Ah, yes. The bi…

Ah, yes. The birthday and I had an excellent time this weekend. I was a little apprehensive about this one because I’m now a dinosaur among a bunch of little youngins, but it was one of the best weekends I’ve had here thus far. Everyone made it so special, well, I mean, everyone except for the liquid Mexican; as usual, that one just made me want to punch the sky.

On Friday night, we could not get downtown fast enough. With two co-workers on vacation, it was the longest week ever. Once we were downtown, we scarfed down some Korean bbq and then started jumping around from place to place. I stalked up on my favorite treat: little colorful lollypops. Some people smoke and some people suck. I chose the latter. Our usual hangout spot was full to the brim with heavily inebriated women. At midnight, the official start of my birthday, things just started getting ridiculous. I’ll spare you the details, but let’s just say I made several people bleed that night, and I woke up the next morning with Athena drumming in my skull.

On Saturday, we’d bought tickets to this music fest in Daejon. All of the proceeds go to charity, but the concert didn’t start until 4. So we decided to grab lunch at the Vietnamese restaurant first. The food, as usual was one delicious rainbow, but I did end lunch on a highly stupid note. Walking out of the bathroom I tripped and flew headfirst over the bench with a scream. But I have a sinus infection, so my scream was really like a guttural moose noise, which didn’t help my cause much. After taking the bus to Daejon, there was a hysterical taxi fiasco. We tried to tell the first cab the name of the venue; he didn’t know it and told us to get out. Taxi cab one. The next four didn’t know the place either and told us to go. The fifth one drove by us and shook his head. Finally, the sixth one picked us and up and took us there. The actual venue was deserted when we got there, but there were some friendly roller derby girls who invited me to join their team. I’m thinking there’s a pun in there somewhere, considering this invitation was also extended to me in the ladies room. The first band was Korean death metal, or the Diet Coke version of it. It was…interesting. The next band was from Cheongju, the Primary, and I’d actually watched them perform the weekend earlier, so they were great. Come on, they have a cello player. What is better than that? We stayed a bit longer at that place and then found a bar across the street, Hello Taxi. We played some saucy cards games there and ate some pretzels before heading back into Cheongju. We broke a few taxi rules doing. Usually, you can only have four people in the cab and there were five of us. However, we all piled into it and promised him $50 if he drove us anyways. I slept for most the way back; I think I was the only one comfortable in the crammed backseat. Back in the Ju, we met at the British pub, Pearl Jam and had a snack before yet heading to another bar for some live music and dancing. I danced a bit here and there, and our last stop was at our favorite hangout. I won a game of darts and earned a victory drink, and then this best birthday ended with fried chicken and pizza. I won $50 over dinner due to winning a bet, but I settled for a toy police car.

Sunday was much easier to stomach and I met some friends for brunch. I was still stuffed from the late night pizza breakfast, but I took pictures. Then we went to a DVD bong, which is a seriously sketchy hallway full of dark rooms with doors that only a hobbit would enjoy. In each dark room, there is a bed, a blanket and a big screen television. We watched Happy Feet and made horribly inappropriate jokes about having a UV light in the room. Shudder. It’s best not to thing about it. Thank you, Korea, for an awesome birthday weekend.

SE Asia: Thailand, Cambodia & Vietnam (Days 12-13)

SE Asia: Thailand, Cambodia & Vietnam (Days 12-13)
Crossing into Vietnam was an experience. Unlike Cambodia which had an ornate entrance with a half a dozen casinos and large houses, Vietnam was a vast flat expanse with beautiful green rice paddies and quiet, solemn faced border guards. Even though it was December, the heat was oppressive. After signing several different documents, we waited in the heat while the locals walked by in a tranquil manner pulling wagons loaded with bushels of hay. The first stop was the Mekong Delta. By the late afternoon as the sun was slowly dropping, we climbed on the back of motorbike taxis and rode to the top of the nearby mountain. Balancing on a railing on the top with a handful of prayers and my camera, I absorbed the yellow and orange sky. As the sky became brighter and more intense, the rice fields below was darker and even more beautiful. It was one of the most beautiful moments on the trip. At dusk, I was on the back of another motorcycle taxi. The driver is an old man with about four crooked teeth left in his wide smile. He turned around, looked at me and said, “Police no catch us, okay?” Um…what?
The next morning, I traveled to the capital, Ho Chi Minh city. Wow, that city is amazing. I’ve done some crazy things, but surviving the traffic in this place is a milestone. Even Death won’t drive a car here. It’s constant, chaotic, stop and go. People are advised to walk slowly through the streets as the cars are coming. Walk slowly so that the bikes and buses can see you and go around you. If you try to go quickly, it makes it harder for other cars to have enough time to dodge hitting you. The first time I crossed the road, Aviaaja and I held hands and when we reached the other side, I said a prayer. In the evening, we walked downtown and had a great seafood meal. Then we spent the next couple of hours playing pool and hanging around before heading back.
On my last day in Asia, I went to the Cu Chi Tunnels outside the city. These tunnels were constructed by the Vietcong, and its a whole elaborate system of ornate tunnels complete with booby traps and different levels. My first impression of the location was a humid jungle with lots of plants and dirt paths. Not long after arriving, I found myself in an interesting situation. There were spy holes in the ground where the soldiers used to hide. These are very small square boxes in the ground. You climb in and then sink down and put the lid on top. It’s like trying to fit an elephant in a shoebox. So, in a fit of madness, I volunteered to climb in the trap. Among a chorus of ohhs, I sank down, put the lid over my head and tried not to imagine spiders on my arms in the darkness. Easy. But then there was a problem. There’s a little bitty hole and one giant ass. I got stuck. Or my ass got stuck. So three hands later and some grunting, my shorts started to slide off my hips but I was unstuck. Thank God. The tour guide was really interesting, and I spent a lot of time talking with him. He was a translator for the American army, and some of his stories were graphic. They shed light on a controversial era. The main part of the tour was through the main tunnels. I’m not claustrophobic, but these tunnels are not for the faint of heart. You climb down dark slabs of stone. There’s hardly any room to turn around. You hold on to the person in front of you and just breath deep. I had to waddle for most of the way, because there wasn’t enough room to stand. You kept going lower and lower, and just when you feel the walls might close around you, then there’s light. Embrace the cliché, light at the end of the tunnel. Once out of the tunnels with sweaty, dirty strands of hair plastered to my forehead, we were served warm tapioca root and green tea. It was really an amazing experience. Between this day and the Killing Fields, I was lucky to see so much history.
Back in the city, Aviaaja and I spent the afternoon in the Saigon Tower, the tallest building in Vietnam, drinking coffee and looking over the city. A few hours later, I was hugging and kissing everyone good-bye as they continued on and I packed my bags for my homecoming. No one but a very close friend and my father knew I was coming home. As much as I loved traveling. Korea. My friends abroad. I knew it was time to go back.
In the morning before the cab arrived, I was reading the news on the internet and I read the news about the horrible massacre in Newtown. One of my friends, a kind German lady, comforted me while we looked over the pictures of the massacre. It was a sad way to leave Asia, and my heart went out to everyone suffering from such a tragedy.
The trip home was long. It started in Vietnam..then China..then California..then Georgia and finally North Carolina. It’s kind of hard to describe the joy you feel when you see your friends. When I walked off the airplane and towards baggage claim, I saw Robin and Bryan for the first time in over sixteen months. I just remember hugging so hard, it knocked the breath out of me. I just held on and didn’t want to let go. Because Korean time is about ten hours ahead of the States, it was already my birthday. And my best gift. Oh, thank God, I get to see my family and friend again.

SE Asia: Thailand, Cambodia & Vietnam (Days 10-11)

SE Asia: Thailand, Cambodia & Vietnam (Days 10-11)
We left the capital city early and endured another long, bumpy bus ride down south to SihanoukVille, Cambodia. As much as I loved Angkor Wat, this part of the country with the beaches and the jungles was amazing. Our hotel was on the beach, so we spent the afternoon laying in the sand. When the sun went down, we took tuk-tuks into town and walked through the market place before taking seats on plastic chairs on the beach. With all of gathered around old card tables, we were served plates of food from the smoking grill right next to us. For about four dollars, I ate a plate of grilled barracuda, prawns and fresh squid. It was amazing. Children make their living peddling jewelry and other small items.
The next day, some of the girls and I took a tuk-tuk into town and explored the different stalls. I laughed as a small toddler carried around a fat cat the same way she would an overstuffed teddy bear. The best spot was an art gallery filled with children’s paintings. They use the money earned from the paintings to help get children out of the brothels. I bought two paintings; one for my brother, and one for a colleague back home. It’s now hanging in his classroom. We walked on the beach for about an hour taking pictures and laughing at the cows who were walking along side us. Through a short path in the woods, we came across a much more deserted part of the beach with a few shacks and bungalows. We spent the rest of the afternoon swimming the warm, clear water, and that evening, we celebrated a friend’s birthday with a cake. Once the stars were out and it felt like the entire hemisphere was shimmering, I took a midnight swim in the ocean and floated on my back under the beautiful sky.

SE Asia: Thailand, Cambodia & Vietnam (Days 8-9)

SE Asia: Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam (Day 8-9)
The bus ride to the capital city, Phnom Penh, was long and bumpy. We stopped briefly on the eight hour trip for the bathroom and to sample treats from the vendors which were piles of dried spiders, beetles, and larvae. Once in the capital, the first thing you notice is the thick, moist heat. Much like the southern region in the United States, the air is thick, muggy and feels like you’re walking around with a wet blanket. We ate by the river as a huge group, and then I went with a couple of the guys and had a drink in a nearby spot. We spat on the high stools and watched the tiny lizards run up and down the walls on the ceiling.
The next morning we headed to the S-21 prison the infamous Killing Fields. Despite the thousands of adjectives in the English language, it’s difficult to find the right words to describe the true depth of emotion these places instill. The prison used to be a high school, but it was converted into a political prison by the Khmer Rouge in 1976. Thousands of people were tortured in unspeakable ways here and only a handful of people survived. In the courtyard are rows of white coffins dedicated for the final bodies discovered decomposing in the cells. The buildings are bleak, run down and have a air of uneasiness that seems to permeate the very stones. On the walls, there are photos taken by the journalists and the soldiers were discovered the bodies of the tortured victims. The beds with the chains and the interrogation desks are left just as they were during this terrible era. Monks, wrapped in their bight orange garb, walked solemnly from room to room, stopping briefly to stare at the vacant stares of the young executioners, who were usually 14-year old boys. One of the more nauseating stories from this place was learning that the leader of the regime had told these boys that consuming human livers would grant one immortality, which is why so many of the victims had their stomachs ripped open with that one particular organ missing. After we left the prison, we headed towards the killing fields where the mass executions occurred. This regime strove to eliminate all of the scholars and their families, so thousands of people lost their lives. When we arrived at the fields, my first impression was surprise. Despite its sordid past, the fields were green with flowers and heavy draping trees. In the center of the fields, at the end of a dirt path, stood one large imposing structure. After taking off my shoes, I walked closer and peered into the glass. From the top to the bottom, there balanced the skulls of the excuvated victims, or a small percentage of them anyways. There were several mass graves, each one line with a wooden barrier. On each fence post, dozens of woven bracelets hung as a sign of respect for the fallen. Roosters walked quietly through the fields and looking closely on the dirt path, you realized that the jutting white stones were pieces of skulls. The absolute hardest thing to stomach, even beyond the hanging tree, an eerie tree with curved branches, named for the fact that soldiers hung stereos from the limbs to mask the moans of the dying, was the Killing Tree. This enormous tree was used for the most horrifying purpose. Soldiers would force mothers to their knees and make them watch as soldiers held babies by their ankles and bashed their skulls into the trees.
In the afternoon, Aviaaja and I had lunch and then walked through the capital city. Once we got off the main road, then you were really in the local region. The markets were beautiful and crowded with people going every which way. I watched a little boy siphon gasoline from a motorbike with a straw. After awhile, we stopped at this beautiful red temple and spent the afternoon in the gardens decorated with elaborate Buddhas. Amidst the red and yellow blossoms, we watched the monks walk through the paths and lean down to drop handfuls of fish food to the schools of carp in the ponds. When the sun went down, we met up with everyone on a rooftop overlooking the river before heading to our Killing Field tour guide’s house for dinner. He and his wife prepared a huge meal for us of rice, curries, vegetables, chicken, beef and finally, liquor with spiders. Yup, in the bottom of the bottle were huge black spiders. After the meal, we got into our second tuk-tuk race…this time on the highway. After we met in the town center, and I nibbled on a roasted skewered snake, we danced for the rest of the night. My sandals snapped three minutes after walking into the club, so I braved the dance floor barefoot. Around three am, I was swimming on the rooftop pool under the stars and loving life.

SE Asia: Thailand, Cambodia & Vietnam (Days 6-7)

Days 6-7: Siem Riep, Cambodia
We left Bangkok around 7am and traveled by bus the long eight hour trip to Siem Riep, Cambodia. It was hot, but I slept most of the way. Unfortunately, one poor girl fell ill with pneumonia, dysentery and food poisoning simultaneously. She had to be physically carried over the border, but luckily, she was treated by a doctor soon thereafter. Walking to the border, the first thing I saw in Cambodia were these elaborate casinos. In Thailand, you cannot gamble, and in Cambodia, you cannot (legally) buy a prostitute. Let’s just say, the two countries have worked out an arrangement of sorts. However, beyond the border, the land is green and flat with an abundance of rice patties. We stopped at a small open restaurant for lunch. I ate veggies and fried eggs with lots of bottled water. As a general rule, avoid drinking tap water in SE Asia. Unfortunately, this also meant we avoided a lot of fruit and ice drinks. Everyone gets sick at one point or another, but no one wants to be stuck on a hot bus when it happens. Surprisingly, I began to prefer squatters because they were more sanitary. Too many spiders liked to crawl underneath Western toilet seats. We arrived in Siem Reip in the afternoon and headed out that evening to a volunteer school, New Hope. The school was started to help children rise out of the slums and brothels. We rode tuk-tuks through dirt roads to a small school packed with smiling girls and boys. Everyone of them was liked bottled sunshine. We stayed for a few hours, and they showed me their lesson books and asked me questions. One little girl with long braids and ribbons told me how she wanted to be a teacher; I was so lucky to have met these kids. When the bell rang, they bowed and I stared at the purple sky until it was time to eat dinner at the restaurant managed and run by former students. Everything from the food, the uniforms and the décor was all made by the students. We were served an appetizer of dried fruit, salty crickets and spring rolls. Then we ate eggplant curry, pork salad and coconut milk with rice. When we left, we prompted the tuk-tuk drivers into racing and while it was
so much fun, I just about made peace with God.
After dinner, we headed to the famous night markets where I bought everyone’s gifts of scarves and other items. I also ran into two former teachers I knew from Korea and gave big hugs before they moved on to the rest of Asia. We didn’t get much sleep that night because we headed to Ankor Wat for the sunrise at 4:30am. The temple site was packed with people and the sky was brilliant with pink, orange and yellow hues. Around 6, we ate a humble breakfast of white, sandwich bread slices and a small, yellow banana. This whole day was dedicated to temples. By 2pm, my shirt was drenched and we’d already explored four of them. The temples are amazing; each one is unique in design. One had steep steps that I had to butt scoot down and the monkeys in front of Ankor Wat are really cute. I fed them hunks of white bread, which may not have been the smartest idea considering the size of their teeth. We ate spring rolls for lunch in front of the temple, and that afternoon, I learned how to drive an ATV. A few of us rented them, and we rode through the rice patties at sunset. Not only have I never driven in a foreign country, let alone on an ATV, but I’ve also never almost been pushed off the road by a water buffalo either. There were a lot of firsts on this trip. Driving down the dirt road, we passed a farmer and a herd of running buffaloes, and they weren’t too keen on sharing the road. We stopped on one of the dirt roads as the sun was setting. The whole sky turned pink, and we were careful to avoid the swarms of red ants.
After a few minutes, three local kids came running to us for pictures and to say hello. I think they were brother and sister. One little monkey with a head full of pretty curls caught my heart. The smallest little girl was wearing a yellow dress, and every time she leaped and jumped on her brother she looked like a small sunbeam. My favorite moment was when she looked at me, grinned and then body slammed her brother into a rice patty. All three of them were barefoot little dancing pieces of awesome. They gave us high fives, hung around our legs and then climbed on the ATVs and pretended to drive. Its kind of hard not to fall in love. Two boys later joined to get their pictures taken, and we drove back in the growing darkness and watched the cows go swim in the small ponds on the side of the road. That night we ate fish soup and watched traditional Cambodian dancing. The soup was good, but unlike Thai food, Cambodian food is not spicy in the least. Instead, it’s sweet with lots of lemongrass and pineapple. This first stop in Cambodia was definitely high on the list of my most favorite places.

SE Asia: Thailand, Cambodia & Vietnam (Days 4-5)

Day 4: Pattaya, Thailand
I easily adapted back into my early morning pre-Korea routine and was up at 6:30. Neither Cho nor Peh speak English, but they always bowed. Sa, Kim and I, after eating a breakfast of pork skewers and deep fried banana fritters, headed to the Tiger Conservatory, which was another tourist trap, but an enjoyable one all the same. We spent the morning watching tigers, elephants, camels, scorpions, crocodiles and an orangutang named Uncle Jessie. The place was good because its a conservatory for over 400 tigers, an animal that is fast becoming endangered due to illegal poaching. Sa is Buddhist and has a compassionate nature towards all living beings, so she stopped to feed every animal, including cucumbers to the baby elephants. When we got back into town, Sa and I rode together on a rented motorbike. So the three of us are crammed on one bike, not an uncommon sight in Asia. However, my ass is Western-sized (and hanging off the back of that damn bike). I later told Kim that I’d just accepted my fate. There are worse ways to die. One thing about traveling in SE Asia, you have to seriously loosen up and take things as they are, or the stress will eat at you. Don’t think about the sanitary conditions of the kitchen, the sugar bowls have ants in them, the cars are not inspected yearly and all traffic lights are optional.
Sa ordered pork and noodle soup for lunch and helped spice it up with chiles, and then we crunched on slices of tart, green mango. Later in the afternoon, Sa took me on the bike to the market where she used to sell sweets. It was amazing. Bustling with kids, animals and vendors, the market is pure energy. The women are constantly swatting flies, there are plates of raw meat and there were at least fifteen kinds of fruit that I’d never seen before. My favorite fruit is called dragon fruit, which is this purplish fruit with white pulp and tiny black seeds. Delicious. Another great fruit is called mangosteen. It’s a small ball with a thick black skin and a white, juicy inside. My last meal with my uncle and his family was at a shabu-shabu restaurant with squid soup cooked on table pots, but Kim and I were primarily focused on the sushi. Sa and Kim were incredible hosts, and they made me feel so welcome. Cho cracked me up. My uncle was never around kids much, so the fact that he’s now a dad to two little boys just shows how unpredictable life is. I loved watching Cho make his favorite treat: white sandwich bread slices soaked with dribbles of sweetened, condensed milk.

Day 5: Bangkok, Thailand
For breakfast, Sa made my favorite dish: Pad Woon Sen(“Pad” means fried and “Sen” are noodles), so it was fried noodles with tofu. After the noodles, Sa brought out a bowl of sweetened, condensed milk mixed with green, powdered noodles, potato root and a clump of purple, sugary, sticky rice. It was a delicious meal and it was thoughtful of Sa. By the early afternoon, I took a cab into Bangkok to meet with a group I was traveling with. While I normally despise tours, this one’s set up had its appeals. On this tour, they book your hotels and help you get across the borders, Then they essentially leave you on your own, which is perfect. Basically, we were dropped off and told a meeting point in a few days, but everyone got along well, so we spent a lot of time together. All together, there were about 14 of us from all over the world: Norway, Greenland, England, Wales, Canada, Australia and me, the American. My room mate was a lovely girl from Greenland. She and I got on great, so we did a lot of side trips together with the others. I stayed with the group for 10 days, and we traveled from Thailand to Cambodia to Vietnam. We left Bangkok on Dec. 5, which is the king’s birthday. As a whole, Thais revere their king and everyone wears yellow and celebrates in the city center. We went downtown and watched hundreds of floating lanterns. The streets were adorned with thousands of lights, flowers and masses and masses of people. I nibbled on a light dinner, and after we walked around downtown, a friend and I listened to karaoke in the hotel. It sounded like cats were being set on fire.