February 25, 2014
3 Weeks, 3 Countries
Inside the dazzling concert hall perched between the iconic Petronas twin towers in Kuala Lumpur, the formidable Claus Peter Flor stomped his right foot and waved his baton with authority and the entire world-class Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra – along with my travel partner in the violin section – responded in an exhilarating performance of a Mahler symphony.
The energy from the orchestra elicited a high intensity of excitement, and all throughout the symphony, not once was I able to recline in my seat. At the center of the hall, I chased after melodies that came and went while I sat alert, eager for the next movement, for the next explosion of sound. Nevertheless, I was aware that as soon as the concert was over, I would race to the airport two hours behind schedule and risk missing my return flight to Manila; but I also knew that witnessing Mahler performed in such an exquisite and superior level was the best way to end my three-week journey. It had to be that and nothing less. And I have to say, what a trip, and what a breathtaking finale!
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I considered writing an exhaustive description of the Thailand-Laos-Malaysia trip, but my journal has never been much about chronology and painstaking details but of impressions and thoughts.
Words would have flowed easily about three of Chiang Mai’s several waterfalls, Mae Klang, Mae Ya, and Mae Sa, and I would have written grandly about Doi Inthanon; about camping in a tent at the roof of Thailand where, if not for the unparalleled Thai street food and famous Chang Beer that we brought with us, the autumnal colors of the foliage and the freezing temperature at night would have convinced us that we were nowhere near South-East Asia; about how the leftovers of the aforementioned delectable food attracted a gnarling dog to the tent, but I was too exhausted and lost in sleep to even notice and left the travel buddy, knight in shining armor, to get rid of the leftovers and the dog in the middle of the cold, cold night; about waking up to the fresh and pure scent of pine trees in the morning, and brushing my teeth in ice cold water that left my teeth chattering and turned my lips purple; but most of all, about feeling very much alive and, as one favorite writer would put it, “Joyously feeling the world upon my skin!”
I would have written elaborately about Chiang Mai and how charming it is inside the old walled city; about how festive the lanterns were on the eve of the Lunar New Year; about the Chinese parade that showcased an extravagance of bright colors as it marched past us while we were seated at breakfast by the sidewalk the next day; about how much I adored our little favorite nook in a place called “Stay With Me”; about how safe I felt roaming the streets of its backpacker’s district where song-teow and tuk-tuk drivers were always amiable to pedestrians; about how Buddhist wats that were distinctly Thai came into view in almost every block; about how we regretfully left Chiang Mai just as its famed Flower Festival was about to begin and the city bloomed even more in an abundance of natural colors; but most of all, about how the city will always beckon to me simply because the weather and everything else was golden while we were there.
Traveling via overnight bus that had sleeping cots instead of seats from Bokeo Province in Thailand to Luang Prabang in Laos even deserves a full descriptive page and I would have recounted the whole experience along with how we arrived in Luang Prabang while it was still mantled in fog – even the great Mekong River took cover under the mist while it disguised its mighty role in history in a sleepy but steady current. I would have written about many other particulars such as Luang Prabang’s quaint appearance, its extraordinary allure, and its remarkable early morning hustle and bustle: Stalls offered food and drinks, women in skirts of hand-woven fabric spread out local produce and displayed crafts on the sidewalks, travelers of different nationalities wandered in the streets, and walking specks of orange every now and then turned out to be monks in their turmeric-colored garbs. I would have written about how Lao cuisine was no match to Thai and Malaysian cuisine; but the coconut pancakes, Lao sandwiches paired with dragon fruit shake, and Lao chicken and pork barbecue coupled with Lao Beer will remain amongst my fondest memories of Laos. Nights were even livelier as Sisavangvong Road, the main street and the street where we lived, transformed into a night market and an exotic feast for the eyes. As if we needed further proof that the roads and streets of Laos held surprises, we saw an elephant lumbering on the highway.
I admit that it is rather difficult to refrain from describing the Kuang Xi waterfalls in full detail, even on paper: Its various levels of falls and uniquely formed pools accessible only through different tracks that meander up and down the mountain; how exploring one narrow trail obscured by vines and fallen trees led us to an enchanting area left undiscovered by those who did not care to stray from the beaten path; how the sight before us transported us to a scene that could only come from a fairytale, where sparkling water spilled like jewels on the rocks and sunlight gilded the leaves and branches of surrounding trees. Our very own “infinity falls,” I said. And there we plunged in the cool, jade green waters and became infinitely immersed in the fairytale.
I would have written extensively about trekking through villages and the remote mountains of Northern Laos; about the children! Oh, the dozens of adorable children with innocent and curious eyes! About how enriching it was to mingle with the people from different tribes and observe their simple way of life and how we partook a bit of it by spending a night in one of the villages in a small hut with a grass roof, sans dividing walls inside, and sans lock on the door. I would have caricatured our guide, a young Hmong man who had been learning English for only three months when we met him, and who had been on his guiding job for only a week. I would have written with amusement and slight contempt about how he got drunk and entered our hut with his girlfriend late at night while they produced disturbing sounds until the wee hours of the morning from beneath the mosquito net a few feet away from ours; about how he was in such a good mood the next day when he had the nerve to ask me, “You sleep well?” And also about how he led us to the wrong path and we got lost in the mountains! But we forgave him because, after all, we wanted a trek that was inimitably ours; and after all, it was more exciting to get a misguided tour instead of one of those boring and predictable guided tours; and after all, getting lost in the mountains of Northern Laos made a better story, and I could tell it to my children in the future – minus the night in the hut; and yes, most of all, I had to forgive him, because after inquiring where I was from, he exclaimed, “Ah, you know Manny Pacquiao!” But I also would have written descriptively about how evenings without electricity was extremely beautiful up there. We only had the constellations and the moon as light, and the longer we gazed upward, the more stars materialized, vying for empty gaps in the night sky. Entranced, I whispered, “It’s like celestial…” “Popcorn,” the travel buddy supplied. But really, I couldn’t have said it any better. Moreover, luminosity in those regions was not limited to the night. Sunrise magically transformed the panorama into one of those mystical Chinese landscape paintings where we stood in a surreal dream, on top of the world, clouds beneath us. From afar, we could have been seen disappearing and reappearing into the cloudscape and landscape – that mysterious landscape moonswept by night and sunswept by day.
Then it was time for Malaysia. I would have written more humorously about Malacca; about how I incorrectly imagined the historical place and how commercialized it turned out to be, and how poorly they repainted the Dutch and Portuguese historical structures to look like buildings from an amusement park. Sadly, Hello Kitty also turned out to be a prominent figure there. The only consolation was the superb food. But it was interesting to observe the undeniable Chinese influence. Even the mosques in Malacca looked like pagodas!
As for KL, it initially led me to ask, “Is this ‘truly Asia’?” Not if I stayed in the vicinity of the twin towers, I suppose. But once we found our way into the colorful, noisy, and spicy flurry of Little India, China Town, Jalan Alor food street, and Chow Kit market, that is where I truly got a taste of Asia.
I would have written intricately about Putrajaya, “the garden city of the future” and how it impressed me; and of Shah Alam and the imposing dome and minarets of the Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Blue Mosque; and even of the station manager in Shah Alam who told too many jokes and made us miss our train.
I would have written about how I always dreamed about traveling by myself but thanks to life’s unpredictability and surprises, I found myself traveling with the best travel companion one could ever ask for. I mean, what could be better than traveling with someone who appreciates life and beauty, insists on authentic experiences, puts up with my puns and poor sense of direction, and still respects my silence and solitude whilst by my side? And really, can there be anything more priceless than having someone to annoy and make fun of while enjoying the splendors of the world?
Certainly, I could have been more generous with details, but why bother when all I really want to say is this: I had the time of my life.
It is bittersweet to open your heart and soul and scatter pieces of yourself in places thousands of miles away, but the paradox is that doing so makes you whole. And it is beautiful. Very beautiful.
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And in case you’re wondering, I did not miss my flight even though I was probably the last person to go through the check-in counter at the airport – my excess luggage of experiences, memories, moments, music, paragraphs, sentences, new ideas, inspirations, breaths, and dreams of future adventures in tow. (Thank heavens airline companies cannot charge you extra for such things!)
“There ain’t no journey that don’t change you.”
– David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas