Sunday, March 31, 2013

Risen indeed

Sunrise on the Mekong. Happy Easter, family and friends!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Phu Quoc

I left Saigon on a night bus that was terrifying as usual. I always pray before night buses. Others I know take Vicodin. My bed was at the front of the bus so the driver asked me to turn off my Kindle light. Fair enough, I think the light is pretty well contained to the screen, but I'm not driving. Then he answered his iPhone. Ugh. Then he spent a prolonged period of time driving directly over the rumble track. At some point we hit something. Not like a person or a motorbike, but something on the highway big enough that he pulled over to check out the bus. The key to night buses is to be tired enough that such events take on the surreal sheen of a bumpy bad dream. There's never a good night's sleep, but drowsiness dulls the senses.

I must have been in vacation mode because I failed to learn the name of the stop I was supposed to get off at. Since I was going to a ferry, I just figured I'd be going to the terminal stop. Wrong. And my pre-purchased boat ticket was for a terminal 90km away. The ferry company, Superdong, was nice and swapped my ticket. Not only that, I got to sit on the upper deck behind the captain, above the hoi polloi. Sometimes owning up to your own gross incompetence pays off. People give you the primo seats just to keep an eye on you. And so I rode the Superdong III all the way to Phu Quoc, which is really an excellent name for a transit company. Memorable. 

As soon as I got to my $13/night bungalow though I was overwhelmed with loneliness. In Saigon, I spent my nights in the dorm, engulfed in the protective backpacker herd. Here it's mostly couples and families. It's weird to go to the beach alone. The other thing is, James and my best friends/Shanghai roommates were here together 10 months ago and I couldn't help but think how much more fun it would have been to be with them. I quickly decided I would spend one day snorkeling, one day scootering, one day on the beach near my hotel and then peace out. 

I did the snorkeling tour, which was more fun than remarkable. I saw some cool fish, but I would say the more impressive sight was the ridiculous sunburn I got on the lower half of my butt. We don't usually see much sun down there... I was good about sunscreening the rest of my body. I don't know what I was thinking just skipping over the parts above my thighs not covered by my swimsuit. If it were even remotely socially appropriate, I would post a picture of this burn because it's hilarious. You would laugh if you saw it, but you'll just have to trust me.

Yesterday I rented my scooter and drove up north to the much less populated beaches. The trade off is no one fishes the trash out of the water like they do in front of the resorts, so you have to dodge the odd bit of plastic, but there's also hardly anyone else around and still there are beach chairs and bars offering seafood lunch, coconuts and cheap beer. Amazing! 

There's a lot of development underway on the north side of the island, and all of Phu Quoc could very well go the way of Phuket, but for now it's just right: it's possible to buy burgers and crepes but there are no Russian hordes. No offense to Russians, they just tend to travel in hordes. 

So today I scootered north again, plopped on a beach chair, watched the ocean and read all day. I am going to do this for at least two more days.

Somewhat counterintuitively, it's a lot less lonely when there aren't so many people around. When I'm surrounded by groups I feel like I should be in one, and I feel like the people in the groups are looking at me and wondering why I'm not in one. You don't get that on a mostly-deserted beach. And my Kindle is excellent company.

I'm working my way through the 2012 Best American Short Stories and Travel Writing, and I read a couple great pieces in both today. I also started Absalom, Absalom! by Faulkner. I had to read the first chapter twice. And most delightfully, I'm also reading the complete Flannery O'Connor short stories. Sometimes I finish a story and I wish I could turn around and give Flannery a high five. She was so good! Her work is so funny and so devastating and her characters are deeply flawed but she writes about them so compassionately. I just love her. 

Once the sun crossed over the western lip of my umbrella, I packed up and took the scenic route back, which consisted of a bumpy dirt road and one dubious wooden bridge that rattled like it was a couple motorbikes away from crashing into the inlet. Actually, all the routes today were scenic. I've scootered through orchards and past cows walking down the middle of the road, through villages and miles of green forest next to the light blue ocean. This may be my last major beach stop on my big trip, so I'm going to linger.

Friday, March 22, 2013


This is my third full day in Vietnam and my prevailing mood is utterly joyful because I have almost a whole month still to suck up fresh rolls, pho and $0.30 draft beer. 

I think I'm really going to enjoy my time here. It's not as tourist-overloaded as Thailand, but things are still more convenient than Burma and thus far I'm not having to wash the black lines of dirt out from beneath my fingernails every few hours (also Burma). Last night I bought a pirated copy of The Quiet American, a Vietnam backpacker requisite. 

Today I went to the post office to mail some things home. The best place to observe any country's Communist holdovers is in its government offices. There were seven postal workers and only one other customer and it took about 20 minutes for me to mail a box. Two people inspected the contents, I had to fill out four documents - I'd hate to be there when there was a line. I probably would've been annoyed if I had a job or appointments or a tight schedule, but I don't so it was just amusing. 

Yesterday I went to to the Ho Chi Minh museum, which was somewhat boring, but I'm a sucker for Communist relics (the microphone he spoke into, the glass he drank out of...). Afterward, I hit up Unification Palace (used to be Independence Palace) which was the equivalent of the White House for South Vietnam's government. I love touring modern history. The Palace has basically been left as it was, so it's almost like you can smell how things were and what transpired there. 

On my first full day, I spent a sobering afternoon at the War Remnants Museum. While I was walking around, I thought about what I learned about the Vietnam War in high school. Lots of people worry about the politicization of how we teach history. I suspect all countries teach their students a narrative that skews positive, it just varies to what degree. And that degree is tied to the level of freedom citizens possess. I had a Shanghainese coworker who majored in history and did not know that the Japanese military occupied Shanghai for part of WW2. Yep.

I had an excellent high school history teacher. He was open with us about his political views (socialist-Democrat) but never imposing, I think he told us for the sake of transparency. Actually, I think the greatest influence he exerted over us is several classmates majored in art history because he taught such an inspiring AP art history class. You're welcome for that one, parents. 

I can't remember the whole of our Vietnam unit, but I remember we spent a lot of time on the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. I think that was valuable, it helps contextualize more recent US history. I could be misremembering, but I don't think we talked about the My Lai Massacre. If we did, it wasn't a major part of the unit. The first I remember learning of the massacre was in a conversation about the war I had with my mom as a teenager. There was a section of the museum devoted to it. It's hard to look at.

I've been traveling two months now. Before I left, I was somewhat worried about being on my own for so long. My friend Lily, who just completed more than a year of solo travels, assured me there would always be people around and that it's more difficult to seek out solitude than company. And she was right. I meet people every day. Sometimes it gets boring having the same traveler conversation (where are you coming from/how long are you staying/where are you going), but the real danger is how much more it makes you want to travel. Last night I was having beer with a group and a middle-aged guy so enchanted me with his beach camping/ocean fishing tales of his native New Zealand, I've added that to the bucket list. A couple weeks ago I met a Swiss girl who took a solo trip through all of the Stans except Afghanistan, which just sounded amazing, but she said it took about a year of preparation to sort out all the visas. Presently, I'm reading Travels with Charley and that makes me excited to come back to America. I haven't spent much time there in recent years and there's certainly a lot to see there too.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Borneo Week

It was last minute, but I'm glad I made it to Sarawak. Borneo is just amazing. Many times this week I felt like I'd stepped into Jurassic Park. The jungle is loud and enormous and teeming and also vaguely threatening. Well, sometimes it's just plain threatening, with all its pit vipers and leeches and millipedes and crocodiles. I never saw the latter, but there were big signs posted at the entrance to Bako National Park warning of crocodile attacks (rangers assured me all trails were safe, just don't wander off toward any brackish water...)

I'm not going to make it to Sabah (although most the state is safe, I was rather deterred by this little invasion...), I fly to Vietnam tomorrow, but I do think I'll be back. There's so much to be explored and the wildlife is incredible. I hiked to a beach and swam in the warmest ocean water I've ever experienced,  I walked through some of the world's biggest caves, I saw orangutans, proboscis monkeys, kingfishers, silvery lutung and all kinds of creepy crawlies. I was nipped (not hard) in the knee by a baby bearded pig and a macaque stole the curried chicken off my plate literally right from under my nose. We'd been warned about thieving monkeys, but I'd spent all day hiking and figured I'd eat too fast for anyone to steal my food - I was wrong. I don't think my photos quite do it all justice, but I'll get some up eventually. Unfortunately, I'm not sure what the upload/Internet speed situation will be in Vietnam.

This week I read a couple issues of The Borneo Post. There was a police blotter item, a woman reported the theft of a bra because she was afraid whoever stole it would use it for black magic. The paper said the woman became aware of the theft when her daughter told her the bra was missing. Me thinks: teenage girls + losing clothes... I'm not sure I see anything sinister there.

It was laughable how obviously the newspaper was the ruling party's mouthpiece (they've been running things for 50+ years). Elections are coming up and one article had a photo of Malaysians holding welfare coupons. The article was all about how well the party has been doing everything. And one official was quoted as saying something like "this welfare isn't an election gimmick, we gave the welfare last year too when there was no election." But then the next day there was another election lead up article, with more mention of these welfare coupons. Another article said officials weren't worried about the opposition trying to buy votes, since it was just an indication of their desperation. Still another article mainly consisted of quotes from an official advising media to be careful about spreading untrue rumors spread by the opposition on social media. 

Other interesting news items: Someone in the government said they needed a thorough survey to root out Shi'ite teachers who may be influencing Malaysian muslims (whom are mostly Sunni). Another article was about finding and punishing clerics who were openly campaigning for the opposition party, which I guess they aren't allowed to do since they're employed by the government. 

Next stop: Saigon!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Even in Borneo...

Exchange with guesthouse clerk while checking in today:

Where in the US are you from?


Did you go to school there too?

No, I went to school in LA.

Which school?

The University of Southern California.


Ah! You're familiar?

I like NCAA basketball.

We aren't very good at basketball, actually right now we aren't very good at football either.

Lane Kiffin.

Argh! Don't talk to me about Lane Kiffin!

You know your team is in trouble when the clerk in Sarawak knows the name of your infamous coach. 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Best of Burma

I've posted these to Facebook, which is the easier way to upload and share photos, but I figured I'd put them on the blog too since this is where I'm writing about my trip and there are a few anti-Facebook family members out there.

I'm in Kuala Lumpur today, mostly taking it easy and sorting photos. My plan for the rest of the day is to find a mall, set up camp in the food court and eat my way through it. Then tomorrow it's off to Borneo!

Yangon banana man

volunteer temple sweepers

Shwedagon Pagoda

Delta boys carrying water

painting half the house is fine

making rubber bands

first they dry in the sun

then this...

becomes this

crowded boat, foot steering
Burmese fair games, roll the tire over the soda without knocking it over and it's all yours

Hpa-an cave canoe men

Hpa-an Cave

Golden Rock

my 6-year-old hiking guide in Pin Oo Lwin

Goteik Viaduct


My trekking group

Inle Lake