Wednesday, March 23, 2011

How much honey can I get with a dollar fifty and a couple food stamps?

“One of the most difficult things in the world is to convince a woman that even a bargain costs money.”
-no one will admit to this quote.

How much honey can I get with a dollar fifty and a couple food stamps?

“Sir, in Cambodia you must visit the killing fields,” says the tuk-tuk driver in Phnom Penh, trying to solicit a fare. It’s without coincidence the site is thirteen kilometers outside the city, that to visit on foot would eat up most the day and require three gallons of Gatorade to replenish the lost fluids and electrolytes in the humidity. What’s that? They don’t sell Gatorade here? Well, I guess if I want to visit then you, sir, are my only option.

Unfortunately, I have no desire to go. I’ve already tiptoed through the Killing Caves of Battambang and the S-21 torture chamber of Phnom Penh. I get it. The Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, decimated a quarter of the country’s population from 1975-79 in an effort to transform the nation into a peasant-dominated cooperative. Taking Marxist and Maoist ideas to the extreme, Pol Pot sought to wipe out the educated and elite, sending all city-dwellers to the fields for hard physical labor. When doing so the Khmer Rouge proclaimed it Year Zero. The beginning. It ended four years later. The Vietnamese entered and liberated the country. Famine and civil strife followed. Many Khmer Rouge leaders still await trial for the atrocities that are now over thirty years old.

The gears of justice turn slow indeed.

The Cambodians want you to know their story, their struggle. They want to sell it to you.

Without historical context these sites are benign, the Killing Caves just interesting tunnels in the earth, S-21 simply an abandoned schoolhouse. But for the skulls, pictures, and pamphlets not worth meandering to out of one’s way. Well, what of appreciating something for what it is now?

Unless I see spirits it’s just a few dilapidated buildings converted into primitive prison cells. Whereas Angkor Wat astounds for what it is now, as much as for what it was, these sites of genocide or, more appropriately, of class-i-cide, for the revolution was one of economics and labor, are not worth a visit. Gloomy, solemn, depressing, light on information and heavy on pictures and emotional paraphernalia, it’s the equivalent of a late-night infomercial asking you to pledge $1.60 a day to support a Sudanese orphan. The ‘why’ and ‘what for’ are missing. One’s much better off reading a book and gaining an understanding of the history rather than ambling through these sites where your hosts expect tears, which, naturally, should be followed up by the opening of your wallet and the retrieval of an additional donation beyond the entrance fee.

Let’s take three steps back. Isn’t it incredible a Cambodian won a scholarship to study in Paris, found truth in the Communist Manifesto, and returned home to revolutionize Cambodia into a farming community utopia? Like Hitler and Mao, a great leader with grand revolutionizing ambition that, in many ways operated without regard for self and solely for the engineering of what was perceived as the greater good. Of course, no good came of it, but the ability to mobilize and arm an idea is incredible. Now, why was it that I need to visit these fields?

Cambodians will try to sell anything. Like the police officer hawking his badge outside a temple near Angkor Wat. He pointed at the medal and asked, “You see this?”

Damn. What did I do and how much is it going to cost to buy your silence?

“You want to buy?”


“Give you medal for good price.”

No thanks. You might need that if you ever attempt to enforce the law.

I’ve seen police officers signal and yell at children manning motorbikes to stop and pull over. The kids whizzed right past, laughing and calling the policemen names. The officers grimaced, shrugged, and resumed their posts.

Expectations and social norms are vastly different here from those of the world’s economic elite. While reading by the river in Siem Reap, Cambodia I was interrupted several times by Cambodians wanting to practice their English. Not reticent to interrupt, their logic is without fault. As explained, reading that is unlikely to lead to greater earnings does not make sense. Noting that my book was of the paperback variety, i.e, not a textbook, they were doing me a favor by taking my attention away from it.

Well, if you’re not trying to sell me a tuk-tuk ride or ten postcards for a dollar my time is yours.

The conversation would, inevitably, venture into the dream of marrying a woman because one is in love, as is allowed—if rather foolishly—in American culture. In Cambodia it’s all about money. Marriage must be of economic advantage to the bride, her family, and family that’s to be borne from the union. Without the ability to provide marriage, like reading, does not make sense. The parents of the pursued female will not allow time for seduction, let alone approve of the matrimony. Family, both primary and extended, is so important to Cambodian culture that defiance of its wishes never intrudes into the cerebellum. The standard amount necessary before marriage and coitus: five thousand dollars. About three times the average Cambodian’s annual income.

In Battambang the back of the tour guide’s tuk-tuk was home to the phrase, “No money, no honey.” Touring with two independent travelers, a woman from Australia and a woman from the United Kingdom, I find they are, apparently , both die hard romantics. They interrogate our guide for ten minutes on the topic of, “Well, but what about if you’re in love?”

He responds:

“Only in American movies.”

“The more the money the more the love.”

Finally, exasperated, he points to the back of his tuk-tuk, at the slogan a foot and a half in height.

“But is there anyone special if you had money?” the girls ask.

“Yes. Need money.”He holds out his hand.

“Uh,” the women stammer simultaneously, “we’d better get going to Phnom Banan temples before sunset.”

In Phnom Penh I had to dine at the ‘ol F.C.C. or, for the crass and uncultured, the Foreign Correspondents Club. There were no identifiable correspondents.

This place popped up in several books I’ve read, most recently Yoga For Those That Can’t Be Bothered To Do It, by Geoff Dyer, containing an excellent chapter on the author’s comically frustrating travels through Cambodia, for which I have a new appreciation for. The F.C.C. overlooks the Tonle Sap River and comes off as nonchalant classy, filled to the brim with ostentatious travel-wise Caucasoids smoking, drinking, and biting into overpriced entrees.

A pack of cigs: 40 cents.

A pint of Angkor beer on draft: 50 cents.

Spending $12 on an American hamburger while perched above the impoverished masses struggling to survive in Cambodia’s capital: eternal guilt.

Keep drifting.

Friday, March 18, 2011

In the land of beggars the limbless man is king.

"A rich man is nothing but a poor man with money.”

-W.C. Fields

In the land of beggars the limbless man is king.

Cambodia is an emotional cauldron. While unsure as to the proportions of each adjective, I am certain that they are, appropriately, juxtaposed. Exotically chaotic, frustratingly beautiful, a country that can both charm and chill to the bone, a land where children will be smiling and waving at you from the left side of the street while the right is littered with signs reading, “Danger! Mines!”

Don’t come to Cambodia to relax, to vacate from reality, to vacation. Come for an education, for adventure. Come here to travel.

In Angkor Thom you may find yourself pedaling around an elephant-taxi only to have your bike’s front tire advancing head-on at several monkeys in the road. It’s one of those ‘moments’, only a split second or two, that may show up in the mind’s movie reel as you exhale for the final time. Same with Battambang’s Bamboo Train, where an ultra-light frame made of—you guessed it--bamboo is powered by a small gasoline engine along a click-clacking French-era single track line. When a ‘train’ comes from the opposite direction the less loaded one is disassembled to let the other pass. It’s akin to a roller coaster without all those silly safety precautions. Like seatbelts.

There’s the Killing Caves of Phnom Sampeau where, aside a reclining Buddha, sits a memorial of skulls from those bludgeoned to death and thrown into the cave by the Khmer Rouge. Clubs were the favored tool of execution to save bullets. Phnom Penh’s Tuol Sleng Museum is even more stomach-churning, a high school before Pol Pot’s security forces converted it into a torture chamber in 1975. Known as S-21, thousands met their demise through starvation only after being electrocuted and having their toenails plied off. Thousands of faces stare at you as you tour through, the deceased photographed by the Khmer Rouge to document the revolution.

From Cambodia what you’re certain to take home with you is a sense of guilt, of shame. For ever thinking you’ve lived a hard-knock life. For ever carrying the thought, ‘woe is me’. No. Woe is Cambodia.

You walk into Angkor Wat or one of the surrounding temples and they can’t be avoided. Young kids in ragged clothing selling postcards and magnets and bracelets that nobody wants. From three year-olds to seven to twelve, all ages are of the working class in Cambodia. Even on a Tuesday at ten in the morning. They’re being schooled in how to shout, “Ten postcards for one dollar,” which quickly turns into ten postcards for fifty cents as they run along side you and then, as you finally escape into the temple, your back to them, they yell out that they’ll throw in a few bracelets for free.

They might as well be selling Dengue Fever or malaria or STDs. Nobody wants it. Nobody wants to be asked if they want it. Nobody wants to be solicited for five minutes by the same persistent five-year-old who’s been wearing the same pair of shorts for the last thirty-seven days. Nobody wants the pleas followed up by the phrase, “Please buy, mister. Really want to go to school.”

You hear this from ten different children in a half hour and it’s no longer effective. True or not, it’s just a fact of life. Fair or not, upon the hundredth hearing it no longer makes its way into the lobe.

But you see it. Dirt on his forehead, elbows sticking out, a collarbone jutting from the skin seemingly eager to look at the temples itself. Toenails cracked, split the entire length of the nail. You can feel his desperation.

You’re at a restaurant enjoying dinner in Siem Reap, Cambodia, your pineapple shake the perfect palate companion to your pineapple chicken. Winding down after a long, increasingly humid, sunrise to sunset temple biking tour, you put in over fifty kilometers and its time to kick back and gorge like an Italian mob Don. Life is good, but not for everyone.

A young boy walks right up to you. You’re sitting down at a restaurant enjoying dinner and this boy, not a shred of respect, approaches hawking books. Then bracelets. He’s using the school line. You want some peace, some alone time from the impoverished, an evening without the sign on your back that lets the locals know you excrete U.S. currency. You can’t crap without adding to your bank account.

“Fine,” the boy says, dejectedly adamant. “You buy me fried rice.”

Okay. Sit down.

He looks at you, shrugs, remains standing. Five minutes pass. The waiter comes by to shoo the kid off, but you say, “No. No, I told him I would buy him fried rice.”

The boy stands, silent, perplexed. Two plates are brought out.

“Can I sit down?” the boy asks.

You’re white, weigh over a hundred kilos and stoop down to eat. He’s small, dirty and can just reach his food. When you’re almost a third of the way done he’s licking his plate clean. He stays seated, watching as you finish dinner, salivating as you sip on your shake.

Other kids arrive. A half dozen. They want you to buy postcards and magnets.

These children, they catch on quickly, their requested demands soon metamorphose into, “Buy me fried rice like you did for him.” They all look just as hungry, they’d all lick their plates clean before you took your fifth swallow. They’re all sad to look at. Their smiles are all beautiful.

Poor and hungry, they still smile. They still have a glow to their eyes like you’ve never seen before in the overabundant First World from which you originate.

You came here for this as much as the temples. The people, the poverty, you wanted to find out how it would make you feel. You wanted to find out if you’d feel.

In Battambang, Cambodia you come out of a store and she pounces. Her cheekbones in your face, her gauntness making her eyes appear that much larger. A woman in rags holding two infants, one in each arm. Just waiting for someone with money in their pocket to walk out of the store and look into her pupils or, better yet, the eyes of one of her babies.

In Phnom Penh, Cambodia you’re walking back to your guest house after visiting the Tuol Seng Museum, despondent after taking in the torture chamber. A hand grasps your arm. You turn to look at your assailant. He’s forty, maybe fifty, he’s thrusting his other hand in your face. It’s not there. There is no other hand. He’s intent on ensuring you take notice.

You keep walking. He keeps clutching. Simultaneously a tuk-tuk driver is pestering for a fare.

You maintain that you’re not interested in a ride. You say this seven times because the tuk-tuk driver keeps asking. They all do. They all require seven ‘no thank yous’ before moving on to harass someone else. The beggar releases his grasp on your arm only when you steer him into a motorcycle parked on the side of the road.

Come on, you're thinking. He still had a hand to work with. That's how numb you've become.

The next block, it brings a woman scooting herself and the child on her lap down the road. Inching along the pavement, the motorcycles lurch and totter around her. She has legs but they’re apparantly inoperable.

Just where the hell is she going? It’s going to take her the next three weeks to traverse the street.

Just where the hell are you?

Oh, right. Cambodia.

Keep drifting.

The ladies of Angkor Wat.

Inside Angkor Wat.

From Phnom Sampeau, outside Battambang, Cambodia.

I guess it's time to turn back.

Phnom Banan, outside Battambang, Cambodia.
Skulls from the Killing Caves outside Battambang, Cambodia.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The good, the bad, and Cambodia. [Part 2]

“The money’s the same, whether you earn it or scam it.”

-Bobby Heenan

The good, the bad, and Cambodia. [Part 2]

My 30 day visa-free stay in Thailand was down to its last day. Rather than use government channels of transport as I had been, which are slow but honest, I was forced to rely on private commercial enterprises so as to not incur an immigration fine. The swindlers I fell victim to easily quadrupled any prospective overstay tax.

It was a boat ride from Ko Phi Phi, Thailand to Krabi town, an overnight bus from Krabi to Krung Thep (Bangkok), a morning minivan trip to the Thai-Cambodian border at the Aranya Prathet-Poipet crossing, a visa-on-arrival, and another minivan jaunt to Siem Reap, Cambodia. A full 30 hours of travel during which I was scammed on multiple fronts.

It began with the chartered bus from Krabi to Krung Thep. During the fourteen hour ride the bus stops twice, not counting the ninety minute interruption from a breakdown between towns. The two premeditated stops each include a restaurant with nothing else in the vicinity. No big deal until you notice the price for fried rice is three times that than you’ve paid anywhere else. And it’s cold. But it’s pay up or go without a meal. So, naturally, I order three servings.

What? We’re on a cross-country trip riding a bus without a toilet and the two places we stop at charge by the minute for bathroom use? I’ll wipe later.

Okay, fifty baht here, one-hundred baht there, no big deal. A bit of swindling is a time honored foreigner-in-a-foreign country tradition. You got me this time, but I’ll pack a lunch the next and take a stool stopper before getting on the bus.

Real-Time Travel Tip #4: If you’re in Southeast Asia and you’re traveling amongst a legion of Caucasoids not only did you overpay, but you’re going to end up paying much more along the way. It’s far better to be the only white person on the bus.

A side note: During one of the two restaurant stops the Thai purveyors were playing the first Jackass film. As I was waiting to pay for the privilege of using the bathroom the Thai toilet watchman and I were laughing together while admiring such bits as Stevo lighting a firecracker from his arse and another where a urine soaked snow cone is eaten. I’ve never been prouder to be an American.

A second side note: The bus was completely full. It was stuffy and humid. The last to get on, I ended up sharing the back bench seat with four women from eastern Europe. I was constantly awoken by bumps, jolts and engine backfires during the night, released from a REM-state to a beard of sweat, lakes of perspiration under my armpits, a head snoozing on my shoulder and another on my leg. I’ve never been more intimate with people I’ve said nothing more than ‘hi’ to.

Arriving in Krung Thep in the early morning, knowing I need to exit the country by the afternoon, I seek the aid of a tourist company. The first and last time I intend to.

The owners are so welcoming that I take a shower in their bathroom. All smiles, these are people I can trust to assist. Both parties are pleased with the transaction that transpires. Last minute transport to the Cambodian Border is arranged, along with visa service, transport after crossing into Cambodia, and the first night’s stay in Siem Reap, near the gates of Angkor Wat. At least this is what I believed my bargained for benefit to be.

At the Thailand-Cambodia crossing the clouds come out. Everything swathed in shade, especially our Cambodian ‘handler’ who we are, appropriately per his title, handed off to. His English is exceptional, his border crossing savvy unparalleled, before the undertaking he gathers the ten traveling Caucasoids together and goes through a laundry list of potential entry scams we may face. Trust no one. Except him, of course.

Many of these scams are also laid out in my guidebook, but during the huddle our quarterback warns of others. This is up-to-the-second intel; we’re being briefed by a Cambodian defector. Wait, what if he’s a double agent?

The handler tells us it’s preferential to trade baht for riel (Cambodian currency), instead of dollars for riel. We’ll get a much better exchange rate. On the Thai side I stock up on baht.

To help aid in processing our visas the handler will need more money. Upon inquiry we are assured over and over again that this is the only way, that without another thirty dollars each we will have to wait three days at the border for processing. Sir, they wouldn’t call them ‘visas-on-arrival’ if we had to wait three days, we explain to him. “No, no, no, you are all mistaken, if you want to enter Cambodia today you need to pay a processing fee. Border rules change all the time. Your books are not accurate.”

After warning us of such scams our handler is scamming us. If we don’t pay, however, the minivan taxis we already arranged for on the Cambodian side would not wait for us. An ominous threat in a country where transportation is much more difficult to arrange than in Thailand, where buses only operate once or twice a day in the early morning. The sun reached its zenith three hours ago. We’re likely to get stuck in the border town of Proipet, Cambodia, home to gangsters and brothels at a time when Cambodia and Thailand are engaged in border skirmishes over the ownership of a sacred temple farther north. Fear prevails. Thirty dollars is handed over. Our visas are processed, during which time we ask the Cambodian immigration officers about the visa fee and the potential wait time. We are assured that visas-on-arrival do not require a waiting period or any fees beyond twenty dollars, the amount we already paid for the service when booking transportation.

We meet up with our handler. He’s all smiles, welcoming us to his country. His grin goes unreturned. We begin accusing him of cheating us. All the sudden his English deteriorates, he can not understand what we are getting at, but remains adamant that, “Without me you would still be in line for processing and would have to wait much longer.”

Please refer to Real-Time Travel Tip #4.

At a Cambodian currency exchange counter I notice a dollar gets 4,000 riel while 30 baht--one dollar converted to Thai currency--will only garner 3,000 reil. To trade baht for reil is to lose a third in the conversion as compared to dollars, completely contradicting the handler’s advice. I stuff all the baht I bought two hours ago into my backpack. Now I have to carry a bunch of Thai currency around the next couple months until I return to the Land of Smiles.

How about something you’ve already surmised. I’m not smiling now.

We’re bused to the minivans for transportation to Siem Reap. Unfortunately, the minivan service we booked is having difficulties. Oh dear. We’re a good two kilometers away from the port of entry and the company will not be able to accommodate us today. What luck, an alternative presents itself. We can pay more money for ‘upgraded’ vehicles from a different company. Some pay. I refuse. Now I am unable to understand English that well and the reason for the additional expense. I am let onto one of the ‘upgraded’ vans anyway.

During the three hour ride the van stops once. It’s at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere. I pay three times us much as usual for the cheapest thing on the menu, fried rice, but urinate on the side of the road.

Even the kids are in on it. As soon as we exit the van for the restaurant young girls surround us. Several of them begin tying bracelets to my wrists before I even set a foot on the ground. “For free,” they promise, then stick their hands out after garnishing me with pink and purple souvenirs. “You have Thai coin for me?” No. “Need money for school, mister.” No, no coins. “Really want to learn, mister.”

You wouldn’t believe these faces. Four year-olds with doe eyes looking up, their pupils filled with heartrending hope. Optimism infused with desolation, eyes that say with a little generosity you can do so much. Irises that were born for begging.

It works. I’m so forgetful. I do have a few leftover Thai coins.

“Dollar, mister.” A chanted demand. The words are sung. “Just one dollar. Really want to go to school and learn. Really want to be smart like you, mister, and bring help for my family.”

Seven expectant hands reach out.

Rather than taking us to our prepaid hotel as promised during the booking process the van stops six kilometers outside of Siem Reap. Conveniently, we are disposed of at a tuk-tuk (motorcycle taxi) service station. “Would you like to buy a ticket for transport into Siem Reap?“ The sun is setting. We’re in a foreign country where the people seem to be far less moral than the one we left. We’re tired, hot and frustrated. Yes, we’ll buy a f***ing ticket.

Please refer to Real-Time Travel Tip #4.

The prepaid hotel, he’s never heard of it before, our tuk-tuk driver tells me and the Dane I’m with, our knees pressed to our chins in a carriage made for midgets as the motorcycle is perilously steered between a few cars, a ton of bikes and infinite cyclos. I look at the receipt. The name of the hotel is written in sloppy scrawl, identified as ‘T-Mark’. I’m thinking the driver is probably right. It probably doesn’t exist. I was stupid not to have recorded detailed hotel information upon booking. Instead I simply stuffed the receipt into my pocket, excited at the time that everything was working out so well. We stop at an internet café and make a phone call to the travel agency. The travel agents, the pleasant couple whose bathroom I used in the morning, can no longer understand English in the evening. Nonetheless, I remain adamant. I’m talking to a dial tone.

Another call, this time unanswered with no option to leave a message.

International calls end up costing 2,000 reil per minute, not per call, as I understood before dialing.

Hmm. How much would it set me back if I smash every computer screen in the internet café?

The travel agency is registered with the Thai Tourist Authority. I’ll make another more-expensive-than-I-expected call to report the business. With enough complaints their license will be revoked. They’ll have to pay a few hundred baht to change the name of their company and apply for a new Tourist Authority certificate.

I’ve already covered their dissolution and re-incorporation expenses three times over with a steak dinner to spare.

The thing about getting scammed is that it’s a fantastic bonding experience for the victims. Nothing brings about more camaraderie than a mutual antagonist (or antagonists--it’s us against the continent). We celebrate our successful entry into Cambodia in the sense that we did, in fact, enter. (Unless this is a scam as well and I’m still in Thailand. If so, they’re really good and deserve all the money in my bank account.) We gripe about being swindled in one of the world’s poorest countries, where on the van ride to Siem Reap we witnessed children walking naked amidst scrap metal housing unfit for a strong wind. We looked out at unattended toddlers playing in sludge-filled trenches. We laughed at squealing pigs as they were tied, bound and transported on the back of a motorbike, their stomachs hanging off the sides of the backseat. We make plans to visit Angkor Wat together in the morning.

I don’t go with the group. I wake up early and move to a guest house several kilometers away. I know better.

Please refer to Real-Time Travel Tip #4.

Keep drifting.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia, the world's largest religous building.
An intimate moment caught just outside Angkor Wat.
Bayon of Angkor Thom, home of over 200 sculpted faces.
Bayon, where you're always being watched.
Ta Prohm, a Buddhist temple dedicted to a Khmer God-King's mother. Also, where scenes from Tomb Raider were shot.
Preah Khan, the Temple of the Sacred Sword. Or, the place where I pretended I was Indiana Jones for two hours.
A 20,000 riel note, a very intimidating currency. You're looking at $5.

The good, the bad, and Cambodia. [Part 1]

“Madam, there's no such thing as a tough child - if you parboil them first for seven hours, they always come out tender."

-W.C. Fields

The good, the bad, and Cambodia [Part 1]

Upon exiting Thailand allow me to induce you to visit.

I was recently on the receiving end of a ninety minute massage--and only a massage, you pervert--for 150 baht (about $5). In corporeal euphoria I gave the masseuse another 100 baht, gratuity for a job well done. She waied me several times as if I were a Buddhist relic. My physical form already on cloud nine and now here’s my mind. Carrying the peace of a philanthropist. Bliss in both body and brain for a mere $8.

So, have you booked your ticket to Thailand yet? As your pack your rucksack for the Land of Smiles please throw in a couple sticks of Old Spice. My travel size containers were exhausted days ago. It’s all natural from here on out because how can one pay for deodorant at over 150 baht a stick when the same can purchase three full meals at a food stall or a ninety minute rubdown?

This isn’t going to sound right. I love Thai children. Imagine a three year-old on a six hour train ride. How about a four year-old on a seven hour, painfully bumpy bus ride. Imagine the child doing two things throughout the entire transportation process. Smiling and sleeping. I’m unsure if they’re given opiates ahead of time or if they’re just naturally content, but I never see these auburn babies upset. I never hear them whine or pine for extra sweets or toys at the store. When I was at the Chang Mai Zoo weeks ago there were busloads of schoolchildren wandering around and they were all so damn happy. Way, way too happy. Not in respects to being at a zoo--the animals didn’t seem to impress them much at all--but just a general sense of joy. Many of them, with sheepish grins, would volunteer a ‘hello’ my way, hoping for a response in kind. The best words to describe their disposition: relaxed delight. Infectious, anytime they were around there was usually a smile on my face too. Something about as rare as a crimson moon. I have a Skype session scheduled with Angelina Jolie for next Tuesday. I’m going to find out how to take one of these things home.

The term ‘things’ is appropriate because they can’t be human. People, especially lawyers and children, get upset and frustrated and gripe and talk back. They spit and stammer and stomp their feet. They flick snot-burgers. I haven’t see anything of the sort from these happily opiated Thai cyborg children. At least give me the software so I can download one.

Thank god (whoever yours may be) for American exhaust regulations. Here, while the modes of transport seem to be more fuel efficient--motorbikes, go-cart tricycle taxis, public buses--the fumes released bring to mind coal power plants. Those on motorbikes favor surgical masks over helmets ten to one for good reason. By mid-afternoon I usually find myself light headed and wheezing. Sometimes it’s the traffic and sometimes it’s because I just passed the most beautiful Asian woman I’ve ever seen. Again.

Skin-moisturizer in Thailand is like toothpaste. You can’t buy one that doesn’t contain a ‘whitening’ formula. To be dark is to be a second class citizen. It’s better to have more Chinese DNA (associated with intelligence and wealth) than Khmer (associated with farming and peasantry). Thais are the world’s most tolerant racists. Refrain from the tanning bed at least two weeks before entry.

This will be difficult to accept with your farang egoism. Thailand is far more advanced than the country you currently find yourself in. 543 years more advanced, to be precise. The Thai calendar measures from the beginning of the Buddhist era, the year of Siddhartha’s enlightenment, or 543 B.C. When a guest house receipt shows a checkout date for the sixth month of the year 2554 one initially thinks one either (1) received the greatest deal since the United States stole bought its west coast from Mexico, or (2) traveled in time. For me, the latter. Fear not Chicago Cubs fans. A World Series is realized in the year 2452. (Or 1908 with a farang calendar. I guess I can only prophesize the past.)

In Thailand you’re never without a wat within a five minute walk. Incredibly, they’re all beautiful. Take a bus ride 100 kilometers out of the city and there, in the middle of nowhere, is yet another temple complex harboring yet another chedi (stupa). Gilded and gleaming, the Buddha is with you wherever you go. His image is always accompanied by a sign: DONATIONS ARE APPRECIATED. There’s never a fee, one can’t buy enlightenment in baht.

Strike that. This is Theravada Buddhism, where even the lay disciple (a non-monk) has a chance at nirvana.

It’s called a ninety minute massage. It costs five dollars.

Keep drifting.

Ko Phi Phi, Thailand, where photo editing is never needed.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Fortunately, even paradise needs a sewer system.

“Paradise is exactly like where you are right now… only much, much better."

-Laurie Anderson

Fortunately, even paradise needs a sewer system.

Cambodia is an entirely different, far more haggard and hard-edged animal than Thailand, but that’s for a later entry. You’re still in Ko Phi Phi, always straggling days behind. Like Lance Armstong devoid of blood doping. You know it’s not cheating if everyone is doing it, right?

I appreciate your integrity. So to the islands we go.

Ko Phi Phi, Thailand refers to a collection of 6 islands, the only of which is inhabited is Ko Phi Phi Don, the largest. As per the Lonely Planet guidebook, “Ko Phi Phi could sweep all the global beach ‘best’ categories and everyone knows it.” My first day on the island ended clambering up a hill to watch the sunset. I won’t try to encapsulate the splendor. Words would be inane. Okay, fine, but I’m no Hemingway. I’m not even Hemingway’s mole on his left shoulder that he had removed fourteen years before suicide-by-shotgun. How about: a picture perfect paradise so stunning pictures are incapable of capturing it. Why fumble around with a camera when photographs are as inept as words? A complete and comprehensive failure. Worse than my efforts not to ogle the opposite sex on the beach.

A glance, a double or even a triple take, that’s socially acceptable. A fourth gander borderline. An unyielding ogling, a tongue connected to the collar bone, a saliva sweat line, this reeks of indecency

Hello, officer. No sir, no one’s been stalking here. We both just happened to be lost and were wondering around in identical misdirection. What? She spent the last hour trying to lose me? Please, it’s only been forty-five minutes.

Similar to the surroundings, describing the women in Ko Phi Phi is unfeasible for an amateur writer. I’m no Hugh Heffner. I have much better taste. These aren’t creatures of the peroxide and silicone variety, but natural international sun-kissed beauties glistening in the humidity. It’s as if only the world’s most beautiful people were allowed onto the world’s most beautiful collection of isles and I managed to sneak in through the sewer system. It was well worth it, even though after seven showers my upper lip still smells like whatever it is you last flushed down.

Urine, feces, or a combination of both is an appropriate segue when transitioning into on my budget ‘accommodations.’ At 300 baht a night (about $10) this is about the most I’ve paid for a room since I started, the cheapest in Ko Phi Phi. It is also the most appalling. The mattress and walls have tiny dark stains, indicative of old blood. The deduction: bedbugs, Dr. Watson. So it’s time to tip the mattress against the wall, lay down a towel, and use a pair of pants for a pillow. Yes, I did indeed sneak through the sewer system. For a rat I am alarmingly close to the beach, the view of the ocean “inspired”. (I am unsure as to what this means, but many elegant men have used the term in such instances and so, to distance myself from the other filth floating around in the drainage, I employ it too.) How can a room like this, the square footage and squalor of which make a prison cell superior, be situated in a place like this?

The perfect day. One of those where, by mid-afternoon, you’re thinking, ‘this is it.’ The reason I’ve been inhaling and exhaling since the caesarian section. Whatever, it was only a snorkeling trip. A full day for only 350 baht (less than $12), lunch and pineapple snack included. I was situated on the boat next to a pleasant French girl, shy in demeanor yet daringly extroverted in beach dress. As if swimsuit material were spun from gold and she was on the lowest end of the socioeconomic scale. We toured around sheer limestone crags jutting out of the sea, a landscape as dramatic as the Grand Canyon. Except, of course, in the opposite direction. A snorkeling odyssey from island to cove to inlet, from places like Monkey Beach to Maya Bay to Shark’s Point. Lunch on the beach from, well, you know, The Beach. It ended with a sunset. A red-orange sphere melding into the ocean, eventually swallowed by limestone cliff silhouettes.

To want nothing more is how a man should feel on his wedding day. I’m unsure if I should be proposing to the French girl or the scenery.

Whatever happens with these Ko Phi-Phi natural international sun-kissed beauties, well, that’s for the personal journal. Yes, bitter failures go into the personal journal. Yes, the ‘s’ at the end of ‘failure’ indicates there was a multitude. Yes, you’re unusually perceptive, it was upwards of fifty-seven. Okay, it was ninety-two. And yes, I tried the ‘Did it hurt when you fell from heaven line?’, but it didn’t make sense. I’m there. There is no where to fall from.

Not until I get back to my budget ‘accommodations.’

Keep drifting.

A snorkeling Shangri-la.

To the left, Ko Phi Phi Ley, home of The Beach.

A Ko Phi Phi Don sunset; what may appear to be an adequate picture until viewing it in the flesh.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Ronald McDonald is a drag queen.

“People travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home.”

–Dagobert D. Rune

Ronald McDonald is a drag queen.

Phuket, Thailand, the country’s largest island, is a Euro utopia, the beach all butchered English and speedos and brazenly bare middle-aged breasts. Oftentimes it’s difficult to tell whether said boobs belong to man or woman as most have fallen victim to both gravity and excess, their nipples and bellybuttons close enough neighbors to be on good speaking terms. Not that I’m looking.

This comes as quite a contrast to the Thais, who are generally quite modest, often observed bathing in both swimsuit and shirt. Paddling right between banana-hammock Europeans, the Caucasoid pillars baking under the tropical sun. Hope you like your meat well done.

Without premeditation I’ve wound up sleeping at the guesthouse appearing on film in The Beach. It’s not as decrepit as depicted on the silver screen over a decade ago, but I am happy to report still has plenty of down and out charm. What happenstance, I set off for Ko Phi Phi shortly, home to the beach from, well, you know, The Beach. How incredibly inadvertent.

There’s good reason why Phuket is the country’s richest province as result of tourism and why you’re just as likely to hear a Germanic language on the beach as Thai. If allowed, the jungle stretches to the sea, which is clear when caressing the sand and then fades from turquoise to emerald and jade, the ocean one giant, glistening gem. Upon snorkel submersion one becomes the camera for a National Geographic video. The fish all colors of the rainbow and extroverted, schools swimming into your facemask, a three-hundred and fifty-nine degree panorama of underwater enchantment. That last degree spoiled; just as you’re about to complete the circle one of those middle-aged breasts finds its way into your camera lens. Not that you’re looking.

As the sun rises Phuket life is all about snorkeling and skidoos and riding an inflated banana over the ocean top as its pulled along by a long-tail boat. As the sun sets the entertainment is decidedly different. You know that sweet ’ol aunt of yours, the one that hasn’t missed Sunday service since 1968 when she just had her appendix removed? Don’t let her leave the hotel in the evening.

While similar in appearance, this isn’t Hawaii on the humid setting. Phuket is far more seedy. Sure, there are tranquil, family stretches of beach and secluded bays for the rich and well-known. Then there’s Patong. Home of the more-famous-than-one-ought-think lady-boy cabaret. A class act all the way, from the costumes to the original score, but I find myself unable to pay for such things when already inundated with transgender entertainment while walking the streets. Some sois bring about gender confusion and I find it necessary to check my bits and pieces both before and after passage through to ensure I am still, at least technically, a man.

Awkward is walking down an alleyway while uncertain whether boy, lady, or a combination of both, is licking his or her or its lips and purring like a kitten. If unsuspicious one might remark on the length and leanness of the leg, the shortness of the skirt, the supple contours of the abdomen, or the brassiere that leaves just enough to the imagination. Or the Adam’s Apple.

Head down, check the bits, everything’s in order, keep walking. Hell, after lying on the beach all day isn’t a jog in order?

Real-Time Travel Tip #3: Embrace the uncomfortable. Figuratively. It usually means you’re in the middle of something interesting.

Now, if you can just make it out sans bite marks…

How about some advice in earnest? Don’t let those of transgender engender you to scratch Thailand off your travel bucket list. If you and your aunt are of a similarly sweet disposition please note that lady-boys are largely well-received within Thai culture and seem fairly sweet themselves. This is why you left home in the first place. To feel the wind at another longitude. Sometimes the breeze begets goose bumps.

Unease the new fad, it’s anti-escapism, forcing you into the moment.

So fleeting, after navigating another soi the lady-boys bring nothing more than nonchalance. As common as rice and your daydream work concerns return. Now a McDonald’s, that’s something I haven’t seen in Thailand before. Cool, there’s a statue of Ronald outside forming a wai. Adorned with a woman’s wig, he’s really become one with the locale.

Clown transvestites I can handle. The naturally born women who, to grab your attention outside a massage parlor, literally grab you, quickly detract from one’s sense of sea-gifted harmony. The exact opposite of the lady-boys, first it’s flattering. The cooing, the ‘hey big handsome man’, the hand on your butt. Then you realize they’re doing the same thing to those Euro man-boobed men who flew out here for the very thing. Just like the tuk-tuk drivers pulling aside you asking, ‘Hey you, where you go?’ thrice every block, it’s the service industry sucking-the-paradise-out-of-paradise in all it’s ulcer-inducing glory, intent on separating a farang from his baht.

Okay, you’re right. The hand on the butt, it’s not so bad.

At least until you spot the Adam’s Apple.

Keep drifting.

Chalong Bay, Phuket, Thailand

I splurged, paying an extra $1.50 for a room with its own bathroom; a model of efficiency, the showerhead is above the sink next to the squat toilet.

A hidden beach, between Kamala and Surin beaches, Phuket, Thailand