Thursday, August 30, 2007

Sasha You Won't Believe Bangkok

Sasha, you would not believe the new New Siam in Bangkok. It has a big ground floor lobby with a huge Koi pond. It is modern but with lots of traditional Thai decorations. The kitchen has a brand new Italian made espresso machine. The food is still nothing to dance about but decent. That is mitigated by the fact that Ricky's is directly across the traffic choked Phra Arthit Blvd.

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

The Road to Bangkok

I got up early, determined to get out of Koh Kong as fast as possible. On the back of a moto with my chicken farmer friend, I crossed the long bridge that leads to the green rolling hills of the no mans land that separates Cambodia from Thailand. The road was made of concrete slabs that popped on every seam as we roared over them.

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


I loaded my stuff on to the back of a moto driver's bike. The moto is the station wagon of South East Asia. If a family of five can fit on one, then me, the driver, my suitcase and my guitar can. My suitcase goes between the handlebars. My knapsack on my back. Holding it like a dance partner I balance my guitar case on my knee.

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

jewel box

Today I went to Ream National Park. I went with a ranger to a tiny jewel box of a waterfall. The ranger could not have been more bored. We went most of the way up the mountain on motorbike and then hiked through the jungle for about twenty minutes. You really could not call this a trek. It was a walk and it cost ten bucks. In Thailand they would take you to a series of fantastic waterfalls and you would camp overnight in a mountain village for the same price.

On the way back I made him stop at one of the grass hut seafood restaurants that line the beach. He ordered lunch for us, including himself without really asking. I was fine with buying him lunch but I would have liked the opportunity to offer. We had a huge plate of prawns and two crispy red snappers sauteed in vegetables with fresh pineapple. We sat cross legged on the wood plank floor between two hammock's.
"Chinang" I told the owner as I payed. "Delicious."

Like everything in Cambodia, the park was a little disappointing. The waterfalls are better in Laos. The beaches more spectacular in Thailand. Still I should be happy. The winter will come in New York and I will remember what it was like to sit on a rock in my wet black under ware, sun drying above this postcard pool of clear mountain water.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007


In Sihanoukville I just went there to check out the spa and ended up staying. Sasha remember we stayed in a 4 star hotel once before in Bangkok and I did not think it such a big deal? But this place has its own private beach and it is spectacular. Especially after seeing Ochheuteal Beach. I spent only one night there. There they have completely covered the beach with shitty beachfront restaurants where the ocean laps the concrete foundations at high tide. Because of the crappy chaotic atmosphere the place is loaded with moto crooks, hustlers, pimps and beggars. Rape and stabbings are not uncommon as is the drunken behaviour that invites it.

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.

As I stood at the checkout desk I heard an animal howling. It sounded like a dog was being beaten. I scanned the vast lobby but couldnt figure out where the sound was coming from. Then the receptionist said to me:
"She crying."

I saw in one of the alcoves a young Khmer woman with long black hair. Her back was to me. She held her head in her hands. Facing her was some westerner guy with a balding grey pate. His face was a sunburnt red. I had never heard a sound like that come out of a human. A sound so unabashedly mournful and full of pain.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007


I took the red road from Kampot to Kep. Vast, partially submerged rice fields, dotted with palm trees, bounded either side of the straight flat dirt lane. In the distance were the strange camel backed mountains common to Asia.

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


On my 5th try the owner of the Bokor Mountain Club leaned over the counter and whispered to me:
"Next door, Richard, He definitely has coffee."
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.