Backpacker Hack: Enjoying a Bangkok gym’s 3-day free trial
At the ungodly hour of 4am the automatic door lock clicked and in stumbled an inebriated Kiwi gentleman slurring sweet nothings to a less than convincing lady boy. Ahhh, dorm life. To head off a rapidly developing and painfully awkward situation I let out a loud but friendly “Good Morning!” Visibly startled, the two spun on a dime and disappeared back out the door without a word. When I woke up the next morning I still had the place to myself. I wondered what had happened to my dorm mate but assumed that Kosan road, a sinful tourist trap bristling with seedy bars, prostitution and ping-pong shows, had claimed yet another victim.
"If I were a betting man, I'd say hammered and pot-committed to his situation, he had succumbed to romance and would take it to the grave."
After a street food lunch and a trip to DHL to ship my Borneo blowgun home, I came back to the room to find that the Kiwi had returned. Sighing and rubbing his temples he regaled me with a harrowing tale of losing his phone before subsequently discovering the true nature of his nocturnal companion. After they tried to come to the dorm room and found me there, they had gone back to her place. He allegedly “bailed” as soon as he realized she was transgender but I was a bit sceptical. They had gone to her place at 4am and it was 2pm now. If I were a betting man I’d say, hammered and “pot-commited” to his situation, he had succumbed to romance and would take it to the grave. Hey, no judgement. It’s 2019. You do you.
Pretending to buy his story, I decided not to pepper him with follow-up questions. He seemed too hung-over to muster much of a defense and tripping him up in his story didn’t seem like a neighborly thing to do. That night he was in bed, unaccompanied, by 10pm. Even rock stars need a night off every now and then.
The Expat Trade-off
The transition from trekking in the jungles of central Borneo to the posh city-state of Hong Kong was about as close to a neck snapping 180 as you can get. Fortunately, Koh Tao and Bangkok helped me acclimatize for what would have otherwise been an even more jarring culture shock after six months in Southeast Asia.
Following a few days in Bangkok I continued onward to visit three expat friends living in Hong Kong, China, and Taiwan. It’s fascinating to see the lives that they have built for themselves in their adopted countries. All three have opted to live abroad because of the unique lifestyle variations made possible by leaving the United States. There are trade-offs that deter most, but for those that can stomach it, there are significant benefits as well.
After landing in Hong Kong and catching the high-speed train into the city, I was met at the station by my old buddy Rob. It had been 12 years since we had seen each other while studying abroad in Germany but, as is usually the case with old friends, it seemed like no time had passed. His mannerisms and appearance hadn’t changed. Even the light southern drawl of the Georgia boy hadn’t left him despite the better part of a decade he’d spent as an expat.
"As parents with two young kids at home, their ability to spontaneously decide to go out for dinner and drinks on a Wednesday was refreshing."
The next few days were spent catching up and exploring the gems that his adopted city had to offer, from tea and juice shops to street noodles and world class dim sum. One night after work, he and his wife Alyssa even took me to the horse track for some light betting, stellar people watching, and adult beverages.
The Hong Kong Horse Track
As parents with two young kids at home, their ability to spontaneously decide to go out for dinner and drinks on a Wednesday was refreshing. With a one and three year old at home, both Rob and his wife are not only able to have careers but also maintain an active social life in the robust Hong Kong expat network. This is thanks to having two, full-time Filipino Nannies. This type of catered childcare is commonplace among expats in Hong Kong and lands some serious points in the “pros” column of the lifestyle cost-benefit analysis.
As of 2019, according to The Economist magazine, Hong Kong is the most expensive city in the world along with Singapore and Paris. In Georgia, Rob and his wife wouldn’t be paid as handsomely as in Hong Kong, where salaries are adjusted to account for high living costs, but they could buy a plot of land and single family home in the suburbs with ease. That said, paying for two full-time nannies would likely be financially untenable if not otherwise impossible due to visa restrictions and bureaucratic red tape.
My week-long Hong Kong stay included a surprise visit from my Singapore-based friend, Emily, and was punctuated by a trip to "The House of Dancing Water." The Macau-based, Cirque du Soleil style spectacle is performed on a hydraulic stage that at times sunk to the bottom of the 20 foot pool. The overarching story of star-crossed lovers included jaw dropping gymnastics, high diving, water dancing, and even dirt bike jumping. Not sure how they managed to jam that last one into the story line but it was definitely entertaining.
Earlier that week I had struck up a conversation with a few of the performers, Monika and Isabella, at a cafe in Hong Kong. The two sisters, professional gymnasts from Poland, had signed a five year contract with the show and were happy to give us a backstage tour. Monika joined us in the audience since she was undergoing rehab after a shoulder injury sustained during practice. It was eye opening to see the backstage logistics of such a large and complex show from the perspective of the performers.
"The sisters are able to do their dream job but live a somewhat isolated existence on a gambling island swarmed with tourists."
As an onlooker, it's easy to observe the death defying feats without considering the potential health consequences of such a career. There are myriad safety mechanisms in place but serious injuries are common and death is not unheard of. The high divers doing 4 flips from heights of 60 feet are spotted by scuba divers in the pool that can whisk them away if they are injured. Isabella’s boyfriend is one of the safety divers and during a scene in which the gymnasts dive into the water, seemingly disappearing into the depths, she can tell if he is the one that gives her a breathing apparatus because he gives her butt a little squeeze.
After the show and our backstage tour we discussed their expat lifestyle in Macau over drinks. The sisters are able to do their dream job but live a somewhat isolated existence on a gambling island swarmed with tourists. It's a bubble. They are very close to each other and have other friends in the show but expressed a longing to live in a place that had more of the social outlets and normalcy of a typical city.
After a bear hug from Rob and a more petite version of the same goodbye from Alyssa, I ruffled their son's soft blonde hair, winked at their one year old, who gazed back pensively, and shouldered my pack. In a refreshingly simple international transit, a high-speed ferry spirited me off to China for the next leg of my journey.
Roomies for life
With a professional mermaid seated to my left and the mayor of the city to my right I raised a glass of cobra bile to a long overdue reunion with my boarding school roommate, Mike, who smiled broadly from across the table. We hadn’t lived together since we were 17 but we fell right back into our old roommate ways. Effortless hospitality from the California native and his Belgian partner Sylvie extended my stay with them in Shunde, China to almost a month. It was a breath of fresh air, not only because I had my own spacious bed and bathroom, but because I could settle into a routine like a real person.
To earn my keep I built a waterfall for his English school and turned his balcony from a makeshift laundromat into a tropical garden. We went to the gym, grocery shopping, cooked dinners, and binged Netflix. It was perfect. Just what the doctor ordered. To celebrate my last night with them, Mike’s buddy, the mayor of Shunde, took us all out for a luxurious snake dinner complete with copious amounts of "baijiu", a grain-based Chinese liquor. It is consumed in small shots poured from a mini booze pitcher. To show humble comradery, it is customary to pour baijiu for those next to you and serve them food from the large shared dishes. When clinking glasses both parties attempt to put their glass below the other's as a sign of respect. In China, drinking to excess is encouraged among friends as well as prospective business partners to expose one's true self. So if you're a shitty drunk you may want to avoid doing business in China.
But wait, what about the mermaid? Well, when I left D.C. six months ago, I gleefully deleted the dating apps off my phone, convinced that as a traveler, romantic connections would be made the old fashioned way, in person. But dating other travelers while you’re on the road is damn near impossible as both parties are moving targets. In all honesty, I hadn't been on a proper date since I started my trip. So since I was going to be in the same place for awhile, I blew the dust off of my old dating profile and met August, a professional mermaid. Yep, it's a job. Apart from a mermaid course she was teaching in Taiwan the following month and a few pool photo shoots, her schedule was wide open. Not only was she delightful company, but having a local to explore with completely transformed my experience. She showed me around Guangzhou's renown food scene, took me to her friend's cinema grand opening, and included me in an underwater photo shoot that racked up 260,000 views on Chinese social media in a single day. Maybe more people will read my blog if I'm a merman. We'll stick a pin in that one for now.
"Although he had been born and raised in California, most of his life had been spent living abroad."
The following week we headed to Yangshuo, an area famous for its unique topography consisting of towering stone mountain "karsts" blanketed with dense vegetation. Despite heavy rainfall, August and I went climbing at "Wine Bottle" crag. The slight overhang kept most of the rock face dry but the first 15-20 feet was a slippery mess. It was her first time climbing so I belayed her tightly, giving a little extra help to ensure she made it to the top. The guide that came out with us belayed me as I lead climbed a long 5.10a route but I let him clip the third bolt first. It was a shot to my pride but free-climbing a wet rock face would be a dumb way to die.
Back in Shunde, I got a chance to talk to Mike about his expat experience. Although he had been born and raised in California, most of his life had been spent living abroad. His late teens had been spent in Hong Kong, where his father worked as an engineer, his college years were spent in London, earning a degree in Asian Studies, and he started his first business in China in his late twenties. When his wine import business became unprofitable due to changes in Chinese law regarding luxury goods he shifted gears and opened an English school. Low start up and operating costs simplify opening a new business and there is a bizarrely powerful social status granted to westerners in China, especially...wait for it, white males. Gasp.
Traditional Chinese Gardens in Shunde, China
White privilege aside, as a fluent Mandarin speaker, Mike is well suited to appeal to Chinese families seeking an upper hand for their children's education. Not only is the school growing but the services it offers have also expanded. In addition to language classes, Mike has helped Chinese students successfully apply to colleges abroad. He and Sylvie will even be collecting a paycheck to escort a rising freshmen to a Swiss university they helped him get into. Wealthy, overprotective Chinese parents have created a market for services that Mike is more than happy to offer. I'd imagine he and Sylvie are looking forward to their "all expenses paid" Swiss vacation.
For many, the low living costs and ease of starting a business in China would be out-weighed by a longing for western culture and social outlets. Unlike Hong Kong, Mike's adopted home in southern China doesn't have much of an expat community to speak of. None the less, he has carved out a life for himself with local friends, a few expats, and his Hong Kong high school sweetheart, Sylvie. The cherry on top is that their sprawling luxury condo costs significantly less per month than a cramped studio apartment in most U.S. cities.
Taroko Gorge, Taiwan
After a short flight and some highly efficient public transportation, I was staring up at a towering high-rise building in the humid, Taiwanese, night air. A college friend and outdoor enthusiast, Kristel, had invited me to join her on a road trip to circumnavigate the island, stopping along the way to check out the national parks. As an English teacher, she has the summer break to go exploring and was happy to have a hiking companion to split the driving with. For me, Taiwan had always evoked visions of a Taipei skyline but in fact wide swaths of the country are covered by breathtaking natural landscapes.
Initially, we had toyed with the idea of doing the trip on mopeds but scrapped that in favor of renting a car instead. We dodged a bullet on that one. Between the traffic, heat, and monsoon rains it is doubtful we would have made it. We settled on a Honda Fit, put down the back seats, and heaped our gear into the back unceremoniously. It worked like a charm.
"The catlike pupil and diamond shaped head revealed that our new roommate was likely venomous."
With hobo-style, stealth camping in mind, we struck out to defy Taiwan's rules in search of adventure. Our first stop was Taroko National Park, where we parked behind some bushes on a service road and hiked up a boulder-filled gorge to set up our tent. As all good hikers do, we packed everything out, leaving no trace of our illegal camp site. A dip in the crystal clear stream the next morning coupled with a strong cup of coffee and oatmeal fortified us for the drive down the coast to Dulan National Forest. We hiked a closed trail to a cliff-top platform overlooking the river valley below just in time for sunset. From my sleeping pad at the edge of the platform, I had a spectacular view of the starry night sky.
After several days at the southernmost point, Kenting National Park, we headed north again passing through Alishan, Yushan, Guanwu, and Dongyangshan National Forests, offering everything from natural hot springs to old growth cedar forests. It was after dark and rainy one evening when we arrived at an overlook gazebo. The two-story, open air structure was a few hundred yards into the woods from a parking lot that was under construction. A perfect lazy man's stealth camp. As we dropped our packs and began setting up the camping stove to prepare dinner the resident Bamboo Pit Viper showed up. The catlike pupil and diamond shaped head revealed that our new roommate was likely venomous. Using a stick, I hoisted him off the platform and into the bamboo branches below. After the google search "Poisonous Snakes of Taiwan" provided a positive identification, I decided I would be sleeping inside the tent that evening.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, life continues apace in my absence. My younger brother, Luke, recently got engaged to the love of his life, Alicia. Fiercely intelligent, selfless, adventurous, and objectively stunning, she's a real catch. I’m so happy that he has found his forever person and have begun mulling over my best man speech as well as destinations for a bachelor party. But all of this excitement has made me a bit introspective.
Having arrived at the ripe old age of 36 without a wife, kids, or debt to shape my path, I am now carefully observing the courses charted by my peers as I belatedly cobble together my own. There is the traditional “American Dream” that many of my close friends have sought out. This life generally includes a partner, a few young kids, and a respectable career. The minivan cruise control is set to 70, it’s a clear day, and the highway stretches out welcomingly. They’re on their way to a picnic with other families at a similar station in life. Then there’s me. I’m in a mud spattered 4wd, bumping along through the woods, stopping in random towns with no idea where I’ll wind up. Flat tires, hitchhikers, and stunning scenery make for an unforgettable experience. I’m absolutely loving the ride but in the back of my mind I think I may want to make it to that picnic. Afterall, a bunch of my good friends, including my brother, are en route. I guess I'll just have to get there my way.
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