A Travellerspoint blog

Cambodia on kinda sober reflection...

Minor edits to protect the guilty..........

My 30th birthday was at the Correspondent’s Club, a place that has been in business since the French were in charge here. Set overlooking the river, it was one part Rick’s Cafe American, one part Bowery Bar. I had a $15 steak (which wasn’t bad, although Lugars has little to worry about), Caesar salad (with the egg) a glass of Shiraz, a Monticristo No. 3 and a glass of Laphroig 10 yr. I am sorry that none of you were there to share it with me, but I suspect that some of you would have done me ill had you been, especially as the "expensive" beer is $1.50....

I have now been here 3 days, and I have settled into the pace of the place. That is not to say that I know or understand Cambodia at all, but rather I have figured out how to move about here, how to say no - to the taxi drivers, the bar girls, and assorted other sales people- and actually have my meaning conveyed, how to cross the streets (something I used to take for granted, even in midtown...), etc. Phnom Penh is a small city, one that could be walked around in a day. There are 4 or 5 major sites in and around the city, so one need not kill oneself on a day after day basis to get things done. Further, all of the government sites, the palace, museum, and assorted Stupas are all closed for a long 2 hour lunch break at midday.

With that in mind, the first day of my 4th decade started slowly, with a rather simple plan: Explore on foot, end up at the river, perhaps see a national site, have lunch, and go to the Killing Fields, about 14km outside the city. That I managed to keep to most of it was bonus.

The day was glorious, low 80s, sunny with blue skies as I set out south from the hotel along one of the major grand boulevards that runs through the city. Lined with government buildings, banks, and stately hotels, it is clear that despite the current condition of the country, there was once a time when Cambodia was thriving and new (and judging by the architecture, it was from the late 1800s to about 1950). In fact, on several occasions, I found myself walking quieter, tree lined boulevards that caused me to think of St. Charles in the Garden District.

The city is set out running north and south along the western bank of a confluence of rivers, the tonle sap, and Mekong. To the north west of the city center is a large lake that, like the riverside, has become the principal place where westerners stay. It was in this direction, away from the river, that I turned. Soon, I was turning onto a muddy, unpaved road, not more than 2km from the city center, and it was clearly into another world. This was more like India, or rather less like the west than either Thailand or that part of Phnom Penh I’d previously seen. Piles of garbage, naked babies running about, stray dogs, open sewers. People were friendly, and curious (there were many open states), and I got many more smiles from folks here. Still the lack of even basics was obvious, especially as I turned down a set of abandoned railway tracks and followed them into an old rail yard where thousands of Khmer live in squalid, muddy, poverty.

At several points along my walk I decided to turn around rather than stray too far a field, as I was the only western face I saw in that part of town, and at some points the relatively wide road narrowed down to 2 or 3 feet across, leaving me with the choice of walking into a gauntlet or choosing another route. I have not had any sense, personally, that there is danger in this city, but there are numerous reports I have read concerning how many guns are left over from the war, and how often they are used in armed robbery. Thus, I decided not to tempt the fates any more than need be.

Eventually I made my way to the waterfront where I decided to go to "Happy Herbs Pizza, Since 1994" for lunch. The pizza (I had pepperoni) wasn’t bad AND I managed to do the Sat. Sodoku (I was pretty stoked). After lunch, I negotiated a 3.50$ ride out to the Killing Fields with a motorcycle taxi. The road most of the way is paved, but once we crossed a one lane bridge (one that had rotted so much that is was reduced to wooden planks spanning the wheel paths with holes large enough to drop small children into the river below on either side) onto a side road, and the going got much rougher from there.

The Killing Fields themselves are the location of but a small piece of the Pol Pot/Khmer Rouge legacy. It was there that over the course of 5 years, about 8100 people, men, women and children, were taken after being held in a prison in Phnom Penh. Deemed to be enemies of the state for any number of reasons, they were beaten to death to save bullets. The bodies were then buried in a series of mass graves.

Today, all that remains are a series of holes in the ground that were the exhumed graves, and a large Stupa, rising into the sky. Within the stupa, one can find most of the bones of the victims, stacked upon the shelves like books in a library. I am not a expert in dead bodies, but it was apparent even to me that some of the skulls I saw had been subject to severe trauma.

On the way home, traffic had picked up, so it was a bit exciting, as I was constantly making sure I was not tipping too far to one side or the other and trucks snuck up on us from behind. Upon arriving at the hotel, it got more interesting still. As I sat in the lobby reading , there was a loud bang and crash and suddenly there was a motorbike sitting in the lobby of the hotel. He had smashed his way through the front door. Nobody was hurt, but under the circumstances, I was enraptured by the whole event and its aftermath.

Posted by Daver141 08:40 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

As I put Phnom Penh to paper

It is raining here, or rather, there are large vats of water being dumped from up on high. I am sitting in a cafe on the western bank of the Tonle Sap, drinking a Gin and Tonic, and watching the 1000s of motorbikes slowly wade past in puddles 4 or 5 inches deep. Something that is common in Asia, but I had never seen before was the sheer numbers of people and goods that can be fit on a 250cc motorbike. I have actually seen 8 people on one! That was surprising enough, but with the roads as bad as they are, one would expect certain safety precautions, but no. I have seen more women sitting sidesaddle with small children in their laps on the backs of bikes, no helmets, nothing. I have been lucky to have been spared thus far the inevitable wreck with fatalities that must surely occur all the time here.

On first blush Cambodia is a combination of Thailand and India: Populated by Asian looking peoples, but with the lack of western infrastructure in terms of traffic controls, paving, sanitation, etc., as well as the lack of major western chains, large buildings, neon, and all the other things that made Thailand so refreshing after a month in India. Also, one cannot help but notice that this once was the heart of IndoChine as most of the signs are still En Francais, and the elder portions of the population-those that survived- all speak French fluently. English is pretty common here too. Perhaps if the rain lets up, I will head out on the town tomorrow to look around, or possibly go the 15km out of the city to the Killing Fields. In my wanderings, I have been reading up on the Khmer Rouge, and I have learned 1000 times more information about the conflict then I’d even dreamed existed. This was a bad one, a massacre with no rhyme or reason that killed more than a million people in a country of 15 million.... and I wasn’t surprised at all to see that it had more than tacit approval from Europe and the States....

Insert great joke: Bush is getting his morning intelligence briefing and is told that 3 Brazilian soldiers were killed in Iraq. Bush is overwhelmed, hangs his head, and ponders for a few moments. After gathering himself, he looks up to his aides and says "That’s horrible. Such a loss. How many is a Brazilian exactly?"

I can add a new major river to my list of those seen on this trip: The Mekong. It is brown and lazy and as mysterious as I imagined it to be. I will see if I can get a boat out on it, or perhaps take a boat up to Siem Reap...

So, today is my 30th birthday (at least here). This is the first time I have been out of the Eastern time zone for it. I kinda like the idea that its actually 12 hours longer, especially if it starts at midnight my time and ends at midnight eastern. I think I will splurge and go out to a fine meal here, which means 10$. I have finally found a place where it is practically impossible for me to spend large amounts of money. Then again, I have only been here 8 hours, so we will see how creative I get.

Posted by Daver141 08:37 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Lets all go to the movies Thai style

I saw Harry Potter yesterday, mostly because I didn’t think yet another night of drinking would be good for me. The theatre is in Siam Square, the western heart of the city, rife with fast food chains and shopping malls. Its a bit of a hike from my hotel over by Khao San road, but I started out on foot as it was rush hour and traffic is worse than usual then.

I walked the main boulevard for a bit until a reached the night market. In Asia, and especially Thailand, street vendors and the sellers of assorted crap will form up in specific locations as the sun goes down to catch people on their way home from work. It also helps that it is at least 20 degrees cooler at night. Last night, being the full moon, was especially important as the lunar cycle is the primary basis for the Thai calendar, and was doubly so as it was a Buddhist holiday. Thus, the market was jammed.

Besides watching for pickpockets, I wandered just looking about, taking in everything from the stalls selling deep fried bugs (big ones too) to the special stalls set up for the holiday selling floating candles adorned with red and yellow flowers. They are designed to be placed in the water with a bit of food and money and pushed out to sink or float. The Thaïs believe that the fate of these small offerings will dictate their luck, and thus a sinking candle is a reason for great distress. They also believe that couples should cast their lots upon the water at the same time, and should the currents carry them apart, so too will their relationship suffer by the year’s end. Talk about pressure....

I went to a 22:50 show, sprung the 250 baht (about $6.50) for a VIP seat- this includes a private lounge with attendant and full bar, reclining oversized seat in a small theatre, a blankets to keep warm during the movie. They had the usual prevues before any film, with the noted exception that they included both profanity and nudity well in excess of the pg-13 rating that Harry Potter had. They also had two ads for beer. Then the fun part- just before the feature, a message comes up on the screen "Please offer respect to our King", and then a stirring photo montage of the monarch was shown with the national anthem playing. All patrons were required to stand during the playing. I am not sure how that would go over in the states...

I will not speak of the movies other than to say I enjoyed it, although I wonder based on some of the shoddy splicing, whether I saw the full cut or something was edited out...

On my way home, I was forced to find a cab, which despite the city shutting down fairly early, should have been easy in a place as popular as Siam Square. In fact, there WERE plenty of taxis about, as were their would be passengers, but the cabbies weren’t interested in going to certain places nor did they wish to use the meter to calculate a fare, despite it being the law here. Thus, the people stood around looking lost, and the taxis idled.

Once I managed to find an honest cab, I had to walk the length of Khao San road to my hotel. Khao San, maybe 3 City blocks long, is like bourbon street (pre Katrina) in that it is garishly lit, choked with bars and tattoo parlors and cheap hotels. It is THE backpacker destination in Bangkok. I discovered that if one strays from the main roads, there are hotels to be found at cheap prices without the need to step over drunks or listen to bad techno all night long.

This was my first late night, sober stumble home, and thus I was more aware of the world around me. The sidewalks were lined with 100s of Thaïs, employees of the various bars and restaurants (closed at that hour), taxi and tuk-tuk drivers, sex workers (yes there are TONS of women I politely refer to as "bar girls") and assorted loiterers, along with the last straggling westerners. To be a lone drunk around here is a dangerous proposition....

Once I crossed off Khao San, I was in the back streets near my hotel. Just as western, just slightly more tasteful, I saw the crowds change from Thais and the odd drunk to westerners with a liberal Thai sprinkling, all hanging out on the street (as the bars were closed). I saw nothing unusual- the usual party atmosphere, bar girls taking one last shot at finding work for the night, but I was struck with what a roman orgy this place can be. I suspect that 10 years ago this place would have been more exciting to me. I have enjoyed my time here, but one can only drink so much, and fight off the hookers, the touts and the taxi drivers so often (if I get asked 1 more time if I was either “massage? or "go see ping pong show?...) Just the same, I like it here- mostly

Posted by Daver141 08:34 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Bangkok

Ok, so I started an online blog, but I am a little behind. I suspect I will try and enter things about India, but for now, I will deal with the present.

I am starting the third day of my second trip to Bangkok, having returned on Monday from Koh Samui. At the moment I am recovering from a bit of a rough night last night, and debating what I want to do with the rest of my afternoon.

I have not been nearly as moved by Thailand as I was by India, perhaps because I have settled in to my journey, or the fact that I have not really gone to any places where I might see "real" Thai life, or more likely still because Thailand is much more western (there are 7-11s on just about every corner). in fact, my initial impression upon arriving here in Bangkok from Kolkata was that I had been misdirected to Miami instead. The weather, landscaping, skyline and store options all are quite similar.

Either way, I have been somewhat at a loss for inspiration since arriving here. For the moment, I am planning to go have ribs at Tony romas (man cannot live on Thai food alone, regardless of how tasty it is) and then see the new Harry Potter movie.

I didn’t think I was particularly homesick, but my trend towards western things as of late seems to show some desire to be amongst the familiar.

I will be here until the 18th when I fly to Phnom Penh and Cambodia before heading up river to Siem Reap.

more later

Posted by Daver141 07:31 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Spot of tea anyone?

This is india part two from my trip in october.

I am in Darjeeling, Indian tea capital of the world. It is quite different from the rest of India, it is cool and clean and no cows. (they actually have beef on the menu!!) I arrived here yesterday by train, which left me in New Jalpaguri (NJP for short), the closest railhead. I had taken the night train from Varanasi the day before. In order to get to Darjeeling, it was necessary to take an autorickshaw from the station, first having to fight off the touts and bargain the price down, to the bus depot. From there, I caught a "share jeep" to Darjeeling. A Share jeep could be an Olympic sport, seeing how many people can be squeezed into something about the size of a Cherokee. We managed 15, and the driver kept asking passersby along the road if they wanted a lift.

The road to Darjeeling is up, up, up, to 7000 feet, with turns and twist every few feet so that the trip of 75 Km took almost 3 hours. There is a "toy train" which runs on a narrow gauge track up the same road, and the tracks cross and recross the road without signal or guard. To compound matters, it was raining, with a low oppressive sky switching from drizzle to downpour every few minutes, sometimes with visibility dropping to no more than a few yards in front of us. This did not in any way seem to bother our driver who put his foot down around every blind curve, nor apparently did the fact that the alignment in the jeep was so far out of whack that to keep it going straight ahead required the wheel be turned 45 degrees to the right. Sometimes we squeezed past trucks headed down the hill, while others we had to back up to let pass. The five of us in what would have been the trunk in a normal jeep held on for dear life as we were tossed about by the sharp turns and potholes.

About half way up, some of the passengers in the back exited, and I thought I would have a chance to stretch my cramped legs, only to confront a new experience. A sadu wished to take the ride up the hill. A sadu is a religious pilgrim of sorts, having shunned material things for a life of wandering from religious site to religious site. They are easily recognized by their saffron orange colored robes, their dreadlocks which they usually wrap, turban style about their heads, and most interestingly, a trident. For reasons which I have yet to uncover, they are always armed with a 5 foot long brass trident, which in the case at hand, was carried into the jeep as he refused to allow it to be strapped to the roof. That he sat in the middle row of seats was of only small comfort to the three, including myself, remaining in the back, because while we still had leg room, we faced the distinct possibility of impaling ourselves on every short stop. The trident was not sharp by real weapon standard, but I assure you it would have gotten my attention had I been jolted the wrong way.

Somehow I have managed to survive my Jeep ride, and when we arrived in Darjeeling, I hired a sherpa to carry my bag up the hill to my hotel. Darjeeling is set on a series of landings along a mountain range with sheer drops on both sides. Thus far (I got here yesterday) the sky has been low and visibility bad, so I have not yet seen any of the 5 big mountains (Everest being the biggest) to be seen. I have 3 more days here, so hopefully that will change.

Thus far I have drank 100000000 cups of tea since I got here, each one excellent (although after the 5th pot yesterday I considered swearing off the stuff for a while). I also visited a tea plantation where I saw the process of making tea for consumption. They were still using Irish machines built at the turn of the century to ferment and dry the leaves. I never realized what a complicated thing tea is, having learned of something called "extra fine tippy golden blossom orange pekoe tea #1" And further, that all of those descriptors are important. Scary.

Before I got here, I was in Varanasi, and before that at the rat temple in Bikaner. The temple was something which I clearly don’t have enough faith to accept, despite the feelings I got in varanasi. It is actually a complex of buildings, with a temple at its center. The whole of the open spaces in between are capped with mesh screens designed to prevent the celebrated inhabitants from being carried away by birds of prey. I wish I could say that there was something special about what I saw, but I like many westerners were fixated on the rats. They were EVERYWHERE inside the grounds, basking or eating or playing. I am told it is good luck to have one run across your bare foot (no shoes allowed), but I was spared that honor. The floors are sticky with sweet offerings brought by worshipers, and huge bowls of milk are set out as well. I have pictures of 5 or 6 rats of all sizes greedily lapping away. Raju was still with me at the time, and he was happy to reassure me that there was no plague present. I find it hard to believe....


After Bikaner, I said goodbye to Raju and boarded a night train for Varanasi, one of the holiest places in Hinduism. It lies on the western bank of the Ganges, which they call Ganga or great mother. Along her bank (I cannot help but think of the river in any other way but female) the shore is lined with Ghats, stone stairs which run to, and frequently into, the river. On these ghats one can see religious cremations, pilgrims bathing, locals bathing, dhobis (members of the washing caste) washing clothes, cows and goats bathing and drinking, people loitering, tourists gawking, and con men trying to strike conversations with the tourists to part them from their rupees. Hindus believe that to die in Varanasi is to leave the cycle of Karmic rebirth forever and go right to nirvana. Thus, the ill, infirm and elderly line up in the city, awaiting death and cremation on the banks of the ganga.

The river itself is wide and slow and brown, causing me immediately to think of the Mississippi. They might have been sisters the mighty Miss and the Great mother, but they were not identical. The ganga is dirty. Waste from animals and from the sewers of Varanasi (and many points further upstream) drain into her waters on a minute by minute basis. The ashes of the burned as well. Some people, due to manner of death (cobra victims particularly), or age (under 8) cannot be burned, and thus are placed (dumped sounds too judgmental) into the river whole. In my early morning boat ride I saw at least two bodies slowly floating away. This in no way seemed to bother the fishermen who cast their nets around the bodies...

On my first day in the city ( I spent 2 and a half) I went by taxi to the river so that I might see her as my first memory. I walked the narrow streets of the old city with pilgrims and locals, slowly making my way around cows and dogs and beggars. I walked through a narrow hallway lined with beggars and stepping back into the light of day on the far side I saw her. I had intentionally avoided forming opinions as to what I might see as in India I have learned it to be counterproductive. Things are never as I imagine them to be, and those that are closest (like the cashew chicken Chinese food I had in my hotel) are most disappointing.

The river is wide, perhaps half a mile across at varanasi, and the ghat I was on was lined with a steep staircase which ran perhaps 50 yards forward and 75 down to the river. To the south, my right, I could see the smoke from one of the three burning Ghats in the city, and I decided to walk there. The trip itself was exciting as it had rained that day and so the mud along the bank was greedy and treacherous, trying to steal my shoe with one step and threatening to knock them from beneath me on the next, all the while I had to step over cow dung and streams of foul smelling water which ran down the hill into the river.

I managed to cross the 100 yards to the burning ghat just in time to see them (a caste of untouchables are required to handle the body) carry a corpse down the ghat steps from my left to right, to a pyre which had been already erected. The body, carried on a two man bamboo litter, was wrapped in gold cloth and adorned with orange flowers, and was trailed by the male members of the deceased’s family. At the river side of the ghat a fire burned. I was told that the fire is stoked round the clock as a holy fire. No matches or fuel is used to burn the bodies, but it is lit with a flame from this fire.

Upon reaching the pyre, the body was set atop the stretcher on the ground and unwrapped until it was only contained in white cloth. The process calls for a body to be bathed in ganges water after death and so the cloth dripped water into the ground. It was slowly lifted onto the pyre and bhramins, religious officials, circled the pyre offering prayers. Once they finished, the family was allowed a final moment with the dearly departed.

Westerners are admonished by everyone- tour books, hotel workers, taxi drivers and passers by- not to photograph the cremation or anything else which occurs on the burning ghats. This rule applies only to westerners apparently. As the family assembled around the corpse, one member gleefully snapped pictures. Personally I was shocked, but in their view this is a joyous event worth remembering. Just the same, I suspect that had I attempted to take photos of my grandparents at their funeral, they would have come back to haunt me for capturing them at their worst. It was not the only thing I saw which seemed to demonstrate a certain lack of holiness however.

The kids responsible for maintaining the spiritual fire were horsing around at the end of the ghat and the smallest of them was tossed into the river, men stood and laughed and gossiped with one another, con men freely moved about the group of tourists who had gathered to watch, a goat gleefully munched on a ring of flowers which had fallen from the corpse, and a sadu watched it all while soaping himself for his bath in the river at the end of the ghat.

Then, just as I was about to leave, I saw something incredible. No more than 20 yards from the bank, a ganges dolphin leaped from the water. They are blind, freshwater dolphins who apparently make cockroaches seem fragile as they survive in some pretty bad conditions. As I watched it breach the surface slowly moving away from me, I was once again reminded that despite all of the bad that exists here, there is much good as well.

I had that cemented home the next morning when I took my boat ride. I left my hotel before dawn, and I met my captain at the riverside in the dark. Along our way to his craft we passed barefoot pilgrims making their way down to bathe and be spiritually cleansed. The boat, perhaps 10 feet long, propelled by two oars strapped to the sides, pushed off into the dark with me as the only cargo. As we moved along the river bank, still shrouded in darkness, I could make out people slowly going about their morning rituals with the river. Then I heard chanting and drums as a procession moved slowly to a temple along the river with the chants and beat increasing as dawn broke. I found myself caught up in the beat as we slowly rowed along.

The Indians are epic salesmen, and in the river was a further example. After paying 50 rupees for two floating candles made of bee’s wax leaves and flowers which I offered to the river, we were set upon by row boats lined with trinkets. I told them politely to shove off despite their assurance of "good, low prices" and watched the river come alive.

There are many people in this country who deeply hold to the tenets of Hinduism. My former driver raju was so concerned about animals that not only did he eat no meat, but he honked and braked for all animals large and small who crossed the road before him. On the one instance a lizard failed to escape our tires, he was genuinely upset. Along the river I saw more of this. Old people and young, civilians and gurus all offered morning prayers to the river. Men and boys swam and played shoulder deep in the water. Bells pealed the dawn, alerting the gods to the fact that people had come to the temples to see them. It really was quite an experience.

Posted by Daver141 08:23 Archived in India Comments (0)

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