Thai Adventures Pt. 3: Bangkok

After my experiences in Phnom Penh and my adventures in Siem Reap, a crossroads lay before me.

My original party of five had dispersed. One pair returned to Sai Gon, where they would spend their remaining days in Southeast Asia during Tet Holiday, then head back home to New York.

The other pair were headed north, to Laos. I had no particular inclination to go in either direction.

Thus the opportunity arose where I instead head east – to Thailand.

This would not be my first time venturing into the Land of the Thais, as some months ago I paid a visit to Chiang Mai to meet an old friend. This time in Thailand, my time would be spent in the mad city of Bangkok, a place legendary for things those of us in the West use as the fodder for juvenile puns and crude jokes.

I can assure you that much of what you have heard about Bangkok is probably true.

I spent less than a week there, with the intentions of meeting another (different) friend of mine, and as it turned out I got there early, and had about two full days of free time to myself before their arrival. This left me with ample opportunities to sample the cuisine at my own pace.

Cranston McHattery looking stylish as he stole my sunglasses again.

And yet, while hoping to enjoy Pad Thai the way I keep expecting it to taste, I was once again disappointed.

To understand Bangkok – I don’t claim to except superficially, as a tourist - one must first take the phrase “East Meets West” and take it a step further. Thailand is a fascinating blend of Indian and (South)East-Asian influences. There were many empires (of which Angkor Wat stands as a remnant) to attest to the rich history of this part of the world. Yet, when we say East Meets West, we often think of the Crusades in the poorly named “Middle East,” or perhaps those wondrous melting-pot cities like Jerusalem and Istanbul.

Though I recently read the opinion of a rather prolific traveler in regards to how culturally diverse the Dubai airport is.

Bangkok is no exception, and the phrase “East Greets West” feels more apropos. Thailand is a highly developed country and it shows in the capital city. I won’t spend time here contrasting to Viet Nam, or Thailand’s little brother Cambodia, as the socio-political intricacies require a degree of precision in history such as I am – currently – incapable of providing in a clear and unbiased context.

Suffice it to say that Thailand opened its gates to the outside world long ago, and has prospered as a direct result. While still retaining aspects of its cultural identity, I could not help but see incredible levels of globalization in Bangkok.

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Modernity with a dash of camouflage.

It is an interesting discussion about how the more “developed” a country becomes, the more “Western” it appears to be, from the fashion trends, to infrastructure, and sometimes even aspects of the government (more on Thai administration later).

But it is profoundly Western-centric of me to assume anything along the lines of other cultures wearing skinny jeans or dying their hair as an attempt to “look more Western.” This is a debate the likes of which I’ve participated many times in the past, and have since come to adopt the opinion that it isn’t “Western” style (whatever that is) that we see around the world, but more of a global style, usually accompanied by individual cultural flavors.

Thailand has no shortage of flavors of its own, and I saw this first hand in Bangkok. The people — while predominantly (assumedly) Thai, are extremely diverse among themselves. This city is, during my limited globe-trotting experience, the very definition of cosmopolitan and metropolitan.

In fact it was very reminiscent of Manhattan. Which is probably why I’ve since decided I don’t like it there.

Cosmopolitan and metropolitan are noble words to have ascribed to a city, but not my kind of city. Although while I compare Bangkok to Manhattan, I believe that Bangkok is significantly more globally-minded. This could be seen in, of all things, some of its most prestigious landmarks: the shopping malls.

This is probably the only shopping mall - styled after an oldschool market - that I actually didn't mind checking out.

This is probably the only shopping mall – styled after an oldschool market – that I actually didn’t mind checking out.

The people of Bangkok – Bangkokese? Bangkokers? Bangkokians? – appear to be largely more concerned with keeping up with fashion trends and expressing their individuality. I was, of course, spending a lot of time in the direct city center where shopping malls stood as legit tourist attractions as much as actual shopping centers, and the mighty Terminal 21 – a mall designed to resemble an airport, which each floor having a different theme based on various interesting cities around the world. Istanbul, Tokyo, San Francisco and Paris come to mind.

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Not to mention it was the Lunar New Year, so they had a bit of a China theme happening.

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No shopping mall is complete without a giant golden dragon.

Thailand, with the evident desire for self-expression and individuality in its inhabitants, makes for what I can only assume is a very open-minded community. I saw just as many Thais walking around with dyed hair as those who kept their hair black. There were piercings, tattoos, and quite a bit of androgyny about in terms of dress.

These things did not come as a shock by any means, but they did stand in stark contrast to my experiences in Viet Nam where, much like the East-Asian neighbors of Japan, China, and S. Korea, conformity is, expectedly, the norm.

And then, of course, there are the ladyboys.

Soi Cowboy, practically around the corner from my hostel and a stone's throw away from Terminal 21 shopping mall.

Soi Cowboy, practically around the corner from my hostel and a stone’s throw away from Terminal 21 shopping mall.

Even as a backpacker tourist, I managed to avoid the famous Khaosan Road, though I now wish I had passed through it at least once. I feel as though I haven’t missed all that much though; the more seasoned travelers, backpackers and expats alike, tend to avoid these tourist havens.

Oh right, the ladyboys.

They are exactly what it sounds like, and exactly what you’ve heard about.

And no, sorry, no pictures. You can look that up on your own.

Nothing compares to walking down Soi Cowboy, that mad carnival of a street, and being hawked by gaggles of sexily-dressed waitresses and gangs ladyboy prostitutes.

I learned after having stayed there for a night that the area in which my hostel was apparently smack-dab in the middle of what I can only respectfully call a huge prostitute zone.

And after a few days of sight-seeing, I found myself starting to look at all this and regard it as normal.

It is true that prostitution is a viable career path in Thailand, and as such it’s kind of a big reason for tourism. Furthermore, I expect it’s difficult for people to explain to their friends and family that no, in fact, that isn’t the reason they’re visiting Thailand.

At any rate, it was a fascinating thing to see the fusion of traditional spirituality and fast-paced commercialism. What I can only describe as open-mindedness towards self-expression and sexuality was apparent wherever I turned. Women dressed like men, men dressed like women, and loads of people dressed like neither – who also happened to be equipped with similarly androgynous faces, leaving my subconscious labeling system as “person” rather than man or woman.

I suspect the LGBT community is big there.

And there are, of course, many other wonderful things to be found here.

Mango pudding, mango ice sherbet, mango smoothie, and, of course, a sliced ripe mango.

Mango pudding, mango ice sherbet, mango smoothie, and, of course, a sliced ripe mango.

The gods are not so cruel.

Cambodia: The Ancient Past

There will be many pictures in this post.

Phnom Penh left its impressions. Imagery and emotional shadows that I will never forget. And that was but the start of our journey.

Most visitors to Cambodia go for the star event, Angkor Wat. My party and I were no exception, and there was no denying that that was the prime reason for going to Cambodia in the first place.

Things began early in the morning, and as per the adventurous insistence of the Thorneater, we chartered a boat that would take us from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, rather than go the conventional way – by bus.

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 Early in the morning, earlier than lazy people like me have any business being up.

In fact I had just gotten over a nasty upset stomach, which the previous night had me afraid I would be missing out on the remainder of the trip.

Thanks perhaps to the power of garlic bread, I survived.

Our boat, long and thin, was not what we expected. The dock had a number of boats, and we found ourselves eyeballing one of the larger Louisiana-styled riverboats. But then, after waiting around a bit and fruitlessly looking for something to eat, we found ourselves directed to a smaller, albeit no-less charming little boat with ample seats.

As we boarded, I noticed the luggage of fellow travelers being strapped to the roof. Some foreign travelers opted to sit upon the roof along with it, and my party and I followed suite.

In the distance I could see early-risen fisherman at work in the Ton Le Sap river. The day started cool, but soon warmed as the sun climbed.

The boat’s motor started, so loud that only higher frequencies in my companions’ voices could be heard. It sounded like everyone had inhaled a balloon full of helium.

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With little more than a chrome rail to hold onto, the boat took off, and seeing as no one was asked to please take a seat within the boat, we stayed atop it and enjoyed the view.

As we sped north, we eventually left the stretches of Phnom Penh, and urban sprawl on either side of the river gave way to floating shanty villages. The further we went, the more often we saw solitary stilt homes, fishermen casting nets, and floating houses lashed together with ropes and empty-plastic-bottle buoys.

Most memorable of this part of the trip, however, was the people who waved at us as we passed. Adults, children, and sometimes even other tourists. As I admire the palms and stilt-huts, I cannot help but wonder whether the Cambodians, those along this river as well some we had met in Phnom Penh, are genuinely happy to wave and smile, or there’s some sort of agenda running in these SouthEast Asian countries.

I can only imagine that board meeting.

Later, when expressing this thought to Thorneater, we realized we each had the same thought. We wondered whether the parents trained their children, or if there was some sort of secret government conspiracy or program at work, geared towards putting a smiling face on every civilian whenever a foreigner passes by.

Or could it be that people are just genuinely

Boat 3 in 1

Riverside sights. There was a whole of empty river banks, too, as well endless horizon once we hit th Ton Le Lake.

Eventually we landed in a small town just outside of Siem Reap, where a prearranged tuk-tuk awaited our party.

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 And then we spent a night at the hotel, as was arranged by our previous host.

Siem Reap is a mad place. If you have any experience in Sài Gòn, it would be comparable to Bui Vien Street; if you have any experience in Bangkok, it would be comparable to Khao San Road. If none of these names mean anything to you, allow me to paint you a picture.

To understand these various tourist hotspots, one must delve into a realm of lawlessness that can best be compared to the American Wild West. Drugs are prevalent and prostitution is (as I understand it) illegal but in common use. What all these places have in common is a crowd, and subsequent atmosphere, bent on indulgence. People traveling across the world to indulge themselves, and people who live here providing the indulgences.

It’s really not my kind of scene, but it is worth seeing at least once.

To shamelessly copy Thorneater’s words: “There are deep, dark basements in this town where nothing is stopped.”

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Pub Street. A bit more straight-forward in it’s naming as opposed to Bangkok’s Soi Cowboy or Khao San Road, or Sài Gòn’s Bùi Viện or Phạm Ngũ Lão streets.

What makes this city really significant, as in for the good reasons, is it’s proximity to one of the most significant locations in Southeast Asia.

The fortress temple ruins of Angkor Wat.

My party and I rented bicycles. We left before mid-day. Siem Reap has a tuk-tuk madness to it that any cyclist unfamiliar with the rigors of peddling in traffic would find daunting. Yet once broken free of the dusty roads of the main town — and cycling is a most excellent means of transport even if for the sole effectiveness of making the rider tuk-tuk-proof — we made our way north, along one of several main roads, only to find out that tickets were needed in advance.

This is the face of a man in control of his destiny.

This is the face of a man clearly in control of his destiny.

Also, this is the part where I recommend you play this music as you continue reading.

Regrettably, I came to realize that my enjoyment of experiencing Angkor Wat was directly proportional to the agony of the intense sunburns I acquired from the boat ride.

 

The fortress temple city of Angkor Wat ("Capital Temple").

The fortress temple city of Angkor Wat (“Capital Temple”). Pic taken Thursday, February 27th 2015, approximately 800 years after it was built.

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Two of my travel companions under the bullet-hole pockmarked archway entrance of Angkor Wat.

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We aren’t certain, but after seeing a multitude of places structures similar to this, we figured that – even if it wasn’t true – it would seem quite fitting for this to be full of water.

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Outside the main city, along the outer rim.

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Within any multitude of the structures, I could not help but feel the same sense of stony austerity as I’ve always felt in caves, museums and old libraries.

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Angkor Thom (lit. “Great/Capital City”) was also built over 800 years ago, but one could feel a different sense of craftmanship in the stone.

 


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Throughout my explorations with my friends here, I could not shake thoughts of all the games I’ve played and stories I’ve enjoyed. What I saw was the inspiration for countless temples whose depths I had plumbed for riches and glory, and as I set my feet upon the stone of ages, I found myself looking warily for traps.

We even debated on what the colossus would look like from this place, a la Shadow of the Colossus.

The bloody history witnessed in Phnom Penh inspired awe, the ancient past witnessed in Siem Reap inspired awe as well – but a most different form of the emotion.

Traveling in Cambodia inspired in me quite the range of emotions, and I have garnered memories from which inspiration for my writing is easily drawn.

But beyond that I want to encourage everyone to consider putting Cambodia on their list of places to go.

With common sense in action, it is a safe place to be. The locals are friendly and $10 will feed you for the day even in the touristy areas.

I can very easily dip into the thriftyness and cost effectiveness of this stuff, but I may dedicate a finance-oriented blog post to that sort of thing. This is more about the experience, one I will never forget – both because of the sights I saw, and having shared the sights with the close friends with whom I was traveling.

But the place is the American Wild West, like I described in my last post. Caution should be exercised at all times. Tuk-tuk drivers are generally rather pushy, something for which the country is famous. But, more than once, late at night while walking along the street, there were occasionally more overt propositions.

“Tuk-tuk?”
“No thanks.”
“Okay. You want drugs?”
“No…”
“Heroine? Cocaine? Marijuana…?”

One could argue that this is part of the charm. After all, accessibility to this sort of thing, in addition to prostitution and a whole pile of unaccountability is what draws many foreigners to this place. As such a large chunk of the economy is geared toward this, it is a sad thing to see in practice.

Yet, whether you are in a group, or traveling solo, I couldn’t recommend anything more than traveling.

And you could do worse than Cambodia.

The contrast of life is sublime there. In the face of tremendous tragedy, the people fight to better their lives in the best ways that they can. There is a dark underbelly beneath the ruins of ancient civilizations about which much the world has heard nothing.

I am so glad I went.

Cambodia – A Tattered Nation

I have returned from quite the journey. This is in part why my posts have been lacking. And, having returned, I have a number of stories to tell from my travels.

Living in Sai Gon, Viet Nam, the Lunar New Year (or rather what many other nations know as Chinese New Year) loomed over this country much in the same way Christmas and [Gregorian] New Year’s does over the nation I left behind. They call it Tet Holiday here, and it is undisputedly the number one event in Viet Nam.

As such, many locals take this time to flee the city and return to their hometowns around the country to visit family. Most people have up to one week off, while others sometimes have as much as two. In a city where I’ve met people who work seven days a week with one day off per month, coupled with the layers of tradition that so permeate the culture here, pretty much every aspect of life, many weeks before the holiday, is geared towards the holiday itself.

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This is what happens when a profound hat-wearer, such as myself, encounters something Tet-Holiday-related that is profoundly in need of a hat.

 

Naturally, foreigners living here such as myself are affected by this, as much of Sai Gon empties of locals during Tet. Most expats are allotted vacation during this time as well, whether they work for official companies or their jobs are a bit more independent – such as in my case, where much of my student base is out of town anyway. Thus, the annual stage is set for vacation for many, and my case was no exception.

The plans began with the arrival of four friends flying in from New York, beloved peers I had left behind when I set out from home Ashitaka-style. Fast-forward eight or nine months, and I was waiting at the Tan Son Nhat Airport of Sai Gon after midnight. They landed, made it through customs, and I embraced each of them in turn around 3:00am.

Subsequent days were spent touring Sai Gon, and I was able to show them a few delights of this city I’ve come to love. Vegetarian restaurants, a surprise Cat Café I did not know existed, and the positively divine mango smoothies available. Not to mention the usual landmarks; Ben Thanh Market, the Post Office and mini-Notre Dame, and the usual motley of mad things to be seen in this city that I’ve gotten used to seeing.

Mad motorbike traffic, motor-bike taxis sleeping on their bikes in the middle of the day, people cooking food on the street. The cacophony of horns, the occasional smell of sewage drifting up from grates in the street, the glances from locals that are just as often smiles as they are scowls.

Boy, I love this town.

You wouldn’t guess from its appearance, but a little alleyway filled with cheap blue plastic chairs, located just off Bui Vien Street (the center of the center, in terms of tourists and backpackers), happens to be the best smoothie place in town.

In any case, the real adventure began when we established an itinerary to Cambodia. Having lived in Viet Nam for as long as I did, I actually have done very little traveling. My only understanding of Cambodia was: just some country nearby. I saw it once – passing over it in a plane to Thailand – and getting there was remarkably easy.

Many foreigners living in Sai Gon, with intentions of extending their stay, make runs to Cambodia to hop over the border and return with a fresh three-month visa, so I had heard about it often enough from them.

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My party and I took a bus from Sai Gon to Phnom Penh, and crossed the border at the Moc Bai gate without incident. Throughout this entire journey, I could remember the words written to me from family many months ago, concerned about my mental health for even mentioning going to Cambodia. For those expatriates seeking to merely renew their Vietnamese tourist visa, the process is simpler and does not even require continuing to the Cambodian capital. Our goals were different, of course, as the star event of this journey was the fortress temple of Angkor Wat.

But this post is not about Angkor Wat. Not yet. Nor is this post meant to describe our journey there in any great detail. Not yet.

This post is intended to be about Cambodia as a country, and why it’s a place you ought to know more about.

There is something universally abhorrent about genocide. But it is also easily written and understood as “a word that means something really bad.” We find it instead easier to focus on matters that directly affect our lives – as opposed to the lives of people on the other side of the planet.

This is natural. This is human.

Cambodia is a struggling South East Asian country whose recent history is rife with conflict. I don’t claim to be an expert on the histories of the Khmer Empire, or the current monarchy, or the Khmer Rouge himself, but I have read things, seen things, felt things.

I remember approaching this statue and thinking, "Wow, wouldn't that be awesome if it was made out of guns like the Iron Throne...wait..."

I remember approaching this statue and thinking, “Wow, wouldn’t that be awesome if it was made out of guns like the Iron Throne…wait…”

Those of us from the West most readily associate the word genocide with the Holocaust of World War 2. While it remains a staggering and breath-stealing example of what humans – not aliens, not orcs, not robots; just fellow humans – are capable of, the Holocaust is far from the most recent on such a wide scale.

In fact, even to me – a huge fan of the story Maus by Art Spiegelman, and myself a former Jew – feel very little personal connection to the Holocaust. The mists of time have fogged a screen over it, relegating the Holocaust to a historical event from a long time ago.

But in the history classes of my so-called education, I don’t think there was a single mentioning of the Khmer Rouge. No one talked about Nelson Mendela or Rwanda, either. I wonder whether the excerpts of these things have appeared in public school history books at all, and I wonder whether I don’t recall mention of them simply because there was no personal connection from me – and thus, I simply forgot.

As of this post, I am approaching my 29th year of life on this spinning marble. But I’ve had more life-changing experiences in these last two years than the rest of my life combined. I’ve written about one or two of them.

There is a museum in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, known simply as the Genocide Museum. Most of the touristy hotspot things to see in Phnom Penh revolve around the former dictatorship of the Khmer Rouge; the Genocide Museum, the Killing Fields, things of that nature.

I and my party decided that, as visitors of this country, we felt an obligation to see this museum. Most tourists came to places like Cambodia to have a good time, and the landmarks of Phnom Penh are far from uplifting – and there was universal agreement that we should expose ourselves to the truth and the bad, rather than keep ourselves wrapped up in tourist bubbles as most people tend to do.

To call the museum a tourist attraction would be like calling Auschwitz an amusement park.

Long ago, this place was a school for children. Then when the Khmer Rouge took over and commenced his genocide of educated, artistic people (especially targeting those people of certain ethnic persuasions), the school was converted into an interrogation camp.

Pay the fee, take your ticket, pass through the gate. The sounds of the city behind us faded as austere silence permeated the courtyard. Birds tweeted, wind rustled the branches of the trees that dotted the concrete walkways. No one spoke among us and my party dispersed about the main square.

It took some time for me to organize the mix of emotions and cognitive thoughts swirling in my brain while walking from one room to the next. The rooms themselves were mostly barren, save for an occasional lone bed-frame with a few rusted chains and manacles upon it. Upon the wall of some rooms, a large photo could be seen on display, showing the unidentifiable body of a man or woman who had been subjected to the interrogation.

These were pictures taken presumably after the place was stormed and the guards fled. I could see the black and white depiction of a tiled floor  — the same tiles upon which I stood upon, gazing at the image — covered in blood. I saw limbs strapped to the bed-frame, a dripping, heavy metal rod nearby. The imagery was the very definition of the term graphic.

Other rooms had walls covered in photos of people who died there; mugshots of Cambodian men and women and children, some of them smiling. Display cases bore small piles of “clothes worn by prisoners,” and when walking about the rooms one had to watch one’s step, as there could be found the occasional steel ring hammered into the floor.

I can remember feeling my eyes get misty. I can remember hearing other tourists walking and chatting as they passed from room to room. My friends were each affected heavily by this; as it was our second day in Cambodia, but their fifth day in South East Asia. The direct-exposure to poverty on this side of the planet affected everyone, though I know I had gone through that initial shock mothers prior.

The museum instilled each of us in turn with strong emotions.

One among us found herself so nauseated she had to find a bathroom, where she emptied the contents of her stomach.

Another found himself so overwhelmed by what I can only describe as the energy of that place that he had to leave. I didn’t see him go, but I later learned that it took about fifteen minutes for the emotions to overwhelm him before he went to wait for us outside the entrance.

I, for one, found myself increasingly worn with each room. There were at least two main buildings, each with five or so floors – I barely got past the ground floor on each building before I couldn’t handle it myself.

I found another travel-mate outside in the courtyard, sat a book’s chuck distance away. After awhile I moved closer, saying only “I don’t know why, but I don’t want to sit alone.”

I remember feeling simple animal kinship in that moment. As though despite any differences in upbringing, creed, bloodline, education, or preference were all invented as a means to divide us and forget a very fundamental fact:

Human animals. We are all human animals.

We waited quietly for the rest of our group, unsure where everyone was at that moment. I sat thinking about whether it was appropriate to break the silence. Eventually I did, expressing that very thought.

My companion informed me that while he had been walking, he happened by a group of other tourists. They weren’t nearly as affected as we were. Some even pointed at the photos and laughed.

Whether these people were making light of the severity in order to cope with what they were taking in, or they were genuinely insensitive people, I will never know. Regardless, their mere utterance of words in that place seemed taboo to me.

There was a time when I wondered whether I was an empath. I used to feel things other people couldn’t – or maybe it was my imagination at work, inventing reasons to feel more special in a world of mundanity.

The Genocide Museum (among other places) did not instill me with anything beyond what my cognitive senses brought me. While my friends might have felt them, I certainly didn’t feel any “ghost residue” as I had been half-expecting.

No, the Genocide Museum is a place of solemn recollection. Seeing bedframes used for unspeakable tortures, photographs of victims before and after, or passing under trees in the courtyard whose bark probably drank of the blood of those lashed to them … it leaves an impression.

And in spite of it all, this recent history, the people of Cambodia struggle on. The people of these various war-torn countries exemplify a resilience such as I can scarcely imagine.

I remember walking with Thorneater later that day, and we talked of our experience. Only one word came to describe that afternoon.

Awe.

Awe at what humans — not aliens, not orcs, not robots; just fellow humans — can do.

And what they, for whatever reasons or under whatever pretexts, they cannot feel.

And yet I’m increasingly convinced that people are inherently good. We are all just animals, this I heartily believe, but when men, women and children from countries that suffered atrocities of immeasurable horror can be so open and welcoming to strangers, it gives a sense of hope such as I’ve never really felt back in New York.

I decided before, and though brief homesickness and life obstacles shook me once or twice, that I can’t go back and leave this all behind.

Review: Groundhog Day

Every now and then I am either compelled, reminded, or otherwise happen across the chance to see a movie that apparently the rest of the world has already enjoyed. Even if I am more than twenty years late to the party.

Groundhog Day is a story about Phil Connor, a rather selfish and egocentric character who I can best describe as likeable only in that sort of way that Bill Murray can so lovingly depict. In other words, Murray plays himself, though with a few extra layers of smarminess and egocentrism.

But then, possibly every character I’ve ever seen Billy Murray play (even as himself) is usually among the most self-assured people in whatever movie he graces.

At any rate, what makes Groundhog Day so memorable is the Time Loop Trope it apparently named. According to TVtropes.org, this movie isn’t the first example of the trope, but it did introduce it to popular culture. And to pretty good effect; Groundhog Day is considered a commercial and critical success, lauded by many as a beloved classic.

One wonders how I didn’t get around to seeing this sooner. It came out in 1993, which incidentally is the time of my earliest memory with a date attached to it — being in elementary school, writing the heading atop some essay or assignment, and constantly being reminded by peers and the teacher:

“No, Jesse, it’s not 1993 anymore. The year ended last week.”

More to the point, Groundhog Day is considered a Fantasy – but not in the sense the likes of which I usually write about on this blog. While there is arguable time travel going on here, there is no real science-fiction element either. Even in a number of fantasy stories, there are explanations for the events, even if such events are “hand waved” away with a simple solution:

BecauseMagic

But in this film, no explanation is offered, and from the very beginning we’re forced to follow along with the protagonist. Explanationless.

And you know, I think the movie really benefits from that. Without any attempt to really make the situation believable, we can instead sit back and focus on what really matters: the characters and how they react to the setting and each other. Besides, it’s more or less a comedy, and comedies aren’t known for the most feasible of plots.

Leaving the “explanation” portion of a story like this blank frees the writer(s) of a lot of responsibility, too. I for one am thoroughly glad there was no shoehorned reason for the Time Loop. It could have easily been terribly screwed up, especially if there was some sort of religious undertone to the events in the story.

Which is something that can be found (by those who look for it) anywhere.

This can backfire, though. There’re YouTube shows and other blogs dedicated to everything wrong with certain movies, or even just endings. Bad endings, open endings, unexplained endings, surprise endings, and cliffhangers. I did not get a sense of any of these having completed Groundhog Day. I only had that sense of bottled-finality and “all’s well,” in typical early-nineties Hollywood movies, a type of ending I’m not necessarily opposed to, but it does get old.

Two-thirds into Groundhog Day, though, I was right alongside the protagonist in his explorations of ending the Time Loop. Even the montage of suicides resulted in nothing but the snap-back to the six-o-clock indicator that the next Loop had begun. Black comedy at it’s best.

I, for one, readily confess that I might’ve found myself driven quite mad were I in a similar situation. Phil Connors certainly loses his mind — multiple times — but more than anything, this is a story of change. The character changes.

That’s an essential element to an effective story I’ve touched on before.

After getting over a bout of spiralling depression, madness and despair, Phil Connors sets about utilizing what is, at this point of the story, now viewed as an abundance of the most valuable resource in the 3rd Dimension: time.

Phil Connors discovers he has unlimited time.

The Persistence of Memory, by the Dali Lama. Wait, no — Salvador Dali. I always get the two confused.

Whether or not he’s actually aging during the Time Loop is uncertain (though I personally think that roughly a year of groundhog days has come and gone), but he certainly uses his time well: paying $1,000 to assure himself a piano lesson every day, for who knows how many days. We see him reading heavy literature, perfecting ice sculpture, and arriving at various places around town just in time to help people out with problems small and dire.

Catching a kid falling from a tree is possibly a bit more impactful to the space/time continuum than changing the flat of a car for three old ladies, but then, the movie doesn’t explore that aspect of things. Rather, it focuses on the fact that in spite of there being no consequences, Bill Murray’s character comes to utilize his time well.

The lack of explanation for the Groundhog Day Loop also leaves it open that it could, at least within the precepts of the story, happen to any one of us, at any time. We are then offered the question: What would we do in such a situation?

I suspect that the majority of us would follow through with the rough scheme that Phil Connors did. After the initial adjustment, there would be some experimentation. Following assurance of there being no consequences, there would be indulgence. Theft, breaking the law in various other ways, and for some of us, perhaps even the manipulation of people we find sexually appealing. Eventually, though, that would get boring, and the next stage would be to find a way out.

Providing the Death Clause is in effect (if you die, you still wake up at the start of the “next” day), then, as Black Sabbath once put it, I suspect we would all be going off the rails on a crazy train.

Would the whole redemption phase happen for all of us? Is the idea of change and redemption required for said Time Loop to end, or would similar Time Loops for other people sometimes end prematurely, before certain individuals had a chance to grow? In such a case they’d just start the next day a broken and mentally crippled person.

I suppose that’d be a slightly different kind of movie.

In any case, I dug it. It has a slow start – enough so to empty my living room of English Learners after the first twenty minutes – but the payoff is well worth it. Go see it if you haven’t already, and if you have, hey, I guess we just got something more in common.

Game Review: Radiant Defense


I haven’t done a game review in a long time. This is largely in part because I’ve hardly played any games, especially since moving to Sai Gon. There is, however, something of a gaming community here, one that I’ve only recently partaken in, and lets just say it’s more than comforting to meet fellow birds of a feather.

Today, though, I’m focusing on a mobile game, one I’ve played in the past and recently downloaded again. Radiant Defense is a title released by Hexage Games, and in a nutshell it can be compared to most other Tower Defense games you or I have played. It stands out, however, with it’s radiance.

This game is heavily saturated with color, and in recent years I’ve come to understand my own personal aesthetic attraction toward bright colors. I love when women dye their hair some unnatural shade of the rainbow, or watching vibrantly painted motorbikes speed by, and even my favorite shirts are very “loud” (though solid) colors. The Candy-esque colors of Bangkok taxis were rather appealing, and the motley of mad skittles-themed clothing from hippies and mountain-tribes alike is fascinating to me.

 

Radiant Defense delivers in the eye-candy department.

It’s a free download, too, though there are expected micro-transactions. When I first played this game – perhaps a year and a half before this post – I did so avidly. During that time, I spent a lot of time on buses or trains during a commute from Woodstock, NY to Manhattan, and had ample time to read or listen to music. More often, though, I used that time to try downloadable mobile games from the Google Play Store.

Apparently it’s available on Steam, too, though not for free. I wager it contains all the tower upgrades.

The same company released an earlier game simply entitled Radiant, a game designed in the loving memory of early top-down shooters – such as Galaga. The developers don’t shy away from making references to such games, even referring to one of the multitude of flying enemy aliens as Galagan in origin. Well, says I, why not? It is most apropos.

Have videogames taught you nothing? Of course ship-sized bugs can fly through space with wings.

 

A cool thing is that Radiant and Radiant Defense do, in fact, occur in the same universe. There’s a special object that can be unlocked called the Eye of the Allfather, granting the ability to use Psionic Terrorshock – a map-wide slow that can make or break a stage. The flavor text for the structure reads as follows:

Vat-grown and stabilized ocular belonging to a terrifying alien specimen that’s believed to be the great ancestor of all alien lifeforms. Genetic material needed for its reproduction had been scraped off the battle-worn starship “Radiant” shortly after the legendary Sergent Max Blaster re-emerged from the past.

Galagan indeed.

There’ve been some complaints about Radiant Defense. After reaching a certain point, progression becomes extremely challenging, if not impossible, unless you purchase upgrades from the in-game store. I myself have in fact gotten a few, as much because I enjoy the game and wanted to support the developer as required them to move on.

At $0.99 each, an upgrade will unlock a number of new towers, meaning I’ve spent a grand total of $1.98 on this game.

And I am stingy as hell in general, let alone with online game purchases. I’m not being sponsored by Hexane games either for that matter – I’ve never received any benefit for my reviews except the for the satisfaction of having put some words out in the embroiling mass of tendrils known as the internet.

In any case, I like this game. Enough to have actually spent money on it. The writing and story is respectably minimal, too – it’s a Tower Defense, how much story is actually necessary for such a game to continue?

There is a little lampshading, though, which adds to the campy humor. Tower Defense games, by their very nature, don’t really follow any kind of logic in terms of actual warfare. You build towers that continually mow down relentless waves of mindless enemies running in a line. To those unfamiliar with this genre, that might sound boring – and in some games, it is. But Radiant: Defense has a mix of interesting towers and peculiar enemies that make it stand out among many other TD’s I’ve tried.

For the record, the best tower defense I’ve ever played, that echoes in my memory as possibly the one to rule them all, wasn’t a standalone game, but rather a modded custom level for Warcraft 3: Frozen Throne. You can download the map here, if you happen to have that game still kicking around in your harddrive.

This’s a reference that’ll click with approximately three of you.

 

Aside from the word radiant being one of my top favorite words — aside which you’ll find the words ambientnoticeable, and amiable, you should try Radiant: Defense.

Like Minds

Let’s start things off with a good old-fashioned apology.

I’ve been writing less. Not only in the blog department, but the fiction department as well. As the old adage goes, when you’re a writer, you’re either writing or your constantly thinking that you should be writing. I remain guilty of this, sure, but what I won’t do is list off reasons I’ve neglected to pursue what I claim to be the namesake of my  supposed passion.

I will, though, take a moment to inform you that things are expected to pick up soon. These last two months have been rife with stress, obstacles and distractions, and while more are on the horizon (the good kind, as in planned travel adventures), I feel very strongly about what will happen in the near future. Good things a’coming, as far as writing is concerned.

Lately I’ve been spending more time teaching English than I’ve been doing other things. I’ve been doing it in a variety of situations; teaching groups of adults in my home, individuals in their homes, meeting in cafes and even wrangling a small group of young kids. But none of that compares to teaching in a public school, the most recent gig I managed to acquire. Being held responsible for teaching a group of 20-25 screaming children brought to mind imagery of Kindergarten Cop.

Minus the whole cop thing.

But perhaps more interesting is the chance meeting of like minds. Here in Sài Gòn, there are activity groups for things I did not know existed – such as a square dancing group. And geek/nerd boardgame groups. There, in a delightfully secluded and comfortable café known as Cliche Coffee, over in Downtown Sài Gòn, we meet to play fantasy and science-fiction themed boardgames – some of which took me by surprise on how awesome they are.

This game is so rad I might have to devote a blog post to it.

 

Just as much for the games themselves are, of course, the joy of having like company. For those just tuning in, yes I live in Sài Gòn, but more the point, as of the writing of this post, I’m living in the outskirts of the city, far from other foreigners and surrounded by millions of Vietnamese. I chose this for a number of reasons, but in recent months have come to learn a number of things — not only about the culture, but about myself.

For one thing: turns out I’m not quite as antisocial as I may have thought I was. Turns out I rather enjoy the company of other people, and while I’ve made some great (local) friends, there really is something special about hanging out with people who’ve read the same books, played the same games, and seen the same movies as you. I’ve come to learn I need to interact other geeks; it helps pull my head out of the dust and poverty of outskirts Sài Gòn, helps me remember there’s a wide world out there, and that — yes, as a matter of fact — there’re people around who have an interest in fantasy and science fiction.

I’ve been told by a number of folks that they couldn’t live the way I do. I see why and was able to carry on. Surrounded by nearly everyone who cannot speak your language, that’s tough enough as it is. Sài Gòn is an industrial town; everyone is studying to work in accounting, or construction, or engineering. There are very few creatives to be found, and even if there were, they’re hard to find.

People have seen some of my doodles laying around and haven’t remarked things like “Hey, neat,” or “Oh cool, a dragon,” or even “You call that art?” Nah, the reaction I mostly get is: “Gee, you have a lot of free time, don’t you?”

That is, of course, not to come as any surprise in a developing country. Creative projects such as writing novels or making sculptures and paintings seems to be relegated to privileged people. As with so many things, it’s one thing to live a comparatively cushy life in America and read this stuff in books; it’s quite another to see it first-hand.

But back to the idea of like minds — not only have there been discoveries of fellow geeks in Sai Gon, a possibility I did not even entertain in the past, but some friends from my hometown will actually be headed over to this side of the planet. Serving as an anchor, the “point man,” if you will, I’ve essentially opened a door for others to follow and see this mad, wondrous country in which I currently live and work.

I’ll get into more details in a future post, but suffice it to say the idea of having four friends — one of whom being none other than the Firebeard, the Thorneater himself — fly to meet me here has me most excited. Việt Nam is a veritable fantasy realm, as I’ve said in the past, rife with strange culture, food, people and landscapes.

Being able to provide the first few steps into this place is something I’ve learned I’ve thoroughly come to enjoy.

Hutts, Hobbits and Hogwarts

It’s difficult to have a fantasy-themed blog and ignore the Hobbit movies.

I rewatched the first two within the last month. As of this post, I saw the third and final one a few days ago.

As any self-described fantasist, it is more than a movie-going experience.

It’s research!

And with the release of the final Prequel movies, it is only natural to be reinvigorated to experience the Lord of the Rings trilogy, again, shortly afterward. With the full set of six movies viewable to the public, the only other serieseseseses to rival it might be Harry Potter, or Star Wars.

Seeing as the Imperials were held up by a bunch of ewoks, giant war elephants might actually pose a problem.

Star Trek doesn’t count here because 1) It was a television series and as such in a different category of storytelling, and 2) I never got into it, so I don’t know enough background information to compare.

I’m not here to tell you which of these are better, as they each have their merits. Sometimes I’m in a Star Wars mood, and while I’m in the camp of people trying to ignore the existence of the prequels, there is something nostalgic about it that fills me with wonder and excitement. Most distinctly I recall losing a few hours to the Angry Birds: Star Wars edition.

Really, Jesse? Angry Birds Star Wars?

This is inherently stupid, I know. It is a simple game, made all the more interesting with its various themes, but what struck me most was the sound, and music clips, among the silly squawks and simplified storyline.

The bloody sound effects and music clips made the Star Wars universe feel more real, in a strange way. They evoked a sense of Star Wars that I never got from watching the movies – the vastness of it, which no doubt is explored in the novelizations and spin-offs as well. I’ll look into those, as Star Wars is really considered more of a Fantasy than Science Fiction anyway.

Though some call it “Science Fantasy.”

Harry Potter, on the other hand, is a significantly more personal story than either mainlines to be found in Middle-Earth or the Galactic Republic. There are clear reasons for this; Harry Potter centers around the life of one person, and is not an Epic Fantasy so much as it is the story of personal growth. The target audience is itself hard to pin down, as well. The earlier books/movies appear geared towards children, with the usual tropes of friendship and “making the right choices” obvious themes, but the Harry Potter stories get noticeably darker as time passes. They mature with the audience.

I remember being in 7th Grade, around age thirteen or fourteen, when Harry Potter first came out and exploded in popularity. At three years older than Daniel Radcliff, it was interesting to seemingly grow and mature alongside the release of those movies. There is a very, very large following of people who are affected significantly more than I was by these stories, but the simple parallel of growing up, seeing the world differently, around the same time Harry Potter gradually lost any rosy views of the world, sticks with me.

I feel like this one has been done to death, but I like it.

But in the end, of the three, I think I am Middle-Earth kind of guy, despite why I stopped reading Tolkien. Star Wars is fun, and while the mainline movies are accessible to all ages and are quite family-friendly, I’m aware that the spin-offs — games, books, and the like — touch on dark subjects, yet I find myself not drawn in the same way.

The Harry Potter universe has a distinct British flavor to it, for obvious and unremarkable reasons, which can also be seen in Lord of the Rings (just not quite as prominently) … and this is not so much of a detriment, as it is just something of a barrier. As an American, there’s a certain Britishness to Harry Potter that is distinctly foreign to me, making it just a little bit harder harder to relate to.

For example, a lot of American movies will portray the situation as dire, threatening the city of New York or Los Angeles, and I get that as someone who’s spent considerable time in New York. But having never been to London, having the name more or less just mean “a big city across the ocean,” I find the Harry Potter series to be very Anglo-Centric. At most, it is Euro-Centric.

Is that bad? Not necessarily. No more than if I were to weave you a story about the imminent conquest of Sai Gon by a trio of wizardly sisters.

So why Middle-Earth? Or Azeroth? Or any incarnation of those worlds seen in Final Fantasy or the Legend of Zelda? What makes those worlds – who have been inspired by all kinds of cultures, and in some cases invented by Japanese or American writers – so much more relatable to me?

Let’s try wording it this way.

When I want an inspiring story about personal growth and the value of loyalty and friendship, I turn to Harry Potter.

If I’m looking for something a bit more whimsical in terms of suspending my disbelief (lazer swords and sonar bombs in outer space are a bit more difficult for me to grasp than magic wands and sorting hats), then I’ll turn towards Star Wars.

But when it comes to quintessential fantasy — the kind of places I dream about dying and being reborn in — we can start talking about the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. And I don’t even count myself as an expert on Tolkienien Lore — or even a hardcore fan. I did see each and every movie in the theaters though, eager to gain a sore butt in exchange for an epic adventure such as never before portrayed on film.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s worlds, however different and remastered as they might actually be from today’s popular recreations, are far from the only ones available to us, and I’ll be among the first to tell you that as much praise as I’m offering here, they’re not my favorite settings. There’s Azeroth ([World of] Warcraft), or Ravnica (Magic: The Gathering), or Toril (D&D), or even The World of Balance/Ruin (Final Fantasy 6).

But the movies are delightful. I could rant on and on about how the one book was stretched into three movies, but frankly I’m tired of that. The fact of the matter is that three spectacular movies exist now, and while I might have my disagreements, I’m glad they exist. They’re fun to share, discuss, and experience.

And besides, Peter Jackson’s supposed obsession with threes could learn a thing or two to Gabe Newell, if you ask me.