let’s be inappropriate

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about clothing choices for southeast Asia. Starting back in the planning stages of my trip, and ongoing throughout each country. I read numerous blogs on the subject and pondered the matter over the course of the several weeks as I was putting together my gear. Ultimately I decided to pack conservative clothing and purchase new items as needed upon arrival. I just didn’t feel comfortable wearing clothing that yes, may be acceptable in America, but is considered offensive in these conservative and highly religious countries.

My first few days after arriving I was miserable. I literally had a constant sheen of sweat over my entire body, my skin appeared diseased from the little bubbles of sweat that couldn’t escape, which in turn started a long process of my skin peeling. Heat rash is not a ideal thing, and I quickly invested in Prickly Heat, which smells funky but is so effective at keeping sensitive areas dry. So yeah, I wanted to ditch my t-shirts and trousers and even my flowy top in favor of camisoles and shorts. And as I started noticing the clothing of the women around me I thought everyone else is wearing tank tops and stuff! I was tempted to follow suit. Throughout my entire trip I have seen very few female tourists not decked out in tanks and mid-thigh shorts. One girl with whom I shared a taxi was wearing boy-short-underwear length shorts. You could literally see her butt cheeks, and she felt like this was okay. In Myanmar. Attractiveness (I guess?) and comfort over respect and sensitivity, right? Anyways, it’s definitely the standard. But then I started paying attention to the local women. In a few cities, Bangkok comes to mind, there are locals in tank tops or shorts, or even sheer tops. But by far in the majority of places you will never catch sight of a native women’s shoulders, and rarely above her knees. So this is ultimately what I aligned myself with.

Sure, I could get away with scantier clothing. No one would say anything to me except at temples where I’d need a shawl or something. But, I would argue that…no one would say anything to me. It is my belief that the locals are far more comfortable approaching a foreign woman who is modestly dressed, than they would be to approach a woman wearing clothing that isn’t acceptable in their culture. It makes sense to me. And I’ve also had conversations with random strangers where I get the impression they haven’t interacted before with many foreigners. To westerners I doubt whether I stand out much. But I’ve been paying close attention, and really, I do stand out hugely from the majority of women. I’m okay with this distinction. It requires a modicum of extra discomfort, but I think it more than pays off. I’m happy to refrain from offending the people, and I’m also very happy to have the small interactions I have with people here and there. I like keeping my opportunities as open as possible.

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superfluous on demand

Back in December when I was last in Florida, I wrote a check for $2,000 to my parents. This was the money I owed them from what they had spent on Varekai (my house). A few weeks later I received a call from my dad informing me that, after much thought, he had torn up my check. “And here’s why,” he said “I just don’t think a couple thousand dollars means as much to me as it does to you. So keep it and use it on something special.” Which, I was obviously so blown away by. I had very intentionally planned to build that house on every penny of my own money. Maybe it was a pride thing, I dunno, I didn’t want help; I wanted to do it myself. But, after some thought, I accepted my parents decision to contribute that $2,000 because, like my father, I think some things have more value than their price tag.

That money was destined to the black hole that is my bank account – destined to be saved and largely untouched for years (until the opportunity to purchase a plane ticket comes along). Despite the fact I was instructed to use it for something special. I guess, in my mind, life is pretty special. Just cooking dinner with my roommate is a special occasion to me, or going to a cafe with a book and having a cup of tea, or renting a movie for pizza movie night – it’s all part of the extraordinary web of this existence…so, black hole is where my money goes. To be used on small, insignificant, daily getting-bys.

However, this lifelong habit of anti-spending encountered a window of opportunity. Upon docking in Koh Tao, I found myself in the superlatively optimal situation to learn scuba diving. It cost so much more money than I would normally be willing to spend. I’m surprised, really, that I even entertained the idea. But I did. And I remembered that $2,000. Maybe I would take my father’s advice and do something I wouldn’t normally do. So I did. I spent $400 on getting my open water and subsequently my advanced open water certifications. I traded $400 for an incomparable and ultra amazing week of exploring the world contained within our earth’s enchanting ocean. It was amazing.

Later, in Vietnam, I was gripped with the desire to participate in a two day cave tour, also a spendy adventure. Realistically, it would complicate my itinerary and equally havoc my bank account. But the prospect of trekking through the jungle and camping in a cave were dancing through my mind. I thought again about that unexpected money in my possession. So for $300 I was able to explore the jungles of Vietnam and sleep in the magnificent Hang En cave, third largest cave in the world. Those two days were unequivocally among the best experiences of my life.

At this point I thought: what if I do something I normally wouldn’t in every country? I had also spent several nights in this exceptional tree hut bungalow on the calm white beach of Otres II in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. While its bill didn’t come close to the hundreds of dollars from the diving and caving, it was a luxury of an accomodation. A splurge, if you will. And there I spent some of the most relaxing, free of expectation and obligation, contemplative days. That travel brochure worthy tree hut provided the perfect backdrop for my full-being-reordering.

Wandering the night market of lovely Luang Prabang I encountered so many interesting foods I wanted to sample. I decided to have a night market feast and try all of the things that caught my attention. This one is funny, because while I ate everything my continually-shrinking-stomach could handle, I only spent about five bucks. Which, is still something I would never have done when I could’ve gotten by on $1-2 for a decent meal and a few new dishes.

Myanmar didn’t immediately have anything that stuck out to me as something that I would like to do, but was exorbitantly costly. It kind of came out of nowhere, the decision to have an upscale dinner. This whole trip (ahemmywholelife) I’ve favoured street food with the absolute belief that the fare was far more worth my time. But, why not actually test that theory? I found the least obscenely extravagant, but still upscale restaurant I could and had a fancy five course meal for $15. The whole experience was definitely a standout from the rest of my clearly budget trip. I was able to try a week’s worth of traditional Burmese dishes in one excellently constructed and attractively presented meal.

I didn’t use all $2,000 (more like $750ish). But I did get more than my typical money’s worth during this trip. I still hold that you can have a stellar, meaningful, life changing travel experience on the tightest of budgets. But I definitely concede that money will provide you some things that your thriftiness just can’t afford. I enjoy budget travel more, I suspect, than I would enjoy luxury travel. But it has been fantastic having these bonus adventures.

So, all of this just to say a really huge thank you to my ever generous parents. I had some of the coolest and most incredible experiences from that check you refused to cash. Thanks for always being a sponsor for my life, whether that comes in the form of money, time, moral support, manual labor, advice, encouragement, putting up with sprawling and never-ending projects, coping with having an unusually-minded and admittedly stress-inducing daughter…I appreciate it immensely. I’m grateful for you, and I’m grateful to you. And I’m so excited about the exact life I get to live, in part because of your steadfast support, even when you don’t agree with my decisions (i.e. dropping out of university, hitchhiking, moving to the complete opposite corner of the country…) I think so often it goes unacknowledged, but it absolutely doesn’t go unnoticed. Parents have a certain role to perform, but you guys carry it exceptionally well. I couldn’t imagine a better set of parents, and I wouldn’t want them if they existed. You guys are just right. I love you immensely.

Thank you. 

agoraphilia 

It’s 5:30 in the evening, just past the heat of day, and I am strolling down Chiang Mai’s Wua Lai road. A few flashbulbs of lightning and a few explosions of thunder politely preceded the current state of sprinkling rain. While I do enjoy a good walk in the rain, that is not my current purpose – I have expensive electronics in my pockets, some which can take a nose dive off a waterfall and survive, but others which, decidedly, cannot.

No, the reason I am out tonight is to peruse another of a diverse smattering of markets I’ve been to in these past months. I love markets. I love them. It doesn’t matter how many I’ve been to, I am always exuberant about the prospect of a new one. Some of them are unimpressive and don’t beg for a return, but mostly they are such a pleasant way to spend an evening. Or morning. Or afternoon. 

I like arriving while the sellers are still in the midst of setting things up. Men meticulously lining hundreds of tiny silver and gold statues just so. Women gently folding soft, beautiful pashminas. Young girls helping to lay out colorful and loudly patterned elephants, giraffes, and monkeys. Young artists displaying their thin canvases of extraordinary paintings, and eventually settling ever so casually to paint several more over the course of the evening as easily as if they were merely writing their name. Anyone working at a food stand will occasionally be seen chewing contentedly, no inhibitions about sampling their product in front of customers. Usually the market scene seems a very social event. Everyone chatting to their neighbor, or flat out abandoning their stall to go giggle over some recent happening with a friend. 

There is a lot of repetition and similarities with items across cities and countries. Soda and beer cans repurposed into planes and automobiles; bamboo iPod speakers; plush elephants which I swear are all the same; simplistic and vibrant paintings of monks; the never ending parade of elephant pants. But without fail there are always new and fascinating handiworks and clever inventions. I rarely buy anything other than food, but I like just seeing everything. And as for foods, I am becoming more and more of the mindset that if I have no idea what it is, I’ll have one, please. 

I love when the day goes dark and all of the stalls with their different lights glow, reflecting the billions of colors and shiny, dangling objects contained on the rows and rows of tarps. 

The noises are more pronounced, too, with the awakening of the night. The first thing you notice is the human factor: the approach and retreat of conversations in at least twenty languages; oohing and ahhing over trinkets and displays; a constant stream of bubbling laughter; the shuffling of feet; the whole spectrum of haggling, from quietly timid to loudly insistent, and usually in a broken and lilting English on either side; the beautiful and sad music played by mostly handicapped musicians. The sizzling oil of hundreds of cooking dishes; the scraping of woks; the whirring blades of overworked blenders liquifying mountains of fruit and ice (and sugar, let’s be honest). Chimes and bells and whistles performing their little sounds in the hopes of being taken home. The clinking of coins as they change hands. All of this is gently folded into the mix of preexisting city sounds: the armies of motorbikes; the gangs of tuk-tuks; the rapidly filling bars; the crowded plastic tables at the usual suspects of the street food scene; and ordinary people going about their usual lives. 

The aromas come layered in surprisingly distinct waves: strong soaps, usually made to resemble fruits in this part of the world; smoky meats accompanied by a fiery heat that reaches you just moments after the scent; pungent jackfruit prevailing over the other fruits at the numerous shake stalls, usually some rotting rubbish odors making an appearance here and there, sweet crepes and roti that tug temptingly at every sugar addicted cell in your being, heavy clouds of jasminey incense, spice saturated noodle stalls, human perspiration and perfume. Normally I’d find such a cacophony of scents overwhelming and offensive, but in this setting it somehow completes the atmosphere. 

I love that here, if nowhere else, people take the time to stop their motion and really look at things. That is so rare these days. It isn’t conducive to efficient and flowing walking patterns, but then markets aren’t for the hurried. It’s like a lively museum of things you can own for very little money, and where you are allowed to actually touch things and interact with your surroundings.
I always walk through at least twice. Once to take everything in, and again to actually make my carefully calculated purchases. A noodle dish here, a new or favorite sweet there, a tiny sample of juice from some fruit I’ve never heard of before…
Despite my propensity to be overwhelmed and overstimulated, I love the muchness of the market scene. It is a perfect immersion for my usually quiet self. And it remains one of my favorite ways to interact with a city.

losting and founding

Today the fatigue of traveling finally hit me in its many forms. I’ve been on the road for just over a month now, and so far my being has been able to keep pace with my body. I’m not sure why today was the day to crack up around the edges, but here I am in all of my worn and frayed splendor.

I have finally reached a point where the breakdown doesn’t bring about worry or frustration. I’ve realized by now that this is an unavoidable aspect of traveling for a long length of time. It simply requires a period of rest, of allowing your mind to unravel itself from its chaotic state, allowing your emotions to finish their teetering and balance calmly, and letting your body shed its literal and metaphorical weight. You just have to stop moving and breathe in some normalcy. 

I am serendipitously in an absolutely perfect place for just such a moment. I reached Sihanoukville on the coast of Cambodia a few days ago, and I’m staying in a travel brochure worthy tree hut perched on Otres beach. The heat of the landlocked north has dissipated and been replaced by the loveliest salty ocean breeze. The sound of the sea just fills all of the little spaces in your body. 

This evening’s sunset was the subtle catalyst for my reordering. I was walking north on the beach and just happened upon the close of day. It was a magnificent one – vivid pinks and muddled purples stretching wide against the darkening sky, and the gold of the sun brushing against the heavily wave filled sea. I walked into it for ages, and finally just stopped and let it all unfurl around my still being. My capacity for marvel at these non-exceptional moments of nature never fails to amaze me. 

When I was finally able to rouse myself and head back, there was a big night out preparing to commence. I knew my participation would not be happening. I felt quiet. And I wanted to hold on to that and let it run its course without jaunting it into the background of my overburdened self. 

The evening that has ensued has been unspectacularly perfect. I hadn’t eaten all day, but I was too afraid to ask for food at this hour from the Slovakian barman whom I had come to view as perpetually annoyed. In the end, I decided tea was no harm and would provide more sustenance than any other beverage. The Slovakian barman offered a whole pot, and I accepted. When I clarified I only required one mug, he raised his eyebrows. I shyly explained about how it was constituting my dinner, and all of the sudden he lost his perpetually annoyed demeanor, or perhaps it was only my perception of such. We henceforth shared a pleasant exchange and I came to quite like this large Slovakian barman.

After nourishing myself with tea, I sought out solitude. I spent what may have been hours wading knee deep in the ocean and singing in the darkness, the waves drowning out my voice. I sat very still for some time. I listened to what few songs I have access to for the first time in a month, and that sparked a dance party in the ocean beneath the final-night-before-the-full-moon. There may have been passersby, or perhaps onlookers from their bungalows, but I wasn’t too bothered. Sometimes dance is release, and in that moment that is what I needed. I crawled up into my tree hut and dangled my legs over the edge, still in sight of the moon sprawled across the ocean, the waves crashing toward shore still the only noise reaching my ears. And I began to write words that were welling up in me, ready to be ordered and solidified. 

And that is how my small fractures were filled, how my weary form found rejuvenation. There is no formula, but solitude, creativity, time, and intentionality feature strongly. Sometimes life demands its own satisfaction. I feel free to conquer again.

a spectrum of dust spluttered orange

Our guest house provided breakfast and tea, which caused me great happiness every morning. My baguette and fried egg kept me going all day. My group of travelers from various continents learned quickly to just say no to the butter. All of the butter I’ve tried here has this weird vanilla flavor to it. It’s not exactly complimentary to most foods. In addition to complementary breakfast, Blossoming Romdoul provided free bikes. So I took off with Izzy and Milly by bike. I don’t think I’ve ever toured a city by bicycle before; its thoroughly pleasant! It was certainly quicker and cooler than walking. We headed towards a pottery place I had heard about, but sadly after the first two landmarks in the sequence of three, my mind blanked. We couldn’t find it, and so we turned back. Izzy and I kept exploring, but Milly chose to remain at the guesthouse. We got some much needed frozen refreshment in the form of smoothies. We biked by the river, explored a temple, I got a new SIM card.   After we all regrouped in the evening we laid claim to the not-yet-opened rooftop bar. Jake and his friend Jay who had arrived in town that day left to get pizza for everyone. Some of the group partook in ‘happy’ pizza, some of us partook in unhappy, but still delicious pizza. Sue led the girls in a session of yoga/mum thai/expressiveness/dance. We shouted and danced high above the city; releasing our selves and harnessing the universe.

After having a day to recuperate from the exhausting border crossing we tackled the massiveness that is Angkor Wat. More on that in a separate post. After Angkor Wat we needed another recuperation day. I spent mine cycling around more, writing postcards, and hanging in hammocks listening to Sue and Jake jam on their porch.

on ephemeral family and fortune

The journey from Koh Tao to Cambodia was so very long. I was smelly, sleep deprived, and worn out. If I was the border control, I probably wouldn’t have let me in.

I made the train from Bangkok to the border with less than two minutes to spare. The second my train from Chumpon was mostly stopped I jumped off and ran for the ticket counter. Unfortunately I did a superb job of spending my baht, as had been my intention. Therefore I was twenty baht short of my ticket, and they wouldn’t accept my credit card. I think they could see how flustered I was, because they told me to skip the atm and just get my ticket on the train. I readily agreed to this and ran to my train. It started moving almost immediately after I jumped onto the closest car. This is when it occurred to me that I still don’t have enough baht for a ticket, and there is definitely not an atm on the train. Oh well! I followed my orders. The ticket officer wasn’t quite sure what to do either, but he made a sort of ‘I’ll get back to you’ gesture and never approached me again. I spent a lot of time considering my options, as I saw it there were three. 1) not pay for a ticket. The journey was several hours and I’m not sure he even remembered about me. 2) hop off at a station and use the atm there. Only, it seemed completley random whether we stopped for five minutes or only twenty seconds. 3) ask to borrow money from another passenger and pay them back at the end of the trip. I entertained this debate for four-fifths of the trip (with the exclusion of option 1 – I’m just not that person). I finally decided on option three and asked the guy reading an English book a few seats away. He agreed to help and I promised to pay him back as soon as we reached the station. He didn’t ultimately accept the money I owed him (fair enough, it’s less than $1, and I would have done the same) and instead hurried off to the border.

Which I did too, as soon as I got money out for a tuk-tuk. On a whim I got out four hundred baht instead of just the one hundred I would need. This proved an extremely fortunate decision a few hours later. It was at the border that I noticed the passport number on my e-visa was wrong. I had checked the accuracy of my information at least five times. I know it wasn’t my fault, but why hadn’t I thought to check the finished product when they sent it? Ehhhh. I reserved myself to an extra $20 and maybe an additional hour of time for another visa, but I stood in line at immigration anyway, just to see what would happen. Standing in line I heard a ‘hey fellow Australian!’, but didn’t respond, obviously. Then again. I looked up and this totally cool hippieish couple was looking at me expectantly. I explained that I was sadly not Aussie, but we had a nice conversation anyways. I shared my visa dilemma, and they had me share my intended accomodation ($2.50 per night!) with a few British women up ahead. They all got through ahead of me, but finally it was my turn. I had decided to wait and play either the What? It’s incorrect?! Inconceivable! or the I know, I sent an email as soon as I noticed (I had…moments before…in line). Is there nothing I can do? card, depending on how things went down. As it turns out, they just don’t look that closely. Or they don’t care. Or it was my lucky day. Anyways, they fingerprinted me and I walked into Cambodia. The bus was just leaving and a uniformed man stopped it for me. My Australian and British comrades were on there and we all shared a big sigh of relief of completion. Unbeknownst to me, this would become my family for the entirety of my stay in Cambodia.

At the official transit center they had a currency exchange, but no atm. Fortunately I had exactly 300 baht (from earlier, if you recall), which is precisely how much the bus to Siem Reap cost. Once there, we divided into two tuk-tuks. Out of pure fatigue we had all decided to go to the same place for the night, despite it being a bit more expensive. Unfortunately Sue and Jake (the Aussies) had the name of the guest house and…there went their tuk-tuk. Follow that tuk-tuk! We cried passionately. Our driver wasn’t on his game, and we lost them before we even started moving. It was…a situation. There were issues of paying for the tuk-tuk, Claire and her daughters, Izzy and Milly, (the Brits) owed Sue and Jake something like 400,000 riel, we had no contact information for them, and all we knew was the word ‘blossom’. Our driver took us…somewhere. It was cityish. I ended up paying with some emergency American dollars I had brought. Which, to my utter surprise, is the main currency in Cambodia. Who knew? We found the nearest cafe and all peered into our iPhones and tablets to get our bearings. I found a Blossoming Romdoul Lodge only a ten minute walk from our location. Izzy called and asked if they had rooms available, they did, and off we went. Thankfully, while checking in we heard some familiar friendly Australian voices. Yatta! We had all made it into the country, to our intended city, and we had a place to sleep. What a great feeling that is! Now just a shower and some food and life would be perfect. Which is exactly what went down.

Our guest house was so lovely. Nice rooms, the friendliest staff, a beautiful courtyard, and good food. It even had one of the wildly popular fish ponds where you can submerge your feet and have the fish nibble off all of your dead skin. Most places charge like $2 per thirty minutes, so with all of the time I spent feeding the fish with my grubby path-worn feet, I figure I got more than my money’s worth from my room. Not that I would ever pay to put my feet in a fish aquarium, but still. We all ended up staying there for the duration of our time in Siem Reap because we were so pleased with it. Despite being worn out, after dinner Sue, Jake, and I took a stroll through the night market. The knowledge that good sleep is within grasp is ever so energizing.