In the grand tradition of scruffy, shoe-lace travel, Vang Vieng is where tie-dyed young and old let their braided hair down.
On the bumpy road from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, this town doesn't have a stop sign, much less a traffic light. It's picturesque alright, jagged limestone cliffs and lush greenery with the Nam (river) Song running through it. But it's far from tranquil.
This is Laos' party town, toned down somewhat since the government cracked down on the excess of debauchery, vulgarity and drugs more than a decade ago. But it's still a place which survives mainly on foreigners' frivolity.
You can go tubing, rock climbing, zip-lining and caving - all of which I'd rather pay not to do, at the moment. But for those seeking organized adventure, the promise abounds, as do the sprains and broken limbs reported at the ramshackle local hospital. In town, you can find the more sedate types sprawled out on soiled cushions at open-air restaurants, swigging Beerlao or slurping noodles while hypnotized on reruns of Friends. This is no joke: every eatery with a mounted flat-screen TV (many of them) ran episodes of that ridiculous American sitcom, which is more curious in that most latter-day beatniks in Vang Vieng were Germans, Koreans or Aussies.
Once again, I sit back and chuckle at the notion that my friends back home are imagining I'm bathing within the womb of exoticism. It happens, yes, from time to time. But travel in our times is mostly a mundane journey of dubious busses, lumpy beds and reflective solitude. All worth it, it is hoped, for the occasional jolt of wonderment.
Renting a motorbike is great to get out of the frenzy and enjoy the outskirts. No fuss, 5 bucks a day. Laos is so lax, you'd never be permitted to do that in Cambodia or Vietnam. Then again, in Vietnam, you'd be a fool to even try. In mid afternoon, I came across une ecole elementaire that was letting out and all the kids and teachers circled a flagpole besides a giant tamarind tree to sing the national anthem and lower the banner. I found a bona-fide 10-lane bowling center tucked in the jungle - I had to go inside to believe my eyes and there they were: 10 lanes and a shimmering parquet. (oh, those Chinese tourists!). I saw a bunch of incongruous tourism panels that made you wonder if you were in Idaho, perhaps (iPad shot here).
But what captivated my camera most in Vang Vieng was the "art" of bicycling while holding an umbrella." (No pics just yet, all still in the camera). Seemingly, everyone on two wheels is perfectly adept in shielding themselves from the hot sun with one hand, and negotiating the rubble roads with the other. It was a gorgeous image I couldn't get if I was rafting down the muddy rapids.
~ dedicated to my friend Marvin, in my thoughts on the road - RIP
Umbrellas were open when I departed Seoul and so they were when I arrived in Vientiane, buy that's where the similarities end. From the drizzle to the sizzle. I've soaked through 7 shirts, 3 shorts and 4 pair of undies in just over 2 days in Laos. I've taken 9 showers and tanned 2 shades of brown. And this is the dry season! But it sure feels good to be in this Asia of tuk-tuks, saffron-robed monks and easy smiles.
Vientiane, the capital by the Mekong river, was once known as Vien Chang, but the French colonials of Indochine days changed the name and some of its culture forever. Street names begin with rue, the national Library is the Biblioteque, housed in one of the many exquisite (and faded) architectural gems of the Belle Epoque, and bakeries everywhere offer succulent croissants and baguettes.
Off with the business suits and high-heelded fashion - hello sarongs and flip-flops. The people are sweet-natured and unhurried. Traffic is heavier than you'd expect, far too many cars, motorbikes and SUVs for the narrow streets, which clog easily and become putrid with heavy fumes, somewhat spoiling my idyl on a rented scooter the other day.
Even the most languid of capitals can't escape the stench of progress.
As the sun sets, the riverside comes alive with a night market, a campus of tents and stalls set up along the main strip. On an empty parcel overlooking the Mekong, with Thailand across the water, people gather for a energetic fitness aerobic class. Not exactly what you'd expect to see on your first night in this faraway land, but really, what was I thinking? A herd of elephants bathing by the shore? Agh, get real.
Any nation that loves baseball so much can’t be all that bad. Ok, the passion may be as much for the spectacle in the stands as the sport on the field, but it’s still the grand ol’ game.
Seoul has a lot going for it: a humming economy, high employment, virtually no crime and no garbage on the streets. In fact, there aren’t even any garbage bins around, so if you treat yourself to a roasted ear of corn at a stall, be ready to carry the damn nub around. There are no dirty magazines either. No teenyboppers showing their undies to commuting businessmen (hello Japan!). No titty bars or porn on the Internet (hello Big Brother). Tattoos are a rarity – way too provocative for the mainstream.
A colleague of mine on Quidam was requested to cover his leg ink if he wanted to work out at the hotel gymnasium. The radical!
The last time anyone consumed drugs in South Korea was Ben Johnson in the 88 Olympics – or so it seems. I never appreciated what a scandal that truly was until now.
Seoul is literally safe and figuratively sober – even the Buddhist monks here dress in grey. But getting drunk on Soju and staggering out of bars is as much a rite of hardworking salarymen as it is for their Tokyo sake-swilling counterparts. The most prevalent vice, if it can be called that, is an unadulterated addiction to caffeine. Coffee shops abound nearly as much as Korean BBQ joints, and both are flooded with patronage day and night. It’s as if nobody cooks at home.
Whether due to diet, genes or stress, fat people are as rare as vegetarians. I, for one, am both - no thanks to the scarcity of options at restaurants. A veggie meal here can include chicken, or beef broth, and a high likelihood of being infused with fish sauce. So, bring on the bread, cheese, pizza, and pasta … and pounds.
Koreans do love their meats. Pork, Beef, Chicken, Dog. Yep, hot Dog.
“Gaegogi” is not as common today as it once was, but still part of the menu in many traditional restaurants and local customs. In the past few years, vocal groups have decried the practice, especially for its brutality and inhumane butchering methods. Legend has it that the more the animal suffers, the more invigorating the medicinal properties of its meat.
Some 2 million dogs are slaughtered for meat each year (and about 100,000 cats, why not?). Most are bred in farms, but some start off as pets before they're turned into stew. I’ll spare you more details.
On my last days in Seoul, I found this so appalling and abhorrent that I wanted to go out into the neat and tidy streets and kick people’s shins, piss on their sublime subways, throw mud on their cashmere coats and run a key across their swanky Hyundais.
How could they?
But my indignity for Fido turned into cold reflection – every year in America, 35 million cows, 110 million pigs, 9 billion chickens are turned into food.
Koreans, some of them anyway, don’t really see the difference between man's best friend and other animals. At least not on the dinner plate.
Please use the link below for my new Seoul photo collection, and click the "Slideshow" button to add music
How odd to be in this futuristic, gleaming city of fashion, skyscrapers and international pop stars, and to know that just over there, beyond a border 35 miles away from Seoul, the kinfolk are oppressed, malnourished and pretending to adore the haircut of their dictator, that nice Mr. Un.
In fact, it's only the Demilitarized Zone that's so close, a large swath of land so vacant of inhabitants that wildlife has flourished in the area. The infamous DMZ, the most fortified checkpoint in the world, where rival soldiers stare each other down with pointed rifles, is a tourist hotspot, where visitors (from the South side of course) can pay $40 to feel the tension and absorb the absurdity.
But it's no joke, sadly. The Koreas declared an armistice 62 years ago, so technically the war never ended. Hostility is as real as the difference of ideology – and while one side regales itself in the lap of luxury, the Hermit Kingdom is the embodiment of paranoia and hardship.
What did Frankie Valli croon? “So close, so close and yet so faa-arr…”
Odd. Very odd. And it’s not as if we’re contrasting neighbors like Mexico and America, or China and India. Here, we have shared lineage, ancestral legacies, brothers and sisters, family. They are one, save for the politics. Like Germans once were after WWII, only weirder.
Yet, in Seoul’s everyday life, the situation is practically invisible. There are occasional demonstrations, anti-communist rallies and spikes of protests that hit the news - but on the whole, the divide is not topical. It doesn’t command attention or interrupt the idyll. Like a lousy breakup you’d rather forget. It’s too painful to dwell upon, perhaps. At least, that how it looks like to us strangers.
It’s always hard to tell. Koreans can be inscrutable. Theirs is a bowing culture, full of ceremony and decorum. They are demure, reserved and regimented. Posh and proper Seoul is orderly, people conform, abide by the rules, adhere to programmed efficiency that breeds success. That same sort of indoctrination, propaganda - call it brainwashing - is at work in the North, where fear and tyranny make the populace appear in step with its leadership, united in its cause, disciplined and resolute.
The pandemonium fans display at a baseball game in the South eerily resembles the hysterical cheering North Koreans lavish on their Supreme Leader. It’s manic yet calculated, a way of life, of fitting in, of compliance, of self-preservation.
You can rip the nation in two, but you can’t split the DNA.
New Seoul photo gallery coming soon on this website
Everyone, any place, all the time in Seoul seems to be clutching a mobile phone. It’s not just common. It’s spectacularly pandemic. And when not transfixed by the lighted screens or tapping away at the glass, they’re
carrying the device like precious treasure, elbow crooked and hand for holster, as if plugged into a human battery pack, a life-support appliance, an extension of their very being in this futuristic world.
Trend-happy Koreans perhaps feel uncomfortable, untethered, without their mobiles - out of step, out of order. Naked.
It makes for a droll and twisted conundrum, like a Steven Wright joke (remember him? “Why do we drive on parkways and park on driveways…”) – Why are folks in the best-wired city in the entire world so virtually disconnected?
The answer flutters right there on the South Korean flag (and no, that’s not the Pepsi Cola logo, you wags!)
Yin and Yang – the duality of life, the opposites that compliment, the light that gives meaning to darkness, the give and take, the sweet and sour, Abbott and Costello… ok, you get the point.
Korea, as much as anywhere else on the globe, is a culture of paradox, of profound contradictions. It’s a society at the confluence of tradition and modernity, of ancient temples and imposing high-rises, of booming prosperity and a dreadful suicide rate… And, of unrivaled broadband and a zombie-like citizenry that lives within cyber-bubbles.
There’s a price to pay for high technology beyond the monthly fees.
Crossing the street, riding a motorbike, behind the store counter, out for dinner, inside the big top … the addiction is unremitting.
And nowhere is the mobile phonemania, I mean phenomena, more prevalent than in the sublime Seoul subway. No, I haven’t seen every metro system in the world, but good luck finding one that equals Seoul’s, in its ultra efficiency, cleanliness, citywide coverage, and meticulous design.
It must also be the quietest, most passive and orderly mass transit system anywhere, not because of soft rubber tires or stern policing, but because everyone, or just about, is enrapt, consumed, hypnotized by their very, very smart phones.
Riding the phenomenal (and tranquil) Seoul Metro - VIDEO:
Thanks to the fab Q crew for making the Seoulful night glitter!
Fast and dirty, here's a short montage.
Quidam, in Latin, means an “anonymous passerby,” and that’s who I’ll try to be as I rejoin my original Cirque show on tour, first in South Korea, then Australia and New Zealand. Over the next four months, I hope to regale you with a BLOGRAPHY – a series of writing and photographs withoutany preconceived agenda. I’m also taking a personal side-trip to Loas in November, while the tour is on break.
So, here we go: prologue in Seoul.
It’s not something you notice straight away.
Traffic in Seoul looks fairly normal, heavy at times, yet always orderly, like so much else in this megalopolis of 10 million inhabitants. Koreans are respectful and intrinsically conformist: commuters line up on the right side of escalators to keep the fast lane open; TV sportscasters bow to each other when their program ends; spectators pick up their own trash when exiting the big top. Courtesy is a collective mentality.
The same sense of civility is true on the road. Not only is traffic tidy, it’s also strikingly affluent with its bevy of luxury cars – gleaming sedans with tinted windows, chromed wheels and winged hood ornaments. There’s nary a clunker in sight. By the look of it, you can tell the economy has been pumping on all cylinders lately.
Is that it then? Is this what’s peculiar? Is it the sheer number of Lexus, Mercedes, Audis, Porches and, of course, those high-end Equus - Hyundai's posh combination of limousine
and sports car?
Is that it then?
Lessee, what’s different, what’s odd with this picture?
And then, Bam!… It hits you. Like one of those pixelated eye-quizzes that slowly reveals what is perfectly obvious:
There are no colored cars!
Just about every vehicle on the road - save for the ubiquitous orange taxis - is black or white or a shade of grey.
Oh, there may be the occasional beige car, or an audacious dark blue, and every once in a while, outrageously, a maroon in the lot…
But they stand out like the lumps of coal in a snow drift.
I did a little background check.
In Korea, status and social conformity is paramount, and colored cars, it turns out, are seen as flippant and frivolous.
Henry Ford would have loved this.
Hyundai, which accounts for nearly three quarters of all car sales in South Korean, said the three shades make up 98.8 percent of its full-sized sedans sold in the first nine months of this year.
The company’s chairman was quoted as saying: "My personal theory is that, in the premium segment, it's about prestige, and when you have a black or silver car, it looks prestigious."
And in this land of reverence and abiding trends, when a social perception takes hold, it’s like an edict from the Emperor.
Koreans have much to be thankful for – riding a wave of prosperity and an enviable standard of living nearly unrivaled in the Far East.Seoul is a slick and modish capital with gleaming towers and ancient temples; a place of youthful energy and innumerable coffee shops; fashionable women tote Chanel handbags and dapper businessmen strut in finely pressed suits. Things run hyper-efficiently, crime is quasi inexistent, commerce is thriving.
I’ve only been here for one month, and can’t pretend being an authority on modern Korean society - but something sure seems amiss.
For all the virtues, there seems to be a palpable sense of repetition, of numbing conformity, as if decency is programmed, clean but flat and laced with that inscrutable Asian righteousness, a sort of success bereft of warmth and somewhat monochromatic - like the cars.
Coming soon – a new Seoul photo gallery on this website.
Click here to view previous collections.
Excellent baseball being played by these strapping young boys and girls in the 2014 Little League World Series - but have you noticed the US Championship game today pits an all-black team from Chicago versus an all-white team from Las Vegas? Maybe that's a wonderful sign how racial diversity has settled comfortably in this land, where only hacks like me double-take a non-story; then again, maybe it's evidence that in some instances, whether in organized sports or the streets of middle America, skin color remains an issue of contention.