Thursday, November 29, 2007

Gloom Starting to Lift; Leaving in Two Days

I think generating all kinds of to do lists, rewriting them, changing them around, is finally starting to kick in. I'm feeling a little better. I only have two more days here.

Also, I received several e-mails that cheered me up.

Two were from friends in Boulder, Colorado, a city I want to check out as possible part time or full time residence. One note was from a guy who was one of my favorite people at my last job; he's lived in Boulder for years and raves about it.

The other note came from a woman who was one of the key people at Conscious Consuming (www.consciousconsuming.org), a group I was involved with in Boston. She just moved to Boulder in August and had lots of good things to say.

On the home front, a close male friend is dating up a storm, so it looks like the social life will be active back in Boston.

Finally, like it or not, I've survived 2 weeks in Australia in virtual solitude. In the past, when I've taken vacations alone, I was usually ready to come home after 4 days.

Note: Wasn't the book/movie "Papillion" about prisoners sent to Australia? Steve McQueen, who starred in the movie, would have been impressed with how I stuck it out in near total isolation in the "the hole," a 4-star hotel with only vicious housekeepers and obsequious concierges to keep me company.

I purposely planned this 4-month trip so that I would be moving around every two weeks. That way, if I got stuck in a bad spot -- like Surfers Paradise -- I could just let it ride knowing I'd be gone soon.

Surfers Paradise, Australia: Still in Hell

I'm still stuck in this overpriced, shopping center by the sea and my moods are slipping faster than you can say "which way to men's intimate apparel."

Here are the signs of clinical depression that are starting to grip me:

1) Sleep disturbances:
I'm going to bed at around 1:00 am, waking at 5:00 am, going back to sleep till 1:00 pm. I'm angering the housekeeping staff who keep leaving nasty notes like:

"We attempted to clean your room, but couldn't because:"

Then they have a standardized list of reasons they couldn't clean, including:

"The do not disturb sign was on your door at 1:00 pm. We don't care if you're an alcoholic, or clinically depressed, or on your honeymoon, we just want to clean the room and go home."

Bitches!

2) Murderous Thoughts:

A teeny-bopper was whipping down the sidewalk on his skateboard. As he got close to me he raised his hand for a high five. I knew he was taunting me for being old and out of touch (I know the sign for a high five, you little wanker.). I wanted to push him off his board and into oncoming traffic. (I didn't.)

3) No Joy from Usual Pleasurable Activities

Typically, I derive great pleasure from watching obscenely obese people stuff their faces with pizza and donuts while they shop for swimwear. Lately, it's just not doing it for me.

4) Use of Dangerous Mind-Numbing Drugs to Decrease Pain:

On two occasions I turned on the TV in my room.

I usually avoid TV, but last night I watched a show about Australia's All-Time Best Murders. Today, I watched a game show called "Are You As Smart As a Fifth Grader?" (I'm smarter about half the time.)


Positive Vibrations

The worst part about feeling depressed is ruminating on bad thoughts, which just fuels the downward spiral. To combat this, I came up with a list of all the positive things in my life:

1) My mortgage is small
2) I'm looking forward to dinner tonight.


Chin Up Slugger

To stop myself from obsessing on my situation and occupy my mind, I'm generating all kinds of to do lists (hey, it works for me and I'm not harming anyone). My lists include things like:
- things to look forward to in Boston
- which books I'd have a high school class read,
- potential new careers that offer 3 months or more vacation.(I'm open to suggestions on this last one)
- where I'll ski this winter

Unfortunately, like most anti-depressants, creating to do lists can take time to work.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Depressed in Australia; Speak Like An Aussie

I'm not going to make a lot of friends visiting bars in Surfers Paradise. (In Cambodia, I always met people in bars. Usually, they were white guys over thirty, but they were more than happy to talk and you always had a lot in common just by being white.)

I decide to go back to the things I like to do most: sports and exercising.
I ask the concierge where I can find a serious, meathead gym that is open late. He sends me to Fitness Express in a nearby mall. It's small but perfect. The guy working behind desk offers me a good deal: I can work out for the week, as often as I like for $49. (I plan to go in 7 of the 8 days I'm here).

I ask the concierge where I can take a surfing lesson. (I windsurf, but have never gone regular surfing.) The next day I sleep till 10:30 and sign up for a lesson at 1:00. My instructor is about 5 feet tall and maybe 16 years old. I'm the only one in the class. I ask him about attendance in the morning class. He says there were more people, most were 13 or 14 years old, plus one older lady. I ask how old. He says about 25. I ask him if she had gray hair and wrinkles. He laughs. My class goes well. I have fun. The waves are big and scary. I will try this again.

Speak Australian:

Mozzie: mosquito
Brekkie: breakfast
Rut (root?): intercourse

Summer Break:
Schoolie: high school graduate celebrating graduation
Foolie: 13 to 17-year old, trying to immitate a schoolie
Toolie: 19 to 48-year old, trying to immitate a schoolie

draft beer in a bar:
Pint: Pint
Schooner: 12 ounce draft
Pot: 10 ounce beer

light beer: beer with 2 percent alcohol
mid/mediaum beer: 3 percent (or so) alcohol
heavy beer: 4.8 percent alcohol

Australian Coast: Wrong Place, Wrong Time

I'm now on Australia's northeastern coast, near Brisbane, in an area called Surfer's Paradise. I'm on the ocean in a nice hotel. I have a minibar and free herbal tea. The weather is warm and dry. There's only one problem: I have a little company, namely about 33,000 kids with really bad accents who just graduated high school. (It's like being stuck in South Boston on high school graduation day -- the major difference is that its worse here because the Australian kids can all drink legally.)

My Hotel: Crowne Plaza Surfers Paradise, a significant upgrade from my Asian guest houses and hostels.

My room has two beds, either one would pass for a queen bed in the places I was staying in Asia. I have a balcony that faces the ocean. I have a bathroom with a separate shower and tub. I have a minibar and room service. There's a nice pool. I have a menu from which I can choose the type of pillow I want.

Options from the Pillow Menu:
Rubber Pillow: soft yet supportive, never lumps or flattens.
'V' Pillow: Shaped pillow, perfect for sitting up in bed, reading or watching TV.
Contour Pillow: ...Best suited for those who like to sleep on their side.
Feather Pillow: A soft downy feather filling, especially made to move when you sleep.

So why am I depressed?

My first night at the hotel, I went to check out the sauna. I'm in there talking to a 53-year-old married guy. He's reminiscing about his single days visiting Surfers Paradise and Melbourne. He recalls leaving a bar with "a bird under each arm." He reminds me that women all want "a good rooting, too." (I think he said "rutting," but with his accent it was a little tough to tell.) Anyway, he suggests some bars for surefire action in a part of town called Cavell Avenue.

I ask the concierge how to get to Cavell Avenue. He says I don't want to go there. It's all "schoolies," kids who just graduated high school. One of the other concierges estimates there are 33,000 of them up there. I've never been fond of drunken high school kids, even when I was in high school.

The concierge suggests two bars in the opposite direction, Prince Albert and Moo Moo. In all fairness, I've never been much for cruising bars by myself, especially in large anonymous vacation resorts. (This area is like a lot of resort cities in Florida: lots of high rise hotels, shopping is a major form of entertainment for visitors, many people driving pricey SUVs for no reason at all -- it's not like it's ever going to snow here. Gambling is legal here.)

Moo Moo: Nice, adult bar/cafe with outdoor smoking area. I get a beer at the bar. Two women who I'm sure are nice people check me out. In a place like this, I can usually work up the courage to talk to one or two strangers. I'm not feeling particularly brave, so I don't respond. Besides it's crowded and they're not cute.

I'm not having fun. I don't know anyone. Everyone seems to know each other. I'm getting anxious and my mood is spiralling downward, as if I was flying a combat aircraft and just got shot in the wing. I stand around drinking my beer, by myself, in the middle of the room where I stick out. People are just ignoring me. I feel invisible. I've got to get out of here.

Prince Albert:
This is a sports bar and live band bar rolled into one. Interesting combination. It allows me to go to the bar, people watch, and not feel self conscious because I can just watch TV. I get to the bar and they have American football. Bingo. In the next room is a really bad rock band playing tired American tunes from the 60's and 70's. No surprise, everyone is white and a really poor dancer. The band quits and they start playing dance and techno music, much of the same music I heard in Asia. The dancing doesn't get any better. (I've become spoiled: most of the people in Cambodia -- male, female, young, old -- were very sexy dancers.) The Football game is over. I do a couple of laps around the bar area. None of the women are throwing themselves at me. It's time to go home.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

White and Wild: profiles of Westerners in Asia

Some guys have a different take on what is means to be middle-aged or retired. Instead of living in the suburbs, playing golf, or cuddling grandchildren, they're more interested in smoking pot, drinking at 11:00 am, and fraternizing with working girls a third their age. They are also interested in living well but paying next to nothing. They like living on the rusty, disentary-infected edge. But they were all very unassuming: no crazy hairdoos, tattoos, or piercings. I met a bunch of guys like this in Vietnam and Cambodia. They ranged in age from mid-40's to late 60's. Some were divorced with grown kids. Some were white collar, some were blue. Some had married or planned to marry young Asian women. Being that they spoke to me off the record (usually while we were sitting on a bar stool), I did not use their names and changed some identifying characteristics.


E:
He is a retired English teacher. He is in his late 60's, has a grown son, and currently spends 6 to 9 months a year in an area known for its bar girls, he says. Each morning, he and a group of other Western guys meet at a coffee joint for breakfast. They discuss events from the night before and are on good terms with the local hookers. He says he and his friends are backups for the hookers. If the girls don't get any business, they will offer the older guys a discount. If the girls have need a place to sleep, sometimes they'll stay over. He says they all watch out for each other. He also says the girls tend to prefer older guys because they don't want sex as much. Though he clearly likes women, his attitude toward long-term relationships at this point in his life can be summed up by the following quote he offered from a book he was reading: "If it flies, floats, or fucks, you're best off renting it."

He said he has been having unprotected sex with prostitutes for the last 10 years. I raised an eyebrow and cited a statistic claiming that 12 percent of Vietnames sex workers have HIV. He said the girls in his area all get regular AIDS tests. He also quoted some other well known facts about the AIDS virus (it doesn't live long outside the body, you need a large dose of it to become infected, uncircumsized men are more at risk.) He also said that he thought Asians in general were a lot cleaner than Westerners. As an example, he cited the bidet sprayer found in most Asian bathrooms. If you get shit on your arm, would you rather wipe it with a piece of paper or wash it off with a hose? he asked. (Hard to argue with that logic.)

He says that he knows of Western guys who have fallen in love with bar girls and then start sending them money every month. Some of the girls have multiple guys sending them money.

Though he apparently has a nice apartment in his home country that he rents out in his own country, he has no problems with Asian squalor. I met him at a seaside bar that offers free accommodations -- a hammock -- to its customers.

H:
He appeared to be in his late 50's and at press time was living with a 20-something woman he met when she was working as a hostess in a Cambodian bar. She no longer works there. He plans to marry her provided she learns to read and write in English. He is learning Cambodian. He owns a sucessful business in a Western country and over that last couple of years has been splitting his time between Cambodia and his native country. He plans to move to Cambodia. He has had some trouble with the girl's family -- mainly annoying money issues. For example, her father lost the house gambling. H bought the house back for about $900 and put it in his girlfriend's name. The parents still live in the house. Another time, one of her relatives swiped his cell phone. The swipee's husband was going to beat her if she returned the phone. H paid $30 to get his phone back.

S:
He is recently divorced and met a woman he liked at a hostess bar. He asked her how much she would need to quit working at the bar and concentrate on college. She said $100 a month. He deposits the money in an account for her every month. She typically has money left over at the end of the month. They have been dating for over a year. He visits for 3-month stretches and they talk every couple of weeks on the phone. Her English is marginal but she is taking classes and studying business. They plan to start a business for her selling low-cost jewelry in her native country. She is a real go getter and appears to manage money well. On several occasions, I let her negotiate things for me or return things and she handled the transactions with aplomb. They are discussing marriage, but again the family is an issue. Also, he's in his early 40's, she is in her mid-20's, and he's not sure he wants kids.

M:
He is in his mid-30's and has his own business catering to tourists in Cambodia. He married a Cambodian woman. I met him in the middle of the day in a Phnom Penh bar. He was slightly hammered. (I would have stayed and drank with him but I was on my way to the gym and just stopped in for a sandwich. I ended up having a beer and a cigarette with him before going to work out.)


Dr:
He is a physician working in Cambodia. He appears to be in his mid-40's. He appeared to know the local party and bar scene very well. He fell in love with a bar girl and gave her a $2000 ring. He says she took off with the ring and he hasn't seen her since.

O:
He was also in his late 60's and traveling with E. They were drinking, smoking, and card playing buddies. He had married and divorced an Asian woman he met when he was in the military. He was now retired. He was also part of E's coffee klatch.

N:
Years ago, he was traveling with a friend fully intending to go home. He ended up in Vietnam and now has a Vietnames wife and business renting recreational craft to tourists. He appeared to be in his late 40's.

X:
He was a regular in a local bar that sells joints over the counter. He married a Cambodian woman and has a child. He didn't come home for a couple of nights, so she showed up at the bar and reamed him out using decent English. According to those who were there, she used phrases like "Him bad husband," "Him fucking asshole."

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Melbourne: Sticker Shock, Stuck in a Lift

My flight from Singapore to Melbourne, Australia took about 7 hours. It was a red-eye and we left an hour late, so i arrived at about 8:00 am. The plane was a 747 "Jumbo Jet," with the the stair case. Though the plane is huge, the seats were cramped and I didn't bother trying to sleep.

Luckily:
- one of my seat mates was a 74-year-old French woman who was a retired chemist. Though she was now retired, she had worked for a company that flew her frequently to Boston. We conversed in French for a while.
- each seat had an excellent entertainment system. I was able to watch 3 decent movies. (on some systems, you can't start a new movie until everyone on the plane has finished with theirs. This system let you start any movie at any time). I watched the Simpsons movie (very cute), "Fight Club (very good)," and a tear-jerker whose name I can't recall that was also decent.

Melbourne:

Being that the US dollar has been in the toilet for a while, my budget was shot to hell from the moment I got off the plane. This was by far the most expensive place I'd been to on my trip. Australian dollar is worth 95 cents, so you get only a 5 percent discount on purchases.

Examples:
- crappy hotel room: $120/night (I got them to knock it down to $90. See "stuck in the elevator, below.) To stay another night would have cost $200. The hotel was centrally located and called something like the Quest on Collins.
- clean hostel with no a/c: $60
- bowl of noodle soup: $15 (this was from a chain called Wagamama. Total rip off. They also wanted to charge me $1.50 for a side of hot chilli peppers. The peppers weren't even that spicey, so I sent them back. I was getting comparable soup in Cambodia for $1; seriously hot peppers were provided free.)
- movie: $15
- visit to aquarium: $25
- pack of cigarettes: $12 (they cost $5.50 in U.S. and $1.25 in Asia. Incindentally, there are a lot fewer smokers in Vietnam and Cambodia)
- Low-end Chicken Parmesan dinner consisting mainly of french friest at Irish Pub: $15.

Other Negatives:
- People here are noticeably fatter and uglier -- even the Asians -- than those in Vietnam and Cambodia.


On the plus side:
- Melbourne is a nice, clean city.
- You can even drink the water out of the faucet
- lots of sky scrapers and a river running through it.
- lots of gyms -- the one I visited gave me free passes for 4 days.


Stuck in the Lift (Elevator)

As I mentioned, I spent my first night in a crappy suites hotel. The hotel had just been purchased by a chain and was undergoing renovation. (It needed it: the bathroom had broken tiles, the mattress sagged. The one plus: it had a/c, which my current hostel doesn't have.) I wouldn't complain if I was paying $10 a night, but at $120 a night, I was unhappy. When I asked about staying another night, the rate shot up to $200. As I was taking the elevator down to check out and contemplating what I would write on the customer feedback forms in the lobby, the lift got stuck. I could hear workman outside the door, so i called out to them. They told me to press the call button in the elevator. I did and was instantly connected to the elevator company. They asked a few questions, such as my location, and said they would have someone there in 10 minutes. I started to fume and then I decided I would ask for some kind of compensation for being stuck. It was starting to get hot in the elevator, but it wasn't unbearable. The workmen tried to open it to no avail. Then the technician showed up (within 10 minutes) and opened the door. I told the hotel manager that I was extremely unhappy with my whole experience there. She knocked 25 percent off the price.

Next Move:
The weather here has been cold and rainy, which is fine for sleeping. Being that my room at the hostel has no a/c, I'm flying to Brisbane and getting a room near a beach area called the Gold Coast. (Temperatures in Australia are supposed to soar into mid 90s over the weekend.) The room will be at a chain hotel and will include a/c. I'll be able to take surfing lessons and play on the beach for 8 days.

Singapore: Death to Gum Chewers; Welcome to the West

To get to Australia, I flew from Phnom Penh to Singapore, where I had a 7-hour stop over.

The Singapore airport provided me with a lot of firsts:
- first Christmas decorations
- first time I've seen three armed police patrolling around with automatic weapons and long, nasty looking filleting knives.
- free Internet terminals (some let you stay on as long as you wanted. unfortunately, there were no chairs and you had to stand; basically you could stay on the Internet for as long you could stand up.)
- free foot massage machines: you sit down and put your feet into a large plastic box. Each foot gets its own slot in the box. I didn't enjoy the massage that much. It felt like someone was whacking the bottoms of my feet with a ballpeen hammer -- and I had the machine set to its lowest setting. It was a little rough for my soft Western feet and I couldn't wait for the 10-minute massage to be over.
- on the immigration card to Singapore, it clearly states that the country inflicts the death penalty on drug traffickers.
- the sundry goods store had a sign stating that it doesn not sell chewing gum. The counter person said that chewing gum is not allowed in Singapore. I was afraid to ask what the penalty was for chewing gum traffickers.

On a personal note, I found myself getting annoyed with the people around me. They were all speaking English and blabbing on their cell phones, conducting business transactions. At least in Vietnam and Cambodia, I couldn't understand the language so other people's conversations were unintrusive, kind of like white noise.

Best and Worst of Asia

Best Hygiene practice:Most toilets, no matter how gross, had a hand-held sprayer near the toilet for spraying your nether regions. Saves on toilet paper and leaves you feeling fresh and clean.

Best Hotel Value:
Indochine 2, Phnom Penh. Hotel was clean, included a/c and queen-sized bed for $15; $20 if you wanted a window. Hotel is located in a desirable area next to the river.

Best Lobby Decoration:
Half-bald live rate running around in lobby of guest house in Phnom Penh.

Best Name for a city:
Bang Su, Vietnam

Best Lady-Boy Go-Go Dancer:
Boy-who-wishes-his-name-was-Sue at Sok San Palace, Siem Riem, Cambodia. Great breasts on that boy.

Best Eye Sight for a Blind Man:
At bus station in Sihanouk Beach, a beggar stumbling around with a cane, acting as if he was blind. He spotted a dollar bill in front of me and reached down and surreptitiously grabbed it in one smooth motion. Guy probably has the eye-sight of a Peregrine falcon.

Best Street Hustler under 4-feet tall:
Six-year-old street urchin in Phnom Penh for whom I bought a piece of strudel. He likely sold it back to bakery I bought it from and split money with the counter guy working in the store.

Best Breasts on a dog:
Lots of nursing dogs running around Cambodia with large, udderlike breasts hanging from their underside. It's kind of like seeing a 70-year-old woman without a bra --you know it's wrong but you're compelled to look. One dog in particular had a very impressive rack of 6 B-cup-sized breasts. (she wasn't my type; I prefer long-haired breeds)

Best Death-Defying feat on a moped:
Woman who was breast-feeding her child as her driver weaved in and out of traffic during rush hour.

Best Meat-Filled pastry
Pau buns sold on the streets of Saigon. White, slightly sweet pastry was filled with unidentifiable meat and an orange vegetable, i'm guessing was a turnip. Very filling, cost less than $1.50.

Worst Hygience practice
Public urination. I noticed this most in Phnom Penh. On public sidewalks, particularly by the river, you had to watch your step because a mother could be holding her baby son's penis and spraying the pavement, creating a fragrant rivulet of yellow piss. On the side of main roads during rush hour, you could often see grown men, backs to the traffic, urinating by the side of the road.


Worst-Smelling City:
Nha Trang, Vietnam. On typical day, air smelled like a combination of human urine, rotting squid, and smoke from a doused campfire.

Worst Bathroom Set up:
Hotel in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. Bathroom consisted of a squat toilet, large barrel filled with water and a plastic pot for throwing the water either in the toilet to flush it or for throwing on you to shower. (Water was air temperature)

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Better Attitude; My Good Deed; More On Women

Since hanging around Barry and his girlfriend, I have a adopted a new attitude toward aggressive local hawkers, particularly tuk-tuk and motobike drivers.

For a Westerner, being constantly hit up for money while you're in a restaurant, at a bar, or walking down the street can be pretty annoying. (One time, time I wasn't feeling well and a driver kept pestering me. I snapped at him and he snapped back "You be more polite me, sir." I apologized.)

At other times, having a begger with no legs scuttling around next to your dinner table can be just plain disturbing. Then there are the 6-year-old kids out begging or selling copy violation books and DVDs at 11:00 at night.

Remembering that some people are living on less than $100 a month, sleep out in hammocks in the middle of town, and are just plain poor doesn't help much because you're not going to save them with a $5 donation. (Though it will help and I've started tipping generously.) A tuk-tuk driver may get $1 for a ride and I've watched drivers not get any rides for half an hour or more.

My strategy:
I generally offer a polite "no, thank you," even if I have to say it 5 times in a row to different people offering the same thing.

-For tuk-tuk drivers offering girls, drugs, and visits to naughty bars, I'll try and joke with them if I have the time. "Would you like to make mad, passionate boom-boom with ugly American girl? You pay me $2." Or if they insist on asking me what I'm doing tonight, I'll say: "First, I'm going to buy some opium. Then I'm to the Chicken Ranch to find a couple of nice girley boys."

- For kids begging: General consensus is to not give them money because it encourages begging and may keep some of them from going to school. Give to an orphanage. I gave one persistent kid half of my cookie. Another one I took into a bakery and let him pick out whatever he wanted. (see below)

Other Western visitors have done things like buy a driver a new tuk-tuk (A tuk-tuk costs about $1000. The driver supposedly paid him back for it.)

No Good Deed...

Yesterday, there was a 6 or 7 year old munchkin begging in the sidewalk in Phnom Penh. I'd seen him operating before. He has a rat tail haircut, so I'm guessing he has someone watching out for him. So, I waived him over and made a gesture, asking him if he wanted something to eat. We went to the local bakery. I went in. He stood outside the door. I waived for him to come in. He didn't move. The counter person went and opened the door and told him to come in. I motioned for him to pick something out. He picked out the most expensive item. (a piece of strudel, $1.50. I got an Indian pudding, 50 cents.) The clerk wrapped up his strudel like a present. We walked outside. He didn't open the package. He started talking to an older boy who looked to be about 12 years old. Next he pointed to a hole in his t-shirt and pointed to a clothing shop. I gestured for him to eat his strudel. No response. He gestured toward the clothing store. I gestured toward the strudel. No response. I waived good bye.

For some reason, I didn't feel particularly good after my small good deed. I was probably just another white tourist falling for the old cute-street-urchin-routine. So where is that strudel now?
- the kid may have gone back into the store, exchanged it for 50 cents, of which the clerk kept the rest of the money. In this case, the strudel would be put back in the display case.
- the strudel became another inventory item for an international organized crime syndicate, which also probably also controlled the waterfront, longshoremen, and peanut oil importing in Cambodia.

Western Women

A large majority of the young (20-something) Western women I've seen on my trip have been fun and nice but very unattractive:
- almost half are extremely overweight
- many are covered in tattoos
- most wear next to nothing, so when you look at them, you don't miss a drop of ink or an ounce of fat.
- many are heavy smokers.

(So competition for the attractive women is stiff and, as an old geezer, i'm not even in the running. Probably more reasons for me to stick to women my own age -- not that a 20-something, even a gross one, is not going to be interested in me.)

Eastern Women

A friend bought a Cambodian/English dictionary featuring common phrases, their phonetic pronounciations, and Cambodian spellings. I was joking around with a local girl at a hostess bar asking her essential tourist questions such as:

- does your hotel accept seeing-eye dogs?
- can you fix my brakes?
- can I get my squid well-done?
- my nose is very large. Can you make it smaller?

My pronounciation was terrible, so I showed her the phrases in Cambodian. She hesitated and became a little embarrassed. She couldn't read the phrases. She was illiterate. My friend Barry said many of these beautiful "hostesses" are right off the farm and can't read or write Cambodian. (However, they don't seem to have any trouble reading men.)

More Temples; Crocodiles; Bars and Noodle Stalls

After the mine museum, I figured I had two more temples in me. The driver took me to one called Banta Sreay. It was the smallest temple so far, had some big carvings inside. Worth about 30 minutes and we split.

Next was Ta Prohm, probably the freakiest of all. The broken down temple had monstrous trees, which looked liked giant snakes, growing out of it. Some of the trees were close to 10 feet in diameter.

As we were driving home, I saw a sign for a crocodile farm. Next to the crocodile farm, separated by a brick wall, was a swimming hole filled with kids. Classic. Some of the crocodiles were up to 15 feet long. Of the 200 or so reptiles, only about 5 moved while I was there. They were all asleep.

Bars of Siem Riep

The town has the same type of bars as Phnom Penh, only on a smaller scale.

Dance Club: Zone 1,teeny bopper bar with great music
Hostess Bar: Blue Wave (It was a sketchy part of town.
I walked in and walked out. )
Dance Club with professionals working the floor: Sok San Palace
Brothel: I was told, but did not verify, that there's a Chicken Ranch just outside of town.

Other highlights
- Happy Herb Pizza: there are a bunch of these in Cambodia. The happy herb can be marijuana or, I've been told, magic mushrooms.

Zone 1

One night Barry, his girlfriend, his favorite tuk-tuk driver, and I went to Zone 1 to dance. Most of the crowd appeared to be under 20. There were lots of young guys dancing together. A group of about five guys danced over to me and asked me to join them. I danced with them for a while. They danced waving their hands around, I-Dream-of-Jeannie style. Then one asked me where I was from, how long I was I was in town, the usual stuff a bar girl would ask. We danced a little while longer and I was starting to get a funny vibe from him and his group. I don't know the cultural subtleties of the Cambodian gay community. Was I giving him the body language for "Let's go to your hotel and play a quick game of hide the banana?" I started to get uncomfortable and got Barry and his girlfriend into our dance circle and I gradually backed out.

Sok San Palace

This club offers a unique mix of entertainment: a nightclub, massage, and restaurant. I went to check out the massage section. There was a lounge area with guys sitting on comfortable chairs. Across from them was a giant fish bowl-like window with masseuses that you could select for your massage. The manager of the massage area started pressuring me to sit down, so I just left.

I joined Barry and his girlfriend in the dance club. There were several go-go dancers. At least two of them were girly boys. We had a drink, watched some pros work the room, and left.

One Night at the Noodle Stall

The next day I went for a run and started to feel like crap afterwards. I was coming down with my third cold of the trip. I was treating my cold with very spicey noodle soups and juice. I went to a local noodle stall for my evening dosage. There were three guys sitting on one side of a card table and one attractive teeny-bopper sitting on the other. I sat with the guys. She looked at me and smiled. Then she moved to the seat opposite me. Then two of her friends came and sat down next to her. I noticed that out of the three of them, two looked kind of masculine and the other looked feminine and very attractive. The feminine one kept looking at me and smiling. She moved down closer to me.

"You want massage?"
(I thought to myself: how considerate, this attractive young woman wants to soothe a weary traveler.)

"No thanks, I don't feel well, I'm going home after I eat."

"You go home alone? Me go hotel you."
(how sweet, she even offers home delivery)

"That's really very thoughtful. Why don't you try this guy, I hear he's got lots of money. [I point to 14-year-old boy sitting next to me]"

"Cambodian man no have money."

"Are you only interested in money? I thought you were attracted to my good looks and charm? No money, no honey, is that how it goes?" I said with a smile.

She didn't understand a word I said but pressed on.

"I give massage at hotel you."

"How about if I give you a massage and you pay me? I've been told I have great hands. For you, only $5."

She made a clucking sound.

We both smiled and I left.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Angkor Wat Day 2

I decided to start my site-seeing with something I knew I'd like: The Cambodian Land Mine Museum. The museum features the following:
- lots of defused mines
- a small minefield showing what mines would look like you if you came across them in the Cambodian jungles.
- very concise summary Cambodia's sad and chaotic history over the last 40 years.
- how and why land mines were, and still are used, particularly by the U.S.

The Mines
- Mines can cost as little as $1 to make (they're easy and fun to make at home with the kids) and $500 to $1000 to diffuse.
- They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, ranging from soda can size, to frisbee size.
- Some are designed to blow up tanks.
- Anti-personnel mines are designed to maim and not kill victims. The rationale: it costs and enemy a lot more to patch up an injured soldier than to bury one.
- My favorite: Antipersonnel Directional Fragmentation Mine that can injure people behind it or in front of it. It is about the size of the top of a shoe box and contain ball bearings that act like bullets when the device detonates.

The Mine Field
- included a series of trip wires for detonating various mines. Some wires were at chest level some were at foot level. Some could be detonated by radio. None of the mines were live and we weren't allowed to walk around in there, anyway.
- noteworthy: one of the most heavily mined areas in the world is along the Cambodian border with Thailand. During rainy season, many mines that are buried pretty deep, come to the surface and injure farmers living in the area.

Brief Recent History of Cambodia: Country has only been stable since late 1990's
- 1953: independence from France
- 1960: Prince Sihanouk elected head of state
- 1964: Sihanouk nation destabilized by Marxist movement (Khmer Rouge)
- 1970: Right-wing military group deposes Sihanouk and vows to rid country of commies. Military group asks U.S. for help. We're only too happy to lend a hand.
- 1975: Khmer Rough and Sihanouk join forces and take control of country. Most radical social-engineering since Nazis takes place. Towns evacuated, intellectuals carted off and killed, rest of population sent to forced labor camps in the country side.
- 1977: Pol Pot takes charge of country. Sihanouk placed under house arrest.
- 1978: After cross-border raids into Vietnam, Vietnames army invades Cambodia
- 1979: Vietnamese army captures Phnom Penh. Basic Freedoms restored but Khmer Rouge continues fighting throughout the country. Many Khmer Rouge retreat to Thailand.
- 1975 - 1979: Estimates vary, but some experts claim up to 3 million people or about 20 percent of Cambodia's population perished under Khmer Rouge rule.
- 1982: Vietnam launches offensive against coalition formed by Sihanouk, his son, and some friends. Thousands of refugees flee to Thailand.
- 1989: Vietnam withdraws from Cambodia, looting parts of the country.
- 1999: Khmer Rouge finally defeated and peace restored to Cambodia.
*Not sure of exact dates, but at some period, borders with Thailand were heavily mined to prevent Khmer Rouge from returning to Cambodia. Unfortunately, many refugees returning to the country were also injured by mines. To this day, hundreds are injured or killed in Cambodia due to mines.

Why We Like Mines
There is an international treaty designed to ban use and manufacture of mines. Naturally, the axis of evil: U.S., China, Russia, and some others refuse to sign it. We won't sign the treaty because we have mined the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea and claim the mine fields prevent an invasion by the North.

Speak Cambodian; Angkor Wat Day 1

Here are the essential phrases any traveler to Cambodia needs to know:

Kmai: Khmer, the Cambodian language
Tow kah moy: toast you say when drinking, kind of like "down the hatch."
Oy, oy: Like the Yiddish "Oy vayezmeeyer"

Bong: Boy, often used like the French "garcon" in a restaurant
Ohn: Girl
Tom: big (can also refer to big and fat)
Chilli: hot peppers (if you ask for "hot peppers" no one will know what you mean

Same-same: the same (universal term used in South East Asia. Often used when ordering food

Up to you: phrase often used by cabbie or tuk-tuk driver when they don't want to quote you a price and they figure you don't know the price range. The logic being if you don't know the range, you'll pay Western prices and will overpay.

Boom-Boom: Intercourse (same term as every other country in South East Asia)
Ice Cream: oral sex.

Visit to Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is one compound in a huge archeological area that is about a 20-minute tuk-tuk drive ($12 to $20 per day) from Siem Riep. I wanted to get a guide, which probably would have made the whole thing more interesting, but all the guides were busy. (Guide about $20 a day)

Some people want to see Angkor Wat at sunrise. Some want to see it at Sunset. (these make for great photos) Being that I was visiting at the beginning of high season, I wanted to avoid the crowds on either end. I also wanted to sleep till 11:00. And like I've said before, I'm not much of a site-seer. My motto has always been: If you've seen one mossy covered pile of rubble you've seen them all.

To visit the archeological area you can pay the following prices:
$20 for a day
$40 for three days
Note that there is no two-day option, which is considered by most visitors the ideal amount of time. There is such a thing as getting templed out.

The Angkok Wat building is believed to be the largest religious structure in the world. Unfortunately, the main building with the famous belfry-like cones was closed for renovation. You could walk into the smaller structures on the compound. Here are my highlights:
- Once you buy your ticket (they take your photo and seal the photo and ticket in plastic), you'll notice that the roads and roadside are immaculate. Though people still live in shacks along the road, they're very nice shacks, no corrugated metal in sight.
- When you get out of your tuk-tuk you are swarmed by hawkers -- very tacky. After fighting off the hawkers, I went into some of the smaller structures. One of them had a Budha with incense burning. A guy asked me if I wanted to buy a stick of incense. "Jeez, they really need to get control of these hawkers," I thought. I bypassed the hawker and a guy in a uniform came up to me and said I should remove my hat when entering the temple. Then he strongly recommended buying a stick of incense. "Ït brings good luck," he said with authority. I had no interest in being reincarnated as a prisoner in a Cambodian jail so I forked out the 50 cents and moved on.
- Again, the grounds were immaculate, but the buildings, after thousands of years, needed some work. It was hard to tell what many of the carvings were supposed to be. There were some bas reliefs (carvings in stone walls) depicting heaven and hell, various battles -- ok for about half an hour.

Then I was ready for the next major temple compound: Angkor Thom
- the big parts were a little more intact than those at Angkor Wat
- the belfry-like structures had, you guessed it, live bats flying around.

I also saw another smaller compound called Preah Kham. More rubble, time to go home.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Way to Angkor Wat; Malaria, Dengue Fever

Mosquito Hysteria

The other day at a PP gym I noticed that a lot of the guys were spraying themselves with mosquito repellent. PP is not in a malarial belt, so I asked what was going on. "Dengue fever." This is a nasty little disease carried by mosquitos that has 2 variations: One that can kill you and one that just makes you wish you were dead. The fatal version is a hemorraghic fever that turns your insides into strawberry yogurt, which can ooze out of any orafice. The other version is just a nasty flu-like illness that can last several weeks.

The next day, I took a pleasant 5-hour boat to Siem Riep (SR), the town nearest to Angkor Wat. SR is in a malarial belt. Also, it is in a swampy area infested with mosquitos. My first night, I checked into my hotel (Ancient Angkor, $15/night, decent) and saw a mosquito and no mosquito nets. The hotel clerk said they spray the rooms each night. I went out for dinner and came back. Mosquito was still there and I couldn't smell any spray. I asked the front desk to spray again. They promised. As I was walking around deciding where I wanted my malarial-infected remains sent, I came to a pharmacy. I went inside and explained my concerns about mosquitos. They said they had no nets, but they had a mosquito coil I could burn in my room. I had a question: Is it safe to breath this stuff? (it's made by the company that makes Raid spray) The clerk assured me it would be fine. I figured who better to take medical advice from than a pimpley-faced teenager working at the local pharmacy?

FYI: I have one of the better types of anti-malarial pills, called Malarone. Unfortunately, pills are not 100 percent effective.

I have since gotten at least one mosquito bite here in SR. My room has been sprayed every night and I leave the fan on when I sleep. Supposedly a strong breeze deters mosquitos.

Site-Seeing;: Rats and Goo; A Bird in the Pocket

As I mentioned earlier, I'm not much of a site-seer. I had already checked out two gyms in PP and was told that the Central Market and a Temple called Wat Pho were worth a look.

Central Market
The tourist guide to PP says that this market used to be a good place to get an AK-47. I looked and looked and the only automatica weapon I saw was on the arm of a policemand patrolling the market. I saw an assorted of the usual stuff: Rolex watches for $5, meat covered by flies, roasted frogs. I was reasonably amused until I saw a large rat bolt under a food display. Then I stepped into a puddle of miscellaneous goo (I was wearing shorts and sandles, so the piddle splashed on my legs.) It was time to go.

Wat Pho

To prepare for Angkor Wat, an international wonder that is supposed to rival the Taj Majal and Macchu Piccu, I went to a small temple in PP called Wat Pho. Most notable things:
- there's Buddha and an altar where people can leave money and gifts. On the altar I noticed some cigarettes. I guess once you've passed on to the afterlife, smoking is less of a health risk.
- there are also several guys with cages filled with large sparrows. You can purchase a bird and set it free. One vendor was sitting for a while and took a bird from his cage and put it in his front pocket. I gave him a funny look: he said the bird was sleeping. If my lack of romance continues, filling my pockets with small defenseless birds may be as good a substitute as any.

Phnom Penh Nightlife; Too Much Info; Miscellania

Analogy: Phnom Penh (PP) is to Saigon as Boston is to New York City.
PP and Boston are both smaller, more manageable and offer most of the same types of entertainment, just on a smaller scale. (Boston may have 20 Thai restaurants, whereas New York may have 200.)

For night life, here are the general types of bars offered in PP and other parts of Cambodia (sources: some first hand, some "experts" I met.

1) Standard dance clubs: Heart of Darkness
2) Hostess bars: One 3 Six, Shanghai
Lots of attractive young women. You go in for a drink, they come over and flirt with you. If you like them, you buy them a drink ($2.50, they get a dollar). In some of the bars, you can ask the women to leave the bar with you. You pay the bar $5. (some charge $10, if it's before 10 pm.) Apparently, if the woman wants to go home with you it is up to her -- no guarantees.
3) Bars and Dance clubs with professionals working the crowd: Walk About, Martini, Shark Club

Note about girls who work in the various types of bars:
There appears to be little stigma attached to working in these types of establishments. Apparently, if you meet a girl you like, you start dating and ask her to stop working or at least carrying on with men outside the bar. Two Western guys I know met their girl friends that way. Both guys expect to marry the women. One guy is putting his girl friend through college. The other is living with his girl friend. The latter guy is learning Cambodian and has told his girlfriend she has to learn English before he will marry her.

There are also cultural considerations with marrying a Cambodian woman. Thorniest issue: I've been told that when you marry a Cambodian woman, in some cases her family may gradually moves into your house. First, it will be her sister on the couch. Then after you have a child, her parents start staying over. Eventually, your on the couch and you sex life goes kaput. (sounds a lot like marriage-American style.) Source for all this: hearsay.

First Night Out in PP

As I mentioned earlier, on my first night I went out to a local restaurant and had a difficult time trying to order. No one spoke English and after 30 minutes of hand charades, all I had on my table was an order of chicken wings. I noticed a white guy sourrounded by Cambodians at a nearby table. I went over and asked for help. He invited me to join them and we all started eating and toasting. We'll call him Barry.

After dinner, Barry invited me to go drinking and dancing with his girlfriend and her cousins. First, we went to a hostess bar, where his girlfriend used to work. He met her there but she no longer works there. She spoke to a couple of attractive former coworkers in Cambodian and pointed to me. One came and sat on the arm of my chair. She wasn't exactly a scintillating conversationalist, but she was nice and gorgeous. She knew a few phrases in English (what's your name, where are you from) and all I knew in Cambodian was "Kouw tauw moy." (down the hatch, a standard toast for drinking). I became a little embarrassed having her there in front of my friend's girlfriend and the other woman who came with us. I also didn't buy her a drink. Eventually, the hostess moved on.

We stayed for a little while longer and then went down the street to one of the wildest dance bars I've ever been to, The Heart of Darkness, which is one of the must see attractions in PP, according to Lonely Planet travel guides. Due to a history of violence in there (shooting or stabbing, can't remember which), they frisk you at the door; the security is tighter than at many airports and guards seem to enjoy their work a little too much. The guard padded me down, gave my genitals a little tweak. I waved my finger at him and said "you're bad boy." He winked and I went in.

Once you're inside you could see why the place was trouble. It had a combustible mixture of some of the largest white guys I'd ever seen outside of a football locker room; some dark tough-looking Cambodian guys who looked like they had just left a jungle patrol; waifey gay guys dancing together on a stage, and tons of the most beautiful Asian women I'd ever seen. (The women were light skined, dark-skinned, Malaysian, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and a few grossly overweight Western women in their 20's). The techno music selection was excellent; it was so loud it jolts you the moment you enter the place. The laser show was blinding. The whole place kind of seethes and everyone is dancing and bumping into each other. Our group of men and women danced will about 3:00 am.

Barry and his girlfriend invited me to join them the following evening to visit a slightly seedier version of the Heart of Darkness, called Martini. The bar was on a side street. You entered through what looked like a garage door. There was a guy with spina bifida, who had no body from the waist down, begging at the door. Again, we were patted down for weapons, and entered the place. The bar looked pretty calm. Some Western couples, a few middle-aged white guys with Asian girls -- can't always assume that the women are prostitutes, they could be the guys' wives or girlfriends. Basically, the place looked pretty dull.

Barry went to the bathroom and said that for 25 cents the bathroom attendent would massage your back while you urinate. Not really my scene, but I had to go the bathroom anyway. I went into a toilet stall to avoid the guy. When I came out of the bathroom, I heard loud techo music coming from the down the hall. I went to investigate. There it was: a seedy dance club, packed with people. I grabbed Barry and his girl friend and we went in. The music was good and there was even a 5-foot-9 girly boy ripping up the dance floor. We stayed and danced. There were some professionals working the room, including the first pro in her 30s I'd seen.

More Hostesses

Barry invited me out another night to meet a friend, an older white guy who was engaged to a young Cambodian woman he had met at a bar. Though he and his girlfriend have an exclusive relationship, she still goes to bars to see her friends and he still goes to see his. We all met at a new hostess bar called One 3 Six. Inside, there were about 40 mostly gorgeous women in their 20's and a handful of white guys. We sat down with Barry's friend who already had several women sitting with him. Many of the hostesses he knew through his girlfriend.

I sat at the end of the table, the spot for the single guy. One woman came up to me and started talking. I wasn't that attracted to her but didn't know how to dismiss her without being rude, so I didn't talk much and looked around the room. I made eye-contact with another woman who was giggly and frisky and came right over and started kissing my shaved head. We started talking and she started hanging on me. We played a modest game of curious hands and then I asked if her she wanted a drink. She indicated that she already had one. I vacillated between being embarrassed for carrying on in front of everyone else at the table and not caring. We were preparing to go to another bar. I asked if she wanted to go. No answer. Not a good sign. A few more minutes of tickling, and she started nibbling on my throat, rubbing my head. I nibbled on her ear, then asked again if she wanted to join us. She gave me a funny look and then turned to a friend of hers who spoke better English. They spoke in Cambodian. Then the friend turned to me. "She's having her period." Eeek. Too much information for am invitation to dance. We parted company vowing to get married next time I was in town.


Miscellania:
- In some U.S. restaurants, the waiters bring around a desert tray after the meal. At my first Cambodian restaurant, a gentleman brought around the broiled-snake-frog- and-larvae tray. I looked them over. The larvae looked interesting, but I was pretty full and passed.
- Eating at a food stall, the cook was handling my food with bare hands as they always do. After handing me my food, she noticed that the leg of my table was wobbly and reached down to put paper under it to stabilize it. I couldn't help but notice that the same hand that was making my food was now touching the wet, slimey ground.
- as I mentioned earlier, I checked out of a cheap guest house that had a rat running around in the lobby. My new hotel was cleaner, but supposedly home to a lot of older guys who brought home young women at all hours. My first night, I was awoken at 4:00 am by a yelping sound, much like that you might hear from a seal having his testicles squeezed with pliers. I heard it again a few nights later and figured the guy was having bad dreams and not wild girls.

For more on other naughty stuff, such as Southeast Asian massage, happy endings, see more Phnom Penh night life

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

One Day at the Massage Parlor

Phnom Penh is known for having masseuses with wandering hands. In the interest of journalism, I decided to investigate this claim. I would go incognito as a guy from Boston who hasn't gotten so much as a kiss since August.

The word on the street is that the girls with curious hands tend to work at massage parlors that look more like strip joints than health spas. Also, the spas tend to offer other male oriented services like haircuts.

Note: This whole process kind of scared me. I didn't want to get mugged, ripped off, or otherwise in some kind of situation I couldn't get myself out of. In addition, I had never been to a place like this, so I did not know the proper etiquette. If the woman grabs your unit and you're not interested what do you do? Does her pimp appear and beat you? Worse still, what if she doesn't grab the unit?

Not Too Hot, Not Too Cold, Just Right

The first night, I walked around looking for seedy places near my hotel. There were a couple of massage joints down dark alleys or with unattractive women working at the door. I passed.

The next day, I saw a couple of places on the river front that looked clean -- too clean. They looked family-oriented. For my research, I needed male-oriented. Then I saw a promising place: there were some attractive women standing and smiling at the door. The place looked clean from the outside. Then I looked at the name "TITI Romantic Massage." Paydirt.

I went inside. Naturally, they spoke very little English. I pointed to one of them and asked: "Will you be doing my massage?" I guess she understood, because the next thing I knew, I was seated and she was washing my feet. (The Thais have a thing about dirty feet; maybe all South East Asians feel the same about feet. Mine were certainly stinky.)

Then she led me upstairs to the massage boudoir. There was a British guy who was leaving prematurely. I asked what happened. He said the masseuses used oil and he was allergic to oil. They didn't understand but he gave them a nice tip and he left. The room was all light red materials, soft lighting; like the backdrop for a softporn movie. Each little massage area was separated by a curtain, kind of like an emergency room with multiple stations only inches from each other. The only difference here, was that instead of gurneys, there were mattresses.

Then she motioned for me to lie down on the mattress and for me to remove my shorts. I forgot that I was wearing a bathing suit -- and no underwear. I ended up flashing her. She was unphased, but I was mortified. I was waiting for the pimp to come out with the Taser from behind curtain number two and zap me. I made sure to put my shorts with my money near my head where I could keep track of them. Then she motioned for me to lie on my back and she proceeded with the massage, starting at my feet and working her way up my calves, knees, thighs, dangerously close to the goods. Then she stopped and switched legs. Then she motioned for me to roll over on my stomach. Same procedure. Then our time was up. The massage costed $6. I gave her $9. Everyone behaved and parted company. I even got invited back.

Read more naughty FREE stuff, including the first 10 pages from my upcoming comedy novel: "God Bless Cambodia.
comedy novel from Randy Ross "God Bless Cambodia."
My novel, available April 2017, offers an unflinching look at how many really feel about sex, love, marriage, and paying for a hand job. Content warnings for adult situations, adult language, and more adult situations.


Entering the Kingdom of Cambodia

A lot of travelers get into a macho mindset where if you do anything touristy or comfortable you're looked at with disdain.

"You slept in a 3-star hotel? Well, I once slept on the back of a rabid water buffalo, during monsoon season, in the Hepatitis River."

Öh, yeah? I've been reusing the same tampon for 6 months."

Öh, yeah? I once fought a rat for half a can of cat food."

Please slap me if I act this way when I get back. After staying one night in a hotel that had a large rat running around in the lobby, I have re-evaluated my needs for comfort. I can suffer if I need to, but I'll opt out if I can.

Cambodia

When crossing the border into Cambodia, you can be subjected to a couple of scams. The most common: You attempt to buy your visa at the border, where there is a sign that prominently says that a visa is $20. Then the guard demands $35. My group didn't have any problems, but we also paid $22 to have our visas purchased for us. Also, worth noting: The country is prone to a little hyperbole: The visa says "Kingdom of Cambodia."

Along the Mekong River heading towards Phnom Penh, you notice that Cambodia is a lot less developed. More farms, fewer houses on the river, more cattle. In Vietnam, when we passed people who were on the shore, they usually waved. The first Cambodians we passed did nothing when we waved; they looked at us like they'd be just as happy seeing us roasting over a spit.

The roads into Phnom Penh were also a lot less developed. The last leg of our 3-day trip included a 1-hour bus ride. We were all jammed into a minivan that looked like if it went another mile it would come to a wheezing halt and collapse in a rusty heap. Combine the van with roads that were often unpaved and you had some rough riding.

Phnom Penh: A Man-Eat-Dog Town?

After reading the guide books and another book called something like the most dangerous place to vacation, it is tempting to bypass Cambodia. Big mistake. This has been the best part of my trip. Here's why:

- Phnom Penh (PP) is smaller and more manageable than Saigon (13 million people versus about 4 million)
- PP has better traffic control: there are more traffic lights and people obey them. (Like Saigon, few people wear helmets)
- It has all of the same wild offerings and then some. I went into a bar with a guy I met here and he bought a joint. They are sold over the counter. Dance clubs are great, all ages, races, sexual orientations (saw girley boy dancing up a storm the other night.)
- People seem less out to rip you off. Tuk-Tuk drivers and motobike drivers generally give a fair price. I have not been short-changed (to my knowledge) in stores.
- Street peddlers can still be annoying but you can disarm with a smile and a nod. If they are persistent, I either start talking to them in French or ask them if they want to meet an ugly American girl "only $2."

Drawbacks to PP:
- Few natives speak much English and street numbers don't mean anything to local drivers who speak Cambodian, also known as Khmer. My first night, I went to an outdoor restaurant. The diners were mainly locals, so I figured the food would be good. But I had a hell of a time trying to order. There was no English menu. The waiter first brought me some chicken wings, then a plate of cucumbers. Still, my problems led to my meeting another North American guy and his Cambodian girlfriend. We've since become fast friends.

Mekong Delta; More Gross Outs

About a week ago, I signed up for a cruise down the Mekong River from Saigon. The 3-day, 2-night excursion ends with a boat and bus trip that drops you in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The trip was a little rough around the edges but packed in a lot of sites in a little time.

Shakey Start

I bought my Mekong cruise trip from a small store-front agency called TSK Travel. After I paid my for the 3-day trip ($47), I got an inkling of what was to come: The office advertises free Internet service to all customers. When I went in to use the computer, one of the staffers said "Internet not working. Boss not pay the bill." Hmmm.

The trip also required that we be up at 6:00 everyday because of our full itinerary. The night before we left, I went out at 11:00 pm looking for a bowl of soup. I walked down to a place around the corner from my hotel. (I was still in the nice 3-star hotel). All the tables had people, but a young Vietnames guy motioned for me to sit with him. We ordered. We spoke a little. Our food came. He reached out and grabbed some greens in a condiment dish. He added some to his soup. Then he added some to my soup and said "good, good." I smiled, but wondered where his hands had been before eating. Then he grabbed some bean sprouts and threw them in my soup and smiled. I didn't want to offend him, so I ate and I'm still here to talk about it. The Vietnamese guy grabbed another passerby, a 50-something French guy dressed for Halloween. We were up till around 1:00.

- First day of Mekong trip: we were ferried around some islands in various size power boats and by canoe. At a stop called Unicorn Island, we drank rice wine, banana wine, and snake wine, the latter supposedly offered a virility boost for men. I didn't notice any effects. But the bottles of wine had cobras and scorpions in them and would have made nice coffee table ornaments. I was ready to buy some when my guide said that I wouldn't be able to bring them in to Australia, a country with some of the strictest animal import regulations. Apparently, importing deadly but dead snakes and insects is verboten.(Australia is my next stop and I wasn't about to mail a bunch of bottles)

- Then came unpleasant surprise #2:
I had signed up for a trip that included 3 meals. As we sat down for lunch, I was seated at the table with people who had to buy their own lunch. I asked our guide what was up. He said that my original tour didn't get enough people so I was switched to a different tour. I felt like I was being traded like a sub-prime mortgage. I had also prepaid for a private room with air-conditioning. I became an ugly American and demanded that our guide verify my room arrangements. Good thing I had kept my receipt and had asked the tour operator to write all details on the receipt. Things were a little tense, but I got my room. (It was still kind of a pit) We spent the night in a Vietnamese town called Can Tho.

- Best Reason for Taking Around the World Trip
On the trip I met a big, overweight Brit who was in his late 20's. His fiancee had recently dumped him for another guy and his parents had just moved to Spain. Sounds like his once full life was now feeling empty. He waited 6 months to get over his girlfriend, then he quit his job, and is now traveling. He had an eye-brow ring and was planning on trying sky diving. Still he always wore preppy, conservative clothes. I'm guessing he was trying a new, more daring persona that hadn't fully developed yet.

- the next two days we visited a bunch of touristy sites, including a candy making facility, a fish farm, and a villageof indigenous people. We spent the second night in a town called Chau Doc at another divey guest house. The locals were friendly. I was out looking for a bar, when it started to rain. An old woman stepped off her porch and motioned for me to sit on her porch until the rain stopped. A woman on our trip was walking around and passed by a wedding celebration. They invited her in and she drank rice wine with them all night.

New and Improved Gross Outs
- Snake Heart: For $30, you can eat a still-beating cobra heart. The "chef" grabs a live snake, aggravates it to get it's hear rate up, then he guts the snake except for the heart. He drains the blood, removes the heart. And tells you to wait 2 minutes. Then he returns with a shot glass filled with blood and a little heart that is still beating. You drink up. Down the hatch... (source: hearsay)
- Pig Toilets: In India, there are squat toilets that are just a hole. When you move your bowels, you can hear pigs grunting below you as they eat your waste. Yum. (source: hearsay)
- Picking Teeth vs Picking Nose: In Cambodia, people try to cover up their mouths when they are cleaning their teeth with a tooth pick. On the other hand, walking down the street people will flagrantly root around in their noses for a booger.
- Clipping Toe Nails in a Food Stall: The other day, I was eating soup in a food stall. I heard a familiar clipping sound behind me. A guy was working away on his toe nails.
- Rat in the Hotel Lobby: TSK Travel strikes again. At the end of my 3-day Mekong Delta trip, we got dropped off at a guest house called The King Guest House in Phnom Penh. How convenient. Obviously, the guest house director, Mr. Jerry, has some kind of arrangement with the travel companies. I was determined not to be taken, so I walked around the block to check other hotels. They were all full. Why was the King the only place with lots of rooms? I went out for dinner and came back to the hotel to get some money. In the lobby of the hotel, a large half-bald rat was running around in the lobby.