“These walls are paper-thin and everyone hears every little sound.” – Paper Thin Walls - Modest Mouse
BJ and I moved once again today. We have been on the go non-stop since we met up more than two weeks ago, only slowing down here and there when we had nothing left in our reserves.
Asia is a big place, there’s a lot to see, and we have a limited amount of time. This is both the beauty and tragedy of the type of travel we are doing. As travelers, you get some street-credit and notches on your belt for what you’ve seen, where you’ve been, and how many miles you log. The downside to this type of travel is that just when you get a flavor for a place, it’s time to move on. We only met up two weeks ago, and one of our milestones is Koh Rong Island, Cambodia. I can see it from where I write this.
Perhaps we are being too ambitious in our aspirations as far as the ground we want to cover. I am assuming from my experience in previous travels that we will hit our stride, and part of that stride is trusting the process. Much like life, you have to trust that you’ll find yourself where you’re supposed to be, when you’re supposed to be there, for however long you’re supposed to be there. If you find yourself in a place you really like, then that’s where you find yourself. You deal with shaving off stops on the itinerary later on down the line; after all you can only do so much.
As I write this, I am sitting at The Beach bar on Otres Beach, in Sinhouvkille, Cambodia. The waters are turquoise-green and a nice breeze is coming off the Gulf of Thailand. A year ago the government came in and bulldozed most of the bungalows along the beach but a few remain, which means there’s only so much housing on this stretch of beach which means there are barely a handful of people scattered along the virginal whites sands. I am sitting beneath a thatch-roofed hut looking out at four islands. While drugs are highly illegal in Cambodia, The Beach sells Happy Pizza (pizza with marijuana on it) and they also advertise $1.50 joints. While I have not sampled the Happy Pizza, I have been warned not to underestimate the potency.
The last 3 days we’ve spent at Serendipity Beach about 5 kilometers away. On Serendipity Beach you find one beach bar/restaurant after another, each selling the same thing and you cannot pass one without someone running towards you, “Good evening! How are you? Where are you from? Tonight we have .50 cent happy hour drafts and $3.00 seafood BBQ.” There are probably 20 bars along the beachfront and you get the same song and dance at every single one.
Once you do sit down, you can’t get ten minutes to yourself without being harassed by begging amputees or kids trying to sell you bracelets and other crap. It has been my experience that despite the very dark and very recent history of Cambodia, it’s people are beautiful and warm, but the beach kids are downright nasty if you don’t buy from them, or worse, try to ignore them.
BJ pretended not to speak English one evening, and when the 13-year-old girl called him a “mother-fucker” he reacted. And then she unleashed every insult possible. At one point she made fun of us because we only spoke English, to which I replied, “Why would I need to speak anything else but English? The world speaks English. It’s the language of business. Good luck in life kid.” I sure showed her.
In actuality, there is a chance I may have said one or two other things that could be construed of as life threatening, but I plead the fifth here. Since BJ was relatively new to Asia, he entertained the kids and found himself regularly supporting the local economy in handouts. I played along mostly but one night I finally snapped and slammed my beer on the table. It seemed to get their attention and they left us alone.
Had we not planned to slowdown at the beach, we might have blown in and out of Sinhouokville, along with all the other backpackers and “gap year kids,” (as BJ likes to refer to them) without even seeing Otres Beach. Gap year kids and young backpackers are not hard to spot. While they have youth going for them, they also have naivety, inexperience, and limited bank accounts. You can make some general assumptions about the type of traveler someone is by three observations; by the gear they have, whether or not they use Internet cafes, or how many tiny red blotches they have on their legs and body. While this could also be mosquito bites as some people are more allergic to them than others, generally it means they are staying at low-budget places with either fleas or bed bugs. The bites of fleas and bed bugs are the affliction of the budget traveler.
Tonight we are staying at a beach bungalow on Otres Beach in a place that is not quite up to what our typical lodging has been. This was evident by the rat droppings on my bed, as well as on my sink and toilet. It was only driven home by the riff-raff staying next door; a degenerate Australian man pushing mid-50 with a belly expanding well over his waistline, a young Cambodia girlfriend connected at the hip, and two empty bottles of Tequila outside his door. The walls being literally paper-thin, it was my good luck to be staying right next to him. He made some snide comment on arrival when I walked into my room that was loud enough for me to hear but directed at his buddy, and the combo put me off to the whole place.
Not that I am above these accommodations by any means. I stayed in far worse places in India. I’ve just gotten used to a certain level of comfort on this second part of my travels—and it does not take much to be one step up from a budget traveler in Southeast Asia. The budget traveler may be staying in a place that is $4-6 a day, where as we are paying generally $15-$20 (divided by two). It makes a big difference what you get for that small gap. I wonder if from this place tomorrow I will have the budget traveler’s affliction.
As I said, we have been on a furious pace; 5 days in Bangkok, 3 in Siem Reap, 3 in Phnom Penh (the capital of Cambodia), and now we are on our 4th day in Sihnoukville. It may not sound like a lot, but you have to figure that most of the time when we are moving from one place to another, it’s taking almost a whole day by bus to get to the next destination. It does not leave much time to get settled and catch your breath—or to write.
Reunions and Retox
I had just arrived from Koh Samui to Bangkok via air, and after an hour cab ride, my taxi turned down Soi (Street) 8 off of Sukumvit Road. There in a corner bar was BJ, my friend from home who I had not seen in several months. It was unmistakably him because his head was buried in his Touchpad. The only thing that seemed different about him from last time I saw him was that his head is usually buried in his Blackberry. I called out to him as my taxi headed to our hotel. Thirty minutes later we were sharing a beer and catching up on the last few months, all the while trying to figure out where we were going and when.
“I wonder where we’ll be in a week!” he said enthusiastically, his voice projecting and whole body becoming animated. He does this when he is excited about something.
“I really have no idea, but I’ve at least got some plans for us tonight,” I said.
My friend Caroline who I had met at rehab—I mean detox—on Koh Samui had invited us to a gallery opening that evening. Caroline, originally from Paris, has been living in Bangkok for the last 5 years and runs a Web site called planetngo.org. BJ and I met her on Soi 23 at a French restaurant called Le Petite Zinc, downed a glass of wine, and headed off to the gallery opening.
“What day is it?” I asked Caroline on the walk.
“I don’t know if it’s Tuesday or Saturday. I love this life!” she said, her smile and joie de vivre lighting up the Bangkok night.
The gallery as it turned out, was actually in the art collector’s house, a modern, narrow, three-story house with which every wall was covered in art. I am not sure where his furniture was, but every space was filled with paintings, pottery, mobiles, photography, sculpture, woodcarvings, and more.
Eric Monteil, the collector, had a fairly typical entrepreneur’s tale. He had made a bit of money being in the right place at the right time. From that money he created another company or two, which he proceeded to sell. He then decided he had had enough and took off on his motorcycle for a year to explore Southeast Asia, and in the process invested a fair bit of money into an art collection. Two of the artists in the collection BJ could not stop talking about—one from Hoi An, Vietnam, and the other from Phnom Penh, Cambodia. “We’re hunting him down when we get to Phnom Penh,” BJ said again with animation, the only difference being that instead of projecting his voice, it was more flat lined, denoting steely determination.
We had a chance to chat with Eric a bit and tell him what we were doing, and since Northern Thailand was flooded, he suggested we head east to Cambodia, so in many ways he is responsible for the trajectory of our journey.
To round out the gallery scene was an eclectic group of expats from all over the world; artists, musicians, businessmen, doctors, writers, lawyers. BJ was in good form on his first full night in Asia and kept Caroline entertained, although I must say she is an easy audience and quick to smile, which is why I liked her in the first place and why we got along so well.
Caroline organized a small group of us to go out to dinner and suggested we get burgers. I was not overly excited about going to a burger place my first night in Bangkok, but as it turned out, it was a jazz club with some of the best burgers I’ve ever had. It’s best to trust the locals. Ingrid, Rudy, Caroline, BJ, and myself ate gourmet burgers while listening to a Thai man belt out hits that if you closed your eyes, he could have been Frank Sinatra.
Three bars and several hours later, we landed at Bed Supper Club, a glamorous club full of the beautiful and elite of Bangkok’s locals and expats. From the outside it looked like a giant oil drum turned on its side, and on the inside it was two floors and several rooms of lights, lasers, glitz, high heels, short skirts, sweat, cheap perfume, and eager individuals looking both to see and be seen.
Being that I had just landed from the islands that day, I was still in beach mode and wearing flip-flops. For the second time on my trip (the first in Shanghai, although I did get in eventually) the bouncer would not let me in. Since jetlag was beginning to grip BJ, he gave me his shoes and headed home.
Although I am usually not a fan of this type of club, the music—a combination of a DJ and a live drummer—hypnotically, thunderously, and tribally pulsed through the room, spinning us about on the dance floor like Sufi dancers. The remainder of our small group found us in a small bar around 3am, and from the décor it could have been any dive bar in Seattle. By the time we walked out of the bar it was nearly 5am. Having no idea where I was or necessarily where my hotel was, I crashed in Caroline’s guest room, and as it turned out, it was a good call.
The following morning I left Caroline’s house and as I walked out the door, she said, “Do you have everything?”
I was a bit bleary eyed from the night before and said, “Pretty sure I do.” I had not even looked at a map of Bangkok or where BJ and my hotel were. I also made a clinical error the night before when I left the hotel without grabbing a card for the taxi. But why would I need to know anything about getting around anyway when I had BJ—a man who researches directions and scenarios relentless like those who organize Navy Seal raids?
By the time I was in the taxi a kilometer away I realized when I had texted BJ that morning I had left my phone on the nightstand, and as I mentioned I didn’t have our hotel’s address and I didn’t even really know where it was. I only knew Soi 8 was a small lane. Turns out you need to know which major cross street it is off of. Lacking sleep, hung-over, and feeling like Keith Richards on day 5 of a bender, I drove around for about 45-minutes with a taxi driver who spoke no English. I finally got the idea across that he should take me back to where he picked me up. Of course, when he dropped me off near where he picked me up, being that I was somewhat delirious when I left Caroline’s house, I couldn’t find the lane where she lived. I walked up and down her street for another 30-minutes. The only thing I had going for me was cash in my pocket and so I found an Internet/gamer café to print out directions to the hotel and to let BJ know I was lost beyond recognition. 2 hours later (a journey which should have been about 10 minutes) I was back at the hotel curled up beneath nice linens.
Addictions, deviances, and excess are never far away in Bangkok if you’re looking for it. The next five nights followed a similar suit of charging forward with Caroline’s crew, followed by a night of retreating into the tiny comforts of our hotel room on Soi 8. I found Bangkok, and most major Asian cities, to be surprisingly cosmopolitan, and being that the past month-and-a-half was spent in major cities such as Hanoi, Ho Chi Min, Shanghai, and Beijing, one night with a head full of wine I almost forget what city I was in. They all seem to have endless trendy bars that could easily be found in New York, Paris, or Rome.
On our fourth night I met up with Ben, my college roommate and fellow college soccer teammate who I had not seen since I graduated college. After college graduation in Baltimore, Ben moved to Thailand to teach English and consequently never left. Along the way he found himself in the envious position of being a Thai rockstar—literally.
After two or three years in Bangkok, he began playing music in clubs and bars, and when one of Thailand’s top bands began to fall apart, Ben was at the right place at the right time. As it turned out, the former lead singer of the Silly Fools was making a lot of money and keeping all of it through publishing rights and thus was cheating his band. It was a messy ending in which he publically stated that he could not play in the band anymore because of his Muslim beliefs, which was a load of shit. In walks Ben.
The first night of our reunion he took us to a restaurant called Gaggan. Gaggan is quickly becoming one of the finest restaurants in Bangkok, serving a fusion of Indian and modern cuisine. Ben had met the owner on Facebook because he was a fan of Ben’s band, Silly Fools, and so he gave us a private table as well as a complimentary bottle of his personal Pinot Noir Reserve. The wait staff was very attentive. By the end of the meal we had put away ten courses. It was a meal that ranks in the top 3 of my life, and for BJ it ranked at the top.
After dinner BJ once again crashed due to jetlag and Ben and I went to the Park and Toy, a down-and-dirty music venue where Ben had often played in the past. The owner gave him a welcoming smile and a handshake. I watched eyes watching Ben as we moved through the club to the upstairs where we looked directly down on the band. They looked like they were going to play rockabilly, but what came out was something more akin to the likes of power-thrash-punk-rockabilly, as they put their own speedy spin on hits like Jailhouse Rock and Johnny B. Good.
“Do you come to this place much?” I asked Ben.
“I’ll come sometimes if there’s a band I want to see or a friend is playing but I don’t really go out much,” he said. “It feels like going to work.”
BJ and I stayed and extra day or two in Bangkok because I wanted to see Ben play, and two days later I got to see him play, which was a treat. Ben is about as mellow as it gets, but it was fantastic to see him transform on stage. I don’t know where he was hiding his lungs in college, but he could belt it out and I was impressed. I’m happy for him that he has made a good life for himself in Bangkok.
After the Park and Toy, Ben was tired, and in the meantime Caroline and her friends were trying to get me to come out. Rarely being able to say no, I left there and headed downtown to meet up with Caroline’s crew and had yet another late night.
On the final night in Bangkok we went to a party with Caroline on the 33rd floor of a high-rise with a great view of Bangkok. There were many fun and interesting people at the party, but perhaps the most memorable was a model who was very drunk and crying because no one believed her that she was a model. BJ Googled her the next day and in fact she was quite famous. The biggest story about her was when a tabloid accused her of being HIV-positive, so to disclaim it she took the blood test with the press looking on.
Five days after meeting up in Bangkok, BJ and I left for Cambodia.
You already know about our experience crossing the border to get into Cambodia in Chapter 22, so we can skip past that.
Fast-forward to our first night in Siem Reap. BJ and I find ourselves sitting behind sandbags at a bar on Pub Street, the main tourist stretch of town, while calf deep water floods the entire street and surrounding area. It felt like we were in Vegas, at some bar with a river theme. It just did not seem real, but it got very real driving from Poi Pet to Siem Reap, from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, and later from Phnom Penh to Sihnoukville. We would be driving for an hour or more, and all you would see from one horizon to the next was water, the occasional roof or palm tree poking its head through, and sometimes people sitting on their roofs. The only thing above the water was the road, which served as a land bridge to get us where we were going.
We had spent a few hours wading through the streets earlier in the afternoon and around 4pm decided to have a beer. A fierce game of Rummy 500 ensued. As the night wore on, our two-some merged with several other people and before we knew it, it was 11pm and we were looking for beers to take back to our hotel.
Back at our 4-star hotel (only $38/night), BJ is playing DJ, I’m rolling cigarettes, we’re sitting out on our balcony overlooking the pool and drinking beers, and because of the flooding and the fact that it’s right before high season, there’s almost no one in the hotel. The only people we saw were a group of three Japanese men wearing the same zip-up jackets.
“I don’t know whose life I’m living right now, but it feels like fiction,” I say.
I tell BJ about when my friend Bret and I stayed in a 4-star hotel in San Millán de la Cogolla, Spain, a UNESCO world heritage site, which also happened to be the birthplace of the Spanish language. Prior to its function as a hotel, the structure was a several hundred-year-old monastery in which one wing 12 monks still lived. Again it was right before the high season and Bret and I kept saying, “It’s like Disneyland and no one is home,” to which BJ replied, “That would make this like Euro-Disney!”
Sidesplitting hilarity ensued causing me to say, “You know what? We should write something together.”
“Do you know the first night we met you said to me, ‘we should write something together.’” In fact, I did not recall that until he said it, but it didn’t surprise me.
BJ and I met about 7 years ago at 3835 Eastern Avenue in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle. The house he lived in with several other 20-somethings provided the backdrop to many a party.
“Well we should try to turn this into a working/creating vacation,” he said.
The next day we toured the temples of Ankor Wat and the surrounding areas, some of them more than a thousand years old. I tend to not get too excited about temples, but these blew me away. I put it up there with seeing the Great Wall of China.
The following day around midday, as we started walking towards one of the temples, it began to rain. We ducked underneath an over hang and had a cigarette, as I insisted it would blow over. After 5-10 minutes of hard rain, BJ abandon our position but I held our ground. The rain was pouring off the temple like a river, and as it continued to come down, I began to notice a moat forming around the temple, and so I too retreated.
Our tuk-tuk driver took us to the next temple where we thought we would wait out the storm. As we drove along the slightly elevated road, the jungles began to fill with water. Only two weeks prior a flash flood caught 200 tourists by surprise, requiring them to be airlifted from a temple site. This fact was in the back of my mind as the water filled the jungle and then began pouring over the road.
Within minutes the water was ankle deep and raising and I wondered where this scene was going. BJ seems to say he was not nervous, but it was a slightly tense few minutes as we all watched in silence the rain come down relentlessly. BJ believes me to be worrisome or overly cautious but when traveling, if I find myself in a situation that has the potential to become beyond my control, I would rather preempt the situation by making a choice before that choice is taken away from me. I like to try to be aware of my surroundings at all times, whether I am walking through a dimly lit street in Hanoi where I heard about people getting mugged and pistol whipped or in a jungle where the water level is rising rapidly. The minute you say, that can’t happen to us, is when that happens to you.
In nearly seven months of being on the road and doing a fair but of traveling over the last six years, I’ve heard too many horror stories and I just assume not find myself in situations where I lack control. Sookum, our sincere and endearing tuk-tuk driver was young and inexperienced, and even he seemed to be a bit nervous, biting his nails as he thought and surveyed the situation. We finally decided to abandon the last temple and head home when our tuk-tuk got stuck. BJ and I gave up the illusion that we were going to stay dry and jumped out into calf-deep water where we learned that even if your shoes are waterproof, if the water level is above the shoe, you don’t stand a chance.
We turned the tuk-tuk around and drove for about 5 minutes when the rain began to let up. Sookum seemed insistent that we see the last temple, and so we gave in and went back. I was glad he insisted as it may have been my favorite temple, a labyrinth in which you could get lost, a labyrinth in which the elements of centuries of time had staked their claim, where giant tree roots broke apart thick, 15-foot high stone walls like a child might pull apart Lego blocks. Man is no match for time and nature.
A Taste of Seattle and Chasing Art in Phnom Penh
On October 14th, we found ourselves in Phnom Penh, Cambodia at S-21, The Killing Fields, and a war remnants museum which displayed many of the broken or destroyed killing instruments of Cambodia’s foreign invasions, civil wars, and genocides, such as Russian tanks, land minds, artillery, jets, and helicopters.
S-21 was one of the detention centers where thousands and thousands of Cambodians were tortured or killed under Pol Pot from 1976-1979. If they were not killed in the process, they were loaded into a truck under the guise they were being relocated and brought to the Killing Fields where they were coldly and brutally murdered, their bodies being thrown into mass graves. It is an unbelievable history, perhaps even more so by the fact that it took place so recently. It seems like something out of fiction, where Pol Pot decided to get rid of all of the intellectuals, put guns in the hands of children, and create a race of rice-pickers subservient to the idea of the Communist State. It was a somber day, which also happened to be BJs birthday. The only comedic relief of the afternoon was when BJ turned around and not meaning to be funny said, “Best…birthday…ever.” He will surely not forget his 33rd birthday.
That night we found ourselves on a quest to track down art from the artist we had seen in Bangkok. We found Soi 78, which consisted of several blocks of galleries yet we were looking for a needle in a haystack. It was going to be a nearly impossible, if not awfully time consuming task, but without saying anything, in his mind BJ decided to let intuition guide the way. Two galleries later we were staring at the work of the artist Keo Titia.
We spent quite a bit of time looking at his work, choosing several, having them taken off the wall, studying them, and bargaining on the price. The price was far higher than I expected it to be so I said it was too much and we walked, and of course, the gallery owner said, “OK, OK” and made a counter offer.
“How much you want to pay?” Throwing out a price that was rejected, I said it was still too much so I suggested we get some space from the situation and go get ourselves some cash and a beer.
As serendipity would have it, we happened to walk into the one bar in a city of two million people run by two Seattle expats. Chad and Rod had both worked in construction in Seattle and when the shit hit the fan, after not working for a year, Chad decided he was going to head to Ireland. He had some Cambodian friends and they said why don’t you come visit us first? And that was the beginning of the end.
After touring a bit of Cambodia Chad found himself in Phnom Penh, walked into Rory’s Irish Pub, fell in love with the place, and a week later it was for sale. He then called up Rod, a bald, hulking fellow-construction worker with a twinkle in his eyes and a heart of gold to help him tend bar. Rod had been laying pipe in Seattle as a construction worker, and ever since arriving in Phnom Penh, he had been laying pipe as a bartender. Both of them seemed to love their new lives and Chad had even found himself a young Cambodian wife. Within a year he went from being unemployed in Auburn, Washington, to owning a bar in Cambodia and being married. Life can change quickly and magically if you are open to it.
I told the fellas it was BJs birthday so Chad and Rod were pouring. As a result, the art gallery closed before we got to grab our art, but we just decided we would take care of it the following day when we would come back to Rory’s to watch the Rugby World Cup Semi-finals.
Chad had two t-shirts framed on the wall; one was Dick’s, a famous Seattle burger joint, and one from Kell’s, a famous Irish bar in Seattle near the market. I had been carrying around a KEXP sticker, Seattle’s best radio stations and perhaps the best independent radio station in the country, and donated it to the expat establishment. As the night wore on, several characters appeared out of BJ’s being, including Ray Romano, a young Al Pacino, Thom Yorke, and the Happy Genie, to which I replied, “Don’t go all Corky on me.” I didn’t know BJ’s character repertoire ran so deep.
The following day we returned to purchase the art and got the price we wanted, but on the actual night of BJ’s birthday we got good and drunk, capping it off with a shot of Jameson at another Irish bar. We toasted to BJ’s birthday, our charmed lives, freedom, and the struggles and endurance of the beautiful Cambodian people.