Mem­o­ries, like an ele­phant

Do’s, don’ts, what-the-hecks? and you-gotta-be-kid­dings of an Asian ad­ven­ture

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY BRAD WAL­TERS

As the ele­phant I was rid­ing plod­ded down the river in the hills of north­ern Thai­land, my life­line to the United States came per­ilously close to tak­ing a swim of its own.

“Brad, your pass­port’s about to fall out!” yelled the girl rid­ing be­hind me, just in time for me to grab the doc­u­ment dan­gling from my side pocket, thereby sav­ing me from an unan­tic­i­pated ex­tra few days in the most beau­ti­ful coun­try I’ve ever seen. (If it isn’t ob­vi­ous from that last sen­tence, I prob­a­bly wouldn’t have com­plained too much.)

That was the clos­est I came to los­ing my most im­por­tant doc­u­ment on a re­cent trip to Ja­pan and South­east Asia — maybe no small feat given that I was hop­scotch­ing around eight coun­tries over 24 days.

Friends think I’mnuts for tak­ing these sorts of trips, but as some­one who’s most re­laxed when he’s on the move, I’ve found that they serve me well. Armed with four weeks and a Eu­rail pass, I once vis­ited 15 Euro­pean coun­tries in a sin­gle trip, and I’ve fol­lowed air­fare deals to long week­ends in Peru, Costa Rica and Spain.

But it’s true that when you travel this way, you come home with a jumble of im­pres­sions that it takes some time to or­ga­nize. So in an ef­fort to do that, here are my picks for high­lights — and low points — of this lat­est tour:

Fa­vorite des­ti­na­tion: Hong Kong. The city’s phys­i­cal set­ting is un­par­al­leled — the north­ern edge abut­ting the water­front, the south­ern edge (less than a mile away) hug­ging a moun­tain slope. My itin­er­ary was fre­netic by de­sign, but I still de­voted a full day to hik­ing around Vic­to­ria Peak and star­ing down at the tops of the 50-story sky­scrapers be­low. On the other side of Vic­to­ria Har­bour from Hong Kong Is­land, the Kowloon Penin­sula re­sem­bled the teem­ing big cities I vis­ited else­where, with crowded mar­kets where not much English is spo­ken.

Most frus­trat­ing des­ti­na­tion: Manila, the city where:

I was scammed by a taxi driver who charged me twice the go­ing rate for a ride from the Malate area to the air­port.

Scari­est moment: The white-knuckle, 20-mile night­time drive from the air­port to Phuket Town, Thai­land, in a monsoon rain, on the left side of the road, with mo­tor­cy­cles pass­ing on both sides and no clear idea where ex­actly I needed to be. I even­tu­ally made it to my ho­tel with­out wreck­ing, but don’t ask me how. Best food city: Singapore. All the cuisines of South­east Asia are rep­re­sented cheaply in “ hawker cen­ters,” out­door ver­sions of the Amer­i­can mall food court but with ev­ery­thing freshly pre­pared. Fish-head curry soup? Pip­ing-hot prawn noo­dles? Crisp roti with curry? How about sam­pling all of the above un­der the same roof while wait­ing out an ex­tended storm? Best moment of the trip: Gaz­ing out over the ru­ins of Angko­rWat af­ter climb­ing to the top of the main tem­ple in the early-morn­ing still­ness, some­thing I’d dreamed about do­ing for years. At that moment, I thought, “Now this is why I travel.” That one moment jus­ti­fied the whole trip. Most naive moment: Fol­low­ing signs for a “ tra­di­tional Thai mas­sage” in Bangkok and learn­ing that when a Westerner en­ters, the masseuse of­ten as­sumes that he wants a happy end­ing of a dif­fer­ent kind. The “don’t touch my junk” fel­low of TSA fame would not have en­joyed the ex­pe­ri­ence. Most ironic moment: Hear­ing “Baby, It’s Cold Out­side” piped over the loud­speak­ers on Sen­tosa Is­land in Singapore, where it was 90 de­grees with what felt like about 90 per­cent hu­mid­ity. Best food rev­e­la­tion: A plate of pork car­ti­lage in Hong Kong. A lit­tle tough on the teeth, but sur­pris­ingly tasty. Worst food rev­e­la­tion: I’m pretty sure I was served Rover over an open flame from a street ven­dor in Manila, with­out re­al­iz­ing it un­til af­ter I’d taken my first too-gamy bite. When the cook con­firmed my sus­pi­cions, I al­most threw up on the spot. But was he just pulling my leg? I’ll never know. (De­spite this early set­back, I con­tin­ued to eat my way from city to city based pri­mar­ily on how ap­pe­tiz­ing things looked. This was the only time that ap­proach failed me.)

My nice, harm­less com­pact um­brella was con­fis­cated by air­port se­cu­rity (which nonethe­less al­lowed me through with an open bev­er­age).

A street ven­dor served me dog meat (see be­low).

I paid $30 for the priv­i­lege of trans­fer­ring through the air­port twice.

My one night in a ho­tel was marred by . . . bed­bugs. Most in­ter­est­ing place I stayed in: The pun­gent Chungk­ing Man­sions high-rise com­plex in the Kowloon sec­tion of Hong Kong, which is known as a melt­ing pot for many of the city’s eth­nic groups. On the 12th floor of one of the cramped build­ings was a “guest house” in which I had a room that was no big­ger than a small walkin closet. It was just wide enough for a bed and a lit­tle sep­a­rate en­clo­sure that housed the toi­let and a shower head di­rectly above it. If only we could all live so com­pactly! Un­like­li­est Amer­i­can food chain: KFC. Even in cities such as Siem Reap and Hanoi, where the Golden Arches were nowhere to be seen, the Colonel had ’em lined up out the door. Un­like­li­est ap­pear­ance of a U.S. politician: The auto-voice on Cebu Pa­cific flights was a dead ringer for Sarah Palin. (It’s true, she’s ev­ery­where — even an­nounc­ing safety reg­u­la­tions and duty-free spe­cials on a Philip­pines air­line.) Scene I’d be least likely to see at home: The fam­ily of four in Bali that is crammed onto one mo­tor­cy­cle, with the mother cradling a baby in one arm, and a tod­dler hang­ing on for dear life. Most cre­ative use of my Lonely Planet guide­book: At a train sta­tion in Tokyo where signs made it very clear that the (squat) stalls did not pro­vide any toi­let paper. Thus, the East Ti­mor por­tion of my book was flushed down the toi­let — lit­er­ally.

Most Utopian city on the planet: Based

My friend Mary, who was in Hanoi at around the same time as I was, saw some­one on a bike with an up­right Christ­mas tree on the back. Now that’s tal­ent.”

on what I’ve seen, it’d have to be Singapore. Just one ex­am­ple: I spot­ted al­most no “street me­di­ans” in the tra­di­tional sense; just long strands of verdant trees and lush shrub­bery with or­derly lanes of traf­fic on ei­ther side. The city was un­fail­ingly clean; the roads all seemed freshly paved; the mass tran­sit was seam­less; ev­ery­thing seemed mod­ern. But bub­ble gum is il­le­gal there, so this wouldn’t nec­es­sar­ily be my Utopia. Best air­line: AirAsia, which shut­tled me to and from most of my desti­na­tions for less than $50 a pop. The flights were chron­i­cally late by about 20 min­utes, but that beat deal­ing with can­cel­la­tions or lost itin­er­ar­ies (look­ing at you here, Cebu Pa­cific). My Delta flights across the Pa­cific were com­fort­able, too, pri­mar­ily be­cause I’d cho­sen exit-row seat­ing in which I could ba­si­cally sprawl out at will. Least au­then­ti­cally Asian des­ti­na­tion: It’s a tie be­tween Ma­cau, where the ar­chi­tec­tural land­scape was Ve­gas-meet­sEurope, and Hat Pa­tong beach on Phuket, which was over­run by Euro­pean tourists and seem­ingly very few Asians of any kind. Best over­all tran­sit ex­pe­ri­ence: The overnight Willer Ex­press bus be­tween Ky­oto and Tokyo, whose seats re­clined 140 de­grees and whose win­dows were cov­ered by floor-to-ceil­ing Vel­cro-fas­tened cur­tains to keep out all light. (If only the red-eye buses be­tweenWash­ing­ton and New York were so equipped! You lis­ten­ing, Bolt­Bus?) I slept bet­ter here than I did in some ho­tels, mak­ing me glad that I hadn’t sprung for the two-hour bul­let train. Apart from the fact that I al­most boarded the wrong bus, thanks to the lan­guage bar­rier, the trip couldn’t have been smoother. Most “Amaz­ing Race”-wor­thy des­ti­na­tion: Hanoi. Sim­ply cross­ing the road is an act of brav­ery, as the streets are so clogged with mo­tor­bikes that there’s never re­ally an open­ing. You just have to as­sume that they’ll weave around you. (My friend Mary, who was in town at around the same time as I was, saw some­one on a bike with an up­right Christ­mas tree on the back. Now that’s tal­ent.) Most uni­fy­ing Asian fashion state­ment: The sur­gi­cal mask, which is worn by a sur­pris­ing num­ber of peo­ple — es­pe­cially in Ja­pan — to pre­vent the spread of germs. Coun­try where you’d be most likely to hear a pin drop: Ja­pan. Folks there were un­fail­ingly quiet, po­lite and def­er­en­tial. It amazes me that any busi­ness ever gets done. You step on a sub­way and it’s stone-silent, and any­one who is talk­ing is do­ing so in a whis­per. Since I’m not a fan of loud noise, I was very much in my el­e­ment.

Now I’m back home, and the afore­men­tioned pass­port looks some­thing like the one in the open­ing scene from “Na­tional Lam­poon’s Euro­pean Vacation,” with­out the cof­fee stains. And as much as I’d like to say that this was the last such whirl­wind trip that I’ll ever take, I know bet­ter — at least for as long as I’m able to hold on to my will­ing­ness to travel on a dime, along with my sense of ad­ven­ture.

And my pass­port, of course.

MARK TODD FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

IL­LUS­TRA­TIONS BY MARK TODD FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

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