Categories
Malaysia Southeast Asia

Same Same, But Different

Current Location: Pulau Langkawi, Malaysia
Current  Weather: 90°F (feels like 107°F)
Days Gone: 161
Days Remaining: 55

First off we have a tiny bit of business to attend to. If anyone has clicked the Donate link to the right, they have seen that donations are not intended to go to me, but instead to the Wanderlust Lending Team at Kiva.org. For Kiva’s 5-Year Anniversary they are offering a $25 loan credit to anyone who invites five people. If you’ve considered lending before, now is the best time because you can your $25 donation would actually contribute $30! You can read more about Kiva at their website or on the Donate page here. If you are interested in participating, send a quick email to twocents.wanderlust@gmail.com with the subject line “Kiva.” I’ll send you an invite within 24 hours. Just keep in mind that the offer expires at the end of October. You can still join after that time, of course, but Kiva will no longer be offering additional loan credit. Now on to the travel stuff.

I escaped Cambodia the very same day my visa expired, which seems to be a bad habit I’ve formed. But last minute escapes are cinematic, no? Back in Thailand on a fifteen day transit visa (aiming for Malaysia) I decided to stop off at an island called Ko Chang. For all intents and purposes, I told myself the detour was “on the way” to Bangkok anyway. I arrived after dark due to some painfully disorganized buses at the border crossing. Little did I know that I would not see the sun for five days. My first afternoon a monsoon struck the island with deadly force. I’m not kidding, seven people died due to landslides and the island lost power for 60 hours. During this time I drained the batteries of my laptop and iPod and read nearly three novels. I also watched the cats hunt geckos. Determined to see the island in sunlight, I hung around for a few more days – though even after the power returned, the rain continued. Finally, on day five, the sun appeared for two hours. I visited the beach but saw only rocks, trash, and a few miserable tourists. At least I got some free barbecue at a bar one night and, due to power outages, negotiated a lower room rate. On day six I cut my losses and fled for Bangkok. But the rain followed me there, too.

From Bangkok I moved south as far as I could on one ticket. The result was a city called Had Yai not terribly far from Malaysia. From there I tried to get a ticket into Malaysia, but the local bus station only offered tickets to the border. So that’s where I went. I walked across the Thai-Malaysian border at around 3:30 PM on a Sunday. I had decided to try to go to another island (the sun was shining again!) called Pulau Langkawi. The nearest port was an hour away and no buses ran there. So I hired a taxi to take me the whole way for about $12. Now here I am, and I might stay quite a while. Malaysia was kind enough to give me a 90 day visa for free. There is a solid Indian population on the island, which is awesome because they all speak English and I’m going to eat curry until I pop. I’ve been here almost 48 hours now and haven’t seen a drop of rain, not even the typical afternoon shower. It is hot though, this is the furthest South I’ve ever been.

I feel like I should apologize for the “…and then I did this”-style of post. I was debating what to write about, but the past two weeks or so have mostly been transit, rainstorms, and basic living. And I guess that’s the interesting thing. I’ve always said that travel is a lifestyle, but I think now this holds true (for me) more than ever before, though perhaps from a slightly different perspective. I am still living, I just happen to be in Malaysia. Take today for instance: I got up early. I found a new local breakfast joint and had some yellow rice, curry, and eggs. I went for a run on the beach. I took care of some internet business (emails, web articles, Facebook, Skype). I went and had a lunch of lamb curry and white rice. I returned to the beach. I read a few chapters of fiction. Then I came back to my dorm and took a cold shower. Next I started writing this post. It’s been a relaxing day. After this I’ll probably head back to the beach to do some writing and watch the sunset. Then I’ll go get some dinner, come back “home,” watch a movie on my laptop, and go to bed. Aside from the context, the day itself is not that unusual. Like I said, I just happen to be in Malaysia. Living.

Last thing consumed: Lamb Curry and White Rice, at only $1.60 – I think I’ll stay awhile.
Thought fragment: Being a Muslim country, alcohol is heavily taxed and absurdly priced. You can buy alcohol free beer at the minimart for US$2 a bottle to play pretend. I think, as a result of this, my stay in Malaysia will be very…hydrating.

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Categories
Cambodia Southeast Asia

Slow Migrations

Current Location: Siem Reap, Cambodia
Current  Weather: 86°F (feels like 94°F)
Days Gone: 143
Days Remaining: 73

I move a lot. Since landing in Bangkok all those months ago, I have spent my nights in over 50 different places, including buses, trains, boats, and even a cargo ship. Due to its small size, spending a month in Cambodia has given me a sort of reprieve. This isn’t to say that Cambodia doesn’t offer many destinations, I just don’t really need another French-inspired river town at the moment. I’m good on jungles and I’ve got more islands in my near future. So I spent a solid ten days recharging my batteries in Sihanoukville, often by having food delivered to me poolside and enjoying a $10 per day lifestyle. Now I am loitering in Siem Reap, probably until my visa expires, and spending even less. Here I have discovered a new and unique type of lifestyle: routine. Back home, I always did my best to avoid routine – it’s bland, conventional, and boring. It’s the rut we’re all stuck in. But I have discovered a valuable exception to this rule.

A routine is only unfulfilling when someone else is writing the schedule. Whether it’s the boss of an unpleasant workplace or a bitter professor or whoever, he or she probably doesn’t have your best interests in mind, yet probably does have a large portion of control over your life. This, to put it bluntly, is not awesome. It results in a massive loss of forward momentum. I am creating my own routine here in Siem Reap – I’m able to absorb the energy of the city and increase my creative output. I can watch every sunrise, sunset, and thunderstorm. I can sit in a cafe and write for two hours every morning. I am in a position to meet new and interesting people every single day. I don’t want to preach, but I do want to put out a reminder that it is vastly important to avoid becoming stagnant; even if your body is not moving, your mind should be. Whether it’s traveling Southeast Asia, learning to make homemade pizza, practicing Tai Chi, or reading a novel – the only wrong thing to do is nothing.

Despite “taking a vacation from traveling,” I did rent a bicycle and visit Angkor Wat and it’s surrounding temples. Angkor is often referred to as the jewel of Cambodia, and many people visit the country specifically for these temples. The beer here is even called Angkor. With that said, visiting Angkor Wat was, for me, sort of like being given a massive amount of tiramisu after eating brownies for four months. It was good. Really good. But it was still a chocolate dessert. And I wanted fresh sushi. Consider this: a grain of sand can be as interesting as an entire sea, it simply depends on the lens through which you view it. Just because you look at more doesn’t necessarily mean you see more. The same applies to the speed at which you move through the world. It is difficult, yet entirely necessary, to give oneself permission to stop and smell the street food – though the scent of garlic and chillies lends nothing to the “productivity” one feels, it is still an investment in one’s self, in one’s life experience.

So, for now, I am focusing on the sand grains, the golden details that get lost in the thick brush strokes of movement. Observe, for a moment, the yellow dragonfly which manages to maintain its curious and reckless flight, even in the clean, hard, thunder-less rain. How can it fly while drops as large, for it, as grapefruits fill the air? Notice the clothing, always steaming on the lines and balcony railings and baking in the rafters – the sloughed skins of t-shirts patiently waiting to collect more salt from our backs. Taste the  mango shake, served with more than a hint of sweet milk; the condensation is so thick and quick on the glass that for a moment you think you will need two hands just to hold it all. And this, these golden details, is all we have: our minds, our bodies, and the present. Nothing else is guaranteed.

Last thing consumed: A large baguette with an omelet, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and hot tea
Thought fragment: Riding a bicycle out of the silent, inky blackness of the of the sleeping city to visit Angkor at sunrise was probably just as rewarding at Angkor itself.

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Categories
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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Categories
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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