Our Cambodian truck driver, who says his name is “Mr. T,” pulls the Nissan pickup to the side of the road and looks back at me expressionlessly. “You get out!” he says. As if to underscore this suggestion, he steps out of the truck himself, unzips his jeans and begins to urinate on the side of the road.
Since I welcome any chance to exit the jammed mini-cab, I follow suit.
I have been riding in Mr. T’s truck long enough to know that he was not being rude with this curt demand. He was merely showing off his arsenal of English phrases, which also includes “I am Mr. T” and “You pay $6.” Every 20 or so minutes, he turns around and says, “This road very bad, ha-ha!” The quip is meant to be a joke, but after two hours of slamming through the unending succession of potholes and washouts known as Cambodia Route 6, I’m not laughing.
Since Route 6 is the only passable road from the Thai border to the ancient Khmer monuments at Angkor Wat, it gets a surprisingly steady stream of tourist traffic. We are currently at the height of dry season, and the road is as brown and featureless as the Texas panhandle in winter. Each time a truck full of glassy-eyed travelers bounces past, I feel like I’m journeying through some sadistic antipode to Disneyland, where the only ride lasts six hours and is designed to underscore just how long, difficult and boring life can be.
As I void my bladder onto the Route 6 shoulder, I notice that my white-haired seatmate, Mr. Cham, is standing a few paces away, watching me. All dandied-up in a brown porkpie hat and a purple polo shirt, Mr. Cham looks like he’s ready for an afternoon at the horse races. I half expect him to break into applause as I take my whiz. Once I’m finished, he hurries down the road to watch the other foreigner — a middle-aged Belgian named Claude — urinate. I’m beginning to suspect that Mr. Cham doesn’t get out of the house much.
Mr. Cham and I have been smashed up against each other in the Nissan mini-cab all morning. For reasons I don’t completely understand, I am sponsoring his ride. The first time I ever saw him was yesterday. He was wearing a black Bon Jovi T-shirt at the time, and had just stolen my sandals. My second encounter with him was this morning, when he showed up at my departure point from a town known as Opasat and informed my Cambodian hosts that I was to pay for his transit to Siem Reap. It seemed like an odd request at the time, but I went ahead and obliged him out of generic courtesy.
Mr. Cham has no personality and smells like a bag of stale Cool Ranch Doritos. If I had it to do all over again, I would have saved $3 back at the truck depot and made him ride in the back of the Nissan with the old women, the chickens and the bags of rice.
As I return to the truck from my toilet break, Mr. T rushes up to cut me off at the door. At first I think there’s some sort of danger, but it turns out he’s just looking for a chance to show off some more English. “You get in!” he says.
In the waning days of the Jimmy Carter administration, when I was about 8 or 9 years old, I dressed up like Batman and, as part of a UNICEF Halloween promotion, went door to door collecting money for the starving children of Cambodia. As I recall, I was far more interested in Batman than Cambodia, and I only mention it now because it occurs to me that Mr. T (who, despite his authoritative name, is no older than me) was probably one of those starving children.
Perhaps out of gratitude all these years later, Mr. T is hell-bent on driving me to Siem Reap as fast as possible. His road style is bold, unorthodox and unnerving, and I’m beginning to suspect that he originally learned how to drive by watching “The Dukes of Hazzard.”
Claude the Belgian, who shelled out $10 for the shotgun seat, is gripping the dashboard with a queasy, defeated look. The rest of the passengers, including Mr. Cham and me, are packed into the mini-cab so tightly that there’s no point in trying to steady ourselves. With each road flaw, our heads bang back and forth in unison, like we’ve just been teleported here from a Judas Priest concert.
Mr. T slows down only for roadblocks that are manned by men with assault rifles. I have yet to figure out if these armed sentries are soldiers or bandits — or if there is even any distinction between those two job descriptions in northwestern Cambodia. The roadblocks seem to be located only in shaded places where one can hang a hammock, and I suspect that anyone in this country with a spare AK-47 and a little initiative can find part-time work as a freelance Route 6 tollkeeper. Mr. T doesn’t pay the tollkeepers much mind, slowing only to toss a 500-riel note (about $0.13) out the window at each roadblock.
When an old codger on a parched section of the highway tries to wave our truck down with a slingshot and a shoddy bundle of sticks, Mr. T slams on the brakes, jumps out of the truck and chases the old man off into the scrub bushes. I’m not exactly sure what nuances lurk behind this confrontation, but it’s the most excitement we’ve had all day. Everyone cheers when Mr. T gets back into the truck.
The strangest detail about Cambodia Route 6 is that it is populated by so many children. Some of them are out fixing road defects with shovels; others help guide the trucks over dilapidated bridges. All of these kids demand a tip for their services, but Mr. T unconditionally ignores them. Lots of the kids are armed with Super Soaker water guns — probably a holdover from the Khmer New Year’s festivities — and we get ambushed with water whenever we slow down.
Were I a sentimental ironist, I might make some dewy-eyed observation about how these kids represent the peace-loving hopes of post-Pol Pot Cambodia — how these gentle, harmless water guns have replaced the tools of genocide. Unfortunately, I’m not so optimistic. The old ladies and chickens in the bed of the Nissan are completely soaked because of these spiteful little extortionists, and each time Mr. T drives past without tipping them, they shake their fists at him in pre-adolescent fury.
Four hours into our journey, we stop at a village for lunch. “You get out,” Mr. T tells me as we coast to a stop in front of a roadside food stand. I get out.
Since I’m not all that hungry, I stand with Claude the Belgian and stretch my legs. I have stopped trying to talk to Claude because he speaks only French and Khmer. What little English he knows is not much better than Mr. T’s repertoire. I try not to hold this against him, since I studied French for two semesters in college, and all I can remember now is that fromage means cheese.
As Claude and I stand in silence, a Cambodian man across the street takes an AK-47 out from the cab of his truck and starts to fire it into the sky. He is part of a large crowd, and all the women in his immediate vicinity start to scream. Even from across the road, the noise of the weapon gives me a start. The only thing that keeps me from running for cover is Claude, who acts as if nothing is happening.
“What the hell is that all about?” I say under my breath, not really expecting an answer.
“Waiting,” Claude says.
“Waiting for what?” I reply, still under my breath.
“Waiting,” Claude says. “Man, woo-man. Waiting.”
It dawns on me. “Oh, wedding. It’s a wedding party.”
“Oui. Waiting part-ee.”
As I am watching the quirky wedding festivities across the street, I feel a tug on my shirt. It’s Mr. Cham, who indicates that he wants me to come over to the food stand. For a moment, I think Mr. Cham has redeemed himself by ordering me lunch; as it turns out, he just wants me to pay for his lunch. I foot Cham’s lunch bill, secretly formulating ways to dump this creepy little freeloader as soon as I get to Siem Reap.
Since I’m already at the food stand, I decide to check out what kinds of cuisine they offer. The lone on-duty chef at this moment is a scowling 8-year-old girl who chops up a dead chicken with fearsome strokes from a butcher knife. When she finishes, she scoops up the gelatinous cubes of deceased fowl and dumps them onto a plate of rice.
Since the bird was never properly disemboweled, each chicken cube resembles a tidy anatomical cross-section of meat, bones, skin and viscera. In all my international culinary experience, I have never seen the likes of this. I half expect an elementary-school gifted-student coordinator to walk up and cheerily announce, “OK, now let’s see which one of you can put that chicken back together!”
I elect to skip lunch. My quest for a toilet leads me to a forlorn strip of cement behind the food stand, which provides a nice view of Route 6 twisting off into the distance. I wish I could say that the midday sun makes the dusty, brown road seem full of intrigue and possibility, but I’m on the wrong continent for that kind of notion.
In Cambodia, there are no hipster myths or soda advertisements to insinuate that the road is some kind of romantic-individualist icon. In the Cambodian outback, the road is little more than a long, dully dangerous, frequently uncomfortable way to get to Point B from Point A — a monotonous, head-banging waltz-with-misery that you endure in the hope that it will eventually stop, so you can begin to forget about it.
I feel another tug on my shirt. It’s Mr. T, who points back to the Nissan. “You get in!” he says.
I get in. But only because there are no other options out here.
Originally published on Salon.com, May 18, 1999
Learning to dive was in the front of my mind when I started planning my trip to southeast Asia. Friends had learned in Thailand and I had heard that it was one of the cheapest places to get certified. After some research, we headed towards Koh Tao, an island in the Gulf of Thailand. I was keen to get my Open Water certification, but my husband was not. He agreed to stay on shore and I signed up for the three day course.
My brain was stretched and challenged as I did my homework each night; I enjoyed learning new terms and pondering the science involved in taking a human body deep underwater. I was back in school and excited to learn about decompression sickness and the volume of the air in my lungs under pressure. Over those three days, I learned the skills I needed to stay alive and also realized a recurring dream I have of being able to breathe underwater. I made new friends and relied on them for my safety. Diving began to feel natural and, at the end of my course, I got my very own photo ID to prove that I was now a licensed diver. While having lunch with my group on that last day, I pondered where this new skill was going to take me.
Having my OW was nice, but what about deeper dives like wrecks? I wouldn’t be able to dive past 18 meters and having a limitation on the kinds of dives I could do made me consider sticking around. Later that day, on an impulse, I signed up for my advanced course to spend two more days learning a few more skills and practice my buoyancy control and breathing. I dived a sunken wreck and did a night dive where I saw herds of porcupine fish and phosphorescence. In a classroom, I wasn’t enthralled by the science of volume and pressure, but as I watched a raw egg cracked open at 30 meters depth, I marveled at the real world demonstration: holding its shape, floating weightlessly as if in space. After leaving Koh Tao, I started doing fun dives near the Koh Phi Phi islands and had a chance to see some amazing sea life. I practiced using my GoPro on dives and bought a red filter for taking photos and video at depth to bring back some of the red that gets lost the further down you go. There’s still a lot of work to do and perhaps some new gear to acquire, but the opportunity to expand my photography to include underwater shots is also exciting.
Diving is a skill that lets me explore an entirely new part of a country and see things I wouldn’t have been able to see before. I can wander the grounds of the ancient city of Sukhothai one week, and the next be face to face with a lionfish in the Andaman Sea. Who knows where this endeavor will take me?
One of the most startling travel epiphanies I’ve had in recent years came on a trip to Burma, when I was counting out small change so I could buy a packet of toilet tissues. The Burmese kyat had recently suffered a jag of devaluation, and when I’d tallied up my toilet-tissue money, I noticed that it consisted of twelve small denomination bills.
Given that Burmese tissues came in packets of ten, it occurred to me that it would be more economical to just wipe my ass in kyat and pocket the difference.
Though this Burma experience was an unusually vivid example, travel always has a way of testing one’s faith when it comes to the workings of money. At home, one can pass bills without thinking too much about it, but the arbitrariness of modern currency can be alarmingly apparent when one is abroad.
As a veteran Asia traveler, my bewilderment with legal tender goes back to a day seven years ago, when an elderly vendor in Phnom Penh’s Russian Market refused to accept a worn $10 bill I’d brought directly from the United States. “Too old,” she’d told me. When I asked the woman to show me an example of acceptable currency, she held up a discolored (yet crisp) $20 bill that had obviously been counterfeited locally. In Cambodia, it seemed, the true value of American money was not pegged to its authenticity, but to whether or not it was wrinkled.
Such an idiosyncrasy may well derive from fact that portable currency (a system created in part by the demands of travel itself) has never been foolproof. In areas where a standardized money system has yet to catch on, for example, the act of shopping can prove ambiguous. In the 19th century guidebook The Art of Travel, Francis Galton suggested bringing beads and shells to use as “small change” when traveling in remote regions. Galton warned against knickknack-inflation, however — noting that one African chief had complained that his women were already “grunting like pigs” under the burden of beads given to them by previous travelers.
Other times, the absence of standardized currency has worked in travelers’ favor. Pioneering voyages to the South Pacific abound with tales of an improvised iron-based economy, wherein a sailor could acquire a short-term Tahitian wife through the gift of “an old razor, a pair of scissors, or a very large nail.” In 1767, Captain Samuel Wallis of the Dolphis had to forbid his men from trading nails for anything save wood or water, “to preserve the ship from being pulled to pieces” by horny sailors. Of course, iron isn’t the only item that has served as de facto travel currency. Wandering Norsemen once brokered deals in butter, the nomads of the Sahara traded in salt, and (in a scenario that’s fun to imagine) ancient Aztecs paid off their debts in chocolate. Tobacco was legal tender along the roads of colonial Virginia — a fact that sounds strange only until you consider that cigarettes were used as money in many parts of Europe after World War II.
In fact, paper money — which carries a purely hypothetical value — has only recently caught on as a world currency. The Chinese may have valued paper notes against silk to mixed success 1000 years ago, but a similar effort in 13th century Persia was ruined by counterfeiters. William the Bad tried to introduce leather money in 14th century Sicily — though (given the king’s unfortunate name) it’s easy to conclude that this royal experiment didn’t go over so well. To this day, the uncertainty of paper money has been known to break a regime: In late 2001, forged paper notes reportedly helped destabilize the Taliban government (one naturally wonders what graven image the Afghan Islamists had printed on their money — a grenade? an unplugged TV set? a smashed chunk of Buddha statue?).
Even in the United States, a paper dollar has little inherent value beyond the fact that it’s a part of the largest system of common faith in the world. Indeed, despite doctrinal differences, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and animists readily accept paper dollars — and even the metaphysical workings of the dollar’s “managed system” of value (wherein American banks and the Federal Reserve determine, Old Testament-style, that a dollar Is What It Is) seems firmly rooted in the ways of shared belief.
When such faith begins to crumble, of course — like it did for me in Burma — it’s easy to conclude that, for all its usefulness, paper money is still just paper.
For the record, I went ahead and swapped those twelve banknotes for ten tissues. But only because the latter were more absorbent.
Many people head to southern Thailand for beaches, islands, and the relaxed vibe of coastal life. Ao Nang is a bit more relaxed than larger cities like Phuket but still has a vibrant tourist draw and is an easy jumping-off point for many activities like rock climbing, island tours, beach lounging, hiking, and diving.
Cost of living:
If you’re trying to save cash and are settling down for a while, a monthly rental can be found here for about 9,000 baht if you’re willing to stay a few kilometers away from the main beach area. Doing this will save you cash and the restaurants and shops get cheaper as you move farther from the beach. A scooter rental will cost you 250 baht per day or only 3,000 baht per month. If you were to eat all three meals a day at restaurants, your daily food allowance would need to be between 350-500 baht per person. However, stocking up on groceries and eating breakfast and/or lunch at home can save some cash and drop your daily food costs down to 150-250 baht per day. Prices at restaurants can more than triple when you get to the main beach strip and the quality of food isn’t any better. Sometimes you have to give in and spend 200 baht on that piña colada so you can watch the sunset at a beachside bar.
Traveling slowly with my husband across Southeast Asia has been a great way to leave our jobs and lives in Canada behind to explore the world on a small budget. It also means we spend a lot of time together. Every meal, every walk, every bus ride to a new city, is together. Where once we saw each other only in the evenings and on weekends, we now see each other all the time. Where we once had schedules and habitual activities alone, there was now a much more shared and aligned schedule. This is fine, really, but we don’t always agree that something is worth our time or energy. Sometimes we need to split off and spend some time apart.
When we were living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I felt the need to take our scooter to some neighboring towns to see other temples, other roads, other food stalls. This little adventure interested only me so I took off down the highway with the scooter and left the husband behind to revel in his alone time with his fantasy football activities. I put a single earbud in, had Google maps speak directions to me and put on some music. I immediately got lost on a small residential road due to my inability to grasp the distance of 200 metres and turned too soon. I almost ran over a chicken that was literally crossing the road (why it was crossing the road is beyond us all.) Once back on the highway, I decided to trust the navigator voice and made my way south on Highway 106 to Lamphun. The drive passed under towering rubber trees that lined the road and went in and out of clouds of incense and smoke from barbecued pork. Each rotund tree had an orange swatch of fabric tied to it, indicating it was blessed by monks, therefore protecting it from logging. The roots had overgrown past the road and were pushing up the pavement along the edges. I took it slow and drove only as fast as I wanted with Blood Orange’s Chamakay setting the mood.
I stopped at a couple of different wats (temples) in Lamphun: Wat Phra That Hariphunchai and Wat Kukut respectively. The first was almost deserted compared to the wats I had visited in Chiang Mai. No more than four tourists and about five or so Buddhist monks were wandering the grounds. This was a much more peaceful way to visit a wat than pushed around in a throng of tourists, constantly moving and talking over each other. Little bells blew around in the wind and broke the silence with soft tinkling sounds like wind chimes. Wat Kukut was completely deserted. The only human I saw was a Thai man who came into the front gates briefly to release a small bird from a tiny wicker cage and then leave. I had a great opportunity to take my time and photograph every small detail that fascinated me: small wooden elephants casting long shadows, tiny figurines placed in flower pots and along walls, standing Buddhas along the walls of the chedis, catching just the right amount of light on my lens.
On the way back to Chiang Mai, I waited at a stoplight and saw a small girl staring at me from the car beside me. She shyly opened her window and waved. I waved back from my scooter with a big smile and saw the delight in her face right as the light turned and I sped off up the rubber tree highway, Kanye West’s Bad News taking me home.
Had my husband been with me, this day trip would have looked quite different. On the back of our scooter I would have been navigator, looking at my phone and directing rather than driving at my own pace, stopping whenever I wanted, and taking my time in the deserted wats. I probably wouldn’t have had my headphones in. Sometimes it’s nice to have a soundtrack of my favorite music to accompany an experience. It was nice to have a day that was my own with my own agenda. If we had been on a short two-week vacation, we would have been rushing to maximize our time and fit as many activities into our schedule as possible. A day trip to Lamphun wouldn’t have been considered when there are flashier attractions nearby that we would both enjoy. It’s a healthy exercise to spend time alone and be forced to rely on your own strengths and spend time with your thoughts as you travel. Growing up as an only child, this was standard. Spending time alone used to come so naturally to me. Since being married, I can sometimes forget the way my brain works and thinks differently alone. While it is an incredible journey my husband and I have taken on together, having a solo adventure here and there has enriched the overall experience.
To read more about Maryanne’s travel adventures check out Unknown Home.
Stroll past the dozens of stalls serving food to the fascinated tourists excitedly pointing at giant, steaming woks of noodles, dried sticks of skewered insects and whirring blenders filled with local fruits, and you’ll find the experience to be an exquisite assault on the senses. Bright lights above each stall harshly illuminate the menus, which are rarely also in English. If the menu can even be seen through the steam and smoke from the never-ending cooking, the blended smells will only confound customers looking for something recognizable for dinner.
Although the intense variety of culinary choices attracts some foreigners to Thailand, many more are drawn by the comparatively low cost of living. Begin always by knowing what the currency conversion rate is so you can have a strong understanding of what prices really are. One Canadian dollar works out to about thirty Thai baht, but I wouldn’t get too hung up on being precise; Thailand ends up being so cheap that it’s not worth counting pennies over it.
Chiang Mai is a city that is always in motion, yet retains the slow, old-world charm that Bangkok seems to have long ago left behind. The centre of Thailand’s second-biggest city is a grouping of several blocks consisting mostly of old temples, schools, and residences, and shaped almost as a perfect square. Protecting the old city is its moat that symbolically keeps modernity from encroaching too far inside. The food, however, hasn’t been able to maintain the same degree of separation from the influences of the new millennium and the globalization that increased tourism brings.
For the traveller looking for something delicious and different from the norm, Chiang Mai not only offers reliable favourites, such as the ubiquitous Pad Thai and green curries, but lesser-known meals such as Khao Soi and Som Tam salad can be sampled for about a dollar. International dishes are very easy to locate, as one can find a bacon burger or cheese pizza being served beside someone else grilling an entire squid over a barrel fire.
The way to really travel and eat cheaply is to seek out the food stalls and put aside any unfounded lingering fears over the possibility of food poisoning. Cooks take great pride in serving tourists something authentic, clean, memorable, and probably a little spicier than expected. It can all be done without making a significant dent in anyone’s wallet.
Typically, a cheap walking-street dinner is done by visiting several carts that sell a few bites of some sort of tasty local dish. A meal might start with a light appetizer, perhaps a fried spring roll, sliced curry sausage, or a piece of grilled chicken on a skewer. Patrons jostle for the vendor’s attention, and those clutching exact change will find their order quickly filled. My large elbows are a blessing in times of hunger, and my stomach thanks them for their unwieldy size as they help keep my position at the front of the queue. I’m not a monster, I’m just hungry.
In Chiang Mai, it’s crucial to try the regional dishes that are nearly impossible to find back home, and that includes Khao Soi. With neither pictures nor translation for one to point to, the cook will only need to shout its name and everyone will know what to expect. Served in a bowl, it is a wonderful lightly spiced chicken curry sauce poured over fried yellow noodles, topped with pickled vegetables, often accompanied by a stewed chicken drumstick. The server directs customers to sit at a nearby folding table and it is lined with locals working their way through their own bowls. One serving could fill the void in most travellers’ stomachs, yet I must remind myself to avoid the compulsion to order a second bowl, for Khao Soi is oily, and there remain far too many other things to try.
A voracious appetite might need a plate of Som Tam to fill the cracks at this point. It’s a papaya-based salad that is tossed with sweet and spicy ingredients, mixed with a clay mortar and pestle only at the moment it is ordered. Although sublimely refreshing, Som Tam can set one’s mouth ablaze if proper care is not taken as to the level of hot pepper added; it has the potential to create a serious need to guzzle a gallon of ice water or beer. Speaking of beer, the cheapest brand of lager is Chang, followed by Leo, Tiger, and Singha. None is particularly remarkable in terms of quality, but I am not one to complain about cold beer after spicy food.
Dessert is acceptable, no matter how full the last three dishes have made anyone feel. On the off-chance that fried dough with sweet milk seems too heavy, there is always the Thai classic: ancient ice cream. Ancient ice cream surprises most with its rectangular shape, and that it is served on a stick. Made with coconut milk and ice, individual portions are cut from large slabs, and can be eaten as is, or inside a piece of bread. With no dearth of flavours from which to choose, the usual suspects such as vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry are common favourites. While coffee, caramel, and coconut are some of the more subtle flavours, the few brave will try durian, matcha, or maybe red bean. The alternative to ice cream is roti, a flattened piece of soft dough, which can then be filled with bananas, chocolate, egg, or any sweet fruits, then fried gently on a large pan. It is wrapped up in itself, chopped into bite-sized morsels, and never runs more than a buck fifty.
The reaction inside my body at this point of dinner is overwhelming. It is not from excessive spice, nor is it something possibly undercooked that my stomach is trying to digest. The feeling is one of incredulity at how much time I’ve wasted in life not eating this amazing cuisine. It is appreciation for the opportunity to travel just to appease the foodie nature of the heart. It is a sense of smug satisfaction at having spent only four dollars on stuffing my belly so completely that I feel like giving away the rest of my budgeted money. It is contentment. Chiang Mai is accessible to the world, and it is a place of deep exploration for the lovers of food. It can be pursued and discovered again and again in every meal eaten.
Tony Hajdu writes more over at Unknown Home. Head over there and bookmark it!
Just behind the video-projection screen in the basement of the Cass ‘N’ Rock sports bar in Pusan, Korea, there hangs a large red flag that reads: “If the South Would’ve Won, We Would’ve Had it Made.”
Never mind that this is a Confederate battle flag. Never mind that this slogan is written in English. Never mind that the flag also bears the visage of Hank Williams Jr.
At the Cass ‘N’ Rock — where Korean university students gather to drink beer, eat dried squid and watch soccer games on the big-screen TV — the South in question has nothing to do with Robert E. Lee, King Cotton or the Heart of Dixie. At this South Korean sports bar, the Stars and Bars banner is a quirky, sorrowful symbol of a different war — one that began 48 years ago, killed more than 2 million Koreans and resolved nothing.
For those keeping score at home, this war is technically not over: 250 miles north of the Cass ‘N’ Rock, upwards of a million troops are locked in a 45-year-old standoff between North Korean and United Nations Command forces along the most militarized border in the world.
Holding true to the absurdities of Cold War-era nomenclature, this border is called the Demilitarized Zone.
It’s just after 8 in the morning, and I am taking a USO bus north from Seoul to the DMZ. This trip is not as sensitive and dangerous as it sounds: Approximately 70,000 people took the trip last year, including President Clinton. In the seat next to me, a 50ish woman from Virginia is entranced by the empty yellow countryside that surrounds us. She’s been staying in the urban madness of Seoul for four days, and she says she never knew that the Korean landscape could look so quiet.
But the landscape is not as empty as it appears at first glance. Gaze long at these roadside foothills and you can just make out trenches and camouflage netting, infantry soldiers and artillery. A mere 40 road miles separate Seoul from the entrenched front rank of a million-man North Korean army, and every inch of the space in between has been groomed to defending South Korea’s capital from attack. As we near the DMZ, the military presence becomes more obvious: razor-wire fences on the Imjin River, anti-tank barricades framing the highway, medieval-looking iron-spiked barrels gracing the asphalt.
The Virginian asks me if I’ve ever been scared, living and working in Korea for the past two years. I tell her that Korea is a strange place where gruesome traffic deaths are an hourly occurrence, rival sects of Buddhist monks get into public fistfights and department store buildings collapse because the local building inspectors live off bribes. If anything, I tell her, I am scared of getting run over by a delivery truck or smashed by a poorly installed I-beam. The threat of war is a forgettable annoyance that I think about only when a civil defense drill halts my bus when I am late for work, or when my middle-age landlady tells me how she learned to throw hand grenades in her high school gym class.
What I don’t tell her is this: If the North were to launch an all-out surprise attack on Seoul this evening, we’d stand about a 50-50 chance of living through the first hour. That’s a statistic I don’t dwell on much.
The paper I have just signed my name to reads:
“The visit to the Joint
Security Area at Panmunjom will entail entry into a hostile area and the
possibility of death as a direct result of enemy action.”
The 50 or so other people in the Camp Bonifas briefing room have all signed the same disclaimer, and a gangly, bespectacled U.S. Army specialist is handing out the green U.N. Command visitor’s badges that will allow us to proceed a few hundred meters farther up the road and enter the DMZ.
Despite the grim warning, no tourist has ever died while visiting the Joint Security Area. The U.N. Command troops haven’t always been so lucky. Since 1953, more than 50 American and 500 South Korean soldiers have died as a result of North Korean hostilities along the DMZ. Camp Bonifas itself is named for a U.S. Army captain who was summarily axed to death by North Korean soldiers while leading a tree trimming detail in the JSA in 1976.
The lights go down in the briefing hall, and Spc. Vance begins showing us slides. The DMZ is 2,000 meters wide, he tells us, and stretches the entire length of the Korean peninsula. Minefields, anti-tank barriers and razor-wire fences installed by U.N. Command troops stretch from coast to coast to defend from a North Korean attack. Our tour group will soon enter the truce village of Panmunjom, the only official crossing point along the DMZ. Over the years, Panmunjom has gained notoriety as an exchange zone for prisoners, a meeting place for the Military Armistice Commission and — most recently — a crossing-point for 1,001 head of cattle donated to North Korea by a wealthy South Korean businessman.
Spc. Vance’s lecture touches on the history of the Korean War, but sidesteps the more embarrassing American details. For instance, we don’t learn that in 1945 a Europe-based U.S. Army colonel studied a National Geographic wall map for just 30 minutes before choosing to divide Korea into Soviet and American occupation zones along the 38th Parallel. We don’t learn that right-wing thugs appointed by the U.S.
Army Military Government in Korea slaughtered as many as 30,000 people during a leftist insurrection on Cheju Island in 1948. We don’t learn how the June 1950 North Korean invasion of the South was inadvertently green-lighted when U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson forgot to include South Korea within the U.S. defense perimeter during a speech to the National Press Club six months earlier. We do learn, however, that there are no toilets for tourists in the DMZ. Once the lights come back on, we all take our turn in the Camp Bonifas facilities before loading onto the bus and entering no man’s land.
I am now standing in North Korea, and the industrial-strength disinfectant odor reminds me of a similarly brief visit I made to the porn-theater peep booths in Times Square several years ago. Across a conference table from me, the rest of my tour group stands in South Korea. They will all eventually get their chance to rotate into North Korean territory and take a few pictures. Spc. Vance explains how this Military Armistice Commission conference room precisely straddles the demarcation line that separates the two Koreas. The Virginia woman and I swap cameras and take each other’s picture standing next to the tough-looking South Korean guards at the far end of the room. This is probably as far as any of us will ever venture into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
The North Korea that stretches beyond this conference room has long been the weirdest, most isolated country in the world. Press releases from the official DPRK news agency often come off sounding like bad vaudeville jokes:
Question: How does North Korea solve its famine problems?
Answer: By publicly executing its Minister of Agriculture.
Don’t bother cueing the snare drum. This actually happened in 1997 — the same year that North Korea’s squatty, rotund “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-Il supposedly shot 38-under-par (including five holes-in-one) the first time he ever played golf.
North Korea’s propaganda is outdone only by its military provocations, which over the years have included two assassination attempts on South Korean presidents, four large-scale invasion tunnels burrowed under the DMZ and countless small border skirmishes, kidnappings and commando invasions.
The most publicized incursion of recent years came in 1996, when a spy submarine from the North ran aground on South Korea’s east coast, resulting in a massive manhunt and fierce gun battles in the mountains of Kangwon Province. After this incident, the North Korean government issued a rare apology, promising that such a thing would never happen again. Last June, it happened again, in nearly the same location.
On this particular day, the North’s provocation of choice concerns an enormous underground construction site near the North Korean area of Kumchang. Government officials in Pyongyang insist the facility will be used for purely civilian purposes, but American officials are convinced it’s a nuclear weapons plant. Pyongyang is demanding a $300 million payment before it will allow inspectors onto the site.
If North Korea is indeed developing nuclear weapons, it will be in violation of the 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework, when Pyongyang pledged to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for two light-water nuclear reactors and interim fuel from the United States. But North Korea’s main bargaining chip has always been its seeming willingness to start a war that would kill tens of thousands of people and devastate the Korean peninsula. Amid tensions prior to the 1994 compromise, the U.S. nearly initiated the evacuation of 80,000 American civilians from South Korea. Whether the current impasse will require similar gestures remains to be seen.
At this moment, nuclear tensions are secondary to flashing cameras, as the last few members of my tour group pose for snapshots with the South Korean guards. After 10 minutes in the far end of the Military Armistice Commission building, this blue-walled slab of the communist North has begun to lose its novelty. I feel like the South Korean guards could just as well be wearing Donald Duck suits. Spc. Vance, I notice, is glancing at his watch.
U.N.C. Checkpoint Five offers us fresh air and a good view of the Bridge of No Return, where more than 12,000 prisoners of war were swapped in 1953. Despite its ominous name, the Bridge of No Return looks downright bucolic. Were it not for the huge white North Korean propaganda signs erected Hollywood-style on the hills across the demarcation line, one might readily mistake the entire Joint Security Area for a Lutheran Youth Fellowship summer camp in rural Missouri.
Large white birds preen in the tall grass down the hill from the Checkpoint Five observation deck. Recent wildlife surveys have confirmed the existence of 146 species of rare animals and plants in the DMZ, including Siberian herons, kestrels, white-naped cranes and black-faced spoonbills. The untouched two-kilometer swath that separates North from South is the most pristine piece of property in this entire land, where population pressure has endangered 18 percent of all native vertebrate species. Foxes, roe deer, black swans, quail and pheasant thrive in the dense foliage. All animals large enough to set off a land mine, on the other hand, haven’t lived in the DMZ in decades.
This day is so foggy you can just barely make out the location of Taesong-dong, South Korea’s “Freedom Village” in the DMZ. Here, a handful of farmers make their living under strict regulations to be home from the fields by nightfall. The North’s DMZ village, called Kijong-dong, is uninhabited, and used primarily to blast propaganda and patriotic music at the South. At this moment, the loudspeakers of Kijong-dong are blaring what I assume are slogans praising Kim Jong-Il, but sound indistinguishable from the garbled entree clarifications one might hear at a Burger King drive-through window.
Spc. Vance tells us that the South Korean flag at Taesong-dong weighs 300 pounds and is hoisted on a 100-meter pole. Not to be outdone, the North Koreans have erected a 600-pound flag on a 160-meter pole at Kijong-dong. Someone makes the obligatory Freudian analogy and, as if on cue, the loudspeakers of Kijong-dong switch over to communist opera music so boisterous that it sounds like the score to a Monty Python movie.
For a moment, I slip into reverie at the absurdity of this grassy stretch of ground. The mood here seems downright extraterrestrial. Inspired, I ask Spc. Vance if we’re allowed to dance to the communist opera music. There is an awkward moment before he realizes that I’m joking. It’s the first time I’ve seen fear in his eyes since the tour began.
The tourist circuit of the Korean DMZ ends at the Monastery, a combination beer hall/gift shop at Camp Bonifas. In keeping with the rest of the DMZ, the Monastery is appropriately weird: One corner houses a shrine to the victims of the 1976 Panmunjom Ax Murder Incident, another houses a bar and a third corner sports a perfume counter. In the course of 20 paces, one can buy Amore skin cream, quaff a Budweiser and peruse grainy black-and-white surveillance photographs of Capt. Arthur G. Bonifas and Lt. Mark T. Barrett getting hacked to death by a swarm of North Korean soldiers. T-shirts come in three colors. Visa and MasterCard are accepted.
Longing for one last look at the DMZ before we head back to Seoul, I duck out of the Monastery and walk out past the tour bus. I turn around and around in the road, but I have forgotten which way North Korea is. It’s so quiet here, the only sound is the scrape of my footsteps.
I stop for a moment and reach into my bag for the DMZ commemorative key chain I got at the Monastery. I bought it in a moment of impulse, thinking perhaps there will come a day when I can shake my head and chuckle at the idea that this place ever existed.
Originally published on Feb. 3, 1999 by Salon.com
Ray, a bearded New Yorker who had recently dropped out of college to travel the world, was convinced that southern Laos was turning into a horrific cesspool of death and disease.
“I’m telling you,” he said to me as we stood outside the small ice-cream stand near the Phonsavanh Hotel in Pakse. “Cholera is completely out of control down here. A French guy I talked to in Savannakhet said the Pakse hospital was full of dead bodies.”
“Did the French guy see the dead bodies?” I asked.
“No, but he talked to a guy who saw the dead bodies.”
“And you’re sure he didn’t just talk to a guy who talked to another guy who saw the dead bodies?”
Ray looked at me with irritation. “Look, I have a sense for this kind of thing. I could tell he was serious.”
I decided to drop the big question. “So if you’re sure he was telling the truth about dead bodies in the Pakse hospital, what are you doing in Pakse right now?”
“Fuck it, man,” Ray said enthusiastically. “This is where the action is.”
By this point, I had been in Pakse for 24 hours and I was at my wits’ end. I’d been hearing the cholera rumors since coming overland from Vietnam, but I couldn’t get any hard facts. Nearly every traveler I’d met had heard there was a cholera epidemic on the Mekong flood plain south of Pakse, but not a single person had gotten this information from an official source. Many travelers were aborting their Laos travel plans and moving on, but others — like Ray — were embracing the cholera rumors with vicarious zeal. For these people, the very notion of the epidemic was enough to turn an otherwise normal trip into an adventure.
On the other hand, all the Laotian government offices and agencies in Pakse were categorically denying the existence of cholera. I visited two different government travel agencies in Pakse, and both insisted there was no problem with traveling south along the Mekong. The woman at the local health office laughed at the idea. “There are some people who have diarrhea,” she said, “but there is no cholera.” Even the officials I phoned at the U.S. Embassy in Vientiane knew nothing of the cholera rumor.
Since there was no hard evidence of an epidemic — and knowing how travelers tend to exaggerate — I continued with my plans to head downriver. As I hiked down to the river pier on the morning of my second day in Pakse, I met a Lao man named Kumsing who was working on a rural electrification project in the area. He was uncommonly friendly, and he spoke great English.
“Where are you headed?” he asked me.
“South,” I said. “I’m going to visit the 4000 Islands on the Mekong.”
Kumsing clicked his tongue. “That’s a nice area, but you have to be careful these days. I was there last week, and many of my workers got sick.”
“Was it cholera?”
“Yes, cholera. You won’t catch it if you’re careful. Not all of my workers got sick, just the careless ones.”
“How many workers were careless?”
Kumsing did some quick math. “Sixteen. But none of them died.”
“But everyone else stayed healthy — no cholera?”
“Yes, the other two are fine.”
“Yes. Plus I didn’t get sick, either!”
On paper, my trip to the 4000 Islands of Laos should have been the easiest journey I’d taken all year. Not only was I returning to familiar territory (I’d traveled the Laotian Mekong in my own boat a few months previously), but I’d also come to write a story on the area for a well-paying glossy print magazine. Instead of randomly vagabonding my way down the Mekong, I would be visiting pre-selected places and interviewing people I already knew. Since southern Laos is a peaceful, enchanting region, my magazine assignment promised no hardships beyond the simple process of collecting story information.
With the objectives so clear-cut, my return to the 4000 Islands was supposed to be — as the pilots in “Catch-22″ said when referring to easy missions — a “milk run.”
In reality, it had been quite the opposite of a milk run. Before I’d ever heard rumors of cholera, the mere process of traveling overland to Laos from Vietnam had been a headache in itself. On a map it looked easy to cross into the south of Laos from the Vietnamese Central Highlands — but there were no legal customs stations along this border. So to get to Laos from the Central Highlands, I first had to take a day-long trip out of the highlands and up the coast to Danang, then wait for the next available bus to Laos via Lao Bao.
Since this road to Laos follows a treacherous route over the Annamite Mountains, I opted to take the smaller, safer, air-conditioned bus offered by a travel office in Danang. Unfortunately, the air-con bus existed only in the travel office photograph; after purchasing my ticket, I was unceremoniously dumped off at the local transit station and ushered into a huge, decrepit old DeSoto bus.
I spent 22 hours on the DeSoto, including a three-hour delay in rural Laos when the drivers stopped to unload a cache of smuggled items into two separate Nissan pickups. I arrived in Savannakhet just in time to eat, sleep and board a morning bus to Pakse, which (including a four-hour stop when the drivers dropped the transmission onto the road and had to reassemble it) took 11 hours.
I arrived in Pakse exhausted, and spent the next couple days trying to confirm the cholera rumors. When I heard Kumsing’s tale, I postponed my boat trip and went back to check with the health department.
“I just met a man from the electric company who says that 16 people got cholera last week,” I said to the woman in the office.
“That wasn’t cholera,” she told me. “Those men just had diarrhea.”
“All 16 men just happened to get diarrhea at the same time?”
“Yes,” she said. “Maybe it was food poisoning. There is no cholera in Laos.”
This sounded a tad suspicious to me, but I felt I had come too far to abandon my journey to the 4000 Islands. Grimly resolved, I returned to the pier and boarded a mid-morning freight boat bound for the island of Don Khong. Granted, I was no longer on my idealized milk-run vacation, but — whatever the facts were about cholera — I figured I’d be safe if I kept myself religiously clean and avoided the local food.
Furthermore, I was personally convinced — after six months on the road in Southeast Asia — that cholera couldn’t touch me. As with Yossarian in “Catch-22,” avoiding doom seemed a mere matter of will power, milk run or not.
Cholera couldn’t touch me, I reasoned, because I had a pure body and was as strong as an ox. Cholera couldn’t touch me because I was Tarzan, Mandrake, Flash Gordon. I was Bill Shakespeare. I was Cain, Ulysses, the Flying Dutchman; I was Lot in Sodom, Deirdre of Sorrows, Sweeny in the nightingales among trees.
I, like Yossarian in “Catch-22,” was miracle ingredient Z-247.
My journey to the 4000 Islands of Laos started splendidly. After spending the first night on Don Khong, I continued downriver to Khone island on the Cambodian border — where freshwater dolphins haunt deep pools and the Mekong suddenly crashes down into the largest complex of waterfalls in Asia. As I hiked around collecting information for my article, I sustained myself on bottled water, peeled fruit and an enormous bag of roasted peanuts. After a couple of peaceful, slow-paced days in the 4000 Islands, the notion of cholera had ceased to be a concern for me.
I probably would have forgotten about cholera entirely had I not suddenly vomited onto my shoes the morning after returning to Don Khong. I had come back to the island to tie up a few loose ends of my story, and at first it didn’t occur to me what was happening. When I vomited again a few minutes later, the gravity of the situation began to dawn on me. After I threw up for the third time, I took out my phrase book and started asking directions to the hospital.
I remember the next part only in bits and pieces. I know I kept asking people where the hospital was, and people kept pointing me up the road — but the hospital never materialized. It had rained the day before, and the humidity made the air quiver in the sunlight. As I walked, my brain rattled inside my skull like a sodden lump of clay; psychedelic fireworks burst behind my eyelids every time I doubled over with stomach cramps.
Though I didn’t know it at the time, the Don Khong hospital was nearly two kilometers outside of Khong Village. By the time a Lao motorcyclist found me squatting beneath a tree on the side of the road, I was still 200 meters away from my goal. The motorcyclist helped me to the concrete-floored hospital reception room, and I sat on a wooden bench while the staff debated what to do with me.
The hospital was constructed entirely of cinderblocks and had no window panes. Since there was no electricity on Don Khong during daylight hours, I sat in the half-light and waited. A nurse gave me a plastic bag so I wouldn’t have to run outside to vomit. Each time I retched, a few more patients wandered in from adjoining rooms to watch me. Before long, about 20 people had gathered to watch me expectorate a clear, stringy gelatin from the bottom of my stomach. As I sat there clutching my plastic bag, I half-expected one of them to ask me for my autograph.
Finally, a young Swedish doctor named Michael arrived. Michael was not really named Michael, and he wasn’t actually Swedish. But, since he was technically not supposed to be treating cholera cases in southern Laos, Michael will be Michael for the sake of this narrative.
“I see you’ve been vomiting,” Michael said, gesturing to my plastic bag. “Do you also have diarrhea?”
“Yeah, it’s killing me,” I said. “Does the hospital have anything that can stop it?”
“This hospital doesn’t have much by Western standards. Nor does this country, for that matter. Your ideal health option would be to get out of Laos as soon as possible.”
“Can the cholera kill me?”
“Technically, we can’t prove it’s cholera without doing a culture test, first. Whatever it is, it won’t kill you.”
“But we know it’s cholera,” I said. “There’s an epidemic going around, right?”
“I think the best thing for you to do right now is get out of this hospital. First we’ll find you a comfortable guest house, and there you can take oral rehydration salts until you get your strength back.”
“Has anyone died from the cholera this year? There’s lots of stories going around Pakse.”
Michael gave me a nervous look. “Like I said, we can’t call it cholera without a culture test. I know of 16 deaths so far. But those are mostly the very young and the very old. This is not something you should worry about.”
Michael got me some oral rehydration salts from the hospital storeroom and had an orderly motor me back to my room at the guest house. I stayed there and drank salt water for two days while the cholera bugs had their way with my intestines.
Though I could describe in colorful detail what cholera does to the inner workings of the human body, such exposition would be neither necessary nor tasteful. In a euphemistic nutshell, cholera renders everything that enters your body — water, bread, strawberry Pop-Tarts, etc. — into pond water. Furthermore, this pond water creation/expulsion process happens at such a terrifyingly rapid speed that I suspect Einstein himself must have suffered from cholera around the time he came up with his relativity theory. I went for hours at a time without leaving the bathroom.
When I wasn’t in the bathroom performing glorious acts of gastrointestinal alchemy, I spent my time stretched out on my bed, staring at the ceiling, which was mint green. The mint-green ceiling featured a brown metal ceiling fan — which didn’t move in the heat of the day, since the electricity didn’t come on until sunset. My bedspread was orange.
I pondered these things continuously for 48 hours.
Michael came to check on me each morning and evening. After two days, he concluded that I was strong enough to leave, and he arranged a ride to take me back to Pakse. I can’t recall ever having been so happy to see a Toyota Landcruiser.
Since my late-afternoon arrival in Pakse didn’t leave me enough time to make it to the Thai border station, I checked in to a hotel and set off to inform the local health department of my demise.
“I just caught cholera in the 4000 Islands,” I told the lady in the office. “Maybe you should warn people about going there.”
“It’s probably not cholera,” she said. “If you’re sick, maybe you should go to the hospital.”
“I’ve been to the hospital. I’ve been vomiting and I’ve had diarrhea for two days now. Trust me: I have cholera.”
“I don’t think you have cholera. Did the doctor do a culture test?”
“Look,” I cried, exasperated, “if what I have isn’t cholera, then what the hell is it?”
“Well,” she said diplomatically, “it’s probably just diarrhea, with some vomiting.”
Retreating from the health office in defeat, I walked to the Sedone restaurant and drowned my frustrations in a glass of lemonade. Keeping in mind my condition, I got a seat near the toilet. After a while, I got up and introduced myself to a guy named Doug, whom I’d overheard warning a table full of travelers about the epidemic. Doug, a Canadian on vacation from his job as an aid worker in Thailand, seemed almost pleased when I told him that I had cholera.
“I knew it would happen!” he said. “You’re the first tourist to catch it, but there’ll be more.”
“Why aren’t there official warnings?” I asked. “I tried to get some solid information before I left for the 4000 Islands, but all the government agencies were denying that cholera existed. They’re still denying it, for that matter.”
Doug smirked. “Of course they’re denying it. I have friends doing volunteer work in this part of Laos — cholera passed the culture tests a month ago. The government is keeping it quiet because this is Visit Laos Year. They don’t want to rain on the tourist parade.”
“This is the first time I’ve ever heard of a communist government lying to promote independent tourism.”
“In a way, it’s hard to blame the government for doing it. The West has encouraged Laos to go capitalist — and one of the principles of capitalism is supply and demand. In a poor country like Laos, tourism may very well be the number-one source of hard currency. Back when the epidemic started, some paper-pusher in Vientiane took one look at tourist revenues and decided right then and there that cholera did not and would not exist. Now people like you are getting exposed to cholera because the Laotian government is afraid to discourage you from coming to Laos.”
“Catch-22,” I said.
“Right. The same thing happened with AIDS in Thailand in the late 1980s. And just like in Thailand, the people who live here will bear the brunt of the problem. It’s the people living in the 4000 Islands — not you — who are going to suffer the most when doctors aren’t allowed to go down and treat them properly.”
“Sure,” I said. “I don’t need to worry about the quality of local health care when I can just go home.”
Doug grinned. “Well, technically, you can’t go home. Under international law, you aren’t allowed to cross the Thai border if you have cholera.”
“But technically,” I said, “cholera doesn’t exist in Laos.”
“Catch-22″ had finally done me a favor.
I crossed into Thailand at Chong Mek the following day. Continuing to Ubon Ratachani, I caught a night train to Bangkok. There, I checked into the modern confines of a medical clinic and began my slow recovery.
Originally published August 24, 1999 on Salon.com
Travelling might be all about discovery and abandoning our comfort zones. But at times, when your comfort zone is a club with some loud music, well, it’s nice to know where to find it when you are abroad.
As a resident of Malaysia, I feel it is time to give justice to my acquired home talking about two places that host a plethora of local and international touring bands. They are both prominent Malaysian homes for the loudest kinds of music, and as such might not be ideal for everybody. But again, if it’s about going in and out of “comfort zones”, it might as well be great to get out of yours and discover some Malaysian loudness, after all.
Literally hidden at the second floor of a tattered building along Pengkalan Weld, about half a mile down the road from the main Jetty and facing the entrance of the Lee Jetty, this is the place to rock in Northern Malaysia. Check their show listings before you go because although they have a bar, it is not open every day. It’s a real, do it yourself underground venue, where heavy metal, punk, death metal, alternative rock and heavy derivates spray the walls with sweat. The show room is decently sized and the PA quite OK for an underground enterprise: consider that in Malaysia, a country who forced a ban on black metal music in 2001, and whose Islamic party has given a hard time even to Elton John because he is openly gay, you cannot really get much better than this. Soundmaker is the place to rock away your early nights, as shows usually end by 12 am.
Soundmaker is also a recording studio and jam room, and recently opened a small hostel room. The novelty is, it welcomes travelling bands and musicians to stay and record their music at a fraction of western prices.
Rumah Api – Kuala Lumpur
In a place called the “fire house”, you may only expect amplifiers to burst out sparks of white heat, and set your own eardrums on fire. If you know what a real punk house is, and I mean an independent space where DIY is the law, the ceiling is about to cave in, and sitting on torn car backseats slung on the floor a common practice, well, welcome to Rumah Api then. The only place in Kuala Lumpur that dares to object the city’s rampant, over-constructed technological wealth and high-class-loving youth. A stone throw away from the Ampang LRT station in the northeastern part of the city, Rumah Api stands to KL as the CBGB’s stood to early New York punk. Catch a dose of local and international punk, hardcore, crust, thrash and grindcore bands sweating – literally, as the only wall fan provided resembles a World War II airplane’s engine – on the low stage, and mingle with the most alternative youth in the capital. This place has plenty of character, but you gotta have some too to enjoy it. Otherwise, this could come as kind of a shock.
MARCO FERRARESE is a metalpunk guitarist who travelled extensively and lived in Italy, the United States, China, Australia and Malaysia. Since 2009 he’s been based in Southeast Asia as a writer, hardcore punk musician and researcher. He travelled from Mongolia to Australia in 2009, and hitchhiked from Singapore to Milano through Silk Road routes and the Middle East in 2012. He blogs at monkeyrockworld.com. Marco’s first Asian pulp novel Nazi Goreng was published in November 2013 on Monsoon Books. Follow him @monkeyrockworld
Photo Credit: tarotastic
A couple of years ago, while riding my bicycle down Burma’s Irrawaddy valley, I somehow managed to destroy my khaki trousers. These were the only pair of pants I had with me at the time, so I stopped off in a town called Pakkoku and — faced with no other realistic clothing options — purchased a long, cotton lungi to cover my legs for the rest of the trip.
In the event that you aren’t familiar with fashions in this part of Asia, a lungi is a tube of silk or cotton cloth that Burmese men wear around their waists. Essentially, it looks like an elegant, ankle-length skirt. And, unless you count the kilt, there is no fashion equivalent for men in the West.
Thus, having no instincts for wearing a skirt, I encountered all kinds of functional challenges while wearing my new lungi. For starters, I invariably tripped over the hem when walking on any surface that wasn’t completely level. Somehow, Burmese men could stride up staircases in their lungis while still looking perfectly masculine, while I was forced to lift the cloth and mince up slight inclines like some kind of “Gone With the Wind” debutante. Even more difficult was riding my bicycle.
The more the Burmese giggled, however, the better I got at wearing the lungi. By the time I arrived in Rangoon nearly two weeks later, I was able to walk and bike gracefully on all variety of surfaces. Impressed locals gave me the thumbs-up at the sight of my dapper Burmese threads, playfully asking me if I was from Burma.
I had, it seemed, successfully “gone native” with my travel wardrobe. And it felt good.
When I flew on from Rangoon to Bangkok, however, I quickly learned that – – by backpacker fashion standards — going native is far more complicated than simply buying local clothing and learning how to wear it.
As I strolled in my new lungi through the Khao San Road backpacker ghetto (where I’d hoped to buy a new pair of khaki pants), I noticed that many of my fellow travelers were giving me funny looks. Since Khao San is a place where Westerners with, say, chicken bones through their noses and dreadlocked armpit hair hardly garner a second glance, I wondered what the problem was.
That afternoon at my guesthouse, a sun-browned Australian traveler clued me in. “Look at ya, mate,” he said. “You’ve got it all mixed up.”
I looked down at my outfit. In addition to my lungi, I sported a nylon fanny pack (which made up for my lack of pockets) and a North Face dry-wick shirt (which had kept the sun off while biking). This ensemble didn’t strike me as particularly strange, but — according to the Aussie — wearing a fanny pack (stereotypically favored by middle-aged tourists) and a boutique safari shirt (which, while functional, is the modern fashion equivalent of a pith helmet) effectively canceled the lungi out.
The problem, it seemed, wasn’t that I had “gone native,” but that I had gone native in an incomplete and bourgeois manner. “From the looks of it,” he said, “you don’t know if you just walked out of a jungle or a shopping mall.”
Going native to one degree or another, of course, has always been a part of the travel experience. Until the past couple of centuries, in fact, going native wasn’t a travel option so much as a travel necessity. From Herodotus to Marco Polo to Lewis and Clark, eating local cuisines, learning local languages and wearing local clothing was simply how the traveler survived in foreign lands. This all changed, however, as British travelers and expats alike were increasingly expected to maintain the same decorum overseas as applied back home. Fraternizing with locals was discouraged, safari parties trotted off into foreign jungles sporting woolen raiment and, as late as the 1930s, officials of the British Empire could be fired for wearing native clothing.
What this colonial protocol overlooked, of course, was that going at least partially native has always been an important step in experiencing other cultures. Wearing native clothing isn’t necessarily a prerequisite, but abiding by local dress codes (particularly in regard to modesty) is essential if you want to be accepted within the cultures you visit.
But it’s often difficult to determine where the propriety of “going native” begins and ends. Travel is not the same as emigration, after all, and no combination of culinary and fashion savvy can truly make you a part of your host culture. At some point, then, many attempts to “go native” cease to be an inquiry into other cultures and begin to be a token of status within travel culture itself.
In “The Songlines,” Bruce Chatwin observes that nomadic animal species tend to be less dependent upon hierarchies and shows of dominance, since the hardships of the journey naturally weed out the weak. However, now that humans’ nomadic life rarely involves natural selection, travel culture seems to have utilized fashion as one subtle kind of litmus test. Ostensibly, a Shan jacket worn with a Mao hat and cotton pajama bottoms implies that you had the Darwinian oomph to survive northern Burma, communist China and the Punjab. As with all fashions, however, the accepted vogue for going native tends to be fickle. In Jordan, for example, scores of Westerners trade ball caps for Arab khaffiyeh scarves to better keep the sun off — but few of those same travelers would don conical peasant hats for the same purpose in Vietnam.
In the end, then, “going native” is a mixed endeavor — part attempt to understand your host culture, and part extension of how you want to selectively showcase your travels to others. Properly balancing these urges is part of the challenge and fun of travel.
Just for the record, I now own three Burmese lungis — two cotton and one silk. I find them comfortable, functional, and stylish. And chicks dig the look.
But until they make them with pockets, I will — fashion be damned — continue to wear them with a fanny pack.
Originally published by SFGate, March 14, 2004