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.

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