Malacca City, Malaysia

Somewhere in the antipodes of my mind, Malacca existed before I even knew its name. I know this because it is a city of  dreams: rich history, yesterworld architecture, airbrushed murals, exotic smells and textures, sun-bright colors, and spiritually diverse people creating and living together in peace.

I literally stumbled upon the reality of this dream. While searching the net for interesting places to go in Malaysia, I came across the word Malacca (spelled Melaka in Malay.) I read it was a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and without further research, I immediately booked a bus ticket from Penang (also a UNESCO Site), the first city I crossed into when coming from Thailand. I had no idea what arresting beauty awaited me.

After I arrived and checked into a guesthouse, I took a stroll through the old town area. I was immediately mesmerized by its winding narrow streets of kaleidoscope color and Indian music blasting from the many lemon-yellow rickshaws (known locally as a beca) pedaling along the canal. Local Malay girls, heads wrapped in colorful Muslim headdress, sat chatting in the shade of an old Dutch Protestant church, deep red in the sunlight. I couldn’t help but smile, for the comfort I felt in the surroundings was tranquil and dare I say, as a lone traveler, romantic.

Malacca is a city continually shaped by its historical past. It was first colonized by the Portuguese in 1511, then conquered by the Dutch in 1641, handed over to the British East India Company in 1824, captured by the Japanese during WWII, reclaimed by the British after the war, and finally in 1957 gained independence along with the rest of Malaysia. Also interesting is the huge Chinese influence and population, which was first spread here by the famous Chinese maritime explorer Zheng He, who used Malacca as a central trading, diplomatic hub and restocking port during his seven epic voyages.

You can feel the deep weight of its past as you wander the streets. Cross the canal and you’re in a Chinatown of antiquities, walk 30 meters across another bridge and you’re in spice-flavored Little India, go further and the fragrance of satay and Halal Malay food fills your head as Muslim prayer chants echo long mystery out of a Mosque tower loudspeaker: a fluttering dream of Asia condensed, a little city where people enjoy the bursting colors of art and culture.

The harmony of diverse spirituality and culture is like none I’ve ever seen.  This is what left the biggest impression on me.  In a world where everyday violence and hatred of “the others” is continually perpetuated, Malacca seems to be a shining gem in a quarry of coal:  a model of the humanistic potential to set aside our differences and realize the old anecdote of existence, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Leaving Malacca, I woke up from my dream realizing there’s a place in everyone’s mind that exists in reality.  You just don’t know until you find it.

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Propaganda of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution

I’m fascinated by propaganda style art.  Its striking colors, bold lines, symbolism, and even unintentional humour all create an attractive sight.  I guess they’re similar to political cartoons, but of course the politics are all one-sided.  I often wonder what kind of effect (if any) each had on passersby. 

During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) in China, Chairman Mao set out to eradicate all traces of capitalism and tried to unite a new China under his style of socialism.  Among his many techniques was a massive propaganda poster campaign, which created hundreds of individual designs all carrying messages of hope, unity, Maoist ideas, declarations against enemies (US and Russia at the time), and rally slogans.  It’s all very serious and even confrontational, but looking at them, you get a sense that people really might have felt a strong connection through the illustrations and words.  Besides, even if you don’t agree with the intent, it’s still art.  Feel free to leave any thoughts or comments (captions) below.

And at last:  a picture of Chairman Mao’s body (preserved) laid to rest in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

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Busting Out to Teach

When one of my students comes to my class late, I always ask, “What’s your excuse?”  This is not only a valid question of judgement, but also an exercise in real world speaking.  The usual answers are:  I slept too long — I couldn’t find my bike — I was waiting for my roommate — or my personal favourite — I didn’t eat breakfast so I can’t walk good.  Then I ask the rest of the class if they think it’s a reasonable excuse.  Well, yesterday morning I got a taste of my own medicine, but I had the end-all excuse to put them all to rest.

That morning I woke up a little later than usual, 7:20, and I crawled out of bed to take a shower and get ready for my 8 o’clock class.  Next to my bedroom is my office, which has a door leading out to the main area of my apartment.  Last week there was a burglary in one of my foreign colleagues apartment, where, in the middle of the night, the robbers busted through some steel bars, which encase most windows here, and stole his laptop and some cash while he was sleeping.  Since then I’ve been sleeping with a knife and a clothing iron next to my bed, waiting for their return.  I’ve also been locking my office door for extra effort on their part. 

That morning, I unlocked my office door and turned the knob when…nothing.  The door didn’t budge.  I pushed and pulled while jiggling it with no success.  I was thinking — Shit.  Alright China, you got me again.  Now what.  And because of the steel bars over the windows, there was no way I could even crawl out.

I called my class monitor, Jimmy, to tell him I was going to be late and to keep the students from leaving.  I also asked him if he could call the security guards and see if they had a spare key or perhaps some ancient Chinese secret of opening my front door to try the jammed door from the other side.  He said he’d come to the teacher’s village to see what he could do.  I was a little irritated, but even more, I was just enjoying the moment because I reveled in the thought of what was going to happen next.

Jimmy showed up ten minutes later and I could hear them trying to open my front door.  No luck.  Well, at least the fact they couldn’t get that door open was a little comforting.  He came around to the back of the apartment block and was yelling at my second floor window. 

“Lance!  Lance!  They can’t open it,”  he said as I came to the window.  He was trying to contain his laughter.

“Alright.”  So, dreadfully, I had to do what I didn’t want to….call Mindy.  She’s the head of the Foreign Affairs Office and my boss.  Let’s put it this way, you don’t want to talk to her unless you absolutely have to because…well, she’s just, she’s like a Chinese version of Nurse Ratched in Keasey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  That said, I dialed her number and waited.

“Yes Lance.”  She never says hello.

“Hi Mindy.  How are you?”

“Mmm…mmm,” she murmured.  “What is it?”

“Well, uh, I’ve got a little problem with my door….,” I told her the jist of it.

“I’m busy right now.  I can’t help you until 11:30,” she replied irritably.

“But I’ve got class in ten minutes.  What should I do?”

“Just break out of your apartment.  I have to go.  Bye.”

I smiled.  I looked down at Jimmy and said, “I’ll be out in a few minutes.”

Ever since watching COPS as a kid, I’ve always wanted to kick a door in.  The feeling of busting down someone’s door and coming in like a badass, eyes wild like a madman.  Only here, the other side of the door was just my living room and I had no one to surprise.  But, I was barefoot and all of my shoes were out by my front door….then I remembered.  In the cabinet of my office bookshelf, I had stored my fancy dress shoes I never wear.  They were a $200 gift from my ex-Korean girlfriend and I’ve probably worn them two times in two years.  I pulled one of the dusty ones out and put it on, finally giving me a reason to wear it again.  Showtime.

I took a few steps back and booted the door square beside the knob thinking it would gloriously bust free on the first kick.  Not.  I must’ve kicked it 20 times, wood chips and paint flying everywhere, before the inside lock finally broke off. 

I quickly got dressed and met Jimmy downstairs.

“How did you get out?” he asked curiously.

“Ancient American secret,” I smiled.

I was 30 minutes late to class and most of the students were half asleep or texting on their phones. 

As I walked in they all asked in unison, “What’s your excuse?”

I didn’t have to lie.

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China’s Development Ghosts

It is said that China houses two-thirds of the world’s construction cranes.  It’s not hard to see this, even when living in a medium-tier city like Huizhou.  Everywhere you look, the towering yellow steel overhangs bamboo-scaffold high-rise apartments, stylish office buildings, and designer brand shopping malls.  The development here is staggering and overwhelming; so much that you can’t help but wonder where all the money and resources come from.

But one thing that baffles me is when these buildings are finished, what clientage will buy and keep these projects from becoming white elephants?  The biggest and eeriest example is the New South China Mall in Dongguan, a city of 10 million in Guangdong province, which opened in 2005.  It’s the largest mall in the world at two times the size of Minnesota’s Mall of America, complete with 659,612 square-meters of space, a 25 m replica of the Arc de Triomphe, a 2.1 km canal with gondolas, a replica of Venice’s St. Mark’s Bell Tower, and a 553 m indoor/outdoor roller coaster.  As grand and impressive as it is, 99% of its leaseable space remains unoccupied, save for only the entrance that has a few western fast-food joints and the massive parking garage, which, for lack of customer vehicles, has now been turned into a go-kart track.

Here in Huizhou there are at least five new 5-star hotels being built at the moment, yet the original and first 5-star, The Kande International, on average only has about a 35% occupancy rate.  Walk through the big double doors and it’s fully staffed; hoards of employees dressed to hilt in formal attire poised and ready for customers.  They seem to be bored and just going through the motions as if their only job was just to look the part.  When a customer walks in they jump at the chance to deliver their service, seemingly overjoyed that something is actually happening.

Another example is a 9-story shopping plaza, Rainbow, located in the heart of downtown Huizhou.  It houses all the expensive (real) designer brands such as Nike, Levis, Gucci, etc… among others.  It’s strange walking through the shops because even though they, like the Kande, are fully (even overly) staffed, you’d be lucky to spot a customer actually buying something, let alone even browsing. They’re more like commercial museums or simulations of capitalism, where anyone can have a gander and only dream that one day they could actually purchase even the cheapest thing available.

I went there a couple of days ago with my girlfriend just to kill some time.  We strolled through each floor and sometimes something would catch my eye and I would step in and take a look.  Everytime I was immediately surrounded by at least a couple of the store’s employees practically breathing down my neck and following me around asking what I’m looking for or if I’d like to try it on.  Like the Kande, they seem starved to try out their customer service skills.  Even with my monthly income, which is considered upper-class here, I know I would be a fool to actually buy an item (especially when I can find a near-perfect copy for a fraction of the cost).

We were hungry so we went up to the food court on the 9th floor for dinner.  When we reached the top of the escalator and entered, most of the tables were full.  I thought, “Oh, so this is where everybody’s at.”  But on a closer look, I was wrong.  At every table sat groups of uniformed employees eating their Tupperware dinners they brought from home.  Out of the four spaces for restaurants, only two of them were in service and yet no one was eating their food.  The cooks and staff stood waiting at each window like a stiff toll-booth employee, only the traffic here had never come.  We walked over to a Korean restaurant on the far end of the dining area.  All ten long tables were completely empty except for one, where two waitresses were sitting and stitching away on an embroidery quilt.  The three cooks  gathered around a computer watching one of them play a shooting game.  As we walked in, they immediately stood to attention, smiled and welcomed us to their empty establishment. 

At this point, I was laughing in disbelief.  What the hell is going on here?  I felt like I was in a surreal post-apocolyptic dream where the whole world had been destroyed and for some reason, this mall had been spared and its inhabitants oblivious to the catastrophe around them.  I slowly ate my kimchi and soup while staring out the window at all the yellow cranes in the distance jutting up through the skyline. 

I had goosebumps as I looked at my girlfriend and half-jokingly, half-terrfyingly said, “This is the future.”

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Surviving “The Loop” in Lao — Day 3

I woke up before dawn to the hammering of a torrential downpour on our guesthouse’s tin roof.  Nature’s alarm clock has many settings in Lao:  dogs howling, roosters screaming, bad dance music, and the occasional other-worldly buzzes and pitches (Buddha?) that leave you questioning your sanity.   (Back in Vientiane, I  had a lucid nightmare one sleepless dawn where I could feel something pulling on my legs and lifting me above the bed.) 
 
 
We were to meet the other riders for breakfast at nine, then walk a kilometer south to Lao’s most famous cave, Konglor — a name that already suggested mysterious majesty.  We sat down for breakfast at a restaurant up the road, where the other riders were waiting.  The restaurant’s owner, who once lived as a business owner in Minnesota, was a bluntly kind man who also lives there with his brother, children, and grandchildren.  I tried ordering a few things off the menu including various meat dishes, but, because he had run out of beef, pork, and even rice the night before, he said we’d have to wait for the bus to come at eleven with the daily supplies.  You get used to these kinds of episodes in Lao — slow service, late buses, goods unavailable, etc. — and you just have to smile and appreciate the silent modesty.

So most of us took what he had left, curry noodles with chicken and egg, and ate while enjoying the scenery.  A kid no more than ten years old drove up the road on a plow tractor hitched with a trailer carrying a gang of other children.  They laughed and waved at us as they sputtered along.  As we finished our meal and were getting ready to walk to the cave, long puffs of clouds lowered over the mountains and again, the heavy rain came.  None of us had umbrellas for the walk to the cave, and even though I had my swim-trunks on, we didn’t want to be soaking wet when going through.

 

We waited it out.  But we knew we couldn’t for long because it was our last day and Mr. Ku wanted his bikes back by 6 p.m.  We still had about 170 kilometers to burn and we knew the longer we waited for the rain, the faster we’d have to high-tail back to Thakhek. 

At eleven, the supply bus came in.  Actually, it was just a “saungtaew” — an open-air, covered long-bed truck the locals take as the most inexpensive means of getting around.  After they unloaded the goods, we tried getting on, only to be met with a stiff load of about 15 backpackers also headed to Konglor.  All seven of us crowded in and I had to stand up while bending over so I could fit since there were no seats left.  When we got to the park entrance, there was a bit of confusion as men came up to the sides asking for money to get in.  Nobody said anything to us about money, and we kept quiet too while the bus pulled in and we scurried out of the crowd of backpacks towards the cave, wallets unscathed.

At the ticket desk, you pay 110,000kip for a two person boat or 115,000kip (~$12) for a three.  I guess one of us was only worth 65 cents.  A barefoot boy wearing a head-lamp came over to us with a armload of life-vests.  He simply smiled and handed them over to us, then motioned for us to follow him.  While ‘modern’ kids back home are busy playing wii, this little guy is a bowman for a 7.5 km long-boat ride on a river slicing through the middle of a mountain (and he’s got the best graphics of them all.)  He led us across a bridge, all the while talking and laughing to himself, and into the entrance of the cave where our boat and driver were waiting.

We piled into the boat and pushed off into the water.  The little bowmen was up front scanning his headlamp left and right across the sides of the cave and down into the deep blackness as our driver opened up the throttle.  The air was crisp, but as we headed farther into the darkness it became surprisingly warmer and warmer.  We only had one LED flashlight between the three of us, and it could barely pierce the darkness as we pushed through the black waters.  Riding a boat in pitch-black darkness is gratifyingly eerie:  goosebumps kept popping up on my arms and I couldn’t tell if they were from a feeling of elation or from a fear of the unknown ahead.  We passed sharp rocks peeking up from the black waters and weaved around long, winding turns, my mind completely blown at the epic immensity of it all.

Our first stop was on a sandy shore, where the little guy led us down a path to an opening of beautifully lit up cave formations.  I looked on in awe.  We were not even a quarter of the way through the cave and it was already worth the money.  To think, I was looking at millions of years of slow mineral deposits, the same natural beauty that perhaps thousands of those before me had the privilege to marvel.   It is said long ago, the locals believed the cave led into the deep bowels of the earth; only until sometime later some brave souls ventured all the way through to find a gorge on the other side of the mountain.

After snapping some photos, we sat back in the boat and continued into the belly of the mountain.  As we skimmed along the clean black waters, other boats and tourists’ headlamps could be seen passing in the dark.  There were a few times we bottomed out on some shallow rocks and we had to get out (and wet) while our guides pushed the boat through to deeper depths.  I kept thinking about the log rides you take at amusement parks — you know, the ones where you float through some tacky, decorated cave with mechanical animals and tense music.  But this was the real thing:  not even Disney could attempt to recreate Konglor’s natural wonder.  That said, you’ll never pay to ride imitation again after experiencing this.

About an hour after entering, we could see light peeking through an opening in the distance.  As we approached, the daylight shining through became more and more intense.  We slowly came into a huge opening surrounded by thick jungle and high limestone cliffs.  My eyes couldn’t adjust quick enough — much like when you wake up after a night sleeping by the fire — the daylight was gloriously blinding.  This must be a small fraction of what people feel when being trapped in a mine and finally coming out; you appreciate how beautiful light and color really is.

We stopped for a rest at a small outpost on the side of the river for a Coke before heading back through.  It was still drizzling and we were trying to decide if rushing back to Thakhek would be a good idea.  The roads were surely wet and we didn’t know what kind of obstacles would be waiting for us on the ride back.  If it was still raining when we returned to the entrance, we decided it was probably best to phone Mr. Ku and tell him we would stay one more night because of the conditions.  He said this would be alright, just as long as we told him ahead of time and we’d just have to pay for one more day of rental.

When we reached the entrance, to our surprise, it stopped raining and the sun was even peeking through the clouds.  It was about half past one, so we walked back to the guesthouse as fast as we could, knowing it would be a race against daylight to get to Thakhek.  At two, we packed up our bags and fired up the bikes.  We had four hours to burn through 170 km, yet we still had to be cautious — the last thing we wanted was to spoil the trip with a nasty slide-out or perhaps T-boning a crossing cow at 70 kph, the latter being something I kept imagining in my head (whose meat is this?).

We darted out of Konglor valley and whipped  around a winding mountain pass, speed and adrenaline flowing into my weary permasmile.  When you’re flying down the roads in a relatively untouched country like Lao, you can’t help but wonder what the hell you’re doing.  

From time to time, I would imagine myself in the grand-scheme of the world, everything happening at that moment:  my family and friends back home working or doing daily routine, wars being waged, money being made — and here I am wandering on the back of a small motorcycle in a country most of the world has forgotten, lost in an ever-enlightening moment of discovery.  The feeling is hard to describe, but it’s like when you succeed at doing something you’ve strived for and the dopamine is released in your brain creating a moment where time and all things worrisome cease to exist.  Except this moment isn’t limited to “success.”  It’s like a drug that’s always around you — existence — and all you have to do is appreciate it.  Life is always waiting for you to make the move, not the other way around.

We reached the last big left turn of the loop in the town Vieng Khan around 5pm and filled up our bikes at a regular station.  At this point, we had a straight shot back to Thakhek:  no more winding roads, massive potholes, sandy slides etc.  Some said this was the most boring drive of the trip and we planned it for last just in case we had to hurry back, in which case, it paid off.

With over a 100 km to go, we were on the edge of Mr. Ku’s deadline.  We didn’t know whether we’d have to pay more or what the penalty was for being late, so we wound the throttles up and pushed 80kph through the straights.  Flying at those speeds on a 100cc bike can be a bit hairy at times, especially when the drivers seem to think of you more of an object to be avoided than an actual motorist.  A few times I had to veer over and teeter on the gravel shoulder while an oncoming truck came barreling through my lane to pass.

The sun was sinking into the horizon and with every turn of the odometer, I feared the oncoming darkness.  I flipped on my crooked headlight and hoped its slanted beam would give me a clear vision.  I strained my eyes on the road ahead, thinking at any moment a large rock or pothole would wipe me out leaving me lying in a bloody wreck on the side of the road; a hospital was the last place I wanted to be in Lao.  I had the choice of taking it slow and riding in complete darkness or keeping it fast to get back with just enough dusk to make out and dodge any hazards on the road.

Finally, at about 7:30 pm, we pulled into the Travel Lodge.  I was afraid of what Mr. Ku would say about my busted alignment, but luckily, he was no where in sight.  One of his mechanics saw me and asked, “Passport?”  I nodded and waited for him to check out the bike.  He took one quick look and gave me a thumbs up and then went to retrieve my deposit.  I sighed in relief.  Should I have said something?  Well, I guessed they would find out sooner or later.

We had already bought our overnight bus tickets to 4000 Islands, so we had a quick bite to eat and reveled in our survival of 3 days teetering on the brink of disaster to witness some of the most pristine, breathtaking landscapes and calm modesty of the Lao people.  It was all like a flash of a lucid dream; one that you know is all too real, but you just can’t believe it’s actually a part of your life.  I made a journey through not only one of the last untouched countryside of the world, but also veered into a territory of the mind where I learned to never take anything for granted.

The unknown dangers that lay ahead in life always come with a side of enlightenment.  Ride on.

 

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No Money, No Problem in Thailand

It was my last afternoon in Thailand before I would fly back to Korea for work. I was relaxing on the beach with a few friends, chatting about the past week of beautiful beaches, delicious foods, and the easy-life. Every now and then a peddler would come by trying to sell us things like trinkets, jewelry, t-shirts, and just about anything else you could carry. They were mostly women or cute little children who would give you their best convincing English in an attempt to make a little money. Usually we just gave them a nod or a polite No thanks, and they would be on their way to the next foreigner.

As the sun started to dip into the ocean, I could see a short elderly man walking up the beach balancing a huge tray of grapefruit atop his head. I made the mistake of making eye contact with him, seeing as he looked much too old to be so graceful, and he trotted through the sand in my direction.

I tried to turn away putting on a look of disinterest because I have always had a gross dislike of grapefruit. In fact, it’s one of the few foods I hate. It’s much too bitter for my tastes, but nevertheless, he came up and set down the tray on the chair beside me.

“No thank you,” I said. He showed a few teeth in his smile, pulled out a knife and quickly started carving up a grapefruit. “No, no, no!” I said nodding my head and making an X with my fingers, but he just kept slicing away.

“Very good,” he said while digging the blade through.

“I’m sorry. I don’t like it,” I replied.

“Very good,” he repeated. “You like it.”

Again, I tried giving him the X, this time with both of my arms. My friends were laughing at our exchange and I felt bad because even if I did like grapefruit, I couldn’t pay him because I didn’t bring any money with me to the beach. My friends didn’t have any money on them either.

So I told him, “Sorry. I have no money.”

“You no money?” he said looking a bit confused. “I no money too!” At which point we all burst into laughter.

He picked up the two halves of the fruit and put them into my hands. “You enjoy,” he said.

“Really! I’m sorry, but I can’t pay you for this!” I pleaded. He stood up and tucked his knife away.

“That’s OK,” he said. “You pay me tomorrow.”

Another round of laughter.

“I would, but I can’t pay you tomorrow,” I said, “because I’m leaving tonight.” I tried to quickly place the two halves back but he snatched up the tray before I could get them on. “You go tonight?” he said thinking and balancing the tray on his head. “That’s OK. You pay me next year!”

My jaw was open as I sat there in disbelief and watched him walk away, vanishing into the beach umbrellas. I looked down at the two glistening halves dripping in my hands.

“Well…now I just need someone to give me a spoon.”

I sat there eating until both halves were empty and the last tip of the sun slid away into the water.

It was the best grapefruit I’ve ever had.

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Surviving “The Loop” in Lao

Along the Mekong River near the middle of Lao lay the dusty town Thakaek, a launch pad for wild-eyed adventure seekers.  My friends and I stayed at Thakaek Travel Lodge, where a cool Mr. Ku, the proprietor, serves adrenaline one motorbike after another.  The Lodge is also a guesthouse/preparation pad for “The Loop” — a 450km half-dodgedly-paved, half-dirt, pot-hole infested square of local roads (obstacle course?) that is notorious for leaving backpackers stranded with flats, skinned asses, and the occasional unconscious flight to a Bangkok Hospital.

 

We weren’t exactly sure what we were in for until we glanced through the Lodge’s Log Books, a grisly collection of past Loop-takers’ experiences, some including detailed (a few in color) maps.  Accounts of slide-outs, flats, engine trouble, infected road rash, hitchhiking, and broken bones from all over the world filled the pages.  Yet nearly everyone, including the broken bones, claimed it was one of their most unforgettable travel experiences. 

My desire to ride grew with every turn of the page.  I felt like the guys in Goonies when they discovered the map to One-Eyed Willy’s treasure, only the reward here was traveling back in time to see the untouched Lao landscape.  After taking down my own notes and advice, we decided to make the journey in two nights and three days, counter-clockwise.  According to Mr. Ku, three days minimum is good to see most of the scenic spots along the way.  He gave us a map and told us some tips on where to stay, checkpoints for time, what to see, warnings, etc.  Some writers suggested four days was better and two dudes claimed they did it in two, which in hindsight, is a ridiculous feat. 

The bikes we rented at 100,000kip a day were almost new 100cc KoLaos (Korean design).  They are the basic 4-speed, no clutch bikes swerving all over SE Asia.  Mr. Ku assured us they would make it with no serious problems, unless we were the cause.  He holds your passport as a deposit and if you total one of his bikes, you foot the $850 bill for a new joyride.  I guess you could just skip town back to Vientiane, hop over to your embassy and claim a lost passport, but with Mr. Ku’s easy-going character, you’d be sure to suffer a heavy dose of karma.

Mr. Ku’s Map

Day I

After a quick check and test drive of the bikes, we set off at 9:30am for our first day riding.  As we were all strapped in and ready to go, a tall older Australian guy came up and sent us off with a careful anecdote.

“You can never go too slow,” he said.  “I just came back from visiting my mate at an ICU in Bangkok.  He was side-swiped by a truck a couple days ago.”

“Are you serious?”  was all I could reply.

“I thought he was long gone when I first saw him…he was in terrible shape,” he continued.  “It’s a wild ride out there.  You guys take care of yourselves.”

We slowly drove out the gate, trying to think positive after our little pep-talk. 

Outside the Buddhist cave Tham Pha Pa

With our tanks below E, we filled up at a gas station(30,000kip for three liters) and took off smiling in the morning sun.  The first stop on the itinerary was a cave called Tham Pha Pa, which is off the highway down a beaten dirt road.  Tham Pha Pa is a Buddhist cave, shoes off and no photos, with many old stone Buddhas sitting between stalagmite formations — a great place for tranquil meditation. 

We trudged on and back out to the main road to head to our next stop, Falang Lake, a place where you could swim.  Riding along the paved road, we were surrounded by steep karst limestone mountains jutting up from harvested rice fields.  They loomed above us like stone giants as we sped along, keeping a steady 55 kph.  We took a left on the dusty road to the lake and our tires received their first battering as they bounced over jagged rocks embedded in the path.  I imagined my first flat happening at any moment, yet we arrived unscathed at the mostly still and quiet lake for a little stretch and rest.  I had read in the log book about some travelers getting their bags stolen here while going for a dip, so we passed on swimming.

Next on down the road was another cave, this one named Tham Pha Inh.  We knew it wasn’t too far from the lake, so I kept a keen eye out for a turn off sign.  We came around a mountain and the sign suddenly appeared for a quick left turn.  I hit the brakes and checked my side-mirror for traffic behind.  There was a truck edging up behind Blake and Tara’s bike, who were about 15 meters behind me, so I made a sharp left onto the road and looked back to make sure they saw the truck too.  Blake started to veer left as the truck was speeding up to pass.  I yelled, “Watch out!” while looking back, but when I looked ahead, my bike slid-out on some large gravel.  I crashed down on my right side, scraping up my palm and forearm. I pulled myself out from under the bike and lifted it back up, hoping it would start  up again.  With a couple tries, it turned over and I breathed a sigh of relief.  It could have been worse, but the wreck did bend the right-side mirror and even threw out the steering alignment about 15 degrees to the right.  I was tempted to try to straighten it out, but it wasn’t too bad and I didn’t want to run the risk of loosening it even more.

The first of four sides

We parked the bikes and headed up some stairs into the cave.  There were some Lao masons laying some new bricks who were excited to practice their best ‘Hello!’  Upon entering, you’re surrounded by calcite formations all around and even some tacky streamers running across the middle.  Walking down to the right, we found a mirror pool of water reflecting the walls and a sun-drenched opening outside.  No one else was present besides us and I couldn’t believe how quiet and still it was.  We found out later that the locals believe the cave has healing powers, and after chilling out for about 25 minutes near the water, I definitely felt a sense of natural comfort.  We thought about taking a swim, but it’s a good thing we didn’t since the water is regarded as sacred.  With the unknown awaiting ahead, we didn’t need any bad luck.

Tham Pha Inh
Tempting Waters

We were on schedule when we arrived at the next cave (Tham Nang Aen) around noon for lunch.  After eating some tasty minced buffalo and fried rice, we paid 10,000kip each for a ticket and headed inside.  This was the largest cave yet, but also decorated with the most cheese.  The lighting was either long fluorescents with no shame showing their cords or long plastic rope-lights strung up all over the place.  Nonetheless, it was still spectacular.  One of the stalagmites was even lit up like a stiff Christmas tree.  There was also a pool of water down below, but because of a strong wind that seemed to come out of the dark interior, the surface was a little rougher.  We found two plastic boats docked near the entrance and decided to check them out.  With no one in sight we hopped in both only to find no paddles.  There was a small wooden bench seat in mine, so I improvised and slowly paddled with it out while pushing Blake and Tara’s boat further into the darkness.  We definitely got our money’s worth.

Tham Pha Aen
Happy Stalagmite

We hit the road a little after 2pm, giving us a few hours before our planned arrival to the village of Tha Lang, where we would stay overnight.  The roads were still pretty good, mostly paved with a few rocks and pot-holes here and there, but when we reached the village of Nyommalat, our average speed dropped from about 45kph to 15kph.  The asphalt ended and we began a 40km sandy slip-and-slide through some small mountains.  This was the road parallel and not far from the Vietnam border.  We had to lurch foward through road-packed stones, buffalo-sized pot holes, and fine red sands that swallowed our skinny tires with ease.  My eyes were constantly scanning the road a few meters ahead to decide which obstacle was least dangerous to conquer.  More than a few times the bike fish-tailed and I almost lost it, saved only by a quick reflex of throwing a foot down to keep the bike horizontal.  I’ve had experience riding motorcycles, but this was a whole new level of cautious skill.  And to think, for some people, this is their first lesson on a bike, which would be terrifying and even masochistic in nature.

Dust Bandits
1st Day Sunset

After a couple hours of riding treachery, our fuel needles were buried in E with no stations in sight.  We knew we had to be getting close to Tha Lang, but the sun was sinking lower with every fire of the piston.  I didn’t want to ride at night because the headlamp was part of the steering, and with my crooked alignment, I knew all I’d see in the dark would be the gravel shoulder.  At the end of a small village was a tiny hut with old barrel-style fuel pumps and we pulled in to quench our bikes’ thirst. 

I was filthy.  My jeans and shirt were caked with a fine red dust from my shoulders to my Converse and a dirty stencil of my sunglasses was sprayed around my eyes.  An elderly woman dressed in a colorful sarong came out of the hut and handed us a rubber hose to put in the tank.  Above the 55-gallon drum sat fuel in a glass tube with red marks on the side measuring each liter and gravity does the rest.  You wouldn’t want to light one up here.  The woman seemed mostly pleased of our presence and we paid about 12,000kip a liter, which seemed a little high, but I just see it as giving to the local economy.

Get Pumped

With the sun just over the horizon, we carried on.  15 minutes later we finally made it to Tha Lang.  We knew of two guesthouses there, Saibadee and Tha Lang, and we stopped at Saibadee first, but decided to check out Tha Lang too, which was at the end of town on the right before a bridge.  About 5 other riders, who also rented from Mr. Ku yet we hadn’t met them since they had an earlier start, were already there.  We were the tail of the dustblazers.  Blake and Tara checked into the last of four bungalows available, so I was left thinking where I would sleep.  I didn’t really mind, I’d sleep by the fire if I had to, but the owner, a quick-talking jolly guy named Paitoon, said I could sleep in his tent for free, no worries.  Little did I know he meant free spiders and the early dawn sounds of him and his young little misses rocking the wild in his bungalow next door.

Tha Lang Bungalows and Tent

No flats, a little road rash, no flights-for-life — the first day was already worth the trip.

Day II

The next morning I woke up around 7:30 and was feeling anxious to saddle up on the bike. I was having coffee and an English-style breakfast with the other riders when Paitoon walked into the dining area.

 “Hey!” he said while patting me on the back. “This guy make so much noise last night. I sleep very little!”

 I laughed. “Me?!  I was the one making noise?”

“I forgot to tell you a girl comes to the tent in the early morning. Was she nice?”

The other riders, a young German couple, an Aussie guy, and another couple from England and Romania but live in Sweden, were cracking up yet also curiously studying my reaction.

I didn’t know what to say. He’d completely put the joke on me about his more than just audible marathon. I just smiled and was thinking This guy! What a trip!  It was like a passive-aggressive apology for waking me up with the sound of love.

We finished up packing and paid our bill, saying our goodbyes to Paitoon and his friendly staff. “The next 50 kilometers are the worst!” he laughed and sent us on our way.

He wasn’t kidding. We didn’t think it could get any worse but the road turned into a winding safari through the jungle. Pot-holes doesn’t do it justice; more like a washed out ditch that only years of weather and the elements could dig. I lost Blake and Tara after about 10 km because I couldn’t even keep a quick eye on them in my mirrors. I stopped about 30 minutes in and waited, hoping they were just taking it slow and nothing else. There was no sign of civilization anywhere, just thick foliage and huge boulders necking out from the sides of the hills.  Silence.

Finally they came around the corner and pulled up beside me. “I’m getting pretty low,” said Blake looking at his fuel gauge. We thought there would be another barrel pump on the way, but we now had a feeling the jungle was empty of petrol. We moved on with the hope that we’d see a clearing or a sign of human life soon. I still had about a quarter tank, so I was tempted to switch bikes to ease up on the weight, just in case. We definitely didn’t want to be stranded out here as we hadn’t seen a car or another motorbike for over an hour. At every turn around a corner, we looked ahead, anxious and weary about our chances to make it out of the jungle ditch on two wheels.

An hour later we came upon a clearing and in the distance I could see the brown tops of grass-roof housing.  Throes of bare-foot children played across the road as we rolled into the village.  Slowly, we drove along searching for any form of fuel dispensary and as we neared the end of the village with nothing in sight, we pulled into a kind of center where a huge group of men were standing around.  I figured one of them would be able to help us out.  On the back of Mr. Ku’s map is a list of useful Lao phrases, most of them designed just for the trip, and I pulled it out to see what kind of language barriers I could chip away. 

“Paumnamun?”  I asked in my best accent as they all looked us over in a curious glare.  A few of them chuckled at my attempt and pointed back to the other side of the village where we came in.  We hadn’t seen any sign of fuel there, but we hopped back on our bikes and headed back.  The last wooden hut on the right side had the most potential so I shouted “Paumnamun!” again from the road to a lady inside.  “Mee!” (have) she yelled back while holding up a two-liter water bottle filled with a magenta liquid.  We paid her 23,000kip a bottle and poured the fluid carefully into the tanks.  There were children covered in dust everywhere:  some sitting on  a dirt pile throwing rocks, others on a tree stump eating some yellow gelatin out of a plastic cup, and a few who seemed to be playing a game of who could get closest to us without running away.  There was also a huge black hog dragging around its piglets on the ground through its sagging pot-belly. Lao pigs have it so much better off than the soon-to-be-deli swine locked up back home.

Hoggin’

Dusty Dwelling

 

Can I kick it?

We took a stroll through the village to absorb the cultural curiosity.  The majority of homes had no electricity or running water, mostly just a large living room built with wooden walls and a thatch-roof held up off the ground by thick wooden stilts.  Underneath the houses were each of the families’ hogs snorting through food scraps and small chickens pecking everywhere.  A family was sitting outside on the ground, waiting for a large rectangle of rice spread out to dry in the afternoon sun.  One of the women was breastfeeding her two-year old boy while looking at us, not a drop of shame.

The children at the bottled gas hut waved their goodbyes to us as we set off for more bone-rattling roads.  The plan for the day was to get through the worst riding around noon, then cruise on the 3rd leg (paved) all the way to the valley village of Konglor, where we would spend our second night.  But first we had to get through the last of the treachery.  We were still riding north along the Vietnam border at this point, crawling to the town of Laksao where we would take a left onto road 8A.

About half-way to Laksao we were running low on fuel and we came upon a long stretch of houses, where crossing the road seemed to be a hobby for everyone. We played a kind of live slalom through the chickens, sleeping dogs, goats, running children, and pretty much anything that moves. Add that onto still maneuvering through large sinkholes and sudden upheavals of asphalt and you have a new motorcycle arcade game. We pulled over to the first set of barrel pumps we saw, where two guys were sitting at a table. We motioned to the pumps, which were clearly full, but they told us they didn’t have any and pointed us down the road. Maybe they didn’t know what to do with us.

At the next set of pumps or what could be called the ‘Gas & Daycare’, we were met by two smiling young boys.  One was standing on a tree stump, all ready to go, as we pointed to how many lines we wanted.  Nearby was a small store selling various snacks and general goods, where a mother sat holding her baby.  A group of boys in front were keeping their distance, some staring at us with wonder as they hid behind one another.  I walked up to them and said “Sabaidee!” They laughed and grabbed onto each other, as if preparing for another surprise…It speaks Lao!  I held up my hand to one in an attempt to high-five, but he just stood there confused, clutching his hands at his waist.  I high-fived Blake to demonstrate the form of camaraderie and then tried again.  He laughed and swung his arm back and landed a hard one and then his friends caught on and started high-fiveing all over the place.  Globalization is not always serious.
Work & Play

Curiosity

 

The Gang

The sun was high, so we rode on and finally reached Laksao around two-o’clock.  We weren’t sure where the left turn was for road 8A, so we pulled off at a main intersection and Blake showed a couple guys at a restaurant our map.  They pointed down to the next intersection at the end of town and we headed off and took a left onto our west-ward 3rd leg. The road here was smoothly paved, and we opened up the bikes back up to a steady 60kph.  We glided beside green crop fields that stretched out to a long, rugged mountain-ridge that seemed to parallel the road forever.  I cruised along with a feeling of exhilarating liveliness and I couldn’t help but hoot and holler like a mad-man who’d just stolen a motorcycle.

On the map I’d marked a waterfall I’d read about in the log book, but we saw no sign or turnoff that seemed to lead to one.  We were getting hungry so we peeled our eyes for a place to eat.  There wasn’t much on the side of the road except for small houses and little snack shops, so we kept on until we reached a winding road heading through the mountains.  It was now time to pull some gravity around sharp turns and breath in the fresh mountain air. We finally came upon a restaurant perched up a hill and stopped for a meal.  All the tables were set-up for dining, yet they were also completely empty.  There was a woman and a man there and Blake gave them the universal sign of eating: a hand picking out of the other to the mouth.  They said something and we, for some reason, assumed they didn’t have any food to serve.  We awkwardly said thanks and wondered where we stumbled over the language barrier.

Outside the restaurant was a row of stairs leading down into a thick river ravine in front of a steep rock wall.  We needed a stretch, so we wandered on down.  We crossed a bridge to what looked like an old Buddhist worship site that also led into a cave.  The cave entrance was barely visible, and you had to climb and duck down through a small crevice to get in.  It was completely dark, save for a little sunshine slanting through an opening where a stream flowed. We turned on a flashlight to peek into the darkness.  There were various fluorescent lights strung about, yet none of them were on.  Our light wasn’t bright enough to stab past the back of the deep blackness.  With the stream leading out of it, it probably went on and under the mountain.  It was a little sad, even eerie, thinking about the place: an old couple with a big empty restaurant and what seemed to be a small roadside attraction that died over years of neglect.

With our bellies growling, we took off down the road.  Coming out of the winding mountains, we reached a huge valley with more mountains hugging it on all sides.  We drove through a village and on the right side of the road there were huge loudspeakers blaring Lao dance music at enormous decibels.  Hundreds of empty chairs were set up in front of a stage.  It was like the awkward start of a party, where you have to make it look lively, yet at the same time, no one wants to be the first ones there.  A little ways beyond the music, Blake spotted a potential spot for food. I had to turn around and go back because I didn’t see them stop.  It wasn’t a meal, just an old lady selling deep-fried slices of sweet potatoes in front of her house.  We bought six at 1,000kip each and ate them while watching her toddler grandson hit his brother on the head with a big stick.

There I was…

The Culprit

Up the road were people dressed in colorful costumes waving flags, singing and dancing, and beating drums in the middle of the street.  They all waved and smiled at us as we slowly made our way around them.  We kept on through the valley, passing roadside children waving and yelling hello.  Even with our helmets, sunglasses and masks, it seemed these kids could spot a foreigner a mile away.  It must be the backpacks that give it away or the fact the locals rarely wear helmets, sunglasses, or even shoes while riding.  When you grew up with danger, it seems to become complacent.

After a couple more hours riding, we made it to the town Kuomkham, one of the larger populaces in the area surrounded by patchwork hues of green landscape and karst limestone formations scattered throughout.  It’s almost like the Halong Bay of Lao, except the water is replaced with flat colorful earth and has motorbikes instead of tourist junk boats.  We were starving and riding around looking for any sign of a hot meal, and after a being turned away a couple of times at what looked like restaurants but must have just been someone’s house, we found one.  There were only three tables, a shelf selling whiskey, beer, cigarettes and an old television showing a low-budget western rip-off of Anaconda dubbed in Lao.   This was my kind of place.   The woman there was happy to seat us and she just said, “Soup?”  Without waiting for our reply she was busy back in the kitchen chopping and dicing away.  I didn’t care what she served, just as long as I could stuff it in my face.

High-Quality

We were beat.  After our meal, Blake and Tara slept heads down on the table for awhile while I just sat back relaxed and amused by the snake thriller and the woman, who didn’t mind my friends’ nap, was enjoying every minute of the on-screen cheese.  We had one last 40km stretch of road left to Konglor where we could check into a guesthouse and take a cold shower.  After about an hour of restaurant R&R, we perked up and pushed on.

The stretch of road to the valley of Konglor was one of the most breathtaking.  More limestone moutains paralled the road on either side and wooden huts stood on the farm fields like outposts in a forgotten land.  Livestock roamed freely, droves of families relaxed on porches, bent over silhouettes picked through rows of green, and even more wild dogs and children played.  Seeing the Lao countryside, especially Konglor valley, is truly like traveling back in time a couple hundred years.  There were hardly any signs of industry or its products anywhere, only the self-sufficient and sustainable lifestyle of the increasingly distant past.  I’ve read that around 80% of Lao households are completely sustainable.  Most may be lacking wealth in the financial aspect, yet there’s literally not an inch of arable land that isn’t plotted for agriculture.  Munch on that Monsanto.

Road to Konglor

Corn Thieves

We were waved down by one of the other riders at a guesthouse and realized as we pulled in at around 6pm, that once again ours were the last of Mr. Ku’s bikes to arrive…the easy-going turtles of The Loop.  Two days down and we couldn’t imagine that the trip could top itself anymore.  We had no idea what our next morning would be like when we would visit Lao’s biggest and best cave, Konglor.

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Yes, I’m a Real Person

Last Friday was surreal. Izel, the head of another school I work at called me up the day before and asked if I could go visit a Kindergarten somewhere outside of the city. Since I don’t work on Friday afternoons at the university, I said why not?

We met at her school, a private one run almost completely by her, and I was greeted by the three other teachers working there.  All of them happen to be from Africa.   Two of them, a younger woman and man from Ghana, and another early thirties guy from Kenya. They all work under Izel, who is originally from the Philippines.

I asked what the plan was and she said we were being picked up by one of her adult students, a chinese man who owns an export garment factory and two kindergarten schools. We were to go visit both of his schools because the children there had never seen foreigners before and he thought it would be a good idea to broaden their horizons.

We arrived at the first school, which was in Shiba, about an hour northeast of Huizhou.  Shiba is a very small town, more like a village where the wealthiest in town are lucky to drive cars and if you have a motorbike, you’re doing pretty good.  The kindergarten building was shaped sort of like a castle and had cartoons of Mickey & Minnie Mouse (among others) painted huge all over it. 

As an attendant opened the gate to let us drive into the courtyard, situational thoughts ran:   A Filipina, Kenyan, two Ghanaians and an American walk into a Chinese kindergarten.  Yeah, the joke’s on us.  There was a big red banner in Chinese that said, “Welcome American Teachers to our school!”  We were all American in their eyes. 

We piled out of the cars and stood in the courtyard, trying to figure out exactly what was going on.   An attractive Chinese woman in her early 30s came over to us and said hello.  She also happened to be one of the heads of the school.  She had a camera in hand and immediately started taking pictures of us; no doubt with the intent of publishing them to attract more enrollments. 

After our arrival photo shoot, I walked into one of the classrooms in session and introduced myself to the little ones.

“Hellooo!!!”  I waved with both hands and smiled as wide as my cheeks could go.

The 5-6 year olds immediately looked up from their desks and gave me a blank stare of reserved curiosity, the kind of look clowns are probably used to getting.  The Chinese teachers asked them to follow their lead, “Good afternoon Teacher!!!”

Nothing.  A few of the kids started laughing at me, others just gazed at this weird thing standing in front of them.  So, I put up a hand and happily walked around trying to give them high-fives.  A few of them held up their little paws, a couple looked on the brink of tears, and one boy even stood up on his chair and stretched out his hand, anticipating my arrival to his side. 

At this point, my six-foot-two colleague from Ghana, we’ll call him Terry, came into the classroom and let out a big “Hellooo!!!” to which the kids turned around and once again became dazed by this new being.  Unfortunately for Terry, some of the children started crying and screaming, yet most of them just looked on in surprise.  The Chinese woman with the camera was behind him taking shots of us left and right.

Terry and I went from classroom to classroom doing the same thing and with the same results:  crying, screaming, laughter, and bewildered curiosity.  I felt like some kind of strange being from another world.  One of the kids even pulled on my nose, as if trying to yank away my “mask”.

After making our rounds playing, singing songs and dancing (I did the moonwalk to amazed laughter), we were told that we needed to stand near the school gate to wave goodbye to the kids and their parents as they came to pick them up.  Of course, this was a bit of a plug for the owner as a way to show the parents his school was special in terms of learning english.

As we stood there smiling and waving, a crowd of people, young and old, started to gather outside the gate.  They all looked on with the same faces as the children we’d just met.  Some of them yelled “Hey man!” or “Nice to meet you!”  I must have posed for over a hundred photos with the children and their parents.  One grandfather rode in on a bike and was looking at us like he’d just seen a ghost.  He kept pointing at us, but mostly he was curious about Terry.  He kept rubbing his face with both hands, as if he was trying to rub something off.  Finally, he walked over to Terry and took a closer look.  Terry speaks pretty good Chinese, and he thinks he was saying, “Why don’t you wash your face?” 

Terry just shrugged it off and laughed and leaned in to tell me grandpa smelled like he’d been drinking all afternoon.  The old man went in to pick up his grandson and came back, slowly lifting him up and setting him in a seat on the back of his bicycle.  No he isn’t!  we both thought as he got ready to ride away, the little one holding onto his backsides.  They slowly wobbled away out the gate and disappeared.  Just to think, this is probably an everyday occurence for the little fella.

As the children started thinning out, there was still a pretty good size crowd of curious onlookers.  The woman with the camera tried to tell them to go away, but had no luck, only laughing when she was walking back from them.  We asked her why she was laughing so much and she said that one of the onlookers asked her, “Zhengde ren 正地人?”  Which roughly translates into “Are they real people?”

Terry and I burst into our own laughter and decided to start walking around like robots to add to the moment.  I couldn’t keep a straight face as the last parents and their kids waved goodbye to us. 

After about four hours of being something else, my cheeks never hurt so much.

P.S.  I’m trying to get a hold of the pictures to post here.  Fingers crossed.

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Fearing the Unknown in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan

What you’re about to read was one of the most terrifying nights of my life.  While traveling through Yunnan in China, I stayed at a youth hostel in Jinghong, Xishuangbanna, a city that has historical influence from not only China, but also from Thailand and Laos.  Even though it’s still a Chinese city, it feels very southeast asian.

I arrived in Jinghong at the crack of dawn on a sleeper bus from Kunming.  I had written some information about a youth hostel here and asked a woman at the bus station where it was.  She pointed the way just down the street and I headed towards it.  After about a five-minute walk from the station, I found it and checked in.  The young woman at the desk didn’t speak much english, and she seemed very annoyed that I was bothering her for a room at such an early hour.  I paid 40 yuan ($6) for a dorm bed and made my way over to it.

When I opened the door and walked in there were four beds lined up against the wall.  I noticed an older western man sleeping in the second to last bed, so I tried to be as quiet as I could while unpacking and taking a shower.  When I got out of the shower, he had just woken up and was sitting at the edge of his bed.  As a backpacker, you know the situation.  The usual, Hello…Where you from?…Where you traveling?…blah blah blah.  I usually break the ice first, but I was so tired that I didn’t really want to deal with the usual banter.  He didn’t say anything.  He just sat and stared at the wall.  So I crawled into bed without a word and went to sleep for a couple of hours.

I woke up around 9 and got ready to go out to get some much-needed breakfast and look up some information about crossing into Laos.  When I came out of the room, the man was sitting on a bench outside, drinking coffee and listening to a small short-wave radio which was broadcasting some news in english.  I thought coffee was a good idea so I went into the office and got some and came back out to sit on a chair next to him.  I broke the ice with the usual conversation. 

“I’m from England,” he said without even looking at me, just staring out into the parking lot. 

I’m guessing he was about 60 years old and he was tall and slender with silver-white hair.  When I told him where I was from, he looked very surprised.

“Strange,” he replied.  “I don’t meet too many of you.  Seems like Americans don’t like to travel much.”

I agreed with him and told him that we’re few and far between.  While trying to talk with him, I say trying because he didn’t say much, mostly just minimal answers with no feedback, I found out that he had traveled around Asia for nearly 15 years.  He said he’d been in Jinghong for about a month.

“A month eh?” I said.  “So you must be doing a lot around here.  I’m only here for a day or two, can you suggest anything?”

“No,” he said and turned up the radio. 

I guessed that I was bothering him, so I got out my journal and started writing to show I was also busy and to curb the awkwardness.  But I couldn’t concentrate to write.  I felt strange.  When I was talking to him, he could never quite look me in the eye very long, just short glances, like a child telling a lie.  Maybe because he knew what his eyes looked like.  Cold.  A light hazel-gray that were as chilling as they were piercing.  I’m getting goosebumps just writing about it.  After each string of sentences, his lips would give a nervous half-smile. 

I couldn’t help but think what he had done here for the past month, let alone the past 15 years.  A 60-year-old man alone and socially awkward.  As a traveller, you meet the occasional drifter, someone you can’t quite put a finger on, as if they are hiding or running away from something.  He had that presence more than anyone I’d met before. 

I finished up my coffee and stood up.  I had some clothes I needed washed, so I got them and gave them to the woman at the desk.  Again, she looked annoyed and just threw my clothes in a bag.  I told her I might be checking out tomorrow, so could she please have them finished by then.  She just nodded her head and disappeared through a door behind the desk.

I went back in the room to get ready to roam around the town.  When I came out he asked, “Where are you going?”

“Just going to see what I can find around here,” I replied.  He gave a half-smile again and said, “See you later.”

With that, I headed out and wandered a market taking photos.  I then headed to the Mekong Cafe to get some breakfast and get on the internet to plan my crossing into Laos.  After finishing breakfast, I wandered aimlessly around the town and headed across a bridge to try to find a large buddhist temple I’d read about on the internet.  After walking for about an hour, I gave up looking for it and headed back into town.  The rest of the afternoon I just walked around, tiring my legs and absorbing the sights.  It started to rain so I headed back to the hostel to put my bag away and get some dinner.

I stopped by the front desk to ask about my laundry and the woman kept saying she didn’t understand what I was talking about.  In my broken Chinese, I kept asking where my laundry was.  She just kept saying, “Tien putong.  Tien putong.” (I don’t know.)  Finally, she angrily pointed up towards the ceiling and disappeared through the door again.  I walked upstairs and found a ladder going to the rooftop.  Sure enough, there were all my clothes, hanging on a line soaking wet in the rain.  Now I knew why she was saying that and acting strange.  She was trying to save face because she forgot about my laundry.  I took them down and went back to my room to try to wring them out in the bathroom sink. 

Thankfully, the man wasn’t there so I could avoid more eerie awkwardness.  After getting my clothes as dry as  I could, I hung them up around the room on a few chairs and turned the fan on them.  After that I headed out to get some dinner.  It was still raining so I took a book with me to read and sat on a covered patio while eating some spicy chicken and drinking a cold Harbin beer.  The wait staff didn’t seem to mind, so I sat there for about three hours reading and ordering more beers.  Finally, around ten o’ clock, I headed back to the hostel.

I opened the door quietly, thinking the man might be in bed, and came in.  The light was still on and he was sitting up in bed, his shirt off with the covers over him.  He turned and looked at me as I walked in.

“Where have you been?” he asked in a parental-like tone.

“Just walking around seeing what the city has to offer,” I replied as I set my bag down.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” he said with a wide smile.

“Oh, uh, you didn’t have to wait.” 

He sat there with his eyes on me the whole time.  I wanted to take a shower again because I had decided to catch the early morning bus to Laos.  But I didn’t know what to do with the light on, his cold eyes eyeing every movement.  I didn’t say anything else while I gathered all my half-dry clothes and put them into a plastic bag.  As I packed everything, he just sat there in bed, staring without a word, just a strange smile on his face.  I didn’t know what to do.

I went into the bathroom and locked the door.  As I took a shower, paranoid thoughts raced through my mind.  I started to think about the situation.  I hadn’t seen any other travellers at the hostel.  Only the annoyed woman, the old man and myself.  Why had he been here for a whole month and couldn’t tell me one thing to do?  15 years traveling Asia?  What was up with the woman’s attitude?  Then it hit me.  The cold eyes, the socially awkward mannerisms, the short answers.  I remembered I’d asked his name that morning and he steered the conversation away from it.  Who was he?

Serial killer.  The thought kept creeping into my head.  I couldn’t help it.  The cold eyes you see in the mug shots when watching shows about killers.  He had them.  

No, c’mon Lance.  Get real.

But what if he was?  What if I just forget about these paranoid thoughts, but if I’m wrong, I won’t wake up tomorrow.  I kept thinking about it as I stood in front of the bathroom mirror.  Why is there no one else staying here?  Maybe he’s got some kind of deal going on with the strange desk woman, where he possibly rapes and kills young travellers coming through here and she’s in on it, keeping a low-key. 

I must have stood there for about half an hour trying to get a clear head.  I thought maybe I should change rooms, but how was I going to explain that to the already disgruntled woman.  I kept telling myself that the guy’s just a weirdo, nothing else.  But no matter how much I told myself it’s all just situational paranoia, I kept fearing the unknown. 

Finally, I opened the door and came back into the room.  He was still sitting up in the bed with the light on. 

“Why were you in there so long?” he asked.  “Is something wrong?”

“No. Nothing’s wrong,” I left it at that. 

I could feel his eyes on me as I made sure everything was ready to go and set my alarm on my phone. 

“Can I turn off the light?”  I asked.

“Sure.”  He showed his yellow teeth smiling again.

I shut out the light and crawled into bed.  I could see the silhouette of his outline through the street light coming in through the far window.  He just kept sitting there, upright in bed.

I got up and went back into the bathroom.  My shaving kit was still in there and I grabbed my razor, an old-fashioned one that barbers use.  I took one last look in the mirror and thought, This is it man.  If he wants to try something, I’m fuckin’ ready.

I walked back out with it clasped in my fist and got back into bed.  His silhouette was still there, sitting up.

I lay there watching him with my eyes almost shut, my heart jumping against my chest.  My palm was sweaty against the razor.  Bring it old man.

I didn’t sleep.  I watched him the whole time.  For two hours he sat up in bed and I could see his head moving about, as if trying to see if I had fallen asleep yet.  I kept thinking, it’s either you or him…it’s either you or him.   

I was jolted awake by my alarm at 5:45.  I immediately looked over at him.  He was sound asleep.  Jesus. I smiled in relief.  What a weirdo.

I put the blade away and gathered all my stuff.  As I was walking out he turned over and let out a long yawn. 

“You heading out?”  

“Yep.”

“Have a safe trip,” he said.

“Thanks.  Same to you.”  I opened the door and walked out.

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War Remnants Museum – Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

August 14, 2010

I’m sitting on a “bench” made in the U.S.A.  Actually, it’s a seven-foot long bomb casing outside the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.  I just went through the museum and now it’s gloomy and raining, a reflection of the atmosphere inside.  I arrived by bus from Phnom Penh last night about 8 pm and quickly found a cheap room and went to sleep.  I woke up this morning wondering about my plan for the day and I saw on a map that the museum was only about a 20 minute walk from where I was staying.  So I set off towards it, but first stopped by a food street vendor for some breakfast and iced coffee.

It’s the loudest meal I’ve ever had.  Packed clusters of beeping motorbikes veer pass while a truckload of chickens unloads next door.  In fact, I’m surrounded by chickens:  chickens in bamboo cages, a few chickens pecking their way around my feet under the table as I eat…yes, chicken morning glory and rice and I can’t help but wonder if these chickens are pecking the same meal as I.

I finish up and pay 20,000 dong ($1) for my meal and walk on to the museum.  When I enter the courtyard and buy my ticket (75 cents), I’m surrounded by U.S. helicopters, tanks, and fighter jets.  I feel strange as the only other place I’ve seen U.S. military equipment is of course in my home country.  As I enter the building, there are black and white photographs hung on all the walls depicting the various atrocities committed by the U.S. military and Ngo Dinh Diem’s South Vietnamese government.  Picture after picture are images of troops setting fire to villages, capturing and evacuating whole families, holding the decapitated heads of the Vietcong, and on and on.  There’s also a large series of photos showing the various deformities of the victims, mostly children, of Agent Orange and other chemical dioxins used by the U.S. to clear jungle foliage.  The images almost make me sick:  children missing limbs, enlarged and deformed heads, paralysis, cleft palates, all among too many to describe.  For each photo in the museum, there’s a caption of information describing the who, what , where, when, and how. 

After walking the floors and walls, I can’t help but feel that the portrayal of the pictures is very biased.  They show nothing but atrocities the U.S. committed against the people of Vietnam.  Of course, I knew of some them such as the incident at My Lai before coming, but nothing prepared me for such an onslaught of violence, aggression, and outright inhumanity that the photos and captions suggested.  One photograph in particular that haunts me is of a young U.S. soldier dangling half a mangled torso of a farmer who was viciously blown in half by a bomb.  There are countless other gruesome photos that I don’t even want to describe, but I’ve never seen anything like them in my life.

I do not know how to feel walking among the tourist crowd of French, German, Swiss, Spanish, Chinese, and people from all around.  Somehow, I feel like I am the only American here.  Is it guilt?  Anger?  Sadness?  I don’t know which one.  In the lobby there is a boy with no eyes, only skin covering the sockets.  He’s playing Vietnamese music on a cheap keyboard and I can barely watch him without feeling tears well up inside.  Beside him are other blind young boys sewing together various trinkets made from brightly colored beads.  The proceeds go to charity for these young men and others with disabilities. 

I can’t help but feel grateful for everything I have.  Just that I have every limb, my sight, clean water and food to eat everyday, everything we take for granted.  I don’t want to toe the line and say it’s because the U.S.A. protected my freedoms and way of life after what I just witnessed.  There’s no excuse or justification for the murder and atrocities the United States government committed to “protect democracy”.  How do you protect democracy and human rights by viciously carrying out a war against people who only wanted to defend their own homeland and way of life?  Sometimes I wish everyone in the world could travel outside their homeland and live somewhere else, anywhere, for at least one year.  I think the immersion into a different culture creates an understanding that knows no thoughts of fear, hate or violence. 

I have utmost respect for anyone who has served or serves any nation in uniform, but I don’t respect self-interest decisions made by governments to put others in danger.  A few million Vietnamese, Lao, Cambodian civilians and over 75,000 young American, South Korean, Thai, Filipino, Australian and New Zealanders were not only stripped of democracy and human rights, but of a whole lifetime of possibility and humanity.

I’m still sitting here on this U.S. bomb, as the buzz of Ho Chi Minh flys by, waiting for the sun to come out and dry the rain.

Medals donated from a U.S. soldier. The plate inside reads: To the people of a United Vietnam - I was wrong. I am sorry.

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