Tag Archives: travel

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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Update: Ready, Set, Blitz!

It is day 10 in Thailand–some moments I feel like I’ve been here for a month, other times it seems like only a few days have passed. Time stretch is not limited to hallucinogenic drugs, it seems. Still, though I’ve imbibed nothing unhealthy (except for smoggy air), I suppose I am indeed on a trip.

A briefish update: so far, I’ve been in Bangkok (chaotic metropolis), Ayutthaya (ruined ancient capital), Lopburi (town of monks and monkeys), and Sukhothai (smallish cultural mecca), and I’m writing this post on a bus to Chiang Mai. On that note, so far I’ve traveled on grim but scenic 3rd class trains, crowded short hop “buses” and cushy long haul buses, gleaming futuristic sky trains and subways, and–of course–in the back of , converted truck cabs, and a couple moped taxis. The gauntlet of planes, trains, and automobiles.

Regrettably, I’m behind on blogging, though I make time to write every day. It’s a precarious balance—taking time to write about the wild things you’re doing and doing enough wild things to write about. I’m also currently traveling with a new friend from South Africa; he’s only here for a month and quite blitzy in personality besides—hell, the dude walks at a speed twice his height. I’m finding that the short-timers are fun to travel with—always wanting to go and see and do and engage—but I will likely need to go solo once I find a place where I’d like to chill and deeply explore.

And that place is sounding like Chiang Mai, so-called bohemian capital of Northern Thailand. There I will stay with a friend for the [sarcasm] inhospitable cost [end sarcasm] of slightly above $30 USD per week. I am grateful for this—money flows quickly when you don’t have a source of income (yet).

More to the point: I’m halfway through writing part one of what will likely be a three part series on Bangkok. I will delegate most of the colorful stories and thoughts to the longer journal entries (by the way, you can sort posts here by category if you’d like), but here’s a quick taste:

I’ve overtaxed my sensory capacity and wallet in Bangkok: fought back jet lag by touring the tourist zoo on Khao San Road and exploring the equally chaotic Chatuchak Weekend Market; went to the protest to rub up against strangers; and gorged the five senses on spicy Thai food carts—and one chromed out Middle Eastern meal washed down with Turkish coffee and mint hookah—and got loose in laser-lit megaclubs filled with beautiful cosmopolitan Thais. I’ve strolled and yoga’d amidst crumbling ruins and temple’d gold Buddhas in Ayutthaya. I’ve played charades with orange-robed monks at mountainside monasteries and raced a horde of sovereign monkeys in Lopburi. I’ve bicycled and napped in a park of towering temples and chedis and stone Buddhas, and sampled the Eastern world’s funky cuisine—squid skewers, dim sum, banana leafed coconut treats, curries, fish fried whole without a single scale missing, and of course, buttered silk worms (they are quite good..and the cart vendor ate one first)—in Sukhothai.

That’s all for now—I bid you all a smiling adieu…

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[Laaater! #somedayI’llgrowuppromise..maybe]