Monthly Archives: July 2017

Battambang and Baby Monkeys

Heading to Battambang

When we were in Banteay Chmar I asked the Frenchman called Paul what he thought of Battambang. He told us that he quite liked it and that we should check it out. We decided it was a good idea for a few reasons. First, Battambang is only about 130 KM from Banteay Chmar, and we were in the mood for a short travel day after all the miles we had been putting on. We also didn’t sleep incredibly well in the stilt house the night before, mostly because of the storms and mosquito itches. We headed out on the muddied road with Battambang in our sights.

The roads were wet, and in the places where the roads were dirt they were downright muddy. My trousers were covered with mud from the moment we left Banteay Chmar. Shalma was saved from most of it because her foot pegs are up higher than mine, and she is somewhat shielded by my body. Also, I was digging in my heel and turning by giving throttle to the rear wheel in the soft mud. However, as shortly after we began our ride, we saw the weather clear and the day warm.

As we rode along, my bike started to choke up and cut out a bit whenever I pulled off the throttle. It was stalling, but then it would catch itself and go. It made for a jerky ride, but I didn’t think much of it, just hoped my mechanic could sort it out when we got back to Phnom Penh. I was mostly thinking about how badly I needed a cup of coffee! We decided to pull over about an hour and a half into our ride for coffee and noodles.

NOOOOODLES!!! This was just the way to start the day!

After a delightful noodle soup and my Khmer coffee with sweet condensed milk, we jumped back on the bike, excited to see a new city!

I turned the key, hit the throttle, and it died. I got it started again, but it died the moment I tried to apply throttle. We were in the middle of nowhere, and if I were the worrying type, I would have totally worried. I am not the worrying type, so it was cool. But I kept doing this little dance of getting it to idle, then trying to make it go, only to have the motor die. I finally remedied the issue by revving the piss out of it. I wrung that little xr250’s neck and away we went. It was still choppy, but inertia more or less carried us for the next hour.

We went through some impoverished areas on that road. At one point I was passing what looked like a thirty-year-old Honda Passport scooter, or what was left of it. It was loud, and the wheels had lost their roundness years ago. As I passed him, I saw that his exhaust was nothing more than a meter of common PVC pipe duct taped to the header. It sounded like a cross between an angry sewing machine and an electric didgeridoo (if such a thing in fact exists).

I also got hit in the chest by a giant beetle. I had my jacket a little unzipped in order to cope with the heat and humidity. This thing nailed me in the chest right above the zipper. I thought I had been shot! Okay, I didn’t really think that, but it hurt. I assumed it was deflected by my sternum, but about five minutes later I felt something really creepy squirming and poking into the soft flesh of my side just below my rib cage. Its little bug legs were like needles. I half panicked, pulled over, and frantically unzipped my jacket to set the creature free and put an end to our nonconsensual engagement. I only saw him for a second, but he looked to be the size of a small humming bird, but shaped like a giant black German cockroach with some orange bits and inch-long legs! I was relieved when the ordeal was over.

We carried onto Battambang and checked into a hotel called Seng Huot that was recommended by Paul. The hotel is absolutely top notch, and a very nice room with air conditioning and cable television goes for $15 a night. It is a beautiful and modern place. After we checked in, Shalma and I decided to walk around. We headed into the central market and enjoyed more delicious noodles. this time they were the home-made egg noodles that I greatly prefer over rice noodles.

We decided to take a little walk just to see our temporaneighborhood. Battambang is like a Phnom Penh-lite. It is a similar place in many ways, but just a little bit smaller and slightly less touristy. Everywhere one looks, there are fine examples of French colonial architecture. The French built broad avenues with wide swaths of bricked pavement, making Battambang a far easier place to walk around. It is nice, if not a little sleepy. As far as I could see, by Cambodian standards there wasn’t much that was exceptional about it.

Sampeou Mountain, the Khmer Rouge, Temples, Monkeys, and Bats

There are some sights to see just out of town, namely a 1000 meter tall mountain called Sampeu Mountain with caves and a temple complex up top. At about 3:30 we headed over to the mountain which is about 20 KM out of town. Below is a picture of the mountain. If you look really close, you can see there is a pagoda up top.DSC00419

It is easy to miss the road that takes you up to the top of the temple complex if you are going under your own steam like we were. The easiest thing to do is to just hire a tuk tuk. It is not, however, the most fun thing to do. We got a little lost in the backroads that twisted up and down along the back of the mountain. At one point we turned a corner and saw a couple of little girls who without us asking realized the white folks are lost, pointed and said, “That way.” I guess it wasn’t the first time Westerners were lost back there.

We figured out where the entrance was, and there were quite a few Westerners around. There was a guy asking if he could be our tour guide around the area, and I agreed for the sum of three dollars. He had a little scooter, and Shalma and I agreed to follow him on my motorbike. We bought our tickets, then went flying up these narrow twisting concrete roads. They were steep, and it was like a narrow racetrack twisting straight up into the sky. The views of the lush, green-clad mountain and the land below were breathtaking!

Our guide took us to a small temple. He told us that it was a prison during the Khmer Rouge era. Then he said to follow him, and we shambled after him along a narrow footpath. We passed some Buddhist monks and some statues depicting what appears to be Buddhist hell. We then came to a hole with a steep metal staircase. We ascended into the darkness and saw a man in humble rags on the floor in front of a reclining golden Buddha. And just beyond the man was a case full of human skulls. We were in the killing cave of the Khmer Rouge.

Bones of Khmer Rouge murder victims

The man on the floor had a tray in his hands for donations. He was a small, sad, and pitiful figure. I approached him and put some money in his tray. As I was about to walk away, he called to me and reached out toward me. I offered him my wrist and he tied a red string around my wrist. He gave me a blessing in Khmer for happiness, health, family, and good fortune. I felt unworthy of his blessings. I have everything in comparison to so many people in this country. My disappointments are of the most luxurious variety.

The old man had a story. He came from a small village below the mountain. He had lived and worked as a cook. When the Khmer Rouge came, they conscripted him to feed their troops. He gave life to the men who took lives from others. If he had not done so, he would have surely been killed. He is a penitent man, trying to improve his karma. He stays in this dark cave day after day, looking after the bones, cleaning, and acting as caretaker in order to pay his debt to the universe in this life so that he will be have some absolution in the next. Below are captioned pictures of the cave.

 

 

We left the cave. Frankly, I have had more than my fill of genocide. Our guide walked with us back to our respective motorbikes, and we got on and headed up another twisty and even steeper road. I had thought I was already at the top! Nope, I sure wasn’t! At the real top, there is a magnificent temple complex and a bunch of wild monkeys.

 

The monkeys are hilarious, cute, and kind of mean to one another. Once in a while, a big one comes along and just kind of bullies all the others. In the pictures above, you can see that some of the monkeys are sitting on ledges. The drop on the other side is tens of meters. Once in a while, one monkey might randomly attack another monkey and push him or her off the cliff. It is pretty alarming until you figure out the little creatures immediately save their own lives by grabbing a tree branch on the way down. In two of the pictures, you can see a very tall tower. The drop from there is 100 meters plus the height of the tower. The monkeys are undeterred and seem to really like climbing the tower into the sky.

After our time with the monkeys at the temple, we headed back down the mountain. There was another cave to see: the bat cave. Down on the ground level, there are many little venders and chairs set out. The busy time for the venders is sunset. The tourists are all there to see bats come flying out of a cave. Shalma and I were a little bit early, but we settled down and bought a couple Cambodia beers. They were refreshing.

Across the road, up on a cliff, about fifty meters up a ladder there is a buddha head. Since the bats weren’t coming out yet, I decided to climb up and see it. Shalma didn’t want to come with me, because that metal ladder was extremely sketchy, and there was a little bit of free climbing to be done to get to the Buddha head. In Cambodia, you can totally die doing normal tourist stuff.

The view from the buddha head

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Another view from the Buddha head

I climbed down from the Buddha head and sat back down with Shalma. We watched other people struggle to get down the ladder, and I was reminded how agile I am for a guy who broke seven vertebrae less than two years ago, leaving me in the hospital for two weeks and in bed for more than three months. And then, we waited for the bats to fly out of their cave.

It seemed to take a long time. People were saying that they should start coming out as the sun goes down around 5:30 PM. As it turns out, we started seeing the earliest buzzing of bats closer to 6:30. It is like they send a scout out to make sure it’s okay out there. “You wanna go out there, Bob?” “Nah, it’s your tur,n Larry! You always try to sucker me into it.” So Larry goes out then comes back for Bob when the coast is clear. Eventually more and more bats start to realize that the sun is no longer looming to scorch them, and an areal smorgasbord is there for the picking.

As the bats began to eject themselves from the cave en masse, I pulled out my trusty camera to take pictures of them. And I failed. I totally failed. They were either blurry, or you just couldn’t see the bats. I really wanted to get a shot of them coming out of the cave, but I had no clue what I was doing and couldn’t pick up the contrast between the bats and the shadow of their cave. Below is the best shot I got and a little video footage that Shalma took on her iPhone.

A gaggle of bats

 

And that is about as good as it gets right there, folks. I assure you, it was really neat!

Back to the City of Battambang: How I Was Almost Killed By a Shih Tzu!

We headed back to the hotel and got thoroughly doused with rain for twenty kilometers. As you can see in the pictures above that were taken just before we left, the rain can come fast and with little warning. Fortunately, by the time we got back to the hotel the rain had mostly subsided.

Shalma and I decided to get some dinner at the night market that opens along the river promenade after dark. We both had more spicy dishes with noodles. We both eat spicy food, but these dishes were intense. It was the kind of food that truly makes you feel alive inside. After dinner, Shalma and I decided to part company for a while; she went back to our room, and I took a little walk.

The streets of Battambang are relatively desolate at night for a bigger city. I had one guy on a motorbike come up to me and offer me a ride and ask me if I wanted drugs, which made me weirdly uncomfortable. I said no, and he persisted. I had to be very insistent. I started to realize that maybe I shouldn’t be out there walking alone. I mean, that is a really weird thing for me to think because in my life I have walked through many darkened streets across many lands. Little did I know what was in store for me….

I walked along a lonely street just on the other side of the market from our hotel when I heard a dog barking. It was coming straight at me, and it meant business. It was angry, vicious, and it looked like this:

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Stock photo pilfered from the internet. I would give photo credit, but this has been used a gazillion times by various sites. Just know that it is frightening and mean!

I couldn’t kick it because it was little and cute, and that would be unfair. My only choice was to run away in fear. It chased me until the end of the building it guarded. It was a guard shih tzu. I told Shalma about it when I got back to the hotel. I don’t think she totally believed me, but I was planning to show her the next night.

The Next Day We Ate Bugs

The next day was pretty uneventful. We mostly utilized it as a day of rest. We spent some time walking around and eating at different restaurants. We found a pretty good breakfast place, but that was kind of it. At one point, when we were at the market, we saw a woman with a little stand. She had a wok on the coals, and I wanted to see what she had cooking. Shalma and I walked over to her and took a look. She had some different types of locusts, crickets, a big beetle (was it the kind that hit me in the chest? We may never know) and some larvae, which I believe would have grown up to be palm weevils had their lives not been cut short.

I am not sure what I was planning. I don’t think I was going to buy a bag of bugs or anything. Before I could even think, the woman began handing us insects. They were spicy and had lime on them. The flavor was neither exceptional nor terrible. I wasn’t that into the texture, and I don’t like cricket legs stuck in my teeth. The one thing that I really was’t into was the worm. It was just so soft and squishy. I am glad we tried them but they weren’t for me. She offered both me and Shalma a large beetle. I wasn’t feeling it and had to decline. Shalma ate it without hesitation. Bully for her!

Then we took a long walk along the river. Shalma wasn’t hungry, still full on beetles, I guess. I had a sandwich made of paté and pig snout. It was delicious. We decided to go back to the hotel and make it an early night. Our plan was to ride to Pailin the next day, a city that is still 70% Khmer Rouge and largely administered by the last holdouts of the regime. First, I had something to show Shalma.

We walked over by the market, and I told her that I wanted her to see the attack shih tzu. She didn’t want to, but I insisted. We walked by the building but kept our distance. No shih tzu. We began crossing the street, and we heard a ferocious bark. I turned to Shalma and said, “I would know that bark anywhere!” Sure enough, the shih tzu was in the same spot where it had been the night before, and it was running some poor bugger off once again. I had heard that they were once guard dogs in China, but I never really believed it. I believe it now!

Leaving to Pailin

We decided to leave to Pailin the next day. It takes two to three hours to get to Pailin from Battambang by motorbike, so we thought we could leave around 9 AM and still get there before or by noon. We checked out of the hotel and attached our luggage to my rusty Honda xr250. I hadn’t ridden it for more than 24 hours, so I turned the key, pulled the choke, and started the engine. The problem was that it kept dying. I totally failed to launch. The minute I gave it any gas, the thing completely stalled out. Needless to say, I wasn’t very excited to have this happen in an unfamiliar city.

I pushed the bike down the street for about a kilometer with Shalma following. I found a scooter shop. It was the first place I came across, and I hadn’t seen anyone working on bigger bikes in the town, so it was my best hope for the moment. I figured the guys would at least know where to direct me if they couldn’t help.

Nobody at the shop spoke a lick of English, but I showed them the problem, and they were happy to help. The technician checked my fuel filter, changed the spark plug, and took a sort of general look around. The whole time I could see that he wasn’t comfortable with working on my bike, and I was waiting for him to pick up his phone and call someone for help. For about a half hour I thought, any minute now this guy is going to pull out his phone. Eventually that is exactly what happened.

The technician charged me a dollar for taking a look and changing the plug, then he told me that he was going to push me elsewhere. The technician’s co-worker loaded Shalma up on the back of his scooter. Then I got on my bike, and the technician got on his scooter. He grabbed onto the luggage rack of my bike, opened the throttle on his scooter, and began pushing me up the road in heavy Battambang traffic. He pushed me for probably three or four kilometers until we arrived at an outdoor tent-shop that had a tricked out xr250 on a stand. I felt like I was in good hands.

The guy at the second shop was a true professional. You could see him leaving no stone unturned in diagnosing the problem. He made sure everything was clean and worked, checking the spark, timing, etc. He cleaned out the carbs a bit and got the bike running good as new. He then charged me five dollars and sent me on my way after about 45 minuted of work. This guy could totally have his own shop in any developed country and make good dough. I gave him some extra dollars in appreciation, and we got on the road to Pailin.

Pailin is an isolated little place on the Thai border. When you read about the trials in Cambodia that are just now winding up, Pailin is the place where they caught all the war criminals. As mentioned above, it still boasts a population that is 70% former Khmer Rouge with Khmer Rouge administration of the local governance. I will post the whole story of Pailin next week with loads of pictures!

 

 

 

 

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Banteay Chmar: Staying in a Stilt Home

Where on earth is Banteay Chmar?

The great thing about being around a ton of tourists and expatriate workers is that if you need something, it becomes exponentially easier to find it. In this case, we were in a bar called “Angkor What?” on Pub Street in Siem Reap when we met a really kind lad from Belgium who was working there as a waiter. He asked us what we were doing next, and I told him that I was picking out places on the map where there were huge swaths of green and few towns. After Angkor Wat, I decided I wanted a little more of a secluded adventure. I asked this young fellow if he heard of this place or that place. He said, no, but his girlfriend had been in country for a long time. She recommended a couple places, including Banteay Chmar, a very secluded northern village with another 12th century wat.

We left Siem Reap at about 7 AM to head to Banteay Chmar, which lies about 200 Km to the northwest. The ride was relatively uneventful, but there were a couple highlights, particularly when we saw all the school children on their motorbikes headed to class. Imagine streams of thousands of children between the ages of eight and thirteen taking over the streets, swarming and buzzing like a particularly densely packed and loud swarm of bees! And then, you look a little closer and these little ones are wearing their school uniforms as they ride like bikers going to the big Harley rally in Sturgis, South Dakota. Mind you, I take these kids a lot more seriously than so many American “bikers” who truck their bike between towns so they can ride to the bar from the hotel. These little kids, like most Cambodians, really do “live to ride, ride to live.” Little motorbikes are integral to life here. Cars are in the periphery in this country.

I wished so badly to pull over and capture the shot of all the little boys and girls riding in their school uniforms, but sometimes I make choices about safety first in spite of the fact that it pains me to deprive my dear few readers of visual images. Nonetheless, it just wasn’t safe to pull over.  And so we motored on until both Shalma and I decided we were hungry. Cambodia isn’t littered with familiar places to eat, so you are always kind of rolling the dice. As we came into one tiny village I saw a man with a sandwich cart attached to the side of his bicycle. I pulled in front of him, waved him down, and we ordered a couple of the typical Cambodian sandwiches, which seem to include a combination of a uniquely Southeast Asian version of paté and bits of pig snout. the sandwiches cost us about 35 cents each.

Shalma has a lot of trouble with the bits of pig, and to a degree I do too. I don’t like eating the unclean animal, and I certainly hate eating anything as smart as a dog. If I had my way, I would probably be a vegan. I tried it once, and it really didn’t work for me, and so here I am bathing in my own hypocrisy. For Shalma, it is a little different; coming from Iran, pork is haram (unsanctioned, unclean, etc.) under Islam. She isn’t religious, but the culture that she grew up in kept her from developing a taste for pork. Having said that, her mom told me that they have cousins in Iran who hunt and eat the plentiful wild boar there. Anyway, the point I am making is that we are kind of eating what is available to us. A lot of times, it isn’t exactly our first choice, and I think vegetarians would suffer greatly in certain parts of Cambodia. I cannot imagine how a vegan would survive outside of larger cities like Phnom Penh or Siem Reap.

After our breakfast sandwich we continued, but I still hadn’t had coffee and it was making me a wee bit grumpy. We stopped in another small village just as the monks were coming around doing prayers and collecting offerings. I had a cup of Khmer coffee with sweet condensed milk, gave the monks some dough, and was ready to hit the road. Shalma pointed out that the locals seemed rather amused that I gave offerings to the monk. I actually didn’t notice their reactions at all. I may have tuned it out. At this point I have been in enough remote villages that I am kind of used to the curiosity. Most tourists are traveling by busses, all of which pretty much stop in the same spots. On a motorbike, we go on roads and stop at places where the busses do not go. Needless to say, I stand out in these places for my size, blond hair, blue eyes, and tattoos. Fortunately, Khmer people are relatively discreet about checking you out. Shalma sees it more than I do.

As we continued north on the last leg of our journey (it was a little over 3 hours), the landscape became incredibly rural. The rice paddies were still in place, but now they were joined by other plants, especially cassava (another staple crop). The land became more rugged and the road rougher, although still paved. Cars and motorbikes gave way to women and men herding cattle and water buffalo down an elevated road. In no time at all, we were the only ones on the road who were neither cow nor master. The people and villages became fewer. And then we turned into this small village, and we were at our destination. To be honest, we actually didn’t know we had arrived because there isn’t much there, but then we began seeing the remains of an ancient temple.

There is a moat with ancient sculpted rail of men or deities pulling some kind of rope. I don’t know what this means, only that it is a common theme in the entrance to ancient Khmer temples.

Shalma and I rode the xr into the temple grounds. The administration of the temple is an informal operation, to say the least. There is  indeed someone there to take money in the odd chance a foreigner comes along, which isn’t incredibly often. I paid two dollars after Shalma and I entered. We were both very excited to see this place and almost had forgotten that we had not secured a place to stay for the night. When we pulled around the temple we saw two young Western-looking fellows who were eyeballing us. They seemed genuinely surprised to see us. They turned out to be volunteers from Spain, and they were helping to clean up the grounds by pulling weeds an such . I asked them if there was any place to stay around there, and they told me there was. They were finishing work for the day and told me that they would lead me somewhere to acquire lodging. Shalma decided to stay and hang out at the temple while I took care of the formalities.

At this point, I thought maybe we would be staying in perhaps the one tiny bed-and-breakfast in that town. It turns out, there is no bed-and-breakfast there. The Spanish lads took me to the village community center. There I learned that all the tourism in Banteay Chmar is community-based. There are no hotels; you stay in traditional Khmer stilt houses with a local family. Most of the homes are down a rough dirt road. They are packed together in almost a random order. The homes are simple, made of very plain wooden slats. There are no glass windows, only open windows with shutters you can close in case of a storm.

Above you can see a couple pictures of our room. In order to maintain community-based tourism they offer mosquito nets, which are are better than gold when you’re a delicious foreigner. I am still waiting to see if I contracted malaria on this trip, but I am hoping the precautions will save me.

After securing our room for $7, plus another $4 per person for our dinners that night, I made my way back to Shalma at the temple. She was sitting there and managing to have a leisurely conversation with the men who were working on the grounds. When left to her own devices, Shalma will charm and make polite conversation with just about anyone, even people who speak almost no English. She has some fantastic qualities, and that is one of my favorites!

There is a small stand within the temple grounds that sells food and beverages. Shalma and I decided to get something to drink before exploring. This was the perfect opportunity to have a beer in the jungle, and I couldn’t resist it. Shalma had a Coca-Cola, and we shared some water. After sitting there for a while, another foreigner arrived. He started talking to the numerous children in Khmer and ordered some satay skewers and hard boiled eggs in the local language as well. We were impressed by his linguistic skills. He struck up a conversation with us, and we discovered he is French and called Paul. He told us that he runs a local silk production place that empowers women and invited us to take a tour the next day. We had a nice conversation with him, and he gave us some tips about local places to explore.

Shalma and I headed into the temple. I turned to take a picture of her, and right then a little guy jumped into the picture with her. I see serious issues with people who go into the Peace Corps (or similar missions) and end up spending the entire time using children as photo ops, props, and tourist attractions. I reluctantly post these pictures as I do not wish to be exploitative. In this case, however, they kind of rushed the photo, so I am including the picture. Otherwise, you would see no pictures of children posted by me.

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These little guys photobombed us, then they became our tour guides

The little kids seemed pretty excited to see Shalma and really wanted to impress her. They, using makeshift sign language, asked us if we wanted to see three big things in the temple. We agreed, and we were off to explore this space. These are the best tour guides you could ever ask for, and probably the best in all of Cambodia. Where is their Trip Advisor page? They reminded me of when I was a little guy; I had explored all the wild spaces around my home and knew the area better than any adult. I am positive these little fellas are the foremost experts on temple topography. They took us through tunnels and through small areas of the collapsed ruins, and they even showed me some kind of giant chameleon lizard. Below is a gallery of pictures from the temple. Note how the jungle has reclaimed so much of this once-civilized space.

The kids did a fantastic job, and they were hilarious with their antics the entire time. They would try to impress Shalma by breaking twigs over their forearms as a show of strength. They seemed very keen on showing her how fast they could run down a mound of giant stones or how far they could jump from one stone to another. Periodically, they would also tackle one another. There was a point when one boy was on standing on another boy’s shoulders to pick a bit of fruit. Then, a third boy kicked the child on the bottom, and they all came tumbling down with a great roar of laughter!

Our little tour guides showed us every nook of this temple complex. Shalma suggested that we buy the four of them a soda for their trouble. I was concerned that maybe it would be against their parents’ wishes, but then remembered I am not in the US. Just as she was saying this, another two boys joined the group, and the roughhousing intensified. Shalma said, “Buy sodas only for our original four boys!” She didn’t mean it in a bad way, she just had developed such an affection, and the new boys were indeed interlopers. But I said, “You cannot do that with boys; I will buy all of them a soda.”

We took the little guys to the food and beverage stand, and they each picked out a soda. The lady who operated the establishment yelled at them to not take advantage by getting the most expensive stuff. All the boys walked away with a can of Sprite and gave us a thank you in Khmer. They climbed up onto a large rock within sight, sat down and enjoyed the familiar ritual that men have after a job well done. Shalma pointed out, “Boys are exactly the same wherever you go. They play, try to impress girls, and then kick back and have a beer, or in this case, soda.” Seeing the boys on the rock was so very familiar to me and filled me with thoughts and memories that harken back to my own childhood. I realized how few children I have had in my life, but also how sweet such similar childhood times were with friends. Being a little boy can be a truly exciting and satisfying experience.

A Little More Exploring

The gentleman we met, Paul, also informed us of a few other places around the area to check out. There is actually a very small 12th century temple right inside the village. The main temple that I wrote about above was for the king and the monks, but the small one was for the people. It is actually almost difficult to find even though it is right inside the village. You have to take kind of a small diagonal turn to get to it, and it is hidden in some mangroves. Below are a few pictures.

The ancient Khmer were really into moats. I mean, can you blame them? Moats are magnificent! The problem is that they chose the land by its proximity to water. Instead of building on bedrock and creating an aqueduct to move the water in, they just built where the water happened to already be. This is why so many of the ancient sites are crumbling: squishy ground. I would hazard a guess that these aren’t the safest places to explore, but that is kind of where the wonder lies, and Cambodia is The Kingdom of Wonder, after all.

Paul also told us of a Khmer Rouge water project that is just a few kilometers up the road and requires some off-roading skill. I, of course, jumped at the chance. It turns out that the Khmer Rouge did in fact have some effective public works projects, and this reservoir is one of them. It is a fantastic place to watch the sunset. Below are a few pictures we took there right before the storms came.

 

The Food in Banteay Chmar and Punching A Wasp In the Face

We had lunch at the market in Banteay Chmar. It was some kind of Vietnamese dish, a cross between a crepe and an omelette with some kind of mysterious meat folded inside. It was delicious, and I think they cost about 25 cents a piece. After lunch, I had a wasp hovering around me, and I am weirdly afraid of them. You see, I know people who have never been stung by anything in their lives. I, on the other hand, have been stung by just about everything: honey bees, wasps, scorpions, and all kinds of things with stingers. So I freaked out a little bit and started flailing wildly and punched the wasp right in his goddamn wasp eyeball. This got a hearty laugh from half the village. Even Shalma was pointing and laughing.

We took a little walk around the market to see where food comes from. The market is tight and dark with various materials draped across the top. It is hot, and there is an open sewer running trough it with a few boards over the top. Meat is hanging in the heat all day and covered with flies. Every once in a while the woman tending the stalls will take a swipe toward the flies with a leafy twig. Ultimately, this is little more than an exercise in futility. Needless to say, there is more than a few health hazards going on in the market. However, Shalma and I suffered no discomfort from our time there.

That night for dinner, our hosts served us an amazing meal with some type of omelette, a beef stew (with delicious tomatoes, mangoes, and pineapples in it), and fresh steamed rice. They also gave us watermelon, which is actually the most dangerous fruit to eat anywhere. People rarely wash the outsides, and the fruit’s natural lack of acidity and high sugar content make it the perfect breeding ground for bacteria, especially without refrigeration. Still, Shalma and I ate every last bite and had no problem with any of the food. It was incredibly delicious.

Toilets and Mosquitos 

In order to facilitate and promote community-based tourism, some NGOs helped make the home stays more comfortable for Westerners. The local Khmer are not spraying themselves with deet and sleeping under mosquito nets, but as mentioned above, our bed had a totally effective net. In the middle of the night, however, when I had to pee, I was required to leave the relative safety of the net. I can tell you, although I was doused with mosquito repellent, they swarmed me and sunk their little mosquito beaks into me like I was a fine pan-seared foie gras served with a nice Sauternes. I am still totally paranoid about catching malaria, seriously. It is the night mosquitos that carry the parasite.

The toilets were perfectly Western toilets, only without the handle to flush them. This is not uncommon here in Cambodia. In this case, there is a drain pipe that catches rain water and channels it into a tub in the bathroom. One is required to take a wee bucket of water and pour it into the toilet in order to flush. It works but takes a little more time, which allows the local mosquitos to enjoy a delightful feast.

Silk, Empowering Women, and Building A More Fruitful Community

The next morning we decided to take Paul up on his offer to tour the silk factory, Soieries du Mékong. Click the hyperlink to find out more about the program, or just read my simplification. The organization was founded by two NGOs in order to help improve the lives of women in northern Cambodia. Anyone who has read Smith’s Wealth of Nations, or even any Marx (a rare point on which they both agree) knows that the key to societal wealth is skilled production instead of farming. The idea behind this program is to give women self-determination while making the village less dependent on cassava and rice farming, both of which can suffer the perils of bad crops and deflating market values.

Soieries du Mékong is staffed not by workers, but as Paul pointed out, by true artisans with a fine skill. The women work on beautiful grounds that are well-kept and have a huge variety of beautiful tropical fruit trees. The program solves childcare issues by encouraging women to bring their children to work when they are not in school. In essence, the program seeks to make a joyous and happy work space where women have few worries. They also only allow only a maximum of forty hours a week in order to encourage a proper work-life balance. The women are often making more than their husbands now, more than doubling household incomes. Soieries du Mékong also pays 80% of the women’s healthcare costs and has other programs to teach the women about home economics and balancing budgets. This is important in a place where people have always been poor and tend to spend every cent they get. Below I have added some  pictures of the facility.

Programs like this are important for places like rural Cambodia. They are necessary because they give things back that settler-colonialism have taken away. Typically, a society develops their own local products and economy. They make varying amounts of goods for trade and domestic consumption. Under most circumstances, societies develop and establish their own comparative advantage, wherein they figure out what they can produce the most of (at the highest quality) and focus on those products. They then seek out trade partners who have a comparative advantage in other products and establish a fruitful international economy. I am oversimplifying here, but I think you get my point.

Colonialism kills a society’s ability to prosper long after the colonists are gone. The Belgians, British, Dutch, French, etc. have essentially operated the same way all over the world. No place is the result more stark and evident that the continent of Africa, but it works the same way everywhere. When the colonists arrive, they take the people out of their traditional industries and force them into laboring to create a limited number of products that particularly appeal to Europeans. This lowers the aggregate global price for a product and allows France, for example, to acquire cheap rice from Asia or cocoa from Africa, and sell it cheaply to Switzerland or England while still making a profit.

Those people being colonized become devoid of skilled labour; they lose their trades and cannot go back to them in a post-colonial society. Making matters worse, industries have low factor mobility, meaning it is difficult for the people to move from one place to the other or one industry to the other due to lack of general skills. Obviously, the land cannot be moved either. This leaves post-colonial societies stuck making the same products for the same low earnings as they did when the Europeans ruled over them.

Colonialism abandons societies in a precarious marketplace where all the surrounding post-colonial states are laboring for the same products, not allowing for trade between states within the region. In the case of Africa, for example, there is virtually no trade between African nations. The final icing on the cake is that, in a post-colonial society that has not established its own comparative advantage and lacks diversified industry, no import substitution products are created. This means that Cambodians are stuck with cheap surplus Western clothing and goods and a marketplace that does not allow them to develop. Projects such as Soieries du Mékong are giving back something that was long taken from the Khmer people.

The community-based tourism has also been a great financial improvement for Banteay Chmar. In spite of the fact that there are few tourists there, the small amount of tourism that exists has more than tripled the aggregate income within the community. In most cities in Cambodia, it is really just the wealthy elites (including Westerners) who are making all the money from tourism. This keeps the poor nearly as poor as they were before while channeling money into the hands of a few who hoard it. This is not to say that the increased tourism has not improved lives, just that this improvement is mitigated by power structures and greed. In Banteay Chmar, we found an egalitarian system that works for the benefit of all within the community.

Thank you for reading this long blog post. Next time I will have lots of pictures of monkeys!

Angkor Wat: Eat, Pray, and Be A Total Poseur

The Road to Siem Reap

The road to Siem Reap from Phnom Penh is National Highway 6. It is a pretty straight shot from our little place by the riverside to the highway, and it was not too much trouble to escape the city at 6 AM. Had we left any later we would have been threading a needle between a sea of motorbikes and tuk tuks. As we got onto the highway, I was delighted to see that there were two lanes going in both directions with a substantial island in the median. This (mostly) protects drivers from oncoming traffic. Occasionally there will be a motorbike that has decided to go against the grain and ride down the wrong side of the road just to add a modicum of challenge to the commute. In general, however, it is much less threatening than having an SUV come straight at you and drive you onto the soft shoulder.

A few hours up the road, there is a fancy, almost European-style rest stop with a diner and a coffee shop. There we had breakfast and continued on. Unfortunately, this is where the fancy highway stopped, and we were back to traversing rice paddies with buffalo and cattle on the side of the road. The traffic was far lighter than we had found on the roads in the south, although there were still dangerous head-on overtakes from time to time. We stopped one time for gasoline only once and then continued on our way. It was relatively uneventful, but that one fuel stop got me thinking quite a bit.

Back in the US, as I rode my Triumph Tiger around San Francisco and Oakland, I would constantly have the same thought rushing through my head: This is unsustainable. I am not an active environmentalist, but I try to be conscious of the impact I have in the world. The roads in the US are seas of cars, and I have particularly seen the roads in the San Francisco Bay Area reach maximum density. Twenty years ago, there were two hours in the morning and two hours at night where one could expect to be significantly delayed. Today one can expect to be delayed if they are driving a car across the bay bridge at any time within a 24 hour period. So what got me thinking about this? Cows… The cows in the picture below.

TukTukCow

What you see in the above picture is a Cambodian farm truck hauling a livestock trailer with three cows. The “truck” part is a little 125 cc motor scooter, and the trailer is something locally fabricated out of handy bits of metal and recycled wheels and whatnot. At first this seems a totally absurd agricultural implement. In fact, it appears laughable. Then you have to use a frame of reference; the Khmer farmer needs a tiny motor scooter and a makeshift trailer to haul around his life’s work, namely cows, while the American needs a Cummins diesel 4×4 truck to haul around, well, nothing at all most of the time, and maybe a jet ski on the weekend and an AM/PM Thirsty-Two ouncer full of Mountain Dew during the week.

Again, I don’t mean to be pointing fingers, and I am sure I am a hypocrite in my own ways, but really, which is more laughable? How long can US society keep giving every sixteen year old a car for their birthday? When is the point of critical mass? The funniest thing is that the Khmer farmer is far more practical and efficient than virtually anyone  I know in a “developed country,” myself included, and I have never even bought a new car, choosing to ride motorbikes instead. Here’s the thing; if you were to work at an engineering firm and told your boss that you were going to invest 40,000 dollars in a machine that will only run 2 hours out of 24, your boss would laugh at you. If you told your boss that this machine depreciate by 20% in the first year, and another 10% every year thereafter, your boss would indeed be right to fire you for buying this wingless albatross of a machine! Now which is more laughable? The point is, I think we have to meet in the middle somewhere.

I apologize for my digression, but the rest of the ride was really quite lovely as I contemplated my culture’s wastefulness. As we went further north, the air became cleaner and the fields and aromatic rice paddies so much greener than they are in the south. There were several weddings happening in the small villages along the road, all of which were far less congested than the southern villages. At  one point, I nearly crashed because Shalma got so excited about one of the Buddhist weddings that she began ululating in typical Persian fashion. I appreciate the beauty of Shalma’s native culture, but it truly frightened the Jesus out of me! I will take an oncoming Lexus SUV (in beige with gold trim) aiming to collect me head-on over the fear of that noise directly in my ear while riding a motorcycle!

We arrived in Siem Reap after a total of 6 hours on the road, including about an hour of rest stops. We checked into a lovely little place called Velkommen Boutique Villa. Our $15 room was comfortable, well manicured, and included air conditioning, cable TV, and a delightful little balcony. There is a quiet patio area where they serve three meals a day. Most of the food is quite decent by the standards expected here, but we did have a hamburger, and they put a ton of ground rosemary in it, which we both found to be a little off-putting. However, that was really our only complaint. The staff was friendly and very helpful. The place even has a very nice pool that we never bothered to use.

After we checked in and had lunch, we decided to see the town of Siem Reap. We headed over to the downtown area and a street that has now been dubbed Pub Street. After searching my memory over the past week, I cannot think of a more touristy place on the face of this Earth. Maybe New Orleans is as touristy, but I have never been there. I guess Disneyland is the closest I can think of.  It was so American/Euro/Australian-centric that it was almost a joke. It felt to me that there was a subtle bigotry and ignorance in the way that this area seemed to teeter between exploitation and apathy. This was a town within a town, one that is especially for privileged white people. Maybe I just felt like there were a bunch of white Americans and Europeans capitalizing on an ancient and beautiful culture. It felt like neocolonialism to me, and there I was, drinking a fifty cent beer and feeding it.

The prices were closer to US prices, and most of the food was either a poor take on American food or set to exploit Western prejudices about Asian foods. At the time we were there it mostly reminded me of a drunken sorority block party. I say sorority because the foreigners I saw there were overwhelmingly white women with expensive sunglasses who were often wearing the same baggy cotton blue trousers with elephants on them. Many of the establishments appeared like any of the little bourgeois boutique-style overpriced restaurants that pepper every Western urban area on the planet while offering avocado on toast for $9.

pubstreet-e1499786354920.jpg

Pub Street at night

Angkor Wat

The next day Shalma and I decided to go and see the famed Angkor Wat. This isn’t exactly as easy a task as it seems. Although the temple is only a couple kilometers from our hotel, one can no longer pay at the gate. You have to go to a separate destination that is several kilometers away from the temple grounds. Also, this past February, there was a price increase from $20 to $37 per person. I have to admit, $74 for two seemed like a hefty price after being in Cambodia for a month. Nonetheless, it became immediately obvious why they had to sell tickets at a separate site; there just isn’t any place to stage all the tour busses near the temple itself, nor to have the 15+ windows open to sell tickets to the throngs of tourists. After all, roughly a million tourists pass through the temple in a year. While in Siem Reap, I learned that the rise in tourism has something to do with a movie called Tomb Raider.

The great thing about the million tourists who go through Angkor Wat every year is that they all pretty much leave by 11 AM. We arrived at about 9:30 that morning, and you’d think that it was Coachella by the masses of people in their cultural appropriation costumes; one woman was even dressed in what early 20th century orientalists might describe as a genie costume. They rushed to the most prominent features of the monument and began their photo shoots. Again, it appeared that the majority of tourists were women, and when there was a boyfriend around, he seemed like little more than an attention-starved tool whose only purpose in life was taking Instagram photos. I understand how this may seem like a sexist trope, but I arrived at Angkor Wat to see a monument and strangely got sucked into the sociology of 21st century tourism and its repeating patterns within this setting. Someone should write an ethnography!

Angkor Wat is an extremely large 12th century compound sitting on more than 400 acres. In the middle is the largest structure, a temple built for the Hindu god Vishnu. The compound is surrounded by a wide and perfectly square moat that stretches for almost 4 kilometers around the temples. The main temple is a massive structure that one can walk around in for hours. It is multi-storied with a galleries of intricate stone carvings in halls that run the circumference of the outer building. In the centre is a large structure. Upon it is built a massive tower. Only 80 or so tourists can climb to this tower at a time. Before 11 AM, the queue wait is up to an hour long. Shalma and I decided to pass on this and went to explore the surrounding jungle inside the compound.

There are hidden temples around the compound. Subsequent kings also built temples there, and they are serene and interesting–and completely void of tourists who tend to go for the big and obvious stuff that lies right in the middle. Shalma and I walked around and found ourselves all alone. We ventured down a dirt path and found a quite little temple. It was green, the birds were singing, and insects were making all kinds of buzzing and chirping noises. It was peaceful and almost as if were weren’t at the same Angkor Wat where everyone else was. But Shalma did get bit by ants, and that was a bit of a bummer for her.

Little Temple

The quiet little temple all alone in the jungle and away from the tourists.

The Masses

The morning masses who are all gone by 11 AM

Shalma and I spent a bit of time by the little temple and continued to walk around and quietly converse for a while. There are beautiful green swamps in the jungle, probably part of the original moat system judging by their squareness. After a little while, we headed back toward the temple. We were walking toward the west side of the main temple, and I spied the most beautiful view. I don’t use Photoshop or filters when I take pictures because I am just not that much of a photographer, but once in a while I do like to capture something that I think looks nice. And here it was, a completely unobstructed view.

Green Swamp thing

Green swamp and someone’s hat

As we approached, I pulled my camera out and was about to take this amazing photo. Right then, a young American woman came into the frame with her boyfriend. They walked up onto the steps and she began to pose in front of one of the seven-headed cobra  statues that are situated on either side of the staircase. She then engaged in contorting herself into ridiculous yoga-style poses while quietly barking orders at her photographer. Her most favorite pose appeared to be the kneeling position on one knee in front of the statue with her hands in a Y formation as though she believed that she was some Hindi goddess presenting the multi-headed cobra god. We stood and watched this go on for at least ten minutes. All the while, we were amused if not slightly embarrassed for them. We did end up taking a picture from this perspective. It is the one just below this paragraph. It was even better than originally intended because this colorfully clad woman zoomed through on her motorbike! Braaaaaap!DSC00306

 

After capturing this photo Shalma and decided to seek some lunch and a bit of water. It turned into lunch, water, iced coffee for Shalma– she is a huge fan of Khmer iced coffee and never drank coffee before–and I had a Cambodia beer. We both had a delicious noodle plate for lunch. The whole thing cost $18, which again is really expensive for that kind of food pretty much anywhere in Cambodia aside from Angkor Wat. Despite being expensive, we met a young kid called Thai who was selling Angkor Wat pins for a dollar. He spent some time talking to us about his life in spite of the fact that we weren’t buying anything from him. By the time we finished lunch it was almost noon. I looked over my shoulder and witnessed an exodus reminiscent of a California nightclub at 2 AM. I leaned over to Shalma and asked, “So, want to try this again?” She replied with a yes, and we headed back to the main temple. However, first I wanted to go down one of the dirt paths on the other side of the temple.

As we headed toward the dirt path, we spotted some critters, Macaques, actually. As we were observing them from a respectful distance, some young Spanish lads happened along and decided to taunt the monkeys with coconuts. I told them that they shouldn’t do that. One of them sincerely asked me, “Why, are they dangerous?” I said, “Yeah, dude, one of those monkeys has the strength of a two-meter-tall man and has teeth like daggers.” The monkey started coming toward the Spanish guys pretty aggressively and insisting that they give them coconuts. The fellows decided that maybe they shouldn’t try the will of the monkeys and conceded the fruit. Here is a picture of one of the monkeys enjoying a refreshing beverage.

Temple Monkey

Nothing like a refreshing beverage on a hot day!

Temple Monkey

Here is another one just being a badass.

After seeing the primates, Shalma didn’t want to walk into that part of the jungle anymore, so we headed to the main temple.

We wandered around the entire thing and looked at all of the detailed reliefs on the outside walls. Many are original, but there is a lot of restoration going on as well. Fortunately, 19th century French archeologists took plaster castes of the artwork, which allows them to be accurately restored today. The most damage had come to the site during the 20th century. Cutting back the jungle had led to much of the degradation through erosion. The Khmer Rouge didn’t help, nor did American artillery shells that had fallen within the temple grounds.

Shalma and I took our time. Sure, there were a few stragglers, but very few. We decided to go back to the tower in the center of the temple, the one I mentioned before with an hour wait. When we got there, it was like being there after closing time; the line was gone and we could just ascend the extremely steep stairs. At the top there are more carvings and depictions of gods as well as intricate filigree. The views from the highest point in the temple were absolutely stunning.

The Temple

The view from the highest point in the temple.

 

When we were up there, we could really take time to look at the intricate details. I found a not-so-obvious bit of graffiti that was scrawled by a French Legionnaire in 1929. I have included the picture below.

French Legionnaire

French Legionnaire grafitti (circa 1929) carved right into the temple wall.

 

Shalma and I spent the the next several hours walking around the temple in relative peace. It was hot and humid, but an overall wonderful experience. For the most part, Shalma and I have climatized well to this environment. For example, we have an air conditioner in our apartment that we never really use anymore. Walking around in the heat was really no big deal to us and worth it for the solitude. Overall, we really enjoyed having a chance to see the temple, but decided that we wanted to head somewhere far from tourists the next day. We decided to head to a remote village without any formal hotels. My next post will be about staying with a Khmer family in a small village. In the meantime, I have posted a gallery below with a few more of the photos from Siem Reap and Angkor Wat.