A Year Away From Home (Part One)
Added over 10 years ago
Before my enlightenment, while I was still only an unenlightened bodhisattva I thought: house life is crowded and dusty; life gone forth is wide open – Sidhartha Gautima from Life of the Buddha (Pali Canon)
Early in 2002 my father Bernard, Ian and myself decided to pack up our business Kashgar and go travelling for an extended period, with the ultimate idea of my father relocating a branch of the business in Barcelona, Spain. Ian and I planned to help him establish there, then spend the rest of the year travelling the world before returning home to Sydney.
Making the decision was easy; taking the first physical step, and leaving all our creature comforts behind, was not. But by March 2002 we were committed: we had a grand closing sale in our two stores, packed up our remaining stock and placed it in storage, gave away our pot plants, locked down our apartment, and left.
The following are excerpts from my diary of that year away…
Journal entry - 15 April 2002
We have arrived at Bangkok International Airport (actually called Don Muang Airport but who cares) after an 11 hour flight from Sydney, unfortunately extended by a detour to Melbourne and a wait in the terminal of a couple of hours. The flight has been enlivened by the presence of a football team of juvenile delinquents apparently travelling by air for the first time in their lives. Their witty observations on the miracle of flight and aeroplane toilets have, needless to say, kept everyone amused for the entire trip, and their constant head-bobbing up and down in front of the screening movies has only added a welcome challenge to the ordeal.
It’s the red-eye flight to Bangkok, which means we board at 8pm and arrive at 10 am the next morning. This flight is always well booked so it’s rare to find spare seats to stretch out on. Since we’ve made this flight so many times before we’ve actually developed a bit a of routine: get completely hammered the night before, spend the entire night dancing atop a nightclub podium then either get a couple of hours sleep or head off to the airport without having slept at all. This usually results in flight time oblivion with or without extra seats.
This flight is a little different. Because we are going away for a year (!!!) we feel the need to pack a bit more carefully than usual and so intend to board the flight depressingly sober and alert. The day before leaving a friend at our farewell party gives me a hash cookie as a farewell present. I carefully wrap it in foil and plastic, put it in my handbag and then forget all about it - until we arrive at the airport the next day. Then while waiting in a line I look up into the cool, lizard-like gaze of a Customs official and suddenly become totally and completely paranoid.
Even though Customs dude walks away, the paranoia gets worse as we wait to board the plane with the result that the moment we are seated I unwrap the fucking cookie and eat it. I have forgotten that we are to make a stop in Melbourne before heading to Thailand so I’m completely bombed when the plane lands in Melbourne and we are forced to get out, walk around and then sit on the floor staring at our fellow passengers in mute anguish for an hour or so. I’m incapable of any of this and simply stretch out on the first available bit of carpet and fall asleep, only to be woken by Ian an hour later. I’m grumpy and I have floor hair and also I have to put up with the pitying glances of the others who are no doubt thinking that no matter how bad off they are, there’s someone on the flight who obviously feels a lot worse.
Anyway, the flight mercifully over, we arrive and take a cab to our hotel, the Narai on Silom Road. As three star hotels go this one has seen better times but the lobby is breathtaking and the buffet breakfast boasts a fantastic spinach and garlic gratin that I dream about when not actually in Thailand (no really!).
I adore Bangkok and Thailand in general but I remember that the first time I ever visited the capital I hated it. I was 24 years old and it was 1991 and it was the first southeast Asian country I’d visited except for Singapore when I was a child travelling with my parents. I was there for a total of three days and thought it was the dirtiest, noisiest, smelliest place I’d ever seen. Since then I’ve visited many times to buy stock for the shop and I’ve been absolutely in love with the place ever since.
I prefer to stay in one of the hotels on Silom Road because of its easy proximity to the places we most like to visit, including the gay bars on Soy 4. Since all the big wanky hotels have moved to Ratchaburi road you’re also left alone by most of the touts and tuk-tuk drivers that lie in wait for tourists outside these palaces. However, there is one famous lot of scoundrels who ply their trade along Silom road, specifically at the traffic lights at the major intersection between the Holiday Inn and Patpong. On my first trip here in 1991 I’d read with fascination about these dudes: how they dress smart, wear a “Rolex” and carry an expensive mobile phone. They approach you, establish a quick rapport, then - wammo – drop the bait: since you so nice and also remind them of their sister/brother/auntie who is studying/living in Melbourne/Paris/Los Angeles, they want to share a bounty with you – gems at a fraction of their cost that you can resell when you get home for a huge profit, coincidentally to their cousin/brother/son who just happens to have jewellery store in your hometown! To my intense joy on this first trip I was approached by a model tout. He went through his spiel, which I encouraged him in shamelessly, then thanked him and walked away. The Thai authorities have since cracked down on these guys and I’ve only ever seen a few working over naive Americans since that first trip (and even a woman tout once!), but every time I make that walk I listen out for those dulcet tones: “Helloooo, where you from? Odalia? Ahhh, Shane Warne and kangaloooo…”
Journal entry - 17 April 2002
Every time we return to Thailand we make a point of learning a few more Thai words. As it is a tonal language the same word can have very different meanings depending on how it’s pronounced. We’ve got a number of useful sentences like “not right now, thanks”, “where is the bathroom?” and “can you reduce the price a little please”, but we’ve also learned phrases solely for our own amusement like “I’m off to eat sticky rice” (pai kin keowneo - very useful when tuk-tuk drivers ask you where you going) and also “he has no testicles” (mai me num ya!). Some phrases we’ve tried to create ourselves with not always felicitous results – over the last three years we thought we were saying “I am not a foreigner!” when what we were really saying was “I am not a prawn”. Today I have learned to say “gattoi” (boygirl or transvestite) and “go hok” (tell a lie, as in, you’re lying!). Maybe one day I’ll use ‘em in the same sentence? Who knows.
Travellers must always adjust to the local standards of begging and Thailand is no exception. Bangkok has it’s fair share of scammers, in fact there is one very well known fellow who has a large open wound on his leg which he somehow opens fresh every day (to be found on the pedestrian bridge between the World Trade Centre and Gaysorn Plaza - we’ve stepped over him many times). The Thai King himself has pointed out that his country is unable to support a comprehensive welfare program and so it is the duty of all Thais to help those worse off than themselves. Consequently you see many Thai people giving what they can to beggars, sometimes money, sometimes a cigarette or something to eat, you just have to be careful to avoid the syndicates. We’ve always found that the best thing to do is watch the locals and follow suite.
----- Email Message -----
Sent: Monday, April 29, 2002 6:42 PM
Subject: Love You Long Time!
We are having the usual lovely time here in Thailand. Andrei and Jim, we're so glad to hear you’re thinking of visiting our favourite city and I hope you love Bangkok. If you are planning on shopping (of course you are!), here are our recommendations:?
- The World Trade Centre. Visit the shops on the first floor in particular for great Thai designer rags. Very well (fixed) priced stuff.
- Opposite the World Trade Centre is a small centre called Narraynphan –or something like that. Go downstairs for Thai knickknacks and silk pj’s - it's where we buy some of our shop stock when we’re not visiting the north. Bargain for your purchases depending on the quantities you want. Buy one, 50 or 500 silk scarves – they really don’t mind.
- Down the road from the WTC is a shopping centre called Siam Centre (now also called Discovery Centre) – visit for cool shops, although they are mostly exactly the same as everywhere else in the world: Tony and Guy hairdressing, Armani, Christian Dior and Fendi etc etc blah blah
- Look out for local clothing labels Greyhound, Exact, Soda, Jaspal, Fly Now and Blood Brothers (yuk, strange name I know). Their stuff is all locally designed and very well made, but only if you’re small.
- Visit department stores Robinson’s and Central (lots of them all over Thailand). BUY ALL YOUR UNDERWEAR THERE. Take your passport to Robinson’s for an additional 5% off, over and above what you can get back at the airport with the tax-back scheme. Have belts cut to size on the spot and your trousers taken up as you wait! How excitement!
- Patpong One and Two are for the tourists and paedophiles. Visit them by all means but DO try not to buy anything there – fake Rolexes and crappy t-shirt rip-offs, how ghastly! Instead, visit Silom Soy 4, just a little laneway off Silom Road further down from Patpong, for all the hip gay bars and the stalls out front for nice club wear at great prices.
- Go to Jim Thomson House shops for great silk ties.
- If you have time take a ferry ride (not a private ferry, the public one that costs a few baht) down the Chao Praya River to Chinatown or to River City. Chinatown is a maze of tiny stalls specialising in the wholesale of things like rubber bands, watches, socks and handkerchiefs. It is also the only place on earth that you can buy sweet potato grilled and marinated in palm sugar and coconut milk – yumm!!. There is a restaurant here that sells the most wonderful roast goose, but unfortunately I can’t remember its name. River City is another interesting shopping centre specialising in upmarket antiques where stupid rich Americans do all their buying.
Journal entry – 27th April 2002
After almost two weeks in the north of Thailand eating and buying, buying and eating, we decide to use our remaining time to detour to Cambodia for a few days and visit Angkor Wat. This had been a dream of ours us for many years and now freed of time constraints and with no shop to run back to we are actually in a position to do it! The visit will double as an exploratory potential buying trip and with a bit of luck lead to the discovery of new and exciting stuff we can sell on in the future.
The decision made, our first task is to book a flight with Bangkok Airways. There are many travel agents to be found on Silom Road and after visiting several the best we can manage is 10,500 baht which is almost A$500 per person - for just an hour's flight each way! The price is high because Thailand currently has a monopoly on the tourist trade into Siem Reap, the town adjacent to Angkor Wat, as it’s very close to their mutual border. The trip from Phnom Penn, Cambodia’s capital, would take much longer, so this is the way it has to be.
It’s a very strange flight. We’re due to depart from Bangkok International at 3:00pm. At 1:35 pm a Bangkok Airways staff member finds us in the airport bookstore and tells us to get on the airplane immediately as its leaving early: they are in the process of tracking down all 27 passengers one by one to give them the news. Once in the air the cabin staff are quite sullen and bad tempered, thumping food trays down and ignoring all passenger requests with much-practiced surliness - I have absolutely no idea why, perhaps they would prefer to be flying the national carrier to (for them) more exotic destinations. Still we get fed, and on a one hour flight that’s not bad.
Siem Reap turns out to be a small dirty town with unpaved streets, the odd vagrant cow and lots and lots of dust. The heat is searing, not a cloud in the sky and at least 39C. We have researched the accommodation choices available (at the airport by flicking through the bookstore copy of the Lonely Planet). Not surprisingly given the town’s location next to one of the world’s greatest monuments, they range from sybaritic luxury at US$300 a room to a fan-cooled plywood box at US$10. As we are on a budget we opt for the lower end of the scale: a new guesthouse called the Mekong Angkor Village, which is recommended to us by our cab driver on the drive in from the airport. Now normally we are not the kind of travellers who go to hotels recommended by our taxi drivers. Absolutely not. At best they are on a commission of some sort, and at worst … I shudder to think. But we have already checked out a hotel we selected from the Lonely Planet and it turns out to be a dud. Surprisingly, the driver’s suggestion is all right. Nor does he seem to hang around for a commission. At the Mekong Angkor Village we get a white-tiled room with ensuite, a double bed with a thick sheet of foam that serves as a mattress, a fridge, television, air-conditioner and lots and lots of mosquitoes. Every evening when we return from our temple explorations we kill mosquitoes by droves and every morning while we are out Housekeeping lets them back in again.
The guests here are a mix of nationalities and types: a French guy travelling around southeast Asia taking photographs, an older American couple on holiday, a virile young Swedish backpacking couple and another Australian who bizarrely turns out to be one of our old customers. We sit with him at breakfast and chat about the purchases he’s made from us in the past and of our own very nebulous plans for the future.
Needless to say the complex of temples and buildings generally known under the collective umbrella of Angkor Wat are what we and everybody else here have come to see. The most economical means of seeing Angkor is to purchase a three-day pass. Every day our driver (younger brother to the taxi driver who drove us from the airport) picks us up at 7:30 in the morning in his motodop - basically a motorcycle with a canopied bench attached at the rear. We set off through the town, joining an ever growing stream of minibuses, motodops, motor cycles, bicycles and four wheel drives all making the thirty minute drive out to the temples. The town and its dismal buildings quickly disappear once we leave the principal intersection and we travel in single-file convoy through a surreal and steamy jungle landscape dotted with fallen temples and barely glimpsed giant faces carved in stone.
Enough has been written of the buildings of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, so I won’t wax lyrical here. The tourist numbers are amazing; they represent people from every corner of the world. The crowds of touts, beggars, sellers, would-be-guides, administrative staff and beggar children create a constant blur of sound and colour. As we approach Angkor Wat itself for the first time late in the afternoon we stop to perch on the stone wall next to the moat encircling the temple complex in order to better appreciate the marvel before us. I read to Ian out-loud from the guide book and before long, small children approach one by one to stand and sit in a semi circle around us. For almost an hour, thirty children sit there in complete silence and listen to me read. God knows if they understand what I am saying, but it is one off the most serene and tranquil experiences I have ever had.
----- Email Message -----
Sent: Monday, April 29, 2002 6:42 PM
We’ve arrived in Cambodia – an interesting place and very different to what I’d expected. From the moment you arrive everything must be paid for in US dollars. Change is always given in the local currency, the Riel, which is not worth squat. Our visas at the airport cost US$20 each, our cab ride a short distance to the provincial capital Siem Reap (means "We Beat the Crap out of the Thai’s the Last Time we Fought Them" or something like that) cost US$5, and our guesthouse costs US$22 per night – actually more expensive than our three star hotel in Bangkok. Still, for this price we get cable TV (pirated), a fridge, air conditioning and breakfast. Breakfast consists of a very small warm bread roll, exactly one teaspoon of mixed jam and honey, a half a cup of tea and one quarter of a slice of processed cheese. It’s exactly the same every morning.
Our bathroom is designed along the lines of those found in many Asian countries which means you get a tiled room with a hand shower and a small instantaneous hot water heater - lets just say that if you were so inclined you could shit, shower and shave all at the same time. Food is relatively expensive, with meals starting at US$2 and rising from there to match western prices. The cuisine is a cross between Thai and Vietnamese – very nice, but since the Cambodians seem to dislike both nations intensely you’d think they’d attempt to customise their food a little more.
Every day we set off for the temple ruins (3 day pass US$40 per person) in our hired motodop (US$10 per day, guide services extra) to explore the beauty of Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat. The majority of the city/temple complex was built between 900AD and 1200 AD, but you can read all about that yourself in a guide book (pirated copy US$3). Suffice it to say that the place is breathtaking, both figuratively and literally – the stairs are incredibly steep - and built on a scale comparable with Machu Pichu. The number of tourists here is staggering and they are impossible to avoid unless you arrive at dawn – which is impossible in our case as I have a congenital dislike of waking early.
Also impossible to avoid are the vast number of locals begging or attempting to sell you crap souvenirs (US$1 for a bamboo flute), postcards and overpriced cans of warm coca cola, also attempting to constantly act as your unofficial guide. Official guides are just as bothersome as they continuously tout for business. In some areas the kids are obscene in their yelling and screaming and t-shirt waving. Children are sent running to you by their parents whenever you appear and will not go away until you give them money. As usual Americans are the culprits as they have taken to offering money to be left alone and now the kids expect it of everyone.??For all their smiles the Cambodians see you, a foreigner, as no more that a walking talking wallet, to be relieved of your cash at all costs! Also, very few people actually seem to do any work here - for every person working (usually a woman) there are five men sitting around in the background sleeping, watching television and playing cards. Yes, this a poor country, but for most here it is not so much a question of poverty as of lifestyle, and the majority would apparently rather sit around and wait for those fabled American dollars to roll in than do a hard day's work themselves.
It is also worth remembering that just 25 years ago people were routinely strangled here for wearing spectacles. The country’s entire literati and professional class were slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge. There are very few men left alive of middle age – most Cambodians are young and just a handful are very old. Although it’s not generally spoken of, a little bit of digging reveals that many of the hotels and tourist-related businesses are owned by former officials of the Khmer Rouge and their relatives. A young waiter that we spoke to yesterday said that he earns only US$30 per month. All jobs that deal with foreigners are highly sought after, and a local that wants one must pay to get it – for example, a job as a general dogs-body at the airport will cost US$500 to secure and will still only pay $30 per month. Jobs at the international hotels are the most highly sought after as they lead to physical contact with foreigners and at least the illusion of progress, if not tips and a chance to practice English.
Still, all in all, this is an amazing place, and as I said to Ian yesterday evening on the drive home in our motodop after watching the sun set over Angkor Wat, apart from the high prices, constant harassment, swarms of mosquitoes, heat, humidity, sunburn, diarrhoea and the poor quality foam mattress we are forced to sleep on, you really couldn't ask for more.
And so, gentle reader, I take my leave of you, not because I have run out of things to say but because this internet connection is costing me US$2 per hour. Until tomorrow,
Farewell and love
Ps I am composing a song inspired by our time here in Cambodia. It’s a jingle for beggars, for one hundred or more voices, it’s called "One Dollar" and it goes something like this:
One dollar, one dollar, one dollar, one dollar
Just give me one dollar you cheap foreign bastard
So I can wear Reeboks just like you do
One dollar, one dollar, one dollar, one dollar
I'd rather ignore you
But what can I do?
Journal entry - 29 April 2002
The temple steps really are incredible. After the first day I can hardly walk, and thereafter totter pitifully up and down the almost vertical, gasping for breath and continuously leaning on Ian for support. Chinese grandmothers of eighty scramble past me in both directions, with only the politest side glance to tell me what they really think of me. The long-suffering Ian is patient but occasionally runs on ahead. He peers back over the edge above me every so often, no doubt to make sure I haven’t toppled to my death. I get to the top of one building and stand doubled over. When I get my breath I say: “you wouldn’t believe it, but I’ve killed tigers at this very spot.” He raises an eyebrow in patent disbelief. In my alter ego as Lara Croft I’ve visited Angkor Wat and battled tigers, snakes and a myriad of shifty-eyed outlaws many times. Ian is unimpressed, particularly since at this moment I can’t even stand upright.
Journal entry – 30th April 2002
On our return to town every evening we shower, run around our room killing mosquitoes for half an hour, then lie on the bed and revive under the meagre stream of cold air that emanates from the air-conditioner. Later we venture out into the night with water bottles in hand to explore the delights of Siem Reap. Our first walk into town impresses us favourably – small, pretty restaurants specialising in French-Cambodian cuisine jostled up against handicraft and grocery shops. Groups of Cambodian boys hang around every street corner and greet you with shrill cries of “one dollar”, which I have come to believe is the traditional Cambodian greeting for foreigners. We look in shops for handicrafts and textiles but everything is priced for the American tourist market. Many items are advertised as old but are actually brand new – in particular the coins which are for sale in heaps outside the shops. At some time in the future we will make a trip to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penn and see what there is to buy but at the moment we will be leaving empty handed. At one cooperative handicraft store I buy a fan made from dried palm leaves, which takes a little while to get used to having in my hand all the time but gives me welcome relief from the heat.
On our third night in Siem Reap we discover a truly amazing restaurant, just newly opened, called Le Gekko Mayonnaise. The food is exquisite and would not be out of place in a restaurant in New York, Sydney or London. We stuff ourselves with platters of fried frogs legs and buffalo meat, ice-cold beer and paper-thin crepes. After dinner we get stuck into the house drink with the owner, who pours with a liberal hand. It’s called The Gekko and consists of five liqueurs blended together in a secret recipe. After several of these we are completely pissed and start debating French foreign policy, then finally roll off back to our hotel singing sea shanties and mangled versions of “Allouetta”. We are leaving tomorrow to go back to Bangkok, which is probably just as well.
----- Email Message -----
Sent: Thursday, 9 May 2002 10:31 PM
Subject: And another thing...
One last story about Cambodia:
We were TRYING to explore the grounds of one magnificent temple when the t-shirt brigade struck. One girl badgered us unmercifully, waving her wares in front of my face and running to keep pace with us as we tried to outdistance her. ??"Only $10" she screamed repeatedly in a louder and louder voice, "you buy, you buy, you buy!" Finally I lost my cool and yelled "I'll buy your crap t-shirt if you buy my fan – and for you its only $20". "In that case, my t-shirt now $30" she yelled back triumphantly. "I like the way you think, little girl" I said. "I tell you what, you put a proposal together, nothing fancy, fax it to me and have it on my desk by 5pm tonight, my people'll call your people, we'll do business". She backed away from me uncertainly, then turned around and ran. "Don't be a stranger" I screamed at her retreating form - "call me - promise!”
It’s the little things that count at times like this and I am not adverse to frightening small children when I can.
I am about to be booted off my computer as it is 10 pm and the cafe is closing. More, Gentle Reader, tomorrow...