Cigars for Burma

“I was lying on the floor,
This is what my mind’s eye said,
‘What an easy life you’ve had,
What a simple life you’ve led.’”

The room had the look about it of a hideout.

A large open space, void of furniture, save for a couple careless stools and a small TV in the corner. The walls were barren of decoration, random nails and hooks held lone hats and hand woven satchel-bags. A naked light bulb hung from the ceiling’s center, pale moths clinked and fluttered against its glass, despite the bulb’s efforts, the dull light still kept the corners of the room in shadow. I slipped off my shoes, as is customary in South East Asia and walked through the open door. The bare concrete floor was cool against the soles of my feet. They entered from the left. The three men approached us.

I held out my hand and greeted each of the rebel soldiers.
The room was a hideout.


It had been a last minute invitation. I was about to turn in and go to sleep when my co-worker, Violet approached me. Would I like to join her in visiting her friends who were staying just out of town? Her “friends” were no ordinary chums and “just out of town” turned out to be a bumpy ride deep into the western Thai jungle. I clutched the side of the white rickety pick-up as we bounced and clattered down a dirt road. One U-turn and then another. Sporadic sharp turns and haphazard last minute changes in direction. Suddenly the truck skidded to a dusty halt and I could see through the back window of the truck that we appeared to be lost. Violet swinging her arm, pointing off to the right as the driver shook his head glancing this way and that into the jungle foliage. We swung around hard, I ducked as low-lying tree branches brushed past and we headed back in the direction we came.

We had driven for what seemed like hours. Twisting and turning through the nighttime Thai jungle. Finally, unceremoniously we came to a halt outside a drab and secluded concrete building. The circumstances in which it took us to reach the place made its aura of secrecy even stronger.

They were Kachin. An ethnic group of Burmese who lived up in the northern highlands of Burma or Myanmar as it is now called. Burma has had a tremulous history, military coups and tyrannical regimes have dominated the country’s leadership since its conception. The military regime has an appalling human rights record. Violently crushing protests, arresting journalists and activists, imprisoning countless people that spoke out against the military leadership. Civil war erupted and the country seemed to be plunged into never ending conflict. Until recently the Burmese military held an uneasy peace with the country’s various ethnic tribes. Signing separate treaties with each group so as to keep them divided and less likely to unite against the Burmese military. Fighting erupted again when the Burmese government sought to build a new hydro-dam in Kachin State. Evicting local Kachin from their homes, the local people knew revenue from the dam would go into the pockets of the Burmese leadership and the power the dam would produce would only go abroad. Rather than see their homes needlessly flooded and washed away the Kachin took up their guns once again.


I shook the hands of each man, introducing myself. The shortest man gripped my hand sternly, smiling from ear to ear he clapped me on the back.

“Call me, Ako.” he said, taking me by the arm, he gestured that I have a seat next to him on a set of concrete steps.
He was stocky and barrel chested. Shirtless, he was tan with sun darkened skin. He wore olive drab cargo pants and a canvas belt with an oversized metallic buckle.

“Sorry, we’re late.” I apologized, “I think we got a little lost.”

He laughed, “Yes, we’re very hidden here.”

“The Thais don’t know we’re here and the Burmese don’t know we’ve gone,” he batted a mosquito on his shoulder. “We come to get supplies, then we go back to Burma.” He said this last part matter-of-factly. Like sneaking over international borders was just part of his day-to-day.

He swung at another mosquito and then looked me up and down, sizing me up.

“Where are you from? Are you married?” He fired off these two questions in quick succession.

I laughed at how up front he was. “I’m from New Jersey and no, I’m not married yet.”

“New Jersey.” he said the name slowly, betraying the fact that he had never heard of it before.

“Are you married?” I asked, reversing the question back on him.

“No, no, no.” he said in a serious tone. “Maybe every day will be the day I die.” he added solemnly.

“I would not want my wife to live like that, not knowing.” he brushed at a moth that had fluttered into his hair.

“When there is peace in Burma, I will get married then.”

“How do you stay brave?” I asked, “Aren’t you afraid all the time.” I felt foolish the second I asked the question.

“I try not to be scared,” he answered, a tone of machismo behind his voice. “The government has machine guns and mortars and artillery, we have few of these things, fighting is very hard.”

One of his comrades walked by overhearing our conversation, “Ako, tell him about that time you lost your helmet.” he laughed.

Even with his tan complexion I could see Ako was blushing. He looked down at his feet, gingerly rubbing the back of his neck. I could tell the story held some embarrassment for him so I decided not to press to hear it. I couldn’t help trying to put it together in my own mind.

I envisioned Ako crouched in the mountainous jungles of Kachin State. Bullets whipping through leaves, snapping branches and splintering trees. Mortar shells whistling overhead and artillery booming in the distance. Crashing explosions and the mechanical chattering of machine guns. Ako, scrambling to find a lost helmet in the brush. I would have been terrified into shock.

I looked down at my soft hands and clean boots. Ako and I were practically the same age, maybe only a year or two apart, but sitting next to him I felt like a boy.

“Ah,” he said, suddenly standing up breaking our silence. “I have something for you.”

He walked across the room and dug into one of the hanging satchel bags. Returning to me, he handed me a cigar. It was small and slim, tobacco tightly wrapped in a dry banana leaf. I turned it over in my hands. Ako must have taken my close observation for hesitation or wonder.

“It’s okay,” he said, “They’re cheap, I have many of them.”

“Thank you, very much.” I said, securing it in my chest pocket.

“It was nice to meet you, Justin.” he said, lighting his own cigar.

He set the book of matches down beside me. I recognized the gesture but knew I could not smoke the cigar. Heading back to the children’s home where Violet and I worked and slept I did not want to return smelling like tobacco smoke.

Ako puffed clouds of smoke into the center of the room. The wispy plumes adding to the atmosphere of the place. I looked sidelong at him, next to me on the step.

“When there is peace in Burma.” I said, “I will smoke.” I gently tapped the cigar in my chest pocket.

I immediately felt stupid for saying it, but he seemed to like the sentiment.

Ako smiled and nodded, “So will I.”

“We all will.”


Categories: Thailand | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

A Girl Named “La.”

Ratchanee “La.”

Her full name is Ratchanee.

But she assured me calling her “La” would do just fine. She walked with a confident posture as she led me up through the foothills of her native village of Mae Lid Luang. Noting things along the way she thought I might be interested in, she pointed out piglets that scurried across our path, chickens that clawed at the ground, and tired eyed tethered buffalo. These things, while certainly adding to the atmosphere weren’t what was catching my eye. It was the village itself, the tiered bamboo huts, the misty jungle peaks, the way Mae Lid Luang seemed locked in a bubble far away from the rest of the world.

La is Karen, one of the six major hill tribe groups that comprise Thailand’s ethnic makeup. The Karen speak a different language, wear different clothing, and have a culture entirely separate from the Thais we know bustling about urban Bangkok. Mae Lid Luang was the tiniest of villages nestled in the mountainous jungles of Western Thailand. When I questioned La towards the village’s population she told me there were only around sixty households that made up Mae Lid Luang. La’s parents lived there, her grandparents lived there, generations of animal husbandry and rice farming kept the people of Mae Lid Luang content and isolated from much of the rest of Thailand.

At 22 years old, La had already seen and done much more than many of her relations in Mae Lid Luang. She spent much of her time away from her village, studying at university and working with foreign students. Teaching them about Thai and Karen culture and practicing her English.

Mae Lid Luang
Mae Lid Luang.

She pointed out ahead of us to a distant crest.

“That’s my family’s rice.” she said, squinting up at the hilltop.

I felt silly, clambering up the muddy slope, minding my footing in my expensive hiking boots only to have La gracefully trot up behind me, clad in a $3 pair of flip flops.

With jet black hair, a round face, and tan complexion, she was the perfect representative for the Karen of Mae Lid Luang. To me, La was calm, quiet, and stoic. She carried out conversation with me through what seemed like calculated thought and humble wording. This was all guised by the limits of language, though. The more I got to know La, the more I got to know her real personality. She jostled and teased with the other villagers, shouting and laughing to them as we climbed upwards. When I had some of her conversation translated for me I learned that La was witty. She was sarcastic. She was sassy. She was someone I wanted to be friends with.

What’s more, La and I had a shared sense of worldly curiosity. Earlier in the summer as we stood next to each other, passing bucket after bucket of sand, used for concrete mixing as we helped with construction at a local Thai school, La turned to me, swinging a bucket towards my arms.

“Do you speak any languages?” she asked, as I took the weight of the sand from her shoulders.

“I speak Mongolian.” I answered, swinging the bucket on to the next person in line.

As I turned back towards La I was met with a raised eyebrow and blank stare. Suddenly, as if having processed what I said she burst out with a small laugh. “Justin, teach me Mongolian!”

“Hurdlach!” I said with mock seriousness, looking down at the dangling bucket in her hands. Faster!

Ever since, when we’d cross paths throughout our summer she would greet me with a stern “Hurdlach! Hurdlach!” quickly followed by uncontrollable laughter.

La and I in her family's rice farm.
La and I on her family’s rice farm.

As we ascended higher to the top of Mae Lid Luang, La and I kept pace with each other.

“When was the last time you were home?” I asked her.

She thought hard for a moment and let out a small laugh, “I don’t remember, many months ago.”

“Well you must be happy to be back.” I added, keeping the conversation going.

La just shrugged, “I like school.” she said. “My village is boring, sometimes.”

What she said stuck with me as we reached the top. There on the summit of our hilltop grew La’s family’s rice. In neat little rows it blanketed the mountainside, grassy stalks waved and trembled in the breeze, the green blades sensitive to each tickle of wind. La’s mother was already there, crouched in one of the endless rows, her hands buried in the rich earth. The view from the top was incredible. The misty rainclouds churned and roiled around the mountains. The murky water of the lower rice patties stood out as perfect rectangles from our high perch.


How could this place be boring? I thought as I knelt and buried my hands in the dirt, helping La’s family by pulling invasive weeds from the hillside crop. It occurred to me that maybe La and I were even more similar than I had thought.

After I returned from Mongolia over a year ago, my home in suburban New Jersey had taken on a new image. I felt like Mongolia had truly opened up my eyes and heart to the world, New Jersey seemed to be holding me back from taking more in. I felt sufficated. I yearned to explore more. To learn more. To seek out places like Thai mountainsides. Places like Mae Lid Luang.

What if Mae Lid Luang was La’s New Jersey? I wondered.

I let these thoughts tumble around in my mind as the sodden clouds finally relinquished a light drizzle. I knelt and pulled weeds until the air smelled like rain and my hands were stained with earth.


“What’s your favorite color?” La asked, appearing next to me as we walked back down the path from the mountain, the afternoon weeding finished.

“Hmmm.” I thought for a second. “Green, I think.”

“Why?” she asked.

“I don’t know.” I shrugged, “There are a lot of green things in nature so I get to see it a lot.”

She seemed satisfied with this answer.

“My turn.” I said, “What is your favorite animal?”

Without hesitation she brought two fingers up to her forehead, sticking them straight out, forming mock horns.

“Buffalo!” she said with a laugh.

I laughed at her performance. “How come?” I asked.

In Thailand the buffalo is far from being seen as a revered animal. It is even a common insult to call someone a buffalo as a jab towards their intelligence. La’s choice for a favorite animal intrigued me.

She thought for a moment. “I think because my village has many buffalo.” She spoke matter-of-factly. “So, the water buffalo is my favorite.”

The reasoning behind her words struck me like a hammer blow. So much so that I fell out of step, stopping for a moment to consider it all. You don’t have to be in love with the place you come from. It can be boring, it can be suffocating, you can relish when you leave and dread when you go back but no matter what its still a part of you. It shaped you, nurtured you, and engrained itself into the person you’ve become. As simple as having water buffalo as your favorite animal, even if you don’t realize it, your heart has a piece of where you come from in it. Recognize it and appreciate it.

I wanted to thank La, who unknowingly just instilled a major life lesson upon me. I couldn’t even begin to explain, Karen, Thai, or English aside. Before I could say a thing, La turned around to see me stopped in the road, a puzzled look on her face. Slowly her lips formed a smile.

“Hurdlach!” she shouted with a laugh.

I laughed and ran forward to catch up. We descended down the dirt path. The village at our front and the mountains at our back.

So, here’s to La.
Here’s to Mae Lid Luang
Here’s to the place you call home.


Categories: Thailand | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

On Top of Laos With Abraham Lincoln

I climbed the winding staircase.

The afternoon humidity in Luang Prabang made each step more laborious than it otherwise might have been. The steps zigged and zagged up the face of Mount Phou Si. The stone, smooth and rounded from the movement of so many feet over so many years. In a small plastic bag at my side swung two flowers wrapped in bamboo leaf cups. Incense protruded from their center, offerings for the altar at the top of the mountain. I took care not to let the flowers bump and knock into my leg as I walked.

The trees that engulfed Phou Si’s side encroached and advanced on the staircase. Seeking to reclaim it back into the jungle. Vines hung low over the steps and roots snaked and twisted through cracks in the stone.

As I climbed higher I began to pass stations along the staircase. Nooks and crevices set up as shrines in the mountainside. Sanskrit mantras carved into stone. The Buddha reclined on a flat slab of marble. Golden idols and painted serpents flanked the narrow stone steps.

One of the many idols along the face of Mt. Phou Si.
One of the many idols along the face of Mt. Phou Si.

I heard voices up ahead. A low sing-song mumbling. As I ascended further, it got louder, until I matched the sound to the chanting of over a dozen monks. I tip-toed passed the Wat Tham Phou Si temple, peeking through an open door of the small building and watched as rows of monks, sitting cross-legged, chanted in unison. All of their eyes were closed, heads down as they sung. A synchronized low sound of meditative prayer.

I climbed higher still. The trees began to give way to high shrubs and ferns. Bright butterflies, with wings of impossible turquoise danced and fluttered across my path. It wasn’t long before I was at the base of the gilded stupa of Wat Chom Si, the temple that capped the summit of Mount Phou Si. I stood at the foot of the temple and wheeled around taking in the view. I could see for miles and miles, Luang Prabang the former Laotian capital sprawled out around Phou Si below me.

I looked out, the roofs of Luang Prabang dotted the valley below. Distant temples and pagodas glinted gold under the sun. The lazy Mekong River, brown and murky, snaked off, hugging the town and vanishing out into a heat hazy horizon. Distant mountains rose upwards in the distance, their faces covered in every spectrum of green, a canopy of jungle trees. Their peaks rose into the wispy traffic of passing clouds. White and grey masses that trailed and churned around the high summits as they crawled across a bright blue sky.

My eyes, glued to the panorama before me hardly noticed the movement that eventually broke my gaze. I looked over to see a score of monks standing and doing the exact same thing as me. Staring out in awe of Laos. One even had a camera about his neck. With their robes of saffron and crimson they added yet another color to the landscape behind them.

Luang Prabang, Laos from the summit of Mt. Phou Si.
Luang Prabang, Laos from the summit of Mt. Phou Si.

I made way for them as they spread out along the railing, quietly chatting with each other. The one with the camera noticed me and held up the bulky piece of equipment about his neck. He smiled big at me nodding towards my own camera in my hands and then out towards the scenic landscape of Laos. His gesture was endearing, his smile even more so. As if the fact that we were both carrying cameras and had come to photograph the same view made us long lost brothers.

Wat Chom Si the crown on top of Mt. Phou Si.
Wat Chom Si the crown on top of Mt. Phou Si.

I walked passed them smiling back and took a small tour of the mountain summit. Walking by the entrance to the temple I peaked in at an altar of golden Buddhas and rows of flowers and incense. An orange Tabby cat sat lazily off to the side, keeping its distance from the idols as if it couldn’t make heads or tails of what the building was for. As I rounded back around the sides of the pagoda I saw a rocky outcrop dotted with the tiny bamboo leaf flowers I had purchased below. I placed my two in the crevices of the rock next to the others and watched the breeze ruffle and wrinkle the pedals. My offering complete I stepped down and took a seat along the wall, waiting for sunset.

Cats N’ Buddhas
Offerings of flowers and incense on the summit of Phou Si
Offerings of flowers and incense on the summit of Phou Si

“Where are you from?”

I looked down from staring up at the temple’s high stupa to see a young boy had sat down next to me. He looked to be about fifteen or sixteen with short slick black hair and the dark complexion of someone born in Laos who spent his summer outdoors.

“I’m from the USA.” I said, “Are you from Luang Prabang?” I asked.

“Yeah, yeah.” he nodded, “My house is just over there.” he pointed out over the rail into the void. His house could have been anywhere within a hundred miles for all I could tell.

“What’s your name?” he asked without a hint of shyness. Another boy about the same age appeared at his side. He was slightly taller than his chatty friend and wore a red oversized Chicago Bulls basketball jersey.

“My name is Justin.” I introduced myself. “What’s yours?”

“Abraham.” he said with a smile, patting his chest. “This is Gabriel.” he pointed over his shoulder with his thumb at his tall friend.

Biblical names and impeccable English, I smelled the work of a missionary.

“Abraham?” I said in surprise. “Do your parents call you that?”

“No, no.” he said with a laugh as if it was obvious. “My real name is Lieu, I picked Abraham as my English name.”

“His real name is Kai.” Abraham said, pointing to his friend. With a smile Kai nodded in affirmation.

“Why did you pick Abraham?” I asked, suspicious that the missionary had a hand in helping him decide.

“I love history.” he said swinging his feet as he sat on the bench. “I really like to read about American history.” he continued. “Abraham Lincoln is my favorite to read about.”

Not expecting that answer, I was taken aback. “What about you?” I met eyes with Kai, who called himself Gabriel. He smiled and shrugged looking down at his feet.

“He’s shy.” Abraham answered for him. “He just picked it because he likes how it sounds.”

I nodded and smiled reassuring him that this reason was as good as any.

“He looks like Paul.” Gabriel said to Abraham. They both laughed.

“Who’s Paul?” I asked.

“Paul is the man who teaches at our school.” Abraham said, his eyes down watching his feet swing back and forth from under the bench. “He looks like you.” he lifted his head and eyed up my face. “He has one of those.” he reached out and brushed the hair on my face.

“A beard?” I asked, laughing inwardly. Me and Paul probably looked nothing alike in reality. He was likely just another white guy with a beard.

“Yeah, yeah a beard!” Abraham’s eyes lit up recognizing the word. “Abraham Lincoln had one too.” he added. He mimicked stroking a long beard with his hands.

I laughed in fascination that a teenager from Laos had such an affiliation with American history. A subject even many American teenagers had no interest in.

“What else do you know about Abraham Lincoln?” I probed.

“He was the best president.” he continued still swinging his feet. “He was a very strong leader.” he stopped swinging and looked at Gabriel and then at me. “He stopped the war and kept your country together you know?” He said this with stern eyes, like he had just divulged new information to me.

“I love history too.” I told him. “I studied it at university.”

“Really!” he straightened up on the bench in excitement.

As the sun sank down westward to be swallowed behind the murky Mekong I sat and chatted with the two boys. Abraham was fascinated by my knowledge of American Civil War history and I was fascinated by his fascination with it. As I descended back down the steps in the dusk I chuckled to myself as I walked. At the top of Luang Prabang, in the middle of Laos, on the peak of a small mountain I had had the most unexpected of encounters with an even more unexpected topic of conversation.

Whoever you are and wherever you are from, go outside, find a bench and have a seat. There is no telling who you will meet and what you will talk about.


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Letters From Vientiane

Almost as soon as I arrived in Vientiane I began searching for a way to escape.

There was nothing in particular that drove me from the Laotian capital other than the simple fact that the city was not the jungles, mountains, and rivers that surrounded it. The Laos I wanted to see was the slow boats of the Mekong River, the lush mountain jungles of the highlands and golden pagodas of rural Buddhism. All my research and traveler advice pointed me away from Vientiane’s urban sprawl. My research pointed me north, to Luang Prabang.

I sat on the couch in the hostel lobby twirling the zipper on my backpack between two fingers. Waiting my turn to check in, two German girls argued with the Lao kid at the desk about the lack of private bunks.

Behind me, pool balls clinked on a ripped and worn table. Two guys exchanged turns in what already looked like a slow game.

Who comes to Vientiane to play pool? I thought.

A third buddy trotted up with three beers, clunking them down on the chipped edges of the pool table.

“What’s the name of this place….Vinetan?” he asked, unashamed. I pitted him as American or Canadian. I wondered if he even knew what country he was in.

His buddy, clad in the signature elephant pants of tourist South East Asia and a backwards trucker hat rested his hands on the top of his cue and squinted hard, obviously in deep thought.

“I don’t know.” he shrugged after a moment. “Can I have a cigarette?”

I began to look forward to my escape.

It’s no secret that the countries of South East Asia are a hot bed for young tourists. Expenses are cheap, the weather is warm, beaches are plentiful, and drugs and alcohol are easy to find.

“What’s up, man?”

I looked up from the bus schedule on the lobby desk and was greeted by a short backpacker in elephant pants and a neon green tank top. Unable to see his eyes behind the mirrored sunglasses he was wearing I looked back over my shoulder, unsure if he was addressing me.

“Where you goin’?” he nodded towards the bus schedule.

“Luang Prabang.” I answered, hoping to keep the conversation short.

“Prabang’s sweet.” he swung his pack off of his shoulder and let it thump against the desk.

“Definitely hit up Vang Vieng.” he bent over the schedule to point out the town on the bus route. “Its real chill there.”

As he bent back down to pick up his pack I noticed his tank top read “Tube n’ Party! Vang Vieng”

From the moment I had started researching travel in Laos I began hearing about how “chill” Vang Vieng was. The town, along the Mekong River turned into a tourist haven for partiers and substance abusers. A favorite activity was over indulging in any mind altering drug and then tubing and rope swinging in the river. On several occasions the town had gotten so rowdy and overrun that the Laos government stepped in to put a stop to the number of dead tourists that would inevitably drown whilst partying. To me, Vang Vieng didn’t seem “chill” at all. To me Vang Vieng seemed like a tourist infested, drug ridden, cesspool. Vang Vieng was exactly the kind of place I wanted to avoid.

Watching Mr. Tube n’ Party swagger up the stairs I was skeptical I’d find anyone on this trip I’d be able to relate to.

Side street outside my Vientiane hostel.
Side street outside my Vientiane hostel.

Checked in and ready to start exploring I laced up my boots outside the lobby, ready to get away from the hostel atmosphere.

“Excuse me.” I looked up from tying my boots. “Do you know where the arc is?”

The accent was British.

Not your typical run-of-the-mill British. Pristine British, classy British, the type of British you’d expect to hear at a London opera or in the corridors of Downton Abbey.

I rose to meet the gaze of two Asian girls. They seemed to contrast each other. One carried an artsy handbag and wore hip round sunglasses while the other was clad with a traveler’s pack and straw cowboy hat. I moved my eyes between them not sure who had addressed me.

“My name is Ada.” The girl with the sunglasses said. She patted her chest, her handbag swinging at the elbow.

“This is Anthea.” She gestured towards her friend who smiled underneath the brim of her hat. “We are trying to find the arc. We think it is around here somewhere.”

The arch in question was the Patuxai Arch.  A monument to Laotian military victory, it was inspired by, and modeled after Paris’ Arc de Triomphe.  One of the more notable sites in Vientiane it was on my to-do-list as well.

“Straight down this road and then left at the Governor’s Palace.” I answered, not entirely confident, trying to remember its exact location from my map. I told them I had looked it up because I had planned on seeing it too.

“Would you care to join us?” Ada asked, with a smile.

We walked the crumbling sun-baked streets of Vientiane. I tied a handkerchief about my forehead in an attempt to stem the flow of sweat that trickled over my brow. The sun was intense, I found myself squinting, even from behind the lenses of my sunglasses.

In my mind’s eye the Laotian capital was very different from its other South East Asian counterparts. Phnom Penh was a progressive getaway. Bangkok, a commercial metropolis. Yangon, the wild frontier. Hanoi, a historical giant. Vientiane always seemed…well…forgotten.

As my eyes took in the streets and buildings around me Vientiane seemed to uphold that forgotten allure. Long ago an outpost of colonial France it was as if the French built a city in the jungle long ago then simply packed up and left.

Like the streets of Paris, vendors sold loaves of bread. Pedaled carts loaded up with baguettes and fresh rolls. The streets were lined with coffee shops and bistros, al fresco style dining sprawled out on the sidewalks.

Unlike Paris though, the city seemed in various states of disrepair. Cobblestone brick sidewalks were torn and rent, pedestrians either forced to hop over the gaping holes or detour around them altogether. Colonial style terra cotta roofs were discolored and disheveled. The European influenced facades of government buildings were cracked and crumbling. Motorcyclists and tuk tuk drivers bobbed and weaved to avoid piles of fallen brick and up turned concrete.

As we neared the arc the girls began to chatter to each other in excited Cantonese. As they took photos in front of the monument I walked on to inspect it more closely. It really was a model of the Parisian icon, but with an Asian twist. Carved with sitting Buddhas and capped with pagoda style towers.

The Patuxai Arc
The Patuxai Arc

Looking around I noticed that even the outlying streets resembled the thoroughfare of the Champs-Élysées. I wondered how many people back home mumbled the name of the Patuxai Arc in the same breath as the Arc de Triomphe.

I gazed up at the dirty and stained stone of the Patuxai Arc. Vientiane was certainly no Paris but it still had so much of its own character. It deserved to be given a chance by travelers and urban explorers not just partying backpackers on a layover.

Vientiane deserved to not be forgotten.

When the afternoon sun drove us out of the street we retreated into the air conditioning of a nearby bistro. Whirling ceiling fans circulated the oscillating smells of freshly baked bread and pressed coffee grounds. At a small corner table I got to know Ada and Anthea.

Recently graduated from university in Hong Kong the two had planned a tour of South East Asia together before they began their prospective careers. When they weren’t studying at school they made their spending money busking on Hong Kong’s busy streets. Ada sang and played guitar, Anthea was on percussion and back up vocals.

“I must play for you when we get back.” Ada said, gazing down at the sandwich just placed in front of her. “The hostel has a guitar, I saw it earlier.”

“Are you going to Vang Vieng next?” Anthea asked pausing from sipping on her iced coffee.

“No, not my cup of tea.” I said, hiding my strong feelings about the place. “Did you guys go tubing there?”

Anthea crinkled her nose, “Ugh, no too many loud tourists there. We just took the bus there to get here.” she said, pulling out her camera and switching to pictures that designated where here was.

It was a picture of the two girls sitting on the floor of a bamboo hut. A Thai family sat with them smiling up at the camera, a feast of curries, rice, and soup laid out on the floor in front of them.

“We had a homestay with this Thai family here.” she explained. “We wanted to really learn about the local culture.”

Ada nodded in agreement from across the table. “We really wanted to have an authentic experience.”

I smiled at this, maybe there was someone in Vientiane that I would be able to relate to after all.


I commented on the quality of her camera, it was a more advanced model of the one I had just purchased for myself.

Anthea nodded, “I studied graphic design, I take a lot of photos.”

“What kind of job do you want to get with your degree.” I asked.

She let out a nervous laugh. “I really want to work and freelance and keep traveling.” she looked down at her camera fiddling with the buttons as she spoke. “Working from nine to five every day in an office would be terribly dreadful.”

I felt my ears perk up at hearing this.

“What I’d really love is to get hired with a non-profit. I could travel and work and help out all at the same time.” she said, with a small smile. “Its just my dream though.” she added.

I was moved by how similar our frustrations, our dreams, and our life goals were. It’s amazing how two strangers could be such kindred spirits from across the globe.

Wat Sisaket, Vientiane's oldest temple.
Wat Sisaket, Vientiane’s oldest temple.

After lunch we walked back to the hostel so the two could catch the bus to Phnom Penh, the next stop on their tour. We passed through temple gardens and golden Buddhas, along cracked sidewalks and bustling markets. As we passed a battered post office box Anthea let out a little yelp.

“Oh shoot!” she said, glancing at the box as we passed. “I forgot to mail my postcard.”

“Family back home?” I asked, sidestepping around a pile of gravel.

“No, no.” she said, with a shy laugh. “I mail a card to myself in every place I visit. That way I get a nice and proper reminder about my trip later once I’m home.”

I found the idea very clever, and put it in my mental bank for later.

Buddha garden at Wat Sisaket.
Buddha garden at Wat Sisaket.

Back at the hostel the two sat out on the hostel floor with a beat up guitar and ran through a short list of songs that they performed on the streets of Hong Kong. Ada sang beautifully and Anthea complimented her nicely with a soft quiet voice.

“Oh no, we have to run.” said Ada, after a short while. She put down the guitar and picked up her pack, glancing at her watch. Hurriedly they gathered their things to make their way to the bus station. Saying goodbye Athea halted her step as she walked away.

“Could you drop this in a post box for me?” she asked, pressing a colorful Laotian postcard into my hands.

I said a final goodbye and promised I would.

After they left I took a walk down the street. Mostly to take in more sights but also to find a post box for Anthea’s letter. I finally stumbled across one. Rusted and worn on a the cracked curb of a nearby street corner.

I noticed she had addressed it to herself and stamped it, but the whole space left for a message or well wish was left blank. I thought a moment and then told myself she wouldn’t mind if I filled in the space. I told her how great it was to spend the day hanging out with her and Ada in Vientiane. How I hoped the rest of their trip around Cambodia went well and they made it back to Hong Kong safe.

I also wished her good luck for her future. Not to give up on her dream job and to keep searching for those “authentic experiences”. I told her I would be doing the same from the USA.

As the post card fell into the darkness of the mailbox I sent with it the mental wish that the words would find Anthea.

Because everyone needs that reminder. A small recognition that they aren’t alone, that someone else out there shares their struggles and frustrations.

Everyone needs that little push to not give up, even from a complete stranger. Motivation to not let their dreams and goals go on and become faded and forgotten.

Everyone needs a letter from Vientiane.


Categories: Laos | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

The Eleven O’ Clock to Nong Khai

“No visa, no ticket.”

The clerk delivered this unfortunate news then dismissively directed his gaze to the next person in line.

I backed away from the ticket counter in frustration.  It seemed my journey to Vientiane, the riverside capital of Laos was over before it even started.  Unwilling to give up so easily I sat myself down on one of the bus station’s rickety metal benches and pondered my options.  Taking the bus directly from Udon Thani, where I currently sat, to Vientiane was out of the question now.  Flying in would grant me a visa at the airport customs but was too expensive for my budget.  I had over a week of free time, Laos was so close but bureaucracy and foreign policy made it seem so far.  I didn’t want to slink back to the Udon Thani base house and wait for my week off to expire.

I looked around the busy station.  Thai commuters, some with nothing more than a small satchel, others burdened by taped packages and overstuffed sacks scurried about the terminal, boarding busses and waving baht at the ticket counter.  My eyes fell to the timetable.  Cities and towns, many I’d never heard of illuminated the board, shuffling between English and Thai.  Their departure times remained steadfast off to the side.

Quickly, I drew a map from my backpack.  With my finger I found Udon Thani in the north east of Thailand and slowly traced along the road north.  Just before my nail reached the Mekong River, the natural border between Thailand and Laos I stopped.  The dot under my finger was the last Thai city before the border, Nong Khai.  I would take a bus as far north as I could and walk into Laos.  I would buy my visa at the border.

Pleased with myself I slapped my map closed with a happy pat and looked up at the timetable board. Scanning the different stops I finally found what I needed, Nong Khai.  Departure time eleven o’ clock.  Calmly I stole a glance at my wrist watch.  My breath caught in my chest as I watched the minute hand strike three minutes past eleven.

Shit!  I thought as I stuffed my map into my bag, slung it over my shoulder and pushed into the bustling mass of Thais.

Shoving my way down the platform I stopped under a sign for Nong Khai.  A man at a card table lazily handed me a ticket as I quickly pressed money into his hands.  The bus was still there albeit exhaust spewing, engine rumbling.  It would leave any second.  Rushing up I banged on the door with my palm.  The driver gave me a frown then swung a handle letting me in.  With relief I staggered down the aisle.  The bus was all but empty save for a couple older women, a long dark haired European and a monk.  I sat opposite the monk and caught my breath as we pulled out of the station.

The Thai countryside

The Thai countryside

As the bus crawled along north I already felt myself being lulled to sleep by the gentle bumps and cool air conditioning. Out of the corner of my eye I stole glances at the monk.  I knew part of the vows for taking the robes forbid monks from naps.  Oversleeping was taken as laziness.  How could this ride not make him tired? I thought.  Making my own personal game I became determined to stay awake and outlast him.

We drove and drove.  He sat with perfect posture, gazing straight ahead, only pausing from time to time to steal a peek out the window. My head and eyes grew heavier and heavier and I knew I had lost.  As my eyes closed and I drifted off I swore I saw him glance sidelong at me and smile.


“You know you’ve missed your stop.”

The English woke me from my short doze.

“What?” I asked, surprised and confused.

It was the long haired European, spun around to face me from the seat in front of mine.

“Yeah, yeah.  You should have gotten off at this crossroads here.” he pointed to a map on his smartphone.  “You are going to the bridge, no?”

German.  I thought.  His accent was easy to place.

“I’m going to Nong Khai, I’m trying to get to Laos.” I answered him.  I didn’t like his tone.  He spoke matter of factly, like I made a stupid mistake.

“Yeah, me too.” he said. “But the bus should have stopped at the crossroads, I don’t know where we are going now.”  He traced his finger along some road on a map on his phone that I couldn’t see.

“I’m just going to wait until we get to the bus station in Nong Khai.”  I said, half certain that I hadn’t missed my stop.

“Didn’t you download Google Maps?” he asked, pointing to his phone as if introducing me to the technology for the first time.

“Uh, I just brought a map.”  I gestured towards my bag. “Like, one made of paper.”

I didn’t know how else to word it.

He gave me a strange look like I had some kind of infectious disease and his mouth moved into a half grimace as if he had just tasted something foul.

“Oh, well I think we should stop the bus.  We may be driving for awhile now.”  He made a move to gather up his things.

No sooner had he hunched over then the bus screeched to a halt under a faded aluminum sign that read, “Nong Khai Bus Terminus.”

I narrowed my eyes at him after he realized where we were.

“Oh!” he said with a small laugh. “We’re here! You were right!.”

He flipped his long black hair from his eyes and extended a hand beyond the seat for me to shake.

“My name is Max.” I clasped his hand in mine. “I’m from Frankfurt.”

As we stood on the Nong Khai bus platform I learned Max’s story.  He was an exchange student living in Thailand.  His two year graduate studies were at an end and he would be heading back to Germany soon.  With the common goal of getting into Laos we agreed to go across the border together.

“We should have a tuk tuk take us to this park.” he said, thrusting another finger at his beloved Google Map.

“We are here, you see?” he held the smartphone out for me and I could see that the phone’s GPS had transmitted our exact location down onto the phone where we stood at the bus station.  It made getting lost impossible.

“We should go to this park, the drivers think we want to go to the bridge at the border but if we say we want to go to this park instead they will charge us less.” He spoke in a very animated manner. Gesturing with his hands and emphasizing words to the point where the veins bulged in his neck.  I found myself giving him a wide berth while he talked.  Because Max had more experience in country I seceded this plan to him.

The humble tuk tuk

The humble tuk tuk

After the driver dropped us off at the Nong Khai park we hoisted our bags and began walking through the park, Max assuring me that bridge to Laos was just on the other side.  The noon time sun of tropical Thailand beat down on our backs as we walked.  My backpack grew heavier and heavier.  Sweat dripped freely from my brow and pooled around my shirt collar.  Finally we arrived at the opposite end of the park and were met with the sight of a concrete wall.

“This shouldn’t be here!” Max exclaimed, swinging his arm in exasperation at the wall.  Frantically he swiped at the touchscreen on his phone aghast that Google Maps had failed him.

We backtracked through the mid day heat back to the entrance and down the narrow side streets of Nong Khai.  Sweat poured in torrents down my back.  I drained my water bottle and gradually felt myself becoming more agitated for not just taking a tuk tuk straight to the bridge.

Finally, standing on a wide thoroughfare a sign ahead pointed towards the border and Vientiane. Unfortunately walking across would be no easy affair.  Thai soldiers blocked the way.  They stood, guns slung at their sides pacing back and forth and watching traffic.  We decided to hire another tuk tuk to take us through.

As we passed the checkpoint a soldier barked an order in Thai at our driver and we were soon dumped at a border customs office.  Paying the driver he pointed forward to a window labeled, “Visa On Arrival.”

Filling out the application card I paid the fee and smiled at the officer.  I felt like it was just something I was supposed to do, as if not smiling would incriminate me and deny me access.  He took my paperwork with disinterest and went about tossing the various forms into different piles, not bothering to read them.

I was ushered into a wide square room.  Void of any decorations, wall hangings or furniture, the space was only occupied by three small booths.  The only sound was the echoing thuds of stamps being implanted into passports.  I stepped into a queue and waited to see if I would be allowed admittance into Laos.

As I waited, I thought how much this part of travel meant to me.  Sure it was a headache and could be frustrating, but it was also challenging and fun.  Choosing to skip the easy route of flying and just being dumped where I wanted to go, I went through the rewarding experience of actually trying to get there on my own.  I navigated buses, read maps, and braved border guards.

I gazed over my shoulder at Max, head down, fiddling on his phone behind me.  With the challenge of getting from one place to another puts you into situations where you meet new people and can be brought together by the mere fact that you are both trying to undertake the challenge of getting to the same place.  Whether these people help or hamper you is just all part of the experience.  Every journey should be one worth remembering, the more challenging the travel the more memorable the journey.

I stepped up to the counter.  The guard eyed me up. Looking back and forth from me to my passport. He gestured I stare into the tiny desktop camera.  I stepped back put my hands at my sides and had another internal struggle whether to smile or not.  He planted a stamp on an open page, the action sounded like thunder in the hollow room.   Quickly he pushed my passport back across the counter.

Stepping back outside I took in my new surroundings.  It’s a funny thing crossing borders. One minute you are there. There, being a place with its own language, currency, culture, history and politics. Then suddenly you take two steps and you are transported to here. A place where all the things that defined there, are totally different.

People hustled and moved out of the office clambering aboard shuttles. Money booths advertised exchanging Thai baht into kip. A new flag snapped in the breeze. Blue and red with a white circle emblazoning the center. Signs displayed a new elegant but indecipherable script.

“Sa-bai-dee!” the shuttle driver greeted me cheerfully.

I let this new word for “hello” ring around in my ears.

I smiled.

I had done it.

I was in Laos.

Categories: Thailand | Tags: , , , | 5 Comments

Still Smiling: Impressions After Thailand’s Military Coup

I descended into Thai airspace with thoughts of politics roiling in my mind. Thailand, the Land of Smiles as it is called, for its people’s cheery demeanor, was in turmoil. Seemingly overnight the military had staged a coup, overthrowing the government, and dissolving the country’s elected bodies. I was landing in a place of martial law and policed action. Protests and unrest. I didn’t expect to find many Thais smiling anymore.

I was surprised when I stood in the cavernous expanse of Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport and all was calm. No soldiers. No checkpoints. No men with guns or riot shields. I had braced myself. I had been warned that I was surely dooming my travels by stepping into a world of demonstrations and tear gas. A place on the brink of collapse and violence.

As I traveled north, away from the capital I gradually felt more at ease. Looking out a bus window just outside Chiang Mai I finally spotted my first Thai soldier. Holding his helmet in his hands he sat reclined in a red plastic chair along the side of the road. Sitting in the shade cast by a tiny guard post he looked lazy and tired in the heat. Repelling resistance to his superior’s coup d’etat did not look as though it were on today’s agenda.

Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai

During the staff training for my new summer job my boss addressed the issue.

“Do you feel unsafe?” He asked, spreading his arms, presenting the panoramic Thai landscape of rice patty and jungle behind him.

Without hesitation we all answered with an enthusiastic, “No!”

Later, we all took a trip to the market in town for dinner and drinks. Walking along side a local staff member named Vong I got nervous as I stole a glance at my watch.

“Will we be back at the rice fields before the curfew?” I asked.

The Thai military had imposed a nationwide curfew on the country, forcing everyone off the streets at night. Talk from Bangkok had the time being pushed later and later as restrictions eased but this was the latest we’d been out. The hour was gradually reaching the midnight limit and we still had a drive back to the base.

Udon Thani Rice Fields
Udon Thani Rice Fields

Vong shrugged his shoulders as if martial law were a trivial thing.

“Yes, maybe.” He answered. “We have to dance first!” He nodded towards a stage where live music reverberated from. I skeptically looked at the stage and then at my watch again.

Sensing my hesitation he clapped me on the back.

“We will be back!” He said in reassurance. “Don’t worry, Thailand is still a safe country.”

He patted my arm, “Thai people love falang!” He added, giving my Caucasian skin a poke. He dropped a pair of bright green knock off Ray Ban sunglasses over his face and smiled through his teeth. He gestured towards the stage again where our coworkers, locals and falang, foreigners alike were dancing and socializing.

Later, I climbed aboard a songthaew, the open air truck transportation that would take us back to the rice fields. My worries had evaporated with the night. Lost in socializing, I got closer with my coworkers and had felt safe and comfortable with the handful of locals that had unknowingly earned my trust.

As the songthaew pulled away I hung off the back and gripped the handrail. Just as we began to move Vong jumped up to stand and ride along beside me.

“Justin!” He yelled as we picked up speed. “I’m stoked to be the songthaew for you!”

I laughed, trying to imagine what he was trying to say.

Sensing my confusion he defined his new word, “Stoked! Very…like…excited.”

I laughed again, more for the fact that he was using the word than the way with which he stumbled over its pronunciation.

“I’m stoked to be on the songthaew with you.” I corrected him.

He nodded. “Yeah! Yeah!” he smiled, sticking his tongue through his teeth again.

His eyes lit up as another songthaew approached. Leaning out the back he waved one arm in the air.

“Stoked!” he yelled, waving his arm out at the passengers.

As we rode through the night and the streets of Udon Thani whizzed beneath me I couldn’t help but consider how lucky I’ve been in my travels. I have stayed safe and out of harms way through all of my adventures with only a few minor hiccups. Was this something frequent travelers take for granted? Or did I just happen to be doing it right? I only knew that life would be a lot more dull if I had hid in my suburban American room, afraid to venture out. Afraid to take a little risk, afraid to meet all the Vongs in this world.

Pulling into the rice fields me and Vong hopped off of the back of the songthaew. As we were about to part and head to our separate rooms he clapped me on the back again.

“Justin.” he said in a stern voice. “I’m so stoked to be in Thailand with you.”

With that, he raised one hand, and with a gesture that would make any California surfer proud he extended his pinky and thumb and rotated his wrist back and forth.


Unable to keep a straight face anymore he smiled. Bigger than I’d seen him smile all night. Poking his tongue through his teeth.

I could only laugh and smile back.

“I’m stoked to be in Thailand with you too, Vong.”



Categories: Thailand | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

10 Haggling Tips for the Shy Traveler

 The wheelin’ and dealin’ of the traveling world can be a scary affair.  Keep your pride and your cash with some of these tips:

1. Accept the fact that you’re going to look stupid. 

Like really stupid. Lets just get this out of the way early. Unless you are a multilingual language ninja, an expert appraiser, culturally integrated extraordinaire and all around Master Of All Situations chances are that shop keeper is going to make you act a fool. If you can get past this initial awkwardness you’re off to a good start.

2. Don’t be intimidated.

Acting cool and being as suave as you can amidst the fast paced market atmosphere is key to having the best shopping experience. Peddlers and venders make their living off of negotiating, haggling, and sweet talking someone they think they can make a deal from. They are very good at it. All that quick talking and calculator punching can make you break a cold sweat.

Don’t let them smell your fear.

3. Scope out the merch!

Too many times I have picked up an item out of mere curiosity and within seconds the seller is all up in my business. I barely have time to look at what I’m holding when I’m suddenly being bombarded with dialogue about what a “good deal” I could get on the item or about how awesome the quality is. I end up focusing my attention on the seller instead of what I want to buy, and before I know it I’m haggling my way into purchasing a shoddy piece of merchandise.

Pull the reins on that bargain wagon. There are knock-offs and fakes abound out there as well as items that are hastily and poorly put together. A lot of them are catered for the naïve and ignorant tourist. So unless you brought along your Pawn Stars approved “Chinese handmade wooden lacquer chess set guy” then give whatever it is you are looking to buy a good and thorough once over before you commit to start negotiating.

Seafood market.  Qingdao, China.
Seafood market. Qingdao, China.

4. A little language always helps. 

The more you know the better obviously, but going beyond the standard “How much is it?” is a good way to enhance your shopping experience. Try at the very least to learn major denominations of numbers as well as a couple phrases. “I’d like to buy this,” for things that interest you. “No, thank you,” to diffuse pestering sellers and “Just a moment,” for when you want that minute to browse and inspect something.

The ability to communicate these little bits will steer the negotiations in a desired direction as well as gain the respect of the shop keeper. Score two points for the timid traveler!

5. Come prepared.

For when language fails you travel with a small notepad, a calculator, or a cell phone. You can use these to jot down your proposed price. Arabic numerals are pretty much understood worldwide so negotiating a price via writing or typing could get the job done. Many sellers these days have their own calculators for this very purpose but it never hurts to carry your own.

6. Take a lap!

I’ve found this affective on many different occasions. If the deal is too far from what you are willing to spend then walk away. No need for a finger snap and face palm, just gracefully bow out and communicate that the price is too expensive.

Stick around though. Maybe linger by another nearby stall or browse through items in an adjacent shop. Let your severed sales relationship marinade a little. Oftentimes, I am shortly approached by the previous seller ready to negotiate again with a lower price.


Farmers market.  Munich, Germany.
Farmers market. Munich, Germany.

7. Know the exchange rate.

This one goes without saying, but if you are like me and are terrible at math, or just cave under the pressure of having to do it on the spot, just knowing a simple conversion isn’t enough.

Memorizing a couple of commonly priced converted denominations helps give you an idea where what you want stands in the scheme of things. There are also a slew of currency conversion apps that do the hard work for you on the fly.

8. Don’t forget the “because you’re different” fee.

There is a multitude of places in this world where you can find yourself sticking out. People make assumptions. You’re stuck getting charged more for something purely based on the fact that you aren’t like everyone else. Lord knows I’ve fought this one.

“But it’s the principle!” I’d cry.

But guess what? Dorj, the clothing merchant doesn’t believe you aren’t a rich foreigner as you argue with him over those expensive cashmere gloves you’ve had your eye on. Give in a little bit and find a middle ground. You can pay a little more while still keeping your dignity. Your cashmere clad hands will thank you for it.

9.  Get cultured.

Plunging into a new country and new place can be full of new customs and taboos to learn. The subculture of a city’s markets can be a new animal all its own.

Do your homework and try to learn the ins and outs of habits surrounding markets and haggling. How you greet the seller, accept or hand over currency as well as the way you hold yourself during the negotiation can play a key part in the outcome of how the deal goes down. Learning the etiquette in buying certain political or religious items is also important. Having a heads up on what to expect is a good advantage. Plus, no one likes that red faced gringo screaming about overpriced alpaca ponchos.

Some places, such as China have a whole system of hand signs used for expressing numbers and negotiating prices. Throw up a couple of these bad boys during a deal and show him you mean business. No language needed!

10. Leave with something besides what you purchased.

Local markets are a fabulous place to get acquainted with the culture and people of wherever you may be visiting. Go for the experience of it all and consider your cool foreign purchase an added bonus to the venture. You should not walk away swindled and fuming angry nor should you walk away completely satisfied with what you paid, after all someone has to make money somewhere.

Take away the satisfaction that you learned something and take the outcome of your experience and save it up for a good story to tell back home. Those camel wool slippers will make a great prop.

Old City market.  Jerusalem, Israel.
Old City market. Jerusalem, Israel.


Categories: Travel Tips | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments

That Time We All Ate Marmot

I ducked through my ger’s doorway with a yawn. Rubbing my groggy eyes, I stretched my arms into the crisp October air. Having fallen asleep while reading, I woke from my nap to find time had elapsed into the early evening, propelling the lazy Mongolian Sunday towards a quick end.

A light breeze rustled the dying fall grasses of the yard I shared with my two neighbors, Dawkraa and Tuya. In the distance dogs barked and horses whined. The fading evening light was broken by a bright flickering. Searching for its source it came from the partially closed foyer of Dawkraa and Tuya’s tiny wooden house. Darkness and then a flash of light, flames flickering and loud expulsions of air came from the entryway. The light died down again and then another whoosh and blast of light.

The yard I shared with Tuya and Dawkraa.  My ger is in the center, their home is out of frame to the left.
The yard I shared with Tuya and Dawkraa. My ger is in the center, their home is out of frame to the left.

Curious, I walked towards the foyer. As my steps neared I could hear muffled voices and light laughter. There crouched over a wooden cutting board was Dawkraa. As I got closer I could see the board wasn’t empty. It was filled with the small body of some headless mammal. Round and rodent like it was about the size of a football, legs outstretched, it had clawed hands and a spindly tail.

“Tarwaga!” Dawkraa said excitedly, as he saw me approach, pointing towards the creature.

I’d never heard the word before. I knew the names of all the animals that made up Mongolian’s daily diet; horse, cow, sheep, goat, camel, but this word and this creature were unfamiliar. A quick thumbing through of my pocket dictionary revealed that the creature was a marmot, a prairie dog like mammal that made its burrow out on the steppe.

Suddenly without warning there was another whoosh and flames jetted from a blowtorch in Dawkraa’s hand. The flames charred and curled the marmot’s fur as Dawkraa liberally doused the animal in flames. I recoiled from the heat and grimaced as I watched the marmot’s body become black and burned.


Tuya appeared in the doorway.

“Can you eat marmot?” she asked, handing Dawkraa a knife.

I admitted that I had never had before. Roasted marmot wasn’t the first thing that came to mind when I thought of barbecue.

Dawkraa had dropped the blowtorch and had begun scraping off the creature’s singed hair with the knife. The fur seemed to give way into a black powder of disintegration. The smell that emitted from the charred marmot was in no way comparable to the aroma of burgers and hot dogs. I was starting to believe that I could not, in fact eat marmot.

“I shot it!” Dawkraa beamed with pride, miming a gun firing action with the dull knife.

“Go inside, Justin!” he added, hunching back over his kill, “We’ll all eat marmot together!”

I followed Tuya into their house not feeling as enthusiastic about eating marmot as Dawkraa sounded. Moments later the oversized rodent was brought in on its wooden slab. We all sat on the floor, Dawkraa, Tuya, their daughter Misheel, and Dawkraa’s two hunting buddies. Crowded around the little wooden cutting board Dawkraa cut into the creature. Carving up chunks of this apparently special treat. Dawkraa’s two friends reached forward, their hands greedily searching for the largest piece.


“Oui!” Dawkraa snapped. The rebuke causing them to withdraw their hands. “My favorite neighbor eats first.”

I groaned inwardly, he had just unknowingly guilted me into taking this culinary adventure farther then I would have liked. Dawkraa, smiling handed me a particularly large slab of marmot meat. I took the greasy bit in my fingers and inspected it. It was rubbery and thick and comprised mostly of gelatinous fat. It reminded me of the Italian rainbow cookies my family would make for holidays back home. Except instead of sweet multicolored cookie goodness the layers here were made up of thick blackened skin, fat, and burnt meat.

My face must have betrayed my apprehension as I paused with the piece in front of my mouth.

Dawkraa laughed, clapping me on the back. “All Mongolians love to eat marmot!” he exclaimed.

“It will be very cold soon.” he added, “The marmot fat will keep you warm.”

I didn’t quite agree with his logic but with the putrid smelling, fat dripping, hunk of marmot hovering in my face I remembered what brought me to Mongolia in the first place. How I wanted to be brought to do things I normally wouldn’t. Experience things with people I would have never connected with before. Wear clothing I thought would look goofy on me or eat food I thought I’d find disgusting.

There is a quote out there by Douglas Coupland, “Adventure without risk is Disneyland.” A big part of cultural immersion is jumping in head first, opening up your mind and taking the plunge. I didn’t want to regret missed opportunities later in life when Mongolia was behind me and I certainly didn’t want to miss any chances at connecting with my host neighbors and new friends. It meant jumping headlong out of my comfort zone. It meant eating dead marmot.

If I couldn’t practice what I preached then I would just be kidding myself. I should just pack it up and go home to Disneyland.

I took a deep breath and popped the piece into my mouth.



Categories: Mongolia | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

The Best Part of Angkor Isn’t the Wat

It was the right kind of quiet. Not quiet as in to say there was no noise. There was plenty of noise. The chorus of any number of species of birds pierced the air; chirping, singing, warbling, and calling. The cries of monkeys, the rustling of leaves, the snapping of branches, the buzzing of insects. The jungle was alive with all the natural ambient noise that one would expect to come from it.

The humidity hung in the air like a weight. You could taste it on your tongue. You could feel it on your shoulders. I sat down, perching myself atop one of the many crumbling stone blocks. The rock was rough and cold to the touch. A beetle, as yellow and spotted as a jungle cat scurried over my fingers just before spreading its tiny wings and taking flight.

I was sitting in the middle of the ancient Khmer city of Angkor. The massive complex consisted of hundreds of temples constructed over centuries and through generations of rulers. People flocked from all over the world to visit Angkor. Most of them coming for the main attraction, the famous Angkor Wat. The Wat is the single largest religious structure in the world and arguably the most architecturally pleasing out of all the Angkor temples. Contested as a wonder of the world it is the only existing man made structure to be featured on a country’s national flag (spoiler it’s on Cambodia’s), its name can be easily uttered in the same breathe alongside the other global marvels such as the Great Pyramids, the Taj Mahal, and Petra.


Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat

Me and my two travel companions decided to spend the day exploring the hundreds of other ruins that made up Angkor and save the iconic Angkor Wat for last, going to see it just around sunset. As we walked through the winding dirt paths, we veered off at the first sight of dilapidated ruins. When we neared the site we each broke away from one another without preamble, letting our heightened senses lead us. That was how I happened upon my stony seat.


The small temple, which I later learned was called Prei Prasat was a wonder in its own right. Staring up at the stone blocks around me it was like something out of a movie. Something out of my dreams. The aged and weathered rock looked fragile in some places and stout in others. Twisted vines, gnarled roots, and crooked trees jutted their way through the crevices. It was impossible to decipher whether the jungle was a part of the temple or the temple part of the jungle.


“There you are.” Jessica said, poking her head out from around a corner.

“C’mon lets go.” she added with a wave of her hand.

We explored the ruins of Angkor in a similar fashion. Breaking off and enjoying the moments of solitude and exploration the different sites invoked. Each temple seemed more intriguing than the last. Ancient trees that grew from ancient stone, pillared corridors that led to cracked Buddhas, Hindu gods smiling back from etched walls.


As we neared the famous Angkor Wat and grand finale there was a different sort of noise. The ambient jungle sounds were replaced with the bustle and clamor of people. Throngs of them herding across the causeway towards the rising towers of the Wat. Shouting, calling, laughing. Children crying, peddlers yelling, thousands of shuffling feet.

We weaved our way through the crowd, abruptly having to stop every so often so people could take that stereotypical posed shot in front of the temple. Single file with the masses we climbed the stone steps into the heart of the temple, passing security checkpoints and filtering out into the structure’s corridors.

Trying not to pay attention to the chaos around me I focused on the beautifully detailed bas-relief walls. The entire hallway depicted a carved recreation of the Khmer army in action. Speared warriors, rampaging elephants, and raining arrows covered every inch of the hall. The detail, down to the horror on each soldier’s face was remarkable.


“Erhm.” It was the sound of a man clearing his throat.

“Excuse me.” a man said.

I turned towards the French accent. The source of the voice was a large man in a white buttoned down shirt. Sweat gleamed over his bushy eyebrows, his armpits were dark blotches, and his ample stomach protruded out from his waist. He was precariously balancing a camera tripod on top of the chipped remains of an elephant statue pointing it towards the carved wall. His two compatriots, a fanny packed woman and another man, tall and skinny, his own camera dangling from his neck stood off to the side with their arms folded.

His eyes hardened when I met his gaze.

“Move along.” he said with a swift shooing motion towards the corridor’s exit.

Aghast I didn’t know how to respond. Who does this guy think he is? I thought. His tone was uttered with such annoyance and bombast it was as if we had stumbled into the man’s home during a family dinner.

“Lets get out of here.” Jessica whispered.

“Just a minute.” Elliot said, loud enough for both parties to hear.

He then took out his own camera, snapping pictures of the relief and making a show of photographing the wall, taking his time.

The overweight French fellow grumbled to himself as we leisurely took our leave.

We exited out back of the temple. Getting away from the bustling crowds until their noise was nothing but a dull chatter. Sitting ourselves atop a stone wall we sat and waited to watch the sunset.

I tried not to let the vast crowds get to me. To have them take away from my experience. It seemed so many people were there just for that bucket list tally mark. Piling out of busses and tour shuttles, frantically snapping a bunch of pictures, piling back in, “Quick, next stop the Great Wall!”

These sites are world renown for a reason. Was anyone really taking the time to stop and take it all in? To experience it, learn from it, and try to understand it? It reminded me of a book by Paul Theroux, novelist and travel writer. Stuck next to a man on a plane he is subjected to listening to the man’s world tripping exploits. With each listed destination the man is corrected by his wife, incorrectly naming cities, mispronouncing countries, confusing islands like Tahiti with Haiti. “Tourists don’t know where they’ve been.” Theroux writes, “Travelers don’t know where they’re going.”


The horror struck me that I might be just as bad. After all was I not bent on globe tripping, hoping to see all the things and places I possibly can in one lifetime. I told myself I wouldn’t let it devolve to the point where it would just be something to brag about. I wanted to learn and grow from each awesome thing I saw. I wanted to savor the experience while I was there.

As the sun descended behind the temple taking away its light and drawing out that iconic silhouette I made my personal vow. I thought on how glad I was that we chose to wander around all of Angkor and not only hit the big hotspot. Those moments of jungle solitude would be the most memorable, they were what made Angkor a part of me.

The sun dipped lower. Angkor Wat rose high. The towers pierced the evening sky.

Of course I took a picture.


Categories: Cambodia, Travel Insight | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

What the Mongols Taught Me

The tiny microbus honks a third time as I exit my friend’s apartment and head across the street to my waiting ride back to Omnodelger. Sitting under a street light flurries sparkle like falling jewels in the van’s headlights. Loaded up with my backpack and two baggies of purchased city goods I stride towards the microbus, walking through my own breath as it materializes in front of me. I clutch the handle with a gloved hand and yank open the sliding door.

The microbus. A staple of virtually any long distance Mongolian travel.

The tiny bus is packed floor to ceiling with all manner of goods and items. House paneling, stacks of foam insulation, towers of baby diapers, a disassembled bed frame, wooden crates of fresh vegetables, piles of plastic bags full of every eclectic item imaginable. To say the tiny space left for passengers was overcrowded is an understatement. Seven people were packed into a space that looked like it might uncomfortably hold three. To make room for the influx of goods the seat was slightly inclined forward causing the people on it to lean forward into a spine stiffening position. Men crushed and crammed onto one another. A woman and her baby sat leaning against piles of bags, the arm not being used to hold the child was raised above her to keep goods from collapsing onto her head.

As I pushed the door open all the way a bag rolled out and onto the ground the man closest to me flailed an arm and checked himself to keep from cartwheeling out of the microbus.

I blinked twice at the sight before me.

No way, absolutely not.” I said aloud to no one in particular.

Mongolia taught me a great many things but patience is at the top of the list. It was no gentle lesson, either. For over two years the central Asian nation tried, tested, and shoved every impatient inducing scenario down my throat. All of this pretty much from the get-go.

My first couple of months in Mongolia were spent in the sleepy town of Orkhon. I lived with a Mongolian family who taught me all the ins and outs, dos and don’ts of Mongolian culture.

One Saturday morning I got up early and hurriedly began packing a day bag. Last night my host brother had promised that today would be the day he would take me to the neighboring town of Khutul. To me Khutul was like the Land of Milk and Honey. In more populated Khutul, there were commodities such as a working post office, sit down restaurants, larger grocery stores, and best of all the coveted internet cafe. All these things were unavailable in Orkhon.


Excitedly I stuffed my laptop into my bag and slung the pack onto my shoulder. Shutting the door behind me, I ducked through the entryway of my family’s house out into the sunshine and usual noisy racket of the surrounding yard. As my eyes adjusted to the summer Mongolian sun the sight before me instantly soured my mood and wiped the smile from my face.

There, in the middle of the yard our family’s car lay dismantled. It sat in a pathetic heap, its two front tires removed, the whole front end was propped atop tiny pyramid stacks of red brick. The fenders were missing, laying in a plastic pile off to the side. The hood was open, revealing near emptiness underneath. Spread out on an oil stained tarp was a collection of parts that I could only assume used to make up the space under the car’s hood. All manner of gaskets, fuses, tubes, metal casings, and twisted wires sat sprawled out before me. This was my family’s only mode of transportation. With the current state of the family car it didn’t look like my anticipated Khutul visit was happening anytime soon.

In the middle of this mess sat my older host brother, Moojig. Holding up two unrecognizable parts, his arms were black from fingers to elbows in oil and grease. He held the pieces in front of his face slowly trying to fit them together.

Good morning, Justin!” he said with a smile, apparently missing my dumbfounded expression.

He got up from the tarp with the two parts in hand. I let the bag fall from my shoulder and followed him across the yard. As he knelt down with the two parts preparing to weld them together I searched my limited Mongolian word bank.

What are you doing?” I asked, trying to hide my disappointment.

He stood up and let out his signature high pitched laugh.

The car is broken.” He gestured towards the gutted hulk as if I had missed it.

I can damn well see that I thought, “Will we go to Khutul?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

Ah” he answered with a nod as if I had just reminded him of the trip.

We’ll go, we’ll go.” he picked up a welding mask. “Later.”

With a cheerful greasy pat on my shoulder he donned the mask and knelt before the metal pieces.

Moojig (left) ever the mechanic could repair anything from cars to the family tractor.
Moojig (left) ever the mechanic could repair anything from cars to the family tractor.

I did end up making it to Khutul. Though “later” turned out to be in a weeks time. I also climbed in that overcrowded microbus and endured the four hour neck kink. You see, Mongolia taught me the lesson of patience by forcing it on me. I got in that overcrowded microbus because if I didn’t I’d have no ride. I watched Moojig reassemble the family sedan like it was an adult LEGO model because it was my only option. I became patient because I was helpless to do anything but.

We as Americans are inherently impatient. Its ingrained into our society and nature. We tap our feet waiting in line for coffee, we want our pizza in thirty minutes or less, internet downloads must be instant, streaming TV must be seamless, we blast down highways and scream at traffic lights. Any hold up in our high speed lives is met with customer service tantrums and scathing online reviews (“I’d give it 0 stars if I could!”).

The moment when the patience light bulb turned on in my head happened during a particularly long drive back from the capital, Ulaanbaatar to my remote village of Omnodelger. In the dead of night our tiny car slowly bounced and crawled its way across the steppe. The spring thaw leaving the roads muddy and gouged.

Already eight hours into the ride, the time we should have been arriving in town, our driver halted at a river bank. The waters, swollen with freshly melted snow had widened the river making it deep and dangerous to ford. Up and down the bank we moved, searching for a safe place to cross. It was almost three in the morning and I wanted to be in my own bed, I had to teach early the next day.

Typical river in my home province of Khentii.  Water moves at a trickle or a torrent depending on the season.
Typical river in my home province of Khentii. Water moves at a trickle or a torrent depending on the season.

Finally, I resolved myself to the situation. It was all out of my hands anyways. We’ll get there when we get there I thought. I leaned back against the seat and closed my eyes. This line of thought would soon become my mantra.

Another eight hours and a sketchy river crossing later we finally make it into town. I’m forced to rush right to school. After teaching a hastily thrown together lesson I sit down with a co-worker, Kherlen in the teacher’s room. Curious about my latest epiphany I ask her if Mongolians have a proverb similar to my patience mantra.

After a lot of thought she answered, “This proverb, maybe, we don’t have.”

This is life.” she added.

Her words rang true. During all my impatient scenarios the Mongolians around me never seemed to bat an eye. Here on the steppe things happened when they happened and no one ever minded or put up a fuss. To Mongolians things taking awhile was just part of their day to day existence.


Back home in America, my service in Mongolia at an end, I toss and turn in bed at night. Unemployed and living at home. Frustrated with people I no longer relate to and with a job market that doesn’t value me. My experiences reassured me more than ever about the person I am and the kind of life I want to lead. I’m still young. I’m eager. I’m ambitious. I wanted to move forward now. I knew I was at that pivotal stage in my existence where a new chapter was about to open, the page just wasn’t turning.

This is life.” Kherlen’s words echoed.

I relaxed my head on the pillow.  

Only one thought crossed my mind as I closed my eyes.

We’ll get there when we get there



What sorts of lessons have people from other places taught you?

Categories: Mongolia, Travel Insight | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

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