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.




Where I’ve Been Where I’m Headed

Sapa, Vietnam

I realize that it has been ages since I last gave an update, so here it is.

Laos and Vietnam

After Cambodia, I spent a few weeks traveling around the north of Laos: Luang Prabang, trekking in Luang Namtha, a trip down the Nam Ou River from Muang Khua to Muang Ngoi to Nong Khiaw, back to Luang Prabang, out to the Plain of Jars, down to Vang Vieng, and finally through the capital, Vientiane. I will (I hope) have more details to provide eventually.

From Vientiane, at the end of March, I came to Hanoi, where I gave a lecture on how Jewish people raise their children, in between visits to Halong Bay, Ninh Binh, and now Sapa. I head back to Hanoi this afternoon.


Then it’s on to a weekend at the beach in Hua Hin, Thailand, a couple of days in Bangkok, and then up to Khon Kaen from April 13 to 16 to enjoy Songkran, the Thai new year festival. After that, I’ll have a couple more days in Bangkok, then head south to Phuket — I’m already booked for the Passover seder at the local Chabad on April 22 — and Krabi, and maybe some other beaches too.

Singapore and Indonesia

When I finish up with South Thailand, I’ll pop in to Singapore for a few days, probably around the end of April. From Singapore, I’ll fly to Bali and begin a month in Indonesia. You cannot possibly see all of Indonesia in a month (or ever, really), but I intend to spend a week or two in Bali and Lombok, beginning with the cultural heart of the island in Ubud. When I wrap that up, I want to visit Jogjakarta and some of the historical sites around it, and if there’s time, I’d like to visit Kalamantan (Borneo) as well. Jakarta I can skip, or so everyone tells me.


I’ll probably circle back to Bangkok to catch a flight to the US, probably Los Angeles. From there, it’s a quick hop to Phoenix on a local flight, but I might spend a couple days in LA and environs, if anyone wants to put me up and can accept my jet lag. I’m expecting that to happen around June 7, more or less.

I’ll be in Phoenix probably through June, and would like to visit NYC in July. Anyone have a place for me to stay?

Korea and (maybe) Japan

And then? Well, school starts on September 6, so I need to get to Korea before then and find a place to live (and furniture, and Internet, and cable, and, and, and … eep!). But I might spend August touring around Korea beyond Seoul, and possibly even Japan. Again, anyone who has a place for me to stay should let me know.

A Thai Road Trip

Bangkok, Thailand

After the crowded carnivals and explosions of Loi Krathong, it was time to head out to the mountains and quiet little villages of the far north of Thailand. I decided to rent a car for the journey, and for the first few days, I brought along my Dutch friend Leander, whose tendency to say little, demand little, and answer most suggestions with, “Yeah, sure,” made him an excellent travel companion. Plus he was good about releasing the hand break when I’d forget.

Wrong side of the road

In Thailand they drive on the left side of the road. Adjusting is less tricky than you’d think — not much worse than switching from your regular coupe to your parents’ giant SUV — but the main thing to remember is that you have more car than you think you do to the left of you, and less car than you think you do to the right. There’s a tendency to drift left, which is how I’d slipped my rental car into a ditch on a dirt road in the pouring rain in Ireland many years ago. In Thailand, though, after nicking my left-side mirror in the narrow streets on the way out of Chiang Mai, I didn’t have much trouble beyond reaching to the wrong side for my seat belt or turning on my wipers instead of the turn signal.

The car gave us a certain freedom to stop where we wanted, to head down byways and chase after oddities. Our first whim was an attempt to double back to what looked like a Khmer ruin by the side of the highway. We turned off into a little village, found ourselves on a narrow residential street whose concrete gave way to dirt, and backed out again. After taking the more sensible route of driving further down the highway and making a legal U-turn, we discovered that the Khmer ruin was in fact a newly constructed tourist trap over one of the region’s many hot springs.

Chiang Rai (photos, White Temple/Black House photos)

Chiang Rai is a small city in the north of Thailand that serves as a base for treks into more rugged regions and as the jumping off point for trips to the Laos border and beyond. The town itself is dominated by the art of Chalermchai Kositpipat, creator of the White Temple and designer of Chiang Rai’s flamboyant street lights, bridge decorations, and singing clock tower. Chiang Rai also has a night bazaar with mediocre food and weird floor shows, a thriving cafe scene based on the region’s coffee crop (including a cat cafe), and one tacky bar street that replicates Bangkok’s Khao San Road or Chiang Mai’s Loi Kroh Road in miniature. (We ran into Paul there, whom we began to call The Inevitable Dutchman of Pai; his entourage that night included an aging Thai bar girl in a ship captain’s hat.)

I had a sense, strolling around, that Chiang Rai felt more like Korea than anywhere else I’d been in Thailand — an odd reference point, I know — and I think it’s because it’s got more influence from China, which is only a couple hundred kilometers away. Well, that and it has a cat cafe.

Chiang Rai’s most famous attraction is the White Temple, and its second most famous attraction is the Black House, which serves as a kind of counterpoint. The White House is better known, maybe more photogenic, and the lesser artistic achievement. Despite its grandiosity and fine detail, it falls into the realm of folk art: an artist’s riff on Thai temple architecture and Buddhist iconography, populated with literal representations of everything from movie characters to 9/11 and the Space Shuttle. It’s earnest to a fault.

The less celebrated Black House — really a compound, created by Thawan Duchanee — is the greater work of art. You might dismiss the skeletons, the animal skins, the furniture made from so many black-painted water buffalo horns as so much gothic nonsense, but I sensed that there was something deeper going on. The fifteen buildings that make up the Black House Museum are mostly riffs on Thai temple architecture, but elongated or heightened or flattened; the remaining buildings call to mind Tibetan stupas, but also the bulbous utopian architecture of places like Arcosanti. Here and there on the grounds are assemblages of stones into a triangle, a circle, a spiral. They’re like archaeological finds, full of forgotten symbolism that can only be guessed at, and also connected to the earth works movement of the seventies. The whole place felt like a cross between a cult headquarters and a conference center, what with Duchanee’s fixation on creating dining tables covered in skins and Buddhas and surrounded by creepy horn chairs. Is it Buddhist? Anti-Buddhist? Satanic? A great place for Motorhead to do a photo shoot? Unlike the White Temple, the Black House holds onto its mysteries.

Ban Tha Ton (photos)

Ban Tha Ton is a tiny little nothing by a bend in a river in the mountains north of Chiang Rai. It has far more guesthouses than it needs, a multi-part temple on a hill, a bunch of restaurants that don’t seem to produce any food, and a lovely setting that makes people say it will be the next Pai. It has the right mix of beauty, ambition, and ineptitude. After six in the evening, the hub of activity is the 7-Eleven, just down the road from the bridge over the river, which is elaborately lit up with strings of LED lights that change color.

There isn’t yet much to do in Ban Tha Ton. (Ban means house, literally, and is put in front of the names of villages.) We toured the temple, and then we were done for the day, and it was only two o’clock, so we decided to drive to the nearby town of Mae Ai (mae means river), which is a little bit bigger and much less attractive. Now what? I looked at Google Maps and saw that instead of taking the main road back, we could instead follow a big squiggly loop that would take us close to the Myanmar border.

The steep road climbed up into the mountains, pushing our little Mazda 2 to its limits: I would be flooring it, and we’d crawl along at 30 kph. Leander said it felt like we were in a Top Gear adventure. But we were now away from the places outsiders usually go. We passed through tiny villages of wooden houses with thatched roofs, and now and again a beautiful new temple. There was a jarring quality to the juxtaposition: Thailand seems to pour endless resources into vast, shiny new temples and royal spectacles in even the most remote areas, while the people who actually live there still lack modern roofing materials.

Back at the Apple Resort, there was a menu went on for pages and offered such exotic fare as wild boar and local fish. The hotel staff, however, seemed concerned about what they had in the kitchen — maybe some chicken? — so we decided to cross Ban Tha Ton’s elaborately lighted bridge and go to the town’s one functioning restaurant. It was where the other foreigners were too, not a lot of us, mostly older folks who could afford their own wheels. The food was simple but good, and we could watch the action at the 7-Eleven across the street, which was the hub of the town’s nightlife.

Mae Salong (photos)

The next day we headed to Mae Salong, a mountain village with a curious history. When the Chinese civil war came to an end, most of the Guomindang (KMT) armies retreated to Taiwan. But in outlying areas, a few remnants kept up the fight. Some 12,000 troops in Yunnan fought their way into the jungles of Burma, where they spent some dozen years battling the Burmese army and trying to retake Yunnan, assisted by weaponry provided by the CIA in exchange for intelligence about China during the Korean War.

In 1961, the remaining 4,000 soldiers (some had been evacuated to Taiwan) were offered asylum in Mae Salong, where they would offer their services in fighting communist insurgents. The warfare continued until the 1980s, financed now by the region’s thriving opium trade. It wasn’t until the Shan separatist drug lord Khun Sa (more about him later) was finally defeated by the Thai government that the KMT army finally laid down its arms and became Thai citizens, along with their families.

What remains is a charming mountain village that has the bustle and energy of the Chinese, where people say xie xie instead of kop kun ka and you can get an excellent bowl of noodle soup. There’s a KMT museum and memorial to the fallen soldiers, which describes many battles but fails to explain where these troops got their food or their wives during all those years in the wilderness. Since the region fell under some kind of rule of law again, in the 1980s, though, there seem to have been attempts by the Thai and Taiwanese government to retrain the locals as farmers of legal cash crops like coffee and oolong tea.

Mae Salong is another place that sometimes gets mentioned as the next Pai, but I don’t see it. First of all, it’s too mountainous: there’s no central part of town that’s easy to walk around the way there is in Pai or Ban Tha Ton. But beyond that, the energy’s all wrong. The Thais are a mellow people, but the Chinese are not. Despite its small size, Mae Salong was full of activity, with a vibrant afternoon tea market and a small but energetic morning market where we got Chinese fried bread and soy drink.

During the day, we drove a loop through the mountains to various tribal villages, then made a long drive out to a place no one goes, Ban Thoen Thai. There’s one guesthouse, where we hoped to stop in for information but could find no one working, and there is a museum in what used to be Khun Sa’s encampment. The tenor of the museum is startling: it glorifies Khun Sa as a Shan separatist, documenting in detail the Shan’s legal right to secede from Thailand, and suggests that all the opium dealing was a regrettable way of financing a righteous war. (All this separatist literature is overseen by portraits of the king and queen of Thailand, of course.) There is a life-size statue of Khun Sa, complete with a sparkling lavender ring on his finger. There is also supposedly an adobe temple somewhere nearby, but no one in town had ever heard of it.

Doi Tung and Chiang Saen (photos)

The third day out of Chiang Rai, and my last with Leander, we headed for Doi Tung, whose temple supposedly had the best views of any temple in Thailand. It was another long but lovely drive through the mountains, but when we got to the temple, perched high on a mountain, we found that every possible viewpoint was blocked by trees. We caught glimpses of spectacular vistas on the narrow roads around the temple, but there was nowhere to pull off and really look. Taking another tack, we tried pointing the car at any road that went further up and found our way to an arboretum that charged us B100 to enter. There was a pretty impressive lookout toward the Burmese side, but the highest points, which would have offered broad views down into a valley and across to Laos, were again blocked by trees. It was an arboretum, after all.

We decided to give it up and just drive to Mae Sai, at the northern tip of Thailand. Google Maps steered us further up the mountain, and then we came to what looked at last to be the spectacular viewpoint we’d been hunting.

It was also a Thai military site, and the border checkpoint with Myanmar.

The views were in fact spectacular, in all directions, and it was cool to have come that close to Myanmar. We did not, however, think it was a good idea to take our rental car across an international border, which is where the road went. Google Maps might want to have a feature that warns you that you’ll be crossing borders if you follow the directions given.

Having come so close to the border, we didn’t see much point in driving on to Mae Sai, so we circled back down and across a plain to Chiang Saen. We stopped in at the Golden Triangle, the point where Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand meet, and spent some time at the Opium Museum, which was better than I expected it would be. Chiang Saen itself has some old ruins and is boring and we were tired. We gave up on the place quickly, turned back to Chiang Rai, had an overpriced pizza for dinner, and said our goodbyes.

Chiang Khong to Ban Huak (photos)

I was now on my own. I woke up early and headed out, taking the scenic route across the plains to Chiang Khong — the same place, incidentally, where Leander would have gone by bus that morning to get the slow boat to Laos. I stopped in at Bamboo Mexican Restaurant, recommended by the Lonely Planet for its tasty whole wheat bread and good coffee, and then I took a turn south into some of Thailand’s most spectacular mountains.

Being on my own was an interesting shift. Leander’s about as easy as a travel companion gets, but I still had the decency to ask him before stopping somewhere or pulling off down a side road or flipping through the radio. Now I could just do whatever I wanted: listen to whatever weird, awful music I could get reception for, stop by the side of the highway to take a picture of a corn silo, drive painfully slowly.

It was also a good chance just to think. I’d gotten the news the previous night that a dear friend’s mother was dying, and it hit me hard. I’m on an extended holiday, where my big concerns are whether my hotel will be nice and where to get my next plate of noodles. But the real world goes on back home. My heart ached for my friend, who had already lost her father some years ago. I was glad to have time to wind along mountain roads, look out at beautiful views with the windows rolled down and the sounds and smells coming in, and let my mind wander.

I was on my own in another way too: once I got beyond the border town of Chiang Khong, there were no more Westerners. (Well, very few. I saw five, to be exact.) I drove up and down steep, winding roads, climbed to the tops of Doi Pha Tang and Phu Chi Fa and watched walls of fog rise up out of Laos, stopped to watch farmers working on impossible slopes. I drove past countless resorts that seem to have been built in frenzies of overcapitalized optimism, with nary a tourist — or an employee — in sight. By the afternoon, I was mostly just driving along in search of food, and finally found it at a little park by a thermal waterfall — the water is heated underground — and then I had a decision to make.

Phrae (photos)

It was getting on past four, the sun low in the sky now. Where would I spend the night? Phayao was the obvious choice: a lake town about ninety minutes away. But nothing about it called to me. I’d been thinking about Phrae ever since I got my Thailand Lonely Planet, which called it out as a little-visited city that resembled Luang Prabang in Laos. I wanted to go to this place no one goes, and never mind that it was still more than three hours distant.

I’d been driving all day, and three more hours was grim, especially once the sun went down and I was leapfrogging trucks on winding mountain roads in the dark. There would be lighted stretches, and then we’d be back into darkness and blind turns, and sometimes fog. But I made it, pulling into the city of Phrae and parking at a teak hotel without an English sign (a Lonely Planet recommendation).

Phrae is a pleasant little city full of teak houses, monks, temples, and nasty temple dogs that come out and growl at you until a monk chases them off. There’s not that much to it, and I’d seen what I’d come for by noon the next day. Was it worth it? Was it worth the extra hours of driving and the exhaustion and the $30 of extra fuel? Who knows? In twenty years, I won’t be worried about the gas money or my sore butt, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t a problem at the time. I was glad, in any case, to have pushed on to a place I wanted to see, and to spend a night and a day in a Thai city that is so not oriented toward foreigners that even the restaurants for tourists don’t have English signs, and the lady at my lunch place, which is listed in the Lonely Planet, was excited enough that she insisted on snapping selfies with me.

And then it was back in the car for the long drive back to Chiang Mai and its expats and big international hotels. After a week in the hinterlands, CM felt positively metropolitan, and it was good to spend one more evening with my friend Jacob, an ex-Googler expat who calls Chiang Mai home. The next morning I took my little Mazda 2 to the airport, handed it over, and headed back down to Bangkok, where I would soon find myself in a giant crowd celebrating the king’s birthday.


The Lunatics

At Le Fenix Hotel, where I’ve stayed on my visits to Bangkok, this is usually what’s playing when you step into the elevator: a swanky bossa nova warning that the lunatics are in the hall. Yes, this is precisely the segment that gets played. Sometimes it’s “Another Brick in the Wall, Part II,” and now and again it’s a whispery “Hey You,” but mostly it’s “Brain Damage.” Fitting in its way for a hotel on Sukhumvit Soi 11, but it’s surprising for the elevator to just come right out and say it. (And actually this hotel, which tries very hard to be hip, seems to be popular with Indian families.)

Then there’s the weirdnes of the view I see every time I walk down the long hallway to my room: a bunch of people sitting around a table in a parking garage, usually eating, and a gracefully illuminated toilet. Followers of artist Gina DeNaia know that hotels have odd corners that just might be worth examining, so I’ve started to pay attention to my little parking garage gang. They’re like my secret friends now. Once they had some pretty girls in fancy dresses with them. Now and again they’re just gone, and that’s a little sad.


Today is 40 days that I’ve been in Asia, 40 days in Thailand. That puts me at 20% done, assuming my trip is 200 days long, which it might well end up being. It’s a little milestone, I suppose. I’ve been here long enough that I’m into the flow of it, but there’s still a lot more ahead of me than behind. In those 40 days, I’ve been to eleven destinations — an average of a new place every 3.6 days, though it didn’t happen like that. I have moved 15 times, and I have stayed in 13 different places. Three hotels got repeat visits.

I have much to catch you up on: my time driving a rental car around the north of Thailand and the king’s birthday here in Bangkok, among other things. I’ll get to them, I hope soon. And there are more photos coming as well.

Also, I am headed for Malaysia after Thailand — I’ll be there on December 15. If you know what’s good in Peninsular Malaysia, do let me know!

A Week in Bangkok

Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok is overwhelming.

Bangkok is like every Asian megacity I’ve ever been to, thrown into a blender that goes to eleven: tuk-tuks, touts, heat, shopping malls, temples, food stalls, traffic, backpacker districts, vast outdoor markets, crumbling old buildings. Hedonism, chaos, hustle.

I’m not going to attempt to explain Bangkok to you. Not on my sixth day. If you’ve been here, you have your own impression of the place, and if you haven’t, you still probably know that it’s full of temples and sex. The Internet is full of very good descriptions of both.

Instead, I’ll update you on how I’m doing and where I’m headed.

A week in Bangkok

I’ve been in Asia for pretty much exactly six days now, which isn’t long enough for that first phase of jet lag and emotional fragility to have passed. In that very short time, I’ve gone on several dates, attended a Halloween party full of expats and a language-exchange Meetup full of travelers, visited an impossible number of temples, gotten sunburned and dehydrated, eaten street food in Chinatown, gotten a massage (the real kind), and occasionally slept a little. I’ve been fortunate to connect as well with some locals.

I have a mild cold.

I’ve seen enough of Bangkok to recognize that it is vast and complex, with different sides. Around Sukhumvit is a major tourist district, also popular with expats, with lots of slick restaurants, rooftop bars, posh new malls, hotels, and sprawling areas for Arabs, Koreans, Japanese. There are tuk-tuks and touts everywhere, and the whole thing is more or less a red light district, where if you’re a white male foreigner you will inevitably have clumps of women or ladyboys calling to you to have a massage.

I’ve also been to the old part of the city and toured the vast temple complexes, seen streets lined with shops selling giant gold Buddhas — where do they all go? — ridden the express boats on the river and the SANSAB boats along the canals. The canals, in particular, give Bangkok a unique flavor, both as a means of transport that gets you around the impossible traffic, and as the backdrop for fascinating alleyways that are essentially an extension of people’s homes, especially across the river in the Thonburi district.

Moving on up

So Bangkok has been alternately exhausting, exhilarating, frustrating, lonely, social. I’ve been all over the place, basically — geographically and emotionally. I’m hoping things can settle into more of a flow as I move along.

Today I’m moving on to my next destination, Ayutthaya. I’ll go after I have lunch with a woman I met who works for the UN monitoring human rights in the region.

I’m nervous about the actual travel part of travel — more so than I need to be, I know. A Thai friend has offered to drive me to the Victory Monument, where you can pick up minivans to Ayutthaya, and I have a room booked on the other end, and all of my stuff is in my bag, so what’s the problem? I don’t know. I’m just nervous.

Part of it is the ongoing lack of sleep that will pass in a few more days. Part of it is the travel jitters I always get when I go into something unfamiliar. But I feel like I need a vacation from my vacation already. Bangkok is the kind of city where I push myself too hard to do everything, to keep going, to see what’s around the next corner. I’m hoping Ayutthaya will be a mellower place where I can spend a day or two doing nothing and not worrying about it. I need to remember, too, that I’m going to be at this for quite a while. I need to pace myself. Six months is a long time, and I’m only six days in.