11Treasure & The Blue House

My home in Chiang Mai was going to be Mah’s guesthouse 11Treasure in the Old City. I knew her address and that she was near Wat Chedi Luang and the Giant 2 Guesthouse, and I figured that was enough information for any cab driver to find his way. It turned out to be much more difficult than I expected.

Chiang Mai is a popular city for foreigners, and a lot of local Thai people speak excellent English. For some reason, even though cab drivers cater almost exclusively to travelers most have not cared to learn very much. This would be fine on its own, but they also have no idea how to read maps. This is an awful introduction to the city when you are tired and exhausted by traveling.

I was staying on one of the major roads in the city, and had a street number. You would think that worst case scenario they could start at one end and drive to the other and I could read the street numbers. It’s only about a 10 minute drive from end to end. But no, I sat in the car for five minutes while he grumbled and finally I said he could just leave me at Wat Chedi Luang.

After he let me off it took quite a bit of wandering, but eventually I lucked out when I spotted the Giant 2 Guesthouse. It’s the kind of place where you would expect all stoners to lodge at, and it happens to be covered in large graffiti art so it’s easy to find. With a little more effort I found my guesthouse across the street.

I was already an hour later than expected and Mah was waiting for me. She is a fashion designer/boutique shop proprieter turned guesthouse manager. She closed up her shop and only does custom designs now, but she rents out three rooms in the shop location and two in a little house just outside of the Old City. The merchandise is still out, so it’s pretty entertaining to sit in the living room and have people constantly peering in on you.

She settled me in to my cozy room upstairs but had to leave and grab dinner. My plan was to eat first and then I wanted to drink some whiskey in memory of my friend. I was awkwardly trying to figure out the lock on the front door, and noticed a man sitting on a bench in front chuckling at me. After a brief exchange I was about to leave when a motorbike – scooters count as motorbikes in the rest of the world – pulled up.

It turned out to be Mah’s long term tenant Isaias and his girlfriend Joanna who lives in Singapore. The man sitting on the bench was Bassil, whom they had met at the market that day, except for the coincidence that he had also stayed at Mah’s guesthouse before. They asked where I was off to, and I told them I needed a drink. Just my luck, they were having a vodka party at the Blue House and I was invited. I hopped on the back of Bassil’s motorbike and we were off.

The rest of the little party at The Blue House consisted of an Italian guest Matteo, his current lady-friend Anna (this lasted until the next day when she became “crazy”), Mah, and her good friend whose name I can’t spell. There was plenty of vodka and mixers, but unfortunately no whiskey. I poured myself some Hendricks and called it good enough.– at least it was a quality gin.

It felt good to immediately acquire some new acquaintances, but I didn’t want to stay out too late. Bassil gave me a ride back to the guesthouse and I went to bed feeling that Chiang Mai was off to a great start.

Moving On

The night before I left Siem Reap, I went to bed early so I could watch the World Cup game at 3am. I made it to the end of the regular game time, but when the US was clearly losing I decided to just let myself get a little extra sleep.

I woke up a few hours later, packed my things, and went downstairs to check with Su about my ride. I found him asleep on the couch. He had forgotten to arrange a tuk tuk for me, so instead I got a ride on the back of his motorcycle. It was my first time riding a motorcycle without a helmet and not the most comfortable experience but it felt good to ride on two wheels again.

There was no direct flight to Chiang Mai so I had a five hour layover in Bangkok. I was hoping I could find a nice comfy cafe and chill out but the dining options were abysmal, McDonalds, KFC, Burger King. I ended up at a pretty nasty coffee shop, but they did offer WiFi for customers so I settled in the cafeteria-like space for a few hours.

I was doing little more than entertaining myself on Reddit when a Facebook update appeared that shook me up badly. A friend back home in Seattle had passed away suddenly. At first I hoped that it might be a twisted joke, but I couldn’t believe that of the friend who announced the news. I started checking the Facebook pages of every mutual friend, and found many vague updates that now had more serious meaning.

I sat there in the restaurant and just let the tears fall silently. It felt very lonely to process on my own, and I briefly contemplated flying back to Seattle for the wake. I hadn’t seen this friend in a year, and for the year before that he had held some resentment towards, blaming me for some changes in his life. I was torn between feeling bad for not visiting him my last two trips out, and relief that we had the opportunity to patch up our friendship before this happened.

And then there was the gift he had given me, his cast iron pan. It was a very meaningfully bestowed gift, yet I had succumbed to exhaustion from moving and let my roommate keep it. I knew that I had to get it back, and emailed her the request.

It was very late in Seattle by then, and the action on Facebook had dwindled. I cleaned up a bit and went to the gate to board. I had picked an aisle seat because I like to hydrate while flying, but after waiting patiently for my row-mates I realized that there would not be any. This was a perfect situation because I love sitting by the window and watching the ground fall away.

As the plane taxied down the runway I sat with my gaze fixed on the skyline and then I saw it– a rainbow. I generally try not to attribute happenstance with meaning, but it was impossible not to feel touched. I decided to take it as a sign that if there is a higher power, they are benevolent enough to care more about providing comfort than what or whom we believe in.

Angkor Wat

On my fourth day in Siem Reap, I finally made it to Angkor Wat. I was biding my time for new people to show up at the hostel so I wouldn’t have to go alone. True to form, Su kept me updated on the situation and gave me an intro as soon as the guests arrived.

Initially I made plans with two women each traveling solo, but another guy who called himself “Silly” told me he was planning to go for sunrise. It would mean leaving the guesthouse at 5:00am but when it occurred to me that I could avoid the hottest part of the day I was sold. Luckily the others didn’t seem to mind that I bailed on them.

The tuk tuk arrived right on time and whisked us off to procure tickets and and take us to Angkor Wat temple. We were some of the first people to buy our tickets, but I forgot to consider that many others would have multiple day passes or would have purchased their tickets the night before. The shockingly large number of people had beaten us to the reflecting pools but we still got a pretty good spot. And then we got to wait.

We totally lucked out on the weather, it was the first clear morning in days. When we arrived at the temple our iPhone torch feature was needed to navigate but soon the sky was turning pink. I had managed to snag a spot in the front row and for awhile managed to wait patiently for about twenty minutes, but then I noticed that Silly had disappeared. I got anxious about finding him again and abandoned my seat to look around.

And now we arrive to the danger of waking up at 4:30am: I am as dumb as rocks when I am not well rested. When I couldn’t find him immediately I told myself “Well, it’s pretty light and I already got some pictures with the pink. It’s not like there is much else to see.” I decided to head back to the tuk tuk in case he was there.

That’s right, I missed the sunrise itself because I forgot that the sun actually rising in to view was a crucial part of the experience. Luckily I realized my mistake before I had walked all the way back. I returned to position before the sun had gained too much height and Silly was there looking for me.

Over the next five or six hours we explored Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm and I got to know Silly better. He is British and I believe his name is Sunil, and he is so committed to his nickname that he has it tattooed on the inside of his lip. He was in the middle of four months of traveling before heading to New Zealand to play in a Rugby Club Team. He is in his mid twenties and had undergone heart surgery a few years back.

This led to a discussion about how we both believed that travel isn’t something that should be put off until later in life. His father had disapproved of his plan to travel the world until they had a serious talk post-surgery. Experiencing a life threatening health issue so early in life really brought home his point that you can never be sure that the opportunity will still be around.

Additionally, many of the most exciting destinations for travel require good physical fitness to get the most out of them. The vertigo-inducing selfies with Machu Picchu in the background are hard-earned after an hour or more hiking up stairs. The best Great Wall experiences involve hiking at least 5 miles under the hot sun. And Angkor Wat Park is a hell of a lot more fun if you have the stamina and mobility to explore it properly.

After hours of walking and scrambling and climbing, we were both exhausted. Each temple is a stunning feat of architecture and design, and you would need at least a week to do them all justice. Alternatively, you can hit up the main ones and just tell yourself that nothing can beat Angkor Wat so surely you aren’t missing out. That’s the path we chose and I do not regret the ensuing nap one bit.

For A Better Cambodia

Out of all the places I’ve visited, in Cambodia I felt the strongest need to be conscientious about how I spend my time and money. While everyone is in need of a living wage there are some wonderful organizations that are working to educate people with valuable life skills. Without marketable skills, children can get sucked in to truly undesirable work at a very young age.
There is a common scam in Cambodia where a child will approach you on the street or while you are seated. Often, you will be seated at a street side restaurant minding your own business. They plead at you, “Please, I don’t want money. I just want milk.” If you bite, they lead you to a shop except rather than a carton of milk they choose a bottle of expensive baby formula. If you make the purchase, they will later return to the shop and get a refund for the milk powder.I was in Siem Reap for a week, and was approached three times by the same young girl carrying a baby. The first incident was rather shocking. I was eating breakfast with Ayca at Le Grand Café when she approached Ayca, who immediately turned her down. She kept at it, and then I jumped in with a louder and firmer denial. She glared at me and said “I’m not talking to you. I’m talking to her.” and went back to working at Ayca.

After several more attempts to tell her we weren’t interested, she got pissed at me. She picked up a salt shaker menacingly and glared at me. “Fuck you. You watch out or I do this. You come outside and I show you. You come outside.” Woah, I definitely have a size advantage but I did not want to get in to an altercation with this kid. She continued to threaten me for a bit and then reached over and pinched my arm as hard as she could and left.

It may be tempting to just give in, because what are a few dollars to an underprivileged kid, but supporting these children is not in their best interest at all. These harsh tactics are rarely the child’s idea, and if they weren’t lucrative the parent might choose instead to send the child to school or have them work on more tangible skills.

A better option is to support the many NGOs that are working hard to provide support, education, and work skills to street kids, orphans, and other underprivileged youth. Eat at HAVEN which not only serves some of the best food in Siem Reap, but provides housing, food, shelter, and service industry training for participants. Watch the Phare Cambodian Circus, which provides free education plus specialized schools for visual and applied arts, music, theater, and circus performance under the banner of PPS.

If you are inclined to donate or volunteer, do your research first. Schools that use Khmer teachers are much more effective at teaching English than those that use an ever-changing selection of foreign volunteers. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t volunteer, but try not to do it in ways that displace locals who are trying to make a wage.

Finally, if you are ever in Cambodia please donate blood! I went to theAngkor Hospital for Children and it was easy and safe. They have a serious shortage of blood and you have a good chance of saving a child’s life for your minimal effort. You will even walk away with a free shirt.

If you are headed to Cambodia and wish to help, ConCERT is a wonderful resource for maximizing your impact. They also run an amazing little cafe that has green smoothies.

“Real” Siem Reap

Despite the tourism takeover of Siem Reap, you don’t have to go very far to see real people living their lives. Ayca and I fancied a bike ride to Prasat Bakong one day, but we got a late start because of the high temperature and underestimated the trip.

We hadn’t biked more than ten minutes down Highway 6 before we decided that it wasn’t worth risking our lives on that terrifying road. We weren’t sure we felt safe turning back the way we came either. I noticed some motorbikes turning off a little further down the way, so I made the decision to follow them and see what happened.

We lucked out and it did turn out to be a road although lane might be a better description. We were only blocks from the main part of town but the change in environment was striking. Red dirt roads, children playing, chickens running free. Everyone smiled and waved as we biked by, and the children yelled out “Hello!” and giggled. When we briefly paused to get our bearings, a young woman working nearby asked us if we were lost and directed us back to the main road. It felt like a softer side of Siem Reap.

A few days earlier we had taken a longer bike ride as a group, on a quest to visit a lake. We never made it to the lake but we did get to see some rural life. On that ride as well we received plenty of friendly smiles and waves.

The houses along the way were a very different style then what Westerners are used to. Many are on stilts, or the top floor overhangs the lower floor with double the area to create a covered patio. Much of life seems to be lived in these patio areas, as nearly all were occupied by children at play or adults at work. It’s fascinating to watch people doing laundry, cooking meals, watching TV, or even making the short trip from the shower clad in a towel. I felt like a bit of a voyeur, but it seems unlikely that they share the same expectations of privacy that I’m accustomed to.

Both experiences made me wish that I had made a greater effort to visit a smaller village. I would have liked the opportunity to meet more locals and learn their stories.

Hard Life In The City

It was not until the early 90s that Angkor Wat entered the world stage as an attractive tourist destination. The Paris Peace Accords marked the end of the Cambodian-Vietnamese War and the country was finally able to begin healing after decades of violent conflict. With the resolution of fighting, countries from around the world pitched in to help restore the dilapidated structures that make up Angkor Wat Park.

The restoration process is still ongoing, but it hasn’t stopped visitors from flocking to the region. The number of international visitors has grown from 100,000 a year to over 4 million in the last 20 years, and it has made a profound impact on the lives of Cambodian People. Siem Reap has been the epicenter of all this change, experiencing massive growth with hotels and businesses catering to foreigners popping up everywhere.

Cambodia is an extremely poor country with over a third of the population living off of less than $1 a day. The tourist boom provided many people with an opportunity to improve their lives, and many have left their hometowns to seek out greater opportunities in Siem Reap. A young hostel worker who watched the World Cup with us told us of how he left his family in Phnom Penh because all the jobs are in Siem Reap. He had to leave a city with a population of 1.5 million for one that more closely resembles a small town.

The heavy dependance of the locals on tourists creates a very off-putting experience. It feels like they see you as a walking dollar bill. You can’t walk five feet without someone honking at you, calling “Tuk tuk? Tuk tuk?” or trying to sell you something. If you are a woman, they will often make comments about your looks. Make eye contact with someone in a store front and it’s “Lady, massage?”, “Lady, come eat here!”, “Lady, fish massage!”, and they will continue to yell at you as you walk away.

If you do enter a shop or restaurant, someone will hover over your shoulder until you are ready to order or buy something. If it’s a stand in the market, they aggressively try to sell you all sorts of things you probably don’t want. It’s very exhausting to constantly work to avoid eye contact or ignore people or say “No!” over and over again.

This is all in stark contrast with Cambodians you meet in any other setting, who are incredibly warm and friendly people. It’s a huge shame that the majority of visitors will never have the opportunity to get to know the locals better. There are plenty of exceptions (the man who invited us to watch the World Cup for example), but they are almost completely drowned out by hustlers.

Holiday in Cambodia

As I debarked from the airplane at Siem Reap Airport, I was immediately struck by the lush tropical atmosphere. It’s a small airport so you exit the plane directly on to the tarmac and walk in to the airport. It was dark when I arrived, the air was hot and thick, and the terminal is beautifully landscaped with tropical looking trees. It felt like the beginning of something special.

I already made arrangements with my guesthouse to be picked up, so I made my way through customs and found the sign with my name. I would be staying at the EASTanbul Guesthouse and my tuk tuk driver is the brother-in-law of the owner. He helped me with my suitcase and we were off.

When traveling alone, choosing the right style of lodgings is important to create the type of experience you want. Personally, I will only stay in a hotel if I am on someone else’s dime. Guesthouses and most hostels have private rooms and greatly increase your chances of meeting other travelers. I always choose guesthouses with nice publics spaces, and ideally a bar. Pick good places and finding new adventure buddies is almost effortless.

The guesthouse I chose is run by a Turkish man named Su and his Cambodian wife, whom I found on Couchsurfing. It’s generally not considered appropriate to post paid lodgings there, but he had many positive reviews so I thought I’d give it a go. Plus there were many smiling faces in the photos on the EASTanbul Facebook page.

It turned out to be a wonderful choice, because Su is a very attentive host. As I stepped up on to the deck and greeted Su, he immediately made a point to introduce me to the table of guests seated nearby. They were all enjoying a beer before heading out to Pub Street, and I was just in time to drop off my bags and join them. This was exactly the scenario I had been hoping for, and I spent the rest of my visit hanging out with other guests.

Last Night In Seoul

Summer coincides with the rainy season in many parts of Asia, and while some cities have been worse than others the intense storms are inescapable. I was wandering around Hongdae looking for lunch when a heavy rain hit. The fried chicken restaurant I had in mind turned out to be closed, but I happened to notice a familiar face across the street. My cousin’s friend Art was sitting in the window of a coffee shop with some friends. I went over to say hi and they invited me to join them. The rain didn’t let up for ages so I spent a comfortable few hours just chilling in the window while my cousin wrapped up his work.

Eventually my cousin freed up so he found me and we went out for jeon which is a traditional rainy day food. It’s basically a selection of meats and veggies that are battered and fried. We sat and talked for a long time, and then continued the conversation over a glass of wine at a nearby bar.

After we finished our wine he wanted to take me to a favorite bar of his, a craft brewery named Magpie. Unfortunately they were closed for a company party, but while we were chatting with a friend of his who works there I heard a voice directed at me: “I know you!” There were no familiar faces so I just sort of gaped at the speaker waiting for forthcoming explanation.

It turned out this guy Tyler had met me years back at Blackbird in Ballard when I brought in a friend to upgrade his wardrobe. He was friends with Jon and had recognized a photo of me on his Facebook wall, but hadn’t gotten around to asking him about me yet. Once he explained it immediately clicked since he’d been super helpful that day and I remembered it well. Who would have thought that I’d be recognized by a person I’d met once, halfway across the world!

We chatted for a bit and I ate one of their pork sliders before moving on. While walking to our updated destination Jon recognized a familiar face on a bike, and talked him in to joining us. We headed over to a cute little bar that his friend Song works at. Art showed up, and then Mark and Mary whom I had also met at the coffee shop that afternoon. We did shots of soju and drank many gin & tonics.

After a few hours Jon needed to leave to meet up with Sehee, but the rest of us moved on to a tattoo parlor to continue drinking. There was a hyperactive puppy waiting for us, and two new people whose names I can’t recall. It was nice to let loose a bit and made for a very memorable final night out.

Music, Meat, and Makgeolli

Saturday evening there were plans to see Jon’s band perform, but he was free to hang out during the day. We had hatched plans to go on a long bike ride with his friend Justin, but Justin was too hungover so we took off on our own. Fortunately I was able to borrow his roommate Natalie’s bike, at the cost of replacing her flat tire. It was short and the gears wouldn’t change but it did the trick.

Seoul has an amazing bike path running along both sides of the Hangang river. It is reminiscient of the Burke Gilman trail with less foliage but better supported. There are many bridges spanning the river so you can effectively ride a loop with the distance of your choosing. The total distance is 80km– 40km on each side of the river.

The entire distance is packed with activities and supporting shops. Bikes are available for rent at many points along the river for about $3/hour. There are numerous parks situated along the river, with great play areas for children. There are also many fitness centers where people can play croquet and use exercise equipment that freely available to the public. I made Jon stop so I could test my pullups and knock out some bench presses to the effusive praise of an elderly gentleman. According to Jon he was sure I had to be Korean because I was so beautiful and tall.

By the time we returned to the apartment it was getting close to dinner. Luckily we had plans for BBQ that night. It was a nice group of me, Jon, Sehee (his girlfriend), Natalie and Justin. I love Korean style BBQ so this was definitely one of my favorite dinners and it’s very cheap in Korea. After dinner they bumped in to some friends across the street so we were standing outside chatting when the makgeolli man came by.

Makgeolli is a rice wine similar to nigori sake in look and taste with a reputation for causing the worst hangovers. The makgeolli man is a local character who wanders around the city on a mission to supply the world and it’s hard to say no at $2 for a liter. Rumor has it that he doesn’t need the money, he just believes it’s his mission to spread joy and makgeolli. He has an infectious cheerfulness about him, and if you buy a bottle he will hug you and tell you repeatedly how much he loves you. I tried to get a photo but was too slow, but search Facebook for Makgeolli Man and he comes right up.

Justin bought a bottle of Makgeolli to share and after the Makgeolli Man was done thanking him we headed over to the venue where Tierpark would be performing. In all the years we had been cousins, I had never seen Jon perform. When I asked him about his music he described it as “experimental post-rock.” Sehee is the singer and they both play guitar. The show was running late and I was getting pretty tired but I managed to stay alert for the whole performance and enjoyed it thoroughly. After the show I grabbed a kabob with another friend Elise and then headed home to pass out for the night.

Check out Tierpark’s soundcloud: soundcloud.com/seoul-tierpark

24/7 Jjimjilbang

On Friday, Jon had to go in to school again so it occurred to me that it was the perfect day to check out a Korean bathhouse. I got a recommendation from his roommate, packed up some toiletries, and headed out.

I’ve been to Russian co-ed bathhouses, all-women bathhouses, and even a Korean bathhouse in America but the ones in Korea are on another level. You can opt for either just the hot tubs and sauna or the entire package which is called jjimjilbang and costed me about $9. A good bathhouse is equipped with a restaurant, TVs, a computer room, an exercise room, spa services, and heated floors for sleeping on.

That’s right, many people go to the bathhouse to nap and you can even spend the night. Since the trains shut down around midnight so partiers will pay the entrance fee just to have a safe place to crash. One of Jon’s friends told me that he had slept in a bathhouse for several weeks while in between apartments.

On entry, you are issued a pair of pants and a shirt, two small towels, and a locker key with an RFID tag. You lock up your shoes at the locker room entry with the key, and use the RFID to access your locker. One towel is for drying off and the other can be used to wrap your hair or to sit on.

I’m pretty comfortable in a locker room but I get a little paranoid about etiquette so I went through some confusion over whether I should don my issued clothing to enter the baths. The solution: spy on the other ladies to figure out how to behave. I quickly confirmed that the outfit is for the lounging part of the experience. Unfortunately, I hadn’t googled how to wrap the hair towel so I gave up on that pretty quickly. Now I know to use the sheep head method– look it up!

After finishing my bath, I wandered around to experience the rest of the jjimjilbang. Sure enough, there were nappers everywhere. I arrived around 1pm and probably saw 40-50 people sleeping on the floor. I found giant saunas that looked like kilns, one of which had a floor of rock salt. There were also massage chairs and books available for reading. I didn’t get a chance to eat (they were out of everything I wanted) but I later found out that they slow-cook eggs in the hottest sauna and sell them for eating. Jjimjilbang is truly a Korean tradition worth experiencing.