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Monthly Archives: February 2007

Adventures in Asia, Part 10: Osaka, Japan

The last part of my trip was a few days in Osaka with the charming and lovely Tyler and Carla (yes, charming and lovely, both of them). It was great to see them, and it was also great to be in a country that takes toilet cleanliness and comfort with the appropriate gravitas. Though oddly, Japan is the one country I visited where everybody learns English in school, but the only country where communicating in English was a problem. In SEA, it seems like everybody you need to interact with knows enough basic English that you can get your point across, if nothing else, but in Osaka, even at Kansai Airport, my mime skills were getting a workout.

Japan has embraced the consumerist lifestyle with a fervor that we in North America can only hope to aspire to. Everyone is attired in the most conspicuously expensive brand names at hand, leading to oddities like the greasy middle-aged security guard in the Burberry tee-shirt, and groups of women in completely identical outfits, like Ugg-and-Chanel shock troops. Even sex is a matter of conspicuous consumption, with porn megastores advertising $70 DVDs and clubs decorated with pictures of sexy girls and coy lists of prices that never quite tell you what they’re for. But whatever it is, it ain’t cheap.

Though there are definite plusses — the vending machines are amazing in their quantity and comprehensiveness.

vending machines to infinity
vending machines to infinity

However, why bore you with my own dull writing, when you can read all about my visit on Tyler and Carla’s blog? As an extra enticement: there’s an anecdote about a monkey. A sad, sad monkey.

Adventures in Asia, Part 9: Bangkok Redux

Ah, Bangkok. The full name is “Krungthep Mahanakhon Amonrattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilokphop Noppharatratchathani Burirom-udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amonphiman Awatansathit Sakkathattiya Witsanu Kamprasit”, which means something about angels and gems. Officially home to 6 million people, but unofficial estimates place it at twice that. Hottest major city in the world, and one of the most densely-populated. Bangkok was my entry to and exit from Southeast Asia, and the one place I spent a substantial amount of time on my own, after Janelle went home to Australia and before I met up with Tyler and Carla in Japan. At first I was overwhelmed by Bangkok. It’s a city of noise and chaos and crowds and hot, humid, polluted air. I really didn’t enjoy myself on arrival and was glad to hop on the train to Chiang Mai.

Bangkok pay phones
phones of Bangkok

By the time I returned, though, I was a somewhat more seasoned SEA traveller. I’d recovered from my initial culture shock, and after being in Hanoi and Saigon, Bangkok seemed positively first-world. There are sidewalks on which you can actually walk, and actual traffic laws that are often obeyed, and people don’t hassle while you’re walking down the street. At least, no more than in Vancouver.

I should also add, Bangkok is the easiest city I’ve ever been in for getting around. The skytrains and subways and river buses are interconnected, clearly labelled in English, and take you almost anywhere you want to go, or close enough that you can pay a taxi or tuk-tuk a buck or two to take you there. Most of the cab drivers are friendly and know enough English that you can communicate, though my attempts to pronounce the Thai names of places were usually cause for great amusement.

By the time I left, I’d spent over a week in Bangkok, all told, and was starting to feel pretty comfortable there. Even being alone in the city for several days didn’t bother me (aside from one time when I was riding through traffic on the back of a motorcycle taxi with no passport and wondering how long it would be until I was missed if I fell off). While I don’t think I would move there permanently, if I had a job that required me to spend, say, a year there, I would probably jump at it. It’s certainly not a city that will ever bore you.

Anyway, here’s my mini-travelogue of Bangkok.

Gigle or Nude Guy?
a lot of the stores have great, bizarre names

shopping district

The downtown shopping district is huge. Massive, seven-story department stores, each for a different, well-heeled demographic. And malls with endless tiny shops. Many of the little shops are identical but for the name — Siam Centre has about five shops selling just Converse sneakers and about twenty selling the exact same selection of knock off designer brand bags. But there are also plenty of unique shops selling, for instance, handmade tops or Thai-made Western gear. Patchwork cowboy hats! Yellow quick-draw holsters!

We also walked through the trendy teen shopping district. Little shops selling clothes and do-dads identified as “trendy”, “cute”, “sexy” and/or “lucky”. I’m not really sure how the last one fits into the consumerist experience, but I saw the phrase “trendy and lucky!” more than once.

guarding or lifting?
guardians of the green buddha wat royal palace and green buddha wat

By the time I visited Bangkok’s Royal Palace and Green Buddha Wat, I had seen roughly umpteen wats and a fistful of palaces, and while they’re impressive and pretty cool, the differences are, shall we say not always obvious to my undiscerning and unappreciative eye. The palace is neat, but you can’t actually go in it, so you’re stuck wandering the grounds in the sticky heat with ten thousand other tourists. I didn’t stay all that long.

The highlight was actually in trying to get to and from there, since the best approach is by boat. The river is actually one of the fastest and most pleasant thoroughfares in Bangkok, with regular stops, interesting sights and a cool, if occasionally pungent, breeze off the water. You can also hire river taxis that ply the city’s many canals to dodge the diesel fumes and constant traffic jams.

Khao San Road
oh, hey, I’m a backpacker too

khao san road

Alex Garland (The Beach) wrote that Khao San Road is “a decompression chamber for those about to leave or enter Thailand; a halfway house between the East and the West.” And that’s about right. It’s Bangkok’s backpacker ghetto, a long row of guest houses, burger-and-beer joints, tattoo parlours and internet cafes. There are a few long-time travellers here to stock up on toilet paper and shaving cream at the Boots drugstores and 7-11s, but mostly it’s twenty-year-old hippies and hipsters with fresh tattoos and bootleg brand-name tee-shirts living the backpacker dream with the comforts and familiarity of home. The multinational crowd of Europeans, North Americans, Israelis and Aussies is utterly homogeneous. It’s a place that tries desperately to live up to its own stereotypes. I know I sound kind of down on Khao San, and I suppose I am, but it’s kind of fascinating, too. It’s the pure SEA backpacker experience, stripped of any specificity of place or culture, and I found it oddly attractive.


One night, Janelle and I visited Bangkok’s infamous red light district. From the stories I’d heard, I’d imagined it as an endless row of seedy bars and brothels. But it’s not. Oh, sure, it’s impressively seedy, but it’s really about three blocks long, and one is entirely geared toward Japanese salarymen, and one toward gay men. There’s a row of trendy restaurants at one end and a Starbucks at the other and between them about a hundred shady-looking dudes asking you “pussy show? ping-ping show?”, one after the other, while flashing menus of the shows available and their prices. I was kind of intrigued by the “woman boxing match”, but ultimately declined. But even these enterprising young men are far outnumbered by invitations to buy low-quality Diesel knock-offs from the vendors whose stalls line the streets.

As we left, we saw a tour group of about ten scared-looking Europeans creeping toward Patpong, camcorders at the ready. “Hey, mister,” we muttered. “Ping-pong show?”

Adventures in Asia, Part 8: Escape from Phu Quoc

Finally, the day came to leave Phu Quoc. Our plan had always been to take the ferry to the mainland and then the bus to Saigon, where we have flight out of Vietnam the day after we leave Phu Quoc. However, when Janelle went into town to get tickets for the charmingly-named Superdong ferry, she had been unable to purchase them. The ticket agent told her nothing except that the ferry might not be running. This made us nervous. We asked Marie, co-owner of the resort, and she advised us to go the airport and get standby tickets, though her argument was more that taking the ferry and the bus would take several hours, which didn’t really bother us. But since the ferry might or might not be running, we decided to do that. We set our alarms for 5:30 AM so we could get to the airport before the first flight out, and hopefully beat anybody else trying to get on standby. It didn’t quite work out that way. This is the course of that fateful day. No pictures, I’m afraid, but maybe when you read about what happened, you’ll understand why the camera didn’t come out much.

5:30 AM

Wake up. Finish packing. Hike up the hill out to the resort to the road, where the cab will meet us.

6:00 AM

Catch cab. Drive into town. Watch the sky, glowing softly blue and orange behind the trees and mountains.

6:30 AM

Arrive at the airport. We need to get on the waitlist, but the Vietnam Airlines staff is unanimously unhelpful. Finally, we get a guy to take our passports and write down our names. More travellers arrive to be be waitlisted. Some, like us, have flights out of Saigon the next day and need to get off the island. Nobody knows what’s going on.

7:00 AM

The ‘long-timers’ arrive. These people have been on the waitlist for days. Information starts to flow. Ferries haven’t been running for three days. People have been camped out at the airport since then. Some are desperate and close to breaking down after waiting for three days. We find out where we are on the waitlist. There are over 80 names ahead of ours. This is not good. No, wait: this totally sucks ass.

7:30 AM

I stay with the luggage while Janelle hops onto the back of a moto (motorcycle taxi) and visits a travel office. No Superdong. No ferries. No nothing. Now way off the island.

8:00 AM

By now everybody trying to get off the island is at the airport. We join the chorus of travellers cursing Vietnam Airlines, the Superdong ferries and Phu Quoc. We later hear conspiracy theories that the government (which owns the biggest resort on the island, as well as Vietnam Airlines and the Superdong) has simply stopped the Superdong at the end of the vacation period to keep the resort tourists on the island spending money. Nobody finds this hard to believe.

Two Canadians from Montreal who have been waiting at the airport for three days are panicking because they too have flights out of Siagon tomorrow.. Unlike us, they are finally next on the waitlist. One of the VA people comes to the counter we have all crowded around. He has tickets. He does not give them to the Montrealers. Pleas for information are ignored. A Vietnamese family who we saw before flashing money and ID is looking pretty happy. It is obvious some chicanery is going on. We discuss bribing the airline people, which at this point we would be quite happy to do, but have no idea how one bribes Vietnamese airline clerks. We give up on getting off Phu Quoc. Maybe ever.

8:45 AM

We are discussing trying to change our tickets out of Saigon when a four-fingered cab driver we’ve never seen before comes up to us.

“You want boat to Ha Tien?? You come now! Boat leave nine-thirty!” Is it legit? How much will it cost? How will we get from Ha Tien to Saigon? It’s on the mainland, but nowhere near Saigon or on the bus route to Saigon. Who knows? We are just happy to have some hope of being able to give someone money to get us off this fucking island. Not leaping at it is simply not an option.

Our four-fingered Vietnamese saviour drives us across the island like a maniac, swerving to avoid dogs, chickens and motos. We get to a little concrete pier on the far end of the island. Roughly a hundred people are there. Vietnamese. French tourists. The two Quebecois dudes. A group of about ten ladyboys. We give stacks of 50000 Dong notes to the cab driver nad boat captain and are happy to do it. Whatever you ask. Yes. Yes. Thank-you.

9:15 AM

The boat arrives. Oh my God. It’s a little wooden fishing boat. It’s bobbing like a cork in a fountain. There’s no way all these people will fit on this boat.

10:00 AM

All the people are on the boat. So are several motorcycles, lashed to the deck. And a puppy in a travel cage. A lucky few are in the cabin with the captain. The rest are on the deck. Sure, it’ll be cold, but we have sweaters and jackets. The boat sets out to Ha Tien.

10:15 AM

Wheee! The boat crashes through the waves, each wave sending a spray of warm seawater over the deck. Within minutes everyone is soaked from head to toe.

10:30 AM

We are all completely wet and cold. It’s windy. The boat rides waves up, every once in a while landing with tooth-loosening crashes in the troughs. Imagine you are standing in front of one of those huge, movie-sound-stage style fans turned to full. And then someone starts throwing buckets of salt water in your face every thirty seconds and throwing you hard to the ground every five minutes, too.

11:00 AM

Janelle starts to seriously fear for her life. She’s no the only one. The vomiting begins. The mate comes up on deck and tells us not to lean over the side to throw up. “Just do it on deck! Water wash away!” We have many hours left to go.

11:30 AM

We learn later that around this time a woman tried to get the boat to turn around. This seems somewhat reasonable, as the island is still quite visible and, in fact, does not seem to be getting any further away. We do not turn back.

12:15 PM

We stop fearing death and start to welcome the prospect. We are now one big shivering, drenched, huddled mass on the deck. At some point we got a greasy, fish-smelling tarp, but it is far too small for all the people on the deck, and just covers our bags. Mine has all my books, my iPod and my camera in it. To keep up my spirits, I make a shopping list in my head, since there’s no way any of this stuff will survive.

1:00 PM

Janelle has managed to find a cozy spot between me and one of the Quebecois guys, under a few square centimetres of tarp. I’m still getting the buckets-in-the-face treatment.

2:00 PM

We were supposed to be at Ha Tien by now. There is no sign of land. Somebody is crying. Nobody has thrown up in a while, though, which is nice. The mate comes and holds up a single finger. “One hour!”

The sea, amazingly, is quieting down. We see a rugged coastline with strange and surreal towers nestles between low mountains.

3:00 PM

Ha Tien. Jesus! Hundreds of fishing boats like ours, all tied to corrugated tin shacks with old-fashioned TV antennae on the roofs. Rusting industrial buildings past that. Fish canneries? Who knows. The air is thick with blue-grey diesel smoke.

Suddenly, we are boarded! A half-dozen motorboats latch onto our boat and the deck is soon swarming with Vietnamese men missing teeth and fingers and shouting at us! Loudly! And agitatedly! In Vietnamese! They try to get us onto the boats, but our bags are still in the hold. It’s completely bizarre. Being boarded by pirates would be no less surreal. Finally, some kind of order emerges, and people are matched to bags and everyone bound for Saigon ends up together on one boat, which then zips away from our “ferry”. The whole thing takes all of five minutes. The motorboat pilot whips out his cell phone and starts making calls. One of the Vietnamese children translates. He is arranging some kind of bus or cab. The boat pulls up to a tiny wharf.

3:15 PM

Apparently, we are now all waiting for a bus to Saigon. This confuses us, since there aren’t any buses to Saigon from Ha Tien, only Rach Gia to Saigon. The two Quebecois guys are especially concerned, since they’d been waiting for three days to get off Phu Quoc and figured they would have to get to Rach Gia. I hadn’t thought that far ahead. Mostly, after a five-hour boat ride, I just need to pee. Very, very badly. I communicate my need through creative use of mime, which the Vietnamese dudes find hysterical, but gets the point across.

3:30 PM

The bus arrives. A not-uncomfortable air-conditioned minibus. Another round of questions about times and places. Another stack of 50000 Dong notes. We go about 3km to a pho stand and eat some tasty noodles. Janelle and the Montreal guys go out and get some Pringles and Oreos and weird Vietnamese candy. It seems like you can get Pringles and Oreos anywhere in Southeast Asia, even industrial backwaters straddling the Cambodian border. Even Coke is less ubiquitous.

4:00 PM

The bus leaves Ha Tien. The long journey to Saigon begins. The driver tells us it will take 6 hours, which doesn’t make a lot of sense, since it’s 6 hours from Rach Gia to Saigon, and RG is a lot closer. Mostly, we’re just happy to be on our way.

It’s hard to say what the Mekong delta is really like, since we mostly passed through it in the dark. But it seems to mostly be the bad roads, random factories and concrete buildings that make up the rest of the country. We bounce over the rough roads in the dark, stopping occasionally for meals and toilet breaks.

10:00 PM

We were supposed to be in Saigon around this time.

2:00 AM

We arrive in Saigon. It’s surprising how active the city is at 2AM. Sidewalk food courts have dozens of people eating and hanging out. A French dude on the bus told us about a hotel that sounds okay. We take a cab there. It’s full. We wander around popping into random hotels and waking up desk clerks. Everything seems to be full. Well, the Sheriton has a room, but it’s $250US. We are tempted.

3:00 AM

We finally find a room at an anonymous little hotel. We open the door and geckos scurry for safely, but it seems otherwise clean. We raid the minibar (always a good deal in Vietnam) and sleep the four hours we have until we need to get up for our flight.

We did it. We made it. We survived. And it only took 21 hours of pain and stress and we didn’t die. Amazingly, our iPods and cameras survived, too, though all my books were reduced to fishy-smelling pulp.

The moral? Avoid islands. No, wait. Avoid everything associated with the ocean. A prairie boy like me has no business there.

Wizard People, Dear Reader

Well, Nando and I managed to finish our paper for ICML late Friday night. No, not that ICML, this ICML.

I was mostly just glad to get it over with. I was working 14-hour days and getting progressively sicker — I’ve had the same cold for almost three weeks now, and it’s been attacking me in repeated waves of phlegm and exhaustion. I took the weekend off to recover.

During my recuperation, I watched Wizard People, Dear Reader. It a very funny alternate soundtrack for the first Harry Potter movie, put together by comic book artist Brad Neely. The idea is, you download the MP3s and listen to them while you watch the movie on DVD. Harry Potter becomes a demigod prone to fits of depression and alcoholism, the quiddich match becomes an epic battle described in mock-poetic hyperbole, and Alan Rickman becomes a woman. It’s kind of a cross between Mystery Science Theater 3000 and What’s Up, Tiger Lily, and a lot funnier than you’d expect.

You can view the first 20 minutes or so on YouTube (for now).

  • link>> to Wizard People web page

A Date with John Waters

Just in time for Valentine’s, everybody’s favourite creepy pervert indie filmmaker is looking for a date. With you. Well, that, and he wants to sell you his album.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it now: God bless YouTube. I ordered the CD online before the video was even done.

“Let’s be hillbillies and pretend we’re stupid! Who wants to sleep with smart people all the time, anyway?”

Okay, back to my paper.