Wednesday, July 25, 2007

3 Dog Night

There were three kinds of dog sounds. The close up staccato bark that seemed to be in the street directly below me. The howling that came from the next street or off by the bus station (fermata). And the distant plaintive howl that seemed to be echoing around the mountains (Lento molto e fluido). This dogmusic played above the drone of the crickets as I lay awake in this moldy cavern of a guesthouse.

I took the bus from Phnom Phen to Campot. Towards the end of the 5 hour trip the flat delta gave way to the mystical hump backed mountains of South East Asia. They loomed in the distance surrounded by muddy rice fields and coconut trees. I found the Mealy Chenda guesthouse in the guide book. It is a great empty hulk. My room was at the top of a winding staircase and the end of a crooked hall had ten foot ceilings. The rooms just below me, 14.

This place has so much potential. Germans must love it. Imagine a massive Harlem Flophouse "the way I found it". Now imagine an entire "Harlem Flophouse the way I found it" town. On one end a flat muddy river bends through it. Beyond the river, palm trees and mountains. If they turned Kampot over to Berliners they could fill it with cool bars and clubs. In fact a lot of the buildings were made in this very theatrical poured concrete style of the communist bloc. The trick would be not to fix it up too too much.

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.

After one sleepless night Mealy Chenda proved a little too much potential for me. Even at four bucks a night. Even with... forget an overhead light fixture, or a window that worked, or something to cover the naked fluorescent... or the millions of bugs and gekos that roamed the vast empty corridors.. yes even with satellite TV. I still tired of looking at my own poop in the unflushable toilet. I found a more realized piece down by the river, The Moleden.

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


There is good road between Battambang and Phnom Phen. Two lanes of straight clean highway. I sat by the window of the bus and watched mile after mile of rice fields roll by. Here and there I saw coconut trees or farmers in conical straw hats stooped in the fields. We stopped at a dusty gas station and instead of giving the beggar children money I bought them each a sweet rice cake wrapped in a banana leaf.

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:
"That one."
"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

Playing For Crickets

We disembarked and per usual the moto drivers were there at the riverside port and bus station clamoring for our business. There was a van for the Royal Hotel and this was exactly where I wanted to go. I climbed aboard with a tall gawky red head from Oxford named Andy. The Royal Hotel is right down the street from the old market, built sometime around 1900. It has a poured concrete pyramidal architecture that must have been revolutionary for it's day. The hotel has huge hallways. They have covered over the tops of the stairwell with sheet metal, where sunlight should pour in and sustain an elaborate indoor garden. Still the rooms are generous and the toilets flush. There is cable TV and corny seventies furniture and cheap bordello drapery. The best feature is it's rooftop restaurant with good clean food, a view of the city and beggarless dining. I felt I could spend some time here.

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.

You see it immediately in the dress. Most of the Women in Siam Reap are style conscious and wear blue jeans but even there I had noticed the occasional woman, riding by on a bicycle or sweeping the street, wearing cheap, western, sleepwear or... pajamas. Here in Battambang it is an explosion. They are everywhere. And Hello Kitty is the favorite.

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.

There is not much nightlife in Battambang except for the few local bars. I had noticed a crumbling movie theater near the town center and thought it would be worth checking out. There was a large poster tied to the front of building advertising what looked like a Cambodian historical epic. All the text was in Khmer but the times were in Roman numerals. The only evening show was at 7 pm. The admission price was 12.5 cents. I went back at the appointed time and the place was nearly empty. A few rough looking teenagers hung out on their motor bikes in front. There was an old man with a long scraggly white beard sitting on a hand made wooden bench in the entrance. He led inside to the wreck of an auditorium bathed in red light. I waited 10 15 20 minutes and nothing happened. I gave up and went home.

I saw Andy outside his room when I got backed. I was not eager for another night of TV so I joined him at the small wooden table by the staircase of that vast hallway. Andy just graduated and like a lot of Brits is spending six months traveling before he joins the rat race. I strummed the guitar while he smoked cigarettes. Her was trying to quit, so he was savoring his daily allotment. One rarely hears about young Europeans trying to quit. In fact they make a point of it. It is a symbol of defiance toward the perceived American culture. They know all about our Draconian smoking regulations and openly smirk at us.

In order to cut down Andy had been buying loose cigarettes instead of packs. What we in Harlem call "loosies". A pack of cigarettes here goes for 25 cents and a loosie 1.25 cents. A hundred riel therefore gets you two.
"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."

Some French NGO workers informed me that there was a circus school in town. I mentioned it to Andy and we decided to check it out. We got there at the alleged start time, 7pm, and once again nobody was there. This time though the performers were warming up on stage. So we had hope. It was not until nearly 8pm that a crowd of French tourists and Cambodian children descended on the place. I was starting to get it.

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.

Afterwards we went, with the NGOs who had invited us, to a riverside bar. All eight of us boarded two motor scooters, Khmer style. We passed a huge statue of Vishnu with a snake in the middle of a roundabout. I know about Shiva and the snake but Vishnu, that must be some local tale. At the bar we spoke a mixture of English, French and Khmer. They ran the circus school. These guys were all volunteers. For their good works they actually made NO money. At the end of a few rounds the bill came. It was seven dollars for the eight of us. It was my pleasure to pick up the check.

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.

I gave in finally and took a local tour with one of the more persistent moto drivers. First he took me to his home to soften me up. His name was Mo. He was a decent guy with a wife and baby girl. They lived in a little wooden shack owned by his inlaws in a poor but well kept community. Chickens roamed about while I swung in a hammock exchanging the few Khmer words I knew with his family. They proudly offered me a piece of fruit from their tree. It was like an apple only inedible. With the conversation lagging I resorted to making farting noises by whetting my palms and blowing. This delighted the throng of neighborhood kids who had gathered to see me, this western curiosity.

In the background I could hear the Cambodian xylophone and drums. It created a magical ambiance in this primitive village as it lilted through the dense forest. I asked him what it was about.
"It funeral. A little child dead. She drown. Only eight year."
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."

We spent the afternoon cruising around the surrounds of the town. We passed another huge statue in the middle of a roundabout. This time it was the ancient Cambodian king on one knee with a staff perched across the other. He was as black as Ma Rainy's bottom.
"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

From Siam Reap to Battambang

We spent the last day of our tuk tuk tour visiting two of the more distant temples. The number of tourists really declines after Angkor Wat. Even Angkor Thom had only a tiny fraction of visitors compared to AW. There were only about seven or eight other people at the diminutive Temple of Women until a busload of Korean tourists pulled up.
"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

The Outer Circle

I met Sinoun at the reception desk/bar at Earthwalkers. She is dark from the sun with big teeth that fill her wide smile. She is a friend of one of the girls who works there. I asked her if she wanted to go to the old market for dinner. We went to a place I like called Le Grand Cafe. The building is French Colonial. It has a grand central staircase surrounded with potted palms. They lead to the open air balcony that comprises the entire the second floor. Pretty brown skinned Khmer girls in black and white uniforms flutter around us. Big brushed nickel overhead fans with wooden blades spin overhead. We are sitting at a cast iron bistro table with a marble top. Behind me there is another huge potted palm. The street below us buzzes with motorbikes and then, the occasional ox-cart. Just beyond me a big German with thick glasses sips a tiny cocktail as he enjoys his cigarette.

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


Angkor makes such an impression on you that you dream about it the day before you go there. It is a vast complex of temples, larger than the Island of Manhattan but without the hot dog vendors or Broadway theaters.

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.
"Among others."
"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

Crossing Boarders

Nobody wants to tell you about the train in Bangkok. On the map you can take it all the way to Phenom Phen. But nobody seems to know for sure what happens at the boarder. You do hear stories about hustlers and cheats and crooked cops. You hear about people being forced to stay at terrible guest houses or being charged outrageous fees. The tour companies can't make any money off of the train. So there is a constant refrain of the bus, the bus, the bus.

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

A Week in Bangkok

I watched five movies as I flew over the pole. Every time I opened the window to peer at the polar ice cap, somebody complained. They just wanted to sleep. I put a blanket over my head so that I could have a look. Big black jagged slashes cut across the huge ice floes. Seems they didnt care that it was breaking up before our eyes.

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.