Monday, April 20, 2020


The weather in Cambodia feels fantastic, after the oven of New Delhi. I've been here since midnight Friday, and the temperature varies between the low 80s and low 90s, although the humidity is pretty high. The city of Phnom Penh is beautiful, especially now, in the winter, with palm trees, tasty food and towering, otherworldly temples. Jodi Hilton, the photographer who went to Pakistan with me in 2008, has been here for a couple more days.

We are working on a series of stories from here, all looking at various aspects of human rights three decades after the Khmer Rouge atrocities. Jan. 7 marked the 30th anniversary of the fall of Pol Pot's regime, which killed 1.7 million people.

As many of my friends know, a beating at the hands of New Delhi Police put me in the hospital and forced a change of plans at the beginning of October. I had intended to return to India after a brief visit to the States, but that will have to wait. While I filed a lawsuit and a complaint against the police, the US Embassy advises me against returning any time soon, as the police are notorious for confiscating the passports of foreigners who file complaints against them. That would mean being forced to stay in the country until the resolution of my case, which, in the Indian courts, could take more than a decade.

While I miss my friends in India, I'm enjoying Cambodia every bit as much as I had hoped. Between the (for now) amazing weather and friendly people it's hard to imagine such horrible things happening as depicted in The Killing Fields. I will be here reporting for three months, with a return flight the second week of April. In February or March I may explore Thailand and other surrounding countries.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Holidays in Cambodia

While 'Jesus' hung from an invisible cross, the Roman/Khmer guards polished off the rest of the Coca Cola behind him, passing the glass bottle between the three of them.

The bottle had been quite a hit earlier, when Jesus had produced it while murmuring the words, "This is my blood," as the Khmer kids reenacted the famous Last Supper scene. The audience roared. The guards, leaning on their broomstick spears and dressed less like Romans, and more like the soldiers you see in the movie The Killing Fields, weren't about to let the remaining soda go to waste. The audience laughed through nearly the entire production, and the actors themselves had a hard time keeping straight faces. It may have been their first Easter celebration, and it seemed they were more accustomed to comedy.

It was, perhaps, the Most Hilarious Crucifixion Bit Ever.

The day before, Victoria had called to persuade me to visit her church.

"Even heathens go to church on Easter Sunday and Christmas," she said. I was sweating in my shorts under a fan in a cheap guesthouse room in Phnom Penh, frustrated at my lack of progress on a story I was chasing.

"Yeah, but I'm a more consistent heathen than most," I said.

But I couldn't not go. None of my contacts worked on Sunday, and I had hit dead end after dead end on my project. Also, Victoria and Chris are just too nice, and I did want to see what they'd been working on for the past few years. Another persuading factor is that the Khmer New Year falls close to the Christian Easter, and, after the services, the young people planned to play traditional Khmer games that are probably a thousand years old or more.

Christianity spreads in Cambodia the same way it spreads in many countries in Asia, especially India -- it seems the poorest segments of society find it most attractive. Changing religions offers a number of perks, depending on the country, but most center on empowerment of the disenfranchised: becoming a Catholic nun in India gives impoverished women a rare chance for an education and a career, for example. Many are learning English at Chris and Victoria's church as well. Members of their congregation also seemed to really enjoy having their own community.

Inside the church, before and after the Passion Play, it felt like a rock concert. A live band with drums, electric guitars, a keyboard and a dancing music minister belted out praise and worship songs in Khmer. The whole audience danced, clapped and sang along under a disco ball. The music guy didn't quite gyrate -- about the only thing he didn't move was his hips -- but he was all over the stage, jumping, pointing, spinning. He only almost fell once or twice, but recovered quickly.

Then we learned that Jesus could not have possibly been from the West.

"A lot of you think that Jesus is American," the minister, who is Cambodian, said in Khmer. "This is not true. Here is how we know."

We turned to the book of John, chapter 21, and read verses 10-13:

As soon then as they were come to land, they saw a fire of coals there, and fish laid thereon, and bread. Jesus saith unto them, Bring of the fish which ye have now caught. Simon Peter went up, and drew the net to land full of great fishes, an hundred and fifty and three: and for all there were so many, yet was not the net broken.

Jesus saith unto them, Come and dine. And none of the disciples durst ask him, Who art thou? knowing that it was the Lord. Jesus then cometh, and taketh bread, and giveth them, and fish likewise.

"We know that Jesus could not possibly be either American or European, because, as we see here, Jesus ate fish. Of course, Americans and Europeans do not eat fish," the minister said.

"What?" I asked Sothia, the young Khmer guy who was translating. "I eat fish. What is he talking about?"

Sothia looked a little startled, and I let it drop. After the service, Victoria explained many people there believed that we cannot eat fish, because Westerners seem to avoid it in Cambodia. Cambodian cooks tend to grill fish whole, or nearly whole, complete with the tail, bones and head. We are accustomed to eating fish filleted, and there are so many other foods that look easier to eat, such as beef or chicken skewers or stir fries that many Cambodians just assume we have some sort of allergy to it. I only tried fish once in Cambodia, although I did sample fried crickets, cockroaches, baby frogs and even what looked like baby sparrows. Of these, I would only recommend the crickets.

Then the Khmer kids began playing their New Year's games, and begged until Victoria and I joined them. All the games involved single guys and girls pairing off. According to Victoria, this is about the only time during the year that singles mingle. Inside the church, most of the guys sit together and the girls sit separately. Even when couples do date, and everyone knows it, they still do it sort of on the sly, and almost never are seen together in public.

We played a game called Cat and Mouse, where everyone joins hands in a circle, except for the 'cats,' who are boys, and the 'mice,' who are girls. The cats chase the mice, trying to tag them, and the mice evade them by ducking under the arms of those in the circle. We who were neither mice nor cats tried to keep the cats from reaching the mice by allowing the mice through and stopping the cats. Once the cats tag the mice, they join the circle and do their part to keep the two species/genders apart.

I saw a lot of symbolism and parallels between the games and the way Cambodian society functions. Apparently, a lot of weddings follow the New Year games. But one girl survived a whole round of Cat and Mouse by hiding behind me. Cambodian guys are so small, I'm about twice as big as most, so the cats just kept bouncing off me. Since that was what we were trying to do in the game, it felt pretty satisfying until I realized that because of me, she ended up without a partner. But she just joined us in the circle in the next round.

It had been a long day, but I was happy to have seen the church and the Khmer games. And, I ended up getting my story over the next few days with the assistance of Sothia, the translator I met at the church.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Beggar mayhem: don't try this away from home

A friend and I stopped for a drink on a recent afternoon in one of the small streets of Siem Reap, Cambodia. We were exploring the town, where we had stopped on our way traveling overland from Bangkok to Phnom Penh. I have a story to do in Cambodia, and she is on holiday.

Incidentally, this is my third visit to Cambodia this year. I can't visit any more countries on this trip, or else I might need to get a new passport. I only have one or two pages left free for stamps, and I am thinking about Indonesia.

We were sitting at a table outside, sweating in the shade, when several boys selling postcards approached us. The postcard boys aren't so much different from beggars. They are basically street children who have evolved certain skill sets aimed at separating you from your money. To be fair, the photography on their postcards is quite nice, but I already am lugging around several packs of them, none of which I am likely to send.

I don't think my friend has had much experience with these kids. She engaged them in conversation, took a look at their postcards, and soon we were surrounded by more than a dozen of them, all clamoring for us to by their wares. But neither of us intended to buy anything.

It got worse in a hurry when she tired of talking to them and tried an experiment. She told them she was going to give them each 2,000 riel (50 cents, roughly) if they went away and didn't come back. Word spread quickly, and the group's number swelled. We were surrounded.

She handed a $20 bill to the restaurant server to break into ones. It would have been simpler if she had gotten it back in riel; she told the kids to pair off, handing one of each pair a dollar and telling them to go get it changed and to share it. It worked initially, because the kid with the dollar would sprint off with the other trailing him. But then kids started coming back, saying their buddy had fought them off and kept the whole dollar. Now they were displaying the bruises from the fights, and they wanted their own dollar.

God, what a madhouse. The narrow street was packed by now. Adult beggars started showing up. We had to get really tough with them before they finally left. This was probably my least satisfying Angkor ever.

At last, only two kids were left, a boy with lesions all over his neck and a girl who had shown up late to the party. I am pretty sure the boy had already received his 2,000 riel, but he wasn't belligerent or pushy, just stood with his postcards about five feet away and watched us. Like all of the kids, he was very small and thin.

This was the disturbing part. The girl seemed a little older than the boy, and spoke English better than most of her comrades. While most of the kids would banter and joke back and forth with us, trying for more money, she seemed to possess a fierce, almost evil sort of cleverness. Some of the things that came out of her mouth reminded me of Regan in The Exorcist, honestly.

Now that most of the kids were gone, my friend felt more comfortable talking to these two once again. She asked about the lesions on the boy's neck. He didn't speak English at all, it seemed. The girl said something in Khmer, and the boy hung his head. I know she wanted him to go away, because she wanted a dollar, and he was competition. Leaning against the side of my friend's wicker chair, the girl answered for the boy.

"He has HIV. He die," she said with a smirk.

I was so shocked. I don't know what she said to him in Khmer, but he looked so ashamed and so sad. My friend reprimanded the girl for being so mean, but she was unrepentant. What we should have done was probably to have given the boy another dollar and explain to the girl that it was for how mean she was being to him. But I didn't think of it until later. I just wanted to leave.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Riots in Bangkok

Today went without incident. Got some OK photos, nothing special. But tomorrow is supposed to be really crazy with demonstrations, maybe riots. I have a cool guy named Ta who volunteered to guide me through the town though. He is half Thai and half Japanese, and knows Bangkok inside and out. He was here for the last two or three series of riots/coups.

Tonight we had some beers and went out through the city on foot, scouting it out the night before all the action is supposed to happen. Place is full of both Red Shirts and riot cops, even late at night. The cops have leaned their plexiglass shields against the metal barricades, some are snoozing in metal chairs, but all are in their riot gear.

The Red Shirts are sleeping in a series of vacant lots. They've pitched tents and pavilions throughout the city, and most of them are sleeping in the open air on mats. Dispersed amongst them are kabob and liquor vendors. Some people are selling machetes, but I don't think they are necessarily targeting the Red Shirts; they look kind of touristy. I suspect the Red Shirts probably brought their own machetes if they are to be used.

People are estimating that between 100,000 and 1 million people have been bused in from the hinterlands to voice their displeasure. They have been given free food and transportation, so the whole thing, at least tonight, seemed to have a sort of festival atmosphere. Men hunkered on their haunches in the sand, watching their political leaders on projections screens as they railed on the current administration.

Ta says he can get me to the best vantage points for photos, and, again, he survived the last few series of riots. So he knows the streets inside and out, and knows the hiding places and ways to get to different places quickly; he clearly does from the way he took us through the town tonight.

Here is the link to a gallery I am working on filling with photos from the demonstrations. Let me know if you can see it.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Hurt Locker a pain in my ass

I watched Hurt Locker in Bangkok. I haven't read any reviews on it, so I don't know, and also don't care what anyone thinks about it.

Here's what I think.

First, the good: It had a lot of action.

Ok, now for the rest. It's the most blatant bit of pro-George W. Bush propaganda since FOX's 24. There should have been a disclaimer at the end, "This Program Bought and Paid for By the RNC." It doesn't even bother with policy apologetics. In Hurt Locker, the big picture doesn't matter, because it doesn't exist.

If you haven't seen the film, it has all the elements of your old-timey Western, complete with the natives, who range from obtuse to villainous, and the cowboys, who are, well, cowboys, sauntering through the dust-blown streets, cavalier in the face of IEDs (I always confuse that acronym with IUDs, never a good mistake to make), rescuing the innocents (or trying) and killing the bad guys.

I don't know the exact mix of Thais to ex-pats in the theater in Bangkok, but I think it was at least 1/3 to 1/2 expats, and there's no way of knowing how many were Americans. I don't run into too many Americans in South Asia. But it was disturbing to hear everyone in the audience cheer whenever an Iraqi died. There was no parsing of which side he was on. In this film, the only good Iraqi is a dead Iraqi.

The hero of the story is William James, played by Jeremy Renner, who for this role has been nominated for an Oscar. The acting isn't terrible, given the one-dimensional roles each character is given. James at the onset takes the position of team leader of a bomb-removal squad in Iraq and immediately starts outcowboying the cowboys, refusing to communicate with the rest of his team and defying death and common sense to defuse what is said in the film to be a record-breaking 837 improvised explosive devices.

And so it goes, with the evil Iraqis killing innocent civilians, even at one point gutting a young boy and filling his abdomen with explosives, presumably to hit the heroic James in a rare vulnerable spot: he had befriended the boy in the process of purchasing mass quantities of bootleg DVDs from him (I assumed they were pornographic, but now that I think of it, it may not explicitly say this).

At the end of the film, James returns to the States to his girlfriend and infant son, whom he admonishes in a touching soliloquy,

"You love Mommy, your Daddy. You love your pajamas. You love everything, don't ya? Yea. But you know what, buddy? As you get older... some of the things you love might not seem so special anymore. Like your Jack-in-a-Box. Maybe you'll realize it's just a piece of tin and a stuffed animal. And then you forget the few things you really love. And by the time you get to my age, maybe it's only one or two things. With me, I think it's one."

And, of course, the one thing James loves is revealed at the close, as he swaggers out into the setting sun to defuse yet another bomb at the start of another tour for which he had volunteered. It was implied his girlfriend might leave him if he returned to Iraq, so it makes him all the more heroic.

Give it some goddamn context! I cannot believe this film is on the short list for an Academy Award! You can't tell the story of one man in a war without giving the context of how America decided to start the war itself. It is immoral to portray Iraqis as treacherous, murderous snakes in the grass without making any effort to explain why they are fighting an occupying force.

What is sickeningly ironic is that the film itself, and its director, Kathryn Bigelow, is being portrayed as an underdog as they go up against Avatar, the film of Bigelow's ex-husband, James Cameron, a movie I may or may not go to see.

In case you missed my point, it is ironic that this, a film portraying the world's most powerful country, invading another, much less powerful country, could be seen as an underdog in any sense. An underdog is a contender that has some merit but has been underrated. Hurt Locker is merely a shitty movie.

How the movie was received in Thailand is irrelevant. But I can just imagine how it played in the States, with all of the chest-thumping 'support the troops (but forget the (false) premise of the war)' folks latching onto it. It's really discouraging to think that after what, nearly 10 years in Iraq, someone can produce a film that is such blatant cheerleading for one of the biggest bait-and-switch jobs of the century and get so much critical acclaim.

After this, I had better not to hear anything more about the 'liberal media' or 'liberal Hollywood.' It's just too much.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Thailand sidetrack

Really, if I never see the inside of another South Asian emergency room, I wouldn't complain. I don't need to make this a habit.

I am on pain meds right now for some gashes in my wrist, so I apologize if this gets too rambly, etc.

My Thailand visa was set to expire, so I had to leave the country and return. The Red Shirts, supporters of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, decided it would somehow give them the moral high ground if they postponed their big demonstrations until March 12, rather than Feb. 26, the date of a court ruling that enabled the government to seize $2.2 billion of Shinawatra's money. The Yellow Shirts, their bitter rivals, shut down Bangkok's airport for a month a year or so ago and pissed off a lot of people, so the Red Shirts are trying to voice their displeasure in a circumspect manner.

Regardless, if I am to be in Bangkok for the action on March 12, I have to renew my visa by leaving the country and returning. I thought about Cambodia, but my flight leaves out of there, so that would mean I'd have visited the same country four times in a few months. I hadn't been to Malaysia yet, so I got on a train south.

It was a full moon and a lovely sunset, so I went to the rear of the train to grab some food and to photograph the landscape as we rumbled along. You can sit on the steps in between cars or on the platform of the caboose in the night air.

On my way back, however, I again ran into this aging guy from Massachusetts who earlier had been snuggling with his Thai boy-toy at one table, then came over to mine and tried to convert me to Christianity as I ate. He's also a Republican, he said. Guess he's sort of an elderly, traveling Ted Haggard. Well, I had already made my escape from his rants earlier, but he collared me as I went past and told me he thought that they were about to decouple the rear section of the train and send it off to some Burmese border town while the front end, my end, went on to Kuala Lumpur. He invited me to come along to Burma. It's much cheaper there, he said, and closer. Beer is cheap there. Sex, also. Although he said he had no personal knowledge of this. Anyway, I declined his gracious offer and made my way toward my own car.

Well, the guy was plenty kooky, but it wasn't the time to second-guess. I was heading up to my car anyway, but I did not really want to end up in Bumfuq, Burma, at least not when I hadn't had a chance to research the place. I skipped over all the people sleeping on the floor in the aisles in the cheaper cars, but came to a sudden halt at the start of the air-conditioned ones. I was standing between cars, outdoors, when I encountered a train car that some asshole had locked. Why would you do this? I don't know. I was basically locked out of the train, or at least my portion of it.

I couldn't open the door, couldn't pick the lock with my State of Maine drivers license, so I just started pounding on it, trying to get someone's attention. On about the third pound, the train lurched to the right, and I lurched to the left, and my fist landed on the plate glass, rather than the door.

For an instant, I stared through the shattering glass at my hand, inside the train car while I stood outside. Then it was just blood, blood, blood and flying shards. At first, I stood there, stunned at how much blood was coming out, and how quickly. Then I turned and went back into the car behind me. One Thai man was snoozing in the front row, but woke up in a hurry when he saw me bleeding all over the floor. He gave me a handkerchief or some sort of white cloth, and I fashioned it into a tourniquet around my wrist. But it wouldn't stop bleeding. I remember thinking I was going to die. There was just too much blood. And then I wondered why I hadn't fainted. I am the biggest candyass when it comes to blood. I actually fainted during an interview in which a cardiac surgeon was merely DESCRIBING a heart surgery to me.

They stopped the train in some little backwater Thai town called Mamrit or something. Somebody at the station fired up his little moped and I got on the back, holding my wrist above my head. I was getting pretty woozy at this point, and was afraid I'd fall off the back. But we made it there, and the nurses stitched me up.

I had this feeling of elation in the emergency room. At first, I didn't want to let go of the tourniquet for the nurse, but I did and the bleeding stopped once she stitched it (without local anesthesia). I really thought I was going to die, and I had accepted it on the train. I just couldn't believe it. When no one speaks English, I feel like it's OK to say whatever I am thinking sometimes. I just kept saying, I'm alive, I'm alive. I was pretty happy about it. But maybe that was just the big shot of morphine she'd just put in my shoulder.

However, there was one moment on the train, when I thought, you know, if this is how and when I have to go, it's not the worst situation. It didn't even really hurt, initially. It must have done some nerve damage, because the side of my right hand is numb, but I can feel a little bit, and, in my experience, nerves grow back if you can feel a little bit. I think they gave me nine or 10 stitches. I'm not sure. I'm a little nervous about taking off this bandage.

The great thing was how sweet the Thai people were in this little village. One girl, apparently the only one who spoke English, came to my guesthouse on a moped to translate. She went to the station and got me train times and offered to give me a ride there. I ended up taking a bus. Then this guy who was the brother of the woman who owned the guesthouse bought me breakfast, took me to buy some new pants (Dumbass: I took only one pair of pants, and after all the bleeding, they basically became one giant scab that could stand on its own), and then to the bus station. I really like Thai people.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Cheeseburgers, bat caves and jackboots

Regardless of your politics or your shirt color, you can't deny the Bangkok riot police wear some kickass boots.

I've been staying in the Bangkok area for the past week and a half or so, waiting for some riots that so far have failed to materialize. Nothing was happening other than a lot of talking. I got bored waiting, rented a motorbike (a Honda 200 cc Shadow that is OK, but, well, it's just OK), and rode 150 kilometers or so north into the mountains of Khao Yai National Park, and I'm so glad I did, because Bangkok was driving me nuts. Perhaps it was more that cities in general were driving me nuts. Phnom Penh for four long, long weeks, Saigon, Hanoi, Saigon again, back through Phnom Penh, then Siem Reap, and Bangkok -- it's been nothing but cities.

No riots, no riots, no riots, so I'd had enough and left. Thailand's highways are nerve-wracking, I'll admit, riding a motorcycle, but they are a relief compared to Bangkok. Bangkok and New Delhi -- it's a tossup, I'd say, as far as how difficult it is to bike.

I was actually surprised I found Khao Yai, since few people here speak English, and all of the Thais I consulted in Bangkok advised me to take the bus. The highlight was after we'd toured the bat cave and rolled around to the backside of the mountain just before sunset to see them come out for their nocturnal forays.

We waited at the foot of the mountain, nothing stirring but the wind rushing through the trees that lined it. The sun sank lower, and we began to hear the chirping of two million bats as they developed a consensus on when to leave the cave.

A gray hawk diving from a tree above the cave gave the first sign that the bats were beginning to emerge. The hawks had been circling for close to an hour, black ones silhouetted against the darkening blue sky above the mountain and lighter ones in the trees, all waiting for a meal on the fly.

The chirping became a whirring rush of wings as the bats spiraled out of the cave. The column undulated over our heads, curled over a hilltop behind us, and swirled into the valley below. It appeared that the bats collectively functioned as a single living being. They flew into the wind, as bats do, like a horizontal Wizard of Oz cyclone, fluttering and swirling in response to changes in the air flow.

Then it was back to Bangkok. And, yes, I do eat cheeseburgers any place I find them.