vague, but exciting

the porous city - travel - vagabond '08

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Hustling
In the journal I kept during my long trip through Asia, there's a hand-drawn map on the back page. The map shows some local roads, a lake, a couple waterfalls, and other local features. It was drawn by a man I met in Ratanakiri province, a remote area of north-east Cambodia mostly populated by minority tribes, not visited by many foreigners. He used to lead tourists on treks through Ratanakiri's national parks. He showed me an album of photos from past trips: young Brits swimming under waterfalls, walking under forest canopy, clowning with him for the camera, smiling, laughing. He offered to arrange for a guide for me, offered to help me rent a motorbike, smiling in a hyper-forced way, as if nothing could be less natural for him than to smile, but also as if nothing could be more important. He used to lead treks but no longer did, and he demonstrated why as he stood up and walked, painfully. He was lame in one leg, had broken it, not received proper care, and it had never really healed. He walked away from the table, poling along on one stiff leg, quickly.

Kashgar's old city is being destroyed
Last year I visited Kashgar, on the western edge of China. It's home to the Uighur people, a Central Asian ethnic group whose culture is as interesting as a thousand years on the Silk Road would tempt you to imagine. As you read this, for some reason, Chinese bulldozers are razing Kashgar's old city.

"Is it weird to be back in the States?"
Weird is normal, now. One thing threw me: the waitress who asked me a question on my second day back, something like "how is everything?" Only she barked it out in three syllables while speedwalking past my table, so I got all flustered and said something like "greet thank."

Slow down, people.

Friends of mine who have a similar problem sitting still

On the Aegean
Having dinner with Ozge's family on Turkey's Aegean coast. Ozge is shocked that a bar has opened up next to her grandmother's house, where we're having dinner on the porch. We can always tell when we're getting close to her grandmother's when we hear the "thump, thump, thump."

Dessert: the honeydew melon gets mixed reviews, but the cheese is definitely a no-go.

Ozge's uncle: "Why didn't you go to ____ to buy the cheese?"
Ozge's mom: "I did go to ____."
Ozge's uncle: "He shouldn't sell you cheese like this. I'll have a talk with him."

Meze
I'm in Turkey right now, travelling with Ozge. It is such an incredible luxury to be travelling with someone who speaks the language and understands the culture. Turks are very warm people but outside of Istanbul there are few people I would have been able to communicate with on my own.

Ozge's depressed about the number of women she's seen in headscarves. She thinks there are more than the last time she was here. She's been having despairing conversations with other secular-minded Turks about it. I didn't get her reaction at first, but basically there's a cultural war on here, and she sees the headscarf as primarily a political statement, not a simple religious preference. And if she sees a woman in a chador - well.

Also, the call to prayer would be more pleasant to listen to if it wasn't amplified. Every minaret has a loudspeaker on it. Every one.

Apart from that: the treasures of half a dozen empires over the last 3000 years, fabulous food and drink, you know, that kind of stuff. Istanbul is obviously one of the Great World Cities, and since I prefer cities to beaches, Ozge had to drag me out. But I'll be back ...

Georgia
Georgians like to eat, they like to make interminable toasts and then drink, and as wikitravel puts it they "believe that guests come from God." Anyway they like fattening their guests up and getting them soused, maybe they were hiding some Hansel and Gretel ovens somewhere. It would fit with the lovely European old city.

Bewildered by the ready availability of espresso and pastries, I barely made it out of Tbilisi. Travellers that did reported incredibly weird shit in the mountains. Georgia has been a Christian country for a long time, but I don't know any variety of Christianity that includes sacrificing goats and leaving their heads on little shrines that women aren't allowed to approach.

Istanbul tomorrow to meet Özge. Looking forward to a shave and (through her) being able to communicate with the locals for the first time in months. I've been constantly astonished at the friendliness of almost everyone everywhere, but after a while you exhaust the possibilities of pidgin English/Russian/Mandarin. "Ah! Los Angeles!" <big smile, thumbs up> "You like [name of interlocutor's city]? Yes?" <big smile, thumbs up> "Eat, eat!"

Verti-go
Woke up in Bishkek yesterday at 4am, dressed and said goodbye to the hosts at Nomad's Home, who'd hosted me for a total of three weeks off and on.

Taxi to airport, watch Russian teens say goodbye with studied cool. Flight lands in Moscow, rush to make connecting flight to Baku, Azerbaijan.

Before leaving Baku customs for waiting embrace of taxi drivers, mental rundown: guidebook? No. Any idea where train station is, or how to say "train station" in Russian or Azeri? No. Ready? No? Ok go.

Taxi driver convinces me to take bus, which rumbles 12 hours to Georgian border. By this point, concerned-looking Georgian man has adopted me, and keeps on eye on me through passport control. Emerge from three separate passport checks smiling ... and then see waiting cattle pen and realize I've only cleared the Azeri exit side of the equation.

Dawn. Taxi from border to old city. Shuffle along in a daze, mapless and lost, before finding Internet cafe. Trudge across bridge, through streets to unmarked door in unmarked house, where plump smiling Irina welcomes me to her guesthouse. She asks my name but "many people, many countries ... maybe I call you just America."

Think I'll stay in Tbilisi for a bit.

Photos I wish I'd taken, #1
In Urumqi, China: a storefront office with several earnest, formally dressed employees hunched over phones. On the back wall, a giant logo in English: MORAL SUBLIMATION.

More Bishkek
There's another American in my guesthouse; he said there's a book title that describes life in Bishkek: "Another Bullshit Night in Suck City". The guesthouse is filled with travellers waiting for visas for half a dozen countries in Central Asia and the Middle East, marking the days (literally: there's a book where people can scratch out days like prisoners. I've been waiting eighteen days for an Uzbek letter of invitation, I've got a shot at #2.)

The city was built after WWII, so it doesn't have a lot of sightseeing value. The local cuisine can get monotonous, although it's nice to be able to get bread and cheese after east Asia. And Bishkek has its share of drunks, crooked cops and young men looking for a fight.

But it's a lovely city during the day, filled with trees, parks, broad Soviet squares. The other guests at Nomad's Home have been wonderful (there's a self-congratulatory saying among backpackers that the weirder the place, the cooler the travellers you meet.) Went hiking for a couple days and met some people on the trail who shared everything, selflessly, which is not always easy to do when you're wet, cold and hungry. I couldn't get these people to accept a beer in return back in Bishkek. A Polish guy gave me the shirt off his back after I told him I liked it. And the guesthouse itself is basically an extension of a Kyrgyz family's home, which may help set the tone.

All that said, where the hell is my Uzbek LOI?

Waiting
Spent the weekend in Chopol Ata, a little beach town on Lake Issy-Kul frequented mostly by Russians. The most eventful part of the weekend was picking our way around a rocky field for a few hours until we found some petroglyphs. But the town was quiet and the lake was lovely, and the guesthouse had a garden filled with roses.

Now back in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan's capital) which also has more Russians than Kyrgyz. I have to think that life is frustrating if you're a young Kyrgyz: your country's economy isn't exactly booming, and many of the best jobs are taken by the same people that occupied your country for the better part of the 20th century.

Letters of invitation are still in process (I hope) so: walking around, sitting in parks, reading, trying to avoid crooked cops.

Possible escape from visa hell
I'm not sure how Genghis Khan managed to sweep across so much territory, given all the consulates to visit, letters of invitation required, etc ...anyway, I'm in Bishkek. I need to be in Istanbul around June 12th to meet Ozge. Not a huge amount of map to cover, really.

Option 1
  • Wait 7-10 days in Bishkek for Uzbek visa
  • Bus to Tashkent, Uzbekistan
  • Wait 7-10 days for Azeri visa
  • Wait 7-10 days for Turkmen transit visa
  • Overland through Turkmenistan
  • Ferry to Baku, Azerbaijan
  • Overland to Georgia (no visa)
  • Overland to Turkey and Istanbul (no visa)
  • ...and arrive a week or two late.

Option 2
  • Wait 7-10 days in Bishkek for Uzbek visa
  • Bus to Tashkent, Uzbekistan
  • Wait 1-2 days for Kazakh visa
  • See touristy stuff in Uzbekistan
  • Overland to Aktau, Kazahkstan
  • Fly to Baku, Azerbaijan
  • Get visa on arrival at airport ($100)
  • Overland to Georgia (no visa)
  • Overland to Turkey and Istanbul (no visa)
  • ...with time to spare.

(thank you, this guy)

update: except ... flights from Aktau to Baku are supposedly $700 or so. Maybe not.

Written on a toilet stall in a Xi'an hostel, next to penis jokes and "I was here" in six languages
"One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time."
- André Gide

Kyrgyzstan!
In Cambodia I met the director of the Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan. I mentioned that I was going to Kyrgyzstan and he laughed and said "why?"

I'm here to tell you, friends, that that man is an idiot. Kyrgyzstan is lovely and unique and weird.

Had the first "oh my god i'm gonna die" moment of the trip yesterday, riding a horse in the mountains. I don't know why they even gave me that whip.

Probably going to apply for an Uzbek visa so I can visit Tashkent, Samarkand and other cradles of Central Asian civilization. Or I might fly to Berlin - want to visit Berlin before the trip is over, and events have transpired such that my trip will now be a bit shorter than I planned ... don't worry, these were good events.

The margins of China
Kashgar is on the western edge of China. Historically it's been home to the Uighurs, a central Asian people, with everything that implies: Islam, kebabs, wonderful hospitality, and totally unplacable physiognomy (I've seen Uighurs with facial features that could be at home anywhere between Paris and Beijing.) Now, as far as Beijing is concerned, it's another potential Tibet - a troublesome ethnic minority demanding an unacceptable degree of autonomy.

Met Gezet on my way to the Sunday market. Never quite figured out his age but I'll guess seventeen. He explained that he was studying English, and invited me to his house, where his mother cooked us lunch. He was quite keen on having me join his English class, so I promised to show up the next night for it.

When I did, a nervous-seeming Uighur man came into the classroom and asked what I was doing there. Turns out that the Chinese police don't like having foreigners in Uighur English classes. Instead I spent an hour talking to a couple of young Uighurs outside the classroom, both studying English. They told me Uighurs would rather study English than Chinese; the young man confided that he didn't like the Chinese much.

A friend of mine met a young Uighur man in Turpan who said that the Uighurs would soon rise up against the Chinese. He claimed that there'd already been a clash between Uighur men and Chinese soldiers northeast of Kashgar, and that 200-300 Uighur men had been killed. When I asked Uighur people whether they heard about this, they changed the subject - the closest I got is that someone said he'd heard "a little" about it. It's plausible though; the call to prayer is outlawed due to a previous Uighur uprising.

The Running Man
Fought my way on to the train in Xi'an (we have assigned seats, people!), stowed my bag, and feel asleep in the middle bunk. Woke up in the desert. Frankly, I feel a bit cheated, was expecting some sort of gradual transition. But I saw camels! I'm not sure I've ever seen any outside of zoos and camel rides at fairs.

Got off in Urumqi, which the guidebook warns is just another Chinese city "with a few kebab sellers." That said, it does feel a bit closer to the end of the earth. Glad I headed this way.

About to follow some helpful directions from another traveller to the Krygz visa office, which hopefully hasn't moved since last May. If it's true that I can get it in three days - and if I can arrange transport across the border quickly in Kashgar - should just make it out without getting jailed by the PSB for overstaying my visa.

West
After getting a rude shock on visa extensions, I wasted a few days in Xi'an doing some hard-core dithering about my next move. (Also hanging out with a couple very cool people from France and China, about which more later, maybe.)

I planned to have a pretty leisurely jaunt through the desert in China's Xinjiang province, on the way to Kashgar for the border crossing into Kyrgyzstan. Without the visa extension that turns into a hectic sprint. So the smart move would be to make it easy on myself, head east to Beijing, hang out a few days and hop a flight from there.

Bought the train ticket to Beijing. Woke up the next day with a sick feeling, and realized I couldn't get excited about Beijing. I've spent a lot of time in cities recently, and as much as I'd love to see New Weird China, I've been looking forward to the Torugart Pass, and watching east Asia turn into central Asia, for too long to give it up now.

So I ripped up* the ticket to Beijing and booked a 33-hour train journey to Urumqi. Maybe not the smartest move, but it won't be boring.

(*that's Chinese for "got a refund at 80% face value")

Arithmetic
Question 4: Lukas has a visa lasting 30 days. He can get an extension to his visa, but only for 14 days. If approved, the 14 days begin on the day the extension was applied for. The visa extension takes five working days to process.

How many days can Lukas stay in China if he receives one visa extension? For extra credit, how does the answer change if there is a weekend during the last five days of his original visa?

Update:I can fly from Beijing to Berlin for $578. Tempting.

Come to Sichuan province. Really
As I've said, Chengdu wasn't hit all that hard compared to the smaller villages closer to the epicenter. However, I'm hearing a lot of travellers who were planning to visit Sichuan provinces say things like "no, I should stay away, I'd just drain resources."

Actually, most of the tourist circuit is just fine. The biggest worry for a lot of people here is that the flow of visitors has dried up completely. Just got back from Emei Shan, one of China's four sacred Buddhist mountains, and there was hardly anyone else there. That doesn't happen in China. There are 1.3 billion people here, millions of travellers at any given time, and this is high season.

So in the unlikely event this reaches any travellers that are trying to make a decision: come. Spend your money on local food and board. Try and volunteer if you like, although I don't know anyone that's been able to, they're flooded with people who want to volunteer. But come. People will be happy to see you.

After the rain
Well, don't believe everything you read: they didn't shut off the water in Chengdu, and now I have a bunch of bottles that are 10% juice, 90% sugar. Trying to figure out of the trains are running to destinations near Chengdu; a lot of the tourist destinations (temples, mountains) in Sichuan are now closed. In the meantime, I'm having some of my favorite food of the entire trip. I now realize that I knew nothing about Chinese food before I came here. Nothing at all.

Oh and also: Kenya. Maybe. Wish me luck.

Aftershocks
The aftershocks keep coming; the most recent was around 11am this morning, almost two days after the quake. Rumors were flying for a while about a second quake that was supposed to hit around 5pm yesterday, then it was scheduled for 10pm to 2am. ("Don't go to sleep!" they said, "the buildings won't be safe!" We slept like stones.)

My friend Laura used to work in public radio in the States, so affiliates keep calling her cell phone for an "eyewitness report". We find this hilarious because we have only a street-level view in a city that was mostly fine. We haven't even seen the pictures yet from the villages that were hardest hit.

She has to tell them that there's little obvious damage in Chengdu, and unlike the villages near the epicenter, few people have been hurt so far. There have been power outages, some people are sleeping outside, either by choice or necessity, and many shops and restaurants have stayed closed since the quake. But mostly the city has hummed along with just an extra current of nervous energy.

Today though, one rumor came true: they shut off the water supply. Everyone remembers the contamination of the water supply in Harbin by benzene, and no one knows what could be happening to Chengdu's water. So people are in full-on food and water hoarding mode; I have a backpack full of orange juice bottles myself.

By the way, for friends and family: I'm hanging out with three people here, all of whom live in China and speak Chinese. So we'll be alright.

Earthquake
Got off the sleeper train from Kunming to Chengdu ten minutes before the earth started shaking. We were at a bus station and we figured that we were standing on hollow ground, with buses driving over ... but then the tremors got stronger, and stronger, and lasted longer than we could believe.

We boarded our bus after the earthquake, and started a two-hour bus ride through China's fifth-largest city. It's normally twenty minutes, but people had fled buildings all over the city and were trying to get home to family they couldn't reach over the overstressed cell network. A couple times we saw crowds running for safety in the middle distance and realized we were in the middle of an aftershock.

Got off the bus and the US Consulate was closed, of course, so Laura couldn't apply to get her stolen passport replaced. Found a bar nearby and ordered some beer. Spent a couple hours waiting for the power to come back on, and a couple more hours trying to find a hotel with an open room.

Finally checked into a hotel, where they wouldn't let us into our room since the government was "checking things out". Eventually a hotel official came by to tell us we could go to our rooms. We asked him some questions, and that's when we found out that five to ten thousand people were thought to be dead.

In China
Wake up in Luang Nam Tha, Laos. The guesthouse advised me to be half an hour early to the bus, as it might fill up. It fills up, slowly. People come, deposit bags and wander off, returning half an hour or an hour later. Sit. Wait. Fidget. (No, I'm still not good at this after almost 3 months in southeast Asia.) A couple hours after I get there the pickup truck starts driving toward Boten and the border.

The Chinese officials who screened me were probably just bored. They spoke good English and there was no one else coming through at the time, maybe that's why they methodically took apart my bag. Well, one of them methodically took apart my bag and the other one pulled out novels and started reading the opening sentences aloud, and asked questions about some photos I'd brought. "This is your girlfriend?" The other tried to be exhaustive and went through all the items in my first aid kit.

"That's medicine. Antibiotics."
"That's medicine. Diarrhea."
"That's medicine, for my stomach."

But he missed my iPod and digital camera, which probably would have interested him more.

Next stop was the nearest town, Mengla, on the way to Jinghong, the local provincal capital. Get into minivan. Sit, wait, fidget. A couple Israelis were the last to board. They told me how disappointed they were with how touristy China was, and we argued about the Cavs' chances against the Celtics.

Meanwhile the landscape starts out pretty similar to Laos, hot flattish jungle. My first hint that I'm in a different kind of place comes when we pass through a 3km tunnel, a perfect white tile cylinder projected straight through the earth. Then the scenery starts exploding around me as the road winds through the hills; huge, steep rock faces, deep valleys, constant changes in elevation.

We reach Mengla and buy tickets for a bus leaving in 15 minutes for Jinghong. Starving, we dash into a noodle shop, point at plates on someone else's table, and sit down. Inhale food and get into a larger bus that takes us through more jaw-dropping scenery, until we reach Jinghong, which in scale and apparent wealth (relative to most of southeast Asia) is pretty jaw-dropping itself. Walking around at night you get a sense of energy lacking in much of southeast Asia, which seems pretty sleepy by comparison. And to cap off this day of days, when I get into my $4 air-con hotel room, my TV is showing the Spurs-Hornets game.

Back in Chiang Mai
Yesterday picked up a Chinese visa in Bangkok and boarded an overnight bus north to Chiang Mai - there are many, many buses in my future. The bus left from the backpacker hub of Bangkok; it was a sleeper, which in my case meant a seat that reclined close to horizontal but also yo-yoed up and down with every bump in the road. Our drab, industrial transport was passed on the road by dozens of airbrushed, spiffy-looking luxury buses decorated with the kind of colored lights beloved by Thais.

Twelve hours later, the bus stopped outside of Chiang Mai before loading us onto minibuses. These deposited us in front of a guesthouse (a typical harmless scam, we'd been told we were headed to the center of town) that tried to hook us as soon as we touched pavement. I and a kid from Mexico grabbed our bags and walked five minutes to the center, before going our separate ways.

Over coffee and breakfast I decided to give myself a night in a bed before tackling the next seven hours of bus ride to the Laos border. Before finding a guesthouse I found an Internet cafe. Using the adrenaline left over from arriving in a new city, I finally finished revising my resume and writing a cover letter for a non-profit job I might apply for. Two days to decide.

T minus
Fingers crossed, I pick up a visa for China in two days and start the journey north. In the meantime, hanging out with a friend in Ayutthaya, an hour outside of Bangkok. Someday I'll sketch a map of my travels and the first two months will be a bunch of circles that all link up in Bangkok.

Met an English guy last night, a writer who lived in San Francisco for eight years. Sitting at a table with a bunch of Thais and Westerners, trading toasts. Turns out saying "Chuck D!" is a very polite toast in Thai.

Fuck
Ok, so there's Tibet and the Olympics. And now, China's push for order and control is affecting their visa requirements. Current rules for Chinese tourist visas require:

  • A round-trip airplane ticket
  • A hotel booking for the length of your stay

... neither of which I have, of course, since I was planning to enter overland from Laos and find guesthouses along the way. Additionally, rumor has it that China west of Chengdu is closed to tourists, which would make my overland trip to Kyrgyzstan difficult. Oh, and I may not be able to stay in the country longer than thirty days at a time.

If everything was easy, it wouldn't be fun, right?


Man, this sucks.

So many photos
Just uploaded a pile of new photos, bringing me up to date for the first time.









A cremation
Adi at the bookstore up the street scribbled a map on a piece of paper: right at the statue, left at the traffic light, elephant cave on the right, holy water temple 10 klicks up the road.

So to the elephant cave, and after buying my ticket and descending the steps I find, as per usual, a clutch of guides waiting to latch on to tourists. One of them, whose name is Made, asks me how I'm doing, and, unusually for me, I actually engage him in conversation. He ends up walking me around the cave and temple complex, giving detailed and precise information about everything we saw.

Made's easily the brightest guide I've had on my trip. His speech patterns are the same as most Balinese English-speakers, but communications are nearly frictionless, and he uses words like "auspicious" and "microcosm" in ways that clearly aren't rote. He's 21, and studies English and religion at his local temple. University is out of the question, too expensive.

At the end, of the tour, Made asks if I'd like to attend a cremation ceremony at his village the next day. Remembering something from the guidebook about cremation being the most ... something of Balinese religious ceremonies, I said yes. Next morning Kristin and I jump on the motorbike and meet Made at the elephant cave, and then follow him through a net of little roads past rice terraces to his village.

Most Balinese are Hindu, and the main purpose of the cremation ceremony as Made explained it to us is to help the dead person's spirit move on to the next world. There's a torch to light the way, since the spirit world is dark. The body is spun around many times on its way to the cremation site, to prevent it from finding its way back to its home in this world. There's a lot of unnecessary shouting. It's a decent party.

Made can't quite believe that Kristin and I aren't dating. He asks a couple times, laughing before and after the question. He thinks Western men are lucky - the idea of sex before marriage intrigues him greatly. He thinks Westerners in general are lucky: money, the ability to travel, personal freedom. Kristin points out the parts of Balinese society that she thinks Made's lucky to have: the close-knit communities, the relaxed rhythm of life here. But we both have to agree, we were born lucky.

Two wooden bulls containing the remains of the deceased burn quickly, assisted by gas tanks. A light dusting of ash scatters over the crowd as we leave.

Mount Batur
For my 30th birthday (tis true) a friend and I got up at 3am to hike up a volcano in Bali for a spectacular sunrise. Cooked breakfast in the volcano-heated ground and threw rocks at monkeys to keep them away from our food. As my friend Cory put it, "any day you get to throw rocks at monkeys is a good day."

Phnom Penh
Before I got to Phnom Penh, all I really knew about it was that a friend of mine got jumped there (by three guys ... and he fought them all off. Go Phil and his tournament-level kung fu.) The city itself has a nicer feel than Thailand's capital, much smaller, quieter, less developed, with broad tree-lined streets and (crumbling) colonial architecture.

The must-see tourist attractions in the city are memorials to genocide. The Killing Fields are mass graves for thousands of people (out of the millions that died during the Khmer Rouge's time in power) and Tuol Sleng is a former high school, used by the Khmer Rouge as a mass prison and torture facility.

It's incredible to me that the Cambodian people haven't gotten even an attempt at closure. If I have this right, no senior Khmer Rouge officials have ever been tried for their crimes, largely because of their ties to the current government. Worse, I'm told that some young Cambodians don't believe what they're told about the Khmer Rouge years: "no way - how could anyone live on a single ball of rice a day?" well, they didn't.

From Phnom Penh I flew back to Bangkok, thence to Bali to spend some time in the waves.

Bali
Me: So you've seen Kelly Slater surf?
Indonesian Merman / Surf Guru: Yes.
Me: And you like him?
IM/SG: Ah man (laughs) Kelly is the best.

Me: So I need to paddle faster? or pop up faster?
IM/SG: You need to paddle faster. And pop up faster.

IM/SG: (with great conviction) Keep your feeling!

Extract from 20 March 2008 diary entry
In Yaklom Hill Lodge, just outside of Ban Lung in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province. Hot jungle and red dust ("Cambodian snow"). One more minute of electricity before they shut it off tonight, and tomorrow I start three days of trekking to hill tribe villages with a guide and three Belgian girls.

Nice up here - quiet, more remote, the people haven't worn grooves into their ways of interacting with tourists yet. Swam in a volcanic lake today, cool, clear and perfectly circular. Also, there was an Australian family with a young Cambodian man - the family has a son living in Phnom Penh with the Cambodian family, and after a year they all consider each other family, "blood brothers" as one of the Australians said. There were eight other Cambodian locals on the dock with us, just watching, until one of them started talking to me. He mentioned his training - scuba diving, swimming with a rifle for 4km - before getting to the point. Did I have a girlfriend? Well he didn't, and he was looking for a European girlfriend, and (he looked over at the Belgian girls) could I maybe help him out ... ?

It's not so preposterous. I spent a day in Kompong Cham on the way to Ratanakiri hanging out with an Irishman I met, Gerry: an old hippie, an artist, a writer and a chef. We shared a tuk-tuk around town. When our driver found out Gerry was Irish, he smiled and said he was going to Ireland, and showed us a glossy tourist booklet. Apparently one of his customers offered to bring him over for a few months at her expense. Gerry's comment that she probably "wants to throw a leg over him" aside, I guess you can't have two people, even from wildly different backgrounds, meet without some blurring at the edges.

Nice to be in a guesthouse where you can meet and talking to people without a constant hormone-fuelled party cycle, as fun as that is. I'm old.

I might stay on when the trek's over, depending on my cash reserves (no ATMs in town.) There seem to be endless spots to explore up here, villages and waterfalls and a huge, basically unknown national park, subject of many opposed rumors (it's filled with tigers and jaguars; you'll never see interesting wildlife; etc.) Mostly, what excites me about it is it's the first blank spot on the map I've found, my first chance to experience something that doesn't have a written approximation somewhere. I'd have to trek for days to see anything, we'll see if I still have the appetite in five days, but it's just sort of looming there ... and there, the lights just went out.

Siam Reap
Two days into a three-day amble around Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples. (That means I'm in Cambodia, by the way.) After Thailand it's refreshing to be in a place that hasn't perfected every aspect of providing service to tourists. As friendly as everyone is, it's also a deeply wounded country. But the temples of Angkor are such a momentous, living event, you see them everywhere as Cambodians remind themselves what they're capable of.

Trying to decide about a potential long train ride down to the capital. Triple the length of a bus trip, but you don't get to sit on top of the bus.

Dear Powder Bar Guesthouse, Chiang Mai
Sorry I broke your floor.

The food
a photo of a plate of fried rice

Somebody asked me for travel stories today and I had to throw up my hands. The most adventurous thing I've done so far is the Thai barbeque place I just visited. The buffet of raw meat and vegetables (some meant to be grilled, some not) were like a bunch of "NO!" illustrations for a travel health brochure. But it smelled so good ... the routine would have been familiar to any LA resident who's visited Koreatown. The main difference was that instead of the marinade, it was all about the delicious, chili-rich dipping sauces. Ok, a few random points:

Why it's better here
Find any popular food stall where you can watch your meal get cooked in front of you, and you get:
  • Fresh-cooked food
  • from fresh ingredients
  • from a stall that does just one thing, and well enough to have a following
  • in a country that cares about food.

Khao Soi
It's the new hamburger: tasty, addictive comfort food. Egg noodles, meat, etc, in a curry soup, topped with crunchy noodles. There must be somewhere in LA that has it. This is a perfect letter to Jonathan Gold at the LA Weekly actually: "ah yes, that delicious northern Thai specialty. There are several places in Los Angeles that claim to offer the real thing, but only one ..." etc etc

Also
  • Fried rice doesn't suck.
  • I had the best fried chicken of my life here.
  • Met someone from Taiwan who claims chicken satay is a Malaysian dish.

More photos


Bunch more photos, all out of order.

In Pai
Been hanging out in Pai with a couple guys, one Thai, one Austrian. Pai's a sleepy little town in the northeast corner of Thailand that has somehow become a landlocked hippie beach paradise. There's some kind of fractal landscape of coffee joints, guesthouses and internet cafes, new spots keep appearing between places you've already seen. (And bars, of course, everywhere, not that you can't buy your Beer Chang from any corner store.)

Travellers that are opposed to Westernized, tourist-centric scenes obviously hate it. I find it hard to hate Pai, since it is a truly laid-back place, but it is a little weird - why come this far to get the same music, food and bar scene you do at home?

As I was mentally composing that smug little write-off, sipping beer under a thatched roof at my guesthouse, a track from Peace Orchestra's first album came on ("Mister Petz", a favorite.) The cognitive dissonance almost split my head open, that was exactly the song I wanted to hear.

A few photos
These are going to slowly trickle in ...

Photos
...are coming, sorry I'm so lazy. Am up in Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, after spending a couple days drinking with a bunch of English teachers in Ayutthaya. I'm sort of ambivalent about the idea of trekking through remote villages (poverty voyeurism?) but it's apparently the thing to do up here. We'll see. Tomorrow meeting up with a friend of a friend who works for an NGO up here. Now: food.

Extract from correspondence
"... Bangkok has some really cool stuff, but it's also a giant smoggy city that's difficult to get around. Lots and lots of walking on blistered feet, lots of dodging of minibikes, and a moderate amount of dying of heatstroke. That said, I've had the best massage of my life, best chicken satay and roast pork ever, and now that I've visited the Grand Palace I know where all shiny things come from. Oh and yeah, the waffle (stuffed with chocolate) was pretty damn good.

Next up is Ayuthaya, to the north, and after that Lopburi, both ancient cities with lots of ruins, Lopburi apparently now ruled by a bunch of monkeys. Wish me luck ..."

Welcome to the land of smiles, also home to the world's sleepiest security guards
Based on a secondhand recommendation, I moved from the super-populated backpacker ghetto near Khao San Road to a guesthouse in a sleepy neighborhood in the middle of Bangkok. Feeling sorta smug about cutting my lodging bill in half, to less than $7.
Met up with a couple of other tourists, a nurse from Spain and a Canadian expat living in Taiwan. The Canadian had been hit on by a teenaged monk earlier that day who'd told her he loved her and more or less lunged at her chest. The three of us hit up one of the seedy go-go bars everyone's supposed to visit, and argued our way out of the bullshit $33 per person cover charge they try to tack onto everyone's bill on their way out.
Today: well it's not over, but I spent an hour or two in Chinatown, easily the most overwhelming part of the trip so far. Between the stores and the stalls, the sidewalk was about one person wide. The whole population of Bangkok managed to squeeze through this corridor in two opposing streams. The overwhelming part though was the variety and intensity of aromas, sounds and sights coming from the different stalls. Then I glimpsed a bunch of Chinese lanterns hanging at the end of a passageway and ended up in a huge temple complex in the middle of the city, built by a Thai king in Chinese style, and all I could smell was incense.

Day 1
Wandering around Bangkok in a jetlagged, smoggy haze. I am not short of friends: many tuk-tuk drivers are eager to talk to me. Drinking with a student from Maniz whose trip was ending, I decided I need a plan, so while I'm waiting for Stephen and Mary to pass through in a couple of days, I'm going to eat my way through the city.

What I know about Thailand
... can be contained in this blog entry.

Bangkok

Phuket

Chiang Mai

Islands
  • Ko Kut (had enough tourist ghettos to last me a lifetime...)

Mae Hong Son Province

Where I'm At
I have:
  • an airplane ticket
  • a visa
  • a bag
  • four more days in the office
  • a bunch of stuff to get rid of before I leave

...and an incredible amount of impatience. Digging deep for a final push.

The Mongol Rally
"We can't guarantee your arrival at the finish line, or your safety." London to Mongolia. Maybe I'll try to intersect the route.

Places I want to go
  • Berlin
  • Prague
  • Istanbul
  • China
  • Thailand
  • Yunnan Province

Recommendations I've gotten for my trip
  • the 1000 islands in laos
  • yunan province
  • western sichuan province (esp langmusi)
  • all of kyrgyzstan
  • bukhara in UZ
  • "i hear kazakhstan is boring, and i hear that tajikistan is cool, also georgia"

Things I need for my trip
  • Mandarin-English phrasebook
  • Nerve
  • visa dates

Gap year: better late than never

Of course, there is also the "fuck it, close your eyes and jump" school. That's only cool if you're actually breaking new ground. If you're backpacker #32413 to visit this "undiscovered" piece of the world, suck it up and learn. (update now disagree with this ... have closed my eyes, and am crouching to leap...)

Other
Games, Video, History, Berlin, Activism, Friday, Clothes, Feminism, San Francisco, Podcasts, Quizzes, Sports, Statistics, Personal care, CrowdFlower, Travel, Minnesota, Transportation, Law, Geography, Bicycling, Politik, Life hacks, Toys, L.A., Housing, Boston, Food & Drink, Agriculture, Surfing, NYC

Tech
a11y, Javascript, Audio, Open, RSS, Shopping, Social, Net, Storage, Wearables, Product Management, Hardware, Web analytics, Business, Mobile, Security, Medical, Visual, WRX, barcamp, Crowdsourcing, s60, Web, OS, Development, Collaboration, Data, MacOS, PIM, Automobile, Energy

Music
Good tracks, Musicians, Mailing lists, History, Shopping, Reviews, Streams, Booking, Business, Labels, Making, Mixes, Hip-hop, Lyrics, Mp3s, House, Videos, L.A., Events, Boston

People
Vocations, Weblogs, Enemies, ADD, Meditation, Friends, Heroes, Health, Family, Languages, Me, MOTAS, Subcultures, Stories, Gossip, Working with, Life hacks, Exercise

Commerce
Personal finance, Web, Real Estate, Investing, Macroeconomics, Insurance, Shopping, Microfinance, Personal services, Non-profit, Taxes, Marketing and CRM, International Development, IP Law, Management consulting

Arts
Movies, Animation, Comix, Visual, Literature, Humor, Burning Man, Rhetoric, Outlets, Sculpture, iPad bait, Events, Spoken Word, Poetry

Design
Type, Cool, Data visualization, Web, Tools, IA, Process, Furniture, User experience, Architecture, Algorithmic, Presentations

Science
Zoology, Networks, Psychology, Statistics and Data, Environment, Physics

Travel
Uganda, Vagabond '08, Kenya, Kingdom of Siam

Photos
Photos I Wish I'd Taken, Friends, Moblog

Philosophy
Mind

Internet classic

One Acre Fund

Mathematics

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