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It’s a Matter of Life or Death in Torajaland

On 31, Oct 2014 | No Comments | In Activities, Art & Design, Culture, Indonesia, Travel | By kanannie

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Skulls lining the top of a family coffin.

We flew to Makassar for the sole purpose of immersing ourselves in death in Torajaland, where the indigenous ethnic group in the mountains of Sulawesi have a fascinating culture of celebrating their deceased. It’s doable on your own, but we hired a local guide because it’s really hard to learn anything otherwise. And learn we did.

I wish I remembered the name of the village our guide Arru hails from, but I have a crappy memory. Anyway, it’s a good representation of traditional Torajan homes. We walked through the short row of houses as Arru explained that homes always face north and rice barns face south. Buffalo horns are stacked high up the center of the front of these homes to signify how many buffalo were sacrificed during the funerals of their family members, which in turn shows off the wealth of these families. There are reasons for the placement of almost everything within these villages.

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Village houses.

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Detailed carvings and paintings on a rice barn.

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Stacks of buffalo horns.

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The rice barns are stilted to keep mice out.

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Jawbones adorning the side of a home.

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Buffalo, goats and roosters are common motifs for Torajan homes and rice barns.

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The mossy roof.

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The front of a Torajan home.

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Makassar’s Fish Market

On 24, Oct 2014 | No Comments | In Activities, Culture, Indonesia, Travel | By kanannie

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Most tourists don’t visit or stay long in Makassar and that’s what makes it interesting to us. We hired a rickshaw to visit a fish market and “traditional harbor” in Makassar and got dropped off by the harbor. We slowly picked our way around puddles and trucks and came upon a tiled area covered in blue tarp with a god-awful stench emanating from it.

There were boys and men everywhere, and as soon as we started walking around, the attention was on us. It was a reminder that once again, we are in an area in this country that sees few tourists, which means we are a fun spectacle for the locals. Hawkers beckoned us over to take photos of them and their fish, and guys jostled each other as they approached us in turns and asked us where we were from before turning around to their buddies and letting them know very loudly where we hailed from.

We felt perfectly safe but we don’t like to be the center of attention for too long in unfamiliar places (just in case), so we didn’t stay long. It was still an unexpectedly cool experience. The harbor wasn’t as interesting but we got to see some pretty big old school wooden boats being loaded and unloaded.

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The Transit City of Makassar (But It Won’t Be For Long)

On 23, Oct 2014 | No Comments | In Activities, Culture, Indonesia, Travel | By kanannie

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The port city of Makassar.

Makassar is the biggest city in Sulawesi,  situated on the southwest coast of the octopus-shaped island. Biggest is relative though, because while it might be a big port city, there really isn’t much going on. We flew in to recharge before taking on Tana Toraja and Bunaken.

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A local restaurant.

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A whole block of coconut vendors.

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If you ever find yourself in Makassar, do not waste your time with Fort Rotterdam.

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Dried fish stall.

While there isn’t much happening yet in Makassar, there is a growing number of enterprising young people who are making Makassar their own, opening the kind of places where they can hang out with their friends.

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A kid sitting on the back of a moving truck piled with gas tanks. No, doesn’t seem dangerous at all.

We got to know the son of the owner of the Hotel Agung, a clean, new and budget-friendly hotel near Fort Rotterdam. A graphic designer, Christian designed the interior and exterior of the hotel, which has a simple, modern look. We ended up using this hotel as our base and recovery place (after we got stomach troubles), staying there for a total of ten days.

The colorful Hotel Agung.

The colorful Hotel Agung.

Christian took us to a nearby cafe opened two years ago by a young local who loves coffee. It was the sort of place you might see in a hipster neighborhood in Brooklyn. For a little over a dollar, we had a tasty cappuccino and an Americano, with delicious homemade peanut cookies to nibble on (two for 3000 rupiah, or about 25 cents). It was busy when we got there in the late afternoon, and groups of young people sat chatting and smoking.

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Local coffee joint.

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Creative Coffee at Seniman Coffee Studio

On 04, Oct 2014 | No Comments | In Art & Design, Culture, Food, Indonesia, Travel | By kanannie

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Papua Cold Drip

I’m not a huge coffee fanatic like what seems like the majority of the world nowadays, but I do know how to enjoy a good cup and N certainly loves the stuff. So it was a bit of a surprise to me when I became hooked on the stuff at Seniman Coffee Studio, one of our best finds in Ubud. What we expected to be a one-time visit turned into two, three, four, then five because once we had this coffee, we really couldn’t have it anywhere else. It was mindblowing, even for someone like me who doesn’t know shit about coffee. A bonus was meeting one of the owners, Rodney Glick, a contemporary artist and coffee enthusiast who taught us about Ubud, coffee, and the art world.

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The menu.

We stopped into this place after we met the owner of another cute coffee shop in Denpasar who recommended Seniman and also recommended the coffee I ended up falling in love with: the Papua cold-drip on ice (five cups made per day). I didn’t know that coffee could have such complex flavors, or that it could taste completely different when made the same way by two different people. The young Indonesian boys and girls working there take their coffee very very seriously, and watching them diligently learning from Rodney and making a cup sort of reminds me of the kind of concentration and meticulousness seen during a Japanese tea ceremony.

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Measuring out ground coffee.

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Ubud: A Slice of Heaven in Indonesia

On 29, Sep 2014 | No Comments | In Activities, Art & Design, Culture, Food, Indonesia, Travel | By kanannie

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The beautiful architecture and flora of Ubud.

We landed in Bali and immediately went about getting our visa extensions, which ended up taking longer than expected. We didn’t care at all because Ubud ended up being the perfect place to laze about and recharge and we did just that for two weeks. This town made popular by “Eat, Pray, Love” with sinewy yogis and young women trying to “find themselves” was also chock full of good, healthy, organic(-inspired) food and a great vibe for creative inspiration.

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BACON!!! Bali is the one of the only places in Indonesia where we can get a lot of pork, and we took full advantage of that.

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The mindset of the area.

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The entrance to a local home.

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Succulents and plants taking over the town.

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A robot made by a local artist out of discarded items.

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Street art.

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The detailed wooden and stone carvings of the architecture.

Every morning we woke up to a beautiful sunny day and ate a leisurely breakfast on our balcony in our pajamas. We eventually left our room to get lunch, explore and walk around the town. Maybe we should’ve been less lazy and done stuff like see the traditional dances or gone on tours of the coffee plantations and temples in the area, but we seriously needed some down time. It’s strange because while we never felt like we really needed to take breaks during the Europe leg of our adventure, Southeast Asia’s been a little more mentally taxing for some reason. We love it here in Indonesia but sometimes we need a “taste of home”. Ubud was perfect because it gave us just that and then some.

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Catching up with the outside world in our guest house.

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Bucu Guesthouse, which was one of two places we called home.

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The balcony.

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Our daily morning fruit platter.

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Walled homes and guest houses surrounding our lodging.

The afternoons were hot. We walked around the quiet town peeking into cute shops selling organic soaps and clothing, and stopped into cafés and restaurants when we were hungry. During the day, van loads of pale Chinese tourists descended on Ubud from the busier parts of the island like Kuta and Seminyak, fanning themselves under the identical cheap straw hats they probably bought for too much somewhere.

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Chinese tourists in straw hats.

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Yogyakarta: The CliffsNotes of Indonesia

On 18, Sep 2014 | No Comments | In Activities, Art & Design, Culture, Indonesia, Travel | By kanannie

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Street art by our guest house.

We have a dear friend back in New York who is a master in the art of persuasion. Besides being stylin’ and easy on the eyes, she’s an expert salesperson. Roz is N’s nightmare when it comes to shopping, because she can easily convince me that I really need those $400 shoes. But she is also a professional negotiator and knows how to get a good deal. Over the years, I’ve watched her work on some of the toughest people, including Turkish salespeople in the Instanbul tourist markets. They literally have fun with the sport of bargaining, and they’re a tough bunch.

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These guys will take you for a ride and spit you out of the other end with an empty wallet.

Roz recommended Yogyakarta to us, and I don’t want to age her but she went about a billion years ago when it was still an emerging tourist destination and Indonesia in general really wasn’t on anyone’s tourist map besides, of course, Big Bad Bali. She sold it to us without much effort because we had heard from other travelers that it was Indonesia’s creative capital. Plus, it was also the most convenient base from which to visit Big Bad Borobudur. Yogyakarta is the CliffsNotes of Indonesian (Javanese) art and culture. It’s a good place for people who don’t have months to immerse themselves in Indonesia but want a taste of what the country’s culture is all about. It had changed a lot since the last century when our friend visited and it ended up not being one of our favorite places, but there was plenty to keep us entertained.

Yogyakarta was our first real big city in Indonesia, and our first stop on the island of Java. Like other cities we’ve been to in this country, it is dirty, congested and polluted. So chokingly polluted from vehicles spewing dark exhaust that riding a becak (rickshaw) in traffic is suffocating. It is the bustling home of traditional batik artists and shadow puppetmakers. It also happens to be overrun with touts and scam artists preying on tourists to get on overpriced becak “tours” around the city’s sights and buy fake batik textiles and other random junk they probably get manufactured for cheap in China.

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I wish I had one of these gas masks as I walked around Yogya.

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Don’t take a becak ride through the main streets.

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A pyramid-shaped bench.

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Stalls opening up for the local dinner crowd.

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The tacky offerings on Marlioboro Street.

Our first full day in Yogya, we ran into a Spanish-German couple who was on the same plane as us from Medan. The German girl was friendly as expected, and the Spanish guy was probably the second quietest Spanish guy we’ve ever met. We’re starting to suspect that Catelonians are really quiet compared to the extremely vocal groups of Spanish tourists we encounter, who sound like they learned how to whisper in a sawmill and are in some kind of competition to outtalk each other at the same time. We eventually found ourselves at the Water Castle, and a not-so-random local approached us. This man became our impromptu guide for the Water Castle, taking us down the narrow alleyways crammed with little houses and art studios.

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On our way to the Water Castle.

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Walls leading into the Water Castle.

As was his intention from the beginning, he casually stopped in front of a batik workshop where two artists worked on a beautiful sarong. He explained the process and the different artistic styles used in batik textiles nowadays. It was hard not to be impressed. I won’t go into the process here because it’s lengthy, but these guys were legit. They knew what they were doing, and we watched as one of them expertly applied dye to the waxed cotton.

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Pre-dyed cotton fabric with beeswax applied to it.

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A batik sarong in progress.

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Dye being applied. The colors show up transparent at first, and bloom into color with exposure to the sun.

Our “guide” spent the next few hours educating us on Sumur Gumuling, an underground rest area and mosque used by the sultan and his ladies, and then onto the Water Castle (Tamansari), gesturing for us to follow him from one place to another. By this time we were already wondering how much we should tip him at the end.

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Inner Tubing in Sumatra

On 07, Sep 2014 | No Comments | In Activities, Culture, Indonesia, Travel | By kanannie

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Riding on the current.

On a day we had originally designated to being a lazy one, a solo Dutch traveler we met at our guest house convinced us to go inner tubing with her. We didn’t have anything better to do so we changed into our swimsuits and met up with Marijn in the restaurant lounge area, where the young local guys lazed about in the downtime when the tourists were all out hiking the jungles.

When Putra — one of the intrepid jungle guides — came into the lounge with a guitar cradled in his arms, Marijn asked him to come along. He shrugged and agreed, put down his guitar and led us across the river to a small restaurant/inner tube rental shop where we rented two large inner tubes. There were no helmets or life jackets offered or even for rent, nor were there waivers to sign. But that was expected. We carried the inner tubes to the river below, and after we clumsily clambered on and situated ourselves inside, we pushed off.

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Carrying our tubes down to to the river.

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Here we go!

We immediately got wedged on some rocks in the river while Marijn and Putra drifted ahead of us. Putra noticed, jumped out of his inner tube and came to our rescue to pull us off and back onto the current. This was the first of many times he had to save us from something; there would be spiders, brambles hanging in the water, heavy machinery and more rocks coming up. We didn’t have any string to tie the inner tubes together so we wouldn’t go drifting off again, so Putra held us together with his arms, all 90lbs of him. This was a guy who wrestled Mina — an aggressive female orangutan feared by all jungle guides for attacking humans — off of a tourist, and bears the scars from her bite marks on his arms.

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Drifting down the edge of Bukit Lawang.

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The tubes are large enough to fit two people snugly.

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Putra hanging onto our tube so we wouldn’t get separated again.

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The mountains in the distance, where the orangutan roam.

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Someone’s getting tired from having to babysit.

It was a sunny afternoon, and the cool water felt amazing on our hot skin. We bounced along the shallow and light rapids and twirled around in the calmer waters, and got to a gravelly sandbar where we got out to take a rest. Well, more like to let poor Putra rest since he was doing all of the work. We sat on the tubes and talked with Marijn about her five-week travel plans in Indonesia while Putra smoked nearby, most likely regretting having agreed to come along with these useless tourists.

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Contemplating life without annoying tourists.

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In Search of Orangutans in Sumatra

On 06, Sep 2014 | No Comments | In Activities, Culture, Indonesia, Travel | By kanannie

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An orangutan and her baby.

We’re not jungle people, but we hadn’t done much naturing lately so we decided to immerse ourselves in it by going to the jungles of Sumatra in search of orangutans and other wild animals. As mentally prepared for malarial mosquitoes and lunging leeches as we could be, N and I decided to visit Gunung Leuser National Park in northern Sumatra.

We arrived in Medan and spent a few days hanging out in a mall there, recovering from stomach issues we got on our way out of Penang. Medan proved to be a pretty crappy city (to put it nicely), with nothing interesting to see or do. The traffic and pollution are horrible there, making it nearly impossible to go anywhere anyway. So we spent too much time at Centre Point, a new mall near our hotel, and ate at the mediocre restaurants and wandered around it. To say the least, it wasn’t a good first impression of Indonesia.

Because we heard horror stories about minibuses in Indonesia (and driving in general), we took a private car to Bukit Lawang for $45 instead of the minibus fare of about $6 per person. A bit of a splurge, but we’re fancy like that, and we had promised ourselves to spend a little bit more on safer modes of transportations while in Indonesia.

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This is how we got to Bukit Lawang.

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This was an alternative.

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Palm oil plantations, mostly owned by Malaysian companies.

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Driving through the plantations in our swaggerwagon.

We passed Malaysian palm oil plantations and arrived three and a half hours later in a small town split in half by a river. This would be our home for the next five days, complete with a cold shower and no AC.

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Our cold shower out in the wild. Just kidding.

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Our first orangutan sighting!

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Crossing the river to get to our guest house.

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Guest houses and restaurants along the shore.

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Random Encounters in Artsy Penang

On 18, Aug 2014 | No Comments | In Activities, Art & Design, Culture, LGBT, Malaysia, Travel | By kanannie

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Hanging out in Penang.

I love it when we get to a place and find so much more than we expected. In this case, we came to Penang for only food based on a recommendation by my college friend Jia-yi, and arrived in an unexpectedly cute little city chock full of fantastic food, beautiful old buildings, interactive street art and friendly people. An added plus was that the Georgetown Festival — the annual arts and culture event — was going on when we arrived.

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Penang is a unique and photogenic city.

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Some of the Art Deco buildings.

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The Old Heritage area of Penang, with waiting rickshaw drivers.

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A cute little shop with art, books and locally-made products.

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A gallery space upstairs showcased art books curated by artists.

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A shuttered storefront.

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A lantern outside of the Campbell House.

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A painter on Armenian Street.

In 2012, a Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic was commissioned to paint interactive wall murals in the Old Heritage district of Penang. Tourists flock to these murals — along with others painted by other artists — and wait patiently to pose creatively in front of the street art. We made our way around from one mural to another while consulting a wall mural map we found online, and eventually found ourselves at the Clan Jetty.

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A huge wall mural by Ernest Zacharevic.

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Country-Hopping in Shaky Southeast Asia

On 01, Aug 2014 | No Comments | In Culture, Malaysia, Thailand, Travel, Vietnam | By kanannie

My parents have been worrying sick over my well-being for the past few months. While they were mostly fine with us traveling through Europe (except for a brief conversation I had with my father about Russia), they were secretly alarmed when we told them Southeast Asia was next. In true Japanese fashion, they tried to hide their concerns from me.

Demonstrators being sprayed with water cannons. (Cheng Ko/Reuters)

The Taiwanese student demonstrations were on the news every night and they silently beared it until we were a few days away from leaving. My mother asked why we felt the need to go to Taiwan, right now, in the midst of these demonstrations. They got annoyed with me when I responded that I wasn’t planning on participating in the protests.

Student protesters occupying the Taiwanese Legislature. (Ashley Pon/Getty Images)

Protesters during a peaceful demonstration against the trade pact. (Mandy Cheng/AFP/Getty Images)

A protester holding up a sign. (Mandy Cheng/AFP/Getty Images)

A protester scuffles with police. (Sam Yeh/AFP/Getty Images)

A press conference in the Taiwan Legislature. (Wally Santana/AP)

Two weeks into my gastric issues in Vietnam, China started stirring shit in the South China Sea and bullying Vietnamese boats in Vietnamese waters. My parents were terrified. When I told them that we were watching the developments and we would be careful, they responded with a barrage of angry questions. “Why haven’t you left already? Why do you want to stay in Vietnam so much? Do you understand that Japanese factories were torched? Do you even watch the news? Why aren’t you leaving when the Chinese are escaping through the closest border available?!” I imagined a horde of middle-aged Chinese women with curly perms, colorfully patterned clothes and Louis Vuitton bags on their arms screaming and running along a dusty road towards the Cambodian border while deeply-tanned tuk-tuk drivers waited on the other side to whisk them away to Nowheresville, Cambodia.

Chinese nationals cross the border into Cambodia during the height of the riots. (Reuters)

Chinese nationals arriving in China after leaving Vietnam. (ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images)

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