Wednesday, January 31, 2007


Noticed anything about Cambodia in the news lately?

Probably not. There isn't much going on that makes the big papers or TV channels. If you have heard something, it probably involved the long delayed Khmer Rouge Trial, which politicians and lawyers insist will happen soon, before the last few members of the KR die of old age.

The Khmer Rouge is still blamed for most of Cambodia's problems. This is understandable - it's hard to imagine a regime more inhuman in ideology and brutal in its methods. But Pol Pot and his clique are hardly the only ones who have terrorized Cambodia in modern history. The sad and uncomfortable truth is that violence on the part of foreign countries created the inhuman conditions that culminated in the horrific phenomenon of the Khmer Rouge.

Ever hear the Khmer Rouge National Anthem? Probably not. It doesn't get played much anymore. Here is a selection:

"The bright red blood was spilled over the towns
And over the plain of Kampuchea, our motherland,

The blood of our good workers and farmers and of
Our revolutionary combatants, both men and women."

It gets even bloodier in the next verse. Clearly, the ultra-nationalist Khmer Rouge didn't fall from the sunny blue sky. They rose from blood.

Blood spilled by Chinese assault rifles. Blood spilled by Vietnamese fighter pilots. Blood spilled by land mines made in Hungary, Thailand and the former U.S.S.R. Blood spilled by machetes. Blood spilled by ton after ton after ton of American bombs.

Violence created fear created inhumanity created the horrible suffering and stinking poverty that Cambodian's are only just now beginning to overcome.

I came across two quotes today (thanks Laura!)

"The challenge of the postmodern world is to get used to the idea of double standards. Among ourselves (the West) we operate on the basis of laws and open cooperative security. But when dealing with more old-fashioned kinds of states outside the postmodern continent of Europe, we need to revert to the rougher methods of an earlier era-- force, preemptive attack, deception, whatever is necessary to deal with those who still live in the 19th century world of every state for itself. Among ourselves, we keep the law, but when we're operating in the jungle, we must also use the laws of the jungle.
...The opportunities, perhaps even the need for colonization, is as great as it ever was in the 19th century. What is needed then is a new kind of imperialism, one acceptable to a world of human rights and cosmopolitan values."

-Robert Cooper, foreign policy advisor to Tony Blair, 2002.

"Run faster"
- inscribed on NATO bombs, Serbia 1999

To readers who found me through the write-up in the excellent Kyoto Journal advertising Sleepingthemountains as an intentionally apolitical blog - apologies. Cambodia has changed my mind.

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Monday, January 29, 2007

"Bat Country" - New Chapter!

"Bat Country" is the newest chapter in the Cambodia book.

The chapter takes place on Koh Rong, a large, mountainous and totally undeveloped island 2 hours by fishing boat from Sihanoukville. "Bat Country" describes the events of one of the more interesting days I've spent in Cambodia - a day that featured a sinking boat, 8 kilometers of deserted white sand beach, a raging thunderstorm, menacing drunks with hatchets, thousands of giant bats and lots of pooping outside. It's not a very philosophical chapter, but I hope it's entertaining and maybe even a bit suspenseful. Please comment if you've got the time and inclination!

"Bat Country" isn't up yet on my website, although close readers will recognize part of the story from "Notes from the Road."

Rain is falling for the first time in two weeks and I’m tent-bound with Ryan on the Southwest shore of Koh Rong Island. No sunset tonight, just a flyover of thousands of giant bats and now this building storm.


We’re really out there, camped in the middle of a sweeping eight kilometer curve of totally undeveloped white sand beach. The bats that flew overhead were big ones, with bodies the size of footballs and four-foot wingspans. We have one bottle of water, a package of ‘Best Tasted’ Vietnamese instant noodles and a whole case of Flying Horse Brand La La Choco Crisp Breakfast Cereal, produced here in Cambodia. We may not be well-provisioned, but at least we won’t starve.

Getting to this beach was a trip. The fishing boat we chartered yesterday took us as far as a row of shacks on the south shore, where we slept in the attic of the village chief. Dinner was whole fish boiled in lemon-grass broth, big bowls of rice, and scrambled eggs with onions. We ate with the chief, a thin man with congealed globs of black hair dye at his temples, who threw everything down in about five minutes, spitting chewed hunks of fish onto the floor for the cat.

The only decorations in this house are three posters tacked to the wall, all donated by various aid agencies. One shows cartoons of happy children washing their hands, another features a mother horrified to find her child playing with a dead chicken. The third promotes OK Condoms and shows a young couple sitting on a couch, the woman holding a TV remote and wearing the same knowing expression you see in makeup advertisements.

The amoebas colonizing my gut keep me awake during the night, thrashing with stomach pains under the mosquito net. At some point, I fall asleep, only to wake up again with the most urgent of needs. Hunched over and burping, I skulk downstairs in the dark, past the sleeping chief and his wife, through the kitchen and out back into the garden, where, fearful of snakes, I squat among the bananas under a full moon.


Before our dinner with the chief Ryan and I hiked up a logging trail in hopes that it might connect with the far side of the island. The trail wound through hacked brush along the shore before turning uphill at a shack with the words ‘COAST GARD AND POLICE POST” lettered on the wall.

The trail was steep and the dry jungle rang with the grating screams of insects. Rough-cut boards lay in clearings next to piles of sawdust. Here and there we came across snares set on fallen logs and baited with bits of fruit.

“I’m glad this is Cambodia.” said Ryan. “Illegal logging is a much bigger deal in Thailand. I wouldn’t feel safe walking up on a logger’s camp there. Here we know that the police are in on the business so whoever is doing this cutting can’t be worried about getting caught.”

Still, the signs of logging give us the jittery feeling of trespassing. The trail is now a dark tunnel, the jungle pressing in close on all sides, and the snares begin to seem like warnings of bigger traps ahead. Wiping sweat from my eyes, I hear something crashing through the brush ahead, accompanied by the shouts of men.

“ELEPHANT!” Ryan and I yell at the same time, falling over ourselves to get out of the way.

But we’re wrong. A massive male water buffalo lurches down the trail, straining against a load of boards. Three ragged young men follow behind, yelling at the buffalo and smacking it with sticks. All three are smoking cigarettes. They must be surprised to see us, but seem too worn out to react.

“Where are you going?” asks one of the loggers as his companions pass around a small bottle of menthol and take hard sniffs.

“To the sea,” says Ryan in Thai.

“This way, no go sea,” he replies, no doubt wondering what kind of idiot follows a trail UP a mountain and expects to reach the ocean.

So we follow them and the buffalo back down. Once, the boards get stuck on some roots and the men hit the buffalo until its eyes roll back in its head and with a mighty asshole-puckering jerk, it wrenches the load free.

Two men and a boat are waiting for the boards at the Coast Gard Post. Unhooked from its harness, the buffalo trudges into a pool of brackish water and lies there like a hippo, with only its eyes and snout showing above the surface.


In the morning I wake to the sound of Jingle Bells playing on the chief’s cell phone. Ryan is in high spirits.

“I met a kid who speaks good English,” he says. “He can take us out fishing and then drop us off on the far side of the island before the wind picks up. He said there are bungalows on the beach over there.”

“Great,” I say, trying to mean it, but wanting to groan. “When do we leave?”

“He needs a little time to get the boat ready. Maybe an hour?”

“Really great,” I mutter, then drag myself over to the chief and ask where the toilet might be.

“Mountain,” he replies through a mouthful of rice.

And so I sneak into the garden once more, trying to avoid eye contact with the women at work among the vegetables.


It was basically a situation where the boatman and his two friends had planned to take tourists on fishing trips, but never actually done it before. The three young men worked furiously to get an old long-tail boat seaworthy, patching cracks with gummy sealant, burning incense and arranging an offering of fruit and tea in the bow. A bunch of kids stood around watching, along with an overly friendly toothless drunk and a few older folks wearing a parental expression that I recognized well:

‘This is your project and we won’t interfere,” their faces said. ‘But we’ll be here to help if you get into trouble.’


With a heave ho we drag the long-tail into the sea. The bilge immediately fills with water.

“No problem,” says the boatman, bailing energetically while his friend takes off his shirt, tears it to pieces and stuffs the strips of cloth into the biggest cracks. The last thing to get attached is the long-tail motor, which looks like the corroded hulk of an old weed-whacker. The village mechanic carries it over his shoulder and straps it to the stern, handing the boatman an extra sparkplug. With incense smoke rising, we pile into the shabby little craft, feeling lucky to have left our computers and extra clothes in the headman’s attic.

Getting started is an adventure. The motor sputters, catches, sputters and dies as the boat slowly fills with water. The whole village gathers on the beach to watch the drama unfold, alternately yelling advice and shaking their heads. The boatman and his friends yank on the start cord and bail, but we just limp in circles around the harbor.

Finally the motor spins long enough to bring us alongside a squid boat. The captain is the friendly drunk with no teeth. His son strips off his clothes, swims over to our boat, fiddles with the motor, gets us going and then swims back to the squid boat again. The village waves and cheers and in a few moments, we’re out in the open sea.


Our boat is drifting in about ten meters of water halfway across the strait that separates Koh Rong from its sister island, Koh Rong Samloem. Big swells roll through the channel and the long-tail dips and rolls with the waves.

We fish with hand lines. Mine is wrapped around a motor oil container, rigged with four hooks and a heavy lead sinker. The fishing is easy but unexciting. We bait the hooks with bits of flesh, lower the rig to the bottom and haul up one small red fish after another, the same kind we ate for dinner with the chief last night.

The buckets in the bilge are overflowing with fish. The boatmen put away their hand lines and tuck into the fruit from the makeshift shrine in the bow. I wonder if eating the offering might be a bit rash, seeing how our motor needs to start again if we’re going to make it back to land, but when they offer me a banana, I chomp with sacrilegious relish.

After bobbing around for a while the swells start to pick up and we begin to drift beyond the strait and into the open ocean. The drunken squid boat captain comes out to see if we need any help, but our friends wave him away.

“We’re fine,” they say. “ We’re just going to drop the foreigners off around the bend and will be back home in time for lunch.”

The captain looks skeptical, but turns his boat around and chugs back towards the village.

Our motor does not start. It doesn’t even sputter. The waves are getting bigger. Next stop: Malaysia.

The boatman pulls at the start cord with vigor, but nothing doing, just a flat, dry, whir. We’re sinking lower and water is starting to pour in over the gunwales. The young man still wearing his shirt now takes it off and starts waving it around his head, hoping to call back the squid boat, which is now visible only when we rise to the crest of a wave.

Ryan and I calmly pack our important things in dry bags and get ready to swim. This is where we make a good team; neither of us is prone to panic – Ryan because he has experience, me because I have no common sense.

Praise be! The squid boat has seen the distress signal and is chugging on back. The captain leans over the side, grinning toothlessly as his son tosses us a rope. The young boatman and his two friends look glum as our little long-tail is towed back through the waves to the crowd waiting on the village beach.


The boatman and his friends ask us to wait on the stoop of a shack while they find the village mechanic. Sweet, earnest young men, they still want to take us around the bend, but the wind is starting to whip up whitecaps beyond the harbor. An old man with eyes that shine like torches emerges from the shadows of the shack and pours us cups of tea.

A crowd gathers. The mechanic arrives, removes our rusty weed-whacker and pronounces it toast. A new motor is produced, from the bottom of a scrap pile by the looks of it, and after a few yanks on the starter cord and some well placed whacks with a wrench, it growls to life, nearly decapitating a puppy that was sniffing at the blades.

The mechanic shrugs, straps on the new motor and, to my relief, comes with us in the boat this time, expertly steering through the swells and around the southwest tip of the island.

“There are bungalows where we’re going?’ I ask the boatman.

“Yes,” he says. “I think so.”

Bungalow…the word was alive with possibility. Could we be about to stumble across a secret beach resort, one with showers and fruit smoothies and topless French girls drinking cold champagne? Tonight, perhaps, might we drift asleep between cotton sheets, listening to the soft strum of a guitar and the sound of waves…

We round the corner and see a great curve of trackless white sand backed by coconut palms. At the far end of the beach a mountain looms over the sea with a few huts tucked against its base.

“Village,” says the boatman.

“And the bungalows?” I ask hopefully.

“Bungalows here,” he says, pointing to the shore.

Sure enough, a bit of jungle has been cleared at the near end of the beach. And there are indeed bungalows, or bungalow to be more accurate, as only one appears finished. A group of workmen are hammering away at the frames of two others. Smoke rises from a pile of cut brush. The mechanic shouts for the boatman to drop anchor.

“I’ll swim ashore and see what the deal is,” says Ryan, who grabs the dry bag, jumps over the side and splashes through the heavy surf.

The boatman, his friends and the mechanic follow, tying the long-tail off to a coconut palm and leaving me alone with our bags.

The workmen have come down to the beach and everyone seems deep in conversation, when suddenly the rope holding me to shore snaps and the boat swings wildly in the waves.

“Ryan!” I yell. “Dry bag! DRY BAG!”

He plunges into the surf, followed by the mechanic and the frantic young boatmen. With the boat pitched to one side, I snatch the bag from Ryan’s hands, stuff it full of gear, hand $15 to one of the young men and jump overboard.

The mechanic pulls hard on the starter cord as the boat dips dangerously under a wave, but when I drag myself onto the beach and turn around, the little long-tail and its hapless crew are already chugging back around the bend.

“They’re going to think twice about taking tourists out next time,” I say, checking that the camera equipment and our wallets are dry.

“What did the guys building the bungalows tell you?”

“Well,” said Ryan, water dripping from his clothes. “They weren’t unfriendly. But we can’t stay here. That was very clear. They want us to go down the beach.”

I smiled at the four workmen. They were holding machetes. One was missing an arm.

“Hello,” I said.

“Hello,” one of them replied. He wasn’t smiling.

“Well,” I said, trying to sound cheerful. “I guess we’ll go that way.”


What a beach. It wasn’t spotlessly clean, because flotsam had drifted up to the high tide line, but the sand was so white that we couldn’t look down at it without wincing. Pale crabs skittered into the surf in terror as we walked along in a sort of daze, sand squeaking under our feet.

The land in back of the beach was flat, and here and there languid streams of freshwater pooled up against the dunes. We stopped for a drink in the shade of a coconut palm, ate a packet of dry ramen, and tried some of the Choco Crisps, which were delicious, in a sugary factory produced sort of way, but not exactly filling. Out over the bay, a sea eagle hovered over the green water, plunged like a stone, and emerged with a long, silver fish in its talons.

“Why don’t we have any of the fish we caught this morning?” Ryan asked.

“Because we were too busy wondering if the boat was about to sink,” I said.

“Bummer. Fish would taste good.”

I ate another package of Choco Crisps and considered our situation.

“We have a whole case of chocolate munchies, an empty beach and all the time in the world. Remind me why I threw out all the marijuana again?”

“I think it’s better not to smoke here,” said Ryan. “I’m going to catch some fish.”

He swam out into the bay with a hand-line and snorkel while I followed the dictates of the amoebas. He didn’t catch anything.


We walk up the beach for hours without seeing any sign of human presence, just a whining chainsaw in the distance and the scraggly huts of the village at the far end of the bay to remind us that other people live here.

Not wanting to camp too close to the village, we pause at the midpoint of the bay and pitch the tent under a sea-pine just above the high tide mark. Someone has camped here before, and left a ring of charcoal at the base of the tree. Maybe this beach isn’t quite as deserted as we thought after all…another pine has a hand-lettered sign nailed to its trunk with a few lines of Cambodian script and two phone numbers.

“Does that says Land for Sale?” I wonder.

“I think it says Trespassers Will be Shot,” Ryan replies.


At first I thought the winged creatures flying overhead were birds, an epic migration of ravens perhaps, but as they drew closer there was no mistaking their furry oval bodies and broad leathery wings. These bats were huge and there were literally thousands of them. The first wave passed over as dusk began to fall and for twenty minutes they filled the sky. When the last one flapped by it was dark and a light rain had begun to fall.

Hunkered down in the tent, writing by headlamp, we feel the air begin to charge with the crackling energy of the approaching storm.

“Let’s move the tent,” says Ryan. “We’re too exposed right on the beach.”

“We’ll be fine,” I whine, lazy. “Everything’s staked down.”

Ryan shakes his head. “I really think we should move.”

But at that moment the storm hits, cutting off all possibility of breaking camp. Rain whips against the tent and thunder rolls across the bay as we shiver in the dark, sort of crouched apprehensively, nerves on edge. I believe ‘cowering’ is the right word.

The thunder moves closer and closer until - BOOOOM - a crack like a gunshot splits the air with a burst of lightning right on top of it and we both scream and hit the floor of the tent. For a few minutes the rain comes down as hard as ever, then slackens.

We lie back on the tent floor like heroin junkies relaxing after a big hit.

“First giant bats, then a lightning strike,” I say. “What’s next, a zombie army?”

This was when we heard the voices.


Four men, coming down the beach from the direction of the village. It’s pitch dark but we can hear them – they sound wired, or maybe drunk, the rain is still coming down and in a flash of lightning we can see our visitors, black shapes on the beach, looking down at our tent. They approach, standing on our doorstep as it were, and I fumble for the door zipper, stick my head out in the general area of their knees and say “Hello” in what I hope is an upbeat ‘Howdy Neighbor’ sort of voice.

A massive flash of blue lightning suddenly illuminates the whole scene and every last bit of adrenaline I have left rushes into my veins.

“He has an axe in his hand,” says Ryan, in a curious, abstract sort of voice, as if he were pointing out an unusually large gecko, or an albino cow and not a GLEAMING SHARP METAL EDGE BEING HELD SIX INCHES FROM MY NOSE ON A DESERTED CAMBODIAN BEACH DURING A THUNDERSTORM.

I squat into what I hope is a defensive position, shifting onto my toes, ready to dodge, or bolt through the door if necessary, but believe me, its hard to feel ready for action when you’re half naked and crouching at the feet of a potential axe murderer.

The men are definitely drunk. One of them says something in Khmer. “OK,” I reply, and after a few more attempts at conversation, they continue down the beach in the rain. Ryan takes out his Leatherman and opens the blade as we try to decide whether – rationally speaking – we should fear for our lives.

“I don’t think they’re dangerous,” says Ryan.

“Yeah. Neither do I. But this is the kind of thing it’s nice to be 100% certain about.”

“We could leave the tent and hide in the jungle,” he suggests.

“But it’s still raining.”

“Get wet or get hacked to pieces?”

“I thought you said they aren’t dangerous.”

“Well, probably. But we are in a vulnerable position. And they’re definitely drunk.”

“Who walks up to a tent in the middle of a thunderstorm brandishing an axe!” I moan. “It’s not very considerate! And where the hell could they possibly be going?”

“We’re probably fine,” says Ryan. “If they wanted to rob us they would have done it already. Unless they’re waiting for us to go to sleep of course.”

“You were right,” I say. “I’m glad I didn’t bring the marijuana. It would have been death by paranoia.”

We stay in the tent. Large crabs creep and rustle in the underbrush, sometimes brushing up against the tent wall and sounding exactly like a person sneaking around on tip-toe.

It wasn’t the best night of sleep I’ve ever enjoyed.

Like this true story? Check out

Photos from Koh Rong!

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Sunday, January 28, 2007

Where is the Oil?

A good friend recently asked me why I haven't written anything about the oil fields that are set for development off the Cambodian coast. It's a good question. I came here with the intention of framing the 'Lost Coast' travelogue against the backdrop of certain development at the hands of companies like Chevron and China National Offshore Oil Company. So far that background is mostly blank.

The problem is that even though oil will no doubt play THE major role in determining the future of this corner of the world, it isn't tangible yet. The story doesn't smell, at least not on the island beaches, or up river in the jungle. The fate of the Lost Coast is being determined in boardrooms and exclusive restaurants, in Beijing office buildings and on New York stock market tickers, in places impossible for an outsider to gain access.

The Cambodians who I ask about oil talk about how fuel is so much more expensive here than in neighboring Thailand. Foreigners are not much better - they've heard the rumors, but write it off as something impossible to influence and therefore better to ignore. This ignorance, acceptance and passivity is the story. But it's very difficult to tell.

The closest I've come to those who deal in Cambodian oil is one phone number of an importer of gourmet foods in Phnom Penh. "He knows the oil people," the bartender who gave me the number said. "He's doing a hell of a business shipping them steaks."

I also want to be extremely careful to maintain, if not objectivity, at least impartiality. Oil companies are not inherently evil. Neither are plastic bags, motors or Cambodian politicians. I own stock in major multi-national mining companies. I am part of the system.

But I do know that The Lost Coast of Cambodia is changing fast and that the presence of oil will speed these changes along. The things I'm seeing now will soon disappear, and that alone is reason enough to make this project worthwhile.

If you haven't already, please visit my NEW WEBSITE at

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Saturday, January 27, 2007

Publicity for Hokkaido's Dying Coal Towns

This well written article in the New York Times gives a good overview of the problems facing former coal towns in the Hokkaido mountains. I lived for two years in Utashinai, which is practically a ghost town now that the mines have closed. The article is a good counterweight to Japan's image as a shiny modern wonderland, and the pictures of snow and desolation sure make me feel lucky to have escaped the Hokkaido winter!


Thursday, January 25, 2007

Christmas in Cambodia (Scene 2)

"No Bye-Bye After Boom-Boom"

In a town where most visitors are looking to sleep with teenage girls and/or buy marijuana by kilo, it’s important to find the right place to stay. Our port in the storm is Otto’s Guesthouse, a wooden house built on stilts in the Khmer style to protect against floods in rainy season.

Finding a moto-taxi driver willing to take us to the guesthouse is difficult, because Otto refuses to pay drivers a commission for delivering customers. An older driver in dusty clothes finally agrees to take us to Otto’s, where we arrive to find four balding European men silently smoking cigarettes in the sitting room, along with one buck-toothed young prostitute in a shiny red tube-top and an ancient white-haired lady in a wheel chair, who turns out to be Otto’s 90 year old mother. Hearty German Christmas carols boom from a dusty stereo, turned up too loud for conversation. I feel as if Ryan and I are crashing a Bavarian family reunion – one that was already plenty awkward before we arrived. A man with leathery skin and piercing blue eyes moves aside to make room on the sofa.

“Thanks,” I say. “Merry Christmas.”

“Christianity does not convince me,” he replies.


I leave Ryan to hold down the fort at Otto’s and set out to score a bag of weed. It’s getting toward sundown and a stiff breeze shakes the coconut palms along the riverfront. Moto drivers pull alongside and ask me where I want to go, but it’s pleasant to walk and I wave them away.

Three Westerners at a bar by the ferry dock shout for me to join them. It seems like a good place to ask about vice, so I pull up a chair and ask a shirtless man with a huge tattoo of a snake on his shoulder if he has any ganja.

“Oi!” bellows Mr. Snake, and a Thai woman in tight designer jeans and a sparkly black tank top strides over. “What you want now?” she asks.

“Go down to the corner and pick up some smoke for this gentleman, ” he says, tossing her the keys to a shiny Honda Dream motorbike

She shoots her husband a look like daggers and peels off, swerving around a solitary cow.

“My wife will be back soon,” Mr. Snake tells me. “The weed here is mostly shit, but at least it’s cheap. The rolling paper is the most expensive part of the joint.”

“Is it safe to smoke outside?”

“Well, don’t blow it in a cops face, but yeah, you shouldn’t have a problem. The Khmers use ganja for cooking and can’t understand why we like to smoke the stuff. Eventually the police will learn there’s money to be made by busting foreigners, but it hasn’t happened yet.”

“Great fookin’ cuntry, Cambodia,” burps the sunburned man to my left in a beery Scottish burr. “I meant to stay for a day and I’ve been here two weeks. Great fookin’ cuntry.”

Another Honda Dream pulls up to the curb and I look to see if Mr. Snake’s wife has returned. Instead, it's a thin Vietnamese man with high cheek bones and, sitting side-saddle behind him, a beautiful woman in her early twenties with glossy black hair, red lips and downcast eyes. The pimp dismounts and makes a big show of slapping everyone on the back.

“Merry Christmas! Yeah!” He turns to the sunburned Scot. “You like same lady tonight? Yeah!”

Mr. Snake and the other tourist lean forward as if anticipating a cherished scene from their favorite movie. The Scot glances sideways at the prostitute, who stands by the bike. “Well, last night she fucked off, see,” he tells the pimp. “Kept sending text messages to her boyfriend. I don’t want her if she’s gonna fuck off again. But if she wants to stay…”

“Yeah! She want to stay!”

“No Fuck-Off Bye-Bye after Boom-Boom,” explains Mr. Snake. “You understand?”

“Yeah!” says the pimp, sending a few sharp words at the prostitute, who comes over and sits down, shoulders hunched, hands folded in her lap, between The Scot and Mr. Snake.

“See, she’s not happy,” says The Scot. “She’s going to fuck-off again. I need TLC, not just Boom-Boom. I’m a sensitive man.”

This last comment sends Mr. Snake and his friend into stitches.

“TLC! Tender Loving Care. TLC like this!”

The two shirtless men demonstrate for the confused pimp, giving each other long whimpering hugs.

“Sugar bunny. My sweetie. Honey pie. I love you.”

The Scot gets red under his sunburn.

“Forget it, not tonight.”

“You tell me what kind of lady you like and I bring for you,” says the pimp irritably, rocking on his toes with nervous energy.

“A companion!” chortles Mr. Snake. “He wants a lover!”

The woman looks fixedly down at her fake fingernails.

“Not tonight,” says the Scot quietly. “Not tonight.”

The pimp tells her to get up and they zoom away on his bike. Mr. Snake’s wife comes back with a packet of marijuana. I pay her $5 and, instead of going back to Otto’s, turn left and walk along the river for a while.

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Monday, January 22, 2007

Announcing the Debut of!

My new website is up and running thanks to the patience of Ryan Libre and lots of help from the professionals at Strangecode hosting in Chico, California. Burning incense and chanting over the wireless router in Sihanoukville can't have hurt either.

Be the first - and I mean the very first - to check out and tell me what you think!

A new site won't mean the death of this blog - at least not right away. Expect frequent posts over the next month, which I'll spend with a pot of tea and my laptop in the Starfish Cafe in Sihanoukville, writing the Cambodia book.

Impoverished farmers are marching through the heat and dust on the new road to Koh Kong to ask for land from the provincial government. Ryan and I are setting out on bikes this afternoon to meet them. Last week, our big story was joining a Cambodian-American man who fled the Khmer Rouge for his first trip back to his village in 33 years. Poignancy, awkwardness and hope.

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Monday, January 15, 2007


My Bhutan Guide is finally posted on Gordon did a great job formatting the piece, and in a total shocker, it's already been translated into Russian at So that's cool.

So far the Cambodia Story is mostly about giant bats and axe murderers. Ryan and I are both well.

I've spent much of the last week building a shiny new "dot com" site that will eventually replace this blog. It's not up yet, but watch this space.

More Cambodia photos are up on

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Cambodia Update

Up River in the Cardamom Mountains, SW Cambodia

Photo by Ryan Libre

Ryan and I have made it to back to civilization a little ahead of schedule. After weeks of sharing a tent and subsisting on dry noodles and rainwater on deserted island beaches, it's bliss to take a cold shower, sleep in a bed with sheets and hang out in the guesthouse garden like we're doing now, working on our laptops and listening to chickens squabble across the way.

Someone wise once defined adventure as "discomfort improperly recalled." We've had lots of adventure. Most of the story is still jotted in ragged notebooks, but I'm in the process of transcribing everything onto my computer. Chapters are taking shape and characters emerging, but the only bit that I've polished is the first chapter, Christmas in Cambodia, which covers only our first night in country.

I'll post excerpts to the blog as steadily as possible over the next few months as the book develops. The trouble is that Cambodia is a complicated place, overflowing with ugliness and beauty, a riot of emotion all mixed up and confused. I hope Ryan's photos and my writing will be true to the place and fair to the characters involved, but please keep in mind that the unfinished pieces you see on this blog don't reflect the whole picture. This is my first experience of making a book, and I hope that watching the process unfold on this blog will give Loyal Readers a window into the creative process as everything coalesces.

I feel very lucky to travel and work with Ryan Libre, not only because he takes gorgeous photos, but because I can't think of anyone else who could stay calm and cheerful while drifting out to sea on a sinking boat with a broken motor, or when trying to decide if we should fear for our lives as drunken men with hatchets circle our tent late at night during a raging thunderstorm. Please click here to see Ryan's photos from Week One, in and around Koh Kong town.

These are direct links to a few of Ryan's photos that I think are particularly good.

Me talking with a squid fisherman one morning in Koh Kong

A fresh coat of paint, Cham Muslim village south of Koh Kong

Pool Sharks, Koh Kong

Showing off diplomas, Smach Ngam village outside Koh Kong

The first scene of the very first chapter is posted below. It involves a Cambodian immigration officer extorting money and then explaining that he must overcharge for visas because the Cambodian government is corrupt. I've tried to be as honest as possible, even about subjects like drugs and prostitution, which will appear in future scenes and might disturb some readers (Hi Mom!). Comments are welcome - I especially want to hear if the dialogue sounds natural.


Christmas in Cambodia (Scene 1)



(Scene 1, Officer Wife-Beater)

Fishing villages and shrimp farms cling to a narrowing slice of land as Highway 318 winds East from Bangkok, until the looming hills on our left pinch off the beach entirely and all that is left of Thailand is a parking lot on a bluff over the sea. Touts jog to the Minibus, pressing themselves to the windows when they see our faces – “Hello, Where You Go My Friend? Tonight Pussy Fuck!”

We walk to the border post. The Cambodian immigration officer is wearing a wife-beater, sweating in his bare concrete office. I put $40 on the desk. The official visa fee is 20 American dollars.

“For both of us.”

“No.” he says. “You pay baht. 1000 baht.” He wants the equivalent of $27.

“$20.” I say, smiling. “$20 dollars at Siem Reap. $20 at Phnom Penh, $20 at Poipet, $20 here.”

“You pay 1000 Thai baht each,” he flatly replies.

“Here,” I say. “Dollars for you.”

“You pay 1000 baht each,” he answers. “No passport photo? 100 baht ($2.70) more.”


“OK, you go. Outside. You go.”

We go outside and wait, wondering if it will cost us 1000 baht to see our passports again, but in ten minutes Officer Wife-Beater summons us back into his stuffy office.

“$20 and 100 baht from each of you and 100 baht for no photo.”

We hand over the money and Officer Wife-Beater instantly becomes more friendly.

“Why do you come here?” he asks.

“We work for a newspaper in America,” says Ryan, stretching the truth. “We come to write an article about tourism in Cambodia.”

“For the New York Times,” I add, lying through my teeth, because I’m still salty about paying extra money and want to make this guy think his blatant corruption just ruined a chance at big publicity.

Somehow the bluff seems to work, because Officer Wife-Beater leans over the desk and begins to speak in earnest tones. No one else is waiting in the visa line.

“You want to understand Cambodia?” he asks. “Do you understand Cambodian politics? Corruption, this is one thing you must understand. Yes, the visa fee is $20. But my salary is only $30 a month. And for this office, for my travel, when I go back to Phnom Penh, all this money, I must pay. From the government, nothing. So an extra 100 baht is money for me, you understand? Money for my family.”

He stands to shake our hands. “Please enjoy your stay in my country. When you come back, put 900 baht in your passport and give it straight to me. No problem.”

He is still standing as we walk through the gauntlet of begging children and enter Cambodia.

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