Category Archives: Anshuman

On Getting Ripped Off

For the rugged traveler, thrift is sport.
It is one thing to have traveled around China. It is an altogether greater achievement to have traveled around China at $10 a day. I like to imagine that you get a special stamp in your passport when you walk through immigration afterwards, your clothes wrinkled from handwashing and your shoes smelly from daily wear: “Departed China, summa cum laude

For the student who travels, thrift is necessity.
Our time in Thailand taught us a thing or two about what should cost what. We knew when bargaining was unnecessary, when it was in order, and when it was futile. We could ride up to roadside food stall, order, eat, and then pay what we knew to be the price. If there was argument, it could be settled with a friendly retort in Thai: “Come on, pisau. Do we look like farangs to you?”
Things changed dramatically when we crossed the border and came to Lao. We no longer knew how much things should cost. The exchange rate was unhelpful: a Thai Baht is 250 Lao Kip. We struck out blindly. On our first day in Lao, our three meals cost 60000, 40000, and 300000 Kip.

For the traveler, thrift is luxury.
Thrift is not always a choice you make. Sure, buying snacks at 7-Eleven is a poor start. But what do you do when you’re presented with a hand-painted sign that says pho is 15000? What if every food stall in town has identical hand-painted signs that say pho is 15000? What are you supposed to do, argue with a hand-painted sign? What choice do you have but to pay?

Even for the rugged traveler, thrift is hard-earned.
It comes packaged together with familiarity and experience. Ten days in Lao and a chat with a friendly monk have taught us that pho is not 15, 25, or 75, but 10. When we now go to food stalls, we look not at the menu but at the eeai.
“How much for pho, eeai?”
“15000 Kip.”
“Can we pay you 10000?”
“Okay. Sit down.”

5000 Kip isn’t a lot of money. It is, on last calculation, less than 80 cents. But not paying those 80 cents is more rewarding than you would imagine. Not paying that money earns you a little stamp of approval in the eeai‘s head. She brings out the preserved fish paste and the cray-cray hot chilli that she doesn’t normally serve to falangs. She recommends dishes and later scolds you for dipping your sticky rice in your soup. She gives you a free banana for desert. You request a normal price. She treats you normally.

Thrift isn’t about leaving Laos richer by so many 80 cents. Thrift isn’t about a special stamp in your passport. Thrift is about bananas for desert, lessons in table manners, and burnt taste buds.

The Trouble With Hills

Today is our forty-eighth day on the road. While that statement sounds dramatic and is a good conversation starter at Vang Vieng’s coffee shops, it doesn’t fully tell of how we have actually spent most of those days on the road, counting kilometers, navigating traffic, and studying fold-out maps. As is to be expected, life on the street has taught us a thing or two.

Road signs, for instance, have become a big part of our lives. They rarely lie, and only occasionally deceive. We have gotten used to two Thai classics:

1. The Truck That Climbs

The sight of this sign usually makes Marcus stop to pull out his chewing gum, (“I need the sugar, bro.”) and makes Daniel go into his ‘Hips Don’t Lie’ climbing stance.

2. The Truck That Descends


This one makes everyone but Daniel heave a sigh of relief. While Kei, Marcus and I stand in our seats and switch to high gears, poor Dan (who is fighting a phobia of falling) clutches his brakes and hangs on for dear life.

A few days ago, when Marcus and I were riding from Chiang Saen to Chiang Khong, we arrived at a rather ridiculous climb. After huffing and puffing our way up the slope, we stopped at the top for a breather. A little kid and his mum were sitting in a shack by the road. I walked by bike over to them, and asked if we could eat at the village nearby. (When you ride with Marcus, you eat whenever possible.) Although the lady replied in the negative, she felt sure we could find food at the bottom of the hill. She pointed further down the route, where the road fell into a gorgeous, meandering decline lasting a few kilometers. Marcus and I exchanged a smile, thanked her, and rode away.

What got me thinking, however, was the little boy. The sight of me did not get him excited. He did not look at my strange face, my curly hair, or my funny clothes. He did not participate in my chat with his mother. I’m pretty sure he was altogether unaware of my presence.
Something else had caught his eye: my chakrayan. He stared at the wheels, their rims so shiny. He looked over the gears, the contraption so bewildering. His gaze lingered on the tires, the tread so muddy. It pained me to ride away: I have never seen anyone look at Gio, my bike, with more love.Map sketch

It wasn’t until much later, while riding an altogether different road up an altogether different hill in an altogether different country, that I realized why that kid has reacted so. It was like when someone tells a joke and you pretend to laugh but only actually understand it afterwards.

Map sketchMap sketch new

He lived in a village on the ridge of a hill, sandwiched between The Truck That Climbs and The Truck That Descends. That little child had never seen a bicycle before, because little children cannot climb hills on their little-child bicycles. None of his friends in his village had bicycles, because they were too little for motorbikes and because bikes cannot climb hills.

The Things They Carried

“The nomad places little value on what he cannot carry.”  Prof. R. Patke | Yale-NUS College | 2013

NB: Clicking on a picture will link to a high-resolution shot.






















One of the first phrases that any traveler must learn to say in the local language is ‘I don’t understand.’
The Thais say ‘Phohm mai khao jai.’

phohm is a way to refer to oneself
mai is a negation
khao means ‘enter’
jai is the heart

‘Phohm mai khao jai’, translated literally, means ‘It didn’t enter my heart.’

Looking for Trouble

IMG_3927We like to think of ourselves as travelers, and not as tourists. We humor ourselves, much like little boys stuck in their pilot/pirate/policeman phase. We aren’t to be blamed, mind: the traveler is obviously cooler.

The tourist traps herself  in her conveniences. She has flights to fly, sights to see, luggage to lug, and hotels to hote. The traveler revels in the very opposite. She packs two pieces of underwear and a toothbrush, and hopes to figure out the rest along the way. The traveler loses the way, drinks the water, and sees the things that Lonely Planet does not show. Like a gambler or a lover, she receives more because she gives more.

When the Chakrayan Chroniclers first set out, we wanted, in this way, to be vulnerable. We were all ready to ride the rough road and eat the funky food. We were four students (inclusive of beautiful white woman), hoping to ride our bicycles for thousands of kilometers. Of course things would go wrong!  Our bikes would become seea (Thai for ‘broken or spoiled’), our stomachs would become seea, and we would definitely lohng the thaang (lose the way). We would be clueless, helpless, and dependent, with a language barrier to boot.
I couldn’t wait.

But then the rough road and the funky food gave us a miss.
It turns out vulnerability is something you must seek out. It does not just come when called.
Upsettingly enough, none of the bikers have fallen ill yet. It turns out the roadside stalls have been serving us factory-packaged ice and boiled water the whole time. When we lohng the thaang and ask for directions, the people are too polite to tell us that we are lost. They point encouragingly in the direction that we are headed, and assure us, with an oddly formed thumbs-up, that we’re on the right track. When we ask directions for Highway 408 from Songkhla to Nakhon Si Thammarat, they politely direct us to the more comfortable ferry that connects the same two cities.

Without even realizing it, we are being turned into tourists. We often find ourselves at 7-Elevens, museums, bubble tea stores, and once even at KFC. I realize only now how badly we must stand out, we with our spandex and our sunglasses and our fanny packs. We want to be lovers and gamblers, but I sometimes wonder if our roses are too garish and our banknotes too big.