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. 

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.



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.


"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.

" 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 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."


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 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.


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.



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.


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."

"'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. 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.