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