It is probably best to begin this story in April 2003.
I received an email from my very good friend Jon Swanson saying that he would visit Japan later that summer. Jon was from Michigan and attending college in Wisconsin. We met when we were Rotary Club exchange students in Japanese high school from August 1998 until August 1999.
Jon is that very rare species of computer nerd who is incredibly athletic... in fact, Jon is probably one of the fittest people Ifve ever met. We climbed Mt. Fuji together just before I started university in Japan in the summer of 2001, and while I huffed and puffed my way up the mountain, feeling wretched with altitude sickness, Jon ran up the mountain (talk about humiliating).
Anyway, Jon indicated in his email that he would be in Japan from May to June for about five weeks and would like to visit Kyoto, where I was finishing up my second and final year at Ritsumeikan University. Jon would arrive in Tokyo, stay with friends, climb Mt. Fuji again, and eventually make it to Kyoto. "No problem,h I wrote to him, gjust give me a heads up before you arrive and you're welcome to crash at my place."
I heard nothing from Jon for more than a month -- which is not unusual with Jon, so I didnft worry. But one evening in May while eating dinner with some classmates while we waited for the next showing of Matrix Revolutions, I got a call from an unknown number on my cell phone. Low and behold, it was Jon. Expecting him to tell me what day he would arrive, he instead said, "Ifll be in Kyoto in 30 minutes -- where is your place?" (Jon had climbed Mt. Fuji and hitchhiked his way to Kyoto, a distance of about 300 miles!) He got himself delivered to downtown Kyoto, joined us for dinner and the movie, and went back to my place and crashed on my floor.
I should point out that my apartment in Japan was literally a hole in the wall, about 12 feet by 12 feet in size. (On the bright side, it was a mere $100 a month, including electricity!) After you take into account my bed, closet, desk, and fridge, there was barely enough room to breathe, let alone host friends. Did I mention there was no air conditioning and Kyoto is on the same latitude as Georgia? Fortunately, Jonfs a stoic guy and didnft complain -- it must have been an improvement after napping on the snowy peak of Mt. Fuji ( which, I can tell you from experience, is no picnic).
Jon spent about a week in Kyoto, attending a few lectures with me on such interesting topics as International Trade Policy (sounds like fun, right?), doing barbecues with friends outside, and swimming in Kyoto fs famous Hodzu River.
But Jon was particularly interested to hear the details of my trip to China in March. For about $1000, my friend Roy and I took a boat to Shanghai and spent a month crossing all the way to the western desert. Jon thought this was great and wanted to take a similar trip (he was in Japan for four more weeks and calculated he had enough time). But with SARS hitting a peak it was impossible to get to China. Undeterred, Jon instead started looking into a trip to Southeast Asia.
Before long, I found that I was interested in going too and made the decision to skip a week of class to make the trip. We had both been to Thailand on separate occasions, and both of us were interested in Cambodia and the ruins of Angkor Wat. Tickets to Phnom Penh were expensive (upwards of $600), but it was about $350 to fly into Bangkok. So we bought tickets determined to make our way over the border.
And that is where our ten-day trip begins...