Amazing day today! I started out early by heading off to the old Royal Palace. It was very cool and just as shiny and grand as I remember. Inside the compound there are several buildings and a few temples that were used by the royal family and in the affairs of court. There is also a wraparound mural that is several hundred feet long and, despite its state of decomposition, is actually really cool to walk along and look at. The Royal Palace seems to be a big hit on the tourist circuit. I looked back at my old photographs and memories from my visit about ten years ago and there was absolutely no other tourists around except for a few monks. This time there were hordes…wait is that offensive… of Chinese tour groups. It was almost as impressive a transformation as the palace itself.
Next stop was the National Museum which has a number of great holdings from around Cambodia. It also does a great job displaying the contemporary nationalist narrative of the Cambodian nation through semi-outrageous maps and historical claims. I also found out that the museum building itself is a UN World Heritage Site. Pretty fancy, eh?
After my morning out, I met up with my friend Jessica from the University of Hawaii, Manoa. She is here studying Khmer and doing research for her M.A. thesis on Cambodian film in the 1950s and 1960s. She has been living here for several weeks, so I totally leaned on her local, and linguistic, knowledge. We walked around the city for several hours eating local street foods, finding a currency exchange, and generally having an awesome time.
One particular highlight was our visit to Olympic Stadium, a large public space created for sports and recreation in the 1950s (or 1960s maybe?). As we climbed to the top of the stadium, a massive rain and thunderstorm broke out and we had to run around to a covered food area with all the other locals. We spent about forty-five minutes under a concrete roof looking out at the city as rain poured around us. It was great fun and we used the time to eat ice cream, drink orange drink, and sample pressed sugarcane juice. After the rain stopped there was a great rainbow that stretched in a high arch above the stadium. It was pretty fantastic.
I finished the night off with some delicious and cheap southern Indian food. I find that tall food is often more delicious, and this dosa lived up to that claim! Yummm!
Well, I have come to Cambodia. My Thai visa expired and Phnom Penh seemed like a great destination for the aptly-named “visa-run.” I will only be here a few days, but because I am returning by air, I will get a new full month visa. This way when Laurel gets here, we can relax for a while before we make plans to leave the country again.
When I arrived I really didn’t have any plans or a place to stay, but I thought it would be pretty easy to figure out. The taxi in from the airport seemed really expensive so I tried to quickly make some new buddies and share a ride toward town. I ended up meeting a group of French expats who live in the city and work in a French program at a private university. Curiously, they informed me we could not go straight into town. First we had to swing by the Burger King and get hamburgers. You see, as they informed me, there is only one Burger King in Cambodia and it is there in the airport. How these Frenchmen and women’s love for Burger King relates to the well known sense of French linguistic and culinary superiority or anti-Americanism, I am not quite sure. However, as we ate they did regale me with the benefits of French language programs in Cambodia.
I got into the backpacker distract a little late and many places were full. I had to go to four guesthouse before I found a room. It is actually really nice place and despite being called the Goldie Boutique Guest House, it is really not too expensive and has nice furnishings. It is somewhat arts and French. At least I would like to think so. Well, tomorrow is a big day!!!
Well, I finished the language program in the north and now I am heading down to Bangkok to start phase two of my time here in Thailand. Now comes the research, Ph.D. work, and general “getting it on” that might eventually end in my getting a degree and a job. Or at least that is what I like to tell myself.
The train ride back to Bangkok was fun as the night trains usually are. I made some friends and even managed to get a little sleep.
When I arrived in Bangkok I headed over to an apartment building that a friend of mine used to live in and rented a room for a couple of months. It is in a little neighborhood close to the Surasak Sky Train stop. It is quite and pleasant with both a large wat and mosque nearby. The building is also pretty nice. There is even a roof top swimming pool. I went out last night and there was no one there but me. Pretty awesome really.
Part of being a good world historian, or I suppose any historian for that matter, is having an active imagination. We have to be able to constantly ask new questions and seek new interpretations of the past. I came across this animated short, part of a longer talk by Jeremy Rifkin (available here), that briefly looks at world history as a project leading toward greater and greater levels of empathy in the human race.
While it is not very fashionable for historians to incorporate these sorts of facts or evidence into their work, there seems to be something really valuable here. Aside from being an interesting piece on compassion and empathy, it also points to alternative histories revolving around emotion, biology, psychology, or spirituality instead of great men and important dates. These factors are clearly part of the story of human history with cultural and social origins rooted in particular times and places, but have yet to be fully incorporated into the work of most historians. How do we do this? I don’t know. Should we try to do this in our work? Yes. Something for me to work on I guess.
Really big day today. Got up early in Chiang Rai, found a nice vegan restaurant and ate my first vegetarian meal since arriving in Thailand, and boarded the bus for Laos.
After a two and a half hour bus ride I made it to the (no longer so little) border town of Chiang Kong. I quick hoped on the ferry and made it in to Laos. As I was on the boat I made friends with another traveler named Chris. He was quite the interesting fellow. We were the same age and seemed to have a lot in common, with the exception that, up until seven months ago, he had been a high-priced lawyer in San Francisco.
When Chris and I got to the Lao side of the river I suggested we stay at this cool hotel that Laurel and I stayed in about a decade ago. This hotel was once a French colonial office and has tons of interesting features and old teak wood everywhere. It is probably too fancy for me. Whenever there is a towel folded into the shape of an animal I realize that I could definitely paid half as much somewhere else. That being said it was great and still not very expensive.
After chilling out for a bit, my new friend Chris and I went out to explore the town. We climbed up a giant hill and looked around at a cool wat with many interesting and lifelike murals. Then we walked a bit along the ridge to an old French military fort. Unfortunate the fort was closed for the day.
Fortunately I decided to snoop around and found a caved-in wall that allowed up to go in to the empty fort and look around. Pretty awesome really. We were the only ones there. We even climbed up a broken down tower to get a great view of the city. I don’t think that would have been possible if the fort was open at the time.
After that we headed back into town to try and figure out Chris’s plans for tomorrow. He wanted to take the slow boat to Luang Prabang, so we walked to the pier to figure out the trip. On the way back we saw a neat restaurant with a large deck overlooking the river. Inside a large party was drinking and singing Karaoke. Chris and I decided to check it out. It started very casually with a few drinks and a bucket of ice, but we soon were invited into the party. The director of Laos’s Ministry of Finance had done an inspection of a local office and apparently it went well. The whole office including the minister decided to celebrate. We started it out real classy with me singing “Hello” by Lionel Richie. Things quickly went downhill.
Chris and I got a lesson in Lao culture. Apparently when your senior or superior orders you to “bottoms up” you must down however much is in your glass at the moment. Many of the workers were drunk before we even arrived. Luckily I can control myself to some extent, and, despite the fact that there are now images of me being ordered to dance “ram” style with the hostesses, I kept my composure under fire. The night ended with me bringing it home with the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want it That Way.” It was quite the hit.
What is the best part about a three hour bus ride by yourself? Trick question. It was supposed to be three hours but was really closer to five. If you get on a bus and all you see are monks and soldiers, you are probably on the sloooooow bus. But anyway, here I am in Chiang Rai. As my visa is about to expire I felt like it might be a good idea to cross borders and get a new one. The city is actually pretty nice. They do a little night market and they also sell a lot of tea… mmmmm…. Tea.
Also my hotel room turned out to be really nice. It even has a shared deck. The naked man drinking beer was included for free!
Also, Chiang Mai seems to be the place to be if you are an older gay European man (see naked man on porch.) I am not sure what that is about, but just in case any of you were interested I just thought I would give you a little heads up.
The term is almost half over! In order to kill off some of the free time I find myself with during the day, I discovered a website where I can watch all the best of American TV online. As I settled in to an episode of the Simpsons, I looked to the sky and lo and behold, there in all its heavenly glory, a majestic cloud doughnut. Apparently, the Simpson’s gods are watching.
I also happened to come across the most brightly colored and amazing lizard. It was about a foot and a half long and bright blue and white. It ran away from me and on to a tree where it began to change colors to the brown of the tree bark. I tried to film it, but it didn’t really come out. At least I got a few pictures.
It’s been a good few days here. One week of intensive Thai down! The weather is much nicer these days now that the rainy season is on. It does sometimes dump rain for ten to twenty minutes and going anywhere during this torrent is impossible. On the other hand, the weather has been cooler and there is often a layer of rolling clouds protecting my pasty white skin from the sun. It also makes for some good views. Sometimes it creeps me out a bit when it get super dark really quickly during the middle of the day from these thick clouds overhead. Are the deatheaters coming for me, or is it just about to rain?
There really is not much to do here at night. After dinner I usually head back to the room pretty early. I have made friends with some of the younger shopkeepers in the neighborhood, but we have only hung out a few times. On the other hand I have been meeting up with some of these cute little ladies. Luckily I haven’t had any inside my room yet, but I know it is only a matter of time.
A few nights ago I went out with a new friend I met on campus. She took me to an all you can eat barbeque place. Pretty awesome really! You pick up raw meat, vegetables, and noodles and grill them on your table. Also, on the way home I discovered a little street cart that makes a dessert with a sort of super thin wafer wrapped around marshmallows and raisins. They are great!
School has started, class is great, and homework is happening. There are five students in the class, and everyone seems really nice. There is a young man from Vietnam, an older teacher from Wales who has been teaching at private schools around Asia for the last twenty years, a language expert from Singapore, a young women who I think may be in seminary and here on exchange, and myself. Also, because we are special students, our class is held in the international/graduate student building which is brand new and really nice. This means air conditioning and no bugs. Also, it is an inside/outside building so it is sort of like a touch of home (in this case home being Sakamaki Hall at the University of Hawaii).
And as always, the food is great. I have now entered the “hubris stage” and am trying to eat anything and everything edible. Will this come back to haunt me? Only time will tell. I took a picture of the menu at my favorite eatery so that I could come home, translate it, and figure out what the foods were. This has been great. It has allowed me to order foods that I know are loaded with vegetables, or on the other hand, to order deep-fried balls of pork stuffed with chilies! My favorite go to is a really simple and lean long roasted pork with a sort of thin peanut sauce. It is pretty delicious. Also, I have gained a reputation as one of the only foreigners that anyone on my street has met who likes fruit. Thus people now regularly bring me fruit to make sure that I experience the real variety. Not too bad a reputation I guess.
Despite a concern that my classes maybe canceled, it turns out that my classes are on, the tuition is all paid, and I start Monday. One month of intense Thai language training to go.
I woke up pretty early this morning to the sound of chirping and flapping birdies. As it turns out, the mommy/daddy bird decided it was time to toss the baby birds out of the nest to make sure they learn to fly. I suppose it is vital that children are thrown out of the house to make sure they become adults, I mean you don’t want them living there forever, but man does it seem to make a lot of noise. Despite a couple of the birds hanging out on my balcony in the morning, I think they all made it through the ordeal.
Speaking of wildlife, I spotted my first one of these (not) so little cuties yesterday. He ran away pretty quickly and I had no desire to chase after him. I mean, me and Hagrid our pretty tight, but still you never know how many friends he has.
I also had my first meal this time around that was genuinely too spicy for me. I felt a little like I might be sick after finishing it. Although it doesn’t look too hot, I have found it is really the salads that get you. I guess the idea is to burn off any bacteria, germs, etc…
On the other hand, I had an extremely pleasant and super cheap bag filled with mulberries as a dessert. These are really a sort of byproduct of the silk production industry – you need mulberry leaves to feed to silkworms – but they are dried and sold in hippy food stores in the United States as a “super food” so they must be good for me.