A book with pages

I bought a book. It cost USD17.83, or 49.90 Malaysian ringgits and is titled “21 Speeches That Shaped Our World”. I wandered through the bookstore for a good half hour before choosing the first physical book to buy in a long, long time. Before when I read during this trip, it was with my iPad. However, with another day ahead before I get to my destination, I fear the battery (currently at 74%) will not last. Without much money left, the choices were to either buy a converter to use this once because I have another at home, or an actual book to keep myself occupied after the battery runs out and keep it after. It’s a specter to be feared, having electronics that have gone dry. I chose the book and have adjusted the screen to be as dim as possible.

Technically, this is the second time I’ve been to Kuala Lumpur. The first was to the low cost airport in transit from Hong Kong to Mumbai. Now I’m again in transit, but at the main airport and from Phnom Penh to Guangzhou. There’s more than enough time to go into the city before my 9am flight tomorrow, and yet I felt reluctant to go despite having planned which route I would walk and which guesthouse to stay in. I’m using the rain as an excuse, because it has continued to rain in the two hours since the flight landed. Somehow the prospect of going into KL for half a day didn’t appeal as much as loitering around an airport (and stalking people for their converters…). In the back of my mind, I know someday I’ll return to KL for Malaysia, so it’s all okay, isn’t it? Until you run out of battery.

It’s taken two hours for me to give up the outlet/converter search after going back and forth between gates c and h via the aerotrain. Now I am exhausted, having woken up at 4:30 am for the taxi from Sihanoukville. Eyebrows,,, heavy… nap.

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Goodbye, paradise

The boat leaves paradise in an hour and a half. The ticket away means my trip is coming to an end. A temporary end, I told my friend this morning, and he seemed puzzled. Indeed, as much as I want this journey to continue, it will be a new and different adventure when I go traveling again. This portion, through northern Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, will end tomorrow with a flight from Phnom Penh. Though there is a guesthouse here by the name ‘Paradise’ (we’ve encountered three thus far), I think specifically of the 7 kilometers of pristine white beach on the southwest coast of Koh Rong, an island off the Cambodian coast. Three hours from Sihanoukville by boat, the island is in its early stages of development, meaning a cluster of guest houses where the boats arrive with peace and tranquility on the opposite side, especially after the daily visitors leave. We were among the daily visitors yesterday, having trekked an hour in the noonday heat and departed by boat after sunset. The moment we were close enough to water, we dropped all our things and ran straight in. The water was crystal clear with nothing as far as the eye could see, neither fish nor leaves nor debris. There we spent the day, swimming and napping and sunning before endless beach and ocean.

That was just yesterday. Two weeks have past since my last blog update and so much has happened and I’ve written so much in that time! But if no Internet was readily available, I would write on an iPad journal and have since realized the tone of what’s written can be very different. Though unintentional, it seems I ‘speak’ more via blog, versus the stream of consciousness that comes from writing in a journal. Not good or bad, simply observed fact.

It also seems odd to post writings after the fact. I am no longer in the shadows of Angkor Wat, barely containing awe and wonder, no longer on a bus, passing stalls of dried insects, no longer puzzled by the people praying before the Grand Palace in Phnom Penh (which later I realized is for the late King Father’s funeral) and no longer staying in a room with construction on three of the four sides. It also doesn’t make sense that I rewrite about those events, those experiences, because what was typed before is infinitely more authentic with those emotions and thoughts unaffected by time.

Although… some things take time. Thinking back on my short time in Cambodia, the day spent in S21 and the killing fields near Phnom Penh is among the heaviest memories. The genocide at the hands of Pol Pot happened only some three decades ago! On a beach in Sihanoukville two days earlier, speaking to people we’d just met, we all agreed on the feeling of distance between us and history even though it’s really not so far. Even a generation before us, our parents, perhaps older siblings, have experienced the history we can only interact with in museums and books. Visiting the sites brings us closer and even then, we’re only affected a fraction in comparison to those who’ve lived through these events. S21 prison and detention center stands in seemingly a typical neighborhood in the Cambodian capital and only the barbed wire among its walls gives it away for what it once was. At the beginning of its existence, they were school buildings – a high school and a primary school. That was one of the most haunting facts to me. The day of and immediately after, it seemed we were walking through a dream, or a nightmare, seeing the unchanged brick cells where a person can’t extend their arms and later, seeing the bits of bone rising to the surface as we walked among burial sites for countless, nameless thousands. A heavy memory like this takes time and deserves time because the impact these places have on their visitors is far beyond an immediate rush of emotion.

How lucky are we?

Luang Namtha and the unexpected in Laos

The 19th, the 19th, is it already the 19th? Since the last blog entry, I’ve written in my journals and can’t quite remember where my last online thoughts were from. Time since has been filled with buses and strange moments that are closer to fiction.

Currently still in Laos, in the southern town of Pakxe with the sun shining and a functioning Internet connection. It’s been too long and the world has shifted and continued outside these borders. Friends aren’t worried if they’ve not heard from me in weeks because consistency isn’t something I’m good with. That should be a problem, shouldn’t it? But then it wouldn’t be true friendship if check-ins were needed daily, so goes my thinking.

This past week and a half, we’ve been stuffed on buses along with rice, lettuce, motorcycles, luggage and instant coffee among many other things. We’ve taken a tuktuk ‘bus’ for a 3-hour journey and have probably collected dust souvenirs from each and every location. Sitting still on a moving vehicle is surprisingly exhausting and doing absolutely nothing has more appeal now than it has in a long time. So I rest now, watching backpackers come and go from the main room of this guesthouse, listening to the occasional bursts of song from the little man behind the counter and recalling those strange events that makes Laos so memorable…

The first night across the border we spent in Houay Xai. The Gibbon Experience was fully booked a week in advance and we had to find alternative plans for the next few days. While wandering in town, searching for food, we were given a flier for a guesthouse-restaurant which benefitted mountain villagers and one of the options was to dine with the staff and cooks and other lodgers for dinner. I had lemongrass tea for the first time and sat around a little fire while we waited for the meal. One of the guests had somehow found a Chinese dreadlocked motorcycle man and the two artists found a connection of colour. I thought they were showing each other photos when in reality, it was google translate. Never did I expect to stand in an interpreter for their stories, but there I was, relaying messages back and forth from the blond Californian (who also had dreadlocks) to Chopperman. They spoke of travels and societies and planned when to meet each other again. Conversation paused when the food was brought out, a variety of vegetarian delights with a single bowl of fish. The sauces were spicy and the variety made me feel extremely healthy despite the constant diet of crackers and Oreos on the bus. After the hearty meal, people gathered and talked and laughed and compared cameras and shared travel advice.

The next day, we decided to head north for Luang Namtha. We would have never sought the option had the Experience worked out, but there we were, on a bus stuffed with people, navigating the twisty mountain roads of northern Laos. We met some fellow travelers along the way and the gang of us complained, tried to take naps and shared stories. It would have been a very nice journey had it not been SO twisty. At one point, the minibus stopped for a bathroom break. It was very awkward for me when the gang all got out to pee by the side of the road. A row of them, just… there, by the side of the street on a bright sunshine day. My own bladder has gotten considerably stronger since then and thank goodness for it. The bus journey lasted from 11am to about 5pm and we were lucky in finding suitable rooms. We ate at the night market and were carefully watched by dogs wanting to be fed. After, we went for a walk and on the way back and saw a familiar motorcycle carrying more stuff than possible. There he was, Chopperman. He really had journeyed up to Luang Namtha after us. A piece of his bike had fallen off on the journey and he shifted gears with a bright green piece of string afterwards. Around the table where we sat for drinks was an old Dutchman who lectured us on the importance of women’s rights and how societies controlled by men are fundamentally decisive. He lives in Vientiane.

People continue to come and go at the guesthouse. From their inquiries, I gather now there is only one room left for 98,000 kip, with hot showers. We’re all millionaires in this country, literal kip millionaires. Laos is more expensive than expected, perhaps because tourism is one of the main sources of income for many of these places and many of these people. When a restaurant owner gives change of 30,000 in 1000 kip notes, it really puts the world in perspective.

We rented bikes that next day in Luang Namtha to explore the areas around town. Paved roads were scarce and the majority of our day was spent bobbing along rocky paths through small villages where food was dried by the side of the one main road and children ran along side chickens and ducks. People were friendly and smiles go a long way. We were careful to always ask before taking photo, which usually consisted of pointing to things. We saw people working the fields, old men whittling in the shades of trees, cows making their way to unknown destinations and a wide stretch of land largely left alone or simply skipped by standardizing international conglomerates. Still, there was the option of coke or lays in even the smallest roadside stalls right next to beerlao, beer of the wholehearted people. We didn’t speak much to each other that day, just drank in the fresh air and a way of life so different from ours. Near the end of the day, Chopperman and I were separated from the rest of our gang by a series of crossroads so we made our way back to town only to arrive some 10, 15 minutes before the others. Silly me for worrying about boys worrying about us. That night during dinner at the night market, there was a woman who asked for food and picked through the bones left from our meal. She greedily picked clean what was left and drank the entire bottle of water that was offered and went on to the next table. Chopperman was leaving for China the next day and before we said our goodbyes, he wanted to give us a gift of song. From the many bags attached to his motorcycle, he took out a hang (type of drum, similar to a calypso drum). Sitting on a restaurant table, he began to play with the group of us gathered around then let us try to make similar music. It was surprisingly difficult and he kept telling me to translate ‘relax your muscles!’ The night ended with us sitting in the middle of the road to get the best light for a group photo and assuming passing scooters would avoid the large group of foreigners occupying their street! We were shooed away soon after. Lamp-lit photos in the middle of the street in Luang Namtha.

The next day we set aside for a trekking trip with a morning of kayaking and an afternoon through the mountains. The boats departed from the shore of a village south of Luang Namtha and we were allowed to wander while the boats were set up. We saw the huts they lived in, drying laundry, roaming chickens, ducks and piglets and were shown inside the village shaman’s home. It wasn’t small inside but we never imagined it was home to 8 people. The village has electricity because it was along the road but they need to pay for it themselves. To one side of the hut was a banked fire and to another was an ancient television set. Woven baskets were stored on top of the shelf above their sleeping places and he had a poster of Asian flags by the side of the door. We were introduced to him by our guide and asked questions through translation. We learned of village inheritance rules, the importance of the written word and how married women of the group shaved their eyebrows. This particular ethnic group went south from China some 300 years ago and still retain much of the writing. The shaman asked where I was from in writing, and I was absurdly proud to have understood those four characters. He pointed to the Chinese flag, then me, before we left and I was happy to know he understood me in turn. Outside were a group of villages watching our departure. The four boys I went with were all tall and European and must have been unusual visitors with me in tow, even for a village that regularly received them. The kayaking was fun, though our boat was constantly attracted to rocks, but we never fully flipped over. Lunch was eaten in a shade of a little hut hidden in the jungle. Our local guide chopped fresh banana leaves to serve as a makeshift table on which a meal of pumpkin, omelette and rice were directly deposited. We ate with our hands and joked with the English-speaking guide. His parents want him to become a teacher as soon as possible because they have such long breaks. He could help with the family farm then. But then we were off, trekking on a dirt trail and stepping on bamboo. The local guide eventually provided us all with walking sticks and continued without one himself while wearing flip flops. The journey ended around 5:30 after we waded through three rushing streams. The deepest ensured my pants were completely soaked. An hour, the guide told us, an hour before we reach town. Only it wasn’t. Because the road was torn through. Giant machines worked on as our driver stomped out, likely muttering Lao curses under his breath. It was cold and eventually, all of us made our way to a fire by the side of the road built by one of the road workers… I think. There we huddle and waited. An hour passed and we were hungry. Another hour passed and we could admire the stars because it had gotten so dark. Another hour passed during which we spoke of life philosophies and beliefs and afterlife and happiness. We were ecstatic when told to get back into the van but it didn’t last long because the driver barreled down half complete, windy roads in darkness without high beams, only the faintest flicker of headlights from a minivan completely not made for such roads. We were tossed upwards and sideways and I clung to dear life while not trying to whimper. Please never let our parents find out, please, please. Arriving back around 10:30, we were told that we were the latest to return of all their day-trek groups. Ever.

It’s been hours since I sat down to write and a little lady here noticed my sitting by the wall instead of at the table. I pointed to the short cord connecting my iPad to the outlet and she returned not a minute after with a powerbar. These are the little important things that makes a day so much better. I like it here.

After all this rambling and it’s covered only four days in Laos, but surely the four most eventful ones… For now, I need more mosquito repellent.

The wind, the road, the bus and the kindness of strangers

I’m on a bus right now from Chiang Rai to Chiong Khong in northern Thailand, with the plan of heading into Laos later today. The windows are open and the journey is bumpy, so no journal today – iPad instead. A part of me wants to focus on the scenes flying past the opened windows. We’re on a rural country road, sometimes passing fields, sometimes passing homes and sometimes passing long stretches of untamed nature. We’ve just stopped to let a person off somewhere along the way, I’ve no idea where, only a sudden surprise at the silence from a lack of wind and engine. It wasn’t even a minute, we’re on our way again. Palm trees. Wood piles. Rusty gates. Finally, a person! She has a stall by the side of the road. Fields again. I smell something burning. Wind again… with an empty, twisting road ahead.

The journey was scheduled for yesterday, but we took the 3pm bus from Chiang Mai which arrived half an hour too late for the last bus to Chiong Khong. So, we spent a night at a recommended guesthouse and lazed away. I can’t help but think of the alternatives. What if we had left earlier yesterday, or today, or taken a different bus? The difference comes from our state of mind and the time left behind. Without richness in money, I have only the richness of time.

Though I still have a terrible temper, getting very angry very quickly, a week of reflection and peace in Chiang Mai has reinforced my conviction that anger is useless. The hostel where we stayed seemed sheltered from the world. It had a swing and a hammock and sold fresh, cold coconuts and giant, heaping fruit salads. The people were incredibly friendly and some visitors came back year after year. It was a week well-spent. I appreciate their kindness so much more now, after being shocked and screamed at on the streets of Chiang Rai last night.

A friend and I had sat down to dinner at a roadside stall, foolishly not asking for the price beforehand. After our meal, the stall woman quoted a high foreigner price, knowing there wasn’t much we could do about it after the fact. 170 baht for a roadside meal in Chiang Rai? I’ve spent 60 baht for two people in Bangkok, a much more expensive city. We asked her for a breakdown of the price which she provided by snapping at us and jabbing her finger towards the dishes on our table. Then she freaked the fuck out. She started yelling, right there on the streets. Her English wasn’t very good so she kept screaming and repeating herself. I asked her to calm down and she started giving me the bitch eye and switched to Thai. I imagine she has a very colourful vocabulary and wish she understood all the things I wanted to say to her, naturally nothing pleasant. She made such a scene that a passerby stopped to assure us that the majority of Thai people weren’t like her. We paid. We left. She followed a few steps and continued her muttered curses. We passed the bitchstall on the way back and she swore loudly when I walked by. How is it that such a person can exist?

The events are now an interesting anecdote in my life and I can’t be bothered to wish her stomach ulcers. Karma will likely take care of that. If I’d met with the same situation at an earlier point in life, I would have smacked her upside the head with little hesitation, never mind fighting in foreign lands is just a terrible, stupid idea. Or at least shouted back and imprint on her mind that travelers aren’t people she should mess with. But I’d like to think I’m just a bit more mature now, reflecting on the events a day after. My lesson from this? Appreciate the kindness of strangers and never take it for granted. And always know the price before ordering, always. The bitchstall is located on the east side of Chiang Mai’s main road, north of the bus station. The first thing she asks is if you speak Thai.

The bus has stopped again and a lot more people are getting on. The seats are small, very small. My knee hits the seat ahead and there’s barely room for my bag beside me. Hopefully more people get off. It’s been an hour and sixteen minutes thus far.

New Year in Chiang Mai

In a blink of an eye, 2012 has come and gone and we spent its last day biking around Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. The weather is all sunshine and blue skies and it’s been such a contrast to our time in Bangkok. I really should change the subtitle of this blog to something travel related… Because my current state of mind can only keep updated with the happenings of the world but reality here, before me has captured all my attention, in the most delightful way.

New Year’s Eve was spent by the side of a river marking the eastern old city wall here, with friends and strangers alike joining in the celebration. Skies were remarkably clear with just the right amount of wind to fill all that we could see with the glows of wish lanterns. People would cheer when a lantern took flight and shout words of encouragement in cases of unsteady progress. “C’mon, just a bit higher!” “Gogogo!” The countdown took place in a crowded square some 5, 10 minutes away and we simply sat enjoying the seemingly endless fireworks flashing in anticipation. No one around us knew when the exact moment was, when that second hand in our time zone proclaimed 2013… But when fireworks continuously exploded right above our heads and cheers echoed down the street, we too toasted in celebration of a brand new year. It was amazing and so completely different from new year’s past. A day later, we still see stray wish lanterns floating on carrying with them another hope, another dream.

The day went by steadily and at one point, I literally fell on my face. It was the excitement of seeing friends again and running with flip flops on uneven grass, they led to my (harhar) downfall. From what I heard and what I remembered, it must have been an epic fall. I now have battle scars from the adventure. All a person can do in that situation is to laugh it off and hope no one caught it on tape, though being a 10 minute YouTube star does have it’s appeal, and definitely not dwell on how completely embarrassing that was. A fellow hostel guest commented that she’d never heard anyone laugh so much after falling. I took it as a compliment.

We saw what a temple is suppose to be like at Doi Suthep, an amazing complex perched above windy roads overlooking the city. Multitudes of believers held lotus blooms and offered prayers for the year to come. The respect simply was, simply existed, and not forced upon visitors by an army of guards. Dancers performed before a captivated audience, adult and children alike. No camera could capture it all.

Now, I am back at the hostel and it’s 2am, Chiang Mai time. 2013 brought with it a promise I’d made to maintain a website of sorts, one new addition per day whether it be post or photo or poem. Though it’s past new year day, I cling to Toronto’s timezone as justification. No lateness here! And even if there were, I would lead yesterday no differently. Many times, I would pick up a pen to write or my electronic device to type, but the people and conversation always deserved my time more, and I knew in the quiet of darkness I could gather my thoughts. With different people we talked about different things, from interracial couples to the weakness in public regulation to the impacts of our choices. At so many points I thought to my journal. So philosophical, what we’re saying! But the words were lost in an overall experience and now, not remembering every detail of many hours here, I let those words sink into my mind like seeds into soil. The ideas, the experience, the friendships, I’ll nurture them all.

Tomorrow, I’ll buy a sketchbook and spend my day in the sun. I’ll climb ‘my’ tree and nap by the river and eat my own weight in food. Nothing but good times ahead!

Thoughts from Bangkok

It’s Boxing Day and I’m in Bangkok, Thailand. Actually, a friend and I arrived yesterday, Christmas Day, from Hong Kong. With the hour difference, we still managed to say Merry Christmas to the many people working throughout the airports. The holiday is important because we give it importance. If we choose to treat it as just another Tuesday, then it’ll be just that and nothing more, like yesterday was for me.

I miss meeting new people and listening to their stories, laughing about silly things and planning more adventures. I learn from people I would have otherwise never met and they open new doors and provide inspiration and it’s just… a wonderful feeling to have. I’ve missed it. Another part of me is already planning to throw in the towel. Why is that? It’s just a feeling that’s come over me. Maybe I’ve grown old or I’m not at my best to enjoy the most this adventure has to offer or I’m getting a sixth sense…

We got lost twice today, once in an endless clothes market and another after we got off the bus prematurely and had no idea where our hostel was. We kept asking for directions and looking at signs but nothing was familiar and the night was dark. When we were close to giving up and hailing a taxi, we made one last attempt to ask for directions. A group of office ladies confirmed our direction and we just kept walking. Not even 5 minutes later, not even, the hostel light was shining in front of us. It was amazing. So close, but so far away! What if we’d turned right before, or gave up, or a billion other possibilities that have no impact on my current existence? What then? No answers now, only plans for the future. Museum, tomorrow, 9:30, and go!