Monday, January 31, 2011

Hitching to India: The Hunt, Day 1

I figured, what better place to leave than Phuket? I had a terrible impression of this place for years before I even go here, and I arrived to find out that it's bad, but not as bad as I thought it would be. It's full of Russians and resort hotels and scooters and hookers and cheap food and beer. You win some, you lose some, right?

Anyway, this is the place to hitch my way onto a boat, if I'm going to do it at all. It's a super developed island in terms of tourism and big money options. It has at least four marinas for all sorts of boats: sailing yachts captained by retired couples from San Francisco, super yachts owned by anonymous millionaires with crew that look like models, and yachts run by dirtbag travelers who've matured enough to have a boat.

Plenty of opportunities.

Or so I thought. When I made it to Yacht Haven, my last stop of the day, I finally got to talking to a bunch of people who told me that I was about 2 weeks too late. Everyone they knew left towards Sri Lanka early in January. Favorable winds and weather and whatnot.

Well I hadn't spent all day writing notes to post on bulletin boards and zipping around the island's hell-born traffic and road system to give up. Some other people told me that I just need to ask and I'll find something eventually, and I choose to believe them.

After all, if I fail to get a boat, what am I gonna do? Stay in Thailand? Go south through Malaysia? Or get on a plane, god forbid? Fuck that, all three of them. I want to go to India, and I want to go there on a boat.

I posted 8 notes at four marinas. The notes went something like this:


crew available

Hi, I'm a 27 year old male, American, hoping to travel to Sri Lanka or India.
I'm trying to circle the globe by land and sea only. I've made it this far from
South Korea.

I'm willing to cook, clean, share costs, play mediocre guitar, do general
maintenance, etc. I can leave anytime and have my visa to India already.

Please contact Ethan at:



08-8869-5434 (text only though - the microphone on my phone is broken)


I hope it works. I'm going to go back to Chalong Bay, The Boat Lagoon, and the Royal Phuket Marina tomorrow to talk to more people. I'm not going to Yacht Haven again since I spent the most time there today, and more importantly, it's like 45 kilometers on crowded roads through a low atmosphere of smog.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Down and Out in Bangkok

When I got to Nong Khai station just over the border in Thailand, I wasn't too worried that the ATM there didn't give me cash. "Don't expect that ATM to work," an American told me as he smoked a cigarette next to his duffel bag. "I use that bank in Bangkok all the time, I think it's just that ATM for some reason. Its happened to me before."

I did start to get worried when I arrived in Bangkok the next morning though. None of the ATMs at Hualamphong Station worked. None in the subway worked. It was 7AM and no banks were open, and when they did open, none could give me a cash advance. I was finally willing to ask the French guy with a wen that I rode on the train with for help, but he had long since departed the station.

I had $42 left over from Cambodia and I changed $41. The guy at the bank didn't like the wrinkles in one of my ones. Anal, whatever.

The lady at a hostel told me the bed was like $20, but I could pay later, so I took it, assuming I'd work out my money issues. When the banks opened, nowhere was able to give me a cash advance. I walked probably 8 miles around Bangkok because I didn't think I could afford to take a scooter or the subway if I really wasn't going to get any money. My card wouldn't work at Au Bon Pain in the mall, one of the only places I thought would accept it as payment, so I had to blow my precious cash for the food I ordered.

I started to consider my options: pay an outrageous fee to Western Union and have my parents send me cash, and then either continue trying to hitchhike to India from Phuket, or get the hell out of Thailand. I couldn't go back through China because this shit went down the very day my second entry expired. I could give up my goal on traveling overland and fly. I could go to Cambodia, and take out a shitload of US dollars and come back through Thailand changing those. Nothing sounded very appealing.

To make a long dull story a short dull story, my bank, which completely blocks all transactions in Thailand, finally unblocked my card on my second call to the customer service people, after chastising me about not telling them I was going to Thailand and not having a back-up plan. I was on the verge of eating out of a dumpster and sleeping on the streets. Bangkok is bad enough with money, without it's a nightmare. Once I got the word that my card would work the next morning, I used the last of my cash to feed my growling stomach and rest my shoddy knee which had flared up from all the walking in the sun all day.

That's my tale of hardship - a whopping day on the streets (except when I was relaxing in the hostel waiting for the banks in America to open). Oh, and the bed at the hostel turned out to be $10, she just quoted me two nights for some reason. I guess I should get some traveler's checks. Also, if anyone wants to send me a shitload of cash or a credit card, please feel free.

Monday, January 24, 2011

More Photos!

I have updated my Laos photo album, with a link to be found as always on the right-hand sidebar.

These will be the final photos I upload from Laos, as I leave tomorrow on the train for Bangkok and Phuket, and hopefully a boat to India.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Tourist Rule Numbers One and Two

Thinking about all the tourist in the "In the tubing Vang Vieng" shirts I mentioned in my last post reminded me of Tourist Rule Number One.

It's a really simple rule. Tourist Rule Number One states:
Don't wear souvenir clothing in the country you bought it in.
I don't know what possesses people to go out and buy a souvenir t-shirt and then put it on. If I see a foreigner walking down the street of Vientiane, their physical presence is enough to tell me that they have, and in fact are, in Laos. The Lao flag on their shirt is really quite unnecessary. Furthermore, it's just goddamned tacky.

Tourist Rule Number One naturally brings me to Tourist Rule Number Two. This states that:
Traveling to a poor country is not an excuse to look ridiculous.
It's a far too common sight to see backpackers in pajama pants that make them look like they escaped from some gaudy harem. I'm talking about brightly colored pants that billow out like sails and then taper drastically at the ankles. There's no doubt it's comfortable, but if you don't walk around wit a bed sheet rigged into "pants" at home, why do it abroad?

I wish I knew. The only explanation I can think of is that these people think that traveling means they're doing something special and gives them some right make a spectacle of themselves in public.

They might think they are dressing like locals since they bought their costumes at a market. I hope that's not the case; it's too easy to actually look at what people wear and find that citizens in every country in SE Asia dress with dignity. Even if the clothes aren't brand new, nearly all the men wear slacks and a shirt, and the women are in modest traditional skirts.

It's a real conundrum. As a foreigner abroad, you get noticed. Us westerners stick out, and I think it's important to try - at the very least - not to look like an idiot.

Vang Vieng

The thought of this town is actually one of the reasons I decided to completely derail my original plan to go west through China. After fall in Russia and Mongolia when the temperatures started to get truly frigid, the promise of floating down a lazy river in the sunshine with a bucket of whiskey and coke was too much to pass up.

The more time I spent in Vietnam, Cambodia, and southern Laos though, the less appealing it got. It's not hard to see how well-trodden this part of the world has become among backpackers. Going to a town that promised an even greater concentration of drunk twenty year old tourists in hippie parachute pants started sounding not so good.

We went anyway. After all, I had to see for myself what the place is like. It turned out to be a small ugly grid of streets lined with Internet cafes, restaurants, and souvenir shops selling the ubiquitous "In the tubing Vang Vieng" shirts you see backpackers wearing all over SE Asia. More and more dull cement guesthouses are under construction and I got the overall impression of an abandoned Soviet resort town overtaken by Laotians unimpressed with foreigners' shenanigans, but willing to take their money.

It is a town that is anything but quaint. For years it's had a borderline legendary reputation for hedonism, and the bars that long ago grew popular for showing a never-ending loop of Friends episodes still play the same show. I don't know why, the show is terrible and outdated. I saw a few places showing Family Guy which is only marginally better, but I guess when you're catering to catatonic Australians that barely have peach fuzz on their chins, you can play whatever crap you want.

The town is, by the way, 80% Australian. It's uncanny.

But the tubing is what put the place on the map, despite plenty of other activities in the surrounding karst peaks, along with the availability of all sorts of technically illegal drugs.

After renting a tube, we were dropped off about 3km upriver, and then walked another few hundred meters to put ourselves in the greatest concentration of bars. It was noon and the sun was shining. The whole place had the look of a third-world river circus. Bars were built on shanty decks over the water, and huge wooden poles had been erected over the water for zip-lines and trapezes. There were water slides and diving platforms, and the river bent around piles of stones that had been dredged up out of landing zones. I can't imagine anything resembling safety regulations existed.

Tubing in Vang Vieng is really a euphemism for bar-hopping by a river. The only time people are in tubes is getting from one place to the next. I had the idea of floating down the river back to town, but we made it only about 200 meters in the course of five hours, and had to get a taxi back to return our tubes by the deadline. Most of our time was spent on the trapezes and slides, and my body was sore the next day from hanging and swinging and hitting the water.

The river was fun, but the scene is so over the top, I don't know how people can survive there more than a few days. We spent a total of four nights there, two going north to Luang Prabang, and two coming back south to Vientiane. I'm glad I went, but I wasn't sad to leave.

Friday, January 21, 2011

This Blog Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us

So Ethan and I will be parting ways soon, at least for a while.  It has been an amazing trip so far and Ethan is an excellent travel companion. He hopes to cruise though Thailand in order to find a boat to India. I am going to take my time exploring Thailand where I hope to do some serious rock climbing and maybe get SCUBA certified as another way to explore the countries I visit. Being that v-w-x is Ethan's blog, this will be my last post here. I've started a blog at and we'll see how diligent I am with it -- I expect not. Follow along if you are interested but let me say that I hope more people than my Mom follow the blog (no offense, Mom). It will make me feel more inspired, and probably more obligated too.

Bon Voyage.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Luang Prabang

Usually when I imagine myself traveling when I'm not traveling, I like to imagine sitting in some small exotic city, comfortably wasting time in a shady cafe while life goes by in the cool breeze, thinking profound thoughts and being content.

I can't say I've had any profound thoughts. I have resolved to actually go through with my plan to try and hitchhike to India on a boat from Thailand, mainly because the prospect of absolute failure has suddenly and strangely begun to appeal to me.

I've also been reading another Haruki Murakami book. There's plenty of profound thoughts in there which save me from coming up with my own.

But the city of Luang Prabang has every other aspect of my disembodied travel fantasies. It's tiny, in the middle of nowhere, it occupies a thin river peninsula and is full of colonial French architecture. Cafes, boutiques, white-washed cement with dark wood and awnings. It should be in an issue of Martha Stewart's magazine.

It's remarkably quiet, especially after the boozy circus that was Vang Vieng. For two days Adam and I have done nothing but wander around and drink beer on riverside decks, make friends and lounge on mattresses on shaded platforms on hills across bamboo bridges, and relax on our massive balcony.

I left my passport at the Indian embassy in Vientiane, and that's another thing I always imagined while traveling: taking it slow while you get visas for places even more exotic than the one you're in. I also kinda imagined myself reading newspapers and having coffee, but I hate coffee and haven't read a newspaper for ages.

That's okay. I'll settle for wading in turquoise waterfall pools and strolling down quiet streets past orange-robed monks coming in and out of the the temples which are hidden among the trees and villas.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Best Fight Scene Ever

Adam and I made this fight scene on top of a junk boat in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. It's one of the greatest things I've ever done with my life, I think.

I think the dialog deserves an award. It was filmed in Ha Long Bay. HA LONG Bay. Special thanks to Courtney, the camerawoman, and Randy, Yannis, and Carlos for being card-playing extras.

Thank God for Pirated DVDs!

Last night after dinner with some Germans and Adam, we all stopped into a convenience store.

I didn't want anything, I was just looking at the pirated DVDs for sale when I saw this movie. I knew it was a winner just by the cover, the title, and the caliber of actor featured in badass reflective glasses.

I picked up the little sleeve and read the synopsis on the back. This is what it said:

"This is a lesson to all actors: pay your income taxes or you'll end up having to star in crap like this to get you out of the hole. Wesley Snipes is a disillusioned CIA assassin protecting a bad guy from badder guys. I don't know why. Three quarters of the film is a shootout in a hospital. Robert Davi spends most of his time having a heart attack, and Zoe Bell demonstrates why she's a stunt double. Except for the story, the dialog, the acting, the direction, the choreography, the special effects, the cinematography, the editing, the logic, and the music, it's not bad. Completely ignored everywhere but Japan."

It actually said all that. I was confused at first because it was so funny, and I couldn't even process it at first. I wish people wrote synopses like this more often. It's enough to enjoy without actually watching the movie. Thank god for media pirates with senses of humor.

More Photos!

Dear friends, I have uploaded many more photos from my travels.

To the right, as always, you will find a new link for the country of Laos, where I currently reside.

I've also added more photos to the Cambodia album.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Siem Reap, Angkor Wat, and The Dread

I've realized I've completely forgotten to write about the tourist mecca of Angkor Wat. It is the largest religious structure in the world, and undeniably one of the largest tourist attractions as well. I suppose it does warrant my attention.

Please do pardon me, but before we even set eyes upon this ancient city of temples I was filled with a sort of dread. It's the Dread that tells you that you won't actually be that impressed by something that should very well impress you.

The Dread is caused by the gradual dulling of your impressability by the parade of temples, wats, churches, cathedrals, stellae, museums, mountains, monuments, and mausoleums that you've spent the last three months looking at.

Now forgive me for sounding so cynical and jaded - I know you're probably reading this from a fluorescent-lit cubicle somewhere - but as Joe Walsh said, "I can't complain, but sometimes I still do."

Before our tuktuk driver even got within viewing distance of the ancient city of Angkor, before we got off the bus in Siem Reap even, my brain began to come up with a metaphor for Angkor, and Angkor Wat specifically:

I saw an ornate cake of ridiculous proportions and gaudy decoration. It was abandoned and forgotten in a jungle and teeming millions of ants crawled all over it, taking picture in flip-flops and sunglasses.

The Dread was not without reason, but it wasn't terrible either. I was impressed by the ruined temples and cities of Angkor - it's difficult not to be - but I wasn't awestruck by it. Everyone has seen pictures of it, and the closer you physically get to it - from America to Asia, Asia to southeast Asia, to Cambodia, to Siem Reap - the more you hear about it from other travelers. It would be hard to be surprised by the place.

The tourists were out in droves, no doubt about that. Siem Reap, being nuzzled right up to Angkor, is the place where everyone stays, and there are all sorts of everyones there: scrubby backpackers like us, couples on vacation, young families showing the kids something to forget before they get old enough to appreciate it, French checking out the old empire, Koreans in massive group tours, et cetera, et cetera.

Siem Reap is a town built on tourists, and the city handles it well. The dining and drinking district is great, with close alleys warmly lit and lined with open air restaurants to watch people from, and beer so cheap you can pass out on five dollars.

I'm glad I went to Angkor and Siem Reap, no way I couldn't be, but it was not the solemn holy experience I hoped it might be, under those crumbling towers and shady stone hallways. It was a great experience sneaking into the temple itself before dawn, and having an hour or so of solitude and quiet while the hordes were snapping photos in front Angkor Wat's reflection on the pool, but mostly it was a trip on the ultratourist bandwagon.

Fortunately there was enough great cheap food to eat, cheap cold beer to drink, and plenty of sun-scorched temples to scramble over and pick at and inspect along with everyone else. In fact I even learned something about the history that would come as no surprise to Jared Diamond. The whole kingdom collapsed due to environmental factors, specifically to some abnormally dry monsoon seasons that their advanced water management systems couldn't cope with. Among minor contributing outside factors, of course. I learned this after the fact of my three day visit, naturally.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Killing Time on Don Det

The first thing we encountered in Laos was some small time extortion. Before we even reached the border, in fact. The bus attendant claimed he'd take care of all our visas and stamps for $46 bucks, including only a $1 service charge. He broke the prices down and was of course lying. Everything cost $40 bucks without his "services". And that includes $4 for two stamps that we wouldn't have had to pay if we were smart and asked for receipts, because they were clearly extraneous and illegal charges.

But that's where the problems ended. All border crossings are suspect, as far as I'm concerned.

On Don Det, and island in a freshwater archipelago by the Cambodian border, we lounged about for four days, doing nothing more productive than ride bikes one day, and another day I went tubing - jumping out of a boat upstream for the sole purpose of floating back - with some other backpackers.

It's easy to do, kill time, on such an island. Our $5 bungalow was on the northern tip of the island and gave us killer views of the sun melting into reds and pinks in the sky and over the Mekong as it sunk below Cambodia. There were bars and restaurants on stilts over the river with mattresses and hammocks and diving boards lining a dirt path, the "main street" of Don Det.

All you can do is swim, sit, read, eat, drink. There are a lot of backpackers that zip over from the mainland for a few days, and a lot of places for happy shakes. Those can lay you out for a day or two if you're not careful though. Trust me, it happened to someone I know.

I tried to figure out why all the cats had docked and crooked tails. It seemed to be a feature of the island. I never found out. Maybe it was a genetic thing, a small island of inbreeding cats. Maybe dogs routinely fucked them up when they were kittens. Maybe people bent them for the hell of it, but they all had crooked tails.

They seemed happy though, those cats, and every other animal too, even the mangy dogs with swinging balls. And why not? Apart from a chicken in a domed bamboo basket with poor prospects for its immediate future, all the animals roamed free under the warm shade. There was always a breeze. The cats and dogs and water buffaloes were maybe the only creatures with an easier and lazier life than the stoned backpackers in bathing suits and yoga clothes.