The Cambodian Chronicles (Part I)

Amid thunderstorms and choppy dark seas she struggled valiantly to line up her F-14 Tomcat on an unusually steep approach to the American aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt.  It had been a long slog of a night on a marathon weeks-long mission, discharging precision ordnance in the direction of the evasive Bosnian Serb Army in support of Operation Deliberate Force. This was her third successive landing attempt in an uncooperative Adriatic sea, which pitched and rolled the carrier’s deck unremittingly.

Finally, the Tomcat smacked violently onto the wet metal deck, the tail hook barely grasping the arrestor cable, but just off center causing the jet to crab somewhat, but within normal operational limits. However, the restraint on the ship’s port side suddenly malfunctioned, sheering all four of its large retaining bolts causing the taught cable to slice erratically as the Tomcat dragged it several hundred feet down the rain-soaked surface. Only after coming to an abrupt halt and deplaning did she realize the scale of the collateral damage: Two Navy servicemen were dead, killed instantly when the cable cleaved diagonally across the deck decapitating both of them.

“Oh my goodness,” exclaimed Timothy, “what a tragedy! What a story!” “But wait, there’s more,” Stacey said, sipping her drink intermittently between lengthy episodes. She went on to tell him that after completing a difficult assignment in the Balkans, she retired from the Navy and went on to obtain several marksmanship awards from the National Rifle Association back in the States. The petite blonde then saw success and accomplishment in a creative variety of otherwise impressive endeavors as a horse trainer, an executive movie producer and a singer songwriter with a substantial investment in a recording studio.

Timothy was engrossed from the commencement of the Bosnian conflict and it was only after hearing about her intriguing sources of song writing inspiration, he realized he had not even touched his squash stuffed roasted poblano. Since his unexpected divorce last year he had dated a stack of women; nevertheless trim, attractive Stacey, his twenty-third on-line arranged first date, had the most remarkable life story by far. By. Far.

As Timmy recited his tale in lucid but jumbled detail, we passed power tiller after power tiller—those strange looking two wheel tractors with Peter Fonda style handlebars, awkwardly pulling trailers full of unrecognizable vegetables and rice to some hitherto unseen markets. Our enduring views of the bucolic Cambodian countryside were punctuated only by our driver’s innate need to lean on his horn when we rapidly came up behind anything with wheels. He also honked at stray dogs and wandering cattle, although I sensed a difference in his animal staccato.

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Had I asked a Monk to pose, this’d be it.

Tim and I were traveling together throughout South East Asia for a couple of weeks, catching up on our important life events amid temple and shrine visits and assorted idolatry. He had started yakking about a couple of his twenty-three dates earlier when we left Phnom Penh, but with hopeful grace, I had listened only peripherally as it wasn’t really that interesting. But when he got to Stacey I was all ears.

After the Stacey power-lunch, driving back to his newly purchased home by the Spokane River in Washington, Timmy was oblivious to the changing scenic fall textures all around him as he replayed portions of Stacey’s incredible life story in his mind. What an amazing woman he reflected; she had told him so many profoundly stimulating sagas that he kept overlooking then recollecting whole chapters of her adventurous past, albeit in seemingly randomized sequences.

Following a lovely but lonely dinner for one as the sun set gently on the Spokane River, he ruminated on the day’s events and recalled some of the more dramatic moments—her two failed marriages and recent beastly boyfriend experience. Husband number two had divulged to her late one night that demons commanded him to murder her, causing her to fly the coop, and her recent ex-honey horribilis, who was a disgraced ex-cop, had pulled a knife on her over some trifling squabble during dinner. Then someone stealthily poisoned her two large Great Danes, twice. Nevertheless somehow the dogs, named Rock and Roller managed to survive the rat poison, but it was touch and go apparently. Lying in bed later that night he slowly realized that Tracey hadn’t inquired about him over the overrated stuffed pepper dish: Not a single question, now that he thought about it. Nor had he the opportunity to butt in and ramble about himself during the Stacey Show.

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Like a kitten in a tree, getting up is the easy part.

“That was odd,” I interrupted, “that she wouldn’t want to know anything about you.” We seemed to be now wedged in a dry dusty traffic jam in the middle of nowhere, just north of Lake Tonle Sap on the road to Siem Reap where Toyota Camrys and Lexus Rx300s started outnumbering the trudging tractors. “Yes,” he replied, “I didn’t realize until afterwards that I didn’t get a word in edgeways.” Then he continued, somewhat hesitantly, “and I tried to check her out online and couldn’t corroborate much of anything. She said the pooch poisonings were in the local paper, and you would’ve thought the sailor beheadings would have made the news. Couldn’t find anything on her extensive movie production career either on the IMDb website.” Glancing furtively left and right at the clogging chaos all around us he continued, “The only thing that really checked out was a description of her house—a rental ranch on four acres at the edge of town.”

Recollecting that Stacey had mentioned, between career changes, that she would be out all the next morning taking her poorly pooches, Rock and Roller, to a veterinarian in the next town, the Timster thought that it would be a nice touch to deliver a small floral arrangement while she was gone. Sensing a post first-date inkling of magnetism and knowing roughly where she lived, Timmy thought this’d be a wooing no-brainer.

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At first you think the praying and idolatry isn’t you, but gradually you just get into it.

Six miles out of town and around the leafy winding road he saw the house as accurately described to him less than twenty hours earlier: A long white hacienda on a sprawling flat tree-lined lot just beyond the bridge. “It was worse than the Beverly Hillbillies,” he remarked matter-of-factly, shrugging his shoulders. “The closer I got to the property, the dingier it looked: Dingy as in abandoned. There was an old trailer sitting haphazardly in the brown dirt with old cars and other non collectable objects strewn around, and I had to walk around some automobile that was parked right up at the front door,” he continued. “The screen door at the front of the house was made of plastic that probably used to be clear, and was covered in sun-faded stickers.”

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Tim was always looking for a restroom.

Standing awkwardly between the front door and the old car, Tim momentarily inspected the yellow flower arrangement in his right hand while wondering if he had come to the right house. He squinted at what he thought was an old washed-out NRA sticker when unexpectedly inside, two large dogs bounded to the door snarling raucously. The door immediately swung inward and a large, white haired man filled the doorway and blurted, “What you wantin’?” Unnerved Tim said, “Oh is that Rock and Roller?” nodding in the general direction of the barking bedlam as the unknown white-haired man just glared at him. Tim spluttered, “I brought these, er flowers for um…” as he retreated proficiently, clearing all vehicular obstacles without looking back.

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Sometimes you just come across something novel, and for me it was at the end of a long, hot day in the Angkor Thom temple complex.  With most of the tourists gone, we turned a corner to see two frolicking, dancing, happy Chinese ladies.

As our car passed by the oversized night market and endless tee-shirt stalls, we finally approached our rustic hotel in the center of Siem Reap. Tim said conclusively, “The guy looked like he lived there, and I don’t know if he was the demonized husband or the knife wielding disgraced ex-cop, and I wasn’t waiting to find out. Ten bucks I paid for those flowers,” he went on, “ but a good investment to find out that she’s a fucking nutcase!”

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The Art of Prayer

I’ve never really fully understood the art of prayer. As a boy, certainly I was herded with my equally oblivious acned brethren into the pine pews at the Cranhill Parish Church in the East End of Glasgow. Back then we would sit giggling about adolescent nonsense while the Minister, Mr. Reid, droned on in the background about God and baby Jesus, and he would try his absolute best to reign us in ever so gently into the whole concept of religion through contemporaneous interpretation of New Testament parables.

While the Good Samaritan, in the bible, came to the aid of a desperate, ailing Jewish fellow, he was now the fine young man who carried old Mrs. Jackson’s groceries all the way home from the Cooperative one dark, cold, rainy evening, and so on. But this kind of creative elucidation was a tough sell to interest us, and for all his almighty efforts, Mr. Reid had a Herculean task on his hands.

My best friend back then was Andrew Denholm, aka Dougal. I believe he was nicknamed so because his hair looked like Dougal the dog’s on the TV Show, Magic Roundabout: Although the true origin of his moniker would later become a point of contention, denial, and a mystery to most. But I’m sticking with the hairstyle lineage. I recall, in Polaroid detail, sitting next to Dougal in Cranhill Parish Church one Sunday, decades before iPhones, as he stared solemnly skyward during a particularly long recitation that revolved around a shepherd and a wayward flock of sheep. Ten minutes or so in, we were out of jokes and immature observations and after what seemed an eternity, the Minister closed his book, gazed mournfully downward, and got to our favorite part, “Amen.” And as I turned mercifully to Dougal he broke from his heavenly gaze, looked me directly in the eye and asked: “Guess how many light bulbs there are on the ceiling?”

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But when you grow up and you travel a bit you see that praying is actually quite serious and popular and people don’t usually giggle during it. For example, Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen is a colorful, fascinating five hundred year old Buddhist temple located across the Chao Phraya River in one of those endless indistinguishable suburbs of western Bangkok. While many of these types of temples appear similar from the outside the interiors are often surprisingly different. This one has multiple dissimilar levels for prayer and on the top floor has an unusual tall multicolored glass stupa in a luminous, emblazoned room. Praying here, in what could pass for Elton John’s bedroom, can actually be fairly interesting.

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Nevertheless you don’t just launch in shamelessly asking for daily bread, although I do imagine the overall idea is broadly the same. In these places of reverential worship, you do have to pay some attention to the little things: No hats in Europe, no shoes in Asia, yes hats in Israel. As far as the great Buddha is concerned, the statues are merely idols and when you pray, you may address the statue or trinket as you pay your respects directly to the great teacher himself. The process of prostration throws you open to your deity whereby it’s some variation of 1.) on your knees, 2.) arms to the chest, 3.) touch your head and nose, then 4.) hands down on the floor, dutifully followed by 5.) head bob to the surface, making sure you line up the elbows and knees. This part of the process is fairly easy to follow and you can practice it most places outside of Glasgow.

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It’s the messaging that I find to be a little more elusive. Paying your respects is one thing, but I’m pretty sure people just ask for all sorts of stuff, and when I look at some of them they’re obviously not getting what they’re asking for. Not that I’m knocking them of course, as they are faithful, which is arguably virtuous.

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And as you snoop around, there are what seems like a thousand Buddha effigies in the Wat Paknam, but this is a metric that is often touted and flouted in various places of worship such as the highly recommended elongated wooden Sanjusangendo Hall in Kyoto, Japan, that is host to a millennium ancient gold-lacquered Buddhas. And there is the Angkor National Museum in Siem Reap where there is a wonderful, but somewhat random, collection of the figurines. To make a grand the Museum at Angkor has taken an approach reminiscent of a wholesale sports trophy outlet: Angkor’s museum is rightfully criticized for simply filling a big room with Ayutthaya-era Thai idols that have no aesthetic connection to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. But will the tourists from the East of Glasgow notice? Yes..…

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