“Not all those who wander are lost.”
WARNING: You may want to break up reading this into two or three shifts. Remember to stand up and stretch your legs to avoid blood clots. Pictures will come later in case you are thinking about slacking.
There are certain places that you go to and while you are there, you are certain you will never be there again. Two weeks ago I was with a friend I had made on a boat tour of Ha Long Bay in North Vietnam. We strolled through a massive cave of more than 50 feet in height and an unknown measure into the earths depths; as I stood in my infantile way staring up at the sole opening high above me, watching the midday sun cascade down to pierce the light starved darkness, the young med-student from New York slowly stepped just beside me and said: “I will NEVER be here, right here, ever again.” How did we wander our way into this magnificent place; a place that if we didn’t happen to wander into it, and even if no one ever had the chance of landing their eyes upon it, it would still be just as beautiful all the same? We were certainly aimlessly wondering, but as Tolkien writes we were not lost, but found beauty and ourselves exactly where we needed to be. I guess after all, a good traveler is never too intent on arriving anywhere, but seeks the beauty of where they find themselves. Over the past three weeks I have found myself (sometimes I even forgot how I got there) in a variety of new, remote and strange places: jungles, islands, ancient temples and rare wonders of the world—places that I had actually heard of, but definitely never thought I would be able to go to.
The wanderings started once my family arrived in Malaysia. Yes, after long last the Blauw clan descended upon the poor people of the Malay Peninsula with their white and outstanding giant-like features. We were turning heads from beginning to finish and received a lot of pleasant attention. I have to say it was a great relief to see my parents, sister, and Aunt. I was starting to really miss their zany West Michigan Dutch tendencies, especially during Tulip time! Anyway, we made a very enjoyable splash in this part of the world as we did some thorough wandering of Malaysia.
It was a raucous good time having my family around. They made sure to have a visit that included at least one school day. They started their trip in Kuantan were they stayed a very nice beachside hotel, a very rare occurrence for the Blauw family, but this was par for the course for this particular trip; I even heard Dan Blauw say the words, “money is no object”. (The first and last time those will ever be heard) We had the opportunity to be taken out to eat by a couple of my local friends and teachers and it was a great time. They then moved on to staying at the very peaceful, very beautiful village of Maran, where they attend a full school day with me. I have to say, that the day that my family came to school ranks as one of my favorite days of the year. I was really exciting and really hilarious to see how my students reacted to my family being there after weeks of preparation; they after all, wrote the letters telling my parents they should make a visit in the first place. But when the day finally arrived most of them were very shy and tended to keep their words to themselves and just look. But in other cases, and particularly with my female students, they really took a liking to my Mom, Sister and Aunt and they ever were far more outgoing and talkative with them then they have ever been with me. My family answered a lot of questions, ate a lot of free food and even got multiple tours of the school during their day. It was a blast and the students will not stop talking about them and how beautiful they all were.
After a tiring day at school we explored Maran and on the next day as I finished my last day of classes before my Holiday break my parents went to see the elephants and the local sanctuary. Shortly after we set off on a rather early adventure to drive our rental car back to Kuala Lumpur for where we would stay for a couple of nights. The drive was a little bit hectic do to the Chinese Holiday but after we made it we stay in luxury again in KL and explored the city for the next couple of days, including a very quick, but very efficient trip to Melaka for a day.
After checking off all of the main sites in KL we then made the last leg of our journey as a family to the pristine and remote Island of Tioman on the East Coast of the Malay Peninsula. Tioman is world renowned for its inland wildlife, secluded beaches world class marine bio-diversity—it is perpetually ranked among the top ten of the best scuba diving and snorkeling locations in the world. As a result, we surely did some snorkeling. And it was quite easy to see way it has such a reputation. Any kind of fish I have ever seen in an aquarium in the United States was easily found. The waters were absolutely teaming with life in certain places and exploding in bright vibrant colors that were curiously trying to discover whether we were dangerous or edible. I quickly found every kind of fish and coral in the movie ‘Finding Nemo’—including Nemo.
On land, the Island was just as interesting though. Tioman is a real life Jurassic Park which boasts the world’s largest lizards, crocodiles, Fruit bats and bugs. My parents have some great videos of two 100 pound plus Monitor Lizards fighting in a river for dominance—it was wild! We did some hiking, a jeep ride and saw some sea Turtles on the Islands small sanctuary. But maybe more than anything else the Island get away was really nice to relax sleep and just swim around with my family on one of the more beautiful islands in the world. Not a bad deal.
However, it did have to come to an end though and on the morning of our third day on Tioman my family loaded onto the small propeller plane at easily the smallest airport I’ve ever been too and flew their way to Singapore in order to start their journey back home. I on the other hand stayed to take the later flight to KL where I would start the main brunt of my holiday travels. After staying a quick night in KL I had a flight to Ha Noi Vietnam early the next morning. I would be using the rest of my holiday days very wisely in North Vietnam and Cambodia, taking in some of the Natural and ancient wonders of the world.
Break number One: Go get a snack.
The decision to go to Vietnam during my time on this side of the earth was made a long time ago, as was my decision to go to Cambodia; they are beautiful places that hold much interest for students of history. I of course had studied a little bit about Vietnam and its war-torn history in school. Violence and war have dominated the country’s historical and cultural cannon for 1000’s of years; only recently since 1980 has Vietnam been a peaceful place and it is currently sitting on one of the rare stretches of time when it is not involved in any conflict. Plus, anyone that has ever been there will certainly tell you that it’s culture as a result has developed very differently from the other surrounding countries. In addition, there is of course a fair level of awkward bagged that attends you as you go to Vietnam as an American. But I figured that this would also be a trip in educational exchange, as more Americans visit, people can see that we are not demonic killing machines that are bent on invading, conquering and destroying their way of life, as they have been taught. Dealing with the guilt or frustration of visiting a country that we were not so long ago entrenched in a devastating war with was a challenge for me, and a lesson which was a tough learning experience in developing what I believe about armed conflict and international relations.
After much thought, when I first arrived in Ha Noi I made the decision to always introduce myself as who I was, an American, doing otherwise would defeat a large reason for way I was there and of course be lying. Initially, I was surprised at the welcome response I received at the airport upon telling people I was from the United States of America, but also in how little English was spoken, how much cooler the temperature was from Malaysia, and at the expansively flat part of the country I was in. I took a relatively quick bus ride from the airport to my hostel where it quickly became very evident to me that I was now clearly in a third world country that was far less developed than Malaysia, and where things such as the countless rice fields have remained totally unchanged since the time of the war and far beyond. Roads in Vietnam were perhaps better than those in Nepal, but the tumult that took place on them was unlike anything I had ever seen. Our bus was part of a torrent of motor vehicles doing exactly whatever they wanted to do: full of people on foot, bicycles, and baskets carrying all things from dogs to fruit to piping, cars and millions of motorcycles. The road played a stark contrast against the emerald green backdrop of rice paddies that held their persistent workers peacefully doing what they have done every day for their entire lives.
Where I stayed the first night in Ha Noi was plenty nice. It was situated right in the middle of the overwhelmingly bustling city and was within walking distance of most of the museums and sights. The rest of the day was filled with vigorous sightseeing with another solo 23 year old from Long Island who was traveling before he started Med-school in the fall. We got along well and found we were very similar quickly, and as we perused around the narrow and vegetated city streets we stopped to try some street food, ducked into small shops in alleyways and even ascended to a secluded rooftop café and drank Weasel Coffee (made from coffee beans that had passed through the guts of a weasel, thus making it more clean and delicious somehow) as we watched the evening traffic play out its terrifying game.
For the rest of my day I went to a couple of museums including the Temple of Literate, the Fine Arts museum and made a point to stop by and see the Ha Noi Hilton, the infamous prison were Senator John McCain was held during the waning years of the Vietnam war. It was frustrating reading the government-line information in such museums but I learned to not be upset and take all information, attitudes and emotions with a grain of salt. Overall, I found Ha Noi a very pleasant place—it was very charming and unique, most of the people there were quite friendly and even insisted on giving us free things (thus, the only reason way I would really ever drink weasel coffee!). That evening though I was looking into options to see the sights outside of the city. In particular, I knew I had to see Ha Long Bay, Southeast Asia’s equivalent to the Grand Canyon and one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the world. Boat cruises of the bay were abundant, but the one offered by my hostel seemed to be more of a booze cruise than anything else so I decided to go elsewhere. With the help of my Long Island friend and 5 other guys my age from south London we found a very good, very cheap, elaborate 3 day cruise of the bay for just 83 US Dollars, all inclusive, and we nearly had the whole boat to ourselves. We paid the money and left the next morning.
The bus ride out to the bay was only about 100 Km away but because of the traffic and roads it turned out to be one of my least favorite 4 hour bus rides I’ve taken thus far. But as we arrived, amongst the touristy flotilla at dock was our ship, The FantaSEA, waiting to take us into the heart of the one of the most bizarre formations of land in the world. Once we were on board we were shocked at how nice and how good the food was on the boat, plus, they literally fed us until we couldn’t take any more. And with that, we set sail to our first dock where we would be able to explore an island riddled with caves. We found our way into some spectacular places—vast open caverns that we knew very few eyes have ever beheld. Most caves on the island were just discovered in the 90’s by tourist like us. When we emerged on then opposite side of the island we saw for the first time the gigantic spike-like land formations that jutted up out of the water as if the laws of gravity did not apply to them. Everywhere, any which way one turned there was an equally or more odd formation around every corner—a sea of deserted islands floating on a sea of deep green water.
We boarded our boat again and in disbelief sailed to a city of floating rafts where we would get out again and go Kayaking through some more caves and around the bay for a couple of hours. I suppose that this is a good spot to say that there are people that live in Ha Long bay. Almost none of them live on any of the 1,967 islands but nearly all of them live exclusively on these floating rafts and boats that are anchored to the floor bed. Many of these people live entirely off of the sea and many never even set foot on land—when they do, they get land sickness because their body is so used to being gently rocked by the sea. This is where we got our kayaks and started floating our way in and out of caves and hollow lagoons. It was easily one of the more unbelievable things I’ve done, in one of the most beautifully abnormal settings in the world. Soon thereafter we got back on the boat after playing in the water for a while and sailed to port where we spent our first night on an island called Cat Ba.
We stayed the night in Cat Ba at a much better hotel than expected and woke up the next day and walked through a market selling some of the most absurd sea food items I have ever seen, including: Mantis Shrimp, sea slugs, jellyfish, soft-shell crabs, as well as a healthy amount of decapitated snakes and lizards. After that we were taken hiking in the Cat Ba National Park where we climbed to a spectacular view of the strangely toothed island and where we climbed to the top of one of the most precariously constructed and thoroughly rusted pile of a fire tower atop the mountain. As awesome as the view was if there was any place that I probably should not have been over the course of the trip, it was at the top of that fire tower where at the panicle of an 80 foot climb we found just a few un-nailed boards. We hastily made our way back to the bottom and made our way back to the boat after our hike where we were taken out to anchor for then night and watched the sun go down over the bay.
It was during this part of the trip that one of the happiest moments turned into one of the most painful. As we were anchored to spend the night on the ship the sky burst into those marvelous hues of twilight and we decided to go swimming. But of course we didn’t just simply go swimming, we were on a two story sleeper ship, so rightly, we decided to jump off the top of the ship into the warm waters below. It was a blast and just about the perfect way to celebrate sundown on a great day. But as we were discussing what kinds of unseen creatures are swimming just beneath us my knee touched something that felt like a soft ball covered in needles. I recoiled but I couldn’t see what it was so my knee hit it again. It was then very clear to me that I had swam into a jellyfish and it had stung me a number of times. I of course became paranoid for a couple of moments in the water as I rushed to the ladder—I know jellyfish stings can kill people and my knee quickly started experiencing some shooting pain. As I jumped up the ladder I told our captain what had happened and his calm reaction put me at ease. He told me there was very little that can be done for these kinds of jellyfish stings but that it didn’t require any medical attention. He said with a smile on his face that all I could really do to relieve the pain was to pee on the sting. So with little other options and my knee quickly swelling I went to the bathroom and did what I never thought I would: I intentionally peed on myself. There’s a first time for everything I guess. Eventually, I think it might have helped the pain a little bit, but the pain was intense for a couple of hours and my knee turned into something that more resembled a red volleyball than a human body part. But I had no reason to not enjoy the rest of the night with the other guests, and we did some fishing and I went right to bed afterwards.
The next morning I felt much better, and our last day on the bay was very pleasant, we even went swimming again. We sailed to our original port on Ha Long bay and on the way we passed by some more spectacular sights and floating villages and took hundreds of pictures. Once off the ship we ate a final meal together and got back on the bus to go back to Ha Noi. This is where I would part ways with me friends as I had a flight ticket to Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon, that night. I took some time to walk around the city at night and with the help of a local man who wanted to practice his English with me I made my way without a hitch to the airport and flew into the night to Southern Vietnam.
I have to say that I didn’t like southern Vietnam as much as I liked Northern Vietnam, but I’m sure part of it was due to my first impression of Ho Chi Minh City. On the cab ride from the airport to my hostel, which was not in as nice an area, I had a dispute with the driver about how much it should cost. He was asking for 10 times what it should have been. As I gave him more than what I should have and asked for change he got out of the car and set my bag on the curb. Wanting to go get my bag on the busy street the man took my large bills and instead of giving me any change just drove away with my money. It was only about the equivalent of 23 dollars, but it was the first time that anyone has ever outright stolen from me. I would like to think that it was some kind of miscommunication since he didn’t really speak English, but I know that he had a great opportunity to just drive away and make a lot of money, and that’s just what he did. Upset at myself, I settled into my hostel and got ready for a long day of sightseeing the next day.
I set out to see almost everything in Saigon on that next day and I think I did a pretty good job. Exploring with another ETA we managed to see a number of old French constructions like the Cathedral of Notre Dame, numerous government buildings and a variety of museums. Saigon is a noticeably French colonial city. Many of its streets are constructed into broad, sweeping boulevards perforated with parks full of people sitting walking, playing games and performing hilarious exercises. Most notably I saw the President’s Palace, the old Opera house but the War Remnants museum stood out the most to me. The War Remnants museum was the most striking sight of the day. Filled with old U.S. military equipment and within it was a museum on the war atrocities of the U.S. against the Vietnamese people. The information was frustratingly skewed and painted the U.S. in the most negative light possible, but going to it definitely proved to be a good lesson in empathy. The next day was another lesson in understanding as I went to the Cu Chi Tunnels, the tunnel system the communist forces built outside of Saigon in order to attack the city during the Tet Offensive. Our tour guide was an ex-southern Vietnamese soldier so it was interesting to hear a contradiction to the government propaganda that was so prevalent at the site, such as the videos and signs hailing the communist liberation fighters and the American-killer heroes. The whole site though gave me very good perspective on what the war fully entailed and a little bit about the experience of the soldiers on both sides. It was an eerie but rewarding day being there.
Vietnam was enjoyable overall. The people were active, very hard working and for the most part interested in me, though not as welcoming and warm as Malaysians, the food was pretty good too, and the sights were pretty spectacular and educational. I did get my fill of Vietnam though, and I was ready to see Cambodia and explore a country that I knew relatively very little about.
Break Two: Avoid blood clots and get up and do something.
Cambodia is an exotic and beautiful country; it unfortunately is also the poorest country I have ever been in, without question. I took a bus from Ho Chi Minh City to the capitol city of Phnom Pen. Immediately, it was noticeable that Cambodia was even more, much more, untouched by the hand of time than Vietnam. Again, I was surprised to see how flat and open the country was on my bus ride. It reminded me of the large swaths of land in the middle of America, like if Iowa was much hotter and had about a foot more rain a year it, would look a little bit like Cambodia. But what was so wonderfully different there were the houses along the road. Nearly all of the rural homes in Cambodia, apart from being impoverished and not having electricity or running water, were about two stories up on stilts. Not too different than many Malaysian homes and it gave me a good sense of what Malaysia might have looked like maybe 20 or 30 years ago. The ride was not too unpleasant as it had some hilarious Cambodian music videos playing on screen and some of the world’s most beautiful rice paddies and swampy grasslands packed with high reaching and wonderfully colored Lotus flowers.
Arrival in Phnom Pen drove home a sad truth: that Cambodia’s recent narrative is plagued by wretched poverty and the haunting shadow of genocide. My hostel was near the river, a pretty nice part of town, but it was really very clear that Phnom Pen is not a tourist destination for too many westerners. Most people that go to Phnom Pen go to get a sense of the history of the country and the terrible legacy that the Khmer Rouge left. The main sights that I saw there had to do with the genocide museums and the infamous Killing Fields. My first day of somber sightseeing was matched with some grey and dreary weather. I attended the city’s largest museum known as the Killing Fields just outside of the city. Here, from 1975 to 1779 nearly 1,000 people were murdered and their bodies left in large, damp, open holes in the ground as the Communist Khmer Rouge government went through its cultural cleansing process by killing all intellectuals in the country. The methods for killing were systematic, but the reasons for killing who they did were erratic and fickle. As a result 1 in every 4 persons in Cambodia was killed by 1979, and today 63% of the country’s population is under the age of 25.
Scares from this kind of national history are still very visible and Cambodia still hasn’t fully recovered being much behind the rest of the region. Visiting these places, along with the genocide museum were eye opening, but so was driving around the city. I had never really seen shanty towns in my life or naked children walking the streets alone or toddlers’ scouring through heaps of garbage in hopes of finding food. Seeing things in real time are deeply troubling. And even as I tried to give some money to people, no matter how many children were able to tight-fist the money I gave them and run away, there was only so much I could do. It made me awfully guilty in a way; in all my life I have experienced no pain or suffering like this, I have always been free from want; loneliness has never found me anywhere. Poverty I suppose can make even the well-off seem very small.
Phnom Pen was an interesting visit that I am convinced will stick with me maybe more so than other places I have been. But I didn’t have much time there. After two days I was on another bus to Siem Reap. After another 7 hour bus ride where we stopped twice and some people got some snacks (snacks which included fried insects, and scorpions!), I tried a dried scorpion that was given to me and got back on the bus. We arrived in Siem Reap and I emerged from the bus to get my bag and discovered that my backpack had been sitting next to a bunch of construction material, a basket of baby chickens, and a plastic bag of about 7 dead ducks. Buses are very efficient in Southeast Asia.
Siem Reap is a very different place then Phnom Pen. It is a tourist hotspot for nearly everyone that goes to Southeast Asia. I meet very few other Americans while traveling, but in Siem Reap I met an American hostel owner from Missoula Montana, a tourist from Southfield Michigan and an entire group of students that had just graduated from U of M business school. The city is very touristy and is filled with streets and streets of western food restaurants, massage shops and a “Pub Street”. Pretty nice, but not what I expected. This is of course because nearly 1 million people visit the Temples of Angkor Wat every year, and for good reason, they are awe-inspiring and thought provoking in a way that only the Pyramids in Egypt, Mexico and the Great Wall of China are. The mathematical prowess and technical quality of these ancient constructers was simply astounding.
The next morning started very early and I had a full day of temple hopping to do. I woke up around 4:30 AM and set out with some friends to see the sunrise at the most famous Temple of Angkor Wat referred to as the Temple of the Kings. A dark Tuck-tuck ride to the Temple finished by arriving with a couple hundred other people at the temple. I made my way to a reflection pond where few others were and awaited the slow raise of the sun. Looming just ahead was the oldest intact structure I had ever seen, dating back from more than a millennia ago. Its darkened pillars began to fade into light as the sun climbed and the shades of the firmament changed with the minutes. Soon light began to break forth through the trees and illuminated the entire seen: an enormous and mysterious monument of antiquity surrounded by a whirl of water, and as the sun summited the tree line the once glassy sleeping pond erupted into a bubbling torrent of life, where fish vivaciously lapped the water and dragonflies happily performed their aerial acrobatics. Monks welcomed the morning with their chants in the distance and it was clear morning had finally broken over Angkor Wat, the same way it had for hundreds of years.
The rest of the day was vigorous. I was determined to see as many Temples as I could. The Park of Angkor Wat is not one temple but rather hundreds of temples. What makes it so astounding is not really the size of the temples or so much their age, as large and ancient as they are, but rather it is the sure immensity of the complex. During its prime the area would have been teaming with people and flooded with water as irrigation dikes made it an emporium of trade and agriculture. You could walk through the jungle at almost any juncture and be sure to eventually run into a wall, terrace, ditch or religious temple from the era. Needless to say, this was probably as busy as my camera has ever been. Temple after temple, wall after wall, carving after carving they were all different and held their own story. How could people do these things in the middle of the jungle in Cambodia over 1,000 years ago? This was the question that never left your mind. What had these places seen in their lifetime? Massive gum trees and other vegetation over seven hundred years old were now reclaiming the temple as a part of jungle, and these massive monuments of stone were now somewhere stuck in the middle of being part of civilization and the natural world.
I tried to keep up my break neck pace for as long as I could. I think I might have been more curious then the average person as a student of history, but at a certain point curiosity dies and at around 11 hours of seeing as much as I could I was too tired to keep my interest. I got a tuck-tuck driver to take me back to the town and get some pretty good Cambodian food and a 13 cent beer. The nights were lively in Siem Reap, but a little bit too much in a way that children are active when their parents are gone. People do anything they want because they can and it’s cheap. I went to bed so I could go back out Temples again in the morning.
I couldn’t have asked for a better last day of my trip. I spent the day under a cobalt sky spotted with sterling wisps of white and silver clouds. I was by myself which was nice; I never found traveling alone to be cumbersome. The day was filled with more beauty, maybe more beauty than I was used to seeing or at least a very different kind of it. I sat for long periods of time and imagined what my life would have been like if I lived anywhere else other than where I do or during any other time. There are not too many other places better to reflect than at a Wonder of the World.
I understand the luxury of going on a trip like this is rare and I am extremely thankful for it. I flew out of Siem Reap and made my way back to Maran. It’s pretty cool to return home from a world class vacation when your home is in Malaysia. At this time I am finally starting to get a feel for the length of the grant. And I know I will be here for another 5 months, and even though I have my mid-year evaluations and I am half way done, I am still enjoying my time here as if it is new. As the time passes though there are days starting to pop up where it’s a hard to be away from home: missing weddings, celebrations, an entire Michigan summer, these things are hard to miss but right now I still know I have the opportunity to do some awesome things.
You made it. It’s probably late in the night so you should eat something now and go to sleep.
Until next time,
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” –Mark Twain.