I am 15 minutes into my hike down the muddy little stream when a tree carving captures my attention. Sticky with sap and arcing brown across the bark, it seems to have been made recently.
I drop to my haunches and run my fingers over the design. After three days of living on the Indochinese outback without electricity or running water, I feel like my senses have been sharpened to the details of the landscape. I take a step back for perspective, and my mind suddenly goes blank.
The carving is a crude depiction of a skull and crossbones.
Were I anyplace else in the world, I might be able to write off the skull and crossbones as a morbid adolescent prank. Unfortunately, since I am in northwestern Cambodia, the ghoulish symbol can mean only one thing: land mines. Suddenly convinced that everything in my immediate vicinity is about to erupt into a fury of fire and shrapnel, I freeze.
My brain slowly starts to track again, but I can’t pinpoint a plan of action. If this were a tornado, I’d prone myself in a low-lying area. Were this an earthquake, I’d run to an open space away from trees and buildings. Were this a hurricane, I’d pack up my worldly possessions and drive to South Dakota. But since I am in a manmade disaster zone, all I can think to do is nothing.
My thoughts drift to a random quote from a United Nations official a few years back, who was expressing his frustration in trying to clear the Cambodian countryside of hundreds of thousands of unmarked and unmapped mines. “Cambodia’s mines will be cleared,” he’d quipped fatalistically, “by people walking on them.”
As gingerly as possible, I lower myself to the ground, resolved to sit here until I can formulate a course of action that won’t result in blowing myself up. (more…)
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
Without question it is Wat Rong Kuhn, otherwise known as the White Wat. I read plenty about this wat, designed by Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, and even saw dozens of pictures. Words and pictures alone did not prepare me for the grandeur, beauty and strangeness of this place.
Describe a typical day:
In the morning I work for a couple of hours and then we set out on the motorbike for the same place we go everyday for breakfast. We always change up where we eat lunch and dinner in a city, but once we find a good breakfast spot in town we seem to never deviate from it.
After breakfast we generally hop on the motorbike and go outside of town to places like a massive tea plantation, Buddhist caves, various wats, museums, waterfalls or hiking trails.
After our daily adventure we head back to the hotel for homeschool and to finish work for the day. We then go to the night bazaar where we see the various local and imported wares for sale, mostly to tourists.
For dinner we go to one of the many local stalls selling a type of broth soup that is cooked at your table in a clay pot with noodles, vegetables and meat.
Describe an interesting conversation you had with a local:
I found it interesting talking with the manager of the hotel about various locations to see outside of town. After going through her list of recommendations, I asked which were her absolute favorites. She answered that she had not been to any of them. When I asked her why she said she didn’t have time to go due to her work and family responsibilities.
It was humbling and a great reminder just how fortunate we are to travel and see sights that often many locals are not even able to see. It’s just another painful reminder how unfair the world is.
What do you like about where you are? Dislike?
I like the ability to quickly get outside of the town and see very beautiful sights. I like that the town and surrounding area are not overrun with tourists or owned and managed by tour agencies and large companies. It feels like the locals’ town.
I do not particularly like the town itself. There is not much about it that I find unique. Even this, though, has a type of charm when viewed through a certain lens. I would just advise renting some form of transportation when in Chiang Rai because the magic in this area lies just outside the city in the hills, caves, rivers and surrounding villages.
Describe a challenge you faced:
I got extremely sick due to questionable food while in a village outside of town. I have eaten unidentifiable street food from Istanbul to Bangkok without even a hint of stomach troubles, but I guess I was due. The worst part was that we had to take a bus for six hours the next day. This experience will not soon be forgotten.
What new lesson did you learn?
I was reminded that I tremendously enjoy having my own transportation, even it it’s just a 110 cc motorbike. Being able to get off the tourist trail and stop where we want has given us some of our most memorable and enjoyable moments. Simple things like finding a game of sepak takraw outside of town was just an unforgettable moment and really allowed us to see the daily life of the locals, something we always seek out.
Luang Namtha, Laos for hiking and kayaking.
Sometimes I wonder if modern travel writing still has anything fresh to say, and I can’t really find a satisfactory answer.
This question became much more pressing after I discovered an American publisher who reprints old travel writing gems from early 20th century’s Asia. I’m talking about DatAsia press, based in Florida.
They have just re-released Harry Hervey’s two early travel accounts of French Indochina (which we use to call Southeast Asia, today), King Cobra and Congai. They are the first ever accounts of an American traveler in the region at the end of the 1920s. Only in his mid 20’s, brave Texan Hervey stormed off to Indochina and captured his first impressions by penning down these two sultry, fictionalized accounts of a place we have now lost in time.
Pico Iyer, one of the greatest living travel writers, introduces King Cobra with great emphasis: “Great travel books give you journeys from which the traveler (perhaps the reader) comes back transformed, a mystery to himself. Suddenly you can no longer trust what you knew so firmly a day ago; suddenly all sense of “home” and “abroad” — of “you” and “I” — dissolves. A real trip turns you around so that you leave behind the person you were and maybe the one you wanted to become. Hervey may have embellished his real experiences, and drawn liberally from the books that fired his imagination before he left home — as Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta and Bruce Cahtwin did.”
I decided to reach out to Kent Davis, owner of DatAsia press, to ask him a few exclusive questions for all those Vagabonding readers who are –or are dreaming of – honing the travel writing craft. Kent has definitely a few opinions that will help your quest to understand more about this difficult craft, and will explain how he decided to look back, instead of publishing anything contemporary.
In 2005, my wife and I founded DatAsia as an independent press. Our mission is to publish rare books about Southeast Asian history and culture, with a special focus on topics relating to women. In addition to sharing previously unpublished research, we are also devoted to reviving obscure histories that have long gone out of print and been forgotten. Another aspect of this is translating selected works into English for the first time. In many ways, we have become “literary archaeologists.” (more…)
Perhaps the evenings are what captivate me the most, when the heart of the island basks in the falling light. People hurry home from work on their motorbikes, picking up food from the market on their way. No tourists can be seen, save by the hostels and Western style bars, but they are few surrounding the Thai haunts that I like to frequent.
Every night my daughter and I take a walk from our home in Phuket Town to a local café we have become accustomed to frequenting on a daily basis. Our walk is filled with magical stops where she points out a house shrine or perhaps a stone dragon outside an internet café. We say hello to the chickens and other birds we find on our path, as well as some fish that swim in the flower pot outside the bank. We savour the simple, magic filled moments that are what make Phuket special to me.
Perhaps I have blinders on but here in the heart of the dragon, you won’t find throngs of tourists like in Patong or Kata. You find authentic Thai food and no fancy hotel style cocktails. Sure you will see some souvenir shops selling knick knacks and Baba influenced clothing that the random backpacker or lost farang look at, but that’s about it. Those of us expats who live here are the odd ones that have lost much of our original culture and do our best to avoid being treated like a clueless tourist. We know our neighbors and where the best places are to eat. We do our best to learn Thai, as bad as our pronunciation may be.
And most of us don’t like Patong whatsoever.
I completely understand why the well traveled soul dislikes Phuket as they equate it with Patong, the Disneyland of the island. Even Chalong is becoming oversaturated with foreigners, as are Rawai and Naiharn. But even in the apparently tourist heavy parts you can still find Thais, many of whom commute to Phuket Town to work and shop.
Here’s the deal: Phuket has a unique culture and in order to experience this Thai and Chinese influenced spirit, you simply leave the tourist traps and go to other places, such as Jui Tui Shrine or Saphan Hin. Instead of going to a farang bar, copy the Thais by buying a few Leos and heading to the park or Chalong Pier to sit by the water and watch the late night fishing while listening to Thai rock blaring from someone’s phone. Sabai Sabai to the max.
Instead of going to Starbucks, maybe head to the infamous Kopi De Phuket for a coffee and tea fusion popular with the locals. Maybe seeing a bunch of drunk people super soaker eachother is also not your cup of tea ( I won’t judge you) so instead check out the Vegetarian Festival in October. You’ll love the ceremonies and come home sober.
Thai cuisine may be synonymous with Bangkok street food ( and for good reasons) but you’ll still find reasonably priced, delectable Southern dishes in Phuket. I take pride in avoiding Western fast food restaurants ( which mind you are actually more expensive here than Thai food) and pick up something from the local Thai market, such as gang som pla or a quick khai jiaw doused with prik nam pla.
I’ve tried to leave Phuket a number of times, convincing myself that perhaps Bangkok or Krabi would be best for us. So far our moves have proven unsuccessful and we still remain proud Phuketians, savoring simplicity and avoiding the tourists while slowly but surely finding our place within this culture.
Southeast Asia is has long been a standard on the backpacking circuit and you’ll be hard pressed to find a country that doesn’t have it’s share of well worn boot tracks between hostels and suggested highlights. Laos is no exception. It is, perhaps, less traversed than Thailand and Vietnam, which sandwich it’s long narrow countryside between them, but it’s far from untouched. If you flip through your Frommer’s Southeast Asia you’ll find lots of recommendations for the ballooning north of the country, but the further south you go, the thinner the segments in the books.
To me, this is a good sign; anytime the guidebooks haven’t made a region a priority, it’s an indicator that there are still adventures to be had and some off the beaten path discoveries to be made.
If you’re headed to Laos, by all means, hit the northern highlights, but if you’re interested in seeing a less-trodden Laos, getting completely away from English speaking tour guides, and seeing some things most of your buddies on the backpacking circuit haven’t, may I suggest a self-guided tour down the Mekong River?
Pakse is a river town, about five hours south of Savannakhet, which is where you’ll have either arrived by bus from Vietnam, Thailand or the north of Laos. It’s a fair sized place that is fun to wander. The river walks are especially nice. There are a couple of good wats. Pakse is a great place to just wander, people watch and get a window into urban Laotian life. You’ll find the people open and friendly and you won’t have any trouble finding authentic local food!
Treat yourself in Pakse and stay at the hotel that is the refurbished palace of the last prince of Laos. The hotel is very nice by Laotian standards, but not spectacular. It’s fun to wander the grounds and explore the long hallways of the open air building. Be sure to wind your way all the way to the top of the building and go into the little ballroom perched at the apex. It has a spectacular painted round ceiling with characters from Laotian mythology running around the edge of the room.
Public river boats used to be the only way to travel to the south of Laos when the roads were disreputable and buses unreliable at best. Depending on the time of year you’re there, you may find the public boats running. During monsoon they run sporadically at best and often not at all as people have traded the inexpensive buses for boats on a swollen river. If there are no public boats running, you can still hire a private boat (look for some other travelers who are wanting to do the same, and make arrangements to head down the Mekong. You’ll see signs around town for boatmen, or, head to one of the docks and ask around.
It’s a beautiful couple of hours down the brown-green Mekong river, surrounded by walls of jungle, punctuated by little groupings fishing families on the shore. Naked children swimming, women washing clothes, men in boats fishing, or collecting the floating drift wood in their long reed shaped barks provide plenty of visual interest as you chug south. It’s easy to imagine how life has unfolded for generations on this great river, largely untouched by the wars that raged in the surrounding countries, an economy built around and dependent on the river.
Champasak isn’t even a one horse town. There are a handful of guest houses. If you need internet, the only choice is Inthira, it’s the nicest place in town, but there are other choices. You’re here to see the Wat Phou complex about 10 km from town. You’ll need to hire a tuk-tuk to get there, or rent bicycles if you’re energetic. It’s a good hike and a steep climb when you get to the ruins, but the view from the top is spectacular. If you’re headed to Angkor Wat, later in your trip when you get to Cambodia, these ruins are a great set to see first, as they were built by a similar people group.
From Champasak head downstream. You won’t have trouble arranging a boat for the next leg of your journey from in town.
There are several islands in southern Laos, where the Mekong widens before it tips over the falls into Cambodia, approximately 4000, in all. Many of them are tiny and uninhabited, but there are a few that are home to small communities and make excellent places to kick back for a few days, slow down, and catch a glimpse of rural life in Laos at it’s own pace.
Don Khong is one of our favourites. You’ll find several guesthouses in the main part of town, a lovely old wat, and bicycles for hire along the waterfront street. Rent a bike and ride the flat island. You can do it all in a day, or you can break it up into two loops, the northern half of the island being the longer loop and the southern half the shorter. Expect to see water buffalo wallowing up to their armpits in wet fields, families tending rice paddies and children selling things roadside. Everyone waves and says, “Hello!” If you’re lucky, you might even get invited into the field to help transplant the new rice plants, or walk behind the big, rattling rice cultivator with a farmer.
Spend a few days. Slow your pace. Open your eyes. Meet the mighty Mekong where she wanders.
I admit it, I have been lacking a few posts and overall been bogged down with work (yes, work, because even to sustain a life abroad we need some, in a form or the other), and I beg your pardon. To start off the New Year right, I believe you might love reading some quirky, wicked travel narratives from around the world.
You might take this as a shameless example of self-promotion, but the third issue of Wicked World, an alternative digital magazine I edit with British travel writer Tom Coote, is finally available as a great eye candy: just love the gloriously wicked Ethiopian Mursi warrior on the cover!!
As well as a range of alternative travel articles and photo features, for the first time we have also included some travel related fiction. At one end of the story telling scale, is a traditional Moroccan folk tale, The Red Lantern, selected by Richard Hamilton. In a more contemporary vein, where the lines between fact and fiction blur, we are also showcasing The Death Kiss of a King Cobra Show by Jim Algie.
At the reportage end of the travel writing spectrum, in Barbed Wire Scars, Marcello Di Cintio encounters desperate African migrants determined to make their way across the razor wired walls at Ceuta, in the hope of making it to the promised land of Europe. Equally contemporary, E T Laing investigates recent political upheavals in Bangladesh in A Savage Fundamentalism. (more…)
“C’mon, try it.”
They floated in a thick, dark sauce. The nails had been cut off, but the rest of each finger stared back at me without eyes from the plastic plate, livid in vinegar. Truncated joints just below the feathers’ line. As I kept staring at my prospective dinner, I wondered how low a man can go to impress a pretty girl.
“So, will you try one?”
Her eyes were inquisitive windows open on her own world. A slot machine of emotions tilted inside of her head, trying to spit out the appropriate row of words to describe me as delusional. When she invited me out to try some of the best street food in Penang, she probably trusted me to be a different, more interesting date.
In Italy, chicken feet are not popular. They are not food. They don’t even appear at the poultry meat section, unless you buy a freshly slaughtered chicken. They get cut and thrown away as trash.
As I approached the soft, darkly simmered meat with chopsticks, my mother’s voice came abruptly in from a lost corner of my memory lane.
“During the War,” she whispered, “your grandmother’s family used to eat them.”
I had to trust her. They couldn’t be so terrible, after all.
I looked at my companion profile against a backdrop of sizzling pans and rugged Chinese limbs which rotated in and out of steamy pots. Her attention was completely fixed on my next move, keeping the final verdict tightly squeezed behind stretched lips. My idea of a romantic after-dinner stroll at the seaside was suspended between the plastic extension of my right thumb and index fingers, a soy-sogged poultry mutilation, and her candid foreign perfection.
I finally plucked it.
The virgin taste of tender slime melting in my mouth slightly surprised me as I found a bunch of tiny bones between my teeth.
“Spit them out on the table, it is OK,” she instructed me gently, savoring her relief at not having chosen a cultural idiot as a prospective boyfriend. I unleashed an awkward garter belt of unexploded chicken bones against the orange plastic of the table without injuring anyone.
“Good. Not many foreigners agree to try. Was it so bad, after all?”
The delusion had vanished from her face.
Shaking my head, I realized I just had my jackpot: a row of three Sevens, straight from the deep of her heart, started to fill the coin hopper that was standing empty between us until a minute before.
A journey is made of milestones. It has to. Without milestones, we would not be able to ponder our experiences, to stop and wonder about what we have accomplished during all this while.
One of the most shiny accomplishments of my 6 years stint on the road – on many roads, in many countries, with a particular deviancy for the shores of Southeast Asia – is to have become a published writer. And I would like to make it clear: I’m writing this post after I asked Rolf Potts whether or not he found such a display of self-promotion appropriate for Vagabonding. The answer was positive. Moreover, as my book’s not traditionally about the art of travel, he thought best to let me talk about it, instead of wait for a traditional review.
My debut novel titled Nazi Goreng has been published by Monsoon books from Singapore in mid October, and is slowly appearing online and distributed in bookstores across Southeast Asia, the USA, Australia and the UK. It’s a great accomplishment that makes the many hours spent honing the writing craft well worth. More than anything, it constitutes the greatest milestone of my past six years. And please consider: I’m not new to conquering experiences that few can boost to have under their belts. For example, hitchhiking from Singapore to Italy was one. Well, writing a book can be a similar process. It takes daily dedication to get you somewhere closer to reach your goal, your milestone that is. Chiseling a manuscript is a bit like hitching a ride: you never know what’s coming up next, nor when you will reach your destination.
Nazi Goreng talks about Malaysia in a way you never read before: it’s a fictional transposition of the racial tensions that one can only find in a country made up by different ethnic groups, where prayers are spelt to the sky in three languages, followed by wafts of sandalwood-scented smoke. It’s a dark assemblage of truths and fictional accounts based on my perplexing discovery of kuasa melayu (Malay power), a neo-Nazi group made up of brown skinned people. And most importantly, it’s a novel that doesn’t talk about the British or Japanese occupation of the country, a theme too often coupled with Malayan-based historical fiction. On the contrary, this book is the result of years of real-life observations, friendships, time spent scouring the dark halls of local underground music venues, trying to decipher the different habits and ways of thinking of three of the most diverse races of greater Asia who, somehow, had come to share the same turf. And I care to precise, mine are modern day observations. They are a patchwork of the fantastic and terrible experience that living in a country like Malaysia can be. It’s the apex of a personal trip to the inside of a particular Asian society, sung to the best of my mongrel minstrel’s abilities. It’s a way to keep myself sane after being on the road, on and off motion, for six long years.
I don’t want to give away any spoilers, and if you are keen, some more information can be found here. What I would like to communicate is really quite simple: I believe that we must use travel to open up our minds in creative ways. We must elaborate on what we have seen, smelt, touched, experienced, otherwise the sense is lost. We must find that unique angle which is ours, and ours only, and just functions as an extension of our own selves. I believe that it is only in such a case that a voyage be well worth setting a milestone. It serves to remember a particular turning point, and grow to a different level.
Truth be told, I don’t even know if I am a ‘traveler’ anymore. I feel more like I had dug up a hole in a tropical island, and had slowly covered myself under a mound of sand. But it is from the security of this new shelter, buried deep into the secrecy of another culture who seems less foreign every passing day, that I have chiseled my milestone. If you are interested in admiring its fine carvings, and see how much passion I reversed into the craft, please click here. And if you like what you see, consider giving some peanuts to the monkey, for it might keep the typewriter well oiled and always functional.
I’m an avid reader. I’ve long made it a practice to choose books that followed my journeys. It’s a wonderful way to add depth and richness to my own experiences and observations, and to see the world through more eyes, more lives, than just my own.
Last summer I found myself on parade of bumpy bus rides across Vietnam and down the less traveled end of the Mekong River in Laos. With my legs folded on top of crates of fruit as the bus lumbered through the monsoon rutted mud roadways I paged my way, one country at a time, through Nelson Rand’s Conflict: Journeys through war and terror in Southeast Asia. This part of the continent has been, and in some places continues to be, a war ravaged corner of the world. It’s hard for me to imagine, shopping in the riverside markets and climbing through the gorgeous ruins of antiquity, planes flying over head, carpet bombing, families hiding out in the jungle, genocide, death, destruction. And yet, within my lifetime these have been realities in this part of the world. Instead of focusing on the big pictures and the official histories, Rand tells stories, first hand, of the people he’s met and the lives they’ve lived through war and terror, as the title suggests.
There is no shortage of interesting books to pick up on your travels through Southeast Asia, but if you’re looking for a well worn recommendation for a window into the heart of individual experiences across Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Burma, I heartily recommend this one.
GHOST MONEY by Andrew Nette
I believe that to be better travellers, we must know about the history of the places we visit. Ghost Money, a crime novel by Australian writer Andrew Nette, helps do the trick for Cambodia, the popular culture way. Pulp, to be precise. It paints a vivid, fluid description of the country in the mid 1990s, when Cambodia started to recover from the deadly domination of the Khmer Rouge. Ghost Money takes the reader by hand and help him wade through the darkness of Southeast Asia most unfortunate country’s recent past.
The prose slowly unearths important historical details, and it feels like a candle that’s been raised up high to keep the obscurity at bay. As we are pulled into the darkness by the firm grip of a narration that never seems to let go of our neck, we get to discover so much more about a Cambodia that’s gone past.
If protagonist Max Quinlan were a Chinese, he’d be called a “banana”: yellow outside, but white inside. A product of a Vietnamese-Australian lost relationship, Max is an ex-cop turned sour the way green apples do. His soul is definitely less white trash than a bogan’s, but is inevitably trapped inside an Australasian cocoon disguised for yellow skin. Such an interesting take on an otherwise quite clichéd sour ex-cop stereotype elevates Quinlan from the moshpit of decadent white detectives who lost their minds trying to negotiate the underbelly of Asia’s most terrifying literary cities. Regardless, also Max’s private life has started to smell like sulphur after things got out of control during an international post in Bangkok. Now, the man’s got to scrap off a living by locating missing people. And that’s exactly how he ends up on the mystery trail of Charles Avery, an Australian expat who’s disappeared without a trace, last stop Phnom Penh, Cambodia. At least, that’s where the evidence Quinlan finds in a Bangkok third-rate hotel room suggests – completed by the stench of a dead body with a cracked skull, nonetheless -. Hence, potentially to try to curb a haunting mistake of the past, our mixed-blood private eye trusts his gut feelings, and doesn’t think twice before getting on the next plane to Phnom Penh.
Ghost Money is like that: it starts with a frontal bang, then puts the car in reverse, slowly returns in the initial position, and pushes the pedal to the metal until it crashes against the wall once again. And again. Until Max Quinlan will piece together the parts of a lunatic puzzle using a golden thread of secrets and lies… and I am not going to spoil anymore of the plot.
If you like a good crime story that’s able to evoke the palm fringed, foul smelling Cambodian avenues and line them up with shady characters as if you’d just finished playing with an Ouija board, well, you’ve found a winner here. And a bunch of spirits willing to tell you some inconvenient Cambodian truths under their breath.
It all works so recklessly well that I am forced to recommend Ghost Money to all of those travellers, armchair and otherwise, who are thinking about visiting Cambodia for the first time. This book can help take a first bite of the country’s sweet-sour taste, masking it under an intricately woven shroud of fiction. A bite from an apple injected with black blood, a proper aftertaste of genocide. Completed by the acrid smell of cigarettes burnt on the tip of a dry tongue. A sizzingly exciting Asia noir read not to miss.