Not Lost in Cambodia

For those of you who haven’t heard the word, we’re not lost in Cambodia. Actually, we’re lost in California and slowly making our way back to Idaho for the summer. Even though we’re no longer in SE Asia, we’ll be adding more SE Asia omelet reviews and short films to earthwormenvy.com, then turning our attention to Pacific Northwest omelets and adventures. SE Asia omelet reviews will be available in book or zine form mid-summer.

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Not lost in Cambodia
Boiseans work, document six-month trip to Southeast Asia

By Jeanne Huff – Idaho Statesman
Edition Date: 04/15/07

A little more than six months ago, Boiseans Brandon Follett, 31, and Amy Johnson, 30, set out on a journey to Southeast Asia. They chose a destination they didn’t know much about. Neither knew the language well, although Johnson studied some guidebooks for often-used phrases and numbers so they could keep track of how much things cost.

Before their trip, the two had produced and sold videos to Current TV and had published poems, articles and reviews for a variety of publications. While on the road, they continued selling videos and publishing articles. They also worked their way through southeast Asia as volunteer farmers, English teachers and construction laborers.

Follett and Johnson are spending their last weeks abroad in an ocean-side bungalow in Ko Chang. They’re due to return to Boise on May 7.

I recently chatted with Follett and Johnson via Skype (a cool way to phone overseas on a dime) and then followed up with these questions via e-mail. What follows is an edited version of our phone and e-mail conversations.

What made you decide to go to Thailand? Why for so long?

Amy: Brandon wanted to go to Thailand to explore a culture that wasn’t as Western-influenced.

Brandon: And Amy can be talked into going pretty much anywhere. (Laughs.)

Amy: The first month everything is new and fun. After three months, the place starts to feel like home.

Things that caught our attention when we first arrived start to feel like everyday. The fish eyeballs on the table no longer freak me out. I no longer wonder why everyone’s wearing yellow shirts on Mondays, and we actually have two yellow shirts each to wear in honor of the king.

In the restrooms, I no longer bother looking for soap or toilet paper, and riding on the back of a motorcycle feels safe and comfortable.

How have you kept yourselves going there? How do you make ends meet, stay alive? Where do you stay?

B&A (e-mail): We volunteer to stay alive. It’s a way to meet people and keep ourselves entertained, to give some sort of meaning to our travels, and it’s also a way to support ourselves since we’re traveling on very little savings.

We found some volunteer farm gigs though World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms and a volunteer English teaching job through helpx.net.

We get around by public transportation. Mostly buses and one overnight train ride. Thailand has a good bus and train system. During our one month volunteer teaching (job), the director of the school let us use his motorcycle.

Brandon: We rented a motorcycle for a few days in Cambodia.

Amy: We usually stay at the cheapest guest house we can find that still fits our minimum standards of cleanliness. We made a short film about our first guest house experience — “Guy Guesthouse, Trat, Thailand,” it’s on our Web site.

Brandon: I find volunteering more rewarding than sitting in a swimming pool looking at the ocean from a hotel.

Tell us a little about your filmmaking in Thailand, your blogging, your omelet reviews.

Amy: We started our filmmaking and omelet reviews last summer while still living in Boise in preparation for documenting our world travels, which began in June 2006 when we left Boise to live in Moscow, Idaho, for five months. We started writing omelet reviews as something fun to do on Sunday mornings while exploring rural Idaho, and it’s turning into a genre of its own. All of our omelet reviews are on our Web site. We posted our first guest omelet review last week, and we know of a few other travelers currently writing omelet reviews to add to our collection.

An Omelet in Phnom Penh” has been published by Gumption magazine and Tales of Asia Web site. “Kraft-inspired Omelet” was published in Gumption magazine.

B&A (e-mail): In Thailand, everything is new to us here, so there are lots of interesting things to film, like cockfighting and a barber shop named after JFK. People back home seem more interested in films about eating bugs in Thailand than picking huckleberries in Idaho.

However, The Discovery Channel is interested in both the bug film and the huckleberry film for the “Show us Your World” series. We’re waiting to hear final word from them on when our short films will be aired.

Our blogs are mainly our omelet reviews and short films. Some poems and other travel stories are also mixed in. We don’t update on a daily basis, but we’re continually writing and editing, so we add new posts when we have something that’s quality.

Our “Honda Dream” travel story about renting a motorcycle in Cambodia (was) published on GoNomad Web site in March.

Haggard and Halloo published the poems “I’m still Poor, Eating like a Yuppie who shops at the Boise Co-op,” and “Cockfight.”

What do you like the most about Thailand?

B&A (e-mail): Combined businesses/residences — a restaurant/small store/laundry/etc. in front and the family living area in back or upstairs. We’ve seen many examples of this all over the country.

We like the direction some of the farmers are going with sustainable agriculture.

We like the respect that people show to their elders and how families take care of each other. “Mai pen rai” attitude, which translates to something between never mind and no worries. It’s about not getting upset about anything, rather an acceptance of whatever comes along, knowing that it, too, will soon pass.

What is hardest about living there?

Amy: The visa/immigration regulations.

Brandon: Remembering not to use the local water.

Amy: Remembering not to point the bottoms of my feet at people because I’m used to sitting with my feet out in front of me, but in Buddhism the feet are considered the lowest and dirtiest part of the body and shouldn’t be pointed at other people. The head is the highest and you shouldn’t touch people on the head.

Buying deodorant. All of it is advertised as “whitening.” Thai people spend a lot of money on whitening products. We find it ironic because we know people back home who spend a lot of time and money on skin-darkening products.

What do you do for fun there?

B&A (e-mail): We play rummy. We’ve been playing for the past few years. Current score: Amy 45,930, Brandon 44,090. We talk to other travelers. Make films and write omelet reviews. Play music. Read books.

Is it hard communicating when you basically don’t know the language?

Amy: Sometimes. Only if we’re in a hurry. If we have a lot of time and patience, then it’s easy. Example: when we ended up at the police station because the name of the police station was the same name as the road our hotel was on.

We’ve learned to write things down in the Thai language to try to make ourselves understood. We carry around the Thai word for vegetable fried rice, and that usually serves us well. I know the numbers and enough Thai to try to negotiate lower fares for tuk-tuk (taxi) rides and things that we buy at the markets.

That’s another fun part about Thailand travel — in many places, the prices are not set, and it’s part of the culture to discuss between buyer and seller to establish a price.

What is the most interesting food experience you’ve had?

Amy: Many places have English menus. I once tried to order from the menu by pointing to a picture that looked good. I only tried that once because it didn’t work very well for me.

Brandon: Most interesting food experience: Disco dancing shrimp that crawl off your plate toward the water. This is the most interesting eating experience because usually I have someone else kill the creatures that I eat.

There’s nothing more psychologically interesting than letting the little shrimp get within an inch of freedom then snatch it up and kill it with a swift chomp by the molars. I do not swallow the shrimp whole because that seems a little inhumane to let them be slowly digested alive.

I eat fried insects whenever I get the chance. We made a film about eating bugs called “An Afternoon Snack” that the Discovery Channel is interested in and almost made Amy’s aunt hurl.

Amy: I am not as adventuresome when it comes to eating insects. I was able to eat some fried ants when I wrapped them up in a leaf and made the effort to not think about what I was eating, then they were actually quite flavorful.

The disco shrimps were a bit more challenging. They jump off the plate and wiggle around on the mat (we’re sitting cross-legged on bamboo mats to eat), and they jump off the spoon if you’re not quick. I was able to eat two small ones to satisfy my dinner mates, but I couldn’t bring myself to touch the chicken foot that Brandon put on my plate when I wasn’t looking.

Any advice for others who might want to travel to an exotic land, spend very little money and not know the language or much about where they’re going?

Amy: Don’t do it. (Laughs.) Know yourself well and do what fulfills you, not necessarily what’s listed in the Lonely Planet as the top 10. Make your own top 10. Do your best to learn the language, even if it’s difficult. At the very least, know how to say hello and thank you, and knowing the numbers is very helpful, too.

English is becoming a world language, but don’t expect everyone to speak English.

Above all, travel with respect for the people and the environment of the place you are visiting. Try to see beyond your own culture. You’ll see many different practices and customs, recognize them as different from what you know but not necessarily better or worse. Withhold judgment and take the opportunity to learn about other ways of being. Call home and e-mail travel updates and reports.

Brandon: Don’t go as a tourist.

To offer story ideas or comments, contact Jeanne Huff at jhuff@idahostatesman.com or 377-6483.

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