Three mornings in a row I beat the rooster after he woke me up around 4:32 on the first day. That's not the only thing that reminds me of Sukawati, or Bali for that matter; the Greatest common divisor of Siem Reap and is that they are both small rural poor communities overwhelmed by tourism.
With the limited timeframe of my visit to Cambodia, I opted to focus on visiting Ankor Wat and its surrounding temples and ruins. Some might be able to only afford one day ticket, but it's well worth getting a 3-day if you wanna experience these wonders, which I did. I also suggest going to Angkor National Museum, maybe even before visiting any of these sites. The exhibit itself is huge and rich with the information about Khmer history and culture in general, you might not even need those tour guides. My humble homestay was only a couple of miles away and came with a free bike rental that allowed my to explore the entirety of Angkor Archaeological Park, about 8-10 square miles in 3 consecutive days, in the excruciating heat and the merciless sun.
It often seems futile to use words and pictures to describe the massiveness, breathtaking beauty and the overall awesomeness of these sites. Beyond the architectural accomplishment of Khmer of centuries past, the astonishing strength of nature reclaiming its domain also is awe-inspiring to say the very least. To this day, I remain speechless.
what Just as beautiful and inspiring are the people of Siem Reap; much like the rest of Southeast Asia but probably much poorer, and younger as a whole. Even a quick read of the wikipedia page would give you how complex and tragic their history has been, and one can't help but seeing irony in how the pride of the entire nation and the people as the name suggests ("Siem Reap" means "the triumph over Siam") is also what seems to be caging the very people in the blackhole of overtourism. Meanwhile they discourage visitors from buying trinkets from children (so they would choose education over child labor) but the overwhelming reality is that they need that quick money just to survive.
I actually met the now-viral-star who speaks 10 languages. He spoke maybe at 2 or 3 languages at this point, and quite aggressive with his sales. It was him who threw me the line above as I was walking through the gate of Ta Prohm; You buy, you friend. You no buy, you tourist. Even before meeting him, I knew that being a tourist in these regions is a tricky business. Every purchase you make or refuse, the consequences are much more grave for the ones that don't get to leave. And every time I try to stick to what UNICEF or any organizations tell me, it breaks my heart. Seeing him go further than the rest of his contemporaries gives me a sigh of relief, but with even heavier sigh of helplessness.
One tuk-tuk driver approached to me by the entrance to Ankor Thom, asking if I had a power bank. This emo Cambodian Jack Black of a youngster spoke excellent English, quite friendly and was a bit of a ladies' man. Entertained and exhausted from 2 days of bike-riding, I decided to give him some business for his rate was quite reasonable. He turned out to be kinda charming and less than professional, but when he showed me the side of Cambodian tourism, on Pub Street, that is undistinguishable from what I've seen in every other place; locals catering to privileged visitors by adopting to their capitalist, self-centered, instant-gratification-seeking ways, I just had to palm my face. On the same token, this could be MY tourist mind demanding exoticism. Why even bother traveling what I'd get in every corner of the world are "Shape of You" and/or "All About That Bass"? Within minutes I tell him to bail, then he proceeds to ask if I wanted a "girly massage." I, irritated, put a smile on my face and tell him to get me home. He seems disappointed, offered a ride to the airport next morning and did not show up.
I could have shrugged all of these off and moved on, but I then remembered him saying how he wanted to quit catering to tourists, move to the states, get a job doing anything to fund his study. Might've been the case of "stripping to pay for college," or might've been that he was just being inconsistence in his logic by denying my hiring him. However, he could've ripped me off by giving me a ridiculous quote. He could've come pick me up the next morning for extra cash. I doubt that he enjoys this life. I bet that he knows the importance of education. He came off just like any of us, feeling stuck in a familiar routine and not quite able to realize his ambition.
I try to be a friend, but all I could be was just another tourist.
I need to apologize to however many readers I might have, and to myself, for failing to set aside time for writing. In several ways, 2018 was the year of decluttering; as we moved from the suburb of Los Angeles where I lived for as long as I have lived in the States, so much of what I have collected purposelessly and often unintentionally needed to be shaken off of my life, and what is essential needed to be given the space it needed. And as I sit down again in front of an empty digital page, I see that I need to do the same with all the snapshots I have taken along my journey around the sun. I'm gonna go reverse-chronologically and review all the photos and add some context to them, trying to find stories wherever I can find.
I had not been back to Oahu in a while. I had felt that, after the first 5 or so years I frequented the most populous (and developed) of the islands, I'd rather visit outer islands and save Oahu for family occasions. I just wished that it were not for this particular occasion.
Of course, the island always offers the perfect blend of familiar and exciting things.
It's easy for me, a visitor with a local hookup, to think that life here is slow and simple, while I scoff down Malasadas, hike around the hills of Manoa. The reality of course is a lot more complex for many, and in every few breathtakingly beautiful things you see, a somber reminder; water quality warnings for beaches due to the aging sewerage system, plastic waste spotted at every scenic point, homelessness and poverty.
Not too long ago we took 2 trips to Hilo on the Big Island roughly one year apart from each other, and witnessed one particular rather-undiscovered snorkeling spot going from the most vibrant and massive coral reef colonies I've ever seen to a greyed-out shell of its former glory. The amazement of finding myself, upon diving in, surrounded by the massive civilization underwater, and the devastation I felt when I dipped into the exact same spot to find it all gone, are indescribable. ("Chasing Coral" a documentary is one of the many documentations of this urgent, global and very local issue.)
I, off all people, shouldn't need a reminder. I have seen and learned everywhere I have been, new and familiar, the effect of overtourism. That also should not come as a surprise to anyone who has a social media account (or a blog). Stories from your awesome vacation told in pictures are least-controversial, non-combative and popular posts from your peers, and every hard-working middle class who drops money in these communities that accept them deserves those likes. The most importantly, however, throwing the sheet of your hard-earned cash over the pile of dump you took on the street of Venice is definitely not the way to go.
My people used to (and maybe still) do just that, only a few decades back when we started to come up in the global economy, treating this gem of the Pacific as just a wallpaper for their wedding picture or an outlet mall for overpriced trinkets. I don't think anyone should be advised against staring into a sun setting on Waikiki beach or from atop Diamond Head. Hell, I'm pretty sure I'd hit Robot Restaurant next time I'm in Tokyo. Just remember to take your fucking plastic bottle with you when you leave.
Also; count your blessings. To have been and seen where and what you thought was beautiful, you are more fortunate than the most. And that takes way more than some dumb hashtag. I'm not judging, just telling myself how fucking lucky I am to be where I am, and hope to have enough time to thank everyone and everything who made that possible.
Slowly waking from another brief sleep. Grey skies, mild temp. Indistinct phone conversations in a totally unintelligible yet familiar-sounding language, the one spoken in almost every place that I have visited in this travel craze. In this too brief of a visit and too long of a layover, I'm seeing and hearing them in their natural habitat. Chinese, the most populous of all.
Sleeping in an airport bench did a whole lot more than I was expecting (especially with Dan Dan Mien sitting in my stomach) but I've been abusing up my old system way more than I should have. I'm just dumb like that. Even dumber might be the idea I have of skipping the pandas, teahouses and Chinese Opera, taking this uber bullet train to Leshan for an hour to see the biggest Buddha in the world. I'll be dangerously cutting it close to my flight home, but I'm dumb like that.
Buying this train ticket was a minor chaos; the automated kiosk scans your government-issued ID before dispensing a ticket, so as a non-citizen I had to go to the teller which means waiting in lines filled with loud phone convos and constant cutting. A near disorder. Survival of the loudest and the rudest. As my stress level slowly rises, wishing that I had my earplugs, I thought about pre-buying the return ticket. Then again, I'm not sure how long it'll take to go thru this Giant Buddha National Park. The big screen above our heads shows, in 16-bit MS-DOS style, the number of available seats for each train and they are still in hundreds. Kay, I'm not gonna worry. Let's be like water, and go see this Giant Buddha.
The decent-sized park houses a handful of temples, a modest museum and a "fishing village" that serves as a souvenir stop and restaurants. It welcomes you with a pretty steep set of stairs and a nice view of Leshan City across the water as an encouragement. By the time your ass muscle screams and trembles, a series of gorgeous temples that hold gold sculptures of the familiar faces. Nothing to be dismissed but I'm keeping my eyes on the prize.
Then without much fanfare, you find yourself looking at the big man's right visage. Kind of a long, almost childish depiction of Maitreya, looking out to the muddy confluence of three rivers (Min, Qingyi and Dadu) and beyond. Measured at 71m (233ft), neither Buddha of Nara nor Kuan Yin of Penang even compares. And it's 1200 years old, took them monks 90 years to finish. Nara one is older, but this mofo is carved out of a cliff. Speaking of which, to appreciate and pray to this mega-icon, you have to take some of the narrowest and steepest of the staircases with hundreds of Chinese tourists snapping shots and holding up the line. Think of Grand Canyon path with uneven stairs but 300% more density and even higher level of annoyance. I see them old monks like to test your patience. And your physical fitness. My ass. Tenderness.
Worth a visit. Glad I got to make this my last hike of the trip. I just didn't know that I'd be in for a run.
The paranoia became reality; when I came back to the station from the Buddha park, the latest train option back to Chengdu that I was eyeing on was sold out. The next available doesn't get there till 17:20, a mere 90min prior to departure. If this was LAX I'd be in a real tight spot. Once I get to CTU, I still have to get from T2 (where the train drops me off) to T1 via shuttle, check in (Sichuan doesn't offer online check-in), pick up my luggage at their manned version of coin locker where they give you a handwritten receipt, go through the security and immigration (the entry took me about 45 to an hour). And I am 100 miles away, eating a pretty bland wonton soup and awaiting my train.
The biggest test of the trip presented itself at the very last minute. As if the Giant Buddha is asking questions;
What have you attained, after all the places you visited?
All the things you saw, heard and ate?
All the pictures you have taken?
All the things you've come to love and hate?
About human behavior, YOUR own behavior?
All your thoughts and dreams you had?
All the texts you've scribbled on your iPad?
After all the time and money you spent,
All the people that made it possible for you just to be a good friend,
then at the end,
What was it that you wanted?
The train arrives at Shuangliu Airport, terminal 2. Run up to 2F then wait for the inter-terminal shuttle. Consider running those 750m for a split second, then see the vehicle approaching. Hop on, get off and run to the nearest counter. The lady tells me the international check-in is at No.1, all the goddamn way across this massive hall. 17:45 now. Run to the only counter that's wo-manned. "Los Angeeli?" she asks then proceeds pretty quickly. Get the boarding pass, now to retrieve my luggage. (Yes I flipped the order cause I didn't want them to think I was a no-show.) I run to the counter where 2 backpackers are patiently waiting for a female clerk to finish her phone convo which seems to be upsetting her increasingly. Ten minutes go by, she gets off the phone, mumbles something with steams coming from the pouty face. The backpackers offered to wait since my case is more time-sensitive, but of course she doesn't catch that and slowly starts to manually process them first. She has to write down everything she is trying to tell them in English, like the latest pickup is 11:45pm and it costs then 34 Yuan etc. They hand her a 100 then she realizes, after handwriting them the receipt, that she doesn't have enough 1s. YOU ARE KILLING ME WITH THIS SHIT ALREADY. Then her comrade drops by, pulls out 6 Yuan and gives it to them. 18:20. All I had to do was hand her the ticket and grab my bag. She was all "what's the hurry?" WOMAN I NEED TO FLY ACROSS THE OCEAN.
Lucky for me the security check was empty and there was no immigration check. The gate 16 was on the runway level, the seats sporadically filled and no music. THE most quiet environment I found in my brief stay in China. In the quiet of the waiting area, I almost heard Buddha asking;
Was this what you wanted?
Once they started boarding I noticed that the flight is to Jinan, another minor airport very well still in mainland China. I see a fine print in my itinerary mentioning this place, but the flight number is still the same. Are they picking up more passenger? Once there, they have us go through the immigration check that was missing in CTU. oh so NOW we're flying back to the US. Then we get to the gate and sat there for an HOUR, without them giving us any explanation. Fellow Americans stared to gather and wonder WTF the deal is, so I volunteered to ask. (White people be like "hey You Asian, right?") The only English I could squeeze out of one lady was "Everything fine." We collectively throw our hands in the air and go OKAY THEN?
The conclusion I came to was that it was their way of selling 2-stop tickets as 1-stop. Nice move, Sichuan. Almost as nice as the chili paste you throw on our in-flight meal. A nice kicker certainly.
Soundchaser/two-time Independent Music Awards finalist. Currently travelblogging at #beatvagabond and working on new material.