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The End

Our top story tonight: Ryan and Katie prepare to return to the United States of America after screwing around overseas for two and a half years!

But first, one last half-assed travel post.

Chinatown(s)

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Strangely enough, I think we enjoyed our time in the Chinatowns of Bangkok, Georgetown and Kuala Lumpur more than our time in China, itself.  With all the alleyways, junk shops, Buddhist supply stores and street food, there was just more olde-timey flavor in these neighborhoods than in most of Beijing, Shanghai or Hangzhou (admitting this gives me a squirmy, first-world-problems feeling: Am I saying I begrudge China’s middle class its apartment complexes and shopping malls?  Would I rather these places stop developing, so that I can experience more “local flavor” when I travel?  I guess not; it’s just that Chinese suburbia is not my ideal vacation destination).  At one point, Ryan and I were sitting in a taxi in Bangkok’s Chinatown, going down one of the more colorful streets with all its red-gold signs and dragons and sharks-fin restaurants and charismatic oldsters and whatnot.  As we looked out the windows a Motown song came on the radio, and suddenly, strangely, the feeling of traveling back in time was complete.

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The other reason I have a soft spot for these expat neighborhoods is that they have yielded up some of the choicest souvenirs of the trip.  Behold, the jewel in my Crown of Crap:

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Lord, yes.  I love this big creepy head more than I love most people.   We had to buy another bag just to tote it around but I don’t care.  I don’t care.

The day I found it,  I brought it back to the room and we took turns putting it on and capering around ghoulishly; both times, the person watching would laugh nervously and say, “That’s weird.  That’s enough.  Take…take it off please.”  Then the person wearing it would say “What?” and look in the mirror and whisper in horror, “Oh my god.”

Such is the power of The Head!  Oh man, I can’t wait to have this weird, nightmarish thing sitting around our home for the rest of our lives.

Also: I show you this picture to give you an idea of just how gross some of the hotels have been on this trip.  Land of clean sheets and mold-free bathrooms, here we come!

Foody food food

Let’s cut the crap.  We came to Malaysia for one thing, and one thing only.  I believe you know what this one thing is.

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So you can imagine what a bummer it was when we found Malaysian street food — fabled, renowned Malaysian street food, haunter of our dreams, activator of our drool glands lo these many months — to be kind of disappointing.  This was mostly my fault.  I had built it up too much ahead of time.  “It’s supposed to be amazing,” I would blabber to anybody who would listen.  “Like the best things about Thai food and Indian food and Chinese food, all put together to create an explosion of new flavors unlike anything you’ve ever tasted before!”

As it turns out, that is not what Malaysian street food is like, and I’m not sure where I got that idea from, anyway.  You can get Chinese food here, and you can get Indian food, and you can get Malay food, but it’s all pretty mellow.  The plate of mee goreng up there is a good example: Stir fried and cheap, it’s got a little bit of spice it’s but basically a close cousin to tsuivan, another bland noodle dish (sorry, Mongolia).   I mean, look at it.  It’s garnished with lettuce.   Lettuce!

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But once we got over our outlandish expectations, we started to enjoy the food here just fine.  Above, we have a delightful bowl of beef ball soup, which had a surprisingly spaghetti-like flavor profile.  Below is the only photo I managed to take of the many Indian meals we had, because I would always scarf things down immediately after they were served:

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And last but not least, my two favorites: Chicken rice and won ton mee.

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I could eat these things every day until the end of time.   I also came up with a jingle for chicken rice, using nice and price, but my pride prevents me from sharing it with you here.

Malaysia…and stuff

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It probably doesn’t come as a surprise to you that we have been ready for this trip to be over for, oh, some time now.  We slipped out of vacation mode a few weeks ago; instead, we’ve been in unemployment mode.  In unemployment mode, we don’t spend a whole lot of time sightseeing or trekking or trying to experience the culture or writing down observations for posterity (obviously!  HA).  Instead, we stay in our air-conditioned rooms, finalizing grad school applications, taking the first, agonizing steps towards finding jobs, researching cell phone plans.  Every once in a while, in a spasm of guilt and a vague sense of obligation, we rouse ourselves!  And we go see a thing!  But mostly we don’t do this.

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So, basically, if anybody ever asks me how Malaysia was I will only be able to shrug.  Oh, like, that place that was outside our door whenever we got hungry?  Pretty good!  It was pretty good, I think?

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It has been pretty good, though, and I’m glad we came.  I’m glad we came to Malaysia.  I’m glad we took this trip, that we took this time for ourselves.  I’m glad we decided, three years ago, to go away for a while, and I’m glad we went away to Mongolia.  Sometimes it’s felt like forever and sometimes it’s felt like just a moment, but either way all this time has been a gift, and I am grateful that we had it.

But in a few hours we’ll get on a plane, and it will bring us home.  So can we hang out soon?  It’s been a while, and we’ve missed you.

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Burmese Days

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Sorry about the title, George Orwell. I (and every other doofus with a blog who’s traveled to Myanmar) just couldn’t help myself.

Although it probably seems like I am never going to stop subjecting you to posts about our endless vacation, the end is, in fact, kind of nigh. This trip had its three-month birthday a few days ago, which means we have only a few more weeks till we finally return to the states. The USA, the Mother Land, O land of family and friends and deep dark delicious beer! But alas, it is also the land of unemployment for the both of us, and one last semester of grad school for me. The clearest sign that the party is over is the fact that I’ve started making Real World to-do lists again. Fortunately for all of us, “finish blogging about Myanmar” comes before “find in-network dentist in Cleveland,” “make LinkedIn account” and “please start drafting Peace Corps paper,” so, let’s do this thing.

How about reverse chronological order?

Bagan

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Temples! Temples, and how. This was our last stop in Myanmar and the one I had been most excited about, back when we were planning this trip. Like Angkor Wat, Bagan is an endless sea of priceless, centuries-old ruins that you are, for some reason, permitted to climb all over like a monkey.

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We stayed for about a week, since the area is huge, dusty and hot, and we wanted to give ourselves enough time to explore while still sticking to our strict afternoon regimen of eating, napping, and watching Game of Thrones.

In the dawn and twilight hours, Bagan is pretty magical. You hop on your bike and point yourself toward the central plain and soon it’s just you and the cowherds. You can follow whatever dirt road you like; at the end there’s a fairytale temple, and if you’re lucky it’s all yours.

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But if you’re unlucky, one of the popular temples is at the end of that dirt road, with busloads of package tour retirees milling around, and aisles of vendors yelling “COLD WATER MADAME” and “PAINTINGS MADAME HAVE A LOOK IT IS FREE TO HAVE A LOOK.” When we managed to steer clear of these places, Bagan was lovely, like a waking dream; when we found ourselves being followed around by teenage lacquerware vendors who would coo “your earrings are lovely madame, where you from, hey where you going,” Bagan was the worst, most obnoxious place on earth.

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A couple weeks ago I was talking with an American expat in Mandalay about her time living in Bali. I asked what it was like, what with all the tourism, and the Australians, and such. The way she described it made it sound like something out of Dante’s Inferno to me, but it seemed like she took the vendors and hawkers and beggars in stride. They’re just trying to hustle, just trying to make a buck, she said, and how can I begrudge them that?

That conversation clarified something for me. Because obviously I agree: When people get all up in my face with their trinkets, I’m not annoyed at them. How can I be annoyed at them? Okay obviously I am annoyed at them, it is very easy to be annoyed at them. But of course I understand why they’re there, and that I should be patient and kind, and that I should remember how obscenely wealthy I am compared to them, and etc.

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On our first big trip through southeast Asia, we hit a lot of the must-see places in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, and so we spent a not-inconsiderable percentage of our time wading through crowds of vendors, or beggars, or both. As a result, I think I just accepted that into every backpacking trip, a goodly amount of “hello you beautiful you have a look” must fall.

On this trip, though, we’ve been to the following places: China, where domestic tourists are king and very few people could give two fucks about a couple of Americans; Laos, where people are so laid back that you can walk through an entire market of souvenirs without having anybody say anything to you; and Bangkok, where we have tried to steer clear of the backpackers’ ghetto this time around and have discovered a whole new city, one that is deliciously indifferent to our presence. And then Myanmar! Myanmar, with the most amazing people of all, people who are friendly and kind because that is just how they do, people who are pleasantly amused by your presence, people who will smile and wave their babies’ hands at you as you walk down the street, just for fun.

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So what I realize now is that, in those moments in Bagan when I was surrounded by people trying, loudly, to sell me things, I was mostly just annoyed with myself. For knowing how stressful I find those situations to be, and for somehow failing to avoid them, even though I am now thoroughly aware of how easy they are to avoid. Oh look, I thought, I’ve somehow found the one place in Myanmar that is as aggravating as Khao San Road. Hooray.

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In conclusion, Bagan was pretty cool at times, but not my favorite place. We did, however, have the pleasure of our travel buddy Pecaut, who shared our lust for Game of Thrones (but not, strangely, our lust for slothlike lounging for 80% of the day), and who took this ridiculous, yet sublime, photo of us:

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Then there was that one outing when the two of us got caught out in the middle of nowhere AFTER THE SUN WENT DOWN and all I can say is: Thank you for having that compass and that flashlight, friend.

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Now let us never speak of it again.

Moving right along to:

Mandalay

Mandalay was fun! For several reasons.

1. There were more buds to pal around with: Sam and Katie, a swell couple who Pecaut met on the plane (hi guys!) and Trinh, the motorbike-ridin’ RPCV below, who lives in Mandalay now and squired us about his fair city:

Thanks for the beers, buddy. Please enjoy your gifs.

2. This is the city where Ryan and I finally discovered teahouses. I don’t know what took us so long; in Yangon we ate mostly on the street or in proper restaurants, and somehow we failed to notice the large, airy teahouses, where men sit and drink chai-like tea and watch soap operas with their manfriends all day long.

In Mandalay we finally got with the program. Teahouses are awesome because of the aforementioned prepubescent boys who work there, who are all, as far as I can tell anyway, the most charming and adorable 12-year-olds on the face of the earth.

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When we asked Trinh whether any of these kids ever go to school, though, he said a lot of them are from the countryside, and they get sent to work at these places because they will be fed and clothed and housed and paid at least a little, which is more than their families can do for them back home. This is obviously sad, and made me feel pretty bad for taking so much delight in these boys. At least they get to practice doing math when they make change? Oh god I’m sorry I’ll stop.

Teahouses are also awesome for the food. We had heard some gnarly things about the food before we came to Myanmar, and indeed, the one traditional Myanmar meal we had was not really to our liking. Lots of oil in the curry, lots of unadulterated shrimp paste in the salads. Meh.

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Teahouse food, though! Noodle soup, peanutty rice salad, samosas, flatbread with beans — it posed no challenges to the palate, and was so cheap as to be basically free.

And finally, teahouses are awesome because the whole point is to sit there forever with your tea, and some of these places even have free wifi. Ryan and I are basically always on the lookout for two things when we’re traveling: Cheap delicious eateries that are packed with locals, and places where we can sit and use the internet and not feel bad for taking up space while we do so. Usually these places are different; usually the latter is a bar or coffeehouse in the backpacker district, and the former is…not. But with Mandalay teahouses, everything we wanted was in the same place! It was kind of magical, to eat my ten-cent samosa and taptaptap away on our netbook, while the Gentlemen Who Lunch at the next table over watched the soccer game on TV, and the teenager at the next table after that stared into his smartphone and sipped his tea. Knowing that we could sit there all day long and just keep ordering tea from those cute boys and nobody would give a shit. Heaven!

I mean the wifi didn’t always work very well, but still. I thought the whole thing was swell.

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3. And finally, Mandalay was fun because of –surprise! — the people. Are you tired of me talking about how much I loved the people in Myanmar? If I love them so much why don’t I just marry them, you say? Well too bad for you because I’m not even close to being done yet bwa hahaha hey wait where are you going?

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We did go on a one-day whirlwind tour of the big tourist spots around the city and that was a lot like the worst parts of Bagan, with the busloads of old white people and the crazed vendors and all. But whatever, we got what we deserved, and it was a nice day other than that. Ruins and house carts and weavers, oh my!

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But for the rest of our time in Mandalay, we just wandered around, drinking tea, smiling and waving and saying hello to people. My favorite part was when Ryan and I took a pedicab across the city; I sat in the rear-facing seat with my camera, and flirted with basically everybody who went by.

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Good times.

Hsipaw
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Oh hi, are you still there? Sorry this post is such a beast. Let’s finish this thing.

So, Hsipaw! Sweet, sweet Hsipaw. We stayed a week; I could’ve done another. The Lonely Planet says that when you visit Myanmar, you should make sure to go at least one place off the beaten path, one place that is not the “Big Four” (Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, and Inle Lake). This is excellent advice, and if I did it again I would avoid the Big Four altogether. It’s just that Hsipaw (and, I suspect, a lot of other little towns like it) was the best of all possible worlds: A quiet, relaxing place, almost completely free of other tourists, populated by the friendliest people on earth.

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I mean, after I took these ladies’ photos, they thanked me. They thanked me! What kind of bizarro world is this!

Here’s another example: One morning I took my crappy little Chinese daypack to the market, to get a couple holes patched. First, I found a guy with a sewing machine at the entrance. He pointed me down the street a little ways, and I walked up to a couple women with another sewing machine. Then the original guy saw me and called to the ladies (I’m guessing here), “Hey, the foreigner needs Bob! Bob the Backpack-Patcher!”

And they were like “Bob’s right over there, see?” and I was like “Buh?” and started bumbling across the street towards an empty storefront, and by this time basically the entire market was yelling out “BOB! HEY BOB COME HELP THIS FOREIGNER!” Then Bob emerged, and I turned and smiled and waved at everybody to say thanks, and some people applauded.  Non-ironically. (!!!)

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After I got the backpack fixed, Ryan and I set off on another two-day trek. There’s this entertaining thing that men do in Myanmar if they work with foreigners in any way: They give themselves an English name that reflects what it is they do for a living. So, in Hsipaw, the guy who sold books was Mr. Book, the guy who ran the Chinese restaurant was Mr. Food, and the guy who sold fruit shakes was Mr. Shake. We were kind of confused when our guide introduced himself as Mr. Bean:

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Until he explained that his day job is at the market, where he sells — can you guess? — beans.

Mr. Bean was by far the most ridiculous character we’ve met on this trip. He laughed like Eddie Murphy. He would offer us betel nut, asking, “You want some candy? Hoo hoo hoo!” He often remarked that if his wife ever left him, he would “surely die.” He asked us if we knew the song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” and then started singing it as loud as he could. When a competitor’s tour group would pass us on the trail, he would turn to us and say, “They are evil! Hoo hoo hoo!”

He was a weird old fart for sure, but a loveable one.

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This was our final trek of the trip, and I think we saved the best for last. Mr. Bean was consistently entertaining; the trail was dry, free of leeches, and not too steep;  the villages we passed through were jam-packed with adorable kids.

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We stayed in a tea-farming Palaung village, high in the hills. We got there in mid-afternoon so we had time to wander around, watching the women come in from the fields with their baskets heaped with leaves.

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We also had time to locate a shop with beer, so after dinner we had a wee little party with Mr. Bean and our host, who knows how to pose for a picture like nobody’s business:

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Nailed it.

When we returned to Hsipaw the next day, I got a lot of pleasure out of heaping all of our trekking gear in a corner of our room and bidding it farewell. Ryan’s sneakers, my boots, my poncho, my shorts I bought in Laos that were two sizes too big, my crappy backpack that had just been patched up: Think of all the space that opened up in our bags! Think of all the souvenirs we can buy, to fill that space!

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Our last couple days in Hsipaw were spent wandering to and fro. I went a little crazy and bought a few hats at the market, possibly as a result of the I-have-new-space-in-my-bag euphoria, which doesn’t make any sense because the hats are huge and made of brittle, inflexible bamboo and won’t fit in any bag:

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Ryan has suggested that I wear all three of them stacked on my head on the flight home. Perhaps.

We also accepted Mr. Bean’s invitation to come visit him at the market, to meet his daughter and his wife, and to try his bean salad.

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Man, this stuff was good. Pickled tea leaves, tomatoes, garlic, chili, sesame seeds, and the bean mixture that they sell at their stall. I have no idea how the beans were prepared. They had a hard crunch to them, like they hadn’t been soaked and cooked, but just deep-fried. I’m not sure if I can re-create this back in the states, but I sure am going to try.

Mr. and Ms. Bean sat and chatted with us, telling us about the postcards and photos and other mementos from tourists that were stuck to a nearby cabinet. When we asked if we could pay them for the salad, they laughed and then made us another portion, to go, that we could take with us on our bus to Mandalay the next day. Mr. Bean said that the water of the nearby river was magic, and that anybody who drinks it is destined to return to Hsipaw.  Then he pointed to our tea cups and said we’d just had some of that water, so we would be seeing each other again. “Remember to tell your friends to come see Mr. Bean!” he said as we left. “If they don’t, they will surely regret!”

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Well, friend, that brings us to the end of our adventures in Myanmar. If you have made it this far, I can only assume that you are a) a real masochist, b) a real pal, and/or c) at least somewhat interested in visiting Myanmar.  If c) is the case, then I will end by saying that you should definitely go to Myanmar, but you should probably not wait too long to do it.

Word on the street is that independent tourism there is about to explode, and I believe it. It wasn’t even the high season yet when we were there, and already a lot of the guesthouses were getting booked up. I can only assume that the fantastical, Disney-World-like levels of friendliness we experienced were due to two things: The fact that most people have not yet had a whole lot of contact with foreigners, and the fact that there is just something about the national character of Myanmar that makes its citizens extremely welcoming.  I hope it is mostly the latter, but really, it’s got to be at least a little of the former, and while I don’t want to be an ass and say that more tourists will “ruin” the country, I will be a realist and say that more tourists will change the experience for the tourists who come after them.

Basically, as of right now and for perhaps not too much longer, Myanmar is a treat to visit, mostly because of its people.  They make you forget what an overprivileged, voyeuristic, fat piece of backpacking shit you are.  Or actually, never mind, you can never really leave that behind; it’s more that the people in Myanmar see you for what you are, and they like you anyway, and they think you’re interesting, and they want to say hello.   That is a special thing, I think. That is rare.

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But anyway, now we’re back in Bangkok, enjoying the air conditioning, the iced lattes, and the anonymity.  We’re planning ahead for Malaysia, our last stop; we’re thinking about home, which seems closer than ever.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go research some dentists.

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Kissy kissy

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Greetings from Myanmar*!  The title of this post refers to the most entertaining cultural habit we’ve observed so far: To get someone’s attention in this country, you make kissing noises at them.  Ryan has noted that this is awkward for him when he wants to call the teahouse waiter for the check (because all the waiters here are prepubescent boys).

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c’mere you

Speaking of attention, we sure have been getting a lot of it. I guess  Western tourists get a lot of attention almost anywhere they go in southeast Asia, but here it’s less, “Hello motorbike where you go?” and more, “Hello!” followed by giggling.  People will stop and make small talk with us, and an astonishing amount of the time, they don’t even want to sell us anything.  For anybody who’s traveled to the big tourist spots in Cambodia or Thailand, this kind of friendly, curious behavior from locals can seem like a small, strange miracle.  You…you just want to know where I’m from?  Really?

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Obviously, though, not everybody is totally free of ulterior motives when they talk to us.  Meet Sai:

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He came up to us on our first day in Yangon, saying he was a former monk who still lived at his monastery as a layperson, and he was on his way there, and would we like to come with him?  We did a very out-of-character thing and said yes (or rather, I said yes and Ryan looked at me like I was insane).  So we all took a local bus out there and he showed us around the place, which was huge, a small city of monasteries and monks.  Then he took us to his dark, teak-wood monastery and sure enough, when we started making polite noises about needing to go, he set in about how his head monk was very, very sick and how they couldn’t afford any good medicine for him.  So we were like yes yes okay here’s a donation, Sai.

I’m still glad we went with him, though – it’s not like we didn’t see the plea for money coming a mile away, and we actually learned and saw some pretty interesting stuff, thanks to him.  For example:

1.  While we waited for the bus, Sai pointed to an old, red, boarded-up colonial building and told us about the military snipers who stood at the windows and shot people down on the street during the 2007 protests.  Then he pointed to a swanky, high-rise hotel and said, “The security was very good at that hotel!  Many people tried to run inside, but they couldn’t get in.”

2.  He’s from a village way up north, in a restricted zone. He came to Yangon in 2007 with an invitation to study at university but he can’t return home now, because as a member of the Shan minority he doesn’t have the necessary documents and IDs that he would need to travel back to the restricted zone.  This kind of blew me away.  Here is an interesting article about, among other things, the ethnic diversity of Myanmar (which I, being an ass, knew nothing about before coming here) and how it relates to national identity.

3.  When we saw him, he said he’d just finished teaching a lesson at a local orphanage.  He himself was orphaned by the civil war in the border states; he said a lot of the boys he teaches also lost their families to conflict, and many of them will eventually become monks, like he did.

But never fear, we also learned less-depressing things from Sai.  For instance, he took us to this crazy concrete bunker where people could come to make offerings to a gallery of nats, or spirits:

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There were nats to protect you in the forest, and nats to protect you at sea.  The two boy-nats in the photo above used to be princes, killed by the man in the middle (who was then executed by the king).  Our favorite nat was this mustachioed fellow, Gojijo:

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He was an alcoholic who died after a night of heavy drinking.  Sai told us that if you say his name when you raise your glass, he will watch over your party.  Seems like a pretty good deal.

And finally, if we hadn’t visited Sai’s monastery, we wouldn’t have met this character:

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The second-in-command at the monastery, he demanded to see one of my bracelets and then, after examining it and proclaiming it to be teak, he shuffled over to where we were sitting and hand-fed us some pineapple chunks.  Then he chuckled and told us that monks usually only feed babies like that, and so, we were his babies.  I guess you had to be there?  It was kinda funny.

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Yangon was overwhelming in a good way, at first. We stayed in the heart of the city and every time we went outside, the street was a riot of crazy shit we’d never seen before: Moldy, crumbling colonial architecture; men in longyis; faces smeared with golden thanaka; Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Burmese, Indians, Chinese and minority people, all mixed together and weaving through the loud, crowded streets and grinning their bloody betel nut grins at us. We’ve never been to India so maybe that’s why Yangon overloaded my senses, but man. I don’t have any pictures that really capture how bonkers the streets were around our guesthouse.  I just wandered around in a sweaty daze, picking my way around the destroyed sidewalks, trying to return all the smiles from strangers.

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After a few days, though, Yangon stopped being overwhelming in a good way, and started just wearing us down. The city was sunny and loud; our guesthouse room was hot and windowless; the few air-conditioned cafes were far away and pricey.  So we traveled north for about 24 hours to a town called Hsipaw, which has been my favorite place on this trip so far and I haven’t been able to shut up about it.  But that’s for another post!  Another breathless, gushing post!  Get ready to roll your eyes at me as you’ve never rolled them before!

In conclusion, I give you our regularly scheduled gif, of Sule Paya in Yangon:

And I bid you a good day.

*or Burma, obvs.  I am not sure where I come down on the Myanmar/Burma debate.  Aung San Suu Kyi calls it Burma and so that seems like it should be the end of the argument, but everyone we’ve met here so far – local and foreign – uses “Myanmar” to refer to both the country and the language.  Obviously that doesn’t prove anything: Maybe people say “Myanmar” because they’re making a political statement, but maybe it’s just out of habit, or maybe it’s still not a good idea to use the word “Burma” out in the street, despite the recent liberalizations.  I have no idea; I haven’t asked anybody about it.  Initiating a conversation with somebody about something so potentially controversial seems unwise?  And so we’ve been saying “Myanmar” here, which seems like the most appropriate thing to do as foreigners who are not interested in making any waves.

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O Friends

Just in case you think we’re the only M21s still bumming around in southeast Asia, look who we ran into:

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We met up with some buds once we got back to Luang Prabang, and then later we met another bud in Vientiane, and not a moment too soon!  We’ve had some good conversations with other travelers on this trip (mostly with people over 40; what this says about us, I don’t want to know) but it sure was nice to see some familiar faces, especially ones who are jobless hobos like us.

We spent a couple days in Luang Prabang with Pecaut and Sarah  (a kindred lady M21 bloggin’ her way across Southeast Asia!  Read it, love it) before the four of us headed out on a two-day trek. But it turns out I forgot to take any pictures of us virtuously slogging our way through the jungle; all I have are pictures of us being buttheads in the city the day before.  Oh well.

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more beer in my beer, please

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These kebabs are too spicy: A Portrait

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How we do

My other picture from karaoke will remain unpublished, for leverage.

Here are some of the kiddos from the Khmu village we passed through on our first day:

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I asked these girls for their photo, and they giggled and obliged.  Now we can all breathe easy because my entitled little scavenger hunt – “Types of Laotians I Want Photos Of” – has come to an end.  Basically I just wanted to take a picture of schoolgirls before we left.  I like how they wear blingy silver belts with their sarongs, like the girl on the left.  I was tempted to get a pencil skirt made out of similar fabric when we were in Luang Prabang, but my previous misadventures with tailored clothes stopped me.  And could any white girl pull off something like that back in the states?  I mean if I walked into a room people would definitely go, “Oh good, here comes Katie in her fucking ethnic skirt again.”  I would think that, anyway.  And everybody else in the world is just as small-minded as me, I’m pretty sure.

Here is Mr. Hot Stuff, who, after an initial period of wide-eyed shyness, was posin’ up a storm the whole time our group was in the village:

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He knew the drill for sure.

Sarah mentioned this in her post, too, but: This trek was a tad weird, for two reasons.  One is the simple fact that there were other people there. There was one Irish lady and three other Americans, a couple of whom were particularly photo-snappy. There is nothing quite so awkward and guilt-inducing as walking through a village with a group of other foreigners and seeing your own behavior reflected in them (they were sometimes jerks about it, dancing right on that razor-thin dividing line between “zealous but friendly and engaging tourist photographer, who smiles and asks and tries to be human” and “robotic, dead-eyed picture-taking machine who sneaks photos of bathing villagers”).

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We stayed the night at another Khmu village, and our guides walked the eight of us around before dinner, pointing out various things: Boys playing sepak takraw, a volleyball-like game using feet, heads, and a rattan ball; old ladies chewing betel nuts; a blacksmith, hammering out a small scythe (when he saw us coming, one of the blacksmith’s buds laughed and told our guide to thank the foreigners for all the free, high-quality metal we sent down from the sky) .  The other shutterbugs went in for the kill each time, and I had to wander away from the paparazzi brigade before I felt comfortable enough to ask anybody for photos (there is a whole other blog post where I dissect the feelings of privilege and entitlement that go with my desire to not be part of a “paparazzi brigade” when I’m on the hunt for photos in the mountain villages of Laos, but let’s just let it be for now and proceed under the assumption that I know I’m a jerk).

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This guy was making a new roof for his house.  According to our guide, they have to be replaced every couple of years.

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I kept these in color only because you can see a hint of betel nut red around Mom’s mouth.  We played a game where Mom would have me toggle back and forth between the photos and have the little girl shout out everyone’s name.  She shouted hers the loudest, obvs.

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The second reason this trek was weird is that the other Americans were maybe the most joyless group of people we’ve ever encountered.  The less said about them the better, but man.  They just kind of clumped together and glowered the whole time.  They didn’t even really talk with either of our guides, which, I mean, look at this guy:

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When BK the Tour Guide breaks out the homemade lao-lao, you drink it, and you listen to him ramble on about his time in the corrupt monk education system, and you like it.  Duh.

Anyway, on day two there were some elephants:

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And some waterfalls:

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(Guess who we saw there, guiding some other poor saps?  Hint: Although the rocks were really slippery, he did not tell us to be careful, which was disappointing)

And finally, some kayaking:

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Which Ryan and I did not do, because we are lazy, and because I can’t even remember the last time I paddled a boat.

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So that was that!  We said our farewells and made our move into Thailand, picking up our pal Aaron along the way.  Here is another gif for you, of Aaron and me crossing the Lao-Thai border, and it is a small work of art methinks:

I hereby pledge to have at least one gif per post for the rest of our trip.  Why did I not start making these things sooner?  They are SO EASY!  Hooray!

Oh what the heck, here’s one more:

Okay, so, wrapping this up, jesus.  Aaron, Ryan and I went straight from Vientiane to Bangkok.  We stayed for one night in Chinatown, in a large, empty, scary crap palace of a hotel.  Then we spent the day wandering around the packed alleyways, congratulating ourselves on our choice of neighborhood.  No Western tourists anywhere!  Crazy-ass Chinese commerce as far as the eye could see!  Delicious street food, e’erywhere!

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Alas, there was one thing missing from Chinatown: An air-conditioned place for us to sit and have a beer and use the internet.

And so we immediately decamped for Banglamphu, otherwise known as Ground Zero for Assclowns.

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Pad thai on Khaosan Road. Very original, you two

We spent a week in the city, mostly indulging in first-world kind of stuff: Seeing a 3-D movie, stuffing our faces in mall food courts, riding the air-conditioned Skytrain, making fun of white people with dreadlocks.  I think most traveling RPCVs think of our vacations as a transition, a way to ease back into life in the states; what’s strange about Bangkok is that a lot of the city makes a lot of the US seem shabby by comparison.  After experiencing the polished splendor of Siam Paragon I know that as soon as I walk into a mall back home, my first thought will not be, “Ah yes! Back in America,” but rather, “ew, what a dump.”

We also indulged in THE BEST PAD THAI IN BANGKOK, according to the Lonely Planet anyway:

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All wrapped up in its eggy shell

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oooh

We kept being amazed at how many tourists there are in Bangkok, and yet how easy it is to leave them behind.  This restaurant isn’t any secret; it’s right there in the guidebook, and only a 15-minute walk from Backpacker Central.  And yet we were the only foreigners there.  Can imagine how smug we felt, strolling back to our guesthouse that evening, having eaten these delicious goddamned noodles?  Can you?  I bet you can.

And then, finally, speaking of indulgences, somebody had his one millionth three-piece suit tailor-made:

Lookin’ good, pal.

And so!  The three of us parted ways; Aaron back to the motherland, and us here to Yangon, which is like nothing we’ve ever seen before.  Here’s hoping the internet holds out!

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Upriver, downriver

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After Luang Prabang we headed north to Nong Khiaw, a small town on the Nam Ou that most tourists seem to just pass through, which is weird, because it is a quiet, pretty place, with all the  limestone karsts and cheap lemongrass cocktails you could want.
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Because we like to make things difficult for ourselves, we spent a lot of time and effort trying to find the perfect river bungalow.  The first night, we stayed at a place that had a nice breeze, but no hammock and no wifi.  Nights two and three, we stayed at a place with a hammock, but no breeze, and the wifi didn’t reach our bungalow.  We finally found a place with a hammock and a breeze for our fourth night, but alack, I regret to report that we never found a place with wifi that would reach our breezy hammock.  Ugh, why doesn’t anything ever work out for us?

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oh woe

Then we took a longboat a little farther north to Muang Ngoi, an even smaller village with no roads and no electricity (but, incongruously enough, with guesthouses and English speakers).  We stayed there for another few days, repeating the rhythms we’d established in Nong Khiaw: Eat, hammock, eat, beer, hammock, eat, beer, hammock.  It didn’t take long before the proprietress of one of Muang Ngoi’s two cafes would say, upon seeing us coming down the road for our 3:30 snack,  “Two big Beerlao and french fries?”

But we did manage to expend energy on things other than the 50-meter commute between our bungalows and the closest cafe.  Two things, specifically.  Those things were:

1.
An afternoon of bike riding around Nong Khiaw.  By “an afternoon” I mean about 90 minutes, but hey, it’s still pretty hot around here, and stuff.

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We passed through villages on our way to visit some kind of cave system, which turned out to be closed (we found out it was closed only after we tightrope-walked across the ricketiest of the many rickety bamboo bridges we’ve encountered so far on this trip).  So we rode back and decided to stop for a drink in town, outside of the tiny backpackers’ ghetto we’d been lazily confining ourselves to.  I was immediately bummed that we’d waited until our last day to do this, because the busy street scene was basically everything you could want while you sit and drink your frosty Beerlao:  Schoolkids passing by in the street, dudes playing a rowdy card game down the road, and a friendly family across the way, selling kebabs and THESE THINGS:

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(they were, we have since learned, bamboo rats)(and we did not buy one, but the guy in the photo informed us that they are very tasty barbequed)

2. 
A day of self-guided trekking in Muang Ngoi, made possible by the clearly-marked paths that lead out of the village, through rice paddies and into even remoter villages.  After two years in Mongolia anything “remote” shouldn’t surprise me much, but I was still kind of blown away at how, to get to these villages, you need to 1) drive to Nong Khiaw, 2) take a 1-hour boat up the river to Muang Ngoi, then 3) walk for two hours.

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Thus we were not surprised when we weren’t able to get a beer at our first stop.

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Mountain crab, ahoy

So I’m glad we went on this hike —  we did have to ford a couple of streams and navigate some gigantic mud patches,  but at least it was all flat.   If we did it again, though, I would hire a guide.  As awkward as it is to stroll through a tiny village with a local showing you the sights, it sure is even more awkward to do it without a guide.
We also encountered a crowd of “Hello candy” kids, which just makes you want to go back in time, locate the tourists who first gave these children candy, and smack them.  And then eat their candy.
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These boys, though!  We saw them when we were on our way into the second village, and they were on their way out.  They gave us a big sabai dee, and then posed for this photo like champs.  We saw them again an hour or so later, their heads bobbing above the rice in the distance.  When we passed each other, I peered into their baskets and asked, “Whatd’ja get?”

“PEEESH!” the littlest one yelled.

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This is not exactly a thing that required a lot of energy, but at one point in Muang Ngoi my Friendly Monk Spidey Sense tingled.  I looked up from my hammock and said, “I think I’ll go poke around that wat at the end of the street.”

“Mmph” came the reply from Ryan’s hammock.
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The head monk, who was all of 20 years old, spoke really excellent English and we chatted for a few minutes while the other boys watched and giggled. “Ask her how old she is!” they said. “Ask her if she’s married!”

When I finally asked if I could take a photo, the head monk smiled serenely and shook his head, saying, “I don’t do that.” Meanwhile, the six other guys bolted to their quarters to put on their best robes.

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Very gangsta, fellas.
Oh man, I have more things to tell you about Laos and Bangkok, but Ryan and I have to go catch our flight to Myanmar now.  We’ll be back in three weeks; I shall leave you with these gifs, to keep you company.

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Trekking with Vong

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We spent a week in Luang Prabang — eating some seriously legit bagel-egg-and-cheese sandwiches, lounging at riverside bars, nervously approaching monks with my camera (me) and drafting fantasy football players (not me) — before we put our crusty boots back on and headed out into the jungle again.  Pictured above is our guide Vong, a 23-year-old Hmong guy who took us up the mountain to stay in his family’s village.  We slept at the house of his uncle’s second wife, interestingly enough.  Hmong polygamy!  Who knew?  Not I.

Vong was a capable but somewhat annoying guide, mainly because of his two catchphrases, which were:

1. “Be careful!”

I feel like Ryan and I will be saying this to each other, in our best Vong voices, for many years to come.  Mostly because Vong — poor, sweet, well-meaning Vong who I am just throwing under a bus here but whatever — sounds a bit like Elmer Fudd.  Be vewwy, vewwy careful!*

Vong was very fond of this phrase.  Trekking in Laos in the rainy season is a muddy affair, and every time we came to a particularly slippery incline (which was every five minutes) he would cheerfully call out, “Be careful!”  And when Ryan and I would, inevitably, eat it, Vong  would knit his brows and say, “Oooooooh.  Sorry.”  Then, brightening: “Be careful!”

“Okay, Vong,” we’d mutter, wiping our hands on the nearest tree.

* Can you figure out how to write “careful” in an Elmer Fudd voice?  I tried for about ten minutes but came up empty-handed.

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2.  “Poor people”

We were about five minutes into the trek when Vong started talking about his favorite subject: money.  First up was a story about how, when he was a high school student, he fell madly in love with a 19-year-old Hmong-American girl who came to visit Laos with her parents.  He ditched school and they spent one glorious week together, motorbiking around the countryside and etc; alas, it was not to be, as her striving, upwardly-mobile parents didn’t like the idea of their daughter starting a relationship with some dropout from the sticks.  Just in case we didn’t understand why, exactly, they would disapprove of him, he drove the point home (“They think: Our daughter must marry an American.  A rich man.  But I am a poor, poor boy!  So she cannot marry me.  I have no money.  They don’t like this”).

Next up was a morality tale about a recently-married Lao couple (“very poor”).  As the story goes, the husband coerces his beautiful wife into posting her photos online (“because they have no money”).  Soon enough, an American man (“very rich”) starts writing her, and over the course of several months he sends lots of money, which the husband uses to buy a new house and a car.  The American eventually starts asking when he can visit; the husband tells his long-suffering wife that she will meet the American at the airport and take him back to a hotel, where the husband will be waiting to rob him for even more money.  The wife dutifully goes to the airport, but — what’s this? — the American turns out to be a very young, handsome man.  And so the two of them fall in love and run away to America together, leaving the conniving husband behind (“He is so sad after that.  And: he has no more money”).

Then there was the part when Vong took us on a walk around his village, pointing out things of interest — which, to him, mostly consisted of explaining which families were receiving remittances from relatives in the states, and which weren’t.  “They get money from America,” he would say, pointing.  “Two thousand dollars.  Now they have a new house!  They are rich.”

(a pause;  he considers the next homestead; we feel it coming and brace for it)

“But they are poor, poor people.”

So by the time Vong launched into what seemed like a well-rehearsed speech about how we, as rich foreigners, may have been feeling quite surprised indeed upon seeing way people live in the mountains of  Laos (“Maybe you think people live a different way!  Maybe you think they live like you!  But no!  They do not. They are very, very poor people”), we were obviously ready to set him, and ourselves, on fire.

Of course, we can’t really blame him for any of this. Vong is definitely a bit of a doink, but he probably doesn’t have any idea how uncomfortable Westerners are with direct, unvarnished talk of money and class (especially when that talk is coming from a self-proclaimed poor person).  If we were better people we would have tried to explain to him how we felt, although I can just imagine how this imaginary feedback session would have gone.  There we’d sit, wringing our hands, our mouths pulled back in desperate, grinning rictuses of embarrassment:

“You see, Vong,” we’d begin, “you talked a lot about…about money on this trip, and, ah, people from the USA don’t really like to…to talk about…ah…”

“…Poor people?” he’d ask.

“YES, YES, POOR PEOPLE, AUGH,” we’d scream, clawing at our ears.

But instead, at the end of the trek, we just gave him a tip and fled.  And now I’m making fun of him on my blog!  And aren’t I ashamed.

Well.  Despite my pretty complaints, Vong still showed us a real good time:

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These shots are from the Khmu village we passed through on the first day.  This guy may look stern, but he was jolly indeed when he waved over our little group and insisted we have some of the whiskey out of that jug.

We had another of those weird moments in this village, those “ah yes I can feel how Peace Corps has changed my reaction to this situation” moments.  During our walk, Vong pointed up the hill and said, “There’s the school.  Let’s go have a look.”

“But…aren’t they in the middle of their lessons?” we asked, getting closer to the little two-room schoolhouse.  “Aren’t we going to interrupt?”

Then we strolled up.  The two teachers, smiling, one with her baby on her hip, came out to say hello and chat with Vong.    Some kids watched and giggled from the doorways, some kids stayed at their desks and worked, some kids goofed around in the back of the classrooms, and nobody was even a little perturbed by our unannounced visit.  And then we were like: Oh right.  Classroom culture in the U.S. ≠ Classroom culture elsewhere.
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Once we got to our homestay village, we sat in front of our host’s house, ate cucumbers, and watched a large group of unsupervised children amuse themselves by playing with fire in the street.  The boys hacked up kindling with gigantic butcher knives while the girls used a discarded can to cook some kind of hobo soup consisting of flowers and twigs.  After a while, Grandma came out and distributed big sticks of sugarcane to everybody, including us.  It was all pretty heartwarming, in a Lord of the Flies kind of way.

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And once it got dark, we all went inside to let the baby play with Ryan’s beard.

All in all, a good trek indeed!  Thanks, Vong.  We shall think of you whenever we fall on our asses in the mud.

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Kao tai hoop day

Greetings!  The title  of this post is a very rough transliteration of the question “may I take your photo?” in Lao.  By “very rough” I mean Ryan asked One, our Luang Namtha guide, to say it a few times, and then he wrote down what he heard. I tried to find a version of this phrase online, but a solid ten minutes of Googling didn’t turn up anything.  Does this say something about how often falangs bother to ask Lao people for permission to take a photo?  Is this blog post going to once again involve me complaining about the behavior of other tourists, while simultaneously revealing myself to be a hypocrite who indulges in the exact same behavior? Do Asiatic black bears shit in the jungle?

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They sure do!

So I’ve been repeating myself a lot in these here travel posts, and here I go again: I’ve been trying to embrace a relaxed photo-taking philosophy on this trip.  Something along the lines of, “I’ll get what I get, and they won’t be the best shots in the world but they’ll be mine and that’s good enough, and whatever.”

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good enough

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good enough

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PUPPY

All the previous photos were taken in Huay Xai, a little town on the Thai border where we hung out for a couple days.  From there, we signed up for a two-day trip down the Mekong to Luang Prabang, in a longboat that seated a few dozen people.  Most of the passengers were tourists, but there were enough locals along for the ride that the boat made plenty of stops at riverbank villages to let things on and off: People, goods, giant gasping catfish, et cetera.

At all of these stops, our boat would ease up next to a muddy bank, where local people – mostly kids – had gathered to swim, see their relatives off, and check out the boat traffic.  And at all of these stops, the tourist passengers would whip out their dinky off-brand prosumer DSLRs,* lean as far as they could over the boat railing, zoom in, and snap snap snap away.  Not looking people in the face, before or after; just squinting into the viewfinder, taking the shot, then immediately peering down at their screens, to evaluate the prize.   It was like a hit and run: The boat docks for only a minute or so, so you get to be as aggressive as you want with your camera and then, just as it’s getting hard to avoid eye contact with your subjects (who are staring at you), just as you’re really starting to ask yourself ‘am I…the king of the dicks?’ the boat launches itself down the river again, and you are swept away, absolved.

But obviously I AM REALLY ONE TO TALK.

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The ride I just described reminded me of a Cambodian river trip we took from Siem Reap to Battnambang six years ago.  I took the three photos above, plus dozens and dozens more, on that trip.  The insensitive tourists I’m bitching about, with their sub-par equipment and their overzealous photo-taking and their willful lack of regard for their subjects’ feelings: I was them.  I am still kind of them.  I judge me!  I JUDGE ME OKAY.

And did I refrain from the same kind of manic, antisocial behavior on this trip because of some kind of newfound piety, or was it just because I didn’t have a zoom lens on me?

Well anyway.  This is what the Huay Xai – Luang Prabang boat ride looked like to me.  Señor Short Shorts with his Sony Shit Whatever may have gotten better photos than me, but these are mine, and I am like 80% sure I didn’t alienate anybody getting them, and that’s good enough, and whatever.

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* “Dinky off-brand prosumer DSLR” is a dick thing to say, but I mean, if you insist on a)  taking out said camera at every fucking opportunity like your livelihood depends on it, and b) using the strap that came with your kit – the one with the make and model embroidered in bright yellow thread all up and down for everyone to see – then I reserve the right  to sit here like Dr. Evil, lovingly stroking the full-frame Nikon in my lap, judging you

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Then we got to Luang Prabang: Land of temples, UNESCO-listed French colonial architecture, and monks.  Monks everywhere!  Monks going here, monks going there, monks with their color-coordinated umbrellas and bags, kid monks, teenage monks, all monks all the time.  Because there are so many monks in such a small, quaint space, the dawn alms procession is, like, a thing, a must-see thing in Luang Prabang, but it’s still a religious ceremony, so you’re supposed to watch very quietly and from a distance.  So for our first night there, much to Ryan’s chagrin,* I booked us at a kind-of-pricey boutique hotel because I knew we would have a good view of the procession the next morning.  “Well I hope this is worth it to you” he muttered after we checked in, our budget blown to smithereens for the day.

It was!

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*[Ryan says he was only negligibly chagrined, jeez — Ed.]

It was worth it to be able to roll out of bed and watch the procession on the balcony, in our pajamas.  It was also worth it to be able to take a couple photos from what I hope was a respectful enough distance.  And sure enough, even though there are signs posted on the street begging people not to act like idiots during this silent,  holy ceremony that represents thousands of years of living culture, we saw a couple tourist guys down on the street, shoving their cameras right in the monks’ faces.  Now I enjoy being given an opportunity to judge other people (surprise!) especially when it makes me look like a saint in comparison (surprise again!) but I didn’t get any pleasure from watching these men; it was just kind of sad and horrifying, the way they were behaving.  Ryan and I considered sending silent messages to them somehow – maybe pelting them with wadded-up papers that would open to read “YOU ARE THE WORLD’S BIGGEST DOUCHEBAG.”

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But other than that it was a mesmerizing thing to watch, this endless line of boys receiving their daily sticky rice.  What I’ll remember is how, in the quiet of the ceremony, the loudest sound was the shuffling of their feet.

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So, for the next couple of days, we bummed around.  I tried to be happy with the photos I was getting but I wasn’t really, because there were no people in them, specifically no people with shaved heads and orange robes.  I guess I should add here that Laos is usually way too quiet for me to get away with any shooting from the hip, which is my favored slimeball way of taking candid photos (but if I COULD get away with it, would I try? Even on the monks, or on traditionally-dressed hilltribe women, or on any other population that is already besieged by falangs and their cameras?  Or does that even matter, is there some kind of spectrum of Acceptable People To Steal Photos Of, with “Lao Monks Already Wearied By Aggressive Picture-Taking Tourists” on one end and “Regular Beijingers Going About Their Day” on the other?  I guess I’m also making a distinction between stealing a candid photo – when you can be reasonably sure that your subject will not notice you – and stealing a portrait, where you just point your camera right at people on the street and don’t give a flying fuck that they can see you.  Whether or not people are aware that you’re taking their photo without their permission is obviously a very small moral distinction but I think it matters and OH GOD I AM TIRED OF THIS are you? ).

So I gave myself a goal: Before our time in Luang Prabang was up I had to ask five monks if I could take their picture.  And maybe they would all say no, but even if they did, at least I would have tried.  At least I would have asked.

But what do you know?  They all said yes.

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He doesn’t really look like it, but this guy was super smiley and friendly. His wat was interesting – there were monks AND nuns, and they all wore white instead of orange – but I couldn’t ask him about it, since he didn’t speak any English, and I don’t speak any Lao, except of course for the question that got me this photo.

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This kid said yes, but by the look on his face I kind of wish he’d said no. Sorry, buddy!

These next three teenagers, god bless ‘em, all made the first move: They struck up conversations with me because they wanted to practice their English.  I think it’s worth noting that these conversations happened when I was wandering around by myself, with my biggest, dopiest, “oh boy look at this beautiful wat I sure am a very non-threatening kind of lady” smile on my face.

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I forget this guy’s name. We chatted about the province he’s from, and how long he plans to be a monk. When I asked him what his favorite Lao food is, he said, “Everything.” I said, “Really? Everything? Come on.” And he said, “Yes, because I take what people give me, and I am happy with that.”

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And these two were delightful. Look at those smiles.  They said they like to hang out where they do — next to a little cave that claims to have an imprint of the Buddha’s foot inside —  so they can catch the tourists that walk by.

“You guys must have a lot of foreigners take your photo,” I said.

“Yes,” said Sing, the guy on the right, “but I don’t mind. Americans are the most polite, I think.”

“Oh really?” I said.

“Yes,” he said.  “They always ask.”

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