Thursday, January 27, 2005

Home again

Well, I'm back in California. And I made it through customs with all of my grandma's odd gifts. (I doubt many people understand the risk of embarrassment at having to declare dried shrimp and dried fish bladder to U.S. customs agents)Everything looks different--the difference in cleaniness is amazing. And I was a little weirded out when I got off the plane at SFO and saw non-Asian employees for the first time in a couple of weeks.

Gotta mention that while I was in Bangkok, I got a haircut. Normally, I would never get a haircut in another country; I have a hard enough time trusting salons in this country. But my sweet cousin Somchai wanted to treat Jen and I to "girlie" activities and took us to this hairdresser near his own home. The stylist, a skinny Thai man with a shaved head except for a small clump tied back (yes, he was gay) was astoundingly deft and fast with scissors and a comb/knife. It was like getting cut by Edward Scissorhands. Although it doesn't look like the picture of Reese Witherspoon that I had pointed to, it's growing on me. I don't think many American stylists could pull it off. After the cut, the assistant stylist blow dried my hair. She had a great haircut--like a long-layered-Jennifer-Aniston coif going on. After we finished at the salon, Jen, Somchai, Somchai's sister Ann and I got into the car. Then Somchai dropped a mini-bombshell and told us the assistant stylist used to be a man. We thought he was playing a dumb practical joke 'til Ann (who knows almost no English) said "Yes, ladyboy." I know my radar for transsexuals isn't exactly at the highest signal, but I had no clue. I kept thinking about how I had admired her figure and the cute flower-belt she was wearing. Do I even still use feminine pronouns? And she was so gentle when shampooing my hair. Apparently, Thailand is actually a big sex-surgery capital because it's much cheaper than other countries. The things you learn...

Anyway, the last day, before I had to catch a 10:25pm flight for Tokyo, the entire family piled into a 10-person van with driver and we rode the train on the memorial Bridge on the River Kwai in the city of Kanchanaburi (may be spelling it wrong). After lunch, we stopped off at an elephant park and I got to feed a baby elephant. The elephant even knows how to bow. That's more manners than a lot of people. We tried to pack as much quality family time. Somchai hired the driver to stay longer and drive us to the airport so almost the entire gang could come along for the ride. Jen and I had an entire entourage carrying our luggage into the airport. After we exchanged goodbyes and hugs, the two of us walked into passport control. While in line, I turned around and saw the entire family was still out there waving to us--not quite ready to say farewell. It occurred to me at that moment that I really hit the jackpot. Besides reuniting with my grandma for a little while, I discovered an entire branch of relatives whose company I truly enjoy. I now see where a lot of my personality traits--good or bad, hehe--come from. Although I'm glad to be home in my own bed, a part of me is still in Bangkok. Hopefully, I'll be able to visit again soon and keep my new familial bonds growing.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Condeman lives in Bangkok!

So, my last couple days in Bangkok, I got to see the fun and consequences of the sexual culture in Thailand. Three days ago, Jen asked Somchai to take us to Patpong, Bangkok's red light district. Basically, it's a couple blocks of go-go dancers and sex shows. We did everything short of actually going inside. From what I could see, the girls parade around in bikinis and each one has a number on her. Different men kept coming up to Somchai trying to lure him in to watch. A few also asked us girls too. Overall, it doesn't look that different from what you'd see in sleazy parts of big cities in the U.S. Except in Thailand, most of the customers seem to be Japanese businessmen and older, unattractive white dudes.

The next day for lunch, I asked Somchai to take us to this restaurant called Cabbages and Condems. The eatery was started by this doctor who worried about the overpopulation of Thailand due to lack of access to birth control. His reasoning is that condems should be as attainable as vegetables at the grocery store. Hence, the name of the restaurant, whose profits go toward the clinic next door. The food was pretty good. Some of the menu items have cheesy names like Condem Salad. The atmosphere is definitely geared toward tourists. Nice chairs and table cloths. But the walls are adorned with condems from around the world--Tanzania, Russia, India (brand name of Kama Sutra of course) and pictures of Condeman. When they bring you the bill, they throw in a condem for each person. Funny enough, the condems are American-made.

My next post will probably come when I'm back in California. I'm actually at Narita Airport in Japan awaiting the last leg of my trip home. How my last day in Bangkok and overall impressions of my trip deserve its own post.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Should have done something shorter than "neurosurgeon"

OK, before I get to the explanation for this entry's title, let me recap our last day-and-a-half in Siem Reap.

Yesterday, we visited some more famous temples and took a boat ride along Tonle Sap Lake. There's a whole boating community of Vietnamese refugees as well as Cambodians living along the lake. As you can imagine, it's pretty filthy but the people, especially the kids, can be quite charming. After we watched the sunset on the lake, the three of us were taken to a restaurant across the street from our hotel. Another buffet, of course, ensued along with a live show of traditional Cambodian dance. The routines went back and forth between guys and girls in play clothes dancing jovially to the girls wearing really elaborate, shimmering costumes with tall, pagoda-esque headdresses and bending their hands in ways I didn't think were possible. At the end, they let the tourists run up on stage and take pics with any of the dancers. You can imagine how many guys wanted their photo taken with the girls. One group of tourists, mostly Caucasian, posed with five of the girls and one older, BIG white guy in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts put his arm around a girl without even asking her. As Jen would say, pervy.

Today, an acquaintance of Jen's, Andrea showed us a great silk store to buy from. Andrea grew up in England and used to live in the Bay Area. She was a PR person in Southern Cali before. Now, she and her husband run a guest house B&B in Siem Reap. What's cool is that they hired only locals for their staff and paid for them to learn English. They have their own local guides, drivers and even a gardener. It's the locals who could use jobs and new opportunities that really benefit. They also run a school for some local children next to their B&B and encourage guests to give a few English lessons. Andrea led us to this really charming, Cambodian-Western cafe with balcony seating. She also shared stories about her business which is only about a year old. A few months ago, she had a single guy come to the B&B. He was really paranoid about catching bird flu and refused to eat anything with eggs in it. This same man asked Andrea's assistant if he could hook him up with a Cambodian prostitute and bring her back to the B&B. This man also bragged about sleeping with more than 200 prostitutes throughout Southeast Asia. Safe to say this man definitely does not think with his head.

Later on in the afternoon, about four hours before we were due at the airport to fly back to Bangkok, we took a touk-touk (a motorized wagon with a canopy) out to the landmine museum. I highly recommend that just because the subject matter is so compelling. It was started by a former child soldier for the Khmer Rouge named Aki Ra. He spends a lot of his time clearing landmines throughout Cambodia and turned his collection into a museum. The museum is actually three wooden shacks that show press clippings about his cause, actual deactivated unexploded ordinances, etc. There are also 10 children, all with injuries like lost limbs due to landmines, living on the premises and learning English. I chatted with a couple and they were really sweet. It really breaks your heart to think of the pain they had to endure. There were some Europeans living there as well as volunteer teachers. I've thought of volunteer teaching but I don't know if I could go hardcore and live in a hut.

Ooh, I should wrap this up. Well, we got to the Siem Reap Airport with plenty of time to spare before our 8pm boarding time. This airport is pretty tiny--all the gates are in one room and there's only one eatery--a coffee stand really. Only a couple airlines fly into it. Somchai, Jen and I managed to grab a table. Later on, we started asking Somchai what games he knows and ended up playing Hangman. After a couple rounds, Jen wanted me to pick something for them to guess and I decided on neurosurgeon. Somchai was so on the verge of getting it that we didn't even bat an eyelash when Jennifer said 'What's that smell? It's coming from them closing up the cafe." Somchai was still trying to guess when one of the coffee stand employees said to us "Um, your flight." We turned around and saw that the entire room was empty of travellers and Thai Airline employees were standing by the open gate looking at us. So, yes, three generally responsible adults almost missed their flight because of Hangman. The only reason anyone knew to get us was because we were on the last flight out and the airport was virtually empty. And not to name names, but one person in our group was almost 2 for 2 in the missed flights department. Anyway, I'm now safely ensconced in my relatives' home in Bangkok with my 90-year-old Grandmother doting on my every move and even going through my underwear.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Now in Siam Defeated

Siem Reap translated means Siam Defeated. Cambodia and Thailand didn't always get along, hehe.

So, I don't know if anybody is actually reading these posts. But, what the is rather therapeutic for me. And I have a forum to say that Cambodia is one of the most beautiful countries I have ever visited. With the exception of a few concrete roads, there's nothing but lush jungle and woods. There is a healthy mix of bayons (the kind of tree Buddha would meditate under), palms and other cascading trees. The pace is pretty slow and their rush hour even seems easy-going compared to traffic back home. Tourism here will probably only continue to grow; new luxury hotels seem to be springing up everywhere. Alas, most of the locals--a lot of them children--have to sell goods like clothes, souvenirs, or cold beverages to make money. The little children are frighteningly persistent and will follow you for several feet before giving up. You feel bad because they look so vulnerable but even when you buy once, others nearby don't give up on pitching items to you.

Today, the three of us rose early for the second day in a row. This time, we caught the sunrise at Angkor Wat. It was pretty amazing and peaceful. I really like our tour guide for the whole time we're in Cambodia. His name is Prom Chomrong. He is a local who lost three relatives to the Khmer Rouge. Chomrong always tries to take us through temples where there are fewer crowds or where there's shade. (It's a sauna out here) Yesterday, he regaled us with stories about his experience as a driver on the set of the first Tomb Raider movie. He got to chauffer Angelina Jolie around Siem Reap. When I asked if she was nice, I think he misunderstood and thought I asked if he thought she was pretty. He said he didn't much like her because her "lips too big" and she was "too skinny" and "dark-skinned." He didn't like how she was dark in real-life but the camera made her look white. Apparently, he was more impressed by her stand-in.

At this same temple where Tomb Raider filmed, there's a little 83-year-old-man who for years has taken it upon himself to sort of maintain different nooks and crannies of the place. It's an awesome temple; there are a bunch of trees whose roots somehow grew on top of parts of the temple. A picture of his smiley face graced the cover of a recent Lonely Planet Cambodia. I'm sure everday, somebody cries out "It's the Lonely Planet guy!" OK, I was one of those people. But Jen got really excited and took a couple of pictures. Some of the people here are pretty amazing. I'm going to be sorry to leave although the sketchy bathrooms I keep encountering will help ease the pain. Well, off to take advantage of the indoor plumbing at our hotel and wash off the aches of some of the intense climbing we did today.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Nothing like hugging after a butt-kicking

Hi all! I found a cheap cyber cafe in this six-story mall in Bangkok. Everything is more Westernized than I expected. They have crammed so many stores, arcades, pharmacy, etc. in here. Not sure if it's more bad than good.

Last night, Somchai and his friend took me and Jen to watch muay thai, a Thai boxing match at one of two boxing stadiums in Bangkok. There are 10 matches and the whole evening starts with boys between the ages of 12-15 facing off. Each match consists of five rounds unless one person gets really knocked out. After four matches, the competitors went higher in age so it got a lot more interesting. According to Somchai, a boxer gets points for using different parts of his body. So, there's kicking as well as hitting involved. After each bout, which usually got pretty intense, the guys always made it a point to hug. I don't know if they do that in American boxing. But, it's funny that Thai manners seem to resonate in everything.

After six matches, the four of us left for this street called Khao Sarn. It's a long street filled with vendors, massage parlors, and people getting their hair braided. It was a major buffet for the eyes and ears. I saw that some food vendors were selling fried bugs and worms. Blech! Sorry, but I'm not a Fear Factor kind of girl. Somchai took us to this really good Thai restaurant called Tom Yum Kung. I think I had the best Thai meal ever had--really yummy coconut milk soup, chicken with cashews and awesome pad thai. After dinner, we went back to the car. In Bangkok, there's often someone lingering by where you park your car. If so, you'd be smart to pay them like 10 bahts to watch your car. Otherwise, it might not be in the same condition you left it. Also, a lot of people leave the car in neutral so if someone needs to get out, they can just push your car up so they have space. I learned this when Somchai got out of the car and single-handedly pushed a parked truck a few inches.

Well, tonight, we are supposed to have dinner at my uncle's because my grandma hasn't seen me since our arrival. Should be interesting, especially if there are old pictures of my father lying around. Sigh...have to get up at 5am tomorrow to catch a 7:30am flight to Siem Reap. Funny how we call it a vacation but we make ourselves get up early for a jam-packed day.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

The Tang-Chotipuriphan Reunion

Well, the last couple days have sorta been a whirlwind. Our last full day in Tokyo, we tried to take it easy because we had to get up 6am the next day to catch a flight to Bangkok. We just checked out this garden that used to belong to the Shogun and is surrounded by a moat. I bet it's beautiful in the spring. But now, most of the trees are bald and there are only a few peonies in their Peony Pavilion. After that, Jen and I checked out the Sony Building where they have showrooms for PS2, music players, High-Definition TV, digicams, etc. We both drooled over a tiny network walkman. The prices ranged from $158-$258, depending how many MB you wanted. I think for $258, you could have 512 MB (23 CDS worth). It's a really small gadget. Think it's a better deal than an iPod? Our feet got really tired, so we parked ourselves in front of a HD TV showing a sumo match. This elderly Japanese woman sat down and started talking to us. Leave it to Jennifer. Although Jen knows only like four phrases in Japanese like "Do you speak English?" and "Excuse me," she somehwo sustained a 20-minute conversation with this 83-year-old lady--who by the way was very sweet. Jen's social skills know no linguistic boundaries.

Anywho, I'm in Bangkok now. I'm staying at the Sol Twin Towers. When we arrived yesterday, I spotted my cousin Somchai and we officially met for the first time. His brother, sister, mom (who's full Thai) and dad (my dad's older brother) all live in Bangkok. At the time my uncle settled in Thailand, there was anti-Chinese sentiment. So, he changed his last name to Chotipuriphan. You could see how he'd get that out of the name Tang, lol. As soon as he said Grandma was waiting for me outside the hotel, I ran over to where she was. For those who don't know, I grew up with my Grandma or Mah-Mah. Two years ago, she moved here to live with my uncle. As soon as she saw me, she leapt up from the bench. And that's pretty good for a 90-year-old. Though she's a little skinnier, Grandma is more or less the same; most synapses firing. This is especially good news because it could be a great genetic omen of how I'll be in another 60 years. She got kind of misty-eyed when we hugged. I have to say that has been one of the bigger highlights of my travels so far.

Before we could blink, Jen and I were whisked into Somchai's car with him, his dad and Grandma. On our way to dinner, Somchai's cell started to ring. Then he suddenly pulled the car over and my uncle popped out of the car. Jen and I thought something was really wrong. Somchai said his cell had fallen somewhere behind the seat and they needed to look for it. Later on when we got to the restaurant, uncle got out of the car, stumbled and did a sort of wobbling squat and managed to get himself back up just before contact would have been made with the ground. It was after these two incidents that I finally saw the family resemblance between myself and them.

We went to this firepot restaurant in a mall called Paradise at the Mall. Afterwards, uncle insisted on taking me to the bowling alley on the same floor. This bowling alley is one of three that my father has financial investments in. An old friend of his talked him into being a backer. I find this quite amusing since as far as I know, my father has never bowled a game. The man does know his way around a ping-pong paddle; but that's all I know. Anyway, I don't know if I get to call myself a bowling alley heiress.

So, my biggest fear is getting some kind of gastro-food-poisoning affliction. Please wish me luck. I still have Cambodia to conquer in two days.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

I'm a giant ... for a little while

Kanichiwa! So, you know it's quite a feat if someone of my stature feels like a giant. Everything is so compact here in Tokyo, from our hotel room to the Hagen Daaz containers which look more like condiment holders on a TGIFriday's plate. Jen and I are staying at the Shinagawa Prince Hotel. It's pretty swanky. I'm at their Yahoo! cafe. There are a bunch of stores and even a bowling alley where you can catch the Japanese people in their business suits and sneakers bowling on break from work. The toilet in our bathroom is also an interesting piece of work. It's one of those electronic deals with a shower/bide option and a seat that maintains a level of warmth. Of course, I had to try it. I hope the room next door didn't hear me yelp when a spurt of very tepid water hit me. I don't think many guys get as far on first dates. Anywho...we've eaten a lot of good ramen at ramen bars. Every restaurant in Tokyo either has only bar stools or six tables with sliding doors. Like I said, everything is economy size. Yet, I'm fighting not to break the bank.

Today, our first full day, Jennifer's friend Eri, such a sweetie, took us around to some great economical shopping spots. The Japanese come up with the most interesting things for home and everyday use. I bought a rice ball molding tray. (The next hordeurves I serve will rock.) We also met Eri's husband and I don't think I've ever met such a ball of energy. He literally came bounding out of his office. He tried to use a little bit of English like when he ran up the steps outside of his building, singing the Rocky theme. BTW, Eri and Jen know each other from Spain. So, it was cool that the three of us spoke in Spanish and could talk about how sucky people sitting near us at dinner were for smoking. It was like sharing a table with three chimneys heating during a winter night. Overall, we're really enjoying ourselves. But not sure how tomorrow will fare. We won't have our own personal tour guide any more. It's all part of the adventure I guess! Sayonara and hope everyone is doing well!

Friday, January 07, 2005

Now open for posting!

Well, I've crossed over into the world of the blogger. We'll see how long it lasts. It could be the start of something profound and culturally relevant...or just a scrap of an impulse that will eventually disappear in the landfill of cyberspace. On the one hand, I'm not sure if I'll have anything life-altering or amusing to say here. However, the one thing that I've learned is that EVERYONE has a story, even those who like to tell one. Right now, I'm in a transition period. I have been gently nudged out of the internship nest at WIRED. But, before I can think about job hunting, I'll be getting ready for a 15-day trip to Bangkok and Siem Reap, Cambodia with a three-day lay-over in Tokyo. Except for Bangkok, I've never been to the other two places. I'm unabashedly stoked!! Yes, I know it's Thailand--a tsunami-drenched area. But we are not going to the south. So, we'll be fine. We is my cousin Jennifer and I. Hopefully, I'll encounter more adventures than misadventures. I'll see my grandma for the first time in two years and get to know my cousins on my dad's side. Thank goodness one of them, Somchai, speaks English! I really hope to post while I'm gone. Thanks for reading and again, welcome!