Wednesday, May 13, 2009

So long, farang...

I am sitting in the air-conditioned, cavernous sterility of Suvarnabhumi International Airport, far removed from the dense din of Bangkok. Compared to the rest of Southeast Asia, it is an oasis of order and semblance. I am waiting for an 11 p.m. flight that will take me to Seoul and Seattle before landing in Denver. I am going home.

It has been nearly impossible to digest in the moment all that I have encountered in my travels, in that I didn't really understand Thailand until I'd been to Laos; I wasn't able to fully appreciate Laos until I'd spent a month in Cambodia; and I will perhaps never understand the many complexities of Cambodia – even after returning to the (relative) sanity of the West.

Traveling does strange things to the traveler. It breaks him down, builds him back up, and then dashes him back against the unforgiving wall of cultural exposure. This process might best be described (if not slightly in the extreme) in the words of an older Cambodian who described to me his country thus: "War. Stop. War. Stop. War. Stop." Not war in the sense that I have been fighting or defending against externalities, but war in the sense that I have struggled against myself: my preconceived notions, my ignorance of the world at large, my expectations of Southeast Asia, and my ever-shifting evaluations of all that I have seen, heard, felt, smelled and tasted.

Bittersweet would be the most apt description of my current mood. I have experienced elation being surrounded by beauty and the warmth of the people I have met. But I have also felt the sting of contempt for my presence (in the general sense of being a foreigner) and the frustration of being alone in a strange land – a land overripe with history and culture that pales in comparison to the West's.

Asia, I have decided, is not something one prepares for: better just to dive in. One may emerge mentally ragged, choked and sputtering, as if from a near drowning, but stronger for the experience, perhaps even eager to test the waters again.

As a checklist, my trip would look something like this:

1. Shaved by Bangkok barber
2. 36 hours on three trains
3. 52 hours on eight buses
4. Six days on three motorcycles
5. Cuddled with tigers
6. Snuffled by elephants
7. Really sick for a day
8. Slow boat ride on the Mekong River
9. Tubing on the Nam Song River
10. Visited a Vientiane cabaret
11. Saw 10,136 Buddha statues in one hour
12. Hung for three hours off the back of a truck
13. Swam, bathed and did laundry in the Mekong River
14. Swallowed (inadvertently) about a half gallon of the Mekong
15. Played petanque with the locals in Laos
16. Ate snails, Mekong mussels, fried cockroaches, grilled dog and raw river clams
17. Drove to the top of Cambodia's Bokor Mountain on a motorcycle
18. Worked as a "senior sales executive" for a Web company
19. Went to a Cambodian wedding and danced with the bride
20. Walked the ruins of Angkor Wat
21. Watched the sunset on the Gulf of Thailand
22. Became a formidable street bargainer
23. Beat the "number one" snooker player in Kanchanaburi
24. Spent the night in a small village in Issan falling asleep to Thai soaps

The list could certainly go on – and it will, in one way or another. Select stories will dribble from my memory – or spill in a rush of revelation – moments I have tucked away for another day.

I feel as if I am not leaving Southeast Asia, but simply taking a bit of it with me – only crumbs of the whole cake, to be sure, but enough to feed me for a lifetime.

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