Cambodia/Thailand Special China Crossover Edition: “A Long Way From Home…”

This morning I woke at 4:30 AM in a white-walled motel room outside Phnom Penh International Airport to the angry, full-voiced chirp of a gecko on the wall; it scuttled for cover behind the curtains when I sat up. And now, I’m sitting back on Stephanie’s couch in Beijing, waiting for her to get off work (her crazy, backbreaking work, poor woman, she left New York and came to just about the only place on the planet where your time as a legal assistant is in even higher demand – save me from professions, if not from professional salaries!) so we can grab a bite to eat and maybe watch some of Rome before bed. It’s cold outside, though dry, the horrid ice-tentacles that have seized the southern half of the Chan’s Great Continent having spared the capital mostly. My students back in southern Anhui are seeing more snow than they have known since they were in grade school. There are no snow plows in Anhui, there are no salt trucks, there are no paved roads going out to most of their houses. They are sleeping eight to a concrete bunker of a room, waiting for the weather to let up – or so I hear.

And, as I said, this morning I awoke some eleven degrees and thirty-three minutes north of the equator to the chirp of a gecko and the cry of a bird in the palm tree outside my window and the burbling and coughing of an air conditioner that sounded more like the engine of a particularly tuburculotic old station wagon. Around midnight, awake for the second time due to the noise, I had tried to sleep without the AC, but then the heat and wet stickiness set in, and the scratchy sheets, and the bugs, and the complete lack of ventilation in the concrete motel room, and I gave in.

It’s a strange world, only we usually wallpaper over that strangeness. For me, traveling along lines of longitude makes the wallpaper start to peel. Latitude somehow makes more sense: I chase the sun into the west across the ocean, and sure enough I find China, where people speak languages different from my own – but then, TIME itself here is different from my own. Go West, and you’re in the future; East, and you’re in the past, literally!

When I go south, though, the time stays the same, only the countries change, and the people, and the scale of the world shines out – changes of weather,altitude, culture. In Cambodia, I rode for five hours on the roof of a speedboat down the Tonle Sap lake, getting sunburned and reading The New Science of Giambatista Vico, and in Beijing it’s cold and sunny and I chat the cab driver up about his CB radio hobby as we get stuck in New Years traffic. And then there’s horse-herding, sheep-shearing Mongolia where the government runs a national advertising campaign to get people to eat their veggies (it’s not really working). And then to the north of Mongolia there’s Russia, both Siberian Old-Believer country and the more-European-looking Russia of Tolstoi and Dostoyevsky, so from North to South you have Russians, Old Believers, Mongolians, Chinese, Vietnamese, Laotians, Khmer, Thai, each with their own cultures and their own auspices and customs and history and stories and, heck, martial arts, all without crossing any oceans. I guess what I’m getting at in my sleep-dep-addled way is that if we go West to go into the future, and East to go into the past, traveling North or South reinforces just how much there is to see and know in the *present*; and it’s even crazier, as there are *two* hemispheres to this globe, after all, and in twenty-three years I’ve barely cracked one of them. I’ve got my work cut out for me if I want to be a real adventurer.

We left Siem Reap on the morning of the 26th, heading North to the border in a cab owned by one of Om’s friends. The further North we got, the further away we drove from the Tonle Sap and its water system, and the more the dry season took hold of the country. Vegetation faded from verdant to thirsty tan, and dust sprang up everywhere; lean-ribbed cattle watched us from the side of the road. Cows look distressing when thin, but also somehow more natural. For me, when I look at a fat American Holstein the steely knives of mental butchery start to work: there are the legs, there are the ribs, there’s the T-bone, there are the fillets, etc. They are meals on hoof, wrapped in leather. Lean cows look like animals, though, and beautiful ones – the Cambodian cows especially, shining white in the fierce sun, almost holy.

The road from Siem Reap to the border rapidly deteriorated. Cambodia as a nation is not known for its glorious infrastructure, but the Siem Reap-Thai Border road for long stretches is nothing more than packed earth that was steamrolled some time ago or packed down with use into a flat trough between rice fields; bridges are metal tiles placed over metal planks over flowing muddy rivers cut ten feet below into the hillside. The Cambodian government is restoring all six of the nation’s highways, apparently as fast as possible, but in the case of the route to the Thai border, restoration has proceeded slowly as the government has repeatedly arrived at its planning desk only to find the restoration paperwork covered by thick piles of cash, gifts from the airlines that connect Bangkok to Siem Reap for $400 a ticket.

The Cambodia border town is called Poipet on the Cambodian side, and some long word that starts with A and is beautiful but unfriendly to my gringo tongue on the Thai side; the interstitial area between the two nations features a giant gleaming resort casino, run by friends of the Cambodian government – Hun Sen’s people, at it again. Carl and I grabbed lunch at a roadside stand, the kind of place that I wouldn’t hesitate to eat at in China. I spent the next three days regretting it as my intestines ceased to function and I ate antibiotics as if they were perscription-strength giant tic-tacs. The lesson, I suppose, is that just because your system can handle anything *one* country can throw at it, doesn’t mean you should assume that holds true for all countries. But no harm done, and I’m fine now. The upshot was I took it a little easier in Thailand than I did in Cambodia, which ended up being a good thing, as we had been sprinting from temple to temple as if pursued by giant rolling boulders and needed to rest.

Where of course by “rest” we mean, “watch a succession of men clad in shiny shorts do physical violence on one another with hands and feet for three and a half hours for our amusement” – or at least that’s one of the things we mean – but I’m not quite there yet. Give it time.

Impressions of Thailand: in any video game that involves traveling the universe/faery kingdom/Realm of Magic/whatever, you will eventually run into the land of the jungle bird people. This, at least at first brush, is Thailand. It’s hot, it’s green, people are friendly, and everything is in bright colors – not the bright reds and golds of China, but lush blues fading to sunset pinks and purples, silver dolphins arcing over seas of topaz and bright red coral. Where China has sickeningly cutesy cartoon characters everywhere, even more saccharine than Japan, Thailand has artwork that would look at home on a tye-die shirt from 1970. Busses and taxi cabs are all colored loud and variable; the language really sounds like bird speech, even more singsong than Chinese: tonal, of course – five tones, even – but tonal more by pitch (low middle high etc.) than by variation (level rising turning falling as in Mandarin). Also, vowels of different lengths: jaa and ja are different sounds! Each person, speaking the language, sounds as if singing to herself. But it’s also like birdsong in that it’s not *really* music – there are gutturals and glottal slops and trills in there too, all the usual artifice of tongue and throat. Body modification is a lot more common than I’ve seen elsewhere in Asia: punk kids with rings planted inside their earlobe so you could put one finger clear through their ear, and the World’s Cutest Goth, a thin beautiful white-made-up girl I passed at a Buddhist temple, with earrings and black pants and black work shirt and a tattoo on her throat that said in Old English Gothic letters: “ENDURE.”

Carl and I rode a bright blue bus with beaded curtains and plush blue velvet seats from the border into Bangkok. Bangkok! It shines, or glimmers vaguely when it’s a bad smog day. The main streets are broad, the side streets narrow and claustrophobic; traffic jams here are common and epic in scope and endurance. Buildings rise, and boats ply the river. City of angels, city of beauty, city of a four-line-long printed proper name! Seriously. Bangkok means “village of plums” and is what foreigners call the city; Thais, especially northern Thais, call it Krung Thep which means “City of Angels” and is a shortening of the full name: Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit. Which translates to: The city of angels, the great city, the residence of the Emerald Buddha, the impregnable city (of Ayutthaya) of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarn. This name, needless to say, is not entered in forms very often; King Rama I, who built the place, clearly thought it was pretty awesome.

And the city, in turn, must have thought King Rama I was the bee’s knees, thus setting in motion a tradition that continues to this day: the Thais love their beloved King and his family, who smile at their people from the money and from the five-story high portraits sprinkled liberally throughout the city, who are molded in gold at Buddhist temples and who are saluted and honored before every movie in every movie theater in the country. Carl and I saw Cloverfield, JJ Abrams’ new movie, one afternoon – amazing movie, scary, well-put-together, really, see it in theaters, not exactly for the weak of heart but those weak of stomach shouldn’t worry too much – and before the movie started we stood for the Thai national anthem, which ended with a proclamation: ‘We love our Thailand- We love our King!” And by “Thailand” here they intend a double meaning: Thailand has, as far back as there is history, never been conquered by anyone. When they figured this out in 1949 they changed the name from Siam to Thailand, which means, “Land of Freedom.”

(Again, going by video game logic, my mentioning this would be a forshadowing clue that the Witch King of Angkor was going to ride west with his orc hordes and invade next week – fortunately, we are not as of now in a video game. I think. If you see any reports of Witch King movements on CNN, let me know!)

But what were we to *do* there? My sense Krung Thep/Bangkok prior to arriving was confined to several Vietnam War Movie references to Thai hookers, a general sense of layabout Southeast Asia hippie-ism, and a Confucius-say joke (Confucius say: Man who go through airport turnstile sideways, going to Bangkok). There certainly are a bunch of layabout hippies with long beards and long hair and white cotton shirts (says the layabout travel writer with long beard and long hair and loose white cotton shirt) on Khao San Road, where they’ve been neatly quarantined by civil authorities, and from what I’ve heard the sex trade in Thailand is alive and well, though I didn’t partake; I got offered girls much more often in Cambodia, though, where pimps and hotel managers seemed confused that I didn’t want “pretty girl for bed?” and asked me why. My answer to this was that I already had one, which is (a) true – love ya, Steph! – and (b) my standard answer whenever people in foreign countries repeat proper nouns at me with questionmark intonation, while offering to sell me something:

They: Hat?
Me: *tipping my hat* No thanks, I already have a hat.


They: Socks?
Me: *pointing to feet* No thanks, I already have socks.

or, to a greater extreme:

They (apparently intending to offer a tour): Confucian temple?
Me: No thanks, I already have a Confucian temple.

Sometimes, they catch on, though, which is karmic payback for me being a bit of a tool:

They: Jacket?
Me: No thanks, I already have a jacket.
They: That [is] ugly jacket! I sell you better jacket!
Me: Hey, my father gave me this jacket!
They: You give him better jacket back!


Anyway. So Khao San road was there, and the prostitutes (apparently); also there was a lot of shopping, but I wasn’t in much of a shopping mood. So, aside from seeing exploited young women do strange things with pingpong balls for the amusement of visiting gringos, what else was there to do in Bangkok? Clearly, the aforementioned (long aforementioned) pummeling until senseless! So, on to the Thunderdome! Or, at least, the Raja Boxing Stadium, one of Bangkok’s two main professional Thai kickboxing stadiums.

Thai Kickboxing (or Khmer Kickboxing – like many things in Cambodia and Thailand, the Khmer claim they invented it and the Thai stole it from them, for which there is some basis as Angkor Wat friezes and bas relief sculptures depict warriors using recognizable kickboxing techniques on one another), also known as Muay Thai, is, as far as I’m aware, not a very philosophical art. There is not much talk about the harmony of nature and the universe, or emptiness and fullness, or the movement of Qi. There is a lot of hitting people with your fists, feet, knees, and elbows until they can no longer hit you back. Throws and leg sweeps are legal, though groundfighting and wrestling aren’t. The big difference, rules-wise, from normal boxing (outside of, you know, the elbows and knees and kicks and all) is that in Muay Thai you can clinch – that is, get in so close that it’s almost impossible for your opponent to hit you – and the ref won’t break it up so long as you can still attack effectively with your elbows and knees.

The stadium was a concrete bowl with bright tungsten lights blaring down on the ring; Carl and I sat ringside, while behind us the lower-price seats were about half-full of standing Thais holding up fists and fingers to take bets on the fights below. Towards the back, a few spectators sat and watched the fights, the the betting action, and all the rest impassively; young boys in yellow shirts flitted among the crowd selling overpriced lukewarm beer and soft drinks.

The fighters were smaller than I expected. The largest boxers of the night, the fighters in the title card, were a Japanese guy and a Thai who weighed in at 137 lbs. each or so; the first pair of fighters weighed in at 105 and looked really young. Hard, of course, but thin – wiry arms, abs that looked like a series of iron plates laid over one another, bulging calf muscles that cut sharply in to narrow leg bones. They entered with garlands of flowers draped around their necks, prayed for a few seconds at each of the four corners of the mat, and then began the ritual dance, one kneeling in the center while the other danced a slow circle of warmup kicks around the outside of the ring. They touched glove and foot, and the music began to play, and they circled each other, much further out than American heavyweights thanks to the added range of kicks; they swayed forward and backward, bouncing on their toes to the rapid rhythms of the Thai drums and twanging guitar. The first kick came from the right, fast like a blink, and I heard the sound of flesh slapping flesh, hard. A retaliatory kick, and then a clinch, knees and elbows flying until they were in too close and the ref separated them. More kicks, a punch or two – the three-minute bell marked the round, and the process repeated itself.

Carl and I watched for three and a half hours, which passed in a blink. When we emerged from the stadium the night sky was dark above and the lights along the royal boulevard shone around portraits of the royal family. Of seven fights, two had ended with TKOs – injuries mostly, generally caused by someone getting their legs swept out from under them. The title card, between the Japanese and the Thai, was the only fight with any blood – the edge of the Thai guy’s glove cut the Japanese guy’s face in the first round. The Japanese spent the subsequent four repaying this hit with a series of devastating punch combos cribbed from Mohammed Ali; the Thai refused to go down, or even register that he had been hit. The main effect on the Thai seemed to be that he was less willing as the fight went on to strike. He danced around the Japanese fighter’s strikes when he could, took them when he couldn’t. Normally that’s a sign of poor cardiovascular conditioning, a sign the fighter is just too damn tired to fight, but none of these fighters had conditioning problems.

As we walked down the royal boulevard we passed Khao San and the stalls set up to cater to the hippie wanderer crowd, Bob Marley t-shirts hanging in vendor booths, men with beards down to their belleys, etc. We ate dinner in a cafe where they were showing the Bruce Willis movie, “Tears of the Sun,” in which American marines escort a bunch of Nigerian dudes and dudettes to the border to esacpe a brutal machette-weilding regime. Bruce Willis wins the day by calling God and having Him burn the infidel Nigerians with heavenly fire in the form of a pair of F-14s. Carl remarks: “This is why aircraft carriers are so scary. They’re essentially mobile God platforms.” Then the movie switched to “Balls of Fury,” which is a chop-sockey movie parody about ping pong.

As I drifted to sleep that night I wondered if there had been any kids on the kickboxing stage – kids defined as under-18. It’s possible, especially with some of those early fighters who were skinny in the way that adolescents can be skinny and grown men can’t. It’s hard to tell. I wish it wasn’t.

And that’s pretty much it. The next day we saw some temples and the house of Jim Thompson, maybe-CIA-agent silk mogul responsible for revitalizing Thailand’s hand-woven silk export community; in one of the temples hung a sign bearing an inscription by the King: “You are welcome here, and can remain and go forth in peace.” The next day, I woke early to make my flight back to Cambodia. And then there comes the kind of denoument that’s usual to travelling, the one that I’m going to go through again on a larger scale in a few months here when I return to the States from China: you’ve seen things, you’ve learned things, and you’re getting on an airplane and soon you’ll be somewhere else. I ate a lot of good food, got sick, ate more good food, saw people, even unexpectedly ran into Yalies abroad. I have a sense now for *how* someone could disappear into the jungle for weeks, months, years even; I get to color in another country or two on the world map. I even managed to get myself back into China. And now as I overhear conversations in a strange Asian tongue that I actually know and can speak, as I see pictures of rats hung everywhere and every building is decorated with red in preparation for the New Year, I realize – I may be back, but I’m still a long way from home…

In other news I’m starting up a WordPress blog over at my new website, One of my new years resolutions is to write these e-mails more often, (though not as often as you’ve been getting them in the last week or so!), and then to put them – or excerpts from them at least – online in a more semi-permanent fashion. On top of that, I’ll post some excerpts from fiction I’ve written recently (right now, for example, I’ve got the first 10 pages or so of my last novel up there), pointers to new stuff when it gets published, and all that jazz. Point friends that way, check it out yourself, or just wait to get the e-mails in your inbox, or do some combination of all three! Or think up strange new combinations I haven’t dreampt of yet. The universe is your playground – or at least the internet is.

So I’ll be back later (no more five-month absences), and I’ll try to post some pictures, either via e-mail or flickr or one of these newfangled image sharing internet sites. Be well, and I hoep everyone is having an excellent lead-up to the Year of the Rat!

3 Responses to “Cambodia/Thailand Special China Crossover Edition: “A Long Way From Home…””

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