Cambodia Southeast Asia

Slow Migrations

Current Location: Siem Reap, Cambodia
Current  Weather: 86°F (feels like 94°F)
Days Gone: 143
Days Remaining: 73

I move a lot. Since landing in Bangkok all those months ago, I have spent my nights in over 50 different places, including buses, trains, boats, and even a cargo ship. Due to its small size, spending a month in Cambodia has given me a sort of reprieve. This isn’t to say that Cambodia doesn’t offer many destinations, I just don’t really need another French-inspired river town at the moment. I’m good on jungles and I’ve got more islands in my near future. So I spent a solid ten days recharging my batteries in Sihanoukville, often by having food delivered to me poolside and enjoying a $10 per day lifestyle. Now I am loitering in Siem Reap, probably until my visa expires, and spending even less. Here I have discovered a new and unique type of lifestyle: routine. Back home, I always did my best to avoid routine – it’s bland, conventional, and boring. It’s the rut we’re all stuck in. But I have discovered a valuable exception to this rule.

A routine is only unfulfilling when someone else is writing the schedule. Whether it’s the boss of an unpleasant workplace or a bitter professor or whoever, he or she probably doesn’t have your best interests in mind, yet probably does have a large portion of control over your life. This, to put it bluntly, is not awesome. It results in a massive loss of forward momentum. I am creating my own routine here in Siem Reap – I’m able to absorb the energy of the city and increase my creative output. I can watch every sunrise, sunset, and thunderstorm. I can sit in a cafe and write for two hours every morning. I am in a position to meet new and interesting people every single day. I don’t want to preach, but I do want to put out a reminder that it is vastly important to avoid becoming stagnant; even if your body is not moving, your mind should be. Whether it’s traveling Southeast Asia, learning to make homemade pizza, practicing Tai Chi, or reading a novel – the only wrong thing to do is nothing.

Despite “taking a vacation from traveling,” I did rent a bicycle and visit Angkor Wat and it’s surrounding temples. Angkor is often referred to as the jewel of Cambodia, and many people visit the country specifically for these temples. The beer here is even called Angkor. With that said, visiting Angkor Wat was, for me, sort of like being given a massive amount of tiramisu after eating brownies for four months. It was good. Really good. But it was still a chocolate dessert. And I wanted fresh sushi. Consider this: a grain of sand can be as interesting as an entire sea, it simply depends on the lens through which you view it. Just because you look at more doesn’t necessarily mean you see more. The same applies to the speed at which you move through the world. It is difficult, yet entirely necessary, to give oneself permission to stop and smell the street food – though the scent of garlic and chillies lends nothing to the “productivity” one feels, it is still an investment in one’s self, in one’s life experience.

So, for now, I am focusing on the sand grains, the golden details that get lost in the thick brush strokes of movement. Observe, for a moment, the yellow dragonfly which manages to maintain its curious and reckless flight, even in the clean, hard, thunder-less rain. How can it fly while drops as large, for it, as grapefruits fill the air? Notice the clothing, always steaming on the lines and balcony railings and baking in the rafters – the sloughed skins of t-shirts patiently waiting to collect more salt from our backs. Taste the  mango shake, served with more than a hint of sweet milk; the condensation is so thick and quick on the glass that for a moment you think you will need two hands just to hold it all. And this, these golden details, is all we have: our minds, our bodies, and the present. Nothing else is guaranteed.

Last thing consumed: A large baguette with an omelet, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and hot tea
Thought fragment: Riding a bicycle out of the silent, inky blackness of the of the sleeping city to visit Angkor at sunrise was probably just as rewarding at Angkor itself.

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Cambodia Southeast Asia

To Hold the Bones of the Dead

Current Location: Sihanoukville. Cambodia
Current  Weather: 88°F (feels like 95°F)
Days Gone: 124
Days Remaining:92

I really hate to gloss over the scuba diving in Nha Trang, the sand dunes of Mue Ne, and the electric chaos of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), but such is the way of blogging. I had an illness, anyway, in HCMC, which closely resembled a cold but that I’m sure was the result of bad quail eggs found in a few street-vendor steamed buns. Also, spending half a night sleeping on a wooden bench while waiting for the bus did not help my situation. At the end of this series of events I found myself crouch running the length of an American football field through the Cu Chi Tunnels with a stuffed up nose. My quadriceps still have not totally forgiven me for this sin. On the upside, I did manage to divert two separate but very organized attempts to rob me. After a bit of research, I have discovered these attempts were made by members of the Filipino Mafia. So that’s exciting.

I have since crossed my third land border into my fourth country: Cambodia. I spent a few nights in Phnom Penh, the capital, in a cheap room which undoubtedly used to be a kitchen. Tile climbed halfway up the walls and there was a mysterious door with a massive, spider-webbed pad-lock. It seems less people use chopsticks here and more people drive cars, all of which are Toyota Camrys. The addition of four-wheeled vehicles (and a plethora of tuk-tuks) makes crossing the streets that much more frightening. The weirdest thing I’ve seen thus far, though, has been group choreographed dancing in a nearby park. That sounds almost elegant until you see forty Cambodians fist pumping and hip-rolling to a remix of T-Pain’s, “Take Your Shirt Off.” At first I thought, “I’ll never, ever see that again.” Then a block up I saw a different group grooving to Pitbull’s, “Room Service.” The most absurd part was seeing all the families sitting around listening to the (very, very) explicit lyrics in English.

Cambodia is on two different currencies simultaneously. The first is the Cambodian Riel. The second is the United States Dollar. This creates what I refer to as “The Dollar Phenomenon,” which makes bartering slightly more difficult. It’s mostly psychological; when I want a moto driver to take me across town and he demands $2, I feel a bit strange countering with “fifty cents.” So I’ve started switching all bartering to riel. At about 4,000 riel to the dollar, 1,000 riel notes are essentially quarters, as no coins in either currency are minted in Cambodia. If I want something for 75 cents, offering 3,000 riel keeps me thinking in the local currency. With a budget of $15 per day, the dollars add up quick. It’s important to avoid the “everything is so cheap” mentality to stay on budget. Especially when a nice looking (counterfeit) Rolex costs only $15. It’s too bad they are reported to have a 100% failure rate.

In case anyone is wondering, I did not burn the Koran this September 11th. Instead of celebrating my freedom with displays of thoughtlessness, I chose to visit the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. This is a quiet, peaceful site where 17,000 innocent Cambodians were violently bludgeoned to death under the Khmer Rouge (the ruling party in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979). Use the wiki-link to give yourself a history lesson. Before I went, I was told by two Argentinians that it was a waste of time, that there “was nothing to see there.” After my visit, I can’t help but wonder if they walked through with closed eyes. The detainees were often executed with pickaxes or bamboo rods or garden hoes in an effort to save bullets, then dumped into mass graves. To prevent revenge attempts later in life, babies where held by the legs and smashed into a tree. I don’t know if I would have believed it otherwise, but I saw the tree. I saw the mass graves. I saw the victim’s partially disintegrated clothing pushing up through the dry earth. And their bones. And their teeth. And in the towering commemorative stupa, I gazed into the empty sockets of 8,000 skulls, and listened to the whispers of the dead. Many of those people, perhaps most of them, would still be alive today.

Last thing consumed: Papaya Shrimp Salad, Battered and Fried Calamari, Morning Glory, and Steamed Rice
Thought fragment: I’ve been reading a lot of science stuff recently to try to keep my brain in tune. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is consistently fascinating.

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