Sunday, February 25, 2007

Hatchet Jack

The following section of the Lost Coast chronicle is fiction. Some of the conversation happened, some didn't, and the character of Jack is an amalgamation of various people we met in Cambodia. Jack is "Hatchet Jack," the notorious ax murderer/bar owner of Koh Kong, a character I wanted to expand. Since some people we met asked us not to quote them about things like drugs and smuggling, I put the words in Jack's mouth instead. Nothing like libeling a murderer.

In the evening the eccentric family atmosphere at Otto’s is shattered by the arrival of the ugliest man I have ever seen. He is German, about 50 years old, with thin scabby legs and a belly that flops over his belt. His face resembles a bloated pig carcass, covered in purple blotches.

“No salt in my food!” Herr Pig Face orders the teenage girl in pajamas who brings him a menu. “No salt! Understand? You, understand? Answer me! No salt in my food!”

The girl escapes to the kitchen. Herr Pig Face glowers, muttering to himself in German. The air in the room is charged with loathing. Ryan and I share a silent ‘Yikes’ moment and go back out to the darkening street.

Five small children in dirty clothes fall into step behind us. A minute ago they were laughing, but now they let their faces fall and their eyes go slack. They point to their mouths and mumble “10 baht, 10 baht Mister, 10 baht.”

We walk faster.

Suddenly three wiry dogs rush at us from the side, teeth-bared, noses crinkled, eyes wide and rolling, blocking our path. We stop dead in our tracks and the street kids seize the chance to surround us, grasping and murmuring insistently. The biggest boy reaches for my pocket and I almost slap him.

“Do you hear that?” Ryan asks.

I listen. Above the wind, somewhere beyond the growling dogs and begging children there is music, distorted and faint but unmistakable – here on this back street of a Cambodian backwater, we’re listening to the Star Spangled Banner, Jimi Hendrix on electric guitar. Peering through the gloom, I can just make out a small shingle hanging from an iron gate with the word BAR scrawled on it in faint block letters. The gate leads into a garden and deep in the shadows within we can make out the glow of a fire. This is where the music is coming from. Ryan pulls open the creaky gate and we step inside. The street kids scatter and the dogs trot off, tails held stiff over their backs.

In the back of the garden by the fire one white man sits alone behind a bamboo bar. He is rack thin, with stringy hair that hangs down to his shoulders and a weeks growth of beard. Hendrix is screaming his guitar through the end of the anthem…And The Rockets…. Red Glare…The Bombs… Bursting… In Air… The thin man stares at us for a long time as we approach, then breaks his gaze away and starts hacking, his sunken chest flexing with each dry cough. Catching his breath, he motions for us to sit down. The anthem screeches to an end and out of the silence, a gecko chirrups four times.

“Whiskey,” the bartender rasps. “Whiskey or beer?”

We order beer. He reaches down into a cooler, places two cans of Angkor on the bar and holds our eyes. His pupils are totally dilated, like black pools in an underground river, and I realize that this man is stoned beyond all anxieties. Every movement and reaction he makes comes slow, with great deliberation and no trace of nerves. Only his coughs were jerky and uncontrolled, but the hacking fit is over now. With a sigh he turns his neck to one side and hawks a wad of phlegm into the fire-pit, then takes two glasses from a shelf and places them next to the cans of beer. I pour too quickly and foam spills over the lip of the glass. The three of us watch the beer puddle on the bar for what seems like a very long time.

“So,” says the bartender in a flat tone. “Who are you? Why are you here?”

“We’re staying at Otto’s,” I babble, unsure how to answer. “My name’s Tim. I’m from America.”

“And I’m from California,” says Ryan, who considers his home state to be separate and superior to America at large. “We’re traveling along the coast.”

“Healthy...young…sane…Americans. Traveling along the coast.”

The bartender considers, tilting his head back. Suddenly, as if making a snap decision, he shoots his hand across the bar for us to shake.

“I’m Jack. You boys smoke?”

“We’re set for now.”

Jack grins and makes a noise halfway between a laugh and a snort. He leans back, takes a cookie tin from the shelf and sets it down in front of us.

“Open that up,” he says.

The cookie tin is packed dense with marijuana, layers of tight green buds, not just dried leaves and stems. On top is a plastic bag filled with small pink pills. Jack picks up this bag and taps out the pills into his palm.

“You guys have heard of yabba, right?”

I have. Yabba means “crazy medicine” in Thai. It’s a synthetic methamphetamine, a highly addictive sort of speed.

“People make it out to be hardcore shit,” says Jack. “But yabba is actually pretty mild. This is locally produced, not Burmese. I took some just a few minutes before you guys came. I’m a little wired but that’s it. Normal.”

It’s not hot, but Jack is sweating.

“Beer is all good for me tonight,” I say, trying to sound casual. With another giggly snort, Jack returns the drugs to the cookie tin.

“So you’re going down the coast,” he says. “Sihanoukville?“

“Eventually,” says Ryan. “But first we want to explore around here for a while, then go out to the islands. Koh Sdach. Koh Rong.”

Jack nods.

“You’ll want to be careful in those parts. Koh Sdach is a major smuggling center. The boss of the island is Thai and I’m sure he’s mixed up in it. If you find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time you could get…in serious trouble.”

Jack shivers his shoulders as if shaking a spider off the back of his neck.

“Don’t let me scare you though. Nice boys like you will be fine. There are two ways to survive here. One way is to keep your head down and not get mixed up in anything. And the other…”

Jack leans in close over the bar, sweating, so close I can smell him. His dark eyes gleam in the firelight.

“The other way is to go just a little…crazy. Then the Khmers respect you. Then they leave you alone.”

A long pause. Our glasses are empty. Jack stares into space, breathing slow. Ryan and I each put a dollar on the bar and leave the garden. The street is empty and dogs howl in the distance.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Anlong Veng Border Crossing

Sometimes when you start moving it's hard to stop - Ryan and I had planned to ease our way across NE Thailand, but yesterday we just kept catching buses until one dropped us in Chiang Mai at 4 in the morning.

We crossed into Thailand from Anlong Veng, where Pol Pot died of old age. There isn't much information about this crossing available online - so here are a few tips.

First off - the crossing is about 16 kilometers North of town on top of a ridge. The road is in great shape, new pavement, built by the Thais. A fair moto-price would be around $3 or 100 baht. The last bit is a steep climb.

A new border post on the main road is not yet finished - for now immigration is on a dirt track. This is the quietest border I've ever crossed. No touts, no beggars, nothing but a couple of sheds and chirping birds. No onward transportation either, which was a somewhat disconcerting surprise. Apparently pick-up taxis are around sometimes, but we ended up getting a ride from the Thai immigration officer.

Pol Pot's old house is up near the border, but my guide told me that he really lived 10 km inside Thailand, a fact which just about everyone has an interest in keeping hush-hush.

Brak Sareth is an Anlong Veng moto-driver who speaks excellent English. His phone number is 012-182-0503.


Wednesday, February 21, 2007

"The Beauty of Compassion" - New article at Matador Travel

The Beauty of Compassion is a profile of a grassroots NGO in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. It's my first contribution to, an online community of passionate travelers.

"The Beauty of Compassion"

A muscular man without legs drags himself down a beach. He stops to rest in the shade of a beach umbrella and lights a cigarette from a pack of Marlboros, using messily amputated fingers.

Behind the beggar, a young woman in a red bikini reclines on a pillowed beach chair, sipping from a tall draft of Anchor beer. Before long she finishes her beer, gets up, walks past the legless man, goes into a shed with computers and types out an e-mail to her friend back home. “Cambodia is wonderful,“ she writes. “We’re all having the BEST time!”

Welcome to “Snookyville,” Cambodia’s beach boom town, where sex is cheap, beer is cheaper and property values have sky-rocketed in the past few years. Most people come to Sihanoukville for one of two reasons – to relax and have a good time, or to make money. Doing either of these things well in a country as lawless as Cambodia necessitates - how shall I put this - a certain tunnel vision.

To fully appreciate Sihanoukville’s sunny skies, mango smoothies, cheap drugs, twinkling blue waters, fresh seafood or teenage prostitutes requires the remarkable ability to tune out desperate poverty and social injustice. Unless you’re one of the poor people, of course, in which case you’re no doubt preoccupied with trying to feed your family and send your kids to school.

But wait. There’s a catch.

The thing is, the young woman typing that e-mail was right – Cambodia really is a place of wonders. Focus too hard on the ugliness, and you risk succumbing to an equally dangerous form of tunnel vision, going numb to the possibility of beauty.

Continue Reading "The Beauty of Compassion


Sunday, February 18, 2007

"My Heart is Very Tired - New Lost Coast Chapter!"

"My Heart is Very Tired" is the newest addition to the Lost coast project. The story features a young woman named Socheat who Ryan and I met in Koh Kong, and Socheat's mother, one of the few educated Cambodians to survive the Khmer Rouge period.


Friday, February 16, 2007

Free Wireless Internet in Siem Reap Cambodia

Here are three places with free wireless in Siem Reap.

- Two Dragons Guesthouse - clean but slightly pricey rooms with a tasty but slightly pricey restaurant. Just off Wat Bo road next to Home Sweet Home Guesthouse. Two Dragons is run by Gordon, the mastermind of

- The Singing Tree Cafe - a community center and family friendly garden restaurant, also just off Wat Bo one block up from the Butterfly Garden. The Singing Tree has yoga and meditation workshops, great healthy food and a lounge upstairs with 55 pillows and a whole library of intriguing movies - lots of documentaries. But the wireless didn't work for me yesterday.

- The Blue Pumpkin - White walls, white cushions, white chairs, white tables, white flowers in white vases on the white tables - the Blue Pumpkin wouldn't be out of place in Miami or Milan. The food is wicked expensive but pretty tasty and there are plenty of outlets for your computer. Find the Pumpkin downtown near the Old Market.


Thursday, February 15, 2007

"I'm on vacation"


“I don’t want to see poverty,” acknowledged Helen Murphy, 66, of St. Paul, who was shopping in the tourist market one morning. “I’m on vacation. I don’t want to think that these people don’t have enough to eat.”

The above quote is from a revealing article in the NYT this morning about tourism in Haiti - that's right, Haiti, the same country where UN troops are battling gangsters in fetid slums. Tourism in Haiti, for the moment, means heavily guarded resorts that cater to cruise ships.

Enjoying your stay in a desperately poor country like Haiti or Cambodia necessitates a sort of callous tunnel vision. It's obscene to sip wine in an expensive restaurant while children pick through garbage on the street outside. Still, tourism deserves a lot of credit for enabling Cambodians to build a better life. Poor countries need money. Tourists bring money. But man, it sure is ugly sometimes.

I've been giving a lot of thought to this issue lately - a soon-to-be-published article on will explore it in more depth. Can anyone suggest authors who confront the "holiday in hell" problem head on?


Monday, February 12, 2007

Goodbye Sihanoukville, Hello Siem Reap

The new Sihanoukville Airport is starting service between Siem Reap and the coast, but I'm still on a bus budget. Phnom Penh tonight, then on to Siem Reap tomorrow, where I'll once again reunite with Ryan.

The Cambodia's Lost Coast page is looking hot on my new website. Take a look!


Cambodia Island Development - Article in the Bangkok Post

The following is from the Feb 10 edition of the Bangkok Post.


Cambodia to open islands to tourists

Phnom Penh (dpa) - Cambodia's pristine islands are to be the focus of a new government push to attract developers and broaden the base of the country's growing tourism market, local media reported Sunday.

The English-language Cambodia Weekly quoted Tourism Ministry secretary of state Thon Khon as saying the 61 mostly untouched islands had been identified by the government as ideal development and investment opportunities...

continue reading this article


Sunday, February 11, 2007

Matador Travel - Social Networks for a Passionate World

The idea of online communities has always creeped me out a little bit. Life happens in the real world, not on a glowing screen. How wierd and pathetic, I thought, for people to get sucked into an online fantasy and never leave the house.

In the past few months I've changed my mind. I'm now registered on two networking sites, and Virtual valentines that cost real money still strike me as peurile and disturbing, but I don't feel as if I'm living in a fantasy world when I read a Matador article about, say, enlightened surf bums in Mexico. Instead, I'm connecting with a real person doing really cool things in the real world. I'm in Cambodia. He's in Mexico. Matador is a few hard-working guys in San Francisco. And we can have a conversation.


The Matador Vision -

"Travel is a vehicle for uniting individual voices, minds and ideas. As travelers, we are, in a sense, freelance ambassadors; not only do we return with stories of other cultures and ways of life, but we also share our own culture and ways of life with the people we meet along the way. We at Matador believe this exchange is essential to bringing about positive development in our rapidly changing world."

Click HERE to go to the Matador mainpage.


Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Common Language Project - Journalism's New Frontier

I usually get my news from the New York Times or the BBC, both fine media organizations with well designed web sites and good international coverage. The problem with big media, though, is that the human element of news is often lost behind the headlines. Sure, it's important to know that a truck bomb destroyed a market in the middle of Baghdad a few days ago, but what reporter is going to go back to the bombsite a year later, spend a week with a family that was victimized by the blast, and tell the story of their recovery?

This disconnect between headlines and ordinary people is the gap that the Common Language Project is designed to bridge. The CLP website has been up and running for more than a year now, featuring award winning, on-the-ground reportage from places like Kolkata brothels, Cambodian minefields and Pakistan's NW frontier.

From the CLP website -

"We believe that the best stories are told from the bottom up, not the top down, and seek out people working on the ground and those directly affected by the issues, not bureaucrats and politicians, as our primary sources."

Write on.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

A Thief in the Night

Last night I woke up with a thief in my room. The fan was on and I was deep in dream land. If Ryan hadn't woken up, I would have kept snoring while computers, cameras, cash and passports went into the booty-bag, and you would be reading a very unhappy blog post right now.

We're staying on the second floor of the guesthouse. The hall outside is open to the garden. A tall fence studded with broken glass separates the garden from the street outside.

As it was, Ryan was having trouble sleeping last night. He was up adjusting his mosquito net just 2 minutes before the thief crept inside and started rummaging through our things. The next minute went something like this:

1) Ryan bolts out of bed, yells, throws off his mosquito net.

2) I wake up, see a figure charging out the door, Ryan's naked white ass close behind.

3) I start yelling. Not screaming. Yelling.

4) Ryan is one step behind the thief as he runs down to the end of the hall.

5) The thief jumps over the ledge. Ryan gets a hand on his shirt, but gravity pulls him free. It's a long fall. Maybe 15 feet onto concrete. Somehow (adrenaline? meth?) the thief keeps going, climbs up the fence and races off down the street.

6) The owner of the Guesthouse, a tall, easy going Frenchman, charges out the front gate and runs down the street. Unfortunately, he's wearing flip-flops. The thief gets away.

7) Guests and staff filter sleepy-eyed into the garden. Ryan realizes he's naked and puts pants on. We check our belongings - nothing is missing, not even the traveler's checks that were in my pack, which I left outside the room on a chair in the hallway.

We were lucky. Nothing was stolen and the thief ran when Ryan chased him instead of pulling a knive. And, in a way, I'm glad he got away. To jump off a second story ledge, vault over a fence and still outrun a pissed off Frenchman is a feat worthy of respect. More importantly, I wouldn't wish Cambodian prison on my worst enemy.

Now if my laptop had been stolen...well...I might not be so generous.


Friday, February 02, 2007


Three years ago I ate lunch with Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and one of the chief architects of the Vietnam War. An old man used to being the smartest guy in the room, Mr. McNamara was at Williams College to explain why he and other policy makers took America to war in Vietnam.

After a dessert of blueberries and vanilla ice cream, we walked over to the lecture hall, where Mr. McNamara delivered a speech to a full house, then opened the floor to questions.

An upper classman rose and asked for the microphone.

"How does it feel," he asked, "to be one of the biggest murderers of the 20th century?"

The hall went silent.

The old man considered.

"Well," he began.

"I don't think I am. I made mistakes. That's why I'm standing here today. But in light of how we understood the world at the time, I did the best I could. So did everyone else. We were wrong about a lot of things, with tragic results. But I don't feel that I'm a murderer."


After a few more questions, Mr. McNamara excused himself. The crowd filed out onto the quad. I raced across campus to meet a friend from Vermont who was coming to visit with his father. I was running late.

They were waiting in the parking lot, my friend leaning against the bumper of an aging blue Subaru. His Dad, an obese Vietnam war veteran with sad eyes and a long white beard, drank coffee in the driver’s seat with the engine running.

“Sorry I’m late,” I said as we shook hands. “I was at a talk with Robert McNamara.”

“McNamara,” my friend said. “Don’t let my Dad hear that name. He would go right over to the lecture hall and rip that bastard’s head off.


I sympathize with my friend’s father, who served as an army medic in Vietnam. But I also believe that Mr. McNamara deserves great respect for devoting the last years of his life to examining the conduct of America at War.

In a recent documentary called "The Fog of War" the former Defense Secretary admits that he and his associates could have been charged with war crimes for acts such as the widespread use of napalm in Southeast Asia, or the fire bombing of Japanese cities.

I admire Mr. McNamara for his courage. He is a profoundly decent man. It is refreshing to hear a senior American official admit to mistakes.

But 'refreshing' does not do much for the millions - millions - of Asian men, woman and children who died - and who continue to suffer and die - as a direct result of 'mistakes' on the part of American power brokers. Especially when the same men continue to occupy high places in Washington right at this very moment.

Last month a former head of state, Saddam Hussein, was executed after a deeply flawed war crimes trial sponsored by the American government. Last year, Slobodan Milosevic died before justice could be served at the Hague. Soon, the last few surviving members of the Khmer Rouge elite will stand before judges in Phnom Penh.

War crimes. Violations of basic human morality as expressed by international agreements governing the conduct of war.

Accountability. To be held responsible for the consequences of one’s actions.

Do the trials of frail old men who fought on the losing side of wars actually accomplish anything?

Are such trials a waste of time and money for a country like Cambodia, where people desperately need help with the problems of today?

Sometimes I wonder.

But at the same time, I believe that when the world bears witness to mass murder, it is crucial for humanity to stand together, draw a line in the sand and say:

"This conduct is unacceptable and will be punished.”

The United States hasn't ratified international war crimes treaties because officials fear that fellow Americans might be prosecuted. These fears are justified.

I’m writing from Cambodia. When my father was my age, President Nixon and his advisors bombed hell out of this neutral nation of rice farmers, killing thousands and creating the conditions that gave rise to the insane Khmer Rouge genocide. Their secret bombing of Cambodia was illegal and their callous disregard for Cambodian lives was criminal.

President Nixon is dead, but some of his most influential advisors, notably Dr. Henry Kissinger, are still alive. In fact, Kissinger is a frequent visitor to the White House, where he has the ear of our hapless President.

America's reputation is, understandably, in tatters. Our national arrogance has ignited and inflamed conflicts around the world and left us beholden to a rising China. Our President and his advisors continue to pour gasoline on the fire, acting as if they are above the law.

What America needs is a dose of accountability and a long look in the mirror. What the Western world needs is renewed faith in the rule of law and international cooperation. What Cambodia needs, among many other things, is dignity.

The United States should join the rest of the world in supporting the International Criminal Court. Henry Kissinger should stand trial for war crimes. George W. Bush should start to think about consequences.

(To learn more about the impact of American policies in Cambodia read William Shawcross' excellent study "Sideshow" or check out the award winning movie "The Killing Fields")

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