Monday, June 5, 2017

DAD --> PQC --> SGN

The bad news: I'm flying back to the States on Wednesday.

The good news: I'm flying back to the States on Wednesday.

As you can tell, I have mixed feelings about this. I'm obviously excited to get back to all my friends and family, but at the same time, I love the nomad life! Despite its disadvantages, it suits me.

I returned to Ho Chi Minh City on Saturday afternoon, and received a warm welcome at The Common Room Project, where I originally stayed when I first arrived. They were so happy to see me they even gave me the big bed. :) 

Phu Quoc Vietnam harbor boats
But before my return to Saigon, I visited Phu Quoc Island. I'm not much of a beach person--and Phu Quoc Island is pretty much all beach--but I wanted to go snorkeling. I'd never been snorkeling. I booked a tour through my hostel and headed out on a boat. Then they gave me a mask and breathing tube and basically just told me to jump in the ocean and go. A little more instruction would have been appreciated--it took me a while to get used to blowing water out of the tube. Or maybe I was doing something wrong and there shouldn't have been water in there at all? No idea. 

That said, I had a nice time. I suspect it wasn't the most spectacular place to snorkel. There was coral, and some fish. But not bright coral or huge fish. For a first time, though, it'll do. At least I didn't get stung by a jellyfish or a sea urchin or anything.

When we were finished with our second snorkeling...dive? I don't know what you'd call it. When we were finished with our second round of snorkeling, the friendly Russian couple I met on the boat looked at me askance. "You still very pale. You like milk."

Painfully accurate.

Phu Quoc also had one of my favorite night markets that I visited. Plenty of fresh seafood--although it was a bit pricier than your average market. One night I got Indian food, and I swear the garlic naan was the size of a large pizza. Needless to say, I did not finish it.

What have I been up to in HCMC? Mostly buying souvenirs. YOU'RE WELCOME. Ben Thanh Market was just as miserable as I expected it to be. Well, to be fair, the market itself was not miserable. Bartering is miserable. It is an utterly joyless process. I'm sure I paid more than I should have for lots of things--but I think I got good deals on a few items, at least.

Afterwards I rewarded myself with a trip to Propaganda, a chic bistro that serves upscale Vietnamese food in a room filled with 50's and 60's propaganda art. However, I sat on the patio. I had a beer and crunchy tri-colored rice with shredded chicken and a fried egg on top. It was delicious.

Cu Chi Tunnels Vietnam
Today I took a trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels--part of the massive system of tunnels built by the guerrilla fighters during the Vietnam War. The whole site is swimming with tourists, of course, but it was interesting to see. Showing off the traps full of sharp spikes that they used against American soldiers--still interesting, but also kind of disturbing. My favorite part was when they actually let us climb through the tunnels. Thank goodness I'm not claustrophobic! I didn't have to crawl, but I was crouched to the point that my stomach met my knees, and my backpack scraped the ceiling. There were only a few inches on either side of my body, too. And when we climbed out on the other side, our guide told us that they had doubled the size of the tunnels before they allowed tourists to visit. Doubled! At the original size, I would have been shimmying along on my stomach for sure.

Our guide essentially forced us to take photos at one of the hidden tunnel entrances. There was this Australian guy in my group who had quite a gut, and he literally got stuck. It took three other men to pull him out.

Tonight there's a family dinner at my hostel, and then tomorrow is my last full day! I have absolutely no idea what I'm going to do.

Any suggestions?

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

HUI --> DAD --> Hoi An

Preface: I wrote this yesterday while lounging on a riverside patio in Hoi An. Today I'm navigating multiple airports on my way to Phu Quoc Island--but more on that later. For the record, the dinner I ended up having at Morning Glory was one of the best things I've eaten in Vietnam. As was the second dinner that I had back at the homestay--though second dinner was not the best choice for my digestive tract. Still, no regrets.

Greetings from beautiful Hoi An, one of those aggressively charming towns designed to make tourists throw their money away. Mackinac Island, Carmel-by-the-Sea--you get the idea. I don't mean this in a disparaging way. To the contrary, Hoi An is one of my favorite places that I've visited so far. I suspect it's impossible not to feel relaxed here.

The rest of my time in Hue wasn't bad, exactly, but I wouldn't call it relaxing, either. The day after the horrible heat, I couldn't bring myself to trek to any more tourist attractions--I was wiped out. Instead I spent the day in cafes, working on my novel. Physically restful, perhaps, but mentally exhausting. Then, after dinner with Mina and some of her friends, it began to rain.

And rain. And rain.

The downpour didn't stop until well into the next day. However, the release of the rain tipped some atmospheric scale, and the temperature finally became bearable. My last day in Hue was probably my favorite. I visited the Le Ba Dang Museum, which celebrates the work of the Vietnamese painter and sculptor. I negotiated what I believe to be an amazing deal to visit Thien Mu Pagoda--the xe om driver took me there, waited for me, and drove me back for only 60,000 dong (less than $3). I hate haggling, so I was proud of myself for that one. The pagoda is gorgeous, tucked between tall pine trees, high above the Perfume River. That evening I spontaneously had dinner with a fellow American who quit her job to go diving in Thailand for nine months, as well as a Canadian retiree. Afterwards we sat at a cafe along the river and watched the lights on the bridge change colors.

Despite the pleasant day, Hoi An was a welcome change of pace. Once a major trading port, the "ancient town" is full of historical houses and temples, its streets strung with colorful lanterns. The town is famous for its tailors and leather workers, who will make custom-made clothes, bags, and shoes for tourists in a matter of hours, all for a fraction of the price that it would cost in the U.S. or Europe. There are also hundreds of cafes and restaurants, where visitors can sample local cuisine, or just chill out with a cup of coffee or a 5,000 dong glass of "fresh beer." Bicycles are perhaps the most popular form of transport in Hoi An--especially for tourists--and just a few miles away from town, a lovely ride through the rice paddies, is the beach.

Like I said: aggressively charming.

My homestay is wonderful, too. I have my own gigantic room and private bathroom. There are bicycles I can take whenever I want for free. Mimi and Long and the other staff are amazing--about my age, and always willing to sit down and chat. It's fun to hang out with them. My first night in town, we all had a huge family dinner night. We bought food at the local market, and we made spring rolls and eggplant and morning glory and papaya salad and squid and soup. Not to mention all the fruit for dessert. Have you ever had a mangosteen? If not, you ought to make it happen ASAP.

Oh, there's also a tiny kitten at the homestay who has stolen my heart. Her name is Tuna.

Anyway, if you ever come to Hoi An, you must book Riceflower Homestay for your accommodations. But where should you shop?

The amount of tailors' shops in the town is overwhelming, so I just walked into one that had a good TripAdvisor rating. Fortunately, Cloth Shop Din Din lived up to its reputation. I knew I wanted a blazer, since I can never find any that fit in the U.S. If it fits my waist, it's always too small for my arms, and vice-versa. But I also wanted something more fun, so I decided to go for a jumpsuit. I got to select the designs and fabrics of both, and both pieces were ready the next day. I came in for adjustments, and they already fit perfectly. The price was so low that I didn't have the heart to barter.

I wasn't going to buy a pair of shoes. I was determined not to. Then I saw a pair of light turquoise suede boots outside of Friendly Shoe Shop, and all my resolve crumbled. They measured my feet and legs, and they let me select the leather--they no longer had the display color, so I happily settled for a bolder blue. The boots were ready for adjustments later that same day, and when I double checked the final product today, they offered to ship it to the States for me. The cost of the custom boots plus shipping: slightly over $100. More than I'd normally pay for shoes, of course--but the shoes I normally buy are cheap and fall apart after a few months. I'm glad I made the investment, which was still a far smaller investment than I would have made for the same quality in the U.S.

It's a good thing I only have a part-time job right now, or else I might be lugging home a whole new wardrobe.

Where should you eat in Hoi An? Pretty much anywhere--everything I've tried has been delicious. I tried Cao Lau, a local specialty, at Vy's Market, on their patio along the river. I tried the "Mixed Bread" sandwich at the Anthony Bourdain-approved Banh Mi Phuong, which had a little bit of everything, and was ridiculously flavorful. I tried another local specialty, White Rose dumplings, at Coco, a restaurant tucked into a sleepy curve in the river. I tried Banh Xeo (Vietnamese pancake) at the town market. Tonight I'm going to give the much-recommended Morning Glory a shot.

This morning I biked to the beach, read a book by the waves, watched these tiny, translucent crabs scuttle sideways along the sand. By the time I leave Hoi An, I'll have biked something like 25 miles--nothing for regular bikers, but considering that I hardly ever do it, and that the last time I tried I literally crashed into a wall (goddamn fixies), I'm quite proud of myself. It's the small things.

I should stop writing. I've been at this cafe for hours, and they're probably tired of me taking up prime riverside real estate.

Next door they're playing "Cowboy Take Me Away" by the Dixie Chicks. Feels appropriate for some reason.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

HAN --> HUI

I am coming back to the States in less than two weeks! LESS THAN TWO WEEKS! How did this happen?

In some ways, I'm ready. I can't wait to be a comfortable temperature again, can't wait to throw toilet paper into the toilet again, can't wait to not be accosted by taxi/tuk-tuk/motorcycle/whatever drivers everywhere I go. But at the same time, I don't want the adventuring to end. 

I have real fears about my future. Sure, everybody does. But it's less about what I'll do with myself, and more about whether I'll ever be satisfied doing anything long term. One reason I enjoy traveling so much is that it involves constant distraction and constant change. It's impossible to be bored (and much harder to be anxious) when virtually everything is different from my regular life, when even the smallest tasks become a challenge, a puzzle to solve. 

I'm afraid that I'll never want to settle down in one place. Never want to hold a job for more than a few years. Not that I'm required to do those things simply because society tells me so. But I also don't want to live my life in a perpetually dissatisfied state. Most people are dissatisfied with little things, but I worry that I have a deeper, existential dissatisfaction to wrestle. Not sure what to do about that. 

Here's one thing I can do about it right now: not think about it, because I still have (less than) two weeks in Vietnam. 

The rest of my time in Hanoi was good. I finally figured out how to get a Grab driver to come close enough to my Airbnb to catch a ride. I visited Hua Lo Prison--the famous Hanoi Hilton--which appealed to my love for history. The propaganda there is out of this world. They literally have a section about how wonderfully they treated the American POWs--pictures of John McCain being treated by their doctors, the cozy sweaters they gave to the prisoners. Knowing the other side of the story, it was surreal. 

I went to a Harry Potter cafe called Always and drank a Butterbeer, because Harry Potter. It was surprisingly delicious--tasted like a buttery root beer float. I tried bun cha, a traditional Hanoi dish. On my last day in the city, a friendly fellow tourist paid for my ticket to the Fine Arts Museum. I did work on my book, but not as much as I wanted to. I'm trying to squeeze in some serious work days during my trip south. 

After Hanoi I took an overnight Halong Bay cruise, which is apparently just one of those Things You Must Do in Vietnam. I'd never been on a cruise before, and I learned something important about myself: I don't like cruises very much. Being on the boat was great, and Halong Bay is as gorgeous as everyone says it is--but what's with the group activities? Why no unstructured time? Aren't cruises supposed to be relaxing? 

To be fair, some of my ire may have been due to the fact that I finished reading Jandy Nelson's I'll Give You The Sun while on the boat, and it made my emotions go haywire and all I wanted to do was stare out at the ocean and scream. In a good way. Despite the cliche ending, it is one of the best books I've ever read. The language was mind-blowing. 

After the cruise they drove us back to Hanoi, where I immediately jumped on a sleeper train to Hue. I was all excited that I had paid for a first class ticket, that I'd be riding the train in relative luxury--only to discover that Vietnamese sleeper trains are not like Thai sleeper trains. The cabin was basically about the same comfort level as Thai second class. And there were cockroaches.


Normally I try to destroy traditional gender roles whenever possible, but in this case I let the two 19-year-old British boys in the bunks below me act like Manly Men and kill the big scary bugs. And their chivalry did not end there--they loaned this fair maiden one of their mosquito nets so I didn't have to worry about the roaches crawling inside my ears or mouth, at the very least. I did not sleep much. 

I've been in Hue for almost two full days now. Yesterday I reconnected with Mina, who I met in Siem Reap, and we walked around Hue's famous Imperial City. It was an interesting site, but the day was too hot. Just too hot. I had another one of my panic-esque frustration-at-the-heat attacks last night, where I nearly started crying because I was so uncomfortable. 

But I'm feeling better today--taking it easy. Eating food. Window shopping. Relaxing in cafes. My hostel's not my favorite, but there is a puppy, so that makes it better. Puppies make everything better. 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Hanoi Pocket Universe

I'm having an...interesting time in Hanoi. Not necessarily a bad time. But it is unusual, in several regards.

My Airbnb is gorgeous. I wish I could pick it up and move it to the United States and live inside it forever. And it's the perfect place to have my own personal writing retreat--because it doesn't exist. Or perhaps, as my friend Tim suggested, it exists within some kind of pocket universe. If I turn on my GPS inside the house, it appears as though I'm on no street at all. That's because it's tucked away in a tiny alley behind other, larger streets.

This only poses a problem when I want to take a break from writing and, you know, see Hanoi. Because it does not exist on a street, taxi drivers can't find it. In order to use my Grab app, I have to go to a cafe on a major street and purchase a beverage that I don't want so that I can use their wifi and have the driver pick me up there. The same problem occurs when I'm on my way back. I point out the general area where I'm going to the driver, and tell them that I'll direct them when we get close, but they seem awfully skeptical. Which makes sense, I suppose. I don't exactly look like a local.

Why don't I just walk, you ask? Great idea! I love walking. The trouble is that there is a very large, very busy highway separating me from the direction I'd have to walk in order to reach any tourist attractions. Even if I could dodge the cars and bikes, the center of the highway is fenced in--a storage area for shipping trucks of some kind.

On the bright side: I'm getting lots of writing and editing done! But also: I'm trapped!

I'm being hyperbolic, of course. I have gone out and visited a few places. One day I took a Grab bike to the Vietnam Women's Museum, which was great. My favorite part was the "Women in History" section, which mostly discussed women's role during the revolutionary period. One young woman, when sentenced to twenty years in prison, apparently told the judge something to the effect of "I don't recognize your authority to give that sentence." Let us all be as bold as this young revolutionary.

Another evening I visited the Hanoi Social Club, which often pops up on lists of coolest places to eat in Hanoi. And it was cool--housed in an old colonial building, filled with eclectic vintage furniture and decor. What those reviews didn't mention (or maybe they did, and I didn't look closely enough) was that they only serve Western food. A little boring, I suppose, but the veggie burger was good.

There's a sweet woman who comes to clean the Airbnb each day, and she asked if I'd be willing to meet her daughter, Huang (I'm probably spelling that wrong), who wanted to practice her English. I said yes, of course. Turns out Huang is my age and also between jobs/life situations--I guess it's nice that it's such a universal thing? We're all in this together? Anyway, Huang has her own motorbike, so she and I went to the Temple of Literature--essentially Hanoi's first university--and the Ho Chi Minh Museum.

The second stop got a little weird--it's clear that Huang has been taught to believe that Ho Chi Minh was basically perfect, and I figured that inside the Ho Chi Minh Museum was probably a bad place to disillusion her. Not that I even have any right to disillusion her! I mean, I doubt Ho Chi Minh was quite as evil as the U.S. made him out to be, but he's definitely no saint. So I just sort of nodded my head and said "uh huh" a lot while we looked at the many gifts he received made from the scraps of downed American planes. Seemed to work out.

Side note: Ho Chi Minh was a polyglot, and he wrote lots of letters in French--which were the only ones I was able to read at the museum. It made me realize that I miss reading in French. I'll have to pick up a French book again soon.

We also saw the Presidential Palace and the house where Ho Chi Minh lived and worked while he was in power. Houses, actually--there was a Western-style home with a garage full of fancy cars, and a simple house on stilts that he apparently had built to remind him of where he grew up. The grounds on which both houses are located are stunning--a lush garden complete with a giant pond full of fish that Ho Chi Minh loved to feed.

I was so exhausted after our outing that I sat down to do some work and totally conked out. Woke up an hour later, completely disoriented. Overall, though, a delightful day. We may go out and do something again tomorrow.

I've had a few other misadventures. The first day I needed to go grocery shopping, but I couldn't see any grocery stores nearby on the map. There was, however, a giant shopping mall about a half mile away. It seems like most Asian shopping malls I've visited have grocery stores, too, so I decided to give it a shot. The Times City Mega-Mall is owned by Vingroup, which also owns literally everything else in that area. The luxury apartments were run by Vinhomes, and they were located next to VinSchool. I went grocery shopping at VinMart. It was a little creepy.

I always get nervous in grocery stores abroad because I can't read any of the labels--especially when it comes to produce. I picked up only things that were familiar to me--bananas, apples, tomatoes eggplant. I grabbed what I hoped was basil, and I lucked out. I made a strategic error, however. The loose produce--bananas, apples, etc.--I bagged and had weighed and price-tagged by a clerk in the produce area. But I didn't think I had to do that with the pre-packaged items, like basil or tomatoes. I was wrong. When I got to the register, I had to run back to the produce area, fix the un-tagged items, and run back--holding up the whole line, of course. That was fun.

Then there's my stomach. Well, not my stomach--my stomach actually feels fine. But I must have picked up some kind of bacteria while I was in Laos (it started on my last day there), and now whatever goes into my stomach does not stay there for very long. I'm not quite sure what to do. It seems alarmist to go to the doctor. My appetite is intact, I'm drinking plenty of fluids. No fever, as far as I can tell. On the other hand, how long do I let this go on? It's already day 6. Any advice?

Aaaaand I just shattered one of my host's handmade pottery bowls while I was trying to make myself a cup of tea. So that's cool. Guess I should probably stop blogging now and clean this up.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

LPQ --> HAN

Made it back to Vietnam! Though I'm at the opposite end of the country this time. Haven't seen much of Hanoi yet--I arrived late last night and stumbled into my hostel dorm room, which was full of dudes who aren't quite old enough to have figured out that cologne is not an adequate substitute for bathing. But don't worry: today I move into my Airbnb, where I'll have my own room--with a balcony, no less! And there I shall stay for (nearly) two glorious weeks, hiding from the world and writing. After more than a month of constant socializing, I'm excited for some alone time.

How was Luang Prabang, you ask? I have mixed feelings. I honestly believe it could have been one of the best stops of my trip--if it hadn't been for the particulars of my hostel and the particulars of the weather.

Luang Prabang is so beautiful that I'm surprised it hasn't inspired infinite tomes of poetry. Maybe it has. Set in a valley surrounded by lush, misty mountains, the entire town is designated a world heritage site. Though it has existed for thousands of years, it's the only city I've visited in Southeast Asia where I got the distinct impression that they must have had to carve it out of the jungle in order to create it. The plant life creeps in everywhere.

And so do the mosquitoes. I took every precaution I could, but I still got bit a few times. They were relentless--even in my hostel dorm, which was problematic for sleeping.

Actually, everything about my hostel dorm was problematic for sleeping. The mattresses were so hard that we may as well have slept on the floor (and I typically like a firm mattress!), and though there was an air conditioner in the room, it didn't really work. One night I had--not a panic attack, exactly, but more like a fit of frustration and hopelessness. I was SO hot and SO sticky and I couldn't remember the last time I had felt comfortable and I nearly started crying. Thankfully, it passed after a few minutes.

On the bright side, I met another wonderful bunch of travelers in my hostel--mostly from the UK, but one from the States and one from Canada--and we had many adventures.

The highlight of my trip was our trip to Kuang Si Waterfalls, which is about an hour away from Luang Prabang along a winding, rural road. This jungle oasis paradise looks too gorgeous to be real, the type of place that should only exist in movies. We swam in the clear, cold water and sunbathed on top of the washed rocks. You know those fish baths they have at spas? Where the little fish nibble away your dead skin? Droves of those fish live in the falls, and it was very funny to watch the shocked expressions of those who had never experienced such a sensation before.

Other highlights: climbing Mount Phou Si to watch the sunset over the Mekong River, visiting the night market (which features more actual handicrafts than most Southeast Asian markets), stuffing our bellies with too much street food, eating a truly delicious meal at Khaiphaen (seriously--if you ever go to LP, don't miss it), examining the intricate glass murals at Wat Xieng Thong. Oh, and the first night we got a little tipsy and broke the government-imposed midnight curfew to go to the secret bowling alley? That was fun.

One evening we went to a free screening of this silent film from 1927 called Chang. About a tribal family from Laos, it's considered one of the first documentaries--though it seemed awfully staged to me. The team of American filmmakers who produced and shot it eventually went on to make King Kong. I figured it would probably be racist--which it was, of course. But what I wasn't expecting was all the animal cruelty. I'm sure Kru's family really did have to kill animals in order to survive in the jungle in 1927--but I'm also sure that the filmmakers killed many more animals just so we could see it on film. And they didn't kill the baby elephant...but yeah. I walked away disturbed. Watch Chang at your own risk.

We spent another evening at a bar called Utopia, which is only accessible by navigating through several alleys. But once you arrive, there's a sprawling, wooden structure lit only by candles, and the floor is spread with soft beds for reclining. I imagine it must be what opium dens were/are like, but without the opium. Actually, some people probably did have opium--multiple tuk-tuk drivers tried to sell it to us. They were uniformly unhappy when we declined. At any rate, it was a lovely bar, even if it was a fire hazard.

Despite all my wonderful experiences in Luang Prabang, I was happy to leave--if only to focus on my writing for a while. And air conditioning. And swift wifi connections. Definitely want to focus on those wifi connections.

At the same time, I am sad--returning to Vietnam means that I have less than a month left in my trip! How did that happen? I suppose I'll just have to make the most of it.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

CNX --> LPQ

Greetings from Luang Prabang, Laos. I've only been here about two full days, but I've already seen plenty of temples, been bitten by fish, and gone bowling.

More on that later. First, let me tell you about Chiang Mai.

I don't have a lot of time--work is overwhelming this week--but I'll try to be as descriptive as I can. Chiang Mai is far smaller than Bangkok, and far more relaxed. You can actually walk around. On the other hand, the entire town is geared primarily toward tourists. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing--in fact, it's often convenient.

<rant> I hate it when people go searching for "authentic" experiences. Is the Eiffel Tower any less authentic because people hawk keychains in front of it? Is it any less the structure that it's meant to be? Of course not. But whenever tourists visit countries where the people aren't primarily white, they're immediately upset that their experience hasn't been authentic enough. What are you looking for, exactly? Dire poverty? Do you want people to reject modern conveniences simply so that they can appear quaint to you? That. Is. Racist. </rant>

Okay--enough ranting. Here are my favorite things about Chiang Mai:
  1. New Friends - At my hostel, I was fortunate enough to meet the effervescent Rupal (from England) and the sweet Anca (from Germany), two other solo female travelers who quickly became my companions. We were practically inseparable, and I wouldn't have had it any other way. 
  2. Elephants - As far as activities are concerned, this was easily the highlight of my trip to Chiang Mai. On Rupal & Anca's recommendation, I visited Happy Elephant Home, a small elephant sanctuary about an hour north of the city. They have only five pachyderms--three adults and two babies--all of whom have been rescued from mining and logging companies or trekking camps. What's more, I was one of only three people on the afternoon tour. We started by chopping up some sugarcane with machetes. Yeah, that's right--I said machetes. (I'm really bad at using a machete, you guys--but not dangerously bad.) Then we went to feed our new friends, who are basically gigantic dogs. They just want to eat your food. They will poke you with their trunks until you give them the food. It was magical. I have video and I will watch it whenever I am sad for the rest of my life.
  3. Ploen Ruedee Night Market - Most markets in Southeast Asia are largely the same, and quite frankly, I'm about marketed out at this point. But Ploen Ruedee Night Market is different. The focus is more on food than on clothing or souvenirs, and its many booths feature cuisine both from Thailand and from around the world. The small square where it takes place is strewn with different kinds of tables, and even bales of hay, all centered around a stage where live bands play. Strings of festive flags and lights dangle from one end to the other. It was right next door to my hostel, and I wouldn't have even known it was there if it weren't for Rupal and Anca--it was through an unmarked door and behind a wall. Chiang Mai's regular Night Bazaar is a well-known hotspot for tourists, and I visited that, too--Anca and I discovered we were both pretty good Jenga players over a round of 90 baht mojitos--but Ploen Ruedee was still my favorite. It's basically for hipsters, so it's slightly more expensive--but not absurdly so. 
  4. North Gate Jazz Co-Op - This little hole-in-the-wall jazz place is simply delightful. Bands play every night at 9 and 11 p.m., and there isn't a lot of seating, so the crowd usually spills into the street. We were sitting upstairs--a little harder to see the bands, but still fun. In my last post, I mentioned that I might go to North Gate or to a rock club frequented by locals. That night I did go to the rock club, Nabe--and I was disappointed. It was indeed frequented by locals, but I must have come on weepy acoustic night. It was just this one guy up there with his guitar, and while he had a nice voice, it made me a bit depressed. I left after his Simon & Garfunkel medley. 
  5. Temples - Like most cities in Southeast Asia, Chiang Mai has some spectacular temples. But personally, I preferred some of its less famous temples to the ones more commonly frequented by tourists--they were just prettier. Wat Bupparam, right next to my hostel, was very old and very beautiful. And Wat Phan Tao is entirely made of teak. At Wat Chedi Luang, one of the more famous temples, I did get to participate in Monk Chat, which is exactly what it sounds like. I sat down and chatted with some monks for a while--novices who were trying to practice their English. And while Wat Phra That Doi Suthep was ridiculously busy, it had spectacular city views, since it's on top of a nearby mountain. I'm very glad we took a taxi instead of hiking the monk's trail. Too hot. 
I wanted to take a day trip to Chiang Rai as well, but it wasn't in the cards. I tried to book a tour, but it was full. I tried to book a local bus online, but their website wasn't processing payments. I guess it's just another reason to go back to Thailand someday. And anyway, my trip to Chiang Mai was enough fun as-is.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

BKK --> CNX

Bangkok is huge.

It's huge, and it's a lot like other international cities. I feel like I could have spent one fewer day there and I would have had roughly the same experience--though it's possible I simply mismanaged my time. Which isn't to suggest my trip was anything less than lovely.

Summer Street seafood bangkok
The food was excellent. I tried to stick with street food, for the most part, as it's always better. (This is an indisputable fact. Don't @ me.) My first night I walked over to this food truck called Summer Street in Ari, the neighborhood where I was staying, as it was supposed to have the best seafood in that part of town. And the seafood was good--but I didn't realize I had to cook it myself over a miniature charcoal grill they brought to my table. It's a miracle I didn't poison myself. 

Summer Street was pretty bougie for street food. Much less bougie was the street food in Bangkok's bustling Chinatown. I was eating a plate of roasted duck over rice when I was suddenly joined by three teenage girls who were working on a video project for their English class--they wanted me to proofread their script. Putting my Master's degree to good use, I guess. I also had some authentic Pad Thai at the enormous Chatuchak Weekend Market, which is basically like every other market in Southeast Asia, but bigger. I maybe got some of you a souvenir...

I ate at a few restaurants, too. My hostel, The Yard, was full of interesting people, many of whom were also hungry from time to time. One evening I went to a local Ari joint called Lay Lao with Kai, a Taiwanese woman who was taking a vacation from her job managing a shoe factory in Vietnam. As you do. Another day I grabbed burgers at Paper Butter, which was right next door to our hostel, with fellow travelers from the Netherlands and from Los Angeles. Don't get on my case for eating a burger--Bangkok could give Chicago a run for its money when it comes to gourmet burger places. They're everywhere. 

One day I ate at the mall. Again, don't get on my case--most lists of "must-see things in Bangkok" include the mall. Any mall, really. Shopping malls may be dying out in the United States, but in Bangkok, they're spectacular. I visited three major malls off the Siam BTS stop: Siam Paragon, Siam Center, and Siam Discovery. Siam Paragon's the fancy one, filled with designer boutiques and car dealerships. Yes, I said car dealerships. In the mall. My favorite was Siam Center, which featured lots of clothes from Thai designers. I picked up a pair of earrings from Bangkok-based Motta Shop. And by the time I got to Siam Discovery I was, quite frankly, tuckered out. But I still walked over the skyway to the MBK Center, which is more like a street market, but indoors. 

I have to say, the mall provided my least favorite meal of the trip. Not altogether surprising.

Obviously, I spent one day hitting the Major Tourist Sites. Getting there was quite an adventure. Ari is somewhat far-flung, so I had to take one BTS train to another BTS train, and then I had to catch the express boat along the Chao Phraya River. I wish more cities had nautical public transportation. 

It's no secret that I have the aesthetic tastes of a magpie--I love brightly colored, shiny things. So the Grand Palace was my kind of property. Everything was gold-leafed or bejeweled. Everything-everything. My only complaint was that I took a wrong turn, and I somehow exited before I explored the whole site. But that's on me. Along the outside walls of the palace, hundreds (if not thousands) of local Thai people were lined up, dressed in black, mourning their king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died last October. Apparently he was enormously beloved--he spent more than 70 years on the throne. The official mourning period ends this October, at which point his son will be crowned--at least according to the articles I read about it.
buddha feet bangkok wat pho

After the palace I walked over to nearby Wat Pho, famous for its gigantic reclining Buddha statue. The statue was impressive indeed--especially its feet--but I think I enjoyed taking in all the other architecture more. There are dozens of buildings, all of which are beautifully sculpted and decorated. After a quick lunch and an ice cream cone to beat the heat, I took a ferry across the river to Wat Arun, a smaller but no less gorgeous temple. 

Can't get enough of those temples. Each one is just as good as the last.

My last day in Bangkok was, perhaps, my favorite: I headed to the Bangkok Art & Culture Centre, a modern art museum that is air-conditioned and 100% free. Many of the exhibits at the BACC were interactive--like the brand new nation of Nid Noi Tan, where you had to vote in the election determining which material the state would use to construct future buildings (wood, bamboo, or steel), and where you had to stand on a brick stage and hug fellow passers-by whenever the national anthem was played over the speakers. You could also view Nid Noi Tan's "traditional" garb, and explore the red light district, where people have sex using only their hands.

It was a fun exhibit. 

Bangkok Art and Culture Centre BACC
That evening I headed to the train station with new-friend-who-makes-documentaries-for-the-BBC, so that we could catch the sleeper train to Chiang Mai, in the north of Thailand. The woman below me snored, and my toes were a bit cold, but other than that it was fine. Got a lot of editing done on my novel, actually--you probably thought I'd forgotten all about that whole writing thing.

I am currently writing to you from Chiang Mai. I've spent most of the day wandering around the older portion of the city, which is surrounded by a brick wall and the remains of a moat. I visited the Lanna Folklife Museum to learn about the local culture. Next on the docket is dinner, and then I'm either going to a jazz club or to a divey rock bar. 

Decisions, decisions.