From December 19th to January 3rd, I took a trip to Thailand, Cambodia, and Hong Kong. Some thoughts I jotted down along the way:
What is it about being on an airplane that makes you reevaluate your life? Is it the act itself, your helplessness laid bare in a glorified metal container cast through the skies? Perhaps it’s the sheer amount of time to yourself, in-flight entertainment aside, inevitably turning you inward. Mostly, I think it’s the trip that the ride bookends on one end or the other, providing natural markers for a period of your life, no matter its length. There is after all a moment in the air when your focus snaps back, when you realize it’s time to return to real life, and all that it entails. And in that moment, it seems impossible not to think about precisely what it entails.
I stepped in shit today. Cow or horse, I’m not sure. But I was immersed in my phone when I felt the squish – prolonged, deep. The smell wafted up shortly thereafter. I could only laugh. It was a quintessentially me thing to happen. I’m the guy who knocks over an open bottle of red wine on its side at a conference dinner. I’m the guy who heaves a football on the beach and has it hit a teenage girl in the face. I’m the guy who steps in shit my first full day in Thailand.
But at the same time, I’m also the guy whose errant football throw causes no injury, leaves no mark but embarrassment – mine of course. The wine spill I created somehow avoids my colleague’s dress altogether, containing itself to a small dish that the restaurant replaces. So I stepped in shit my first day in Thailand. But it didn’t smear much, and the smell didn’t linger long. All in all, like I said, a quintessentially me thing to happen.
*Another took place the evening prior, when I agreed to pay 30 baht (~$1) to a red car – essentially a group taxi – and ended up giving him 3 baht (~$.10) instead, basically because I couldn’t read my coins and just took a stab at it. I figured it out hours later only when I googled the denominations. I suppose the four other passengers paying at the same time provided the perfect cover, unbeknownst to them and me.
A pigeon pooped on my face today. ON my face. It hit the top of my glasses frame, grazed down my cheek, and then hit my shirt full on. Well played, universe.
In Thailand, what they do in the cinema is show two previews, then two commercials, another preview, a few more ads, one final preview, about six more ads, a reminder to turn off your cell phone, the king’s anthem (which everyone stands for), the coke and popcorn ad, and then the movie. Something like that, it’s hard to recall the exact 40-minute inane sequence. Then again, I got to watch Star Wars for about $5 in a theater with maybe 10 other people.
How dose it feel to be the living embodiment of a stereotype? Three real bros, brahs even, strolled past my seat at Thapae Stadium last night for Muay Thai boxing. Half an hour late, they were altogether unfazed by the in-progress bout between two kids who couldn’t have been more than 10. Immediately, they acted the part of jocks generally found only in a 1980s high school comedy. “Knock his ass out!” “Red’s got the look!” They ordered alcohol almost immediately, with one declaring his intent to “get wrecked,” the plan being “to get some pussy tonight.” There was nothing particularly egregious about their behavior: they didn’t harass anyone, didn’t make unwanted advances. But their presence was surely felt. They were white guys in their 30s. This is Thailand, after all.
A short review of Episode VII. The Force Awakens is a lazy, tired movie. Everything is the same as always: the plot, the characters, the dynamics, the conflict, down to the new Death Star planet, whatever the fuck they called it. Maybe they go somewhere drastically different with the characters and the storyline in the next movie, that’s fine. But for now, they remade A New Hope and somehow the world decided it was sufficient.
Jerry Seinfeld has a joke about how airport food prices seem to be set with complete ignorance of the outside world. I’ve been paying anywhere from 40 to 90 baht ($1-3) for meals in Chiang Mai, delicious without exception. But the Bangkok airport charged an obscene 140 baht ($5) for a small, prepackaged bowl of wonton noodle soup with roast duck they clearly microwaved. Its quality fell not only well below street fare but even the instant wonton noodle soup found in any neighborhood Costco. I suppose there’s some sense of comfort derived from the knowledge that third world airports too fuck over their citizenry, along with anybody in transit. Regardless, I finished the noodle and then promptly proceeded to McDonalds for a McChicken value meal. C’est la vie.
All I wanted was a ride from the airport to my guesthouse. The taxi driver (officially sanctioned) wanted to be hired for the full day. Shame was his tactic. Our pleasantries quickly devolved once I informed him I intended on biking around Angkor Wat by myself. Why travel if I wasn’t willing to spend money, he queried? He made a racist characterization about Chinese people, then started in on my guesthouse, giving me shit about the lack of a swimming pool, the sorry state of its bathrooms. Other Cambodians, he said, being super subtle, would look down at me. Other Cambodians, he said, wouldn’t travel at all if they had to be prudent. They’d be downright embarrassed in my shoes.
It’s strange to know exactly what it was that he was trying to do and to be affected by it nevertheless. I still wasn’t planning on hiring any driver, let alone him, but I was somehow shamed a little bit by his words, even pissed. My initial attempts to justify my prudence, in a conversation I had severely initially misjudged as standard taxi banter, became more brusque. “Fuck them,” I said, referring to the imaginary judgmental Cambodians he spoke of. I didn’t know what else to say: me, the over-privileged vacationer to a third-world cab driver, no matter how much of a dick he was? So I said no more. I put in my earbuds until we arrived, grabbed my stuff without so much of a “thank you,” and went on my way.
I’ve been in Cambodia for less than 24 hours, and I’m not a fan. Everyone has something to sell: “buy something, sir?” are the first words I am greeted with by every street vendor. They follow me through their store if I go in, or alongside it if I walk past, tracking my line of sight. The tuk tuk drivers that flood every available space on the street ask if I need a ride, and when I refuse or do not respond, quietly whisper if I am looking for a “lady massage” or company for the evening. Later on, after I have been accosted by dozens of these offers, a few are taken aback by my visible annoyance. This may be the culture, but I am not the audience.
I’m an awkward vacationer. I feel strange about taking too much time before getting started in the morning, guilty if I’m back in the hotel too early in the evenings. I have no sense of ease about doing whatever the fuck I feel like, even on my own vacation. I cannot lounge around for hours on end – that is, unless I have already set aside the time for lounging around. I imagine it’s a psychological parallel to my struggles when I hike downhill, or when I go swimming. I need to feel the ground beneath me. I need a sense of order, of control.
The van stopped at a few other guesthouses, picking up passengers on the way to the bus station. The first, a cute British girl, was winding down a six-week trip – three in China, three in Cambodia. She worked for a children’s rights organization in London, had the excuse of touching base with other, developing-world NGOs for the purpose of trading notes. The last, a British guy, had quit his job back in February, and had been on the road since September in an epic journey that already encompassed of Europe and the Middle East. He’d be at it until May. Both were friendly; neither the least bit obnoxious. But when the van reached its destination, and we filed onto the bus to Phnom Penh, I was relieved to find neither was sitting next to me.
I’m not the kind of person who makes lasting friendships in hostels, or even forms the kind of temporary bonds that rearranges an itinerary for parts of a trip. I don’t begrudge people prone to such tendencies – my sister being one of them – but I certainly cast a skeptical eye, and I am a downright judgmental asshole when I see horseshit articles about how “the most meaningful relationship I ever formed was during a four hour layover with a guy I haven’t talked to since” or whatnot. I suppose I only believe in something that’s ultimately transferrable beyond the time and the space, beyond the transience of an experience, no matter how unique the experience.
There are so many goddamned people in this world. Why am I so privileged? How did I get so lucky? I see it all here, the kind of lives ordinary people have to lead – the kind of lives that, almost unfathomable to me, my parents and grandparents led – and I wonder why I got to escape. Why I sit contemplating rather than toiling. I find it impossible to believe in a higher power, because if one did exist, I’d like to think they wouldn’t make people wait, people suffer, people toil. Because this very well may be eternity already.
There is a small exhibition in the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21) about how the world stood by as the Khmer Rouge perpetrated unthinkable atrocities on their own population. It focuses in particular on a Swedish delegation that toured the country in the late 1970s, got the five-star treatment, and essentially became Pol Pot’s biggest sympathizers on the world stage. “How could they have been so blind?” the museum yearns to scream. “How were they so easily fooled?” a delegate member reflects with remorse. I couldn’t help but think of what’s going on in North Korea right now. “Never again,” we always say, but that can only come after the fact.
Two of the 12 survivors (of roughly 20,000 prisoners) of S-21 were there at the museum. They’re there regularly, living testaments to the hell that took place just four decades ago. One was an artist who survived because his captors took a liking to his portraits; another proved his worth by repairing machinery. I had just learned about their stories, walked inside the same four walls where they were held, a prison that was once a school and had now become an educational institution once again. I didn’t end up approaching either man. What is there to say?
I needed a tuk tuk for a short journey, half a mile at the most. In my defense, the sun was unforgiving, and I had come down with a cold. Anyhow, the first would-be driver couldn’t understand where I wanted to go. So I found another, laying in his carriage, not a worry in the world. “Central Market,” I directed towards him. He didn’t budge. A huge grin crept over his face. “Too lazy,” he replied. I laughed. My favorite person in this country.
There are beggars a block away from the Royal Palace; the unmistakable stench of human waste noticeable in the air. Down the street from the Russian embassy, there stands decrepit complexes – slums too kind a word – that look far older than they possibly can be. At the riverside, children urinate in plain sight, garbage lays everywhere; all of it a stone’s toss from the restaurants and lounges that line the nearby street. Yet, Phnom Penh is not a city marked by contradiction. No, the luxury that does exist remains the clear exception. I spend my last few hours in Aeon Mall, the epitome of everything the city, the country, is not: clean, modern, developed. It is a first world experience amidst a strictly third world locale, and thus surreal in its own way.
My family immigrated to the United States when I was six. I’ve been back to Hong Kong just a handful of times since, visiting relatives who stayed behind. It always feels surreal. I might look like everyone else here, but to begin, my Cantonese is limited and I’m culturally out of sorts. But the strangeness of it doesn’t really concern the fact that I don’t feel at home in the place where I was born. It’s that I get a glimpse of what my life could have been had I stayed.
That feeling was amplified this time, the visit itself different. I stayed at home with my grandmother, chatting, mostly listening. I went to a barbeque my cousin had with friends. Another cousin took me out drinking, his wife teaching me dice games until the break of dawn. My aunt and uncle made dinner another night; I lingered afterwards, watching Inside Out and playing board games with their eight-year-old granddaughter. I spent New Year’s Eve with friends visiting from the States.
In short, I wasn’t the center of attention at big gatherings on either side of the family. Instead, I was just a part of things. The life I left behind, the life that could have been, felt far more vivid, far more real as a result. I usually leave Hong Kong with my heart warmed, reminded of the presence of loved ones on the other side of the world. This time, it was strangely bittersweet. I recognize it undoubtedly speaks less to Hong Kong than it does my current vulnerability – in Japan, in life. Still, I’ve never felt that before.