Friday, January 27, 2006

Chiang Saen, Thailand

Chiang Saen is an old walled city that sits on the banks of the Mekong at the point where Laos and Burma meet. It’s a moderately busy riverport whose walls and temples are quaintly overgrown due to a 200 year stint where the town was kept empty as a result of conflict with Burma. It’s a nice place to visit if a bit noisy due to an excess of riverfront karaoke joints. It’s at it’s nicest when the amateur singers are note quite ready for their warbling and you can eat on the promenade where foodstall owners have laid out bamboo mats and low tables on the ground. It’s also barbecue paradise with anything from fish to huge cockroaches being seasoned and put over the coals.

I am not here for the charms of this place though as I am on a mission. I have finally organized my exit from the overtravelled Siamese kingdom. The rumors and recommendations of backpackers have once again shown themselves to be more useful than the travel books and I have found a cabin on cargo boat for China. I will get to see the Golden Triangle from the relative safety of being in the middle of the Mekong. I will not be able to get off the boat until China as I have got no visa for either Laos or Burma. I guess it makes sense to the border guards. Or at least I hope it does.

I will have to wait a while as I was dumb enough to try and catch transport to China 2 days before Chinese New Year. I was very politely informed of my stupidity and after a short flurry of mobile phone calls I was told I could maybe get a ride on the 3rd. Chiang Saen is nice but I am going to return to the Hills form whence I have just come. I have been staying in an Akha Village and enjoying myself thoroughly and, as it’s the only place in Thailand I have had difficulty leaving, I am sort of glad I get to go back.

The Akhas are originally a Tibetan people who moved to Burma before having to up stakes and move to Thailand due to the Burmese government’s enlightened policy of integration by rifle fire. The place I have stayed in is owned by an Akha so it has quelled my anxieties over some of the negative aspects of hill tribe trekking. To be honest I have done little trekking and have just enjoyed taking walks in the immediate area, taking sporadic dips in the pools of a nearby waterfall, getting humiliated at impromptu slingshot contests by the local kids and sitting by the fire with old betel-nut chewing women. Even the walks are made easy as the village dogs come along with you and show the way back. And all this perched on a hill overlooking a beautiful valley dotted with terraced paddies, tea plots and jungle. Life can be harsh when you're on the road.

The village was actually installed there by Apae, the guesthouse owner, as he wanted the kids to go to school despite the best efforts of the Thai state to keep them stateless and without rights (they have only recently given them ID cards). He moved the village to the end of a new road and opened a guesthouse to get some income,. He has been successful and has managed to open a sister guesthouse in a quiet neighborhood of Chiang Rai on the river banks.

The success story stops here though as someone wants to put a 5 star resort on the island opposite Apae’s new place and have started to plot a road that will go straight through the 2 month old guesthouse. As the developers are linked to the Prime minister’s family and he is part of an impoverished minority, the chances of stopping this are slim. A few of us guests did start a petition but I fear it will not do much more than provide a bit of moral support. After a few beers we also cooked up a few plans that involved planting archeologically significant artifacts or protected on the island to put a hold on construction.

Anyway I am going back to the hills for a last bit of peace, quiet and good living.

Take care,


Friday, January 20, 2006

Chiang Rai, Thailand

Just got my visa to China and I am waiting to sod off to the mountains for some final jungle faffing before going to the Middle Kingdom. Nothing to report as I have already written about Chiang Mai from which I come from and I am not doing much more than drinking too much and talking bollocks to other backpackers. As I have time to kill I will post some thoughts on the 2 comments made on my previous "what's the score with Cambodia" post.

I will do this in English for the benefit of those unfamiliar with the linguo of Moliere and briefly explain the posts for the same crowd. Nicholas, who has been to Cambodia, has added to my despair at the amount of taxpayer's money that has been siphoned off by Cambodia's ruling elite. He has mentioned that the theory of containment of communism could be one of the reasons the West has fucked up so much in this blighted kingdom. He has also mentioned the racket that goes on at the temples of Angkor and this needs a brief explanation.

To visit the temples you need a buy a pass. The price varies from $20 to $60 dollars depending on how many days you want. Cambodians enter for free. At first this seems fair enough as Cambodians could never afford the entry fee and should be able to see their heritage. You could also presume that the money goes towards the restoration of the temples. That's when it gets iffy. The tickets are issued by a hotel group, not a government authority, that is proud to claim it is owned locally but by whom is less clear. Most of the renovation work at Angkor is funded by donations or by the UN. Who gets the cash? Fuck knows.

Nicholas was wondering what it would take for people to be able to invest in Cambodia safely. From what I saw in Cambodia some international groups do. I suspect they factor in the kickbacks and the risks and then gauge the profitability. I guess it must make for some seriously creative accounting in the headquarters of these groups. I'm afraid that I have little confidence that the presence of large corporations in Cambodia will make things any better. Indonesia is awash with investors and they tend to make things worse and glancing at the situation of the world I reckon they can be more than detrimental. For example, I believe that companies such as Total or Petronas are a one of the main stumbling blocks to dealing seriously with the bastards that are now fucking up Burma. I could also mention that there are shedloads of multinationals doing business in the DRC and we all know what a paradise the Congo is for its inhabitants.

As for the domestic investment that Jacob mentioned, at the moment it comes from bent money and is often a way for the powerful to capitalise on their ill-gotten gains. At a lower level there is shedloads of entrepreneurship in Cambodia but they are stifled and leeched upon and/or they are smart enough to keep their business small enough so it doesn't get noticed. Jacob's comment stated that he was going to help train Cambodian lawyers in the hope that one day Cambodians might be able to get redress from the legal system and therefore feel safe to invest their own money and prosper.

Good luck to Jacob and I hope you will succeed but I fear that it will take more that your work to do so. Cambodians trust the legal system like I trust Tuk Tuk driver to give me a fair price on the first quote. They quite reasonably beleive that the law is something that the rich can use but is of little import to them. They avoid officials like the plague if they can and I can see why. Jacob might be able to help Cambodians have a legal system that is not an auction but it will take some dramatic and well hyped victories of poor people over rich people for the guy in the rice paddy to belive that going to see a lawyer might be of use.

Jacob is also going have to fight the Cambodian government's brilliant new idea of using the law to silence critics. I'll admit it's a step up from unfortunate suicides of activists by 7 bullets in the back of the neck but there still is some work to do before the rulers of Cambodia accept that are subject to criticism both fair and foul. At the moment it appears as is the legal system is just one of the many tools the Cambodian government uses to fuck someone they believe threatens their right to rule. On that note there is an interesting development on one the things I mentioned in my last post that is worth bringing up.

The government has just released the activists it had put in the slammer mainly due to pressure from the United States who fund the centre that these guys work in. All good news you might think but there is a worrying side to this. These guys were released on bail and are not off the hook. There is also the frightening statement from Hun Sen that they were released as a gift to Christopher Hill, the yank diplomat who went over there to have a chat with Cambodia's premier. It says something about the guy that he sees detention and release as presents and tokens of friendship.

I feel sorry that Jacob is not going to join the expense crowd account in Cambodia as part of his work but maybe it's for the better. Come as a tourist; it's really worth it plus you will feel no guilt if you get drunk at noon on a Tuesday.

Thanks for the comments guys. It's been a good way to kill some time.


Saturday, January 14, 2006

Lopburi, Thailand

Just completed a fun run from Cambodia. A fun run is what I have called the insanely long bouts of transportation where a strange desire for perpetual motion grips me and makes me push onwards until exhaustion or logistics stop me. Logistics have stopped me in Lopburi, a town slightly north of Bangkok. I spent a great day in an insanely crowded minivan (21 adults and 6 children inside, 2 adults on the roof rack) getting to the Thai border and then jumped off and on buses onto Bangkok. I decided against staying in the big B and got a train as far north as I could which, this being another special weekend in Thailand, was Lopburi.

So I am now again in the bosom of civilisation. I can now plan arrivals with at least 2 hours accuracy, roads are paved and there is some link with the number of seats on a mode of transport and the amount of people on board. I can eat off streetstalls without fear, I can rely on being blonde for a whole day (on Cambodian transports, the dust transforms me into a dark stranger within a couple of hours) and I don't have to look around every few minutes to find the group of sprogs who have yelled "hello" at me in order to respond with a goofy smile and an exaggerated wave. I can now wallow in familiar comforts and luxuries and, for some reason, I'm not too happy about it.

The scorching hot Kingdom of Cambodia has been the highlight of my trip so far. For all the hassles, nuisances, difficulties and plain oddities of the place, I would place it at the top of the list for anyone toying with the idea of a holiday in South East Asia.

I think this is because Cambodia has finally got me to drop my guard. My protective armor of cynicism and detachment was chipped away by strong emotional experiences at both ends of the spectrum of human sentiment. The anger, disgust and fury I felt visiting the testaments to human fuckery of Cambodia's recent past and the sheer awe that Angkor stirred in me have made this a different experience. Joci Causa was put on hold for a while.

So what's my take on Cambodia? It's conflicted.

From a backpacker perspective this place is paradise. The tour groups have not quite made it here but the trail is well laid out for Alex Garland readers. There is a rough and ready aspect to Cambodia that makes it seems like you are truly a wily traveler while at the same time true effort is minimal. There is no problem that improvisation and money cannot solve and there a great "anything goes" atmosphere pervades the place.

You get used to this very quickly and from time to time you astonish yourself by realising that you thought it perfectly normal to spend an evening drinking beer and whisky, propped up against the ledge of a pit full of small crocs, whilst looking at a Cambodian guy with a huge mullet play the keyboard so that a granny in a Eurovision style suit could warble her way through 60's classics. The flip side of this is that you see good people getting carried away with the spirit and doing nasty stuff like shooting live chickens with an M60 and seeing nothing wrong with it, or just being plain callous. The Bokor Hill party at New Year went on till the wee hours despite the fact that 2 people had been killed. Backpackers had decided that this was the way things go in Cambodia and partied on whilst the bodies were cooling. It has been described to me as a wonderful evening.

The place can be quite draining and the backpacker ethos of constant friendliness to locals can become a burden. Seasoned expats are capable of ignoring the constants pleas, demands and whatnot of Cambodia's army of mendicants but backpackers still insist on making eye contact and maintaining a friendly smile as they repeat a constant mantra of negations. It would be comforting to see Cambodians as an amorphous and annoying mass as when you acknowledge the individuality of the people who try and get money off you, you are forced to truly see their misery. However, you will miss out on a lot if you do.

I really liked the Cambodians. There's usually an angle to the many occasions when they talk to you but once you have declined or accepted whatever they wanted or offered they will quite happily move on and chat with you for hours on end. They are also truly keen to make your stay a good one and I have seen many occasions where an unlucky backpacker with a problem (anything from theft, missed flights or illness) was told to sit down and have a drink while an army of locals cooked up ways to rectify whatever caused distress.

The problem with liking the Cambodians and spending a lot of time talking to them is that when you have a look at the political situation of the country it annoys you even more.

The Khmer Rouge took bad governance as far as it would go with a concerted effort to destroy the country they had taken over. This was pretty much policy as they wanted to build a country from scratch when they declared Year Zero. I have already gone over the pathetic way the rest of the world dealt with Pol Pot's regime but what now irks me is what came after.

At a glance it looks like the big players of this world were pretty much willing to accept anyone who was not as bad as the Khmer Rouge. The regime was seen as a baseline and anyone who did better were left to go ahead with it. As the line not to cross was genocide, piss poor governance became the norm and Cambodia is still destitute despite the millions of aid poured into the country. The leaders of the place have been a consistently obdurate bunch of fuckers and the present PM, Hun Sen, is no exception. A former Khmer Rouge, he legged it to Vietnam only once Pol Pot started to have his own men killed. When the Vietnamese took over he worked for the Cambodian Communist Party and the puppet government. He has been a player since those days and is involved with quite a of number of coups, extra-judicial killings and other hallmarks of third world despotism.

The governments of post-KR Cambodia have succeeded in 2 things. Milking the west and making corruption into an institution. Hun Sen and his predecessors have often made ominous threats/warnings that any cut or delay in aid could result in loss of civil rights for Cambodians. They have also used that same argument with regards to the ludicrously slow process of getting Khmer Rouge leaders to trial. Cough up or no justice. Sadly, the West has played along even if they make noises to the contrary. The US Senate once declared they would increase their Aid package by several million if only Hun Sen was not re-elected.

The leaders of Cambodia believe their power is God given and that elections are a rigmarole done to assuage the concerns of their western cash machines. Recently the Government has arrested 2 Human Rights activists for "diffamatory" remarks. When other countries complained about this the statement from the ministry went along the lines of "Do they not want us to use the law? Would they rather we use force?". They assume that foreign donors would see it as an improvement that they use legal methods to silence critics. Sadly, in a way they are right.

Another incident that I found revealing was the New Years Eve shooting that I have mentioned above. No one has been nicked for the simple reason that the shooters and the victims were part of a club the Cambodians call The Untouchables. The Untouchables are friends and family of the ruling elite and are not subject to the law. The papers reported the local chief of plod saying that they knew who the people involved were but would do nothing untill he got the go ahead from senior officials in the capital. What happened was that 2 of these groups got pissed up and had a dispute that they solved with guns. All involved were Untouchables and probably high up as one of the dead was a bopdyguard of Hun Sen.

To understand why the vast inflow of money from outside is a problem one must try and grasp how truly bent Cambodian officialdom is. In a way the system is set up to breed corruption. Coppers are paid about $20-30 dollars a month. Even in Cambodia that would be barely enough to survive and certainly not enough to support a family. Therefore they are on the take with predictable results for justice. While I was there there was news of a man arrested for posing as a Ministry of Justice official and extracting money in exchanges for promotions from various coppers. He was nicked not for attempting to extract bribes but for "cheating" as he could not deliver.

The money that fuels this corruption and keeps the Untouchables in power, and living it large, comes from us. That's why I am conflicted. In Indonesia the people were being screwed as an side of effect of corporate greed. Here the masses are getting fucked because of good intentions. Not so much a case of "Fuck You, this is business" but a demonstration that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Cambodia receives over 500 million dollars in aid a year. A vast amount of that gets creamed off by the big boys and a lot of it gets chipped away by petty officials. What bothers me about this is that I have been just as complicit with this state of affairs as anybody else. I have often supported charities in the belief that they do a fine job whilst staying apolitical. This is self-delusion at its finest. I know that millions of dollars worth of goods, services or outright cash is never apolitical. What I am now wondering is if the way the aid system works in Cambodia creates a perverse incentive.

If the rulers get their money by milking the donations of richer countries, they have little reason to ensure that the lot of Cambodians improve. They have a vested interest in keeping things crap so that the money keeps pouring in. Is the fuzzy thinking I have been guilty of and has made me drop a quid in a collection box making things worse or better for the Cambodians?

There is no real solution to this type of problem. You can't cut off aid totally as Cambodians would suffer but to continue as it is really makes their lives difficult. I suppose that better control of the money and a bit of hardball with the rulers (seizing their foreign assets when they make their nasty threats for example) could do the trick but this has an element of "Take up the White Man's Burden" to it. If the West is going to be imperialist maybe we should at least do it properly.

So there is my take on Cambodia and its present problems. A real reflection on the place would take a book so I'll stop here.

Next stop, Chiang Mai and the Chinese Consulate. The Middle Kingdom beckons.

Take care,


Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Kampot, Cambodia

This is a very short post as I will soon be doing an overly long post on my general impressions of Cambodia.

I am now all sunburned after a reasonably fun trip to Bokor Hill. I’m somewhat glad I decided to take a tour if only for access to a 4by4. I was somewhat disappointed by the ruined hotel and I didn’t find it that eerie despite weird exhortations to feel the energy of the place by 2 old Australian women. I did have fun traipsing around the rocks and ruins and concluding with the guide that what the travelbooks say about the military history of the place is bollocks. Bokor was a retreat for French officials who were living it up. It might have some value as a lookout but that’s it. That’s why the Khmer Rouge hid in the surrounding jungle and not in the resort itself.

The guidebooks also claim that that a battle was fought between the Khmer Rouge based in the church and Vietnamese troops in the grand palace. These two buildings are 500 yards apart and would be rubble if there had been a battle. What damage there is due to good old fashioned vandalism as the vast amount of graffiti testifies. The views offered are stunning though.

After that went for a swim to wash off the great amount of dust and spent a quiet evening anesthetising myself with beer after sorting out transport to the Thai border. Another typical day as a backpacker in Cambodia.

Take care,


Monday, January 09, 2006

Kampot, Cambodia

Wind, weddings and the contentment of swine. As cryptic as this might sound, it is what my first impression of this place has conjured up. Kampot is a small town in the south of Cambodia that has emerged on the backpacker trail. It's one of these places that has little per se to see but lots around. Personnaly I quite like this type of place as it tends to its own affairs and ignores the small amount of tourists in its midst. This leaves a lot of scope for observing the daily life of a small provincial capital and what has most struck me is written in the first line.

It's windy here which implies a lot of dust as only 20% of the town is paved but also means a relief from the crippling heat of the past week which has caused most westerners, with their layer of winter blubber, to slow down to a sluggish crawl. The town is also littered with various marquis as it seems it's good luck for Cambodians to get shacked up at this time of year. The flip side of this is that any indoor place within 200 yards of one of these tents vibrates like a drum in sync with the 7 foot wall of speakers that Cambodians deem necessary to provide music for the happy couple.

These weddings attract quite of lot of gawkers, myself included, and most of the town focuses around these events. Except for the aforementioned pigs. Cambodians like their pork so pigs abound generally but it is the first time I have seen so many of them faffing about the center of a town. Little piglets root around the place and compete with dogs for scraps while massive hogs lie in the middle of the road causing all vehicles to manouvre past them. They look quite chuffed and I reckon this is what gave my lunchtime pork and rice extra succulence.

Anyway I got here after a very awkward chat with the unnamned NGO where we concluded that by the time the admin would have cleared my visa will have run out. I strongly suspect this was what they were hoping for. It's not that they are sneaky but I reckon that local NGOs are too used to treat westerners from the perspective of supplicants and/or pupils and as such they were reluctant to tell me that my offer was causing more trouble than I was worth. Either that or they have some serious structural problems as far as volunteer processing goes. This is worrying as this particular charity is heavily reliant on the wednesday evening crowd.

However this means that I was free to say Adieu to Phnom Penh and move southwards. I bid farewell to the most enjoyable capital of South East Asia and its nmany, many flaws. I waved goodbye to the mosquito hatchery of Boeng Kak lake and its glorious sunsets. I said toodledoo to the late night terror of improvised moped races (this was often the conclusion of a group pub crawl across PP as, once everyone in the group had found transport, we ended up as an orderly procession untill one person gets the bright idea to coax their driver to be the leader of the pack. After that it gets fast, scary and stupid very quickly). I even nodded to the Western Beggar this morning though I think he didn't recall me or anything else for that matter.

The Western Beggar is a fixture of the backpacker haunts of Phnom Penh. He is a young american who has decided to stay and pester travellers for a few dollars in order to feed his drug habit. His other needs are taken care of by the American Embassy and his family. He always asks for 3 dollars or the riel equivalent which I guess is the going price of smack in PP these days. He is either quite friendly or worryingly aggressive in his pleas depending on the time of his last dose . The locals hate his guts and have put up posters explaining his presence and what they think of him.

Last night I encountered him one last time as I was boozing with quite a large group in some bar. He was in aggressive mood and more than persistent. He started to fuck me off as that day I had walked across Phnom Penh and had refused the pleas of more beggars than I care to remmeber. These included small kids who looked malnourished, elderly women lugging insanely large bags of scrap, amputees of all kinds, people crippled by disease whose legs were thinner than my wrists and other human beings whose suffering I can not begin to comprehend.

Being slightly drunk I asked the Western Beggar why we should donate to the Keep the Yank Fuckup High Fund in view of all the other avenues for charity open in this town. He responded angrily to this but chose to focus his ire at the Cambodian staff of the bar who were trying to get him to leave. At this point the Australian contingent in our group decided to express their support of the staff in ineloquent, but very effective, terms. I will not miss him.

In Kampot now and I have decided to do something I have steadfastly refused to do so far and joined a guided tour. We will all be going to the ghosttown of Bokor and surrounding jungle. Bokor was an attempt by the French to creeat a mountaintop resort complete with grand hotels and casinos which failed miserably and was deserted even before they skedaddled out of Cambodia. It has also been in the local news recently as 2 people were shot dead on New Years Eve. The real reason I joined the tour is that it seemed the best way for me to see some jungle and guarantee that I keep to buy shoes in pairs. Will update on this. Hopefully.

Take care,


Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Battambang, Cambodia

Battambang is Cambodia’s second city. I should qualify this though as, like all statistics, the parameters are what matters. Technically, if you put Stephen Hawkins and Dubya in a room and drew up a list of the brightest people in the room then Dubya would be the second smartest creature after Stephen Hawkins. If you removed the cat.

Therefore Battambang feels nearly village-like after Phnom Penh. The town in itself is lacking in actual sites but it does feel peculiar as a whole. It’s sleepy and very quiet by Asian standards and is replete with what is locally called French architecture. The only thing French I could spot about the houses is that they were a bit more ornate than necessary but I decided not to press the point. I spent my New Year's Eve here but it was a sedate affair as only 2 places were open to drink and I had to be very careful about my booze intake. The last day of 2005 happened to coincide with the day I take my Lariam and I have learned, from bitter experience, to go slow on the hooch for 24 hours after popping the anti-malarial.

The thing to do in Battambang is actually to get out of it and visit the countryside. You get there very quickly (2 miles out of town centre) which caused me to think that Battambang’s status as City number 2 could be due to some interesting definitions of what constitutes city limits and the possibility that creating rigged constituencies might be the source of these definitions. I confirmed this by asking my moto driver to tell me when we exited Battambang proper and was told we had after a fair few miles of sparsely inhabited rice paddies.

There are a few temples that failed to interest me much after seeing Angkor and a fun Wat complex stashed on a hill. There was also a repository of bones in a nearby cave were the Khmer Rouge used to throw their victims from 20 feet above and leave them to die. I decided against going in as I feel that getting some awareness of the horrors of the recent past is necessary but not to the extent that it becomes part and parcel of my tourist experience.

What was fun was walking or driving along the fields and stopping to chat with the farmers. By that I mean responding to the constant hello’s and frantic waves of all Cambodians under 10 and getting my moto driver to ask inane questions about the harvest to the farmers. The people didn’t seem to mind though and one even allowed me to drive what I mentally dubbed the Motoroxen. This is an engine stashed where an ox would be in front of a cart and used by the farmers for ploughing and transport. I’d like to say it was fun but it went about as fast as an ox so it was hardly an adrenaline buzz.

Anyways I’ve had my rural fun and am now contemplating other destinations. I chacked in to the NGO with no name, got the usual “call back later” instructions and went through the usual pleas to ensure they felt free to tell me to sod off if it was too much bother. I could do this from Battambang as I worked out how to use Cambodia’s version of a phone cabin.

Some enterprising women have set up tiny stalls on the pavement that look really weird until you find out what they are. These usually consist of a shelf with large glass bottles filled with some liquid alongside a selection of funnels and a 4 foot high booth made of smoked glass with cryptic numbers such as 012 300 painted on them. These things are actually petrol stations and phone cabins. The liquid in the bottles is petrol and is what the owners of mopeds use to fill up and using the phone booth means sitting down on a stool and using the owner’s mobile. The numbers refer to the networks she can access and the price she asks for each of them.

I am now accustomed to using these just as much as I am now familiar with other tricks to survive Cambodia. I can now think in the 3 currencies prevalent here (Baht, Dollar and Riel) and am also quite good at using cigarettes to get a transaction going my way or as fuck-off money. I have also nearly mastered the art of crossing a Cambodian road. In Vietnam, that other country of the million mopeds, the key to crossing a busy thoroughfare is to walk very slowly at a set pace and not panic. The riders can then see you, estimate where you are going and avoid you if only by a few inches. In Cambodia the same principle applies but you also have to put in the odd burst of speed when lorries or SUVs come along. It’s quite funny to watch once you are safely on the side of the road.

Off to the more mountainous East of Cambodia as, for the moment, what scenery I have seen of Cambodia has been very flat with the odd incongruous hill sticking out.

Take care,