Tuesday, August 30, 2005

The Bokor Hill Station

Our bus bumped down stretches of dirt road and sailed along patches of pavement. From the window: a flat horizon separates the cerulean sky and bright green fields; a gentle breeze ripples through stalks of rice -- the stalks appear to be waving 'hello, goodbye', just like the children who shout this greeting from the roadside; coconut trees and sugar palms fringe the landscape; big, billowy clouds with flat bottoms and rounded tops resemble the intermittent mountain seen in the distance; a cloud of red dust envelopes the bus as the tires spin; clothes hanging on a line to dry outside of a wooden house remind me of prayer flags; a happy pig swishes its tail in the front yard of a tidy home: it does not know that someday soon, it will be dinner; naked children emerge from streams, their brown, wet skin sparkles in the sun.

We were on our way to Kampot, a riverside town in Southwest Cambodia and home to Phnom Bokor, a mountain upon which a French ghost town is perched. Way back when, I learned about the Bokor Hill Station and was immediately enthralled with the place. Abandoned places and things are like caffeine for my imagination. From ghost towns in California and Nevada to athletic shoes strung over city telephone wires, I have always been curious about the stories of the places, the things that people no longer want. Usually, their stories are hard to come by, but the history of the Bokor Hill Station is not unknown, and its story makes the place all the more intriguing.

The Bokor Hill Station was a colonial retreat, built by the French in the early 1920s -- a complement to the neighboring beachside resort city of Kep (which is also abandoned and strewn with ruins). The hill station was an 'elegant getaway for French officials and foreign visitors' seeking temperate climes in the oppressive heat of Cambodia. The French abandoned it in the late 1940s when fighting between the Vietnamese, French, and Khmer Issaraks forced evacuation. Affluent Khmers then used the Hill Station until the early 1970s, when it was again abandoned because the Khmer Rouge took over the area, using the hill station as a base of operations. Eventually, the Vietnamese took Phonm Bokor when they 'liberated' and then occupied Cambodia in the late 70s. In its history, the Hill Station has seen luxury and war; has been a place of sanctuary and battle. Today it stands in ruins, a mere skeleton of its former self, with battle wounds and graffiti on its walls.

The French picked the perfect place to build a mountain retreat. Afterall, King Norodom had his summer palace up there. From the top, there are amazing views of the coastline (when the mountain isn't shrouded in fog), waterfalls, lush jungle, and wet evergreen and deciduous forests. The Hill Station is located on the Southern tip of the Elephant Mountains and in today's time, within the Bokor National Park, which was established in 1995. Within the park, there are elephans, tigers, leopards, bear, primates, peacocks, buzzards, and more. We saw a pig-tailed macaque and pit viper during our foray into the wilds.


The original plan was to ride a rented motorcycle from Phnom Penh to Kampot (148 km) and up to the top of Phnom Bokor. I'd read that the road to the Bokor hill station was difficult to navigate in a car, but perfect for a dirt bike. In fact, it was in learning about the abandoned hill station three plus years ago that I signed up for a motorcycle riding class back home. Getting to the old hill station was going to be an adventure on two wheels. However, plans changed when we postponed our trip to the Southwest coast until the end of our month in Cambodia -- we were following good weather. With the change in plan, we would no longer be looping back through Phnom Penh and so, we took the bus instead of bikes.

"We can still ride to the top of the mountain," Benjamin mentioned on the evening before we left Phnom Penh.

"I dunno..." was my answer. Suddenly I'd turned into a big coward. Everything I'd read about riding to the top of the mountain was alarming. "I don't have the kind of experience you could set in italics," I told Benjamin.

He laughed. "What?"

"All the guidebooks and pamphlets, they say experienced riders only should make this trip. In italics. I don't even know if you could use a regular-weight font for my level of riding experience."

Benjamin looked amused.

"I don't want to die," I added.


When we arrived in Kampot, we learned that the dirt bikes for rent were in poor condition. We were advised not to take one to the top of Bokor. This sealed the deal for me, but Benjamin was a little dejected by the thought of taking a car to the top. It was certainly 'less adventurous' and maybe even a little 'nerdy' to scrap the bike ride in favor of a Toyota Carolla that had illustrations of dinosaurs on the doors.

We found this car (and the driver) on the street corner. The beauty of travel in many Asian countries is that if you want or need something, all that is required is your presence on a street corner: everything finds you. We positioned ourselves on opposite corners of a wide boulevard with a traffic circle and within minutes, had several offers. At first, we weren't able to find a driver who would make the trip for less than $25.00. We didn't want to spend more than $20.00. So we walked away, thinking of a 'plan B'. Suddenly, a moto driver appeared next to us, telling us that his uncle would take us for $20.00. He was just a phone call away and appeared several minutes later with a cargo of passengers headed to Sihanoukville, a beach town several hours away. He deposited them with another driver and returned with our chariot, a beat up gray Carolla infused with years of sweat and dino decals on the exterior, which seemed to personify the car itself: it appeared to be ancient.

In the end, we were glad to have taken the car. The 'road' to the Bokor Hill Station is a loose term, a generous term for what looked more like a dry river bed with man-eating pits, giant boulders, and deep ravines. There are segments of asphalt here and there, enough bits to remind you that there once was a proper road, but left to the decay of war and time, it has degenerated to nothing more than a tumultuous path in the jungle.

On the way to the top, we found a helpless German couple who'd decided to take a scooter up the mountain road. They were stranded 15 minutes into the two-hour drive with a flat tire and had no choice but to walk the bike back down. At the top, we found some intrepid riders who made the journey, successfully, on a dirt bike. One of them was pulling a leech off his thigh, which was apparently flung onto his skin while riding through a deep puddle. I was happy for the 'safety' of our sweaty smelling dino-mobile, which was, once at the top, the laughing stock of other drivers who made the trip in SUVs and trucks. The only reason our car made the journey without issue was the prowess of our driver and a lifted suspension.


The Bokor Hill Station is an eerie place: a collection of crumbling buildings covered in red lichen and green moss, set upon a plateau on the edge of a cliff, with drifts of fog rolling in and curling around the framework of buildings like ghostly fingers. I felt like I was on the set of a horror movie and half expected to find vampires sleeping in the steeple of the old church. The fog came and went: one minute the entire view was completely obliterated by white mist, the next blue patches of sky and sun illuminated the entire plateau. Peering over the cliff's edge, down into the clouds below, it felt as if we were on the edge of the world and could be gobbled up and trapped in time, like Bokor, by the swirling mist around our feet.

In addition to the church, there are remains of a police station, library, post office, casino, and hotel. The old hotel has been likened to the one in 'The Shining', but to me, it felt more peaceful than horrific; the elegance of the past still permeates the ruined building, found in the patterned tiles on the floor, the curving staircases, the details of the woodwork, and what is left of the decorative windows. With some imagination, it is possible to hear the clink of wine glasses and the crackle of a fire in the massive dining room; to see women sunning themselves out in the garden; to smell trails of perfume lingering in the bed chambers; to feel the revelry of party-goers and happy gamblers having won fortunes in the casino.

We spent several hours exploring the Hill Station, feeling as if we'd somehow found passage to another dimension of time -- with the waves of misty fog, revealing and hiding the stately silhouettes of abandoned buildings... there one minute, gone the next... Perhaps this is how the Bokor Hill Station lives on in the memories of those who spent time there: vacationers are soldiers alike. If the walls could tell stories, I wonder, what stories would they tell?

Monday, August 22, 2005

The Name of the Game

Much of the time, I feel as if Cambodia is defined by what happened in the 'Pol Pot years'. The take-away from a guidebook is more about what happened than what the country has to offer to tourists. The trials of the KR leaders has still not taken place and an impending date for one is still in the news, after all this time.

Hun Sen, the prime minister (and former KR, but no-one talks about that we are told), was just quoted in the local newspaper. He said the trials won't take place if the foreign 'donors' don't make good on providing money to cover the Cambodian government's expenses. Imagine!

Apparently some deal was made with a number of foreign countries to provide some funds if the Cambodian government kicked in its share, but now the government is claiming that it has no money for the trials. Still, they want foreign countries to pay their promise, PLUS the amount Cambodia is responsible for. No donors, no trial. It's a standstill. Hun Sen accuses the foreigners of broken promises, even though those promises were based on Cambodia's own promise, now broken. More than likely, it is a ruse to keep the trials from happening. A trial would only be good for the people of Cambodia and it seems that the government does nothing for the public's interest.

The KR years are a stain on the earth. A scar. The state of society today is, in some part, a result of the wreckage the KR created of the country. Of course, people have moved on, things have changed, the KR is no longer in rule. But how could those years not affect things in this time? The KR built a society of uneducated peasants and today, many are still poor, still without skills. They built a society who fear each other, fear speaking their minds. They built a society that is, today, living with corruption; they are powerless to do anything about it.

Many Cambodians talk about corruption in their country. The police take bribes -- they get paid a small salary, so they make it up by their own means. Even teachers take bribes! Yes, even teachers. The public school system doesn't pay much, so teachers require students to pay for a lesson, or for the results of a test. Ex-pats have told me that if a person were to be run down in the street, he would not be taken to a hospital without a 'bribe' to pay the ambulance: no money, no go. The same applies to treatment once arriving. A woman, a volunteer English teacher in Phnom Penh, rallied her friends and family at home to donate much needed text books for her students. While shipment was paid for in the States, the postal sevice asked for an additional couple of hundred dollars just to deliver the package to her -- and these books were to help the people of their society.

Even the Angkor temples are mired with corruption. They Angkor complex is 'rented' by a foreigner. All the profit goes into his pocket, not towards the temples and not towards the Khmer society. It's hard to find a comparison, but that would be like 'renting' the Grand Canyon out to a European nation. Maybe Mexico... or why not Canada? It costs a Cambodian with good English skills $1000.00 to purchase a license to be a tour guide at the temples. Consider that the Hotel Sofitel pays tour bus drivers $80.00 per month and imagine how long it might take a person to save 1K while feeding his/her family and paying the rent.

It's not readily apparent to the traveler. I haven't experienced any sort of corruption outright -- perhaps one could consider the purchase of an Angkor ticket as such in a roundabout way. I have not been asked for a bribe. I have experienced nothing insulting or frightening or even mildly threatening. But the corruption is there, just a shallow scratch below the surface. It affects the people. People I have met and gotten to know: people like the orphans who used to pick through garbage at the dump. People who have an education but no opportunities to use their skills. People without the chance to get an education. I heard about several factories in Battambang that have been closed without reason, eliminating jobs. The same products the factories would produce must now come from neighboring countries, costing Khmers both jobs and money on the elevated purchase price. It just doesn't make sense.

Even with all the corruption, I still love Cambodia, but I am just a transient visitor. Would I love it if I lived here? Some ex-pats say the Cambodians are selfish. They've been programmed to be distrustful of their countrymen -- in the KR years, it was tattle or be killed. How can a society endure that and come out unscathed? For this, some ex-pats say the Cambodians are dysfunctional, one generation passing it onto the next. But I have not seen bad behavior, malicious intent. In Cambodians, I have seen nothing but a genuine kindness. But I'm am just a transient visitor, just barely scratching the surface...

The Boat, The Bushes, The Bugs, The Bloody Bag

The boat to Battambang, we heard, is one of the most scenic boat trips in Cambodia. It is also known to break down frequently and even sink on occasion, "but there are have been no fatalities," we were told. We were warned that if we were lucky, it would take 3 hours, but if things ran per the norm, it could take up to 12. Oh yes, and we might be required to jump into the river and push the boat if it got stuck in the mud.

We woke at the crack of dawn to catch the boat. A bus was to pick us up from our guesthouse at 5:30 a.m. and take us to the launching point, some 15 km from Siem Reap. Our bus turned out to be a pickup truck and after 16 travelers and their backpacks had been stuffed into and onto the vehicle, we set off for the river along bumpy, pitted dirt roads.

Our boat was not the shiny white hydrofoil bobbing on the brown water... that one goes to Phnom Penh. Ours was the beat up jalopy with bench-style seats and tattered lines. But it was floating, not sinking, so we boarded the wooden antique and found covered seats (many people sit on the roof).

Not 5 minutes after departure, the boat broke down. The engine was roaring and shuddering and spitting plumes of black smoke from under its cover. There are 3 men required to operate the boat: the captain plus 2 mechanics. All of them got to work on the engine as our boat drifted in circles on the still waters of the river. Banging, clanking, cursing: the boat was running again, but not for long. It broke down twice more within then next hour and I began to wonder if we might be required to all pitch in and row the boat to Battambang, but I could not locate any oars.

Floating villages, flooded forests, blue-rimmed horizons: it was scenic. The boat was up and running for good, it seemed, and the passengers on board relaxed. Not that people were anxious or upset by the frequency of the breakdowns. Only one Spanish man looked nervous, twitching about the boat, looking to see what was going on, watching the boatmen fix the engine as if he were a foreman overseeing the disposal of nuclear waste. Several times, we pulled right up to a home built on stilts to pick up a passenger or drop one off. It was after our last drop-off that the boat again broke down after a good few hours of smooth sailing, so to speak. This time, it took the better part of an hour to fix the engine as we drifted on the water.

After a brief stop at a river-bound convenience store in one of the floating villages, we set off into what can only be described as a tunnel of bushes. The river branches off into many small channels and as we drove into one of these, one that looked a few feet short of the width of the boat, I felt a nervous vibe rise amongst the relaxed passengers.

Cracking, whipping, snapping: thick and thin branches from trees and bushes on either side of the channel smacked the sides of the boat, invading the safe interior through the open 'windows' -- the covered area of the boat was open, with an occasional vertical support beam which gave the 'feeling' of windows. Thwack, thwack, thwack: a single branch could make a horrible noise as it hit each vertical beam. A delayed duck, and you feel as if you'd been whipped.

As the boat pushed its way through the tunnel of bushes, on what seemed an impossible path, the trees and brush continued to batter the boat, leaving twigs and sticks and leaves behind. It didn't take long for the interior of the boat to resemble the aftermath of a long, hard day with a weed wacker and tree clippers. That's how the boat became invaded with huge, tropical bugs. Collosal red ants, gigantic spiders, hairy caterpillars: all of it crawling on our skin, on our bags, on our seats. It's not only the presence and the size of the displaced bugs that disturbed me. It's that the bugs, themselves, were disturbed... running around frantically in the aftermath of destruction. For the bugs, it must have seemed like the apocalypse. The frenzied spiders, in particular, were the most fearful for me. I saw fangs on some of them and I didn't want any of them running up my pant leg. Moving so fast, they'd be impossible to catch, maim, kill.

It's not only trees and brush that we collided with, though. The channel was too narrow for our boat, let alone another coming the opposite direction. But it didn't stop us from moving forward. We simply slowed down a bit so that the crash was just a bit softer. Most people saw us coming, but when we turned a blind curve at high speeds, and collided with a small fishing boat, the women on board let our boat driver have it. We nearly knocked an entire family of 8 off of that boat.

Somehow, in all the mayhem, a barefoot woman cut her toe. I didn't see it happen. I only saw her sitting on the floor with a plastic bag under her foot to catch the blood, and it bled a LOT. One of the passengers had a first aid kit and bound her toe, and once that was done, one of the boat mechanics flung the bloody bag overboard. Aside from environmental issues, the problem was that we were still ensconced in a wall of brush. The bag had nowhere to go, so it bounced along the bushes for a bit before catching on a plastic line hanging down from the boat's roof. It hung on that line, flapping in the wind and against the brush, threatening to loose hold at any minute and come fluttering back inside the boat. A bloody bag, airborne, into the group of passengers huddled together in the center of the boat... of which, I was one.

"Oh, no! no! no!" I heard myself yelling over the din of the engine and snapping tree branches. I was surprised to hear my voice because I normally don't make verbal outbursts. I could picture that bag full of blood loosing hold and smacking me right in the face, splattering all over the place. Besides the disgust of the whole matter, there are mosquitoes everywhere. There is an AIDs epidemic. I had on a clean shirt! Luckily the bloody bag was retrieved by the boatman in time and discarded safely -- still into the waters of the river, but thankfully, not upon my head.

Things were pretty quiet -- uneventful actually -- after the bloody bag. We soon emerged from the tunnel of bushes, no further injuries were had, and no break downs continued to plague our trip. Even the bugs settled down: they were safely hidden somewhere among the piles of leaves in the boat, probably setting up new homes. We arrived in Battambang in 7 hours, four hours late according to the schedule, but 5 hours earlier than the really unlucky.

Journey to Siem Reap

There is something about traveling between cities, by bus or train, that puts me in a state of quiet thoughtfulness. It's always tinged with a trace of sadness, but a happy kind of sadness, the tender kind of sadness that comes with memories that play in your mind like a movie reel.

On the bus to Siem Reap, I was struck by this sensation as I gazed out the window, watching the countryside pass by. Off in the distance, things appeared to pass by slowly: the far-off fringe of sugar palm trees, the rounded shape of a hill, the bright green rice paddies. But looking closer to the side of the road, things came into view and vanished much more quickly: grass, gravel, sign posts. It's not unlike the mind, playing through the memory reel. Some things are always there on the periphery and some things come and go before you can even register their existence. Memories, ideas, emotions... they all play together at different speeds, but at the same time. Just like the passing countryside.

So, when we arrived in Siem Reap, I was in a contemplative mood. Having been hypnotized by the blurry scenes from the window of the bus, and lost to the world of my own past, I felt as if I was moving through a dream instead of dusty city streets in a tuk tuk.

I almost couldn't recognize Siem Reap, and I did not recognize the street where the tuk tuk driver dropped us off, even though it's the same street we called 'home' the last time we visited this city, 3-1/2 years ago. Benjamin and I had been looking forward to our return to Siem Reap ever since we left it. We made a few friends among the staff of the places we frequented... we spent many hours hanging out and teaching them English. We sent photos and dictionaries to them from San Francisco. We were eager to find these boys again and to find out what has become of them. And now we were here.

Perhaps this all added to my ruminant mood -- this, and the experience we'd just had in Phnom Penh, teaching computer graphics to the orphans and disadvantaged children at the Center for Children to Happiness. Emotions were running high, and the excitement of returning to Siem Reap mixed in with that was like a sweet and salty candy: one flavor battling the other, both of them working together.

It was strange to find Siem Reap so different, but it was not a surprise. The Angkor temples bring more and more tourists here each year and the town has changed to accommodate the boom. Seeing the changes, though, was still a shock... like visiting my childhood home, which was once bounded by empty fields but is now buried within masses of strip malls. Not only is it hard to recognize the place, but it is hard to come to terms with the fact that the place is no longer the one you remember. This is the domain of that happy kind of sadness. But, things change. It got me to thinking about the changes with my own self, how different a person I am today than I was then. I thought about the silly stories I used to write and the better ones I write today (Siem Reap, in fact, inspired my first foray into the writing world). I thought about the naive traveler I was back then and the more wizened traveler I am today. I thought about how, in the 3+ years that have passed since I'd been to Siem Reap, I have matured, aged, and come to know myself better.

Arriving in Siem Reap was also 'heady', perhaps, because of the journey it took to come back. It was also during our first trip here that Benjamin and I began to dream of the trip we are on now. So in a way, it wasn't merely a bus ride that brought us to Siem Reap, but several years of planning and saving and gathering the courage to leap into the unknown for a year-long journey through Asia.

Benjamin and I toasted each other with a beer and then set off to look for our friends. We found only one of the three we were looking for. In the time since we've been gone, he's gotten married, now has a daughter, and has been promoted to the position of head chef at the restaurant where he works. Sopheak has changed a lot, too. No longer in need of English tutoring, he taught us Khmer words.

Of course, we also returned to the Angkor temples and found more changes: less beggars, less children hawking souvenirs within the temple walls, less hassle. But the temples remain the same, as they have for centuries: everything happening at different speeds, but at the same time.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The Dump Children

We will stay in Phnom Penh until week's end, which is coming up soon, and I wish I could put time on hold.

We have been volunteering at The Center for Children to Happiness, a home for children who are orphans or from poor families, and have been rescued by the center from a life in the Steung Meanchey garbage dump, picking out plastic and other things they can sell for money. They were known as 'garbage pickers'. Some of their parents have died from AIDS and other illnesses, landmines, and accidents.

We have been teaching computer graphics and web site design of all things. We've been to the center 3 times, 3.5 hours each day, and have 2 more classes before we must leave. The children are a constant source of amazement: they are so loving, and polite, and grateful. When we arrive, all 33 of them come running out to greet us, placing their hands together and bowing their heads in the traditional Khmer way of greeting. They hold our hands and hug us and climb on our backs. They thank us at the end of each day for teaching them and show the most respect I have ever experienced from a child. They are also very smart. At the end of each day, Benjamin and I have a hard time wiping the silly grins from our faces, smiles we have even though our hearts ache for these kids.

Considering where they have come from, and what they have been through, I am all the more amazed by their graciousness and good manners and loving ways. It will be a very sad 'good-bye' at the end of the week.

Find out more about the children and the Center for Children to Happiness:

The Kingdom of Cambodia

We've been in Phnom Penh nearly a week now, arriving by boat on brown Mekong waters and bus on pitted dirt roads. We crossed the border of Cambodia in the heat of the midday sun and immediately felt our spirits lift, our smiles brighten: there is something about Cambodia that resonates with our souls.

We have been to Cambodia before, but only spent 5 days in Siem Reap, to visit Angkor Wat. Now we have come back to spend more time, and to see more of the country. I'm not sure what it is about this place that speaks to me. Perhaps it is the warmth of the people -- they are kind, and mellow, and always welcoming. Perhaps it is the country's volatile history of corruption and genocide and the will of the people to overcome the past. Perhaps it is because Cambodia is not a place for the casual tourist (save Angkor Wat). And perhaps there is something about its darker side, its wild side, that makes the country intriguing.

Cambodia has picked itself up from its terrible fall that happened in the 70's, when the Khmer Rouge ruled the land with terror. But still, there is no escaping the horrors of what happened. We visited the Killing Fields and S-21 (Tuol Sleng, the former KR prison which is now the genocide museum) on our first day here. I've done a lot of reading about this time period in Cambodia, ever since our first visit, and although I knew the story and the politics that led to the atrocity, it was shocking to witness the artifacts.

At the Killing Fields, there is a giant stupa filled with skulls, bones, and remnants of clothing unearthed from surrounding pits that were used as a mass execution and burial site during Pol Pot's KR regime. I was struck by the tranquility of the place today and the horror of what it was some 30 years ago. The most stunning (and I don't use the word 'stunning' in the sense of 'beauty') is that there are many fragments of bone and pieces of clothing still visible in the earth. A piece of frayed, checkered fabric emerges from the dirt below your feet; dry, chipped bones poke out from the grass; teeth lay scattered on the surface of the ground. While many of the burial pits have been exhumed, there are some that have not... and so many people died here, their remains have become components of the soil -- one inextricable from the other.

S-21 was formerly a school and once the KR cleared the entire population of Phnom Penh out into the countryside, to forced labor and re-education camps, it became a place of torture and imprisonment for 'those against the revolution'. Many of the people brought here (and later murdered at the Killing Fields) were innocent of any crimes. But that defines the entire KR 'revolution'... the killing of 2 million Cambodians in the name of 'Angkar' -- a twisted plan with 'socialist ideals' that turned the entire society into a mass of peasants who had to endure forced labor; people who spied or were spied, in constant fear of death; people who were seperated from their families, old and young alike. Pol Pot got his ideas from Mao... even though the Cultural Revolution in China was a complete and utter failure. Pol Pot took Mao's evil ideas to a new level of insanity.

Tuol Sleng, like the Killing Fields, has a strange, eery tranquility about it nowadays, but with all the razor wire and prison cells and photographs of victims -- even photos of their deaths -- bear witness to the madness of the place. The school was transformed into a prison with the construction of tiny cells in former classrooms. Prisoners were chained by their ankles and suffered much torture. There are several instruments of torture displayed at Tuol Sleng -- primitive devices that used water, electricity, pliers to remove fingernails. There are paintings that depict scenes of life and the torture that people endured at the prison -- one of the very few survivors painted them to show the world what happened.

Needless to say, a visit to the Killing Fields and to Tuol Sleng left us feeling sad and heartbroken and quiet. It is impossible for me to look around at the people on the street, the people I encounter each day, and not wonder what their lives were like during this time period. I cannot help but feel admiration for their ability to go on and keep smiling when reminders of what happened are so constant. I hardly ever see anyone of real age... most of the older generation was murdered.

I was surprised by Phnom Penh when we arrived. I wasn't expecting such a quaint, beautiful city. I'd read stories about the 'lawlessness': guns, ganja, girls... One of the darker aspects to life in Cambodia nowadays is child prostitution. There is a warning posted on the wall in our room at the guesthouse to inform grown men that having sex with children is illegal. It sickens me that such a warning must be posted.

And there are guns -- in fact, there is a line item for 'weapons' on some hotel registration forms. "You must have a weapon," the hotel clerk said to me. I'm not sure if he was joking or giving me advice. I wrote 'good looks' on the line -- the clerk thought it was the funniest thing ever (maybe a comment on the quality of my Chinese hair cut or a good sense of humor, I'm not sure which).

Ironically, there is a shooting range out by the Killing Fields, where tourists can shoot AK-47s and M-16s, among other guns. We went there to check it out, not to shoot guns... Outside, there is a menu with a list of guns and the prices (not cheap). Inside one of the 'shooting rooms', we found three guys wearing cammo jackets (provided by the shooting range for a more authentic experience), finishing off a bullet-ridden target with several rounds with an M-16. The power and noise that gun emits made my organs shake and my adrenaline pulse. My mouth went dry... the firing of the weapon unleashes a sort of terror inside the body, even though the place seemed relatively safe -- although there were live rounds just laying about on the floor.

But Phnom Penh, the city, is full of colonial charm, with grand old buildings, an opulent palace, and traffic that shares the road with elephants. There are paved roads that intersect with pot-holed, pitted dirt streets; wealthy neighborhoods built next to shantytowns; vendors carrying baskets of fruit on their heads; shops selling the hottest fashions. Phnom Penh, to me, seems a diamond in the rough -- an 'old town' colliding with a new one. I've read that Phnom Penh is what Bangkok or other similar SE Asian 'big cities' used to be, and that one should get here before it changes. I like being here in the crux of the change, though, an old city becoming new. And I'm sure I will still like it 'after the change', whenever that may be.

Monday, August 08, 2005

A Good Old Fashioned Whoopin'

She came into the room looking both angry and bored -- two moods that you never want to see your hairstylist or dentist in, and especially not your masseuse.

I didn't know which way she was going to go, with the massage that is. Would she be angry? And would I need to seek medical care afterwards? Or would she be bored? And would I have to rub my back against the wall a few times at the end to feel like I got my money's worth?

Somehow, she managed to be both.

I ended up at the massage parlor in the fancy hotel down the street because the Brit we met there said it was 'proper'. That was all I needed to hear. I'd been avoiding the massage parlors because I was afraid I'd accidentally end up in a brothel and I've made a resolution to stop getting myself into awkward situations where I don't belong.

He also told us that the place had a sauna, jacuzzi, foot bath, the works. "You can spend the whole day there," he said. "And they give you a fluffy white robe to wear," he added.

When I was shown to my room, there was no robe. There was nothing but a small towel. I didn't know what to do: get undressed? stay dressed? It seemed that either of them could be an embarrassing decision if I made the wrong choice -- either I would be sitting there stark naked or it might appear that I wanted a massage while fully clothed. Eventually, someone came by with a giant pair of blue elasticized shorts that I was to put on. But, no robe.

So I sat in the room with the towel wrapped around my chest, wearing the blue shorts, when SHE came in. She, with long black hair and heavy blue eye shadow... She, in her tiny spandex miniskirt and tight white blouse and high heels... SHE was my masseuse? She was nothing like the masseurs I've had in the bay area, the candles n' sandles set -- earth mamas and men with fluffy beards. I began to wonder if the place really was 'proper' afterall.

"Yo," she said, signaling that I should lay down on my stomach with her hands. It was not the kind of 'Yo' someone like, say, Sylvester Stallone would use as a greeting, but more a mispronunciation of the word, 'you'. This was all she said (or grunted) to me during our entire hour together, a few "Yo"s here and there -- she didn't know English and the relevance of this will shortly become clear.

She climbed up right on top of me, yanking the elastic waistband of my enormous shorts down brusquely. And then sat on me, using my bare ass as a seat. I thought about my naked butt and I thought about her mini-skirt, and I tried to envision just what sort of contact was being made. Again I wondered how 'proper' this massage was going to be. Sitting squarely on my tail bone, she began her torture.

She worked her hands up and down my back, determined to crack each vertebrae. Unsatisfied when there was no 'pop', I'd heard her sigh and in that sigh I heard her thoughts: 'I will break you, girl, if it's the last thing I do...'. She jumped on me a few times to no avail, and this was before the brass handlebars mounted to the ceiling came into play. She held onto those and used my back as a treadmill -- feet slipping and sliding from the oil on my back. At one point, she lifted herself up by those handlebars and did a triple somersault, landing a perfect '10' on my spine. But it still wouldn't crack. She finally gave up, but not before leaving my back streaked with bruises -- they showed up within an hour of leaving the place.

Eventually she moved onto my neck and when she was done with one side, she turned my head over by pulling it up with a fistful of hair... Then she kind of tossed my head over to the other side like she was working with bread dough instead of a human appendage (and an important one at that). She nearly pulled me off the table when she worked on my arms and I don't even want to go into the knuckle-cracking -- I swear my toes and fingers are 1/2 inch longer than they used to be.

I began to fear the end of the massage -- every massage ends with a facial rub. If she kept up her vigor, I might leave that place looking like a Picasso painting.

I couldn't tell her to cool it -- she didn't speak English. So I lay there, with her digging hands and sharp fingernails... and her unrelenting beating -- she hit me with open hands and closed fists, knocking the wind out of me each time she made contact with my stinging skin. It was all I could do not to curl up in the fetal position. I have never been so tense in my life. And I began to wonder if that was not working against me... perhaps the more tense I was, the more aggressive she became, trying to work out whatever masses of tightly wound muscle she could find -- which was, in essence, my entire body.

When the massage finally came to an end, she said, "yo," and pointed at my clothes. I was still waiting for a robe, and the sauna, and the jacuzzi. I gave her a confused look and pointed at the door, signaling, 'you want me to take them with me, to the sauna perhaps?' But she pointed at them again and in fact, picked them up and shoved them into my hands. I again gave her a confused look. Was I to carry my clothes to the sauna? Perhaps they ran out of robes... After a few minutes of this, it dawned on me that it was time to get dressed... and I realized that there was nothing more to this 'proper, all day experience': none of the bells and whistles that the Brit boasted about -- no sauna, no jacuzzi, nothing. I waited for her to leave so I could get dressed, but she didn't. She stood there and watched me get dressed with a scowl on her face -- her last way of torturing me: humiliation.

Benjamin came out from his massage looking happy as a clam. He'd just finished with his sauna and a slice of water melon while he relaxed in a reclining chair in front of a large screen TV in a cool, air-conditioned room. "Waiting long?" he asked. In fact, I'd been waiting for 15 minutes.

This, the final torture.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Good-bye Vietnam

We leave for Cambodia tomorrow -- a 2 day trip through the Mekong Delta and up the Mekong River to Phnom Penh by boat. A bad idea during the rainy season? We'll find out...

Since it's been a while since we posted about our movements throughout Vietnam, here are the details: we left Nha Trang for Mui Ne, in search of a quiet beach without skyscrapers and we found it... Mui Ne was a great place to do nothing, which is exactly what we did for 5 days. The beach at Mui Ne is also an excellent place to collect seashells -- the ocean waves would lob giant conch shells right into our hands.

We are now in Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as many still call it, and have not done much aside from our glutton-fest at the Caravelle and completing chores that must be done before arriving to a new country.

So, tomorrow we leave for the Delta and the day after that, we leave the country. We've been talking a lot about Vietnam... before we arrived, we'd heard from a lot of other travelers on the road that they loved it or they hated it. It seemed to be one of those places without an in-between... But that's where we've found ourselves: we neither love it or hate it. Vietnam, for us, has just sort of been "O.K."

We've been trying to figure out why: is it possible to see too much in a short amount of time, so that nothing seems exciting anymore? has the chaos and clamour of India and the beauty of China ruined us? We don't know... but as it usually happens, once we are gone from Vietnam, our perspectives will be more clear.

The Caravelle

Surprisingly, both Benjamin and I remembered the name 'Caravelle' for an entire month -- a feat considering that often, we can't remember what day of the week it is. We learned about the Caravelle at the beginning of our trip in Vietnam, from a girl in Sapa who told us that once we arrived in Saigon, we should be sure to go there. "All you can eat and drink," she said, "cheese, seafood, steak... wine and champagne." Somehow, she knew what made us tick. "All you can drink wine!" I exclaimed. "Steak!" Benjamin added. So we arrived in Saigon with a singular purpose: to eat and drink ourselves back to the First World.

The Caravelle is a fancy hotel, the kind with doormen and marble floors in the lobby. And they, like many other of the fancy hotels in Saigon, have a twice-daily buffet: all you can eat and drink for 21 bucks. And while 21 bucks might not sound like a lot to people back home, it's my entire daily budget! But I was willing to splurge: the buffet offers all the Western food I'd been missing for so long (and all you can drink wine). Actually... forget about splurging, I was willing to empty my savings account and sleep on the street for the night if that's what it took. But, my parents will be happy to hear, things haven't come to that. Things haven't gotten so tight that I have to choose between gluttony and a roof over my head.

"Don't forget your ostrich feather," Benjamin warned as we left our guesthouse, a place that was a little pricey at $12.00 per night (I only mention the price so you get a true sense for the extravagance we were about to indulge). I wiggled my index finger at him. "If necessary, I have this," I retorted.

We arrived to the Caravelle promptly at 6 p.m. I'd been counting down the hours since breakfast and being that we 'starved' ourselves all day in order to have a good appetite, I was ready to dig into the feast. It's always a little awkward, arriving to a fancy hotel when you are not what anyone would consider 'fancy clientele'. As we approached the grand, glass entryway, Benjamin joked, "Here come the backpackers. Quick! Lock the doors! They will obliterate our buffet." I didn't think we looked so rough, so depraved, to warrant such a reaction, though. Afterall, we were both wearing stain-free shirts with collars and buttons. I only wished, after we'd entered the dining area, that I'd hosed my shoes down, too. They've been covered in the same red dirt and dust since we met our 'food intel angel' in Sapa.

We were seated and handed a wine list. Prices started at $27.00 for a bottle of red. "I thought there was all you can drink wine here," I whispered to Benjamin -- one of those urgent, loud whispers that they use in spy movies. And then the waitress came by. Benjamin handed her the wine list, "I don't think we'll get a bottle. I have a headache, you see." Well, he did have a headache... but partly, we didn't want the waitress to know that we were really too poor to be at this restaurant, paying 21 bucks each for a meal. Our just being there was a pretense, all she had to do was look at my dirt encrusted hiking sandals to know that. But, when you move from one world into another, you like to belong there, at least for the time being. And so, we pretended we didn't want wine instead of admitting that it was too expensive.

Again, I whispered to Benjamin, "...that girl in Sapa, she did say there was all you can drink wine, didn't she?" "Yes, she did," he replied, "Perhaps you should ask the waitress about it."

But I didn't want to ask the waitress about it. It's one of those things that, on the surface, seem like a perfectly normal thing to ask -- but you know that it will come out sounding desperate and cheap: "Would you like some wine?" the waitress would ask and my reply, "Is it free? And is it endless... I mean, all you can drink?"... tell me that doesn't sound desperate and cheap! So instead, when she returned to the table, I told her that I would like a glass of the 'house red' and when she returned with it, we found out it was, indeed, part of the deal: we pay 21 bucks, and we drink as much as we like... or can (they constantly refill your glass as if it's ice water).

And onto the food... the display brought tears to my eyes; like seeing old friends after a long separation. I walked around the buffet as if in a daze. The tables were crowded with food, like a cornucopia the size of a Macy's Day parade balloon had been backed up to the Caravelle's grand, glass entryway and emptied onto tables with three tiers of serving platters.

There was an entire table devoted to bread, crackers, and dozens of different kinds of cheeses -- whole wedges and wheels -- and preserved meats: salami, prosciutto, ham. There was a salad table, with all kinds of gourmet treats; a desert table with cakes, pies, berries, ice cream, flan; a SUSHI table full of rolls and three kinds of sashimi; and a table full of meat dishes, with hard-to-pronounce, fancy names like beef roumalade, and just plain fancy meats like braised lamb shanks and veal, and basic indulgences like roast beef. I didn't even make it to the seafood table, which was full of oysters, lobster, shrimp, soft shell crab, fish... all cooked to order.

I looked around the place, wondering if it was everyone's intention to come here and absolutely stuff themselves. This, over my second plate of cheese and crackers. Benjamin, on his second plate of sushi, thought that it was, although probably not to the degree of our purpose. "All I know," he said over his 12th piece of sashimi, "is that I haven't had sushi for 5 months and I'm going to make up for it."

So we stuffed ourselves until it hurt, hitting almost of the tables one or more times. During the month we'd waited for the Caravelle, and the all-day countdown leading up to our visit, we had turned the whole dining experience into a sort of eating boot camp, a feeding frenzy... and we ate as if we were not consuming the food, but putting it into long-term storage, somewhere in memory, from where we could retrieve things later, when we missed them again.

When we were done, we looked at the clock and realized we'd been eating for 2 solid hours. And even as the bill came, the waitress asked if I would like some more wine. I was feeling a bit wobbly, though... having had so much to drink. The tolerance I worked so hard on back at home has virtually disappeared: there is no wine on the road less traveled. "Maybe just half of a glass," I told her. That was all the room I had left.