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Memories, like an elephant

By Brad Walters
Sunday, January 23, 2011; F01

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

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

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

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

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

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

Most frustrating destination: Manila, the city where:

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

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

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

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

l My one night in a hotel was marred by . . . bedbugs.

Best moment of the trip: Gazing out over the ruins of Angkor Wat after climbing to the top of the main temple in the early-morning stillness, something I'd dreamed about doing for years. At that moment, I thought, "Now this is why I travel." That one moment justified the whole trip.

Most naive moment: Following signs for a "traditional Thai massage" in Bangkok and learning that when a Westerner enters, the masseuse often assumes that he wants a happy ending of a different kind. The "don't touch my junk" fellow of TSA fame would not have enjoyed the experience.

Most ironic moment: Hearing "Baby, It's Cold Outside" piped over the loudspeakers on Sentosa Island in Singapore, where it was 90 degrees with what felt like about 90 percent humidity.

Scariest moment: The white-knuckle, 20-mile nighttime drive from the airport to Phuket Town, Thailand, in a monsoon rain, on the left side of the road, with motorcycles passing on both sides and no clear idea where exactly I needed to be. I eventually made it to my hotel without wrecking, but don't ask me how.

Most interesting place I stayed in: The pungent Chungking Mansions high-rise complex in the Kowloon section of Hong Kong, which is known as a melting pot for many of the city's ethnic groups. On the 12th floor of one of the cramped buildings was a "guest house" in which I had a room that was no bigger than a small walk-in closet. It was just wide enough for a bed and a little separate enclosure that housed the toilet and a shower head directly above it. If only we could all live so compactly!

Best food city: Singapore. All the cuisines of Southeast Asia are represented cheaply in "hawker centers," outdoor versions of the American mall food court but with everything freshly prepared. Fish-head curry soup? Piping-hot prawn noodles? Crisp roti with curry? How about sampling all of the above under the same roof while waiting out an extended storm?

Best food revelation: A plate of pork cartilage in Hong Kong. A little tough on the teeth, but surprisingly tasty.

Worst food revelation: I'm pretty sure I was served Rover over an open flame from a street vendor in Manila, without realizing it until after I'd taken my first too-gamy bite. When the cook confirmed my suspicions, I almost threw up on the spot. But was he just pulling my leg? I'll never know. (Despite this early setback, I continued to eat my way from city to city based primarily on how appetizing things looked. This was the only time that approach failed me.)

Unlikeliest American food chain: KFC. Even in cities such as Siem Reap and Hanoi, where the Golden Arches were nowhere to be seen, the Colonel had 'em lined up out the door.

Unlikeliest appearance of a U.S. politician: The auto-voice on Cebu Pacific flights was a dead ringer for Sarah Palin. (It's true, she's everywhere - even announcing safety regulations and duty-free specials on a Philippines airline.)

Scene I'd be least likely to see at home: The family of four in Bali that is crammed onto one motorcycle, with the mother cradling a baby in one arm, and a toddler hanging on for dear life.

Most creative use of my Lonely Planet guidebook: At a train station in Tokyo where signs made it very clear that the (squat) stalls did not provide any toilet paper. Thus, the East Timor portion of my book was flushed down the toilet - literally.

Most Utopian city on the planet: Based on what I've seen, it'd have to be Singapore. Just one example: I spotted almost no "street medians" in the traditional sense; just long strands of verdant trees and lush shrubbery with orderly lanes of traffic on either side. The city was unfailingly clean; the roads all seemed freshly paved; the mass transit was seamless; everything seemed modern. But bubble gum is illegal there, so this wouldn't necessarily be my Utopia.

Least authentically Asian destination: It's a tie between Macau, where the architectural landscape was Vegas-meets-Europe, and Hat Patong beach on Phuket, which was overrun by European tourists and seemingly very few Asians of any kind.

Best airline: AirAsia, which shuttled me to and from most of my destinations for less than $50 a pop. The flights were chronically late by about 20 minutes, but that beat dealing with cancellations or lost itineraries (looking at you here, Cebu Pacific). My Delta flights across the Pacific were comfortable, too, primarily because I'd chosen exit-row seating in which I could basically sprawl out at will.

Best overall transit experience: The overnight Willer Express bus between Kyoto and Tokyo, whose seats reclined 140 degrees and whose windows were covered by floor-to-ceiling Velcro-fastened curtains to keep out all light. (If only the red-eye buses between Washington and New York were so equipped! You listening, BoltBus?) I slept better here than I did in some hotels, making me glad that I hadn't sprung for the two-hour bullet train. Apart from the fact that I almost boarded the wrong bus, thanks to the language barrier, the trip couldn't have been smoother.

Most "Amazing Race"-worthy destination: Hanoi. Simply crossing the road is an act of bravery, as the streets are so clogged with motorbikes that there's never really an opening. You just have to assume that they'll weave around you. (My friend Mary, who was in town at around the same time as I was, saw someone on a bike with an upright Christmas tree on the back. Now that's talent.)

Most unifying Asian fashion statement: The surgical mask, which is worn by a surprising number of people - especially in Japan - to prevent the spread of germs.

Country where you'd be most likely to hear a pin drop: Japan. Folks there were unfailingly quiet, polite and deferential. It amazes me that any business ever gets done. You step on a subway and it's stone-silent, and anyone who is talking is doing so in a whisper. Since I'm not a fan of loud noise, I was very much in my element.

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

And my passport, of course.

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