Thursday 31 December 2009

Banglamphu area of Bangkok

After a later night last night, we spent some time by the pool, then set off for a walking tour of the Banglamphu area.  Most parks were being set up for new years eve stuff, we just walked around, kept buying bottled drinks to keep us going in the heat, and made our way to the big central park in between all the Wats and the royal palace and some national museum and such.

First, most of these need shoes and pants and sleeves to go in.  You can buy them out on the street, I'm sure they weren't stolen out of backpacker hotels... anyway, maybe this is me being blase or suffering travel fatigue, but seeing the big old structures in tip top condition from the outside is cool.  Getting inside and hearing which king in which century commissioned it after which battle or god or whatever is losing it's draw, call me a uncultured westerner if you must.  They're really big, pointy, gold adorned, and are entirely impressive though.

We wandered around through some markets where there's a million goofy shirts, hit up a 7-11 (of which there are hundreds) to break change from a bank machine that gave big bills.  I skipped the burgers with the rice "buns" and bought a bag of tamarinds in apricot powder which were fantastic.

We walked through what we're guessing is a lotto system people buy books of tickets for, but we couldn't exactly figure it out.  It's either that or we stumbled onto a massive counterfeiting operation.
Lunch was an 11 out of 10 on the flavour scale at some basic restaurant, man this place has flavour in copious quantities.

It did a tropical rain on our way home which brought in a nice breeze, was nice to walk in.

Khaosan Road, Bangkok

Whoa, we aren't in Kansas anymore.  We're in tourist central of a mega city of 12mm people.

Within 10 meters of our hotel is a Thai dude doing a Sweet Home Alabama cover which is competing by volume with 4 other establishments, the most amped up playing that "let's get it started" song like from the La Ruta start.  There's 5 tatoo parlors (kid you not), a few doing henna, some guy blowing off fireworks to scare passers by, no shortage of massage places, junky jewelers, pirated CD/DVD sellers, tailors (I'm guessing the ones on this block aren't where my Thai equivalent investment bankers get their suits made) junk sellers of all sorts including 1 foot lighters which is way too much flame for here, tacky t-shirts of all sorts, and there's like lots of stuff on show, presumably both male and female in miniskirts.  This street is maybe 5 blocks long, and the template of services above just keeps repeating.

The bars say they sell "strong" or "very strong buckets of cocktail" and have signs out front "we don't check ID".  But if they did there's street vendors with picture menus of fake ID.  Budget traveling kids of any country that can afford free time appear to running riotous here. 

After dinner and a few sweaty blocks of action surveying, we sat down for a beer generally in front of where we are staying.  We're on the 6th floor (top) of a place and our room is off this street, but it's above what we surmised to be the most popular nightclub here judging by the stream of hipsters waking in.  Teenagers sure put a lot of effort into their outfits.  Jimmi Hendrix replica outfits complete with the hair and semi-stache, girls matching bright turquoise stilettos to their bright turquoise glasses, and everything in between.  My good deed for the night was when the big white steroided tattooed bikers arrived on some totally sweet looking street rods to claim a table, then moved up off street level when another one freed up, one forgot his "jacket" on the back of a chair and it fell and started getting trampled in the action.  I took it back to Mr. Tatoo with Skin Head and Handle Bar Moustache.  I now have endeared myself to a local skull crusher.

I think there's more commerce here than Cambodia by multiples, this city has the same population roughly as Cambodia but is obviously on another level.  The 40 minutes of multilevel freeway driving and massive downtown we passed, everything brightly lit and well constructed.  It's amazing what an hour flight will do, it's like we time traveled.  I guess never being colonized and skipping hosting the war on Thai soil really helped. 

It's 30 degrees and night.  This place is intense.  But heat seems more irrelevant each day, I got hot soup for dinner.  Maybe I should remember that for next warm weather bike race (I wish I had time to go in advance and acclimate better, but short of that the heater in the room at night for sleeping and hot workouts help).

Wednesday 30 December 2009

Cambodian people

Khmers people are fantastically nice and accommodating.  They rely on each other's help - farming, commuting, retiring and dealing with illness.  There is no unemployment insurance or welfare, there's community.  For those that come up short on the latter, things are ugly fast.  Even when Phea would give a group of kids the leftover two baguettes from a picnic lunch, one would take the bag and break off chunks for his 10 friends who would just stand and wait before having one himself. 

They need to cooperate as things aren't all that easy here.  The basics of life come from daily toil that's hard - there isn't much coasting.  If you can make $2,000/year here you're doing ok, but deflation of wages (and prices a little) is kicking in.

Power goes on and off, rural homes use car batteries they pay to have charged daily.  That also means some little kids carry batteries seemingly half their weight for a few kilometers daily.  A string, friend, and stick over two shoulders sure helps.  Ice is bought daily, if the iceman doesn't come someone has to put their most important stuff in the neighbours icebox.  Fresh water and sewage don't exactly exist, and if they do, are isolated and actually don't deliver quite as promised.  Water is boiled or bought, or just drank and people deal with not being well.  Rice farming is hard work, even with basic tractors and oxen.  So is massively overloading vehicles - it takes many helping hands to lift and tie all that in place - the people are small, so strength of lifting comes from numbers.  Over loading a moto means someone holds it up, another one loads, and another one ties stuff on.  When the wheel falls of the trailer (we observed wheels falling off everything that moves is fairly common), somebody has to find a lot, rock, or chunk of metal to hold the axle up with, and the rest lift the trailer.  Not falling off a vehicle or moto comes from everyone hanging onto and watching each other.  This country is ripe for jokes like "how many Khmers does it take to ____?".  But it's due to necessity, not incompetence, so the humor isn't exactly there, although they think it's a bit funny too.

They help each other and seem to like doing so.  Bad driving habits are the only place where I can observe irrational selfish thinking - other than that it's very collaborative.  Houses don't exactly have walls or an "inside" and an "outside" clearly how we have.  Motos don't have individual seats.  Those lack of lines physically are analogous to the lack of lines dividing people and their daily routines.

This country has challenges, I hope the top sees it and thinks about it genuinely instead of just living off the masses. Mainly from my guess is making the huge mass of kids under 20 educated and able to contribute.  Apparently new rules are they all have to go to grade 12.  But actually improving the time in school would be helpful too - to make do with work schedules and numbers of kids versus schools, it seems most go half days - morning or afternoon not both.

There's controversial hydroelectric projects that will flood a couple of valleys - I see little grounds for controversy.  It's great people don't want to flood valleys, but on the scale of world problems, that one doesn't rank high for me.  When the alternative is diesel generated, completely sporadic and intermittent power, with limited national penetration and effectiveness and rural electrification using batteries only, reliable power is of high utility.  Canadians pay less for electricity than here on a nominal basis, and when it's measured by employment time as the denominator rather than straight nominal currency, the difference is huge.  The percent of time the average Cambodian spends earning their electricity for a year is something like a hundred times more than someone here by an article I read that had accompanying math that was easily verifiable by a few side calculations.  That's why this country already has 100% penetration of super expensive (to them) compact fluorescent light bulbs - basic economics work and isn't lost on them. 

Electricity that's reliable and relatively "costless" on a marginal basis like a government hydro project can bring refrigeration, proliferation of communications infrastructure, and maybe even those UV bulb end use water sterilizers and so on (they'd probably go a long way in the country's kitchens too).  Restaurants can have those bug zapper lantern things. Communications help tourism, enforcement of crime, trafficking, etc.  In large parts of the country, if someone sees something bad happening, they can't communicate it in a timely manner to someone who can help (or don't yet have phones even if infrastructure there).  Reading is easier with lights, school is better.  Traffic circles have big statues (elephants, tigers, etc.) because not everyone can read, but they sure know what a giant elephant looks like, so you can say "left at the elephant".
Aside from electricity related improvements, cleanliness needs improving.  If I were a dictator (or elected government) I'd get on my citizens band radio virtual pulpet and tell all the people (Buddhism proclaims to love the earth and it's creatures, right? Sounds like an effective lever to me) to start by at least going around their hut and picking up all the junk.  I think that's constructive, they don't need any more crazy dictators.  Seriously, it's not that hard, and it'd help any country look, feel, and be that much more proud, clean and worthwhile.  Appearance is one thing.  Rotting muck and smell and your house pets bringing that crud back on their paws...

To ease the health care "system" burden, doubling up the lanes on the 5 main highways would be a big help.  Road building can't be expensive here, old equipment works in this weather, and the area is pancake flat with really good solid dry rock everywhere.  Speeding truck + moto interaction isn't a good thing, it ends ugly.  They're working on some of the main routes already.  There seem to be a lot of police that I don't see doing too much - a decade long push toward gradual traffic safety and orderliness seems like it'd be zero marginal cash cost yet NPV positive - especially with the driving population growing massively (maybe even cash positive if fines are used).
Once that's done, an education of not letting your chicken sit on the kitchen table or the cow to do it's business in the living room is a pretty low cost step change.  Make some 50 foot rule, hell even 20 feet, about what goes into an animal or person's body and what comes out of it.

I don't know if this is invented, doable, or feasible, but an "at home do it yourself dog and cat castration kit" is needed, I know that sounds a bit off, but seriously I bet a ziploc bag handout with snips, a rubber band suture that dissolves, some anesthetic, and lots of disinfectant.  Instead of millions of ratty mongrels, 1/10th the number of relatively clean cats and dogs would probably go a long way towards keeping everything a notch healthier, and I'm sure the animals would actually prefer it... they have short, hard, lonely lives on the streets.

Tax or whatever the cost of cigarettes go above $0.50/pack would probably be positive.

But what do I know, that's just some blab of a guy who can pedal and type on a computer, two skills pretty abstract from usefulness.  If they actually want development examples, lots of nearby countries have a head start on the development track, they'd have more relevant experience.

What I do know is the Khmers are open to change and have seen the worst of the worst, so by default everything in the world is looking up.  They will work hard and sincerely appreciate any assistance/direction given what I've seen, it's not a country of people looking for handouts to be "made better" by external forces.

British invasion

Phea asked me if I had any music on my ipod that was good for listening to english.  I said I did and would hook him up tomorrow, but didn't think about it too much. Later in the night we heard a Beatles song.  I asked him if he recognized the song or the band - he'd never heard either before.  Bingo. 

I gave him my ipod the next day with all the Beatles music (and a few others) and discussed their contribution to english rock 'n roll, plus their songs are in clearly spoken english.

That day a line was crossed that can never be reversed.  He sang along for as long as the ipod's batteries lasted, which is a hell of a long time to hold an attention span.  He understood the ones that are understandable (ie. Not "I am the walrus") - hey jude, hello goodbye, let it be, with a little help from your friends, in my life, rain, come together, dozens of others, and of course, revolution 9.  It was like watching magic happen.

I'm aware english culture isn't so pervasive it's everywhere, but it surprised me a 28 year old fairly fluent guy once you get past pronunciation) had never heard of them.  If I was running an english school, of which he went to many, TV and music and sing alongs would be a part of it - little radios and pirated music aren't exactly expensive here.

We decided that Hello, Goodbye was the best song for Cambodia - every little kid already knows it.

Kep, Kampot and Sihanoukville

We're making our way along the west coast, in Kep we stayed in a nice resort, here in Kampot it's a colonial style guest house, but inland so no ocean and also no pool, and Sihanoukville (to deal with the pronunciation of this place, Tori has abbreviated it to snookyville) was a big western style resort. Nice, but not exactly what I need these days... the French seem to do resorts differently, the small tranquil adult-ish places with more class and less gaudiness. This is a different side of Cambodia, the tourist playground side. It's neat, but the prevalence of english expat "town newsletters" of expat businesses tell me were more in the domain of American/Australian/UK/Euro slacker kid backpacker areas, I actually way prefer hot dusty sugar cane fields and translated conversations with old Khmers to which place rents cheaper beds and has better pizza. Maybe we're aging, but one of the articles said Kep was boring unless you're a couple looking for solitude, which we are and therefore it wasn't (to be honest, we didn't see much of Kep other than the oceanside road, after that we lounged in luxury. Actually, scratch that - that one road meant we saw everything in Kep).

Anyway, it's funny... seems like the same crowd that keeps Canadian ski areas running all winter too. I don't have anything against that crowd and their hangouts, serves a place in the world. Just not really my thing, I'm too industrious at heart. I think the guys who dropped out of main world and have run guest houses here for a decade sorta get that sense we're coming at it from different angles too.

Back to things I love, Kampot is home to some of the world's best black pepper. French chef's were wild for it's qualities, and from the food I've had, I have no reason to disagree. I've got a few bags that one of the hotels gave us as a parting gift. Oh yeah!

Our last day of riding took us to the beautiful beaches of Ream - quiet and tranquil. More rides need to have hammock and sand between the toes.

Also if anyone knows what this fruit is in English, let me know. It might be rambutan or something like that, but the guys aren't really sure what language that is.

Sights, smells and sounds

I only saw one farm tractor (Khmer translation phonetics: trac-tor-ah) that wasn't like this.  They're multi purpose and can be hooked up to anything, it's amazing what engine + wheels can do in the world.  They go faster on the highway than something offering this level of handling and control should be allowed to go.  The amount these can pull, and/or the number of people on a trailer that can be moved by one of these is simply astonishing.

These tractors, people quadrupling on scooters or driving them loaded to the hilt (I'll never complain about cross winds when cycling now that I've seen a Cambodian on a scooter transporting three mattresses in a stiff cross wind), kids doubling on bikes and screaming hello, rice paddies and those big water buffalo with birds standing on them (or pulling ox carts), Lexus LX 450's everywhere, minivans with motos, 9 people, and 900lbs of other stuff strapped to them, tumultuous markets, roadside snail tables in the hot sun, lazy dogs lying around doing nothing, hammocks, and people carrying things for sale by balanced shoulder pole (8 car batteries, 16 coconuts, etc.) are the most frequent images I remember of Cambodia.  Side note: the two most publicly visible western businesses I saw have one guy in common - Coca Cola and Dairy Queen... interesting.  Cadbury-Schwepps is also big.

The smells I'll remember of Cambodia are about 10% of the country constantly smells like incense, 10% smells bad (fish in sun, sewage but not exactly a lot of what we'd call sewers), and the rest was a mix of spicy delicious cooking, sea breeze, country air, diesel fumes, fresh chopped coconuts, excessively perfumed tissues.  Can a whole country smell hot?  I think so.

The sounds I'll remember are kids dropping whatever they're doing from 30 yards away and bolting full sprint at you yelling hello and giggling.  It didn't ever get old - unrestrained authentic glee isn't something that can be annoying in that context.  The constant beep beep of traffic.  Phea's laughing.  The baffling sounds of spoken Khmer, there's vowels and consonants in that language we certainly don't have.  The applause and cheering at restaurant dinners when the random electrical supply would come back on.  Tuk tuks and motos buzzing away.  Silence of rice paddies making rice under the baking sun, with a little breeze.  Muy, bee, BAI!!! (The very enthusiastic 1-2-3 any drafted picture taker goes through). 

By exception rather than experience, the sounds I'll never here other than my imagination of Tuol Sleng and Cheung Ek, of humans being destroyed, and the smells our guide at the site has smelled but I'll never have to.

Tuesday 29 December 2009

Avian influenza

This kid is doing his part to help the virus spread - and he ain't the only one in Asia working on it.

Cambodian dogs

I've seen a few different varieties of temperate or hot climate dog - Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Costa Rica, Mexico, Spain, etc.  Thus far, Cambodian dogs are leading the pack for being the laziest little guys on earth.  They're all nice, none really want to nip you, but beyond that it's rare to see them doing anything.  Even when we stop for breaks or juice stands, I'll go pet one that's sleeping - they take some pretty hard poking to wake up, then they barely even stay awake (yeah I hit up the hand sanitizer gel after!).  5 seconds later they'll be back to sleeping.  If you sit and look around, there's usually 4 or 5 in site all doing absolutely nothing. 

I probably would too if I were born here with a fur coat.

It's also hard for them to comprehend enough to not want to cross busy streets in Phnom Penh.  One happy looking little pooch tried to do so.  He made it 2/3 or way across, and just behind us was an army of motos.  We missed him, then heard a lot of yelping.  When Tori looked back he was panicked and running the 2/3 way back across the street, which didn't seem wise.  I don't think he was having a good day, I suspect their happy nature can't comprehend why people would care enough to slow down for a second instead of turning them to road kill.

Tori didn't find the little smiling dog sitting in a soup bowl caricature on the restaurant signs very appealing or funny, seems like mostly Phnom Penh and the western side cities.

Sunday 27 December 2009


Many things "started" in 1979 here.  For example, we played a guessing game on the age of this bike before Phea asked the seller lady when she got it.  She said it's a 1979 model, in daily commute and carrying service ever since.

Most Breakfasts's'ses

Most are Khmer rice noodle soup with tasty broth and beef or chicken, served very hot.  We're into the iced coffee and condensed milk too.

Cambodian winter, Temperature

It's hot here, by my standards anyway.  I don't have a thermometer, but I don't think it's ever been below 30C, and if it was, not by much.  When we sit in the shade, resting and having drinks, our arms and faces bead sweat.  I can barely tolerate just standing in the direct sun if I'm not biking for air movement.

For cycling clothes, I'm wearing cycling trim cut baggies over lycra and usually a shirt with a collar.  Tori is lycra with a "cycling dress" over top, dresses and/or longer shirts she's bought.

Sum (short for Sumivarimartavan or something along those lines), one of our temple guide guys who grew up trying not to let his dads cows walk over land mines then became a monk for over a decade, does cycling clothes different.  He wore a green sweater with white horizontal stripes and a collar, it could pass for a decently preppy item out of J Crew.  It's a thick sweater, something I'd wear in November on a weekend if I actually had a casual wardrobe.  For pants he had dark navy blue "dockers" equivalent.  The whole outfit said "weekend from Boston College" more than 35C in the direct sunlight cycling if you ask me (other than the standard issue flip flops).  But maybe heat is all in our heads anyway, even though it's mind boggling.

Phea was cold after leaving our restaurant one night.  He asked me thoughtfully if I was cold, so he could find some way to help.  I only have been cold under a haywire air conditioner one night, other than that I don't see how it's possible to get cold here (he had earlier recalled a time when he was younger and it got down to 20C for a few days.  Other than that, winter is 28C on the cooler days he says.  Then he asked me about home.  We started with the temperature of a fridge and a block of restaurant ice as reference points.  It's been a long time since I've talked to anyone who's world doesn't have freezing in it.  He thought that even if he lived in his refridgerator's temperature he'd die for sure.  I said we don't wear flip flops at home when it's cold out. It can be explained, but it's a topic that doesn't sink in without experience I think.

There's a few Chevrolet (with the t pronounced) Avalanche trucks here.  We talked about what an avalanche was, which previously was totally beyond their vocabulary, probably still is in some ways. 

I've now switched back to wearing pants when we go out at night and a shirt with an undershirt.  And I can't bring myself to turning the AC at night to under 23C as we end up shivering and not sleeping well.  I can hardly believe it.

Saturday 26 December 2009


Kep is a seaside resort town.  Apparently it was big with the French and the leisure class, which by default meant Pol Pot wasn't too keen on it.  Nice hotels and villas, but also bombed out charred ones.  We're in a Belgian owned one that's swanky and relaxing.  The dinner table in the hut, and this beach table, are incredibly large chunks of wood.  Our room has convenient pool and beach access, like 15' to pool.  Tori likes the all stone and mortar construction.

Near Takeo

Lots of water for rice paddy flooding, fishing and snail collecting, water buffalo chillin' and mosquito making.

Palm tree make boat go fish watch buffalo.

Dinner in Takeo

Hammocks and rice paddies, with lizards on the hut catching grasshoppers - better than TV!

Friday 25 December 2009

Cheung Ek - The Killing Fields

This is now a national monument, yet there's 43 mass graves that haven't been excavated. The bones are in the big building, but even on the walk paths you walk on half buried bones and teeth - like gravel and roots in the soil.

This field took the "supply" of the Tuol Sleng torture prison. People wanted to die so bad in Tuol Sleng that they put barbed wire mesh around so they couldn't jump off to commit suicide. Torture was usually 2-4 months. Bullets were expensive, so hoes, shovels, bamboo sticks, ox cart axles, hammers, hatchets, the sharp edge of a palm branch were used. Infants and small kids were held by their feet and beaten against the trunk of a big tree. Anyone educated, who wore glasses, spoke French or English basically.

Here's a Christmas present, be thankful for living in Canada. There's a reason all our guides are 28 or 29 and raised by single parents. Our tour guide for this site was 17 in 1979, and lost both parents. He put a strong personal statement on how stupid it all was (why eliminate the educated class? the masses are easier to control. why kill babies? so you eliminate those who would look for future revenge).

Bridge Spec

The specifications of the bridge weren't up to carrying to cement trucks (there's another on the other side, or a second trailer, I didn't really understand the layout to be honest).

Thursday 24 December 2009

Tuol Sleng former office S.21

Spent Christmas eve day there.  Was once a high school.  Screaming emanating from after the conversion to a killing machine wasn't school kid glee.  Basically a place that humankind would be better without, but now that it happened, they promise never to let it be forgotten.

Very hot, even Tori's who's feeling normal was really not.  And I still have low body temperature control with being food poisoned.  Same yucky feeling/smell every time.  Managed to do two to three hours there, based on the motivation that the stories of the people I was seeing would have done anything to feel as good as I did then.  Took a  tuk tuk back to hotel for a attempted nap in fever and delirium, then realized which way things were headed.  Did more rounds with the porcelain gods, the mere act of trying to take control helps.  And I've never been so glad I elected to bring a long handled toothbrush in my life.  Also I didn't really bring bike food this trip, but my ditty bag with electrolytes has a few items - Sharkies... I love you. 

Tuol Sleng former office S.21 part 2