A Visitor's Impressions

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Angkor temples
By motorbike to Kampot Kep and the islands

January 1996

To: Rich

As requested, for your web site. I went through and fixed -some- things (grammar and spelling mistakes, some unclear things cleared up, and some things I changed just because I thought it sounded better) but go ahead and fix whatever mistakes I missed.

And freely editorialize, so long as you make it clear it's you adding your two cents worth. Like I said, I feel a little arrogant putting this forth as an "expert" view of Cambodia--I was there for three weeks for god's sake.
love Patrice

Nixon's Cambodia - map

I'm over jet lag, somewhat, and feel coherent enough to write about the trip, and about how Rich is. I suppose the half of you who don't know Rich may find parts of this uninteresting, and the half who don't know me may find my observations about Cambodia pretty tedious. Ah well, just ignore what bores you! This will be very long, but I was asked for "details details details" by lots of folks. And I aim to please, so...

Rich is fine, happy, all those imprecise descriptives that mean he's content with his life there. I don't know if this helps--but it seems really right that he's in Cambodia, alas! Truth is truth though, and honestly for his sake I can't help but be glad: it seems to me as if he made a really good decision. He seems less restless than he did in Philly, more relaxed.

He's also COMPLETELY SAFE. I'll talk more about this below, but Cambodia in general, and Phnom Penh in particular, really is as safe as, or much safer than, say, the neighborhoods some of us grew up in, or some of us live in now.

You know I was in Cambodia for a little under three weeks, which seemed simultaneously long and short, and certainly packed full of events--but since I've been back (only two and a half days!) it's all shrinking to vague impressions. Arggg! I feel a little desperate: I wish I'd taken more pictures, I wish I'd written in that damn journal like I said I would (I made just 4 entries--two of them on the plane ride over!), I wish I had some vivid thing in hand that brought it all back to me--as real as it was when I was there.

But one of Rich's house mates, Christine, said the main point of travel is to have stories afterwards. Actually, as I was in a house full of journalists, I heard that more than once. "It makes a good story."

So I find I've been going through this ritual of story telling since I got home, (boy is my throat sore), and now I'm writing it all down. The whole process is a little melancholy--I'd so much like to be there still--but nice too.

Getting There

The plane ride from JFK to Tokyo (nonstop over Canada and Alaska) was 12 hours, then from Tokyo to Bangkok another 7 hours. Then I spent the night at a hotel, and flew 50 minutes to Phnom Penh (and now for a word from our sponsors: I was a courier and saved something like 700 bucks in the process--round trip to and from Bangkok was $528!!! It's very easy and well worth the restrictions.) I recommend the Air Courier's Handbook.

And in the it's-a-small-world-after-all department, while hanging out at Tokyo customs doing my courier duty, I met another courier, on her way to Bangkok to visit her boyfriend, and she lives in Old City in Philadelphia. It was indeed amusing. On the other hand we'd just finished a 12 hour flight and were getting ready for another long haul. We thought luggage carts were funny.

Yes the flights to and from were hellish and endless (I saw 5 movies and ate 3 meals each way) but it seems to make jet lag easier in a way. I was so exhausted and stiff and sick of confinement and recycled air, that it didn't matter what time or day it was supposed to be when I got off the plane.
Finally I get to the Pochentong International Airport (Getting all the correct spellings of Khmer place names was one of those things I forget to do--so rest assured I am mangling the language)(I've fixed them up. --Rich), and get in "line" for the visa. It's more like this moderately calm mob pushing forward, handing over passports, then moving down and handing over $20 (US). This is a very good introduction to Cambodia.

Yeesh, there is a lot to tell. I just got through making notes on the whole trip--and I realize that I'm not going to finish this in one sitting (maybe if I were over the jet lag). And I know people are anxious to hear from me. So... I'm sending what I have--including my cryptic (but I hope intriguing) notes. And I swear I'll send you all more stuff as I flesh it out.

Patrice in Cambodia pt2

OK OK I am more than a little sheepish about how long it took me to get back to you all. I'm sure I'll languish in purgatory or something. Anyway here's a bit more about the trip...

The Big City: Phnom Penh

Honest to god for the first two or three days I could not get over the traffic. It wasn't crowded - actually Chinatown in New York City is more claustrophobic and numbing. What was phenomenal to me was the chaos. Later on I did see the one intersection with a traffic cop. I think there were street lights there too although they were of course irrelevant.
After a while you see that there is a kind of system - I never figured it out, but apparently people don't die in traffic on a regular basis so it must exist. I got over being terrified fairly quickly, but then I don't drive in the states either - ignorance is bliss.

The way you cross the street in Phnom Penh is... ah well I never crossed the street. Not any of the big ones. But I -hear- that the way you cross the street in Phnom Penh is you creep along behind a Khmer person. There is this intricate art to it. Take some steps, gauge the speed of everything coming at you, creep a bit further on. The real trick (I was told) is to make eye contact with the driver of the oncoming vehicle -- "I have a human intelligence!! See!! Don't hit me!!" In this fashion you can cross even crazy Monivong - but it may take you a minute or so. You see people, little little kids, standing in the middle of traffic, walking evenly, motos swerving all around them - and this is perfectly normal.

Rich had a pretty thorough description of traffic in one of his e-mails (I recall) so I'll skip lots. What still sticks out in my mind though are these elementary-to-high-school-aged girls on bicycles, pedalling slowly and comfortably--or so it seemed--on the side of the road, dressed in blue skirts and white blouses. They actually look poised, almost sophisticated, and cool (cool as in not sweating in the 95 degree heat, not cool as in "yo girlfriend go on with your bad self" cool, although now that I think about it...)

Other incidental street/traffic memories: As we were driving to the airport we see on the back of a little moto (and a moto--for all of you who like myself have no particular knowledge or interest in all things motocyclic--ahem--is just a smaller version of a motorcycle) ANYWAY... tied up on the back of this moto is a huge, apparently dead pig, lying behind the driver across the seat. But it's leaking--this arc of liquid is flying out behind the moto. "Oh that's weird that pig is leaking somethi... eeewww". Yes the poor pig was still alive, peeing its last on the way to market. I saw chickens like this too, tied up in a bundle by their feet, hanging upside down, again on the back of a moto. (not peeing though - at least not that I could tell) It was SO disconcerting. They'd lift their little still attached heads and look around, but otherwise were very calm. It gave me the creeps (and yes I feel like the removed-from-nature-city girl that I am.)
Well that's it from me for now. But fear not there's more coming later!

Patrice in Cambodia pt3

It was surprisingly easy to be a Westerner in Phnom Penh (or so it seemed to me, but I was only there for a little while). If you wanted to chicken out and be with people just like you (western, English or French speaking, wealthy in comparison to Khmers) there was a whole ready made western cocoon in the big city. The legacy I guess of the huge UN presence a few years back. Tons of UN personnel, nongovernmental organizations, journalists, etc, have created this infrastructure for visitors.

Other UN legacies: Khmer kids 3-5 years old with orange hair, sometimes called UNTAC babies (UNTAC stands for United Nations something something something); and the not-unrelated-to-the-UNTAC-baby-phenomena of an increase in prostitution. What would democracy be without female exploitation after all? (In its first 49 years of existence women have been appointed to 4 of 140 UN executive positions. I'm sure there is NO connection here. Forgive me this non sequitur. It's that frivolous female mind of mine.)

Actually, sometimes kids have orange hair because they are malnourished and have a vitamin deficiency. I'm trying to think about how to describe the poverty there. People are poor, it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be, it was still pretty bad. When I try to get specific--describing the beggars for example--I feel like a parasite. "Let me be colorful and shocking."

The most protective western cocoon in Phnom Penh is the Foreign Correspondents Club--the FCC. The FCC is like something out of a BBC historical drama set in some "exotic" colonized place. It has big high ceilings, and ceiling fans, and bats, and big old comfortable leather chairs. Complacent gecko lizards (pale green brownish, small, like salamanders) all over the walls. Once you get over thinking of them as roaches when you catch them in your peripheral vision, you think they are cute.
The FCC is on the second floor with the whole front of the building open wide to a view of the Mekong River. Actually there's a railing between you and the Mekong, and bar stools pulled up to it. So you can sit there with your gin and tonic, and not quite believe yourself sitting there with your gin and tonic looking out at the Mekong. This was my very guilty pleasure after a day of wandering around on my own while Rich was at work.

That was surprising--how exhausting and stressful the strangeness of everything could be. Knowing that you can't talk to anyone. I knew when I went out there that I'd feel really dependent on Rich, and I was glad he was going to have to work. That would force me to be independent, etc, etc. But even expecting all this, I found it hard not to feel panicky when I was on my own finally. Like, er, ah, I actually physically wanted to cement him to my side. ACK DON'T LEAVE ME ALONE I AM AN IGNORANT FOREIGNER. Of course what I said was "OK see you later. I'll be fine!"
And I roamed around. Saw a Monk's funeral. Crossed the little streets on my own (not the especially crazy ones). Went to the Seeing Hands massage parlor. Went to the museum, saw the exodus of the 1.3 or 3.1 million bats from the ceiling of the museum. That's an amazing site. They live there, and at dusk funnel out in a stream. It takes them a good hour because there are so many. Rich's friend Ian lives in an apartment with a deck right beneath their path.

I saw an elephant--you don't see many elephants roaming the streets in Phnom Penh. And weirder still, a transvestite. I got a picture of the elephant.

I ate so well. I had dumplings that were not of this world. Khmer, Indian, Chinese, Thai, Korean, and mediocre French food (later on I had great French food--well it wasn't "French" really, but I think the cook was French Vietnamese). American style breakfasts were really easy to come by.

The markets are packed full of everything and (to a person who doesn't like shopping which I definitely am) daunting: stereos, gorgeous silk and cotton cloth, (and you can bring your just purchased cloth to one of the seamstresses on sight and she'll make a shirt or whatever for you) all the touristy things: Jayavarman heads and statues, wood carvings, papier-mache masks, silver chop sticks, silver rings, T-shirts; bootleg videos, polyester clothing, underwear, watches, luggage, motorcycle parts, shoes--all the shoes are wrapped up in plastic, like shrink wrap. Dried fish, freshly killed food, things to eat there for lunch. Woven straw mats. These are so lovely, very colorful. (Khmers sleep on mats, but Rich is on this quest to buy enough mats to cover all of the hard tile floor in his house. He's got maybe nine in there now and needs three times that to finish up. It's a big cold tiled room, like a hotel lobby, full of echoes and big space. The mats help.)

Rich described the markets in his e-mail once, but the thing I didn't pick up on is that all of this is indoors. A huge city block full of stalls fits in a covered market building. And there is just enough room to walk between all the merchandise.

Sigh. I think I will have to accept that for everything I tell you there are 16 things I'll be leaving out.

Patrice in Cambodia pt4

Oh boy here we are again - yet another tour of Cambodia via what I remember! Miscellaneous things about the city that I have not yet elaborated on...

Anyone (business, NGO, private citizen) who can afford it hires young guys to be night guards outside the house/office/building. It is very disconcerting to pull into a yard and see a person who looks to be all of 25, someone moonlighting from his regular job with the police or army, standing there with a big gun. It's even more disconcerting to get used to it.

Apparently the they are needed to protect you from burglars, but sometimes the guards themselves are in on burglaries. That all pervasive corruption! Or maybe it's that easy going, not-exactly-professional attitude. One of the guards at the paper "borrowed" Roy's (one of Rich's housemates and co-workers) moto one afternoon.

The 1.3 (or 3.1 ?) million bats in the museum have evolved into a unique species, which is why, even though there is a fine dusting of bat crap settling over great Cambodian artistic treasures, the powers that be have decided not to exterminate them. Maybe there's more to it than that. The bats also have huge ticks on them - if you get bit you feel it for a week. We were going to visit them in the roof but decided against it after we heard about the ticks.

Cupping and coining
(I think Rich wrote about them in a posting but just in case...).

Cupping is done in other parts of Asia as well. Actually I read about it years ago here, in a book on massage. Basically you place what looks like a shot glass on a person's face or back (as he or she is lying down) and then heat the air inside (or maybe you heat the glass first?). In any case it creates this suction effect. I think it pulls all the blood to the surface of your skin. Then the person treating you pulls the glass off, there's a cute little pop, and you're cured (of whatever ails you). And you get to wear a red circle for a while. It looks more painful than it is, I think. (No I didn't try this).

Coining is really wicked though. You scrape yourself back and forth with the side of a coin, hard enough to draw blood. Ouch! Tinker (another housemate) told me that someone told her that Khmer folk medicine associates illness with having air trapped in your body. Which is consistent with cupping and coining. Also people commonly take intravenous vitamins--more of that injection/ getting air out of the body stuff (a real AIDS/HIV prevention nightmare I would think). However, I would take the air-trapped-in-the-body explanation with a grain of salt. It might very well be true, but can't you just see some Khmer woman feeding a ton of bull to a gullible westerner? I think there is an anthropological term for this phenomenon. Probably Latin for "lets see what this stupid outsider will believe".

The cats and their broken tails: are almost more common than cats with smooth, unbroken tails. It's also clear that some are born with short stubby tails. Why this is so is a mysterious and there are a few theories: They get run over by traffic a lot. Except traffic, for all it's chaos, is simply not that heavy. They were bred especially to have short tails. But why? Rich or someone told me that there is a legend in which a cat or a cat god double crosses, or lies to, or otherwise insults some deity. The vengeful deity breaks the cat's tail. Maybe cats with long tails are considered bad luck. (Hey, why do we cut Dobermans' ears?)
Another theory I've heard is that the mother cats have a calcium deficiency, which is expressed in their fetal kittens by a malformed tail, being the least essential part of the cat. If you can shed any light on this, please fill me in.

Francois is the mechanic who swears that Rich's monstrosity of a bike is worth lots of money. His shop is down the street from where Rich lives. While I was visiting, Francois was also caretaker to a litter of kittens. This man has a whole philosophy of kitten behavior, an elaborate analysis of kitten intelligence. In fact he talked about these kittens with the same seriousness as he did the bikes. It's really adorable and funny. And loses something here in the telling, alas.

There were also lots o' mangy dogs, and one--in Kompong Chhnang-- which was so awful looking. This being "the dog Rich and I would have shot without compunction". I really could have done it. I've never seen something that looked to be suffering so. It's whole stomach was hanging out, sort of. It's hard to describe - and now that I think about it, you really don't want to know.

Patrice in Cambodia pt5

The Fast Boat to Kompong Chhnang...
First a little bit of geography.
Cambodia is roughly circle shaped (-very roughly-), and about the size of Ohio (I think I read it was Ohio. Could have been some other state). In the northwest part of the country is a huge lake, the Tonle Sap, which turns into the Tonle Sap river and runs southeasterly.

The other major body of water is the Mekong River. The Mekong is born somewhere in China, then runs south through Laos (which is directly north of Cambodia), then through Cambodia, then through the part of Vietnam which curves around below Cambodia, and then into the ocean (shame on me I can't remember if it runs into the Gulf of Thailand or into another big body of water called something else. Oops). The Tonle Sap and the Mekong meet in the southern central-ish part of the country- and Phnom Penh, the capital, is there where the rivers cross.

Some hundreds of years ago the capital used to be Angkor, way up the Tonle Sap river, on the other side of the very big Tonle Sap lake.

"Situated just north of the Tonle Sap (the Great lake), Angkor is the site of the greatest concentration of temples in the former Khmer empire - or in the world for that matter. Its approximately 232 square km (60 square miles) are scattered with temples, walls, moats, causeways and reservoirs built between the 9th and 13th centuries, when the empire was at its peak. For more than five hundred years the capital cities were built here, sometimes overlapping, new sites burying the old. Royal roads fanned out to link Angkor with the frontiers of the empire, which at it's furthest extent reached present day Vientiane, Laos in the north, the Three Pagodas Pass between Burma and Thailand in the west, south into the Malay Peninsula, and east as far as the central Vietnamese coast"

This is from "A Golden Souvenir of Angkor" a book with a cheesy name but wonderful pictures.
So we embarked on the trip to Angkor. You can get there by plane in an hour, or take a boat, fast or slow, up the river. This was not a smart thing to do if you were a westerner a few years ago. Lots of bandits looking to loot and rob, apparently. But the river route was safe when I was there, and had been for a while.

"Fast boats" take six hours to get to Siem Reap - the city that is near Angkor where anyone visiting stays. The fast boat also stops about halfway through the trip at Kompong Chhnang, a small fishing city/village. We'd been encouraged to visit, and told that it was great (maybe someone said something like charming which -ugg- sounds so touristy doesn't it!) so we planned on stopping an afternoon and the night there.

The boat was long (maybe 100 ft??) and skinny, modernish but old (I know nothing about boats and can't be more precise about this), and enclosed. And, by the time we got there, packed full of people. A couple of army types were sitting on the top, getting handholds and comfortable among boxes and bags of produce. We stood around trying to figure out if wedging ourselves in with the indoor passengers would be worth the trouble. We finally settled on sharing open air accommodations with the military types. It turned out to be very cold (because of the wind) but hot too (because of the sun) and loud. Loud loud loud loud loud. I think we were right behind the engine. We couldn't talk much. You could nap, sort of.

Mostly I watched, and thought about how different the sky is when you can see it all. I've lived in NY, Chicago (for a year) and Philly. You get long ribbons of the sky in these place. Or you get the sky in a park: a dome with walls, buildings, around it. The sky's just decorative.

But the world -is- the sky when you can see it all. It's immense. The sky is immense, and the land is flat and immense. Occasionally there is a mountain. It looks almost arbitrary, like god figured on a mountain but didn't want to bother with scooping out a valley. Just got dirt from somewhere else on the planet instead and made a little ice-cream cone scoop of a mountain in the middle of
this flat immense land.

And once we got to the lake (remember the Tonle Sap river runs from the lake) the water was immense too. Endless. When we started out, Rich and I half-way-but-not-entirely-jokingly picked out which shore the one of us who fell off the boat should swim to, just in case. After we hit the lake proper it was pretty damned clear that we had better not fall off the boat.

Later, on the road, we devised a provisional "what we should do if we get caught by the Khmer Rouge even though we're not really worried about it are we?" plan: We wouldn't hold it against the one who got away; if we got kidnapped I'd use my feminine wiles to escape; Rich would have to resort to whatever wiles he could muster; the one who got away would not suffer endless remorse and guilt; and if I got shot in the back and fell off the motorcycle he wouldn't stop. (That Rich! He's so chivalrous!)

We did not fall off the boat (or I off the motorcycle, but that all comes later). We saw many towns, townlets? collections of houses/boats/boat houses on the banks of the river. I thought to myself: people have probably lived in exactly this way for the past hundred years. And then I saw the TV antennas. Lots of TV antennas. And then I noticed that the women who drew up next to us when we stopped at a toll area, in their small boats to sell us things -bread, roasted frogs on a stick, rice in a plastic bag, dough wrapped around meat- also had coke and sprite and Marlboros for sale. And then Rich pointed out the empty plastic jug containers floating in the river. Some very powerful insecticide or a motor oil - I can't remember which.

I'm stopping abruptly here and I haven't even gotten up to Kompong Chhnang yet! But I have to get up for work tomorrow, so bye for now! I'll tell you about the little plank next time, and I hope more about Siem Reap and Angkor. (hope I'm not boring any of you!)

Patrice in Cambodia pt6

We were the only ones to get off when the boat stopped at Kompong Chhnang (which set me immediately to worrying). The boat pulled up next to a police or guard house set in the water. The only way to get to land from this structure was to walk along a pier. But this "pier" consisted of a couple of two by fours - maybe just one by twos really - that shook when you stepped foot on them.
So we wobble across these things, feeling pretty much like inept foreigners. (Because of course we assume everyone in this town has balancing-on-little-sticks-over-the-water talents). But when we left the next day all the Khmer were wobbling too. So why don't they build a proper little bridge? A mystery.

We make it over the "bridge", climb the garbage-strewn concrete slope up to the main road, and get to the top. I take a good look around, and think "What the -hell- did we come here for?". OK so maybe I was a little cranky, sitting on the top of a boat with bags of onions for 3 hours in the sun, almost falling in the water, picking my way over garbage, all to find another dusty street which looked remarkably like the dusty streets in Phnom Penh.

We found a hotel. Well, we found the only hotel. Our second floor room had a great view of the main street and the river and one of those ice cream cone mountains, air conditioning for a few extra bucks (but I can't remember if we paid for it or not). A little terrace. Oh and some construction people banging away. That was great!

I think we took a nap when we first got in. And then we went for a walk. It was actually a very prosperous town. A big market, lots of people working on what looked like tasks related to boat building, weaving huge mat things to be used somehow for fishing. Pet monkeys. Fish laid out on a car hood to dry in the sun. Lots of shops.

Monks in Kompong Chhnang And kids who thought we were the most amusing things (maybe the adults did too but they had work to do.) We got followed all over half the town by an entourage of five. Later on the same day we were in a different part of town and in what looked like a semi-abandoned monastery complex. This screaming mob of 30 kids (age 4 to 13 or so) ran around trying to show us things (the temple with ghosts or zombies - they pantomimed scary things-, the tail of some dead reptile). They knew "hello" "goodbye" "ok", and thought us both very funny when we spoke any Khmer.
They took us through the neighborhood near the monastery: houses set high on stilts above the marshy wetland near the river. The houses were all connected by -again- little planks. We climbed up fairly far but chickened out when it came to crossing on one of those toothpicks. Actually we might have gone through with it but we thought about it too long. And looked down. It was something like 8 feet off the ground.

It was pretty cute though. A mob of kids hysterical at us for our fear, and they were running back and forth in the sky like any normal (for a Khmer child in this town) 6 year old.
So in spite of grumpy first impressions Kompong Chhnang was one of my favorite parts of the trip. People were so friendly. Maybe Americans (or just urbanites, or NYers) are particularly unfriendly and suspicious, or maybe I just expect everyone else in the world to resent westerners. But people were wonderful.

We ate dinner that night at a "restaurant" where it took us (well, took Rich) a long time to explain that we wanted to pay to eat. Another mystery! We also met this young guy who spoke pretty decent English. I think he said he used to work for the UN when it was in the city. But even with his help we had a hard time making ourselves understood. "FEED US PLEASE WE BEG YOU" Ah language.

The next day we got up to catch the boat to amazing Angkor, which is what I'll get to next time.

Patrice in Cambodia pt7

>From a Reuters news item, dated 3/29. (Thanks to my brother Michael for faxing this to me):

"While much of the world shuns British cows, a Cambodian newspaper
suggested today that the animals be shipped to Cambodia and allowed to roam free to detonate the millions of land mines littering the country.
" 'The English have 11 million mad cows and Cambodia has roughly the same number of equally mad land mines,' The Cambodian Daily said. 'Surely the solution to Cambodia's mine problem are here before our very eyes in black and white'."
Yes the Cambodia Daily is the paper Rich works on. Guess we'll have to ask him about it! (It's explained in my notes.)

One of you asked me to explain more about the Khmer Rouge (literally: Red Khmer), so before I go further on about the trip here's a little summary of Cambodia's home grown, insane, violent, I-guess-sort-of-Maoist communist sect (someone told me they are much like the Shining Path in Peru).

While the Vietnam war was going on, Cambodia--ruled by then-Prince Sihanouk--tried to stay neutral. He took an anti-US stance (which pissed off the Cambodian right), but also aggressively harassed and killed the left dissent within Cambodia. Many of these leftist people went underground, fled to the hillsides, and kept quiet.

In 1970 there was a US-sponsored right wing coup by General Lon Nol, while Sihanouk was out of the country. The Khmer Rouge went to war against the Lon Nol government.

The Lon Nol regime was notoriously inept and corrupt. Notoriously. Generals would report phantom troops in order to collect the paychecks. Weapons were sold on the black market to the enemy. Apparently it was an extraordinary time in the capital: Limos and fancy lifestyles. The accounts I've read give an amazing impression of "war as after thought to fancy parties". The house Rich and his housemates are living in was built by a wealthy Lon Nol general. (Uh, I think --R)

Lon Nol was really superstitious. He'd send recruits out with amulets, prayers, and no training. Nothing. God was on his side. The US pretty much pulled out on Lon Nol (thinking to themselves--Christ what a loon) after instigating the whole mess and illegally bombing much of the country.

The Khmer Rouge (KR) were scrupulously honest, completely committed to the cause, and absolutely willing to lose thousands of soldiers in a single battle, if that was what it would take. These were the people who had been harassed and pushed into hiding by Sihanouk from the 50s on. They had also been dissed bigtime by communists in the rest of SE Asia. The KR were told again and again by other SE Asian Communists, "oh don't attack Sihanouk--the time isn't right yet for your revolution". Basically the outside communists didn't want to alienate a seemingly sympathetic King Sihanouk.

So the KR felt abandoned, resentful, and paranoid. "Screw all of you. Our communism is purer, our struggle more impressive, we are racially and culturally superior anyway (look at what we did when we built Angkor). We've been humiliated and oppressed for too long. Just you wait till we get our hands on you."

No one had a clue about any of this though. King Sihanouk himself gave the KR his blessing. Anyone was better than Lon Nol, and besides the King was being allowed to think that the KR was fighting on his behalf. And the KR, who knew how much the King was revered by the people (Sihanouk is an amazing and slick character--another story) used him as a figurehead. They killed off several of his kids, but never him.

Among the people, the KR had a great rep. They never cheated, stole from, or raped anyone. No one could say that of the army. People were sick of the war, and the corruption, and they wanted the king back. They figured things would pretty much get back to normal if the KR won. In any case it couldn't get worse.

So when grim and young (young like 14, 15 years old) KR soldiers marched into Phnom Penh to take over they met with no resistance. People were not scared. And then that day they started marching everyone out of the city "for your own safety. The Americans are going to bomb". The population of the city at the time was maybe doubled because of the war. But with in days the KR had marched everyone out. People were kicked out of hospitals, and too bad if they died on the way.
The idea was that urban life was evil. Only traditional agrarian "truly Khmer" culture was righteous. But some of the traditional ways, religion, the monks, family ties, were also evil and so were destroyed. Their goal was to transform society completely. They wanted to prove that you could will anything into existence with enough hard work. Build damns out of nothing. Double or triple the amount of rice harvested. All with determination and human labor. If you had the right will, nothing could fail. So if plans did fail it was because of sabotage, or a failure of will, imperialist thinking etc. Therefore you had to kill off those elements.

At first obvious "outsiders" were murdered: the ethnic Chinese or Vietnamese Cambodians (as opposed to Khmer Cambodians--Khmer is the majority ethnic group in Cambodia), the Buddhists, the Muslims (they were a small minority then--now an even smaller one), Lon Nol soldiers, doctors (western medicine was evil), and people with city airs and accents.

Eventually there wasn't any "them" left anymore. But the failures of these massive restructuring programs had to be rationalized. So they started killing off the cadre members - the KR inner circle - as traitors to the cause.

The monster ate itself. Rich and I visited the Tuol Sleng prison in the capital. It's where "important" people were brought to be tortured and killed: Lon Nol soldiers, the wives and kids of Lon Nol personnel, westerners, and eventually suspect Khmer Rouge officials. If taken to prison you gave a detailed personal history, they'd take your picture, then you'd be tortured until you revised your "confession", then they'd take another picture, either before or after killing you.

What's amazing about the prison/museum now is that they have many of these pictures posted on the wall. The walls are completely covered. Most of them are not hard to look at. I mean they are, but not because they are gory. It's mostly walls of the snapshots that were taken on entry. There are young kids/teens, and the mothers holding their babies, and lots of adult men and women, looking straight at you. (These pictures can now be seen in the online database of the Cambodian Genocide Project.)

Looking at these pictures you think all the things I'm sure you are imagining. You think in very concrete terms: what would it take to do these things to the man, the little boy, the woman in this picture? What has to happen to you to make that possible?

What is extraordinary about these walls, I mean what is insane to me, is that some of the pictures are of people who were themselves torturers, until they became suspect themselves for some reason. The pictures don't have any identification - no names. Everyone has a number pinned on them for KR record keeping purposes. But you don't know, looking at these pictures, who any one is. I wondered what the ones who had themselves been torturers must have thought when they were dying - how they made sense of it. If they regretted what they had done, if they thought they were getting what they deserved, if they thought their luck had just run out.

So that's the KR. I'm at a loss really. I don't know what to say about them. They were kicked out by the invading Vietnamese army in about 1979. In less than 4 years they murdered or starved between 1 and 2 million people.

The Vietnamese were -of course- better than the KR (oh, the anti-Vietnamese US and its allies supported the KR), but still not liked by anyone (there's much historic animosity between Cambodians and Vietnamese). There was years of fighting between the KR, the Vietnamese occupational forces, and other factions (that's were US-backed KR support comes in).

The UN brokered an agreement between all these factions, and in 1993 elections were held. Today the KR are back in hiding, corruption is rife, and Sihanouk--king again and still quite a popular guy--is alive and well.

I can't swear to the complete accuracy of all the above (dates, chronology, etc), and certainly the whole history is much much richer and more complex than this, but it's roughly on target.

One of the questions that gnaws at me since being there is how can an entire culture recover from something like this? I know a fair amount about post traumatic stress disorder vis-a-vis battered women and kids because of my job. Maybe I'm overwhelmed because I'm so used to thinking about things on a one-person-at-a-time level. Healing on an individual level I understand, and have a lot of faith in. But how do cultures and countries heal?

The people were remarkable--friendly, seemingly so happy. But the longer I was there the more unnerving that became. At work if you're talking with a battered woman and she's telling you about an awful beating as if it was no big thing, you say she has "no affect". Or if she laughs about it you say she has "inappropriate affect". She can't bear to feel the things you expect her to feel because the fear or the grief or whatever would be too overwhelming. In many respects it's a good adaptation. It's a way for humans to survive what they shouldn't have to survive.
Anyway it seemed to me that Cambodia has inappropriate affect.
I don't know about you all but I'm now thoroughly depressed. More later.

Patrice in Cambodia pt8
Patrice in Cambodia will it never end???

And now back to our program - short this time because I don't have time to write much, but some of you have been a-clamoring for more. When last we left our intrepid explorers (that's me and Rich) they had gotten on the fast boat again and were making their way to Siem Reap - the city right outside Angkor...

We got on the boat early in the morning - again on the top with boxes and things. It was full again on the inside, and it was kind of fun (although noisy). This time, in addition to guys in uniform there were a couple of Australian tourists with us. One of them, a young guy about our age, had been born in Cambodia but left years ago. He was back to see what had changed, and seemed happy about recent events.

We bought some "fast food" before getting on the boat: a loaf of bread (they have good little baguettes there - a legacy of French colonization) and some kind of ginseng energy drink in a can. (I've since seen the brand in China town in Philadelphia).

We were on the water in the sun for about 2 1/2 hours. We pulled into a small town, a suburb maybe? of Siem Reap, and the minute the motor was cut off I realized I had a fantastic headache - biblical proportions. I was worried that it was sunstroke.

All of us touristy types (there were a bunch of us. The boat we caught at Kompong Chhnang came directly from Phnom Penh and was full of westerners) had to stop and show passports and explain what our purpose in life was to the local officials. And then walk out into a crowd of entrepreneurs vying for business: Guys with cars (with glorious glorious air conditioning) promising to drive you to the best guest houses. The really smart guys (all were men) come onto the boat to chat you up for biz. Captive audience.

So we get in the car and head for the best hotel in Siem Reap, the Grand. Apparently they were about to renovate the place and will soon be jacking up the prices - so this was a last chance to stay there cheaply. We dumped the little bit of luggage we had, I lay down on the bed and prayed for deliverance from the headache gods, and then we both went to customs (or whatever it was) to get clearance to visit the temples. Unfortunately we both had to be there in person. To get into Angkor is actually expensive. But Angkor is a huge potential revenue source - god knows they need the money.

However - if you're with the press you can get in for free. So that's what we went to do - wave Rich's pass around and try to pretend that I was with some obscure US paper and had inadvertently left my proof behind. In the end they let Rich in for free and I had to pay $30.

Of course it took a while for all this to happen. We sat in a hot room with some guy, who looked at our papers, and called in his boss, who looked at our papers. It's about 100 degrees and one of them is smoking. Rich and I are sitting on this vinyl sofa, the young guy is across from us on a second sofa, the real guy in charge comes in and out. I turn from my natural deathly pallor to a colorful jaundice (or so it felt). (In fact I have never seen a living person adopt the coloration that Patrice did that day. It was like wet Portland cement. --R) I would have gotten up to go out, but I thought movement would be a bad idea. Oh, I think they had offered us water or something to drink.

Finally we're set to go. And I say to Rich oh my god that took forever. "Yeah a whole hour".
And that's when I knew I was really sick, because I would have sworn in court that we were in there for AT LEAST four hours. Honest to god. Well, that and the fact that I barely made it back to the hotel before throwing up in the toilet in the nicest hotel in Siem Reap. And oh what a boon that we had that place with its beautiful efficient air conditioning and hot water and two beds and bathroom with a bathtub literally three steps from me.

I don't think I've ever been that sick in my life, not that I can remember. I fainted, was delirious, had chills, fever, vomiting, diarrhea. It was the most impressive sickness!

Rich went out and got some soup, and I couldn't lift my own damn head off the pillow to eat it. So he's spoon feeding me and he says, aww this is kind of romantic.

And I threw up on him.

Ok ok that's a blatant lie - but it would have been funny if I had. He also said, meaning to be sweet I'm sure, that I shouldn't be embarrassed about gross bathroom noises. But how can I explain this: I was so beyond caring. Nothing in the world could have been more irrelevant to me. I think I was trying to remember the formula for rehydration fluid (how much sugar and salt per pint of water, etc etc).

He got sick about 3 hours after I did. We both had this odd delusion about trying to answer the secret riddle of this sickness. If only we got the right answers it would be over - something vague, geometrical and feverish. We got a supply of antibiotics (he picked them up when he went for the soup. That poor soup. I threw or crapped every bit of it up. Plus all the crackers, the rice, the bananas, the ginger ale, the ginseng energy drink, the water. Finally I figured out that I couldn't eat, and I lay on the bed and did prime numbers in my head to distract my self from the nausea. I think if I had been a little bit less sick (and thus a little more clear headed) I'd have been scared.

And what was this mysterious malady? Who can say. All I know for sure is that it was great fun.
So here we are lying immobile (except when we are running to the bathroom which is actually pretty often) in a nice hotel room in Siem Reap, mere minutes away from some of most awesome ruins in the world. When Rich was feeling better (he was less sick I think then I was) he would read parts of the book on Angkor aloud. Let me tell you that was pretty damned depressing. "Gee it -sounds amazing."

In the end I spent two half days visiting parts of Angkor, Rich was there for a day and a half. One evening I spent lying in bed running through prime numbers, while he was watching the sunset from some beautiful site. Which (although I'm sounding grumbly about it now just to make this story amusing) was actually good. Who wants to be sick -and- feel guilty about ruining someone else's vacation?

The whole things was a drag! Except that I get to be one of those people who compares notes with others on her awful third world illness. Honestly I was pretty scared, and don't think I recovered fully until I was back in the States.

That's it for now - not much about Cambodia I'm afraid - but boy it was a big part of the trip. Next time I'll talk about Angkor and Kep, where we did not stay at King Sihanouk's house.

Patrice in Cambodia pt 9

Angkor, More Phnom Penh, and a Wee Bit About Kep

I already described Angkor a little bit (or quoted a souvenir book that did). It -is- grand and impressive. You could easily spend weeks there exploring all the old temples and bayons and crumbling buildings with trees growing through and around everything.

It's very difficult to convey it all - even when I have the pictures right in front of me. One of the guide books says that western visitors are reminded of nothing so much as the Indiana Jones movies. Which I thought was -so- tacky, but I'm forced to admit that it's true.

Think of the jungle (all cut clear around the buildings - but at the edges of everything is jungle), and bug and bird noises, and the slight wet weight of the air, and the clear strong sunlight. Now imagine that you're very sick in the middle of all this - exhausted from donating one way or another all your bodily fluids into the toilet. I'd walk fifty feet and have to sit and rest. (This was the second morning after the evil illness struck. That afternoon I stayed in the hotel and Rich went back. The next day I was feeling -much- better).

So that's the state I was in when I first saw everything - pretty miserable. Yet Angkor is so awesome I appreciated beauty in spite of myself. Some of the sites are overgrown by trees springing somehow out of the tops of buildings. Birds drop seeds on roofs and the roots grow down and through stones into the dirt. The trees growing up partly rip the buildings apart, but partly support everything. The effect is fantastical - like huge candles have melted wax over everything.

Ah! Sorry guys, but painting accurate pictures of Angkor with words is beyond me! It's so daunting. I don't know where to start - amazing detailed bas reliefs of military, historical, and religious scenes, and creation myths; the huge serene faces of the god-kings. Oh and the apsaras - the dancing ladies, I liked to call them. Sort of like angels carved everywhere. They were so charming.

I was so sick though that for the most part I didn't retain anything intellectual about what it means. My memories are all sensory. Which maybe isn't a bad thing.

I would go back to Cambodia just for Angkor.

We didn't take the fast boat back to Phnom Penh - we caught the one hour flight "home". And it had air conditioning and they gave us little damp towels to clean up with and that was one of those blissful moments - the air conditioning, the hot towel, the ice cold water to drink.

We stayed in the city for a few days. That was when Rich went to work and I wandered around. I almost went to a conference on domestic violence in Cambodia (some of the papers given in English) but then I thought "Christ almighty I'm on vacation to NOT think about work! Do I -really- want to hear all about Khmer cultural variations on beating up family members?)

This was also when we went to visit the Tuol Sleng prison and the "Killing Fields" - or the killing field that has been designated a visitor destination, because there are dozens (hundreds?) of fields all over the country were you can dig up murdered/starved bodies.

The "Killing Fields" is a short drive out of the city. It's a beautiful small field with wild flowers here and there. Bees buzzing around. In the distance you can hear kids playing. And there are depressions in the earth where they've dug up the bodies. It's not orderly rows, just random big pits.

When you first walk in past the gate, there is a display with awkwardly translated English explaining this site and the Khmer Rouge atrocities. And there's a big tall structure - a modernized stupa I think. Stupas are these tall sort of conical grave markers that wealthy folks or kings had built. Sometimes they are as big as buildings (maybe people are buried -in- them? Like mausoleums?) You see them all over the place - ancient ones. Well this structure is roughly like a stupa. But it's got four sides and is made of clear glass panels and on the inside are shelves which have heaped on them the skulls of the people who were dug out of the pits. And cards neatly labeled: "Adult females" "Adult males" "Elderly females" "Children" "Westerners" and so on.

I felt really ambivalent about being there - almost like a trespasser, or some trivializing voyeur, or more plainly like I just didn't want to be there. And yet of course humans have to bear witness.
There's a book by a Dr. Judith Herman called Trauma and Recovery. She draws on research with war veterans, political prisoners, battered women, and writes: "The conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim them aloud is the central dialectic of psychological trauma". She argues that witnesses are involved in the same struggle. Witnesses (and by that she means the larger community as well as literal bystanders) take sides whether or not they realize it. Silence, secrecy, "not talking about it" is complicity. Because if a victim can't talk (because people don't want to hear or can't quite believe horrible stories) then a victim can't heal.

So I suppose all that ambivalence on my part is normal - as "normal" as anything can be when it comes to pointless suffering and death; that witnessing is not parasitic but a good thing; and that by it's very nature witnessing is tense and awful.

After a few days in Phnom Penh again, Rich arranged for time off and we headed south for Kep, once a fancy shmancy coastal resort town. But it was pretty much leveled by the KR. There's an old Shell gas station there and its underground gas storage tank is filled with the bones of people. At least that's what I read about. Although we did see an old gas station in Kep I don't know if it was the same one.

Our initial plan was to drive down to Kep (on a safe road), then find a boat to take us (and the motorcycle) to another coastal resort town, Sihanoukville (because no one could vouch for safety of the roads between Kep and Sihanoukville.)

Any boy I'm all storied out for now. So wait with bated breath for the next installment!

Patrice in Cambodia pt10

First some corrections (oh my bad typing and sloppy spelling). Not only am I misspelling place names - but I'm doing so inconsistently!! (Phonm, Phenom, Phenm). Eeek! For the record (and this is no promise about the future; just that these spellings right here are correct) it's Angkor, Siem Reap, Tonle Sap; Mekong; Khmer; Phnom Penh; King Sihanouk, Kampot. (I don't have the correct spelling of Com Pong Chanong (Kompong Chnong?) as I never saw it written out.) (That's Kompong Chhnang. --R)

Kep, Where We Did Not Stay at King Sihanouk's House

So our plan is to drive down to Kep, spend a few days, catch a boat from Kampot (right near Kep) to Sihanoukville, and then drive from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh. We know it's safe to drive from PP to Kep, but we assume the roads from Kep to Sihanoukville can't be vouched for. And Rich has already once taken the road up from Sihanoukville, so we know that's safe.

"Safe" by the way means safe for westerners in broad daylight. It is a pretty stupid and arrogant thing to be on any road after dark, and in fact you want to start any trip well early in the day - leaving plenty of time for unforeseen delays. Even on the "100% safe" road from Sihanoukville to PP (which is -oh loveliness- paved like a real high tech road - first graveled over for a smooth even grading (or whatever it is), then layers of tar and such. Just another example of crap I took for granted: a well constructed highway road).

Even on this safe highway, a few years ago a couple of westerners who started traveling late in the day were ambushed and killed. (I forget all the details if they were held for ransom first, if it was the KR or bandits. They ran a restaurant in Sihanoukville).

And this road is mined and shelled quite a bit by either Khmer Rouge guerrillas (in order to hassle the powers that be) or by soldiers (in order to justify their protective presence - "See how active KR are? You need us!"). On our ride back along this mostly smooth and lovely and brand new highway we'd pass patch jobs, and crews in the midst of patch jobs, and holes (some gaping, some minor pothole size) that the crews hadn't gotten around to patching yet. It made me really sad, and I wonder if it doesn't frustrate the hell out of the crews. On the other hand maybe they're happy to have the work continue indefinitely (not that there isn't plenty of other road construction that could be done).

Now how many Khmer people are killed, kidnapped or shelled off the road? I haven't got a clue. Isn't that just like an arrogant visiting westerner with blinders on? I only just this minute thought of it. (Actually probably not that many are kidnapped - no profit in it at all).

There are lots of stats on mine injuries and deaths though - I don't know them off hand but the figures are staggering, and there are NGOs that exist just to help people maimed by mines. Not to mention all the farm land completely off limits to people. All along the main highway are little red signs with skulls on them. Not constantly, but in long patches. Especially around bridge construction - another guerrilla tactic - to restrict workers' movements. A real pain in the ass when you're trying to build something.

And on the lighter side of road construction - this road is being built as part of a US AID project, which has subcontracted with some Texas based construction company. The company provides technical assistance and training and generally overseas the site. So Rich told me to keep my eyes open for the tall pink flushed Texans and indeed I spotted a guy looking like I don't know what among slight brown Khmer men. Talk about incongruous. Wonder what Khmer sounds like with a twang (assuming he speaks any). And what this guy does for fun at night in the Cambodian country side? (odds are good he visits some 12 year old prostitute - oops I forgot this was supposed to be on the lighter side).

So - that was the road -back- and I haven't even gotten us to Kep yet. Yeesh.
We had been told by Robin - one of Rich's co-workers who had recently been in Kep (Rich had never been) that someone else told -her- that there's a French villa tucked in the mountain overlooking the once beautiful resort like shore area of Kep. You can't see it from the road but it's there, run by some French guy who rents out rooms.

The only other accommodation in Kep is where Robin stayed. A big ugly concrete bunker of a place with an amazing view, no sheets, no towels, and no curtains in the huge picture windows with the ocean views. She herself never found the villa. (Ha! Villa. Doesn't it seem pretty unlikely that you'd find an -excuse me- "villa" in Cambodia. On the other hand, this is exactly the kind of oddness you expect after a while. Bombed out city, French villa, why not?)

So we ride for hours, stopping several times along the dusty but not bad roads for something cold to drink. Or lukewarm. Because you know the cardinal rule of travel is NO unbottled water - including ice.

But come on! You're on this motorcycle for what feels like a million years, your butt's numb, it's really hot out, you've got this damn helmet on. The ice -looked- clean! What a dumb thing though (in retrospect). But maybe my system was thoroughly bugged up already because I didn't get sick (and bottled water didn't stave off agony in Siem Reap, that's for sure).

We stop for drinks (ah orange soda! I had that for breakfast) at these collections of open walled shacks. Walk up to the sort of all-purpose bar/restaurant/neighborhood hang out place (complete with promotional beer posters highlighting Australian bikinied models and tough cowboy type dudes, even more incongruous than the Texan) and sit down and drink the soda and get stared at by everyone who has time on their hands. Oh and the bike too. Most people who own vehicles have motos which are small. And if they have motorcycles they tend to be on the smallish side too. So Rich's bike qualifies as some monstrous aberration, a stupidly huge thing. (Probably what they think of a lot of foreign -people- too. Oh just kidding! Although we did indeed attract a similar kind of interest so who knows...)

Before Kep we get to the smallish city of Kampot and ask around about hiring a boat from this harbor city (which is very pretty, albeit run down) to Sihanoukville. But there are none. All the boats go straight on to Thailand without stopping (seems odd but that's what official types tell us). However they also tell us that the roads to Sihanoukville are perfectly safe - no Pol Pot-ites (Pol Pot is the head of the KR). So we figure we'll probably drive there after all.

We also speculate that these officials are KR sympathizers notifying their comrades up the road that stupid westerns are on the way. Ha. Ha.

Then we drive on to Kep - and finally spot through the green the ocean. God it's so gorgeous and exactly what you imagine - palm trees and blue blue water. The road runs with the slope of the big hill/little mountain on one side and the ocean on the other, and Rich says it reminds him of parts of Italy. Then the road widens out some and you come to a park like area. There's the mountain immediately to your left (and you can see what look like very nice homes up on the mountain not too high above you), then to your right along the shore a narrow strip of park, a short stone wall beyond which there is a short drop to a narrow strip of sand, and the ocean. There is also sticking into the ocean a stone and concrete pier with a really ugly statue. All I can remember is that it's a women standing and it's atrocious - but there was something else about her too.

Further on down this road, space opens up, and the little bit of sand that was disappears. It's just grassy, flat, and stony beach up to the water. And a big clearing with lots and lots of burnt down vacation bungalows. Then a big old rectangular cement block of a hotel. Kep, more than other places, was really eerie to me. It felt dead. There were people there. Lots of Khmers -vans with families, kids- vacationing on that little beach. It reminded me of Central Park or Jones Beach. But all those blackened houses were scary.

-Meanwhile- Rich and I are on our mission to find the FRENCH VILLA. We come across a rugged looking jeep or van (can't quite remember) pulled off the road pointed up to the mountain onto a non existent trail, and 4 or 5 western folks standing around. We stop, ask if they've heard of this mysterious French place. Nope never heard of it - even though they're French themselves. And -suspicious indeed!- they don't tell us where they're going or staying. SO we decide these snooty people KNOW where the villa is, are ON THEIR WAY to the French villa, and are plotting to keep us (ugly Americans) out of it.

We explore some roads, mostly driving in circles up and down the mountain. We come across this very big, fairly modern place, which overlooks the ocean. Some monkeys (and/or peacocks? Hmm that might be wrong) are roaming around. It's got a big open driveway area in the front, is shaded by trees. Quite a spread. There are Khmers filling a pickup truck with boxes (of beer I think I remember). And I think to myself - this is -NOT- the villa.

And older man comes up and asks us (I think I remember he was speaking English) if he can help us. We ask if this is a villa or guest house and he says, no this is King Sihanouk's place. The three of us get a good laugh out of this. No he doesn't know anything about a villa. Rich and I are silently wondering for a split second if he will go "oh what the hell why don't you stay here, Sihanouk never comes by and all the beer is wasted".


We try once more for the villa, climbing up stone steps carved into the mountain on the side of the road to check out another very nice structure. This time a young (and grumpy) guy comes and asks what we want. It was the land of mixed messages. He invited us to sit (god what a sweet place) and said a few times that we couldn't rent a room. And so we left slowly, giving him plenty of time to figure out an offer and a price. Rich thinks he was considering it but in the end the female-traveling-whorishly-with-a-guy thing decided him against it. (Nothing like travel to make you feel like a world class slut.)

So finally we go to the big concrete rectangle. And it isn't -so- bad. Nothing sheets on the bed and curtains wouldn't improve. While we are settling in, this guy shows up - either the manager or owner or some local important guy who makes this his home. He speaks English, Rich mentions the Daily, he remembers Robin (pulls out her photo - snapshots are used sort of like biz cards. You can pull them out and even if you don't speak the same language someone in the neighborhood can point you in the right direction) and he becomes even more friendly and helpful. He recommends a restaurant for that night, and the boat guy for the next day, and has us put in a second floor room with a better view.

He also tells us that the road from Kep to Sihanoukville is perfectly safe. (So does another guy, a soldier, we later meet at the restaurant. So by then we pretty much feel secure about driving on to Sihanoukville.) He has a gun slung around him like it's no big deal (not the soldier, the hotel guy). And when he first drives up on his motorcycle he has loaves of bread which he breaks into pieces and distributes to the two gangly puppy dogs and the two rough and tumble little toddler humans, pretty much equally.

The French are at the hotel also! So I guess they weren't -really- plotting to deprive us of the idyllic villa experience we had hoped for. Later on they show up at the restaurant too.

The wonderful restaurant. It's pretty much directly across from us right up on the ocean. When we walk in the guy pulls us out back and points to a woman scaling a fish and we nod yes yes we want fish. Then he brings us over to a pail of squid and we nod yes we want squid. Then he brings us into the kitchen and points to a chicken lying half plucked on a counter and we nod yes again. The he points to his watch indicating that we should come back in an hour.

In the interim we walk to the ugly lady statue, warily keeping away from harassing geese, and Rich tells me this pathetic story about a Jewish soccer camp in Italy he and his sister went to when they were kids (but this is supposed to be about Cambodia so you'll have to ask him for the rest of that story. Which -is- funny, although I did go awww poor thing and truly feel sorry for the imagined 10 year old Rich).

Back at the restaurant we have the most amazing meal. In a vacation full of amazing meals this was one of the best. However we are (for a while - the French did later show up) the only ones there. We're sitting at a little table in the middle of the room and there are a good fifteen men, women, and kids sitting against the wall chatting and watching us eat. I guess I got used to it. I mean it's funny and weird but after a while what the hell. Except this scrutiny makes it awfully hard to steal tissues to use as toilet paper (always in short supply). Boxes of (usually artificial-rose reeking) tissue are used in restaurants instead of napkins.

The French make a good distraction though, especially after they start dancing to the Thai remixes of mediocre pop-American hits. (They seemed like absolutely nice good friendly people, and any implication to the contrary is me being a smart ass - which Rich and I both were about them at the time too.)

Whew! Next time you get to hear all about the island where -errr, we sort of got stranded. And I'll tell you right now that getting stranded on an island is just not in any way as romantic as it sounds. Not even a bit.

Patrice in Cambodia pt11

A Short Walk Around Tiger Island

But first an answer to a question from Lia, one of my high school friends:

Actually, Lia also wants to know if I see the world around me differently since the trip. I have to think more before I can answer this. But in terms of me? I don't dismiss possibilities out of hand. I feel as if I can choose the extraordinary. When I got back the first thing I did was start writing again. Not this stuff. I mean the piece I've been working on periodically for the past several years. The two, writing and Cambodia, don't have anything to do with each other on the surface but I know they're related.

Actually it's hard to say that Cambodia "did" that. I think if I hadn't been growing in that direction anyway I wouldn't have taken such a trip. But being there certainly cemented all that good stuff.
I've become a big proponent of doing what seems outrageous and risky - and I mean heart and head risky more than I do life and limb risky - although Cambodia did have some element of the latter (but really not so much).

Which is a nice transition out of this introspective stuff. I return you now to our fearless and, as we shall soon see, hapless young Americans.

So the island. I mentioned before that Kep's beach is a sliver, and crowded. But you can hire a guy to take you in his boat to one of the islands. We go to the shore, near the restaurant, and then wade
into the water to climb into the small motor boat (well, a row boat with a motor attached). The boat doesn't go that quickly so there is plenty of time to watch the approaching island grow. And time too, to play with the tiny quarter and dime sized crabs that have leaked into the boat from the ocean and are now trying to hide under rotting boards. You only want to throw them back to freedom but they're not trusting.

I don't remember if it is actually called Tiger Island, but hell it sounds good, so I'll go with it. (OK, I made that up. I don't really know anything about its being "widely known for having lots of wild tigers living there." And it's rabbits. Rabbit Island. --Rich)

We get to the lovely crescent of a beach and arrange for the guy to come and pick us up around four. If you stand on the beach and look inland you see a not too heavily overgrown semi-clearing of green, trees spread out a bit, and the ocean again. So this is obviously a narrow part of the island. If you stand on the beach and look back towards the mainland you see the mountain with those nice and yet not too ostentatious homes (King Sihanouk's prominent among them).

Right on the beach, you can't take two steps without tripping over the comfortably settled French. ARRGGG. We overhear the owner of the boat confirm with them that he will get them at around 2.
So I take my camera and we leave our bag with everything else in it (passports, bread, fruit, water, money, motorcycle keys, towels, sunscreen) on the beach with the ubiquitous but surely trustworthy French. It's not like we're going to be gone long.

We cross the clearing, check out the people who maybe live on, but definitely fish off of this island. The water is very shallow very far out. There is a long line of men and women up to their waists in the ocean pulling lines - pulling in a net it must be. And at the end there is a little boat that is somehow a part of the whole process. They don't take any interest in us - partly because they are concentrating on their work, partly because we're just some pain in the ass gawking tourists (I imagine).

We walk sort of aimlessly around the island. There really is not much beach on this side - the land ends in big boulders and sharp rock formations that you have to climb carefully around. We've got shoes on so it's not bad. Or the land ends with trees and jungle growing right up to an edge that juts out over the ocean. And we feel rather adventurous (or I do).

After climbing over rocks and crawling around trees for a while I say "So maybe we should turn around and go back". And Rich answers,"Oh no it seems like a small island. We can just circle around it. We're probably almost there."

I swear the above exchange really did happen. It's not revisionist history. Although I later keep my mouth shut about it because "I told you so" is one of those most unhelpful phrases. And besides, at the time I was all into it. Why not? I thought he was right; that it was probably a small island. (This might be accurate. --R)

So we walk and walk and walk and walk and walk and walk and walk and walk and walk and walk and walk. And soon (but not soon enough) realize that this is not a small island. That this island is shaped like a mutated starfish with sixteen arms. That its actual circumference is huge. That our beach is not "just around this next starfish arm".

The really frustrating thing is that we can see the mainland. That's what keeps us going. It looks just like what we saw when we were standing on our beach, so we have to be close, right? HA!!

And remember, this is not an island completely edged by lovely beaches. This is an island edged with muddy marshy expanses that feel more like the bottom of a rocky lake; or by rocks that cut your feet; or big rocks that you have to climb over; or bushes and trees that are grown over thickly and scratch when you hunch over to get through them.

For a while I take my shoes off and wade in what seems wadable, and then put them back on to walk on the shore in when the sea bottom gets too uncomfortable. Oh and I'm wearing these old beaten up boot type shoes. They weigh a lot, take forever to dry out, and are the only pair I carried with me, so I don't want to get them wet.

And I've got long pants on that I have rolled up to my knees - but it's pointless - they get soaked. And my bathing suit top on, and the long sleeve shirt I started out with tied around my waist, and that DAMNED CAMERA. Which is comforting in it's own way. Maybe we'll die of dehydration, burnt to a scarlet crisp, but we'll leave nice pictures behind.

After a while I give up trying to keep my shoes or pants dry (it's a wonder I didn't jettison the camera). Rich is in shorts and his high-top sneakers (WRONG! I never wear high-tops --R), so, every now and them I look up from lugging around my now ten pound feet and legs with soaking wet pants that weigh me down pretty damn effectively, and want to wring his neck.

But the truth is it wasn't so bad and I am embellishing. The island was really interesting. The weirdest rocks and plants. And beautiful. And OK OK there was a kind of romance in it all. I thought a lot about how cool it would be to do exactly what am doing now - telling other people about it.

And hey, it's not like I was sick or anything! That was the blessed thing about my Evil Siem Reap Illness. It was so bad that nothing else in comparison seemed as scary.

We come to a pathway that's inland a bit (and Rich says -this- reminds him of parts of Rhode Island - I think that was it) By now I'm imploring out loud the fates and gods and such at the turn of each starfish arm: Oh please let this be the beach please let this be the beach please let this be the beach.

AND THERE IT IS THE BEACH - YAY, the French long gone, so we know it's past two. But we have no idea what time it is otherwise (watches are in the bag). And I am salivating over the thought of the water and bread and fruit in the bag. But especially the water.

And -oh how humorous- one of us jokes, "Wouldn't it be funny if the bag wasn't there?"
"Ha ha" we chuckle. That would indeed make this an even more amusing anecdote.

Well yes the FUCKING BAG IS GONE. We look around for a note, to see if the French stuck it out of the way under a tree, or in the shade, or even took it with them for safe keeping. But it's not a big beach at all. There is no note and the bag itself is GONE GONE GONE.

You know that thing where you're close to having a fit, but you choose not to because you are a grown up now and it just won't help? And the related phenomenon where one person says positive, reassuring things while the other person worries, because -both- of you can't freak out at the same time?

Well Rich and I ignore these alternatives and toss around vicious recriminations.
Oh -THAT'S- not true.

We do the boring adult things and prepare for the worst case: "Well the worst case scenario is our bag is gone for good, and we have to call someone in Phnom Penh and wait until they come down with money, and we have to somehow get the bike back there, and get new passports...oh shit this IS bad."

We think it most likely though that the French took our bag back to the hotel for safekeeping. Of course! Or that the French are a gang of traveling con artists committing horrible crimes in our names with our passports, on Rich's motorcycle.

So we sit on the beach wondering how close it is to 4 (our pick up time) and, as surely many a shipwrecked soul has done before me, I contemplate the irony: surrounded by water and desperately thirsty. We swim around a bit too - but it's kind of cold, and I'm damn sick of wading in the ocean. It's just not fun anymore. OK adventurous, sure, but just not fun.

Mr Boat person comes back and as soon as he gets close enough, holds up the bag.
You know that thing were you don't realize how worried you are until your problem is fixed and you jump up and down making a joyful noise unto the lord?

We get in the boat and scarf down the bread and the fruit and the bottles of water. Can't be bothered with the little coin sized crabs. I remember holding my hand over the side of the boat, and the warmth of the ocean water, and the sun going down, and feeling exhausted and filthy but really really good.

Patrice in Cambodia pt12

Kampot, Where We Did Not Get on a Boat.

After our exploration of Tiger Island, we pack up our things and head into Kampot to spend the night. We want to be that much farther along on the trip when we leave in the morning. And although this is a little vague in my mind (and I feel ridiculous telling you this after all that stuff about not traveling at night) the sun does set on us before we get into Kampot. But it's a short and well traveled road between Kampot and Kep. I remember having to stop in the middle of a bridge and pulling over to the side to let this big truck go by.

After crossing bridges and such, we get to Kampot and find a five star place. Sheets and a spread on the beds, lights in the bathroom, a bottle of water, hot running water, a wardrobe to hang all our now wet and disgusting clothes in and on, a fan. Fancy stuff. And, to impress on you just how classy a joint it is, the room keys have attached to them rectangles with 3-D girlie pictures. When you turn the plastic, their clothes disappear! Like I said, classy.

We drive around and eat at the Phnom Penh Restaurant that night. (Must be like eating at the Philly Cheesesteak Place in Nebraska). Get up bright and early to hit the road, (but I think we looked around for a while for people with good info about the roads. I remember stopping at a couple of places before we really set out, but not really why we did).

The road is mostly red and dusty countryside, not paved at all. So the going is pretty slow. I think it's a terrible road, but Rich later describes it as good, because there aren't any impassable bomb craters maybe?

It's slow but beautiful. There are mountains. The road runs parallel to a train track for a while, and I wonder - not without some concern - if this is the same train from which a trio of really foolish western guys was kidnapped about a year ago. They were later killed (Yes --R). Now and then you can see the ocean still in the distance. Towns occasionally. People working on the side of the road up to their waists in water - whether streams, or run off from something else, or rice fields I can't remember or never really figured out.

Every now and them we come across guys in uniform. We wave and smile, and everyone waves and smiles back. At some point, maybe we had stopped for a break, I ask Rich how we know for sure that the guys in uniform aren't KR and, well of course we don't know for sure. So I try to radiate good will and "don't hassle me no one will pay the ransom" vibes with my waving and smiling. Oh and this is when we devise our "what to do if we get stopped by the KR" strategy.

Finally we come to a paved road again! There's more traffic, shops and small buildings along the road. It feels downright urban - well relatively. There are also occasional kids pulling 2 ton water buffalo by the snout across the road to get to and from fields.

We stop for a soda, and Rich tells me this is the main highway between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville (which I already described), and that we're about an hour from Sihanoukville.
We drive -oh 10 minutes - and we start pulling off the road, and Rich is cursing, and he tells me we have a flat.

And I remind myself -again- that this is an adventure, and that this will be a good story.
Certainly the growing crowd around us is already entertained. I've moved under a tree, am sitting on the ground. Behind me is a field, a house, a pond with a huge water buffalo drinking water. Meanwhile some guy has, we think, explained that he's going off to get help. Some other guy, pretty young, speaks a little bit of English, and asks if we're married, asks how old we are. He's 17 - and I feel really decrepit (not to mention immoral - again!).

He offers to take Rich to get some water to bring back, so they go off on his moto, and I smile stupidly at a whole bunch of people, who sit and smile back. I keep wanting to speak Spanish. Most people drift away until just small kids and one old man are left.

Rich gets back with water - ah water. And then it seems to be clear that no one is showing up. And then it seems as if they want to take the motorcycle apart and take the wheel somewhere else to be fixed. Which is a scary thought. Well, Rich thinks this is a scary thought. I am in a determined-to-consider-all-things-a-great-adventure mode.

Communication is complicated and miraculous. Even though Rich's Khmer is not much better than anyone else's English (as far as I can tell), he manages to explain that we want to hire a truck to bring us and the motorcycle up to Sihanoukville.

Folks are only too glad to oblige us, as we are westerners with deep pockets (westerners by definition have deep pockets compared to everyone else). So these very helpful guys flag down a pickup truck which is already full of people and things - including a couple of motos. But their motos are working, and the westerner will be paying. So everyone happily unloads the motos, 8 guys or so lift the damn motorcycle into the truck, riel (the currency) quickly changes hands, Rich and I wedge ourselves in among the other people and packages still in the truck, and we're on our way.

Next time:
Adventures in Sihanoukville, where we did not stay at the Hilton but met mammals that you wouldn't expect in SE Asia. (to be typed in --R)

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