Thailand

Blatant Pimping: The Worst Motorcycle in Laos

We usually don’t demean the fair cyber pages of this blog by something as base as promotion, but screw it, I’ll shed my secret identity and let the cat out of the bag: I, Chris Tharp, aka “Mr. Motgol,” got a new book out YOU should stop what you’re doing right now, click on the link below, and buy it. Hey, it can’t be that bad. After all, these guys had some nice things to say about it:

“In The Worst Motorcycle in Laos, Tharp takes us on a wild ride from the neon streets of Tokyo to the dirt tracks of Indochina. The essays are insightful, humorous and unflinching. A great read for the active and armchair traveler alike.”

– Michael Breen, author of The Koreans

“Tharp’s done it again. He’s got a knack for finding himself in, shall we say, interesting places and situations – from fake flowers and monks to persistent touts, these are the stories few can experience for themselves. Make no mistake, Tharp makes life happen on his own terms.”

– Chris Backe, travel blogger from One Weird Globe 

The Worst Motorcycle in Laos is a wild and thoughtful ride through the backwaters of Asia. Tharp writes about his travels with a refreshing, humble honesty, unafraid of exploring the gritty and the grimy, the seedy and the sublime.  Witty, poignant and at times even disturbing, this is a great read for the seasoned journeyer and those who wish to enjoy from comfort of home.”

– Brandon W. Jones, author of All Woman in Springtime

You can get the ebook or paper version at Amazon and other big booksellers. Thanks!

The Asia Fail

*This piece may have appeared on the web once or twice before, but we’re publishing it again here because we likes it, yes we do.

by Mr. Motgol

In the Old World, people went to the New World to start anew. Once America became settled, folks would head “out West” to shake away their demons, with destinations such as California and Alaska luring folks with promises of riches and rebirth. These were places where no one cared about your history or imperfect past. You were given a clean slate, and only as good as your current effort.

These days, such second chances are harder to come by. Technology and computer data bases have made it much more difficult to shake the specter of previous fuckups. I am told that back home, many shitty, wage-slave jobs now require credit checks, for God’s sake. Big Brother has indeed taken over, which leaves only one choice for the Spectacular Failures of the Western World: Asia.

I was a big fat loser in America. I admit it. There’s really no other way to spin the story. I aimed high and fell lower. Mea culpa.

I came to Korea because pretty much no one else would have me. I was bruised and bleeding–the textbook portrait of a failure–but Korea didn’t seem to care. Her permed hair’d visage looked upon me with kind brown eyes and during my darkest hour, picked me up with her calloused, ajumma hands, and embraced me.

Since arriving on her rocky shores those many years back, I’ve flourished, and despite her many, prickly imperfections, I’m happy to call Asia home. I am grateful every day for the second chance afforded me here, and despite a few major hiccups along the way, I try my best not to screw it up.

However… some of my fellow expats have it the other way around. They come to  Asia, and THEN implode. Whether they blow all their cash, burn their bridges, or just piss the wrong people off, I’ve seen more than my share of expats unravel here. With their tail quivering between their legs they grab what they can, stuff it into their bags, and crawl onto that first plane home. The rest of us shake our heads and wonder how can this happen in Asia, where–at least for us pampered, spoon-fed Westerners–things are just so damned easy.  How is it possible to ASS OUT in a land where Westerners are generally given a berth fit for a cruise ship?

This phenomenon has come to be known as The Asia FailHere’s a list of the main types, in no particular order:

1. THE ALCOHOL FAIL 

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East Asia–with Korea stumbling along at the head of the drunken pack– is a boozehound’s paradise. You can get hammered around the clock for pennies on the dollar. Many countries have NO LAST CALL at the bars. You can booze all night, show up to work bleary-eyed and  reeking of drink, and your boss will congratulate you.

If your friend is already an alcoholic and says he’s moving to Asia, don’t let him. There’s simply just too much product on hand. After all, would you let your cokehead buddy go work in the rebel-held jungles of Colombia?

A friend of mine was such an alkie that he couldn’t even hold down a job in Korea, where a huge drinking habit is almost a hiring requirement. It is so ingrained in the culture that companies often make pissup sessions mandatory for employees. He carried around soju in a water bottle and would puke every time he went up stairs. For the greater part of a year he lived in a bar.  Yes, such a thing is possible in Asia.

When things got bad enough we finally passed the hat, contacted his family, bought his ticket and practically pushed him onto the plane. He’s lucky, because I’ve known of a couple other guys who have died from liver failure here. And they were both kindergarten teachers.

Before attempting a move home from here, writer Ross Gardiner summed it perfectly: “I’m the only person in history who is moving back to Scotland to AVOID being an alcoholic.”

2. THE IRATE WOMAN FAIL

“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” is a pretty good maxim to live by. Add Asian to the equation and this “fury” has the potential to morph into a Category 5 Typhoon.

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The warning signs are usually there: Ripped up photos of ex-girlfiends, rivers of threatening text messages, smashed furniture, slaughtered pets…

One friend of mine was smart enough to take his Korean wife–who had serious anger management issues–back to Canada before things got bad here. How do I know? One day I saw him at work, with a seven inch scabby gash on his face.

“What happened?” I asked.

“My wife scratched me,” he replied, as if it was an every day occurrence, like walking the dog or laundry.

“Really?”

“Yeah…. she got drunk and scratched me.”  He continued drinking his coffee and making fantasy football trades on his computer.

“Any particular reason?”

“Nah, not really.”

Another guy I know was deported after his notoriously unbalanced ex-girlfriend ratted him out to immigration for some illegal tutoring he was doing. That’s right, she called the teaching cops him. And sure enough, when he showed up to the lesson, two immigration officials were there, lying in wait. They grabbed him and that was that.  He’s since moved on to greener pastures, but let the lesson be learned.

3. THE DRUG BUST FAIL

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No country in Asia takes either possession of distribution of any substance deemed illegal lightly. Your arguments for decriminalization may hold sway ears in Canada, America, or Europe, but Asians generally have no time for such things.  All drugs are thought bad and that’s that. Get caught and pay the price. Like the strength of currencies in this region, this “price” varies greatly from country to country. Get busted smuggling hash in Japan or Korea and you WILL do time in a spartan prison, but you’ll likely count the years on one hand and you’re unlikely to be brutalized or raped. Do the same in Thailand or the Philippines and you may just spend a decade or two living in your own shit and fending off knife attacks from transvestites in prisons not fit for animals. Try it in Malaysia or Singapore and you may not even spend too long in prison before you find a rope around your neck.

Every year or so there’s a drug bust among the expats in Korea, which I don’t understand. I mean, do you guys really need your weed THAT much? Go home and move to Seattle or Denver and smoke away, though you may have to go back to work at Walmart or the valet parking lot you toiled away at before moving here.

There are so many books written about Thai prisons that they practically have their own aisle the the few remaining books stores left on earth. Warren Fellow’s “The Damage Done” is particularly horrifying.

For a clear and sympathetic account of serving time in a Korea prison for drugs, try “Brother One Cell”. He’s proven that the Asia Fail can go the other way around: It can sometimes actually provide opportunities for you back at home. I’ve often thought of purposely getting arrested for drugs in Asia, and serving my time solely in hopes of landing a big book deal. Expat prison memoirs are hot hot hot.

4. THE HATER FAIL

This one usually manifests itself as the midnight runner (suddenly leaving without notice).  Many would argue that this doesn’t qualify as an Asia Fail because by leaving the country with no notice, you are taking matters into your own hands. Fair enough, but to get to the point where you are willing to grab your shit and ditch out on your job without so much a phone call implies a basic lack of preparation for the bumps and knocks of life in Asia.

But even more fail-ific are the people who move to Asia, hate it with their very skin, yet insist on sticking around, grinding it out, and making it awful for the rest of us. There’s currently one sad sack on Facebook who teaches up ino Seoul and shrieks about it every day. His entire posting catalog is a road map of ESL misery. He moans and whines and talks about how is life here is a “living hell”; he talks of how the school he works at could be destroyed by a bomb with everyone–staff and children include–killed and how he wouldn’t. even.  care. (sic)  In desperation for a online hug, he splays his painful, bleeding vagina for all to see; he longs to return to the loving womb of America, but refuses to take that one clear step to accomplish the goal: Actually leaving.

Isn’t such perpetuation of easily-cured pain a kind of fail in itself?

Things are different here. There are cultural barriers that sometimes suck, yes, and in an effort to maintain social harmony, many bosses do have a–how do you say–elastic relationship with the truth.  And the men spit in elevators and the old ladies elbow you in the subway and just maybe they all do hate us.

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And did I mention how expensive cheese is here? Can you believe it? Oh noes. The horror.

5. THE TRYING TO BE FUNNY BUT ONLY ENRAGING THE LOCALS FAIL

This one occurs when cultural insensitivity meets misinterpretation, and one that I was guilty of in 2006. I was arrested and questioned over my role in Babopalooza, an expat sketch-comedy show I helped write and produce. The show made fun of both Westerners and Koreans and nearly got everyone involved deported. One of the sketched lampooned the Korean Immigration Service, which was an idiotic thing to do, since 1: The ridiculing of authorities is frowned-upon in Confucian Korea, and  2. The people we were skewering were also the people who have all the power over our lives: They interpret and enforce the rules that let us stay in the country. Don’t bite the hand that issues the visa.  We eventually got off with a firm “talking to” by the actual police, but “Wonderful Busan, Beautiful Immigration” continued to make our lives hell for years later, every time any of us switched jobs.

There are other examples aside from Babopalooza, most notably Michael Breen’s Samsung Christmas satire, and the forever-instructive “Fancy a bum?” incident, which whipped up the Korean netizens into such an angry, pitchfork and torch mob, that the offending dude (a Busan resident) was literally run out of the country.

6. THE PARANOIA FAIL

No, this isn’t the west, and some of the governments in Asia are downright nasty. This is especially true for the communist ones, who don’t really bother with such pesky things as free speech, habeus corpus, and a right to a fair trial. They’ve also been known to harass and spy on undesirable foreign elements from time to time.

However, most expats–especially lowly English teachers–are barely on their radar and to think otherwise is to only flatter yourself.  That doesn’t stop some folks from convincing themselves that the Secret Police are out to get ‘em, however. A friend of mine was recently living in a Southeast Asian country and posted a sort of real time Facebook meltdown. He claimed he was being watched and followed every step of the way; he told of having his apartment broken into and his computer hacked and tracked. He ended up bolting the country with no cash and barely getting out, subsequently relying on friends chipping in on PayPal to buy his ticket back home.

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Who knows? Maybe he was being followed. Though, having been a dabbler myself years back, I suspect overindulgence in certain substances played a much greater role in pushing him over the precipice than any spooks or security apparatchiks. And is it any coincidence that that this sort of neurosis usually occurs in countries where such substances are widespread and easily obtained? After all, nothing makes gangs of government agents put cameras in your refrigerator like a three-week yabba binge.

7. THE SHITTY TEACHER FAIL

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Let’s face it: Teaching English in Asia is a piece of piss. Could there be anything easier than just talking to people in your native tongue and getting paid for it? Sure, you need a “four-year degree”, and that does succeed in weeding out some of the mouthbreathers, but knuckleheads still abound. Anyone who thinks that a college education alone somehow equals intelligence hasn’t surveyed the Asian ESL crowd.

But let’s face it: Teaching English isn’t for everyone. To do it well in Asia requires a modicum of charm and basic social skills, or at least the ability to shuck and jive and entertain the troops. And if the troops aren’t entertained, they’ll complain, and your ass will be shown the door.

Some folks just aren’t cut out for this gig, yet bounce around from job to job to job, never quite taking the hint that, somewhere along the way, they’ve made a serious vocational error. But the truth is, if you are over thirty and teaching in Asia, you’ve ALREADY made a serious vocational error.

8. THE TEACHING IN KOREA AND THEN GETTING CAUGHT HAVING SEX WITH CHILDREN IN THAILAND FAIL

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This is the worst one, because not only is it morally reprehensible: It just makes living and working here all the more difficult for the rest of us.

Thanks, Swirly Faced Man.

Five Things I’m Telling Myself to Feel Better about not Going to Thailand this Winter

It’s that time of year again, when expats in Korea either head to Thailand to lounge in hammocks and drink rum, or stay behind to freeze our asses off and read the facebook updates of the assholes our friends who did go. I love Thailand, but this winter I’m not going, so it’s more important to remind myself of all the things that suck about it. In no particular order, these are the 5 things I’m telling myself to feel better about not going to Thailand this winter.

The runs

If you stay in Thailand for any length of time, you’ve got coin-flip odds of getting diarrhea. Thai food is great, and often it’s even prepared under sanitary conditions, but it’s probably very different from WC helpwhatever you’re eating most of the time. Along with anxiety, allergies, and an odd microbe or two, this may cause you to suffer from common traveler’s diarrhea, so-called because you could have avoided it by staying the fuck home.

If you’re unlucky and ingest some E. coli or campylobacter, you get what might be better termed sick person’s diarrhea, which is caused by contaminated food and water in some of the shadier establishments dotting the Thai culinary landscape. In most cases, antibiotics will clear it up, but in the meantime you will crap yourself silly for days or weeks.  The thought that my friends are right now squatting over a toilet for the 10th time today is something I hate to consider – not because my friends might be suffering, but because thinking about people shitting is gross.

The Chinese Hordes

Move over Ugly American and nouveau riche Korean – for a few years now, there’s been a new tourist asshole on the scene. As China’s economy has gained steam in the past decade or so, phalanxes of camera-toting Chinese tourists have descended on places like Phuket, Koh Samui, and Pattaya, and woe to you if you stand between them and their itinerary objectives. Thanks to this phenomenon, I now know what it sounds like when one hundred people smash crabs open with wooden mallets at an otherwise mellow beach resort; I’ve learned that a beach bag, hat, and towel left on a poolside chair does not signal “occupied” in some cultures, and I more fully understand that the capacity for tourist ugliness is universal.

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Chinese swimming pool. No, really.

Part of me sincerely cheers the hardscrabble rise of the Chinese middle class and recognizes it as one of the great economic success stories of the last decade. But it gets hard to maintain that enthusiasm when they swarm like sunscreen-slathered locusts on the beaches of Southeast Asia, turning once-spacious strands into the crushing mass of humanity I went there to get away from in the first place. I’m genuinely happy that tens of millions of Chinese George Jeffersons are finally getting their day in the sun; I would just rather not witness it from a deck chair.

Isn’t there, like, a coup d’etat or something brewing?

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Who you calling a bumpkin, motherfucker?

Politically, Thailand is fucked up. In case your travel agent neglected to mention it, the story in a nutshell is that a coalition of urban elites and middle class (called the People’s Democratic Reform Committee) are trying like hell to oust the current prime minister and to suspend democracy in favor of appointed councils of smart, rich people, because they argue that the elections are too easily bought in the countryside, where the people are ignorant and unsophisticated. This of course doesn’t go over too well in the countryside among the “Red Shirts”, the aforementioned bumpkins who are in the odd position of upholding democracy by electing members of the same oligarch family every few years in exchange for pork-barrel projects and basic social services (which doesn’t sound terribly unlike the normal functioning of many Western democracies to me, but I digress).

During the last election on February 2nd, PDRC members obstructed voting in some places, and the results of this compromised election are still not finalized as of this writing one week later. There are still whispers of a coup, and if the democratically-elected government is overthrown, the Red Shirts have promised to raise holy hell as they did in 2010, when they rioted for several days and burned down buildings before being brutally squelched by the army.

What does this mean for travelers? Not much – for now – though it’s probably wise to avoid large gatherings and flammable buildings, which is to say, Bangkok. And if some major shit goes down in the capital, you may be a witness to history in the form of stray bullets, disrupted air travel, and the mall you are shopping in being burned to a husk.

Half-naked Europeans

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Ja, diese are mein arsche und balls, ja.

I admire the liberal European attitude toward exposed flesh. They’re much more comfortable in their own skins than us puritanical Americans, and they love to let it show. But there’s a price: for every chiseled Adonis or 22—year-old Swedish bird sunning her rack there are twenty porcine German men in Speedos with their junk framed in such detail that you could pick their willies out of a police lineup with embarrassing certainty.

The women are no better. There are lots of breasts in this world that I don’t need to see; and some, like the flaccid, sun-freckled udders flapping on the ample bellies of 70-year-old French schoolmarms, that I would pay money to un-see. The scars run deep.

Mosquitoes and friends

In Thailand, every season is mosquito season, though some places are worse than others. Many otherwise fine evenings outdoors are marred by the little bloodsucking beasts, especially if you’re caught outside without repellent. If you’re really unlucky, you might be one of the tens of thousands of people who get dengue fever in Thailand every year.

And dengue transmission rates are getting worse.   In 2012, 70,000 people contracted dengue fever in Thailand. In 2013, the number was more than double that and was the highest figure for dengue fever in twenty years. The good news is that you probably won’t be one of the scores of victims who will die mosquito2howling in agony as acute dengue causes your gastrointestinal tract to hemorrhage, plasma to leach from your blood vessels, and your vital organs to shut down. I mean, what are the chances?

You can also take some comfort in knowing that it’s relatively difficult to get malaria or Japanese encephalitis, both of which affect thousands of poor saps every year in the Land of Smiles. Those diseases are mostly limited to the border areas near Cambodia and Myanmar, though, considering that much of Thailand lies on a narrow isthmus it shares with Myanmar, that’s effectively a third of the country.

Still, it would be a shame to let that stop you from having a fantastic time in Thailand this winter. The best thing to do is cover up with DEET, sleep under a net, and pray for bedbugs.

Puke

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by Eli Toast

My first poignant memory of the day almost made me puke. I was eating breakfast as I watched a homeless Southeast Asian man limping down the street. He was all matted hair, missing teeth, blackened skin from collected street filth, a humpback bulging beneath his rotten black jacket, scrawny, with an angular face, puckered in the way years of alcohol make some people’s faces look as though they’re slowly imploding; balls of white foam eddying in each corner of his mouth. An insult to death, really.

In his hand he held a lime green drink in a plastic cup. We were in Northern Thailand, where that kind of drink was served at all hours of the day. I noticed him, trying my best to size up the entirety of his destitution, which was nearly complete. Death, I suppose, being the whole shebang. I imagined the life trajectory that brought him to such a nadir; the complexity of his filth. If you let yourself go too far you’ll get to the subject’s undercarriage, the balls and ass and in between. This was not your average cookie-cutter bum. I couldn’t decide if my devoted study of him was a symptom of compassion or callousness (still can’t). Either way, doesn’t matter.

I was sitting there in a café , having just finished breakfast, drinking coffee and watching this guy lope down the street, when he takes a drink of the lime green jungle juice and a second later vomits. A heavy slap of nuclear-fusion-green refuse from the guts of an old vagrant. A hot burp: “blurg”—”fwap;” thin and green with soft chunks of bread or tofu. He seemed unfazed as he carried on, scuffing a soot laden foot through the acrid slurry. THAT’S what got me! Watching him drag his foot through it. He carried on, flexing his lips once or twice over his upper teeth in recognition. It was really gross, so I decided I’d write about it.