Thai Adventures (Pt. 2) Tiger Kingdom

When I went to Thailand, I saw a variety of things, but among the utter coolest was being in the presence of living, breathing tigers.

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I have often subscribed to the identity of a variety of animals. Between growing up in the forest and taking the phrase “monkeying around” to a whole new level with my habit of knuckle-walking, it may come as little surprise that I found characters such as Tarzan (particularly from the Disney animated movie) to be quite boss.

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This is how I legit walk around when crouched, do push-ups, or nudge open doors or press buttons when I prefer to not touch dirty door handles, such as those found in a public bathroom.

But as much as I enjoy to emulate apes, there are a number of other animals to which one might simply call my totem creatures. No, I did not learn any of this from some shaman, nor did I have any animalistic dreams where I spoke to one or more of the following creatures.

These are merely beasts whose traits I either find admirable or familiar.

I’ll feel a kinship with wolves when I am in the company of most dogs. A sense of brotherhood, common goals, or when I otherwise simply feel inclined to work with others as a cohesive unit. Humans are pack animals after all (though considering modern trends, one may be more inclined to say “heard animals,” *cough cough* Black Friday), but generally when it comes to following the crowd or going with the flow, I’ve always identified with the whole Lone Wolf stereotype. Lone wolves generally don’t lead happy, productive or comfortable lives, though, and part of their loneliness may or may not be ascribed to over-confidence in themselves (or perhaps a downright lack of confidence in others). In any case, I dig wolves, for both their ability to work together as a team, their demonstration of intelligence and even compassion.

When I’m feeling more solitary, I’ll identify with bears, but not in that same lone wolf sense. Merely lumbering throughout life with simplistic goals and desires; sleeping, eating, sex’ing. Granted all animals have said goals, but when it comes to a typical bear’s life, they don’t have a whole lot to worry about except the distance between meals. I feel bear-like (not to be confused with bearish) when I’m feeling peaceful, going through the day(s) at a slower, easy pace, with nothing particularly unpredictable or stressful happening. Just going about life as a simple “natural” individual, using one’s skills (like a bear uses its strength) to overcome a variety of obstacles in the world.

Then there are tigers.

These are creatures I’ve always liked as well, but never really had the chance to really appreciate. Wolves I’ve met vicariously through thousands of dogs, and bears are a common neighbor in my childhood home.

I’ve identified with cats when I’m feeling aloof, independent, even selfish. Unlike canines, many felines tend to be solitary by default, and in their natural state don’t seem to regard other creatures with the respect we might see within a pack of wolves, or humans for that matter. And while solitary, they differ from the attitude of a bear in that while a cat, no matter the size or species, is a stalker, not a bumbling forager.

Granted, I’m fully aware there’re a number of bears that will hunt and kill, but in terms of overall attitude I suppose I’m referring to that of a black bear, which is not a particularly aggressive species (and one with which I have a passing familiarity having grown up in the Catskills of New York).

But being around a tiger is more than being around some over-sized house cat.

Having left the Chiang Mai old city by a “bus-taxi” vehicle, I attempted to reach my Swedish Sister, but as had been the case since using getting my Thai-based traveler’s SIM card, outbound calls didn’t really work; only inbound calls, WiFi access, and limited 3G.

At any rate, having arrived Tiger Kingdom, and unable to reach my contact, I did the next best thing: I walked into the open-air lobby, filled with trinkets and shirts and other tiger-themed merchandise, and introduced myself.

“Jesse,” I said a second time, “Friend of Vicky.” The girl at the reception regarded me for a moment; a fedora-sporting, blond-haired white guy with a bulbous backpack, and must of decided I looked thoroughly touristy enough. She lead me ten paces away to someone standing with a posture that screamed gate keeper.

“Hello, I’m Jesse, friend of—”

“—from Viet Nam?”

“Yes,” I said, relief washing over me. I turned and saw that from the open-air lobby/tourist-receiving area, I could see right into one of the multiple enclosures. Within, though distant, I could see a black-striped, creamsicle-colored animal pacing calmly along the far side. White tourists in tank-tops and shorts stood or walked nearby.

Upon confirming who I was, the gate keeper, who went by the name of Louie, announced to the mostly-vacant lobby that all ticket-holders would now follow him in as the next group was allowed entry. He gestured I follow him with a jerk of his head.

Free admission after all, eh? YES.

Considering everything I would see, it would normally have cost upwards of maybe 1,000 baht ($30 or so).

A short walk later, and I was brought to my Swedish Sister. There she sat, chatting with some Thai co-workers, and as I approached the chattiness for which I remembered her most fondly quickly reinstated itself. We caught up on a variety of topics; things we’ve done, our romantic lives, progress on our respective language-exposure and acquisition.

I won’t say whose learned more in the last two months, but it is safe to say she knows more Thai than myself, and I’ve come to learn more Vietnamese than her.

Which is, of course, nothing unexpected.

The Chatty Swede then went about showing me around Tiger Kingdom, and I found myself treated not only to seeing what tourists saw, but also a few behind-the-scenes areas as well. I saw enclosures containing lounging juvenile tigers, cages housing a few screaming newborns, a pen in which scrambled rambunctious cubs, and in the distance (where tourists were not allowed), I saw the pacing of majestic adults.

I asked my questions, as I harbor a curiosity for absolutely everything, both in regards to Tiger Kingdom as well as the animals themselves, and I learned a lot that day. Eventually we came back to the area where there rested our backpacks, and sat on the concrete stoop.

“Are you ready?” she asked. I blinked.

“Ready for what?”

I knew that having an inside-contact would allow me to actually see and touch the tigers, but now that I was finally here, seeing the great cats had me feeling more than a little hyper-aware of my surroundings.

These were some big animals, and while the keepers played with them, fed them, cleaned them, and the tigers were overall very healthy and happy-looking, not a moment passed when I did not look upon the creatures and think: “Yes. That is a tiger. This is a top predator that could end me in about as much time as it would take me to realize I would be ended.”

I asked whether there were any special concerns I ought to be aware of. Thinking back on The Lost World: Jurassic Park, I recalled the part where the animal-expert Sarah Harding informs the other characters that the dinosaurs’ sense of smell is so advanced they’ll detect cigarette smoke, deodorant, or any otherwise unnatural scent and probably be irritated by it.

With a laugh, undoubtedly at my expense, I was assured that my deodorant would not be an issue.

Inside the enclosure, behind a set of air-lock-like portcullises, the tigers were calm, and the keepers/trainers employed a simple technique that allowed visitors like me to come in and touch them. With toys made from leaves tied to the end of bamboo sprigs, the tigers had the majority of their attention focused on the fast-moving objects in a most cat-like manner.

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Being near a tiger, calm and unthreatened as they were, I found myself acutely aware of everything. I paid attention to the way they moved, the direction of their ears, what they looked at when walking or laying down. They moved about with carefully measured steps as one might expect from any feline, but also with the heavier, slow pace of bears. Though the largest ones I got near were still not fully grown, the tigers were immense, and as I stood taking pictures and video, I remember a moment where I felt inclined to inform my Swedish Sister that while I was not exactly afraid, I senses were on high alert.

It was at that exact moment I looked over my shoulder and saw a particularly large tiger laying down right behind me. The animal did not exhibit any abnormal behavior; it merely felt inclined to situate itself comfortably with a view of my back, just barely at arm’s reach.

Visitors were always discouraged from touching the tiger’s front paws and face, even with the cubs, and the tigers themselves were always reminded to not follow people – as their instinct is to keep behind other animals.

I saw tigers nuzzling, playing in the pool, lounging stresslessly about. As I touched – actually touched – tigers, I could feeling their hair comparable to the springer fibers we use to scrub our dishes. Corded, rippling musculature flexed beneath beautiful coats, and even holding a tiger’s tail, all in itself, was a memory to cherish. You’d be surprised how heavy a tiger’s tail is.

These are all details that are easy to forget when writing not only about a tiger, but about large animals in general. I will always remember this experience not only because it was simply awesome, but because contact with the tigers broadened my scope of description. When I write about fantastical creatures, aspects of animals I’ve been around, such as these tigers, will hopefully be enriched by such an experience, translated to words on the page.

The tigers demonstrated playfulness not only with each other, but with the trainers. These were tamed, sociable, intelligent creatures with individual personalities and quirks. It ought to come as no surprise that the more we study any animal, the more likely we are to find staggering discoveries that hey, you wouldn’t believe it, but animals are more intelligent than we give them credit for.

I’ve heard it said (usually by religious people) that animals are bereft of feeling. This, of course, is merely self-serving nonsense that allows for people to consume them, or otherwise exploit them, with minimal guilt.

I’ll cut that particular rant short and stop there, as that’s quite the tangent.

Almost nothing compares to being the presence of tigers, and when encouraged to kneel and pose for pictures with the things, I was described, in terms of types of visitors, as “one of the awkward ones.”

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And why oughtn’t I be? [This was not posed.]

But, apparently, there are tourists who show very little regard for the rules set by the trainers, rules I consider to be common sense.

As a respecter of most animals (as I derive comfort from the notion that, somewhere, there is a special place in some cosmic hell for parasites like mosquitoes and ticks), I find it hard to believe that any fool would enter a tiger kingdom and try to do precisely what the trainers tell them not to do.

Then again I have a hard time understanding the behavior of fools in general, though there are those who would undoubtedly think of my own life choices as foolish, not least of which getting in a cage with a tiger.

At any rate, it took some time for me to get used to being around giant carnivores that people like my Chatty Swedish Sister had spent months around. It was an experience I will never forget.

Not only was it my first visit to Tiger Kingdom, it was also my Swedish Sister’s last day there, so I accompanied her with not only the juveniles, but also in saying goodbye to a few of her favorites. We spent time with the cubs as well, whose behavior felt and looked more akin to puppies than that of big kittens, and the baby tigers alone were unforgettable.

It took considerable self-control to refrain from grabbing and hugging the things, but even little tigers have claws, and one of the chief characteristics I noticed among all the tigers was the sheer size of their paws.

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Their paws are immense in proportion to their bodies, especially in comparison to that of a tabby cat. Which I suppose, also, ought to come as no surprise.

But it’s one thing to read books, see pictures, watch videos of these things. I had seen documentaries about tigers, enjoyed their appearance in movies such as The Jungle Book (1994), though I never saw The Life of Pi.

Is it any good?

It is quite another to be inches away from them, to kneel and stroke their fur, to make eye-contact and be disregarded.

The facilities are clean, the trainers genuinely love the tigers and their jobs, and the level of care for the animals is quite good. I know this not only as an observer (who among other things, saw a variety of signs that encouraged visitors to report whether trainers were witnessed abusing the tigers or trying to sell “souvenirs” like claws and whiskers), but also with the assurance of a reliable friend.

It is comforting to know that this is a good place, and I would recommend it to anyone who happens to find themselves near Chiang Mai.

The following day, though lacking in tigers, was no less astounding, as I would be treated to visiting a mountain-top temple.

Thai Adventures (Pt. 1)

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One of the best parts about being in South-East Asia is its proximity of varying countries nearby.

After spending about three months in Viet Nam, nearly to the full extent of my first 90-day tourist visa, it came close to the time where I would have to renew it.

Some of you may recall my adventures alongside the Chatty Swede, during my first few days in Sài Gòn. She and I had kept in sporadic touch since then, as her plan took her out of Sài Gòn and north, then back west through Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. There in Thailand, the Chatty Swede remained for upwards of two months, volunteering at an elephant camp and a tiger kingdom. The names of both places are most apropos.

This would more or less be my last opportunity to see my Swedish sister before she embarked to continue her backpacking. Not only would I probably never again get such a chance to see the tigers she worked with, but after being away I would arrange to have a fresh, new, 90-day visa when I returned to Sài Gòn.  Thus, we devised a plan for me to visit her there, leaving my home for about five days.

Arranging everything turned out to be mostly painless. Had I booked my flights earlier, I might have saved about twenty or thirty dollars, but as it turns out a two-way flight between Sài Gòn and Bangkok ran me only a little over a hundred. So, leaving my motorbike in the safety of my home behind locked gates, I took two buses out of my home area of District 9 to the airport, after which I managed to catch my flight without incident.

I remember glancing at my phone, having flown out of reach of 3G range, and flipped on the GPS to see where we were. I happily had a window seat, and looking outside, I saw rolling forested mountains that in truth did not look all that different from not-s0-far from Sài Gòn. Once my phone triangulated my position – oh yes, they always say on those flights that use of phones is forbidden, but come on, whether the things are turned on or not, they would be interfering with the flight signals regardless – I saw that my plane was about half-way between Sài Gòn and Bangkok, making the immense lake (Tonle Sap Lake, for those of you who care) I saw and the forests below to be smack-dab in the middle of Cambodia.

So unaccustomed to short flights was I that the hour it took to reach Bangkok felt about as easy as the jaunt between my old home and family I had in New Jersey. By car.

At the Bangkok airport, my first order of business was acquiring a SIM card for my phone, which proved to be easier than ever expected. There I saw booths offering 7-Day Traveler’s SIMs, with unlimited internet access and 3G ability, for less than ten dollars. Not bad, I figured, though throughout my travels in Thailand the majority of my connectivity was pretty bad. I know not whether it was the 3G available, or perhaps my phone, but only WiFi at cafes seemed to be reliable enough to send and recieve any messages. I would not hear from the Chatty Swede until later.

Thai folks really know how to make their cities look like a bag of candy.

Getting to the Hualamphong Train Station turned out to be easy. I hopped into one of the bright yellow-and-green taxi cabs (though vivid fuschia ones seemed just as inviting), and for 500 baht I was taken across the city. In retrospect, of course I know I could have gotten there for cheaper, but I knew not the train schedules and every bit of advice I had ever read or received about Thailand urged to book as early as possible. I felt I had not time to fumble with public transit.

And so I justify over-spending on a taxi-fair in a foreign city. Not for the first time. 500 baht comes to about $15.00 USD so I’ll live, but I would later find out how cheap and easy it is to simply use the subway.

At least I got to meet the taxi driver, a gentleman whose named sounded like “Soap Sock.”

We got to the train station in good time. Arranging my two-way from Bangkok to Chiang Mai turned out to be just as easy, and any anxieties I might have had about getting a ticket (as one cannot book them online in advance) disappeared. In fact I had about an hour before my train departed, so I took a moment to peruse the Hualamphong food court.

Vegetarian food is delightfully easy to find in Thailand.

And, much in the manner I encountered in South Korea, most street signs (or otherwise important ones) are accompanied by English translations. Bangkok is a noticeably more developed city in a noticeably more developed country than Việt Nam- evidenced by their public train systems, number of cars (as opposed to motorbikes), and of course international population. It really shows in its ease of accessibility to foreigners, and many Thai people (especially in Bangkok) speak English; all of whom I’d met wore big smiles and were happy to help. I know I looked the part of the typical tourist, walking around, taking pictures, pausing at every sign and checking my notes or phone to ascertain where I was.

But aside from the sudden lack of motorbikes, among the first things I noticed in Bangkok, both on the way to the train station and even on the train itself, was the architecture. While much of Bangkok itself is indeed “modernized” office buildings and the like, and the view from the highway in particular passes over large swathes of shanty-towns as I’m familiar with seeing in Sài Gòn, there are temples everywhere. I also happen to find the Thai script simply beautiful to look upon, as unintelligible as it is to me.

Having boarded the train, the first ‘sleep train’ I had ever attempted, I found my assigned seat to be near a trio of delightful old Thai ladies. Only one of them spoke English, and interactions were fairly limited as I found myself mostly interested in the what zoomed passed the train out the window, but I learned they were in their sixties, that they were headed to Chiang Rai (further north of Chiang Mai, the city to which I was to debark) and that they – or at least the one who spoke the most – was also vegetarian. They were all quick to laugh, and quite chatty; while the entirety of the car had pulled its curtains shut and settled to attempt to sleep through the night, the three old Thai women went on in their incomprehensible language. I happened to not mind, and sleeping on the train took some getting used to.

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A peek out of my bunk.

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Besides, the Thai Trio fed me this, too. I have no idea what it is, but it tasted like a mooncake.

The next day, I awoke two hours before the train would stop in Chiang Mai, and passed the time talking to a friendly Thai gentleman who spent nine months of the year in Florida. Our arrival in Chiang Mai put me in the city at around nine in the morning, and I would have about five hours of free time to explore the city until I would at last meet my chatty Swedish sister. Looking at the maps (as well as the one on my phone), the way to the Old City from the Chiang Mai train station was, graciously, a perfectly straight line.

Getting there was more a matter of avoiding the insistent tuk-tuk drivers, whose behavior I found virtually identical to the Vietnamese xe ôm drivers.

I actually didn’t take any pictures of tuk-tuks, so here’s an awesome rendering by artist frattozero over at DeviantArt.

In those five hours of wandering about Chiang Mai, keeping myself within the confines of the Old City – which was more than big enough to occupy one such as myself – I found dozens of temples.Wats, they call them.

SAM_0994Every wat, and most other remotely traditional-looking buildings that I saw, seemed to always have symmetrically placed statues of naga, which at first I confused to be dragons, but a local corrected me when I asked.

How about another shot of one these beauties?

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Naga have been popularized in fantasy as snake people, but in Buddhist folklore they seem to often play the part of a guardian, but they’re not always benevolent.

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I found myself often looking around to make sure whether or not I was trespassing, as I did, in fact, accidentally let myself into a monk’s private study while exploring. Just once. Everything after that, like this place, was completely open to the public.

I visited temples, dropped a few baht coins in a donation box at one of them, and eventually needed something to eat. Remembering that I had jokingly insisted the real reason I had chosen to come to South East Asia was to in fact try eating authentic pad thai, I set out to find some of the real stuff.

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Vegetarian pad thai. Tasted about the same as restaurants I knew back in New York; sweet with only a hint of spice. I suspect it is because I had it in a touristy area.

The next time I find myself in Thailand, probably to see the White Temples of Chiang Rai, I will make it my mission to seek out real, authentic pad thai.

I spent the remainder of my time waiting visiting various touristy things; with more than enough temples already perused, I found two museums (where I learned a wealth of information about the ancient Kingdom of Lanna, of which Chiang Mai was the capital in ancient days) and a cultural center, primarily centered a stone’s throw away from the Three King’s Square.

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Eventually, enough time passed that I decided I ought to head to where I would meet my Chatty Swedish Sister.

I got there without incident, riding in the back of a “bus taxi,” one of many such vehicles, that appeared to be little more than a pickup truck outfitted to hold a pile of people in the back.

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Nothing could have prepared me for the experience at the place where I’d meet my friend, the place she had spent the last few months working.

The Chiang Mai Tiger Kingdom.

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Concept: Those People

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You know what people I mean. Those people.

I’ve always found it interesting human behavior to highlight differences between us.

And, being human, I’ve been there, done that. C’mon, I went to high school.

But just as interesting to me is finding commonalities, similarities, between folks. Particularly from different cultures. I’ll never forget a line I picked up from Raymond E. Feist’s Magician series, some dialog (which I will now butcher) spoken between two people from different worlds, and after being subject to the haggling of a peddler:

“It does not matter what world you’re from; merchants’ children always seem to be starving.”

My time in Việt Nam, short as it really has been thus far, has been nothing short of a tremendous contingency of experiences. But today, I’m not even going to talk about the local culture, no – I’m going to talk about a very specific breed of human the likes of whom I have encountered here quite often.

I’m talking about the traveler, of which there seem to be two species that frequent Việt Nam: the backpacker and the expatriate. Lets start off with but some basic definitions.

A Backpacker, usually someone of college/university age (either before or during attending, or even after graduating), is someone who lives out of their backpack. It’s a common thing in Europe and increasingly common in SouthEast Asia, and you can easily identify a backpacker by – you guessed it – the massive backpack they’re hauling around.

An Expatriate (or Expat, for short) is someone who has simply moved from their home country to work in another. Backpackers might become expats, and expats might do a little backpacking. The difference is that, usually, expats are semi/permanent, whereas backpackers are usually just passing through; an expat may or may not have a long-term plan to return to their home country, whereas a backpacker usually does.

You’ll just as likely see an expat in a business suit and tie as you’ll see a backpacker with dreadlocks and an unkempt beard.

But for all things that might set them visually apart, they have a strong trait in common.

I’ve come to learn that it takes a very special breed of human

to just up and leave your home behind.

Some folks might leave on these adventures simply seeking adventure; many folk I’ve met go about their days without much of a plan in mind, and as most of these travelers are level-headed people with social skills and open minds (usually), things work out. You’d be surprised how universal a smile and a kind gesture is, and how many things in common you have with someone who was raised on a farm in a country that only recently opened up to the outside world.

Others might leave their homes behind permanently; whether because they have no home to abandon or, perhaps, as is the narrative of many adventure stories, because “home” is a less-than-preferable place.  Harry Potter and Princess Mononoke come to mind for some reason.

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But there has been a recurring conversation that I have with a lot of these people. The above quote at the head of this post was given to me by a French former-roommate whom I’ve come to hold in high respect. This was a guy younger than me, but with essentially the same education (a two-year degree in a major that did not open doors), who came from a small town, and came to Sài Gòn in search of something new and different.

The conversation entailed thinking back on our home towns. Thinking back on the people behind us, our friends and family. I remember at the time I was vocalizing and orchestrating my thoughts, and he helped me organize them in a manner that became coherent. Here is, essentially, the common understanding that I’ve not only come to adopt, but come to realize many other travelers – especially expats – have.

Travel broadens the mind. Seeing other cultures, interacting with people different from you, tasting foods you never knew existed, and living in conditions that would otherwise be called “sub-standard” build character. And I’m not saying that as a writer pun, no, I mean these are things that are really good for the mind and body. We can throw spirit in there too, if you care about that sort of thing. I am not a religious person, but it can be said thatk there is something spiritual about being itinerant.

Traveling changes you. Or, more accurately, it helps reveal your inner self.

We think back on the people we’ve left behind, and we wonder what it would be like if we had never left. In the case of the French former-room mate, he actually had visited home and come back to Việt Nam a few times, and his story sounded exactly as I might have predicted. The people back home were the same. The home town had not changed. His old friends still worked the same jobs, had the same monotonous days, and despite the praise and encouragement offered, showed no interest in breaking free of their simple, closed lives.

There is no dishonor in this, not really… but it is most certainly not the life for me, or him, or many other a traveler. Having kept in touch with a handful of friends from back home (none of whom read this blog, I’m sure), it came as a two-sided coin of shock to me when I learned my own loved ones have pretty much zero interest in what I do – at least not in that actionable sort of way. Friends and family will always be “interested” when you talk to them, and I am surprised, actually, at how many people outside my circle of close-friends-from-back-home have emerged from the wood-work to remark on how encouraged, interested, and in some cases inspired, by reading about my adventures.

This was something of a surprise.

I tend to share the interesting parts of my life in snippets on Facebook, so in the off-chance you’re reading this before having met me there, friend or follow me should you be so inclined.

At any rate, we came to the conclusion that we do not pity or look down on folks who decide not to travel. It’s all a matter of comfort, of standards, whatever you want to call it. But then, Firebeard once told me, when I expressed mixed encouragement from my family about coming to Sài Gòn, that one really ought to watch out when someone actually voices the opinion: “Don’t travel.”

People who say this are the kind whose opinion that backpackers and expats simply, by definition, cannot abide.

Those people.

I know that when or if I return to my old home, I will not be the same. And locals will look upon me, probably with a sneer as I struggle to contain myself from sharing and comparing cultural moments and experiences, and assume I think myself better.

Nah. Not better.

Just different.

Experience: Mũi Né and Red Sands

Those of you following me already already know that I’m not only based in Viet Nam, but have a tendency to get up on the proverbial soapbox, roll up a paper cone, and squawk about the benefits of travel and experience every chance I get.

This won’t be all that different.

After nearing the three-month mark of time spent here in this country, most of that being within the confines of Sài Gòn , I’ve had a variety of adventures. Such things primarily involved experiencing culture and meeting new people. On one occasion, we left the outer-rim of Sài Gòn  to visit a most excellent temple atop a mountain. The place was crowded beyond belief, and since no one was hurt at the end of the day, it’s easy to say I had a great time.

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Buddhist temple known as Chùa Châu Thới. I’m still not %100 certain how to pronounce that.

What made that day awesome was not only the location, but the company. In fact, the fun I have where I go is multiplied by the quality of people with whom I go; this ought to come as no surprise to even the most socially inept of us, but is worth mentioning anyway.

I once took a day-trip to the Mekong Delta, though not for tourist reasons and certainly not to any of the famous sights to be seen; rather, I went for the express purpose of keeping a friend company as she sought out the expertise of a famous practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Having taken a 3-hour bus ride east and out of Sài Gòn, and being nowhere near popular tourist destinations (closer to the coast), I found myself – not for the first and certainly not for the last time – stared at by locals as though I were from another planet.

That has been an oft-repeated phrase in my mind. From another planet, and it was not I who first suggested this, but how apt the phrase has become. Because of the choices I make and the life I have chosen to lead, more often than not I find myself in the company of people who not only cannot speak English, but have never even met a foreigner/westerner. To many Vietnamese outside Sài Gòn, or any of the tourist hotspots as found in the Mekong Delta, or the port city of Vũng Tàu, or the beach resort of Mũi Né, I may as well have been a settler disembarking from an explorer’s ship weighing anchor off the coast four hundred years ago.

The simple experience of setting foot into the Chinese Medicine place – I’m not sure what else to call it – was, alone, quite the experience. I watched my friend have her pulse checked, describe their symptoms, then be prescribed a giant bag of (assuredly plant-based) white powder to be consumed over the course of a month. My companion was also advised to avoid “hot foods,” (in other words, foods with too much Yang energy), such as chicken and seafood.

To this day I don’t know what lay within the dozens of shelves that lined the wall there, but I saw dried vegetables, fruits, and (presumably) animal parts that may or may not be illegal. I recognized a sack of goji berries, though, and the ‘doctor’ (I don’t know what else to call the lady), allowed us each to eat a handful of the things.

Random, safe, and usually fun experiences like this happen in my life from time to time, but recently I got back from a planned trip.

Aboard the “sleep bus,” I went with a friend to the aforementioned resort town of Mũi Né about five-hours east of Sài Gòn and along the coast.

On the Sleep Bus.

On the Sleep Bus.

We arrived after dark, and being the Low Season in terms of tourists, we found ourselves to mostly be the only people there.

[[Linguistic note:

I can best describe how to pronounce Mũi Né like this: “Moo-ooie [nay?].” 

There’s a glottal stop at the hyphen [like what happens when you say “Uh-oh!”)

and the “nay” is pronounced with a rising inflection, like a question.]]

It was awesome having noone else around.

But, interestingly, the relative quietude and silence of the town rang of a familiar tune; I grew up in small, rural, depressingly poor community, and the small towns nearby (though they were technically hamlets, as they were too small to be considered towns) often relied on tourism – or simply had no economy at all. There was a strange sense of familiarity as I was reminded of hot summers in the sparsely populated towns of my childhood, or working with my father tending to the summer homes of rich people who visited the Catskills once or twice a year. That peculiar sense of hot, desolate, dry air, where people really had no business being around except to cater to visitors.

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Outside my hotel window.

Arriving at night, Mũi Né main street had dozens of hotels, hostels, guesthouses and restaurants, and dozens more shops (most of which were closed), it was easy to see that the town was mostly not happening, but there were a few other folks walking about. The following day was spent mostly atop a rented motorbike, which allowed us to get to see some of the local sights.

Mũi Né, at the risk of repeating myself too often, is a beach city. Catering to tourists, the place is of course a bit ritzy by Vietnamese standards, with prices akin to Bui Vien street in inner Sài Gòn , and as we traveled closer toward the sights, things appeared more busy a few kilometers away from the hotel. The beaches of Mũi Né are long, white and gorgeous, though it is difficult to find a wide patch of sand bereft of plastic bottles or Styrofoam cups.

There's actually the moon a few inches from my nose.

Me looking heroic for absolutely no reason.

As a former local of upstate New York, my notion of a “beach” is that along the likes of North Lake (that is to say, about an arrow’s flight across). My notions of “warm water” are that of what is felt only in a bathtub or a cup of hot cocoa. I’d been to beaches along the ocean in the past, but often at an age too young to really appreciate what I was seeing, and even then the water was freaking cold.

There is something existential about watching the waves continually crash on the sand. When war erupted following the death of Franz Ferdinand, the waves were rolling. When Matthew Perry blew open the gates of Japan, the waves were rolling. When the Roman Empire fell, the waves were rolling. When people penned the first draft of the Torah, the waves rolled. When our ancestors fell out of the trees and learned to eat mushrooms in the wake of wildebeest herds, the waves still rolled. When thunder lizards breathed the same (though different) air of our planet, the waves had been rolling for quite a while already.

I started to realize why some people are in fact drawn to the sea.

Or crawling out of it.

Or driven to crawl the hell out of it.

And yet, the most profound experience I felt in Mũi Né was when we discovered the famed Red Sand Dunes. Oh yes.

Dunes.

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Among the last things I expected to discover in this tropical country were environs that I could, in my head full of fantasy, best describe as something to emerge from the brain of Frank Herbert. It was a veritable desert, and felt as though I had in fact set foot into my favorite novel.

Burning off my feet, one layer of skin at a time.

Burning off my feet, one layer of skin at a time.

Walking along the red sand (okay fine, it’s orange, whatever), I felt the need for a stillsuit. My feet sizzled beneath me, and climbing a hill we made our way to the cover of a lone pine tree. I ventured on upward alone, discovering the dunes to stretch further than I previously expected.

My surroundings here in Viet Nam, on a daily basis, feel surreal as it is, but up there atop a dune of red sand, I felt as a man walking on Mars. Or Arrakis. I wanted to walk to the other side of the expanse, but having left my companion behind in the safety of the pine tree, and having not possessed a bottle of water on my person, I was pretty convinced, in that moment, that I would’ve died in the attempt.

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A handful of melange…

Frank Herbert’s descriptions of the deserts of Dune were, I believe, very good descriptions (the man was an ecologist before he was an author of one of the greatest Science Fiction stories of all time). I can remember being made extremely thirsty while first reading it. But standing out there in the hot sand, with a hot sun beating down on my back, and hot air bereft of moisture or wind, well, I feel as though I can truly begin to appreciate what not only Herbert was trying to replicate in his writing, but what real people in the real world deal with when crossing, living in, or otherwise understand. Stuff I had no experience with was laid bare to me, and I caught a glimpse of life — on another planet or otherwise  — that is vastly superior to books or television in terms of sensory input.

I’ve always been interested in deserts, and this experience was the closest thing besides the wide abandoned shale pits and bluestone quarries of upstate New York that I had known. The ocean has always been something of an enigma to me as well, for both of these types of environments remain a stark contrast to the evergreen mountaintops and sprawling deciduous forests of my homeland.

I will be feeding off these memories for years, and have no doubt the things I see, hear and even smell will translate to enriching my writing.

That is why travel is good for the writer.