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Thiel vs. Trump Part 3 – The End of the Beginning or the Beginning of the End?

Okay, just a quick recap and then I’ll wrap this series up for now, since, due to circumstances beyond my control, parts three and four, which I’d already written, were erased and are now gone forever.

Unless they are on archive.org or in Google’s cache. Or hiding somewhere in my computer.

But anyways, to recap:

  • Thiel supports Trump.
  • Thiel made a successful power grab in the face of an ocean of opposing views – i.e., he was right & everyone else was wrong. Yet I feel like I’m the only one who sees his foresight as extremely significant. Everyone else remains hung up on the “Oh no you di’nt support Trump!” mentality.
  • Thiel believes in monopoly, or the centralization of power, as opposed to decentralization of power.
  • He believes that capitalism is good, though his definition of capitalism seems to be somewhat different from other people’s and that definition isn’t being made abundantly clear.

Here is Thiel’s speech at the National Press Club:

To reiterate, I think that, rather than lambasting Trump and lumping Thiel in with him … which is very easy to do and requires no critical thinking or foresight whatsoever … people need to pay attention to Thiel for a number of reasons.

The most poignant fact is that he is very smart and he was right when everybody else was wrong.

When you take that important fact into consideration, it seems like a good idea to pay very close attention to what he has to say…

And he has some very interesting and scary things to say about the world’s state of affairs.

Why Does Peter Thiel Support Donald Trump? Because He Wants to Save the World…

election-613132_1920So why does Peter Thiel support Donald Trump?

When I read headlines saying that Silicon Valley is baffled by his actions, I am baffled by their reactions.

It should be clear that there’s more going on here than meets the eye – though sometimes I wonder if Trump knows that…

Peter Thiel, for those of you who don’t know, is a brilliant billionaire tech tycoon who helped found PayPal and Palantir and who has his investment fingers in many other businesses.

As a tech-savvy, forward-thinking gay man – who has some unconventional ideas about technology, capitalism, economics, and the world we live in – he’s one of the last people you’d expect to see speaking in favor of a Trump presidency.

Yet that’s exactly what he did at the RNC, claiming that the economy and the government are “broken” and that he supports “people who are building new things.”

Donald Trump, he says, is a “builder…and it’s time to rebuild America.”

But…come on.

Donald Trump?

Really?

Donald Trump? That Guy?

man-845847_1280Trump openly:

After watching a BBC special pointing out that the USA’s demographics are shifting – and that white people will be a minority in a few decades – I felt that Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” might actually be a subliminal message, “Make America White Again.”

The New York Times came up with a better one: “Make America Hate Again.”

But I’ll try to avoid ranting about Trump.

Critical Thinking About the System

Attacking Trump’s rhetoric is easy and everyone does it.

That is too simple.

It feeds his flames and avoids more important questions that would uncover the machinery underlying the current system, like:

  • Why has a simple-minded salesperson – who simply repeats his target audience’s desires right back to them, like any good salesperson – become so successful financially (despite 4 bankruptcies) and made it this far in the electoral process, and what is it in his rhetoric that resonates with such a large demographic of Americans?
  • Why are we being forced to choose between a salesperson and someone who’s being legally accosted by the FBI right now?
  • Why do people regard him as a “marketing genius,” when in fact he has simply mastered the basics of salesmanship that have been expounded, extrapolated, and explored by great salesmen for the past 100 years?
  • Why does a smart, forward-thinking tech billionaire like Peter Thiel support Trump?

Why Peter Thiel Supports Trump (Take Nothing at Face Value)

chess-433071_1920Peter Thiel is a businessman who thinks strategically about his aims, so there is certainly more to his endorsement than we heard in his RNC speech.

There are a few possible reasons why Thiel might support Trump:

  • Thiel plans to replace Trump with an artificially intelligent, Trump-shaped robot after the election
  • He actually does believe in and support Trump
  • He sees this as an opportunity to take the administrative office from the political families who have been running the office for decades
  • He sees a dire situation, thinks Trump will win, and wants to influence the little guy when he gets into office
  • He wants to run for president in a few years and sees Trump as his best bet for changing and getting into the political game

I could only wish that this last one were true – we would be much better off with a smart “builder” like Thiel than anyone else who has run in a very, very long time. If this were the tech tycoon’s plan, then he’s probably setting himself up now as the rescuer who will fix up the country after Hillary or Donald inevitably make things worse during the next term.

But I doubt Thiel wants to be president (wink, wink, nudge, nudge).

Although, come to think of it, Mark Cuban, another famous billionaire who made big bucks in the tech industry, had said he’d been open to running for president…

Either Thiel plans to run for president in a few years (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) or…

Thiel Supports Trump Because He Thinks Trump Will Implode the Government, Which Will Make Room for Innovation … And a New Monopoly

gears-1236578_1920That’s pretty similar to what this guy at Business Insider said, but I can’t seem to find that article any more…

To find hints of Thiel’s real thinking, look past his RNC speech:

  • Thiel believes that innovation is driven by monopolistic companies, not by competition. According to Thiel, the ideas we use to discuss capitalism are based on models that are outdated and obsolete. Competitive businesses involve towards static equilibrium, and spend their money trying to outdo one another. They have no cash left over to innovate and create. A monopoly, however, is free to charge what it wants, then use those profits to drive innovation. Google is a perfect example of a monopoly in today’s economy. AT&T used to be one, as did IBM and Microsoft.
  • Innovation is at odds with competition and globalization…or they are at least perpendicular to one another. In one talk, Thiel used Japan as an example to demonstrate the difference between the two: since the time of the Meiji Restoration, the country has globalized but not innovated…that is, Japan copied the rest of the world. As a result, this island nation, which is smaller than California, has become a major world superpower. In the 80s, though, they ran out of stuff to copy and their previously explosive economic growth stagnated.
  • Technology and innovation are, for all intents and purposes, the same. Technology, he says, isn’t just limited to computers and software. This has been the most recent, most explosive area of innovation, in part due to the lack of regulation in this sector, which is a brand new industry. Other types of technology could also innovate and grow, but there are a variety of financial, regulatory, and other hurdles to overcome in those sectors – for instance, Elon Musk went to extreme lengths to overcome institutional, technical, regulatory, financial, and other obstacles in the preexisting aerospace industry in order to innovate with SpaceX. Not to mention Tesla.
  • Thiel runs Palantir, a secretive software company that tells the future. Well, fortune-telling may be a bit of a misnomer, but it does offer big data solutions that are used by big organizations, from governments to spy agencies to big name brands. Palantir is financially backed by the CIA and Thiel’s own venture capital company, among others. Supposedly, Palantir is valued at $20 billion and earned $1.7 billion in revenues in 2015. Some have suggested that Thiel’s support of Trump is a move to secure more government revenue for his company.

So how do all these bullet points apply to the topic at hand?

Many people look at a Trump presidency and see chaos…or worse.

Here are some quotes from a piece in the New Yorker, as quoted by a piece on Slate, written about the ghostwriter of Trump’s book, The Art of the Deal:

The prospect of President Trump terrified him. It wasn’t because of Trump’s ideology—Schwartz doubted that he had one. The problem was Trump’s personality, which he considered pathologically impulsive and self-centered…[Schwartz said,] “I genuinely believe that if Trump wins and gets the nuclear codes there is an excellent possibility it will lead to the end of civilization”…asked what he would call [a new book about Trump], he answered, “The Sociopath.”

Is it really possible that Thiel supports someone like Trump?

Or is the tech tycoon playing a different game?

All Good Monopolies … And Competitions … Come to an End

chess-603624_1920As Thiel has pointed out, competition results in stasis and old monopolies are out-innovated by newer monopolies. Trump, a a simple-minded salesperson, has somehow co-opted the Republican party and the election process.

Perhaps his very presence on the electoral stage signals the obsolescence of an old monopoly?

For instance, AT&T was replaced by a diversity of wireless providers. Microsoft replaced the IBM monopoly, and Microsoft is in turn being replaced by newer, more innovative monopolies.

A businessperson, like Trump or Thiel, might feel that businesses and governments are analogous processes.

Eventually, any monopolistic governmental structure, electoral competition, or economic machinery will become outdated and obsolete.

Then it will become replaced by a newer, more evolved monopoly.

If Trump gets elected, it will result in – at the very least – more division, conflict, and controversy than we are seeing right now.

In other words, Trump could cause so much havoc that we would have to wake up and restructure the system.

This would make room for innovation and growth.

Heck, maybe there is only one way to make the broken governmental engine work again…

Start banging on it with a Trump-shaped hammer and hope the world doesn’t end in nuclear war.

What the New Kindle Unlimited Payment System Means for the Future of Humanity

I came across this the other day and found it so fascinating I just had to write about it.

First, a quick recap for those who aren’t familiar with the Kindle Unlimited situation:

Kindle Unlimited is a subscription-based program that allows you instant access to an ocean of digital books. All you need to do is borrow books in order to read them. You don’t have to buy books that are enrolled in Kindle Unlimited, just click “Borrow.” A virtual virtual library at your fingertips!

You, as a reader, only need to pay a measly $9.99 per month to subscribe to this plethora of digital pages, and you can cozy up by the fireplace with your digital romance novels for the rest of your life without ever having to purchase a single one…

DeathtoStock_Medium4To incentivize Kindle-published authors into enrolling in this program, Amazon has set up a multimillion-dollar fund to pay authors for every book that was digitally borrowed.

After July 1st, though, Amazon is making an interesting change…

Instead of being paid per borrow, authors will be paid based on the number of pages people actually read. According to Amazon, they will divide the KDP Select Global Fund by the total number of pages read, rather than by the total number of qualified borrows.

So if one of those borrow-crazy readers only reads one page of your book, you’ll be paid for that page alone. But if an avid fan reads your entire trilogy all the way through, you’ll get paid for all those pages.

Here’s the main reason why this could be a good thing:

Authors will be compensated on the quality of their work, rather than the quality of their book cover or the impulses of borrow-crazy Kindle owners.

Amazon claims this is the reason for the change. Well, not so much the book cover part…but the fact that authors wanted to “align the payout with the length of books.” Before this change, payouts took place when users read 10% of any Kindle title, and the payouts for 2,000-word short stories would be the same as for 200,000-word mega-novels.

On the surface, it may seem that this change will reward novelists and hurt short story writers. But as one Kindle author pointed out, there are plenty of very good, very prolific short story writers out there. Obviously, there are plenty of complex factors at play, such as the size of your genre, how many titles you’ve released, how big your following is, how good your writing is, and so on and so forth.

But I think that Amazon and Google are trying to accomplish the same thing with their algorithms: reward quality because quality is what the people want.

However, there’s one very fascinating takeaway from all this:

money-256319Kindle Unlimited is the prototype of a micropayment economy.

“What the heck’s that?” you might be asking.

Well, let’s look at the so-called information economy…

The web is full of free information. This article is free. Google is free. Facebook is free. You’re giving your personal information away to those companies for free.

In fact, it’s for reasons such as these that Jaron Lanier says the idea of “free information” is actually naive. And that in order to save the middle class, we’ll need to restructure that “free information” delusion and the economy and create a system wherein micropayments were exchanged for the information that is now being bottled up by the corporate juggernaut.

It’s been a while since I read Who Owns the Future?, so I may be wrong about some of the details.

Here are some examples of what micropayment systems might look like:

  • What if WordPress was a subscription-based service that users paid .05 per hour to use? What if I were given 2.5 cents for every minute someone spent on my site? Sure, it doesn’t sound like a lot, but if I have a total of 100 hours spent on my site per day by various visitors, that’s $2.50 a day and $75 a month. All because I’m blogging. Like I’m doing now. Which I’m not getting paid for. Unless you click this link and buy something.
  • What if fans were allowed to donate money to their favorite artists based on how much art was produced? Like Patreon.
  • What if Facebook actually paid people for content? Yeah right.
  • What if there was an online information and content marketplace that allowed people to package and sell information products to others in exchange for currency? Like Amazon.
  • What if you paid a flat monthly subscription fee for unlimited access to that information and the information producers were paid based on how much of that content you consumed? Like Kindle Unlimited.

I think that this micropayment system has such great potential, because it’s performance-based. The cream rises to the top of the crop. Those who produce better quality products will be rewarded for their effort.

Normally I’d go on some cynical tangent about the potentials for abuse by the evil corporate machine, but not today. Let’s bask in the warm glow of Kindle Unlimited’s all-just and all-encompassing warmth and love…while it lasts.

Of course, if there are any Kindle nerds out there who can see an obvious downside that I’m missing, shoot me an email.

I’m sure I’ll come up with something sooner or later.

Always Count Your Money Part 3: The Wolf of Kampot

No gory details with this one, sorry.

View from my current hostel

View from my current hostel

Let’s just say I met a travel agent who had the “perfect” solution to my live-work needs. In the end I ended up with a solution that didn’t work & less money than I started with. I told him I wanted at least some of my money back and he said he’d try his hardest to get it back to me, then he tried to sell me on a guest house instead.

Though he says he’ll try & get my money back, I know it’s not going to happen, and after all this and on top of all that, he wants to be business partners with me.

I said I would happily build a website, shoot photography for his business, and write marketing copy for him. But rather than pay me for these time-consuming and skill-based services, he tried to wine and dine me with a Thai energy drink while we sat at tables outside a convenience store. He said I should move to Sihanoukville and help him run a travel agency.

More Kampot

More Kampot

I put in $800, you put in $800, he said — as if we’d been friends for years — and we split the profits 50-50.

I told him I wouldn’t invest.

My best hope was to try to get him to pay me to make his website, do some writing, and possibly some design work.

He nodded sagely with his 80’s sunglasses.

Big money, he said, if I went into business with him.

When he finished his fancy energy drink, he stood up and told me to get a local phone and that he had some business to attend to.

Let’s meet in Sihanoukville tomorrow, he said.

Sure, sure, I answered.

I felt like I was dealing with the Wolf of Wall Street, in Kampot. Being honest and occasionally naive to a fault, I could probably learn something from the guy, if I didn’t lose my pants in the process.

The next day he emailed me and said he couldn’t meet me.

The Wolves of Cambodia

1391663985429Cambodians are some of the friendliest people I’ve ever, ever met, but you’ll find wolves on Wall Street, in Bangkok, and in Cambodia. The Cambodian culture and way of thinking is completely alien to a Westerner such as myself, so it’s difficult to know who to trust. And, of course, they are very, very, very poor. A plane ticket here from the USA costs more than most Cambodians make in a year.

Imagine that a billionaire Wall Street investor takes a tour of the poorest American ghetto, wearing hippie clothes, flashy sunglasses, and a snakeskin backpack. He takes pictures, ticks off this location from his tourism checklist, and flies away in a helicopter.

The contents of my backpack are worth more than an annual tuk tuk driver’s salary.

So, yes, there will be wolves in Cambodia.

I’ve written about this stuff before, so I’ll stop beating a dead horse.

If you are considering doing business in Cambodia, and many have the personality to do work with them successfully, but not me. I am not an aggressive business person. I am honest, hard-working, ethical, and believe that quality is the highest priority. So I wouldn’t do well in Wall Street or Silicon Valley either.

I am not being racist or stereotypical. If you think so, then do you research. Start with khmer440.com, which is run and written by expats who live here and some articles make my tales look like children’s stories.

I’ve met several other travelers with their own horror stories. One German girl I met got roofied her first day in PP (Phnom Penh)and ripped off for $600, as much as six times the PP tuk tuk driver’s monthly salary, according to the Last Home Hostel owner. A guy I met in Sihanoukville ran a bar together with a local, left the country for a couple months, to find the bar and his two grand investment had vanished into the streets of Phnom Penh.

Also see my post about the bitter diver.

[Update 3/6/14: It’s a touchy subject for some, and I was a little rough in my initial draft, after being fleeced for X dollars, which is why I retracted this post shortly after publishing it. The situation here is beyond complicated. You’re dealing with a wounded national psyche, a very poor nation, friendly people, a different culture, a corrupt government, sexpatism, obnoxious hippie tourists, and a host of other factors, that make it as complex and touchy a subject as the idiocy of the Peace Corps.]

Upset over my run-in with the Wolf, I decided to

Buy a Lady Bike and Return to PP

Not a lady bike

Not a lady bike.

I decided to head back to PP for a month or so to my previous hostel, which has good internet, and, most importantly, a desk. And a friendly staff. And good food. And it’s less touristy, once you get off my street.

When I asked the nearest travel agent if she could transport my new bike to PP, she asked what kind of bike it was. Is it a mountain bike? she asked.

No, I said, it has a basket on the front. I doubted she’d understand me if I said it was the kind the Wicked Witch of the West rode.

Oh, she said, it’s a lady bike.

I kept laughing while she explained that they had to use different types of racks to transport lady bikes vs. mountain bikes.

Fine, I said, while we did the deal.

So long Kampot, I have enjoyed the bike rides and learned much from my business dealings.

PP here I come.

Again.

Once More into the Breach

Fun fact: one-fifth of Thailand's population of 70 million people live in the greater Bangkok area. Four-fifths of Cambodia's population lives in rural areas.

Fun fact: 1/5th of Thailand’s population of 70 million people live in the greater Bangkok area. 4/5ths of Cambodia’s population of 15 million people lives in rural areas.

A short plane hop lands me back in Phnom Penh, and I avoid the taxi stand, which charged nine bucks for a ride into the city on my previous trip. Someone yells out Tuk tuk! at me, and I pick out the voice from a crowd of transportation vendors clamoring for my attention. At first he is eager to be of service, but by the time we get to his ride, a little Q & A session has established I know exactly where I want to go and what I want to do. This means that I won’t be hiring him for a day to take me on a tour around the city, and I won’t be staying at the hotel he’s got in mind for me, which means he won’t get a lot of business from me. He’s understandably upset, so en route he transfers me to another tuk tuk driver. They work out some kind of profit-sharing deal or something, and Driver 2 takes me through the worst rush hour traffic I’ve ever seen, and this includes Bangkok gridlock. Cars waded through a swollen river of fume-barfing motorbikes, and at one point a mini-van bonks into us when the tuk tuk failed to swerve out of the way.

Neither vehicle was damaged, so we moved on. Driver 2 gestured at the van diving into a pool of motorbikes a few minutes later, saying, Crazy!

Yeah, I agreed, but to me the entire road looked like chaos bent on self-destruction.

A few minutes before we got off the exit I noticed a line of soldier-laden black trucks heading out of the city. This, I was sure, had to do with the recent political unrest that has been bubbling up over the recent election results.

 

Bamboo tattoos are less painful than machines and you can go back to doing normal things like bathing and swimming thirty minutes afterwards.

Bamboo tattoos are less painful than machines and you can go back to doing normal things like bathing and swimming thirty minutes afterwards.

When I got to my hotel, a low-priced family-run joint, I chowed down on some amazing sour soup that I’d had the last time I was here. For the price of a couple crappy McDoubles I was treated to a plate of rice and a tangy soup with mushrooms, pork, onions, and other unidentifiable but tasty ingredients. While I was eating, I noticed a couple of additions to the hotel owner’s family: a pair of scrawny little kids who must have been seven or eight years old. Their skin was dark, and I have come to associate darker skin with poorer people, since all the street kids and beggars I’ve seen tend to have noticeably dark hair and skin. I just assumed the kids must be some relatives from the countryside.

My bed was thankfully free of bed bugs that night.

The next evening, as I ate the soup again, the owner told me one of the critical ingredients was a green fruit with curly skin, prevalent out here, but unheard of in the West. She brought the shriveled fruit out to me and it took me a few Google searches to find out it was a kaffir lime. I told her I liked sour food and spicy food, so she said she would make me a spicy bean soup the next day.

Then she pointed to the two little kids that I had noticed. They were from the country, she told me, staying in her house out there. She owned a house and some land, and while had been working here in Phnom Penh, thieves came and stole everything from her house. They took her TV, bed, furniture, belongings, and even the iron fence that surrounded her property. So when she went back to survey the damage, she was asked by the children’s father if they could stay in her house. The other family was so poor they could not afford a house of their own.

IMG_1392So the owner agreed, and the father, mother, and I think nine children stayed in the house until the father ran away to marry someone else. The father’s family had urged him to marry someone who wasn’t sick all the time. After having nine kids, something happened to the mother’s womb, and she became paralyzed and couldn’t work. Now she was able to walk a little and could ride a bike, so the owner had sent money for her to buy a second-hand bicycle.

The kids, who I had thought were between six and nine, turned out to be eleven and thirteen. Their small size, the owner said, was due to a lack of nutrition. Physical and mental stunting was the result of chronic malnutrition and starvation, according to Cambodia’s Curse. The owner’s son, also thirteen, towered over both the other kids, and he had a lot of extra weight on his frame besides. He looked like the kind of kid you’d find in the States.

I just want to go home, she told me.

I just want to go home, she told me.

The thirteen year-old girl worked every day, said the owner, but hardly made any money. She would borrow ten thousand riel — two dollars and fifty cents — from her mother, and walk three or four miles to a port. There, the girl would buy fish and sell them back in the village, for a net profit of fifty or seventy-five cents per day. With this money she would buy a couple eggs and cook dinner. Now, though, heavy rains were flooding the village, so no one could work, and the children had come into the city to visit the hotel owner.

While she was telling me all this, her son and the two country kids sat in front of a laptop watching cartoons. The owner said she was surprised that the kids had even known what cartoons were, but when they’d arrived they’d told her they wanted to see some. Apparently they could go over to a friend’s house back in their village and watch them from a CD. No channels on the TV, though.

I mentioned Japanese cartoons and my plans to teach English, and she told me about an international school that was taught by American and Chinese teachers. She shook her head sadly, saying that she didn’t think her country had a future. Chinese and Vietnamese were buying up everything, and trying to make Cambodia theirs. The government was corrupt and complicit in these activities, she said. All the foreign aid and investment money went into the pockets of government officials, who would only hire friends and family, and this is why everybody voted for the opposition party in the last election.

And that’s why all the barbed wire fencing? I said, referring to a barricade I’d seen a couple blocks away. It hadn’t been there a month ago.

Voila

She said yes, that now the people were starting to understand, and that’s why they voted against the ruling party. The same prime minister had been in office for three decades, she said in an exasperated voice.

Would anything like that happen in your country? she asked.

No, I said, that’s illegal.

Some old white guy came in and started wandering around looking for something, so I told her to make me the bean soup tomorrow, and that it was time for me to study my kanji.

 

 

Always Count Your Money, Part 2: The Scam Artists

IMG_1381I was waiting at the bus stop and a foreigner walks past me and says something I didn’t catch, followed by, Oh, you are waiting for the bus? I thought you lived around here.

No, I told him.

Do you know if there’s another German embassy near here? he asked.

That seemed kind of silly to me, but I said, No, there’s probably only one in Bangkok. Why?

Well, he says, all my luggage got stolen and I missed my flight and I’m trying to get another flight back home, but I don’t have my cards so I can’t buy a ticket.

Go to the embassy, I said. They’ll be able to help you out.

All they can do is give me a new passport.

Oh, that sucks, I said. But you have your passport?

Yes, he said.

IMG_1380So I told him to go to my hostel and talk to the owner, a nice French guy, who has lived here a long time and would be able to help him out.

I went there this morning, he said, but the guy told me to leave.

I didn’t see you, I replied, and I was sitting there all morning. I can take you there if you want.

But I just want to go home, he told me. I have to go home today. Can you just buy my ticket and I’ll wire you the money? It will show up immediately.

There was a sound in the back of my brain now, but I acted dumb and continued with, But I don’t know my bank information.

As long as you have a Visa card it will work, he replied.

I’m not giving you my Visa card number, I told him.

IMG_1379Come on, the guy retorted. What am I going to do with your Visa number? It’s just a card number. I can’t use that.

When I asked for his passport he skipped past that and told me he needed 500 Euros, and I just said I didn’t have that much money, and he said, How about a thousand baht? Just so I can stay here for a few more days.

Of course, I kept pushing back by offering to take him to my hostel and introduce him to the owner, but he just said, No, no, they’ll say it’s a scam, I’ve already been through all that.

Deep down we both knew he was full of it, but his nice little excuses let him save face, as did my continual offers to help him without handing over any money. We both parted company on decent terms, even though I just wanted to take his passport straight to the cops.

 

IMG_1361A previous con from another foreigner may or may not have been a con, but he smelled like a rat. I get the feeling some of the seedy types you meet out here con most people like most people breathe.

As I was standing downtown taking a picture of a building, I suddenly noticed someone standing inside my personal bubble.

He was a plump bald Brit who started asking questions about me and my camera and what I was doing. He seemed very, very friendly and very interested in me. He said he was staying in this hotel over there and had booked a few days already and it was kind of lousy for 950 baht a night.

Then, after a few moments of warming me up, he said he needed a hundred baht to buy phone credit because all his stuff was stolen and he got injured — he showed me a swollen knee — and could I just help out with a hundred baht so he could call his bank and have them wire him money?

IMG_1350If all you need to do is make a phone call, why don’t you ask the clerk at your hotel? I said.

He said there wasn’t a clerk there, which just sounded ridiculous to me. Never have I ever seen a hotel in Thailand without a clerk.

I told him they could probably return him money from a night so he could buy his phone credit.

The guy got offended and angry and started saying mean stuff to me, and as we parted ways and he limped off into the crowds of Bangkok, he said, I hope you die.

 

IMG_1341Tourists are regularly accosted by tuk tuk drivers, scam artists, Indians selling suits, and, depending on what part of town you’re in, ladyboys and prostitutes. You will get ripped off constantly. One day, I ran some errands down by my future CELTA school, and ate lunch at a street vendor’s. I asked the waitress how much it cost, and the lady turned to the manager guy and told him in Thai, Fifty baht.

With a big fat grin, he turned to me and said in English, Sixty baht.

I frowned, gave him the money, and said, in Thai, Thank you.

The guy and the waitress turned awkwardly away, because he lost face, which is a big no no in the Asian Cultures of Shame, or so I’ve heard, but I didn’t care. I stomped away and sat at a coffee shop where at least they had prices written down on a menu.

While reading an author who would later destroy all my hope in literature, a motorbike taxi driver came up to me and said that he could get me a cheap ride anywhere in the city, a cheap happy ending massage, a cheap flight, a cheap boat tour, or whatever else I wanted, what was I looking for? I just had to give the word. Pretty much anything a tourist would ever need, he could do.

At least he was willing to provide some sort of service, unlike some of these shady foreigners who speak your language and don’t bat an eye at lifting your money straight out of your wallet.

 

IMG_1335And some time even later, from my hostel room, I heard a high-pitched squeal. I poked my head outside my door, and down the steps from my room was a rat, quivering in the jaws of a local stray. I grabbed my camera, followed the cat upstairs, and took pictures as it tossed the rat around on the roof.

I hope the rat is in shock, I thought while watching the brutal murder.

For some reason, I wast distinctly reminded of the scam artists I’d recently been meeting.

Back to Phnom Penh and Beyond

When I got off the bus from Sihanoukville, it was Friday afternoon. I found some tuk tuk driver to take me to a hotel, where the staff told me I could go to nearby bars and get many ladies. You like weed? the guy asked me as he let me into my room. I got, no problem. You ask me. You smoke in room, no problem.

The room smelled like something died in the toilet, even after four sticks of incense.

For dinner I had lok lak for the first time, and a Cambodian sat across from me and ate hard-boiled eggs with chicken fetuses in them. I could see the little fetus parts dangling from his spoon as he scooped them from the shell into his mouth.

I told him I was considering teaching English out in Asia somewhere, and he said, Why don’t you teach in Cambodia? He told me about himself, said that he lived in Siem Reap for eight years and liked how peaceful it was, but Phnom Penh was better for work. He said his name, which I forgot, and then hopped on a motorbike with a couple cheerful Italians to go back to work.

Balcony overlooking street 172

Balcony overlooking street 172

On Saturday, I moved to a new hotel and read The Cambodia Daily from the second floor balcony while it poured rain. Most of my weekend would be spent on the balcony, and I would even sleep on the couch out there, since my beds crawled with bed bugs. The big news in The Cambodia Daily was about an upcoming political rally.

Cambodia recently had a national election for a new prime minister, since this country is a democracy, theoretically, but there has been a lot of evidence indicating the election was rigged. On Monday, August 26th, there is supposed to be a rally by the opposition party, which has some people worried about civil unrest and the potential for violence. Though the rally is intended to be peaceful,the US Embassy website makes a good point that “Demonstrations or events intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and possibly escalate into violence without warning.”

The Cambodian government has placed extreme and absurd restrictions on the rally, limiting the rally to two hours and the attendees to six thousand people, but as one local politician pointed out, how can you control the number of people that come?

Ten thousand are expected.

The government has stated that it is perfectly capable of crushing any violence from the opposition. Thousands of police in riot gear are trained and ready. The government has also been stockpiling weapons and machinery. Ten thousand guns and fifty thousand bullets from China, plus a bunch of heavy machinery like APCs and rocket launchers from other countries all arrived soon after the election. The ruling party insists the timing was “coincidental.”

Equally coincidental will be my timely return to Bangkok, since it is time to move on to the next phase of my travel plan: the job hunt.

 

A Little About the Cambodia Situation

Sometimes you see signs telling you not to buy from kids. If they're selling, they're not in school, which costs money here. Not buying from them is supposed to convince their parents to start paying for their school somehow?

Sometimes you see signs telling you not to buy from kids. If they’re selling, they’re not in school, which costs money here. Not buying from them is supposed to convince their parents to start paying for their school somehow? I suppose they want you to only support networks that ensure non-abuse of kids, but that would still never change abusive parents’ minds about making their kids work and would only leave the abused kids with less money and food.

All day long I sat and read Cambodia’s Curse, a modern history of this troubled land. For those who don’t know, here is a very brief history of Cambodia, to give some background to the current election situation, all of which I learned from that book in the past 24 hours.

In ancient times, peoples from the Indian sub-continent migrated to the Cambodian land and settled there. The ancestors of the Khmer would establish the Angkor empire, which would stretch far and wide and last longer than the Roman Empire. The Angkor Empire has been made famous by Angkor Wat, a true mega-monument to slave labor. In time, the Angkor Empire would fade, possibly due to its inability to sustain its population.

Flash forward, and the French colonize a weak Cambodia in the 1800s, then leave halfway through the 1900s, then Cambodia does its own thing until 1970, when there’s a coup, then some more military and political complications internally and with the Vietnamese, which is then followed by the Khmer Rouge taking over from 1975 to 1979. The Khmer Rouge cut off the country from the outside world and, among other horrible things, decimated a quarter of the country’s population. After the Vietnamese knock the Khmer Rouge out of power, Cambodia became socialist until the early nineties, then the UN steps in and spends three billion dollars to turn Cambodia into a democracy. There was an election, the UN backed out, and it’s been a train wreck of corruption ever since. Not that it was very pretty before that…

The same few people have been vying for control with zero concern for the people, who are still suffering from the residual trauma of the Khmer Rouge years. The current prime minister, Hun Sen, used to be a Khmer Rouge officer who defected to Vietnam when Pol Pot’s paranoia made him afraid for his life. After the Vietnamese deposed the Khmer Rouge, Hun Sen became a contender for political power. Through cunning and perseverance, not to mention mob tactics such as intimidation, harassment, censorship, and murder, which he still uses to this day, Hun Sen managed to climb to the top of the pyramid, where he funnels millions upon millions upon millions of dollars into his pocket from donor countries’ money every year.

The Cambodian government is rife with corruption, and despite receiving around a billion dollars in donations each year for the past few years and in the five hundred million range before that, Cambodia’s poverty and low quality of life statistics still put many other developing countries to shame. Cambodians suffer from starvation, lack of education, psychological problems, and a long list of ongoing horrors among the abused people, including vicious murders, torture, high rates of child rape, and all manner of crimes, which all remain unaddressed by the government and the numerous worthless NGOs that inhabit the country like flies. The country is beset by horrific abuse and dysfunction in all facets of life, from the society to the family to the psyche.

Read Cambodia’s Curse to find out the gruesome details.

 

PS – As of 8/27/13 the rally has been held peacefully and the opposition party promises to hold more demonstrations if their election concerns are not investigated.

Now Let Me Tell You What I Really Think

So I asked this guy if Cambodia had a site like craigslist.

What’s a craigslist? he asked.

The guy was bald and had a British accent. He was seated at the bar of my hotel, drinking an Angkor beer and smoking a cigarette.

I told him what a craigslist was and said Thailand had one but not Cambodia.

Well it’s pretty primitive here, he said.

Stock picture of chair legs from Koh Samui, Thailand.

Chair legs from Koh Samui, Thailand

He was a dive instructor, and did repair on boats and air compressors and stuff and said he didn’t know anything about English teaching or teaching English. After a few minutes of back and forth, he proceeded to tell me how much he hated living here and how messed up this place was.

It used to be a French colony, and now most of these businesses are owned by the French, he said. They’re wanted in their own country. But here? That guy up the road, runs a French bakery restaurant whatever, hammered every morning. Smokes a spliff with breakfast. Khmer girlfriend. Baby on the way. Baby delivered, another one on the way. Hammered at breakfast. So he drives down the road and bam! Hits a motorbike, kills this one, injures that one, they shove him in jail. Takes thirty grand, bails himself out, pays off the cops, pays off the family, moves the business to another location, back in business.

The diver went on to explain how sick he was of his life here, the country, and the people, right in front of the bartender, but he had promised the business owner he’d stay on till March. He explained in gruesome detail how corrupt the government was, how money funneled into this town from tourism wasn’t being reinvested into the local infrastructure, how sewage went into the sea, how an island ripe for resort development already has green beaches that used to be white gold, how the power went out for three months until somebody got paid enough money somewhere to get it back on, how the mountains contained some chemical element useful for building nukes that was of interest to foreign powers, and how the tourism industry was stratified by income levels and age and so on.

When I could get a word in edgewise, I told him that the effects of tourism and a corrupt government were sad, but that tourism had helped fuel Thailand’s economy over the past few decades and the same could happen here. He pointed out that the culture, religion, and government had also played major a role in how that money was used. I said that the recent election in Cambodia indicated progress, so long as nothing disastrous happens.

And then the bar closed.

 

As I wandered into the depths of the hotel I considered the man’s perspective. The man’s tirade was pretty bitter, but he had some valid points. Those that live in this town obviously love it and can overlook the seediness and the corruption, but perhaps that is because they themselves are somewhat seedy and corrupt. I have noticed two predominant types of expats here: kids who party and drink and old people who party and drink. I definitely have some interesting stories from my short time here, but since I am not a seedy partying type, I am feeling the wanderlust take hold once more.

The diver said of expats here, Why would anyone live here? They wouldn’t. Unless they were getting paid good money. The wages are crap here. They’re getting paid European or American wages and living here, and then they’ll go back home with all that money.

I remember how just a few days ago I thought this place was the best thing since sliced bread. After all, there is something highly stimulating and energizing about the constant uber-flow of tourists and hypersocial activities. I had more conversations with strangers walking down the street here in thirty minutes than I would have in a week or more back in Tempe, or several months in Seattle. What most people consider to be social is just not when you compare it to a place like this. And this is the low season.

This morning I met an old Swedish guy — who doesn’t party or drink — who likes Cambodia more than any other country in southeast Asia, because the people are friendlier and more genuine than any other country he’s been to.

So what’s the verdict?

On the wall of my hotel is an advisory telling you not to take too much cash, to be careful of the smiling kids that may pickpocket you, to use the lockers, blah blah etc. It ends with, “Though most Khmer are honest and lovely people — one bad experience can spoil a whole beautiful holiday. We hope you will enjoy your stay in Cambodia and return home with only pleasant stories to tell.”

Always Count Your Money

Construction site next to my hotel

Construction site next to my hotel

That’s what the Belgian told me. He’d had a hooker in his room for the past four nights.

Always count your money and never leave your drink alone. They’ve been known to roofie people and rob them. Always keep your valuables on you. Put your money in plastic bags so if the hookers try to get it you can hear it. Hide your drugs. Don’t get too drunk. Always make sure you know where you are and what you’re doing.

The next day, G, a 12-year veteran of Sihanoukville, was sitting in front of a bar and called me over to have a seat and a chat as I walked past. The tale of P came up, and G told me not to get weed from the taxi drivers. He could get me a big bag for 15 bucks at his bar. He said not to do anything harder, cause then you’d get addicted and your life would be over. But you don’t seem like that type, he said.

All those bars over there, he said when I asked about a plaza I’d walked through, they’re all hookers — or part-time hookers at least. Always be careful around them.

What about the normal Cambodian girls? I asked.

No sex before marriage, he said. They won’t get a good marriage to a civil servant or a policeman unless they’re a virgin. They all get checked by the village elders before marriage, if you know what I mean. G told me some more about his painful cartilage and his travels around the world, and told me to be careful with my money around the hookers.

Thanks, I said, then walked off into the night.

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View from my $6-a-night hotel balcony

View from my $6-a-night hotel balcony

It didn’t surprise me that the plaza I’d wandered through was a mini-red light district, but it’s a different set up from Thailand. It was less tacky and less obvious. In Thailand they put girls in bikinis and gaudy makeup in fish tank-like glass boxes or on top of bars or stages. It’s kind of like one of those Asian fish markets except the girls are the fish. It’s typical to have like two or three dozen listlessly shuffling their feet on stage while the men get hammered and stare and when they get blind drunk enough take them back to the hotel.

Back in the US, however, the hookers that wander the edges of your neighborhood in San Francisco or wherever are all strung out and have droopy skin, a cigarette dangling from the corner of their mouth, smeared makeup, needle marks, and sunken eyes. Trauma and drug addiction are rampant and almost prerequisite. In the West it’s much more of a fast-food mentality. Drive-thru at your service. Wham bam thank you ma’am. Dirty hotels, hard drugs, pimps. We’ve all seen Law & Order.

The Sihanoukville scene’s a little different. Cambodian hookers will spend lots of time with you, eat food with you, walk down the street holding your hand, and generally perform a balancing act between hooking and gold-digging. In Sihanoukville, they just look like normal girls and dress the same as club girls in the States. They reminded me of typical shallow college chicks. They play pop music from their bars and invite you to come over and have a drink and talk about nothing. They can live a comfortable lifestyle by turning only a few tricks a month, according to G. The hookers I see here — and they are everywhere — all have smartphones and even iPads and expensive clothes, while most everyone else that works in this town wears stuff that looks like it’s been through Goodwill a couple of times. The typical bracelet seller or food vendor or construction worker works all day and still just scrapes by.

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A few days after talking to G I was sitting on a kitchen floor. One girl mashed up garlic chili paste with a mortar and pestle. The other girl, the owner of the house, was pregnant and due any time within the next week. She was telling me the story of how her Western boyfriend left her because she didn’t abort the baby even though she had promised to. She wasn’t sure if she would be able to go back to work as a bartender if she had a baby. Who would take care of it?

IMG_0984_CR2When I asked about her parents, she said they were getting old and added something else I couldn’t understand.

The girl making the chili paste — we’ll call her S — had a child of her own. The Cambodian father of S’s baby had left her for another woman and was now married in Siem Reap, the town where Angkor Wat sits.

I thought there was no sex before marriage, I said.

They told me that the old style ways G had told me about held true out in the villages, but less and less in bigger cities.

She’s a bad girl, said the pregnant one.

No more, S said. She said she wanted to be faithful and true.

The words of G and the Belgian echoed in my ears. Yeah, they’ll hold your hand and tell you they love you, but it’s just business. The next week they’ll be doing the same thing with another guy.

I found myself questioning everything I heard and wondering if their friendliness had an ulterior motive.

S and her friend had invited me to a super-hidden eatery in an alley somewhere in town. We had driven over several roads that looked like they had been blown apart by M-80s and finally ended up in a grassy alley among several houses. A wooden-staked tent had been set up over a sugar cane pressing machine and a makeshift kitchen. You grabbed your own ingredients from a pile of leaves and plants and put noodles on top. They put one of two broths over your mixture and wa la, your soup is done. The sugar cane was used to make a fresh sugar cane drink.

While eating, roosters and chickens ran around pecking at each other and the food that was scattered on the ground. One of the Cambodians asked me if it tasted good and I said, “Spicy,” one of the few Khmer words I know. I had, of course, ripped apart several chilis with my fingers and scattered them into my soup, so I was dripping sweat and snot by the time I finished.

The girls had kindly asked if I was going to pay a whole three dollars to cover our meal, to which I agreed. I’d been expecting this. It was a mutual test. I was sadly getting the feeling that the poverty was so severe here that relationships between outsiders and locals often revolved around the root of all evil. Casual asides and jokes about money and gifts would be slipped into the conversation that just wouldn’t turn up under normal circumstances.

But, as with Thailand, extreme poverty drives the girls to this profession, as opposed to whatever other causes may be the source in countries with actual functioning economies. Coins might as well be shaped like little manacles, I thought.

While sitting on S’s friend’s kitchen floor a little while later, my arm would turn red and mystically emanate heat. I wondered if I had finally caught some bizarre infection, but it was probably because I had scratched my arm with chili fingertips. The girls scolded me and told me I would suffer terribly if I touched my eyes.

Do you have a boyfriend now? I asked S, ready with grains of salt in my ears.

No, she said, I just want somebody take care of me. Not have be rich, I just want somebody look after me and my daughter.

Independence Beach, Sihanoukville

Serendipity Beach, Sihanoukville

Back at S’s bar I drank a Chinese grass jelly drink and, though I am not naturally suspicious, I wondered how much of her interactions were just attempts at manipulation. But she might be telling the truth — her pregnant friend seemed sincere enough about her feelings for her baby’s father.

I ate more tamarinds dipped in the chili paste, but my stomach finally told me to stop already and I went home to watch Japanese TV.

I still can’t get a fix on the locals here, and mixed reviews from other foreigners don’t come to a consensus. Several people tell me they love it here and they love the people, but some say otherwise. A bus neighbor from Phnom Penh told me he felt like Cambodians were great people, nicer than Laotians even. My Australian neighbor at my previous hotel had told me couldn’t get over the feeling that everyone here was trying to scam him. At least Laotians were up front about their negotiations, he said.

Maybe the Cambodians are as divided as their political parties.

What I have noticed is that where the money concentrates, scammers and ill will and resentment also concentrate, whether it’s in Thailand, Cambodia, the States, or on the internet.