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Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Malaysia: George Town to Kuala Lumpur

On the bus to our plane leaving Bangkok, I noticed a group of women wearing colorfully patterned headscarves. Since we were bound for a Muslim country, this was not surprising. What I didn’t expect was for one of them to be wearing a T-shirt that said “Harley-Davidson, Krabi, Thailand.” My imagination has since created a whole story for her: that she rented a motorbike and rode all around Southeast Asia, as people her age and younger are wont to do…

We almost didn’t make our flight to Malaysia. We had to change planes in Hat Yai, Thailand, which involved collecting our bags and re-checking them on a different airline. The helpful woman there (we were the only passengers in line) explained that we’d have to backtrack to where we’d just collected our bags and get them cleared with security stickers. At this point, my handy little recharging device, which I’ve used twice in eight months, became a “charger” which was banned in checked bags, something that has never been an issue anywhere else—including the flight we had just been on! I had to unpack my backpack completely before finding what the problem was. Again, fortunately, the security woman was nice, and didn’t make me throw it away or anything, but at this point we were under a bit of time pressure. Not my favorite.
We headed upstairs to exit Thai immigration and then had to go through security again, ourselves. As we hadn’t anticipated this many steps, we were relieved to find that once again, no one was in front of us in line. Only when we reached the gate did we realize that was because everyone else had already boarded the plane! The gate agent raced us down to the plane which, almost as soon as we were seated, took off. Took off early. I’ve seen a lot of things in my travels but I have never, ever, heard of a flight leaving ahead of schedule. Only in Asia!

It was perhaps the first time I’ve felt stressed on these travels, about the trip itself. It didn’t help that I hadn’t slept much. The night before, after all, had been New Year’s Eve, and (having gone to bed early because of our early morning flight) I awoke to some banging and booming outside. I couldn’t see many fireworks from our sixth-floor window, but registered that it was midnight. Happy New Year.

When we arrived on Penang island in Malaysia, things felt instantly different. This was, after all, our first taste of the former British Empire since Hong Kong. The taxi radio played Dolly Parton singing “9 to 5,” followed by Anne Murray. It was as if the Malaysians were trying to welcome a Tennessee-born Canadian on purpose. At least the English was refreshing.

Our luck continued to hold when we walked around George Town the next day. We were trying to get train tickets on to Kuala Lumpur, the capital, without having to go to the Butterworth station, which is on the mainland part of Penang. After a lot of unnecessary walking around in the heat, we finally located the office and went in. As we did so, a worker started pulling down the blinds, and we realized the office must shut at 4:00, which it then was. Incredibly, the woman at the desk went on to serve us politely, rather than throwing us out and telling us the office was closed. No such luck for the couple of backpackers after us who were a moment later and shut outside for the day!

We also succeeded in finding a post office. From time to time, I’ve mailed things “home” from the road, either items that would make my backpack too full, or small gifts for other people. Postal services vary widely, though, and I’m never quite certain if it’s going to work. I had to try a few different offices in Italy just to get service, while the Laotian post was slow, but effective. Never have I experienced anything like Malaysia. A woman came right over to me and asked if she could help, got me a number, then came back over after realizing she had given me the wrong number and I was up next! I got helpful service immediately, and it only cost 10 ringgit. These are the kinds of things that endear a country to me.
Bicycles and rickshaw outside the "Blue Mansion" (Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion)
It helps that Penang, and George Town in particular, is beautiful. We took a local bus for about 2 ringgit along the coast of the island. While there, a couple asked us for information about the bus (people always seem to ask me for directions or help when I walk or use public transportation, even if it’s the first time I’ve ever been in a place). It turned out he was from South Carolina and she was from Ohio, but they had been teaching in Myanmar for five years. They noticed the Burmese patch on my daypack, so I had to confess that we’d only been  in Myanmar for an hour or so. They had their baby daughter with them and were talking about moving back to the U.S.; eventually, it transpired that they’d looked at houses in Bristol and Elizabethton, Tennessee. They wanted to know “the dirt” on those places, since I went to school in Elizabethton! I told them it was a great place to grow up but as far as their questions about homelessness and opioid addiction, I hadn’t lived there for twenty-eight years…

Back in George Town, we walked along Weld Quay (the combination of Malay and English place names is fascinating) and the Clan Jetties. These jetties are unique Chinese settlements, each community originating as a particular clan of immigrants from China. The clans built their houses and other buildings on stilts, and today you can still walk down the jetty and see homes and temples that have been preserved as part of George Town’s UNESCO World Heritage site. 

At Chew Jetty T. took a picture for some more Americans. Two of them teach in an international school and the rest were their relatives visiting. There are a lot of international schools in Penang.

In Siem Reap, I had heard music from the pool bar late into the night; in George Town I heard the Muslim call to prayer. The last time I remember hearing the siren song of the mosque was probably in Moshi, Tanzania. Malaysia is a Muslim country both in the sense of being majority Muslim, and in that Islam is the state religion; the cultural implications are many. While beer is freely available, there are no local brands, and the taxes make it very expensive. At least compared with Cambodia!
The Cathedral of the Assumption, list of priests. The new plaque shows a shift from European to native priests (though all with Christian first names!)
Masjid Kapitan Keling, built by Indian Muslims
Church of the Assumption
While Malaysia is officially Muslim, freedom of religion is guaranteed. I am not saying there are no problems with that. Personally, I am opposed to any establishment of religion, whether mosque or church. But what it means on the street is that churches, Hindu and Chinese temples, and mosques are practically (and sometimes literally) next door to one another. While the Malay ethnic majority is almost all Muslim, nearly a quarter of the population is Chinese, and there is a significant Indian minority as well as many Westerners. All of these groups, as well as aboriginal Malaysians, include many Christians, along with practitioners of their ancestors’ faiths.

Sri Maha Mariamman Temple 

Teo Chew Association 
In addition to its many houses of worship, George Town is famous for its colonial architecture, and its street art.
City Hall
The most popular street art is by Ernest Zacharevic, who is from Lithuania. He incorporates an actual bicycle and motorcycle in his work.

There are said to be great sunset views from Penang Hill. We didn't see those, as it rained late every afternoon we were in Penang, but we did get the funicular up to the top (even we were daunted by the prospect of climbing it!) Given the cloudy weather, we didn’t have the exhilaration of the 360-degree view in Nong Khiaw, Laos, but we did enjoy another fabulous street dish—chickpea masala. 
View from Penang Hill of George Town and the 13-km bridge to Butterworth on the mainland 
As I mentioned, this was my first Muslim country, and it was interesting to see how Islam permeates people’s everyday lives. For example, in every hotel room there is an arrow indicating the direction of Mecca, so Muslims know where to kneel when it is time to pray.
I’ve thought before about how Islam requires its adherents to be visible. Not so much in clothing terms, because depending on their culture, Muslim women (or men) may or may not wear certain items. I mean praying five times a day, which is one of the pillars of Islam. That’s a lot of praying, but it’s also visible: you have to find a place to do it, and you have to kneel in the right direction. 

Christians can pray without anyone knowing it, unless we say grace in a restaurant. According to the Sermon on the Mount, that is how we’re supposed to behave. Almost any Christian practice, even celebrating Christmas, can pass unnoticed in the general culture. But if I had to pray five times a day, I think it would be hard not to keep my devotion to God foremost in my mind. And sometimes I wonder, as an old youth group sign said: “If you were arrested as a Christian would there be enough evidence to convict you?”

My volunteer at the Kuala Lumpur mosque said, “When we are in the marketplace we are not worshipping God.” He was talking about the need to regularly practice religion, but in the KL market, it seemed to me Malays were still practicing their faith. It’s just that they wore it somewhat lightly. The women, for instance, seldom appeared wearing black headscarves or covering their faces. Instead they wore an array of colors, along with jeans or whatever else they chose to wear, and the headscarf seemed to be an accessory to express themselves personally as well.

Shopping for headscarves, night market
Not willing to take the oft-maligned Lonely Planet guidebook at face value, I had done some research about the quick, modern, user-friendly KL public transit I’d read about. Someone on TripAdvisor assured me that the hop-on, hop-off bus was a waste of time, because KL traffic is terrible and it is so much easier to get around on the monorail or trains. We did not find this to be the case, as merely getting to a station was only the start; from the train to the monorail system, for example, there was no straightforward way to walk and almost no signage. We keep getting directed to different entrances and exits but only in the vaguest way; had to pay simply to enter the subway for the purpose of crossing under a road; and, best of all, had no decent map (this is the first city I’ve ever been in where a hotel didn’t have any). So after spending at least an hour after the National Mosque walking around trying to go one stop, from the old Kuala Lumpur train station to KL Sentral, we found the Malaysian tourism office.
Kuala Lumpur Station with KL Tower in the background
These women were wonderful. We had failed to find their office on our first day despite numerous people “helping” us, but now we had good maps, plus advice on the hop-on, hop-off bus. It turned out to be excellent value on our third day. It took us to all the places we wanted to go and, as it was a Sunday, the traffic posed no significant delay at all. It cost less than half of what such a bus ticket would cost in London.
St. John's Cathedral (Catholic). Photo by Wikipedia
We would never have gotten to some of the outlying sights trying to use the public transit, such as the National Monument. This monument commemorates Malaysia’s struggle, first against Japanese occupation during World War II and then against a communist insurgency until 1960. It is said, on a sign nearby, also to represent "the triumph of the forces of democracy over the forces of evil."

If this monument looks familiar to U.S. readers, it’s for a couple of reasons. First, the Malaysian flag has seven red and six white stripes; and second, the sculptor was American (born in Austria) Felix de Weldon, best known for the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial (Iwo Jima) in Washington, D.C. I got so used to seeing the red and white stripes that when I actually saw an American flag flying over what must have been the U.S. Embassy, I almost didn't recognize it! 

T. wanted to go to the Bird Park, which was pretty cool too. It’s the largest free-flying aviary in the world, though not all sections are as enlightened. They had lots of birds, monkeys and, perhaps best of all, char kway teow, my favorite Malaysian dish. These stir-fried noodles certainly beat the cold vegetables and chicken full of bones that we’d been eating off banana leaves lately. Plus, none of those outdoor restaurants serve beer!
Peacock and me
After lunch we went to Dataran Merdeka or Independence Square. Here, an enormous Malaysian flag flies over what once was the cricket pitch, in colonial times. Around the square are several heritage buildings. Two, strikingly different, are both credited to British architect A.C. Norman: the Sultan Abdul Samad Building (originally Government Offices) and St. Mary’s Anglican Cathedral, a structure whose modesty, in its own way, impressed me equally. I later read that whereas the first building was largely designed by others, St. Mary's Church was by Norman's own hand. 
Sultan Abdul Samad Building, 1897

St. Mary's Cathedral (Anglican), 1894
No trip to Kuala Lumpur would be complete without going up a tall building. Its Petronas Towers were once the tallest in the world (knocking Chicago’s Sears Tower off its perch in 1998), but as in Chicago, the better view is from a slightly less tall building, KL Tower.
Petronas Towers viewed from the KL Tower
If you visit during the day, you can follow a canopy walk through a forest reserve; the walk leads directly up to the KL Tower. What’s remarkable about this forest reserve is that it’s a patch of original jungle, right in the middle of the modern city. Someone way back in 1906 had the forethought to keep this preserved. It was hot walking there, but not as hot as out in Merdeka Square!

Malaysia is an interesting example of how there is more than one way to be a Muslim nation. In fact, although we hear a lot about the strictest and most repressive way, far more of the world’s Muslims live in Asia than in the Middle East. That doesn’t mean I would want to live there. There are ethnic tensions in Malaysia that have at times turned deadly—not unheard of where a minority group (in this case ethnic Chinese) is seen to have disproportionate economic power. Then there’s the establishment of an official religion. I’m against all blurring of church and state, particularly when it means gay sex is outlawed (as it still is in Singapore as well). Sometimes The Discreet Traveler feels the advantage of the fact that lesbians are less visible than gay men virtually everywhere. We book whatever rooms we feel like and no one bats an eye. We are only women; what harm can we do?

Having said all that, I enjoyed our time in Malaysia. It’s a thriving nation, noticeably so after most of the other places in Asia we had visited. The mix of cultures was as refreshing as the obedience to traffic rules. In Chinatown, where even beer was relatively cheap, it felt like we were watching all the world go by.

He says what we're thinking

Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated fifty years ago. I can’t believe that I’m writing this on what would have been his 89th birthday, but recent lows in the U.S.A. compel me to note two problems. The first is more an explanation for my non-American readers, of a problem I have no solution for. I don’t have a solution for the second either, but if anyone has a helpful suggestion, I would love to hear it.
Lilies, Bird Park, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Right now the U.S. is a dysfunctional democracy. It does not function democratically because a minority rules the majority. I am not just referring to the Republican president being the loser of the popular vote, as that was true from 2001-04 as well. I am talking about being ruled in all branches of government by a party that does not have majority support. This party just passed a tax bill opposed by 64% of polled voters, including 70% of independents.  And poll after poll has shown 80 to 90% majorities in favor of background checks for gun owners, yet the party controlling government as consistently refuses to do anything at all about gun violence.

We need to stop thinking that the problem in America is one man who somehow bamboozled the Republican Party and is doing the damage all by himself. He is an embarrassment and more, but he is also a symptom. What he is a symptom of is made most clear in the statement heard time and again from Americans who supported him, before the election and since: “He says what we’re thinking.” 

The underlying diagnosis is that there are still people in our country who think these things, who say these things, and who are happy to hear the president say them. Why are we still shocked that everybody isn’t embarrassed, that he still has a large fan base no matter what he says or does? This is the man who told us, during his campaign, “I could shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” 

I don’t know how many of the tens of millions who voted for this man still believe he can do no wrong. I hope it’s not that big a number, and I hope it’s shrinking. But what he has revealed—what he yanks the scab off of each and every day—is an America with a big problem. Not just a “divided” America but a culture war, a partisanship so bitter that we cannot cross over it. And we can’t cross it because there are lines that should not be crossed. There is racism and it is unacceptable. During the civil rights movement, some people were simply wrong. It may not have been popular—or safe—to call them wrong at the time, but they were, and everybody knows that now.

When did it become worse to be called a racist than to be racist? I don’t mean we should call people names and wipe our hands of each other. I mean calling out racism, or any other hatred, for what it is and wherever we see it, even within our own soul.

America has a soul problem. That is certainly not new. I am not sure how to solve either problem but if we don’t work on this second one, we aren’t going to get anywhere with the first, either. 

What do you think? I hear a lot of helplessness out there, so what can we actually do? It is so tempting either to get defensive, or to blame others. I see a lot of that whether from Democrats, Republicans, Americans, non-Americans; but it is not helpful. What would you actually do, in this new year, to make the country you live in better?

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Dressing the part: Thailand to Malaysia

As it's Twelfth Night, the end of Christmas and the beginning of Epiphany, I have a few odds and ends to clear up. In my last post, I may inadvertently have given the impression that the sandman on the beach was "mine." In fact I didn’t build him, much as I’d have liked to. We don’t know who did!
We also received a picture from our tenants, of their Christmas tree. Our tenants are fabulous people, and we wouldn’t be on these travels without them. They are happy to live in our house as long as we’re happy to be away from it. Still, it was nice to see our old living room decorated for the holidays. 

Siem Reap to Bangkok was a long day's bus journey. The only thing that broke the monotony was getting out of the bus for about three hours at the border. That was how long it took to exit Cambodia (in a hot, semi-outdoors room with a fan), enter Thailand (they broke out the air conditioning), and get some water and lunch.

I often find that when I've traveled to a less familiar place, the more familiar place suddenly feels like "home," even though it's far from Canada or America. This is what happened in Thailand. When we first arrived in Bangkok in October, it seemed so exotic, the traffic so confusing; a whole new continent of Asia. By comparison with where we've been traveling, though, it felt like Chicago. Actual freeways. That switch back to the left-hand side of the road corresponded with the first real speed (over 50 km/h) we'd had for months. 


New Year's Eve dinner, Canton House, Chinatown

We were transiting back through Bangkok for our journey down the Malay peninsula. While we were sorting out flights to Penang, we had a couple of days. The highlight of being back in Bangkok was its culinary greatest hits, specifically those in Chinatown. We went back to Pork Satay Woman, still butch in her camouflage shorts, and Banana Pancake Man. When we first tried his heavenly concoction of crust spun like a pizza, egg, banana, and a drizzle of condensed milk, we thought we'd be eating this all along the "Banana Pancake Trail." But we never found its like again.

And so, to the subject of dressing the part. When we were last in Bangkok, Thais were getting ready for the last king’s funeral, so the city was more crowded. Also, many sites were closed including Bangkok’s most visited, Wat Phra Kaeo and the Grand Palace. This enclosure contains the former royal residence as well as the temple. We made a note to visit it when we came back and it was open.

This did not go quite as planned. Every time we visit a temple, we take two sarongs (that T. bought in Mauritius) in our day packs, in case we are showing shoulders or knees. Covering knees and shoulders, along with removing shoes, is required for a Buddhist house of worship. Normally T. wraps one sarong around her shoulders and I tie one around my waist like a skirt. 

This has been perfectly acceptable throughout our Asia travels, but for some reason, the guardswomen at Wat Phra Kaeo didn't like it, and insisted on T. wearing both the sarongs, which of course left me with none. I don't know if they wanted me to buy one of theirs but they were shouting pretty rudely, which took us aback, because we’ve always found Thai people to be friendly and welcoming. My responses kept getting talked over so I’m not sure to whom one of the women eventually said, "Come back tomorrow. Not good enough." 

Well, of course, we weren't going to come back tomorrow! So we went to get in the exit line (it was very crowded), whereupon the other woman, the especially rude one, kept yelling at me to leave. I said to her, "I am trying to get in the exit line like you said. Would you like me to jump the barrier?" Or that is what I tried to say, but she was talking over me: "I speak English!" T. said we should have asked her, "Can you speak it politely?" 

Reclining Buddha's feet, Wat Pho
In any case, we went next door to Wat Pho, which some say is their favorite of the big sites in Bangkok (and which we'd also missed first time around). It was a lovely and less crowded temple complex. Our normal sarong getup was perfectly acceptable there. We must not have been meant to visit the first place, because if we weren’t prepared to adhere to the requirements of a house of worship, we wouldn’t go in!

I take religion seriously, so if I’m going to visit a religious building, I’m happy to remove my shoes, or cover my knees and shoulders, or my head, for that matter. Which brings me to the National Mosque of Malaysia. 
Crenellated roof, Masjid Negara, Kuala Lumpur

This is the first Muslim country I've visited, and I'm not sure how but I'd never been inside a mosque before. Certainly I've seen plenty of mosques. I've visited cathedrals, conservative synagogues, Buddhist and Hindu temples, an African-American church in Harlem on Good Friday. And I know better than to walk in on someone’s prayer service and start taking pictures, any more than I would have done that during the Good Friday service. 


But outside of prayer times, everyone is welcome at the Masjid Negara, even to take pictures. Perhaps because everyone else was busy taking pictures of each other, one of the volunteers latched on to me. He told me that the mosque (which is inspired by Mecca's Grand Mosque) can accommodate 15,000 worshippers, praying side by side with each man's elbow touching his neighbor's, etc. This is because in Islam, there are not supposed to be any classes; everyone is equal. He also told me the mosque was built in 1965.

I told him I knew that, because my aunt had visited when the mosque was new. I didn't tell him she was photographed here wearing a miniskirt! These days, they just lend everybody robes.
Not sure lavender is my color

He talked, without my asking, about how wrong it is for anyone to take it upon himself to kill others, whether Muslim or non-Muslim. Not even God could forgive terrorist murderers, he said, because Islam states that it is as if such killers had taken the lives of the whole world. (The same teaching is in the Talmud.)

He was preaching to the choir, of course. I'm frequently appalled by things my co-religionists have done in the name of Christianity. And he told me that Islam holds that God could not have a son, in human terms, but I've heard that argument, not least from Judaism. He seemed happy to talk to me all day, about the Quran that I've read (interpreted), but he wasn't going to convert me, any more than I was about to convert him. It was about sharing his faith, in which I had shown interest. By the time he started to tell me why Islam doesn't represent God with any images in its art, he had a wry expression on his face. "The Second Commandment to Moses. You know."

I could not have been made more welcome. It helped that visiting the mosque, as well as borrowing a robe, is free. 

I think some people forget that they are visiting holy places and in many cases, active houses of worship. When we were at Wat Pho, there was a big holdup after the entrance, and those of us towards the back couldn’t see who was holding us back. As I soon learned from T., someone was doing crowd control while worshippers prayed at a shrine; then he would let another group of visitors through. There were tourists behind me (sounded American) who kept saying, more and more loudly, “What’s going on? They’re praying?!” Maybe these people were claustrophobic and panicking, which I could understand. But they could see that people were praying, and they knew they were in a temple. Couldn’t they respect that, and at least be quiet?

No one asks visitors to participate in the same rituals as believers. We are only asked to approach a place respectfully, because it is holy to others. That has less to do with religion than with being thoughtful towards other people.
Interior of prayer hall, Masjid Negara
That has recurred to me again and again throughout these travels. I've long believed, in the abstract, that what matters first and foremost is how people treat each other, not the categories we can put them into. But being on the road in so many different countries makes that real life. Day by day, we meet people who are friendly, who want to help us or just make us feel welcome, in their place of business or their house of worship or their country. This has been true of people in every country, whether or not it was our favorite place to visit. 

Some of the people are delightful, like the Malaysian woman who started chatting to us while we waited for our train to Kuala Lumpur. She lives in Penang, where we were, but was going to visit her son in KL. Like most Malay women, she had a colorful headscarf, to which she added a radiant, laughing smile. She didn’t want help with her bags or anything. She just wanted to talk to us before we boarded the same train.

Sometimes the people are a little odd, like the guy in Penang who stopped us on the street with a polite “Excuse me.” I thought he was going to ask us directions, which happens sometimes if you’re a pedestrian, even if it’s your first day in a city. But no—he wanted a photo with us! T. reckons either a blond or a redhead is fairly unusual on the streets of Malaysia; both of us together must have blown his mind. It’s a little weird that we’re in this guy’s selfie somewhere, but he was very appreciative, and wished us a good morning. This happened in Vietnam too.

The fact that most people, most of the time, no matter where I am, are nice and trying to get along makes it harder for me to understand the ones who aren’t. You might think being a world traveler would make me cynical about human beings, but instead, I find it an even greater mystery why some people inflict misery on others. Some intentionally, others by doing without thinking. I just think, The woman next to us at the train station is radiating humanity. Why can’t everybody do it?

It’s not something unique to her because of her nationality or religion. It’s just that she recognized us as being on the same journey.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Christmas in Cambodia

“Merry Christmas, Jingle bells, Christ is born and the devil’s in hell.” —Buffy Sainte-Marie

We hadn't made special plans for Christmas. We knew we were still going to be in southeast Asia, and being so far from our families and friends, we wanted to do something we could only do here. So we decided to leave the devil behind in Phnom Penh and, as Ella Fitzgerald sang, spend Christmas on “Christmas Island.”

Koh Rong is actually one of the Southern Islands in the Gulf of Thailand. How could it be Koh Rong when it feels Koh Right? Ever since we headed north to Chiang Mai from our first stop in Thailand, we’ve been feeling more and more like backpackers. A beach in Cambodia was a heavenly place to spend a white (sand) Christmas.

Getting there, as usual, was half the fun. The bus from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, on the coast, was as uncomfortable as most of the other buses—sitting around waiting for a toilet stop—but at least this time we didn’t spend an extra hour at lunchtime watching guys peer through an opening in the back of the bus and shouting in Khmer. I wasn’t sure when we’d get to the port or what ferry we’d take when we got there, but in the event, our transit time was ten minutes. From getting off the bus to our remork to boarding the fast ferry, including a stop to buy tickets! My previous best transit time was in the Munich airport, but I think Sihanoukville has even that beat.

So we reached the “village” on Koh Rong, the main beach, and then we had to wait for our free shuttle. Little did I know the shuttle, in the absence of roads on the island, was a longtail boat, and that we’d have to wait for the supply boat to come in and for the guys to finish loading all that stuff. And thus it was that more than an hour later we, along with the mattresses and eggs, proceeded to our “resort.” The final leg of the trip was from the boat to the beach via a raft, literally just a bunch of planks stuck together on some oil drums. I told T. I felt like we were landing at Normandy, not going on Christmas vacation.

The thing is, no one ever tells you what’s in store on these journeys. The raft was a total surprise (my balance has improved just climbing on and off so many of these rickety things). And at the Cambodian border, the bus conductor took our passports and then the bus just drove away. We had to ask the driver when and where we would actually get our passports back. But when we finally got to Long Set Beach and our bungalow, it was like a cross between our own tropical island and the Algonquin Log Cabin in Ontario. (The stars at night!)

As if to prove that backpackers keep bumping into the same people further along the route, I spotted Apostle-looking Guy walking along the beach as soon as we got to Koh Rong. We had last seen him at the boat dock in Nong Khiaw, Laos! We’d done the whole circuit of Vietnam across Cambodia and now here he was again. I speculated that he was on the island to play Joseph in a nativity play.

On the shuttle boat, we also met a guy from County Derry. He now lives in England, but has been following the scuba diving season around the world, which seems like a pretty cool gig if you’re into diving. He recommended a place down the beach that did a proper roast dinner on Sunday afternoons. So we went down there and booked Christmas dinner.

Between landing and Christmas Eve, there’s not a lot to report. Our host was stingy enough that we had to request more T.P. every day (except Christmas Day--what a great present!) But he had a moment of generosity and upgraded us to a bungalow facing the beach. The first morning at breakfast, a Scottish woman and a couple of little Cambodian girls (part of the staff family) were decorating a Christmas tree. During the first part of the week, when it was quiet, I fell asleep to only the sound of the waves. And by day, we swapped between a lounge chair by the ocean and a hammock strung up between two nearby trees. So we were together, but not too close!
Not many boats. The occasional motorbike. Even fewer hawkers. There were times, from the porch in the afternoon, that it felt like we had the beach all to ourselves.

We did have a couple of adventures. We walked back to the village, half an hour of beach and woods, one day. Not much to see there except a Western woman keeping a shop, smoking a cigarette in front of an enormous cigarette display labeled SMOKING KILLS. And then there was the partly cloudy day we decided to go for a hike. 
I emphasize that this is a marked trail.
The interior of Koh Rong is jungle and, we were told, rich in wildlife. We decided to take a walk that our host told us led from our beach to the next, through some woods and over a hill. “Not much to see,” he said.

There was something to see. T. heard a rustle in the undergrowth (which means it was a really loud rustle) and the next thing I knew, she was face to face with an enormous snake, a cobra by the look of it. It “stood” a few feet off the ground and had its hood open. She very wisely backed away, and we decided to abandon our hike. So we don’t have a picture of our snake but it was definitely a cobra. We found a picture online and the island does have them, even though everyone we talked to said they had never seen one there. Kind of made us feel lucky. In retrospect.
Indochinese spitting cobra. Photo from Wikipedia!
By comparison, the enormous "geckoes" haunting our front porch didn't seem as startling anymore. So the next night, we went snorkeling with plankton. This was thrilling in a somewhat different way. We got back on the raft and then the boat, and swam out from there. It was a little disconcerting in the dark, but the plankton weren’t just in one clump; they were everywhere. Looking down, even without a snorkel, we appeared to be walking and moving our hands through living body glitter. We went with three Brazilians and, judging by the excited chatter in Portuguese, everybody had a good time.

A single fingernail of moon just visible through the trees. Perfect shades of blue and green water.  Children playing in the sea and sand that squeaked under my feet, like Squeaky Beach. I figured I could do without wrapping paper this one Christmas, if the Grinch could manage it. (“It came without ribbons! It came without tags!”)


When Christmas Eve came, we were on the beach, where we’d been most of the week. The club that did the Sunday roast dinners was going all out for Christmas dinner, plus, there was an ever-rotating volleyball game going. Given how long it’s been since my last (casual) game of volleyball, I surprised myself by not being bad.

Two of the folks in the game were young Germans whom we ended up sitting next to at dinner. Also there was someone called Jolene, who must have ordered a vegetarian meal. When the waitress came out calling, “Jolene, Jolene!” I couldn’t help myself: “I’m begging of you!”
Please don't take my sandman.
The Germans recommended a place they’d stayed at in Siem Reap, our next destination. They were going around the opposite way; their plan was to buy motorbikes and ride all over Vietnam. I hope their luck was as good as ours. The Joker guesthouse in Siem Reap was worth getting to, even via raft, shuttle boat, speed ferry, airport taxi, prop plane, and finally a taxi driver dim even by the standards we’ve become accustomed to, who drove around and around on the wrong road asking us to identify a hotel we’d never seen before.

Siem Reap is a cool backpacker haunt, but the main draw around there is the ancient city of Angkor. The temples that remain from that time are among the few not wrecked during the Khmer Rouge era—perhaps even that regime had a moment of awe faced by the all-time greats of Khmer civilization. Many people who know little else about Cambodia have heard of Angkor Wat, the largest religious building in the entire world.
Central building of Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat is contemporary with Chartres Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. But when this temple was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, Angkor was a city of a million people, while London had only 50,000 residents. It’s fascinating to think of a whole other world going on, neither having any idea about the other.
Inner temple complex
The Joker booked us a lovely young driver, a young man with a shiny painted remork, like he’d just started off in business with it. "Do you want to eat rice?" he asked solicitously at lunchtime. We quickly realized that "eat rice" is the literal translation of the Khmer "eat." Cambodians ask each other "Did you eat rice?" almost like "How are you?"

From Angkor Wat he took us to Angkor Thom, which was once a city of 9 square kilometers. At its heart is the Bayon, famous for its many faces looking down on the worshipper from all the towers.
The Bayon was built during the reign of King Jayarvarman VII in the late 12th and early 13th centuries. He also built Ta Prohm (dedicated 1186) in honor of his mother, and the goddess of wisdom. Intriguingly, this is the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, rather than Hindu.
Ta Prohm was our favorite. You could find places where people weren’t climbing all over it, but more cool is how it’s gradually getting absorbed back into the jungle. Trees have become parts of the structure and the structure part of the trees. You could even say where man imposed his will on nature in honor of the gods, nature is reimposing herself, but at a much more glacial pace.

At Ta Prohm, we once again saw familiar faces. Outside the gate I heard someone calling “Hello girls!” It was the Brazilian guy and girl from the night of the plankton. All those legs of journey from Koh Rong, and there they were at the same temple at the same time. They agreed with us that Ta Prohm was the best.

I’m not sure what to make of Cambodia overall. I really enjoyed it, but the disparity of wealth is hard to understand: why on earth are there so many Lexus cars? And who pays nearly $12 for imported detergent? 

We found this in a supermarket near the U.S. embassy, one of those enormous, well-stocked places which, when refugees arrived from a communist country, caused them to burst into tears. It was great to be able to buy a Santa hat and a candy cane, but I can’t imagine most Cambodians could afford anything there.

But my recurring impression of Cambodia is: At least it is trying. There’s still one political party that dominates, and you see signs for it everywhere. But that’s because it actually has to compete. There is a viable opposition here. At least Cambodians are trying to have multiparty democracy.

There’s still a big problem with trash, particularly plastic bottles—a problem directly related to the fact you can’t drink the tap water here. How we take for granted drinkable tap water when so many countries can’t! But at least Cambodians are trying to recycle.


Next stop: we transit back through Bangkok.