Monkey Business 2/2

For Part 1, click here.

Assuming you’re caught up, you’re likely reading this in search of monkey stories. Let’s get right back to it.

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The Batu Caves of Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia, turned out to be quite the host the largest concentration of monkeys I’d yet seen. The Batu Caves, a thoroughly interesting land formation — one of those massive limestone mountains with intense weathering characterizing its walls and with a toupee of jungle the summit — had a ten-story staircase leading up to said cave entrance. Through this one can continue on through a chasm, leading eventually to the back end of the caves, where looking up one could see the sky through an immense, weathered opening.

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It felt like walking into an empty volcano, and someone, long ago, thought it was a good idea to build a Hindu temple here. While the temple itself doubltess attracted tourists, the monkeys held our attention as much as anything else.

Doubtless related to the macaques I’d seen a bit north as in Thailand, Cambodia and Viet Nam, this Malaysian variety had the characteristic long tails that people like to associate with our simian cousins. And at the Batu Caves, there were a lot of them.

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On our way up the steps, I remember pausing to regard the city beyond – clear air stretched on between my vantage and the far reaches of that view, for my visit came at a lucky time. The smog from the 2015 Indonesian Fires had lifted a day before my arrival, and locals were telling me stories of how one could barely see across the street. Looking out now at the afternoon haze, one could hardly guess that huge tracts of land had been set fire in a neighboring island country.

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My companion, Lan, brought a bottle of juice with her and held it placatingly toward one of the monkeys as we scaled the stairs. To the surprise of absolutely no one, the thing ran up, snatched it from her grasp, and set to work opening it with its teeth. The monkeys found here and all around Southeast Asia have long since learned the value of stealing food; it’s comparatively energy efficient to be a thief than it is a farmer, after all, and these guys were brigands.

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This’d be the charming bandit that stole Lan’s drink.

I watched one Japanese tourist notice a monkey approaching him. The guy decided he would have none of that and simply placed his drink on the ground, scurrying away as the monkey didn’t bat an eyelash taking his 7UP. The monkeys’ll take anything edible, and when if their nose or eyes do not bring them promise of easy pickings, they’ve been known to steal other things.

Sunglasses off your head, iPhones out of your hand, even sandals off the feet of small children being carried in the arms of their mothers. Nothing is sacred, and the monkeys will hold fast to whatever percieved-valuable item they’ve pilfered until such time as they are presented with a morsel of food. The exchange complete, they’ll let loose whatever human-made thing they held (often dropping it like a forgotten toy), take the food it won, and scurry to a higher vantage before its colleagues can pester him for a bite.

They get pushy sometimes. They say you aren’t supposed to make eye contact in the animal kingdom, but as a self-described animal I found myself abundantly curious of these things. Staring at a monkey an arm’s length away rewarded me with bared teeth and a false charge — more than enough to make me jump away. Groups of tourists — locals and foreigners alike — posing for photos often had monkeys make cameos, strolling up towards them with expectant little hands. They sometimes saw the monkeys approach, illiciting a thumbs-up or bigger smile on part of the tourist, while other times, as someone posed for the shot, a monkey would approach them and nobody would issue a warning. Every time the tourist jumped, and sometimes the monkey would make off with something.

They have learned behavior that cannot be unlearned; once one sees it happening, doubtless their friends spread word and the stealing-exchanging cycle perpetuates itself. Elders perfect the art while the young observe and imitate. Whether I’m talking about the tourists or the monkeys here is up to you.

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In one of the central provinces of Viet Nam, a region and city known as Dak Lak, I and two travel mates perused a souvenir boutique as we waited for our overnight bus. This would be at the tail-end of a several-day-long adventure the likes of which I happened to be eager was ending.

After a brief walk through the initial room — the boutique stretched in much further than it looked from the outside — I came across a cardboard box no larger than milk crate. Inside there peered up at me a baby monkey, the same widespread species of macaque you find everywhere. A little chain went to its neck and it looked small enough to have been torn from its mother prematurely.

I signalled to the attendants as to whether I could play with it — they nodded their head, and I kneeled by the box and extended a finger. Tiny hands grasped me and the monkey’s eyes locked with mine. The thing about looking into the eyes of another human is that there is, usually, this general common understanding of sentience. With most humans you meet, you probably regard them as a creature with its own independent emotions and motivations. One usually does not encounter this in something non-human, aside from dogs and cats and birds that many families have adopted, and given enough time around them, anyone will come to associate anthropomorphic qualities into it. We do that with cars and dolls, so why not animal companions?

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Little do you realize this is in fact same-sex marriage.

But the thing is that monkeys come with litereal anthropomorphic traits prepackaged. That little baby primate stared at me with legitimate sadness in its eyes, and in those brief moments I felt his little fingers holding mine, I might have felt a sense of desperation. When the time came and our bus arrived, it would not let ago, and I entertained fantasies of snapping the chain loose and smuggling the thing in my coat.

As it happens, keeping a monkey as a pet is generally a bad idea, and more than once I’ve rationalized that I don’t lead the right lifestyle to keep a full-time animal companion in my home/life. Especially one of a species shown to have the emotional and problem-solving intelligence of a small child.

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But I’ll never forget the Dak Lak baby monkey’s silent plea for release.

Monkey Business Part 1/2

Posts have been lacking. Apologies. More are in the works and on the way.

Much has happened, and yet there’s been a lot of not happening. It is a curious conundrum.

Perhaps chiefest among the big events would be visiting my home-area if Upstate New York for a month after 1.5 years away in Viet Nam. I find myself repeating the same stories, sometimes with details forgotten, only to be remembered later. The following is a brief dissertation of my exposure to the primates of South East Asia.

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One of my favorite shots from outside the Batu Caves; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

I’d seen monkeys on television and YouTube videos. Most of us have. I’ve seen monkeys in zoos, imitated them as a kid (and adult), read about their symbolism in various mythologies as tricksters, or scientific studies as test subjects. It should come as no surprise to any sentient, *sapient* being of the modern era that these things have a lot in common with us.

I’ll never forget the time traveling with a group of friends in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. Monkeys ruled the trees and the streets like squirrels, seen picking through garbage bins and tussling with stray dogs.

We had arrived in the late afternoon, having taken a morning bus from Sai Gon, Viet Nam. The five of us moved as a group, following the rough advice of a half-remembered Google Maps coordinate along some haphazard streets of the city. Compared to Sai Gon, my chosen city of residence, Phnom Penh stretched on as a sleepy, unhurried city full of inhabitants as eager to smile as they were to stare.

Near the de-facto center of Phnom Penh there lay a round, mountainous park, encircled by a roundabout and topped off with a dollar-admission temple to gods whose names I may never know. Trees shaded out the sun, and we welcomed the respite, but the monkeys walking leisurely along park’s floor caught our attention above all other things.

A gangly-limbed specimen drew close to use; I can remember my General Animal Instincts being overpowered by White Man Tourist instincts as curiosity filled me. The monkey showed no fear, its interest chiefly focused on the garbage seen either discarded along the sidewalks or collected in rubbish bins.

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Anna always had a way with bonding with the natives.

One of my travel mates, Anna, took a seat to get some zoomed photos, and the same simian we observed came quite close, electing to take up a perch on her shoulder with a vigorous hop. Like any benign cousin it preened through her blue-dyed hair, doubtless in search of grubs, and though she laughed (as I caught the event on video) one of us caught sight of a patrolling local signalling us — gently — to let the monkey be.

“That is a human,” one of my travel mates, Will, had remarked after we left. I watched the monkey stroll off and tussle playfully with a stray dog.

Seeing a monkey online or on television or in a book is certainly one thing. To see a monkey — and realize that it *sees* you back; at first with assessing the danger, then assessing your worth, and then disregarding you entirely — is quite another.

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The following day, after we arranged a plan to take a riverboat up from the capital toward Siem Reap, another travel mate — Will — and I decided to take a stroll on the streets of Phnom Penh in an attempt to get a good look at the monkeys again. Seeing as it was our last evening in the city, we knew not when the chance would again present itself. Returning to the same park, we found none, and we opted to return back to our hostel but took a slightly longer route for the sake of exploration.

The sky deepened with the tangerine and apricot shades of an approaching sunset, and as the two of us swaggered our way along, remarking on whatever hooked architecture we saw or what mad things we had seen up until then, movement along the rooftops caught my eye.

“Will,” I said, nudging his shoulder with one hand. He followed my other hand as I gestured above us. “We are being watched.”

The orange sky quickly faded to dark velvet blue, and the silhouettes of small, thin-limbed simians could be seen stalking the two or three stories above us. At first I felt unnerved, imagery of the Jungle Book, in one of its several film incarnations, coming to mind, but I quickly realized the monkeys above cared about as much for us as people on a tour bus might care for poverty-stricken locals through whose villages the vehicle passed.

Monkey Business Part 2 next week.

 

Seven Days On A Vietnamese Farm

Not long ago, I had the opportunity to visit a friend’s hometown in rural Viet Nam, near the central regions. Three of us traveled; a university student from Tazmania who I’d come to befriend, the girl whose hometown to which we were headed (also a dear friend), and myself.

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The following is a brief recounting of what happened, and how it has – in ways both surprising and unsurprising – it has influenced my writing.

And, it should be noted, that this marked the first time an American or an Australian (or any foreigners for that matter) had ever visited this part of Viet Nam and, furthermore, weren’t just passing through. I heard that once, and only once, since the War, had there ever been a foreigner – a Chinese person – visiting this area, and he had been denied any lodging and sent on his way.

So, to state it more clearly, my friend and I were the first Westerners to ever come to this part of Quang Tri Province since the Vietnam/American War.

We took a 1-hour flight from Sai Gon to Hue, the historical capital of the country, then took a taxi to the bus station. From there we boarded what they called a bus, though in truth it was a van that served the same purpose. For a the equivalent of a few dollars each, we traveled as far as it was from my old hometown in Upstate New York to New York City (a fair I fondly recall costing as much as $25.00, one-way) — 3ish hours of bumpy under-construction highway and, after turning off the main route, we came upon dusty, sometimes-paved roads.

We passed through the narrowest part of Viet Nam, where I could practically see the border on one side and the coastline on the other. I could look out the right-side window, to the east, where rice fields stretched across flats that seemed to end at the horizon, where an unseen ocean acted as a border. Looking out the left window, to the west, I could see the mountains of Laos.

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After finally arriving, our host-family treated us with royal hospitality, and any translation responsibility was left entirely to my trusted friend. My and the Tazmanian’s Vietnamese is limited (and furthermore, the pronunciation of the local dialect varies greatly from south to central regions), and the English skills of the family hosting us was virtually nonexistent. To our great enjoyment, the Tazmanian and I learned a host of new words in a very short time.

Vegetarianism is not common in the region, though to my relief they did have some concept of what that meant. Word was sent before our arrival that I don’t eat meat, and as such local-made tofu was prepared for me every day. Legit, local tofu – đậu phụ (dow-foo) – I even visited the neighbor’s house in which the stuff was boiled, churned, and pressed.

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Also they had a buffalo. Those were around.

The woman there made it every day, and appeared to produce it for the village. Bricks of it cost us quarters, and the first time they wouldn’t even accept payment, happy as the lady was to provide me with something to eat.

The area was populated almost solely by farmers, and Communism has destroyed any sense of spirituality (except for the worship of Ho Chi Minh, of course), such that Buddhism is pretty much nonexistent – thus few if anyone practiced vegetarianism by extension. In any case, the host-family was more than willing to accommodate me, the tofu eaten being hands-down the best I’ve had in my entire time spent in Asia.

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The vegetarianism was much easier to understand than my lack of fondness for drinking.

They drink beer every night, and loudly, and proudly, proclaim that they “drink the most beer in all Viet Nam.” I’ve heard this rhetoric in other regions, leaving me no choice but to conclude that the Vietnamese people to derive a sense of honor/pride from what privileged foreigners might label as widespread alcoholism. Recognizing that everyone says this, usually with a beer bottle in their hand at any given time of day, I merely shake my head at why this is something to be proud about in the first place.

I’m not fan of beer, and this is something many Vietnamese have great difficulty understanding.

“You’re a man. Therefore, you drink beer.”

There really isn’t room for argument as far as they’re concerned, since it is such an embedded ritual at this point that beer is drunk with most meals (and often in between). To have a visitor – particularly one of a rare and unusual-looking breed such as myself and the Tazmanian – inevitably called for drinking beer from one house to the next much in the same manner as people go bar-hopping.

As such, I am repeatedly thrust into the situation of “Hey, you’re a foreigner, drink beer with us.” And after repeatedly making it clear that I don’t like to drink (I am especially sensitive to when someone forces it on me, something that happens frequently here), there is at least half a chance that they’ll disregard my odd and clearly unmasculine behavior as some oddity among foreigners.

My Tazmanian comrade, on the other hand, drank more often than me, which mostly placated their incessant desire to fill me with cheap, disgusting alcohol. I knew, of course, that nearly every gesture of this sort was made in an act of welcome and hospitality, but the concept of “No thanks,” to drinking beer is about as clearly understood as “No thanks, I’m full,” is understood when at the dinner table visiting your grandmother’s house.

It takes anywhere between hours and days for this concept to sink into the heads of people I meet.

Many roads between each villagers houses were connected by dusty roads like this, with trees lining space between plots.

Many roads between each villagers houses were connected by dusty roads like this, with trees lining space between plots.

The house in which we stayed was a mere fifteen minute walk from the beach, where we went almost every day for a swim in warm, bathtub-temperature saltwater. The beaches were far from pristine, and more than once I witnessed local farmers’ children playing with hunks of styrofoam in the water as makeshift toys; garbage washed ashore from the sea or cast aside by locals.

You could erect massive statues made of the all the empty bottles we stepped over, and the thought crossed my mind, and seeing as this was even remotely a tourist area, there could only be one source left from which the trash accumulated. Sun-bleached propaganda posters looked to do little in preventing locals from littering or cleaning up the beaches.

The dunes were quite unmolested, though.

The dunes were quite unmolested, though.

In spite of these unignorable details, I loved going to the beach, and as I said we went almost every day – once even late at night, where I discovered to my initial horror the bioluminescent plankton. It was mode rad.

We were awakened by roosters nearly every morning, and my Tazmanian buddy had the presence of mind to bring several sets of ear-plugs with him, and only on such mornings as I employed the little foam wonders was I able to sleep later than 6:00am. But not before developing a distinct lack-of-fondness for a particular rooster, however, that sounded like nothing short of a dinosaur.

That one godsdamn chicken sounded – no joke – just like this fellow here, an orc from Lord of the Rings. (1:42 – 1:44)

This in fact inspired a section of prose for my novel-in-progress, where a character is rudely awakened by an intrusive chicken. It served to fill a hole that otherwise had me stumped for months, and after inadvertently being accosted by the crowing of proud chickens, I managed to get through another of my frequent Blocks.

No building in the entire village was made of wood. In what I have learned to be the typical Vietnamese fashion, every structure is built of rebar-enforced concrete. I even came across “picket fences” along the road that were designed to look like your typical wooden fence as seen on T.V., but made out of slabs of painted cement bolted together.

No doubt the better to withstand the yearly typhoons I’ve heard stories about.

One of the plots behind the house in which we stayed.

One of the plots behind the house in which we stayed. They do biodiverse farming, with various fruit trees having pepper-plants crawling up each trunk.

Days before being assured that no rain would come to the region during our stay, a perpetual downpour came upon us that lasted for half a week. During this time I found myself largely confined to the house, which was much to my enjoyment as the air got significantly cooler and I, at last, had some time to simply do what I hoped to do on this excursion: spend some time writing.

I did manage to churn out about 2,000 words of prose, which is pretty good compared to the last few months, and some, like I said, was in part inspired by that godsdamn chicken. But nary a moment passed when I went unbothered, whether by the family summoning me to play cards games like Blackjack, eat a meal, play with local children or just to accompany someone on an errand.

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Some errands were more scenic than others.

I met the Town Drunk, a man who spoke slurred gibberish that was “Not Vietnamese.” But much to my own amazement, another individual, a boy of fourteen who, from a clear though unidentified mental handicap (he was taken out of school on account of his inability to learn), fit the trope, cliche, whatever, of the Village Idiot. I found myself wondering whether this was something uncool to ponder, because regardless of the boy’s condition, there was only one like him, and the setting seemed apropos for the stereotype. He, also, was described to “talk a lot but he doesn’t actually say anything.”

As someone thoroughly familiar with mental handicaps (which has instilled in me a deeper-than-average sensitivity to the word “retard”), I found him interesting, but there were more barriers between us than culture and language.

I ate tamarind on the roof of their house, saw a seaside sunrise, played with kids (both that of villagers and goats), walked along dry riverbeds and drying rice paddy fields, and traversed massive sand dunes. We even delved into what remained of an old Viet Cong tunnel, dug under a hill and still quite stable, a place where sound and light did not travel more than ten paces, and using nothing more than the lights of our smartphones, we plumbed its depths before having to turn around and come back out.

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The experience was about as Freudian as it gets.

Through it all, us foreigners were met with warm greetings and frequent invitations to eat, drink, and play. I had very little time to myself, which was expected and oddly appreciated.

From this experience I derived a small pile of inspiration, as well as simple “down to earth” concepts of how things are made and how people live in a less-than-urban setting. These aspects of life readily and easily translate to writing fantasy, which more often than not takes place in a medieval-esque world devoid of plumping, laundry machines, and freezers.

Even just going somewhere, like the dunes or the tunnel, brought more reality to how I might later describe such scenes. Sand squeezing between my toes or damp air pressing against my lungs, a spike of seething, genuine hatred towards an unevolved fowl.

Thai Adventures Pt. 4 – Majesty

Another picture-heavy post.

Because I was a tourist.

And while this is not a travel blog, what I’ve seen is relevant to fantasy writing.

Seriously, though. As an American, the concept and of royalty is something distinctly foreign. I only know kings, queens, princesses and princes from story and history books, most of which are based on people and places “Over there.” You know, as in across a large body of water.

While a quick, respectful bow is nothing strange to me, I’ve found that as a former Jew, I find it difficult to kneel before anyone. My ancestors kind of had a problem with that since the Ancient Egyptians.

You are welcome, world.

But experiencing majesty, like the presence of real royalty, is something I never before experienced. I imagine very few people the world over in fact have.

While I won’t go into huge detail about King Abdulyadej, I will mention that he’s got quite a collection of interesting trivia to his name. Born in America (Cambridge, Massachusetts, which I suppose makes him technically an American). Involved in a rather unfortunate incident where his older brother (heir to the throne) was killed in an accident involving guns, when the two were alone. The longest-currently-living monarch (born in 19827) – he’s been ruling since 1950.

As a foreigner, and a brief traveler, I can’t be expected to understand to full breadth and scope of his influence from a reading Wikipedia. I defer to others when it comes to this area of expertise, but it’s my understanding that the king is rather well-received by most Thai folk.

The legacy of the monarchy, however, might be a bit different.

In any case, I, like most people, did not get to see the guy himself, but what I did do, like many travelers, was visit one of Bangkok’s major tourist sites: the Grand Palace.

A dress code is enforced at the gates. This would not be the first time I came upon one of these signs…

…nor was it the first time I did so unprepared. After exchanging my shorts for a pair of billowing trousers, I entered upon the palace grounds, and decided nearly everything I saw was nothing short of majestic.

I recalled visiting palaces in South Korea, some restored after Japanese occupation blasted much of that country’s cultural heritage to ruins, and there was a certain modernity to their construction. Much of what I saw there did not compare to the palace in Bangkok, for no living monarchs live in Korea (and haven’t since 1910 when the Japanese took over), and as such the palaces served as little more than tourist destinations or cultural heritage memorials.

For that, they served their purpose well. The modernity of their restoration/reconstruction, however, could be seen in other places as well; something I’ve seen in a variety of places throughout Asia – the whole “quickly and inexpensively built in order to maximize profits” thing.

While walking across courtyards or between buildings at the Grand Palace in Bangkok, I found myself continually reminding myself that no, what I looked at was not some ancient representation of monarchy. “This is how we think they lived.” What I saw was not hastily or cheaply built structures as might be found around the world when trying to lure tourists.

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I’m not an architect, and while I can appreciate the so-called “exoticness” of foreign architecture, I have no doubt that the finer details of such a craft are lost upon me. I was, however, able to awe-stricken at some of constructs I walked around, under, or through.

I was able to peer inside one of these smaller doors on the ground level, and beheld a massive collection of ancient arms from around the world.

I was able to peer inside one of these smaller doors on the ground level, and beheld a massive collection of ancient arms from around the world.

When we read about palaces in fiction, often enough we have our own definitions of what it means to be part of a royal family. We expect servants, lavish cushions, food on a whim, and personal bodyguards.

Authors don’t usually get into detail about the architecture, in my experience. Perhaps we can learn from this.

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The entrance to what was apparently a sort of royal temple. Pictures inside were forbidden. The walls were gilded with gold paint and meticulously placed reflective shards of glass and stones.

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I couldn’t understand half of what I was looking at, but I knew it was important.

 

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As I’ve said, royalty is something I’ve always had a little difficulty wrapping my head around, both on the simple grounds of being a secular American, and even on a philosophical level. Kingliness, royalty, regality, whatever you may choose to describe it, exists on the concept of divine right, that is, the gods chose that person (or family) to rule, so therefore it must be so.

It takes a significant amount of brainwashing, I think, to really get the idea into the heads of anyone that someone deserves to rule simply because everyone else says so.

It’s something I encounter often when reading and writing fantasy. The simple question of:

“Why would anyone follow that person?”

Fear helps, I’m sure.

But its things like this that make me question how monarchies manage to stay stable, and how dynasties manage to keep from crumbling. Truly, the idea of divine right is a strange thing.

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

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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.

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.