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World tour part two: Southeast Asia

by MillMan Tue Apr 14th, 2009 at 10:40:04 AM EST

A Cambodian man appears out of the darkness on a motorbike and approaches a group of drunk tourists.

You want skunk?
"Hmm, no. Do you have any Brie?"
No, only skunk.
"I haven't had any Brie in months. God, I would kill someone for some Brie."


Whatever the mind craves, my mind has had it for the past 14 weeks.

I'm back in Bangkok for a week before flying to India. I'm not doing any tourism - I'm shopping for things I need, doing some reading, making phone calls, and writing some emails.

I've been here for six days, and now, having normalized, for example, crawling around an Angkor Wat temple as a standard daily experience, the tedium of typical everyday modern life has struck me like a baton across the face. The thought of going home strikes terror in me even as I start feeling a bit homesick.

I'm trying to recall what I was trying to get out of this leg of the trip. I probably had nothing in mind, which, with the benefit of hindsight, was the right approach and expectation. Here is what is has been: fourteen weeks of sensory indulgence during which I was high on life the entire time. I did little forward research as I didn't care where I was going next - I was living in the moment most days. I went off what made sense geographically, how long I wanted to stay in a place, and what fellow travelers were saying. My route was typical:

Singapore
Melaka
Kuala Lumpur
Langkawi
Bangkok
Koh Samui
Koh Phangan
Chiang Mai (with side trips to the jungle and the city of Pai)
Luang Prabang
Vang Vieng
Vientiane
Siem Reap
Phnom Penh
Sihanoukville
Hanoi
Halong Bay
Sapa
Bangkok

It didn't need to be off the beaten path -  for the first time in my adult life, even including the first few months of my trip, I felt constantly alive. I've otherwise always felt that my life was decent, but have always been stuck wondering when I was going to start living. That dissolved sometime during the month of February.

I wasn't expecting this to happen. I knew good things were in store on this trip, but I didn't know how effortless and wonderful it could all be. Wake up in the morning and bask in the glory of the universe. This has been true even with the inevitable travel setbacks and personal shortcomings that don't disappear just because I'm having a good time. I'm still me.

It took two months of travel for this mental state to emerge and another month to make itself consciously known (during the singular life experience of the massage class in Bangkok which led me to write the "travel buzz" comment here on eurotrib). Since that time I've felt it evolve, no, felt myself evolve into a more complete person. Setbacks have become abstractions to be dealt with mechanically and the good things in life are artful experiences to be awed at and coddled. During some of the darker times in my 20's the good experiences were observed mechanically and dismissed while the bad experiences were symphonies of horror to be obsessed over in an ever worsening positive feedback loop. Fuck, I will do anything to never go back there.

I do worry about that. My life back in California was decent by personal standards, but it needs serious work, and I worry about getting sucked back into an unhappy, inert existence.

Now, today, as I write this, my mind isn't bathing in a solution of serotonin contemplating the wonders of the universe, but that's available right under the surface. It will come back in India even if I end up struggling while there.

I haven't come to the conclusion that there is no going back, but I wonder how close I am to that exact conclusion. For sure the traditional life is permanently off the table - I'm already planning the next trip in my head. I do miss my friends, though. Nor could I live permanently outside the US. Motorcycling down to South America, though, absolutely.

There has been a cost to the travel buzz. I had to ignore, on an emotional level, all the poverty, political corruption, and devastating recent history of this region, particularly in Cambodia (I did read books, but somehow doesn't connect emotionally). Without this the travel buzz would come to a screeching halt, but doing so has bottled me up emotionally. That's as much as I'm willing to talk about it here.

Ah, but anyway, you came here for photos. In my opinion the quality of my photos suffered for the first half of my time in SE Asia as I was much more focused on being social and enjoying travel buzz; after that my mind was able to handle proper photography again in addition to the travel buzz.

For me the tourism is a means to an end, not the end itself, which makes me see these photos in a different light.

[note: any photo of me was not shot by me, and all the photos taken by me are available in full res on my flickr page.]

singapore skyscrapers

Singapore is as boring as you've heard, but as this was my first ever visit to Asia I did experience culture shock. Sure, it's civilization as the English see it, but there are Asian elements to it - obvious Chinese and southeast Asian cultural influence, infrastructure not developed to the same degree, lack of sidewalks in many areas, street markets, dingy but tasty food stalls, hell, just smelling things on the street for that matter. It was also my first experience as a racial minority in a country.

After four days I took a bus to Melaka, in Malaysia. This was my first experience with communication barriers and "letting the trip happen" - where I wasn't certain that this was the right bus, but I had to make an educated guess, and odds are it would work out. Or, as I thought of it later in more difficult countries like Laos and Cambodia - zeroing in on the solution as a string of actions rather than deriving the solution before engaging in the action as I would back home. If that makes sense. I saw a lot of backpackers struggle with the "inexactness" and non-rushed aspects of these cultures.

This was also where meeting people started to become very, very easy, and where I started meeting people I would randomly run into repeatedly throughout Southeast Asia.

dragons at an early Chinese New year celebration in Melaka

Melaka is where I experienced the most culture shock in Southeast Asia, in fact, I wouldn't call any subsequent stress "culture shock" - not even Cambodia was enough to bring it on again. For the first day I was afraid to even go outside. This was my first view of 3rd world poverty, inadequate infrastructure, no mass transit, smelly sewers, huge street markets, and most of all, aggressive touts (by the time I got to Bangkok I had no trouble dealing with them, although I was pushed by the child hustlers in Cambodia). I also met my friend Bill here (from Minneapolis like me) who I met up with multiple times over the next six weeks. There was a lot of mocking of our local culture.

After four days I headed up to Kuala Lumpur.

Petronas towers

Can you spot the door to my hostel?

I spent ten days here. I was surprised by how modern the city was (for no reason; I'm not sure why I expected less otu of it than Bangkok), and equally surprised at how good and sophisticated the food was in the swanky malls near my hostel. Street food is cheap and often extremely tasty, but to get the fancy stuff you have to spend more money (particularly worthwhile in Thailand whose cuisine is quite subtle when done well). This is where I started orienting my days around who I was going to hang out with rather than what tourist activities I was going to do. This played a big part in the buzz, and it often meant no real tourism beyond eating and drinking.

hiding my sinful body at Malaysia's National Mosque

discarded incense containers at Batu Cave

donuts: obtained

I spent ten days here, and this is where I found out about the massage class at Wat Pho in Bangkok. A guy from Scotland (who was ready to check out of western societytm)in my dorm room had just done it and loved it. Based on that and wanting to go to the Full Moon party on Koh Phangan on February 9th, I decided to cut my time in Malaysia short. I skipped the Cameron Highlands and Penang, the other two big backpackers destinations in peninsular Malaysia, and insead I headed off to Langkawi for five days before Bangkok.

Katie and me on the bike

This is moments before I learned to drive motorbikes, and luckily for Katie I'm pretty good at it. I spent four days with a small group of people at the guest house sitting on the beach in the late afternoons and watching the Australian open the rest of the day while boozing. It was bliss.

I flew to Bangkok to save time and only did one day of touristing before heading to the massage class which I talked about in my travel buzz comment.

Wat Pho

Massage classmates

Amusingly enough I met Lisanne at the hostel ten minutes after I posted the travel buzz comment to eurotrib. We hung out for several days which was a nice treat as the hostel was just about empty and I hadn't been making an effort to meet people all week because of the physically draining nature of massage class.

beer costs a lot on the 60th floor

After Bangkok it was off to Koh Samui and Koh Phangan for ten days on the beach with the focus on the full moon party. I have no photos of my time here beyond the one day cruise I took over to Ang Thong national park. The scenery was fantastic, and the islands unspoiled.

Ang Thong archipelago

Other than this I was sitting on the beach and/or drinking, so photography wasn't on the agenda. The full moon party had a great buzz, but the highlight was riding my motorbike back from Bill's bungalow very late at night under the full moon some hours after we finished off a shroom trip. Wow.

By my last day on the islands I was ready to get back to something more active. I flew to Chiang Mai.

The hostel I stayed it was rated the best in Thailand; it deserves the rep. I doubt I'll come up with more chaotic fun over a two week period in that context again on this trip. It's easily the most social hostel I've been in; looking at it numerically, I've added about 30 people to my friends list on facebook in the five and a half months I've been traveling and about 20 of them are people I met over my ten nights there. I ended up traveling with seven of them for a month after leaving.

The hostel had nightly activities around town which let me worry about having fun instead of spending time on planning and logistics. Temples, night markets, a lake beach, and bbq's. About five days in, ten of us decided to do a jungle trek which most backpackers partake when they pass through. Culturally it was all touristy, but that was fine. The fellow travelers, the scenery, the hiking and the booze were all fantastic.

bamboo camp

When do we start smoking the good stuff?

Most of the jungle trek crew

Upon returning I uh, took several day to recover, then headed over to the city of Pai, hoping to pick up another trek that was less touristy. This didn't work out - it was basically the end of the season (the heat was getting horrible) and being by myself I couldn't book my own tour. Dejected, I headed back to Chiang Mai and decided to head to Laos sooner than planned as I felt myself stalling into complacency at the hostel in Chiang Mai.

I booked the full Mekong slow boat trip (bus to the Laos border and boat ticket to Luang Prabang) through the hostel, and found out seven others at the hostel had booked the same trip. We talked a bit about the trip the night before. Initially I was a bit standoffish with them; there were two English couples, two Austrians, one Belgian, and me, the American. Of the group only the Belgian girl was particularly outgoing (and a bit nutty); I ended up filling the comic relief role, which I can definitely do, but it's a sign of no dominant personalities in the group. As such it took us all a while to bond.

crossing the river to Lao immigration

Matt and I sitting out the window

The journey takes two days. Experiences vary - some people end up on boats that are too crowded and with angry crew members who don't let you sit out the window (the only way to stretch out on a crowded boat). Overall we had a good time; my only problem was some kids getting wasted next to me who decided to spill vodka on my shirt. After I barked at them they went and smoked some weed and calmed down. While it's 3rd world transit it's touristy - about 80% tourists and 20% locals.

The ride is calming. We were closing in on the end of the dry season so the river was very low, exposing many amazing rock formations carved by millenia of monsoon season flows.

Upon arrival in Luang Prabang we headed off to the hostel - it's owned by the same guy who owns the hostel we stayed at in Chiang Mai. He similarly sets up daily activities you can participate in if you like. The first night, just after we got in, we all headed to the neighbors house where they were having a party. We were taught Lao style dance (hilariously innocent - the men and women don't touch) and had the matriarch of the family tie bracelets on our hand (I forget the name of the practice - it has a Buddhist and animist history).

tying the bracelets

The next day we spent several hours swimming at a waterfall, and that evening we hung out on the Mekong river with some locals, getting covered in mud and eating fish they had caught that day.

An jumping in

rather muddy

Lao kids amused by the ferangs

Later that week:

The only nightclub in Luang Prabang

Mojito night at the hostel

At this point I wasn't planning on staying with the group - I wanted to do a less touristy version of the trek I did out of Chiang Mai. I checked around and found that sadly every company treks around the same villages. I most likely would have had to bus up to a city in northern Laos to find something, but there were no guarantees there either. This was my first time in a 3rd world country, and I wasn't feeling confident enough to set out on my own. This led to the only low point in southeast Asia - my frustration with myself were topped with a day of food poisoning and a few personal things that were going on at the time. I decided to stay with the group who were headed off to Vang Vieng.

The bus trip there was exciting - it's one of those "scary" mountain bus rides you've heard of, with drivers that drive too fast and few if any barriers between the road and the forest floor 400 meters below. Our driver was pretty good and the scenery was gorgeous. The only "scary" part were flames lapping up on the road as the locals had torched the valley below. Our driver gunned it through and stopped a kilometer down the road to make sure none of our backpacks had caught fire up on the roof.

Vang Vieng is a famous backpacker spot: set in a beautiful limestone valley, you go tubing down a river, get wasted on buckets of alcohol, and try not to paralyze yourself while flinging yourself off huge swings into the river (An cracked three ribs when she slipped off the top of a swing and landed flat on her back in shallow water). We spent one day tubing and I had a lot more fun than I had expected. None of us brought a camera, though, because of the water.

Even better, though, are the limestone caves nearby. We rented motorbikes and headed off for a daylong trip.

err yeah, left turn up here I think

come on in

hiking down from the cave

Cow delay

I would have liked to spend a few more days there, but the group wanted to move on. Again I briefly considered breaking away to see the Plain of Jars, but I was still lacking the confidence to strike off on my own, and in particular did not want to do Cambodia alone.

As a sidebar I do wonder what Laos and Cambodia would have been like for me had I done it alone. I know it would have been very different. I think I made the right choice - more on that at the end of the diary.

Next it was off to Vientiane, the capitol of Laos. My impression of the city was so-so. To get more out of it I think I would have had to be on my own and just set out exploring with no map.

Vientiane's "Buddha Park," built in the 1950s

An left at this point, she had to go home to Belgium. We sent her off well with a lot of booze and inappropriate jokes told by me (mostly at my expense) that led to a good four hours of cramp inducing laughter.

Next on the list was southeast Asia's mother load: Angkor Wat at Siem Reap, Cambodia. I wanted to fly - to me $100 and 3 hours trumps $40 and 27 hours of bus, train, and taxi travel, but I was in the minority.

Trying to sleep on the train to Bangkok

The bed was comfortable enough, but the track quality was such shit that there was really no sleeping given all the involuntary tossing about. The trains in Vietnam are a lot better, both in terms of accommodation and track quality.

On the road to Siem reap: A photo I like for uncomfortable reasons

Cambodian street puppy

I've decided I'm not going to talk to much about the Cambodian people. I'll only say this: I think they laugh and smile constantly so they don't cry. As one our tuk-tuk drivers said, "this isn't a good place to live." Following is a bunch of Angkor photos.

Angkor Wat at sunrise

We spent three days exploring the temples. On the morning of the second day we all got out of bed at 4am to view Angkor Wat at sunrise. We got there in pitch darkness and had to use flashlights to find our way in as the temple was not lit. Almost everyone sits out in front to try to get a shot off the water in the pools in front of the temple, but Lucas and I thought the light would be better on the back side of the temple (where the sun actually strikes the temple). Once we got half way, we realized we were the only people around. The environment suddenly felt a bit creepy in the complete dark. We took up our spots in back (from where the above shot was taken) and sat down.

Dead quiet. Well, almost - there were a few monkeys about, who we couldn't see, but were obviously spying on us based on the sound of their movements. The outline of the temple became barely visible; now the jungle birds were singing their songs. Cows were grazing the grass nearby. Sunrise was about five minutes away, and suddenly, out of nowhere, the jungle erupted into a cacophony of deafening noise as the cicadas all fired up simultaneously.

In my shock, I swear to buddha, I was a monk back in 1000AD for a few crazy moments.

The light that morning was crap. I didn't care. I couldn't imagine caring.

Jungle takeover

Ta Prohm

Stone face at Bayon

Ta Keo ruins

Dan, Matt, and Cat at Ta Keo

Preah Khan

Bayon passageway

Watching the sunset

On the third day we did a side trip to Tonle Sap lake, per unit area the richest fishing lake on the planet (look it up if interested). Below is a floating village. Near here, back on land, was my first run in with desperate poverty and misery, and I still don't want to talk about it.

I can be as tough to crack as anyone but with the clarity of drunkeness on our last night in Siem Reap I knew these people were my friends. I knew I would miss them when we went our separate ways.

Next up was Phnom Penh. None of us wanted to stay long. The traffic was the craziest I had witnessed up to then, Hanoi trumped it and I know India will be even crazier. We visited Tuol Sleng (the Khmer Rouge's primary prison) and the killing fields. I didn't let myself cry at either place.

I wanted to do a multi day motorbike ride, but no one was up for it, being spooked by Phnom Penh's traffic. We decided to bus down to Sihanoukville on the coast and get a beach bungalo.

The beach was nice but swarming with child hustlers. None of these kids has had a childhood - at age six or seven they are all business, preying on western guilt and prejudices to separate you from your money, and hopefully your whole wallet. It's really stunning - every word out of their mouths is calculated. None of these kids have a future. There was nothing like this on the beaches of Thailand or Malaysia.

We did get away from that scene for a day when we took motorbikes over to Ream national park for a boat tour, some hiking, and relaxing on an empty beach.

weeee!!

storm clouds

We spent four days on the beach doing nothing. This was also the end our our time together. Matt and Kath were going to the Thai islands, Lucas and Mattias were going to Australia, and Dan and Cat were going to Hong Kong. I told everyone there was only one possible ending to our month together: 10 pints followed by skinny dipping in the ocean. Verily, we did: the last holdout gave in after the 9th pint. Good times.

I wanted to spend more time in Cambodia, and I would have, alone, had the weather not been unbearably hot. I got my first sunburn in six weeks here, even with my dark tan. This time of year is as hot as it gets, and as the Cambodians don't torch the jungle every year as they do in Thailand and Laos, the air was much cleaner, and thus the sun that much more intense.  

I decided to do two weeks in northern Vietnam where it was cooler, and yes, I spent two weeks wearing a jacket and wielded an umbrella.

We said our goodbyes back in Phnom Penh the night before everyone flew out to their different destinations. Matt, Kath and myself were the last to leave and we shared a tuk-tuk to the airport. Sitting there eating ice cream with them I had to fight back the tears.

I flew to Hanoi and quickly booked a three day cruise around Halong Bay through the hostel. The weather wasn't good enough for epic photos, but a few of them came out ok. It was nice to feel cold again. For a few hours, anyway.

Halong Bay archipelago

Ha, those wacky Irish girls.

Vietnamese teenagers that wanted me to take their photo on Cat Ba island

There was a party going on commemorating Uncle Ho's visit to Cat Ba island 50 years earlier - there was a neat stage production, then the karaoke inevitably broke out. No photos, though; the night was dedicated to drink and dance.

When the group got back to Hanoi, Misty (one of the girls on the cruise) and I decided to do a trek in Sapa, a hill tribe region near the Chinese border. It's pretty touristy, as much as such a place can be touristy, but when I got to see people plowing rice fields with water buffalo, I didn't care.

Misty in the fog

Terraced rice fields

River valley

After the trek Misty and I spent several days bumming around Hanoi. We went to zombie Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum, a real treat for me as I love kitsch that is taken seriously by any given culture and/or government. We went and saw Watchmen in the theater which was slightly uncomfortable in uh, Vietnam (you'll understand if you've seen the movie), made a trip to the doctor for my esophagitis (it's ok now), and spent a day just shooting photos.

Misty: armed for tourism (this is me finally taking appropriate shots with the 50mm lens)

Overload

Stack o' Asians on motorbike

And that brings us up to the present. I've been in Bangkok for a week decompressing by sleeping, eating fast food, and playing dumb video games on the web. The only tourist activity I've done is dumping enormous amounts of water on people up on Khaosan Road for Songkram (Thai New Year), a sort of Southeast Asia "bonus round" for me.

I'm ready to move on. The daily high has put me in a place where I have the ability to challenge myself in the ways that a place like India challenges people. In fact, India is the perfect place for what I have planned for my mind.

Display:
Great diary, thanks for sharing.
by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Tue Apr 14th, 2009 at 03:13:41 PM EST
Great diary, Millman! Looks like an amazing trip and I am looking forward to your next story. :-)
by Fran (fran at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Apr 15th, 2009 at 01:43:26 AM EST
I'm as enthralled as anyone by MillMan's adventures and writing.  But didn't anyone notice the disconnect between this diary written in Bangkok, and the one from Far Easterner?  Was that the same city?

"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." - Ana´s Nin
by Crazy Horse on Wed Apr 15th, 2009 at 12:54:22 PM EST
That's cities for you: mostly just people getting on with their lives.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Wed Apr 15th, 2009 at 01:04:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]
A lot of it comes down to when and where I take photos and what I feel like writing about. I recognized the places in many of his photos.

For the most part, though, we were doing different things in Bangkok.

you are the media you consume.

by MillMan (millguy at gmail) on Wed Apr 15th, 2009 at 11:30:20 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Oh, unless you were referring to the diary he wrote about the recent outbreak of violence. I managed to miss most of it, and the riots were not large.

you are the media you consume.

by MillMan (millguy at gmail) on Wed Apr 15th, 2009 at 11:32:03 PM EST
[ Parent ]
That was my inference, that diary did make it seem the demos and violence were more widespread.

"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." - Ana´s Nin
by Crazy Horse on Thu Apr 16th, 2009 at 01:47:17 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Fantastic diary and photos, thanks for sharing. Really makes me wish I was travelling too!
by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Thu Apr 16th, 2009 at 09:01:41 AM EST
Thanks!

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Thu Apr 16th, 2009 at 09:06:34 AM EST
Didn´t come here for the photos because they don´t have meaning without the human story.  And what a story it is!  The most interesting part is your personal discovery and the fact that you let yourself flow and grow with the trip and the people.  I´m really glad to hear your experiences, your process and I do understand exactly when you say ´if that makes any sense´.

When the trip outside mirrors the trip inside, you are doing good work and will keep progressing.  I don´t envy the traveling as much as I admire your willingness to go through it knowing you will have tough moments and come out with the full set of feelings and memories. No need to beat yourself for not trying to go it alone in unknown territory:  A profound-living trip doesn´t have to be heroic.

Awesome!  Go, MillMan!  

Our knowledge has surpassed our wisdom. -Charu Saxena.

by metavision on Sat Apr 25th, 2009 at 07:50:21 PM EST
great travel blogging, millman!

i love how you consciously expose your mind to all this novelty, feeding it inputs that you know are having a lifetime effect on you and your perceptions of the world.

like nomad does so well too, you let us in on your personal dramas, but discretely, avoiding the 'all about me' syndrome, but reminding us constantly that it's a real living human being behind the words, as opposed to a wearying trudge through another succession of external impressions.

again like nomad, i think you could write a whole book of your exploits, and i hope you do! you guys set a high bar indeed.

lovely comment, metavision.

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Sat Apr 25th, 2009 at 11:05:50 PM EST
[ Parent ]


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