When my snailshell came via the amazon I laughed, wondering how all I needed would cram down into 46 liters. But four pairs of shorts became two, one sleeping bag became none, and so on. It's worked--and when I've needed new or replacements they have stores here. All good.
I also brought a hat.
While I had sense enough to not get sentimental about most of what I brought, I didn't do the same with my hat. And that sucks because I lost it the other day. After months of watching it like a hawk, pinning it between my head and hand when even a light breeze worked up, I just left it somewhere--I think when I was changing at the hot springs following my sunrise trek up Mt. Batur.
It was just a ballcap, promoting my Nashville Predators. But my brother gave me that hat more than a decade ago. It'd been through a lot--the bill fabric was shredded, it was stained many times over, there was a perspiration smell that wouldn't go away. Still, it was irreplaceable.
And now it can never be.
When I started writing decades ago I hated writing settings. I found them boring. I was more interested in dialogue, action, characters and their relationships--setting was a waste of time. Who cared about forests except Robert Fucking Frost?
Perhaps my contempt for world-building proceeded from my contempt from my own world, thinking as I'd thought in my youth that I was better than my country upbringing.
But I learned. To write a relationship you need to set it's time and a place. The relationships in Pride and Prejudice are different than those in The Hunger Games, by necessity. Just as I learned, as I've traveled to places exotic and shiny, met people who are kind and true and good--strangers and little birdies who fed and sheltered me and replaced that which I've lost and left behind--that where I come from also has a lot of good. I can't divorce myself from it. It's in my bones.
Life is choices--and you have to choose a place to be, according to Drs Pauli and Hill:
Which means that some things or people--even those I care about deeply--must sometimes be left behind as I take the return trip down the road less traveled. It sucks immeasurably as noted earlier. But the memories and joy can be carried.
And more than one hat can hold happy sentiment.
Very proud and honored to be published in the latest edition of Foliate Oak, and with a story that is dear to my heart. The idea for it had been rattling around in my brain for who knows how long, but I started writing it down in a Saigon coffee shop while watching the insane traffic.
That was in May of last year. It went through at least six iterations and 11 rejections before it found its proper home. And this, by my standards, was a pretty fast accept--I have other stories that have yet to find the right fit after dozens of drafts and declines.
I say this not to complain, but instead to quantifiably demonstrate that this takes time and hard work. It takes thick skin and relentlessness. Now maybe that isn't true for every writer--and the fact that Stephanie Meyer thinks a dozen rejections is a lot and complains that a couple of those were mean, well, I have to laugh. Otherwise I would want to throttle her.
Then again she made a mint off a story I couldn't get halfway through from all my eye-rolling, so maybe I shouldn't be so smug.
Point being, success in this writing game seems to be a function of talent, tenacity, strategy, and luck. One probably needs all four, but the percentage of each will vary for each writer. I feel lucky for the success I've had thus far, and appreciative to all those who have contributed to it. And I'll need more, because I'm not even close to being done yet.
In any list, something must come last: it's just the nature of the way things work. As my time in Malaysia winds down, I think of the countries I've spent meaningful time in on this One Way Ticket and conclude that Malaysia is my least favorite.
And since I'm an introspective sort I've sought to sort out why. Is it due to the crappy rooms? No, I've had those everywhere--I'm cheap, you know. Is it due to my getting sick from something I ate? Nope, had that in Vietnam and Thailand. And Malaysia has lovely scenery and architecture--it's not a bad place, really. In fact, of all the Asia I've seen it's the most like home. America.
And that's part of the problem. People here love their cars. They rush around, always in a hurry. They're not likely to smile at a rando--if they do chat it will be polite, but there will be boundaries. Walls.
It's not like that in Thailand or Cambodia, where smiles lead to conversations lead to invitations to dinner.
Malaysia is also (from what I've seen) a fully developed country. Thus, in addition to being the most expensive SE Asian country I've stayed in, it lacks the "quirks" of Cambodia or the undiscovered wild of Laos. Indeed it's the differences from back home--the unexpected and exotic--that make travel exhilarating. It's the different people with unusual ways that totally work that draw me in and create memories.
I just don't connect with Malaysia that way. Maybe I'm too jaded now, I don't know.
So enough of the negativity. Here are four favorite pics from the four cities I've visited and a little about each:
My first morning in KL I jumped into the train system for the Batu Caves, a highly-rated Hindu Temple (because these are the things that should be judged, of course). But getting there wasn't so straightforward, and I wandered outside a KTM and/or LRT station getting frustrated as I am wont to do.
But after a breakfast that made me less hangry, I walked on and found the Colonial Walk and River of Life. I spent the next couple of hours admiring KL's old government buildings, mosques, and important historical sites and remembered that this is an essential element of my travels--getting lost and seeing what I can see.
Chinese New Year began halfway through my stay in the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Fireworks every night, tourists everywhere. The second night of CNY I visited Jonker Street, where all those tourists converged to shuffle slow, chest to back.
Also there, of course, were vendors--food and tours. But while Bangkok and other cities crowd with motorized tuktuks, Melaka deploys bicycle rickshaws decked out in Hello Kitty, Minions, Doraemon, and other "Oooh Oooh! Mommy Mommy can we?!" characters. They also play ice cream cart-annoying soundtracks. And on this night, the rickshaws looped and snaked and corkscrewed in paths beyond my ability to stay out of (maybe if I'd put my cameraphone down). This image captures that chaos.
While Chinese New Year was ongoing during my three nights in this little highland town the vibe was decidedly more sedate. Everything just seems chill in Ipoh--despite being the birthplace of white coffee, a perky beverage enjoyed throughout the country.
Ipoh also boasts strong street art. I snapped a shot of this mural when the woman standing in front noticed. Then she turned to see what the fuss was about. I get it, too--locals don't always appreciate what their town offers.
Malaysia, while a predominantly Muslim country, has been known for pluralism and tolerance--at least until recently (another similarity to the U.S.). In one day in George Town, Penang, I visited a Mosque, a Hindu temple, a Jewish cemetery, an Anglican church, and a Catholic museum--all while a holiday heavily influenced by Buddhism went on around me. Rightly proud of this diversity, they refer to one stretch of worship sites as the Street of Harmony.
And so, as I write this with one final day in Penang, my time in Malaysia is almost done: not the best, but largely not bad. As I move on, hopefully it will remain my least favorite country as well.
And where am I off to next? Hmm. Cliffhanger.
Fun features I didn't mention in the video:
- No a/c
- I had to borrow a fan from the front desk, and it is LOUD
- Cover band in the hotel bar playing "Higher" by Creed (yes I did mention that but it so bore repeating)
And I still haven't gotten to sleep--who knows what fun awaits me at 2 a.m.? [EDIT: I got my answer--Germans slamming doors!]
Death. A lot has been said on the topic and I don't know that I have anything new to add but I hope you'll indulge me nonetheless.
It's something I've thought about since... well, since ever, at least for a long time. I remember as I little kid taking a paper and pencil to graveyards and sketching images of the headstones, fascinating with the history. I also remember fixating on death--I would awfulize, worry that my father would die driving to visit me on the weekends, worry that when my mother was a few minutes late coming home she was in a ditch somewhere. I tried to hasten my own, from clueless suicide attempts early on (maybe you can od on rescue inhaler but I didn't find a way) to a much more effective attempt at 18 that won me a stay in the ICU.
Death was the main topic of my earliest short stories, written when I should've been paying attention in middle school music class. Maybe that's a common thread for writers--we have to think about a story as beginning middle and end, and what clearer end is there than death?
Because the truth is, we all die.
That song has been a motivator in the One Way Ticket.
Look alive. See these bones.
What you are now, we were once.
Just like we are, you'll be dust.
And just like we are, permanent.
So what do I want to do before then? What do I want to leave behind besides dust and stone?
These were my thoughts as I walked past gravesites here in Malaysia. Ancient ones like the Dutch Graveyard in Melaka where so many were buried younger than I am now, or the newer and comparatively anonymous ones like in Ipoh.
And they are two separate thoughts. My travels, my experiences, are largely selfish. They bring me joy, insight, whatever--all good things, no apologies for that. And I will carry memories of them to my deathbed but not beyond.
Will I make anything that stays after me, though? Most people get a form of immortality through their children**--passing on chromosomes and collected wisdom from forefathers and mothers. And maybe I'll do that some day. I had plans once, but...
But that's one hope for the writing. Something that those who might never know me can read and gain something from. That someone who is feeling pain or facing challenge can, for a few hours, get lost in the stories I've spun and can smile or learn or just know they aren't alone in all this. And maybe even 50 years after I'm gone, someone might pick up one of my titles and appreciate it, that my words could stand the test of time.
We all die. But the truth is, most of us want to game it a little bit.
**Which brings to my mind the horror of last week in Parkland, Florida. There are parents my age who must bury their children for no good fucking reason. The bitter cruelty of that exceeds any words I could possibly write.
There's a tension between these three claims. As a writer, especially when banging out longer forms narratives, I thrive on routine and a borderline boring environment. I don't need much--a comfortable workspace, relative quiet, easy access to food delivery when possible.
These are hit and mostly miss when traveling. Maybe because I'm on an unemployed aspiring writer's budget, but my hotel rooms tend to be "cozy", food is far more interesting in stalls and hidden holes in their walls, and, on nights like tonight, the sounds of tuners and rice rockets buzz up alley funnels and right into my ears.
Plus the whole point of traveling is to get out of my hotel room and see the world--otherwise I could've stayed in that corporate life, where I had status and spent time in the best windowless conference rooms.
A fellow consultant once said to me "Know what's better than having status? Not having status."
Each day I see it's true, whether getting rained on in Laos, getting tested in Cambodia, or getting no sleep tonight in Kuala Lumpur. No matter how bad it has been, it's better than having my soul slowly sucked away.
So yes, I am happy. Loving life (which, historically, is also not a common claim writers make). But that doesn't resolve the tension between writing and traveling, the push vs. pull of often diametrically opposed desires. With the novel nearing queryable status, it now demands my attention.
But so does Malaysia.
I'm still not sure how to harmonize these competing demands. Maybe I could think of a solution if I could get some sleep...
I'm now in Phnom Penh after two weeks in Battambang, where I was teaching English to local kids. I'll have much more to say on an experience that was in large part amazing--but one less-so aspect was my bed, which reminded of the "traditional" Thai beds that, in Sangkhlaburi, moved me to make a video about them:
Sometimes kids are just willful. That's okay--they're testing their boundaries, finding their autonomy. But sometimes it leads to them leaving class and coming back with a naked toddler in their arms. Happens all the time, right?
Maybe that's only a thing here.Read More
Cambodia contradicts itself at turns without breaking stride or word. So it should be no surprise in Battambang, when I turn one way to see this
then turn the other to see
It's a place where you look up to see Khmer-era temples built on mountaintops
Then look down into caves where Khmer Rouge killed thousands of innocents.
Nature's beauty, man's ability to create, man's ability to destroy all collide. I think ours is the only species that actively seeks to undo the actions of other members of same. It's our great strength: the worst of us brings out the best of us. But it's also our great weakness: why does it take bad shit happening for us to get outside of our selfishness and self-imposed daily life constraints to actually take an interest, to reach out and help?
So what about me?
I've been blessed and fortunate in my life and certainly in recent years. I worked jobs where I made enough money to leave them behind and go on this journey. Along the way I've been shown kindness and gained more than I've given. So before I came back to Cambodia I searched for a way to give back. I found a small school that needs volunteers, and so for the next two weeks I'll be teaching here.
It's a small thing. I'm still far more indebted to life. But I'm excited to be doing something--to salve in a tiny way the terrible wrongs done over the decades that still plague this place. And I'll get to work with some great kids.
in the two seats beside me sit four humans, the closest of which being a threeish-year-old girl sitting on her very young mother's lap, drinking from said mother's exposed breast.Read More
New Year's Eve--four days left in Krung Thep so down to last boxes for checking. I'm a fight fan so I knew I wanted to take in a Muay Thai event. Three options in Bangkok:
- Rajadamnern Stadium. Home of the biggest shows, and the biggest prices to boot: 1500 baht and up. Too paeng for this farang.
- Lumpinee. Most tickets are similarly priced as above. Also I'd heard some (possibly unfair) criticism of the venue so didn't give it much of a second thought. Especially when there's:
- Channel 7. Live televised shows every Sunday afternoon. And the price? Free.
And everything I'd read was that this was real Bangkok, a real local experience. So I get to rub shoulders with those I've lived among for the last nine months and...
Well, it's about the fights--and they were exciting for sure. Sample:
Two young men giving their all to take care of their families and put on a show. How can you not smile?
Important to note, however, that gambling is NOT allowed, as all these signs attest:
And Thais are a rules-following sort, so...
And we saw a title change hands. At least, the back of it:
After this the plan was a quiet, introvert-friendly New Year's celebration: order a pizza, drink cocktails, watch the fireworks.
But dating a Thai isn't always simple. Because she has family, and they have get-togethers for holidays, and they invite you. And you can't say no, because that would be rude (and even though you are rude, you don't want them to know that).
So before long I'm sitting in the soi, struggling to communicate my appreciation for gracious hospitality. "Dii!" Smile. "Chai." Smile. "Aroi mak!" Smile. "Khap khun khrap." Smile.
And how gracious is that hospitality? Check the prawns:
Long before I'm saying "Im lau im mak!" I realize this is what I most wanted. In my last days here, one more real Krung Thep experience. Because while weather, topography, architecture, and attractions all contribute to a given location, I've found it's always the people that truly make a place. And in a city full of kindness, the family I spent New Year's evening with was among the most. Still, I wanted to show my appreciation beyond poorly articulated Thai and crooked smiling. Thankfully, I get that chance after I push away from the dinner table, full and happy, while others in the family have yet to be fed themselves:
And I still got my fireworks:
Sawasdee bpii-mai! Happy 2561!
Less than a week left in Krung Thep and my feelings are mixed, but not that straight-forward: more like all of one, then that gets wiped out by the next that comes crashing in, then the next next obliterating that one and filling me to the outer layers of epidermis and thongs.
I feel ready
My time in Bangkok has been positive and very necessary. The stability gave me time to write, saved me money, and let me roam while providing comfort. It's a great city for a farang.
But it also becomes difficult/expensive to maintain visa privileges in Thailand unless you're employed by a Thai company--and that's not the deal for me right now. Plus I've struggled with the language, and it becomes isolating, even for me, to go days without a decent conversation (you should see the excitement in local eyes when you say "Phom puud pasa Thai nik noi" turn to disappointment when they discover just how little Thai you puud).
Much as I love this place, I don't fit. Sometimes literally.
Plus, I want to explore all I can of these kingdoms and republics before the money runs out. So it's time to ramble on. But then...
I feel sad
I've been lucky in this life so far: parents and siblings still alive, I'm pretty healthy. So my greatest sadnesses (aside from the deaths of extended family and a dearly beloved mentor) come when I leave those I love. Had a lot of that on the 2017 farewell tour, shed a lot of tears. Those feels came back last night when my Thai friends (after a little birdy told them) organized a going-away dinner and tacked on a game night afterward.
Besides being travel buddies and islands of bilingual relief in a sea of mae ruu, they are sweet, and funny, and giving. They've made me feel at home half a world removed from mine. And as I walk away from them, and a city that has sometimes frustrated but deeply enchanted me, it's hard not to stumble.
I feel scared
Because when I left last time, I came to a farang-friendly city where I had at least a friend. And while I'll have the same (a brother, in fact) at my next destination, the time there will be--unless plans change dramatically--much shorter. After that, I'm on to lands where I know not a soul. Lands where English and kindness to farang (or whatever I'm called there) and maybe even cell service aren't guaranteed. I'll be pushing outside of my comfort zone father than ever before.
And that's the point. That's where growth happens. That's the kind of fear I'm here to push through.
It doesn't make me any less afraid.
It's inevitable. You're nearing the end of your time in a situation--graduating from school, ending a relationship, moving away--and you want to drink every last drop before it is done, because once it's done, it's done. Do you want to remember that last party, that last kiss, that last landmark, or do you want to stay cocooned in your room?
Such was my choice when on Tuesday morning, scheduled for another "must-see Thailand" daytrip, I woke with a wicked bout of food poisoning (writer's note: this is a "tell, don't show" situation). And it was an easy decision, hard as hell to fulfill--but it helps to have medication and friends to lean on (sometimes literally).
Damnoen Saduak Floating Market
100 km outside of Bangkok and with all the trappings of a tourist trap: stall after stall of counterfeit merch, overpriced shirts with tuktuks on them, and purveyors of pad thai. The boats are cool, but they could benefit from a traffic signal.
It was even suggested that we rent a boat and paddle to our next destinations. I declined, though I imagine the pics of my projectile vomiting into the canal would've been colorful.
Mae Klong Railway Folding Umbrella Market
This one was high on my list, and I'm glad I got to see it. The concept baffles: a market set up literally on top of an active railway. Six times a day the train comes, and vendors fold up their umbrellas, move their inventory off the tracks, and let the train pass. Then it's back to business.
I've seen videos and articles calling it "The World's Most Daaaaangerous Market!!!" and yes, I'm sure if you're not paying attention or lingering for that selfie too long you can get squashed, but what I was struck by was how placid it all seemed. The vendors are used to this, they have a system, they make it work just fine.
Plus I worked in retail, and remember some near-misses with forklifts, pallet jacks, climbing up into topstock, etc.
Wat Bang Khae Noi and Wat Bang Kung
Early on the One Way Ticket, one of my friends asked "don't you get tired of all the temples? Don't they look the same?" And, even months later, the answer remains "NO!"
Okay, yes, a lot of them do look the same. But there's also a lot of differentiation among the wats, including these two, both built during the Ayutthaya period. Wat Bang Khae Noi is notable for its intricate wood carvings, made of different panels that were then joined together (no gaps, amazingly).
While Wat Bang Khae Noi does amazing things with wood, Wat Bang Kung looks like it was built into living wood itself.
It also served as a base for the Siamese army and a site of battle in their wars with the Burmese. This is commemorated with a set of statues:
Amazing(ly random) Thailand
Thailand has much history, great wonders, tremendous resources. And in my travels I've found they aren't necessarily interested in organizing these things in a clear way. So it continued on this day, when we ran across a zoo/military artifact museum-ish place/restaurant.
The adventure wrapped with an hour-long BTS ride and 20-minute walk through cold drizzle. Yes, I felt like crap the whole day, and yes, my happiest moment was climbing into bed that night and sleeping off the misery. But I'm glad I toughed it out and chose to make more memories.
I can always sleep later.
The "Crap, We Gotta Get As Many Sights Within One Day's Driving Distance Of Bangkok In As Possible Before I Leave" tour continues, this time heading back to Ayutthaya Province for Wat Niwet Thammaprawet Ratchaworawihan (pronounced just like it looks, obv), Bang Pa-In Royal Palace, and the abandoned second capital of Ayutthaya:
Wat Niwet Thammaprawet Ratchaworawihan
King Chulalongkorn, aka Rama V, was a modernizer. He admired the west and wanted to bring western ideals to Thailand. In 1876, he commissioned this temple and complex, and it is most reflective of his desire. It's also the only wat I've visited that we accessed by cable car.
Bang Pa-In Royal Palace
King Chulalongkorn's western vision carried through his restoration of Bang Pa-In Royal Palace. As we walked paths winding along gardens and Euro-styled buildings, we also saw soldiers standing guard. A discussion began on "how bored would we be doing that job?" since no threats seemed apparent. Soon after a young rifle-wielding solider approached and insisted that we follow.
I wasn't going to argue.
He showed us a cool site to take pics we'd missed, and engaged my party in a long discussion (all in Thai, of course, so I just stood and smiled). He was so nice he also took a picture with me.
As we walked on we saw him chase down another group. And we guessed that, yes, being a guard was boring, so you become a guide to pass the time. And a guide with a gun? So much better.
Next to the ruins of Siam's second capital city, Ayutthaya. I've been here before, though there were parts I missed. Why? A discussion among my friends describes it well:
"He didn't go to Wat Yai?"
"No, it wasn't walking distance from his hotel and the tuk-tuk drivers were pissing him off."
I get cranky--but it's nice to have friends who know this and love me anyway.
Ayutthaya's royal palace built in 1448(!), each of the three large stupas holds ashes of a prior king.
An active temple on Ayutthaya's grounds, this temple has an eclectic look--and puppies.
So I subtitled this the corrective experience, because, as cranky as the prior visit here made me, this one was lovely. It makes a real difference when you can travel with your friends and aren't dependent upon money-hungry touts for your human interactions.
That brings some bitterness to the sweet, knowing I'll be largely on my own soon. I'll miss my Thai peeps dearly. Yes, I'll carry them in my heart and memories, but that just isn't the same.
That's just a rationalization.**
**Thanks for ending on that high note, Jamie. Ever thought of writing greeting cards?
With my time in Bangkok speeding to a close, yesterday I daytripped with friends to Samut Prakan.
Afterwards, riding the BTS from the Bearing terminus with a little birdy at my shoulder, I was struck by out of sequence nostalgia.
At On Nut station, I remember my second week here. I was excited. Amazing though Songkran was, I looked forward to seeing the city without the parties and tourists--the real Krung Thep. I bounced to an airbnb apartment near On Nut and definitely experienced some Thai culture, though not like I imagined. I'll spare the details, but the lessor's laid-back attitude on providing me access to the room, proper working equipment in the room, and my having to sneak in and out of the building itself (since he failed to mention the management doesn't allow subletters) tested my mai bpen rai. Mak. But it taught me that the things I get so easily twisted up over don't matter much in the end--and my anger and frustration only hurts me so best that I just get over it.
Plus I got this, so not a bad week at all.
Three stations later we reach Thong Lo, and this is where it all began: where I stayed my first week, when I did Songkran, and Wat Po, and the Golden Mountain. Where I saw the glitter and gleam that is Bangkok. Where I felt the crippling anxiety of being alone and pushed through. Where I clogged my toilet by putting toilet paper in it because, isn't that what you do?
Sà taă nee dtòr bpai, Asok. This connects to the MRT, and the hotel I spent three-plus weeks on two separate occasions. Great street food, comfortable for the price--it was the next-best home away from home I found here. It's where I sat on the floor, angry and frustrated and determined following another rejection of my most personal short story, and wrote this blog post. And where I revised and revised that short story that will some day be published, I'm certain of it. It's also where I started my YA novel in earnest, which absolutely will some day be published.
This is what writing is made of. Dogged, stupid refusal to quit.
On we roll to Phaya Thai, where the Airport Rail Link connects. I remember riding into here on that first arrival, and a month later after my first border run to the incredible ass-kicking Vietnam. Phaya Thai is also the stop for the language school that added a little Thai to my vocab and extended my visa a few months without needing so many pesky border runs.
Then to Anu Sao-wa ree Chai sa Mhor ra Phoom.
This is my stop, because it's a short walk to my apartment and home for the last six months. It's where I've felt truly settled. It's where I finished the first draft of that third novel I'd been working on. And the second draft. And third and fourth and fifth. It's where I started querying agents, then stopped because I realized it was almost ready but not quite. And it's where I made a deposit payment to my developmental editor, because I'm so damn serious about getting it published. So fuck you, Stewie.
And thank you, Stewie. Thank you for being the motivating voice in my head, encapsulating my fears and driving me to more.
I don't know where I'll be when my editor sends those edits (I have a guess on the country). I don't know where I'll be when I start querying agents again (I have a guess on the month). And I don't know where I'll be when my agent says yes, when my publisher does the same, when I'll hit the shelves or the best-seller list. But I know where it truly took shape. I know the genesis of the story, and how its roots run from Tennessee through North Carolina and across continents to here.
And I know Krung Thep will always hold a special place in my heart, for what I've done, what I've seen, what I've felt, who I've met. They call it the City of Angels. And I... I will spare you any cheesy quips I could come up with off of that.
But I am truly blessed and fortunate.