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

Posts tagged ‘Cambodia’

New Year Reflections


Another New Year is here, which inevitably leads to reflection, resolutions, setting goals, and all those sorts of “start-the-year-anew” things. I’m just glad the idiotic Christmas season is finally over. Even here in Thailand, a predominantly Buddhist country, you can’t escape the people wishing you a “Merry Christmas.” Okay, I realize that most of them mean well, but don’t they have working brains? Why do they I assume that I’m a Christian and/or that I celebrate Christmas simply because I’m a Westerner? I can forgive the Thais, who seem to think that Christmas is nothing more than another festive Western tradition, but I have to wonder about the mentality of the Westerners who so blithely assault you with their inane Christmas cheer. Enough already!

This past year has been a difficult one for me, at least in terms of enjoying life in Thailand. I’ve lived in Bangkok for almost 21 years, but the charm and appeal of day-to-life has definitely faded. Maybe the “honeymoon” is finally over, or perhaps my tolerance for Thais and their “mai pen rai” way of living has finally been exhausted.

Having to “manage” Thai employees has been the real test, a particularly exhausting exercise in patience. Most days I feel like a glorified babysitter, having to monitor these people and dealing with their habitual tardiness, inefficiency, and immature behavior. Turn my back for a single minute and they are playing with their “smart” phone or engaged in idle chatter. I’m not sure how  much longer I can put up with it all.

Actually, I still like Thai people. They are a pleasant, fun, laidback bunch of people — it’s just that I don’t especially like working with them! But I have to remind myself that it’s not all bad — and they aren’t all bad. I see nice people doing nice things every day, and it puts a smile on my face. And I also have to remind myself that I’m living in a city where the cost of living is still relatively low, there aren’t serious safety concerns, and there are a plethora of inexpensive transportation options available. Yes, for all is faults and warts, chaos and congestion, Bangkok remains a very nice place to live. I doubt I would be saying that if I was still living in the USA.

And so I remain in the sanctuary of my bookshop, enjoying the parade of interesting and genuinely kind customers who pass through each day. Just in the past few days, I’ve had nice conversations with regulars such as Phra Ratha (the book-buying monk with a burgeoning library), Sam the Thai Neil Young fan, Jim from Nashville, the nice Canadian lady (then again, aren’t all people from Canada nice?) who will buy a dozen books at a time, Robert from South Dakota, Daniel from New Zealand, Christopher G. Moore the writer, John from Sheffield, Kenny the Walter Mosley fan, Pumas from India, and many other nice but nameless customers. Some days are stressful and it can get insanely busy, but the cool customers help to make the occasional chaos tolerable.

I’m also thankful for the mails or phone calls from old friends that I’ve received this past week: my old boss Richard (who is now in the Philippines), Richard in Dallas, Linda in California, Hach and Pov in Cambodia, Janet in Seattle, Ye Man Oo and Hein Yar Zar in Mandalay, Chiet in Nontaburi (by way of Cambodia), Khin Nwe Lwin in Japan, Keith in London (who was in Istanbul this past week, but luckily not in harm’s way), Thay in Siem Reap, Mar Mar Aye in Nyaung Shwe, and my dependable Florida friends Tony, Dave, and Stan. Suddenly the year ahead — facing the frightening prospect of Donald Trump leading the world’s most powerful nation — doesn’t seem quite so depressing. Then again, buckle up and prepare for the worst!

This morning I was pleasantly surprised to see my old friend Bay at the motorcycle taxi stand near my apartment. He’d been “missing” for the past six months — gone back to his home province, presumably — and I was getting worried, so having him back in town and working as usual was a sign that things are perhaps back to normal.

Normal? I’m not even sure what this is anymore, but here’s hoping for a year that is decidedly less cruel, violent, and heartbreaking.

Back in the Jungle

Ta Prohm is best known as Angkor’s “jungle temple,” categorized as such due to all the trees — particularly the massive roots — that have become intertwined with the ancient architecture over the course of the past several centuries. To say that it’s an awesome sight would be an understatement.

I’ve visited Ta Prohm at least a half-dozen times over the past twelve years, but the last time I went there was seven or eight years ago, so I figured I was due for a return, which is what happened last week. It wasn’t any less magnificent, but a lot of that jungle vibe and magical atmosphere has now been lost; suffocated by the hordes of tourists who now descend on the site each day. Plus, there is a lot of renovation taking place, so much so that you can spot cranes and scaffolding in several parts of the area. Not surprisingly, parts of the temple complex are now roped off, to prevent the “curious” from pawing the sculptures and damaging the fragile structures even further. I realize that these architectural treasures need to be preserved, but it still saddens me to see Ta Prohm in this altered state.




Kompong Pluk

One refreshing option for tourists that have developed severe cases of “Temple Fatigue” — brought on from trying to see and photograph too many Angkor temple ruins in the span of a day or two — is to take a boat ride on the nearby Tonle Sap Lake. For many years, Chong Kneas was the favored spot for lake tours, but that village started to get way too touristy, and as crowded as Angkor Wat on some days, so other parts of the lake have become alternate tour destinations. One of those places is Kompong Pluk, a picturesque cluster of small villages located on the floodplain of the Tonle Sap, about 16 kilometers south of Siem Reap. The homes in Kompong Pluk are built on stilts — some wooden and some concrete — and instead of motorcycles and trucks parked outside you’ll find boats and canoes. As you would expect from such a water-based community, most of the villagers’ income comes from fishing.

I visited Kompong Pluk again this month with my friends Rong, Chiet, and the four Try brothers. We bought packages of chicken and rice at the market in Roulous on the way and ate those for lunch later on the lake. Some of the boat ride is spent on canals and tributaries that wind through mangrove forests. Once you are on the big lake — and it is so big it would qualify as a “Great Lake” back in the US —the boat usually stops for a break and passengers are allowed to swim if they want. Our boat driver toldus that sometimes he gets younger foreign tourists who want to swim au natural. But this guy admitted that he got flustered when naked foreign women asked him to take their photo! Oh well, just part of a hard day’s work!



Cambodia Cultural Village

My four-day trip to Siem Reap earlier this month was mostly spent on outings with friends who live in the area. And I also spent a lot of time eating and playing pool at the Hawaii Restaurant. One good thing about this trip was the lazy pace. I didn’t run myself ragged constantly going places. But I did find time to visit the homes of my friends Chamrong and So Pengthai, as well as going to markets and the new night bazaar in town. Other than visiting Phnom Krom, overlooking the Tonle Sap Lake, I didn’t venture out to see any of the Angkor temples. I never get bored traipsing among those ancient ruins, but nowadays there are so many tourists at Angkor, you are more than likely to be tripping over busloads of ancient Koreans.

One day I took a group of friends to the Cambodia Cultural Village, located on Highway Six, on the way to the airport. This sprawling park has daily music and dance performances, boat rides, a haunted house, many cultural exhibits, and playgrounds for young children. The day we went it was a national holiday and the place was uncomfortably packed with locals. Not my idea of an ideal day at the park, but my friends all enjoyed it. Here are a few photos of that day, along with one of Thai at the new house he just had built.

Khmer Traffic Chaos

You think traffic in Bangkok is bad? Compared to the total insanity on any street in Siem Reap or Phnom Penh, I’ll take Bangkok’s gridlock any day of the week. The thing that drives me most crazy about Cambodia drivers is their lack of predictability. You never know when they are going to turn, where they are going to turn, or more shockingly, which side of the road on which they are going to drive. It’s common to see cars and motorcycles veer to the opposite side of the road a full block before they even have to make a turn. Cutting corners indeed! I have yet to canvass the planet, but Cambodians rank as the scariest drivers I have even seen.


Siem Reap used to a relatively sedate and sleepy little town, but in the past decade tourism to Angkor has boomed and the town has grown quickly —I’d say TOO quickly. What passes for “progress” and growth is not necessarily a good thing. Look around and you still see lots of abject poverty amidst the shiny new hotels and billboards advertising cell phone companies. It’s not a cliche to say the rich are getting richer and poor are getting poorer. Another result of all this new “development” is a surge in traffic. Venture down any street in Siem Reap and you’ll see vivid examples of driving incompetence. Predictably, intersections are the worst scenes of vehicular madness, as the stew of motorcycles, Toyotas, bicycles, trucks, carts, and SUVs (those obnoxiously large boxes are invariably driven by disgustingly rich Khmers wearing gaudy gold jewelry, or disgustingly pampered NGO workers who apparently can’t function without air conditioning) converge simultaneously amidst clouds of dust, jockeying for position on the asphalt. If that’s not bad enough, roughly half the drivers are chatting on their cell phones and not paying much attention to the obstacles around them. It’s sheer bedlam and it’s damn scary. Welcome to Cambodia!

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