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.”

 

 

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.

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.

One week in Bangkok

Mild weather, early mornings, street food, and markets. That just about sums up the first week here. In that time I’ve also met some new friends, connected with friends of friends from Chicago, and played saxophone with three different bands.

It’s amazing how upon return to this city (my 3rd time here) you find yourself back in the swing of a big city, but always stare in wonder at the sheer size of the city, the number of markets, and the rampant consumerism that consumes not only the tourists, but the locals. Where in the US you wouldn’t debate paying $20 for a decent shirt from a department store, here you agonize over paying $6 for the same shirt off of someone on the street (I did, and I bought it).

Everyone in this town is selling, scheming, working, virtually 24 hours a day. Whatever you want, you’ll find it.

One of the blessings of jet lag this time around has been the fact that I’ve been waking up early. My girlfriend, Suzanne, and I have been up around 5AM almost every day, which has lead to some interesting adventures.

Chinatown in Bangkok is a giant maze of consumerism on its own, however, before 7AM enterprising sellers set up shop on the streets and alleyways in front of those Chiatown shops. Selfie sticks (Suzanne bought one), electronics, jewelry, motorcycle patches, clothes, backpacks, all the things you find on the street elsewhere are here, for 1/2 the price. Just as fast as these merchants set up, they tear down. Once the sun starts coming up they pack up and leave, only to start over the next day. It’s one of our favorite spots to walk, buy and sightsee so far.

We’ve also been logging some miles on the streets.

One of my favorite ways to see a new place is by attacking the pavement on foot. No tuk-tuk’s, no taxis, only subways and busses when the legs get too tired. This way you get to see what’s down that dark alleyway, stumble upon a street filled with nothing but adult novelties and electronics, and walk down a 1/2 mile stretch of alleyways with thai men taking apart, greasing, and re-assembling decades old car engines.

Aside from the wandering I’ve also been seeking out the music opportunities mentioned above. I’ll dedicate a complete post to that later – music is strangely intertwined, and separate from these travel adventures. As a musician you can almost completely remove yourself from the context of where you are once the notes start flowing.

I’ll post pictures and add links to this post when I can, slow internet is plaguing me so far, but I wanted to send a quick update and some introductory activities and thoughts.

To the summer!

It’s been a while since I’ve made an entry here, so it’s time to play catch up. The world of 9-5, and working musician have now collided with jewelry sales, 5K’s and summer travel/festivals (it’s work, I swear!).

First, I’ve made it a priority to keep my gig calendar updated with all of my performances, both upcoming and past, so any of you TK fans (ha!) can keep up with me, and hopefully catch a band or two as I pursue this volatile careerĀ  that is music.

Second, I’m happy to announce that I’ll be spending many of my weekends during the day helping Nomadic Ant sell jewelry at summer street festivals, and by also doing some research and writing for their website.

That’s the brief update for now.