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!”

The Rise of Vietnam, Cambodia and Wales

Following an eight-year absence from the onset of the great recession, I returned recently to travel throughout Vietnam and Cambodia. These Third World countries, to use the vernacular of the outdated “Three Worlds” model, seem to have come a long way. For a Communist dictatorship, Vietnam sure has a lot of Prada: Welcome to the Bourgeois revolution! Cambodia’s present-day open market system and regime stability has led to increased investment all around; for example, Siem Reap used to be a sleepy little hovel with some awesome nearby temples, and now its streets are lined with 5-star hotels. In terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), both Vietnam and Cambodia are currently among the world’s fastest-growing, pushing 7%, led by India at 8%, while the large Chinese tortoise plods at around 6%. While this is driven mainly by global integration, I would say to you now, come visit these places while they still retain a palpable measure of uniquely identifiable ancestry.

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While I have traveled far and often, I must say too, that I learn constantly while I am on the road. For example, my lovely wife taught me recently how to journey around the world with four devices and only one charger, notwithstanding that I brought the adapters. This was an on-the-job-training exercise governed mainly by just-in-time principles and memory recall faculties.

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I genuinely believe that travel is vital and essential, and perhaps for some folks should be mandatory. I’m not thinking of it as a social program though—more like an unfunded Republican campaign ideal. Travel opens the mind, overcomes societal barriers, and creates collective respect and mutual understanding, something we could we use more of generally. We all probably have friends, acquaintances or family members who harbor random, ill-founded or misplaced grudges toward various segments of society, sometimes for eternity.

For example, I remember, with some peculiar fondness my first prospective brother-in-law’s disposition towards the proud nation of Wales. Opposing fans at a Wales-Scotland rugby game in Cardiff apparently harangued my would-be kinsman way back in the 1970s: He had traveled all the way down there from Scotland in the wee hours only to be berated and jostled by an angry horde of drunken Welshmen. Of course it’s sometimes difficult to ascertain welsh sobriety just by observation, but it’s a reasonable bet that alcohol was involved (#Rugby+Wales+Scotland). I can only but imagine the indelible trauma inflicted on my incipient in-law, “Adfyd a ddwg wybodaeth, a gwybodaeth ddoethineb and take that ya fat Scottish bastard.” To be fair, he was a little overweight at the time. While there are many commonalities between the realms of Scotland and Wales such as Celtic origin, domination by the British Crown, and being bombed by the Germans, my former prospective brother-in-law will always hate Wales. And for that I am truly saddened.

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Criticized for not visiting Vietnam earlier, Donald Trump has now arrived.

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Four Stars for Four Bars in Aranyaprathet

The Hotel Indochina is located conveniently in the colorful and rustic town of Aranyaprathet on the Northwestern edge of the bustling Cambodia-Thai border. Perhaps the best set of digs in the entire town, it is a fair-sized hotel shaped like a large U with the lobby area bridging two very long wings that could double as professional bowling lanes. Very clean and functional, the hotel offered one or two entertaining quirks for the intrepid and road-weary traveler.

Bowling is optional.

Bowling is optional.

The first was the Wi-Fi teaser. There indeed was Wi-Fi with all four welcoming solid bars in selective pockets of space around the residence. In the hallways it was satisfyingly solid, but in the rooms it was peevishly pervasive. It would work by the bedroom door, and I mean right by the door. Tantalizingly, it would follow you to the bed but would vanish immediately the moment you got comfortable. Initiating the wireless mating dance once again starting from the door you could lure it very slowly and cautiously to the comfy chair in the far corner where it would leave brusquely and without warning. Most annoyingly, the signal bars would reappear with vigor whenever you stopped using your phone only to retreat promptly when you once again showed interest in communicating with the world beyond Aranyaprathet.

Free Wi-Fi available here. Only here.

Free Wi-Fi available here. Only here.

While radio signals had coverage challenges throughout the flophouse, audio did not. Noise traveled freely and with impunity. Mosaic hard-tiled floors throughout the sparsely decorated structure ensured lossless transfer of sonic utterances from the rectilinear echoing hallways to the austere rooms. Our involuntary wake up call was at 6:30AM, courtesy of a cacophonic coachload of middle-aged Asian ladies who appeared to have a busy and exciting day ahead of them. By 7:30AM, they had come and gone as suddenly as a migrating swarm of desert locusts. Other intriguing sonic disturbances peppered the silence of the late summer Aranyaprathet evening. At first I thought the locals had implemented a bylaw to standardize ring tones, only to realize later that the electronic bedroom door locks would sing stridently when correctly identified by a guest’s plastic entry key. Who thought of that I wonder? No sneaking out and back in at the Hotel Indochina I suppose. Why not put bells on the bathroom doors too?

While these quirks added some color and challenge to a long trip through Isan I think it would be unreasonable to complain or to knock the hotel’s ratings given the most satisfactory marks it attained in all other departments (food, cleanliness, blah, blah, blah, and so on). I would stay again at the Hotel Indochina.