Friday, June 26, 2009

A Young American in Vietnam

On a bus from Cambodia to Vietnam, I was reading Dispatches by Michael Herr. It's the story of a reporter in Vietnam during the war. I ended up bouncing back and forth between the Vietnam countryside around me and the same place forty years ago, ripped apart by a war between the people here and the people from my home. I was headed to Ho Chi Minh City, which people there still call by it's old name: Saigon. I looked up from the tanks officers and soldiers picking up body parts of 1968 to the swarm of motorcycle drivers filling every street in 2009.

A few days later, I stood in a small boat in the Mekong Delta. The river had narrowed to about seven feet across, and shallow enough for my guide to shut off the motor. We got the boat moving by pushing and pulling on the pandanas trees arching over our heads (often low enough that I had to duck them). It's a beautiful place, but I would hate to fight there. Everything hot, and close, and hidden.

My guide giggled after almost everything he said. Including his account of how he went outside one day and lost his sister and brother to bomb dropped next to their house. He showed me the scar on his forehead from the shrapnel.

But he said something he clearly thought was very important. "The US and Vietnam now" he said looking me in the eye"are like this," he gripped his hands together forcefully. "War was a long time ago. Now we have no problems with America. You come to you Vietnam, you say you from America. You don't say you from Canada. No. It's okay, we, are, like, this." And he clasped his hands together again and giggled.

He was right. People here ask me where I'm from all the time. I tell them the truth. I have yet to receive a single unkind word as a response. Some of them get really excited sometimes. But there's a lot that has happened since the war here.

Here's a piece of advice for travelers. Try this little exercise at least once. Go to a safe small town where you look very different from the local population and just wander the streets. I did this in Ben Tre kind of by accident. I wasn't too impressed with the town at first, it looked and smelled mostly like crusty cement and seemed about as interesting. But the people were another story. I have rarely been anywhere this friendly. There was almost nobody who spoke english, and my Vietnamese was still limited to "hello," "thank you," and "beef soup." But everyone who saw me broke out into a huge smile. Most said hello. Many tried to ask me my name or where I was from, even if they didn't understand the responses. Little kids would follow me for a block down the street, or hide shyly behind their smiling mothers who would try to get them to wave.

I read an account in my guidebook from an American Vietnam war vet who came back here. He was asked if he would recommend the trip to other vets. He said "it satisfied all the needs of my personal history lessons-- and therapy sessions. People there look forward to a future that is far better than their past-- a past that for them, and now me, is old history. Yeah, go for it."

I figure that says it better than I could.

Check out this entry's Photos.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Travel Tip: Picking a Backpack

Most backpackers have backpacks. Not all. And you don't need the perfect pack. Before this trip, my “backpacking” experiences didn't involve a real Backpack. I spent a week traveling around South India on my own with a black rolling suitcase. My only visit to Ireland (so far), I used a daypack built to carry a laptop. I'm not saying this to brag about some mysterious traveler's skill-- anyone reading this could have done the same if they tried. My point is that when you're making decisions about what backpack you're going to take, you don't have to worry so much about which of the two or three models you've narrowed it down to is the “right choice.” They'll both work just fine. Go with your gut. If your gut isn't helping, flip a coin. As long as it carries your things and you can carry it, it'll work.

That said, I can tell you a few things that will make your life as a backpacker easier. We'll start with the most important tips and work our way down.

First, the most important part of buying a backpack: go to a proper store where a salesperson fit you for a pack and show you how to adjust it properly. The backpack you're going to use is going to have a few more bells and whistles than your average daypack. You've seen the adjustments for the bottom of the shoulder straps, and the new, padded waistband part will be pretty intuitive, but you might not be familiar with the straps at the top of the shoulders, or the compression bits at the sides. A good store will have people on hand to show you how to use all of these things so that the pack will be both comfortable and healthy (I met one guy who'd done permanent damage to his back by improperly wearing an exterior metal frame bag while traveling for three years-- you want to know how to how to avoid that-- it's not “don't travel for three years”). Make sure the person helping you knows what they're doing, and make sure they put some weight in the bag when you're testing it out (any backpack will feel pretty comfy when it's empty). Most stores have special weights exactly for this purpose. Depending on your trip itinerary and body size, I'd ask to test about 20-25 lbs of weight (my bag clocks in a little over 25 lbs right now, and I'm carrying some extra stuff I plan on sending home soon). You will be carrying this bag a lot, so the most important features of your bag are comfort and health. A good sales rep will be a great help here.

However, there is one area in which these wonderful salespeople will lead you astray: size. I don't mean sizing the pack for your body, you can and should trust them on that. I mean cubic capacity. The bigger a pack they sell you, the more expensive it will be, and the more stuff they can sell you to put in the thing. Most backpacks are measured in liters. When you describe the trip you are taking, they will likely recommend something to carry at least 65-70 liters. This is too much. The reason you don't want a pack this big is that no matter how big a pack you buy, you will almost certainly fill it. Therefore, the bigger the pack, the more stuff you will be carrying. You want to pack light. I'm six feet tall, I carry a 55 liter bag, and it's more than big enough for me. I'm pretty sure I've seen people carrying 40 liters. I'm not sure I'd buy much smaller than that unless you are quite small, very good at packing light, and not planning on buying anything to bring home. But if you get a smaller bag, it will help you pack light because the stuff you don't need just won't fit.

Now, backpack features. These days, backpacks come with about as many features as cell phones. Top-load, back-load, side-load, compression straps, rain cover, wheels, internal frame, external frame, detachable top compartment, etc. etc. Some of these are useful. Some of them are not. Here's my opinion on which are which:

Helpful features:

-Internal frame- the metal external frame has (thankfully) gone the way of the videocassette and rotary telephone. The internal frames are just as sturdy and better for your back. Almost all backpacks have them, it's really only the daypacks that don't.

-Top loading main compartment- this means it will be a little harder to pack, but it also means people on the street will have a harder time unzipping it and poking through your stuff when you're not paying attention. A friend of mine I met in Mexico had a top-loading backpack with a zipper pocket on the back. When she was in South America, she had a cold. When she blew her nose, she'd put the used tissues in this back zipper pocket. Whenever she opened the pocket in her hostel, these would nearly always have mysteriously vanished. I haven't noticed the scrap paper I keep in a similar pocket going missing, but you probably still see the point-- you don't want the main compartment of your bag to be so easily accessed. Most backpacks are top-loading drawstring affairs anyway, so you won't need to think about this much.

-Side or bottom access to the main compartment-- my pack has a zippered opening in the side, which makes it very easy to pull out my rain jacket or med kit when needed without going through my entire bag. Ideally you'll want this secondary access to be lockable, but mine just has a couple compression straps across it, making it a lot harder for anybody to open it without my noticing.

-Compression straps- these straps on the bottom and sides make you bag take up less space, and bring the weight closer in to your body. Your bag will be less likely to get stuck in narrow or short passages and doorways. Also if you're having a hard time fitting something in, you can pack as much as you can, compress everything with the straps, loosen the straps again, and squeeze stuff in the newly freed space.

-Detachable top compartment- This might be slightly harder to find. Top compartments in general are good for storing stuff and can be used to tighten down your bag when adjusted properly. Detachable ones are a bonus. If you can remove it from the bag and add a camera strap, it becomes a daypack-- especially useful for bus, train, and plane rides where you have to check the big bag, but you want to keep a small one handy for your water, book, snacks, hand sanitizer, plus toothbrush/paste, and earplugs if it's an overnight ride. They aren't always built for the purpose though-- I attached a couple key rings to mine which made it easier to put a camera strap on. Also look at how much you can put in there if you want to use it as a daypack, some of these things are pretty small.

-Rain cover- I don't have one of these, I just toss a poncho or rainjacket over my pack, but these things can be quite useful. The worst thing about rain when backpacking is keeping your stuff dry, so this makes life easy. They're usually banded by elastic, meaning they're less likely to blow away than my rain jacket solution.

Unhelpful features:

-Wheels- these require an extra (heavy) internal frame to support them and are usually make your pack uncomfortable to wear. Also they themselves are extra weight. Anyway, the whole reason you're carrying a backpack is because you're likely going places your wheeled suitcases' wheels aren't useful.

-Back-loading main compartment- a security liability. They make things easier to pack, but when in public you'll have to constantly beware that they're locked every second you're not actually looking at the zipper. Also, top-loading bags often use the back for an extra pocket that provides two or three extra layers of material. The real advantage to this is that it helps deter one of the worst kind of thieves: bag slashers. Notorious for showing up in bus and train stations, these guys can sneak up behind you, slit your bag open with a small razor, help themselves to the contents, and leave, without your noticing. So even if a back-loading bag locks, you'll only have one layer of fabric to deter a blade.

-Detachable daypack- I know people who love these things, but personally I think they take up too much space and stick a lot of weight way out behind you, making you less maneuverable and forcing you to lean forward all the time to counter the weight. I also have heard a lot of complaints about how hard it can sometimes be to reattach a dayback to a fully packed bag.

-Metal mesh security net- usually sold separately from the bags, these provide good protection against slashers, but they're heavy and practically scream “steal this bag-- there's something valuable inside.” After six continents, I've never seen anyone actually use one of these. A subtle cable lock and/or luggage locks on the zippers (if they can take them) should suffice. But none of these security measures ware going to go half as far as vigilance and simple common sense will. (special note: there are newer bags nowadays that have this sort of metal mesh built into the main lining of the bag. This is a lot more subtle than the separate external nets and might be a good idea-- though you will still have to deal with the extra weight. Your call).

And that's about it for helpful or unhelpful features. Here are a few final tips for shopping:

-Buy a major brand. International brands like are found all over the world and therefore easy to fix or find replacement parts for if something goes wrong with it. Go to the maker's website and see how many countries they sell their product in.

-Try models in stores, write down the names, and then look up consumer reviews online to see how they stack up against similar packs, and how long customers have owned theirs. Often the customer reviewers take their reviews very seriously, and they're good resources. Most of them will be reviewed in terms of how well they hold up for 5-6 day hiking trips in the woods rather than 3-4 month trips around Southeast Asia or Africa, but it still should help give you some ideas.

-There are many areas of travel where getting cheap and used gear is a good idea. This is not one of them. Having a pack break in the middle of travel sucks. You want to avoid that if at all possible. Treat yourself well. Invest in a good, durable, comfortable backpack.

That's my advice for backpack shopping. More tips to come (suggestions always welcome).

Loved it? Hated it? Don't agree or find it confusing? Comment here or email me. Let's talk.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

We Can't Deal with it, You Know?

Skulls of the victims of the Khmer RougePol Pot killed 1.7 million Cambodians. We can't even deal with that! You know, we think if somebody kills someone, that's murder, you go to prison. You kill 10 people, you go to Texas, they hit you with a brick, that's what they do. 20 people, you go to a hospital, they look through a small window at you forever. And over that, we can't deal with it, you know? Someone's killed 100,000 people. We're almost going, "Well done! You killed 100,000 people? You must get up very early in the morning. I can't even get down the gym! Your diary must look odd: “Get up in the morning, death, death, death, death, death, death, death, lunch, death, death, death, afternoon tea, death, death, death, quick shower…" -Eddie Izzard, British stand-up comedian.

I read the sign where the “waiting” room stood at the Killing Field of Choeng Ek. Our guide told us that the soldiers originally all killed their victims on arrival, but that when the number of victims went above 300 per day, the soldiers “failed in attempt to kill them all within a day. That is why they were detained for execution the next day.”

Between 1975 and 1979, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge killed with torture, slavery, starvation, and mass execution. Anyone who seemed to have any intellect was a threat, and therefore killed. If you spoke a foreign language or wore glasses, you were a “parasite,” and systematically destroyed. Parents were separated from children. This was done in the name of creating an idyllic communist agrarian society to "surpass that of Mao or Lenin". Their motto was 'To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss'. They killed at fields scattered across the country that are now simply known as “the killing fields.” The most famous (though not the largest) of these is just outside the capital. This is where I found the “waiting room.”

I don't think I'll ever forget the signs in that field. They were usually simple English, only a few words, just like the various ones I'd seen at Angkor Sat that said “NO SITTING ON BALUSTRADE” or “LOOSE ROCKS, DANGER.” It was at that same level. But these ones didn't tell you to watch your head.

They were always in all capital letters, not to emphasize the point, that was just how the writers knew how to write them. “166 VICTIMS WITH OUT HEADS.” or “KILLING TREE AGAINST WHICH EXECUTIONERS BEAT CHILDREN.” No other explanation. There was only one sign that didn't use all capital letters. It was a small white one with blue writing that read “Please don't walk through the mass grave.”

I felt like I was going to vomit. I still do as I write this. Bits of bone were poking up through the ground. It you didn't look carefully, they just looked like white stone in the ground instead of teeth and femurs. Our tour guide's English wasn't terrible, but I only could catch snips and pieces. “450 bodies found in this mass grave. Still open.” “100 in this grave, mostly women and children. They take clothes off because they think clothes make torture less painful.” “Heads probably in the lake” “Killed their own parents.” “Dug their own graves- told that they were going to plant flowers. They lied.”

We were shown a tree from which a large speaker had been hung to play “communist music” as our guide called it. The victims, brought in blindfolded, couldn't hear the moans of those around them dying. All they heard was music. They died hearing communist hymns.

The educated were killed because they posed a threat. Their families were killed to prevent youngsters growing up and seeking revenge. The victims were tortured into providing the names of everyone they knew in order to find more educated or otherwise unfavored people to kill. Soldiers would tell mothers that their babies would be killed if they did not talk. They talked. Then the babies were killed anyway. So were the mothers.

They died beaten by bamboo, stabbed by swords, split open by axes. Children were hung from trees with sharpened stakes below their chin and throat, and then cut down. Some victims were killed by gun, but most by being struck by the gun itself rather than being shot, because the bullets were considered too valuable. Soldiers doing the killing were sometimes then killed by order from their superiors. Many were found with their uniforms, but without their heads.

Today, in the middle, the first thing you will see is a white stupa memorial, at the center of which is a glass case, several stories tall. It is almost entirely filled with 9,000 human skulls.

I don't believe in absolute evil. I don't think it really exists. But this is the most that belief has ever been challenged.

I spent a lot of my time just staring at the Cambodian people as I was driven back. Almost everyone looked like they were under 30. What are you supposed to do after your capital is abandoned for nearly four years and entire families are tortured and executed by brainwashed teenagers, many of them are then executed themselves for knowing too much?

I found an English-language newspaper based in Phnom Penh. Even though the Khmer Rouge fell to the Vietnamese thirty years ago, they're still making headlines. In page three were new revelations about the torture methods used in S-21, one of the most infamous prisons. The trials of the KR's known leaders is still happening today. They're only just now working out how many hours of questioning each side will be limited to. These are for crimes committed a decade before my birth.

My guidebook to Southeast Asia has a different research author for each country. When I first read the writing of the guy who did Cambodia, I thought he was really funny. (“Markets and disabled street sellers pawn cheap copies of most (book) titles, but we know you wouldn't dream of buying a photocopied Lonely Planet guide. Be warned, if this is a photocopy, it may self-destruct in five seconds”) But after a while, the random jokes and attempts at humor began to annoy me a bit. Now I think I understand them again. He knew that after seeing things like the Choeng Ek killing fields, you need stupid jokes like that. You can't make yourself feel better about witnessing what was left of a genocide that ended a little under 30 years ago. But every little attempt at cheering up helps.

Check out this entry's Photos.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Random Thoughts of a Tourist in Angkor Wat

Inside Angkor Wat right after sunrise.It's 4:30 am. Shut that alarm off before you wake up half the dorm. Now be quiet and come on, I've got something cool to show you..

Careful, you'll wake the staff sleeping on the floor... why did they tie their mosquito nets to the doorjamb? It's as if they don't want us to get out. Actually, now that I see the enormous padlock on the front gate... yeah we'll have to wake one up. Sorry, dude.

Cool, tuk-tuk driver is here, we're on the road. It's really peaceful out in town just a few people out for a run, a couple motorcycles on the road, a gigantic Duracell battery statue on the curb... seriously, why is that there? It's five feet tall. Who in Siam Reap's municipal government thought “Hmm, now what does our town really need? Garbage collection? Some public education funding... ooh! How about a big fake battery standing on the side of the street!”

Right, almost to Angkor Wat, the ticket booth is here... three-day pass, one-week pass... where's the one-day pass? We're paying a one day fee to the three day people? Okay, right, that works. My picture? Why do you want to take my-- okay. Right. Sure, I'll wait for it to print. Thank you! Boy my headshot looks fantastic on this ticket, especially taken at 4:45am in the dark without a flash. Onwards!

We're here. The biggest religious building in the world. If someone told me this was the biggest man-made moat too, I'd believe them. I've been crossing the stone walkway for at least five minutes... I'm through the front door and... more open air grounds. Are these counted as part of the building? Because if they are, that's cheating.

Check out those clouds. This is going to be a good sunrise. Everybody seems to be camped out inside the western entrance. Do they know something I don't? Well, considering half of them are trying to take photos of a main building several football fields away using camera flashes designed for fifteen feet, I'm guessing no. Onwards!

We're passing seven headed naga statues and pools on either side on a long stone walkway to the iconic three-domed Wat (temple). I think I was wrong, they're not counting the grounds. This thing is still big enough to be the biggest in the world. The colors are just coming out in the-- What? I'm sorry, what did you say? Corry? Coffee! Ah! No, thank you, no I don't need coffee or tea, thank you.

Almost to the entrance. I can hear bats. Smell em too. Whew, they stink. It may be dark, but I bet if I just keep going East.. as in inside... doesn't going indoors kind of defeat the purpose of getting up for a sunrise? Bah, who cares. Onwards!

Wow. It opens up into stone courtyards and stairways. Nobody else is here yet. Wow that light is amazing. Wow those stone carvings are good, I haven't seen them like that since India. Wow. Yeah, I'll be thinking that word a lot today. Wow. Now if I could just... nah, 'No entry' sign-- Hello. Fine, thanks. You? Are you sure? But it says 'no entry.' They take it away soon? Well if you're sure.

Oh man these upstairs stone carvings are amazing. Climb to the top? Eh... I don't think... pay? No. Already paid ticket. Nope. No, I'm not going past that sign, that one is permanently embedded with wood. No I'm not paying you ten dollars. Goodbye. I said no. Bye.

Out the east door. And that guy was wearing a uniform too. Or at least part of one. Hmph. But wow, is this the perfect spot to watch the sunrise or what? Second floor platform, facing east, sun rising over the jungle, reflecting all kinds of colors onto a scattered cloud cover and onto the ruins. And I'm going to run out of memory on my camera if I don't stop right now.

I don't usually like standing in one spot waiting, but it's good just taking this in. Just imagine standing on this platform, looking below onto crowds of hundreds in this courtyard. Addressing the public, 9th Century AD, Khmer Empire.


Here's the main entrance again and oh my lord look at that horde of people coming at us right now. Cripes. Hey, somebody graffitied “thief” on the back of this pillar Not cool. Except, if I juxtapose it with a confused looking tourist on the other side of the shot... bingo. Heh. Now I'll just have to think of a good caption. Actually that's kinda mean. I'd hate to find that picture online of myself someday. Erase.

Mmm, just look at the lion and naga statues. One behind the other. If I set up the shot and just wait for this guy to move... and then the next guy to move. Why has he stopped? No, first guy, don't go back. Okay, sweet, now.... that was exactly the wrong time to stick your leg out. Trying again... waiting for third guy to move... bingo. Awesome-- What? No, I still don't need tea or coffee, thank you. No, I just told her I don't need tea or coffee, you haven't changed my mind. Neither have you. No, thank you, I just told them that. I'm outta here. That small temple in the grounds looks safe. I hope.

Mmm, these inner temples are peaceful. Not many images. Living chambers, possibly? Oh and that's an amazing shot with the light coming through the doorway, if I just wait for that couple in the distance. And that other couple. And this other dude. And there's another one coming. Come on dude, speedwalk! You can make it before they get here! Ten steps. Five Steps. Four. Three. Two-- no! No, don't stop for a picture! Argh, now the couple's in the shot too. And another. Come on... look cool, lower the camera, smile. You don't need to make people uncomfortable, especially at this time in the morning. Wait. A bit more. Just a bit more. And they're gone. Just in time for two more people to arrive. Screw it, there are people in Angkor Wat, there will be people in the pictures.

Can't be here forever. Le's go meet the tuk-tuk. Hello. No, thanks I don't need a book. No, I don't need a tuk-tuk, I've got a-- yes, I'm sure they're great guidebooks but I'm not- no thank you, I don't need a drink. Yes, I'm sure. I don't want a special price. No I don't need a discount. No, I'm not interested in bracelets, how about you trade with this dude selling books? Or that one on the tuk tuk? I'm guessing the twelve other kids here selling bracelets don't want yours. No. No. Really, thanks, but no.

Outta there! Driving on with the tuk tuk to the the next complex. This moat is just as big on the sides. Wow. And are those...? They are! Hello, monkeys! Man, haven't seen any in the wild since Thailand! I'd better watch my pockets, I still remember stories about the camera snatching monkeys in India and Bolivia.

And we're here, I'm stepping out of the-- no, thanks I don't need breakfast right now, you can hold onto your menu, thanks-- stepping out of the tuk-tuk. This part is pretty much empty. Sweet! Looks like someone has taken this place apart in chunks and put half of it back together. Looks like the “someone” is “JASA”? Japanese restoration group. Hunh. Very cool looking. No climbing of course.

Hang on, that's definitely a Shiva linga. I thought these guys were Vaisnavite. Huh. I guess crossover makes sense. Anyway the four-faced pillars could easily stand for Bhrama and hardly anyone cared much about him, why not a random linga for Shiva. It's not very big... why am I making observations about the size of intentionally phallic religious monuments again?

I wonder how they knew this was a library. Or if it really was one, they might just be calling it that in these signs. Amazing stuff though. I bet I could take a picture in any direction without looking and have it come out great. One, two, aaaand, bam! ...hey, not bad! I'm keeping that one. And this is just the beginning! Time to explore!


Awesome stuff. Good restoration work, even if chunks are still piled everywhere. Maybe those were the ceiling once upon a time. Heading out now... maybe I will grab breakfast.

Thank you. Curry? Two dollars? Rice included? Fantastic. Thank you! Oh boy, and here come the little kids. Hi. No, I don't need a bracelet. Or a statue. What? It's Joel. What's yours? What country am I from? The United States. No, it's impressive if you know the capital but it won't make me buy. No, thank you. No ,thank you. No thank you. Nothankyou. No. No, thank you very much, but no. Yes, very pretty. I don't need a good price, I said no. Bye. Oh boy, here's number two. No thank you. The United States. Washington State. Very impressive, but no, I'm not going to buy if you name the capitals. No thank you. Bye. Hi. Yes they're very small. Yes it's an elephant. Yes, that's Ganesh. No, thank you. The United States. Washington state. No, I already know my country's capital, my state capital, who my president is and roughly what the population is. Thank you, no. That's very good. No. No, thank you. I see that. No, thank you. Actually it's pronounced Olympia, but that's still very good. No, thank you. Yes, I see they're very nice, I still don't want to buy. No, thank you. No, I don't know the capital of Madagascar. No, I will not buy one if you tell me what the capital is. Bye.

Mm! Food! Thank you! Mm. Good stuff. Two free bananas? Seriously? I mean, thanks, but...

Hey, you! No, I still don't want a bracelet. No. But are you hungry? You like bananas? Yeah, seriously. Here. You're welcome. Hi there! No, thank you, I don't want pineapple, I just ate. Are you allowed to eat those bananas? I said are you-- oh forget it. Do you want this one? Go for it! You're welcome.

Okay, next temple. I think this is the one my guidebook said actually was a jigsaw puzzle-- archaeologists dismantled it keeping careful records that the Khmer rouge then destroyed in the civil war. No I don't need a drink. No I don't need a coconut. I don't care if it's a good price. No. Anyway, the entrance opens to an elevated walkway sitting on top of pillars. Looks like the French helped with this-- yes, the reclining buddha is that way, I know, thank you. What country am I from? Nicaragua. Ni-car-ag-ua. Bye.

Are those funnel web spiders? I mean, they're spiders, those are webs, and they're awfully funnel-shaped. They're all over the place, now that I look. How did I not notice those before? Are they venomous? Not that I was planning on picking one up.

Thinking of dangers, I know Cambodia is full of land mines, almost as bad as Laos is with cluster bombs. I've been warned to stay on the beaten path at all times in general. I wonder if anyone has ever gotten hurt from a mine here since the war ended. This must have been a huge battleground, there must have been some weapons here somewhere, or did respect keep them out? This place is a national symbol after all. Just look at the flag-- blue and red with a white Angkor Wat in the middle.

Still, I'm exploring the forest where the royal palace once stood, and I think I'll stick to the beaten pathways. Very peaceful. Yes, very nice paintings. No thank you. Mmm. Hey, look some kids are bathing in the middle of a pool. I've seen more naked kids running around Southeast Asia than just about anywhere in the-- are they waving at me? They're making a sign. A sign of taking a picture. They're asking me if I want to take their picture. You're telling me a group of kids has set up shop, bathing naked and getting people to give them money for taking their picture? I'm pretty sure there are extradition treaties with that kind of business deal in mind. No, thanks, enjoy the bath!


I can't believe just how extensive these temples are-- I'm covering a tiny fraction and I've already seen so many! This one though... they picked this one to film Tomb Raider on for a reason. This really feels like how you expect a ruin to feel. Surprisingly few ruins do. Trees growing out and on top of a crumbling maze of religious carvings and hallways, monkeys and geckos sounding off in the background. India was the partner to help restore this one. Maybe not the best job technically, but probably the best work I've seen to preserve the feeling of the place. Makes sense, if you want to preserve Hindu temples, call in the country that, its own language, calls itself Hindustan. Now I just have to find the exit. Where's that music coming from?

Mine victims. “We wish to live with dignity. We do not beg. We make music...” Good cause. Wish I had something smaller than a twenty. I think I heard these guys in town last night, maybe I'll drop them something later. We're almost to the exit, just around this line of trees.

Oh dear lord it's an army. No. No. No I don't. Nope, sorry. Already have one. No, don't need one. No, not thirsty. Can't carry more books. No. No. No no no. Where's my camera? This is going on video. No. Thank you, but no. No thank you. No. Please let go of the tuk-tuk. No. Now the driver's getting annoyed. Please don't get hurt. Thank you. Bye!

Later still

And back at my guest house! I don't want to know what time it is. I just need to get change. Driver doesn't have any. I'll ask at the guesthouse. I'll just hand over the twenty... it getting handed over to a little shirtless kid who's taken off running. Uhh-- yes, I can wait.

You know, this driver has been very good. I haggled the price down a bit much. I realize seven dollars is a lot more here than it is back home but still, it's not much. I know it's not customary around here, but he deserves a tip. He's been efficient, friendly, and above all he hasn't tried to sell me anything. I'll go see him for second.

Hey there! We're just waiting for my change. Yes. What? Do I want what? Boom boom? No, I do not want boom boom. No, I'm not married. Why not? Because it's illegal, and I don't like paying for that kind of thing. Yes. Okay. Here's comes my change. Thanks, kid. Here's your seven dollars. Thank you very much! Bye!

Check out this entry's Photos.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Teaching and Tubing

English Class in Laos“Hello. My name is Joel. I am from the United States of America. I speak English. I do not speak Lao. If you want to say something about me, and you do not want me to understand, you can say it in Lao. You can call me smelly, ugly, or stupid, as long as you say it in Lao, you will have no problems, because I will not understand.”

And that's how I started my first-ever English class. I knew a lot of the students were more advanced than the others, and I got a pretty good idea of who was who by watching who was laughing at this point.

I'd never seen an English class taught before. I have no training as a teacher, in any subject. But I speak English, I was in the area, willing to volunteer, and that seemed to be enough.

My father once told me that in medical school, the usual phrase for any procedure was “See one, do one, teach one.” I glanced over at another travel blog and saw that the procedure for learning how to teach English classes in Taiwan shortened this to “see one, teach one.” Here in Vang Vieng, Laos, that was a bit much. My teacher training program? “Teach one.”

The program is based out of an organic farm in Vang Vieng. I came to a morning meeting and presented myself to the four-person office (two of which were foreign volunteers like me). They handed me a thin paperback textbook (Thai-English rather than Lao-English), opened to the pages I would be teaching, said the “read aloud” phrases should be read aloud and that the questions on the next page should be answered with the books closed. I tried to clarify who was supposed to be reading what and the Belgian director just said “up to you, man. However you want to do it.” After working at it a bit, I got a couple more tips on how he would teach the class, but I still felt like I'd been tossed in a kitchen, asked to make a soufflé, and upon any questions about how to keep a soufflé from collapsing was simply told “up to you, man. However you want to do it.”

I biked to the school around five. The classroom was just like you picture them in all the volunteer brochures for teaching or building schools in the third world. There were dirty, bare, whitewashed walls, unpainted wooden benches and tables, a chalkboard that was half white from chalk dust, and windows with no glass opening to the outside yard.

I felt like only half the class was paying attention at any given time. I had an especially hard time getting the boys, who were all sitting in the back of the classroom, to look up. We read the pages, I wrote on the chalkboard. Since they were all too shy to raise their hands, I picked specific kids to read sentences or answer my questions (usually I picked whoever seemed to be paying the least attention at the time) though near the end, some kids started getting sly grins and pointing at their neighbors when I asked “who wants to read the next one?”

By the time we were finishing the last page, only about half an hour of the assigned hour was up. I made up more questions, went back over the material they had learned last class, and went over new vocabulary. “Little” was very easy to explain. So was “how old,” many of them seemed to already know it. But I faltered a bit when I realized I had to try to explain the word “how” by itself to kids who, when asked “would you please read number five,” would occasionally get the bewildered half-smile you get when you aren't sure if what was just said was supposed to be a joke.

I stumbled through it, asked a student what time it was, and let them all out about ten minutes early. They still sat there. I think there was supposed to be a specific phrase told to them like “you may go,” or “class dismissed,” so I tried a couple, and one of them must have worked, but they kept hesitating when I tried more or said more because if the teacher was still talking, they were clearly supposed to be paying attention. Finally they cleared out, smiling, laughing, some of them yelling “thank you, teacher” and filing out, some of them closing the windows as they did.

I looked around for something teacher-like to do, not having been told how to close up the room. I erased the chalkboards with the stuffed fabric bag the class pointed out to me after I'd been erasing stuff with my hand, turned off the lights, and stepped outside, closing the door behind me. I kept a slight distance from the retreating students, remembering how awkward it was when my elementary school teachers insisted on existing outside the classroom. I got on my borrowed bike and pedaled back to the organic farm's guesthouse.

It wasn't really until I got back that I got a taste of what everyone said made the job so rewarding. It was when I was putting away the bike and casually said Sabai-Dee (hello) to one of the farm employees. That was it. In that moment, I was no longer a traveler greeting someone of the staff, I was one member of the community saying hello to another. I'd slipped into the part of the village teacher- educated, kindly, somewhat solitary, possibly a bit eccentric, riding my bike to and from school as people on motorcycles and in trucks passed and waved. I wasn't just a foreigner passing through, I was here doing something.

The rainy season has started here but I was still pretty warm. I went back to my dorm, put my swimming shorts on, and jumped into the river. The current swept me downstream just a few hundred meters into the completely different world that Vang Vieng is famous for: tubing.

Tubing means renting a tractor-sized inner tube, floating down a river, and, here in Vang Vieng, getting indulging in either adrenaline off the ziplines, trapezes and water slide into the rushing water, getting plastered with mud in a mud pit,or doing what most people do and getting plastered off of Beerlao, lao lao rice whiskey (free shots), or bright-colored sand pails full of cocktails. Or other things. I saw at least one place with a sign offering a free beer if you buy a joint. Shrooms can be found as well, and I know even opium is available in town. I stuck to the adrenaline-- general principle, plus I had kids to teach again the next day.

I take a particularly dim view of opium here, considering that it brought the region to its knees not that long ago, historically speaking. Now all these foreigners (because only foreigners go tubing) are showing it as being popular to the young Lao. It's not just here while tubing either. In every Lao city I've been to, every tuk-tuk (motorcycle-rickshaw taxi) will have a driver who will shoot undertone offers of weed, opium, shrooms, women, and whatever else they think I must want as I walk by. I thought about keeping a tally at one point of what I was offered the most often, but I've long since lost track.

So while I still have a lot of fun ziplining and flying with a trapeze into a fast river, I'm staying as far from the scene as I can get. I know this might disappoint some people, but I've had enough of the music they're blasting (it's the exact same technopop soundtrack the followed me through every hostel in Australia: Pokerface- The Sex is On Fire- The Love is Gone-etc etc.) and I'm tired of being offered opium when all I want is a sandwich. I heard about this organic farm 3 km from town, near where the tubers (what I like to call those of us doing it) used to start tubing. It's got everything a guilt-ridden western traveler would love to brag about: organic food, all proceeds going to good local causes, volunteer opportunities both in the farms, and in local English classes (how I got my gig teaching). I fixed a couple computer problems in the school office, and now get to use their internet from time to time.

Today's class went better than yesterday's-- I got them on their feet and playing some games, learning the word “borrow”, and then splitting them into two teams racing to “borrow” a plastic baseball bat to get it across the room, one teammate at a time. Then I got them all laughing by lying down on my back, looking at the ceiling while explaining the concept of perspective (mostly because I didn't feel like making them memorize and recite the only thing written on that page of their textbook: “Giant why are you so tall?”/Well sir, why are you so small?”). Then we had some activities with simple family trees until I ran out of time. I'm starting to see how so many people get hooked on teaching English out here.

It's really impressive how skewed your perspective can get when your normal life consists of doing things like waking up in an organic farm, swinging on a high trapeze into a river and then teaching English to Lao schoolkids before coming back for a homemade tom yum soup for dinner. I talk to people who discuss the best times to see world heritage landmarks the way I used to discuss how to go see a grocery store. David Sedaris described it really well when comparing his childhood to that of an boyfriend who grew up in Africa. All the verbs were the same. It was just the nouns that came out different. Instead of eating spaghetti at the cafeteria, sipping on root beer, I'm eating fresh spring rolls at a stall next to the Mekong River, sipping a fresh coconut. My 23rd birthday is in exactly one month. Usually I'd wonder which place in the city I'd celebrate. Now I'm wondering which country I'll be in. I guess that's travel.

Check out this entry's Photos.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Travel Tip: Clothes Not to Pack

You're probably used to packing for trips that are a few days long. A pair of underwear and socks for each day, maybe a pair extra of each, a couple pairs of pants, several shirts, etc. So, if you're a backpacker, how do you pack clothing for something that could last a month, or several months?

There are a lot of packing lists out there. Really a lot of what you decide to take with you is up to your own taste. I have my preferences which I'll probably share later. Travelers don't always agree on what you should bring. However, there are a few items of clothing most backpackers agree you should *not* pack. Most of the logic behind this is related to packing light, which you should do for fairly obvious reasons. If the reasons to pack light aren't obvious, be brave, let me know (comment anonymously if you like), and I'll be happy to explain in another post.

Here are a few pieces of clothing to skip:

-Jeans. Through middle school, high school, and a good chunk of college, blue jeans were the only kind of pants I'd wear casually. Two separate girls I've dated used to describe my personal style as "jeans and an interesting T-shirt." So I know this might be difficult for some of you. I feel your pain. But, you have to trust me on this one, denim is the very last thing you want in your backpack. It's big, heavy, takes up a ton of room, takes a lot of water to wash, and takes forever to dry if and when it gets wet (because, once again, trust me, it will). Yes, they're comfy. Yes they look good. No, do not bring them.

-White stuff. This is a simple one that I messed up. Don't bring white socks. Or white anything else for that matter. Dirt shows up faster on white clothing than you will believe possible, and you won't always have a way to wash it out. Unless, of course, you're carrying a container of bleach, which you shouldn't (because if it opens in your bag, you will have problems).

-Any article of special value. Leave the lucky shirt/shoes/bracelet at home. This is the only fail-safe way to guarantee it will be there in one piece and in half as good condition as you left it. The most common problems arise because you will feel like you need to take better care of these articles than the rest of your gear, and thus either never wear it (making it dead weight), or micromanage it and end up doing something silly like trying to remove surf board wax and ending up removing both the wax and the fabric beneath it (guess which genius pulled off that little stunt).

-A "Travel Hat." you guys know the ones I'm talking about. They're big, foldable, floppy, often have a mesh part to let your head "breathe", and a long drawstring. Looks like a great idea in the store-- they keep you cool, keep the sun off, shade your eyes, and sometimes even come with bug repellent imbued in the fabric. However, once you're out there, you will realize that the more you stick out as a tourist, the more difficult life becomes (for example, prices for everything mysteriously go up), and nothing screams tourist like a big floppy creased beige hat with specialized mesh and a long drawstring. So you won't wear it. And if you're not wearing it, it's just taking up space in your pack. Skip it. SPECIAL NOTE: This does *not* mean you shouldn't bring a hat. if you have a good hat you will actually wear, bring it, for all the reasons listed above. If you don't, don't worry, hats are sold everywhere, and they're usually fairly cheap. Look around to see what kind of head covering the locals of your gender use, and buy appropriately. I've yet to meet a country that didn't wear baseball caps, for example.

-A second pair shoes. Ladies, I'm looking at you. I don't care how unfair the stereotypes seem, but in my experience, women backpackers almost always have bigger packs than men, and this is the number one reason why (followed shortly by full-size containers of hair and beauty products). If you're bringing shoes (not everyone does, some just use a good pair of sandals), wear them, and make them the only ones you need to wear. A second pair of shoes will take up room, weigh a lot, make a lot of other stuff in your pack dirty (unless you wrap them in something, which then takes up even more room) and probably smell bad after a while. Choose a comfortable pair of shoes that you can both hike in and go clubbing in. Yes, they exist. I suggest a brown pair, that helps both hide dirt and look good. Besides, most places you really need fancy shoes for are probably going to be out of the backpacker budget anyway. (SPECIAL NOTE: to head complaining off at the pass, I do not count flip-flops as “shoes”. Go ahead and bring those if you want, they're small, light, and easy to wash dirt off of, dry, and pack.)

-Heavy cold weather gear. A snow parka will take up most of the space in your bag. Snow pants and thick wool sweaters will too. Generally speaking, unless you will be spending all of your time in cold climates, you're not going to be using heavy cold weather gear, and anywhere you will be using it, you can get it for cheap. I keep a microfleece sweater and a waterproof windbreaker with me, and that's typically all I need. If I need to be warmer, I put on more layers (usually multiple shirts and socks). If and when you go into colder climes, you'll likely be doing things that require a little shopping anyway, and a warm hat, scarf, gloves, can usually be picked up for less than you'd spend on them back home. Long underwear *might* be worth it, as a good quality pair that fits isn't always so cheap. Depends on your itinerary.

That's a start. If there's anything else you guys think of that should not be packed, or if you take serious issue with anything I've said here (i.e. you really want that second pair of shoes), comment on this post. Next post will likely be an update on my trip, but, as requested, tips for backpacks, meeting people, and specific concerns for male and female travelers will all be in future posts.

Loved it? Hated it? Don't agree or find it confusing? Comment here or email me. Let's talk.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Travel Tip: Intro

Found in Quito, EcuadorI think I promised you all some travel tips? Time I started delivering. This post is going to be a basic introduction to what kind of tips I'll be giving you, and who they'll be most useful to.

I've done a lot of different kinds of travel to a lot of different places; short term trips on my own, big international trips with my family, study abroad on the other side of the world. But all of these kinds of travel are either pretty easy or come with detailed instructions or supervision.

Right now, I'm backpacking. I'm on my own, I'm away from my home country, I'm on a tight budget, and I'm gone for a long time. This is one of the hardest kinds of travel not to come with any training or instructions.

That's why most of my tips are going to be focused on this kind of travel. I can give you tips for better packing a roller suitcase or choosing a study abroad program, but I won't be doing that here. Some of the tips here will work for any kind of travel, but, for this blog, international, long-term, independent budget travel is going to be the main focus.

Here's what I think the most important thing you should know starting out, especially if the idea of backpacking through another country makes you a little nervous: Guess what would happen if I magically transported you out of your chair right this minute into just about any country in the world, giving you just your stamped passport, a credit or debit card, and some cash. Without you having read any of my tips, anyone else's tips, or a guidebook.

You would do just fine.

Seriously, you would. My first real tip is that you don't need my tips. Sounds like something out of Fight Club, I know, but it's true. Packing and preparing is actually kind of unnecessary. If you have money, means to access a bit more, and legal permission to enter and leave your country of choice, you're set. The civilized, human-inhabited world is built to be visited and traveled by foreigners, especially English-speaking foreigners like you. Armies of people spend their entire careers making it as easy as possible for you to travel to their homelands. It's a easier to travel than you'd ever believe.

Yes, if you come out without packing or preparing, you'll have to buy a few things. Yes, you will make mistakes, get a few unfair bargains, and be confused a lot on the way. But no matter how much you prepare or how much I tell you, all of those things are going to happen to you anyway at least once. There's nothing you can do to prevent that altogether. But in the parts of travel where it really counts (i.e. surviving, learning new stuff, going on amazing adventures, and having a good time), you could and would succeed just as well as I have, if not better.

If you've ever seen a Bond flick, you'll notice 007 doesn't tend to take a lot of time to pack his bag or read a guidebook. In fact he usually isn't carrying any bags. Just a sharp-looking outfit he's wearing, a random gadget or three from Q, and maybe a gun. Most of you won't want or need guns, won't be put into the movie situations you'd need those gadgets for, and as for looking sharp... well, we'll leave that up to you.

It's worth pointing out though, that there are two special things that let James Bond do this:
1. He's a fictional action hero who doesn't have to worry about things we don't want to sit around watching him do, like asking for directions in a language he doesn't really know or finding and using a bathroom.
2. He has limitless money.

Since these are two things that don't apply to most of us, we don't usually get to travel like this, without any preparation. Like I said, you could do it, and you would actually be fine. The problem is that because you don't have the money to stay in whatever hotel you want and because you do have to do stuff like finding and using toilets, traveling with no preparation will cost you a lot of time, money, and aggravation.

So, here is is my goal for these tips. I can't give you the ability to go out and be a successful independent international traveler. Whether you believe it or not, you've got that already (or you will have as soon as you have a passport). My goal is to save you time, money, and aggravation.

Here's a classic tip to start you off with. It's so classic it's become a cliché that you've probably already heard, (in fact I can think of at least one place I already posted it in this blog). I'm going to tell you again anyway: when packing, take all the money and clothes you think you need. Put away half of the clothing and double the money. You're set. As my last little episode with my bank cards should illustrate, having extra money is a good thing. Maybe not actually twice the amount you think you need, but if you can manage it, set that aside. At worst, you'll have a lot of extra money left over when you come home. As for halving the clothes, one of the most common traveler mistakes is to pack clothes that seemed like a great idea at the time only to really wish you hadn't brought them later. The next tip I post will help you prevent that.

While I'm on the subject, is there anything else people especially want tips on when it comes to backpacking or travel in general? Now's your perfect chance to ask.

Loved it? Hated it? Don't agree or find it confusing? Comment here or email me. Let's talk.