American Traveler

So far on this trip I have had yet to meet many Americans, especially in the backpacker’s districts of Khao San, or in the laid-back eco-tourism of Laos.
 
But in Vietnam, the American backpackers are proliferating in every city, hostel and “couchsurf”. In the dorm room I’m in, there are six beds, and each one is taken by an American traveling alone. I thought the way I traveled was unique and a bit haphazard, but every American backpacker I meet seems like an urban traveler, searching for the same thing I am–whatever that is.
 
On the bus I met two lone Americans, and for the first time, traveling with people wasn’t a burden. They actually wanted to do the exact same things I did–walk around aimlessly, every now and then hitting a cafe to read our pocketed books, taking all the side streets, walking through the schools and backyards, hitting the museums and art galleries, going to bars that had Locals, not just foreigners.
 
Apparently I’m not an urban traveler at all. Or an “ascetic” traveler, or a “localist” traveler, or a “hardcore” traveler. Just an American traveler.
 
Why Vietnam? The War, of course. The Americans I stay with are concerned with the similarities of the Iraq War with the Vietnam “police action”. Fact-checking, changing our perspectives and seeing ominous similarities everywhere, and discovering the hard kernels about what the American schools taught us. The hard-fact is this: There was no “Communist Threat” to America, they didn’t give a damn about us, unless we tried to get involved. The Gulf of Tonkin was a fabrication, and if we had let the Vietnamese deal with their own issues of Independence, they would have ended up Capitalist anyways–just a Capitalism “in the name of the people.”
 
Countries gaining Independence, historically, are susceptible to Communist Ideology, being a new country concerned primarily “with the people,” in fear of the petty Bourgeois that comes in capitalist third-worlds in Africa. But Communism is an irrational economic system, something that doesn’t take too long to figure out. The War was a meaningless atrocity. It was never about economics to the Vietnamese, it was about being a unified, independant nation, owned “by the people” (as in, by their own state). Americans should have known, from our own revolution, that such a war was impossible to win.
 
I need not go into great detail about the misinformation of American education with Vietnam. Vietnam has a capitalist economy, a destructive totalitarian government, and a people so nice, energetic and enthused that when they find seven Americans together, instead of berating us for the war, they barrage us with questions about America, while we do the same to them about Vietnam.
 
So the museums have been emotional. American dog-tags from soldiers KIA, letters from American POWs, stolen American armory, portrayals of the “solidarity” protests in America during the war…the prison where McCain and many others were kept during the war.  
 
 
It’s difficult coming to a country like this after living in Korea. The Korean war was a conflict so similar to Vietnam and Iraq, except that it was very short, and now considered successful. The difference is had to explain. It may have to do with the fact that the Americans wanted to get out of Korea asap. Unlike Iraq and Vietnam we let the Koreans do almost all of their own fighting, and we were urgent to end the war at the DMZ, letting the Korean government take over almost immediately afterwards. I don’t know what the difference was, the situation was almost identical. One was a vast success, the other an infamous error.
 
Also, in Korea, there was no “Gulf on Tonkin” or “Sept. 11” that turned soldiers into overzealous killing machines. We had come to assist, then leave–not for vengeance, racism or economic gain.
 
So many Americans, the ones concerned with the Iraq War, do what the Bush regime wouldn’t–they come to Vietnam, and try to figure out what went wrong, and how to avoid it. Personally, I’m amazed at how intelligent these Americans are, and how dedicated they are to knowing the hard truth beyond the “authorotative texts”. The journey so far has been emotional, and extremely depressing–not because the Vietnam War was so hazardous, but because it’s so clear now that all the mistakes from Vietnam have already been made in Iraq, as if we started caring five years too late.
 
For now, more Museums, more exploration, more unanswered questions. They call our war the “Anti-American War of Vietnamese Liberation.” I suppose it’s only fair. I don’t remember calling it anything as I was growing up but “the F*ck up.” 
 
One last part about McCain–I trust that nobody is fooled by his VP pick. He intends to steal the Hillary supporters by choosing a female, playing identity politics, selecting an unknown female to represent all women, as if such a thing is possible. She doesn’t represent “all women” any more than Obama represents “all blacks.” These candidates should be judged on their own merits, not their race or gender. Pick accordingly. 
 
 
 
Advertisements

Luang Prabang II

Today I had to find a sign of civilization.

I don’t mean to put Lao down, but after a week without seeing anything worth feeling prideful for being a part of the human race, I craved something innovative, something industrial, technological, anything! I’ve walked absolutely everywhere in this city, and there’s a temple about every block, which is…kind of industrial, kind of impressive.

I walked five kilometers to the airport, and got to see big planes landing! Yeah! That was cool! Humanity–hellz yeah! Then I had to walk another three kilometers to find the first bridge that wasn’t made out of wood and rope! It was made of stone and reinforced by steel! Sweet steel bent into hollow tubes, so beautiful!

I went to a Lao theater and watched some of their traditional dancing and “acting”. Man oh man, what the hell was that? They glorified the trickster myth, the monkey who goes wrecking havoc on any form of greatness that humanity achieves. Really? This is the “idol” that this country needs right now?

Otherwise, as for urban exploration, this city was determined before I got here. It’s a tourist city.

There are direct flights to Luang Prabang from Australia and New Zealand. It’s a UNESCO world heritage city–not site, city–and there’s an “elephant sanctuary” just within city limits, and there are hordes of tour agencies on every city street. I wish I loved trekking, jumping in waterfalls and riding elephants, I wish I was just out of college, living off of my parents money like most of the tourists here.

I got so sick of the tourists today that I had to cross the bridge into unknown territory, which is off the tourist map. There I found schools, technical colleges and the like. That was very heartwarming, to see the Lao people excited about secondary education. There were no tourists on that side of the bridge, and the kindness of the Lao people was relaxing in itself. It was odd though just how many nude children were running about without anyone watching them, pissing in the street and running away from the roosters and cows, which were also free to do what they wanted.

Then I had to come back to the tourist spots. It might seem like I’m exaggerating, but I was proved the essence of this place in a social experiment–sitting in a bar alone. This is not a bad way to meet people. In Vientiane, Bangkok, Beijing, and most every city I travel to, I find cool people in the first ten minutes. The theory goes like this: Whenever I’m with a group of people, preferably drinking, and I see someone young and a bit unattached sitting alone at the bar, I ALWAYS go and talk to them. I usually discover that this person is traveling, or sick of their usual group of friends, or is so into their own work and other passions that they don’t usually go to bars enough to have “a group”. In other words, they’re always people worth knowing. By reversal, I find that if there are cool people to be found in the nightlife scene, the best way to meet them is to sit at a bar alone, and almost always someone interesting–not like the usual crowd, someone who DOES NOT find safety in numbers–will come up and chat. This almost always works, in every city.

In Luang Prabang and Viane Viang? I sit alone for an hour, then leave.

One reason is the French people here don’t speak much English, so I don’t really “chat” with them at the bar, we drink together and dare each other to try the LaoLao alcohol. The second reason is, again, the gigantic groups of Australian and New Zealanders who take their summer vacations here, with hardly any interest in meeting anyone apart from the group that they came with (especially a southeast-Asian, or anyone who looks like one). The other reason is my attitude. The Australians annoy the hell out of me because they think it’s so cool to be drunk and stupid, and they continually remind me of my race. So I act like a dick to them.

The rays of light are the people from the U.K. Maybe it’s because we share an imperial past, maybe because the rest of the world doesn’t seem to like either Americans or the British, or maybe because both of our countries are becoming overwhelmingly multi-cultural, but the Brits are incredibly friendly people and so much fun to hang out with–as well as the French, the ones who can speak English at least.

The nightlife in Luang Prabang is almost non-existent anyway. The only bars around here close at 11:30, and I have yet to walk into a bar and see both Lao and foreigners hanging out together. That’s what you get in tourist cities–it’s incredibly hard meeting a Lao person who doesn’t immediately want your cash, because thats what they expect and the tourists rarely want to meet the locals anyway. I went to maybe four bars last night, and the only Lao people I saw were the ones working there. It was very, very sad. I never see the white people treating the Lao like human beings. They treat them like a spectacle, like props for their cameras, like objects of ridicule. I highly doubt I can penetrate any groups of young Lao people, when there’s an unsaid antipathy between them and the tourists.

I keep bringing up the nightlife because it’s incredibly hot during the day-times here, and I’ve become somewhat nocturnal. God, I want to go to Hanoi already! Where’s my Visa!!

Laos, Vientiane

 

 

Bangkok’s quickly being filtered through my system. They say it takes three days for toxins to leave your bloodstream.

I spent my last two days in Bangkok exploring the barrios and urban destitute areas. Bangkok is known to backpackers as a “Bohemian City.” Bohemian? Sure, if it’s cool to be followed by children holding their hands out for morsels of food, or to twist through canals so polluted and black that stray dogs won’t even piss in it for fear that they’ll get sucked in, or to find it comically conventional to go to see miles and miles of lined up tin huts with copious amounts of naked children peeking out, afraid of showing their bodies. Then yes, it’s bohemian, which as we all know, is cool! Maybe I’ll write a folk song about it, yeah! For the kids!

Praise the poor, they’re so awe-some!

Poor poor, poor like me. I got nothin but rice and beans!

Take it to my roots homies, living on skulls and bones.

Don’t you wish you were poor like me? Don’t ya?

Praise the poor! So they’ll stay the way they are–

cuz rich men are evil, don’t wanna be rich no no never a rich maaaan!

 

On the overflowing banks of the Mekong River, Vientiane in Laos is a sleepy, laidback paradise. I woke up from my $4 motel bed this morning, and had a big glass of coconut shake, iced green tea and a filling meal for about $2.50. I spent the majority of the day reading by the flowing river, talking to the passerbys and feeding the stray cats.

The people in Laos are amazing, very friendly and not super annoying either. For being one of the poorest countries in the world, the people here are quite hopeful. The teens seem conservative enough, though there are loads of condom dispensers in the E-Marts here.

Laos is the forgotten country of SE Asia. Thank God for that, I don’t want anyone else to come here. This is my hideaway, Goddamn it. My Heaven on Earth!

At least that’s the attitude I get from the other foreigners here. Since there’s nothing to do here, and nothing is exactly what I want to do, I’ll take this oppurtunity to answer some questions people have had about my travels.

How do you pay for this?

The short answer is that I don’t, I go further into debt every time I travel, which, compared to the $20,000 of debt I accrued for nine months of graduate school, a couple thousand for traveling is no big deal at all. And of course I’m a super-cheap bastard, and I work while I’m in school, so that helps save for it.

Doesn’t it get lonely traveling alone?

It would be nice to have one person come along with me, but finding an American willing to travel without the aid of “travel tours” or “travel groups” seems impossible. All the other Western countries have no problem with “traveling by ear,” but Americans seem scared shitless. Maybe it’s the constant “avian flu” and “terrorist” warnings our government loves to conjur up.

I meet tons of “foreigners” while I travel anyways. Ideally, I’d like to only meet locals, but the language barrier can be a problem. As for traveling in groups of more than two, no. Never.

What do you get out of it?

I’m not a sexpat, and I rarely go on long hikes or environmental excursions. I love to travel because I get to meet the locals, I’m interested in seeing people living their lives differently than the rest of us, though so much is similar. I also enjoy creating a cognitive map of a city, knowing the city inside and out. Every big city is like a mountain to me, and I feel that I must conquer it. I have a great pride in knowing where the illegal leather market is in Seoul, or how to pay 2 cents to cross the river in Bangkok, or where the so-called “leprosy colonies” are in Busan, or where the best Japanese Sauna is in Foukoka, or where to find the only reliable ATMs in Beijing.

Also, I hate being surprised by international events in the news. Americans should see these things coming.

 

Aren’t you ever afraid of getting a disease, getting robbed, or something unexpected?

Not at all. If any of that happens, then I guess then that’s just it. I’ll just be experiencing for a couple of months what the locals have to put up with every single day.

Bangkok III: Chinatown. Sukhumvit Road

Sukhumvit Road, infamous for so many reasons. Cowboy Road (“Soi Cowboy”) is full of middle aged white men with their Thai girls, (s)exploiting the 3% Thai economy devoted entirely to its prostitution industry.

There are numerous “how to” books found in the bookstores here, all of them a tad entertaining:


Being an anti-prohibitionist, I don’t find anything particularly appaling about this particular part of Bangkok. For foreigners, prostitution is isolated to three key areas in Bangkok: PatPong, Cowboy Road and Nana Plaza, also in Sukhumvit. At least that concentration gives the police one thing left to worry about, and keeps the debauchery in controllable areas. We Americans are naive enough to think that we can just illegalize the oldest profession in history, and that will stop it. The Thai seem to know what they’re doing. And it’s not like the vast majority of sex work in Thailand isn’t patronized by locals themselves.

Still, walking along Sukhumvit Road, it’s hard to look at Thai women the same way. When you’re jumped by dozens at a time, all feigning interest “where are you from you so handsome blah blah” for some quick cash, it’s hard to leave that area and see all the other Thai women as sincere. Suddenly they become generalized and you become suspicious of every word they say. If only it were as easy to isolate our perceptions…

Thailand has the sorry reputation of being a sexpat haven, which I must say it is, but Bangkok is so much more than that. It’s disappointing that when white men sometimes meet Thai women, the first thing they ask them is questions about prostitution.

If you look up “Prostitution” in wikipedia, there is a picture of Cowboy Road in Bangkok. SERIOUSLY.

But they neglect to mention that the world’s most famous prostitution street has tons of elephants! Baby elephants, momma and poppa elephants. Sadly I did not wear a Cowboy hat once while on Cowboy Road…

The advice of a foreigner, his arm around so many Thai girls he could barely balance on his barstool: “Jesus’ best female friends, including Mary Magedeline, were all whores. Dirty, stinky, Biblical whores.” Sip sip.

Chinatown

Like in most cities around the world, the most carefree, cheap and fascinating area to go is Chinatown. It was better than when I went to China. I’ve ended up in Chinatown three times, each on a long journey back to my $7 hotel in Khao San. Every time was unforgettable, packed with people and incredibly small markets; Chinese food that they sometimes just give you; respectable bands of people living in dark, wallowing apartments.

Did I mention all the buildings in Bangkok are delapidated as hell? Chinatown though makes the rest of Bangkok look like a four star hotel. The buildings here aren’t just dilapidated, they’re half-torn down as if from sub-atomic blast, and are on fire! Seriously, I saw at least two of these buildings burning down as I passed, with shrugging Chinese watching and eating eggrolls, while the fire trucks went on with business as usual.

I just applied for my Visa to Laos. Exciting.

Bangkok II: Sillom, Palaces

Still in the “tourist” phase of Bangkok, hopefully this will be the last day of it–BECAUSE IF I HAVE TO SEE ONE MORE BUDDHA STATUE I WILL PUNCH SOMEONE IN THE ADAM’S APPLE.

That about sums up the temples, palaces and so forth. Having studied a great deal of Buddha’s teachings, I never saw the part about making emerald statues and bowing down to metal. Nor the part about spending the poor’s money to make huge palaces of crystal and gold rather than feeding them. Maybe I should study Buddhism more, it’s gotta be in there somewhere!

Sillom is the Wal-street of Bangkok by day, and notorious party center/tourist capital at night. If Khao San is the Backpackers haven, this is definately the tourist haven of Bangkok. I was decked out in a silly hat and Kanye West style glasses, and what was behind “club” number 1? I open the door and find dozens of men in their underwear, dancing and making out and dancing nude on stage. I’ve entered gay heaven!

A bit embarassed, I tried another “club”. The second story of the infamous PatPong market.
“Drink, only 100 Baht!” Some giant of a woman said to me. 100 Baht is three USD.
“Only 100, no funny business,” I said.
“Ok ok.”
Success! A real club…but wait, there are nude women on stage. Ok, that’s a step up from the last club. But wait, what’s that one Thai girl doing with those ping pong balls? Ok, sticking them in there, not too sanitary I dare say. Now…a giant straw? And what are those, darts and balloons? She’s not going to…

POP POP POP

Three in a row! I applauded as two half-nude Thai girls sat next to me and tried to make conversation.
“I’m just a student,” I said, a quick way to hint that I’m not a “sexpat.” The girl to my left went back to the bar, but the girl on my right stayed to chat. She was a student too, and she found herself as a bar-girl to help pay for school. Probably a lie.

Then came the giant woman: “You pay now, 300 Baht.”
“You said 100 Baht.”
“200 for show, 100 for beer.”
I had been in situations like this more times than I can count, and usually I just walk away, but this woman was gigantic, no kidding, plus there were the bouncers. So I paid the extra six bucks.
“Now you tip mamma.”
“Tip mamma? So you’re momma! I’ve been looking for you.”
“Tip mamma!”
“No!”
The bouncers came up, and literally, began drawing up their sleeves, though their muscle mass was scant.
“You tip mamma, and pay for girl. You talk to girl, you pay.”
Then the girl next to me said: “We no talk.”
“You sure you no talk?”
The girl shook her head. The near nude college student girl was lieing for me, and mamma didn’t like that. She took the girl into the back and I made my escape.

I tried more clubs, more bars, feeling groovy, but all of them sucked. Patpong and Sillom are yuppie areas, they’re a spectacle and nothing more. Though this was the first time since I’ve been in Bangkok that I saw Americans. That’s right, Americans! Of course they were all families of tourists staying in four star hotels–but hey, Americans still!

I walked back to Khao San road from Sillom, an extremely long and wearying journey. But now Khao San is much more appreciated, where party-town actually has parties rather than sexploits.

Traveling 2008 I: Khao San

This year I’m sporting two pairs of Nikees as I travel, perhaps to run. First thing in Bangkok, I ate a big bowl of Pad Thai for only 80 cents, and now I’m staying at a nice hotel for $8 a night. The class mobility is killing me.

I’ve been traveling now for awhile, and I thought I’d start blogging my misadventures, like the last two years. If you don’t remember…

2006 – 5 months backpacking and hitch-hiking around the U.S. and Canada

2007 – 3 months backpacking around Japan, Korea and China.

In 2008 I thought I’d go see what brown people are like, so I can judge them effectively from now on, so that now when I stereotype them I can say “I know, I’ve been there. They are all like that.”

This time I’ll be in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, then back to Thailand. Depending on time, I might try to hit Malyasia and Singapore.

As with my previous traveling blogs, I will not hesitate to act like a pushy American in the way I describe my surroundings, my commentary will fluctuate from “that ain’t right” to “that done feel goood.” In other words, I will be as honest as possible in the way I revieve new environments, refusing to yield to a political correctness. My hillbilly, naive and ignorant mind will be revealed in every new setting. I’m a traveling American, some things will just look odd to me.

First, South Korea. I spent the last month there. I found some great people, great new forms of debauchery, got addicted to things like funny hats and street food. I practiced my Korean hard-core. I love Korea, I already miss it. To everyone I know there: You guys are true friends, even if you don’t know it. Travelers are all characters, we all act eccentric. Even my Korean friends were encouraging, I’ll miss everyone! Thank you for letting me be my eccentric, erratic, problem-child self.

I: Bangkok’s Khao San

Khao San is the “Backpacker Haven of the World.” But I’m mostly reminded of all the wandering hippies I saw in America, looking for the nearest dose of drugs. The hippies at Khao San don’t seem to want to leave Khao San, except maybe to the beach or some environmental area. They smell like a cattle and look totally dazed, making no such effort to meet the people here or understand the culture, except to feel spiritual while buzzed on some Thai drug.

I rode a Tuk-Tuk today, walked for extremely long distances, and met some Thai people.

The greatest new thing about traveling, is the totally down to earth “WikiTravel” website. I leave you with goodies from the “people-watching” section:

Peoplespotting

More than any other place in Thailand, Bangkok offers wonderful opportunities for just sitting and watching people go by. Here’s a partial checklist:

  • University student — Many of Thailand’s universities continue to enforce a uniform, and what a uniform: for girls, it’s a formfitting translucent white blouse, black miniskirt and straight black hair. The little shiny logo button on the blouse tells the cognoscenti which particular university she is attending. Boys wear a white dress shirt and black trousers, but ever the non-conformists, you’ll never see one outside school without the shirt pulled out and a few too many buttons open.
  • Office lady — Sharply clad in infinite variations of solid pastel shades, this human houseplant mans customer service desks and pours tea in offices across the capital.
  • Bargirl — Mostly short and dark-skinned farm girls from the provinces, a bargirl can be spotted a mile away thanks to her pink hotpants and the kilo of gold around her neck. Often found in happy financial symbiosis with the sexpat.
  • Sexpat — Fifty-plus, bald, beer belly, stained shirt, lovestruck expression and a hairy arm wrapped around a girl too young to be their daughter. They’ve found what they’re looking for.
  • Ladyboy (kathoey) — Either tall, large-handed, wears too much makeup, possesses an Adam’s apple and has large breasts… or has accomplished the art of camouflage so well that you just filed her/him as an office lady or bargirl.
  • Expat — A farang walking about purposefully in dress shirt and long trousers, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it’s 35°C outside. For extra credit, try to distinguish between the scruffier English teacher type and the jet-setting expense package type. Or try classifying them by the old joke about the three types of expat — missionaries, mercenaries and misfits.
  • Yuppie — Like every other big city, Bangkok boasts a coterie of young professional types who are hip, well-educated and relatively affluent. Similar to the Expat, they usually sport business attire and are likely to be hurried — except they probably know a shortcut, and they aren’t sweating so profusely.
  • Khao San Road brigade — Braided hair, bead necklace, sarongs, shorts and floppy pants. Either on their way to or just back from the beaches. Dazed and bewildered when torn apart from the familiar surroundings of Khao San Road.