Country of Contrasts

I’m on the rooftop of the Seng Hout hotel watching the sunset over Battambang. The Muslim call to prayer is echoing across the river and the ornate roofs of Buddhist temples are glinting in the orange light.

I decided to stay another day here and am glad I did. There’s a restaurant I really like: Jaan Bai, a resturant non-profit with bespoke pottery, delicious food, and a design style that fits right in with the Kinfolk magazines they have stacked in the bookshelf.

Pad Thai at Jaan Bai

Pad Thai at Jaan Bai

There’s a terrific coffee shop: Kinyei, home of the Cambodia National Barista Champions. The Seng Hout, my hotel, is a solid deal ($10 a night, friendly staff, clean rooms, a small pool, a rooftop full of wicker chairs and palm plants). At night the riverfront comes alive at night with vendors selling noodles, bbqing chicken, and grilling corn.

Every afternoon it rains. The sky blackens and a strong rain pounds the metal roofs. If I time it right, I’m sitting at Kinyei with a book, looking out through the metal rollup door and avoiding the downpour.

From the Kinyei Facebook page.

From the Kinyei Facebook page.

The first night in Battambang I went to the circus (Phare Ponleu Selpak). It’s a couple minutes from town by Tuk Tuk. The bleachers in the tent were packed. Lots of foreigners, but also locals, especially children, sitting on the floor at the edges.

circus

It was one of the most entertaining shows I’ve ever seen. The music was great, drums and Cambodian instruments I’ve never heard before. The first act was a sort of play, with a Cambodian princess and a cripple and a group of toughs from the town. I have no idea what they were saying, but the fights, flips, fire and acrobatics were fantastic. Then second part was juggling, rope tricks, rubber ball bouncing, balancing acts, dancing, and huge flips off a giant seesaw.

Another highlight of this place was the bicycle tour with Suksobike. It was great to get out of town and see what the countryside looked like. The near constant greetings of tuk tuk drivers in town was replaced by little kids yelling “hello” in English and waving like crazy as we passed weathered wooden houses set on stilts.

The tour winded through muddy red dirt roads along a small river and then out across the rice fields. Along the way we stopped at number of small business- families that make edible rice paper, dried bananas, fish paste and rice wine. Our guide explained what they make, let us try it, and if we wanted, taste it.

tour-guide

We took a break and walked around a little daytime market where we were the spectacle and entertainment of the morning. A black woman from France got the most attention. Someone wanted to know if her hair was real. Another complimented her full curvy figure and patted her butt.

We also stopped at a killing field, one of three outside Battambang. The bones of over 10,000 people were found and some of their bleached skulls are positioned against the glass walls of a monument on that site. It’s striking and grim, and I wonder if that’s the best way to remember the lives of the people who died there? Or does putting their bones on display signal something else?

monument-battambang

The Khmer Rouge operated in this area until as late as 1998. Our guide said the schools are not teaching this history very well and most young people don’t have a good idea of what happened. But it’s below the surface of everything. The woman we met who made the rice wine had moved from Phnom Penh with her brother to start the business in the early 70s. Their entire extended family in the capitol was killed.

The contrasts here are striking. In one moment I’m observing a pile of bones, in the next I’m are drinking a cappuccino (that costs as much as the average person makes in a day), and in the next I’m are watching one of the most cathartic and exciting performances you have ever seen surrounded by laughing children.

It’s a strange and amazing country to travel in.

List of Expenses for 7/23

Hotel Room (private bath, fan, cable, wifi, pool): $10.
Breakfast (banana pancakes, mango shake): $4.
Lunch (pork bahn mi sandwich): $3.50.
Cappuccino: $2.
Angkor Beer: $0.75.
Dinner (dragon fruit caipirinha, glazed chicken and greens, coconut ice cream): $11.

Total: $31.25.

I admit. Dinner was a splurge. It was amazing.

The Killing Fields

This was an overwhelming place to visit.

More than 300 mass graves dot Cambodia where 1.3 million people were killed by shovels, hatchets and machetes by a genocidal regime in the late 1970s.

My Tuk Tuk driver, who is also a friend of my friend’s here, had never been inside Choeung Ek and walked the grounds with me. He didn’t say much, but summed it up as we were leaving, “This place makes me sad.”

It’s hard to believe a country this friendly and full of life had such a dark and terrifying period.

The photos are by my friend Sascha Faun Winter. More photos here.

Backpacking Big Sur

Big Sur is one of my favorite places in the world. It has spectacular views overlooking the Pacific Ocean, gnarled windswept Cypress tress clinging to the cliffs, and deep valleys of Redwood forests. I got to backpacking there for a few days earlier this month.

This Point Lobos, a hiking spot right on the coast, where seals were sunning in weirdly emerald bays.

We hiked in Padres National Forest, right above Kirk Creek. It was a terrific time of year to go as the entire hillside was covered with wildflowers.

Our camp site was nestled in a redwood grove. Perfect spot to spend two nights.

Disaster Tips

I spoke with my Chilean family yesterday. It sounds like a mess, but internet, telephone and electricity is finally back- and all the people I know well seem to be safe.

The main bridges connecting Concepcion with the suburbs all fell down, several buildings in the University where I did my study abroad burned, looters took all the gasoline and raided the super markets. The army is now on patrol. The towns on the coast no longer exist.

Grandmother Tota has lived through three major earthquakes now. She said this one was far the worst.

Everyone in Concepcion knew that a big one was coming, eventually, just like we do in San Francisco. It’s one of the hazards of living on an active fault line.

My Chilean mother said they should have been better prepared. They should have had a box with working flashlights and a hand radio, toilet paper, some matches, the phone numbers of friends and relatives written down, and basic survival supplies. When the whole city shuts down those are the things you want.

I know many people in the Bay Area who probably don’t have these things either. We know it’s going to happen sometime, but we live as if we don’t expect it to. I’d encourage everyone to pack a box up of emergency supplies, make sure you have a few gallons of water, and throw it in the closet where you can forget about it. You never know, and it’s better to be prepared.

There’s some great website about emergency preparedness. 72hours.org seems like one of the best.

Lonely Beach

Beach Development

We affect the places we visit as much as they affect us. It’s especially true in developing countries where the tourist infrastructure is being constructed and the regulations are lax.

My motorbike broke down on the far side of Koh Chang yesterday, and the old Thai man who picked me up was pointing out the changes. “The road was paved 10 years ago,” he said. “But it was built for motorbike, not car.” He honked the horn as we rounded a blind corner on the steep single lane road.

“Out here there was nothing,” he said. “Or just small bungalow. 40 baht a night. Lamps at night, no electricity.” Now the bungalows are at least 400 baht, $10 dollars, and they come with fans and televisions and internet.

Hat Sai is the largest beach on the island and the first stop after the ferry. In all ways it’s the typical tourist strip- beach bars with loud American pop music, large resorts on either side of the road, restaurants, internet cafes, tailor shops, tourism offices and three 7/11s.

As you get further from the pier, the towns get smaller and less developed- but “Lonely Beach” now seems like it was badly named, and new construction is everywhere.

It’s conflicting to know that I that play a part in this. My bungalow is past the major tourist spots and not in the guide book. It’s cheaper than Hat Sai and still quiet at night. If I get up early I have the beach to myself, which is one of the reasons I came out here. But it’s also people like me that push the development further.

“This was all built last year,” said the owner, referring to the bungalows where I’ve been staying. He showed me the property on Google Earth, where the satellite maps are two years out of date and the town looks a lot smaller.

He said business is good this year, considering a global recession, and I’m sure if it gets better he’d consider buying the empty adjacent lot. Perhaps he’d build a few more bungalows, and maybe those will have air-conditioning and cost a bit more.

With additional tourists the town could also support another restaurant, or at least a 7/11- and it will gradually change into something else, more like Hat Sai or Phuket.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t travel or the places we visit are always worse for it. They’re not. The effect we have on these communities is more our presence than our active involvement, and the locals ultimately decide what gets built and where. But we should consider it, encourage sustainable development when possible, and be somewhat aware of the tracks we leave.

We all want to find that empty beach where no one has been before, but at some point I’m afraid we’ll all be there together.