Thailand -> Malaysia -> Indonesia. Part 1 of 3

Rainy Yogyakarta

I’m in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. It’s my first time on the island of Java, and my second time to Indonesia. It’s been raining here almost every day. After an ill advised night of drinking tequila with some backpackers, and a day lost thanks to it, I now find myself enjoying the thundering rain happily thinking about what to write to catch up. I have three countries to get through here, so this post will be in three parts, I think.

How I Got Here

A quick getaway to Koh Mak, Bangkok’s alluring grip not relinquishing control, and cheap Air Asia flights pushed the journey this way. Thailand to Indonesia by way of Malaysia (and a new country stamped in my passport).

Being a city kid, far removed from my suburban Iowa upbringing, I now find myself more comfortable in big cities. It’s true, when I left for this trip I thought I would find myself more in remote towns, immersing myself in nature. However, each time the journey leads to the promise of peace and quiet, a city beckons with promises of great street food, live music, and activity. But, first the quiet.

Koh Lipe

Bangkok is difficult to leave. However, after spending nearly the first month of the trip in that amazing city it was decided that islands and snorkeling were in need. Bangkok to Hat Yai via Air Asia was the start to Koh Lipe, where the promise of limited traffic, and crystal clear waters awaited.

The clear blue water of Koh Lipe

Quiet the island is on it’s far reaching beaches, however, the center, where you find most of the bars and restaurants, is awash with throngs of tourists and the incessant drone of motorbike engines, and incessant honking, as pedestrians certainly do not get the right of way with the islanders riding to wherever they are off to in a hurry. Sadly, I was informed that just five years ago this traffic was non existent, and only a few motorbikes were on the island.

Not to diminish the beauty of the island, the sand stretches on, and some coral still lives despite a lot of boat traffic. Clownfish in Sea Anenomies, and a whole host of other fish I can’t identify are easily spotted in the gentle waves. Journeying to the less inhabited side of the island also provided for relaxing days spent reading in beach chairs with fresh fruit juices in hand. Staying all day rewards the traveler with amazing sunsets.

Koh Lipe Sunset

Five nights in a hut on the beach covered by a mosquito net, fan circulating the still air, thin “mattress” leading to uncomfortable sleep and bruised hips, and an amazing sea view from the room. Empty passport pages called out, and it was time to move on. But not before I watched the Super Bowl in a crowded bar full of expats at 6:30AM local time.

Next stop Malaysia…

Back to Bangkok

Two years after my last visit, I find myself back at the Swan Hotel off of Charoen Krung Road near the Chao Phraya river in Bangkok. Coming back to this city for the 4th time, as a jumping off point for further travel to Indonesia, Malaysia, and parts unknown as of yet, I’m struck by how different this city is from my first visit nearly 7 years ago. Steel and glass high rises have replaced many of the low rise concrete buildings. In place of small soi’s (side streets) filled with bustling restaurants and mini-marts are now bigger plazas catering to western tastes.

It would be easy to write a commentary on gentrification, and commercializations as a vehicle to drive out the working class (especially feeling that pinch in Chicago, and the USA right now), but in Bangkok, you’ll still find the two in harmony in much of the city – for now. I’m happy to just be in the midst of a global community, seeing the new mixed in with the old, and so many people wandering, exploring, and smiling at the wonder that is Bangkok, and the promise of adventure in travel.

What seems like minimal baggage on departure.

We arrived late Thursday, January 12th after a 13 hour flight to Tokyo, followed by a 5 hour flight to Bangkok. Immediately upon exiting the plane one is hit with the sticky humidity that becomes a part of life in Southeast Asia. Warmer layers piled on in Chicago, and during the flight are quickly shed and stuffed into carry-on baggage.

Our first stop was an Air BnB off of the Phra Khanong sky train stop.

 

We booked more out of curiosity of expat Bangkok high-rise living more than out of a necessity for western comforts (the dated 60/70’s style Bangkok hotels you find everywhere, like the Swan, are just fine). However, it was nice to have a full apartment, kitchen, refrigerator, and washing machine at our disposal for the first five days.

Talking to a local Thai chef, Ying, the next evening we learned that many of these high-rises are about 70% empty, which is why it’s easy to rent for Air BnB.

Rooftop views Sukhumvit Soi 71

One amazing thing about travel is that you still run into people you know from all over the world. Our first full night here included drinks with Ryan Wizniak, the drummer for Elephant Gun (and just played with 5 days before my trip) Sky Train Jazz Bar, at a great little place near Victory Monmument. Sangsom flows, the music is good, and Ultraman watches you pee.

Bathroom views at Sky Train Jazz Bar

The first weekend was filled with that Bangkok right of passage, Chatuchak (known as JJ) market. A labyrinth of stalls selling everything from clay Buddha amulets to massive pieces of furniture, as well as any piece of clothing you could ever buy (need a fur coat in 90 degree heat, they’ve got you covered!).

Long days of walking, buying, and sweating lead to early nights of sleeping and trying to shed the jet lag, which holds on a little tighter every year that passes.

Now, sitting poolside at the Swan, we contemplate our next move, whether Myanmar, or an island, before heading south so I can collect memories, photos, and visas not yet obtained.

More updates soon, and some saxophone trouble is sure to follow.

Michelin Man Cowboys

BKK Low Rise

BKK High Rise Plaza

Why do I travel? This overused Mark Twain Quote sums it up quite nicely:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

 

 

2017 and new wanderings

It’s been a while!

To those who check here, I apologize for the silence. 2016 was a year of a new day job, new bands, and more gigs. But, that travel itch reared it’s ugly head at the same time as opportunity, and I’m headed back to Southeast Asia this winter. Right now I plan on exploring Malaysia and Indonesia more fully.

My bags are not yet packed, but my alto sax will once again accompany me, and I plan on posting more videos from abroad playing wherever I can.

Keep an eye on this space – there will be more updates soon!

Concert Review: Rusty Gates, Banda Magda

On free nights I’m going to do something that I wish more people would do. See music in Chicago (and everywhere in the world). Bands I know, bands I don’t, I’m going to step out of my house a few nights a week, see music, and then write about it. Not just headliners, not just the band I’m going to see, but all bands on the bill for a night. A big pet peeve of mine in this town is that so few people come for opening bands, or bands other than those that their friends are in. I aim to review all bands on the bill for the night while writing these reviews.

Last night I set out to see a band I knew nothing about until a mass email from Martyrs appeared in my inbox (sometimes those email lists are good things!). Banda Magda had a name that caught my ear, and a few youtube videos later, I knew where I was headed on a Thursday night.

I arrived at the venue to catch the opening band, Rusty Gates, a blues/rock/jam/funk quintet from Chicago. This is a band with no shortage of talent, from the chunky keys, a deep pocket, and tasteful guitar solos there is a solid foundation to groove. Rusty Gates thrives on the intellectual side of their music, playing in odd meters (everyone loves a 4/4 to 5/4 transition), and with interesting chord changes.

Rusty Gates

Rusty Gates

When Rusty Gates started the set I was skeptical that it was going to be anything more than a typical college jam band. Sure, these guys know some more complex chord progressions, but they didn’t sell me on being a band worth watching or listening to for more than a song. Bland blues were the first words I wrote in my notes, however, as the set progressed (aside from their singing, of which I was not a fan) the instrumentals gained steam, and the band settled down from early rhythmic hiccups. Overall, great intricate harmonized guitar lines, solos that were complicated but not over the heads of the audience, and stage energy that was lacking (seriously guys, give me some personality!) lead to a good opening performance. Give them a chance if you see them on a bill.

Banda Magda

The vehicle of Magda Giannikou, Banda Magda uses various world music styles (largely Brazilian and other latin influences at this concert) and languages to infuse an infectious groove of life into the audience. In contrast to Rusty Gates, the presence of personality with Banda Magda drew eyes to the stage. Although Magda herself sat on a stool playing accordion for most of the performance, there was no lack of energy.

Banda Magda

It’s a rare thing to attend a concert where the frontman/woman can talk, tell stories, and have the attention of most of the audience. Most songs were preceded with anecdotes and stories about how the songs were written. The pure musicianship of everyone on stage made the band click like a seasoned touring band that you could see playing the bigger festival stages soon. Each musician was highlighted, able to show their virtuosity, which complimented Magda, showing a band, and not a personality.

Rhythmic complexity, Brazilian influenced chord changes, and not a single song sung in English kept people swaying. At one point each member in the band held up a Spanish word or phrase on a sheet of paper to encourage audience participation and a singalong. I believe what made this such a successful show for Banda Magda was the involvement of the crowd in almost every song. Whether clapping along (dividing the audience to produce more complicated polyrhythms), or singing in a different language, it seemed like everyone in the room was hanging on every note.

Whether you’re a wold music fan or not, this band should be on your short list of must see when they come to your town. An affiliation with Snarky Puppy means they have a supply of amazing musicians to do amazing things. However, this music stands on it’s own, and is something truly unique, different, and great. It’s impossible to see this band without wanting to smile and dance.

Credit where credit is due

I haven’t been writing as much as I intended on this trip. I have a lot to say, stories to recount, but have admittedly been slacking a bit. I invite all of you to check out the blog of my girlfriend, and travel partner, Suzanne Miranda on her “Cocktail Napkin Travel Guide” website for more stories, photos and writing of our recent adventures.

“I Hate The Balds”

In a whispered voice behind me I heard “I hate the balds”. I glanced over my shoulder to see who would so boldly declare their disdain for me.

Standing in a park in Can Tho, Vietnam a little boy, who could be no older than 7 had just given me the middle finger with quiet words while I stood watching acrobats rehearse for the upcoming Tet celebration.

Acrobats rehearsing for Tet in Can Tho

Can Tho is the largest city in the Mekong delta in Vietnam. Being removed from the larger cities, there isn’t much English spoken, so it came as a surprise when the English language was heard so clearly from a local.

Despite the little boy’s unbridled hatred for my alopecia (and presumably, westerners), my girlfriend decided to spark a conversation with him where he answered in short sentences, abruptly, seemingly annoyed with us, only to mutter “I talk English” as he walked away.

Despite his attitude towards my lack of hair, he made me laugh.

Prejudice and racism isn’t an American problem, it’s a world problem. We get comfortable in our neighborhoods, cities, countries, and expect things to “look” a certain way. I’ve been fortunate to grow up in the racial majority in my country, and sometimes forget what it’s like to be on the other side.

I grew up in Iowa. West Des Moines, my hometown, was a majority white middle class suburb full of tract housing, extreme mortgages, and a car for every 16 year old. If I look back at my class pictures from Kindergarten through High School I would say that 99% of the faces were white. WASP immigrant descendants. It’s just who we were. Nobody thought differently, and we all looked the same (I’m exaggerating a bit, but it’s not far from the truth).

My first experience with true racial discrimination and prejudice happened when I moved from Chicago to Seoul, South Korea to teach English.

My first class consisted of sweet second graders who were eager to learn, who loved “Tim Teacher” and thought his demonstrations of singular and plural pronouns were hilarious. Towards the end of the day, as the students got older, the respect diminished. Instead of students looking on with respect I was met with cries of “Teacher, you’re ugly”, “Teacher, you’re fat”, “Teacher, you have a big nose”.

The kids were just the start, however. Most United States citizens (especially the caucasian ones) don’t think much of how we’re perceived outside of our own boarders.

While living in Seoul I found myself refused service at restaurants, kicked out of cell phone stores (greeted by shop owners making an “X” out of their arms as I entered… I could point to what I needed!), and stared at by locals. I was a foreigner in a land of xenophobics.

One day in Seoul I was making my way to the Nakwon music arcade to buy some saxophone reeds. On the subway train there, I sat down, when an old man walked up to me and told me in broken English, “I hate you!”. I was alone, sitting on a train, reading a book. No behavior to the contrary of any other passenger on that train, other than being a foreigner. In contrast, just 20 minutes later, another old Korean man shook my hand and told me in broken English, “Thank you!”.

What did these experiences teach me? The kid in that park in Can Tho, Vietnam most likely learned to hate “the balds” due to country history, parental attitudes, or a foreign caring English teacher who demanded more from the students.

I don’t care if someone says “I hate the balds”, or “I hate foreigners”. The more we travel, all of us, the better.

I think it’s a good thing I’ve experienced the prejudice I have. It’s nowhere close to the levels some of my friends and colleagues in Chicago have experienced, but it gives me an understanding of what it’s like when someone stares, or crosses the street to avoid being on the same side as you, or refuses service.

“I hate the balds” is what that Vietnamese kid said. I smiled, and laughed. I am bald, and White, just like he is Vietnamese, just like some of you are Black, Asian, Indian, Latino, or a mix of everything. No need to be anything else but understanding.

Travel Sick

Sunset in Kampot

Sunset in Kampot

It happens, minding your own business, maybe walking down a beach, maybe swimming in a pool, or even worse, on a night train hurtling down the rickety tracks equipped with only a dirty, wet squat toilet and no toilet paper. Stomach seizing up, you feel that urgency through the whole of your body. It’s not pleasant, but it’s a reality of travel for most.

I’ve experience all of the scenarios above, and this time I was somewhat lucky that I wasn’t in a dire “run for the hills” sort of emergency. I knew it was coming. It always does, for me, at least once, every time I travel to this part of the world.

Day 3 in Sihanoukville, Cambodia was wrapping up. We booked our minibus to the provincial town of Kampot that afternoon headed toward the boarder with Vietnam. On our last night Suzanne and I headed out to an English pub across the street from our Chinese hotel for some food and a beer. Meeting new friends, the night carried on a bit, but we cut ourselves off and headed home.

Upon waking up I should have known something more was amiss. Too groggy, and queasy for what I had drank I dismissed it as a simple hangover, waking up only when Suzanne had told me she was headed to breakfast.

What followed isn’t suitable for readers stomach’s. Just know, I was in pain, terrible pain, and what I hoped was just a hangover was certainly something much much worse. It might have been in the food. It might have been in the beer. It might have been the ice. I wish I knew.

A two hour bus ride to Kampot followed. With my uncanny luck, I was given a backwards facing seat on a minibus with a tall French man sitting opposite me. Even better, the minibus didn’t have space behind the last seat for baggage, so it all was piled behind me, leaving my seat at an 85 degree angle. Super comfortable! The next two hours was an exercise in willpower. Head down, sweating profusely, thoughts on the wind through the window rather than every bump in the road. I spent my time wishing for a flat tire, or a bridge out. I wanted out.

We finally arrived in Kampot, and delirious with whatever ailment I had, agreed to a windowless room with a fan, and copious amounts of black mold. I just needed to lay down. So, Suzanne left to see the town I made a point to visit on this trip (I missed out on five years ago) while I lay in bed, sweating, under blankets, running to the bathroom every five minutes.

French colonial ruins, fresh pepper and fish, dusty backroads and a slow moving river. Not for me.

image

The next day I swore I was better, but a joyful trip to breakfast to eat some food proved otherwise. I hadn’t made it halfway across the street from the guesthouse before I was running back. But, I soldiered on, determined to see the town, the sun, and get on with my days. Punctuated by a move to a guesthouse with a window, and two long naps, I survived. However, eating only a baguette and some water in the span of two days leaves you with very little energy. I managed to survive a two hour sunset boat cruise, an exercise in body control and willpower, only to fall asleep at 8:30.

The following day I decided bed was the best place to be until I could manage 30 minutes without a toilet.

Kampot, I wanted to love you, but saw you only in a short burst, and in photos from my girlfriend.

I’ve managed to eat in the last day, and resume somewhat normal body functions, albeit, still extremely tired.

You take the good with the bad on the road, and soldier on. Self deprecating posts aside, I’m sad I’m closing in on the halfway point of my trip. Now in the small coastal retreat of Kep, Vietnam awaits!

Best of times, worst of times

Lessons learned from traveling so far:

1) Do not change into your swimming attire, then lock all of your clothes in your suitcase with a cheap lock bought from a back-alley market in Bangkok. The lock may stop working, and you’ll be stuck in a swimsuit until you can find someone to break the lock.

2) SPF 50 is no match for pristine white sand beaches and the Cambodian sun. Even when you re-apply every hour, and after swimming, you will end up looking like a lobster (although, after a day out of the sun, I’m not so red). I’m also a pale midwesterner out of the sun most of the year, so there’s that.

2a) Don’t walk down that same 4km long white sand beach in your wet swimsuit. This will cause discomfort that will require you to strip out of said swimsuit and fashion a sort of sarong/diaper out of your towel to make walking bearable.

3) It can be the best of times, it can be the worst of times, at the same time. In a 24 hour time period I managed to get extremely sunburnt, knock an open bottle of coconut oil onto my bed (oily sheets are slippery!), have a thermos of whiskey/coke explode in my bag (sealed thermos + carbonation = explosion) and soak my travel journal (a travel journal should smell like whiskey, right?), iPad, charging cord, Khmer phrasebook, and money, then while rinsing out my bag discover that my camera was in fact still in the bag and now thoroughly waterlogged (I still have hope, it was off).

However, in the same 24 hours I swam on the most beautiful beach and clearest water I’ve ever seen, found a great breezy room with a balcony for $8, ate a fiery, but delicious Kampot pepper crab, took a sunset walk among rice fields, and mud bathing cows on top of a dirt berm on my way to the beach where I ate generous portions of fresh scallops and clams ($2 each plate).

4) An addendum if you will… Traveling sometimes takes an, um, digestive toll. After eating street meats, and food off of a beach you may encounter some digestive discomfort, and find every toilet on the beach lacking a seat and toilet paper (as well as a sprayer, common in S.E. Asia), and resort to stealing small squares of the thinnest tissue ever (lovingly referred to here as napkins) from an adjacent beach bar so you can relieve yourself.

Traveling is an exercise in patience, happiness, sadness, and realization that no matter what, life isn’t so bad.

Boarder Towns, Boarder Crossings, Bored Towns

A lost post… intermittent wifi, and a reliance on technology. Things on this trip abroad that are so very different than past ones. Typically to be in contact with home you’d pay to sit in an internet cafe with a slow connection to write a quick email or two, maybe upload a photo. But, with changing times, comes changing habits.

Just as I was about to hit submit on this very post my wifi connection at my hotel went down, and my post was lost. Now, as the cool Lao morning turns to a sweltering afternoon heat on the Mekong, I start over, more succinct, as a day of wandering awaits.

When you set out on a travel journey you start by looking at how much time you’ve set aside. On this particular trip I have two months, the longest continuous travel I’ve had aside from living in South Korea. However, as soon as that first day passes, you start to see the time slipping, and the hour glass as half empty, wanting to see more, and more.

10 days was spent in Bangkok, long early morning walks, late nights with Sangsom whiskey (rum) in hand, afternoon beers on ice, musicians met, local Thai friends made, questionable car rides to parts of the city previously unknown. It was starting to feel very comfortable, and it would have been easy to spend the entire two months there, making friends, getting gigs, relaxing. But, the x’ed out days of that calendar made my legs itchy with anticipation of cities to see, places to go.

On Monday my girlfriend and I boarded a night train to Nong Khai from Bangkok. Night trains are great as you don’t “lose” any time to travel, instead setting up camp on a bunk in a train car only to arrive at your destination the next morning.

Nong Khai is a boarder town on the Mekong river, and most often just a stop over for travelers extending their Thai visas, or people traveling on to Laos on their circuit of southeast Asia travel (which I guess is where I fall). We decided to stay a day/night in Nong Khai to see a less traveled Thai town.

A sleepy destination, it looks like it formerly had, or expects more tourism traffic. Bars line the Mekong river, and street carts and night markets dot the side streets, however, upon night wandering we only saw empty restaurants and dark streets. It was, however, a Tuesday night. During the day we walked to Sala Keoku, an interesting nod to the regions religions and concrete sculpture. Aside from that landmark, there was not much more to see in this town.

After an early evening, and cold sleep (believe it or not) we headed to the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge, got our exit stamps from Thailand, boarded a bus, and paid $35 for a Lao visa on the other side.

A short tuk-tuk ride later, and we were in Vientiane, the Lao capital.

My girlfriend first came here in 1994, when it was more of a provincial colonial town with very few cars on the roads, and full of colonial architecture. Now, sadly, the little wood huts that formerly dotted the riverside (as I’ve been told) and served beer are gone, and in it’s place a new road, big plaza, and a contrived night market. It seems like every corner I turn there are giant modern buildings being built, shopping complexes advertising “Hermes” coming soon, and a feeling like I missed something, or that something is missing here.

Yesterday I borrowed a bike from my hotel and rode through the city for a few hours. Odes to communism, capitalism, vast empty plazas, your standard temples, and a smattering of backpackers were the real highlights.

The real beauty of this city so far, is being able to lounge the day away with a cold beer, watch the slow flow of the Mekong, and let your mind wander.

Tonight is Friday night, however, so I’m not losing hope that I’ll be able to get in some trouble with my saxophone somewhere (other than my hotel, where the young man at the check in desk, and who runs everything here at Villa Manoly will serenade you with his guitar and Beatles tunes).

Tomorrow we’re off from Laos, and Vientiane via plane to Cambodia.

I’m still having difficulties uploading pictures to my website with slow internet speeds, so I’ll add as I can.