Friday, March 26, 2010

Bangkok

I'm in Chiang Mai at the moment ensconced in a quiet guesthouse I discovered during my earlier visit here, Muan Baan, on Soi 7 in the old city (Click here for that entry), but the days I spent in Bangkok included some very special moments that I want to relate. I almost had to force myself to begin this entry because I'm feeling so happy and contented. I'm infatuated with Thailand and its lovely people. And I'm finally traveling on my own and have the strong feeling that Thailand will play a large role in my future. I visited a Buddhist temple with a new Thai friend the other day and was, quite unexpectedly, overwhelmed with feelings of thankfulness for the life I've had, the many friends I have both old and new, friends that have treated me so well, my fantastic and loving family, thankful for Tuli and Carin, my grandchildren, my good health, and the things I'll experience in the years left to me. What a lucky guy I am to be so blessed!

As you know if you're a regular reader, Albert and I killed some time in Pattaya mainly because of the political unrest that was ongoing in Bangkok. I had visited Pattaya earlier in the month and didn't really want to return but I thought, what the hell, I can just hole up in a comfortable hotel, chill out in the aircon, read, and catch up on my Internet stuff: do email, talk on Skype with family and friends, etc. And that's pretty much what I did. Albie and I caught one girly show at the Champagne-a-Go-Go but I wasn't into it, so I left early and went on home. After a couple of days we took a bus to Bangkok's Ekamai Station and from there a 300 baht cab ride to the Khaosan Road neighborhood in Bangkok where our hotels were located. Albert always stays at Four Sons on Phra Arthit Road and after some Internet research I made reservations at a more comfortable place (larger, quieter and at 900 baht per night, the most expensive place I've stayed in), the Phra Arthit Mansion about a block away.

I had been trying for a month to connect with Joe, my good friend from Fiji, and he was scheduled to finish his free-diving course on Koh Tao on the 21st so I reserved a room for him at my hotel. He wasn't to arrive until midnight and his flight out was early on the 23rd so we had limited time available to catch up on things but I reckoned that was better than not getting together at all. In the meantime, before his arrival, some serendipitous events unfolded in Bangkok.

Henry
It's almost unbelievable how you encounter people you know when traveling. Twice in as many days I met people under circumstances that were, well, incredible. But as all travelers soon come to know, the incredible does occur, and with fair frequency. For example, one of the guys I did the motorcycle trip with, Al, is actually related to me through my cousin Carol. He lives in Homer now but he grew up just outside of Buffalo, New York. Strange but true. Here's another: during our travels together Albert had been exchanging emails with a friend of his named Henry. As it turned out, Henry was in Bangkok when we got here and, of course, he and Albert wanted to get together in person to exchange stories and the like. Albie's favorite hangout in Bangkok is the Gecko Bar, a short walk from where we were staying on Phra Arthit Road. Henry met us there and soon he and I got to talking. He's retired and is approximately my age and before long we got to chatting over our beers about where we were from and Henry says, I’m from upstate New York. Really? I said, me too. Where exactly? I asked. Turns out he went to high school in Hamburg, a 20 minute drive from my familial home in Sloan! Seeing as he’s just a year or two older than me, we were growing up in western New York at the same time. After a couple of high fives, we continued our conversation, and he mentioned going tobogganing in Orchard Park. I exclaimed, at Chestnut Ridge Park? Sure enough, that was the place. He even knew about Lerczak’s, a bar out on Lake Shore Rd south of Buffalo where I spent so much time partying during my years in junior college. One is compelled to say again and again, It's a very small world. And to add even more credence to that statement, we spent an evening with good Homer friends Stephanie and Mike who left the next day for the beaches to the south. Homer people do get around, that's a fact.
(I can remember driving many times out to "The lake” from Buffalo with my good friend Carm and many others, fraternity brothers, college friends, running from bar to bar, drinking beer after beer, and then finally after last call starting the long drive back to Buffalo. How we made that long, twisty drive on that narrow 2-lane road late at night without any accidents is quite beyond me. For more about The Lake read this Buffalo Evening News article by Sandara Luedke.


Chao Phraya River scene with Wat Arun in background

Then, next day, I took a river trip downstream to Bangkok's Central Pier with the goal of riding the Skytrain to the big computer superstore Pantip Plaza. I had nothing special in mind other than to simply experience Bangkok from a different perspective. As I prepared to leave the taxi boat I turned to a falang whom I'd heard speaking English earlier and asked, Is this Central Pier? He said, yeah, I'm pretty sure it is. He looked sort of familiar but I didn't recognize him at that point. A few minutes later on the Skytrain platform I turned toward him to take a photo and he glanced over at me with a surprised look and asked, Dave, is that you? It was Brian, a commercial fisherman from Homer, actually a client of our business, Alaska Boats & Permits, and his daughter Hannah who is working for an environmental firm here! ( Note: I have never included any last names in my blog in order to protect the privacy of my friends.) We were astonished to run into one another so far from Homer, but there you have it. Another huge coincidence. Hannah remembered me from my years at the Homer Library. She was just a young girl then and an avid reader; she and her dad were out doing some errands together in her temporary home, Bangkok. How amazing is that? Below is a photo of them on the Skytrain platform.

Homer friends Brian and Hannah in Bangkok
Back at the Gecko Bar that night, Albie and I were having our first beers, talking with some other Alaska friends, John and Phil, when Henry showed up with a Thai woman. Henry is the type of fellow that enjoys meeting people, especially women, and because of that he's fun to hang around with. I've talked with Henry at length and can tell you he's not the type of fellow that last statement might imply to some of you, honestly. He had encountered this woman, Nut, in her place of work, a Thai massage business on Phra Arthit Road and said to her, come along with me for a few minutes and I'll introduce you to some friends and maybe some work will come of it. Since the tourist season is over now and work has gotten scarce, she agreed to accompany him. I liked her right away and got her cell number to set up a massage in my hotel room the next day. I've been in Thailand for quite a while and have really never had a massage so I thought, yeah, I should do this at least once before going home. I said I'd call her the next day to make an appointment and she left.

I wrote this in my Journal later: David you’ll not remember this unless it’s written down but you almost didn’t call her. Having a massage in your hotel room can imply so much in this country. But, I reasoned, this is not going to be that type of massage. She's a trained massage therapist, not a 20-something "massage girl". (I learned later that she's a 46 year old mother of two grown kids that she still helps to support.) So I eventually overcame my shyness and called her to set up an appointment.  The Thai massage, as opposed to the oil massage, is almost like physical therapy, and she did a wonderful job. It felt great and was incredibly relaxing.  Nut is a small woman and had all she could do to perform the last part of the session, the part where she tries to twist and stretch my upper body. It was difficult and afterward we both laughed about it. I realized I really liked her and asked if we might do something fun together. She immediately suggested a river trip, upstream to Ko Kret, an island in the Chao Phraya river. We set up a date for 10 o'clock next day at the Phra Arthit pier where we would catch a taxi to the furthest station and from there grab a smaller taxi to Ko Kret, do  a bit of exploring, have some lunch and do whatever. Sounded just perfect to me.

Next day we traveled to the Nonthaburi Pier by public water taxi, 13 baht each, and from there after a bit of haggling with a taxi driver who wanted 1000 baht for our island ride, we got him down to 700 baht (about 20 bucks), hired him and his tiny, fast long-tail boat to take us to Ko Kret Island. What a great ride it was. Racing along with Nut in my arms, she holding her handbag over her head to avoid the sun (as do all Thais), but laughing and holding onto me as the boat splashed through the oncoming chop. The taxi guy turned out to be a real sweetheart. We bumped into him maybe a half hour after he dropped us off near the tiny town of Ko Kret because I wanted a picture of this giant gold Buddha I had spotted across the river. He was moored right in front of the pier where I was headed to take the shot and when he saw what I was doing he yelled up to us to come on down and he’d take us across. And so began my first exposure to Buddhism.

Giant Buddha near Wat Bang Chak
Nut is a Buddhist and she guided me through the steps needed to make a proper offering of incense, the same sort of offering I’d watched from outside the temple at Wat Phnom a couple of weeks ago. With the incense came a small packet of gold foil that we stuck to this huge statue of Buddha by applying it to a spot you like and pressing hard with your finger. The whole ceremony felt incredibly special. Feelings of gratitude unexpectedly flooded my mind. I thought about Tuli and how much I love him, I thought about Carin and her family, I thought about how I’ve been surrounded by friends for my entire Thailand adventure, I thought about how lucky I was at age 66 to be standing on my own two feet in Thailand, in a Buddhist holy place with this petite and goodhearted Thai woman, soon to be my lover, and I felt thankful for my health and good fortune. I have had a good life and whatever years are left to me I will be eternally grateful for, especially for this fantastic year of travel.

Nut
We returned to the boat and our guy took us the rest of the way around the island.  We had lunch at a tiny restaurant on stilts and then raced back to the pier we started from. Later in the taxi I had the hope that journey would never end: the wind was rushing through our hair, the occasional water spray from the river hitting us, and here’s this  wonderful, warm woman sitting close beside me. I came as near to a feeling of surpassing peacefulness and fulfillment as I've had in a very long time. That's gotta be good, right? I decided at that moment to rebook my return from Chiang Mai in order to rejoin Nut in Bangkok for my last week in Thailand.

Me and Nut at a riverside restaurant






Like all Thais, Nut doesn't like the sun. Here she answers a phone call but hides under her handbag. She says, only falangs like the sun. ;-))







I wanted to spend the evening with Nut but this was the only night I had to spend with Joe so after coming along with me to meet him, and after making a date for breakfast the next morning, she headed for home.  It was so very good to see Joe again after an entire year. We had a great time and reconnected in fine fashion. There is just something I love about him. And the feeling is mutual. I have pondered our friendship since last year when we met at Manta Ray Resort in Fiji-- he's 26, my son's age, and I'm 66 -- what can it possibly be that keeps us connected? Yeah, we had a great time, scuba diving (he was my dive instructor), partying. But whatever it is, we became close friends in Fiji and remain so to this day.


Here's a shot of Joe at the Gecko Bar before we began our search for the elusive black sambuca ;-)).

Below is one Joe took in Gulliver's. He set the camera for time delay, put it on the floor, and then before it counted down we pulled some always-available-for-a-photo Thai girls over to us. They got a big kick out of the resulting shot, as did I.
Me and Joe at Gulliver's on Khao San Road

Me and Joe and the Gecko Bar


We talked about him coming to Alaska. We talked about doing a motorcycle trip from Alaska to Central America, or even Brazil. Hell, who knows? It could happen. We talked about a lot of other stuff too but for much of the night we were in noisy environments so it was hard to have a long or serious conversation.  But whatever the connection between us was about in Fiji, it’s still there: we’re mates, solid, and we emphatically decided to remain so. We stayed out until 3 am, searched for a commemorative black sambuca (we drank many of these in Fiji -- see my Facebook album Manta Ray Resort) and finding none in any of the Khaosan bars we hit, were forced to settle for the white variety, so we drank a few of those, danced with a couple of Thai girls in Gulliver’s, and then reluctantly said so long for now. Because we both had planes to catch in the morning it was, see you next time, let’s not make it a whole year, talk with you on Facebook.

Joe flew off to meet his parents in Istanbul where they're fitting up a large sailboat for a leisurely cruise in the Mediterranean. Joe's dad is a retired ship's pilot and master mariner so they recently sold the house in Plymouth, England, and bought a 20 meter sail boat. I'll link some photos of it in here later. Then last night Joe and I were chatting on Facebook and he said, you should come to Greece and sail with us for a couple of weeks, a month, whatever you like. I'll be spear fishing for food, my folks are awesome, the boat is awesome, the Greek Islands are, well, also awesome.  My standard first response was, and is always, no way. I can't do that. Plus, I get seasick on anything larger than a six inch swell. But the longer we talked the more I began to view his invitation as a potential golden opportunity. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. At this point, anything's possible. I might just grab that wild hair and head to Greece. We'll see.  I'm looking around for a cheap ticket to Athens.

Chiang Mai

A view of the ancient wall and moat surrounding the old city of Chiang Mai


I arrived in Chiang Mai on Tuesday and caught a taxi to Muan Baan, the small, quiet guesthouse I stayed at last month with Albie, immediately rented a small moto to get around with and then contacted Lauren, an old friend from Homer and former dispatcher for Mako's Water Taxi. We had a nice lunch together (Bird's Nest Cafe - excellent curries with brown rice) and shared some Homer gossip. Lauren's been living in Chiang Mai for over a year now and teaches English, mostly to Korean children. She is also a Couchsurfing host and we shared some good stories about the great folks we've both met through that wonderful organization.

Tomorrow I'll head off to Pai on my rented Phantom motorcycle. I did a test ride today and the new bike feels pretty solid. I love biking here. It's always warm and during this season at least, it never rains. If our plans hold up, I'm going to hang out with Ainara on Saturday night in Pai and then drive back here Sunday in time for the big Sunday Night Bazaar. I'll probably Couchsurf with Lauren for the next couple of nights and then fly back to Bangkok to be with Nut for the rest of my time here.I had originally planned to stay in Chiang Mai until it was time to return to the states. But my brief encounter with Nut was enough to make me change my plans. I was going to return to Bangkok on the 30th to be with her.

In closing I have to remark once again that this has been one hell of a trip. When I look back to my first few hours in Bangkok in February, how foreign everything felt then, and how out of place I seemed to be, there was no way I could have guessed the way things were going to turn out. The great adventures were all still ahead. The motorcycle trip, the weeks I spent in Cambodia, the craziness of Pattaya, the low ebb in Koh Chang, meeting Nut in Bangkok, my strong desire to return to Thailand as soon as possible. My good buddy Doug was kidding with me before I left and said he thought I could become a "citizen of the world" if I wished. Sure, I replied. But now it looks like he may have hit the nail on the head. Incredible? I guess it really is. Unless you're doing it.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Koh Chang

Sunday, March 14, 2010, Koh Chang Island 9:30 am
Siam Huts, Lonely Beach


Arrived here from Trat yesterday after a couple of 150 baht song-taew rides and a ferry trip. And I must say, this place is a dump. Albert says it’s gone downhill from the last time he was here a couple of years ago. When he first visited over 20 years ago, it was very remote and difficult to get to; 4-wheel drive was the mode of transport and because of its remoteness, was quite beautiful and well kept up. That's all changed with the advent of plentiful tourist dollars. My hut is very shabby, the surroundings full of litter and cigarette butts, the bathroom dismal, the water brownish in appearance. I do have air conditioning but, even though I'm right on the seashore, at 560 baht (about $16) the cost is ridiculous. I said to myself, I'll stay the night and look around for something better tomorrow. But the area hereabouts is spectacular. Big forest, big trees, and beautiful beaches were noted on the way in. We will do a bit of touring on motos later today and perhaps I’ll find a better place.

My hut, as seen from possibly its best vantage point

Did a longish moto ride today. Started out with Albie but did my own tour south of here to Bang Bao on the return leg. Saw some beautiful beaches and nice, high-end resorts. I asked about a room at one, the White Sand Beach Resort north of here, and the clerk replied, 1500 baht/night. That makes it pretty expensive, roughly comparable I suppose to what I had to spend in Europe. Amsterdam was 50 euro/night if I recall correctly (damn nuisance having no Internet in the room), equivalent to ~$75. Well then, I guess it actually isn’t that expensive: 1500 baht is equivalent to about $47. To put things into perspective, this hut is really no worse than the bure I had last year at Wayalailai Resort in Fiji for $30/night, and it does have air conditioning after all. The floor has wide cracks between the floorboards, and looks sort of like a deck built of green, rough-cut lumber would after a few years of drying out, so the idea of air conditioning it is, at some level, ludicrous.  Yet, the space is so tiny it does get chilly inside after only a few minutes.
Below are a few pictures I took during the ride:
 View west from a highway overlook near Kai Bai Beach
Independent Bo - a hostel and bar on White Sand Beach

Beach on Bang Bao Bay
Town of Bang Bao
Shady little road near Bang Bao (above and below) offers nice motorcycling

I’m just up and stirring after a long night last – went out for beers with Albie and after we parted company I went off to go dancing at the Tree House just down the beach from my hut.  I had a good time and got back at about 1 am.

But after the next night, my feelings about the Tree House changed dramatically. I did not go out dancing, but other people did. Read on... 


Monday, March 15, 2010, 8 am
I didn’t get to sleep until at least 4 am I’ll bet. Loud music from the Tree House and then the idiots next door were out on their porch talking and carousing until very late. Finally I drifted off for a few fitful hours. However, I am not rested, definitely not rested. At about 9 am I called Albert on the cell. I said, "Let’s get out of here today. I’m sick of this dump and my rowdy neighbors." He replied, “Sure, I’m okay with that. Let’s move in that direction.” We’ll go back to Pattaya and from there it’s an easy hop to the Bangkok airport and Chiang Mai. But in the meantime, I’ll get a nice room at the V&M Terrace on Soi Boakhao, hang out in the air conditioned room, read and do Internet stuff.  

I was on the IM yesterday for a few minutes with Tuli and I admitted to being a little travel weary by now (ha-ha he said, of course) and I must say I truly am. If I could get home tomorrow, even knowing there’s snow everywhere after four big storms in the past two weeks, I think I would jump at the chance. Better yet, I want to be at Tuli's in Oregon to wait for the snow to melt. He says the weather there’s getting nice now.  I called the V&M Terrace and made a reservation for tonight. Same rate as here (550 baht) but those rooms are quite nice and they have good, strong wi-fi. Now all we’ve got to do is get there.

Tuesday March 16, 9:00 am, Pattaya
We made it back but what a terrible experience it was. For the first time we bought passage on a minivan and what should have been a 3-hour trip took 6 hours because, as it happens, the operator of the minivan service can do whatever he likes regardless of what his clients might expect or need. What a pain in the ass our return was; at 300 baht it was cheap but that was the only good thing about it. We paid for and signed onto the 35 Group Pattaya minivan service as soon as we got off the ferry at about 12:30. However, we didn’t leave that parking lot until after 3:30 pm. Why? We didn’t have a full load. We were forced to wait until the van was full to its capacity of 12 passengers before we ever left thus ensuring for the owners the maximum profit for the trip. Because there is no fixed schedule and no timetable to adhere to, they can get away with this sort of stuff.  We complained to the driver but he just threw up his hands, in effect saying, I’m not the owner--I can’t leave until he says it’s okay. Eventually we headed off. Well, I just said we had a full load, and I certainly thought we did. But as it turned out, that wasn't quite accurate. After a rest stop we stopped yet again in a small town and took on two more passengers. That meant crowding four people onto three seats and putting an extra person up front near the driver. Feeling a little crowded now? Too damn bad!

Then, one final aggravation: as we drew close to Pattaya the driver turned off onto a smaller highway and began hunting for a side street. After a few tries and reversals, it was obvious he wasn’t sure exactly which street he was after. On the fourth or fifth try as we were driving slowly down another street (was he scanning the addresses?), a fellow ran out onto the pavement to signal the driver.  Upon recognizing this man as the person he’s been looking for, he now fishes around under his seat for a small briefcase or computer case he picked up at one of our stops. He hands him the case, and the fellow hands him a few bills.  This son-of-a-bitch has dragged 13 people around for an extra 15 minutes to make this delivery. Is this sort of crap sanctioned by the 35 Group Pattaya? Did he pocket the money for himself? We’ll never know. I finally got to the hotel at just after 7 o’clock.
Now I see why Albert was so keen on using taxis to get from place to place. Sure, it’s more expensive but you can travel completely on your own schedule. The driver is your slave for the duration of your travel, not the other way round. If you want to stop for lunch, you merely tell him to stop at the next restaurant, or as was the case with Udon, who drove us from Pattaya to the Cambodian border a few weeks ago, you ask him to find a good place to eat.  If you can’t find your hotel, let him find it—if you need a break, tell him to pull over. Yep, it’s a good way to travel. With two or three people splitting the bill, it’s affordable too.

Toyota Commuter, 12 passenger minivan



A note on minivans while I’m at it. These things are used everywhere in Thailand. They’re Toyota Commuter vans equipped with 2.7-3.0 liter engines; they’re sleek, seem always to be clipping right along, and apparently come in any color as long as it’s silver. The seats are very comfortable, they have great air conditioning, big sound systems, DVD players, and offer a quiet ride. A helluva a vehicle all in all. By the way, every taxi we were in, including the minivan, was powered by propane or natural gas. I know they are available with diesel engines too, and I’ll bet most have manual transmissions. Automatic transmissions are fairly rare in Asia, as well as Europe. Aside from the minivan, which is really a compact bus, the wide array of smaller vehicles available over here makes me wonder why the hell we don’t have more of them in the states.  I guess I know the answer to that one already. Americans have a thirst for big, powerful cars (I reluctantly include myself in that category), and years of cheap gasoline have only encouraged the proliferation of these gas guzzlers. For example, the engine in my old 1993 Camry is a 3.0 liter V-6, the same size as the largest engine available in a Toyota Commuter. Then too, corporations have so much power that increasing the fuel economy of our automobile fleet has so far proven an impossible task for our lawmakers, who are not surprisingly on the dole from those same corporations.

Wednesday, March 17,  4 pm, Pattaya

I’ve mentioned before in here that I want to connect with two friends while I’m here but it’s proven more difficult to get together than I thought it would be. One friend is Joe, a dive instructor I met in Fiji last year, the other is Ainara, who I met in Bilbao in December. Joe is here taking a diving course on Koh Tao and Ainara is, or  maybe I should say, was, working in Mae Sot. I just learned that Joe needs to leave Thailand by the 23rd and the funding for Ainara’s project has dried up.  Seeing as Albert will be going to Bangkok tomorrow, and Joe needs to come through Bangkok before he leaves, I decided to head back there with Albert. I can still go north to Chiang Mai after Joe leaves. So that’s the plan for now. I will continue to travel with Albie for another few days and hopefully will see Joe at last. And maybe Ainara will come to Bangkok ahead of schedule too, who knows?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Phnom Penh Reprise

On the road back to Phnom Penh

After another $40 taxi ride, in yet another Camry of roughly 1993 vintage (like my own back home), and we’re back at the Superstar in Phnom Penh again. Albert had a couple of things to do here so rather than going directly to Koh Chang, in Thailand and our next destination, we returned here for a couple of days. I must confess to feeling a certain fondness for Phnom Penh because at this point, I’ve spent more time here than in any other place in SE Asia. And the Superstar Hotel feels like home. A very nice family runs it (mom and dad, brother, parents, children are all on the scene practically 24/7) and they cater to your every need it seems. Hot water for my tea is delivered to my door each morning, my motorbike gets parked indoors when I’m finished with it for the day, it’s clean, the aircon works very well, there’s a huge selection of satellite TV channels, and at $15/day, it’s fairly cheap too. The moto belongs to the hotel and I’m renting it for $4/day. In the photo below my little Honda moto is the red one out front.




Albie just called to suggest we go have breakfast at Happy # 9 Guesthouse over on Boeung Kak Lake. They have a great breakfast and lovely little grass covered eating areas on pilings over the water. It’s a very comfy scene and they have good wi-fi as well. Here again we see urban renewal in acton--the government is slowly filling in the lake because the it will create land where there was none, land that can presumably be developed. But in the process they’re willing to obliterate forever a scenic and historic lake. Makes no sense to me.



Our first night back, Tuesday, we had our usual table at Happy Phnom Penh Pizza and Albie got this picture of a young lotus seller. Because there was no breeze it consequently felt uncharacteristically muggy. We decided to take a ride to see the hugely overloaded trucks at the Central Market. Because it is after hours for the police there is nobody to prevent the massive overloading common in this country. I thought I felt a couple of rain drops as we drove but dismissed the idea of rain at first. Then all of a sudden a big squall hit that lashed the streets, and us, with rain. We headed for the first shelter we saw and drove the bikes right up on the sidewalk to wait it out under an awning. This was the first rain we’ve seen since Udon the night before we left on our motorcycle trip. It was actually refreshing and cooled things off a bit--probably cleared the air some too. It was soon over and we drove back here. I guess the reason I was so uncomfortable at Happy Phnom Penh is because it was fixing to rain and the RH was probably near 100%.


Before we left Albert spotted a vendor selling a weird looking fruit that he said I should try -- he called it a rambutan. Weird looking but very tasty. Below you see the (mostly) healthy collection of food I snack on as I write. Tiny bananas, the rambutans, a mango, and Beer Lao. My tea fixins are in the background. Also shown is a rambutan partially peeled. The inside is slightly sweet and is both mild and pleasant tasting. The texture of the fruit itself is somewhat reminiscent of a concord grape. Bizarre but good.




















I visited the Genocide Museum yesterday. This was the infamous Toul Sleng prison used in the days of Pol Pot. Many Cambodians were tortured horribly and put to death on this spot. I need to do some more reading about the Khmer Rouge era. Most of you have probably seen the movie "The killing fields" by now. It shows some of what was going on here in the late 70s. The ruthlessness of the Pol Pot regime has been compared with Hitler's genocide aimed at the Jews during WWII but I am not familiar with the politics of Pol Pot and the revolution. This was not a joyful place to visit as there were instruments of torture in evidence everywhere along with photographs of many of the victims. The cells in this prison were tiny, about 3 feet wide by perhaps 8 feet long. Men, women, even babies, were killed here by this bloodthirsty regime. Looking around now at these friendly and handsome Cambodian people one wonders again just how it comes to pass that a Hitler or a Pol Pot can rise to power and can hold an entire nation in thrall. Scary thoughts.



Breakfast is over and I want to get moving so I'll end this post with a photo of a steer on a spit and a video I shot of a chaotic intersection near my hotel. Below is a scene I remembered seeing the first time I entered the city. This restaurant is only a few blocks from our hotel but we haven't eaten there, yet. But I did want to get a photo of the main course.



Here's a video I shot of standard operating procedure at an intersection near the Superstar Hotel. I had to negotiate this crossing almost every time I left the hotel. However, I did get used to it and, I must admit, came to enjoy the challenge. In the end I liked the fact that there are no rules and that I could do whatever I could get away with to advance my position. I often wished I'd had a helmet mount for my camera during my time in Phnom Penh. Capturing and sharing a video of the "ordered chaos" one must deal with in order to drive a moto on the streets of Phnom Penh would have been great fun. Maybe next time ....



Monday, March 8, 2010

Sihanoukville

Friday, March 5

Albie and I arrived here following a 3.5 hour taxi ride at about 2:30 yesterday afternoon and after checking in to our hotel I immediately took a 2-hour nap. Internet is not working here or in many of the other hotels so I'm a little frustrated because I was hoping to be online again instead of having to drag this bulky laptop around to a place that has a functioning Internet. That was the scenario at Superstar also -- no Internet in-house -- drag the big Thinkpad across the street, buy breakfast, do email and post items to the blog using their slow upload speed. We also do not have refrigerators so anything we want to keep cold must be left downstairs in the main refrigerator. My aircon unit is tricky to run because the lettering on the remote is in Japanese. This room is pretty nice however: it has attractive spreads on both beds, a deck with a small view, TV, a bathroom with bathtub, a first for the entire trip. Not that I care that much about having a tub--the other situation mostly suits me fine. For the first time since Pattaya, we’re near the ocean but the beaches, unlike Pattaya’s, are not crowded.

Hotels on Victory Hill
Today, our first full day here, we actually did go to the beach. And, I actually did go into the water. We drove out along some rugged dirt and gravel paths on our rented motos ending up at a place called Mean Mean, another Albert favorite restaurant situated right on Otres Beach. I had asked him if it was safe to bring along stuff like a camera and money. If we were going to go swimming I assumed we’d have to leave our stuff on the beach. He said, “Sure, there’s a changing place and beach chairs within plain sight of the water. No problem.” The way things work here is that at some point an enterprising person builds a little restaurant right on the beach. Over the years, the kitchen is expanded, then a bar added, then changing rooms, then, well, you get the picture. Pretty soon there is a row of these small bars, I’ll call them mini-resorts, that cater to tourists and offer beer and food along with seaside seating, showers, parking, etc. We sat down in the well shaded and breezy “dining area” and ordered a beer.

Beach view from Mien Mien
Allbie has heard that these impromptu resorts are scheduled to be removed by the authorities. They are probably completely illegal and the government no doubt feels justified in doing it. Yet, as in all such development plans, the hidden costs to the community might not be revealed for years afterward. I’m reminded of the 1950s in my home town of Buffalo, N.Y. It was the era of expressway building, modernization, and the so-called urban renewal projects. Massive amounts of private property were basically appropriated by the federal and state governments, homes, businesses, indeed entire neighborhoods, razed, and the debris hauled away to make room for the huge multilane highways with which probably, by now, we all have a love hate relationship. My story has to do with the Niagara Expressway, I-190, that runs alongside the Niagara River in north Buffalo, through an area known as Riverside. I saw photos recently that showed the numerous little fishing shanties and impromptu dwellings that once lined the riverbank. The residents, some of whom no doubt were squatters like the ones on Otres Beach, fought the bulldozers for a long time but finally were forced to stand aside and watch as their homes and histories were brutally pushed aside in the name of progress. Below is a photo of what appears to be an abandoned hotel project on the road to Otres Beach. Progress?


The Niagara Expressway is still the fastest way to get from north or south Buffalo to its downtown area and the Peace Bridge to Canada but now in a period of government financial distress is in relatively sad shape and desperately in need of repair. And here’s something I certainly never thought about when it was being built: there was no way for a resident of Riverside to enjoy the river from which the neighborhood derived its name. These days, you can cross the expressway on an elevated pedestrian bridge to a walkway and the river's edge, which of course is very closely bordered by the busy and very noisy Niagara Expressway. Picnic anyone? I’ll bet there’s more than one person my age who would gladly turn back the clock to the days when those little fishing shanties were full of life, and illegal squatters. To the days when a picnic in Riverside Park meant you could walk right up to and dip your feet in the Niagara River on a hot summer day. This condemn, raze and build scenario was often repeated in those highway boom years. New York State residents should read Robert A. Caro’s magnificent biography of Robert Moses, The powerbroker, to get a detailed look at urban renewal and expressway building in New York State during the period 1945-1975.

We had a swim, got a bit of a burn on our mostly untanned bodies, and had lunch. Mein Mein served up a mean plate of Hot and Sour Chicken Salad. Topped with kaffir leaves and our usual concoction of fresh chilis crushed in soya sauce it was delectable and only cost about $3 including the Angkor. (Note the ice cubes in the beer. Gotta keep it cold somehow.)


We were constantly being asked to buy food or fruit, massages, and trinkets of every size and description by sellers passing through. Shown below is a woman selling fish or chicken on a skewer. She is carrying a complete kitchen with her. The charcoal-fired grill is in that large bowl behind her, the raw materials, rice and trimmings are in the front bucket.



Sunday, March 7,

We’re more or less killing time here in Sihanoukville. Aside from the beaches the town hasn’t much to offer your standard tourist. We enjoy eating in the small bars and street corner kitchens but not everyone would be thrilled with that arrangement. The beaches are nice but not maintained in any way. There is litter everywhere, plastic water bottles mostly, which I call first world trash in a third world country, and the roads are bumpy and potholed. I took a short moto ride this morning just to get out of my hotel room. I headed north this time and after passing hundreds of little tin shacks and shanties, came across a very nice stretch of sand called Samdech Hun Sen Beach. It’s located just south of the big oil refinery. The colors and apparent solitude in these photos hide the fact that we’re surrounded by a huge slum and that what you’re seeing is the best Sihanoukville has to offer in terms of beaches. The heat is fairly intense and it’s what keeps me hanging around near the hotel with its air conditioned rooms rather than out walking or exploring on foot. That and having a moto right outside waiting for you to jump on and ride whenever you want to go anywhere. Unfortunately, due to my inactivity and the large amount of beer I've consumed of late, I've gained some weight and will have a devil of a time getting in shape for tennis this spring. Note to Doug: I put the pedometer in my pack during the first week on the bikes in Thailand. It's still there ;-(


Two views of Samdech Hun Sen Beach

We want to head back to Thailand soon but have heard about a huge political rally scheduled for this coming weekend in Bangkok. In order to get back to Chiang Mai I must go through Bangkok while Albert will fly back to Alaska from there as well. We want to miss that rally because it will cause endless congestion and traffic in a place that under the best of circumstances, has a major traffic problem.

Sihanoukville sunset from our hotel balcony

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Phonm Penh

Phnom Penh
Tuesday, Mar 2, 2010
I wanted to write something to explain what we're doing, which is to admit to not doing a lot of touring, and to share some photos I've taken over the past few days. I was laid low for two days with some sort of stomach crud so my sightseeing, such as it is, has been restricted even more. Plus, I have an irritated eye that I need to deal with today. One of my contact lenses got torn somehow and it took  a whole day for it to orient itself in such a way that I could get the biggest part of it out of my eye. However, seeing as my eye is still irritated I assume the missing piece must still be in there somewhere. Albie can't see anything in there so I'm looking for relief from that. My GI tract is back to normal and I feel good and well rested. Some background follows.

On Sunday Feb 28, I wrote in my journal:
The days have been hot, the nights cooler, so we've generally been staying out pretty late when it's more comfortable. Because of that my tendency is to hang around in my air conditioned hotel room during the warmest part of the day.  At around noon today Albie texted me to say he had made some plans for the afternoon so I decided to take a little ride on the moto.  I stopped first at a large circular park not far north of here. Turns out it was Wat Phnom, the legendary founding place of Phnom Penh.  The large stupa in one of the photos that follow contains the remains of King Ponhea Yat (1405-1467). There was a ceremony of some sort going on in an adjoining temple with tons of incense burning on a sort of raised dais. People were constantly lighting small bundles of incense to add to what was already burning. The temple pulsed with exotic music, drums, some sort of bamboo xylophone and bells. I desperately wanted to shoot a video or at least take a few photos of the ceremony but didn't want to offend the worshipers. 


After leaving there I rode out Sisowath Quay for a few miles dodging motos and potholes and looking for a way to see the river that I knew was just off to my right. However, any river views were blocked by multitudes of small shops and houses that crowd this busy street. I did get a shot of the riverside a few days ago and include it here to give an idea of the situation. I took a peek at my GPS and decided to take a left turn in order to head back on a different street.  I have a free Garmin compatible autorouting map of most of SE Asia loaded in my computer and on my 60Cx . The major cities are covered pretty well and are fairly accurate as far as I can tell. However, Udon, the city in Thailand where I started out last month, has very little detail so it's sort of hit or miss. For a free map though I've no complaints. I paid over $100 for my genuine Garmin Europe Streetmap and it was far from perfect. By the time I got back I was happy to be in the the hotel and out of the blazing sun. While riding I can stay reasonably cool but when waiting for a light I start to sweat.


After I got back I took a short nap in my room. I even managed to watch a bit of tennis-- the Malaysian Open.  But when I woke up, all of a sudden I realized I'm feeling ill, my stomach hurts and I have the runs. Albie called me to go for dinner and I did go out for a half hour or so. I had a beer but no appetite really so I left him and came back to my room. Something I ate? Hard to tell, but I'm feeling pretty awful.

After sleeping the clock around I arose Monday morning feeling quite a bit better although still not back to 100%. We went  shopping for a spare cell phone for Albie and I picked up some tangerines and bananas, the bananas to help steady things in my GI tract which had been in such an uproar yesterday. By the time dinner time rolled around I was feeling fine. We start every evening at Happy Phnom Penh Pizza on Sisowath Quay. Here are a few photos of the view from what I'll call "Albert's table" at Happy Phnom Penh Pizza. They offer very good seats with this river view along with 60 cent Angkor drafts and excellent food. I had fried fish with caper sauce tonight. And remember the Happy Pizza I mentioned in an earlier entry? I did try one the other night. It was a tasty pizza but I didn't detect any marijuana in it. Albie's electric moto is the blue one, my Honda Dream rental is red.

 
 
 


Back to Tuesday: Later we'll return to the Thai Embassy to pick up our tourist visas. Then tomorrow we'll probably head down to Sihanoukville on the coast to take in the beach scene. Albert is trying to set up a taxi run again. It will cost more than a bus ride but will be ever so much more comfortable and convenient.  I have avoided the beach scene in Thailand because of the heat down south even though I want to hook up with my friend Joe. But from Phnom Penh the Cambodian beaches are an easy trip so I'll get to experience at least a bit of the beach and salt water on this trip.  We'll spend a couple of days down there and then head back. To Thailand? Back here? Who knows. But next time I visit SE Asia I'll come earlier in the year when the weather's more temperate. During my last moto ride I talked with these kids who were selling lotus roots. I didn't want what they were selling but paid them 300 riels for the photo.

Here's a self portrait shot in the blue light of my hotel room. I'm doing okay so far, for an old geezer, LOL.