Sunday, December 25, 2005

Writing fast under a fan on the Cambodian coast...

Walking slowly at dusk barefoot under the early stars, placing each foot carefully on the red dirt dust road, like Alalabama in the summertime; watch a lonely moto driver bump along searching for white skin and tan-lines.

Our guesthouse is a few rooms well away from the beach, across the road from the backside dumpsters and carparks of the Golden Sands hotel, and next door to another quiet inn with a restaurant out front where a lovely mother with the softest smile in the world squats down and cooks big heaping delicious plates of curry for her guests: a skinny young Frenchman with dredlocks and a young Khmer girl staying in his room, a older Frenchman with a younger girl, a deeptanned young Spanish couple, 3 British alchoholics in various stages of decay and a starry-eyed hippy named Spring, who is volunteering at a local community development group but got too stoned and drunk last night at a Christmas party on the beach and was still in the restaurant at 1 o clock this afternoon.

Sihanoukville is booming. Lying back on the beach, a string of lights curving under black hills, reflected against the gentle sea. Music pumps out of hastily constructed bars, frenzied competition for dollar bills, polite white shirted boys beg customers inside. Each crowd gravitates to a different bar, drawn in by Jack Johnson, Rage Against the Machine or the Black Eyed Peas. There are generally two kinds of bars, those with prostitutes and those without, but many more of the former, and the line is never clear. Look at the sparkling sea, where 20 Khmers are being baptized, holding hands in a circle, dressed in their best clothes, exuding happiness and hope, then look at the bar, where that ex pat is buying a girl a beer, and she couldn't be more than 16. And what do the local people know? That no army will come to kill them tonight, and rich people will give away dollar bills at the beach if one can find out what they want (everyone has their vice), and better wear earplugs at night to drown out the blasting karaoke and barking dogs.

There is a lot of good and a lot of evil in this land, and even though right and wrong shine brighter than anywhere sometimes, things are moving too fast and hard to always recognize the difference. Maybe the young Frenchman with the girl is living here, maybe his family was here before the war. Maybe that girl is really in her early twenties, and they are on their honeymoon, and two families of former enemies will come together. Probably not. But sometimes young men who I think might rob me approach with shy, hopeful smiles and write their addresses carefully on tiny slips of paper and ask me, so softly, if I like Michael Jackson and if I'll be their friend.

We are aliens here, from a place of incomprehensible wealth and beauty. America is a powerful ideal, and when I say that I like Cambodia better, they look at me as if I'm mad. Naive I'll give them. But America would do well to aspire towards Khmer values - strong family, good food, selflessness and above all, a people trying desperately to reclaim their culture and prevent another war. No one here understands the concept of 'senior citizen communities'. Children want to learn, so that they can help their younger siblings eat well and get medicine. And if they can't find a job, no matter how long they try or how fluently they speak English, or if the tips don't come for a little while, maybe younger sister will have to find the money for makeup and sexy clothes and, soon, cheap speed and antiretroviral drugs.

Just being in this country can make you cry.

Late night, the men gathered around a table under a farmhouse while three generations of women and two young boys sleep in the double bed. Sweet rice wine in two large Sprite bottles, one shot glass passed carefully around. The man on the my right, just a wisp, just barely there, deep dark eyes in a hollow face, croaking English learned 30 years ago, when there were schools, he would never talk without the wine but now he holds my leg and speaks urgently into my ear.

"I lost my language. I'm sorry, no English."

I tell him he speaks English well, and he shakes his head as if I'm missing the point.

"No. I lost my language. I work for the Nation United...."

His voice trails off but the hand is still there, gripping hard.

"I like Cambodia very much," I say, stupidly in Khmer, one of the only phrases that I know. "I will come back. I will come back to your village and see you."

A smile, but there have been too many years of hopelessness.

"No, I don't believe you. No, you won't come back. I don't believe you. You will not come back."


The next morning I walked along a timeless path through rice paddies with the sun coming up over the mountain to the West. A grandmother and four children waved me over to their fire of rice husks to warm my hands. A teenage boy runs out of his house to say "Excuse me please stop," and takes my fuzzy picture with a cheap mobile phone.

The man from last night lives in a small farmhouse set among banana trees and coconut palms at the edge of the rice field. But he is already out working with a scythe and two water-buffalo. I probably will never see him again.

Merry Christmas from Sihanoukville, Cambodia

Cambodia overwhelms me. I've never been anywhere where the people are so poor, where tragedy is so fresh. The dignity they maintain, the way everyone tries so hard to please, the genuine smile that lights up a little girls face like a torch when I overpay for a bottle of water - she quoted me 500 riel, which is about 10 cents, and I gave here a dollar. How offensive most Westerners are - haggling over pennies with moto drivers struggling to care for a family on $30 a month while stumbling out of a bar and asking the driver for boom boom at the chicken farm.

One night in a farmhouse somewhere near a town that isn't on my map. Khmer houses are built on stilts, with most of the living down underneath the floor, in the shade. Chickens strut about, pecking and shitting, competing with scruffy dogs for scraps. A pig digs furiously out back. Some honking geese, a turkey in the tree.

Water buffalo haul cut rice through the fields, green mountains in the distance, scattered palm trees, many scarred by hot lead bullets. All I can think of is The Lorax by Dr. Suess, which everyone should read. The illustrations are Cambodia.

Young monks in orange robes thrilled to speak English, living in the shade by an ancient temple set in a cavernous auditorium of limstone. Local boys guide me, holding torches made of dried leaves and wax.

Traffic, more auditory than visual, everyone out in the road, not wrapped up in an AC car interior but hanging onto trucks, bikes, motor scooters, cows - bouncing about on the potholes, dodging chickens and naked children, World Bank signs lead to smooth black top.

The food - always rice, and baguettes for 10 cents in the market, better than the bread in Montreal, curries and bottles of Angkor Beer. A $2 steak seems like an unnecessary expense.

There is an island off the coast - big on the map, just visible as a dark patch on the hazy horizon. It's called Koh Rong. There might be a fishing village, but no hotels. I'm trying to find a fisherman to take us there tomorrow.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Pigs Blood Cake and Papaya Salad

My favorite thing about Taipei is the street food. People set up little booths and stands along the street throughout the city, each specializing in a certain Chinese delicacy. The food is cheap - anywhere from 25 cents to 1 dollar American, and most is prepared fresh in front of your eyes. Bowls of thin noodles in thick sauce with coriander garnish, hot sauce and bits of tripe, popcorn chicken, endless varieties of dumplings, every part of a duck you could imagine (even the head), pigs blood cake, dipped in ground peanuts and served on a stick, grilled rice cakes, grilled vegetables, grilled chicken, grilled fish, grilled squid, grilled liver, lime flavored jello and sugar cane juice, egg and bacon sandwiches, popcorn chicken, roasted chestnuts, deep-fried tofu, papaya salad with passionfruit sauce, pineapple ice-cream, hand-rolled sushi, oyster omelettes, avocado smoothies - I've only scratched the surface.

Tyler and I have spent most of our time here walking around, and every 500 meters or so we stop and buy a new delicacy. From 9 am to 9 pm we grazed our way around this vast buffet of a city, spending perhaps $10 each and eating like kings. Both last night and today we ended up drinking the local beer in parks with new-found Taiwanese friends.

This has been a good buffer between orderly Japan and anarchic Cambodia. Taiwan is a little bit of both - vendors selling clothes illegally on the street, scooping up their wares and running when the police drive by, a touch grimy around the edges, dogs running wild through the streets and sleeping in parks - these are things you would never see in Japan. But when we hit Cambodia, I'm sure Taipei will seem as modern, clean and sterile as the government district in Shinjuku, Tokyo.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

False Starts

The bus from Utashinai to the Takikawa train station was half an hour late because of icy roads, and by the time stopped to pick me up thick flakes had formed an inch thick on my clothes and sandals. Hokkaido was in the midst of the heaviest snow dump so far this year.

Snow was whipping down even harder at Chitose airport, but the beautiful woman who checked us in told us the flight would only be slightly delayed, and sure enough, we boarded the plane only half an hour behind schedule. And waited. And waited. And waited.

Three hours later, the pilot came on to announce that the runway had been closed and our flight would be canceled. Flight attendants took our information for booking hotels. And we waited some more. A truck pulled up and began de-icing the wing. Perhaps we would leave tonight after all...and sure enough, the pilot was on the intercom again - a break in the weather would allow us to get off the ground after all.

As we taxied away from the gate, 5 hours after getting on the plane, I saw an army of snowplows working the runway, it seemed like a whole town was mobilized to get us off the ground. The plane rolled into position...and sat there. We waited. Two hours passed. The runway was closed again. Another hour. Our flight was canceled after all. The plane taxied back in, but there were problems finding a gate, because of other planes waiting out the storm. Finally, at 1 am, we walked back into the departure lounge, and by 2 am Tyler and I were asleep in the airport hotel.

We made it to Taiwan eventually - I'm sitting in our ratty little hostel now. I'll try to write about this Gucci/motorbike/street-food city soon.

Friday, December 16, 2005

The Things I'll Carry

I may be alone in the belief that packing lists make for fascinating reading (see Thoreau's Walden and Steinbeck/Ricketts' Log From the Sea of Cortez), but if anyone out there agrees, here is what I have packed for 3 days in Taiwan and 3 weeks in Cambodia:

2 T-Shirts, one yellow, one purple
2 button down long sleeve light-weight shirts, one gray one blue
1 short sleeve button down, blue
1 lightweight synthetic pair of pants
1 cotton black pants
1 lightweight fleece
1 small digital camera
1 bathing suit
1 pair of khaki shorts
1 small white towel
1 metal water bottle
3 Powerbars
1 toothbrush
1 deodorant
1 floss
1 pair of glasses
1 book (The Portable Beat Reader)
1 upset stomach medicine
1 small bug repellant (100% DEET)
1 Passport, Gaijin Card, Air Tickets and Copies of Same
1 Emergency Info List for Tyler to carry
1 Baseball Hat
3 Pairs of Boxers
2 Pairs of Socks
1 Pair of Sandals
$ 300 in small bills, $ 300 in hundreds and $ 500 in traveler's check
1 Credit Card
1 Travel Case
1 Marker
1 Copy of info about our hostel in Taipei

All of this fits in a small REI backpack, the size high-school students use, and weighs about 3 kilograms.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

One sip or the whole barrel?

Recently I wrote about the pros and cons of travel vs. staying in one place long enough to understand the "silent language" of day to day life. Reading the online journal of a man who rode his bicycle around the world, I was struck by the following quote, which captures the issue quite nicely.

"It is a major downside of my chosen method of travel that I too am only ever passing through. I am constantly amongst strangers and never really get to know a place. It is like an extended wine-tasting tour without the pleasures and pitfalls of ever submerging your head and drinking one entire barrel."

-Al Humphreys

Off to Taiwan and Cambodia in a few hours...


Tuesday, December 13, 2005


This Saturday morning I’ll meet my friend Tyler at the train station in Takikawa, ride ninety minutes south to New Chitose Airport and catch a plane to Taipei, the capital of Taiwan.

Three days later, we’ll leave Taipei and take another plane three hours farther south to Phonm Phen, Cambodia.

Three weeks after that, on January 10th, we’ll come back to Hokkaido, our sun tans out of place against mounds of mid-winter snow.

That is as far as I’ve planned.

"Tyler and I hanging out with Santa in Sapporo last week."

Tyler has left the preparations for this trip in my hands. He’s a first year JET, from Oregon, still wet behind the ears, as our friend Aldo likes to say. When I asked if he wanted to go to Southeast Asia this winter, he said “Sure.” When I asked him if Cambodia sounded like a good destination, he said, “Cool.” When I booked the tickets, he said, “Thanks.” He’s bringing a harmonica and a homemade deck of Tarot cards.

Last week Tyler asked me where we would sleep in Cambodia. “I’m fine with crashing in parks,” he said. I don’t think he understands much about the place where we’re going, but that’s cool. We’ll have time to figure it all out.

Not so long ago, Cambodia held the same place in the imagination that Iraq does today – a country where it is very easy to get yourself killed. During the horrific reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, educated Cambodians were systematically exterminated, forced to work in the fields until their bodies gave out or a Khmer Rouge soldier felt like killing them. Mass graves were dug, landmines were planted and skulls were stacked high. The heart of the country was gouged out, sliced up and buried, purposefully and systematically, a display of brutality matched only by horrors named Rwanda and Auschwitz.

There is an award-winning movie about those times called The Killing Fields, which I recommend highly.

When the barbarity abated and the Khmer Rouge was reduced to pockets of guerrillas terrorizing the countryside, a few intrepid foreigners began to trickle into the ancient kingdom from neighboring Thailand. The money they spent enriched the royalist government, and their presence alone infuriated Pol Pot, who set a $5000 bounty for the murder of “long-noses.”

$ 5000 is an astronomical amount of money in Cambodia. Some tourists were kidnapped and some were killed, but more kept coming.

Now, the Khmer Rouge is history, but the horror of their reign is still fresh. Cambodia is poor, anarchic and only beginning to regain a semblance of its soul. More and more tourists are arriving each year, Tyler and I about to join their ranks.

Tourism is a blessing and a curse in any land, but especially in Cambodia. Without the money that foreigners bring, the country could lapse into a more dangerous sort of anarchy. The government could not charge one of the highest departure taxes in the world, and might have to tax rice farmers instead, border officials could not overcharge for visas and might turn their guns on relatively wealthy Thais, the police could not extort bribes from tourists and might have to intimidate locals. Guesthouses and hotels would close. The majestic temples of Angkor Wat would become a slum. Tuk-tuks, taxis and motodops would stop running. Many Cambodians would starve.

Of course, some would say (arrogantly in my view) that it is better to starve than to be disgraced. Today, the way some Cambodians sell themselves is disgraceful. Any third-world country has its share of hustlers and whores, desperate people who ingratiate themselves to foreigners in hopes of snatching a dollar bill, a few crumbs from the first-world table. Cambodia has such people in legion, selling everything they can. The most popular night-club is called The Heart of Darkness. Phmon Penh is the sex tourism capital of the world and a center of the black-market trade in human organs, used in transplants. Recently, a scandal erupted over a website advertising Cambodia as the ideal destination for suicides, no prescription necessary.

So why am I going?

The shortest answer is that I’ve never been, but the longer one is more complicated. I want to go to Cambodia because it is as far away from the civility and order of Japan that I can get. Because it is warm while Hokkaido is cold. Because Tyler and I will spend less money in nearly a month of traveling than we could spend in a weekend out in Sapporo. Because restaurants cook two kinds of food, Regular and Happy, and Happy is laced with marijuana. Because there is the likelihood that the trip will change me and perhaps let me see things more clearly – pain and the absence of pain, poverty and wealth, good and evil – in the same way that climbing mountains reduces the world to cold and warm, hungry and fed, cloudy and clear. Because the first line of The Killing Fields goes, “Cambodia; A land I came to love, and pity.”

I hope to write a lot while I’m traveling, and update this blog from Internet cafes, but am unsure of their availability. Please stay tuned for more updates.

Although I haven’t booked any rooms or planned an itinerary, I have read up on Cambodia while surfing the Internet at school. The most informative site I found is called Tales of Asia, which focuses on Cambodia but also includes sections on several other Asian countries.

Rolf Potts has two stories about Cambodia on his website, one about a visit to a brothel in Phonm Penh and one about a week spent in a rural village without a phrasebook.

Finally, there is this article from Outside magazine about the kidnapping and murder of three young backpackers, which eloquently discusses the question of why people are drawn to places like Cambodia.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Fell So Good!

My student's classroom materials are a constant source of amusement for me. Nearly every notebook and pencil case has some English scattered about for decoration, the cool-factor of roman letters being roughly equivalent to photos of rock stars and movie characters. My students have no clue what messages they are displaying, and couldn't care less when I offer a translation, which is a shame because the various phrases are quite often hilarious, and sometimes down right inspirational.

While cleaning the classrooms after lunch today I made off with 15 year old Hirano-san's pencil case, and will now transcribe its messages before she gets back from recess.


"FELL SO GOOD! A travelers spirit withan. It's goinG to be intEresting!

adventurous mind
Because I want to see your face witha smile.Fell so good! Freely as you please.

how do you feel?
It feels nice!It feels nice!
It's goinG to be intEresting!

Everyone's clock ticks to its own time.

That scenery, once more, the travellersin the world...


Tickles the feet, doesn't it? I can't to hit the road. It's goinG to be intEresting!

Cycling Home From Siberia

The other day I ran across the writings of a former Geography teacher named Rob Lilwall who is in the midst of a multi-year journey from Siberia to England via Australia by boat and bicycle. His homepage contains a link to his blog, which is part of the bootsnall travel blog network.

My dream is to embark on an adventure like Rob's in the near future, though perhaps minus the thousands of kilometers he logged through an icy Siberian winter. In the meantime, reading his reports from the road keeps me stoked for the journey to come. Rob is a talented writer and includes plenty of tips for anyone planning such a journey - his cold weather cycling guide is a classic.

A copy of Rob's mission statement, taken from his website:

"After 2 years of waging unruly battle with delightful kids and stroppy adolescents as a geography teacher at a school in England, I realised that cycling 40,000 KM from Far Eastern Siberia to London sounded like an equally exhilarating challenge and would also be a great way to raise money for children at risk… Estimated to take over 30 months, I aim to travel 20,000 km from Northern Russia to Southern Australia, and then 20,000 km back to England, using only bicycle, and where necessary, boat. I began at the start of winter 2004 from the Gulag town of Magadan (Stalin’s “gateway to hell”), cycled through 5000KM of tundra (camping in temperatures as low as minus 40) and then pedaled my way through Japan, across South Korea and on to China… after that it will be island hopping south through the Philippines and Indonesia and into the deserts and rainforests of Australia… before finally turning homeward bound via the most exciting route I can find through mainland Asia."