Giving Back to Southeast Asia

I was very fortunate to be able to take time off and travel for 202 days in Southeast Asia in 2015-2016 — mostly in countries where the dollar stretches pretty far because of the disparity in wealth between the country where I happened to be born and the places I was visiting. I decided to give back, in a small way, by pledging a certain amount of money to charity for each day I spent in each country.

Thailand: 72 days

Because I spent the most days in Thailand, I split my donation between two charities.

My closest Thai friend was, like many Thais, reverent toward the royal family. I have my own outsider opinions about all that, but I respect my friend and her values for her own country. The Association for the Promotion of the Status of Women, under royal patronage, provides emergency shelter, health services, vocational training, and many other services to women in Thailand.

 The SET Foundation gives scholarships to those in need, with the unique principle of supporting students for a full twelve years, from elementary through collegiate studies, rather than just for a semester or two.

Malaysia: 11 days

As you travel Malaysia, it’s hard not to notice the oil palms: acres and acres of them, a giant monoculture dominating the landscape. I didn’t visit Malaysian Borneo on my trip, but I went there recently, and I discovered the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, which helps orangutans who’ve lost their mothers to recover and prepare for reintegration into the wild. Malaysia’s unique wildlife is precious and under threat — the oil palm plantations are pressing in, and the lumber industry wants what trees are left — but places like the Sepilok Centre have the potential to drive up the economic value of conservation and diversify the local economy by bringing tourism. And in the meantime, the preservation and restoration work they do is saving unique animals in a unique environment.

Vietnam: 44 days

I met my friend Christina Bui in Myanmar through a chain of travel connections, and ran into her again in Saigon and Hanoi. She works at Pacific Links Foundation, which helps to protect people in Vietnam from human trafficking — being forced into factory work, domestic work, and the like — and empowers women and communities in Vietnam. Slavery is bad and Christina is good, so this was a pretty easy choice.

Myanmar: 23 days

Yangon is a time capsule. Decades of misrule have had the perverse effect of preserving the older part of the city much as it was under British colonial rule. Yangon Heritage Trust is working to preserve and restore the city’s remarkable architecture before it all gets torn down and turned into KFCs, and I hope they succeed in making Yangon the gem of a city that it deserves to be, like today’s Hoi An or Penang but on a much larger scale. (Nothing specific against KFC, by the way. I threw up in the bathroom of the Yangon KFC and they were very polite about it.)

Cambodia: 8 days

Cambodia is rife with terrible NGOs and scammy voluntourism projects, so I wanted to find an organization with a good rating on Charity Navigator, and Cambodia Children’s Fund has that. They take “a holistic, family-based approach” to childhood education, which is sorely needed in this poor and damaged country. They recognize that there are root problems like hunger and violence that can undermine education, so they try to deal with all of these issues as they help young people get the schooling they need and deserve.

Laos: 23 days

Perhaps the most dangerous thing I did in Southeast Asia was go for a walk in Laos.

Laos has more unexploded ordnance (UXO) per capita than anywhere else on earth, a sorry result of a decade of American bombing during the Vietnam War. On a tour of the Plain of Jars, on a trail that was supposed to be cleared, my guide suddenly jumped back and pointed. “That’s a cluster bomb detonator.” He then told me how his brother died: he’d gone fishing and was cooking up his catch in a rice field when the heat triggered an old pineapple bomb that took his head off.

I split my Laos donations between two organizations that deal with the ongoing disaster my country left behind. COPE gives people their lives back by providing prosthetics and rehabilitation to UXO survivors and others with mobility-related disabilities, while the Mine Awareness Group (MAG) works to demine Laos (and other places) and educate the local people about how to avoid UXO accidents, thereby reducing COPE’s potential clientele. I saw both organizations at work in Laos, and at one point even had to stop driving while MAG blew up some UXO they’d found in a field — a field that, when cleared, could provide food and income to a Laotian family.

Indonesia: 18 days

Yayasan Usaha Mulia (YUM) – Foundation for Noble Work has been around a long time and does holistic community work focused on education and alleviating poverty. Finding a good charity in Indonesia — especially one that wasn’t religiously based — was a bit difficult, but YUM seems to have a decent track record.

Singapore: 3 days

For Singapore, I cheated. Singapore is a wealthy country, so there’s not a tremendous need to give there. Instead, I donated to Singapore-based Choson Exchange, an innovative NGO that supports North Koreans with hands-on entrepreneurship training, helping to create an ownership culture and a better standard of living for North Koreans. I’ve met the founder and some of the team, and they’re passionate but not naive about what they’re up against. I admire what they do and wish them success.

A Strange and Wonderful Year

Think 2016 was bad? In 2004, George W. Bush was reelected on a platform of torture and war, 280,000 people died in a tsunami, and Ray Charles and Ol’ Dirty Bastard died. But you didn’t yet have Facebook to make it feel like all these things were part of your own personal social life.

So how was your actual 2016? The one you really lived?

My 2016

For me, 2016 was actually pretty amazing. It began on a wet, windy beach in Danang, and the first five months took me on adventures in Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Bali, Java, and Singapore: festivals and flings and love affairs, Phnom Penh rock and roll and Laotian chill, ancient temples and gleaming cities. Then it was back to the US for a few months to visit friends and family before returning to Asia: finally getting to visit Japan, attending a month of language school in Seoul, swinging one more time through Thailand, and finally starting a completely new phase of my life as an actual Seoul resident, with an apartment and a job.

I’ve made an extraordinary number of new friends. A lot of them I’ll probably never see again.

But more important that any of that was the safe, healthy arrival of two new people in the world: my sister had a baby, her first, and not long after my brother’s wife had her second child. I’ll be meeting my two new nieces early in the new year.

Your 2016

How’d the year go for you? I know some of my friends had it rough. Others had amazing things happen. Most of us, we had both. That’s how life is.

Our 2017

Here’s wishing you and me both a very happy New Year.


Tokyo, Seoul, Bangkok, Seoul

Phoenix, Arizona, United States

Just a couple of days left in the US, and then it’s on to the next phase of my life.

So here’s what’s next for me:

If you’re paying close attention, you’ll notice that I’ll mostly be in Seoul, or possibly doing a bit of internal travel around Korea. It’s my new home, and while I won’t quite be officially moving there until September 7, it’s where I’m going to be setting up a new life for myself.

I’m excited to see my Korean friends again, and to make new friends there. I’m excited to be staying long enough in one place to build new relationships. I’m excited to have somewhere to call home — my home.


Phoenix, Arizona, United States


Singapore is a theme park of itself. Everything is tidy, well organized, and expensive. The area around Marina Bay looks like a World’s Fair, and the Marina Bay Gardens look like some kind of Avatarish future utopia jungle, with giant fake trees and postmodern glass domes with forests and waterfalls inside. Even the normal, functional parts of the city feel like theme park zones: Colonial Land, with old colonnaded British buildings, or Downtown Land, with tall buildings and office workers. Singapore’s Chinatown and Little India have a reputation for showing the wilder side of the city, but they have to be the world’s mellowest, least overwhelming Chinatown and Little India. Nothing in Singapore is ever confrontational.

All this order is not entirely benign. At the hotel check-in, the clerk informed us that “Singapore is a fine country: there’s a fine for everything.” In our taxi from the airport, the driver assured us that no taxi driver would rip us off: “They would kill me.” The hotel desk clerk said something similar in response to an offhand joke about coming into our room. Singapore seems to be run the way I imagine Disneyland would be if it had its own police force and judicial system: it’s a great place to be in charge of the rides, and they will let you live if you put on your Mickey costume and don’t complain, but don’t step out of line.

Still, after 196 days of slogging across Southeast Asia, what might have felt stultifying or creepy at an earlier stage in my travels was now a welcome relief. I met Tam at the airport, and together we would enjoy a long romantic weekend in the cleanest, most efficient of the most populous region in the world. It was a bittersweet end to a long journey. After Singapore, I would spend a couple more days in Bangkok, then head back at last to the United States.

Pop rocks and glitter

On our first night, we rode the Singapore Flyer, a giant ferris wheel that offers grand views of Singapore’s high-quality highways and their uncongested traffic. Singapore is maybe the only place I’ve ever been that appears to have excess infrastructure capacity.

We delighted in some absurdly commercial exhibitions at the ArtScience Museum — one combining technology and art, the other a celebration of the high-end jewelry of Van Cleef & Arpels — mostly just so we could go inside the weird building that hovers over the bay like an alien hand. We visited the vast, high-end mall at the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, spent a little time in the casino — I walked away with SD $27 and a new understanding and fear of roulette — and dined at sunset at the spectacular Sky on 57. The view was more memorable than the meal, but I was amused by the dessert, which featured a chocolate sauce punched up by pop rocks.

Afterward we headed down to a plaza on the bay to watch Wonder Full, a water-and-light show that involves projections on fans of water, a soundtrack, lasers across the bay, and maudlin images of children and unity or whatever. It was spectacular and inane at once, and moving, too, if you let it move you. Which, come to think of it, is how a lot of Singapore felt. It teeters on the margin between tasteful and tacky, like the fancy mall with the Nordstrom in it. In Singapore I felt like I should always be wearing a polo shirt and discussing annuities, as if I were in a commercial for a brokerage firm.

New Yorkipore

Over the weekend, we headed to Sentosa Island, Singapore’s designated zone for actual theme parks and similar entertainments, and paid a visit to Universal Studios. It was something Tam wanted to do; she’d never been to an international theme park before. We went on the usual rides, after waiting on the usual lines and spending the usual too much money.

But I was surprised at how emotional I got when we entered the New York zone, a simulation of New York City streets under a glass canopy to protect us from the tropical afternoon thunderstorm that came pouring down. The fake brick buildings, the fake sidewalks, the fake Rockefeller Center almost brought me to tears.

I missed home. And I missed having a home.

Then we tried the pizza at the fake New York pizza place, and it was terrible. Chicken rendang is not a New York pizza topping. Theme park nostalgia can only take you so far.

Home and back again

From Singapore, it was back to Bangkok for a last couple of days, and then Tam took me to the airport for the trip home. After 202 days at 62 hotels, three homestays, a jungle camp, and a night bus, spread across 55 places in eight countries, the long adventure was at last at an end.





Phoenix, Arizona, United States

After Songkran, I headed down to Phuket for Passover, and then on to Bali, both of which I’ve previously written about. The latter part of my trip to Bali with Leander involved renting a car and driving around the island on some terrible roads, first up to the mountains, then around to the beaches in the southwest, where the waves and rip currents are fierce and dangerous.

Tinderizing Jogja

Yogyakarta, pronounced Jogjakarta (photos), is known as the heart of Javanese culture. Leander and I decided to spend a few days there, but we had no idea that the day we were arriving was also a Muslim holiday that created a long weekend, drawing zillions of local visitors from nearby Jakarta. We were barely able to find a hotel room to share — two rooms at the same hotel was impossible by the time we looked — and the streets were swamped with giant crowds.

Overwhelmed by the sheer number of people, we put off hitting the major tourist attractions until the weekend was over. Instead, we pressed through the hordes on Malioboro, the main thoroughfare, and looked at Jogja’s endless batik shops. A friendly guy on the street lured us to a batik gallery with talk of a one-day art exhibition, and it was a scam of a sort, but the batik art was actually lovely, and I ended up buying several pieces, and then we went to lunch with a group of Koreans who’d been lured there in exactly the same way.

Unsure of what else to do with ourselves, we each got on Tinder and started looking for locals to meet. That might sound weird if you’ve only used Tinder in the West, and only as a tool for hooking up. In Asia, though, we’d both found it a useful way to meet local people socially. And, yeah, also to hook up. But the first thing was just to meet some people who could help us navigate the strange chaos we’d landed in.

We first met a young woman who was studying tourism at the local university, and she brought along a friend in a hijab. It was my first Tinder date that ever paused for a prayer break in a musholla. Later on, we went to the sprawling home of an older woman, a designer and descendant of the royal family of neighboring Solo, who introduced us to her flirty transgender friend in short-shorts, but didn’t introduce us to the white guy we saw wandering around in the back of her house. The whole scene had a weird vibe, like the parts of The Big Lebowski with Julianne Moore and her giggling friend — but not so weird that we didn’t go back the next night for dinner. After that, we connected with a hilarious young woman — another designer, this one a maker of leather handbags — who claimed to be from Neptune (not very seriously) and who told us about one of the oddest tourist attractions I visited in all of Southeast Asia.

Chicken Church

If you’re in Jogja, there are a couple sights in the surrounding area that are musts: Borobudur (photos), the world’s largest Buddhist temple, and Prambanan (photos), a spectacular Hindu temple complex, rich with gorgeous reliefs, that also serves as the backdrop for evening performances of the Ramayana Ballet.

And then there’s the Chicken Church, which just might be the worst building I’ve ever seen.

The Gereja Ayam, or Chicken Church (no relation to Church’s Chicken) is neither a chicken nor a church. It’s a multidenomenational prayer hall, meant to be in the shape of a dove. The whole thing is the mad vision of a local Muslim man, who spent years trying to get this thing built until his wife finally made him stop.

The unfinished building is a construction nightmare. The sections of the tail are all out of proportion, the concrete work is terrible, rebar sticks out at all kinds of random places. You can take rickety wooden stairs up to the inside of the head — views from the beak are spectacular — and then to the top of the head.

But it gets weirder.

For a long time it was abandoned, but when we arrived, there was a group of deaf mutes at work on the place. They directed us to the basement, a warren of terrifying cave rooms whose purpose was obscure. I read somewhere, though, that drug addicted teenagers had been taken to these cells for reprogramming, which sounds creepy as hell.

Enjoying Jogja

Once the crowds had gone back to their regular lives, Yogyakarta reverted to the sort of place that appeals to tourists from abroad. We spent our last couple of days exploring the town itself, with its many murals and Dutch colonial buildings, and soaking up gamelan performances at the palace.

Jogja is a quirky place that sees far fewer foreign tourists than, say, Bali. Groups of tiny women in hijabs kept wanting to take pictures with Leander, who’s tall and blond. The tourist shops sold T-shirts with puns only Indonesians would understand. And the smaller streets and alleyways were full of old homes and bird cages, which our Neptunian friend explained were popular because the local people enjoy birdsong.

I liked that Jogja felt like nowhere else I’d been: not mainland Southeast Asia, not Bali, not Malaysia. After Jogja, it was just Singapore, which I knew would be easy, and then a short stay in Bangkok. After many months of travel, Jogja was my final step into the unknown, and I’m glad I went, rounding things out with one last dose of disconcerting strangeness.

Bottles in bags

Jogja has, I think, dreams of becoming more than it is: a tech center, perhaps, or a global tourism destination. These goals seem quixotic under the circumstances. Tech centers tend not to get established in countries that don’t let in Israeli passports. And as for becoming an international tourist hub, well, their airport — and airport staff — need work.

As we entered the airport to fly back to Bali — Leander to stay a bit longer, myself to catch a flight to Singapore the next morning — the security staff at the baggage X-ray stopped Leander to ask if he was carrying any bottles. After some digging, he produced three flasks of cheap liquor, each picked up in a different country along his travels. The guards declared that he could only carry two with him. At that point, I stepped in and asked if I could take the third. No, I was told. It was only two bottles per party, not per person.

“Oh,” I said. “I understand. Enjoy!”

If you want to be a major tourist destination, you can’t be stealing liquor from people’s bags at the airport.


Wet Hot Thai New Year

Phoenix, Arizona, United States

After Northern Vietnam, I made a return trip to Thailand to see Tam, my Thai girlfriend, and to experience Songkran, the Thai new year festival, in her home region of Isan.

Morocco to Switzerland

In my very first week in Bangkok, I met a local who invited me to a street concert and charity fundraiser put on by the Apache Motorcycle Club (photos). I had not come to Southeast Asia in search of biker gangs named after American Indian tribes. But I had absorbed enough critical theory to be suspicious of my own ideas of the authentic — temples, Buddhas, rice fields, native garb — and I was grateful to be offered a window into how real, actual Thai people lived their real, actual lives. Bangkokians dressing up in leather vests and riding motorbikes and playing electric guitars to raise money for a good cause is at least as authentic as Americans dressing up like Japanese anime characters at Comicon.

Nevertheless, it would probably not have occurred to me to visit the Swiss Sheep Farm in Cha-an (photos) or to stay at a Moroccan-themed hotel in Hua Hin (photos), a beach town on the Gulf of Thailand that’s a popular getaway from Bangkok. I would probably have visited some more temples and stayed somewhere Thai-themed. But Tam’s whole life is Thai-themed, and she needed one more night of teak walls and pad thai about as much as my American readers need to visit a suburban mall and eat french fries. So instead we lived like Thai people, which is to say that we did exotically un-Thai things with our leisure time.

And then we got up early for the sunrise over the beach, and to my surprise, here in this resort town, monks were walking along the sand, collecting alms in silver bowls, much as they do more famously in Luang Prabang. We were still in Thailand, and it still had the power to surprise and delight.

Pardon me while I powder your nose (photos)

All across Eurasia and its offshoots, people gather together in autumn festivals of light, where the atmosphere is sacred and familial: Christmas, Diwali. And then, come spring, they go nuts: Carnival, Mardi Gras, Holi. In Thailand, these seasonal holidays are Loi Krathong and Songkran, the Thai new year, celebrated when the temperatures soar but the rains haven’t yet come.

To  celebrate Songkran, Tam and I headed to the rapidly developing town of Khon Kaen, the biggest city and home of the largest university in the rapidly developing northeastern Isan region. Long a backwater full of rice farmers who speak a dialect closer to Lao than Bangkok Thai, Isan has been going through a tech boom, and stylish new malls have sprung up along the wide avenues in the center of town.

Little of what goes on during Songkran in Khon Kaen feels especially traditional. People wear bright flower print shirts and plastic goggles and waterproof pouches for their cell phones, and they tote bulbous water guns as they navigate the crowded streets from one amplified dance party to another. The main things you do are shoot water guns at each other, dump water on each other with buckets, point hoses at each other, wipe each other’s faces with talcum powder, and dance to very loud music. The water play is a sane response to the crazy-making heat — it was over 40 degrees every day we were there — and also a kind of plea to the gods for a good rainy season. Thailand was in the midst of a long drought, and there were government calls to limit the water play, but they seemed to have little impact on what went on in Khon Kaen.

The talcum powder is a peculiar phenomenon. People walk up to you and gently wipe it on your face, often while apologizing. In Thailand, you never just touch someone’s face like that, so it’s the violation of a taboo. Boys would reach out to touch pretty girls’ faces, teenagers would wipe talcum powder on patient police officers and soldiers, and lots of people seemed to want to touch a bearded foreign face. There was a gentleness and intimacy to it, a very Thai-feeling approach to the fleshly side of carnival.

During the days, when we weren’t indoors hiding from the heat, we walked around town to visit some of the many Buddhist temples. Maybe the most traditional part of Songkran in Khon Kaen is the washing of Buddha statues, everywhere from the town square to temples to the entrance of the biggest mall. At one temple, an impressive pulley system raised buckets of water from the ground to the top of a towering chedi, then dumped them out.

I joined in the washing, and at first I was just pouring cups of water right on each Buddha’s head. Someone gently pointed out that I should be pouring the water in the Buddha’s shoulder instead, and that made intuitive sense. This was, after all, a gesture of respect, not the ice bucket challenge.

But the real partying began when the sun began to sink. The main street was lined with stages set up by corporate sponsors, each one blasting the latest global techno hits from tall stacks of speakers, or presenting a local rock band, with much handing out of corporate swag. My favorite was the local high school kids playing pretty awesome ska at a stage set up by an organization promoting an alcohol-free Songkran.  At one end of the road was the main stage. Each evening would start with some boring speeches by politicians. Then came an organized human wave up and down the main avenue, its progress videoed by swooping drones. The wave would climax in fireworks and the emergence of one of Thailand’s bigger rock bands.

Off the main street, there was an area set up for the old folks to dance their old dances, but even then, the music was electrified, and the feel was retro rather than traditional: rockin’ to the oldies, not performing the ancient folkways. The partying got looser and wilder on the streets that angled off the main plaza. Down the pub street, people drank, danced in dense packs under flowing hoses, and generally let loose, while pickup trucks with barrels of water and crowds of splashing revelers crawled along in the traffic.

At times, this could all get exhausting and overwhelming. Hot as it was, it was still rough getting cups of ice water tossed on us over and over. The crowds could become claustrophobic, the revelry taking on a menacing edge as hand after hand reached out to touch my cheeks. But that’s part of the point of a carnival. You want to feel like everything’s a little bit out of control. And for three days in Khon Kaen, in the wilting heat and the crazy wet, we danced in the streets and let the festival carry us with its wild energy.


Northern Vietnam

Phoenix, Arizona, United States

Out beyond Hanoi are some of the most beautiful places in Southeast Asia: the dramatic karsts rising from the sea in Halong Bay, the mysterious grottoes of Ninh Binh, and the terraced rice fields of the Tonkinese Alps at Sapa.

Halong Bay (photos)

I had my doubts about Halong Bay. I’d been hearing about it since long before I left home, but by the time I got there, I’d already spent months traveling among the limestone karst mountains of Southeast Asia. I’d been in caves in Thailand and Malaysia and Myanmar, seen the peaks that loom over the Nam Ou River and Vangvieng in Laos. After all that, would Halong Bay live up to its reputation?


Despite cloudy skies and choppy water, and despite a fair amount of trash that floats in on the currents, Halong Bay was breathtaking. Like Yosemite or Bryce Canyon, it’s one of those places where nature has carved rock into improbable shapes, dramatic even by the standards of Southeast Asian limestone karst. And because the tides undercut and erode the peaks, it sometimes seems as if these strange, upthrust islands are hovering just above the water.

I picked a tour operator recommended by the Lonely Planet and spent three days out in Halong Bay, staying two nights on a private island, where we gathered around a fire in the evenings. (There was also, alas, techno.) The water was choppy and there was heavy mist in the evenings and mornings, but that just deepened the feeling that I had wandered out of normal reality and into some mysterious edgeland. At night, from our island, we could see the lights of Cat Ba City — a small tourist town, really — blurred and fuzzed in the salt fog. During the day, we floated in among the folds and curves of the dozens of islands that make up this strange landscape, passing old fishing villages that the government hasn’t yet gotten around to dismantling. And on Cat Ba Island, which dominates the bay, we sailed into ports full of fishing boats and small paddle-driven transports steered by strong-armed women. As we made our way at last out of the bay and back to the mainland, I leaned on the weatherbeaten wooden dragon at the prow of our boat and wished I could stay a bit longer.

Grottoes and Lottos


South of Hanoi is a dumpy little city called Ninh Binh, which is surrounded by some of Vietnam’s most spectacular scenery: karsts again, this time looming up out of riverine deltas and rice fields. Unlike Halong Bay, Ninh Binh isn’t all that popular with Western tourists, though I don’t know why. It’s lovely and it’s close to Hanoi. Still, most of the other tourists we saw were either Vietnamese or Chinese.

Extraordinary as the UNESCO World Heritage Trang An grottoes are, I think I liked the little-visited Van Long Nature Reserve even more. Parts of the new King Kong movie were filmed there, and you can see why. Shrouded in mist, spectacular limestone crags and cliffs loom over wetlands so still that you can see the whole landscape reflected in it, down to the reeds and river weeds, which form curious mirrored geometries as the light fades in the evening. That’s also the time when thousands upon thousands of cranes make their way back from wherever it is cranes go in the day, pause for a bit of after-work social time at one broad stand of trees, and then wheel off in V-formation toward their dwellings on the cliffs.

On our boat tour of the Trang An grottoes, we learned about the curious system by which the boat business is managed. There are hundreds of identical metal rowboats lined up at the entrance to the complex, but none of the touts you’d expect at such a place.

Instead, the boats run on a kind of lottery system. Each household in the surrounding villages gets a number, and when your number is close to coming up, your household can send someone — usually an older woman — to wait for tourists and earn some extra income. If you’re lucky, you’ll arrive on a day with plenty of tourists and go out right away; if you’re not, you could have to arrive at dawn to make sure you don’t miss an early-arriving bus. Miss your turn, and you might have to wait three or four weeks for another shot. The money earned from a tour isn’t much, but supposedly each family brings in more cash than they used to when they were doing subsistence farming on what is now parkland. (Something similar was in effect at the Van Long Nature Reserve as well, though there the government hadn’t provided the boats, so the women were tasked with rowing tourists about in bamboo boats lined with concrete, which are much heavier.)


The village lottery system for boat tours is a kind of obscure, small-scale, local communism that’s still around. Indeed, it was put in place recently, long after Vietnam as a whole went over to a capitalist economy with private ownership. I don’t know enough to say whether it works or not. Do the households really get more income than they used to? Is there a black market for lottery slots? Is it unfair to people who happen to be from the wrong village, and are thus left out of the spoils? Still, it’s an interesting example of collective ownership of a shared resource. And from a tourist’s point of view, it’s a relief not to be assaulted by a mob of screaming touts, which I assume is a pretty grim experience for the touts too. In the Ninh Binh system, everyone gets a turn.

Fog and Hmong (photos)

In Sapa, not everyone gets a turn.

Sapa, 1500 meters up in the Tonkinese Alps northeast of Hanoi, is famous for spectacular views of terraced rice fields, and for the dense fog that blocks the view. If, as I did, you grew up in or around San Francisco, you’re familiar with this kind of fog. It’s thick, almost tactile. Its tendrils crawl in among the folds of the landscape, and suddenly you find yourself wrapped in a thick blanket that obscures everything that’s not right in front of you.

When it broke, though, the views down the mountainsides were extraordinary, especially when you gave a thought to how much work it must have taken to carve whole mountains into terraces, and to maintain those terraces year after year. The people who do it are the Hmong, and they do it to grow rice for themselves. It’s subsistence farming as tourist attraction, and it fuels a whole small city of hotels, craft shops, restaurants, tour operators, motorbike rentals. Not one of those shops is owned by Hmong, at least according to one of my Hmong trekking guides (in this case, the trekking was nothing more than day hikes to local villages). The shops are all Vietnamese-owned. For the Hmong, the only cash income is from selling handicrafts in the villages or on the streets of Sapa, leading tours, or hosting homestays. That’s why Sapa was the only place in Vietnam where there were touts: a rush of women in tribal garb offering tours and lodging from the moment we stepped off the bus.

There’s a history of distrust between the Hmong and the Vietnamese. During the Vietnam War, the United States recruited Hmong to fight Vietnamese forces that were invading Laos, in what’s known as the Secret War. After the war, many Hmong fled to Thailand and the United States. Those who remained in Vietnam and Laos still face discrimination. A Lao tour guide told me a story about another guide who’d accidentally run over a Hmong woman’s chicken. He brought the chicken to the woman and asked, “Is this your chicken?” “No,” the woman supposedly replied, “my chicken is not flat.” The point of the story was that Hmong aren’t good at rational thinking.

I asked my guide whether life had improved for the Hmong in the past twenty years, and she allowed that it had. They go to school now, and can speak and read Vietnamese as well as Hmong. But going to university is nearly impossible, and so is going to a city like Hanoi to get a job, because you need “walking around money” just to survive, and the Hmong don’t have it.

On my last day, I rented a motorbike and hit the highway, cruising up over Tram Ton Pass, at 1900 meters. On the far side, the fog gives way to heat rising from the lowlands below, and the road begins to descend rapidly. Short on time and unsure how much my motorbike could handle, I turned back. I climbed up to a viewpoint where the winds were so fierce that I could barely stand, then made my way back down and rode again into town.



Phoenix, Arizona, United States


Hanoi came as a shock after more than a month in sleepy Laos and underdeveloped Cambodia: the lights, the energy, the sophistication, the sheer density. For a city boy like me, it came as a relief.

Unlike Saigon, which feels sprawling and mostly modern, Hanoi has retained its Old Quarter, complete with narrow lanes, food stalls, grime, chickens in the street, and the sort of chaotic stew you find at the heart of premodern cities, from Jerusalem to Varanasi. The Old Quarter is not a museum, the way the historic parts of Hoi An or Malaysia’s Georgetown have become. Yes, there are tourists and hotels and souvenir and tour shops everywhere — including a daunting number of Sinh Tourist outfits, all trying to capitalize on the fame of the original — but there are also streets devoted to metal workshops, bamboo pole sales, and other things no tourist could possibly need. You can find yourself dodging sparks from an aluminum beam being cut in half as you walk to a famous banh mi shop. And the Old Quarter attracts not just foreign tourists, but locals and expats, who flock to its beer street for the crowded pubs and thumping nightclubs that spill out into the street.

Spirits in the city

On my first day, strolling past traditional weddings in the Old Quarter, I had the luck to stumble onto a lên đồng — a spirit mediumship ritual — at Bach Ma Temple, Hanoi’s oldest. The spirit medium sat at the center of it all, as her assistants changed her outfits for each dance, while the musicians sat off to the side. When she became a male spirit, she would take a shot of rice wine and a puff of a cigarette before beginning her performance. As she danced, at times she would throw money, and the spectators would lunge to grab whatever fell. The denominations were small, but the point was to gather the spiritual power associated with the cash.

Several people welcomed me, offered me a place to sit, gave me a free Diet Coke, and made me feel like it was OK to be there and watch. A young woman spoke a little English and offered to explain things to me, and she introduced me to an effeminate young man who would be dancing later. He wanted to take pictures with me, told me I was very handsome, and after a few minutes, he proposed marriage, which I gently declined.

Throughout the ritual, there was a surprising fluidity of gender roles. The lên đồng can go on for hours, so I left for a while, coming back at the time that my non-fiance said he’d be performing. He was one of several very queer-seeming drummers for a male dancer who was made up pretty much exactly as the female spirit medium had been earlier in the day.

Walking Hanoi

Away from the Old Quarter, Hanoi is a good walking city. I spent a fair amount of time just wandering: finding little street markets and temples away from the tourist areas, catching little bits of city life like a bunch of mall security guards doing pushups, discovering that the art college is next to the ministry of public security. Hanoi is the capital, with plenty of the signs and symbols of government: big houses for Communist officials, a Lenin statue, and of course Ho Chi Minh’s tomb. I tried twice to get into the tomb for a peek at the preserved remains of Uncle Ho, but I never managed it. It turns out that you have to get there very early, and not on a Saturday.

On one of my wanders, I sat down to watch some older men playing jainzi — a kind of kick volleyball, played with a feathered birdie — with impressive skill. I got to chatting with a young American who was as mesmerized as I was, and we spent the evening walking together, to art galleries and up past the opera house.

At some point we wandered over to the banks of the Red River. At least near the Old Quarter, Hanoi has not turned its riverfront into an attraction. To get there, you have to cross a highway and walk through a neglected little district of motorcycle shops and very old housing, past shrines for fishermen, and down to some sketchy restaurants and bars along the piers, where you can gaze out across the garbage-strewn reeds. It reminded me of what my Saigon friend had told me about her childhood, growing up in a shack down by the riverside there.

Balloons of fun

Later that night, the two of us met up with a couple of women I’d met the night before at a language-exchange Meetup. These two expats — one from Taiwan, the other a Chinese-Indonesian — more or less decided I was their friend for the duration of my visit, and they introduced me to a couple more friends of theirs: a German woman who was teaching at a German-language institute, a Vietnamese woman who’d spent time in America. Over the course of several days and nights — and punctuated by my trips out of Hanoi — we went out for Vietnamese food, Chinese food, clubbing in the Old Quarter, and Indian food and karaoke.Clubbing in Hanoi was a trip. It’s not generally my thing anywhere, and Hanoi’s clubs were packed but not all that impressive. The one thing that stood out, though, was how many people were sucking on balloons full of nitrous oxide. It seemed to be just a normal thing. I never saw anything like that anywhere else in Southeast Asia.

For the karaoke, we were joined by a Vietnamese-American friend I’d first met in Yangon, and then again in Saigon. It was nice, for a stretch, to feel like I was anchored somewhere and had an overlapping circle of friends. It’s how I hope things unfold when I arrive in Seoul, and it gave me confidence that I can make that happen.

Last Photos from Southeast Asia

Phoenix, Arizona, United States

Well, here they are: the final photos from my trip. Lots and lots of them. (You can find the full set on my photos page.)

I still have more to write as well, and hopefully I’ll do that soon — about Northern Vietnam, Thailand for Songkran, the seder in Phuket, Bali, Java, Singapore. But pictures for now.

Singapore (May 2016)

Java, Indonesia (May 2016)

Bali, Indonesia (April-May 2016)

Thailand (April 2016)

Vietnam (March-April 2016)

Heading home

Bangkok, Thailand

It has been 201 days, 12 hours, and 50 minutes since I first landed in Bangkok, and now I’m headed home.

The long half-year in between has been an amazing journey. I’ve slept in 67 places (62 hotels, three home stays, a bus, and a jungle camp) spread across 55 locales in eight countries. I’ve been on 25 flights (not counting the ones in and out of Southeast Asia), crossed international borders 12 times, and ridden in countless buses, minibuses, taxis, tuk-tuks, private cars, rental cars, motor scooters, e-bikes, trucks, horse carts, becak, boats of all descriptions.

I’ve seen the temples of Angkor and Bagan, experienced the kecak in Bali, sailed among the karsts of Halong Bay. I’ve trekked in the jungles of Laos and climbed an Indonesian volcano at dawn. I’ve danced to chansons in a Saigon nightclub and to Filipino classic rock covers in Yangon and Dengue Fever live in Phnom Penh. I’ve shot an M-16 and an AK-47, slid down a waterfall, ridden a motorcycle in the cloud mists of the Tonkinese Alps, and come perilously close to stepping on a live cluster bomb detonator, but probably the most dangerous thing I’ve done was just swimming in the treacherous waves off Bali, which dashed me hard against the ocean floor a few times, and which regularly kill surfers.

I’ve made new friendships, most of them fleeting, a few that will probably last. I have hooked up, and I’ve even sort of fallen in love. Maybe more than once.

I have also wasted time, spent days doing stupid shit or just sitting around, been disappointed by attractions that didn’t amount to much, had crappy meals, argued with taxi drivers and laundresses, hung out at malls to kill time. I’ve gotten sick several times, never very interestingly; I am finishing things off with a cold that began in Indonesia, blossomed in Singapore, turned into a bad cough in Thailand, and is now coming with me to Incheon, Los Angeles, and Phoenix.

Maybe the most important thing that’s happened is that I’ve loosened up. I’ve never thought of myself as a prude or a scold, but I discovered in myself a surprising Protestant distrust of pleasure for its own sake. I think I’ve let that go, at least to an extent, and I know I’ve become less judgmental about the ways that other people find their bliss. Life is short. Have your fun.

In any case, for the past six months and change, I have moved to a new place every second or third day, on average. For six months. 

I’m ready for some longer durations.

Home is where your stuff is

I’m now headed home. Sort of. I’m on my way to Pheonix, Arizona, where my parents live. Home has always been where my parents live — my second, backup home, anyway — and the Phoenix house is also where all my stuff is. Still, I’ve never been there for more than 21 days at a stretch, and at this point I think I’ve spent more time in Thailand than in Phoenix on all my visits put together.

Nevertheless, it feels like home. It’s a place to come back to. A place to rest. To chill out, watch some Giants baseball with my parents while I fiddle with my travel photos on my new Mac, to do nothing much and feel no pressure to go see the local cave with the Buddha in it. In a couple weeks, I’ll probably head over to NYC to say hello to my friends there, but I haven’t yet worked out the details.

And I don’t have a new home yet, a place of my own. That’s still a bit ahead. by September, I’ll be creating a new life in Seoul. But for now, Phoenix is home, and I’m on my way.