Wednesday, February 27, 2013


For a time, Ayutthaya in central Thailand was the most populated city in the whole world – its affluence was based on its strategic location between the great trading powers of the world.  Built upon an island between three rivers, it was a point of convergence for merchants from China to the north, India to the west, and the island nations to the south, and early European visitors described it as being the finest city they had ever seen.  And in all likelihood, you’d never even heard its name.  I certainly hadn’t.  Its heyday was short lived, as before the end of the 18th century Burmese invaders had razed the city to the ground.

The city has since been rebuilt and remains an important transit hub for Thais and travelers commuting to and from the cities north of Bangkok.  I had gotten on my overnight bus from Chiang Mai with two Ericas and gotten off at Ayutthaya with one; Erica Camille had to continue elsewhere to shoot some weddings someplace beautiful and Krumbein and I were to keep traveling elsewhere.  So henceforth, if I mention an Erica, I mean specifically an Erica of the Krumbein variety.

Despite being so thoroughly ransacked by the Burmese, Ayutthaya’s monuments were built to last, and I again found myself on the seat of a bicycle drifting through the crumbling stone husk of a long gone capital city to an empire that no longer exists.  More than elsewhere I found myself meditating on impermanence and questioning the worth of being and feeling important.  Impressive spired stupas housed the remains of kings worshipped as gods by people long dead in a city I had never heard of.  It occurred to me that I could theoretically pass so many of the biggest film and music stars, writers, and politicians in the world alive today on the street – cultural darlings, contemporary gods worshipped by masses in India, China, Thailand, wherever – and I wouldn’t not even notice or perhaps even really care if I did.

At the feet of stupas, between the walls of monasteries, and before the smiling stone face of Buddha, magically consumed by time and the strangling roots of a Banyan tree, I felt the same humbling sense of insignificance one does when they get far away from the city and see in the night sky the multitudes of stars in the cosmos that city lights bury in their electric haze, and I again felt somehow liberated.  In the past I had occasionally found myself feeling adrift and listless – without a sense of purpose that I could throw the full weight of my confidence upon.   Time wears us all to dust, kings and paupers alike.  Good deeds and crimes of depravity all become forgotten eventually.  Yet, what once felt like meaninglessness to me and used to fill me with angst and dread now somehow makes me feel like I have the freedom to define meaning for myself – play by own rules, or something like that.  I no longer want to achieve impossible things, conquer nations, or have my name engraved in stone.  I just want to have a good life, learn, see beautiful things, hear beautiful music, and eat beautiful foods.  Until I’m dead.  I very much think there can be something cheerful about nihilism if you look at it the right way, and I’m aiming to live my life such that I can lay on my death bed without regret.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Chiang Mai & Spicy Joe's Bungalows

In The Master tattoo parlor Erica K. spent three hours getting stabbed with a bundle of needles tied to the end of bamboo sticks.  Before getting to work, the master held a pair of these sticks like chopsticks as if he was going to be eating stir fry instead of carving art into my friend.  After laying down a temporary outline of the concept art he set to dipping the needle tips in ink and then carefully jabbing the skin of Erica’s back along the curvy lines that would eventually become a three headed elephant.  Compared to the modern tattooing process, bamboo tattoos hurt less and heal more quickly.

Modern Chiang Mai radiates from the square shaped moat of the old city.  It’s Thailand’s second largest city and something of a laid back hippy town nestled at the feet of several mountains.  Many of the Thai men there rock long flowing hair and share the streets contrasted by bald monks and countless westerners.  It seems there are as many monasteries as 7-11s (which is actually saying a lot).  Caucasian-native couples are more abundant here than anywhere else I’ve seen, though I’ve yet to see a male Thai with a lady farang (though I’ve seen a few male Thais with male farang (foreigner), so at least some of the Thai guys are getting some action).  The age disparity between some of the mixed race couples can be unsettling when you’re having breakfast next to a 60 year old man and an 18 year old Thai boy.

Across the street from where we were staying, I experienced my first Thai massage.  After changing into traditional Thai pants, stretching out, and exhaling deeply, I was mentally prepared for a long overdue pampering that I was wishing I hadn’t so long delayed – but when my hips were suspended in the air while my masseuse was sinking his elbow into my groin, I realized I was in for something a little bit different.  Thai massage requires a bit more audience participation than other styles and probably resembles couples’ yoga at times, except where one participant remains limp at all times.  While the numerous contortions and deeply penetrating elbows were unexpected and even seemed silly at times, the technique was  incredibly effective at finding and eliminating knots, and I felt bundles of muscular irregularities being crushed away in places I didn’t know they could exists.

Despite nuking my system with antibiotics, I still hadn’t quite recovered from the illnesses I suffered in Bangkok and therefore maintained my lazy pace.  My lethargy coupled with my being in the presence of a professional photographer meant my camera remained in my bag most of the time; after touching the graceful contours of her Canon, I increasingly disdained my own piece as a mere toy.

We were staying in the home of Spicy Joe, a Thailand native Erica C. had befriended the year prior.  He awaited us in the mountains in his eco-lodge resort and after a few days in Chiang Mai, we piled into an SUV and enjoyed one of the most scenic drives through the jungle mountains of northern Thailand until we reached The Spicy Joe Bungalows.

The jungle mountain road was steep – steep enough to cause engine failures in our SUV as it lurched its way up the mountain paths.  The SUV was carrying too much weight so we stopped to leave provisional bags of salt on the roadside for later pickup.  I could barely make out the moonlit fronds decorating the hillsides and despite my illness I felt alive and full of electricity for my new love of the jungle.

We finally parked and then hiked down a hill stepped with rice fields to a series of bamboo bungalows.  It’s silly to have an expectation that a thing like dirt should be exotic but I was somehow surprised to find that dirt smells like dirt, and the smell of Thai dirt kicked up to my nostrils brought me back to trails I’ve covered in Nevada’s deserts and New England’s mountains all at once.  We could hear singing from the solely occupied bungalow.  Soft candlelight and a happy birthday chant leaked their way through the gaps in its bamboo walls and tickled the darkness.  Inside, laid out on the floor, was a room full of welcoming faces and a Thai feast – including vegetarian options in consideration of my arrival.  An old Thai man played some kind of wooden harp and we passed around “jungle juice” made from fermented rice.  I knew I was in for a good time.

The hills in these mountains are home to the Karen tribes, Thailand’s largest hill tribe ethnic group, and Joe’s bungalows are staffed by smiling Karen natives.  In the morning light I could finally examine the place.  Between bamboo huts are rows of garden vegetables, eggplants and yellow and black bananas.  A chicken, an ornery goose, and two young pups provided additional company in the gorgeous mountain top setting, with an overlook showcasing a great valley full of trees save for where water runs and villagers have built shelter.

Guests can stay at the bungalows as either paying customers or working volunteers, assisting in whatever tasks are required to help the bungalows expand or improve.  Spicy Joe – Samart in actuality – is a long haired Thai with a Che Guevara tattoo on his upper arm, an impressive repertoire of situational jokes and innuendos, and mean cooking skills in his little Thai kitchen.  He consistently put out some of the best Thai food I’ve ever had and in portions that always had me rolling about the bamboo floor feeling like a beached whale.  If asked, he’ll tell you he went to university to learn how to break the heart of the western woman, and it was maybe then I realized I was the only westerner in his little eco-resort that can pee standing up (and thinking back to his pictures of visiting travelers in his home and the scarcity of masculine faces there doubly confirmed for me his overwhelming preference for the company of lady volunteers).

The work he had set aside wasn’t exactly light.  Our first assignment involved clearing a large portion of land of jungle growth to make way for fencing and eventually more bungalows.  Hacking away at bush and vine alongside his employees made the work easier thanks to their infectious cheerfulness.  All the Karen men shared Joe’s love cracking jokes and there were many smiles shared among the heat and the sweat.  The word for fun in Thai is Sanuk and is an important part of the Thai lifestyle.  They believe if it’s not Sanuk it’s not worth doing, and their ability to infuse joy into labor was something I enjoyed seeing first hand.

Bushwacking proved to be an exciting challenge, and it felt good to exert myself under the sun after a week and a half of being sick and sedentary (perhaps it was the mountain air or my love of the jungle, but my arrival in the bungalows seemed to coincide with my recovery).  For such a conservation minded guy, I surprised myself at just how much I enjoyed seeing my skill in felling trees with a machete improved.  Experimenting with the efficacy of different techniques, I found myself getting quicker in my side to side mowing of brittle grasses and freeing tree limbs from trunks and the tangle of vines.  In a moment I could decimate a sizable bush by clearing one side to its base, stomping the rest of it over to the opposite side, and hacking at the bottom until the entirety was liberated from its roots.  The refuse of flora would then be arranged in large piles and set ablaze (“for barbeque tourist”).  The standing jungle foliage was so dense and moist the fires could be set next to the forest with confidence that there would be no outbreak.  Who knew slashing and burning could be so fun?  I had never created such a literal swath before, and I stood looking over what was once jungle growth with the pride of a Viking pillager.  An errant blow from my machete accidentally tore off a section from the dome of a termite mound and I peered inside with fascination at their intricate tunnels.  At some point one of the workers chased the bees away from a fist sized honey comb and we took turns squeezing fresh honey into our thirsty mouths.

After the long work day was over, it was time to shower, but the waterlines weren’t functioning.  This meant we would migrate from the mountain top bungalows to the waterfall side bungalows to do our bathing in stream water.  The pickup we hustled into became filled up quickly which I used as an excuse to commute Asian style, and I clambered up to the roof to join locals Den and Chico for the most thrilling commute of my life.  Each of my limbs was wrapped around a different part of the roof rack so as to keep myself from being flung as the truck navigated bumpy and steep mountain roads in 4x4 mode.  The lovely jungle scenery flew about me in 360 degree’s, but I had to be always mindful of the path ahead so I could dodge incoming vines and branches.  The roof rack was hardly comfortable as it jerked beneath the seat of our pants and threatened to turn us into ladyboys, as Den joked. 

The waterfall was a welcome sight and everyone stripped quickly to bask in its spray and wash away the day’s toil.  The water came tumbling down a cascade of rock held together in parts by massive jungle roots.  Overhanging vines begged me to swing from them, but the pool’s shallow rocks forbade such a thing.  Unexpectedly, two of the paying guests recognized me; we had both had our breakfasts interrupted by marauder monkeys in the Indian desert town of Pushkar.  With happy disbelief we swapped tales of our travels since that morning.  They, Germans form Hamburg if I recall, were following a similar trajectory as myself but with a whole year and a half allocated for their journey.

One lazy night, Erika K. and I stayed up to watch Rambo 4 which was shot in the vicinity, and has John Rambo crossing the border into Burma to save Christian missionaries and Karen villagers from genocide.  The movie was crazy violent, but full of absolutely gorgeous scenery.  I later found out one of Joe’s employees, Den, had actually helped location scout for the film, and I envied his intimate knowledge of such wonderful places.

The next day’s work was something less glamorous; we spent the midday bent over in a river picking and bagging smooth stones to bring back to build footpaths with.

I could have easily stayed a week or more, filling my days with treks and volunteer projects, but my visa was soon to expire.  Having crossed over land, I was granted only a 15 day visa compared to the 30 days granted to the Ericas for their arrival via air.  So I had to get down the mountain and position myself for a quick border crossing for a fresh two extra weeks’ allowance.  I had one last too-large Thai meal care of Joe, bid my farewells to the friends I had made, hopped into an SUV, and fell in and out of sleep as my driver, the half Chinese Mr. Thong, sang his way nasally back to Chiang Mai.

The path to Burma from Chiang Mai is well trodden by expats and foreigners hoping to squeeze just a little bit more out of their holiday.  Competing tour companies offer vans that head straight to the border and wait on the Thailand side just long enough for its commuters to walk across the border, pay for a few stamps, and slurp down some noodles before heading back to Chiang Mai.  I spent the whole day on my ass, but the scenery boasted by the north Thailand country side is nothing short of lovely, with jungle carpeted hills carved in to the oddest shapes by serpentine rivers and low rolling hills made me want to buy a motorcycle and get lost in them forever.  The atmosphere in the van was unpleasant; no one wanted to spend the day in a single seat waiting to be returned to their point of origin, but luckily a shuffling of seats had me sitting next to a curly haired San Franciscan girl who seemed to be the only conversationalist on the minibus.

The two countries are divided by a thin and mild river and a bridge conducts traffic between them.  A break in the middle of the bridge permits foot and auto traffic only one way at a time; drivers from Thailand drive up on the left side of the road and have to switch to the right in Burma (and of course vis versa).

Border customs officers are notoriously corrupt.  I’ve had made friend whom were bribed an excess amount before permitted reentry.  The Burmese officer I met was both round of face and of belly.  His toothy grin was stained with the blood red of betel nut – a habit that seems confined to the Burmese side of the border.  They refused to take my supposedly kosher USD, instead demanding I pay in Thai baht, at a rate inflated to almost double the value.  I hate passionately rewarding dishonesty, but I tried to use my known powerlessness to deflate the bitterness I felt at getting ripped off.  Nothing I could do would change anything.  On the way back I stopped to admire a transparent box full of confiscated contraband, a huge chest full of toy guns, knock off prescription drugs, and discs of pornography.

I came back to Saturday night in Chiang Mai and a house full of everyone from back at the mountains.  Poor Camille’s eyes had become glued shut from an infection during an elephant trek, but Krumbein was in sporting shape, so we hit the town looking for a fight.  On a street full of western style pubs we let ourselves get pulled into a small stadium where we were seated nearly ringside and waited to watch our first Muay Thai fight, but not before getting properly buzzed from terrible margaritas and tall bottles of Thai beer.

Before every Muay Thai boxing match, the fighters perform an odd ritual; they circle the ring with a hand coasting on the ropes, roll their fists in the air, and get down on their knees for little bows, all to traditional Thai music.  The first fight was over quick.  A flurry of jabs and some round house kicks.  The fighters lock arms in an almost intimate embrace and exchange rapid knee kicks to each other’s sides.  One last punch to the ribs sent the loser to the ground.  Krumbein and I had taken to betting, and I had a bad habit of rooting for the tall lanky guy.

After returning to my seat with a beer from a bar staffed with large breasted ladyboys (and a devious bowl of peanuts with anchovies hiding at the bottom waiting to ambush my unsuspecting mouth), three men with blind folds and boxing gloves jumped in the ring.  One of them was a midget.  The three pounded each other silly to a crowd of cheering jackasses – myself included.

I didn’t care if it was more touristy than a fanny pack, the next day we hunted for a Dr. Fish spa.  You’ve probably seen photos of goofy white people with their feet dangling in a tank full of toothless fish nibbling away at their dead skin.  The sensation isn’t unlike that of bubble jets in a Jacuzzi, but more… I guess I would say tickly.  My feet were in a frightful shape from all my traveling about in the same pair of boots so I figured I’d be a special treat for these foot guzzling fishes.  They hadn’t quite liberated me from my tough white callouses the way I was hoping they would, but I’d say my feet felt something softer after the experience.

More words and photos from Erica Camille's blog follow:

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


“Illicit drug trafficking will be punished with death penalty,” a sign warns at the Thai side of the Cambodian border, but written in that jagged lightning bolt font used for the Harry Potter movies, as if to say, “drug trafficking will be punished with death penalty and a deduction of ten points from Gryffindor!”  The departure line on the Cambodian side moved at a glacial pace and the Thai side was even worse.  Behind me a Chinese tourist crept alternatingly on my left and right sides seeming ready to pounce in front of me, as if leaving a finger’s length of space between myself and the person in front of meant forfeiting my position in line.  She spent the whole afternoon nipping at my heels.  The terrible human like wailing of caged pigs occasionally added to the ambiance as obscenely packed cargo trucks full of Thai swine were made into exports as they crossed the border.  The aroma of their filth and despair wafted in behind them.  At last, inside the customs office, fans offered relief from the heat and televisions some respite from boredom.  10 minutes with a Thai daytime variety show confirmed nearly every uncomfortable stereotype I had in my head about Thailand’s lax attitudes toward sex and gender roles.  The show was hosted by grown men dressed like babies in pink and white gowns, and the talent consisted of adolescents of occasionally indeterminable sex singing, dancing, and dressing like adults.  There’s a lot of slapstick and tushy slapping.  At some point one of the man-babies picks up a maybe-boy-maybe-girl wearing a wig and a gown revealing lots of leg and starts kissing him/her on the tummy.  It had me shuddering to think what kind of antics happen in Thailand outside of television broadcasting.

It had been nearly two and a half months since I had seen a familiar face, and the accumulation of loneliness and discomfort had diminished my spirit of adventure, but waiting for me in Bangkok was two Ericas, friends from New York who were also planning to be in Thailand.  Reuniting with them – seeing their faces – and conspiring adventures to come brought a complete resurgence to my spirits and made being on the road feel like home again.

One of the Ericas, Camille let’s say, has spent plenty of time in Thailand and was happy to share her experience and companions with the two of us.  We stayed in a spacious apartment full of expats from all over the world.  Other travelers like us also passed in and out of the place and the nightly shuffling of human beings meant every morning I woke up in a different part of the apartment.

Canals are still an important way to get around in Bangkok

In total, we stayed in Bangkok an entire week, but I don’t have a week’s worth of Bangkok to relate because I spent the entirety of my time there ill.  And it’s my fault, too.  I was nurturing a mild case of food poisoning from Cambodia and didn’t let that stop me from regaling my reuniting with friends with great quantities of Thai beer.  My mild sickness coupled with a hangover and made me vulnerable enough for a nasty cold virus and maybe something else.  My sinuses felt inflated enough to crush my teeth to powder, I had migraines that increased in severity as the day passed on, and worst of all, I suffered a crippling fatigue that made it difficult to leave the apartment.  The building, though, had a swimming pool… so I guess in some way, I picked a fine place to be sick (though I did find myself terribly disappointed that I couldn’t better enjoy this exciting city and the great new people I met there).

Protective talismans are popular with many Thais

So far, Bangkok is the only truly modern city I’ve seen in Southeast Asia (oh, I forgot about Kuala Lumpur).  The metro rail is fast, clean, and efficient, the commercials playing in fancy malls and in the subway cars have impeccable production value, and Bangkok’s very fashion minded youth look like they work at an Urban Outfitters.  Bangkok has a reputation for exceptionally cheap tailors so I made appointments to have a sports jacket that I had been dreaming of owning cut from scratch.  After choosing the fabric, being measured, and laying down all my specifications, however, the jacket’s cost ended up being marginally less than my trusted tailors in Los Angeles or New York would have cost, so I made some silly excuse and left the tailors’ district disappointed.  This experience would repeat itself at the hip weekend market and a few malls. I was hoping to scoop up lots of loot in Bangkok and show up to Hong Kong and Los Angeles looking like a baller, but with frustrating consistency everything was too small, too Asian, or too shoddily constructed – and if it wasn’t any of those things, that meant the price tag would somehow match or even exceed those of New York’s, so I eventually gave up on my dapper on the cheap aspirations.

It was clear very quickly that Thailand and Cambodia are close cultural cousins – reflected most immediately by the classic architecture, music, dress, and food – but I’m reluctant to say Cambodia is left the paler of the two in almost every way.  Thailand’s monasteries are similar but dazzling by comparison in scope, color, and intricacy.  Even the tiny spiritual bird houses that sit outside every home and business are more impressive here.  There’s an expectation that big businesses care for more extravagant shrines: outside of one hotel a large shrine houses a golden four headed Brahma, and a small team of classically trained dancers await donations from the public.  When someone feels particularly grateful to the gods for something, they can show their appreciation by paying the dancers to perform on their behalf.  Behind another hotel, another shrine has become famous for its powers of instilling fertility and is rampant with carefully arranged phalluses – enormous penises stacked in rows and perched erect along the garden’s walkways.  Thai food has so many similarities to the neighboring Cambodia’s cuisine, but it’s difficult to compare.  Thai food is so good!  Spicy, fresh, sweet, sour, and salty – and the street food is some of the cleanest in the region.  My taste buds have been the second happiest they’ve been on this journey (sorry Thailand, but it will take more than that to dethrone India in my heart – or in my mouth, rather).

I don’t mean to make these comparisons to belittle Cambodia – I truly admire Cambodia – but it seems to me Cambodia’s relative mildness could be a direct result of its recent and tragic history.  The Khmer Rouge killed artists and educators first.  They destroyed museums, schools, and monasteries.  Culture was a great casualty of the genocides, and Cambodia is still suffering a handicap as a consequence.  The Khmer people once ruled nearly all of peninsular Southeast Asia and it makes me bitter to think how much they’ve lost to that pointless genocide.

Being overspent, sick, and tired, my camera spent more time holstered or in my bag than normal.  Or perhaps this was mostly due to the fact that I was now traveling with Erica Camille, who happens to be a terribly good photographer.  Either way, here's a link to her own travel blog:

Until Camille and I part, I'll be supplementing my posts with links to her own.  You can get a different take on some of the same events and enjoy her beautiful eye on the world.

Sunday, February 17, 2013


Lying on a mattress in my bamboo shack I could hear geckos slap their tails against the bamboo walls.  From the rooftop bar across the patio, I could hear the thumping bass of techno and cheering drunk Europeans.  In the dark under my mosquito net, I could hear the crinkle of plastic wrap and dry crumbling – something nibbling on my baguette, my intended pre-dawn breakfast.  Too much of the outside world seeps in through the cracks.  Sleep doesn’t come easy in my bamboo shack, but it does eventually come.  Until my alarm clock rouses me.  It’s my fourth and last full day in Siem Reap and I had been saving the best for last.

While I hop on my bike to start my day, others are stumbling back from the bars.  It’s five thirty in the morning.  In a corner store, full of western foods at western prices, I replace my molested baguette.  Outside an inebriated Frenchman is trying to dance with a timid Cambodian security guard.

If the backpacker scene in India is for hippies and Nepal for the trekkers, then the backpacker scene in Cambodia is for frat party douchebags and I happily flee the tourist village in Siem Reap for the complex of ruins to the north.  Typically tourist villages are integrated into the cities as they are, but the foreigner zone here is baptized in the waters of tourism and seems to be for foreigners alone.  My mealtimes are usually characterized by finding modest looking places full of locals, but here none of the restaurants radiating from my hotel would have any Cambodians in them except for those in the staff.  The inflated tourist prices mixed with my coming back from the temples too exhausted to find my cheap local eats saw me spending more on mediocre meals than I did on my greatest splurges in the Indian subcontinent, and my daily tallies showed me I was spending more here than I was in Burma.

On the road, the black sky embraces hints of indigo, and this quickens my pace.  I have someplace to be.  The morning crows of roosters slowly get replaced by the wild sounds of the jungle.  Phantom squeaks of invisible frogs bounce around the edges of marshes, ripsaw cicadas drone in the trees, and the funny warbles of jungle birds sound oddly like the way laser beams do in cartoons – with eyes closed it almost sounds like a space battle in stereo.  Sinewy trees, the sum of many inseparable trunks, reach up to meet at the forest canopy, and parasitic vines come spiraling back down.  Oh, how I love the jungle.

The days before had been unfortunately overcast, particularly when I was exploring the temples of Angkor on foot, leaving my photos washed out, lacking contrast, and always backlit, no matter the angle.  Somehow the clouds timed their partings for when I was hustling about on the seat of my bicycle, leaving me more vulnerable to sunburn and drenching sweat.  On my second day I had biked over 80 kilometers on my crappy cruiser style bicycle, leaving my bottom quite tender.  I would rehydrate with chilled young coconuts, and on the longest stretch of my longest ride, I found vendors selling a candy made from palm sap cooked in great kilns.  There were maybe 50 of these candy stalls in a row all selling the same palm candy packaged in palm leaves and I wouldn’t find them anywhere else.  The palm candy had all the natural fattiness you expect from coconut but with a sumptuous element of fruitiness.  The texture is chalky at first but grows malty as it melts in your mouth.

The cloudiness wasn’t supposed to break until the day I was to depart, so I tacked on an extra day and saved all the sights I was the most excited about for later.  I would see them from a distance as I commuted about the complex of Angkor in pursuit of its lesser treasures, and they would taunt me from behind great walls, moats, and jungle forests.

On my bonus day I visited a silk farm and witnessed every stage of silk production.  Great rows of mulberry bushes would provide leafy sustenance for the silk worms, and every variety of mulberry leaf would end up producing a different quality of silk.  Silk moths are bred and die shortly after giving birth.  Their offspring munch until ready to cocoon themselves in yellow thread.  The cocoons would then be boiled by the dozens and with a large wooden fork and a loom, their silk is wrapped into neat spindles and the leftover silkworms are ready to be snacked upon (our guide’s son found them irresistible).  The silk is then dyed, dried, and woven through complex bamboo looms into intricate scarves, ties, throw pillows, whatever.

That evening I also took a tour of the local wats (monasteries), the second of which I happened upon a funeral.  The body was burned under an open air pagoda.  The mourners sat together dressed in white and listened to monks chant hypnotically.  Many had shaved their heads in grief.  One of the guests ambled over to inform me, “he die by drink too much wine.”  On the other side of the monastery, next to a bustling street market, a young man entered to find a slightly private place to take a piss.  “Where you from?” he asked while peeing beside a pagoda.  He then informed me I should take off my hat around the pagodas, so as to be respectful… while he was peeing on a pagoda.

Northeast of the heart of the temple complex is a landmine museum founded by an ex-member of the Khmer Rouge.  Before defecting, Aki was a conscripted child soldier and landmine specialist.  On the battlefield, he had deceived enemy combatants by leaving behind ammunition clips that would unleash a lethal neurotoxin when fired.  As an adult and free man, he has devoted his life to the disarmament of landmines in Cambodia and has personally disarmed tens of thousands of landmines – including landmines he likely laid himself, but mostly mines dropped by American planes in effort to disrupt supply lines to the Viet Kong.  The museum is full of disarmed mines, rockets, bombs, and claymores, and is also home to two dozen or so children who have been disfigured by or otherwise affected by landmines.  All the proceeds go to the orphanage.

Antipersonnel landmines are deliberately designed to maim instead of kill, as injured soldiers and civilians are more costly to tend to than dead ones.  The devastation landmines can wreak upon human bodies is abundantly clear when traveling around Cambodia.  Limbless beggars are tragically plentiful in any urban location, often legless on hand powered carts, and I had seen at least five bands of crippled musicians performing around Siem Reap, the members each being left blind or limbless thanks to chance encounters with leftover landmines.  Most countries in the world have since signed a U.N. drafted treaty prohibiting the manufacture and use of antipersonnel mines.  Notable holdouts include India, China, Burma, and the United States, with the U.S. insisting an exception for the Korean border be made.

Well, I began this entry discussing my final and best day here, and I suppose I should stop skipping around it.  So, I was stealing through the jungle in the early morning so that I could watch the sun rise from behind the mountainous temple silhouette of Angkor Wat, the largest religious building in the world and the greatest source of pride for the Khmer people.  A central peak in the temple looms over four smaller peaks in the corners, several layers of walls, a grand courtyard, and a massive moat once full of crocodiles.  The same silhouette I saw reflected in the ponds preceding the temple in the cracks between lily pads also graces the Kingdom of Cambodia’s flag.  Like many of the temples in the region, Angkor Wat was dedicated as a Hindu temple, but has been since converted to honor Buddha by the mere addition of golden Buddhas in the hallways.

The outermost layer of walls is engraved with epic depictions of battles, both historical and otherwise.  In one panel, Yama, the god of death (and also the local name for crystal meth), sits indifferently as he grants access to heaven or condemns the recently departed to an eternity of suffering (much like Jesus in the last judgment paintings I love so much).  Many of the halls are decorated with depictions of Asparas, Khmer nymphs with terribly mannish faces and wild haircuts that are nothing short of fabulous.

Hoping to stay a step ahead of the tour groups, after sunrise I hustled over to Ta Prohm, a tremendous temple overrun by even more tremendous jungle growth and made famous by Lara Croft’s battles in Tomb Raider.  In the post-dawn morning light, the sun’s rays caught the green leaf edges of countless leaves and bathed the scene in soft emerald light.  Testifying the might of nature over the triumphs of man, huge trees erupt from the temple stones in the most artfully unlikely ways.  The arches of doorways bulge with strangling tree roots, simultaneously holding the stones together and causing the constructions to explode in the slowest of slow motion.  Whole passageways are made impenetrable by the flooding of roots.  The place was a battlefield between the most beautiful expressions of nature and man, and enjoyed with near solitude, I found its aura intoxicating.  I returned in the afternoon to enjoy a few specific sights that I thought would benefit from the sun hanging higher and on the other side of the sky, but then I found myself hugging a wall to keep from being tugged away in a terrible current of Russian and Chinese tour groups.  I counted three taxis in the parking lot when I was first in the temple.  When I had returned, there were well over 200.

Angkor had once been sacked ruthlessly by the Chams, predecessors of the modern Vietnamese, and so the most legendary of Khmer god-kings, Jayavarman VII, set about building a walled capital that would later be called home by nearly a million people and impervious to assault by a perimeter of thick walls and a moat.  The wall forms a perfect rectangle with a bridge on each side.  Either side of the gate is flanked by giants or demons, engaged in an eternal tug of war by their pulling of Naga, the multi-headed serpent.  With frightening authority, the top of each gate has four faces of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (or even Jayavarman VII himself depending on who you consult), one pointed in each cardinal direction, with an ominously haunting hint of a smile – a smile with the captivating complexity of Mona Lisa’s but made somehow foreboding by its authority.

Once inside the walled city of Angkor Thom, you can follow the trumpeting elephants to the empire’s once beating heart, the state temple called Bayon.  Here the power of Avalokiteshvara’s face is made more powerful through repetition.  No fewer than 216 depictions of the same godly face adorn the stone towers, exuding an authority that must have terrified the god-king’s followers and commanded their obedience.

In four days Angkor kicked my butt and captured my heart.  The ruins there could be the most exciting in the world.  Cycling the paths in the spaces between sights was a pleasure alone, but left me craving complete immersion in the jungle, away from the paved roads.  And perhaps I’ll achieve that here in Thailand, as I’ve since spent a painful and boring 12 hours in the commute from Siem Reap to Bangkok.

Friday, February 15, 2013


Strolling up and down Battambang, you’d never guess it was a country’s second biggest city; if it weren’t for the endless parade of motorcycles you could even call the place sleepy.  Still under the spell of their one time French rulers, you can buy baguettes under French colonial facades, and enjoy them on the street while passing French restaurants and crumbling ├ęcoles.

As it was with Phnom Penh, the city’s heart lies thumping in its darkly deco central market, a veritable gallery of curiosities for the westerner and perfect for window shopping.  Bright and spikey fruits of every size lay segregated from tiny firm purple tomatoes.  In another bucket, inverted green cones on stalks show off deep pores full of some kind of legume perhaps.  Pyramidal stacks of slimy pink gore await their buyers, and nearly dead fish suffocate slowly below a wire net, to prevent the occasional escape attempt (I had earlier seen a fish leap two meters horizontally in a futile attempt at escape).  You can scoop up pirated Xbox 360 games for two dollar USD.  Dental floss is going to cost you quite a bit more than that.

With most of my last week spent in silent transit, I didn’t realize how starved I was for proper conversation until I was invited to sit down and chat by a table full of monks at Wat Damrey Sar monastery (Asians beckon with a slightly erected arm and a flapping wrist in a gesture that looks quite like a western “shoo”).

I’ve found myself adopting local gestures – single souvenirs from each of my destinations.  I still find myself employing the Indian head wobble, a side to side wiggle to demonstrate unsureness, indifference, agreement, pacifism … whatever you want it to mean really.  In Nepal I adopted their specific gesture for conveying “no,” a flat palm perpendicular to ground the ground and twisted back and forth as if trying to adjust a watch.  In Burma, I’ve taken to giving and accepting money and goods the polite way, with my right hand only, and with my left hand tucked below my right elbow.  …and in Cambodia now, the beckoning shoo.

I spent nearly two hours in the monastery, speaking to a rotation of monks as they came and went form their monastic duties.  Topics of conversation happened to be dinner table taboos: sex, politics, and religion.  The recent U.S. election and the Cambodian genocide.  The principles of American and Cambodian courtship and marriage.  Cambodians seem to have a great fascination with the love triangle – nearly every music video I’d seen so far featured a left out would-be lover or two romantic partners vying for the attention of the third.  I ended up using the back and margins of my city map as scratch paper, drawing graphs to help illustrate my points where language failed, and interesting parallels ended up bridging the topics.  Graphs of the three branches of American government looked a lot like graphs of love triangles, and everything seemed to boil down to a discussion and analysis of incentives, greed, and altruism, the basic economic forces that govern everything about humans.

While Tibetan monks were required to play instruments and I had seen fit Burmese monks kicking about in a football field, Cambodian monks seem quite a bit more ascetic and are required to abstain from both music and sport.  They don’t, however, have to abstain from eating bugs, and as we were chatting they munched merrily away at fried crickets and chilies that they had purchased from women carrying great mounds of the insects on flat woven baskets upon their heads.

In the past, I’ve heard westerners espouse the value of Buddhism as a philosophy instead of a religion, but really, no one seems to regard it here that way, and Buddhsim is just as kooky, superstitious, and dogmatic as anything else.  If it weren’t for the golden Buddha cross legged in the center of every monastery in Cambodia, you might assume you looking at a Hindu temple.  The great snake Naga hisses from the corner of every roof and handrail, his slithering body streaming in even curvatures upward until culminating in a sharp spine characteristic of much of the architecture here.  Monkey Hanumans and eagle Garudas spread their limbs valiantly from beams supporting the roof.  Dog-lion chinthe guard the monastery doors against evil spirits – distinctly Buddhist compared to the Hindu characters – but then cement gravestones etched in Chinese characters contribute dashes of Taoism and Confucianism to the mix.  Tiny monasteries on pedestals sit before every home and business and look as though built as places of worship for birds, but are in fact intended to house and appease wandering spirits, and every morning barefoot monks with tin pots in one hand and an umbrella in the other hit the streets collecting alms.  Even the most impoverished of the poor pour their earnings into the monastery’s coffers.

Owing perhaps to Cambodia’s more progressive nature, I’ve noticed a great deal more western expats here than anywhere else in Asia I’ve been: lots of multiracial couples and white people working in non-profit restaurants and speaking fluent Khmer.  So is it that I’ve been regarded with the least amount of curiosity from locals than anywhere else I’ve been, but whereas in India, the locals’ increased exposure to white people means increased likelihood of touts and scam artists, I’ve found the Cambodians to be terribly polite and exceptionally honest.  I’ve even seen quite a few transgendered ladies in my short time here, and they seem to be treated with fair indifference, rather than condemned the way they are in most countries or even the helpless gawking that happens in America.

It’s been much more difficult as a vegetarian in Cambodia; I don’t think there’s even a word for vegetarian in Khmer, so I’ve been mostly sticking to the more expensive tourist restaurants, where many even understand the concept of veganism.   I did find a local veg restaurant in Battambang where I would be the only whitey around, and it had some of the best noodles and dumplings I’ve had so far.  I’ve been going there twice a day.  It’s also harder to supplement meals by snacking here, because even many of the bagged snacks aren’t vegetarian – lots of chicken and prawn crisps – and if they are vegetarian, they’re usually terribly bland and nutritionally bankrupt. 

(Weeks after originally writing this, I realized I had frequently been eating bread buns topped with an innocuous looking brown fibery substance that I later discovered is called pork floss (eww eww eww eww eww))

Cambodians are awfully fond of gingham.  Colorful checked sashes called krama are an important part of the Cambodian wardrobe and heritage and they’ll be seen often worn as scarves, bundled up around the face like a turban, or wrapped around the waist.  I noticed them first in photos of Khmer Rogue soldiers and the awkward experience of thinking, “my that’s handsome,” when looking at genocidal murderers.

Every country seems to have their own variation on the rickshaw.  Here they’re called remorques and consist of a comfortable trailer with a decorative prow attached to a motorcycle.  It’s cheaper, however, to hop onto the back of a remorque-less bike, as I did on my last day in Battambang to inspect the sights of the city’s greater area.

Just getting to and from places proved to be just as pleasant as the destinations themselves.  The rich country side was very diverse in landscape and we zipped past bamboo jungles, palm fringed swamps, ponds with simply perfect lily flowers, and long dusty plains.  In villages of stilted shacks, I could see transparent discs of homemade rice paper drying in the sun and it must have been quite an auspicious day as we surely passed at least half a dozen weddings (in Cambodia, both bride and groom dress in red with cheesy haircuts that would be more appropriate for prom – come to think of it, most of the couples weren’t much older than prom age, so I guess I’ll let it fly).  Brief stops included a leather farm full of grumpy grey crocodiles and a long abandoned Pepsi plant.

A hilltop temple from the Angkor period was built of giant stone Jenga blocks and looked as if a sneeze could cause it to topple.  Despite its ruined state, it still summoned worshippers that would climb the 358 stone steps to prostrate themselves before Buddha.  Walking along algae coated ponds at the base of the hill had me disturbing long salamanders from their rest and caused them to dive synchronously into the water, creating momentary blue-black apertures in the green film resting on the water.

12 kilometers southwest of Battambang is Phonom Sampeau, a family of monasteries (atop a mountain of course).  The lush pathways running to the top overlook steep canyon drops and deep caverns, including one where Khmer Rouge cadres would bash their victims’ heads in before kicking them down the hole.  Steps now lead down to the bottom of this killing cave where a Buddha sits placidly next to a glass shrine interring the remains of the victims: a huge pile of skulls with fractures that have you wonder morbidly whether they were caused before or after their owners plummet to the bottom of the cave.

In the lovely late afternoon ruins of an abandoned train station, now trafficked with grazing cattle and playing children, I met a friendly couple from Brisbane decked out in khaki adventure gear.  We sat cross legged among the grass covered train tracks and swapped tales and introspections of travel until the sun set and cued us for dinner.

I dropped at least a few extra dollars to take a river cruise to my next destination instead of a bus.  In my imagination, the cruise was going to creep slowly up serpentine riverways with towering jungle growth leaning over the banks and cutting the rays of the sun into a billion dappling shards.  That the caws of bright parrots and howls of swinging gibbons would fill the air and that some point the boat driver was going to have to fire shots from his revolver to deter angry hippopotami from attacking the boat (a la Disney Land’s Jungle Cruise, if you don’t know, and yes, I know there aren’t hippopotami in Cambodia).  Well the extra cost didn’t end up buying me a pristine shooting location for a Vietnam War picture that I had drummed up in my head, but it did afford me white neighbors! (uncomfortably, the few Cambodians on board had to sit at the back of the boat)

While never quite jungle-y the way I was hoping, the river landscape was full of lovely birds and great slices of river bound rural life.  House boats both off and on the water housed napping Khmer, fishermen waded chest deep to adjust their conical fishing nets, and the daily passage of foreigners proved to be a highlight for the many naked children whose faces lit up upon our passing by, and their hands flew up vigorously in friendly waves.  I felt a little awful about our passing at times though.  The water in the river was so shallow that the momentum of our medium size vessel displaced so much water that it caused a mighty wake that wouldn’t surprise me if it occasionally capsized the villagers’ modest and narrow fishing boats.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Phnom Penh

I don’t know how apparent it’s been in my writing so far, but I think there’s been a gradual leaning toward bitterness and cynicism.  I’ve been finding myself subject to increasingly frequent mood swings, and alternating between euphoric wonder and a motivationless malaise that has me wondering “what the hell am I doing here?”  I set myself a very tight budget that I can’t stray too far from, and the cumulative discomfort and overspending of weeks before had taken a considerable toll on my spirit of adventure and I took my first steps in Cambodia more than ever missing New York, my friends and family, and my domestic life.  I hadn’t seen a familiar face in about three months.  This wasn’t the first time I had felt this way, but this time I caught myself, realizing how I had first felt the same listlessness and dismay when I had first arrived in New Delhi, Kathmandu, and Yangon.  I’m still working out the reasons, but for some reason my first moments in each country I’ve landed in so far have been characterized by aimlessness, confusion, and disappointment, but each time the places had grown on me to the point of fondness.  It takes time, but I think it is time that helps me answer that initial question, and I get to discover what the hell it is I’m doing here.  Discovering this pattern helped pick up my pace in Phnom Penh, and I then better looked forward to seeing what Cambodia had to share.

Perhaps the biggest difference I noticed about Cambodia in comparison to my other destinations was the amount of exposed skin you can see on the street.  India, Nepal, and Burma are all very conservative in this regard, and I fear I had adopted some of their biases: the first girls I saw wearing makeup and displaying cleavage I had simply assumed were prostitutes.  After only two months of seeing nothing but conservative dress I found myself gawking at the immodesty of shorts – white and brown people with exposed thighs! – but soon got over myself enough to take a knife to my khakis so I could better escape the southern heat along with my newly adopted prejudices and join the fray.

This tour has been very illuminating for my sense of classical Asian aesthetic and I’ve found it very pleasing to witness the subtle evolutions of art and architecture as I plod my way farther eastward, and train my eyes to look for the Indian in Nepal, Burmese in Cambodia, and so on.  The fiery and jagged edges that fringe the roof edges of Burmese monasteries have smoothed out to the wavy lines contours of long snakes, and culminate on either end with hooked tail tips or the many heads of the snake god Naga.  Likewise the gradual variations of lines and shapes that subtly alter as I change geography can also be seen in the curvatures and skin tones of the faces of people on the streets. 

The National Museum in Phnom Penh is full of ancient and beautiful sculptures of my friends Vishnu, Buddha, and Ganesh, but in variations particular to the region and artisans of the Khmer empire (like in Burma, Hinduism eventually lost all traction to Theravada Buddhism, but elements still remain; Hindu animal gods like Hanuman, Garuda, and Naga are heavily featured in Cambodian Buddhist monasteries).  Much of the art in the museum is from the Angkor Wat complex to the northwest and the grace and power of these particular pieces made my anticipation of actually being in Angkor Wat build to a frenzy.

The money situation in Cambodia is a little peculiar – prices are often listed in U.S. Dollars, and in fact most ATMs spit out USD, but when you spend the dollars, you get back Cambodian Riel as change.  1000 Riel notes act basically as quarters.  It’s disorienting at first but works out quite effortlessly when you get the hang of it.

I had a super time when I was exploring the downtown area by the banks of the river, when the thong my cheap Indian sandals snapped at the toes, leaving me barefoot like the umbrella wielding monks collecting alms in the morning.  My frustration slowly melted away when I discovered how oddly soothing the gristle of asphalt and edges of tile work felt as they penetrated my sore and calloused soles (I’m having trouble figuring out how cheap Cambodia is: my 10 kilometer moto ride from the airport was only $1.25, but I’m having a tricky time finding replacement sandals for less than $10 (I paid only $1 for the pair from India)). 

There’s nothing like actually being in a place to help dispel your ignorance about it – before stepping foot in the country I knew precisely jack about Cambodia – and I now have a proper appreciation of just how big of a douchebag Pol Pot was.  Around two million Cambodian lives were lost tragically to genocide when this monumentally terrible douchebag led the Khmer Rouge to power.  He expelled all city dwellers to internment camps in the country and almost overnight Phnom Penh was a ghost town.  Despite this mind-numbingly horrible no-good crown prince of douchebags’s education and qualifications as an educator, educators were among the first to go, as the party was trying to create an anti-intellectual rural society as quickly as possible.  Knowing a foreign language was grounds enough for imprisonment and subsequent execution.  “Better to kill an innocent by mistake than to spare an enemy by mistake,” he said while fueling the insane paranoia that was pervasive in those days and caused so much suffering and pointless death. 

I learned all this first at Tuol Sleng, a former high school that was converted into a prison by the Khmer Rouge.  Of the thousands imprisoned there – as many as 20,000 – all but seven were executed, and the typical two to four months they spent there were utter hell.  The place still stinks of despair.  Blackboards and teachers’ desks still remain as they were, however, they lay next to iron shackles and crude instruments of torture.  Classrooms were converted into tiny cell blocks of shoddy wood or brick construction.  Occasional photos mounted on the walls display the shocking state of things when Vietnamese troops arrived: emaciated corpses shackled by the ankles and broken from physical abuse.  One man was beaten so badly, the white of his skull shone through open gashes on his face.  The Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records of those they interred and many of the classrooms are now lined with photographs of the faces of those lost so tragically.  I kept my composure until nearly the end of my visit, but upon learning just how few even survived this place, I could do little else than bury my face in my hands.

The killing was rarely done at the school, but rather in a field 13 kilometers southwest of the city.  The victims were usually under the pretense that they were being relocated to a nicer facility so as to maintain their compliance.  Instead they were blind folded, knelt over an open ditch, and bludgeoned from behind.  Bullets were too costly to waste on so many victims so the executioners elected to use hatchets, garden hoes, whatever they could get their hands on.  There are reports that throats were sometimes slit with the serrated edges of palm fronds growing on the grounds.  To the touch, they felt more than capable of the task.  Some 9,000 victims were unearthed from this site alone.  There are dozens like it across the country.  Human fragments still surface occasionally, usually after a rain.

The women’s bodies were usually recovered naked.  Raped of course.  The most horrifying sight there (mom, you should probably skip to the next paragraph), has been named the killing tree.  Here infants were executed.  They were gripped by the legs and bashed against the tree.  Today it’s covered with ribbons and bracelets left by visitors.

The killing fields today are a surprisingly serene place, full of green gardens and butterflies.  The loveliness of a tree lined lake almost seems to contradict the fact that it is still full of the skeletal remains of murdered innocents.  A central pagoda commiserates the dead and houses their recovered remains in glass tiers separated by the type of bone.  A few layers for skulls.  A few for leg and arm bones.  Hips and shoulder blades and so on.  A towering and sorted stack of skeletons.

Incredibly, despite the atrocities, the Khmer Rouge were earned a seat at the United Nations, and only 30 years after these crimes were committed were the leaders ever arrested.  Pol Pot was never prosecuted, having died at the age of 72, and Cambodians are still waiting for justice to be carried out upon the remaining ringleaders.