Some Thoughts on My LAST DAY

I left Singapore for KL on the 19th of May, and today my flight out of Phnom Penh will mark the end of all 6 weeks of my Travel Fellowship!

More on that soon, but firstly, since I haven’t done a proper blog post about Hanoi, here is the link to my audio from the week I spent there:

The past 2-3 weeks in particular have given me a lot to compare and contrast. Moving from the rather quiet and less-populated Vientiane straight into the crowded Old Quarter district in Hanoi (especially given my less than optimal physical condition at the time) was overwhelming and jarring. Then, as I spent more time in Hanoi I grew used to the structure of sound and space there. In the 10-minute walk to find some good iced coffee I’d emerge covered in grime: sweat from the heat, added sweat from the stress of avoiding being hit by a motorbike, mud from the lack of walkable sidewalks, and the occasional aircon vent water droplet. The sounds of all the cars, motorbikes, and food vendors sharing the same small space is contrasted by the residential alleys, which are starkly quieter, and for me created a false sense of distance. As I moved on to Phnom Penh, I found that its layout lies somewhere between Hanoi and Vientiane in terms of sound. The sidewalks are semi-walkable and the roads are wider than Hanoi’s, but there is still more of a sense of traffic than in Vientiane. The average street is quiet enough to walk down in the day or even on a weekend night, but the crowded sounds of markets or nightlife can still be sought out in a few places in the city.

In looking to compare the alternative music scenes among these 5 cities, I’ve found that each place is quite distinct, both in how much and what kind of live music is available. For example, the proportion of how much of the audience or artist pool is expat versus local varies a lot: In KL there seemed to be very few expats on the alternative scene, in Phnom Penh there is a majority-expat audience, and in Hanoi there seemed to be a push for more local involvement in the scene (although many Vietnamese bands end up moving to HCMC). There are also places where ‘big’ or ‘successful’ musicians make sure to stop through (eg. Bangkok and Singapore), and places which they do not (eg. Vientiane and Phnom Penh). This affects smaller venues, I feel, by changing the average level of ‘professionalism’ for music scenes. For this reason, although I was the most impressed by the alternative artists I heard playing in Bangkok and Hanoi, I myself had the most fun as a musician in Vientiane and Phnom Penh. In the past week, I have found that Phnom Penh boasts multiple small shows or open mic/jam sessions every day of the week, which seems much higher per-capita than other cities I have spent time in. For the last night of my Travel Fellowship, I decided to go to one last small concert at a bar (okay not my last last, but symbolically the last of this trip), alone as always. I was surprised to find that on my way to the venue and at the show I ran into several musicians I had met just this week. I think, in part, since I have been moving every week or so this summer, I have started to feel the lack of any type of community around me, and so seeing that I had entered one even just a slight bit during my time in Cambodia was a really nice realisation for my last night.

In the past couple of days, as I’ve published my song from Hanoi and finished writing my song here in Phnom Penh, I’ve been trying to grapple with my denial that this Travel Fellowship is ending, and to synthesise some things I’ve learned. Since this was a very personal trip for me, although I feel I have learned a lot about this region and these cities in particular, I’ve decided just to write about the things which feel most personal: playing music and doing things alone.

I started teaching myself guitar a year and a half ago, and almost a year ago got my first guitar (or more accurately, took it from my uncle’s attic in California). Since the whole thing is relatively new to me, I often feel very intimidated in professional music settings, but this summer has encouraged me to not compare myself to others as much. I have improved my guitar skills along the way, but the focus has been more experimental, and I have never felt pressured to improve. Probably more importantly, I have also improved my performing skills. I’ve learned that performers are always better when they’re having fun and enjoying the music themselves. Although I have never really planned on pursuing music as a career, the feeling of this is applicable to many other aspects of life for me.

The other impactful self-improvement mission this Travel Fellowship has given me is learning how to be alone. Although I’ve met up with some friends here and there, and of course have made friends in hostels, I haven’t been traveling with anyone for the full 6 weeks, and I definitely felt the impact of that length of time. I think the elements of loneliness, which I felt most strongly actually just during the first two weeks or so, are often compounded by spending time in large cities. After all, there are so many people surrounding you, and those people are often sharing their experiences with family and friends, which highlights how you do not have anyone around to share this with. So part of this trip has been overcoming loneliness, but then another part has been realising I do not have to be constantly making friends in order to have a good time. This means being outgoing enough to invite strangers to visit music venues with me or come to my gigs, but also being okay going to these things by myself or spending a night in if i need it.

This summer has definitely been the most unique journey of my life. And while I am sad to see it end, I am very glad to know that it has stirred many things for me which will continue being a part of my life for years to come.

Planes and Trains (and food poisoning)

In the past few months, whenever I share my summer plans, people have loved to warn me about the dangers of overland travel: the sketchy border crossings, higher crime rates, potential for visa complications, etc. All things considered, as I reached Phnom Penh (my final city) yesterday, they probably have some merit. Entering Thailand via train left me in a station with no wifi, water, food, or aircon for five hours. At the border with Laos, there were literally more goats than immigration officers and I had to pay an extra 15 USD for my visa due to currency issues. And most recently, I spent a 34-hour train ride from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh on the top bunk of a *triple-decker* bunk bed (in the space, unfortunately, for a very modest two-level bunk bed), which better yet was in a train carriage room for 6, which I shared with at least 5 members of 3 generations of a family.

While some of these experiences seem like unnecessary trouble compared to relatively affordable budget flights around Southeast Asia, I actually have the most regrets about the one journey where I chose air travel: Vientiane to Hanoi. I chose to fly for visa reasons and because the alternative was a 24+ hour bus ride (prior to this summer, I had been on several less-than-luxury overnight busses, none longer than 12-ish hours and many which I was not keen to relive). But of course, when I got food poisoning from a free pastry on Lao Airlines I regretted my choice to break the commitment to overland travel. [a side note: I was pranked because I’m vegetarian and nobody warned me there would be meat in said pastry, 0 out of 10 on the TripAdvisor that is actually just a list of things I have personal vendettas against, and as a result I think I will continue being vegetarian for the rest of my life. You’re welcome, environment].

The applied reality of this situation was that I got sick on the street in the middle of the Old Quarter my first night in Hanoi, naturally minutes after meeting up with a friend from YNC who was the first familiar face I had seen in weeks.  After a few days of recovery in my hostel, I compiled some takeaways:

  1. Never trust a free pastry. (something here about no such thing as a free lunch?)
  2. We should all go meatless. (something here about other Travel Fellowships?)
  3. IN ALL SERIOUSNESS, overland travel is a great way to experience going between places.

As I reached my final city, Phnom Penh, yesterday I actually grew nostalgic for all of the overland travel of my summer. I left YNC on the 10th of May for an expedition with the student org GOYAC traveling from Singapore to Krabi, Thailand by bus and train. Only a couple of days afterwards, I started this Travel Fellowship, which has taken me on busses and trains from Singapore to KL, KL to Bangkok, Bangkok to Vientiane, Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, and finally Ho Chi Minh to Phnom Penh. This summer, if nothing else, has made me an advocate for the overland route. It’s more cost-effective, environmentally-friendly choice with good views and memorable (if not always enjoyable) stories. However, for me the most important aspect has actually become the feeling of physically knowing how much space I am traversing. I feel like this is a bit too much of an abstract concept for me to intelligently describe, but it has to do with scale and probably perspective. Although 34 hours was definitely pushing it, I’ve grown to like long train rides because I like feeling far away from something — and at some point feeling far away from everything — before getting to know a new place.

A ‘Real’ Professional Musician in a Quiet City

As I come to the end of my time in Hanoi, I have finally remembered to post some reflections from the previous city: Vientiane, Laos.

Vientiane, for me, was a very stark contrast to both Bangkok, which I visited directly before, and Hanoi, which I went to directly after. In both population and layout, Vientiane is much smaller and much quieter. In most popular areas and neighbourhoods, there were no skyscrapers to find shade next to. I could use a bicycle without fear of getting run over. And I could walk down the middle of the road at night when the streets went completely empty. In terms of gathering audio for my project, this quietness was also a bit of a new challenge: there were no signature MRT announcements or overcrowded public spaces to listen to. As a result, along with the more slow-paced sounds of fruit vendors, food markets, lone motorbikes, and birds, I ended up incorporating lines from some conversations I had in my time there. My song written and recorded in Vientiane can be found here:

All in all, I probably spent significantly less time on this song than the others because I spent a lot more time playing music and having (gasp!) actual social interactions with people at the music venues and the hostel. Given the size of Vientiane, its nightlife is not exactly comparable to the other capital cities I’m visiting, so when I told people I was playing at a nearby bar, they usually had few other options but to join. Although my original plan was to play two gigs which I had booked beforehand, I ended up playing five nights in a row – which turned out to be both a challenging experiment and a really fun decision.

It was the first time I had ever been tasked with putting together two full 30-minute sets of (mostly) memorised songs, and furthermore doing so by myself, working with only one guitar and voice. It took much longer than I had expected to choose songs I knew well enough and decide upon an even mix and incorporation of both originals and different covers. However, I also realised that it gets a lot easier once some effort has been put in at the start. I now feel a lot more equipped to perform for long amounts of time, and I think one of my biggest takeaways from the week was that it’s really important to engage with the audience — if for no other reason than to avoid getting bored of playing the same hour of music on repeat.

These were the first solo, paid gigs I had ever played. And although doing five in a row was probably overkill, it helped me work through the uncertainties I had surrounding performing alone and not being a ‘real’ professional musician.  Musically, my summer is unorthodox. I’m touring with no real ambitions to perform, and writing an album with no real following. But nonetheless — as odd and barely-technically-accurate as it sounds to myself when I explain it to hostel-goers — I am, by definition, a ‘real’ traveling musician this summer. And that’s a pretty fun thing to be.

AWKWARD AND ALONE: Tourists, Transits, and Artists in Bangkok

LINK to my song written & recorded in Bangkok, my second city on this Travel Fellowship:

I’ve spent eight days in Bangkok, which has felt brief in a sense, but also seems to be longer than the average traveler/hostel-goer’s stay. I think a commonality I have found and am likely going to find across the rest of these Southeast Asian capitals is that most tourists, especially Western tourists, tend to limit their stay in the city to a few days unless they have come to find work, preferring to spend more time in the rural, ‘authentic’ cultural spaces or beaches. This is not really the topic of this post, but I wanted to give it a mention, since this trend usually has less to do with whether people actually prefer non-urban environments and more to do with problematic tourist-crafted (and power-dynamic-inducing) images of authenticity in non-Western spaces.

I split my week between lodging in two different places: a hostel by Khao San road, near to Wat Pho and accessible only by bus/ferry, and a solo room Airbnb nearer to the downtown, accessible by the MRT and BTS lines. I moved in order to be able to better record and move around the city faster, but I also really enjoyed the opportunity to experience different neighbourhoods and transit arrangements. I realised this will be the last city of my summer where public transit will play such a large role in my stay, which is definitely going to be an adjustment for me — not just in terms of ease and price, but also in terms of personal interest. Growing up in a city with very little public transit (a underfunded and not expansive bus system), I have always been fascinated by systems in other cities: when living in Bogotá, living in Singapore, or even visiting cities such as Denver, NYC, and Berlin. I think in KL and Bangkok, one thing I have noticed is the array of different companies involved in public transit: both the KLIA and MRT in KL and BTS and MRT in Bangkok run rail systems, but through different payment card systems, and in Bangkok I’ve also spent more time using the majority-cash bus and ferry systems. Although when transitioning from Singapore’s very centralised transit system, I was pretty confused by what to use and where and how, I do really appreciate how these systems are growing to fit public needs. I think, at least to a degree, it shows a commitment to making living in the city as accessible as possible, even when there may not be funding or organisation for a singular, overarching system.

Aside from collecting all of the aforementioned loose Urban Studies-esque thoughts, I have have also of course been here on a SOLO MUSICAL JOURNEY, and that’s what this is really all about. In my week, I was able to visit three very different small concert venues and various other art spaces — and in the end I’m extremely glad this is not my last time in Bangkok, because it has only been a very small fraction of what anyone arts-oriented can tell you is a large and vibrant scene. I’ve been focused on small, alternative venues both because it’s the type of music I am most interested in and because they often offer spaces where it is not too difficult to meet interesting people who are willing to share stories. Coming away from the production of my songs from KL and Singapore, I realised I was lacking conversations and artist voices in my work, so I made a goal to meet and see more musicians in the cities I’m going to.

That being said, this new directive has also made me feel very viscerally alone and awkward. The process includes several things which I am particularly uncomfortable/unskilled at doing

  1. Going to bars and concerts alone
  2. Talking to people
  3. Asking said people if I can record what they’re talking about
  4. Explaining why I’m there, where I’m from, and where I’m really from (I guess this is a separate rant just like my thoughts on authenticity, but let’s give it a shoutout nonetheless !!)

A couple of nights ago I was talking to a guitarist, and then when he went up to play his set his friends from various social circles — all a good 15 years older than me on average — came to the table and met each other and were like, “Oh you work with Ron?” And instead of giving a normal answer I responded, “Haha no I’m basically just a stranger. Hi. I’m alone.” This is a pretty accurate summary of my week. But, it allowed me to hear some really interesting stories, and I am very excited for what it’ll add to my newest song.

To an extent, we can expect more of the same situations in Vientiane. However, due to a combination of slightly misunderstanding a Facebook message and a general lack of international musicians frequenting Laos, I will actually be the musician in the scenario this time around. That’s right, your local summer CIPE-r has JUST BOOKED HER FIRST SOLO PAID MUSIC GIG! I’ll be playing a few nights at small bars/restaurants in Vientiane, which I’m hoping will also let me meet more people — since, as we have discussed, I am both awkward and alone.

The First of Five: Songwriting in KL

One city in, and I have another song out! I’m posting it from a train station before my computer dies and I lose wifi, so I may revisit it later and make some more edits, but for now the link can be found here:

This song, apart from my voice and electric guitar, also features: birds in the Botanical Gardens, metro announcements and sounds from the MRT/LRT/KLIA, the small drum I found on the hostel roof, the market on Petaling street, a short tune we heard outside a restaurant near the climbing gym, some passing cars near a temple, construction, and rain.

Also, I previously had an idea about how to name these songs, but I actually ended up abandoning that on this one, because no specific recording from the city really stood out more than the others for me. But I did title it ‘rains’ because it rained just about every day I was there.

As can be seen/heard in the song, I spent the most part of last week essentially wandering alone. I had a good time walking around, learning a new metro system, and finding some tucked away places. My highlight of the week was probably going to a show at an indie music venue in KL called Merdekarya (I highly recommend !!). I signed up to play their open mic towards the end of my week because I felt I hadn’t been getting out enough, and ended up having a really nice night meeting other bands and hearing great music.

Looking towards this coming week in Bangkok, I’m hoping to spend more time exploring the music scene, which is quite large there. I’d also like the chance to include more conversations I have with other people in my next work.

That’s it for now, hope you enjoy the song!

Waiting For The Bus

An introduction to my Travel Fellowship:
Traveling, Listening, Songwriting: A Personal Exploration of Urban Sounds in Southeast Asian Capitals

In a few hours, I’ll be sitting on the steps of Golden Mile waiting for my first bus.

Okay, so it’s not my first bus. Not the first bus I’ve taken to Malaysia, or taken to KL, or taken this week, or taken alone. But it’s the first of what I expect will be a deeply personal journey.

I’ll be traveling (mostly) overland from Singapore to other Southeast Asian capital cities in this order: Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Vientiane, Hanoi, Phnom Penh. In each city, I will be exploring how ‘the urban’ is reflected in sound and in listening. I will record the sounds that stand out to me (this is to say, I’ll be recording urban soundscapes, not a problematic ‘local music tour’ vibe). Then — and this is probably the deeply personal part — I will weave those sounds into original songs which I write and record in the very same city, using electric guitar and vocals. My framework is mixing an Urban Studies influence with the concept of travel as listening: by literally listening to the city I am in, I hope to not simply absorb from the places I visit, but also create something knew with what I have learned.

The goals I’ve set out with are these: 1 capital city = 1 song, and to have every piece of the song recorded within the city. This means no synthetic or pre-recorded loops (and, unfortunately, possibly quite lower-than-studio-quality sound despite the many cables Arts has generously lent me). So expect it to get weird! Tuk-tuk outtros and a stranger yelling in the street as percussion!!

If it’s sounding like a bit much at this point, never fear because it’s a bit much for me as well. Thus, out of anxiety that I didn’t know how to operate any of the equipment, I used finals week to put together an example song in Singapore. Here is the link to it on SoundCloud, where I’ll be publishing all of the songs (and where Annette is currently my only follower, no thanks to you all!)

I’ve titled this song “beach : the doors are closing” and, unless I change my mind, I might try to follow this format for the other songs: one name for the lyrics I write and one for the urban audio clip that stands out most.

To explain the framework and background for this fellowship, I’m going to include another link which I included in my application. It’s a Google Drive link because it’s really quite low in the quality department, but that’s actually kind of the point:

The file is called “Voice Memos” because it’s an amalgamation of voice memos from my phone from last year when I lived in Bogotá, Colombia and started writing songs with my roommate. If you give it a listen, you’ll hear a few originals we wrote, and you’ll also hear the fact that we lived close to a highway, and the fact that we didn’t much care about sound quality when we made these recordings. I had many thoughts on these recordings and this time in my life, which held many firsts: moving away from home, living in a capital city, traveling alone, traveling with instruments around Colombia, trying to teach myself guitar in the music room after work, and writing songs which were actually shared with someone other than myself.

So, this Travel Fellowship is personal because songwriting is inherently personal. But I think it is also very much something shared. Not only is this the first time I’ll be bothering to put songs I’ve written anywhere other than the Notes folder on my laptop, but the songs’ production will itself be shared with whatever sounds these cities hold.

In this way, my summer is an exploration into the balance between the individual and the city. It is private and it is public. It’s individual and it’s shared. It’s like waiting for the bus alone.

And, hopefully, it’s something we can all enjoy hearing!