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…

“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.