Monday, June 27, 2011

KL, Jogya, Malang

Kuala Lumpur is a pain in the ass to get to if you’re on a budget. The Kuala Lumpur International Airport, which I’ve never seen the inside of, has a $4, 35-minute direct rail link to the main downtown train station, from which you can grab a taxi or take the subway to wherever you’re headed. But that, of course, is only if you’re paying full price on a real airline. People like me who fly budget on AirAsia and the like land at the low-cost carrier terminal, LCCT, which is an hour and fifteen minutes by bus from the city. (Not unlike LaGuardia, come to think of it…) So with my plane landing at 9pm, by the time I got through passport control and luggage pickup and the bus into town and the subway to the hostel and then finding the damn place, since they’re never very well marked, it was 11:00. Thank god for 24-hour reception.

I’d fully intended to go back to the Petronas Towers bright and early to go to the top, but thanks to a change in time zones I showed up an hour later than intended and once again missed my chance: tiket sudah habis. So I pulled out my map and started towards the Bukit Nanas park for a stroll in the literal urban jungle. On the way I was joined, not entirely voluntarily, by a Canadian/Nigerian student named Tony who was headed to the tower in the center of the park. He was the type to grab my arm to cross a busy street. I don’t particularly like being led across the street. I wasn’t terribly friendly. He didn’t seem to notice. At the tower I ditched him quick as I could (“You’re going to the top? I’ll stay down here. Enjoy the view!”), spent a little time in the air-conditioned theater where they were playing a movie about the construction of the tower, complete with a soundtrack from the Kevin Costner ‘Robin Hood’ movie that we used to play in high school band, then discovered a nature walk about to start through the park. Just before the walk was to leave, who shows up again but Tony. (“Oh, you’re tired already? You need an extra pair of legs!” “No, you asshole, I’m sitting down because I’m waiting for the tour to start.”) I think he thought I shouldn’t/wouldn’t want to be walking around on my own. I think he really didn’t want to be on his own. Either way, he came on the nature walk.

Afterwards I dashed off again, took in a little more a/c, and once again ran into Tony leaving the park. We walked a few blocks through a little market before we passed a metro station. I said I was going back to my hostel for a break. I went to the KL Bird Park. He invited me to the reggae bar in Chinatown for that evening. I didn’t go.

The bird park was pretty cool. The birds are fearless, having figured out by now that all the people do is take pictures and occasionally spend half a ringgit for a handful of bird food. So the storks are friendly and the peacocks a touch confrontational, and the monkeys are happy to take gum from giggling Japanese tourists. After the park and a swing through the Central Market for dinner and a souvenir, I headed back to the hostel (where they’d been kind enough to do my laundry for a dollar a pound) for email and bed.

If the LCCT airport is a pain for arriving at night, it’s even worse for early-morning flights out. My 7am flight to Jogya (thanks, AirAsia) meant getting to the airport around 5:30, which meant a 4am taxi to the 4:15 bus, and a 3:30 cell phone alarm to get me there. Except that Malaysia, as I discovered at the Petronas Towers the day before, is an hour ahead of Laos, and my cell phone had failed to auto-reset the clock. So when I thought I was getting up a few minutes early at 3:15, and passed the clock in the hall which said 4:15, I had a mini-heart attack. I made it out to the taxi (which thankfully was still waiting) by 4:30, caught a 4:45 bus, and luckily enough the early-morning lack of traffic made the trip quicker than usual and I made it to the check-in gate at 5:50, roughly 10 minutes before it closed. So goodbye Malaysia, and next time I’m splurging for the convenient airport.

We landed in Java around 8:30am. Last time I arrived I was horribly jetlagged and completely disoriented by this utterly strange and completely new place. This time around it was comfortable and familiar, and rather a relief to find myself there after unknown Cambodia & Laos. I had a room at a wisma with a pool, which was luckily ready for me despite the early arrival. The maps of Jogya all lie, by the way; what looked in the guidebook like a little street close to the center of town was in reality a good three kilometers south of everything you’d want to see. Outside of Bali, Indonesia doesn’t court tourist dollars like, say, Cambodia does; it seems more to passively put up with tourists rather than cater to them, which is probably culturally a good thing but requires more effort from people like me. The result is that you get things like enclaves of hotels a mile and a half distant from the sights. But that first morning out, after the prerequisite recuperation from the morning’s hassles, I walked it anyway. Every five feet or so a becak driver offered me a ride, and I figured it was better to chat and practice my Indonesian than just say no like I usually would, so I ended up being accompanied most of the way north and talked into several batik shops I wouldn’t otherwise have visited. But I got where I was going and started using the language again, so no harm in looking at a few extra pieces of pretty cloth. The best luck was a wayang kulit workshop behind the kraton, where they supposedly made shadow puppets for the sultan. I got a demonstration of the making of a wayang and an explanation of all the symbolism involved, and was probably a little overly proud of myself for doing it all in Indonesian and understanding. (Why is it so much easier to speak here than in the States?) And yes, I did buy one, and probably for more money than it was worth, but a) it was gorgeous, b) I paid half the written (tourist) price, and c) they threw in a bookmark and a keychain along with it. So good enough for me.

Jogyakarta (aka Yogyakarta, Jogja, Jogya, etc.) is in Central Java, a bit west of Malang, where I spent last summer. It’s known as a cultural capitol of Java, sort of like Ubud in Bali, where far more of the pre-Islamic Javanese culture has persisted than in other cities on the island. That means it’s far more open and socially liberal than a lot of places (though the presence of several universities doesn’t hurt either), and that it’s a great place to hear a gamelan performance. And famous for its batik. The number of stores/galleries selling gorgeous handmade batik paintings around Jalan Malioboro (the main drag) was astounding. As were the prices often, but it’s free to look. And Malioboro itself was lined up and down with street vendors selling cheap batik clothes and bags and other souvenirs, but still fun to peruse for an afternoon. Fun fact: Jalan Malioboro is named after the Duke of Marlborough. I have no idea why.

I got a lunch of soto ayam (chicken soup) from a street stall. Things I love about Indonesia: It was delicious, and cost me roughly 75 cents. And unlike in Cambodia, it didn’t make me sick. From there I walked north through the forests of batik to the train station, priced a ticket to Malang, and then back down the other side of the street. There’s an old Dutch fort just north of the kraton that’s now a museum on Indonesian independence, with patriotic dioramas depicting noble resistance fighters squaring off against evil Dutch colonialists, so for another 75 cents I poked around in there for a bit before heading back to the hotel.

Next day I woke up early again to go see Borobudur and Prambanan, Buddhist and Hindu temples, respectively, each about 45 minutes out of town and both roughly 1200 years old. They’re some of the biggest tourist draws in Java, given their age and their size. And both were pretty cool, and probably would have been far cooler had I not visited Angkor Wat just the week before. Impressive as Borobudur is, Bayon is better. The tour was billed as Borobudur Sunrise, but the timing was rather off and we ended up watching the sun come up behind Mt. Merapi as we barreled down the highway toward the temples. Still an awfully nice view. Merapi erupted rather dramatically in October of last year – it’s still smoking a bit – and you can see the paths the lava took. Driving through a perfectly intact village suddenly there will be an empty lot, filled with ash and boulders, while the houses on either side are just fine.

Both Borobudur and Prambanan were mobbed with school groups, one of the downsides of going on a Sunday. And every student in every group wanted to take a photo with me (and every other tourist there), usually in various combinations with different friends, using everybody’s cell phones. I don’t understand why – it’s not like Westerners are exactly a rarity there – and when I asked the only answer I got was “oh, we just want to, that’s all.” So I’m now on probably 90 different Facebook walls, smiling with various groups of jilbabed 14-year-olds. After a while I started saying yes but saying they had to use my camera too, to level the field a bit. After last year in Malang, I’m just grateful that here they generally bothered to ask.

For dinner I wandered down the road from the wisma until I found a place serving bebek goring – fried duck. This one probably cost me $2.25, for a big old fried duck leg, rice, sliced cucumbers, sambal, and a few sprigs of lemon balm. On top they put kremes, which as far as I can tell is what happened when you put a dollop of batter (though the duck is unbuttered) into the boiling oil. What comes out is pure salty crunchy crumbly goodness. I know I said this last year, but the Javanese sure do know how to fry their poultry. So good.

Morning #3 in Jogya I signed up for a batik class, this being the city of batik and all. I was the only one there. The instructor started by putting out some examples of patterns I could use, but they all looked like the kind of sarongs you buy for a buck on the beach in Bali, so me being overambitious me I pointed at a traditional Javanese print on the wall and asked if I could do that instead. Rather than a few lilies on a plain background, I ended up with Krishna riding Garuda, with all the flourishes. Rather than the scheduled 3 hours, the piece took me a solid 5 hours to finish. But it looks awesome, and apparently I have a very steady hand for dripping wax on fabric. Along with the batik, on the way out they give you a traditional batik wax applicator, so I fully intend to buy some dye and try again at home. Back by my hotel, I stopped by a travel agency to buy my plane ticket to Papua and book passage to Malang. The train was fully booked, so I ended up taking a travel, which is a van that serves as overland transport here. More on that later.

That night I met up with Mas Jake, a friend from CLS, to get dinner. He’s in Jogya for the year doing research on irrigation in the countryside. The restaurant we went to was a Jogya institution, owned by a middle-aged transvestite and staffed by a lot of very gay waiters (like I said about Jogya being rather more liberal than Malang…), serving es kelapa muda (iced young coconut) in a glass the size of your head. From there he drove me to buy an Indonesian cell phone, for about half the price I’d been quoted on my own. There’s nothing better than breezing through town on a motorbike – I’m gonna have to get me one of those. On the way back we stopped at the alun-alun (town square), where for about $2.50 you can rent a bicycle cart with a big neon figure on top (in our case a fish) and do a few laps of the square. The whole place was lighted up with neon, from the characters on the carts – Spongebob, Looney Toons, flashing dice – to glowsticks being tossed in the air on the lawn. It’s about as psychedelic as you can get without illegal substances.

Next morning I took a becak up to the kraton to see the sultan’s palace and the water castle. Jogyakarta still has a sultan, so only parts of the palace are open, but they’ve got good cultural performances – in this case gamelan – and some interesting displays. The water palace was once a complex of pools and fountains built by a sultan a few hundred years back. It took some hits during independence and in a recent earthquake, so now it’s just a couple of pools and some crumbling walls. Final adventure of the evening was a silver class down in Kota Gede, a suburb known for its silverwork, where I made a ring. (Both this class and the batik were organized by Café Viavia, in case anyone’s going to Jogja and interested in the same thing.)

And on Wednesday I lazed around a bit, bought a pair of Kota Gede earrings, and found a salon for a haircut and a creambath. Longer hair means longer cold showers around here, so I got a good three or four inches off. And a creambath is a head and shoulder massage and deep conditioning treatment. I chose the cinnamon-coffee scented one. Not a bad way to kill a few hours on a hot afternoon. And since I went to a higher-end place the whole thing cost me about $7. Yet another reason why Java is great.

And in the evening I met up with Judith & Jenny from CLS for dinner. The place they chose, Milas, is close by where I was staying, but on one of those little side streets that they don’t bother to include on the maps. I got to what I thought was the right street and was assured by a vendor on the corner that I was in the right place. 50 feet down the road it was dark and I hadn’t seen the place yet, so I asked a lady walking by. She didn’t say anything, but looked to where I was pointing on my map, took my wrist and walked me back out to the main road, then kept going. After a lot of gesturing and few not-quite-words I realized that she was (probably) deaf, but she was very insistent that she knew where I was going and that it was very far. Once she’d marched me about 400 yards down the road I was fairly certain I was too far south, so I stopped to ask another vendor. Turns out I’d been right the first time, and she’d dramatically misread my map. Dinner was pasta, and it was delicious.

Thursday morning I got up early to catch the travel to Malang, which was supposed to pick me up at 7am at my wisma. At 8am, the agency where I’d bought my ticket opened, and they were able to call the company and reassure me that they were picking someone up far away and would be there shortly. At about 8:40, the travel finally arrived. I was the second person to be picked up. I’d been told it was roughly a 7-hour drive, so my plan was to get dropped off at Universitas Negri Malang around 2 or 3pm, say hi to CLS people, then catch the last few talks of the day at the ISLOJ conference, then have dinner with my old host family and back to Pak Gatut’s house, where I was staying. Around 2pm we stopped for lunch, got back on the road around 3:30, and entered the mountains around Malang after 5. All told it was a 10-hour drive, with a few stops in the villages to drop off passengers, and I was dropped off at my host family’s house at 7. It was good to see them again, and luckily Pak Gatut and his wife are laid-back enough that they didn’t mind me showing up at 10pm.

Since then I’ve been at the conference, which is mostly pretty interesting if occasionally far-fetched, and poking my head into CLS when I get the chance. Last night (Saturday) a group of linguists went out to karaoke in the basement of a big mall downtown (MOG), a truly Indonesian experience. I was invited on the CLS trip to Wonosari this weekend, but I figured I’d better go to the conference instead. So right now I’m sitting in a lecture hall not listening to a talk on child language acquisition. Tomorrow I’ll be hanging around CLS, hopefully finally with internet to post this and check email for the first time in days, before I head to Surabaya in the evening and thence by plane to Papua.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

You know you've been in Southeast Asia too long when...

This starts to look like a reasonable lunch. (And darn tasty little buggers they were too.)

Also: when your pork-noodle salad contains something roughly the consistency of tripe, and you reassure yourself by thinking it must be seaweed, or some sort of fungus.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Laos, Land of Butterflies

Next up, Luang Prabang, Lao PDR. (Apparently, like so many societal ills, the ‘s’ was a Western addition.) I thought I’d booked on the Lao national carrier, but when I got tot the airport my flight was listed under Vietnam Airlines. Laos: Home of the secret codeshare. An hour or so later we landed in mountainous northern Laos. My taxi got thoroughly lost trying to find my guesthouse, which was not in town but rather about two blocks from the airport, on the banks of the Nam Khan River. If you go to Cambodia for the temples (and you really should go to Cambodia for the temples), you go to Laos for the nature. The scenery was just stupendous, with the little town of Luang Prabang set in a valley in the midst of a low but striking mountain range. A lot like the Dolomites, but tropical. The whole place was swarming with butterflies and geckos and also mosquitoes, which keep the geckos fed and give the malarial parasites a place to live.

My guesthouse, which goes by variations on the name Ecolodge Namsongsai, was a rustic sort of place. It consisted of a large covered area which served as reception desk, restaurant, and movie theater, and some wooden thatched-roof Lao-style cabins where people like me stayed. For $7/night, I got my own bungalow, complete with hot water, a fan, and a front porch/balcony looking out over the river. The plus side was that the setting was beautiful, with fruit trees and herbs growing all over the property, swooping butterflies, and a cool breeze at night. The downside of staying in a thatched roof hut is that you get up close and personal with the local wildlife, of the four-, six-, and eight-legged varieties. Even with the window screens closed, there were ants, mosquitos, large geckos in the roof, and one big brown spider that briefly tried to move in to my bathroom. Or maybe he just temporarily vacated when I proved a bad host. Either way, I was glad for the mosquito net and learned to ignore the scurryings in the night.

My first afternoon I stayed at the guesthouse. A late lunch in the restaurant proved to be the best cucumber salad of my life, dressed largely the same as the Thai papaya salad at Rice Pot but somehow infinitely better. It took about half an hour to come out, which I later realized was at least in part because the woman running the place had to walk down to the garden to pick the cherry tomatoes to put in it.

Day two in LP I decided to scope out the town. The walk in took about half an hour, but as always the scenery was gorgeous. Not for nothing is the town a UNESCO World Heritage site. I climbed Mt. Phousi to see the stupa on top, but admission was 2000 kip (roughly 25ȼ) and all I had was a $20 bill, and reasonably enough the guy selling tickets refused to make change. They do take dollars in Laos, but unlike Cambodia the local currency is preferred. Still, I got to see Buddha’s giant footprint in the stone, and the view, of course, was superlative, even if I didn’t quite make it all the way up. Several wats and quite a bit of walking later, I stopped for lunch at Tamarind. Their cooking classes were, disappointingly, cancelled for the month, but I ordered a tasting platter of Lao specialties and was once again blown away. Khmer food is good; Lao food is great. Luang Prabang sausage, water buffalo jerky, pickled Mekong river weed, spicy bamboo shoots, and some spring rolls rolled up in lettuce leaves made my lunch. It was so good I ordered a second course of noodle salad, which was overkill but still excellent. If you’re ever in LP, eat there.

Afternoon was the royal palace museum and more wats, and since my guesthouse didn’t have internets I found a little bakery with good fruit shakes and free wifi. My laptop was two miles away at the guesthouse, but at least I could check email on my iPod. Then back to the guesthouse for more of that salad for dinner, this time with green papaya instead of cucumber.

When I went to brush that evening I saw something brown scurry out of sight, which I assumed was a gecko. A minute later it came out again and turned out to be a rather large, furry brown spider. Not the giant yellow ones I’d seen in the gardens, but still big enough that I wasn’t going to reach under it to get the soap, or even really stand in the same room as it if I had any say. Probably it had heard I’d eaten its cousins for lunch down in Phnom Penh and wanted to see what’s what. When I asked the lady in charge if there’s anything they could do, she assured me that it wasn’t poisonous (‘just bites like an ant!’) and sent one of her employees to go help. He put a dish towel over his hand and tried to grab it, but the spider was faster and hid behind the bathroom mirror. So while he reached his bare fingers under the mirror to try to flush it out (!!), I hit the mirror with my sneaker a few times, to encourage it to leave. No trace of the spider, but instead a large gecko, maybe six inches long and fat, dashed out and exited through the wall fan. I didn’t get a photo, but he looked a lot like this guy: He continued living in my ceiling and leaving behind turds the size of half-eaten Tootsie Rolls, but as long as those turds were made up of mosquitoes and spiders that was frankly fine with me.

The next morning a tuk-tuk picked me out a drove me, along with a few other tourists, 45 minutes into the countryside to Kuangsi waterfall. The guidebook says it’s ‘champagne-glass limestone’, whatever that means. It was, predictably, gorgeous. When you first walk into the park there’s a bear sanctuary, where they keep sun bears rescued from bile farms. A little farther up are some low falls and an area to swim, which given the climate was worth the price of admission by itself. The water was cold and so blue it was almost green. And farther still were the main falls. I started to hike up the side, but the path was more steep mud than anything else and I hadn’t had lunch. It was pretty enough from the bottom. We left just as a busload of Chinese tourists was arriving, which is to say, just in time.

I hung around at the wifi bakery again that evening until the night market opened. Mostly the market is kind of depressing – long rows of tents, all selling one of the same five things. The scarves were gorgeous so I bought a few anyway, but even the bags you could see the people embroidering were the same pattern as the bags two stalls down. Near the end was an alley lined with tables of noodles and grilling meat, so I walked down and, against my better judgment (there were tourists there! They still looked alive!), decided to stop for dinner. I chose one of the better-looking buffet tables (1 plate for 10,000 kip!), and heaped my plate high with various noodles, vegetables, and more of that amazing Luang Prabang sausage. I’ve heard it compared to Chiang Mai sausage, which I’ve never had, so all I can say is that it’s slightly grey in color and has an herbal, almost woody flavor. I have no idea what they put in it and frankly I don’t want to know, but damn it’s good. I sat down at a picnic table with two other backpackers and an old Australian expat, on a visa run from Phnom Penh, who told us stories about living in SE Asia and traveling the US in the ’70s and disagreed with me heartily on the allures of the call to prayer at 5am in Indonesia. He’d spent some time working for the Australian military in East Timor and disliked the Indonesians in general. Post dinner was a preventative Coke and a chocolate croissant at a café down the street, then tuk-tuk home for the night. When I got in, the spider was looking down at me from up near the bathroom roof. When I came back later to get ready for bed, he was gone for good.

My final LP adventure was elephant riding. It wasn’t the best tour ever – just half a mile or so down a path, then back again – but the elephants were darling and I had fun anyway. From there we drove to a whiskey village, which was even more depressing than the night market. The whole village seems to consist of stalls selling scarves and trinkets, until at the end you get to see a still, sample the whiskey, and hopefully buy a bottle. Most bottles included a snake, scorpion, or giant millipede for added medicinal power. We also passed a fire where they were smoking elephant skin to eat, and a stall selling bear and tiger teeth and various animal bits in liquid as medicine. As the bear sanctuary posters had implored, we did not buy.

And last on the morning's list was the Pak Ou caves, limestone caves on the Mekong filled with Buddha statues. The caves are more notable for the number of figurines in them than anything else, really, though the Mekong along that stretch is, again, stunning. Then back to town for a ginger shake at the wifi café and, since the restaurant I was looking for seemed no longer to exist, a dinner of papaya salad (excellent) and a Lao-style baguette (good but too much ketchup) from the night market. For the record, my stomach’s fine.

When I got back to the guest house I asked about having a Lao breakfast instead of bread and jam, so the next morning I met the proprietress and her assistant at 8am to go pick bamboo shoots. “Pick” really meant “hack with a knife”; those things are tough and woody before you boil them. Along the way we picked various leaves and mushrooms and chili peppers, and an hour later when I came to the restaurant it had all boiled into a delicious soup. Shortly thereafter the tuk-tuk picked me up for the airport, and the proprietress handed me a bag of tiny fresh-picked bananas for the road.

My guidebook tells me that the drive from Luang Prabang to Vientiane is one of the most beautiful in Asia, eight to twelve hours on winding roads through limestone karsts with stunning vistas of the river below. Stunning though it may be, eight to twelve hours in a minibus through winding mountain road was not something I was prepared to stomach, so I coughed up the ninety bucks for a plane ticket instead, and we passed over said scenery in 35 minutes. Still pretty from above, though the clouds do get in the way.

At the airport I met a Dutch backpacker who offered to split the cab into town, and we ended up at the same guesthouse. We walked around the city together for what was left of the afternoon. A quick bite at the Scandinavian bakery – excellent croissant, wifi – and then another procession of wats and French colonial architecture. Vientiane as a city doesn’t have a lot going for it. It’s small, without the charm of Phnom Penh or the scenery of Luang Prabang or the sights of Siem Reap. Most tourists in town seem to be just passing through, which is what I recommend you do if you end up here – don’t linger, just pass through. You can see everything in half a day at most. The food’s pretty good – we had some reasonably good if overpriced French for dinner, and I got a solid bowl of Lao noodle soup at a stand for lunch today – but I haven’t been blown away yet like I was in LP. In general, you can do better elsewhere.

So this morning I took my time getting out of bed, captioned some pictures, read my email, and had my Namsongsai bananas and some market mangosteens for breakfast before heading out. I spent nine dollars in postage to send six postcards home (is that what communism means out here? expensive postage?), and then hiked up the main drag to the morning market, where I ogled some more gorgeous Lao textiles, then farther up to Vientiane’s version of the Arc de Triumph, the Patuxai Monument. Rather than take the same road back again to the restaurant I’d picked out for lunch I decided to go a few blocks over to a smaller street, and in true Emily fashion promptly got thoroughly lost. How I ended up where I ended up, walking the wrong way in an entirely tourist-free part of town, is entirely beyond me. The proprietor of an internet café which clearly hadn’t seen a Westerner set foot inside it for years was kind enough to point me in the right direction. I gave up on my resto of choice for lunch and had the abovementioned noodles instead. Once I get this post finished I’ll head there for dinner, hopefully to have a delicious last Lao dinner. Tomorrow evening, hopefully after a productive day of grantwriting, I fly to Kuala Lumpur for a day, then on to Jogyakarta and Indonesia at last. That’s the plus of a boring town with good internet – you get things done. ’Til then…

Monday, June 13, 2011

Good Morning, Cambodia

(Wrote this three days ago, finally got it posted. No wifi at the hostel in Laos. Sorry for the lack of pictures; I'll try to fix that later)

Hello from Siem Reap!

Things got off to an eventful start when I woke up the morning of the 2nd with a stomach bug. There was no way I was going to be able to drag myself to the airport in that state, much less make it through security without puking on some poor TSA agent’s shoes, but luckily Emirates was able to put me on the next day’s flight without too exorbitant a change fee.

So on the morning of the 3rd I took a SuperShuttle out to JFK, then flew the roughly 22 hours to Singapore via Dubai. Turns out the trip to Asia is far less grueling when you’ve only got one stopover instead of five. (Thank you, last year’s CLS trip planners.) It certainly also doesn’t hurt that Emirates has a fantastic movie selection, though somehow on both legs I ended up next to men who couldn’t seem to keep their elbows on their side of the armrest.

Singapore was brief, and stormy. I arrived in the evening, had breakfast, and headed back to the airport to fly to Phnom Penh. Brief moment of panic when, because of the rains, all of the cab companies were fully booked, but E-Ching’s maid Maria managed to hail one off the street for me and I made it on time.

Next up was Phnom Penh. Frankly I wasn’t really sure what to expect from Cambodia going in. I was mainly there on the recommendation of friends and because when Borders was going out of business I found a Laos/Cambodia guidebook for cheap. It’s not a place you hear about much, or would generally thing to visit, probably largely given its fairly recent and entirely horrific political history. The Khmer Rouge were officially in power from 1975 until the Vietnamese invaded in 1979 and installed a government headed by Hun Sen, who’s still in charge 30 years later. But the civil war went on until Pol Pot finally died in 1998. It’s only since then that things have been relatively stable, if totalitarian. So its not surprising that Cambodia isn’t on the standard tourist route through Southeast Asia.

As it turns out, Cambodia is lovely. Phnom Penh was everything I’d hoped Bangkok would be – pleasant, walkable, friendly. Cambodians smile a lot, and the tuk-tuk drivers and trinket sellers will actually leave you alone after a no or two, unlike in a lot of other tourist-dependent economies. Phnom Penh actually felt more like Java than anywhere else I’ve been, if Java had more baguettes and monks and smelled like incense. Like Java, I took my life in my hands every time I tried to cross the street – good thing I learned the Indo way of doing it last summer in Malang (look the motorbike drivers in the eye, pray they go around you) or I’d still be standing on the corner by the hostel trying to get off the block. My hostel was a little place above an Irish pub, across the street from the national museum. For $14/night I got my own room and air conditioning. The first night I didn’t have the energy to do much but go find dinner. One of the first things I saw walking down the road by the river on Monday morning was half a discarded mangosteen husk – a good sign that I was going to like this country. On my way to a baguette breakfast I stumbled across a street market, and bargained my way into half a kilo of mangosteens for probably twice what they were worth but still very little. I wandered the main Central Market, then over to Wat Phnom, the temple in the center of the city. From there to lunch at Romdeng, an NGO that gives job training to street kids, where I ordered a dish of three deep-fried tarantulas with a lovely lemon pepper dipping sauce. Yes, I did just write ‘deep-fried tarantulas’. They were actually pretty good, though most of the flavor came from the spices. I started with the legs, since even though they were a little hairy, you didn’t have to think about what’s inside. The front end wasn’t bad either, though the fangs were definitely still attached. It was the back end that weirded me out, filled with stuff whose taste, color, and texture reminded me of the barbecue sauce left in the crevices of ribs after they’ve been cooked and before you slather a fresh layer on to eat them. Still good, but a bit of a mental hurdle. And if you ever come across a bag of Kampot peppercorns, do yourself a favor and buy some – that dipping sauce was fantastic.

The afternoon, once I’d had my siesta, was spent at the Royal Palace, a big Thai-style temple complex. Near the end I got caught in a downpour, which frankly was a relief after the humid heat of the day.

Next morning I caught the National Museum before taking a minibus up to Siem Reap. The five-hour drive north was fascinating, if rather longer than the ticket seller had told me. We went through the plains of central Indochina, all rice paddies and stilt houses and palm trees. More than once we had to stop while a cow or a water buffalo crossed the road. It’s not for the faint of stomach – contrary to my guidebook, the roads aren’t paved quite the whole way – but still a good way to see a bit of the countryside. By the time we got to Siem Reap it was pouring, and the roads looked like rivers. My hotel, Mandalay Inn, was run by a Burmese family, and the Burmese chicken curry I had that night in the hotel restaurant was pretty spectacular.

Apparently my Western stomach is so sensitive that just talking about street food is enough to make me sick, as I woke up the next morning a little under the weather. (Welcome to Southeast Asia!) I refuse to blame the hotel curry or the mangosteens from the market, on the ground that they were far to delicious to have any ill effects. Given that I was already a little off, I caved and bought a baguette sandwich from a cart for breakfast, which I ate on the hotel patio with a diet Coke. It’s amazing how good an ice-cold Coke can taste when it’s 8am and already hot as Hades, and you’re eating questionable street food. I have it on good (Mas Jake) authority that a can of Coke will smooth over many sins of questionably-sourced meals. I also now have good reason to believe that authority is wrong.

That day I headed out to the Angkor Wat temple complex, along with two other backpackers from the hotel and a guide to show us around. The temples are about 15 minutes by tuk-tuk out of town. Angkor Wat itself is the most famous, but the site covers all of 60 square miles. It’s currently the low season, so there’s far fewer tourists than at other, cooler, drier times of year, but there were still plenty of other people around. Angkor Wat is pretty impressive itself – 900 years old, covered in carvings of battles and scenes from the Vedas, there’s good reason they put it on the Cambodian flag. But I liked the smaller temples better. Ta Prohm, where they filmed Tomb Raider a few years back, is still half-collapsed and surrounded by jungle, with trees and vines growing out of the walls and through the roof. The best was Bayon. It started raining as soon as we got there, so the rest of the tourists cleared out and we got the place mostly to ourselves. 800-year-old stone temples, as it turns out, leak pretty badly in a good downpour. Bayon has 54 towers, each with four Buddha faces carved in them, facing the four directions. Walking up to Bayon, it looks like any other temple, with some towers and carved walls, and then as you get closer you realize that each of those towers is smiling at you. It’s incredibly serene, especially with the last of a cool rain coming down and nobody else around. Almost enough to make a Buddhist out of me.

By the time we got back to the hotel I was absolutely wiped, so I had the last of the mangosteens for dinner and crashed early. The next morning I woke up feeling like crap. My mystery-meat baguette come back to bite me, I expect. I spent most of the morning and a good chunk of the afternoon lolling in bed, napping and reading. (High point: in my quest for a light breakfast, I succumbed to backpacker cliché and discovered that my hotel makes the best banana pancakes I’ve yet found in SE Asia.) Whatever it was must have been bacterial, since some after-lunch antibiotics perked me up enough to go wander a bit through town.

One interesting thing about Cambodia (and Laos) is that US dollars are accepted, even preferred over the local currency. The whole country is like a giant dollar store – most of what you want to buy will cost you a buck. (Except an entry ticket to Angkor Wat, which’ll cost you twenty.) I walked through the craft market (ten postcards for a dollar, Kampot pepper for two), then over to Alley Street, the tourist area. If you read this blog last summer you know I can’t resist a good Dr. Fish foot spa, and for $2 for as long as you feel like staying I had to do it. Thanks to the evening’s downpour I ended up staying put for nearly two hours, and discovered the answer to a pressing question of backpackers everywhere – no, those fish never get bored of your feet. Two hours in and they were still going strong. Because I’m a pushover (and at that point a sitting target) I spent $7 on a painting by a kid with one leg and excellent English who said his favorite subject in school was math, and $1 on a bracelet from his sister, because how can you not? Dinner was bad Chinese food, then a stroll back to the hotel in the drizzle.

And this morning I packed up my stuff, had another plate of excellent pancakes (pineapple this time; they were out of bananas), and got on a plane to Laos. I’m currently sitting in a hut by the Nam Khan River, getting eaten alive by mosquitoes despite a heavy dose of DEET. But more on that later.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

And we begin again...

Another summer, another chance to escape Pacific-wards. Tomorrow I finish packing, scrub my apartment, and scan a few library books, then hop a train to New York for some Xi'an Famous Foods and tickets to Anything Goes. Thursday I fly Emirates Air to Singapore via Dubai. And that's where it gets fun.

View Asia Tenggara 2011 (1) in a larger map

I'm lucky enough to have a Singaporean friend, E-ching, whose family's house I can crash at for a night. Then the next morning I'm off to Phnom Penh, followed by Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat, Luang Prabang in northern Laos, a quick stop in Vientiane, a day in Kuala Lumpur, and finally to Indonesia. First up is Jogyakarta, to get my head back in Indoland, visit some friends from last year, and see the Borobudor temples. Then Malang, for two linguistics conferences and more catching up with last summer's friends. And finally, around June 27th, I'm off to Papua. Up until Malang it's vacation - may as well see some sights while I'm in the area, and I hear Laos has some killer baguettes. As the crow flies from Luang Prabang to Manokwari is actually awfully close to the distance from New York City to San Francisco, but whatever, close enough.

The whole point of this trip, of course, is the fieldwork in Papua. I'll be spending about six weeks in Manokwari, talking to speakers of Wandamen, spoken by about 5,000 people, and trying to figure out what makes it tick. Many many thanks to David Gil at the Max Planck Institute's field station in Jakarta and the linguists at the CELD in Manokwari for making it all possible.

Papua of course is the 'exotic' part. It's Indonesia's eastern frontier, where until awfully recently there were headhunters and cannibals, and they still prefer yams to rice and, in some areas, still rock the penis gourd as everyday dress. (Googling 'Papua penis gourds' gets you photos of West Papuan highlanders, Martha Stewart, and Mike Huckabee. Go figure.) There's just over a thousand languages spoken on the island of New Guinea, and around 275 on the half that belongs to Indonesia. (Fun fact: New Guinea the second largest island in the world, after Greenland. Obviously they're not counting Australia.) The geographical nomenclature is about as confusing as it possible could be. New Guinea is the entire island, which comprises the country of Papua New Guinea (former British/Australian colony) in the east and the Indonesian region of Papua or West Papua (former Dutch colony) in the west. The Indonesian side is made up of two provinces, Papua and West Papua. Yes, those are both also names for the whole Indonesian half. The whole thing used to be called Irian Jaya, and the province of West Papua was West Irian Jaya (or Irian Jaya Barat), but that's now obsolete. I'll use Papua or Indonesian Papua to refer to the whole region, and West Papua to mean the region I'm in. West Papua covers the Bird's Head (Vogelkopf) Peninsula; Papua is everything east of that to the PNG border.

Manokwari, the city where I'll be staying, is right on the back of the Vogelkopf on Cenderewasih Bay. It doesn't have headhunters or cannibals; it does have tree kangaroos and hopefully not too much malaria. I'm told the snorkeling is great, and there's a rainforest to hike in just outside the city. It's the regional capitol, so there's an airport. Population is roughly 100,000.

After Manokwari it's back to vacation to decompress a little before I come back to the States and analyze 6 weeks of data. I'm thinking scuba on Pulau Sipidan and oranghutan watching in Sabah and Sarawak (Malaysian Borneo), but that's still up in the air. Home to New Haven on August 21st.

Some Further Reading:
The best site out there on Manokwari:
New Guinea:
276 languages:
Papuan Spiders (a ways east of me, but still terrifying):
Penis Gourds:
A map with labels:,128.056641&spn=39.826648,86.572266&z=4