Built into my contract are five paid calendar weeks of vacation. Three of them are meant to be taken this winter, starting January 8th. For a while I really had no idea what I was going to do with them, but now I’m piecing together a plan that revolves around Southeast Asia. This is mainly due to Sean and Natalie: southeast Asia was a part of the world that I hardly ever thought of before I started talking to them about it. I mean, what happens these days in Laos or Thailand or Malaysia? These are the countries that people talk about in the United States only as a rhetorical device to talk about somewhere really far-flung and unimportant. If “What’s that got to do with the price of tea in China?” means someone has just said something totally irrelevant, what does that say about the price of a night in a flophouse in Cambodia?
But in Europe, it’s different. Europeans generally know Europe; it’s old news. And America is just the England part of Europe with a bunch of other countries mixed in here and there. So if you want to have an adventure and you’re European, southeast Asia is one of just a few places to go that are brand new. Which means that’s where Sean and Natalie are going, and they talked it up and got excited about it and lent me their Lonely Planet guide so I could figure out more about these countries out in the parts of the world that are the most foreign of all to me.
Literally the only things I knew about Laos prior to cracking the book were from what Kahn Souphanousinphone said in one episode of King of the Hill:
HANK: So, are ya Chinese or Japanese?
MINH (Kahn’s wife): No, we are Laotian.
BILL: The ocean? What ocean?
KAHN: From Laos, stupid! It’s a landlocked country in southeast Asia between Thailand and Vietnam! Population approximately 4.7 million!
HANK: (Pause.) So, are ya Chinese or Japanese?
Actually, that’s a lie. I had even forgotten most of that, and all I could remember was “Asia” and “Population something million” (I thought it was 6). But on reading the guidebook, I found out it seems to be a pretty nice place. It’s supposed to be the most relaxed of the countries down there, and you can just kind of wander around. It has lots of tropical forest, and some interesting hill tribe cultures that you can go peek in on (somehow they’ve made this mostly unobtrusive for the tribal people, apparently). There are temples (wats, as in Angkor Wat, but that’s in Cambodia) on par with the spectacular wats dotted all throughout the region. There’s something called the Plain of Jars, which is exactly what it sounds like, if you add the words “Giant Stone” before “Jars” in the name: these things are over a thousand years old, big enough to hide two or three people in, and no one knows exactly who put them there or why. You can go tubing hiking or just hang out for a while drinking the cheap, tasty Beer Lao. These are things that I plan to do. So, Laos is definitely in my plan.
Also there’s Vietnam. Apparently most of Vietnam has grown a thriving industry of scams and the country doesn’t make easy friends with tourists in a lot of places, but I mainly just want to hang out on the Mekong Delta. The Mekong is a very big river, the world’s 10th largest, and my very cursory research that I have done just now between starting this sentence and finishing it tells me that it’s also second in biological richness only to the Amazon, and it’s home to several species of absolutely enormous fish, and it flows backwards at high tide all the way up to Phnom Penh in Cambodia (which means, throughout its entire length in Vietnam and then some). It’s a place that comes highly recommended and I’ve never spent much time on a river delta. There are floating markets and hikes and other cool stuff.
From the delta, I’ll take a boat up the Mekong to Phnom Penh and use that as my jumping-off point to see, obviously, Angkor Wat, the one big thing that people see in Cambodia. But I’m interested in more than that, so I’ll spend some time in other parts of Cambodia, looking at other wats, checking out hill tribes, hiking and seeing the wilderness, and probably generally relaxing. I don’t remember as much about Cambodia as I do about the other countries, but that’s okay because this isn’t a travelog, it’s just a pre-travelog, like I said, thinking out loud into the keyboard.
Lastly there’s Thailand. There are other countries in the region that I haven’t mentioned, of course: all the island nations (Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and the little ones Brunei and East Timor), and Myanmar (which is only a little friendlier than North Korea). But in three weeks, even four countries is a big stretch if I want to really experience all of them. Thailand makes it onto the list because it’s conveniently located and it has what I’m assured is amazing food. Actually, food is going to be a big theme of this trip. I’m starting to become something of a foodie, if not even a gourmand. I like almost everything about Korean food, and every time I think I know it all, something new appears and surprises me. So I’m going to get a taste of the local cuisine all over southeast Asia as much as I possibly can. And since Thailand is, proudly, the only country in the region that never got taken over by Europeans, its cusine is very intact and just as tasty as it’s been for centuries. There’s also Bangkok, which I’ll check out a little, but I mean, you can see a big city anywhere. I’m into traveling to experience the cultures, and I feel like you can do that better outside of a bright metropolis where “nightlife” is a big concern. Even the idea of a metropolis is, if I’m not mistaken, fundamentally Western, so why do I want to see that when I could go to the gigantic Buddha statues and monuments peppered all over the rest of the country, see what life is like for people living the real life out in the country, and go learn about the oldest cultures around? Plus, there’s not much natural beauty in big cities, so you’ll find me out in the forests.
Here’s a different random thought: I’m probably going to start using this blog more than I use Facebook. I recently read that those in charge are planning to change Facebook completely, with the main new thing being that it will show your entire life history in detail. That’s a bit too creepy for me, so I’m planning to empty out my Facebook and start posting my photos and writing my thoughts on my blog. So that’ll be nice. I like this blog: I can control it. It hasn’t changed its look once since I started blogging in 2004. It doesn’t ask for my date of birth or my interests. None of the text here is neatly organized into “interests” and “activities” for advertisers, and anyway it doesn’t have ads. Why bother with Facebook?
So you may ask how school is going. Well, I’m still catching on. It’s kind of a gradual process with me, it seems. A couple days ago I got told off by my co-teacher, who still seems to be moody and unfond of me. But I realized, talking to my friends later, something that I can improve. Which is: I’ve been teaching language the way I would want to be taught. But I’ve learned so much about language that I think about it in a completely different way from most people, almost certainly including a lot of the students. I think of everything as systems, rules, abstract grammar principles, logic. Maybe a few kids are like this to an extent, but most of them probably just want to memorize a few things and pass the test. And while that’s no way to learn English, I’ve got to start realizing that, if I try to tell them about complicated systems when their highest ambition is to pass the next test with a score that lets them go on to do anything but English, they’re going to learn even less. So I’ve started taking that into account while teaching. And I’ve also tried communicating better with my co-teacher, with the result that we’ve actually had some semi-civil conversations over the past few days. So, things may start to improve a little faster now. Which is nice.
I’ll put up some photos soonish. I’m typing this at a school computer, so it’s got kind of an unfamiliar feel to it and I feel like I can’t write right. So I can’t come up with some kind of conclusive last sentence. So there isn’t one.