Angkor Wat. So many superlatives have been spilled in its description that I feel unworthy of adding any mores. Instead, I will quote the story of the creation of the world depicted in its most famous bas relief. Short net, the demons and the gods get together to make the elixir of immortality by alternately pulling on a snake god that's twisted around a mountain to whiz up the surrounding milk ocean. If you hang around Sanskrit enough eventually you'll get to hear about the yogurt and ghee oceans as well. These are my kind of people.
"Hindu mythology also contains a story about the churning of the Cosmic Ocean in order to obtain Amrita - the nectar of immortal life. At the suggestion of Vishnu the gods, (devas) and demons (asuras) churn the primeval ocean in order to obtain Amrita which will guarantee them immortality. To churn the ocean they used the Serpent King, Vasuki, for their churning-string. For a churning pole they use Mount Mandara placed on the back of a Great Tortoise - the Kurma Avatar of Vishnu. As the gods and demons churned the sea, a terrible poison issued out of its depths which enveloped the universe. The devas and asuras approach Shiva who took the poison into his throat and swallowed it. Shocked by his act, Goddess Parvati strangled his neck and hence managed to stop it in his neck and prevent it from spreading. However, the poison was so potent that it changed the colour of his neck to blue, thereby earning him the name of Neelakanta (blue-throated one). When the Amrita finally emerged along with several other treasures the devas and asuras fought over it. However Vishnu in the form of Mohini the enchantress manages to lure the asuras into handing over the Amrita to her, which she then distributes to the devas. Rahu, an asura, disguises himself as a deva and tries to drink some Amrita himself. Surya (the sun-god) and Chandra (the moon-god) alert Vishnu to this deception. Vishnu then decapitates Rahu just as he is about to swallow the nectar, leaving only his head immortal."
– from Wikipedia
Kampot is a tiny little town up the river a few kilometers away from the Gulf of Thailand. In the same way that "Champagne" means both a region in France and a lovely quaff, Kampot is synonymous with pepper. In the 1930's French chefs would only use pepper from Kampot.
I didn't find much of interest, so I rented a bike and peddled into the country where I found this. I'm with Socheta here on the wisdom of making sun-dried jerky on your handy fencepost. I consumed some bison jerky that was made in much the same fashion, and it was delicious. However, I can't get my mind and mouth around the idea that you hang fresh sausages in the sun to cure them. Just. Can't. Do. Eet.
One street is filled with dozens of pharmacies next to another, the next is all shops with everything you could want made of wicker, the next street is nothing but wholesale sugar cane. In Cambodia, like many other places in Asia, businesses of the same type tend to cluster around each other. Finding competitive prices and a comprehensive selection is as easy as walking from one end of the street to the other. The road I lived on, Street 178, is filled with shops that sell stone figurines and paintings.
Seven days a week this young woman greeted me when I walked downstairs. She split her time between pounding spices and vegetables for they day's curry and sitting outside with a simple chisel carving an intricate tradition pattern onto a jar made of the dull green indigenous stone. Public schools, meager though they be, are available at no charge throughout Cambodia. I don't know why she wasn't in one. I do know her situation is typical as only 21% of kids make it to upper secondary school.
The sign says David's Hand Pulled Noodles but to me and my office mates it's Dirty Dave's. For only $2.75 (Yes, dollars. Cambodia mostly uses dollars instead of it's own currency the riel.) ...this young guy will hand-make a bowl of Chinese saimen noodle soup one at a time. His worktable fronts the sidewalk to draw people in with his flamboyant show. He starts with a soft, white lump of dough and kneads it out into a log shape. Then he oils it to keep it from sticking to itself. Now the folding process starts. Each time it's folded the number of noodles doubles. He twirls, stretches, twists, folds. Finally, the noodles get a trim down to size and are tossed in the big pot of broth. It's served up with bok choy, raw garlic and chili oil to taste.
I was busy framing up the shot on the right when one of the monks sitting on the steps asked me what I was doing. I must've taken forty shots of this tower of incense sticks trying to capture the gradations from the red of the unburned incense to the white of its ash. I showed him the LCD display on the back of my camera, and we agreed they looked like fireworks. His name was Kimlorn, which he said means "alone" thought he wasn't an only child. He insisted I take a photo of the more senior monk with the serious face, Houkimarn, who was so famous that people from all over Cambodia travelled to see him.
Before we get started, the first thing you need to know is I'm safe. This story happened over a month ago and I've waited till I'm on the plane out of Cambodia to publish this. At this time this happened, I consulted with several friends who have been in much worse scrapes than this to make sure I was taking appropriate precautions. We'll omit names and locations and any other identifying details just in case.
A boisterous asshole sidled up to the bar, inquiring in an Eastern bloc accent seasoned with five decades of tobacco "Are you one of those Americans who would be angry if I smoked." In the words of my wise friend, Jessica, "Welcome to international work. It is fraught with weirdos, wackos and some scary individuals." I've hit my halfway point of this journey, six weeks down, six more weeks to go and I'm just now running into someone fitting that description. I replied "Sit down, have a cigarette and tell me a story." A familiar voice in my head was gleefully shrieking "I am going to have the best story to tell out of this!"
Seeing my smile, he ventured that all the boys liked its two crooked incisors. This was one observant and charming weirdo. True, more than one man has gasped their objection when I mentioned getting those teeth straightened. Second, he said “You’re skinny, but not too skinny.” No doubt, he didn’t mean @skinny but it did contribute an amused lilt to my voice as I replied “You’re right.” Then he was taken with my hair, declaring that I had the best short haircut he'd seen on a woman in twenty years, and enlisting the agreement from the patrons of the bar seated near us. This man's man who later showed me his permit to carry a glock was now giggling as he touched his own wavy grey locks and proclaiming Frenchmen to be the best hairdressers anywhere.
Darkness descended with the second cocktail. What I hoped would be a funny asshole whose bark was bigger than his bite turned out to be a nasty combination of bully and bigot. He raged at the bar staff for bringing only one cocktail napkin instead of two. He bragged that in his youth he'd killed people for fun. I asked what he does for fun these days. "It's boring now." He said I was an American cow that looked old. In a calm tone he reassured me that he "wouldn't keep you for myself. I'd sell you." Oh wow, this is good information for me to know. How did we fall so fast off that cliff? I'm still kicking myself for not asking how much he thought he could get for my smart mouth.
Than didn't scare me visibly, so then he moved onto threatening to revoke my visa, effective immediately. Fantastic. "That's fine, I'm happy to go back home now. I like it there." He demanded "Now that I've bought you a drink, when I come back from the toilet you will tell me who you really are. Are you a journalist? A CIA?"
By this point, I was desperate for an exit path. In the counting seconds after he left the room, one of the staff ran over, grabbed my arm, and asked "What do you want to do? He's not a nice man. He's a bad man." I said I wanted to pay my bill before he returned from the bathroom. They ushered me out the side door into the garden to wait while the credit card slip printed. I signed and jumped into a waiting motorcycle taxi. I rode back to my apartment with head ducked below the seat, occasionally glancing behind me to see if any black SUVs were following.
Friends who should know assured me that if he was a REALLY bad man, they would've put me in a car and taken me to safety. Nobody wants the international PR scandal a disappeared American would bring. There is a US Consulate right in the middle of town. I am viscerally conscious and grateful of the protection my status as an American affords.
That voice in my head was right, I got my great story. In my long history of talking to strangers, there have been few that have ended as badly as this. Lesson learned – don't give your business card to charming assholes, not even if you think it might help prove you're a nerd and not a CIA. You might end up pilfering through their Louis Vuitton wallet later while they're otherwise occupied to retrieve it.
It's still hard for me to go up and introduce myself to someone. I'm afraid my awkward explanation that I want to take their photo will be an insult somehow. I'm scared they won't speak a word of English. I'm scared they will and they'll simply walk away. I can still remember some of the faces that did refuse, but mostly I remember the ones I didn't have the courage to talk to – the red-haired woman with a killer print dress standing next to a graffiti rollup door – the policeman sitting in a plastic chair on the sidewalk mysteriously holding an orange balloon.
Fortunately though, I draw the curiosity of strangers while I'm busy taking forty-seven pictures of the same thing, trying to frame up some detail of the surrounding just so. That's what happened with Tom. Unbeknownst to me, he studied me as I perched ridiculously in the grass to get a low-angle shot of the pack of street dogs that had camped out in a dirt pit in front of the pagoda. He inquired about where I was from and the usual pleasantries. He and his mother were visiting Chiang Mai from Bangkok and had made the trip especially to come to this very temple for a blessing. He even gave me his own paper map and jotted down suggestions for what other attractions I should explore. I finally gathered my courage and asked if I could take his photo.
Thank you Thanom, aka Tom. You have a great face. I hope your mother found what she was looking for.
This, gentlemen, is a gentleman or perhaps more accurately, a ladyboy. The "free" cabaret show at the night market in Chiang Mai requires the purchase of one drink. I made it a piña colada. The ladies were whooping with delight as they danced. In the second song I looked around and verified that no one else had big tears rolling down their face, already filling up their cocktail napkin and now soaking into their shirt collars. I was afraid someone would think something had seriously gone sideways for me. No, it was only that I was overwhelmed with joy that I was here, witnessing the pure beauty of people doing something that made them happy and a society that says that is ok by them.
Thad, wearing an Angry Birds shirt matched up smartly with a skirt sewn from alternating swatches of Hello Kitty and Star Wars fabric, masters the concept of non-gendered clothing. I love it. I only regret that I don't speak a word of Khmer, and couldn’t ask if, aside from their appeal as colorful illustrations, she has any concept of who the cartoons are. Just how far has Western culture penetrated here? On one hand, Justin Timberlake serenaded me with his latest hit in Pencil Supermarket. On the other, I said the word "Snooki" and got no flicker of recognition. I wonder where these fabrics came from? My best guess is they are cast-offs from the many garment factories that supply Western brands such as H&M, Gap and Nike.
Wat Ounalom, a large Buddhist temple, fronts the Mekong River only blocks away from my apartment. This gentlemen gestured to the small inner pagoda. He undid the the padlock, turned on the light and indicated for me not to bump my head as I went in. Sticks and flinging water and a pulsing pink neon light behind the Buddha's head were the ingredients for the blessing I didn't seek but was enchanted to receive.