Trip midpoint: glass half empty or half full?

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I’ve been away for over 2 weeks now. I feel like I’ve not wanted to write because I’ve spent so much time trying to figure out where to go after Thailand. Wait and figure out later? Perhaps an option if I had more than a 15 day visa and trains and planes weren’t all booked. I guess if I have to crawl to Malaysia I will.
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After Chiang Mai I was excited to get to the islands – Thailand has been a challenge for me. Obviously not everyone speaks English, but this is the first time I really had to interact with so many people I couldn’t understand. Most of the problems are trivial and I’m fine, but it’s incredibly frustrating trying to get somewhere and spending hours to do it unsuccessfully. In Cambodia I felt that although people were pushy, they were honest. The tuk tuk driver in Siem Reap wasn’t trying to rip me off – he was forcefully trying to find work. In Thailand, prices are jacked up because you’re foreign and sometimes it feels like no amount of bartering is going to get you the price that is fair. I try to make up for it in other ways – huge rice meals at the guesthouse for 40 baht (about $1.30), large bottles of water at 7-11 for 13 baht (45ยข) and walking absolutely anywhere possible. I haven’t so much as had a beer in days as I felt like shit in Bangkok and in Chiang Mai I felt like I’d be chasing after some sort of uncertain amount of fun that may or may not actually occur. Hopefully I’ll feel more alive on the islands – for most of these two weeks, I’ve had absolutely no guilt about going to bed before 11.

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Siem Reap: Legends of the Sweaty Temple

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Backpacking Southeast Asia is nothing like backpacking Europe. In Europe you always know where the bus or train station is, but here it seems that I pretty much turn up in any city and have no idea where I am. This was the case for Siem Reap, and after stepping off my bus, before I knew it I was not only in a new city but a tuk tuk driver at the “bus stop” got me to commit to his tour services for the following 36 hours. Being from the New York area it’s usually easy to turn down anything – we are incessantly bombarded with hard sells and it’s something we learn to ignore quickly. Needless to say I really surprised myself when I actually felt bad for the driver after he pulled out a map, started pointing at things and told me it would be $25. I don’t even remember how I finally agreed or what specifically made me unable to say no, but two hours after he originally dropped me off at my hostel he was ready and waiting again – off to Phnom Bakeng he drove me – the perfect hilltop place of all the area temples to watch the sun go down.
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The following day my driver (he was named Robbie) was waiting for me at 8am. The sun was already scorchingly hot, so although I would have preferred to go riding bikes around the temples instead of riding in a cart, it was easy to feel how actually miserable it would have been and I was happy that Robbie (or Rabi or Robi or who knows) had hard sold me the previous day at the “bus stop”. I spent the next 6 hours temple-traipsing throughout Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and the surrounding ruins, marveling both at the incredible architecture and how much I was sweating compared to the locals (sweat? They don’t.)

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Some people claim they spend an entire week exploring the temples, but for me two days was enough. Some of the temples have stairs so steep it’s like climbing huge ladders – it’s really quite exhausting. Bruised and broken, I opted to spend the end of my day in Siem Reap in linen elephant-print pants sipping Cambodian drafts on the sandy hostel rooftop.

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I still don’t know if I’m pronouncing ‘Phnom Penh’ correctly

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Thursday was my only planned full day in Phnom Penh, so thinking I had much to cram in I left the dorms early and grabbed my own tuk tuk to Killing Fields. I hadn’t known anything about it before researching my trip to Cambodia, but I love a good history lesson so it seemed like the right way to go. WTF is Killing Fields? In one sentence: during the 1970’s around 17,000 people were executed here and buried in mass graves. Sounds like a bit of a downer way to spend the day for sure, but the audio tour was probably the only actual informative and touching one I’ve ever listened to. Pieces of bone and clothing still poke from the earth after heavy rains, and shattered skulls bear witness to the fact that many men, women, and children were bludgeoned to death for the sake of saving bullets. A beautiful white stupa serves as the center memorial to those executed here, containing a glass case with thousands of excavated skulls. It’s a sight.
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Not totally knowing what I signed up for, my tuk tuk driver was supposed to take me to “S21”. Upon finding out it was the genocide museum I couldn’t fathom spending an entire day on the matter and instead I asked him to take me to Wat Phmom. Ask and you shall receive, my driver obliged and took me to the city’s highest point. Lonely Planet describes it best: “don’t get too excited, it’s a 27 meter high, tree covered bump” but it does have a stunning temple at the top and wandering gardens. I’ll take beautiful architecture over museums any day.
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An hour here in the heat was enough – I went back to the hostel and bathed in Cambodian drafts. At a dollar a piece it’s hard to not choose these beers over water most times. I spent the rest of the evening doing the ‘hostel mingle’ at the rooftop bar with the strangest playlist where recording artists such as Daft Punk, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Blackstreet found themselves side by side. With a 7am call time for the bus to Siem Reap the next day I didn’t make it a late night, I walked to Top Banana for one nightcap (a water) and then to the 24-7 mart for bus snacks, curling up in my bed snuggling rice cakes all before 1am. 20130602-191728.jpg

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What the tuk?: to Cambodia we go

I vowed to start day two with the thing I adore the most in my life – a steaming hot cup of black coffee. The Little India neighborhood in which I was staying in Singapore didn’t have much in the way of Western breakfast, so although Duncan and I canvassed the immediate area we were stuck with our only viable option: Wendy’s. I paired this winning beverage with some sort of a potato curry roll, booked my flight to Cambodia, and by 11am was on my way to the airport.
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I landed in Phnom Penh around 3 in the afternoon. The directions that the hostel provided only said “jump in a tuk tuk” so despite my original reservations about the local transport I did exactly what they suggested and found myself in a covered cart hooked to the rear of a motor scooter. The ride from the airport took around 25 minutes and I probably cried for most of it – not because I was sad or scared, but because it was one of those moments, the kind that completely overwhelms every brain neuron to the point of “Holy shit, I feel so alive.”
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Traffic in Phnom Penh seems to have no rhyme or reason to it. Stop signs don’t exist and traffic lights are rare. People drive the wrong way down the street. Somehow it works though, as all the drivers seamlessly merge into lanes and appear to communicate through an indecipherable morse code of honking. It feels much like an amusement park ride with all the jerking and yanking – except its not the Cyclone, and its not Coney Island. Like a true pro, my driver delivered me in one piece, but after the previous night of jet lag-interrupted sleep, I only lasted a few hours before dying on my own, falling asleep for the night at a raucous 6:30pm.

Bert abroad, a blog, returns

“Will you be joining us for dinner? Tonight we have chicken or beef.”

I’m at an altitude of plus 35,000 feet with nowhere else to go except for this seat, so yes, I will be “joining” you for dinner, but give me that vegetarian plate you aren’t telling the other passengers about-I know it’s a rad curry that knocks the socks off of any Trader Joe’s microwaveable meal- why Rajbhog Foods isn’t nationally known I’ll continue to ponder for the remainder of this meal.

I’m on my way to Paris for the first time for what is undoubtedly the least planned trip I’ve ever gone on. Despite my lack of preparedness I’m not nervous – I’m rocking this one with my girl Lia (a seasoned travel companion) in tow, and I’m confident that winging this one together will be what we needed for our year’s end: a casual, yet busy, adventure.

I booked this trip entirely last minute using a backlog of airline award miles (I luuuve you MileagePlus) so the only way I could make this trip work given the surplus of holiday travelers, I was scheduled to have a wacky connection in Toronto instead of a direct flight. At first to my horror and later on to my delight, Mama Nature threw me a bone and delayed my initial flight so much that I was able to switch at no cost to a direct flight out of Newark – and they even put me in one of those fancy “extra leg room” aisles and let me board first. For an essentially free flight, I really can’t complain.

As I mentioned, I really have nothing planned so there isn’t much to brief anyone about. I do intend to instagram the fuck out of the Eiffel Tower and maybe a Mona Lisa or two, and well, the rest of the cards are just going to have to fall into place.

Centrali-wha?, Pennsyltucky

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After 6 consecutive months back in New Jersey, I finally made the leap this weekend and got out into some foreign territory: Centralia, motherfucking Pennsylvania.

This brainchild was a bit of an on-the-fly idea. I realized I had a rare entire weekend open and the Magellan in me screamed ‘ADVENTURES!‘ So instead of reaching for my passport I enlisted a solid crew of companions, delicately planned out the snacks I would bring, and picked everyone up at a bright and early 9 o’clock Saturday morning. (Er, it was more something like 9:45, but my crew was hungover, Shen was busy gardening his stoop, and those sandwiches weren’t packing themselves.)

For those who haven’t yet consulted Wikipedia, Centralia is a borough about 3 hours west of NYC that used to be a hotbed for mining. But 1962 somebody messed up REAL big and a coal fire started underground and has been burning ever since – creating danger of sink holes, and forcing residents out of the town by way of eminent domain. The population dwindled from over 1,000 to about 5, creating somewhat of a ghost town that supposedly inspired the movie “Silent Hill.” Road trip? Me thinks so.

So we hit the open highway without much of an agenda at all, leaving our ambitions for this trip to be pretty simple:

1. Get Brian some Wawa
2. I dunno, walk the fuck around?
We’re a pretty lax crew and equally support open minds and Wawa, so without much to expect we set our sights pretty low and just looked forward to a day outside of our urban confines. Mostly I was just psyched that because I have nerdy music friends inevitably one of them brought their iPad and 1,000% DJ’d the trip from the backseat. Yep. Happened.

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The Wawa was an easy find (and ain’t it purdy up thurr in thee mountains) but upon arriving at the red dot on my GPS that was to signify we’d reached Centralia, I wasn’t exactly certain what to do next. I openly admit that I really DID spend more time trying to play the role of momma bird and pack snacks for everyone than researching or plotting out Centralia maps. This was also about the time I started spouting out cheesy life quotes for fear I’ve inconvenienced anyone by not knowing exactly where the “cool shit” is. I mean, it’s not like I’ve ever been to Centralia before. GUYS, LIFE IS A JOURNEY, NOT A DESTINATION. Uh duh.

The first place we parked to get out and walk around is near an old gated cemetery. It’s aged, but remains well-kept, kind of like a K-Mart. This cemetery was rad as hell though, because it has the headstone where the oldest man in the world is going to be buried one day. John A. Bowen: 1858NOT FUCKING EVEN DEAD YET! I wonder what happened to him?

We walked further down the path to find beautiful mountain views, a small memorial site, and mostly random items in various levels of ruin: pieces of tile, torn stuffed animals, busted computer parts, shot gun shells. We weren’t really looking for the Centralia tourist gift shop, but my God, we found it.

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We got back in the car deciding that this was all a cool story bro, but clearly not ‘it’ for Centralia. The old highway is somewhere, we just don’t know where it is. A gray-haired man confirmed “this is where the town used to be” (along with a thumb point to boot) but all we’ve done is walk on rocky trails wearing inadequate footwear which lead us nowhere and seen a few houses that are definitely NOT abandoned. And my honky ass forgot to wear sunscreen. Thank God I packed snacks.

After lunch we were sufficiently covered in dried sweat and had almost exhausted the amount of routes around the area when we noticed a pack of motorcycles (and a crotch rocket) parked in an area we hadn’t traversed yet. What was just around the river bend was the Centralia holy grail: abandoned Route 61. But it’s not just any abandoned highway, it is a long stretch of pavement with the best amateur graffiti I’ve ever seen IN MY LIFE.

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By ‘best’ I do not mean the quality of art of the graffiti was of a high caliber. I mean that anyone who has the sense of humor comparative to that of a 12 year old boy would enjoy walking down this road. Do YOU like dick and fart jokes? If so, RUN, do not walk, to Centralia, PA.

The entire highway is about a mile long and is littered with defacement of all kinds: spray-painted testaments of love (Tim & Christina 4eva <;3<;3<;3) alongside more antagonistic choice words (Matty has a pencil dick) superseded by graffiti of male anatomy of many shapes and sizes (I hope my mother never reads this), and even ill-fated memes (#YOLO y’all!) Even when we thought we found something cute and clean (“Hey, look, it’s Pac-Man!”) a closer investigation revealed that we were wrong. “Hold the phone… Pac-Man is eating dicks!”

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With so many of these stunning graffiti wonders of the world, how can one honestly choose their favorite? I’ll tell you how.

Two words: COCK. HIGHWAY.

Just when you’ve think you’ve seen it all, just when you assume your threshold for dicks has been reached, what unfolds but a stretch of pavement where some ambitious whip just had to out do everyone. This guy was on a mission. His internal dialogue was presumably something like this: “You know, all those people painting dicks? Ha. Haha. I’ll show THEM who’s boss.” COCKtrailia, PA, you have arrived.

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All the previous driving around semi-lost that we did earlier in the day was to no avail though, because after we returned back to the car after walking Cock Highway 69 Route 61, we knew exactly where we were headed. That townie bar back in Ashland? The Drunken Monkey? Oh, we’re going.

Five minutes down the road, we parked and scrambled for change to put into the meter. Shen was the first to come up with a quarter and… oop- oh… one quarter maxes out the meter? Two hours for twenty-five cents! Ashland, you officially have my frugal heart. We stood outside of the front door to the bar and took a breath before walking in. This is going to be so legenda– ….yeah, it was just a bar.

The lady tending the bar was extremely sincere, accommodating, and even had all her teeth. She put music on the jukebox for us, cheerily took the time to run down the draught beer selections (Bud, Miller, and Lager) and pointed us in the direction of all the electrical outlets so we could charge the batteries on our phones that were dying since we’d spent all day instagram’ing photos of Wawa in the middle of the freaking woods. She didn’t just tell us where the outlets were located. This lady was INTO it.

We ordered 4 ‘lagers’ (thanks Alaina for reminding us the locals don’t call it Yuengling) along with two shots of Jameson (some members of the group might have healthy drinking problems. Might.) and the tab came out to $12. What the what? TWELVE dollars? Guys, don’t worry, I got next round.

Having spent a hot day in the sun and with my white-girl sunburn at about a level 5, this lager served in a frosted mug was the most heavenly, euphoric beer experience I may have ever had. I’ve had Yuengling more nights than there are sober kids in Africa, but this beer tasted like it was from God’s lips to… uhm… my own.

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I’m pretty sure the deliriousness on the drive home that followed The Drunken Monkey was mostly conversations peppered with words half-replaced by the word ‘cock’, and even still 3 days later the Centralia group-text is still on fire with cock-centric words. A small dose of history, a large dose of fun.

Centralia, 2012. Thanks for comin’ out.

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I can’t fucking wait to review this place on Yelp.