Welcome to my travel blog. If you want a sort of framework of my general plans in Asia, click the “Intro to my Adventure” tab above. For the latest updates on what I’m doing, look below.
My travel journal is moving to: http://thecuriousexplorer.blogspot.com/ There you can find updates about how I’m doing in China. Enjoy!
I’m in Hong Kong. It is and it isn’t China. In a lot of ways, it feels like Manhattan; a tiny island crammed with skyscrapers and neon lights.
The area where my guesthouse is, where the bus from the airport dropped me off, felt a lot like Chinatown at first: Small urban stores packed tightly together. Everything written in Chinese, but many things also in English. Mostly Chinese people, but a handful of white tourists as well (actually, I think a lot of the Chinese people are tourists, too). But this was different from other times that I’ve been to Chinatown. It was like the twilight zone, as if I had walked into Chinatown and when I walked out… everything had become Chinatown. Times Square is Chinese Times Square. 5th avenue is Chinese 5th avenue. The Staten Island Ferry is the Chinese Staten Island Ferry. I don’t know how to describe it, there’s just so much Chineseness going on all around me.
Despite Hong Kong being a Cantonese region, I hear TONS of Mandarin everywhere — more than Cantonese, I think. Maybe this is because I am in tourist places, and the Chinese tourists are from the mainland. I get pretty excited when I understand things or see characters I know. My own Mandarin skills are coming out to play a bit, mostly sprinkled into otherwise English conversations with Chinese tourists, the owner of the guesthouse, salespeople. “Pianyi yidian, ke yi ma?” A little bit cheaper please, possible? I am definitely feeling the effects of being surrounded by the language — like I’m swimming in a sea of Mandarin, and it just pours through my ears and into my brain. One of my major goals was to learn enough Mandarin before coming here so that I have a sort of foundation of the language, and though my Mandarin skills are pretty modest, I admit I’m pretty proud of myself for the significant dent I’ve made. The Chinese phrases that I know well, that I’ve used a lot, I am getting the feeling of them by now. Like when I translate them for people, I have a sense in my mind for some unexplainable nuance of the meaning that I cannot share. ‘Ke yi ma?’ can be translated as ‘Can you?’ or ‘Possible?’ but really when I ask someone, ‘Ke yi ma?’ I just want to know if they ke yi or not.
I’ve been in Hong Kong just over a day. Before Hong Kong I was in Bangkok for 36 hours. Coming from 2 weeks in quieter northern Thailand, I’m definitely feeling major accelleration. As soon as I got caffinated, though, I found myself deeply appreciating both cities.
The air pollution in Hong Kong is supposedly bad (you can see the smog over the water), but let me tell you: compared to Bangkok, I feel like I’m standing on a mountain top in the Swiss alps. You can taste the air in Bangkok. On my first day there, I could already feel the complaints of my respiratory system. Cough cough, get me out of here. Sneeze, cough, this is disgusting! After just a few minutes in Bangkok, I felt deeply vindicated of my decision to go to a cleaner, coastal city rather than Shanghai (cough cough) or Beijing (blech, cough, Charlie Coughman cough cough!)… Breathing, afterall, is one of my favorite pastimes.
Speaking of China… TOMORROW I AM GOING TO CHINA! Remember how, for the last however many months, I’ve been telling you: I’m going to China, I’m going to go teach English in China, visa paper work China blah blah Zhuhai yatta yatta Madarin blah-di-blah China? Well I’m going there. Tomorrow. Not a Special Administrative Region of China, like Hong Kong, no. The mainland. The People’s Republic of China. Red China. CHINA. What the fuck?! China is a real place and I’m actually going to go there? Is this thing which I’ve been planning and preparing for for months actually becoming a reality? Honestly though, what the fuck?
Yesterday, I packed up and checked out of my treehouse in Pai. Goodbye, treehouse, I love you!
I returned to Chiang Mai feeling kind of down. I had left behind a place I love and my first real Western friends in Asia. I dislike the city of Chiang Mai — it’s too busy, too grimy, and everyone is trying to rip you off. This time when I arrived, however, I did feel a kind of pride in the fact that I knew my way around by this point and no longer have to take shit from any tuk-tuk drivers (one time, when I asked a tuk-tuk driver to take me to this reggae bar, he instead dropped me off at a bar where 5 prostitutes greeted me enthusiastically before I even stepped out of the vehicle. I am sure they know this driver, and he gets paid commission to drop of farang at this bar. I had to ask some Brits where I was and then walk to my intended destination). I walked out of the bus terminal, away from the offers of rip-off rides, and got a decent price on a bus into town).
So I stepped out of the bus terminal, past the tuk-tuks waiting to charge unreasonable prices, and hailed on of the red busses on the street for a cheap ride into town. I went back to the guesthouse where I had stayed last week (SK House II, if you’re going — very good value but you can get something cheaper if you just want a basic clean room), and the guy there was very nice to me — let me leave my luggage in the storage area and use the guesthouse as a sort of base even though I would not be staying there. It was quite comforting to come back to some kind of home.
Within a few hours, I was on the 8:30 pm all-night bus back to Nakhon Ratchasima (Khorat). I was excited to get on this bus and be rid of Chiang Mai. I like Khorat quite a bit, and I was very happy when I arrived back at Mike’s home here. The workers in Mike’s family iron shop that I walk through to get to Mike’s home smiled at me as I arrived, and now I felt a really warm “I’m home” feeling. My little toy computer (MSI Wind) was here waiting for me, too.
Over my almost two weeks in Thailand so far, I’ve picked up a handful of useful vocabulary. Here is every word that I can say and understand in Thai, in the order that I learned them: hello, foreigner (Western), pork, thank you, yes, no, a little, delicious, hi, ‘Delicious, isn’t it?’, chicken, and crazy.
I was in Chiang Mai most of last week. My spell there feels almost forgettable, though, in comparison to the last four days of my life. By some unexplainable chain of events, I found myself in a magical place called Pai. It’s a small mountain valley town 3 hours north of Chiang Mai that is full of artists, musicians, hippies, travelers and natural beauty.
From the moment I arrived, it was surreal. You see, the 3 hour mini-bus ride there is the absolute most winding route you could ever imagine (seriously, it’s rediculous), so when I stepped off into the bus station, I was completely drunk with nausea. I had been planning to go look for a guesthouse with a few of the people I had met on the bus, but that got replaced with a new plan: sit down immediately.
My mini-bus acquaintances went off on their own, and after about 20 minutes of doing nothing but sitting, I gathered my bags and strolled over in the direction of a place called Golden Hut, recommended by Lonely Planet. Feeling lightheaded and lightfooted, and I turned a few corners and found myself along a beautiful river. I followed a sign for Golden Hut and walked past a long-haired, bearded Thai man who was hosing the soapsuds off his pretty blue motorbike, looking for check-in. “You need a room? I am reception he said.” I told him I did, and he told me they had one free. “Go look at the treehouse, it’s open,” he said, pointing down a dirt path. “150 baht per night.”
I wasn’t sure I had understood him correctly, but sure enough I came up a house in a tree. I checked out the room and it looked fine. I contemplated it for a minute, could think of nothing wrong with living in a tree (house), and went and checked in.
After that, I went into town to explore and get some din-din. I got a fantastic spicy Thai noodle dish at a roadside stand for about 80 cents and grabbed a seat at the little tables they had set up next to them. I was making some small talk with a German girl at the table when a Swiss guy and an Irish girl from the bus came over — aparently one of them knew her. So suddenly we were all eating together. That’s how Pai is — it’s so small that everyone you “know” is right there, and if you don’t know them, don’t worry, you soon will. Throughout my time there, it was just so easy to befriend people from all over the world. It’s because Pai attracts the coolest, most laid-back people (except for me) and they all want to meet each other. Later that night at a bar, sitting around a campfire, I asked a guy if I could talk to him simply because I liked his accent. It was an American accent (Canadian, actually) and I just really really needed to talk to someone who talks like me. He was sitting with 2 Israeli guys and in a minute we were all friends. I saw the Israeli guys by chance the following day, and we went on an adventure to a nearby waterfall and some local hill-tribe villages.
One highlight of my time in Pai was visiting a Chinese village just outside the town. The people, from Yunnan province, are Muslim Chinese, and visiting them excited the shit out of me for 2 reasons: 1) I could speak Mandarin with them and 2) NO PORK! MUSLIMS DO NOT EAT PORK! YAY!!!!! In truth, though, there was something very interesting that happened for me. Being in a world of people vastly different from me, this feeling of connection and comfort that I had with these Muslims reminded me that Judaism and Islam, however much they, uhh, let’s say, bicker… are still brothers cut from the same cloth. In the scope of bigger differences, our similarities stood out. Also, did I mention that chicken dumplings are fucking delicious?
There’s so much to tell, and it’s hard to find time to write. I’ll just try to give a brief sketch of some of the interesting stuff, and maybe some detailed anecdotes of the best.
Chinese New Year with Mike’s Family. Mike’s family is Thai-Chinese, so Chinese New Year is the most important holiday to them just like the Jewish holidays are for American Jews. Around lunchtime, I gathered with all of Mike’s extended family. I chatted with those of them who could speak Mandarin (Mike’s Mom and two of her siblings) and Mike’s cousin who spent a year of high school in Cali, and thus speaks English.
When all of the food was ready, but before we ate, we went outside and created a sort of bonfire, where Mike’s family burned golden papers, fake money and other things in order to send them up to their ancestors in heaven. Remember how in high school, your teacher’s were like, “Listen, all we know about Chinese people is that they worship their ancestors.” Well, it’s true. Mike’s house, as well as the homes of his relatives (which are on the same plot), are full of prominent pictures of Mike’s grandfather (looking quite handsome, in fact). They talk about him all the time, as if he died last month. I was sure that his passing must have been recent, so I asked when he died. Thirty-six years ago, it turns out…
When it came time to eat, there was a smorgasbord on the table, yet somehow only two things to choose from: seafood and pork. Most dishes were pork. So I accepted that I’d be eating some pork (I don’t keep kosher, really, but out of habit/tradition I usually don’t eat it), but figured I might try to favor the vegetable parts of the pork dishes and limit my pork intake to “tremendous” instead of “astronomical”. Fat chance of that. “You must try this soup,” said the English-speaking girl, handing me a bowl and spoon. “What’s in it?” I asked, but really I already knew the answer: cooked dead pig. So I ladled some of the soup into my bowl, but mostly the broth and the vegetables. “This is the best part,” said the girl, taking the bowl from me and pouring a few ladles of pure porkfat into my bowl. No problem though, I just started eating mostly the broth and vegetables from my bowl, and even trying a small part of the pigfat. “Zai Zhongguo, zhege saun hen gui!” added Mike’s mom in Mandarin — “In China, this soup is very expensive!” Amused by the unavoidable porktosity of the situation, I accepted that there was no way I was not going to eat this entire bowl of porksoup. It was actually quite delicious.
Chinese New Year Celebration in the City Center. The Mayor of Nakhon Ratchasima (aka Khorat), elected last year, is Thai-Chinese. This is lucky for me, because it means that this year there was a big Chinese New Year celebration in the city’s center square.
What can I say? A few thousand people, all dressed in red, performances, songs, red lanterns, dragons, food… just incredible.
Thailand has been called “The Land of Smiles” because the people here smile all the time. Maybe you can think of a time you’ve exchanged a smile with a stranger. You’re somewhere in public, riding the subway or something, and something funny happens that everyone can see. You and some stranger make eye contact and exchange a big smile. I love moments like that, they make me feel great.
Well, exchanging smiles with strangers happens here all the time, with or without reason. A Thai girl in the back of a pickup truck sees me loading a big pack of water bottles into my backpack — smiletime! I say the word for delicious in Thai to a street vendor who has just sold me some fucking delicious food — smile’o’clock! I’m walking down the street and I’m a white person — smileattack!
My favorite case of this was last week, when I was walking back to Mike’s home from the Chinese New Year celebration in Nakhon Ratchasima. I was carrying a small dragon puppet on a stick — kind of like the CNY version of a big foam hand, perhaps — and I stopped at the corner to let a motorbike pass in front of me. They paused briefly to assess the traffic, and the guy on the back of the scooter made eye contact with me. He seemed to be delighted by this image of a farang holding a Chinese New Year dragon, and he smiled a big big grin that made his eyes crinkle up real good. I smiled right back at him, we shard a brief moment of warmth, and they motored away.
Motorbikes. A tremendous portion of the traffic here is people riding around on motorbikes. Sometimes, when there are children on them, it is fucking adorable.
Thai Toilets. They’re different. Many places have the kind of toilets I’m used to, but most places that aren’t blatant tourist locales or shopping malls have the typical Thai plumbing (above). Here’s how you flush: