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Life is a Journey, Savor it.


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High-stakes, big rewards Bangkok

More than New York City, Bangkok is the city that never sleeps. Motorbikes zoom past, tuk tuks chug along, street cart grills hiss and fry, people are on the move. And, more than anywhere else I’ve visited during this trip, Bangkok is the city that buzzes most and demands the most from its visitors. It also rewards the determined.

10pm, traffic, moto-taxis, office lights and BTS all full speed ahead.

10pm, traffic, moto-taxis, office lights and BTS all full speed ahead.

Stay attuned, watch where you go, immerse yourself. It’s not safety per se that obliges your full attention but rather a vigilance to not be subsumed, silently and with little fight, which excoriatingly threatens you. Famously when the lead character is lost in the Hangover 2’s Bachelor party Blitzkreig another whispers: “Bangkok has him now, and she’ll never let him go.” There’s no truer line in this Hollywood party blockbuster. Like a sailor on rough, unfavorable seas the existence you so cling to and feel entitled to is at best fickle and fleeting in the merciful grasp of this beast. Don’t forget this merry piece of trivia.

For all the effort that Bangkok demands to occupy its havoc, the plight tribulations resurrect generously fruitful. Any long time inhabitant will proudly share their tales of urban conquest–tales akin to epics but which pass as the everyday survival. The citizens are an inexplicable blend of grit and suave, with a determination born out of salmon-swimming-upstream diligence and the finesse enough to navigate with daring, strategic congeniality.

Bangkok rushhour: you're perpetually swimming against the current, gasping for air.

Bangkok rushhour: you’re perpetually swimming against the current, gasping for air.

I can’t really put my finger on this place– it would take lifetimes to map the pulse of these 8.2 million inhabitants–but in my fifth reluctant visit I’m am starting to taste the umami beyond the bitterness. For starters there’s the food: a bounty of it and damn good. Stay away from the touristy places with simplistic names (e.g. “MyThai Love”) instead search out places with humble street fronts and a few poorly lit menu photos. Look tempting? Take a lean 30 degrees to the left or right of the frontman and glimpse the interior. Is it packed with chattering Thais? Go there. Sultry breast of duck with wonton in fresh broth beckons.

Duck with wonton, noodles and fresh broth.

Humble, no-frills duck. Tastes unimaginably better than it even looks.

As you dine observe the customs of the patrons and proprietors. In the best places you’ll find a harried owner darting from table to table with an affable air and dogged love of his offerings. He may even sing to the praises of his dishes, staff and customers. Alternatively scan the room for the hawk eye, the manager/owner who watches over all with precise vision. The servers do not dare look up to catch her gaze but they are profoundly alert to the scrutiny they must constantly bow under.

Typical set up of a street stall. Carts like this can whip out between 3-8 dishes within less than 2 square meters.

Typical set up of a street stall. Carts like this can whip out between 3-8 dishes within less than 2 square meters.

The energy of Bangkok is palpable, like a troop of teenage boys on prom night. Anticipation is placed on every moment and even the briefest lapses in the doting attention of suitors are punished with swift disregard. Flatter the courtesan that is Bangkok. Her beauty may be mysterious and vaguely grotesque yet nothing short of full, consuming yearning (albeit with no promise of reward) will suffice. That is the mystique, the addiction, the folly that Bangkok offers. Play by her rules like an unquenchable but daft suitor; observe and attend to her. Be aware of thine enemies at all times.

Beautiful, astounding and sometimes harsh Bangkok. Click here to see more of the Grand Palace, Boat Taxis and temples.

Beautiful, astounding and sometimes harsh Bangkok. Click here to see more of the Grand Palace, Boat Taxis and temples.

This is the High-Stakes Gamble that is Bangkok: The stakes are towering but with study, luck and intuition the table is mighty favorable. So, do ya feel lucky?

Get spun by the whirr of this great city--careful where you land.

Get spun by the whirr of this great city–careful where you land.

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Crowdsourcing: Cure for the Travel Doldrums?

I’m 2 ft away from the ocean. The tide is coming in and with each wave breaking on the shores, the water laps closer and closer to my lounger. A woman with a tray of pineapple and mangos on her head just walked by. Two local Khmer boys are playing in the surf.

It’s all pretty idyllic. A photo is attached of the little girl who sat with me for about a half hour trying to sell her bracelets. She looks how I feel, okay I still have a small smile on my face (it’s not so bad). If they’re not selling bracelets the girls rub my legs observing that I haven’t shaved in a couple days and offer to “thread” the hair off. It’s like plucking each hair, only more efficiently done with a tightly wound string. Hard to describe or envision until you see it. Yes it hurts, but only a little.

I’ve been on the roads nearly 9 months and all of a sudden that realization has gripped me with some emotional response I can’t pinpoint. I don’t think I’m homesick (where is home these days anyway?), I don’t believe it’s boredom or loneliness… I’m kind of at a loss to describe it. Maybe it’s travel fatigue, fatigue from all the constant new information and decisions. Tired of the price haggling and tight budget keeping. Temples run together, island hopping has lost some of its appeal, long bus journeys see, more grueling than adventurous. What’s a girl to do?

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Paradise for Auction

Port Barton, where young men hold strings attached to boats as if they were walking the family dog. Yet here in Port Barton the boat holds far more importance than the family dog, it holds a great deal more importance than pretty much anything else, save for maybe prize-fighting roosters.

Fish are obviously the stock and trade that form the lifeblood of these small coastal towns. Picturesque bays harbor collages of floating murals and bundles of sticks that make for typical Filipino rigs. In recent years the maritime trade has shifted from fish to a more lucrative catch: tourists. They are bigger, more plentiful, easier to find and carry a higher reward. This is a refrain heard multiple times throughout the Palawan archipelago.

Fishermen and their children have quickly adapted in the span of half of a generation to cater astutely to international tourists and the prey that they hold most dear: snorkling, mineral water, brightly colored sarongs, recognizable food made to order at all hours and, above all else, beer.

It’s startling to see the influx of tourism at work. Where pristine coast exists one wonders if there is also an accompanying expiration date. How long until resort developers and hotel chains “discover” these paradisal wonderlands..? For El Nido the assault began about a dozen years ago and the traffic of tricycles on its central streets and crowded beach fronts of ocean-facing bars are evidence of having reached a cultural and economic tipping point. The local industry has slide irreversibly into dependence upon foreign money and tourism; I doubt there is any way back now. Also evidence of this anxious transition are the counter-balancing handpainted signs: “Land Not For Sale: NO TRESPASSING” and “Lot Available, Tourism ONLY.”

There is a sense that a goldrush has come to ruin the charms that pass as a venerable attraction in this place: genuine slices of lazy tropical paradise. It is gorgeous. Sharp limestone karsts burst out of azure seas and sumptuous creamy beaches. The tall rock faces and fascinating formations are framed by tufts of mango and coconut trees below, smatterings of lush green canopies and stark white tree trunk silhouettes atop. Actual monkeys reside in the forests and most beaches really are accessible only by boat.

This is heaven.

The color of the water is beyond difficult to describe, I have spent the last two weeks contemplating its qualities and aquamarine of supernatural origin is the best I can muster. The tint of the seas honestly does seem otherworldly, rich teals, lush and welcoming chartreuse, soulful royal blue. Sporadically but with mystifying frequency the water is so crisp and clear that the tint of the water permeates to the ocean floor some twenty feel below. It teams with ocean life and there is no end to the fascinating and curious life forms cohabiting there. Bright purple-yellow blobs (coral?), blue-grey starfish with meaty fingers like hotdogs, sharp black anemones, orange and white striped clown fish, nearly two dimensional flashes of rainbow with radiant red in the middle, massive schools of tri-sized fish (minuscule, tiny, and small) appear as undulating silver flashes that surround me as I bob at the surface taking it all in.

No wonder people come from far and near to experience this bliss of vibrancy. No surprise that those with means would have the will to capitalize on the inexplicable beauty. Ah! but therein lies the cruel flipside of any beautiful place and it accompanying tourism: it creates a curse and leaves a wake of despoiling behind. The pristine beauty of a place attracts ownership and commodification in the form of predictable package tours. The presence of tourism demands an economy geared towards suiting the travelers needs: predictable services, accessible points of interest, cheap souvenirs, bedding options in abundance and designed for multiple budgets. Often this economy is highly seasonal and mercurial.

Port Barton feels like even more of a paradise than El Nido, hardly comparable in my esteem. I cringe even to write about the mystique of PB for fear of adding to the din of contaminating attention this lesser-known ocean-front town inevitably will attract.

El Nido is hardly sophisticated but it nearly seems so in as much as it is adept at catering to daily surges of tourists. Compare that with Port Barton: serene, no tricycles to be found, calm people, doleful dogs lounging about and a cadre of boats tucked up right next to coconut trees that shade the narrow beach. By nightfall the only sound is the lapping, sometimes crashing sound of the waves.

The only things to dislike in PB would be the void of modern convenience (electricity from 6pm to 11pm only), over-friendly locals (broad smiles and unobtrusive, enthusiastic conversation), absence of Internet (non-existent wifi or otherwise difficult to locate), and stunningly slow pace of life. (If you’re really in the spirit of what this place is, none of those things really count as bothers.) The only thing distasteful is the cockfighting and noise it’s patrons generate. Otherwise, give me difficult to access, even more difficult to leave Port Barton over the bustle of convenient El Nido anyday, thanks.


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Beguiling Filipino “CR”

In th Philippines I eat pink chewable pepto bismol tablets as if they are candy. The candy is especially helpful on long bus rides inching along at top speeds of 25 kph through mud and muck in the middle of nowhere jungle. A recent 141km journey from El Nido to Roxas took four hours and included an impromptu stop that nearly broke both axels off of the lime green Roro Coach.

Waking up in the mornings there’s a gurgle in my tummy and a feeling of sheer dread. I automatically evaluate my restroom options for the day and in the immediate vicinity. Filipinos are fond of inexplicable devices that pass as toilets. A favorite is the itsy bitsy commode; these are white porcelain bowls the size of a toddler’s training potty and they are no more than a foot off the ground, usually pushed deep into a corner and smack dab against the wall. It creates a predicament for men and women alike: to squat or not..? Aim and good luck? Sit? (Heavens no to sitting!)

To say toilet paper is lacking would be a gross misstatement. To call it a luxury would also be a misstatement. Toilet paper is a precious resource retained by the ultra-privileged, the 1% if you will. It’s fitting then that we tourists seem to be the only ones concerned with its presence. Befuddlingly, it’s easy enough to procure TP and is readily available in most stores, yet it has been appropriated for a great many causes which do not involve its appellate purpose. The Filipinos utilize TP as FT, face tissue and who knows what else. At any rate, it’s lacking in proximity to actual toilets and so is soap for that matter. Befuddling.

The common Filipino nomenclature for the bathroom further drives home the fact that the joke is on us tourists, as if the name used to refer to restrooms is in itself specifically intended to administer a very small but inescapable dose of justice to balance the scales of dignity. Or perhaps the nomenclature is more benign than that and intended to merely perplex, amuse and describe… It accomplishes each of these feats…

Whether it be a deluxe apparatus with stalls, seats and flushing capabilities, or a mere hole in an outhouse or just a corner at over-that-there beach, each of these spaces is universally referred to as a “comfort room.” It’s the bane of many a traveler in The Philippines who find the CRs beguiling at best and cruel, punishing torture devices with a demonic sense of humor at worst.

One determination about the CR is beyond argument, you’ll find no comfort here.


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Flight Roster of Filth

125 passengers on a recent Tiger Airways flight from Bangkok to Clark air base (budget airport 2.5 hours north of Manila):

3 families (5 kids total)
18 total female travelers (2 older teenage backpackers, 3 white female travelers, 15 Filipinas)
~20 Filipino men (including a group of about 10 adorable, 30-something gay men)

85 (the rest): bald spots, sunburns, oversized, overwhelmingly middle-aged to older white men Continue reading


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Finding Goodness at the Source: Pok Pok

Call it a pilgrimage if you like, tonight’s dining experience is no less than a holy act as far as I’m concerned.

I’ve come to SP Chicken, megalithic restaurant at least in the history of one of my favorite, and one of Portland’s most famous, restaurants. Behold the inspiration of Pok Pok!!!

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Bushwhacked

NOTE: this was written on dec 11 but due to lack of wifi is being posted on dec 14. Other posts will be forthcoming in next few days and will offer a “retrospective” on the past days and weeks in Borneo. As always, please don’t hesitate to reach out with questions, comments or curiosities about the chronology.

So darn beat, bushwhacked, exhausted, rung out, wiped, done, over, whooped, spent.

This shall go down as best birthday ever [to date].

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