Friendships and Forks in the Road

Greetings from Bangkok. Turns out this is a real place, not just something that teenaged boys say before hitting each other in the balls.

Took the night train from Chiang Mai. Quite a nice way to travel when compared to the busses of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. I paid about $25 for a sleeper berth, which wasn’t at all what I expected. When I got onto the train originally, the seats were setup in the traditional 2 facing 2 format. I thought to myself, “Shit, you managed to get ripped off.”

In Bangkok, everyone with a voicebox is trying to rip you off.

There wasn’t really anywhere to put my bags either, so I just laid them in the middle of the two seats. I took a short nap sitting up, and then settled in to read for a bit. About 2 hours later, a small Thai stewardess walks up with a big Allen key and motions for me to get out of the way. 3 minutes later, there were two beds, top and bottom, laid out in front of me with small blue curtains almost holding back the light. There were even real pillows.

I was amazed and grateful, so I tucked my things into the top bunk, and laid back down in the bottom. Again, SE Asia has made me realize that height isn’t always an advantage, as even my very average frame was at the absolute maximum to lay flat in the bunk.

I had a little chuckle thinking about my 6’11’’ buddy Kiefer trying to lay in this bed… or hell, do damn near anything in this part of the world. God that’d be miserable.

After settling in, I went to go grab some dinner on the dining car. Dining car was a bit of a scene, with the mandatory moaning Thai music videos playing and the staff smiling and dancing. When I walked in I was the only phaulong (foreigner) in the room. I got a Pad Thai and a Chang beer, and tried futilely to talk to the older Thai gentleman sitting across from me. We got through our names, exhausted our knowledge of our non-native language and finally settled with smiling at each other and tapping our beers for cheers about 5 times.

He left, and two Westerners sat down next to me. I asked, “How ya goin’?” having picked it up from the Aussies, and we started to talk. After getting to where are you from, they replied Americans and I said the same. They actually thought I was Australian, which shocked me.

Turns out they are from…Indiana.

I thought I was going to have a heart attack.

One had gone to school at Arizona State University, and I asked which fraternity he was in. When he replied Sigma Chi, I asked if he ever met an alum named Kyle Uminger, a pseudo cousin of mine who had been the president of that chapter. Turns out, he had apparently given a talk at the house while he was there.

The world is a damned small place, evidenced today on a night train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok.

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Leaving Chiang Mai was bittersweet. As I left, I knew that I was leaving several good friends behind. Luke and Wendy (of the Thaket/Kong Lor Cave adventure and motorbike accident) finally caught back up with me. Luke and I went and watched the USA/Germany game, and then said our goodbyes afterward. He’s headed back to Australia in a couple weeks, to have a cornea transplant and hopefully open a food truck in Brisbane. In a little over 3 weeks, we had some great adventures.

Luke, Wendy and I in front of Kong Lor Cave

Luke, Wendy and I in front of Kong Lor Cave

From getting to Thaket in the middle of the night with nowhere to stay, with reports of Burmese body snatchers floating in and finally having a 10 year old kid take us to the neighbors, where he beat on the door at 2AM and told them to make us dinner. Finally some poor groggy man got out of bed and beckoned us in. We sat and laughed and drank beers while watching some old Champions League game.

The next day was when we crashed our motorbikes during the 4 hour ride to Kong Lor cave.

The night after that, we got into Vientienne in a pouring rain at 1:30AM and were promptly dropped off in an alley full of hookers by the least scrupulous tuk-tuk driver I’ve encountered yet.

The following hour and a half was an unfunny comedy of errors before we finally found a hostel that would take us.

I also left behind Fabio and Marlene, the German couple I’ve been traveling with for the past couple of weeks.

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They’ve been excellent traveling partners and great friends. We’ve ridden elephants, flown around Vang Vieng on go-karts, played endless games of Ralfrunta, and even seen off a near tragedy when our mutual traveling partner Marayna decided to take a header down some stairs (resulting in 40 some odd stitches.)

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We talked about a little bit of everything from politics, culture, language, movies, you name it. I can speak a very small amount of poorly pronounced German now (Marlene still thinks I have potatoes in my mouth,) and they know what phrases like “Hell in a handbasket” mean. I had a blast with them, and saw how a well functioning couple doing this kind of long-term travel operates.

The mere thought of traveling with most American girls like this is enough to give me grey hair, but Marlene was a trooper of the highest order; a veritable mobile pharmacy which could produce anti-diahhera medicine, toilet paper, contact solution, and mosquito repellent out of a bag which didn’t seem large enough by half.
I’ll miss Fabio’s bad jokes, which were always saved by the second punchline, “Ya, dat EEs funny. Right?” And I’ll miss Marlene yelling at Fabio during Ralfrunta, “Fabi-YO, I cahn see yooor cahds!”

They are headed to the Philippines from here, then back to Germany in a month after a full year of traveling from New Zealand through SE Asia. I promised that if I ever got to Germany that I’d stop in, and I’d imagine if Marlene has her way there will be a mini-Kraut padding around their flat if I wait more than a year or so.

As I got off the plane in Krabi, I wondered who I’d meet as I got to my hostel. Turns out, there was a ready made crew waiting in the dorm room when I got there. Dutch girls, with their throaty accents and slightly amazing hair products (just in time for the Netherlands/Mexico game!), a Welsh lad who was brutally offended that I didn’t know about rugby, and a parcel of English girls telling me all about their time in India.

I have the feeling I won’t lack for company here either.

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That’s the beauty of friendships on the road. In a mere few weeks, I’ve had more unique experiences with these people than many that I’ve known for years. I know how they react under pressure and how chippy they get when they’re hungry or tired. I know how they deal with a legitimate crisis and how easily they can laugh off a “toilet” which is little more than a hole in the ground. I’ve seen them on mopeds and I’ve seen how well they barter with tuk-tuk drivers. I sat across from them when the transmission fell out of our bus in the mountains, and I saw the fear on their faces when we drove past a bus just like ours that had rolled off the highway on a rainy night to Vientiane.

These friendships taught me things, both about others and about myself. So often we find ourselves squabbling with our friends in our routine lives, taking offense at this or that. None of it really amounts to a hill of beans, but we ball up our fists and get angry instead of just letting it all go.

I’ve seen enough of the world to know that lives intersect for a reason. Hell I wouldn’t be sitting where I am today if a collegiate acquaintance hadn’t been dumb enough to stay in the biggest dump of a hostel in Amsterdam and struck up a conversation with a certain dingo kicking Australian.

They traveled together for 5 months and thus began a lifelong friendship.

That dingo kicking Australian ended up becoming my roommate when he moved to NYC, and since then I’ve been on 4 continents with him and consider him one of my closest friends.

Thanks for picking a dump of a hostel Mr. Misamore, I owe you one.

If it weren’t for an interaction that I was unaware of until years later, the Conquest would probably be sitting in front of 8 computer screens swearing at non-existent gold customers. Instead, I’m sitting on the 10th floor overlooking Bangkok, celebrating the start of my 4th month on the road.

Friendships come in all different kinds. Some last for decades, others for only a few days. Appreciate them all and be careful about discarding them. The universe puts people together for reasons often beyond our comprehension.

There are enough forks in the road that end friendships prematurely. Don’t be like the fork-throwing monkey in Battambang and put one there artificially.

I can damn near promise that the issue you think matters so much isn’t half as significant as you think. Holding onto anger in one hand and a friend in the other, the choice seems pretty clear.

Blood, Organ Snatchers and Caves

Sometimes while traveling, real life seems to sneak away. Outstanding one of a kind circumstances keep popping up, and every day is a new adventure waiting to be conquered. Everything might not be easy, but nothing goes far enough astray that it can’t be easily fixed.

Mopeds and mountains

Mopeds and mountains

Then you have weeks like this.

After leaving Siem Riep and Angkor Wat, (which I promise to go back and write about) I headed up on another shady 12 hour bus ride to Don Det, Laos.

Don Det is in the 4000 Island archipelego in the middle of the Mekong River straddling the Laos/Cambodia border. This was a border that I literally forded across through the river.
This puts it approximately in the middle of nowhere.

Chalk talk session on the bus/boat/river crossing to Don Det

Chalk talk session on the bus/boat/river crossing to Don Det

Fording the Mekong into Laos

Fording the Mekong into Laos

Chilling with the local kids

Chilling with the local kids

I booked a room in Don Det prior to getting there, only to realize that the hotel was a 3 mile walk from the point that the boat dropped us off on the island. I quickly decided that opposed to walking that far with a loaded pack after a 12 hour journey, that it was time to duck into one of the many guest houses that lined the rutted dirt path through town.

The real power behind Mr. Mo's

The real power behind Mr. Mo’s

I settled on Mr. Mo’s Guesthouse, which was nestled against the river with a Spartan but clean restaurant that looked out over the water. On the 12 hour journey there, I met a German couple traveling with their two kids, Vido and Caroline. The kids were 3 and 6 and I was absolutely in awe of the bravery that it takes to do this kind of travel with little kids for 7 months. The father had a hernia pop out while in Manila, so the family was all helping him pick up the slack to transport their luggage through SE Asia.

I laughed to myself about the impossibility of meeting an American family traveling in the same manner. These kids will be better for their parents’ bravery without a doubt.

In Don Det, I ran into some semi familiar faces including my German friend Marius, and a pair of Canadian cousins I had met on the river in Kampot. A few days later, I made the acquaintance of Luke and Wendy, a British guy and Australian girl who had been traveling for several months as well.
While in Don Det, I took in the sights, including fishing on the Mekong, using a spark plug as a sinker, and a 9 hour kayak trip to see some of the last remaining freshwater dolphins in the world, and the SE Asian Niagara.

Fishing with Marius.

Fishing with Marius.

Throughout my travels, I keep running back into the Mekong, which is basically the Mississippi or Nile of this part of the world, acting as the watershed for countless acres throughout Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. It is a massive river which allows the people here to live lives largely unchanged for generations.

Leaving Don Det, I picked up some bus tickets with Luke and Wendy to go see the Kong Lor Cave. A 12 hour bus ride to a place called Thaket, which can barely be called a town, allowed us to get mopeds for the 4 hour drive up to the caves. Finally had my first moped accident over here, going through some of the most treacherous roads I’ve ever seen. A graphically busted knee, bumped helmet and some road rash on my shoulder and hands were all that I came out with. Very lucky all things considered, as all 3 of us laid our mopeds down on the mountain right after a permanent sign that only said “Accident Ahead” in English. Guess we should’ve taken more heed.

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We stayed at a guesthouse in the valley for $3 a night and we were one of about 10 foreigners in the whole valley, which only got electricity 3 years ago. Surreal experience.

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One more little note about Thaket and the valley. We heard that there was a band of Burmese organ snatchers on the loose in the area. The police and military were setting up random checkpoints to find them. At first I thought this sounded like a backpacker rumor gone wild, but it turns out that there really was a band trying to procure organs to sell to Chinese customers. Absolutely terrifying horror movie stuff, but in the spirit of traveling, we just laughed and said, “well I hope they take the left kidney, I’m rather partial to the right.”

Our moped rental owner actually knew the girl who was attacked a few nights before. Never a dull moment on the road in SE Asia.

I can’t be happier that we did it though. It was truly one of the more beautiful places I’ve been on this trip. It was basically the karst islands of Halong Bay formed into mountains. The cave itself was a 5 mile long cavern which was voluminous enough to stack the church I grew up in several times. Just absolutely breathtaking, Lord of the Rings stuff.

Luke, Wendy and I in front of Kong Lor Cave

Luke, Wendy and I in front of Kong Lor Cave

After we left Kong Lor, we headed to Vientienne, to stock up on bandages/Mac chargers/Western Food for about 12 hours before heading onto Vang Vieng. We arrived on the bus in a pouring rain about 1 AM, and jumped in a tuk-tuk to get to the city center and find somewhere to sleep. Our tuk-tuk driver dropped us off on a road with nothing but prostitutes, and we wandered the city for another 2 hours before finally finding a hostel to lay our weary heads for the night. Always have to be adaptive when traveling, because things don’t always work to plan.

After our resupply in the “big city” we headed up to Vang Vieng, another small town on the Mekong known for tubing, bowling, a rave in the jungle and every restauarant constantly playing “Friends” repeats. Another dreamscape of a place surrounded by karst mountains, but so different from the Kong Lor valley.

I met back up with the Canadian cousins, and had a great time with them and a German couple who thinks that teaching me German is a hilarious activity. My accent is so bad that I wholeheartedly agree. I’d heard from someone that German is the hardest language for native English speakers to fully subsume. After a few days of impromtu German lessons, I can see why.

Boy it is a fantastic language to shout in though.

After all these idyllic landscapes, reality snuck back in. I woke up yesterday morning to go have breakfast on the river and as I was walking back, I came across Marayna, the female half of the Canadian cousins, covered in blood with a huge line of stitches in a shaved line on the front of her head. She was dazed, bloody, and confused. It was really a terrifying moment.

She’d fallen down a flight of unlit concrete steps at the guesthouse and in reality she was lucky that it wasn’t worse than it was. I got her calmed down and cleaned up, and she and her cousin quickly found a bus to get them closer to Bangkok, where the best Western style hospitals in SE Asia are located. Unfortunately it was still going to take them over 24 hours to get to a real hospital, but that’s part of traveling in remote places.

Last I heard from them, they were trying to get on a 7:30 AM flight to Bangkok today. I assume they’ve made it, but should know more soon. It is amazing the clinical detachment that everyone took on this situation. From the standard clinical nature of the Germans, to my scientific searching for best routes to Bangkok, to the simple fact that this situation wasn’t going to get any better without a little work, everyone pitched in and made sure that people who were strangers mere days before ended up getting to where they needed to go.
Most backpackers have a sense of, all for one, and being a solo backpacker myself, I thank God for that fact.

More will come now that I’m in one place, but I reckon that’s enough for now. Next up, World Cup watching!

Sleeper Buses and Hooker Swarms

And I’ve gotten behind in my blogging since we got to Nha Trang. No worries, plenty to write about.

We got to Nha Trang Saturday morning via a “sleeper bus.” This was my first foray into this…economical means of transportation. Ben and I, along with our friends Claire, Lydia and Josh, all piled into the back of a 40 person sleeper bus for the 14 hour drive from Hoi An to Nha Trang. We managed to get the back, which was basically a 5 coffin cave with about 2.5 feet of headroom for each of us. To say we were close was a slight understatement. I didn’t exactly inherit my mother’s claustrophobia, but I was pretty close.

We did plan ahead though, as Claire had taken this means of transportation before. Since prescription drugs are more of a do-it-yourself free for all here in Vietnam, we got ourselves some Valium all had a modified “desperate housewife.” We joked and horsed around in the back of the bus for the first 2 hours, but by the end of my whiskey and coke, I was down for the count, and managed to wake up just about a half hour north of Nha Trang.

Thank god, because it would’ve been a tense 14 hours otherwise.

Upon arriving in Nha Trang, I thought that the Valium had put me down for far longer than 14 hours. It appeared to be as Russian as anything. Apparently there are direct flights from several locations in Russia, including Siberia and Irkutsk. Russians, being the warm cuddly types, tend to flock to vacation spots together, so someone after the Vietnam War realized that Nha Trang was a beautiful place to escape a Siberian winter, and there have been massive flocks ever since.

Ben and I tried to check into our hostel, Mojzo Inn at 7AM, only to be told by the most delightful trio of Vietnamese women you could ever hope to meet that our room wouldn’t be ready until 2. So we dropped our bags and went in search of breakfast.

Just around the corner from Mojzo Inn we found a large bar which was playing the NBA playoffs and the Bruins-Canadiens game. They had large English breakfasts on the menu so we decided to go grab a seat. We were basically the only fools around, other than an older gentleman at the end of the bar. He saw that I was trying to watch both games and asked if I wanted the TVs turned. I noticed his Minnesota Twins polo, and away the conversation went.

Turns out that he was the proprietor of this bar, known as “Booze Cruise.” A process engineer by trade, he was sent by his employer to Saigon 7 years ago. After spending 6 months, he flew back to Minneapolis and told them he quit. He then moved back over to Saigon, married his Vietnamese girlfriend, and went about trying to start a business.

They started out in Saigon, where his wife was finishing her masters, but came up to Nha Trang for a weekend getaway. After 3 days, John looked at his wife and told her to head home and finish her degree, but he was going to start a business in Nha Trang. He started networking, and combing the beach for backpackers to talk to, and realized that there was a seriously underserved need in this town full of tourists and backpackers. So he rented a boat for $25, filled it full of booze, charged $10 a head and the “Booze Cruise” was born. He made $500 on his first cruise, and has been building an empire ever since.

Those humble beginnings are now the root of a 5 bar empire, completely with several apartment buildings. He goes “home” to Minnesota once a year for about a month, but he said that when he is there, he starts getting the itch to get back to Vietnam. John and the bar are the center of the Nha Trang expat community (at least the Western delegation) as he has every Western sporting event you can imagine, from Aussie Rules, to soccer, to NBA to tennis.

I’ve taken my breakfast over there every morning since we got here, blissfully able to watch the Pacers (until this morning) and watch my Blackhawks advance against John’s Minnesota Wild.

Getting to talk to John every morning has really opened my eyes to a few more issues in Vietnam that I was unaware of. I can now identify the classic Vietnamese “hooker swarm” pickpocket method, as well as which Nha Trang bars are most likely to serve the old “roofie-colada.” Beyond helping me safely navigate a city which certainly has a seedy underside, we broached more serious issues of geopolitics.

John told me that he hasn’t been able to have a booze cruise in over a year since the Chinese started encroaching upon Vietnamese maritime rights. He’s got the bars, so he’s fine financially, but it is just another case of foreign aggression against this land. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has also been a big issue here given the large Russian expat community.

John was able to put me onto Ocean’s 5, a dive shop here in town run by Westerners where I decided to get my SSI Open Water certification. I figure since my brother is a Navy diver, it couldn’t hurt to be able to have another activity to share if we ever get on vacation together.

Today was my first day of open water diving, and again I was shown the real world ramifications of the Chinese aggression. Our boat, along with a few fishing boats, were escorted from the Nha Trang harbor out the 8 km to the diving locations. China has declared all water further from 10 km from shore to be theirs, mostly for the oil and gas rights, but they are encroaching on the traditional fishermen of Vietnam as well.

My dive instructor Will, had been working out of Nha Trang for 2 years, and had never seen destroyers be dispatched to escort boats like ours. He was amazed, but at the same time I could see the worry etched on his face. Events like this are most certainly not good for business.

This is yet another instance where Vietnam is realizing that the lack of American influence in the Far East is making a place where the rule of law counts for less and less. America has made commitments to many countries in this part of the world, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines coming to mind first, and if we don’t peacefully project influence through both diplomatic and naval power, China will continue to run roughshod over its less powerful neighbors.

Brisbane Hostel Life

After saying goodbye to Chad in Perth, Ben and I jumped on the overnight flight from Perth to Brisbane, landing at 5AM local time. Needless to say the 4 hour flight wasn’t the most conducive to sleeping, so we headed to the hostel to try to catch a few hours worth of Zzz’s.

Brisbane is a much more mature city than Perth, as evidenced by the architecture and city feel. In the oldest part of the city, streets are named after British Monarchs, with female streets running parallel one direction and males the other. When our waiter told us that at lunch, it definitely made navigation a ton easier.

Queen Victoria

Benny and I wandered down through the center of town, eating lunch near St. George square. Benny had a quick errand to run for some paperwork at the Medicare office, so I got a quick glance at completely socialized medicine. It was in the middle of the shopping center, and run like a DMV. As far as efficiency goes, we were in and out in 10 minutes, so I considered it a win.

We met up with some people for dinner, eating at Breakfast Creek, one of the oldest continuously run establishments in Brisbane. Open for 125 years, it has a fair share of ghost stories, high water marks from floods, and a cracking good petit filet.

Brisbane at Night

The hostel we’re staying at is attached to a bar, which leads to some late night comedy that money can’t buy. Stumbling drunk Asian guys hitting on standoffish British girls, the three angry looking German dudes standoffishly bogartting a corner, two dreadlocked hippies dancing in their own little world and everyone’s favorite, the selfie snapping American girl up from her study abroad program in Sydney.

The best thing about hostel life is that there is no social order going into an evening, so everyone just tosses themselves together with reckless abandon, and sees where the night is going to take them. Tomorrow there will be a whole new crew. Hilarity inevitably ensues.

Heading to Hamilton Island tomorrow en route to the Whitsundays. Looks like Tropical Storm Ita is going to be heading considerably north of us, so we won’t have to worry about that while we’re out on the boat. Internet will be scarce, so it might be a bit before the next post, but it will be full of pictures from the Great Barrier Reef.