Tonigh at 7pm, in an all-Schumann program, Dr. Peter Whybrow, director of the Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA and author of the Los Angeles Times best seller American Mania: When More Is Not Enough, looks at how Schumann’s mental state may have affected his musical output in the first concert of LACO’s 2011 Westside Connections series. See you there, homies!
PUSH PLAY @ 8pm.
Join Davy Rothbart at the CAC on Monday February 7, 2011 at 6pm for an evening of readings from his favorite FOUND letters - hilarious, heartbreaking and love-themed - sprinkled with short films from the Kick My Heart’s Ass exhibition curated by Davy (including “The Lovebirds” by yours truly).
Davy Rothbart is the creator of Found Magazine, a frequent contributor to the radio program This American Life, and author of the story collection “The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas.” He writes regularly for GQ and The Believer, and his work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and High Times. He is the subject of a documentary film called My Heart Is An Idiot, to be released in 2011.
CAC admission is free Monday nights thanks to Macy’s. Suggested donation: $5
Click here to RSVP through Eventbrite
Presented in partnership with AIGA Cincinnati. This event is sponsored in part by the Duke Energy Foundation.
DISCLAIMER: IF YOU HAVE NO INTEREST IN READING ABOUT CHILD PROSTITUTION, GENOCIDE, UNSOLICITED HAND JOBS, OR PHILANTHROPY, PLEASE DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER.
Woke up at dawn and made it to the travel agency bus depot just in time to find out that the dude who sold me my bus ticket misinformed me of the location of my buses departure. So I hopped on the back of some random thrill jockey’s scooter and embarked on a treacherous high speed journey through the back alleys of HCMC to the real bus depot where I boarded my ride to Phnom Penh with about two minutes to spare.
Once on board, the bus host greeted me with some complimentary doughtnuts
and a 6 a.m. screening of Michael Jackson’s video for “Man in the Mirror.”
I grabbed a seat next to a super-size Dutch girl who was traveling alone. Travel chat ensued and I asked her if she had any misgivings about traveling through Cambodia solo. She told me that as long as she’s aware of her surroundings she doesn’t have any problems. This before she told me that she’d been mugged twice in the two days prior, and in fact had come straight from the police station where she’d spent hours waiting to give a statement to decidedly unconcerned HCMC police officers about the most recent of the double late night Saigon muggings.
In the first incident, two days prior, she’d been riding on the back of a taxi scooter when another scooter pulled up along side her in traffic. The rider adjacent promptly ripped her purse off of her arm and blew town. So the next day she wore a backpack instead, and the second thief, not only took the bag, but the big girl with it, sending her to the pavement and leaving her with a considerable case of road rash to accompany her monolithic hangover.
She told she was headed to Siem Reap. I assumed she was going to see the temples, but she told me she didn’t really care about the temples, that she was really just going there to “party.”
Knocked about by a combination of Dutch Girl’s stimulating conversation, the monotonous pop music blaring through the overhead speakers and the complimentary carbon monoxide wafting in through the A/C vents of our dilapidated long haul coach, I floated in and out of consciousness until we reached the outskirts of Phnom Penh where I woke up with a crippling headache and was greeted by a creepy scene.
It began when a tween girl in a dust mask got off a ferry with a single sack of belongings and was greeted by these shady characters.
The interaction was strange to say the least, the Shadies being, well, shady, and Tween being one block south of terrified.
At this point I tried to make sense of the scene by convincing myself that Shady was Tween’s long lost cousin, some distant relative, who just happens to live at the crossroads of this vice highway, and that after a long journey though the wilds of Cambodia alone, as in some coming-of-age, feel good, foreign indie flick, Tween had come to celebrate their joyous reunion after years spent apart.
And then five more creepy dudes surround her, sharing sinister smiles, and eyeballing her like lions at feeding time.
The first creep relieves her of her belongings and hands them to another creep in the pack, then orders her to saddle up on the back of one of the other creep’s scooters. Tween’s looking visibly freaked out at this point, so Shady One obliges her a pat of encouragement on the back and sends her on her way with the gaggle of creepazoids.
And as soon as the creepazoids pull away, Shady One turns to Shady Two, slaps him five, and spreads one of the wickedest smiles I’ve ever seen a kid that age smile that wasn’t in the process of torturing a small animal.
About thirty seconds later, the bus boards the ferry and next to it pulls up a motorcycle wrapped in live chickens. The only reason I could tell they were alive was because they were vomiting all over and pissing themselves.
15 minutes inside the boarder, chaos, it seemed, had taken control. My head was spinning, and the sarcastic, rational me was laughing.
“Welcome to Cambodia, fuckface.”
I’d heard about the vice lords that swarmed the city bus stops offering guns, girls and drugs as buses of of travelers emptied out in the capital. And as we disembarked our dilapidated motorcoach, we were graced with a similar greeting.
In a matter of about fifteen minutes, you can basically buy a small child, a lifetime supply of heroine, and backpack full of hand grenades if you so desire.
And for this reason, sex tourists and mad men flock to this place like preservationists to Madagascar.
I passed on the guns and girls, but I did need some Advil.
I was offered speed and random pills from strangers, which a few years ago would’ve been a reason to extend my trip, but these days my medicinal needs are purely just that. So I went to about five different pharmacy’s in a six block square area where I was again offered random narcotics from the dirty palms of De facto pharmacists.
I finally scored twenty Tylenol (priced by the pill) from a pharmacy whose entrance was barricaded with stacks of chairs to ward off bandits, though anybody with two eyes in their head would surely question how effective such such security measures would be when tested by a band of exacto-wielding Cambodian speed freaks.
Medication working it’s way to my brain, I hit up a surprisingly delicious French bakery for lunch and after being accosted every ten feet by peddlers of wide variety of evils, decided to hit the road to Siem Reap to visit Angkor Wat before my headache morphed into something more sinister.
I arrived in Siem Reap and was greeted at the bus depot in near darkness by another gaggle of grabby drivers and dealers. Intense would be one way to describe it. Enraging might be another.
I chose number 6328, the most calm of the pack, to take me to my luxury accommodations.
Not to a makeshift shooting range or whore house or tin shack where his great aunt carves busts of Khmer Rouge soldiers out of rare marble, but directly to my hotel, the Angkor Star, which oddly enough looked like a Calabasas McMansion owned by some Persian coke dealer.
My headache was searing and my patience wearing, and this particular driver, one of the few I met that spoke decent English, understood very clearly.
Number 6328’s name was Thon and he was driving a tuk-tuk to feed his family and pay his way through hotel management courses at the local college.
Considering his command of English, I assumed his story at least I part true and decided to hire him to drive me to the temples the next morning, somehow at a cheaper rate than the majority of non-English speaking drivers in town. So if you’re in Siem Reap and need a reliable driver you can reach him at 092277140 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
My $25 a night suite at the coke palace ended up being quite luxurious, complete with marble floors, wi-fi, satellite TV a two-person spa tub, and a killer view of the mall next door.
More specifically, the children’s play area, and even more specifically than that, the ball cage.
Before turning in, I strolled into town, to check out the night market where I was offered cocaine and a massage from the mysterious “Dr. Fish.”
But burnt from my journey, rather than taking a big step backwards to re-explore the 2-dimensional darkness, I decided to turn in early and save my strength for my trip to Angkor Wat in the morning.
Mr. Thon picked me up, hungover, but on time. My heart began to race and my mind numbed, stunned, as we approached the moat surrounding the temple complex, the sheer size and beauty of the structures just too much to comprehend for a guy who has a hard time putting a bookshelf from Ikea together.
And the old Powershot, and handy as it is, just has no way of bringing these structures to life in the same way they come alive when you’re standing before,
or finding your way through, them.
But to give you an idea…
The temples are still functional and every so often you’ll stumble across a passing monk,
the faithful making an offering,
a sloppy, sunburnt Swedish tourist in a half-shirt,
or an old Asian woman treating herself to some sort of masochistic slap massage.
I was dying from fever and headache when I noticed this annoying trustafarian in the monk gear, a certain “DON’T” for “white man in Cambodia” travel fashion.
I get it. You want to show how down you are with the people by rocking their style, but if you really want a decent shot at achieving nirvana, I highly suggest losing the $300 running shoes.
This chick’s a “DO” though. Looks like a character from some modern day Paul Bowles adaptation.
Many of the temples are in serious disrepair, and hiking through them, if you’re a klutzy fuck, can actually be fairly risky business.
i.e. this ladder to the sky. It’s less than a person wide and goes up about ten stories. Had to squeeze past some old lady who freaked out about half way up and nearly took us both down.
The view from the top…
This one was pretty gnarly too.
Those trees you see, down there in the background, are like redwood high so…
You fall. You die.
Fail to pay attention to what’s above you
and you might just get crushed.
One thing that I found interesting, in a country where forty percent of the people live under the poverty line ($0.45 per day here), is the amount of money wealthy foreign country’s are pumping into the restoration of the temples. The French, The Japanese…
I’m all about the preservation of historical monuments, but my question is who are they preserving them for?
Because if they don’t start putting some of that money toward helping the people, there will one day be few true Khmer’s left to celebrate the history of.
Of course you’ll get the self-righteous rich fucks who’ve been handed everything their whole lives who’ll claim that these people have been given opportunities to better themselves, but are too lazy, or stupid to seize them. I’m guessing these assholes have never crossed paths with Mr. Thon who’s driving a tuk tuk to pay his way through college, or this 10 year old kid, who stands out in the hot sun all day selling petrol out of Johnny Walker bottles to survive.
A storm brewing, my fever rising, and my head pounding,
I made the main temple my last stop of the day. The moat surrounding it is 190 meters wide,
and some crazy ass construction worker was swimming across it, in FULL GEAR, for what appeared to be PLEASURE.
After wandering the halls, I happened upon a Buddhist ceremony and an impromptu jam by the house band.
Buddha must’ve approved of the set list, because upon ending the session, we were treated to a giant thunder clap.
Not understanding the gravity of the storm that was about to hit, I started strolling my way across the moat as locals sprinted for cover. Growing up in Chicago where I’ve hiked to class in -30 wind chill, I was actually chuckling to myself at how panicked they appeared to be.
Mr. Thon howled at me from the other end of the moat to follow him as he bolted off towards a café about a 100 yards beyond it.
So I did, and narrowly missed being pummeled by the first monsoon storm of the season. We sat in the café, and watched as people ran for cover…
and the land around us flooded.
Even the cows were freaking out.
But it wasn’t until we rode back into town that I understood the full power of the monsoon.
In the course of a half an hour, the storm pretty much shut the city down, and this was only the first of the season. They had three more months of storms like this to go.
After a long day at the temple, I headed into town
to get some dinner, work on a Cambodia-inspired NIGHTSlikeKNIVES track and to find out more about the mysterious Dr. Fish.
Who is this Dr. Fish? And what does he do?
Why are women all over town wading around in tanks full of filthy water, and how is this considered a healthful activity?
When I asked the woman running the show what they fish were actually doing, the manager responded. “They eat your skin. They so hungry.”
Here’s some video. Try not to lose your lunch.
Somehow still hungry after my pit stop at Dr. Fish, I ended up at this Cambodian version of some bad Big 10 Frat boy bar where, four alarm fever enveloping my entire being, I somehow forced down some Cambodian BBQ while I listened to drunk white kids at the surrounding tables argue over who was the most totally fucked up the night prior, and share intriguing tales of recent conquests with hairy backpacker sluts.
Kings of Leon poured through the speakers and across the way, four shirtless Matthew McConaughey look-a-likes crashed glasses and cat-called passing hookers as if playing bit parts in some sort of post-colonial borrowed nostalgia show.
Sports on the tube. Tubby dudes in tank tops downing pitchers of mixed drinks. Fist bumps. “Born in the USA.” Off-key waiters singing “Happy Birthday.” It was all too much to bear.
Patience drained, I noticed some bearded Fauxhemian across the way smiling at me. And as I would in LA, where most people that smile at you are either A) bat shit crazy or B) trying to get something from you, I ignored him. But then he started waving. Waving at me like he knew me, or worse yet, wanted to know me.
I was freaked out to say the least, about ready to stand up and holler something like, “yeah, we may both be single white males with archetypical pervy facial hair styles, both traveling through Cambodia solo, dining alone a restaurants filled with hookers, in a country known around the globe for its depravity and sex tourism. But I’m not here to fuck kids, buddy, you are!”
And that’s when I realized it was just comrade Rob, my Canadian programmer travel buddy with the great shitzer stories that I met back in Luang Prabang. So I headed over to see how his battle with Parvo was going.
After dinner, what I really wanted was a massage, but after seeing the vast and attractive selection of masseuses and masseuse/prostitutes available in town, I decided to roll back to the castle and hit the hay.
Prior to arriving in Cambodia, I guess I had this idea that any prostitute I encountered would surely be wearing neon fishnets and rubber and lace, five tons of cheap makeup, would most certainly be dying of AIDS and/or starvation, and possibly covered in flies.
And though some were wearing neon and bad makeup, and according to statistics quite a few are dying of AIDS, and/or are malnourished, none of them were covered in flies. In fact, the majority of the ladies of the night I encountered were crazy fucking hot, quite healthy looking, and dressed better than most suburban mall tarts.
On top of this, I also heard some were aggressive. You ask for a Swedish and they give you a baby. After going bone dry for a month, I was feeling quite vulnerable, so I figured I better split before I ended up like this guy.
I spent most of my dinner watching him. At first it repulsed me, the site of this Medicare Marlboro Man parading around with this twentysomething Cambodian cutie and playing daddy to her kids…
But the longer I watched, the more I realized they weren’t just her kids, and he wasn’t just “playing” daddy. They were his kids too. And that cute Cambodian chick was his wife.
The Marlboro Man was a regular at this joint and everybody seemed to like him. This guy wasn’t your typical boozy, hooker-bashing, expat rapist. The Marlboro Man actually ordered a round of kiddy cocktails for he and the kids, and then played games to entertain them until the food game. Big smile on her face, his young wife was glowing, and not in a “you feed my children, I love you long time” way.
The whole scene was pretty touching actually.
Next morning, I woke mad ill and decided against another romp through the wat.
Instead, I opted to head into town to celebrate the impending monsoon by making more musica. Within five minutes of taking my seat on the bakery patio, the rain began to pour.
As what would eventually become “Magic Tree” floated from my headphones, I noticed these two little girls dancing in the rain. The older one twirling and spinning the smaller one in circles. Both appeared fairly malnourished and yet they were giggling and beaming, just kids being kids.
You see children like these all over Cambodia, roaming dirt roads and trash filled streets, begging for food, whether put up to it by their parents or not, and having no idea how fucked up a world is that allows this to happen.
The western couple across the way, charmed just as I was by the pair, brought the kids over to their table and bought them lunch.
Being grateful I had the money to eat, I went over to the Blue Pumpkin after lunch for some dessert,
and eavesdropped as these British yuppies grilled their visibly annoyed driver about his thoughts on the mass genocide of the Cambodian people by the Khmer Rouge.
His response to their prying was this. “When you ask what it was like, if you come to dig up the things that were buried before, to dig up a dead body, and bring it into day, I do not think it is a good thing.”
And with that, as if on cue, some Cambodian mine victim with no legs pumped by on his tricycle with a smile on his face, punctuating the end of the nosey broad’s interrogation.
After a day of mulling over starvation and mass genocide, I was feeling fairly stressed, so I retired to my hotel for a massage. And that’s when shit really got weird.
As I said before, I figured my hotel would be the last place I’d end up being tempted by the pleasures of the flesh, so I headed to the pimp at my desk,
who just happened to speak better English than me, and asked to have a massage in my room. Ten bucks an hour. I handed over the dough and headed up to my suite, the one with the view of the children’s playroom that is,
where I rinsed my body off in some rusty water, and passed the time flipping through channels on the tube.
I caught bit of a Cambodian tabloid news broadcast that featured uncomfortably long takes of child murderers posing with their weapons of choice. The skinnier of the two killers was a bat man apparently
while the plumper one preferred to use the classic for his dirty deeds.
After pondering what a 24/7 Khmer Rouge News Network would’ve looked like back in the 70’s, I kicked back on the bed and settled in to watch this, oddly gripping, live weaving competition.
Like moth to flame I was drawn to the delicate, intricate action of each machine, and the deftness with which its captain commanded it. Enthralling to say the least, and why the Olympic Committee hasn’t thrown this one on the list of world competition events I will never know.
And then the doorbell rings.
I cross the room, pirate-eye the peephole and find a sad sight on the other side. A big-headed, slow-eyed, pony-tailed Elvis lookalike in a white Polo and yoga pants, frowning at the thought of rubbing another pervy westerner down. Flanking her, a slight security guard standing bored, waiting for his next smoke break.
I pop the door and a giant smile breaks across Elvis’ face, pushing the drawn on beauty mark she wears just to the left of her top lip, up towards her eye.
Me being neither fat, nor old, nor too ugly, she seems way too eager to get down to business and it’s freaking me out. But I was the one who asked for this.
So i invite her in and she motions for the security guy to take a hike. I leave my clothes on, camo shorts and a t-shirt, and sit down on the bed.
“You lay down now,” Elvis instructs me, gently, and so I lay down on my stomach and she makes an attempt at rubbing my back through my shirt. But the cotton barrier making it impossible for her to give it her all, she tugs the bottom, signaling for me to take it off.
“This okay?” she asks sweetly, beaming.
“What, my shirt? You want me to take it off?” I say.
“Yes,” she says. “This okay, yes?” She asks. So I sit up and she pulls the t-shirt over my head
with a devilish grin.
“You marry?” she asks.
“Not married, but I have a girlfriend,” I say and her eyes scan the suite.
“No marry?!” she gushes. “This is very big room for one person! So you alone?”
“Alone here, yes,” I say.
She crosses the room and gazes out the windows, admiring the view of the mall next door as if it were her first time at the hotel, then tugs the drapes shut, concealing us from the prying eyes of frolicking children.
“Very expensive this room for a man on his own,” she coos. “You must be very wealthy man.”
“If you say so,” I say, knowing the joint’s all of 25 bucks a night.
“This okay?” she asks, this time tugging the bottom of my camo shorts. “I take off?”
“Um… okay sure,” I say and she undoes my belt and tugs and tosses my shorts on the bed.
So now I’m in my skivvies, as most would be, if not in the buff, while receiving a professional massage. She tells me to flip over, on my back. I do, and she gets to work on my legs, particularly the part that’s closest to my dick and balls. And now it seems no matter what area she’s supposed to be massaging, one hand is not only lingering in, but massaging, my groin region.
“You are American, yes?” she asks.
“Yes American,” I reply.
“You are very handsome,” she says.
“Um… Okay. Thanks,” I say, wondering if that feeling I’m feeling down below is in fact me getting an erection.
Her thumbs are magic. Her hands are on my scalp, but her thumbs are somehow massaging, very deeply, the area between my cock shaft and thigh. My heart’s racing. I’m sweating. Not sure how much more of this I can take.
“You must be lonely in this big room all by yourself,” she says softly in my ear, and now I’m laying on my back, staring up at the cottage cheese ceiling, a blazing hard on tenting my boxer briefs and I’m paralyzed.
I don’t know whether to scream or blow. I haven’t even done anything, but the guilt is smothering. Is she rubbing my balls?! I think I’m about to get raped.
Should I stop her? Maybe this is just how they do it here. The Swedes have there way, and the Cambodians another.
What if I accuse her attempting to molest me and she flips out, offended? Word could spread. The entire Cambodian massage therapy community could be affected.
What if she cries?
What if she leaves and flips the script, tells the pimp downstairs that I went and forced her to view my boner tent while she was simply trying to make my stay at the Angkor Star as comfortable as possible.
Why is she getting on the bed? Is she going to try and suck my dick? What if she tries to suck my dick?! Can a man cry “rape?” Who will hear me? Will anybody care?
The harder my dick gets the less she looks like Elvis and more like Marilyn. I am only human, but I have to put a stop to this.
JESUS SAVE ME!! MOHAMMED!! BUDDHA!! HOUDINI!! SOMEFUCKINGBODY GET ME OUT OF THIS MESS!! ONE MORE WIGGLE OF HER THUMB AND I’M COMING HOME WITH A BABY!!!
In a desperate and awkward move, I flip over and stab my boner into the mattress. Picture myself being buried alive, in bloody puppy parts, in the vomit of 1,000 gangrenous rest home grandmothers, in anything that will level this erection.
“All done?” she asks. She doesn’t tell me. She asks, implying that we don’t have to be done if I don’t want to be. Do I want to be?
“All done,” I sigh, breathless and sweaty, ready for my archetypal Lifetime movie-of-the-week post-rape shower. And by the look in her sad, hound dog eyes, I’m guessing it’s not the answer she wanted to hear. I peel off a few extra bucks in hopes in might reduce the sting of my rejection, but it doesn’t.
When I hand her the bills, she holds on to my hand in hope for something more. And not for any other reason than this is Cambodia. This girl probably lives in some shack on the edge of town with five kids, no clean water, and I was her ticket to a healthy dinner.
And as she mopes out the door, I can’t help but think about how many times she returns to massage dispatch, or wherever these girl go off-duty, no extra money in hand, as her prettier, skinnier, less Elviscentric co-workers gush about the fat tips they got for allowing some pervy, old, more than likely British, sex tourist to molest them.
Shit gets twisted in countries as desperate as Cambodia. To unravel it can take centuries, and who’s got time for that? Looking back now, I probably should’ve just let her give us both a happy ending.
Only kidding, Aunt Trudy!
In the morning, I grabbed a bus back to PP for my flight out. This chatty Kathy hopped on board and plopped down on a seat next to me.
I felt her watching me, waiting for an opportunity to ensnare me in some travel chat. But I wasn’t biting. We had six hours of driving ahead of us. She was already vibrating in her seat and she hadn’t even started in on the Big Gulp-size cup of coffee she had in her lap.
I’ve spent way too many flights in my life pinned against the window by lonesome crazies, so I’m all too aware of the fact that even the slightest movement can be taken as a cause for engagement.
Here are the basic rules I suggest when taking a seat next to a stranger on a plane, train or bus for a long distance journey.
1. If you feel eyes upon you, do not move.
2. If your kooky neighbor takes the sneaky route by saying something aloud to themselves that necessitates a concurrence from you, something as seemingly benign as “what a beautiful day,” ignore them. Stare straight ahead and do not oblige their unwelcomed intrusion.
3. Do not smile at your neighbor.
4. Do not look in your neighbor’s direction (whether or not they are in the window seat).
5. Put your headphones on, open a book or take out your laptop. Let them know you have business to take care of.
6. And if they are still sizing you up for a prolonged period of time, simply stick your finger up your nose or start scratching your balls.
One form of intrusion not covered here is when your neighbor invades your sightline and engages you face-to-face.
That’s what my Cambodian bus neighbor did. I don’t remember what her opening line was, but it left me no wiggle room. I was trapped.
Lucky for me, she was awesome. She’s a nurse from Boston. Her husband, an engineer, had volunteered, earlier in the year, to help with the building of new infrastructure in Vietnam, and having fallen in love with Southeast Asia, she’d decided to donate her time to helping the children of Cambodia.
She told me that 1 in 100 children still die of dysentery or pneumonia here simply because of the lack of clean water. She works 10-16 hours a day at the Angkor Hospital for Children.
Impoverished families from all over the country travel hundreds of miles to get there. Some days start with a line outside that wraps around the block. And this lady doesn’t leave until every last patient is treated.
Amazing the effect one human being with good intentions can have on such a great number of people when an asshole like me can’t even take the time to engage a single stranger in casual conversation.
Problem is there’s only one of her and children are still dying.
The Cambodian government is useless, corrupt is fuck, and more concerned with supporting the welfare of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces than taking care of its citizens.
U.S. and other foreign corporations are pumping billions into Cambodia’s tourism, rubber, rice, mining, textile and oil industries, buying up land in perpetually renewable 99-year leases, yet doing little to improve the quality of life of its people or improve the human rights situation there.
You see these dudes in their $600 jeans and Rolexes waiting at the airport for the Lexus or Mercedes luxury sedan to pick them up and whisk them away to their 5 star resorts where they can sip martinis while discussing how to rape and enslave another 3rd world country.
Meanwhile, children are begging for food in the streets. Like these two who cleverly put on their saddest face for begging as we disembarked our bus for a break on our way back to PP, and then frolicked in the dust laughing while they waited for us to return before strapping their sad mugs back on again.
Upon my arrival back in PP, I was blitzed by a swarm of grabby teen to thirtysomething hustlers once again as I looked for a driver to take me to the Choeung Ek aka “The Killing Fields.”
They were shouting and tugging at my clothes and bags. I was sick and tired, and over it, I finally lost my cool and snapped, howling all sorts of expletives at them, and then waited for the rusty shiv in my gut.
But it never came.
I was stunned. They actually stopped talking and listened.
After some remarkably polite haggling, I boarded my chosen driver’s tuk tuk and off we went.
The sky was fast turning black, the second storm of the monsoon was on it’s way, as I headed off on the forty minute journey out of downtown
and through the slums of Phnom Penh, which that make post-riot Watts look like Disneyland.
Burnt out husks of homes, dirt roads
and abandoned construction
tin shack dress shops.
A few minutes in, I passed a stilt house nearly identical to this one
with bars over its windows, packed with children fighting for a space to see outside.
My driver was really insistent about taking me to a shooting range, but I was pressed for time, besides the fact that I’d heard way too many horror stories about travelers getting robbed at gun point and assaulted in these parts. My driver seemed cool enough, but my laptop alone could feed a family of ten for a year so I was taking any chances.
The monsoon dumped and I was just stoked I finally had a chance to wear my poncho.
We arrived at Choeung Ek, which, at first glance, looks less like a site of mass murder than it does some sort of twisted Palm Springs golf course.
The rain let up just enough to hustle into the small museum on the grounds where smoking, among other things, is not permitted.
I perused the collection of visual aids displayed to help explain the gruesome history of the site, the Khmer Rouge gear, the pictures of victims, and the like, but my brain for whatever reason, was unable to make a emotional connection with the truth of it all.
That is until I came upon the case containing this anonymous child victim’s sweater, pinned the way it was, as if in motion, as if it still held the ghost of the young girl who’d once worn it.
I could see her in my head, running and playing and laughing, in the dust like those little girls begging at the bus stop, or in the rain, like the ones dancing together outside the café in Siem Reap. And I nearly lost it.
I’m still about to lose it, typing this now, months after my visit, and thirty some odd years after this stranger lost her life.
I moved outside to the fields where some of the graves were excavated after the regime fell.
Others were left covered, the names, and the number of occupants still unknown, though the rainwater, especially during monsoon season continues to bring the bones and clothing of those buried to the surface.
The clothes are occasionally collected by groundskeepers and put in this tank
though there are so many buried here that it’s hard to keep up, especially during monsoon season.
Same with the bones, they’re popping up everywhere, and there are just not enough hands on deck to keep up.
And I found myself inadvertently treading across random bits of bones and clothes…
until I realized that not only the excavated parts were graves, but that the entire site itself was.
This is “The Killing Tree” where the Khmer Rouge, known to kill three generations at a time, as to avoid future retribution, would smash and kill the babies and small children, swinging them by their legs.
And this is the “Magic Tree.”
From its branches, the Khmer Rouge soldiers would hang a P.A. speaker and blare music out towards the city
to cover the screams of their victims as they were stabbed, shot, smashed or buried alive in pits. Skulls of some of the victims are kept in an on-site shrine.
I left Choeung Ek numbed at first by what I’d seen.
And seeing these children playing in the parking lot on my way out only tightened the knot in my brain.
It wasn’t until I arrived at the airport
and found a bone fragment stuck in the bottom of one of my boots
that my head found a place for the ghosts of Choeung Ek to settle.
I felt and helpless and sad and selfish.
In the great scheme of things, I’ve lived my life in a mirror, seeking only to do what puts a smile on my face. And in result, what I’ve worn for the larger part was a frown.
It was time to step up. The only problem then being, where to begin.
I racked my brain for the majority of the 21-hour flight back to L.A. and came up with a thousand solutions, and none of them practical. I like to think big which sometimes dooms the simple forward movement.
But as luck or fate or whatever would have it, upon my arrival back in Los Angeles, I found an email asking if I’d like to DJ A Moveable Feast event for Drop in the Bucket, an organization that has constructed more than 80 wells and a number of sanitation systems at locations in Tanzania, Mozambique, South Sudan, Chad, Kenya and Uganda.
Needless to say, I leapt at the chance.
All it costs is a measly 5 Gs to change these people’s lives forever and the well in Uganda we raised money for began pumping August 17, 2010. You can see some photos of the well-building and dedication here.
The next Moveable Feast to raise money for A Drop in the Bucket will be taking place at a farmhouse in Ventura on November 13, 2010. For event details and to buy a ticket or donate, go to www.amoveablefeastla.com.
And if you’re a fellow Angeleno looking for a way to step up today, you can always check out L.A. Works to see what service opportunities are available around town.
On the flip side, if you need somebody to shoot, cut, spin, write, produce, pick up, move or plant something that will benefit somebody in need, feel free to hit me up at email@example.com.
Until then, I leave you this old school Khmer proverb “Tork Tork Penh Bampong,” or “Drop by drop fills the (Bamboo) Container”
Some Vietnamese dude I met in the North told me HCMC was like the LA of Vietnam which scared me because I know the LA people that aren’t from LA think they know and it’s the one that sucks: a vapid chasm populated by narcissistic, greedy bastards, nouveau riche, wasted youth and dying dreamers.
And if one chose to look no further than the surface of the city formerly known as Saigon, with it’s high rises, bottle service clubs and fancy restaurants packed with young ballers, it’s designer boutiques and the penchant of many of its dwellers for western music and high fashion, you could very well come away thinking that.
But I also heard good things.
I heard that the North Vietnamese were more conservative and kept their doors closed at night while the south loved Americans and “made the street their home,” many coming together nightly for dinner, conversation or an afternoon workout in the park
and others quite literally…
I heard the food was spectacular
and that if you’re a white guy with a little money it’s pretty easy to find a companion for dinner and breakfast.
Some some streets felt like those you could find in any major city in vietnam. Where you could find a bowl of pho…
a happy water filtration pitcher
a decent safe
a friendly game of Hackyminton
an old lady in a crazy hat selling fruit,
or playing with her cock
While others are purely that of a western-influenced (or infected) Saigon. I mean where else in this pseudo-communist country where you can find “crazy bar,” “crazy chillout” and “crazy night club” all in one place?
or a Vietnamese Eddie Vedder impersonator?
or the Vietnamese doppleganger of Michael McDonald just chilling on a street corner?
I checked into the Cat Huey, a hip little boutique hotel down this dark alley
At first they showed us into the freaky first floor room off the entrance, a completely windowless mock-up of a CSI lab set complete with exposed fluorescent ceiling lights. I immediately had a panic attack and requested an upgrade. And for an extra $5 and they led me to a room decked out like a suite at the W.
Running water – check. Electricity – check. Flat screen - check. Wi Fi – check. Unparalleled view – check.
Shower cap – check.
At dawn the alley in front of our hotel turned into a bustling market.
where you could buy unidentifiable vegetables
or odd-eyed fish. The only strange part of the scene being that I did not see one cockroach be it night or day, market closed or open.
In the afternoon we hit up the Ngô Viết Thụ-designed Reunification Palace.
There’s the front gate the North Vietnamese came crashing through in tanks on April 30, 1975 during the Fall of Saigon.
Upon our arrival, we were greeted by the bee girl from the Blind Melon “Rain” video
and there she is again, in the front hall by the stairs
The architecture is pretty stunning
and the décor funkadelic. The whole place has a sort of Wilt Chamberlin space pad/Graceland meets Stanley Kubrick 70’s fuck palace sort of vibe.
We checked out the palace dining room,
the grand puba’s secret meeting quarters
and a room where important members of the South Vietnamese puppet regime met to discuss important topics like where and when to kill more communists, how many of them they should try to kill, and who their favorite Brady was.
But no party pad is complete without a shooting gallery…
a screening room
and a helipad!
This feisty old VC lady’s been here since 1973, tending to the Miyagi in the palace garden.
And there’s that kooky kid again! WTF?!
Upstairs there’s a sort of mini museum chock full of giant lies. You can take photos of the pictures, but not of the copies of supposed authentic documents, interoffice memos and letters sent between US, South Vietnamese and North Vietnamese forces during the course of the war. After a lengthy peruse, for instance, I noticed that a certain US diplomat sent various “official” letters to various members of the South Vietnamese government in the same year, but listed himself as having a different official title on each salutation. Interesting.
Some of the supposed US communications even read like they were written in broken English. Awesome.
Downstairs, you can live out your darkest warmonger fantasies, no matter how latent, take a seat at a general’s desk and lead thousands of troops to their deaths! Just for the fuck of it — Or I mean as a strategy! (Can somebody say Khe San?)
General Nguyễn Văn Thiệu, you’ve got a call on the green phone.
I said green phone! Next to the fucking yellow phone! You know. In the tiny room with the single file cabinet and the pointless hole in the wall!
One thing not many people no about the Vietnam war is the part one young robot took in losing it to the North.
And just as I thought.
Nobody flipped the “Excitation” switch. No wonder shit went south…
They were probably too busy dropping beats to recognize.
This is where my friend Scott will be sitting one day.
He used to make cartoons, but is currently learning Pig Latin to help fight terrorists in space. No shit.
Apparently the key to keeping shit “top secret” is to make sure the door to the “top secret” room makes no fucking sense.
Plans for “top secret” room door: 1) Build step exactly 12 inches up from basement floor 2) Construct door ¾ the size of a normal door. 3) Cover 2/3 of the odd-sized door with opaque glass. 4) Cut hole and insert doorknob exactly 12 inches above previously constructed 12 inch step (far too low for enemy hands to reach and twist in the event of a Palace siege).
Here’s where people listened to things.
and here’s where they typed stuff.
And this where the general slept when shit got hairy (aka when his wife caught him tossing to Swedish Erotica reel-to-reels in the projection room).
We were downstairs during lunchtime, when the basement is supposed to be closed and this guy appeared at the end of our walk through the basement. He began following me from room to room, tidying up in my wake.
I think he’s another original, down there since the sixties, probably thought I was some visiting dignitary after he witnessed the expertise and courage with which I commanded my imaginary army from the general’s desk.
after your palace visit you can relax by the super crazy wicked tree out back
have a picnic
take a nap in the garden
let your children frolic on the grand lawn
check out US planes that have been captured, repainted and misidentified.
Or play on tanks responsible for shelling hundreds of enemy soldiers!
Probably a good idea to let them get their childhood angst out the healthy way rather than unleashing them on the street with a feral head full of fuckshitup, like this kid, who attacked me with a stick as I passed him on the street on my way into the War Remnants Museum.
A great place for any history buff or lover of the macabre.
Outside you can see real life helicopters
and planes used in the Vietnam War.
and this guy (the one on the left with the missing arm) who tried to freak me out by greeting me with his napalm stump. When I didn’t blink and, instead, took it and shook it like a hand, he tried to sell me some books. When I told him I didn’t have any dong on me to buy the books he went off, telling me how he’s not a beggar, how he’s selling me something, how I’m an American somethingorother.
It 180’d my day to say the least. Here Napalm guy is (Napalm Guy representing all of Vietnam of course) acting like shit’s all copasetic, welcoming “BJ” Bill Clinton back in 2000 and saying you know what, the war was totally fucked up, but we’re going to move forward.
And here I am, a generation later, a diplomat of good will, Facebook and I-phones, coming over to set things right in a not so obvious way. Here I am coming over to eat their pho, shoot machine guns, ogle their prostitutes, and this guy has the nerve to accuse me of being an American somethingorther!
Fuck him! Fuck you! I was crazy pissed! I nearly called it there and turned around before I even got to see the dead babies they keep in a fish tank to let everybody know how over the war they are. Hold up – first things second – I digress. We haven’t even gone in yet.
Inside the museum, we perused the collection of tiger cages and
guillotines used by the French against Vietnamese rebels, and then supposedly recycled by the U.S. to use against the North and Vietcong!
We checked out the collection of oil paintings by local artists depicting, oddly enough, Bush-era Guantanamo interrogation tactics…
like the old snake up the vagina trick.
It’s odd, you know, because by looking at these, one might think the conflict in Vietnam was more like a key party at Sasha Grey’s house than an actual war or whatever.
That is aside from the guns…
and more bombs of course.
Here’s a photo exhibit depicting the “Thanh Phong Massacre,” the February 25, 1969 slaughter, by Navy Seals, of twenty unarmed civilian Vietnamese women, children and old people in an isolated Vietnamese peasant hamlet led by America’s own (former Senator) Bob Kerrey.
And here they are, the Hope diamonds of the war museum collection, the world famous Dioxon Twins! Nothing says you’re ready to forgive and move on like displaying your dead in tanks of formaldehyde.
After checking out the dead babies, you can drop your live ones off at the playroom to think about how good they have it.
After wading through the “Sea of Bullshit Propaganda” section, I was relieved to find the “Historic Truths” section.
Where we quickly found a bunch of really dope bullshit propaganda painters and posters (an obvious oversight by the Historic Truths staff).
Did I mention that there’s no air conditioning in most of the museum and that it just was about 132 degrees inside? I’m really dying here, about to give up on heading up to the 3rd floor. But something in me told me to soldier on, so I did.
And boy was I glad, because a floor above there was a photo exhibit (w/AC) featuring the work of Katie’s godfather’s father, Larry Burrows!
Who’s only like the best war photographer in history or whatever.
I shit you not. Even the Vietnamese apparently think so, as 2/3 of the entire photo section was plastered either with pictures he took during the war, or with photos of him.
There were displays on the wall praising his work. Even a copy of the last photo ever taken of Larry, and fellow photojournalists Henri Huet, Kent Potter and Keisaburo Shimamoto, boarding a helicopter headed for Laos on February 10, 1971. Larry disappeared later that day over Laos when the copter got lost in fog and was shot down by the North Vietnamese.
On April 3–4, 2008, the remains Burrows and his fellow photographers were honoured and interred at the Newseum in Washington, D.C..
Our taste for violence and misery still not satiated, Katie and I decided to take a trip the next day with our trusty guide “John Wayne”…
to the infamous Củ Chi tunnels which were used by Viet Cong guerrillas as hiding spots, communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for numerous guerrilla fighters during the war, and were the Viet Cong’s base of operations for the Tết Offensive in 1968.
On the way we stopped at a factory where adults crippled by guns and bombs and mines and Napalm and Agent Orange and Dioxin as children now make lacquer goods which they sell for literally seven times the price as they go for at a typical shop in Hanoi. Good idea.
We arrived at the Củ Chi Tunnels and John Wayne, our Pied Piper of Death, led us with a crazed grin through the blood of young soldier fertilized forests.
Where he showed us boobie traps
and trap doors that led to the tunnel systems below ground.
John Wayne implored a volunteer to climb down and show the rest of us how tight the door really was. Being claustrophobic I said no fucking way. But this tiny Asian fellah was more than happy to accommodate John Wayne’s request.
The crowd was wowed, but John Wayne wasn’t impressed. And after telling us how a fat American woman had gotten stuck in one of the holes just last week, he beckoned a Westerner to take the challenge. And so this trustafarian backpacker took a shot. The dreads were a squeeze of course, but the hippy made it in without incident.
After breaking us in on the trap door, John Wayne encouraged us to climb down this hell hole
and climb 50 feet or so down a body size tunnel on our stomachs to the next tunnel exit, or even farther on down the system, if our panicking hearts were so inclined. I started hyperventilating just thinking about it. But Katie was stoked. Here she is climbing out of the abyss like it’s no big thang.
And here I am making sexy in the soldier’s sleep away camp.
One of my female robot soldier comrades wasn’t convinced that tunnels were a place for sexy. In fact she’d gone so far as to list the reasons why they were in reality, the very last place for sexy.
So I climbed on a tank a gave a pep talk.
Word got back to the other robot soldiers and productivity of recycled weaponry and flavored lube went up 36% for the day.
Even the real live soldier’s were inspired. Here one proudly displays the functions of a variety of booby traps.
Some are for bloodletting. Other for maming. And some are specifically designed to tear your motherfucking nuts off.
Just looking at them makes you want to kill. So I picked myself up an AK-47…
bought some lead…
And let her rip!
We are all warriors at heart. The gene may be dormant, but if I needed to kill a motherfucker for the very last Orangina on earth, it would come naturally. I’m sure of it. Don’t think you’ve got it inside you? Try shooting an AK someday and tell me after 10 rounds or so (enough to get over the healthy fear hump), that you don’t have a hard on. I’m not saying it’s a good thing, but it’s a thing. A scary scary thing.
Our day at Củ Chi closed with a screening of another North Vietnamese propaganda film in one of the underground bunkers
where I was joined by this gigantic millipede.
After, we opted to take a boat back to HCMC, not knowing that the drivers would be downing beers the whole way.
But I tried to ignore the danger and enjoy the ride anyway, the one that took us down the Saigon River and through through nearly every strata of Vietnamese society along the way. From those who live in tin shanties…
to those that dwell in high rises
Unfortunately Katie passed out
and missed the Gilligan’s Ark sighting.
And here we are not drowned, or dying from booby trap spike or gun shot wounds!
After our journey into the heart of darkness, we had some pho
with a French expat. I asked him where one might go hooker-watching and he suggested any of the local billiards halls near the opera house.
Right across from the world famous Continental Hotel where Graham Greene lived while writing “The Quiet American.”
Frenchy told us if you meet a hot Vietnamese girl in Saigon, and she’s really good at pool, then she’s probably a hooker. So we put his theory to the test and found a number of spots just around the corner from Coca Suki, where you can play a gentleman’s game of billiards and get your Cocka Sucky at a reasonably price. Bachelors, that one’s on me.
After dipping our toes in the wading pool of sin, we paid a visit to a crazy Jesus fest being held in the middle of Dong Khoi Road.
and then hit up the world famous Fannys for some epic ice cream
where Katie and I watched these young fashionista chicks as they picked at a giant banana split with their Asian Andy Warhol buddy, then strapped on their best camera faces and took pictures of themselves. And not together as a group, consulting each other on the shots, or showing off, but separately, each spending a good forty minutes pouting and making sexy faces for their own I-Phone. So determined they were, filling gigs with the same mugs they were stuffing hot fudge into, like Lindsey Hilton after a hash binge.
Wondering if her own face could possess her the way theirs did them, Katie took a stab at a Blue Steel. Not bad for a first try.
The vanity was spreading like the trend of leggings or plaid, like a virus, like herpes backstage at a Van Halen concert in 1984. I would’ve liked to try my hand at some poses, but I had to get bed early. I had to make a bus at dawn
to a magical place where for a handful of American greenbacks you can pay to shoot a live cow with an RPG.
And no, homie, I’m not talking about Cleveland.
After a bumpy flight, we met land in Da Nang
and had the luck of scoring (according to our driver) one of the few English-speaking taxi drivers in central Vietnam.
As he shuttled us past marble mountain,
Vietnam-era American heliport, barracks and artillery guns
and a grip of beachfront property that is being sold off to build $3 Million dollar luxury condominiums.
he told us how much he digs American, how the north (from Hue to Hanoi) does not, and that his uncle and father worked for the US Army. After the US split from Vietnam, his uncle fled for San Jose and his father was jailed for four years as a conspirator in the American invader and puppet regime’s plot to enslave the Vietnamese people with big cars and television.
He studied hard in school and did well in college, but still has a hard time getting a job doing anything other than driving a cab due to long-standing discrimination by the North of some South Vietnamese.
And though Vietnam is developing rather quickly and appears to be, at times, more capitalist than America these days, he says he’s over it. His cousin works at a factory in San Jose and he told me he’d rather work in a factory than stay in his homeland and deal with the bullshit. He has to wait 12 years to join the rest of his family in California and he’s got 6 left to go.
To be honest, I wasn’t super-psyched on Hoi An originally, and considered it more of a jumping off place to check out My Son and the surrounding areas. Every image on the web seemed to look something like these. Like scenic…
I kept hearing how “touristy” it was, but that “I had to see it.” Whatever that means.
So I went and it was pretty fuckin’ dope.
For instance… how naturally beautiful is the backyard of my hotel?
See those “farmers” in the distance maintaining the paddies? Well according to a local, the only reason these paddies weren’t drained and slashed to make way for another hotel is because the tourists love them, and the government pays these pseudo-farmers to maintain them solely for the sake of visiting westerners. Smart.
The nights are quiet here.
And so I had ample time to have dinner with friends
check out the local arcade
take a stroll down by the canal.
help out a crippled chair.
spy on a lonely old man
admire the work of a local pyromaniac
learn the craft of bespoke tailoring
look at lamps
watch nervous mothers watch their children drive head on into each other in tiny electric cars
consider what my life would be like as a teen soldier in the Vietnamese army.
sample buddhist offerings
and attend the local Buddha parade celebration party!
One of the best days of my entire Asian adventure was riding a couple of hours through the beautiful boonies out to My Son on this bad motor scooter. RUFF RYDAZ! (Check out the shadow of my man tits).
Along the way, Katie and I made frequent photo stops, so that none of this was left to our fallible memories.
We snapped kooky gates
and kooky graves
river parties packed with ducks and moos
and doom with a view.
My Son, much like a fat grandpa in summertime, was old and hot and sweaty.
Inside we found Buddhas and bombs.
The park workers there drive Jeeps left behind by the American Army
and the grounds are still littered with unexploded ordnance
so you have to mind the paths past rivers
and roving packs of Vietnamese school children.
Back in town Katie attempted to charade/Vietnenglish order what ended up being the worst meal we had in country.
After lunch, I got a taste of the old days when I was attacked with a switch by this old man after I took this picture. It was so fucking crazy. He came a runnin’ and a swingin’ and I had to shut the camera off, back up and talk him down. And all I could think was that somebody who looked a whole lot like me did something very very bad to him or his family or his cattle way back when. I felt like shit. It basically still fucks me up when I picture his angry face in my head. The hate… so strong.
After the attack, I calmed my nerves with a swim at Cua Dai Beach, the beach just south of China Beach. You know, the one a bunch of people think was featured in a surfing scene in that movie about the war that that one guy did, the Italian dude with the daughter who bangs the singer guy from that French band. What’s his name? Not the singer, but the director?
Night fell, and with it came the insatiable urge to design myself a super sexy party suit. So, I went into Elegant Tailors and threw together a simple black pinstripe on black cashmere/wool, two button, black and gray silk lined suit in the 10 minutes before their 10 o’clock closing time.
On our way back to the hotel we stumbled upon a film shoot taking place just across this historic Japanese bridge.
There were like 7 Vietnamese twentysomethings rehearsing some poorly choreographed walk/dance performance. It looked like it was supposed to be for some music video, but they was a sound guy there, so who knows. What I do know is that the chaos on set made some of the American sets I’ve been on seem like boot-camps.
Everybody was talking over each other: the AD and the choreographer (whom I’d both previously misidentified the director), the real director, the video playback dude, the sound guy, and some random producer-type in the back who was yelling at me (the only white guy on set), to turn my camera off. There were looky-loos everywhere (myself included), people riding bicycles through set, neighbors walking out of their houses and into shots…
The rehearsal for what looked like a one take deal (actors in a line, boy/girl/boy, face the camera and frolic toward the camera) went on for a good 15 minutes, waking, and pissing off, the bats in the rafters of the ancient buildings which swooped down and began buzzing the set.
And the only people who seemed to notice the additional winged rat crew members were Katie and I as we ducked and shrieked and ran through over the historical Japanese bridge, where we spooked more bats and woke up the security guard sleeping there before we made it back to town sweating and scarred by the not so distant memory of our brush with foreign fame and rabies.
In the morning (12 hours after I ordered it), I went to pick up my suit from my lady Chu at Elegant.
The pants were perfect, but the jacket was a little tight in the shoulders.
They said they could fix it, but it would take 40 minutes. I told them “no deal,” my car was coming to take me to the train station in Da Nang in 40 minutes (at 11 a.m. sharp). And if we missed the train, we wouldn’t make it to Hue, and if we did make it to Hue, we might miss our later flight to Ho Chi Minh City. Looking panicked herself, she told me not to worry and all I could think was how stoked I was going to be when I left town with a half-finished suit.
Then she bolted out the front of the store and told me to follow her, so I did.
She jumped on her scooter, suit in hand, and told me to get on back. So I did.
And then she blasted through streets like some Angelina Jolie character in a rape revenge flick, one hand on the throttle, while I held on and pissed my pants.
We ended up in some back alley and she dashed inside this place,
the tailor’s home where two shirtless boys were waiting to accommodate me.
They sewed like motherfuckers and got the shit done as the tailor’s family and dog studied me from the stairs.
At 10:56. She dragged me into the bathroom and put the jacket on me. And it fit like a dream.
I said my goodbyes. She hustled me back onto the scooter.
I hopped on and I racked my nuts on the back fender as the tailor’s mother looked on and laughed her tits off. Chu zipped off down a maze of alleys, one hand on the throttle, as she pitched me on finding her a husband. He didn’t have to be rich. He didn’t have to be handsome. He just had to be a good friend.
At 11:01 I arrived at my hotel, suit in hand and driver waiting.
And two days later I sent her a man. Remember this guy?
(I still don’t know if he came back to the states with a suit or a wife or both.)
Our train ended up being late by an hour so I spent some time in this packed, green, 1,000 degree room
perusing the art collection
spying on super heroes
engaging in a staring contest with this weird looking fish
and watching this kid baller make shit happen.
I assumed that the ride would be much more luxurious than that of it’s Chinese counterpart and I was 100% wrong.
The place looked like the yard of Sanford and Son. Shit hanging from the rafters.
It was packed as fuck and 1,000 degrees.
I kept a panic attack at bay by playing my “I’m a spy in a spy movie” game in my head, the one I usually play in underground parking garages when shit’s deep and weird and there are documents to deliver and nuclear scientists to trail and killers lurking and the ground can open up at any second because we’re near a fucking fault line – but I’m a spy in a spy movie and spies don’t die while conducting countersurveilance in a parking garage — and the ceiling could collapse because the architect bribed the city, because this mall was built in the 80’s you know, and everybody was on cocaine. So how could this place be safe for people to park their cars in? Even assholes like me who are on their way to Lenscrafters, playing spy in their heads and destined to die, buried alive in the rubble of Forever 21, while drowning in their own blood?
On the positive side, the view was absolutely stunning.
We arrived in Hue, checked into our room just off the Perfume River
Just in time for sunset.
So we took a stroll through town
and headed North, over this bridge.
It was kind of freaky. We were two of the only pedestrians on the entire bridge besides the Vietnamese Army dudes who were posted chilling every twenty feet or so for the entire length.
Most of them stared. A few made comments in Vietnamese about us as we passed, a couple smiled, and one said something about taking a picture with us, or us taking a picture of him, or me taking a picture of the soldiers with Katie. I wasn’t completely sure, but neither one of us was feeling the vibe of the proposed photo shoot. So we played dumb and moved on, chuckling politely.
Now I hadn’t gotten any bad vibes in Hanoi, but like I said I’d heard from our driver in Hoi An (just prior to being attacked by a septuagenarian cattle farmer) that the North Vietnamese from Hue to Hanoi were a little less friendly to foreigners, particularly Americans.
Now I could be wrong, but I’m guessing it could have something to do with the fact that American troops pretty much leveled the entire city during the Battle of Hue.
As we strolled the darkened streets and alleys around the Citadel,
(many of the homes there occupied by the people old enough to have been there during the war), I began to feel the weight of my country’s history as a camera-strapped, wide-eyed reminder of the worst days of these people’s lives.
Their homes were open, but not to me. And as I passed, I felt their eyes look through me as they silently wished me away.
Point taken. We erased ourselves from their sight and got some Bún Bò Huế on a corner across from the Citadel.
The thunder of drums accompanied the close of our meal. So we strolled over to see what was up
and found some kind of crazy ass drum recital going off: Hundreds of Vietnamese in uniforms marching the length of the wall, waving flags and banging out a cover of “We Will Rock You.” Some in time. Some out.
A crowd of mopeds gathered behind us to watch the spectacle. Bad ass.
After we followed the distant glow of party boats towards the river. Outside the Compact Disc café.
Some Vietnamese teen scrambled out of the trees and asked us if we’d like a table. But he didn’t take us to the café, he took us back between the trees, through some knee high weeds, through some bushes
and down to a bank just east of the café where a few other locals were chilling on a spread of tiny seats watching the boat parade portion of what turned about to be the annual Hue Festival!
No menu, no kitchen in sight, the kid asked us if we’d like to order anything. I went with a Coca Cola. He asked for the money up front and disappeared into the bushes. Strange. I was sure the kid was gone forever. Whatever.
Look at all the pretty lights!
But before I knew it, homie returned with an ice cold Coke in hand! And my fucking change!
And that’s when I realized that the dude, utilizing about fifteen plastic stools and the resources of an adjacent restaurant, had put together a pop-up restaurant of his own on the bank of the river to specifically cater to celebration hangers.
Now how’s that for communism, Captain America?
At the close of the celebration we headed for the bridge. It was packed. Like tragic bridge-collapse packed.
Shit was hot. I got dizzy and prayed to Uncle Ho for strength.
I felt his spirit…
And hearing my call, he talked me out of a happy ending
and delivered me, by the light of the moon
back to my hotel, where I got naked and tried on the complimentary shower cap.
Next day, our electricity was out. The hotel’s was out. Everybody in Hues was out. Apparently the energy it takes to illuminate all those pretty lights doesn’t grow in paddies, so the city government literally shuts off electricity in the entire city for 20 hours a week, even when it’s 90 fucking degrees.
So we hopped on our scooterbike (check the “Mickey” helmet)
and headed to the Citadel and the not-so-Forbidden City
Inside we found lilys and bridges
ancient gates and scooters
cool old buildings and trees
imperial tennis courts
and this whacky ass chair some eccentric powerful guy used to sit on
At one time trespassing in the Forbidden City was punishable by death, but now dipshit tourists can take a picture in traditional emperor garb to send to their friends back home! My how times have changed.
Signs of the Battle of Hue are everywhere you look
and much of the Citadel and Forbidden City is under constant (re)construction
After our trip back in time, we headed out for some grub and happened up this little slice of heaven.
At first we were attracted to how progressive the scene was there, their catering to interracial couples and all,
but the food this old broad cooked up was bonkers.
After Katie was guilted, by some twentysomething dude posing as a restaurant worker, into buying a painting to benefit some starving orphans that lived under some bridge some where, we zipped off for the Thien Mu Pagoda.
Outside I found some counterfeit money.
and a pet monkey.
My traveler doctor, the one I paid $300 to vaccinate me and educated me on everything that could possibly kill me in the whole of Asia, had warned me about these monkeys. In fact, she specifically told me NOT to engage in photo ops with random monkeys, for fear I could be bitten, for fear I could get rabies or worse. And of course, I was like “Try not to get your panties in a twist. I have zero intention of “engaging” any monkeys.”
And then this furry little methed-up fucker took a leap at my scooter as I pulled into pagoda parking.
I nearly shit my pants and then he just laughed at me and went back to selling hats.
After narrowly escaping another horrific end, we hiked past some of the monkeys customers
up the steps
past a local troublemaker
through the graveyard
a magic forest
some sleeping monks
and stumbled upon this tribute to Hòa thượng Thích Quảng Đức (the Mahayana Buddhist monk who set himself on fire in Saigon on June 11, 1963 to protest the horrific and stupid Vietnam War), which features the car he rode in on his way to the scene of his self-immolation.
Being too a big of a pussy to set myself on fire in the name of peace, but totally agreeing with Hòa thượng Thích Quảng Đức’s view, I went to the temple to meditate and cry a bit.
Afterward, our driver “Hong Kong” picked us up at our hotel and we were off to Da Nang airport. The view on the drive was stunning.
The topic of music came up and as bad modern hip-pop blared from the crappy minivan stereo, Hong Kong asked if I thought Lady Gaga was sexy. I dodged that question and he asked if I liked hip-hop. I said sure, the good stuff, golden era stuff, Wu Tang Clan, Tribe, Public Enemy, etc.
Hong Kong told me he’d never heard of any of them and asked if I could put some on his thumb drive. So I took out my laptop, banged some “36 Chambers,” and Hong Kong, not impressed, and without another word, turned up his stereo to drown it out.
When Hong Kong (with the clock ticking and the shorter, tunnel route to Da Nang blocked by a traffic accident) decided to put it all on red and take the longer and more dangerous mountain route to Da Nang, I decided it would be better to upgrade his name to “King Kong.”
But then “Ding Dong” came to mind 3/4 of the way up the mountain when shit got hairy and I realized Hong Kong was nearly out of gas…
So after downing another fabulous mystery meat sandwich and a properly aged jelly cake, I landed safely in Hanoi, met my driver…
and checked into my hotel with the crazy ass view of Hoan Kiem Lake.
Fuck yes! I love this city.
And I’d tell you all the reasons why, but then of course you’d have to read them all.
So let’s do it this way… If you were looking for search terms to enter into my brain to extract an explanation, here are a few that might strike gold: bun cha, Xiao mian, pho ga, pho tai boo vien, pork ribs, steamed chicken with lemon grass, unidentifiable genius, doughnut, beefsteak, seafood, fruit, pastry, coffee, coffee street, deconstructed fruit smoothie street, gravestone street, silk street, lacquer street, ice cream parlor, analog electronics, makeshift business, street life, carbon monoxide, chaos, propaganda, ho chi minh, hoan kiem lake, cruising, $6 massage, $30 room, scooter fashion, scooter physics, elderly women thwart scooter thief, death ride, child vs. truck, French colonial, art of the hustle, honor, pride, resilience, resourcefulness, revenge, war, forgiveness, art copyists, construction, shirtless old dudes, elderly pickpockets, mystery streets, labyrinth alleyways, feral light, soul.
so as I let on before, I hit up the Hanoi Fine Art Museum which was impressive, not because the collection was housed in this gorgeous french colonial mansion that was built in the 30s for the daughters of French colonial rulers’ throughout Indochina who came to Hanoi to study
or that the art itself was necessarily groundbreaking or stunning, (some of it was of course) but because most of it, aside from this nazi Buddha
this rural business
and “this guy”
was just dolled up war propaganda. Peasant farmers and guns. Flowers and guns. Babies and guns. Uncle Ho beaming knowledge with wise eyes into the minds of possessed, frolicking children… and guns.
Much of the “modern art” collection, in fact, is dedicated to the revolution, the Vietnam war, random battles that I’ve never even heard of, or of Uncle Ho himself. And I would’ve taken more photos, but I was escorted a female security guard throughout the museum after getting busted by the electric eye snapping (non-flash) shots of this piece…
The remainder of the “modern art” collection isn’t very modern at all. In fact, every 20th century art movement appears 20 to 50 years behind its western equivalent. For Vietnamese artists, cutoff from the influence of the western art world, cubism appears to have started in the 70’s, abstract expressionism and surrealism in the 80’s, and so on.
What’s even weirder are the Vietnamese artists who chose to build an entire career on biting a legendary western artist’s style. Looking across the gallery, I swore I’d spotted a blue period Picasso, but upon closer inspection found that some Vietnamese dude had actually painted it. There was an early Magritte, an imposter Klee, all doing original stuff, but painting it in somebody else’s style decades later.
In the afternoon i dropped through a wormhole to the innocence of the 50’s and landed in this the very Lynchian ice cream shop.
The streets here are a tangle of tires and flesh. Thin bodies darting between whizzing scooters, and street vendors hawking anything and everything you could ever want. Like fake art…
killer vintage analog stereo gear
strange beasts dropped from the bellies of alien space ships
Scooters or mannequins or ladders
the best food on the planet
and other stuff (when somebody’s awake to sell it to you)
This dude was posted outside my first hotel. Didn’t see a press pass, but I’m pretty sure he’s still shooting a war, maybe not “the war,” but some war.
Rented a scooter and headed over to Hoa Lo Prison aka “Maison Centrale” aka “Fiery Furnace” aka “Hell’s Hole” aka “Stove” aka “The Hanoi Hilton.” Unlike the scooter thief who attempted to steal my rental while I was showing off my ball stash money belt over a bowl of pho to a professional pickpocket, the ones stationed outside the prison were nice enough to tell me they’d snatch my shit if I didn’t park it inside the gates. So I did, right here, in the scooter parking hall of the prison.
Inside, you can see models of actual cells where, during the 30s and 40s, many of the future leading figures in Communist North Vietnam were imprisoned,
tortured with bottles and electrical generators, beaten with canes,
and killed by the french.
Conditions were so bad at Hoa Lo in fact that 100 of them somehow escaped down this sewer in the prison yard between March 11 and March 16, 1945.
I was starting to feel bad for them until I saw that the prison bathrooms were actually nicer than those at my regular coffee spot…
You can also see how, in the very same prison, American imperialist invader prisoners of war, including the bitter and crazed failed John Mccain (flight suit picture here)
were treated like visitors to Club Med.
Here they played chess, volleyball, basketball, pool and guitar
and provided only the absolute best medical care the North Vietnamese Army had to offer.
Ho Chi Minh even sent them a handmade New Year’s card!
Don’t believe me? Just read the sign. It’s in a museum, so it must be true.
After my visit to hell on earth, I took a stroll through the gift shop where I found a wide variety of collectible items for sale, including creepy buddhas and “Good Morning Vietnam” beer cozies.
The Hanoi nights are magical. Just take a look for yourself…
So as I did in Hong Kong, and in my casket bunk on the Chinese train, I set up a portastudio on the roof of the City Cafe, channeled Aaron Miller and the Gods of thunder and war and composed some new jams for NIGHTSlikeKNIVES which you will soon hear…
Back at my room, though it was comfortable enough (for $30 a night)…
sleep did not come easy. This is the construction crew that kept me awake as they poured cement and drilled rebar into my bedroom wall all night for four fucking nights straight.
No, like into my bedroom wall, for serious…
Every night (b/c it’s hotter than a motherfucker during the day) at 10 or 11pm they’d begin their assault, and drill and smash and bang and chisel directly into my brain until morning. And every morning, I’d come down with bloodshot eyes, politely interrogate my hotel manager (the Vietnamese one with the fake French accent. huh?) as to when the construction would stop. And everyday he would lie to me.
He’d dissuade me from checking out and say something like “no, not tonight. Tonight it quiet” or “They stop early.” So knowing Katie was checking in and we were checking out shortly after that, I powered through and went to check out the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra at the Hanoi Opera house…
This wicked violist played straight up Yngwie Malmsteen shit while the ancient gin-nose Brit conductor whipped up a flurry of classical delights…
The sounds were inspiring to say this least. This dude even did some calisthenics during intermission.
I’ve actually been obsessed with static furniture and moving bodies lately…
But I’m not sure why you’d care.
Morning started with a cup of Joe at my usual place.
My peeps asked where I was going and when I told them to see Uncle Ho and they replied “gangsta!”
I dropped “Al Capone.” They rolled “Lucky Luciano,” and let me know in broken English that they thought Uncle Ho nothing more than a corrupt piece of shit.
As in most countries led by charismatic cult figures, it seems the least educated with the most to gain (though they rarely do once their hallowed leader takes power) are the most apt to believe the hype, while the educated city folk with decent lives going into said revolution, tend to lose the most, including (in many cases) their lives.
Needless to say, I was looking forward to the weirdness and my expectations were gladly met.
We arrived just moments before they closed for the day and locked us into the mausoleum grounds.
Old farmer ladies pushed their way towards the front of the line like cougars at a Josh Groban concert as soldiers herded us into a single file line full of believers, tourists and weirdos. We were relieved of our cameras and I watched as a young Vietnamese soldier abruptly silenced some guy’s three-year old son and jerked him into line by the arm as we headed inside.
Now that’s some shit that would never happen in America. Can you imagine if some random rookie soldier at the Lincoln Memorial manhandled some vacationing Pennsylvania Millworker’s son and told him to shut his trap? All hell would break loose. There’d be a fracas. The press would pounce. There’d be lawsuits. It would never happen.
Apparently Uncle Ho’s wishes were to be cremated and to have his ashes scattered around Vietnam, but thankfully the agenda of the party outweighed that of it’s leader and so I had the morbid luck of being able to stroll into the dark, marble, air conditioned chamber past a four count of rifle-armed, statue-still soldiers to check out the psychopathic revolutionary legend who’s been col’ chilling in a glass box for forty fucking years! How awesome is that?!
Dude looked like a porcelain figurine, smooth, white, like one of those Hummel collectibles gathering dust in your grandmother’s China cabinet. Would be pretty cool to have a set of communist leader porcelain collectibles actually…
But even cooler to have Uncle Ho himself standing guard at the entry of your house, like a gargoyle or something, or in the corner of your rec room next to the pool table. What a conversation piece that would be…
“Oh, Bill, I just looooove what you’ve done with the basement. What’s that in the corner?”
“Oh, just Ho Chi Minh?”
“Where’d ya get him?”
“Auction at Christies.”
“Stalin’s coming next week along with a case of ‘53 Clos de Vougeot.”
After checking out the corpse, we headed over to the Ho Chi Minh Museum.
The first floor was standard shit, a big Ho statue, war propaganda, archival photos, Ho’s wax collection…
but upstairs looked like it was set-designed by a member of some fringe communist contingent of Cirque de Soleil.
There was this red tent room
and another dedicated to Guernica, or modern art, or the modern artists he was into or something.
And then there was this crazy ass installation that was supposed to be Coc Bo Cave aka President Ho Chi Minh’s revolution headquarters “presented in the form of a human brain.” WTF?
The guards started shutting the museum down (with us inside) before I could get a handle on what the fuck they were actually trying to say with the whole mess. And “weird” as a word is generally a cop out, but I’m feeling fairly typical today, so let’s just say floor number two was just plain fucking weird.
Outside we saw a real life character from Aeon Flux (though I thought that was Korean American thing)
We shopped for Caucasian Barbie dolls at the gift shop…
and picked up some frozen novelty treats.
Frozen novelty treats. They’re everywhere. The Vietnamese gather on the street to eat them. In crowds to savor and lick them. The whole thing’s very 1981. The yogurt place is dead, but who wants yogurt when there’s no chance of you getting fat.
Only saw one American-style, super-size girl in all of Hanoi, on a scooter no less, and was mesmerized, like “how did that happen?” not b/c I’m plumpphobic, but just b/c she was like a fucking unicorn or something in a country that weighs an average of a buck twenty soaking wet.
After downing my creamy pistachio or coconut somethingother I was mobbed by teenage girls.
No, really. I was full on mobbed “Twilight” style.
Here’s Katie trying to act like she’s not totally jealous of the rowdy group of Vietnamese teens’ incredible interest in me. (But why shouldn’t she be?)
Look at them! Dazed by my luminous presence. (Is it me or does the one on the right look like she’s about to faint?!)
Maybe I should start a religion? Or a revolution of my own? Maybe I should be president? Or king of the fucking world?! Who knows…
Whatever the case, it was obvious to me that I would have to start some shit in a big way to take power of whatever, so I went to the Military History Museum to do some research where I saw some guns
a movie about how violent and generally fucked up America was during the Vietnam war
this iron bowl that “army hero” Chu Van Mui drank his own urine out of so he could “refresh himself” and “keep on fighting.”
and a stone some gun-deficient soldier captured an American imperialist invader with.
Outside I met some future recruits…
Does this feel kind of pervy to you?
No. well then how about this?
I picked a place to raise my flag.
and took in the view of the museum yard from my new stronghold.
The place already has a crazy modern sculpture collection
and a salon right down the street
The following morning we got up at the crack and boarded a bus bound for Halong Bay, an easy three hour drive from Hanoi through rice and fog
through old vietnam and new…
Our bus arrived at the bay and we boarded a feaux junk for our first of what would be many boat rides
Guess I should preface this Halong bit with by saying I wasn’t super gassed to go there. From what I could gather off the world wide internets and information I’d gotten from peeps who’d been there, the place is a total tourist trap.
I’m not really interested in scenic beauty for the scenic beauty’s sake. if I wanted to hang out on a beach and go swimming, I would’ve just stayed home.
I want soul, but Katie REALLY wanted to see the world famous “Descending Dragon Bay.”
And so, being the altruist that I am, I sucked it up and opened my mind to embarking on what I knew would be a completely fabricated adventure.
This is our tour guide. He told us to call him “The Rooster,” but I prefer to call him “The Cock.”
Here’s another boat!
A floating AM/PM!
And here’s Katie drinking it in.
She really loves the beauty…
Some lunch squid, straight from the polluted bay!
No really. The water’s straight up Gulf-style shit.
And look! There it is! The bay!
Stunning… Just stunning. Isnt’ it?
So we parked, boarded another boat and boated over to a fishing dock, kayaked for twenty minutes in the blazing sun, returned to the fishing dock and then boated over to a large rock where we visited a really big cave.
Here I am in the cave under hot golden shower lights looking like a distended belly monster from a lost episode of Star Trek. Tapeworm? Who knows… (Apparently everybody on the boat got food poisoning a day prior so I wouldn’t rule it out.)
This blurry South African guy’s a jockey in Dubai. He was super cool and one of the most interesting features of Halong Bay for sure.
This Anthony Bourdain-type on the right asked me for hash.
Another boat, some more trees and a mountain-type thing coming out of the water!
And here we are happily splashing about in the green death.
I won’t lie. After being subjected to kayaking and hiking and frying on the top deck of the boat in the blazing sun and 95 degree heat, diving into the luke warm toilet water was actually one of the highlights of the Halong trip.
The other highlight was confronting death, which Katie and I did when we arrived at the Cat Ba Island docks bound for “Monkey Island.”
Most tourists on our trip opted to stay the night on the boat. Some decided to stay on Cat Ba Island. Knowing we only had one night to really take in all Halong Bay had to offer, Katie decided that it would be a better idea to take a hell bus over crumbling mountain passes, across the length of Cat Ba Island to the opposite end where we could then (well after dark so we could truly enjoy the subtle nighttime beauty of the place) take another boat to Monkey Island where we could make out, and make sex, and do all that stuff couples are supposed to do when they go on a romantic island getaway.
When we arrived at port in pitch black, Mr. Phuk (Fook), the owner of our hotel, met us at the “boat.” After telling us how luxurious our “special” room would be, he presented us a 10’ X 5’ tin flat boat with no lights, no seats and loose 2X4’s for a floor, and instructed the non-English-speaking “captain” to take on our 20 minute journey across the pitch black bay between limestone cliffs to our luxury hotel room on Monkey Island. Mr. Phuk courteously explained that normally he’d be heading back with us to the island, but he had some business to take care of in town, so we were on our own.
The engine wouldn’t start and the captain shooed my leg back so he could lift up the floor and choke the engine. After a few angry pulls we were ready to go and we set out across the choppy black water for Monkey Island, waves lapping up over the lip of the death vessel.
All we could see was seen by moonlight alone, which wasn’t much. And Katie and I were unable to openly discuss the depths of our peril as it appeared before us as the engine was too loud. So we were left to enjoy the rising terror in our skulls autonomously…
First thought. Life jackets…
No dice. They were sailor-knotted to a metal pole supporting the plastic roof tarp.
Untie my boots. Surely they’ll be the death of me.
Third thought. Think positive.
Thought four, survey the tides and shore and attempt to guesstimate the safest landfall.
Big waves = bad. Sharp rocks = bad. Slippery rocks = bad.
Sinking here = bad.
Here Katie and I are silently considering what’s truly important in life.
And here we are finally arriving at Monkey Island. Awesome.
After being treated to a buffet of cold food, we were led to our room where Katie passed out from exhaustion and I read a book about the siege of Khe Sanh.
Morning came monkeyless…
So I entertained myself by snapping surveillance photos of the main generator shed
and a resupply op that was taking place outside our room.
Shortly thereafter, we boarded the supply boat.
and then another bus and another boat and another boat and then I worked on some more music to distract me from the mild case of sun stroke and malaria pill poisoning that was gradually robbing me of my sanity.
Back at the bus, some visitors to Monkey Island the night previous told us a story about how Mr. Phuk threatened to hold a couple hostage on the island over an unpaid $6 bar bill and then stole some girl’s ipod and camera. Apparently some sort of dust up occurred and a crazed Scot, one of the ipod girl’s friends, ended up somehow punching Phuk in the face through the window of his cabana.
The following day the camera and ipod magically appeared in the theft victim’s room. But before leaving the island, Mr. Phuk’s henchmen forced the Scot to pay for the window and attempted to make him sign a letter of apology to Mr. Phuk for dishonoring him.
How “old school” is that shit? Wonder if it was written in calligraphy?
Anyway, the Scot (being true to his nature) refused to sign the letter, and the whole thing ended in some sort of armistice.
All I can say is I’m happy I made it back from Monkey Island with my Ipod and honor in tact.
Back in Hanoi we checked into our new room…
with a new view
We strolled around the lake and took glamour shots
of artists making shit happen
and more scooters breaking the sound barrier.
The next day we were treated to our very first motorcycle vs. cow crash on our way to the airport
where we passed over some construction on the runway…
through a tube like a paraplegic’s food…
and boarded a smoking plane bound for Da Nang.
Apparently, as you might have guessed, that middle of the night stop in the middle of nowhere China where those cocksucker Chinese flexers grilled me and scanned my shit, was their way of performing some sort of border shakedown sans border. (Previous to boarding the train, I was made aware of only one such stop which was to occur at the China/Vietnam border). But it sounds like I got off easy, as the Italian couple I met
got tossed of their train the night previous by the Chinese army for getting on the train a day earlier than their Vietnam visas were supposed to begin. The Chinese authorities apparently decided to take Vietnams’ border control into their own hands and the Italians were left in some random ass town in the middle of nowhere with no money (the banks were closed) and no place to stay. How nice.
Anyhoo, the Vietnamese border guards were pussycats compared to the Chinese grunts and our arrival in Hanoi at dawn happened without incident.
So we got some dong
and checked out another early bird, pseudo-communist workout… sunrise tai chi at Hoan Kiem Lake
My 1st breakfast bowl of pho was the best i’ve had in a lifetime hands down.
here, the crouching dragon worked magic on ian’s century old shoes
the coffee was dope here, but the john made the toilet in trainspotting look like a crapper in an upper east side starbucks. it was basically a moldy wall in an open-roof closet of sorts with some sort of gutter ditch thing sending the stream to god knows where
puff puff pass
after a trip to the Hanoi “fine art” museum (more on that later), i headed to the airport, decided against smuggling a feral anteater/armadillo thing out across international borders
and took mad props to Laos
I tell you, nothing makes me fee more secure, when floating 16,000 feet above rugged jungle terrain in a dodgy, Southeast Asian-run charter aircraft, than a 10 day old piece of jelly cake and a mystery meat sandwich on stale white bread.
after a short white knuckle flight, I touched down in the most bombed country in the history of the planet
more specifically in the small, scenic, former capital of the Kingdom of Laos and UNESCO World Heritage Site, Luang Prabang
A place that ended up being as close to paradise as you’ll find on earth.
A land of pretty flowers
dramatic mountainscapes, midday fog
jungle and palms
classic french colonial architecture
kind and gentle people
like this 10 year old who hustled me for a buddha bracelet at double the going street value before it broke 24 hours later.
of two-legged orange, umbrella-toting streaks.
who smoke and drink beer at noon
checking out 20 year old brit tourist honeys as they roll past the wat
of midafternoon naps
and seemingly random shit (like this motorcycle tire strategically attached to the concrete foundation of a leveled home)
which actually turned out to be a fairly effective advertisement for this scooter repair shop
of old people making unidentifiable objects out of bamboo
retro hair metal
and tennis soccer.
all of this being a nice surprise considering the fact that the first thing the headlights of my taxi caught as they drove me to my hotel was a dude squatting on the side of the road in the dark taking a shit.
Soon after that mobile dump spotting (the only one I witnessed in Laos thankfully), I checked into my hotel.
It was straight up “Shining” (substitute beat up French colonial mansion for Colorado Rocky Mountain hotel).
A couple of cats, a fish, some frogs and I were the only guests.
Would I like breakfast? My laundry done? A coffee? A motorcycle? An elephant ride? A massage? Would I like to eat some shrooms?
Being the sole guest, the staff was amazingly attentive, but by the 3rd day I was wondering if they actually existed at all or if they were in fact (like the bartender in the Shining) ghosts when I noticed while chatting with him, that the night manager wasn’t showing up in his area’s delegated feed from the security camera on the bank behind the desk. I was showing up in the lobby, but according to the cameras, I was carrying on a conversation with a couple of plants and a calendar.
The only proof of my specter staff theory being this photo one of them apparently snapped of me while I was col’ chillin’ in my skivvies reading Michael Herr’s “Dispatches.”
These guys are awesome.
The guy on the left is a little slow, but totally sweet and a ball of positive energy. Hung out at breakfast with me every morning asking me questions that a 10 year old would ask, the type of thing that would normally annoy the shit out of me, but for some reason, I would find myself totally happy to see him. I sense Laos has a way of de-assholing people like me. Maybe you should check it out.
The guy on the right tried to get me to go to the go-go bar out of town where the locals hang. Made a last minute decision to join him and ended up getting back to the hotel too late to join in on the filthy local Laotion fun. Bummer.
Met this guy selling ice cream.
He saw my Palladium boots and asked if I was American.
In the Army/Marines?
Regardless of my civilian status, he was excited to hear I was from the States and told me proudly about his part in the not-so-secret US/CIA war against the North Vietnamese in Laos, in which he became a member of the American Army in 1957. So when America’s Laotian campaign failed and they bolted, this guy fled for fear of prosecution from communist forces, and only returned to his native home recently where he now sells coconut ice cream bars to stay alive. (Way to take care of your outsourced vets US Armed Forces). Yet still his sense of borrowed American pride appears to overwhelm him when talking about his time in the service. Weird.
Some monks started rolling past and the proud vet encouraged me to follow them and check out where they were headed.
So I did and ended up hanging for a while at their chill spot down on the Mekong.
After some odd silent conversation with the boys in orange I followed this power line into the jungle
and happened upon a small village where some locals greeted me.
their hood was a hodgepodge of rudimentary tin and bamboo shacks
converted, wood-plank shanties
abandoned french colonial mansions
and the occasional newly-built mcshanty
with hot import cars in the driveway
I saw some kids and dogs eating ice cream and watching TV together
and found a nature trail
that led past a local fishery
to a wat hidden in the trees
where they had a wide variety of offerings for purchase
a sleeping monk
and a bunch of dead ones.
On the way back I found a place to get my hair did
and do my laundry
this lady invited me into her house for water and then we had a charade conversation about the coming storm. I offered to help her tie down the canopy roof over her patio and she wouldn’t let me.
instead she gussied herself up and wooed me with her loom skills.
“Thong” here offered to get me drunk on rice whiskey and take me on his boat up river to Pak Ou caves. After, he told me his old lady (pictured here showing off her milk duds) would make us dinner, but suspecting some sort of Inuk of the North, “laugh with my wife,” hidden agenda, I decided to take a rain check.
Instead, I climbed five billion dragon-wrapped stairs in 100 degree heat to check out Wat Chom Si
killer view up there, peaceful as a motherfucker
even the buddha’s take naps here.
At the top, you can check out the Supreme one’s footprint. It’s like the size of a small tuk-tuk (So you can imagine the size of his dong.)
Found this artillery cannon at the peak and saw this flower (prepare yourself for sophmoric war analogy), like Laos itself, caught in the machinery of war
and tears filled my eyes as I took in the beauty of Luang Prabang, wondering how anybody could litter in this country
let alone drop *260 million bombs on it. (note: Unlike the rest of the country, Luang Prabang was actually spared much of the devastation caused by U.S. bombs during the not-so-secret part of the Vietnam War).
After my mini-breakdown, I took a picture and accidentally bumped the swivel on the artillery gun so it swung around and jacked me in the gut. I nearly fell down the mountain and then spent a good ten minutes trying to get it to stay in place again, all the while wondering who was going to catch me in the act of totally fucking up this historical monument.
And then this monk started banging a drum inside this screened room behind me, ominously, as if to tell me Siddhārtha Gautama himself was witness to my foul.
can I get another wat wat?
why sure you can. they’re everywhere, along with buddhas, dragons, monks… sitting…
and reading Danielle Steele romance novels down by the river.
This town is such a Buddhist hot spot in fact that celebrity guest monks even drop by on occasion!
Feeling my inner Buddha, I took a boat trip down the Mekong to the Pak Ou Caves
with this dude, Sam.
Sam’s studying neuroscience and stem cell regeneration at Cambridge next semester, but all he could seem to talk about was the fact that his girlfriend shaved her head that morning. He was freaking the fuck out and I don’t blame him.
It wasn’t so much about the fact that she would be considerably less attractive. He could handle that (at least until it grew into some sort of cuteish pixie cut.) And it wasn’t so much the idea that he’d have to lie through his teeth and tell her that it looked good in order to keep the peace and continue to get sexy.
His fear was based, and I think reasonably so, on the fact that maybe this rash act of beauty suicide was just a glimpse of things to come, that this seemingly innocent attention-getting tactic was in actuality the thread in that goofy ass Weezer song, a turtle head of insanity, the precursor to what would be a long series of bat shit crazy “prove to me the depth of your love” testing gags.
They’ve only been together eight months. Four of which he’s spent traveling the world. When I found that out, I told him he was more than just a little bent himself for getting into a serious relationship at his age, especially four months prior to what could easily become the sexual adventure of his life.
Traveling Southeast Asia single and solo at 22! Come the fuck on, man! What is wrong with you?! Now I’m not your typical, borderline gay, American white dude with a bad case of yellow fever. I mean I dig Asian chicks, but I also dig white ones and black and mocha ones too. But Southeast Asia’s cookoo, a total booty wonderland and the babes over here, especially in Laos, are some of the hottest on the planet, hands down.
So I told Sam to buy a box of rubbers and dump his chick ASAP.
And I think it was good advice, as there are many fish in the sea… or river…
and half naked monks too (if you’re into that sort of thing)
The Pak Ou caves contain over 4,000 Buddhas
placed there throughout the centuries by locals and pilgrims and crunchy, new age white tourists.
Got back from the caves just in time for a Mekong sunset dinner
where the Mekong jesus next to me systematically downed every vegetarian dish on the menu, all the while have an animated conversation with the imaginary dinner guest seated across from him.
here’s my dinner guest…
smelled the fried amok as it hit my table and came out to join me, which was better than having dinner with these girls
who like many foreign girlfriends roaming in packs of two to five, apparently traveled half way around the world to get drunk on wine and bitch about guy friends that have no interest in dating in them but might someday make great husbands if they’d just settle down and commit. Huh?
but these whiny, lonely chicks weren’t nearly as lame as the multiple couples I encountered that apparently traveled half way around the planet to bicker over everyfuckingthing. like this couple…
it started with them arguing over the location of the table the host picked for them, then over the drink order, the food order, whether the restaurant itself was too dark to eat in or not, and the more they drank the more personal it got. I was about five seconds from going over and telling them to end it for the sake of everybody else trying to digest their food.
Dear fighting couples, if you think a vacation, buying a puppy, putting a “ring on it,” or popping out babies is going to save your failing relationship. TRUST ME, IT WON’T. How the fuck old are you?!
Check the stats. Break up, rebound and if you’re still listless and lonely, attach yourself like a barnacle to the next passing ship in the night and see how long you can hang on.
Did I tell happen to mention how paradise-like Laos is?!
I rode a fucking elephant while I was there. Her name is Mae Cot
and she happens to be 61 years old and half blind in one eye. (I suspected something was up when Mae Cot chose to stroll within centimeters along an exposed stretch of razorwire down to the river instead of traveling the safer path a few feet up the trail.)
She was rendered this way while working in the logging industry. The place I rode at basically takes private and government investment in order to pay loggers off and acquire their aging female elephants (male’s are too aggressive) so they can spend the rest of their days chilling in a beautiful natural setting and giving a couple of rides a day to sucker tourists like me who want to feel like they’re getting in touch with mother earth.
Another day I ordered a “motorcycle” from the slow kid at my hotel, “a big one,” I explained and illustrated the size by climbing high up onto the imaginary seat and gunning the throttle, “enduro, 250cc or higher.” I was going to ride to the Plain of Jars, but what showed up was a brand spanking new scooter
so I made lemonade and rode through rural Laos
out to the Kuang Si waterfalls instead
where I climbed them shirtless like I was a character in the “Blue Lagoon”
jumped off while strangers took pictures of me for you
shot video of strangers jumping off
had close encounters with wild bears
penned in behind unsuitably short fences
with a sleepy dog
more emo farmers
and sex tourists in matching his-and-his Venice gondolier shirts
On the way back I went shopping for a retirement home
and found a place that just might work
with convenient access to the main highway
and chill neighbors
Just watch out for packs of roaming water buffalo when driving any vehicle. (I nearly ended my life on the horns of various herds like four times.)
later, got a $6 massage (not the best, but worth every penny)
and some grub at my usual spot…
bumped into the Brits, the Swede and the Canadian I met at the waterfalls there. this guy, Rob, studied physics in college, and formerly worked writing code, but what you don’t know is that he spins travel shit yarns like nobody’s bizzo. watch closely as he captivates the UN dinner council…
the nights are quiet here.
the whole town seems to go to sleep at 11:30
except for hair salons workers, internet/video game cafe patrons and rookie tuk-tuk hustlers who roam the streets after midnight propositioning wandering whiteys with marijuana, hash, speed and “boom boom.”
the city itself has a sedating effect. it definitely mellowed me out, to the point where I literally lost track of the days and ended up at the airport for my flight back to Hanoi a day early.
where I encountered dwellers of a lonely planet
and a hippie chick masquerading as a grape
before my tiny prop plane, loaded with jelly cakes and white bread, growled and clawed its way above the bomb-scarred mountains into the milky blue Laotian sky destined for Hanoi.
Took the train out of Hong Kong, through the New Territories that just seem to go on
across the fairly fortified Chinese border
through the “special economic zone” of Shenzen
past monotonous state-built housing
and 1,000 stories of drying skivvies
and rooftops that double as garbage receptacles
past shantys in the shadows of tenements
through swamp and hill and fog.
the deeper you go the weirder it gets
and the disrepair more all encompassing.
muted pink and blue withering hues
farms and factories side by side
pollution a certainty
you see the abandoned factory squats
and smoke rising from random shit burning on the periphery between buildings and palms.
the sadness travels from your gut to your head.
and that’s before you begin to imagine what it must be like to live here.
Aside from the black couple (look really hard and you just might see them)
I was the only non-Chinese on the choo choo.
On the ride I sat next to a Chinese Hong Kong businessman.
He asked me where I was from. When I told him, he asked me why I was there,
“Tourism,” I told him. He sat on it, and then looked at me strangely, “why?”
So I offered one of my classic long-winded explanation of why I’d come, perspective, truth, inspiration, etc. and he eyed me with a look of confusion and pity, took a moment and broke it down to the basics.
“So you just want to see it for yourself.”
I said something like “yeah, basically, sure,” and he nodded back lips twisted with uncertainty.
Turns out he lived in Torrance for two years after the ’97 handover of Hong Kong from the Brits to the Chinese. Works in transportation, setting up what is basically a Chinese version of the Super Shuttle.
Our conversation wasn’t easy necessarily, but comfortable enough that I asked him about his feelings on the handover.
He thought for a moment and then said something like, “it was scary to see communist soldiers in green with guns streaming across the border,” in a very matter-of-fact way, and left it at that. And it felt very much to me like I should leave it at that. So I did.
And then his 60 year old business partner’s Rihanna “Umbrella” ringtone went off.
When I asked how Hong Kong and Shenzen’s governing structures differ, he explained that Shenzen is under China law. “They have the death penalty in Shenzen, but not in Hong Kong,” he told me, knowing brow raised, and the example he picked wasn’t curious at all.
And even less curious when a cute little drug beagle attacked my bag at the Guangzhou East Rail Station. I nearly shit my pants.
Back in the day when I was stupid enough to do something as crazy as bringing a little somethin’ somethin’ over an international border, they never bothered me. Now I do nothing and I’m going to get questioned because a smell-challenged beagle decided that my underwear smells like cocaine. Just my luck.
Ended up just being some melon caramels I picked up in hong kong.
So after I peeled the beagle off my bag, I went to the nearest information counter and asked for a taxi to Guangzhou Central Rail Terminal and they told me I could buy a train ticket to Nanning from them. I asked the price. They jacked it up. I told him it was high and they told me it was the right price. I asked them what their commission was and they told me nothing.
Time was a wastin’, so I politely thanked them and told them to keep their ticket, but I’d take a cab. And this is when they told me that if I didn’t buy the train ticket from them my taxi driver, the one standing two feet from me as they told me this, would be unable to get me to my train on time.
By the time I got in the taxi I could already feel my face changing, my smile sloping down to save me.
Here’s a picture of my shady taxi driver extortionist.
on the web, the bourgeoning industrial city of Guangzhou looks like this…
but the part of town that Guangzhou Central Railway Station calls home makes the Greyhound Station in Cleveland look “It’s a Small World.”
A big, mean, ugly, old school archetypal communist utilitarian monolith
10 Zillion people everywhere.
Everything written in Chinese
Ubiquitous voices booming instruction/explanation from giant invisible PA speakers, inside and out.
Little green men everywhere and an angry police officer dragging a metal barricade howling across the marble floor, shouting down random people on cue for whatever reason as they skitter out of his path.
This is not a sports book (unless you’re an American betting on when your trains going to leave).
Some of the vibes I was getting, including the cop that left his post to follow me for five blocks into various buildings and over a bridge, temporarily scared the camera back into my pants. I know they’re pretty hardcore about taking photos of government buildings and will snatch your shit for taking a picture of a bridge if they feel like it, or worse.
But I had a day to kill so I headed into the ugly to kill some time and found filthy people emerging from overpasses, a con man in the fake cast begging for change and this hot “communist” shopping hot spot “time square,” mall design inspired by a coke-dusted 70’s Persian disco nightmare, marble and gold and mirrors everywhere.
where new evil meets old, a sort of capitalist/communist gang bang of shoppers, soldiers, con men and aimless impoverished loiterers.
Here’s the food court where everything I ate, the wilted vegetables, the dry rice, the rotten chicken, had a faint flavor of pesticide. Yum.
After eating shit, I got lost in a mall that doubles as nuclear bomb shelters (apparently the government offered incentives to mall builders in the 80’s to make their buildings “mixed-use”).
I re-emerged into the afternoon smog to somehow ended up in this place.
like the standard Guangzhou or something. It was the only place I could find internet service.
So fucking bizarre. The AC’s got the room down to about 30 degress, they’re jamming Dolly Parton and Sting soft pop classics and 20 feet away, there are children selling their souls for food (more on that later.)
I roll out after taking a quick shower in the hotel sink and happen upon a quaint tree-lined street that could be in the West Village (if it had more rats).
And then in this gorgeous park
where everybody was smiling and getting their exercise. They were playing badminton
working out on calistetic machines.
and pacing in circles like this fit old fellah
It was hard to tell if this was default contentment (Happy the way things are b/c there’s no other way to stay sane) or if it was the real deal. It looked real enough.
Whatever it was, I found myself immersed in it long enough that I started thinking, what I’m sure many people put-off by the U.S.’s greed-fueled, consumer-obsessed culture think regularly, but most definitely after spending time on the lighter side of communism.
That maybe it isn’t so bad.
That maybe we’re the ones that are fucked up, sacrificing our souls, our entire lives to chase some dwindling “American dream: big everything and too much of it, work, work, work, want, waste, death.
And of course, I started asking myself questions like, what’s so wrong with having only what you need? Do you really need a 15,000 square foot house, a 72 inch TV and a fucking $80,000 car? For what?
Because you’re that insecure or lost that you need to make you feel better with “stuff?” What’s wrong with doing a job and being a part of something bigger than yourself? What the fuck is wrong with sharing?
The answer of course is there’s nothing wrong with sharing and everything wrong with greed, but it’s also bat shit insane to starve 20 million people (as Mao did during “the great leap forward”) to even the playing field.
But soon after my frolic in the park the darker side of communism reared it’s ugly head again. In fact, about forty five seconds after I got the best stir fried rice I’ve ever had in my entire life from this guy…
I sat down on the curb to eat and somewhere down the block somebody starts blowing a traffic whistle and instantly all of the street vendors in sight tore off down the street, terrified, as if it were a nuclear air raid siren going off, into alleys (some taking their shit, some leaving chicken still sizzling in the wok). The street emptied instantly and the only people left were me, and curiously enough, another white dude.
I shrugged like “what just happened?” and he shrugged back like “who the fuck knows?”
He asked me where I as from. I told him. He was from Argentina, on business. He asked why I was there. I told him traveling and he spun the invisible wheel around his ear very deliberately with his index finger and said “you are fucking crazy, man,” and stalked back off into the night.
About a block after that, and about 30 seconds after I snapped a shot of this sign
a young girl, no more than 12, came up to me and asked if I’d like a “massagey.” It didn’t register at first, and then she asked again, more desperately this time, reaching for my hand and I was like “hold up. Am I about to be on “To Catch A Predator? WTF? Isn’t this shit only supposed to happen in Cambodia and Thailand?” and I’m like “No, Jesus Christ! No!” My heart sank. i wasn’t sure whether I should run or cry or scoop the kid up and save her. But from who?
Her mother, that’s who, mommy dearest who rolled up a millisecond later as I was holding my head and muttering “no, no, no,” and shoved a newborn baby in my face, pointed back to her daughter and begged me to take the little girl up on her offer.
Holy fucking shit! What the fuck?! Get me out of here right now before I throw up, break down in tears in the middle of the street or snatch the baby AND the kid and take them to the nearest something… police station, shelter? Where do you take a child prostitute at 8 o’ clock at night in industrial China when you want to liberate her from her intensely desperate and insane mother?
Who the fuck knows.
So I bolted, like any ignorant western pussy would do, made my way to the nearest mototricycle driver and got a ride back to the train station. I would not advise this mode of transportation for anyone who does not have a sever death wish.
At the end of the ride, the driver asked me for what sounded like 15000 or something so I handed it to him. he shrieked, shrank back like a dude in an old school kung fu movie and slapped the money out of my hand, offended that I would try to rip him off.
Apparently he was trying to say 50,000. My bad. So I handed him the proper dough and he screamed at me and tore off on his bike.
Now back at the luxurious Guangzhou Central Railway Station, I posed for a photo op forced upon me by some curious 13 year old Chinese girls and their brother who wanted to know if I knew Yao Ming.
Now remember how I paid the shady travel service a stupid price for a soft sleeper and a cab ride ride the Guangzhou East Rail Station? Well those motherfuckers ended up baiting and switching me and handing me a hard sleeper.
and I ended up with the top premium casket bunk in a cabin with five other passengers, complete with filthy sheets, filthy pillow, filthy blanket, and the entire cabin, just like much of china it seems, was covered in a layer of dirt.
Beat to shit, unable to keep my eyes open any longer, unable to sleep, and unable to take a crap without falling into the toilet,
I grabbed some nasty grub in the dining car then sat up and watched scooter gangs roam black and desolate streets of dilapidated ghost towns, anonymous shadows carrying out secret operations in crumbling factories and farmers working fields under xenon lights as they piped crazy music pop muzac and jubilant classical anthems through the train’s PA speakers.
Around 10 o’ clock, some ticket taker types appeared and started shutting all the curtains in the entire car (excluding mine) and began ordering everybody into their bunks (except me) and then they did a bed check, gently interrogating people in any cabin that had an empty bed. Trying my best to fit in, I made for my bunk, but was urged by the interrogators to relax and enjoy the ride.
It wasn’t easy, but at some point, I lay my trusty Mickey Mouse towel down, climbed into my rolling casket, complete with funeral home curtains, talked myself out of a panic attack as the BO rose from the bodies of the travelers sleeping below me, fell asleep and woke up a few hours later to this:
Holy scenic rural China! Rolling green hills dotted with bamboo and tin shantys and tents and cows and water buffalos and roosters and rice patties and people hunched over working in them who’ve somehow miraculous escaped having their bodies evolve into a horseshoe-shape over the millennia of days they’ve spent as picking that rice.
After a short ride through the beauty, I got off at Nanning Station, a much more pleasant and cleanly a train station than that nightmare in Guangzhou.
Basically Nanning looks like what I’m assuming Guangzhou looked like 50 years ago.
a sprawling pseudo city with a handful of buildings over 4 stories, zero identity, and dodgy infrastructure.
I specifically traveled this route so I could stop at Ya Mai Te, ancient city. But when the only person at the train station that spoke any English had no idea where it was, I assumed i was probably shit out of luck finding it.
But that’s never stopped me before.
The only thing I knew is what I read, that it was only 30km away and I had a full day to get there and back, so I wandered the streets until I found a woman who claimed she knew where the bus station was. She wrote the name of the ancient city down on my pad in Chinese characters and then pointed me in the wrong direction. Many people, in fact, were extremely helpful as I drew pictures of buses and terminals, engaging in what I’m sure was a wildly entertaining, one-sided games of charades, and gladly pointed me back and forth in the wrong direction.
I ping-ponged like this up and down the same streets, never seeing a bus once. I gave it one last shot at an off-site train ticket office. And they pointed me back in the exact same direction, I’d just come from.
So I plopped down on my ass and called it.
Fuck the Han. Fuck the Ming. Fuck the Quing. Fuck the Chinese, fuck me and fuck public transportation.
Seeing this made me feel a little better though.
And that’s when some old lady rolled up with a bike and simply said “you.follow.me” and took me gently by the hand and led me back the way I’d just come down the street, down a narrow dirty alley between two crumbling buildings with no windows, to the “bus station”: 3 empty airport buses and a small office…
That was padlocked fucking shut.
And now the gentle old lady’s gone. There’s no driver. No clerk. It’s 100 fucking degrees, 150% humidity, and I’ve just lugged my shit 2 miles in Dante’s undiscovered 10th circle of hell.
And then some librarian-looking lady popped out of the station bathroom. “You need?”
Some dude appeared from behind the bus and motioned for me to follow him…
led me into the unmarked men’s bathroom, and turned to me with a big smile.
What do they think I want? A piss, a shit? A handjob? You can never be sure in these parts. And I was just offered a “massagey” by an 11 year old less than 24 hours ago. So I bolted, found the librarian and showed her the name of the ancient town.
She motioned me towards an idling 3/4 empty bus and told me it would take me there and back. I told her I had to be back by 18:45. She said the bus returns at 17:30 (enough time? probably not.) I tell her I have to be back earlier, and she now says, without discussing it with the driver, that the bus will be back at 16:30.).
Huh? Deal is, if I miss the bus or the train, I miss my flight out of Hanoi into Luang Prabang, Laos and I’m kind of screwed.
Whatever. Fuck it.
So I hop on, thinking the drive to Yai Te Me, at most, should be, what? 25 minutes? Because, in my head, a kilometer is less than a mile, and buses on the highway do 60 right? 60 miles an hour, I should be find right?
What I didn’t consider was that maybe the ancient town wasn’t accessed by well-paved highways, alone, but by a fairly complicated route of dusty dirty, muddy jungle
flooded, rocky, pseudo roads through flooded gorges, over suspect bridges and through damn near abandoned towns
all the while picking up locals (including these emo farmers)
along the way to take them god knows where.
We arrived an hour and a half later and the town was amazing. 2 square miles of straight up dynasty construction.
like this Ming statue
this Han Dynasty graffiti
or this authentic MIng basketball court from the 11th century
and the First United Bank of the Quing Dynasty (founded 1616)
it was so authentic in fact that most of it was falling apart
And many of the old dynasty homes are now occupied by villagers, their bicycles and motorbikes
As if the Quing moved out and they moved right the fuck in.
It was hot as shit and I had a ton of fun carrying my 150 lbs. of luggage and gear up and down the authentic stone streets and steps, observing river life
and leering at young Chinese girls while they sunbathed.
Some things you might want to consider when visiting rural China:
hep A, and the fact that angry cows hanging out in narrow alleys are still angry cows whether they’re on tiny leashes or not.
Apparently they weren’t feeling my umbrella. I’m assuming that this is because folded up it looked much like a cattle prod. I’d pass and they’d rear up and moo crazy, snort… scary shit. So I folded it up and hid in my backpack and that seemed to calm them slightly.
Anyway, I made the train with 15 minutes to spare and checked into my sexy soft sleeper, decorated in neutrals this time and fitted with moderately clean bedding, electrical socket, a window I could see out of, and a “me” (pronounced (may) and slang for white westerner in vietnam/laos) bunkmate, (one of four of us total (besides the two Italians I later met) on the train.)
We’ll just call my bunkmate Strasberg for now, because listening to him was like watching an episode of inside the actor’s studio. It was like he was testing out personalities on strangers to see which one fit.
That is until we got pulled off the train in the middle of the night by Chinese army. Then he played it cool.
Prior to this, Strasberg was telling me (all the while rolling his eyes and grinning smugly, overwhelmed by the sheer grandeur of his own knowledge) about how he intended to open up his own language school in Ghiang Dao (though most were doomed to failure), how chill China was, telling me how there were two China’s: poor and middle class, but that the only kids that gave the government any real worry were the kids born in the 80’s and 90’s who want it all and never knew a hard time.
Very cool kid, this Strasberg was, and seemingly insightful, just very strange.
So basically we’re in our 1st class car with the first class crapper
and the 1st class dining car
with the 5th class food
freely talking China junk, the good, the bad and the ugly of it, getting ready for bed when the train comes to an unexpected halt at a darkened way station in the middle of nowhere China, and a crowd of little men in green, the one’s the Hong Kong businessman told me about, appear in our doorway.
They ask for our passports and without asking why (because they’re the Chinese Army and they have guns and according to international law if they want to detain us immediatley, they don’t even have to let the U.S. consulate know about it for four days) we hand them over.
The soldiers pass our passports back and forth between themselves, inspecting them, pointing at certain pages and nodding emotionlessly, chatting in very official harsh, hushed tones.
They tell us we look alike, as if to insinuate some sort of identity fraud shenanigans on our part and we explain that we both just met on the train. And from the soldiers there is no response.
Strasberg’s response to the soldier’s presence and demands, at this point, has gone from surprise, to confusion, to semi-flexing, and back to courteous. Because, of course, he’s the seasoned alien here and has been an English teacher in some pretty city and so old school, hard ass “you’ll go to prison for a few days or forever because we said so,” communism is just a figment of some melodramatic xenophobic modern U.S. travels imagination (i.e., mine).
But I can tell he’s just as freaked as I am, because he’s shapeshifting with every second that goes by.
So this freaky soldier business goes on for what feels like a genuinely uncomfortable amount of time and then they leave.
With our passports.
Strasberg and I chit-chat about what’s going on. I’m hoping he knows something I don’t, and he knows absolutely nothing.
He’s never had this happen before.
The little green men return to our cabin and tell we have to get off the train.
I double-check that we are indeed to get off the train, just me and Strasberg it seems, for no apparent reason, in the middle of the night, while the soldiers hold onto our passports and confirm my questions in no uncertain terms.
So I’m a little freaked out, and I can tell Strasberg is because he’s a completely different person. He speaks differently, his voice sounds different and his grand facial gesticulations have come to an abrupt halt.
So Strasberg and I rise and begin our disembarkment and the little green men stop us and tell us to get all of our luggage and bring it with us which sends the whole scenario into “what the fuck“ land.
And then Strasberg’s like “I hope this isn’t because of me,” and before I can say something like, “and why would that be?” I’m thinking who the fuck is this Strasberg really?
Some black market hustler?
A drug dealer?
Did he stash some opium in my bag like in that movie “Transiberia” while I was in the shitter?
What will life be like spent inside a Chinese prison?
Or is this shady motherfucker really CIA in training? Being inserted into Chinese society as some rich kid English teacher who’s come to “find himself” abroad?
Am I going to end up in front of some semi-retarded fucking firing squad with heads full of propaganda, itchy trigger fingers and shit aim?
Give me the gun. I’ll do it.
And he tells me that his visa’s expiring tomorrow or today or something and that’s all I get before we’re out the door and heaving my bag across darkened railroad tracks, up onto the platform and into that empty station, where the guards from the train are standing, staring me down.
Inside, there are two luggage scanners that looked like they were purchased at an Eastern Airlines liquidation circa 1991. The little green men tell me to put my luggage through and I do, Strasberg does, and still we’re the only two in the station.
My luggage doesn’t set off any alarms thankfully (I polished offf the melon caramels on the train from Guangzhou just to make sure), but there’s still a lot of whispering and pointing and bad vibes going round.
I separate myself from Strasberg and this point and he does the same as I’m not about to take one for a team I don’t even belong to.
And then they start making everybody get off the train.
And I begin to breathe a little easier.
But when the other passengers arrive, the little green men don’t hassle them, and as they call Strasberg and I to the window to point out our passports, the Chinese passengers are now beginning to whisper and point to like “what did the stupid white kids do?” and the little green men are crowding around the desk going over and over and over our passports.
And then they load us all back on the train.
Strasberg and I head into our cabin and I take another breath.
But they’ve still got our passports and the train’s jerking and groaning like we’re about to depart.
Strasberg picks up a book and I stare down the floor and Strasberg’s like “you alright?” and I’m thinking “listen, you smug sonofabitch. Where’d that crazy, eye rolling, so impressed with my tales of “bringing education to the people” attitude go when those fucking Chinese soldiers rolled into our cabin? When you mumbled some shit about hoping this wasn’t “because of” you?
Again, Strasberg’s not a “bad” guy, just an genuine fucking weirdo, subtle in his brand of strange maybe, but batty just the same.
A few minutes later the little men returned our passports and I changed my underwear, turned out the light and sang “America the Beautiful” until I was rudely awakened in Hanoi.
This time by the Vietnamese army.
A tough nut
less than 200 years old and would probably take at least a 1/4 of that to long to crack it
so I’ll keep simple
and help you avoid getting sucked into the spin I’m in.
Wan Chai // Great barbeque and dope old buildings
Admiralty // Whatever
Tsim Tsai Tsu // Tourists and the primarily Arab hustlers that prey on them. If you want to buy hash and a Rolex, I know just where to take you.
Central // a billionaire dog and pony show. Lamborghinis and douchebags courting models with helicopter rides and Fendi. big yawn.
Crib’s in Mong Kok.
That’s where I spend most of my time.
where people float inside cubes stacked like dilapidating jenga blocks, a kind of inside physics joke.
The walls are liquifying. The air is 3 feet thick.
Some streets smell like a drug even I’d be scared to try.
Why don’t I see any bugs?
At night, the neon light turns the bay fog into cotton candy clouds.
Decay and crumble…
steel and glass.
The wind is electric. Open your mouth and get the tip of a Duracell.
Why hasn’t the whole thing burned down yet?
Motherfucker’s on fire.
The young they gather in mass in public places practically 24/7. Mingle amongst their own.
They are engaged.
This is action.
There is a sense of contentment
autonomy and class I get from Chinese Hong Kongers
family, honor, respect,
good conversation is held sacred.
ancient ones, froggering out into traffic. they don’t have time to wait for a break to get to the other side.
sitting and watching, but not waiting.
whatever it is I’m looking for, they already seem to have found it.
16 year olds in 3,000 suits that probably cost 200 here, who speak better English than me and drive shit I’ll never afford. I see skaters, punks, Goths and rockers, preps and lots of shirtless old dudes who look just as cool as the kids.
I see women, old and frail. some in masks. some limping and smiling. Some smoking while they cook up a typhoon in a wok.
Pictures of wisdom in wheelchairs and slippers.
many of the young ones
some dress like sailors when they go to school
others dress like young American women - lot’s of tits and legs, and not for you sir.
I can’t count the white dudes on one hand that I see in the course of a day here.
And by us, these chinese hong kongers want to be left alone, because it seems just when they get comfortable, motherfuckers come and stir up shit.
the brits again.
and then the Chinese.
gotta hold onto what the few things that never change, the things that truly matter, and we don’t fit into that category.
the only people who seem to be remotely interested in the gawkey white dude in the palladium boots and perv stash are teenage girls who’ve seen nothing and 90 year old men who’ve seen it all.
but for the most part I am a ghost here and it only makes me feel more at home.
videos for this trip are scarce so far, but the pictures plentiful as I stumbled upon an episode of this asshole bobby chin
taking a restaurant tour around india while annoying the shit out of the locals – he thought he was hilarious – them not so much - and decided to put the video on hold in an attempt to blend better.
this is about how well I did.
is every day here.
i visited a flesh peddler
but opted for a banana instead
watched a show where people play video games and afterward. a live human does a post-game interview with the avatar of the winning gamer about their performance during the game.
saw a Chinese trampolene competition and two men use another man as a human jump rope, but this guy was more interesting to watch
and midnight lunch ladies responsible for making it
just like hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy says: “A towel is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have.” (It was either this or a baby blue one with Chinese cartoon teddy bear on it. )
I did not go here.
pig out on reclamation street
the action as it happens
my morning plum connect.
same contractor as the flintstones
my savior. the reason you can read this. in the spirit of globalization, he provided the necessary tools to daisy chain electrical adapters to run a current around the world and right back to my mac in hong kong.
stoked to be getting a fabulous deal on knockoff ed hardy.
kind of like an all-you-can-eat sea world
captain phil’s replacement?
he’s already got a local fanbase.
some guys just got it.
I did not write this in the guest book of my hotel.
for dr. hughes
Now why didn’t I think of that?!
what I’ll be riding after this trip.
these guys are wild. must’ve seen them eat 5 pork bowls and a drink a six pack each in my short time there.
this is the small. people watched and laughed while I attempted to conquer it (out of respect) with a big stupid shiteating grin on my face.
a futile and valiant attempt
this chair deserves to have a song written about it by r. Kelly.
chicks with dick
babies and gas
sitting room only
black guys in skin
dicks in robes
here they are getting into a fracas with the singer of Sum 41
went to the hong kong history museum. it was like me and this dude.
no really… it was just us and security.
inside there was a lifesize model of a “boat person’s” junk
with some pasty old lady inside.
some crazy looking gods
an freaky opra scene
some creepy puppets
a towers of buns
and a scale model of the good/bad move that got them colonized for realz
hong kong history lesson hint: the hubbub started over something you smoked it in this.
the original dicks…
me and the muslim chillin’ in Kowloon park post-history
wong kar wai – tsi tsam tsu
everything looks familiar
nothing looks familiar
this dude is everywhere
last supper – by bourdain’s suggestion (notice the mask on the chef)
Lemonade. Mad respect.
The reincarnation of Buddy Holly (and his magic 1/2 purple dog)
symphony of lights: as stunning as it is terrifying. a crazy laser show put on by corporate titans of the world to distract you while they wrap the chains around your shopping zombie hands.
and all of this exists because a long time ago some power mad man boys started a scuffle over some dope.
Listening to: Caribou “Swim,” MIA “Kala,” Radiohead “Hail to the Thief,” tribal drums, loud chinese, The Beatles “Revolver,” soft chinese, The Horrors “Primary Colours,” my order being shouted out, Julian Casablancas “Phrazes for the Young,” bad Chinese pop, Animal Collective “Merriweather Post Pavilion,” the neighbors building and walling a city inside their apartment at 5:45 in the morning, Love is All “Two Thousand and Ten Injuries,” horns, lots of horns, definitely not silence, and LCD Soundsystem “This is Happening”