December 19, 2014

Korea’s no-man’s land

Korean DMZ

Photo Credit: U.S. Army Korea (Historical Image Archive) via Compfight cc

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

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Category: Asia, Destinations

November 22, 2014

Retch-22 Laos in the time of cholera

Don Khong Island

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.”

“Other two?”

“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.

Mekong, Laos

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

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Category: Asia, Destinations, Travel Health

October 26, 2014

Two Places to Rock to in Malaysia

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.

 

soundmaker

Soundmaker – Penang

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.

rumahapi

Rumah ApiKuala 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

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Category: Adventure Travel, Asia, Destinations, On The Road

October 11, 2014

Native eye for the tourist guy: Avoiding fashion no-nos

65055278_17b40a903cPhoto 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

 

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Category: Asia, Backpacking, Destinations, Vagabonding Styles

October 1, 2014

Slowing down in Ubud, Bali

Cost/day:

$28 per day per person

What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?

There are many interesting and strange things to see on Bali, but if I had to pick just one it would be the statues you come across in seemingly random places.

DSC03577

Describe a typical day:

Our morning routine stays the same wherever we are. We wake up, make breakfast and do work and homeschool.

After that we typically would go explore an area, temple, mountain, beach, etc. via motorbike. The countryside in Bali is so bright green and beautiful that we would often take longer routes to our intended destination just to see more of it.

Evenings we would relax, make dinner and simply enjoy the tranquility of being surrounded by rice fields.

DSC03389

Describe an interesting conversation you had with a local:

I went to a birthday party for an eighteen-year-old local, Wayan. I talked with his friends and teenage family members for a while and had few shots of whatever local drink they were consuming. Unlike the other times when I’d been with Wayan, where we talked about an array of things, I barely spoke with him.

When I arrived, he sat me down with his cousin, gave me food and a drink and explained that he now would be attending to the others at the party. For the rest of the two hours I was there he spent that time making sure everyone, including me, had enough to eat and drink. He served people at his own birthday party. I have no idea if this is normal in Balinese culture, but I found it incredibly endearing. Certainly a drastic difference to how I, ahem, behaved on my eighteenth birthday.

What do you like about where you are? Dislike?

There is so much to like about Ubud. I liked the people. We met so many kind and smiling people. I liked the amazingly beautiful temples and natural environment. I liked the traditions that were on display with so many aspects of life, from daily offerings (see picture below), to decorating temples, parades and ceremonies, one of which  happened in the middle of the rice field where we stayed. After being in southeast Asia for several months, I really liked the ability to get clean, organic food.

I disliked the traffic in Ubud. It is horrendous on some days. Too many buses on tiny streets causing massive traffic jams. It is not fun inhaling diesel exhaust on a motorbike. I disliked how touristy Ubud is. It is touristy in a different way than is the south of Bali, which is a beach destination, but it is touristy nonetheless.

DSC03373

Describe a challenge you faced:

We planned to spend a month in Ubud. It actually took about a week of settling down to enjoy the slower pace of life. After having moved every 3-5 days for so many months, being able to relax and not plan our next destination took some adjustment. I guess it was just a feeling of being restless. But in the second week I settled in and had no problem whatsoever enjoying my time there.

What new lesson did you learn?

That I need a break from traveling sometimes. It is so easy to try to see everything in a country. I just had to except that I cannot see it all and to attempt to do so will only lead to burn out, which I was until we recuperated in Bali.

DSC02963

Where next?

Penang, Malaysia

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Category: Asia, Vagabonding Field Reports

September 28, 2014

Book Review VANISHING TALES FROM ANCIENT TRAILS by James Dorsey

VANISHING TALES FROM ANCIENT TRAILS by James Dorsey, 2014, Vagabundo Magazine Publishing. Buy on Amazon.

DorseyVanishingTrailsWhen I first found his writing on celebrated travel webzine Perceptive Travel, there was one thing that made me an instant James Dorsey’s fan. It was the amount of literary adrenaline he was able to inject straight into readers’ eyes with the opening three lines of each and every story. Indeed, James would pull out his wordy meathook, and catch you right under the chin, pulling you into the action. You would feel the smells, sounds and fear he was trying to tell you all about. I don’t know why, but one of his simplest descriptions, “Akira tells me to follow him closely and I am practically in his back pocket” stayed with me until today: now, whenever I tell people to stay very close to my back, I tell them to “stick to my back pocket”, and I think of Dorsey’s time in Cambodia.

This is the best quality I admire in Dorsey’s writing: his simple, dry, straight forward and damn catchy list of words that one after another “dance on the page”, as Bukowsky put it. But in this case, they dance at the sound of tribal drums during a secret and ancient ritual consumed under a moonlit forest thicket. (more…)

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Category: Africa, Asia, South America, Travel Writing

September 21, 2014

Nepal: A last minute escape

Not too long ago my friend and I went to Nepal during our 8 month round the world trip. It was a last minute stop-over (escape) during our three weeks in India, and we were pleasantly surprised with how beautiful and easy it was compared to the chaos we were experiencing in India. We were supposed to take an overnight train and bus from New Delhi, but after missing the train had to book a last minute flight to Kathmandu. We took a cab to Nagarkot, a village in the mountains, and stayed at a cute hotel.

After resting for a day, we decided to go on a three day trek that our hotel helped arrange. We had a great guide named Bikram who works for a Territory Himalaya (we highly recommend him) and left the next day. It was considered one of the easier treks you can do, but it was as hot as can be and by the end of the three days I can dropped a few pounds for sure.

After hiking all day up and down and through the woods then back into the sun, we made it to a small hotel for the night. We were hiking towards Chisapani, where we would stay our last night before hiking and then getting a local bus back to Kathmandu.

(more…)

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Category: Asia, Destinations

September 3, 2014

Vagabonding Field Report: Relaxing on Cambodia’s coast in Kampot

Cost/day:

$25 per person

What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?

It was strange watching fisherman on the river covered from head to toe, including a sort of ski mask, in scorching heat.

Sept4

Describe a typical day:

Work and homeschool in the early morning, as always. Breakfast would be at our guesthouse.

We spent a lot of time simply relaxing at the beach or on the river. Our days were spent exploring the region by motorbike. We rode over to Kep, a nearby beach town. Other days we found caves, salt fields, little bars with docks we leapt off of into the river below, a national park we biked through and a pepper plantation, a local crop that is renowned the world over.

Evenings we usually spent in the small town, along the river, eating at one of the local restaurants.

Sept1

Sept2

Sept5

Describe an interesting conversation you had with a local:

I talked with one local about her experience living in Australia for two years and her return to Cambodia. She explained that for years she wanted to return to Australia to live because there were far more opportunities for her.

However, she was very happy to report that this slowly began to change, for her, about eight years back when tourism began to take off. She said twelve years ago the idea that she would have more opportunities in Cambodia than in Australia was unfathomable. But for her this was now true.

What do you like about where you are? Dislike?

I really like the laid back pace of Kampot. After the heaviness of Phnom Penh it was just what we needed. It’s a small town so everything is easy, e.g. finding food, parking, accommodation. People are very friendly and the river is beautiful, especially at sunset.

There was little I disliked about Kampot. If I had to choose something it would be that a lot of the roads are under construction, so, depending on your location, the air can be extremely dusty.

Sept6

Describe a challenge you faced:

Getting lost on the motorbike in the midday sun with no water, Google maps being inoperable and an inability to speak Khmer. There were very few people we could even stop to ask directions and no real way to explain the main road—any main road—we were looking for.

We finally found a small gas station and were able to get our bearings and make it out of there. Three people crammed on a motorbike in that heat, with that much dust and no water is something we can luckily now laugh about.  Not so at the time.

Sept3

What new lesson did you learn?

We’d already learned this lesson before, but I guess we needed to learn it again. When venturing outside of town be sure to bring a paper map in addition to a map on your phone. Being able to point to any spot on the map will save if you have no way of telling a willing person where you want to go. Oh, and bring more water than you think you need.

Sept7

Where next?

Bali, Indonesia

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Category: Asia, Vagabonding Field Reports

August 24, 2014

An interview with Freelance Writer Joe Henley

As part of some tips for successful travel and freelance writing, I decided to interview Joe Henley. He is a Canadian freelance writer and death metal singer for Taiwanese band Revilement who has spent the past few years living in Taiwan, and will released his debut novel, “Sons of the Republic”, on American imprint Library Tales Publishing on September 12th 2014.

He’s an example of someone who set out to live in a foreign country and worked hard to realize the “writer’s dream”. I asked him a few questions to bring his experience as a useful example for other budding wannabe Vagabonding writers. read on… and as Joe says, keep writing.

How did you become a writer in Taiwan? Is being a white English native speaker an asset to break into a foreign country’s journalistic and media scene?

I started off working in academic publishing. I worked a somewhat dreadful desk job for years, actually, churning out articles and test materials for ESL publications. For that particular job, being a native English speaker was definitely part of what got me hired. There are labor laws here preventing companies from hiring anyone for jobs related to the ESL field who don’t come from certain countries wherein English is the official language. Then I started off getting freelance gigs on the side, and gradually built up my stable of regular jobs to the point where I was able to quit that job almost two years ago. It was fucking glorious.

Joe Henley (11 of 33) copyIs writing your main source of income, or is it still some sort of a part time job?

Now it’s my main source of income, though I do still supplement with other work. I’ve got a bit of a radio voice so I can get gigs doing voice overs for various things here and there. But mainly it’s writing and editing now.

Is travel writing a viable market in Taiwan, or do you have to write across different topics/platforms to make ends meet?

I think you definitely have to write across different topics and platforms to make a living. I do some travel writing for various publications, but it’s such a niche thing when you’re only dealing with one country, and a relatively small one at that. One of my regular jobs besides travel writing is covering the local music scene, but I also write about politics, sports, the arts—anything, really. You have to hustle to make ends meet, and that means being as diverse as possible. (more…)

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Category: Asia, Expat Life, Lifestyle Design, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Life

August 17, 2014

A week in Nepal

Not too long ago my friend and I went to Nepal during our 8 month round the world trip. It was a last minute stop-over (escape) during our three weeks in India, and we were pleasantly surprised with how beautiful and easy it was compared to the chaos we were experiencing in India. We were supposed to take an overnight train and bus from New Delhi, but after missing the train had to book a last minute flight to Kathmandu. We took a cab to Nagarkot, a village in the mountains, and stayed at a cute hotel.

After resting for a day, we decided to go on a three day trek that our hotel helped arrange. We had a great guide named Bikram who works for a Territory Himalaya (we highly recommend him) and left the next day. It was considered one of the easier treks you can do, but it was as hot as can be and by the end of the three days I dropped a few pounds for sure.

After hiking all day up and down and through the woods then back into the sun, we made it to a small hotel for the night. We were hiking towards Chisapani, where we would stay our last night before hiking and then getting a local bus back to Kathmandu.

(more…)

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Category: Asia, General
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