Monday, May 18, 2009

Kipling in My Life

In Just-So Stories, I first read about bulbuls,  annoying little birds that loved to mind other people's business. Birds are not my favorite thing so I didn't give these much thought, except for their somewhat comic name.

A half-century later, in my Bangkok yard, I became enchanted with a couple of noisy, brazen little birds, who have sharp crested heads and tails like fans and a wide range of chirps and battlecries--especially when cats venture into the yard.

These little dudes have no fear and will divebomb a feline as though they were falcons. I have become quite fond of them, except when they begin their pre-dawn warbling inches away from my bedroom window, and have wondered occasionally what they are called.

Wandering around the internet is a serendiptous pursuit, and when I was looking for online reviews of Tone Deaf, I ran into a familiar face--yes, the birds in my yard are bulbuls and somehow I am not surprised. They are much as I always imagined--only lots smaller. (They are not the same color as the one in the photo, but the shape and size are right.)

Friday, May 15, 2009

You Can Take a Woman Out of Alaska...

"Eight dollars."
"No, ten dollars."
"No, eight."
"How about twelve?"

This is a familiar dialogue to anyone who has traveled in SE Asia, with one difference--the motorcycle driver was the one who insisted that I pay him eight dollars for our forthcoming trip to the 100 Column Temple area outside of Kratie, while I was the one venturing into twelve dollar territory. At that point we both cracked up, as my traveling companion shook her head and said "I never thought I'd see this kind of role reversal," or words to that effect.

Welcome to Kratie, a town that is as close to heaven as I am ever  going to get and a place I've dreamed of almost every night since returning to Bangkok. It's a place where traffic consists of expensive, well-kept cars, motorcycles, bicycles, and pony carts (driven by men who stand upright, like surfers) that haul freight, not tourists. 

The Mekong is generously revealed in Kratie. Development lies across the street--the river is bordered by a long pedestrian walkway and a wall wide enough to sit on--even for broad barang bottoms.  At night beer stalls with tables spring up on the walkway and a small cluster of food vendors at its far end  feed people all day.

There are hotels that probably are "luxurious" with aircon and hot water--I will probably never know. I was thoroughly happy with the reasonable pleasures of the U Hong II guesthouse--a clean room with a river view, two fans and a coldwater shower with enough water pressure to spray-clean a battleship. An open-air cafe provided great coffee, a baguette and fresh fruit every morning--and a splendid view of a Kratie street waking up.

It is wonderful to spend time in a place that accepts travelers without disrupting its patterns for them. The Kratie market is for residents--souvenirs have yet to raise their ubiquitous heads, although beautiful fabric could easily have stripped me of every cent I possess. Yet when I needed a pair of shoes that would let me explore the area in comfort, a woman went to another stall to find my over-sized 38 rubber soles--customer service that stateside department stores would envy. My traveling companion found industrial-strength sunscreen at one little stall when the vendor plunged into a large, dusty carton and emerged triumphantly with it in hand.

Dolphins are the tourist attraction and I had mixed feelings about viewing them, but drawn by the chance to be on the Mekong, I went. Our driver frequently turned off the boat's engine and let us drift silently down the river, spotting the occasional fin or dolphin back, but the main enchantment was the Daliesque clumps of islands that floated past on a calm pewter ribbon of leisurely  current. I long to go back in a couple of months, when the rains bring the Mekong high above its present banks and the tips of trees are all that can be seen of the sandbar islands that dominate the riverscape now.

kratie is dauntingly picturesque, but I found myself trying to take snapshots of silence and tranquility, as well as of the more conventional snapshot subjects. As someone who grew up in very rural Alaska, living without the comforts of 20th century life, I was completely amazed to find myself at home near a river that is light-years from the Kenai or Anchor rivers that I grew up watching and loving, or the Yukon that was my benchmark for great rivers--until I saw the Mekong.

You can, as a relative recently remarked, take a woman out of Alaska but...unless of course she finds what she loved about Alaska in SE Asia...I'm lucky. I have.


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Beware of the Heng Heng!

I am in no position to criticize my friend Kim's hotel choice in Phnom Penh in any way, shape or form. The Pavilion is a lovely place in an old palace, with private outdoor areas or verandahs for the rooms, depending on what floor they repose upon. Any discomfort I felt there came from the discrepancy between what lay beyond the hotel walls and what I experienced once I walked through the heavy wooden door that kept the street at bay. And that is my own personal idiosyncracy that doubtless could benefit from a bit of psychotherapy.

On the other hand, my Kratie choice had Kim scrabbling at the door one evening moaning forcefully, "Janet, let me in! Let me in!" I rushed to oblige her, feeling sure that the jovial town drunk who, well on his way to oblivion by four in the afternoon, had been transfixed by Kim's blonde hair, had followed her through the streets when we first arrived, slurring his welcome in Khmer and in English, and had probably now escorted her to the hotel.

As soon as the door cracked open, Kim rocketed into our room. "Oh my god," she gasped, "the hallway is covered with cockroaches. I couldn't even see the floor."

The Heng Heng's distinguishing feature was a verandah, open to the hallway, that faced the river and was quite enticing by day. At night it was the portal for every cockroach in town--the place for them to see and be seen obviously--and some of them apparently continued to hang out to prepare for the next night's debauch during the day, because we had noticed a few when we took possession of our room.  We had done our best to be nonchalant about them but learning that the Heng Heng's hallways became the cockroach version of Studio 54 when darkness fell was too much. Kim had discovered an alternate hostelry before returning to shriek for sanctuary and we moved there the next morning.

"Why are you going?" the desk clerk at the Heng Heng asked. When Kim, with remarkable restraint, explained why, he chuckled indulgently and said, "Oh the cockroaches like to come and play in the light after dark." We waited for him to conclude with "You know-- those crazy cockroaches," but he seemed too absorbed in endearing cockroach memories to enlarge upon this theme.

I had forgotten a scarf when I left the Heng Heng and on the morning I was to leave Kratie, I approached the entrance of the hotel to see if the maid had found it. As I drew near the open door, a miasma of stale air and cockroach urine billowed toward me and I covered my face and rapidly retreated. I like to think that the Heng Heng's roach colony now uses it as a red carpet, when they all enter the hotel hallways for yet another night on the town. As the good friend of still another cockroach was fond of saying, "Toujours gai, toujours gai." (Archie and Mehitabel, meet the Heng Heng.)

Monday, May 11, 2009

Flight from Phnom Penh

In 1997,  I fell deeply in love with Cambodia's capital. Twelve years later, I came, I saw, I couldn't wait to leave, and am now haunted by what I didn't find, longing to go back and see where it might be.

Phnom Penh is nicely defined by the maps it hands out to tourists--less than one quarter of the map is filled in with things to do and to see. The rest of it is blank streets for the remaining three-fourths of the page, except for the Old Russian Market and Tuol Sleng, which is a horrifying juxtaposition. (Do you view atrocities and then shop or carry bags filled with silk and silver as you gaze at the photo gallery of dead faces?)

I was given a mission by my publisher, and a place to stay by my friend and colleague who was my traveling companion. Neither were ones I would have chosen, left to my own devices. Both were surprisingly pleasant but so far off my usual travel track that these two things alone would have guaranteed my extreme culture shock.

I'm not a backpacker and never was. Growing up in the land of outhouses and packboards of rural Alaska more than cured me of any longing for the simple life. However the contrast between palatial luxury and extreme poverty is more than I can stand, and my hotel choices are decidedly midlevel rather than high-end. I choose neighborhoods that I would want to live in should I choose to stay in a city, and then I spend a few days living in them. My hotel in Phnom Penh, with its David Hockney pool and its profusion of luxuriant potted palms obscuring the Cambodian-style chaise longues, with its poolside cafe peopled by bikini-clad pale and meaty European bodies, was not a place I have ever yearned to live in.

I am also not a shopper, although I do spend money in a casual, inadvertant, "sneaky shopper" fashion. Charged by my publisher to gather business cards from affluent and trendy expat boutiques in the fashionable 240 Street neighborhood, I spent hours looking at silk and organza embroidered confections, at wearable art made of imported beads and Cambodian hardware, at quilts that could have been created by the ladies of Gee's Bend although they were the handiwork of women in SE Asian hamlets, of furniture that could easily grace the pages of next month's Architectural Digest. All was breathtaking, right down to the price tags.

The two things in this area that I remembered from my previous trip and yearned to see were the National Museum and the convergence of the Mekong and the Tonle Sap rivers under the open sweep of Cambodian sky. The Museum was even better than I had remembered, with lighting and galleries that put its Bangkok equivalent to shame--and statues that are among the most beautiful things I have ever seen anywhere. The river is gone--behind high billboarded walls that obscure a project that will put a stop to floods. Where there are no walls, there are large restaurants that block the view as effectively as the barricade of advertising does. A small park adorns the far end of the bank but after walking along the length of the forest of signs where there was once a heart-stopping view, I had no wish to look at the tiny portion that was still allotted to pedestrians.

The mapped part of Phnom Penh is a part I never want to see again. The unmapped part might contain what I saw twelve years ago--energy, hope, pride...The tiny portion that I had the energy to explore held hints of that, and streets that were clear of garbage and the cries of "Hello TukTuk" and families homesteading pieces of the sidewalk. 

Next time that I go to this city, that is where I will be, searching for Phnom Penh.