Thang Sothea uses hemp, steel, iron along with natural materials like leaves, seeds, shells, and stones for his sculptures revealing the cycle of nature. This installation is currently at the French Institute, Phnom Penh.
8 September 2014
Tha Uthen/Nakhon Pahnom
Tha Uthen is a small village on the Mekong about twenty-five kilometers north of Nakhon Pahnom in the northeastern area of Thailand that lies on the border with Laos. I’ll be here until February which will make it a bit over a half of a year and I plan on making the most of it, after spending ten years in Bangkok. This area has been known for two things: fighting off the communist insurgency in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and smuggling. What a charm to be living in a small village after escaping the jaws of Bangkok. You can actually have conversations with neighbors here.
Wanjan, the co-owner of the Siriporn Homestay where I stayed my first month regaled me one evening about growing up in this town in the fifties and sixties when the United States was working closely with Sarit Thanarat, Thailand’s notorious post War War II dictator, to stop communist aggression in Southeast Asia. I had no idea that route 212, that runs all along the northeast border of Thailand and the Mekong River was built with US money in the late fifties as part of the US Army’s infrastructure plan. The airfield in Nakhon Phanom was small yet big enough for F-4s to fly from during the Vietnam War. During the Vietnam War he saw US navy riverboats with big 50 caliber guns patrolling the river all the way north to Vientiene, Laos and saw B52’s bomb Laos across the river. Another interesting fact is that Ho Chi Min stayed in Nakhon Phanom between 1928-1931 and his house is still there.
In Nakhon Phanom there is a big border crossing between Laos and Thailand and thus the potential for transport of a lot of illegal things. Every year, cats, methamphetamine, marijuana, tigers, elephant ivory, and other exotic animals are smuggled either from Laos to Thailand or from Thailand to Laos to all points eastward to Vietnam or northward to China. Unfortunately there are bribes and kickbacks to the police and the army so much of these items gain easy access to their destinations. At night Wanjan told me the police and the army let their boats drift with no lights on the river trying to catch smugglers. The Thai Border Patrol is also on the riverbanks looking out and in cars all along route 212. Wanjan has said that he has seen the DEA shooting at smugglers from planes on the Lao side.
Tha Uthen is in a separate universe than Bangkok with its pollution, exhaust plumes, grit, grease, traffic, and overcrowded everything. In Bangkok everyone is going somewhere, working, making money, studying or iphoning at coffee shops, taking taxis, waiting for taxis, going home to their apartments or condos. Tha Uthen feels like Zen retreat in comparison with its simplicity.
An older woman asked me the other day about swimming in the Mekong. “Mai me crocahdie!”(there are no crocodiles). Not something I heard often on my bike in the traffic in Bangkok.
Bangkok-Tha Uthen. What a dialectic.
25 July 2013
I recently bought an illustrious Thorn Nomad MK 2 expedition bike from SJS Cycles and had a custom made bike bag made for it made by Vincita, a small Thai company which specializes in bike bags. I had problems bringing this bike back from the US having been given an “S & S Machine Backpack Case” by SJS Cycles that was not big enough to fit an expedition style bike with racks. Adequate protection and convenience were also issues for me. Others have come across similar issues. Below a discussion of my new bag:
Different riders have different priorities for riding and for me it is important to be able to hop on a plane and fly somewhere with very little planning, bring my bike, adequately protected, and be able to quickly assemble this bicycle. I don’t mind paying extra if I am able to do the above. With this is mind a bag was designed where I could simply uncouple my bike, take off the front wheel and front rack, place it easily in a bag and go. It can be seen above how one half of the bike has been placed in the bag. The rack is still attached as are the pedals.
The front frame and handlebars protected by padding.
And then simply placed on top of the back frame.
The front tire has its own compartment.
The finished product. Straps on the outside and inside to provide tension. This is a bigger bag, but much more convenient when assembling because all it involves is tightening the couplers, putting on the front tire, and then screwing in the front racks. This bag can be rolled up and carried on the back of the bike. (More on this later.) It is amazing how quickly this whole process is, unlike completely dissembling the bike and then spending an hour tinkering around hoping that you put all of the washers and screws int he right place.
The protection provided with this Vincita bag is much better than the simple thin lining of canvass provided by the S & S bag in areas not protected by the fiberglass panels provided. Vincita uses this nylon material as a cushion, yet flexible enough to be rolled up. This Vincita bag also provides areas to add cardboard to offer more protection.
18 February 2013
“Come, gentle night, come…
Tragic news from today about British cyclists Peter Root and Mary Thompson who were killed after being run over by a pick up truck outside of Bangkok. Their website here. A story in the Telegraph here. A video of theirs here. A Facebook memorial here.
When I first read this in the Bangkok Post at lunch I immediately recognized their website: twoonfourwheels.com as the website referred to by either recent cycling guests of mine or the Dutch cyclists currently staying with me. Sure enough, my Dutch guests, Moniek and Arian (post below) told me when they got home that they indeed not only knew this couple but had ridden with them for six weeks and were in contact with them up until their accident on Friday around 2:30pm. Moniek had wondered why they hadn’t responded. How unbelievably tragic.
And what a small world it is. And how brief.
…and when they shall die,
Take them out and cut them into little stars,
And they will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.”
Moniek & Arian: February 2013
Warning: Those two people above really look like what you would think of when thinking of two Dutch people.
This month of February brought with it two Dutch cyclists nearing a year on the road, Moniek and Aryan, two very fit and pleasant adventurers from the cycling capital of the world. Taking a break from their day-to-day routine they feasted on air con, sleeping in, showers, DVDs, tinkering with their Dutch bicycles, and getting lost in Bangkok.
Within three days they had picked this city clean of useful bicycle shops.
They started in Holland and went south to Turkey and Iran and had many nice things to say about both. They couldn’t get through Tibet because of visa restrictions so they went north and around through China with extended visas onward to Laos and Thailand. They recommended Kyrgyzstan as a place to go.
My only reservation is with Aryan’s lack of appreciation for Apocalypse Now.
Honore and Fanny: November 2012 & January 2013
They are from Lyons, France, way in the Alps, and are taking a world tour. As I am writing this they are in Laos and will be returning sometime this…month? They arrived the day after Obama got elected and high fived me after learning that he had won. Obama is popular around the world. What a delight it was to hang out with two French people, not a common occurrence in my life. Most of the expatriates I am in contact with here in Bangkok are from anglophone countries so these international cyclists from Brazil, France, and Brazil that I have hosted have offered a much welcomed contrast. Honore and Fanny shared an evening with me and a fellow US citizen at a Democrats Abroad event downtown the Friday after the election. Not that I am a Democrat, but I did vote for the ticket so I made the trip to listen to Obama’s acceptance speech, which was great to watch as I intermittently whispered quick summaries to my French friends, who were profoundly touched by the whole experience. After we all hopped into a taxi to go clubbing. I spoke in my best frenglish to sound impressive using words like raison d’etre and bete noir sounding more Turkish with my vowels. I spent the rest of the evening playing drums with Honore.
The next evening I took them to the wine and French cheese bar at the Pullman at King Power and they went into convulsions when they first saw the mounds of French cheese scattered about like Ancient Roman ruins. What a marvel it was to eat French cheese with them and have them explain the importance of the salt in the butter on the bread and how it interacts with the cheese. They both bit into the French bread like it was the Eucharist.
Vive la France.
A few words from their travels after leaving me (poetically translated by Google):
“We leave one of South East Asia which we will together for more than three months, with smiles, its rice fields, mountains, sun burning, small greasy greasy and rice, miles of bike, its great moments of happiness, her laughter and her tears then. And now the ride rotates like the earth that we follow.”
Well, I’ve finally gotten around to writing an update after four months of settling in here in Phom Penh. The visa issue became problematic as once you start using tourist visas it starts to become a hassle having to report to the gov’t every 60 days and then having to leave the country after another 30 days where the process starts over again. Many people live like this in Thailand long term, but the rules recently changed to make it harder to continually renew visas returning to Thailand. So I left for Phnom Penh where $280 gets you a year visa multiple entry.
Living on the Mekong was great for ten months but after a certain point I had had enough of being in such a remote area. The small was great as was the family that owned it and I, as usual, became part of the family playing the village idiot with the kids every day.
I studied Thai (reading) two hours a week reading luktung songs and read a great deal of Thai history/culture & a bit of avant garde literature.
Phnom Penh has taken some time to get accustomed to. Cambodia is less developed than Thailand and Phnom Penh is the quintessential developing world with the nonstop sounds of construction all day and night everywhere. I finally got a cheap place to live for $80/month which serves as a simple room where I sleep on a yoga mat with no air con and cold water for showers. The biggest expense is food which ain’t cheap here.
Below left to right/top to bottom:
1 Satcheroo sai muan (pork/egg/chicken) breakfast
2-5 A stray kitten I found on the street near death & then his life at a shelter.
6 Madonna & child outside my apartment every morning.
7-8 Endless construction in Phnom Penh.
9 North Korean singer at special N. Korean restaurant.
10 A family outing at the mall.
11 Roast dog. A delicacy for tuk tuk drivers.
12 The guesthouse where I first stayed built by former French colonists.
I started looking for work at the end of July and picked up two part-time teaching positions: teaching creative writing at Pannasastra University & teaching various classes at ICS, and English institute. I need to find more work to break even, another 4hrs would be good which would put me at around 12 hrs per/week.
Most of my time is spent at coffee shops during the day reading or at riverside restaurants in the evening also reading. Studying khmer one hour/week. So now I’m living the life of the proverbial freelance writer working just enough to survive and trying to get as much done in my free time. A real battle. Just spent three months reading Francis Fukuyama’s two volume masterpiece on the development of states throughout the world. About 5-6 more texts before I start drafting. Perseverance is all.
That’s all for now…
Bike Trip: Tha Uthen, Thailand—Phnom Penh
My trip commenced January 19th the day before my visa expired from Thailand. I left my guesthouse in Tha Uthen a small village about 26 km north of Nakhon Phanom, a major northeastern city on the Mekong across the river from Tekek, Laos. My route would take me from across the bridge to Laos then to Tekek and southwards to Suwanaket then to Pakse and then to the Cambodian border and then further south to Treng—Kratie—Kampung Cham and then finally to Phnom Penh. All told we’re talking about 1200 km, a respectable tour. As it’s not the rainy season this would be a big help as I’ve heard that the roads are hard to navigate during the rainy season. I would sleep in guesthouses and, if necessary, camp if I couldn’t find a guesthouse.
Cycling in southern Laos down to Phnom Penh is ideal cycling territory as much of it has little traffic and certain parts run along the Mekong River winding through small villages. Water is no problem and there are plenty of air pumps to top up tire pressure. This route is a study in SE Asian agriculture and the world economy with the endless rice paddies, cassava being dried out on the roads, fresh corn on the cob and watermelons being sold, and rice being planted. One crop I couldn’t identify, I learned later after a bit of research, was cassava, a major source of food in the developing world prized for its use as either a subsistence or a cash crop. It’s also one of the more durable crops to grow as it can thrive through droughts or bad soil. Cassava needs to be properly prepared, cooked, before eaten. A Cambodian man told me that the Chinese buy all of the cassava from Cambodia and use it to make noodles. The Chinese buy everything in the Pacific Rim nations. Actually, they buy everything everywhere.
Rice paddy burning
Rice paddy burning is something else periodically seen this time of year in Southeast Asia and something I have been always curious about so I did some background reading. Farmers do it to dispose of excess rice straw (half of all straw is burned in Thailand and all of this straw is burned in the Philippines, for example). Some straw can be used for livestock and composting, but simply burning the rest of the straw is the most cost effective way of dealing with it. This open-field burning of this biomass, or rice residue, controls pests and returns nutrients to the soil many argue. Others argue that long term burning deprives soil of nitrogen and carbon and leaves soil less robust thus causing water runoff and soil erosion. This massive burning every year causes a lot of air pollution. So now I finally understand why I see these fires in the fields.
Along with straw, cow dung is also found everywhere in Laos and Cambodia. Everywhere I camped I faced minefields of cow dung. More background info: If not used for manure, this dung is broken down by fungus, earthworms, or dung beetles. If the dung is left untouched cows avoid grazing in the area and thus a new environment is created with tall grass creating biodiversity. Cow dung has been used as fuel, for electricity, burned as a mosquito repellent, and used as a thermal insulator. I would be interested to ask why so much of this dung is left standing all throughout fields in Laos and Cambodia and not turned into manure.
Mekong River Dams
The Mekong River is the 12th longest river in the world and drains into six countries and is home to a diverse aquaculture. Millions of people rely on this river for their way of lives, the fish it provides. That it touches so many people and nations it is inevitable that there would be problems. The main problem is the conflict for hydro power in the form of dams on one hand, and sustainability of the environment on the other. Dams disrupt Mother Nature, most importantly migration of fish and their breeding, and China, and now Laos, have or are in the process of building more dams.
Islam & Buddhism
I was surprised to see so many Muslims in Cambodia. Past Stung Treng and all the way to Phnom Penh I saw Muslim people, though mostly between Kratie and Kampong Cham. I was even more surprised to see Muslim students going to school in an abandoned Buddhist temple. I assume that the school is a state school merely using this temple. Still, girls wearing these hijabs entering a Buddhist temple under an entranceway filled with symbols of Buddhist cosmology carved into it was quite ironic. Buddhism went through its own hell under Pol Pot’s infamous Khmer Rouge regime where people were discouraged from feeding economically unproductive monks and those monks refusing orders were simply killed.
I met two couples and two solo cyclists in my travels. I met a Dutch couple in Takek, Laos as they were heading north onwards to northern Laos then to Vietnam to China Tibet and then on to Holland. Exciting trip indeed. And they were sort of winging it not particularly well prepared. Unfortunately no picture. These guys are in for some surprises when their bikes break down in the middle of Tibet.
I next met a He was experienced and had taken many trips before. A real cyclist. Did the perimeter of Australia. in southern Laos heading north on a world tour for 900 days.
I met this Chinese man, though I forget exactly where. The Chinese are known in SE Asia as just being nuts as tourists. Throwing scalding water on flight attendants, desecrating Thai temples, among other things. This guy decked out in his polyester one piece and his Chinese made bike looked a bit odd on the cycling circuit, but a trooper nonetheless. He told me he does 120-200km a day. 70km in mountains. Off to Malaysia from Beijing he was going. Never understand the purpose in riding that much a day unless you have to. I do about 60-70km per day though I can pull a 100km if needed.
I met this French couple in Stung Treng, Cambodia with their custom bikes. They were heading up north to northern Laos and Thailand. I warned them of the steep inclines in northern Laos. What a cool couple traveling like this every year all over the world. Funny how we all checked out each others’ bikes as they were parked at the hostel. We all knew without even seeing who the owners were that we were dealing with real cycling tourers. Cyclists are a fraternity unto themselves and it makes for very interesting meals as inevitably I know who they are and they know who I am and we just sort of approach each other and then join each other’s tables. Amazing all of the information and ideas I’ve heard from international cyclists.
This is what you see traveling in remote villages. You are the circus for all of these kids. The bearded lady. Exhibit A.
Technical Aspects of Touring: Cycling Notes
Thorn Nomad MK2
I looked quite a while to settle on a serious expedition touring bicycle several years ago and finally decided to go with the Thorn Nomad MK2, built in the UK. The other two contenders were the Santos and the Koga Miyata, both Dutch brands, but these bikes I couldn’t get online. My Thorn has a steel frame, couplers, and a Rohloff Hub and has performed mightily on the few trips I’ve gone on (which is to say just one serious tour (1200km) and several smaller trips (300-350km)). This Nakhon Phanom to Phnom Penh trip has tested the Thorn’s ability to carry heavy weight on roads, dirt, and gravel. What a difference to feel this bike sway to the weight as I steady it in different ground environments. I used Schwalbe Mondials for tires and they seemed just the fit for the combination of road/dirt I saw, though I had punctures in the rear wheel that became a problem. My Brooks 117 saddle appears to be finally molding to my bum. I keep fenders on because of the heavy rain in SE Asia though they weren’t needed on this trip. I plan on adding foam padding on the parts of the frame that have gotten banged up with locks banging against it and getting scratched leaning against things.
Another problem is not having an adequate lock for city living in places where there is nothing to lock the bike to. My handcuff lock was useless in this environment where a chain/wire type lock would at least lock the frame to a wheel.
I tried sleeping in my ultralight tent, but found that condensation was too much of a problem. Sleeping right next to a stream didn’t help matters. When I woke in the morning the tent was drenched in water and my sleeping bag was wet from condensation touching the walls of this cramped tent. When this happens everything must be sun dried, but the sun starts to heat up around 11am after I have been on the road for hours while a wet down bag is packed away in a pannier getting damaged. Thus the problem with down sleeping bags. Comfortable as they are they require vigilant maintenance which is difficult to maintain on a bicycle tour. I have read about liners that will trap moisture before it hits your sleeping bag. I’ve also read about opening up your tent as much as possible, placing it downwind of breezes, using groundsheets to stop ground moisture, simply wiping moisture off the tent walls, or placing your sleeping bag inside of a bag where your feet are to protect against dew on the walls of the tent. I’ve also read that these very small ultralight tents are breeding grounds for condensation. Looks like using the tarp part of the tent with a bug net is the best option, at least in the climates I’ve been cycling in.
Another alternative is using a hammock which I ended up using to great effect. Mine is a designed for tropical environments. These hammocks are easy to put up and with just a bug screen above me, less of a problem with condensation. They are also useful for taking power naps in the middle of the day to rest. 1 hour naps are great when you can actually lay down. If needed a tarp can be placed over the hammock and a storm shield can be pulled over the bug net to keep rain out as well as keeping more warmth inside. I definitely recommend them.
The Sun Shower worked wonders the few times I was able to use it though it was difficult to find a way to hoist it high enough. Using this portable shower requires carrying more water which adds considerable weight. Problem is, I don’t always know when I’ll need this contraption. My rule of thumb is three or more days camping in a row I’ll need to shower in the wilds. If a water source is nearby this works well for shower water, but finding available natural water like this is an exception rather than the rule. I learned that the trip that I took I had no problem with access to water for drinking along the way and I didn’t need to use my own stove to cook, which would require more water still for cooking and cleaning. Two quick showers are needed when camping: before sleeping and in the morning. Repeated use of a sleeping bag while dirty will ruin the bag even when using a liner. There are huge psychological rewards for showering after doing 50-80km in sweltering heat. Naturally, trees are needed to use this shower bag to hang it on. I carried 6 litres of water in 4 standard 1.5 litre plastic bottles and 2 litres in an Ortlieb bladder and felt I was carrying a donkey. The maximum water weight to carry is 23 litres and I can only imagine what that feels like. Cyclists heading into deserts do this.
You will be punished on the road if you forget to pay homage to the bike maintenance Gods. In my case I was careless about checking my pump and checking to remember to bring a tire patch kit. I got a flat in the middle of nowhere and when I realized that though I had a spare inner tube, the pump failed to work and so there I was with a broken down bike on the shoulder of a road next to a rice paddy with no Khmer language skills. The idea of even walking your bike to the next city/pump is not possible as your bike is carrying a lot of heavy weight and the tire itself simply falls of the rim if you try to move the bike. Then it’s time to make your pact with God to get you out of this. What I learned, thankfully, is that at least in Cambodia, there is a big tire maintenance sub culture with so many motorcycles on the roads. I was eventually liberated walking across the street where I found a guy that brought me down the road to a tire repair man with a proper pump. When I later got flats I was directed to the local tire guru who had his own recipe for solving the problem. Unfortunately none of these shamans patched my tire for a permanent solution to the problem. So I had eventually four different tire guys perform their magic while family and friends gathered to watch the “cooking” of the tire. Khmer don’t simply take out a patch kit in this most sacred of rituals. It’s a process that includes fire and partially melted rubber and a carefully chiseled piece of patch rubber. As you watch this spectacle you become part of the community, part of the family. Look to your right and it’s a child and mother swinging together in a hammock. Look to your left and over behind staircase is the local naked boy. A mother hen eventually appears with her little chicks. A cat comes to compete for scraps of fish bones. More kids come and stare at the alien white man. And so it is thus, traveling in remote villages in the developing world. I always feel like I’m that Garcia-Marquez character who washes up in that village that no one understands and then he flies away.
Exped pillow, air mat, visor
The exped pillow has been great while it worked the past several years. Problem is, it leaked on this trip so I would awake with it half full of air. I’ll check this piece of “kit” to see if I haven’t been properly closing the air plugs.
The air mattress started to delaminate one night sounding like a Hummer was approaching me in gravel, slowly. At first I didn’t know what the sound was. Spooky. Simplicity works better in the long run. Too many manmade ideas means too many opportunities for things to go wrong. I will look at simple foam mats to use as well as insulation options to place in the storage spaces on the hammock.
I need a visor for my helmet. The most important thing a helmet does is to protect your head from the sun I have learned, not protect it from crashing into the pavement. I paid a heavy price for forgetting to put on sun screen with my paddy white Irish skin.
A few mentions from a Phnom Penh resident. I wanted to share a few things to see for visitors other than the Genocide museum, killing fields, Grand Palace, and the riverside. After living in Bangkok for 11 years it was quite an adjustment living in a much smaller city. There’s a charm about Phnom Penh that I don’t think Tripadvisor can capture.
An interesting bit of history after reading a lot of the Thai point of view. By the middle of the 19th century Cambodia had been reduced to a vassal state of Siam which had taken three western provinces of Cambodia while Vietnam threatened its eastern provinces. Desperate, Cambodia’s King Norodom requested a French protectorate over his Kingdom. In time the French eroded Norodom’s power but also regained territories previously taken by Siam and kept Vietnam at bay. Cambodia could have easily been absorbed into Siam and Vietnam and disappeared all together. An interesting point as I always thought that the French had imposed themselves as nasty colonizers and that the Thai King Chulalongkorn was a genius in “keeping the French and British out of Siam” when really it was a Cambodian king who had played the French off of Chulalongkorn. But to more pressing matters—little secrets of living in Phnom Penh…
St. 123 Russian Market
The restaurant business is in perpetual flux here in Phnom Penh with more international franchises entering the scene like Starbucks, Cold Stone, Carl Jr., and Gloria Jean’s. Smallish businesses open and close here every day here fighting for scraps. They say it’s very easy to start a small business here as a foreigner, but it’s very difficult to survive. New coffeeshops are everywhere.
On Street 123 in the Russian Market, the Brooklyn of Phnom Penh, there is developing a trendy area with small expat run restaurants run out of Chinese shophouses serving the expat community. Lot 369 is the motherload of woke culture with its menu and advertising materials flush with the latest NGO terminology: “fair working conditions,” “women’s economic empowerment programs,” “dark chocolate cashew butter,” “locally created food,” “upcycled wood,” and Cambodian employees “treated fairly & equally.” Bay Area Tacos was recently opened by a Cambodian-American man who grew up in California. Hee serves tacos and nachos in a simple operation with just a couple of tables—small, quaint, personal. Trattoria Bello is an Italian restaurant with wine racks and brushed, faded yellow stucco walls of ancient Rome run by… two Japanese men. I laughed when I learned this. This restaurant is a master class in cultural appropriation and why not? Surely there are Italians selling sushi in Italy.
Art House Indie Movie Cinema
Flicks (Streets 348/95) is a community movie theater located in a converted home. I recently saw Searching for Fellini here and it was a great experience. Flicks is staffed by volunteers from Workaway. I loved this place as soon as I began walking through the red silk drapes to the meeting area, where it was all tacky John Waters kitch. After seeing a movie in this way—set up like a big sleepover with couches, pillows, and comfortable lawn chair style seats and a medium-sized screen, I will never go to a mall cineplex again. Regular popcorn too. This would be the perfect place to see classic movies. A perfect place to escape to for the air conditioning.
Mental Health Breaks
One of the great delights in Phnom Penh is getting a blind Japanese massage on Pasteur Blvd (242). There are many blind Japanese massage joints in Phnom Penh, but this one is by far the best. Here they dig deep and go hard for a real therapeutic event. Having spent many years in Thailand I never got a massage like this one. Jogging at Independence Monument at night is also a real treat though at rush hour can get annoying dodging skate boarders, footballers, and tourists walking eight abreast across the path. Sauna-steam rooms are a popular way to unwind in Phnom Penh and cheap for $4 (that is, the budget Cambodian ones!)
The 100 year old French presence in Cambodia can be seen everywhere, especially in its colonial architecture. Phnom Penh was originally designed as a
city of gardens and avenues, unfortunately this has been lost on the Cambodian government whose gaze is turned towards Siem Reap and Angkor Wat for heritage sites, not Phnom Penh. Many of these decomposing 19th and early 20th century colonial relics have been torn down to be replaced by Chinese condos or modern high rises. The Mansion Bar is the best example of beautiful decay ( #abandonedplaces #urbex #beautifuldecay #haikyo) in the city, built in 1910 by a rich Cambodian trader it is now used for art installations and expat parties.
French Colonial Homes
Phnom Penh’s fusion of French and ancient Khmer culture, especially in architecture makes it a special place. There are a few coffee shops and restaurants that make good use of this cultural inheritance. The Java Cafe is a restaurant in a World War II era French Colonial villa right on the main Sihanouk Boulevard across from the Sihanouk monument. Open at 7am the balcony is the perfect place for coffee and not-to-easy-to-find bagels early in the morning. Le Point is a Japanese-owned coffee shop/restaurant also housed in a French Colonial villa on a deliciously quiet street in a city with nonstop building & noise. The VMansion is a boutique hotel housed in a French Colonial villa with rooms starting around $50/night. Staying at a place like this would be much nicer than staying in some sanitized hotel.
Small Locally Owned Businesses
They say it’s easy to start a business here in Phnom Penh but impossible to survive. Small businesses open and close all the time here. One way Phnom Penh is different than the much larger Bangkok is that it has more internationally owned small restaurants, coffee shops, and bars. A few businesses of note:
• The Rush Bar is a small French bar run by two French women and popular with French expats located off the beaten track off of St. 63.
• Nike’s Pizza House is owned by a Cambodian family and offers a wide selection of Italian dishes including a long list of salads. This Cambodian family has managed to learn how to prepare Italian food properly. I only order the epic four cheese gnoche. The male co-owner is the same age as I am and it was haunting to listen to him talk about the Khmer Rouge and how he lived in some work camp when he was kid. Both of his parents, being educated and middle class, were killed. Cambodian restaurants like Nike’s need to be supported by tourists.
• Finding authentic Thai restaurants is not easy in Phnom Penh, but I have found two: Indy House
in the Russian Market and Yosaya on St. 105.
• Tarrazu is a Korean owned coffee shop onSt. 370 which is small and quiet and sells upscale
Bophana: Heroine of Khmer Rouge Era
An interesting Cambodian person from history I stumbled upon was a young woman named Bophana, who was a young woman during the Khmer Rouge regime, who got caught writing love letters to her husband and was executed for it along with her husband. She represented the “New People” the Khmer Rouge wanted to replace to build their Communist utopia: beautiful, educated, and bourgeois. Her husband went to the monastery to avoid becoming a soldier and then later joined the Khmer Rouge appearing periodically in the black pajamas of the Khmer Rouge to see Bophana. She referred to herself as “Seda,” the heroine of the Ramayana, in her letters and asked her husband to dress her in her evening gown after her certain death and she would come back as a ghost to haunt her murderers. Years later after the Khmer Rouge were driven from power Elizabeth Becker, a journalist, found this woman’s file in the S-21 Prison where thousands of Cambodians were tortured and killed. These documents are the only record there of a romantic relationship.
Denis Gray described his encounter with Bhumibol on a trip up north with him:
The king clearly savored such encounters, bantering with rural dwellers and trying to solve their problems, even marital ones. He once told me the story of a hilltribesman whose wife ran away after he had purchased her with two pigs. The king decided the husband deserved compensation which would allow her freedom. “The only trouble was I gave the money,” he joked. “So the woman belonged to me.”
Paul Handley offered a more sober account of Bhumibol’s reign:
Yet like Tito, Bhumibol failed at securing a stable future for his kingdom. He had made his throne dependent on its alliance with the military, an institution that remains thoroughly corrupt and convinced of its right to arbitrate power. Amid this, the other key institutions of a modern parliamentary democracy have shriveled.
While Christine Gray was more optimistic:
The end of Bhumibol’s reign is an incredible historical moment, one of genuine grief for the late king, if not for opportunities missed during his reign. But also an opportunity for change.
Fascinating film commentary by Tony Zhou in the following film clips.
Film critic Jonathan Crow @jonccrow offers a bit of context:
“Compared to Ozu and Mizoguchi, Kurosawa’s movies are noisy, masculine and vital. Unlike Ozu, he didn’t challenge Hollywood film form but improved on it. Born roughly a decade after the other two filmmakers, Kurosawa spent his youth watching Western movies, absorbing the lessons of his cinematic heroes like John Ford, Howard Hawks and Frank Capra.”
The Future of Thai Politics talk at the FCCT on March 11th with
• Alongkorn Polabutr, senior member of the National Reform Council & former deputy leader, Democratic Party
• Chaturon Chaiseng, former Education Minister, Pheu Thai Party
• Kasit Piromya, former Foreign Minister, Democratic Party
• Phongthep Thepkanjana, Former Deputy Prime Minister, Pheu Thai Party
A great evening and great responses from various stakeholders in Thai politics. The FCCT did a great job with this one. A few tweets below and the full discussion in three videos at the bottom.
Phongthep: 'I had the privilege to draft 1997 constitution. That's the only constitution other countries were coming to study!'
— Florian Reinold (@FlorianReinold) March 11, 2015
Phongthep: 'Do not trust any so-called moral people. Power corrupts'
— Florian Reinold (@FlorianReinold) March 11, 2015
Kasit: I agree fully w Chaturon no stability w this charter that excludes majority of ppl in discussion of reforms
— Veronica Pedrosa (@Vpedrosa) March 11, 2015
I spent about three days at Wat Pha Nanachat (วัดป่านานาชาติ), the international forest monastery in Ubon Ratchatani several months ago and it was quite the experience, though difficult to maintain coming from a world of distraction. This monastery, or wat, was the fruit of Ajan Cha, an eminent monk of the Thai forest tradition. The hardest part about staying there was sitting on the ground all the time with legs made of tin.