Tag Archives: backpacking

Status Update: Backlogged Thoughts and Journal Snippets from Malaysia, Vietnam, and China

Xin chào! 你好! It’s been awhile—I’ll take the fat slice of the responsibility pie, but some blame must go to the People’s Republic of China for blocking access to my blog! And in that tone, I begin what is bound to be a status update of mixed feelings.

Jirre.

My last post was over a month ago, which begs the question just what the hell was I doing? I’m going to summarize in a piteously brief manner.

My first stop, as mentioned in my last update, was Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. My immediate surroundings became decidedly more modern, albeit in a wholly Asian fashion. Modernity asserts itself in KL from the spinning doorways of skyscrapers, futurama malls and techno clubs, but inside these gleaming towers and complexes you’ll be sure to find a friendly paperless spray toilet—and maybe even a good ol’ squat toilet or two. The city is also very culturally diverse with its Skittled mix of native Malays, Indians, Arabs, Chinese, and more than a handful of Westerners [1]. Most of my exposure to KL was through the looking glass of Chinese Malaysians, namely my local contact ‘Kitty’ and her gracious friends J (my actual host) and E.

Honestly, I was quite a bore in Malaysia. My intention was to rest and drum up a reality check from vacation-style wonder-wandering in Thailand. So I restrung my guitar, bought some much needed clothing items, washed the corrosive Andaman sea water from all my climbing gear, filled in some gaps in my journal, slept a lot, and logged some computer time in a handful of coffee shops. Not much else happened, likely because I spent the rest of my time wandering through mega malls with sales and service industry staff that probably rival the general population of most Midwestern towns. This is not to say that KL was not without intrigue: a fun ‘hike’ up to the monkey-infested Batu Caves, a gratuitous sampling of Malaysia’s varied ethnic cuisine, and a handful of cultural collisions—some enlightening and thoughtful, some comical and rather embarrassing (sorry J).

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From KL I flew to Hanoi, Vietnam to stay with Jan, a South African that I met in Thailand. I recall being slightly anxious on the plane, worrying that perhaps my side trip to Malaysia had dulled my adventuring spirit. [Hindsighted ridicule] Yeah, right. [end jab] Vietnam is stimulating enough to sharpen even the most jaded globetrotter. If you’re doubtful, then do as I did: fly into Hanoi and have the airport taxi drop you off right in the middle of the whirring neon cacophony of Old Quarter. Had I not been immediately rescued by Jan, I believe that I would have been whisked away once again into the overstimulating blur of backpacker life.

My Hanoi sojourn would prove to be, instead, another taste of expat life. I stayed near the north end of Tây Hồ (West Lake) as the glorified house guest of Jan and five other South Africans, and engaged in typical expat life events such as trying to cook familiar foods with unfamiliar ingredients (and only one pan) and playing charades with local shopkeepers. Hell, I even helped teach an English lesson at a Vietnamese middle school—properly expatriatic, if there is such a sentiment.

Expat slacker session. Always draws a crowd.

Expat slacker session. Always draws a crowd.

The rest of Hanoi largely blurs together for me—I was entirely overstimulated (for many reasons) for most of the stay. In retrospect, what Hanoi lacked was the typical mundanity of the in-between. Even the commutes were arousing. Traffic in Hanoi is a constant weaving sliding leaning dodging [holy sh*t!] braking swerving [close call!] accelerating bionic flow of mostly motorbikes and bicycles, which swarm like bees around the larger vehicles. [Tangent ripped from journal] Automobiles and buses barely manage on the wide highways; on the two-way streets, which amble river-like past restaurants, cafes, Bia Hơis, and greasy mechanic shops, and in the narrow twisting Old Quarter alleys choked with grocer carts and bamboo hat peddlers and dazed tourists, these luckless vehicles must painfully inch their way through the two-wheeled swarm like irritated buffalo [2]. [end tangent] Much like a bee, one feels hyper-alert and vulnerable on a motorbike, frantically buzzing around in dangerously close proximity with other insectizens, until—at last, and likely just in time—one lands abruptly and sits catching breaths as the human swarm continues to rage on all sides. Indeed some of my favorite moments in Hanoi blend heady conversations on the plastic seats of Bia Hois and Kem Zois with the equally heady motorbike ride to said places..and ah! The joy of riding like a manic vigilante around a completely deserted metropolitan area, thanks to Hanoi’s sharp 11pm curfew! All in all, I fondly remember—and occasionally miss—the Vietnamese, and the [buzzing, laughing, yelling] buzzsaw cacophony of their voices, and the simple elegance of their food—Phở, Bún chả, and Bánh mì and the rest. And most of all, I miss the kinship of living with a tight ‘family’ of expats in a collidingly small and charmingly eclectic expat community. Isle of Misfit Toys, for sure.

Something happened to my Hanoi photos---I can't find most of them.  I will post a video of racing through Hanoi traffic, and others, hopefully soon.

Something happened to my Hanoi photos—I can’t find most of them. I will post a video of racing through Hanoi traffic, and others, hopefully soon.

On April 7th, 2014, with a measure of wistfulness and a hurried toast, I said goodbye to Jan and chaotic Hanoi and charming Vietnam, and boarded a night train to….

Holy-f***ing-China. For proper culture shock, mix one part ‘zero preparation’ with two parts ‘vacation brain’ and chug feverishly as you cross the border into Guangxi province at 2am. At 9am, you, brave and foolish Westerner, will arrive in the farthest civilized place from Kansas imaginable. Say goodbye to English, and to welcoming smiles and friendly hellos at that. Have a nice bitter laugh over the weak smattering of Pinyin that you proudly amassed in Chinese 100, because nobody uses f***ing Pinyin here [3]. Grit your teeth and say hello to the protocol-or-scram attitude, the throat-tickling air. Brace yourself as fellow passengers literally shove you onto metro trains so they can also board. Accept these harsh realities, and be rewarded with the gems of China expat life, where you can feast yourself into a comatose state for pennies, and where you can literally be a rockstar and model with virtually no qualifications other than your foreignness and ability to breath air.

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My stay in China was bipolarly intense. There were moments when I was treated like a prince, and others where I was disdained like a plague rat. In one moment, I was riding high on the anticipation of a memorable climbing trip to Yangshuo; in the next, I was plunging into the frantic despair of losing my passport wallet. It was by such grim fate that I entered the city of Guangzhou as a tired, dirty, money-less, and largely unidentifiable foreigner. Several days passed before I could secure a Western Union rescue fund from my family, so I further enjoyed the sharpening thoughts of sleeping on the streets and stealing food from roadside vendors. But, I met some genuine friends in these grim circumstances, and some of the most unexpectedly comical charity that I’ve ever received. My proximity to Chinese culture and kinship was strongest when I was personally at my weakest. And through all of this bipolarity, I found China to be aggravating and amusing, shocking in its surprises and similarities, and just plain enervating. Some day, I hope to give it a second chance..with more preparation, and a closer eye on my personal effects.

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[Returning to the present moment,] 4am, and I’m about six hours away from leaving China and jetting to South Korea. I’ve determine to stay awake until my flight because one of my new friends wants a goodbye toast before I leave, but he doesn’t finish work until 5am. My nerves are firing a bit slowly, but I am feeling quite alert. I am aware, on the one hand, that I am more in tune with the privilege and merit of my travels than I was a month ago, and to that I say 谢谢,中国。 I am also aware that I am staying in a hotel for the first time of this trip; I write it off as much needed R&R, but this is a thin veil for what is clearly a tired retreat from the crowds, smog, and culture shock of China. Bipolarity continues.

I am also aware that I am getting tired—not just 4am tired, but a deeper sort of weariness that sits on my shoulders and the section of brain between the backs of my ears. My senses have been taxed. I reflect, well, you deserve to be tired. You’ve experienced quite a lot in the past four months. Too much? Perhaps not too much, but rather too rapidly, particularly in the past month and a half:

I’ve negotiated a laundry deal via a twenty minute conversation held entirely on two separate windows of Google translate.
I’ve ballroom danced in a Vietnamese coffee shop with the owner, a smirking woman named Chau of about forty years whose jet black eyes leap the language barrier.
While on the subject, I’ve shaken a leg in some starkly varied places: everywhere from Hanoi clubs walled with corrugated metal and whitewashed plaster; to glitzy chromed out Chinese clubs, whose long entranceways—lined with mirrors and strung with glittering faux diamonds—will spill you onto streets lined with VIP-parked Ferraris and Mazeratis [note: the Hanoi clubs are more fun].
I picked up some Afrikaans phrases and an obnoxiously persistent Australian accent; the former sneak their way into an occasional exclamatory remark, the latter has thankfully passed as quickly as it came.
I’ve witnessed the reverently preserved body of a national hero, the figurehead of the only defeat in US military history. He pickles well.
I’ve learned a passable amount of Chinese drinking games, and an embarrassingly small collection of Chinese characters.
I’ve climbed pockety limestone behind a cow pasture in the Guangxi countryside.
I’ve watched a variety show consisting of a sword-wielding strongman and decidedly racist boxing match through leopard print lens-less glasses at a Chinese club fittingly named ‘Blanco,’ whilst enjoying free-for-foreigners booze and bar food.
I’ve slept in a very shady motel for free, thanks to the owner who calls me his brother and whose English improves with his beer intake.

5am. A WeChat message stirs on my cellphone; it vibrates irritably against the table as though protesting its travel sores (five different SIM cards and drops on all manner of terrain). I am off to say goodbye to my Chinese friends and to China, for now. The next time you hear from me, I’ll be in South Korea. Bye!

beer

Footnotes for the Curious Reader

[1] ‘Skittled’ is a ridiculous term, but not chosen entirely out of whimsy. It is used in the context of ‘mixing bowl’ as opposed to ‘melting pot,’ in reference to some of the very deep-seated cultural tensions I witnessed in KL (I will not go into them here, for brevity’s sake). So, taste the rainbow, my friend.

[2] Bia hơi is the generalized name of an establishment that serves maybe the cheapest draft beer in the world. Some of these ‘bars’ are basically a couple kegs in the empty first floor garage of the manager’s home, with plastic stools serving as chairs and tables. The beer is cheap, the conversation loud and fun..and the bathroom occasionally just a drain in the upstairs apartment bathroom.

[3]Admittedly, I was nowhere near the tourist track in China. It is likely that travel in Beijing and Shanghai and such places is much kinder for Westerners. I hope to return to China soon. It is a truly intriguing country; all that one could see and experience there should not be ruined by one instance of a stolen passport wallet.

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Status Update: Wake Up From Reality, Your Dream Awaits

This morning I woke up from a dream within a dream. The steady hammering of nearby construction—a familiar alarm from the past two weeks that I stayed here in Chiang Mai—lifts me from slumber at exactly 8:45am. What a lovely dream think I, wistfully reminiscing on the week-long lovefest that was Shambhala In Your Heart festival, a music and art gathering at the Doi Luang Youth Camp in Chiang Dao, Thailand. But Chiang Mai is still a dream, and one that will continue for the moment.

Prior to the festival I had been in Chiang Mai for two weeks, staying in a palatial apartment in the posh Nimmanhaemin neighborhood. After a week and a half of blitzed travel from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, a taste of [temporary] home was much needed and much appreciated. I had ideal roommates, a regular sleep schedule (strictly enforced by the time-clocked start of morning construction, albeit), local friends and climbing partners, an exotically bohemian city to explore at leisure, and a dreamscape climbing crag within forty minutes motorbike ride.

I have put down soft roots here, right down to my routine:

  • Wake up early, read a bit, then eat a breakfast of coffee and duck eggs fried with garlic and fire hot chilies.
  • Engage in caffeinated waxing with Taylor about politics, culture, and whatever else comes to mind (women, mostly).
  • Pick a few songs and jams on Alice, occasionally to cheers and clapping from the nearby construction workers.
  • Read a bit more.
  • Walk a few blocks to my favorite organic Thai restaurant, where a smiling Thai woman serves me a vibrant plate of pad kee mao gai.
  • Walk a few more blocks to Play Cafe, where I write my blog on Miranda and converse with the Korean couple that owns the place.
  • Take a Song Tao to No Gravity climbing gym, and project a few routes and shoot the shit with Simon (the Swiss owner), Marco (a Swiss friend of Simon’s), Muat (a Thai champion climber), and Duan (a Thai boy that works and sleeps at No Gravity and plays a mean game of street badminton)
  • Eat dinner, and move on to the rest of the night’s activities.

On the note of writing, I have finished Bangkok Pt 1 here in Chiang Mai and am awaiting the precious moment when I will have time to compose Pt 2. My journals take me ages, even when I’m furiously typing for hours straight to the driving cocktail of espresso and German trance. I will perhaps need to shorten my future journal entries, and include more status updates such as this one. We’ll see.

Pure honesty: I am trying my absolute darndest not to bliss the hell out right now. Life in Chiang Mai has been nearly perfect in that commercially renowned 99.99% sort of way. But Chiang Mai doesn’t even compare to my beautiful dream within a dream at Shambhala. In the shadow of the Doi Luang Chiang Dao mountains, the youth camp sits in a broad meadow near a murmuring stream. At this blissful site, I passed seven days under the inflamed sun—dancing, singing, grooving, jamming, crafting, and connecting with wilderlings born of earth and fire from across the globe. I am working on a longer journal on Shambhala, but it will have to wait for now.

Though the festival dream is over, Chiang Mai is still quite blissful. I have climbed in otherworldly limestone caves, scaling moonscape toufas of melted rock. I have eaten a mountainous spread of halal Pakistani curries while watching a nearby group of tourists sit with their legs submerged in a tank of cleaner fish. I have ridden a bicycle through twisting traffic that knows no painted lines, and a motorbike down a pothole scarred highway through rice paddies and bamboo jungle. I have dined with Thai villagers, who gigglingly pass you fried unknowns and pop the tops off glass beer bottles with their teeth without blinking. I have rapped on the microphone with a Thai jam band (admittedly to a forgiving audience of three friends) at an art studio/bar, and played guitar with a gorgeous massage therapist in her bungalow studio. I have sustained several slaps and punches from a Thai biker gang who mistook me for a local Thai. I have seen that the world can be quite small, and that home can be anywhere you decide to lay down roots. My two short weeks in Chiang Mai have taught me a lot, in an experiential sense. I would live here, definitely, but I will continue my travels so I can be doubly sure.

I have met an incredible cast of characters in Chiang Mai. I will describe the major characters with unjust brevity, and hope to not insult the minor characters with their absence from the list (y’all are wonderful and you know it):

The Roommates
Taylor: an intellectual adventurer and fellow DePauw alumnus. He’s thoughtful and kind and has a comical tendency to laugh at pretty much everything, from my ribald stories to his whimsical purchase of a $6000 mountain bike. His mind cuts to the core, yet that critical gaze and ready retort that I recall from college has been tempered by a dream life working a dream job in the dreamy city of Chiang Mai (though he would still intimidate the typical bread-and-butter graduate student). Humble—will happily state that he hasn’t climbed much but then powers his way up a 6c+ grind—and talkative—will willingly discuss anything from the Paleo diet to American hip hop.

Barry: an expat Welshman and Crossfit coach. Regimented and driven (partly by his signature “bulletproof coffee:” an epileptic (by which I mean, it would render me inoperable) blend of coconut oil, raw butter, and jet black coffee. Barry has a smile and friendly demeanor that disarms your wary thoughts about whether the guy could crumple a steel barrel. Also thoughtful and smart as hell, though he never flaunts it. Definitely a dude I’d like to count among my friends..particularly at a dinner party and in a dive bar brawl.

Pui Pui: a dazzling Thai femme fatale, ex-climber goddess and current Olympic weightlifter. She is gorgeous, sweet, and fun–she got that diva style and none of the priss, you know? She’s the kind of beautiful woman that I’m genuinely glad is dating a rockstar like Barry; otherwise, I fear that I would be hopelessly fresh with her. In all seriousness, I find the pair incredible and their relationship inspirational [someday I’ll be mature enough to stop there] and I think Pui Pui would nonchalantly send me to the hospital if she was single and I was acting a fool [end joke].

The Friends
Karim: a world citizen climber with conversational language skills from his many past homes. A bit of a professional bullshitter—during the introductory exchange of asking where he was from, he replied “I’m from the moon” and I had to roll with it (“Ah! Heard it’s cold there. Light side or dark side?”). Easily one of the best climbing partners that I’ve had in a long while; the guy is damn charismatic and can persuade you to climb harder than you ever thought possible and without grievance. In all fairness, that charisma is a double-edged sword occasionally, particularly when paired with that damn bottle of Myanmar rum that he manages to produce in the decisive moment when you’re splitting the fence between reasonably going home to bed and joining him on his escapades.

Jennifer: a true Chicagoan and long-term traveler. She describes herself as Type A, but I think that does her a bit of injustice. She’s definitely driven, but in traveling with her I found her genuinely happy to wander and explore without definitive plans. Woman definitely knows her way around a schedule though, and was likely a hellofa school administrator back home. I enjoyed her company as a fellow US traveler—it was nice to remember a taste of my own culture and furthermore not be repulsed by it. I will fondly remember her company at our apartment’s Great Gatsby themed birthday party for Pui; Jennifer and I had a comically difficult time finding ingredients for Manhattans. The end product was pretty good and a colossal favorite, but really only resembled the true cocktail in the Kentucky bourbon and orange slice.

Stefan: an Austrian climber and yoga enthusiast from Vienna. His personality matches the circular Hari Krishna knot of hair on the back of his shaved head: calm, positive, and energy-aware. His activities represent the range of possible pursuits in bohemian Chiang Mai: acro yoga lessons, massage therapy school, and shamanic breathing sessions to name a few. I joined him and a dynamic band of merry backpackers when I moved back into the transient hub of Old City. Together, we floated to Chiang Dao for Shambhala, which I hope to describe in full detail when I have the time.

Jan: a[nother] South African with dynamic personality. He has been teaching English in Korea and Vietnam for the past few years, along with generally enjoying life in Asia. Jan has the same metabolic blitz as Julian, the other South African with whom I traveled with from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. I met Jan whilst sampling the succulent array of food carts near Mun Mueang Soi 6, and indeed his exuberant attitude toward life can be best described in accordance with his signature exclamation about the food: “The food here is incredible! And so cheap! I f*cking love it! Is that pad Thai? It looks amazing, I must have some..no wait, better make it three! Here, you must try some, please you must!” Jan was also a merry participant at Shambhala, and I plan to see him again in Vietnam for continued adventures.

That is all for now. Bangkok Pt 2 will be coming along shortly, and many other thoughtful ramblings besides. Cheers and love!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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].

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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.

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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!”