Saturday, May 22, 2010

And So It Continues...

Arrived stateside after 28 hours of travel on May 12th. For the record, May 12th was the longest day I've seen - over 34 hours long to be exact. I saw the sunrise and sunset twice each on opposite sides of the globe. Luckily, my readjustment to my new time zone (exactly 12 hours behind southeast Asia) was easy enough. After one day of recovery in Jackson I made my way to Orange Beach, Alabama to watch for the oil slick and celebrate the end of Emily Claire's bachelorettehood. This, of course, was completed with a trip to the famous FloraBama bar on the Florida-Alabama state line. I returned to Jackson for a hot second and then drove to Memphis to spend some QT with Meriwether Wofford, who has also decided to end her bachelorettehood this summer. From there I headed north to the hills of Kentucky to visit Marigny & Jon Bostock for a couple of days. Then it was off to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to pay homage to Groundhog Phil before schlepping up to Boston for some time with those Bowdoin kids who still put up with me. I'll head off to Maine tomorrow, then gradually down to Princeton for Mary Reid's graduation. A few observations/comments about my return to the good ole U.S. of A.:

  • I have been warned that getting married during football season is just downright rude. If you insist on having a fall wedding your friends will be forced (against their will) to miss a game, which undoubtedly will be a very important one. Your marriage will be cursed by the upset souls who forego their cowbell and Crimson on your behalf.
  • After spending 2 months of constantly unsucessful hyrdation attempts, I am now cursed with what seems like an insufficiently sized bladder. I haven't shaken the constant water intake but I am no longer sweating 24 hours a day. Here's the equation: Hydration - Asia + roadtrip = A slower trip than originally planned.
  • No matter where you are, you can always find a country station and someone talking about Jesus. NPR is only available near cities that a 2nd grader has heard of and New England.
  • Everybody seems to claim Abraham Lincoln as their native son. Sure, you knew Illinois was "The Land of Lincoln" but Kentucky is mighty proud he was born there and Indiana lets you know as soon as you cross the Ohio River that it is "Lincoln's boyhood home." Gee, he's a mighty popular guy.
  • You know that Asian traffic is bad when you return to Boston and think that traffic is smooth sailing. This is the city I used to HATE driving in because of all those Massholes and the roads that were planned by cows meandering to market. Not any more. It seems calm and even friendly. If anyone is sick and tired of Boston traffic, just take a trip to Vietnam and it will cure you of your animosity. Guaranteed.

Emily Jane, Emily Claire, and Me!

Munfordville, Kentucky

Those Boston kids that still put up with me

Amish Country in Pennsylvania

Punxsutawney, PA - the weather capital of the world

Monday, May 10, 2010

Parting Shots from Southeast Asia

As my final entry from Adventure #1, I'll leave you with a few choice shots from my final three weeks in the region.

Shorty and the Shaman. Tuk-tuk'ing around Siem Reap, Cambodia.

The white sand dunes near Mui Ne, Viet Nam


Proof that I am related to Andre Giant. Me and a Southeast Asian-sized woman in front of Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

One of the Roulous Group. Cambodia.

Bantay Srei, "City of Women" Cambodia

One of my favorites. Angkor Thom, Cambodia

The school converted to a prison, S-21 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Savannakhet is much how you'd imagine a former French colony. Beautiful old buildings, few of which are "restored."

The school in Pakua village, Savannakhet Province Laos.

The feast at Big's parents' house. Savannakhet, Laos.

Big and me in Pha Pheua village, Savannakhet province, Laos

Big's neices and nephew. They were very good at teaching me how to count in Lao. Nung, sung, sahm, see...

Wat in Kohn Kaen, Thailand

Yes, it's possible to sweat this much at 8 am. Ruins in Ayutthaya, Thailand

Buddha head wrapped up in a Bodhi tree. Ayutthaya, Thailand

And a shout-out to all those who gave advice and helped the adventure take shape: Sauce, CSmith, Nicole, Todd, Chris, Alden, Lauren, Kip, Mary Ann, Ann, Schimmy, Uncle Robert & Aunt Barbara, Aaron, Larissa, Julia and the Shaman.

And to those who kept me company along the way: Oren, Dasha, Britt, Karen, Pille, Andy, Alan, Tanya, Elmer, Katy, Danny, Ilan, Wilde, Iris, Erin & Heather, Nimrod, Nina, Hubert, Lola, Ben, Janick, the Shaman, Dan Mashman, Julie, the Belgians, the singin' Swedes, Rachel, Daniel, Mr. Schem, Mr. Big and Mr. Tao.

Over and out.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Back to Laos and Thailand

Ah, I left you last in the shadows of Angkor. Spectacular for sure and definitely worth the $25 Cambodian visa and $25 exit fare (Yes, they actually charge you to leave the country). This entry includes a bit more of travelogue because the experience and intention of this last section is markedly different than those previous.

My plan was to hop up to Savannakhet, Laos to check on the school built with my beer money. In deference to my time left (and not to my budget or carbon footprint) I opted to take a flight to Savannakhet from Siem Reap. Now, if you were to walk into a Lao Airlines office and look at their flight map, there is no flight from Siem Reap to Savannakhet, but after some sleuthing via Google I found a website that let me purchase said ticket. Upon inquiry at the airline office, it turns out that this flight is a Siem Reap to Vientiane (farther north than Savannakhet) flight, that will stop in Savannakhet to drop off a few passengers. Yes, that's right. It's like a bus that will drop you off when you ding the bell. Oh, you just want to go halfway? No problem, we'll make an extra landing and takeoff for you. I arrived at the Siem Reap airport an hour-and-a-half early (it's an international flight afterall) and much to my astonishment, we boarded the plane a full hour before takeoff. Turns out there were only 6 of us on this flight and since we (myself, a British couple, and 3 Chinese businessmen) were all there, the plane was there, and the crew was there why not go ahead and leave? I arrived in Savannakhet (luckily, they did actually make the landing on my behalf. For a brief moment I wondered if they would just shove me out of the plane with my bag and a parachute) 10 minutes after I was supposed to leave Siem Reap. Not bad service for an airline with a dismal reputation.

Once in Savannakhet I called Mr. Big, the guy I'd been told coordinated the school project, and he came to pick me up. A little background: Big (who is approximately 5 feet 1 inch tall and can't weigh more than a buck-ten) is a young guy, about my age, who runs a little shop and after-school language training center in Savannakhet. He applied to Kamal Foundation (the bar's official nonprofit entity) for money a couple of years ago to build a secondary school in Pakua Village, 80 km outside of Savannakhet. After the completion of the school (this past winter) he talked Commie (the bar proprietor) into helping fund the building of a medical clinic in another village, Pha Phuea Village. This second project is still in the works.

On the first day Big took me to see the school, which looks great and actually survived a recent windstorm that devastated the village. Their "clinic" is now a heap of wooden boards and tin roofing. Their primary school lost its roof. At least a dozen houses collapsed. I arrived 3 days after the storm when the village was waiting on the government (Laos is Communist afterall and you don't do anything without them) to come help clean up.

On the second day we drove an hour-and-a-half to Pha Phuea Village to meet with the village leaders about the clinic project. The clinic will be in Pha Phuea, but will serve a total of 6 surrounding villages. Currently they have a dismal looking cinder block structure and 2 nurses. With the completion of the new clinic (100 sq. meters), they'll have 2 doctors and 4 nurses. After the meeting the village women cooked us a big meal of beef lab (cooked, thank God), sticky rice, soup, and a shot or two of Lao Lao whiskey.

I stayed in Savannakhet for an additional 3 days, with Big as a generous and attentive host. On his work days I would walk about town, stroll along the Mekong, or bike out to the "lake." There isn't much to do or see in Savannakhet, but it was surprisingly nice to just chill out. People are remarkably friendly and I found an awesome little Japanese cafe with delicious food and a spare guitar. After 5 nights, I decided to move on to Kohn Kaen, a city in the northeast of Thailand, to see a Bowdoin rugger friend who is currently studying abroad there. From here I head to Ayutthaya and then to Bangkok. I fly back to the States on May 12th, which will be the longest day of my life (38 hours of travel).

A few more observations/comments:
  • With a lack of copyright laws you can get just about anything over here. That includes, of course, a copy of any book you'd ever want. And by copy, I mean copy. They have bound photocopies of all the Lonely Planet books and any other book that might be remotely interesting to a backpacker.
  • It seems to me that if you include the word "Coffee" in the title of your restaurant you should serve coffee, not instant NesCafe. You know you've returned to Thailand when there isn't a decent cup of coffee in sight...
  • While in Savannakhet, Big took me to his friends' house who recently had a baby. A slew of family members were there, helping the new parents out with the newborn. Apparently, the tradition is that some people stay up all night so that the parents don't have to tend to the baby alone. They stay awake by playing cards all night near the mother's bed. I have a feeling I have some friends back in the States who might take a liking to this Don't-worry-about-the-baby-there-are-approximately-100-family-members-outside-waiting-to-help kind of tradition.
**WARNING: if you are a vegan, vegetarian or squeamish just stop reading now. The next comment will not be pleasant to read.**
  • Big ensured that I be exposed to all sorts of Lao delicacies. What I managed to avoid in the last 6 weeks was immediately thrust in front of my face, and as a thankful visitor to a gracious host I obliged in eating the following: cow esophagus (tastes like calimari), goat liver, duck blood, some sauce made with the stuff inside the bowel of a cow (does it count as excrement if it has yet to be excreted?), and duck fetus (fully cooked, inside the egg). Perhaps it is my digestive system that has had the greatest adventure of all! Actually, I've been pretty fortunate with the digestive-issue stuff. Very few problems that a dose or two of some Pepto won't take care of.
Not sure if I'll blog again before I depart for the states. I'll be back in Jackson the evening of the 12th and then heading to the Gulf Coast (oil-slick and all) for a bachelorette party. The blogging will continue once I'm on my East Coast adventure (first stop: Memphis).