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The Digital Nomad who Haunts Route 66

Despite a crappy internet connection, I managed to get Nathan on Skype for a short interview about his experience with digital nomadism and his future plans.

“I learned many of the same things other digital nomads learn in their travels, about lifestyle design, the virtues of slow travel, a broadened perspective, deeper appreciation and understanding of other cultures, people are people everywhere, wherever you go there you are, and so forth. Others before me have gone into much detail, so I won’t rehash all of that here,” said Nathan, who has spent almost three years of his life overseas.

I asked him to elaborate on “slow travel.”

“While it’s possible to travel and work, it’s hard to do both at once,” he said, “so you end up slowing down to the point of settling for a bit, which is almost like being an expat. More than a decade before this trip, while living in Japan, I had decided being an expat wasn’t my style.

“Don’t get me wrong, doing the expat thing is a great experience which gives you a deeper appreciation of the international world we live in, as well as your own home country. But I didn’t really want to be a permanent outsider in a world of transients and expats, though I find expat communities to be among the most open-minded and friendly communities in the world.

“One ironic thing about constantly traveling is that excitement gets old and boring after a while.”

After eight months of the nomadic life in Thailand and Cambodia, Nathan had decided that life on the road had its virtues, but rare was the nomad who lived on the road forever…

“Before I embarked on this trip, I read a forum thread discussing which cities of the world were suitable for digital nomads to settle down in to do their work.

“One thing that struck me was the perspective of an outsider who had wandered into the conversation, saying that the problem was a ‘luxury problem,’ and solved easily. ‘I just want to live where my family and friends are,’ said the person,” said Nathan. “The person didn’t seem to get the nomadic motivation, as it were, and disappeared from the thread soon after.”

The beginning of I-40 & Route 66's dance across the SW

View from a gas station at the beginning of I-40 & Route 66’s dance across the SW

Nathan added something else, but our Skype connection made it too fuzzy to hear, since he was in some limbo zone of Route 66.

“…think so either,” his voice scraped through the digital distortion. “But both sides of that particular conversation resonated with me, and always have. In, ‘Travel as Engagement or Escape?’ I pointed out that trying to argue for or against one point of view is like trying to argue over the best ice cream flavor. Everybody has their own taste. You can’t say one is ‘better’ than another.”

I asked what his flavor was.

“As with everyone, it falls somewhere on a spectrum between transience and permanence. That’s one thing about nomadism that’s so attractive. You can try a lot of flavors, learn from the experience, and change it up as often as you like. You can make it as permanent or temporary as you like. You can be a full-time gypsy, a part-time wanderer, or a weekend warrior.

“After a failed attempt to settle down briefly in Kampot, I returned to one of my regular spots in Phnom Penh, and decided that eight months on the road was enough for me, for now. I love travel and always will, and it’s a big world. If I ever get off Route 66 I have my sights set on Europe.”

A burst of static interrupted us, then I asked, “And then what happened when you came back?”

IMG_2958“Well,” Nathan sighed into the mic, “after I got back in the States, I hopped on I-40 where it begins near Bakersfield, California, and took it east. I found frequent exits to the historic Route 66. Why not check it out? I thought. So I took a little detour, and found myself in some of the most beautiful desert scenery I had ever seen, but when I got to the point that was supposed to intersect with I-40 again, I couldn’t find the exit.

“And I started to notice that everything looked suspiciously like it should from a century prior. The hotels and gas pumps that should be shut down were operating, and everyone dressed exactly as they had from almost a century before.

“When I turned around to get back on where I’d gotten off, the exit was gone. The first hotel I’d stayed at, near the Arizona border, was still there, but I-40 was gone. And the hotel looked completely different. The whole town is different, actually. It looks just like it did when Route 66 had just been put up, almost a century ago.”

“So you’re stuck on Route 66?” I asked.

IMG_2994hdr“Yep,” Nathan said, his voice warping through more distortion. “For now, I guess I am. My laptop battery remains at 56% health, my car is stuck on a three-quarters tank, and everyone always forgets who I am and treats me like I just arrived today, even though I got here last week. A weak wi-fi signal floats into this room sometimes, and I keep hoping I’ll wake up on the other side again. But it’s been a week, and for now, I’ll keep looking for a doorway back to my time…”

Nathan’s voice disappeared beneath a wave of static.

Skype told me that the call was dropped and he was offline.

I guessed the interview was over.

Unless he found a way back to this world, it looked like Nathan may be the only digital nomad who would truly live on the road forever.

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.

Travel Post: Phnom Penh to Kampot

Lately I’ve been so focused on work that I have neglected my travels and my travel blogging. Instead, I have been indulging in my love of technology, science fiction, and future design.

But soon my digital nomad work travels will come to an end, soooo…

On to the Travel Blogging

IMG_20131227_074156Phnom Penh (PP) was great, as far as cities go.

It’s hardly the massive, gridlocked, bustling Bangkok. PP buzzing with motorbikes and tuk tuks hollering at you, food vendors pushing carts full of food down the streets, with odd loudspeaker announcements echoing in Khmer every so often, until around midnight, when some light switch is turned off and the city turns black and silent.

Yet somehow, perhaps due to the Cambodians laid-back attitude, PP retains a much more relaxed feel than any other capital I’ve been to. Though I’ve herd Vientiane is even more “quaint.”

During the day, you find cheap markets, smiley Khmer lounging around their shops, until the slammed rush hour floods past, and if you’re in the touristy areas, you have constant offers of tuk tuks, weed, and hookers…kind of like a less-busy Khao San.

Guest Housing it on St. 172

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View from 3rd floor of White River Hotel on St. 172, Phnom Penh

But that was, of course, because I mostly stuck to the touristy Street 172 and worked from my guest houses. At first investigating the possibility of renting an apartment, I abandoned the idea when I realized they wanted a full three months deposit up front, which deposit, according to a couple grizzled old expats, I would never see again. Why risk such an investment when I could get a guest house for the same price or less?

So I stayed in one guest house, White River I, which was hard to work in, because it had no desk in the room, was filled with partiers and lots of pressure to socialize, buy food, drinks, and weed.

I also volunteered for a day with a program that was looking for a short-term English teacher, and it was there and then that I realized I don’t mix with kids, no matter how smiley and friendly and cute they are.

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Sunrise from my room in Last Home on St 172, Phnom Penh

The next guest house, The Last Home, was much more suited to my working style, and there I sorted out a lot of my short- and long-term goals. A desk, a nice view, and a quiet environment go a long way towards getting work done.

It was in that guest house that I spent Christmas, turned 34, realized some other “trivial” stuff about the path of the digital nomad, my own life path, and I consequently decided to move on to Kampot, a town near the southern coast of Cambodia.

Kampot

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Fields outside Kampot town

I’ve worked here a couple days so far, walked, mingled, and ridden a bike around nearby dirt roads and agricultural fields.

Kampot’s an attractive little town. It has a riverfront, guesthouses a-plenty, nightlife, good food, geckos, really big geckos, exotic bugs, fields extending as far as your bike or motorbike will take you, and, of course, nice, smiley Cambodians.

If I decide to stay in Cambodia, Kampot is definitely a relaxing town to spend time in, meet some nice people, and get some work done.

The Killing Fields, Emergency Sex, & Bed Bugs

IMG_20130927_111330As you enter the Killing Fields you see a tall pagoda-like structure filled with skulls. The skulls of the victims that were exhumed from this site have been examined by forensic professionals from around the world, and some are in displayed the museum, off to the right of the entrance. Small signs behind the skull explain how each one died. Most often it was one of the agricultural tools used by the Khmer for centuries, like a hoe or a hatchet or another blunt instrument.

The site is not that large. Prisoners were brought in by the truckload, stored in a building, and taken a short distance to be executed. Now, there are grass-filled craters where the mass graves used to be. During heavy rains, fragments or teeth will occasionally surface from the mud.

None of the buildings at the site survived. Two large trees stand amidst the excavated graves. The Khmer Rouge would hang a speaker from one of the trees, hook up a loud diesel generator that sounded like a failing truck engine, and blast traditional Khmer music to mask the screams of the dying. When the excavators discovered babies’ corpses by the other tree, they realized that the soldiers had used the tree to smash the babies skulls, using the trunk as a quick and efficient murder weapon.

 

S-21 is the name of a high school that was converted into a prison, where prisoners would watch other prisoners get tortured to death, then become victims themselves. The Khmer Rouge extracted confessions of crimes and denunciations of family and friends before the prisoners died. Of the few who survived, most were artists, kept alive to render portraits. Fifteen or twenty thousand were killed at this prison.

Inside, you can find cells the size of closets, and the metal bed frames that were used as torture racks. On the wall above the bed frame is often a fuzzy black and white photo of a prisoner who was tortured to death, still chained to the bed frame or lying on the floor in their blood. There are other rooms with hundreds of photographs of the prisoners that were killed there, including children.

When I hurried out of S-21, a tuk tuk driver and a maimed beggar came at me at me simultaneously. I was casting about for my driver, and he came up to me and asked, Are you okay?

He gave me some kind of bean cake and took me back to the hotel.

 

IMG_0756A couple days later, when it was raining, a girl came into the hotel with a pair of backpacks on her front and back, both bulging beneath a giant red poncho. She looked like some kind of wild yuppie tourist beast from National Geographic. She was a giant compared to the 13-year-old girl from the country…the one who survived on $.50 per day and who was so malnourished she looked like she was 6.

The traveler asked the owner about a room, then whispered to me anxiously, Is this place any good?

She went upstairs, and a minute later she came rushing downstairs and practically ran over the little Cambodian girl on her way out. She looked positively terrified, so I was sure she had spotted some bed bug poop under the pillows. This hotel is waging an endless war against them.

 

My sombre mood fueled me to get Emergency Sex, which should win a Pulitzer Prize. And while the committee’s at it, they should award one to The U.N. Exposed, a searing expose that makes you wonder if there’s any hope for world peace.

Emergency Sex takes you to the front lines of the worst UN missions in the nineties, beginning with the U.N.’s mission to restore democracy in Cambodia. Twenty years ago, one of the three narrators has divorced her husband of ten years and left her life-crushing ennui to see this after her arrival in Phnom Penh:

 

Entire families pass by on single motor scooters, toddlers standing in the space between the driver’s legs. Live chickens dangle by their legs from a rope tied to the back fender of the bike. Plunk, plunk, plunk goes the one with its head caught in the wheel spokes. A naked baby wanders to the curb to squat and defecate. A pile of squirming worms drops to the gutter, with a few left dangling from his bottom. It looks like spaghetti in curry sauce. A man walking by kicks some dirt over the slithering mass.

 

And it goes on.

Phonm Penh circa 2013

Phonm Penh circa 2013

The book’s three non-fictional narrators meet in Phnom Penh, become friends, and keep in contact over the next decade as they join UN missions in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Rwanda. They witness firsthand the incompetence of the government bureaucracies that end up costing thousands and thousands of lives.

In Somalia in 1993, UN and US troops were on a peacekeeping mission, when a botched secret US military mission left eighteen US rangers dead and many more wounded. Their bodies were dragged through the streets, and, to paraphrase We Did Nothing, Americans who didn’t even know where Somalia was woke up in front of their TV sets.

Public opinion pulled US troops out of Somalia and out of Haiti. Clinton’s policy then became non-intervention, and this mindset prevented an invasion of the war-stricken Rwanda in 1994, where 800,000 people were massacred in three months. The UN instead sent in a mission after the fact to dig up the bodies and try the warlords in an international war crimes court.

In Rwanda:

 

The forensics is clear already. These were unarmed civilians, mostly women and children, almost all of whom died of blunt force or sharp-force trauma. They were hacked or clubbed to death, or both…This is an average massacre by Rwandan standards, unremarkable in scale or circumstance. Several thousand civilians had gathered in the church grounds, promised protection by the Hutu governor…Then the governor fired his weapon in the air as a kill-the-Tutsis signal and young men drunk on banana beer hacked them all to pieces. It’s hard work killing that many people in a confined space with only machetes and clubs, so the killers returned home to their families each night to rest and drink before the next day’s work. It took three days and so far we know of only two survivors.

 

 

Later, listening to the rain in the darkness of my room, I remembered the girl who’d run away from the bed bugs in terror. I wondered if she’d be able to get any sleep that night.

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.

Thailand: Toilets, Taxis, and Shopping

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Some of the best toilets Thailand has to offer. Notice the flowers by the sink.

I read an article on one expat blog that talked about how to use a Japanese toilet. It is common for expat blogs to write how-to articles and cultural tips. Not only do these types of articles provide useful information for surfers, they provide SEO-friendly keywords that help the blog build search engine visibility. While I like to think that my travel tales are interesting, informative, and insightful, my travel stories certainly won’t show up when someone types in “how to use a Japanese toilet” or “good Korean food Seoul.” I don’t want to be left out of the pack, so here is some useful how-to information about Thailand’s toilets, taxis, and shopping.

 

Toilets in Thailand range from a hole in the ground to Western style toilets. As a budget traveler, you can manage to find cheap hostels in Thailand that run as little as three US dollars a night, which is what my hostel charges for a dorm bed. However, I have seen several girls walk right out the front door after seeing the dormitory’s toilet. There is no toilet seat, and you have to flush the toilet by filling up a bucket with water and dumping it into the toilet bowl. There is no sink, per se, but there is a canal with a faucet, and a shower head on the end of a hose. Also, make sure not to poop too loudly because there’s about a foot of space between the top of the wall and the ceiling. But pooping quietly may be a challenge if you’re eating Thai food every day. You may be able to disguise the sound if you turn on the shower, the “sink” faucet, and the bucket faucet simultaneously. And cough at the same time.

The Emporium

The Emporium

If you can manage, hold it until you get to one of Thailand’s mega-shopping centers. Toilets in Bangkok’s major shopping malls are full on Western style toilets with motion-detecting sinks and actual paper towels, which are a rarity in the Land of Smiles. Half the time you will be greeted by a friendly cleaning maid who takes no notice of you as you desecrate her sparkling urinal.

If you’re wandering around the city somewhere and nature starts yelling at you about that tom yum you just ate, rush inside the nearest building and pray they have a toilet for use. When you find the bathroom, you will likely be greeted by a sleepy bathroom door attendant and you’ll probably have to pay a cover charge to use the bathroom. On Khao San I’ve seen security guards stationed by bathrooms that are locked behind floor-to-ceiling metal bars and a full body coin-operated turnstile. And it makes sense, since the last time I was there some aggressive drunk kid was yelling that the guard wouldn’t let him in, while trying to shove through the turnstile to another drunk friend who’d collapsed on the floor somewhere, not realizing that the turnstile was a mechanical device that could only be opened with three baht, which the guard was waiting for a hotel attendant to retrieve. But most of the time you’ll just give your money to the door person, who will give you your change, then say something to you in Thai and let you inside. You’ll have to pay a few baht more for some tissue, since the toilet won’t be stocked with toilet paper. Don’t worry, though, there is a hose for spraying yourself down there or back there or wherever you end up spraying; the tissue is just for the drying phase so you don’t look like you had an accident when you walk out. But don’t put it in the toilet, the signs will tell you, that’s what the small waste basket is for.

Assuming, though, you’ve managed to hold out for a luxurious shopping mall bathroom, you will now be relieved enough to explore the vast decadent elegance that is Thailand’s shopping excellence. When I walk through these malls, I feel like I’m exploring acres and acres of the wings of some massive, opulant Thai palace. Strange objets d’art hang from the ceilings, and the floors and walls gleam with gold and crystal. Tacky gaudiness is a perfected art form in these places, perhaps only outdone by Thailand’s glittering Buddhist temples.

Terminal 21

Terminal 21

For a wannabe rustic rugged traveler like myself, half-dressed in REI gear and half-dressed in Khao San hippie clothes, there are a couple chains that offer imported outdoor gear. The Tank Store can be found at the Emporium and Siam Paragon, and I think I saw one in Central World as well. This store brings in some gear from US companies like Sea to Summit, Outdoor Research, Camelback, and some others. You can find major brands like The North Face, Nike, Adidas, and Columbia at other outlets, but in general, these malls cater to the tacky fashion that worships sparkle and gaudy.

Up the street from Central World is Platinum, a massive shopping mall slash district that is devoted to more of the same fashion that makes no sense to Yours Truly, who, admittedly, may not be the best fashion advisor in the world. After all, for a long time I wore my Vibrams everywhere, and now I wear a hat that looks like it’s straight from Crocodile Dundee.

There’s plenty more shopping in Bangkok besides what I’ve mentioned. MBK, for instance, is another multi-story shopping center with electronics and clothing stores, and Kinokuniya, the worldwide Japanese bookstore, offers the largest selection of English books in Thailand. It has a few branches around town, located inside the major shopping malls.

But for the best shopping experience, visit some of Thailand’s many markets. The street markets that are everywhere Thailand offer a much cheaper selection of anything you could want, from clothing to tools to electronics. Remember how I talked up the market on Khao San? Well, that place is fine, but it’s a relatively expensive drop in the bucket compared to the rest of Thailand’s many street markets. But you can never be sure of the quality of certain purchases. I once bought a reading light and a travel clock for cheap that were both DOA, and a backpack I got for a few bucks fell apart one time when I put too much weight in it. No gradual warning tears or splitting seams; the straps just ripped right out of the pack. All my clothes have held out fine though, and I still have a bunch of T-shirts I bought here two years ago.

Traffic by Central World

Traffic by Central World

Once you’re done with your shopping extravaganza, you can find street food for less than a buck or you can climb to the top of a mall and pay American prices for any worldwide cuisine you crave.

Now that you’re stuffed and lugging around a couple tons of crap you could have bought back home minus the import surcharges, you need to figure out how to get back to your hotel. You can take an air-conditioned taxi back, which usually costs three bucks or less. You can take the motorcycle taxis, which involves you hopping on the back of a motorbike without a helmet while the driver weaves through traffic to get you back home. You can take motorized tricycle taxis, called tuk tuks, which I am starting to really hate because they always pull up beside me while I’m walking and they call out My Friend and ask where I’m going and don’t I want to pay them like nine bucks to go somewhere anywhere as long as I give them money and it happens like ten or twenty times a day. You can also take a bus, which is usually the cheapest, costing between nothing and fifty cents. The skytrain costs around a buck if you’re not going too far, and you can even take a boat, which costs forty cents to a buck fifty, depending on whether you buy the tourist ticket or not.

Lastly, you can walk home, if you know where you’re going, if you don’t mind getting caught in the occasional rainstorm, and if you’re sure that you won’t have to use the toilet before you get back.

Bangkok’s Got Him Now

Bangkok at the bottom of an aquarium

Bangkok underneath an ocean of water

A customer I’d met at S’s bar sat next to me on the plane ride from Phnom Penh and confirmed my suspicion that S and her coworkers were all prostitutes. When we arrived at the airport, they drove me into the city. The vast storm clouds stood out against the dusk and gave the impression that Bangkok sat at the bottom of the ocean. We got lost in the maze of streets and it took an extra two hours to get back. When we finally parted on the circus that is Khao San, I bid them adieu and made for a three dollar dormitory room.

In the morning, a Thai girl at the hostel latched on to me and began stroking my arm. She spoke in an infantile voice and during conversations would suddenly start massaging me and tickling me lightly, and later she tricked me into paying for her thirty cent breakfast. She hit on a Vietnamese girl who came the next day, a Japanese girl, a French guy, and so forth, but would still come back to me when I was alone.

The Vietnamese girl, a Japanese fellow, and Yours Truly went downtown to Soi 11 later, a street off the massive road Sukhumvit. Soi 11 was lined with upscale joints and VW buses that converted into streetside bars.

It was here that we met B, the English teacher from San Francisco, who was sweating profusely and had wide eyes when he talked, which was constantly. It seemed to take him a minute to process my questions about his expat life here, and when he talked he was really loud and animated. I was pretty sure he was on an upper. Later this history major would admit to being a drug addict and tell me how he had taught a class of his Thai kids on yaabaa, which is basically meth.

He told me everything in Thailand was based on money, including relationships with Thai girls. A South African and my Vietnamese companion said the same thing. B went on to echo a similar sentiment about Thailand as the diver had about Cambodia, saying the locals are vain, only care about themselves, are lazy, and promote the seedy culture here that revolves around partying, drugs, and prostitution.

See all these people around here? B said, and gestured at the Africans sitting around us. Why do you think they’re here? Half the people here are drug dealers.

When we asked about Vietnam, he had only good things to say.

 

Rice things in Phnom Penh

Rice things in Phnom Penh

Oh, and let’s not forget about H, the English teacher who occasionally stops by my hostel. He is from Sweden and has lived in Bangkok for eight years. He speaks fluent Thai, plus English, Swedish, and two other Scandinavian languages. He is always drunk.

Last time we talked, his eyes swam towards me through a foot of alcohol. His speech was slurred, but he still managed to teach me some Thai with the articulate explanations of a professional teacher. He told me a few good English schools to go to. He’d been here eight years without a teaching certificate, he said. At the end of the conversation he asked me for 25 baht to buy a beer.

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.