Siam I Am

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Siam Chronicles 12 - Step by Step, a Falter to Kep

Houses of Trash and Trashed Houses

Tacking South on the Siroccos
I was rubbernecking rapt as the bus mapped a course to the Southeastern tip of Cambodia. Steadily, the huts became enshrined upon great piles of trash, a jumble of bright colors tumbling into dun ponds where the children dove and bathed, the moms swished laundry into tumescent billows, and the dads schlepped sickly fish up from drop nets.
Before long the houses themselves were cobbled from the dross, erupting seamlessly from the family landfill at jaunty angles. My favorite had availed itself of a highway sign fallen into desuetude, which was cut to size and installed as a wall. Unbeknownst to the occupants inside, the left side of their domicile now bore the single word “HELL” in red ten foot letters.

The Lost Resort
The chateaus had been shelled and gutted as oysters of decadence, twisting with rebar which spindled into the sky like withered trees. The view was still the sea, the melody was still the ceaseless chunnering of the waves, but it was a last conceit for the extinct elite, for the miles of bombed out buildings belonging to the bygone best of the best. The effete resort town of Kep had been a bright beacon of the capitalist west. Now it was a jeremiad to how the Khmer Rouge had been able to tyrannize a destructive power comparable to a meteor shower.

Marooned on Rabbit Island
Rabbit Island does not have any rabbits. It does not look like a rabbit. I want to be clear on this, in case the nonsensical cognomen invites the fantasy of a flowering of fluff-balls roistering fetchingly round the left ear of a dyad of pointy volcanic outcroppings.
The plan was to get a feel for what island life was like without any of the tidy assiduities of rampant tourism. The family hosting our short stay commenced the circumvolution upon on our soggy arrival, during which I almost flipped backward into the sea with my ever-present grace and aplomb until Alex’s steadying hand averted the aquatic acrobatics.
This is tiny Rabbit Island, encompassed in a gesture.
Those are the purportedly uninhabited islands rounding into the horizon, which are actually infested with Vietnamese squatters, promulgating rifles, who give the expression “get off my lawn” more than the usual amount of emphasis.
This is our little room with the charming oil lamp and hugely necessary mosquito net.
These are the three sticks of bamboo doing a shabby job of screening a hole, politely referred to as the bathroom.
This is the shower –a large blue drum of green scum indented by a ladle so dirty that it might have been carved directly from the earth itself. Rustic, charming.
We swam, we got salty and stuck to things, unwilling to substitute salt for slime in the “shower,” and I drew until dusk closed curtain.
The single generator that fed the three flickers of fluorescence was to cut out at ten sharp. So when at 9:40 the light went out right as I was about to upset a comeback win at rummy 500, it was far from good. It was an atramentous night, the clouds covering the stars and moon, with the sporadic frisson of lightning far away foretelling impending deluge. The flashlight had been smartly secreted to a place so secure and impenetrable that it was probably playing poker with the grail and Bush’s DWI records. That left only the oil lamp, which was of poor construction. Any attempt to touch it made it triturate into tiny pieces, anointing the wicker of the walls and floor with highly flammable fluid but doing nothing whatsoever to produce a utile light.
At this juncture I attempted my blind gambit for the “bathroom.” What I did not know is that the five diseased dogs casing the joint come alive at night, and they are not friendly. The white of their teeth whipping at my retreating posterior was the one thing I could see through the portiere of darkness. Our bungalow was an island amidst an eddy of circling canines, endlessly yelping their sanguinary plea to the sea.
So it was that we peed off the balcony and crawled into bed, deciding to leave first light. And we did indeed leave the island, but took some part of it with us - in our hearts and in our undershorts - but that's a story for another time.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Siam Chronicles 11 - When to Say When to Phnom Penh

Cambodian Pajama Party
It was the middle of the day and all the women in sight were wearing pajamas. Pink bunnies, teddy bears bursting with the will to live, explosions of hearts and bows - these bromides blurred by as the women jounced through the muck on their motorcycles to buy a slab of catfish and a twist of leek at the huts arrogating the gutters. The foul smelling intestines and rapidly browning vegetables poised on poles and cardboard boxes over the sluice of open sewer weltered together into an odor of enormity. One illustrious diva bicycled off sporting a pink button down number replete with puffy sheep, topped with a towel twining loosely round her head.
I wish this style would pendulum into vogue in the west – just think of swinging into work secure in the emotional armor of well-worn PJs and a towel over your head.

The Lubricious Old Codger’s Club
On the bad side, The Last Home Hostel had roaches, loads of them. On the good side, it had a wall-sized oil of what appeared to be Asian Vikings in thongs battling a dragon, which was unremittingly hilarious. On the bad side, the bathroom for the extended family unit was separated from our quarters by half a plywood partition. On the good side, the food was unexpectedly excellent. On the bad side, and even worse than the roaches or the caroming cacophony of bodily functions, was that The Last Home Hostel was the designated meeting place for a singular type of old boys club.
Every day as the light presages dusk these withered vampires shamble up from the depths, to debouch catarrhal baritones from a crumple of lipless mouth, framed in white hair tufting from ears, nose, chin, around the shiny pate, as they camber across the table to catalogue their conquests.
“She SAID she was sixteen, and that’s good enough for me… (laughter follows)”
“The girl I keep in Vietnam is real young too, she’s got a good heart but she brought over this other girl the other day and the little slut stole my credit cards… (rest of story omitted as sickening)”
The conversations are always the same, every night they drill and drone about divorcing their Californian wives and moving to Asia to keep harems of juvenile girls in each country with impunity. The youngest of these men couldn’t be less than sixty five and looks like a hirsute albino toad – and he’s obviously the looker of the group. Later we learn from a young British couple starting up a bar that Phnom Penh is lousy with these lechers, to whom they’ve bestowed the appellation “sexpats.”
Across the street a bizarre street festival is blasting through the half-light, a group of youths in white jumpsuits caterwaul eighties tunes off-key in front of huge pink hearts. There are fireworks. Meanwhile, the conversation has lurched into the appanage of love, and the leers sift to smiles as the raconteurs speak of the girls’ immense ardor for them, so touching. At The Last Home in the watered down twilight these rheumy men drown in phlegm and the delusion that they could actually be loved by anyone.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Siam Chronicles 10 - The Long Shot to Angkor Wat

Objective: Get to Angkor Wat before August 14, 2005 – our 1st Wedding Anniversary

2.5 days before 8/14
“You wan go Cambodia, right, Angkor Wat? The easiest way is Koh Chang,” she served up this skullduggery raw as a kaleidoscope of claw clacked through the keyboard, “Koh Chang is easiest, you jus take a boat.”

1.5 days before 8/14
Koh Chang (reputed to have the largest King Cobra population in the world)
“No way to get there from here,” lisped the transvestite behind the palm frond kiosk, with a dribbling of smile. “BUT we could work something out maybe – a moto to the ferry then a bus to a minivan?” with a long green fingernail he furrowed the gut flouncing unfettered beyond a weariness of hot pink half shirt.
Hours later after ten more futile inquiries, the verdict was in - we would in fact have to back-track all the way up to Poi Pet. There was an incendiary storm that night. The waves strafed the stilts of the bungalow and aptly reflected our acidulated mood.

20 hours before 8/14
A punt on the Pacific Ocean
“It’ll be a long haul, but we’ll be in by five a find someplace fancy for our anniversary.” Alex patted my back, the lack of sleep and chuff of the waves was incommoding my intestines. “So, what do you want for breakfast – cricket on a stick or salt-encrusted fish head?”

12 hours before 8/14
Poi Pet, Cambodian Border
The man looked half-starved as he stammered over the pitches of the dirt track that his name was Richard and he would be our “guide to Cambodia.” The crowd was pressed into an ancient minivan, which was missing both doors and windows and tilted alarmingly to the right. I had a soiled foot in my ear, belonging perhaps to one of a pair of hippies clutching bongos to breast somewhere in the compact mass, so the voice was intermittent. “… fifty kilometers … the road is bad, so it’ll take maybe seven hours… arrive at seven … drop you off in the center of town...”
“Did he say SEVEN hours???” I heard my husband say through the din.

8 hours before 8/14
Outside Battambang, Cambodia
A riptide of commination greeted the newest pronouncement. “It take twelve hours from here,” the man who called himself ‘Richard,’ had sallied to the assemblage pitched outside the gas station. Time, it appeared, was surging backwards. Silted red with dust, we seemed to jut directly up from the road like despondent cairns, keeping our helpless invigilation as the cohorts of our 'guide' scuffled through our stuff in the decrepit apparatus as it plied up on petrol.

4 hours before 8/14
Seedy Restaurant, Middle of Nowhere
The girl had not stopped screaming, and there was nothing but respect registering on the faces of the crowd for both her stamina and loquacity. Even though it was a rapid logorrhea of Italian, we all understood EXACTLY what she was saying, and mentally each one of us was hugging her, awarding her with a medal, and wrapping the laurels about her pulchritudinous brow. Our ‘guide’ evinced no emotion, stating again that the bus had mysteriously broken down and another form of transport would be arriving in “ten minutes.”
“Goat or bicycle?” Alex asked.

2 hours before 8/14
Parking Lot of Seedy Restaurant, Middle of Nowhere
“You’ve GOT to be kidding me,” the Brit spat helplessly, “there is just no WAY we will all fit on that thing.”
The 25 of us were surveying the tiny pickup truck, which was dwarfed by the mound of luggage piled beside it.
“You wan go or you wan stay here?” Our ‘guide’ said with a disingenuous smile.
With quick thinking Alex deposited me into the cab and thus secured a precious spot of safety, and with a kiss was gone to fare for himself by clinging onto the bed down the tortuous track. Fragments of argument as the squeeze began whistled through the window.
“Do you at least have any ropes to tie us on to the side?” implored an Aussie, followed by Alex’s riposte, “I think the more pertinent question is do you have any morphine.”

Midnight, 8/14
1.5 Hours West of Siem Reap
There were six of us compressed into the cab, and the driver seemed to be suffering an acute bout of ADD, fumbling with knobs, playing with dials, looking anywhere but ahead as we bucked and crashed into the road, which resembled nothing so much as a washboard used as BB target practice. My limbs fell asleep, my hearing rapidly diminished due to the screeching high-decibel onslaught of an Asian diva, and I was mad with fear for Alex, perched precariously on the back in the rain.
“Happy anniversary,” said the young constable from London who was glued into my forearm as the clock flashed midnight.

4 pm, 8/14
Luxury Bungalow, Siem Reap, Poolside
We clinked vodka tonics in toast while reclining otiosely in the garden enclosure. The day had been a clamber and dive through a stone sprawl, crowned with a bocage of impromptu arbor. Angkor is, of course, a sight of magnitude (twice the size of present New York with over a million inhabitants when London had but 50,000), but more germane, a place of powerful symmetry and symbolism. Or perhaps, even more to the point, a preserve of beauty, and an admirable backdrop for a truly memorable first.