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.

Friday, April 28, 2017

SIN --> BKK

Remember the cold that was tickling at the back of my throat? It turned into a full-blown upper-respiratory disaster.

When I got to Singapore, my nose, throat, and lungs were filled with all kinds of gunk--not to mention the headache, bodyache, and sore throat. Just in time to infect my dear cousin Erin! She was gracious enough to let me stay in her hotel room at the Grand Hyatt while she attended a conference, and I would like to apologize now to her and to her entire family for very probably making them ill.

As you can imagine, most of my trip to glamorous Singapore was spent in bed, attempting to recover--I even took a hot bath one night to clear my sinuses. But I did manage to get out of the hotel room a few times.

After sleeping for ten hours my first night there, I willed myself from beneath the covers and into the shower, and later out onto the street. I picked up some cold/flu medicine at 7-11, which helped. My first thought while walking through the crowds: HOLY MOLY I AM UNDERDRESSED. Admittedly, I was staying in a commercial area, but even so, everybody was perfectly put together, their outfits at the height of fashion.

I, on the other hand, was wearing a Harry Potter t-shirt.

Honestly, I found the city almost...creepy somehow? Have you watched the show Westworld? In that story, Westworld is a theme park created to mimic an 1800's wild-west town, where visitors can interact with hyperrealistic androids who have no idea they aren't real. Singapore seemed like a Westworld-esque theme park of a modern Western city. The streets were spotless--and yet it was very difficult to find trash cans. The MRT subway was clean, on time and efficient. Giant shopping malls were everywhere. The people were dressed to the nines, and every individual with whom I interacted, even briefly, struck me as cheerful and optimistic.

Like I said: creepy.

I visited two cafes that day: My Awesome Cafe, which was undoubtedly awesome, albeit expensive; and Dapper Coffee, which seemed more like a bar, and actually had a fully stocked bar, even though it was only open from 9-5. I went to the first cafe because the internet told me it was a great place to get work done, and I think the internet lied. I was the only one working there--all the other chic people were merely lunching. I went to the second because it was around the corner and up the stairs from the first, and it ended up being steampunk themed. Electroswing all afternoon.

I can never decide if I'm pro- or anti-steampunk. I want to like it, but the people who really like it are so--well. Nevermind. If you can't say anything nice...

I spent most of the next morning in bed as well, and later Erin and I did some mild sightseeing. A hot-and-humid-and-sweaty trip to Gardens by the Bay, where we witnessed the awesome majesty of the Supertrees. A cocktail (virgin, in my case) to cool down at the tippy-top of the Marina Bay Sands, where we witnessed the awesome majesty of a thunderstorm rolling in over the skyscrapers. A meal at Maxwell Road Hawker Center in Chinatown, where we both witnessed and consumed the awesome majesty of Hainanese chicken rice, along with other dishes--too many dishes. Yum.

And that's about all we had time for before we had to head back to the airport to catch our respective flights. I'll have to return to Singapore sometime when I'm not half-bedridden.

On the bright side, I think all the rest was good for me--I'm feeling a lot better now. The cold is definitely still there, but it's manageable.

As for my current location: I arrived in Bangkok late last night, and I conked out the second my head hit the pillow. My hostel, The Yard, is essentially what would happen if graphic design-obsessed Tumblr users were allowed to create a hostel. Alarmingly hip. Hip to the extent that upon check-in, they give you a glass bottle for water because they want to discourage you from using plastic, and the bottle says that's what it's for in a charming font, and they give you a small burlap bag to carry the bottle to and from the water machine, also printed with its purpose, also in a charming font, because these are the things you need to live an Instagram-worthy life. But hey, there's free (Instagram-worthy) breakfast!

I suppose the super-hipness makes sense, as it's in Bangkok's Ari neighborhood, which is also super-hip. Plenty of little cafes, many of which I've worked in today while taking it easy--I need my strength to catch the train and go sightseeing this weekend. I shouldn't make fun--it's a very nice place to stay for a very low price. Not quite as low as some of the other hostels I've stayed in, but still more than reasonable. I need to laugh at it a little, though, since it makes me feel old.

What will I do during the rest of my stay? Not sure. Bangkok is rather large, and I am but one human. Food tour? Perhaps. Palace and temples? Definitely. Bamboo hand-poked tattoo?

Just kidding, Mom.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Wonders of the Ancient World; or, my trip to Angkor Wat

Having spent a few days here, I can understand why my friend who was so adamant about my skipping Cambodia entirely didn't like Siem Reap. It's a town that caters solely to tourists--especially young backpackers looking to get wasted. The tuk-tuk drivers are relentless in their efforts to whisk you away. And it's honestly easier to find Western food here than it is to find traditional Khmer food. I had tacos for dinner last night.

Tacos.

Pub Street Siem Reap Cambodia
Even so, there's something authentic about Siem Reap's commitment to inauthenticity, its desire to be either stereotypical Southeast Asia or anywhere but Southeast Asia. Back in Phnom Penh, Rosemary compared Siem Reap's famous Pub Street to downtown Las Vegas, and she had it absolutely right. It's crowded with foreign tourists, the restaurants feature a wide variety of global cuisines, and every sign is lit up in neon.

Of course, it's a lot cheaper than Vegas. Draft beers are $0.50 each!



The reason so many tourists flock to Siem Reap is that it serves as the gateway to Angkor Wat. Or more specifically, to the Angkor Archaeological Park. Angkor Wat is merely one temple of dozens--though it is the largest and most famous of the bunch. One of the more popular times to visit is at sunrise, when the glow brightens from pink to orange over the temple's iconic towers. I hadn't planned on visiting at sunrise, because I'm just not a morning person.

And then I visited at sunrise.

I didn't have much of a choice. I arrived at my hostel in the evening after my long bus ride from Phnom Penh, and a chatty Australian woman, Jess, invited me to sit at her table for dinner (ACYE vegan BBQ for $5!). She was with a less-than-chatty English woman who introduced herself as Mina. After staying mostly silent during the meal, Mina suddenly asked whether I was planning on going to Angkor Wat.

"Yeah, probably tomorrow?"

"Okay, I'm going at sunrise. Let's split a tuk-tuk."

Fortunately, Mina was a wonderful traveling companion. She became less quiet over time, and she's actually quite funny, in a subtle way. We got up at 4 a.m. (ouch) to meet our driver, who took us first to get our tickets, and then to the park. It's a good thing we decided to split the cost of the tuk-tuk, because admission prices to the archaeological park doubled in February, so it's nearly $40 to go for a single day.

Angkor Wat Cambodia sunrise
Angkor Wat itself was the first stop. We stood outside at the reflecting pool with gazillions of other tourists to watch the sunrise--I eventually walked several feet back and sacrificed capturing the reflecting pool just so I could get a photo without another person's head or phone in it.

After oohing and ahhing over the picturesque vista, we headed inside the giant temple, which is remarkably well-preserved. All (or at least most?) of the temples in the archaeological park were built as Hindu places of worship, but later became Buddhist places of worship--and they remain so to this day. They let visitors explore pretty much the entire site--they even let you climb up into one of the towers via some very steep stairs--and it took nearly two hours to get through it. Lots of opportunities for pictures of course. We watched a monkey steal a woman's bag of food. Her fault, obviously. The monkey was just being a monkey.

When we got back to the nearby parking lot, our tuk-tuk driver was gone. He was supposed to stay with us the whole day. We couldn't ask another driver--they were all waiting for other tourists as well. While we were discussing our options, a different tuk-tuk drove in and pulled up next to us. Turns out the pregnant wife of our original driver had gone into labor, so he had to get back to Siem Reap ASAP. But he'd kindly sent his brother to pick us up and finish our tour--which is sort of amazing! If I were about to have a kid, I'd probably forget about everything else.

Mina and I were on the small circuit of the park, which brings you to three major temples, along with a few smaller ones, and takes around half a day to complete. The second temple we visited was Bayon, known for the huge faces carved into its stone towers. They were everywhere, calmly smiling down on us--and the tourists were everywhere, too. Bayon is a lot smaller than Angkor Wat--still big, of course, but cramped in comparison. It was hard to squeeze around everybody else, but we managed it.
bayon temple cambodia

After that it was a few much smaller temples. At one of them we climbed an enormous flight of stairs only to be confronted with ANOTHER FLIGHT OF STAIRS. By this time it was very hot outside, so we agreed to skip the second flight and find ice cream instead.

Ta Prohm is the third major temple on the small circuit, and as our tuk-tuk driver pointed out many, many times, it is where they filmed Tomb Raider. I've never seen Tomb Raider, and all I know about it is that it's based on a video game and stars Angelina Jolie. But I've got good news for those of you who are equally out of touch with pop culture: they could have filmed nothing at Ta Prohm, and it would still be equally stunning. It ended up being my favorite of the sites we visited that day.

ta prohm temple cambodia
While many of the other sites are in clearings or open plains, Ta Prohm is set further back in the jungle--it took about eight minutes to walk there from where the driver dropped us off. It's also in greater disrepair than many of the other temples, which only adds to its charm--gigantic trees shove and twist through its mossy, blue-green stones. I wish I could have camped there for a few days--and this is coming from a person who hates camping.*

I can't remember the name of the final temple we visited, but it was awfully large for a minor site. Architecturally it was more like Angkor Wat, but it was in the same kind of disrepair as Ta Prohm, and it had one long hallway that ran straight through from one side to the other. An unofficial guide attached himself to us and showed us a few things we wouldn't have found otherwise--an elaborate carving of an elephant, a cracked stone door that hadn't collapsed or been removed. We ended up having to pay him, of course, but it was probably worth it, as we would have missed a lot of that stuff on our own.

We arrived back in Siem Reap sweaty and dehydrated. Fortunately, Mina knew of a hotel down the street that would let you swim in their pool as long as you bought something to eat and drink. We bought spring rolls and beer, and I got a comically bad sunburn in these incongruous patches that don't make sense based on what I was wearing. Story of my life. I am the palest human, after all.

Later that evening we had a drink on pub street, and we picked up some souvenirs at the night market. I bought a krama, which is a traditional Cambodian style of scarf. I found a pretty one for a good price, and there's no such thing as too many scarves. This is an objective fact.

Today I was exhausted, so I mostly just relaxed--went to a nonprofit cafe called Fat Panda's and worked on my novel, drank a ginger-lemongrass mojito to fight the cold that's tickling the back of my throat. And tomorrow I leave Cambodia altogether.

Where is my next destination, you ask?

Singapore! My cousin Erin will be there for a conference, so she invited me to stay in her fancy hotel room. How could I resist? I've enjoyed all the hostels I've stayed in so far on this trip, but it will be nice to have some relative privacy for a few days. And it will be even nicer to catch up with Erin, who I haven't seen since we parted ways in Amsterdam in December. We are quite the jet-setters.

*We built cities because nature is trying to kill us. Why would I willingly go spend the night with the snakes/scorpions/sinkholes/quicksand/flash floods/tornados/etc.?

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Life in the Cambodian Capital

While I'm sure their advice was well-intentioned, I'm very glad I didn't listen to the friend who told me to skip Cambodia. I've had some Capital-A Adventures in Phnom Penh! I only spent two full days in the city, but it feels like I was there for a week.

The bus ride from Ho Chi Minh City was much more pleasant than I expected. I sat next to a friendly German named Malte, and the Mekong Express employees provided us with water and snacks. I even got some work done on my novel. The only downside: there was a small child with a blue plastic fish toy that for some reason played "Let It Go" from Frozen. But only one line: "Let it go! Let it go! Turn away and slam the door." And sometimes when he pressed the button, it would play the lyric eerily off-key, and slower. Lleettt itt ggooo, lleettt itt ggooo. Over and over again.

Good thing he was adorable.

The border crossing was an interesting process. Again, Mekong Express did a great job with this; the employee on our bus handed out visa paperwork that we filled in at the beginning of the ride, and when we got near the border, he collected all our paperwork and passports, along with the visa fees. We had to get off the bus in this dusty, cobwebby warehouse at the edge of Vietnam to have our passports stamped for exit. Then we piled back on the bus, and got off a few minutes later at the much more aesthetically pleasing Cambodian entry facility. But the bus employee got all our visas settled for us and handed our passports back. We simply had to walk through the gate and get stamped. And electronically fingerprinted! Never had to do that before.

I wonder if gambling is illegal in Vietnam, because just over the border in Cambodia there are dozens of shabby casinos. It reminded me a lot of the California-Nevada border for that reason.

I got to my hostel late, but I'm glad I stayed where I did. If you're ever in Phnom Penh, give Feliz Hostel & Cafe a try. Apparently it has one of the best breakfasts in the city? Didn't know that when I booked the bed. Pretty sure it's Khmer-owned, too, which is great. I'd rather give my money to Cambodians than to foreigners exploiting Cambodians, if I can help it.

It turns out that one of my friends from grad school, Rosemary, is teaching English in Phnom Penh at the moment. So she and I had lunch and caught up on my first full day in the city. Then I took a tuk-tuk to the royal palace for a very gilded afternoon. For those not in the know, tuk-tuks are those three-wheeled carriages attached to motorbikes, which serve as taxis in Cambodia. When it comes to monetary interactions with tourists, at least, Cambodians prefer to use U.S. dollars as their currency. While it's nice to not have to exchange currencies, it's also more important to barter to make sure you're not getting overcharged. I mean, either way, you're going to get overcharged. But it's a question of being reasonably overcharged versus unreasonably overcharged. I hate bartering, so settling on prices with the tuk-tuk drivers was probably my least favorite aspect of the trip.

The royal palace is a must-see, in my opinion. The grounds are gigantic, planted with bright green shrubs and flowering trees. And the architecture is unbelievable, of course. The buildings are in the traditional style, where...okay, here's where I'm going to screw this up. At the tops of many of the columns are these bird-human hybrids, but I forget their name. And then on the rooftops there are these mythical serpents--whose name I also forget. Historically these creatures are enemies, so when they're represented together in architecture, it symbolizes peace.

There's your shamefully bad Khmer architecture lesson for the day.

It was hot outside, so wandering the palace grounds was sometimes overwhelming. But there weren't too many people there, so there were plenty of places for me to sit and rest in the shade. Pro tip: you have to cover your shoulders and knees at the palace, just like you would at a temple. I was glad I brought a scarf with me--though it wasn't quite wide enough to tie at my waist, so I had to awkwardly tie it beneath my butt. Super classy, Robison.

Remember Malte, the German guy from the bus? That night he and I had dinner at FCC, which is, according to Rosemary, a must for tourists, as its multiple patios overlook the river. It was good, but you definitely pay extra for the scenic vista. There was a cute cat who kept begging for my food. No, kitty. Human food.

Day 2 was somewhat brutal--although not in the morning. I hopped in another tuk-tuk and went to Central Market, which is famous for its pre-war, Art Deco architecture. I bought a hat, because I cleverly left mine on the bus from HCMC. Wonder how many times that's going to happen over the next few months?

Afterwards I headed to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which is housed inside S-21, one of the most notorious prisons from the Khmer Rouge period. It was, perhaps, one of the most horrific things I have ever witnessed. They tried to leave many things as they found them--so you might just walk into a stuffy room, where you find a solitary metal bedframe with leg irons attached. As your eyes adjust to the lower light, you might notice a picture on the wall, of the prisoner they found bludgeoned to death on that bed when the Vietnamese liberated the city. You might notice bloodstains on the yellow and white tile floor. The floor where you're walking.

And that's just the interrogation building.

Other buildings contain further horrors: cramped cells, torture devices, and thousands of photos of the prisoners themselves, most of whom ended up in the killing fields. Their captors were meticulous record-keepers. The audio tour was incredible, full of detailed information and narrated by a man who lost family members in the prison.

There's a question of ethics when it comes to turning genocide into a tourist attraction. It made me feel extremely uncomfortable--but I think that's a good thing. Everybody ought to see stuff like this, and be made to feel uncomfortable or worse, as it serves as a deterrent for similar atrocities in the future. But then I'd see people taking selfies, and that just made me sick. What kind of person thinks it's okay to treat such a sensitive, heartbreaking subject with such callousness? How do they have the audacity to make themselves the center of such an experience? I honestly don't know.

Because I apparently hadn't witnessed enough abject human suffering yet, I paid a tuk-tuk driver to take me out to the Choeung Ek killing fields. They're about 15 kilometers outside the city, and my driver definitely took the scenic route. I was worried at first that he was going to take me to the middle of nowhere and rob me (these thoughts inevitably cross my mind when traveling alone, as unfounded as they might be), but once I checked the map to see we were heading in the right direction, I calmed down and enjoyed the bumpy ride through unpaved neighborhoods.

Based on what little I saw, it seems like things are changing very fast in Cambodia. Some of the houses were hardly more than metal shacks, while others were tall, concrete structures with glass windows, locked tight behind high gates--all right next to each other. Some people have cars, but most have motorbikes, assuming they have any transportation. When we got near to Choeung Ek, we had to chase some white cows off the road.

Here's the thing about the killing fields: they are objectively beautiful.

They don't mow the grass--for obvious reasons--so the ground is covered with vines and wildflowers, along with large birds pecking at the earth below. There air is teeming with butterflies. A row of yellow flowering trees marks where the fields begin, and behind the fields, there's a pond. In front of it all rises a gigantic traditional stupa, where thousands of victims' skulls are on display.

Again, the audio tour was worth it. Not only does it provide information about what you're seeing--the mass graves, the trees where they strung speakers to blare revolutionary songs that would drown out the screaming--but it also shares stories from family members of the dead, and from young guards who worked there. It plays music composed specifically to commemorate the tragic events. It warns you to watch your step, as small pieces of bone and clothing are still washing up in the rain, all these years later.

On the tuk-tuk ride back to the city, my driver--who had waited for me while I was touring Choeung Ek--got a flat tire. He was extremely apologetic, showing me the nail to prove that it had really happened--I think he was afraid I wouldn't pay him. I tried to reassure him the best I could, and while he had it repaired at a small, roadside tire shop, I got to play with the owner's baby, who was almost impossibly cute. (Only after his mother indicated it was okay, of course.) He had this expression of perpetual surprise on his face, eyes wide and mouth open. It was nice to encounter some sweet innocence after all that trauma.

After getting some work done at the hostel, I met Rosemary for a drink at Red Bar, which is on a street full of bars where expats like to go, rather than tourists. We ended up at another place that was hosting a Khmer hip hop night. Good beats, and everyone seemed genuinely joyful. It was delightful. I'm glad Rosemary was able to show me some places I never would have found on my own.

After one more little bar and a quick visit to Rosemary's place to see her killer terrace, I had to go back to my hostel--which was close by, for the record. One problem: I could find no tuk-tuk, and I didn't really want to walk there. It is not advised to walk alone at night in Phnom Penh, especially if you're a tourist. Finally this guy offered me a moto ride, so I hopped on, and it was totally fine--until I got off at the hostel and he offered me...well, he either offered me sex or drugs. It was unclear. He didn't threaten me or anything--the situation just made me uncomfortable. Fortunately, he didn't seem to get angry when I handed him his two dollars and ran inside as fast as I could.

Like I said, Capital-A Adventures. All's well that ends well, I suppose.

(Note to parents: I'm fine. Don't worry.)

Now I'm on a bus to Siem Reap, the gateway city to Angkor Wat. UNESCO World Heritage Sites are the best. Can't wait to see temples and temples and temples and temples...

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edit: I made it to Siem Reap safely. Couldn't post the blog entry on the bus, as the wifi cut out. Must go to sleep now--sunrise tour of Angkor Wat in the morning!