Thursday, October 31, 2013

Cambodia Trip 1.2

On my second day of the trip, things started to get interesting.

Turns out I was mistaken about how to get to Choam Sa Ngam and for a little bit, there in the Surin bus terminal, I was in a quandary as to what to do. I rejected other options like crossing at Choam Jom (which I’ll probably do next time) or Aranya Pathet/Poipet. I was determined to see not only the small border crossing at Choam Sa Ngam, but see the heartland of many of the last of the Khmer Rouge: Anlong Veng.

In the end, I took a minivan to Sangkha figuring there had to be transpo linkages from there. Once at the Sangkha bus station, I waited over four hours for a connection further. If it wasn’t for the helpful employees there, I would have missed the bus that let me off by the side of Highway 24, at the junction (near Sano) to Highway 2201 that lead to the border. I had heard that you could hire a moto (a driver and motorcycle) to take you the 37 kilometers to the border and that’s what I did. It was a bit pricey at 400 baht (almost twice what I spent for a night at the Amarin), but my options were limited.

Unfortunately, it had just started to rain and the driver drove sometimes up to 70 kph (about 43.5 mph), much faster than I’ve ever ridden on a motorcycle in Thailand and far more risky than I would have liked. On the flip side, the driver seemed to know every pot hole and surface irregularity the entire 37 kilos. He had provided me with a helmet to use and I had my poncho, so some safety measures were taken as myself and my gear stayed mostly dry.

The scenery leading to and up the Dangkrek Mountains (Chuor Phnom Dangkrek, in Cambodian; Sayphou Damlek in Lao) is beautiful and I found myself wishing I had some land here, but, really, what would I do with it?!

Choam Sa Ngam is the smallest border crossing I’ve ever used. I liked it cuz it was rustic and there were no queues.

A view looking at the Cambodian checkpoint:

... And a view looking at the Thai checkpoint (building on the left) right after I checked out of Thailand:

... Also, here's some video I shot. Screen dimensions are off a little bit, but you'll get the idea. Opens with a view of the Cambodian checkpoint and pans right to the Thai checkpoint and a view back at Thailand through the Dangrek Mountains:

Sa Ngam Border Crossing, 2013 from Malcolm Gault-Williams on Vimeo.

After stamping out of Thailand and stamping in to Cambodia for my very first time ever, I arranged another moto to take me on to Anlong Veng. I told the driver – an older teenager, not very friendly – that I wanted to “stop Pol Pot,” but I guess he did not understand me. By the time I realized we were well passed it, I figured what the hell. Several hundred meters from the border is where Pol Pot was cremated in a pile of tires and trash in 1998.

Here's what I missed:

... And, although I cannot confirm this, these are photos purportedly taken just shortly before Pol Pot's cremation:

I drew quite a lot of stares from females of all ages as I rode with my driver on to Anlong Veng. When we got close to town, flooding was quite evident, where Ta Mok’s Lake was threatening the small bridge into town.

I checked into the Monoram Guesthouse where the little kids were friendly, the adults a little cold and I was virtually invisible to every teenager I saw. Quite a big difference compared to Thailand or Lao.

The Monoram was a good value at $8 USD (I was now using U.S. Dollars, getting change in Riel). I showered and hit the guesthouse’s restaurant where some local police and guys who dressed casual but looked to be influential in the town/city sat and watched attentively to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen addressing the country’s top elected leaders after a much-contested election.

I ate some dried beef that was very good, spooned a lot of rice into me, had some pickled cucumbers, drank a couple of 12 ounce Angkor beers, and watched Hun Sen, too.

Yes, the Cambodians in the Anlong Veng area seemed “distant.” Later on I found out that it had only been around thirteen years before that the very last of the DK (Democratic Kampuchea) army (the Red Khmer, or Khmer Rouge) had ended their fighting here. Anlong Veng had been the center of the last remaining DK units. It was likely that most of the males over 30 that I saw were former Khmer Rouge, including the guys watching Hun Sen on TV.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Cambodia Trip 1.1

My first trip to Cambodia originally included riding along with my good Falang friend Scotty – actually, my best friend in Thailand. He and his wife Rot had planned to visit Rot’s family in Surin Province, in southern Isaan, and I would tag along. That plan fell through when Rot realized she had her dates wrong and I could not readjust my schedule.

The morning of my departure, after sai baht, I went over last minute things for Thip to remember: water the tree seedlings; how to operate the front door (swollen from the rains); making sure to close the upstairs south side windows at night (security); lights management; and doing things to lessen her tendency to paranoia: keep the radio on at night; keep cellphone on; meditate; go to the temple a lot; visit family often.

Thip prepared my coffee, as usual, and cut up some cold pineapple for the trip. I added a frozen plastic bottle of water. Then, she drove me out of the village on her motosai, to Highway 210 where I soon got a sawngthaew (Bus #1) to the Nong Bua bawkawsaw (bus station).

The Isaan comprises most of the Khorat Plateau. In order to get to Cambodia, I needed to cross the plateau and into the southern Khorat Basin. It would take me the better part of a day.

From the Nong Bua Lamphu bus terminal, I took a second class bus to Udon Thani, the next province over. Just before the outskirts terminal there, I grabbed a sawngthaw into the city and walked to the city bus terminal. Along the way, I encountered one of our villagers on the way to the dentist; Udon Thani dental and medical facilities and doctor knowledge being far better than those in Nong Bua.

It turns out that the bus to Surin goes via Khon Kaen and I could have much more easily taken a bus from Nong Bua to Khon Kaen without having to go to Udon Thani. Well, live and learn.

From Khon Kaen, I got a bus to Buriram; apparently there were none to Surin within a reasonable amount of time. I must say all my bus connections were fairly rapid and smooth. This would change on my second day, but at least Day One’s connections involved almost no waiting around.

The bus from Khon Kaen developed synchromesh problems in the transmission getting into first gear. This happened not far from Buriram, so we limped along into that city where riders going to the bus station switched buses. The assistant bus driver of the ailing bus conscientiously organized those of us going on to Surin and arranged our pick-up there, on the side of the city street, rather than having us all go into the bus station only to come back out again. Almost always, Khon Thai have been helpful to me in my bus travels.

As my fourth and last bus of the day approached Surin, in the Korat Basin, we could see heavy flooding from the rains. Apparently, some local levy had also burst, worsening the situation. It was national news, but the flooding didn’t stop us; just slowed us down a bit.

"When The Levee Breaks" by Led Zeppelin

The fourth bus arrived in Surin at twilight. Back on solid ground, I made my way to the Falang Connection (restaurant and Falang hangout) after being pointed to it by some cuties having a beer and a bite to eat after shutting their shop. My plan was to have a bite to eat, a beer, and “gather intel” (find out about transpo to the border).

I ended-up having a beer Chang and talking with Colin, a Westerner a bit older than me who had lived in Surin for 23 years. I asked him about a cheap but decent place to stay and he described to me how to get to the Amarin Hotel, a live-in hotel. That is, most of the people staying there were long-term, month-to-month renters as opposed to day-to-day, like me. I could see Colin wanted to talk more, but I eased myself out of the conversation and left. I was tired and had been on the road for nearly twelve hours.

The Amarin’s a bit of a dump, but it suited my purposes and the price was right (250 baht; about $7 U.S. Dollars). After a shower, I went next door to the local convenience store/outdoor eatery, had another beer Chang, and talked with the local guys at the table next to me. I never did find out about transportation to Chom Sa Ngam.

View NBL to Siem Reap, Cambodia in a larger map

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Cambodia Trip 1.0

One of the conditions of my Thai Non-Immigrant “O” Visa (based on marriage to a Khon Thai) is that I must leave the country every 90 days. So, rather than just cross the border and re-enter the same day – which many expats do – I use the occasion for seeing a bit of Southeast Asia outside Thailand.

In planning these trips, I always read-up on my destinations using “Lonely Planet” guidebooks and the Internet. Additionally, I’ll post on Falang forums specific questions and solicit latest information.

As an example, in the forums I found out that in Cambodia, not only Cambodian Riel is used for currency, but Thai Baht and even American Dollars. In back and forth posts with some expats who have lived in and visited “Camby,” I even found out that Dollars are preferred and that you get a better exchange rate by using them. So, before I left, I had my wife get me some U.S. Dollars out of the bank.

I’m a “map guy,” so, of course, I Google Earth my destination and routes to and fro. If I have time, I’ll go into flight mode in Google Earth and fly the routes, also. I use printed maps, as well.

Generally, I start slowly packing a week ahead. This time, I didn’t get to it until the day before departure; good thing I keep an up-to-date packing checklist, like I used to keep a hiking/camping checklist. The idea is that after every trip, you add stuff you learned you needed and subtract superfluous stuff off the list. Naturally, before you leave on the next trip, you use this checklist to make sure you pack what prior experience has taught you you need and what’s nice to have along.

My wife Thiphawan was really supportive in me going, this time, which is a little unusual. She was originally dead-set against me going to “Kampuchee” (hygiene, ethnic bias, maybe I’d find a girl, etc.). But, when our Head Monk found out I wanted to go see the Angkor temples, he was all encouragement. So, with this “endorsement,” clearing it with my wife was no problem.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Struggle Against The Nyoong

Monks are most to curious to see how I handle the heat. I think it is generally assumed that I like the cooler months and do not like when it’s really hot. As I’ve mentioned before, I always answer this question by saying the heat does not bother me as much as the nyoong (mosquitoes).

Now that the days are getting noticeably cooler and drier, I believe I can describe this year’s “Struggle Against The Nyoong” as not only winding down, but successful.

Unlike my “War Against The Noo,” combating mosquitoes is more of a “protracted struggle.” You don’t lay traps and dispose of bodies. You just have to do everything in your power to keep yourself from being worn down by these determined insects. Worse, keep from having to go to the hospital cuz you either have Malaria or the deadly Dengue Fever.

Successful strategies that have worked for me from May thru September (the Monsoon Season), this year, include:

  • Keeping the weeds down around the house
  • Making sure there is no standing water in containers anywhere on the home property
  • Using mosquito repellant lotion with at least 13% DEET whenever I am outside just prior to and after sundown
  • Using a “Mosquito Bat” for inside the house, especially to clear the bathroom prior to use at night and clearing the inside of the mosquito netting around our bed prior to going to sleep. The bat (a little like a tennis racket) also comes in handy occasionally when I watch the light in the sky well past sundown, finishing a beer Chang. The mosquitoes start to come in and I can hold them at bay for a little while. If I’m way out numbered, I can always put on the repellent. I am usually reluctant to do this, though, as I will need to take another shower to remove the chemical lotion before heading off to Sleep Land.
  • Eating in the late afternoon and going to bed after sundown. I can’t imagine how Thais can stay out at night with no nyoong protection whatsoever!
  • Mosquito netting around our bed and around my office.

Even after I’ve done everything above, they’ll still get some blood out of me, but in far less numbers with only a little itch.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Change in the Weather

Seasonal divisions in the Isaan – as far as I consider them to be – probably do not conform to what is taught in school or understood by most Thais, but are most likely pretty close:

n      Spring: February thru April (the hottest three months of the year)
n      Summer: May thru September (the Monsoon season of substantial rain)
n      Fall: October thru November (harvest time, air cooling)
n      Winter: December thru January (the coolest two months)

This year, the cooling and drop-off in rain began in mid-September. You could definitely feel the cool breeze in the afternoons. We did not need the fan on all night. As for the rain, these became scattered, with less and less intensive downpours.

Now, in October, my wife and I sleep with a blanket over us – if not right away, at least within an hour or two when, if we have turned the fan on, it is shut down for the remainder of the night.

In the morning, ground fog lingers and a hot water shower is the order of the day, when, usually, a cold water shower feels better most of the year.

The day temps are now rather comfortable and I’m not sweating all the time unless I’m doing physical labor. The numbers of nyoong (mosquitoes) seem to be lessening, too, probably due to a combination of cool nights and less rain.

Thip keeps saying the rain will end soon. If that is the case, I can see why the King has emphasized his “New Theory” and a “Self-Sufficient Economy” for Thailand; where he has encouraged Thais to build pools of water at higher levels from the rice paddies, and the construction of and tapping into local klongs (canals).

(shot taken at our largest rice farm's pool, when we donated a fallen tree to our local temple early in 2013; note Love Shack II [aka "Bann Monkom"] in the background with motorcycles and tuk-tuk parked next to it.)

I asked my wife about the pools at all the rice fields that do not have access to the klongs (about 90% of them) and she confirmed that most all of them had been dug and put into use within her lifetime of 40 years.

Imagine how less sure it was, in the past, to bring in a successful harvest if you only had the Monsoons to rely on. I mean, there’s another two months to go before our family harvests the rice on our two rice farms. If the Monsoon tap is soon to shut, we’re gonna need all the water we can get from the pools to keep the rice stalks alive and healthy. At our larger farm, we have also dug a well and installed a pump, so no problem there!

Friday, October 4, 2013

Our Home, 2 Years Later

Thip moved into our home in the village where she grew up, two years ago. Here are some shots taken after she and her brother and sister cleaned the place up. First one is a frontal taken from the road, from the north. You can see the corrugated metal siding installed almost a decade ago, when the building was hit by a tornado. Open areas in the attic were also blown out at that time. Neighbors (relatives) house on the left; Thip's daughter Kulthida in the doorway:

Side view looking towards the front, from the southwest. Note the water containers that typically are connected to the rain gutters. Pipe from one side of the roof visible also:

Now, here are some recent shots taken more or less two years later.

This shot is a view of the front, taken slightly from the northwest, out by the road that connects our village with the next one down the line. Looks pretty much the same, eh? Well, this year the big job was the first story roof and the previous year most of our home improvements were also centered on the first story structure; like re-doing the bathroom, closet/laundry room, kitchen and electrical wiring (top and bottom floors). In this outside view, you can see new paint on all ground-floor sections, a new front door and patio (not visible), the complete front yard under the roof is covered with Mekong rocks which help keep the front of the house clean. New ground floor windows, wood table and benches, coconut tree stools and pedestals for potted plants; my plastic chair, red mailbox and tuk-tuk also visible:

Another shot from the same direction, a little further back, taken on a different day. Mango tree on the left, jackfruit tree on the right. Green address sign in front of the mango tree.

Looking northwards to the road and the rice fields beyond, from the doorway. Note drinking water bottle on left. These get picked up and delivered. Note, also, tree seedlings getting ready for planting and buckets of homemade planting soil... Good shot of the Mekong rocks. The rocks were my wife's idea and it has turned out to be a great one!

Photo of the west side, taken from the southwest, similar to photo #2. By comparing the two, you can see how fast things grow here. That's another jackfruit tree hanging over the water jar. It is a tasty fruit whose boiled inner wood is used to make the preferred color for Kamattan monks' robes. Clothes line (bamboo pole) visible on left and a papaya tree just to the right. Very center bottom is a two year old coconut tree and left of it you can see one of the neighborhood chickens.

West side ground floor close-up. The wood shutters are lightly stained so that the grain is easily visible. Note ceremonial clay water container center:

Many of the villagers still feel we are living loso, but we are happy with our progress and our home which -- all things considered and in my estimation -- is in the top 75% of homes in our area for functionality, size and even appearance.