Saturday, December 25, 2010


US Embassy, Phnom Penh, Christmas Eve
It was many Christmases ago, one of our earliest living in Cambodia and our Khmer maid's first working with a foreign family. Polly (the maid) knew a bit about the holiday, had seen it in movies and heard tell from friends, but had never really witnessed it up close. She explained that she figured Santa to be some sort of minor Christian deity (a neak ta of some sort) and the Christmas holiday a time of gifts and 'giant French chickens' (muong barang thom.) OK, close enough.

In the week before the holidays we put up a small Christmas tree in our apartment, hung a couple of big red Christmas stockings on wall next to the tree and tacked some garland and fairy lights around the front door. Polly seemed fascinated by the whole process, as an anthropologist might, observing and studying some exotic foreign ritual.

Christmas morning we all exchanged gifts, one small gift to me being a pair of mitt-style potholders (I like to cook.) After opening gifts and the usual Christmas morning activities, my wife and I went out to a restaurant for breakfast. Upon returning home a hour later we found that the maid, in a sincere attempt to join in the Christmas doings, had hung the new potholders on the wall with the Christmas stockings. I guess, for somebody who had no real idea but was trying to follow the logic of the tradition, it probably made a good sense to hang the giant mittens on the wall next to the giant socks. Clueless but cute, and in the right spirit regardless. We left the potholders there until we took all the decorations down a week and a half later.

Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Cyclo at night

Christmas Eve 2010, 3:55AM. Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Cyclo at night, disturbed (by me.)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A passing encounter

Bangkok. Out of the hospital with a clean bill and no required follow-ups. Not quite what I was but a helluva lot better than I could have been. I'm done with them and almost home.

Feeling tired and weak and a bit beaten up by the doctors, but nevertheless past it, I decided to make a night out, recoup some strength, if in attitude only. I began at a Soi 4 bar, perchance talking to an old (35ish) Thai taxi girl with whom I had one of the most disturbing conversations I've had.

I think she was trying to talk me up, hoping that I'd become a customer, but she spewed so much hatred, such unrelenting bile for everybody and every kind of person, that she literally made me feel physically ill. Any other time I would have been able to take it in stride, perhaps knock her down a few pegs, but my weakened state left me vulnerable.

One of the reasons I went to the bar was to try to relax and buck up a bit, put on a light, listen to some music, watch some people, get into a better frame. I just wasn't ready for her. Not that she directed any of her venom at me - after all, I was a potential customer. But no-one else was spared.

She began when I entered, harshly forcing some other (younger, prettier) taxi girls to relinquish their choice streetside seats to me, referring to them as "buffaloes." Granted, as a paying customer I was entitled to the seat, but I wouldn't have asked them to move, taxi girls or not.

I sat down.

She plopped down next to me and immediately began about the 'half-brained idiot farang bar owner' who lets these "useless buffaloes" do what they want. She went on…and on.

Trying to change the subject to something completely different, I asked about a katoey fortune teller that used to sit on the sidewak in front of the Dynasty Inn a few doors down. A deck of cards, a candle and a kerchief on the pavement - he was there for many years and I noticed in my last couple of visits that he had disappeared. I thought maybe he had moved. To be honest, I have no particular sympathy for katoeys and probably even something of a prejudice against them, but would never dream of wishing harm on somebody who had done me no harm. And this particular guy (girl) had always been kind to me. He spoke decent English and turned the cards and told my fortune a couple-few times over the years, doing a pretty good job of it. Anyway, when I asked about him she told me bluntly and with something of a smirk that he was dead - "dead of AIDS," she enunciated.

I felt an immediate rush of sadness. I knew this guy, or at least who he was. She went on to revel in it a bit, telling me how he deserved it because he was a katoey, how all katoeys deserve it, "butt-fuckers" that they are. I pressed for more info, received little, and in hindsight, I'm not sure she was telling the truth anyway. It may have all have been an exercise in wishful thinking.

She then went on to attack, in turn, the stupid Khmer beggars, the job-stealing Burmese, the thieving Vietnamese children who sell flowers on the street and, of course, the "smelly Muslims" that inhabit Soi 3. With a big smile she used my almost empty beer bottle to demonstrate how she would crack the skull of an 8-year-old Vietnamese 'match-girl' who was working the street nearby. And even though I went from a polite smile, to defending these people, to a blank stare, to a disgusted stare and finally quite obviously just looking away trying to ignore her, I don't think she ever got the idea that I was anything but enjoying her vile banter. I guess I should have just laid into her, but really wasn't up for a fight. That's not why I was there.

In the end, after only two beers, I called for my bill, paid the exact amount, and left. As I was leaving she followed, proffering the standard lilting "where are you going?" and a sweet voiced "come again," probably hoping for a tip or an offer to have her join me, but I wouldn't/couldn't even look at her.

I went on to better places and better people and made a pretty good night of it.

I have no moral to this story or conclusion to offer, just a vaguely sick feeling from the encounter, slowly fading as the hangover wanes and my strength returns.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Southeast Asia Backpacker's Credo and Motto

The Credo
1. I shall eschew the ways of the tourist and have an authentic Asian experience rather than a shallow, contrived, package holiday. I am Traveler.
2. I shall wear the largest possible backpack to bear proud witness of my creed.
3. I will spend my travels on the quest for Our Holy Grail - for the ‘Unspoiled Place’ - a place undiscovered by tourists, where happy, welcoming, generous natives tend vast fields of ganja along a deserted, previously unknown tropical beach, and that has Internet access.
4. I shall begin my quest on Khao San Road.
5. I shall not leave Khao San Road without a Lonely Planet guide.
6. I shall never admit to using a Lonely Planet guide.
7. I shall follow ‘Wheeler’s Way’, a mystical school of thought, which both eschews and embraces Khao San Road – a way of finding the Unspoiled Place without ever leaving the path.

(Editors note: ‘Wheeler’s Way’ is a school of thought posited as a possible answer to the decades old conundrum known as the ‘Sang Thip Paradox’: If it is in Lonely Planet then I can find it, but it won’t be the Unspoiled Place. If it is not in Lonely Planet, it might be the Unspoiled Place, but I won’t be able to find it.)

8. I shall wear the traditional international backpacker’s uniform and don at least one piece of local clothing (conical hat, krama, yam, etc.) to show my oneness with the Asian people.
9. I shall not clean the local soils and aromas from my uniform for I wish to always carry a piece of where I have been.
10. I shall never wear a souvenir tee shirt in the tee-shirt’s country of origin.
11. I shall eat banana pancakes on a regular basis, for it is the quintessential Asian food.
12. I shall eat in the cheapest restaurants. Hygiene is for package tourists.
13. I shall travel by the least comfortable means, for comfort is also for package tourists.
14. I shall drink the local beer, for I shall always endeavor to be in tune with the local culture. And because it is the cheapest.
15. I shall stay in the cheapest guesthouse. More money for beer.
16. I shall not allocate more that 75% of my daily budget to alcohol and drugs. Moderation in all things.
17. I shall make a pilgrimage to a Full Moon Party at Had Rin Beach Koh Phangan at least once in my life. For it is Mecca.
18. I shall revel in food and mosquito-borne diseases, for these are the badges of the true Asian Traveler.
19. I shall not leave Thailand without having my hair colored, dreaded, corn-rolled or shaved off.
20. I shall model my travels on “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac
21. I shall read “The Beach” before entering Thailand so that I understand the goal of quest.
22. I shall read “Off the Rails in Phnom Penh” before entering Cambodia so that I understand the dangers of the quest.
23. I shall read “The Quite American” while travelling through Vietnam because everybody else is.
24. And this above all: I shall bargain without mercy and hone my skills to a sharp edge, so that I can proudly proclaim our sacred motto:

“I get it for less than the locals”

The Mantra
In times of trial and doubt – as I lose all feeling in my legs in the 14th hour of a local bus ride…when I can’t sleep for the noise of a thousand rats scurrying through my $2 room…as vomit and diarrhea spew simultaneously from my salmonella saturated body – I will repeat this mantra unto myself…

I am not a tourist
I am not a tourist
I am not a tourist
I am not a tourist
I am not a tourist
I am not a tourist

…until the doubt passes and I am ready for more authentic Asian experiences.

(I originally published this several years back. A couple of the references are a bit dated, but otherwise it seems to be holding up pretty well. Yes, I know, backpackers are an easy mark and perhaps picked on a bit too much, but having visited Khao Sarn Road today, I  just can't help myself. And it is, after all, the season to be jolly.) 

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Friends

My favorite apsaras at Angkor Wat.

Of the thousands of devatas and apsaras adorning the walls of Angkor Wat, these two are, in my opinion, the least stilted, the most animate, the most 'real' there. The technical rendering is not particularly extraordinary for Angkor Wat, but I see more than the usual template poses in this pair. Natural posture, distinctively different faces and bodies, a seemingly authentic lopsided smile... even in the eyes, standing close, one leaning, head cocked, holding each other in an unusually intimate manner. I see in these two girls real people, and from the looks of it, friends, probably living and working in the temple together 900 years ago.

It would seem others have noticed their special quality as well. They are one of the most hand-worn bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat. Innumerable people over the ages have felt compelled to touch them as they passed, running their hand across the relief, polishing the stone to a slick shine.

Located on the first level interior, west wall, south half, they are not an especially easy pair to photograph, on a shaded wall stuck behind a pillar with less than a meter of clearance.

Would you say that these are apsaras or devatas? 

Further reading:

The Many Faces of Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat Devata Inventory – Ver. 03-17-2010

Is Angkor Wat a 12th-century Facebook?

Book: Khmer Costumes & Ornaments: After the Devata of Angkor Wat (Amazon)

Monday, December 13, 2010

Still Angkor

North Kleang
I'm reworking my map of Angkor Thom and spent the whole day in the central Angkor Thom area, mostly in the Royal Palace enclosure (around Phimeanakas,) walking the walls through the jungle and marking obscure little prasats and half-buried pools. Ya know, for the millions tourists that visit Angkor every year, and the thousands that were probably there today, one only need walk a few steps off the guidebook trail to be completely alone. I worked the back of the palace area 150 meters from a well-touristed major temple for three hours and didn't see a soul. Later, for much of the afternoon I wandered the Preah Pithu Group and the Kleangs exploring a bit and taking photos, then sat reading and smoking at the back just 100 meters off the road, and it could have been 1994 for all the tourists I saw. Nary a sign of them save the occasional sound of passing tuk-tuks and tourist buses blowing in on the wind. People complain endlessly these days of the crowds and spoiled ambiance at Angkor, and more than one travel writer has moaned, 'there’s no escaping the crowds.'  Yet that lost Angkor lays hidden but a few meters off the path, still easily found if they could only get themselves to leave the path.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Floor Tiles

Cambodia: Floor Tiles

Antique floor tiles of a French colonial-era building on Post Office Square in Phnom Penh, at the Golden Mermaid restaurant. Note the deep colors and fleur-de-lis not found in most modern tiles used in Cambodian buildings. Such tiles are often ripped up and discarded when an old building is refurbished, destroying a bit of history in the process. The proprietor of the Golden Mermaid was thoughtful enough to preserve the original tiles in place and even incorporate some of the broken tiles into the design of the bar counter.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Medical Care in Cambodia

Recently I have had the unfortunate opportunity to survey some of the local medical facilities. Personal health issues have sent me to the hospital more than once in the past couple of months, most recently in need of emergency surgery. While this has impacted my ability to blog regularly, it has also given me opportunity to reflect on the medical facilities in Southeast Asia, in Cambodia and Thailand in particular.

I am not a medical professional, have no significant medical training and am in no way qualified to make a professional evaluation of the local medical facilities, doctors, nurses, medical staff or equipment. Nor have I made a comprehensive survey. The following is strictly the opinions of a layman and born of nothing more than my personal experiences with the medical facilities here in Cambodia and Southeast Asia. Please do not take it for any more than that.

First, a note on Cambodian doctors. As a general rule, I do not go to Cambodian doctors in Cambodia. I do not avoid them because they are Cambodian, but because most of them were schooled in Cambodia.

While the medical schools in Cambodia may be perfectly fine educational institutions, the endemic corruption in this country leads me to question how those who have graduated earned their degrees. For those people honorable enough to have studied and passed their exams based on medical knowledge, their resulting medical degree may represent that of a competent and well-trained physician. But because of the corruption in Cambodia including various educational institutions, I simply do not have confidence that the sheepskin on their clinic wall represents the successful effort of a medical student rather than his societal station and/or wealth. If I must go to a Cambodian doctor, I look for a medical degree earned outside the country - e.g. in France, the US, or for older doctors in the old USSR.

For my lack of faith in locally trained doctors, given the opportunity I will almost always choose to go to a western doctor or international clinic/hospital. Amongst the western doctors and clinics available here, I have come to trust Dr. Reid Sheftall at American Medical Center, Dr. Gavin Scott at Tropical & Travellers Medical Clinic and International SOS Medical & Dental Clinic. None charge local prices, especially the latter, which is amongst the most expensive in town. But I have found all to be properly qualified (to the best of my knowledge) and, in my personal experience, medically competent at the very least. I have found Dr. Sheftall to be particularly helpful in matters of trauma and injury, Dr. Scott to be excellent with medical problems common to Southeast Asia and SOS to be well-equipped and quite helpful in the medical care of my children.

There is a certain Australian nurse in Phnom Penh who, in the past, has offered (and perhaps still offers) medical services and is popular amongst some foreigners in town. I have nothing against seeing a nurse instead of a doctor for minor ailments. But, personally, I would avoid this nurse like the plague. While she may be qualified and competent as a nurse, in the past she has misrepresented and wildly overstated her medical qualifications. I say this not from hear-say but from personal and direct experience. She told me that she was a doctor, even stating the sort of medical degree she had and the institution where she earned it. None of it was true. She is a nurse of some sort. Misrepresenting one's medical qualifications is, in my book, a cardinal sin amongst medical professionals and taints everything that may follow. For this reason, I do not trust her and will not use her services.

One Cambodian clinic with which I have had more than one positive experience is Polyclinique Aurora. They are equipped with X-ray and ultrasound equipment, are open 24 hours, are much more reasonably priced than foreign run places and in my experience have attended competently to both major and minor injury cases. If money is an issue, I would be relatively comfortable going to Polyclinique Aurora.

Of the various hospitals in Cambodia, I have had the most experience with Royal Rattanak Hospital here in Phnom Penh and Royal Angkor International Hospital in Siem Reap. Both are connected with the very reputable Bangkok Hospital in Thailand and neither is particularly cheap. Both are new and modern, fairly well equipped and staffed largely with Thai doctors, some Thai nurses and local Cambodian staff. I have found both to be something of a surfacey imitation of their counterpart in Thailand, but not too detrimentally so. I spent time as an in-patient at Royal Rattanak in Phnom Penh and received attentive, appropriate if not somewhat spendy care. The private room was comfortable and not unlike a three-star hotel. I had one significant complaint while I was there about a failure of their procedures and it was dealt with promptly and appropriately. My only other negative observation is that they seem a bit too anxious to order up expensive MRIs, but who am I to second guess a doctor's orders?

Royal Angkor International Hospital in Siem Reap has received a number of negative reviews from expats, not due to a failure of medical care, but centered primarily around claims of inflated prices and a two-tier pricing system seemingly aimed at bilking foreigners. That said, my single personal experience at Royal Angkor was positive. My son, being the boy he is, took a nasty spill and split his lip open, requiring stitches to put him back together. We took him to emergency at Royal Angkor where they attended to him promptly, properly and with appropriate sensitivity to a scared little boy. He was there for a couple of hours, received three stitches, and we got out of the place for less than US$100. I was satisfied with the experience.

All this said about Cambodian medical facilities, if you have the time, money and opportunity, it is still better to seek medical care outside of Cambodia in one of her neighboring countries - i.e. Thailand or Vietnam. Cambodia's rich and powerful all travel outside the country for medical care and there is a reason for that. Medical care is simply better in Vietnam and Thailand than in Cambodia - better facilities, better treatment, better doctors.

Vietnam's medical facilities are surprisingly good and getting better all the time. And Vietnam is easier to reach than Thailand, at least overland. It is only an inexpensive 6 hour bus or taxi ride from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City. If you are medically able to make the journey, Ho Chi Minh is probably the least expensive, closest  and easiest option outside of Cambodia.

Thailand's hospitals are undoubtedly the best in the region if not some of the best in the world. If I was in the US or Europe, had a medical problem and the opportunity to choose my hospital, I would fly to Bangkok for medical treatment - Bumrungrad Hospital in particular, the Cadillac of hospitals. Bumrungrad offers a full range of world-class medical professionals, facilities and services. The patient is king at Bumrungrad and the room facilities and service are like that of a five-star hotel. The level of attentiveness and kind assistance is unrivaled by any medical facility I have been in my life. Bumrungrad is perhaps the most expensive hospital in Thailand but is still only a fraction of the cost of medical care in the west. Other hospitals in Bangkok include Bangkok Hospital and Samitivej Hospital, both of which are very well-reputed and somewhat less expensive than Bumrungrad.

Lastly, a word about medical insurance and evacuation. Cambodia's medical facilities are limited in scope and capability. If you have a simple broken leg or burst appendix in Cambodia, they'll probably take care of you just fine. If you have a severe spinal or head injury, you're as good as dead in Cambodia. As has often been said in the guidebooks, major medical problems will require air evacuation to another country for proper treatment, probably to Thailand or Singapore. And evacuation is not cheap. A medical evac flight from Phnom Penh to Bangkok runs US$10,000-US$15,000. And they are going to want payment up front. While medical care is comparatively inexpensive in Southeast Asia, especially in Cambodia, evacuation is exorbitant and serious medical problems can cost you thousands of dollars at a good facility like Bumrungrad. Get expat medical insurance (for example, Aetna Worldwide offers a range of plans,) and unless your insurance guarantees payment in advance, have a stash of emergency cash or a credit card at the ready. When you're in desperate need of evac, laying there on a gurney at clinic with your brains spilling out of your skull after a motorcycle accident some Saturday night, it will be no time to start pleading for charity, bargaining over price or promising that your parents will send the cash when the bank opens on Monday. You won't make it and they won't care. Be prepared.

American Medical Center
Hotel Cambodiana, Ground Floor, Suite #3, Phnom Penh
Tel: 023-991863, 012-891613

Bangkok Hospital
#2 Soi Soonvijai 7, New Petchaburi Rd., Bangkok, Thailand 10310
Tel: +66 (0) 2310 3000

Bumrungrad Hospital
33 Sukhumvit 3 (Soi Nana Nua), Wattana, Bangkok, Thailand 10110
Tel: +66 (0) 2667 1000

International SOS Medical & Dental Clinic
#161, Street 51, Phnom Penh
Tel: 023- 216911

Polyclinique Aurore
#58-60, Street 113, Phnom Penh
Tel 023-360152, 012-779824, 012-667561

Royal Rattanak Hospital
#11, Street 592, Khan Toul Kork, Phnom Penh
Tel: 023-365555, 099-631427, 099-674303

Royal Angkor International Hospital
National Route 6 (Airport Road), Siem Reap, Cambodia
Tel: 063-761888, 012-235888, 063-399111

Tropical & Travellers Medical Clinic
#88, Street 108, Phnom Penh
Tel: 023-366802, 012-898981

US Embassy, Phnom Penh - List of medical facilities

Canby Publications - List of medical facilities in Phnom Penh

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Bananas, Rumors and Fear

Rumors are rife. The city and the country are on edge as people struggle to come to grips with the tragedy on the Koh Pich Bridge two days ago. The mood in the city is dark and somber and the deaths of so many hang heavy in people's thoughts and conversations. On the streets today, in the markets and at the cafés it seemed all that people could talk about - death, the tragedy, its cause, its meaning, whether it represents some greater threat. A lot of theorizing going on, both pragmatic and spiritual. The streets of Phnom Penh this evening are unusually quiet, in part due to the mournful atmosphere and in part because people are uncomfortable, even in some sense afraid to leave their homes right now. There is a lingering stress and fear over the tragedy, providing fertile ground for rumor, superstition and even for those who would take advantage of the situation.

Yesterday a story spread that monks and mystics had instructed people to make special offerings to the spirits beyond the ordinary Buddhist practices and rituals surrounding respect and care for the dead. It was said that people needed to assemble offerings of bananas, rice, salt, water, incense and other ingredients to be placed at the front of their house. The reasons were not completely clear. Respect, to ease the passing of the dead, as protection for the house, the explanations varied depending who was doing the telling. It seemed that more than half the city quickly took to making these offerings. By evening yesterday bananas at the markets were in very short supply and the price of a small bunch had sky-rocketed from the normal 2500 riel (US60 cents) to as much as 30,000 riel (US$7.50) as gougers took advantage. People are still making these offerings today and this evening the smell of incense is thick in the air throughout the Phnom Penh.

Today the story of a bus crash on the road to Battambang swept the country. It was said that as many as 60 died in the accident. Some had details of a fiery smash up and others claimed to have spoken to eye-witnesses. Many said that this new tragedy was part of a pattern of ill-luck connected to the Koh Pich tragedy. But the rumor of a crash was patently false and seems to have been born of nothing. There was no bus accident let alone another massive loss of life. This evening TVs stations broadcast messages from the government informing people that the story was unfounded and asking the public to try to remain calm and not fall prey to hear-say and extraordinary claims. But the fear lingers and people are still trying to put meaning and understanding to the tragedy on Koh Pich Bridge. 

The following is a collection of non-empirical stories and explanations related to the tragedy that I have heard over the last two days. All amount to little more than rumor. Some are based in religion. Many in folk belief or just superstition. None have been fact checked. Most are of the sort that couldn't be fact checked anyway. Due to the use of metaphor and unusual concepts, some exceeded my ability to understand the Khmer and/or defy sensible translation. So I relate them below 'raw,' as they were told, without trying to force it to make sense. All were taken seriously by the teller and in my opinion represent mostly honest attempts to understand what happened, give it meaning and figure out how to protect against further such happenings.
  • A comet was seen in the sky 2 or 3 months ago. It was a portent of disaster and some monks said so at the time. The tragedy at Koh Pich was the fulfillment of that prophesy.
  • The bridge at Koh Pich was never properly blessed by monks after construction leaving it open to bad luck and mischievous spirits. The tragedy at Koh Pich is the result.
  • There was an abnormally orange sky at the time of the tragedy, indicating some higher involvement.
  • Monks warned the government 3 days before the Water Festival that there were supernatural signs of impending disaster. The government warned the people to be careful and be on the look-out. They thought that perhaps it would be a bomb or a terrorist attack. When a young boy drowned on the first day of the Water Festival, they thought this was the prophesied ill-event and let down their guard.
  • Koh Pich means Diamond Island. The island is like a giant diamond. It is too big. Giants eat people. The deaths on the bridge were, in a metaphorical sense, this giant diamond eating people.
  • Phnom Penh is now overwhelmed with spirits of the recent dead, wandering the edges of the city, many lost and unsure where to go. Children are in particular danger of possession by these spirits and should not be allowed outside after dark. In fact, due to these spirits, it is unwise for anybody to go out after dark.
  • Koh Pich (Diamond Island) is a name like Koh Dach. Dach is close to the word and phrase 'dach dong heurm' which means 'to not breath' or 'to be unable to breath,' which is what happened to the people who died on the bridge.
  • People must assemble special offerings to display in front of their house. The offering should include bananas, salt, rice, water, incense and other ingredients. Some say there must be 7 items in the collection. Some suggest there should be some sort of blood offering included, presumably to satiate the tiger. (This is the year of the tiger.)
  • This is the year of the tiger in the eastern calendar. The tiger likes to eat blood. People have died in many strange ways in Phnom Penh this year including several senseless murders that occurred in the last few months. These events, including the tragedy on the Koh Pich bridge, is the tiger eating blood.
  • This is the year of the tiger in the eastern calendar. 'Tiger' in Khmer is 'kla.' This word has a similar sound to the phrase 'ah kaw' which means to cut off the head. As above, the recent murders in Phnom Penh as well as the tragedy on Koh Pich Bridge are reflections of the 'cutting off of people's heads.'

(I began writing this at 10PM November 24 and posted it at 1:00AM, very early morning of November 25. When I refer to 'today' and 'this evening' I mean the 24th, 'yesterday' is the 23rd and 'tomorrow' is the 25th.)

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Water Festival Tragedy

I wish I had something profound to say. I wish I had some great insight to offer. I wish I could say why all this happened. I wish I could blame the Cambodian police for failing to control the crowds beforehand, letting too many people on the bridge, taking bribes to let people through, for their incompetence, for firing shots and using water cannons contributing to the panic and rush. I wish I could blame shoddy workmanship for electrocuting people and starting the panic. I wish I could be as callous as KI Media, immediately taking political advantage, calling for resignations and blaming the 'Yuon.' I wish I could blame the Khmers for being gawkers and rubberneckers and running toward the panicking crowd to see what was happening. I wish I could blame some "big black guy with an American accent" for pushing people around rather than helping. I wish I could blame the endemic corruption and greed in this society for ill-conceived plans and poor design. I wish I could be angry at the government for praising and giving the police a pass just hours after the tragedy. I wish I could fault the Prime Minister for trying to write it off as "just an accident" before knowing what really happened. I wish I could blame the Bayon stage for continuing to blast music through the whole thing. I wish I could blame bad luck, karma or fate for turning this heartless way. I wish I could blame God for allowing this evil to happen. I wish I could rail against somebody or something. I wish I could put this all on somebody else. Somehow it would seem that might help alleviate the sorrow over this disaster, if only a bit. But at this point we don't know exactly what happened or why. And recriminations, though understandable from those directly affected, are for the rest of us at this point only self-serving and perhaps unfair and damaging. I can only feel for the people that have been killed and injured and their families and loved ones who are suffering horrible loss at this very moment. The dead women and children, the families destroyed. I am haunted by the image a man crying over his dead child, happiness only a moment before. I can only try to empathize with the grief and pain they must be feeling and offer my deepest most heartfelt sympathies. It's the only thing of which I am certain and all I have right now, as little and inadequate as it is.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Creepy Motivations

One evening last year I was relaxing over a beer after a late dinner at a bar & grill on the riverfront here in Phnom Penh. It was about 10:30 or 11:00PM. At the bar sat a 50-something Western tourist and a Vietnamese taxi girl chatting and laughing together. Four young tourists strolled in and sat at a table near the open front of the restaurant - two couples, 20-somethings I think. I was sitting at the near end of the bar between the two groups and after a short while noticed that the tourists at the table seemed to be grumbling about the guy at the bar. They were leaning in together, speaking in low raspy tones, shooting occasional sharp glances and other pointed little gestures in his direction.

Distracting their attention momentarily, a pair of tiny 'flower girls' wandered in from the street - perhaps 8 or 9 years old, barely tall enough to see over the tables, ragged but clean and laden with doughnut-shaped flower rings and broad Cambodian smiles. They approached the tourists and began their sales chant, pleading "flower, 1500 riel, 1500 riel, flower, OK?, mam, OK?" The tourist women were immediately captivated by the little girls. "They're so cute," one of the women commented, stroking the girl's cheek. "How old are you?...What's your name?" they queried in cutsy sing-song tones. The girls leaned into the women, giggled, batted their eyes and repeated their sales chant. The couples inspected the flowers and gently bargained them down to 1000 riel each (25 cents), eventually buying a couple of the flower rings.

After admiring their purchase, the tourist women quickly fell back to talking about the guy at the bar, now a bit louder but still difficult to understand over the usual pub din, "blah, blah, sex...blah, blah, older than ...blah, blah, disgusting..." Meanwhile, the males at the table had begun bargaining with a Vietnamese shoeshine boy who was about 12 years old. The boy wanted $1 to shine their shoes. They were only willing to pay 50 cents (the 'right price' is 12 cents, but I am not saying anything). They struck a deal. The boy took the shoes outside where he squatted next to a puddle in the street for a little water to clean the mud from the soles.

As I was watching the boy work, my attention was jarred back into the bar by a loudly-spoken "CREEPY!" echoing across the room. The guy at the bar had his hand on the taxi girl's knee and one of the tourist women was glaring at him intently, talking loudly to her friend, her face turning red with anger. As she spoke, her volume progressively increased so that everybody in the bar could hear, "...CREEPY ...sick ...HER FATHER ...police ...children ...SEX tourist ...ped..." The guy at the bar ignored them, or didn't hear them, and carried on. Continuing to talk amongst themselves, the people at the table seemed to get more and more agitated. Finally they called over the bartender, pointed at the guy at the bar and made some sort of demand. The only words I heard clearly were, "sick old bastard," "police" and "sex tourist." The bartender shrugged and looked like he was trying to explain something to them. Abruptly, the tourists stood up, threw a twenty on the table and left in a huff, forgetting the flowers in their haste.

These young tourists, particularly the women, were absolutely blinded by disgust for what they saw - an 'old white man' with a 'young Asian girl' in an apparently sexual relationship. They completely missed the plight of the 8 year old flower girls, working 10-hours shifts, late into night, hawking 1000 riel flowers for some unknown flower girl pimp. They did not think to ask why an 8 year old is working at 10:30PM. Or why an 8 year old is working at all. Or who is controlling these children. Or where the money is going. Or whether they were indentured servants or abused or even slaves as they might very well be. In fact, these tourists happily contributed to the plight of these child laborers, buying their trinkets (and bargaining them down 12 cents,) ignoring their situation and sending them on their way into the night.

Nor did they raise any questions about the 12-year-old shoeshine boy, who is probably an illegal immigrant living on the street, not going to school, not getting enough to eat, perhaps sniffing glue to pass the time and assuage his hunger, and certainly paying tribute to a street gang for the privilege of shining shoes in a tourist area. Where will these children be after 5 or 10 years working the street for pennies? These tourists didn't think to ask, let alone do something about it. They were preoccupied with sex. They were blinded by revulsion and rage at the sight of a middle aged man with a much younger woman.

In fact, I've known this particular taxi girl for more than 4 years. I've never used her sexual services but I have played pool with her at the bar dozens of times, we've had drinks together a few times and we occasionally share a plate of noodles on the street at the end of the evening. She is at least 25 years old, divorced and has a three year old daughter. She's not particularly young looking for a Vietnamese girl, but to the unaccustomed eye she may look younger. She works as a prostitute because she needs to support herself and her child, because it's what she knows, and because she has no other options if she wants to make that kind of money. And these tourists preferred to try to 'save' this adult woman from the 'old man,' and perhaps from herself as well, rather than give one thought to the 8 year olds that sold them the pretty flowers or the 12 year old that shined their shoes so well.

One has to wonder about the motivation of many of these westerners who seem so focused on the SEA sex scene. If asked, these people would probably say that they are against the exploitation of women and children, or trafficking, or pedophilia, or slavery, or some such worthy ideal. Yet when confronted with actual cases of child exploitation and even slavery, they ignore it in favor of the 'creepy' sexual practices of consenting adults. Some might say that it can be blamed, at least in part, on their ignorance, though IMO it shouldn't take too much thinking to realize that there is something seriously amiss about 8 year olds hawking flowers in tourist bars in the middle of the night. No, it's not ignorance. It is their fixation on sex and the sexual behavior of others that distracts them from the real problems of real people. Yes, of course there is exploitation and other horrible things going on in the SEA sex business. But the focus on sex is so intense for many (if not most) of these western do-gooders, it is to the exclusion of real abuses and exploitation, and to the reasons that all of these people end up in these difficult and exploitive situations.

(Originally published in 2006. Probably even more relevant now than then.)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Last Smile

For years Thailand has been touted as ‘The Land of Smiles.’ On arrival at the old Don Muang Airport in Bangkok tourists were greeted by a large sign emblazoned with the slogan “Welcome to the Land of Smile” in bright gold letters. That slogan, seemingly minus the plural ‘s’ at the end of ‘Smile,’ can still be found on souvenir t-shirts and other souvenirs for sale on the streets of Bangkok. There is a common misconception that the apparently absent 's' at the Don Muang Airport was an embarrassingly public grammatical error. But this is a misnomer. That sign was in fact a monument to the last smile in Thailand.

The real tale of the sign begins in the early years of Thai tourism when Thailand was, as the promotional slogan used to go, “The Land of Smiles,” with the emphasis on the plural. In those days the Realm was awash in smiles, quite unlike the stodgy West where smiles were in short supply and huge demand.

The promise of cheap, plentiful smiles drew hoards of foreign smile collectors to Thailand. Many of these collectors, when confronted with the overwhelming abundance of smiles and almost complete lack of legal regulation, acted like pigs in slop, wallowing, sometimes drowning in a sea of cheap smiles at the likes of Koh Phangan, Phuket, Pattaya and Patpong. Other collectors, perhaps the majority, were better behaved. But behaved or not, all of them had one thing in common. They all bought smiles as fast as the Thais would sell them.

In a matter of just a few short years virtually every smile in Thailand had been bought, packaged and shipped overseas. Such was the state of things when, at the end of a fated high season, a nameless European tourist on his way home from a Thai holiday was waiting in line at airport immigration at Don Muang. As the queue inched forward, he noted the bored, almost surly mechanical actions of the immigration officers - much like the hotel receptionist had acted when he had paid his bill earlier. In fact, he had not seen a single smile since he had gotten out of bed that morning. Not from the waiter at breakfast, not from the taxi driver, not from anybody on the street, not even from the bar girl he woke up with. This was not the Thailand he had known and loved.

Lost in this thought, he didn’t notice the open counter in front of him. The immigration officer harrumphed impatiently, waving him forward. He stepped up, handed over his passport and fell back into thought about the recently purchased smiles he had in his bag - a bunch of cheap 5-for-250 baht smiles from Khao Sarn Road and a couple of big expensive ones from Soi Cowboy. The officer pushed his passport back across the desk and harrumphed again for him to move on.

On an impulse, the tourist reached into his bag and pulled out one of his best new 'Made in Issan' smiles. “For you”, he said, handing it to the officer with two hands and a polite little bow of the head. Slowly, a broad, happy, inscrutably bemused smile spread across the immigration cop’s face. The tourist smiled back, picked up his passport and disappeared into the crowd. Over the next few weeks, as the officer wore his smile around the airport, it became apparent that he was alone.

As it turns out, that tourist was carrying the last few free-roaming smiles in Thailand. By chance alone, he left behind the last living member of a now extinct species. Shortly after the incident, the officer was transferred from departures to arrival immigration where his unique expression became a fixture, and later a legend. That smile, ‘the last smile in Thailand’, was commemorated by the sign, “Welcome to the Land of Smile” in the airport arrival area. He has since transferred to immigration arrival at the new Sovamabhumi Airport in Bangkok, where he works to this day. It is still possible to see him if you happen into the right immigration line. He is easy to spot. He is the only one smiling.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

November 9, Independence Day

Phnom Penh: Independence Monument
Vimean Ekareach (Independence Monument), Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 2001

Phnom Penh: Independence Monument
Vimean Ekareach (Independence Monument), Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 2007

Monday, November 8, 2010

A Police Story

Cambodian police enjoy a less than sterling reputation in general and are not known for their fair and impartial dealings with foreigners. That said, I had a pretty good encounter with a few of Cambodia's finest a couple of months back.

I was walking along the side of Sothearos Blvd here in Phnom Penh when some kid on a motorcycle came weaving through traffic going way too fast. Not an uncommon occurrence. As he sped past he weaved wide and accidentally clipped me from behind, catching me in the arm and the back of the leg with his handlebar and foot peg. It knocked me down, but not him. He just kept going.

I was scratched and a bit bruised, but nothing too terrible. Picking myself up I watched him disappear into the traffic ahead, his distinctive bright pink sequined shirt flapping in the wind. I thought he was long gone. But a moment later I noticed that pink shirt turn into a house about 300 or 400 meters up the road. I kept on walking that direction and after a few hundred meters, sure enough, there he was, marked by his pink shirt and nearby motorcycle, kneeling on the sidewalk outside a house delivering instructions to some workers repairing the pavement. And there just happened to be three cops standing there looking at the work being done.

Now I know that, generally speaking, the foreigner is at fault in any accident regardless of the circumstances, but still feeling bruised and miffed I decided to go for it. I waded into the crowd, pointed an accusing finger and scolded him in English for hitting me and running away. I looked around. People stared at me. Nobody seemed to understand anything except that I was angry. So I switched to speaking Khmer and said almost the same thing, but this time to the cops, displaying my bruised arm and pointing back down the street in the direction it happened.

When I was done all eyes turned towards Mr. Pink Shirt. He got a big shit-eating grin on his face and denied everything. The cops were having none of it though. My story made good sense, it jived with the fact that he had just come from that direction and his nervous smile branded his denial 'bullshit.' The cops immediately started lecturing him and moving in on him. The other Khmers there backed away. He continued his denials, which seemed to be making the cops angry. Other people nearby started to look our way, attracted by the sounds of angry words. One of the cops grabbed him by the arm and stood him up.

With all this commotion, I decided it was time for me to move on and just strolled away, continuing up Sothearos. About 30 meters on, I looked back. A cop had him by the scruff, Mr. Pink Shirt was screaming, 'no, no, no...' (in Khmer) and a crowd was forming. I felt completely satisfied with the results and continued my walk.

Kudos to those cops. Good job.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Pa Cha

Crematorium at Wat Ounalom, next to Phsar Kandal off of Street 154, now gone.

Cambodian Buddhist tradition is to cremate the dead. Major Buddhist pagodas in Cambodia often have a traditional crematorium (pa cha) on the grounds. Over the last year most of Phnom Penh's crematoria were shuttered and demolished. After many years of planning, the city implemented the closure of the crematoria within the city, citing air quality and traffic control reasons. (See 'Municipality prepares to move cremations outside the capital.') As the city has developed and filled in, many of these crematoria were within a few tens of meters of restaurants, schools, businesses and the like where wisps of smoke drifting by were less than welcome. The crematorium pictured above sat at the back of the Wat Ounalom pagoda grounds and was something of a minor landmark, overlooking the market intersection of Street 13 and Street 154. It was demolished earlier this year, now an empty lot within the pagoda grounds. For most of its existence it sat opposite the site of the old French prison T3, which was demolished several years ago.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Tokay Geckos and the Legend of the Liver Snake

There is a kind of lizard that lives here in Southeast Asia known as the Tokay Gecko (in both Khmer and English). It's an attractive animal with great marble eyes and a hide colored dirty blue with bright orange spots. Mostly nocturnal, they are up to a foot long, they stick to the walls and ceiling and eat bugs and very small animals including House Geckos (ching-chok) and giant centipedes. Tokays are solitary creatures, shy but not averse to living in and around houses in the city. They are far less common than the ubiquitous House Gecko. Perhaps one in ten or twenty houses has a Tokay living in, on or around it (if that many.) We have one that stays at our house on occasion, sometimes months at a time.

The call of the Tokay Gecko is loud and distinctive and the source of their name. A healthy, happy male gecko will bark out mating calls several times a night. They ‘bark’ almost as loud as a dog but in a parrot-like voice - the call coming in short rounds of two or sometimes three parts - first a growling frog-like wind up, followed by a well pronounced ‘toh-kay, toh-kay, toh-kay…’ repeated anywhere from a couple times up to 10 or more, and sometimes capped by a final little 'er-er-er-er-er' trailing out like a noisy gear grinding to a stop. Some people hear the call as 'geh-ko' instead of 'toh-kay.' See what you think... *Mating call of a male Tokay Gecko*

When my daughter was a young toddler a talkative Tokay Gecko lived just outside the door down the hall. She was fascinated by the sound of the gecko's call and would stop whatever she was doing to listen whenever it started up. Just learning to speak at the time, she learned to speak Tokay, repeating the call exactly as the gecko barked, with the same rising tone at the beginning, pause in the middle, and trailing end. She had animal book with a picture of a Tokay and would point at the photo and say "toh-kaaay" with a perfect Tokay Gecko accent.

I think of Tokays this evening because we have one living in the house again, somewhere in the eves upstairs. He's quite a loud and generous barker, letting fly long and often. My maid, a 50 year old Khmer woman, was just going on rather excitedly about our new guest, thrilled with his presence as she says this is very good luck for the house, especially this particular gecko who barks a lot.

On traditional wisdom she tells me that the amount of luck derived from a Tokay is tied to the number of times the gecko barks in a single round. An odd number of barks is much better than an even number. A round of 5 barks is average. Less than 5 is not good. More than 5 barks is good luck, even more so if it is an odd number. The more barks the better.

Then she paused and said warningly,

"Not everybody believes the next part, but I know it is true. I have seen it with my eyes - the Liver Snake."

The Tokay Gecko's ability to bark is determined in part by the size of his liver, she told me. Barking less than 5 times is a sign that the gecko has a swollen liver, putting pressure on his innards and impeding his barking ability. This condition can be relieved with the symbiotic cooperation of the "Liver Snake," an animal rarely seen by people and one in which "not everyone believes."

She explained, "when a Tokay with a swollen liver sees a Liver Snake it will approach carefully, stay still and open its mouth wide and invitingly. The Liver Snake will then enter the gecko's mouth, stretch into his abdomen and eat part of his liver," thereby presumably relieving pressure on his barker. The snake then departs, better for the meal of liver, leaving the Tokay also in an improved condition, now able to bark longer and stronger.

Supporting the validity of these claims she first offered two forms of evidence: authority and personal experience. First, she said in a serious tone that she learned about the Tokay from her parents who were very knowledgeable of such things. But more importantly, that she had actually once witnessed a Liver Snake engaged in the act with a Tokay. She described how back when she was a teenager she saw them doing it in a tree near a pagoda in Battambang.

I must have looked skeptical because she quickly added, "But if you don't believe, there is a way to prove it." Appealing to my bias for the scientific method, she offered up an experimental means of verifying the story.

She laid out the protocol. First catch a Tokay Gecko alive and tie him to a board. Then cut a long piece of a papaya leaf stem. Apparently a papaya stem is about the same color and size of a Liver Snake, green and as thick as finger. Then you poke the stem at the face of the restrained Tokay Gecko which, when confronted with this faux Liver Snake, will open his mouth widely just as he would for a real Liver Snake thereby demonstrating the Tokay's behavior around Liver Snakes and by extension, the existence of Liver Snakes. QED

* The photo of the gecko is not mine. I shamelessly lifted it from from this website. He looks as though he may have seen a Liver Snake.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Coronation Day

October 29. Coronation Day in Cambodia - today is the 6th anniversary of the day that H.M. King Norodom Sihamoni ascended the throne of the Kingdom of Cambodia.

His Majesty Preah Bat Samdech Preah Boromneath Norodom Sihamoni, King of Cambodia. The day of His coronation, October 29, 2004

The coronation of His Majesty King Norodom Sihamoni, the new King of Cambodia. In the Preah Timeang Tevea Vinicchay (the Throne Hall) at the Royal Palace, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Sitting behind the King: President of the Senate Samdech Chea Sim, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, Prime Minister Samdech Hun Sen and others. October 29, 2004

His Majesty King Norodom Sihamoni, the new King of Cambodia, addresses the people from the Chanchhaya Pavilion overlooking the park in front of the Royal Palace. October 29, 2004

Thursday, October 28, 2010

A bit of excitement

A bit of excitement on this afternoon's walk. I was passing the intersection of Sihanouk Blvd and Monivong Blvd when I witnessed a minor traffic accident.

A Land Cruiser was tooling up Monivong against the flow on the wrong side of a divided road when he had a head-on accident with a motorcycle. In fact, I didn't see if he actually hit the moto, but when the motorcyclist was confronted with this Land Cruiser coming the wrong way he either dumped his bike trying to avoid it or was hit lightly and knocked over.

The downed motorcycle blocked the Land Cruiser, laying in the road partially under the front bumper. The driver stepped out of his car briefly, looking at the moto on the ground and at the motorcyclist limping around and rubbing his injured arm. He then demanded the moto-driver drag the motorcycle out of the way so that he could leave. The motorcyclist was indignant, refused and called for help from a group of nearby traffic police.

The cops trotted over to see what the commotion was about. The Land Cruiser tried backing up to pull around the downed motorcycle, all the while the cops calling and signaling for him to stop. Moving slowly, he got past the fallen motorcycle but a cop then pulled his own motorcycle up in front of the Land Cruiser blocking the way. It stopped. He placed his motorcycle up close against the front bumper and parked, then pointed and yelled at the driver to stay stopped.

The driver demanded that the cops let him pass, but apparently his ordinary license plates didn't entitle him any special treatment, and besides, he was clearly in the wrong. The police ordered him to turn off the car. He refused and this is what happened next:

A cop car and a couple of motorcycles gave chase and the whole thing disappeared up Sihanouk Blvd. Being on foot, I couldn't keep up. I don't know how it ended.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


It was March 1994 if I remember correctly. My first visit to Angkor. I was fortunate. I had almost 4 weeks at the temples and I took full advantage, spending every day amongst the ruins, much of the time at Angkor Wat studying the bas-reliefs and architecture. It was at Angkor Wat that I met Leho, a little Cambodian boy, maybe 6 or 7 years old, abandoned and living in the temple ruin. He was a pitiful sort - gaunt, weak, his hands and feet covered with sores - scabies and bug bites. A beggar kid working the very few tourists Angkor had back then.

As I usually do with beggars, especially children, I brushed him off the first couple of times he tried begging from me. But he looked so neglected and was so meek in his approach that I finally relented and gave him 500 or 1000 riel (20-40 cents.) I noticed that he went straight to the food stands and bought a small plain baguette (the cheapest and most filling food you can buy for 500 riel,) which he gobbled down all too quickly. This kid appeared to be in real difficulty - hungry, sick and seemingly alone - not one of the usual beggar-scammers working the tourists. So I made it a habit of giving him a little money every morning when I saw him at Angkor Wat.

He began to follow me around in my exploration of the ruin, not being a nuisance as temple children often are, but standing quietly in the background just watching what I was doing, which was fine with me. I'd buy him bottled water, share my snacks and occasionally bounce ideas and opinions off of him, some point of art or history, to which he would always nod in agreement.

I couldn't get his story out of him. My Khmer was poor at the time and his English non-existent. One of the temple nuns that tended the Buddhas on the third level told me that he was an orphan and that she knew little more of him than that. Slowly growing more fond of him and concerned over his situation, one day I gave him $15, hoping he'd use it wisely. A naïve move on my part. The following day he was missing. The day after that I found him on the third level of Angkor Wat with that same temple nun, his face bloodied and swollen from a pummeling. He had been beaten for the money by this band of miscreants>>>

I decided then to take him under my wing the best I could for the time I was there, which I communicated to him through the nun. He seemed grateful.

Almost everyday I would arrive at Angkor at 4:45AM to photograph the sunrise. Around 5:00 Leho would appear from the nearby pagoda with a big smile and come stand at my side as I took photos. The sun risen, we'd go get a noodle soup from one of the stands along the pagoda wall. After breakfast, back to the temple where he would stick by me through the morning as I studied and photographed the bas-reliefs or sometimes just sit and read. Come noonish he'd often have lunch with me at one of the sandwich carts, after which I'd go to other temples, leaving him at Angkor Wat. But I'd usually swing by in the evening on the way back to town and give him food and water or some money for dinner.

One morning he didn't show. Nor did he for the next three days. I started to worry. On the fourth day I began to search for him, asking the soldiers and nuns around the temple if they had seen him, but without luck. One of the nuns told me that he would sometimes stay in the southern gateway of the outer wall, a place rarely visited by anybody save the occasional monk to tend the enormous 'mud-daub Buddha' inside.

I walked out the path through the woods to the gateway and entered quietly. At first it seemed empty, but then I heard a sound from the great Buddha to my right. I peeked behind. It was Leho. Curled in a ball, coughing shallowly, seemingly unable to breath. He looked to be at death's door. He couldn’t walk. He was very hot. I picked him up and carried him all the way back to and around Angkor Wat, up the main causeway and out to the street, more than a kilometer, almost giving this old smoker a heart attack. I flagged a motodup and took him to a little clinic in town. He was in a bad way. Pneumonia I gather. Or maybe Dengue Fever. He was there for 4 days on IV something. I'm not sure what. I didn't visit. They charged me $75 in advance and assured me it would cover everything.

The next week he was back at Angkor again, as was I. He became a fixture at my side, carrying my camera equipment, eating meals with me and listening to me read stories of the history of Angkor from Parmentier, Glaize and Coedès, though I am sure he didn't understand a word. He showed me little secrets of Angkor Wat - the smiling apsara outside on the second level, the fork tongue apsara (photo below,) 'the friends' apsara pair in the first level interior gallery. It all did my heart good and I think helped him as well.

When it finally came time to leave I was terribly worried about him. I gave the nun and the police money to help take care of him and protect him, promising/threatening that I would return in two months and that I expected him to be well when I got back. They promised that they would watch over him. If I had accomplished nothing else in my stay there, I had accomplished this. I hugged him and said goodbye.

Three months later I returned, this time with my wife. First thing, we went to check on Leho. Sure enough, he was still there at Angkor Wat, looking a little bit better. The sores on his hands and feet were healing. The nun had kept her promise, feeding him and cleaning him properly. She said that even the police had honored their word, warning the other temple boys to leave him alone and allowing him to sleep at the police post. He seemed to have formed a relationship with the nun and was happier. I was only there for two weeks that time and spent less time at Angkor Wat, but whenever we (my wife and I) were there he followed us around just as he had before. Over the next year, we saw him a few times on our visits, looking stronger and healthier each time. Finally, after a couple of years, he just wasn't there anymore. Perhaps he moved to another temple. Perhaps he just moved on. 

Leho with the nun

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Boeung Kak bye-bye

Restaurants and guesthouses line the edge of Boeung Kak lake, 2007
Long Phnom Penh's backpacker ghetto, Boeung Kak lake and its legendary budget traveler scene is on its last legs. I first visited the lakeside in 1994, staying very briefly (1 night) at the Number 9 Guesthouse, one of the two or three traveler places on the lakeside at the time. As guesthouses go, it wasn't my cup of tea, but they did serve a darn good $1 bowl of curry and the breezy view over the lake was something special. In the ensuing years Street 93 along the Boeung Kak lakeside bloomed with backpacker businesses, becoming Phnom Penh's dirty little version of Khao San Road - awash in dreads, drugs, bootleg music and cheap eats and digs at the water's edge. But back in 2007 most of Boeung Kak was sold to a developer in yet another of Cambodia's controversial large land deals. Over the last couple of years the lake has been almost completely reclaimed, filled with sand, erasing it from the map of Phnom Penh and displacing hundreds of people in the process. And, according to yesterday's Cambodia Daily, as of a few days ago the businesses along Street 93, including the remaining budget guesthouses and other backpacker places, were issued their marching orders by the city. 'Vacate in one week,' it reads. In reality, they probably have a bit more time than that, but not much.

It won't be long now.

Street 93 in 2008

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Liar Paradox and a Saigon Taxi

The Cretin said, "The Cretans are always liars."
- The Liar Paradox

I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City by plane, checked through immigration and customs and walked out of the terminal to the taxi stand to get a cab to my hotel (the Trang Long Hotel on Mac Thi Buoi Street, a tourist hotel in the heart of a tourist district.) I had reservations and know the place well as I have stayed there several times. The taxis in Ho Chi Minh City are equipped with meters, but at the airport the drivers refused to use them, instead demanding a flat rate of US$10 into town. A rip-off price, but so it goes at airports and bus stations the world over where they have you over a barrel. Tired and anxious to get to my hotel, I argued only weakly, then agreed to the $10.

I handed the taxi driver a slip of paper I had prepared beforehand with the name, address and directions to the hotel written in Vietnamese. He glanced at the paper and told me that there was no such hotel or street of that name in Saigon, though he knew of a good hotel in a different part of town. (I didn't bother to ask how his hotel could be in a different part of town from a place that doesn't exist.) So I dug through my stuff, found a business card for the hotel and handed it to him. He looked and responded "only Vietnam people stay at that hotel," and added that he had a much better place for foreigners like me. I told him that I had reservations at that hotel and had to go there. With that he seemed to relent and ushered me to his cab. I got in, keeping my one bag in hand.

As we were leaving the airport he slowed the car, glanced back over the seat and told me that my hotel had "closed a long time ago" and that it would be a waste of time for us to go there. He warned that driving all over town could get very expensive. I said again that I had reservations at the Trang Long, that I had just spoken to them yesterday and that I was certain that they were not closed. Without missing a beat, he shot back that the hotel was both dirty and dangerous, and that several tourists had been robbed and there had even been a murder in the previous weeks, but that his hotel was "very clean, safe and famous with tourists." I told him that I was meeting people at my hotel and that I really had no choice but to go there. He asked if I was meeting Vietnamese people, and when I responded in the affirmative he warned me not to believe anything they said because "Vietnamese people will just lie to you just to get your money."

We met eyes in the rear view mirror. He looked like he just bit into a chili. I smiled slyly and assured him that I would be "very careful of Vietnamese people." He looked away quickly. I think he realized his fallacy, him being Vietnamese and all. He went quiet and we continued on to the Trang Long Hotel.

As we pulled up in front of the hotel he pointed at the closed doors and said excitedly "see, closed!" just as the door opened and the doorman came out to welcome us. He instructed me, "stay here in the taxi, I'll check for you" and then hopped out, grabbed the doorman by the arm and leaned into him talking quickly. While he was distracted with the doorman I got out of the taxi and walked into the hotel before he noticed me. He tried to follow but the doorman stopped him from entering the hotel. I walked to the reception desk well away from the door and called over the bellhop, handed him the taxi fare (including a tip) and asked him to go pay the driver for me, which he did. As the bellhop returned I could see the driver through the glass doors wave for me to come out. Concerned there was some sort of problem I walked to the door and pressed it open slightly. He stuck his head in and whispered, "You need lady? Vietnam lady very good. Do everything..." I just dropped the door on him and walked away. The last I saw of him was just before I went to my room, still out front talking in an animated fashion to the doorman, no doubt trying to extract some sort of commission from this dirty, dangerous, non-existent, all-Vietnamese hotel.

Of all the things he said to me that day I think he may have come closest to the truth when he invoked the Liar's Paradox. At least then he was half right.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Blame the West

Western fast food fuelling SE Asia diabetes boom*

(AFP) SYDNEY — The growing popularity of Western junk food is fuelling a diabetes boom across Southeast Asia, Australian researchers warned on Wednesday.

Studies found about 11 percent of men and 12 percent of women in Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City had type 2 diabetes without knowing it, on top of the four percent of people who are diagnosed sufferers.

"Dietary patterns have been changing dramatically in Vietnam in recent years, particularly in the cities as they become more Westernised," said Tuan Nguyen of Sydney's Garvan Institute of Medical Research.
"There are fast food outlets everywhere..."

I don't buy it.

More specifically, I believe that there is a lot of Type 2 diabetes in Vietnam (and across Southeast Asia.) But I don't believe that a few dozen KFCs and the bit of other western fast foods available are a significant factor.

The standard day to day diet in places like Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, while often delicious, is horribly unhealthy and highly conducive to inducing various health problems - very heavy on carbohydrates (rice, rice and more rice,) lots of meats, fats and offal, limited vegetables, most everything stir fried in oil, sugar added to almost all stir-fries and soups and msg in the cooking. And on top of that, given the opportunity, a very sedentary lifestyle. The Southeast Asian diet and life-style is a virtual formula for Type 2 diabetes (and hypertension and high cholesterol,) led by the daily consumption of copious quantities of  white rice. White rice (or rice noodles) is eaten with virtually every meal.

The prevalence of rice in the diet has even made its mark in colloquial language where the verb 'to eat' has become synonymous with the phrase 'eat rice' (e.g. ăn cơm in Vietnamese, ngum bye in Khmer.) You've not eaten until you've eaten rice. And it's not just a few tablespoons of rice with meals, but mounds of it. Most of it jasmine rice, which carries the highest glycemic load of all the various sorts of white rices. Eating white rice, especially jasmine rice, has been likened (with only some exaggeration) to eating straight sugar.

The limited availability of a few western fast foods outlets in some urban areas is like pissing in the rain when it comes to adding diabetes inducing items to the local diet.

If there has been an actual increase in Type 2 diabetes in Vietnam and other mainland Southeast Asia countries, (as opposed to an research artifact, i.e. formerly undiagnosed cases now being diagnosed,) I suspect it is due to increased affluence in the region allowing Southeast Asians to engage more fully in the dreadfully unhealthy local diet and lifestyle - more meat, better rice, more leisure time. Some people would like to characterize Type 2 diabetes as a "Western lifestyle disease." In Southeast Asia it is not a Western lifestyle disease. It is not born of KFCs and Twinkies. It is a Southeast Asian lifestyle disease. 

* Photo by AFP

Monday, October 11, 2010

Rain Drunk

Kampot - It’s raining. Hard. A standard monsoon-season rain in Cambodia. Mid-afternoon, sudden, intense and noisy, long in trailing off. First it came in opaque gray sheets, curtains of water sweeping across the city, after an hour or so finally settling into a nice moderately heavy downpour. Naked children danced and played in the flooding streets. From the balcony I watched motos and romuks battle the deepening waters in the central roundabout opposite my hotel. Rain affects Cambodian motorists like some kind of meteorological pheromone, sending drivers into a frenzy of wild and reckless behavior. The harder it rains, the more difficult it is to see, the faster and harder they drive. Motorcycles and Camrys dodge and weave around horse carts, rain-drunk children, stray cows and each other. Motorcyclists rooster tail through the flooded streets, one hand on the throttle, the other arm an eye shield to the rain, leaning forward into the spray as if to emphasize the rain induced need-for-speed. Speeding Lexus SUVs plow through the waters sending waves lapping up into homes and businesses. The storm is just now lightening into a boring gray drizzle. The floods are pulling back, depositing free-floating trash at the perimeter of the receding waters. Styrofoam, plastic bags and coconut husks. Children wander home. Traffic slows. Calm ensues.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

He Voted for Obama in Cambodia

Seen last week at Chow lounge on the riverfront here in Phnom Penh.

The upcoming US mid-term elections are on the minds of some American expats. The US group Democrats Abroad is working to rally their expat citizens - contacting American expats, making sure that they register to vote, holding informational and fund-raising activities including selling t-shirts as above (a memento of happier times for the Democrats.) They've got their work cut out for them this election. November's likely to be a rough month for the Democrats at the polls. Democrats Abroad seems to be pretty active in Cambodia, at least in the last few US elections. Without trying I've stumbled across their booths, events or been handed a brochure on more than one occasion. But for some reason, I never hear of any similar Republican organizations or activities in town except perhaps a few grumblings at the right-leaning American bars in town.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Notes on the legend of Ya-Mao

Ya-Mao is the central personage of a legend local to Sihanoukville and much of the Cambodian coast. She is a neak-ta, a powerful ancestor spirit that lords over a part of the country. Known as Ya-Mao, literally the Black Lady, her domain encompasses much of southwestern coastal Cambodia and she is the protector of sailors and other travelers of the area, both on and off shore. Locals from fisherman to taxi drivers are careful to make appropriate prayers and offerings (phallic objects and/or bananas)  to Ya-Mao for their safe passage.

Fishing boats that work the area waters hang a hand of bananas on the bridge as an offering to Ya-Mao, and phallic-stick offerings can still sometimes be found on the beaches near fishing camps. There is also a major shrine to Ya-Mao at Wat Krom in Sihanoukville. But perhaps the best known and most apparent manifestation of the veneration of Ya-Mao is the collection of spirit houses at the crest of the Pich Nil mountain pass on National Route #4, at the northern edge of Ya-Mao's domain half way between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville. Many if not most drivers on Route #4 stop at the shine to make offerings, and like the fishing boats, some drivers, especially taxi and truck drivers display a hand of bananas on the dashboard for Ya-Mao. Other significant roadside shrines for Ya-Mao can be found at the beginning of Route #4 in Sihanoukville and just outside Koh Kong City on Road #48.

Route #4, Pich Nil, Ya-Mao Shrine
Over the years, the legend has been reported by various media sources - local newspapers, the Phnom Penh Post and travel guides.  In my amateur research I have found that it seems to be known in one form or another to most all Khmer residents of Sihanoukville, who often also have accompanying tales of how Ya-Mao helped or hurt them or someone they know or heard about. The details of the tellings of the legend vary considerably with different tellers and are often much more vivid and colorful than more official tellings I've heard.

I first heard tell from my Khmer teacher. He related the legend quickly and rather casually. I asked if he would retell it when we had more time so that I could take notes. He agreed. Next time I saw him he told me that his wife had been injured in an accident on Route #4 and he feared it was because of his indiscretion telling me the legend. He eventually told me the legend a second time but only after praying to Ya-Mao about it and waiting for a dream to give him a sign of what he should do. Apparently I got a thumbs up. A couple of weeks after he discovered that the legend had recently been in the Khmer newspaper Rasmei Kampuchea and this lightened his burden considerably.

The following is his telling of the legend of Ya Mao, largely in his words. It has been altered slightly for sake of grammar, privacy and relevance.
"Her history begins perhaps more than 100 years ago. This area was called Kampong Som. It was a small village. Her husband was leader of the village. The people respected what he and his wife said. One time he had to go to Koh Kong for business. He had to stay there nearly one year. Ya-Mao missed her husband very much.

These people live by the ocean so they eat a lot of sea fish so they have a lot of protein so the men have a lot of semen. The people want to make love.

At the rainy season it is cold. So people like to make love. So she missed her husband. But she met a strong storm and the boat was flooded and sank. She drown. She died. Since then she has become a god. Most people say that Ya-Mao hates men. But I’m not sure. They say that she hates them because most of then people at sea are men. The women stay at home. So especially men die at sea. So they say that Ya-Mao hates men because they are the ones that die at the sea.

But Ya- Mao became a god. After she died her spirit entered through a man and said through him that she is Ya-Mao and that she died in the middle of the sea. And that she hates men that travel by the sea because her husband was the cause of her death. Because if she didn’t have to go to meet her husband she would not have died. So people pray to Ya-Mao ‘Oh Ya-Mao, please don’t make me anything bad. Please help me. Please help me. What do you want?’ And she wants a phallic symbol. And she wants this because her death was caused by this. Because she went to meet her husband (for) this. She wanted to go and sleep with her husband.

The sea shore men have a lot of semen and a lot of passion and living is difficult so the husband has a lot of passion. And so the people offer a phallic symbol to Ya-Mao.

After that there were a lot of strong winds, storms, ship sinkings and deaths of men. And the people didn’t know why. But when the spirit of Ya-Mao enters a person and that person speaks as Ya-Mao, they know! And they pray before they go fishing, before they go anywhere, they offer a phallic symbol.

People place phallic symbols on the beach, near trees, rocks and launching places of boats. They are small sticks place up in the sand. Before they go they pray.

In 1979 (the government said that Ya-Mao is old and she does not want the phallic symbol. Communist regimes do not allow this (sort of thing). She doesn’t need it because she is old. (Before this) you could see many sticks on the seashore. They now now she need only bananas.

Anybody can pray to Ya-Mao. Men or women. Sometimes women go fishing with their husband at night so they pray. But mostly men, sometimes women.
They say that the crocodile is the body guard of Ya-Mao.

And now I want to emphasize that Ya-Mao is a true story. The people still believe. I think perhaps you don’t believe me. But I have my experience. I have been here since 1979. Route #4 is a dangerous route.

She is responsible for the sea, along the seashore and the sea area and Route #4.

You should put one incense holder in your house. You can take an empty milk can and put dry rice in it and use it for an incense holder. You should put it against the wall. This is the place of Ya-Mao. If you want to go to Phnom Penh, you put banana and incense and sahtoo (praying hands) and say, ‘Oh Ya-Mao, I hope that I have no problem.'"

Stored under the shrine - the overflow of phallic offerings

Stories of Ya-Mao in action:

From the teller of the above story:
"Before we begin I want to say something for her because she has become a god. The Khmer people, especial those who live along the sea shore believe in Ya-Mao. Ya-Mao is a true story. It happened perhaps more than 100 years ago. You can see at the mountain at the middle of Route #4. They have built a lot of Ya-Mao houses and they are for passengers (and drivers). They go there, they stop the car and they take bananas and incense to pray to Ya-Mao to help them along the road. I have had an experience myself. I was the … in Kampong Som…I had been here since after 1979 after Pol Pot fell. So the USSR carried thing to Cambodia to help the Cambodian people. And the ships would berth at Kampong Som. I must go to Phnom Penh 3 or 4 time per month. But no problem. 1983-1984 the road was quiet. Pol Pot had not yet collected his troops….

Route #4 became dangerous. Sometimes they shoot behind me, sometimes they shoot before me. But they never shoot me. Mr. Dara had a bad accident. His Vietnamese consultant, his driver and bodyguard were killed. That day I went also. I went before him. But I became very hungry and I stopped to eat noodle soup in Kampong Speu. So Mr. Dara went before me. I later heard that a car had been attacked. Everybody died. It was Mr. Dara’s car. Only he survived but with serious injuries.

When troops secured the area and I went and looked and, ‘My God!’, Ya-Mao helped me. If I had gone before him I would have been shot. So I believe in Ya-Mao. When I got to Phnom Penh I brought a hand of bananas and three incense and to her prayed to Ya-Mao. "Oh Ya-Mao please help me tomorrow. I will go to Phnom Penh. If I dream no good I will not go to Phnom Penh. I will wait." If there is any danger on the road Ya-Mao will tell me in my dream. I think that. If I don’t dream that I’ll go. So I believe. So many people were killed along Route #4. But not me, because I believe in Ya-Mao.” 

'The Story of the Whirlpool'

I have heard the 'Story of the Whirlpool' from several people in Sihanoukville, often attached to a telling of the general legend. The story usually runs pretty much the same and seems to be told rather matter-of-factly. One significant difference in tellings is the dating of the story, ranging from 'last year' to 25 years ago.This version was told to me by an office assistant at a school. He said that his mother told him the story.
One day a woman and her children were on a boat going to a nearby island where her husband was working. One of the children cried throughout the voyage and could not be made to stop. After coaxing and reasoning the woman final resorted to threatening the child saying that she would throw him into the ocean if he did not stop. But the frightened child persisted.

At that moment the boat was swept up in a whirlpool. The boatmen fought to free the vessel but to no avail. One of the passengers speculated that it was the work of Ya-Mao, angered by the ill words and the unfulfilled threat to throw the child into the sea. Some passengers said ‘toss the child overboard’ but the woman refuse to give up her child. In its stead, the crew threw a pig into the ocean. Ya-Mao apparently appeased, the boat was almost immediately released from the whirlpool and proceeded to the island without further incident.

From my taxi driver to Sihanoukville:

One time he was driving a fare to Kampong Som from Phnom Penh. As he was leaving the city on Route #4 it occurred to him that he hadn’t made an offering to Ya-Mao. As he neared the crest of Pich Nil a truck in front of him kicked up a rock which smashed his windshield. He realized he was being punished or perhaps warned by Ya-Mao.

He immediately turned back and went to the nearby fruit stands, purchased some bananas and then returned to the spirit houses on Pich Nil to make offerings and pray for safe passage. The rest of the trip was uneventful.

Spirit houses line the road at Pich Nil