Oh Myanmar! The last and most anticipated Southeast Asian nation! And how it defied even my expectations! The airport is new in Yangon, and one wonders where all the money is coming from. In the larger realm of Southeast Asia, the answer to that question is usually China, exercising it’s influence via the almighty Yuan. Upon the stamping of my passport, it is apparent that this is not China, at least not how I imagine it to be. Over a dozen cab drivers vied for my attention, and I chose the one I made first eye contact with. Call it the Occam’s razor of cab hailing: the first, most simple driver to pick is likely the best, simply because you minimize hesitation, asserting your domination in the negotiation so that the driver reacts more impulsively if you attempt to walk out on an offer. My eyes connected with a scrawny kid with a thin mustache. As we walked to his cab, he threw out 20 dollars as a figure for getting me downtown. I knew this was steep so I counteroffered with a “no thank you.” In response I got a “how much do you want to pay, and so we set the rate to 10 U.S. (the last American bill I had left) and 5000 kyat (pronounced chyaat, as in Auing San Suu Kyi), equivalent in total to around 13 dollars. The all-knowing internet dictates that it should have cost 6-8 dollars to get to town, but I am not one to quibble over a few thousand kyat. We hit traffic, as was his justification for the steeper rate, and indeed it took the better part of an hour to get to the Asia Plaza Hotel. The driver was fascinating, singing aloud along with the radio, and twitching oddly in his thumbs and wrists at random intervals. Perhaps he is a tweaker, I thought, or perhaps he has some nerve or attention disorder. It mattered not, because he got me to the hotel, despite his tendency to speed behind cars that were decelerating, then slamming on the break at the last minute. He let me sit in the passenger seat (on the left in Myanmar), so I got a front row seat to the action. I had a few hours to eat, shower, and wander around the town before my tour began, so I gorged myself on authentic Burmese chicken and rice, with mushrooms in green beans and a vinegary soup. Yangon is an Indian city with Southeast Asians, or it is a Southeast Asian city with Indians a la Kuala Lumpur. This is not even to mention the Middle Eastern/ Arabic communities that lend a certain mystique to the city and make you question if the ancient ivy-covered British-era apartment buildings are in fact the gardens of Babylon, albeit in disrepair after years of isolation from the rest of the world.
At 2:05 pm, after being awoken by one of the hotel’s extraordinarily dedicated and friendly concierges, I wandered downstairs to meet my tour group, but alas it was only I in the tour. Kay (pronounced Key) met me in the lobby with a left-handed handshake, as her bandaged right hand, lightly dabbed with red lipstick, was out of commission from a biking accident. We spent the afternoon touring the local cathedral (not only Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists n Yangon, but Catholics too!), the Chaukhtatgyi reclining buddha, and had tea at a nearby teashop. The afternoon was spent in the Shwedagon pagoda. After touring temple after temple, I had finally come across a temple that truly impressed. Shwedagon is really a complex of several different temples, with the centerpiece being a giant gold-leaf temple shining bright in the hot Yangon sun.
The following day I ate a breakfast of Mohinga and various rice-like pastries and goos. I met my leader, and the one new recruit in the lobby. More than surprisingly, perhaps impossibly, the other member had been living in Connecticut for the last 25 years, being born and growing up in Japan. Noriko, Cromwell, Conecticut comrade, it was a pleasure to meet a fellow Nutmegger in perhaps the most out-of-the-way, most unConnecticut places on Earth! The three of us caught the circular train to the market in Danyingon and then back the long way. The front part of the market consisted of people with baskets pedaling their wares from large trays and baskets sitting on the train tracks. When the next train came, the shopkeepers picked up their shops, moved a few feet over, and then returned to their places once the train had left. After the market ate lunch at a traditional restaurant, there ending our tour with Kay. I spent that night scouring the suburbs around Yangon on foot trying to find music clubs and punk rock shows. I eagerly wanted to see some Burmese punk, but never found my white whale of Yangon. As depicted, I had an unimpressive butter chicken at an Indian restaurant that required customers to take their shoes off and sit on small mats at short tables, a first time for me. The following morning I had explored much of the known Yangoniverse, and rather than search for more stars that had appeared to have burnt out long ago, like the city’s punk scene, so I found a place to rest my spirit in an air-conditioned movie theater. Judging by the posters, I would either be able to see a Myanmar movie, as the cashier put it, or Deadpool 2. It seemed to be a win-win, but alas at tht time only the Myanmar Movie was playing. It centered around a masked man who went around killing people, presumably for a greater cause but the gratuitous and overwhelmingly ketchup-y blood splatter would lead a non-Myanmar speaker to question the ethics of the man. Not unlike Deadpool 1, actually, but this man was no Ryan Reynolds, sporting a thin mustache like the cab driver who brought me downtown. The man had a tendency to move his three middle fingers when he was thinking or waiting to shoot someone. In the end, he is sentenced to be hanged, and inexplicably survives the hanging, his finger twitching on the gallows not signifying the nerve spasms of the newly dead, but showing that he was alive, just scheming. Perhaps he was scheming a sequel, but I wouldn’t bet on it. I’ll keep my eyes peeled for news in the Burmese trades. I made a quick getaway after the film and flew back to Bangkok for one more night before my return.
The weather is still cool when the train pulled into Nong Khai station in the early morning so I wander, and get lost several times, trying to find the border crossing over the Mekong to Laos. Eventually I make it up and through the border crossing to a $1 bus to Vientiane, which I am happy to find after initially being offered a cab for about $25. I share the back seat of the bus with a couple monks, busy on their phones playing videogames. Monks like Minecraft. Who knew? Now you do. As the bus pulls into the station in Central Vientiane I walk over to my hotel that feels as though the block next door had just been bombed. More than half the lights in the place are not on, there are many cracks in the floors and ceilings, and the drywall is beginning to crack just about everywhere. I move to my worn down room, which likely would have been nicer if I had accepted the frontman’s offer for a free upgrade to a room with windows. Whatever, my cell was suitable for sleeping in air conditioning, and doing the homework I had slated for those Laos days. I finish and walk around the city. I cannot recall, between gaps in my photo stream, what I did that early afternoon. I likely wandered the sleepy streets, still sleepy myself from my restless comings and goings from Thailand. That night, by chance, fate, or misfortune, I emerged from my hotel, only to be greeted by a couple who had accompanied my tour from Ho Chi Minh to Bangkok.
I was aware the two were planning on continuing to Vientiane, but I thought it improbable that we would meet. We did, however, and had a lovely dinner of laab and mango over sticky rice for dessert. We conversed deeply on contemporary potential (or lack thereof) for intellectual conversation, given the endless distraction the internet age provides. They told a compelling story relayed to them by their new Laos guide about an American war vet who stayed in Laos after the rest of us left in the 70s. He had a family up in the hills somewhere, in some village hardly traversed by Americans, in hiding from Western life. I thought that fascinating: a man still MIA after all these years. The guide explained that whenever a visitor came by, the vet would flee into the bush and come back when the visitors left, with his half-Lao, half American kids at home. He really didn't want to be noticed and I guess I got it. The war, I imagine, had changed him, and who was he to leave his Sweetheart near Luang Prabang for a country that had only screwed him over.
We called it a night after drifting through the Vientiane night market, and so that is a wrap for the Australians, at least for this trip. The following morning I went to the Patuxay monument, Sisaket temple, and Pha That Luang stupa complex. I had a half-Lao, half-mac-and-cheese pizza and drank some of my Kip away before retiring to a park nearby to lie down before my flight.
I am starting to grow accustomed to the lazy day before the night flight, by which I mean I am not becoming accustomed to it at all. Most of this writing was done in the day after my last night in Bangkok, a time of deep reflection, but also a time when I wanted to get the hell out of Bangkok. Perhaps, my traveling style affords so much in the way of counteracting restlessness, that is to say that if I want to run away from a place I can, but one cannot expedite a wait for a scheduled flight. On days like these I live in McDonalds’ and Starbuckses, waiting for the sun to set, or rise, and just pouring all of my energy into journaling or walking, so as not to feel trapped. In Vientiane I lay in the shade of a tree with my bags bolstering my back on a Laos park bench, mulling over the many events of Laos and eagerly awaiting my recently purchased flight to Bangkok. One can only stand so many ten-hour overnight buses and trains before he caves on a 125-dollar flight that arrives at a location in one-tenth of the time. That night I arrived late, and got to my hotel at roughly midnight after taking the airport to airport shuttle so I would be poised to hop a couple blocks to my 7 am flight to Yangon the next day.
We crossed the border into Bangkok and we sat down for a lunch of pad Thai, arguably the best I have ever had, which I decided to pair with a can of Chang, for the purposes of understanding the Thai experience and educating myself on the local culture. That night we had a goodbye dinner and a further goodbye night on the town, complete with dancing (naturally mostly me), some laughing gas, and generally meandering through some pub neighborhood on the north side of town. Generally, I try not to record my hedonistic streaks, in an attempt to live in the moment, but I did witness an exquisite collection of mostly obscene wristbands of which I happily took a photo. The wrist bands are all in the genre of “I heart…” or “I love…” and, as a collection, are guaranteed brilliant works of poetry or, if read together as one narrative, a work of short fiction. I will say no more. After the wee ones went to bed, us older kids went on an adventure around Bangkok, looking for opium dens or something unprecedented, and came up rather empty. Over the night’s last round of drink I vaguely recall rapping the first half of Ice Ice Baby while pouring a bucket of ice down my shirt. It’s a hot town, bring water if you ever go. Despite my bingeing I awoke the next morning in tact and spent the day wandering the day markets of Bangkok and went to sleep on a night train to Nong Khai, after being verbally assaulted by a Thai policeman for bringing beer onto the train.
By bus we trekked from HCMC to Phnom Penh, taking up a large part of the day. I did not get to see much of the city as that day was mostly spent traveling, but I was longing for dinner by around 9 or 10 o’clock, so I hailed a Tuk Tuk to get me to a nearby Lotteria, a southeast Asian burger chain, as I am both a fast food connoisseur and a scholar in the Americanization of the global food scene. I got a shrimp burger and fries, and admired a red wall sign hosting a tremendous run-on sentence about hamburgers and highways. I hoped it was Kerouac, as that would have made my day to think that On The Road reached international acclaim in use predominantly to sell hamburgers. A cursory Google search, however, yielded not Jack Kerouac but country artist Aaron Tippin as the one who wrote such verbose poetry. Anyway that sort of ruined my night, but the shrimp burger was pretty good.
The following day made the heart even heavier, as the morning and early afternoon were dedicated to viewing the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and beginning to understand the Cambodian Genocide. The Killing Fields south of Phnom Penh were the most difficult. The site of some 130+ mass graves, a third of which were unexcavated to honor the dead, the fields were said to still turn up new bones and clothing during the rainy season. On several rocks, the guides had placed the most recently washed-up bones and teeth, and faded clothing lay in between patches of grass. The central stupa had shelf after shelf of skulls and other bones, with plaques indicating the age, sex, and cause of death of each person whose bones had been excavated. The afternoon of the fourteenth was spent looking at more visually pleasing sights of the Royal Palace and Silver pagoda downtown, after a lunch of delicious green amok, a Cambodian dish of sweet coconut milk, chicken, and vegetables. In the night, the city set off fireworks for the king’s birthday, which we were able to see from the hotel’s rooftop.
On the 15th, we trekked up to Battambang via bus, stopping at several interesting locations on the way. We started at a silver and woodshop where disabled children were taught to make handicrafts to support their families, despite their disabilities. After, we made it to Tonle Sap lake, where we toured a large floating village. As opposed to Brunei’s Kampong Ayer, which is a stilted city on the Brunei River, the floating village on Tonle Sap is anchored and moves with the water level. Always fairly close to shore, the road leading towards the village is a small shantytown of wood and corrugated tin that gets abandoned when the area gets flooded. From the shantytown, you catch a longboat to the floating village. You can watch the kids swim to cool off in the heat and, more often than not, the village kids will wave to you, the odd tourist who decided to visit a strange barge of lake-people as a vacation from your accounting clerk life. The most intriguing sight was the iceman, who cometh with his small boat with crushed ice from a floating factory on the North side of the village, and delivers it quickly to the stores nearby, before it melts. We arrived in Battambang at a very classy hotel called, if I am not mistaken, “Classy Hotel,” with what appeared to be carvings in rich teak adorning the walls. It was exquisite. In the afternoon we attempted to go for a walk, where our guide tried to race me. She is a small woman, so needless to say I won. I’m not bragging, but being far from a natural athlete, you can understand that I feel the need to assert whatever prowess my height and wiry stature affords me. That night we went to a local’s house and grilled our own meat and vegetables, and were treated to the home cooking of our tour guide Rous (pronounced Roo AH) who made a lovely amok.
Waking up in Battambang is generally aided, if not completely caused by, the nearby temple’s sunrise song. Reminiscent of a Salah, it goes seemingly for hours, to much of my group’s dismay. It is, in the parlance of Tim O’Brien, “gook music,” pure and feeling as if it comes out of the Earth itself, as it belongs to the land like the sound of the wind through the trees. One would not expect a westerner such as myself to appreciate the ethereal music, but I thought the sound was transcendent, like walking through a thick jungle and becoming one with the trees and the bugs and the animals. We left our hotel to take a bike tour of the city, with several snack breaks of sticky rice or fresh fruit, and ended at a temple where we met with Buddhist monks who offered a prayer for safe travels. On our way to Siem Reap, we stopped at a very fancy French-style bakery, a roadside barbeque (with rats, crickets and frogs, of which I tried the latter two) and a silk farm. Upon arrival in Siem Reap, I was left alone to do homework and wander around the night markets with endless kroma vendors and special massage parlors. Kroma, for those as uninformed as I was before coming to Cambodia is a cotton scarf used allegedly by locals to keep the sun off the neck, ears, and face. Rous and I were the only people I saw wearing them in the entire country, so something tells me I was lied to, but at least I have a relatively even tan and minimal sunburns. The Australians I was with who were first to knock the Rock-the-Casbah look of the kroma likely cannot say they avoided such a fate. Poor white devils.
The following day was spent wandering the temples of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Bantheay Srei. View the pictures and the videos, if you dare. It was pretty cool, but not relevant to any narrative or metanarrative other than the American tourist appropriator. That night the squadron went into town for a local dinner (is there any other type) and I spent another night wandering the night markets, getting lost even faster than I got drunk on the town’s ubiquitous fifty-cent beers. Bless the alcoholics of Siem Reap, for they know no cheaper pastime! I became one with them, succumbing to the Siem Reap stupor, drifting lazily from shop to stand to bar to restaurant.
The following day we awoke early for a sunrise Angkor Wat viewing. Overrated if you ask me, but there is something about wandering through an ancient wonder of the world alone that largely explains the appeal for the Indiana Jones movie franchise. This is not even to mention the early morning solitude of the occasion, lending its own spirituality. After that we went to Ta Prohm, famous for it’s being the setting or at least set of the film Tomb Raider. If I am being completely honest, I am still not 100% sure what the movie is about or even what Angelina Jolie (who I am told is in the film) looks like, but hey: Appropriators gonna appropriate. At the local bar on pub street called “The Red Piano”, they even have an “Angelina Jolie” cocktail, in which every tenth customer gets the beverage free. Each meal also came with a free beer so, lucky man that I am, got a meal and two drinks for about five dollars. After a drink or several (for fifty cents who could refuse?), I went to get my feet eaten by fish, which costs but a dollar, and you are given a beer to sip as the fish nibble away at your dead foot-flesh. Good deal. In a small, upscale bar that dared to charge seventy-five cents for a beer, I turned my head to the side and found a wall with a quote by none other than the Prodigal Jack Kerouac on the wall. It was reassuring to know that my thirst for Kerouac quotations in dining establishments in Cambodia would not go unquenched. I was then allowed to hang my literature road scholar hat for the remainder of the trip.
"Long time, no see" -A man I met on the street in Ho Chi Minh City after telling him I was American
I dropped into Backpackerland in Ho Chi Minh City late on May 12th, in the hopes of getting an idea of what the town had to offer. It was, in many ways, your classic Southeast Asian nightlife spot, like Manila. I had only a day in Ho Chi Minh, so I set out to eat and drink, then wake up early the next morning to see the sights before the tour started at 6pm. However, I still had homework to do so I spent a large part of my time avoiding the heat in Vietnam’s Thuc Coffee, a local iteration of Starbucks, working on my geography assignments between sights and tastes. I went to a Vietnamese restaurant, getting a bowl of soup. It wasn’t Pho, but Bun Bo with the traditional greens and other vegetables, a side of bean sprouts, lime and chili, and pork belly. I also got Goi du du, which actually was not as good as the goi du du I have had back home. I wandered the central park in HCMC, walking by the reunification palace before braving an onslaught of green- jacketed bikers on the streets and even sidewalks of the city. They worked for Grab, a local rideshare company, and I simply could not believe that they would not stop to let one of their own cross! Did they not know that I was a vital figurehead in the Indonesian rideshare movement? Beyond the bikers was the war remnants museum, a fascinating look into the futility and , more so, the evils of “American aggression,” as the museum dubbed what Americans know as simply the “Vietnam War.” A largely unpopular war, at least according to my liberal upbringing, it was interesting seeing the local opinion within their own government’s perspective. The horrors that the United States military committed, between the use of Agent Orange and other chemicals, killing innocent civilians, and bombing innocents, is something that American history tends to gloss over. I also traveled to the post office and a local cathedral, both magnificent buildings, as well as an opera house, before meeting with my group at the Ambassador Saigon Hotel.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.