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.”

 

 

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.

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.

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.