Tourist Times in Tinseltown

While a lot of my time in Los Angeles was spent hanging out with my new friends, there were a few times when I had to play the tourist card and actively make an attempt to see some of the typical or cliché LA sights. One afternoon when Jake was busy with work, I met up with a guy who I had chatted to on Couchsurfing just before my arrival in LA. This was before I had met Jake, who had assured me that he had no problems with me staying with him for the entire duration of my time in the city, but when I explained to David that I was no longer seeking a place to say, I told him that I was still keen to hang out and meet new people while seeing the city. And so that’s how David ended picking me up with his boyfriend Danny (who ended up knowing Jake because he played dodgeball – he knew everyone!), and we went for a drive from West Hollywood down to Santa Monica Pier.

Traffic was pretty terrible, and since most of the commuting I’d been doing around LA was between WeHo and the neighbouring suburbs, it was really my first experience of the notorious LA traffic. But we eventually made it to Santa Monica and found a park, and Danny and David took me to one of their favourite bars in the area that did cheap and strong margaritas. I had a couple before we wandered further down to the pier itself.

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Santa Monica Pier. 

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Route 66, one of the original roads of the US Highway System, starts in Chicago, Illinois and finishes here in Santa Monica. 

When I was told we were going to Santa Monica Pier, I didn’t know exactly what to expect. A rickety old wooden platform over the ocean with a couple of old dudes fishing on it, perhaps? I couldn’t have been more wrong: similar to Pier 39 in San Francisco, Santa Monica Pier was almost a small theme park in its own right, with carnival rides, shops, restaurants and food stands. It looked like a partial tourist trap, but it also looked like the place some of the bored teenagers on The OC used to hang out, like an outdoor mall with a Ferris wheel.

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Sunset over Santa Monica Pier

We wandered down to the edge of the pier, and while it was fun to check it out and take a few pictures, I wasn’t particularly interested in any of the rides or games or shops. If I’m totally honest, the thing that probably excited me the most about being at Santa Monica Pier was seeing the sunset over the ocean. As a dweller of the east coast in my own country, a sunset over the ocean was something that was actually impossible for me to witness, and I was never one to get up early enough to watch an ocean sunrise. I suppose Hollywood being on the west coast of the US has probably played a part in the way the idea of ocean sunsets have been romanticised into popular culture, but regardless, it was still nice to watch the big burning ball of gas sink below the watery horizon.

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Sunset over the Pacific Ocean. 

***

“Are you going to any TV show tapings? Be a part of a live studio audience?” A few people had asked me these questions in my first few days of being in LA.
“Um… I… I don’t… is that… is that something people do?” I hadn’t made that many plans at all, but going to watch a TV show being filmed hadn’t even popped up on  my radar. There weren’t any TV shows with live studio audiences that I could think of that I’d really want to watch, or at least not enough to pay for it. Maybe something like being in the audience for Ellen DeGeneres’ show, but even my experiences with The Katie Show in New York had showed me that those tapings were lengthy ordeals (although I won a computer for my efforts, so I’m not really complaining).

Enter Jake and his endless connections to people all over the city.
“Hey, Warren works at the CBS Studio Center! Perhaps I could see if he could get you into a studio audience?” So he made the call where Warren confirmed that he could, and I figured that I might as well go along and do something typically Hollywood, especially if it was free anyway. Jake drove me out to the studio and dropped me off, but not before running through the complex and helping me take a few photos of things that caught my eye. I couldn’t go past the memorial plaque of Will & Grace, and I also stopped for a picture on the outdoor set of New York City, a strip of street that was done up to look like the east coast city, which had provided the filming set for a number of shows that had been set in New York City, like Seinfeld.

 

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New York in Los Angeles. 

Afterwards, I headed to the studio where I was going to sit in on the live studio audience of the Melissa & Joey show, a sitcom that I had never previously heard of. I was excited, however, when I realised that the Melissa from the show title was none other than Melissa Joan Heart, the one and only Sabrina, the teenage witch. I’d loved that show as a kid, and while Melissa was definitely not a teenager anymore (she’s a mother of two, actually), she was still a decent comedic actress. It was also kind of interesting to be a part of the audience while the show itself was being filmed. They did each scene at least twice, even if they nailed them, just to make sure they had enough good takes during editing and producing, which meant that the filming of a 20 minute episode turned into at least a couple of hours. It was a light-hearted sitcom though, and I enjoyed watching it – if you ever find yourself watching an episode where there’s a distinct snort of laughter coming from the studio audience, you’re welcome. Warren worked on the production side of things, so I didn’t see him again until the filming was over. He came and found me once everything had wrapped up, and while I didn’t get to meet any of the actors on the show, he was able to give me a an autographed photograph of the cast. Free experiences with free souvenirs – doesn’t get much better than that. When he finished work, Warren drove me to dodgeball, where I was reunited with Jake.

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***

My only other brush with anything related to TV was actually one of my biggest highlights in LA, at least as far as touristy sightseeing goes.
“Well, there is one thing that I’d really like to see,” I confessed to Jake one afternoon, when we were brainstorming about things to do. I explained to him how I was a huge fan of the TV show Charmed, and how I had been shocked to learn that the house itself was not located in San Francisco.
“Oh yeah! It’s here in LA, I think. There’s a bunch of streets over in Echo Park that are just filled with famous houses from movies and TV shows. We can totally take a drive out there.” So that’s what we did, and I finally got my photo with the Victorian style magical manor.

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The Halliwell Manor – easily one of the biggest highlights of my time in LA. 

 

***

Now, there’s probably one glaringly obvious tourist attraction in Los Angeles that I haven’t mentioned yet. But the truth is, I never really had any intention of going to Disneyland. As a child, I’d been to Disney World over in Florida, and it had been awesome, but I’d also been 9 years old. Not that I wouldn’t have had fun in Disneyland as an adult, but being on the backpacker budget that I was, it wasn’t a priority. I also learned just how enormous and spread out LA actually is when I tied to locate Anaheim on a map, and realised that it was at least an hours drive to get out there. Coupled with my lack of burning desire to go there, I had written it out of my plans. Until I remembered someone I knew who actually lived in Anaheim.

The Trans-Siberian Railway felt like almost a lifetime ago, but the friends I had made on that once-in-a-lifetime journey were still fresh in my memories and blog posts. During our emotional goodbyes in St Petersburg, I told Kaylah that I was definitely going to be in LA at the end of the year, since I already had my final flight booked out of LAX. So we made a promise that we would catch up when I was there, but it was only when I got to LA that I realised just how large the city actually was. West Hollywood and Anaheim felt like worlds away, and while I wanted to see Kaylah, I didn’t want to make her drive across the city on her day off, just to hang out in WeHo, where I’d been spending most of my time anyway. Though as fate would have it, when I mentioned it to him, Jake informed me that he actually had a reason to drive out to east LA.
“My dad actually lives out that way, and he’s got a whole bunch of furniture and other stuff that I need to pick up!” he told me. “So, if you wanna go meet her out that way, I could drive you somewhere and then go see my dad while you two hang out?” As things had seemed to be happening lately, everything turned out pretty perfectly.

We met up with Kaylah, and set a rough meeting time for later in the afternoon. I was so excited to see Kaylah again – she’d been one of my favourite people on the Trans-Siberian tour, and we’d always had ridiculous amounts of fun together. Kaylah was a correctional officer in a juvenile detention centre, and before we’d met up she told me that Knot’s Berry Farm, a rollercoaster theme park over near where she lived, was doing a free entry promotion for all law enforcement personal, a category in which she was included. Free entry was also extended to a second person, so we agreed that that would be a fun way to hang out and catch up, interspersed by some rollercoaster rides.

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It wasn’t until we actually got there, though, that Kaylah admitted she wasn’t even a huge fan of rollercoasters. I started to feel bad, but she assured me that she still wanted me to go on them if I wanted to. It hadn’t been that long since I went on a bunch of rollercoasters at the Six Flags in New Jersey, but I do love them, so Kaylah took photos of me while I screamed my lungs out on the various rides. We also rode dodge ’em cars together, which was a bit of a throwback to the time Kaylah and I had rode quad bikes through the Siberian wilderness, and I had been sure that I was going to end up flipping ours and crushing us. Luckily there was slightly less chance of doing that in an LA theme park.

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After a few hours at Knot’s Berry Farm, we left to grab a bite to eat at the nearby TGI Fridays. We also ordered some ciders, and it was there that I experienced for the second time what had happened to me in that little bar in Flagstaff – the waitstaff would not accept my drivers licence as a valid form of ID, saying that it needed to be federally issued. Most Americans aren’t even aware of the fact Australia actually has states, so it is pretty infuriating that they can be such sticklers about little things like that. What’s worse is that I had been using my drivers licence in every other place in California, so I knew it wasn’t actually a legal thing like it had been in Arizona.
“Look, this is my ID, I’m clearly over 21!” I tried bargaining with him.
“I’ve never seen an Australian drivers licence before though,” the guy said with a laugh, clearly nervous but trying to deflect my clearly mounting irritation. “It could be a fake.” I put the licence in my mouth and bit down on it, tugging at the plastic.
“It’s very real! And what, you know exactly what an Australian passport looks like? Do you want me to Google a New South Wales drivers licence? It’s real!”
I even sent the dude back to check with his manager, who also regretfully informed me they were unable to serve me.
“Whatever,” I said and just rolled my eyes. I mean, I didn’t need to have a drink or anything, but it was more just the principle of being refused that annoyed me.

After all that, Kaylah and I wandered down to the nearby Disneyland. There was a whole street of shops and smaller things to look at before actually entering the gates into Disneyland proper, so we just walked down that, taking photos and dodging toddlers and families and mothers with prams as they made their way to the happiest place on Earth.

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Dragon and knight made entirely out of Lego.

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Lego Beauty and the Beast characters, made out of more Lego. Meta.

I mainly just had fun hanging out with Kaylah, telling her all about what I’d been up to since we’d parted ways in Russia, and reminiscing about all the fun we’d had all those months ago. Eventually it was time for Jake and I to head back to WeHo, so Kaylah and I drove to meet him and then said our goodbyes once again. Though the fact that it was our second goodbye, and that we’d met each other again on a completely opposite side of the world so many months later, proved that in a world as small as ours, for travellers like us, goodbyes were only ever temporary.

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Trans-Siberian Railway buddies united!

***

The day spent out in Anaheim with Kaylah was actually my last full day in LA, and that evening would be my last night before I flew out the following morning. Jake was feeling a little glum about it, considering how I’d been living with him for over a week now, and we’d been having so much fun. Yet even to the last moment, he was still thinking of cool and interesting things we could do in LA. “Something you wouldn’t know about if you weren’t from around here. I want you to leave saying just how awesome a time you had in LA.”

There’s a place up on the hills of Hollywood Heights called the Magic Castle. It’s the clubhouse of a private organisation that promotes and supports the art of magic and magicians. You have to either be a member or be signed in as a guest by a member, and of course Jake knew – through dodgeball – a member who was a magician. The dress code of the Magic Castle was formal evening wear, so I had to borrow a shirt and tie from Jake, and on my last night we made our way up to the Castle, where we were greeted by Jake’s friend Jeb. The castle itself is technically more of a Victorian mansion, and stepping inside felt like you were stepping back in time itself, with the polished wood furnishings, luxurious deep red carpets and dapper gentlemen and elegantly dressed woman gliding through the hallways. Jeb gave us a tour of many of the castles quirky and interesting rooms. I’m not supposed to give away too much, but there was a piano that plays by itself (or is played by  ghost, depending on who you ask), and can even take requests (I requested Pokerface).

There was also a table in a more open area where magicians could set up and perform card tricks and other small magical shows. Jake and I sat around the table while Jeb performed one, and I wish there was more I could say to explain what he did but then if I knew I would probably be a magician… and then I definitely wouldn’t tell you. There were also a few other shows that you could attend while visiting the Magic Castle, and Jake and I got almost front row seats to a show with a mentalist. Now, I have to admit this show actually scared me a little bit. I don’t want to give away too much, but the general idea was that he could supposedly see our thoughts or read our minds. It seemed like more of a psychic than anything to do with performance magic or magicians, but I was curious. He asked for three volunteers: someone who was good with drawing, someone who was good with numbers, and someone who was good with words. I enthusiastically volunteered to the be wordsmith. After watching the mentalist successfully sketch a drawing that the first woman had secretly drawn, without ever seeing it, and know the number that another woman was thinking of, which she had picked from the top of her head and hadn’t told him, it was my turn. Out in the front of the theatre room with him, he asked me to imagine I was in a library. I was to go over to one of the shelves and pull out a book. I had a bit of a brain freeze, and for a few seconds the only book that came to mind was the Bible. But then, for some reason, I’m not sure why, The Jungle Book came to mind, and so my word that the mentalist would have to correctly identify was ‘jungle’.

He asked a handful of questions, all which had seemingly nothing at all to do with The Jungle Book or the word ‘jungle’. I was so confused. Yet when he claimed that he had it, sure enough he scribbled on a big sheet of paper and produced the word ‘jungle’ in big, black block letters. I was actually stunned. I’m not exactly a skeptic when it comes to psychics or magic, but this seemed way above the pay grade of a normal magician. I was dying to know how he knew, short of believing he was actually a psychic, but of course a good magician never revealed his secrets, and I left the Magic Castle with a burning curiosity, as well as a reluctant resignation to the fact that I would probably never find out how he’d gotten inside my head.

“So. Last night in LA. Anything else you really wanna do?” Jake said to me as we climbed into the car after the show was over. We locked eyes for a moment.
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” I said with I grin.
“I don’t know… I might be…?”
“Taco Bell?”
“Let’s do it!”

***

And so after having such an amazing time in LA, having more fun than I ever thought I would and meeting such a cool bunch of people, it was time for me to get travelling again. It was something that you think I would be used to by now, and while I can admit that it does get a littler easier, it’s never exactly easy. I’d travelled all around the world, and fallen in love with a handful of places, and LA was definitely high on the list of places that had actually started to feel like home. Combined with the fact that endless travel had eventually started to wear me down, I was almost reluctant to leave.

“You’re gonna have such a great time in Hawaii,” Jake said to me as he drove me through the mid-morning traffic to the airport. “I mean, I’m gonna miss you like Hell, but I’m also excited for you,” he said with a smile. I was pretty quiet. I guess saying too much during goodbyes always made them a little harder. Eventually we arrived at the airport, and Jake hopped out to help me get my bag out of the car. Then we had our final hugs and kisses, and I told him that I would definitely be back one day. How could I not? Jake had done so much for me during my stay in LA, literally driving me across the city to see things and meet people, introducing me to all of his friends, rescuing me from creepy guys and giving me a place to stay for the entire time too. He’d gone so out of his way to make sure I’d done and seen things that would make me remember my time in LA as something amazing, but in reality it had just been him being himself that had made it so awesome, and that was the reason I knew I’d one day come back.

He was parked in the cab drop-off point though, so we couldn’t draw the farewell out too long. So we said our goodbyes, I waved as he took off down the road and out of sight, and then I headed to the terminal to catch the flight to my final destination.

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As weird as it sounds, even the LAX sign was a sight that I had seen in TV shows and was therefore somewhat exciting. 

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The Big Apple and Other Fruits: a taste of gay NYC

During my first week or so in New York, I didn’t really do something that I had done extensively while I was in all the other previous cities I’d recently visited, and that was explore the local gay scene. Which is a little surprising, given that a city as huge as New York is bound to have some incredible scenes to discover, but I suppose I was still slightly recovering from the hole that Dublin had corroded in my liver. I’d also been hanging out with Melissa, and while she is fabulously gay-friendly, she wasn’t exactly familiar with Manhattan’s gay nightlife scene, considering that her gay best friend lived in Brooklyn and wasn’t even above the legal drinking age anyway. However, when Mischa came down from Connecticut on the weekend that we ended up going to Six Flags, he had a couple of New Yorker friends who were going out for a few drinks and so we decided to join them.

We went over to Neil’s apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, which was the on the western side of midtown Manhattan. Hell’s Kitchen was probably closest New York came to having a ‘gay district’, although from what I had heard and what I would eventually discover, the city was a lot like London or Berlin or Paris in that it had numerous clusters of gay venues and parties scattered all over the island, and there wasn’t really a ‘central’ district of Manhattan because the whole thing is a complete metropolis, north to south and east to west. Historically the locations of the more popular gay areas had shifted, and right now Hell’s Kitchen seemed to be the place to be. We stopped by Neil’s briefly, where I met Walter and Neil for the first time, before we headed out to a bar called Boxers. When we arrived I discovered that Boxers was a sports bar – that’s right, a gay sports bar. I don’t know if I was shocked, surprised, or just confused, but the concept of a gay sports bar just seemed so contradictory to me. Perhaps it’s just because I’m not a huge sports fan of any kind, but I could never imagine a dedicated gay sports bar ever taking off in the Surry Hills area of Sydney. It was also possibly an American thing – come to think of it, ‘sports bars’ aren’t so much a thing in Australia at all, since people just go down to the local pub if they’re going to watch the football.

The juxtaposition of the hyper-masculine, all American jock themes with the obvious gay pride rainbows actually worked pretty well. All around the bar there were various sports games being shown on television screens, but less than half of the people in the bar were actually paying them any real attention. We got some drinks and stood around for a little while, but the bar wasn’t exactly going off. We had plans to go to a nightclub later – some place where Neil’s friend was working as a promoter, which meant we could get in for free – but it was still incredibly early, so at Neil’s suggestion, we swung past a corner store on the way back to his apartment and all pitched in for a case of beer. Neil’s apartment was new – so new that were were surrounded by half unpacked boxes, and were sitting on his bed because it was either that or the floor – but we made ourselves comfy and sat around drinking our beers and chatting and laughing. It was during this period of a couple of hours that Neil convinced us to join them at Six Flags the following day, a decision that would feel like a huge mistake when the alarm went off at 7am the following morning. It wasn’t like I had any other plans though, so we agreed to come along.

Eventually we left – heavily intoxicated by that stage – for XL, the club where Neil’s friend was working. We skipped the line and didn’t have to pay entry, and his friend even showered us with a handful of drink tickets. XL was located nearby in Hell’s Kitchen (it’s since closed and reopened under a new name) and was a huge club – when the smoke machines came on it was almost impossible to see the other side of the dance floor. I honestly can’t remember much else about my time spent there, thanks to the several shots that Neil ordered us immediately upon arrival and the fact that I probably drank way too much beer beforehand anyway. We attempted to drink more, mostly likely attempted to dance for a bit, and when I used the bathrooms I was intensely fascinated by another concept that was incredibly foreign to me as an Australian: bathroom attendants. These people stand around the sinks in the bathroom and offer you all kinds of things, from soap to hand towels to spritzes of cologne, in return for an appropriate tip. I find the whole thing rather awkward, because instead of requesting their service they just jump in and try to wait on your every whim or need, when honestly I would rather dry my own hands on my jeans. You feel like a bit of a jerk having to actively avoid them or ask them to leave you alone, since they’re just doing their job and trying to make as much as they can out of whatever tips they can gather, but I still find it all rather uncomfortable. Although being drunk probably helps.

I couldn’t tell you how long we stayed at XL, but knowing that we had to get up early for Out in the Park at Six Flags, I’m assuming we left at a relatively reasonable hour. My memory of the whole thing is patchy at best, and the next thing I know I woke up nursing a headache, spooning Mischa, and cursing that damned alarm clock.

***

My second night out on the gay scene was a little more memorable… well, that probably isn’t the right word since I definitely don’t remember all of it. But it was definitely a lot more eventful. I had met Scott a few years ago when he had been holidaying in Sydney. He was a big partier, and we’d gotten on pretty well, so we’d kept in touch. He had been my only gay contact who actually lived in New York, so one evening when Melissa had other plans after class, I got in touch with Scott and asked about the best places to go. It was a Wednesday night, so naturally he was going out himself, and we met for a quick sushi dinner after he had finished work before heading back to his apartment – also in Hell’s Kitchen – so he could get ready. He went to offer me a drink while I waited, although the only alcohol he had was this strange Czech liquor (which I had actually tasted with Ike in Ancona) or absinthe. I guess it was at that early point in the evening that I should have known the end of this night wasn’t going to be pretty. I opted for the absinthe on the rocks. I don’t know, #yolo or whatever.

We went to a nearby theatre where a new weekly event was starting – So You Think You Can Drag? It’s exactly what you think it is – a whole line up of drag queens performing on stage in front of an audience, with a panel of judges making comments and scores and eventually choosing a winner. Now, I’ve been all over the world and seen a fair few drag queens, most notably in Cambodia, Russia and Germany, but so far I had yet to see any drag shows that came close to the quality of the queens that I’ve seen back home in Sydney. New York changed all that. I guess you really need to have something special to stand out in a place like this, and these queens were trying their hardest. I’ve always appreciated my favourite drag queens back in Sydney, so I really enjoyed watching all the acts. Add to the fact that the first hour of the event had an open vodka bar, and I knew that if I lived in NYC I would most definitely become a regular here. Like Scott obviously was. The hostess of the evening, Paige Turner, is one of New York’s more successful drag queens, and is on a first name basis with Scott – a relationship which I am sure developed purely because he never missed one of her shows.

Scott and Paige Turner - apparently I was a bit of a hit that night myself.

Scott and Paige Turner – apparently I was a bit of a hit that night myself.

New York drag queens giving it all they've got.

New York drag queens giving it all they’ve got.

Scott introduced me to a bunch of people as we mingled before the drag performances. It was here that I would learn that aspects of nightlife in New York are very different to Sydney – different from most places in the world that I’ve been to, now that I think about it. It’s not so much about certain venues or bars as it is about different events run by certain nightlife companies, which are held over a variety of venues on a weekly basis. Of course, there are dedicated gay bars too, but it’s very much a matter of knowing where to go on what night, depending on what you’re looking for or what you want to do. I think you could probably live there for years and still never figure it out, so I’m not going to pretend I am an expert or anything – this is purely just my understanding and perceptions based on my experience. When I was waiting in line with Scott, I was introduced to a guy named Bobby – he worked for BoiParty.com, the company that was running So You Think You Can Drag? – who was going down the line and signing up anyone who wasn’t part of the mailing list. Maybe it was something else, since it seemed like I had to give my details to even get in, but I didn’t mind, since I had no idea about what was going on in New York and would appreciate some email notifications about upcoming parties. I got chatting to Bobby for a little bit too, and he told me to add him on Facebook. He would end up being my go-to guy when it came to all things nightlife-related in New York.

After the shows had ended – the winner of tonight was a musical theatre queen named Sutton Lee Seymour – I headed back to Scott’s with a bunch of other people for a… ‘between events’ party? Post/pre drinks party? I don’t know exactly what it was, but I discovered just now non G-rated Scott’s life is. More absinthe was involved. The next thing I know I am at a bar called the Ritz, a place Scott was always raving about, which was the official, or maybe unofficial, after party for the previous drag event. The venue was pretty small and intimate, but the drinks were cheap and it was packed with guys and queens from earlier in the night. We danced, we sang, we made it rain dollar bills during the impromptu performances. Tipping drag queens was another thing that slightly shocked me, but I was coming to realise that the service industry workers who primarily relied on tips didn’t just finish in restaurants and bars and hospitality. It was something I would get used to during my months in the states, but right now it all seemed kind of awkward. At least, it did for me – the workers on the other end had no hesitation in taking my money.

Snapshot from one of my future nights out in New York City.

Snapshot from one of my future nights out in New York City.

It doesn’t happen often, but that night I blacked out. When I woke up, I was lying on Scott’s bed, fully clothed except for my shoes, which I appeared to have kicked off and were sitting on the floor by the bed. There was another guy lying next to me, still asleep and also fully clothed. I had no idea who he was. Scott was sitting on the end of the bed, and seemed to be in the middle of a very serious conversation with what appeared to be a drag queen who had only gotten halfway out of her drag outfit from the pervious evening. When I stirred and tried to sit up, Scott broke away from the conversation and turned around.
“Okay, twinks, it’s 9am. I have to teach in four hours so I need my bed back.” I stared at him, comprehending but being beyond speech in my current state. “You can sleep on the couch.”
It was nine on the morning?! I should have just gone home but I wasn’t ready to face the day. Scott woke up the other guy on the bed, who I later learned was named Mat, and shooed us both out of his room, along with the drag queen. She left, but Mat and I collapsed on the couch. I had absolutely no recollection of ever meeting him, or why we we’d ended up on a bed together, even though we were fully clothed. We spooned on the couch so we would both fit, and I managed to get a couple of more hours sleep. However, I didn’t let myself get too comfortable, because I had somewhere to be.

Melissa had some family coming to stay with her that weekend, which meant I had to make myself scarce for a little while. So I had planned a trip out of the city to Washington, DC. Well, I had a cheap bus ticket and a Couchsurfing host lined up at the other end, which is about as much planning as I ever do. The bus was leaving in the early afternoon, but I had, in all my infinite wisdom, still decided to have an absolute bender of an evening the night before. Eventually I dragged myself out of Scott’s apartment and into the to bright sunshine that was Hell’s Kitchen by day, and ran back across town – with a quick pit stop at McDonalds – to pack my bag and head of the bus station. Melissa wasn’t around, but by this point of my stay I finally had my own key, which she had said I could hang onto until I was leaving New York for the final time. I thought I’d left myself enough time to get the bus stop via the subway, but by the time I got home, showered, threw all my stuff into my bad and got back to the station, I realised that I really hadn’t. I hailed a cab. We got halfway across town – the bus was leaving from a corner near Penn Station – when it started to rain. Traffic came to standstill. I ended up throwing some cash at the driver and running through the torrential downpour that seemingly came out of no where. Gasping and panting, I made it to the bus just in time to have my baggage stowed away underneath. Climbing aboard the bus, I made a promise to myself I would never be hungover on a day of travel again – it wasn’t the first time I’d said that, and of course, it wouldn’t be the last.

Roller Coaster: a trip to New Jersey and back

As well as getting to know my new American friends, being in New York also gave me the chance to catch up with some other dearly beloved old friends. Mischa was another American whom I had befriended during his exchange semester at university in Sydney. His speciality was mathematics, but the flexibility of his units whilst on exchange meant that he was able to take some subjects that weren’t usually offered in his discipline, and so we met in the tutorial for one of my Gender Studies units. He was also gay, and we hit it off right away and ended up hanging out quite a lot, and he became part of my regular circle of friends in Sydney. He was originally from Baltimore, but was now living in Connecticut, so as soon as he had a free weekend he jumped on a train down to New York to meet up with me. He is the sweetest little guy, and I was so happy I got to catch up with him – he met Melissa in Sydney too, so he stayed with us in the studio apartment that weekend, despite it still being full of the previous owners’ things.

Mischa and I went out for some drinks with some of his friends who live in New York (an evening which I’ll detail more in a later blog), the result of which we woke up at 7am on Saturday morning to drag ourselves to Port Authority Bus Terminal. Mischa’s friend Walter was going to the Six Flags in New Jersey for an event called ‘Out In The Park’: basically the theme park chain hosts an event where queers take over for the day and night. Walter was going with his friend Neil – who we met on Friday night – along with Neil’s friends Gabriel and Tim. Neil had convinced us to come along, so even though I was pretty hungover that morning, Mischa and I bid farewell to Melissa, still half asleep as we crept out the door, and headed across town to catch the bus that would be taking us to the neighbouring state. We greeted Walter and Neil, who looked equally as hungover, we were introduced to Tim and Gabriel – who turned out to be a couple – and there was a frantic rush to get our tickets, make our way through the terminal and get onto the bus or we would be waiting another hour for the next direct one. Slowly, we began to perk up, and after emerging from the first tunnels I was able to get a glimpse of Manhattan from the other side, from the second state I had been to since arriving in the USA on this trip.

Manhattan disappearing into the distance.

Manhattan disappearing into the distance.

It was a bus ride that shouldn’t have taken any more than two hours on a good day. Unfortunately for us, today was not a good day. There was traffic – my God, there was traffic. The bus came to a standstill at one point for almost 45 minutes. I’m not sure what was happening, because there didn’t appear to be any accidents or roadworks or anything… the cars just seemed to be going nowhere fast. “Oh my God! What is taking so long?” Neil said, peering down the aisle to catch a glimpse of the road out of the buses windscreen. “I have to pee so badly!” We’d consumed a lot of Gatorade and Red Bull to combat the early morning hangovers. We passed the time by chatting, getting to know my new friends, and taking the odd selfie here and there.

Walter, Mischa and I on the bus to Six Flags (filter courtesy of Walters Instagram)

Walter, Mischa and I on the bus to Six Flags (filter courtesy of Walters Instagram)

***

When we eventually arrived at Six Flags it was well after midday. One of the first things we did when we arrived, after buying our tickets and getting given our ‘Out In The Park’ event wristbands, was locate the nearest refreshment venue and order some food and some beers. I’m not really a fan of American beers, I discovered, but I drank them anyway because there really wasn’t much other option that day. We didn’t overdo it though, because we had a day of roller coasters and rides ahead of us. Now, for those of you who don’t know, I’m a screamer. Whether it’s scary movies, theme park rides, or just loud noises when I’m sitting in traffic, I am easily startled and I vocalise it loudly. Even for a theme park, where basically everyone screams to some extent, I think I earned myself a handful of strange looks from fellow riders. There were Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, and a bunch of other comic book superhero themed rides, there were rickety old wooden ones (at least, they seemed rickety – I really hope they were actually stable), there were sleek futuristic ones and there were the slower, more sensible rides for when your head, or your stomach, needed a break. I went on everything – as much as I scream, I love the rides themselves, and am never put off by any amount of twists or turns or loops. The slower ones, however, were good because they gave you a chance to use your phone mid-ride. One ride that was designed like a parachute descent allowed a brief moment of standstill in which I was able to take a few ariel shots of the surrounding park.

View of one of the huge, wooden roller coasters.

View of one of the huge, wooden roller coasters.

Six Flags: New Jersey at sunset.

Six Flags: New Jersey at sunset.

As the day grew later, we started to see more and more people with the same wristbands as us, meaning they were also here for Out In The Park. The event ran past the usual closing time of the park and well into the evening, which meant that for a couple of the rides we decided to forego the wait in the long lines and return later, when all of the regular visitors of the park were required to go home. The plan worked, and we managed to ride pretty much every major roller coaster, but if we hadn’t had the extended event passes I doubt we would have been able to see it all in time. When day well and truly became night, the park became a party in a huge outdoor area, almost like a mini-festival. There were crowds of people dancing to the music that was being pumped from the temporarily set up stages, and while the whole thing looked like it would have been a lot of fun, we were all just so exhausted from the day we’d just spent walking around in the hot sun and riding all the roller coasters. Neil was attempting to keep the spirit up, and most of us were still drinking our beers, but… in the end we decided it to call it a day. We still had a long way to go to get back to New York, and Tim even had to work the next day.

We exited out into the car park, and here is where the night started to get interesting… or frustrating, is probably a better adjective. As we were leaving, we had asked one of the women who worked at Six Flags where exactly to go to catch our bus, and what time it was coming. Seemed simple enough, so we exited and made our way to the stop. The parking space was comparatively empty to what it had been during the day, and there were a lot of buses at the far end. We inspected them, but they all appeared to be waiting for tour groups or something, or were otherwise pre-booked. So we waited where our bus was supposed to pick us up… and we waited… and we waited. Night had completely sunk in now, and while the September afternoon had been bright and sunny and warm, there was a chill in the evening that was inescapable, and I hadn’t even had the foresight to bring a jacket of any kind. As I was shivering there in my t-shirt and hugging Mischa for warmth, a guy approached our group and told us that there were no more buses coming to this stop.
“Over there is where the buses leave from this time of night,” he pointed past a fence to where there appeared to be some kind of security compound and back entrance. “You’ll be waiting until the morning, at least, if you stay here waiting for a bus. Trust me, I do this all the time.”
“We’re trying to get back to New York, though,” Gabriel told him. “This is where we were told to wait.
The man thought for a moment before continuing. “I don’t know about New York, but either way, there ain’t gonna be any buses coming through here. Over there you can get a bus to Freehold, probably back to New York from there.” We all looked at each other, not really sure of what to do. In the end we went with the stranger over to the security entrance, hoping that we might be able to speak to someone else who knew exactly what was going on.

I sat down in the gutter with Mischa, while some of the others went to talk to a security guard. The optimistic stranger who had started speaking to us before went down and sat on the bus stop seat. Then it started to lightly rain. I shivered some more.
“Oh my God, Robert, you’re freezing,” Gabriel said as he pulled off his hoodie and threw it over my shoulders. In a brief moment of pride I wanted to reject the offer, but I really was that cold, so I just pulled the hood close around my neck and thanked him.
“It’s okay, you were making me colder just by looking at your shiver. I’ll just steal Tim’s if I get cold,” he said with a laugh.
At that moment, Tim came over to us, accompanied by two girls who apparently worked at the park, who must also be trying to get home. “The security guard said there’s no more buses coming,” he said grimly.
“Well that’s just great,” Gabriel said. “Where are we supposed to get a cab out here? We aren’t even close to anything.”
Six Flags was located a fair distance from even the closest small town in New Jersey – too much of a distance to walk, and it wasn’t an area favoured by taxis. I had no knowledge of the area and know real way of finding anything out, so I felt pretty helpless. All I could do was just stick around and hope the others could negotiate some kind of solution. Gabriel went out to speak to some of the workers nearby, but came back shaking his head.

“I asked if there were was any kind of car service around here. He looked at me strangely and said “What, like a mechanic?” God, it’s like they don’t even speak English in New Jersey!” Despite the bleak situation, I had to laugh. In pretty much every TV show or film set in New York City, they talk about New Jersey like its the end of the Earth, or going there is like crossing over into Mordor or something. I used to laugh when the main character of Coyote Ugly “moves away” from New Jersey to New York: what is that, like, 40 minutes away? But sitting there holding my knees in the chilly air wondering how the hell we were going to get back to New York, I felt like maybe some of those shows weren’t exaggerating as much as I would have guessed.

***

We tried telling the optimistic stranger that there were no more buses coming, but he remained, characteristically, optimistic about the next buses imminent arrival. In the end one of the security guards somehow managed to get a hold of a contact who had cars that were willing to pick us up and drive us back to Freehold. There were six people in our party, plus the two workers and the optimist, who we basically had to drag into the car because we didn’t want him sitting there all night, but I think we all somehow managed to fit into the two cars. One of them might have been an SUV, I don’t remember. I don’t even know if they were legitimate cabs, but we weren’t exactly in a position to be fussy. I was freezing cold and exhausted – I wouldn’t make the mistake of underestimating a North American autumn again. The cars arrived at Freehold just in time for us to see the bus heading to New York to pull into the parking lot. We ran to the bus like our lives depended on it. It was pretty much empty, and it was taking the long route since it was the only service running at this time of the early morning, but the last stop was Port Authority Bus Terminal. We all found our own spaces among the seats, curled up, and slept as best we could, which was hardly at all.

It was almost a shock when we stepped out of the bus terminal and there were still people walking around everywhere at four in the morning, and lights were flashing all the way along Times Square. Of course, this is New York City on a Saturday night, so I shouldn’t have been surprised. It’s just that the contrast between there and the parking lot in New Jersey could not have been any more different. At this point in my stay, Melissa hadn’t even managed to have a spare set of keys cut, and since we wasn’t replying to my messages I assumed she wouldn’t be awake to let Mischa and I in when we got home. We had to catch a taxi with Tim and Gabriel to the upper west side of Manhattan, where they generously agreed to let us crash for the remainder of the early morning.

All in all it had been a fun day. I had met some nice, funny and interesting people, and the debacle that had been the end of the night had been an entertaining story to tell Melissa when we had rocked up back in midtown the following afternoon. I just swore to myself that any future journeys into New Jersey were going to require a lot more planning.

Leave It To The Locals

After traveling for over a month, I was beginning to feel pretty confident with my abilities in navigating new cities with a simple map and the unearthed Boy Scout skills from my childhood. The day before I had been driven from place to place in a motorbike tuk tuk, feeling relatively posh with my own little carriage to be chauffeured around in. During the evening of my second night in Phnom Penh, I had a brief encounter with another guy staying in my dorm, who had told me that he and a few other people had rented their own motorbikes and driven themselves around the city. Back in Ho Chi Minh City when my Couchsurfing host had offered me the controls of the vehicle, I had, rather sensibly, declined the offer. However, I’d seen quite a few people at my hostel in Saigon rent and even buy motorbikes, using it as a cheaper form of travel as well as a way to see more of the countryside. I had told them they were crazy, but one of the Americans had assured me that the traffic out there was nowhere near as crazy as in the city itself.

It never really crossed my mind again until it was mentioned to me in Phnom Penh. I’d seen the roads and the traffic, and it didn’t seem quite as busy as the hustle and bustle of Bangkok or Saigon. I told myself that I should be making the most of the unique experiences on offer here, and so far I’d been all about pushing my boundaries and challenging myself. With that in mind, I set off down the road to rent myself a motorbike, oblivious to the fact that my stay in Phnom Penh was about to get even more harrowing than a trip to the Killing Fields.

***

In retrospect, it was a terrible decision. As my mother reminded me when I emailed her after the fact, “You can barely ride a push bike, Bob!” Yet I was taken over by some kind of invincibility complex that most young adult males get after a six pack of beers (though it should be noted that I made this brilliant decision completely sober). The fact I’d never really ridden a motorbike didn’t occur to me as a potential problem – how hard could it be? It was only when they showed me the bike and demonstrated how to change the gears did the sheer unfamiliarity of this vehicle truly hit home. My blank, uncomprehending expression must have given me away, because one of the men suddenly shouted, “Ahh! Automatic! You need automatic?”. Honestly, I’d had no idea there were automatic and manual motorbikes until that very moment, but I figured I was going to have a hell of an easier time on an automatic one, so I agreed enthusiastically and waited for him to bring around another bike. After a brief overview of the controls, they handed me a helmet and the keys, and away I went.

I puttered along through the small streets, using the same cautious method that I employed for crossing the roads as a pedestrian, before turning onto a main road and zooming along with the rest of the traffic. It was a similar thrill to riding on the back of a motorcycle taxi, except this time there was a certain element of fear, given that I was the one who was actually driving. But I was doing pretty well so far. I was heading towards Phnom Wat, a large temple located in the north of the city, surrounded by lots of traffic. I managed to park the bike next to Phnom Wat, which was situated in the middle of a huge roundabout. I wandered over to the temple and had a brief look inside. It is still a very active place of worship, so I didn’t stay too long so as not to disturb the prayers inside. Besides, I was keen to get back on the motorbike and do some more exploring.

The temple of Phnom Wat, my first and only stop of the day.

The temple of Phnom Wat, my first and only stop of the day.

***

And shortly after that is when it all went wrong. My destination was to be the Russian Markets, which are supposed to be a unique and interesting corner of the city. I’d checked my map and memorised a rough route through the main roads, but I’d only been driving for a few minutes before I came up to the next roundabout. I needed to turn left, but as I followed the roads, I realised I was veering right, and there didn’t appear to be any way to change my course. Was I not as far as I thought I was? Was I taking a wrong turn? Could I still turn left from where the road was taking me? All these perplexing questions bombarded me at once, and the fact that they drive on the right side of the road rather than the left didn’t help my heightening confusion – although the very limited road rules at all hadn’t laid the best foundation for building confidence. In the end, I hesitated for just a moment, but that was all it took. I came tumbling off the motorbike and skidding across the road.

It all seemed so slow and surreal at first. I thought for sure that I was dead. I’d heard the horror stories, the idiot tourists who thought they knew what they were doing when they set out onto the roads and ended up becoming another statistic. I could hear my mothers “I told you so” screeching through the back of my mind. But as soon as I was down, I was jumping up again and scrambling off the road. The way I’d fell meant I’d skidded out of the roundabout towards the edge of the road, rather than deeper into the oncoming traffic. Anyone behind me just swerved around me and continued on their way, as though nothing had happened, or as though that kind of thing happened every day – though for all I knew, such accidents were a common occurrence.

A few of the motorbike taxi drivers on the edge of the road rushed over to my aid, pulling the bike up and helping me wheel it to the edge of the road. I checked my arms and legs to find myself, remarkably, almost unscathed. The only exception was a shallow, bloody graze on my right knee, though I was so full of adrenaline at the time that I barely noticed. I cleaned myself up as best I could, and the local men checked to make sure the bike wasn’t damaged. Thankfully, other than a few mild scratches on the paint, which could have very well been there before I took my little tumble, it was fine. I thanked the men for their help, though they didn’t understand English, so they simply watched me curiously, probably trying to figure out the exact same thing as me – what the hell was I going to do now?

There was nothing else I could do. In my shaken and unsettled state, I mounted the bike and took a few deep breaths. I assessed the roads and where I was going, and then revved the engine and took off again into the traffic. With my confidence shattered from the fall, it was one of the most terrifying decisions of my life, but I didn’t really have any other option. I could have called the rental company, but I didn’t want to risk having to pay for any damages if I confessed to crashing the bike. I couldn’t ask anyone for a lift, since I was the one who had the vehicle. Though it screamed of the illogical and was beyond all common sense, I managed to get back on my bike and continue driving around the city.

***

It was horrific. With the exception of the crash itself, I had never felt so scared as I did navigating the streets of Phnom Penh by motorbike. For some ridiculous reason that I still can’t explain, I decided to travel further from where I was staying, perhaps in the hopes I would regain confidence and learn from my mistake. I didn’t. Every turn, corner or crossing filled me with terror. I had several extremely close calls with both other motorbikes and cars. In the haze of my terror I think I actually even made it to the Russian Markets but by that point, shopping for whatever trinkets they sold there was the last thing in my mind. It was on the return trip that I became not only frightened, but lost. I remember stopping at a petrol station, staring out into the peak hour afternoon traffic, and wondering how the hell I was going to make it back to my hostel alive.

Thankfully, the gash on me knee was the only real injury I sustained during the ordeal.

Thankfully, the gash on me knee was the only real injury I sustained during the ordeal.

After a lot of slow puttering down busy streets and long waits at corners to make sure there was absolutely no chance of being caught by other traffic, I finally made it back to the hostel. I’d been following the setting sun to make sure I was going in the right direction, and using what little I did remember of the streets from my drive through the city yesterday. It had been another long and exhausting day, and as soon as I parked the bike I showered, tended to my wound, and put my leg up by the pool whilst nursing several scotch and Cokes to calm my nerves. Needless to say, I had learnt my lesson. The traffic might not seem dangerous when experienced locals weave their way in and out of cracks and crevices of the gridlock, but it’s still a death trap for anyone who doesn’t know what they’re doing.

I promised my mother I would stay away from motorbikes altogether, but that’s literally impossible in most parts of Cambodia, so from now on I’ll just leave the driving to the locals.

First Impressions: Phnom Penh

I was a little nervous as I climbed off the boat and onto the dock at Phnom Penh. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Cambodia. I was under the impression that it was a relatively poor country, but so far on my tour through South East Asian countries I’d been surprised by the diversity of living conditions and levels of development within single cities, let alone entire nations. Phnom Penh is the capital city of Cambodia, but in the back of my mind I was quite certain it wasn’t going to be anything like Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City, and most definitely not like Singapore. And I wasn’t wrong.

It’s hard to describe. It wasn’t a city in the way that Bangkok was a city, it with networks of public transport and numerous towering skyscrapers.There was certainly some parts of the city that were more built up and developed, with busy roads and crazy traffic, but there were also smaller streets with a slightly suburban feeling, though not without busy roads and crazy traffic. As I would later learn during my stay in Phnom Penn, while most of the time the locals make it seem like a fine tuned art from, driving in pretty much any major South East Asian city is a perilous affair.

View of the street from my tuk tuk to the hostel.

View of the street from my tuk tuk to the hostel.

Ultimately, what made Phnom Penh different was the not-so-seamless integration of tourist attractions, middle class living, and extreme street poverty. In Bangkok, the city is almost separated into layers like a rainforest, with the wealth in the canopy descending down to the poverty on the forest floor, and Saigon has a tourist-focused centre which sprawls outward to the more authentic and local experience. From what I could gather, there was no method to the madness with was the design of Phnom Penh. The official currency is the Khmer riel, although US dollars are so widely accepted that menus and price lists of everything are shown in dollars, and even the ATM machines dispense dollars rather than riel. The use of the dollar, however, meant that I found Cambodia a little more expensive than Vietnam. I’m no economist so I can’t even try to explain the way it works, but that’s just a little something that did surprise me.

***

I decided to spend my first day in Phnom Penh seeing all the major tourist attractions, so I enlisted the help of a tuk tuk driver who would take me from place to place and wait for me while I visited each destination. We came to an agreement, though only after several minutes of myself insisting that I did not want to visit the shooting range and fire a bazooka. The driver seemed disappointed, but nevertheless took me around for my day tour of the city. The first stop was the Grand Palace, the home of the current king of Cambodia which doubles as a beautiful tourist attraction. As I wandered through the various temples and buildings that the public was allowed to visit, I noticed that a lot of the architecture was similar to the Grand Palace in Bangkok. They even had murals on the inner surface of the walls that surrounded the silver pagoda – named for its floors of solid silver – which depicted the same epic poem from Hindu religion. However, unlike the murals in Bangkok, these ones were not so maintained, and there was fadedpaints and cracks in the walls, and the whole thing had more of an ancient wonder appeal to it, rather than the glittering magnificence of the palace in Bangkok. There was also an Emerald Buddha in the silver pagoda, and like the one in Bangkok, it was actually made of jade, and I wondered how many more trends there could have been between two such temples in completely different countries.

The silver pagoda.

The silver pagoda.

Elephant statue near the old elephant stables.

Elephant statue near the old elephant stables.

Nagas are mythical serpents that frequently appear in this holy South East Asian architecture.

Nagas are mythical serpents that frequently appear in this holy South East Asian architecture.

In front of the main temple.

In front of the main temple.

After the palace was the Killing Fields, which was about a half an hour drive out of town. The trip there was an experience in itself, as it had rained heavily the night before, and some of the dirt roads had turned to mud and were littered with puddles and pot holes. We had definitely reached the outer limits of the city, and there were no pubs, hostels our other tourist attractions. “Definitely not in Kansas anymore”, I muttered to myself, watching the mud fly and cursing myself for not wearing ruby slippers – or at least more appropriate footwear.

The muddy trek out to the Killing Fields.

The muddy trek out to the Killing Fields.

The fields themselves weren’t so muddy though, so my canvas slip-ons would live to see another day. The 3 million Cambodians who were brought here by the Khmer Rouge during the rise of Communism, however, did not. As I entered the complex and purchased my ticket, I found myself surrounded by the group of Americans who I had met the day before on the boat from Chau Doc to Phnom Penh. I had a quick chat with Mike, one of the guys I’d spoken to at length during the boat ride, discussing how our first nights in the city had gone down. They were just on their way out as I was arriving, so when it came time for us to part ways again, Mike looked around gloomily and said, “Well, I’d tell you to enjoy… but that’s not really the right word for this place. But go and soak it in, it’s pretty intense.” He bid me farewell, along with the rest of the group, and I set off to see the fields.

Mike has been spot on when he had described the place as intense. It was such a harrowing experience, to walk through the site and learn of the atrocious acts of genocide that occurred here, all because the victims didn’t want to subscribe to the Khmer Rouge Communist regime. It’s a little frightening to realise how unknown these tragic events are on an international level, with I myself only truly learning about the history of this genocide for the first time. Even worse is that it happened just over 30 years ago – worse that we still don’t know more about it, and even worse that these kind of things were still happening in such recent history. There is a real emphasis in this place on remembering the tragedies and the stories, so that future generations will learn, and not make the same mistakes of the past.

Depressions in the earth that used to be mass graves for the genocide victims.

Depressions in the earth that used to be mass graves for the genocide victims.

Broken and shattered skulls of victims, now housed in a memorial shrine.

Broken and shattered skulls of victims, now housed in a memorial shrine.

The monument that holds layer upon layer of the skulls and bones of the genocide victims.

The monument that holds layer upon layer of the skulls and bones of the genocide victims.

There is also a torture museum back in the city of Phnom Penh, but after spending so long at the Killing Fields I was feeling quite exhausted, both emotionally and physically, so I spent a short while looking around the school-turned-prison and house of torture. It was the place where many people were tortured, interrogated, and made to sign false confessions before being sent to the Killing Fields to be thrown into a mass grave. In the end it was too much for me, and I ended up heading back to the hostel to debrief myself.

***

My time in Phnom Penh provided me with a handful of peculiar tales that deserve posts of their own, but one thing that defined my time in the city in general was the acquisition of a new friend, Laura. On my second night in the Phnom Penh hostel, I stumbled into the dorm after a few beers – in order to change my outfit before going out again – to discover that someone new had checked into the hostel. She was sitting down on the bunk next to mine, unpacking her things, so I said hello and gave her a smile as I rummaged through my bag. Rather than the passing “Hey” mumbled under herbreath before returning to what she was doing, something not uncommon in these situations, this woman was very receptive to my greeting. We briefly introduced ourselves and had a quick chat before I had to head out again. It was nice to have met and got along with someone so quickly and so easily, though the fact that I had been drunk, and thus prone to random babbling at strangers, wasn’t lost on me.

I saw Laura again the next day, and we properly introduced ourselves and had a bit of a chat. She was a backpacker from Newcastle in England, and had been travelling around South East Asia for a few months now, in the similar unplanned method that I had been employing. She was also travelling alone, and so while we spent our days separately, doing our own sight seeing at our own paces, each night we would catch up for a few drinks, sharing our stories and experiences of both Cambodia and the greater region of South East Asia, and one night we even hit up the night club across the road from the hostel, which had been surprisingly busy for a Wednesday night.

Laura and I sharing a drink.

Laura and I sharing a drink.

On my last night in Phnom Penh, we had gone to a nearby restaurant that was run by disadvantaged youth and street children who were receiving training in hospitality, and was also known for serving some interesting foods that were considered Cambodian specialities. I have to admit, I was a little nervous at first, but I found the crispy fried tarantulas to be delicious! The legs were my favourite bit, tasting like crispy fries with chicken salt. The thorax was also nice and crunchy, but the abdomen was a little chewy for my liking, though still tasted fine.

Fried tarantulas are actually quite tasty!

Fried tarantulas are actually quite tasty!

***

Further into my travels through Cambodia, I met people who had not spent any time in Phnom Penh. After a girl had insisted that she couldn’t visit the Killing Fields because she knew she could not handle it emotionally, I had to agree with her assertion that she hasn’t missed much by simply passing through. Yet I feel as though I definitely grew as a person during my time in Phnom Penh. I was faced with quite a few challenges that I doubt I would have come across many other places in the world (which will appear in forthcoming blogs). So in the end I’m glad I made it a destination on my travels – it definitely ranks up high with the rest of my memorable cities.

Getting to Know You: Miss Saigon

My first impression of Ho Chi Minh City was that it seemed like a baby version of Bangkok. It has the backpacker district with the flashing lights and street hawkers, it has the numerous food carts selling a variety of local cuisines, and it has a lot of busy traffic. However, it’s almost as if the vehicles are in baby form, with the motorcycles being to cars what tadpoles are to frogs, and the motorcycles are everywhere. I know I’ve said it before, but literally everywhere – they put the gangs of Central Coast NSW to shame. So the city may feel a little smaller than Bangkok, but in no way does that make it feel any less busy, at least in District 1 in the central part of the city.

So. Many. Motorbikes.

So. Many. Motorbikes.

Vietnamese flag out the front of the Ho Chi Minh City Museum.

Vietnamese flag out the front of the Ho Chi Minh City Museum.

There is also a confusing aspect in that this city has two names – something that puzzled me to no end in the early stages of planning my side-step detour to Vietnam. Pretty much all the native locals call it Saigon, even a lot of the travel agencies do too. Ho Chi Minh City, taken from the name of the Vietnamese leader during the wartime period, is the name used by the government and officials and anyone else of relative importance. As a traveller, I don’t really have a preference, and will use both interchangeably throughout this blog, just to keep y’all on your toes.

***

My first few full days in Saigon were spent doing some sight seeing. I decided to tackle the city on foot – after letting my guard down and being scammed into paying an exorbitant amount of money for a brief ride in a cyclo, which is basically a bike with an oversized basket for passengers, I became a little mistrusting of all the locals who approached me, offering rides on their various street vehicles. I also found myself slightly terrified of the traffic, although I quickly learnt that in Saigon, being a pedestrian is just as hazardous as being behind the wheel of a car or on a motorbike. Which is not necessarily saying that it’s risky – you simply need to really keep your wits about you at all times… although, it is risky. I’ve had a number of extremely close encounters where my attention lapsed for just a moment, and I came this close to being far too acquainted with the front end of a motorbike. Look both ways, amnd look all four ways at intersections. Sometimes it’s easier to just slowly wander out onto the road and let the bikes move around you. This is particularly terrifying though and by no means safe – sometimes I just got impatient waiting for a legitimate gap in traffic.

Outside the Ho Chi Minh City People's Council People's Committee Building .

Outside the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Council People’s Committee Building .

French-designed Cathedral in the city centre.

French-designed Cathedral in the city centre.

Reunification Palace.

Reunification Palace.

Another thing Ho Chi Minh City seems to have a lot of is museums. As well as the War Remnants Museum, I visited the Fine Arts Museum and the Museum of Ho Chi Minh City. I took some refuge from the bustling city outside to observe some of the paintings and sculptures in the Fine Arts Museum, almost all of which are created by Vietnamese artists. I’m no art critic, and I don’t know the first thing about techniques or designs or any of the fine details when it comes to the fine arts, but the museum did have a huge variety of works on display, much of which represented lots of aspects of Vietnamese culture. As I wandered through the halls, I noticed that many of the paintings depicted soldiers and other wartime themes. Despite being beautiful works, that saddened me a little bit, and I was beginning to understand just how much the war has affected the mindset of so many local people here, and had branded their cultural history with a very distinct and conspicuous mark. It was a mark of remembrance and mourning, but also hope for the future.

Then I came across a piece called ‘Agent Orange’, where the oil painting had been textured so that it recreated the horrific deformities of the victims of the harsh poison, to a point where the art was almost three dimensional, and the suffering reached out from within canvas to force you to feel the emotions it depicted. I both loved and hated the painting, because it was so confronting, and because it filled me with the similar feelings I felt at the War Remnants Museum. I took a few photos, which I think I probably was not supposed to do, so I won’t upload them. I also feel like these works are best experienced in their true medium, and not from within a computer screen.

The other museum was also interesting, learning about the history of the the city. I don’t really care to regurgitate everything I read though, so make sure you check it out if you’re ever in Saigon. The building did, however, have a nice view.

View of city from the Ho Chi Minh City Museum.

View of city from the Ho Chi Minh City Museum.

***

My first evening in the hostel was when I began to experience the tourist nightlife. As people began slowly arriving home from their days activities and trawling into the dorm room, one of the guys made an open invitation to anyone who was interested in joining him and a few other guys in getting some dinner. Having no plans and nothing to lose, I tagged along and found myself with four guys, respectively originating from Germany, Wales, America and New Zealand, and a Hungarian girl. Our small international party set out looking for cheap street food. I’d always been a bit of a fan on Vietnamese food back home, so it was kind of a novel thrill to sit on a tiny plastic chair on the side of the road, like all the local people did in District 1, and eat my pho noodle soup. After that we were joined by two Argentinians and headed to a bar to drink some beer. I say “bar”, but in reality it was a little hole-in-the-wall joint with tiny plastic chairs (and slightly bigger plastic chairs that were used as tables) littering the footpath out front, sprawling out onto the road when it got busy enough. Later in the week, when I explained this scene to a New Zealander expat now residing in Ho Chi Minh City, he merely chuckled and said, “Yep, we call that a bar here.”

However, what the place lacked in bells and whistles, it made up with value for money. Draught beer was 7000 Vietnamese dong per glass. That converts into approximately 35 Australian cents. It seemed criminal to drink anything else when you could drink for so ridiculously cheap, and not for the first time on this trip I found myself succumbing to peer pressure and going in for a round of beers, only to be surprised that I actually quite enjoyed the taste of it. I didn’t love it, but for a few quiet drinks on a Tuesday night it doesn’t get much better than three beers for a buck.

The weekend was a different story though – I met a bunch of Australians who had been in Vietnam for the last month or so for work, and they took me out to some of the nearby nightclubs. The bars were a little more sophisticated then plastic stools on the pavement, and the drinks were more than 35c, but they were still exponentially cheaper than back home and the cocktails were lethal. Two Long Island Ice Teas later and I have to confess that I couldn’t tell you much about the difference between the clubs in Saigon and the clubs back home. Except that in one of them I ran into a Tasmanian couple casually smoking a hukka, and I’m pretty sure the flavour was “blue”. And security guards loved to pose for photos, something I have never seen in Australia.

In an e-mail to my father about my trip down to Krabi, I had mentioned how good it had been to get out of the city for a while and see the rest of the country. His response triggered something in me that I’d never really considered before: “Yes, cities tend to all feel the same after a while. It’s best to get out and see the real country”. While I could see comparable differences in each city I had visited, I promised myself that I would make my best effort to see a little more than just the major cities in each country went to, wherever I could.

Because at the end of the night, whether its beer or spirits, Sydney or Saigon, hangovers are generally all the same too.

The Travel Bug

One of the big tourist destinations that you just have to see (or so I’d been told) when you are in Bangkok is the Grand Palace and the Royal Monastery of the Emerald Buddha. Even if temples aren’t really your thing, this one is so spectacular that its supposedly the one everyone has to see. But having studied mediation under the guidance of a Buddhist nun during my last few years of high school, I would definitely say I have an interest, or at least curiosity, in Eastern spirituality, and a certain sense of awe for their places of worship. So after seeing having seen some of the party destinations that are frequented by tourists, I decided I would begin this week by exploring some of the more traditional cultural attractions that Bangkok has to offer.

The Grand Palace is located towards the west of central Bangkok, on the eastern side of the Chao Phraya River. Since the palace is the official residence of the Thai royal family, the inside is not open to the public, but the monastery compound that houses various shrines, temples and monuments is usually considered the main attraction anyway. The temple that houses Emerald Buddha, while being a popular sight-seeing spot among tourists, is also still a frequently used place of worship for both the Thai royal family and local commoners. Therefore, respectful and modest clothing is required before tourists are allowed to enter the compound within which the temple is located. This means no exposed shoulders or knees, no singlets or shorts, so I made sure I packed my jeans into my backpack to change into once I got there. The midday sun was scorching and the heat and humidity had basically drenched my whole upper torso before I’d even made it inside the gates, so actually wearing long pants the whole day was definitely not a valid option.

Once inside, it was easy to see why this place was considered a “must see” destination – the intricacy of the beautiful and delicate designs is absolutely breath-taking.

The beautiful hand painted murals that line the outer perimeter of the temple compound.

The beautiful hand painted murals that line the outer perimeter of the temple compound.

The murals depict the story from an epic poem in Thai mythology.

The murals depict the story from an epic poem in Thai mythology.

The cloisters that run along the inside perimeter of the compound are decorated with exquisite hand painted murals that depict the storyline in a famous epic poem from Thai mythology. Princes and princesses, armies of soldiers, monkeys, demons, giants, gods, temples, palaces – the detail is incredible and the work is flawless. Much of the subjects within the murals are laced with gold, and the walls glow and shine, beautiful and incredible works of art. Within the rest of the compound there are dozens of other structures the are wondrous to behold, with glass, jewels, gold leaf, mother of pearl, and a score of other materials decorating them in a way that lets them command the reverence they deserve, as such sacred and holy monuments. Some of my favourites were the golden statues of the mythical creatures that were half animal and half celestial beings, crafted with the finest, most precise detail, glowing magnificently in the sunlight.

One of the golden statues of a creature from Thai mythology.

One of the golden statues of a creature from Thai mythology.

Phra Sri Ratana Chedi - one of the shrines covered in gold mosaic

Phra Sri Ratana Chedi – one of the shrines covered in gold mosaic

Myself standing in front of Prasat Phra Thep Bidon, the Royal Pantheon

Myself standing in front of Prasat Phra Thep Bidon, the Royal Pantheon

The highlight of the compound, however, is the Royal Chapel of the Emerald Buddha. Built on consecrated ground, all who enter the area are required to remove their shoes. I slipped off my sneakers, ascended the stairs onto the outer platform, and entered into the temple. The walls were vast and tall, decorated with beautiful murals similar to ones on the outer walls, depicting scenes from the life of Buddha, as well as other concepts of Thai mythology. Though it is the shrine in the centre of the room that truly captures your attention. Mounted high atop the shrine, on a golden throne made of gilded-carved wood, is the tiny Emerald Buddha, actually crafted from green jade. He is sitting in a stance of peaceful and relaxed mediation. The statue is hard to make out at first, such a small idol atop such an extravagant display, but the sight of the entire shrine is impressive, golden and glittering amongst the glow of they prayer candles, and for me it did feel like quite a spiritual experience. Perhaps it was because you cannot take photos inside the main temple, so being there really feels as though you are witnessing something truly special. I made my way past the standing tourists the where the prayer-goers were situated, and kneeled among them while I gazed up in awe at the shimmering golden shrine. It had been quite a while since I’d practiced mediation on a regular basis, so I sat there amongst the prayer and worship, absorbing the sacred presence within the temple and taking a moment to reflect on my own personal spirituality.

View from outside the temple of the Emerald Buddha.

View from outside the temple of the Emerald Buddha.

Myself  in front of the Grand Palace.

Myself in front of the Grand Palace.

The guards are apparently favourites for taking photos outside the palace.

The guards are apparently favourites for taking photos outside the palace.

Some marching guards that passed me on my way out of the palace grounds.

Some marching guards that passed me on my way out of the palace grounds.

After spending some time within the temple, I emerged to continue the rest of my tour around the grounds of the Grand Palace. However, after wandering around in the sun for a couple of hours, I’d become quite exhausted, and so decided to make my way home. After wandering the streets looking for a taxi, and now avoiding basically every tuk tuk I encountered, I finally found a taxi rank for motorbikes. They asked me where I was going and named a price – it wasn’t too dissimilar from what I’d paid in the taxi in the way over that morning, so I accepted. Motorbikes also had the advantage of being able to weave in and out of places that cars and tuk tuks are unable to, making them a convenient choice for peak hour traffic. Knowing that my mother would possibly have a field day when she heard eventually heard about this, I climbed onto the back of the motorbike and we took off into the street.

Monument that serves as a roundabout near the palace - taken before I was on the motorbike!

Monument that serves as a roundabout near the palace – taken before I was on the motorbike!

It was such an exhilarating rush. Sitting with my arms pressed heavily into the sides of my driver, we weaved in and out of traffic, between lanes, cutting in front of cars and tuk tuks, zooming through the streets among the pack of other motorcycles. The wind was flying through my hair, as the driver was the only one who had a helmet, and while I know that’s incredibly dangerous, I had a weird sense of absolute trust in this driver and his knowledge of the roads. I’d had some other locals say that driving in Bangkok isn’t scary or unsafe at all, and that only driving out in the more regional areas is something they hate or refuse to do, with city driving being considered relatively safe. I hadn’t believed them at first, but as I zoomed through the open air and soaked up the scenery as we weaved between vehicles, I think I finally understood what they meant. The city almost operates like a well-oiled machine – except in the traffic jams, where a little oil mightn’t go astray – or a living organism, where no matter how hectic or chaotic the environment may seem, everything is aware of and in sync with everything else. I’ve yet to see a single accident on the roads of Bangkok – plenty of what we would call “near misses” back home, but sometimes it feels as though the drivers of Bangkok know their roads so well that they can intentionally come so close with a much lower risk of accident. A tight-knit, well-oiled machine.

Towards the end of our trip, my driver even mounted the footpath and weaved between pedestrians to get me on the right side of the road and home as quickly as possible. When I paid the driver and slipped off the back of the motorbike, he smiled at me and placed a hand on my chest, and waited a moment before chuckling to himself. I must have had a rather puzzled look, because he proceeded to mimic the action on himself, then beat his chest a coupe of times with the palm of his hand. He repeated action on my chest, and then I realised what he was trying to communicate – my heartbeat. Placing my own hand on my chest, I felt it pulsing at a ridiculous speed that I hadn’t even noticed myself. Perhaps I was still a little high from the adrenaline of soaring down the tiny streets and open roads alike on the back of that motorbike, but it wasn’t until he drove off that I realised just how much of a thrill the simple trip home had been, and how much I had really enjoyed it.

It was a short walk home from where I’d alighted the motorbike, and I skipped off down the street with a new spring in my step. For perhaps the first time during this trip I finally felt like a traveler – not just a tourist, running around trying to see the cities greatest hits, but a real traveler just taking pleasure in the simple activities and cultural quirks that my new temporary home has to offer. I’d had a few difficulties getting used to being on the road and settling into my new, inconsistent lifestyle, but it was only a matter time before the travel bug finally kicked it, and I’m now more eager than ever to see not just the rest of this sprawling city, but to keep moving and behold the wonders that this country, this continent, and indeed this world, has to offer.