Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Beach

I don't have a huge list of "Things to do before I die." With that said, I do still have a few items that I would not mind ticking off, and this last week I finally got to tick off a big one. That is to say; I stayed on a gorgeous, sparsely inhabited, island in a basic bamboo shack right on the beach with a great group of friends.

Tearing myself away from Kampot was not easy. I spent a week there before I was finally able to break it's spell over me and escape. Of course, escaping is quite a lot easier when you are leaving with a diverse group of friends (some of whom spoke Spanish) with very different backgrounds, personalities, and interests. So it was, that I found myself crammed into a tuk tuk with five other people headed for Koh Tonsay near the Vietnam border.

After a few minor difficulties we arrived on Koh Tonsay, or as I refer to it, paradise. The total number of inhabitants could not have been more than 30-40 and there were only a few small bamboo shelters to sleep in. There were however HAMMOCKS. Lots, and lots of hammocks. And a beach. A nice beach.

I spent two full days swimming, lounging in my hammock/reading, hiking around the island, and enjoying the company of a great group of guys. What I enjoyed the most was definitely getting to know these guys better. For example, there is the Swiss guy who lives in Italy and seems a half a bubble off, until you learn that he is fluent in French, German, Swiss-German, Italian, Spanish, English, and Cambodian. Or there was the break dancing Swedish guy who looks like Orlando Bloom, and whose sense of humor mirrors my own so perfectly that we left each other rolling on the ground in laughter while everyone else wonders what the hell we are carrying on about. The rest of the group was as equally interesting and the island was gorgeous. What more could you ask for?

For me the answer was cheese cake. If the island had a drawback it was the food. I can't complain too much, because we were staying on a pretty basic island (i.e. no power), but Jesus! was that food ever terrible. The first night it was not so bad, but by day two none of us could even look at rice or eggs again. That was all there was. Rice, Ramen, eggs. That was it. I would have murdered for a piece of cheese cake in paradise...

Friday, March 21, 2008

Kick'n it in Kampot

I'll skip a few things for now, and just say this. I am in Kampot, Cambodia and my life on the road has slowed to a crawl. To think that over the past two and a half weeks I had never stayed more than three nights and two days in any one place is crazy. I certainly did no relaxing in Myanmar (don't get me wrong I still loved the experience), and my first two destinations in Cambodia (Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville) were infested with fat whities, making it hard to relax. I fled Sihanoukville after one very uncomfortable night that included; getting into a bed filled with rat shit; cleaning out said bed only to have rats eat a hole in my bag; getting about 50 bed bug bites; having to listen to the music being pumped full blast until 5:00 a.m; at this point in time my drunk-ass teenage neighbors came stumbling into their room and I listened to the four of them seemingly have a conversation, but since every second word was "fuck" I'm not too sure they were able to actually communicate with each other.

The next day found August chilling-out in the small river town of Kampot. The town is surrounded by gorgeous mountains on two sides and the coast is only a fifteen minute ride away on my recently rented motorbike. This is just one of those places where you have no desire to leave. I am on day three here, and can easily imagine another week spent doing exactly what I have done the past three days...not much. There are a few travelers around, but not too many. Just the right number for having a few conversations over a couple of beers.

I did do a six hour motorcycle ride and spent about two of those hours taking my bike up a hiking path (which was clearly not a good idea). The single track was overgrown with vegetation and I found myself white-knuckled at a few points (such as hitting a large downed tree, or flying up a steep hill). I even rented a bicycle for a few hours to ensure a bit of exercise, but really that is all I have done, and since I have been here for three days that means I have had two whole days filled with:

Drinking coffee and reading books in a hammock.

Meditating in a beautiful garden.

Eating Amok (a super delicious fish curry, which is fast becoming my favorite food EVER!).

Chatting with all the Cambodina kids who seem to be everywhere.

Finding myself back in the hammock.

Drinking my favorite beer in the world. Cambodia is one of the only countries which imports.
Beerlao. That's right, Faye, Lisa, eat your hearts out. I am drinking BEERLAO!!!

Some how ending up back in that damn hammock, again.

Walking along a beautiful river (sometimes with a Beerlao in hand).

Going to the bookstore only to find that they have a copy of A Thousand Splendid Suns. I have been searching for two months for that book!

In other words I am relaxing to the fullest right now. Many things have been on my mind lately and I will probably post a more "reflective blog" in the next day or two, but for now I am going to leave it at that and meander on back to my gorgeous garden with that very inviting hammock, a good book, and a Beerlao.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Blowing in the Wind

If you had dropped me off in Phnom Penh at the beginning of this trip I probably would have been like "Holy Shit! This is a crazy third world city." Now, I'm not saying that it would have been completely different (I would have been awkward and unsure of myself anywhere), but it would have been different than the way I eased myself in to this trip.

As it was, after two weeks in Myanmar, arriving in Phnom Penh seemed like walking into a civilization again. I wrote at great length about the differences between Myanmar and the rest of the places I have traveled to, so I will skip that this time. Basically, walking back into a city that is attached to the rest of the world was just as shocking as walking into Myanmar. Imagine my amazement when I rediscovered broadband internet. It was fascinating! It was just, just...on. You didn't have to dial a phone number. There were no beeping noises and static. And the speed, well, did you know these days that you could receive one email in less than half an hour? OK, I admit to using a primitive broadband connection in Mandalay, but it still can't count as "high speed". Anyway I digress.

Reentering a connected country was pretty crazy. The stark contrast between Myanmar and The-Rest-of-the-World is about as much convincing as anyone would need to see that Myanmar is neck deep in shit. That's all I'm going to say about that any more.

So for anyone who doesn't know this trip is coming to an end for me. I will be home in three weeks. A bit over eight months will have passed and I will step out of travel and back into, well, what? That's just it, I don't have a clue. I have made some plans for when I get back; things that I will do in the first few days; people I will call; places I will eat; the vague notion of some dream job. "Doing what?" you ask. Uh, well...uh...maybe this,

How do I go back to having a home? Seeing people that I have known for months or years, not hours or days? Do I even remember how to cook? Can I drive anything that possesses a steering wheel? Am I going to forget that I can't barter for things, and try to talk down a cashier at Trader Joe's over a couple of Clif Bars?

And what about the bigger issues? I didn't randomly get handed $20,000 dollars just to wander around aimlessly. Oh, wait a second that is what happened... Surely though it must have had a purpose. WHAT WAS IT?!?!? What will be the things that stay with me the most? There are so many. How are they going to shape my life? I know that a year ago I wrote to the Bonderman committee about how I wanted to study diet and lifestyle and their effects on health. For several years I was obsessed with science and medicine. I spent hours memorizing metabolic pathways and studying cancer at a molecular level. Eigth months later my dreams of starting medical school have disolved. Replaced with new dreams and ambitions. Is this a good thing? I don't have a clue. What does this mean about August? Am I someone who just throws away plans and years of work? Or am I someone who follows his heart? All these questions to answer.

Some questions will probably never be answered. The answers to others maybe obvious the day I get back. Basically, I don't know what to expect. The same giddy feelings I had before I left on this trip are the same ones I have now. Before starting this trip I described my feelings as progressing sinusoidally. The same pattern of emotions has followed me throughout this trip, and now, as I prepare to return home, I realize that at least in that regard nothing has changed. I am still riding that sine wave.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Confused. Horrified. Frustrated.

I felt sick looking at the pictures. I could feel the bile rising in my throat, and the tears forming in my eyes. There were so many. Most of the photos were of average people, the ones you would pass on the street everyday, but some were different. There were the ones with obvious mental retardation, ones with physical abnormalities, and then there were the children. Thousands of photos of children. Some stared blankly into the camera, but most had a look of desperation in their eyes. Odds are they had just been separated from their mothers, and, as children made too much of a fuss, it was likely they were going to be executed very soon. Everyone died in the end. Out of the 20,000 prisoners only eight survived. The children though, well, they were always the first to die. Bullets were in high demand in those days so they usually weren't used on prisoners. Besides, children's skulls are fragile, and it is easy to bludgeon a child. It only takes one or two good whacks...

I stood in S-21 (also known as Tuol Sleng), situated the heart of Phnom Penh, my eyes filled with tears. Tuol Sleng had been an elementary school at one point in time, but with education no longer a priority for Pol Pot and his brutal regime it was quickly converted into a torture center and prison. The photos were gruesome. Blood drenched carcasses lay chained to the floor. Others showed naked women and children lying on wire beds while they had their genitals removed, or their fingers sliced off one at a time. The blood that was produced was the only constant that tied the torture techniques together. Passing the rotting piles of clothes which are still present in areas of the prison I came to the skulls. There were a lot of skulls. Not all 19,992, but a lot. They stared back, much as the people in the photos stared back, and I felt as though even the skulls were begging for help. Begging to see their children or their wives. Begging to live.

To say that these last few weeks have been intense would be a gross understatement. I arrived in Cambodia yesterday after spending two weeks in Myanmar. Those two weeks consisted of enduring the five worst bus rides of my life (I rode five buses in Myanmar), ungodly temperatures (it was 38-40C in many parts of the country), and the ever present reminders of how a brutal dictatorship repressed it's people. Like the atrocities committed by Pol Pot the actions of the ruling military junta have decimated a nation.

If I have taken anything away from Myanmar it was the stories the people told. The frustration with a government who controlled everything. A government unwilling to build roads (I would have appreciated that), unwilling to provide schools, unwilling to listen to the demands of the people.

The tension was in the air everywhere I went. "Where are you from?" some one would ask. "U.S.A." I would reply for the 50th time that day. "Ah, America. Very good country. Who you vote for? Clinton? Obama? McCain?" "I like Obama." "Oh yes, me too. He is good man. If only we had a chance to elect a man like Obama." That might sound like one conversation, but it wasn't. It was the same conversation I had with the monk, the construction engineer, the student, the tri-shaw driver, and the guesthouse owner. The yearning to be free. To vote. To matter.

Of course the government recognizes what it is the people want, and, to help spread the word of the people, they post these demands in the newspaper everday of the week under the heading The People's Desire.

- Oppose those relying on external elements acting as stooges, holding negative views
- Oppose those trying to jeopardize stability of the State and progress of the nation
- Oppose foreign nations interfering in internal affairs of the State
- Crush all internal and eternal destructive elements as the common enemy

Confused. I have been feeling that a lot lately. Confused as to why I am traveling to these places. Confused as to what I am supposed to do to help these people.

Frustrated. I have been feeling that a lot lately as well. Frustrated by what I am seeing. Frustrated by not knowing what it is that I am supposed to do.

I have certainly never been accused of being the most articulate person in the world. I wish that I had more to say on these matters. I really don't. How can I relay the feeling of looking out a bus window, watching children, who are probably not even teenagers yet, carry buckets of boiling tar, their exposed legs covered with burns, their feet sticky with the tar they have already poured. These are the road crews who are fixing the dilapidated roads I complained so much about. Often times there are women too. They are usually old women who spend their days hunched over a pile of gravel, sifting through the rocks, or heating the tar for the boys to carry. These are the things I will remember long after the trip is over. These are the things I will never be able to explain to anyone no matter how hard I may try.

And so, with all these feelings of sorrow, confusion, and frustration racing around my head, I stood in the middle of S-21 with tears in my eyes. Not just for the victims of a brutal regime, but for the victims of all brutal regimes. For the children with tar on their legs, for the amputees whose lives had been forever changed with one false step, for the women who were too old to walk upright, but were still forced to build a road, for everyone who wanted to be free but found themselves short changed.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

More Myanmar

I will probably be out of touch for a bit here, but I wanted to post a few more things before I leave for the country side.

Myanmar continues to be an experience unlike any other. It is so different from anywhere else that I have traveled. Each day seems to be an emotional rollercoaster. As I've mentioned a million times now the people are fantastic. They are the warmest people I have ever met. They are also the poorest. This contrast and the many things I have mentioned and am about to mention make this the best country of the trip. Hands down. Here are some more things about Myanmar.

If you are caught owning a copy of Rambo 4 you receive twelve years in jail. While I personally agree that anyone who enjoys watching Sylvester Stallone act probably should be in jail that still seems a bit harsh. For those of you who don't know apparently Rambo kicks Myanmar Junta ass in the latest installment.

There are almost no cell phones. You have to have a permit to own one and it is insanely expensive. Depending on who you talk to the price ranges from $500-$4000. If you are caught with one guess what? Jail.

The French dude was deported last night. At least he's not in jail.

The monks here (I heard there are about 700,000 in the country) are in pretty rough shape. Instead of collecting alms like they do in other countries they are literally begging in the streets. It is really fucking awful to see hundreds of monks begging for pennies.

I am revising the earlier statement about the average (I believe I said median age before. oops!) age of cars. New estimate 40-50 years old on average.

In Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon) there is a ban on motorcycles. The story goes that two years ago some guys on motor bikes pissed off one of the ruling generals when he was driving down the road. Next day, no motorbikes allowed. If you are riding one in the city guess what? Jail.

They drive on the right side of the road but 90% of the cars have steering wheels on the right hand side as well. Apparently one day in the 70's the government decided to stop driving on the left side like those damn Brits and start doing it the proper American way. Since all the cars are from the 50's and 60's they are still set up for the British system. The change supposedly happened in one night. One day you were driving on the left the next day on the right. Can you imagine the chaos of those first few mornings?!?! I wonder how many people freaked out cause they didn't get the memo about that one...

Finally I need to print a retraction. Yesterday I stated that there is no evidence of a middle class in this country. That is not true. I am incredibly frustrated by what I am seeing here, and I may have overstated things a bit. There is a middle class. It may be small and fledgling, but it does exist.

Well that's all for now. I should mention that all the things I am mentioning here are unconfirmed. They are just what the locals are telling me or what I am witnessing for myself. Given the Burmese tendency to exaggerate it is difficult to gauge what is true and what is not.

I'm headed to the hills. More in a few days.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Myanmar II

This is my second posting today.

I mentioned a lot of things earlier, but I was in this crazed state trying to resolve the (still unresolved) money situation. Here are a few more quick and dirty things about Myanmar.

The food. It is freaking fantastic and I can generally eat three meals and have tea for around a dollar. Sometimes I splurge and spend one dollar on one meal. If I do that I leave holding my stomach, feeling fat and happy!

The conversations. As I mentioned before everyone is super friendly. While it is quite common for me to get invited to join locals for a meal I certainly have not been invited to everyday. That is until I arrived here. I have met so many great people and have had some really good conversations. I am reluctant to discuss what people have been sharing with me while I am still in the country so that will have to wait. I will say that everyone is pretty candid and honest about their feelings. The events of last year have come up in numerous conversations over the past three days. I am struggling to try to understand everything. What is my role here? I will certainly not be getting involved in the local politics (A French man was detained at my hotel this morning when I arrived. It is not clear exactly what happened, but there were several officers there and the hotel staff was certainly shaken up. He was taken away and no one is exactly certain what happened to him.) though I feel frustrated that there is nothing more I can do other than listen to people who want to talk.

The men all wear sarongs. It is pretty cool. I want one.

OK, that's all for now. This country is shaping up to be the granddaddy of all adventures. Now hopefully I can figure out how to make my money last. I did spend about an hour with a bottle of super glue and a needle gluing together all the little cracks on my bills. I will try to pull off using this money tomorrow. Cross your finger for me!

Monday, March 3, 2008


I arrived in Myanmar on Sunday morning without a clue what to expect. I must have had some vague notion in my head though because Myanmar is certainly not what I expected. The first things to say are that. 1.) The people are incredibly friendly, and many of them speak very good English. 2.) I am way out of the boundaries of normal travel right now. For one thing, aside from a few hotels, there is no tourism industry in the country. Now, this is fine as I don't usually buy many souvenirs or book tours or buses through these agencies, but it is a little freaky not seeing any of these available. I guess that goes hand in hand with the fact that there are not too many whities here. My plane had about twenty other travelers on it, but since reaching Myanmar I think I have met four or five in three days. Weird. Before this trip this is what I thought traveling was going to be like everywhere! I quickly learned that that was not the case, but now I feel like I have stepped back in time.

Another surprising thing is the poverty. Now I know that you are going to say "August! What the hell did you expect?" Well....not this. It isn't that the impoverished are any poorer here than the those of other developing nations like Laos or Vietnam, it's just that there are a whole lot more. Basically everyone. There does not seem to be any sort of thriving middle class at all. You are either sitting in the dirt with flies crawling all over you or you are rich. I say that because I assume there must be an incredibly small but wealthy upper class. I have yet to meet any of them. I have also yet to see a car newer than maybe 1990 on the road, and I would say the median age for vehicles is somewhere around 30-35 years.

The roads are in utter disrepair. I took a 16 hour night bus last night from Yangon to Mandalay following the countries only highway. If that was a highway I have no idea what to expect from the rest of the country's roads. The "highway" was not quite two lanes wide and was the roughest road I have ever been on. In many places it was no longer paved and the going was incredibly rough and slow. I think there may have been tears in my eyes as I finally exited that death trap at around 9:00 a.m.

Then there was the issue of the police checkpoint at 3:00 a.m. We suddenly stopped and everyone was ordered to disembark form the bus. The driver told me to stay put while the others went through a security screening, but my curiosity got the best of me and I hopped off to take a look at what was going on. This was fine until I got a bit closer to the screening post when a very surly police officer with an AK-47 hung across his chest ordered me to get back on the bus and wait there. OK. Not about to fuck around with that guy. I turned around, jumped on that bus, and waited patiently for everyone to return.

So. Some good things. The beer (Myanmar Beer) is delicious. The street food is very Indianesque. The people are great (Other than a monk who tried to rip me off and then ended up swearing at me when I refused to give him twenty dollars. Now that's something that doesn't happen everyday. Have you ever had a monk say "Fuck you." to you?).

Now the problem. I am so happy to be here and I think I might be leaving in 3 or 4 days. A far cry short of the 3-4 weeks that I had planned. The problem is money. I brought $900.00 with me which is more than enough for a month (there are not ATM's or banks in the country), but I did not know that bills would not be accepted if they were not in perfect condition. Apparently this is something I should have known because all the other travelers (the four or five) I have met seemed to have known this. Now there does not seem to be anything particularly wrong with my money, but it is not brand new and that is a problem. Out of $900.00 I think I have about $250.00 that I can spend. I am scrambling to find other options right now, but I am really freaking out. I do not want to be leaving after only one week. ARGH! I am so pissed off about this situation. If anyone has any advice I could sure use it right now.