Part 5: The Passage to Cambodia 1

The following morning was not the easiest of times to say the least.  We both struggled to get up and clean ourselves up.  But we had to be up and out of there to meet the guide who would take us to the bus.  He met us outside the hostel and led us towards the main road, herding other passengers on the way, as is customary on any bus journey here.  Every step was a struggle in the heat, and the idea of being on a bus for an unknown amount of time wasn’t the most attractive of prospects.

We were at the head of the pack of bus goers, and once we got to the main street the guide shouted out to me, “bah led cala!” as he climbed on to the back of a scooter and took off.  I have to admit I had a hard time understanding most people in Thailand and Madonna served as the interpreter of the group even when people were speaking in English.  I thought oh he wants us to go to a street named “baht led cala”- that sounds quite Thai and plausible.  As I was surveying the street signs, Madonna looked at me and said, “You idiot.  He said bus red colour.  It’s right there!”  Oh he meant that huge red bus right in front of us.  I see.

As is the norm in these parts it’s hard to actually get someone to tell you what bus is going where and if the one standing right in front of you is actually going where you need it to go.  The decals on the bus spelling out every city from Chang Mai to Pattaya aren’t exactly helpful either.  I saw a few tourists who I thought were from some Andean region, owing to their facial structure and use of Spanish.  I’ll interject here and say that I am obsessed with the idea that I can tell where a person is from simply from the bone structure of their face.  It may or may not be real, but I’m going to keep on pretending that it’s my superpower.  For the record they were Chilean- a fact I learned from peeking at their passports later.

 

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Part 4: One Night in Bangkok

That night we wandered into a large open restaurant, parallel to Khaosan, which seemed to be full of foreigners and had a huge menu.  We both ordered several dishes to try as we are both quite fond of Thai food.  To start with we had those delicious spring rolls that seem to taste so much better here.  And for the main we had a spicy green curry and some crispy fired shrimp.  Thai food has a great aroma and spice to it which makes you want to just keep eating more.  The smell of basil, lemongrass and all their other aromatics filled the air.  Everything that everyone around us ordered just looked and smelled absolutely delectable, and being the definition of a glutton, it was quite hard for me to abstain from continuously ordering more food and icy cold tiger beers.  Come to think of it ‘icy’ may be a bit of an exageration- I don’t think Southeast Asia has quite yet got the concept of adequately chilled drinks.  But hey, who’s going to complain about a one dollar beer?  Definitely not me.

We made our way back to the main street and the night time festivities had kicked off.  The street was packed to the brim with travellers looking for a good time and locals looking to service and likely exploit their every whim.  Bars spill out on to the street in Khaosan and a trusty Sangsom bucket is never too far away.  We were looking to make it an early night because the bus was quite early the next morning, but how often does that ever really happen here.  The two of us were feeling quite mellow but that magic mixture of Thai whiskey/maybe rum?, red bull, and coke got us going again.  We ended up at a rooftop balcony place with live music which I had frequented the last time I was here under similar circumstances.

The bar didn’t seem as lively as usual at first, save for a few Japanese tourists going mental in the back.  Trust them to have a good time anywhere.  Their energy was infectious- it even got us going regardless of how spent we were feeling earlier.  Then came the band that totally blew the lid off the place.  A stunning Thai girl and her accompaniment broke out into Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” and the whole venue went crazy.  Everyone was dancing with everyone- even me with my two left feet- and all the faces had one look- pure unbridled bliss.  Every song from then on was perfect, and every man in the place was enamoured by that beautiful singer and her incredible voice.  The little else I can remember from that night is eating two pad thais back to back off the street and being asked to clean up by an angry security guard, which seemed a bit unnecessary, seeing as the entire street was covered in garbage.  Those street pad thais on Khaosan are positively heavenly when you’re sober, and when you’re a little drunk, they’re even better.  Funnily enough if you’re interested in the history of Pad Thai, I wrote what I consider a work of art on the topic, that’s probably somewhere on this site.

Part 3: Khaosan

We had both been to Thailand before on our own trips and weren’t keen on spending too much time there, especially in Bangkok.  Of course Khaosan has its way of making you stay which I had become well aware of the last time I was there.  Madonna said she had stayed in a pretty nice hostel there the last time she was in town and, they had a vacancy.  We booked a couple of dorm beds online and made our way to Khaosan in a taxi.

It was reasonably early in the day when we got there and as soon as we stepped out of our taxi an on to the street, all the memories or lack there of came flooding back to me.  Here we were in the centre of the backpacking universe on a street like no other- littered with travellers from all over the world (in particular Europeans), street stalls, staffed by the burmese and nepalese, selling everything from Oakley’s and beats to Harvard diplomas, and the aroma of all sorts of delicious and exciting things to eat and drink.

I was anxious though.  The beast within  me had been brewing since friday night and I had to find refuge.  We checked into the hostel, which was expensive by Bangkok standards but likely reasonable for anywhere else.  None of this mattered to me though, because the toilet was absolutely pristine and I had rarely before felt such sweet relief.  The both of us took a bit of a nap and decided to hit the street later for a bit of food and drink.  Nothing too excessive we hoped as we planned to head for Cambodia in the morning.

First things first though, as we left the hostel, we had to book the bus to Cambodia and I had to get some passport photos for the visas.  I got the pictures from a combination tattoo parlour and passport photo studio because those definitely exist all over the world, and we set off on a bit of a food tour of Khaosan and the surrounding area.

Part 2: Arriving in Thailand

Once we arrived at Don Mueang airport, that familiar combination of heat and humidity hit us like a rogue wave, confirming that yes we had in fact made it to Southeast Asia.  Thailand had a familiar feel to me, it always reminded me of Kerala, and I felt instantly comfortable there.  The familiar hordes of Chinese tourists, interspersed with weathered backpackers, sporting dreads and elephant pants, made for interesting people watching, while we spent what felt like an eternity in the immigration line.

It was interesting for me to look these backpackers up and down.  Were they weeks, and maybe even months into their trips?  Or did they just always look like that?  Like every subculture, they have their uniform- unkept yet purposefully so, bearing trinkets acquired along the way- with the more well off ones sporting Fjallraven bags and Patagonia outerwear.  I have to admit I harbored an immediate distaste for them for no apparent reason other than that I felt that they had this air of superiority and judgement around them.  To them it would have been obvious that we were just beginning our trip, and definitely weren’t backpackers by trade (at least I wasn’t), looking very much like we were setting off together on our first high school field trip.  But, you know what fuck them.  I was happy in my BB8 t-shirt. Although I did wonder how different would we look on our return.  Would I become…ONE of THEM??

 

Part 1: The Beginning

My trip began in Bangkok.  Well really it began the night before in Ori.  I hadn’t got much sleep since we had spent the night and quite a bit of the ensuing morning at a chicken and beer place indulging one last time in Korea’s favourite fast food past time.  I had eaten a lot of chicken and drank a lot of beer, so my stomach wasn’t exactly in the best of conditions.  I knew I was leaving Korea, so I wanted to get one last fill of delicious fried chicken and watered down shitty beer.  I may have gone a bit overboard.  This, coupled with the anxiety of leaving the ROK once and for all, was perhaps more than my body could handle at the time.   Odorous vapors emanated from me at frequent intervals and I’m sure everyone around me was well aware of my gaseous state.

I didn’t want to use the toilet at Yaz and Keira’s place in order to spare them the terror that was brewing inside of me.  I was really missing my apartment and my bathroom at this point, but alas it was no longer mine.  As a result I didn’t sleep much that night and resorted to just laying on the floor with my eyes closed for about an hour.

When it came time to head to the airport bus I was totally out of it, and Yaz had decided to go into full on concerned parent mode.  He was scouring through our bags ridding them of anything that he deemed was unnecessary, as well as making sure that we had what we really needed.  Admittedly I may have over packed, deciding to bring around eight pairs of shorts for a trip that was only a little over a month.  With gritted teeth I watched as most of them were pulled out among the cry, “these are going in the donation box!”

Yaz walked us to the bus stop in the light of the early hours and the trip to Incheon was fairly uneventful…I think- it definitely wasn’t one of the most lucid of journeys.  Even the airport and the flight over to Thailand seemed a daze.  When I finally came to I was in Bangkok, on my way to that black hole of all things sacred- Khaosan road.

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Akihabara

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Akihabara is the living embodiment of every video game nerd and Japanophile’s wet dream- it is flowing over the brim  with electronic stores: brandishing everything from memory cards to time machines; as well as novelties as the Maid and Gundam cafes; and of course it is home to the highest concentration of video game arcades in the entire city of Tokyo.  Sega, a fading icon in the west still dominates Japan when it comes to the gaming scene and almost every corner of Akihabara is marked by one kind of Club Sega or another.  Going into these places is like cutting yourself off entirely from the outside world and entering an entirely new one.  The bottom floors of Club Sega are usually reserved for those, more often than not, incredibly frustrating claw games.  Here you can usually find girls of all ages vying for that elusive stuffed toy that they simply must add to their collection.  I have to admit I’ve never seen the appeal of these toys or these games, but it seems like a great place to bring a date and impress her with those crane skills you’ve honed at the local construction yard. The upper floors house the machines targeted towards more of the hardcore gamer crowd.  One or two floors usually serve as a shrine to the ever popular Japanese fighting games.  Here one can find school boys, salary workers, and even old men battling it out for supremacy.  Machines range from the latest Tekken and Street Fighter games to the now almost archaic Virtua Fighter, among others.  Herein lies what I believe to be one of the most beautiful things about Japan- no one cares that Virtua Fighter is so old- to them it is a well designed game with great entertainment value and they will always be lining up to play it.  I spent most of my time on the fighting game floors (because the language of punching and kicking people in the face for entertainment is universal) trying to button mash my way to some victories– and they did come, just few and far between. I could’ve spent hours there drinking the Asahis I’d brought in, but there was still more to explore.  The highest floors of Club Sega are where the real gamers reside, and I was completely out of my depth here.  All the games here were in the vein of mobile suit Gundam, where the player takes control of a robotic suit and guns down other robot suits and miscellaneous aliens.  Some of the machines here even had pods that the player enters to further heighten the experience.  Other games on these floors are the music ones where players tap different buttons to the beat of music that seems supersonically fast.  The hand speed I witnessed here was beyond what I though was humanly possible- these people have obviously dedicated a good part of their lives to honing their craft (something evident in every facet of Japanese life).  It was almost surreal, scratch that it was surreal.  The whole place was surreal.  It’s obvious that in Japanese society video games are an integral thread in the fabric of life.  The most beautiful part of it all, is that people from all walks of life enjoy themselves in a way that isn’t childish, but rather is a way where fun is the only thing that matters, and any other idiotic invisibilities that we have thought up to make our lives less fun, are totally absent.  In Japan it seems people are not afraid to commit themselves entirely to hobbies that we in the west would consider abnormal or outside the realm of ordinary society, and Akihabara serves as a showcase for just one of those varied interests.

The Sky is Falling

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So many stories have been written and so many different views have been expressed on the situation in Tibet. The region truly exists in a grey space, that is incredibly difficult to definitively pin down.  Is the Dalai Lama simply a feudalistic overlord hungry for total autonomy?  Or is he, in fact compassion incarnate, as so many of the Tibetan people, and in particular the elders, believe?  There have been several reports on Tibet’s apparent modernization following the forced exile of the Dalai Lama: modernization that brings with it over crowding, pollution, criminal elements, and very base desires that destroy the sanctity of a peaceful society (desires which I admit I wholeheartedly partake in). Many  in the west, are flocking to the east for a taste of their philosophy and way of life, because they have fallen victim to the lack of fulfillment that a life dominated by consumerism and meaningless facades provides. It is obvious that certain traditional powers in the West are using the situation in Tibet to undermine China’s rapid progress on the world stage, in particular by pointing to human rights violations.  But China is so preoccupied with its ideas of progress that it cannot, or chooses not to, see that the issue here is simply a difference in values- that is to say in what people desire out of life.  To me, Tibet is the last stronghold of a non-materialistic, non-consumerist society; a tiny speck on the map of the world that has managed to avoid the technology fueled madness we have all been consumed by.  Victor Hugo would have seen China as the embodiment of the middle class; a country, proud of its  progress and one that is obsessed with reaching the highest of strata so that maybe one day it can forget its supposedly backward roots.  These very roots are what the Tibetan Buddhists embrace- to them, embracing the mystical, helping those in need, devotion, piety and striving for inner balance is what is most important – as opposed to having the latest cell phone or being able to buy Nike shoes or Starbucks coffee in their own town.  But the question remains, when so many other groups are fighting for sovereignty within larger countries, why should the cries of Tibetans be considered any more or less valid than theirs.

The young refugees hopping the border between China and India are not necessarily running away from physical violence or torture but are being sent away by their parents because of an ideological fear.  These parents are scared that once all the bright lights and fancy cars replace the oil lamps and sand beaten paths of their homeland, their children will no longer be free of the crippling desire for what they see as meaningless material gain.  They’re scared that sending their children to Chinese run schools would leave them intellectually deficient in anything outside of the Chinese mindset.  The Tibetan children’s village in Dharamsala, known as Norbulinka, is a wonderful centre for learning, and upon visiting the village,the surrounding libraries, and archives can one truly understand the vast deeply rich culture of Tibetans.  This is what parents want their children to know and this is what they believe will help them make their own decisions and not be unwillingly swayed by external pressures.  The older Tibetan generations feel the Chinese are brainwashing their youngsters and drawing them away from their culture by enticing them with shiny modern temptations.  One can however see the parents as over protective and ignorant of a Chinese view that might not be as biased and destructive as they believe  it to be.

Tibet, is by no means a utopia where everyone is at one with themselves. People often think all Tibetans are those red robed, shaved head proponents of peace and nirvana,  but they are actually just people and like people everywhere else in the world they want to find fulfillment in their lives, find love, have a family and to be happy.  There is one telling difference however, at least in the older generation, they unlike most of the world are not trying to etch their name in history or become great movie stars or multi-millionaires. Their desires are much more personal and intimate, and I honestly believe they are much more fulfilling. Of course, some people claim the real reason behind the outcry is the Tibetan upper classes fear that they won’t be able to enjoy the elitist pleasures they have under the Dalai Lama’s rule.  But commercializing the society is not going to bring about a balance between the social classes; if anything it will just widen the divide.

Alas, I feel that the recent slander against the Dalai Lama has caused him to lose his place within the minds of Tibet’s up and coming generation.  He no longer cuts the figure he once did.  Even Tibetans, now feel that he is conspiring against his own people to control them and hold back the development that will in fact ‘liberate’ them.  It could be said that this so called development has left the over populated, over stressed, grossly unemployed, and increasingly unequal western world quite far from what I would call liberated.  I have just returned from a trip to McLeod Ganj, the adopted home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government, and after reading countless articles and interviews regarding the situation I felt obligated, no, compelled to write what I know.  I volunteered at a community café with several Tibetan refugees and listened to their stories and their aspirations for the future. I can honestly tell you that I have never met nicer and more honest people. They are honest in an incredibly innocent and disarming way, and I learnt that they were all just trying to find a nice girl, a decent room to rent, and a new motorbike to ride up and down the mountain.  And this truly made me believe that although the spectacle of the world lies in the differences between its cultures, the miracle of it exists in the similarities between people; their desires, their confusion, their hopes and their fears.