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After eight days in sunny Phuket, we headed to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. You’re about to see tigers, zip-lining and our first views of the mighty Mekong River. And food. Always food.

The Sunday night market in the Old Quarter

Khao soi, a traditional northern Thai dish, that we got at the night market. Tasted like heaven after a day of airport food.

Just hanging out with some tigers

Tiger Kingdom wins for best signage. Ever.

One more tiger shot

Then we rented bicycles and did a wat tour around the city.

Buying tea in the central market

And then we went ziplining!

I took a ziplining video and learned I scream like a girl. A really girly girl.

Mr. Aussie stuck his pet bug in my face. Yep, pet bug. That thing is tied to a stick and very much alive.

Banana and chocolate pancake with condensed milk and more chocolate drizzled on top. Eat your hearts out.

Gate that surrounded the Old Quarter. Not pictured: the accompanying moat

First view of the Mekong River from Chiang Kong

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Because I’ve been crap at blogging since I’ve been back, here is the lazy girl’s “Things I’m Thankful For” list:

1. American food. Actually, any food that isn’t Korean. Food-wise, it’s been a marvelous few weeks, and look forward to sampling as much hummus as possible in the coming months. Do you know how hard it is to get good Italian in Seoul? Do you?? It doesn’t happen.

2. Spending the day with family. Yeah, I put food above family. (Though for what it’s worth, my aunt did make macaroni and cheese for Thanksgiving dinner. If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.) It’s been a year and a half since I’ve seen a lot of my relatives, and today was a fantastic reunion. Also, my 5-year-old cousin can now form complete sentences. I’m beginning to think of her as a real person and not just the adorable kid who would imitate my monkey faces across the dinner table.

3. Not working with orphans. My year in Korea was amazing, don’t get me wrong. As far as work goes, I have no regrets about the past year. But twelve months of donning a stewardess jacket, whipping up chocolate chip cupcakes and teaching kids the correct dialogue to rob a person on the street gets old. I’m thankful for the challenges that the past year has presented me, but even more thankful that they’re over. Though I do sort of miss getting paid to play frisbee and teach aquarobics.

4. Like I’ve said in the past, the year was rough. Losing my grandfather, then several more relatives, my college mentor and boss sucked. Having a strong support system, one that spanned several continents, was crucial. I couldn’t be more thankful for my friends this year, not only for their words of encouragement when I was down, but for calling me out when I did stupid things and joining me on all of my adventures.

What are you thankful for today?

“Forever on Thanksgiving Day
The heart will find the pathway home.”
-Wilbur D. Nesbit

also


I love Thanksgiving turkey. It’s the only time in Los Angeles that you see natural breasts.”
-Arnold Schwarzenegger

(I couldn’t decide which I liked more. Enjoy both!)

Still alive, friends. I’ve been in Washington since Wednesday visiting friends and eating ravioli. Got my computer back from Erin, who has been keeping it safe for two months (thanks again, Er!), and finally uploaded all of my photos from my travels. I guess I’ll post the highlights from each city/region, and hope that makes up for the past two weeks of non-blogging. First up, Phuket!

My very first picture in Thailand: a snail crawling out of our bathroom drain. Keep it classy, Phuket.

Inside the Buddha Caves

View from our speedboat

James Bond Island. And me doing a cartwheel.

Looks cute...

...but look what he did!

The market in Phuket Town

Muslim floating village near James Bond Island. Would be cooler if it wasn't a huge tourist trap.

This boy came up to us at a bar and tried to sell us flowers. His sales method? Beat up potential customers. Paul didn't want to buy a flower, so the kid tried to kick his ass.

The young Thai guys who hung out at the beach bar put on fire shows at night. I tried doing this in Cambodia--MUCH harder than it looks. And it looks hard.

These guys come out around late in the afternoon and kick the ball around as the sun sets. What a life, eh?

 

So I'm a total sucker for sunsets. You are too.

There are plenty more Phuket photos up on my Facebook page, so check them out. The next post will feature Chiang Mai, skydiving and our first views of the Mekong River.

“It’s a funny thing about coming home. Looks the same, smells the same, feels the same. You’ll realize what’s changed is you.”
 
Well, I’m home. The original plan, crafted over the summer, was to come back to New York to surprise my sister just before the show she’s producing at Marist. Until a few hours ago, she thought I wouldn’t be getting home until after Thanksgiving. Oh, the lies I tell. After some last-minute planning, I decided to spend the last few days of my trip in Hawaii, visiting my friend Sumner in Honolulu. The 25-hour trip would take me from Hanoi to Seoul and Tokyo before finally getting to Hawaii. To say that’s anything less than a great schlep would be lying.
 
I arrived in Seoul at 5 a.m. only to learn that the next part of my journey, the two-hour flight to Tokyo, had been canceled. No explanation was given, and for the next five hours, I had to wait around Incheon for someone from United Airways to help me. I was finally assisted by the most adorable Korean woman who spent a good 45 minutes trying to sort me out. She gave me two new options to get to Hawaii, but neither of them were particularly good. One had me getting to Hawaii the next night, further elongating my journey and cutting down on necessary beach time. The other had me going through San Francisco, then back to Hawaii, which was also unattractive as I didn’t really want to go thousands of miles east only to fly halfway back across the ocean. In the end, she booked me a flight to New York.
 
The wheels were down at JFK 24 hours and 10 minutes after she handed me my ticket. Despite nearly 40 hours of hassles, turbulence and lackluster plane food, I was in high spirits as I met my parents. By the time we got to Kingston around midnight, my body was starting to feel the effects of sleep-deprivation. (I slept, in total, three hours over the course of the trip. And that’s not including the full day I’d spent touring Hanoi before getting my 11 p.m. flight. to Korea.)
 
The first day back was low-key. I treated my stomach to old friends, a whole-wheat bagel and hummus, before unpacking a few things. Went to Mizuna Cafe uptown for lunch. (Highly recommended: the chicken, spinach, tomato and brie wrap.) A quick trip to town hall and an official job offer preceded a visit to my high school mecca, the Hudson Valley Mall. Picked up a few things that were non grata in Asia and gave a smile to the Target security guard, who didn’t recognize me. Still not sure how I feel about that one.
 
Next up, Hannaford. I was nervous to go to an American supermarket. Everyone talks about his first visit to a grocery store after a stint abroad, and now I understand why. I stood in the deli section, gripping my cart for stability as I stared in awe at the hummus selection. Garlic hummus, artichoke hummus, chipotle hummus, pine nut hummus, red pepper hummus. And that’s not even half of the selection. I had forgotten what it’s like to have anything I want at my fingertips, to not even know how much I wanted something until it was right in front of me. At that moment, I wanted it all. This only grew when I walked five feet to the cheese section. I had to peel myself away, but vowed to return.
 
I called Rachel during the hummus debacle, and she kept me company on the phone for the rest of my shopping. I panicked when I couldn’t find the aisle with mac and cheese, but a friendly shelf-stocker pointed me in the right direction (away from “Pasta” and toward “Packaged food”). By check-out, half of my cart was mac and cheese, the other a random mixture of turkey bacon, Indian food and vegetarian baked beans (beans on toast, easily my new favorite breakfast).
 
Dinner was at the Bowery Dugout, where I satisfied a long-standing craving for French onion soup. After dinner, I headed up to Woodstock to surprise a certain best friend of mine at work, who happened to be under the impression that I was in Hawaii. Tor’s parents had swung by the store to drop off some food, making my timing even better. As I hugged the Burhans fam, Tor just stared at me, her eyes and mouth opened wide in shock. As her parents walked outside, her mom shouted, “Melissa–mac and cheese, champagne, root beer floats, Law and Order: SVU–whenever you want it, just let us know.” Ah, Mrs. Burhans knows a few of my favorite things. Indeed, all of those things were had at my going-away dinner last year, or as Tor accidentally blurted out, “when we got rid of you.”
 
After Surprise #1 was the long-awaited Skytop Trivia Night. I was determined to kick some ass, but it was not meant to be. What was meant to be, however, were several Absolut and grapefruits. Jerry and the Pacemakers didn’t win, but I have a good feeling about next week. Really, I do.
 
I’m now on my way to see my sister, who I’m fully expecting to bawl for a few hours after I surprise her. After that, I’m off to Poughkeepsie to visit my grandmother. Tonight is a party at the Dugout, a Sam Adams beer-with-every-course deal that I’ve been looking forward to.
 
It’s been a bit odd to come home. Same town, same house, same family–but all a bit different than when I left it. Physically, I’m sort of adapting. (That is, if you call shivering in a sweater and winter coat when the temperature is 60 degrees adapting.) I’ve somehow avoided jetlag, which is absolutely shocking, considering southeast Asia is a full 12 hours ahead of New York. So far, my digestive system has been receptive to the absurd amounts of dairy I’ve been putting down, and for that I am most grateful. I’m incredibly allergic to my cat. Having been away from animals for so long, my body is in rebellion at the moment. Constant Benedryl and inhaler use has been getting me through the days.
 
Kingston is going to take a bit of getting used to. I’ve lived alone since leaving for Korea. It’s weirder still not having my sister around. Even though Marist is only a half-hour drive, she feels an eternity away. My days of promoting Kingston are over, but I’m hoping my new job will be just as fun. (And if not, at least it’s only two minutes away–and that counts for a lot up here in winter.)
 
Home feels good. After nearly 14 months away, this is where I need to be, at least for right now. I’m already looking for jobs, both in Washington and New York. Any leads would be appreciated (thanks already to Carla, who has e-mailed me several openings in the past few weeks). Next week I’ll head down to Washington to catch up with friends and celebrate my birthday. The weeks after that are a mix of holidays things, family get-togethers and hanging around Keegan Ales. Is my beer of choice, Super Kitty, out yet?
 
I sincerely thank all of you for reading, commenting and encouraging me to keep this up. It’s been a whirlwind of a year, and I’m struggling to believe that it’s over. Having this blog was a good way to keep track of my thoughts and keep my head straight. I’m not sure what I’ll have to blog about anymore, but I’m sure I’ll find something…after all, my life doesn’t stay quiet for long.

Hanoi, Vietnam

The last time I posted, I was in Ho Chi Minh City. Two flights and an amped-up wardrobe later, I’m in Hanoi. To quote my mother, circa two months ago, “You’re going to Hanoi? Isn’t that in North Vietnam? Are you even allowed there?”  Indeed I am. We may have lost the war, but not our rights as frivolous, money-spending tourists.

But before I got to Hanoi to blow my hard-earned Korea money, I detoured to Hoi An, a town on the central coast about halfway between HCMC and Hanoi. What is there to do in Hoi An, you ask? Well, to be honest, not a whole lot. Unless you are me, or any other clothes-conscious human being in which case, Hoi An is nothing short of the happiest place on earth. Passing by shop after shop of silky fabrics and bright colors, I thought I had reached nirvana. Or heaven. Something along those lines. I held off on shopping on the first day, and instead grabbed dinner with new friend James. To wind down from the day of traveling, we each ordered a bottle of wine and a couple mojitos. The rest of the night passed in a blur, though I do remember coming back to my room just before 10 p.m. (I think that just about sums up Hoi An’s nightlife, doesn’t it?), turning on Sex and the City and promptly falling asleep.

The next morning I met James at a cafe down the street and promptly ordered some coffee to sooth the bombs that were exploding in my head. While eating breakfast, I saw Korea friend Rachel walking down the street! I knew she was planning to get to Hoi An that day, but I didn’t expect to see her straight away. We spent the afternoon going from shop to shop, being sweet-talked by store owners, choosing fabrics and styles and having measurements taken. By the time we met up with James and some of Rachel friends for dinner, I had more than a dozen villagers working on my orders, ten on my winter coat alone.

The next day was a race to pick up everything, have it refitted and cram it all into a spare duffel. I ended up leaving Hoi An with a winter coat, three dresses, a skirt and a pair of suede ankle boots that I designed myself. Like I said, this place was heaven.

It was a bit of a struggle to get to Hanoi, as my 10:05 p.m. flight was delayed more than an hour due to technical issues, not getting us to the Vietnamese capital until half midnight. It didn’t help that take-off was a bit bumpy. I spent the first 20 minutes clutching the hand of a very nice Vietnamese guy, convinced I was going to die. Thankfully, he didn’t mind, and ended up being a wonderful seatmate. Once I released his hands, he showed me pictures from his recent wedding and honeymoon, then asked if I had a boyfriend. When I said no and tried to explain that it’s hard to see someone when you’re constantly on the move, he said, “Some girls…like girls. You?” Because obviously, if you haven’t got a boyfriend, you’re a lesbian. (I tried the opposite today, and told the moto driver that I was traveling with my boyfriend. Then he asked me how many times a night I slept with said boyfriend. There’s no winning this one. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.)

I shared a taxi into town with a couple of Aussies, the only other westerners on my flight. After they were dropped off at their hotel, I showed the cab driver where I needed to go, only to find that at 1:30 a.m., most decent places to stay have closed for the night. Imagine that! After driving to several Lonely Planet-recommended places and finding the same thing at each one, we returned to the hotel where the Aussies were staying, only to learn that my new friends had snagged the last room. The guy at reception motioned to his friend on a moto outside, who took me to another guesthouse, where I’m paying an outrageous $28 a night for a room. But it’s only for two nights and there’s free Internet and breakfast, so I’m sucking it up.

The only major bummer so far has been my burn, which I accidently hit against the moto last night as I was climbing off, peeling back all of the healing skin and leaving me hobbling around Hanoi. Showering this morning was excruciating, but after I cleaned up and dressed the burn and popped a couple Tylenol, walking around was bearable.

I’ve already checked out the Old Quarter and the area around the lake in the middle of the city. Was planning on seeing the prison where John McCain was held during the war, but I think I’ll save that for tomorrow. Today seems like a nap and cafe day, and I’m perfectly fine with that. Vietnamese coffee is easily the best I’ve ever had. I’m not sure if I’m finally developing that inevitable taste for coffee that all adults seem to have, but I’ll give the old Maxwell House a shot when I get home.

I think it’s time to part ways with the free Internet and take the elevator up to the third floor. I haven’t been on an elevator in nearly two months, so the idea is fairly exciting. Almost as exciting as napping, which will be plenty useful after several restless, five-hour nights.

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

It’s probably a bad sign that I struggled for a good 10 seconds to remember what country I’m currently in. Brainfart, over. Blog post can resume. After parting ways with Scotland-bound Jeantte yesterday morning, I made my way to the depot in Phnom Penh and caught a nearly empty bus headed to Ho ChiMinh City, or as most people know it, Saigon. For the sake of brevity (and because it’s what Lonely Plant does), I’ll be referring to the city as HCMC.

After six hours on the bus and a painless trip through customs, I found that once again, Lonely Planet had recommended a top-notch place to stay. After being misled in Phuket, Phonsavan and Vientiane, the past two cities have been a pleasent surprise. My room here in HCMC has aircon, a hot shower, a huge bed and satellite TV, which I may have spent the morning watching. You would too, if your baseball team was one game away from 27 World Series wins.

After I watched the Yankees lose, I hit the streets. Brunch was Vietnamese curry and spring rolls, complete with a banana shake. I decided against walking to my first destination, the War Remnants Museum, as walking in this city is easily one of the most dangerous things I’ve ever done. Stoplights aren’t exactly obeyed, which is only a slight problem when you’ve got a few cars on the road. However, it becomes a much bigger problem when you’ve got, at any moment in time, 100+ motos barreling toward you. I was warned about the throngs of motos clogging the streets here, but I never imagined it would be this bad. If a guy decides the street is too crowded, he’ll drive on the sidewalk, then beep at you as though you’re invading his space. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. And when in Vietnam, walk a straight path on the sidewalk and hope like hell you don’t get hit.

As I said, my first stop today was War Remnants Museum, which was the only thing I had much interest in seeing at all, really. Now, I should have listened to my mother (here’s anticipating the I-told-you-so comment) when she told me last week not to get on bikes with strangers, not because I’m worried about getting kidnapped and murdered, but because when I climbed off my driver’s bike, my leg hit the exhaust pipe. Now I’ve got a large purple circle on my leg and a blister the size of a half dollar to show for it. Definitely not a good move on my part.

I limped through the museum, which turned out to be absolutely fascinating. Fascinating and stomach-churning, that is. I know about America’s fuck-ups in southeast Asia, believe me I do, but nothing hit me quite like this museum. It is definitely not for anyone with a weak stomach. Aside from the well-known pictures of napalm victims and children affected by Agent Orange, there were disfigured fetuses in formaldehyde (actual fetuses, not pictures), photos of decomposing bodies and the guillotine used at a torture prison in southern Vietnam. I can’t tell you the number of gasps and “Oh my Gods” I heard this afternoon.

I hobbled out of the museum and headed toward the Reunification Palace, originally intended to be the seat of government of South Vietnam. But we all know that didn’t happen. Now the “palace,” which just looks like a government office building, stands as it did thirty years ago. Unexciting, yes. But something I might as well see while I’m here? Yeah.

I was keen to check out one of the markets here–Jeanette and I got into a habit of market-browsing in every city we went to–but my leg was throbbing so I grabbed a moto, sat side-saddle (on the side without the exhaust pipe, thank you very much) and headed back to the guesthouse.

Tomorrow I head up to Hoi An, but I’m not entirely convinced I’ll make it. The latest typhoon has made travel along the coast difficult, stranding some of my friends in random coastal towns, and affecting a few flights. Here’s hoping I make it in one piece, eh??

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

A trip to Cambodia is not complete without acknowledging its past–its recent, bloody past. Just three decades ago, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge took over, evacuated Phnom Penh and began a mass extermination of the upper social classes in an attempt to create a classless agrarian society. Those who wore glasses, spoke another language or were thought to have some sort of higher education were taken from their families and murdered, their bodies dumped in mass graves in the countryside. Of the 600 doctors practicing medicine in Cambodia before 1975, only 60 lived to see the end of the Khmer Rouge’s regime. In an effort to better understand Cambodian history, I visited two of Phnom Penh’s most infamous attractions, Pol Pot’s torture prison and the Choeung Ek killing fields.

On their way to the killing fields, thousands of people passed through a converted high school known under the Khmer regime as S-21. In the thirty years since the fall of the Khmer Rouge, the complex, now known as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, has not been changed. The metal beds in the torture chambers of Building A remain, displaying shovels, iron chains and other rudimentary objects used during the brutal interrogation of prisoners. In the other buildings, visitors can walk into the hastily built brick and wood cells, scarcely large enough for a person to turn around in. Some of the floors had been converted into exhibition rooms, with hundreds of photos of the men, women and children who passed through before being sent to the killing fields. Most chilling were the written and oral accounts of former Khmer Rouge soldiers, many of them now living among their former victims. For the most part, these former soldiers defended their actions as simply following orders. How many times in the course of history have we heard this defense?

After leaving Tuol Sleng, we paid a tuk-tuk driver to take us to the Choeung Ek killing fields on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. I remember a photograph I saw as a child: skulls piled on top of each other, some with bullet holes, but many with entire pieces missing because the Khmer Rouge soldiers bludgeoned their victims in an effort to save bullets. The rickety wooden planks the skulls once rested on have been replaced with a giant white monument, which holds thousands of skulls, bones and pieces of clothing pulled from the pits after the fall of the regime. The fields themselves were nothing more than shallow pits dug in the ground, some filled with murky water, signs posted above the holes to inform visitors how many bodies were found in a particular pit. Bone fragments littered the paths around the pits, a silent testament to the horrors that befell those transported to the fields.

Cambodia has one of the most colored histories of any country in the world–it is a place that has seen civil war in my lifetime, that experienced genocide in my parents’ lifetime and that is notoriously corrupt on every level. It is a land of cultures and contradictions, of poor Khmers living among wealthy expats, of old ideas and fears of government and education combined with the hope for a new generation, of rickety tuk-tuks whizzing past some of the most extravagant hotels in this part of the world. The Cambodia that I experienced will not be the Cambodia my children will know, nor is it the Cambodia that we watched on the news in the early 90s.

The way my trip worked out, I spent Halloween at Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek. Growing up, my family decorated our house with kitschy cutouts and streamers. But this year, the skeletons, bats and ghosts were all real. Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek are reminders of the horrors experienced here, places that anyone traveling this part of the world needs to see. High school history classes have entire units devoted to the Holocaust, and virtually every university has classes on the subject. Why can’t the same be said of the genocide in Cambodia? Or the racial cleansing in Rwanda? Will our children be taught about the crisis in Sudan? We grew up saying, “Never again,” but how many genocides have taken place since the Holocaust? How can we say, “Never again” and mean it unless we actually are willing to do something? “Never again” has become an empty promise, and millions have died because it remains unfulfilled.