driver–could swear his name was Kasem or something reminiscently Arabic–drives adeptly, though on a tuk tuk this feels a bit like riding in the trunk of a rickety go-cart driven by a caffeinated teenager. At one point we abruptly swerve to the left; a white BMW speeds past, its blacked out windows vibrating to Kanye West (or maybe it was Taylor Swift? I dunno *wink*). For a moment I have a flashback to driving on Chicago’s eight-lane freeways and I think, a tuk tuk driver could probably handle the infamous traffic of the Most American of American Cities.

A half hour or so later, we arrive on the scene of brightly colored lanterns, neon signs, blaring music, and a horde of foreign backpackers: we are here! We pay the driver and then shuffle our way down the infamous backpackers’ mecca. It’s a proper rager, and even though it’s Friday night I’m led to believe that Khao San storm rarely ebbs [2]. We gawk and stroll the length of the street, then settle in at an outdoor table at Gulliver’s Travelers to watch the carnival.

A brief description:

Five hundred meters (5-8 city blocks) of Thais and tourists of every nationality, drunk on the scene— alcohol or otherwise–and sporting everything from dreadlocks and Thai fisherman’s pants to dreadful sport coats and fish-themed ties. These fiesta fleas bump and burp and bustle through a road haphazardly decorated with steaming food carts; street stalls selling knockoffs and novelties; deceptive lady boys hawking strip clubs and sex shows; and cheeky boys selling flowers to swarthy women—a fierce freshening awaits those who meekly decline. Among the local hustlers, a few celebrities stand out: a wizened and grinning elderly Thai woman bearing a metal tray of skewered scorpions, black as death; another aged local veteran who makes an unreasonable chunk of cash by slingshotting a neon-flashing whirligig high into the sky; the “ping-pong show” hustlers, who advertise their venue with puckered lips and a wet “pop pop” that leaves just enough to the imagination; and the nitrous tank gang, who swiftly exchange wads of Baht for a head-wobbling balloon and a hearty snicker. After nearly drowning in the bacchanal fantasy on the street, the Khao San revelers gasp and stumble their way to the sanctuary of crowded bars that line the road. These raucous establishments spew a buzzing medley of drunk babble, hookah and cigarette smoke, and a bass-heavy mix of house and trance and club bangers, each seeming to compete with the rest for the unsung prize of “loudest mess of the night.”

Khao San Road, January 17, 2014.

[Recovery from poetic reverie] To be honest, the permanent parts of Khao San–the bars, clubs, and hustlers–aren’t so special. The place reminds me of Bangkok’s version of Las Vegas, much like Japan’s version of Disneyland. It’s seedy like a rotten raspberry: dirty, odorous, bad for your health, and sticks with you afterwards—though perhaps not in your teeth [3].

raspberry
Great meme huh? OK, so I didn’t take many pictures in BKK..my bad.

But, the one redeeming and perhaps entirely unique facet of Khao San is the overwhelming numbers of backpackers from around the world. I would swear that I saw a tourist from each one of the two hundred or so countries, but I fear that might the beer talking. True, I didn’t speak to many of them—to those I did, I don’t recall saying much of substance—but the people-watching was superb that night. Looking back now, about three weeks into travel, I will concede that the people safari—observing and meeting and getting to know people from every culture and creed—has been the most fulfilling part of my trip so far. And, Khao San will likely wolf the cake on diversity per square foot.

Which is not to say that I like everything about the backpacker circus on Khao San Road. Some of the participants are rather comically grotesque, particularly this reoccurring character: an overweight pale man holding an appropriately fat cigar in one greasy hand and spewing putrid smoke from a putrid-er gut over a beautiful Thai girl held with the other hand, the luck[y|less] latter likely hoping the former’s wallet is as overstuffed as his tastes. [Consenting afterthought] OK, yes, I bummed a few cigarettes and patronized part of the debauchery with my drinks at Gulliver’s; perhaps I am not much more noble [end afterthought]. Not my culture, though, and that is all.

Anyhow, yes, Khao San is unique, or as unique as anyplace if you looked deeply enough I suppose. Let me take you back to Gulliver’s Travelers. Now, I had vowed to take in all of the chaos and partake in as little as possible. I did drink a fair[ly large] quantity of beer and smoked a handful of cigarettes, but that’s quite tame. The only intimacy that I pursued on Khao San involved one absolutely scintillating Israeli girl—I would have kicked myself later if I hadn’t tried—and both of us walked away with pleased smiles and neither of us doled the other a single baht. But that’s it….well, I may have cajoled Anton and David into joining me at The Club, where it’s possible that I let myself get a bit hedonistic dancing on the upper platform with a couple beautiful Thai girls. Hard to say—the night was hazy at that point [4]. I do distinctly remember the end of the night: step one, engage in fare diplomacy with a tuk tuk driver; step two, crazy ride home singing horribly along with Thai tunes on the radio; and step final, drink two full liters of water and fall asleep dreading….

The Hangover, Part II.pi: “Well, Almost Everything Stays on Khao San Road”
[painful amusement, told by, well, a hungover person]

Well it was bound to happen at least once in Bangkok. I woke up the following morning feeling stale and way too tired, with that dry feeling in the upper cranium that signifies the oncoming 24 hours of discomfort. I immediately try to mitigate–two tylanol and another liter of water, and a hot shower–but it’s far too late. The headache sets in before I get the first bite of breakfast down. Ah well, I grumble, I’ve had worse. Anton and David seem to be moving slow today as well but we all have the “if you take a day off, then Khao San wins” attitude, so we head to another tourist gem of Bangkok: the Chatuchak Market.

[Wholehearted attempt to give Chatuchak proper justice, despite the pounding in my head] Thailand is known for its street stalls and secondhand markets, but I don’t think any of the rest compare to Chatuchak Weekend Market. The market area sprawls over 100,000 square meters—frankly, I’m not sure “sprawls” is adequate, for Chatuchak appears as if it mushroomed to glut the entire space like a virile bacteria colony might overrun a pitri dish. Take one step under the corrugated metal roof of the outer complex—which surrounds a looping street and a central complex—and you are lost. The dimly lit alleyways squeeze between rows and rows and rows of one room shops that connect like the rooms of a cutaway dollhouse, each shop brimming with the entire spectrum of art to bric-à-brac, antiques and showpieces to overstocked commodities and knockoffs. You could furnish every home in Portland with the exotic this and that sold at Chatuchak, and the place would refill itself in a day. It’s Alice’s rabbit hole of consumerism. It’s…it’s just crazy [f**k it].

chattuchakmap
Chatuchak Weekend Market map

Back to the hungover trio. We somehow make it through the wormhole of the outer complex with little more than some knockoff Ray Ban shades (which regrettably don’t even block UV light). We wander through the inner pathway, gawking at the tourist zoo that in many ways rivals Khao San Road [5]. But the hangover takes away some of the novelty for me: I feel like I’m just detoxing around and eating chicken skewers, occasionally dodging lobster-burned tourists. I vow to come back at the end of my trip and fill a second suitcase full of knickknacks for friends and family.

The sweltering heat (listen to me—sweltering—let’s see how I fair with the summer) gets the best of us so we seek shade in the neighboring park. We rent a multicolored bamboo mat and gratefully plop down to read or pass out. I lay down and idly watch the light rays anoint the other lounging, picnicking and yoga-ing park-goers. My mood instantly improves and I have the mental energy to compare Chatuchak to Cairo’s Khan el-Khalili market, which I visited on trip to Egypt back in 2009. Both are equally chaotic, but there’s one significant difference. With rare exception, Egyptians heckle, Thais do not. To illustrate what I mean, here’s a time-elapsed excerpt from my written journal. The first impression:

Bangkok is chaos. Chaos reigns supreme. Chaos holds title and deed over all. Chaos takes commission.

A bit drunk on jet lag and culture shock, I fear. But the follow-up, a few days later:

…but it is leisurely chaos. No one yells. An exchange between local and farang can start and end with a single smile. There are no catcalls, no jeers, no “Look! Look! See here, see here! My friend my friend my FRIEND!”

Now, I should state that I very much liked Egypt and miss the few Egyptian friends that I made outside of the buyer-seller space. And, there are many confounding factors that muddy the comparison [6]. But the excerpts do illustrate the human capacity for adaptation to strange environs. On the first day in Bangkok I could barely open my mouth—so stunned was I with the exoticness of the place. A few days later, I was trouncing around and speaking my “nid noi” (นิดหน่อย or “a small amount”) Thai to the food cart owners and Suk 11 workers. It’s a surprising joy of traveling: the foreign does not stay foreign for long (though it may never become familiar), particularly when you still need to eat and sleep and communicate. Um, that might have been a veiled plug for my friends to come join me during my travels.

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Chatuchak Park—a good place for napping and reflecting.

The auburn-tinged evening soon finds the park, so we head back to Suk 11. Anton and David had to check out earlier in the day, but I let them store their backpacks in my room for safekeeping. As they carefully repack, I lay exhausted on my bed and fight sleep. We make courteous plans to meet again at some point, all realizing that it may not happen and none of us would be hurt. Then, it is time for them to catch the train to Kho Tao, where they will take the PADI open water scuba course. I have a brief feverish urge to join them, but it subsides quickly. We exchange hugs, and once again I’m alone.

Afterward
Thus passed the first three days of my Asia travels. Unsurprisingly, I’ve spent little time by myself so far. The urge to meet new people and observe their culture against the backdrop of the local culture—and thereby truly learn my own culture—is too strong right now. Later, there will be solitary moments and much reflection. As for Bangkok, my activity will prove to be subject to Moore’s Law: exponential growth curve. A new character, a blitzy but thoughtful South African, will help spur a true dive into sleepless madness that will make this Khao San night sound tame. We will barely escape Bangkok before it sucks the life out of us with a smile, and will carry the frantic momentum all the way up to Chiang Mai. All this and more to come, and next up: “It Begins With Grapa (Bangkok Pt 2).”

Footnotes for the Curious Reader

[1] In Bangkok Pt 2, I’ll likely admit that tuk tuks are nothing compared to riding backseat on a motorbike taxi.

[2] Khao San’s eternal festivities were confirmed by a sleepy Finnish girl in Ayutthaya, who stayed at one of the many hostels near the road for about a week: “Ha no, zat place never sleeps I think!”

[3] The only thing missing from that rotten raspberry simile is the noise, a deafening cacophony that leaves your ears ringing long after you’ve left Khao San. Not bad, eh English teacher?

[4] Their names were Ploy and Aom, or at least that’s what I think they yelled over the blaring house music.

[5] On further investigation, the estimates state that over 200,000 people visit Chatuchak’s 15,000 and counting booths..on every day that it’s open (see here).

[6] In Egypt, I was part of a large and easily identifiable tour group; now, I’m alone or with a few other independent travel companions. More significantly, there I looked very different from the local population; here, the locals often unknowingly speak Thai to me. I promise a more thorough reflection at some point. Not yet. Too soon.


….Stays On Khao San Road (Bangkok Pt 1.1)

Bangkok: “Sawat dee ka, farang.”
[Worn wonder, told by Western backpacker thrown immediately into the fire]

Bangkok. Hectic city that never sleeps, or sleeps restlessly. A leisurely-chaotic cultural haven plagued by gawking and griping tourist rats, or farang (ฝรั่ง pronounced “falang”) as the locals say. But the Thais have mastered the plague, learned to channel it literally into their open and waiting pockets. Smiles and scams, as a Thailand veteran once told me. And it is quite true. Let me start at the beginning, though.

It is Thursday, January 16, 2014, and I have landed at Savarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok. My reality shifts the moment I exit the plane. I trudge into the airport, still weak from traveling halfway across the world on the dregs of stomach flu and prescription Valium—a muting cocktail, to be sure. But context switch is a healing art, and I quickly ascribe to the practice by drinking in my surroundings. And what novel sights, even in the familiar setting of an airport! The curly squiggles of Thai signs and posted directions, the images and figures of Buddha and ….the vast sea of short, wiry Asians with jet black hair and matching eyes! It is my inaugural experience as part of the superficial majority and I will expound later, but for now I will simply state [mild sarcastic relapse] that it is quite refreshing to be one of the taller people around [end relapse with stomach grimace].

The novelty wears off quickly, as I must become business-like and handle step one of countless: get through customs. I bought a one-way ticket, which poses a slight issue. Often times customs officials will check for proof of onward travel, which on principle I do not have [2]. Instead, I had “purchased” a one-way flight itinerary from Chiang Mai (Thailand) to Phnom Penh (Cambodia) in early February, printed off the confirmation page, highlighted my personal and flight information, smudged out the “you must purchase this itinerary within four days of making your reservation” with an ink pen and eraser, and crossed my fingers that a young and bored customs official will let me pass. I had also retrieved a couple bank account statements—my way of saying, “Look look! I have money! I won’t stay! Promise!” Now at the airport, I prepare my documents and winningest smile, find the youngest looking customs official with the longest line in front of him, and enter the queue feeling a bit anxious.

SAMSUNG
Mission: Unclassified Adventure

I am positively let down, like a young cop witnessing neither crashes nor explosions on his first high-speed chase. The customs official, a cropped haired and boyish Thai whose half-smile states “I know why you’re here,” glances at my passport, then looks back up at me and asks laughingly, “who is this?”

“It’s me!” I laugh, muscles relaxing and immediately at ease, “that picture was taken in 2007, I was much younger then [cheesy tourist smile].”

“Ok” says the official, shaking his head. And that’s it. No further checks or questions. A stamp and a smile, and suddenly I’m in Thailand.

[Brief reflection] In truth, I do look very different from my picture. Then: Beatles-mopped hair; thick glasses covering shallow, shy eyes; a thicker body from six years of playing football; and of course no smile—it wasn’t cool to smile back then, or something idiotic like that. Now: true long hair pulled into a tight bun; glasses gone and [vain moment] eyes that pierce and challenge and engage [end vainglory]; body thinned by the grad student budget and a full mustache that the right people love and the best people hate; and always smiling—especially for customs officials. Reflecting as I moved past the booth, I’ve come a long way and grown quite a bit. My personality and demeanor carries a great deal more experience now, and perhaps a wink or two of wisdom…perhaps [end reflection].

There is only a small hiccup in the enjoyable saga of the first day. At the airport taxi counter, I am confronted by my first labeling of faranghood. I greet the two Thai ladies at the counter and engage in the “please talk loudly and slowly and gesture frequently” to get to my hostel: Suk 11 on Sukhumvit Soi 11. They jabber with themselves about where the place is, and say, “OK! Taxi! 500 baht.”

I know this is a gross overcharge meant for unwitting tourists, so I ask, “Can you have them run the meter please?” with a smile that drips sweetly. “Meter. Kob kun kap [thank you].”

The reply I receive is a narrowing of eyes and “[rising crescendo] Whaaat?! No! 400 baht or no taxi!”

So much for fitting in (though I will talk later about the wild experience of being an Asian foreigner here). I know that the confrontation is a show, but I’m tired and not willing to fight, so I fork over the cash and take the taxi to Suk 11 [3]. A note for those reading this and following in my footsteps: brave the BTS public transit. It’s a very cheap, very clean and well operated sky train with ample announcements and postings in English. Next time.

bts
BTS transit map–in English!

The joy of travel resumes at the hostel, a uniquely quaint wooden and bamboo complex operated by friendly but informative Thais. Suk 11 is a multistory complex; the ground level composes the main room and office with a stairway going up to three floors of rooms and dorms. The public area walls are festooned with decorations made by employees and guests alike: drawings and paintings, strings of prayer flags and thank you notes, colorful bits of recycled flair, and pictures of the Thai king. Upstairs, long bamboo planks passing between lantern-lit shrines and art installations form the hallways between rooms. The rooms are clean and cared for, though I still put my own padlock on the outside door after I stash my backpack. Don’t want my stuff to be stolen at the first place I visit.

At around 6pm, I go downstairs to talk to my fellow backpackers. What a United Nations we are at Suk 11—United Nations +1 even! In the six short days I spent there, I spoke with people from China, Japan, Sweden, Britain, Australia, US, Germany, France, Estonia, South Africa, India, Italy, Spain, Israel, Iran, South Korea, and of course, Thailand. The Asians all ask me curiously about my background, and I alternate between saying I’m from the States and from Korea to test the difference in reactions [4]. There’s also a wide range in age—from the young high school age backpackers to the graying early retirees—and socioeconomic backgrounds—ragged longhair dirtbaggers all the way up to the collared business elite vacationers. It’s a scene from my traveler’s dream: meet and engage the entire medley of backpacking culture.

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Canadian friends inside Suk 11, the guesthouse rooftop grotto, Sukhumvit Soi 11, and the guesthouse restaurant by night

Tonight, however, I am tired and hungry and so I begin to speak earnestly with a pair of mid-20s Swedish backpackers. Their names are Anton and David; I soon learn that they are fellow climbers and following the continental European practice of working hard to take some time off. The three of us hit the streets, hungrily window shopping the rows of Thai food carts boasting seafood and fish (fried whole, not a scale missing), chicken and unidentifiable skewers, noodles, brightly colored vegetables and other fantastic edibles. I haggle my way into some pad Thai for 30 baht (less than one US dollar), and it is beyond delicious. The three of us sit on the concrete stoop of a 7/11 behind the cart, eating greedily and sipping beer, all the while lightly discussing our respective countries and listening to the cart owners banter with each other in their tonal language. It’s all quite a trip—the new sights and smells, the loud and hectic bustle, and the jet lag make me feel euphoric, and bewildered.

At 9pm, the jet lag wins. I feel like I’m back in college—bleary eyed and watching the sun rise out the window of an academic building. I bid my new friends a good night, promise them that I’ll join them on Khao San Rd (more later) tomorrow, and head to bed. In what must be the shortest time on record falling asleep, I smile contently and think to myself, This will be epic. This will be irreversibly mind-altering. I have arrived.

Footnotes for the Curious Reader

[1] Thank you Anna for the heads up on onward travel, though it was not needed. Thank you Ashley for the drop on Suk 11—incredible place to stay!

[2] This is probably to ensure that you are not some poor or bankrupt urchin hoping to make it in Thailand but more likely destined to drink and dine your dwindling money away and end up grovelling in the streets, fatefully gripping the country’s philanthropic dress hem and contributing nothing but needs. Also, I feel that this is my dad talking through me, but I mostly agree with him.

[3] I do not begrudge or scorn these women, or any Thai working the farang thing. From one angle, Thailand is practically raped by tourism (not exactly my views). I will continue practicing Thai and watching how the Thais do, so to speak, and hopefully will have better experiences in the future.

[4] Admittedly, I get a better reaction when I say that I’m from Korea—comments on my English, questions about whether both my parents are Korean, and many smiley greetings of “annyeonghaseyo!”


The On-ramp is Long and Fraught with Peril

Update: Sick and Sleepless in Seattle
[ill and reflective, told by backpacker battling stomach flu at airport]

If the universe were your friend, (s)he’d drop advice on you without warning and without your consent, and (s)he’d introduce it to you with a solid slap in the face. Maybe dump a bucket of cold water on you for the grins.

I’m writing this on January 14, 2014—two days after I was supposed to leave. Flight reschedulings and stomach flu brought the exodus train to a shivering, aching halt three days ago. Now, I sit weak but comfortable in one of Sea-Tac airport’s massage chairs; I didn’t put money into the thing, but the chair has leather cushions and glancing at the cruelly minimal black vinyl benches fascistly lined up across the hall, well, I made the better choice. Oof. Smirking makes my stomach churn.

So, a typical inauspicious start to a highly anticipated trip. Backlogging like a physician, I’d say the sickness started the day before departure, on the train ride up to Seattle from Portland. My backpack felt a bit too heavy, and not in a metaphorical way. I slept uneasily that night. The next day at the airport, I found out that EVA Air had switched my flight, routing me through two extra stops with potential for frantically sprinted layovers. I opted to wait a few days for the safe flight. By the time I got back to the place I was staying, I had a fever over 100 degrees and I was shivering like a polar plunge participant. Things were looking grim.

Fortunately, I had some incredible luck going for me. Mostly, I was lucky enough to meet Maddy, perhaps one of the nicest and most enjoyable Seattlans I should ever hope to meet. I met Maddy through my friend Ruby; they met while studying abroad in Tanzania. What was supposed to be one brief night on Maddy’s Africa-themed couch turned into three nights and two days of fighting demons—I’ll spare you the details. Maddy was a complete sweetheart throughout; hell, she had the grace to mention that I was improving her day with my conversation and company. She even chauffeured me to the urgent care clinic in some very accentuating yoga pants. OK, maybe the pants weren’t for me.

Of course, nothing to do but appreciate the good fortune of meeting a friendly girl and accept the obvious: plans change, roll with the changes.

Fitting Beginnings: “Oh the Dashboard Melted But We Still Had the Radio”
[nostalgically recounting, told by an ex-resident of Eugene]

Even with the sickness, my pre-trip in the Pacific Northwest was pretty special. My plan (yeah yeah plans change) was to fly back to Oregon on New Year’s Eve 2013 and bum around Eugene as a backpacker, staying with friends and acquaintances and tying up some loose ends. In my mind, it was going to be pretty chill, a low key—and low budget—affair.

The first day back in Eugene betrayed that image. Upon arrival I learned that my neighbors were having a black tie champagne and oysters party. Nothing else to do but make an already dirty backpacker’s t-shirt look like a tuxedo and head to the party with my debonair ex-roommate and now-host Brandon and his mountaineering outdoor ruffian friend Dorian.

The party was a joyous affair; I think there was much schmoozing, but I’m not entirely sure what schmoozing means. I enjoyed my outlook–a college grad starting the New Year as a backpacker, spending his transience at a party with close friends celebrating another spin around the wheel. I felt close to them, but also distinct; against their backdrop, I could focus the excited travel spirit. I found that spirit to be highly contagious, and I threw myself into spreading it effusively—those that were there can testify that the electronica bass hit a bit harder that night.

The pre-trip adventures continued to escalate in earnest. I bounced around between my old house, coffee shops, and the HARD house–an eclectic, fun-loving group of Eugene Whiteakerites who beat the Winter grey basking in the warm light of their friendly wood stove and friendlier faces. HARD—members Hallie, Alex, Ruby, and Dan (gone on a bike tour across the US)—and some friends and I took a climbing trip to Smith Rock State Park for the first weekend of January, basking in the Central Oregon sun and scaling the auburn tuft like deluded monkeys.

smith
[Smith Rockin’–Hallie takes good photos]

[Brief heartwarming eulogy to a glorious past]
Ah, to be climbing at Smith with good friends! It is blissful. I draw power from the rocks, then take it prowling around the base and hailing the entire colorful range of climbers like we were old friends. When we leave the place, I glance back and remember my first trip to Smith two years prior. Back then I was a kid—my long hair was still too short to tie back, I wore tie dye shirts, and my high energy blurted out of me uncontrollably to exhaustion. I matured at Smith—met incredible friends and learned to channel my energy into a smooth, confident flow (well, much of the time). As I stare across the Crooked River gorge at the iconic Smith Rock Group radiating tungsten light into the darkening sky, with the snow-peaked Cascades steadily engulfing the red sun behind, I feel whole and raw and confident. [End eulogy]

Takeoff: “And Everything Starts Today”
[summarily thoughtful, told by backpacker about to board a plane]

Pre-trip continued to ramp up—I’m sure that has something to do with getting sick. The human body can only take so much abuse, and I sent it through a tailspin in my final days in the US. The night I left Eugene, friends and I went on a birthday party-esque bar crawl through the Whiteaker neighborhood. The following day, I took the train up to Portland and poured libations with Getty and Joe, close friends from graduate school. The next evening, an album release party to a late night affair atop the hills in SW Portland, drinks on an outdoor balcony overlooking the cityscape. The following morning, a hungover climb at Portland’s Circuit Bouldering Gym, to a train ride up to Seattle. It probably would have been weirder if I didn’t get sick.

Lesson learned, yada yada. Also learned: close friends are irreplaceable, and worth their weight in platinum. And, the wanderer’s spirit is a contagion, sweeping up the comfortable bystanders and carrying them into the maelstrom for as long as they care to hold on. Some will not let go—they will join me on my travels this year. Others will loose their grasp reluctantly, yet hopefully carry the spirit onward to vicarious living at home.

*BEEP* “EVA Airlines flight 0075 now boarding all passenger from zone 1, zone 1 all passenger.” *BEEP*

Time to board, and leave the States for the indeterminable future. I would be a buzzing mass of joy and excitement at this point, if that same buzzing didn’t also send my stomach into a whirlpool of cramps. But hey, whatever. I’m leaving..no, I’m going! So as my stomach echoes the cadence of my footfalls to a crescendo of grimaces, I step through the gate and enter a new world….

[Thanks again, Maddy—you’re wonderful]
[Stay tuned for adventures from Bangkok, aka “..Stays On Khaosan Road”!]


Standing At Opportunity’s Edge, Vigorously Clutching Wingsuit

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

From The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost

~~~

Too much consistency is as bad for the mind as it is for the body. Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life. The only completely consistent people are the dead.

From Texts and Pretexts by Aldous Huxley

Opening Narrative: “Oh my—what the hell have I done?”
[reflective shock, told by amused man holding cold glass of whiskey against head]

On January 12th, 2014 I will board a plane in Seattle’s Sea-Tac airport bearing a one-way ticket to Bangkok, Thailand. What happens after I board that plane? Who knows? No concrete plans, no deadlines, no return date, no must-do’s or have-to’s. A wandering transient, thoughtful, and liberated. Open road and open mind.

How did I get to this point? There were many factors–too many to list–but I can trace back one irritating gnat-bite realization that helped catalyze the itch. It goes like this: after 20 uninterrupted years of education, I was feeling burnt out. In the past couple years, I’d tell my friends:

“You seen that movie Scarface? You know, the part where Pacino is sitting on his gangster throne, tonsils deep in a mountain of cocaine, with the SWAT team closing in to blast his coke-addled brains out? Yeah, that’s kinda how I feel these days in school, [sip of beer] minus the cocaine.”

See he looks burned out too…or just completely frosted.

You see, on the outside I was killing it: worked in a research lab, published a paper at a top-tier conference, taught my labs with gusto, and aced my coursework. But inwardly, I wasn’t into it. The work was losing meaning. And the image of myself as a tenure-track college professor–my personal carrot on a stick–began to fade.

I took the hint. I switched my focus to the Master’s track and prepared to graduate. Initially, my thought was to teach for a bit or find a more fulfilling place to complete my PhD. But as I investigated these options, I would catch whiffs of that same acrid burnout. More school, more burnout. No, I needed to break the cycle..“and now for something completely different.”

And so here I am. About to embark on a somewhat brazen quest for a rejuvenating change of pace. Some enlightening (and likely sobering) experiences. And a smattering of unplanned, unanticipated “whoa that was crazy, but I’m glad I did it” fun. I was on the academia riverboat cruise, and instead of transferring onto the next boat, I decide to hijack a canoe and sail for open waters with little more than a backpack full of gear, some money, and my name. Some people probably think I’m crazy, hedonistic, or naïve. I think I’m 25, intelligent enough to adapt, fortunate to have this opportunity, and ready to be unceremoniously dropped on my ass a few times. [EDIT] See my next post for how right I was about the last one.

So, as of now I’m breathing fairly easily. I’ve done some crazy things and been in some crazier situations, and most everything worked out swimmingly. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but I survived them. I’ve maintained all of my appendages and most of my grey matter, and I’ve managed to avoid all the classic hangups—jail time, venereal diseases, unplanned children. What else to do, but fly halfway across the world and live vicariously? Makes sense to me..but maybe that’s part of the problem.

Motivations: “Why? Because.”
[Academically sincere, told by bright-eyed college graduate living out of backpack]

There are innumerable reasons why I am going on this trip. I like adventure, loath sitting still, and fear entropy in all its forms. I’ve wanted to solo travel since my first trip abroad to Egypt back in 2010. That trip fueled a desire to see the world on on my schedule, unfettered by group schedules and curfews. Most importantly, I’m mindful of the dwindling energy reserves of my mid-20s, the kind of energy that genteel and comfortable folk occasionally crave—frantic, feverish, near-blind momentum that sweeps you up and tumbles you for miles and miles and miles, leaving you breathless and exhausted and fulfilled.

In the waning light of my academic career, I made some goals for this trip. I like how these goals structure my trip—not quite like a wood beam frame that must be filled in, but more like a fully constructed door, standing alone, that I will step through. Trip goals:

  1. Reconnect with the cultural heritage that I left behind at the ripe age of 6 months old—ride the Diasporic wave all the way around back to Asia, returning as a true foreigner.
  2. Experience firsthand how technology shapes culture and vice versa in southeast and east Asia— apply my degree for mental (and monetary) gain.
  3. Climb, hike, dive, explore, and otherwise participate fully in the natural wonders of the continent I left so long ago—gorge my senses with wanderlust.

These three goals fit me. I’m a Korean immigrant comfortably raised white, middle class, and suburban. I appreciate my upbringing, but I’m conscious of my superficial identity and interested in exploring my cultural heritage. I’m also a computer scientist and programmer, solution-driven and engineering-minded. I see designs, models and the potentiality for improvement through these lenses, and I’m looking to internationalize my gaze. Lastly, I’m a young and energetic adventure-seeker. My future is open and expectant, awaiting experience in the same way the empty pages of my journal await the pen.

Thanks: “I couldn’t have done it without you”
[Cheerfully grateful, told by an Elliott]

Like any good-natured and humbly-raised Midwestern gent, I have countless people to thank for making this trip possible. My family deserves the bulk of the credit. I don’t just mean that they fed me, put a roof over my head, and cultivated my strengths and interests, and all that. They taught me how to work hard, inquire thoroughly, and respect the janitor and CEO equally. Their lives demonstrate how happiness comes from those you hold close and care about. They delivered a much-needed kick in the rear during college applications—thanks Aunt Roxanne and Uncle Dave! They gave me a much-needed home base for some wild adventures—thanks Aunt Sue and Uncle Big John, and Aunt Jan and Uncle Bruce! Today, they give me more support and love than I could ever repay. This blog is partly dedicated to them, [brief relapse into witticism] the rest I dedicate to my dwindling memory cells. [End wit.]

Of the remainder of those I’d like to thank, I will single out a few notables in semi-chronological order with equal importance:

Thank you 405 crew, for fueling a raucously good time. Thanks especially to Pat, for getting me into rock climbing.

Thank you Kara, for fueling my envy of foreign travelers.

Thank you Dr. Stewart and Dr. Berque, for helping me get into graduate school.

Thank you fellow CIS graduate students, particularly Joe, for helping me psychologically survive graduate school.

Thank you Mike, for your incredible photography and your unique brand of confrontational logic.

Thank you Eugene crew, for fostering eccentricity and new frontiers.

Thanks to everyone who gave me advice and contacts for this trip. Thanks to those who helped me springboard 2014 as a backpacker-to-be in the Pacific Northwest. Thanks especially to Kourtni, for your commitment to my time in South Korea.

With that, I’m off–the road less traveled awaits.

[Thanks YouTube for the media]