Friday, January 27, 2006

Phnom Penh movers and shakers

With no public transport in Phnom Penh, a range of interesting modes of moving have popped up in this crazy city. In fact there is never any problem going anywhere you want. Just step into hotel reception and before you can take a further step the guy at reception asks if you need a tuk tuk. Step outside and you'll be greeted by at least 8 guys all shouting motorbike at the same time. By the time you walk to your restaurant for brekky, you'll have been propositioned a least 35 times. Perhaps the most popular is the lift on the back of the moped. This gets very interesting when you're balancing a backpack on your back, holding onto your daypack in front and hoping the guy doesnt pull out too quickly, which of course he does. The limit for passengers is 6 although we did see some people breaking this rule. One of the fun things about the moped is the mid traffic conversation, conducted at high speed. Up next is the Moto remorque. This is like a cruising loungechair and has to be the most advanced form of transport I have come across. With a warm breeze in your hair you can casually chat to your companion in the opposite chair. The ubiquitous cycle pedicab also has an interesting design accessory being that you the passenger get to ride out front, usually staring the ongoing traffic down in the process. U turns here consist of making a turn directly into oncoming traffic whose responsibility it is too swerve. The great thing about these pedicabs is the drivers who speak no english and have absolutely no idea where they are going. They are also newcomers to reading maps. Their strategy seems to be to agree to everything the foreigner says and get him into your pedicab and start cycling. Should you fail to give directions they will just continue cycling in whatever direction they started and behave as if they've just landed in Phnom Penh from Mars. Of course should any of these methods of transport prove unsatisfactory, hop on a truck, car, bicycle or horse, all of which the going rate seems to be about 1 dollar.

Friday, January 20, 2006

oohh ahhhh Cambodia

Most of the time travelling around different places it's easy to remain in your little bubble. checking in here, checking out there. Comparing the red curry here to the green curry there. The more you travel the more desensitised you become. After a while some guy riding on a moped with 6 others ceases to look strange. But sometimes you see something that absolutely shakes the little travel bubble that you have built around yourself. Yesterday whilst enjoying a nice cold coke we noticed a boy who could be barely 5 years old cross a very busy street with his 3 month old sister. She was like a rag doll in his arms. He came over and sat near our table and laid her down at his feet playing with her like she was some kind of toy. For about an hour he sat there begging and playing with his baby sister. Far too young to understand the fragility of the 3 month old at his feet, and the world of the adults stepping over him. At one point he left the baby on the cement ground crying as he wandered off to get himself a drink of water, whilst we sat there ordering 4 dollar beers. What mother would leave a 3 month old baby in the hands of a 5 year old boy? The answer is a desperate one and there seems to be plenty of those around here in Phnom Penh. Despite travel in Africa and Asia, I've never seen behaviour and hopelessness like this anywhere. At the same time you have Expats sucking down beers and bragging that they have more prostitutes than drug dealers in their mobile phone address books. Life is cheap here.
Corruption, coupd'etat, invasion, bombing by the U.S. during the Vietnam war, and years of civil war are only a backdrop for the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and liberation by Viet Nam in 1979. During this period the Khmers attempted to establish an agrarian egalitarian society of ignorant and illiterate peasants all working in fields. This meant that anyone with any education or other skill who could contribute to society was to be eliminated by execution. During this era an estimated two million people, 25% of the population, died from execution, torture, starvation and disease. Cities were emptied, schools, hospitals, and factories were closed and destroyed. The ruthless hunt for intellectuals and enemies of the regime along with each individual's struggle for physical survival created a society devoid of any moral conscience. Cambodia has only emerged from this dark period in the last 10 years and most of the people have known very little of what living in a normal world is all aboutThe level of corruption here is staggering and even if you have a good education and speak English it is virtually impossible to get ahead unless you have a wad of US dollars or you have connections in the police or the Cambodian Peoples Party. The rich are getting extremely rich and the poor remain very poor. The Government still seems to believe it's perfectly legitimate to arrest anyone criticizing it and with the huge amounts of western aid being poured in, very little seems to be be filtering down to the poor people who need it. Landmines still remain a tragedy. More than 40,000 cambodians have suffered amputations due to landmines since 1979. ( thats pretty much 40 victims a week for 20 years). Although the Khmer Rouge was responsible for laying most of the mines it's interesting to know that the United States and China supplied most of these silent killers. As a backpacker it's a challenging place to visit. We enter their world and spend in a week enough to put someone through their entire university education. In Siam Reap tourists jet in from Paris and New York spending 3000 US a night on some accommodation stepping over legless land mine victims in the process. The fact that Bar st looks like something out of a wallpaper magazine or Vanity fair advertisement is enough to make you sick. But then again tourism brings money. It's just that's it's so in your face here. Maybe we need to clone Angelina Jolie and send a million of them over here to Cambodia.

Angkor Who

Not since the churning of the milky sea have the gods had such a remarkable place to live. Kate and I left Bangkok for Cambodia and arrived in Siam reap, a god awful tourist town right next door to one of the worlds great temple sights. It was here that the ancient Angkorians created an entire mini universe to house all their gods and let me tell you the Hindus don't muck around when it comes to gods. ( My last count had them at over 30 million). There are more face towers, five headed horses, monkey armies, and flying dragons than you can poke a serpent stick at. In fact, Angkor wat is the worlds largest religious monument. The amazing thing for me is that Angkor wat only rated 4th on the list of amazing temples in the area with Angkor Thom, Preah Khan and Ta Prohm being more amazing in my opinion of course. The temples around Angkor date from around the 9th century, achieving a peak around the 13th century and then practically deserted by the 17th century. The only buildings to survive in the area are the religious monuements as these were built out of stone whilst the cities and houses for the people were made of wood. Once the Angkorians had moved on or actually were defeated by the Siamese, the trees moved in. Little birds would build nests in the crevasses and the seeds would sprout in little holes sending roots downwards which in time would grow to take over these buildings. Scientists call this indianjonesing. Ancient Angkor, was of course a cheery place as long as you were not a sinner. The damned as they were called could have fallen down a trapdoor to hell, all 32 of them, for a slow roasting. Alternatively should you find yourself a little too close to the wife of a scholar you could be thrown into a lake of slimy pus for all eternity. But how did they build these magneficent temples? I hear you ask. Well the official version is that Vishnu after confounding the demon king and defeating the forces of evil, transformed himself into a giant and whilst riding a flying turtle took posession of the heavens and the Earth. Not even the nine headed nagas appearing as giant disembodied monkey heads could stop him. Gotta hand it to the guy. For our grand Angkor tour, we hired a Moto -remorque, a sort of moped chariot and were driven around by our friend Nabot. Like a couple of nineteenth century english colonialists we sipped cold drinks as we were whisked from temple sight to temple sight where we pondered the natives from up high. All in all 2 days of temple doing, and we could have even done more, had it not been for the intense heat here in Cambodia is averaging about 38 celcius and also for the fact that Siam reap really is one of the most depressing places ever. Unless of course dealing with starving, armless and legless mine victims whilst eating international cuisine in trendy minmalist restaurants is your thing.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Thai times

One day in Bangkok and the world's your oyster. From watching a monk sweep the temple to listening to a stoned biker hawk jewellery from up and coming Aussie Jamie Oliver types
to stupid tourists in ridiculous hats
or how about slaughtered frog in an oyster sauce
or maybe something to dye your hair with
It's all here in thailand, even coffee in a bag

Friday, January 13, 2006

"Ferocity you can touch"

The idea of walking into an enclosure with 9 or 10 fully grown tigers, with only a couple of unarmed buddhist monks to protect you may not be on everyone's travel itinerary in Thailand. But Kate, is fast becoming wild animal girl, talking me into doing all sorts of crazy things that usually inviolve wild animals with sharp teeth. After a month at the animal park in Bolivia walking pumas (I still have the bite marks to match) she has conned me into getting up close and personal with some extremely large felines. So what is this strange buddhist connection between the monks, the tourists and these unchained 170 kilogram top of the food chain beasts? The tiger temple was started in the late nineties when one of the monks came across a couple of baby cubs called storm and lightning and hand reared these cute little blighters into the cuddly teddy bears they are now. From then on the tourists and the tigers have been increasing and they are now raising money to build a huge enclosure for the tigers. So are the Tigers drugged? I hear you ask. Apparently not and towards the end of the day with their pacing back and forth, they looked very awake to me. We arrived with Kates sister and nephews and after signing our lives away, were greeted by a sign proudly proclaiming Dangerous but kindly. Before we knew it, a Tiger minder ( perhaps the strangest job in Asia) grabbed our hand and led us over to a wide variety of very large, well Tigers actually. So there we are patting the most dangerous of all the cat species with these tiger minders taking our photos. There definitely appears to be something very zen going on here, either that or the tigers are pounded into submission when they return to their cages at night. The tigers are the more submissive, and the Monks use both hands to pat them down and let them know whats going on. If a particular tiger gets too unruly he is sprayed with water or maybe even chained up... heaven forbid. A smiling Monk encourages us tourists to enter the enclosure as many times as we want. In the next breath though he does shout...they attack you they not chained up to one tourist who tried to get a better photo op by climbing a hill. Most of the time we spent behind a red cord at least 10 metres away from the tigers but for some reason that flimsy red cord made us feel a lot more safer. When we decided to venture the other side of the cord the minders would grab our hand and lead us over to the tigers where we could pat their backs, put their huge heads in our laps or even sit on them should we have wished. ( the latter option was usually only for children of which quite a few accepted) All in all we spent a wonderful couple of hours doing something we could only dream of doing back in Australia. check out

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Hellfire pass

Should you ever build yourself a time machine, make sure the co-ordinates for your visit back in time are not Kanchanabari, Thailand 1943. We met up with Kates sister, Lisa and her husband Stephen and nephews smart Alec and Max and went off to visit Hellfire pass. This was where Kates Uncle John spent three and a half years in a prisoner of war camp. He's been to Thailand ten times for memorial services and likes to joke that the japanese paid for his first visit. Unfortunately this place was no joke and was where more than 100,000 people lost their lives building a railway through thick jungle to supply the japanese army fighting in Burma. A very sobering experience indeed. The region achieved worldwide fame thru the film Bridge on the River kwai but I think nothing can do justice to what these old diggers went thru. Below is the bridge which the allies managed to bomb a couple of times. Kate's uncle returned to Australia about 6 stone and blind in one eye and he was one of the lucky buggers. 18 hour work days, chiselling nails into solid rock, barefoot in torrential monsoon rain and only 2 bowls of rice a day. The only people exempt from work were the really really sick. Every morning doctors did a stool test and if you had 80% blood in your faeces then you didnt have to work that day. Any less and it was too bad. Of course if you didnt work you didn't get paid which meant you didnt eat. All this togethor with fierce beatings by the Japanese and Korean guards. Despite this many pow's kept their spirits up singing songs, and teasing the Japanese guards in English with various nicknames. It's remarkable today that some of the Pows still return for memorial services and more bowls of rice.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

The Floating Nun

Just when you thought you'd seen it all along comes the Floating nun.
We are in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, sight of the Bridge on the River Kwai and the Thailand/ Burma death railway, but more importantly sight of the floating nun. Inside a small purpose built colliseum there is a swimming pool where for the bargain price of 4 dollars a quite round nun will plunge into a pool and perform various prayers. For some unknown reason this has become a hugely popular attraction with Korean tour groups and a whole tourist industry has sprung up around this unique sight. Unfortunately when Kate and I arrived we were the only ones there and after the Nun got off her mobile phone and we paid our 200 baht she led us into the colliseum for the performance. Unsure whether to clap or sit quietly we sat and watched whilst trying not to giggle. After she lit her incense and plunged into the pool, she prayed, turned over a couple of times and basically floated. We were riveted to our seats. Best 5 minutes religious entertainment ever.

Mr Thailand

Kho San Road Bangkok is one place its virtually impossible to stand out from the crowd. With more tattoes, piercings and backpacks per square metre than anywhere else in the world it is freaksville grand central. But now there is one way you can outshine all the others, your vehicle being that of Mr Thailand. Dressed in full military regalia , sunglasses, pith helmet and sandals and socks Mr Thailand takes you on a right royal ride thru the Khao San district and it's a journey like no other. Jan the Swedish hitman and myself had a couple of beers and hopped on our carriage as we were peddled thru the streets giving the hippies, travellers, freaks and hard men the right royal wave, handkerchief included. The result was the funniest 40 minutes I have ever spent with no less than 2000 people returning our wave. No less than 20 people took our picture, kids were dancing in the street as we glided past and thai girls giggled pretty much the whole length of our motorcade. Only the Israelis failed to see the humour of us being in our carriage with fairy lights, Thai disco tunes and pink balloons. The remarkable thing about this ride of superstardom was that it only cost 2 dollars. 4o minutes of sheer unadulterted hanky waving. (the Israelis probably thought we were ripped off) . Mr Thailand has totally stumbled on the next big thing and if only we could combine the franchise of Handsome Sandwiches with Mr Thailand we will all be on a winner. Thank you Mr Thailand for make me happy.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Handsome Sandwiches

One of the more unusual retail enterprises on Kho Pang Ghang is the soon to take over the world franchise of Mr handsome sandwiches (You heard it here first).
To the Lazy observer, it appears to be an unkempt shack manned by a lazy Thai man with long pony tail, moustache, lying in a hammock with an unhealthy obsession with reggae music.
But as we all know looks can be decieving and Mr Handsome is soon to be the Colonel Sanders of the Hamburger world. Mr handsome's pledge is I make you happy and this he does beyond anyones wildest expectations. Order a handsome sandwich and he jumps out of that hammock quicker than you can say same same but different. The handsome cooking philosophy revolves around the extra attention he gives to your burgers, the care he takes in putting all the ingredients togethor and the revolutionary customer service he provides. A crooked sign proudly proclaims Bloody cold beer and Always delicious or if you no come you cry for ten years. Perhaps this is all sheer marketing genius but after 13 minutes of intense concentration out comes your handsome sandwich and the taste... well how can I convey the magneficence? How did Adam convey the first sunset in Eden? Charlie the first chocolate in Willy Wonkas chocolate factory? All I can say is that there are thousands of International fans out there all talking about the brilliance of Handsome Sandwiches. An average of about 20 t shirsts a day a sold. Not bad for a guy who only ever gets out of his hammock every 40 minutes. Advertising is all word of mouth and one Irish tourist is evn contemplating writing a book. The short history of Handsome Sandwiches. Watch this of Mr handsome himself coming

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Happy New Year Kho Pang Ghang style

Being one of the last refuges for the ageing hippy, Kho Pang Ghang on New Years Eve ended up being very interesting for the quiet sociological observer. We decided to give Hadrin, sight of the full moon party, a wide berth and stayed in our quiet little village of Tong Nai Pan. The Doors and Bob Marley have been playing on loop here for the last 20 years, and the most popular restaurants have names like Rasta Bar, Jungle Bar or Mr handsome sandwiches. ( the Latter being the most delicious burgers everyone on the Island has ever eaten). This village is in a serious time warp, and some of the tourists here really should be studied. There are elderly Irish gangster types complete with pegasus tattoos and Thai girlfriends, the usual array of shaved head English hooligans, numerous impressionable types in Thai dye T shirts and purple pants but winner of the biggest weirdo award went to an almost fifty something American hippy who has been living in Pang Ghang man for 20 years and apparently used to be the Sound engineer for the Grateful Dead. That of course makes him a dead head or complete freak. In case you're unaware of the dead heads they follow the grateful dead around various desert locations in the States where thousands of people take lots of drugs and dance Native American style. In fact none of us are actually sure if the dead have ever actually released an album. None come to mind. My new friend also came with his two teenage sons, each of which seem to have a worrying dope habit. We had a lots of interesting conversations about "peace" brothers, and also the end of the world which if you havent heard is happenning in 2012. So in the words of my new hippy friends, lets party hard man only 6 years to go. Happy 2006 everyone