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

Posts tagged ‘Phnom Penh’

Good Hearts & Loving Kindness

I had dinner last Tuesday with two of my favorite people; Janet Brown and Ma Thanegi. Janet, now living in Seattle, had been in town for a week already, but Thanegi has just flown in from Yangon that morning. We met at my bookshop and then made plans to eat at a Thai restaurant on Thonglor. To make the journey easier I called one my motorcycle taxi friends, Bay, and asked him to bring a couple of other moto drivers to the shop to pick us up. Traffic was looking scary-bad, but within 20 minutes he and his buddies arrived and then whisked us away to the restaurant. I tipped the drivers generously and told Bay that he and his friends were welcome to join me for dinner whenever they had free time. Of course getting that free time is no easy task for these guys. They work insane hours with no days off. Anyway, Janet and Thanegi and I had a feast at the restaurant. Good food and good conversation; it was the perfect night.


The next day Thanegi stopped by my bookshop to buy a few more books. This time I remembered to snap a photo! A few days later I was treated to a surprise visit from Beth Goldring from Phnom Penh. Beth founded the Brahmavihara Cambodia Aids Project in 2000, the same year I met her. She’s also there in the top ranks of my favorite people category; a truly amazing, inspirational lady. It was a busy Saturday when she dropped by my bookshop, but I made time to sit down and chat for a while. As usual, Beth is in the middle of several projects and planning another fundraising trip to the US later this year, but she stocked up on mystery novels while she was in my shop.


And later that night, Bai and three of the motorcycle taxi drivers on my street dropped by my apartment to hang out and listen to music, the usual “Songs for Life” fare such as Pongist Kampee and Carabao. They’re a curious bunch — I don’t doubt I’m their first farang friend — and they pepper me with all sorts of questions, and I return the favor and ask them a bunch of stuff too. My Thai is still not fluent, so some of what they are saying doesn’t always register, but for the most part, we can carry on a semi-coherent conversation … and that thrills me. I truly enjoy their company.


Today is Valentine’s Day of course, but here in Thailand the date this year also falls on an important Buddhist holiday, Makha Bucha. Loving kindness and love the one you’re with; a great combination! That got me thinking that I should expand the theme of my post today and write about life and love and good friends, all those things that I often take for granted. This year I’m reflecting more on this sort of stuff as one of my best friends remains bed-ridden in a local nursing home, basically waiting to die. And mortality reared its ugly head last week when I got an e-mail from another good friend, So Penh Thay in Siem Reap, Cambodia, telling me that his father had passed away the day before. I wrote back, and also called him, but I feel that any words of sympathy on my part were inadequate.


Another one of my favorite people, Khin Nwe Lwin in Mandalay, sent me a couple of e-mails last week, attaching MP3s of some Burmese songs for me. She’s also been helping me keep track of people and things around the 90th Street neighborhood in Mandalay where I have many other friends. There’s a troubling issue with one of the kids there, but I’ll save that story for another post. But the main thing is that she is supportive of my efforts to help these kids and I really treasure our friendship.


Also in Mandalay, I can’t forget about Zin Ko and Moe Htet Aung, two stalwarts of the 90th Street crew who I take on field trips when I’m in town. During the past two trips to Mandalay, Zin Ko and Moe Htet Aung have also become my nightly dining companions, usually at Aye Myit Tar Restaurant on 81st Street. It beats dining alone, and they are nice, polite kids, so I’m always happy to have them tag along. My birthday happened to fall during the time I was in Mandalay last trip and Zin Ko and Moe Htet Aung gave me gifts, one of which was this cute little stand with plastic swans and hearts that lights up when you flip a switch. “When the light comes on you will remember us,” Moe Htet Aung told me. Indeed I will!


On this Valentine’s Day, I send out hearts and arrows of love to all the friends and fine folks who continue to put up with me. And a Happy Makha Bucha Day too!


Cambodia Rocks

The national elections in Cambodia were held last week and it came as no surprise that Prime Minister For Life (or so he keeps hoping) Hun Sen and his CPP thugs — uh, I mean, party — won re-election once again. Actually, the big surprise was that their margin of victory was much less than expected, giving the rival CNRP (Cambodia National Rescue Party) more seats in the National Assembly. The latest tally that I read gave CPP 55 percent of the seats, a sharp drop from the 73 percent that they won (Bought? Stole?) in the last election in 2008.


The big pre-election drama was the return of Sam Rainsy, a longtime nemesis of Hun Sen and now the head of the CNRP, who had been living in exile in France the past couple of years. But a week before the election, Hun Sen apparently paid attention to veiled threats from the likes of the United States, who were calling for “free and fair elections,” and arranged for Sam Rainsy to be pardoned for a “crime” that was dubious in the first place. But that was a case of too little too late, and with only a week to campaign — and not even being eligible to vote himself — there wasn’t a whole lot that Rainsy and his supporters could do. Or so it seemed. The fact that they did galvanize and inspire a lot of people — many of them disgruntled and disgusted by years of intimidation, terror, and corruption by Hun Sen and his minions — was actually quite impressive.

 cam_party truck

Before the election I asked one Cambodian friend living in Phnom Penh what he thought about it all.

“Of course I will vote. My opinion is I really would like this country that I live in to have the real democracy. And I think it is fair for the other party to have a chance for a try. I hope things would change a bit, even if we could not do much, but at least something.”


Another friend, this one living in Siem Reap, sent me an e-mail the day after the election.”

“The election in my country was very bad. Too much corruption and cheating from CPP. I feel ashamed to all people in the world about what my leader did. The reputation of Cambodian is gone because of him.”

So, the elections may be over, but there is definitely a defiant feeling lingering in the air and the whole situation feels very unsettled. It’s too early to predict that there will be marches and demonstrations or people will take to the streets and occupy public squares in Phnom Penh. If there was an Arab Spring could we be in store for a Khmer Summer?  


One encouraging sign, in addition to the decrease in votes for Hun Sen and CPP, is the growing number of young people who are voting and taking to social media to express their opinions. Cambodians used to strike me a very timid bunch, afraid of challenging authority and not daring to voice their opinions. Perhaps that’s a legacy from the brutality of the Khmer Rouge, which, if you’ll remember, wasn’t such a long time ago. But there is a new generation, those under the age of 30, who were born after the end of the Khmer Rouge era, and they don’t seem to share the same submissive and fearful traits that their parents did.


This new generation wants change. They are tired of waiting. They are tired of being poor. They are tired of seeing Hun Sen and his buddies driving around town in their fucking SUVs and throwing lavish parties and wedding receptions, and then jetting off for shopping sprees in other countries. These people want a share of that pie too, instead of the meager crumbs that have been randomly tossed to them for the past three decades.

 A change is gonna come, baby, and with any amount of luck we may not have to wait five more years. Hun Sen, your days are numbered.



Politicians, Friends, and other Delights

Blink and you missed it. Barack Obama made a whirlwind tour of the region earlier in the week, spending a half-day in Bangkok, about six hours in Yangon, and the better part of two days at an ASEAN summit meeting in Phnom Penh. Hillary Clinton also put in an appearance at each location, but then had to fly off to the crazy lands — The Middle East — in an attempt to pacify the Israelis, Palestinians, Egyptians, and possibly other aggrieved nationalities. Does that woman ever get any sleep?


It would be an understatement to say that Obama’s visits to Thailand and Myanmar were met with great excitement — and approval — from the populace in each country. People in Asia really like him. And it doesn’t hurt that he has a great smile. Obama himself appeared to be delighted by the warm reception, and looked like he was enjoying the visits. Thai Prime Minister Yingluck “I Love Democracy” Shinawatra couldn’t keep from beaming in every photo that I saw, looking like a schoolgirl getting to meet a famous pop star. And then there were several photos of Obama in Yangon, hugging and kissing Aung San Suu Kyi … uh, rather fervently. The Lady appeared a bit taken back from such an overt display of affection from Barry, but hey, it’ll certainly sell more newspapers in Yangon and give the fellows in the teashops something to talk about. And it sure beats having some creepy overweight dude, wearing a snorkel and flippers and carrying a bible, showing up on your doorstep late one night, dripping lake water and asking to spend the night. That’s one incident — and in case you missed it, yes, it really happened — that I’d love to know more details about.


Obama made visits to such sacred sites as Wat Pho in Bangkok and Shwedagon in Yangon, but by contrast, once he arrived in Phnom Penh he didn’t stop for any temple tours, but headed straight to the ASEAN-US Leaders Meeting, where serious business was discussed. The tone was set when Obama greeted Hun Sen — Cambodia’s Prime-Minister-for-Life and don’t you dare think otherwise — with a firm handshake, absent of any back slapping or pleasantries. Even if it was “Give a Thug a Hug” week, I don’t think Obama would have lowered himself to embrace Hun Sen. And good for him. Hun Sen is one of the creepiest “leaders” in the region and it’s about time people started standing up to him. By all accounts, the meeting with Hun Sen was “tense,” Obama giving the old Khmer Rouge foot soldier a dressing down on the subject of land seizures, human rights, freedom of speech, and other such sticky issues that the Cambodian government brushes under the bamboo mat. Despite the millions of dollars in foreign aid money that floods into Cambodia each year — it reportedly receives the highest percentage of any country in Asia — poverty in the country is still rampant and infrastructure well behind that of Thailand. It’s the same old broken record: the rich get richer … and they drive SUVs and get away with…


On another Cambodian note, I’ve been flooded with phone calls from friends there this week. The subject of Hun Sen and/or Obama never came up, however. Nowadays, my Cambodian friends have more important things to worry about; like paying school tuition, paying hospital bills, and affording to eat. I talked to three of the Tri brothers, and also Chamrong in Siem Reap. His wife just gave birth to their first child, a boy, but the baby was born one month premature, necessitating a multi-week stay in the hospital for mother and child. Rong took off from his job at the airport for over a full week to help take care of them. Happily, they are all home now and Rong is back at work. Another friend, So Pengthai has also had to help his wife and children recuperate from various illnesses. Blame it on the rainy season, which thankfully, now appears to have run its course.


Yet another Cambodian friend from Siem Reap, Chiet, has been calling me almost every day … from Thailand! He’s working in another province as a welder, trying to earn some extra money, Hell, trying to earn any money at all. He’s had a problem finding steady work this year in Siem Reap, so somehow he got hooked up with a job broker that brought him to Thailand. I don’t think he has legal working papers, which makes him one of thousands (perhaps the number runs into five or six figures … or more?) of Cambodians and Burmese who are working in Thailand without proper documents. Not exactly slave labor, but don’t think these people are getting paid a fair wage either. Whatever the case, Chiet is working every day of the week — no days off — and is quite tired, but in pretty good spirits overall. There is another Cambodian working with him, but the rest of the workers, I gather, are Thai. He’s obviously lonely, being away from friends and family, so I’m one of his few daily social contacts, albeit one that’s on the phone. If I can figure out exactly where he’s working — trying to get him to distinguish Sakhon from Nakorn and Pathom from Phanom and other similar words is a difficult task — I may visit him next month. He plans to work here until mid-April, the annual Khmer — and Thai — water festival period, before going back to Siem Reap. In the meantime, we talk each night, which is helping to improve my rusty Khmer skills; word and phrases I haven’t used in years are coming back to me. We joke about eating grilled dog for dinner, plus he’s learning some Thai words too, which he is thrilled to impress me with. I only hope he doesn’t fall into any bad habits — drinking and drugs come to mind — during his exhausting labor stint in a different country. It ain’t an easy life for people like him.


Kim Fay’s Map of Lost Memories

At the far end of the apartment, a row of shutters opened onto a balcony overlooking the swayback roofs of Shanghai. Beyond the low buildings and down a crooked street, the Whangpoo River shushed against the wharves. A heavy, velvet humidity pressed down on this dark belt of water, a perpetual tension that caused a wilted draft, lifting fumes of jasmine and sewage, coal and rotting river weed, into thick night air.

That’s the opening paragraph of The Map of Lost Memories, the impressive debut novel by Kim Fay that has just been published. That evocative passage is just one of many that are peppered through the thrilling historical novel, set in Asia in 1925. Fay takes the reader along with her characters, deftly describing the sights, smells, and vibes of each exotic locale they visit. From the back alleys of Shanghai and Saigon, to humid jungles and magnificent temple ruins in Cambodia, Fay’s vivid, atmospheric prose enables the reader to see and smell and feel the surroundings.

The main character in The Map of Lost Memories is Irene Blum, a young museum curator from Seattle. She has been sent to Asia on an unusual mission by her dying, and somewhat mysterious, mentor. In Shanghai she is introduced to Simone, “a mercurial French woman” and experienced Asia hand, who Irene hopes will help her find a legendary set of copper scrolls that detail the history of Cambodia’s ancient Khmer civilization, an area of particular interest to both women. After joining forces in Shanghai, and dealing with Simone’s dangerous husband, the two women sail to Vietnam, where they rendezvous with two men in Saigon. From that point, their journey takes on added intrigue — and even more participants — when they enter Cambodia and travel from the ruins of Angkor to Phnom Penh, and then into the unforgiving Cambodia jungles in search of a mysterious temple and the scrolls.


Kim Fay spent fourteen long years — from inspiration to publication — writing, researching, and rewriting her novel. That sounds like an unbelievably tedious and frustrating ordeal, but she should be quite happy with the end result. Only published a few weeks ago, The Map of Lost Memories is already receiving raves. A review in Publishers Weekly called the book “Atmospheric, lyrical, and written in almost painfully beautiful prose, this historical novel sings like a coloratura soprano performing in a gorgeous opera.” The Historical Novel Society also recommended the book, saying: “We expect a female Indiana Jones and an expedition filled with adventure and excitement, but while there are exciting moments, the focus is more on character, and the whole expedition is more of a journey of self-discovery … an intriguing read that takes different paths to those expected.”

Other authors have also been effusive with praise. Gail Tsukiyama said: “With deftness and clarity, Fay brings her world to life and gives us a captivating read.” Nicole Mones added: “Kim Fay breathes new and original life into the Westerner-in-Asia novel with The Map of Lost Memories. An enchanting, absorbing first novel, all the more remarkable for its effortless portrayal of a bygone world, now nearly forgotten.”

I played e-mail ping pong with Kim recently, asking her about the new novel and its source of inspiration, her other writing projects, and a few questions about food. Needless to say, she’s a very busy woman these days!

You must be very excited to see your first novel finally published and in bookshops. What sort of emotions are you experiencing now that it’s out?

If I had the words to draw a picture of me doing a happy dance, I would. This truly is the best feeling in the world. I’ve wanted to be a published novelist since I was ten, so to say that this is a dream come true is an understatement. I plan to enjoy every second of it, except for those when I’m anxiously worrying that no one will buy my book! Fortunately, these moments pass. Also, along with exhilaration, there is some sadness. I spent fourteen years with my characters. Now I have to let them go. Fortunately, readers are starting to discuss them. It’s a bit like when a kid goes off to college. The parent still hears about what they’re up to and even talks about them with family and friends, but ultimately the parent is no longer in control and the child has gone off to live her own life.

You lived in Vietnam for several years, but most of this novel takes place in Cambodia and is about ancient Khmer temples. What inspired you to pick this topic for your book?

Not long after I moved to Vietnam, I read a book called Silk Roads. It’s the true story of Andre and Clara Malraux, a young French couple who lost their small fortune and came up with the idea of looting a Cambodian temple and living off the sale of a few choice artifacts. In 1923, they set sail to Cambodia, and with the help of local laborers, they pried a seven-piece, 1,000-pound bas relief from the abandoned temple of Banteay Srei. They were caught almost immediately and put under house arrest in Phnom Penh. While there they witnessed the injustices of colonialism. This experience launched their involvement in the revolutionary politics of the region, and their overall experience inspired me to start writing The Map of Lost Memories.

This novel took several years for you to write. Like any good fiction, you had to create memorable characters, write believable dialogue, develop atmosphere, and mix in a page-turning plot. Which aspects to writing the novel were the most difficult for you? And which parts were easiest?  

The first books I read on my own when I was young were mysteries such as Nancy Drew. Because of this, I’ve always been drawn to plot. I love mapping out a story and creating an intricate web that needs to be unraveled. This comes easily to me, as does creating a setting that draws readers in. I think the latter is due to my love of travel writing. I’m grateful to the skills I’ve honed as a travel writer, since they give me the ability to create a strong sense of place. What is toughest for me is character. I don’t have a problem coming up with characters, but once they emerge, I often have no idea who they are. And I will find myself trying to force my characters to go against their nature and behave in ways that will serve the plot I’ve created—this is always a mistake! Fortunately, characters usually have minds of their own, and if you give them their space, they will develop in incredible ways. I also write in layers, with one draft layered over another draft layered over the top of another. By doing this I allow my characters to develop organically, and I spend time getting to know them better and understanding who they are in the context of the story I’m trying to tell.

You have quite a cast of interesting characters of various nationalities in your book. Once you had the idea for the novel, did you also have the roster of characters pretty much set, or did they evolve during the course of writing?

I think I answered part of this question in my response above, but to elaborate on it, Roger and Simone Merlin were loosely inspired by Andre and Clara Malraux, and like most of the characters—Irene, Marc, Mr. Simms, Anne—they existed from the very start. The big surprise was Clothilde. She did not exist in the early drafts of the book, and when she first appeared, she was simply Mr. Simms’s nurse. But the more I wrote, the more she demanded a life and story of her own. I think she was protesting the lack of local characters in the book. I don’t blame her, but I was wary of including a local cast of characters, because I felt that I had to stay true to the Western viewpoint in Asia in the 1920s, and that viewpoint was so awful most of the time. Even Irene, who loves Cambodia and its culture, has a pretty terrible attitude toward the local population. Also, when it came to local women and their role in Western expatriate society at that time period, they were generally confined to being servants, mistresses or prostitutes. While Clothilde is indeed Mr. Simms’s mistress, I hope that her reasons for this are sympathetic justified in the story and that her individuality comes through. I wish I would have developed Clothilde further, but she has recently informed me that she will have a significant role in the sequel!

I recall your last trip to Asia a few years ago when you went to Cambodia and took the boat from Phnom Penh up the river to Kratie. At that point, you must have been close to finishing the book. What specific contribution did that trip make to the novel?

In 2009, as I neared the end of the writing the novel, I hadn’t been to Cambodia for four years. The plot of the novel had evolved drastically during that time, and I felt the need to return and immerse myself in the country, so that I could undertake the home stretch with Cambodia’s sights, sounds and smells fresh in my mind. I spent days in the National Museum in Phnom Penh (one of my favorite places in Cambodia and the scene of a major encounter with Irene and Simone), just sitting in the shadows, sipping iced tea and studying the artifacts. And I traveled to Kratie, on the Mekong River between Phnom Penh and Stung Treng. There, I pedaled out into the countryside and let my mind wander as I inhaled the dank, omnipresent scent of the river and reminded myself how such intense heat and humidity can make a person feel so alive. I was able to return the States and steep my final work on the novel in the immediacy of my experiences.

You’re a former bookseller. In this era of e-books and online sales, many bookshops are closing. Do you think that brick and mortal retail shops can still play an important role in selling books, or will they soon go the way of the dinosaur?

I think brick and mortar retail shops play an incredibly crucial role—creating a sense of community and offering a place where discussion and ideas can take root and grow. There is no substitute for an independent bookseller hand-selling a customer his favorite book, or for a conversation that breaks out among the shelves when two people discover they love the same book. I understand why people shop online, and I understand why they read e-books, but I think in both instances they are missing out on what is my favorite thing about independent bookshops: human connection. The more our lives our consumed by our online worlds, the more we need bookshops to keep us connected to one another. Every time I walk into an independent bookstore, I feel a sense of possibility. Of course I would love to say that because of their importance, bookstores will be around forever, but sadly I’m not sure. I’m just grateful to people like you for investing your lives in places where people can gather and share their love of the written word.

What about your next novel; a sequel to this one, or something entirely different?

There will definitely be a sequel to The Map of Lost Memories, although it’s difficult to talk about without revealing spoilers. But that’s not my next book. I’m about 100 pages into a new novel that takes place in Vietnam between 1937 and 1975. It’s the story of an American woman born in Vietnam who goes on to become a culinary anthropologist. Along with studying the country’s imperial cuisine, she also feeds homesick soldiers. I want to use the book to explore the domestic side of Vietnamese life during an era associated solely with war. I also want it to be a love song to the country. But because of my affection for Nancy Drew, I can’t help myself—there will also be a murder and a mystery to be solved.

You are editor of the marvelous To Asia with Love series, and also wrote the excellent food travel memoir Communion. Do you have any ideas for other travel or non-fiction books that you’d like to write, or will you stick to novels at this point?

I feel fortunate to have edited the To Asia With Love guidebooks and to have written a food memoir about Vietnam; and although I truly enjoy writing nonfiction, my first love is fiction. Now that I have an opportunity to pursue it, that’s where my main focus is. But that doesn’t mean I won’t write more nonfiction in the future. One idea I’d really like to pursue is a Vietnamese imperial cuisine cookbook to pair with my new novel. But it would contain more than just recipes. It would also be a history book and incorporate stories from Vietnam’s imperial era and unique tidbits, such as translations of a cookbook from the imperial city of Hue that was written in 1915 entirely in verse.

You’re an unabashed foodie; you’ve written about Asian cuisine and cook a lot at home. What are some of the best dishes you’ve eaten in Cambodia?

On my last trip to Cambodia, I became addicted to green mango salad. I was blazing hot all the time, and it was so refreshing—especially since mangos were in season, hanging by the hundreds in the trees and piled high at every roadside stand. It was also more flavorful than similar salads I’d had in surrounding countries, mainly because, as I wrote in my travel diary, it was so “shrimpy.” I also ate a lot of pleah, the cold beef salad made with lime, roasted rice powder and peanuts. While I like many of the soups, as well, I was definitely drawn to dishes that revived me with their coolness and light flavors.

Were you brave enough to try any of the more “challenging” treats over there, such as tarantula or field rat?

I’m not opposed to such treats in theory, but to be honest, I’m not sure if I could stomach a whole tarantula. And for the most part, I didn’t come across such dishes. In any case, I figure Anthony Bourdain has the adventure dining market covered—I think I’ll do best leaving the creepy crawlies to the experts!!

You will do some book signings and interviews in the US for the launch of this novel. Are you planning on any trips to Asia to promote the book too?

In the spring of 2013, I’ll be accompanying a food tour group through Vietnam; at the end of this trip, we’ll visit Cambodia where we plan to hold a book group for The Map of Lost Memories right at the temples. While there, I hope to do an event at Monument Books, which already has my novel on sale, front and center. If it works into my schedule, I’d love to come to Thailand as well, but I’m not yet sure if that will happen.



Immigration Men

There has been a lot of negative press in recent months about the long delays getting through immigration at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport. In some cases, passengers arriving at the airport have had to wait nearly two hours to get processed by the understaffed and overworked immigration officers. I’ve never had to endure nearly that long a wait upon arrival at the airport in the past year, but I have noticed a much longer wait to get OUT of the country; crazy, alarmingly long lines that test the patience of even the most hardened traveler.


But when I took a flight from Bangkok to Phnom Penh last week, I was startled to show up at immigration and find myself stepping right up to the desk, no waiting whatsoever. And no, it wasn’t April Fool’s Day. After all the complaints they were getting recently, the authorities reportedly hired a bunch of new immigration officers, or in some cases reassigned some warm bodies, to immigration. Whether this is a temporary fix — just in time for the Thai New Year water festival the middle of this month — or a sign that they have finally decided to get matters organized properly is uncertain at this point.


After that pleasant immigration processing when exiting the kingdom, I had a totally opposite experience when returning later in the week. The lines at the immigration arrival desks were as long as usual, but they’ve initiated a new “snake line” system that supposedly makes the waiting time more equitable for everyone. They have also hired “document checkers,” young women who make sure you have completed the arrival form properly before you reach the immigration desk. The biggest problem with the new system seems to be the recently hired immigration officers. I have no idea what sort of training they received, but two officers that I observed were taking a very long time to process passports, and one of them had to call over a supervisor twice while I was waiting in line. And of course that’s the guy I got. Once I got to the desk, it took only slightly longer than normal to get my passport back, with a rare smile no less! But on a hunch, I looked at the new expiration stamp inside the passport. As I had feared, this guy had totally screwed up: he had given me a 30-day tourist visa instead of using the 1-year non-immigrant visa that was already stamped inside the passport. Instead of expiring in October, my visa was now only good until late April. I brought this matter to his attention and he apologized. But he clearly didn’t know what to do at this point, so once again a supervisor was called to the scene. Instead of giving me a new stamp, he took a pen, changed the date, and initialed it. I asked him in Thai if there would be any problem the next time I left and re-entered the country, but he assured me that everything would be kosher. Except he obviously didn’t use the word “kosher.”


Once I had finally made it through that immigration maze of hell, I rushed over to the baggage carousel, only to discover that none of the bags from my flight had started coming out yet! Upon landing, we had to wait nearly 15 minutes before disembarking because a bus had not arrived to take us to the terminal, and now there more delays! If this had been someone’s first trip to Thailand, I can only imagine they would be wondering what sort of inept place they were visiting. Not exactly a favorable first impression of a normally delightful country.  But hey, at least it’s not as awful as the United States of Agony, where redneck immigration and customs officials would detain you — deciding that you fit the profile of a sex tourist, drug dealer, and/or terrorist — take you into a room, and subject you to more interrogation and humiliation. You know, on second thought, maybe having to wait in line for an hour or two isn’t such a bad thing after all.

Cambodian Road

Just a quick post today; I’m on the road in Cambodia, visiting friends in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. The plan was also to go to Battambang for a day or two, but the Try brothers changed their minds and decided to stay longer in Siem Reap (where they used to live, and where I first met them 10 years ago) to visit friends of their own. No problem for me; it saves having to book more transportation and hotel rooms. Plus, it’s nice to actually relax and do not much of anything for a day or two.

It’s been a very pleasurable trip so far. I met my friend Sochiet for dinner in Phnom Penh the first night and we talked about how much that city has changed in the past decade. Indeed, there are now skyscrapers being built and modern shopping centers popping up around the city; things you never could have imagined in the late 1990s. Sochiet is in between jobs right now and working nights as a motorcycle taxi driver. He’s an extremely bright young man, and speaks nearly fluent English, and I hope he can secure a better job soon.

Dave Perkes from Peace of Angkor Tours was also in Phnom Penh earlier this week and was headed back to Siem Reap on Tuesday, so he offered to give me — and the four Try brothers — a lift to Siem Reap. More traffic on that road than ever before, which slows down a trip that had been faster after the highway was resurfaced a few years ago. Oh well, it’s still a scenic drive.

Here in Siem Reap, as usual we’ve had most of our meals at the Hawaii Restaurant on Wat Bo Road, where the food is good, the service always friendly, and the kids can play pool.  As usual, they beat me every game. My friend So Pengthai, a tour guide, has been busy with clients most of the week, but we met for dinner one night. He brought along his 2-year-old daughter. His wife has to stay home and take care of their newest arrival: a son that was born two weeks ago! Speaking of new events, my friend Rong, who works at the Siem Reap Airport, also met us for dinner one night and brought something new of his own: the young woman he married three weeks ago! And to top off the list of things going on, So Pengthai is headed to Phnom Penh next week to apply for a visa at the US Embassy. His tour company wants to send him to a training course in Cleveland (Cleveland?! Yes, that’s the plan!) in late April. Needless to say, he’s quite excited, but also a bit reluctant to leave his wife and newborn son for the six weeks that the course will take.

Fun Finds

I love hunting for old books when I’m on the road. In Yangon, the outdoor bookstalls on Pansodan Road can sometimes yield little treasures, and in Phnom Penh I always seem to find a gem or two at Bohr’s Books. While in Kuala Lumpur last week, I visited some several secondhand bookshops and also the BookXcess outlet in Petaling Jaya’s Amcorp Mall for some good cheap remainder titles.

One of the goodies I found at the Junk Bookstore in KL (and yes, that’s really the name of this shop) was Every Little Crook and Nanny a 1972 novel by Evan Hunter, the author also known as Ed McBain. Every Little Crook and Nanny is a bit different than McBain’s popular 87th Precinct series of novels, ones that have been dubbed “Police Procedurals.” This one is more of a comic caper, reminiscent of Donald Westlake’s delightful Dortmunder books. The Hunter novel features a cast of (almost) lovable Mafia goons, a hapless kidnapper, and a bizarre police officer or two. Good fun.


I also found a battered copy of Hot Day, Hot Night by Chester Himes, which is the sixth novel in the classic Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones series. First published in 1969, this is a 1975 edition, big afros on the cover and all. A review in the San Francisco Chronicle called Himes “the best writer of mayhem yarns since Raymond Chandler.” Mayhem yarns? Whatever you want to call this style of crime fiction, it’s the addictive kind, and I look forward to reading this old Chester Himes novel very soon.


Yet another goodie I was thrilled to find was William Kotzwinkle’s Jack in the Box, one of the more warped coming-of-age tales that you are likely to read. Comic books, teenage hormones, and a wacky cast of characters make for a very humorous novel. Kotzwinkle is a brilliant writer who has written some of the funniest books around, The Bear Went Over the Mountain being one of most hilarious novels of all time, in my opinion. Really, that book was one of those laugh-out-loud tales that you’ll think about reading again a few years later, just to see if it’s still as funny as it was the first time. Jack in the Box isn’t nearly as guffaw-able, but it’s still an entertaining read. Kotzwinkle, by the way, wrote the screenplay for a movie you might have heard of: E.T. the Extra Terrestrial.

In addition to that lot, I found old paperbacks from authors such as Kingsley Amis, J.D. Donleavy, John D. MacDonald, Charles McCarry, Trevanian, Jonathan Raban, Arthur C. Clarke, E.L. Doctorow, Erle Stanley Gardner, M.C. Beaton, and two old “Quiller” novels by Adam Hall. Definitely not the latest best sellers, but this delightful mish-mash of books was just what I was looking for.

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