Posts Tagged 'southeast asia'



Jogging Where Tanks Once Rolled

Aerobic dancing at Olympic Stadium

3pm, barefoot in the dim room, whirling fans and headphones on, staring at the screen. It’s my first trip back to the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center, where I spent hours last spring, trolling through their archives of documentaries and newsreels and scanned photographs of the old Phnom Penh, before the war—which, it seems to me today, doesn’t look so different from the Phnom Penh outside the open-air terrace, just minus the new cars and sidewalks. Sometimes.

I’m back to refresh myself. I’m working on editing my second Glimpse piece. I wrote it over the summer and haven’t looked at it in months, so when I got Sarah’s comments, it all felt vague and faraway. I knew I needed something to kickstart me.

To be honest, I haven’t been thinking much about my project, or the Khmer Rouge, or any of it. Last time I’d arrived, it’d been on my mind constantly, a lens I saw everything through: everyone over 35 was a survivor. I couldn’t turn it off, and I’d hit the ground running, dove right in to the research and writing, the quest to understand.

And it’s not like I’ve forgotten all that—I can feel it, sitting there, off to the side and waiting, in the corner of the room when I can’t sleep at night—but my focus has been elsewhere. Getting an apartment. Buying all the crap I need—dishes and towels and non-neon-plastic chairs and Western bedsheets (really effing hard to find, btw). Reconnecting with the friends I’ve got left, and making new ones. Getting a phone and internet and finding a good laundry place and all that very unglamorous day-to-day stuff that’s part of life, part of living somewhere.

So I’ve pushed it all aside, knowing that it was waiting and that I’d come to it when I was ready (and, really, I’ve only been back two weeks). So it was with a little hesitation that I went to Bophana, took off my shoes and climbed the steps, climbed back in to The Reason I Came, and the thick-as-mud emotional difficulty of it all.

Most of the newsreels are in French, and I watch ones from the Thai refugee camps, 79-80; I watch the same newscaster in different suits, and fish out token words of French: “famine,” “guerre,” “mort.” Mostly I look at the faces, which are shell-shocked and gaunt.

I scroll down, down, down the list of archives, never-ending, thinking how long it would take someone to watch it all. I see “Rediscovered Propaganda Films” and click on it. There’s an English dubbed version, which is exciting. I watch and listen.

They show short films produced during the Khmer Rouge and narrate. They show staged shots from the camps, aerials of people like ants, carrying hoes and buckets, balanced on a stick over their shoulders, the way the soup ladies at the market do. They show close-ups of carefully selected workers smiling; they point out child workers and how to tell who was a New Person and who was an Old Person. They show clips of a poorly acted film Pol Pot directed, shortly before the regime fell—men reenact the defeat of Lon Nol’s army, twitching on the ground with arrows arranged around their bodies. The film was never made, and the shots I see now, in the dim viewing room, were assembled from found reels. I imagine them on a dirty floor somewhere, curled and brown.

The narrator points out inconsistencies: no one was supposed to have bourgeois personal items like watches or eyeglasses. But here’s Pol Pot, that smiling cult leader face, wearing a watch, and here’s Brother Number Three, wearing glasses, and here’s the regional leader Brother Number Two snubs, who’s later deemed a traitor and tortured and destroyed, along with his family. They freeze the frame on him, and he’s smiling, smiling.

This scene is at a party meeting; women with Soviet semi-automatic weapons march, and US artillery tanks roll past, left over from Lon Nol’s time. The setting looks vaguely familiar, and the narrator says: “The meeting took place in the otherwise empty Phnom Penh, at the Olympic Stadium.”

Holy shit, I think. Olympic Stadium is in the city center, near the guesthouse I stayed at when I arrived. Every dawn and dusk, they do aerobic dancing there, and people run and powerwalk and swing their limbs around; food vendors set up carts and plastic stools, and men play soccer in the dirt lot outside.

It’s my favorite place to go running in the city. In fact, I’m planning on going for a jog there tonight.

I squint at the screen and it’s all there: the steps I run, the contour of the stone tiers, the spires of the Royal Palace rising in the background. It’s newer and cleaner and nicer in the footage, but it’s the same place.

I don’t know what to do with that.

I walk back to my apartment with a funny little feeling in my stomach, like I’ve seen a ghost—like I’ve gotten up in the middle of night and everything familiar looks strange and different, and the thing that was sitting there waiting for me isn’t in the corner anymore but is moving across the room.

I put on my running shoes and spray some more mosquito repellent on, grab a water and go back downstairs, to the street to catch a motorbike over to the stadium.

It’s surreal when I get there. I walk past the rows of motorbikes and cars, the tuk-tuks covered in ads for the new Twilight movie. Teenage boys stare at me as I walk past their soccer game, say “Hello, hello!”

I walk beside the arena, which is locked and closed, my own face in the tinted windows. It was where the meeting had been, in the newsreel. I walk past where the shot of Pol Pot wearing a watch was, where Brother Number Two and Brother Number Three had trailed behind him, wearing eyeglasses and giving silent death sentences to smiling men.

A young boy carries a sack on his shoulder. He picks a plastic bottle out of the trash.

He walks closer to me, his eyes scouring the ground of recyclables.

I say hello, in Khmer, hand him my empty water bottle.

He smiles and puts it in his sack.

I say thank you, and walk towards the track, to jog where the tanks once rolled.

Going Native: The Anti-Irony of Khmer Glamour Photos

I sat once in a cafe in Tangier, Morocco. Some famous man-filled cafe where Western writers used to pen masterpieces, or cruise for ass, or trip out on then-exotic drugs, or most likely some combination of the three. It was popular with tourists—in the way that that Hemingway bar in Havana is popular—and with well-heeled locals. I was the only female, Western or otherwise, in the joint.

I watched as a man strode in—large, burly, brusque. He may or may not have had a white beard—I remember something about white hair, though his head was most definitely adorned with some scarf. He had that expat look of permanent sunburn and wizened self-satisfaction; he wore a long, flowing robe of ethnic print and carried a thick wooden staff. Two younger men, one with a notebook, another with a video camera and a microphone, followed as he walked purposefully over to what I assumed to be his regular table.

He leaned back in a posture of pontification, began what I imagined to be a long soliloquy, in French, on Moroccan culture and the changes therein over the last decades, as observed by his keen eye. The guy with the notebook nodded and scribbled. I watched the camera man look around at all the Moroccans in the cafe, wearing t-shirts and jeans, then back over at the burly old dude before his camera, his attire some approximation of those sepia-hued photographs old explorers and anthropologists took, that are now sold as postcards.

Our eyes met briefly. I smiled; the camera man looked embarrassed. I chuckled, imagined we were having the same thought:

My God—he’s gone native.

There are few things funnier to me than people taking themselves too seriously. Travelers/expats who over-identify with their adoptive countries provide endless amusement while on the road. So when I saw the pointed fingers and fake-gold-gleam of Khmer glamour photos, I knew it had to do it—my own chance to Go Native, as it were.

To clarify, this isn’t some chintzy gimmick produced for tourists; this is a Cambodian—nay, Southeast Asian—phenomenon. People dress up, get a pound of foundation and fake eyelashes slapped on, squeeze into gaudy garb and let themselves be molded into ridiculous poses, to be later Photoshopped several skin tones lighter and superimposed in front of illustrious sights like Angkor Wat, or the parlor of a well-to-do person’s house (a fireplace and Persian carpet are key). People do it for their wedding, for their coming-of-age, as family photos—it’s not uncommon to see a large framed print hanging in someone’s home.

It is, in short, the Khmer version of cheesy K-Mart photos. It’s is legit, authentic inauthenticity.

I hadn’t noticed the photography studios sprinkled around town until someone pointed them out. The sun-bleached signs of smiling couples, the window displays of sequined gowns—they’d faded into the visual static of Phnom Penh storefronts. Until I decided to get my own.

Khmer glamour photos are something of a rite of passage for Phnom Penh expats, especially the females. So I rounded up a posse, walked into the first decent-looking studio we passed on Monivong, and made an appointment to be turned into an Apsara princess.

At two o’clock on a sweltering Sunday, five of us clamored up the back stairs of a photography studio to the dressing room. It looked like the backstage of an Asian cabaret, make-up and sequins and traditional costumes stacked to the rafters.

There was only one girl doing hair and make-up; at about thirty minutes each, we ended up being there for a loooong time. My friends chose the $10, more modestly ridiculous options; I opted for the $15 Apsara extraordinaire, which included more fanciful skirt folds, extra fake-gold bangles, even a wig. Behold the transformation:

I'd never worn fake eyelashes before.

Looking sufficiently like a drag queen.

Through the mirror

Fancy folds

I went to Cambodia and all I got was this mullet

Lock and load.

A couple days later, I went back to the studio to pick up my prints—three prints were included in the $15 price. I thought of the dude I’d seen, years ago, in the cafe in Tangier. The difference, I decided, was humor. And self-awareness: I was doing it as a joke, a statement on the ridiculousness of myself in the Khmer cultural context and how I, at 5’10” and a riddling of tattoos, will never, ever blend in with or a be a part of that culture. The photos were tangible evidence of the chasm between worlds.

I smiled and laughed out loud and thanked the ladies again.

I went to meet a few other friends for dinner at the Chinese Noodle Restaurant. I took out my prints and they laughed—it was ridiculous, right?

I noticed the waitress peering over our shoulders. I felt suddenly self-conscious—would she be offended? Would the joke translate?

To my relief, the waitress smiled, a chipped tooth and deep lines. Then she reached over and took one of the photos in her hand, examined it more closely. “Very beautiful,” and she looked up at me with a kind of sincerity that made me blush.

This was not the reaction I’d expected. I felt somehow more embarrassed.

The waitress proceeded to pass my prints along to the other tables in the restaurant, all the women smiling and nodding and murmuring their approval. The women’s eyes glanced over at me and it was a kind of warmth I felt, maternal and accepting and utterly devoid of the snarky irony with which I’d walked into the photography studio with.

They didn’t think it was funny, and they weren’t offended. They thought it was beautiful.

I hung my head. “I’m an asshole,” I announced. Then, looking up and grinning, “But at least I’m a beautiful asshole.”

Headcheese, Chicken Feet and “You Are What You Eat”: How Travel’s Beaten the Squeamish Eater Out of Me

Jeffery was taking a machete to the disembodied pig’s head when I walked into work.

The other boys stood around watching. They looked up when they heard the door, grinned sheepishly at me. “Headcheese,” Colin said by way of explanation. “Sorry.”

I looked at the knives, the smeared aprons, the hunks of pig scattered about the wooden cutting board, and shrugged. “I think Southeast Asia has cured me of any squeamishness towards meat,” I laughed.

Food culture, it can be said, is a microcosm of culture. Traveling around, I’ve discovered that a society eats and its attitudes towards eating can be simultaneously one of the most telling and easily accessible aspects of a culture. In this way, eating in a foreign country is both a lofty, anthropological glimpse into the psyche of a culture, and a visceral adventure that often sends one dashing to the nearest squat toilet.

Case in point: there’s a certain semi-green queasy look Westerners wear when walking through a Southeast Asian street market. The plucked bodies hanging limply from hooks; the still-alive fish flopping out of their plastic tubs; the women waving fans at the flies that settle on heads, hooves, chunks of body; the smell of raw meat blooming in the humidity like irony mold—it’s all so utterly unlike the shrink-wrapped FDA-approved supermarket culture of the Western world.

And I’m not gonna lie: I was a bit unnerved at first. The literal rawness of market culture in Southeast Asia is jarring. Watching a teeny little woman crouch down in her pajama suit and hack off a chicken head seems brutal, surreal. Ordering a bowl of soup and seeing a chicken foot poke out of the translucent tangle of rice noodles is startling. And not at all appetizing.

Yes, I eat meat, your Westerness seems to say. But I don’t want to think about the fact that I eat meat. I don’t want to be confronted with the reality that I’m eating another living being.

When I was London a few years back, there was a big stir about Marcus the Lamb. It was being discussed on the talk radio station that played through my friend’s basement flat while we brewed morning coffee.

The story was this: as a lesson in the breeding and rearing of livestock, a primary school had adopted a lamb. The kids named the lamb Marcus, and did cute things like bottle feed him. Six months later, it was time for the lesson to culminate: Marcus was to be slaughtered. A shitstorm ensued.

Parents freaked, animal rights activists threatened, the headmistress was branded a murderer and some of the pupils were reported to develop stress-related insomnia. To their credit, the school officials remained firm: this was the point of the lesson—teaching urban children where their food comes from—and they weren’t going to cancel the lesson. A national debate raged, centering, it seemed, on the extent to which the urban, Western world has become disassociated from its food.

I considered this all as I chewed my toast in the gray London light. I’d been a non-vegan/vegetarian for a little over a year. During my 12 year run as a non-meat-eater, I’d maintained that meat eaters should know and acknowledge the reality of meat consumption. I wasn’t one of those PETA people plastering horror-movie pictures of slaughterhouses around town, but I’d always thought—Fuck, you eat the shit; you should be able to handle a head or a hoof or something.

And I had to hold myself to that when I started eating meat again at age 25. If I was gonna do it, I reasoned, I was gonna do all of it. I wasn’t going to hide from the fact of it, and I wasn’t going to be wasteful. Living in the Bay Area and working in the restaurant industry, it’s easy to make mindful, informed decisions about where one’s food is from, to nestle in the cozy, bedtime-story feeling a Cruelty Free label provides.

Way of advertising a butcher in Morocco. Flickr photo.

But then there’s the Southeast Asian food market. Or the goat head stew in a Moroccan medina. Or cabeza tacos in Mexico (or the Fruitvale, whatever). And by being confronted with heads and eyeballs and recognizable anatomy that doesn’t seem so different from our own, you’re also confronted with your Americanness, your Westerness.

But people are amazingly adaptable, and after a couple weeks you normalize your surroundings. You don’t look twice at the rows of raw meat, and you even acknowledge that while eating a fertilized duck egg is a mind-fuck—a bit like eating an abortion—it is goddamn delicious.

And then you come home and wonder what the fuck everyone is riled up about. Yeah, it’s headcheese, made from head meat, you think, What’s the big deal? Or you wait on a dude who sends back the whole shrimp on his plate cause the little head and eyeballs “Just ain’t cool.” And you think, Really, buddy? You’re a grown man; that’s just a lil ole head. But you laugh and shrug and say, “No problem,” cause you know that that’s just the culture he’s coming from. And it’s your job to make him happy, not to judge what kind of food he’s comfortable eating.

To say that Westerners, especially Americans, have become disassociated from our food is an understatement. (“Where does ketchup come from?” a friend asked her inner-city students once. “The store!”) You think of the old adage “You are what you eat,” and you wonder what the hell that means for us. It can’t, you reason, be anything good.

If you can tell a lot about a person by how they eat, what does a society’s food culture say about them? They say, for instance, that girls from alcoholic homes are exponentially more likely to develop eating disorders. If you extend that on a societal level, it’s a fascinating if unsettling picture of a national psyche. The ability of Americans, for instance, to feed themselves nourishing food in a way that’s free of drama and control and fad diets seems to have shattered, gotten lost somewhere; I think that the sanitized, shrink-wrapped, mass-produced foods we eat are a part of that.

We in the West, and especially the States, don’t know what the fuck we’re eating—or are so far removed from it we flip out at the potential of exposing our children to the age-old reality of meat eating. (For the record, it was the students themselves that voted to slaughter Marcus the Lamb. But one has to ask: would such a lesson ever even happen in the US? Assuming, of course, a school even had to funding for such a lesson…)

Growing up, my mom was convinced that the demise of the family dinner was inextricably linked to the break-down of the American family. She thus insisted that we all sit down, no matter how much homework we had, for a nightly family meal. This was, as you can imagine, infuriating for a moody teenager; I’d scowl at my plate until eventually someone would say something funny and we’d all sit and laugh and linger for an hour.

I’m grateful for that now, in the same way I’m grateful to have traveled to five different continents and gotten the squeamishness beaten out of me. There are some things I still won’t eat—shark fin soup, which is just plain wasteful; or that monkey-brain stew they make in China by pouring boiling water into a live monkey’s recently cracked skull—that’s just plain cruel. I don’t think I’m a particularly enlightened eater, nor do I think I’m gonna change the world by shopping at farmers markets.

I just think that I’ve gotten a bit more realistic, had a bit of my own barriers broken down. At least to the point that walking in on the making of headcheese doesn’t cause me to look twice.

Okay, so maybe I played with the eyeballs...

El Mac: Saigon Street Art

So here’s something cool I came across in my internet wanderings last week: a video of American street artist El Mac‘s piece he threw up in Saigon, “Kosom by the Mekong”:

El Mac – Sai Gon, Viet Nam “Kosoom by the Mekong” from Viet Nam The World Tour on Vimeo.

Just, you know, when you start to think you’re doing something cool by travel blogging, there’s some good ole’ street artists to totally blow your shit out of water.

Aside from the images making me nostalgic for Southeast Asia, what’s so cool to me about this is the opportunity for exchange. They say all art is a conversation, right? And us writers prattle on about authentic experiences and living like a local, but street art really offers the opportunity for that in a way that writing necessarily can’t—you know, the good ole’ Tower of Babel.

El Mac isn’t the first dude to be doing this sort of stuff: I got a chance last summer to catch up with Gaia about his work in Seoul, and of course JR is out there giving everyone’s heart a boner with his work. And I guess part of what’s so exciting to me about it is the chance for dialogue it offers—as though the artists were saying: “Hey, I’m here in your country, and this is what I see and this is how I express it, in my culture. And I’m gonna leave it here, for you to see and have, and what do you think of all that?”

And the question may not be being asked to me, but I think it’s fucking awesome.

And I wonder if there’s a way us writers could do something close, even with the limitations of language—if we could find a way to have a similar exchange, in the earnest and uncomplicated way one will point to an object and say it their language, then point to you, and you’ll say it in yours, and you’ll both smile at the difference of it, the arbitrariness of it—neither one’s way right or wrong, but just different, another little glimpse into the vast diversity of human expression.

I’m open to suggestions.

Read more about El Mac’s work here.

Privilege and Property Rights at the Phnom Penh Sofitel

View from my balcony: construction workers' quarters beside construction lot for new, luxury villas

So, one of the most fascinating things I got the opportunity to do in Phnom Penh was to peek into the “other side.”

By “other side” I mean the foreign business men, the developers, the movers-and-shakers, the ambassadors and embassy folk—the people that are literally reshaping the city. By “other side,” I mean the people that are removed from the street, that live behind gated properties with bored-looking security guards, that ride around the city in chauffeured SUVs. I mean that I got to stay at a Sofitel.

I’ve never been one with an eye for perks. I always kinda rolled my eyes at the travel writers that billed themselves as luxury writers, assuming they were really more interested in getting free massages and Pina Coladas than actually being writers. Which they may be. But none of the glitz ever attracted me—I was always more into the grit. And perhaps being able to make a living as a writer. But really, just the grit.

Which is why it was so ridiculous that I ended up, frayed Toms and an H&M cardigan, in the lemongrass-scented lobby of a five-star hotel, on assignment from an equally ridiculous source: Matador, an independent travel website. And why it ended up being so goddamn fascinating.

The piece I wrote on the experience went up last week on the Matador site (link here). But 900 words is short, and there’s a lot I didn’t get the chance to say.

Construction cranes behind the Sofitel pool

The Sofitel sits handsomely amid vacant lots and construction cranes, in what the young manager with beautiful hands told me would soon be the new city center. He moved his hands through the air when he said it, like he were gathering something and drawing it closer to him. His nails were better filed than my own.

A poor, Eastern city rapidly modernizing by foreign hands: that’s not an entirely new story. But this was Cambodia, so it was more complex and fucked-up than it appeared on the surface.

Land rights are a huge issue in Cambodia. And like so many of the country’s problems, it comes out of the war: after the Khmer Rouge fell, no one had property deeds—you just moved into any available space you found. It was a clusterfuck of a situation. Ten years ago, the government began an official campaign to get people proper titles to the land they’d been living in since the KR. But it was a muddled, mismanaged process in which poor folks largely lost out. As a result, a lot of the country’s residents still don’t have official claim to the land they’ve been living on.

It’s the perfect situation for exploitation.

The case I got to witness first-hand was the ongoing issue over the lakeside evictions. You can read more here, but in a nutshell, a foreign company bought a lake and its surrounding region in Phnom Penh, to drain and develop. People were already living around the lake, but since most had no official claim to that land, they could legally be evicted. They’ve been protesting, losing, subjected to violence—it’s basically fucked.

None of which is to implicate the Sofitel into that. (In fact, a tuk-tuk driver told me that the Sofitel property used to house a Thai-owned luxury hotel that was torched during anti-Thai riots some years back.) But if you place the hotel’s presence in the larger context of the changing city, it says a lot. There didn’t used to be a market for a business-oriented luxury Western hotel. And there’s not really, yet—the Sofitel was largely empty when I stayed there, just like the villas being constructed across the Bassac River were. But the point was, it’s coming.

And if you draw the line in the sand—between old and new, redevelopment and who it benefits—the Sofitel is like glimpsing into the future, glimpsing over the line.

Which of course brings one to oneself. Because I was, after all, staying there. Yes, I was on assignment and thus not footing the bill. Yes, I was walking the half-mile of scorching-hot driveway to catch a tuk-tuk streetside, instead of paying the 300% surcharge from the hotel. And yes, I was using my $5/month wireless modem instead of paying for the hotel’s wifi (how you market yourself as a business-centric hotel and not have free wifi is beyond me…). But, if you drew the line in the sand—which you still can do, in the parts of the city without sidewalks—I was closer to all those business men than the people getting evicted by the lakeside.

Sometimes you can fool yourself about your own privilege. You wait tables; you work two jobs through college; you squint through old contact lenses because you can’t afford the eye doctor. Or you rent an apartment from a woman you can’t communicate with, save for the green mango she gives you once a week, and you drink shitty coffee at street stalls and buy produce at the local markets and tell yourself you’re experiencing a place “at ground level”—a phrase that in and of itself oozes an underlying sense of privilege, the idea that it’s a choice.

Turn-down service

But in a place like Phnom Penh, I really can’t fool myself. Putting on a bathrobe and shuffling around my hotel suite eating the macaroons from turn-down service, BBC images flashing sharply on the flat-screen TV—and getting to do it because I’ll use the skills I learned in university to write an article for a website, in a language I was born into speaking—I can’t kid myself about which side I’m on. I could get a well-paying job any time I want. At the drop of a hat, if I were in serious trouble, I could have someone wire me more money than your average Cambodian makes in a year. That’s just the fact of it.

I had this moment, taking a tuk-tuk from just outside the Sofitel’s gates, when I sat back and watched the street: a row of barber chairs set up, scuffed mirrors nailed to a corrugated fence, men waiting for clients. It felt like I were looking at it through glass, through the thickness of some impenetrable distance, and it all struck me as quaint. As in, the simple quaint life of a the noble local.

Could where you stay really make that much of a difference in how you experience a place? I wondered. Could surrounding myself in the piped-in fragrance of lemongrass, taking a hot bath and wearing a pair of slippers each night really ensconce me, alter how I enter a city so much? Or did it just serve to heighten what was already there, hiding from me?

I didn’t find answers to that. But I did have a lovely stay.

The Young Leading The Blind: Phnom Penh Image

This is the image I haven’t been able to get out of my head:

There’s an instrument called tro. It’s kind of like a violin. It’s a traditional Khmer instrument and you hold it low, down by its belly, and you work the strings with your other hand, across your chest or near your neck, like you’re sawing something.

There’s a whole history to it—it being destroyed during the Khmer Rouge time, famous musicians being killed, one surviving, unearthing the one he’d buried in the field before he’d been evacuated, it being one of the only tros to survive, the musician later founding a non-profit to teach the next generation, pass on what was nearly gone and almost died.

There’s a lot of stories like that in Cambodia; you hear so many you start to confuse them, get the facts mixed up and the characters wrong, until it becomes one big story that no one, it seems, can keep straight. But somehow blind men were involved in this one—were they blinded during the KR or later by landmines? Or were they born that way? I never figured that part out. But there were blind men that played the tro, that much I know, and you’d see them in the streets of Phnom Penh, and that’s the image I can’t get out of my head.

The tro players would always be older, battered-looking—the old generation, the 40+ers that had lived through the KR. They’d be walking as they played, being led around through the chaos of the motorbikes and tuk-tuks and vendors on the sidewalk and the busted-up places that were supposed to be sidewalks but were really just rubble—being led by a child, 10 or 11 or so, what was called “the new generation.” The kid would have their palm open, upturned, begging for the musician whose hands were occupied, seeing for eyes that were clouded by a perpetual mist.

But that wasn’t the weird part, the part that has lodged itself in my mind and keeps reappearing. The thing I keep thinking about is the string. There’d be a string tied around the tro player’s waist, and the kid would be holding the string, leading the blind old man like a pet through the streets—though you didn’t know who was whose pet, and how much of it was for show, for pity, for dollars.

The young leading the blind: it would have been a metaphor anywhere else. But this was Cambodia, Phnom Penh, so it was reality, just another scene on the street.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez hated the term “magical realism.” It was, to him, inaccurate, a term applied by outsiders, that dripped with misunderstanding and European paternalism. To him, what he wrote was realism, plain and simple—the so-called “magical” part was just a part of reality for Latin Americans, or Colombians at least.

Why do I think of this now? Why can’t I get the image of a lassoed blind man playing a near-extinct instrument out of my mind? Why did the image only begin recurring once I’d left, was in Laos, and why did I keep thinking of it and thinking of it, once I was back in the States?

Why didn’t it strike me as so bizarre in the moment?—not necessarily normal, in the sense of normal that I know, but as just another happening on the sidewalk, another sight to block out, filter out, shake my head to and keep my eyes straight and mutter “ot tey” to.

I’ve been trying to explain Cambodia and Phnom Penh to people. They ask me how my trip was, how my time there was, and my immediate answer—and the one that seems the truest—is, “Bizarre.” But I can’t really explain why it was bizarre, make any insightful statements or overarching cultural observations. All I can do is present a handful of images, anecdotes, the way they were presented to me—at random, shoved in my face so that all I could do was block them out, file them away to think about later and still not understand: children huffing from plastic bags, and monkeys running across the telephone wires, and the cross and uncross of the karaoke girls’ legs. The tro players and their milky eyes, the children and their upturned palms—but most of all the string.

Didn't take a picture of the tro players. Cause it seemed wrong. But here's another thing that didn't seem so weird at the time: typical sign outside a nightclub.

Goodbye Southeast Asia

Goodbye motorbikes droning and motorbikes honking.
Goodbye face masks and flesh-colored socks,
Goodbye pajama suits.

Goodbye dragon fruit, goodbye jack fruit,
green mango with chili salt from a push-cart.
Goodbye cane juice in a plastic bag.

Goodbye cows in road and chickens on the bus,
Goodbye water buffalo rising
from puddles in the rice paddies.

Goodbye orange robes and incense,
clusters of bananas
fanning open at the altar.

Goodbye karaoke
and pop music videos on the bus.
Goodbye wedding tents.

Goodbye mosquito nets.
Goodbye heat rash and swamp bra.
Goodbye hand-washed underpants hung to dry.
Goodbye cheap cigarettes and expensive muesli.

Goodbye “cheap cheap,” goodbye “same same,”
Goodbye mile-long mole hair,
Goodbye aerobic dancing at dusk,
Goodbye tissues under the table,
plastic stools and street stalls.
Goodbye haggling with fingers and haggling with calculators,
Goodbye maze of the market,
sleeping on top a pile of clothes—
Goodbye tubs of flopping fish and plucked limp birds
hanging from hooks.

Goodbye currency conversions and foreign transaction fees.
Goodbye photocopied US money
half-burnt on the sidewalk.
Goodbye no sidewalk,
walking in the street.
Goodbye bootleg guidebooks with cheap spines,
bootleg DVDs with blurry casings.

Goodbye thunderstorms,
Goodbye heat.

Goodbye widows with shaved heads,
Goodbye schoolgirls in sarongs.
Goodbye children begging and children waving,
children perched
between their parents on a motorbike
sleeping amid the fury.

Phong Nha Farmstay, F*ck Yeah

I could tell by the way he slid the business card over to me, by the utter seriousness in his eyes, that he wasn’t fucking around. “Hands down, without a doubt,” he stabbed the card with his index finger, “the best thing I did in Vietnam.”

I put the Phong Nha Farmstay card in my wallet. It stayed there for nearly 3 months. I knew I’d be headed back through Vietnam for my flight home and, now, I knew where I’d be stopping along the way.

Central Vietnam’s caves have been making a lot of buzz lately. A few months ago, National Geographic ran a feature on the newly discovered Song Doong/World’s Biggest Cave. And Thien Duong/Paradise Cave, which had previously been thought to be the world’s biggest cave, officially opened for tourism. Not that I’m the biggest cave person in the world—just that I’ve traveled enough to know that the best recommendations often come, not from guidebooks and tourists offices, but from other travelers.

And so it went with Phong Nha Farmstay. Sure, I could have ventured out to the area independently. Or I could have done a day trip to Paradise Cave and been sufficiently blown away by the other-worldly spectacle of it: stalactites dripping and stalagmites rising, looking like sea kelp, so that I didn’t know where in the earth I was, so that I looked up at the cathedral of limestone and exclaimed, “Holy shit, I didn’t know the earth could do this.”

I could have stared out of a bus window at the Ke Bang National Park that contains the cave, as well as some 300 others, and I could have seen American bomb craters or perhaps even spotted the rare langur monkeys that we saw rattling around in the trees.

But I wouldn’t have ridden down Victory Highway. I wouldn’t have gotten to learn the local history so well. I wouldn’t have watched a former VN medic squat down beside a girl’s motorbike-accident wound and apply crushed penicillin to dry it out and keep the insects away. And I wouldn’t have had a pool to swim in or killer food to eat either.

Phong Nha Farmstay opened in December 2010, in the same month as Paradise Cave. While the nearby Phong Nha Cave was the second largest internal tourism site in Vietnam last year, the area is still largely unknown to Westerners—children still wave when you pass by, women touch your curly hair curiously and giggle, and you don’t see a single “Good Morning Vietnam” shirt for sale. But with the biodiversity and political history of Ke Bang National Park, and the never-ending quest of travelers to find the “real” fill-in-the-country’s-name, the region unlikely to stay that way.

Which is what Phong Nha Farmstay is banking on. Its 7 private rooms and 1 dorm room were never full during my 3 night stay, though this too is unlikely to stay that way. The place is run by Australian expat Ben and his Vietnamese wife Bich, who grew up in the Cu Nam village where the farmstay is located; milling around are also their infant son; Ben’s daughter; Bich’s mother (the medic), father and brother; and a slew of easy-going staff. They set the tone for a professional yet homey environment—solidifying my view that, more than uniforms and fawning, the best thing you can do in the service industry is really, truly give a shit about your product and your customers.

I took their 1-day tour of Ke Bang National Park and Paradise Cave. We rode on the back of motorbikes, down Victory Highway, which is officially closed to foreigners (Ben’s wrangled some kind of deal, I didn’t ask what), which was built to transport goods during the war. Riding down the near deserted highway, I couldn’t see any of the rare mammals or the thousands of species of plants or birds that the park contains—all I could see was dense green, the cliffs and peaks of mountains, the white flutter of butterflies along the roadside.

We made several stops along the way at sites important to the Vietnam/American War. North of the DMZ line, the Ho Chi Minh Trail runs through the park, which was heavily bombed during the war. A museum is currently being built. We stopped at the memorial 8 Ladies Cave, as well as a somewhat-obscured vista of a downed helicopter.

The tour was led by Ben and his buddy Dave, a white dude with deep smile wrinkles, a camouflage vest and a permanent cigarette dangling from his lips—the kind of semi-grizzled expat guys that off-road motorbikes and cold beer were made for. They were knowledgeable and funny and didn’t take themselves too seriously. Along for the ride was also their underling Tom, a recent transplant from Hanoi Backpackers Hostel, who had Iron Maiden board shorts and the greenest goddamn eyes I’ve ever seen.

Paradise Cave itself was a trip. It was designed by a private developer, and felt like a tasteful, eco-Disneyland. There was an automated turnstile and go-carts to transport the half-dozen tourists we saw. Unlike the nearby Phong Nha Cave, decked out in red, green and purple disco lights, Paradise Cave is lit with energy-efficient lighting. We wandered through the kilometer of deck open to the public, our voices the only ones echoing in the cavernous dark.

We then stopped by a mountain-stream river, where we stripped off our clothes and leaped from rocks and sunbathed and poked around the lagoons and sandy shores. We were lucky enough to spot some langur monkeys hopping around the trees on our way back to the farmstay, where we chilled and drank smoothies/beer.

And I have to agree with the random dude, whose name I forget, who handed me that business card all those months ago—Phong Nha Farmstay was the coolest thing I did in Vietnam. It gave me a fuller, more complete experience of the country—what it’s like outside of the cities and the tourist towns and even the beaches. I don’t think I’d be walking away, as I will in a few short days, with the same picture of Vietnam if I hadn’t gone there.

Sunset over the rice paddies

**

Travel Tips: Phong Nha Farmstay

Contact the farmstay, and they’ll make it easy to reach them—they’ll arrange a taxi from Dong Hoi, which costs about 370,000 dong. It’s best to come by plane or train; as there’s no official bus station that I could discern in Dong Hoi, it’ll be hard for the taxi to locate you otherwise. Dong Hoi is along the Reunification train line, and well-connected to other cities by bus.

The farmstay is a mid-range experience. Private rooms are $25-35 night, with air-con and hot water, and there’s a somewhat cramped 6-bed dorm room with beds for $8. Additional rooms are being built next door, at Bich’s brother’s house. Food is not cheap but delicious. It’s all at restaurant, not street food, prices, so you’ll be paying $2-6 per meal. It is, however, some of the best food I’ve eaten in Vietnam.

You can also expect to meet awesome fellow travelers. Like these Icelandic dudes. Bad asses all the way.

The 1-day tour of Ke Bang is $45, $50 with a driver, which is recommended. This is steep for a lot of backpackers, but like the food, definitely worth it. Besides, are you really gonna come all the way out there and not see the park/cave?

One of the goals of the farmstay is to train local folks in Western tourism. There’s a sweet note on the front page of the menu explaining that some staff have more experience than others, and that if mistakes are made, please communicate them. So when one guy was brought Coco Pops instead of Muesli, the situation was handled gracefully. You can tell a lot about a business by how they handle their mistakes, and in this regard, Phong Nha Farmstay proves itself as quality.

Adventures in Vietnamese Bureaucracy: Dong Hoi Visa Shenanigans

I didn't take many pictures amid all this. So here's a boat.

Blond and sun-crisp, with a Marlon Brandon mouth and board shorts, Ben was the first Westerner I’d seen in Dong Hoi.

He lit a cigarette and sighed as his driver secured my backpack to the roof of the SUV. “Where are you from in the States?”

“California.”

“Ah, well,” he exhaled an agitated puff, “this is like the Alabama of Vietnam.”

I’d only spent 20 hours in Dong Hoi, so I wasn’t exactly in the position to agree or disagree. But I could verify that during those hours, I hadn’t seen any other foreigners. I hadn’t been able to communicate with anyone, hadn’t seen any English or any Western food, and I certainly hadn’t seen the travel agency I so desperately needed.

My first clue that I was officially off the beaten path was when the minivan from Dong Ha had more or less slid the door open and pushed me out onto the main strip of Dong Hoi, the tout smiling and yelling back at me, “Dong Hoi.”

I’d been lured to this part of the country by the Phong Nha Farmstay, an independent, family-run homestay that was also one of the few outfitters to run tours to the newly opened Paradise Cave.

But what I needed first was a travel agency—the kind I’d see all over the other places I’d been in the country, English-language signs advertising tourism services. I needed a visa extension: my 3-month, multiple-entry one was due to expire just 4 days before I fly out. While in Laos, I’d spent a good hour researching extensions, grace periods, whether I should just apply for a new visa or try to extend the one I have. I’d come up with zero in the way of solid, conclusive information. You could, it was rumored, overstay by 48 hours with no penalty. After that? Both Google and the Vietnamese Immigration website were wholly unhelpful. My plan was: get to Vietnam, find a travel agency in Dong Hoi, drop my passport there while I went to the farmstay for four days, pick up my passport when I returned to Dong Hoi for my bus to Hanoi. It wasn’t air-tight, but it was the best I could devise.

But after circling a dusky Dong Hoi a few times, I determined that there were no travel agencies. Because there were no Western tourists. I picked up a SIM card and called Ben, from the Phong Nha Farmstay.

“Listen,” Ben told me after I explained my situation, “I’ve got a guy in Dong Hoi.” He gave me the info of a man named Hung. After an ensuing half-dozen phone calls triangulating between Ben, Hung and myself, I ended up at Hung’s office the next morning, 2km down the main highway, a small room crammed with computers and tourism posters—in Vietnamese.

“Why didn’t you just get another visa?” Hung drilled me.

“Because I didn’t know I needed to.”

“Why did you wait so long to apply for an extension?”

“Because I couldn’t find any information on whether I had to extend it or not.”

Hung sighed. “This will be a problem.” He lectured me on much easier it would have been to just get a new visa while I was in Laos. I nodded, not bothering to explain the obscurity of Vietnamese bureaucracy.

He made a phone call; I sipped a glass on tea. He wheeled back over to me, giving a grave-faced and round-about explanation for why I couldn’t apply for a normal extension, why I had to have a rush, one-day extension. Which cost $100.

At which point Ben called me. “How’s it going with the visa there?”

I explained the situation. He sighed. “Let me talk to Hung.” The phone passed back and forth a few times. “Okay, listen,” Ben told me, “what Hung’s telling me is that you can’t leave your passport in Dong Hoi, because if the extension gets denied, we could possibly get fined for having someone illegal at the farmstay.” I chuckled at the idea of myself being illegal. “So it looks like you’ve got to do the rush, sorry bout that.”

After the initial wave of nausea, I succumbed to the idea that I’d have to part with $100. Live and learn—and blog about it so that other poor saps can learn too. Hung told me he’d call when it was done, around 3 or 4 o’clock.

I commenced to wander around the sweltering town of Dong Hoi, the faded colonial streets, the floating restaurants and wooden fishing boats, waving at the boys on bicycles that called out “hello” at me. I’d retreated to the lobby of my hotel—where I’d been the only guest—when Hung called. “There’s a problem with your visa. You didn’t tell me you have a business visa.”

I let out a laugh. “Well, I didn’t know I had one. I applied for a tourist visa.”

“The Immigration office says they need a health check and a letter from your employer to extend your visa.”

“But I don’t have an employer. I don’t actually work in Vietnam. It’s a mistake.”

“Then you’ll have to go to Hanoi. Immigration here can’t do it.”

That was about the time Ben showed up, an SUV packed with family and supplies he’d picked up in Hue. “Well shit,” he said, “let’s drive over to Hung’s.”

There aren’t hardly any Westerners in this province, Ben explained, so they aren’t used to dealing with tourists. The Phong Nha Cave might be the biggest tourist attraction in Vietnam, but that was only for Vietnamese. Westerners are rare, and everything having to do with Westerners exceedingly difficult.

On the sidewalk in front of Hung’s office, Hung shook his head and handed my money back to me. We stood around and ate ice-cream from the corner store, brain-storming.

“I mean, fuck,” Ben said, “you could just overstay.”

His Vietnamese wife Vik shook her head. “No. Better to do it the legal way.”

We discussed options. I could take a bus to Hanoi that night, and get it sorted out there. I could take a bus to Hue, hoping I could sort it out there, then take a bus back to the farmstay. Or I could say fuck it.

“I mean, what’s the worst that’ll happen?” I asked. “Will they arrest me or detain me?”

“No, no. I think officially, they charge you $25 a day. But a mate of mine overstayed and they just waved him through. Worst, I say, is they put something in your passport saying you can’t come back for three years.”

I shrugged. “I can live with that.”

I had something less than a chuckle when I imagined myself actually being an illegal in Vietnam. But after all the day’s shenanigans, I really could live with it..

Adventures in Lao Transit: Ban Natane to Savannakhet

One hand tractor, a boat, two sawng thaew and a local bus so packed I had to crouch in the stairwell amid the rice sacks for 87km—I’ve had my Lao transit experience.

Tell other travelers you’re headed to Laos, and you’ll hear two things: “The people are so friendly, so nice!” and “Ugh, I was on this 12-hour chicken bus…”

Picturesque breakdown

Lao transit is infamous for being some of the ricketiest, breaking-down-ist in the SE Asia, maybe the world. Travelers hang weary heads over bottles of Beer Lao, swap war stories: the number of people standing in the aisle, the amount of livestock on board, the various strange cargo, number of break-downs and length of time to go 370km (12 hours is actually purty good). Instead of garnering scene cred, it seems more like commiserating, deriving solace from a shared trauma.

Given that context, my mission from remote Ban Natane to bustling metropolis Savannakhet was smooth, seamless, enjoyable even. An at a cool 10 hours, it could be said that I lucked the fuck out.

I awoke in Batane to a breakfast of fish soup, sticky rice and Nescafe. One of the men from the Baci ceremony a few nights prior came up the wooden ladder, chatted with Pauline’s supervisor. They nodded, glanced over at me. “Okay,” the supervisor said, “you go with him.”

With my transport clearly mapped out for me, I gathered my bags, said my good-byes. I left Ban Natane in a spray of brown water, thrown up from the wheels of another hand tractor. I’d gotten a little better at riding, crouched down, clutched the railing, teeth chattering with every dip and tree root. It’s a little like the squat toilet—it takes time, practice, to hone your particular method.

A half hour later, we arrived at the “dock”—a dirt slope where wooden boats lay half-submerged in the still river water. A small local group of men gathered, ranging from middle-aged to elderly, all with the lean muscles and chiseled features of people who’ve done hard labor their whole lives.

They commenced to scooping out water from one of the boats with a halved gasoline canister, assembling the engine and oars. Now, if you take the tourist boat, they allow a maximum of three passengers with two boatmen. But this was not the boat of life vests and Tevas (which would have been useful); this was the local boat, whose main purpose wasn’t to transport people but goods.

We piled six people, about a dozen parcels and one motorbike on that baby and cruised into the cave.

This is how we roll/paddle

Suffice to say, we bottomed out a half dozen times. Hopping out, pushing the boat, scooping water out, the crunching sound of rock—through a particular patch of rocks, the men had to unload the boat entirely, then reload it. They wouldn’t let me help. I stood in the damp cool and watched a sixty-some year-old man carry my backpack.

As they stood ankles in the water and moved boxes, one of the men lit a cigarette. In the light of his headlamp, I thought the dance of the smoke was about the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. It was all still magical, majestic to me—the cave, the village, the way of life. But this was these men’s reality. They moved with efficiency, knowing the cave like I know the rhythm of the stoplights and crosswalks and trains. They seemed neither annoyed nor frustrated with the archaic and cumbersome method of transport. They had the expression of commuters. Except they smoked and laughed more.

On the other side of the cave, I bowed and said my thank-yous. I rode two largely uneventful sawng thaew—one back to Ban Na Hin, another to the Highway 13 crossroads. The sky thundered and the plastic bags of produce whipped and whistled in the wind.

It began to rain as I climbed off, hoisted my bag over my shoulder and dashed for an awning. I’d been told that buses to Savannakhet pass through the junction “all the time”—though what that meant in rural Lao speak, I wasn’t sure. I stood in a place that seemed like it wanted to be a bus stop, amid the fruit and sticky rice vendors, crouched down against the rain.

An old Korean bus rattled by, slowed to a stop. The tout leaned out the doorway, waved his arm at me as I jogged through the puddles. “Savannakhet?” I asked. “Yes, yes,” he nodded and ushered me in before I could think twice.

I took one step into the stairwell and stopped.

For the last 100km, managed to score a seat in the back. Catch: I had to climb over the piles of luggage to get there.

That’s because I couldn’t move any further. The crowd of people, luggage, cardboard boxes and rice sacks was so thick I had to wedge myself into the corner the bus door vacated when it closed, the leaky seal splashing a refreshing mist of Lao rain on my face.

Two grim-faced Westerners stood out in the crowd: a boy sitting on a blue plastic cooler, a girl standing behind him, trying to clutch anything she could. When a lumbering cow in the road made the driver screech and swerve, the girl lurched forward, toppling into several people and inspiring a chorus of “ooh”s.

“Twelve hours of this shit,” the boy told me later at a side-of-the-road piss stop (which I actually prefer to the squalid squat toilets you have to pay to us). “They told us when we got on in Vientiane that there’d be seats open at the next stop.”

They had twelve more hours to go, and were thoroughly spent on the authentic local experience.

We shared a what-the-hell-are-you-gonna-do laugh and crammed back on, men pulled zippers and stubbing out cigarettes. When the door closed, I wedged myself back into my corner, where I had just enough room to shift my weight from time to time. And sometimes, that’s all you can ask for.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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