By Marc Heiden, since 1997.
June 19, 2010
Rest in peace, Manute Bol. The world is shorter without you, and more wonderful because of you.
June 4, 2010
There was a fairly simple reason why I didn't write many emails home while I was in Cambodia: decrepit keyboards. So this doesn't describe most of what I saw there. Here's what I managed to plunk out.
I've been out of email range for the last couple of days. Can't really type an entire email at this keyboard, as most of the keys barely work. Just wanted to say hello.
I'm sorry I haven't written for the last couple of days. Still trying to find an internet cafe in Cambodia with a decent keyboard...no success, but one has to have slipped through, even if only by accident. I've been in the jungles around Angkor Wat from sunrise to sunset, and will be again tomorrow. It's unfathomably hot in there. And amazing.
I'll write tomorrow if I'm not absolutely drained again, regardless of how many of the keys are stuck together. (This may look short, but these two sentences took a lot of time to pound out.) And if I am too drained, then I'll send you something from Phnom Penh, my next stop, the day after tomorrow. (It's the capital city.)
I'm exhausted again, but I'll type until I'm about to drop. I'm not quite bronze, but I am kind of golden at the moment. I'm off to Phnom Penh tomorrow morning on the bus, and then I'm going to try to arrange a side-trip to a city called Kampot before I go onward to Vietnam.
I did see monkeys twice on my first day in the jungle. There was a pack of them running along on the side of the road in the morning. My motorcycle driver paused so I could check them out.
Then, at the end of the day, after sunrise, a monkey showed up outside the front gate of Angkor Wat as I was leaving to strike poses on top of a statue.
Most of the last three days have been hiking amid the temple ruins, but there were some odd diversions - yesterday, my driver was keen to take me to an army base (at least I hope it was an army base) where I could shoot a gun. I was feeling agreeable, so we went, and a Cambodian guy handed me an M-16, showed me how to hold it, popped in a cartridge of bullets and left me to fire away at a bunch of old tires until I ran out.
Pretty surreal experience. He was trying to talk me into spending $120 for several rounds with this new shiny supermachinegun they had. Nobody seems to realize that, while I have more money than anyone they know, I'm still not *that* rich. Some nine year old girls at a small lunch stand yesterday extracted promises from me to bring them two bicycles, a football, and new shoes on Sunday. (I guess they were trying to be reasonable by giving me a few days to put the whole package together.)
The guy at the firing range also tried to sell me on a rocket launcher, but we never got down to discussing a price on that one.
I'm trying to decide my next move. There's only one travel agent who sells bus tickets to the next place I wanted to go (south, to Kampot and Bokor Hill National Park), and I couldn't find them today. So I'm tempted to head straight into Vietnam from here, although I'm a little ahead of schedule right now, and I did want to see one more place in Cambodia before I left. Not sure what to do. (I could use this extra time for Malaysia at the end of the trip, but I've never actually thought of any reason to go to Malaysia.)
The heat is exhausting, but I'm all right. I need to do some laundry quite urgently. In Bangkok, they'd do 1kg for about 75 cents. I'm not sure what it is here. I bought new shorts and some t-shirts in Bangkok, but have yet to find anyone anywhere, even in the depths of the pirate-knockoff market stalls, that sells shoes in my size. People see my feet and gape. It's a universal human reaction.
My visa won't be ready until tomorrow afternoon, so I have to wait for the Sunday morning bus. Found out later that the elections are being held here on Sunday morning, so I was glad I'd decided to leave - developing countries can get a little weird after elections.
I sat down with the intent of making this a longer email, but this must be the worst Cambodian internet cafe yet. I think the four Windows 98 computers in here must be splitting a dial-up connection. (On the plus side, it's 50 cents an hour.)
So today I went to the Khmer Rouge sites - the prison-museum, and the killing fields - and I'm done with sights in Phnom Penh, but I have one more day here. Not sure what to do. I could use a day out of the sun, I guess. I read something about a pool, so I might go there.
(ED: I did not wind up going to said pool.)
I don't think I mentioned this - so, to get around in Cambodia, you generally flag someone down (or, if you're foreign, they flag you), agree on a price and hop on back of their motorbike. Once they've got you, they'd like to be your personal driver for the day - there are way, way, way more of them than there are tourists, and they can go hours between 'fares' - so it takes a bit of work to shake them off
In my case especially, being a young white guy by himself, they want to get me to a club / 'dance show' / 'massage'. So I've taken to telling everyone that my girlfriend IS with me, but she's (insert activity off the top of my head) right now. They get sad for a moment (one asked to see a picture), and then the light goes off in their head that they could lay down today's fare to borrow the cart (hitches to the back of the cycle, can hold two tourists) from their friend, and then they really excitedly begin proposing full-day itineraries for the next day. I then disappoint them by noting that my girlfriend has already made a plan and reserved a driver but I don't know how much it is...which leaves them at an impasse for future negotiations (although the guy today said he'd be parked outside the hotel all morning tomorrow morning just in case, meaning I need to buy a gorilla mask when I leave tomorrow).
Speaking of monkeys. Remind me to tell you about the one who stole my Coke.
I'm ending each day exhausted. I hope that means I'm making the most of this.
June 3, 2010
If today is rotten, then I will talk about yesterday. Here's another travelogue, pieced together from emails to various recipients in spring 2007, when I was in Thailand.
I'm in Bangkok. I arrived last night around 1am, and it was 83 degrees outside. Mercifully, it rained early this morning, but the temperature is on the way back up. I am going to be an expert on sweat.
Wish you were here. I'm staying around the corner from the famed Khao San Road, which was a gibbering backpacker chaos at 2am (when I showed up). My backpacks are way, way smaller than anyone else's. It would be good to have you along - not only for the company, but also because probably fewer Thai dudes would be asking me if I wan' lady, boom-boom? (Probably.)
Best pad thai I've ever had, for breakfast: seventy-five cents. Also, there is to be a t-shirt buying frenzy at some point. Among the best shirts I've ever seen for $3-$5.
Still having a good time, although I was probably on the verge of heat stroke yesterday. Bottled water is cheap; I've gone through a ton of it. I meant to take a taxi from my guesthouse to the Grand Palace but, in the process of trying to get clear from the taxi touts who hang out by the guesthouses, accidentally found myself halfway there. So I walked the rest of the way.
I wound up in the National Museum first, which was probably a mistake. It was reasonably interesting (and gigantic - like twenty buildings), but the heat was increasing, and I was already starting to get worn out by the time I finished there.
An amusing phenomenon, as long as you know about it in advance: there are guys who hang out a couple blocks from every major tourist attraction, and they try to start a friendly conversation ("Hey, where are you from?") and then ask where you're going, and then tell you it's closed today (I heard "today is a Buddhist holiday" three times, "the monks need to pray in the morning" once, "your clothes not right" once, and total gibberish to the effect that only Thais could go in once, and a few more who I just ignored), but they could take you on a sightseeing tour...and if you agree, you wind up going to a minor temple somewhere and then to a shop (silk, tailor, jewelry) that has paid them a commission to bring you in. I'd read about it in advance, so it wasn't any bother, just kind of ridiculous. Are they not aware of each other?
The bit about my clothes did have an element of truth, although not in the way the guy meant it - at the Grand Palace, they supply you with long nylon sweatpants to pull over your shorts. Apparently, shorts are disrespectful, but nylon sweatpants are devout. I felt hyper-gross by the time I finished walking around there.
Saw a temple called Wat Pho yesterday afternoon, which has the world's largest reclining Buddha. It's gold, and it was indeed rather large. Probably longer than the one in Nara, although the one in Nara seemed thicker and heavier.
The temple itself was massive, lots of fascinating little statues and giant, basically un-photograph-able structures. (I tried, anyway.) Also took a long boat ride through the canals, with all of those river houses on stilts - some elegant, some barely standing.
Chase strives to piss me off. I'm in Bangkok right now. Last night, from the airport, I withdrew 4000 Baht (which Chase exchanged as $118.29 plus a $3 service charge). I needed to make another withdrawal tonight, but suddenly I can't access my account. (Each of the different Thai bank ATMs gives a slightly different oblique explanation).
I'm assuming this was some stupid fraud flag they threw up. (One withdrawal from Thailand? That's normal. Two withdrawals from Thailand? That's obviously fraud.) Chase Online isn't any help. Please call them (1-800-935-9935 said the site) and ask them why I can't access my account. (The account number is at the bottom of my checks.) If they need information for verification, email me back and let me know what they want. If you can find a tactful way to express that they've really pissed off their customer, you might do that, too, but only after account access has been restored...
Thanks. (Was having a good time until this.)
Sorted. The guy at this internet cafe let me use his phone. Being one of the few white guys who's speaking Thai has its advantages. The Chase guy was a bit of a pissant, and I was none too thrilled about announcing my debit card number, last-four-digits, etc out loud in a public internet cafe, but it's done now. I had to complete the call within six minutes - we agreed 10 baht / minute, and I was down to my last 60 baht - and got it done in three. I had to give the Chase guy the exact date I'm returning to the USA. Never had to do this with Japan, but I guess they don't consider that a high fraud-risk country.
Anyway, back to having fun!
By the way, if you wan' lady boom-boom, I've already met about two hundred guys who would like nothing more than to provide directions to said lady (and corresponding boom-boom). There are, it must be said, certain differences between Evanston and Bangkok.
Today, I'm going to go shopping - see if I can find some new shoes, maybe some new shorts and pants - and then tomorrow I'll probably take off for Lopburi, where I expect I can see some monkeys. Needless to say, exciting.
(ED: In fact, I went to the Bridge on the River Kwai in Kanchanaburi instead, and then to the Tiger Temple, but don't appear to have mentioned it in any emails.)
I had a minor crisis two nights ago, when my bank suddenly put a freeze on my checking account. One withdrawal from Thailand (made at the airport) was cool, as far as they were concerned, but two meant fraud. So I had to get my mother to call them to confirm that's what they did, and then make an international call to tell them to take off the hold. It wasn't a major crisis - I have plenty of US dollars that I'm saving for later in the trip - but still, being in a foreign country with no money is one of those experiences...
I spent the morning training at a muay thai (Thai boxing) gym. I can barely lift my arms, but they don't have to go too far to hit the keys.
There are Family Marts in Bangkok. They have no Crunky ice cream, though.
I went bowling at the mall and although I only hovered around a 150, the whole place was in awe of me. Apparently, nobody in Thailand ever breaks 100.
Out of time on this machine. Hope to hear from you soon.
June 2, 2010
Here's another entry I started writing months ago, using bits of letters home from travels even longer ago (September 2004, to be precise). Just scraps, not a complete chronicle or anything, but I enjoyed digging these out of emails and setting them to pictures. Most of what I wrote during that trip was lost — I only have what was quoted in people's replies back to me, which is sort of apropos.
Tomorrow evening I board the train for three days (!!!), the longest continuous portion of the trip, and then I'll be in Irkutsk. I'm not sure if I'll be able to check email during the next stretch. I'll be in Siberia, after all. Is Siberia still Siberia if you can check your email there?
On the train (in retrospect)
I shared a train carriage with a huge military guy named Nikolai. I was alone for the first couple of hours after we left Vladivostok, and had fallen asleep by the time he came aboard. I think I gave him a sleepy hello in Russian and went back to sleep, because my first thought after I woke up was whether he was going to expect me to speak in Russian the whole time, which I obviously could not do. But he knew right away that I was a foreigner. I've noticed tourism professionals can spot that right away, and so can anybody else if they pay close attention, but random people on the street who need directions think I know my way around and know it in Russian.
Anyway, Nikolai had a big knife that could gut a man quite easily, but was shy about not knowing much English. I believe he had completed some military maneuvers and was now on his way home to see his family, although I am not positive. He showed me photos of a hunting expedition, and was keen to critique the photos I took with my digital camera (very positive and encouraging, though occasionally puzzled by my choice of subjects, particularly signs at train stations).
Nikolai was eager to share his food, and he had more food than I did, so that was quite generous. I hate tomatoes, but fucked if I didn't eat a whole tomato for breakfast every morning and it tasted right every time. Also a hard-boiled egg, and salt. That is the Russian breakfast, as far as I can tell. I couldn't get Nikolai to try the Kasugai Peas that I have been toting around since Kyoto, but you know what those look like, you can hardly blame him. At some of these remote Siberian towns (and they're all remote), old babushkas crowd on the station platforms to sell food they've cooked to train passengers. This was even more awesome than it sounds. I bought loads. Nikolai was grateful for the bread, but seemed to be discouraging me to eat any of this sack of potato stew that I bought. I didn't press the issue, so most of it got thrown out. I had no idea what was in the stew, just that there didn't appear to be any meat.
Yesterday, Nikolai admitted that the day before had been his birthday and that he hadn't had a birthday party for 12 years (I think I had that correctly — I am solid on Russian numbers), so I made something of a ruckus, singing and all, and reluctantly shared a beer with him (he really wanted to share a beer, as I'd already declined vodka). I found the beer gross, but it was probably fine. Just before the sun was down, we stopped for a couple minutes in a mid-sized town (by Siberian standards), so I sprinted into the station house and bought a huge bottle of fizzy orange booze (to forestall any further offers of beer) and ice cream to share. Nikolai was immensely touched and left the carriage for a moment. When he came back, he had what looked like pound cake, and was very proud to offer me a slice. (If I understood correctly, he got it from the provodnitsa.) I thought, excellent, I will enjoy pound cake with this ice cream. Actually, it was some kind of raw flesh. I can imagine how it was meant to be a delicacy, definitely, but it was the most horrible thing I have ever eaten. After the first bite, I did the old rest-into-the-napkin trick and excused myself to the bathroom. (The toilet opens directly over the tracks. Now it's food for the tigers.)
Once we were drunk — or, let's face it, this was a huge Russian guy, so once I was drunk and he was still fine — he was ready to talk about politics.
(There's more to that story, but the email didn't have the rest of it. Basically, we took turns rating presidents and premiers. Later, we had another passenger take our photo, but that memory card got lost later on the trip.)
When I left the train today he shook my hand enthusiastically and made me promise to email him sometime. Good man.
I am just disembarked from three consecutive days on the train and am feeling a touch of motion sickness but am otherwise fine. I walked past a 300+ year old wooden building today (in Irkutsk) with 'BECHAM FOREVER' graffiti'd on the side. Which was, you know, not exactly what I expected to see.
Have not been let down by the Lenin statues, though, let me tell you.
Am sorry to hear that the appetite for revolutionary fervor back at the office is going unmet without me. I have purchased a train ticket for one of the Lenin statues and am sending him over on the next train. He is not a Native Speaker but he looks kinda European, hopefully you can pass him off.
So, yesterday was pretty fun. I walked for absolutely ages and my legs are a bit sore but ready to do the same today. I! didn't! get! lost! despite covering vast swathes of ground on foot. (I did take one subway ride and it was undescribably cool.)
I think the pictures — of which there are gobs — will probably only be of interest to me, but I'm excited as hell to see them. I love sculptures, and I have what I guess is an odd interest in cemeteries: just walking around in the stillness, the quiet and the melancholy (but not weepy) mood. I found this Soviet cemetery (a few famous people: writer Chekhov, director Eisenstein, premier Khruschev, others)...
...that was huge, slightly overgrown with trees and just had the most unbelievable statues and designs, such incredible character and range of expression. I was dizzy with discovery. So I think anyone who sees those pictures will be interested in the first few but will begin to think it odd somewhere in the 20s and by the time the collection passes the hundred mark they'll be asking to skip...but there were just so many interesting ones.
Anyway, I also wandered into a Russian Orthodox religious convent, saw some churches and domes, tried to go to the Tolstoy Estate Museum ("closed on the last Friday of every month", I learned) and spent ages in a museum with an immense collection of Russian art from 1900 to the present. (Fantastic, but it just kept going! I had to skim everything from 1970 onwards because I couldn't handle any more.) Then I hit Gorky Park and came across a Sculptures Garden, a nice aimless park with statues of people the Russians don't like any more (i.e. Stalin) and sort of whimsical modern work as a counterpoint, also some playgrounds for kids.
Still in Moscow
I'm back and weary from another long day on the streets of Moscow. The day started out on a failure: I left the hotel way too late and meandered about trying to get my bearings around the Kremlin, so it didn't seem likely that I'd make it in to Lenin before he closed shop for the day (1pm).
I hastily constructed a completely new itinerary for the day. It took a while to stop feeling like a screw-up for messing up the Lenin visit, but I did some cool stuff: a river cruise, a cosmonaut museum and this gigantic (2km by 1km) old Soviet expo center. Lots of random, atmospheric discoveries. And I bought a new watch! It has a submarine on it. Hot diggity.
So, tomorrow has a lot of pressure on it: I need to get in to see Lenin. I don't want to say the trip will be a failure if I don't, but it will. Just before midnight my train leaves for St Petersburg, arriving around 8am. Nifty timing. I'll probably check in by email before departure, though.
Still in Moscow
I saw two very exciting things in Moscow today.
1. A man named Lenin, who founded Soviet communism;
2. A monkey named Anastasia, who has been in many magazine advertisements. She had her press clippings with her, and she would pose in a photo with you for $3. (No photos for free. This point was not left ambiguous by her manager.) I felt like I was meeting royalty. There's just a level of class in these Moscow showbiz monkeys that, say, Vladivostok showbiz monkeys simply cannot match.
Rubbish, right? Hope all is well. Obviously I am a profoundly changed man for those meetings, though only time will tell exactly how.
I'm about to charge out for the last day of this long odyssey. Actually, I'm not feeling very well. It was cold and rainy (sunny in the afternoon) yesterday, and I was out for a very long time. I probably have a head cold, but not a bad one, hopefully it'll clear up soon enough.
I'll spend most of the day at the Hermitage and most of the night in disbelief that I'll spend the next morning on an airplane.
Anything's OK for Friday. I think I am going to have to buy some new socks at some point, though.
I woke up in a strange place is the work of Marc Heiden, born in 1978, author of two books (Chicago, Hiroshima) and some plays, and an occasional photographer.
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Written by Marc Heiden, 1997-2011.