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.

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. 

forays in incongruency

My final day in Myanmar was a challenge in stomach capacity. After a small tea and toast breakfast at Myint Myat, I went for second breakfast at a tea shop called Lucky Seven. Here I tried the famous Mohinga, as well as a couple of bean paste steamed buns. I love steamed buns. The first few times I had them I was unimpressed. But I love how soft and fluffy they are, how the bread sticks a little to your teeth, and how they just smoosh ever so satisfyingly when you bite into them. P5242436_iiI would return to Lucky Seven later with the Canadian sharing my dorm. I had a Myanmar tea, and she had her first proper Myanmar meal. We walked down to the market afterwards and wandered the streets there. We found a Biryani place I had heard about and stopped in. It was superbly flavorful. When we went to leave, however, the rain that had been forecast had finally arrived. A few hours late, but compensating with its intensity. Molly agreed that making a run for it was the best option. We were about twenty minutes from the guesthouse, so when we finally arrived, we were both well soaked. I knew this was bad. My trousers, as great as they’ve been, do not dry quickly. True enough, they would remain wet until after I arrived in Bangkok.

Green Elephant is the fancy restaurant I chose. I went with the degustation menu, which allows you to choose from several options for appetizers, soups, salads, vegetables, curries, and desserts. I had spring rolls, tangy Myanmar soup, herbal leaf salad, tempura tofu with bean sprouts, pork curry with lentil rice, and banana fritters with honey. Every item was excellent. I really love the spices here. And I was very impressed with my meal. Although, I have to say, I get exactly as much enjoyment out of my street carts or tiny cafes as I did at this fancy establishment. I’m glad I had this experience. But in general, it just isn’t worth it for me to live extravagantly. I’m satisfied with very simple things.

But after my lavish meal, just as the security officer was arm-raising-ready-to-signal-a-cab for me, I removed my glass slippers, abandoned the ball, and discarded my pretense of sophistication. It was 9pm in Yangon, and I would walk the seven kilometers back to the guesthouse. It was an interesting walk. The area I was in was Naplesesque – designed for the wealth laden. So walking south became progressively more and more grungy, and additionally changed from this strange, impersonal facade, to a very three-dimensional atmosphere of liveliness. I’m definitely more comfortable staying among the impoverished than the wealthy. I was glad to be back home.

leaves painted like miracles

While not the loveliest place as viewed from the window of an airplane, Yangon becomes charming once firmly rooted in its calmer-than-other-places-in-Asia streets. I arrived in the evening to a barrage of seemingly fourteen-year-olds with keys inquiring did I want a taxi? I have a routine with this. I absolutely refuse to be hassled into one of these rides upon arrival in a place. So I shake my head firmly until I clear the insistent crowd, give myself ten minutes to get my bearings, and then make a decision from there. Usually I ignore that crowd of hustlers in favor of the almost always cheaper lifts a street or two away, or sometimes I return, with a clear head, and insist on a non-outrageous price. I wasn’t sure what to do here, in a new country that is not quite as fixated on tourism as where I’ve been previously. I went to the tourist information desk and asked about the distance to the city. Twenty kilometers, was the reply, about one hour. Taxi was the only option. At this sentence, the hovering fourteen-year-olds returned, keys swinging, with a new volley of ‘do you want a taxi?’ The equivalent in my mind of ‘Mine?‘ I refused and walked away again, settled myself against a column, and kept my eyes out for the numerous tourists that had arrived with me on my plane. Within minutes I spotted two girls following a uniformed man. I matched their pace and inquired whether they were going to the city center, and might I join them. They agreed and off we went. The twenty kilometer cab ride did indeed take a crawling hour. Mostly spent at two of the slowest intersections I’ve ever encountered. I tagged along with Becca and Anneka of Birmingham to their guest house. The dorm there was the same price as the one I had looked into, so I decided to just crash there instead.

Before my much needed shower, we all went for an equally needed dinner. Down the street we found a tent crowded with locals. Local men, that is. My companions pointed out the incredibly low ration of women to men. As in maybe 1 to 30. It was unshakeably disconcerting. Anyways, we weren’t too sure how this particular food stand operated. Upon glancing around at other tables I got a basic idea that we would each receive a plate of rice, and then point out which of the spread of dishes we wanted scooped into small bowls. We chose mostly randomly and took our small plastic seats at our small plastic table. Our table rapidly became filled with an array foods. In addition to what we had chosen, we were given a bowl of soup each, a plate of fresh garlic and chillies, and two plates of tomatoes and red onion. Everything was very different and very delicious. Since it was our first meal in this new country, I asked for wagers on what this spread would cost. I placed my estimate at 5,000 kyat, $5. When we asked, the answer was, in fact, 2,800 kyat. $2.80 for six meat and vegetable dishes, three plates of rice, three bowls of soup, and tea. None of us really said anything in our astonishment. And such was my introduction to Myanmar.

The guesthouse included breakfast. One floor up on an enclosed porch overlooking the city. It was buffet style, which was new to me. As it goes with buffets, I ate more than necessary, but it kept me going until dinner time. My first-day-meander along Myanmar’s streets was enchanting. I’ve been told over and over about how now is the time to go to Myanmar, it has just recently opened for tourists, go now, it’s great, whatever. Obviously I took this advice. But I didn’t quite expect what was in store.

Myanmar is centuries and kilometers different than the rest of my itinerary. Tall dirt-and-age stained buildings drip with drying laundry and blue satellite dishes. Sidewalks stand at about kneecap height, which I would soon learn is likely due to the oceans of water that gather in the streets when it rains. These tall, uneven sidewalks resemble a drop cloth from the splatters left by Burmese men who are especially good at expectorating the rust red juice of the betel nuts. On almost every street corner (no hyperbole!), and often in between you’ll find stands specifically dedicated to this betel nut business. Plates stacked with rounds of fanned leaves ready to accept a smudge of white paste and a sprinkle of betel nut pieces. Spitting really is totally acceptable and frequent. It looks like blood. Another disconcerting thing is the right side steering wheels on the cars that drive on the right side of the street. Women’s faces are painted with a golden yellow paste from the thanaka tree. It is used as protection from the sun, but it doubles as an artful makeup. It’s funny, the amount of times I have found western makeup to be attractive can be counted on my fingers. But I love this yellow adornment to their faces. You’ll find perfect circles, sweeping rectangles, careful lines, or even full faces. I think it’s beautiful. Men and women both wear long, shapeless skirts. I can tell I would be so frustrated wearing one, because they are constantly being adjusted. I’ve been the recipient of even more staring here than elsewhere. Which was already a lot. Every other block or so the guy ahead of me will glance behind him and see me. He will then proceed to walk more and more slowly until I pass him. I don’t know if they think they are being inconspicuous about this method of staring, or if they just don’t care. The other thing that happens is I’ll step to the side of the too-crowded sidewalk to let someone pass, and they’ll stop at the bottleneck and stare at me. It’s uncomfortable. I’ve kind of been okay with the whole westerner curiousity thing until Myanmar, but I am not a fan. Men here are quick to call you beautiful in the street. Female monks dressed in pink are not uncommon. Indian foods are everywhere. There is a surprising amount of English signage. Even more surprising is the proper grammar and spelling. Numbers seem to be important here, and the majority of businesses have some numbers tacked onto their name. Graffiti is sadly absent, except for some sloppy, unintelligent words and tags.   I wasn’t sure whether Myanmar would have been introduced to pizza yet. After all, it is new to tourism. And the majority of Easterners I’ve met are not impressed by Western food. Not even pizza. Especially not pizza. So when I googled ‘Yangon’ and ‘pizza’ and found five results, I was a happy girl. The pizza-in-every-country-except-for-Luxembourg tradition continues! My pizza was pretty decent. It more than sufficed for my purposes. After dinner I walked the kilometers back home by way of the famous Shwedagon Pagoda, the so-called ‘most important holy site in all of Myanmar’. I walked the many stairs of the grand entrance, but I didn’t actually go inside. I can’t think of any temples in the world I would pay $8 to see. And especially not after three months of seeing hundreds of thousands of temples. It would have to house Buddha himself for me to be interested enough to pay an $8 entrance fee. Maybe I missed the most life changing experience ever, but I’m pretty comfortable with that fact. I also accidentally passed through this lovely park with a wide and hazardous boardwalk.  I witnessed a lot of…intensity during my time in Myanmar as well. That first day walking along the streets I passed by a dead puppy, it’s mother and littermate wandering nearby. Skip a few hours and I see a dead man in the street. He has been hit by a car. I heard the sorry sound of it. A police car pulls up, unhurriedly. But otherwise nobody reacts to the lifeless body lying just beside the road. I find it disconcerting, and it will affect the rest of my day. A few days later, on my train to Bagan, I awake in the middle of the night to a man shouting at his son. This goes on for some time, until we reach the next stop. Both depart the train, but the shouting continues, intensifies. Finally, all of the right side of the train, as well as all of the people waiting at the station are audience to this boy getting beaten by his father. I’m not talking cheesy Batman tv show slaps and punches and silly sounds. I’m talking Watchmen heart stopping pounding thuds that shake the ground. The boy holds his folded hands in front of his terror filled face, but his father is lost in anger and doesn’t relent. I turn my eyes from the scene and survey the passengers around me. We are all paying attention, and I am not the only horrified onlooker. The motherly woman across from me looks like she would save the boy from his punishment, if it were possible. I am infinitesimally relieved by the reactions of the crowd. This isn’t an entirely normal and acceptable situation. But still, Myanmar hasn’t been the harmless, unassuming destination like the cities and countries from my past. Fortunately this trio of disconcerting events was the extent of Myanmar’s dark offerings. The rest of my time there returned to the light hearted journey I am accustomed to.

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.