Saturday, January 19, 2008

What Did The Man Do As He Went Sideways Through The Turnstile?

Ah, Bangkok . It's gigantic. It's a bit smelly. I imagine it would be pretty easy to find just about any vice you wanted. Oh, and it was Christmas Eve.

We arrived, got lost, ate Italian, and went to our hostel. Since it was still a bit early, and we felt the need to unwind a bit after the long trip back from Siem Reap, we set out in search of a decent bar; and found an "English pub". Inside there were, other than the bartenders, a bunch of English and other Europeans. So we got a drink, and Katie started chatting it up with one of the guys. His name was John, and he had lived in Bangkok for many years (I think his father owned the pub), so we grilled him for some tourist locations and so forth. Anyway, darts were played, and Katie decided to continue her night with John and his buddies (they were going to play pool somewhere, I believe). Rich and I decided that these guys were harmless, and that Kate was safe in their hands for a bit we went our separate ways.

On our way back to the hostel, I decided I wanted another drink before bed, so we stopped at yet another Italian place that was open 24 hours. We got a beer, they gave us breadsticks, we chatted about religion- it was a good time. At some point an older man had sat down at a table behind us (we were outside on the patio area). First thing he says to us is "You're American" in an almost accusing voice. Now, this part may... irk a few people, but know that I'm merely telling the way it is overseas. One of the first things you learn when abroad is that the rest of the world disapproves of the recent actions of the United States and occasionally will take that out on its citizen’s. I have even heard that some Americans say they are Canadians when they are abroad just to avoid hassle. Anyway, regardless of how the world feels about the States, THIS guy was way out of line (and totally smashed, I might add). So, he asks if he can join us, we say "why not" so he pulls up a chair. First thing the guy said, as I mentioned, sounded like an accusation. The second thing he said WAS an accusation. (Oh I forgot to mention he was New Zealander, so imagine all the quotes in an accent). Second thing; "Do you realize that America is the most loathed country in the world? I mean, honestly, even your allies hate you. You are sooo stupid." Now, to be fair, he did say other things, but I believe in the 20 minutes we spent with this guy, those three sentences came up the most. And he always introduced them as if it was new information, and NOT something he had already said 10 times in the exact same words. Of course there is little defense against his accusations, but he did keep using the word “you”. “You are so stupid” “You made so many mistakes” “You are not respected” Eventually I got angry and got in his face. He apologized and then not 3 minutes later was right back on the same track. It went on like this for about twenty minutes and then we decided to hit the hay. Needless to say the event was a standing joke for the rest of the trip. “Do you realize…?!” (add accent)

The next night we ran into what would become our somewhat suicidal tuk-tuk driver. It started innocently enough- he asked if we needed a tuk-tuk, we said we needed a bar, he informed us there were no bars in this area, and offered to take us to one, or a couple, for a pretty good price. He was a madman. I don't know if he had a death wish or a competitive spirit or what, because he was racing the cars beside us, and then passing them. I didn't know tuk-tuks went this fast. Numerous times he had to slam on the brakes, tires squealing and all, to avoid ramming the vehicle in front of us. Now, it was a bit scary, but not too bad because he obviously had a lot of experience in driving one of these things. (Might've been better had there been seatbelts or oh-shit handles); the truly worrisome thing was that he couldn't seem to decide whether he wanted to race the cars beside us or practice his English with Rich and I so he did both. He would start by using the rear-view mirror to look at us to see if we understood him (usually it was a joke of some kind... very light-hearted guy). But if he saw a look of confusion he would turn around to repeat himself- all this at breakneck speeds. I started pretending I understood everything and that whatever he was saying was hilarious, just so he would keep his eyes at least aimed towards the road. So we arrived at the first bar unharmed; our driver said he would wait outside for us. We went inside to have a drink, and the bar was terrible. I believe we were the only people in there, except for the guy covering Elvis songs with a synthesizer (the bar's name was Love Me Tender, I think). So away we went again. It was at this point that Rich and I saw an interesting show. If you know what I mean then you know what I mean. If you don’t, then don’t ask. After a few more drinks and a few more near-misses, he dropped off at the station and we took a train back to the hostel, happy to be alive.

The next day we headed down to the docks and got on a ferry up the river. It was a nice little trip. Then we walked around Wat Po, went to the Grand Palace, did all the touristy stuff one does in Bangkok. We finished about 2, and had a good 6 hours to kill before our night bus left. So we headed back to Khao San Rd., where we caught our bus to Koh Tao which is another story in itself.

Thursday, January 10, 2008


The first real destination was Cambodia. We flew into Bangkok in the evening and so stayed there overnight before returning to the road. Siem Reap took about a day to get to. The bus ride from Bangkok to PoiPet, on the Cambodian border, was about 5 hours long and cost about 7US. PoiPet rhymes with toilet for a reason. It is not a very tidy place. This town has no reason to be there except that it has a border crossing station which attracts a lot of Thais who cross the border to gamble, its illegal in Thailand.
The border crossing was fairly quick. We had bought E-Visas in advance so that we only had to stand in one line instead of two. It took about 30 minutes to get through. Once one the other side we were surrounded by cabbies asking us where we needed to go. Of course we ignored them. I had read that you should get out of the initial area to find a ride to Siem Reap. Finally some guy told us to get on his bus, it was free and it would take us about a kilometer up the main thoroughfare. Fine with me.
Of course he took us to the cabbie company that he was hooked up with. They offered us a decent price so we mulled it over. At the border crossing we had met up with two Australians and agreed that sharing a taxi between the five of us would be the most efficient way to go. I think it was 35 US for the ride. As we were talking about the taxi I noticed the emblem on the hood of the car, it was the very service I was told not to take, but by this point they had offered us a good fare.
Getting that taxi was a hassle. First they wanted us to pay first (which we of course refused) then we settled on half-now half-later deal, then they had to find a driver who knew where our hostel was (which didn't matter in the end), then we had to switch cars.... it was obnoxious. What made it all the worse is that the Camry we ended up in was tiny... see, the Australian chap was like 6'5", so he automatically got the front seat, which left the four of us in the back seat. Had we all been the width of....umm, something really skinny... then it would've been fine; but as was we were we were like sardines packed in a crushed tin box. Which, from the get go, was tolerable. Then we got on the "road". It was A) entirely dirt, never been paved. B) no lanes, because to avoid the literal craters one has to use to entire road. I THINK you're supposed to drive on the right side of the road in Cambodia, but I can't be sure. C) Even with successful crater evasions, riding in this car was like going through turbulence-hell. Even with all of this, we kept our cheer up for a while. Had to get our tire filled a few times, and sealed another time, for there was a large slab of metal sticking out of it at one point. The real problem with the ride was that we had no idea how long it was really going to take (the taxi guys had said "4 hours" and when asked the same question a bit later, said "3". Our driver spoke almost no English, so asking him wasn't much help either.
So; we finally get to a paved-ish section of the road, meaning we were finally nearing Siem Reap, but then we stopped at a tuk-tuk stand for some reason (tuk-tuks are those little open air motorcycle things- google it). Apparently taxis can ' t go into the region of the city where our hostel was, and we had to finish the journey via tuk-tuk. We were all very wary of this, but didn't really have a choice, so off we went, in a little tuk-tuk procession. And they actually took us to the hostel, no problem and no stops, which was kinda amazing. We learned later that taxis totally could come into this area of the city, so why we had to switch to tuk-tuks I will never know.

Our first day we needed a tuk-tuk to take us to the temples. I wasn’t exactly sure how far the temples were from Siem Reap. This being our first time hiring a tuk-tuk, we weren't exactly picky in our choosing- so we went with the first guy who quoted us a good price. It seems that most tuk-tuks are powered by a motorcycle of at least 250 ccs. The one we hired must've been powered by a scooter- we had people on bikes passing us. I’m also pretty sure that the driver had cataracts.

It's hard to describe the temples. They are about 1000 years old. There are multiple complexes over a very large area. Angkor Wat is only the most famous and best preserved temple, there are many others by different names that can be reached by tuk-tuk. If you want to research the history a bit more go to; .
I had heard of another temple structure that had never been reclaimed from the jungle so we snagged a tuk-tuk driver and headed off to that one. It was called Tah Prohm. I think this one was far more interesting than Angkor Wat itself; it had fewer restorations, and was pretty well left as it was. In some places there were giant trees growing into the structures. (see picture) There are many options for tickets to the Angkor Wat area temples. You can buy a one day, three day, or 6 day pass at 20, 40, or 60 US$. I recommend the one day if you are holding a mild interest in the temples. One day, three temples, 6 hours, that was enough for me. If you buy the three day pass I recommend going for 3 or 4 hours only of each of the 3 days. Looking at temples is cool, but can get monotonous. The six day pass is for the very hardcore. If you like temples, grew up in one and miss home, or are really into acting like Tomb Raider, then maybe you should buy this pass. That evening was spent getting massages, eating good food and a little shopping.
The next day we did almost nothing. We got massages, ate well, shopped a little and generally were slothful. The day after we left Siem Reap and began our journey back. This trip closely resembles the one into Siem Reap, except this time there were only three of us in the Camry, so everyone had their own seat. The main difference was that this Camry, instead of having tire troubles, had engine troubles, so every now and again we would stop, our driver would get out and tinker with the engine a bit, and we'd continue. At one point he removed a large piece of the engine during his tinkering (which he of course replaced before we continued). During these little breaks Rich and I would amuse ourselves by throwing rocks at the few trees, pretending they were attacking monkeys. (Had monkeys actually attacked us, we would've been easily overcome, because we couldn't hit the trees with any sort of consistency, and they weren't even moving). So we made in into Poi Pet, crossed into Thailand, and jumped on a bus to Bangkok. We arrived late on Christmas Eve.

Monday, January 07, 2008

The End of the Affair

Over this last holiday I traveled a little bit differently than I normally would, I traveled with people which was unusual for me, and I had a couple of dour experiences. At the end of all of that I knew that something had changed for me. This lust within me to travel has dimmed considerably. This does not mean that I don’t intend to travel in the future; it just means that my perceptions have radically changed. .

When traveling it is always a goal to leave the things of your life behind for a time. This is not necessarily because you think they are bad or want to escape them. It is simply because to fully embrace the experiences of traveling you must be able to be a conduit. That is very hard to do when you are carrying the baggage, literal or not, of your normal life. It’s wonderful to see all of the monuments, museums, and icons of a culture in real time, but it’s the electricity of a people and place that are what traveling is really about.
The shape of a street sign, the style of dress, the look in a person’s eye, and the smell of a corner market. All these things become mentally noted, processed, and interpreted.

Travel is not easy. It can be enjoyable, but is not necessarily vacation time. If you want vacation time go the Florida or the Caribbean where the land will be/is already ruined. Travel often involves long bus/plane/ferry/car/donkey rides that are sometimes very sweaty and sometimes very cold and the kicker is that much of the time you don't know which it will be until you are about to embark and you’ve only packed one pair of pants so tough beans if you don’t like being smelly. Many of the places that you visit will not have a room or they will, but it will be small, dirty, and most likely infested with something. Speaking of infestations, lets move on to bug bites. There are many types or bugs bites from the massive red lump left by some spiders to the sometimes hundreds of small bites left by sand flies or mosquitoes. There is also the risk of injury. Kidneys are especially vulnerable as they are often being jarred about while traveling. Oh lord, please take care of your feet. They are your most loved travel buddy. Consider all of that on top of the mental energy it takes to move yourself through places where you often don’t speak the language and a lot of the time no one cares to understand your gestures.

A long time ago this is all that traveling really was, a big pain in the butt. A person would set out the door and go thousands of miles and that in itself was their accomplishment. It didn’t matter if they traveled well or not. It only mattered that they had gone because no one else had and it was exceptional. This is no longer true, although it still can be found. A fairly affluent person can travel to all corners of the earth if that is what they desire. The old barriers are breaking down. This is a terrible and great thing all at one time. As people interact more and more they learn how to better engage each other, which is good. However, some of the natural beauty of a place and its people gets lost in the trampling feet of tourists.

People had always told me that Thais were very friendly. Maybe they are, I don’t want to be too quick to judge an entire people on a weeks worth of interaction, but they did not appear to be all that friendly. It’s not that they were mean like some people I have encountered. Its not that they had anti-American sentiments, although I did encounter such a person in Thailand, but he was a Kiwi. It is not the climate or the regime that makes these people so down turned to foreigners. It is the foreigner themselves.

You may remember a movie a few years back called The Beach (I’ve been told by many people that the book is much better). The movie was based on a book of a similar theme written in the mid-nineties. It starred Leonardo DiCaprio along with a few other famous names. The jist of the film is that Leo is a young American traveling through southern Thailand looking for something that is off the grid. Everyone is looking for this magical place because they have already ruined the places they have found. They are looking for the next big thing, the untouched land. With the help of a crazy old expatriate he finds an island paradise inhabited by a few very guarded westerners. They except him, but are so extreme in their desire to keep the island a secret that they allow the deaths of many people. The most terrible thing about their actions is that the very thing they are trying to preserve has already been destroyed by their presence.

This is why the Thais are no longer as friendly as they were. It seems now like they are shrouded in a sort of sadness because so many foreigners have converged on Thailand so quickly that they have had time to properly deal with them in anyway except to start prostituting themselves, sometimes literally. The lands that people had come to see in the past will soon not exist at all. The island I stayed on was a great example of this.

Fifty years ago no one lived on the island. Ten years ago there was not a paved road. Now there are many paved roads, trucks, motorcycles, four story buildings, all inclusive resorts, motorboats streaming up and down the coast and with it the inevitable destruction of the island. I saw coral that was dead, and not because of some kind of natural cycle. I saw ditches choked with trash. I saw foreigners abusing the local people’s good will. It disgusted me and this perhaps is what swung my mind.

I will never again go to Thailand. I will do my best never to enter a culture in that manner again. I tore through Thailand; I encouraged the death of its unique land. I was just as bad as the drugged out ravers who exploited the people and land at every turn. Accomplice! Never again.
The romance of travel is gone. Yes, of course I will still make long journeys. Yes, I will still enter foreign countries. Of course, of course the love will return. I just have to deal with the shame and disgust of what my people have done to another and try my best not to encourage that any further. I have to be very careful in what I do.