musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Archive for December, 2014

Sand Art at Preah Khan


One of the most impressive things that I saw during my recent visit to the Preah Khan temple at Angkor was not a bunch of ancient carvings but some creative “sand art”. On the dirt path leading to the main entrance, several children have put their artistic abilities to use and are making drawings in the sand. The sand art all has a distinctive Angkor and Khmer look.



I thought that this was a supremely cool idea and a good way for the children to make a bit of money (hopefully, a few passing tourists will see fit to tip them). It sure beats being pestered by flocks of kids peddling postcards.


Motorcycle Taxis Save the Day!

I got an unexpected phone call at my bookshop last week. It was from a Thai man calling to let me know that he had received a CD for me in the mail. “I have your CD,” he said, “but it was sent to me by mistake.” Apparently he had ordered some vinyl albums from Amazon and when he opened the package he found a smaller package containing a CD tucked inside. Upon further examination he realized that the CD was addressed to someone else … which would be me!

Luckily, this guy was honest and also made a very sincere effort to track me down. The address had the name of my bookshop on it, so he found the telephone number for the shop and called me. He said that he could send the CD to me, but wouldn’t have time to go the post office until the following week. I got his contact information and told him that I’d see if I could make arrangements to pick up the CD myself so that he wouldn’t have to pay for the postage.


Later that night, I called up one of my motorcycle taxi driver friends, Bay, and asked if he could pick up the CD for me. The guy’s office was way out on Vibhavadi-Rangsit Road, not exactly in my neck of the woods, so I gave Bay the guy’s phone number and address. I told Bay that there was no hurry, but I’d make it worth his while if he could pick it up for me as soon as possible.

The following afternoon Bay dropped by my store, holding up the package with a big smile. “Got it!” he exclaimed. “I didn’t know how to go there,” he admitted, “but my father gave me directions. It was no problem.” No problem or not, I tipped him some extra money and thanked him again.


Later that week, I was informed by the company that handles my visa and work permit paperwork that my new annual work permit could not yet be issued because the medical certificate that I submitted was out of date. Huh? I double checked the requirements on the form I had been given and it clearly stated that the medical certificate must be issued within six months. The one I had submitted was from September, less than 3 months old, so that should have been fine. But it wasn’t. Apparently, they work permit office has adopted a new policy of allowing only medical certificates that are 30 days old or less. Urrrgghhh!!!

So that meant getting another medical certificate. I could either go back to Bangkok Hospital, where I got me previous one, or go to a local clinic and get the some certificate for a fraction of the price. Which is what I did. I called up a clinic that I’ve used before and requested a new medical certificate saying that I was healthy, did not have Ebola, or any other life threatening diseases.

I needed to go see the doctor and pick it up but the clinic was a bit out of the way, so I used one of those trusty motorcycle taxi guys again. As luck would have it, it was Bay’s father, also a driver at the same taxi stand, who took me to the clinic on Monday morning. He waited outside while I went in and got my medical certificate, and then drove me the rest of the way to my bookshop. I tipped him extra, handing him 120 baht, but he shook me off, saying that was too much, and handed a 20 baht note back to me. Wow! That’s a great example of how honest most of these guys are, and also how dependable they are.


Really, the motorcycle taxi drivers and messengers are saviors here in Bangkok, not only for helping to get you swiftly from place to place amidst the traffic gridlock, but for making deliveries and running errands of all sorts. I ordered a pizza last night that was delivered by motorcycle, and my work permit was returned to me — finally! — also by motorcycle messenger yesterday. Long may they run!



Preah Khan Surprise


While I was in Siem Reap, Cambodia late last month, a spent a half-day touring various temples around the Angkor archaeological complex. One of my favorite temples there is Preah Khan, a spot I visited with my friends Chamrong and the four Try brothers; Hach, Hoich, Channo, and Pov.



From the road there is a long path leading to the first gate of Preah Khan. While walking down that path I heard a woman call my name. I looked to my left and say a young Cambodian woman waving at me. Who was she, I wondered? She repeated my name again and asked I was indeed that person. I replied in the affirmative, still wondering who this lady was. “You remember Lyna and Moey?” she asked. Indeed I did. “You took us to Kbal Spean when I was little. I still have the photos you gave me.”


Ah, it suddenly dawned on me. This girl — er, rather young woman — was one of the group that I took to the waterfall at Kbal Spean one time. Must have been a dozen or more kids in that group, all from the same village near the West Baray reservoir where I had first met them. This must have been 2001 or early 2002, before I opened my bookshop in Siem Reap. I asked the woman two questions: What’s your name? How old are you?


She reminded me that her name was Serey Nieng, and she was now 27, married with a young daughter of her own. Damn, does time fly or what? I did some quick mental calculation and figured that Nieng must have been about 14 years old when we took that trip to Kbal Spean, a fairly remote location, but one of the more tranquil and atmospheric spots in the Angkor area. Or at least it used to be. If even a small percentage of the hordes of tourists now trampling the ruins of Angkor are also visiting Kbal Spean, the tranquility has probably vanished completely.




Thankfully, Preah Khan wasn’t completely overrun with tourists when we visited. Step off the main paths and there are plenty of fun detours and rubble to explore, and you feel like you have the whole place to yourself, a rare feeling in Angkor nowadays.











Mandalay Print Shop


One of the kids that I know in Mandalay, Zin Ko, is now working at his uncle’s business, Thraphu Offset Printing Services. It’s been a tough year for young Zin Ko; his father passed away in March, he dropped out of school, and he’s now living with his aunt and uncle. For now, his living situation looks to be stable, at least more than it was earlier in the year, and I think that working in the shop is a good experience for him. Ideally, he’d still be attending classes in school, but that doesn’t seem to be in the cards for now.




One day while I was in town, Zin Ko invited me for a tour of the print shop where he is working. He dropped by my hotel on 81st Street and we rode our bikes over to the shop on 75th Street. It’s not a huge operation, employing less than 10 people, but they seemed to be very busy while I was there. Zin Ko confirmed that he was being kept busy and that business was brisk. Good to hear!





90-Day Travel Itch

About every three months, basically a 90-day cycle, I get the itch to travel. I think it’s some sort of Pavlovian response that dates back to the days when I was forced to make 90-day visa runs to renew my Thailand visa.


Now that I have a work permit and a year-long non-immigrant visa (getting both are complicated, annoying procedures that must be done each and every year) I no longer am forced to make the 90-day visa runs, but I became so accustomed to having to leave the country every three months that all these years later I still end up doing it. If nothing else, it’s just a good excuse to get out of town. Three consecutive months in Bangkok already? Time to travel!


I finished my latest round of visa renewals last month, and then had extra pages added to my U.S. passport (what used to be a free service now costs almost as much as getting a new passport) at the embassy here in Bangkok (the good news is that they still do it while you wait; less than 45 minutes after arrival you are set to go), so I was once again free to travel, plus that 90-day mark was coming up soon, so last Thursday (Thanksgiving Day in the USA) I flew to Siem Reap, Cambodia. I spent the next three days there seeing friends and basically not doing much more than eating meals at the Hawaii Restaurant and reading books. A half-day touring the ruins of Angkor was the most strenuous activity I undertook. I’ll post photos from that excursion later this month.


Siem Reap has changed a lot since I lived and worked there ten to twelve years ago. What was once a charming, sleepy little town is now a busy and bustling city, packed with noisy vehicles, generic-looking hotels, and gaudy bars. Frankly, most of this rampant growth all looks a bit ugly and unsettling to my eyes. But the Cambodian people are still sweet and most haven’t yet been tainted by all the changes.

At the Siem Reap airport, going through the security check of personal belongings before boarding my flight, a female security guard was organizing two lines of passengers. This woman was perhaps the most patient and amazing airport employee I’ve ever encountered. She was taking the time to talk to each and every person passing through her post. It didn’t matter if the passenger was Cambodian or Western, she chatted with them, a big smile on her face the whole time. And her pleasant manner didn’t seem forced or fake whatsoever. This young woman truly looked like she was enjoying her job and was eager to talk with every passenger. A true Cambodian jewel!


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