Monday, February 23, 2009

a knock in the night

(alternate title: F U bangkok)

setting: khao san road, aka backpacker ghetto, bangkok, thailand. 2:50 am.

characters: me and my roommate, an australian girl i met on the ferry from phuket

and... action!

it's a typical night on thailand's famed khao san road. the thickly polluted, humid night is the perfect setting for the seedy late-night khao san scene. older white men walk arm-in-arm with one, two, sometimes three young girls/ladyboys who are getting paid to keep them company. heavily made-up girls in plastic minidresses stand in front of bars with signs that promise "strong cocktails" and the reassurance that "we do not check ID." drunken westerners of all ages flow down the street in herds, sweating through t-shirts that advertise singha beer or lao beer as they sip from thailand's ubiquitous buckets (local vodka + red bull or local whiskey + coke, packaged neatly in a plastic pail that might be more innocently used to build sand castles on a beach). silent, grim-faced thai women stand in front of piping hot woks, making plate after plate of $0.75 pad thai for the carousing crowd. cripples vie for the attention of the drunken masses, contorting themselves into painful positions on the filthy sidewalk, shaking their plastic cups in silent desperation.

in a cheap cold-shower-and-fan-only room off a dark alley on khao san road, the two main characters snooze away peacefully despite the chaos that reigns outside. they're happy to have scored a cheap-but-not-so-cheap-it-feels-sketchy room for the night and even more happy to have company for the evening, since that makes the room even more affordable. each girl is on her own twin bed, dead asleep and dreaming happy dreams.

around 2:50 am, i jolt awake to a loud rapping on the door. disoriented and confused, i wonder if i'm dreaming the sound but the knocking is persistent. "helloooo..." whines a voice outside the door. the knocks continue, loud, sharp, repetitive. my roommate wakes up too and in her sleepy state makes the instinctual move to answer the door, but i am fully awake at this point and stop her before she leaves her bed. we consult each other in low whispers and decide to remain completely silent since we have no idea what waits for us on the other side of the door and aren't particularly interested in finding out.

the knocking continues for about fifteen minutes straight, interrupted only by the occasional "helllooooo" by a voice that is neither definitely female nor definitely male. we notice that despite being on a hallway of other rooms, we are the only one receiving a 3 am wake-up call and start to silently freak the fuck out, wondering what the hell is going on and what could be waiting outside our door. we start imagining the worst -- a thief trying to trick us into opening the door so he can force his way inside and rob us (or worse) at knifepoint. a super-sketchy prostitute looking for a potential customer. the possibilities get worse and worse, and we have no phone in our room to call down to reception, no peephole to look out the door.

eventually the knocking fades and the feet shuffle away, but not after we hear a distinct sound of someone writing something on our door, which freaks us out even more. have they marked us for a later visit? are they passing on a message to an accomplice? we're both wide awake and far too scared to go back to sleep. we say over and over again how glad we are that we decided to share a room so we didn't have to deal with this alone. we start telling each other horrible stories of things that have happened to us or friends of ours in the past; in retrospect, this was probably not a good idea. my roommate remembers that she bought a ninja-style throwing star as a gift for a friend and pulls it out of her backpack, reasoning that it probably won't do anything but it makes her feel better. we program the phone number for the bangkok police into her cell phone and try, in vain, to go back to sleep, which we finally do about an hour later.

* * * *

the end of the story is ridiculously harmless in comparison to the 3 am certainty we felt that OMG WE ARE GOING TO DIE. what had happened was the brainless, idiotic, hapless, retarded, stupid, horrible night manager who checked us in and took our payment realized as she was balancing her books at 3 am that she was short 950 baht. she was convinced it was either us or another room who had neglected to pay up, so she decided to knock on our door at 3 am to resolve the issue. you know, because that's a TOTALLY LOGICAL WAY TO DEAL WITH THE PROBLEM, WTF. we realized this in the morning because the scraping sound on our door that had scared us so badly had been the night manager leaving us a note, telling us that we hadn't paid for our room yet (which was totally not true). we went to the reception desk at 9 am the next morning, tempers blazing but trying to respect the asian mentality by keeping our cool and proceeded to firmly but politely resolve the problem with the new manager on duty. i was really, really, really tempted to go uber-american on them and cuss them the fuck out but decided that wouldn't help matters at all and besides, all's well that ends well aside from the complete and utter freak-out at 3 a.m.

* * * *

just because i wasn't having enough fun already, later that day i encountered an impressively smooth-talking con artist by wat pho temple. i was having trouble finding the entrance to the temple and was sort of wandering around the block. now, i've traveled enough and am savvy enough to know that as a solo female traveler, i should really try and NOT look lost in a heavily touristed area, since this is basically a wide-open invitation for every hustler to jump on me and try to offer their expert help... so i was keeping my face neutral as my eyes scanned the street beneath my huge sunglasses and i discreetly consulted the map in my lonely planet.

but someone started talking to me. i tried to ignore him but he was persistent, first trying to direct me toward wat phra krew (temple of the emerald buddha, which i already seen) and then deciding to help me with wat pho. he asked where i was from and upon finding out that i am american, told me joyfully he was a fan of barack obama (why bring an innocent president into this scheme? i mean really, that's just bad manners). we commiserated about the heat and humidity of the day and he told me that wat pho was actually closed for the next few hours for a private ceremony and that i should come back at 4 pm when it would re-open to tourists. he borrowed my map and showed me a few other temples i should check out and advised me to find a tuk-tuk driver who would take me around for 30 baht, mind you, if he says 60 baht, make sure you bargain hard and get a price of 30 baht because some of these drivers, ha ha, they drive a tough bargain.

at this point i was hot, sweaty, exhausted, irritated and paused momentarily in our conversation to consider the idea. noting my hesitation, he promptly waved over a tuk-tuk driver and "bargained" for me. in retrospect, it was a pretty elaborate and impressive ruse. the tuk-tuk driver asked for 60 baht and my man "fought" him to get him down to 30 baht for me... how nice huh? at this point i realized what was going on and said thank you politely but firmly, took my map back and walked away in the opposite direction. he started yelling at me as i walked away but i kept walking, not looking back, eyes straight ahead and hands on my bag.

needless to say, i found the entrance to wat pho a few minutes later. it was indeed open to tourists, teeming with them, actually, and i was in a foul mood for the rest of the afternoon (it may also have had something to do with my interrupted sleep the night before).

so, then, you understand why i almost titled this post "F U bangkok." what a note to end my amazing trip on huh? i put it past me though with a scoop of ice cold berry sorbet and a few restorative conversations in an air-conditioned internet cafe and then a fantastic and cheap dinner of seafood green curry and papaya salad. i left bangkok late last night on a red-eye flight and am now coming to you live from my aunt's apartment in beijing, where the weather is a frosty 20-something degrees and i am feeling completely disoriented. the backpacker part of my journey is officially over and it is now time to hang out with the extended fam back in the motherland. i doubt i'll be blogging much from here on out (maybe i'll post a few pics), so if i don't write again soon, i'll sign off here with a thank-you for coming along with me on my travels. hope you enjoyed my stories!

Friday, February 20, 2009

winding down

in retrospect, i made a wise decision to end the backpacking portion of my travel in the thai islands. i started off the thai portion with an adventurous stop in northern thailand, where i rode elephants, went white water rafting and learned how to make pad thai, but then i ventured southward to the famed thai beaches... and now that i'm here, my brain has sort of switched into beach mode and i can't really imagine strapping on my backpack, putting on sneakers and heading off in search of adventure.

instead, my days are filled with simpler questions. am i wearing enough sunscreen? should i have a pineapple shake, or a mango shake? do i want a thai massage or a regular massage? how did i get this many mosquito bites? do i want noodles or rice? should i buy yet another $8 sundress? eh, why not? i'm still somewhat active (i've gone rock climbing, snorkeling and kayaking), but i've also gotten a heavenly beachfront massage, watched the sunset over the sea, spent an entire afternoon floating in a pool on an inflatable raft, lost in my own thoughts, ordered a pineapple daiquiri at a swim-up bar and drank bottles and bottles of cold grape gatorade from the 7-eleven.

suffice it to say that my brain is slowly winding down from the non-stop adventures of the past month. i'm trying to prepare my mind to switch gears as i look ahead to the final leg of my trip, a quick pit stop in beijing and then a few weeks in wintry korea with my relatives. the solo backpacker part of my trip is almost over, and while i'm looking forward to not having to live out of a backpack, i'm also a little sad to see the adventure come to an end. the down time here in ko phi phi has helped me start to process the many profound ways in which this trip has influenced me, humbled me, inspired me, changed me. my mind is starting to wander ahead to what lies ahead, what decisions i'll need to make, what questions i'll need to answer. i don't have many answers yet, but i'm having fun trying.

Monday, February 16, 2009

just to reassure you that i'm not dead

i'm in thailand now, sitting in an outdoor internet cafe on the southern coast. reggae music is playing in the background and the accents i'm listening to are everything but thai... french, american, aussie, english. the air is humid and thick with mosquitoes, but there's a nice breeze in the air and the sunset tonight was out of this world. tomorrow i'm going rock climbing, and the next day i'm going to take a boat to the famous place where the film "the beach" was made.

i haven't written in a while b/c i was faced with the dilemma of doing justice to my angkor wat experience. words cannot express, as they say, and in this case, a picture is not worth a thousand words. how do you explain what it's like to watch the sun rise over an ancient khmer temple while the moon is still high in the sky on the opposite end of the park? how do you capture what it's like to channel your inner indiana jones / lara croft as you climb temples all day, clambering over crumbling rocks and staring at the serene faces of buddhas? how do you explain the strange combination of exhaustion and exhiliration that comes with watching the sun set over the horizon while sitting on top of an ancient temple, cracking open an ice-cold beer after a 12-hour day of hiking and climbing with new friends? how do you describe the sensation of placing banana after banana in the trunk of an apparently ravenous cambodian elephant?

it's nearly impossible. and that's why i haven't written. because i can't capture angkor wat in words or pictures. i can't explain what it's like to play with the local cambodian kids for hours... kids who were irritating the hell out of me a few hours before as they hassled me to buy their little trinkets, but as soon as we got past that, you realize they're kids and they're happy and they just want to play. they wrote me notes, taught me khmer, asked if i had a boyfriend, put flowers in my hair, gave me free bracelets, and completely absconded with my heart.

but, i'll try. here are a few shots...

playing with elephant trunks (that sounds sort of wrong):

the cheeks!!

hungry elephant trunk:

dawn breaking:

the view when i first walked in at 6 am:

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

the real adventure begins

so you know all that stuff I said about China being totally exotic? Vietnam being an epic adventure?

forget all of it. you want to come to another world, come to Cambodia. as much as I resisted the American temptation, the phrase that kept coming to mind as I gazed out the window during my 13-hour bus ride from Saigon was "third world." because, as snobbish or pretentious as it may sound, that's what it is here. I saw minibuses crammed fulled with people -- and when I say crammed, I don't mean every seat was taken, I mean every possible free space was occupied with some human limb or another -- barreling down the dusty highway with eight or so people sitting on top of the roof. grandmothers held onto babies and children held onto the sides of the roof as the hot sun turned their brown skin even browner. I even saw several buses with motorbikes tied to the back of the roof behind all the roof-riders.

when we stopped for breaks during the ride, kids would swarm the bus, selling plastic bags of chopped pineapple or mango (served with a spiced salt that somehow intensifies the fruity taste -- I kept trying to figure out but eventually gave up and just enjoyed the flavor). women squatted behind baskets of fried spiders (big, fat, shiny black ones) or crunchy cockroaches, mindlessly tending to a half-naked toddler playing near them. there was more than one occasion on which our bus driver had to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting a herd of water buffalo (I think?) that had wandered into the road, much to the dismay of the stick-wielding 11-year-old who had been charged with herding them.

here in Siem Reap, I spent the day wandering around the town, getting my bearings, buying a few small things in the market, exchanging smiles with the friendly locals, drinking 75-cent Angkor beer, tasting the local Khmer cuisine, shaking my head no to the constant calls of "hello lady! you want tuk-tuk?" and trying to avoid the pleading gaze of the many many amputees who roam the market area, begging for spare change or selling photocopied versions of Lonely Planet guidebooks. like the locals do, I shelled out a dollar and bought a traditional Khmer "krama," a small, hand-woven cotton scarf good for keeping the sun of one's neck or the dust out of one's mouth during roaming walks or rides on a moto taxi.

tomorrow I will get up before sunrise to get to Angkor Wat before dawn and watch the sunrise over an incredible horizon before spending the day roaming through temple ruins, doing my best Indiana Jones / Lara Croft impression. wish me luck!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

pics! finally!

Lest you think that my trip is one happily epic adventure after another, I was going to write an expletive-filled post last night to reflect my pissed-off mood. I was tired, I was hungry, I was sick of feeling like everyone viewed me as a walking ATM, I was mad at myself for not planning a few things better, I wanted some good old Western DAMN PRICE TAGS ON ITEMS so every single stupid transaction didn't have to involve haggling, I was filled with rage at the Hoi An post office, etc etc etc etc. Grr, I tell you!!! I even contemplated playing the playlist on my iPod titled "pissed off" which almost never gets played. I barely know what's on it. I think it has a lot of Eminem.

When I finally landed in Saigon around 11 pm last night, exhausted, dirty, hungry, and hotel-less, I was in no laughing mood. But then I got to chatting with a nice German wife /Australian husband couple (who met while backpacking... hmm!), who let me share a cab with me from the airport. And then I tailed them into their hotel in the off chance it would be decent, affordable, and have vacancy. And then it was -- $25/night for a clean and air-conditioned room with hot water that spewed out instantly (my first since.... well, since Rockville) and American cable channels on the flat-screen TV and an actually shower stall with a door (hard to imagine). And then I went to a cafe on the corner and got a cheap beer and some chicken curry and chatted about German castles with the train engineer sitting next to me. And then I had a good night's sleep and woke up to a brilliantly sunny day in Saigon.

And then I felt better.

So yes, long-term travel can be filled with once-in-a-lifetime experiences a la hiking the Great Wall practically solo or kayaking through the endless rocks of Halong Bay, but it can also make you feel completely broken and inexplicably hateful toward whatever country you happen to be in for the night. The good thing is that the bad feelings usually disappear as soon as you have a hot shower, a place to stash your stuff and some food in your belly, whereas the once-in-a-lifetime experiences are branded in your memory forever.

Anyway, the post is entitled pics, so why am I still prattling on? You probably skipped this and went straight to the pics anyway, it's okay, I'm not offended. So, then:


cyclo or bike lady, who will win?

sunset on hoan kiem lake:

early morning, taken from the top of the boat:

fellow kayakers going underneath a huge rock formation:

jumping off the top of the boat:

motorbike on cat ba island:

local girls, cat ba island


local beach in hoi an:

ladies at market (right lady's lips are stained red with betel nut):

my spring rolls with fresh rice paper!

hoi an streets:

silk lantern vendor:

Thursday, February 5, 2009

i left my heart in hoi an

it's hard to explain the charm of Hoi An until you've seen it in contrast to the rest of the country. not that other parts of Vietnam aren't charming, too, it's just that life seems to move a little bit differently here. people nod and smile at you as you bicycle or stroll by, shopkeepers bargain with you when it's time to purchase but otherwise leave you alone, and you only hear "hello! motorbike?" about five times a day as opposed to five times in ten minutes. the sun is warm, the food is fantastic, there are silk lanterns everywhere, the river sparkles in the sun, there are kids everywhere, the beach is a 20-minute bike ride away and you can somehow lose hours just wandering around the tiny old town.

the other important realization I've had in Hoi An is that I'm apparently quite a racial conundrum. everyone wants to claim me. in China they all spoke to me in Mandarin first until I explained to them that I was actually Korean. here in Vietnam, they are quick enough to realize the telltale signs of a foreign backpacker (Reef flip flops, mosquito-bitten ankles, backpack and an open copy of Lonely Planet), so the exchange is a little different, but it almost always goes something like this:

Them: "Where you from?"
Me: "I'm Korean, but I live in America."
Them: "Korea! I thought you Chinese, maybe Vietnamese. You look Vietnamese."
Me: "No, I'm Korean."
Them: "I love Korean film. You know [insert name of Korean movie star here]?"
Me: "No, sorry, but I hear Vietnamese people love Korean movies."
Them: "Yes! So romantic! Sentimental!"

[a pause in which I feel bad that I'm not more familiar with Korean movie stars]

Them: "You so pretty/beautiful. You have boyfriend?"
Me, laughing: "Thank you, but no. It's just me."
Them, in shock: "What? How old are you?"
Me: "How old do you think I am?"
[This is where their answers have varied somewhat, but it's usually at this point in the conversation that we realize that the inquiring woman is usually younger with me and has at least one child. The exception to this was my waitress at dinner last night, who was my same age and said she had no boyfriend, so we high-fived each other. apparently the high-five is a universal gesture of celebration.]

I'm not exaggerating when I say I've had some version of this conversation at least ten times in the last few days (the first of which I was pretty much locked away in my hotel room, sick). the consistency of the exchange is nothing short of hilarious. at first I thought it was a bit intrusive but then I got used to it and tried to see it as a compliment.

so yesterday I took an amazing half-day cooking course. we started the course with a welcome drink in the tree-shaded cafe and then ventured to the outdoor food market to begin our tutorial. our guide, Su Su, pointed out all the fresh fruits and vegetables and had the various stall owners crack open a few things so we could try them. I sampled all kinds of bizarre fruit, including fresh tamarind pods right out of the shell and an apple-looking fruit that they call "women's tit" because it's round-shaped and milky inside (I'm so not kidding). our guide was hilarious, making jokes in her accented English that old ladies in Vietnam who chew betel nuts are rich because they don't have to buy lipstick (pointing to one red-lipped old woman as evidence) and that green tea was responsible for half of the babies in Vietnam because people drink it and can't fall asleep at night.

after the market tour, we took a leisurely boat ride down the river to the cooking school and began our lesson with a frosty drink in a thatched hut. our instructor would demonstrate each course in front of us while we sat in chairs, taking notes on the clipboards provided, and then have us try our hand at that course at a row of gas-powered camping stoves. we made fresh spring rolls with homemade rice paper (I know how to do this now!), skillet-fried Hoi An pancakes, and eggplant in clay pot. we even tried to make food decorations like tomato-skin flowers and cucumber-slice hand fans but most of us failed pretty miserably at that. after the class, they took us to their cafe and fed us even more, including papaya salad with seafood in a pineapple half-boat and grilled fish covered with glass noodles. I was full to the point of bursting, but we ate every delectable mouthful.

I keep getting requests for more pictures, and I promise I'll post some soon -- it's hard to get USB access for long periods of time, and sorting through my million pics takes some time. but I will! soon!

I fly to Ho Chi Minh City tonight, so until then...

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

halong bay

i've been away from the blog for a few days because i was on a two-night trip to vietnam's famous halong bay, an otherworldly place that is well-deserving of its UNESCO world heritage site status. it's hard to capture what the experience was like, and it's times like this that i wish i was a talented enough writer or photographer to adequately convey the sights, sounds, smells and emotions that accompanied this once-in-a-lifetime experience...

...but my words will have to suffice.

sunday morning, i boarded a bus with about 25 other folks (mostly aussies) for a three-hour ride to the coast. we drove through the vietnamese countryside, whizzing past families of three crammed onto one motorcycle, endless rice paddies in multiple shades of vivid green, women hunched over in pointy hats with tools in hand, water buffaloes plowing the fields, graveyards constructed at the highest point of the fields to avoid taking in water, chickens crossing the road (to get to the other side, naturally)... i practically had my nose glued to the window, taking it all in.

we arrived at the harbor around lunchtime and boarded our boat to cruise out on the bay. the day was warm and sunny without being hot and the view as we sailed out from the harbour was nothing short of stunning. of course i've seen water before, of course i've seen cliffs before... but something about halong bay is different. there are craggy cliffs and rocks everywhere, and the distant ones are always shrouded in a sort of mist that added to their mystique. kayaking was the perfect way to explore the bay, wandering around cliffs and getting up close to see the vegetation (and a few monkeys).

i spent the rest of the night hanging out with my fellow travelers on the boat. i was definitely one of the oldest people there -- most of the other passengers were university students on break between semesters. i asked them about their majors and they asked me about working life, something that i seem to have forgotten all about. it's funny how things like account assignments and ad agency drama seems to be a world apart from the world i'm living in now, one in which my days are consumed with finding places to eat, doing laundry on the cheap, debating which sites to visit and figuring out how to get from A to B.

anyway, back to halong bay. monday morning we arrived at cat ba island, the only island in halong bay that is inhabited by people. the group went on a morning hike to a pretty high peak, where i also climbed this insanely rickety rusty tower (that would DEFINITELY have been closed off in the united states) and feared for my life as i looked out over the green hills. we checked into our island hotel and then were free to do as we pleased for the afternoon. i ended up renting motorbikes with three other travelers from our group and we spent the afternoon zooming around cat ba island, exploring caves (including one that housed a secret hospital during the vietnam war... simultaneously fascinating and eerie), talking to local kids, trying not to run over the million stray dogs/goats/chickens and taking endless pictures of the incredible views. it was one of my favorite afternoons that i've had in a long time and i TOTALLY want to buy a motorbike (mine was more of a scooter-type deal since i can't drive manual).

i'm now in hoi an, about an hour's flight south from hanoi. it's a small town with a charming old quarter and a much more laid-back attitude than hanoi, which can start to grate on you if you're not careful. you're constantly haggled (you hear the two phrases "hello, motorbike!" and "hello, buy something!" at least 50 times a day), the roads are a total death trap and the constant honking of ten million motorbikes creates an incredible cacophony of sound that can totally drag you down. getting to hoi an was a bit of a headache since all the trains were sold out for tet (vietnam's lunar new year) but i'm proud to say that i managed to make it happen, using the now-very-familiar combination of plane/motorbike/airport shuttle/walking. it's strange to be on my own again after so much constant company during the halong bay trip, but it's also nice to be staying in a room by myself. hoi an doesn't have much of a hostel scene but the hotels are really reasonable... i have a double bed with private bath, window and A/C for $10/night (compared to the $7.50/night hostel in hanoi and $10/night hostel in shanghai).

unfortunately, i was feeling a bit under the weather today so the day was a bit of a waste (it was a transport/rest day) but i'm excited to dig into the city tomorrow and will report back as soon as i can.