Cambodia Southeast Asia

To Hold the Bones of the Dead

Current Location: Sihanoukville. Cambodia
Current  Weather: 88°F (feels like 95°F)
Days Gone: 124
Days Remaining:92

I really hate to gloss over the scuba diving in Nha Trang, the sand dunes of Mue Ne, and the electric chaos of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), but such is the way of blogging. I had an illness, anyway, in HCMC, which closely resembled a cold but that I’m sure was the result of bad quail eggs found in a few street-vendor steamed buns. Also, spending half a night sleeping on a wooden bench while waiting for the bus did not help my situation. At the end of this series of events I found myself crouch running the length of an American football field through the Cu Chi Tunnels with a stuffed up nose. My quadriceps still have not totally forgiven me for this sin. On the upside, I did manage to divert two separate but very organized attempts to rob me. After a bit of research, I have discovered these attempts were made by members of the Filipino Mafia. So that’s exciting.

I have since crossed my third land border into my fourth country: Cambodia. I spent a few nights in Phnom Penh, the capital, in a cheap room which undoubtedly used to be a kitchen. Tile climbed halfway up the walls and there was a mysterious door with a massive, spider-webbed pad-lock. It seems less people use chopsticks here and more people drive cars, all of which are Toyota Camrys. The addition of four-wheeled vehicles (and a plethora of tuk-tuks) makes crossing the streets that much more frightening. The weirdest thing I’ve seen thus far, though, has been group choreographed dancing in a nearby park. That sounds almost elegant until you see forty Cambodians fist pumping and hip-rolling to a remix of T-Pain’s, “Take Your Shirt Off.” At first I thought, “I’ll never, ever see that again.” Then a block up I saw a different group grooving to Pitbull’s, “Room Service.” The most absurd part was seeing all the families sitting around listening to the (very, very) explicit lyrics in English.

Cambodia is on two different currencies simultaneously. The first is the Cambodian Riel. The second is the United States Dollar. This creates what I refer to as “The Dollar Phenomenon,” which makes bartering slightly more difficult. It’s mostly psychological; when I want a moto driver to take me across town and he demands $2, I feel a bit strange countering with “fifty cents.” So I’ve started switching all bartering to riel. At about 4,000 riel to the dollar, 1,000 riel notes are essentially quarters, as no coins in either currency are minted in Cambodia. If I want something for 75 cents, offering 3,000 riel keeps me thinking in the local currency. With a budget of $15 per day, the dollars add up quick. It’s important to avoid the “everything is so cheap” mentality to stay on budget. Especially when a nice looking (counterfeit) Rolex costs only $15. It’s too bad they are reported to have a 100% failure rate.

In case anyone is wondering, I did not burn the Koran this September 11th. Instead of celebrating my freedom with displays of thoughtlessness, I chose to visit the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. This is a quiet, peaceful site where 17,000 innocent Cambodians were violently bludgeoned to death under the Khmer Rouge (the ruling party in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979). Use the wiki-link to give yourself a history lesson. Before I went, I was told by two Argentinians that it was a waste of time, that there “was nothing to see there.” After my visit, I can’t help but wonder if they walked through with closed eyes. The detainees were often executed with pickaxes or bamboo rods or garden hoes in an effort to save bullets, then dumped into mass graves. To prevent revenge attempts later in life, babies where held by the legs and smashed into a tree. I don’t know if I would have believed it otherwise, but I saw the tree. I saw the mass graves. I saw the victim’s partially disintegrated clothing pushing up through the dry earth. And their bones. And their teeth. And in the towering commemorative stupa, I gazed into the empty sockets of 8,000 skulls, and listened to the whispers of the dead. Many of those people, perhaps most of them, would still be alive today.

Last thing consumed: Papaya Shrimp Salad, Battered and Fried Calamari, Morning Glory, and Steamed Rice
Thought fragment: I’ve been reading a lot of science stuff recently to try to keep my brain in tune. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is consistently fascinating.

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Southeast Asia Vietnam

The Eye of the Storm

Current Location: Nha Trang, Vietnam
Current  Weather: 87
°F (feels like 101°F)
Days Gone: 115
Days Remaining: 101

I am now past the halfway point in this seven month journey. The halfway point, an instant in time like any other. Yet it is a time that begs the past to be weighed against the future, and all the while I sit in the present holding the scales. I’ve seen giant waterfalls and caves and mountains and beaches. I’ve been part of the street-side mayhem in capital cities and I’ve enjoyed the serenity of nowhere. I can flag down a local bus, barter in local currency, and eat elbow to elbow and knee to knee with locals despite having only a smile in common. I can sleep peacefully with a giant spider in the room. I can bathe in the rain. I have excreted sweat in a greater volume in the last hundred days that I have in my entire life. I have suffered swollen feet and bug bites and conjunctivitis. I have eaten a great quantity of bugs. But I have looked into the eyes and minds and hearts of countless individuals, and I have seen truths that press laughter or pain or hope or fear directly into my soul. My five senses have achieved a greater depth and range of perception, or perhaps I have simply given them a world worth perceiving.

This nomadic lifestyle has become my normality. There is a balance that must be maintained. It is true that enough movement, enough change, and enough chaos can unravel a life’s path to the point where it can be sewn anew. And it must be. It is a great opportunity that one’s tattered remains can be stitched and tacked and mended with the new experiences to be stronger than ever before, steadfast and ready to weather the next storm. It is with shuddering steps that we tread into the changing light. But we adapt. We always do. With new smiles and new promises and new hope we can always take that next breath, we can always take that next step.

So, take a moment, and consider your next step. Because we’re all walking somewhere. It’s absolutely respectable if you don’t know where you’re going, but you sure as hell better be moving your feet. Even if you’re just dancing in place, those feet had better be moving.

Now, I could tell you about motorbiking down from the mountains of Sapa and into the humidity once again. I could enlighten you to the scams and touts that work the Bac Ha market. Or I could frighten you with tales of a landslide that backed up two-wheeled traffic on steep, cliff-side road slick with mud. I could write of the colorful discovery of a Flower Hmong village and the tranquility which was found there. I could summarize the journey by train halfway down the country to Hue. Or I could address my brief and perplexing friendship with a Vietnamese Kung Fu family man and our journey to the elephant springs, and further, our consumption of an entire mountain chicken, head included.

But I’m not. Because beyond the brief summary you get by me not telling you, I simply cannot capture the flavor of white rose dumplings in Hoi An; I cannot describe the glow of colored lights on the river, or the fluttering music of a singing blind woman; I cannot give you the rumble of dragging a motorbike to the top of a mountain, overlooking the sea, on a road the width of a sidewalk and cratered with potholes. Because I can’t give you the air to breathe, or the heat, or the people. There is a magic in the details that someday you will have to claim for yourself. I’ve tried before. And next time I write, I will try again. But this time, at this halfway point, I’m still weighing the past against the future. Because sometimes it seems everything worth measuring is defined by its opposite. And how well can a free man write of freedom if it’s all he knows?

Last thing consumed: Grilled Ostrich (among other things)
Thought fragment: I do like storms though…

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Southeast Asia Vietnam

A City in the Clouds

Current Location: Sapa, Vietnam
Current  Weather: 70
°F (feels like winter to me)
Days Gone: 101
Days Remaining: 115

Not until Sapa has an offer of, “hey mate, ya wanna grab a beer,” escalated into such an eventful and multicultural experience. I had arrived in a daze at sunrise after taking a night train to Lao Cai (on the Chinese border) and then a minibus onward, so I passed out immediately upon finding a bed. After sleeping into the afternoon, I wandered to the open window to discover that Sapa truly was a City in the Clouds. Mist shrouded mountains descended into green waves of rice paddies, with spots of clouds floating both above and below. I wandered the town for a while to get my bearings and was followed all the while by a persistent entourage of ethnic minorities attempting to sell me handicrafts. When I returned to my hotel (which luckily offered an affordable dorm room) I met a dread-locked hippie who had been living in Sapa for two months. He was just heading out for a drink and invited me to join him. I soon found myself in the company of a handful of other foreigners who had found themselves “stuck” in the wondrous mountain frontier. Our numbers at the corner Bia Hoi were outmatched by Hmong women, all of whom seemed familiar with my dread-locked friend and the rest of the western crowd. It turned out to be the birthday of one of the Hmong women, and the celebration continued over dinner at a nearby restaurant which included countless shots of apple-flavored “happy water” (otherwise known as rice wine moonshine, served by the shot from a plastic water bottle). By the night’s end, I was half-carrying my new friend back to the hotel, guided by a small Hmong girl who happened to know the way.

It was through this meeting that I came to know many of the locals on day one, and I quickly found myself entrenched in Hmong culture. For a time I spent my days helping to fix up a local school (founded only six weeks ago) and my nights watching the clouds slide through the streets from various food and drink spots around the small city. It’s easy to see how someone could get very, very comfortable here. After a few days the Hmong women in the streets came to know my face, and more often waved in greeting instead of sales attempts. I had moved up in status from the typical weekend tourist. And by chatting with the girls on the street, I again met the one who had led my friend and me home on my first night. With surprisingly good English and a mischievous smile, she told me of a long path to her home village, “it special way, more beautiful, tourist do not know. Long way also, tour company no sell because tourist cannot walk so far.” So I hired her as a guide on the spot.

The following day I looked down upon the cascading rice paddies, splashing together and consuming one another, endless in their attempts to reach the sky. Mountain winds pressed against us, not threatening but a firm reminder that we were very far from home. My tiny mountain guide stood on thin legs and grinned at me.
“You think it beautiful like postcard?”
“Yes, Ha, I think it is more beautiful than a postcard.” Her grin spread into a wide smile,
“You are happy.” It wasn’t a question. Just a statement of fact. Having learned English by talking to tourists on the streets of Sapa, Ha had her own eclectic way of expressing things. She often led our conversations into the philosophical, talking of life and love. “Someone can be very big on the outside,” she told me, “but sometimes on the inside they are not so big.” Later she would calmly explain to me the threats of opium addiction, parents selling their children, and poor medical care. I met one of the “sold” children. “They will tell the baby when he is older so he can go find his brothers and sisters.” She taught me the ways of rice and water buffalo, and in the same breaths spoke of friends who had died. “No worry, we all die for sure. Maybe I see her in second life.” I watched her as she stared out at the infinite green that was her home, and I knew she was also staring down the countless adversities that stood before her. And as I watched her squint into the wind with eyes brimming equally with dreams and sorrow, I realized that in that moment my new friend was a stronger person than I could ever hope to be.

After three hours of walking, climbing, and fighting squelching mud paths, we stopped for lunch on some rocks next to a river. I pulled a small bundle of tightly wrapped plastic bags from my day-pack, food which Ha had purchased back in town, and watched as she systematically opened them and spread the contents across her lap and on a nearby rock. The three bags contained a healthy slab of roast chicken, steamed rice, and a delicate mix of salt, chillies, bamboo, and lime. The previously gentle rain began to pick up, so we traded off the job of holding the umbrella while we ate with our hands. Three village children sat nearby under their own umbrellas and watched us, seemingly fascinated. I’m not surprised, really; I had barely seen any other locals over the past hours, much less any foreigners, just as Ha had promised.

When we arrived at the target village, Lao Chai, the tiny homestay had no food to provide. Ha suggested walking on to another village, Ta Van, with a better homestay. An hour later, in perfect darkness, we reached our destination. In total we had traveled about fifteen kilometers and visited five villages. It turned out that the family that owned the place was just sitting down to dinner. And the meal turned out to be the biggest and best I have had since entering Vietnam: chicken with bell peppers, pork with carrots and onions, fried spring rolls, steamed rice, boiled cabbage, my personal favorite, cow stomach, a couple dipping sauces, and, of course, “happy water.” The following morning, after a short three hour hike to a waterfall, we reached a road where I was able to charter a motorbike to take Ha and myself back into Sapa.

I will remain here for a few more days (at risk of needing a visa extension later) if only to further absorb this wondrous place. I fear that when I inevitably return it may be changed, perhaps, beyond recognition. Shout outs go to Tetsugoro (from back in Hanoi). Glen, dread-locked master of Sapa, I am lucky to have met you. The ladies of Holland Yanniek and Diona. Martin 1, professional dumpster diver and married to a Hmong woman, thank you for dinner. Red-bearded Peter. Shu, founder of the local school which is still so new that there isn’t even info on her website yet. Claudio. Sebastian (damn you for buying Tequila shots). Tom, hope your foot heals. Cedric. Martin 2. The countless Hmong who have shared their lives and their smiles, but in particular to Ha, who has changed my life forever.

Last thing consumed: Chicken and rice
Thought fragment: I made the delightful mistake of buying a a few souvenirs. Now, with the requirement of shipping a box home via a two-month slow boat, I can’t stop buying all the amazing handmade stuff. For lack of a better term, I’ve been Hmonging out.

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Laos Southeast Asia Vietnam

How to Stop Time in the 4,000 Islands

Current Location: Hanoi, Vietnam
Current  Weather: 90
°F (feels like 107°F)
Days Gone: 92
Days Remaining: 124

I have great difficulty doing nothing for extended periods of time. That is, stretches of inactivity almost always leave me anxious and craving some sort of creative outlet or physical exertion. I attribute this to the passing of time, which I’ve always seen as incredibly valuable, something not to be “wasted.” The longer I idle, the need for movement increases exponentially. But I found a place where time stands still. I idled for a full week on Don Det, one of the 4,000 Islands in Southern Laos, and during that time I craved nothing. The following is a passage I wrote while still on the island, outside of time’s grasp; perhaps it will help to explain the phenomenon.

My time here is spent reading, or thinking, or eating, or speaking. We do not multitask. Every morning begins with the croaking guffaw of a rooster, the giggles of children, the thudding of boat engines crawling up and downstream, pushing canoes of people with destinations. We do not feel the pull of time. Our daily decision is what to eat. Everything else is determined by the weather. When the sun shines we dive into the Mekong. When it rains we huddle together under shelter and laugh at the wind. We play with animals. We look to the mountains of Cambodia. We watch a cloud rise over the horizon, and watch it until it moves overhead and out of sight. Our limbs go to sleep and wake up and we never know. We watch sandals float downstream. We wait for the rain. We wait for the sun. We listen. We walk through the mud, which ranges from soppy and wet to firm, cold clay beneath our feet. We sleep at night. We sleep in the afternoon. We sleep in beds, in hammocks, and on the floor. We sleep in the sun. We sleep on wooden planks stretched out over the Mekong. We eat with our hands and flick ants off our arms. The bottoms of our feet have become rough and gray. We eat and drink together. We watch whirlpools form in the Mekong, like aquatic dust-devils. We feel the winds of approaching rain. Sometimes the wind lies, and the sun returns, and so we laugh and dive into the Mekong. We fish and catch nothing, then retire to the floor cushions from the effort. 

We take guesses at when it will rain during the day. We drink at nights, and sometimes during the day, too. We watch naked and half-clothed children play on the dirt path. We watch naked and half-clothed children play in the Mekong. We play in the Mekong too. Every evening dragonflies claim the sky as their own, demonstrating aerial superiority in the hundreds. We look at the mountains of Cambodia in the distance. We look at the water buffaloes chewing grass in the path. We look at brown cows standing in rice paddies. But mostly we look at the river and the sky. The painted clouds are sometimes too bright to look at directly. Sunsets press the deepest reds and oranges into the backs of our eyes. When the clouds slide on, a vast starscape sprinkles the sky like spilled milk, a promise of lands even further away than this one.

After a full month in Laos, I began a sixty hour journey by bus from Si Phan Don (the islands) back to Vientiane and then onward to Hanoi. I assumed it would be awful. But, I have learned the joys of buying Valium over the counter in third world pharmacies, so I slept quite peacefully for a majority of the journey. I’ve now crossed into Vietnam, and I’ve already spent a day cycling around through Hanoi’s chaotic traffic. It’s great fun. I’ve now spent a night on a boat on Ha Long Bay, sung Karaoke in Vietnamese fashion, and leaped from the top deck into the emerald waters at dusk. I’ve also spent a night on Cat Ba Island and hiked to Ngu Lam Peak in Cat Ba’s Biosphere Reserve, which boasts a rusty five-story tower from which one can witness a panorama of green. The island itself was overly touristy, so I spent the evening on the roof of the hotel with some new friends. We watched the the tiny motorbikes fourteen stories below and looked out at the hundreds of glowing boats anchored in the bay. The roof was a hierarchical array of cement, with small staircases leading to smaller cement platforms climbing just a bit further than the one before it. On the highest of these ever-climbing platforms stood, for some unknown reason, a heavy marble altar. To raise oneself atop this pedestal is a frightening and exhilarating experience. When you look to the horizon, in any direction, you cannot see the roof; you cannot see that on which you stand. In your heightened state of awareness, you sense only the warm, salty gusts of wind from the bay and the faint horns of traffic far below. It is very simple, you are standing in the sky, and the sky is all there is.

I apologize for the massive delay on this posting. I’ve had almost zero internet connection for the past couple weeks. Jungles and oceans don’t often support wifi, unfortunately. But, I assure you, Wanderlust has not been forgotten. I will now attempt to remember all the amazing people I’ve encountered over the past two weeks. Shout outs start with Adam, the Canadian I met in a hotel’s gym in Pakse (though neither of us was actually staying at that hotel). Thank you for breaking the six-day streak of no-English-speaking from which I was suffering. Motorbiking around the Bolevan Plateau was wicked. Nazim, owner of the Indian restaurant in Pakse where I ate four meals. Ollie the red-head pot-head. Howard and the other Adam (and Figaro!). Sara of the Netherlands. The other Matt and Devina, hope your wedding goes off without a hitch. Claire, the wittiest Australian I’ve ever met. All the French with unpronounceable names. Seesi and his family at Peace and Love bungalows on Don Det, thank you for the hospitality and the many meals we shared. Oliver, the Israeli in the bus station in Pakse, glad we had a couple of hours to wander the market and grab some food. Sara and Jorgie of the Drift. Matt and Colin from Top Pub in Hanoi, perhaps we’ll meet again in Seoul someday. The Ha Long Bay crew: Sara, Kathryn, Paul, Rachel, Constance, Alistair, and Luis (I’ll be elated if you manage to upload your photos to Facebook). Sander of Cat Ba Island, best of luck being a father! Most recently, Ellina, the brothers Mathias and Mike, “A”, and Yusif of Hanoi. Bia Hoi and street food again tonight?

Last thing consumed: A smorgasbord of random things, from squid to fried chicken to baked fish.
Thought fragment: A cold glass of beer can be purchased on street corners for 4,000 dong. That is twenty cents U.S. Go ahead and read that twice.

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