Seoul Subway Randomizer Adventure #2: Hakdong Station

Seoul Subway Randomizer Adventure #2: Hakdong Station
Brotherood Kitchen.

For my second Seoul Subway Randomizer Adventure, I stayed closer to home — so close, in fact, that I never actually rode the subway. On a holiday Wednesday, my Korean friend and I set out from Gangnam, which is home, and walked over to Brotherhood Kitchen for what they call “American Home Food” and I call soul food.

Now, I’m no expert on either soul food or Southern food, but what they cook up at Brotherhood is at least tasty. We had the fried chicken and waffles, which is salty and sweet and decadent, with a weird gooey cheese sauce on top. But I think I liked the roast chicken with chili and yellow rice better.

Chicken and waffles.
Roast chicken with chili and yellow rice.

Little houses on a hill

We headed up the hill that starts behind Gangnamdae-ro, an area you’d think I’d know pretty well, but I don’t yet. It’s upscale, with stylish cafes, little shops, and here and there actual detached houses that look like they’ve been around for a while.

One of the most interesting of these houses, just past Eonju Station, is the Nonhyeon flagship store of Gentle Monster, whose sunglasses are amazing, and whose stores are more amazing than the sunglasses. The store in Nonhyeon has an actual ship attached to it, and the interior contains an astonishing array of strange art machines. And some sunglasses, including a line in partnership with Tilda Swinton and some glasses they did with Hood By Air, which is pretty impressively hip company to be keeping. I tried on many a pair, but I still haven’t found the Gentle Monster pair that calls to me. Someday, though, I will get a pair. Surprisingly, while they’re not cheap, they don’t cost any more than a pair of Ray Bans or Oakleys.

A little house.
Get it? Flagship? Gentle Monster in Nonhyeon.
Yes, that’s a pencil.

Saddles and chairs

Hakdong Station.

We made our way to Hakdong Station, and from there we followed Hakdong-no to Nonhyeon Station. The whole stretch is full of furniture stores on both sides — not the typical Korean places, but the sorts of places where you can get, say, hideous French-inspired kitsch for $10,000, or a coffee table by Jean-Paul Gaultier. There’s some good stuff in there too, and not all of it at insane prices, but it’s certainly high-end. Still, it’s considerably more stylish and diverse than the sort of stuff you find in the big department stores here.

If I had a lot of money to spend making a very large apartment look like a hip urban hotel, I would come here. Realistically, though, if I’m gonna spend a lot on furniture in Korea, it will probably be on very Korean furniture, like an antique chest of drawers or something. To me, that’s exciting and different. My Korean companion, though, was fascinated by a display that looked like something my Grandma Hannah or my Aunt Belle would’ve gone for, all flower prints and swoopy Victorian curlicues. She grew up in a house full of old Korean furniture, which doesn’t much interest her. What’s exotic, to her, is the sort of Western stuff she wasn’t around very much because no one under 90 decorates that way. She responds to American granny gear the way I respond to weird old statues and tombs here.

Furniture!

Maybe the oddest shop along this stretch is Balio, which is where you go if you want fancy horse-riding gear. Why is it here, in Gangnam? I have no idea, except that people must come here to buy stuff. I wonder if the Choi Soon-sil scandal’s equestrian connection has been bad for business?

Gear for the horsey set.

Fire and rain

With that, we headed back to my neighborhood. By evening, it had started to rain, so we decided to sit by some blazing coals in a neighborhood restaurant that offers unlimited beef barbecue (no more than two hours and a 5000-won charge for leftover meat). The initial course was something like six thin steaks and a big pile of chopped up rib meat, so we never even got around to asking for more. It was smoky and delicious and a fine way to end the day.

Coals for barbecue.
A rainy night in Gangnam.

Seoul Subway Randomizer Adventure #1: Hongje Station to Muakjae Station

Seoul Subway Randomizer Adventure #1: Hongje Station to Muakjae Station

In feng shui (pungsu in Korean) the ideal location has a mountain to the north and water to the south, providing protection from Siberian winter winds and an open avenue for summer monsoon rains. That’s why both Gyeongbokgung Palace and the presidential Blue House sit at the southern foot of Inwangsan Mountain, facing Cheonggyechon Stream.

On the ass end of Inwangsan, out beyond the perimeter of the old city walls, is the opposite sort of place. Gaemi Maeul (개미마울) — The Ant Village — gets its name from the tenacity and hard work of its 400 or so residents, who’ve been crawling up and down the steep slope to their shantytown since the end of the Korean War. It’s also, perhaps, a statement about their relative importance in Seoul’s grander schemes.

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The Ant Village from above.

Between a rock and a fast place

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Starting out at Hongje Station.

I came to The Ant Village on my first Seoul Subway Randomizer adventure, which began at Hongje Station on Line 7. My goal was to go look around in parts of Seoul I wouldn’t otherwise be likely to see, and Hongje was an excellent place to start.

Sandwiched between Inwangsan to the south and a highway to the north, Hongje has either fended off or been overlooked by the developers who’ve converted much of the surrounding area into especially soul-crushing variants of Korea’s ubiquitous vast apartment blocks. Its narrow, winding streets are still lined with the small brick apartment houses that Koreans call villas, and it looks as if no one has updated much of anything in the past forty years. Buildings and signs have old spellings — 자전차 (jajeoncha), an old word for bicycle, or a sad old apartment building called 만숀 (manshyon) instead of the more modern 만션 (manshyeon), the Konglish term so absurd it’s almost an insult.

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Faded bits of the past, with an old term for bicycle.
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Old apartments. The sign says Unjeon Mansion, or it used to anyway.
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An ancient restaurant.

My Korean friend and I made our way to Inwang Shijang, a traditional market that despite its typical array of Korean products — seafood, mystery twigs — had a torpid squalor that felt more like out-of-the-way markets in Vietnam or Myanmar than like anything I’ve seen before in Seoul. As we sat down for tteokbokki and fish cakes at one of the market stalls, my friend told me the place reminded her of her childhood in Daegu in the 1970s.

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Inwang Market.
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Inside the market.
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Some tteokbokki and odeng.

Up the ant hill

As the road began to climb, we came to the first of the old houses, an uneven concrete slab with a roof of corrugated metal. It’s the sort of thing you see on the outskirts of cities in developing countries all over the world, or in their neglected pockets — down by the river in Hanoi, say — and I have a Vietnamese friend who grew up in something similar in Saigon in the 1980s. But it was jarring to find this sort of house still operating as a going concern in Seoul in 2017, especially after starting the day in the LED-lit hypermodernity of Gangnam.

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An old house, still occupied.

I suppose, though, that I was just coming face-to-face with a concrete (pun intended) manifestation of the poverty I see every day and mostly ignore: the old woman who sits on the steps in Gangnam Station every day, selling gum when she’s not drifting off to sleep; the old folks limping along as they push their filthy old carts past the Porches and Rolls Royces, collecting garbage to recycle. Next to my posh Gangnam apartment complex is a dingy brick apartment house above a parking garage, junk piled up in the narrow verandas you can see from the street.

In Seoul, it’s the elderly who seem to end up destitute most often. In an economy that has modernized as quickly as South Korea’s, it’s inevitable that a good part of the older generation would be left behind. In what is now one of the best-educated and most technologically advanced countries in the world, those who grew up during the Korean War and its aftermath may not ever have gotten past sixth grade or developed the kinds of skills a modern economy demands. What’s not inevitable is South Korea’s minimal social spending, which is among the lowest of any developed country. The scandal and disarray engulfing Korea’s conservative party might be an opening for a new direction; for now, the ants are still part of Seoul society, scurrying along the margins and subsisting on scraps.

The Ant Village

The Ant Village proper is a peculiar hybrid. Built by people with nowhere else to go after the Korean War, the worst houses are old and poor and dangerous, makeshift and constructed to no code, heated with the old yeontan charcoal bricks that produce carbon monoxide and occasionally kill people in their sleep, as happened to one of my Korean friend’s high school classmates. (Draftiness could, I suppose, be a lifesaver.)

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Yeontan, an old system of charcoal heating.

But the residents — some of them, anyway — haven’t wanted to leave, and they’ve kept developers at bay, all while updating some of the homes into fairly plausible structures. Around 2010, some art students from the area got the idea of painting murals on the walls, and the village is now something of a tourist attraction, though the flowers and puppies are fading. And the neighborhood has not just electricity and bus service, but solar-powered street lamps and a new pavilion and residents with smart phones, not to mention government-issued wayfaring signs for visitors. Down the hill, the newly built middle school is actually pretty grand.

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Decorations on the Ant Village.
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Flowers on one of the sturdier houses.
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More flowers.
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Puppies!

As an outsider, it’s hard to know what to make of all this. What little information I have is gleaned from blogs. Who lives here now, and why? How poor are they? Is the ownership in dispute? What does the future hold? I have no idea, and I didn’t feel comfortable asking questions of the few residents we saw around. When you find yourself having a cheap holiday in other people’s misery, sometimes it’s better not to pry.

Tea at the temple

At its top, The Ant Village opens out onto the trails crisscrossing Inwangsan Mountain. Had we been feeling ambitious, we might have made the long hike up and over to the Jongno side of the mountain, descending into trendy Hyoja-dong. The sun and relative warmth were enticing, but it was already afternoon, and we decided instead to stick with our chosen neighborhood, walking through the woods, past an open view of Train Rock — it’s a big rectangular rock, basically — and down a long staircase to Hwanhuisa Temple.

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Train Rock.
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A frozen stream.
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A temple in the mountains.

As we approached, a group of women of a certain age were gathered out front, along with a Buddhist nun, all talking and laughing. I said hello, and they all cooed at how well I spoke Korean, something that used to happen a lot when I lived in Anyang, outside Seoul, sixteen years ago, but rarely happens now until I’ve at least demonstrated something beyond annyeong haseyo. It was another throwback, and a reminder that foreigners probably don’t get out this way all that often.

My friend noted the feminine touches to the temple — Dalmatian figurines and the like — and decided it must be run by nuns. Soothing piano music played from outdoor speakers, mingling with sound of the Korean-style wind chimes. As we sat and rested on a small pavilion, a woman brought us a tray of tea and tteok with marmalade. Later, as we looked for somewhere to return the tray, we heard more women’s laughter coming from inside the main building. We set the tray down inside a doorway and continued on.

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Tea at the temple.

A little further on we passed another small temple, then emerged from the mountain into one of those vast, dispiriting apartment complexes that dominate so much of the Korean landscape. Director Bong Joon-ho’s first film, Barking Dogs Never Bite, from 2000, centered on stunted lives in an apartment complex much like this one. It was, in material terms, a step up from the drafty, poorly built villas we’d seen earlier, but I could see how people might choose the human-scale lumpiness of life in The Ant Village, or down among the old brick villas, over this different sort of ant farm. Koreans seem to have recognized the grimness of life in these sorts of massive apartment blocks, and newer complexes tend to be made up of clusters of slender towers, with only a few apartments per floor and spaces in between the buildings.

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One of Seoul’s soul-crushing apartment blocks.

At last we found our way back to the main street, after passing a small English school that made me feel sorry for whatever English teachers have ended up in this strange little corner of the city. We stopped in at a Paris Baguette for some coffee and a rest, watching the old woman squatting outside the window as she roasted sweet potatoes. Across the street was the district headquarters for the conservative party, emblazoned with a huge Korean flag that loomed above several fortune-telling shops marked by swastikas. A few blocks on, past more fortune tellers and glimpses of the old city wall at the top of Inwangsan, we came to Muakjae Station, where we boarded the train and headed back to Gangnam.

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Muakje, ending the trip.

The Seoul Subway Randomizer Game

The Seoul Subway Randomizer Game

How do you get to know a new place? I was in New York for many years before I finally started exploring the outer boroughs, and I’ve still never been to Canarsie.

Now that I’ve moved to Seoul, I want to jumpstart the process of discovering those out-of-the-way places that aren’t on the usual leisure circuit. What’s out there? The best way to find out is to go. At random. That’s why I’m creating The Seoul Subway Randomizer Game!

  1. Create a list of Seoul subway stations.
  2. Randomize the list.
  3. Go!

 Yes, I will almost certainly wind up with a few disappointing trips to apartment complexes and highway interchanges, but what else might I find?

I’ll let you know.

Rules I: The list

  1. The Seoul Metropolitan Subway System is the largest in the world by track length, if you include all the lines that extend beyond Seoul proper. For the sake of sanity and to avoid three-hour journeys to not-yet-built suburban housing developments, the list of stations will include only those that are actually in Seoul itself. That still leaves 284 stations.
  2. I’ll randomize the list several times, and I’ll select one of the randomizations based on how interesting I think the first five stations will be.
  3. Stations that I have already visited will be skipped.

Result: Here’s the list. Feel free to play along. (I gathered the list of Subway stations from Wikipedia and randomized them using sequences of numbers from Random.org.)

Rules II: The visits

  1. A visit to a given station only counts if I get off the train and go outside, obviously.
  2. The return trip should begin from a different station, or from a bus stop that’s similarly far from the station. That means getting out and walking from one station to another. However, the walking requirement can be called off if the station turns out to be somewhere really unwalkable, like a bunch of train tracks and a bus station or something.
  3. Arrival at a second station counts as a visit to that station as well; it will be removed from the list of future visits.
  4. Visits outside of the game don’t count as part of the game, but they do qualify for taking stations off the list.

Rules III: My game

  1. This is my game. Traveling companions will of course be welcome, but I’ll pick the stations, and a visit counts when I go. You’re welcome to start your own game.
  2. I can skip stations any time and for any reason, because this is for fun.

A Strange and Wonderful Year

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

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.

Singapore

Singapore

Phoenix, Arizona, United States

Photos:

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.

 

 

 

Java

Java

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

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.

 

No Place Like Home

No Place Like Home

Brooklyn, NY, USA

Walking over the Manhattan Bridge alone in the rain in the evening, I felt melancholy and nostalgic, but tinged with something sharper: fear, maybe, not of anything in the present — New York is not the scary place it was when I first moved here in 1993 — but of an uncertain future.

I’ve come back to New York, I now realize, because I wanted to come home. For six long months, I moved every few days to some new place. I was always somewhere strange, with everything unknown and to be figured out: how transport works, what to see, where the good restaurants are, how to do laundry, where to get cash, how to say hello and thank you. Even Phoenix, my current US address, is a place I don’t know well, where I navigate by GPS.

New York is different. On my first day, I had some time to kill in Midtown, and I knew exactly where to go — Bryant Park — and when a bus rolled by on Fifth Avenue, I knew exactly how to jump on it. While sitting in the park, when I felt like writing, I knew that Kinokuniya was across the street, so I could go there to buy a notebook. In NYC, I know where things are. I know how things work.

Still, if NYC is more familiar than anywhere else, it’s no longer home. I can’t go back to my apartment, and I can’t go back to my office, my two landing pads when I lived here. And I’m floating free of purpose or connection: I don’t have a job, I’m not looking for a job, I’m not going to school. Nor am I a tourist, out to see New York’s cultural institutions and landmarks. I’m just here. I’m visiting friends, with the uncomfortable awareness that the threads that connect us will fray in the coming years, that this is perhaps the last time I will see each of these people, or the last time in a while, and that, try as we might, we will mostly drift apart, separated by oceans and continents.

I am old enough now, at 41, to understand the passage of adult time. I have lived out of the Bay Area longer than I lived in it, and it no longer feels like home. I know very few people there, and when I go back, it’s just not the place I grew up. That place is gone, erased by time and change. So is the New York City I first came to in 1993, but I was part of the change; I was here as neighborhoods transformed, buildings came down or went up, new laws changed the landscape (remember smoke in bars and nightclubs?). It’s like aging: you notice you’re older, but it happens day by day. I’m not the same person I was in 1993, but I was with me every day between there and here.

Now New York will go on changing without me. I’ll come back in five years, know in my bones that Kinokuniya is right next to Bryant Park, and be startled to discover that it’s moved downtown. Or that Metrocards have been replaced. (I was already thrown by Trash and Vaudeville‘s move from its old St. Mark’s Place home, and pleased to discover the new public Wi-Fi being tested around the city.) New buildings will go up, and no one will tell me. Friends will move away, and I won’t replace them with new New York friends.

All of this might feel less melancholy once I have a new home. Right now, New York is the home I picture, and it’s not home anymore, but there’s not yet a picture in my head of my Seoul home. There will be. I will have a street that feels like my street, an apartment with my stuff in it, friends, patterns, regular places. That’s coming soon. But for the moment, I’m in the curious position of feeling homesick for the place where I am.

Northern Vietnam

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?

Yes.

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

Photos:

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.