Sunday, August 16, 2015

Obscene development

One of the things about both Malaysia and Cambodia that sets my teeth on edge is the mindless development.  My friend Malcolm blogged about it in his neighbourhood, where villas are demolished to build multi-storey apartment buildings on a daily basis. Is there a market for all these upscale apartments?  No. Does that slow the construction frenzy?  No.

Aeon, the Japanese company, opened a 108,000 square metre shopping mall in the Phenomenal Penguin last year. Oh, the fanfare! The first few weeks, it was buzzing. A year later, many of the retailers have closed up and moved out rather than renewing their leases. My friend Barbara went there on a Sunday afternoon not too long ago and said there were plenty of people strolling about, but almost none of them carried bags containing purchases.  In other words, the mall has become a large, air-conditioned walking track.  "Aeon’s existing $205 million mall received close to 15 million visitors in its first year of operation, although officials yesterday declined to reveal sales figures," drily noted a Phnom Penh Post reporter.  Wait a minute, did that say existing mall?  Yes, Aeon has looked the numbers (at least some of them) and decided that the only thing to do is build another, bigger, more expensive mall out near the airport.

Another stunning example of phenomenally pointless property development is the city's tallest (at least for the moment) building, the Vattanac Capital Tower.  Here's a picture from the Guardian, with the elegant, art deco Central Market in the foreground.

Because of the odd bit jutting out to the left at the foot of the tower, many refer to it as the Boot Building. I've always called it the Angry Bird Tower. Last night, a friend said something about the Shenguin, which I thought must be something wonderfully inscrutable and Chinese. "A cross between a shark and a penguin," she said.  Whatever you call it, however, the building is empty. The Guardian wrote a scathing story on that point, a story that would be funny if it weren't so damned tragic. One excerpt:
"On a recent Saturday morning, the place was deadly quiet. Orchestral music seeped through loudspeakers. Sales assistants pottered about in high-end stores such as Longchamp, Clarins and Hugo Boss. Cleaning staff mopped spotless floors. A maĆ®tre d’ in black tie waited at a cafe where a box of tea was on sale for $50. In another shop, baby clothes retail for more than $100. The basic wage of an worker in the garment industry, the city’s largest, is $128 a month."
My neighbourhood, Boeng Trabek (literally Guava Lake) has been fairly low-key, which suits me fine. I'm not intrinsically opposed to development, mind you, if it makes sense. Now let's take the case of the Phsaa Boeng Trabek, the local wet market.  It used to be very wet indeed, because it sat on a dirt lot, and all the meat and fish and vegetable trimmings just got ground into the mud, and when the tarps that were tied to poles overhead worked loose in the wind and rain, they collapsed, soaking everyone and everything beneath them.  Last year, the city sent word to the vendors that they had to move across the street and set up their stalls outside the Boeng Trabek Plaza -- a small shopping centre which was moribund from the get-go.  Like Aeon, but on a smaller scale.  But now all the paved area outside the Plaza is filled with market stalls, and because it is paved, it can be hosed down at the end of the market day. Bravo!

Four-storey plaza is vacant, while the retail business
on the pavement surrounding it is booming

So although it makes no sense whatever that this abjectly vacant, white concrete elephant sits in the middle of a thriving wet market, it's better than walking through ankle-deep muck to buy my produce.

Let's take a look at the market area today. You'll still find heaps of trimmings on the pavement; I don't mind so much when they're flower stems. The offal starts to get smelly and slippery by late morning.

Someone will clean it up. Eventually.

If you need a boost to finish your shopping, you can buy a glass of freshly squeezed sugarcane juice.

In the few moments I paused to take this photo,
three people on motos and bicycles bought sugarcane juice
from this lady.

Need a new or used mobile phone?  These guys even sell the "jailbreak" or unlocking mechanism so you can actually use the iPhone you buy from them. (Please don't ask me how or if that works, or whether the original owner from whom the phone was likely stolen will be able to track it once you start using it... I have no idea.)

Good prices,
letters of provenance not included.

Moto and tuktuk drivers try to find a bit of shade around the edges of the market as they wait for business -- these two are likely to be puttering down the street shortly with middle-aged Khmer matrons behind them, their big sacks of groceries in the drivers' laps.  

Trees.  We like trees.

Here is one of the market alleys -- you can see the pavement underfoot and solid roofing overhead. It's still not what a WHO inspector would call sanitary, but it's a vast improvement. It's where I buy all my produce now.

The fish are at the far end, most swimming in buckets.
The sellers kill and scale them while you watch. If you can watch, that is.

At the end of the day, the vendors whose stalls aren't under the roof lock their umbrellas with thick chains and padlocks, because otherwise they'll disappear during the night. 

Who steals beach umbrellas?
People who have use for the canvas and metal.

On the street as you approach the wet market are some stalls selling clothing, hats and shoes. Remember that the garment industry is Cambodia's largest. These stalls might sell factory rejects, discontinued items, or pirated "designer" stuff. It's all of low quality, but at a price that most Cambodians can afford -- $1-2 for a cap, flip-flops for a buck, etc.

Rent is low, no changing rooms, but the price is right.

One of the less pleasant aspects of the Phsaa Boeng Trabek is the fact that one side of it runs along the street that all the expats know as "Sewer Street".  It's an open canal of turgid liquid that doesn't bear thinking about and which, quite simply, reeks.

So what, we've all been wondering, are they going to do with that dirt lot across the street from the Boeng Trabek Plaza where the wet market used to be?  The fencing went up a month or so ago; the illustrations went up last week. I haven't stopped fuming since.

Natural Lucky.  Right.
Sino Lucky? Maybe.
Khmer Lucky? Probably not.

Mature, even. Sheesh.

I didn't want to snap a photo of this little girl while she was squatting and urinating in the garbage heap, so I waited until she'd finished and was passing the photo of the projected luxury high-rise.

She does not seem captivated by the signage next to her.

The person who drew this mock-up must live in Texas. All white people, strolling out of top-tier designer boutiques with their purchases, in an open, calm spacious landscape.  Trust me, folks, this scene will never exist in the Phenomenal Penguin. Nor should it.

Also laughable are the yellow stripes on the pavement,
which will strike most Cambodians as very decorative.

And this living room -- oh, for the love of interior design!  It seems to be all of one piece with the bedroom, by the looks of it (see the bed and night stand in the foreground), and what fantasy cityscape is that outside the window? With this building plan, there's at least a 25% chance that you'll have an unobscured view of the open sewer.

It looks like a [badly] remodeled shipping container.

As I walked back home, I noticed a small, pathetic makeshift shrine that the construction workers had set out. An offering to appease the spirits, probably with the meagre things they can spare -- a bit of old rice, a chicken head and a couple of incense sticks.

May the spirits afflict the project developers sorely, I say.

So let me say this one more time:  I am not opposed to development. I would wholeheartedly cheer developments that led to most Cambodians having access to adequate health care, decent nutrition, potable water (not widely available outside Phnom Penh) basic education (for all, not just those who can afford to send their kids to private, international schools), and rule of law. I cheer development that actually improves the quality of life in a neighbourhood -- walkways that you can actually walk on, say, or new buildings that are designed on a humane scale, or street lights to reduce crime at night.  Streets without potholes that go halfway to Bolivia. That sort of thing.  Even covering the sewer would be a lovely start, but building a gigantic, luxury condo-mall complex in Phnom Penh really stinks.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Peripatetic Feline in the Phenomenal Penguin

Yes, this is a crazy cat lady post (and the cat lady has been crazier than usual these past few days), but I write it because it also says some things about Cambodia.

Meet Crumpet.
Hello! My green eyes are luminous, if somewhat vacant.

I agreed to rent out my guest room to an American college student who is doing a summer internship with an NGO. My tenant arrived on Thursday morning and underestimated the speed with which cats can move. On Thursday evening, he stood in the doorway to the balcony, holding the door ajar, and both my cats vamoosed.  Maneki, the more sensible and savvy of the two, explored the balcony and rooftop for 20 minutes and then sauntered back into the kitchen. I didn't see Crumpet again for two days.  My catty friends all tried to encourage and console me, telling me of wayward felines who'd returned home after three days, three months, three years...  I found it difficult to explain to them the exact nature of our dilemma here.  In the end, it comes down somewhat to Cambodian history.

I've heard from folks who were here in the late 1990s that Phnom Penh was a dangerous town. They routinely heard gunfire at night, and it wasn't a question of whether your apartment would be robbed, but when. The thieves usually broke in at night and ransacked the place while the residents cowered in their beds. This still happens, mind you, but less frequently now than before. The result, however, is that most of us live in walled compounds that are surrounded by iron spikes and grilles and concertina wire.

These are the gates in front of our house.
You can't see it in this photo, but above the gates are spikes, and above those,
coils of concertina wire.  

Inside  our gates is a leafy, pleasant little courtyard, completely walled off from our neighbours. My initial thought when I rented the place was that the cats, if they escaped the apartment upstairs, would be safely contained on our property. This was a clear case of failing to think like a cat.

Yee, my landlady, has a green thumb. In most of the neighbouring
houses, this front courtyard is given over to parking for cars.

To get to my upstairs apartment, I walk around to the back of the house and climb the spiral staircase. This is especially entertaining when I've either got heavy sacks of groceries or have had one more glass of wine with dinner than I should have. The cats, however, won't go near the thing. They've gone up and down it only in their carriers and show no inclinations to set their paws on it when they get out onto my veranda.

So much for my supposition that they'd stay in our garden...
Cats, I've now realised, don't want to go down. They want to go up, and that makes sense -- up above the ground, they're away from dangers like children and dogs and motos and such, so when the cats exit the apartment, they frequently head up the stairs onto the roof.

Now, if they stay on our roof, that's quite all right. Our house, however, is the first of three in a conjoined row-house.  If you look at the fence on the left side of the photo below, you'll see that there's a meter or so of concrete wall, topped by about two meters of chain-link. If the cats get onto the neighbour's rooftop, which they've both done more than once, they can't get back over the fence onto ours.  That chain-link thwarts cat burglars on two legs and four. More than once I have teetered precariously on a rattan chair while one of the panicked cats jumps up as high as she can, grabbing onto the chain-link -- high enough for me to grab her by the scruff of the neck and pull her over to our side.

This is a great spot for star-gazing, moon-watching
and cat rescues.
But how, you may well ask, do the cats get onto the neighbour's roof in the first place? Very cleverly -- by going from our back veranda onto the neighbour's and up their staircase onto their roof.  In the photo below, the mop is resting against another of those meter-high concrete walls at the back of my house. As you can see, there's a grille to stop the neighbours or their burglars from jumping from one veranda to the other. The cats, however, pass through the grille and into the neighbour's house. And from there into the next neighbour's, and so on. (The neighbours' houses have corrugated roofing over their back courtyards -- beneath it are their wet kitchens.)

The grille has precisely cat-width slots.

Once Crumpet had passed through this grille on Thursday night, I caught a glimpse of her scampering up the second neighbour's staircase onto their roof.  I could see her over there from our rooftop, but she wouldn't come near the fence dividing us. She was only at the beginning of her adventure, you see. At some point, she must have come back down onto Neighbour 2's back veranda and out onto their back roofs. When she turns the corner to pass behind Neighbour 3's house, she's gone from my view.  Remember, all of these properties are completely walled and gated. When she climbs, jumps or falls down into any of them, she's stuck there.

Cat's path to perdition.

To me, going down the spiral staircase and (when Yee's son, Sopheak, isn't looking) playing with the tropical fish seems much more desirable than scampering about on the blazing hot corrugated roofs, but again, I'm not a cat.

Our back garden

I began my routine of circling my veranda and the roof, and then up and down the streets, calling Crumpet's name. When she gets herself into a jam, she's very good about calling out for help, her normal contralto meow rising to a panicky, soprano mew.  This is how I located her when she'd landed in Neighbour 2's garage a few months ago; I got her back only by ringing their bell and explaining in my faltering Khmer, "Excuse me, but my cat is here. Could you open the gate, please? Ah, thank you very much! I take crazy-stupid cat home now..."

For two whole days, though, I neither saw nor heard any sign of Crumpet, and I began to fear she'd got snaggled up in some concertina wire and bled out, or that she'd gone down into one of the neighbours' compounds and come to harm there.  

To most Cambodians, the idea of keeping cats as pets is as foreign as... well, as I am. As my friend Malcolm discovered when he rescued a friendly stray at his coffee shop, some Cambodians do refer to cats as "my cats", but that "possession" simply means the cats hang around the house. Give them food? Why would you do that? They catch stuff. And if the people are poor enough, they catch the cats. Although my neighbours are well-off enough to avoid eating cat soup, their domestic helpers have a definite lean and hungry look. My concerns for Crumpet, once she lands in a neighbour's compound are, worst case, she ends up in a stewpot.  Slightly better case, the neighbours just toss her out their front gates onto the street. Best case?  I hear her in time, ring the bell, and start blathering in Khmer about my crazy-stupid cat.   

She escaped on Thursday night. On Saturday morning, I made a flyer with a photo of Crumpet and text in Khmer, saying "Lost Cat:  If you see, please call  $$ REWARD $$"  I made copies and stuck one in every gate on the street. I also handed one to each of the gaggle of tuktuk drivers who routinely hang out on our corner. Great excitement ensued. One of them pointed to the picture, then to the dollar signs.  "You want to buy a black cat?" he asked. "How much you pay?" It took some doing to explain to them that I did not in fact want to buy a random black cat, but I was seeking one particular black cat -- the one in the photo. Their faces fell. My reputation as the Lunatic on St 95 sky-rocketed.

By Saturday afternoon, I was exhausted and grieving, pretty well convinced that I'd seen the last of Crumpet. I came back through our front gates after my umpteenth trek up and down the street, calling out "Crumpet! Crumpet!" Even the street vendors peddling coconuts and fetal ducks in eggs were eyeing me with a combination of familiarity and bewilderment, as if to say, "There she is again, calling out as we do, but what is a crumpet, and where the hell is her cart?"  

As I entered our front courtyard, Yee came out her front door, talking excitedly. This is problematic, because I struggle to understand Yee on the best of days. Here's what I could grasp:  She'd spoken to the people in the big yellow house (Neighbour 3 in the photo above). They'd seen a black cat on Friday, but not today. They have a dog. I should go and speak to them, because they'd be willing to talk to a foreigner but not so much to another Khmer. Because they have such a big house. Translation: They perceive Yee to be of a lower social class, because our house is certainly less grand than theirs, and consequently, they treat her rudely. 

I had spoken to the young male servant at that house on Friday morning, asking him if he'd seen a black cat. He'd said no, and I carried on. I can only assume Crumpet hadn't landed in their compound yet. On Saturday afternoon, I rang their bell. The dog went ballistic. The servant answered and let me into the front courtyard.  The lady of the house, in her 70s, came out and greeted me cordially. I explained that my landlady had told me that someone in her house might have seen my black cat. She told the servant to lead me around behind their enormous house, where they have a shed containing tools and a pile of lumber, at which he pointed. He told me that the cat is afraid of the dog. I called, heard a few familiar meows, and sure enough, Crumpet peeked out from between the planks. The lady came round and told her servant to put the dog inside, and once it was quiet, Crumpet emerged. In true made-for-TV-movie style, I started to cry, and the lady of the house patted my shoulder as she escorted us out. 

So why, I wondered later, hadn't they rung my number on the flyer? Then it hit me. Those flyers lodged in the gates were most likely found by domestic helpers, few of whom can read. (The CIA Fact Book says Cambodia has a 75% literacy rate, but Cambodians guffaw when they hear that. The ones I've spoken to guess that 25% is a more accurate number.) Circulating or posting flyers is a long-shot.

It doesn't take long for white expats to notice that how one is treated in Cambodia is directly proportional to one's perceived wealth. The Khmers generally treat us very politely but treat a less affluent Cambodian like rubbish. I can only assume that it was a very humiliating experience for Yee to ask the lady in the big yellow house about Crumpet, and I expect she did so because she saw how distressed I was. How do I repay something like that? What kind of gift can compensate for being treated like dirt by one's wealthy neighbour?  

I believe Crumpet spent her whole visit to the Big Yellow House cowering in the woodpile, terrified of the dog, and rightly so. They may have a heap of money, but they're sure not sharing much of it with their guard dog, whose ribs were jutting. I have no doubt he'd have made a quick meal of my cat if he'd caught her. This country has experienced such dire poverty and violence in the last three decades that now, while a few are acquiring vast wealth, the mind-set of deprivation and self-preservation hasn't changed. I see very few signs among Cambodians of charity in its truest sense, yet Yee has been very gracious to me, which moves me deeply. 

So here's Crumpet, back on my bedroom floor after thoroughly cleaning herself of two days of dust and grime, oblivious to the ruckus she caused. Yee is probably downstairs right now vowing never again to rent to a tenant with cats.  

If the Crumps hasn't tallied the balance of her nine lives
lately, she should.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Well, how did I get here?

I went to the Flicks this evening to see a documentary, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.

The verdict?  It's not news to me. I remember stories of people who tried to leave Scientology finding rattlesnakes in their mailboxes almost 30 years ago.  I'm unlikely fodder for the Scientologists, or Jim Jones, or even Heaven's Gate, the group that aspired to evacuate Earth with the Hale-Bopp comet (much as I do love air travel). For two hours tonight, I watched and listened to former Scientologists -- and these were high-ranking people, not the riff-raff -- describing years of abuse and paranoia and fiscal skullduggery.  At the end, they asked themselves (and we, the viewers, asked the same of them), how did I get here? How could I have failed to see the warning signs?

I left the Flicks, a villa near the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, and I pedalled through the dark streets of Phnom Penh on my bamboo bicycle. I stopped to wait for traffic at a busy intersection and noticed that the transgender Khmer singer at the beer garden to my right was delivering a fine rendition of "Stand by Me".  A tuktuk driver to my left pointed to the singer and gave me a thumbs-up. 


Is this where I imagined I would be thirty years ago? Is it what my parents, teachers, mentors, friends envisioned for me? No. Sometimes we end up in places and circumstances that we might not have predicted. They may be sinister, as Scientology seems to me to be, or they may just be bizarre, like Phnom Penh. We might be able to outline the steps that brought us to our current situation, but I expect the various forks in the road will seem mysterious. We chose this route or that one because it seemed the path of least resistance, or the lesser of two evils, or the path we actually discerned to be most sound. 

I suppose people who followed more traditional paths must occasionally ask themselves the same questions, but perhaps with less sense of alarm. I've got the lyrics of the song, "Once in a Lifetime" by the Talking Heads ringing in my ears.

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack 
And you may find yourself in another part of the world 
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile 
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife 
And you may ask yourself 
Well...How did I get here? 

Monday, May 11, 2015

Hanoi, Part 1

Unlike Thai Railways, Vietnam's cars are either sleepers or seats -- the sleeping berths do not convert to seats during the daytime hours.  As Mark and I had the upper berths, and the lower ones were occupied, we either sat Indian-style, playing Scrabble, or we stretched out and read. We limped off the train on stiff legs in Hanoi on 22 March in the mid-afternoon.

I hadn't been to Hanoi for six years, and the change was remarkable. For one thing, Hanoi (like most of the rest of Vietnam) now has a full-fledged tourism industry.  Travel agencies on every street, organised trips here and there, hordes of backpackers and tour groups. I don't say this judgementally -- I'm sure it's a great boon to the Vietnamese economy, but it's also changed the country in ways that don't appeal to me. Another change that I noticed was the food. When I visited Hanoi six and eight years ago, there was still a noticeable French influence in the cuisine, an elegant marriage with traditional Vietnamese cooking. On this trip, we had remarkably few excellent meals, and Mark's quest for a croissant went unmet until we were back in Cambodia. We ate in local Vietnamese restaurants with no menus in English, street stalls, and restaurants that catered to tourists. It was all... okay. We agreed that we'd had far better meals in Phnom Penh, which surprised us both. 

As we walked from the Hanoi train station toward the old quarter, we stumbled upon the Thu Giang Guesthouse, tucked away at the end of a dark, narrow corridor between two shops. It was still outside the old quarter, so we were away from the wall-to-wall tourists, and the family that ran the place were a delight. No frills, but big room with a window (a luxury in many Vietnamese hotel rooms) for $12. It also had a wooden daybed, perfect for evening games of Scrabble, sipping rice wine that tasted like brandy. 

I lost this particular game.
It seemed to have Mark's name on it.

The weather was grey and cool in Hanoi, quite a shock after the torrid hot season in Phnom Penh. Shivering, I considered oodles of NorthFace anoraks. NorthFace clearly has factories in Vietnam, because their gear was in shop windows and on tourists all over the country. In the end, a black shawl seemed the most practical decision.

A stoic elderly bulldog, trying to ignore the
obnoxious mop of a poodle that insinuated itself between us.

The streets in Hanoi's Old Quarter, according to my Rough Guide, have names that date back five centuries, when the district was divided amongst 38 artisans' guilds. Some of them still house shops that offer the same goods; others have found new industries. Our guesthouse was on Hang Dieu (Pipe Street), now known for cushions and mattresses. Hang Ma craftsman used to make paper votive objects, and the street is still lined with paper goods shops.

A woman varnishes an altar on Hang Quat,
the street for religious accessories
(originally makers of ceremonial fans)
[photo:  AC]
Just opposite, I noticed a young shop owner pulling a long piece of bamboo out from behind his goods. I would have paid no notice to it, but I'd seen what this item was when I visited Ho Chi Minh City in December with Rose.  I tapped Mark on the shoulder and discreetly pointed toward the man. Mark turned around just in time to see him set fire to the bamboo.  Well, no, not really.  There is a tiny bowl about 2/3 of the way down the tube, into which he'd stuffed a wad of tobacco.  The two pipe-smokers gave each other small samples of their tobacco, and the shop owner lit up.

Mark took one whiff of the Vietnamese pipe tobacco and laughed.
It was so harsh and rough that he expects they'll find his
lovely, aromatic European tobacco useless.
[photo:  MU]
There's still a lot of commerce done by women carrying goods on bamboo poles slung across their shoulders and from the backs of bicycles.

Mulberry vendor near a covered market
[Photo:  AC]

Bonsai on wheels
[Photo: MU]

We decided to forgo the throngs of people queued up to view Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum (and its preserved inhabitant, who still makes annual trips to Russia for "maintenance", which mystifies me -- wouldn't it make more sense to fly the taxidermists to Hanoi?)  Instead, we decided to visit the Ho Chi Minh Museum just nearby, which the guide book described as "a surreal experience". That was putting it mildly.

Massive communist architecture
with effusive, reverent signage
[photo: MU]

Monumentally high ceilings, echoing marble and granite surfaces. Ascending these stairs felt every bit like approaching the high altar.  "The seamless combination of a cathedral and a casino," I whispered to Mark. We'd have giggled, but we feared we'd be thrown out.

[Photo: AC]

[Photo: MU]

This tableau ostensibly honours Vietnam's agricultural wealth. 

It made me feel slightly seasick.
[Photo: AC]

At the lower ground level were all manner of shops, selling everything from perfume and cosmetics to sandals made of old tires (made fashionable by Uncle Ho himself). The soldier figure, as best we could tell, was merely decorative. 

But don't try to steal a bottle of perfume.
[Photo: MU]

We walked back through a heavy drizzle, getting lost (as we so often did in Hanoi) and stumbling across the B-52 Victory Museum.  The building itself was closed and locked, but the exhibits outside it affected us both.  The Vietnamese shot the plane down in 1972 and pulled the wreckage from a pond nearby, which they later renamed B-52 Lake.  There's more information, interesting analysis and clearer photos here, if you're interested. 

The fragmented remains of a B-52 StratoFortress
[photo: AC]

The surface-to-air missiles that brought the plane down.

[photo: MU]

Wednesday, April 29, 2015


The cats and I were startled from our sleep at 5.00am on 23 April by ear-splitting monks' chants. For heaven's sake, it sounded like the noise was coming from just outside my bedroom.  It was. When the sun rose, I could see the loudspeakers in the branches of the mango tree just out front.  Ah, I thought, Yee's husband has died. My heart sank.

At a slightly more reasonable hour, I started reaching out to Khmer friends who could help me understand Cambodian funeral etiquette. I knew only that white clothing was appropriate. I finally reached Sreyhem by phone.  Yes, she said, a white blouse with black sarong or trousers, no jewelry. Yes, a cash gift in a white envelope is customary. How much? Whatever you feel comfortable with, she replied.

Ok, I continued, they're setting up the tent in the street now, and there are monks chanting in the living room. When do I show up, and what do I do?  Well, said Sreyhem, that all depends on what kind of funeral it is...  What kind of funeral?  How on earth would I know that? I thanked her and hung up the phone.  I put on a white blouse over a black sarong and wrestled with mounting social anxiety. Where to go? When? And what to do when I got there?

Yee's son, Sopheak, knocked on my kitchen door, startling me. The people who were setting up the funeral tent wanted to tie an awning to my balcony railing, and he wondered if that was all right. (Good grief, man, your father has just died, and you're giving me the courtesy of asking if the workmen can come onto the balcony?) I awkwardly followed Sopheak out to the front of the house and presented him with the gift envelope, mumbling my condolences in English because I hadn't a clue what to say in Khmer. He thanked me and gave me a deep bow, at which point I gave in to my rising sense of panic, got onto my bicycle and fled the premises.

I swam my laps at the pool and then met a friend for lunch as I'd planned. I was too rattled to do much editing, anyway. All day, though, I felt uneasy, undutiful, cowardly. Which was worse -- to show up at the funeral at the wrong time, possibly saying or doing the wrong thing, or not showing up at all? The problem, you see, is that I'm genuinely fond of Yee and her family, and the last thing I want to do is anything to distress them. Like making some dreadful gaffe at the funeral, say. Or doing nothing at all to show my respects. Lose-lose.

I pedalled home around 4.00pm with no idea what I'd find -- a banquet in the tent? Or had I missed it all? The tent and tables were still in place but were empty. I wheeled my bike between the tables and parked it next to the house. I walked, very tentatively, around to the front of the house, where Yee's living room was completely open onto the courtyard.  The coffin was on saw-horses, covered with yellow and white chrysanthemums. A photograph of her husband stood at the end of the coffin, and a candle flickered in a red glass beneath it. The housekeeper spotted me and came out. She took three incense sticks and lit them, handing them to me. I waved them before the portrait for a few moments and planted them in the jars below. I crept into the living room and sat on the floor with all the other mourners, my legs folded, as three monks chanted.

As you've probably discerned by now, I never learned my landlord's given name. He'd just had heart surgery when I moved in, and I never laid eyes on him for some months. Slowly he emerged, taking tentative steps into the courtyard. Over the months, I watched as he came out in the mornings to do exercises and to walk laps around the garden. He always greeted me with a polite, kind smile when we met, and when he dyed his hair black again, I felt sure he was well on his way to recovery. I was stunned to see him just after we returned from Vietnam in early April -- he stood in the courtyard, and that alone seemed to take all his strength. He smiled but was too weak to speak. His hair had returned to grey, as had his face. A week before he died, Yee confided in me that he was very ill. I asked, is it his heart again?  She shook her head, drawing her fingers up and down her gut. His death was no surprise to anyone, but there is always that jolt when it comes.

Really, what do I know about the man? In this country, I've learned to look at people of my age and wonder about their history, wonder about their role in the dark years. I have no idea. All I know is that I was always happy to see his gentle smile and greeting; my intuition tells me that he was a very good man. What's more, Yee and Sopheak have treated me with nothing but kindness from the day I met them.

So although I felt conspicuous sitting down in the living room, I realised, this isn't about me. I may not know precisely what to do, but I do need to be here now. The monks chanted, mourners responding in known patterns. The youngest monk tossed jasmine blossoms over the mourners' heads at one point. I just settled down, and began mouthing the Hail Mary, falling into the same rhythm as the monks. I looked up and noticed the housekeeper waving her arm, as if to draw attention to me. No! That was the last thing I wanted. Then I saw a man with a shaven head craning his neck to see what she was on about. He spotted me, and his face lit up. It was Sopheak. (Funeral custom calls for the sons to shave their heads.) He tapped his mother on the shoulder and gestured, and Yee, too, looked over at me. She also stopped chanting momentarily and beamed. It's hard to describe my relief, but it was a potent reminder that funerals are about showing care and respect for the living, and it's better to risk making a gaffe than to avoid the whole thing. So I sat with them and prayed for about 45 minutes, and when the monks took a break, I slipped away and came upstairs.

A little while later, Sopheak came again to my kitchen door and asked me to join them for dinner. I was reluctant, but what to do?  I went downstairs to the tent.  I shared a table with eight Khmers in their 50s, all good-natured, laughing gently, chatting. They didn't engage me except to ensure that my plate had food on it. My presence didn't seem to disturb them in the least, which is as it should be. We finished eating and wished each other a good night.

At about 10.00 that night, I heard the swing creaking in the courtyard. This caught my attention, because Yee normally swings much earlier, and the household is in bed by 9.00 or so. I leaned over the balcony railing and could see her, lying in the swing and fanning herself with a batik and bamboo hand fan. Was she relaxed, relieved, exhausted, devastated? All of the above, I reckon.

The monks returned the following morning, chanting for a couple of hours, and then the carved, painted wagon came to take the body away to be cremated. The tent came down, and that was that. Then yesterday, a week later, the tent returned, as did the speakers in the mango tree, the hours of gamelan music and chanting monks. The Khmers traditionally have a second funeral ceremony seven days after the death. I like this custom a lot -- it gives people from farther away a chance to attend, but it also gives the mourners another opportunity to confront their loss. In the west, we are too inclined to think of the funeral as the end of the mourning process. Here, we have a second chance to say goodbye.  

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Ho Chi Minh City to Thap Cham

The bus dropped us in Ho Chi Minh City around 10.30pm on 19 March. (Note to self: the afternoon buses sail through the border crossing very quickly). The process of pre-booking Vietnam Railway tickets worked brilliantly -- the web site is managed by a travel agency, and they request the name and address of the hotel at which you'll be staying when you arrive.  We found our train tickets waiting for us when we checked into the Huong Mai Hotel, just around the corner from the train station.

After a fitful night, we dragged ourselves to the station, where we overpaid for a couple of capuccinos at Trung Nguyen Coffee -- an indisputable case of railway robbery, but we were desperate for the caffeine. Well, one of us was. 

'Ga' is one of the few remnants of the French years
[Photo: MU]

Our first destination was a small town, Thap Cham -- literally, Cham Towers -- about eight hours north of HCMC. The train passed vast dragonfruit plantations. Mark, who had never seen a dragonfruit plant before, pointed out the window and said, "Triffids."  What?
The triffid is a fictitious, tall, mobile, prolific and highly venomous plant species, the titular antagonist in John Wyndham's 1951 novel The Day of the Triffids and Simon Clark's 2001 sequel The Night of the Triffids.
 Ok, so we saw countless triffids, vineyards and a large area where they're making salt by evaporating sea water, all on our way to Thap Cham. Outside the Thap Cham station, Mark felt a beer was in order, so we sat (squatted?) on the child-sized plastic stools that are customary at coffee and beer cafes, our knees bumping up against our chins. A Frenchman pedalled by on the bicycle he'd just redeemed from the railway officials, irked that he had to give them a "tip" to collect it. He asked Mark where he's from, and no matter how many times nor how clearly Mark enunciated it, "Finland" elicited only shrugs and puzzled stares. So much for the geography component of the French educational system.

Flipping through an 8 year-old guide book, we settled on a Ninh Chu Beach resort described as "reasonably priced" and "bizarre". Welcome to the Hoan Cau Resort, where you can live like a hobbit in a cement tree trunk.

The mattress was good, and the bathroom was clean.
And that's all I've got to say about that.
[Photo: AC]

But really, we hadn't come there for the whimsical lodgings or chipping cement statues of water buffalos.

We came to swim in the deep green sea. Which we did.
[Photo: AC]

Do you see the blue tub containing fishing net in the middle of the beach in the photo above? A man with an oar pulled it down to the waterline, hopped into it, and paddled out to cast the net. Wasn't there a nursery rhyme about going to sea in a tub?

Mark swam again at sunrise; I walked the beach,
passing the many locals doing Tai Chi there.
[Photo: MU]

It was indeed a bizarre resort, partly because we were there on a weekday, when it was practically deserted. Evidently the Vietnamese pour in on the weekends. Even so, crowds could do only so much to disguise the overall dilapidation. This was the view from the lobby.

Welcome to the Great Dismal Swamp
[Photo: AC]

One night of pretending to be hobbits was enough, so we took a taxi from the beach back into the town, Phan Rang. We didn't have a hotel in mind, so the minute I saw a hotel sign in the center of town, I pointed to it and asked the driver to stop there. He looked dubious. Mark went in to investigate.

What are a few circular purple windows after a faux tree stump?
[photo: AC]

Mark came out after a few moments, clearly pleased with the place, announcing that the rooms were fine, and better still -- they were $10/night, which seemed especially reasonable when compared to the $5 rate for a 2-hour stay. (This would not be the first time we'd stayed in a place with hourly rates; Mark has an uncanny knack for finding them. Wait, I found this one... Never mind.)

The lobby, with its fuzzy magenta furniture, seemed to fit the general brothel theme, but this place proved a bit of a surprise. Notice the gleaming floors?

Kinky pink
[Photo: AC]

The hotel's middle-aged and nattily dressed owner appeared and looked startled to see us -- a pair of foreigners -- in the lobby. He was, however, delighted. He whipped out his iPad and asked me to pose for a couple of photos. I think he wanted to be sure his art formed the backdrop in this one.

Welcome to the Xuan Mai, your choice for trysts and tired tourists.
[Photo: enthusiastic hotel owner]

In the end, there was nothing really seedy about the Xuan Mai. Yes, Vietnamese couples checked into the hourly rooms from time to time, but they seemed like regular partners; the women didn't appear to be prostitutes. The rooms were decently turned out and spotless. Mark, an architect, was just happy to be in a room with square walls again. The round room in the tree trunk offended his spatial sensibilities. 

Some years ago, I recorded a biography of Attila the Hun for the Malaysian Association for the Blind. The author pointed out that we typically mispronounce the warrior's name.  It's not At-TILL-a, but rather OUGHT-ill-a.  Finnish and Hungarian, strangely, belong to the same language family, and Mark's surname is Uotila. I'd mentioned the pronunciation of the Hun's name to him when I was recording the book, and he said that a Hungarian fellow once said there was likely a connection. 

I'd forgotten this whole incident until it came time to board the scooter that we rented from the hotel owner. A stylish little vehicle; some of the models look more like Vespas.  Anyway, We covered a lot of turf on our Attila.  Vietnam also has many electric bikes -- wonderfully quiet! They've not caught on yet in Cambodia. 

A Uotila on an Attila
[Photo: AC]

The kingdom of Champa ruled the central part of Vietnam for over 14 centuries. Champa co-existed -- albeit combatively -- with the Khmer kingdom of Angkor. Originally Hindus and occasionally Buddhists, the Cham began converting to Islam in the late 14th century. Cham has now become synonymous with Muslim; the majority of the Cham nowadays live in Cambodia, with about 100,000 remaining in Vietnam, and most of them around Thap Cham.

The eponymous Cham towers date back to around 1400 and sit atop a hillock. They are three structures -- the gate tower at the far right, the repository with its boat-shaped roof in the centre, and the sanctuary or main tower to the left.

Unlike the ruins at Angkor, we had this place to ourselves.
[Photo: AC]

The structures are all of brick, and I find it amazing that the leaves (acanthus leaves?) protruding from the roofs have survived. 

The gate tower
[Photo: MU]

Shiva dances in the sanctuary's lintel -- note the intricate leaf (or flame, perhaps?) designs above the arches here, too. The tree behind the tower and to the right had delicate pink blossoms with a strong scent of baby powder.

The sanctuary
[Photo: AC]

Just inside the sanctuary's entrance sits Nandi, Shiva's bull. We read that Nandi would have been "fed" regularly by farmers in times past, offerings in hope of good harvests. He's fed but once a year now, at Cham New Year in late October.

Waiting patiently for his next meal
[Photo: AC]

In the depth of the sanctuary is the altar; its centrepiece is a lingam painted to resemble the Cham king, Po Klong Garai. Especially after living in Malaysia, where the practice of Islam is becoming ever more fundamentalist, I was surprised to see these two items in the Cham temple, still revered. The Malays would have destroyed them in iconoclastic fervour.

A case of synchretism. Always good to hedge one's bets.
[Photo: MU]

Buenos Aires is full of litter bins shaped like penguins. I thought they were whimsical but odd. If they looked incongruous in Argentina, they look downright wacky in Thap Cham.

"Pardon me, but did you just call me 'wacky'?"
[Photo: MU]

On the road between the Cham towers and the beach stands a massive patriotic monument in 16 April Park. (I've yet to discover the relevance of 16 April.)

Vietnam is Communist in name only, but the images
are still there.
[Photo: MU]

Across the road from the monument is the Ninh Thuan Provincial Museum. An eye-catching building on massive grounds that, as you can see, are well-maintained. As I peered through the building's locked doors, I could see a man walking down an upper-level corridor inside, but it was very clear that the museum hasn't been open for years.

A white elephant, perhaps, but a well-tended one
[Photo: MU]

On our way back, we stopped for dinner at a big seafood restaurant that had signs and menus in both Vietnamese and Russian. We ordered cocktails, but the waitress shook her head. "You don't have gin?" we asked. No. We ordered something with vodka.  Again, no. Rum?  Nope. She flipped the cocktail page and pointed to Bia Saigon. All that Russian signage, and no spirits?! No matter -- Mark ordered us a crab in tamarind and a plate of small, grilled eels, one of which still had a small fish in its jaws.  A bonus.

Our first train tickets, booked through the online site, bore our full names.  The ones we bought at the Thap Cham station for the next leg of our trip identified us only as "Foreigner". The train left the Thap Cham station at 11:48am; we reached Ha Noi at 3.30 the following afternoon. We booked the upper berths in what Vietnam Railways calls a "soft berth cabin".  (The hard berth cabins have six berths, three on each side, one about six inches above the other. A claustrophic nightmare.)  For the first few hours, we shared our cabin with two Russian women -- mother and daughter -- and the daughter's one year-old son. They were on their way to a beach holiday at Nha Trang and left the train with staggering amounts of luggage. We weren't entirely sad to see the toddler disembark, but he was immediately replaced by a Vietnamese child of the same age, whose parents boarded at the Nha Trang station. We retreated to our upper berths for a game of Scrabble.

The tiles slid about as the train rocked,
but still a blissful pastime.
[Photo: MU]

As I finish this post, I hear the music of the Cambodian gamelan on the next street. Thunder is rumbling, and lightning is flashing. A good rain to break the 40-degree heat would be wonderful. Ahhh, here come the wind and the rain, and the gamelan continues.  Life is grand.