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

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Road Report: Coastal Cambodia

Along Road #33 between Kampot and Kep
In the last month I've had to make two complete driving loops from Phnom Penh, across southern Cambodia from border to border, using the main roads and passing through Kampong Trach, Kep, Kampot, Sihanoukville and Koh Kong. It's a nice time of year to drive the countryside. The country is pulling toward the end of the monsoon season and rural Cambodia is lush and alive and buzzing with farming activity. The paddies are full of water and the season’s near mature rice stands tall and deep green. In places a checker board of dikes and paddies stretch to the horizon, the still water reflecting the sky and clouds, the rice and the occasional coconut palm. Groups of women in conical hats and kramas work stooped, pain-stakingly thinning the rice. Enormous water buffalo ridden by egrets and small children wade though the shallow paddy waters. Beautiful, exotic, stunning... No matter how many times I see these scenes, it still strikes me NatGeo.

The following is a quick report on the current road conditions down south.

The major roads (including the National Routes and the 'coastal travelers trail' from Thailand to Vietnam through Cambodia,) except National Route #3 (NR#3,) are in good or very good condition.

NR#3 is the most direct route from Phnom Penh to Kampot and Kep but large sections are under currently under construction, and though passable, make for some difficult driving - rough graded dirt road, muddy and slick when wet and blindingly dusty when dry. When traveling from Phnom Penh to Kampot and/or Kep avoid as much of NR#3 as possible. Alternative route:

Follow National Route #2 out of Phnom Penh, through Takhmau and south. The road signs marking the way though Takhmau city should be taken with a grain of salt. While suggestive of the correct route through town, if taken too literally you can find yourself driving circles around the downtown. Best to just follow the stream of heaviest traffic though town, which will ordinarily lead you onto NR#2.

NR #2 is fully paved but narrow, heavily patched and uneven in sections, still much better than NR#3. Stay on NR#2 about 65km-70km to the turnoff at Road #22 in Takeo. You can't miss the wildly overbuilt tangle of cement curbs, guides and dividers at the Road #22 intersection. Turn right (west.) Follow #22 about 9km to the market intersection at National Route #3 and turn left. It’s an unmistakable mess of a main intersection, cluttered with market traffic and waiting passenger vans. Turn left (south.)   

From there:

If you are going to Kep, the best way is to follow NR#3 7km to the Road #31 fork in the road (look for the gas station and the Vishnu statue) and bear left onto Road #31, which is paved and in excellent condition all the way to Road #33 in Kampong Trach. Take a right on #33 and follow it to the Kep turnoff (look for the sign.) The trip down #31and #33 has a couple of twists and turns but is easy to follow. Just stay on the paved road. In the couple of places you might not be sure which way to go, the dirt toad is the wrong way and the paved road is the right way. Just stay on the paved road.

If you are going to Kampot, you have two options. Either: 1) head to Kep as described above and just follow Road #33 past Kep and all the way to Kampot, or; 2) Follow NR#3 all the way to Kampot. The former is about 25km longer but is good road all the way. The later is shorter but there are long stretches of bad road. Either way it takes about the same amount of time.

Other notes on southern roads:

* Motorcyclists take note: The stretch of Road #33 from the White Horse Monument (see photo right) to Kampot is in deceptively good condition, hiding 5 or 6 almost invisible humps in the road, easily capable of launching a rider off the bike if hit at speed. There has been more than one such accident in the past year. Keep the speeds moderate and your eyes peeled.

* Some very picturesque rural scenery lay along Roads #31 and #33, which passes through rice paddy countryside and small villages both Khmer and, along Road #33, Cham (Muslim.) You may notice the Cham women in the area, easily distinguished from the Khmers by their veils.   

* There are daily direct buses (including ferry) from Kampot and Kep to Phu Quoc Island in Vietnam. Depart in the morning and be on the island by mid afternoon.   

Elephant Crossing, Road #48
* Check out the Salt & Pepper Bakery at the White Horse monument on Road #33 between Kep and Kampot. Serving proper western style baked good, cakes, breads, teas and coffees in the middle of nowhere. 

* National Route #3 and National Route #4 between Kampot and Sihanoukville are both paved and in excellent condition.

* National Route #4 is paved and  in excellent condition from one end to the other (Phnom Penh-Sihanoukville.)

* Road #48 from National Route #4 through the Cardamom Mountains to Koh Kong City and the Thai border is fully paved and in very good condition, save a couple of small patches of pitted pavement. Bridges spanning the five major rivers are all complete and the trip from NR#4 to the border can be done in 3 or 3-1/2 hours. It's a pleasant, occasionally picturesque drive through mountains and jungle. Long stretches of the road, particularly between Bridge 2 and 3, are comparatively desolate, and phone signal drops out quite a bit in the mountains. Make sure your vehicle is in good condition.


UPDATE, January 2011 - Three months ago I reported on the state of the roads south from Phnom Penh to Kampot and Kep, recommending at the time taking an alternative route via Nation Route #2 (NR2) in lieu of the on-going road construction on the more direct National Route #3 (NR3.) Over the last few months the conditions on NR3 have improved greatly. Most of the construction on NR3 is now complete and the road is wide, flat and paved. A sure sign that NR3 is now the better route, most Kampot-bound taxis and buses have begun to use NR3 again instead of NR2. There are still comparatively short unfinished sections (a few kilometers) at both ends, near Phnom Penh and near Kampot, and several bridges are also still incomplete, requiring short detours. But the trip down NR3 to Kampot can now be made in about 3 hours, perhaps a bit longer, the same or faster than the alternative routes. As road construction seems to be moving along at a brisk pace and is in its final stages, my guess is that NR3 will 100% complete in the fairly near future.

Most direct route from Phnom Penh to Kampot: NR3 all the way.

Most direct rout from Phnom Penh to Kep: NR3 > R31 > R33 > R33a

Saturday, October 2, 2010

No lights on Cambodia

As many new drivers, especially foreign drivers discover the hard way, it is illegal in Cambodia to drive with headlights on during the day.* While in many countries governments are encouraging, even mandating that drivers and especially motorcyclists use headlights during the day for greater visibility to other drivers, here in Cambodia it is a privilege reserved for high government officials only. And for some reason the police have taken this law to heart. 

Unlike most Cambodian traffic laws, the no-daytime-headlights law is one of the four or five that the police do actually enforce. Drive a motorcycle one-handed and blind-drunk against traffic on the wrong side of the street with a 25 kilo bag of rice between your legs, a necklace of 30 half-dead ducks dangling from the handlebars and three adults riding pillion with two kids and a baby balancing on their shoulders, and the cops won't blink an eye. But drive with your headlights on during the day and you will be stopped and fined if the police catch sight.

In Sihanoukville I unintentionally violated the no-headlight law. I forgot to flip the light switch off when I parked the bike the night before and didn't notice it was still on when I started it the next morning. I was driving up the main road through town when I got waved over by a group of cops at the roadside. I immediately glanced down to check the switch and seeing it was on I knew what was up. Cambodian police don't give traffic tickets per se. This sort of thing is always settled at the roadside, but it occurred to me that the smallest bill I had in my pocket was a US20, and cops don't give change. This was potentially an expensive traffic stop. 

I pulled over and shut off the engine (and the light switch.) The cop sauntered up. Using his limited English he said, "Lights on. Fine," his Khmer accent slurring the words together. 'Lights on' came out more like 'lice-ons,' very close to 'license.' Now I admit, I understood what he said, but it was a perfect opportunity for a convenient misunderstanding. I said "Oh, I have a license, see..." and showed him a copy of my driver license. He repeated himself, "Lights-on! Fine!" pointing at my headlight (which of course was now off.) Acting as if he is pointing at the bike I said, "Oh, you mean tax license," and lifted the seat to show the bike's tax tag stuck underneath. "See, I have tax license." Scowling a bit now, he responded "No. Lights on!" I looked puzzled and said, "But I have a license. I showed you already, see tax license, driver's license." Stressing 'lights-on' but just as poorly pronounced he said yet again, "No! LIGHTS-ON!!!" slapping at my headlight. I retorted calmly, "No, not there, my license here, under the seat," pointing at my tax stamp. He let out a heavy, frustrated sigh and dismissed me with a brush of his hand and a curt, "OK, you go, go now," which I did straight away.

Beat the ticket, so to speak. Cost me nothing but a couple of minutes of talking in circles. An old ploy but still effective. Sometimes it pays to be clueless.

And it's a dumb law anyway.

(*There is some debate about whether there is actually a law on the books making it illegal or if its just something the police do on their own. But whether really on the books or not, the Cambodian police enforce it as if it is an actual law.)