A Travelers TaleBy Simon Brown
Zen and the art of traveling
Zen is such a good word.
Apart from being a little overused and misplaced, it’s a mighty three-letter word.
Zen means the journey and what is learnt through the application of oneself during the said practice.
It’s the ‘Zen,’ man.
To all things there is an ‘art’ no matter how dull, tedious, small or worthless there is an art.
Not much to say really, Zen and the art of traveling.
Such a good title.
Sven and the art of Traveling
Sven was a loud mouth arrogant German gob-shite who woke up one morning next to a lady boy with a bigger cock than his.
I fell off my fucking bar stool.
I wonder what he learnt along the way?
Just an idea
I have come up with a reality TV show. You take twenty spotty gap-year or post-grad students who are now ‘travelers’ and give them a good kicking.
You take twenty spotty gap-year or post grad students who are now ‘travelers-man!’ and give them a budget and various destinations to get to, a time period and a backpack that weighs a shitload.
Then give them a good kicking.
Then at the airport as they approach customs, you tell them you put 7 kilo’s of heroin in their backpacks.
You wanna buy?
I have never been famous. I now know I never want to be. I have fantasised and flirted with the concept, as I’m sure we all have. One thing I know is that I do not want to be. I have been well known in certain circles and have enjoyed the notoriety and privileges ‘games’ bring. I have also been victim of jealousy and gossip for such practices of the above, but never fame, the hounded, stared at kind of fame. The constant surveillance, everybody wants a piece of you fame. If you are toying with the idea of being a celebrity, want attention and limelight, then travel to Asia. Come to Cambodia for you will get your just deserves. From king, royal guest and flavor of the month to social leper, rotten foreigner and ‘tight monkey bastard’ in a day. Of course this all depends how you feel, whom you meet and how tired you are. The welcoming smiles, questions and semi demands of tuk-tuk drivers and motto-drivers are one thing. The asking of dollar from sellers, beggars and passing children is another. The curious hellos from the locals, and swarms of school kids that greet you in English as they giggle shyly is cool. This with the downright unnerving stares from the rural locals with machetes, the constant waving by people with missing limbs, pushing their mate who’s even less limbs and the attention and flirtation of the boom-boom girls and boys are what can be described as your all out local Cambodian paparazzi circus. In Asia everyone wants piece of you and every one is persistent. To ask you at least four times the same question, to follow you down the street and to ask the same question in disguises is the way it is.
“You want tuk-tuk?”
“No, thank you.”
“Where you go? I take you.”
“No. Its okay.”
“You want Marijuana?”
“No, thank you.”
“You want boom-boom? Young lady, tight pussy for you.”
“No thank you.”
“You no like girls?”
“Yes I like girls.”
“Then you want boom-boom. I give you a lift. I wait. You smoke?”
“No, I’m okay thank you. I’m just going to the shop down the road.”
“No, I like women not girls and I don’t smoke dope anymore okay.”
“Huh? You want woman? BOOM-BOOM? Come with me.”
“My friend I wait for you. Give you lift for free. You MY FRIEND.”
And so it carries on. A two-hour play could be written I’m sure. ‘Uncle Sam’s dollar, mister you buy this. That’s not a ‘priceless’ gemstone and is that girl old enough?’ is what I will call it. It will have to be a musical of course. The soundtrack will be the bashing of artificial limbs against tin lids, old ladies warbling, the cacophony, magic and mayhem of the very underground Asian sound and a huge chorus of, “you buy this for good luck miiiiister. Love you long time.”
Of course this is all good fun and why not. People have aright to be friendly, to try and make money and lead you astray. However, when you are tired, just want to read a book quietly, sit at a restaurant or think you are in private taking a shit it can get too much.
Anyway, if you want to see what its like to be famous come to Asia.
I’m not a Buddhist.
I’m more of a ‘Wouldist.’ I would if I could, but I often give into temptation and apathy and have the discipline and self-control of…well me, which is a little more than an alcoholic with a stolen credit card in an off license. I also don’t really agree with the obsessive pursuit of spirituality. It’s a bit like a dog chasing its tail. I have tried meditation, I even went on a ten-day silent retreat, which I must admit was great and I having nothing against self-improvement and the forging of the will. Its just that I get confused with spirit reality too often and find enlightenment mixing with other monks in the temple of a bar. I have been to numerous Buddhist meetings though and became very disillusioned with pretentious white guys moaning about the ego and the self, meanwhile asking me to call them by their new name of some Asian origin and denying the fact that they had only become Buddhists for their own perceived salvation, which is the most self-centered thing to do I reckon. ‘No!” I used to say, ‘your name is Kevin, you are very lonely and feel small and insignificant, that’s why you became a Buddhist. You were lost, and gave in and live in denial. This way you can avoid talking to women. Fuck off!’
I am personally into a rather unknown but very much present ancient old wise fellow called ‘Confusions.’ Apparently he was the great, great grandfather of the Chinese sage Confucius. He was an ancient traveler a nomad who in his blundering and non-planning of routes, loosing important documents and ye ole travelers cheque landed in some dam strange and funny situations and led the way for the wise of yesterday and the traveler of today. He was a little like a Jurassic Forest Gump and was completely ripped off by Buddha who had a better memory and got better exposure as he knew the people in the right circles back then. I explained this to Kevin but he wasn’t having any of it.
Cynical I know, but twatty pretentious new age Buddhists. I shit em.
I know, it’s my karma. That in ten years I will find myself the same and someone will come up bash me on the nose and call me a new age wanker!
There’s a saying, yes its by Confusions. ‘The fool tries to discover spirituality whilst the wise stays with humanity, pass me another biscuit will you.’ In my opinion there is a higher power of course, we use science to understand and discover this. The world is a mysterious place, the universe even freakier and would be downright scary without biscuits. The pinnacle question and the heart of the pursuit of the theological, universal understanding in essence is easy to see. How and why did, and does it all happen? What was the point of origin and what is at the center?
God is unfathomable and unexplainable.
Majick is a different story. That’s science and psychology.
We are all part of the higher power, we can alter and change things we can create and destroy.
Meditating and ritual and living your life according to a religious or theological doctrine can give structure, hope, forge parts of the mind and have beneficial effects. It can also have detrimental effects, such as personal and cultural alienation and oppression, psychosis, personal and social issues, cause wars and misery and can kill.
There should be a Government Health Warning on the Bible and Koran.
“Don’t distort for you own weakness and needs or take things too literally. Your cause trouble.”
What I’m trying to say is that I think that the pursuit, improvement and understanding of spirituality, is the pursuit, improvement and understanding of our own physiology. We are in a physical world, not a spiritual one. Why deny it and try to make the information we receive from our senses bad, immoral and a hindrance or call it an invisible shackle to a world of pain and suffering. That’s like loving someone but having trouble in your relationship. Rather than committing ourselves, exposing ourselves and working things out which can lead to a better understanding and harmony we just fix say its crap I need someone else. Mankind should use its wisdom to make heaven on earth for everybody. It’s totally possible. It’s the corruption and warping of our identity, which is the problem.
The only thing to redeem mankind is co-operation.
If the next world is a spiritual one will these people be trying to get physical again?
“Oh Jesus Christ I would give anything to watch football, smell a bar-b-que, touch the soft flesh of a lover, to taste a cold beer, to hear music.”
Heaven is on Earth!
Should our support we give to our fellow living creature be a basis for ‘getting to know Jesus’ or any other icon or deity? Think about it if they exist do they want us to get to know them? They never show up at parties or dinner invites and seem to be more reclusive than Gary Glitter these days.
We are human beings, we are basically beautiful creatures but we are prone at times on personal levels being a bit confused as we try to make sense of life and as a race, very fucked up. Any person, unless they are chemically impaired like your average child raping, panti wearing psychopath can develop and be good, to do good. Giving the right set of circumstances and the right kind of support everybody can be happy. Most people just have warped dodgy belief systems, value things that are really quite worthless and have needs and wants that are out of control. Irrationally and generally we are uncomfortable with ourselves and are sold dreams and ways out which have the opposite effect in the long term.
Buddhists know this.
As you may know Buddhism is not a religion, it’s a philosophy. A set of guidelines to support mans development, awareness and freedom from the impulse and reaction of the senses. Enlightenment is the freedom of the mind, the control of thoughts that cause pain and misery, which is said to boil down to cravings and dispersions. In essence, they say human misery is motivated by our understanding and reaction to the things that bring us happiness and the things that cause us pain. When we crave something we want it, we are in a space of need and not living in the present and convincing ourselves that if I have this I will be happy and secure. This works on a conscious and sub conscious level. Our ‘want’ is a motivation and action of our understanding of what we think will make us happy.
A desired result.
When we dislike something it is a temporary conclusion from our cognition and emotions, our understanding of something. We want to get away from it and again think we will feel happier.
We do this by demonizing it.
The concept makes sense.
In our physical life, which is but a blink in the fabric of time, we have the opportunity to discover our selves and the world around us. We need to discover the majority of things for ourselves to get to know our light and darkness, our own boundaries and borders. Our morals and ethics are only perceived and are a mixture of our own will and what has been handed to us. It’s good in cases to challenge and break taboos and cultural laws, at other times its best to stay within them. Man loves to oppress man and there’s no better way than within morals and ethics. It all boils down to self-identity and living in harmony within civilisation. Its how we personally do this and make sense of it all, which brings the problems, hence why people turn to God, leaders and guidance. We are all inspired, taught and God and the deities are good imaginary friends and a source of inspiration as anyone. As we know its mans interpretation, the laws he lays down and the danger in the actions of his thoughts that is the problem and danger. If a person is truly happy in their physical life and causes no misery to others then in my opinion that person is enlightened. The whole thing about cravings and dislikes is that most people are on a constant merry-go-round of happiness and misery because they don’t take responsibility for themselves and their actions and can’t or won’t control them. All behavior and actions are governed by thoughts. Nothing is random in the human mind. To not be in control can cause traits like dependency, addiction, depression, anger, violence and misery, instability and confusion to name a few.
Many people are really lost, everybody feels lost at time; feels helpless and worthless without structure and the thought of moving forward, becoming better, or enlightened. We reflect the universe in our internal thoughts by having our own contemporary icons and deities, by striving to become better people in our own eyes, to our fathers, mothers and significant others. We just are prone to the illusions and disillusions of grandeur, jealousy, resentment and selfishness and the distortion of self-identity and our true freedom. All psychology. We can influence, repair and prepare our minds to do almost anything but we all too often call ourselves broken and dysfunctional and want to change the channel and are too busy trying to find the remote control to know we are sitting on the dam thing.
Buddhists know this too.
Buddha pointed this one out a few centuries ago.
People said, ‘fuck, he might have something here.’
And most Buddhists are pretty nice, thoughtful and lead a life of example.
They’re the good guys.
In my travels I have had some enlightening revelations about life, my life and myself in general. Nothing to write home about but my most enlightening encounter was witnessing ‘naughty’ Buddhist monks.
It made me laugh and feel quite sad at the same time.
I’m too naïve.
It was like catching Santa hitting kids, disturbing, ironic and very funny in a warped kind of way.
There are a whole set of rules and precepts for Buddhist, designed to aid enlightenment and humanistic development. The further you study the philosophy the more precepts you live by. The denial of intoxicants, drugs, sensual items and the refrain form lying and killing any living creature are but a few. In becoming a monk especially in Asia where there are plenty as most males become a ‘six-month monk.’ You live by these precepts to forge your will and focus your mind away from distraction. The monks are a beautiful sight in yellow and saffron robes, shaven headed and their skin colour and physicality make them look very holy to western eyes. They live in pagodas, next to architecturally breathtaking Wats, which are elaborately decorated temples. A school is often situated within the grounds and the support and teaching of orphans and the poor who cannot afford an education takes place. Preying and chanting, the smell of incense, the tethered buffalo and oxen, lily ponds and the general atmosphere is enchanting.
Monks also have no worldly possessions and rely on gifts for food and provisions from the community.
How very humble.
The back of buses are usually reserved for monks and in walking past and greeting one the custom is to lower your head slightly. And god forbid you if you show them the souls of your feet. A big ‘no-no.’
For women, well they are not allowed to touch a monk nor sit next to one on a bus.
Misogyny creeps into everything.
However, there are female monks and females prey to Buddha.
They are allowed to do that.
Which came first, the temptation, corruption and betrayal of a woman or mans oppression and unrealistic demands?
Now your friendly local, average, common garden Buddhist Buddha is not a God but a point of focus to meditate upon. He’s a bloke, a geezer, an enlightened being, free from the pain and misery of human life. He was a prince who grew up in luxury and the shelter of the closed and affluent palace. He crept out one night and was horrified to see poverty and suffering. He left the palace and spent years meditating upon the essence of life. He starved himself, came up with the concept of karma and other thoughts centered around himself and life and one day he became enlightened. He was apparently thirty-six when this happened. Well he bumped into Confusions. Buddha was Indian and traveled Asia bestowing his wisdom upon the masses and opening corner shops at every opportunity. He was a healer rather like Jesus and prophet like Mohamed and taught Kung Fu to the Chinese monks.
So he was a bit hard too.
Hinduism also came to Asia and there icons and deities got mixed up and a mixture of the two faiths occurred, which can become pretty confusing for a beginner who is trying to understand the world about him in Asia. The Temples of Angkor are a monument to these two faiths. However the precepts are the same.
I was on a bus in Cambodia, from Phnom Penn to Poi Pet. As I walked down the aisle I noticed six monks on board sitting near the back. Five young men and one that looked like Buddha himself was sitting there looking cool. He was about eighty, old wisened and I imagine had been a monk for a long, long time. They were sat in seats towards the back of the bus but not right at the back. I had to sit behind them on the raised seats so my head was higher than theirs, which I didn’t really want to do incase a bolt of lightning came down. Then I remembered Buddha’s not a God, I’m from a different culture but I didn’t want to offend. The oldest monk held his arm out as I passed and touched me. He gave me a kind of pinch.
I felt blessed and went ‘ahhh.’ During the journey I looked up from my book because I could smell a cigarette. I looked around and saw the holy man himself bending down behind the seat in front hiding and smoking a fag like a naughty school kid. The conductor came and told him off. He grinned and lobbed his fag out of the window.
Now if that’s not giving into your cravings what is?
I was also at Bangkok airport a few months earlier sitting outside and wanted to smoke. I was sitting next to a monk and thought I would show respect by at least moving one seat away from him before smoking. I can be humble. A mobile phone went off, I looked around. He lifted his briefcase up got his phone out. At the same time he removed a pack of fags, lit one up, put his leg over the other one showing me the soul of his shoe and was nonchalantly chatting to his mate puffing away without a care.
I just wished he had a London accent.
‘Na John, can’t do that me old Bhuddy, gotta go and collect a lilt summat from Nick the Meek ain’t i. Yeah’ laters. Bless you too my son. Yeah, theirs one foreign geezer next to me, looks like a right sort. Na, showin im the soul of me feet ain’t I.”
You buy. One dollar
One of the best things about Asia are the children. They could quite easily sell ice to Eskimos. Hundreds of the little adorable things, each with an armful of bounty and at least three languages under their belt already and as sharp as a needle. Cute Pit-bulls with selling power. They do not quit and will not let go. They have the cunning of a hyena and the face that can make the hardest criminal cry and see his wrong doings. “Miiister, what country you from? England, your capital is London, 27,000,000 people, in the south. I know, you buy! I ask you about Cambodia if you get it wrong you buy, okay. Buy this for your girlfriend; make you more handsome to her. What do you mean you have no girlfriend? You know why you have no girlfriend? Because…you don’t buy presents! You buy this and give to girl, she be your girlfriend. Okay, you buy? Miister!”
My strangest and weirdest account of trying to be sold something happened in Phnom Penn, the day I went to the Killing Fields and S21. S21 is an old converted school that the Khmer Rouge turned into a torture prison called Tuol Sleng. It still stands pretty much in tact. Beds where the ‘criminals,’ who were in fact innocent Cambodians who were tied and tortured to death still stand in old classrooms as a macabre reminder of the horror. Above the beds are black and white photos of bloodied, mutated and dead victims, some of the last fourteen victims the allied forces found as the capital was regained. Cells and shackles, gallows and barbed wire stand empty now and the thousands of photo’s of the victims, the women, babies, (yes babies), children, boys and men are there provoking you to look at them and to think of what crime they committed and what pain and suffering they went through as the world was closed out and acknowledged it in the cognitive and emotional distance of a news item.
The impact of these pictures is beyond words.
The Killing Fields as you may know is more ‘famous.’ Its real name is Choeung Ek, one of the extermination camps, the rice fields where people were killed and thrown into mass graves. A large monument stands there now, a Stupa of seventeen floors with bones, clothing of the victims and thousands of skulls stands in homage and to commemorate the death of the Kampuchea people under the regime of Pol Pot. Eighty-six of the one hundred and twenty nine graves have been unearthed there. The rest are still under the rice fields. Again, allowing yourself to see beyond the grassed areas and the cleanliness of the site brings tears to your eyes as well as sorrow to your heart. I was amazed to hear fellow travelers and tourists actually complain at the fields. “Not much to see. Bit disappointing really!” What did they want? To see the executions? There are seventeen thousand skulls to look at! We shall have to ask the Cambodian people to arrange the victims in better positions for them. Hey, drop a coin in the slot and watch seventeen thousand heads bob up and down. The dance macabre dancing troop proudly present…
When I left I was overwhelmed and needed a drink. I was only about ten feet from the gates and a local guy came up and asked …‘hey mister…’ ‘Hey mister, you wanna shoot? Join the Happy Club? Come to the ranges and fire pistols?
AK47’s? Easy for you to shoot, $30.
Wanna blow up a cow with a rocket launcher? $200.
And for a grand, I could have executed a prisoner on death row. ‘Its okay he’s a bad man.’
As I said earlier anything can be bought in Asia. Its true. Children can be bought for sex, ritual and death. Babies can be bought for food. Now that’s dark, almost beyond comprehension. As you know, really, it’s not only Asia it’s the whole world. We inhabit this world with very strange and sick individuals.
I thought I was strange and rather sick, but that I realise is only my humor, which as you have noted I have refrained from using.
Smile please, say cheese
I have never taken so many photos before in my life. I now have a still documentary of this year. Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam so far. People, places, sights, breathtaking views, snap-shots, portraits you name it I’ve done it.
Pictures depicting beauty and pictures depicting horror.
I have been getting them developed as I go and I must say they weigh a ton.
However, as many as I have taken it does not even come close to the amount your average Japanese tourist takes in day.
Are these people sponsored by their government to take pictures? Do they have an addiction?
“Hi…I’m Wong, I’m a photo-holic. Yeah mate, I could handle it at first. You know the odd photo at a party, visiting zoo’s, that kid of thing. Then I started turning every occasion into a photo opportunity. Taking them during the day for no real reason and it escalated from there really. I used to use my camera, then I abused it and now it uses me. It calls out to me in my sleep. I can’t concentrate. I dream about taking photo’s now. I have lost weight; my family doesn’t want to know me as I only see them these days to take pictures of them and to borrow money for films. I go out of my way to score films. I’m up my neck in development debts and I have been arrested twice for taking pictures in areas where your not allowed.”
Seriously. It’s a huge cultural trait.
Every Japanese tourist is very busy with a camera. They have an uncanny knack of standing very rigid right in front of the landmark in question almost blocking it out of the picture too and they all make a peace sign with their fingers. Which I guess is better than the English who turn them around in most photos and mouth the words ‘fuck off’ to the camera.
As I was snapping and taking the odd shot of Sydney Opera House trying to avoid getting the Japanese in the frame I became more and more frustrated with the little fuckers and their peace signs so I thought I would do something different and take pictures of Japanese tourists taking pictures. So I went up and stood in front of the person with the camera and took their picture. Then I got bored with that and realised it will cost me fortunes to have an album of men and women holding expensive digital cameras so I decided to see how times I could get in their photo’s.
I got bored with that too.
Welcome to Cambodia
I felt liked a like a life raft that had been suddenly dropped into unfamiliar waters. I was not equipped to take souls on board. I couldn’t even tell if they were drowning or treading water but I knew they needed help. With tentative movement and rather clumsily I floated within sea of stricken children. I felt shocked, helpless and partly cruel as I kept on saying no. Trying my best to answer, quell, ignore and satisfy the small voices that asked and demanded money I pitched and I rolled. The sea was getting larger and rougher, the waves broke as hands slapped my bow. Upon every wave of the hand and on every child’s face was grime, dirt and the crime of poverty, life on the street, life on the border. I guess if your not going to give any money, circumstance and conditioning taught them to take it. Fingers and hands tried to search pockets and bumps in my trousers looking for my treasure.
I guarded myself well.
Beautiful but pained, sorry faces of mermaids looked at me asking me, it felt like my very soul, to be scooped up and rescued. Long hair, the colour of night swung giving definition and movement and rise to the very cute talking sea. Brown eyes of the boys and girls shone upwards, my mind raced to make sense of the madness of the occasion. I saw hunger and desperation, resentment and yearning. I saw curiosity, playfulness, vulnerability and a great deal of beauty. I was melted and enchanted at their beauty. Some of the children had babies balanced upon their hips and carefully in their arms. Had life forced these roles upon them? Are they sisters, brothers, orphans? Where are their mothers and fathers? Are they at the sidelines hoping that the emotional shock to the foreigners will bring forth money to the family? Are they at home or are they lying in a field somewhere?
“Miiiiiiister, you give me money. Give me food for baby?”
This was my first real time experience of children fending for themselves and the pungent reality of poverty, the result of a world where the majority of people are too detached to care. In my comfort zone I had of course witnessed such human injustice and given to the charity boxes. I have helped and support people. This was different. Questions raced within my mind. I had no answers, no real answers. Social, economic, domestic and world politics could be discussed, reasoned and atributed but in the sea, the sea of children I had no answers. I was not their salvation. In truth I do not know if they were asking for it. It’s pure conjecture on my part, my projection and my feelings on the matter. However in my unique distortion, in my understanding of human nature all these children wanted was the peace and opportunity to be children and to self-actaualise into complete and fulfilling lives. What life lay ahead for them? What are they to become? To the children I met on the border I’m sorry I didn’t give more and I wish you good luck. This seems an almost empty gesture now as I sit here in the contrast to their living space. For the children to see me here they would think I was asking. No, children I am no king, for I am a fool. It seems half the time I can’t even sort my life out. Maybe that’s just some form of guilt speaking, guilt from my ‘advantage’ in life. Maybe, I want to feel sorry for someone.
I had attempted with good heart and generosity to throw a temporary salvation to a few children a moment earlier by giving away the equivalent of a couple of pounds. It shocked me. I was set upon. I was swarmed, pulled and prodded by many more as the group increased. A break in the wall of the tight fisted traveler had occurred. Of course the tourists had flown into air conditioning, private taxis and shuttle buses and were being shuffled to expensive hotels. Which seems to me ironic as this was a third world country. Everybody wants the dollar. Maids, waiters and staff shower the luxury to the guests, themselves living huddled together on floors and hammocks out the back of the hotels away from front of stage. Of course the majority of guests are not interested in such things, especially when they are paying four hundred dollars a night. Strange that the average wage of those luckily enough to have employment here is about four hundred dollars a year.
Here, on the border someone was giving out money. Not a saint and no angel but someone like you. The growing crowd span and jostled for place and attention. Out of nowhere it seemed these children who had realised money was being giving appeared in almost a frenzy like sharks feeding on Barracuda. As I sat later on that evening reflecting I thought I could have given all my money away to these children, bought everyone a meal and made their life happier for a day, walked back across the border and gone home.
Should I be ashamed to say I was far too selfish for that?
Hey, I am not a saint.
I have a need a desire and basic instinct to help, support and rescue but all out sacrifice is not my cup of tea.
I would feel easier in my self, and I really hope its true; that the children all go home at the end of each day, play Play Stations and smoke fags laughing at the bounty they blagged.
I doubt it.
Life isn’t black and white I know but grey can be such a depressing colour.
The figure of a man, rough, surly and with a part golden smile cut through the now fifteen to twenty kids barking at them in a strange tongue I could only guess was ‘oh, children, oh children don’t hassle this nice gentleman.’
Or maybe, ‘fuck off this ones mine!’
His hand raised as a mock gesture of hitting out at the kids. They departed calling out.
I hope the words were along the lines of ‘wanker and nob-head!’ I must admit I was a little grateful for the break. He smiled at me and pointed east; accompanied with words in a rough tone, “border office there. I help you, I get you through. Careful of pickpockets. You give me one dollar. Okay?” I smiled and declined his offer as the gentleman in question was actually standing at the border pointing not three hundred yards away to a place I was walking to. With scrunched up eyes and a perplexed look for a second or two he gathered thoughts then offered to take my passport into the oncoming office. “Get you through. Need stamp. I help.” I looked at my new accomplish, a fellow traveler, a Canadian I met on the crossing and we laughed at the audacity and made our way to the office and to more officials that awaited us with their personal agendas and demands for money. Maybe we did laugh at his desperation and helplessness I don’t know.
Maybe he deserved to be laughed at.
Laughter is such a good tool, defensive mechanism often used to cover real feelings, real emotions that we part ourselves from or rise ourselves out of situations that make us uncomfortable.
I know, I use it well.
Across dry and dusty terrain we walked, through pit hole and rubbish we walked. Into an office of sorts we walked. We had been warned about the dodgy border officials. It was a traveler’s tale, like trolls and monsters that lurked in the undergrowth I childhood minds. These lay underneath peaked caps waiting for the unaware and off guard. We heard they would crush your bones and eat your brains giving the opportunity.
The office was nice!
An open shack.
Something out of the latest style magazine.
‘Very Third World-War Torn Vogue.’
They had a lovely plank as a walkway, which stuck out of the picturesque moat, a stagnant puddle that spanned a good six by ten. At least this allowed the new guests the honor of not getting their feet wet. ‘Visa’ was written in white paint that had that dripping finish to it. Inside sat three custom officers behind a desk. One was eating a meal of rice and assorted something and the others smoked. In front of them on the rough desk that had seen better days sat pens and forms ready for us. At once the two smokers asked for passports, photos and cash as they began filling in forms. “Visa one thousand, three hundred Bhat.” The dollar signs rotated in the eyes.
We explained, with our best winning smiles we knew it was only a thousand and they, with equally polite winning smiles explained again that it was now three hundred more. I wished I was in South America because the word ‘Gringo’ and a large gob of chewing tobacco whizzing into a spittoon would have capped it off perfectly. However, this was Asia and the narrow eyes become cruel eyes and got narrower. We waited in the psychological no mans space where either party is unsure where to go from here like gunmen waiting for the draw. They, the desperados somehow decided without actually speaking to each other that we okay. Hey, the good guys won. They had decided we were coming to Kampuchea to actually see it and we were not some horrible western Thailand refugees who were on a visa extension trip. We could pay the one thousand. I think they liked me getting out the map and explaining to them where I was going in their country. We smiled and thanked our guests who in reality had all the power. They could have quite literally bluntly refused or not let us in. I had heard of a story of a Kiwi in Thailand this year who was arrested for a minor ‘fo-par’ and was locked up for five days whilst the police went and emptied his visa account. When they finished they bluntly explained he could go showed him the door and probably had a jolly good fucking laugh.
Or, maybe they went and gave money to the local orphanage.
I’m not sure.
I don’t want to cast dispersions on the ‘nice’ Thailand police.
Whilst we, the travelers and tourists have rights, probably more than the local populous the reality is when you are alone and stepping out of comfort zones in a foreign country, can’t speak the language and don’t know if you are talking to an honest official or a corrupt skin trader who’s up to their neck in dishonesty and abuse you rely on good luck, charm, your guardian angels, karma and a certain amount of personal awareness and assertiveness. So, after more smiles and gentle laughter it was agreed that we pay the thousand.
My fingers relaxed and came away from my imaginary six-shooters.
We handed the money over and it disappeared into a hatch in a wall complete with passports and forms. The hatch was shut tightly and we waited patiently. I smoked a cigarette and grinned at the now very blank expressionless faces of our officials.
How quickly the weather can change.
With a sharp thrust the passports were handed back through the hatch and we said thank you to a darken void on the other side.
A notch on our belt I thought.
We had paid the correct amount for a visa into Cambodia.
Well, its really twenty dollars, which is just under a thousand bhat. But the dollar was no good today, not in this office.
Both parties were equally happy at the result.
I was in.
They had some extra money, hopefully for the children.
I was now a fully paid up member of the touring community of Kampuchea. I was a guest and in the ‘reality’ of the legacy of the hurt, horror and pain of this poor and very enchanting country. I was about to meet and experience a nation that had faced and survived the secret carpet bombings of America, the five year war between the Government, the U.S.A, Viet Cong and the Khmer Rouge, the invasions and oppression of Vietnam, the five year genocide and madness of the Khmer Rouge when they won the war and took over the country, and the insanity of having to turn and kill family, village and community members or be killed in the civil war and bloodbath that insane ideology and politics caused.
I had seen war veterans, civilian and from the forces on the pavement through the border. Blind, limbless beggars stood, crouched, sat and lay holding out caps. These people and the children were my first experience of Kampuchea, Cambodia, home Khmer people, Angkor, of six million unexploded mines, the late Khmer Rouge. Site of the Killing Fields, and a whole host of confusing political events both caused internally and by external powers. Not forgetting to mention the rich and ancient heritage of the culture, the beautiful ladies, cute kids and polite and humble social customs.
This was once a mighty nation.
Huge Hindu and Buddhist temples stand in mystical gaze, that were built as early as the ninth century that are now still being discovered and reclaimed from the immense and dense jungle. These temples, once opulently covered in gemstones and gold and monuments to the deity kings of old a physical reminder of a very cultured and civilized race were part of a city the size of Los Angeles, giving home to over four times the population of London at the same time. They are one of the natural wonders of the world. They make Buckingham Palace look like a row of terrace houses. In times gone past the Khmer had riches, grandeur, identity and kings that surpassed the world standards. Cambodia is still a kingdom. The kings back then were kings incarnate. They had two queens, seven wives and a harem of over three thousand women.
How cool is that?
Must be knackering and a nightmare at Christmas though.
The current kings apparently rather light on his loafers, smells of lavender and lives in Paris.
Anyway, the nation was once mighty. Cambodia or Kampuchea has always been an agricultural nation, slowly becoming industrial and growing steadily more stable and well and truly on the tourist and travelers trail. It’s relatively easy to travel, guesthouses are plenty and if you’re slightly warped you can stay in one thousand dollar a night hotels. Just to get that contrast as you step into the poverty and struggle of real life there.
Back in the day it was the largest rice-producing nation in the world. Pol-Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge was under the somewhat weird delusion that the reservoirs of the country were huge rice growing machines and he could get the nation to grow rice and live in harmony, all for Ankar, which was a redefinition of the Angkor period. I think he wanted the great time of Angkor to be reborn and him to be the king with the queens, wives and concubines and thought that the people might get suspicious and object. So he got rid of the teachers, academics, anyone who looked intelligent, spoke out, looked funny and wasn’t him. Well, that’s a broad and flippant way of summonsing the horror and atrocity. He wanted to irradiate the corrupt ‘imperial’ middle classes. In reality it was one of the worst forms of mass muder and execution the world had seen. The Khmer Rouge thought they could erase history and have a nation of peasants who did not think about anything but ‘Ankar.’
On April 17th 1975 the Khmer Rouge took over the capital and sent the whole populace including the elderly, sick, disabled, pregnant to the fields. Thousands died on route through exhaustion and starvation and thousands were shot and butchered along the route. They called this year ‘Year Zero,’ destroyed history and hope, started the calendar again and tried to turn back the clocks to the Stone Age. Oh, and commenced the biggest genocidal program the world has seen.
It was auto genocide.
Now the Khmer Rouge is dormant, extinct depending who you talk to. Nothing has occurred since the late nineties when tourists were kidnapped and executed. There are huge signs and billboards now with pictures and statements like ‘we don’t need weapons anymore.’ There are also many signs and in red writing and say, Danger Mines! These signs are in the fields, old roads, and walkways and near people’s houses.
On the border town of Pailin, a former stronghold of the Khmer Rouge you can sit lazily in the stench and heat and drink coffee with a few of the mass murders as they try to sell you gem stones. Its in the north-east near Samlot where the original peasant uprisings took place in 1967. This area is still heavily mined. Getting there is an adventure too. You can also take a detour of about 50k and go and see if Angelina Jolie is in for a cup of tea. I did, but alas, the Goddess was not there.
There is no God.
I should know I raised my bony fist to the heavens and swore at him.
I suppose he was far to busy to hear my obscenities. I guess Angelina was working and hasn’t been there for a while, judging by the sate of her house.
“The jungle really needs cutting back dear.”
However, before she left she did donate several million dollars and start rejuvenation projects. I guess the country, the people and the energy got under her skin and into her soul, which is easy to happen.
It’s an addictive and enchanting place.
Unless there’s some horrible Hollywood fad going on of course. Who can have a house in the worst war torn and poorest countries in the world?
“Oh hi, ya. Just bought a cottage in Rwanda. Really nice. Locals’ fantastic, yeah really poor and desperate, diseased ridden and quite mad. Bonkers in fact. Its great no one knows who I am. I can wear my army costume. Mmmmm. Yeah, selling up in
El Salvador, now it’s all peaceful…and you…still Bosnia? Oh...Iraq, Darling….”
Best thing since cold beer
Asians wake up too dam early.
I awoke at eight thirty a.m., which I thought was dam early.
I had staggered intoxicated to bed at five.
Now facing the bright sunshine and growing heat I hurt. I was hung over, thirsty to a point of dehydration. I was hot and I stank. My voice was harsh and low as were my senses. I had spent four hours in a Karaoke bar with the company of one Canadian guy and to women. Local hostesses. No hanki-panki and no sex had occurred as it could have done. After all, this is Asia you can buy anything here. This is a cold hard fact of the continent. It reflects and delivers every whim, emotion, want and need anyone can want no matter how dark deranged and sick. I’m not condoning the fact, but it is a fact.
It is said; ‘God, the angels, the Devil and the demons love shopping here.’ For me, the drinking of beer, eating of strange tasting snacks and plenty of laughter had been enough for one evening. I was in Sispohon, home of dust, dirt, numerous houses, restaurants and millions of moto-scooters one hour away from the border and three and a half hours to Seam Reap. I was glad I stayed there. In the guide it described it as a ‘place to miss,’ a non-descript town which was a challenge and a direct challenge to me to stay there. Also Seam Reap was a further three hours away and the time I arrived it was dark, I was tired and had traveled for three days already. I’m not a hard liner, been there seen that type of traveler but I do know when traveling something always happens or someone you meet makes your commitment or opportunity worthwhile. ‘Confusions’ once wrote, ‘at least the good thing about smelling dog shit is that you know what it smells like next time and one day you might be in a situation pitted up against people who don’t know what shit smells like and win a million quid.’ He really did have a unique take on the universe. Aristotle, Plato, Socrates and Confucius apparently were signed up to his secret fan club and got his monthly fanzine.
However today, Seam Reap beckoned. After water, a shower and breakfast of course.
I was perched, crunched up and precariously balanced on the back of a twenty year old pick-up truck surrounded by twenty Cambodians spookily enough in the midday sun. My legs hung dangerously off the driver’s side of the severely over laden vehicle. I sat on bags of rice and hung onto a piece of rope praying I would not be flung off. My Canadian friend had secured himself a place more dug in on the back. I could see him grin happily through the wrap of cloth around his head shielding him from the day.
At first, in the town through the overpowering smells of Durian fruit and drains we walked like snails with our backpack’s politely smiling and pronouncing hello completely wrong in the local language at everyone including the stray dogs and assortment of animals also trying to find the local transport hub. It took and hour and by then I was sweaty, still hung over but enjoying every last minute. I was glad for the fact that we didn’t share the space on the truck with goats and sheep.
At the beginning, still parked I was in a good and advantageous position on the back of my chariot. As we approached the hub we were set upon by numerous pick-up agents and drivers hustling and bustling for our fare. We went to the one with less people. Well we didn’t really have a choice. “Inside or out?” The driver said. We both wanted out. It was cheaper and more fun. How cool I thought, no tourist bus for me, this is traveling. My back was leaning against the cab, my feet dug in and a scarf wrapped around my head to shield me from the sun and dust. Of course how naive I had been. You don’t get on Cambodian pick up truck with eight people and go straight away. After waiting for another hour to allow more and more people on board I was being hustled and jostled by the locals . I had my deserved ‘Barenge’ position and there I was, silently afraid I would be injured or die on the side, feet hanging over the edge and my ass squeezed firmly shut. However, it was adventure and a challenge I was after, and adventure and a challenge I had. After ten minutes being bumped and crushed I came to the conclusion that I was being a girly poof and worrying about nothing!
I was relatively safe as long as the inane driver didn’t crash and sat back and enjoyed the experience of whizzing at near terrifying speeds along a red dusty road that had not been covered for eighty years, had been prone to being very flooded and subsided, had the occasional bomb and mine crater forced into its decaying soul and went in a straight line for miles over very dodgy and rickety bridges that crossed murky rivers, through expanses of jungle and countryside and village.
This is what they call a major highway.
Oh, how we bounced and how I hung on for dear life at points along the journey. I became pretty skilled at lifting my feet up over the side when approaching bushes and trees announced themselves abruptly. However, I was no way as skilled as the locals who seemed to defy physics and walk about the back oblivious to the bumps and certain death if they
This page was amended on 21/03/2012
Six months behind in commenting but what the heck The first question you'd ask is what's Cambodian food? I suppose it was the soups and rice and fish my Khmer co-workers ordered whenever we went for lunch. It was a family affair, the odd Khmer soup terrine with a hole in the middle (like a Bundt cake pan), from which you ladle the blandish soups into your rice bowl, and the whole fried or gilled fish which everyone picks from. But is that it for Khmer food? By no means. For me, it was authentic enough to make a semi-regular trip to Pon Lok on the riverfront. It was usually but not always packed with Phnom Penh's elite and VIP middle class (judging from the Benz's in front), and the normal scattering of NGOs. I recall an extensive menu of chicken, pork, seafood and other dishes and we always had good meals there. Fried frog legs (which were massive) and a memorable diced chicken with some kinds of nuts stick in mind. By my standards, any restaurant with 80 percent Khmer customers was authentic Khmer.
On the opposite end of the scale were our adventures to the evening dinner market which used to form immediately west of the (then) new Psah O'Reiussy construction site. It was strictly a Ma and Pa operation with 20 or 30 vendors presenting their homemade delectables in huge pots, portable grills, boxes, whatever. Everything was pre-made, and included various kinds of fish, stews, curries, vegetable dishes, and the like, as well as enormous rice pots suited to feed an army. It was just a matter of pointing at what looked tasty and probably wouldn't kill you. Whatever you wanted was packed directly into a plastic bag or styrofoam container, and of course this approach was cheap beyond description, a huge and delicious take-home meal for 5,000 reil or so. Of course we were taking our lives in hand by eating there, and our hotel management warned us repeatedly that eventually we'd get deathly sick from the food (I wasn't too concerned since my last illness had been a bout of food poisoning more than a year before in Kathmandu, and I felt my resistance was now quite high to any Asian street food, which proved to be true).
It's been a long time now and I apologise for not remembering the Khmer names, but many of the authentic Khmer foods also have a Vietnamese analog. For example directly across from what's now the new Psah O'Reiussy and on the same street as the awful Capitol Guest House was an outstanding pho restaurant (again, don't recall Khmer name for this). It was always packed for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and had excellent pho bo (beef) and even better pho bo long (the 'long' in Vietnamese meaning a smattering of the offal and innards like heart, liver, intestines, whatever). The same place also had a big evening snack crowd which would gather on the sidewalk toddler-tables and chairs for pong tea khon which are the boiled duck eggs with embryo included ('balut' in the Phillipines and 'hot vit lon' in VN). Not my favorite but popular with the Khmer. And there were a couple of enterprising drinks vendors who set up shop on the sidewalk next door, one selling 'chuk a luk' which was a variety of fruits (your choice, point at them), condensed canned milk, and crushed ice thrown in a blender to make a delicious evening treat (the name 'chuk a luk' comes from the sound of the blender mashing the fruits and ice together). The other vendor had freshly-pressed sugar cane juice, which he'd make on demand by running several canes through the press, and capturing the delicious juice directly in your ice-packed cup. Is all of that authentic? It must have been, because we'd rarely see any other Westerners at these places but plenty of hungry and thirsty Khmer. Just up the street toward Monivong was an elderly street vendor who sold a delicious evening meal which I never saw anywhere else, and he had quite a bustling business. His cart was half storage, half frying grill. Accompanied by a daughter or two (his support crew), he'd fry up a serving of cooked noodles, bean sprouts and a couple other vegetables, topped with one or two fried eggs and an unusual vinegary-sweet sauce that brought everything together. If I recall this quick and lovely authentic Khmer meal was about 1500 reil at the time.
Phnom Penh also had a number of hot pot (Vietnamese 'lau') restaurants which I recall always being packed with locals. There were several on Monivong which I recall liking, but they also had a reputation (deserved or not) for random and deadly gunplay, especially when Cambodian army guys were there. So we tended to avoid them despite the good food. In any case that may be a thing of the past. All hot pot places are pretty much the same. There's a clay pot with steaming broth and a burner placed center of the table, followed by an array of vegetables, dried noodles, meats and sauces. There's a matter of careful sequencing (the foods cook differently), but the basic idea is to toss stuff into the pot and remove it when it's cooked. Everyone shares the pot and the foods, which are plopped into the ubiquitous rice bowl (but now used for the noodles) and dipped into the lucious sauces. $10 US for 4 people excluding Tiger beer and some high-octane liquors that came in small soda pop bottles. As an aside, hot pot has a bit of a guy thing attached to it, especially the goat meat version which is said to make you randy. But I think the real reason is that it's also a tad messy and also that proximity to the hot pot makes everyone sweat like pigs, especially on an 85F degree Phnom Penh evening (I have yet to visit a hot pot restaurant with aircon, they're always open window and/or streetside affairs). If you're not up for sweating, you can also grab 500 grams or so of roast pork from street vendors or the food sections of the larger markets, which by the way normally have several Ma and Pa restaurants inside. One place I recall had a big crowd for it's delicious 'bun xeo' (that's the VN name), which is a rice pancake packed with pork, shrimp, sprouts, and some herbs. Is that authentic Khmer? I suppose it is, since I was the only non-Khmer at the breakfast counter.
I've rambled on long enough, but I wanted to save the best for last. There's one Khmer food which I'd call truly authentic, available on almost every streetcorner, and so much in demand that you'd better stock up before 9:00 or 10:00 AM. Are we talking prahok (fish sauce)? Nope. Grilled crickets and little snakes from the Bassac river? 'Uh unh'. Dried squid? Nope. It's baguettes. French bread baguettes. Baguettes that you can smell from a block away. A warm, yeasty, pleasant odor that overcomes the normal smelly clouds of rot and decay that can attack you anywhere in Phnom Penh. Once you've smelled that lucious odor, it's only a matter of seeking out the Khmer lady with her huge bamboo basket covered by a cloth and loaded with 50 or 100 of those delicious loaves. When I was in Phnom Penh they were 3 medium loaves for 3500 reil (then $1 US). If they were still warm you were in for a heavenly experience. I could eat one and sometimes two directly from the basket with no butter or jam or anything at all. Adding some butter seems gross in SE Asia (if you can find it), but a wedge or three of Laughing Cow cheese (available everywhere) goes well. For the authentic Khmer experience, grab a can of sardines in tomato sauce (all of the markets carry them) and shovel the entire can into your split baguette. Yum. Truly Khmer, truly delish.
One of the big unknown secrets about the former colonies of Indochina particularly Cambodia and Vietnam is that both developed local expertise in French-inspired cooking over their 60 years of colonization. That survives today in my two favourite Khmer and Vietnamese foods: baguettes and omlettes. They are so good that I became addicted to my Indochinese breakfast of a nice fresh baguette, a bacon omlette, and a glass of thick, black cafe Khmer or 'cafe dien'. French acquaintances (Parisian French no less!) consistently told me that Cambodian and French baguettes were often superior to what they bought in Paris. And, as an American omlette expert, I can attest that the eggs were better in Vietnam and Cambodia as well (maybe it was a secret sprinkle of 'nuoc mam'?). In any case to make it the true Khmer indigenous experience, make sure that you get a small side dish of teuk trei (fish sauce, 'nuoc mam' in VN) with a few chopped-up Thai bird chilis mixed in. Split your baguette, stuff it with omlette, and dip judiciously in this now very spicy fish sauce. If you've developed a taste for fish sauce and chilis as I have, you'll soon be ordering a second small dish and ladleing it by the spoonful directly on top of your omlette. Heaven. You're not likely to see your average Khmer or Vietnamese going for this breakfast, but it does bring together two of the local foods that both countries pull-off flawlessly, and in my opinion, is better than you'll find in the west. If that's not authentic, I don't know what is.