Thursday, July 28, 2011
"I found this on the beach, and it reminded me so much of you, imperfect but at the same time perfect," she said as she handed me a small, pale shell.
A few years ago, another friend sent a text to me that said, "You're a beautiful mess," after a particularly drunken night out (I'd prefer to think that I was "elegantly wasted"), so maybe she was onto something. Nevertheless, at the time I didn't know what that something might be. I was sure she'd paid me a very high compliment, but I wasn't 100 per cent certain how to translate her actual words. Perfect? And just how imperfect am I?
After spending 10 hours staring at the countryside in the Kingdom of Cambodia -- between central Phnom Penh and The Killing Fields, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap -- from two buses, one tuk-tuk, and one massive ferry that carried the first bus across a river -- I think I finally get it. The views from the bumpy two-lane roads are sometimes stunning, sometimes filthy. A lot of people might see it and shrug, "So what?" But for me, it's always impossible to look away.
Wednesday, July 27, 2011
Architecturally, though, the place could use some work. Temples and palaces aside, many of the buildings are old and tattered, in a state of near-decay. Most of the construction and upgrading seem to be happening along the Tonlé Sap and Mekong Rivers, which frame the city center, but that's a lot like adding a cleft to your chin without lifting the rest of the face.
But enough about the buildings. Chances are if you find yourself in the middle of Phnom Penh, you didn't come to digest the architectural wonders. Phnom Penh is all about the people. Beautiful and fascinating, whether at work, at play, or at rest, they could hold my attention for hours.
After the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, it was probably one tale too may from the crypt, and it threatened to shake my faith in the basic decency of people, though not Cambodians. Just as I wouldn't dream of letting stories from the century before the last one about the horrors of slavery cloud my view of white people in the United States today, I won't associate the genocidal actions of the Khmer Rouge 30 odd years ago with the people before me.
Of all the places I've visited so far on my tour of Southeast Asia, the culture here is perhaps the most distinct. "It's like another world, isn't it?" an Australian woman (from Melbourne!) said to me, gazing out at the surrounding squalor, as the bus made its way into town yesterday. It's the only world most of these people know, I thought to myself. And the pride and dignity with which they inhabit it perhaps will be the most indelible Cambodian image of all.
Monday, July 25, 2011
Thanks to Marjo, I found a cafe in the bustling backpackers area where I was able to log on to Facebook with my iPod Touch. Too little, too late. I'd already bought my ticket out of town. Ironically, before meeting up with Marjo, I watched the movie Have You Heard About the Morgans?, with Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker as an estranged couple forced to go into Witness Protection after seeing someone get murdered. When Carrie Bradshaw -- I mean, SJP... I mean, her character -- whined about leaving New York City, its glamour and take-out Chinese food behind for Wyoming's Middle America, I felt her pain. At least Wyoming has Facebook!
On the bright side (and there usually is one), after a full day spent wandering the streets of HCMC, I discovered some of its beauty. Like Buenos Aires, it's a place that's best appreciated at night, when the street lights dance off the buildings, and the grime and decay of the architecture, much of which is in serious need of refurbishing, or at least a fresh coat of paint, isn't quite so evident.
The frightening onslaught of oncoming motorbike traffic remains as daunting at midnight as it is at midday, but I've read that I should expect more of the same in my next destination, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Hopefully, I won't have to politely decline the offers of so many street peddlers trying to offer me rides to my next destination in carriages pushed by wobbly looking bicycles (apparently, tuk-tuks, so huge in Bangkok, are the primary mode of transport for hire), or urging me to drink their coconut juice (with a straw, straight from the off-white coconut shell).
A photo of an expressionless mother holding her child was accompanied by a description that read, "Hostility shone in the eyes of a mother and her child towards U.S. troops." As editorializing goes, that's a stretch much wider than the Saigon River, which I could see so clearly and beautifully from my 10th-floor hotel-room window. Mother and child were looking in different directions, no apparent hostility and no U.S. troops in the frame. Not to toss around accusations of deliberate and propagandizing inaccuracy, but for all we know, they could have been gazing out at the waters of the Saigon. The powerful photo, whose dominant mood seemed to be fortitude, not hostility, would have spoken volumes without any kind of Greek chorus.
I must plea ignorance when it comes to the intricacies of the Vietnam War, but I do know that it was more complicated than the big bad U.S. wolf vs. the poor innocent civilian lambs of Vietnam. For me, the message shouldn't be about recrimination and good vs.evil. It should be that war truly is hell, and those who suffer the consequences most aren't necessarily the ones doing the physical fighting.
I'm above such sloganeering as "Make love, not war," but it's more clear to me than ever that no victory comes without defeat (for both the winners and the losers). Ultimately, Saigon may have fallen to the communist forces in the north, but after two hours spent looking at the war toll (both physical and emotional), I left with my own personal message: In love and war, nobody wins.
Sunday, July 24, 2011
By the time I found a taxi to take me from the airport to my hotel in District 1 of the city for 450,000 đồng (or about US$22), I was beginning to thaw a little. Maybe my frustration would give way to excitement once I was in my hotel and online, catching up with everything I'd missed while I was up in the air. (I'm still curious to know the full story behind Amy Winehouse's death.) Off we went, and almost as soon as we hit the road, my heart nearly leaped out my chest. I'd never seen so much traffic that involved so few cars. Motorbikes seem to outnumber the autos about 3 to 1 in HCMC, and there's absolutely no method to the madness that is traffic here. A fellow visitor told me that he was hit by a bike on his first day in Saigon!
I'd been warned by an American girl I'd met on Friday night in Kuala Lumpur about the out-of-control cyclists, but I assumed she had been exaggerating. Adding flattery to near-injury, my driver kept firing personal questions at me: "Where are you from?" "What do you do?" "Are you single?" Inappropriate, I thought, unsure whether he was just making conversation or hitting on me. Then he offered to be my personal driver for the next three days. Cost: US $300. Naturally, I declined.
By the time we arrived at Asian Ruby Hotel, I wasn't sure how I felt about Ho Chi Minh City. I liked my $57/night room, which came complete with a view of the Siagon River and complimentary breakfast. The Wi-Fi, which worked perfectly, was free, too, but when I tried to log onto Facebook to update my status, and let everyone know that I'd arrived okay, I found out something that I knew would define my entire time in Vietnam.
Facebook is banned in Vietnam. Apparently, the people in charge of deciding what you should and shouldn't be doing online, have decided that FB is a potential forum for the dissemination of dangerous ideas. In other words, logging on to FB could be tantamount to being a traitor. I was up for a little treason, but my laptop wouldn't even take me to the website. I immediately begin plotting my escape from Vietnam for Tuesday, two days before I had intended on going to Manila.
In the end, though, I decided not to make any rash decisions on an empty stomach. Good thing, too. The food at the restaurant, which the guy working the door described as "Hong Kong-Malaysian" cuisine, had me considering giving HCMC a chance. Maybe it might even do me good to get away from Facebook for a few days, especially since I still have access to pretty much every other website (Twitter, YouTube, Manhunt... MANHUNT! Clearly the people in power aren't being driven by holy-roller morality.) Before social networking and travelling with laptops, I used to go on vacation alone and be totally cut off from my friends back home. I always had a great time, and met interesting people. There's no reason why my experience in HCMC can't be exactly the same.
Just be patient with those friend requests, and if I don't "like" anything or respond to your wall posts for a few days, bear with me. I'm not in Kansas anymore!
Thursday, July 21, 2011
Kuala Lumpur was different. As soon as the train pulled into Sentral Kuala Lumpur rail station, I knew that I'd be spending more than the allotted 48 hours in Malaysia's capital city. It was love, or something like it. Four days later, I was still infatuated, taking it all in with my jaw nearly at ground level, but I also was asking myself the same question that my mother asked me years ago when she visited me in New York City for the first time: "How do people live here?"
But what's life without a little bit of daring? No (possible) pain, no gain, right?
Or maybe I'm just being a total wimp, wilting in the humidity and 90°F heat. Since my arrival, I've met expatriates from China, from Australia, from Sweden, from New Mexico, people who came here on holiday and never went back home. The streets of central KL are filled with other tourists, none of whom appear to be as sensitive to the noise and heat, or as confused by the city's interior design as I am.
Why the big turnout? It's not just that this weekend is a Middle Eastern holiday, which means a spike in visitors and totally booked hotels all over town. Despite its relatively low profile among international metropolises (out of all my friends, only one that I know of, an Australian, has ever even been here), Kuala Lumpur was the world's fourth most-visited city in the world in 2009, according to Euromonitor International's most recent Top City Destinations Ranking, from January 2011, with some 9.4 million arrivals. (That's up 5.2 per cent from 2008, when it was No. 5.) Only London, Bangkok and Singapore attracted more visitors.
Unlike Bangkok (No. 2) and Singapore (No. 3), which, during my recent stints in both cities, seemed to be filled with people on holiday from Europe and Australia, Kuala Lumpur doesn't appear to be a huge Western draw. Still, it's a melting pot of ethnicities and skin tones, and the relatively large number of Africans I've seen means that I don't stick out here the way I did in Bangkok, Singapore, and pretty much every city I've stepped foot in during the last year or so. I'm still not completely blending in either: They may not stare at me as much here when I walk down the street as they do elsewhere, but last night at dinner, the hot topic was racism -- in Sweden, of all places!
Interestingly, for reasons I've yet to fully comprehend, KL reminds me a lot of BA when we first met. (Incidentally, it took me a full week to fall for Argentina's capital.) There's no real physical resemblance, but like BA circa 2005, there's an abundance of big leafy trees, a 3:1 exchange rate (3 Malaysian ringgits equal about 1 U.S. dollar), and relatively cheap prices, which, sadly, don't include booze. A pint of beer will set you back about RM30 (or $10), which, as someone explained to me, is due to a high alcohol tax, which, in turn, is due to the teetotaling influence of Islam, the dominant and official religion in Malaysia.
But who needs to get wasted when there's so much to see and experience with a clear head? Four days in, I've been to two dinner parties (as an invitee of a KL-based stand-up comedienne, whom I met through my aforementioned Australian friend), but I've yet to hit the nightlife hard, which is generally what seals my connection to any new city. So my affection for KL isn't set in stone: It still could be swayed in the opposite direction.
Yet I'm already thinking about our next hook up. The future may hold no solid commitment, or the whispering of "You're beautiful, I love you" while gazing up at the Petronas Twin Towers after dark. But sometimes the best relationships, with places as with people, are the casual ones with no expectations and no strings attached.
Sunday, July 17, 2011
If everywhere you look, you see the unspoilt and the pristine, they start to lose their value -- and ultimately, my interest. Even Paris, which I've never loved and always compare to a beautiful but boring lover, has its dark and stormy side. For me, Singapore is the gorgeous guy who can't make me laugh and is terrible in bed.
I'm not sure why I came. Singapore was never really on my to-do list. The only reason why it's ever been on my radar at all was because of a major news story from years ago in which a young man from the U.S. was threatened with caning by Singapore's legal system because he committed some minor offense like leaving the lid off of the toothpaste.
Actually, I think it was more like misdemeanor vandalism, or jumping the turnstile at the subway station, but in a country where I've been told it's illegal to chew gum in public, and where on the back of the immigration card there's a CAPITAL LETTER WARNING that reads "DEATH FOR DRUG TRAFFICKERS UNDER SINGAPORE LAW," one is immediately aware that it's imperative to be on your best behavior here.
Three potential deal-breakers:
1. It's too clean. Upon my arrival, I updated my Facebook status to reflect how underwhelmed I was feeling. "My first impression of Singapore: It's like Ryan Reynolds' face (his FACE, not his abs). Perfectly pleasant to look at but lacking any truly standout characteristics. I did love that my cab driver from the airport was wearing one of those wispy, pointy beards that the bad guys always had in '70s martial arts movies!" I'm all for no littering and cleaning up doggie poop, but when I feel like I can literally eat off the sidewalk and die another day, we've gone past neat and orderly into the undesirable realm of sterility.
2. Where's the local flavor? During my Sunday-afternoon solo walking tour, I met a 13-year-old boy from China who made me guess his hobby.
"Collecting comic books?"
"No, but close. It's collecting something."
"I give up. Tell me."
"I collect foreign currencies."
He certainly came to the right place then! (And no, he didn't make a buck off of me.)
At the suggestion of my trusted old friend the Internet, on Saturday night, I went to a great bar called Tantric, where pretty much the only thing that screamed "Singapore!" was a drink on the menu called a Singapore Slinger (SP$14, or roughly US$12). I had a lot of fun, and I met some really cool people, but almost all of them came from somewhere else. One of the few locals I met was a girl who approached me on behalf of her friend, also a local. It was the first time I've ever been asked, "Are you a top or a bottom?" by a girl, which might have offended me had I not been so busy laughing.
3. Getting around at night is hard on the heels. The concierge at my hotel couldn't find a taxi to take me to Chinatown at 11pm (the lines of all the companies on his list were busy!), so he directed me to a taxi stand across the street. Though a driver picked me up only a few minutes later, and he charged me a mere SD$7 to take me to my destination (Tantric), finding my way home a few hours later wasn't so easy. After seeing many other people stranded just like me and resigned to their plight because, well, that's just how things are in Singapore, I decided to power walk it back to my hotel. By the time I stumbled through the front doors of the Grand Park City Hall about a half hour later, I'd already forgotten everything I'd seen.
Even Ryan Reynolds' face is more memorable than that!
Thursday, July 14, 2011
It's nowhere near as bustling as Bangkok, but the area around Paradise Complex is teeming with nightlife: bars, street vendors, seafood restaurants and beautiful ladies feeling up passersby and offering them cheap Thai massages (and probably more). During the day, there's plenty of gorgeous scenery to take in -- mountains or sea, you choose -- as well as the not-so-obvious activities that don't necessarily make it onto every visitor's itinerary. In Phuket, as everywhere, it's the little things that make for truly memorable moments. For those planning to visit -- and if you're Australian, chances are you will be eventually -- here are some recommendations.
Get into drag. Now that's a suggestion I never dreamt I'd make, but I've also never seen a drag show better than the two nightly revues at Kiss in the Paradise Complex. They begin at 11.45pm and 1.45am, with the drag queens kicking things off by hoofing it up on the walkway outside of the bar, which, come to think of it, is a pretty genius ploy to drum up business. So are those free shots of tequila that the cocktail waiters pass around between shows.
Talk to a Thai local -- which is actually easier said than done. I sort of knew what I was getting into when I got on my Bangkok Airways flight from Suvarnabhumi Airport and the plane was full of Westerners, but I wasn't quite prepared for the overload of European tourists. And many of the people who live in Phuket actually come from Asian countries outside of Thailand. I spent my first hour in Phuket talking in Spanish to a couple from Spain, and on Patong Beach, it seemed like every time I turned around, I was having a conversation with yet another Aussie (in English, of course). Curiously, though, after four days in Phuket, I still have yet to hear an American accent.
Get a manicure and a pedicure. It's a nice way to break up a hot afternoon. I got mine along the beach, and it only set me back 500 Baht, or about $16. And while you're at it, why not throw in a Thai massage? There's a little bit of pain involved, but it hurts so good.
Order a Tiger. Not the big cat (though that Spanish couple did tell me about a place an hour outside of Bangkok where you can spend quality time with them), the beer. According to Wikipedia, it's brewed in Singapore (where I'm headed this weekend), but it seems to top every drink menu in Phuket. It's a lot cheaper to get drunk on Tigers here than downing schooners in Melbourne. A bottle costs anywhere from 60 Baht along the beach to 100 Baht in the bars of the Paradise Complex ($2 to $3.30), so it's hard to stop at just one.
Get wet. July is the middle of rainy reason in Phuket, so since you probably won't be spending much time riding the sea waves, getting caught in an afternoon monsoon might be the next best thing.
Take a motorbike taxi. Cabs in Phuket are actually mini-trucks with bench seating in the back (200 Baht, or about $6.60, to and from anywhere in Phuket). But if you really want to hitch a truly picturesque ride, get on back of one of the motorbike taxis and take in the scenery while zipping through the streets of Phuket en el aire libre. You'll also save 50 Baht, or $1.60. Don't forget to ask for a helmet.
Look out for the cockroaches! Since you'll probably be walking around in sandals or flip flops, beware of those creepy crawly things that stalk the scene at night. They're bigger than I've seen them anywhere else, and taller, too. I had to take a closer look to make sure they weren't stomping around in heels!
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
If only the ones I've suffered through in Buenos Aires and, more recently, in Melbourne were half as entertaining as the drag act in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. The elaborate numbers they performed in the 1994 Australian film far exceed anything I've ever seen outside of Chicago (the city, not the musical).
Several years ago, a friend invited me to join him in the Windy City for a drag pageant, and although it wasn't quite the best weekend ever, I was pleasantly surprised by how entertained I was most of the time. She works hard for the money, I thought, act after act, most of whom did so much more than merely putting on the glitz and lip-syncing to current pop hits and silly love songs.
Some of them sang live, others played instruments, one re-created Carol Burnett's Eunice character from her eponymous TV show for an original skit. I'm sure I must have stood up and cheered once or twice, but since Chicago, my drag experiences have been all downhill. Drag is huge in Buenos Aires, and unfortunately, so are many of the drag queens -- and not the good huge. The don't so much celebrate femininity as mock it, and those jokes about sex and penis size may have been mildly amusing in high school, but not anymore.
My recent history with drag left me unprepared for what happened when the queens took the stage at DJ Station in Bangkok last Thursday night. I didn't want to run for the exit. In fact, I didn't want it to end. The lip-syncing was on point, which must have been particularly challenging since most of the songs were in English. And these dudes really did look like ladies. I could totally imagine some straight guy waking up next to one and thinking he'd scored the real deal.
The one who did Cher doing "You Haven't Seen the Last of Me" (the remix version, of course) had perfected both of Cher's looks (the one she wears on her body and the vacant one she now wears on her face due to too much cosmetic surgery). And they all were so emotionally invested in what they were lip syncing that sometimes I wondered if it was live or if it was Memorex.
Fast forward (and southward) to Phuket, where I'm currently enjoying the Thai (and tourist) views, and the queens are even more skilled than in Bangkok, offering dead-on impersonations of Madonna, Rihanna and Celine Dion as well as choreography, cartwheels and splits. The last thing I was expecting to hear at Kiss, the Paradise Complex bar I was dragged into on Monday night by a guy who apparently is paid to do that kind of thing, was a drag queen doing Faith Hill's country-pop hit "Breathe." (Country is huge in Phuket: At one beach-side restaurant, the cover band performed Shania Twain, Martina McBride and Lady Antebellum.) Neither the singer nor the song is in the standard drag repertoire, but the drag queen actually sold the song, which I always hated, better than Hill did.
The closing number was Beyoncé's "Run the World (Girls)," performed by a cast of six. None of them looked anything like Beyoncé, and the leader of the pack was slightly off in her lip-syncing, but they'd obviously studied the video well. They matched Beyoncé and company move for bootylicious move, and for the first time ever (or perhaps the first time since the Thai go-go boys did their thing to the same tune at G.O.D. in Bangkok a few nights earlier), I actually didn't want the song to end.
I didn't want the show to end either. Someone must have figured that would be the case because there was an encore performance at 1.45am. That's way past my Monday night bedtime, but that I even considered sticking around for a second course of drag was the night's biggest surprise of all.