Author Archives: Kei Franklin

To see a place

Throughout our journey, I have made it a habit to find a special spot in each place we stopped. We would often have several hours to ourselves each day to wander, sleep, or do what we please. I spent this time wandering the streets until I found this aforementioned ‘special spot’. It was clear to me, each time, intuitively.
Each spot is different, but many share the same unique quality of allowing me to see while being fairly unseen.

Some examples were: a bus stop shelter, a small alleyway between two houses, an abandoned condominium building, a cement table under the awning of someone’s house, a bamboo bridge across a river…

Accessing many of these places bordered on trespassing, but I got the impression that, even if they saw me, no one particularly minded my presence. These vantage points awarded me some of my most memorable views of the entire trip. I saw children sprinting home in the rain, a man hauling water from his well to wash his clothes, people singing to themselves, ladies gossiping, monks sprinting to Evening Prayer.

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The thing is, I would often spend hours in these spots without seeing any of the rest of the town/ city.
I have begun to wonder, did I really see those places? How do we know once we have seen a place?

Are the Lonely Planet recommendations a must? What about the destinations offered by tour-guides? What about if I follow around a ‘local person’ going everywhere they go? Have I really seen the place? If I go to Cambodia and I miss Angkor Wat, can I say I have seen Cambodia? Who am I saying this to anyway?

Or is it even possible to ever fully see a place? Can people even say they have seen their own hometowns? Perhaps no place is static enough to be fully seen; it is all dynamic color and change…

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And why all this talk about ‘seeing’? To really know a place, must I feel, hear, smell, taste and touch it too?

I am unsure if I can say that I have seen, or have even begun to know any of the multitude of places we passed through and stopped in during the last 10 weeks.
What I do know, however, is that there are places that I felt immensely connected to, and others where I felt alienated, moved, inspired, intrigued, scared, disgusted, hopeful.
Perhaps these feelings came from inside me, and perhaps they came from the place. Alas, is there any view without the viewer?

Those moments, those feelings, are what those places are and will remain for me. I think that is enough… for now.

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A thought – what is ‘Hello?’

As we traversed 5 countries, and many various landscapes, I began to question the meaning of greeting.

In Thailand and Laos, the greeting at least holds connotations of well-being ‘dee’ meaning good. In Vietnam, however, most people shout ‘Hello’ at us.
I do not use the word ‘shout’ lightly. The first few days of being in Vietnam were actually disconcerting because of ‘Hello’. People seemed to be shouting it as a declaration, as opposed to an invitation for reciprocity.

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This got me thinking – what is ‘Hello’ anyway? Why do we say it? Does it hold any meaning beyond its own two syllables? What is the function of a greeting? Who is it for? Can it be one-sided?
A greeting (and all language) is said with intent – but I wonder how much of that intent can be deciphered by examining the tone with which it is delivered, versus the meaning imbedded in the word itself.
Further, what accountability is imbedded in a greeting? Are some greetings meant for those who are passing by, and others for those who are coming in?

In Swaziland, the greeting ‘Sawubona’ translates to ‘I see you’. It  demands a reciprocal acknowledgement – the affirmative ‘Yebo’. A similar exchange seemed to take place in Thailand with ‘Sawatdee kah’ and the culture of wai-ing.

I wonder what these different greetings might reveal about the responsibility of a person towards another.

We Made It!

After 68 days, 5 countries, 3,700 kilometers, and countless bowls of noodle soup, we have made it to Hanoi!

Check this space in the coming days for updates and reflections.

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Laos vs. Thailand 1-1

We all feared Laos before we got here. The elusive Laos with her endless mountains and probable lack of cell phone coverage. We had no idea what to expect, and the prospect kept us thrilled and terrified.

We have now been here for about 3 weeks, and the differences between Thailand and Laos have shown themselves – at times  more stark and at others more subtle.

On a superficial level – in Laos we ride on the right side of the road, kway teoh is replaced with pho, we eat almost exclusively sticky rice, the table is adorned with a platter of fresh greens and herbs instead of marinated chili peppers. We replace the negation ‘mai’ with ‘boh’, ‘r’ becomes ‘h’, we stop using the gendered greetings of Thailand in place of the universal “sa bai dee.”

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Our typical lunch of Pho, note the delicious plate of fresh greens

On a deeper level, however, the differences are, as expected, more subtle and difficult to express. I have found it particularly interesting to consider the relationship that each country has towards us -‘ farangs’, travellers, foreigners.

In Thailand we found a whole array of villages and towns, ranging from the tiny rural ‘boonies’ like Ban Mae On Ki, to hipster developing cities like Fang and Nakhon si Tammarat, to tourist  destinations like Chiang Mai.
In Laos thus far, however, we have glimpsed only two ends of the spectrum – the extremely rural and isolated villages in the northern highlands, and the guidebook tourist hot spots like Luang Prabang and Vang Vien.

Perhaps we have missed the Lao equivalent to those middle-sized cities, or  perhaps fewer exist. I personally really enjoyed the atmospheres of the fairly developed towns and cities in Thailand that had been built up from the inside – with hipster undercurrents – and in a seemingly ‘Thai’ way, by and for Thai people.

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The Mekong river separating Thailand (the far bank) from Laos

In Thailand, my Facebook friend count went up by probably 5%. We were asked, almost every day, to be Facebook friends with the people who helped us, gave us directions, served us food, etc.
I have not had this pleasure in Laos. In some ways it feels like, in asking to be Facebook friends, the Thai people assumed an equality between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ This equality led to a jovial atmosphere, with rapid mutual trust and curiosity. Most people were eager to share their homes, their friends, their lives, and this helped us to feel comfortable and open too.

In Laos this contagious openness seems to be replaced with a hierarchical patron-client relationship, often complete with elements of suspicion or reverence. (n.b. This is, of course, not to ignore the many many people who have been warm and helpful and welcoming to us in Laos. It is rather that the general sentiment feels, to me, more skeptical than in Thailand.)

While in Thailand, having ‘farang’ friends was a symbol of social capital (I was paraded through several villages on the back of a motorbike), in Laos there seems to be more of an emphasis on the nuclear family and community. ‘Farangs’ represent the temporary, those who are passing through – not dependable or accountable with continued presence (not to mention the fact that ‘farangs’ also represent countless misfortunes, like the recent heavy bombardment of thousands of Laotian villages by the US army during the Vietnam War). Indeed while in Thailand I, being the only Caucasian of the Chakrayan Chums, was often sent to ask for help, as usually my presence was regarded with pleasant surprise at worst. In Laos, however, I walk behind the others, am introduced later, do not stand by the road if we want to catch a ride, etc.

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Our new-found Thai cyclist friend Saak taking (one of many) photos of us to show to his daughter

The other day, I spent several hours at a Mama-shop-cum-one-roomed-house waiting for the rain to stop. The very young couple who managed the shop sat watching a Laotian comedy TV show. I watched along, chuckling and trying to understand the plot from the exaggerated facial expressions. At one point in the show, I ‘farang’ approached the house of the protagonist. He was tall, blonde, and wearing a nifty backpack. He held is DSLR camera in one hand and motioned stupidly, asking if he could take a photo of the perfectly normal Laotian family as they led their perfectly normal everyday lives (I think they were eating dinner). They told him, in English, to “get out!” and he just kept standing there looking confused, gesturing with his camera, and occasionally wai-ing to show respect. They finally resorted to throwing a shoe at him, at which point he apologetically flailed his arms around and ran away, but not before snapping a few photos on his way out.

We all laughed out loud at the TV, and the young man looked sheepishly towards me, glad to see I was laughing too.

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A boy in the first highland village between Ban Huay Xai and Pak Udom

 

I feel that Laos, historically and presently, has no major reason to feel welcoming or particularly enthusiastic towards ‘farangs.’  We have done more harm than good, and we often come with many assumptions of what we will find, and then hope that Laos and Lao people with fulfill our expectations.

While riding through Thailand, I very often thought “I could spend a long long time here.” I do not feel that in Laos – instead she intrigues me, bores me, sedates me, shocks me, calms me, irritates me, inspires me. My appreciation for Laos feels more present, unconditional, distant.

I no longer fear Laos, and I cannot claim to understand her either. I hope she feels the same.

 

I could get used to this…

As we rode out of Chiang Mai, we approached a small village where music was blasting from speakers. We had been in Thailand long enough at this point to know something entertaining was about to happen.
As we rode up to the masses of chairs covered by a big blue party tent, several party-goers motioned for us to come in.

We entered to find a stage with several older ladies wearing different colored silken suits and sunglasses, dancing wildly to very loud music. Naturally, they invited us (insisted) that we come join them on the stage, and we obliged. We danced and drank homemade white rice whiskey. As Anshuman did a shimmy shakedown with an old and very tipsy woman, I giggled and exchanged a wink with him. After dancing, they invited us to eat. We munched on piles and piles of litchis and ate bamboo stew with sticky rice. Not long after dinner, we casually excused ourselves, thanked the hosts, and went on our way.

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Daniel getting down with the party-goers

After this event, I was reminded of the first party we accidentally crashed. We were stunned for at least 2 hours straight during the event and afterwards. We kept glancing at each other excitedly across the room, we couldn’t believe our luck, we couldn’t believe the amazingness of circumstance and coincidence or fate.

In general, our first few weeks of the trip held an air of whispered excitement. We giggled our way onto the bus, staring at everything, gasping at views, taking photos of everything.

In recent weeks, this excitement has started to wane. We don’t feel like blogging or taking photos, awe-inspiring views don’t phase us, we are only slightly surprised when we stumble into a party with spirit mediums and homemade white rice whiskey.

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What we normally wake up to…

I suppose this is a natural progression, but it is somehow amazing to realize that even the most unpredictable and seemingly ‘unroutine’ lifestyle – a nomadic one – can begin to feel mundane. Indeed it is not the circumstance which determines the level of gratitude, but rather the mindset.
How does one maintain perspective and ‘fresh eyes’ in the midst of everyday life? And everyday life can be anything – from that of a blue collar worker, to that of a Queen, to that of a nomadic bicycle tourist.

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A view to keep us on our toes

I try to remember ‘where I am’ and how unique an opportunity this is, but that method might not apply in a more traditional everyday life situation. Instead of constant stimulation and newness, I wonder if it is possible to look at the same thing again and again, and by ‘looking a different way’ actually see a different thing – like close reading a painting or a text.

If not, perhaps this feeling of boredom or complacency is not something to be feared? Maybe it is an essential part of the human experience? Maybe it shows us that we have learned and that we are adaptable and that we are curious?
Just keep pedaling, just keep pedaling….

 

Profiles of the Bicycle

Based on observations of bicycles primarily in Thailand, I have compiled a list of profiles of the different Bicycles most typically seen:

The Basketal

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Description: An older v-frame bicycle, easy to mount for even the smallest of jockeys. A large front basket usually carrying an umbrella or goods from the market
Jockey: An older woman or man, age 50+, often wearing slipper-style shoes and a sun hat
Typically seen: in the morning, in small to medium-sized towns and in residential areas

 

The School-kid

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Description: The bicycle is an older v-frame,  usually mis-sized for its jockey. Popcorn or takeaway food dangle from the handlebars.
Jockey: A student wearing a school uniform, knee socks, and a huge school backpack
Typically seen: in the morning and afternoon, as transport to and from school

 

Spandexy

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Description: Newer, straight-framed bicycle, typically with water bottle holders, and grip tape. Usually traveling in packs.
Jockey: Man or woman aged 25-40, wearing spandex shorts, a quick-dry shirt, and a helmet
Typically seen: early in the morning or in the evening, mostly on weekends
* The Spandexy usually feels the most camaraderie towards us and shows it through waving or stopping to ask us where we are going or to check out our bicycles.

 

Tricycle

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Description: Not yet ready for training wheels, the tricycle allows for even the youngest jockeys to ride
Jockey: A young’n, usually using her legs for power and totally unaware of the existence of pedals
Typically seen: in driveways or residential areas, and on weekends

 

Slow but Steady

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Description: This bicycle is usually creatively rigged so that it can transport a lot of goods – everything from bamboo, roots, and herbs, to building materials and foods – from the rural areas/ fields and to the towns and cities.
Jockey: An older man or woman, wearing a sun hat or headscarf as protection from the heat, pedaling very slowly
Typically seen: on long stretches of roads between towns or in rural or agricultural areas

 

Joy Ride

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Description: A v-framed bicycle, usually with a bell and sometimes with a basket
Jockey: A mother wearing house clothes or pajamas, usually with a baby propped on the seat, or strapped to her back
Typically seen: in residential areas, traveling up and down the street, or around and around in circles to entertain or soothe the baby to sleep

 

Fixie Coolkids

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Description: Singles speed straight-framed bicycle, usually neon colored frame, tires, and wheels. Minimalist – no water bottle holders or accessories
Jockey: a child or teenager, wearing skinny jeans and a flat-billed cap, usually pedals standing up, and travels in a gang or equally cool riders
Typically seen: on the weekends and in the evenings, around the central parts of a town or city, less seen in rural areas

 

Tandem – redone

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Description: A v-framed bicycle rigged to carry two (or three) passengers, a rear rack supports a second passenger
Jockey: A father-daughter duo, or friends, or siblings. The more senior of the two pedals, the other holds on dearly
Typically seen: on the way to and from school, around rural villages at any time of the day or week

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Gratitude

During our first week of this trip, I bought a small notepad at a stationary shop in northern Malaysia.
At the time, I was not sure what I would use it for. Very quickly, however, its purpose became clear.

Since that time, I have used it to scribble random acts of kindness that people have done for us along our way. I can safely say that by now this little notepad is well-weathered, and its pages are close to filled. Indeed everyday, multiple times, we experience immense kindness and hospitality and help from complete strangers.

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A kind family in Ban Thung Maha, Thailand who welcomed us into their home, fed us for two nights, and let us join their weekend adventures horseback riding, visiting their coconut and durian farm, and swimming at the beach.

During the first few weeks of the trip, I struggled with the magnitude and frequency of these random acts of kindness. I did not feel I knew how to say thank you adequately. The outpouring of love and luck and help we received felt like a burden to me, piling up gradually on my shoulders. I felt that my capacity-for-good-fortune had to have reached its maximum, and that I should be weary of asking for anything else from anyone.

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A man in a small village somewhere in Northeastern Laos who started a fire and helped us cook some eggs from a Mama shop; it was our first meal of the day and we were desperate.

At the start, these acts of kindness actually caused some contention within our group. We could not agree on how to say thank you, and even to whom.
Indeed this raised some very interesting conversations regarding graciousness. It matters hugely who you attribute your good fortune to. Who is sending all this help? Is it God, the universe, the individuals themselves, blind luck, coincidence?
If you thank God or the universe are you discounting the kindness and agency of the individuals themselves?
On the other hand, if you thank the individuals, regarding them as completely disconnected from one another, do you run the risk of demanding too much without considering your role in the larger (perhaps karmic?) order of things?

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The young monks who strung an extension cord across the street and tied a light to a pole with their extra robe cloth. They also brought us bottled water and a mat for sleeping.

I have not resolved this question for myself yet, but in the meantime, I’ll keep “thank you” (in its various forms) on my tongue, and my little notepad in hand…

Sorry for the Silence!

We have been internet-less for far too long!
Check this space in the next few hours for some long-overdue updates.

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We successfully made it into Laos!

Praak saam ruup

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Monks begging for alms in the morning

In Thai, if you want to put a quantity onto a noun, you need what is called a ‘classifier’. The classifier specifies what is being quantified. For example, to say “we are four students” you must say “rao naksiksa sii khon” which translates literally to “we are students four persons”. In this case, the “persons” is the classifier.
The classifier for monk, or praak, is not the expected “khon” meaning “person”. Instead it is “ruup”means ‘image’ or ‘picture’. Linguistically, therefore, monks are considered to be images or pictures of the Buddha. Their reverent status is literally imbedded in the Thai language.

On our journey thus far, we have had many unique opportunities to become intimately acquainted with the lives of monks. Indeed nearly every night we sleep in a wat, and sometimes we are actually housed in the monks’ quarters. It is somehow remarkable to brush your teeth at a water faucet while a monk takes a shower just next door, or to hang your padded bike shorts on the same line with those saffron robes.
I am amazed by how open and inclusive the monks have been, inviting us into their living spaces, welcoming us to follow them as they take alms, or laying down mats for us to join in their 6 o’clock prayers.

To my knowledge, the life is a monk is usually shrouded by an inaccessible and sacred cloud of mystery. It seems as if we common people are not supposed to imagine monks eating, sleeping, brushing their teeth, or feeling emotions of boredom, discouragement, anger, happiness. We are to regard them as somehow more-than-human, beings that have chosen a path of spiritual enlightenment, humility, denouncement of material possession, etc.

So far on this trip, however, I have had several encounters with monks that have surprised me:
One monk hurried out of bed at 5am to fire a slingshot to scatter a flock of cackling birds.
One monk used his iPad to take a selfie with us.
One monk crouched in some bushes talking on his cellphone.
One monk grabbed Anshuman’s arm, and insisted he take a photo with him.

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Monks who invited us to join them for their morning Alms-run in Songkhla

The most memorable encounter, however, I will recount in more detail:
We arrived in a small village (the name of which I have forgotten) somewhere in the mountains between Mae Sot and Mae Sariang. It had been raining all day, but the clouds finally surrendered when we arrived, so the air was cool and calm. I sat on a wooden porch overlooking the wat’s parking lot. From my position, I could look across the parking lot and see perfectly squarely into the prayer hall. My viewpoint was optimum, one of these rare and special ‘seeing but unseen’ moments.

The clock struck 6:00 and a young monk hurried to the prayer hall, leaning his small body to push open the heavy metal sliding gate. From my seat I could see the brilliant gold of the various statues of the seated Buddha, looming over the small boy.
The monks began to arrive, walking with quick directed steps, as they assumed their seated positions and began their daily prayers and chanting.

Soon after the arrival of the monks had calmed down, one small boy-monk (probably 9 years old) approached the prayer hall. He walked with even measured, almost marching-steps, turning sharply to enter the front door square on. As he approached the steps, however, he hesitated, his pace slowed. He clasped his hands behind his back and tentatively, slowly, turned away from the prayer hall. He meandered his way, guiltily it seemed, to a nearby tree, and began to play with a low-hanging leaf. He looked at the branch fondly, indulging in this distraction.
After some minutes he quietly approached the prayer hall again, this time, taking a curved path, sneaking in to sit in company with his age-mates.

Soon after, an older monk idled up to the side of the prayer hall. He finished his cigarette before entering, a certain sheepishness in his gait.
Two young monks sprinted up the prayer hall, panting. They consulted each other silently, with gestures, realized they were too late to reasonably join prayers, and ran off again into the larger wat grounds.

Minutes later, I watched, in awe, as two of the young monks inside the prayer hall began to poke and tease each other. They took turns, making sure the senior monks couldn’t see them. One would reach out his arm to jab the other one in the ribs. Seconds later, the jab-victim would respond by sticking his tongue out at the jabber.
This prodding and teasing went on for sometime, all while the senior monks sat diligently, the chanting continued, and the great Buddha towered, golden, his lips curled in serene contentment.

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Standing and Seated Buddhas

I watched all of this from my porch, in awe. I felt somehow astounded at the’ humanness’ of these monks. I could suddenly empathize more deeply than ever before with the complexity of emotions that young (and all) monks must feel at choosing this spiritual path.
Indeed the boy-monk’s hesitation – his choice of the trees over the prayer hall – did not lower him in any way in my eyes. If anything, he became a more accessible and endearing character, and perhaps one even more deserving of respect.

Are these praaks truly images of the Buddha? Do they aspire to be? Or are they merely boys and men who have chosen a path of enlightenment, status, poverty, and indeed inherent contradiction.

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The first Monk Initiation Ceremony we watched

 

A Poem for Thailand

I especially love Thailand in the morning.
I say ‘Thailand’ at the risk of sounding reductive. This is about ‘my’ Thailand, the one I have seen, heard, smelt, felt, grown to love.
This poem came to me over the course of a few mornings, cycling through sleepy Thai villages as they yawn and wake to the day.

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Oh Thailand
with your long-billed herons
stand, balance, stock-still
in the wake of the morning –
walk like an Egyptian

with your
squatting women
clean silver water basins
engravings twisted like molten hair

Thailand
with your truck loads of
Burmese and Laotian workers
colorful socks over their faces –
they zip up their moths
and I hope it is just for the Sun

Oh Thailand
with your
cheeky children dressed
as if ready for some Army brigade
popcorn
hanging from their handle bars

Thailand
with your
plump sprouts
who dangle from the seat of Daddy’s motorbike

with your
monks who carry
hand-rolled cigarettes
and sling-shots to scatter
the birds

Thailand
with your
boldly-painted houses
perched squat
pink roof
brick stamped on
electric blue
orange walls
purple trim
all with the grace of
tin-can wind chimes

Thailand
with your colored wars and
tattered flags
proud

with your porches
and
too many bird cages

Why so many bird cages?
Whose song are you catching, Thailand?
What is the tune of your earthen pulse?

I hear your song, I hum along

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