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A Tail of Two Kitties Part Two: The Kittens Grow Up and Move to Sweden

Scruffles and Odin

In July of 2017 my girlfriend Shalma and I were just a month into living in Cambodia. We had come here to do a great many things, none of which had anything to do with animals in any way. It all started when I saw some kittens in the alley. One died, and we rescued the other two. Of those two, one was extremely sick and on death’s door while the other was merely in a general state of poor health but seemed to be doing well enough. We started by rescuing the very sickly one, thinking it really had no chance. The other Shalma brought upstairs after finding some children playing a game of catch and using him as the ball. My previous post about these cats is here on my blog page. You can see little Scruffles and Odin below, just how we found them.

 

In this picture just below you can see Kasper. He is the little kitten that died. Had Shalma and I known then what we know now, we would have rescued Kasper, and he would most likely be alive today. He died before we started saving cats.

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After taking in these cats, we took care of all of their medical needs. Shalma created a GoFundMe, and many of our friends helped us to take care of them. They had a lot of medical needs, especially Odin, who was so sick he had to spend more than two months in hospital. Right when we thought he was finally getting better, he developed ringworm all over his body and lost most of his fur. Meanwhile, Scruffles followed me wherever I went. I cooked fresh chicken for him and fattened him up. He became my best buddy. He would come sleep with me whenever I took a nap and mostly lived on my lap or in my arms. He would even climb me when I was standing so that he could get held–that wasn’t very nice! I built him a little habitat out of a cardboard box and a handy bit of paracord. He became so comfortable that he started drinking out of our cups instead of using a bowl.

 

Eventually Odin came home and we began watching them grow together. At first, Scruffles beat the hell out of his little brother, and Shalma was always very concerned about them. Over time, we saw Odin becoming stronger, and he started giving Scruffles the business right back. He was a pathetic sight for some time as his hair was growing back, but the two of them were inseparable in no time. Below is a picture of the boys together. You can see how Odin’s fur is still rather spotty at this point.

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The cats became these gorgeous creatures, and my girlfriend turned into a crazy cat lady. On top of taking care of these two cats, she began carrying cat food around Phnom Penh to feed any animal in distress. I tried to support her as much as possible, but I have to admit I am far from perfect and failed more than once. It became really hard for me as I realized how bad my cat allergies are in the tropics.

Because of my allergies we realized these cats would need another home, especially as they got bigger and I became sicker. It turns out I am far more allergic to grown cats than the little ones. We actually briefly rented out a second place to keep them in order to salvage my health. Fortunately, we had friends from all over the world offering to help them. They seemed so in love with one another at that point that we hated to separate them. Our lovely friend Sanna offered to adopt the cats in her home in the farmland of central Sweden.

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The biggest issue with Sweden is that they have a daunting cat immigration process. It is expensive and time consuming, requiring costly blood tests that must be sent all the way to the EU and tons of documentation, microchipping, several waiting periods. You cannot even bring the cats in until they are at least seven months old. Fortunately, the amazing people at Animal Mama helped us every step of the way. Eventually the day came when I could take them into a plane and deliver them to Sweden: January 29th 2018. I snapped a few photos of them the day I was taking them. They had become big luxurious cats, and Odin had become quite the strong hunter!

We loaded up the crates and grabbed a taxi to the airport. They were going on an 18 hour flight!

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Arriving in Sweden

I arrived in Sweden early on the morning of January 30th. I had to get the cats through customs, which required a little sweet talking on my part. It isn’t uncommon to have mistakes on official paperwork in the Kingdom of Wonder, but it all worked out in the end. Next, I had to get on the half hour express train into Stockholm and catch a two hour train to Värmland where Sanna lives. She was kind enough to arrange the tickets. All of this was more difficult than it sounds. It wasn’t easy carrying two massive carriers and my own bags onto the train. Icy train platforms didn’t help, and I was constantly concerned about the wellbeing of the cats who had never felt this kind of cold before. Below are pictures from our arrival in Sweden and the surroundings of Scruffles and Odin’s new home.

 

The cats cried on the entire train ride to Sanna’s house. They were pretty distressed from the flight and the continued travel. I am pretty sure they both wanted a beer and a hot bath at that point. Okay, maybe not. But they were loud on the train, and I was really afraid that they were going to completely freak out and go hide for three days. That didn’t happen. Once we arrived, they actually just explored their surroundings and settled in quite nicely. Below are some pictures of them as they got used to their new home. They really enjoyed  looking out the window at the strange new landscape.

They even like to play in the snow now! Sanna says they will go out for up to an hour then come back and knock on the window when they are all finished playing. She just sent us this picture a few days ago!83D66342-A2C6-4333-84DA-EB6700C61EC7

I stayed in Sweden for a couple nights, and Sanna was an amazing host. I got to spend time with her brothers and old friend Per as well. Overall it was an amazing trip. I cannot express how happy I am that Sanna took them in and that their new home is so amazing. Having said that, I was very excited to head to Copenhagen to see friends and have one of my favorite Shawarmas on earth, from Number One Shawarma on Strøget right near Rådhuspladsen in central Copenhagen.

The minute I got off the train I ran through the wind and snow to get my beloved Shawarma. I have thought a lot about becoming a vegetarian lately, but this was not the time.

 

I had little time after the Shawarma, so I ran back to the central train station and got on a train to Frederiksværk to enjoy some time with my old and dear friends Lone and Alex. It was lovely to spend time with them as I had not seen them in a little over five years. I really wished I could have stayed longer. Below are a few pictures I took there, including one of Alex making Frikadeller. He is the master of Danish meatballs. I wish I had taken more pictures while there because it was really very nice. Alex drove me around and showed me the entire area. I would like to buy a house there if I can figure out how I can actually live there.

After a few days in Denmark it was time to head back to Sweden and catch a flight home. I was very happy to go to Malmö and spend time with my wonderful old friend Sara and her husband Erik on the way back to Stockholm. We had a very nice dinner, and Sara and I had some beers and caught up afterward. We have known each other since we were teenagers and she was an important part of our clique as we were coming of age. At any rate, I look like I am with child in the picture below, but it was just a big Indian dinner.

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I left Sara and Erik in the morning and went to stay in Gamle Stan, the old center of Stockholm. I had a nice dinner, went to sleep, and got onto a plane back to Cambodia in the morning. Overall, it was a successful trip, but there was sill more work to do in Cambodia. While raising Scruffles and Odin, we gained two more cats: Biscuit and PigPenh. I will tell that whole story in my next post, which is coming soon!

 

 

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Operation Skateboard: Bringing skateboarding to kids in the remote Cambodian border town of Pailin

My Discovery of Pailin and the Skatepark

In July of 2017 my partner Shalma and I left our apartment in Phnom Penh and set out to explore Cambodia on my newly purchased 1999 Honda xr250. We had just arrived in Cambodia in the middle of June and were eager to go on an adventure, seeing where the road would take us. We visited Angkor Wat and many of the national sites most favoured by tourists and expats, but I wanted to find the roads less taken. As we rode through the countryside and met people, we allowed our trip to unfold organically by talking to those we met about the hidden places where most travelers never go. One of those places was the remote border town of Pailin; this is where I would begin the project I dubbed “Operation Skateboard” through a complete and utter lack of creativity. You can read more about that story here.

Pailin was traditionally part of the larger province of Battambang. During the late 1990s, however, as part of the peace process between the new Cambodian government and the remnants of the Khmer Rouge, Pailin became a province unto itself and old Khmer Rouge bosses were given a place in the governance of the area. Many of the most notorious members of the faction lived out their lives there. Some were brought to justice for their particular crimes against humanity. Many others just went on with life in Pailin. Today, many of the older people in Pailin have a history fighting for the Khmer Rouge.

The Province is unusually clean for Cambodia. The city of Pailin is surrounded by the Cardamom mountains. Although the mountains themselves are quite rugged, they are covered by a lush green canopy that smooths them out and makes them appear deceptively inviting despite the many perils of giant spiders, massive venomous centipedes, and of course, cobras and land mines. Some of the locals even claim they have seen tigers in the hills in spite of strong declarations by international animal welfare organisations that there are none left in Cambodia at all.

Above are some pictures of the beauty of Pailin and the Cardamom mountains from our first trip in July 2017.

When Shalma and I arrived, I found myself incredibly taken by the beauty, mystery, and danger of Pailin. This place was so unlike anywhere we had been in Cambodia. Although there were a few massive (dare I say posh) hotels in the small hamlet, there were no tourists to be seen. We saw no tuk tulks, no European faces, and no motorbike rental places. Everywhere we went we received kind stares and hellos. But there was one thing so weirdly familiar that it stood incredibly out of place: a skate park. As a rule, riding skateboards is not incredibly popular in Cambodia. I attribute most of this to the cost of skateboards, but it is certainly cultural as well. Inline skates are a little more popular, but this was the first time I had seen anything like this.

When we first walked by the skate park I found myself big-eyed with my jaw agape. I mean, this is a rather massive facility. In the front is a collection of concrete ramps—half pipes and quarter pipes—and in the back, is a gently banked roller rink style facility that is covered by a massive roof. In the rear all the concrete is painted in brightly coloured designs. The surface is incredibly slick, so when you skate on it there is little resistance offered. One finds themselves moving at great speed very quickly!

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First time at the skate park in July 2017

Chai Ching

As I stood gazing at the skate park for the very first time, a slightly built man waved for us to come in. He introduced himself as Chai Ching Long. Although I am accustomed to calling him Chai Ching, he recently informed me that he typically goes by Long. Chai Ching is fascinated by X-Games and extreme sports. He loves inline skating, BMX, skateboards, and any of the fast-moving high-flying sports that came to popularity in the late 70s and early 80s. He told me that he built the skate park to promote these kinds of sports in Cambodia. He also built it in homage of his father who had taken it upon himself to take care of the kids in Pailin. There was one other aspect to Chai Ching’s skate park; he sees it as a symbol of economic development, part of a larger movement to connect Cambodia and Pailin to developed western nations. Chai Ching’s park doesn’t exist for profit; it came to be because of ideals.

During that first visit to Chai Ching’s skate park I asked him if he had any skateboards. He said he had only one. He let me ride his board, but it was in a poor state of repair. According to Chai Ching, it was the only skateboard in the village. It was certainly inadequate for the kids of the town. I offered to get him a few skateboards right there on the spot as Shalma sat nudging me in the ribs and whispering “what are you committing yourself to?” Of course, you can read about all of this in the hyperlink above.

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The covered part of the skate park with me spazzing in the distance

A Facebook Post

I made a Facebook post with a picture of the park that fateful eighth day in July as I sat there in front of Chai Ching even though I only knew him for about ten minutes. I asked if anyone might have any spare skateboard bits to get to this guy. Little did I know how eager the response would be. I still thought I would end up buying a few boards on my own, strapping them on the back of my bike and transporting them back to Pailin. I was inspired to really do something with this. Many of the people who originally showed interest weren’t able to help at that time, but their enthusiasm lit a little fire that would help accomplish something really special for the children of Pailin.

I began talking to many friends abroad, mostly in the US. Some people told me that I should contact Skateistan in Phnom Penh, which I did, but they were of no help at all. Others promised to send boards. My dear friend Sus Lew became the patron saint of Operation Skateboard. She immediately went out and not only bought boards and equipment but also helped find other people to donate. My friend Rohini got one of her brothers, Nima, to also donate some boards. Pretty soon Operation Skateboard was in full effect.

Logistics

Over the ensuing months I kept in close contact with Sus. She collected boards, shoes, t-shirts, razor scooters, stickers and countless other bits. Her house no longer belonged to her but was the thorough domain of Operation Skateboard and her cats who enjoyed using the boxes as beds and hideouts. I had some equipment shipped to Shalma’s mom’s house, and Sus was so kind to pick it up and include it in the packaging. In the meantime, I was trying to figure out how I was going to get all this stuff from the US to Cambodia. Believe it or not, this is much easier said than done, especially if you don’t have a fortune you feel like blowing on shipping.

Fortunately, Shalma’s stepdad Willy is in the shipping business and was happy to help us. Willy’s clients do not normally ship to Cambodia, so he didn’t have a connection on this side to help us clear customs. He was extremely gracious, however, and both arranged and paid for the sea shipping costs. A man named Carlo Iaccarino, the export coordinator for ECU Worldwide (the carrier we went through), was inspired by our project and agreed to take all the boxes to the port personally, saving us hundreds of dollars. In the meantime Sus and her partner, surely exhausted, were taking apart any assembled boards, making an extremely detailed packing list, and packing them in boxes with the precision of robots.

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Shalma and me in our Phnom Penh apartment with the cache of skateboards Photo Credit Lee Fox-Smith

On my end, I spent days (was it weeks?) talking to everyone I knew in Cambodia about shipping. It turns out, shipping is a rather nebulous world to most expats here. Nothing is set in stone, and a heck of a lot of it depends on knowing the right guy who knows the right guy who you can eventually pay a bribe to in order to get the goods. After some deal of work, I found a guy called Khemera at a company called Fulwell Logistics. We met with him and he told us stories of his own childhood and explained how he was sympathetic to our cause. He was happy to help us, and even managed to keep us from paying tariffs on the skateboards. Still, the clearance costs came out to a hefty fee, but again, I had a close friend come to the rescue and pay about two-thirds of the customs clearance cost.

On the 24th day of November 2017, after months of waiting, the skateboards finally arrived. Khemera was so kind and picked up the boxes in his own car for a small fee. We got on my motorbike, grabbed some money from the bank (shipping is a cash business) and headed out through the madness of Phnom Penh traffic to Khemera’s office, about a half hour by motorbike from our home. We were there just briefly, thanked him for his help, and then loaded all the boxes into a tuk tuk. After the boxes were in the tuk tuk we just barely managed to squeeze a little Shalma in with them. After that we just had to haul hundreds of pounds of gear up seven flights of stairs.

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Shalma with Khemera when we picked up the boxes

 

Planning the trip to Pailin

After getting the skateboards home and hauling them upstairs with the help of our security guard (who I paid some money to) Shalma suggested that I not open the boxes. Her suggestion was that we leave them be and assemble the skateboards when we got to Pailin. I was tempted to do so, but I was far more tempted to check out the swag! It was a good thing I did as well. Most of the boards had never been built. I had to put the grip tape on, put the bearings in the wheels, and build them from the ground up. I spent all my free time over the next three days assembling the decks. I felt like a kid at my own private Christmas party–oh and I had stickers! Did you think I wasn’t going to put some stickers on this board? If so, you thought wrong. I get to have a little joy from this right? Don’t worry, there were hundreds of stickers left to give to the kids when I was done.

I still had all of the planning to do. We had spoken to our friends Ross and Ariel about coming with us and they seemed super keen on the idea. My original plan was to just hire a car and drive it myself with the four of us. My concern was that it was just too much gear to fit into some dinky rental car. More than that, the Cambodian roads are extremely dangerous and include their own counter-intuitive rules. I can handle all this on a motorbike as an experienced rider, but driving a car in this country actually makes me more nervous. While we were figuring this all out, Shalma and I ran into our local friend Taylor Davis. Taylor seemed really interested in Pailin and told us that he and some friends might want to go. This fortunate turn of events allowed me to narrow the options; I started looking for a bus.

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Getting ready to load all the gear up for Pailin Photo Credit: Lee Fox-Smith

Several friends were extremely helpful, giving me contacts for charter busses. I got a range of prices, some twice as much as the bus I ended up hiring. In the end I found an awesome bus with a great driver. He was very safe, but spoke no English. It is a very good thing that I have been taking private Khmer lessons over the past couple months. We ended up communicating just fine in his language, and we managed to get every place we wanted to go.

Arriving in Pailin

It is a long bus ride to Pailin from Phnom Penh, about 8 hours in total. After taking a brief break to eat by the riverside at a place I knew in Battambang from my previous trip, we finished the drive to Pailin (about an hour and a half left to go at this point) and arrived at the skate park at about 8:30. The timing was a little unfortunate as we all had to eat when we did. However, Chai Ching’s wife had also made us dinner. We all stuffed ourselves as much as we could with the food she made, and it was amazingly delicious. When she saw that we were not able to eat as much as she expected, she seemed a little insulted. We were all very concerned that we may have hurt her feelings.

We were at the skate park for a short time when we all came to the conclusion that we were knackered and really needed some beds. Chai Ching was enthusiastic (as is his nature) and really didn’t want us to go. I think if it were up to him we would have partied until the wee hours of the morning. We insisted upon sleep and all went to the Happy Garden hotel which is run by Chai Ching’s brother in law, the general in the Cambodian army who controls the entire western border region of the country.

The hotel was completely empty just as it was the last time Shalma and I were there. We all got to choose our own rooms. There are mountains and beautiful nature regardless of which direction you look in the morning. I rose at about 6 AM and started taking a few pictures as I said little prayers that coffee would magically find me.

 

I went downstairs and walked across the street and started taking pictures of goats. Remarkably, one doesn’t see many goats in Cambodia. It turns out that most of us had all actually gotten up early to enjoy the beauty of our new surroundings. Dan and Taylor ended up walking several kilometers to bring us all coffee. Ross woke up early to wander around the mangosteen groves. Eventually we all ended up in the the lobby having coffee and talking about the evils of missionary work, which I see as a form of exploitation wherein a much wealthier group from a powerful country imposes its will on other people in exchange for access to essential goods, thus stratifying a society, often leading to civil war.

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Beautiful Pailin Photo Credit: Lee Fox-Smith

Lee and I also spent some time talking about NGOs. There was a time when my dream job would have been to work with an NGO or the UN, but after having been in Cambodia for a while I am completely disenchanted. I mean, if I was an NGO trying to create this skateboard project, I would first petition for a grant, buy a building, hire people to raise funds, and eventually throw a couple kids a skateboards or two, but we’d all have fancy polo shirts that said Operation Skateboard on them. I think Lee agreed that it is far more impactful to do work at the ground level, otherwise it can be rather wasteful. I remember feeling happy to have such interesting companions who would engage in such a conversation with a smile even if our views didn’t match. I think I mentioned the goats right around this time and we all ended up migrating across the street to check them out.

 

Chai Ching Arrives

It was around ten in the morning when Chai Ching arrived at the hotel. He came in like a whirlwind the way one would only expect if they knew him. He was smartly dressed in a navy suit, white starched shirt, and a pink tie. With his hair perfectly parted and combed to one side he had all the trappings of a 1980s American televangelist. When our group saw him and we all knew that Chai Ching was mayor of Pailin for a day.

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Chai Ching in his fancy suit Photo Credit: Lee Fox-Smith

We were all starving but also wanted to get to the park. I was thinking (as were some others) that we could pick up something fast and cheap, especially since the muralist of our group, Shauna, was eager to get started with some painting. Chai Ching had other ideas. He insisted that we ate there at the little restaurant behind the hotel. We all ended up walking behind the hotel where we climbed into a sort of water bungalow on top of a pond.

 

We ordered a bunch of items to share and the food was pretty good. I think everyone was a bit anxious to get the day started, however. We were excited to check out the surroundings and I know that Ariel, Ross, and Shauna were keen to get to work on the murals. After lunch a few of us went to have a few beers with Chai Ching’s brother in law, the general in the Cambodian military who I mentioned above. I reckon he’s a good fellow to know in a pinch.

Afternoon beers with the General

From left to right, me, the general who controls all the border provinces in Cambodia, Taylor, and the provincial tax collector drinking beer and enjoying conversation about the land and history of Pailin.

 

After some nice conversation and quite a bit of dark beer, I complemented Chai Ching’s gold ring with the big sapphire surrounded by little diamonds. He immediately pulled it off his finger and insisted I keep it as a gift from him.  It only fit on my pinky so I slipped it on and sat around drinking with the general and feeling like a gangster. Eventually the sweetness of that moment had to end, so we said our goodbyes and headed over to the skate park to meet up with the others. I pulled out my camera to take a picture of the puppy under the table and then we went on our way.  The park is only a few kilometers away and we were there in a blink of an eye. At this point, Ross, Ariel, and Shauna had made a lot of progress on the murals.

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Me with the bling pinky ring that Chai Ching gave me as a gift Photo Credit: Lee Fox-Smith

We spent a little more time around the skate park. Dominic and I skated a bit while the others painted. Chai Ching was very interested in taking us all to the main market in Pailin. It is actually one of the largest markets I have been to in Cambodia. Pailin is known for its gem mining, and much of the market is dedicated to sales of rubies and sapphires. Buyer beware, much of it is fake or poor quality. Many of the of the gold items you find are just plated tin. But first, Chai Ching wanted to show us the mural he made that included the names of all the donors to operation skateboard.

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After our brief interlude at the skatepark, Dan, Lee, and I agreed to accompany Chai Ching to the market. He drove his car and for some reason we hopped into the van and our hired driver followed him. It will forever be a mystery as to why we didn’t take just one vehicle. Below are some pictures of that excursion.

As we walked through the rows of market stalls I think we all felt a bit paraded around. It was pretty clear that western people were decidedly rare around this market. Chai Ching introduced us to everyone he knew in the market. He had actually told me that there was going to be a big surprise for us there. I am not sure what that surprise was; perhaps it was just seeing his wife’s shop. By the time we were done there I think we were pretty excited to rejoin our companions at the skate park.

Back at the Skate Park

Back at the skate park we rejoined our comrades. They were well into painting, skating, and otherwise having a good time. Brooke, one of our compadres, immediately came up to me and offered a beer. It was the first beer I had since brunching and chatting with the general. I proceeded to drink some beers and skate around.

Kids started showing up. Chai Ching said the bulk of them should be there at 3 or 4 PM because it was their final exam day in school. I told him I wanted to pull out the boards but he asked me to wait. I continued to skate around with my beer, having a jolly time. Unfortunately I lost my footing while going down a ramp. My instinct was to salvage the beer in my left hand while breaking my fall with the right. My instincts served me poorly. Mind you, the beer was mostly intact, but I believe I am still suffering from a slight fracture to the right wrist at the time of this writing.

Once I injured my wrist I decided it was better that I cease skating. When left idle I can be both impatient and averse to taking direction from others. I didn’t see Chai Ching around and decided to get the skateboards out of the van so kids could go skate. Plus, I kind of figured I had some say in the matter. I went to the van and opened up the back door. I began to dread hauling all the boards into the park as my wrist was throbbing. I looked behind me and there stood one boy looking at me, and I could tell he wanted to skate. I handed him a board and as soon as he began heading back the other kids lined up, each taking a board. Problem solved. The kids began skating immediately.

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Kids who had never been on a skateboard in their lives taking to it straight away! Photo Credit: Lee Fox-Smith

 

Some of the kids started out on their bums. Others just kind of went for it and started skating like little champs. I miss the fearlessness of youth that allows you to do new and dangerous things. I also miss the flexible bones and the endless energy.  Giving kids the opportunity to take out those energies and learn new things is extremely rewarding.

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Little ones playing it safe Photo Credit: Lee Fox-Smith

 

After the kids played with the skateboards for a while I decided to start handing out the stickers. It was actually one of the most frightening decisions I had ever made. My friends who have kids might know this already, but it seems that nothing makes kids go completely nuts more than stickers. I ended up having to throw them over my shoulder while running away. It was truly exhausting!

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The beginning of the sticker-hungry mob Photo Credit: Lee Fox-Smith

Meanwhile, our artists were finishing up their work around the park, having created beautiful murals

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One of the murals created. I mostly saw Shauna and Ariel working on this one. Photo Credit: Lee Fox-Smith

The kids skated for hours and there was seemingly constant artwork being made. By nightfall the kids were quite proficient. Some began dropping in on the half pipes and quarter pipes at the park. Periodically Chai Ching would bring us all together for photos.

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Kid learning to skate. Photo Credit: Lee Fox-Smith

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Little Dudes with Boards Photo Credit: Lee Fox-Smith

 Ending the Day in Pailin

It gets dark pretty quickly in the tropics. The kids were having such a good time there seemed no sign of it ever stopping. Chai Ching really wanted us to stay a couple more nights, but most of us had jobs to get back to. We were all very exhausted as well. Chai Ching wanted to honor us all and created a few more photo ops. He wanted to present all the gear that had been donated and take pictures of the swag. He also honored each of us with a Krama, the traditional Khmer scarf, made internationally famous as part of the required uniform of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime. The Khmer people did not let that dark history destroy this tradition. In this case the presentation was a show of gratitude, love, and respect.

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The finished murals included a “Make Cambodia Skate Again” slogan

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Wearing our Kramas in front of the skate gear Photo Credit: Lee Fox-Smith

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All the kids with the gear Photo Credit: Taylor Davis

 

After the above photos were taken we were all completely shagged and anxious to get back to Battambang. A few people in our crew were planning on taking the night bus back to Phnom Penh from Battambang and we all wanted a little time to relax and debrief before we parted ways. Chai Ching really enjoyed having us there and certainly wanted us to stay. His wife had made a delicious meal for us but we had little time to bide. She ended up feeding us on the go. We felt terrible and hoped that we did not disappoint her. She is an absolutely amazing cook and honestly has made me some of the best food I have had in Asia. In truth, I am not the biggest fan of Khmer food, unless the food comes from Chai Ching’s wife, then it is excellent!

Speaking of Chai Ching’s wife, just as we were leaving she saw the ring was on my pinky and seemed a little upset about it. She said something to Chai Ching in Khmer and he turned to me and told me that his wife wanted to change the setting so that it would actually fit my ring finger. I gave the ring back, said my goodbyes, and headed toward the van. And so it was that we departed Pailin in the dark.

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Little dude dropping in

When we got to Battambang we found a little bar and grill called Bar Ang, which is a bit of a play on words. Barang means French in the Khmer language, but among poorer or less educated people all foreigners are basically French. The actual word for foreigner in Khmer is Boroteh. Most expats never know the distinction, and it is far less common to hear Khmer people using the term Barang these days; I think it is far more commonly used among expats. At any rate, we had some food and drinks and went to our hotel, Seng Hout, where I had stayed on a previous visit to Battambang.

The following morning Dan and I went and had breakfast while Ariel and Ross had a romantic brunch and a stroll. I enjoy walking around Battambang as it is a vivid place where the remnants of French Colonialism is ever-present in the architecture.

 

Overall it was a great project and one for which I am thankful to many people. Aside from all the good folks who joined me in the trip to Pailin, I would like to thank all the donors who made this project possible. I want to live a life where I do something when I see something needs to be done. I feel so fortunate to have had so many likeminded people people join me on this quest. My many thanks, and thanks from Chai Ching and the children of Pailin go out to Sus Lew, Afsi and Willy Pena, my lovely girlfriend, Shalma Movassaghi, Raymond Beltran, Alice Salamanca Beltran, Jay Judge, Chrissie Good, Eagle Barber, Nima Moradi, Mark Krisher, Ian and Alexis Briggs, Khemara, and Carlo Iaccarino. I would also like to thank Winston at Berkeley Bike and Skateboards, 1-2-3-4 Go Records,  Project Chimps, 924 Gillman, Green Day, Orbit Skates, OaklandishWhatever Skateboards, Sunset Skateboards, and Bruce Lee. If I forgot anyone, please forgive me. I couldn’t have created this project without the help of everyone involved. The gifts that everyone gave will resonate with these children for a lifetime.

Conclusion

Since our trip to Pailin, I have had the pleasure of getting messages from young people who have been going to the skate park. They often include pictures of the kids with the skateboards. They are telling me how skateboards are their favorite things.

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One of the kids at the skatepark several days after we left Pailin

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Tale of Two Kitties: Scruffles and Odin

It started with three

About three weeks ago I was on my way through the alley to head to the local convenience store. As I exited the alley I saw three kittens eating fish out of a flattened basket on top of a 2 meter high stone wall. As I approached a local woman hit the basket with her hand, and one of the kittens flew out of the basket and fell to the ground below. That is the first time I met the little white kitten pictured just below. I call him Kasper.

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The little one called Kasper. He would be dead within a week of this photo being taken.

When I arrived back at our apartment I told Shalma about the kittens. The next day she would get to meet them for the first time.

When we went down into the alley way there were only two kittens there. They chased after us, frantically meowing. It was Kasper and the kitten who we would later bestow with the moniker of Scruffles. We felt bad for the beasts and went to the convienience store and bought them a can of cat food. They began to gorge themselves and Scruffles would not let Kasper near the food. Below are pictures of our meeting with these little ones.

 

After our meeting with Scruffles and Kasper, Shalma and I went around the corner to a Lebanese restaurant and cafe called Aroma and met another kitten living in a plant pot. He had been living at the cafe for several days. He was extremely skinny and unwell. The owner of the cafe later told us that the cat had accepted some food and water the first day he arrived at their business but refused to eat or drink for several days afterward.

 

This little black cat was one of the sweetest things I have come across in this world. So neglected by life, and without a mother, he was magically full of love. He made quiet meows from his resting place in the planter. I peered over the table at him. He wanted so badly to love and be loved (yeah, this is an anthropomorphism and I don’t care) that he jumped onto the table, inspected my beer, then eventually settled, curled up like a furry snail shell, next to Shalma’s hip. We kind of wanted to give him loves, but he was so dirty we feared what kind of diseases he might share with us.

Cambodia: A cruel world for domesticated animals

We had no intention of giving these cats a home. We had already witnessed pretty terrible animal cruelty in this country. We had seen live chickens tied together by their broken legs, pigs in tiny cages on the back of 125cc motor scooters, presumably headed to slaughter. Aside from the more abhorrent things we witnessed, we simply saw neglect. And who could blame people who make less than $120 a month for being neglectful of the world around them that they are powerless to influence?

Shalma and I accepted that this was the life that animals must live in Cambodia; this was their lot. In that acceptance, we decided to help just a little and fed the two cats another time. We figured the restaurant cat would be taken care of, although Shalma had tried to feed him and he had refused food. I think we both put him out of our mind and began to focus on our little alley cats. After all, they were the critters on our front stoop.

Kasper went missing

A few days after we fed the cats Kasper seemed to vanish. He was gone. Baby kittens easily become victims of predation, often from feral dogs, but sometimes from wild animals as well. They also have a great deal of trouble regulating their body heat and frequently die of exposure even in a tropical environment such as this. It was the peak of the rainy season, so it may be that Kasper got drenched in water and died of cold. Shalma  and I wanted to believe that he was somehow rescued, but we have failed to delude ourselves. I really liked that cat, and I am sorry he is dead. Scruffles was now all alone in the alley.

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Scruffles all alone in the alley after losing his brother

 

About a week after our first meeting wth the kittens we walked by the restaurant and saw the little black kitten. He looked dead, like a carcass, a hollow shell that shouldn’t remain living. His eyes were swollen almost shut and appeared to popping out of the sockets in his emaciated head. There was a thick film, and he was essentially blind. He responded neither to sound nor touch. This was one sick animal, a truly pitiful sight. We went home and neither of us were happy about the state of suffering we saw this poor creature in.

Shalma was almost frantic in her sadness and concern. She asked if she could bring him upstairs right then and there and I told her that I thought it would not be a good idea. As much as I would like to lie, I shall refrain; neither of us had a dry eye. We were both profoundly affected by the suffering we saw. Shalma asked if we could take him to an animal hospital in the morning. I agreed. Then, in the most solemn of moments, Shalma exclaimed, “I will go down and get him first thing in the morning!” She wasn’t joking.

Shalma tossed and turned throughout the night. She was absolutely unsettled by the plight of this kitten. I hardly got a wink of sleep due to her restlessness.  Needless to say, Shalma is really special to me largely because of her compassion. True to her word, she was  up at six in the morning. She dragged me out of bed and we went down the seven flights of stairs and around the corner to look for the little black cat. He was nowhere to be found, and I realized that I still had not opened my right eye yet. The left side of my brain must have remained asleep throughout the whole ordeal!

We went back upstairs and had a couple more hours of restless sleep. We went back downstairs at about 9:30 and found him curled up in a little ball on the pavement. He looked even worse than he had the day before. It was almost unbelievable that an animal could look worse and still remain alive. The security guard of the little market next to the restaurant told us that he had taken the cat inside during the night. Shalma picked the cat up and wrapped him in her favorite NASA t-shirt. I called him Odin, for the Nordic god who was once known for healing the sick. We piled into a tuk tuk and headed for the other side of town.

It soon became apparent that our tuk tuk driver was from somewhere out in the provinces and had no idea where he was going even though we had showed him on a map. He also spoke very little English, so as Shalma was trying to keep the cat in the bag I was leaned over and giving directions to a place I had never been before. Eventually, we wound up at the vet, and the tuk tuk driver let us out. We soon realized that the office was closed even thought their posted hours said they were open. I opened the security gate and called out for someone. A woman (who also didn’t speak English) came and told us as well as she could to come back later. I really need to learn Khmer; life would be a lot easier! Eventually the woman got the vet (who turned out to be her daughter) on the phone and she told us we could leave Odin for the time being. Shalma and I needed to decompress and decided to walk two hours to get home.

We felt pretty satisfied having hopefully saved Odin’s life. At that point we kind of imagined he would have a 30% chance to live if he was lucky. We sort of resigned ourselves to that. When we arrived home, we walked past little Scruffles. Shalma had awoken to her affection for baby cats and wanted to sit with him for a while.

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Shalma cuddling Scruffles for the first time, still wearing the backpack we had just used to transport Odin to the vet.

As you can see in the picture above, Shalma is welling up with emotion. However, at this point we felt like we had done enough to save a single cat. Scruffles was still destined (in our minds) to remain an outdoor critter. All we could do is hope that he survived. From what we had seen of him he was a hardy beast that could handle the outdoors better than the competition. However, he was sweet and anxious for attention. He meowed repeatedly and ran toward us every time we saw him. Nonetheless I was anxious to go back upstairs, and Shalma told me she wanted to spend more time with Scruffles but that she would follow me up shortly.

The first thing Shalma told me when she got upstairs was that a woman shooed her off just as I left her with Scruffles. Shalma told me that the woman said, “Take him!” The local people living in modest apartments in the alley below us have suffered from stray cats. They are little more than a nuisance as they keep people awake all night with their incessant meowing through through their thin walls. The cats also create a competition for food. Few Khmer people will take in a cat like Scruffles when caring for the kitten may cost them nearly what they make in a month. The cats are little more than annoying objects and only useful as rat killers.

Shalma was disturbed well into the evening thinking about Scruffles. She told me that she wanted to go downstairs and check on him. I tried to convince her not to do so. I told her that she would annoy the local people by fawning over this animal. Sure, I felt the same way as she did; I was also concerned. That didn’t mean that I wanted to interrupt anyone’s lives. For poor people living in the tiny alleyway apartments, the alley itself acts as a playground, a place to do laundry, a place for business, and a community center. I felt we had no right to invade that as foreigners. In my mind, we should try to create the least amount of fuss possible. Eventually, Shalma went downstairs anyway.

I got a little worried after waiting for more than an hour for her to come back. I tried to call her on my phone, but she wasn’t taking my calls. Eventually she answered and told me that she was coming up shortly. When she did finally come up she brought a surprise with her: Scruffles!!!

To be honest, I wasn’t particularly happy to see that Shalma had brought wild street fauna into our home. My first response was to ask, “Don’t you think this is something we should have discussed?” That is when she told me that she went downstairs to find boys playing catch with the frightened kitten. Shalma had made them stop and took the kitten from them. That is when she met a Khmer woman in the alley who had actually rescued several cats herself and explained to Shalma how most people here don’t care about the cats and would never spend such a large portion of their income on them. The woman explained that her own mother could live off of less than two dollars a day, which is much less than it costs to take care of all the needs of a cat.

Anyway, Shalma gave Scruffles a bath so he was less of a wild animal. In the picture below you can see a Scruffles who (as it turns out) does not enjoy a nice relaxing evening in the bath. In fact, he doesn’t seem to be relaxed by it at all for some reason.

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As you can see Shalma missed his nose, and little Scruffles was pretty annoyed by this bath because nobody told him what a bath is. Admittedly, baths tend not to be particularly warm here in Cambodia, especially for cats. I have yet to be in an apartment that has warm running water in the bathroom sink, and even the showers don’t quite cut it if you’re looking for anything truly hot and steamy. At any rate, Scruffles eventually dried and settled right into being a cute little cuddly thing. You can witness this in the pictures below.

It is difficult to explain why, but Shalma and I were emotionally exhausted at this point. There were a lot of tears over both cats. We didn’t want to take in these cats, and in fact had zero intention of doing so. When we first took in Odin we talked about getting him fixed up just enough to release him back into the wild. We were realizing that this wasn’t sufficient. Our hearts just wouldn’t let us do that. Making matters worse, there is really no place that can take cats at the moment. Resources are limited and it was peak cat season. Making matters worse, there was recently a massive evacuation of a famous local housing project called The White Building that is being razed. This exposed countless feral animals that have left the few shelters at capacity. You can read a little bit about this den of drugs, prostitution, and squalor in the hyperlink.

Taking the Scruff to the vet

It became clear that we had to look after these cats against our will until we could find them a forever home or figure out what the hell we were going to do with them. Shalma and I could not take Scruffles to the same vet that we took Odin to because it just happened to be closed, so we took him to a wonderful place called Animal Mama here in Phnom Penh. There we me the couple who run it, Yulia and Darren, two extremely lovely people who kind of got caught up the way we did, and ended up opening an animal clinic.

Inside their office Darren was telling us about the dogs wandering freely in the lobby. One was rescued from becoming soup, another was a beautiful Belgian Malinois that was once a de-mining dog, saving people’s lives only to eventually be abandoned. One dog really touched my heart; his name was Hercules. I was never sure what kind of dog Hercules was because he was tortured by sociopaths beyond recognition. He had his lips and nose cut off. They cut off his penis and many of his toes as well. The would-be coup de gras was when they threw him into boiling water, which has left him without skin on much of his body. And yet he persisted and survived to be the sweetest and most loving animal to us, humans, who do not deserve his love and affection. Dude, there are a lot of tears, man. This is actually hard to write about.

Getting the kittens back

We left Odin at his vet for six days and Scruffles stayed at Animal Mama for five. When we got them back they were both doing better but Odin was having a lot more trouble. They both have worms pretty badly, but Odin was far sicker and much more infected. We ended up taking Odin back to the vet for an additional three days before getting him back.

We picked Odin back up just a week ago. I started cooking fresh chicken from the market for them. I boil it, strip it off the bone, and then chop it up finely. The fresh chicken still gets them very excited, and they are both putting on weight, Odin a lot slower than Scruffles. Scruffles is really rounding out nicely. Here are a couple pictures taken of him last night:

He’s rounding out and looking like a cartoon cat. Unfortunately, Odin has a scorching case of ringworm and will be back at the vet for the next seven days. On the upside, Odin has been gaining weight too and has began to jump, meow, run, play, eat a bunch, and use the cat box.

Our next course of action

This has been a pretty emotional trail to wander down, and it has been a lot of work. We are still trying to maintain the health of the cats. At the time of this writing Odin is back at the vet. He had a considerable amount of ringworm, and will be treated around the clock for the next seven days. We will have both cats vaccinated and they will receive final doses of deworming medications. Hopefully they will be at the pinnacle of health within the next week or so.

Our next goal is to get the kittens adopted. This is a task far more easily said than done. The chances of adopting the cats out here in Phnom Penh are somewhere close to a million to one. Our hands are kind of tied to the point that we can either take them to the US or release them back into the wild. Our apartment is not equipped to keep them long term. We cannot even open our windows here in the tropics because nobody puts screens on windows in this country. We have already had Scruffles attempt suicide, but Shalma rescued him.

We have one friend in Oakland who would like to take in Odin, and we would like nothing more than to place him with her. As for Scruffles, I am sure that we could easily find him a home because he is so sweet, funny, and incredibly affectionate. Plus, most of the cats here have weirdly short tails (Khmer cats are kind of their own breed) and I am sure someone would enjoy taking in such a special looking cat who really had no other option.

We know there are a lot of animals to be rescued in the US, so I can understand why it seems odd that we would send more animals there. But these animals literally have no chance to have a long healthy life here. I honestly never wanted to do any of this stuff; I feel like it just happened to us, and I am not the type of person things just happen to. We have put a lot of time and money into the care of these cats because we really felt compelled beyond responsibility. Shalma is thinking of setting up a gofundme account to aid in transporting the kittens and assure their medical costs in the near future can be covered. I am really hopeful that we can get them both to the US. It would be kind of a miracle for them.

If anyone would like to take in Scruffles or help out with transportation or anything, please do not hesitate to contact me.

 

Pailin: 70% Retired Khmer Rouge, and the Birth of Operation Skateboard

The ride to Pailin from the city of Battambang is very beautiful. You feel like you are going into another world. Something very strange happens on the road; all the normal chaos of of Cambodia goes quiet, and mountains rise up where there were none. A peaceful feeling washes over you. Although it is a mere 100 kilometers (give or take) from Battambang, you may as well be in another world. As we got close to the town of Pailin on my trusty xr250, I turned my head to tell Shalma, “This is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen in my life.” Nestled in the Cardamom Mountains, the hilly greenery is simply breathtaking.

Pailin is a strange place, one with very few tourists, and the only proper city we have been in without a single tuk tuk. So what is the reason for this? The best guess is its sort of shady history. Pailin is essentially where the Khmer Rouge went to retire and was in fact their last stand. The town remains 70% former Khmer Rouge to this day. In the last few months, the most recent trials of Khmer Rouge war criminals have concluded. I believe all the defendants were picked up in Pailin. I cannot deny, it reminded me of seeing old men in Germany in the 1990s. I would always think, what were you doing in the late ’30s and early ’40s? At any rate, it seems as though Pailin is a place largely forgotten by the rest of Cambodia.

The first thing I noticed as we went into the town was a giant pagoda on top of a lush green hill. The second thing I noticed was what a sleepy town this is. There is a broad avenue that goes through the center of town with very sparse traffic. As far as I could tell, there wasn’t a tuk tuk in the entire city. Shalma and I decided to check into a hotel, and we found a large, nice looking place right in the center of town.

We parked the bike, gathered our belongings off the rack and headed into the lobby. The lobby was impressive, full of carvings of soon to be extinct tropical hardwoods. Cambodia is facing a deforestation problem due to a rise in agriculture and a market for beautiful wood. We approached the front desk, and there was a woman there who didn’t speak any English at all. Nonetheless we managed to secure a room. It was not long before we realized that we were the only people staying in this grand hotel.

After checking into the room, we decided to go for a walk. Less than 25 meters from our hotel was a skate park. There were little kids running around and playing on the ramps, but nobody was skating. We saw a gentleman standing in the distance, and he invited us to come in. This is when we met Chai Ching, the man who owns the skate park. He is a delightful fellow with a gregarious personality. He allowed us to look around and offered us some water.

We sat down with Chai Ching, and he began to tell us his story. He has lived in Pailin for twenty years and had worked in IT. He seemed a little burnt out on IT and had created this skate park in order to create something within this poor isolated community. The problem is that he only has a bunch of old second-hand inline skates and only one skateboard. I told him that I would see what I can do about getting him some skateboards from the US, a task that is easier said than done!

I decided to take a little spill, I mean, spin on his skateboard. It didn’t go as well as planned. It has been a long time, and the trucks were far too loose.

We told Chai Ching that we were hungry, and he told us that he had the perfect place for us to eat. A relative by marriage owns another hotel called Happy Garden just near the entrance to town, and he suggested we have lunch there. He offered to meet us over there so that he could introduce us to his relative.

We sat in the back garden. It was beautiful, and the hotel had a soccer field full of youngsters playing ball. The relative was wearing dark aviators and wore a white buttoned down shirt that was loosened at the collar. He was relaxed and drinking Johnny Walker Gold with an acquaintance, but we never established their relationship because neither speak any English. We did discover that Chai Ching’s relative is a high ranking general in the Cambodian army, and from what people told us, we think he pretty much runs the town. More than one person said, “If you know that guy, nobody can do anything to you. If anyone bothers you, you say you know him. You can go anywhere you want with no problem.”

After lunch we went in search of waterfalls. We drove for several kilometers out on a dirt road and got to a beautiful place where the water flowed from the jungle. However, it was getting late, so we decided to head back to our hotel since the darkness would make the trek back more dangerous. I didn’t see a hospital anywhere in the town, and I am not sure how well EMS services work. Besides, nobody would even look for us if we ended up in a ditch.

That evening, Shalma and I walked around the town. There is a park in the center of the main boulevard. In the park, there was what could almost be described as a street fair, complete with a bouncy house. There was loads of delicious street food around, and the conditions looked a lot cleaner than those of Phnom Penh or any of the little villages we have been through. I bought some satay that was absolutely delicious, and Shalma and I were treated to durian fruit by one of the local vendors. We had heard that durian fruit is disgusting to most Westerners, but I thought it tasted much like banana custard and found nothing offensive about the flavor or fragrance.

We walked around the town a bit. Shalma got nervous when we neared a brothel in a dark alley, so we decided to go back to our hotel and go to sleep. The next day we were planning to properly check out the waterfall.

Shortly after we got up in the morning we stopped by to see Chai Ching. He told us that there was a better waterfall in a remote part of the jungle. He led us to the trail by car. Shalma and I headed up it, and it was some of the roughest terrain I have ever traversed on two wheels. At some points I had to actually have her get off the bike so I could safely go up or down a steep embankment. It is an unimaginably rural part of Cambodia and people live much as they would have a century or more ago. We eventually gave up on finding that waterfall and went back to the one we were at the previous day. Below you can see some of the terrain I am talking about.

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After we went back to the waterfall the previous day, Shalma and I saw a sign that indicated there is a higher point along the falls with a much bigger waterfall. We decided to find it. We began up a trail that went higher and higher and higher. As we ascended, the trail began to become more overgrown. Shalma started wanting to turn back, and I kept saying, just another 100 meters and then we will turn back. Eventually, the trail was almost indistinguishable and Shalma was becoming more concerned with snakes and other critters. It was hot, sticky, steep, and rocky, not an easy trek. As we got higher and higher, the altitude began to make the trek more difficult.

So, what got me to turn back? A giant spider. I tried to take a picture of it, but it attacked the moment it realized the paparazzi was present. I couldn’t get the shot, but if you google “giant cambodian wood spider” there are plenty of images to show you what this is. I’d rather be chased by a tiger. Its web was blocking the entire trail, and there was no way past if without venturing into the bush.

 

 

It is important to stay on trails in this part of Cambodia. This is the final and last refuge of the Khmer Rouge. From my understanding, there are areas that are still heavily mined. Not only that, but there are king cobras and other dangerous snakes.  We decided to head back. Shalma checked our activity on her iPhone to see how much walking we did. It said we went up 95 floors.

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We went back down the hill, and I decided to get into the pools to cool off. Shalma isn’t a confident swimmer, so she hung out and took pictures. I was excited to get into the cool water.

The water was amazing! We then decided to go back and check out the pagoda on top of the hill and the monastery that sits just below.

 

That night we were invited to have dinner with Chai Ching. So we headed home, got washed up, and went over to the skatepark. There we met with him, his wife, and his two lovely daughters. Chai Ching’s wife made quite a spread of delicious food for us.

The things we saw and the people we met really touched both of our hearts. We have thought and spoken about them often. I made a promise to Chai Ching that I was going to get skateboards for the kids at his park, and this is my next project. So far I have been very fortunate to have friends offer to help me with this project. The only thing is that I have been a bit distracted by the sickly orphaned cats that Shalma and I have rescued. We are temporarily fostering them, which has cut into our ability to travel a bit. In the meantime, we are enjoying watching the cats grow stronger while we look for jobs here. It seem as though my next post will be primarily about kittens, which is good because the internet loves kittens.

 

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!

 

 

 

 

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.