Where Green Camrys Go to Die

February 28, 2012

It pretty much goes without saying, but Cambodia plays host to some fantastic ruins. Many of the temples in the Angkor Wat complex date from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries, making them upwards of one thousand years old. Incredibly, some of these temples were unearthed as recently as a hundred years ago, reclaimed from the jungle which had absorbed them in the intervening years. Fast forward another thousand years, to AD 3012, and let’s have a look at what archaeologists are turning up in the long-abandoned ruins of the Siem Reap megalopolis…

“It is really quite extraordinary,” comments Sir Nigel Cuthbert-Hsiang, of the joint Exxon Anglo-Sino cultural anthropology team. “We seem to have chanced upon the largest known cache of third-generation Toyota Camrys in existence. And by far, the preponderance of them are finished in a deep shade of green. I have never seen anything like it. As most historians well know, the third-generation of Camry debuted in 1991, and continued basically unchanged until 1996. They were reputed to be exceptionally reliable, and indeed, after more than a thousand years, we were able to change the oil and spark plugs on a pair of well-preserved ones, and they started right up. In fact, we are using them as primary transportation around the archaeological site as we speak…”

“Nobody seems to know why there are so many green examples,” Cuthbert-Hsiang continues. “Of course, we have found a handful of silver ones, and a couple of black ones, but the green ones handily outnumber all of the other hues put together, perhaps by as much as ten-to-one. Oddly, although there are a few later examples, fourth-generation and beyond, by far the most common vehicle is the green ‘third-gen’ iteration. There has been much speculation in the archaeological community as to just why this might be, but nothing thus far approaching a definitive answer: a) Cambodians of the era simply preferred green automobiles; b) Cambodians assumed that green cars were more eco-friendly, or ‘green’; c) these were all decommissioned police vehicles or fleet cars of some sort, ordered and delivered in just the one color; or, more likely, d) some factor we haven’t even begun to consider.”

Editor’s note: Some representative photographs from the digital era are attached below. Please excuse the poor quality of the images, as at the time, of course, Tierneyan Holography was still several hundred years in the future.


The Road to Angkor Wat

February 27, 2012

Having spent the first month of my holiday in SE Asia solo, I was joined by Saki for Act II, which would tentatively take us to Cambodia, Laos and then back to Northern Thailand. This, like all of my itineraries, was not set in stone, but she likes to travel with a plan and then deviate from it as circumstances dictate, rather than just float like a leaf in the current, as is my wont. It is a difference in traveling style, to be sure, but not a deal breaker, so I go along to get along.

We had two choices for transportation to Siem Reap, Cambodia, site of Angkor Wat, arguably the most amazing historical site on the planet. (I know, there are those of you who would disagree, citing the Great Wall, Petra, Ephesus or the Pyramids, but I would have to suggest respectfully that you are mistaken.) Anyway, back to the two choices: airplane, at a whopping $270 for a one-hour flight, or bus/taxi, which accomplished the same feat in seven hours, at a cost of only $21. When you factor in the hour-long ride to the airport in Bangkok, not to mention arriving two hours early for the international flight, the travel time difference is pretty minuscule, so we decided to take the bus, pocket the extra cash, and spend it on massages and souvenirs instead.

We had been warned, both by guidebooks and fellow travelers, to avoid the Thailand/Cambodia border at Poipet, as the Cambodian visa facilitators were reputed to be rapacious, often demanding double or
triple the $20 charge to secure the visa, and then, adding insult to injury, routing passengers to taxi drivers who charge double or triple the going rate for the ride from Poipet to Siem Reap. This, we were told, was done with the tacit cooperation of the government, which reputedly turned a blind eye to the doings of the local mafia dudes. I opted to get our visas in Bangkok ahead of time, and to book through transport to Siem Reap, thus skipping some of the most egregious shenanigans. All in all it worked pretty well: we made it to the border, and through immigration, in record time. We had to wait for some time for a taxi, and in the end it turned out to be a rather crowded minivan instead, but it did get us to Siem Reap without incident (although our sleepy driver came close to clipping a cow until I shouted at the last minute; we were never sure if he would have collected it as a distinctive hood ornament, but I was glad to have raised the alarm in any event).

When we got to Siem Reap, we were dropped off at a tuk-tuk stand (for the uninitiated, a tuk-tuk is a motorcycle/trailer affair, which holds a couple of folks and their luggage, pulled behind a 125cc scooter
of dubious lineage, and even more dubious condition). This was not on the itinerary, as we had been promised delivery to our hotel, but it wasn’t a huge deal, so we didn’t make a fuss about it. When we told the tuk-tuk driver where we wanted to go (the Mandalay Inn, which had been recommended by a fellow traveler on the Bangkok-Poipet run), he said “No, mister, you don’t want to go there; it is a long way out of town, and it has very unfriendly management; there is no restaurant; also, it is much too expensive.” I figured he was trying to steer us to a hotel from which he received a commission, so I
reiterated that the Mandalay was indeed where I wanted to go. After some more minor discussion, he agreed to take us there, for free, no less. All he asked was that if we should require the use of a tuk-tuk again while we were in Siem Reap, that we give him a call. That seemed fair enough, so we piled in, and off we went.

Soon we pulled up in front of a hotel which looked fairly reasonable, actually more modern than I had expected. I could not see the name Mandalay Inn anywhere, however; for that matter, I could not see any sign at all. So I asked the driver if this was indeed the Mandalay. “Yes, you should go inside and have a look at the room,” he replied, motioning hastily toward the entry door. “But is it the Mandalay?” I persisted. “Yes, just like the Mandalay,” he said, but there was just the tiniest hint of duplicity in his tone. I was a little bit irritated by now, but mildly amused nonetheless. “So, you mean it is just like the Mandalay, with unfriendly owners, a bad location, no restaurant, and too-high prices?” I asked. He looked more than a bit uncomfortable. “Whatever the case,” I continued, “the Mandalay is where I want to go. If you can take me there, great; if not, I will find another driver who can. Just let me know, because I want to go there now.” He sighed and kick-started the bike, and about two minutes later we arrived at the Mandalay, which proceeded to belie everything our driver had told us about the place: about a block from the center of town; lovely Burmese owners, and exceptionally attentive staff, smiling every step of the way; a restaurant that served up great Western-style breakfasts and tasty Cambodian fare in the evenings for something on the order of $2 per meal; teak furniture and polished marble floors throughout; and all this for $9 (that’s nine, as in the number before ten) per night! Oh, and a pair of great on-call tuk-tuk drivers who drove exceptionally safely, spoke English decently well, and were excellent guides to the Angkor Wat complex. Needless to say, we found no further reason to engage the services of our first driver.


The Motorcycle Accident

February 27, 2012
Even in tiny Edens, serpents can be found; in my case, the fanged culprit was a small Honda scooter (piloted by the owner of my bungalow, and with me riding pillion). I had earlier opted to forego the use of a scooter on this idyllic isle, figuring that most of my fellow riders would be woefully inexperienced, as well as unused to driving on the left side of the road. Couple that with narrow unmarked pathways, and a complete lack of “rules of the road” (other than the general rule of driving in Asia, “me first”), and all in all I felt safer walking. That said, the birthday party scheduled for later that evening was on the other side of the island, and that would have entailed walking a couple of miles on badly illuminated roads after dark, so I capitulated when Remo offered me a ride. It was a decision I would come to regret within minutes, as he downshifted abruptly and accelerated to negotiate a steep grade. The combination of the hill, too much gas, and the unaccustomed passenger on the back sent the front wheel of the scooter into the air with gusto, much in the manner that the wonder horse Silver reared during the opening credits of “The Lone Ranger”. Unfortunately, I was a) not prepared for this in any form or fashion, and b) not gifted with the coordination of the aforementioned Ranger, so I was dumped rather unceremoniously onto my bottom, which made contact with the rough pavement with what seemed to me to be a resounding thud. A cursory examination of the affected area seemed to suggest that nothing had been broken, apart perhaps from my desire to continue on to the birthday party, so I re-boarded another scooter for the few-hundred-meter trip back to my bungalow (the thought of getting on another scooter was singularly unappealing, but the thought of walking back was even more so); there I retired for the night, liberally dosed with aspirin, and found my way into a fitful sleep.

By morning, the pain had subsided a bit, although I had what could only be described as an epic bruise, about the size of a saucer (if anything, I am under-exaggerating here), in shades of purple, pink and red that would have done justice to a Los Angeles sunset. Sorry, no pictures. Although I had planned to leave the island within the following couple of days, I decided to postpone my return to Bangkok until I felt a bit more up for an overnight bus trip, which is not something my posterior would welcome even at the best of times. In the event, I wound up securing a place on a luxo-bus with seats which reclined almost flat, so the trip was really pretty gentle, all things considered, and I arrived in Bangkok, if not in total comfort, at least not in screaming pain. Now, two weeks on, the bruise is still there, although only a shadow of its former self, its initial aubergine hue having faded to the muted chartreuse of, say, pea soup, with small bits of ham strewn here and there throughout. I can still feel a bit of tenderness from time to time, but I am basically back to about 98%, for which I am inordinately thankful. It could have been exponentially worse.

I wasn’t wearing a helmet, although it must be said that a helmet would not have helped much in this case; also, I have yet to see a helmet sized to fit my butt. Still, the down time has given me the opportunity to reconsider my long-held anti-helmet stance; while I still would not support a law requiring the use of a helmet, I will wear one from this point forward when riding a motorcycle. Close calls can often have that sort of “wake-up call” effect. Surprisingly, I had no other injuries, no dents, no dings, no road rash. Even my camera made it through intact. Remo, who was riding barefoot, suffered a few small scratches on his feet and ankles, but was otherwise unscathed. The bike was fine too, save for a few remnants of roadside vegetation poking out from fenders and wheels. So, all’s well that ends well, I guess, but next time I think I will stick to  my guns in opting out of riding a motorbike in SE Asia.

 


Gilligan’s Island Redux

February 24, 2012

My Southeast  Asia travelogue is running a good couple of weeks behind the travels that inspire it, thanks in part to spotty internet connections in some of the remote locations in which I have found myself staying. Arriving back in Bangkok for a few days after my week or so visiting author Colin Cotterill, I ran into a German couple, Otto and Ann, who regaled me with stories of an “uncharted desert isle”, to lift a phrase from the theme song to the old TV show Gilligan’s Island. “No cars, electricity for only a few hours each day, a grass-roofed hut less than ten meters from the high tide line, and all for about $10 a day,” Otto continued. Then he pulled out his Canon G-12, coincidentally the same camera I have been using to record this trip, and showed me some of the finest travel photos I have ever seen. Otto, you see, is an exceptionally talented professional photographer, and I can fairly well guarantee that he could take pictures of Barstow, California that would make you want book a seat on the first available flight. If you have ever passed through Barstow (and you would have only passed through, for nobody would ever deliberately go there as a final destination), you will understand just what a compliment that is. My plans, loose at the best of times, took a right angle turn; my proposed visit to Myanmar took a back seat (I did get there, but not until weeks later), and I booked the series of bus, minivan, taxi, and boat
trips that would take me to this Robinson Crusoe retreat.

I will say at the front end that I haven’t any intention of divulging the location of this tiny idyllic island, which a determined hiker could walk around in a day, other than to say that it is reachable within twenty-four hours from Bangkok, schedules and weather permitting. Somehow, it has escaped the commercialization of similar enclaves throughout SE Asia, and I don’t want to be the one to change that. Even Lonely Planet barely mentions it, thereby essentially excluding the hordes of budget travelers who might otherwise overwhelm the place. There are tourists, to be sure, but the place survives just fine on fishing, rubber plantations, cashew groves, and the like, and it seems the locals like it that way just fine. There is an exceptionally fine French bakery, a handful of restaurants featuring local cuisine, and a couple more capable of rustling up a fair imitation of Euro favorites. In fact, the whole time I was there, I never had a meal that was less than excellent, and some were truly sublime. On the downside, name-brand razor blades cannot be found (and the off-brand ones on offer do the job about as well as, say, a fork with needle-sharp tines). Internet is slow and unreliable, in the few places where it is available at all. Transport is largely by foot, although if you are willing
to chance the roads in the company of tourists totally unfamiliar with the workings of two-wheeled conveyances, you can rent a scooter quite reasonably. Twenty bucks a day should see you through, including room, food and scooter rental. Beer would be extra, but not enough to break the bank.

There are probably dozens of other similar places up and down the Southeast Asian coastlines, but they are disappearing at an alarming rate; if the following pictures hold some earthy appeal for you, this would be the time to act on the impulse.

The aforementioned Otto and Ann

 

Concrete bungalows in lollipop colors

The view from inside...

 

Or how about a traditional wood bungalow, just ten meters from the high tide line?

 

White sand beaches with nary a soul in sight

 

My Mode-Off carryall bag, at low tide

 


Starred Book Review, Seven Years Late: Sightseeing, by Rattawut Lapcharoensap

February 11, 2012

A lot of the hotels at which I have stayed in Thailand have small lending libraries, books cast off by backpackers concerned with offloading every unnecessary extra gram of weight. One usually reads only one book at a time, unless one is doing it for a living, so there is really no need to carry extras around, particularly when there are ample opportunities to pick more books up along the way. The deal typically works quite simply, for every book you donate to the library, you can take one out. Thus far, it is not a revenue generator for the hotels, although that cannot last, I fear. As you might expect, there are lots of Dan Browns, Clive Cusslers, out-of-date Lonely Planet guidebooks, self-help books, and the like (and by extrapolation, rather fewer of the Murakamis, Therouxs, Iyers, and Mahfouzes than I had hoped). Once in a while, however, one runs across a gem. I had just finished Alexander McCall Smith’s Portuguese Irregular Verbs, and it was ready to enter the public domain as trading fodder; that is when I happened upon a book called Sightseeing, by an author with a borderline unpronounceable name, Rattawut Lapcharoensap. This was the Australian edition of the book, as near as I could gather, but it had something of a bootleg look about it, with blurbs on the back cover from folks completely unfamiliar to me. That said, they were intriguing, intelligently crafted comments, so I thought what the heck, and effected the swap.

I tend to read real paper-page books (as opposed to Kindle or pdf apps) when I am traveling by bus or train; I don’t know why, really, but it seems fitting and proper, a bit less digital in what is surely an analog-era mode of transportation. So, that said, I opened up my battered copy of Sightseeing at the beginning of the Bangkok-Ranong bus trip, a coast-to-coast all-nighter. I will say at the outset that I read the book in one sitting, although in truth I was something of a captive audience, as there was nothing to see out the window, and my seatmate had promptly kakked out for the duration.

The book is comprised of six short stories and a novelette, each a vignette about the ever-shifting relationships among Thais and their families, their friends, and the hordes of foreign visitors to their country. Two in particular resonated with me, the first titled Priscilla the Cambodian, in which two young Thai boys befriend a Cambodian refugee girl squatting in a shanty town adjacent to their housing development. Sensing the impending fall of Phnom Penh, the girl’s father, a dentist, had capped all of her teeth with pure gold, everything that was left of the family fortune: “When she smiled, it sometimes looked like that little girl had swallowed the sun.” When some of the local Thai men (including the boys’ fathers) torch the camp in a fit of xenophobia, Priscilla is left homeless, but nonetheless optimistic. It is not the first time, she reasons, and it likely won’t be the last. And even though she knows who burned her house to the ground, she offers up a most amazing act of kindness and friendship, working a loose tooth back and forth in her gums until it releases, wiping it clean on her pants, and offering it to the young boy who had befriended her.

In another, Don’t Let Me Die in This Place, a cantankerous American grandfather reluctantly comes to Bangkok to live with his expat son, the son’s Thai wife, and their two children (whom he calls “the
mongrels”). Grandpa has suffered a stroke, and he is decidedly unhappy about his lack of mobility, the heat, the food, the culture shock—pretty much everything. Each one of the family members makes accommodations (even the grandfather, albeit grudgingly), but things never seem to quite gel for them. And then a local fun fair takes place, the proceeds going to support a local temple, and the monk in charge of the bumper car ride somewhat inadvertently advances a meeting of minds and spirits that nobody, least of all the reader, could have foreseen.

If you are going to Thailand, you need to read this book. If you have been to Thailand, you need to read this book. If Thai culture resonates with you at all, you need to read this book. If you like to laugh out loud and are willing to allow yourself to be moved to tears, you need to read this book. I cannot imagine how it escaped my attention for all these years, and I am really curious to see what Rattawut Lapcharoensap comes up with next.


The Cotterill/Tierney Saga; Some Final Random Pictures and Thoughts That Didn’t Fit Anywhere Else

February 11, 2012

One of the most charming moments in my stay at Colin’s came from one of his Bangkok visitors, Khae, who was the UNO shark of the crowd. However, every time she slapped a “Draw Four” card on me (the worst card in the deck), and she did it a lot, she would make a face of abject apology and say “Sorry” so sweetly that I just had to believe her. Almost.

Small fishing fleet just down the beach from Colin's

 

Colin's studio, from the main house

The joke of the week was about rock star Bono, who has been known to pontificate on social matters from time to time. At a U2 concert in Scotland, the band finished a song to wild applause, and then the house lights faded to black. A single floodlight illuminated Bono on the stage, and he said to the audience “Please be totally silent.” A hush fell over the auditorium. Slowly he clapped his hands together loudly, then again and again, once per second or so, for fully half a minute. Then he said in somber tones “Every time I clap my hands, a child in Africa dies.” A voice rang out from the back of the auditorium “Then for God’s sake, stop clapping!”

Rasta dog, near village market

 

Beia, Psycho and GoGo, about to storm the castle gate

Although incomes are low in Thailand (minimum wage is about $7 per day), prices for consumer goods are very cheap by Western standards. As a tourist you need look no further than hotel and meal prices. I am staying in a perfectly pleasant room (a detached cottage, actually) with aircon, tv, fridge, double bed, en suite bath, right in the center of town, for $15 per night in the high season. I had a couple of weeks’ worth of laundry washed, dried and folded yesterday for $3. They seem to have misplaced a pair of short pants, but I trust they will find them before I leave.

Dahla Hotel, Ranong, Thailand

A meal in the local market runs a couple of dollars, for pad thai freshly prepared while you watch. The bicycle pictured below is about $40, and the washing machine, about $200, both prices well under half what one would pay in the US.

Colin at the train station, as I was leaving for Bangkok

 

The 11:47 to Bang Sue...


The Tierney/Cotterill Saga, Part 4, the Ultimate Awful Song List of All Time

February 10, 2012

The days at Colin’s place definitely took place in Thai time, each flowing pretty imperceptibly into the next. The big meal of the day happened at lunchtime, on either side of which Colin worked assiduously on the ninth book in the Dr. Siri series, due in part to some panicky goading from his publisher. He writes his early drafts in longhand, and from time to time must cast about looking for the particular notebook that might provide some continuity among the notebooks he has been able to turn up thus far.

Evenings were loose, however, for chatting, snacking, and attending to the needs and whims of the dogs. For my last night there, we decided to build a campfire beneath the leaning palm tree, using for fuel assorted combustible crapola that had accumulated on the beach over the past week or so. There seems no end to the aforementioned combustibles, the saving grace being that the ocean will usually take them back sooner or later if they are not used in the meantime. Palm fronds, bamboo sticks, unidentifiable wooden items presumably dropped from boats (or perhaps pieces that once constituted boats), coconut husks, chunks of furniture—the list of campfire materials went on and on.

Shortly after dark we headed out to the beach, with all six dogs in tow, and a cooler full of beer, cheese and crackers. There was a nice breeze off the ocean, and it cooperated for the most part by blowing the smoke in a direction away from where we were sitting. The conversation was all over the board, as it had been all week, for that matter: girls; cars; Thailand; travels; jokes; plans for the near future; etc.

And then at one point, the discussion turned to music. I had listened to a CD of Mongolian throat singers early in my stay at Colin’s, and this led me to believe that he must have at least as eclectic tastes in music as I do. That was confirmed when I happened upon his “ukulele disco hits” CD, with lyrics all in Thai. No home should be without one. Except mine.

Colin and I are but a year apart in age, although we grew up on opposite sides of the Atlantic. I was curious to know what songs and artists might have made the transoceanic jump successfully (and by extrapolation, which hits had stayed firmly rooted in their home countries), and mentioned a couple of tunes I liked. This started a several-hour beer-fueled music dialogue that culminated in our crafting the Ultimate Awful Song List of All Time.

I had done this at least one time before, while traveling through the Sahara Desert with my ex-wife Cyndi, on what turned out to be a very extended honeymoon. For lack of something better to do, we took turns naming the worst songs we could think of, and, if we remembered the words, singing them badly. This was in the 1980s, so the choices were necessarily more limited, but there was no shortage of material, I guarantee that.

Fast forward to 2012, and I launched the first salvo with Morris Albert’s “Feelings”, a staple at karaoke bars worldwide, and guaranteed to engender the throwing of eggs (particularly in Asia, where it is rendered as “Feerings”). This was rapidly followed up with “You’re Having My Baby”, “Honey”, “Ebony and Ivory”, “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo”, “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero”, “MacArthur Park”, “The Pina Colada Song”, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon”, “Muskrat Love”, “Seasons in the Sun”, anything by Kenny Rogers, “You Light Up My Life”, “From a Distance”, “I Am  Woman”, “Achy Breaky Heart”—you get the idea. The culmination of this exercise was an impromptu duet rendition of “They’re Coming to Take Me Away”, which I am ashamed to say that both of us remembered word for word in its entirety (thus using valuable brain space which could easily be utilized more profitably; indeed, it is hard to imagine using brain cells less profitably), and which I am sure has never been sung so badly in Thailand (or anywhere), and may never be again. Some performances leave no room for an encore, and we shortly toddled off to our respective sleeping places, presumably to dream about the awful songs we’d forgotten, like that heinous ballad by Bread about the guy who finds his girlfriend’s diary underneath a tree…