On Being Tricked into Buying Too Much Specialized Crap

 Photo: vkphotography

Photo: vkphotography

In any recreational or extreme sport I've done, I’ve found that the best product is not always the “specialized” product marketed towards your purposes, though it is very often the most expensive, and are largely arbitrary or aesthetics-driven [part of the “uniform” of a yogini, a climber, a skier vs. snowboarder, a cyclist…]. Once upon a time, there was no REI. People climbed in wooden clogs and protected themselves with lengths of rope. People bundled up however they could and threw their stuff into knapsacks; there were no space-age high-performance fabrics, no ergonomics specialists. 

Come to think of it, I see this all the time with photography, too, where some poor shmuck will feel like being a photographer means he has to buy $9,000 lenses that he has no idea how to use, or that he has to use six different soft boxes to light a model for one studio shoot. Contrarily, many of my favorite photographers use the most rudimentary, jerry-rigged, low-fi gear of all. It's all about the driver, not the car! 

Of course, when it comes to the sports I have experience with, my approach is also "adapt" rather than "prepare".

Like backpacking. I almost never bring a tent when I'm backpacking. I rely more on a map and compass than I do on having enough food. On my last solo backpacking trip, three weeks in Yosemite, I tested out my pair of Vibram five fingers because they were marketed for hiking—when they inflamed my tendons, I just hiked barefoot, no biggie.

[In that vein, after much deliberation I've decided to go with my sleeping bag, a tarp, and a mosquito net. It's not enough to make things exceedingly comfortable...but it's enough that I'll be self-reliant if I can't find a host or one falls through, and won't weigh nearly as much as a tent.]

But I have a lot of experience backpacking; it isn't daunting anymore. I lived in the backcountry non-stop for half a year when I was nineteen. Backpacking and hiking were my only modes of travel, leaving plenty of room for trial and error, and exploring my limitations. I've hiked fifteen miles on an empty stomach with a full pack at 10,000 feet above sea level. I've taken off-trail shortcuts. I can afford to take some risks and cut some corners because I can calculate what the risks are.

And even if you're not quite as much of a nut job as I am, if we're talking backpacking, skiing, or rock climbing, I could also easily tell you what "must-haves" really, really are not must-haves, suggest cheaper/lighter/better substitutes for specialty gear, and tell you which items you can get away with buying used or low-end. My partner's dad just scored a pair of $800 Rossignol skis from two years ago, including bindings, for $5 at a Savers. They look like they may have been used once; one wax and they were good to go. Cross my heart and hope to die.

Cycling, on the other hand? I'm clueless. I haven't had those years or even months of rigorous beta testing. What climbers call a gumby, what skiers and boarders call a gaper, what skaters call a poser, what photographers call a GWC. When I first decided I would go on this trip, all I knew how to do was get on my bike, pedal, brake. I am in a self-guided accelerated-learning course, not only in terms of physical conditioning, but also studying [ergonomics, necessary gear, bike components, DIY repairs...].

So, I've been researching. But the demographic of experts doesn't really see me as part of their audience. Cycling, in particular, is a hobby that seems to attract people with lots of money and very little free time, but a predictable lifestyle that allows them to make long-term commitments.

The Complete Guide to Long-Distance Cycling, the book I'm currently reading, is a great example. I've learned a lot from this book, but it's also done a good job of using a doomsday, worst-case-scenario approach in order to convince me that I need to buy a million things [like several pairs of padded shorts, and leg warmers, and a million toiletries, and so on] in order to avoid an untimely end [or at least the ER]...and that I cannot possibly train effectively without a cycle computer, heart monitor, and stationary bike. If I were a middle-aged professional with a predictable annual schedule, consistent cash flow, and superfluous paranoia, I might take a lot more of that advice.

But that's not me. I'm a crazy quasi-hippie who burns bright and fast, but not always steady. Frugality is compulsory for me. And my life runs in fast, dense chunks, rather than a steady flow: I can more easily devote every waking moment of one month to intense learning and training than I can devote two days a week for several months. 

So, I've sought out experienced cyclists at various bike shops, sporting good stores, and REI, and barraged them with questions, hoping to find some who share my adaptation-oriented, minimalist sentiments. 

My favorite so far has been an older guy who told me he tours in cargo pants and old tshirts and doesn't bother with special rain gear or gizmos, and doesn't like to wander around towns "looking like a cyclist". A man after my own heart. 

I've been buying equipment in little batches as I've learned more about what I might need [or really, really want and have a good use for].

A few cool items and tips I've picked up:

  • Proud of this one: For cycling shoes, I'm using a pair of Scarpa rock climbing approach shoes on clearance [got a kudos from some cyclist employees at REI for that one]. Cheaper, and better, than those "casual/street" cycling shoes recommended for tours [since I want something that'll double as a street shoe]. These are low profile [to fit in cages], laces go all the way to the toes [for easy loosening if/when my feet swell after a long day of riding], the soles are stiffer than "street" cycling shoes but more walkable than super aggressive racing shoes. I re-laced them so that the bows are on the outsides of the shoe and less likely to get tangled up while I'm pedaling, even if they come untied. Plus, they'll be useful when I next go hiking or climbing. Score!
  • Discovered that several items are cheaper at REI and sporting goods stores if you get them in a color that's being discontinued. I was going to pass on a sporty rain jacket/windbreaker and find another way to deal with the weather...till I learned that it'd be $35 less if I was just willing to get one in light purple.
  • I've been offered sponsorship of a GPS/safety watch, so we'll see if that pans out! Will obviously be posting more about it, if so. 8]
  • Skipped a lot of the bucket list things: the jerseys, the hydration pack, the solar charger, the route maps [which would be great...except they're $15 a pop and I'd need to buy about seven]. However, I did cave in and get one pair of padded bike shorts [considering the mileage of this trip, I think that is a totally reasonable luxury] and one of those little charge-storing doohickeys [which I might exchange for a generator that charges my electronics while I'm cycling...supposedly there's now one that's safe to use for a phone].

I've also got some very specific items with me in order to smoothly bridge the worlds of cycling and modeling [i.e., avoiding tan lines and blemishes, and having basic makeup/wardrobe without substantial bulk and weight], and feel I've managed to be pretty clever about some of my solutions—but I'll save that for another post.

Update: Tomorrow is my biggest test yet, where I show myself just what I'm cut out for [I hope]. I'll be starting my first multi-day trip: about three hundred and fifty cycled miles in six days, largely moderate terrain but with a couple intimidating climbs.

My training over the last few weeks has seen me improving enormously, but I'm still pretty nervous. I'll have Alex with me, and will be carrying minimal gear, since this is going to be my first accurate taste of what touring is going to be like. Wish me luck! Will post photos and so on afterwards, of course. 8]

Bucket List 2015

 Photo: Lee Nutter

Photo: Lee Nutter

Not that I've really got any idea, but I think one aid towards both happiness and fulfillment is to never plateau—to never live off your past in a way that excuses you from investing in the present.

2014 was full of firsts. I visited Southeast Asia for the first time, had an idyllic first modeling tour in Australia [and made it to all but two of the states and internal territories], spent six months getting splinters and busting my balls to make a seven-story-playhouse-sculpture and learning a lot of new skills [and a few rough life lessons] along the way, got work remodeling houses on the side, and other things.

The year before that, I published my first writing pieces, worked as a masseuse at an upscale spa, learned to fabricate gigantic fire cannons, and climbed into a sixty-five foot bamboo tower in nothing but a hard hat and climbing harness in order to adjust heavy fuel lines, did farm work for the first time, etc.

In times of inertia or fatigue or self-doubt, it's easy for me to feel discouraged, even envious, of my past self. Like I can't live up to my former energy or willingness to take risks. Like I'd rather just watch documentaries.

Which is it's in my best interest to suck it up and keep chugging onward and upward—so that, a month, a year, five years from now, I'll have to outdo myself again. 

So! Goals for this 2015:

1. Successfully complete my East Coast Model/Bike Tour [at the very least, “successfully” means I’ll see the trip to its end, and that my body, mind, and modeling reputation will all still be intact when I do—though, of course, I’m hoping for much more]

2. Expand my modeling network:

  • Not counting my East Coast trip, tour at least three US cities I’ve never been to before.
  • Meet more badass traveling models. 
  • Be open to planning a future tour with another model—something I’ve always been simultaneously attracted and averse to. [Can’t force it, but I want to be receptive to it.]

3. Improve my French throughout the year through daily practice [I've been good about this one so far]; move to northern France for the summer for a manor renovation project.

4. Debut modeling tour in Europe!

As for the winter and beyond…I’m not planning that far yet, but I’ve got several pipe dreams lined up that could all settle into the end of my year nicely if no other unforeseen opportunities arise:

Could do a Southern Tier road trip and model in the warmer states. Could go to Australia and New Zealand. Could teach another ski season. Could work a season in Antarctica. Could do my yoga teacher training. Could hide in South America or Southeast Asia. Could do a writing residency. Could join a yacht crew. Could very easily be enticed by something different from all of the above. Far too soon to know. 

To wax universal, if I may:

You are not your past accomplishments: prior successes do not validate your laziness, complacency, or self-coddling today. You are not your past failures: do not continually punish yourself for having tried and failed, nor even for having done wrong, provided that you did what you could to set things right and have put the lessons of your mistake into practice.

UPDATE: Continuing to go on longer rides on harder terrain and cross-train around the Bay. Soon going on my first multi-day ride; stay tuned. 8]

I'm starting to get it.

 Visual proof, for you non-believers! As for my tour, picture this, but with a lot more luggage piled/strapped/jerryrigged on. And probably a lot more blood, sweat, and tears.

Visual proof, for you non-believers! As for my tour, picture this, but with a lot more luggage piled/strapped/jerryrigged on. And probably a lot more blood, sweat, and tears.

The appeal of cycling, I mean.

There's the obvious stuff that doesn't take being on a bike for long to work out: great exercise, not spending money on gas, reduced carbon footprint. Blah, blah, yes. That's not what I mean.

I mean the real appeal. What makes people go kind of crazy for it, and spend lots of money for it. Granted, I know there are a lot of different reasons people are drawn to the sport and my experience is not a universal one—but I've been discovering my reasons. And that the real magic of it is far more subtle.

Since it's subtle, I'll try to illustrate what I mean, rather than tell you outright.

I tried riding to the climbing gym/yoga studio instead of driving for the first time about a week ago [I've now ridden there several times since].

In that one ride, I passed homeless shanty towns in jungles of concrete underbrush and chain link overgrowth, nestled just out of view of roads and train tracks.

I saw some true feats of resourcefulness. There were sophisticated little villas made of tarps and reclaimed mattresses, with a makeshift shower system, common hangout areas, little sculpture gardens made of found junk. One residence had a decadent entrance constructed of felled trees and planks of wood that made an imposing stair set and tunnel. I saw structures that the average white collar employee, if he hit hard enough luck, would never dream up, let alone realize. As I zipped under a bridge, a group of traveling dirtbags with bikes [what I'll be soon, in other words] whooped supportively and yelled, "Get it, girl!"

I rode along a river [rampant with signs of a recent flood], through a park, passing one guy who was swaying to the sheet music he was reading, another guy baffled by his mountain of camping and cycling gear strewn over a picnic table, and an obese squirrel wrestling with an entire loaf of bread. I rode through an international airport, and behind a decadent hotel.

Then I turned on a random road because a sign was posted in front of it with my first name and an arrow, and I'm a pretty avid follower of arbitrary circumstances and coincidences [i.e., when in doubt, flip a coin]. That road led me to a bike shop, where I had some very helpful conversations, and to a good cheap dinner spot.

I got to the gym, having logged about seventeen relatively flat miles, warmed up and ready to keep moving.

 

The alternative, in a car, is about twenty-minutes on congested suburban main roads.

[PS: I've logged 135 cycling miles, six hours of yoga, seven hours of climbing, and a wee bit of jogging in the last four days! And somehow managed to keep mostly on top of my emails, promotion, and errands. Mostly. I'm doing stuff, I swear!]

 Recent ride around a lake, which was teeming with turtles and birds, but conspicuously devoid of bipeds.

Recent ride around a lake, which was teeming with turtles and birds, but conspicuously devoid of bipeds.

Crunch Time!

It’s begun. From now until the end of February, I can spend virtually all my time preparing for my trip. 

This sudden freedom-to-be-single-minded isn’t random; I’ve spent a year trying to get to this point. I’ve saved up and hustled skrilla over the last year to allow myself this cushion of time, and finagled the perfect situation: I’m house-sitting, so I get a comfortable private space with no rent, in a place with mild weather. There’s no WiFi, which has a silver lining in that it forces me to get out of the house to get online and makes me less likely to waste the time that I do spend online. Plus, I’m relatively close to two REI stores; several great grocery stores; and Planet Granite, my favorite climbing gym in the country, where I’ve just bought a one-month membership. All are within a seventeen-mile bike ride.

So, I’ve been getting emails pestering me for updates on what I’m doing, or interrogating me about my training methods, previous experience, packing list, etc. 

And I’m stoked on the interest [really, I am, that’s not just me being PC—the positive reception I’ve received so far was honestly pretty unexpected and has got me feeling ecstatic] but I honestly do not have time to answer all these emails [my time on the Internet’s already being spent studying the terrain and conditions of my route down to the mile, scheduling bookings, investigating camping and making arrangements with hosts, and learning about bikes from the ground up]. 

Here’s the full disclosure; hopefully it’ll satisfy everyone’s questions. 

Training

Last week and this week:

  • 2+ long rides per week [increasing what “long” means each time; yesterday I did a thirty-mile ride, so my next ride will be thirty-five or forty]
  • 2+ shorter rides per week done to my maximum capacity [anaerobic], ideally with a steep, sustained climb
  • 2 rest days [meaning no long or hard bike rides], only bicycling for small, local commutes [i.e., errands like grocery runs or going to cafes to catch up on emails, or doing small loops around local trails and roads]
  • Cross-train daily, but particularly on rest days. For cross-training, I’ve been climbing and doing yoga at PG, and doing NeilaRey.com workouts at home [a fantastic site, with something for everybody: some of the workouts are far too easy for me, but others completely demolish me].
  • Incorporate weight loads in some of my rides, incrementally increasing the weight. 

Yesterday’s thirty-mile ride was my first with weight, and while I only packed ten pounds, it showed me just how crucial minimalist packing is going to be on this trip. If you ask me, riding with a loaded bike is worse than hiking with a heavy pack, and I know plenty about that: at the end of my season working for the Parks, I had to hike out our last twenty-five miles with seventy pounds on my back…and on top of that, had to drag a friend’s eighty-pound pack for the last couple miles when half our crew came down with some crazy flu. Now when I go backpacking, I’m obscenely minimal, so much so that I’d never suggest to anyone that they ought to pack as little as I do.

Some people have asked me about what computers or heart rate monitors or what have you I'm using; the answer is "none".

I've been using the free versions of Strava and Ride with GPS apps to plan/track my rides, that's all.

Research

  • As of now, I’ve read most of The Complete Book of Long-Distance Cycling, and have been obsessively Googling articles and watching Youtube videos to answer my questions [and, before that, to figure out what the questions were that I should be asking, because I had no clue].
  • I’ve been scouring sites like Adventure Cycling Association and East Coast Greenway and repeatedly, neurotically plugging my route into Google maps, one chunk at a time, to check miles and terrain and make modifications. Over and over. Revising and revising. I’m finally at a point where I’ve got the skeleton for my complete tour; there’s some wiggle-room and I’ll be making some changes, but I basically have my dates outlined, and it’s looking like the tour will take exactly [or close to exactly] four months from Key West, FL to Bar Harbor, ME.

Diet

Pretty simple. High protein. Aiming for about 125g a day [since I weigh between 120-125 lbs].

Otherwise, healthy/varied in general, low junk. [Though I’m a sucker for free food, and cave whenever the opportunity arises.]

Other

Since a few people have wanted to nerd out about gear, I’ll jabber on about that in a separate post.

Upcoming Agenda

  • Planning a couple multi-day bike trips in February. As of now, I'm dreaming up one up the coast, and one down the coast; hopefully I'll have time to do a few more before I leave California
  • Continuing cross-training 
  • Continuing bookings. I don't expect to have everything finalized by the time I head out on my trip, but I want to at least be past the filtering/reference-checking/cold-calling/figuring-out-who's-actually-serious phase. [Psst: Got a serious interest in hiring me? Contact me ASAP! We don't have to schedule or confirm anything right away, but I need to get you on my list.]
  • Looking into hosts and camping
  • Buying the rest of the shit I need [I've got a little stack of REI vouchers for February, ka-ching!]

Hibernation

 I've been perfecting the art of hiding from the clutches of the Digital Age. In this case, in a cave made of recycled Christmas trees in a snowy park in Nevada.

I've been perfecting the art of hiding from the clutches of the Digital Age. In this case, in a cave made of recycled Christmas trees in a snowy park in Nevada.

As of tonight, I've plopped down to set roots and get serious for a month-or-so. Sorry I've been so MIA, Internet. Actually, no. I'm not sorry. But I am acknowledging my MIA-ness to you now, nonetheless.

To those who've emailed me asking where the hell I am...I suppose I owe you some sort of an update. [Someday I'll manage to frolic off-grid for a full year, or ten, but as long as I'm still making a living largely thanks to the Internet, that day won't soon arrive].

I capriciously threw New Mexico out the window. For a few reasons. I wasn't fitting logistics together so perfectly [plus, the people I was corresponding with there were almost invariably telling me things along the lines of, "Dude, the weather we've had lately will make you vomit."] and, moreover, I was bludgeoned with a few opportunities in Nevada and California that were far too enticing to turn down [dammit, California and Nevada, you're both so clingy...you always do this to me right when I'm about to leave you for a while].

Not that I'm complaining. I mean. This is what my world has looked like for the last month:

Those are all ripped off my Instagram, but accurate and relevant.

My life has been a series of cheesy vignetted moments, in fact. Trudging through ice to a hot spring out in the desert. Sliding on hardwood floors in socks in a swank vacation rental. Eating dinner atop a cliff while surrounded by phenomenal bluegrass musicians jamming to the sunset. For crying out loud, I was woken up the other morning to a kitten chewing on my nose, in the loft I'd made a temporary nest in the previous night. That. That is my life right now.

I am extremely fucking lucky to know the amazing people I know, who are frequently luring me over with compelling opportunities, projects, odd jobs, and so on, and taking better care of me than they ought to. Even when I've been broke and on the verge of existential deterioration, I've gotten treated to some pretty fantastical adventures and learning opportunities.

So, okay. Enough hippie-jabber.

For the next month-or-so I'll be house-sitting an awesome spot in the Bay [one of the aforementioned California opportunities I decided was too good to pass up] with Alex for our last month of farting around together before our first prolonged separation in about a year [usually we make it a rule to spend ample time apart, but this last year sort of just dragged us around together], i.e., my trip.

Mild-weather bike rides, taking advantage of a one-month membership at the old climbing gym and yoga studio I used to haunt fanatically, continuing to research/plan/learn, geek out on juicing, continue studying French in preparation for what's yet to come [fingers crossed].

Far more perfect than my original plan. Sorry, New Mexico, but you can wait—winter's not your prettiest season, anyhow.

Red wine, blue cheese

From no angle am I "qualified" to write about food whatsoever.

But it's my bloggy and I'll write what I want to. 

One thing I've become passionate about lately is disseminating the idea that only wealthy "snobs" and "gourmands" can enjoy things like beer, wine, cheese, chocolate, or swanky tasting menus.

It's not practical, but practicality is sort of arbitrarily defined by what your needs and preferences are, isn't it? For some people, it's "practical" to rent an expensive apartment in order to be close to their job, and it's "practical" to buy a nice car and be forever updating one's wardrobe in order to appear presentable to superiors and peers. In order to improve the quality of their lives, these people may justify big TVs and seventy pairs of shoes, or racking up an exorbitant tab every weekend at a mediocre bar.

And that's their bag. That's fine.

Me? I'll skip the nice car and new dresses and go for some good food, booze, dessert. I'll even scrimp on my other meals for a few weeks in order to do so.

The last time I was in NYC I bought raw peanuts, carrots, and avocados from a street vendor for most of my trip, and then treated myself to an awesome steak dinner.

Every once in a while I'll buy some nice cheese and that'll be my dinner for two nights. Nice cheese never messes with my stomach the way the cheap stuff [artificially colored and containing ingredients like wood pulp] does. Cheese shops are great because you're not really restricted by price: you can generally ask for a $1-4 piece of any cheese no matter what it costs per pound. 

So, without further ado, I'm going to food-splooge on you. I am not an expert, but I am a raving fangirl.

I tried a bunch of things tonight, but these were my favorites:

Glug, glug:

2012 La Cartuja, Priorat 
70% Garnacha, 30% Cariñena
Spain

  • Sweet, fresh, sort of floral nose 
  • Pleasant tannins [high, but not aggressive]
  • Soft, young-tasting, easy drinking [neither too astringent nor too nectary]
  • Mineralic, but not as much as the label suggests

Nom, nom:

I wasn't a fan of penicillin mold until I tried St. Agur. 
Tonight, wanted to branch out to a couple new blue cheeses.

Bay Blue, Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co. 
California

  • Whoa, I'm obsessed.
  • Strong but bright and fresh; sharp but not too much of that tangy funk
  • Fresh mineral cave quality, not musty but like clean rocks
  • Makes me think of springtime...and of lemon cookies [there's this vague crisp sweetness, or maybe my taste buds are wonky]
  • Great by itself on:
    • Dave's Killer Spelt Bread [toasted and cut into pieces]

Fourme d'Ambert l'Or des Dômes
France

  • Style of cheese dates back to Roman times
  • Got a slice from the end of the wheel, which is the strongest part
  • Creamier, mushroomy/umami
  • Buttery, buttery, buttery
  • Earthy, kind of peaty
  • Goes GREAT on Dave's Killer Spelt Bread with:
    • Saporina Balsamic Jelly [Malpighi], House of Balsamic, Italy [pricey, but orgasmically good, and a little goes a long, long way]

Tomorrow? Probably homemade miso and cheap produce. 

Winter is Coming

Cupertino, CA

The exhaustion this last year's imbued me with finally began petering out in late November. 

I've been working a lot—many seven-day weeks, many fourteen-hour days, many of those unpaid. I've been disillusioned—witnessed [and, occasionally, been the target of] misaimed explosions of entitlement, manipulation, and even abuse from individuals I'd formerly admired. My mind, body, sanity, and finances have all taken some gnarly blows. 

I'm not ready to dunk into those memories and convert my findings into a blog post yet, and it's possible I'll never feel inclined to do so. For now, suffice it to say that I've been learning, and relearning, and relearning.

The upsides of last spring-summer-fall have been great, too, albeit largely retrospective. I've been challenged in completely unfamiliar ways, tapped into new skills and interests, improved my communication skills, learned not suffer for my sense of "justice", and climbed out of some pretty ugly messes somehow better off than I'd been before falling into them. 

And so on. 

Suddenly, my time is open again, my lifestyle lacking any sort of built-in structure or routine—how my days are spent and how I judge whether I'm spending them well is up entirely to my own whims, values, and self-discipline. But right now I have no close deadlines and no one I'm reporting to.

It's freeing, but also dangerous, especially when I'm recovering from a year's worth of wounds, subservience, and sleep debt, all of which might conspire to render me functionally inert.

Bee-lining from Arcata to the Nevada border, I originally intended to spend about five days in Reno, then about five more in the Bay Area, give or take, to tie up loose ends and decompress in two of the places that have vied for the title "Home" on my heart's compass. I hadn't saved nearly as much money as I'd hoped to over a year of radical frugality, so I was in a hurry to get to New Mexico.

Well, that didn't exactly happen. My car decided to freak out and sit pouting in an auto-shop lot for almost two weeks in Reno. Meanwhile, I grew more attached than ever to the idiosyncrasies of one of the most underrated cities in America and of my favorite people in it. 

Of course, that's what makes it a trap. My car broke down and took two weeks [and almost two grand that I didn't have] to fix. Meanwhile, I ran around amidst desert hot springs and trees full of horned owl chicks, got treated to all-you-can-eat sushi [which, at $15-25 a head, is fresher and better than any mid-range-to-expensive sushi I've ever had in the Bay—no one ever believes this, including myself from a couple years ago, until they come to Reno and are taken to precisely the right sushi spots by a local, but it's true], had a fantastic goodbye party thrown together at the last second, which got such a good turn-out that I started feeling a bit too ooey-gooey to want to leave.

Similarly, the Bay found me entangling with all the local goings-on. Visited my family and helped them decommoditize [i.e., threw away years and years of crap accumulated in the name of nostalgia—a habit that runs in my family that I've painfully had to break out of, because a nomadic lifestyle does not support hoarding memorabilia], and further prepared for my bike trip by learning some basic repairs at home from my dad, who's a cycling enthusiast. Meanwhile I was paid in chocolate milk for late-night rescue missions; was adopted by gaggles of gregarious gay men in bars on the Castro who stole me from the friends I'd come with; went on my biggest bike ride yet, with a climb that was brutally humbling [the better to kickstart my motivation for the coming months]; ate a giant penis macaroon courtesy of Hot Cookie SF; got free front-row tickets to "Margaret", a concert by Jason Webley and a bunch of amazing musicians revolving around a scrapbook one of them had found in a dumpster; underground warehouse venues; watched nature documentaries; studied French; had unexpected and delightful run-ins with out-of-town friends. 

I have no regrets, but my leeway to decompress is narrowing fast.

Hitting the road for one more detour: Christmas in Gerlach [missed peak season, and there's no sense in trying to move or get a job on Christmas or Christmas Eve], and then beelining it to Santa Fe, now eager to buckle down and get to work after a few extra weeks of family, friends, getting my life in order, and some good old debauchery. 

It'll be later than I'd originally planned—but perhaps not later than I was really meant to arrive. Fingers crossed!

Do what scares you.

 With Cam Attree at Broken Head, QLD, Australia. Thankfully there was no literal breaking of heads during my cartwheelling frolic.

With Cam Attree at Broken Head, QLD, Australia. Thankfully there was no literal breaking of heads during my cartwheelling frolic.

Reno, NV

The idea for this bike trip first made its entrance in the loft of an industrial artists' warehouse in Melbourne. Like the rogue raindrops sogging the floor, it had probably leaked into the room through one of the broken windows. Meanwhile, Alex and I were asphyxiating ourselves in the vortex of scummy blankets we'd built as a stronghold against the cold.

Our discussion turned to things we'd never done before and wanted to do, and Alex mentioned long-distance biking, particularly from the States through South America. 

I cringed. My mind glued together a collage of disasters: being hit by a car, stranded in the middle of nowhere, assaulted, etc. I admitted that I'd be terrified about doing anything of the kind.

He laughed. "Don't you say that's usually when you should do something?"

"Yeah, but I don't know anything about bikes. I went on little bike rides with my dad when I was a kid, but it's not like I know about anything, not even specs and sizing and all that."

"Well, yeah....Exactly. You could even do it alone. I couldn't afford it."

"And I could?"

"Well, there's modeling. Bike somewhere you've always wanted to visit, with cities you've always wanted to shoot in."

"That's completely insane. A logistical nightmare, just for starters."

Mockingly: "Yeah, you're right....You won't."

Of course, once the idea infected my head, I knew I had to try. And, of course, once I had the conviction to try, Alex began battling his own fears of what might happen to me on the trip [which, after all, were similar to mine—that I might get hit by a car, or assaulted, or stranded, et al]. But he also knows what I need in order to be happy; he knows that I need a bit of self-validating chaos in order to maintain emotional stasis and well-being. That I have to show myself what I can do, in the face of my doubts.

I'm not a stranger to chasing the unfamiliar. Two days ago, we'd found our way to that chilly loft like aimless drivers in the night, headed faithfully along unfamiliar roads in spite of never seeing farther than a few feet ahead.

In fact, one reason I live the way I do is precisely because it's a release valve to the anxiety and fear I'd otherwise harbor. An inclination to skip winter for a year brought us to Southeast Asia, because we didn't have the overhead to visit our friends in New Zealand, and because the idea made me anxious in a visceral way.

Months later, we'd just begun to feel like Baan Mae Haad, a village on the tropical island of Koh Tao, was as much like home as any town we'd lived in, when a sudden whiff of dirt-cheap tickets to Australia compelled us to leave our idyllic beach-wandering existence and hop on a ferry, then on a wagon, then on a train, then spend a night fraternizing with stray cats in the station before our next train arrived after a six hour delay, haggling for a cab, sleeping at the airport, and finally boarding our flight, three days after initially leaving Koh Tao. 

On the plane we met a man who offered us a ride from the airport and dropped us off, after our repeated assurances that he'd taken us to the right place [and, even then, only after we'd agreed to take his business card just in case we wound up in a jam], in front of a dilapidated warehouse, dressed modestly in barbed wire and a broken chain-link fence, at 2:00am local time.

The upstairs loft belonged to a guy Alex had befriended in the States years ago who was off working the mines. He'd left us a "Welcome to 'Straya!" type of note that indicated a gift under the desk, which turned out to be weed and rolling papers; even though neither of us smoke, the gesture had me giddy over its adorableness. In our seven weeks home-basing in Melbourne, during which I'd take short solo trips around the east coast, I never met our host.

The morning after our arrival, we walked through a maze of industrial buildings feeling a dazed mixture of culture-shock and reverse-culture-shock after our months in Asia. It was pure warehouseland, without a residence or business within twenty blocks, and consequently it was a dead silent neighborhood [if you can call it a neighborhood] except around 3am, when teenagers would show up to loudly drift and sometimes wreck their fancy new cars without fear of interruption. Eventually we emerged onto a main road, spotted a tram stop and waddled up to it. In our pockets were Thai baht, Lao kip, Malaysian ringgit, and a few US dollars. The operator shrugged and beckoned us aboard, anyway. Without local currency, electronic devices, local contacts in town, or any idea where we were going or how we'd find our way back, we hopped on without hesitation.

We were home again.

It's how you go.

 On a  songtaew  in Chiang Mai, Thailand

On a songtaew in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Reno, NV

The beginning of this year saw me joining the ranks of millions before me. You've heard this story before.

I disembarked at Suvarnabhumi, one of Bangkok's two international airports. I'd flown in on a one-way ticket and a single sparsely-packed backpack and no plan, bringing only the clothes I'd worn on the plane and the desiccated crumbs of expired daydreams.

Early on, I was inundated with tall tales of the cliched "life-changing personal experiences" one can replicate when they've earned money, even barely any money, within a first-world economy. These must-do's read almost like a curriculum off some deluded syllabus for the privileged-but-"conscious". As usual when confronted with surroundings completely alien to me, I felt blissed out, delirious, and expansive, which chased away my cynicism for a time.

As if Southeast Asia were merely Disneyland for spiritual capitalists and would-be anthropologists, other English-speaking travelers I met on the way would share their reviews, with a tone implying that they'd benevolently condescended to some quainter rhythm of life. 

Bright-eyed gap-year kids obsessively hewing together some sort of "rite of passage" ritual had become the new face of white imperialism. 

"Oh, it's so touching, the natives here, they have so little, and yet they give so much."

And, even more absurdly: "Yeah, we paid to go on this guided trekking tour to visit one of the indigenous hill tribes, but the experience...I don't know, it was just so inauthentic. So commercial, you know, like they just wanted our money."

My allergic reaction to these conversations quickly propelled me into an infinite spiral of self-questioning. 

Sure. I could criticize the hypocrisy of paying for an "authentic" experience, but how exempt was I, really, from similar criticisms? Was I merely making social observations, or were these people reflecting something uncomfortable in myself? Was I just like them? Was that why they annoyed me so much?

You've heard this before, too: I'd meet travelers along the way who'd had similar revelations. They'd scoff at the "tourists" [differentiated from "travelers" in their minds] who would stay at nice hotels, hire chauffeurs, and delight in how cheap prostitutes were. Meanwhile, these "travelers" would loaf around in hostels run by ex-pats from their home country, stocked with kids who were so like-minded that they could discuss worldly matters for hours without anyone's perspective being challenged, investigate the cheapest ways to get high, and consult their smartphones or guidebooks every time they needed to make a decision on where to go, what to eat, which "life-changing" experiences to pay chump change for.

Well...I'm not doing any of those things. Lonely Planet never factored into the equation for me. I'm not going on elephant rides or staying in youth hostels run by foreigners. I didn't even bring my laptop!...But now am I doing the exact same thing as these "travelers"? Creating a separation and looking down on them because my own protocols and motives are somehow more "pure"? What's the motivation behind that? First-world guilt or self-loathing? What's the point? Should I not even be here?

And so on, ad infinitum.

Here's what I did realize, though.

Southeast Asia doesn't exist for middle-class westerners who want to visit countries where they can pretend they're rich. It doesn't exist to proffer salvation for privileged millennials desperate to find enlightenment, or at least desperate to transcend their dark fate to a life of relative ease by constructing arbitrary "challenges" and adventures for themselves, all the while maintaining the safety net granted to them at birth.

It also doesn't exist as a serviceable substitute for having actual self-esteem. Criticizing the practices of "tourists" while exalting your own does not fundamentally separate you from them. Coming home and shoving your supposed worldliness in the face of your less-traveled friends, while dismissing the richness and depth of their own lives [perhaps levels of depth your own life is lacking, if you only took an honest look], does not make you worldly.

Call yourself a globetrotter, vagabond, pilgrim, or gypsy all you want, but going to another country, or twenty, does not define you. You are not where you've been, what you've seen, or even what you've been a part of. You're in the how: how you've chosen to see your experiences, how closely you've looked, and at what.

It doesn't exist for us at all. It's a place, existing in and of itself. Where people live, existing in and of themselves. They weren't put there in order to teach us lessons about consumerism or compassion or inspire us towards Eastern thought. They've got their own thoughts and their own shit to do, and none of it has to do with us [well, except for those who are using our tourism to make their living]. 

With the right attitude, this realization extends both liberated detachment and connection.

And, most importantly, I learned that none of the lessons I learned have anything to do with Southeast Asia, though going there acted as a catalyst for me. As far as the traveler-vs-tourist division is concerned, I've seen the same behavior in ski town transplants and college frats: deep down, you're not sure if you belong there, and so you haze everyone who appears to belong there even less than you do. 

But really, the questions were mine to ponder, the lessons mine to learn. Southeast Asia didn't exist for the sake of my personal development [though I couldn't have asked for a more enchanting backdrop].

Perhaps people like me don't belong in places like Lao: Westerners, perhaps wearing brand-name backpacks and wielding cameras that each cost more than a college-educated Laotian makes in a year. 

Or, perhaps, all of us are fundamentally world citizens who can belong anywhere, if we only figure out how.

The agitated silt in my head is not going to settle into answers any time soon, if it ever does, but while I'm floating in spirals I just hope I'll remember how to keep asking. 

Tamer Pursuits

Melbourne, Victoria

I've been having really good luck with airplane seating arrangements.

From Kuala Lumpur to Melbourne, Alex and I were seated next to Stephen, an energetic man of about fifty who owned a decorating company in Victoria. I'd had the audacity to ask Stephen a lot of frivolous, covetous questions about how he managed to get a brownie from the flight attendant even though they weren't on the menu; this had proven to be a good move on my part, as he was awesome, and we spent the rest of our flight rambling at each other about the cultural and political absurdities of our respective countries.

He offered us a ride--which was fantastically lucky for us, since we'd arrived at around 2:00 a.m. and were thinking our only option would be to hire a cab--then, after a rather amusing series of trivial setbacks, handed us a card saying to let him know if we wanted to get a coffee or wound up needing an alternative place to stay, and warily left us in front of a dark and unassuming warehouse facade in Coburg as per our request [and repeated assurances that, yes, we were at the right place, and yes, we knew the people who lived there].

Since then, I've gone on one other flight, from Adelaide to Melbourne [having previously taken the train from Melbourne to Adelaide--aboard which I was probably the only passenger under sixty, and wound up making a throng of very sweet and inquisitive octogenarian friends who were completely intrigued by this girl dressed in fluorescent clothes she found in Thailand, and was subsequently offered well-wishes and blown kisses and vague grandma-esque insistences that I ought to visit their town by about fifteen of them upon disembarkation], during which a flight attendant handed me a flirtatious the-seat-next-to-me-is-empty-if-you-want-to-come-take-it note from a spiffy admirer about whom I knew nothing except that he was tall, dark, and from Texas, but regrettably didn't wind up rewarding this admittedly charming gesture [sorry, bro] because by that point I was already enmeshed in a fantastic conversation with a one of the most interesting guys I've met in a while. We talked about Burning Man [a given when you both realize you've both been], travelling adventures [including his experience playing music and doing a peyote ceremony up in the foothills near a remote Mexican village, and being working with locals to open up a restaurant in Indonesia], a new wave of surreal, transcendently immersive "performance art", and so on. The one-hour flight suffered a two-hour delay; the two of us drank airplane wine and carried on, not minding a bit, and once again I was spared the necessity of transit fares and offered a ride home.

Anyway, back to that dark warehouse in Coburg.

Getting in required stepping gingerly through a hole in one fence, ducking under a hole in another, and heading up some stairs sprinkled liberally in broken glass, which had recently occupied the now-broken pane in the door of the loft we'd get to stay in. I was delighted--something about having to sneak in in the dead of night just pumped my nads.

Inside was a large bed [which, after the cheap-as-shit-but-consequently-shittily-uncomfortable three-day journey from Ko Tao, rendered me almost psychotically excited even in my exhaustion] with a cheery note from Alex's friend Tim, pointing out where we could find a clean towel and sheets hanging to dry, and that there was a particular surprise for us hidden in the room [which we found--and which I'm keeping a secret]. The room was strewn with boxing gear and an assortment of books that demonstrated [in my opinion] very good taste on part of their owner. On one wall hung a large, aquatic-patterned sheet to encourage privacy and insulation. It was perfect.

Funnily enough, that was two weeks ago, and I still haven't met this guy whose bed we're staying in.

As for the place, Reclamation Artists Warehouse is still in its infancy--mostly an empty space, though intended to become something of an industrial arts workshop/party venue [not unlike the Generator near Reno, which I also got to see--and help fix up--during its bare-bones infancy and which is now one of the coolest places in America, if you ask me].

Ever since reading Down Under I've been on a mission to overload myself with information and see how much I can manage to remember. Combine this with how expensive Melbourne is [particularly compared to Thailand], and with its saving grace of free museums, and you can easily guess where I've been spending a sizeable chunk of my free time. I visited the NGV International alone on three different days before deciding I'd had enough of looking at really old things.

Otherwise, there's nothing too crazy for me to report just yet, as I've spent much of my time here focused on freelancing and haven't been able to cut loose and go on a real adventure [outside the bounds of conventional wandering, academic tourism, gastronomical overindulgence].

There've been some good nights with new friends.

On one of our first nights we were invited out by Adrian, the first photographer I've shot with in Australia, and treated to drinks on a rooftop bar rife with some really personable, easygoing people exhibiting varying degrees of artsy-fartsiness [I went home with an illustrator's drawing of a fish that had been inspired by a face I'd made], Alex and I left with a couple of art models, for a free Cat Empire show at Federation Square, and eventually we wound up drinking wine under a bridge by the river amidst several hippie types, all seeking refuge from the sudden rain [and all being barked at by rather unimposing cops as soon as the rain cleared].

 Adrian Carmody: Melbourne, VIC, Australia, 2014

Adrian Carmody: Melbourne, VIC, Australia, 2014

Similarly, last night we successfully located what is undoubtedly the best ice cream place in Melbourne, followed by a contender for best cocktail bars I've been to in my life [which we only sought out because its name is also my Chinese name--we didn't even know it was a bar], followed by the swank apartment balcony of a lovely and hilarious Kiwi couple whom Alex had met a couple years prior in New Zealand, and who kept giving us wine and shots and making us laugh. The next day we nursed our consequent hangovers by seeking out the best pies in Melbourne.

In case you haven't gathered by now, Melbourne's full of good things to put in one's mouth.

And so on. Presently I'm not inspired to play storytime-dress-up and give some of my nights here the fully quixotic narratives they truly warrant...but I'm okay with that.

 Taken by Theresa Manchester at the NGV Australia

Taken by Theresa Manchester at the NGV Australia

 With Theresa Manchester on some rooftop bar

With Theresa Manchester on some rooftop bar

Recap from the Land of Oz

Melbourne, Victoria

So, I'm in Australia now. Surprise! Will stave off going into why for now. Assuredly it's a good and happy thing, though.

I'm going to try an exercise in brevity [which is clearly not my strong suit] by summarizing the rest of my journey up using one sentence per change-of-sleeping-space [rather than change-of-place, as Koh Tao deserves more coverage seeing as how I spent weeks there], probably cheating a bit via the use of em-dashes, parenthetical clauses that've I arbitrarily refused to put in actual (parentheses) since someone told me I had to—and possibly also cheating thoroughly and unambiguously through the use of semicolons—in usual sloppy-overkill fashion.

Vang Vieng, Lao PDR >—bus—> Vientiane, Lao PDR

Everyone who claims this city is in any way particularly worth visiting is either being paid to do so or has no semblance of taste [or was lucky enough to stumble into experiences uncommonly serendipitous for the area—granted, I've got a soft spot for places like Fargo, ND for such reasons], and at any rate is likely engaging in some twisted form of anti-libel, as Lao's capital is essentially just as soulless and culture-less as any American capital city, only Asian—in the vein of Albany or Sacramento [though, again, I have reasons to visit both places, those reasons mainly being friends who can't or befuddlingly won't relocate to greener pastures]--rife with palpable tones of universal resentment and mistrust, as illustrated by guesthouses' flamboyantly paranoid policies, and an excess of devoutly ethnocentric fellow travellers who beg the question, "What are you doing so far from home?" or otherwise travellers irritatedly biding their time until the next available flight/bus/train/wheelbarrow could deliver them from this trap that their usually-handy guidebook or Google search results betrayed them into thinking was worth a stop.

 Instead of putting up a photo from Vientiane [because I didn't bother taking any], here's a random back street in Luang Prabang, a place that doesn't know how to be ugly anywhere.

Instead of putting up a photo from Vientiane [because I didn't bother taking any], here's a random back street in Luang Prabang, a place that doesn't know how to be ugly anywhere.

Vientiane, Lao PDR >—train—> Nong Khai, Thailand >—train—> Bangkok, Thailand

In a surreal homecoming that showed me just how much I'd adapted and learned in a few weeks, this same city that a month ago completely overtaxed my senses suddenly feels comfortable, laden with ass-corrodingly clean bathrooms [particularly in Terminal 21, which, despite being a mall, is definitely a place worth a poke-around if you're holed up in the city during a long break between trains], and almost ludicrous in its ease of navigation.

Bangkok, Thailand >—train—> Chumphon, Thailand >—bus—boat—> Koh Tao, Thailand

A. The Campsite

After a first night of socially-oversaturated partying, [which involved a lot of incredulous laughing and belligerence on my part: "Where ARE we? That's not really the ocean right over there—it's just a hokey backdrop. Fucking two hundredbaht for one goddamn ripoff balloonful of hippie crack?!...ehh, I'll take three,"] spent my many days high above the populated corners of the island, hanging out at a campground-slash-bar-slash-festival-ground in the making [or would-be-in-the-making if not for interpersonal politics] wandering aimlessly and endlessly around the island, snorkelling through what was likely pulverized human excrement [the better to see benign-albeit-still-intimidating sharks--a fair trade-off in my opinion], reading, examining critters [most notably giant geckos, ant lions, and whip scorpions], and having psychologically-arduous-but-not-entirely-unproductive conversations with Alex about our morphing goals and dreams and consciences and self-concepts and all that shit.

  Home up on a hill. Incidentally, the girl in the photo is not me [she's a Swede named Sandra] but serves as an apt placeholder [as I own an identical-looking shirt], anyway.

Home up on a hill. Incidentally, the girl in the photo is not me [she's a Swede named Sandra] but serves as an apt placeholder [as I own an identical-looking shirt], anyway.

B. Baan Suan Ta

Opted to get my Advanced Open Water scuba cert on the cheap and found that, in this instance, you definitely get what you pay for: i.e., an instructor who waves you off when you let him know you're almost out of air because he's too busy tinkering with his GoPro and not getting paid enough to give a fuck, then being made the butt of sexual jokes by all the other instructors on the boat who assume that just because they're speaking in Portugese or French that you can't understand mimed hanky-panky—granted, it's hard to stay grumpy after days of diving around reefs rife with schools of great barracuda, pufferfish, fluorescent parrotfish, butterfly fish, wonky-looking trigger fish, blue-spotted rays, and bioluminescent plankton at night.

C. Save Bungalows

My last, and best, leg of island life—funky and consummate and dense, but strangely wholesome—staying in an odd tile-lined basement room across from the beach in Ban Mae Haad owned by a guy who makes reusable condoms, full of chance run-ins with Europeans who instantly felt like long-time friends [and some less-relatable-but-unaffectedly-hilarious characters who seemed almost to have come into my life purely for my amusement], getting ravaged by territorial fish while snorkelling incognito-nude around a huge shipwreck, my one and only traipse around the infamous Sairee [Mae Haad wins, in my book], vignettes of absurdity [e.g., being heckled late at night by taxi drivers using three-foot traffic cones as megaphones] and kitschy reminders of home-or-somewhere [e.g., watching Kill Bill 2 projected on the wall of a cafe while scarfing after dinner waffles and getting chewed on by a beagle puppy], culminating in a last night on the beach playing ukelele, spinning poi [and taking obligatory long-exposure photos] and speaking in broken-English-turned-broken-Thai-turned-animal-noisemaking-contests with a couple enthusiastic and snarky Thais.

Koh Tao, Thailand >—boat—bus—train—taxi—plane—[an irresistible aside: found begbugs in the waiting lounge seats of Kuala Lumpur's airport, in broad daylight no less, scout's fucking honor]—plane—> Melbourne, Victoria 

Will go into more detail later, but for now: modelling, enjoying very serendipitous airplane seating arrangements, holding koalas, feeding kangaroos, opining and feeling alternately awed and indignant at free art galleries squashed into loudly modern buildings from here to Adelaide, South Australia, and back.

 Proof.

Proof.

Post-Euphoria Uncomfortable Truths

Vang Vieng, Lao PDR

It's now been a month since Alex and I first set off from San Francisco for Bangkok though, predictably enough, it feels like it's been ages. This morning I woke up from a vivid dream of being back in my hometown, driving my own tuk-tuk through a blizzard [though in reality my hometown rarely gets colder than 70° F] to enroll in an intensive curriculum at a Hogwarts-esque school with the most incredible bookstore I'd ever seen, where I met an awesome girl who was an equestrian stuntwoman, hitchhiker, and organic chemist and we quickly fell into an enthused conversation about traveling, self-sufficiency versus [or in conjunction with?] love...Life, the Universe, and Everything.

I woke up, completely disoriented. Why am I in a small, dark wooden box?

...Oh yeah. I'm in a bungalow. Somewhere in Asia...Lao. That's right. What the fuck.

 It's unsusprising that I'd be in such a funk. I've just gotten over about twenty-four hours of what I suppose must have been my first bout of really vicious food poisoning [though Alex and I have been sharing all our food, and he was unaffected, so who knows where I got it from]. For about eighteen hours Alex said I was barely human, just kind of a feverish, cramping zombie; in moments of coherence I suspected somewhat dramatically that I might be dying.

Anyway, in all honesty, Vang Vieng sort of creeps me out, but over the last couple days being here has led us unexpectedly to our first major revelations on this trip. Of course, our brains have been working this whole time, trying to make sense of where we are and why, and what impacts we're contributing to by being here. Being in this city has crystalized a lot of those incubating thoughts and questions.

In stark contrast with the shiny and etheral Utopia of Luang Prabang--full of happy, healthy, and educated locals, philanthropist-conservationist-entrepreneurial ex-pats, volunteer opportunities that required very little time or money from well-meaning passers-through, and so much natural and manmade beauty it almost hurt to look at [not to mention the fucking food, which I already gushed over in my last post]--Vang Vieng appears to have become a sort of wasteland since the time when most articles we've read about it were published.

Coming here, it's easy to see that this place was once an innocuous little village, set right by the river against a beautiful backdrop of sheer green cliffs, huge natural caves, but otherwise not too different from any of the other small towns in this country.

Then with the onset of tubing it sprung up a facade of debauchery and the sort of tourism that would appeal mainly to that particular class of sheltered, spoiled spring-break-gap-year kids who feel "invincible" and ever-deserving of whatever they want--a rather ugly facade considering how poor of a town it still obviously is.

Then, when enough tourists started dying of drinking-drug-or-recreational-thrill-seeking-related mishaps, a whole shitton of the bars and rides were shut down by the powers that be, leaving a sparse sprinkling of bars that had us thinking, after a handful of crazy nights in Thailand and Luang Prabang, "So...where's the supposed nightlife in town?" Going tubing and seeing about five operating bars the whole way [and tens of shut-down establishments that obviously used to be bars, slides, and rides that were shut down for being unsafe] was similarly disillusioning. And now the locals who made their living off tourism are now still having to deal with its ill effects [arguably even more ill effects than other, similar places, considering the crowd Vang Vieng seems to attract] but are hard-pressed to find nearly as much business. While a few ex-pat bars thrive each night, the adjacent locally-staffed bars are pathetically vacant, even the ones offering free drinks for ladies before 10pm and other such no-strings specials.

It feels like a dwindling amusement park I visited as a kid, with floundering business due to a few freak accidents [and the resulting bad press, shut-downs, and lawsuits], now devoid of families or young things and primarily full of sheisty thirty-year-old trashbags who'd wander aimlessly and hit on eleven year old girls [such as myself, at the time]. Or, as Alex put it, "it feels like Burning Man on Monday, after the temple's burned down...all the theme camps are still up, or partially up, but almost everyone's left."

Before I pontificate any more, I might as well back-track to the route we took to our present dis-ease.

Disneyworld Veneer

The bus ride into town was a charming but strange look at the countryside which brought back the feelings I had on our last, much longer, much more uncomfortable ride into Luang Prabang. Natural beauty, lots of domesticated animals and savagely happy kids running around and waving, but weird icons of darkness: on a food stand at one of our stops was a water jug full of clear liquid and several dismembered bear paws, with a tap at the bottom [what could that possibly be for?], and every so often we'd see older people broken to the point of deformation or paralysis due to working every day of their lives, walking around on their arms, their atrophied legs shriveled up into their bodies, or hunchbacked to the point of being folded entirely over, looking jaded [possibly doped up on opium, which islegal for older citizens, broken by a lifetime of work, to smoke in order to ease their pain]. Even the knowledge that the gorgeous, perfectly-preserved mountainous countryside all around us was probably in such pristine condition largely due to the fact that the undeveloped parts of the country are literal minefields made its beauty feel a bit sinister.

Upon arriving, our first few couple days consisted mainly of vignettes of "paradise" that effectively distracted us from our deep-down feelings that there was something wrong with this place [and made us reluctant to admit these feelings to ourselves and one another].

We arrived, and almost instantly found a lovely bungalow, much nicer and more accommodating than any room we'd stayed in so far, for half the price we'd been paying anywhere else.

On our first night, we ran into about eight different people we'd seen before previously on our travels, and an unintelligibly drunk Londoner insisted upon buying us tequila shots before we slithered on our way. Several bars hand out free drink vouchers and have free Ladies Night specials every night where I can just walk in, order a mixer, and walk back out, and several bars will proffer free shots oflao lao if you ask. However, what little nightlife there was along the main drag seemed pretty fucking trashy and sad and full of overdrunk douchetools, so we'd mainly just go hang out back at our guest house, which was complete with a garden hammock hang-out spot where we had several nights of long conversations with other passers-through from New Zealand, Germany, England, and an unlikely eighteen-year-old Sacramento stoner who worked for two years in order to leave the country for the first time and travel solo around the world for a year and a half [or longer, depending on the work he could find abroad].

The next day, we walked right through a massive herd of cows and a couple miles out of town into rice paddies and virtually empty countryside, scrambled up Pha Poak [small but rather steep, with no clear route except for some jenky-ass wooden ladders--we only saw one other tourist headed up on our way down, and he looked like he was halfway dead from exhaustion] for an incredible view of the town, the fields, small villages on the other side, and the towering cliffs nearby.

A mile or so more of walking through lush jungley forest past water buffalo took us to Lusi Cave, the largest and prettiest natural cave I've been in so far, which has a lagoon you can swim in in the pitch-dark about an hour's walk in from the entrance [though it's currently dried up, so we didn't wander in that far].

Several dogs roam about freely [as they seem to all around Thailand and Lao], but here they seem especially friendly despite having no obvious owners. A group of four puppies followed a few Germans back to our guesthouse and wound up frolicking around the garden all night. On one evening we encountered a random, unsupervised cage with two monkeys on the street; the smaller of the two made grabs at my fingers and skirt [eventually he nabbed a bit of my hair, examined it, and put it in his mouth before getting bored of it and tossing it aside] and we couldn't quite figure out why they were in there, nor how we felt about it--amused but sympathetic and a bit disgusted.

Of all days to bring our camera with us, our first couple here easily would've yielded better photos than any we've taken so far...but we decided not to bother, and figured we'd rather just remain present, as we've done throughout most of our stay in Lao. Something about lugging around and pulling out a camera here feels kind of cheap.

Then we decided to go tubing, since that's sort of the obligatory "thing to do in Vang Vieng", which is where we really started noticing how much of a wasteland this place seems to have become. We made a point to head out early enough so that it wouldn't be too crowded...on the contrary, almost no one else was around. About five bars were in operation [with fit Lao boys throwing ropes out to fish for tubers, which we'd then grab in order to be pulled into shore--a procedure I found hilarious], several abandoned buildings nearby indicated where other bars once were, and several ladders and ropes indicated rides or jumps that had been shut down as safety hazards. The river was so slow that we spent most of the time paddling ourselves in order to move at all, and despite getting started before noon, we struggled to make it back by the 6p.m. deadline in order to avoid a fee from the tube rental shop. Additionally, it suddenly became freezing fucking cold [granted, the river being cold, slow, and deserted may have had more to do with the time of year--despite this being high season].

The one more-than-redeeming highlight of the day [the highlight of being in Vang Vieng, in general] was when we stopped over at one deserted bar and wandered further back when we saw a steep set of stairs and ladders leading up a cliff to a platform about a hundred or so feet up. We walked past a see-saw [which we were terrible at, since I'm half Alex's size], a bunch of tame baby bunnies that didn't seem to mind being pet, and several domesticated birds [geese, ducks, turkeys, chickens, huge tanks of hatchlings...and one of the weirdest, ugliest birds I've ever seen in my life, which I could only describe as a Durkey], clambered up the ladders and stairs to the platform, which yielded an incredible view, and then noticed a small cave entrance that would've been all too easy to miss. We clambered in and it was gorgeous, with natural bridges we could clamber across and a lower pit we could get to down a ladder, sunlight filtering through in such a way, illuminating shimmering mineral deposits and lush green mosses, that it looked like a fucking Dwarf Palace.

Looking Backstage

After a few hours of paddling our arms frantically through frigid stillwater and increasing winds so as to make it back by 6 p.m. we realized aloud: there's nothing to do here except the standard "adventure tour" drag [mainly treks, or trips up to caves, most of which charge an entrance fee and some of which, that we'd previously read could be explored alone, require going with a guide--probably after enough tourists fucked up and died, as the trend here seems to be] or get wasted, and neither of those things aren't all that worth the trip compared to other places where they're better. The town at least isn't so much a real place where one can justbe, relax, learn about, and appreciate; it's a broken-down Adventuretime facade. The natural geography here is really magnificent [which is probably how all the tourism cropped up here in the first place] but it's being exploited for cheap thrills.

We walked back home where we were intending to just get changed out of our wet clothes before heading out into the night, but both inadvertently passed out, exhausted. A few hours later I woke up at the onset of a fever, severe cramps, and delirium. Yay, food poisoning [or whatever].

A little over twenty-four hours later, as I was lying still and becoming a human again, Alex began a monologue that I've transcribed below. A bit later, when I felt well enough to speak fluently, turned into an extended conversation we've been ironing out ever since.

You know, when we first got here I just thought, 'Wow, this place is so much more wild and 'authentic' and rugged, I'm really enjoying this, blah, blah, blah.' But after a while, after the egocentric thoughts kind of dwindled, I'm realizing what I really think of this place.

We got here, hating on Thailand's full moon parties and easy access and shit, but now I feel like...that's kind of where we belong. On some developed island, drinking cocktails rather than trying to fool ourselves into thinking we're doing something more "dignified" and "earnest".

At least in Vang Vieng, the locals look at us with this ugly mixture of hope, bitterness. Especially some of the older ladies here who've obviously worked hard their entire lives, too old now to figure out a way to adapt to our presence here. We walk by, I'll smile and offer a 'sa-bai-dee,' and they'll just stare with this...indifference. But not just a fly-by not-noticing, but more a profound, conscious dismissal.

Even those who benefit, the tuk-tuk drivers and the vendors who smile and call out next to all the competing stands next to them that look exactly the same, beseeching us, "Please give us your money, you have so much of it and we need it," are basically bottom-feeders--here they're too desperate to brush off the tourists who decide to be assholes, or who insist on haggling harder than is fair, when it's inappropriate. They're not prospering off tourism. Here they still kiss all our asses no matter what bullshit we put them through or how dehumanizing we are...they may be benefiting more, but they still seem like slaves, just 'house niggas'.

Other tourists have been making me mad, and embarrassed, even for small transgressions. Ignorant jokes. Making cracks about hooking up with the prettier local women, like that's all they exist for. Getting angry when an impoverished Laotian--who might be illiterate in their native language--doesn't speak English, French, or whatever. Cultural insensitivity--even with signs in English asking them politely to wear shirts while they're in town. Throwing their cigarette butts and trash in beautiful places just because they're above keeping the place nice. Getting indignant when the cheap-ass comercial tour they paid for--that might cost the equivalent of a Lao person's wages in two months of working seven-day weeks--isn't "authentic" enough, or when everyone seems to be "trying to sell them things". Feeling entitled to 'local prices' and then not even realizing when they're already being offered those 'local prices'.

It's all pandered to them, too. Like the narco-tourism. It wasn't shut down because it was harming the locals...it was shut down when enough tourists died that it was making people hesitant to visit.

This facade's been created. Other tourists here are so detached. We were detached, too, when we first got here. No one comes to Vang Vieng to learn about the history or culture of this place. What history or culture? All you can see here are the detrimental effects of a failing tourist industry on a small third-world town that had the misfortune of being located in a beautiful place. And we were originally going to look into volunteering here...but volunteering around this town is SO much more expensive than being a tourist, even a somewhat extravagant one. 

And here we are, falling asleep in this cozy tourist bungalow designed to look like the real thing while actually being much more comfortable, in a country built on fields of opium poppies, land mines, skeletons of war, and a nebulous government that everyone's too scared to even talk about.

We're invincible, coming here with our money, even if we're middle-class back home. Even across the world, if we get sick or get hurt, we'll be taken care of. For a pittance we can get private rooms, clean water, showers, and stuff ourselves with food. 

People come here and pay to ride abused elephants or dehumanize and gawk at the hilltribes, who are some of the last strongholds of cultural isolation in a globalizing world. Then they complain that it's not "authentic". You don't need to hire a guide and go take photos of them to realize what's happening or to sympathize with them for being exploited and rendered as impoverished by outside forces. Even though we're not participating in those things, to a lesser degree, we're not exempt from that either. Even with less money than most people bring here, even by making an effort to learn and do no harm, we're still living it up, we've still got nice backpacks, and are still monetary miles above the standard here. I think it's important to understand this.

If you want an "authentic" experience, fucking go home and buy a sandwich at Subway. For the people here, it's just life, and it's harder than just about anyone comes with would ever want to subject themselves to--or would know how to handle. Some of the volunteering costs so much money because even the well-intentioned people who come to volunteer don't have the grit to do it without some of their first-world creature comforts, and don't have the skills to actually be all that useful. They come with philanthropic ideals molded more around their egos than around a true ability or willingness to be helpful. 

Now I remember why I do this: to try and make a bit more sense of what's happening in the world. It'd be delusional to think I could get some simple, clean, final answer--that'd be impossible without knowing the history, goings-on, secrets, and interactions within and between everywhere in the world, which in itself is impossible knowledge.

But we just come into the world--poof!--as another consciousness. Here we are. Why? Why do I have what I have? What does someone over there have? What's going on? Over here, over there? Are we all puppets, is there Free Will, is it beneficial to think there is even if there isn't, blah, blah, blah...?

And I don't know what to do, what I can or should do--if I should do anything. But I can travel, and learn. I don't know what else to spend a lifetime doing. Or at least this part of my lifetime, while I might have so much time and still know so damn little. 

He voiced my own solidifying thoughts and feelings at least as well as I could have, so there they are.

And, duh. Luang Prabang and the major hubs of Thailand we've visited so far are, of course, also touristy as fuck--but there seems to be more of a symbiosis there between the locals and tourists. It doesn't seem so toxic.

In most places we've been there's some semblance of mutual respect and appreciation, and even a lot of social crossover--we spent a good portion of a night in Luang Prabang playing music on the street with some Laotians, one of whom unwittingly led me to my gnarliest hangover ever when he kept offering me shots oflao lao and ignoring my laughing pleas of, "No more!" Similarly, the nightlife and partying and narco-tourism is rampant there, but it doesn't feel dark or thoughtless, rife with stories of overdose or exploitation--it feels more like what partying should be.

And Thailand, while overrun with a different sort of ex-pat [i.e., perverted old men with young Thai girls, or people who just wanted to retire somewhere cheap, irrespective of where it was] and some other unpleasant variables, seems less tainted in that it decidedly isn't a third-world country the way Lao is, the people there aren't so desperate and taken for granted by entitled tourists flaunting their wealth here in a third-world country by wearing impractically decadent designer clothes, trying to haggle for set-price wet market items for the sake of saving an extra twenty-five cents because they're fucking idiots and don't know better and mistakenly think that no items are above haggling or that everything is dishonestly priced, knowing that sooner or later one of the reluctant food merchants will relent because, after all, beggars can't be choosers. In Thailand, when someone tries to do that, the vendors just laugh them off, and rightly so.

I didn't feel dirty for being in most of the places we've been so far [though coming to terms with "being a tourist", not deluding myself into thinking I could be something more dignified by trying to "avoid the tourist stuff" or "rough it" more, and embracing my role as an inescapable fact took me a second], whereas coming here has wrought us with an uncomfortable sort of guilt...a feeling that we really don'tbelong here, that our presence is doing a lot more harm than good.

Anyway. Time will tell what we might actually do with our evolving thoughts and attitudes, but for now we're still learning, trying to stay humble, to "see with eyes unclouded" and not delude ourselves into thinking we're "above" all the bullshit...while also not being too hard on ourselves.

For now, I'm excited to get the fuck out of here tomorrow: the general plan is Vientiene, hop over the border to Nong Khai, then on to Southern Thailand via Bangkok in order to visit a few people and get scuba certs.

Of course, as usual we've been playing by ear a lot and our "plans" have been changing every two days or so, so fuck if I know whether that's actually what we'll end up doing [or, if so, how long it'll end up taking us--two weeks or six].

One side effect of all the Bangkok protests we've just found out about that's proved very serendipitous for us is that Americans entering Thailand by land can now stay visa-free for thirty days. A week or two ago, it was fourteen days--we would've had to fly in in order to stay the full thirty for free, so we'd resigned ourselves to hunting for as cheap a flight as possible from Vientiene into Bangkok and skipping Nong Khai, which would've been a shame since it's right there from Vientiene and was recommended by a "credible stranger" who didn't really tell us anything about it except that we should go there. I tend to prefer following random and vague suggestions than well-defended ones, which is probably why we didn't bother going to Pai when we were in the neighborhood-ish--too much hype from too many backpackers either yammering about how amazing it was, or about how overrated and overrun it was.

More Schoolgirl Rambling

Luang Prabang, Lao PDR

Baby chicks and goats. Bamboo scaffolding. Happy kids eating shit on bikes. Women gathering river weed from the Khan and Mekong to sell at the market. Leaves bigger than I am. Families cooking their dinner in quiet back alleys. A dissolving of status and borders impossible to find in Thailand.

Leaving this place tomorrow morning. Our guts today said, "Move", and so we must obey.

I'm sad to leave. This place is more magical than I could ever bother trying to convey in words or photographs. The best, most ridiculous, most enriching experiences are—as usual, when life's at its best—the ones I can't even begin to write about, that'll have to be on reserve only for my closest friends, and only in person in the right setting: over a beer or a long drive or food on a subdued night in.

So...I'll talk about the food.

Gastronomical Nirvana

The food. Holy shit. Here, you can experience some of the best and most interesting fine dining for the same price you'd spend on a meal at In'N'Out at home.

For one thing, there's Tamarind, our favorite restaurant [definitely here, and possibly everywhere].

We got dinner there, seated outside, right over the Khan River. Friendly waitstaff excitedly explained all the food to us. Water was served in glass bottles to reduce waste [there is a lot of plastic waste from packaging all over the place here--especially since everyone buys bottled water] and drinks came with bamboo straws that could be washed and reused.

Anyway, we'd gotten a fixed-price meal, which had included:

  • Chilean wine and a ginger/lemongrass drink
  • A soup with bamboo shoots, pumpkin, mushroom, basil, green onion, aubergines...
  • A platter of dishes including local river weed [my new favorite thing], tomato dip, eggplant dip, chili and buffalo skin dip, the best pork sausage I've ever had, buffalo jerky and, of course, a thing of khao niaw [sticky rice]
  • Chicken wrapped in lemongrass, local Mekong fish grilled in a banana leaf, served with a tart/herby peanut sauce
  • Stir-fried pumpkin with onions, spices, and mint
  • Purple sticky rice with coconut meat, amazing Lao cookies that sort of taste like a cross between rice crackers and french toast [colloquially known by Laotians as "cat poo" because that's what they look like], and sweet/sour tamarind sauce
  • Local coffee with condensed milk and ground tamarind seed, and smoked green tea


ALL of that...for two people...for a TOTAL of about $30. [Also, it was some of the best food we've had, ever.]

We went back for the "Adventurous Lao" set menu, which you have to book a day in advance and put down a deposit for [because they shop for ingredients at the local market, just for you, that same morning, based on your preferences, allergies, and "how adventurous" you are, and then create a custom menu for your dinner]. They warned us that sometimes the menu might contain bat, or pig blood, or whatever--it all depended on the morning markets. We told them to go nuts.

This was our dinner:

  • Bael fruit cinnamon drink and tamarind cooler
  • Platter of eleven dishes: sour unripened red plum mash, barbequed plum with chili, rice powder with ginger and sugar, pig skin pork crackers, steamed local bitter greens and mushrooms in herbs and fermented fish sauce, oyster mushrooms in coconut milk, barbecued water bugs with chile [the bug dishes actually wound up being among my favorites, and this one was really fucking spicy], pumpkin leaves, baby jackfruit with long beans, grilled and seasoned river leaves at the banks [this was one of the only things I had trouble with—it tasted more like mud than food], river weed paste with chilis [one of the strangest textures of any food I've had—almost like pudding, but a lot slimier...basically, it's fresh green sludge from the bottom of the river].
  • Platter of ten more dishes: fermented fish sauce with chili/lemongrass/eggplant/bamboo [this was the only thing we couldn't stomach], fresh river weed powder with garlic, raw baby ant eggs with herbs [sort of like spicy ceviche?], bamboo worms fried in garlic and kaffir lime, snails with oyster sauce, buffalo and pork meatball, pickled raw fish, a sweet dried pork thing I recognized as one of my favorite Chinese foods when I was a kid [called ro sung in Chinese], barbecued pig brains, pickled raw pork in a banana leaf.
  • Grilled pork stuffed in zucchini flowers, and two soups: sour local fish tomato soup [where you ate the whole fish--bones, head, and all], spicy frog soup with chunks of pepper wood [you'd chew the wood without eating it to get the pepper flavor, and the thing basically contained a whole frog, skin and all, in frog broth].
  • Six desserts: more purple sticky rice with coconut, more cat poo cookies, these incredible sesame/palm sugar/peanut wedges, pumpkin custard, grilled rice powder and coconut sugar things, and sticky rice banana balls.
  • Also, they gave us shots of their own honey lime lao lao, on the house.


We couldn't even come close to finishing, though we tried [minus the fermented fish sauce, everything was actually good as well as interesting]. For BOTH of us, the meal ran $32 total. A custom fucking meal.

Anyway. We'd be there tonight, but they're closed on Sundays.

As is Saffron Cafe on the Mekong side of town, also worth a mention, and also a place we'd be today if it were open: easily some of the best coffee I've ever had. I'm not really into mochas but their Luang Prabang Malt Mocha 

The founder, David, an American ex-pat, worked out a deal with some of the local hilltribes who'd been reduced to slash-and-burn agriculture [which is both highly inefficient for those practicing it, and detrimental and unsustainable for the land upon which it's practiced] after their former livelihoods of opium production became outlawed. Since then, the hilltribes have become extremely impoverished [not to mention that they're made a spectacle of by "treks" to their villages so that tourists can photograph them and basically act like they're at a human zoo]. These hilltribes live in areas ideal for coffee production, so basically, David gives them coffee trees, which they cultivate and hand-harvest, and then he buys the beans back from them. The resulting coffee is fantastic. 

The street food here is noteworthy, too. Surprising, delicious...and healthy [the only possible criticism I could make against Thai street food is that it left me feeling sick after chronic indulgence]. For instance, today I got a tomato and lemon shake. Gross as it sounds, it was fucking incredible. Lao style sandwiches on baguettes have also become a favorite thing--they're big enough to split between two people, fucking delicious, healthy, and round out at about 10,000 kip [$1.25].

Some of the street vendors are hilarious. The other night, a lady who sold us some noodles kept offering us sips of Beerlao [even before we'd agreed to buy anything] then cleared a space for us to sit down on a foam mat behind her booth. A lot of others make sassy jokes at our expense rather than brownnosing. It feels much less classist here, much more laid back.

Also, the best donuts I've ever had. And they're not at the famous French bakeries in town [we've tried them there, too]—they're on the street, for a fraction of the price. 

Huuurrg.

Someone Else's Dream

Luang Prabang, Lao PDR

Finally, I've found a bit of what I didn't realize I was looking for.

The last few days have been slow-motion mayhem, like a bunch of inept drivers steering their cars through snow for the first time--chaotic and uncontrolled, but slow enough to buffer any true danger. A stew of misadventure and serendipity.

I didn't see it while in Thailand, but with this new contrast I understand what I've been missing:

Thailand felt like a vacation. Everything was shaped around tourism. It was all easy, required little imagination, and something about it felt very false and Disneyland-esque. The main pastimes for locals and tourists alike seemed to be eating and shopping [with the secondary options of getting massages, partying, and sightseeing]. It's a place where I felt I either had to make an "itinerary" or else ambled around placidly, wondering what I was doing there, trying to figure out my "role" as a "tourist", feeling vaguely uncomfortable and embarrassed to be affiliated with some of the other tourists there, many of whom were behaving rather disgustingly: stomping around with a sense of entitlement, dehumanizing the natives, being indignant just for the sake of being indignant. Several ex-pats there, with pasty bellies covered with Hawaiian shirts and little Thai wives in tow, spoke less Thai than I did after being there for only two weeks, let alone read any.

In contrast, in Laos I feel like I'm actually living. I haven't been uneasy about being a visitor here. The tourists I've encountered seem more childlike, adventurous, flexible. Even the rich kid spring breakers who are just here to get wasted on lao lao whisky seem happy and playful and basically like real human beings.

If I won't get screamed at for generalizing, culturally Laotians themselves are a sharp contrast to Thais [who comprise many of the tourists here, as well]. They seem a lot more rambunctious and easygoing—whoopwhooping loudly when a power outage strikes at night, playing weird little hop-scotch games and acting like kids, singing or laughing raucously and at random, giving less of a shit and just having a good time. They're easygoing and friendly, but don't kiss our asses or seem to care much that we're here [unless they're trying to make money from us, understandably]. And not only do they have really good English [much better than virtually all the Thais we met], but many of them speak Thai and French as well [I've spoken more Thai here than in Thailand].

In contrast, most Thais we met, while very likeable, seem more like your average first-worlders: more polite and "civilized" [at the expense of being a bit stuffy or insincere at times, if you ask me...but I tend to like people who are uncouth and consider "civilized" a pejorative], and certainly more materialistic. Like everyone else in this globalized world, I suppose.

The hundreds of small children we've seen have all been really self-sufficient and healthy: kids as young as six pushing their bikes up a steep hill a couple miles out of town, waving to us as we pass by, wandering through the mountains on their own, helping the adults with manual labor, playing with bugs.

Everything's gone "wrong" or has otherwise been "unexpected", but it's all worked out perfectly. In Thailand I felt like a grown-up on holiday--here I feel like a Lost Boy in Neverland, laughing deliriously at how absurd life is, much more present in the moment, disinterested in checking my email or researching "things to do" or "things to know" online.

While I really enjoyed Thailand...Laos is way, way more my bag. I haven't stopped giggling incredulously since I got here. If Alex and I were to pigeonhole our views on life, we'd probably both call ourselves absurdists...an outlook Laos seems to amplify.

The countryside is breathtaking, and Luang Prabang feels like being in someone else's dream. We want all the people we love to get their asses over here. If we had more money, we'd buy plane tickets for our closest friends and family in a heartbeat. Someday.

Chiang Rai

We left Chiang Mai for Chiang Rai [after leaving the lady at our guest house a thank-you note in Thai that was more likely than not full of mistakes, though we figured she'd find them amusing], which we thought might be a bit of a smaller, more rural version.

Not quite.

Chiang Rai, while half the size of Chiang Mai, felt distinctly more "industrial urban" when we first rolled in. Our bus passed several car dealerships and wove through a lot of slummy looking shops an office buildings before arriving.

When we got off our bus, we had our first unpleasant interactions with Thai natives.

The tuk-tuk drivers were pushy as always, but with less good humor--several of them gestured as if to grab me and made animal noises at me, laughing and saying things like, "get in tuk-tuk or you don't know where you're going, backpack too heavy for farang girl."

We kept walking and found an Internet cafe with the pushiest restaurant staff we've ever met. As a sharp contrast to the friendly and laid-back establishments in Chiang Mai, everything was very calculated: the moment we stepped up to the entrance, we were chivvied forcefully to a table [even though we said we just wanted to check out the prices outside], stood over and stared down by a notepad-equipped server before we even had a chance to peruse the menus, even when we asked to be given a few minutes; the bathrooms cost 20 baht for non-customers; the wi-fi was only available to those who made an order of at least 50 baht; the food was all unappealing Western options [pizzas, Caesar salads...not even so much as pad thai] and unusually pricey [about four or five times what we've been paying for meals].

We shrugged and ordered a small dish in order to get Internet access, and when Alex tried to plug in our hand-me-down tablet [which wouldn't turn on otherwise], he was stopped abruptly by a staff member who said it would cost 20 baht to plug in his phone.

"Well, we just made an order so we could use the Internet."

"Yes, you can use Internet free with your order, but you have to pay to use the power."

"But we can't use the Internet unless we plug in our tablet. It doesn't cost you anything to let us charge it, and no one else is using the outlets, so why do we need to pay to use one for ten minutes?"

"It doesn't even matter why! It's only twenty baht! For you, twenty baht is so little, it's practically nothing." From all the spite in his voice, he might as well have been spitting on us.

"Hey. Look. No one owes you money just because they have it, you still need to treat them fairly and give them a good reason to buy from you--good food, or at least friendliness. Your prices are already much more than a local would pay, there's no way a local would ever eat here, but we were still going to eat here. I'd rather give two hundred baht to someone else who was honest and respectful. Or at least good-natured." I gestured to Alex to leave.

"Should I cancel your order?"

"Probably. We won't be here to pay for it."

Even the scammers and pushy vendors we've met have been fun to interact with, smiling and joking their way into our pockets. 

Look, I fucking get it--we're tourists, and the fact that we're even in Thailand means we're well-off by Thai standards, even if we'd be paupers in the States. We're coming here to visit your town, often quite disoriented at first, and you're being adaptable and resourceful by capitalizing on it.

I don't even mind being ripped off [for instance, when it's obvious I have no other option but to hire the one tuk-tuk at a remote bus station, so he overcharges me]—I can understand it, and I've laughed it off when it's happened. It's fair—the ride is still worth paying for, and in his position, I'd do the same thing. But at the end of the day, it's still a cordial interaction between two human beings.

I try to be receptive...but I'm a bit proud. I'm not going to shell out to someone who treats my presence with scorn and feels entitled to my money before I've even had a chance to cause offense, even if it means walking an extra few kilometers with a heavy pack, or settling for a lesser option.

Soon we found a cheap enough guest house to settle for [Chook Dee, 250 baht for a private room]. The place was a bit alienating—super rasta-ed out, with black lights and Lisa-Frank-meets-stoner fluorescent murals on the walls, the lower floor cafe full of Europeans with dreadlocks that looked like pythons [five feet long and as thick as my arm, weighing down skinny little French pretty boys in designer clothes], reggae music in the background. 420-everything. It was owned and run by a few Thais, most of whom seemed rather wary of their tenants.

"Do you think the owner is genuinely into this scene, or is this his conception of what'll appeal to the tourists who come through here?"

"Moreover, if this is his conception...is he right?"

Our room itself had a weird under-the-floorboards-seedy-bordello feel to it. Dimly-lit, dark wood. A picture of Bob Marley hung on the wall [which made me laugh]. The one small window opened out to a tiny tucked-away balcony with a bamboo bench and table you had to clamber out through the window to get to and a low roof that made you feel like you were in a secret hiding place looking out onto the street below. I absolutely loved this feature; the balcony was completely littered with other people's beer bottles and cigarette butts, but if anything this almost added to the appeal. The whole place was a bit crusty; the comforter obviously hadn't been washed in a while [jizz stains, human hair, dirt...] and we wondered if there might be bed bugs, but we resolved to embrace the whole thing.

"It's nasty. It makes me kind of uncomfortable. The other tourists staying here seem washed up and kind of creep me out. But I kind of like it...because I don't like it. Besides, every other vacant guest house is twice as expensive."

One big difference in Chiang Rai was the blatant segregation between the Thais and the ex-pats/tourists. In Chiang Mai, there was a bit more intermingling--the town had embraced its status as a tourist destination, and there seemed to be a symbiotic relationship between Thais and foreigners, for the most part.

Chiang Rai was a lot less touristy, but still full of tourists. The ex-pats seemed to be there simply because it was a cheap place to live, and not because they actually liked the place. There were markets specifically catered to tourists, and ones specifically catered to locals, with little mixing of demographics. The foreigners were cold, deadbeat. The locals were dismissive.

We figured it'd be worth sticking around a couple days to see if our attitudes tot he place changed, and decided to look into things to do [because we'd run out of ideas after one night of exploring]. Online, the main attractions listed were the night bazaar [which we went to on our first night] and the clocktower [which was right next to our guest house]...other than that, there were temples to see, a couple uninteresting-sounding museums, and some natural sites to explore out-of-town [some of which were only really open to tour groups rather than self-guided adventures]...many of which were described as "once pristine, but a bit trashed now thanks to inconsiderate tourists."

"...Well, you know, we could just spend a few days studying the hell out of Thai, and playing ukelele, spending next to nothing. If we were somewhere more interesting we'd be less motivated to study."

We were a bit homesick for Chiang Mai, but were surprised at what things we missed. The two things we missed most:
 

  • The 1 baht water filling stations, some of which were very hidden [at the ends of back alleys, obscured behind marketplaces, etc.] that made us feel like we'd stumbled across hidden treasure when we found them and, overtime, saved us several disposable plastic bottles and hundreds of baht.
  • An adorable lady with a coffee truck that had a counter under the window just big enough for the two of us to sit, struggling to spell out titles on Thai-language magazines she provided, while she laughed at our broken Thai and made us the best iced coffee and tea drinks in town [for 25 baht each]. Every time we went, she'd make us an extra free drink even better than whatever we'd ordered [a shot of special Thai coffee, or milky green tea with tapioca pearls]. We both regretted not saying goodbye to her before we left town, and she's the first person I'll look for if I go back.

However, Chiang Rai had its good points: 

  • The disdainful attitude to tourists was kind of a blessing in disguise: it made our interactions with Thais more rewarding [since we had to prove ourselves a bit first before they'd pay us any mind] and gave us more opportunity to practice our Thai [since a lot of them didn't bother learning English or putting English names on their menus--and a lot of the ones who did know English would pretend not to when approached by foreigners]. A lot of the natives would stare coldly and silently at me as if to say, "I don't sell hamburgers here. Are you lost, little girl?" Then I'd read something off the sign or eke out a few sentences, and they'd smirk, visibly surprised. I'd ask to get something extra spicy, and they'd laugh incredulously, clearly thinking I was ignorant, but would throw in an extra chili. Then, when we successfully ate the food without dying and thanked them for it, they'd warm up to us, and the next time around would have a completely different attitude: they'd help us read the menus, teach us new words, or correct our pronunciation, and encourage us when we made efforts. There was something kind of American-east-coast about it all that we kind of appreciated: our interactions felt a lot more genuine, a lot less "customer service"-y, and in that way actually made us feel a bit more a part of the community.
  • A lot more varied merchandise than in Chiang Mai [where you see the same few products in every booth, much of which is sweatshop-made]. Some higher quality goods. Much better prices on the cheaper/generic products.
  • Distinctly different food. Also cheaper. And the best som tam I've ever had, made by a brusque but awesome Thai woman on the street.

Anyway, another blessing in disguise:

A couple nights in, I woke up at about 4:30am to find Alex collecting bed bugs in a plastic cup, looking disgusted and amused.

I blinked at him for a while. "...I told you so."

"Meh. Ew. Shall we find another guest house tomorrow?"

"Actually, why don't we just get the hell out of here? It feels forced, like we're holding out to find reasons to be here. We both keep trying to convince each other that it's worth it, but neither of us really wants to."

"...Yes. Where to?"

"How about Laos?"

"Sure. What's in Laos?"

"Who knows? We're idiots, we don't know anything."

"Laos sounds fantastic."

The next day there was no one at the counter to inform about the bed bugs, so we just left the cup of bed bugs on top of our key and went on our way, following a route we'd found online that would get us to Luang Prabang by the following morning [...or so we thought].

In Limbo

From Chiang Rai, we took a bus for a couple hours to Chiang Khong, a tuk-tuk to Thai immigration, a shuttle to Laos immigration, which was a clusterfuck of paying fee after fee for who-the-hell-knows, and then were crammed into a songthaew with several other backpackers from different parts of Europe who--we were relieved to see--seemed just as confused as we were ["Okay, so we're not the only suckers here, that's nice"] at the fees, at being made fun of by the snarky bureaucrats, at the locals offering scalped tickets.

By this point, Alex and I were so delirious that we were reduced to cackling at everything: the fees we kept having to pay in three different currencies without knowing why ["Forty baht because it's a Saturday! One dollar for smelling funny!"] going to the ATM for kip and entering a withdrawal amount of 1,000,000 [we counted the zeroes several times to make sure we had it right since we couldn't stop giggling], the fact that we hadn't encountered food for several hours, the fact that the songthaew driver knew that none of us were really in a position to haggle with him [we were in the middle of nowhere, and no other drivers were around to compete with him], then the fact that we all got packed in with our backpacks like a bunch of sardines with no room to spare. 

Everything was hilarious. In a backwards way, we were having a fucking blast. The other backpackers seemed a bit less delirious [and a lot more grumpy with the situation].

The two of us were dropped off at the bus station, which was also in the middle of nowhere. We went to go buy tickets for that night's sleeper bus...only to find they were sold out.

This made us crack up more, which seems to have become our default reaction to everything ever since crossing the border. Everything is absurd; everything is funny. A lot of Laotians we've encountered seem to feel the same way, and laugh loudly at everything [and nothing]. Maybe there's nitrous oxide pumped into the air here. Seems like it would keep the peace...and eliminate the need for social programs. Hahaha.

The sun was setting. We'd finally gotten some noodles in our system and could sort of think properly.

"Well...we have a mosquito net. We could set up the hammock somewhere."

"There are no trees. Or poles. We could sleep on a bench?"

"Beer first. Decisions later."

Facing off on either side of the bus station were two identical-looking narrow strip buildings. One contained a row of shops; the other turned out to contain a row of rooms [presumably for people like us who'd been stranded]. Instead of a lobby, we simply walked up to a window in the middle of the building. 

It's difficult to describe what that place felt like--but it reminded me of being on the outskirts of Joshua Tree. Sort of an eerie, haunted, portal-to-hell-at-the-edge-of-the-world feeling that I nonetheless really liked. 

The room seemed out of place--we walked in and instantly felt like we were inside of a motel in the states, rather than a guest house in Southeast Asia. On the far wall was a small Alice-and-Wonderland-esque door, which we opened, only to see find that it was actually a window that looked out onto nothing. ["Probably a portal to an alternate universe."] There was a TV in the room--it had been at least a week since I'd seen a TV--and we turned it on out of curiosity. A Thai-dubbed version of "A Walk to Remember" was on.

We wandered out to explore. At this point, we appeared to be the only people there, and it had grown dark. Still, we heard some dancey music coming from nearby-ish. Past a thicket of trees, we could see the flickering of LEDs.

"No fucking way. Is there a bar out here? No one is here."

We followed the blinky lights and noise, which felt reminiscent of Burning Man, and discovered where the music was coming from: on one side of an empty, lonely road, flood lights lit up a huge inflatable Angry Birds bouncy slide, which a bunch of kids were climbing up and rolling down unsupervised. What sounded like Thai salsa music was blaring at them from speakers. 

We stood there for a long time, uncomprehending.

The blinky lights, on the other hand, were coming from a small bar about a hundred feet away. It was half-hidden by the trees, completely dark and silent, and looked closed except for the ropes of neon lights all around it. We walked inside, and after a moment or two a woman rolled up on a motorbike, sold us a couple beers, and led us to the back patio. A few seconds later, music came on--an alternation between Thai pop, and Justin Bieber covers.

Still giggling and delirious, we gave up on trying to make sense of anything. A small orange tomcat snuck up on us out of nowhere [I'd thought he was a huge rat at first] and stepped into my lap, meowing beseechingly at us every once in a while. He stayed there until we left, at which point I'd gotten rather attached.

To further exacerbate the feelings of "this place is fucking eerie/haunted/otherworldly", that night was a bit odd, as well:

  • We woke up in the room at the exact same moment, both completely alert and under the impression that it was morning. Alex glanced at the time and said it was 8:50 a.m. We started packing up, and then I opened the door--it was pitch black and deserted outside. We checked the time again, and it was about 2 a.m. Eventually we fell back asleep.
  • I realized during a dream that I was dreaming [having only had one lucid dream before]—but instead of being able to take control from there, the dream turned into a mind-fuck nightmare, hit me with a crazy intense body-high that lasted after I woke up, and left me in a weird in-between state where I was still stuck asleep but could see our room, hearing freaky dream-voices of people asking to be woken up. I still remember the whole thing as vividly as if it had actually happened, but won't bother going into further detail. Then I woke up, experienced sleep paralysis for the first time [which was fucking terrifying] and, after I could finally move, had a conversation with Alex—only to realize a few moments later that the conversation had only happened in my head, and that I'd dreamed/hallucinated it, as well. He woke up, and then we had the conversation—in reality—that we'd already had in my head a few moments prior [which I also told him]. In the last year I've been experiencing some rather fucked up and terrifying dream-related phenomena for the first time ever [successions of false awakenings, for instance], but this was new.

We stayed up for several more hours having decidedly morbid conversations about dreams and death and how much credence, as self-proclaimed skeptics, to give the metaphysical. And about Laos: how enclosing of a place it seemed to be. As the most-bombed country in history, it's still unsafe to go bushwhacking in remote parts of Laos due to unexploded bombs. Also, in addition to being an extremely poor country, it's illegal for Laotians to hook up with foreigners, and outside of Laos, kip [an unstable and inflationary currency] are completely worthless and can't be converted to foreign currencies. Many Laotians working full-time with families live on about $1-2 a day, and even college-degree-holding Laotians may make just over $100 in a month.

"So...it seems like, if you were born in Laos, you're pretty much here for the haul, whether you want to be or not. It'd be hard to save up enough money to leave, even if you get a degree, and not much chance of marrying a foreigner."

"You know...I've met a lot of Americans whose families were from everywhere else in Southeast Asia, but I haven't really come across nearly as many from Laos. Well, or Myanmar. I don't think it's as common."

"But the people we've met so far all seem so happy. Even if they're here by default rather than by choice. Minus the border officials, but border officials never seem happy."

"Maybe that's why. They don't have as many choices, so they figure out how to be happy with the choices they do have, and the decisions they make. We're lucky enough to have the paradox of choice, so no matter what we choose, it's hard not to wonder if we could've chosen something better."

The bus ride the next day was hilarious and a bit terrifying. We were crammed into little upper-bunk capsule-recliners without enough room to sit up or straighten our legs. There were cheap little helmet-strap seat belts to keep us in place...but they were broken. So, we had to hold onto anything we could find in order to avoid rolling or bouncing out of our bunk. For fourteen hours, the bus wound around mountainous roads that were curvy, steep, sometimes unpaved. At points, it looked as if we were going to drop straight off sheer cliffs. We kept our shoes in plastic bags and had to enter the bus barefoot. Every once in a while, we'd stop, and everyone would stumble blearily out of the bus and go pop a squat at the edge of some magnificent canyon. We alternately slept [I'm amazed we could sleep], continued to laugh deliriously, and watched movies like Mulholland Drive [after our weird night at the bus station, we were in that sort of mood].

The scenery was incredible. We passed small villages of stilted huts and busy people, many of whom waved and grinned as we passed by, wild and lushly overgrown mountains, huge green valleys--scenes that nothing we saw on the several buses we took in Thailand could hold a candle to that left us in disbelief ["Where the hell are we? Is this a real place?"]

We arrived at the bus stop around midnight. A solitary tuk-tuk driver was there, and took us and two other backpackers into Luang Prabang.

It was silent. For about an hour, the four of us wandered like lost children from guest house to guest house, waking up the proprietors only to be told there were no available rooms. We were exhausted, but couldn't stop grinning at how gorgeous the town was, even in the dead quiet dark. After checking at about thirty places, Alex and I settled for a room about twice what we were hoping to pay for, eager for a bed. The other two continued on, determined to find a cheaper place. 

I'm Completely Fucking Infatuated

If I ever find a place more beautiful than this one, I'm moving there, no question. I might move here, eventually, if it doesn't change for the worse.

Luang Prabang is beautiful and strange and enchanting. Being here in and of itself feels like falling in love. 

I'm at a loss. I haven't taken a single picture in town. We don't want to pull out the camera because we'd rather be fully present, immersed in this place, without the distraction of taking photos. Any pictures we took wouldn't do the place justice, anyhow.

And there's too much. We could take photos of everything. The whole town almost feels like an interactive museum or art piece [but also feels like much more of an "actual place" than, say, the more touristy parts of Bangkok and Chiang Mai, though Luang Prabang is also a heavily-traveled area]. I guess that makes sense--the entire town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

There are the Mekong and Khan rivers, the gorgeous Secret-Garden-meandering-alleyways, colonial French architecture, stilted huts, the jenky-as-shit bamboo footbridge across the Khan that looks from town to be so much further below and so much longer than it actually is [since it's so thin]. Not a single part of this town isn't enchanting--even the poorer areas, the residences, the back alleys. And, whereas many of the temples in Thailand almost looked fake and Las-Vegas-y, with tacky restored facades, souvenir booths, and signs, the ones here have stopped us in our tracks and compelled us to stare, or to walk in [or up hundreds of stairs] to get a better look at. They feel like real places--the impeccably-maintained ones give you a sense of having traveled back in time, and the ruins gave you a sense of their history. 

I'm at a loss to go into further detail, though my mind's been reeling with taking it all in. Crossing the footbridge last night, after several hours of aimless wandering, Alex put it well, "It kind of feels like we're in someone else's dream."

If I had more money, I'd buy plane tickets for everyone I love most to come here, right this second.

We woke up in the morning and, before we'd even left our guest house, had been asked by a couple girls from the Netherlands to go with them to Kuangsi Waterfall, which we'd never heard of. We agreed, grabbed breakfast on the way, and spent the next half hour gathering a group of eight people and haggling with songthaew drivers until one would settle for our price. On the way we passed incredible terraced rice fields and so on and so forth, which made most other "countrysides" I'd seen look, in hindsight, like barren wastelands.

Kuangsi was the only place in Laos we've bothered with picture-taking, so far. Once there, we passed a bear rescue center with several moon bears [which I'd never seen or heard of before--weirdest looking bears I've ever fucking seen], then jumped off trees and small waterfalls into into bright turquoise water that didn't look real. There were several tourists here, but of a different ilk--it was a lot of adults acting like kids, making friends with strangers despite language barriers [you don't need to speak the same language if you're just jumping off waterfalls together and laughing at one another's belly flops], excited to be there, and the site was clean despite the large number of visitors. After that, Alex and I climbed up to the top of the enormous falls further along--an uphill climb very few visitors seemed to want to bother doing.

When we got back, we only had to walk for a few minutes before a Laotian guy on a scooter asked us if we needed a room and told us he ran a guesthouse, handing us business cards/maps and asking us to follow him. I recognized the name of the place as one of the guest houses we'd tried during our late-at-night-asking-around, so we followed him, and he showed us to a really nice room at the cheapest rate we'd found in town so far. I kept waiting for a catch, but there didn't seem to be one, and we're still staying there.

I might as well stop here. It's really a place that defies description.

 

Notably, I haven't seen a single beggar here, nor anyone who appears poor, or otherwise destitute or unhealthy. It's almost suspicious. It looks so clean here [front-of-bar puke piles notwithstanding]. 

Not sure how long we'll be here...currently wishing we'd gotten longer visas [we've only got a month], but we're running out of money anyway.

Groundhog Day

Chiang Mai, Thailand

I'm nostalgic, sometimes to a fault. Every now and again I catch myself maneuvering through the slippery slope of attempting to document [and, thus, remember] fucking EVERYTHING.

This is unsustainable, distracting, and defeats the point of living--embracing and appreciating each moment partly for being ephemeral.

"This too shall pass." The incantation that can render a sad man happy, and a happy man sad.

So, these posts are going to have to be shorter for my own sake [and, I'm sure, for the sake of anyone reading them].

We're leaving soon. Chiang Mai is starting to feel like a very pleasant, easygoing Groundhog Day.

 The loft coffeehouse I've sat in learning how to read and speak Thai; a local barista's been helping me.

The loft coffeehouse I've sat in learning how to read and speak Thai; a local barista's been helping me.

The merchandise in the night marketsday markets, and stores seem to all come from the same two or three suppliers—I've seen the exact same clothes and artifacts at a hundred different booths each day, and while I'm not here to buy shit, the perpetual feeling of déjà vu creeps me out. The heady music played at the backpacker bars consists of the same few songs every single night. On cue, I'll hear "Summertime Sadness" followed by "Give Me Everything" followed by Katy fucking Perry. 

The people are mostly repeats, too. We keep running into other westerners at cafes or food carts; initially we'll be happy to share a table and conversation with someone who is also traveling and speaks our language. Inevitably, we'll realize [sometimes not until after we've exchanged information and committed to spending a day together] that we have nothing in common and find each other's worldviews completely alienating.

It's so easygoing that not becoming a bit listless requires an active effort. I feel like Alex and I are Baloo and Mowgli, lumbering around the jungle eating ants and fruits at our leisure. Consequently, I'm beginning to bore myself.

Where to next? Deciding between Chiang Rai and Nong Khai [leaning heavily towards the former].

Tourist Binge

We decided to spend twenty-four hours doing standard "touristy" things, which we'd been avoiding. In general, I think tours are a way to preclude living: to be a spectator rather than a participant, and to possibly learn about other things in a very packaged way while making sure you don't learn anything about yourself. Tours are a way to focus more on taking canned photos that say "look how much fun I'm having" than on actually having fun.

However...when else am I going to get to hug a tiger?

After reading about several unethical animal tourist attractions in Thailand where animals are abused or drugged into sedation, we were wary of Tiger Kingdom and initially set on avoiding it. However, after scrounging around a bit online for information, and talking to a few people who'd gone, we decided to give it a shot. At least as far as we could see, the tigers didn't show signs of being drugged and seemed pretty healthy, and seemed to have pretty trust-based bonds with their caretakers. Additionally, which tigers were open to be pet by tourists seemed to rotate around, so that individual tigers would get breaks and days off; they seemed better off than many zoo animals, at least. For whatever that's worth.

Well, no regrets, we did it. Still not sure how I feel about it.

As Alex put it, "Well...they're definitely being patronized, which is kind of embarrassing to look at, but they seem pretty content and healthy."

I mean, we're guilty of patronizing them, too, as the photos above indicate [with the tiger trainers instructing us on how to pose, "Do mustache tail!"]...granted, the tigers didn't seem to give much of a shit, except for one adult female who either wanted to play with, or eat, Alex.

It was awesome but we left with a bit of awkward ambivalence.

The Siam Insect Zoo, on the other hand, was far less ideologically complicated [and also cheaper]. 

Then we went on a tour of handicraft factories. This basically consisted of being picked up by a quirky guy who'd drive us somewhere, then hang out while we poked around and asked questions [and, of course, were coaxed into gift shops]. The factory workers would go about their business, seemingly indifferent to our presence.

The cost for a group is 300 baht. So, $10 for the two of us to have a private driver for the morning take us to eight factories and an awesome and decently-priced lunch spot.

First stop: paper umbrella factory. A couple guys near the entrance asked to paint waterproof designs on our t-shirts for 50 baht, so we let them. I got a butterfly doohickey that went with the shirt I was wearing, and Alex got a couple of elephants humping, as per the artist's suggestion.

The factory itself was really impressive--every little part of the umbrellas is completely cut using hand tools. Little knives and so on. Nothing is mechanized. The umbrellas ranged in size from a few inches to over six feet in diameter.

Next we visited a jewelry factory, which was far more intimidating--a huge building flanked by really uptight-looking and smartly-uniformed employees, following us watchfully. We weren't allowed to take photos, which is a shame, as the factory and showroom were pretty impressive.

Third was a lacquerware factory, with all sorts of charming wooden doodads, all intricately hand-painted.

Fourth was a silk factory, and possibly my favorite. The silkworms are raised until they form cocoons, which are then boiled and spun to extract the silk--it takes 50 cocoons to make one thread, and each cocoon yields about 500-800 meters of silk. They're then washed and tinted with natural dyes before they get strung up on the looms. One of the women there showed us how to spot real silk from imitation silk [which is all over the night markets].

Fifth, a jade factory. In the display cases along with the jade pieces were glasses of water, meant to help regulate humidity. There was an enormous pirate ship complete with jade chains that I wasn't allowed to take a photo of.

Next was a silver factory, where we were shown how to test for silver purity in objects...

...followed by a couple "factories" that were mostly just shops. The first of these was full of Kashmir goods, including a really impressive teak elephant--all one piece, with a hollowed out interior containing sixteen baby elephants that had been carved through small holes in the big elephant's body--and hand-stitched tapestries made of silk and cashmere. A smooth-talking Indian salesman handed me a carved wooden box and told me he'd give us 1000 baht if I could open it [since it was a puzzle with a secret lock, which he didn't tell us] and I figured it out in about ten seconds, which left him pretty embarrassed [but not enough to stop trying to sell us expensive scarves].

The final stop sold leather goods, though the "factory" itself seemed to only focus on stitching the already-processed leather into items. I would've liked to see them actually making leather, but we were burnt out by then anyhow.

So, our mission complete, we put the camera away and resumed being regular humans.

Re: The Anti-Monk

I have become somewhat obsessed. This guy is everywhere.

We've spotted him again several times, a couple of them right by our guest house, which is on a rather nondescript little soi and not much of a destination unless you're staying there.

We spotted him at one of the vendor booths run by a couple of little ladies selling typical tourist trinkets [noise-making wooden frogs, wristbands bearing such tasteful phrases as up butt no baby and i heart rape], counting out cash. I was somewhat inebriated and, excitedly ran across the street and tried to get a photo, but was so nervous and ambivalent the whole time ["Man, it is really creepy and maybe a bit dehumanizing for me to be doing this right now...mm, they're all blurry...oh-shit-I-think-he-saw-me..."] that I dilly-dallied and not only failed to take a decent photo before running away guiltily [the grainy, unfocused piece of shit below is the best one I got] but seeing him there under the light, which gave his face a rather eerie glow [he's got an eerily calm look about him, anyway--like a Guy Fawkes mask, sort of serene and smiling and sociopathic--which is largely why I wanted a photo of him] made him look like some sort of mobster-of-the-underworld, and I started making up all manner of possible scenarios about what he could be doing with the ladies at the booth. 

The next morning, I was glad no recognizable photos came out—both in respect for the guy's privacy [really was kind of a dick move on my part but, hey, I got excited...and was possibly quite a bit drunk] and because my memory will embellish the image and make it seem more dramatic and exciting over time, whereas a photo would keep my memory in check and prevent me from over-romanticizing.

Sometimes it's best to toss out the empiricism in the name of deluded aesthetics.
  
Also, I've realized that I probably don't want to solve the mystery. He's probably just a scammer/street performer in a robe...but not having this confirmed as a fact allows my imagination to get the better of me, which is much more fun. Sometimes knowledge isn't everything. 

Disillusionment

Before heading on this trip, we'd read several warnings [on sites like Wikitravel that are supposed to serve as guides] about Thai people--to look out for scams, or possible threats.

Since we've been here, the only unpleasantness we've seen is from other tourists [and holy shit can they be nasty, especially to the Thai natives...probably because they've read all the same Doomsday propaganda about how Thais are all trying to fuck them over].

The other day, we went out on a scooter to find that flower restaurant again. We wound up in a strange back alley by a corner store that was closing up, so I went in and asked the old couple in charge if they knew where the place was. They didn't speak English, but the tiny little Thai man gave a huge smile and gestured for us to follow him--then ran out, hopped on his scooter, and led us there. It was a good mile or so out of the way, too.

When we got there, it was closed, even though we'd shown up at their business hours. The man gestured for us to follow him again, and took us through a shortcut to get back on the road for the Old City, waving at us from his motorbike when he figured he'd taken us far enough and turning around to go home and we continued on, grinning.

"You know...even though the place was closed, I've got this sense of closure. I think it just made my day how nice that man was."

"...Meh, the place was a bit pricey, anyway. Almost three bucks a dish!"

"Man, we're spoiled."

As another example, the lady who runs our guest house. She works seven days a week managing three guesthouses and a restaurant, and renting out scooters. Her English is good and we've also heard her speak to guests in French and Mandarin. When our scooter got a flat the other day and stranded us outside of town [a misadventure I'll get to in a second], she told us not to worry about getting it fixed or paying for it even though it was technically our bad, she's not a stickler if we pay after check-out time, and she's changed our sheets even though we told her not to worry about it.

Every day, we see several douche bags—usually young and trendy Americans, Australians, or Europeans—come up with an absolutely disgusting level of entitlement.

"I'm sorry, all the rooms are full today except our luxury suite on the top floor--it's 700 baht. You can look around and come back if you can't find another room--I'll be here for a few more hours. If you need a place to stay just for the night, you can always find a cheaper place tomorrow, since it's getting late."

"...And I have to go up fucking stairs to waste my money? Uh, yeah, no thanks, you've wasted enough of my time." And off huffed yet another pretty and wealthy-looking brat with a backpack. Incidentally, 700 baht is still just over $20.

Sure, a lot of locals will quote you higher prices, but worst case scenario just means you get duped into paying more than you might've gotten away with had you known better; the only reason they succeed is because even the "rip-off" marked-up price sounds cheap to westerners. If you don't know better, you might wind up paying $7 for a cab ride that should've been $3, big fucking deal.

It's understandable, too--even if you're a poor American, if you're in their country to begin with, you're probably rich by Thai standards. Their minimum wage amounts to the equivalent of $10 total for a full workday. If we had aliens coming to our country who were comparatively as loaded, we'd be trying to snag their money, too.

And even when they're trying to "rip you off", it's sort of a game--they do it good-naturedly, not with any true ill will. Alex and I have gotten considerably better at haggling, which is kind of a sport. You smile, you shit-talk, you act shocked and affronted, but always while smiling. A woman will pretend to be angry, turn to Alex, and point at me, saying, "She want for one hundred baht! She make joke for me--beautiful, but no very smart." A man will plead desperately that our asking price is lower than what he himself paid for an item...but eventually he'll budge, because, after all, he was lying, and knew that we knew it.

Another reason I want to get out of Chiang Mai is because I'm starting to become unfairly cynical towards the other tourists here--at least the ones I perceive as belonging to the same category of tourist as the rich kids pouring into our guesthouse lobby each day.

So many people here seem to want an experience that is "authentic", but also easy. We've met people who will complain of all the tourists, or how the hill tribe treks aren't "authentic" and are "commercialized" and designed to get you to buy stuff [...no shit, you're paying money to go point and stare at a bunch of people in their "natural habitat" like they're zoo animals]...and will then complain, "Yeah, I went to Myanmar, but over there there's like, no Internet and it's hard to find ATMs. And no one there spoke English.

Dude, fuck you.

Last night, after hanging out for a while eating chicken hearts and livers with Nathan [whom we'd met earlier] and a couple who'd recognized Alex's shirt from Burning Man, Alex and I got legitimately drunk for our first time in Thailand, which served as a good release valve for me to let off some of my frustration. I went around, sneaking up to trashed Euro bros pissing on fences, spitting beer into their pee streams from the other side, yelling "Bpen ngai bang?" and running away as they squealed in surprise, and otherwise fucking with people and being a twerp, albeit a harmless one. I predict something similar happening tonight.

All in good fun?

One conversation we had left me feeling a lot better about everything. Over kao soi we overheard a white guy [who may have been a Kiwi, but we couldn't tell for sure] reading one of the menus in Thai, and struck up a conversation [since I'm at the point now where I can slooooowly read pretty much anything in Thai, as long as the font isn't too weird]. He was an odd character: he seemed like he would've been in place in Silicon Valley, a mildly outdoorsy nerdy engineer type, but had spent much of the last couple decades wandering into random small Thai towns and hitchhiking.

He was very friendly, but avoided talking about himself. When we asked him why he was here, whether he was working or living or traveling, he'd said, "Oh, you know, it's easy to live here," and changed the subject.

But he took an approach to Thailand more simple and organic than any other travelers we'd met. "I haven't been on one fucking trek, I haven't ridden an elephant. I just talk to people, eat, and wander around, see what there is to do. I trained in Thai massage for a while and practiced at a couple temples. It's just living--like living anywhere else. This isn't some 'other' place--some fake world, or theme park, as many like to treat it."

After a long chat by the cart, he introduced himself as Matt, got up and went along on his merry way, matter-of-factly. It felt a lot more genuine than some of the awkward partings we've had with others, sprinkled with, "Oh, I need your contact info," or "Yeah, I'd love to hang out again," that aren't so much sincere as they are ways to make the goodbyes a bit smoother. Having one great conversation with someone can, but certainly doesn't always, mean you'll have anything to talk about given a "next time". Figuring out how to tell the difference between what should be a one-time encounter and what could be a life-long friend is a bit of a challenge, but I've been getting better at it.

 Spirit House in Your House's lobby

Spirit House in Your House's lobby

One of my favorite experiences so far has actually been of a completely failed plan to visit the quarry, a sort of obscure local secret-ish, supposedly a great spot for cliff jumping and swimming.

We rented a scooter, got about twenty minutes or so out of town, and got a flat. The next several hours consisted of us pushing the thing along the side of the highway, looking for gas stations, filling up with air, and driving another 3 k or so until the tire flattened out again, then continuing to push it.

 An ex-pat on a bike came by and helpfully went off to investigate where the nearest gas stations were [and check to see if any of the repair shops were closed--they all were], and we found a few cool knickknacks lying in the sidewalk, and had our antics laughed at good-naturedly by passing locals crammed in the back of pick-up trucks.

Eventually, we managed to spot, and hail, a songtaew that could take us back into town--though, knowing we were desperate, she wouldn't budge from 200 baht. We really had no leverage, though, so we shrugged and laughed this off.

It's the conversations and revelations we had, and the dumb shit we laughed about, during those few hours that I think I've gotten the most out of.

...Uh, so much for shorter blog posts.

Manwood Dorking [sign spotted in Chiang Mai]

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Our departure from Bangkok couldn't have been better-timed. Upon returning to Terrance's on Sunday evening [after getting some phenomenal som tam, or green papaya salad] he informed us that the protest leader had just been shot dead.

We spent that night on a sleeper bus along with Jones and April, during which we all attempted to study the Thai alphabet using children's books with minimal success, and all woke up about an hour before our 7:20 a.m. arrival because they'd cranked the air conditioning down to nothing-degrees. When we arrived, we shared a songtaew [that is, a pick-up truck with two benches and a roof in the back serving as a taxi] with some Canadians to get to the Old City [since we'd failed to watch what the locals had done in order to leave the station, which probably would've revealed a cheaper way of getting into town].

Closing thoughts on Bangkok: New York City is an obese, narcoleptic geriatric in comparison [whereas Bangkok is some scruffy-but-vaguely-glamorous young thing you might run into on some altered night in a dive bar outside your normal neck of the woods, charismatic but possibly a bit misleading, maybe subtly hopped up on some varietal of white powder, beckoning you congenially to follow him down to his subtropolis].

Summarily, Bangkok lived up to its stereotypes. For locals and tourists alike, it seemed like the two main things to do during the day were eat and shop [but it was easy to see why]. At night, the eating and shopping continues behind the nocturnal backdrop of colorful bars, strobes and lasers, lanky hookers, cheap massage parlors [which, by the way, do offer--and sometimes insist upon--the delivery of happy endings] and the penetrating thrum of nnts-nnts-nnts.

I loved it, but it was making me feel sluggish and stupid all the time, like my brain was tapped out on the constant stimulation. Everything was so new, even the daily walks to the BTS--past little boys dangling fishing poles over a city bridge overhung with barbaric trees that remind us we'd be in a jungle if not for urbanization, past lightning-fast fry cooks chugging down a bottle of Chang in between serving ten people a minute, past a horde of ladyboys foraging through a two-mile succession of clothing vendors--felt dense and fast and bright. Of course, it was partly culture shock--those sights have now become mundanities--but Bangkok still gets some credit for being altogether more alive than the cities I've been used to. 

Chiang Mai, on the other hand, makes me feel almost too relaxed and on top of things. For better or for worse, it's almost too easy: our private room is $7 total per night; if we want to get out of town, we can rent a fast scooter right downstairs for $6; within twenty feet of the guest house are a million food carts at all hours of the day, each cheaper and better than the last; every conceivable brand of nightlife is reachable within a three-minute walk; and, with the moat around the Old City, it's virtually impossible to get lost.

On the one hand, the place has sucked us into wanting to just kick back and live here for a while [which seems to happen to a lot of people here]; on the other, it feels too comfortable and I feel like I'm cheating, like I need to pursue a more rugged destination. Despite the complete dissimilarity between here and anywhere I've thought of as "home", being here makes me feel like a homebody.

Tucked in among Thai culture and hundreds of majestic wats [Alex: "It's almost disappointing just how many temples there are. They're gorgeous, but they're just fucking everywhere; after a day you're desensitized and basically see them as road blocks."] is a sort of Hippie Disneyland Village of Hostels, which I suppose can be seen as bad or good--as a cultural parasite or a natural progression of the city's adaptation to global tourism. At any rate, Chiang Mai is a gallery for every stereotype of expat and tourist: granola festie-kid types, Golden Anniversary re-honeymooners, douchebaggy European spring breakers, and so on. Homemade flyers in all the restaurants of a guy who'll give you dreadlocks, or a woman who does Tarot readings. Ex-pat cafes serving ayurvedic teas with coconut milk and stevia. And so on.

Quick answers to my previous two questions:

Mosquito-wise, it seems the locals mainly rely on diet [lemongrass and garlic, particularly]. Sometimes people even bring a bit of lemongrass around with them, in their pocket or some such. Other than that, mosquito coils and fans. Not much else. [Still went ahead and got a bottle of citronella spray, since I've been shoving garlic into my face and am not sure it's actually working.]

Temple-wise, it's kind of a no-brainer now that I know. Thai people [and people who can pass for Thai] get in free, and don't really go to the big swanky temples to worship [they've got their own temples for that--the same way Catholics don't necessarily go hang out in Notre Dame every Sunday]. Well, hurp dap.

Fun fact: We've been enjoying Thailand's longest cold season in ten years [they usually last a couple weeks; this one's lasted for months]. The other morning the cold was "record-breaking", at a frigid 15° C [that's about 60° F]. To me, this seems like great weather, but there have already been at least sixty-three Thai deaths related to the cold, and when we've gone out at times when there's been a mid-80-ish going, several people are walking around in sweaters, winter jackets, and long underwear.

...Yeah, so. We've yet to find out what they consider "hot" to be.

Bua Tong Waterfall

Easily one of the coolest places I've ever been. I've never been much for a good "view" or for "scenery"--I like to interact with things. I like mountains I can climb up or ski down or camp underneath, and lakes I can swim in. If all I want to do is look at a place, I can pick up a postcard.

This waterfall? There's a wonky set of steps alongside of it that'll take you to the bottom where, thanks to calcium carbonate deposits on the face, you can walk back up it on the face, like a steep bulbous staircase. It's also known as the "sticky waterfall". There's not a whole lot I can say that pictures won't say better.

Starting from the bottom, working up: 

Getting to it involved renting scooters and driving more than an hour into the countryside past rice paddies, clusters of banana trees, and temples. We stopped on the way for some fermented pork rice and deep-fried sweet potatoes--and a local vendor let me sample some crickets, which were actually quite good.

On the way back, we drove past the site of an accident--all that was left was a smashed scooter and puddle of blood--which had us feeling a bit apprehensive about navigating the rush hour traffic. Consequently, we lost Jones and April on their scooter, and we'd been following them to get home since they had the directions. Our phone was dead, and our map was in English, which wasn't helpful.

After the initial frustration of being lost, I was overtaken in a new sense of freedom. So far, it's almost felt like this trip has been too easy--exhausting, perhaps, but posing no true challenges.

Granted, I'm not saying this was really a challenge, either--we were basically already in town and found our way back after about five minutes of gesturing on a map to some Thais in a shop--but it gave me a chance to reflect on what's always appealed to me about traveling in the States. The sense of uncertainty and risk. For some reason, I've been a lot more wary here, always thinking of tomorrow [in terms of money, what we'll do, visa logistics, possible issues...] and while I haven't been overanxious, the whole point of my travels in the states has been to free myself of any place and time other than the here and now, and traveling abroad shouldn't be fundamentally different.

The Anti-Monk

That first night, while navigating through the bazaar stalls, I almost ran headlong into a monk [fortunately, I didn't--monks aren't supposed to touch women; if they do, they have to go through arduous cleansing rituals], who gestured for me to move aside, then approached Alex and put a string of beads around his neck. He started rubbing Alex's chest and whispering things that we couldn't understand, and made Alex kiss the necklace. Then he asked Alex for 100 baht and, when Alex shook his head, chuckling, took the necklace back and walked away.

"I...don't think that guy was a real monk. That, or he's a rebellious one. A lot of the monks get offended if you even try to give them money--why would one be going around asking for it?"

"I bet it was a test--maybe he was whispering something like, 'I'm going to try to take the necklace off of you. If you don't let me do it, you'll win Enlightenment.'"

Since that night, we've run into him at least once per night, always only going after young white men [he's tried to get Alex again at least two or three times and walks off with a bitter smile and what sound like Thai pejoratives each time we start laughing].

I might be developing a bit of an obsession with him. We'll see him in two different spots in one night, miles apart. The other night, he was sitting on a bench outside of our guesthouse. I would've struck up a conversation with him but he seems to speak no English [and my Thai isn't good enough to transcend basic niceties]. He'severywhere we are.

So.

One: Who the hell is this guy? Is he a real monk?

Nocturnal Everything

I think this place has the right idea. Chiang Mai isn't exactly metropolitan, and yet it comes alive at night. There are a million food carts, most of the restaurants in town stay open until at least midnight [as do many other shops, including bookstores and cafes], huge marketplaces and night-only shopping centers, random shows [many of them free], and an absurd row of backpacker bars that felt like Bourbon Street at Mardi Gras when we went on a Monday night.

On our first night, we headed out to the night bazaar with Jones [April had passed out], all hankering for a beer. Dirtbags that we are, we opted to go buy beer at the corner store and then bring it into a food court with our dinner [right next to some Khmer dancers--easily the most benign form of dance I've ever seen, like stylized somnambulism...except for the crazy-triple-jointed-backward-flexed fingers, which is the one interesting thing about the dance style, and which hurt my joints to look at].

Along with the standard Chang [which I've actually gotten pretty fond of...I've heard it referred to as "Asian PBR" or similar, but I think it's actually a fuckload better than your standard cheap beer] we grabbed a bottle of some mystery booze because it was 30 baht for a large.

Mistake. It tasted like fish oil with grape juice. We all decided we had to choke it down to get our money's worth, and after a couple attempts each deserted the thing, still more than half-full.

We found April drinking by a closed leather workshop with two friendly and inebriated Thai men with a guitar, both of whom were named Egg [though one of them also answered to "Johnny Depp"] and a rad Australian girl named Ella, who introduced herself to us in a weird Asian-y-Pidgin-esque pseudo-accent before adjusting: "Oh, sorry--I've been hanging out with Thais so much it's got me speaking in broken English to compensate."

After some general merrymaking all of us left Egg and Egg to go check out the backpacker bars, a condensed block about a hundred feet long, to meet up with Ning. I can best describe it as a really compressed Bourbon Street with a dash of Burning Man. A Thai band was covering Pantera in one bar that was next door to a reggae bar that was next door to some place playing hard rock; in the middle of the row were two nightclubs complete with lasers and fog machines blaring dubstep at one another as if in a face-off; the places were so bloated with shitfaced Commonwealthers that they spilled out into the street, which served as an extension of the conjoined dance party. 

"Isn't it a Monday night?"

We all decided to make the most of our situation by mini flash-mobbing unsuspecting clubbers on the dance floor, and took turns selecting victims. One by one, we'd squeeze our way through the mash of people and circle around our victim--and then spontaneously start jumping/dancing/fist-pumping insanely when we had him completely surrounded.

First guy, who was clearly blacked out, was stoked, and started whooping at us in what sounded like gibberish and laughing. Second guy freaked the fuck out and had bolted straight out of the club within three seconds.

And so on.

We saw the maybe-monk there, too, provocatively rubbing the nipples of some bro in another loud nightclub, while a six-year old Thai boy leaned stood and watched while leaning against the bar. Not something you see every day. Jones decided he had to go "get a blessing" for himself, and came back reporting that it was an unprecedentedly erotic experience, what with all the nipple-rubbing and mumbling.

And so on.

April and Jones headed out a day or so later, which reminded me of one of my favorite aspects of traveling--sort of sloughing together a temporary "crew" of people you've just met, hanging out more-or-less as you would with your close friends from back home, for a couple days or a couple weeks, and then parting ways just as simply. About five minutes after we said goodbye to the two of them, we met up with Alberto, a guy we'd spent a single night talking to back at the hostel in Reno. A couple days later, we met a guy named Nathan for the first time after a mutual friend insisted upon it via Facebook; we wound up talking ceaselessly for several hours [one thing that stood out to me was our mutual observations of the incompatibilities between Buddhism and Buddhist culture--similar to Christianity and Christian culture--and grappling with consequent disillusionment].

There's something elegant and genuine about it, as opposed to socializing back home--when you're a fixture somewhere, it gets easy to fall into a rut of hanging out with the same people all the time, regardless of whether you actually want to [and, in the cases of shared mutual friends, regardless of whether you even like everyone you're hanging out with], because they're available.

And so on

It's been pretty mellow. We've spent a lot of time teaching ourselves to read and write in Thai in a decidedly New Agey tea house in an upstairs loft overlooking the bustling-but-cozy soi we've affectionately come to think of as our "neighborhood", drinking fancy Ayurvedic teas and lemongrass kombucha while flopped over Thai massage mats and pillows. In one corner are hula hoops and guitars to tinker on, in another are random goods for sale [diva cups, natural face creams, flower of life stickers]. The place is run by an Austrian ex-pat hippie girl and hosts yoga classes, movie nights, open mic nights. While I initially came here with what I now think was a bit of a naive purist attitude of what is/isn't "real" Thai culture...I've begun to realize that all of this stuff is a part of contemporary Chiang Mai culture--it's a melting pot, and the natives seem to have embraced this.

Lots of wandering around, sitting in parks, trying new food. Eating has been our primary pastime, I'd say. Figuring out our favorites--like Thai iced tea served in a giant plastic bag stabbed with a straw [the packaging here is pretty insane--you have to be pretty assertive if you don't want every small purchase you make to get stuck into five different plastic bags].

Speaking of eating, I forced myself to try durian no fewer than three times, and hereby declare that it resembles soggy garbage in both taste and texture.

The Ladyboy Cabaret, a free nightly show we came across unintentionally while hanging out with Alberto. We sat down in front of two unfinished Heinekens, which we helped ourselves to [Alberto: "Is it really beer, or is it piss?" Us: "It's piss."] I quite enjoyed the guys' noticeable ambivalence as we watched what appeared to be several scantily-clad and legitimately gorgeous women waggling flamboyantly on stage. A couple acts involved a hot "woman" transforming [via costume changes and make-up remover and wigs] into a handsome dude. Pretty killer, especially for the price tag.

As I suspected, massage up north is far superior to everything I found in Bangkok. In particular, I really wanted to go get a Nerve Touch massage, a specialized style of Thai massage that I've trained in. Easily one of the most effective massages I've ever gotten. It's been days since then, and we both feel fucking phenomenal. Without realizing it, Alex had gotten a massage from the current Nerve Touch instructor [the one before her was the founder of the style, who taught my own instructor in Nevada City]...and when we got to the register they informed us that the price for his massage was 950 baht. Luckily for us, they were really gracious when they saw how shocked we were and honored the normal price, realizing that we hadn't known. [Though, to put it in perspective, that'd still be a fucking steal by American standards, especially for how good of a massage it was: less than $30 for an hour and a half].

We also spent a day at Huay Tung Tao, a lake about twenty minutes outside of town, eating lunch [and subsequently falling asleep] atop a bamboo hut over the water. It wound up being pricier than we'd expected after the scooter rental, entrance fees, and pricey food, but was worth it. That being said, there's so much amazing free stuff to do in the area that I don't see myself going back.

We've spent two days looking for Saimok Kap Dokmai, an edible flower restaurant that's supposedly ten minutes out of town, but fucking impossible to find. The other night we gave up after almost three hours of circling around on a scooter, backtracking and asking for directions a million times. At one point we'd turned down a deserted road and saw a bunch of people walking towards something...so we followed, thinking it might take us to a night market or some other event where we could re-orient ourselves.

We were at a temple. There were eerie lights [candles, glowsticks, and lasers] and some intensely somber chanting. People were sitting in silence, and we couldn't see what they were all staring at. Blood sugar critically low, it took us a second of whispering to each other in the back to realize we weren't at a market or other public event.

"Whoa, is this some sort of occult ritual?"

"Uh. Anna. I don't think we should be here..."

It was then that we saw what appeared to be a casket, or at least a shrine decked out with some guy's picture. Whoops.

Two: Find this damn flower restaurant. It looks fucking awesome [flower salads, flower drinks, fried flowers...]. Even if it means renting a tuk-tuk. Or a guide. I'm too proud to let it go after we've invested so much time into it. 8P

Three: Most of the beggars we've seen have been amputees. I want to know why that is. My imagination's gone nuts. Are they being exploited by a con artist who's cutting off their tongues and limbs? Are they all victims of workplace injuries [wouldn't be too surprising--we've had to tiptoe around people welding in the sidewalk without so much as a pair of safety goggles or long pants]? Is there some leprosy-esque outbreak affecting the local poor?

And so on.


Calibrating to the City of Angels

Bangkok, Thailand

After checking out of CitiChic, we headed to our host's condo, which had us hunting through a long meandering soi and crossing a bridge. The change in scenery gave us perspective on where we'd just come from. Our hotel had been in the middle of a clump of fancy resorts, profoundly congested with thousands of tourists of the grumpy-wealthy-sedentary-American ilk, and particular locals who hung out there putting on acts expressly in hope of ripping off ignorant honeymooners. [It was later mentioned to us that Nana is one of the most debaucherous/loud/tourist-heavy/hooker-heavy areas in Bangkok.]

This new neighborhood, while far from remote, felt more like real life: less flashy, less fantasy-oriented. People went about their own business, indifferent to us for the most part.

Apparently we've been adjusting, too, without consciously trying to do so. Each time we walked down the same route from our hotel to the Nana BTS station, fewer scammers and drivers took notice of us, and the ones that did seemed less convicted and persistent. By the time we headed out for good yesterday morning, maybe one person half-heartedly tried to beckon us for a ride. We took this as a sign that we're looking less overwhelmed and disoriented by the outside observer. [Also, we've gotten far better at crossing the busier streets that look like drunken-NASCAR-rush-hour all the time, which have no traffic lights or stop signs to quell the congested flow of insane drivers.]

Siam Protests

We arrived at Terrance's place, a sixth-floor condo in a nice complex with two large swimming pools. He wasn't at home, but his roommate Jones was--a dude from San Francisco staying in Bangkok for a month during a year-long traveling stint.

Arbitrarily, Alex and I decided to head to the water taxi and see where it took us. We had to transfer at the Siam station, and had heard there were a couple large malls at which we could buy a few things we [a prepaid SIM card, a map, a money belt, a pair of long pants so Alex could visit the temples without causing offense...].

After wandering disoriented around the malls [just when we thought we'd adjusted to the chaos of Bangkok, here we were completely unable to figure out what direction we'd just come from again], we decided to head down to the street, where a huge marketplace was set up that seemed to stretch on for miles--looking down from an overpass, we couldn't see either end of the it.

Walking around in it, buying more strange and amazing street food [my favorite was a dessert thing that looked like a blob of green jello stuck to a pancake, but was probably made of mung bean], and started noticing a lot of the protest activity ramping up. Hundreds of stalls were selling cheap accessories like whistles and headbands garnished with red, white, and blue [colors of the Thai flag], as well as T-shirts all emblazoned with some variation of, "Shutdown Bangkok, Restart Thailand." Uniformed officials directed people through gateways set up throughout the marketplace, and as we sat down to eat a thing of rice-and-so-on, a parade began to stomp through the street. The apocalyptic drums were soon drowned out by whistling--it seemed everyone there had bought cheap whistles and were huffing into them gleefully.

Having read about it in the news, we'd asked Andrew about it over breakfast the other day.

"Oh, they're protesting against having elected officials running Thailand."

"...What? Are you sure that's what they're protesting? Or that's the whole story? That seems pretty counterintuitive."

"As far as I know, yeah."

"Has there been any violence?"

"Only from the terrorists," his son chipped in.

"Who?"

"I don't know, but apparently there's terrorist involvement of some kind."

This didn't satisfy me.

Question one: Figure out what the protests are actually about.

Later, as Alex and I sat watching the parade in Siam, one thing struck us. "Things seem so much more civil. If this happened in the States there'd already be cops and teargas; protestors over there aren't even allowed to use mics to amplify their voices."

"I have a hard time believing these are crazy radicals protesting for an oligarchy. They just seem like college kids and middle-class whoevers."

Kind of put things our own country in perspective.

Water Taxi and Wat Arun

We took a water taxi down the river. Essentially like a subway, but on a very fast boat in the water, with open sides that let in the view and the breeze. At each stop, the boat would slam violently into the dock, which was cushioned by the impact by a row of old tires. On the way we passed dilapidated neighborhoods with trees growing through the buildings, being taken back by nature; extremely swanky resorts on the waterfront; and several magnificent temples.

We got out at the Wat Arun stop, which we'd been told that morning was worth a visit, and took another small boat to get to the other side of the river.

Architecturally, it was stunning--and much larger than I expected it to be. However, I was disappointed in a sense. Upon entering, we walked past several cutouts for tourists to take photos behind and stalls selling kitschy Buddhist trinkets. A few extremely loud European bros skipped gaily by.

"This...is so touristy."

"Well, of course it is. We're tourists, too."

"I know that, but...I don't know. What about the actual Thais who regard their temples as sacred spaces rather than spectacles for the amusement of foreigners? Do they even bother going to these temples--they charge admission at the door. That can't apply to actual Thais...?"

Here we were, having read up on all the proper temple etiquette in advance, all our limbs covered, really concerned about being respectful visitors...in the company of loud whooping-dancing-yelling Eurobros, and girls in tiny tank tops and short shorts. Maybe it was an off-day, but we saw virtually no Thais other than the monks.

Question two: How relevant are the temples to modern life in Bangkok? How do the Thais here feel about their temples [indifferent, proud, annoyed]?

"Well, I guess we didn't have to worry so much about buying you those pants..." Which was good, because amidst a sea of thousands of clothes vendors, we hadn't found any that were suitable.

We decided to wander off into the side streets, and wound up in a quieter part of the city.

There were ten squillion cats in the place. I hadn't noticed cats before, and wondered if it was a temple thing [later realizing that, no, there are just thirty trillion stray cats on every block of the city—stray cats wandering into shops and sitting on tables while people are eating, indifferent to them].

I took some photos on the way. A few little girls were dancing to some poppy music. They started giggling and waving at me so I took a picture. A grown man noticed this, and asked me if I wanted to pose for a picture with them and I declined, a bit weirded out [especially since I had no idea what relation, if any, this man had to the little girls]. A few minutes later I passed by them again--the girls had relocated to a more visible area, and there was a hat in front of them that the man had placed there--probably an opportunistic move inspired by my own picture-taking a few moments ago. The girls were about five or six, and a couple of them seemed really enthusiastic about dancing for a crowd, but one stood in the middle a bit awkwardly, clearly dancing because she'd been told to.

Not quite sure how to feel about that.

Also. I've been getting eaten alive.

Before heading out on my trip, I was bombarded with advice on how to prevent mosquitoes, and people kept stressing the importance of doing so. Wear Deet, sleep in a net, wear a net, wear long sleeves, don't go out after dark, burn mosquito coils, etc. Blah, blah, blah.

Truth be told, I'm not paranoid about such things back in the states, and I didn't come here in order to become paranoid.

Anyway, no one here seems to be getting bitten, and bug spray doesn't seem to be widely sold at the corner marts and so on; I haven't met anyone who bothered with it, nor with a lot of the other bits of advice [like wearing long sleeves and pants]. Granted, in Bangkok, malaria's not really an issue--but in more remote areas I might start to get a little more worried if I'm still getting bitten as often as I am now [oddly, Alex has been bite-free...and usually mosquitoes never bother me]. And there's Dengue everywhere, Bangkok and otherwise.

Question three: What do people here [or in rural areas, more so] actually do about mosquitoes?

Afterwards, we ran into Jones on our way home, and as we all stood dazedly watching a street vendor make us these strange omelette-crepe-doughy-somethings with condensed milk, he told us about an awesome cheap massage place he'd discovered, and mentioned he'd grabbed a couple business cards, so Alex and I decided to go get worked on. The massage was far better than the one we'd gotten the previous day [and about the same price], but the experience was strange, for several reasons I won't go into...though I found it pretty hilarious when the woman working on me decided to take a phone call during our session, and sat there on the phone for five minutes with her hand on my knee.

This involved walking through more protests--a big camp-out in the street, where people were blowing excitedly into whistles as they listened to speeches made by a man on a huge screen. The whole thing seemed really organized, even mellow, and people seemed to be enjoying themselves. At least the right to peaceful assembly's alive and well somewhere.

Conversation with Terrance

In the evening we met our host, Terrance, and had a brief conversation. He was a tough character to read, but clearly intelligent and inquisitive. Originally from Florida, he's been living here for about a year and a half, teaching music and other things to kids in the area and working as a route-setter at the nearby climbing gym.

I asked him about the protests and he gave me a full spiel on all he'd found out by talking to the local Thais. It was actually really fascinating [and also convinced Alex and I that we might want to get the hell out of Bangkok soon, as cool as it is].

Here's a condensed summary, because I found it extremely interesting:

Basically, there's this guy, Taksin, who used to be the Prime Minister. He was pretty popular for a while, but is currently in exile on charges of corruption and so on. So his sister was elected in his place [Thailand's first female PM], but everyone knows she's basically a puppet that he's acting through from afar--almost a "remote dictator".

Taksin's also been losing more and more favor [since some more rural/conservative people in the North still like him] for other reasons: none of Thailand's rice farmers have been paid in over a year, since he had this idea of hoarding all the country's rice in order to create a global scarcity, and then bring rice back in five years and charge a lot more for it [thinking, mistakenly, that Thailand had a monopoly on the world's rice supply], and now the government is bankrupt and there's just a ton of rice in silos, and a lot of rice farmers who once supported him are on their way to Bangkok to join in the protests.

He also created an incentive program where anyone who purchased a car would be given a 100,000 baht rebate [which also expedited the government's bankruptcy]--as if Bangkok didn't have enough cars already--and this has increased pollution in the city. Even the people who went and bought cars feel that the government really should've been focusing on public transportation--the current BTS is so expensive that only rich people, expats, and tourists use it ["Yeah, just so you guys know--if there's two of you, it's pretty much always a lot cheaper to take a cab, unless you get a day pass and are using the train six or more times that day"].

The protesters, mainly educated middle-class liberals, are against an upcoming election because they know the election's going to be rigged, and won't really be a democratic process. The election's coming up in February, and people are trying to push it back and stop it from happening.

The protests themselves are really peaceful [there are even events coordinators and companies that have been hired out to provide TV screens and sound systems--it's almost like a festival], but recently there've been some third-party terrorist attacks on the protests, the most recent of which killed a street vendor who was just an innocent bystander. The interesting thing is that no one knows who's staging these attacks. Some believe it's the government; some believe it's coming from the protesters themselves in an attempt to garner more public sympathy, and there are other theories as well. In any case, these attacks are suspected to increase as the election approaches.

In addition, Taksin has been trying to convince some of his supporters that the king, genuinely liked by people in general, is a bad guy. Taksin supporters have been wearing red ["Because they don't like the king--except 'everyone likes the king', because that's the law..."], whereas supporters of the king have been wearing yellow [the color of the monarchy].

"Wait, but I thought it was illegal to say anything against the king." Even stepping on or damaging Thai currency [all of which bears a portrait of the king] is considered extremely offensive and can result in jail time.

"It is, but Taksin's rich and powerful enough to get away with it. The crappy thing is that in general the protesters are good people, but their leader is awful. He's just as corrupt; he's buying votes too. A lot of the protesters know this, but they're still for the greater cause and are just glad that there is a leader."

"How do I find out more about this? Can I read about it?"

"Well...the American media is all pro-Taksin, so they paint a one-sided picture; anything you've seen on CNN is pretty biased. On the other hand, the media in Bangkok, both Thai and English, is all written by the protesters, the educated and wealthier urban Thais, so it's also biased. The people here who are against the protests have a good case as well, but they generally aren't communicating through writing--they'll do heated radio broadcasts, in Thai of course."

Our conversation went on to a discussion of tourism in Thailand, and what Alex and I were hoping to do next.

"A lot of people think tourism's been destroying Thailand, and that it won't be a viable tourist destination for much longer. We're falling really far behind in terms of public transit--Vietnam's ahead of us, and Malaysia's way ahead. Our transit really just takes tourists in mind, rather than locals. Burma's behind--but the US is investing a ton of money in Burma."

"Why?"

Alex chipped in merrily, "More poor people to exploit."

Terrance added, "Well, think about it. The US put a bunch of factories in China. China's been growing in power, and so they've been moving the factories to Vietnam. Now Vietnam's coming up, and so they're going to stick the factories in Burma."

"Ew. But that makes sense."

"Well, a lot of things make sense monetarily, at least."

"It seems like a lot of the islands are being overtaken as well. People have been recommending islands for us to go visit, and they'll say things like, 'This island is like what Ko Samui used to be before it got overrun by tourist resorts and got all crowded and polluted--go visit it now, while it's still pristine, because it won't last.' There's this transference of the 'remote island experience' as each one gets over-developed in turn, like they're all catching some contagious disease."

Alex said, "I really want to head down south and see some of the islands, though I guess they're pretty touristy."

"Alex. We're tourists, too. Even if we try and pretend we're not--you've said that yourself."

"I know, but there are different kinds of tourists."

Terrance said, "Well, think of it this way. You can go down south to look at all the tourists, like going to the zoo; or you can go north and be a tourist. The sort of tourists you'll meet up north are probably all going to be backpackers."

Alex laughed, "Like the zoo...sort of 'meta-tourism'."

I asked him about the Full Moon Parties on Ko Pha Ngan, which we'd been hearing a lot of mention of. "They sound like beach raves. And they happen every month?"

"Yeah, pretty much. DJs and drugs. And they happen virtually every night, now--there are Half Moon Parties, Quarter Moon Parties, Three Quarter Moon Parties..."

"So what were they, originally?" I'd assumed there was some rich cultural background behind them, and that their current incarnation was just the result of them being modernized.

"Uh, no...they're basically just big parties where tourists can go do drugs without worrying as much about getting in trouble as they would elsewhere in the country." In Thailand, drug punishments are severe--in general, for many Southeast Asian countries the penalty for possession of certain quantities is mandatory execution, and even being found with drugs in your system [even if you can prove you consumed the drugs outside the country's borders] can land you in jail for a long, long time.

He added, "It's not really my thing. And it's not so much the party atmosphere that alienates me--it's that everyone there seems completely disinterested in the place they're in. There are parts of Bangkok where a lot of the people are just there to get wasted, but it has nothing to do with being in Thailand. They're doing the same stuff they'd be doing in Vegas. There's just a disconnect."

"I hear you. All that being said...we're probably going to go check it out."

"Well, of course. If only to say you did it. It's just one of those things."

The Tourist Drag 

Alex and I have been having a lot of conversations we weren't expecting to have--about what it means to be a tourist, and whether we can really differentiate ourselves from the caricatures of "dumb, entitled, fat Western invaders," or not. Perhaps we couldn't, despite efforts to be conscientious, to support small businesses, to respect cultural norms, to learn the language.

On New Years Eve in a Capitola beach house, our friend Hana had told us [and I'm paraphrasing pretty hard because I was extremely intoxicated at the time], "When I went to Southeast Asia the hardest thing to come to terms with was that I was really just another one of the millions of white backpackers--and there was no way to really separate from them. A lot of them were all trying to separate and count themselves as different, but we were all there as visitors, we weren't really ever going to assimilate to the culture, we were there on different pretenses to begin with--because we're privileged first-worlders who can afford to go travel for fun with our nice backpacks that the locals could never afford."

Those words have been on my mind quite a bit, and I keep going back and forth with what's possible, what we should and shouldn't care about. Is it just delusional to think we need to differentiate ourselves from the other tourists who are propagating cultural degeneration? Is it inevitable that we're contributing to it, too? Or do we have a responsibility, as tourists, to be conscientious of things other tourists ignore? Is there any way to tap in and really be participants, rather than spectators? Or is it self-righteous and ignorant to even try?

In any case, for the next two days we decided to bite the bullet and embrace our tourist-ness.

We went with Jones to Ko San Road [which we'd originally been keen to avoid because we figured it'd be "full of tourists"], to meet up with some of his native Thai friends. It was a lot of fun--it actually reminded me a lot of the French Quarter in New Orleans [particularly Bourbon Street].

We started off with a bucket of rum and coke that had three straws in it so we could suck it down family-style [though I was pretty sure there was not really any rum in it]. A guy was playing the guitar and singing covers [Jack Johnson, the Eagles, standard American fare] who was fantastic; at first we thought he was lip-syncing until we were able to pick out his accent. Vendors came by our table, pointing lasers at us, playing wooden frogs, trying silently to entice us into buying trinkets. Eventually we caved when a lady bearing scorpions came by. None of us were genuinely interested in scorpions ourselves so much as we were trying to convince each other to eat them. Of course, being a bit tipsy already, this led to us each buying one. Pretty sure that's how it always happens.

They weren't as gross as I thought they'd be. Kind of like crunchy dirt. Later when we met up with Ning and Toffee, both of whom grew up in Thailand, they informed me that the silkworms were better [I tried some, and they were--sort of like french fries].

We all got a tower of Chang beer--holy shit those things are huge, and so cheap--the girls laughed at how surprised I was; I suppose that's a standard newcomer reaction. Nearby, a troupe of seven-year old boys were breakdancing before an enthusiastic cell-phone-camera-equipped crowd ["I can't even tell if those kids are good or not, but they sure have enthusiasm"].

Ning mentioned she'd be heading to Chiang Mai on Sunday--Alex and I had been trying to work out the logistics of how best to get there--and offered to pick up tickets for us so we could all go. Perfect.

Afterwards we headed to a wine bar in Nana [the area Alex and I had spent our first couple nights in--decidedly way more obnoxious than Ko San], and I bought an elderflower cocktail that cost more than I'd spent on food in the last two days. We wandered around the ritzy street, past several bar vans, and witnessed two six-year-old girls running by and stealing an absent-minded farang's drinks he'd left on a table, chugging them as they sprinted away. The guy, clearly a scrooge, did not find this hilarious. On a whim, we waited in line to get into a fancy night club that presumably didn't have a cover, in a long line of people who looked like they'd been plucked straight out of L.A., and the guy at the door berated Alex for his cut-off pants and wouldn't let us in ["Sir, we have a strict dress code here...no shorts, especially not shorts that are torn like rags!" and so on].

The next day we headed to JJ [Chatuchak weekend market] with Jones and April, an awesome Chinese girl who'd settled on Bangkok after extensive traveling and was working as a freelance Mandarin teacher. [Back at Terrance's place, we met another Chinese girl with near-perfect English named Papaya who had traveled extensively and worked as a translator.] I'd wandered away from the group to find ice cream while they were waiting on some paella from a large dancing chef, and had gotten completely lost on my way back to find them. The place is huge and completely disorienting--I don't think any description would do it justice. Permanent shopfronts like stores at the mall, but sliced in half, opened onto dense hallways bursting with goods for sale like at the Platinum Fashion Mall, only this place had everything. We walked through aisles of puppies ["They're so cute, it hurts...but this all seems kind of suspicious; they're only selling puppies...what happens when no one buys them?"] and then wound up in what we called the "incense section", and continues roaming for a few hours. I bought a tiny sewing machine [that I'd originally mistaken for a small stapler] for 60 baht [under $2].

Afterwards, we headed to the nearby park and took turns playing Jones' guitar by the pond. A little later, the national anthem came on [which I hadn't witnessed yet]. Everyone in the park stood up and froze. We followed suit, and I tried not to laugh as I looked across the pond at a hundred statues. Ah, nationalism.

Last night, Terrance sent us out to a tucked-away local restaurant that we never would've found on our own--he'd told us in advance what to order [and had written down the names in Thai so that there'd be no confusion]. It was incredible, and the first legitimately spicy meal we've had here [we've since been told that Bangkok food really isn't all that spicy and that we'll have to head north to get our asses blasted off].

So, today is our last day in Bangkok. Heading to Chiang Mai on the 10p.m. bus. A photographer from Israel was going to hire me for a shoot in Bangkok if we could stay another week or so--but even though this place has caught us under its spell and there's definitely much more we could see and do here, we just want to move on. We've gotten comfortable here and would rather get out prematurely, and look forward to coming back in the future, than overstay our enthusiasm.

Besides, it's hard to practice our Thai in a place where most everyone understands some English.

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Random Closing Thoughts

Newest addiction: chrysanthemum drinks. Holy shit.

Way too much plastic everywhere. If we buy a bottle of water from 7-eleven [which we often have to do since the tap water isn't potable], they try and send us away with a bag and a straw.

The only people I've seen wearing stereotypical "Thai clothes"--the long flowing skirts and genie pants and embroidered sandals--are foreign white tourists [myself included]. Everyone who lives in Bangkok, on the other hand, dresses in the same jeans and button-downs and sweaters you'd see in New York or wherever else. Ha. I suppose this might change once I get out of the city?

Beer on ice really isn't bad, as blasphemous as that may sound.

Stray dogs here seem a lot smarter than American dogs. They look both ways before crossing the street and compose themselves with a quiet vigilance, never chasing after shit or barking. I always thought dogs were kind of dopey and stupid [in the best way], but maybe they're just coddled into incompetency, like people can be. Nature vs. nurture.

Oh, fun fact: Bangkok has the longest name of any city [for those who didn't know]. It more-or-less translates to: "The city of angels, the great city, the residence of the Emerald Buddha, the impregnable city [unlike Ayutthaya] of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarn". Also, Bangkok is only "Bangkok" to English-speakers. The Thai name for it sounds more like runt tep. So. Now you know. [And knowing is half the battle?]

Confronting my Naïveté [First Day in Bangkok]

Bangkok, Thailand

Life is full--yesterday morning felt like five days ago. I've learned a lot so far. Mainly, that I'm far less worldly than I thought, but also far more resourceful. 

Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport

So, I know the airport in Taipei probably doesn't seem like the first thing I should start extolling the virtues of, but I'm going to anyway [revealing straightaway my conspicuous lack of worldliness].

We had a layover there and I almost sad to leave. That airport is a veritable fucking theme park; I was laughing my entire time there. When we showed up to our gate, it was decorated with Chinese brush painting on the walls, overhanging lamps masquerading as paper lanterns, am expensive-looking fake frog pond made of glass. The gate had a name, even. Underneath the facade of a traditional wooden roof a sign read, "Taiwan Image." I thought this was cute.

Then I wandered down the corridor. Next door was the gate "Postal Waiting Room", guarded by a fat penguin-looking postal worker that reeked Sanrio, a flock of airmail-envelope-paper-planes taking flight over wavy upholstered blue benches. Another was book themed, stocked with several shelves of free books. Another was Hello Kitty themed, complete with a playplace and rainbow amphitheater. Another looked like a room in a museum, full of Taiwanese ceremonial artifacts sitting pretty behind glass and plaques.

Amidst the shops were eerie fake living room displays: a mantle, lamp, mid-game pool table, upholstered furniture, and picture-framed screen looping the same commercial over and over promoted Glenlivet in a display of charming overkill. Random aesthetic sanctuaries dotted the corridor: a room full of flower arrangements in which one could unwind from any in-transit anxiety. Amidst the icons for "Restroom" and "Smoking lounge" was a kneeling figure, which directed one to the prayer room. All the airport staff looked like dolls that had just come out of their shrink wrap--many were in silly costumes [especially those working near the Hello Kitty gate], standing as still as members of the Queen's Guard, and their hair and makeup was done up to a degree of perfection I rarely see in the states [on the men, as well as the women].

The "Green Relaxing Room" cracked me up the most--in it were several life-sized dioramas of the jungle or beach, complete with backdrops, fake rocks and trees, and sand. I forced Alex to indulge me in taking fake tourist photos in front of these, much to the amusement of other foreigners passing by.

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Relativity

Upon our 3:00a.m. arrival, everything we'd been told to expect was acted out for us in real-time, which made me feel like we were navigating through a video game after reading how to beat it. I'd been given instructions on exactly what to do, which was lucky because I was far too tired to think for myself. 

Customs was so quick and easy that we didn't realize we'd already passed through it.

Immediately, "discount" taxi drivers tried to chivvy us into their cars--I'd been told this would happen, and that I should ignore them. We headed down to the lower level and got a cab. The driver asked to see my taxi receipt, which in addition to the location information is also the only way I can keep track of the driver and send in a complaint if he tries to rip us off, and tried to pocket it--as I'd been told he might. As soon as we were in the car, he tried to haggle a fixed fare with me--I'd been told not to oblige, no matter how good the offer sounded [he started at 500 baht for a 37 km ride--about $15 for 23 miles].

"No. Meter, please." After a bit of insisting that a flat fare would actually be cheaper for me, he reluctantly turned on the meter. Once we arrived, the cab fare--after the airport tax and two tolls--was about $9.

Andrew, a photographer I'd worked with back in Reno had comped us a hotel for our first two nights in Bangkok, since we were planning to shoot in Pattaya. When we stumbled into the lobby, it took me several minutes to realize that he was standing right there next to the concierge, and had been waiting.

"About time you got here!"

"Yeah...what is it, 4 a.m.? My brain's pretty fried. So when are you heading to Pattaya?"

"Well. I'm leaving town today."

"Today? Change of plans? I thought you'd be here until at least the 22nd."

"Today is the 22nd."

I laughed deliriously at this, but his face didn't change.

"...Wait, what?"

"I booked your room from the 20th-22nd, since you said your flight got in early morning of the 21st. That was yesterday."

"...Wait." My jet lag-addled brain exploded. "...Fuck...ah. Fuck...? Shit. Wait..."

Lesson one: Don't blindly trust the flight itinerary at the expense of common sense. [Or, more generally, double-check things.] Apparently...just because the arrival'stime has been adjusted, doesn't mean the date has.

Citichic 

Luckily for us, Andrew was extremely generous [despite his obvious and completely justified annoyance] and had already bought us an extra night. He showed us to our room--it was exceedingly trendy. All the fixtures and furniture seemed to scream, "Look how excessively fucking modern we are!" There were two different showerheads, and a sliding pervert-door in case someone in the bedroom wanted to look into the bathroom. We had robes and our own backyard patio, canopied in tropical trees I'd never seen before, with fruits that looked like strings of anal beads.

My guilt was overshadowed only by my exhaustion. Andrew told us to get an hour or two of sleep and to meet him for breakfast at the Radisson at 6:30--and that I shouldn't be too overwrought with guilt, because the room [which would easily be several hundred dollars a night in America] was about $40/night.

We did, and when I mentioned making it up to him and heading to Pattaya, he seemed undecided and gave no clear answers. However, he was quite cheerful, and told us all about the most recent local scams and political unrest, and what tourist traps to avoid. As we left, he told us to have a good time and vaguely inferred that I should keep abreast-ish of my emails.

Incidentally, I'm writing all of this from one of the computers at CitiChic; it's a gorgeous morning and we're about to check out and head to a Couchsurfing host's place and I don't know when I'll next have a keyboard at my disposal. Alex is running around, making sure we have potable water and looking into taking a water taxi.

First-Day Acclimation

In the morning we opted to run around, rather than crash out and exacerbate our jet lag. Arbitrarily we chose Lomphini Park as a more-or-less destination, since it'd give us a direction to go in, which can be a tough thing to settle on when there's really nowhere at all one needs to be.

No American city I've been to is as densely overstimulating as Bangkok--so full of color and noise and fast-moving activity. On the streets were countless vendors constantly either selling food or getting ready for the next rush; motorcycle taxis zipped around with well-to-do clients sitting sidesaddle behind them. Several times, I nearly stepped on someone or crossed a busy street without realizing. New York might as well be a desolate expanse. Las Vegas, Oakland, San Francisco, New Orleans--all quiet and sparse. 

The instant we set out the door, the cacophonous bustle grabbed us in a chokehold: stampedes of motorcyclists cutting corners as if they were already shitfaced at 9a.m.; cars driving all over the wrong lanes and crooked sidewalks; a stray dog sleeping in a bed of tied-off trash bags; a horde of about twelve rats clearly having a momentous shindig behind a vacant food stall; massive clumps of telephone wires sagging overhead, tied together spaghetti-esque with no seeming rhyme or reason. From these clumps of wires I heard a loud buzzing: the sound of something arcing.

"That's not really a sound we're supposed to hear," Alex said mildly. Nonetheless, the buzzing exerted its recurring presence in our day, which we found amusing. Granted, we were in a bit of a stupor and found everything amusing; for several minutes we stood and anthropomorphized a group of pigeons, dubbing over their pigeon-talk. We walked by several construction workers in bandana-balaclavas who were using metal grinders and saws right in the middle of the sidewalk, which inspired us to make a string of OSHA jokes that wouldn't have been funny to anyone else.

Lesson two: In Bangkok, the first phrase one should learn isn't "Hello," "Thank you," "You're welcome," 
"Discount?" or "No problem," all of which I'd gone ahead and committed to memory. 

In fact, it's "No, thank you," the one no-brainer phrase that hadn't occurred to me to learn.

Within five minutes, we'd been approached by every type of would-be scanner that we'd been warned about: congenial and well-dressed men pretending to recognize us from somewhere, women with clipboards trying to get us in on a contest, taxi and tuk-tuk drivers trying to coax us into their vehicles, calling after us in ceaseless succession that we looked lost and that they could help us.

Again, it felt like a video game: they all fit their character roles so perfectly, and my responses were such to-the-letter reenactments of advice I'd been given. Sensory overload notwithstanding, it was pretty fun, and while my perma-smile was borne of insomniac delirium and cultural pressure [in Thailand one's expected to smile, even--and especially--during less comfortable interactions], it was sincere.

Third lesson: learning the Thai alphabet [or printing it out and carrying it around] would've been a lot more helpful than learning basic phrases and numbers, since Thai people all know how to say those things in English, anyway. But several street and station signs aren't spelled out in English--it's tough to know how to ask for directions when you don't even know where it is you're trying to get to [and Google maps gave us all street names in the Thai alphabet].

Still, after not too long, I'd figured out how to read some of the Thai signs by context, and we made it to Skytrain, which was extremely navigable and thankfully devoid of tourist-predating scammers and taxi drivers.

Street Food

Once off BTS, we wandered down a main road and were pulled into several detours by our noses over the next couple hours. Down extremely narrow alleys would be large markets full of street vendors that were completely hidden from the main roads.

The marketplaces were bustling, sometimes with seemingly hundreds of people, yet we were the only non-locals at any of them. We took this as a good sign. Several of the stalls had pre-established local prices and we'd watch what they charged the locals; no one tried to overcharge or up-sell us. In fact, for the first time since we'd been outdoors in Bangkok, the locals treated us with courteous indifference; no one batted an eye or tried to coax us into buying anything. 

I grew up on traditional Asian food a la my mother and grandma, and been to several Thai restaurants in America--but the majority of food being sold on the street was completely new to us. We couldn't even discern most of the ingredients.

Case in point: the first thing we ate. I can best describe it as "deep-fried seaweed-and-or-shallot jello cubes" that we supposed might have been derived from beans. Or dough. Or something else.

Throughout the day, we also ate some sweet taro-blob-fried-corn things; a rice dish with egg yolks, peanuts, mushrooms, taro paste, and some yellow legume-like things; sweet-and-savory corn-taro-and-maybe-some-type-of-squash blobs; lotus root juice [YES]; spicy fish balls; some amazing "milk pudding" with kidney beans, pudding jelly, and some firm jelloid cubes with one of the most interesting textures of anything I've eaten; an ice cream slushie thing with coconut milk, peanuts, rice, and some gooey white things that I thought at first might have been some kind of fruit, but weren't; squid kebabs; real pad thai [which I didn't even recognize as pad thai at first]...

Summarily, we ate a lot. With everything costing between 10-40 baht [$0.30-1.20], another street stall every two feet, and an incentive to support smaller businesses off the main tourist drag, the only limiting factor was the capacities of our stomachs.

Also, fun fact: Red Bull originally came from Thailand [with a similar logo]. However, the Thai version is sort of syrupy [less fruity], uncarbonated, and evenmore caffeinated.

Of course, we got one of those [for about $0.20]. 

Lumphini Park

Eventually we reached Lumphini. It wasn't what I expected--full of streams and bridges and grass and a smattering of pretty old traditional buildings and monuments, but with roads still cutting through it every now and again as a constant reminder that, yes, we're still in the city. I sort of liked this frenetic aspect, personally--it felt more juxtaposed to be hanging out by a pretty pond while, right over yonder, chaos was still ensuing without me. Several people in casual business attire were taking naps under trees and in the grass.

Throughout the day, we opted not to take photos ["What would we photograph? I could take a picture of just about anything we've seen today; I'd rather just live it than attempt to capture it all."] but I caved when I saw a huge monitor lizard eating some large crow-or-other-corvid like it was a large insect [unfortunately, none of these turned out--I couldn't get close enough].

Alex, having seen several monitor lizards himself in Australia, laughed at me. "Those things are everywhere--they're like squirrels." Squirrels, except the size of dogs and with necrosis-inducing venom. Over the next hour, we probably saw over ten of them--and minus one small boy who was throwing a stick at one, the locals seemed indifferent to their presence.

Still, even he was impressed when we saw one about six feet long that appeared to be morbidly obese. We guessed it probably weighed about ninety pounds at the very least.

Along with the lizards, we saw several bird species and plants we'd never seen before. Several beautiful stray dogs ran around ["Well, when they're surviving on their own, the useless traits get weeded out pretty quick--you're not going to see stray pugs, or purebreds at all, really."] and the ponds were full of nearly human-sized catfish that were mostly hidden under the murky surface. I coined several dumb new portmanteaus [dalmigeon, bushlephants, hearchways...].

We also came across several protester campgrounds--tent villages blasting heated speeches in Thai. I resisted the urge to go ask them questions.

At one point, I thought I saw a long blue-gray tongue flicker out of one of the holes in a manhole cover. Alex laughed at me and said I was being ridiculous.

Five minutes later, we saw a giant monitor lizard--maybe a five-footer--squeeze clumsily out of a crack in the street that looked like it was about two inches wide.[So there!]

Ack, it's almost check-out time, so I'll skip a few things and wrap this up. 

Platinum Fashion Mall

When giving us recommendations, Andrew had insisted that we visit the Platinum Fashion Mall. Neither of us are much for shopping--or clothes, period--but he insisted.

That mall was easily one of the most surreal [and claustraphobia-inducing] places I'd been in my life--an endless labyrinth with aisles four feet wide, with walls made up of tiny shopfronts. We took an escalator from the street to get inside its fifth floor, and then got lost several times, I finally reached a directory and discovered that there were four floors of just women's clothing. It seemed impossible. The place was so big and dizzying--and had so much of every conceivable garment in the Universe--that I figured it'd be completely impossible to ever actually find any particular item you might go looking for. A good percentage of the patrons were dolled-up ladyboys, another sizeable portion were foreigners. Also, shit was cheap--having packed virtually no clothes for my trip [just the T-shirt and pants I'd worn on the plane], I bought a couple things, all priced between $1-6 after haggling [and $6 was for items arguably crossing into "high-end" territory].

It felt like a really weird dream, and I'd highly recommend it to anyone who doesn't become exceedingly anxious in small crowded spaces.

Southern Style Thai Massage

So, I'm trained in Thai massage myself, having completed programs in both Northern Style and Nerve Touch Style in the States.

I'd asked my instructor about Southern Style, and she'd said, "It's similar to Northern Style, but a lot faster and harder and more aggressive--but not necessarily beneficial or therapeutic, like Nerve Touch. Pretty much any time you hear someone had a scary experience getting Thai massage, or an injury, it was a Southern Style massage."

"So...you're saying Southern Style is basically a shitty version of the same thing, rather than a style on its own?"

"Well, I suppose so."

I thought she was just biased. So we got massages in Bangkok.

I enjoyed it--it's tough for me to not enjoy a massage--but it was still easily the worst Thai massage I'd ever gotten. The therapist's sense of safe alignment was egregious, and a few times I was scared she was legitimately going to mis-align my back or tweak my knees.

Still...an hour-long massage for $5?...I really can't complain. However, I'll probably wait until we head up closer to Chiang Mai before trying another one. 

Checking out

Phew. I woke up this morning [first legitimate night of sleep in days]. Wanted to clear my head this morning by writing all this shit down while I've got a free computer at my disposal. Also, I'm nostalgic, but forget everything if I don't eke out enough discipline to transcribe it.

There was a lot of other cool stuff that I don't have time to go into--on our walk back to the hotel, in addition to the night markets, we passed by several old VW hippie vans along the street that had been converted to portable bars, with built-in counters and sidewalk bar stools, pimped out with squillions of lasers and blinky Christmas lights and blasting electronic music. They looked like something out of Burning Man.

But it's time to get off my ass and go--we're going to stay with an American ex-pat we found via Couchsurfing.

Next after that...Alex wants to head south to the islands and then Malaysia, and I want to go north and on to Indochina. So we're going to flip a coin.

Channeling My Inner Chickenshit

For weeks now I've repeated, like a broken record, the same phrase to whomever's asked me how I'm doing: "About to fly to Bangkok with a one-way ticket." Each time, the words emerged automatically; meanwhile, I was catatonic, not registering the words that were fast becoming my own personal fucking catchphrase.

Really, that's not an answer to the question How are you doing? but everyone I've said it to has accepted it as such.

This is the last time I'm stating it, but this time I'm at least half-conscious of my words: I'm flying to Bangkok in a little over twelve hours...and that's basically the extent of my itinerary thus far.

As my departure's been arriving, a lot of people I've caught up with or run into--mainly acquaintances or bygone friends from a past life I no longer relate to--keep saying things to me like, "I wish I could just get up and go like you, by the seat of your pants, caution to the wind, [insert cliche after cliche here]--you're so fearless/free-spirited/bohemian." Or whatever.

They couldn't be farther from the truth.

I'd like to officially come out: By default, I'm actually pretty fucking neurotic. I overthink, overanalyze, overspeculate on worst-case scenarios. My natural tendency is to swing between being a control freak, and being opportunistically lazy. I am aeons away from being inherently free from fear and anxiety.

A very select few close friends of mine know this all too well; on the other hand, my acquaintances tend to invent a persona for me that I generally haven't bothered to disillusion them from because--I'll admit--the persona is pretty flattering. However, it's a fucking facade, and after a long-ass while of being adulated [and even iconized] on false pretenses got me feeling pretty worn-down. It's that whole it's worse to be loved for what you're not than hated for what you are platitude-majigg, incarnate. This incongruence was a large factor behind my compulsively deactivating my Facebook a while ago [which I've just now reactivated, after the persuasive barrages of a couple friends--given that I'm traveling without a phone, and with a camera].

Now, presenting the reason I'm writing all of this:

By birth, I'm chickenshit. That's not meant to be self-deprecating; rather, the thing I've just realized is that that's kind of the whole fucking point.

Listen. On my first solo road trip, I scraped together $900 and left my credit/debit cards behind. I packed my car with a sleeping bag, climbing shoes, and a couple cans of soup left over from my winter supply. That was to last me through three months of driving a vague loop from Tahoe down to San Diego, up to Vancouver, then back down to Tahoe.

It should be obvious to anyone with the faintest grasp of American gas prices, cost of living, and geography that $900 was not even remotely in the vicinity of being almost enough for such a trip. I had no jobs lined up, and no firm plans of where I'd stay along the way.

Call it poor planning, but I did that on purpose. It forced me to have a better time than I ever could have had if I'd taken the precautions of responsible planning and budgeting, if I'd been able to buffer myself in creature comforts, if I'd been able to maintain all the same habits.

Why? Because doing so was the only way to finally quell the unfounded fear, anxiety, and paranoia that had been plaguing me all winter.

To use an excerpt from an email I wrote an old friend the other night, featuring the exact moment this realization of my own behavior and motivations suddenly hit me:

My winter's similarly been a succession of catalyzing shaker-uppers. Lots of out-of-nowhere encounters [with people, but also other things--books, experiences, coincidences] that have propelled me to be introspective in a productive way, rather than "introspective" in that punishing, paralyzing, depressed way...which I don't think is true introspection to begin with. I think true introspection might lead you down dark passageways, but eventually comes full circle back out into the light--a brighter, cleaner light than whatever you'd been basking in before.

Blah, blah, figurative language. Metaphors and shit.

Anyway, you're welcome? Not really, though--I mean, not that you're not welcome, but it was a symbiotic exchange. I've been learning about myself from all my interactions this winter, too--in gauging how I react to different questions or situations, in gauging what feelings emerge or linger when I'm alone again after the interaction is over. It's interesting. I've dug up a lot of old ghosts from the past [ranging from casual acquaintances...to closet-skeletons].

This winter's been existential boot camp for me. Asking myself a lot of unhealthy questions, dealing with unwarranted anxiety and depression. [Granted, who's to say when those things are and are not warranted? Are they ever warranted? Are they ever not? What does anything mean? AHHHH!] 

Then I climbed out. The boy went away, so that I'd be left alone to make sure I was standing on two feet and empowering myself [rather than turning to the comforts of a partner to use as a crutch and distract me from myself--knowing him makes me wiser]. I pulled out my fucking IUD, which had never even occurred to me as a culprit. I started tackling one important task at a time, instead of overwhelming myself with several and being reduced to arresting procrastination. I went outside. I woke up earlier. Then I started meeting up with people I hadn't seen in a long, long time--and seeing myself reflected in ways that I denied at first, resentful ["they're just projecting some idealized archetype onto me, rather than simply seeing me"], and then later accepted as facets of truth. Just because a perspective is dissimilar--and incomplete--doesn't mean it's ALL wrong. I mean, it's limited, embellished, but so is everything--we limit things so they'll be simple, and embellish them so they'll be memorable. And even if the projection seems too lofty, the answer isn't resentment--or big-headedness--it's comparative self-evaluation to the other person's projection of me...and then converting it into a challenge, or an inspiration.

Anyway, that's what my own internal process for this winter looks like. Letting go of arbitrary fear.

In all honesty: as much practice I've had in chasing uncertainty [and I've had a lot of fucking practice in the last few years], it still scares the steaming shit out of me every time I walk up to the precipice.

However, I know from experience that--once I jump--the fear becomes obsolete, and all that's left is adrenaline and a sense of infinity. 

[This is literal, too: One of my best ways of getting myself out of a depressive funk is to go jump into a cold body of water--ideally an ocean, lake, or river, at night, in winter. And when I get out of the water, I feel so alive and not at all cold. The initial apprehension is there every single time, and never even really diminishes--but as I keep logging mileage this same pointless thing countless times, I become more and more assured of how I'm going to feel, once I get it over with, by a deeper knowledge that beats off my instincts to back down. It's my own version of practicing/cultivating something like faith.]

So, a month ago I worried about mosquito prevention, worst-case scenarios, theft, issues at the border, being targeted by the police, running out of money...I even thought about all the things I could put my money towards, or all the work I could get, or things I could do, if only I chose to cancel the trip and stay in the States.

The closer it gets--the more of an inevitability it becomes--the more relaxed I feel. I get this sort of zen-like resignation. I'm packing next to nothing, and I know once I get through airport security, I'm going to feel like I've finally returned home. That warm narcotic-orgasmic-bracing relief of tension I didn't even know I'd been carrying.

It never, ever feels like that's going to happen before the fact, but I know from experience to have faith because that's always what happens.

Incidentally, this is why I only buy non-refundable plane tickets: because I know myself well enough to know that, if I allow myself an easy way out, I'll end up taking it. I have to trick myself, all the time--not only with traveling, but with more mundane things [like studying, exercising, working, errands, hygiene--anything requiring discipline, which is something I decidedly do not have a natural-occuring supply of.

Tricks...I have to leave myself no easy way out, or make things into a game, or make it so that I'd have someone to answer to should I back out--where I'd lose face or let someone down by doing so. 

Some people seem to be easily self-motivated, or truly fearless. Lately people keep making the mistake of thinking I'm one of those people. Not even close. In truth, I am as lazy and cowardly as the next person. I just don't let my laziness and cowardice get the best of me--I corner myself until I have no choice but to act constructively.

Tonight, I sat on the roof of my old house with Alex. We were silent for a while.

"I'm nervous."

"I'm nervous."

"That's why we're going, though."

"Exactly."

It's not just about questing for adventure because it's fun [though that's obviously a big part of it]. If I was actually fearless, and living exactly the way that I do, it'd be gratuitous. I'd just be wanking my ego, over and over, resulting in weak thrills, at best. There'd be no rush, no challenge, and most importantly, no growth. 

I have no use for a stagnant life--even if that life appears on the outside to be rife with extreme sports and strange encounters. Nothing disturbs me more than meeting someone with a life that appears full and rich and surreal, only to find that they've become desensitized and adopt a too-cool-for-school attitude towards everything in the entire world--that is, towards their own existence. It disgusts me, even. They do all this cool shit, meet all these people, but have nothing to live for: philosophical zombies in glamorous packaging.

A couple days ago a girl asked me, "Why Thailand?"

"Well, not just Thailand. Not sure where else I might be going from there."

"Yeah, but why Thailand, in particular? As your first stop."

"Because it was cheaper than New Zealand, and more of a departure from what I know."

"That doesn't answer my question, though."

"...Doesn't it?"

Thailand's got nothing to do with this trip, really.

The ultimate reason I'm going is unknown to me, of course: if I already knew my reason for going on this trip, then I wouldn't need to bother going.

More generally, the reason I do what I do is because I'm not a philosophical zombie yet, and this trip is just one of succession self-vaccinations against becoming one.