Thursday, December 29, 2005

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Back in PP after a good cultural faff about in Siem Reap. This capital is pleasant but I am not here just for the fun of it. All roads may lead to Rome but the path of stupidity has brought me back here.

Despite what gappers may claim on their CV, backpacking in South East Asia is a piece of piss. Even in truly fucked-up Cambodia, sorting out the basics is laughably easy. I suspect this clashes with my earlier forays as a backpacker or that I somehow had built myself up for more adventure. This is why I think I have a subconscious part me that is determined to throw a wrench into the works and screw things up for my chuffed-with-himself incarnation.

Over a week ago, I happened to walk by a large NGO (I shall not pinpoint this particular organism except to say that they have recently thought it wise to adopt a crystal as one of their symbols) whose British counterpart I had been involved with. It could have been a desire for something new, a wish to feel all warm and fuzzy inside or I could have mistakenly consumed a Happy Shake (Happy is Cambodian for “laced with drugs”) but something in me decided to walk past the snoring guard and his shotgun and offer my services as a volunteer. My conscious self was all keen and happy just as my evil subconscious imp was probably doing a pagan dance of celebration.

I mentioned that I had some experience as a caged office monkey and would be glad to spend a week or so helping them with whatever admin crap they wished to inflict on me. The people I talked to looked keen and we discussed a few things I could do. The fun stopped shortly after.

I always knew that there would be some paperwork and bullshit before they could send me to proofread press statements or inventory bandages or whatever but I never guessed how far they would take it. They asked me for a CV and cover letter for the files so I hastily updated some old resume with some fresh lies and exaggerations and typed the best cover letter I could considering I was applying for the post of Whatever They Wanted Me To Do in exchange of the princely salary of $Buggerall. I raise my eyebrows when they told me it would take a few days but I accepted that such is the world and got on a bus to Siem Reap.

Upon my return I put on a clean shirt, shaved and sprayed my armpits with what a poker-faced female fellow traveler called a unisex deodorant. I trotted off to the HQ of the anonymous charity just to be told with a big smile that they had sent my “application” off to the Secretary General. As a precaution I re-iterated what I was expecting and told them that if they had problems finding something for me to do I would not be offended in the slightest. They told me this was normal and that I should call them in 2 days. 2 days later I was asked to contact them in another 2 days. I pointed out that I was running out of time on my visa and was worried that they would put more manhours into finding out something for me to do than I would be able to put in. They told me again this was normal and they were very glad to have me.

I have been pondering this and I am unsure to what the true cause of this particular ballsup is. One theory is that I have put these poor people on the spot and they are trying desperately to find some sort of activity for me where I would do little damage. Possible some cultural trait that I haven’t figured out yet makes them unable to tell me to piss off but thanks for offering.

Alternatively I know that this particular country’s branch has just been through a massive revamping of their admin structure assisted by counterparts from colder and richer branches. These expat advisers no doubt impressed on the Cambodians that they should strive to reach the same modus operandi as their western brethren in aid. If this is the case then they seem to have been most diligent in acquiring the bureaucratic inertia that most large organisations seem to saddle themselves with. Another job well done for the international community.

Anyways this limits my movements within Cambodia and is sorely trying my patience hence the notion that this was quite a large ballsup even by my standards. As tempted as I am, I don’t feel right telling them to forget the whole bloody thing but this is proving more of a hindrance to me getting some jungle time in Cambodia than the zillions of landmines still lying about. It is possible to find out what areas have been cleared of these little marvels of human ingenuity and you will generally be OK if you walk somewhere that many other people and some cattle have trod on for the past few years. NGO red tape is another minefield altogether and slightly trickier to navigate.

As the weekend cometh I feel safe to piss off to Battambang for the arrival of 2006 but will return to the one place on earth where you have to specify ‘Without Dope’ when ordering a fruit shake. I'm sure my misguided attempts to help will provide me with much writing material in the near future.

Take care,


Saturday, December 24, 2005

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Just a quick post on the town in a more traditional style.

Siem Reap is the tourist destination of choice in Cambodia. The reason being the temples of Angkor. It's slightly expensive by Cambodian standards and there is no BG as such. The locals prefer to cater to the tour groups and the well-heeled visitors that lodge at the palatial hotels of the town.

This makes Siem Reap a strange town for the backpacker. Bars have the gall to actually close and not a drug dealer to be seen. The restaurants tend to be expensive as they provide fine French fare or increase their prices on the basis that Angelina Jolie's pert bottom might have blessed the very same stool that you are perched on whilst she was filming the eminently forgettable Tomb Raider.

This forces the scruffy likes of me to go native as the only prayer of keeping to a budget. Therefore, in the most touristic place of Cambodia, you eat like the locals and with the locals. Oh the irony.

Today I actually saw a few of the town's other attractions. One of these is the Landmine museum run in the face of all odds by a guy named Aki Ra. He is an ex-deminer who started the place off a while ago until a local military figure decided to get in on the action and open a place of his own. They weren't too keen on free market rules so the authorities pestered Aki Ra with various annoyances from removing all signs to the place and once chucking him in jail. He still persisted and support from tourist gives him some protection.

Aside from the usual tour of markets I indulged in the other activity for trendy backpackers: I was vampirised. The childrens hospital here keeps open thanks to its director, Dr Beat Richner, who plays the cello to the wealthy crowd each saturday in exchange for daontions to the hospital. He has twigged that the guesthouse denizens cannot realy be a great source of income so he asks the braided crowd for a pint of blood instead.

They need the stuff as there is an epidemic of hemorrhagic dengue fever in the area. This fun disease tends to be particularly lethal to under 15's so the childrens hospital need blood to keep them alive. The local sprogs don't have the battery of anti mozzie kit the average backpacker has and often live next to stagnant water such as the paddy fields they cultivate to stay alive. Therefore I was bled of a pint of the red stuff after I had ascertained that they used disposable needles. Feeling woozy.

Some backpackers go on a jaunt to discover themselves and are amazed at what they find. I myself have discovered that I am a committed Christian thanks to devious Cambodians. A few of the wily locals have twigged that the modern Tourist is highly fearful of appearing insensitive to local customs. Therefore some of them mill about the statues of Buddha and light up a couple on incenese sticks for the passing tourist and encourage him to pray to the thing. They then put some money on the altar and encourage the newly blessed to do the same. Out of fear to offend the tourist often obliges.

I glimpsed this scene and the subsequent pocketing of the money by the helpful native and tried to think of a way out of it. I decided that two can play the religious tolerance game and made them understand that I was a Christian and felt no desire to pray to their heathen gods. Praise be to Jesus.

(For info, these chaps were not monks for whom the donations should be going to)

I also discovered that I should be careful for what I wished for. For reason of Xmas there is a slight drop of tourists in Siem Reap at the moment hence the high ratio of Tuk-Tuk driver per visitor. As a result there is an intimidating throng of them at the bus station. They surround the incoming bus, tap the windows and a baying mob of them crowd the door of your transport. I mentioned to fellow traveller that I wished someone in authority would tell them that there is such a thing as too keen.

My wish was realised when 2 members of the local constabulary showed up and tried to get the chappies to at least let us get off the bus. They did this by using whistles and the respect that their noble profession is due. When this failed they took canes and started to whip the legs of the touts with more vigour than I thought necessary. All visitors find pesky moto drivers to be tiresome but even I thought birchwhipping was tad harsh.

That's pretty much it for Siem Reap.

All the best,

Siem Reap. Cambodia

It’s not often one gets to tick something off the list of things to do before you die, or settle down, which for my iredeemingly puerile mind amounts to the same thing. It’s even rarer that this item lives up to one’s expectations.

The item that I can now tick off as “done” is a visit to the temples of Angkor. I have been wanting to do this for a while and, now that I have, I find myself in a bit of a bind.

It’s easy to convey fury and anger as my post about the Cambodian Genocide shows. It’s trickier to convey awe and amazement. I don’t think I can actually pull it off so the following post is for my own sake. I will use in later years as I reread this blog and wish to trigger memories. So as I write to my future self I reckon I will simply answer a question about me.

What did I do in Siem Reap during the last few weeks of 2005?

I’ve seen the sun rise on Angkor Wat.

I’ve walked around its walls in the dark seeing only the few feet of stone in front me that my torch lit up. I’ve sat myself down on the grass and waited for the sun, seeing little but hearing much as the creatures of the surrounding jungle started to awake. I watched in silence as the dark looming silhouette of the temple slowly began to show itself in all its glory. As the nearly menacing hulk morphed into a lacelike intricate wonder I congratulated myself for making the effort to ensure that I would first see Angkor Wat at dawn and not glimpsed from afar over the head of a Tuk-Tuk driver.

Once the rotation of the earth had finished to provide me with one of the greatest shows on earth, I backtracked and caught sight of what had been for me had been but shadows. I saw the great causeway that leads up to the temple. I saw the ponds filled with blood red flowers. I saw the nearly endless reliefs of the lower walls where gods and demons, once feared or revered by people long dead, fought their epic battles.

I’ve gazed into the giant stone faces of the Bayon of Angkor Thom and returned their frozen smile. I’ve wandered around its chaotic jumble of chedis from which strayed whispers of incense smoke. I strode atop the terrace of the Elephants. I watched as the descendants of the builders of these marvels, knelt and prayed to the statue of the Leper King.

I lost myself in the ruins of the monastery of Ta Prohm. A place where, once humans and their meddling left, the living wood of the jungle tried to conquer the carved stone of man. I saw the giant trees erupting from buildings and striding over partially collapsed walls as if trying to break in. I saw the roots entwined over the roofs of temples as if to seize and crush them. I ducked into dark corridors and found myself blocked by the vast piles of rubble that were testament to this colossal battle that went unseen for centuries.

I’ve climbed temple mountains. I’ve sat down on the banks of the vast moats of these once lost cities. I’ve paced along the commemorations of great battles. I’ve seen Vishnu riding Garuda into war. I’ve seen rows of gods wrestling a serpent to form the balustrade of a bridge.

I’ve seen what all should see once in their lives. I’ve been to the temples of Angkor.

So there you are dear future Me. This is what you have done in the past days.

For any other readers, I will do another post later today.

Take care,


Monday, December 19, 2005

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

My last post was a grim one but such things have to be done. Now for the lighter side.

Phnom Penh is like a lot of capital cities in South East Asia with the notable exception that I like it . It’s busy and big and dirty but not too much. Also a big plus is the Backpacker Ghetto in this fun town.

Usually such places are in an area that has both cheap property and proximity to the cultural stuff. Look at your local town and find an area that fits this description and you will get an idea of the beautiful parts of town usually developed for the rucksack crowd. The difference here is not apparent when you first catch a glimpse of this quarter and I guess some have arrived, taken a look and scuttled off to a more salubrious part of town. Big mistake.

Once you have got past the aggressive goats and sheep that seem to guard the entrance to the street, dodged the puddles and the open manholes, avoided the insane motodrivers and their deluded belief that their beat-up cyclo is an all-terrain bike and finally got down a tiny alleyway replete with dodgy groups of chaps playing cards and women washing their screaming kids with a watering can, you arrive at whatever guesthouse you have set your mind on or been conned into going to. Then you enter a different world.

Most of these places consist a longhouse with rooms that lead on to a platform over the lake. The owners put up sofas, hammocks and straw mats covered with cushions and I settled down very quickly to watch the sunset on the lake. Paradise.

The reason this prime piece of real estate is the BG and not some crappy street near the station is probably that it is illegally built. This is one of the poorest parts of town and it seems the zoning regulators are too busy milking the NGO crowd to bother with this place. It saddens me that it will eventually disappear but I’m enjoying it while I can. Plus it will add a I-Was-There-When merit badge to my backpacker credentials.

The delights of Pnohm Penh are hard to find but worth the hunt. There is the Royal Palace and various Wats but mainly there are loads of markets and alleyways filled with shifty characters. This gives a fun, if slightly worrying, edge to this town. To further put the visitor at ease, a backpacker will be a tad surprised at the offers of the moto drivers. Alongside the customary transport, drugs and hookers I found myself politely but firmly refusing the procurement of "AK-47, M16, Uzi Sir?".

Phnom Penh is a moderately dangerous place and is reputed to be awash with guns but I was a bit surprised to be offered assault rifles. I personnaly believe that a cheap second wallet stuffed with various crap, a few UK loyalty cards and 2 days worth of petty cash will be my best guarantee of survival if I get held up at gunpoint, along with begging for mercy. But even for the stupid, the paranoid and the American I would have thought a handgun would be a more portable way of insuring your mugger shoots you instead of pissing off content with his takings. Backpacker clothes are baggy but not baggy enough to hide a Kalachnikov.

This was actually a mistake on my part as I believed that he was offering to get these items for me on a permanent basis. As for the women, this was a rental offer. The chaps were trying to offer me the great Cambodian experience of going to an army range and playing with military toys.
Like a lot of third world countries, the Cambodian government follows the wise policy of spending a lot on weapons and close to bugger all on the men who have to wield them. I suppose they believe that the trick to being a stable nation state is to have a disgruntled, impoverished but very well armed military. Instead of taking over the country, the soldiers have instead decided to make a deal with gun-ho (and by that I mean anglo-saxon) travelers based on the great law of supply and demand. They give what they have plenty of (ammo) and receive what they have little of (money). Capitalism at it’s finest.

Because of what I had seen at Tuol Sleng the idea of playing around with things that were built with the sole purpose of killing human beings did not appeal to me. Once I had cleared up that particular cultural misunderstanding I decided to check the veracity of am urban legend that has been on the backpacker circuit for a while. The Cow and RPG legend.

The first time I heard this particular gem I was in Saigon and was a younger, less cynical version of myself and had been taken under the protective wings of a more seasoned and braided crowd. I was then privileged to watch a fine bit of domestic argy develop because of The Legend. This particular bit of folklore is set around the shooting ranges of Cambodia. Beside pissing about with machine guns and whatnot, it seems one of the things on offer in these places is the possibility of buying a cow and putting a rocket propelled grenade in it. Even at the time it seemed like bollocks but it is a persistent legend.

The girl in the couple told me about this stuff with scorn and disgust in her voice, supported by her boyfriend. To a point. He declaimed his revulsion at such sadistic practices but slowly started to put small qualifiers to his condemnation. He started to mumble about the idea that he would do it if the cow was ill and would be doing a favour to the local community. The boy kept putting out feelers untill his lady snapped and told him he could blow up a cow or sleep with her but not both. A fun fight ensued.

Since then I have been curious about this warped tale and told myself I would check it out once in Cambodia. It's bollocks. I can say this as moto drivers will arrange and sell you anything for a fee and they were adamant about the impossibility of doing this. Something that is not for sale in Cambodia is something that does not exist in Cambodia.

Who says reading this blog is not educational?

Take care,


Saturday, December 17, 2005

Phnom Penh

No Jokes. No sarky comments. No amusing anecdotes. No self-righteous derision aimed at other Westerners. Not today.

For the bulk of this post, no first person either. I need the detachment and it’s easier if I describe my day as another person’s.

You get up reasonably early and go down the corridor for a shower. The cold water shakes off most of the mild hangover you have. You go to the guesthouse lounging area, which happens to be a platform littered with cushions and hammocks overhanging the waters of the Boeng Kak lake. It’s a bright sunny day so you opt to sit in a shaded area. You start to coffee up and exchange pleasantries with the other guests there. You share comments about last night’s drinking and the various plans for the day that each one has cooked up. You have your own plan for today and you arrange the modalities last night.

At the agreed time, your moto driver shows up. You shoot the shit with him and smoke a few cigarettes. You decide it’s time to go and walk over to where he has stashed his wheels. You hop on the back and hang on tight to the grip bars as he negotiates the narrow streets of the Backpacker Ghetto and enters Phnom Penh’s morning traffic. He darts around the trucks, bicycles and SUVs that share the road with you and pretty soon you are out of the town center heading South.

You start to glimpse paddy fields through the gaps in the shacks and houses of the roadside. After a while you are in the countryside on a dusty road and you are surprised at how small Pnohm Penh is compared to other South East Asian capitals. You idly watch the scenes of rural life around you, occasionally jolted back to more tangible concerns as your driver swerves off the road to avoid a truck and the massive dust cloud it generates.

After a while your driver takes a left and you arrive at your destination. You pay the entrance fee and walk through the gate. Other tourists are there milling around silently. In front of you is the pagoda-like building you had spotted from afar. You are in a quiet piece of countryside and you can see ponds, ditches and streams as well as the usual paddy fields. You also see holes.

You are at the Choeung Ek Genocide memorial. The Killing Fields. The holes are the excavated mass graves of the victims of this extermination camp, one amongst many across Cambodia. As you walk around you spot rags of cloth and bone fragments protruding from the dirt. At some of these holes a small pile of bones has been neatly stacked next to a wooden post telling you how many bodies were exhumated. There are a lot of these graves and you start to look down and dodge the pieces of cloth and bone. Something in you doesn’t want to walk on them.

You take in the sites and read the information boards and go to the Pagoda. It’s a white tower reminiscent of Thai architecture and is obviously new. You walk up to it, remove your sandals and go up the steps to the central part. What you see encased in glass is shelves. Each one is about the size of a double bed and they are stacked 2 feet apart up to the ceiling. You reckon there are at least a dozen. On these shelves are human skulls. Lots and lots of skulls. Over 8000, so you’ve been told. Etched on the glass is an indicator of the age of the victims. 15-20, 20-50 and 50 plus. In one corner without etching are very small skulls. Children were murdered here too. A lot of these grim relics are in pieces. You are not sure if this is due to time or whether it is a result of the way they were killed. You suspect the latter as the Khmer Rouge saved bullets by killing their victims with axes, knives, cattle yokes and other agricultural tools.

You walk out and find your driver. He has been here before with other tourists and asks you if you are alright. You lie and tell him you are OK. He hangs around you silently until you tell him you want to go. He waits a few miles before becoming chatty again. You get back to Phnom Penh, twist around a few side streets and arrive to your second destination, even though by now you’re not so keen to go.

You pay the entrance fee and walk into the yard of what was once a school. The sun is really beating down now and you move beneath a palm tree so that you can be in the shade as you look around. There are 3 buildings surrounding the courtyard, all 3 stories high, and the layout is similar to a lot of the schools you’ve seen in South East Asia. There are chin-up bars, flower pots and benches on the edges of the courtyard and you find it hard to reconcile what you’ve heard of the place and what you see.

You are at the Tuol Sleng Museum. This place was once known as S-21 which stood for Security Prison 21. Here was the torture centre that was often the last place a victim saw before being sent to Choueng Ek. In here the Khmer Rouge tortured their victims in order to extract confessions of guilt from the people they intended to kill. The Cambodians sent here were made to suffer unbelievable horrors so that they could provide the rationale for their own murder. Of the 17 000 people estimated to have arrived here only 7 survived. It is one of these screwed up places where madness becomes methodical.

Before you enter the buildings you see a billboard with a translation of the rules of the camp. Amongst gems of commie bullshit there is the viciously stupid. “You will not cry out when receiving lashes or electric shocks. If you cry out you will receive 10 lashes or 5 electric shocks”. You enter the buildings and start to look around. You see the torture instruments, the shackles, the cells, the ammunition boxes used as latrines. You see paintings describing what happened. You see the piles of paper where the confessions of the torture victims are recorded. It’s nasty but you managed to remain reasonably detached. Then you enter the 3rd building and you see photos. Lots of photos.

The torturers took mug shots of most of their victims. You look into hundreds of pairs of eyes. You see young people, old people, women, children. You see mothers holding their babies for the photographers. At one point you find a panel covered with the photos of infants. Every last one of these pictures is the photograph of someone now dead. All of them were murdered. In another room you see the pictures of some victims after they were killed alongside the mugshots. These were special prisoners whom the guards thought they should have get proof of how thorough they were.

The final set of pictures you see are in an exhibition showing you the perpetrators. there are several posters, each comprising, one photo of the person as a Khmer Rouge, their biographical details and position occupied, a small paragraph of their thoughts on what they had done and a photo of them now, mostly at work or doing the mundane things of everyday life. These were the spearchuckers of Pol Pot’s gang of murderers. They kept the records, wielded the axes, pulled the triggers or administered the beatings. You read the blurbs and feel loathing towards them and some pity. You wonder what choice they had. The Khmer Rouge was a self-cannibalistic entity and killed over 200, 000 of its own. When these guys claim it was obey or die, they are telling the truth. You feel conflicted.

The most frightening photo you see is the group photo for the staff at S-21. You wish they would look monstrous and harsh but they are not. What you see is a bunch of young men, some of them teenagers, all smiling and proud to pose. You have seen the instruments they used and, in some photos, the results. You struggle to understand how this bunch of smiling kids, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, could be the ones pulling out fingernails, whipping people and many other horrors in order to give the killers at Choueng Ek the knowledge that they were executing self-confessed enemies of the revolution. You need a cigarette.

You walk out and decide you want to sit by the Mekong. You want to see boats, idlers, kids swimming, old guys fishing and other signs of contented life. You alternate wide avenues and narrow alleys as you move slowly North-East. It’s not that close but you could do with a stroll. You get to the river and you start to ponder what you’ve seen. As you do this you look around, not really taking in anything but just out of habit. You become aware that what you have been looking at for a while is flags.

The Cambodians have put up loads of flags of different nations in front of the main departure dock on the Mekong. It’s something you’ve seen all over the world but this time it catches your attention. You start to search your memory for a picture of what the world was like in 1975. You think about the way this country was let down. You think of what is happening nowadays. You start to feel angry.

In 1975, the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh after a long civil war. They declared that they were at year Zero and that Cambodia would now be an agrarian commune, The killings started immediately as anyone linked to the former regime and members of the educated classes were singled out as incapable of being part of this fucked up little scheme. Their families were often killed with them. The rest of the population was dispersed into the countryside and put to work in the fields. Unsurprisingly, this plan did not bring the expected abundance of food and starvation started to kill Cambodians in their thousands.

The regime then started to kill its own and other people seemingly at random or using whatever ditzy criteria they had. They reasoned that if things were not doing great it must be because of traitors. Therefore traitors must be found and killed. The murders continued. The final death toll is estimated at between 1 and 3 million people. The smart money is on the latter figure.

So what did the world do whilst this was happening? Basically; fuck all. A few mumblings and threats but essentially the international community stood around twiddling their dicks while Pol Pot and his buddies committed an act of self-genocide. The UN even recognized them as the legitimate government of Cambodia. The salvation of the Cambodian people came from, of all things, the Vietnamese army.

Yep, the newest addition to the ‘’Empire of Evil” of the nasty Red Menace were the only ones to get their act together and do what was needed. They invaded and trounced the Khmer Rouge, taking Phnom Penh (by then a ghost town) in January 1979. To add insult to injury, the UN and ASEAN actually got huffy with the Viets and the puppet government they installed. The Chinese government gave military aid to the Khmer Rouge’s little guerrilla and the World Food programme even chipped in a few million dollars worth of aid to this charming lot. The US went along, probably as they wanted to see someone give the Vietnamese soldiers the beating that they themselves had been incapable of administering.

With this in mind you would like to believe that the mistakes of the past are unfortunately the only way we will learn to progress. However you know better and that is when you get angry. The pathetic absence of response to the killings in Bosnia and Rwanda demonstrate that indecision and ineptitude are still the two pillars of international governance. Conscience was briefly soothed when NATO allowed its Air Force to tell the Serbian forces that Kosovo was a massacre too far but that was an exception rather than the rule.

Worse are the parallels to recent events. In 1975, the United States had just reached the final conclusion of their disastrous foray in Vietnam by having to evac its staff from the roof of their Embassy during the fall of Saigon. This was the pathetic end of a misguided clusterfuck spawned by idiotic “domino” theories of geo-politics and characterized by a complete absence of any long term strategy or realistic assessment of the opposition. No one wanted to get involved in another Far East shooting gallery plus the Chinese were hinting that they were supportive of Pol Pot’s crowd.

Fast forward to the last couple of years and you get the international community doing little about Darfur. The West decided to hand over the ball to that organization renowned for its competence: the African Union. This legendary bunch then proved that they were up to the job by sending troops into the area but saddling them with the same kind of rules of engagement that made the UN presence on Bosnia such a triumph. The African Union has followed the UN method of doing things to a tee and ensured that all steps were taken to prevent some local commander on the ground getting hasty and actually saving some lives.

At the same time we have another clusterfuck going on, also spawned by stupid domino theories, also distinguishable by unbelievably inept leadership at the political level, wishful thinking as to the opposition and no real idea of how to get out, or stay in for that matter. So no one wants to get involve in a Muslim shooting gallery plus the Chinese are hinting that they are very friendly with the Sudanese government.

Plus Ça Change…

So you think about this and you get angry. You wonder what the fuck is it going to take for humanity to get a grip? You wonder if one day you will look at political leaders and have at least an inkling of respect towards them. You doubt it.

You start to wonder what happened to the truly vicious fucks who committed the Genocide in Cambodia. Who’s done time or swung from a rope? You have some notion that Pol Pot was tried and put in jail but you are unsure of the details. You wonder up the banks of the Mekong to an internet café you’d spotted yesterday. You start to google stuff. What you get is a lot of vague information about a tribunal being set up but there are complications. You find out that in 1997 Pol Pot was tried by some half-baked revolutionary court and sentenced to a life of house arrest for treason. .

Pol Pot died a year after. For killing millions of his countrymen, the fat bastard’s punishment was to spend a year in his house before popping his clogs.

As far as I can see, no other leader of the Khmer Rouge has yet been to trial.

No Jokes. Not today.


Thursday, December 15, 2005

Sihanoukville, Cambodia

Despite my somewhat pitiful state I have managed to make the boat run to Sihanoukville and, what with the boat leaving at 8 and the border opening at 7, it is just that: a run. I made things worse for myself by imposing yet anther stupid constraint on myself. I decided, in a moment of drunken high-mindedness, not to encourage the rampant corruption amongst Cambodia’s officials. I therefore asked for what these folks hate to produce; a receipt for the various monies they requested in order to pass the border. Surprisingly this dropped the price of the visa a few dollars and made the quarantine sheet suddenly free of charge. It slowed things down a bit though as the officials slowly rustled up the dusty receipt-slip pad and often paused to glare at me.

Still, made it with my conscience intact and got to Sihanoukville, a town created in the 50’s by the French so as to have a port in Asia after they had ignominiously lost Vietnam. It has all the charm of something built in the fifties but I am enjoying being in a country whose dust (and there is a lot) I have not yet stirred with my large feet. I found a nice “restaurant” on a hill overlooking the port and got my first taste of Anchor beer. I set to watching the fishing boats go out for their nightly foray, ordered some curried crab, and subconsciously started to hum Otis Redding’s great ode to dossing by the water.

I would stay here longer if not for the vast hoards of dirty old men that haunt this place. In Thailand I was willing to admit that I might have been mistaken on the nature of the relations between elderly white men and the local women and that scorning Germans played some part in my conclusions. Here, however, the majority of these blokes are Anglos, mainly Brits and Aussies, and overhearing their conversations has left me in no doubt as to how they perceive the young women of Cambodia and what their reason for being here is. I am astounded at the level of self delusion of these chaps and the only way I could be wrong is if Cambodian girls are raised to believe that Prince charming is a 50 plus fat tosser whose amateur tattoos stylishly offset his broken teeth and tends to use the word “cunt” as punctuation.

From what I got these are the kind of fuck-ups that used to live on the Costa del Sol before extradition to HMP Wormwood Scrubs got too easy. Some of them moped about Pattaya not being the way it was and a few of them had T-shirts from Go-Go bars in the Philippines. Now that Thailand has started to get its act together a lot of these charming blokes have decided to make Cambodia their home.

I’m not being prudish here and I see no wrong with prostitution per se. In a way it’s quite an honest breakdown of many relationships between men and women. What bothers me (beside the fact that many of the girls draped around the necks of these fuckers are just teenagers) is that to believe the average Cambodian prozzie is making an empowered independent decision to sell her body is like buying coke and believing that it comes from a cute fairtrade farm and was processed and shipped by an organization that gives its profits to charity. These arseholes are creating a demand that boosts an industry that is the modern equivalent of the Slave Trade and is just as nasty as the commerce that once made Liverpool rich.

This ugly display of reality creates a sense of solidarity amongst us little doe-eyed backpackers and we huddle together in the few places that offer only peanuts as an accompaniment to beer, occasionally running the gauntlet of moped drivers to use the internet or get a ticket out of here. This means that Sihanoukville’s backpacker bars are ironically very friendly and good fun

The moped is the main way of getting around in Sihanoukville, and Cambodian towns in general as the grapevine claims, and the drivers of said machines have decided that the baseball cap is their uniform. They primarily serve as drivers (as they will let you know many, many times) but have secondary functions as drug dealers and pimps. I have heard that they make good tourist guides in other places but Sihanoukville’s tourist highlights are 3 beaches of mediocre quality, none of which require any explanation whatsoever.

So it’s out of here and off to Phnom Penh for me.

Take care,


Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Trat, Thailand

Eat some crickets with some midgets. Sounds weird because it was. Plus I am feeling slightly funny from a combination of sleep deprivation, strange Thai herbal drinks and the obligatory drop of beer.

Basically I am know in Trat, a transition place that manages to attract travellers by possessing the fascinating asset of being the biggest town near the Cambodian border. I have set myself an arbitrary target of spending Christmas at Angkor so I moved out of Sukhotai and tried again to catch a train to Bangkok. Yesterday was Constitution day in Thailand. The constitution they have now was drafted in 1997 so it sounds like some officials wanted another day off. Anyway all was full except for the dreaded 3rd class. I should have found a guesthouse and sacrificed a day in Phnom Penh but I decided that I would make the border by this evening at the latest.

The stupid decision to slum it as well as the crickets I will blame on Germany. I was moving about with a German student and we decided to kill time doing what his and my culture do best; drink beer. This is what created the bright notion that 3rd class would be fun and full of folklore. This also led to the purchase of a bag of deep fried insects for snacks. Oh, the wisdom that hops bring.

Sleep was out of the question from the word go. Even if you can make do with the arse-numbing wooden seats, vendors rove the train constantly and make sure you are well aware of their wares even if no-one has bought anything for the past 5 hours.Thai can be a melodic language but not when hawking bags of cooked rice. Then it becomes fire-alarm strident. And to ensure we didn't miss one bit of this fun packed journey; enter the midgets.

This was a crew of 4 elderly, very drunk chaps who were nipple height to most Thais and navel-fluff gazers for the Teuton and me. They would stumble around the carriage and occasionally stop to spew some litany at folks even if these were sleeping. This would end by an angry outburst from the recipient of their chatter and they would move on. They came up to our bench and we decided to do as the romans and listen for 5 minutes before waving them away. They took a break to sit on the floor and stare at each other for a while then got up and started their little game again.

By the time they got to us again we had polished off the last of our beers and were sampling the insects (they taste like meat flavoured cereals, by the way, and are not that interesting). My fellow Saxon then thought it would be a brilliant idea to feed some of these to the drunken midgets. They liked them and buggered off only to return with various tasty snacks of their own, more beer and small vials of some herbal drink. All these were passed around and we were quite a merry bunch by the time we reached Bangkok despite having a common vocabulary of 5 words.

I was too wired to do the smart thing and get some kip so I pushed on to Trat. I now have to regain enough wits to sort out my transport tommorow so I thought I would use the blog to focus and unwind. It seems to be working.

Next stop, somewhere in Cambodia

Sweet dreams,


Monday, December 12, 2005

Sukhotai, Thailand

This burgh is about halfway between Chang Mai and Bangkok and of little note if it was not for their National Historical Park, chock a block full of various ruined temples chedis, stupas etc. Definitely the place for culture vultures and quite impressive by all accounts.

I have probably spent more time faffing around the site than I should but I needed to get away from a Chinese fellow who has been following me around of late. He overheard me checking out the prices of a guesthouse with a tout and decided to drop his own transaction and follow me. His touts got angry at this and started being a tad aggressive with him. He started to get shouty and looked at me in despair so I told the touts that he was coming with me and that was that. For some reason the Thais will go as far as needed when there is a negotiation process on but will drop it as soon as you make a firm decision. That or the prospect of intimidating a young 6 footer was a bit more daunting than hustling an elderly Chinese man.

He has been useful for info on China but he has unfortunately decided that I am his guardian angel or new best friend or something and has tried to follow me all over the place. He is not the fittest chap on earth so I decided to rent a bicycle in the knowledge that he could not keep up. This might sound callous but, aside from being a bit boring he has developed a "them vs us" attitude and is needlessly abrupt with the locals. As I would rather be on good terms with the Thais I met I have had to contrive a way to get rid of him.

The bicycle is a good plan anyway as the site is quite spread out. The really fun stuff is quite concentrated but there are nice little ruins all around the place with the added bonus that you cycle on little farm roads and get to watch rural life in Thailand. In my case I got to watch people doing naff all as only idiots like me were out in the sun in the early afternoon. The main site has got some massive Buddhas in various poses, usually in ruined temples surrounded by a moat. There is an artificial lake in front of one of the big ones and one can gaze past the aged columns and statues to a huge floating lotus-like contraption which is said to host yet another Buddha. This is a recent addition and is somewhat of an eyesore. It is bright pink and comes from the Lottery Winner School of Styling. I was told it was made of paper and hoped this was so that it could be ceremoniously torched but apparently it is here to stay.

I was glad to see a lot of smiling Buddhas in this place. Usually he tends to have little facial expression but the builders of this area must have decided to go with a more jolly variant. In some cases he is smiling placidly but in others the boy looks like has been told a joke and is trying to hold in a case of the giggles. Hailing from Christendom, I find this a welcome change from the more somber iconography found in churches. Admittedly it is hard to give the places a sense of cheer when the main focus is usually a man being tortured and killed. I can't help thinking that churches would be fuller if they removed the image of JC in his death throes and put up the Last Supper or the scene where Jesus made sure the wedding party was sorted for booze.

In the interest of culture I will try to explain a thing or two about the Buddhas that I have seen and their meaning. I should make a quick disclaimer though to the effect that all the below is based on personal observation and conversations with a variety of people and differing levels of sobriety for both the giver and receiver of information. In short, it’s probably all bollocks.

Arabin’s unreliable and blasphemous guide to Buddha statues:

-The sitting Buddha: The classical Lotus pose that is what most people think of when referring to Prince Siddharta’s august image. I have seen this one in many guises and made out of many materials like marble, teak, jade, crystal and something covered in gold. Along with the classical pose I have seen 4 subcategories:
1.Standard pose with right hand on knee, fingers pointing to the ground. This is Mr B taking the Earth to witness or subduing Rama. I haven’t got a clue as to what either of these things mean.
2.Meditating with big fuck-off snake coiled under his legs and the hood over his head. Apparently he was meditating and a cobra type creature sheltered him from the elements with his hood, bless his little venomous head. Known as Naga Buddha. Only seen by myself in Museums as usually put inside stupas (the big bell like things) so mainly found after a bout of archeological vandalism.
3.Scrawny Buddha. This is when he is fasting. Often he is with acolytes for this type.
4.The Laughing Buddha or the Fat Fuck Buddha. This one is of Chinese origin and I saw it mainly in Singapore. I think he is a modification of an older Chinese Deity.

-Standing Buddha. Self descriptive really. I know that when he is holding out his right hand he is meant to be dispelling fear. However, when the statue is 5 metres tall I’m not sure how fear dispelling he really is. A massive but peaceful Bouncer is what it made me think of.

-Walking Buddha. Apparently quite rare in Thailand. Meant to symbolise the way his creed was spread. Before they decided it was OK to depict the man himself, Buddhists often used massive footprints to the same effect. Looks alright as a freestanding statue but when set in an alcove takes a weird appearance. Strangely enough these types were decapitated in Sukhotai but whether this is deliberate or simply that they are more fragile as they are asymmetric I don’t know. The snag is that they had to work so as to convey the act of walking from the front. They did this by raising his ankle and having him point his foot inwards. Sort of like greek statues. The problem with this is that Mr B is a bit androgynous and when he has his hand raised it looks quite camp. It’s the kind of pose a rugger bugger would do to mock someone who had done something effeminate like refusing to eat a pint glass or knowing a song that doesn't include the word "bastard".

-Sleeping Buddha. It would be more accurate to call this one Dead Buddha as this is what it depicts. Looks content though. I think it confuses the monks as they are not sure where to put the incense burner and kneeling pad. Sometimes near his head and sometimes central to the whole thingy.

So there you have what little I have learned from the even less I have seen.

Take care,


Friday, December 09, 2005

Chiang Mai, Still

Oh how the Fates play their cruel games with me. Verily do the daughters of Zeus and Themis urge me to come forth only to give me a wedgie, call me Smelly and mock my suffering.

As soon as I had written up the last post on my change of plans I went to the train station to be told I could catch a sleeper train sometime next week or take a slow train 3rd class ticket that would maybe get me in Bangkok 20 odd hours later. Crap travel conditions are amongst the things that are fun in retrospective but should be avoided if possible just like punch-ups, military service or women with family members in prison. Therefore back to plan A of going to Sukhotai. Doubtless this will fuck up too and for all I know my next post could be from Geneva.

Off for a beer

Chiang Mai, Thailand.

The best laid plans of Mice and Men oft go astray. The half-baked plans of Arabin go astray with great regularity. See below.

I had toyed with the notion of getting to China by going up the Mekong from the Delta in Vietnam to the Mountains in Tibet. I knew that this was doomed from the start and that I would have to reconsider but the romance of it still held me on course. Not anymore. I have been relying on advice from my fellow travellers and Chiang Mai has a fair few folk that have been there recently. Usually all advice is to be taken with a pinch of salt but here I have met up with people who are posess the great reliability factor of being old. My generation should not be trusted with anything and I see no reason to presume that others of my age will be any less hapless than me. However, there are a few people here who were born when shooting Germans was a national duty and I listened to their advice very carefully. These people often deserve the moniker of traveller and I will not insult their dignity by calling them backpackers.

Anyway, after considering the facts I have decided to drop Vietnam and possibly Laos from my itinerary. I had already shunted Nam out of the equation as I would rather not spend $30 on a Visa just to catch a boat in the delta and reports from Laos worry me. I have been there before and liked it for the welcome break from the chaos of Vietnam. It appears that every sandal wearer in SEA is now making a beeline for this quiet little commie dictatorship with predictable results to the place. To my recollection Vientiane was a great place to get hammered by the Mekong and chat with depressed NGO staffers. Apparently the Government has shut the riverside shacks down out of fear of moral degradation for the locals. Worse still is what I have been told has happend to Vang Vieng.

Vang Vieng was a small village on a river with intermittent electricity, a couple of restaurants, 4 guesthouses and loads of kids playing badminton. It had caves nearby but not much else of interest but was scenic and quiet. I have now been told it is a one mile strip of bars, hostels and eateries and the quiet is now shattered by Trance music and the sound of morons groaning in despair after having been dumb enough to take a milkshake laced with opium and weed. I have been convinced that this is true not only by the smug "more backpacker than thou" crowd, of which I suspect I unfortunately belong, but also by the type of chappie that says it was fantastic. I got out of Bangkok sharpish because of these fools and have no desire to get stuck with them in Laos.

Therefore I will soon skedaddle to Cambodia, take a look around and get back to Thailand where I will head to the Northern border of the place. I will then be able to either catch a boat to Laos or more realistically, hunt about for the cargo boats that go straight to China and often have a cabin to rent. I like the idea of spending a few days on the riverine No Man's Land that is the Mekong between Burma and Laos smack in the middle the Golden Triangle. For some reason I am drawn to spending time in a legal blackhole in a thoroughly lawless place.

Anyway, off to take the night train back to Bangkok where I will immediately catch a bus or train out to any destination that feels fun. I will see Sukhotai on my way back here as I head to China.

Next stop, God knows

Take care,


Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Just sneaked away from an overlong but interesting ceremony at one of the massive Wats (Buddhist Temple/Monastery) that litter this chilled out town. From what I got it was a shindig to give an award to some monk who has been promoted in whatever hierarchy they have. The representatives of the King also popped by to commemorate the occasion. These consisted of several chaps in military uniform on the back of elaborately decorated pick-up trucks guarding ornaments that I guess represent his Majesty's authority. Also present were shedloads of monks, shaven-skulled women in white robes that I reckon were nuns of some type, various reps of plod and army, 50 or so women in Thai traditional dress doing a welcome dance yet still looking creepy because of their spiky 6 inch bronze nail extensions, a band, blokes in identitical T-shirts parading Thai flags, ditto with provincial flag, loads of school kids in uniform waving banners and, in the middle of the parade, what looked like random blokes that decided to walk along with the rest.

Very colourful but, this being Thailand, complete chaos. The parade was due at 1 so of course it arrived at 3 and they didn't really think through the more detailed timing of the thing either. All the protagonists were to arrive on a small plaza in front of the temple through the main gate, circle round then disappear into thin air. At least that is the only way it would have worked. They bottlenecked, stalled and milled about until one of the heavily medalled coppers decided enough was enough and decide to play traffic cop. To help things along there were the various mutts of the monastery casually lying down in front of the marchers (they live in the temple so probably don't get kicked that much hence have no fear), buses and sangthaews ( pickup trucks with benches that serve as town buses) dropping off groups of local dignitaries right in the middle of things, a few snack vendors on their moped cum foodcarts making sharp u-turns once they figured some sort of event was on and an elderly swedish man who decided to ignore all around him and muscle through monks so that he could get the best picture of the temple that he could. Terrific fun though not exactly conforming to my idea of a peacefull and zenlike affair.

Once every one was inside or corraled in hastily set-up holding areas the ceremony started. I surprised myself in that I actually got bored very quickly. Though exotic and different, it was in essence a mix between church and a civic award ceremony. I have thought about it and I think it was a bit prejudiced of me to assume that religious functions in other countries would be any less dull than what the Church of England can contrive to test the faith of the flock. So I did as I would at church and discreetly slipped away. It took less than two drags off a well desired ciggy for me to be joined by most of the other Westerners who had stumbled across this, mostly feeling a bit embarassed that we were lucky to catch an interesting bit of Thai life but still had to stifle yawns.

Chang Mai is in the North of Thailand and the place to be for snobbish gits like me who think the Khao San Road (will explain this in a later post) afficionados should be shipped of to Faliraki where they belong or the Sahel where they deserve. It's full of Wats, stupas and bookshops. Unlike Bangkok you can stroll around all day without feeling grimy and I have being doing much of that. My only beef with the place is that I am having problems getting some jungle time. I have managed a couple of walks in the hills mainly by hopping on the buses that connect villages to this place and getting the driver to drop me off at what looked like paths (often with a attempt at asking me if I was really sure and a bemused look on their faces). Most of these were small forest tracks to farms of some sort so not really Indiana Jones territory but pleasant enough.

The real snag is that every guesthouse, restaurant, travel agent, cafe and at least one chemist offers the same types of treks, all with the promise that they would be off the tourist trail. This wouldn't bother me if not for the fact that they all offer to go and see the hill tribes. When such an industry centers around these tribes I think this might be detrimental to them especially as a lot of the Thais are unashamedly contemptous of them. It feels somewhat wrong to visit human beings like you would an archeological site or a beauty spot particularly if you suspect that the organisers of these visits are likely to fuck them over. Also I'm not sure I approve of the Karen practice of chucking loads of rings on their womenfolk's necks untill they are stretched out like giraffes. It might make great National Geographic pictures but it still looks like mutilation to me.

This place has got loads to offer though and I am relaxing as well as getting pointers on China and Cambodia from fellow travellers. It has a moat and parts of the old fortifications that give the place a sense of history. Amazingly, some old style bungalows have managed to escape the Thai craze for fuck ugly 3 story buidings. The rain here feels less out of place than it does on the cocaine white beaches of the South and cools this place down quite effectively. This means that backpackers here look less foolish as they are without the usual gloss of sweat that usally distinguishes us. Also, dress codes in temples have the great side effect that shirts and trousers are unpacked and worn while the silly half shorts and "Say Fuck it in Phuket" T-shirts and the like are sent to be laundered or hopefully burnt. However, there still is the plague of Bob Marley songs in very bar of the place. I now have this theory that the hippies that came here in the 70's and 80's convinced the locals that all farangs liked what they liked and the rest of us are now cursed with reggae and bloody Nescafe even though they have good coffee and bearable music in abundance here. Should I one day run across an old bearded chap who tells me of his glory days as pionneer of the backpacker trail I think I will listen in awe but will end up punching the fucker in the end out of general principle.

Will be heading slowly southwards now via Sukhotai which is a collection of ruins that the Thai tourist industry bills as their own version of Angkor Wat.

Take care,


Saturday, December 03, 2005

Bangkok, Thailand

Just got here after a very pleasant train ride. I crossed the border and headed to a nice quiet beach on the Isle of Ko Chang, also known as "the other Ko Chang" as the main one is a big resort place near Cambodia. This Ko Chang was the result of careful searching for a quiet, reasonably undeveloped spot which is something of a Golden Fleece in Thailand.

It paid off and I strung up my hammock between the trees next to my beach bungalow, went for a dip, let off a sigh of contentment and relaxed. Then an hour later I got bored. I knew I wasn't a very proficient beach bum but I decided to go anyway as I might not get a swim in the sea again until Beirut. I cursed my silly quest for isolation as the island was easily covered on foot in half a day and the lack of electricity supply meant daytime was consecrated to reading. I kept to myself as other visitors to the place were mainly of two breeds I am slowly learning to loathe. Wiggas and dirty old men.

The wiggas are mainly French and hence have that slightly lost look as they realise that the French language is about as much use internationally as Quechua and have to rely on their piss poor English. Hence the sweet sound of a guitar down the beach is accompanied by a nice chorus of "want yoo elp mee seeng, teez saungz ov freedam". Wonderful people though if you get to know them though. Or at least I suppose.

The dirty old men with their younger Thai escorts are mainly German or Swiss German. This is why I am guessing they are paying for their companionship and are hence abhorrently fuelling a vicious trade. I could be generous of spirit and assume that love conquers the barriers of age and culture but history teaches us that giving the Teutons the benefit if the doubt is a bad idea. Therefore lechers they be in my eyes.

My first impressions of Thailand are good and I understand why this is the playground of the exotically minded. The people are indeed friendly and smile a lot. This makes me slightly uneasy. As most Brits, the default setting for my facial expression tends to be "miserable bastard". When I see people smiling for no discernible reason I always assume that they:
a) Have just got laid.
b) Are planning something evil.
c) Are retarded.
I know this isn't very charitable and is also stupid but it means that I get suddenly nervous for no reason in the Land of Smiles.

It could be that they smile because they are drunk. The locals are serious boozers and this makes a welcome change after Malaysia. The fun way of doing this is by putting a straw in the communal bucket and slurping away. The contents are usually crap Thai whisky, ice, some sort of energy drink and the odd drop of beer. It's fun but tastes viles. The beer is weird here as well and I am letting a bit more credibilty to the backpacker myth that the Chang brewery put amphetamines in their product even if I personnally assume that caffeine would have the same results and be a tad less risky. There are other local brews though so I don't have to choose between the old medicinal pint and a night's sleep.

I was a good boy last night on the train and fucked off from the restaurant/bar after some chap wanted to start a drinking contest with me. A couple that stayed on told me that they were turfed out by the police a short while after as farangs (thai for foreigner) get locked up in the sleeping compartments at night. Anyways, I am in Bankgok, the "City of Angels" (WTF?) and am off for beer and catching a few rounds of Thai boxing at the stadium. It might sound a slightly bloodthirsty way of speding the evening but I have been assured that there are far less ethical things to do in this burgh than getting drunk and watching blokes getting elbowed across the face.

Will do a full Bangkok report after my second stay here. Going oop North soon for some trekking but will come back here before going to Cambodia.

Laa kawn