Saturday, December 11, 2010

Visit to a Cambodian Mountain Village

"For a long time, living in Cambodia was like being a frog in a well," my Cambodian friend told me.
"When I was young, and the Khmer Rouge controlled everything, I was like the frog. All I knew were the walls around me, and the small circle of sky above. I knew nothing about the rest of the world." He paused, thoughtful. "But then the Blue Caps came, and everything changed." Blue Caps? "The U.N. peace forces," he explained.

We were riding to a mountain temple, a two hour trip from Siem Riap. When I was first in Thailand in 1988, I could not go to Cambodia. In 1993, however, Cambodia gained its freedom from the cruel grip of the Khmer Rouge and its genocidal killing fields (see the "Killing Fields Museum," This time around, I have been fortunate to visit Cambodia twice. The first visit was to fulfill a long-time dream to see Angkor Wat, the spectacular 12th century temple, one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world. My second trip recently was to explore a little visited temple ruin far from Angkor, and also to see a massive reclining Buddha carved into a mountaintop. What I did not expect was to find a secluded Khmer village accessible off the main road only by foot.

Typical village house. The small add-on is the kitchen.

"These people," my friend explained, "are still in the well, but they may climb out. It depends on the government." He went on to explain that many villagers still do not have the basic necessities of modern life, such as running water and electricity. Indeed, the village we wandered into had neither.

Mother and child in front of house.

Along a dusty trail that meandered first through the forest, then into a clearing, the small village of ten simple houses materialized. Each was built off the ground and consisted of a one room platform with walls and roof made of thatch, either rice straw or remarkably, woven leaves that had been picked up from the ground and fixed into place using small pieces of wood. When I asked how long the walls and roof would last, they told me "We'll have to replace them in two years."

House and potato field (Photo by M. Sabb)

The huts were surrounded by small plots of crops that sustained the village: potatoes (different than those grown in the U.S.), rice, black beans (to mix with sticky rice), bananas, papaya, and tobacco. One pen of nine young pigs provided a meat source, which was supplemented by captured mice and squirrel.

There was no well, as it was mountainous; the water was carried in 6 liter plastic jugs strung on a pole, carried over the shoulder. I don't know how far they had to go to get it. Extra rice and bananas were sold at the roadside to supplement their basic lifestyle. Despite what a westerner would consider an unacceptably low standard of living, there did not seem to be a cloud of despair over this little village. Instead, the people seemed quite happy. Children ran shoeless, caked with dirt, but their laughter rang throughout the village as they played. Adults smiled and chatted, waving us to their houses for a look.

Black beans and tobacco drying in the sun as woman and daughter rest in shade

Tending the pigs

Roof detail showing small sticks used to secure leaves

Grilled mice for dinner (Photo by M. Sabb)

Squirrel tails to be made into key chains and sold (Photo by M. Sabb)

Woman in house window

Maybe, just maybe, the frog in the well can be as happy--or happier--than the one that has climbed out. And yet, one wonders what they would choose if given the opportunity to scale the walls and peek over the rim. Perhaps we will soon find out.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Impressions of Tokyo

Traditional hand washing at Buddhist temple

Count me as a fan of Tokyo. If one were to combine five Manhattan islands, connect them with the eight most efficient rail lines known and convert most--but not all--residents to Zen Buddhism, you'd have Tokyo. It's Amsterdam with rules.

Gingko tree in autumn splendor near Imperial Palace

One cannot begin to describe Japan's capital city without mentioning its toilets. Anywhere else a humdrum topic, but honestly, nowhere else approaches the creature comforts one finds in the WC's of Tokyo. Start with heated toilet seats and a console that allows one to choose the type of warm water that gently bathes one's derriere and for how long, it is typical of Japanese efficiency and comfort. And, if ever deciding to lift off of said basin and opt for a shower, one would find, upon stepping from the steamy stall, that the mirror is foggy save for a rectangular section of clear glass right above the sink. Why this has not been adopted in western hotels is beyond me.

Toilet console in hotel room

Venturing into the streets, it is difficult to find a scrap of litter in this metropolis of 12 million, yet in a discrepant turn, it is equally difficult to find a trash bin. Where, one might reasonably ask, do the residents stow their waste paper? It remains a mystery to me. Despite the order and cleanliness of Japanese society, one unhealthy aspect has not yet been resolved: Smoking. Cigarette machines are found all over the city, and restaurants have not banned the addiction from their premises; it remains an illogical yet critical part of Japanese life.

The rail system in Tokyo reduces the traffic flow to such an extent, that the air is surprisingly clean, and I never once witnessed a backup of vehicles. Bicycles prevail, pedestrians move through the city by the thousands, and institutions find ways to use renewable forms of energy.

Solar panels and wind turbines on buildings of urban university

Japanese fashion remains an enigma. Combination of clothing that would seem outrageous or silly anywhere else seems to work in Tokyo. If I could have the rights to one economic sector it would not be Japanese cars or Apple computers, it would be ladies boots in Tokyo. It is difficult to find an adult female who does not sport one type of boot or another: knee-high leather boots and fur-trimmed calf length boots dominate ladies' footwear, even though they may be causing excruciating discomfort on the cobbles or steps of the subway.

Although a modern city, there remain pockets of tradition that balance life in Tokyo. Palaces and temples in spacious green parks dot the landscape, providing respite from the high energy of the city. Occasionally one finds a corner of old Europe among the skyscrapers where artists go to capture the serenity of an 18th century garden.

Tokyo Tower and Zojoji Temple

Artist in Marunouchi Brick Square

Names of donors at Zojoji Temple, Shiodome

It was a short first visit, but enough to lure me back. In this globetrotter's opinion, Tokyo is one of the world's great cities.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Prostitution in Thailand

Many readers are well aware of Thailand's reputation for prostitution. Few are aware, however, of the complexities of the problem. I came across a very good commentary by a young American woman who now lives in Thailand, and who has made some astute observations. You can read her blog at the following address: Those interested in all things Thai may find that following her blog will give insight into the experiences of a newly arrived "farang."

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Relaxing with a little help from nature

Do you sometimes take several days just to get to a point where you can truly relax? I do, and dislike the realization.

It is Day 4 on the island of Koh Chang ("Elephant Island") in the Gulf of Thailand near the Cambodian border, and it is the first day I have felt free of some unknown anxiety that has limited my relaxation time. I even felt hesitant to leave the house for the relatively short (4 hour) trip. I think it has something to do with my body and mind resisting the go-go-go routine of intense uninterrupted work even though by last Friday the students and teachers at the school showed obvious signs of fatigue after two straight months of non-stop interaction. I felt nervous and wound up, unsure of letting myself go. I realized then how differently I react to life now than when I was much younger. I miss the freedom I felt then. I asked myself, "Can I get more of that feeling back into my life?" I was hopeful but not sure.

Despite the isolation and beautiful scenery on this tropical isle, and the lulling effects of the slowed down way of life, it was only today that I was able to spend time without thinking about the time or checking for phone messages, and simply enjoy the peaceful surroundings. My muscles relaxed and my spirit soared as I wandered the beach doing nothing, read a chapter or two from a book, or floated on the gentle waves with no schedule in mind. I took the time to become more conscious of my surroundings and let go of the trappings that I allow into my busy work life, and which had accompanied me to the island.

Perhaps the signal that I had finally had escaped the grip of work was the sight of two beautiful butterflies flitting about the hedges, the female busily sipping nectar while the male hovered continuously over her, awaiting his chance to add his gametes to hers (There I go, back in science class mode). So involved were they that I was able to slip my hand under her and coax her to alight on my outstretched palm. Such a small event, yet one that more than anything illustrated how taking the time to watch and just be can enrich one's view of the world and slow the pace away from you, and shift it to nature's. I invite you to share in this wonderful moment by clicking on the play button below.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Hot dog!

How does a fluffy canine cool off in the heat of the world's hottest city? Here's how one pooch did it. We found him fast asleep in the noon heat of the Sunday market, his breath forming puffs of fog as he slumbered on a pile of crushed ice, likely provided by a sympathetic vendor. Ahhhhhhhh!

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Does Anyone Really Care?

One of the top stories on Yahoo this week went something like this:
"Khloe and Kim Kardashian are spotted just days apart in the same form-fitting frock. Who wore it best?"

To quote the great rock group Chicago, "Does Anyone Really Care?" This is what concerns America? More than anything, I think this obsession with celebrity signifies the absolute meltdown of intellectual pursuit in the U.S.

Come, on, really, does ANYONE out there really care? And if you do, PLEASE explain why!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Keeping the Faith?

Wandering the backstreets of Silom, one of Bangkok's busiest areas, I came across two cemeteries, one Christian, one Chinese, although the Christian burial ground was mainly of Chinese people. The neglect of the grave sites was not only a bit sad, but also somewhat disquieting. Photos of the deceased stared eerily at me as I walked by their overgrown resting places. These persons once laughed and cried, and were cared about long ago. Their bodies and ashes now give way to neglect and fading memories of descendants. It is appropriate, I thought, for nature to take back their remains and to slowly and imperceptibly take away their tombs grain by grain with each cycle of tropical storms.

The Christian cemetery

The roots of a sacred bodhi tree entwine a misplaced marker in the Chinese cemetery

Photographs on the tombs are personal links to those who have died

How many years ago was this incense last lit?

A faithful Chinese lion stands guard in perpetuity

A couple gaze from their resting place

Ashes no longer protected by the vault's seal.

The haunting glass eyes of a guardian lion keep watch through the encroaching vines

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

This Could Be Anywhere

This charming scene of adolescent girls is reminiscent of young females around the world. Meeting in a public place, chatting about "girl issues," putting on make-up, hoping the boys will notice, in short, just hanging out together. Photo taken at Victory Monument in downtown Bangkok.

Monday, September 27, 2010

I Give Up!

Although I consider myself open-minded regarding differences in cultural norms, and make an attempt to observe and respect the culture and history of any country I visit, I have been perplexed by one particular aspect of Thai people. There is an overriding urge by Thais to correct a person's behavior whether it is requested or not. I first encountered this when my decisions regarding the maintenance of our yard and the resident plantings therein was apparently considered sadly incompetent by our housekeeper. I had arrived home from school and upon entering the yard had the distinct feeling that something was amiss, although I could not quite determine what that was. As I slowly wandered around the yard, I suddenly stopped in my tracks and gazed in shock at what once was a 15 foot tall tree. In its place was a seven foot stump.

The next-door maid had come over during my investigation. I pointed at the chopped arbor and said to her in English, which she could not understand, something along the lines of "What in the hell happened to my tree?" Obviously understanding my rising stress level and assuming it had something to do with the severed trunk that I was indicating with ever increasing grand gestures, she said--and I'm paraphrasing here as I didn't understand most of what she was telling me--that our housekeeper, Pim, who had been on the job less than a month, had done it. With what? I wanted to know. We had no saw. Through pantomime, I thought she told me she had chopped it off with a kitchen knife, which must have taken hours. That was the end of our conversation until Kat got home, and then the holes in the conversation were filled.

"Why had Pim done it?"
"Because it was ugly."
"But she didn't ask us before doing it!"
"Don't worry, it will grow back and be much nicer looking."
"But she should have asked first."
"Really? Why?"
"Because it's our tree."
"Oh, you mean you are upset?"
"Okay, I will tell her."
"No, no, don't tell her we are upset, just ask her to talk to us first before doing it again."
"Okay, but it WAS ugly."

I later had to stop contracting two gardeners who would come every two weeks to cut the grass and trim various bushes and plots of greenery. I would always walk them around the yard each time they came and point out the plants that needed trimming. At first I figured that was all I needed to say. However, after the very first time they worked on the yard, I discovered to my surprise that not only did they trim what I had pointed out, they added just about every other plant in the yard to the list that in their minds needed cutting back. I explained to them that I only wanted those things trimmed that I had mentioned, and nothing else. Seems simple enough, right? After three failed tries, I finally figured out that the best thing to do was to tell them what I didn't want trimmed. That didn't work, either. I began to be known in the neighborhood as the funny farong who had a strange obsession with his plants.

At one point I had to have a large tree limb removed because it had grown into the lamp shade on the front gate and was threatening to break it. Afterward, I nurtured a tiny growth that had sprouted beneath the cut, hoping to coax it into a graceful arch over the gate to fill the space lost with the removal of one of the main branches. A month later, just as the new branch had grown to about a foot in length, it was casually removed by the rental agent who had stopped by to chat. I watched in shocked surprise as he slowly twisted the young limb until it broke off, then crumpled it into a ball and tossed it unceremoniously into the street. I was speechless.

The embattled limb

Twice more, although I remained ever vigilant, and reminded the visiting gardeners that whatever they did, they were not to cut off the next new sprout, it came off after I had gone inside the house. At one point I ran into
the yard screaming "Stop! Mai daht! Don't cut the branch!" (They have not been asked back.) I finally hired a man whose sole job it was to cut the grass, nothing more. All was well until he brought an underling with him who promptly snipped off the beautiful arching branch.

So, I give up. I have no idea why Thais are compelled to trim someone else's greenery, but it is apparently deeply ingrained and beyond my control or reasoning power. Kat simply shrugs with a bemused look and says I shouldn't try to figure it out. I concede the battle of the branch.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Back Streets

If one sticks to the main tourist streets in Bangkok, opportunities for richer cultural experiences are lost. Of course, one must be careful, and use discretion with personal safety in mind no matter which city is explored. In the heart of Bangkok's "old city" is the famous Banglumpoo district, and its main thoroughfare, Khaosan Road where masses of tourists and backpackers flock in the search for cheap accommodations, food, souvenirs, drinks, and other substances, although the atmosphere itself can be mind altering.

I don't often travel to Khaosan Road, as the tourist scene is usually too noisy and crowded, but once in a while--generally annually--I venture there to buy an item I know can be found at one of the stalls when I can't find it anywhere else, or if in search of souvenirs to take back as gifts and I don't want to face the crush of the huge weekend market at Jatujak. But, once there, I don't linger. I head to the side streets where the "Bohemian" Bangkok exists. Sitting at a sidewalk cafe, sipping a beer and watching people is an enjoyable way for me to pass the time before I must get back into a taxi and face the long ride home.

Wandering down the tiny connecting alleyways, one may find little "hole in the wall" bars and food stalls, dimly lit by bare overhanging bulbs. One such establishment is "Happy Bar" which lives up to its name. Nothing fancy, just friendly owners and patrons. Below are examples of the urban artwork seen on the walls outside the bar.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Thai Market

This scene can be duplicated a thousand times across the country. This market is under the BTS ("Skytrain") station at Victory Monument in Bangkok. Scores of shops and small eateries vie for the visitors' money. In this photo are the bustling shops that draw customers every day near one of the city's most traveled spots. Enjoy the walk through the market!

You never have to worry about finding a place to eat!

Stop and have your fortune read!

The corn man

The sweet candied fruit stall

Scene as you descend from the skytrain at Victory Monument

Monday, September 6, 2010

Moose at the Beach?

It isn't often that one sees a "Moose Crossing" sign anywhere outside of northern climes, but here's one found in the seaside resort city of Pattaya in Thailand. There are lots of Europeans and North Americans who have retired in Pattaya, and thousands more lured here mainly by the sex trade in this Thai "Sin City." The area where this sign is located has many Norwegian and Russian residents, with at least one who has a sense of humor. I wouldn't mind a bit of the northern autumn weather right now to go along with it!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

English Chic

I've noticed a curious thing about "fashion" and "entertainment" magazines in Thailand. Most of them retain the look of the U.S. or U.K. parent publication, right down to the English headings. But when you look more closely, the article of interest is written entirely in Thai. Why is it that American and European fashion is so chic in Asia that it is necessary to camouflage the content in large English titles? Have Asians (mostly women) joined the herd of worshiping consumers so blindly that they can be brainwashed into paying inflated prices for sleek commercial publications that simply mimic the look of western chic? If so, how terribly sad.

From Harper's Bazaar

Would someone please explain this to me?

Friday, July 30, 2010

Images of America #8: Maine

If you ever get to the extreme northeast corner of America, you won't forget it. Interesting people, spectacular scenery, an easy-going lifestyle, and of course famous Maine "lobstah." Since we spent the most time in Maine this summer, this set of photos is larger than the others, but I hope you agree that it gives a sense of the place known as "The Way Life Should be."

Sunset in Washington County, the easternmost county in the U.S.

Front page news in the Ellsworth American

Dream-like Atlantic shore scene, McClelland Park south of Milbridge

Lobster traps being checked and baited, off Southwest Harbor, Mt. Desert Island

The proper Downeast method of eating lobster and clams: Just do it!

Quiet morning scene, Southwest Harbor pier

This lovely scene just off U.S. Rt 1 greets us every time we drive to town.

Boats in dry dock near Milbridge, Washington County

Canoes and kayaks on the shores of Alamoosook Lake near East Orland, Hancock County

Rt 1 east of Ellsworth

Typical summer takeout spot, Milbridge