Tuesday, August 18, 2015

A Taste of Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The Okay Boutique Hotel, made and decorated with old growth rainforest hardwood, one of Cambodia's prime resources. Classy, for sure, and the reason the area around Phnom Penh looks barren and brown.
beautiful interior of the "Okay Boutique Hotel"
Superstitious? No floor 13. 
The ubiquitous motorbikes of SE Asia whiz by you, missing you by whiskers as you traverse the streets. Most spew toxic and visible fumes, but hey, it's economical transportation.
Walking down the street you'll have to avoid the occasional pile of garbage, a combination of plastics, leaves, cardboard cartons, dirt, and bottles. In fairness, late at night, at least in the commercial districts, a man comes and manually scoops it between two large flat metal plates and transfers the trash heaps into a garbage truck.
outdoor corner barbershop
crazy wires all crossing
independence monument

old woman at night market
here you'll get a more complete sense of what Phnom Penh is like/ feels like

night market entertainment
the palace of the the Cambodian King
I venture out at night. A few years ago the streets were nearly dark. It still feels a little eerie, but today there far many more lights. Progress.
I pass various lady-bars/brothels, a gaggle of scantily clad women wearing too much make-up trying to beckon me inside.
At nearby markets vendors hawk wares ranging from local fruit, breads, and fowl, to candies and cheap souvenirs. The Cambodian financial system operates on the US dollar. If you need small change from handing over an Abe Lincoln it comes in the form of Cambodian currency, which, when touched, has the feel of monopoly money but is an actuality, worth less.
Restaurants in prime locations of the capital cater primarily to tourists and government officials. You can eat a wonderful meal preset meal here at an Italian restaurant called Caravan consisting of appetizers, a glass of wine, a main course, and a scrumptious dessert for $12. Good luck getting that price back in the states.

While people seem generally friendly, there is undoubtedly a collectively felt trauma still present in the population from the genocide committed by the Pol Pot regime. Many of today's parents and elders grew up without families, forced into slave labor, witnessing atrocities, with nowhere to turn for help, a combination which rarely makes for a healthy mind. Sadly a gift bestowed upon the next generation.
Phnom Penh is not a must see, but if you do go, accept it for what it is. I'm doing my best.       

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Touts- Making the Journey From the Thai/ Cambodian Border Exciting

Tout- attempt to sell (something), typically by pestering people in an aggressive or bold manner

I'm the sole remaining passenger on the shared van as my Thai transport pulls into her final destination. I exit out and hike 50 meters to the border, the locale is surprisingly quiet and tranquil. I flash my passport and walk across to Cambodia.
Thai/ Cambodian border 
To give credit where it's due, a metric in which the Cambodian government truly excels, scoring in the top 90 percentile worldwide, is corruption. As I'm beset by impoverished touts seeking to part me from the money I've just spent on a visa which has jumped in price by 150% since my last visit, I'm filled with sadness knowing I've handed over a couple days worth of their wages to help pay the lease on some government minister's Range Rover.

Strategies vary- some smile, some cajole, some threaten consequence, or give exaggerated and false information to justify an excessive fee. The presupposition all touts adhere to is that it's a short game/con and the goal to extract as money as they can; good faith bartering largely absent.
A British couple (the only Westerners to cross the border in the half-hour I was there) bargain on our mutual behalf for a ride to Phnom Penh. The tout negotiates hard, they back at him, while I sit back, slightly bemused, witnessing the acrimonious fight over a few dollars. At last we get a price we can all agree on.
"Hey, at least he speaks English," I remark as we're escorted to a SUV. Our tout barks at an older man sitting nearby in Cambodian, gruffly ordering us in as he hands the keys over.
"Apparently not," remarks my new British friend.
We're faced with a bait and switch, a driver who doesn't speak a word of English. When we complain, our tout barks back that we'll get where we need to go and walks away.
Not too far from the border, crossing a bridge
It's 5+ hours to the nation's capital from the border. The first third of the journey is surprisingly beautiful, as we drive through what is essentially a jungle, only waterways and the highway interrupting.
vast expanse of trees :) 
Our driver fearlessly passes slower trucks around blind bends, betting our lives that there isn't a car coming the opposite direction, as we cover our eyes like children at a horror film, high-stakes gambling being legal in Cambodia and all.
The jungle gives way; the further we move towards the country's center, the more sparse and arid the land appears, the greenery giving way to man-made brown and ugliness.

The ugly part of Cambodia as we near Phnom Penh
packed cattle car full of garment workers 
Closer to the capital, we arrive at a factory town. A shift of workers appears to have been let out en masse as carpooled vans and cattle trucks with standing room only transport garment workers back to their homes. These workers make $100 a month, their yearly income not even paying for a month's rent for a one bedroom apartment in Los Angeles. When workers decided to strike, the government sent in the army, killed a few of them, and banned public assembly. Hey, we all want cheap clothes right?

The reason for the traffic- factories letting workers go for the day. Look at how packed all the cars are

We arrive in Phnom Penh in the evening at the crowded river waterfront, the commercial center of town. Our driver has no idea where our hotel is located. We find a tuk-tuk driver who speaks English who sees our hotel name, and tells us it's quite far (4 km away) and demands $4 to take us there. "We can't fit three people plus luggage into your tuk-tuk," I tell him, "our driver will follow you and we'll give you the money upon arrival."
Three blocks later we pull up to the hotel. 4 km huh? I give the money to our driver as a tip instead. We walk away, I turn around to see a verbal scuffle over the bills. Our driver soon hands them over. Fucking Touts.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Elephant Trekking, Pooping, and Washing on Koh Chang Island, Thailand

Speeding on my scooter down the island's main road, I catch sight of the sign: "Elephant Camp --->";  U-Turn, then left as directed by the arrow; the forest becoming thicker as I zip down the road.
An elephant meanders around to my left. I park my bike, and walk carefully, watching the ground to make sure I don't step on snakes or giant shits (not sure which would be worse.)
I sign-up for the trek, and a short while later am atop an elephant who introduces herself as Ellen. A mahut mounts her, riding on her neck, barking instructions in Thai, while I ride on a wide chair strapped to the Ellen's back.
Ten minutes later the mahut disembarks to clear some stuff off the ground. "Can I switch places with you," I ask.
"You know, ride on neck like you do," I gesture, waving arms.
"Dangerous," comes the reply.
"Can I?"
the Thai jungle- how'd you like to see us coming around the corner?
He chuckles. "Be careful."
My elation quickly subsides when I realize I'm 10 feet off the ground aboard a moving beast. Gingerly I climb over the chair's railing, placing a foot on Ellen's shoulder.
"Easy Ellen, eeeassssyyyy," I coax her.
Holding onto the seat, I throw my other leg over, and gently plop down on her neck, adjusting my position until both Ellen I feel comfortable (she told me.)
Mahut smiles at me, then yells in Thai for Ellen to move. We plod through the forest, each step testing my balance as I hold dearly onto her skin, coiling my legs around her attempting to stay clear from gravity's clutches.

Introducing you to Ellen Elephant- I never said I was a great speller :)  

Ten minutes later the lead elephant becomes excited and speeds up. Ellen following suit, and suddenly we're running the equivalent of a human sprint, and let me tell you, I'm hanging on for dear life, at the same time enjoying the thrill of riding bareback on a galloping elephant. My mahut races beside us, yelling at Ellen, who thankfully calms, and goes back to her plodding walk.
got the hang of it, look ma, no hands
As we prepare to cross a stream my improperly secured backpack falls from the chair and onto the ground. Watch the video below to see how I got it back-   

Ellen Elephant picks up my back-up, hands it to me, and sprays the mahut

We soon arrive at a river. A slow current drains a large pool of water downstream. Ellen almost dances in, submerges herself, her trunk behaving like a periscope occasionally rising to breathe. My mahut tosses me a brush, I begin scrubbing her rough skin, removing both parasites and dirt from skin. She seems to understand I'm helping her, and I take pleasure in that connection, that bond, with this huge animal. She might not know how to thank me, her vocabulary being limited and all, but she doesn't have to, we've enhanced each others lives.
Love, it's what makes the world go round.   

Scrubbing down Ellen, part I

Ellen poops in the river. My reaction. 

Why you need an elephant as a member of the family! 

Feeding my Ellen the Elephant for a job well done

Post scrub down discussion

Monday, June 29, 2015

Glimpse the Stunning Paradise of Koh Chang Island, Thailand

The spectacular coastline of Koh Chang approaches.

The coast of Koh Chang

If it looks like a primeval jungle, that's because it is. The entire interior of the island is a Thai National Park, basically untouched nature.
literally, the end of Koh Chang's main road
The small coastal population is dispersed, its main road coming to a thudding stop several kilometers from completing a loop, making it impossible to circumnavigate the island, except on foot.

my Gecko roommate
I check into a $15 a night guest house, which is likely a tad overpriced for what I get. At least I have friendly gecko keeping me company who's polite enough not to try to sell me car insurance.
I walk next door to a small restaurant and order noodle soup, full of veggies and chicken organically raised on the island. It tastes delicious, fills me, and costs me all of $1.25.
I rent a Honda motorcycle ($6 a day + gas)  and seemingly walk it along the road at first, til, gaining experience, I eventually top out at 95km an hour, the feel of exhilaration extinguished when a large insect smashes into the windshield called my face with the seeming momentum of a baseball.
I traverse the island, up and down, exploring every road in existence. The beauty of the island is palpable, and it's hard not to stop, and feel incredibly grateful for the opportunity to gaze at the vistas in person.
view of small island just off Koh Chang's main road

jungle beach of Koh Chang
wild monkeys by the main road 
colorful Buddhist Temple on Koh Chang
pup resting atop a motorbike
I turn off the main road, and traverse a windy path about a kilometer where I find a seemingly deserted resort. It's the low season, and the place is completely empty, the only guards I find are the numerous nuclear sized mosquitoes who become voracious as evening approaches.
I flee to the beach and into the water, where I sit in nearly perfectly still water, meditating, taking in a sunset. Several minutes later I start to get bit by small fish growing in this protected cove sending me fleeing back to into the wide open arms of the island's mosquito overlords.
secluded beach all to myself on Koh Chang
colors of Koh Chang
Koh Chang beach, near the end of the road
I had planned on staying two days. I found the island so intoxicating, so relaxing, the water so warm, the Thai food so tasty I wound up spending six.
I'd strongly encourage all of you to see Koh Chang given the opportunity, but be careful not to fall under her island spell. You might never leave.    

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A Taste of Koh Samet Island, Thailand

The island of Koh Samet's beauty and proximity to Bangkok (140 miles plus a boat ride)  makes it a popular destination for tourists and Thais alike.
The 5 square mile isle is 80% forest, having been declared a Thai national park, with only the coastal region hosting the 2,800 permanent island residents, one of which is my British host, Chris. 
"You're island is very beautiful," I remark to him, "But having explored every inch of road here in one day, I think I would go stir crazy if I stayed much longer. What keeps you here?"
Chris shrugs, "Business honestly, I own this building. Just business." I get the sense he feels stuck here. I might not want to live here, but for a couple day getaway, it certainly is a lovely place to visit.  
colors- beautiful

the water is so warm!
exploring a rocky shore

the area gets significantly less rain than the rest of Thailand. In May it is HOT

sunset on the Western Beach

Took in the sunset with a young German girl (Frauke- not making up the name) I met in the morning. Very peaceful here 

Monday, June 22, 2015

A Night of S+M in Patpong, Bangkok

look carefully if you can't guess the letter that goes before 'ussy'
Patpong, Bangkok
Our small group is lead through one of Bangkok's adult entertainment centers by a Kentucky accented, short, squat man, who seems to have been here ... numerous times.
Neon signs and skimpily clad women beckon us into nearly identical bars, in the center of each a stage where go-go dancers wearing heels which account for half their height, sway their hips with the meager hopes of being chosen from the throngs of sardines by some sharky foreigner.
Mostly they just stand there bored. 
For the mere gawkers, the bars are content merely to sell beer and female flirtation.

But our host, wants to take us to somewhere "special."
He weaves his way through the alleys for several minutes, finally rubbing his hands in glee as he recognizes the lantern outside, marking the establishment like some faraway inn from 18th century Britain on a foggy night.
Entrance fee paid, we ascend a steep staircase and enter into ... a dungeon.
Dingy and dark there's a bar in the corner, not far from it are two large wire metal bird cages. A fat Thai woman is getting whipped around her privates, as she holds onto the steel bars, fully opening up her body for punishment, the sweet Mozart concerto playing through the club creating a dizzying dichotomy.
the bathroom
A light glows in the shadows from atop the stomach of a girl who ... I hope is 18 ... a female of similar age rolls a block of ice over her nipples and body, then raises the candle, dripping melting hot wax over frozen skin. An audible moan and contortion of the body.
A short 60 year old man with a 20 something year old smoking hot blond from Los Angeles adds a strong flavor to the weirdness around me.
Around me, young girls alternate pouring hot wax over each others' naked bodies. One of them offers me the candle, I refuse, the idea of causing physical pain to a human being who's not a member of ISIS generating disgust inside me.The music becomes darker, Goth-like, as a fat white man steps naked into the bird cage, paying for the privilege of being whipped by the fat Thai woman.

As I exit, I see a new entrant choosing from a selection of whips on the wall, his young Thai dominatrix smiling as he finally makes his selection, leading him upstairs to his own private dungeon. He's depraved, but she's getting paid.
I'm all too happy to leave.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

A Whole Lotta Bangkok- Why I Freaking Love Bangkok + So Should You

Paraphrasing AC/DC's 'Whole Lotta Rosie':
Wanna tell you story
About a city I know
When it comes to lovin'
She steals the show
She ain't exactly pretty
Ain't exactly small

Rats-gourmet-ho's-high rise-traffic
You could say she's got it all          

She ain't Exactly Pretty
Downtown high-rises often scrape the omni-present low lying rain clouds and haze.  
downtown Bangkok skyline
The interiors of the ritzy hotel chains are far more opulent than than their Western counterparts, a dramatic contrast to the slums and ramshackle housing that exist a few hundred meters away; the cheap labor of Asia facilitating both extremes.

inside the Marriott Hotel

On the sidewalks, vendors hawk their wares; a rainbow of tropical fruits- coconuts, mangoes, bananas deep-fried in front of you, to flowers, wallets, belts, clothes, art, to food stands with tasty Thai cuisine ... you could virtually live in the city without stepping foot into a store with a roof over it; many Thais pretty much do. 

A look at some of Bangkok's street stands

An absence of public trash cans abets the Thai tradition of littering. The small plastic bags given out with every purchase blow in the wind.
Rats stream fearlessly from the sewers, sifting for food amongst the debris lined streets, plentiful nutrition allowing them to grow large. Only someone who lives in a dump (or India) would describe Bangkok as clean.

Girls from less fortunate economic circumstances line the streets, offering their bodies in exchange for money.
"Mister, mister, I go with you," they call out, sometimes in a startlingly male voice still unaffected by the hormones they're taking. Ladyboys abound in the city more than any other on earth. Someone told me they spotted Caitlyn Jenner. It's plausible.

She Ain't Exactly Small
14 million people live within Bangkok and it's urban sprawl. Thais living on the cities outskirts often undergo long commutes to work.
Lights sometimes as long as 180 seconds pile traffic for miles, only the ubiquitous motorbikes of SE Asia weaving dangerously between the cars, trucks, and buses make it anywhere during rush hour.
A sample of Bangkok gridlock 

Cheap + Tasty Food 
Feel yourself losing electrolytes to the tropical climate? Refresh yourself with coconut water or fresh squeezed juices at any street corner. 
Hungry? During a recent journey to the state of the art shopping mall Terminal 21 in downtown Bangkok, I purchased 2 coconuts, a plate on with two Thai Entrees and rice, a cafe latte, and two scoops of Nestle ice-cream. What would that cost in the US/Europe? My friends all estimated between $20-$25.
What was the total in Bangkok? About $4.50. Yes, less than $5 for a total feast.
A sample of what you can buy at Terminal 21 for $1

The People
Though an upward moving face in "the land of 1,000 smiles" sometimes masks hostility or sadness,  it's uncommon to hear Thais raise their voices. (which you cannot say for the Chinese)
In general, I find the culture kind, open, and friendly. Perhaps I see the best side of Thais being a farang (foreigner) with money, but aside of the language barrier, I almost always my exchanges with them.

You Could Say She's Got it All
The city has an energy, a pace which I find invigorating. There is always something to do, something new to experience, from rooftop hotel pool parties, to art openings, dancing, or temples for meditation. It's still an Eastern city, but with a strong and tasty Western flavor. 

Differences Remain
In Los Angeles, little frustrates people more than being stuck in traffic. It doesn't matter if you're expecting delays when you leave the house, most Angelinos will still pound their dashboards in frustration when the elderly Asian female refuses to turn right despite a football field of daylight, leaving me ranting about how responsible and good drivers, such as myself, should be allowed to attach tactical nuclear weapons to their cars to facilitate a graceful resolution of just such a situation, leaving only a small mushroom cloud in my wake.
In Bangkok, where sadly they have an even greater percentage of elderly Asian female drivers (a byproduct of unfortunate geographic location) people honestly don't seem don't care their lives are being sucked away by the gridlock. In Buddhist tradition, they're much more accepting of what is. They're in no hurry, whatsoever!

Let me give you an example of another way this outlook manifests:
In the West we rarely stand side-by-side on an escalator due to maniacs such as myself being willing to knock you down for having the temerity to hold us up. (if I'm able to restrain myself from deploying my hand held nuke first that is)
In Thailand, no matter how late you are, to keep the peaceful atmosphere you're going to have to wait for the escalator to slowly wind it's way up to the next floor. People who are together stand side by side without a thought or care in the world, not because they are rude or unthoughtful, but simply because the hurried paradigm of Western culture is so foreign in this land.
Diener Time- on a scooter in downtown BKK
I mentioned how cheap food is here. Everything is cheaper. You can have two Thai women give you an hour long massage for $15 (including a 20% tip) ... Massages are so cheap (and generally awesome) you can't afford not to get one!
Rent is cheaper (though climbing) and the price of having hired help, (a maid or driver for example) is ridiculously low.

Avoid rush hour by taking the SkyTrain or subway. Both are being expanded to service more areas of Bangkok. During off-peak traffic hours taxis cost a mere couple bucks to take you around town.
Yes, internet is not as fast or reliable here. Yes, the weather is hotter and muggier than Los Angeles, but overall the infrastructure and quality of life you can have here rivals that of any Western metropolis, but at a Far Far Far cheaper price.   
In the study of economics, the principle of "perfect markets" states that you will never find a $20 bill on the ground, because someone would have already picked it up.
Markets, however, aren't perfect, and Bangkok is that $20 bill. And what you can purchase for that here-- A Whole Lotta Bangkok.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

What's in My Emergency Medical Kit when I Travel?

A friend of mine asked me for some advice, as to what he should bring with him to take care of himself medically during adventurous travel. Here's what I responded.

My medical emergency kit includes the following- a box of condoms, 3 ounces of cologne, 3 ounces of dandruff shampoo, a couple band-aids, and some neo-sporin.
Neo-sporin in case of a cut deep in the jungle, medicated band-aids to cover the wound. 3 ounces of Dandruff shampoo (3 oz. can be brought on plane) which also doubles as soap when needed. The cologne for 2 purposes, one, an emergency disinfectant as cologne is alcohol based, two, an emergency odor diffuser (in the French sense) in case the box of condoms might need be opened. Never travel unprepared.