Saturday, December 23, 2006

Way Out of the Office

For the next month I’ll be exploring the coast of Koh Kong province in Southwestern Cambodia with Ryan Libre. This is one of the most remote areas of Southeast Asia, so don’t expect posts until around January 15th, when we hope to reach Sihanoukville.

As regular readers know, this is a trip that Ryan and I have been planning for some time. It wasn’t until last week, however, that our little expedition took on a new sense of urgency. Oil and gas fields have just been discovered off the Cambodian coast. This would be big news anywhere, but it is of existential importance to impoverished Cambodia. How the oil bonanza plays out will be crucial to the future of the Khmer people, but one thing is already certain: Cambodia’s lost coast is about to change.

Happy Holidays to all. For friends expecting my usual naked Christmas card, abject apologies, but I’ve been too busy traveling this year. You’ll have to make do with the digital version above, taken on Koh Tonsay, near the border between Cambodia and Vietnam.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Khao San

The Khao San of Bangkok is the epicenter of backpacker culture in Southeast Asia, a neon gateway between hemispheres. For arrivals fresh from the airport and foggy-minded with jet-lag, that first hesitant walk under the unfamiliar weight of a pack is an initiation, an onslaught of weirdness and possibility. To veterans, like the dreadlocked Kiwi who escaped Phnom Penh in the trunk of a taxi and walked for three days from the Cambodian border to reach Bangkok in time to catch his Christmas flight to Auckland, Khao San is a re-entry portal, one last stop on a long trip home.

Khao San is a place that transcends the very idea of authenticity. The road is a tourist trap grown to the point of self sustaining parody, a carnival of players permanently passing though. As a tourist attraction, it is perhaps the only place in the world where the sightseers are themselves the sight to see.

The street hawkers who make their living on Khao San are by and large also from away, economic migrants who stand with arms full of hammocks amidst the flow of travelers. Their business is to attract attention, to make people stop and do a double take, maybe dig out the camera for a photo and make an impulse buy. Some don false noses and Santa hats, others wander about croaking like frogs. One daring man squats behind a display of T-shirts and squirts passersby with a water pistol, smiling nervously when his targets whirl around.

Perhaps Khao San is a vision of the future, an impersonal post-cultural service economy where all transactions are conducted in broken English and everyone is always on the move, a place that only a stray dog could consider home. But, as the pink neon sign at the head of the road reminds us, it’s not where you go, but who you meet that matters. When nothing about a place makes sense anymore, people will still be walking past, clutching Lonely Planets and wolfing down Pad Thai.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Expedition Cambodia

How does one create a portrait of a place? What images are essential? Which tools should be used? Whose stories must be told?

Our place is Cambodia’s forgotten coast, the wild country between the Thai border and the booming tourist town of Sihanoukville. Our goal is to explore, to turn over rocks, to listen to both people and the sound of waves and to fashion a document showing what we find, so that ten, twenty and one hundred years from now, when the forgotten coast has shifted and changed, there will be a record of what once was there, a sculpted collection of memories in a handful of photos and a few thousand words.

That the forgotten coast we describe will be different from the place experienced by others is inevitable. Perhaps some will look at our portrayal and find it impossible to recognize. We will try to tell the truth, but it can only be one truth among many, colored and constrained by our perceptions and limitations. A feverish man, out of fresh water and trying to decide if oozing red spots mean malaria or dengue fever, might justifiably dream of escaping the hellish beach where he is camped, while across the cove his companion spreads his arms and shouts that he has discovered paradise. We will try for honesty, not objectivity.

We call the coast forgotten, but this is not quite true. Forgotten by whom? Cambodians know it is there, but most have never visited. The Khmer nation, which is far older than the country called Cambodia, was born from the fertile floodplains of the Mekong River. These plains end at the foot of impassable mountains in Southwestern Cambodia. These mountains are borderlands, a refuge for thieves and exiles. Even today, the dark jungle is feral and untamed, newly scarred by logging, but still more hospitable to tigers and crocodiles than men. On the far side of this wilderness is the forgotten coast, where no roads lead.

In planning this expedition, we knew that the coast was about to change, that the outside world would take notice before long. That this would happen in the context of tourism seemed obvious. Tourism is the lifeblood of Cambodia, by far the biggest source of cash. In high season, dozens of Westerners pass by the coast on the fast boat to Thailand; surely some will remember what they see and contrive to return. Development could not be far away.

But as we prepare to set out, testing the water filter, getting the last prick of rabies vaccine and double wrapping cameras in plastic bags, the forgotten coast is improbably in the news. Headlines fill papers from Bangkok to Beijing, men in suits pore over reports in Houston and Cambodian politicians open briefcases filled with crisp, new hundred dollar bills. Beaches are the furthest thing from anyone’s mind.

Billions. Trillions. Gallons. Barrels. The numbers are meaningless. The only word that matters is OIL. Massive oil and gas deposits. With the adrenaline rush of an addict, the fitful attention of men and markets has focused on the forgotten coast. The race is on.

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Oil and Gas Fields Found Off the Coast of Cambodia

As Ryan and I make the final preparations for our expedition to the Southwestern coast of Cambodia, a major announcement has suddenly brought the spotlight of media, business and political attention to the waters we plan to explore. Major energy multinationals, including Chevron, Total and Chinese National have made a huge strike, with preliminary results indicating massive gas and oil deposits in the coastal waters. In a few years time, Cambodia could easily triple its domestic product through oil and gas revenues. Of course, as one of the most corrupt states in Asia, it is highly unlikely that any of the oil money will reach ordinary Cambodian and will instead serve to strengthen the ruling elite and severely weaken anti-corruption efforts. The sad examples of other resource rich nations without strong democratic institutions suggest that oil may be a curse rather than a blessing. No matter how horrible the government, as long as the pipes stay open, buyers won't hesitate.

The untouched coast is suddenly more vulnerable than ever. It will change drastically and soon. Ryan and I leave in two days.

Here is a link to an article discussing the implications of the discovery -

Cambodia Set for Oil and Gas Development Bonanza

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Monday, December 18, 2006

Playground of the Gods

Ryan Libre has created a book of photos of Hokkaido’s Daisetsuzan mountains, known to the indigenous Ainu people as Kamui Mintara, Playground of the Gods. Ryan is the photographer who will accompany me on next month’s expedition to the forgotten Cambodian coast. We’ve shared many a leaky tent on beaches and cliffs across Hokkaido, but the Cambodia expedition will be our first intensive creative collaboration.

Ryan’s book is a labor of love, the result, as he says on his website, of thousands of hours hiking in the backcountry and editing at the screen of his tiny laptop. At the moment, there is only one copy of the book in existence, but a publishing deal appears to be in the works, and with luck and persistence it will be widely available before long. For now, you can see an overview of the book at Ryan’s website, along with other stunning photos, travel guides and helpful tips on serious photography.

Ryan lives closer to his principles than anyone I have encountered. Not coincidentally, is one of the happiest and most successful people I know. His first book will be a collectors item before long, so if you want to own a limited first edition copy, contact Ryan via his website.

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Sunday, December 17, 2006

Back to Bangkok

One thing I love about Southeast Asia is that antibiotics (along with just about any other medicine you could want) are available over the counter. The Ciproflaxin gladiators won the battle with whatever vicious bacterial villians had colonized my gut, allowing me to enjoy a week on Koh Phi Phi, perhaps the most striking of the Thai islands.

Phi Phi is terribly overdeveloped, to the point that those who knew the island 15 years ago generally refuse to go back, preferring to keep their memories as spotless and pure as the white sand beaches once were. Still, some parts of the island, if not unspoiled, are at least peaceful. I stayed at Phi Phi Hill, a bungalow operation perched high on a hillside ten minutes by long-tail taxi boat from the crowded guesthouse ghetto on Ao Ton Sai, the main beach. My spacious bungalow was just 600 baht and had a great ocean view from the front porch. The Hill was so low key and slow paced that I actually found myself wishing that Dostoevsky could have made Crime and Punishment a little bit longer. Yikes.

On a more unfortunate note, my wallet went missing from my bunk on the night train to Bangkok from Surat Thani. The railway police couldn’t have been more professional, but I don’t expect to get anything back. Let us all reflect on the impermanence of material wealth.

This morning I cracked open a paper for the first time in weeks and - WHAM WHAM WHAM – two pieces of big news jumped out from the pages of the Bangkok Post. See below…

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Sihanoukville Airport to Open

There are three towns that tourists tend to visit in Cambodia: Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville. As of now, Sihanoukville was the only one without an airport, but that will all change next month. The airport will provide direct access to the Cambodian Coast for the first time since the end of the civil war. A few quick thoughts:

The airport is located a ways to the East of town, on the edge of Ream National Park. Sihanoukville is a rapidly evolving, hard-edged, money-chasing sort of place. With thousands of wealthy tourists suddenly falling out of the sky, you can bet that the touts and hookers and gangsters (oops, I meant developers) will fall over themselves to chase after them. Will hotels sprout up on Ream’s untracked beaches? Eventually, but for now there is plenty of open land between downtown and the airport that is not part of the National Park. Look for the beaches to the East of town to get busy fast, especially those just beyond Ocheauteal.

With no airport, Sihanoukville doesn’t get many wealthy tourists, whose experience of Cambodia is usually limited to Siem Reap and the Angkor Temples. The airport will bring more business to the one luxury hotel already in Sihanoukville, but it will also enable high-end eco-tourism along the more remote areas of the coast – in places like Kep and the offshore islands. Look’s like the expedition Ryan and I are making to these parts next month will happen just in time…

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Royal Surprise in Bhutan

The King of Bhutan unexpectedly stepped down yesterday, enthroning his first born son in a transition that had been scheduled for 2008. Both father and son are beloved in their Kingdom, and the former Crown Prince has won many admirers abroad, especially here in Thailand. All signs point to a glorious future for the handsome new monarch, but it’s terribly sad to see his father abdicate. The former King was a wise and modest leader. His son has large shoes to fill.

See my Guide to Bhutan for more on the Bhutanese royal family (click on the link to the right underneath my picture).

Incidentally, as the editor STILL hasn’t gotten around to posting my Bhutan Guide, the information about the King and the transition of power to the Crown Prince is out of date before it even gets published. The frustrations of a travel writer….


Sunday, December 10, 2006

Vacation Land

The difference between ‘travel’ and ‘vacation’ is that travel is a way of life while vacation is an escape from life. At the moment, here on an island in the South of Thailand, I feel like a traveler caught in a vacation. And it sucks.

I got sick soon after arriving in Thailand, some sort of stomach bug that hits everyone in Southeast Asia eventually. The bug kept me stuck in the smell and smog of Bangkok for three days, unable to escape the demented backpacker festival of Khao San Road. The illness peaked on the King’s birthday, a holiday when everyone in Thailand dresses in yellow and fireworks explode through the night; I contributed to the occasion by crouching over the toilet in the flickering light of a fluorescent bulb and blasting celebratory yellow explosions of my own.

The smell of Pad Thai frying in a street-side wok makes me gag. I usually love Thai food. This is cruel and unfair.

I fled Bangkok on the night train to Surat Thani on the day after the King’s Birthday, paralyzing my gut with four Immodium AD. As the train rolled South, I started thumbing through the Lonely Planet’s guide to Thailand’s Islands and Beaches, which reads ominously like a eulogy:

“It’s hard to believe that this polluted beach was once a pristine strip of white sand.” (Koh Phi Phi)

“The whole western coast is lined with beaches and crammed with resorts.”
(Koh Lanta)

“It’s definitely worth a visit for it’s remaining deserted beaches (they haven’t all been developed – yet)”.
(Koh Pha-Ngan)

Lurching through the rocking train carriage at 2 am (the Immodium had worn off), I resolved to keep moving South until I escaped the crowds, crossing into Malaysia if necessary. Unfortunately, in my weakened state, I was in no shape to battle the furiously efficient machine of the Thailand tourist industry.

“Hello Good Morning where you go!”

It was 6 am and the woman at the train station was somehow managing to scream and smile at the same time.

“You! You! Where you go?”


“OK, you go Krabi!” She stuck a blue sticker on my shirt.


“Go, go, that bus, see, that bus, you go!”

So I went to Krabi. Along with 50 other sleepy white people. In Krabi, I got to make a choice between Koh Lanta and Koh Phi Phi. I chose Lanta, and got a red sticker to go with the blue one. When my head stopped spinning, I was sitting by a beachside pool in the midst of a Swedish family reunion. The toilet flushes and my bungalow is clean. At the moment, that’s good enough for me. But as soon as these antibiotics kick in, it’s time to escape Vacation Land.

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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Cambodia's Lost Coast

Six am. Sun up time on Koh Sdach, an island off the barren beaches of Koh Kong province, Cambodia. I’m sitting on a red plastic stool in the Vietnamese family’s cafe by the ferry port, eating a bowl of steaming rice noodles and pork liver, writing for as long as my laptop battery will last. Lately, it’s been giving out around the ten minute mark.

Scraggly young chickens scramble energetically for scraps on the wooden plank floor. They and the dogs are the only ones fully awake and alert at this hour. The villagers are still blinking away their sleep, rising from hammocks to the smell of grilled sesame waffles and thick coffee. Mr. Sok is already playing videos in his karaoke shop, but at least the volume is down.

This is my second trip to Koh Sdach, where the fast boat between Sihanoukville and the Thai border town of Koh Kong makes a stop. The boat is popular with travelers; dozens ride it every day in high season, but only a few ever get off at the island halfway. Koh Sdach isn’t mentioned in the major guidebooks, so very few travelers know to make this detour. Even those who do know that the boat makes a stop are sometimes thwarted by Cambodians who have no interest in sending customers off the established tourist trail. Of the five agents I asked in Sihanoukville, two had not heard of Koh Sdach, one thought it was in Thailand and two claimed that I would need to pay full fare ($15) to get off halfway. I finally just went to the port and bought the damn ticket myself for $10, although the ‘real’ price is only $8.

The island hasn’t changed much in the year I’ve been gone. A Swiss couple scouting locations for a guesthouse are in the room next door, but the penniless Irishman and his calculating Vietnamese wife have disappeared. Teams of men are building a concrete walkway and some new bungalows with indoor toilets down by the water, next to a restaurant that now boasts an English menu. The beaches on the mainland are still empty. No one goes to the surrounding islands apart from a few fishermen, who complain that there are fewer fish to catch and gasoline prices are high.

Koh Sdach is actually the most bustling metropolis on the long stretch of coast between Sihanoukville and Koh Kong. The whole region is cut off from the rest of Cambodia by the wild jungle of the Cardamom Mountains. Isolated fishing villages bring in supplies on long-tail skiffs because there is still no reliable overland access from the coast to the interior. The trickle of travelers who make it to Koh Sdach is a torrent compared to the utter seclusion of most beaches and islands in the region.

The forgotten Cambodian coast won’t stay quiet forever. Tracks hacked from the jungle will become logging roads, which will be widened and smoothed and eventually paved. Boatloads of curious young Westerners pass by the islands every day, and some have binoculars. People with money are starting to explore investments in tourist infrastructure. There are very few landmines in the region.

A Russian ‘businessman’ has already bought an island for himself near Sihanoukville, with plans to construct an entertainment palace. Unlike the Irishman and his wife, the Swiss couple seem likely to follow through on their dreams of island bungalows. A Frenchman with a boat is leasing beachfront huts on Koh Rong, the largest island between Koh Sdach and Sihanoukville.

Here is the paragraph from the Lonely Planet guide to Cambodia that first pointed me towards the Southwest coast.

Around Sihanoukville:

“Further afield are the large islands of Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samlon. Both are surrounded by blissfully empty, beautiful beaches and have freshwater sources, suggesting they will be a major focus for future development…If one place is set to become the Ko Samui (Thailand) of Cambodia, this is it – don’t worry though, it won’t be for at least another five years!”

The Lonely Planet does not mention Koh Sdach, but I would bet $100 that the next edition will.

From December 22nd until January 21st I will explore this lonely and beautiful place with Ryan Libre, a great photographer and an even better friend. Ryan will take photos, I’ll write, and together we’ll try to document what is here before it evolves and fades and becomes another place entirely. A trip, which we sometimes glorify by calling an Expedition…its boundaries a sea, a sky, a cycle of the moon, its limits - our own, without reservation.

My model for this month of exploration is the journey described by John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts in “Log From the Sea of Cortez,” which I paraphrase above. Those interested in what exactly I’m trying for should find it at the library. In my humble opinion, The Log is the best travel book ever written.

I’ll be in Thailand until Ryan arrives and should be able to post frequently.

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