I'm now in Phnom Penh after two weeks in Battambang, where I was teaching English to local kids. I'll have much more to say on an experience that was in large part amazing--but one less-so aspect was my bed, which reminded of the "traditional" Thai beds that, in Sangkhlaburi, moved me to make a video about them:
Sometimes kids are just willful. That's okay--they're testing their boundaries, finding their autonomy. But sometimes it leads to them leaving class and coming back with a naked toddler in their arms. Happens all the time, right?
Maybe that's only a thing here.Read More
Cambodia contradicts itself at turns without breaking stride or word. So it should be no surprise in Battambang, when I turn one way to see this
then turn the other to see
It's a place where you look up to see Khmer-era temples built on mountaintops
Then look down into caves where Khmer Rouge killed thousands of innocents.
Nature's beauty, man's ability to create, man's ability to destroy all collide. I think ours is the only species that actively seeks to undo the actions of other members of same. It's our great strength: the worst of us brings out the best of us. But it's also our great weakness: why does it take bad shit happening for us to get outside of our selfishness and self-imposed daily life constraints to actually take an interest, to reach out and help?
So what about me?
I've been blessed and fortunate in my life and certainly in recent years. I worked jobs where I made enough money to leave them behind and go on this journey. Along the way I've been shown kindness and gained more than I've given. So before I came back to Cambodia I searched for a way to give back. I found a small school that needs volunteers, and so for the next two weeks I'll be teaching here.
It's a small thing. I'm still far more indebted to life. But I'm excited to be doing something--to salve in a tiny way the terrible wrongs done over the decades that still plague this place. And I'll get to work with some great kids.
My first blog post was a short one, and included this:
Boy it looks profound in those big italics, doesn't it? [no]
Back then I was looking at 40. Now I'm seeing it inside parallax just before it hits me in the nose.
And I say "back then" because even though I posted that just 10 months ago, my life has gone down a completely new path--yet again. I traded the stability of golden handcuffs to bet on myself, I waved goodbye to a relationship that breathed like oxygen but ultimately sustained like cyanide, and I learned how much I love and miss my family and a handful of dear friends.
I also set out on a truly once in my lifetime experience, to see parts of the world I'd only dreamed of. In the 5 months since I left, I've seen stunning natural beauty in Cambodia and Chiang Mai and Vang Vieng; breathtaking works of manmade art in Bangkok and Chiang Rai and Vientiane. I've also seen man's inhumanity to man in Kanchanaburi and Saigon.
I got soaked with strangers during Songkran, knew joy with old friends and family over coffee and beer, and made new friends and relationships I'll forever treasure.
And I have written, because that's what, above all, I came here to do.
On my 25th birthday I was working in the coolest job ever with the coolest people ever. I thought I'd found my path. But I also wanted love, and I'd reconnected with the woman I was supposed to be with. Three months later I would move to Washington, D.C., and we would forge a new path together.
On my 30th birthday I was in a job I hated, but using it as a stepping stone on the new path for more. The woman and I had been through a lot together (and at times apart), but we had made it through. We were on the same path. And I was starting to taste a bit of the good life she promised--we were even making plans for my first trip outside the U.S.
On my 35th birthday I was a freshly minted MBA, stressed out in a lucrative job with a massive learning curve, but excited for the challenge. I was newly hitched to that woman: we'd been through so much, and now all the hard work and stress and struggling was paying off. We'd had a lovely wedding and honeymoon in the Dominican Republic, sparing no expense. Living the dream that we had built. We'd built me into something more than I ever could've imagined. I even thought I was happy.
On my 39th birthday, that path was gone. The job had become even more lucrative, but it led down a path I wasn't willing to walk much longer. I'd survived a divorce, and was in a beautiful, intense entanglement with a Girl who happened to have a boyfriend. I'd given The Ultimatum, trying to convert myself from ho to housewife (so to speak).
And it was around that 39th birthday that I realized this new path I'd imagined, walking hand in happy hand with this new Girl while figuring out the next stop in my six-figure professional tour was destined to be like those before--not a dead end, per se, but one from which I would have to turn in order to continue my journey.
I don't regret any of these twists or detours or dead ends, just as I don't regret my childhood plans for being a pro baseball player or POTUS not panning out, nor when at age 14 the first girl I really fell for LYLAB'ed me, or when at age 18 my first real girlfriend cheated on me with my then-best friend and his girlfriend ("Dear Penthouse Forum, you'll never believe how I got cuckolded").
Far from regret, I am thankful for all of them. Because without the love, the loss, the opportunities, the rejections, the false promises, and my own personal failings and "mistakes", I wouldn't be right here, right now--exactly where I am supposed to be. Doing exactly what I am supposed to be: writing and traveling.
Now I know what happy is. Because I Am Happy.
Rudyard Kipling wrote a lot about what it takes to be a man. His words, along with a few others, helped sustain me during my divorce. In leaving everything behind on this Next Episode of my journey, I drew on those words and inspiration from sources diverse as fuckable friends and Stewie Griffin and the Rocky movies.
And now, as the days between me and four decades on earth reduce to single digits, this path that I have walked has led me, not only to deep gratitude and appreciation for all I have become, but to a sincere understanding of what the great philosopher-king Gundy the First said:
I’m back in Bangkok but my thoughts remain in Cambodia. The Kingdom of Wonder that one minute will take your breath away with its beauty, then take your words with its harshness. In Kampot and Kep the kids were a delight--the sight of a big bearded barang (that’s Khmer for farang) sent them into a tizzy, dozens yelling “Hi!” and waving frenetically.
But some of the younger ones would hide despite my smile. My brother (a similarly big bearded barang) told of a legend that parents tell their kids, that a white bearded demon comes to steal and kill the bad little children. Grown-ups are the worst.
Later in Kampot, I see two girls, four years old maybe, standing toe to toe on the long-ago broken sidewalk. Sisters it looked like. One swings arm high over head, then brings down hammer fists on the other's head. She does it again. Maybe again, I can't tell--slender and fast as the slugger's arm is, and stunned as I am to be seeing it. Finally the other responds in kind.
They're swinging like hockey players--no jabs, no bob, no weave. Just high right after right, each landing with the sound of a fastball meeting catchers mitt.
I see an older male (father assuming) watching from his chair with detached interest.
The first sister's eyes are cold as she winds up and swings. The fights ends just after I pass. I hear crying. Look back and see the father, still looking on, as one of the girls runs inside. He's unmoved--and doesn't move.
No words. And what could I say? Even if we spoke the same language, the culture gap means I couldn’t possibly understand.
I’d joked that Cambodia was Thailand’s older sister--the one who stayed out too long in the sun, partied too hard, and made bad decisions with all the wrong boys. But in Phnom Penh the question ate at me: how is it that this country’s people, who remind me in many ways of Thais, face such a harder, harsher life? What holds them back?
Brief history lesson for those who, like me, didn’t get much Asian history in school. In 1975, after the Vietnam/American War devastated Cambodia, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge deposed the country’s corrupt government and established a brutal regime, attempting to reform the country into a self-sufficient, agrarian society. This required the murder of all “soft-handed” people--lawyers, monks, intellectuals. They also murdered their family and children, as “to kill the grass, one must dig up even the root”.
The Khmer Rouge were removed from power in 1979. During their three years, eight months, and twenty days in control they killed 2 million of their own people--and did so in cold and cruel ways. These were on visceral display at Choeung Ek, the best known “killing field”.
The description on this tree is true but a bit misleading. I thought it meant children were held against the tree and beaten with whips. This would be bad enough.
What really happened was…worse.
And for any who might deny this Cambodian Holocaust, what's displayed inside the above pagoda is a fine rebuttal:
Next we visited S-21. In true, twisted fashion, the Khmer Rouge converted a school into an interrogation and torture facility. The site is largely unchanged--the tiny brick holding cells, the beds where “enemies of the state” were strapped beaten and electrocuted, the barbed wire to keep those on higher floors from jumping to a less painful death--all remain. As does blood on the floor and walls.
So why was this terrible cruelty visited upon Cambodian while Thailand was a source of stability (never mind the occasional coup) on the sub-continent?
Or, perhaps more to the point, how can a country that enacts a new constitution roughly every decade be considered stable?
Perhaps it’s because, one hundred years before, Thailand’s King Rama V established relationships with western countries and other powers to preserve Siam’s freedom. Perhaps because subsequent Thai leadership generally worked for stability and the good of Thai people.
Were they always right in their decisions? That’s not for me to say. But it’s inarguable that, while Cambodia’s best minds were being obliterated with farming tools, Thailand’s people benefited from relative peace and a government dedicated to progress and education.
So is it as simple as one person? Does the fate of millions really come down to their leader? Roll the dice: Rama equals prosperity for generations, Pot equals death and destitution?
But leaders are also a function of their environment and those who elevate and support them. It took a series of events to elevate Pol Pot--and he didn’t drug or hypnotize millions into joining the Khmer Rouge against their will.
And wounds can be healed. The beauty of the human species--and what separates us from all others--is we have the ability and will to undo what other humans have done. Our best angels come out in the face of evil.
There was something most unexpected for me at Choeung Ek: happiness. Dozens of students, dressed in pale blue shirts and dark blue skirts or slacks, talking and laughing with each other. Several stared and smiled at the big bearded barang. And while I felt conflicted smiling back with all that surrounded me, I realized the beauty and importance of their happiness. For Cambodia to succeed they must heal. Mercifully, none of these kids were alive for the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror. In their eyes and smiles I saw hope for their future. They probably won’t get to parity with their Thai peers--but they’ll get closer. Maybe their kids will get there.
It’s their energy and potential and desire that will turn this place from tragedy to success. No one man, no matter how brutal and vile, can stop that.
Kingdom of Wonder what’s next.
I have a friend back home who is beautiful and damaged, and any who looks can see both. She wears her damage due to hard living and not giving enough fucks to hide anything.
Around her, I feel the urge to take care of her--but truth is I lack the capacity and resources. She's got too much on her, too much in her. She's beyond repair. Thankfully she's damned near bullet proof so she just keeps on.
To her credit, she knows all this. She doesn't expect to be saved--all she asks is that you spend some time with her while she still has it (though I’ll be unsurprised if she buries us all).
She's beautiful for all that is damaged, and all that remains pristine.
This place reminds me of her.
"So what do you think of Cambodia?" My (step)brother--who’s lived here for more than a decade--asks soon after my arrival, two emptying cans of Angkor between us.
"I mean, siem Reap is a vacation town. It's kinda like Disney here.
My eyes bugged. "Dude. Cambodia seems haaard."
"How do you mean?"
"All the sidewalks are crumbling. Streets are dirty. It looks like life is hard for everyone."
"How many times you been to a third world country?"
It was a fair point--the only other was India, and this place seems more like Delhi than anywhere else I'd been.
There’s so much potential here, but for many reasons the gears never fully mesh.
There’s corruption, there’s poor planning. There’s an independent streak--necessarily born of forced self-sufficiency--that undermines them when banding together is advisable.
“This is the freest country in the world” brother says (a claim I also heard in, no surprise, India). “Zero barriers to competition. Which means that, if someone gets something good, everybody’s selling it the next day. They’ll line up four or five laundries in a row. You can’t do business that way--but they do it here.”
And when that happens, no one can get ahead.
“Last year was a hard year,” he says. Then takes a another sip of Angkor (which may or may not have drugs added to make you crazy) and laughs. “Year before that was, too. Last few, really. But even the good years can be hard.”
Things are different out here on the streets. You can see it in the eyes, on the faces of the restaurant workers and tuktuk drivers. This is a country that knows hard times.
Not since Delhi have I felt such strong come-ons from the beggars, nor have they looked so tragic. Here, as there, I justify saying “no” by knowing I can't save them.
I hear babies’ cries that sound like a pained cat’s wail. Then I realize, to survive here, kids have to self-soothe. They have to get strong early.
In my earlier life I serviced pharma. When told folks back home of my plans, some asked if I’d be working in pharma over (t)here. I’d laugh. Even my biggest multinational customers thought of Asia as Japan China Singapore, then maybe Thailand. The continent’s balance was virgin rain forest since:
- The demand for meds--and the ability to afford them--in a place like Cambodia is quite different from first-world (profitable) countries. They don’t need antidepressants or anxiolytics here because they ain’t got need for shit like being depressed.
- Anything they need here they just copy--IP law enforcement is very low in this part of the world.
From all this forced self-sufficiency comes incredible resilience and hope. If you make it to 18, you’ve seen a lot of shit. Probably had a few near-death experiences, might have seen one or more people you love die. Just this morning I witnessed a motorcycle accident: guy was towing a long trailer (yes, with a motorcycle), took the corner outside my guesthouse too fast, and plowed over the curb and into a utility pole. He got up, clearly in pain, then dusted himself off like it was no big deal. I helped straighten out his jackknife and off he went.
If you're looking for omens before setting off on your moto, that wasn't one of the good kinds.
Then later on the road a dog dodged flattening by a truck only to come within centimeters of my bike’s 60 kph path. This would have ended poorly for us both. I pondered it for a few moments, but too much was happening for me to meditate--appreciating my luck may have distracted me from more oncoming crazy. So I rolled on, as that’s all you can do here. Life is lived a kilometer at a time, a moment at a time. This place doesn’t facilitate planning. And the results, when not tragic, can only make you laugh.
Case in point:
After a night blowing off steam, and with me on the edge of puking, brother takes me for a massage. Lying in the massage room he asks in Khmer (because he’s fluent, making him a rock star in this place and me jealous a.f.) if they can turn the ceiling fan on. The response is a slightly embarrassed “no, sorry”.
As we stare up at the spinning ceiling we realize why: a post installed to hang privacy curtains was mounted deep in the fan’s path.
“This is what I’ve been saying, Jamie. You see that? That’s just.... that's Cambodia in a fucking nutshell. Welcome to my country.”
I get it. You're at a special place, and you want to share your excitement with the world/get lots of facebook and Instagram dap. So you know it's not enough to just take a picture of the site--how will people know you were really there? They might accuse you of stealing from shutterstock. I'm sure you're not just a narcissistic millennial with low self-esteem.
There are two problems, though:
- When you make it about yourself, you miss the whole point of the experience. Are you even enjoying--do you even recognize--what a special moment you are partaking in? This is a treasure--a world wonder! And
- You're in my way, pissing me off.
But after a while, you inspire as much wonder in me at this sacred station in the Kingdom of Wonder.
And I wonder if you wondered what I was taking pictures of.
I'm now starting my third month in SE Asia, and on day 4 (of 12 scheduled) in Cambodia.
Tempus fugit, Ferris.
That's not Happy Siem Reap Pizza. No, they--along with four or five other joints in town--specialize in happy pizzas. Thus, my must-do travel itinerary for Siem Reap was the following, in no particular order:
- Visit with stepbrother
- Angkor Wat
- Happy Pizza
The interior of Happy Siem Reap Pizza is rustic, with dark wood and brick throughout. This is no doubt helpful for hiding bloodshot eyes. The service is quick and the staff is knowledgeable. When I ordered my small mushroom pie, priced at $3.50, I was quick to remind that I wanted it happy. My waiter informed me it’s $2 extra to make it happy.
Now, one might argue that paying extra for happiness, at a place with “happy” in their name, amounts to bait and switch. But I remembered mai pen rai, then remembered I was in Cambodia, not Thailand, and so remembered que sera sera.
“No problem,” I say. “Ah kon.”
My pie (and milkshake) came quickly. The taste? Eh. Reminded me of Chef Boyardee pizza kits I made as a teenager (which, if I’d made those "happy", would’ve made my friends much happier too). But the flavor isn’t what I savored of those three slices--no, this was a pizza that truly lived up to its promise. And I spent the rest of the afternoon in my room, flipping channels and grinning a fool.
By the way, K-Pop is amazing:
It was also a valuable reminder that the Nate Dogg way of Life was a valuable one to mine, but ultimately, was unsustainable. Good as it is to take care of head, without a little good, fine, hard work, I'll never not be workin on that novel.
But with all that said, I was also a fan of Happy Siem Reap Pizza’s to-go boxes--because they have them. I got one, and am looking forward to cold pizza for dinner. And breakfast.
Overall rating: 4.20