The Highs and Lows of the Tour

After Thailand, my parents and I had two more stops in SE Asia on our tour: Luang Prabang, Laos and Siem Reap, Cambodia. Little did we know they would prove to be my favorite and least favorite parts of the journey.

Luang Prabang sits up in the mountains of Laos, so not only does it have beautiful rugged terrain surrounding it, it is also quite a bit cooler than other places I’ve been in SE Asia. Backpackers have made it there, bringing good coffee shops and some more diverse food. But it hasn’t been overrun with tourists, and still feels inherently Laotian. At least for now. A fellow traveler said it reminder her of Chiang Mai… 25 years ago.

There are plenty of temples to explore, featuring wonderful mosaics. We strolled through a couple, even though we were starting to feel temple saturation by this point. We even woke up early one morning to participate in the ritual of giving sticky rice to the monks that go around collecting their daily rations. We also went to the cave temples on the outskirts of town, down the Mekong.

Cruising along the river for the afternoon was for me the highlight of the trip. It was hard not to enjoy the fresh air and fabulous scenery. In fact, I could easily see myself returning to explore some of the incredible nature around… or sitting in a cafe all day, doing nothing but soaking up the laid back atmosphere of the town.

Siem Reap is a whole different story. It’s hot. It’s humid. It’s flat, with little of geographic interest. The food doesn’t match up to its neighbor to the west (Thailand). It’s dirty. As you head out of town, it gets dirtier. Roads are bad. Tonle Sap is a disgusting body of water that smells like open sewage. Yes, Angkor Wat is an extremely cool place, and I enjoyed learning about the ancient city and seeing the beautiful temple complexes covered by carvings and jungle. It is impossible not to feel the sense of history here.

But Siem Reap moves into my #1 position as least favorite place I have ever been. A spot formerly occupied by Cartagena.

It did have me wondering, though, about development and the role that recent history, culture, and attitude play in what countries look like today. I can’t help but compare Cambodia with Colombia. Both struggled through really dark times were violence and murder was the norm, the government was completely corrupt, and the people were left behind as power hungry men pursued their own interests.

But to look at Colombia today, you almost wouldn’t know that there were ever any struggles (and the height of their dark days is more recent than in Cambodia). Sure nothing is perfect – the agreement with FARC goes too far for some and not far enough for others, there are parts of the country where instability continues to reign, and thousands still mourn the loss of their loved ones. But whereas Colombia seems determined to pull itself out of the shadows, Cambodia appears resigned to be there.

Maybe it’s just me. Some people I have talked to really love Cambodia. Travel bloggers rave about how “authentic” it is. But authentic doesn’t mean beautiful. Authentic doesn’t mean pleasant or enjoyable. Authentic doesn’t even mean interesting. I am sure it’s not fair to judge Cambodia by this one corner of it, just as it wouldn’t be fair to judge Colombia by Cartagena… But with so many beautiful places in the world to see, I can’t say I am in any rush to go back.

What’s Wat, Sweaty Crap, and More In Thailand

Wow, I feel like it has been ages since I have sat down and reflected on what I have been up to. And since I have last posted I’ve been playing absolute tourist, moving fast, in five countries. But I am getting ahead of myself…

After Indonesia, I made my way to Thailand where my first stop was Phuket. I didn’t love it. There were more Russians than Thais, the beaches were meh, you couldn’t get away from touristy restaurants and massage parlors begging you to come in, and the whole thing really had me missing Virginia Beach (and VA Beach is nothing to get excited about). Don’t get me wrong, I did get my fair share of massages and still relaxed on the beach, but where I stayed (Kamala then Kata) lacked charm and any sense of place.

One thing that was super fab was, after many years pending on the bucket list, I obtained my PADI Open Water certification for SCUBA diving. That was pretty awesome, and it sounds like I will have to return to Malaysia and Indonesia for some of the world’s best dive spots.

After a week of chilling at the beach, I made my way to Bangkok where I met up with my parents and we began a two-plus-week tour mainly through Thailand. I was super-thrilled to see them and we did get have some wonderful experiences in Thailand, including visiting the modern art spectacle that is the White Temple, getting family Thai massages, and watching lanterns floating into the river and the sky for Loy Kathong.

I also took a cooking class with mom in Chiang Mai. I have always enjoyed Thai food, and now my appreciation of the food has expanded, and I *may* even have enough confidence to try out a few dishes when we get home. But overall Thailand was… as meh as the beaches in Phuket. There wasn’t a single city or town that I have a need to go back to, not even hipster mecca Chiang Mai. I feel overloaded on temples, or “wat” in Thai. And the pictures of the King everywhere and (legally mandated) positive vibes towards him is downright creepy to me.

The most interesting part of Thailand to me was the language. In addition to all the “fun” jokes about ‘what wat?’ that one can make in Thailand, men also great people by saying sawadee krap. It sounds like “sweaty crap” in English (which, with the heat and humidity, is probably what you are feeling like). But the interesting thing is that men say this. Women would say sawadee ka. This is the first time I have come across a gender distinction in language based on the gender of the speaker rather than the thing/person being spoken about. And it extends to about every utterance. Not just “hello ka,” but “thank you ka,” “how much is it ka,” and so on.

While in Thailand we actually also took a day trip to Myanmar. The difference between Myanmar and Thailand is sharp. In Thailand, roads are perfect and paved, the countryside is litter-free, and everyone looks happy and healthy. In Myanmar tuk tuks rattle over rutted dirt roads, rolling by rivers clogged with trash, and some of the most grim looking street dogs I have ever seen. The temples were beautiful, though, and honestly if I had to live in Myanmar I would become a Buddhist nun and live in one.

At the end of the day, I can’t say I was unhappy to leave Myanmar and come back to Thailand. “Meh” was looking pretty good. Here are some fave pics from the trip.

And Now For Something Completely Different

While looking at a map of Malaysia and Singapore I realized just how narrow the Strait of Malacca looked, and figured that a trip to Sumatra, Indonesia would be easy. Why Sumatra? In addition to that delightful coffee at Starbucks, which is probably where I first encountered the name of this island (and maybe even its neighbor, Java), I know that Sumatra is one of only TWO places in the world where you can still see Orangutans in the wild in their natural habitat. The other being Borneo. (Thanks, Tina!)

The word orangutan come from Indonesian/Malay for “people of the forest,” and thus to the forest (jungle) I was heading! I flew into Medan and headed straight for Bukit Lawang, a delightful tourist village at the gates of the Gunung Leuser National Park. To get to my accommodation, I had to cross a swaying wooden suspension bridge. Other than that, we were on solid ground. It was humid, and the start of rainy season meant I was in for some impressive storms, but I really enjoyed my visit there.

In many ways, Indonesia is not entirely different from what I saw in Malaysia. A predominantly Muslim country with similar language, plant life, and food (SO much fried rice). But being able to see the orangutans in this way was something truly unique. It even made sweating and hiking through the jungle all day worth it.

It was also one of the most difficult places for me to travel. I’ve reflected in the past on the comforts of American life I can do without: AC, microwaves, clothes dryers, 24/7 electricity, etc. But I found my limit. I do not enjoy being without regular access to a real, WARM, shower – with running water and everything. Bucket showers are not for me. And access to a western toilet is clutch.  Litter everywhere, crazy traffic, and everyone always smoking were not my favorites either – but that’s par for the course in much of the world.

I also went to Lake Toba, a giant crater lake, and stayed a night in Medan. The lake was beautiful, but Medan was nothing to get excited about.  Driving around the countryside, seeing dramatic volcanoes and endless palm oil farms was a combo of amazing yet troubling. After a week there, I was ready to leave. But I am hoping I will be back for another visit. There is, of course, Eat-Pray-Love-famous Bali to see. Java is apparently chock full of fabulous temples. And maybe one day I’ll see the dragons of Komodo. 

A Singapore Sandwich

As you may remember, I was in Malaysia, soaking up all the culture, food, and things that make this part of the world so different from mine. I was also soaking in sweat and getting tired of being gawked at and just a tad uncomfortable all the time. So I decided to sandwich a visit to Singapore in between less-developed Malaysia and Indonesia,

I spent three full days walking (and walking, and walking) around the city. It is fantastic. It reminds me of London – very international, excellent public transport, and they drive on the left – mixed with a little bit of Las Vegas. But with SE Asian spice. The majority of residents in Singapore are Chinese Buddhist, but you can find the blend of Malay Muslim and Indian Hindu that seems to be the standard for this peninsula.

But Singapore could not be more different from its peninsular neighbor to the north. Where you cannot go a second without seeing litter in Malaysia, Singapore is impeccably clean. There are plenty of Aussies, Kiwis, Europeans, and Americans roaming about, so I was in no danger of causing pandemonium. Of course everything is more expensive in Singapore too, but I definitely enjoyed all the shiny modern buildings and the fun cultural events and Gardens by the Bay.

I took three walking tours, around the Malay, Chinese, and Indian sectors, learning about the development of this city-state and some of the social support systems they have in place. Most people live in government housing – I forget the exact figure, but it was like 80 percent. However, instead of just living there they buy it from the government (for 99 years) and then can do what they want to it (remodel it, rent it out). The government regulates who can live there, setting income limits and racial quotas for the buildings.

As I learned at the FABULOUS Chinatown Heritage Center, when the Chinese started arriving, apparently it was a small fishing village of a few hundred people. Quite a bit different from the city of 6.5 million it is today. The Chinese, fleeing famine and rough conditions in their own country, set up shophouses and lived in some pretty cramped, unclean “cubicles” (basically 6 feet by 6 feet) in these buildings. Singapore was, of course, part of the British colonies as well until fairly recently.

Very cool place to explore, and I definitely hope to go back. When you visit, be sure to get to the airport early. Singapore has the best airport in the world, and you can easily amuse yourself for hours with gardens, giant waterfalls, shopping and dining. Me personally, I crushed some Shake Shack. No regrets.

 

Remembering Why I Travel In Malaysia

I’ve been in Malaysia for over a week, and it is an exciting place full of learning opportunities. It is a majority muslim country that, in addition to the Muslim Malay population, is also home to large populations of Indian Hindus and Chinese Buddhists. There’s a lot of mixing of cultures, religions, races, and food (although, there’s definitely still segregation and racism). The country was also part of the British Empire until 1957 or 1963, depending on how you count it. Either way, when my parents were born, it was a British colony. Whoa.

You can still see some traces of colonialism, in more than just the architecture in the cities. The Malay language (Bahasa Melayu = BM) is the main language spoken here, but its alphabet was changed over to the latin one (i.e. the same alphabet as English). In fact, in addition to BM, Tamil, and Chinese, quite a few people speak English, especially in cities. People drive on the left here, and I have heard their hospitals are quite good.

Despite the presence of the British, I have been in places where I have not seen many (or any) white people around. From the stares, you can tell they don’t get a lot of people who look like me passing through (especially since I am also probably taller than the average man here). In Taiping, my friend who is teaching English here (she’s American but of Chinese descent), asked me to wait in the car while she dropped something off because my whiteness would likely cause pandemonium. Again, whoa.

Malaysia has also presented me with my first visit into a mosque. I have, of course, seen many mosques before, but never covered up my head and went inside the grounds. They tend to be lovely buildings, with domes and minarets, and the National Mosque in KL was no exception. It was a stunning building, and we were warmly welcomed by a volunteer who was very excited to talk to us and teach us a little about his religion.

I would probably say Malaysia is the least developed (and least Western-oriented) country I have been to so far – except maybe China. I’m definitely missing some of the comforts of home. Like showers. Showers here are basically a shower head on the wall of the bathrooms. Which is fine, at least there’s running water and a water heater! But there is no way to keep the whole room from getting soaked, which is not as nice when you are sharing a bathroom and constantly have to sit on a wet toilet.

I also miss general cleanliness. The rivers here are at least as disgusting and brown/orange as many of the South American rivers, if not worse. There’s visible litter everywhere. Even up in the Cameron Highlands, where people go to enjoy the fresh air and beautiful nature, plastic bottles and other rubbish litter the sides of the roads. Air pollution is high, air quality is low, and visible haze permeates the air around. It’s also so humid that I just sweat and generally feel gross all the time. Ah, the tropics.

But that’s just it. There’s a saying “life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” Being uncomfortable forces you to realize that you can deal with it. There’s a lot of “well, that’s not ideal but I can work with that” moments. You learn to plan ahead. You learn to carry your own tp and hand sanitizer. Being uncomfortable also reminds you to appreciate the times when you are comfortable. Learning about new cultures and places, but also learning more about yourself is the very reason I travel. Why do you travel?

Who Should Go To Korea?

I feel like the Republic of Korea (ROK), or South Korea as most of us know it, is not on a lot of folks’ travel lists. It certainly wasn’t on my list of places to go, and I really only went because I ended up having a friend living there during my nomadic years. And now that I’ve been, I feel that I can really assess who should go to ROK. 

You should go to Korea:

  • if you consider yourself a fashionista. I am using the term “fashionista” very loosely. If you are into the k-pop scene and think crazy haircuts and boys wearing lipstick is “de mode,” then you’ll fit right in! If you prefer a more “classic” style involving socks with sandals (or socks with anything, the sock game is strong here), then you’ll be good to go. If beige is your favorite color and wearing outfits totally stripped of the ROYGBIV spectrum, you’ll also find ROK works for you.
  • if you like efficiency served with a side of whimsy. Korea has the perfect blending of high-tech and cutesy, like Kakao friends. Take the metro for example. Super efficient. Trains run frequently, and on time. Everything is numbered, from metro stations to exits. This is really handy if you want to know where to go (to get to the museum take exit 8), or how many stops you have left (well we are at 103 and need to go to 112, so…). The train arrives with a jaunty tune and a little animation to accompany it.img_20191004_100302
  • if you don’t want to visit a city that smells like a dumpster. Korean cities are impeccable, spotless. I don’t think I ever saw a piece of litter. I certainly never saw a rat. I couldn’t even find a trash can, that’s how prodigious they are at keeping trash out of site. Don’t believe me? A South Korean mayor had to dump litter on his beach so that volunteers (who were participating in a worldwide beach clean-up day) would have something to clean up!
  • if you love history, whether it be ancient or modern. Korean history is full of exciting sagas of warring empires, peaceful Buddhists, nation building, and perpetual war with Japan. For 600 years Korea was existing peacefully it seems, developing art and their own language, during the Joseon dynasty, until 1910 when things took a turn for the worse. The last hundred years have been rough, as war and domination swept through the peninsula leaving marks that are visible today (I mean literally, just look at a map).
  • if you eat food. Korean food is the bomb diggity, and it’s more than bulgogi and kimchi (although, you will be served kimchi with everything). They eat #allthemeat, they could even put Argentina and Chile to shame. Between Korean BBQ and Korean fried chicken, I was eating a lot of meat. Fortunately, they like their meat with a little spice. And garlic goes in everything. Spice and garlic are two of my favorite things in this world…
  • if you are a living, breathing person. Because really, everyone should go! (Although, real talk, if you don’t breathe you might even do better because pollution in Korea can get wild, which is why people wear masks often. Fortunately for me, air quality was good – I hear it tends to be best in September and October).

And there you have it! Book a flight! Get on it!

On a more serious note, and related to bullet 4 above, something super memorable from my last few days in Korea was going to the War Memorial Museum (for like…5 hours. *cough* nerd *cough*). For me, Korea arrives on the scene in 1950 with the outbreak of the war (unfair, I know) and I have a personal connection to this one. My grandfather served in the U.S. Army in Korea. But I learned more from this museum than I ever did from him.

Why? Because I never asked him. I never asked him where he fought, what operations he was in, or what he did. I never asked him who he met, who he lost, or how he got his purple heart. I never asked him what he saw. I never asked him what it was like to finally come home. And it’s too late now. Going to the memorial was a great history lesson for me, but also a powerful reminder of how history lives on through the people that were there and that we should ask those questions before those stories are gone forever.

Back on the Trail – Korea

To be totally honest, Korea was not high on my list of must see places in Asia, let alone the world. And I don’t think it has been high on the lists of folks I’ve talked to either. But I have a friend who moved here last year (hey Cat!), so I took the opportunity to visit and I am SO GLAD I DID.

Korea is freaking beautiful, y’all. This small peninsula country is blessed with tons of gorgeous coastline, hundreds of islands, rolling green fields, and ragged mountains. It’s quite a stunning landscape. And Seoul is one ballin’ city. Since I’ve been here, I have done so many wonderful things! I:

  • played dress-up at a Korean palace,
  • crouch-walked through tunnels at the DMZ and peered into North Korea,
  • went to two museums that could NOT be about more different topics (toilets and Korean independence)
  • strolled through perfectly manicured tea fields
  • got a taste of K-culture at the Suncheon Film Site
  • ate, and ate….and ate. Korean food is fab. If you like grilled meats, flavorful spice (not just heat), and all.the.garlic, then Korean food is for you
  • spent some quality time with some quality people, learning to never get involved in a land war in Asia.

That’s a lot in a week! But of course, the best part of traveling is learning about the history and the culture while on the ground. My knowledge of Korea pre-1950 was pretty much zero before this. But now I have learned a lot about the seemingly forever enduring Joseon dynasty (ruling some 600 years, from 1392-1897) and the years of domination by the Japanese empire that has left a really bitter taste in the collective mouth of Korea.

 

I have also got to experience the highs and lows of Hangul, aka the Korean alphabet. The lows are very personal. I, of course, have no idea how to read Korean. This leaves me feeling lost and confused much of the time… a strange feeling since it has been awhile since I have been out on the road, alone, in a place where I have absolutely NO IDEA what is going on, and unable to speak to anybody. But that is part of the adventure of travel: finding out that you can get by AND share sweet moments with people as you go.

The history of Hangul is the history of Korea in many ways. It was invented by King Sejong the Great in the 1400s as a way for the lower classes to learn to read and write (the royalty used Chinese script during this time). It was both embraced and opposed off and on until downright banned during the Japanese occupation years only to resurge after WWII as the official script of Korean. It struck me, as we wandered around the Korean Independence Hall, that their Constitution had to be transcribed into Hangul suggesting that most Koreans nowadays might not be able to read the original version.

As always, it is the history that really speaks to me. I don’t consider myself much of an outdoorsy girl, but the roaming around the Korean countryside has been wonderful as well. For now, I’m sticking around here to continue enjoying the fabulous scenery, cities, and wonderful surprises Korea throws my way.