Archive for March, 2009

March 17, 2009

I travel at a lunatic’s pace and as a result, I recently arrived in Kunming, China! It took a 24 hour ride on a sleeper bus, snuggled in a bunk with four other dudes, to get here! I am exhausted and need to rest. I will update you all later this evening or tomorrow.

The border crossing from Laos to China is dramatic. The roads suddenly become drivable, buildings were made out of modern materials, there were cars on the road, trash cans on the sidewalks, advertisements everywhere, etc.

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March 14, 2009

The two day slow boat was cramped! I made it to Luang Prabang and the whole cities electricity comes from generators. Needless to say my internet is extremely unreliable. I will update you more in the near future.

Life in Transit

March 11, 2009

Chang Mai is Southeast Asia’s Cuzco. However, despite my hatred for that tourist trap high in the Andes, I seem to love this perplexing little town. I don’t have time to elaborate on this now.

I made my largest non-transportation related expenditure of my trip thus far today. I spent $26 to participate in Gap’s phenomenal Thai cooking school. We toured a local market to purchase ingredients and then we made eight dishes:

Chicken and vegetables in green curry — we made the curry from scratch.

Tom Yum — a simple chicken stock broth, enhanced with dried red chillies, chili paste, fish oil and sugar. We threw shrimp, vegetables and herbs in there. 

Pad Thai — classic Thai fare. Soy drenched rice noodles stir-fried, with bean sprouts, shrimp, pork, fried egg, peanuts, sugar, fish oil and probably a couple other ingredients.

Vegetable spring rolls — bean sprouts, carrots and some greenery.

Fish cakes — ground fish, fish oil, red curry paste, herbs, and then thrown into a wok full of boiling palm oil Coconut milk based snapper souffle in a banana leaf cup. I can’t remember all the ingredients off the top of my head, but we combined snapper, basil and a coconut milk based broth, filled home-made banana leaf cups, and then steamed for an hour. The broth hardened into a quasi-souffle structure.

Chicken and vegetable stir-fry — lots of herbs, chilies and fish oil. Fantastic.

Steamed pumpkin with custard — carved out a pumpkin, and filled it with a coconut milk based custard. Steamed it for a couple hours.

We were able to cover so much ground because there was a staff that prepped all the materials and washed all the dishes. We would move from one station to the next, while the next was prepared in advance. Herbs and vegetables were chopped, dishes and utensils were placed, etc. Obviously, we ate everything we cooked and they sent us home with a feast of left-overs. There were four other people in my class.

I am starting my three-day trek to Luang Prabang, Laos tomorrow. I am going to catch a bus to Chang Khang, connecting via Chang Rai. I will then spend the night at the border, and take a ferry across in the morning. If water-levels in the Mekong are high enough, I will jump on a two-day slow-boat to Luang Prabang. Otherwise, I will take the easy route to China and head straight to Luang Nam Tha. The mosquitoes are nasty on the Mekong, so I bought some DEET 95 bug-spray yesterday.

I wasn’t planning on making it to Beijing, but I was offered a summer internship with a web start-up there, so I am going to migrate over to do some investigatory work. From there, if I can organize visas for Russia and Kazakhstan, I am seriously considering taking trains from Beijing-Urumqi-Almaty-Moscow. Epic.

Laos!

Minor addendums

March 9, 2009

I forgot to describe in my last post how awkward it was viewing ‘The Watchmen’ in a Thai theater. The film’s irony was completely lost in translation. The film’s alternate reality is one in which America won the Vietnam war and has re-elected Nixon for his third term. The montages of the Watchmen obliterating Vietnamese were definitely not well-received by the audience. Another interesting aspect of my bizarre viewing experience was that they played the Thai national anthem before the movie. Everyone patiently stood with their arms at their side while the the anthem proceeded and photos of the Thai king streamed across the big-screen. At first, I was trying to poke holes in this dose of nationalism, and then I imagined myself in the shoes of a foreigner before any major American sporting event.

Also, I paid 8 bucks for an unbelievable hour-long massage yesterday. $8 garnered me a massage from a professional masseuse at one of the most famous studios in Thailand. Not bad.

Surprisingly, I had an easy time dealing with the US and Chinese embassies this morning. The US embassy doubled my visa pages and I should be able to pick up my China visa this afternoon. If all goes according to plan, I am going to catch an overnight train this evening to Chang Mai. I will spend a couple days there, then make my way into Laos.

Now, here is a quick description of a man I met in my guesthouse last night. When I returned home last evening around 19:00, there was an absolutely disgusting man passed-out on the couch outside my room. He was a balding, bloated, pasty-white heap of ash and booze rudely hogging our flat’s communal area in the early evening. There were two empty 8 ounce bottles of whiskey, an energy drink, a half-eaten container of fried rice and a full ash-tray on the table within arms-reach of the fellow. I cleared some of his stuff offthe table, turned on the BBC and plopped down in the room’s lone chair to eat my pork noodle soup. Tom awoke after thirty minutes, and after another ten minutes of fighting his hangover, he was ready to communicate. I was extremely curious about this chap, and I slowly probed into his background. I will keep the rest of this synopsis brief: Tom has an engineering degree from a university in his home state of North Carolina. He moved to Japan after university, and has been teaching english abroad for the last 14 years. He hasn’t returned home in that period of time. He has married one Thai girl, and has children with two. He is currently unemployed. He doesn’t have enough money to make it through the month, yet he decided to consume two 8 ounce bottles of whiskey, 2 liters of beer and a pack of cigarettes last evening. He now wants to return to the states, and he is angry that his father won’t send him a plane ticket. His father’s excuse is that his son hasn’t come home, and has barely communicated for the past 14 years. How can his dad be so selfish? After all, aren’t they family? Sorry for the rant and being so judgemental. The broad spectrum of humans is astonishing.

I still love Bangkok.

Post-modern, self-aware title

March 8, 2009

I am an anti-social lunatic who steers clear of other backpackers. Most of the kddies I met on my travels north through Malaysia were making the pilgrimage to the Full Moon Party on Ko Pha Ngan. I was planning on joining the trek, but changed my mind on my way to the train station. Something about a crowded island, with ramped-up prices, and being devoid of authentic culture steered me away. I realized that by making the reverse commute, I could have Bangkok all to myself for a few days! I jumped on the beautiful, 22-hour, sleeper train and arrived in Bangkok yesterday morning. I don’t exactly have the city to myself, but I am confident there are dramatically fewer backpackers than there will be in a week.

Judging by my first impression, I passionately love Bangkok — I seem to enjoy the cities other people hate! This city is smoking hot, crowded and in-your-face, but it has a palpable energy and vibrancy that was completely devoid in Malaysia. It was hard to figure out what was wrong about Malaysia, but spending a day in Thailand makes it glaringly obvious. It is boring. I ate dinner in a bustling mega-mall’s food court last night and then people-watched for a couple hours before catching a 21:00 showing of Watchmen! I loved the graphic novel, so I couldn’t resist checking out the movie.

I loved the film and was shocked at how well it was adapted. Anyone who has read the comic will attest to how difficult of a conversion this was. However, to anyone reading this over 30, don’t necessarily run out and see the film because I enjoyed it. It is very dark and hard to understand. I am sure that most people will leave the theater disgusted. Having said that, the concept and execution are brilliant.

The people watching in Bangkok is excellent. I cringe every time I see an ugly old Westerner with a cute young Thai. I passed by dozens of prostitute on my walk home after the movie — none were older than me. After the last couple years, America may not be able to export finance as well as we used to — but we are still exporting an incredible amount of culture. I am getting the impression that the road to being cool in Bangkok is by out-americana-ing your peers. Last night, I saw an early-twenty-something wearing a vintage yellow packers t-shirt and dragging two babes around. Speaking English, wearing American brands, listening to American music — these are symbols of status in Thailand. At least we still have one thing going for us.

My passport is going to be full after China, so I made an appointment at the US embassy for 7:30 tomorrow. I am going to jet over to the Chinese embassy after to try for a China visa. Wish me luck.

I am staying way out of the backpacker’s zone, close to Lumphini park. The park is massive and has an adult-playground where thousands of elderly Thais exercise in-synch every morning and evening to the sounds of blaring techno beats. More of that epic Thai people watching.

March 5, 2009

I am currently in the shit-hole city of Georgetown. Malaysia is full of contradictions and can’t decide whether or not it wants to complete its transformation into a first world nation (or close to one.) Despite the fact that I can’t stand this country’s culture, I think it has immense potential for development and investing over the next decade. The beaches and islands on the east coast are untouched and some of the most beautiful in the world. The people are very well educated and speak many languages — Chinese, English, Tamil, Malay, Arabic are all very common. The roads and infrastructure are excellent. Furthermore, we have recently seen Middle Eastern arabs pull something like a trillion dollars out of hedge funds — there are many reasons why this might be the next destination for some of this cash: foreigners can own land, many banks practice Islamic banking, it is a Muslim country, the landscape is extremely diverse and resource rich, highly educated populace, etc. Everything here is unbelievably cheap (except alcohol.) I have been told that Thailand is cheaper, but Malaysia’s prices are similar to Paraguay’s. My hostels normally cost $3, food is ~ $5 and a five hour bus ride is $6. I am easily surviving on less than $12 on days I don’t travel.

However, the opportunities in Malaysia are nothing compared to those in Laos because of the major infrastructure projects that China has been sponsoring. Laos is about to transition from transporting people and merchandise via rivers to roads. It is sandwiched between China and the more developed parts of SE Asia. Obviously, it is impeding China’s trade and Laos is going to develop unbelievably rapidly as a result. I will write more about this when I see it for myself in a couple weeks.

I have primarily been eating healthy vegetarian Indian food and Chinese soups, so I got a massive and bizarre craving for calories this evening. I couldn’t stop thinking about peanuts and milk, so I practically ran to 7-eleven and feasted on about a thousand calories of fat. While eating my food, I watched some old Chinese dudes play a slightly more advanced version of checkers, and then got another craving for Calcium. I went back into the 7-eleven and bought two ice cream bars. Calories and Calcium. Just two of the many nutrients lacking in this diet.

I am jumping on a train heading north to Thailand tomorrow afternoon.

Also, I expressed interest in an Italian dude’s copy of Haruki Murakami’s After Dark yesterday afternoon, and he generously gave it to me. I opened it at 19:40 and finished it fourteen hours later at 9:40. It completely sucked me in. His off-the-cuff insights were dead-on and his descriptions were terse and hilarious. Pick it up nun.

March 4, 2009

I trekked through the jungle for a couple hours today to take a tour of a tea plantation.

I met a crazy dude in KL who invited me to his family’s tiny apartment in a suburb. He taught me to cook Char Kuay Teow and I saw authentic Malaysian apartment life.

I am leaving the Cameron Highlands in the morning on my way to Penang, where I can check out a massive and touristy island for an evening or get straight on a train to Thailand. I will keep you all updated.

March 2, 2009

The instincts and adrenaline that kick-in when you are moving between cities is intense. It is impossible to focus when you are hungry and shelter is uncertain. Humans are unbelievable organisms — but there is no way we can have expectations for the world’s ultra-poor when the source of their next meal and medium-term shelter is unknown.

I am in KL!

Meandering Malaysia

March 1, 2009

I ventured across another border this morning — my sixteenth country in less than two months! I am spending the afternoon and evening in Malacca, before heading to Kuala Lumpur tomorrow. In case you didn’t know, I am fascinated by maps and the history of trade. In particular, I have been intrigued by the spice trade and how it affected the spread of Islam. Malacca was probably the world’s most important trade hub during parts of the 16th and 17th centuries. Thus, despite its pathetically deteriorated state, I felt a sincere obligation to at least pass through. It is incredible how ephemeral civilization can be — Malacca is a complete dump.

I have many thoughts on Singapore, but I am going to keep most of them to myself for now. A common theme that has persisted throughout my travels is a shocking level of consumerism. I was expecting it in Singapore, but it is surprising how much junk gets pawned off the streets.

My tentative itinerary for the next few days is: 1 night in Malacca, 2 nights in Kuala Lumpur, 2 nights in Cameron Highlands (tea plantations and strawberry farms abound!), 1 night in Georgetown, train to Hat Yai, Thailand, quickly make my way to Ko Pha-Ngan for its legendary full-moon party on March 10th. I am sure the rave is commercialized crap at this point, but I can’t resist this opportunity to people watch. I am expecting humanity at its finest (sarcasm.)

Thus far, the food in SE Asia has been incredible. I ate exquisite Hainanese Chicken Rice at a hawker stand for 2 bucks in Singapore. I got my ass kicked by the intense spice of my lunch of the day in Singapore’s Little India. I have also had my fix of Char Kway Teow.

Oh yeah, I am on pace to make it through today having spent less than $15 — including $6 in transportation.