India: The Ubiquity of Poverty

Cha Cha, our autorickshaw driver in Agra, charges tourist groups 850 Rupees a day to take them around town. That’s just shy of $14 USD. At the end of our day together, we gave him a $2 tip, but the point is – he doesn’t earn much at all. Yet, when a beggar approached our tuk tuk outside the “Baby Taj" mid-morning, Cha Cha gave him his two bananas. It's true that you don’t need much to be able to give much.

 

Agra quickly gave us our first dose of high highs and low lows. We started at the majestic Taj on a crisp December morning. Much bigger than I’d anticipated, the Taj was even more beautiful than in pictures and postcards. Not just a masterpiece of marble inlay and carving, but a masterpiece of calligraphy, too. But just outside its gates, poverty had crept right up to the gates. Stray dogs, camel dung, and sacred cows roamed among leaning towers of trash and scattered rubbish like confetti everywhere. I had expected poverty. I was “prepared” for the emotional rollercoaster. What I didn’t expect was the ubiquity of it all.

India: Arriving in Delhi

I got into Delhi early on a Sunday, still battling a nasty cold that hit me a day before leaving New York. The Delhi air quality didn’t help the cold. On the flight here I looked out the window, maybe an hour or so before landing. Never have I ever seen such a deep red in my life. It was crimson, nay, burgundy, in the sky, along the horizon. A full spectrum of color beginning with the reds and ending in a hypnotizing royal purple. As we approached Delhi, the sun rose. A haziness blanketed the view in lieu of clouds and turned the sky all kinds of soft, Easter-eggy pastels. And through the haze a few peaks broke through, and I felt a knot develop in my throat. It made its way up the back of my throat, tingled up my sinus cavity and alas, up to my eyes, where it manifested in a  a solitary tear and a soft convulsion, overcome with emotion. I’m finally here. The mountains call me. India has been calling me since I was ten years old – since my dad returned from that business trip with a small mirrored bag where I dutifully housed my German colored pencils, and with the rupees that served as the first members of my foreign currency collection. India, I’ve finally made it.

Vietnam: Hoi An

In the early 18th century, Hoi An was the largest trading port in all of Southeast Asia. But in a twist of fate, the Emperor Gia Long took over at the end of the 18th century and gave foreign trade rights to nearby Da Nang. Plus, the river mouth silted, and left Hoi An unable to continue its reign as the monolithic harbor it once was.
 
The result is a well-preserved UNESCO World Heritage Site, a frozen-in-time 18th century medley of cultural influences, from Portuguese to Dutch, Cham to Chinese. Japanese, French, Buddhist, Indian … you can see them all in one stroll through this town of 120,000 inhabitants. I had no chance – Hoi An swiftly captivated me with its charm, its sweet, sweet people, its quaint shuttered windows, and calm river.
 
I had arrived in the afternoon. My $30-a-night hotel had a gorgeous balcony overlooking the eastern outskirts of town, from which I spent some time sipping my welcome tea and watching a collection of young kids playing pickup soccer.
 
I got my bearings and headed for town. 

Vietnam: Saigon

Yes - I'll call it Saigon. Because though my guidebook, my boarding pass, the internet, maps - all recognize it as Ho Chi Minh City (its official name since the end of the Vietnam War and Vietnamese Civil War) - none of the southern Vietnamese people I interacted with called it anything but Saigon. There's a solidarity - a quiet resistance - that's still alive and palpable in southern Vietnam. 
 
So though I spent a meager 18 hour layover in Saigon (with the exception of sleep an an unfortunate incident in which I allowed myself to get ripped on on a cab ride from the airport) it was important to visit War Museum.
 
With limited time in the city and the clock ticking, I woke early, and walked the 2km to the War Museum. On my walk I learned three important things.

Cambodia: Kampong Phluk & Sihanoukville

After a morning of temple hopping, I toured Kampong Phluk, the floating village outside Siem Reap. It's home to about 700 families, and the average family is about 4-5 people. So roughly 3,000 people live in this village on 15-foot stilts. Since it was dry season, you could walk on the land between some homes, but from May-November during rainy season, the water rises at least 5 feet, and boats are the only means of transport.

All the thoughts I'd had on the plane raced back fervently. This village is quite remote. What if someone gets sick? Do they own band aids? How far do they travel for school? How do they power their homes? DO they power their homes? How would I fare, without access to a grocery store, a dentist, a bank? How many boats does each family have? Is there a teenage freedom associated with being able to man a boat alone, the same way a driver's license gives freedom to teens in the States?

Wait - but how do you even build these things? How do they stay warm at night? Do kids wish they had their own rooms? The roofs are made of metal siding - does the rainy season bring leaks to their homes? Are their clothes perpetually damp? Do they have trouble falling asleep to the pitter-patter of rain on the metal roof at night?

Cambodia: Love at First Mishap

Before even arriving in Asia, I just had a feeling I'd fall in love with Cambodia. Something about it felt untouched, unchartered. It's what drew me to it and what allowed it to lodge itself in my heart forever.  

And yet - there are so many reasons I could have become disheartened.

On a boat tour, a big boat ahead of us in the river got stuck - since it's dry season and the water is quite shallow - causing a 45 minute stand-still boat traffic jam. 

The now infamous butt incident - where I took a squat on the side of the road, only to have my backside bitten 60+ times (I counted) - damning me to butt-scratching and mild resemblance to a leper, for the rest of my stay in Cambodia. 

The lady in Siem Reap who sold me a boat ticket to Battambang, instead of Phnom Penh. After noticing at the port, in the nick of time, they pulled me to a quarantine area for 30 minutes, catalyzing in me a very real fear that I would be stranded in this tiny town, without a soul who spoke English.

The unreal sunburn I got when I accidentally fell asleep on that 6 hour boat ride from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. 

Any of the many Cambodian buses I took, but mainly the one from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, taking at least 2 hours over what it should have, with multiple pit stops, bus breakdowns, a crying baby (of course), and endless Cambodian fighting movies. 

Reception at my hotel in Sihanoukville (a sleepy beach town) didn't stay open for my late arrival. I forewent sleeping on the beach and getting eaten alive by mosquitos (see butt incident), in favor of climbing through a window and becoming a squatter in an empty bungalow until morning.

That damn chicken wrap in the Otres Beach Night Market in Sihanoukville, that christened my body with its first (yes, first) bout of food poisoning while out here. 

All that - and I still loved this place. Here's why.

Bangkok: Stimuli, Everywhere

Over 8 million people live in Bangkok. Almost 4 million live in LA. 3.5 in Berlin. About 2.5 in Paris. By population alone, Bangkok calls New York City and London peers. It's a force to be reckoned with and a constant onslaught of stimuli in the best way possible. From its traffic and temples to its markets and food, Bangkok amazed and surprised me at every turn. 

My first stop was the extravagant Grand Palace & Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew).

Bangkok: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (and Buses)

Bangkok is a city of juxtapositions. One where a new above-ground subway weaves through ancient temples. One where someone without shoes still carries a smartphone. One where a knockoff Beats Pill is sold in a stall adjacent to another selling a real one (knockoff for 1/15 of the price). And one where, somehow, that subway ride costs almost $2 but a bus ticket costs only a quarter. 

So I decided to take a bus - not only for the monetary, but also for the cultural value. Very few foreigners and even fewer tourists (I saw none) take the bus. Historically (or, at least, in my travel experience), the bus is for locals in every city. With tons of bus lines and plenty of routes, it usually proves hard to navigate. But I was on a mission to escape the tourists traps and live like a local. Plus I fancy myself good at navigation, with a killer sense of direction. So I researched the bus route that would take me from the old part of town (Banglamphu) to the new (Siam), I took screenshots of Google Maps on my phone, and set out to conquer the Bangkok bus system.