About This BlogStarted 29 August 2005, this blog is meant primarily to follow my adventures around the world. There will undoubtedly be detours into other things that interest me.
Late VisitorsWelcome to the (now closed) blog of my six month trip through southeast Asia, ending April 2006. One of the best things I've ever done in my life. As with all blogs, entries are posted most recent at the top, and there's no easy way to invert that if you want to read from the beginning. Go to the Archives, load a month, and work from the bottom of the page to the top. If you're doing that and you don't want to read pre-trip jitters and preparation, jump straight to October 17th when I first flew to Bangkok. If you want to see just the pictures, take a look at my slideshows. Theoretically all images in the slideshows are scaled to fit your screen. Unfortunately, this works in Firefox but usually doesn't work in Internet Explorer - but you can see the pictures just fine either way.
August 29 - September 19: Milledgeville, Georgia
September 20 - October 15: Toronto, Ontario
October 18 - October 31: Bangkok, Thailand
November 3 - December 6: Myanmar
December 6 - December 23: Thailand, mostly Chiang Mai
December 23 - January 23: Laos
January 25 - March 17: Vietnam
March 18 - April 4: Cambodia
April 6 - April 16: Thailand
April 18 - April 24: Wrap-up, back in Toronto
Toronto, the Short Version ... and Goodbye
A place is always most exciting when it's new to you. That's also when you're most likely to notice things that are unusual about it - in a few weeks, those unusual things become commonplace and you forget that there was ever anything strange about them. The first few days in a new place are the best time to take pictures and make note of the oddities of that place. Toronto is unlikely to ever be "new" to me in the way Bangkok or Hanoi was when I arrived, but freshly back from Asia does give the city a different look. I thought I'd try to write "the short version" about Toronto (and to some extent, Canada) while it looked new to me.
There are a lot of bicyclists of all ages riding their high-tech bikes in the parks and on the street - I ride with them, following the routes recommended by the free municipal government bike map of the city. Most cars on the road are large (I'm still thinking in Asian terms) and there are very few motorcycles, but occasionally you'll see a Smart car. Almost every grocery store in the city has a good selection of both Chinese and Italian sprices, and, depending on where you are in the city, you'll find other stranger things. Donut stores abound. Recycling is a part of life: each week on a particular day, you put out specific items like tins, newspapers, or organic waste for collection. The Queen of Great Britain is technically the country's monarch, but beyond the currency of the realm, you're unlikely to see many references to her. The smallest paper bill is the $5, with the $1 being a gold(ish) coin called a "loonie" because of the bird on it, and the $2 a large bi-metal coin that was almost inevitably nicknamed the "two-nie." French is the official second language of the country, and some eight million people (in a population of 32 million) speak it. Either Cantonese or Mandarin may well be the third most commonly spoken language. In Toronto, the top five languages (other than English and possibly French) are Chinese, Italian, Tamil, Portuguese and Spanish. Canadians are constantly worried about the "Americanization" of the country - our news becoming more sensationalist, litigation on the rise, McDonalds, Starbucks, and Walmart running anything resembling culture out of the country. Canada shares 8891 kilometers (5525 miles) of border with the United States - the longest unguarded border in the world.
As I write the temperature in Toronto is about 10C, or 50F. The daffodils have had their day in the garden, and the tulips are just starting to open. The sun is shining again after yesterday's rains. I started looking for work today.
And with this, I leave you. There'll be more pictures - I might even start a photo blog. But for now, look at the Photography section occasionally for new photos. And thanks for reading!
LadyboysI remember seeing several gay men in Laos, but not as much anywhere else in the five countries I visited. Lao society, so laid back in so many ways, seems to be quite accepting of homosexuality. But today I'm going to talk about another sexuality-related issue: ladyboys. Ladyboys are also known as "kathoey," remembering that "th" is pronounced as "t" in Thai. They are a distinctly Thai phenomenon, men living as women. If you're a North American you may think "that happens in my country," but not to the extent that ladyboys permeate Thai society and culture. Some just get their nails done occasionally. Some have long hair, nails, stylish clothes, and a very slender figure. Another segment live their entire lives as women. And some have implants, hormone treatments, and genital reassignment surgery. It's a very broad spectrum, and large numbers of them live and work in cities and towns of all sizes, often doing jobs where they would be unlikely to be accepted in North America. I was waited on at restaurants several times by kathoey. They're just part of the landscape. For more information, see Wikipedia's article.
Royal Billboards in Thailand
All over Thailand you can see big billboards dominating intersections, showing pictures of the King. Sometimes the Queen, occasionally the Princess, but the Crown Prince (Maha Vajiralongkorn) gets rather less play. Except in Ubon Ratchathani, where he seemed to dominate - it is his picture above, taken in Ubon. Wikipedia in their entry about him quotes the Economist (I didn't check the original source) as saying in 2002 that "Vajiralongkorn is held in much less esteem [than the king]. Bangkok gossips like to swap tales of his lurid personal life. One of his sisters, another possible heir to the throne, is more popular, but Thailand has never been ruled by a woman. Besides, no successor, however worthy, can hope to equal the stature King Bhumibol has attained after 55 years on the throne." I wondered if perhaps there was some strong association between Vajiralongkorn and Ubon, but a short internet search turned up very little.
The Ex-pat and His WomanThis is a weird issue that I've never been entirely sure how to address, which is why I've waited so long to write about it despite its prominence in Thai culture.
There are Ex-pats ("ex-patriots") living in all of the southeast Asian countries I visited, and undoubtedly many strike up relationships with locals. But it's at its most visible in Thailand, and it's always a falang man with a Thai woman, never a falang woman with a Thai man. To generalize a bit further, the man is usually 20 years older than the woman, and they often don't seem to have very clear channels of communication - and yet there are often indicators that the relationship is fairly long term (for starters, I wasn't wandering around the red-light district at night - I saw these couples in the middle of the day in the shopping districts). This kind of couple is common in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, and Nakhon Ratchasima (better known as Khorat) seems to be a favourite hangout for them - away from the tourists. I enjoyed Khorat for the same reason.
When I mentioned the issue to a female friend who had also just returned from southeast Asia, she said "That creeped me out too. Typically, they are men who wouldn't be considered all that attractive at home too. It's obviously a business deal of sorts--he gets sex, she gets money and status. (I don't mean that the girls are prostitutes, although I suppose some of them are.)"
Some women in Asia see foreign men as a way out of the country and a way to more financial security. But if that's the case, why did I see these couples in Thailand? Thailand is the economic powerhouse of southeast Asia, and Thais need financial help rather less than other southeast Asians. Is it something cultural about Thai women?
One day in a restaurant in Khorat frequented by ex-pats, I smiled at a fellow solo diner - a Thai woman about my own age. Our eyes had met and it's kind of a reflex response. This happened a couple more times, and when I left, she followed. A few blocks later I stopped to find out what was going on. She spoke to me in a mishmash of Thai and broken English, in which the only word I was actually able to distinguish was "you." So I said "No thankyou. Goodbye." This should have ended it, but she continued to follow despite my accelerated pace. I stopped again. I was still unable to follow what she was saying, but she wrote out a phone number for me. Excuse me? I can't understand you in person, how could we possibly communicate over the phone? I didn't take the number, and told her more vehemently "No!" She stopped following. What interested me (after I got over the creepiness) is the idea that we had any reason at all to associate when communication was clearly impossible. Perhaps she was looking for someone who didn't consider that a barrier, but what kind of relationship does that get you into?
Yet some of these couples are "real" couples, truly in love, maybe married for many years. This was also to be found in Khorat ... I talked to a woman there who met her husband while he was on leave from the Vietnam war, and they'd been married thirty years. They live in upper New York state, but were visiting Khorat because it's her hometown. I also know of a young American who met his wife at university in Georgia, but they currently live in her hometown, Bangkok.
Why Thailand? Why not Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia ...