29 January 2011

Preview: Thailand and Cambodia

I'll write up a proper travelogue when I'm all done, as is my habit, but for now here's a few bits from my three-week vacation/honeymoon to Thailand and Cambodia.

A Burmese ladyboy, leaning over and giggling as he asks for a cigarette. He's dressed in vanishingly small shorts and a muscle tee with curling edges that hands loosely off of his slender frame. He came from a small village to work at a Bangkok hostel three years ago, and goes back as often as he can afford it. He loves eyeliners, and has many tubes in a row in the room where he sleeps with his boyfriend.  They curl up with one sheet on a mattress on the ground. Last year the waters of the river rose so high they flooded over the concrete wall and into the hostel, and he laughs as he talks about a guest so stoned he didn't realize until the next day that the waters were soaking him and his laptop.

...

Crossing a Cambodian street is like a negotiation. Perhaps more than any other place I've been - including China and Thailand - the roads are lawless. You wait for a gap not in traffic, but only in the flow of larger vehicles like cars and trucks. They get their own way, and it would be too bold to step out in front. Tuk-tuks and motos are more your equals, and it depends on the size of the group of crossing pedestrians whether or not they will stop. Usually they do not, cruising around on a course designed to cut past you by a few inches. It's best not to stop or run, instead trusting to their competence and hoping they won't misjudge this time.

...

Elephants stood in a row under a wooden shelter, chained to wooden beams. Most of them have been driven insane by captivity, and they perform the repetitive and heart-breaking motions of the mad: swaying forward and raising their trunk, then bobbing back and doing it again with a slight shift of stance. They don't respond to voice or touch, and their eyes are so dead that they might as well be machines. The enchantment of "hey, elephants!" wears off quickly as they dance their endless mad dance. They only come to life when we buy a basket of rough wild pineapple as a treat for them. I buy the big basket so we can give each of them at least one or two. I want them to have something. Each one seizes their pineapple and shoves it in. One of the younger, sane ones, responds to the urging of a nearby trainer to "thank" us, and raises his trunk in a salute against his forehead, thumping it lightly and then reaching out for another treat.

...

The streets of Koh Kong are unlit at night. It's startling to realize how accustomed I am to streetlights - not all the time, of course, but in any urban area. To me, that's one of the things that makes a place a city: at night, there are lights to show you the way. There are no lights in Koh Kong, and the way is indistinct. I walk one night down the back streets, shadowed by a small group of young Cambodian boys who share cigarettes and giggle, propositioned by a handful of masseurs and tuk-tuk drivers and drug dealers and one middle-aged prostitute. I feel in danger (though really a 6'4" guy with $20 and no watch is not in danger) and am not sure why, as I reflect that really this is far more normal than the well-lit pseudo-day to which I am used. I look up at the sky and see so very many more stars.

...

The American Embassy in Bangkok is a fortress. I do not exaggerate at all. The walls are concrete and steel two feet thick and fourteen feet high. The gate is guarded by many men with guns. These guards are not the slack casual men of the Thai military or the unmoving police who occupy stoops and corners like useless ornaments. They are grim fellows of indeterminate ethnicity who hold assault rifles and stand rigid and formidable. They are not having fun and they are not for show. They stand around a gate of huge swiveling teeth of metal that swing up out of the ground as each car passes, clanking into place implacably. Entering the embassy is a long process of turning over goods to be locked in separate sealed bags, and a metal detector, and two forms to fill out while you are attentively examined. And for all that it's all intimidating in this fortress, I am reassured. This is a place where people and things are kept safe and things get done. This is a place of American power. And to all appearances, that power is significant.

...

The children on the Sihanoukville beach are all practiced in a common series of techniques and patter. One after another they approach with coat-hangers twisted to hold clinking rows of cheap bracelets and crude woven toys. They want you to buy something for your girlfriend, your wife. Hey man, you buy something. Open your heart and open your wallet (recited by rote). I will come back later, and you will buy something then. Your sunglasses are so old, plastic, here these are glass. Very good, only five dollar. Where are you from? Hey maybe you buy something now. Look at this coin, from Australia and Euro, you buy from me. Sometimes they stop and sit on Lizzie's lap or hang from her shoulder - she's young and pretty and a girl, the essence of nonthreatening to them - and chat to each other in rapid Khmer, laughing at jokes and discussing us. They pass up and down the beach, and answer with dismissive confidence questions about school or parents. They're fine, yes. They go to school. Everything is okay. Buy a bracelet?

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