Thursday, August 30, 2007
The service and the prices of the New Siam Riverside are still exceptional. One night I couldn't sleep so I went down to the deserted lobby. Without hesitation they opened the kitchen for me. I had a tuna sandwich on whole wheat, a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice, a one and a half liter bottle of Minere and a chocolate bar. I then sat on the Internet for a little more than an hour. It all cost me seven bucks.
The pool is lagoon shaped, twice as big with an expansive natural mahogany deck. It is just barely big enough to swim laps. Today I did a kilometer. There are scores of potted tropical plants. Along the back wall there are green and gold antique Thai styled cast iron lamps with downward pointing frosted lotus blossom lamp glass. It faces the Chao Prayah which is still smelly but it is fun to watch all the different types of boats. Everything from old wooden Long Tails to industrial sized freighters steam by.
I always tip but tipping is optional, especially since the hotel is overrun with Dutch people. They never tip. One even said something snide within earshot when I left a 20 bhat tip on a two dollar check. No big deal. A tip of about seventy five cents.
"Ha. The GENEROUS American."
I turned and rejoined:
"Ha. The CHEAP Dutch."
Somebody should tell them that even the Thais tip ten percent.
And hear is really some news. Remember the giant cockroach hotel we stayed in? Somebody must have heard me thinking because they have turned it into a spa. They left it nicely fucked up, with the room numbers still on the doors and all, but had someone really gay decorate it with big potted plants, big reclining mahogany chairs, little hand sewn covers on the door knobs. There are still a few too many mosquitoes.
I had a steam bath. An Aloe Vera body scrub and one hour oil massage. 29 bucks with a really good tip.
Banglumpoo is slowly going upscale. There are more families here. All they need is a good movie theater like Scala and there will be no reason to ever go to Sukhumvit.
Friday, August 17, 2007
When we reached the boarder it was jammed with the usual gang of crooks. Scores of moto drivers lay in wait for incoming foreigners. My sleazy chicken farmer took the opportunity to squeeze a few more bucks out of me. He pretended to not be able to find any American dollar amongst the teaming cigarette sales men who hawked cheap cartons at the crossing. He added a nice head of foam to the extortionist brew he already had me drinking.
I filled out the various forms and crossed back into Thailand. There were no drivers waiting there. Not one. Things were really changing in Thailand. You even see fat people in Thailand now. Not a lot but plenty. They are embracing the cheeseburger. The downside is that there is nobody desperate enough to hang out at the boarder all day just to give me a ride.
I walked along the road pass the food stands and cheap junk stalls. Then it was empty. Just widely spaced houses and businesses and trees. At a military check point, using my limited Thai, I tried to find out where the bus station was. Lucky for me a pick up truck driver took pity on me and offered me a ride into town.
From the little town I ended up in I caught a mini van to Trat. At Trat I got a ride to the bus station and was on my way up the coast back to Bangkok.
After hours of sitting in traffic I ended up back at Siam II. Somewhere along the way I ate something that disagreed with me. Not only did it disagree with me I think it wanted to kill me. I woke up in the middle of the night and stumbled to the bathroom. I sat on the toilet and despite the roiling agony in my entrails nothing would come out. Blackness swarmed around me and my thoughts bubbled in front of me like burning celluloid. The next thing I remember I was lying on the floor of the bathroom with a black eye. My head had smashed the hard plastic cover of the little waste basket under the sink. I got back on the toilet and with a grunt finally pooped out the monster inside of me. Covered in cold sweat i crawled under the sheets and passed out.
Thursday, August 16, 2007
We took off from Shianookville and I can't say I was sad to be leaving Cambodia. I had had a good time. An adventure, but I was ready for some less adventure and more hanging around. Getting a massage every day, that sounds appealing right? We got to the port where huge container ships loaded and unloaded freight onto trucks custom built for this job. We passed by the more official looking buildings and onto a dirt road. There was the shitty little town that seemed to spring up wherever wooden fishing ships were painted and repaired.
The moto driver did not want me to see what kind of commission he got when he bought my ticket for me. It must of been pretty good. The ticket was 20 dollars, almost a months pay in most professions here in Cambodia. I gave up trying to look over his shoulder and went into the dilapidated little office where the port police made out the ships manifest. He wanted my passport number in case they had to turn over a list to the embassy of foreigners missing at sea. One big fat cop lay on a single metal frame cot next to the ancient wooden desk. His shirt was open and he held a hanky in one hand like a distraught opera diva.
"He sick"? I asked the cop with perfect penmanship who was taking my information. His pale green uniform was crisp. He was beribboned like a 5 star general.
"Yeah." He said.
I stood there waiting for the extortion to begin but the general said nothing and just handed me back my visa. That was the last good thing to happen that day.
The boat looked sleek and fast from the outside. It looked like the kind of boat James Bond would jump onto and karate chop the Captain while he kicked the machine guns out of the first mates hands. But when you got close you could see how beaten it was. Inside the seats were all cracked blue plastic with black greasy frosting. From the advertising on the backs of the chairs it appeared to be in second service after a long long time at sea in Malaysia. On top of the boat there was a dozen or so Westerners sitting just inside the small metal hand rail that separated them from the open water. They had big grins on their faces.
"The saps." I thought, grinning back. "They've never been on one of these trips before."
I think they were surprised that I didn't join them. I had no intention of climbing on top of that vessel. I was just looking around to see where they kept the life jackets. There were going to be too few on board and I wanted mine in advance.
The trip started out ok. We would make one stop on an island where the locals swarmed over the ship and tried to sell us food and water. Then we headed for open sea. The water in the bay was calm but the horizon looked bleak. It looked like the kind of grey haze that was going to push black thunder clouds in front of it and roil the waters in its wake. In the gulf of Thailand the waves were going to be big. Bigger than that boat. We were going to be going for a real roller coaster ride and that is exactly what happened.
The waves were so rough that at times it felt like the boat was submerged. After the thunder passed over the rain came in sheets. We would roll starboard, smash into a wave and then list wildly to the port side. As the tiny ship was tossed I gripped the seat before me. The theme song from Gilligan's Island replayed itself over and over in my head.
A leg appeared in one of the windows near the sealed cabin door. One of the topsiders made his way onto the tiny ledge that ran the rim of the ship and pounded on the door. A smiling Khmer opened it up for him. Soaked to the skin, the westerner made his way inside.One of them having made it safely, the rest came pouring off the top and clambering into the cabin. I had to chuckle.
Inside the boat the soaked passengers gripped the seats white knuckle. The cheery old Khmer who had opened the hatch made his way down the center aisle of the rolling boat handing out yellow plastic bags. I was one of only a handful of passengers who did not puke. By the time we got to port the boat reeked of vomit.
At Koh Kong I climbed on back of another moto and went to the shitty little overpriced fairy hotel where I would spend my last night on this side of the boarder. The driver tried to sell me on all kinds of local events.
"I take you to Chicken Farm" He gleefully offered.
"I don't want to see no chicken farm." I said.
"You know what Chicken Farm is? Famous here."
And then it slowly dawned on me what he was talking about.
"I think I'll pass."
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
Its funny how this big corporate hotel comes closer to fulfilling a Communist ideal. Sohka has 180 rooms and I don't doubt that Ochheuteal has more than twice or three times that. But the footprint of the main building on Sohka, including its dreamy lagoon shaped swimming pool, takes up less than a sixth of the space. It is about 30 meters back from the beachfront leaving the waters edge pristine. Nothing is built on it save a stone seawall and lamp lit walk way. Because of the efficiency of site and scale it probably requires many fewer people to run it, makes less of a negative ecological impact, and is a billion times more secure and pleasant.
It would be so easy for the multitude of owners on Ochheuteal to form a co-operative, build a simple place back from the ocean and have a low cost version of Sohka that would be far more beautiful and pleasant to visit.
But it will never happen. People are far too ignorant and greedy to create something wonderful like that, even though ultimately it would probably be far more lucrative.
This is a place I will surely return. Especially during the rainy season when the rooms are more than 50% off. Yes, the New Englander in me was satisfied too. It rained perhaps only 1 hour out of every day. The rest was brilliant sunshine.
Tuesday, August 07, 2007
The Tuk Tuks here, like the one I was riding, are a hybrid of past and present technologies. It is as if someone took a metal 19th century carriage and attached a motor bike where the horse once trotted. Except for the red cushioned seats there is not much in the way of shock absorption.
Kep is a tiny villiage on the peninsula of a muddy sea. Everywhere there are abandoned 19th century French colonial concrete mansions. Covered with green mosses they look futuristic and ancient simultaneously. Here and there a solitary light bulb, strung to the street, is used to illuminate a permanent encampment within their walls.
I had been recommended Veranda by one of the restaurant owners in Kampot. It was like the Swiss Family Robinson had decided to turn their tree fort into a bed and breakfast. There are ramps meters above the vegetation criss crossing everywhere. The bungalows are simple, wooden, traditional. There are no TV or phones, no AC just a fan and a mosquito net. The bathrooms conversely had elaborate stone and tile work. They also had hot water. The bed was big and comfortable. From my little porch I could see past the palms to the sea.
There was not much to Kep. The main beach had been ruined by a row of seafood shacks built right into the ocean. It would take time to love this place.
I took a day trip out to rabbit island. It is a tiny place of desperate poverty. There is garbage on the beaches and the beaches are not very nice. Still it we had fun, riding inner tubes on the surf in the pouring rain. As the afternoon waned it was me who made the decision to continue around the island instead of heading back along the trail we came on. The place was bigger than I thought. Each cove seemed to be the last only to be followed by another. At one point we had to wade through the mud of a mangrove forest to get to the next beach. Mysterious holes gurgled around us as slogged through.
The next day I decided to try the mountain trail behind Veranda. I walked up the tiny dirt road as it began to rain. It was still warm and I had a hat so I decided to trudge on. About half way up there were massive trees that had somehow escaped logging. I heard a rustling overhead and looking up saw a small tribe of monkeys peering through the leaves at me. There was a thud on the road ahead of me as the biggest beast landed. One of the larger young males dropped down behind him. For an instant we froze. He looked me in the eye, then turned and scampered off into the jungle, the rest of the clan following behind in the branches above. Just as well. The last thing I needed was a big bite from an aggressive male.
Here and there along the trail the trees cleared and I had a sweeping view of Kep as it was battered by a roiling muddy sea. Then it began to rain harder. As hard as I have ever seen. It was like someone was pouring a bucket of water on my head. It was time to turn back. Then it got harder. I tried hiding beneath a tree. Then it got even harder and then it got even harder.
By the time I reached Veranda I was so drenched that water was squishing out of the hard rubber soles of my hiking shoes. I began to feel a little panicky. How was I going to get out of here? How would I get out of Cambodia? There was only one muddy road from here to Kampot and even then I would be still nowhere.
It rained all the night. The next morning it cleared a little but there were still dark clouds to the east, to the west, to the north and to the south. I decided to make a break for it. I hired a tuk tuk and we took off on the red mud road towards Kampot. It began to rain again. On either side of the lane, the water was cresting. It had risen at least a foot on broad rice field plains. I couldn't imagine how the land could take any more.
The next day in Kampot I waited in Lucky's diner for the bus to Shianookville. The skies were clearing and even though the river was terrifyingly high, actually above street level, it seemed like the worst was over. The owner, a fat economics professor from India assured me it was nothing. He pointed to a yellow mark about a half meter up the wall of the restaurant.
"Last year it came up to there. We had no electricity for six days."
Everything is survivable.
Later I would find out that Cambodia had been trapped between two storm systems. A typhoon had it Vietnam while a monsoon was raging in India. In Kampot I heard that twenty people had died. But they were mostly farmers who lived, out there.
Friday, August 03, 2007
Indeed he did. Richard a tall, ruddy faced Englishman with a shock of sheep fleece hair has handcrafted his own blend. It is a medium roast of Laotian, Vietnamese and Cambodian beans.
"Took me forever to keep them from burning it." He confided in me one day. He has a right to be proud. It is one of the best coffees I've ever had. It has a strong rich taste with a lot of earth and absolutely no bitterness. The only draw back is that He and Terry are never up before ten and I would have to wrap my morning ritual around that.
It's been raining for days now. I see on CNN we are trapped between two storm systems. One is pummeling South Asia stranding and killing thousands in India. The other is battering the coast of Vietnam. Richard says that usually they don't get that much rain here. During the wet season it rains for an hour or two and then the sun comes out. Not this year.
I made the trip to the top of Mt. Bokor. The road is a wreck. It was destroyed by the tractors and bulldozers that were used to illegally log this national forest in the 90s. The former governor who profited now resides comfortably in the local jail ordering take-out from all the new restaurants opened by westerners in the last decade.
We were in a monster 4 wheel. I was lucky to happen on the only tour guide who owns one. We passed several lesser vehicles mired in the mud on the way up. Even with the elevated suspension a few of the passengers vomited out the window and into the surrounding jungle.
At the top of the mountain is Bokor city, a ghost town of 20 or so buildings. It was built by the french in 1922. It features a crumbling 92 room hotel. The windows are all gone and it has been stripped bare by vandals and weather but the floors and rooms and the ceilings remain. Red and green mosses cling to every surface. From the many terraces there are magnificent vistas of the towns below, surrounded by jungle, bordering on the ocean.
photo ©2007 catherine griss
Bokor City had been abandoned twice. The first time was during world war II. The second was after the occupation by the Khmer Rouge in the mid 90s. The Vietnamese had retaken the mountain and forced the CPK back into the jungle. They re-emerged later as the CPP Cambodian Peoples Party and have regained power under that facade.
Unlike everyone else I had booked a two day tour. That meant that while the others went back down to the warmth and safety of Kampot, I was left behind at the ranger station. There was not much to do except wander alone in the fog on the heath. Visibility was only ten feet. I walked along the rocky road past the casino, hospital and church, past the Black Bamboo Palace built for King Sisovath. I reached the crest of the road and did not see the Grand Hotel. I thought for sure it was right here. Then a gale lifted the fog momentarily and the darkened halls of the wrecked facade appeared and disappeared just four meters beyond me.
Heading back, I made my way up the steep incline of a hillock just beyond the church. At the top there remained a lone gun mount installed by the Vietnamese Its a wonder how they got that massive scrap of metal up there. As I came back down I stopped and entered the ruined church. I stood in the empty vestibule listening to the moaning whistle of wind as it wrapped around the mountain. On the back wall of the chancel amidst other graffiti was the inscription: 23-10-1991 This church we are the protectors, Tep-Sary, Vannol, Nob, Yonara.
photo ©2007 catherine griss
I happened back on the ranger station at meal time. I was invited by the ranger and his family to eat with them on the small mat on the floor of the office. He lived there with his wife and small daughter and brother in law who was a fellow ranger. I was happy to get the rice and vegetables and bits of strange chewy things otherwise the only thing would have been cup-o-soup, or tins of pork or tuna, or potato chips made with krill.
That night I sat alone in the dorm reading beneath a lone fluorescent light fixture. A loose door swung somewhere in the wind banging against a wall with every gust.
The weather was the same in the morning and this time there was really nothing to eat. The truck showed up around noon and I happily rejoined the new group for lunch. We visited the massive waterfall again as we headed back down off the mountain. I had been on it the previous day and with a night to digest it, walked nimbly along the edge of the cliffs ducking under the torrential falls.
Back in Kampot I returned to Bonkors for an espresso. Richard asked my how it was.
"I nearly froze to death up there." I said. "First I took one blanket, then two, then three and then four. I was lucky the other beds were empty."
That night I heard what sounded like a live rock band around the corner from the hotel. I walked down the darkened streets to where a grimy red and yellow stripped tent had been set up. The whole block had been cordoned off for a wedding. The band was doing a spot on rendition of Carlos Santana's Oye Como Va. The lead guitarist played an old Gibson Les Paul to the sound of no applause. Except me. I crept in close to the entry way so that I could hear better. There, a group of brides maids at the entryway, unhesitatingly scooped me up and sat me at a table. All of the women at the event had spent what looked like years planning their outfits. They wore multi colored dresses that were a cross between The Jetsons and ancient Khmer court gowns. Their hair hung in impossible sculptures on their heads. They wore elaborate make-up that reminded me of Malvina, an alien woman on Lost In Space who secretly drank the precious rocket fuel from the Robinsons craft. They were dipped from head to toe in glitter. Plate after plate arrived at our table and I was encouraged to take my fill. All the while the under appreciated musicians played Cambodian covers each song sadder than the last.
The next day I sat at Bonkors and told Richard about the wedding. He was shaking so badly that he spilled half my coffee.
"I've got the shakes." He confided to me in his genteel accent. "It's not from drinking. My brother has it. My father has it. My grandfather had it."
I took a trip on the back of a moto bike to a sacred cave pagoda. There are many around Asia. All of them ancient sites all of them swarming with bats. My driver Zen was also keen on taking me to a pepper plantation. Kampot apparently has world famous and very difficult to get pepper. We turned off the main road and headed down a long narrow lane. Dust blew up behind us in a red cloud. In the not too far distance at the edge of a wide flat plain were a row of tiny mountains. As they drew nearer he told me that this was one of the last hold outs of the Khmer Rouge.
"There was a big battle here. Boom! Boom!" He gestured to the huge pits on either side of the road. We made a hard left and then curved back around.
"They make the bomb there and there and there."
I was holding onto the back of the seat of the moto and not liking the conversation at all.
"They have to find land mines all over here." He added cutting a wide swath with his arm.
"The soldiers kidnapped the three French tourist and cut the throat."
"When was that?"I yelled over the wine of the motorbike.
"Oh, long time ago. 1994."
I did the math. To my way of thinking that was not so long ago. A long time ago for me when visiting a battlefield was like Gettysburg... or Sparta.
The next day I saw Terry by herself at the pub. Twiglet, her tiny adopted kitten ran around between the bar stools.
"Richard can't get up this moooorning." She told me. Like Richard she too had a very elegant way of emphasising certain syllables in a word.
"He haaas the jitters."
She herself was walking around very stiff legged. She made me a cup of coffee and then held it on the way to the bar with the concentration of an Astronaut, to keep the spillage to a minimum.
"I'm not exactly up to paaar myself." Then she whispered. "I've been IN hospital. I'm recovering from Beri Beri."
"How'd you get that?" I wondered aloud.
"Alcohol induced. But its not from drinking." She added with a wave of the hand.
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
Every night there is a sunset show behind the flat topped Mt. Bokor. There is a huge swath of ancient forest missing across its chest. The local Governor who logged it, in spite of the law, now resides in the crumbling building next to the Governor's Mansion or... the local jail.
Along with the handful of trendy western places in town there is also some great local food. I found a man who makes ice cold cane juice for 12 and a half cents. Right next to him there was a sweet grandma who made me thin green pancakes stuffed with beansprouts and peanuts on a bed of some bay-mint and cucumber salad.
My plan is to spend a few days catching up on my blog. For this I need access to a decent cup of espresso. Several of the restaurants on the riverfront offered cappuccino's on their menu but none of them actually had a working machine, or a machine at all. Apparently it's just something that looks snazzy on a menu.
Monday, July 23, 2007
When we got to Phnom Phen I wanted to keep on going. It is a dirty city that makes Bangkok seem charming by comparison. One of the moto drivers wanted to charge me 8 dollars to get a hotel. A guy on the bus from Cincinnati had recommended it to me. He had warned me it should cost about 3000 riel or seventy five cents but all the arguing in the world only got this local hustler down to 2 dollars. Every time I tried to get away from him he gave the other driver a menacing look and they backed away.
The Paragon Hotel is located on the riverfront. All night long motorbikes cruised by my window. Still I was thrilled to get a decent cappuccino and I decided to give the city one day.
I hired a tuk tuk driver for the day. Our first stop was the nearby Royal Palace, still very much in use. I am no expert but it seemed to me that portions of the Bhagavad-gita are depicted on the inside walls of the palace. I think about the killing fields and am reminded of a story from The Gita. In it Arjuna is faced with the dilemma of having to kill his own family. He does so to prove that he is an authentic leader, willing to do whatever is necessary to "serve the people" This is exactly what the Khmer Rouge required of its soldiers.
I sat cross legged on the Burgundy carpet int the Royal temple and meditated for awhile. A couple of students and their professor sat next to me and engaged me in conversation. He was an interesting guy and it turns out he is serving on the tribunal that is trying to bring the few remaining leaders of the Khmer Rouge to justice. We have an interesting talk on the cultural underpinnings of the Killing Fields era. I ask him if religion was used to justify any of Pol Pots actions. He mentions a book to me "Year Zero" that he says addresses this topic.
My next stop is S-21, the compound where much of the killing for the KR was conducted. Once again the setting is a bucolic area just outside the city limits, not unlike Berlin's Buchenwald. The monument is similar to the one in Battambang.
I spend the afternoon at the Hotel Julianna where I have on of the best cheeseburgers in all of Asia. They have a big kidney shaped pool there and I manage to get in 20 laps. I have a massage at their spa and then head back to The Paragon.
I go looking on the street for a copy of Year Zero. I thought instead of buying it at a book store I would buy it off one of the urchins who had offered it to me the day before. I remembered that the street girls had a copy of it in their baskets. Actually they have the complete reading list for a college course on the Cambodian Civil War. I buy a copy of it from a sweet little brown skinned girl. As I turn to go home I am surrounded by other street kids demanding that I buy something from them. One of the older ones claims that I had refused her the day before and now I buy from:
"Yesterday was different." I protest.
"Not different." She screams at me.
A tiny little girl yanks at my pant leg and starts shrieking:
"Fucko, Fucko, Fucko"
I run back to my hotel in horror and hide.
The next morning I board an extremely hot bus in a parking lot. We choke on the fumes as we wait for them to fill the thing. After a full half hour they turn on the air con and we begin the slow creep to the edge of the city. We are surrounded by impossible traffic. We cross a bridge and begin to roll. Soon we are surrounded by farms again. Four hours later the flat fields of central Cambodia give way to the strange hump backed mountains of southern Asia. Soon after, we arrive in Kampot.
Sunday, July 22, 2007
I spent some time walking around the dusty city streets the next day. Battambang is blissfully unaware of the tourists. It is a working class town and the people go about their business without harassing you.
The pajama as we know it, was originally typical silken pant leg clothing in Asia. It was adapted as sleepwear by the early colonialists and imported to Europe for use as such. I base this fact on my experience watching antique British films and reading Noel Coward scripts. My hypothesis is further supported by vague memories of comments made by Carey Grant and Spencer Tracey whenever they had awkward sleeping arrangements with single women.
If you walk along the river, past the narrow old wooden bridge that still carries hundreds of motor bikes every day, you cross by the Museum and into the rich part of town. The rich part of town has broad arbored streets. As far as I can tell there are only two, maybe three houses in the rich part of town, The governors mansion and two others. There is also the central police headquarters. Across from a construction site for a luxury hotel ,that seems to have faltered years ago, is the Victory Club. It is as if someone had taken the Westford Swim and Tennis club and plopped it down on top of a shantyville, crushing all the residents save a few bedraggled cats which continue to haunt the place. There is a high wall around the weed filled tennis lot and the adjoining clubhouse and swimming pool. It isn't the wall that keeps people out. It is the 4 dollar entrance fee. This is a town where the deputy police chief makes 24 dollars a month. I went swimming there four days in a row and I never encountered a single person save two very fat Chinese kids and their athletic, business man, dad.
"The cigarettes here are dreadful." He complained, "Especially these."
He was smoking Alain Delons. Here it is pronounced (one word) aLAINdelon. It is a popular brand in South East Asia bearing the actors name. There are signs for it everywhere with the slogan "The Taste of France."
"Yeah." he said. "If you've ever been in a Parisian pissoir you get the idea."
The performance revolved around the life of a group of street kids who collect cans for a living. It was a poor circus. There was no fancy lighting or special effects. There were spectacular acrobatics. There was inventive music performed with a collection of self made and native instruments. There was an electric guitar that desperately needed new strings. It was hilarious.
The streets were empty as Andy and I walked home. The only place open was an ATM for Candida Bank. It was so brightly lit that I bet pilots can see it. The ATMs here only despense US dollars. Soon they will only dispense Euro and not long after,Yuan I bet. A guard slept in a hammock in front of it. Andy loaded up on cash while I watched the zillions of insects beyond the bullet proof glass clamoring to get in.
We got the the Royal and Renee was out front playing blackjack with the moto drivers. They were playing for crickets. Renee is a tall striking blonde. She works in Los Angeles as a film editor. She is the kind of woman I usually make absolutely no impression on.
"Would you like one?" she offered. I was shocked that she had detected my presence. Andy, stood dumb faced next to me. It was like watching somebody get struck by lightning over and over.
"Nah. I've gotten them as close as my mouth but I never put one in." I replied lamely.
Andy went off to bed. I sat outside for awhile playing guitar to no effect.
The women here, who would love to speak with you, speak no English and the women who do speak English have no desire whatsoever to speak to you.
This is the real deal I thought. I imagined myself in the clubroom at the Museum of Natural History sipping a macciato while chatting with Margaret Mead.
"Is it possible to go see." I inquired.
"Not so interesting I think." He replied anticipating my curiosity. "It cassette."
"If this is royalty" I thought. "What are all these skin whitening products were about?
He showed me a place where a family made rice pancakes for spring rolls. He took me to another place where an old woman stuffed rice with coconut and mung beans into roasted bamboo stalks, making an instant lunch box. We passed a blacksmith fashioning tools over an open fire. We saw the factory where young girls smashed fish into paste, a dank thatch covering over a concrete floor with an overpowering smell. Everything was hand powered using simple machines. The smarter people rising above the rest.
Outside the city it was much cooler. The little dirt roads were shaded by the jungle canopy. We came to a temple on the banks of a little creek. A cow grazed in an open field. A monk chanted on the temple balcony. There was a monument behind a stone wall just beyond the temple. It rose about ten meters from the ground. On each of its four walls were two great glass windows that revealed the entire structure to be filled with skulls and bones. There was a crude bas relief along the ground level that portrayed the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. They were not ones for wasting bullets, preferring to beat their victims to death with whatever they could find. Mo told me his parents had been merchants in the city when the solders came. They closed all the markets, schools, hospitals, everything, and forced everyone out into the fields to work. Pol Pot needed every hand he could get to raise rice. The rice he used to pay China for the landmines that still plague Cambodia to this day.
"School teacher, doctor, anyone clever they kill." Mo told me.
"Hmmm." I thought. "I wonder what would have happened to a loud mouth like me."
That evening I made the mistake of sitting al fresco at the White Rose. If you sit outside in Asia you are constantly besieged by hawkers and urchins. This place is a popular with the ex-pats but I didn't trust it. There was something wrongly grimy about that it. I had a vegetable curry which I thought would be safe. It was dripping with ghee and about half way through I gave up on it. I tried to pawn it off on the beggar family that controlled the turf in front of The Rose.Two of the dirty little raggedy girls ate a few mouthfuls before turning up their noses. With that they finally left me alone at my table.
After eating or trying to eat I thought I would make a final attempt to go to the movies. I walked towards the theater. Motorbikes loaded up with teenagers out for a Saturday night blazed by, honking their horns, momentarily blinding me. I arrived a half hour late which I thought according to the local traditions would be appropriate. When I got there the place was closed. The posters had been ripped down. A huge antique Chinese lock held the rickety folding gate closed. I headed back along the dark rubble strewn streets to the hotel.
My stomach was feeling worse and worse. There was a weird gaseous disturbance going on down there that began to erupt. Holding my ass cheeks together as best I could I hop skipped back home as fast as possible. As I reached the hotel, Renee was in the lobby using the Internet. I grimaced hello and tried to breeze past but she became extraordinarily determined to engage me in conversation.
"We tried to find the circus you told us about but you were right. They left town today. We saw them parade out though." She babbled on long after that but the sound was like rain in a puddle. Unable to flee I had done what any good solider would have done. I pooped in my pants.
Sunday, July 15, 2007
"They look like they're about to die." I said.
"Yeah." Chuck rejoined. "They are supposed to spend more time in their offices than any other race on earth."
The stumbled around the ruins chattering, taking scores of pictures of each other. They were flabby and awkward with skin the grey white color of bone.
As usual little beggar vendors were running around the temple.
"You buy me mister?" "You see me first. You buy me." They demanded as their strong little hands tugged at us. They were thin but quick with skin richly bronzed by the jungle sun.
The sun was setting as we motored back to town. A cloud of red dust trailed behind us.
"Bob Dylan was just an updated version of Woody Guthrie." Chuck commented.
He might have just as well punched me in the stomach.
"Yeah, my mom almost cried when she found out on TV that he was a sellout." Kendra laughed.
Or hit me on the head with a stick?
They had had enough of Cambodia after just four days. Chuck had grown up in Malaysia and they were taking the next flight there.
"Things are much better there. It's much more orderly and its way cheaper and easier to get around." Chuck made the claim.
"Yeah and you never see any beggars." Kendra chorused in.
"Well, it is a police state." I said.
"It's no worse than the US." Was her reply.
They left early the next day and I didn't see them again. I spent another two days poking around Siam Reap. I found out that you could use the massive pool at the 5 star Grand Hotel'd Angkor if you bought a spa massage package. During mid afternoon they had a hugely reduced promotion. I swam laps there. I had a body scrub. I had a facial for the first time in my life the next day and swam again. I walked around town. I ate in great restaurants. I jammed on a street corner with Cambodian grunge chick. It was nice to fly solo again.
I wanted to go by boat to Battambang but but I didn't want to go on some big tourist speed boat. My idea was to find some local heading that way anyways or a little cargo boat. As usual none of the tuk tuk drivers wanted to take me to the pier. They wanted to bring me to a tour operator so they could score their commission. After much hand waving I convinced one poor guy to take me out there. It was a long way out of town and as the road got worse the town got even badder. Grass shacks sagged beneath the blazing sun. Babies cried by the side of the road. During the last stretch the tuk tuk bounced around like a bronco. We passed a fat cop with mirrored sunglasses smoking a cigarette. He was watching over a horribly thin man who kneeling in the dirt sawed frantically away at a sun blackened tree stump.
We finally got to the wretched end of the road before the great lake. There were scores of rotting boats tied up in the mud. Nobody wanted to take me anywhere and even if they did it would cost me $200. Luckless or maybe luckily we headed back to town.
There was a torrential downpour that afternoon. The streets flooded and the motos were up to their axles in rain water. Evening approached and I decided to try to make one last trip to Angkor. If one buys a ticket for the following day one can enter the park for free at 4:30. Anyone can enter for free at 5:30 to see the sunset. Because of the storm Angkor Wat was relatively empty. I stayed there for a bit as the sun slowly receded casting long shadows over the giant monument. I then went on to Angkor Thom. There was nobody there. The guard told me that I could go in if I wanted. As the night approached I got to wander by myself inside the ancient temple. The only sounds were the whine of the cicada and the chattering of monkeys as they slowly emerged from the safety of the jungle.
I booked on with the tour boat for the next morning. The dealer promised me that it would not be some nautical horror but a mid sized wooden boat with only thirty passengers.
"Not too fast and not too slow you get there in four or five hours."
They picked me up at Earthwalkers at 6 am. They drove eight of us out in the back of a truck our luggage piled high in the middle. Once there they jammed about forty of us onto one of the sad wooden cruisers tied up at the pier.
The engines started and we cast off from that sick little lakeside community. Just beyond its grasp the wooden vessels of the floating village bobbed in the peaceful Tonle Sap. Every craft was skillfully made and lovingly tended. The structures deferring to rounded surfaces wherever possible. There were often potted plants filled with herbs on the decks and colorful clothing hung to dry.
We reached the other side of the lake and headed for a narrow inlet. Once again there was a dignified little village. The only touch of modernity, the aluminum TV antennae on almost every houseboat and the floating ice factory. Other than that, it could have been a thousand years ago, impossibly poor and impossibly beautiful.
The sun was round and hot but a breeze from the river made it bearable. At one point the river got so narrow the boatmen had to push us along with sticks. Everywhere we went children ran to the shore screaming and shouting hello. I remember doing the same as a kid, running to the side of the road whenever we heard a car go by and waving at the passengers. Like us they could probably hear our engines churning up the quiet long before we passed by. I climbed up the side and onto the top of the boat. The view was much better here. Eight hours later we arrived in Battmambang.
Saturday, July 14, 2007
First she tells me she is a chef at a hotel. Then she tells me she is the assistant to the chef and makes the cold sandwiches. Then she tells me she is actually a waiter. I stop there before we work our way down to floor scrubber.
She offers to take me on the outer loop the next day. We zip from temple to temple on her red moto. The breeze feels nice in the dense jungle humidity and I have to hold onto my hat on the bumpy road of red earth. The outer loop is not on the scale of the inner loop but still... riveting. She could not be more bored. The gentle curves of the stone Apsara, the Sanskrit inscriptions nothing makes an imprint on her. She was born here and had never ventured beyond Angkor Wat or Angkor Thom.
"What is it you see when you look at this?"She asks me.
"I imagine the million plus people that lived here. I see their wooden homes and the streets that must of filled this great enclave. I think about their kitchens and shops and animals. I think about their hand woven clothing and ornamentation. I think about their language and rituals and hierarchy. I hear the voices of their children at play. These stones are just the skeleton left behind but you can still feel the vibrations of a great civilization."
Her eyes have completely glazed over.
Later. I ask her later what she would like to do.
"Whatever you like."
"This is your town, what would you like to do?"
"Ok, lets go shopping."
"You buy me?"
"Sure, whatever you want."
She leads me down the unlit streets of old town. We have to tread gingerly around the sewage and trash that runs in the gutters. Little beggars dart forward from the dark alleyways. Then, like a mirage, we come to a brightly lit modern convenience store. Only it's built for the convenience of westerners. The prices while cheap are unquestionably beyond the reach of the locals. She goes directly to the aisle of hand creams, shampoos and other beauty products. She softly runs her fingers along the smooth curves of the plastic dispensers. She gazes long and longingly at the English text that I am sure are a mystery to her. Nothing can break her spell of fascination. Her look is one of awe and devotion. A devotion that a thousand years ago her ancestors might have reserved for a Buddha in a great stone temple.
Friday, July 13, 2007
We had changed dollars into Riels the day before and it was a big mistake. Nobody wants these Riels. You should see them wrinkle up their noses when you offer them. Because this is a coinless republic they end up being just used for change.
I went via tuk-tuk with the Americans. Outside the temple was a long row of bamboo, grass-roofed, dirt floor food vendors with charming names like "Restaurant #43". We were immediately besieged by shoeless children selling, postcards, books, bracelets and cold drinks. Kendra had practiced saying "no thank you" in Khmer "Dayt Ahoo-kun" and this worked best for keeping them at bay. The other thing to remember is that the head shake for "no" means nothing to them, while a hand wave like we do to say hello is how they signal "no"and is infinitely more effective.
We passed through the deliberately awe inspiring gate to Angkor Wat and Chuck felt immediately ill. Asia was catching up with him. He went home and Kendra stayed with me. Later that day when we were having a very tart and very spicy lime fish soup at Restaurant #16 I asked her why she didn't go back with him.
"I''m not really the nurturing type." She said.
"You miss a great opportunity." I replied. "Nothing says I love you more than taking care of someone when they are sick."
"Yeah."She said. "That's something I need to work on.
We spent the rest of the day climbing over and around the inner loop of temples. You can still walk all over them. There are signs here and there saying don't touch this or that but mostly its right there. Angkor Thom was my favorite. The main temple Bayon is a big and gloomy place with huge stone faces. We spent a lot of time talking too. Mostly we agreed on politics but I should have seen the red flags. She was opposed to the IMF and the World Monetary Fund but didn't know who Paul Wolfowitz was or Robert McNamara or their roles in the Iraq and the Vietnam war respectively. I am a liberal progressive but she stunned me with this one.
"All the bad stuff you hear about Mao is just western propaganda."
I could hear the whine of the cicada in the jungle.
"By who? The New York Times? I ventured.
"The Great Leap Forward? The Cultural Revolution? They made those up?
A pasty middle aged Korean woman took a flash photo in the blazing sunlight.
"No, but they exaggerated the deaths."
"Forty to Seventy million deaths they just fabricated? What about his War Against the Sparrows, you didn't think that was a little nutty?"
"I never heard of that."
In the last few years the government has made the roads straighter and flatter. The preservationists have also removed most of the trees and jungle growth from the temples, save one. Seeing it now made me regret not going when I had first heard about Angkor in 2001. Back then one was still a discoverer. Still, if you removed the busloads of Japanese, Koreans and Thais you would have only a handful of Europeans and only perhaps two Americans.
Thursday, July 12, 2007
I decided to at least get to the boarder by train. I had to go to the station to get a schedule. There was one at 6:30am and another at 1pm. I left the next afternoon at 1. I needed time to have a proper cappuccino. I figured I would spend the night in Aranyaprathet.
Train was only three cars long. It was old and well beat but ok. There were only third class seats but I like that. I like open windows and hordes of schoolkids in blue and white uniforms, smiling at you, eager to practice their English. The ride was six hours long. The schedule said five but at least we left on time. Six hours across a long flat wide plain. Rice fields in either direction to the horizon, little jungle outcroppings, grass shacks and the occasional sunblackend farmers in conical straw hats.
I met an American couple and we decided to throw in together. They were a pair of tatooed Seattlites named Chuck and Kendra. When we got to the end of the line on the Thai side of the boarder a group of Dutch boys tried to convince us to press on to Siam Reap with them, but we were in no hurry to cross into Cambodia, especially in the gathering darkness.
The little town turned out to be quite ok. A tuk tuk driver tried to take us to a horrid little shack of a guest house but we politely refused it. You could see through the holes that rats had gnawed in the floorboards to the swamp below it. Forget about the frogs croaking all night. How would you survive the mosquitoes?
We walked around in the fast coming darkness following signs to the Inter Hotel. It was actually the only hotel in town. It was quite ok. A business hotel for Chinese robber barons looking to make a quick buck across the boarder. The price was right though at 800 bhat per night or about 24 bucks. A small fortune in that part of the world.
There was lots of nice things to eat in Aranyaprahtet. Lots of clean little diners, we had excellent Dim Sum. You could get fresh squeezed orange juice with not too much sugar put in it. Fresh fish, fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, nobody looked like they were going hungry in this small working class town.
The boarder did turn out to be a horror though. Once you passed through the Thai checkpoint you passed over a bridge and were greeted by throngs of filthy cripples and beggars. A slow stream of over loaded tractor trailers made up one line. The other line was filled peasants and ox-carts piled high with goods for markets on the other side. Immediately a hustler attached himself to us offering us his services, promising a fair price and a safe trip. He would not look me in the eye. Chuck had covered up his tattoos for the days festivities. To my surprise they were able to get a visa within minutes. By spending the night in Aranyaprahtet we were able to arrive at the frontier early enough to beat the crowds.
We persevered and managed to book a car to Siam Reap for thirty dollars. The shocks were gone and it was filled with mosquitoes but it ran ok. Chuck and I had a slapping party and were able to decimate most of the flying parasites. The road was unpaved and filled with potholes. Luckily it had not rained in a day or two so there was no mud and while we ran rough, we ran true. The town faded behind us and soon we were back in the broad ricelands.
Four hours later we arrived in Siam Reap. We had a hotel destination that we had insisted on from the beginning so we did not have any battles with the driver. He took us to Earthwalkers, a guesthouse run by a Dutch co-operative. A little bit too far out of town but clean and friendly and safe.
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
I landed in Bangkok and took a cab straight to my favorite Hotel, The New Siam II. I managed to eat something and then passed out. I had been up for over 24 hours.
I had to wait seven days for my visa to Cambodia, so I was stuck in Bangkok. It's not my favorite city. New York, Paris, Berlin, Barcelona, those are favorite cities. But I made the best of it. There only a few places in the world where I can afford to have a massage every day. Six bucks with a nice tip. At a luxury spa... with a body scrub... maybe 50. I had fresh fruit, with granola and home-made yoghurt at Rickeys. And cappaccino's, of course cappaccinos. I found a yoga studio and took classes at the top of a sky scraper where they could open the windows and let in the afternoon thunderstorms.
I saw Bruce Willis at The Scala and Transformers at The Lido.
Finally my passport came.
Wednesday, January 17, 2007
DO NOT • RUN • CROUCH DOWN.
DO • BACK AWAY SLOWLY • SPEAK CALMLY AND FIRMLY • RAISE YOUR ARMS TO MAKE YOURSELF APPEAR BIGGER • HOLD SMALL CHILDREN • IF THE LION ACTS AGGRESSIVELY THROW STICKS, STONES, WHATEVER YOU CAN GRAB WITHOUT CROUCHING DOWN • BE PREPARED TO FIGHT
IN AN EMERGENCY DIAL 911. REPORT ALL SIGHTINGS TO THE RANGERS OFFICE.
I looked down at my cell phone. There was no signal. There is never any signal outside of town.
I entered Pogonip at the end of Spring St. You can leave Caitlin’s Condo and walk over to the entrance. The Park connects to Henry Cowell. You can see some pretty big Redwoods there.
“I want to see some really big ones.” I said hugging a tree. “Can you imagine this thing is alive for almost two thousand years?” There were burn marks on the bark from a fire back in 1900. Redwoods love fire. It kills off the competition and makes room for their teeny tiny pine cones to root. The pitch of the tree is fire resistant and the branches are way up high.
Caitlin isn't so interested in big ones.
“What I really like.” She told me. “Is how they make a circle of trees. “ Something about them sharing a root system.”
“You mean they are all connected into one giant living organism?” I said.
“Yeah, something like that.”
“Camping inside a circle like that and seeing the moon, that would be something.” I thought.
I went for a hike in one of the many parks surround Santa Cruz every day except for one. That day I looked at Real Estate with Caitlin's mother. She is an agent. If I could find the right Victorian in the right spot I would buy it in an instant.
There are bigger trees at Big Basin. One tree, the Mother of the Forest is about 350 feet high or lets say thirty five stories tall. Yeah thats right. Go ahead and count up the next big building you see. There is a large orifice on one side and I don’t need to tell you what it looks like. Not that I am afraid of the word vagina. VAGINA. See? You can walk inside. I would love to spend the night inside one of these trees or build a house in there and live like a Hobbit. Can you imagine what kind of dreams you would have?
The biggest ones are further up north. I thought about making the six hour drive up there but nobody would go with me. That’s what I want to do. Hike into the mountains and search for the secret box canyon where Hyperion is. Hike for days.
The most spectacular hike I went on was Big Sur. The mountains roll into the sea there. There are bays below nestled into the cliffs that are inaccessible by foot. In fact there is a sign stating that 80% of the rescues performed in that park are by rangers trying to save hikers who could not resist the siren call of those rocky enclaves.
On that day Caitlin told me about her disintegrating marriage to Matthew. “Here we were in one of the most beautiful places on earth and he had nothing good to say about it. He kept saying things like ‘Nothing feels so good as a dick in your ass.”
“Yeah.” I said. "That’s a bad sign.”
The sun was setting in Pogonip when my phone rang. That was a relief. I had been wandering around lost for a least an hour. I was by myself on that day. The trails at all the parks I went to were very poorly marked. You might get a trail head in California but then after that you are on your own. Never hike there without a whistle, compass and flashlight. I answered the phone. It was Caitlin.
“How are you doing?”
“Well, I think I was very lost but now I think I know my way out. Yeah, I can see the road. I’m pretty sure it’s the right one.”
“If I see any Mountain Lions I will call you.”
“Ok, Just don’t CROUCH DOWN.”
Monday, January 15, 2007
“We have cormorants in Central Park.” I mentioned to Caitlin. “We also get Egrets. They put fish in the North Meer and they showed up. I guess you don’t have to put any fish in the ocean. Not yet.”
Seals were floating on their backs preening themselves. One barked at us as we passed. Now and then the dolphins black silhouettes would emerge from the waves and then disappear back into sea.
We passed a snazzy red convertible with an old hipster behind the wheel. He had long perfectly groomed long gray hair and jet black sunglasses. He was kinda L.L. Bean styled but more Patagonia and North Face. Everybody wears some sort of hiking shoe. No street shoes like me. Nothing New York City on their feet. He smiled as we passed. I imagined him a hippie forty years ago.
"We have tons of guys like that." Caitlin said. "They never grow up."
As we drew close to the town center there was a tent on one of the promontories. Druid rock filled the air with irish harps, wooden flutes, and mystical electric guitars. Below us more silver haired hippies, now in wet suits took turns catching the waves on their surfboards.
"That's Steamer Lane." Caitlin said. "That's where the Beach Boys were talking about when they sang about Santa Cruz."
"Yeah." I said. "And the same guys are still down there."
"They will be until they die." Came her reply with a wry grin. "It's very territorial."
There is one main drag in town, Center street. Well you could also say Center and Front st. Front is more for cars and Center for pedestrians. On every corner of Center there is somebody carefully positioned to catch the loving kiss of the California winter sun. In the warm afternoon they strum or pluck their guitars and sing.
There are three art movie houses and a half dozen yoga studios downtown. There is a penny arcade. Just around the bay you can see a roller coaster. There is a lingerie shop where the sexy asian owner prances around in her wares. You can walk from one end of "The Mall" to the other in about ten minutes. At the far end of town is a perfect English tower clock. Nearby the post office sits, looking like a miniature Roman temple.
Homelessness is an art in Santa Cruz. Many young people make their way here. They come down from the mountains and villages and join the bands of elder street people whose crenelated, sun burnt faces illustrate years of battle with the elements. They live in beat up vans, sleeping in oily down sleeping bags. They beg and sing and do Tarot card readings. There's a guy who tells jokes for loose change. They wear hooded sweatshirts, baseball caps on their long matted hair, dark sunglasses and black army boots held together with tape.
"Its the Unibomber look." according to Caitlin.
“Yeah.” I thought. “That IS a look.”
Saturday, January 13, 2007
Now set yourself down on that little black hardtop that snakes along the coast. Do 90, no, 95. Your hair is golden, streaming behind you. Imagine Brian Wilson sitting in the back seat of your convertible. He is strumming a guitar and singing softly to you.
"Round Round, get around, I get around."
Forget the August sun. It is January and the air is crisp, yet the sun is kissing every inch of your body.
That's the setting. That's were this all takes place.
Caitlin met me at the airport. She was wearing purple, fishnet stockings, purple suede disco shoes and a mid thigh psychedelic purple dress. I got a big smile and a big hug as I entered the waiting area. We breezed out of the parking lot in her Mini-cooper.
Minutes out of San Francisco it got good already.
"How did they save all of this?" I asked her. "There are no billboards, no concrete, no neon, no endless strip malls. I don't even see a single gas station.
"Im not sure." She smiled. "But I'm pretty sure my mother had something to do with it."
Here is my guess based on absolutely no research. It was the beginning of the 21st century. Roosevelt was president. They had seen what had happened on the East Coast. Somebody begged him. Somebody big, with vision.
"Please Mr. President. Don't let that happen here."
And he stopped it. With his pen he stopped it.