Sunday, November 25, 2012

Organization of the following blogs: 

The Southeast Asia Journey 
The East Africa Journey
Where the Travel Bug originated


The Southeast Asia Journey


During October and November, 2012 I reversed the Southeast Asia Journey blog entries so they can be read as that trip evolved, same as I successfully did with the following East Africa Journey entries. Unfortunately, due to my lousy IT skills, some of it didn't turn out as intended. If you'd like to read the southeast Asia entries chronologically you'd have to go by the dates of each post, starting with Adventures for a Soul with IT Angst in Seoul, of January 7, 2012.

The Southeast Asia Journey is
primarily a quest for (re)discovering one or more of Burma's off-limit Roads.

They are:

• From Imphal in India's Manipur to Mandalay in Burma, hacked out of the jungle by the British during WW II to get behind Japanese lines.
• The Ledo Road from Assam in India to Kunming in China through Burma, hacked out of the jungle and over the Himalayan outliers by American general (Vinegar Joe) Stillwell and his troops, also during WW II to supply Chian Kai Check's army against Mao Tse Tung's PLA (People's Liberation Army).
• The Burma Road from Mandalay through the Golden Triangle to Kunming, China, the famous way of Kipling lore.

   I abandoned several previous attempts to travel those roads because local people got involved. They assisted me in the illegal quest and when the authorities got wise to us I had to give up. Had we been caught by the Burmese junta, who gave themselves the Orwellian-sounding name SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council), that would have meant certain death for my local helpers and probably something a bit less drastic for me.

This time, as in previous attempts, for obvious reasons, I'll fudge a few names and locations.

Following this Southeast Asia Journey report comes the one about the 

East Africa Journey 

This is the story on how I lost an eye in Zanzibar during a more than five-thousand mile trip by local means; bus, dallah-dallah, boat, train, motorcycle, walking and rental car, from Addis Ababa in Ethiopia on a zic-zac route to Cape Town in South Africa.

It has been a long time coming!
A little travel-related biography

My journeys are not the result of some latter day midlife crisis. The travel bug stung me already while still a kid.

Before my butt could reach the saddle on my dad's bike by ten-years of age I'd already been to many parts of Switzerland — by bike. The saddle was taken off and a pillow strung around the bar.

In 1949 my brother and I, nine and eleven-years old, were invited to Berlin. Post war Germany at that time was definitively not tourist-travel-ready but our trusting parents let us go by hitchhiking. In northern (West) Germany we found we had to take a plane from Hannover to Berlin because the Soviets, in a Cold War hissy-fit, had closed the border area between West Germany and Berlin. 

Berlin sucked, it was still in ruins and food was something akin to refried sawdust. Although we were to stay ten days, we left after two. 

From Hannover, where we landed again on our return from Soviet surrounded Berlin, we hitchhiked to Hamburg because we had heard of it being cool, then we got to Amsterdam, for the same reason, then Brussels, because we knew we had a cousin there. Since we had neither address nor phone number the elderly man who'd given us a lift to Brussels thought we were runaways thus delivered us to the Swiss consulate. The consulate contacted our cousin. After two days being scolded in his house for having come to Brussels without our parents' knowing it — no international phone calls then — he brought us to the train, got tickets to Zurich and warned us to be good — or else. We left the train after he left, cashed in the tickets and hitchhiked back to Switzerland. 

And so, from those days it went on — and on. By the time I left basic school at age sixteen I'd been to every West European country, except Portugal, Ireland and Greece, all by hitchhiking. The trips were financed from my delivery job in a laundry where I worked after school from second grade to ninth. The laundry changed ownership three times and every time the new owner(s) took over the delivery boy — me — with the inventory.

At twenty I went around the world, mostly hitchhiking, leaving home with only forty dollars. I needed to make traveling funds along the way. Did out-of-the-ordinary things like belly dancing in a gay bar in Beirut, Lebanon, and buying an undocumented car in Turkey, drive it through Iran to Kabul in Afghanistan where I sold it with a profit, just two examples among almost countless wacky stints that could easily fill a blog all by themselves. 

In Japan I worked in movies as an extra and in small roles, wrote articles for newspapers, taught spoken French, sold paintings, — and fell in love. That's where that headlong journey came to a full stop. I stayed almost a year in Japan, became a sushi fan and learned quite a bit of Japanese.

So far I've been to 152 countries, most of them visited intensively. I skippered across the Atlantic four times by sailboat, once singlehanded from England to the US, walked to the North Pole from Siberia, bummed around in the Australian Outback, crossed the Sahara seven times, and lived there three years, walked across the Himalayas into Tibet — illegally, drove a twenty-seven-year old car from Uruguay - Argentina - Paraguay - Bolivia - Peru - Equator - Panama - all of Central America to New York — alone. 

The list is long. The fun intense. I still have a hot love affair with our planet. 

This is to show that the journeys described in this blog are just a continuation of what I've been doing all along — besides rising four kids, much of it as a single parent.

Aventures for a Soul with IT Angst in Seoul

The Southeast Asia Journey in Search of Off-Limits Burmese Roads.

My third attempt get out of Burma by land, either to India's Manipur, where the British army cut a path through in WW II, to get behind the Japanese in Mandalay, southern China, Lao, or Thailand, through the Golden Triangle, all of them illegal for a foreigner, started in the Winter of 2012 with ...

(Tame) Adventures for a Soul with IT Angst in Seoul

On my way from New York to Rangoon, with stopovers in Seoul and in Bangkok, I discovered the strange world of Seoul.

January 7, 2012

Looking for adventure? Seoul, South Korea is not the place — unless getting lost in a cyber world counts — or maybe finding your way in an underground labyrinth — or hopping in light tropical wash-and-wear clothing over frozen snow piles.

On my way from the Big Apple to Bangkok I made a stopover in Seoul because I've never been in South Korea. In 1960 I tried to get from Peking (as Pejing was then pronounced and spelled in English), where I then was, to North Korea. That didn't pan out because of intractable Chinese and North Korean bureaucracy.

Of course I knew full well Seoul is not in the tropics when I packed my carry on for Southeast Asia, but I didn't expect the serious cold spell that makes me now walk the city swaddled in my two T-shirts, and my two shirts under my one light bush jacket — and still shiver.

Getting lost in Seoul's cyber world, started with my first visit to a toilet. All was familiar to me, until it came to the point of pulling paper off a roll. Where I expected to find that precious white gold was a control panel with twelve options on little images with instructions in wriggly Korean writing. I pushed something with an image of a fan — and got my behind fanned. After experimenting with different buttons, fearing one might activate an ejection seat, then, accompanied by toilet music, getting washed where the toilet paper would have been in action, first with water way too hot, then with a stream so strong it practically lifted me off the (heated) toilet seat, I got dried by the fan and was allowed to leave. As soon as I got off my seat the contraption flushed automatically and the music stopped. 

The drink and food menu in the hotel restaurant/bar is hidden in iPads. For many people, like one of my brothers who is still in typewriter mode, or I, who only about two month before had bought an iPad and got instructed by an Apple Store Genius in its use, this might as well mean prohibition and famine. Without help an IT challenged novice won't be able to chose drink or food. Guests who know how to operate the gadget can speak to it in their language and the tablet orders stuff for them in Korean. I pointed at the picture of a beer bottle.

I got into the underground labyrinth when I went to explore the city. In above ground daylight were only very few pedestrians, strange for such a big metropolis, I thought. When I tried to cross a wide street with a continuous stream of traffic, and no pedestrian crossings in sight, I noticed stairs that led down. An underpass, I assumed, but it was not the expected straight forward job in the direction of the other street side. I had entered a bustling population center with stores, eateries and the kind of pedestrian crowds you'd normally see in a large city. Out of the above cold, I wandered, looked, explored and wandered some more with no idea as to whether I went North, South, East or West. Eventually back up in freezing daylight by one of the stairs, I had not the foggiest idea where I was, in which direction I'd find my hotel. I dove underground again found a store that sold city maps, climbed up, re-oriented and was saved.

After that adventure I decided to cross streets the New York way — jay walk. After the third or fourth New York style crossing, the law caught up with me. Two police officers, a female and a male, took me by the arm and led me - to jail? No jail. They led me downstairs and pointed me in the underground direction of the other street side. Once you get the hang of it, just going straight, not looking at stores, it is a piece of cake.

Seoul, as large cities go, is impressive. Already getting from the airport to town in an airport limousine, as the bus was called, boggles the mind. Even though it was dark when I came in, I noticed that we drove for miles on impressive causeways over large water expanses, some of them frozen. That, sort of gave me the willies when I though of my wardrobe fit for the tropics.

I decided to go see Unesco World Heritage Changdeok Palace built by an Emperor of the Joseon Dynasty founded in 1392. 1392 is exactly a hundred years after the Swiss Confederation was formed by a bunch of cow herders in a meadow. The structures of the palace are impressive even though plaques inform visitors that the place had been razed, looted, burned many times either by foreign invaders or internal revolts. The secret garden is off limits to wandering folks. It can be visited only in a guided tour. Since I was already there and had not much else to do, I took the tour even though visiting a snow-covered garden, secret or not, didn't promise to be a highly recommendable event.

The warmly dressed guide talked non-stop about where and how the princes used to eat, compose poetry, or watch sunsets while I almost froze to death. A group of young men in the tour, I think a Dutch, a Norwegian and a German, loudly discussed the pros and cons of what is more convenient, to sharpen dull chainsaw chains or, with the ridiculously low prices of Chinese made tools, to simply go and buy another saw.

I left the group who continued to visit more places where princes and princesses did this and that and went to warm up in a modern-day tea house. The hot Quince tea was so good, I had to also try the hot, fresh ginger tea. Cozy warm again I was not sorry about having missed out about what else the princes and princesses did hundreds of years ago in their garden.

Full to the gills with Kimshi - they must really love that stuff - no matter what meal I ordered, it came with that pungent cabbage, I fly late tonight to Bangkok.

I'll arrive there around 11PM. Because of that late arrival time I made an online hotel reservation for one night in a "centrally located hotel that offers airport pickup". I reasoned that arriving downtown Bangkok way after midnight, I'd never find open backpacker digs. Next morning I plan to transfer to my familiar Khao San district with many cheap and friendly hangouts, where women in high heels and men in shirts and neckties are rarer than purple dogs. 

So, if all goes to plan, the next report will be from more familiar haunts, Bangkok.

Bureaucrats in Paradise

Bangkok, January 10, 2012

As I see it, the only thing that has not changed in Bangkok since my first stay in 1960 is my total feel good about that city. What is often said about New York City, applies also to Bangkok, the only thing permanent, is change.

After a hepatitis quarantine in Calcutta, I ended up in Bangkok in 1960.

Even though a few previous times before I had made serious money on my, mostly hitchhiking round-the-world trip — in Beirut, Lebanon, as a belly dancer in a gay bar, in Damascus, Syria, by decorating, and arranging displays, in the German pavilion at an international trade fair, and in Izmir, Turkey, doing the same as in Damascus, again for the same German outfit. In Kabul, Afghanistan, I sold a car I had bought cheaply in Turkey, and in Delhi, India, I sold gold coins for a lot more than what I had paid for them in Turkey — I arrived in Bangkok, Thailand, totally broke. My travel kitty had evaporated in a Calcutta hospital where I stayed with hepatitis, a souvenir from northern India.

My home in Bangkok, where I stayed for about two months, was a shack on stilts reached by a narrow wooden causeway over a swamp.

On a previous visit to Bangkok, I tried to find that swamp and my old home. I thought I could simply walk to it from the imperial palace, as I had done daily about fifty-years before. Tall buildings now
stood where the swamp had been.

In the Bangkok of 1960 I stayed in a precursor of a backpacker guesthouses. In those days there were not yet backpacker, as we know them now. Today's version can now be found in every nook and cranny of our planet, The shack's inhabitants of 1960, all young kids, mostly from Europe, all with fascinating stories, were today's backpackers' trailblazers.

Brian, about my age, according to his story, an escapee from prestigious Eaton and overly demanding parents, served as my dictionary and encyclopedia while I read Kipling's Jungle Book, my first novel in English. He explained the meaning of the words I didn't know.

Besides globetrotting, mostly young misfits, also a few sailors livened up our shack. Some had jumped ship on purpose because they didn't want to leave Bangkok, others had missed the departure of their vessel, because they were roped in by Bangkok's Siren song.

A tall, hefty, red-haired Dutch man, claimed to be on the run from Japanese police, after being fingered for a Tokyo jewel heist. He was a flaming gay and always had a few young Thai boys in his entourage. He offered the boys as many sodas as they could guzzle and as much ice cream as they managed to slurp, while he petted and fondled them.

I made good money, selling silken temple fresco rubbings. As I had seen young apprentice Buddhist monks doing it in another temple,  probably as part of their Buddhist learning, I wedged black silk over carved stone frescos on temple walls. I did it in places where tourists congregated. Rubbing gold bronze on protruding features of the frescoes, created gold bronze copies of the frescos. My creations sold like hot cakes to tourists, and my fingers took on a permanent golden hue.

I was able to pay for my lodgings, for food, for lots of orange soda, and to rebuild my travel kitty for continuing the journey.

Unlike the boys around the Dutchman, I had health reasons for emptying untold numbers of orange soda cans. Before I left the hospital in Calcutta, the doctor directed me to drink as much soda as I could, because, he said,  together with glucose powder, it is the most effective hepatitis medication. It would prevent serious liver damage. He gave me, as a parting present from the hospital, where I had just spent all my money, a large can of glucose powder.

Even though the sale of my temple rubbings kept me supplied with sweet soda, I never made enough for answering the siren song of pretty girls who patrolled the streets in bicycle rickshaws offering their services with enticing calls and gestures.

Last night was the first time I stayed in a regular Bangkok hotel, one with four stars. In Seoul I had made reservation for it on account of my late arrival. Despite thoroughly enjoying a fancy bathroom, TV, air-conditioning, and a well-stocked mini bar, I was happy this morning to transfer to the backpacker ghetto of Kaho San, where I feel again like home away from home.

In New Merry V,  where I's already stayed in previous years, I have a room with a cot, little plastic table, chair, bathroom which is a toilet bowl in the shower stall, ceiling fan. I have to have my own towel, soap and toilet paper (which I can't keep by the toilet because, as mentioned, it is also the shower). When leaving the room I look it with my own padlock, the one from my luggage. Still, even though it is probably not really needed, I chain my luggage to the table. Instead of the 200$ in the other hotel, the present deluxe digs (deluxe because of en-suite bathroom) cost the princely sum of 12$ a night.

As for the backpacker ghetto, Banglamphu, also called for its main drag, Kaho San, wow!!! There must have been a worldwide backpacker population explosion. The few streets in the neighborhood that were populated by these young travelers and the Thai catering to all their needs, have multiplied by a factor of, whatever .... but a lot. There is nothing one can not buy, eat, drink, experience, hear or see. One sign says: One suit, one shirt, one silk tie, one clothes bag, one hanger, choice of Armani or Hugo Boss label, 50 €. I had a foot and neck massage on a well padded deck chair in the street. The masseur, a man!, was at true sadist and I must have been a masochist to let him maul me the way he did. His painful ministration didn't prevent me right after from having two bowls of noodle soup, 30 cents US per bowl. Sitting with a Singha, the local beer, in the street I noticed among the young milling crowds quite a few silver foxes, the people in my age group with graveyard-blond hair. They must be, I reasoned, like me, folk who had loved this place when they were young and now came back for a nostalgic encore.
One thing strangely absent with all the young people around are the smart phones. They actually sit with their beers, juices, coffee, tea, food in outdoor establishments and talk with each other instead of texting. Apparently their home country servers don't do their thing for them here.
There are now even more places that offer cheap flights to everywhere, visas to all places, even Hotdogstan - except to Myanmar. For that they can't serve you. Applicants for Myanmar visas need to present themselves to the embassy in person.
A valuable advice to parents with children that are still at an age when they create acida for their elders because of upcoming college expenses. Here, in the streets you can, besides ID for whatever you can think of, get a Harvard diploma for roughly two dollars.

Also, Bangkok is debunking a prevailing USA fear of black mold. With the recent floods many surfaces are covered with that stuff and nobody seems to care. At least, the population looks as healthy as any other I know.

Now I'll go to the Myanmar embassy.

Evening, same day.

Myanmar seems to be as desirable a place too go to as the US. The line of visa applicants in the street outside the embassy is as long as any in front of a US consulate anywhere in the world - or is it only the intractable bureaucracy of either place that is the same? At any rate, I arrived at the front of my line after about two hours, only to be given application forms. Filled out forms in hand, I eventually made it to the front of another line, where, having reached the window, just before handing in the forms, I saw another sign informing me that I also needed a photocopy of the application to hand in with the original. Thanks to a lenient bureaucrat behind the window, the lady made me a copy for 15 cents (US equivalent). I waited (on provided chairs) about an hour then was called to another window where I was told to come back two days later to pick up that desired entry in my passport.

Among a multitude of other information about myself, the application required me to list all my employments for the last ten years. I was tempted to write in that I was married during that time, thus fully employed, but then, afraid of other delays, I wrote "retired".

Imagine New York with Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, Bronx, all tied up together without any separations by rivers and harbor expanses. The layout is not a neatly divided grid of avenues and streets but a jumble of random angles of tiny alleys, regular streets, wide boulevards and elevated highways, sometimes several stories high. Then imagine an additional cool million of inhabitants. Then imagine a vast majority living in two or three story buildings.... You got Bangkok!

From where I am staying in the Khao San area, to the Myanmar embassy it is a roughly one-hour taxi ride (no worries about cost, I managed to negotiate a flat six-dollar fee, both for going and coming). Each taxi driver considered himself a wise guy who knows how to avoid the Bangkok traffic nightmare. Each squeezed through narrow alleys then zigzagged between other road users on wide boulevards between super modern cloud-scratching office towers. Instead of chocking vehicular congestion we got into chocking vegetable cart and street peddler congestion. I tried to guess by the sun in which direction we were heading. It was a wind rose heading, east, west, south, north, in wild succession. The second driver on the return trip, an old man with but one black tooth in the font of his mouth, tried to be a helpful tourist guide, pointing out all sights we passed. Problem is, he prattled everything non-stop in Thai, so I am none the wiser for it.

The short of this story is: Bangkok is huge.

Since I'll be here for another while (I also need a visa for China, the Indian I made in New York), you are condemned to get some more Bangkok dribble. Sorry, I promised exciting news of an exiting journey and now this!

Vivere pericolosamente - and reporting about it - will have to wait.

Visa Hassles — but I love them, keeps me longer in Bangkok

January 12, 2012

Looking around in New Merry's bar, it becomes obvious that this is a particularly popular hangout for the previously mentioned nostalgia-challenged Kaho San population. Unlike in the rest of the local backpacker ghetto crowd, a good portion of the New Merry guests are of the graveyard-blond set. That might be because this guesthouse is one of the older haunts - it looks it too - and thus a bunch of us oldies are repeat guests, trying to re-create the lusty times of yesteryear, a vastly different era in our lives. Some might have been here in their hippy years - quite a few of them have that, je ne sais quoi, former hippy aura, timid little signs of rebellion against standard rules, like wearing a necktie over a T-shirt, or a puny ponytail made of a few strands of thinning hair. Some of the women have multiple earrings per ear, hefty necklaces made of wood, shells with voluminous pendants engraved with Buddha images, evil eyes, clumps of turquoise framed in silver, all the stuff that used to be the rage in their days. Some also sport tattoos, now pretty much faded. Their designs are also smaller than today's ubiquitous body covering creations. Alas, those once free spirits got married, had kids, slaved away at jobs, had bosses, pay checks, car payments, parent-teacher meetings, soccer practice, dental and doctor appointments - some not only for the children but, as of late, also for their implants or dentures.

Many of them could easily stay in upscale, starred hotels, but now, as they have become grandparents and thicker around the waist, and as mentioned, men's hair gotten thinner - or non-existent and women's hair don't flow so freely and carefree anymore, they remember the good old times, the times before they were second hand, also rans. Retracing their youthful journeys, they are naturally drawn back to their old haunts like the New Merry.

Ooooops! Got emailed questions about certain colored light districts in Bangkok.

That is a delicate subject,
Since .....
My children might worry that their children, my grand children, who might read the blog, would get a wrong impression about their grandfather.

In some ways I'd like to say Doodle Pip!

.... but I refrain from telling anyway because I grant them their right of having their fully expected prudish opinions (I'd never hear the end of it if I didn't).

As for my blog photo woes, they still woe. After trying, experimenting, trying again, endless fidgeting, swearing, moaning, all to get pictures from the camera into the blog, I gave up and went to ask a pretty, very young (an absolute requirement for IT competency - I think it is a generational thing!) girl. She tried almost as long and intensively as I had and finally assured me that I am not a complete dolt. She couldn't do it either.
She sent me to Bangkok's digital shopping center, a one-acre per floor, five-story building with nothing but electronic stores, a gazillion miles away from New Merry V. Along the way in a taxi, once more new Bangkok vistas opened up. This time we crossed a few bridges.

Lo and behold, one of the Bangkok IT wizards in the IT heaven found out that New York's B&H IT wizard had sold me a bill of goods, a wrong connection cable. With that knowledge there is now less worry about my digital adroitness - at least in my mind!

So, if yours truly manages to figure out my new camera so that pictures don't turn out blurry (even though the camera is programmed to operate on fully automatic), there might be the occasional picture in the blog.

My extensive taxi rides bring up yet another New York analogy. If you were to take a taxi, two times up and two times down, let's say from West Broadway and West Huston to West 86th street, unless it was Sunday morning or any night at four AM when there is absolutely no traffic, the ride would always be the same, Westside highway to the closest exit of 86th street and vice versa. During off traffic times some driver might go down Broadway.

In Bangkok drivers play to a different tune. I've been up twice and down twice to the Myanmar embassy and got an incredibly diverse view of the city. The only invariable was omnipresent gilded temples. On every route we passed oodles of them.

As mentioned before, with every driver I needed to negotiate a price for the trip. If I offered less than the equivalent of six dollars, he invariable drove off. Returning from the Myanmar embassy the last time a driver pointed to the meter when I asked the price to start the negotiating process. Even though the traffic was heavier than on previous trips, the metered price was, instead of the regular six, a tad less than three dollars. I gave him a hefty tip to reward him for honesty.

The line for Myanmar visa pick up was enormous but it went fast. I now have the Burmese passport entry.

Back in the ghetto I went to one of the agents advertising visas for China. For roughly two-hundred-and-ten dollars, plus a plane ticket to and from the country, plus hotel reservations in China I could have the visa in three days, she said.

Bummer! Whichever route I plan to take, none would involve an airplane. A hotel reservation for a certain day, with my intended way to travel, is a joke. The agent assured me I would not have to take the flight nor did I have to go to the reserved hotel. As for paying these things, they are only pro-forma, I'd only pay a handling fee. It shows there are many ways of skinning a cat.

One instance in my travels tells me there is something to the visa proposition here. When we planned to get into Tibet illegally by crossing over the Himalayas in an uninhabited region, at an uncontrolled border, also the source of Brahmaputra, we got such a Chinese visa with pro-forma travel arrangement from Kathmandu. It helped a lot when the Chinese authorities caught up with us in the wilds of Tibet without having checked into the country.

The difference now is that I don't know if I'll end up in India or in China. The original intended route ends up in India.

I'll soon post my decision. Stay tuned (if you care to know!)

Bangkok Hum-Drum

January 20, 2012

I just made some birds homeless! Ate their nests.

The following is copied from a text — in English(!) — on bird's nest package for sale:

The Thai bird's nests are extraordinary natural product that healers of the old school, and physicians have proved and endorsed that they are composed of many highly useful substances which nourish the lungs, kidneys, heart, stomach, and other internal organs, as well as heal the "excessive heat in the intestines, and other internal organs" relieve cough and phlegm, and regulate the blood circulation, the physical condition would be greatly rejuvenated with youthful vigor and freshness; it also helps to brighten mental faculties and give more radiance to the complexion.


First soak the shredded clean-dry bird's nest in the clean cool water for one hour to allow it to soften and swell, then take the bird's nest out and put it into a steaming vessel for stewing on a low fire for two hours. When the bird's nest becomes jelly like and tender, add sugar as required and keep it on the fire for a little while, then you will have the above mentioned priceless delicious food.
Alter natively (!) chicken soup stock can be used to make a very delicious bird's nest soup.

Now you know it too. I got this description in the bird's nest store/restaurant. Even though it is not specifically mentioned, it (the soup) looks like they cleaned out the bird poop before cooking up the nests. I never had it before and it tastes like nothing, no particular flavor, consistency, aroma, in short, nothing to write home about (and here I am doing it!)

But, short of simply becoming immortal, after having eaten that elixir of gods - may come what may - I'll never, ever get sick.

For the tidy sum (here in Bangkok, that is a lot for food!) of nine dollars I got a tiny bowl full (about the size of a small tea cup) of that mystery food. It was served with a raw egg, a couple of ginkgo berries, a little pitcher of honey and a bowl of ginseng tea.

Along the walls stood glass jars with dried bird's nests. Prices written on the jars ranged from an equivalent of 90 dollars to 900 dollars. I had no idea if that was per weight or by nest. The owner told me. It is for 38 grams (1.34 ounces). So, 1.34 ounces of a better quality bird's nest can put you back 900 dollars. The darker the nest were, the higher the price (does that mean the expensive ones are less washed?)

That magic potion, however, didn't prevent me from getting blisters on my feet. I walked about five hours in my new rubber flip-flops. It was totally worth it.

I have been to Bangkok's Chinatown before and it never looked even vaguely like that. Just like the Khao San backpacker ghetto, Chinatown has bulged and is busting in its seams. Either vastly more Chinese came here or, the ones already here had babies like crazy. The place is more densely populated than an anthill is anted, antelated(?). They sell authentic-looking AK-47 but they shoot only gas-powered BBs. There are more flip-flops on display than there are people on the planet able to wear them. Everything is in such an excess, the sight might make you dizzy. Way more than 90% of the stuff is simply useless junk, stuff that nobody ever needs, stuff one buys for presents, on impulse, or because of a shopaholic affliction. Once bought it gets put away, maybe dusted a few times, then discarded. Since two wrongs don't make one right it is no excuse that we in the US, or generally the "developed world" share the same idiotic habits.

I wonder how we, in the States or in Europe, are going to deal with the frightening phenomena of total gridlock and congestion as I see here. Bangkok's Chinatown could serve as a laboratory. The good news is, from the looks of it, they take it in stride. There are plenty of smiles even on people's faces whose bodies are about to be crushed. In areas of wall-wall humanity deliveries to stores still need to be made - and they are. It is inexplicable to me how not lots of feet, or at least toes, get crushed as pick-up trucks, and motorcycles with improbable loads squeeze through the mass of humanity.

A day later:

Last night I went people watching on one or Khao SAN's main drags, an activity I love almost everywhere, even in Walmart (if that didn't involve having to actually go there!) Not so long ago, a European with a smattering of English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Scandinavian - I mean just recognizing them by the sound would be enough - could have felt like a homebody anywhere international travelers congregated.

Fugetaboutit now!

The whole world is on the move. The former xenophobic Soviet Republic's masses haven been unleashed. Nationals of countries where obtaining simple sustenance took all their time and effort, have now become free to visit other shores. A place like Khao San could serve as an illustration of the biblical Tower of Babylon - with the saving grace that all in the milling crowd have a smattering knowledge of the international lingua franca, English. Maybe there is a benevolent god after all because the one who created the havoc in Babylon didn't offer that handy service.

Over a couple of bottles of Singha (the Thai beer that goes: One Sing-ha, two Sing-ha-ha, three Sing -ha-ha-ha!) I got into interesting conversations, one with an official of the UN, a Dutchman, stationed in Bangkok since seven years. What a job! I think he has just been forgotten by his superiors because he didn't seem to have much of an idea about what his duties were. At least he doesn't do any harm to anyone (according to him, they at the UN, not he, were working behind the scene for improving the Burmese junta's human rights record!). Why not live in Burma for that? I thought. But then, of course, Bangkok is much more pleasant than the new capital the (former) Burmese bozos had themselves built in the middle of nowhere, a place difficult to reach by the rest, and maybe restless, of the population - thus a place with a marked absence of interesting people.

The German I met later was much more interesting. A professional gemologist gem buyer, about sixty-years old, he has roamed the gem producing regions of northern Pakistan, Shri-Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos, mostly as a backpacker, hence his presence in Khao San, in search of private, thus mostly illegal, miners.

The stories! We both managed to impress each other with recounting of our respective exploits on the planet. We ended up with a lot of ha-ha-ha. At a dollar a bottle, how could one go wrong.

I learned an interesting factoid about natural versus manufactured gem stones. For most of his buying journeys he carried a little portable laboratory; spectrometer, chemicals, microscope etc. etc. I didn't recognize even the names of some of the tools he described but some of what they unveiled fascinated me.

The difference between a manufactured gem and a natural one is in the impurities. The natural ones have blemishes, inclusions of other materials that impede brilliance, clarity, refraction or, what have you! The manufactured ones, even though, with the same chemical composition, are pure.

"Thus worthless, or worth less?" I asked.
"Yeap," he said with a sheepish grin.
"Wasn't it once the purer the better?" I said.
"Yeahhhh," he said.

This is yet another illustration of man's (woman's) gullibility, snobbism, or simply silliness? If it is rare it is worth more, or we desire it more, even if it is of inferior quality, less tasty, or less beautiful, or weaker, than readily available substitutes, or, in some cases even injurious; think bird's nests, shark fins, caviar, Limburger cheese, or, hitting the head with a hammer.

As for the before mentioned people watching, I keep being mesmerized. With Sing-ha-ha-ha I sit and stare at the great show of a never ending procession.

Two men, both tall and hefty, with shaven heads and reflecting sunglasses, one in a jungle green singlet that left his beefy, tattooed arms exposed, with grim features and brusque gestures, looked exactly as one would expect rough mercenaries to look like. They met a third, punched fists and started to talk. After a while one made the sign with his straight hand of slitting a throat, the two others repeated the gesture, they punched fists again, one left and the two went to a table across the ally from me and ordered food. As they sat on the tiny plastic stools both their spread legs start whipping vigorously. The table belongs to a street food seller that advertises vegetarian. One got an orange soda, the other a bottle of water. While they waited for their vegetarian meal, the bigger one got up from his tiny stool, rummaged in a garbage can, retrieved a styrofoam bowl, filled it with water from his bottle and brought it to one of the stray dogs in the ally.

Many of the passing foreign woman are achingly beautiful in their special exotic Khao San outfits, stuff few might wear on their home front. Tattoos these days are covering whole limbs and torsos. Many entwined pairs of women stroll by. It seems men with men have their own cruising grounds somewhere else, but transvestites add interesting colors to the mix. One, a really big guy with an Arnold Schwarzenegger upper body, veiled in pastel colored gossamer shrouds that left spandex shorts exposed tripled by in high heel stilettos. I wondered where he might have gotten his enormous sized lady's shoes.

It is strange to see the before mentioned nostalgia elders lugging bulging backpacks in their search for accommodations. Some, with their tottering gait, look like you might want to help them across the street even if they carried nothing. More so than their younger counterparts, they seem to have a permanent grin plastered to their faces.

Markedly absent in the passing mix are Thais. Except for the occasional man or woman hurrying by on the way home from their cooking, serving or massaging jobs, they are missing while only a short block away, on Phra Athit, a street parallel to my ally, many young Thais are lined up together with the foreigners for the inexpensive, but delicious noodle soups.

I had lunch today at a restaurant about a half hour away from the ghetto. I remember it from former visits for having the best roast duck. It offered also shark fin soup on the menu. After my malevolence with wild birds I stayed with duck.

Staying in Thailand for any length of time without having a massage would be like hanging out at Munich's Oktoberfest without drinking beer. The Khao San region is full of advertisements; foot, neck, head, whole body oil, or just the regular full body Thai massage. On my wanderings I often passed a hole in the wall with an advertisement for massage in the garden. Through the hole I saw a white pebbled path with black stepping stones, sort of like a Japanese rock garden, going through the building. Since I never was a fan of having my body kneaded I went there mostly out of curiosity; to find out what that garden in the middle of the city was all about. I opted for the full body Thai, even though I know from previous experiences that it is nothing short of torture.

The garden was beautiful, all white river stones with slate slab walks between potted plants. Baldachine-like tents, with massage tables inside, stood about. In a dressing room I put on a supplied lime green, loose fitting gown and then was led to a table - and that is when hell started.

A hefty, elderly woman tried to rip off my foot from my leg. Of course I would not let on that it hurt. I now realize this is a wrong reaction. The masseuse has to know she is getting to the body and if you don't let her know, yes, I feel it big time, she just tries harder. Hard and harder she tried, and more and more it hurt. I closed my eye tightly, concentrating on suffering in silence, not to appear like a wimp. I had requested the one hour treatment instead of the recommended two hour job. That was the only bright thought I had while being subjected to kneading, kneeing, elbowing and being walked/stomped around on. They could save a lot of man(woman)power by simply strapping customers on the rack then tightening the vices.

When it was over I was happy to notice I could still walk - sort of. Singha turned out to be a quick remedy.

Another, sort of massage, is also offered all over the place. Fish Treatment, they call it. When walking past one of those places with large, aquarium-like tanks full of little fish, I heard piercing screams. A young woman had just put her feet into one of the tanks and the sensation of the fish starting it nibble on her skin prompted the outburst.

Now, with the world's disgust about pig and chicken shit fed fish from Asian fish farms one can add to the list of local fish food - backpacker callouses.

I expect to have the Chinese visa by Tuesday evening, so, if all goes as planned, next Wednesday I'll be in Burma where the real trip begins.

Oh, I just remember another tidbit, a remarkable sight in Chinatown's Wat Traimit. The Buddha in that shrine is made of solid gold, 5.5 metric tons of it. Google tells me that 5.5 metric tons are 194,006.79 ounces. At almost 2,000 dollars an ounce that makes it a pretty valuable idol. Bill Gates, if he used up all his loot, could barely afford a hundred of them.

Buddha's Contest with other Gods

February 2, 2012

Five AM in my comfortable, charming new Pagan guesthouse I was torn from slumber by the muezzin from the local mosque who belted out his amplified morning call to prayer. Just when he really got into the swing of things the competition started up also. At first I thought it was Buddhist chants, also animating for prayer, but after a while when it sounded clearly like Burmese rap and a Myanmar ding-a-ling versions of western Schmaltz, it became pretty obvious that was just a means of drowning out the Islamic competition in Bagan, the bastion of Burmese Buddhism.
The above described "Buddha's contest with other gods" was pure conjecture on my part. It seemed like the one and only explanation for the early morning cacophony, yet, for that to be true it would have to be repeated every morning. Muezzins don't do their thing only from time to time. When the next morning all was quiet, except for the bird's twittering, I had to search for new answers.
The lady at reception said it was a wedding.
"At five AM?"
"Yes," she said.
No matter how much I tried to understand, her English just wasn't good enough for an explanation. It sounded like she said that everybody starts cooking and every group has their own music. Amplified music??? Since that doesn't make much sense I'll have to plead ignorance. All I know now is; weddings, at least in the Bagan region of Myanmar, begin at five AM with a holly racket.

The Lonely Planet writes about four-thousand-four-hundred pagodas, stupas, shrines and Buddha figures in Bagan. It illustrates its enormity perfectly with the illustration: Gather all of Europe's medieval cathedrals onto Manhattan island and throw in a whole lot more for good measure, and you'll start to get a sense of the ambition of the temple-filled plains of Bagan.
The driver of the horse and buggy I'd hired to drive me around the major ones, claims there are over five-thousand. To explain the discrepancy, it probably matters how you count; there are humongous ones, medium ones and rather small ones, so the numbers might be a function of what size Buddha statue is included in the count. To a proper Buddhist, it seems, size matters a big deal. The driver would point out the tallest, the second tallest, the most voluminous, the oldest, the most destroyed and rebuilt, the richest. Nothing but superlative is good enough for glorifying Buddha. Trinket and souvenir sellers, almost exclusively cute young girls with faces painted in sandalwood swirls, self-appoint themselves as guides at individual sites so that after the viewing you would be compelled to buy stuff at their stand. According to them, whatever godly structure they had chosen as their place of business, is in some way the most, the biggest, the tallest, the shiniest, the most glorious, the most important or oldest.
With my sceptic approach to most things religious, I soon had enough of that farce but the driver cum cicerone wouldn't have any of it. "Next Buddha has different hand position, very important for .... ", because of my lack of interest, I have absolutely no recollection what the supposed importance of those hand positions are, even though it was amply explained, not only by my driver, but also the sandalwood-faced souvenir seller girls.
There came a short break in my Buddha, pagoda, stupa, temple and shrine visiting marathon. We stopped at a lacquerware production shop. It was really cool to see how they make those delicate vessels. The basic form of the most elaborate ones is first intricately woven from horse hair then, layer upon layer of lacquer is applied till that lustrous lacquer ware-look is achieved. They get cured in a large subterranean space because the process requires a precise amount of humidity. Artists engrave some of the finished ones with intricate traditional designs.

At dinner, together with a curious, previous, acquaintance we met a municipal works manager from Montreal. "There is no snow to remove so I can travel," he said. The other, the previous acquaintance, is a curious relationship because of incredible coincidences in our getting to know each other. In the hotel I eventually found after my long quest for lodging in Yangon, he was at the reception same time as I, for the same reason. We laughed about the difficult searches. When informed there were two rooms available without windows, he had the nerve to insist on one where he could tell if it was day or night. In the end, with no other options, he also settled for a windowless one. In Mandalay, a week later, he also showed up at the place where I stayed. A laugh and, "nice to see you again, the rooms here have windows," was as far as our conversation went. Days later, after changing from "Bates Motel" in Bagan, while checking in to the one I am in now, he showed up at the reception, also looking for a room. That was enough of an introduction, so now we have dinner together. He is from British Guiana, of Chinese descent, British nationality, and works as an English proficiency test examiner in south China.
The Montreal municipal works manager, the English proficiency test examiner in China and yours truly decided to share a taxi to go next day to Mount Popa, about an hour's drive from Bagan.
Mount Popa is an old volcanic outcropping, sort of like a giant, 700-feet tall, tree stump amidst gentle rolling hills. Droves of, mostly Burmese, pilgrims scramble, shuffle, wheeze, and groan up the endless, sometimes very steep steps to the top where, you guessed right, there is a huge temple/shrine/pagoda. Even though there are many Buddha figures, this shrine is dedicated mostly to nat worship, the animist spirits of the netherworld, forests and caves. Very old people, if they are too frail to do it under their own steam, get wrapped in a bag that hangs from a pole that rests on two young men's shoulders. They get carried to the top, presumably to sidle on the good side of those spirits whom they expect to meet soon in the next world - by bribing them with generous donations
Back in Bagan, the three of us had a traditional dinner in a local Burmese restaurant. By the time they'd finished laying it out, thirty-one food-filled bowls, large and small, covered the table. The variety of food was so large that, even if some of the dishes didn't exactly make every palate rejoice, and every heart sing, we all got our fill and when we were done there was so much left over, the display looked like we'd just been freshly served. It cost four dollars per person.
Today, while my two Mount Popa companions went for yet more pagoda inspections, I rented a bicycle, went to the market, then out into Bagan's rural surroundings - and got hopelessly lost. I didn't have a map of the region, but, even if I did, that would probably been of no use. The narrow, winding, sandy paths I followed were surely not marked on any map. The farmers I encountered didn't know a word in English - and my Burmese is way below limited, that is, totally non-existent. Besides, even if I could ask someone, I had no idea how to pronounce the name of the hotel. Its English spelling is Aunsminsalar, opposite Swezigon Pagoda. Eventually I found the river and tried to follow it in the direction of town which I knew is, if not exactly on the downriver shore, at least nearby. The riverbank above the high-water line is a total disgusting dump which meant it couldn't be far from town. It was impossible to navigate by bike in that mess (and I had absolutely no desire to walk through it in my flip-flops). So, keeping the river to my right, the bicycle and I bushwhacked inland towards where I thought was town.
With my previous day's extensive Buddha, temple and shrine visits I must have gained some heavenly Browny points because I stumbled on a large parking lot full of tourist busses and private cars. It belonged to a fancy restaurant overlooking the river. Of course I became one of the guests. It was the most expensive meal since my arrival in Myanmar, north of five dollars. The clientele in that restaurant topped all the previous observations about elderly travelers. A long table was occupied by a bus load of people that looked like they were on their last fling before having to return to the hospice. I noticed how most wore sneakers way too large for their feet (to get in and out without bending and lacing?)
Tomorrow I'll take a bus to Mandalay to meet up with Thar to go to his native village for that monk initiation ceremony celebration. I am very much looking forward to that - and it helps biding time 'til February 8.

Tomorrow has come. It is February 2 and I am already back in Mandalay.

If Buddha only knew! ....
Had the all-knowing, compassionate Buddha foreseen the coming of plastic bags, plastic bottles, styrofoam containers, plasticized and parafin-coated cartons, he would surely have preached against littering, especially of non-decomposing, non-biodegradable rubbish. Since he didn't, the country of his most devoted disciples, Myanmar, would be a champion contender if there ever was a world-wide competition for the most littered place on earth. It is rare to see rubbish in front of houses, it is simply swept to the side. With obviously no municipal refuse pick up, it just accumulates there in ever growing piles. With the coming of more "civilization" (more plastic wrapped goods), unless there will be serious changes, the country is eventually going to drown in its modern day filth.
The 180 km (about 120 mi) Bagan - Mandalay road is a rutted, dusty dirt track. On parts when it went relatively smoothly it was like driving on corrugated surface, when it went rough the surface was egg cartons shaped. The journey took almost seven hours, which means we averaged barely 20 miles per hour (30 Stundenkilometer).
Benevolent Buddha was very kind in directing me to a bus that, even though seats and legroom were barely large enough to accommodate small Burmese, never carried more passenger than there were seats. The stack of little stools for sitting in isles and the straps for straphangers were never used.
The ride was so bumpy, the driver's helper, apparently trained to see the early signs, dashed up and down the isle dispensing plastic barf bags from a bundle strapped to his waist. When full, they were chucked out to add to the country's pervasive plastic blossom landscaping.
Along they way we saw armies of ladies in straw hats, some hand-sorting different sized gravel from huge rock piles and others hauling straw baskets full of tarred gravel to fill in potholes by hand (Patty cake, patty cake .... Mandalay version).
On the whole journey, 'til shortly before Mandalay I saw not one gas station. Instead there were numerous stands with shelves full of old plastic water bottles filled with gasoline, the rural version of gas dispensing.
One of the reasons for the bumpy ride must have been the fact that we were not over full like some of the other busses we passed. Those, apart from layers of people inside, also had stacks of them on the roof - together with piles of luggage. Had we been heavier, the ride would surely have been smoother because the weight might have depressed the rock-hard springs a bit more. At the bus station, before leaving, I photographed the spring package under a passenger pick up. Fifteen blades!
My same size, same brand, Toyota, pickup in Vermont has either three or four. It rides relatively smoothly, but those springs would never support transporting twenty people, all together with huge loads of luggage. No need for the Burmese spring arrangement in Vermont though, because real, red-blooded Americans would never agree to be thus packed like sardines in a can even if it was for something like the only available transport to get to their own wedding.
The only western travelers on the bus were yours truly and another Swiss, a middle aged man from Lausanne. He travels with his friend, a stunningly beautiful Thai girl. That brings me to my:
Ode to Nescafé.
At a mud and straw rest stop we ordered coffee. The darkish, grayish, brownish, warmish liquid in a cup neither looked, nor tasted, nor smelled like any coffee I'd ever been exposed to. I am not particular but there was no way for me to drink that without a shudder. The Swiss, a former researcher with Nestlé, asked out of the blue if they had Nescafé. Lo and behold, a kid brought packages of that life saving three-in-one stuff (three-in-one means the package contains instant coffee, sugar and milk powder). I am at a loss for words to describe how good that elixir felt on my tongue.
During the rough ride I was afraid the spine would turn to mush, but the contrary was true. As in an intensive massage, or with a chiropractor session, everything inside the body got re-arranged - apparently for the better. On arrival in Mandalay, the only slight discomfort was in my kneecaps. The whole trip they had been pounding on the iron backing of the seat in front of me. Avoiding that contact would have raised hell with my tailbone because across the back of my seat passed an iron bar. If I moved my butt back far into the seat, the knees would have been free, but with my tail I'd then sit on an iron bar during that rough ride. If choosing that option, I might not have been able to walk anymore by the time we reached Mandalay.
Now I am back in the hotel where the staff had witnessed the adulations I received from Thar and his wife before I left for Bagan. They must think I really someone special because now they even bow when they hand me the room key.

A little note about spelling.
You might have noticed that sometimes I spelled a place's name differently from entry to entry. I am not alone. Since all are phonetic transcriptions of Burmese words that are written in a different script, variations are aplenty. In books, on signs, everywhere one can find different spellings because different transcribers interpret it differently. With Thar's doctor son in Bagan, under his guidance over dinner, I tried to properly pronounce his name. From the way it sounds, I would now write it as: Pfehjunio.
Tomorrow I'll ask Thar how they write it.
Now I know!
The real spelling is: BHYONYUNT.

Phnom Penh, a Whitewash of History

February 29, 2012

The first impression was correct, Phnom Penh has become a playground for international bon-vivants, well-dressed first-class hotel dwellers, globetrotters and backpackers and everything in between. There are accommodations, eateries, watering holes aplenty, for each kind.

I am loving it even though it rides roughshod over the waistline I'd hoped to reduce in this "forlorn backwater" of my memories.

Although near the end of the dry season, Phnom Penh days are sweltering hot and dripping humid. It looks like I am not alone in seeking a midday refuge in an air conditioned or fanned room. Around that time the streets become deserted. As if popping out of hibernation, masses of humanity re-emerge from their hidden daytime shelters as soon as the sun drops behind the haze in the west.

Just as it was when I thought catching up a bit with world news was a possibility in Rangoon, when CNN, and other news channels, blabbed about nothing besides the important life achievements of Witney Houston, I got duped again. My cheap Phnom Penh digs, besides air-conditioning, also had a little TV. When checking in, they assured me CNN was available - and it was - but with a bummer discovery. This time Afghanistan, Syria, Egypt, Republican primaries, record cold spell in Europe and what Berlusconi's girlfriend had for breakfast, all of it was replaced by the Red Carpet parade of "glitterati" making their way to the Academy Award ceremonies. I watched for a while and came to a conclusion: Most of the Cambodian women who try to entice you into their restaurant for a two-dollar dinner look infinitely better with their winning smiles than the dolled up, fake, modified, transformed, "Babes" and "Dudes" who strut the red carpet on the way in to the Academy Awards ceremony.

Day before yesterday I picked up a (pirated, photocopied) book from a street seller, FIRST THEY KILLED MY FATHER, A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers. By Loung Ung.

That story would definitively qualify better for having the title of my blog HITTING THE HEAD WITH A HAMMER than my actual blog. While reading it, in my air-conditioned room (the Academy Awards still dominated the TV news!), it felt like exposure to constant head hammering, in this case Cambodian heads. It tells the story of one family under the unspeakable brutality of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge.

I chose the blog title to facetiously illustrate how good it feels when one stops hammering, but under Pol Pot's reign, for the countless people who had their heads bashed in with hammers, there was no such relief, they were dead, about two million of them, out of a population of a little over ten million.
On my last visit to Phnom Penh, about eighteen-years(?) ago, I visited the Killing Fields and the S-21 prison torture headquarters where daily about a hundred people got bludgeoned to death. It was a shocker then but since the town in those days had already put you into a mood of doom, with it's dark, forlorn alleys, and general depressing allure, the impact was not as great a contrast as reading the book now, in comfort during the midday heat, knowing full-well in the evening you can go out to hoot it up and be merry - options joyfully offered by the people who had endured the Khmer Rouge horrors.

I got an invitation to spend time in a village yet two reasons kept me from accepting.

Life out in the country, as described in the book, was so depressing, I didn't want to be reminded, but ... in reality there was another, more important reason why I declined.

Teth, a very beautiful, twenty-nine-year old woman I got to know rather well during my six-day stay in Phnom Penh, was married in her village when she was twenty. Her husband, ten month after the wedding, died in an accident, almost the same day as her daughter was born. When I asked how her husband had died, she started to cry. Of course, under the circumstances I didn't pursue the question. I'd read in the Cambodia Journal, a small English newspaper I bought from a pint-sized newspaper boy in the street, that this year already eleven people, mostly farmers, had died from stepping on land mines. After her husband's death Teth tried to make a go as a widow with a young child, but that was difficult in her rural village.

She left her daughter with her mother and came to the city, "to make enough money to assure a good education for my child," she said.

Right away she started taking English lesson. To finance her living and school expenses she worked as a masseuse, Khmer massage that has not much similarity with the — probably more lucrative — massage  with "happy ending" available all over southeast Asia. While we strolled in the market early one morning, it turned out she knows the English names of all the vegetables, fruits and meats, a good indication that her English comes from a school where one learns these kinds of words as opposed to the chit-chat girls pick up from working in bars. For her lodging, she pays thirty-dollars a month and the school costs a grand total of three-hundred a year.

After the total feel-good experience in Mandalay, where a lousy thousand dollars from me helped in creating a doctor, a dentist, a computer programmer and an electrical engineer! I paid her tuition for the year. She had been paying month by month.

As in Mandalay, the show of gratitude (the Mandalay version is described in a former posting) was totally embarrassing. She cried, prayed and bowed to me, and prayed and bowed again, and again. Whether in a restaurant or in a Tuck-Tuck, my arm that happens to be next to her gets totally over-massaged. When we eat in restaurants together, she requests hot water to clean my eating utensils. She prepares and improves the meals with condiments and supplied extras. She keeps crying and laughing.

Yesterday her younger sister, a real farm girl with rough, calloused hands, came to visit her in Phnom Penh. Even at universally known words, like "thank you", she looks to her sister to find out what I said.

Teth invited me to come with them to the village for a few days. With what looked more and more like infatuation, even though born from gratitude, I was reluctant to encourage that — a beautiful young woman with a potentially fulfilling future and me, an old man, me — just didn't seem right. I gave her my e-mail address and said I had to leave Phnom Penh. She cried a little. Were I to stay longer, my inevitable departure would become more difficult.

I booked a bus ride to Siem Reap. A Canadian backpacker couple from Calgary, said Siem Reap looked now like a hippy heaven blended with a free-for-all wild west town and Disney World. Twelve years ago, at me last visit, Siem Reap, like Phnom Penh, was a rather quiet backwater.

The bus journey, even though mostly through a beautiful, emerald green rice paddy landscape, interspersed by Lotus ponds, fish farms, mango groves, lush vegetable plots, and cow pastures, was depressing. The whole country side is decorated with plastic bags, styrofoam containers, and, and, and ... whatever else should, in the best case,  be seen only in a garbage dump.

I was in Siem Reap, ages ago with Emilie. From there we took a boat across Tonlé Sap lake and, past floating villages and countless fishermen, floated down on the Tonlé Sap River to Phnom Penh. Tonlé lake and Tonlé river are reputed to be the world's most productive fresh water fish habitats.
The reason lays in a rare configuration. Tonlé Sap River, along with the Casiciares in southeastern Venezuela, are two planetary abnormalities. Both rivers flow both ways, depending on which end the water level is higher. During dry season, Tonlé Sap river leads out of Tonlé Sap lake into the Mekong. During rainy season the Mekong water level rises tremendously and thus reverses the flow of Tonlé Sap which fills up the lake, like a huge reservoir. That river water is very rich in nutrients.
The Casiciares is a river way out in the Amazon jungle between the upper reaches of the Rio Negro (Brazil, Columbia, Venezuela) and the Orinoco (Venezuela). The Casiciares flows east to west when the Orinoco is higher and west to east when the Rio Negro carries more water.
Now I have done both of them, in both cases from West to East.

Observations / vignettes.

In Phnom Penh, kids with heavy baskets, full of books, DVD (pirated stuff), newspapers and trinkets, ply the streets, the river promenade, cafés, bars and restaurants, trying to sell their wares. Some, to judge by the looks barely out of kindergarten, have incredible language skills. They usually try their sales pitch in English, when they get no response they switch to French, German, Spanish, or Italian. On people with an oriental appearance they try Japanese, Korean and Chinese.

That reminds me of my first encounter with English words. It was: "Chewing gum, please."

After the war American GIs came to Switzerland for R&R. I would hang out where they could be found; in the streets, the Limmat river promenade, cafés and restaurants. I hunted and pestered them just as the Phnom Penh kids did with me. I tugged at their pants and pleaded: "Chewing gum please".

Chewing gum, the American invention, in those days was the coolest thing to possess. A big wad in your mouth, even if it was days old and had absolutely no more flavor, could be traded for a day in exchange for a hokey stick, a bike or whatever one wanted from some chewing gum-less kid. A strict rule was that no food or drink could be in the mouth while the borrowed wad was being masticated.

In the US a large portion of heavy construction machinery have names like KOMATSU, VOLVO, names of foreign brands. Here in south-east Asia, much closer to Japan than the US, I see almost exclusively Caterpillar machines. What gives?

On the bus I had to (silently) commiserate with an Austrian woman. The man she was with, talked with no interruption, but with a heavy Austrian accent. That prattle went on the whole six hours of the bus ride. Sometimes he forgot to breathe 'til, like a victim of Hypoxia, he had to desperately gulp for air. The subject of his talk was everything, absolutely everything, as long as it was banal. He was one of these people who know absolutely everything about everything and lets the world around him know about it.

I resisted an attempt to strangle him but the woman with him seemed to listen.

Siem Reap.

Last night I ran into a couple from Oregon who had been on the boat from Saigon to Phnom Penh.

First time in Siem Reap, they didn't suffer the same shock as I at the sight of that town. Similar to the bazar the foot of the mountain below the other world famous historical site, Machu Picchu, acres upon acres of souvenir stalls are crowded into, what it is advertised in giant blinking neon signs: DAY MARKET and NIGHT MARKET. They both look the same and both were open day and night. One is on the left side of the river and the other on the right side. Quaint bridges connect the two as if there might be a chance that a potential customer couldn't find what he/she was looking for in either one of them. Future dust collectors (read souvenirs) in Europe, Japan, Korea, China, Singapore, Malaysia, North, Central and South America, are offered in multiples of thousands.

There are streets with wall-to-wall bars and restaurants, one is called Pub and Bar street? There is even a traffic barrier on both ends of the street so that tuck-tucks and motorcycle taxi drivers won't interfere with the masses of drinking, eating and general merry-making of international tourists. Not all offer local Cambodian fare. You get to choose specialities from across the globe, from pizza, over sushi, hot dogs, fish and chips and Röschti to borscht to the ubiquitous Southeast Asian noodle soups. Beautiful local girls smile and coo at you and try to pull you in wherever you pass — for drink, happy hour, "we serve Margarita, Sunrise, Piña Colada, Mojito, half price", for food, "Khmer, Italian, Chinese, French, Barbecue", for massage, "very happy", for fish that nibble on your feet, for buying souvenirs.

Even though in many ways similar to the Khao San area in Banglamphu, Bangkok's backpacker and budget traveler ghetto, a place I really like (as described in earlier posts), this tourist Mecca here in Siem Reap is over the top. It seems like a parody for "cater to tourist excess". Also, since Siem Reap is like a small village compared to Bangkok, the "fancy" people from the multi-star hotels, that also abound in this town, mingle with the backpacker riffraff. Table with pink Safari outfit clad, white tennis garb clothed, tasseled loafers on feet and coiffed hairdos on heads, stand among tables with  — mostly younger — groups. Those sport tattoos, headbands, beards and beads, are wrapped in rumpled, loose fitting, easy-to-wash outfits. There is also a groups of bright blue eyed and so-blond-it-almost-looks-white-haired Scandinavian students. Asian restaurants have mostly Caucasian guests while Asians munch on Pizzas, Spaghetti and Wurst.

Jayavarman II, the Devaraja (god-king), when he started building Angkor Watt in 802 AD, could never have guessed what a gold mine he created for a future Cambodia. Even though I don't plan to visit the ruins of Angkor Watt again — done that years ago — I came to Siem Reap because it is the staging town for visits to the famous of Angkor Watt. With what I had heard about the town's transformation,  my curiosity drew me here.

Food and drink is good, people are friendly — if you manage to see a locals who is not a tuck-tuck or motorcycle taxi drivers, or shopkeepers, or restaurant and bar employees, or masseuses, or hotel receptionists.

Last time we came to Siem Reap on the back of a pickup truck from Thailand. For a long stretch the truck drove far off the road. "There are still mines on and near the road," was the explanation. Our bones bones got shaken out of our bodies when we rumpled over the uneven terrain of eastern Cambodia. I sat on one of the truck's spare tires. I remember thinking how nice it would be if it was less inflated.

Now the town is full of pictures advertising super fancy buses that bring you to Bangkok - and everywhere else you might want to go — in apparent comfort. I"ll ride on one because from Bangkok it is easy to get to almost anywhere on the planet. Maybe I'll end up laying on a tropical beach before getting to cold Europe, to New York and to Vermont.