Kata Beach

The difference between a tourist spot like Kata beach on Phuket island and Myanmar is stark. There are plastic surgery spots, animal clinics and a steak house. Russians are everywhere. Every menu is in English, Russian and Thai. You watch one Russian couple tell off a Thai man at the beach who flicks them off. Although reading in the sun staring out over the ocean should be calming the numerous people crash around you are like the waves in the ocean. Jet-skis go by dodging surfers. You drink a few beers and sleep. Repeat for the next four days.

kata

Vacation from the vacation.

You make friends with an Aussie couple. You get along with both of them, you finally get to talk books. You find it is more relaxing and rewarding making a connection with some strangers than burning your skin while reading on the beach.

Outside Yangon

As you make your way outside Yangon you note the numerous riot trucks. There are walls on either side of the street behind which lay seas of green. You note how there seems to be an odd amount of walls in Myanmar. After dozing off for the whole car ride you arrive at a pagadoa that looks a lot like the Shwedagon. Shouts great you instantly as you notice two ladies in a fight. Awkwardness needs no translation as people avoid the ladies, parting ways like pigeons when a child runs through them. A lady at the counter sees my obviously not so sly stare at the arguing ladies and smiles while putting her finger to her lips.

Hiding from only one rain storm you make your way to another temple with painted depictions of holy actions and stories. You could easily replace the characters with any Christian saint and get the same feeling of the message without any translation.
Back in the car the driver asks where to go, you just say “snake” and he gets excited and nods. After asking about twelve people for directions you drive past fields of garbage on dirt roads. One pagoda rises out of the fields, the path that leads to it providing one foot of space without trash. As you arrive at the snake temple the driver jumps out to go in with you. Inside is a 111 year old, 18ft long Burmese python curled up without any barrier with money spread over him. A monk talks to you for the first time saying “strong.”

snake

Driving between another few fields of trash of you find yourself at a laying Buddha, whose big toe is easily larger than you. The driver comes in again, this time to pray. Youth linger around a snake statue near by playing guitar.

Myanmar is in a transition. The strength of its religious past caught between the fields of the global world that manifest in trash as youth serenade each-other in the distance whilst a snake lays.

Myanmar

Within two years Yangon went from almost no cars to enough cars to make any trip a traffic jam. You watch old colonial buildings pass by. Graffiti on walls. Holes in the sidewalk. Barbed-wire on every fence. For a country that is so safe for Americans (they worship Obama) it is a little surprising.
You stay with your professor who proves she’s a mother by her hospitality and worry by wanting you to call to check in when you are out. You get to watch a movie on a couch, something you haven’t done for eight weeks.

yangon

You leave your shoes at the bottom of the Shwedagon Paya and look up. The gold incrusting everything makes it shine in the drizzle like a sun. You take an escalator to the top, passing a cat as tranquil as Buddha himself.

cat at temple

The Paya shoots into the air in holly grandeur. The slick marble floor makes you slip a little as a progression of child pristesses walk by chanting.

shwedagon paya

You take a taxi to the market. Unlike Vietnam people don’t harass you to buy everything. One woman even points out the inferior products. You buy jade for your mother. You have a coconut soup with noodles that makes you quiver with its deliciousness. Dodging potholes in the sidewalk you walk by a Mosque and Hindu temple. Finding that the travel agency you were looking for only books flights you go to the cafe at the top of the skyscraper. The city just ends, there are no suburbs, just metropolis then nature. The Shwedagon glimmers in the near distance.

The next day you go to a local tea house. The tea is only matched by the delicious coconut pastries. You are yet again the only white people. You are early for the national museum so you step into a mall where you are transported to America. The museum is nearly empty and with almost nonexistent lighting. Nothing in English. The pieces are so spread out you wonder why there are four floors when it would all fit on two. Your professor calls a taxi for you and you fall asleep as you drive to an animal sanctuary.

Peacocks great you at the entrance as you roll up your windows quickly to stop monkeys jumping in. Deer graze everywhere. You spot an ox. You stop to see a Hippo that came here by way of Titto years ago.

hippo

Afterwards you go to the mini zoo where you count four animals and an unexplained whale skeleton that is more white than the chained up white elephants you saw the day before. You go back into town to meet up with your professor at a hotel that makes you feel dirty and poor. The electricity goes out twice. You walk by black-market jewel dealers as you buy blankets. Next you meet up with another student of your professor who just came from the conflict intensive Rhakin state. You do not discuss Islam here. You four get grilled street food and talk Myanmar over beer. The student was offered a job at UNICEF but doesn’t know if he should take it. His heart is with a man in Seattle. Your professor goes home as you three go to an expat bar for whiskey.

floating temple

It is an easy ride to the floating pagoda. You stop at another pagoda on the way where they sell toy guns. You take a boat to the floating pagoda and feed catfish of mythical size. On your way back you stop at the Ethnicites Park. Model homes of various ethnic groups makes up the tour. As with all the non religious places you’ve been this park feels like lover’s lane as teenagers walk by hand in hand, something not kosher in the city. You get a coffee back in town and celebrate at a toilet you can use toilet paper with. At a bar you watch Burmese hipsters walk the streets.

Myanmar is part frozen in the past, part hurled into the global world and part of a grey in-between. You feel a draw to it all.

Bangkok

The instant you drive into Bangkok you see the overarching freeways that scream global city. The traffic is incomprehensible. One hour to go four miles.
People have braces and wheelchairs. After Cambodia these tidbits of western society are shocking. There are more 711s here than in the United States. There are Westphalias turned into bars. Women in the red-light district grab your thighs. The city is just so goddamn big.
You love it.
You love how a group of Muslim women will walk through the redlight district like it’s nothing. You love how mirroring each other across the street is a Hindu temple and Mosque. You love and are confused by the many Native American symbols to the point of there being the type of wooden statues you see in smoke shops on the side of the road. You love how big it is. How you feel like your pod-racing as the rickshaw goes at speeds that no-one could find comfortable. You love how you had to and got to buy off a Burmese embassy official to get your visa cause you got to the embassy too late. You love the sink or swim feel to it. You keep thinking it’s NYC. You love the ornate Thai buildings side by side skyscrapers with flashing neon lights. 
Bangkok.

Two Cambodias

If you buy into nationalistic history then their appears to be two Cambodias that you see.

statue angkor

One is the dirt road one that you drove through from Kep to Kampot on a scooter. An hour drive just to go to an ATM, but it was a great excuse to rent a moped. The learning curve is low. It feels like a jet-ski on land. Bellows of dirt embrace you as gifts when larger cars drive by. It feels almost like whack-the-mole in reverse as you dodge potholes. A thought pops into your head. Pol Pot potholes. You kind of smile, but who can smile when Pol Pot comes to mind?

mopeds

When you stop you order a vodka to calm your nerves. On the way back you feel like the top cowboy in the wild-west. The wild-west feel is supported by the constant dust storms, “I don’t care about you” driving manner and even how most railings are made of wagon wheels. Then it rains. It is surprisingly easy to drive in the rain, and at least it cleans your clothes. When the rain stops you notice a Muslim community, you want to enjoy it but like a falling branch a cow comes across the street. You swerve honking, feeling a little silly for honking at a cow. Your friend remarks that you should’ve said “Mooooooove”.

The other Cambodia is the remnants of Angkor where historical artifacts act more as spotlights than shadows, illuminating your mind to the genius and richness of an older Khmer world. It is said the whole city only took 30 years. You can’t even imagine thinking up the design of the bridge, where countless statues of men are pulling a giant snake. At one point Angkor had over one million residents, making it the biggest city in the world for a time. Your main thought is simply “Damn!”. You see a smooth-less transition of beliefs, from a more Hindu to a more Buddhist influence within the halls of buildings that inspired The Jungle Book. Bear Necessities is stuck in your head. At the top of one overlooking structure you feel like Indiana Jones, minus the copious amount of sweating you’re doing. At the bottom you feel like a simple fool.

angkor wat

Humans aren’t any smarter now than they were then. What is that we are loosing between the pages of history books?

How can we go from the wonders of Angkor to the pot filled dusty roads and poverty left behind by Pol Pot?

cambodia road

The roads of Phnom Phen

Within ten feet you see the difference between Cambodia and Vietnam. The faces, the language the odd mix of local currency and USD. The roads seam to scream dust.

You dodge trash and find your way down a suspiciously dark street. As you walk into the bar about twenty or so prostitutes say “hello” in unison. The only reason they don’t swarm is because a girl is already with you. As you watch the street from the balcony a prostitute glances up at you and opens her mouth wide to lick her lips. You feel almost famous by the attention. You don’t even want to but the ease of it all makes it tempting.

Phenom Phen

The night is blown away by dust as you make your way on a tuk tuk to one of The Killing Fields. There are literally bones coming out of the earth. You can’t tell if you just stepped on a stone or a bone. Across the chain-link fence a man begs for money of foreigners trying to comprehend a massacre that most of their governments helped to cause in one way or another. The irony that this memorial for the killings during the Cambodian Wars is almost only accessible to foreigners. A nation’s history for others. The dust stings your eyes as you realize how Cambodia is seemingly incomprehensible. As you stare at the high school turned prison and torture camp where only seven out of more than five thousand people survived.

skulls

The dust from the road swirls around you in the same way that your thoughts are twisting in your brain. Pol Pot and other Khmer Rouge leaders were once teachers, yet they used schools for torture, killed any intellectual and basically forced their people into slavery in order to liberate them. The leaders were the very people they said were bad. The insanity of intellectuals liberating people from other intellectuals.

You want to stay in Phnom Phen for longer, but you don’t know what you’d do so you are going to a beach tomorrow instead.

There are many dusty roads in Cambodia and one day you hope to see through the dust.

Pepsi and Rain in Ho Chi Minh

All the white people in Southeast Asia do the same thing. You talk, learn their plans then almost instantly forget them; they are all basically the same.
You met some Canadians. You met two French girls. You met three Americans, two from Seattle.
Beers. Whiskey sometimes. Beer.

You travel in a group to see exaggerated and staged tourist spots. The tourism of war. Is it money in guilt, or curiosity? Is it more touristy to see places you might barely remember. Or eat and drink things you’ll just as easily forget.
You felt fine on that beach in Hoi An. Sun, beer and a book. A I-don’t-give-a-fuck-moment.
Is being on vacation not caring about small stuff?

On your way to a shrine with hundreds of turtles, one that was half your size, you got caught in a giant rainstorm. As you watched the rain you craved a pepsi. Drinking it and sighing in a relief only imaginable at suddenly feeling no heat or sweat you realize you’ve done this before. In Texas as a child you’d routinely be caught in rain storms, forced to wait them out by sipping on a coke. You had to stop and be calm, there is nothing you can do when you are stuck in the rain. No responsibilities, just rain.

That just might be what vacation is about. And you realize being a tourist isn’t the same as being on vacation.

turtles hcm