Travel Journal: Bangkok

I’m going to start keeping a journal of the places I travel. Why? Well, I pack a lot of stuff into these trips, and it would be nice to have a place to go back to remember exactly when I did what. So, with that in mind, here’s the first part of a lengthy bit of travel writing about Bangkok, Kyoto, Osaka, and Koyasan.

Bangkok

The Trip In

We landed late at night at Bangkok Airport, following an obscenely long travel day of PDX – SEA – ICN – BKK. After a couple of beers with a client in the Seoul-Incheon airport, I was hoping for a quick, sleep-filled flight, but it was fairly warm and I was unable to go to sleep easily. Still, all told and aside from the woman who coughed on me for the entirety of the 11 hour flight from Seattle to Seoul, everything was pretty okay.

Movies watched

  1. Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy
  2. The Longest Day
  3. The Dead Don’t Die
  4. Spider-Man: Far From Home
  5. (Part of) The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

Ironically, I wanted to sleep through The Dead Don’t Die, but fell asleep during the last movie. It was fine, I was just exhausted. I need to give it another shot. The Dead Don’t Die was dull and seemed more like an exercise for Jim Jarmusch to get his friends together than anything. Just a lot of dull moments following each other with hints of a better script throughout.

Sunday

Woke up early, got breakfast at, possibly, the most excessive breakfast buffet known to man, and went back upstairs to get some work done and listen to the Astros’ last ALCS game over the MLB.com radio. A bit of the way through the 7th, I figured they would do just fine without me and went for a walk with some coworkers. We went through one of the giant malls that you usually find in Southeast Asia, those shining diamonds of tourism and glamour set right next to side streets where the houses are little more than tin lean-tos. Floors of designer gear aimed at wealthy Chinese and Japanese shopping-tourists – not to mention Emirates on vacation. We walked around aimlessly, talking about life, our jobs, leaving our jobs, and reasons for leaving jobs, and, ultimately, wound up at a cafe next to a gas station.

After a brief repose, I met up with another coworker. He and I went for another amble in the heat – I told him about the song “Only Mad Dogs and Englishmen” – and found a small place for lunch. Two pad thais and two sodas for four dollars! The price and the food were good and the restaurant staff were friendly. He and I then went back to the hotel, I did some more work, and then planted in the hotel bar & lounge. In the course of a few hours when we were there, I met a couple from the local Chabad House. They were wandering around hotels looking for Jews who hadn’t done anything for Sukkot. I shook the lulav and etrog and chatted for a bit. The guy – Mendl – invited me out for Simchat Torah the next day. I said that, as I had no other plans, I’d give it a shot.

We went for dinner that night at one of the restaurants at the hotel after missing a connection with a few other people who were going somewhere else. Had mediocre sleep that night; jetlag began to strike.

Monday

Meetings through the day with nothing major to report. That night, though, I wound up going to Simchat Torah at the Chabad House. The people were very friendly once I got through the “Are you really Jewish or are you a terrorist in disguise” screening at the entrance. As normal for Chabad and Simchat Torah, the whiskey and vodka flowed like the Chao Praya. I chatted with a lot of people, including one guy from San Francisco who owns rental properties in Portland and is, thus, the enemy. Lots of ex-pat American Jews in Bangkok, either because of finance or retirement. I drank and ate, then danced with the Torah like it was in a very low-key circle pit. Chabad has turned praying into an endurance sport in this regard, and they are to be commended for it.

Toward the end of the night, I met one guy who tried (and failed) to convince me to buy tefillen. He then offered to just give me some, which was very nice. We arranged to meet on Wednesday, which did not happen due to scheduling problems. Again, a very nice man, but Chabad does not, as a rule, strike me as a schedule-oriented bunch.

Observations

  • The shul was in the bottom floor of what I assume is an apartment building catering to Westerners. I walked by it twice on Sunday, but didn’t notice anything that indicated it was a Jewish center. I assume this is very much intentional, given the rise of racism the world over.
  • Inside, the shul was simple. Some tables and chairs, a heavy bima in the center that was a little larger than a speaker’s platform. The ark was nice, though, and they had two Ashkenazi scrolls and two Sephardic scrolls. Those Sephardic scrolls, I learned, are very heavy. The women were behind a barrier, except for the girls, who ran around the room while the men prayed.
  • At one point, some Bar Mitzvah-aged boys ran around with huge bottles of whiskey.
  • The Chabadniks were shocked that I was not married, and Mendle offered to make me a match. I turned him down because I did not, by any ways, means, or hopes, want to stay in Bangkok a moment longer than I needed to.

All in all, it was a wildly different experience from a Reform service and I definitely see the appeal of joining the community, especially if you have decent Hebrew. The fact that I was practically stumbling back from the hotel – carefree! In Bangkok! – spoke wonders to how they’re able to throw a community together out of – ostensibly – every kind of Jew. It reminded me of Rabbi Zalman in Kent, who traveled around South and Southeast England, connecting Jewish students and holding services for holidays. I wondered how he’s doing, and should really reach out to him and see how things are.

Tuesday

Long day of meetings. We held a members reception at the top floor of the hotel bar, bit nothing following it aside from small-group schmoozing and drinking. Noticed here that most people seemed fairly low energy. Unsure of the reason. Talked with Ania, Oleksandr’s wife, for a bit. She was nice and gave me some pointers for Kyoto. We had a final drink in the hotel bar and called it a night.

Wednesday

Incredibly long and brutal day of meetings capped off by a 30-minute voting session. Following that, had a few rounds at the hotel bar with members, then went out to a small place nearby for pad thai and a huge Chang. I returned to the hotel and slept poorly again, thanks to stress dreams. Included:

  • Carrying Grandolph’s corpse around a village in Eastern Europe, trying and failing to find an appropriate place to bury him. In the dream I called my dad to ask why he wasn’t the one doing this, and he gave me a verbal shrug on the phone.
  • Went to a synagogue where the chair of the org’s certification group was the rabbi. The synagogue’s focus was on worshipping god through physical fitness. Kind of like masculine Christianity, but Jewish. It was a very strange dream.

I woke up at 3am and could not get back to sleep. I knew that I was looking forward to vacation.

Thursday

Relatively laid-back day. Had a lot of work to get through and hoped to be able to do so by the end of the day Friday. Spent most of the day with the Security group. Phil cracked jokes and Alex deemed the group a bunch of imps. I went to dinner with a few members at a nearby Indian restaurant at the Holiday Inn, called Maya. It was pretty good, though a little pricier than I think it should have been. I returned to the hotel with the members and had a round of beer before crashing for the night. Topics of conversation included.:

  • Inclement weather (tornadoes)
  • The size of pint glasses
  • Permission to be nice to Phil as part of higher-tier membership dues.

Went to sleep early and got a full(ish) 7 hours of sleep.

Friday

A half day of meetings led to shirking some duties to go to the Bangkok Aquarium. It was nice, and they seemed to care about the fish. I guess. They weren’t eating them in front of us, which I took to be a good sign. Not sure how you are supposed to tell if fish are comfortable. Do they get more aggressive? Do they go insane? These are the questions that keep me up at night.

After fish-jail, we went to a steak place across the street from the hotel for beers. Ed made it clear that he was “disappointed” that the bar was out of some beer. The server said “Ah” and walked away. I’m sure he has bigger things to worry about. Like if water is going to be potable that day. Or if he’s going to be able to easily afford to eat. You know, minor things like that. The beer they did have was perfectly fine. I got a Tuk Tuk, which was billed as a cream ale. My experience with cream ales is limited, but it tasted fine. Don’t know that I’ll seek it out again, but if I find myself in SE Asia again, I’ll be on the lookout for it.

The beer reminded me of the beer stall in Singapore. Singapore is another place I’d be perfectly fine with never going to again. The beer stall was fine, though.

After the beers, we went back to the hotel lobby bar, and had a few drinks before I left for the airport. I’m not sure when I’ll get to see those guys again, and it was nice to be able to spend a bit of time with em. At least a few of them I’d consider to be friends, and parting with friends, especially when you don’t know when you’ll see each other again, is always bittersweet.

En route to the airport, my driver thought I said no to the highway, which resulted in a winding path through the streets of Bangkok. There were a lot of downtrodden streets along that route. Poverty is hard to acknowledge and accept, especially when you know that a lot of those people share the same dreams as everyone in the world: Stability, prosperity for their life, and – hell – drinkable water on demand.

At the airport, I ran into Oleksandr and Ania. We chatted for a bit, parted ways at our gates, and I caught my flight.

Kyoto by way of Busan, Seoul, and Osaka

Saturday

I left Bangkok late and, as a result, missed my connection. After a very frustrating conversation with Kiwi, I got a refund on my Busan -> KIX flight and booked at the airport with Korean Air. It was more expensive that way, but I have solidly inscribed Kiwi in the Book of Grudges after they told me it would be 2-4 hours before I could talk to another agent about re-booking my flight. I decided to go the route I did because doing so put me on a dependable airline, direct with the airline, and did not throw me into a situation where I might have to take a weird route. My advice if you want to go with Kiwi or another semi-travel agency would be to only do it if you’re travelling domestic. If you’re flying international, give yourself more than enough time for transfers in case something goes slightly wrong, because you’re going to need to go out of your way to go about your day.

Anyway, the bright side of an extended layover in Busan was that I was able to listen to the Astros game at the airport!

I landed in Osaka and got through immigration at 6pm. There, I met up with Brad, took a long bus trip to Kyoto, dropped off my bags at First Cabin – a capsule hotel that charged me $130 for the week! – and went to dinner with him and Yumiko at a nearby Italian place. Apparently, Italian is a big deal in Kyoto. I had a risotto and some kind of white wine that was tasty. Brad and Yumiko’s kid, Kanna, displayed patience that would desert her later in the weekm and was fairly innocuous throughout dinner.

After the meal, I went out for a beer at a nearby place called Marib, went to my hotel, and passed out.

In Memory of a Macher

There’s a term in Yiddish, “mensch.” If you’re familiar with German, you might know that this is related to the German word “Mensch,” which means, simply, “man” or “person” depending on how contemporary you want to be with your connotations. The difference between the Yiddish and the German, though, is that when you hear someone referred to as “mensch,” it’s in the context of that person doing good deeds – “tzedakah.” Another related term is “macher,” which is less common in daily conversation, but means the same thing, but may even be more explicit in its praise of a person.

I write all this not to give you a Yiddish lesson, but to tell you about a mensch, a macher. His name was Stephen Fischer, and he was a good friend of mine. I say “good friend” to try and get across two points: One, I considered him someone who I could talk to about anything and expect that, no matter how long it had been since we spoke, the conversation would flow easily and would flow in directions as varied as theology, Star Wars canon, or rambling about how rogues are OP in D&D’s 5E. Two, he was, without fear of hyperbole, one of the best humans I’ve ever met. A real macher. 

In the interests of showing and not telling, I’d like to tell you a story. Well, why not? Two. Both of these take place back in the fogs of the past. Somewhere around ten years ago, closer to eleven. He, myself, and another friend were in Ireland for a week. This was during a study abroad trip, when we’d all met for the first time at the University of Kent at Canterbury. On one evening during the week in Dublin, we were wandering aimlessly and – I think – Stephen and Jon, the other friend, were talking about comics. I’d spaced out because they were way out of my league with this stuff. This was, you see, before the Marvel movies came out and everyone was forced to make a choice between superhero fluency and standing awkwardly at the periphery of conversations. 

Suddenly, their conversation stopped. Stephen had sensed trouble. Not trouble in the sense that someone was going to come at us with a butterfly knife, but trouble in the sense that someone was in trouble. There, to our right, in the middle of traffic, was a middle-aged man next his car, which had stalled. The conversation about The Wasp and how Ant-Man was a terrible person bolted across two lanes of Dublin traffic to help this person out. He ran over there, introduced himself, and offered to start pushing the car. Well, Jon and I were thoroughly shamed by this and, not to be outdone, ran over there and helped, as well. We pushed the car off to the side of the road to at least get the guy out of harm’s way and he told us that, in exchange, if we met him at The Brazen Head, just down the road, the drinks were on him and he’d tell us a bit of Irish history. 

We went there. I, honestly, didn’t expect the guy to show up. (I am what they call a pessimist.) Stephen, though, had faith. And, lo and behold, the guy showed up. He was true to his word, our good deed was rewarded, and we had a good story to tell each other in subsequent years, reminding ourselves of some pure fun when life got us down. But aside from that, I think this story illustrates something about Stephen: He was a believe in acts of kindness. We came from different backgrounds – way different – but we had many shared core beliefs. One of them was that actions change (and, I would argue, save) the world. 

For Stephen, performing good deeds and acts of loving kindness was a core expression of his Christianity. We had a lot of conversations about Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism – and, to an extent, Islam – to compare, contrast, and get highlights of philosophies and share them with each other. It’s very much to his credit that Stephen was one of the few Baptists in my life who heard my ideas, considered them, and replied back not with an admonishment of faith vs action, but with a considered opinion and questions on what I thought about his opinion. That was something that always set him apart for me: That consideration not just of ideas, but the very reality that – maybe – when I was obviously on a tear about something as a result of encounters with very inconsiderate Christians, maybe that wasn’t the time to take the usual tack, and that he should listen. Through his example, Stephen taught me something a very valuable lesson about religion that I consider to this day. In fact, when I hear folks decry Christianity as a rapacious tool of, say, imperialism, I think of Stephen, and remind them that, like just about every religion, Christianity’s core can be summarized with a simple rule: “Don’t be a dick.” 

(The more acceptable, Jewish version of this is something I told Stephen about Judaism once. A jerk went up to the Rabbi Hillel and accused him of not being as good as he was reputed to be. The jerk said, “If you were so good, you could teach me the Torah while I stood here on one foot.” So, Hillel told him that he could. The jerk stood on one foot and balanced himself. Hillel said, “Love thy neighbor. The rest is commentary.”)

Stephen was, further, possessing of the type of mind that I find most enjoyable: One that expresses wonder of the world through a bizarre, slightly dark, sense of humor. It is my opinion that this sort of sense of humor is a coping mechanism – or, at least, it is for me. When you look into the darkness of the daily news cycle – something that weighed heavily on Stephen, especially when architectural metaphors like the Notre Dame cathedral were setting on fire – it’s all you can do to make a joke. Otherwise, you lose it.

That sense of humor was, beyond the deep discussions we had about just about anything, the glue that kept us in sync. It was what kept the in-jokes around. It was the beginning and end of conversations, even when he’d call me at 2 in the morning his time, and I’d admonish him in the voice of the Jewish mother he never had, “Look at you, bubbeleh, it’s 2 in the morning and you’re awake – es ist eyn shande!” In fact, this became an in-joke. I kept a GMT clock on my home desktop, and he would call and laugh, saying, “I’m really just calling you at this time because I know it’ll annoy you that I’m awake.” 

Stephen was a good, good friend. While we never get enough time with the people that make up the core group of people who we lean on, I find myself, when I think about missed opportunities for a phone call or a visit, reminding myself that all we have is a few opportunities for contact. That’s the way life is. Sometimes the stars align; sometimes they don’t. When they don’t, and we find ourselves unable to ever see that person again, we must be glad for the times we did share. And now, as I sit in my living room, listening to GWAR’s “Phantom Limb” and reminiscing about good times with a good friend, I have to remind myself of that. The time that we did get, those times when we were able to meet up when I was in the UK after a work trip, were good times – even when they were really challenging. That’s the important thing: That the times existed in the first place.

Oh, and that second story: One time – also when we were abroad that first time – we were young and stupid and in Paris. We looked across a massive traffic circle at the Arc de Triomphe and, without really looking for an alternative, ran across the fuckin thing. Many years later, Stephen and I were on the phone one Saturday and he said, “That time we bolted across the roundabout? Not only could we have died, but that was extraordinarily illegal!” Nevermind the death, the sentence seems to indicate, we broke a law when we were abroad!

The Trail-Approved Sandwich

My love for sandwiches is something that is well-documented. A good sandwich, I think is something to remember. This is not something to just consume while hungry, not something that you’ll find pre-packaged in the semi-functional refrigerator at a Plaid Pantry or 7-Eleven. It is, in its ideal form, a refreshing, heaping dollop of protein, dairy, veggies, and bread. It is an all-around whole meal in a holdable, semi-portable form.

For me, the ideal sandwich is not a Reuben, though a Reuben is always appreciated and, at times, direly needed. No, the ideal sandwich is a pastrami, roast beef, Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomato, and brown mustard on rye. This is the idea. You can switch out the cheese or meats and be okay, but God help you if you skimp on the rye. It must be a rye bread sandwich, or the whole thing falls apart. White bread is barely bread. Whole grain or whole wheat are too health-conscious and are, as they say, missing the point. I don’t trust sourdough, and pumpernickel is an abomination in the sight of the Lord. Rye or get the hell out.

I’m talking about sandwiches to talk about what I did today – and yes, indeed, eating a sandwich was involved. You see, today, I did some trail work. Trail work – as I recently learned – is focused on improving trails in national parks and is typically done by volunteers. See, in the back of my head, I’d always known that trails need to be cleared of overgrowth so that they can be more easily used by people; the catch is that, since I am not by any definition an outdoorsman, I’d kind of always assumed this was what park rangers did when they weren’t educating the public, making sure people don’t kill themselves, or keeping bears from stealing picnic baskets. Turns out that this is the work of mainly volunteers, a bunch of people who get together on trail work parties, and do stuff like trim back overgrowth, stop water from breaking up a trail, or maintain paths by the aid of these big shovel things that are not actually shovels (but basically are).

I joined one of these things after being goaded into it by a friend of mine who works for the Mt. St. Helen’s Institute. I’m not clear on what the MSHI does aside from organize trail work and educate people, but I know they also watch goats. They may or may not look out at the volcano and say, “Right, you pull those tricks again and we’ll have words with you.”

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Mt. St. Helen’s. That’s a cloud. Not an eruption.

The work party I joined was to clear out a trail to Butte Camp Dome. This trail starts off near a lava field – a bunch of rocks where there used to be lava. Based on these rocks not looking like dried lava, I assume that these rocks were pitched out of the volcano when it erupted, but hey, I don’t know and I didn’t think to ask when I had the opportunity. This is how I operate, and why many of my opinions are the way they are. Anyway, it cuts up through some forest that’s well on the way to regrowth, the brunt of the eruption being on the North side of the mountain. It is, for lack of a better word, very woodsy. Someone more outdoors-minded than me can tell you all about the trees, about the flowers that were growing, and all of those important details, but the only thing that I can tell you is that there were surprisingly few birds. There were also a lot of blueberries, which made for delicious snacks along the way.

What I did was simple: I took loppers and a saw and cut away woodsy bits that were starting to creep into the trail. I did this because, in the words of our team lead, Clare, “Nature was touching me, and we don’t want to be touched by nature when we’re on a trail.” So, you got brushed by a bunch of stick things? Probably time to stop walking and cut away some of the growth. It was simple stuff, not too demanding, and a pleasant way to spend a few hours. See, my friend Chauncey and I had to leave early so that Chauncey could make it back to Portland to see an accountant. Not a very thrilling reason to duck out early, but there you go. The group lead was a guy named Brandon, who had massive dreads, used the word “mindful” a lot, and seemed to be the type of person who wouldn’t really like being in a city for any longer than he had to be. Brandon assigned us to brush clearing because it was pretty easy and we’d be close-ish to the trailhead to make it easy for us to duck out.

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So many rocks!

So anyway, we started on the trail clearing. I talked to Clare and her friend Erin for a while – both of them were people who really dug being outside. They went on hikes, both had personal hard hats from the Washington Trails Association, and did stuff like go on 25-mile hikes. They said that going on the said 25-mile hike was the first time they met, and in my head, I thought, “Jesus, I don’t think I’ve gone on 25 miles worth of hiking in my life.” Solid people, the both of them, and folks I’d like to run into again.

Anyway, we were on the trail, clearing things out, chatting as we went and having pretty good fun along the way. It’s something that I’ve wanted to be more proactive about for a while, this whole going outside and doing things out in the forests. It pops in my head every time I read about how we’re, like, ten years away from being past the point of no return when it comes to turning our world into a hellscape because of greenhouse gasses. I’ll read an article, think “I need to go out to Mt. Hood National Forest,” and then wind up turning on a movie again.

But this time, I had my friend Sarah in the back of my head. Sarah’s the one who works for MHSI, and when I told her a while back that I was seriously thinking about going on a trail work party, she pointed me in the direction. When I delayed on signing up for about three months, she texted “I don’t think you’re actually going to do it,” and I signed up that very goddamn day. See, nothing’s quite as effective at getting me to do something than getting called out like that. So I signed up for the thing, talked a friend into going along, and then waited for the time to come along.

So you fast forward to this past Thursday, when I realized that I didn’t have work gloves, I didn’t have a backpack, and I hadn’t really given thought to how to pack for this thing. Luckily, we live in a consumer product-focused world, and I solved the first two problems easily enough. Then I got to thinking about what to bring on the trail and I thought, “The sandwich. It must be the sandwich.”

*

For the past year, I’ve been living a largely grain carb-free existence. I’ve cut out most bread and rice – except for Saturdays and the odd meal here and there – and beer. As a result, I’ve dropped about thirty pounds. [Pauses for applause.] This has had the effect of me no longer having my preferred lunch – the sandwich I mentioned above. I’ve missed the sandwich, but when your blood pressure shoots up to horrific levels and you need to lose weight so you don’t die, the sandwich is something you can afford to lose.

But this time, looking at least a couple of miles’ worth of hiking and some physical work – and it being a Saturday – I thought that the sandwich would be called for. It was something needed. Something that’d wrap the day up into a bow, cap everything off with a nice, refreshing taste, and provide energy for a bit more work if required, and be enough to tide over hunger until dinner. Then I thought about how hungry I am as a general rule and threw in a couple of protein bars as well.

So, after prepping all of the ingredients for the sandwich, I wrapped them up in aluminum foil, put them in a tupperware container, stashed everything in my backpack, and got ready to go.

I touched on the trail work above, but the lunch was something that should stand out. After a few hours’ work, we stepped off the trail and sat around in the shade, near a fallen tree, looking out to the woods on our left and all around us, and the slight incline heading up toward Butte Camp Dome. I ate the sandwich, enjoyed it, and had, for the first time in a while, several extended periods of no-thought. Stillness of mind. “Mindfulness” if that’s more your speed. It wasn’t because of the sandwich. It wasn’t because of the setting. It wasn’t because of the work I’d been doing. It certainly wasn’t because I was being orbited by a group of persistent flies. All of that, though, came together and helped. It all pointed to those moments where my brain shut up for just a second. I stopped thinking about work. I stopped thinking about how I should set up my dating profile. I stopped thinking about how my roommate was so loud all the time. Fo those brief, shining moments, I could feel The Quiet, as a friend used to say

It wasn’t because of the sandwich. The sandwich, though, didn’t hurt.

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The potentially helpful sandwich.