Monday, November 30, 2009

Tuol Sleng - S21

Tuol Sleng is a former school in the heart of Phnom Penh. It was later converted to an interrogation and torture chamber. Prisoners would pass through here before being shipped off to The Killing Field.

As I walk through here I find it difficult to maintain my composure. I hear gasps and sobs coming from others around me. The severity of this abomination against the human spirit makes this place by far the worst thing I have ever seen. Perhaps the recentness of the events here gives it more impact.

This happened in my lifetime, I tell myself, shaking my head with disbelief. I avert my gaze from the others around me, fearing even the most minor connection with another human being will send me into some uncontrollable emotional abyss.

Note the juxtoposition of the bed frame used to torture people and the classroom blackboard.

I have no more words.

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Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Killing Fields Of Phnom Penh

During the time of the Khmer Rouge there were over three hundred killing fields, featuring more than eighteen thousand mass graves. The following video is from one such place of unspeakable horror. May their souls rest in peace.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Thats Not Karaoke!

Siem Reap
After a couple of memorable days touring the ancient temples around Siem Reap, I take my guides reccomendation and attend a very touristy cultural dinner show at one of the local hotels.

Not my cup of tea, but it was very enjoyable and well worth a look. After the show my guide meets me for a ride back to the hotel. We are joined by a fellow tuk tuk driver with whom I am vaguely familiar. They both insist that I join them for a drink at one of their local haunts.

It is a nice place, and I am the only white guy in the place. We share a few drinks, I partake in some frog (tastes like chicken!) and we are all having a good time. It is then agreed that we should go to a karaoke bar. Sounds good to me.

We arrive at some mammoth complex. As we enter the building we are greeted by a guantlet of young women, eight on each side, bowing as we enter. I am starting to get the vibe that this may not be the place for me. We take an elevator twenty floors up, or at least the button says twenty. Things quickly get wierder as we are led into an empty room with leather couches, private washroom, and a karaoke machine, complete with big screen.

We are also provided with our own karaoke hostess and waitress. Clearly, this is not my definition of a karaoke bar. Fortunately, before things can proceed my tuk tuk friend gets a call from my guide Pov. It seems that he has been refused entry and we leave.

As we head somewhere else, I implore Pov to take me somewhere that he would take his mother. But again we end up in a carbon copy of the previous establishment, though this time things have progressed far enough that drinks have been ordered and a dozen young women have been escorted into the room, presumeably for our selection.

Recoiling, I excuse myself and head for the private washroom. Given that my guide paid the previous tab I am on the hook for this one. I just didn't realize that the menu would be so (s)extensive.

I walk out of the washroom, through the line of young ladies, give my guide enough to cover the previous tab, wish them luck and leave against their protestation.

Is it so incomprehensible that a single male might want to travel the world without having sex with hookers? When I was in Ghana, one lady whose affections I spurned asked me if I was a eunech. Ya know what, when it comes to having sex with hookers, I may as well be.

Get it? Got it? Good. 

The Temples Of Siem Reap

Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, CambodiaImage by victoriapeckham via Flickr
It is impossible to truly convey the wonders that I have witnessed in the last two days. The temples around Siem Reap must be felt as much as seen.
The first visit is to Angkor Wat, the grandaddy of them all. Built in 1180 or thereabouts, it was once a canal city, home to tens of thousands.

In some spots the carvings on its walls and towers are so detailed and ornate, it is as if the each inch is trying to outdo the previous, in an unimaginable frenzy of miraculous detail. Yet there it is, the impossible fact of this place, undeniable to my own eyes.

The temples of Siem Reap rival the most monumental accomplishments by humans. The Pyramids. The Colisseum. Machu Picchu. The Great Wall. Angkor Wat.

My guide (Pov, pronounced Pow) and I visit several other temples over two days. One is a temple overrun by giant trees, whose roots have enveloped the temple, like a mother that cannot let go.

At one point Pov leads me into a small self contained chamber, sort of like a large chimney. He motions for me to stand in a specific spot and indicates that I should make a fist and bang it against my heart. I do so and am gobsmacked at the result.

A reverbation emanates from within me, creating a sound like a low octave gong that goes off for several seconds. My jaw drops and my knees buckle at the complexity of this acoustical magic. This is a moment that will not soon be forgotten.

Pov also shows me a spot where tree roots have enveloped a wall, but in a small gap between the roots a randomly placed carved face peeks out, as if the roots had purposefully grown around the face, so as not to obstruct its view.

The face seemed to wear a grin and had a twinkle in its eye that seemed to say "I know things that you'll never understand, and it is very funny to me".

Indeed we are standing on the shoulders of giants.

Some Pictures Cambodia and Bangkok

Siem Reap

After checking into my hotel, I am both famished and exhausted. I am also still trying to get my head around the fact that I am in Cambodia.

Its about 4pm and I opt for sleep over sustinence, mostly because the bed is closer than the food. I wake up around 6:30pm, disoriented and with hair that would make Einstein smirk. It is dark out and I have no bearings. Tentatively, I head out into the night. There are streetlights here, but not one of them is operational.

Model by Dy Proeung, in Siem Reap, Cambodia, o...
The street is busy with an endless stream of scooters, motorbikes and tuk tuks, with the oddly rare car thrown in. I head down of the main roads, which is unpaved. The dust kicked up and lit by the scooters, produces a spooky and cloudy luminescence, through which I am trying to find my way.

I feel like I am in the opening scene of a movie that is not going to end well. It feels like a scooter riddled Asian version of Tombstone, Arizona.

In the light of day this locale is much less foreboding. I walk around the town and find a delightful array of restaurants, markets and stores. Siem Reap is unabashedly a tourist town, being the Gateway to Angkor Wat and the many other magnificent temple ruins in the area.

As I walk around, I hear the exact same refrain from every lady in front of each shop. Hello sir! You buy something sir? Feeling peckish, I opt for breakfast, giving in to the exhortation of a young lady. I am seated in a little patio, right by the entrance. As I quaff my coffee, a monk approaches carrying a pot.

After a moment, a lady from the cafe approaches with a Sprite, which she reverently passes to the monk with both hands. He then places it in the pot. The monk then offers a blessing, and I bow my head in some lame attempt to show reverence. Before I am finished my breakfast, the scene is repeated with a different monk.

I never saw that at The Detroit Eatery.

Crosstown Traffic

Siem Reap
Welcome to Cambodia. please note the time change and set your watch back 112 years.

After finally getting a cab ride from the border to Siem Reap, I begin to get the sense that I am in a place very different from Thailand. The road is clogged with oxcarts, all manner of motorbikes and wagons piled absurdly high with goods and humans.

The driving experience here is also very different, and I begin to regret having paid extra to get the front seat. Protocol dictates that slower traffic keep right. This includes motorbikes,scooters, oxcarts, carts being pulled by people and uncarted oxen just out for a stroll.

All of this traffic takes a significant portion of the lane on each side, leaving cars and trucks the other 55% of the road to share. This results in driving down the centre line as being the norm, which is great fun until an oncoming car or truck approaches. Thats when the game of chicken begins as each driver leans on the horn, exhorting the other to pull over.

The first time this happens, I become acutely aware of my own mortality. I've had a good life with no regrets and if it ends here, so be it. Just let my Mom know that she shouldn't bother getting my body shipped home. A funeral pyre in front of Angkor Wat will suffice.

Of course I arrive safely in Siem Reap, and ensconce myself at the "No Problem Villa". As I head to my room I notice a sign in the hallway. No Drugs. No Guns. No Grenades.

I'm starting to like this place already.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Borderline Behaviour

Boundary at AranyaprathetImage via Wikipedia
As I exit the train at Aranyaprathet, I am immediatly met by a tuk tuk driver, offering to drive me to the Cambodian border. I ask the price, and given that it is only slightly higher than the price quoted by fellow travelers, I accept without bargaining.

The reason that I know the price is that I stumbled upon a website called , an invaluable resource for anyone traveling anywhere by rail, bus or boat. If you plan to travel anywhere in the world, I give this site my highest recommendation.

This site has also made me aware of a scam that is well known at this obscure border crossing, known as the fake Thai border.

Basically, this is how it works. My tuk tuk driver drives me to the border, but takes a right turn just before reaching the actual border. It is a slightly official looking place, and the Thai people there will try to convince you that this is the border, and they are wearing fake badges around their neck in an weak attempt to add authenticity.

There is a desk and a covered area and a bunch of hacks trying their best to look official. Having read about this, I know exactly where I am and what is happening, unlike many of my fellow travelers.

Essentially, these guys are offering to get your visa for you for $40 instead of $20, which is the actual price. At this point, I am tired and I just want to get into Cambodia, though I know that I am being conned. I don't mind paying the extra $20 to have someone do the legwork for me.

If you don't want to pay the extra money, just grab your gear, ignore these guys and proceed to the border, where you can fill out the paperwork yourself.

The real scam is booking your taxi from the Thai side. DO NOT DO THIS! Myself and another young lady were left hanging for more than an hour in Cambodia waiting for a shared taxi to fill up, even though I'd been assured on the Thai side that I was the fourth person, thus completing the ride, giving the impression that I would be whisked away as soon as I arrived at the taxi area in Poipet.

Tired, hungry and angry, I began telling my fellow travelers not to trust or pay anyone until a cab was directly in front of them and their bags were being loaded.

Interestingly eneough, when I began to publicly dissuade others from making the same mistake I had, I was whisked into a cab within moments, Apparently scammers don't like it when you start to expose their scam to other potential victims.

In short, you don't have to listen to anybody at the fake Thai border, but at least they do help you get your visa. At least they provide a service, though I did laugh audibly when they started asking for a tip.

However, under no circumstances should you pay for transportation from the Thai side to Siem Reap. It is a scam run by a bunch of weasels looking to take advantage of your fear and ignorance. Do not buy into it.

Riding The Rails

Track approaching Medway Viaducts. {{location ...Image via Wikipedia
While reasearching this trip, I was delighted to find that there were multiple opportunities for rail travel. The first being a journey from Bangkok to Aranyaprathet, a small town near the Cambodian border. The plan was to catch the 5:55am train, as this was the only way to make it into Cambodia in one day by train, as the border closes at 8pm.

I get back to my hotel in Bangkok around 1am, after killing the evening on a patio in Khao San Road. I sleep fitfully, fearful of missing my 4am wakeup call.

After a series of short naps, I drag my ass out of bed and check out. As usual, I am running about a half hour behind my self imposed schedule. I exit the hotel and throw my bag into the back of a taxi when I hear a voice calling from the hotel, Sir sir!

The front desk is claiming that I owe them for one beer from the minibar.

They are incorrect, but I understand why they are saying this and the reasons are far too convoluted and boring to go into detail here.

I have neither the time nor the will to have an argument over such a trifle. I race back up to the mezzanine and pay the money, knowing they will realize their honest mistake later.

In short, I would advise all travelers who avail themselves of a minibar, to make sure that the maid makes up their room everyday, if only to keep an accurate tab. I thought I was giving the maid a break, but it cost me, more in aggravation than the small amount of money involved.

Now I am really behind and a lot hinges on getting my boney ass on this train. Fortunately, the magnificent train station is not far, and I make it with about three minutes to spare.

As expected, this particular route is run by a very basic train , and is very crowded. The seating is about as luxurious as your average subway. I find myself seated on a bench seat intended for three, with a similiar seat facing me, though it is hard to complain about the seating when my over five hour journey cost me less than two dollars, cheaper than a transit fare in Toronto.

I am also happy to be leaving Bangkok, and looking forward to getting off the beaten path. While Bangkok is a wonderful place, it is rife with the same indifference that is the hallmark of any large city.

The train heaves forward with an increasing clickety clack., as the receding city sparkles in the Bangkok dawn.

The train makes many stops, each at increasingly smaller stations. My seat mates change several times. At one point a lovely Thai lady who looks to be thirtyish joins me. At the next stop, a group of young boys dressed in sports uniforms board.

The lady engages them, and she and the kids are sharing laughs together. I desperately wish I could join in, but no matter.

Sometimes you don't need to understand the language to realize the true beauty of a fellow human being.

The Thai countryside rolls by as tuk tuks give way to oxen and shanty's are replaced by rice paddies. For the first time I feel that my journey is truly underway.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Tuk You, Buddy

Chakri Mahaprasad Hall (Grand Palace, Bangkok,...Image via Wikipedia
Today I went to the apparently magnificent Grand Palace. I say apparently as I was refused entry because I was not wearing long pants. Never mind that the shorts were so long that they only revealed one inch of skin above my ankle and I did have on a long sleeve shirt.

Nonetheless, the guidebook did say appropriate dress, (long pants,long sleeve shirt) and I did fail to meet the criteria. I am a guest in this country and if I fail to meet clearly stated requirements that is my fault and nobody elses.

As I take the deserved walk of shame away from the gate of The Grand Palace I run into a tuk tuk driver ( a tuk tuk is a sort of motorcycle with a buck seat, like a motorised rickshaw offering to take me to a number of free sights around the city.

I ask him how much and he says whatever you want to pay. I'm leery, and I ask again, how much? Same response.

He takes me to three interesting sights, but sandwiched among them is five different stores. It seems he gets a petrol voucher by bringing tourists to these stores. I'm already hip to this, as someone at the first sight we visit fills me in and tells me I should pay only 10 - 20 baht, as he is going to be compensated for bringing me to these stores.

At some point he fesses up with a help a brother out kind of vibe. Fine.

At three of the five stores, I actually make some small purchases, while salespeople entice me to buy expensive jewelry. After store number five I'm getting exasperated.

We go on to the third tourist destination, The Temple of the Golden Mount. All three destinations have been magnificent, but I'm somewhat annoyed at the whole process.

Part of the deal is a ride back to my hotel, and we have both met our obligations, so it is time to end this odd charade. Before departing for my hotel he insists on being paid, which is fine. Given that I "helped a brother out", I take him at his word and give him about 350 baht ( about $10), far more than I was advised to.

We pull away from the temple and he drives about ten feet and pulls over and says "do you want to get out here?". Clearly he is not happy with his compensation, but I stand my ground, reminding him that I did him a favour and that he said I could pay whatever I wanted.

Reluctantly he drives me to my hotel.

Thailand is known as the Land of Smiles, but just because an individual is smiling and unflailingly polite, doesn't mean that they're not trying to screw you.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Veni, Vidi, no Vici

A view of Patpong at sunsetImage via Wikipedia
As I write this I am seated on a patio, looking out at Sukumwit Road, home to the notorious Bangkok sex trade. I really did not want to come here, but it is sort of like going to Paris and not looking at The Eiffel Tower.

While explaining to the Tuk Tuk driver that I wanted to come here, I suddenly feel like a fourteen year old kid, trying to buy a Penthouse from the drug store.

"You want girl?", he asks. "You should go to Patpong, much better. I try to explain that I am going to look, not buy, and from what I've been told, Patpong is a place where I could buy the services of an underage girl. He is forceful, but I am resolute. I want to go to Sukumwit, not Patpong.

I don't go to strip clubs in Toronto, nor do I avail myself of the services of prostitutes at home, so why would I do it here?

I am no prude, and if two consenting adults care to make a business arrangement among themselves, then that is their business. It is simply not my cup of tea.

As I walk the sidestreets of Sukumwit, I am deluged by touts, entreating me to take a massage, or come in for a drink. The girls are hanging out front, like so many ducks in a Chinese restaurant window.

All of this makes me feel sad. Sad that these decent people are reduced to this, and even sadder that there is no shortage of customers.

I find a faux Irish bar, devoid of bargirls, and begin bearing witness. I'm pretty sure that my lack of patronage will not be missed, as an endless stream of punters walk past my patio perch.

Gentlemen, you may include me out, ladies please accept my bow.

Bangkok Boatride

Footpath in Siam SquareImage via Wikipedia
Mother of ass, it is hotter than a pot of coffee here.

After breakfast, I went out for a walk and was soaked in sweat within minutes. I walked around for about an hour and was forced to retreat to the air conditioned confines of my hotel room to change and recover.

I'd only been awake for a few hours, but I was completely wiped out. I lay on my bed while cursing myself for doing so. I did not fly halfway around the world to watch women play ping pong on a Chinese TV broadcast, as exciting as that is. So I look at my city map and weigh my options for the day.

Make no mistake, Bangkok is a big ass city, three times the size of Toronto, and I am clearly daunted by its sheer magnitude. I want to go to the temples but they are spread around the city. I would also like to take a boatride in the harbour, but I opt for Siam Square, only because it offers the promise of air conditioning. It feels like a lame compromise, but it beats the hell out of women's ping pong.

So I venture back out into the unspeakable heat, planning to flag a cab, but I find myself walking. I stumble upon one of the many boat docks in the city, and opt instead for a boatride, thinking that it should be cooler on the water.

There are two types of boats, one for tourists and a myriad of others that are part of the transit system. I was tempted to just hop on a local boat, but it was not apparent to me whether I needed to buy a ticket, or pay while on board. I am very leery about breaking the rules.

Instead, I opt for a tourist boat. Without realising, I have booked the whole boat, and I find myself being personally chauffered around the harbour and canals. I have also committed myself to a visit to the snake farm, whatever that is.

It was a great trip, and a nice opportunity to see the city from the harbour, which gave me a much better chance to view the city from a long perspective, thus better understanding its layout.

We also wound our way through the many ancient canals that were built way back when to foster commerce and provide defense for this aged kingdom.

At one point, we stop at the snake farm, where a show is put on featuring a python, a cobra and another Asian snake. There are also a bunch of other animals here.

The whole experience reminds me of why I hate the zoo, which culminates when, to my horror, I see some douchebag getting his jollies by teasing a monkey with his beer bottle. What kind of people get their kicks tormenting imprisoned animals?

I head back to the hotel feeling oddly demoralized, as a wave of melancholy washes over me. Can we not just show a shred of respect for ourselves, each other, and the creatures that surround us?

We, The Pamperazzi

Father and Son - The Cycle of Poverty Continues
Tonight as I left Khao San Road, I saw two Thai children of about four years old playing happily. Normally, this would be a scene that would bring a twinkle to my eye, but this image was different.

The children were playing with a pile of garbage. I thought briefly about taking a picture, but given that it was late in the evening, a flash would be required, and in addition, I am uncomfortable with the idea of taking such a picture without permission from the parents.

I turned away as my eyes began to well up at the sheer inequity of human existence.

When I had the privilege of seeing Bill Clinton speak this summer, the thing that struck me most was his statement that " if you were given any choice about what to do with your life, you are among an elite one or two percent of all the human beings who have ever walked this planet".

My guess is that those kids I saw tonight are not among that elite percentile.

I wish that I had been able to take that picture so that I could show it to myself and my fellow Canadians when we begin to whine because our petty little desires are not being met.

The more I travel, the more I realise what a petty bunch of self absorbed people many of us are.

So much to be grateful for, yet so little gratitude.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Does The Fish Massage Include Happy Ending?

Khaosan RoadImage via Wikipedia
Cautiously, I venture out into the tumult that is Chinatown. Teeming with traffic and humanity, I quickly learn that it is the pedestrians responsibility to not interrupt the flow of traffic and if some farang gets in the way that is his problem.

It seems that half the crosswalks are placed strategically on blind curves, making the game that much more risky and intriguing. At one point I am forced to take the walk of shame back from whence I came, due to the utter refusal of left  turning traffic to respect my right of way.

Bangkok's Chinatown is not the quaint few blocks that it is in Toronto, but a huge enclave within this massive city. One could easily spend a week exploring all the nooks and crannies of this magical area and still not complete the job.

Daunted by the main streets, I retreat into the alleys and side streets that compose an incomprehensible labyrinth of stalls selling everything under the sun. And I do mean everything.

As I pass one store a lady asks me if I would like a massage. Thai massage is a renowned and perfectly legitimate endeavour. I politely decline and continue, wondering if I was being offered a massage or a "massage". About 87 seconds later, my question is answered, when another lady offers me a massage but adds the words "boom boom".

In Asian sex parlance, there are two items on the basic menu. One is "boom boom" and the other is "yam yam". I leave the translation to you.

The following day I find myself in the very touristy Khao San Road area. I notice a sign offering "fish massage", whereby one has their feet massaged by dozens of tiny fish nibbling at your toes, eating the dead skin from your feet.

Now if they could only train the fish to do "yam yam" this place would be Troy McClure heaven.

Yes Siam

One of the Golden Chedis inside the Wat Phra K...Image via Wikipedia
Greetings from the Kingdom of Thailand It is Sunday, my second full day in Thailand, and I am starting to feel myself again after the long journey.

The flight was horrible, though less horrible than I had anticipated, given that I had moved the expectation bar to absolute zero. I was also blessed with seatmates who were cordial, but had no inclination to share their life story with me.

It turned out that I had a ninety minute layover in Tokyo, and I was eternally grateful to find a little bar with a smoking room inside the terminal. It was a refreshing change from the relentless march of behavioral fascism that permeates the gaping maw of North American "culture". Plus, I was really dying for a smoke.

After that, it was back on the plane for the "short" hop from Tokyo to Bangkok, only six hours or so.

From the airport I grab an overpriced limo to my hotel, aware of the taxi scam that "mistakenly" takes you to the wrong hotel to coerce you to stay at that location. I am simply too tired to play that game. I pay the extra and arrive at the White Orchid Hotel in the heart of Chinatown.

As I check in I glance at the hotel bar to my left. Loud music blares and a gaggle of young ladies dance and laugh among themselves. Strangely, they are the only people in the bar, save for one young man who seems to know them. Curious, I think to myself. I had specifically chosen a Chinatown location to avoid the annoyances of the infamous Bangkok sex trade. Easier said than done, apparently.

The next morning I wake up in a daze, unsure of where I am. After a few moments, my head begins to Grok my newfound reality. Oh thats right, I'm on the other side of the world for some reason.

I look at my watch, remembering that I have a breakfast voucher that expires at 10am. I had last changed the time in Japan, but having no idea of the time difference between Thailand and Japan, I was clueless. The only thing that I knew for sure was that I had missed breakfast in Japan.

I shake off the cobwebs, shower, and head off to the hotel dining room on spec, pink voucher clutched in hand. Luckily, I am golden with three minutes to spare. It is a pedestrian buffet, but I am grateful to be eating anything not served by a stewardess.

Now it is time to venture out into the great bustling unknown.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Walls And Bridges

Juan de Fuca Trail: Suspension Bridge
While I was incredibly nervous prior to my trip to Ghana, I am feeling much more relaxed this time. All this despite the fact that this trip is much more daunting and arduous.

Consider this. I don't care where you live, but the overwhelming odds are that if you ran across a hopelessly lost tourist who couldn't speak the local language, you would take them under your wing and help guide them as best you could. Your own sense of decency would dictate that.

I know that people around the world have the same generous instincts that you do. They may look different, they may act different, but there is a commonality of experience that we all share.

There are far more bridges than walls.

Yes, there is no shortage of cheap scammers in this world, but they represent an insignificant percentage of humanity, and their locations are easily scouted in this era of instant communication.

I will put the walls up when necessary, but this whole trip is about bridges.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

What Is The Speed Of Luggage, Grasshopper?

Kung Fu: The Legend ContinuesImage via Wikipedia
On the first leg of my journey, I have a scant 53 minute layover in Chicago. As concerned as I am about getting my own ass on the plane, I am even more concerned about my luggage making the same connection.

When I voiced my concern to my travel agent, she said, "don't worry its all run by computers". Hmmmm..., now I'm reassured?

So, I have decided to expect that my luggage will not arrive with me, and a plan to survive with my carry on only is now in place. Not only will I be ecstatic if my luggage arrives with me, I will simply shrug my shoulders if it doesen't.

If you can keep your expectations low, you will rarely be disappointed, and most of the time you will be happy that your expectations have been exceeded.

Now if you can grab the pebble from my hand, it is time for you to go...