Category Archives: Marcus

I am Afraid to Travel

The thought of being the first Singaporean someone has ever seen had never occurred to me before. It only hit me on hindsight, after 2 weeks cycling in Laos, that I might have had the privilege of being that Singaporean (sorry Daniel) for many people here. More importantly, I might have been their first experience with anything to do with Singapore and think that whatever I do, who I am, is Uniquely Singapore.

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I never prepared myself for being an ambassador. Should I be portraying a certain kind of behavior? What kind of behavior? Maybe I should footnote my Sabai Dee  with a  Lah. Maybe I should wear a Merlion or the Marina Bay Sands on my shirt.

I am afraid because I cannot speak or act for my whole country, no matter how small it might be. But somehow, that is what people (not only in Laos) see you as doing. They generalise. Many have formed an image of an American tourist, a Japanese tourist (which I am often mistaken for) and a Thai tourist; no image of a Singaporean tourist, or even an image of Singapore has formed for most people here. I feel like I have a responsibility to all the people in my country – to be constantly wary of what I am portraying, a museum exhibit titled This is Singapore.

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I want to take away the times I ignored a monk at a wat when I had no interest teaching them English and forgoing my sleep because you don’t deserve to be thought cold and unfriendly.

I want to take away the times when I bargained so hard that you might seem cruel.

I want to take away the times when I regret saying Pom khon Singapore (I am from Singapore).

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Maybe you don’t like eating pineapples by the street everyday and I should take that away too.

Maybe you don’t like searching for cheap food outside the recommendations from tripadvisor and I should take that away.

Maybe you don’t even cycle at all.

Or maybe, just maybe, these people will never get to see you at all.

Then maybe I won’t want to take all these away. Instead, I’d rather heck it all and be what Singapore has made me, wearing it proud on my bicycle.

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Futility

Sometimes I dread writing this blog. I dread drafting a post with my pen and my notebook, attempting to share my thoughts and experiences. After all, what can I share with you dear reader, besides words?

Words betray so much. They come to you as mere pixels on a screen – pixels trying to embody sight, touch, taste, sound, smell and the millions of neuronal pathways that echo after.

I see a little girl, adorned with tribal necklaces and earring stuff of the same sort, but no clothing of any sort; bare skin temporarily shaded by the roof of a mama shop. She gazes at me with a stare so penetrating that I have to look away, unwilling to reveal the inner depths of my self before even I find them. Keeping that unwavering look, she munches on her biscuit, crunching in tandem with the throbbing of my heart. A whiff of river scents emanate from her dirt washed, dirt stained, bleached-looking hair as I taste the khao neow stuck to her hair from my previous meal.

This takes a minute to read a few more to to write, but is a mere second of experience. Have I shared enough? So many details left undescribed, so many moments that precede and even more that await, making this one moment, this descriptive attempt, a memory for me but a mere paragraph for you.

But forgive the inability of my words, for without their failure you will never join me, or set off in search for something that is not merely words.

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How have you travelled?

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We’ve been allowed quite a bit of contrast regarding the way we travel given its rather novel medium. While most of the people we see are either, backpacking, hitch-hiking or flying around, we are cycling.

While we were in big tourist destinations like Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng, I found myself asking other travellers, “where have you travelled?”
Singapore, Penang, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Siem Reap, Luang Prabang.

Okay so we’ve been to more or less the same places. But I was irked when I realised how similar our travel might have sounded when they were probably aeons apart. I realised that WHERE you have travelled means nothing. I am more interested in HOW you have travelled.

Mizuki is taking a bus from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang. She complains that the seats on the minibus will be hard and she won’t get to sleep. I tell her that the views she will get are stunning and she won’t feel like sleeping anyway. She says the bus will be too fast for her to enjoy the scenery. I agree.

Danielle shows me pictures of her bungalow overlooking the mekong in Luang Prabang. She says she paid 30USD per night for it. I comment that that is expensive. Her defence is that it is her holiday and she doesn’t mind paying for a luxurious vacation that she can afford.

How we travel varies greatly. Every person travels in a way that is unique to her, motivated by personal reasons.

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For Sak, travelling might be a form of exercise, to strengthen his back after and old injury from an accident. It might also be to take many pictures (what he calls “art art art”) for memories to share with his daughter at home.

For Danielle, her holiday might simply be a short getaway as reprieve from Hong Kong city to enjoy creature comforts at low South-East Asian prices.

For Kotaro and Mizuki, their year long solo travels might be a once in a lifetime chance to see the world before settling into marriage or a long an arduous career in Japan.

Each person’s experience in a place and eventual notions of it become unique to how they travel. But for some, how they travel seems to be limited to the direction of tour companies, tripadvisor and lonely planet.

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A Korean traveller asked me at a restaurant in Vang Vieng, “So, you’ve seen real Laos people?” I told her that the people around her are real Laotians as well, but I see what she means – Laos is not just Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Vang Vieng. I am proud that we are travelling in a manner that takes us beyond the path well trodden and in a manner that makes people ask “how?”

And the Mountains Echoed

I pride myself for this fitting title as I finish reading Khaled Hosseini’s novel in my kindle and also as we arrive in Chiang Mai after days of cycling over and around mountains. IMG_5574IMG_5387 Oh yes do the mountains echo. No doubt about that. But they echo weirdly, unlike usual echoes which become softer and smaller. Mountains echo in the opposite direction, bigger than the next, and definitely louder – louder swearing and louder laughs of sadism and disbelief. IMG_5406 Hosseini’s novel is about separation and then reunion of both characters and plot. The stories expand as characters face heart-wrenching separation, and unrealistically reunite through the possibilities of an expanded story. IMG_5342 In these mountains, we saw separation. The separation of people from their land – non-thai-speaking Burmese working in Mae Sot, forever burdened with sending back money to their struggling families in Burma and kilometers spanning a Burmese refugee camp holding who knows how many people.

Burmese refugee camp

Burmese refugee camp

IMG_5353 The separation of countries – a river and a mountain range conveniently separating a land into two governments, two languages, two cultures, and two countries. IMG_5339 The separation from a lack of communication – the Thai and Burmese language, and even the English language, so alien to these mountains. And also, our separation from all civilisation when we were on the mountains, in the clouds, unable to contact family, friends and school for a night. A night for us, but maybe a lifetime for these cloud dwellers.

No idea where we are

No idea where we are

Reunion however, I see, takes place in the fantasies of writers and readers, and the privileges of the tourist. IMG_5455

A Post About Thai Food

I write this sitting in a restaurant in Chiang Mai, eating a bowl of what has been described to me as spicy ramen soup with tonkatsu.

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After almost three weeks in Thailand, I found my first mango sticky rice yesterday in Chiang Mai. What have I been eating? You might ask. I think I can safely say I’ve been eating Thai food. After all, it has all been made by Thai people, ordered in Thai, by roadside stalls, and more or less the same throughout.

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With family and friends, we all know what we mean when we say “let’s go for Thai food” – this includes food such as pad thai, beef noodles, pineapple fried rice, tom yum, pandan chicken, basil minced pork, fried whole fish with mango/papaya salad drizzled in thai spicy sauce, red ruby, mango sticky rice. I think these are more than available in Chiang Mai city, but these are not what I eat everyday. In fact, we eat plain old kway teow soup, khao pad (fried rice), mixed rice, and (fine I admit) some pad thai.

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Is Thai food what the average Thai person eats? If so Thai food is rice, with maybe a fried egg and some vegetable curry.

Is it what foreginers imagine it to be (for we are the only ones who call it thai food)? If so then Thai food is the obvious list above.

Is it what touring cyclists eat? No doubt, this is kway teow soup and fried rice.

Is it what Thai people in the prominent cities (Bangkok, Chiang Mai) eat? If so, then this list is complicated.

"Farang" is foreigner

“Farang” is foreigner

As I finish my bowl of ramen I think the same questions can be asked not just for food but for what is Thai? Who are the Thai people and what represents Thailand and its culture?

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Same Same, But Different

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I came to this country with full confidence that this one phrase would save me from being utterly wordless before a local – that is “sawaddee krap”. Honestly, you could survive visiting thailand with just that one phrase; you fly in and fly out with it. I greet everyone with this, and with the expectation of a smile, of recognition, of bridge gap-ing. But this time I fail: He stares at me blinking, mutters something to his fellow men, teeth disfigured to a slush of red and black. He scratches his backside through a longyi, and then his cheek, spreading the iconic traces of thanaka. These are the Burmese people.

Burmese street in Mae Sot

Burmese street in Mae Sot

We are along the border of Thailand and Burma, accessible only after a series of mountains. You’d be surprised that this is Thailand. The contrast is stark, and it is appalling knowing that you have crossed no borders and are very much still in Thailand. The Thailand we were in before does not stray far from one would expect, save for the rurality of some villages which hardly count for surprises. This is a whole different ball game. We didn’t fly from Bangkok to Mae Sot, the effect I see now as so similar to the cleansing glass of cold water served between wine tasting glasses. We had no teleportation of sorts, no “Welcome to Northern Thailand” sign; we simply moved on land, slowly cycling through the same country.

Thai table set-up

Thai table set-up

Burmese table set-up

Burmese table set-up

The same country? Jurong and Changi are in the same country. I’ve lived with that, and I guess I’ve built my understanding of “same country” along those lines. I guess Singapore gives one a sense of “country” that is unlike most places in the world. We are small, so concentrated and so accessible amongst each other. I start to see in us an identity that probably escapes the many countries surrounding us.

Burmese street food

Burmese street food

The Novelty of Bicycle Touring

We’ve had many amazing experiences with the people we’ve met on our j0urney so far. We might say that these specific experiences were never our intention, our doing – they were  what we hoped for but never dared to expect. Instead, in the wake of these experiences, we attribute them to chance, coincidence, to God, or to the kindness of humanity. I realised however, that we give ourselves less credit than we deserve. I think we have crafted, or at least put ourselves in the position to receive these experiences, simply through the act of bicycle touring.

Ratchakorn saving us and our chakrayans

Ratchakorn saving us and our chakrayans

We have cycled for 13 days and if all our eyes served us well, I can safely say that we have not encountered even one other touring cyclist on the road. We are rare, a novelty, maybe even a specimen that the locals take around to show off what they’ve found. We are foreigners touring on chakrayans.

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Selfie on a moving Rescue vehicle

Rao khon Singapore, kii Chakrayan bai Hanoi (We are from Singapore, cycling to Hanoi). 

Singapore naksiksa (Singaporean students)

Phom khon India (I’m from India)

Chan khon America (I’m from America)

Each of these phrases are always greeted with raised eyebrows, an exaggerated “ohhhh”, and a quick repetition of what we just said by whom we addressed to the other locals gathered around. Amazement, curiosity, intrigue, wonder, surprise, excitement. They smile, and each to their own degree, shower us with food, water, lodging, conversation, joy and friendship.

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Kungten’s Birthday Party!

We’ve gotten used to the sight of ourselves, rolling into town sweaty and grimy, with fully packed panniers strapped onto our bikes, reflective vests, good morning towels, yoga mats and sleeping bags. But for anyone else, we are a sight to behold.

Rest stop - eating maggi mee mammee mee style

Rest stop – eating maggi mee mammee mee style

This novelty is what attracts such experiences and such kindness; we chose this, consciously unwilling or unconsciously willing. They might be amazing people, but they definitely do not shower all of their kindness on just anybody. Amidst all our gratitude, we must not forget to thank ourselves and our bicycles (Gio, Trudy, Martha, and mine yet to be named) for going the distance and crossing that bridge that leads to people’s hearts.

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P.S. forgive my bad Thai

Tai Ruup!

Tai ruup dai mai? (Can I take your picture?) That’s one of the most common phrases we use so far on our journey. From kway teow soup stall owners to baby cyclists,  we want pictures of them all.

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At first, it was not easy to use the phrase (learnt, memorised and prepared for only because of our dear Professor Andrew Johnson) due to the fear of rejection that is usually not uncalled for. In Singapore, if you try to take a picture of someone, you’re either –

1. A nuisance

2. Weird

3. Dangerous

4. A pervert

They will never have time for a picture anyway; they are too preoccupied with their busy lives. It’s like waving a huge “Ain’t nobody got time for dat” sign in your face. Through the larger cities that we passed through, it felt almost the same. Who would trust a stranger to not do something creepy with their picture?

Awesome guy who kindly guided us out of Songkla

Awesome guy who kindly guided us out of Songkla

However, responses were totally different in the countryside and small towns. Each Tai ruup dai mai?  was greeted with a Dai! Dai! They never say no. Parents shove their children at you, asking you to Tai Ruup while the kids stare in wonderment. People stop, get off their bicycles for a posed photograph, and also a conversation. albeit a slightly incomprehensible one. People invite you into their celebrations, serve you food, and command you to take pictures of them shaving a new intitiate (monk) from the family.

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Of course we being foreigners plays a huge part of their intrigue and hospitality, but beyond that, I can’t figure out why. Are they simply showing their people, their cultures off to the world? Do they love the interaction with people who speak funky Thai? Is it the rarity of cameras and having their pictures taken? I, having always been a city dweller, cannot comprehend as of yet – and apparently, cannot imitate.

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I was leading the group on a stretch of road when we were signalled to stop by a guy who parked his van in front of us. As I got closer he waved his point-and -shoot camera around with some pointing action – a universal, non-verbal Tai ruup dai mai? I slowed down, but then decided to ignore him and continue on ahead, leaving him in the dust of our chakrayans. In that moment, I thought he was all of the three things I listed above, and did not want to take the risk.

What hypocrisy.

We’ve been taking and receiving a lot on this trip so far, although it has only been about a week. Hospitality, experiences, memories… And I couldn’t even give one guy with a van and a camera a chance to keep in a photograph the memory of meeting four touring cyclists on the road.

 

Self-timer on the bridge over Songkla Lake

Self-timer on the bridge over Songkla Lake

We’ve just taken a few pictures with the newly initiated monks, but these reside not in my camera, but theirs. Maybe that’s a start.

The Invisible Driver

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While we were cycling along a busy main road today, I gazed at the neverending whiz of cars flying by and likened them to sushi on a sushi train, but moving a hundred times faster. If sushi moved a hundred times faster, you won’t be able to see the sushi inside anymore – you won’t know whether it is unagi, tuna sushi or an empty plate that some douche placed back on the conveyor belt. You’d probably only be able to see the colour of the sushi plates (they charge by colour) and guess roughly what is inside. It felt the same with the cars – you see a blue car, black, silver, silver, van… but you hardly ever get to see the people inside. You guess but you never know. It may be an old Chinese uncle. It might be a young Malay couple. If it is a shitty driver, maybe a female driver(Oh no I didn’t). The drivers are invisible.

When we cycle, we think of cars as merely cars. They are not the people inside driving them. Instead, they are a threat to us, things that we might die by. Cars are screens, opaque; they are walls, impenetrable. I tried to imagine the human beings inside those metal cages. I stripped away the car frame, the mechanical stuff that makes it work, the windows, the seats, the dashboard, and then the steering wheel. Imagine that. What was left was an androgynous humanoid, floating in the uniform position that a driver would be in (half squat, arms extended). I did this for all the cars I saw and got a picture of floating human bodies, all staring straight ahead in that uniform driver position, flying by.

Imagine that…

Going Slow

When you go slow:

 

1. You see squashed, trodden, flattened, dried, run over, abandoned, dead animals by the side of roads
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The first time we came across a dead animal (what was it? A bird?) I swerved around, avoiding the poor animal. What the f***! Did y’all see that? And then there were rats, monitor lizards, cats, dogs, maybe a crocodile – sometimes you just can’t tell anymore. You smell them and feel this sick grumble in my gut and try to avoid it every time you see one. But after a while you don’t anymore. You get used to the sight and smell; it doesn’t feel as gross anymore. Sometimes it just looks like some dried leaves with little branches, brown and dried up; you save the trouble of avoiding such harmless things and then realise that that might have been a bird. Then you start playing a game because you are bored – what is the next animal?

 

2. You find yourself with time to interact with people

Early this morning while cycling along the main road, with cars whizzing past, I spotted a Chinese uncle cycling in the opposite direction on the other side of the road. I looked at him, and he looked at me. I raised my arm, waved, and shouted, “Uncle zao (good morning uncle)!” He smiled and waved back. We shared a moment in that five seconds along a busy road, both travelling, both getting somewhere. Sometimes you see uncles and aunties by the side of the road. Hi Encik/Macik!  And they nod and smile back. Let’s say you’re heading to Merbok, and you’re not sure that you’re going the right way. Uncle! (Pointing) Merbok? (Nodding) ah ah Merbok! You don’t get these moments going fast.

 

3. You get to watch nature

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The same paddi fields gently caressed by the gradually rising sun.

The birds rising from their sleep, setting off and then changing formations as they dive and swoop.

The cock in mid-cockadoodle.

The butterfly that follows you for a whole minute.

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4. You see cars and other vehicles pass by

You become aware that you’re going slow, and then feel pressured to go slightly faster. Sometimes they are so fast that you hardly notice them; they whiz by, too close for comfort, and you feel in danger. You are exposed and vulnerable to physical and also verbal abuse. If you are a Caucasian girl in tights and short sleeves you might get stared at and whistled to, maybe even followed; then you are left in the wake of their speedy vehicles. You are nothing to them, a mere second in their lives, and they will never see you again.

 

5. You forget that you are passing by as well

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