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From Southeast Asia (Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam)

By Sahand Rabbani

from Thailand (Bangkok, Ayutthaya) and Cambodia (Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Angkor Wat, Kampong Phluk)

Dear Friends,

Bangkok welcomed us with its mammoth airport. Complications arose as early as my first attempt to obtain local currency. The well-meaning Bank of Siam ATM, situated after passport control and before the customs check point, obliged me by dispensing Thai baht in accordance with my wishes, but apparently in the process became so accustomed to and enamored by my card that when the time came to return it, the machine refused! Only after a lengthy surgery performed by one of the bank's representatives and some ritualistic paperwork did I finally retrieve my card. This incident brought us to about one o'clock Sunday morning, and the painless taxi ride to the hotel rolled into a 2-AM bedtime.

Waking that same morning and still energized by the adrenaline that kept the jetlag at bay, we stumbled on a curious flee market on our way to find bottled water at a nearby 7-Eleven, which, strangely, is as ubiquitous in Bangkok as Stabucks is in an American city. The 7-Eleven was wedged inside of the outdoor market at a corner where the colorful fabric canopy of the market stalls gave way to the brick-and-mortar of a syndicated store. It was packed with assorted Asian candies for as little as 5 baht (not even 17 cents) and countless creative incarnations of bottled and canned liquids (e.g., orange yoghurt drink). Of more note is perhaps the market itself, offering varieties of women's shoes, sunglasses, jeans, and electronic components. Bounded on one side by the river, the thick forest-like market opens its other side onto a busy street teeming with cars, a palette of rusty old buses of light blue and a faded neon pink, and hordes of the iconic and onomatopoeic tuk-tuks, scooter-pulled carriages shamelessly billowing exhaust into the dense humid air of 90-degree Bangkok.

That day, we rode a ferry along the river to the site of the grand temple compound of Wat Pho, home of the remarkable reclining Buddha, an enormous gilded statue of the well-fed Buddha leaning against the ground. That evening, we took a taxi to Siam Center and the mega shopping center MBK in whose populous and unnavigable arteries we found a restaurant and had our first real flavor of Thai cuisine, which we found, correctly or not, to be relatively similar to its Western replica.

The following day, we hired a tour guide to drive us north to the old capital of Thailand, Ayutthaya, a UNESCO World Heritage site featuring ruins of temples and palaces. We learned that the pagodas occurred in two primary styles: the Thai style characterized by sloped roofs and spires and the Cambodian style resembling corn on the cob. A notable and admittedly touristic highlight of the trip to Ayutthaya included an interaction with a live elephant. We took a riverboat to an elephant corral where we were greeted by a young boy and his elephant. The creature was tame and savvy, contorting its trunk for us in a playful way, even collecting tips with its prehensile trunk fingers and handing them to his master. We had the enviable opportunity to pet it; its texture was much as I had imagined: a thick, wrinkled armor of hide. What I had not known was the sparse, prickly stubble that was the animal's hair.

Later that evening, fighting all urges to turn in early, we found our way to the night bazaar at Patpong by way of Bangkok's modern sky train, an elevated rail. We were ruthlessly propositioned by the gregarious pimps who advertised, "Sex show! Ping pong show." I leave the details of this latter practice for the curious reader to research. We concluded the evening with drinks on the sixty-fifth floor of the Lubua hotel; despite its altitude, the terrace did not offer the view we had imagined.

During our final morning in Bangkok, we scrambled to see the Grand Palace, a compound of impressive gilded buildings and statues and perhaps the most notable cultural highlight in the city. From there, we rushed to pick up our bags and head to the airport. (Our taxi driver sang all the words to "Hotel California.")

Upon landing in Phnom Penh, we obtained our visas and embarked on a mission to secure currency and lodging. As it turned out, all ATMs insisted on dispensing only US dollars, rather than the official Cambodian riel. It soon became evident that in Cambodia, the dollar is the most prominent currency, and local currency, which only occurs in paper bills, is used for amounts less than one dollar. We have come across the 2,000-riel note, the equivalent of fifty cents, down to the 100-riel note, the smallest denomination worth 2.5 cents. To exemplify the application of this currency, suppose one pays for a bag of cashews priced at $1.85 at the corner mini mart using a $5 note; the change returned consists of three singles and a 500-riel and 100-riel note. The practice was unexpected at first, but we grew accustomed to it, naturally thinking of one dollar as consisting not of 100 cents but rather of 4,000 riels. The prominence of the US dollar raises the question of how and when was the physical currency introduced in such large quantities in addition to the myriad macroeconomic implications that this has.

Our taxi ride from the airport met the frustration of the Cambodian capital's dense traffic. It became evident quickly that motorbike and tuk-tuk were the preferred mode of ground transport. After more than an hour, we finally arrived at one of the hotels that we had selected from a guide book that was lent to us during the flight. Its vacancy and proximity to the ferry dock were its operative features. Though we had to rise early the next morning, we made the most of our only evening in the capital by enjoying a nice Khmer meal and a stroll along the waterfront to the royal palace. Salient clues betrayed the city's immense poverty. The tin trash bins along the promenade rattled with hungry rats amid local children scurrying shoelessly in pursuit of each other. Strange smells dominated the air. Tuk-tuk drivers relentlessly pushed their services to unwanting visitors. The buildings were worn and the streets dusty.

The next morning, we rode a speed boat along the Mekong River to Siem Reap in the north. Along the way, we passed riverside settlements of colorful, decrepit houses built atop high stilts to provide buffer from the flooding during the rainy season. We joined some passengers on the roof of the boat where the brisk air provided relief from the unbearable heat and humidity. After seven hours, including a delay resulting from engine failure, we docked at Siem Reap. The tuk-tuk ride, which we had arranged in Phnom Penh with a shady gentleman who made a claim to the effect that his valet was a card-carrying member of the National Tuk-Tuk Drivers Association, met us by name at the dock. But when we explained that we would be seeking lodging at a venue of our choice, and not at the accommodations of his associate, he charged us the "full fare" and threatened not to carry us. We reconciled. The ride into town was dusty and bumpy.

Siem Reap is a bustling tourist center, the holding cell for those coming to see the ancient Angkor Wat. The town consists primarily of the Old Market, a dense block of souvenir vendors; Pub Street, a row of restaurant bars with fifty-cent draft beers, modified traditional Khmer food, pizza, and hamburgers; and the Night Market, a less dense evening version of the Old Market. The clientele consists mostly of European and Australian tourists, bro-ly clad and shifting about aimlessly amid dense solicitations: "You want tuk-tuk? I give you best price. Tuk-tuk? Tuk-tuk?"; "Siiiiir, massage for you? Thirty minutes only one dollar. Best price for you, sir!"

The following day we explored the Angkor Wat site by tuk-tuk with a hired guide. The compound consists of the older Buddhist temple of Angkor Thom and the better-known Hindu temple of Angkor Wat, the country's proud icon featured on its flag. Built during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the temples are magnificent stone buildings with ornate reliefs telling the complex stories of Buddhist and Hindu mythology and the real-life conflicts between the Khmer Buddhists and the Khmer Hindus. Damaged severely by relentless armed conflicts in the area (wars with Vietnam and Thailand, numerous civil wars, the rein of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge), the structures have been greatly restored with the help of international funding. The hot sunny day eventually gave way to rain; by the time we returned to the hotel we were drenched and muddy.

Today is our final day in Cambodia. We enjoyed a breezy cruise through Kampong Phluk, a farming village by the water, a beautiful canvas painted with the bright colors of hanging laundry and handmade fabrics draped over the skeletal wooden terraces of the tall, stilted houses along the canal. As a late lunch, we enjoyed another fabulous Khmer meal. I have taken a particular liking to Amok, a fish curry steamed in banana leaf with onions, lemongrass, an other delicious herbs from the region.

While Bangkok was an overwhelming city--a comfortable equilibrium of Western industrialism married to a rich, golden history of a Southeast Asian country that boasts having resisted foreign invasion--Cambodia admits a more turbulent story, one of French colonialism, persistent civil strife, and widespread poverty. The people have been good-humored and hospitable and always generous with their smiles.

We conclude our trip to Cambodia the week before our president visits Phnom Penh. As we bid Cambodia a grateful farewell ("okhun"; "thanks") from the Siem Reap airport, we look forward to Laos and Vietnam.


from Laos (Luang Prabang) and Vietnam (Hanoi, Saigon)

Dear Friends,

We arrived in Laos at Luang Prabang's one-gate airport in the evening and crawled through the visa process in the muggy mosquito-ridden arrivals room. The ride into town was painless but we were surprised to learn that our hotel had botched our reservation and in fact did not have space for us. We set out on the unlit road in search of a place to stay and were pleased to learn that a modest, oaky guesthouse with splendidly air-conditioned rooms had a vacancy. Culture here seems to require that shoes be removed before entering a building of residence, and while this generated a slight inconvenience and a longing for a portable shoehorn, I appreciated the resulting comfort and clean floors. Luang Prabang's early curfew meant that restaurants in the central town were closed by eleven, so we fell back on a noodle soup garage adjacent to the hotel. This was the most authentic though perhaps least interesting meal we had our entire trip; the staff spoke no English and we were the only non-Lao in sight.

The next morning, we explored the town: caught a panoramic glimpse of the area from a hill, saw the national museum heralding the old Luang Prabang kingdom, and tried some Lao specialties for dinner including sausage and fried seaweed with sesame seeds.

Our itinerary the following day left little time for dallying. We woke up early to grab some baguette sandwiches in town before a bus picked us up to take us into the Lao jungle where we were greeted by a mischievous pet monkey and Kun the elephant who would host us on his back as we trudged through thick trees and shrubs. I had the distinct pleasure of sitting right at the elephant's head, my feet secured behind his ears and my hands gripping his thick, wrinkled, prickly head. The animal felt powerful and wise, but also strangely cowardly. At one point we emerged on a small town where our path required us to pass between two parked buses, but pusillanimous Kun refused to traverse the strait despite the frightening insistence of the mahout urging him from the ground. Eventually, we pursued a topologically questionable detour and fell well behind the other members of our caravan. Kun would have been ill-suited for Hannibal's troupe. Our hosts then dropped us off at the airport where we waited for our flight to Vietnam, the final and most anticipated destination of our trip.

The enormity and filthiest of Hanoi was evident as early as our initial descent. The city is baked in a thick haze of pollution. It is dusty, dirty, sprawling, impoverished, and decrepit. Our interminable taxi ride into town took us through a senseless maze of crooked streets, weaving through the dense sea of motorbikes, the modal form of transportation in the country. Our hotel turned out to be decent but not great, and the five-story walk-up meant that once we left for the day, we were unlikely to return.

That night and the following day, we trudged through Hanoi, exploring its busy streets and dark corners, its cultural landmarks, and its food. The city's sidewalks were densely packed with parked motorbikes and spillover inventory, displacing all pedestrian traffic to the street. Crossing the road proved a taxing feat. Walk signals were rare. More commonly, the pedestrian looked for brief openings in the swarm of motorbikes and glided deliberately but gradually across the street, breathing a sigh of relief at the first time an oncoming motorist acknowledged him and veered behind him, setting a precedent for the proceeding drivers to do the same. This formed a sort of current that propelled the pedestrian through what at first seemed to be an impossibly thick, impenetrable brigade of scooters. While the drivers were cooperative, the task was still exhausting, requiring undue attention that drained the thin reserves of mental energy.

Street food was pervasive. In the mornings, little shops rolled up their doors and filled the sidewalks with low soda-branded plastic tables and stools where people sat to chew the fat and slurp up bowls of pho. Fruit and sandwich vendors manned the street corners and aggressively pushed their products on white tourists. The nauseating stench of the durian fruit waged its relentless war of attrition on the senses. We had an early dinner at the famous Quan An Ngon, an airy courtyard restaurant whose cloisters were filled with various stalls, each one cooking one type of meal on the menu. We ordered noodle soup and some grilled dishes. Ultimately, we had mixed feelings about the food, and I personally moved closer to the undesirable conclusion that Vietnamese food is just not for me. The highlight of the dining experience occurred when a member of the restaurant staff identified us as the only foreign clientele and asked us to name in English a certain hard, sour green fruit that he produced for us. He wanted to cite the fruit in the English description of a menu item but did not know the word for it. Neither of us recognized the fruit, and after some creative internet searching were only able to produce its genus and species (Spondias dulcis) and not its common English name. We also tried a fetid fermented shrimp sauce, which we later elected as a candidate for the pathogen that sent us into a painful, debilitating digestive illness that night.

Still reeling from the food poisoning and having barely slept, we awoke at 5:30 the following morning to catch an early flight to Ho Chi Minh City, the cultural and economic capital, formerly and still commonly known as Saigon. Unlike the political capital of Hanoi, Saigon is a developed city with relatively clean and well maintained roads, the preferred destination of expatriates and businessmen. By the same token, its offerings for a two-day visitor are limited, and since our first day was wasted in gastric agony as we tried to recover and replenish, we really only had one evening and the following day. At night, we met a local connection and sipped drinks on the pervasive Fisher-Price-like stools outside of a casual hole-in-the-wall joint frequented by the young and rotating expatriate community of English teachers. The following day, we crawled through the city from palace to museum to market, trying to spend our final one million Vietnamese dong (not even $50). Admittedly, we derived great amusement from the magnitude of prices when quoted in local currency. At roughly 20,000 dong to a dollar, everyday products ran in the tens and hundreds of thousands. The smallest denomination of currency, which we were never able to find, is the 200-dong note, worth roughly a penny. This is the first time I have ever seen a currency whose smallest denomination is larger than the greatest common divisor of prices (100 dong). Odd hundreds can be formed with the help of the 500-dong note, but prices that were not round multiples of 1,000 dong were rare.

First in Hanoi at the former prison (jocularly called the "Hanoi Hilton") and then again in Saigon at the War Remnants Museum, we saw the educational perspective of Vietnam on French colonialism and the Vietnam War. The War Remnants Museum displayed unbearably graphic photographs of the ravages of what they have termed "the US invasion." Implying that the unanimous desire of the Vietnamese people was to be liberated under Ho Chi Minh's Northern Vietnam, the museum portrayed a war that was unpopular among the entire world and sustained only by a rogue, bloodthirsty US administration that had lost touch with its people. On the other hand, the Hanoi Hilton showed the leisurely and fun-filled life of the American pilots in the POW camp. John McCain memorabilia was sprinkled about. Photographs showed American pilots smiling and laughing over a game of cards. While it is difficult to know the objective truth, it must almost axiomatically lie in the convex set formed by this interpretation and the various others we have come across in textbooks and Wikipedia and first-hand testimony. My ignorance on the topic prevents me from making any stronger claims. If nothing else, this has piqued my interest; I spent a good portion of my nine-hour layover in Tokyo reading about the history of Indochina.

Now back in the US having concluded a great trip by any account, I admit that Cambodia was probably my favorite destination, and I would recommend it, along with Bangkok, to anyone looking in that direction. I enjoyed Laos as well and wish I had had more time there. Vietnam, which came the most recommended, ultimately disappointed, but perhaps my time there was unfairly tainted by an acute illness, an incompatible palette, and unreasonably high expectations. At all times, our hosts were kind, helpful, and welcoming. While not always literally, they have certainly figuratively left a pleasant taste in our mouths.


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