Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Things Not to Do In Manila

1) Anything illegal

...actually that about covers it. This comes, thankfully, not from personal experience, but from the fact that I have eyes. You don't have to get hit by a bus to know that it's gonna hurt.

The first thing I noticed upon my arrival in the Philippines was the ammount of security guards everywhere. I dismissed it at first, because I was in the international airport, where heavy security is to be expected. But it wasn't just in the airport. Every single street corner, I realized, had an armed guard, anywhere you went, revolver dangling jauntily from his waist. Gas station guards weilded pump shotguns. Bank guards, AR15 semiautomatic machine guns.

Filipino police don't mess around. Neither will I.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

One Hundred and Twenty Hours

More chaos reigned in five days than it has in any given five years of my life (though USMC Officer Candidate School several years back is a pretty competitive runner-up.) In one hundred and twenty hours, I've been to five countries, been on five flights, missed a flight, been broke, been hungry, and lost my luggage. In other words, it's been an adventure.

April 21 - Tuesday.

Tuesday was my last full day in Thailand, and, being about fifty miles from the border of Myanmar (Burma), I decided to venture in. I admit to feeling slightly on edge as I entered customs... Burma has a reputation, and for good reason. It's home to the world's largest child army, and the grisly scenes of Rambo IV are far from exaggeration. Burma is legitimately one of the worst places on earth.

I entered anyway. The Thai town of Mai Sai ended at a muddy creek which served as the countries' border, and continued on the other side, where it was known as Tha Chalek. The moment I stepped onto Burmese soil, I was assaulted by dozens of dirty, half-clad children chattering away in their local language (none of which I understood) and demonstrating their hunger by miming eating. I'd been told most of the kids in these sorts of crowds were owned by adults looking to make some money off of soft-hearted foreigners, but I couldn't resist, and distributed a handful of Baht.

Those kinds of conditions really make you think... how many screaming brats with Gameboys have it so much better, but still complain, back home? I saw a kid, no older than thirteen, sitting on a brick wall with a machine gun resting on his dangling legs. When I was thirteen, I was playing Donkey Kong. Seeing how the other half lives is sobering.

April 22 - Wednesday.

Off to Vietnam. I left on a flight from Chiang Rai to Bangkok noting that, strangely enough, I'd miss the place. I'd slept on a bench there, starved for three days, lived off my guitar, survived through a week of aqua-mayhem during the Songkran festival, and gotten a nasty stomach bug... not exactly a collection of Kodak moments. But I had overcome stacked odds and made it out alive, and for that alone I will remember it with a bit of fondness.

I landed in Bangkok, strategically wearing a neatral-colored shirt... the political tension in the region was far from over. In Chiang Mai I'd accidentally wandered into the middle of a political demonstration wearing a red shirt - the color of choice for the party trying to oust Thailand's current prime minister. My white collared shirt drew no interest, and I boarded my flight for Hanoi with no trouble at all.

Once landing in Vietnam, I got another strange feeling, similar to the one I'd gotten in Burma. Hanoi was plenty safe, having turned into a major tourism hub in the forty years since the end of America's involvment in the Vietnam Conflict. But to me it was a forbidden territory - all my knowledge of the region had previously come directly through the lense of the war. I'd studied texts, read books, watched films - I even completed my undergraduate thesis on the subject - and Hanoi was the home of the bad guys. No U.S. forces had made it that far north, and never would, unless they returned as noncombatants after 1973.

Walking through Hanoi's Old City district was particularly odd... gazing over it from my seventh-story hotel window yielded a view that was probably only slightly different from forty years ago. Even stranger was the fact that every guy over sixty walking around had almost certainly served during the war. It was oddly surreal. I was sad to have to leave the next day; the geek in my drooled at museums, historical sights, an old MiG fighter mounted on a display along the road. I knew I'd have to return one day.

April 23 - Thursday.

Familiarity is rare when traveling alone, but Malaysia afforded me a small bit of it... I'd been in the Kuala Lumpur International Airport almost exactly a month previously on my way from Australia to Thailand. I wandered the terminal, knowing where everything was, ate at the same Burger King, and relaxed. My flight to Manila didn't leave until the next morning, and I didn't have the money to head into town to stay the night (a special thanks to Visa here for not sending my credit card to me after I requested it, and a special thanks for my sister wiring me money to Manila so I'd be able to eat.) I crashed on an airport seat for the night, eagerly anticipating arriving in the Philippines.

April 24 - Friday.

Disaster greeted me with a big slobbery kiss. My flight had originated in Hanoi - Kuala Lumpur was just a connector - and nobody there told me there'd be a problem with my flight. They were so sure of this that they routed my bag to Manila, so I could pick it up there instead of having to find it in Malaysia and load it again. Such was not the case.

"Where's your ticket out of Philippines?" asked the check-in lady. My heart sank like a stone. Not again... I'd encountered the same problem heading into Thailand, but I didn't expect any problems. I explained that Hanoi had informed me everything was ok. Everything was not.

"You'll miss your flight. Sorry."

She didn't sound very sorry.

A four hundred dollar ticket was down the drain. If luck was a person I'd have broken both his arms. How freakin hard IS it to just have a normal trip? Desparate, I signed onto the internet at a kiosk in the terminal and started researching ticket prices. My original plan had been to make stops in Okinawa and Japan before heading home; the loss of my ticket effectively ended the duration of my trip at the Philippines. I'd have to head home.

Thanks to my sister's efforts in helping, I secured passage to Manila for the next day, as well as a ticket from Manila to Los Angeles. I'll return home on May 14.

April 25 - Saturday.

After hours of flight delays, I finally landed in Manila where, stupidly, there were no Western Union services. I had just enough Malasian Ringitt to exchange into enough Philippino Pisos for a ride to a guesthouse, where they allowed me to pay my bill when I picked up the money.

I have since picked up the money, paid my bill, and now I'm planning my last seventeen days abroad. If they're anything like the first eighty-four, I'm in for an adventure.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Awesome Things Which I Have Yet To Mention Until Now

While there has been no small amount of adversity over my last two weeks of travel, the entirety of my Thailand experience hasn't been so bad. Far from it. Here's a few things which I've not yet written about that've happened during my stay in Southeast Asia:

1) The snake farm in Bangkok. Seemingly antithetical in name (it was called The Red Cross Snake Farm... haha) the complex housed scores of snakes, most of them poisonous. Given my long-standing affinity for snakes, not going was not an option. The two hundred Baht entry fee was worth every, Baht, and featured a duo of fearless (brainless?) snake handlers doing their best to piss off a myriad of cobras and kraits. Quite a spectacle.

Afterwards I wandered the various terrarium exhibits, which housed the rest of the snakes... again, most of them poisonous. If I'd seen something like this as a seven-year-old, I would've peed my pants in excitement.

2) Thai boxing in Chiang Mai. It was absolutely epic... ten fights total, and nine of them were won by knockout. The one that wasn't was an eight-round slugfust, a classic matchup - the big, arrogant heavyweight guy versus the smaller, faster underdog. They beat the crap out of each other, and finally the judges called it for the smaller guy, his opponent stalking off angrily. It was highly entertaining, and left me with a sudden desire to get back into the tournament circuit when I get back home. Maybe I will.

3) A Chiang Mai rendezvous. About a month before I left for my journey, my good buddy Tim left for a year-long missions trip that'll span several continents. It turned out his team was leaving Cambodia and headed for Chiang Mai around the beginning of April - it worked perfectly with my schedule. It was very surreal... a day spent with conversations we'd have back home, but in a completely different context. The last hour before parting ways was spent over a pool table with Heinekens and Thai cigars... it stands as one of my favorite days of the trip thus far, and a memory that'll stick with me for a long time. (We also discussed the status of our pre-journey throwing-of-the-gauntlet... I'll write about it later. Suffice it to say, I am losing.)

4) Celebration of the Thai New Year, or Songkran Festival. It's little more than a waterfest... for an entire week, people drive around in pickup trucks with buckets of water drenching everyone in sight. No truck? No problem - run around the streets with a watergun, use the hose from a storefront... you name it, it happened, for an entire week. Nobody was exempt - children, foreigners, police officers, motorcyclists...


I had a difficult time staying dry that entire week, but it was all in good fun, and in a way I'm glad I got stuck in Chiang Rai... if I hadn't I'd have been in Laos and would've missed it. Funny how that sort of thing works out.

That's all for now... tomorrow I'm headed for Vietnam, then Malaysia, then the Philippine Islands where I'll probably be for two weeks. After that... well... you'll know when I do.

Monday, April 13, 2009

A Zillion Years in Chiang Rai

There's nothing like a little unexpected adversity to spice up a trip.

By now, I'd have expected to be somewhere in Cambodia, having traveled throughout Laos over the past couple days; I'd be on my way to Vietnam afterwards without a care. Pretty straightforward.

Then fate coughed, or tripped, or flatulated, or something equally negatively-toned, undermining my carefully-laid plans; arrival in a small town in northern Thailand was followed by a sudden realization that my VISA credit card was missing. Houston, we have a problem.

Houston had plenty of resources to fix their problems. Me, I had about sixty Baht (a little under two U.S. dollars) in my wallet, and absolutely no clue what to do. I'd met an Aussie guy on the way over, and he graciously let me use his phone, with which I informed VISA of the situation. They promised to send an emergency replacement card, which, I was told, would arrive Monday. It was Thursday night when I made the call; I'd have to spend three days surviving on 60 Baht if I was gonna pull it off. With little choice, I agreed.

The next several days were nothing short of miserable, with events transpiring to confound my every move. My last real meal had been a breakfast on Thursday morning, before leaving Chiang Mai; I wandered through Chiang Rai without a map or a clue, trying to figure out what I was going to do. The money would disappear quickly, I knew, and I'd have to plan wisely. My first thought was a wire transfer through a Western Union bank. With this in mind, I headed for the bank. There, I was informed of the process, but by the time I'd gotten on the internet and gotten the ball rolling, the bank had closed. The hours on the door were listed as 8:30 am to 4 pm. I decided to find a place to sleep and come back first thing in the morning.

After the internet cost and purchasing a slice of banana bread to sustain me for the day, I found shelter under a small pavilion on the outskirts of town, stretched out on the wooden bench, and went to sleep. It was surprisingly comfortable.

I showed up at the Bank the next morning, only to find it closed - the bank hours, I realized, were Monday through Friday. I was wandering in the scorching heat trying to figure out what to do, when a much graver thought occurred to me: Monday was the first day of the Thai New Year. The Songkran Festival, an annual tradition, would last three full days, during which everything would be closed - most notably, banks and post office systems. My heart sank at the realization. Hunger was tearing at my stomach; I reflected on the fact that I'd planned on being in Chiang Rai for one night, and I'd probably end up staying for at least a week.

I sat down on a bench outside a small bookstore and pulled out a small packet of EasyMac, left over from grocery shopping in Australia. I soaked the noodles in a canteen, poured cheese on top, and ate them cold, with the foil package as a bowl and the empty cheese container as a spoon. It was cold and disgusting, but to my empty stomach it was a steak dinner. I walked away feeling greatly refreshed.

By Saturday night I was in a hopeless spot. My last Baht had gone towards more internet, to follow up on the money wiring situation, and to a bottle of water (I was severely dehydrated.) I observed weekend-market stalls being assembled along the road; crowds were starting to show up. And at that moment, sitting on the steps of Bangkok Bank of Chiang Rai, I had one of the better ideas of my life.

I tuned up my guitar, which had been sitting idly next to me, regarded as an annoying piece of luggage to haul through the heat on an empty stomach, and situated myself on an empty portion of curb. I flipped my hat upside down and started playing and singing. (Those who know me know I can't sing at all, which goes to show just how desperate I really was.) Either I'm a much better singer than I thought I was, or God was answering my many prayers (I suspect that latter) because within a half an hour of playing, I had collected over 400 Baht in my hat. I was absolutely stunned. I packed everything up and ten minutes later, I'd located a cheap guesthouse for only 90 Baht a night. And the owner graciously offered to let me just run up a tab there - meals included - and pay it off when I had the money. No more sleeping in the street, which was a huge relief.

Moreover, the hotel was across the street from a Christian church, so I was able to attend Easter services. That was awesome. I didn't understand a word of the message, as it was in Thai, but the pastor seated me next to a guy who spoke enough English to make himself understood, and I was, through him, given enough information to follow what was going on. (In a strange twist of fate, it came out in conversation that his daughter attends UNC Chapel Hill. When he told me, I said "Tarheels National Champions" and he nodded vigorously, smiling broadly and giving me a thumbs-up.)

So the last five days have been massively stressful, and I'm still not out of the woods. I have to procure a visa to Vietnam, which costs about one hundred U.S. dollars, and takes several days to process. Moreover, I've got to schedule a flight to Hanoi, the city from which my plane to the Philippines departs - another one hundred dollars. I don't know if my credit card is actually going to arrive ( I had to send it to a post office, for lack of permanent address) and I'll need enough cash from getting wire transfers to last me the next two weeks, until I can get a more permanent place in Manila. Just thinking about it is giving me a headache.

But there's good news! I decided to give a shot at more guitar-playing, and set up last night in Chiang Rai's night bazaar. I used the same method, overturning my hat, tuning up, and belting out as many tunes as I knew. Cat Stevens, Green Day, Coldplay, Switchfoot, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Weezer, The Eagles, Smashmouth... you name it. I also played some catchy chord combinations and made up words to sing along, knowing nobody would know the difference:

Won't you goooooooooooooooo
With meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee
If you don't you'll never know
Why there's a pineapple tree

Other such nonsense came out, but it turned out to be a good idea. It saved my from repeating myself ad nauseum and kept a steady flow of cash. At one point a missionary visiting from Miami to work in an orphanage showed up and talked to me for a while, which was immensely encouraging. He prayed over me as well, an effort which was not without significant effect; when I returned to my room three hours later, fingers worn to the bone, I counted my earnings.

Just short of 2000 Baht.

I was completely stunned; I hadn't expected a haul anywhere near that large. And though the next several days are rather tentative in terms of timing, I plan to milk the street performances for all they're worth, hopefully earning enough to pay for my visa to Vietnam by tomorrow.

More info coming, as it comes to me.

Left to right: Chiang Rai Night Bazaar where I played my guitar sets; the hotel room I stayed in for two weeks.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

All I Want for Christmas is my One Front Tooth

The first part of this story has absolutely nothing to do with the title, but sit tight. I'll get there.

I arrived in Chiang Mai sometime last week (I've almost completely lost track of what day of the week it is at any given time; it usually takes me a minute of thinking about it to recall. Such is the nature of my journey... idyllic, zephyrous, free of the constraints of time. The only date I need to know is April 23, which is when I have to leave SouthEast Asia.) A vast difference from the noise and bustle of Bangkok, Chiang Mai - about six hundred miles to the north, near the Burma/Laos border - is a large city by Thai standards, but clean, peaceful, friendly, and fun.
I'd met a guy in Bangkok who recommended Spicy Thai Backpackers, a hostel on the west end of town. With no idea where else to go, I took his advice, and after the overnight trainride up, took a tuk-tuk across town. It was only 250 Baht a night (U.S. $7.50) so I signed up.

The greatest thing about backpacking as a method of travel is its relaxed, lackidaisical atmosphere. Take a German, a Swede, an American, a couple Australians and a Canadian who might never otherwise talk to each other, stuff them in a hostel dorm room and suddenly everyone's best mates. My experience has been no exception. I had barely settled into my bunk when a girl from Baltimore and a guy from New Zealand showed up within minutes of each other. Introductions past, the three of us headed for a burger joint on the corner (Western food becomes a craving after a while) and by the time we returned, we'd decided to sign up for a jungle trek together. Completely random, and - as it turned out - completely awesome.

We left on Sunday (at least I think it was a Sunday) and met up with a few of our fellow trekkers, two girls from Malaysia. We rode in the back of a truck about an hour into the mountains, stopped at a small village smack in the middle of nowhere... it was like something out of Rambo (minus the explosions and Stallone sneaking through the rice patties with a hunting knife.) The only evidence of modernity was blue plastic pipes assisting in the irrigation; everything else indicated technology and traditions a thousand years old. Every building was bamboo with thatched roofs, a dirt road winding through the middle and up a slight incline; idle chatter mixed with the spordic barking of dogs. Walking around felt almost sacreligious, as though we were treading through someplace we weren't meant to be.

The villagers were friendly, and had booths out with locally-produced items for sale, a reminder that trekkers frequented the place. I bought some Thai cigars, and after an hour or so of exploration we headed back for the truck.

Our next stop was a small marketplace, where we bought water for the upcoming hike and met the rest of our trekking group. It was a jovial crew, as diverse in nationalities as ours: two girls from France, one from Scotland, a guy from Mexico and a Spaniard. Like us, most of them had just met a day or two previously.

Next was elephant riding. After a massive Thai lunch (I've discovered, with some surprise, that I'm an enormous fan of Thai food [I don't like Chinese or Japanese food]) we clambered atop the beasts and plodded down a trail. While it was a disappointingly mundane experience (imagine sitting on a smelly rock at .0003 MPH) the aesthetic value of it outweighed any problems. Most of my friends were snoring through lectures or imagining quitting their jobs. I was riding an elephant through steamy Asian jungles.

The rest of the day's itinerary was hiking through the jungle. It reminded me of humping Da Nang hill in Quantico during USMC OCS... in other words, absolutely horrendous. We came to a waterfall that cascaded down a thirty-foot rock face; it'd worn a groove into the rock, which happened to make a perfect natural slide. Pouring sweat, we dropped the bags, lined up at the top of the incline and shot down into the pool below. It was one of the more fun things I've ever experienced, and it cooled me down. We left for our destination with high spirits.

Spirits were high, but the mountain was higher, and the heat took its toll. The group split up into several differently-paced sections, bound for the mountain village. Hours later we reached the summit, drenched in sweat, calves screaming, completely exhausted. Our hotel was a very spare bamboo hut perched on the edge of a steep drop, the balcony facing a massive valley. Beds were straw mats on the floor with the obligatory mosquito nets hanging above. They weren't comfortable at all, but once again I reflected on the fact that I didn't have an 8 o' clock class in the morning or a clock-in time at work. Instead I was going rafting.

Thailand is currently in dry season, so the water levels were significantly lower... we were warned that the rafting wouldn't be quite as spectacular as in June or July, in the middle of monsoon season. After the long hike down the mountain punctuated only by a stop at another waterfall, the river was welcoming, high or low. We headed downstream in the rafts, hitting a couple of rapids but were never in danger of overturning, which is the fun part. Miles downstream we switched to flat bamboo rafts, which sat about a foot underwater... propulsion was by bamboo (are you noticing a trend here) pole. At one point we passed a group of elephants on the shore, drifting no more then several yards away. Two seconds after we were downstream they decided the river was a commode, and proceeded accordingly. Suddenly we were going a lot faster. The trip ended shortly thereafter; we clambered ashore and showered off, ate a lunch and headed back for Chiang Mai.

In May of 1998 I was playing street hockey in suburban Cincinatti and caught the back end of a slapshot right in the face. Blood was spilt, and half my tooth was gone. The dentist made a crown and glued it in place. That crown lasted almost exactly ten years.

Sometime on the ride back I noticed my left front tooth was slightly loose.

Three hours later I wondered why there was a piece of bone in my steak... it wasn't a bone. Suddenly I looked like a Neanderthal and had no way of NOT looking like one. And I was 12,000 miles from home. Big, big problem. Fix-o-dent held it in place for about six hours at a time, thankfully, but the biggest problem would be getting it permanently in place. I didn't feel like removing it to eat three times daily.

I found a dentist on the east side of Chiang Mai, and after about two hours of walking, found myself in a sparsely decorated waiting room. I rediscovered the impromptu nature of Thai business: I filled out a brief medical history form, walked into the room and sat on the chair, and the dentist asked what I needed done. The price was negotiated for 1000 Baht to glue it back in place permanently - less than thirty U.S. dollars. Without insurance.

Very quickly I wondered if I was getting exactly what I was paying for. After stabbing my gums with an pick to clear the base of the crown, the dentist placed a towel over my head. Clearly blindfolding me, I thought, so I couldn't see the Thai Tooth Machete when she pulled it out. Several near molar decapitations later, the area was clean and the tooth in place. I walked out no more than twenty minutes after having checked in as a first-time patient... rather efficient compared to U.S. standards.

So it's not December 25, but I'll raft the Mekong River into Laos tomorrow with my One Front Tooth. Merry Christmas, me.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Bangkok was a shock. My arrival, as previously noted, absolutely blew me away; the second day there was spent getting acclimated to the culture, and by day three I was fully enjoying myself. The night markets were absolutely addictive, lined with literally thousands of vendors, and the streets clogged with all manner of traffic. Motorcycles were everywhere, accounting for fully half the vehicles on the street. As lights turned red, they'd swarm to the front of the pack, illegally jockeying for position and - as previously noted - hopping onto the sidewalks if all else failed.

Traffic in Bangkok (and Thailand in general) is absolutely wild, and a little bit intimidating... but it's also been the source of some of my favorite experiences thus far. Small tri-wheeled vehicles called tuk-tuks roam the streets constantly, pouncing on any walking Westerner: "Hey you want tuk-tuk? Where you go? I take you, very cheap!" I was wary of them at first; I'd heard stories of ignorant foreigners paying inflated fares, or accepting "free" rides to "tourist sites" which turned out to either be brothels or vastly overpriced souvenier shops, from which the driver recieved a petrol commission to bring customers. I wanted to avoid such rackets, so I walked. A lot.
Eventually, though, I gave in; they were a part of the culture and I had to indulge. I made sure the price - the average in Bangkok was 100 Baht, or about three U.S. dollars - was decent, the destination clear, and hopped aboard. It was awesome, and I've traveled on countless tuk-tuks since then. (My only bad experience was on the way to the train station... I got taken for a ride in precisely the wrong direction, recognized it, and insisted the driver take me to Hua Lamphong. He looked disappointed, but I had a hard time feeling sorry for him).

Every price in Thailand is negotiable... particularly fares. So when I approached a motorcycle driver in hopes of acquiring a ride across the Chao Phraya River to several of the nearby temples, I figured I'd try to barter down the price. "How much?" I asked.

"Ummm... t'irty!" was the reply.

"Fifteen," I countered.


He got visibly upset. "You pay T'IRTY!" he demanded, "or no ride."

I had exactly 29 Baht in my pocket and offered it, feeling somewhat miserly... it really wasn't that much to pay. But the driver snorted, pocketed it and told me to get on behind him. His compadres, standing around, said something to him and laughed. I think it was something to the effect of "Make sure he doesn't get there alive." The driver tried his best.

Before I could ask for a helmet, he floored it and I nearly flew off the back of the seat. We approached the bridge, which was stuck in a traffic jam... rows of cars snaked up and down the road. I figured we'd just slow down and wait behind the idling traffic like normal, sane human beings want to do. Clearly, I'd forgotten I was in Bangkok. It was like Short Round trying to drive Indiana Jones through downtown Shanghai in Temple of Doom.

He didn't have blocks strapped to his shoes to reach the gas, but the effect was about the same. Short Round cranked down on the throttle, blasting inbetween the rows of idling cars. I reflected on the fact that my hat, turned forward, might blow off due to our speed. Then I reflected on the fact that I was probably going to die, and forgot about the cap. I squeezed my knees in and considered taking Short Round's helmet and putting it on. I decided if we went down, he was coming with me, and his back was gonna be my helmet.

After dodging Toyotas, sideview mirrors, and tiny schoolchildren, we zipped to a sidewalk. Hat - check. Limbs - check. Somehow I'd survived it, and Short Round buzzed off 29 Baht richer. Now I'm in Chiang Mai, five hundred miles away, where motorcycles are the equivalent of five dollars a day to rent. It's gonna be a fun week. In fact, if you come to Thailand in the next week I'll give you a ride.

For 30 Baht, of course.