The Last Leg
Something I forgot to mention about India was the presence of cows, which can be seen just about anywhere, from lounging in the middle of a busy road in Goa to eating grass on the sidewalk in central Mumbai, the country’s most metropolitan city. People feed the cows and touch them for good luck as they walk by, and drive carefully around them as they mosey along the medians and shoulders of the roads. Tony almost got bludgeoned when we stopped to take some pictures of a herd of road warrior cows in Goa.
After we saw Krrish on Sunday the 13th, the whole gang of us went out with our Indian friends to Juhu Beach, where thousands of clothed people hang out in the sand playing with monkeys and staring at foreigners. Sarah had a crowd of at least 50 people around her, ogling as she got what looked like a henna tattoo, but it turned out to be paint laced with kerosene. It took an evening of washing and icing her arm to get it to stop burning, but luckily we didn’t have to go to the hospital.
On our last day in Mumbai, Sarah and I went to Haji Ali, a mosque on an island in the Arabian Sea connected to the mainland by a narrow road which goes completely underwater at high tide; we got in and out that morning without getting stranded there for hours, which happens to tourists occasionally. Then we took a cab to the Dhobi Ghats, which can be described as an open-air “factory” where the entire city’s laundry is washed by hand. Any time laundry is sent out in Mumbai, it ends up here, being scrubbed and beaten against a wall by semi-naked guys in murky puddles of water, and hung to dry on cables zigzagging the workplace. We got a view of the Dhobi Ghats from an overpass next to the Mahalaxmi train station, where we saw overstuffed trains with no doors shuttling thousands of people into central Mumbai. Ashish told us that roughly 10 people die on the rail system PER DAY as a result of people falling out of the doors, climbing on top of the trains and getting electrocuted, or children wandering in front of trains.
Later on that day, Sarah, Tericke, Tony and I checked out Victoria Terminus, Mumbai’s main regional train station, which was renamed the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus after India gained independence from the British in 1947. Chhatrapati Shivaji was a freedom fighter in the Indian uprising against Mughal rule back in the 17th century, and he must have been pretty cool, because they named both of their airports, their national museum, municipal parks, and several schools after him as well. We spent the rest of the day strolling through Mumbai’s open-air markets, which have pushy vendors selling everything imaginable; one observant vendor flagged us down and tried to give us a great price on an electric razor, which I apparently needed.
The cab ride to the airport that night was one of the most frustrating experiences of my life. Traffic was terrible, it was pouring rain, and our cab ran out of gas about halfway to the airport. As we waited in the huge line at the gas station, I was able to cut a deal with a new cab driver, so we hauled all of our stuff into cab #2 and continued the ride. Two and a half hours after we left our apartment, we finally arrived at the airport in time to check in for our all-night flight through Bangkok to Cambodia. In retrospect, Sarah and I are both still shocked that we were never in a traffic accident in Mumbai, although despite the chaotic driving, we never saw a single automobile accident the entire time we were in India.
Siem Reap, Cambodia
The next morning, we arrived at the airport in Siem Reap, where we were picked up by our personal driver and tour guide, Hann. We headed straight out to Angkor Wat National Park, where we hiked around for a few hours. Angkor Wat is one of the world’s most sacred Buddhist religious sites, having somehow survived centuries of warfare and remaining in surprisingly good shape. Hann said that it was built over the course of 28 years by King Suryavarman’s one million slaves in the 12th century. The National Park contains several temple sites, including Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Bayon, Ta Prohm (where Tomb Raider was filmed) and the Terrace of Elephants, where the ancient kings inspected their armies and held elephant races. We hiked throughout the park for most of the day, checking out all of the temples and ruins, feeding wild monkeys, and learning some of Cambodia’s history. As we drove back to Siem Reap, we passed by rice paddies along the roadsides where minefields had been cleared by international organizations, and stopped at a memorial for the millions of people massacred in Pol Pot’s killing fields, which can still be seen lining the roads all over the country. One of the things we noticed about Cambodia was the noticeably tiny number of middle-aged people (presumably they were either in Pol Pot’s army or killed by them – between one and three million people were killed in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot’s dictatorship form the 1970’s through the mid-1990’s). That night, we ate an outstanding meal at another hotel, which served us coconut chicken curry inside a hollowed-out coconut, along with Cambodia’s own Angkor Beer.
On Wednesday, Hann took us outside of Siem Reap to a floating village called Chong Kneas built entirely on a muddy river, with floating schools, restaurants, houses and gymnasiums. We cruised through the village on a big green longtail boat, past floating houses with no toilets and hammocks for beds, equipped with satellite TV and electricity, oddly enough. A bunch of naked kids were swimming all over the river, even right next to an alligator farm where a chain linked fence was the only thing separating them from hundreds of hungry alligators. On our way back to Siem Reap, we climbed up a hill nearby and got a better look at the river, which eventually dumped into Tonle Sap, Cambodia’s largest lake. After stopping for some lunch, we saw a few more temples and then headed out to a 16 square km man-made lake at West Baray, again built in 28 years presumably by the same 1 million slaves as the temples in Angkor Wat National Park, according to Hann. Unfortunately, our tour had to end at that point because I was too sick to function; I had brushed my teeth with tap water and eaten part of my raw, pre-cut coconut “bowl” at dinner the night before, so the swift, violent intestinal problem that ensued was my own fault for not being careful. Lesson learned…
As a result, we didn’t accomplish much else in Siem Reap, which exists, seemingly, solely to house Angkor Wat tourists. All of the hotels are extravagantly decorated, inside and out, but the town itself (as well as Cambodian tourism and hospitality) is still a bit of a mess, especially compared with the level of service we experienced in the touristy parts of Thailand and India. Most of the roads in Siem Reap were constantly flooded and full of potholes, if they were paved, and outside of the main drag of hotels, the place is still very much a third-world country. U.S. dollars are the only currency dispensed in Siem Reap’s ATMs, and businesses there (even the National Park system) do not deal in U.S. change; the only change you can receive is in Cambodian Riel, which are worth about 1/3800ths of a dollar. Our hotel, which was gorgeous even by Western standards, was full of geckos and mosquitoes - I woke up one night covered in huge bites on my forehead and feet and flipped out, crushing Benadryl tablets and rubbing them into the super-puffed skin in order to calm myself down.
On our way out of town the next day, we were greeted at the airport by a hit squad of two cops and six random, scraggly Cambodian guys who had showed up to ensure that I paid the remaining balance of my hotel bill (there had been an unresolved billing miscommunication between our hotel and our tour guide that was never brought to my attention). The Cambodian police hunted me down in the check-in line with my hotel’s photocopy of my passport, walking up to me and asking me if I’d seen the guy in the picture. I was 19 years old, clean-shaven and spiky-haired when I took my passport picture six years ago, so the cop didn’t recognize me at all with my shaggy hair and beard; I should have just said “Nope, haven’t seen the guy,” and I probably would have made it out of there scot-free (or, alternatively, beaten with reeds, so I coughed up thirty bucks, cut a deal with the hit squad in the parking lot, and got the hell out of there before anymore Cambodian shenanigans ensued).
Luckily, our accommodations in Bangkok were a huge step up from the City Angkor Mosquito Hotel in Siem Reap; we stayed in the guest house of the American ambassador to Thailand in the heart of Bangkok, where we enjoyed EDIBLE fresh fruit for breakfast every morning and a chauffeured car to take us anywhere we wanted to go. We got to Bangkok around lunchtime on Thursday and passed out for the rest of the afternoon, waking up in time for dinner and some shopping at the Suan Lum Night Bazaar, a huge outdoor market/restaurant area close to the American embassy in a neighborhood called Sukhumvit. Sarah and I were both still ailing from the Cambodian food, so we took it relatively easy and caught up on sleep while we were in Bangkok; the only thing I accomplished on Friday was a trip to a tailor called Rajawongse for a fitting for two new suits I picked up while I was in town. Rajawongse is run by two Sikh gentlemen named Jesse and Victor Gulati, and they outfit all kinds of high-ranking U.S. and international government officials, including the Bush family, with hand-made suits and shirts. They also provide free Heinekens during the fitting sessions, so I was sold as soon as I walked in the place.
On Saturday, Sarah and I did as much sightseeing as our stomachs would allow us, which included the Thai Grand Palace, Wat Phra Keow (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) and Wat Po. Wat Po is a temple which houses an impressive 150-foot long gold-plated reclining Buddha. That evening, we met up with Jackie Woo, a Thai attorney and friend of a law school buddy of mine. We ate dinner in an upscale, cafeteria-style restaurant (it sounds weird, but it was awesome), and afterwards Jackie and I ventured out to “Backpacker’s Paradise” at Khao San Road, which is a strip of outdoor bars, cheap guest houses, and hostels where every language imaginable can be heard in the crowded street. Jackie and I upheld Bangkok tradition and ate scorpions, which were extremely crunchy, but disappointingly bland.
Koh Samui, Thailand
Sarah and I woke up early on Sunday morning to catch our flight to Koh Samui, a gorgeous island in the Gulf of Thailand where my cousin Will is living and working as a food and beverage consultant/English teacher for a handful of resorts. My online hotel booking fell through for some reason, but fortunately we were sent to a place nearby called L’Hacienda, a beautiful, Mediterranean-style place on Big Buddha Beach run by a French couple. We had a spectacular view of our beach and another island called Koh Phangan across the narrow strait separating Ko Samui from Phangan. That afternoon, we met up with Will at the island’s main tourist attraction, the Big Buddha, which is, in fact, a giant, gold-plated Buddha on top of a hill on the island’s north shore. The three of us piled on to Will’s motor scooter and went back to his house, where we met Yay, his Thai girlfriend, and Punky, his couch-crashing college buddy from Denmark. My previous impression was that Will was living in a small shack on the side of the road, sleeping in the dirt, etc., but his house is a really nice one-bedroom bungalow with a kitchen, a bathroom and a real-life Western-style toilet, which I used to take for granted before our trek through Asia. We all hopped on motor scooters and went out to dinner at a small, open-air restaurant where we ate amazing Thai food, and then we all went for a traditional Thai massage at a parlor on Chaweng Beach. As we pulled up to the massage parlor on the scooters, we heard a chorus of about 15 tiny uniformed Thai ladies yelling “Wiiiiiiiirrrrrr!!!” (Will is kind of a local celebrity because he is an American who speaks Thai and works with lots of locals at resorts all over the island.) The ladies took us inside, put us in pajamas, laid the five of us down on a row of beds and proceeded to masterfully tie us in knots for an hour, which only set us back around 5 bucks each. We then went to an outdoor lounge out on Chaweng Beach, where we sat on pillows and had a table literally 15 feet from the Gulf of Thailand On our way to the bar, I made a new friend and had trouble giving him back to his owner, who likely stole him from the jungle.
We spent the next day on a great tour of Koh Samui, which is about 100 square kilometers in size, very mountainous, and blanketed in coconut trees (they send around three million coconuts to the mainland each year). Our tour guide picked us up in a songthaew, a converted pick-up truck with an awning and bench seats in the bed, and we started the tour with a short ride through the jungle on an elephant. We then headed to a zoo where, if we wanted to, we could get into a cage with a tiger for a picture for about $12. The guide told us upon arrival that “if you want your picture in the cage with the tiger, you must do it soon because the tiger will eat dinner in 30 minutes, and he will be angry afterwards.” I don’t know what’s worse – getting in a cage with a hungry tiger or an angry tiger, but either way, Sarah managed to convincingly talk me out of it. Apparently, however, lots of families do this; there were samples of professional-style pictures outside the cage with kids climbing all over the tiger, asking for trouble. After wimping out of the would-be tiger wrestling match, we saw the weirdest bird ever created and found out that otters are disgustingly cute. After the zoo, our guide took us to a monkey farm, where monkeys are trained to climb into trees and harvest coconuts, “because the humans are too lazy to do it,” the guide said. Next, we checked out Grandfather and Grandmother Rock, which are natural rock formations shaped like male and female genitalia within about a hundred yards of each other on Lamai Beach.
Finally, we ended the tour at Phra Khru Samathakittikhun, or the Temple of the Mummified Monk. Apparently, an 80-year old monk predicted his own death thirty years ago and wished for his remains to be propped up in a meditating position “as a symbol to aspire the future generations to follow generations to follow Buddhist teachings and be saved from suffering.” He’s been at the temple in a glass case ever since, and our tour guide told us that they had to put sunglasses on him because “his eyes fall out, that’s a problem.”
On Tuesday and Wednesday, we spent most of our time walking around the island and relaxing in the rooftop pool at the hotel, unfortunately continuing the ferocious battle against the Wrath of Delicious Cambodian food. We found out that Koh Samui has a dark underbelly of allegedly mafia-controlled taxicabs (I believe it – cabs were actually expensive even by American standards) and a Danish criminal gang called the Banditos. Because we were tired and not feeling well for most of our time there, we missed a lot of Samui and the surrounding area, so that’s our excuse to go back – it’s a beautiful place, and I’m now insanely jealous of my cousin for being able to make his living there.
The Loooooong Trip Home
We got back to the ambassador’s house in Bangkok on Wednesday night, where I picked up my freshly-tailored suits and took Sarah to the Patpong Night Bazaar, Bangkok’s outdoor shopping mall/central red light district. We grabbed dinner and a second suitcase to lug all of our stuff home for the trip the following morning, and spent the rest of the night packing.
Our driver took us to the airport at 6 am on Thursday, and we dragged ourselves onto the plane for the 6-hour flight back to Tokyo, the 12-hour haul to Chicago, and the 2-hour hop to DC, where we finally showed up, frazzled and exhausted, on Thursday night, August 24th. We figured out that we’d spent over 51 hours in the air over the course of the entire trip, and taken just about every type of transportation imaginable: planes, subways, cabs, buses, vans, chauffeured cars, rickshaws, tuk-tuks, boats, motor scooters, songthaews, and a Magnetic Elevated train.
We’ve spent the past couple of weeks at the Burns’s house recovering from jet lag and the mysterious Cambodian Guerilla Bowel Attacks (CGBA: look it up in the medical dictionary, it’s there). I managed to shave, get a haircut and secure a job working as a temporary contract attorney in DC, and Sarah will be continuing her job on Capitol Hill with Congressman Tom Lantos next week. We took a short trip to Florida last weekend to visit my mom’s family, and then we drove all the way back up to DC with all of my stuff from home. Sarah and I found a great little apartment on Capitol Hill, and we’ll be spending the next few weeks getting ourselves settled in and returning to normalcy, which I’m actually looking forward to for the first time in a while.
Thanks so much for reading – since I arrived back in the States, I’ve given a lot of thought to the unbelievable year that I’ve been so privileged to experience, particularly as I watched FSU squeak out another win against Miami in last weekend’s game, creating two great bookends to what has been one of the best years of my life. Keeping track of my adventures in this journal was at times a distraction, but it was a source of great amusement for me as I relived my memories of seeing 10 foreign countries, scaling Mount Fuji, tasting French pig intestines, etc., and I hope it’s been an entertaining read for my friends and family both in the States and overseas. I eagerly look forward to my next chance to do something so enjoyable, as well as the opportunity to write about it all.