Saturday, October 02, 2004

USA, Thailand, and Cambodia: The Familiar and the Foreign: Two Vacations Rolled Into One

For my last major vacation, over the course of three weeks, I went to the U.S., Cambodia, and Thailand.

Here is a full accounting, starting at the beginning. Actually, I need to start a little before the beginning.

With two days before my vacation was to begin, it was a Friday, and I had lunch with my good friend, Traci, at the Embassy’s American Club. To be specific I had a big steaming plate of beef fajitas, some Coronas, and ice cream pie for dessert. It was good going down.

Unfortunately, within a few hours I could tell that there would be trouble. The stomach was having technical difficulties.

The American Club is one of the few eateries in Islamabad that is actually inspected, but nothing is foolproof, especially when it comes to food service. A single dirty leaf in a salad or a bit of bad sour cream can cause trouble. It’s the “bad shrimp” phenomenon. I had gotten sick at the Club before, so this instance wasn’t a total shock.

Anyhow, after that meal, I was feeling uncomfortable enough that I skipped Happy Hour that evening. At this point, some of you, no doubt, recognize that this is unusual. But, yes, friends, it’s true. I was too ill for even one drink.

As I was too sick, I went home with no happy hour, no partying.

And the next day was Saturday. I slept late and then went around town tending to the details I needed to handle before leaving.

Later that night, I had my last meal in town with my good friend, Portia. We went for Chinese, and although I wasn’t back to 100 percent, I ate and enjoyed myself. It was a colossal mistake.

The Chinese food, which undoubtedly had plenty of contaminants of its own, joined with the germs from the Club and caused all kinds of havoc.

There were several parties that night that Portia was twisting my arm to attend. Since I hadn’t yet packed, I opted to go on home instead.

And so I packed. And then I went to bed. And every few hours, I was on the toilet. It was a long night.

Early the next day, the driver came to take me to the airport. I was probably 10 pounds lighter from all the bathroom action throughout the night, but it was all good – my vacation had officially started.

We picked up another American (someone I had never seen) and went to the airport. Even in the early hours on a Sunday, we passed a few fields with youngsters already playing cricket. I was impressed.

The driver kicked me and the other guy out at the airport with 3 hours remaining before our flight. By any standard, I had plenty of time to get to the gate. Any standard, that is, except the Pakistani airport standard.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, but navigating the Islamabad airport is quite an experience. When I was there last, you didn’t really have to fight the mob until you were inside the airport. This time, they had put up another security check at the entrance to the airport building so that there was a huge bottleneck – a mob of people fighting just to get in the door. It was amazing. I kind of weaseled into a line and very, very gradually, I funneled toward the entrance to the airport. The other American who came with me got pulled out of line by some airport employee. I could see that he was going to whisk him to the front, but I didn’t go. For one, I wasn’t invited, and I didn’t want to invite myself. (Probably the porter didn’t ask me to go because I had a full beard.) And secondly, I didn’t want to go. I wanted to go through the airport rigamarole without Western privilege – like a regular Pakistani.

The airport guy did come back for me later, but I stayed in the mob just for kicks.

After literally two hours, I got inside the airport. It was a joyous occasion.

From there, I got in line after line, check after check. There were other Western diplomats trying to get on the British Air flight like I was, and they were totally stressing out as we stood in all these lines.

I was not worried, for it had been my experience in the past that the airplanes would wait at the gate extra long (at times up to an hour after the scheduled flight time) in order to accommodate the passengers locked in the sea of humanity trying to get checked in.

And eventually I got through all the checks. I even got to the boarding gate while the official boarding period was still going.

And that is the greatest thing about Islamabad International Airport: once you reach the plane, it’s like you’ve really accomplished something. You’ve earned it. It’s magical.

At the gate, I saw the other American who took the expedited service.

Since I was going around the world on this vacation, I had downgraded all of my business class tickets to coach, in order to stretch my money.

I got the middle seat on a side aisle, so I had a person on my right and one on my left. I wedged on it and settled in for the flight.

Back in coach, the flight was awful. It was like pulling teeth just to get a glass of water.

Meanwhile, everyone in business and first class was living the good life.

I foolishly ate the breakfast sandwich they served us, and settled in for the lame entertainment programming that was available.

Within a few hours of eating breakfast, it was being jettisoned out in the airplane lavatory.

After nine quick hours and a few more trips to the bathroom, we landed in London. It was maybe 70 degrees and sunny – by all accounts a perfectly lovely day.

Having come from hot Islamabad in addition to being sick, I was freezing cold.

I found my connecting flight and waited around for a mere four hours for boarding. Since I wasn’t flying business class, I didn’t get to use the lounge.

At the gate, I got the full security probing. It may have been random, but I’m sure coming out of Islamabad on a one-way ticket didn’t help my case. Not that I really cared that someone took everything out of my bags and spread it on a table for the world to see.

For this flight, I was still in coach. This time, I was in the center seat in the center aisle, meaning that I had two people on my right and two on my left.

I didn’t eat or drink anything, and managed to keep my bathroom visits down to two for this leg of the trip.

Eight quick hours later, we landed in DC. I was wrapped in two blankets, looking like I had Ebola.

Washington, D.C.

My good friend, Sumera, met me at the airport. I hadn’t seen her in several months, but it didn’t seem so long once I saw her.

I was in no condition to eat, so we didn’t stop for dinner. As Sumera drove me back to her apartment, we caught each other up on the latest happenings in DC and Islamabad.

I stayed at Sumera’s for 6 nights, and she was a superb host.

While I was in Washington, I looked up my other friends. I know several people in DC from the State Department, from graduate school, from my old neighborhood, and from my old job. I had a schedule worked out, and it mostly involved visiting people for meals. As I was sick, this didn’t work so well.

In an attempt to kill the germs I harbored, I would go without eating for long periods, like 24 to 36 hours at a stretch.

At the end of each such period of fasting, I would enjoy a day of eating. I never did fast long enough to kill everything, though, so when I would start eating again, the results were painful, let’s say.

My low point was the night I had dinner with several of my former colleagues from Islamabad. We ate at the Macaroni Grill, and it didn’t take. I was in the bathroom every 10 minutes that night. I could feel my lasagna sitting in my stomach all night long, although I’m sure it was the red wine that caused most of the trouble.

My time in DC was excellent. I met with most of the people I wanted to see, avoided most of the people I didn’t want to see, went shopping with my good friend Erika, had drinks in bars, ate good food, ran into people that I like but hadn’t expected to see, and didn’t do a single tourist thing. I like monuments and museums as much as the next guy, but I was having some burnout.

I also met with my handler at the State Department. We discussed where I wanted to go for my next assignment. My first choice was Bulgaria, and she said she thought she could make it happen for me.

The weather in DC was rainy and a bit chilly.

On my last night, Sumera cooked dinner and invited people over. One of the hurricanes that had steamrolled through Florida hit DC that night. There were dozens of tornadoes in the DC area, and although we didn’t see any of them, we could see lightening strikes peppering the city through Sumera’s windows that provided a sweet view of everything.

The dinner was perfectly executed.

The next morning, I was scheduled to fly down to Tennessee to see my family. After the violent weather the night before, I was pleasantly surprised to see that flights were running on schedule.

Sumera had a high-speed electronic scale, and I had been weighing myself throughout my stay. The morning I left, I was down 12 pounds from my pre-vacation weight. Giardia beats Atkins hands down.

Anyhow, Sumera kicked me out at the airport.

Just to have a little fun with the family, I decided to travel this segment dressed in native Pakistani clothing. I had on my shalwar kamiz (long shirt with baggy pants that looks sort of like pajamas), my Pakistani hat, and my sandals. People (diplomats, missionaries, tourists, etc.) do this from time to time, so it’s not like it’s anything original. I specifically decided to do it after my good friend Colin told me he was going to do it.

I was walking through Dulles Airport all decked out, and, while I did get some stares, no one much cared. What struck me was the number of airport personnel I encountered who seemed to be South Asian. I’m sure they considered me a poser, and if they did, they would have been exactly right.

The flight went fine, and in two short hours, I was in Nashville.


Ideally, I was supposed to come out of the terminal, and my family would be there waiting for me. Then they could make fun of my clothes, and my little brothers could porter my luggage out to the car. The thought of seeing the family left me with a cheesy grin on my face that I couldn’t shake.

When they weren’t waiting at the visitor’s area, my smile began to fade. When they weren’t waiting at baggage claim, it faded more. I felt silly for having been so excited.

After 30 minutes, there was no trace of the smile (or my family for that matter). Everyone else had gone from baggage claim by now. It was just me, the janitors, and the airline people.

A few minutes more, and my father came in with two of my little brothers, Patrick and John. I saw them before they saw me, so I walked up behind them.

I tapped Patrick on the shoulder, and he turned around. He did a quick double-take, and then said, “Dad, here’s Chris.”

Dad turned around and was like, “Where, where? I don’t see him.” (Mind you, there were no other people in the area besides the four of us standing there in a clump.)

My smile came back.

I was like, “I’m right here,” and I was literally an arms-length away.

Dad really got a kick out of my appearance. He told me to stay inside the airport while he went back to the car to tell Mom that I had a surprise.

So I waited, and after a moment, one of my brothers came and told me it was time to go to the car.

I went out, and Mom and my two little sisters, Maria and Rebecca, were glad to see me. They weren’t so bowled-over as Dad was, though.

Turns out that when Dad had told them I had a surprise, Rebecca had correctly guessed that I had a beard. Mom, on the other hand, had guessed (hoped?) incorrectly that the surprise was a traveling companion – perhaps a fiancée. No such luck.

I spent 5 nights in Tennessee, and it was a relaxing time. All the kids had school, and all the adults had work, so I spent half of every weekday alone. I used this time to run a few errands in town, to play with our dog, and mostly to catch-up on TV. All my old friends were there: Jerry Springer, Spongebob, Judge Judy, the Food Network, the Simpsons, reality programming.

At the time, Rebecca had enlisted in the Air Force. Her date for reporting for basic training had passed, but she had to wait for a slot in her specialty to open before she could go. While I was home, I think we had 2 instances where her bonehead recruiter called to tell her that it was time and that she needed to be at the airport in less than 24 hours to ship off. Both times, it was a false alarm, but Mom was a basket case just the same.

As of this writing, Becca has graduated Boot Camp. Rock On!

We celebrated Dad’s birthday while I was there with a cake and a trip to the steakhouse. We got the worst service in the world. Our waiter kept telling us how he was working 10 tables, or something lame like that. He seemed half apologetic, and half like he thought we should be impressed. We were not. I gave him way too generous a tip.

My last night in Tennessee, I went to visit my older brother, David, and his family. They live a few streets from my parents.

David and his wife have 4 young daughters and a baby son. The boy couldn’t walk at the time, so he didn’t cause any trouble. The girls, on the other hand, went bonkers. To put it mildly, they approach life with a feral enthusiasm. I walked in the door, and they mobbed me. After a few photos, they started jumping around the room, literally.

My oldest niece had cheerleading try-outs the next day, so she (and the other girls) practiced their flips in the living room. I was glad no one wiped-out while I was there.

After the floor show, the girls moved on to other pursuits. Some went to fight over DVDs, some went to “play” the piano, and some took to jumping on the couch. Their groupings kept changing, so they all managed to get into everything.

And then, like clockwork, it happened. Someone got hurt.

There was some disagreement among the girls over the circumstances around the incident. The one fact that no one disputed: someone bit the dust. The victim claimed she was pushed, and the alleged perp denied everything, claiming that her sister fell on her own. And of course, the oldest girl chimed in as the eyewitness.

As if the crying and finger pointing weren’t bad enough, I got to sit there for the lecture that ensued from the parents.

Finally, the girls went to another room, and I got to chat with David. He had a new jar of moonshine, so we did shots. I’m not crazy about the taste of sour mash, but it wasn’t bad going down.

My sister, Maria, came with me to David’s, and after a few hours, we tried to peel away. David is a big fan of the long good-bye, so it took a real effort to get out of the house and into the car. It was good to see him though.

And it was good to see the rest of my family.

The following morning, Dad drove me to the airport.

From Nashville, it was around 2 hours to Chicago, where I had to change planes. As we were landing in Chicago, the plane I was on was mirrored by another plane that was landing on the next runway over. It was cool.

Four quick hours from Chicago, I landed in San Diego.

San Diego

I was going to San Diego to visit my friend Dennis from Islamabad, and he was waiting for me at the airport.

I arrived on a Thursday. Dennis had taken the day off, and he showed me some of the highlights of the area. I filled him in on all the happenings in Islamabad that would be of any interest to him.

That afternoon, I met Dennis’s family – his lovely and talented wife Miriam, and his kids Simon, 7, and Mira, 5. Simon and Mira were awesome. They were well-mannered and intelligent, and they took an immediate liking to me (I think). We would goof off and play silly games. Unfortunately, I would always tire of the games first. They were normal kids, though, so there were a few fights and a few bouts of crankiness.

Simon and Mira had a ton of general questions for me – Why are you hairy? How old are you? Do you speak Tagalog? (Dennis and his family are Filipino.) Do you like watching TV? Why don’t you cut your beard off?

And then there were the more pointed questions – Are you married? How come you aren’t married? Are you going to have children? Do you want to marry our aunt? When will you get married? Will you marry a beautiful lady?

Between the kids and to a lesser extent Dennis and Miriam, I was catching a slight hint that they thought I should get married as soon as possible.

As a matter of fact, I think every Filipino I have met has taken a keen interest in my marital status. I’ve just never encountered this phenomenon with such young children.

Pregnant Filipino moms must all buy those wombphones and play a tape that loops this message to the fetus: …...MARRIAGE IS HAPPINESS…… KARAOKE IS YOUR FRIEND…... MARRIAGE IS HAPPINESS…… KARAOKE IS YOUR FRIEND…... MARRIAGE IS HAPPINESS……

Anyhow, I stayed at Dennis’s for 3 nights, and on the first, he barbequed. While we waited, Simon put on his favorite video – a Muppets music video of a song called “Rock Around the Clock” (different than that oldie by the same name). The red Muppet guys with horns for noses sang it, and Simon couldn’t get enough. Every time it ended, he’d rewind. So we watched and watched and watched. And I’m singing “Rock Around the Clock” this very minute. It’s quite catchy in its own Sesame Street kind of way.

Dinner was first rate. It was followed by Filipino ice cream.

Afterward, the kids and I watched Cartoon Network.

As we watched, Mira started this thing where she kept telling me she wanted to see me naked. (Remember she is 5 years old.) I don’t think she meant nude, but rather, she wanted to see some of the skin normally covered by my clothes. She’s like, “I’ve seen Mommy and Daddy naked.”

And I was like, “Well, you can’t see me.”

She was getting a little hyper, so I was expending a lot of energy distracting her from the topic of nakedness.

Evidently, I didn’t do a good enough job. A few moments later, I felt a little hand lift the back of my shirt. No more than a few inches of my lower back were exposed, but Mira was satisfied. She started shouting, “I saw Chris naked! I saw Chris naked!”

At the time, I was upstairs with Simon and Mira, and their parents were both downstairs. They didn’t know what we were doing upstairs, and what Mira was shouting did not sound appropriate, to say the least.

I thought to myself, “Crap!”

And, I responded to Mira, “Oh, no, you didn’t see me naked!” in a playful tone, but loud enough for the whole house to hear.

Crisis averted.

During my stay, I took over Simon’s room. He had to go to Mira’s room.

They were given orders to stay out of the room while I was there, but every morning they would come in numerous times to see if I was awake yet. They weren’t noisy, but most people can tell when someone enters the room even if they aren’t fully alert. I would ignore them until I was ready to get up, since had I given any indication I was awake, I would have had to get out of bed and do something.

My second day, Dennis had work and the kids had school, so Miriam dropped me off at the trolley stop and I explored on my own.

I ended up going to a big mall and wasting some money. Then I walked through some less glamorous San Diego neighborhoods.

I ended my day by going to San Ysidro, which is the American side of the Mexican border, just across from Tijuana.

That night, Miriam cooked Filipino food, and it was excellente.

After a few beers and a little more Cartoon Network, and it was time for bed.

My last day in San Diego, we went to the beach. I went swimming, and Mira got to see me “naked” again.

At the beach, we had some fish tacos for lunch.

That night, we had dinner at a Filipino restaurant, and later Dennis and I kicked it like we did back in Islamabad – with screwdrivers.

The kids went to bed, and we drank and watched movies. The first show we watched was Zoolander, which neither of us had seen. While it did have its moments, neither of us was overly impressed, even with the alcohol. Next, we watched Kill Bill vol. I, and I enjoyed it immensely. Even as I was watching, I got the feeling that I was laughing too much, possibly due to the alcohol. I mean violence is funny, but not that funny.

The next morning, I was back at the airport.

I caught a quick hour and a half flight to San Fran, and from there, I got on the long one: twenty-one and a half hours from San Francisco to Bangkok, in coach. While that did include a stop for a few hours in Tokyo, it was a grueling stretch. I was flying United yet again, so I got to listen to the same audio programming and watch a different, yet equally crappy, selection of movies as before (Garfield the Movie, anyone?).

The most grueling part of these segments was Tokyo to Bangkok.

On this part, I was once again seated in the middle of the interior block of seats. I took my seat, and then the guy who would be seated next to me came in from the other direction. He was a large (fat) guy, maybe 40 years old, with Parkinsons, so between his girth and his shaking, it was a production getting him seated. He was traveling with another guy, and I couldn’t figure out why his friend didn’t give him the aisle. I couldn’t figure out initially, anyway.

I caught on soon enough.

This guy was on a mission to “save me” or some such.

The first thing he says to me is, “Don’t I know you from Catholic Charities?”

Perhaps this was his clever intro, but I was not looking for a conversation. I told him no. Of course, he was traveling with Catholic Charities.

It was late, and I wanted to sleep, so I answered his questions as abruptly as I could and closed my eyes. This guy wouldn’t shut up, though.

After a while, I started ignoring him, and his friend on the other side turned and asked him how it was going.

His reply: “We’ve got a tough cookie.”

Damn skippy.

Unfortunately, he took me as a challenge.

He asked me about my travels, and I told him I was on the way to Cambodia.

Then he asked where I had been before, and I told him a few of the places.

He was like, “It sounds like you live a very exciting life.”

And he continued, “But, you know what’s more exciting?”

I replied, “Many things, I’m sure.”

“Yeah, that’s right. But, the most exciting thing is spreading the gospel. Just think of it. You in Cambodia with the Good Book, bringing the good news to the people.”

And I was instantly sold. I stood up and testified right there on the plane. Yeah, right.

No, in reality, I would give disinterested responses like, “That’s nice,” but this guy kept going and going. His mouth was in constant motion.

I got to hear about all his travels of the past year – a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, missionary work in Africa, and on and on. (I’m sure his traveling frenzy was not unrelated to his illness.) He went on to share his favorite verses, what crossed his mind at retreat, and blah, blah, blah.

There was a small Asian woman on my left and she kept looking at me sympathetically.

The only time the guy stopped talking was when, at some ungodly hour, they served us dinner.

No sooner than they had cleared his plate away, he was back at it.

Finally, I was like, “Listen, I’m trying to get some sleep. Please don’t talk to me.”

“OK, but can I ask you for one thing?”


“Can I pray for you?”

To which I told him fine – thinking that he meant he would remember me in his prayers.

That was not what he meant.

He turned toward me, raised his shaky arms over me, and started his prayer right there.

Perhaps it would have moved me if I weren’t so tired and pissed off, and if he didn’t mumble so much.

After the prayer, he did leave me alone. Of course, I didn’t get but 20 minutes of peace and quiet before we started our descent into Bangkok.

As sweaty and sticky as it is, I was never so glad to arrive in Bangkok. It meant freedom from Chuck the Evangelist.

Somewhere between San Diego and Bangkok, we had crossed the International Date Line traveling west, and poof! we lost a day. I think that’s a bigger letdown than flying east and gradually losing a day as you cross time zone after time zone. I guess the way we did it is the more quick and painless way, though, like ripping off a band-aid.

In Bangkok, I caught the shuttle to one of the airport hotels. I checked in after midnight and had to leave at 5 A.M. to catch my flight to Cambodia. It was a total waste of 30 bucks. I should have just slept in the chairs at the airport.

Bright and early, I was on the first prop plane to Siem Reap, home of the famous Angkor Watt temple complex.


The flight took an hour.

As we came out of the clouds in our approach to the airport, the scenery was awesome. There were a lot of marshy areas, and a lot of jungly areas. And between the two, there were fields and palm trees. The sky was clear, and life was good. Several passengers started photographing out of the plane windows.

We landed, followed our flight attendant to the terminal, purchased visas, and got our luggage.

I had made a reservation at a guesthouse, and I had booked a car as well. My driver was waiting for me with my name on a sign, but he was toward the back of the pack of drivers. The other taxi drivers and hotel shuttle drivers knew me by name and pointed me toward him, once I told them I wasn’t going to hire them. They must have been discussing clients while they waited for the plane.

As is often the case with these types of pick-ups, the spelling of my name on the sign was pretty unusual. It looked Russian to me with the shortage of vowels.

The pick-up vehicle was a tuk-tuk type deal – basically a small trailer with a seat hooked to a motorcycle. It took about half an hour to get to the guesthouse, and the locals and I stared each down with equal curiosity along the way.

My main reason for visiting Cambodia was to see Angkor Watt, and since I was only staying for 2 and a half days, I dropped my bags in my room and immediately headed for the temples.

The temple complex was totally awesome. Angkor Watt is the main, and most famous temple, but the name is also used to refer to the whole complex. There are actually dozens of temples and structures there that were built over several centuries.

I went with the guesthouse driver, and our first stop was the Bayon temple. It is famous for the huge stone faces that are scattered all around it. As I walked up to the site, a Cambodian boy started talking to me. I could tell that he was weaseling his way into being my guide, but he was too slick for me. I let him go ahead with his spiel. He pointed out several carvings and whatnot, but nothing that I wouldn’t have found by myself. He also started into some history. He was telling me about the Khmer Rouge destroying artifacts, and I thought at first that he was saying Cameroon.

After a few minutes, we came to some stairs leading up to another level of the temple. The boy refused to go any further. Evidently, temple guides are very territorial and he didn’t want to get beat down for moving in on someone else’s turf. I paid him a tip and went on my own to the next level.

After Bayon, I did several more temples, and it was a tiring experience.

At Angkor Watt, there are tons of temples, as I said before. The cool thing, though, is that hardly anything is off-limits. You can go practically everywhere, and, if you have no regard for preserving cultural treasures, you can touch practically anything. The only thing to stop you is the occasional sign instructing you not to touch. A kind of funny result of this: on many of the carvings of women the stone breasts were much darker and smoother than the rest of the carving, due to countless tourists giving a rub. Other statues (men, animals, geometrics, etc.) also had the occasional smooth spot, but not as consistently as the women statues.

Angkor Watt is in the jungle, and I was burning up. Plus, since Pakistan is a non-shorts country, I was unaccustomed to having bare legs. My calves got royally burned.

All the temples had a cadre of hawkers around them. They were selling food or drinks or souvenirs. When you’d walk by, they would all be shouting and some would run out to you with their products. I would always tell them that I wasn’t interested and that I wasn’t going to buy anything.

When they would see that I wasn’t going to buy anything on my first pass, they’d tell me to remember them on my way out of the site. I’d always tell them specifically that I would not remember them and that I wasn’t going to buy anything on my way out either. Yet almost without fail, they’d flag me down as I was leaving, saying, “Sir, you said you would come back after you finished at the temple.”

To this I would respond, “I specifically said I wasn’t coming back,” and then I would walk on.

At one point, I was totally parched, so I actually bought a large bottle of water from one of the hawkers. She was asking a dollar for a liter, and I paid it straight out.

And as soon as I handed her the dollar, the woman shouted to her friends, “He paid one dollar! I can’t believe it. He paid a dollar!”

I was thinking, “Damn, she could have waited until I left to mock me or at least have not done it in English.”

It was all good though. I was thirsty so it was worth the “premium” I paid. Besides, that was the last time I got royally suckered on the water. From then on, it was 25 cents for that size.

I also got a few t-shirts from a different vendor. They were a steal at a dollar a piece.

Anyhow, I saw several temples, and before long, I got a powerful hunger. It was time for lunch, and I asked the driver to take me to a place to eat. He said he knew just the right spot.

He drove me to the Angkor Watt temple, which draws the most tourists, and therefore has the most hawkers around it. I walked in to the restaurant he dropped me at, and took a seat. There was one other couple inside. They were western, and I think they were Americans.

The waitress brought me a menu. I read it, closed it, and got up. The waitress came rushing over, asking me, “What’s wrong?”

“This is way too expensive," I told her. "I’m going to eat off the street.” And I left.

The couple still in the restaurant was snickering, but I didn’t care.

I got a bowl of noodles with beef for less than a dollar from a woman outside the restaurant, and this place was charging 6 bucks for the same. A chair and a table isn’t that important to me. To put it in further perspective, my room cost $10 a day and my car and driver cost the same per day.

Speaking of the driver, he watched me enter the restaurant and then leave and go eat off the street. He was thoroughly confused.

After lunch, I went and saw more temples.

Almost all of the temples had a lot of stairs and several levels. And since the stairs were there, they had to be climbed. Usually, it wasn’t really worth it since the upper levels were often the same or less impressive than the lower ones. Plus, these steps were often times steep, so it was easier to climb than to descend them.

It was hilarious, though. You’d see everyone, myself included, confidently walking up the monster steps. Then when it was time to go back down, there would be a lot of people standing on the top step taking a minute to convince themselves to go down. Then once they’d start down, a lot of people would either be scooting on their butts or going at turtle speed or walking backwards or using other funny techniques. Some people took off their shoes. The best was when someone was trying to look tough and you could tell he was freaking out.

Anyhow, that afternoon, I went to several more temples.

At a lot of the temples, people approached me intending to get me to hire them as guides. After I fell for it the first time, I wasn’t going to let it happen again.

The exchange would go as such:

“Hello, sir,”


“How are you?”

“I’m fine. How are you?”

“Fine. Where are you from?”

“The U.S.”

“I like America. U.S.A. is number one.”

“Thanks. Your country is also very nice.”

“Sir, this temple was completed in…”

“I’m sorry, but, before you go any further, I don’t want a guide.”

And the kid would vanish.

This scenario played out again and again.

After a full day of touring, my driver took me to one of the temples to watch the sunset.

Everyone else had the same idea. To get to the temple, there was a big hill you had to climb. Either that or hire an elephant to carry your lazy butt up.

At the top, there were a ton of people waiting for the sun to fall. I grabbed a seat on a ledge and a French couple sat with me. I killed a bunch of time demonstrating my camera for the husband. Nikon should be paying me a commission for all the people I’ve shown my D70 to. It’s like I’m a salesman.

Eventually, the sun left, and the sunset was nice. However, it was not as dramatic as many people had wanted and their disappointment was obvious.

Once the sun had set, the park was official closed. The park rangers kicked us all out.

After that, I went back to the guesthouse. Some young women had taken over the TV room, so I watched some episodes of “Sex and the City” with them.

Then I went to dinner.

I walked down to the main street in search of some local cuisine. There were many restaurants and several bars, and in front of each there were girls trying to attract customers.

I bypassed all the Chinese restaurants and settled on a place serving Khmer food.

This was not a very happening place, and I was the only foreigner inside. I ordered some Angkor beer and a local noodle dish.

At least the beer was good. The noodles were awful. They were so overcooked, they were mush. It was like eating baby food – very greasy baby food.

After dinner, I walked back to the guesthouse.

Along the way, I stopped in at a massage parlor for a massage.

It sucked. It cost three dollars for an hour and a half, and, even at that, it was a rip-off.

I’m sure this place specialized in other services, if you catch my drift, but I wasn’t interested in that.

I went home and had a good night’s sleep.

The next day, I went back to the temples.

My legs were worn-out from all the climbing the day before, but I still found myself climbing every stair I saw.

At one temple, toward the end of the day, I came across the first real beggars of my trip to Cambodia. There were plenty of people looking for money, but most were offering some service or product.

Anyhow, at this one temple, there were a bunch of grifter children. They would approach you and ask you what country you were from. You would tell them your country. Then they’d tell you the capital and ask for a coin from your country. If you didn’t have a coin, they’d ask for candy. It was quite entertaining.

“Hello, what is your country?”


“The United States of America. Capital: Washington DC. Can I have a coin from your country?”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t have any.”

“Can I have some candy?”

“Sorry, but I don’t have any.”

These kids were pretty good. I only told the first one I was from the U.S. The rest I would tell some other, less common country, like in a geography quiz. And they passed the test.

In the end, I only paid one of these beggars, and that was only because I took a picture of him looking pretty downtrodden. He deserved it, I suppose.

While I’m on the subject of beggars, there was one thing that kind of gave me an uneasy feeling. I was approached several times by policemen and other gun-toting law enforcement types who were looking for money. They would always start by offering to sell me their badges. When I would say no to that, some would leave. Others would continue to push the badges, or else try to get money another way, like offering themselves as guides.

None of the cops ever caused me any trouble, but the potential for a problem to develop in a situation like that is pretty high. I mean, a cop could make your life pretty miserable if he wanted to.

Anyhow, let’s get back to the story.

As I was touring the temples on my second day, there were several other tourists I kept running into at each stop. One of these people who kept reappearing, a Japanese guy in a cowboy hat, came in handy for photos. We would exchange cameras, and he would photograph me and I would photograph him. We did this at several sites.

That night, I didn’t stick around the temples for sunset.

I went back to the guesthouse, and then back out into town. I hit the markets and didn’t see much that interested me.

I went out to check out the bars. I went to a few of the supposedly happening places, but nothing much was going on.

It was a Wednesday, so I didn’t expect a huge turnout. Still, I expected a lot more people than I saw. Afterall, most of the people who would be in the bars in Siem Reap would be tourists, and tourists, by definition, are on vacation, and as such don’t need to wait until the weekend to party.

There was this place called the Dead Fish Tower that was touted on the web, so I went to check it out. It’s supposed to resemble a tree house, and most of the seating is on an elevated level. Drink and food orders are delivered up by different pulleys and levers. It was neat-looking, but as soon as I stepped onto the upper level, I decided not to stay. The floor felt to be thin plywood. It sagged under the weight of each step. I could only imagine how it would be if a crowd actually showed up.

Anyhow, I didn’t much want to be around when the second floor collapsed, and I left.

Another strike against the Dead Fish was its lack of any happy hour at all. Everything was always full price. When I told the waiter how I thought the lack of happy hour was lame, he told me that they had gotten rid of it in exchange for getting some internet terminals at the bar. Considering that the 2 computers were both out of order and covered with cobwebs, it was a lousy trade to be sure.

With internet on my mind, I went a few doors down from the Dead Fish to an internet café. It only cost a dollar an hour, but the connection was so bad that I was only able to send a single e-mail in that time. The owner took note of the slow speed and gave me a cut rate – an hour for only 75 cents.

I ended the night at another bar called the Ivy, also recommended on the net and in the guidebooks, and it was nice enough. Unlike the Dead Fish, they had drink specials. Good food too. The crowd was pretty sad, though. Besides me, there were 4 other guys in the place. Two were playing pool, and the other two were sitting alone at different corners of the bar. They both looked like they were fighting to stay awake.

I had a few more Angkor beers and went back to the guesthouse. It was 11:30.

The next day was my last in Cambodia, and I would be flying out at noon. I was beat from the temples – sore legs, sunburn, and probably a bite from every mosquito in the jungle – so I decided to take it easy.

I got up, had some continental breakfast, and went to watch TV. I was the only one around, so I got to pick a DVD. Not exactly sure what it was, I selected Jackass, the Movie.

I started the movie, and laid down on one of the lounge chairs to watch. The driver and 3 other guys who worked at the guesthouse materialized and also took seats. And the movie played.

For those of you who don’t know, Jackass is a movie based on a TV show by the same name, in which the principle characters do stunts that are either painful or embarrassing or, preferably, both. A lot of the stunts involve genitals and nudity.

Anyhow, here I was with 4 Cambodians watching this, and it was uncomfortable to say the least. It was mostly silent the whole time, with the exception of a few scenes that had us all rolling.

We watched the whole thing, mainly because I was playing it cool, acting like I didn’t think anything of it. Really, I didn’t think it had much redeeming value. Also, I didn’t turn it off because I figured that since they owned the DVD, they were probably familiar with the show, and since they came over, they must want to watch it.

Once the credits played, I put the DVD away and went back to the market.

In Cambodia, the official currency is the Cambodian riel. However, the U.S. dollar is the preferred currency. Everyone took dollars, and prices were even listed in menus and on signs in dollars only. It was convenient that I didn’t have to change any money. A lot of people would take payment in dollars and then give the change in riels, though, so I did end up with some.

At the market, most of the handicrafts were just like the ones in Thailand. That was no shocker since they are neighbors. Unfortunately for the vendors, most of the stuff didn’t interest me in either place, although things were cheaper in Cambodia. Like many South Asian countries, there were also a lot of shops selling ready-made clothing. However, unlike Pakistan where, for example, a Gap label on a piece of clothing is surely bogus, in Cambodia, there were many things with brand labels that were real. Either that, or they had done their homework and copied well. In either case, I recognized several things of which I had bought the exact same thing in the States for a lot more.

Probably the clothing I saw with genuine brand labels was either not export quality, or else had been stolen from the local sweatshops and put on sale.

I didn’t get much in the markets – just another dollar t-shirt and a pack of cigarettes for my brother’s collection of smokes from around the world.

Noon came soon enough, and I was off to the airport.

It was a windy day, and our plane was delayed in its arrival to Siem Reap.

It showed up an hour late, and turned around and took us back to Bangkok.

At the Bangkok airport, I transferred for a domestic connection to the tropical island of Koh Samui.

We were in another small prop plane and it was not a smooth ride.

A little over an hour later, we touched down on Samui.

Koh Samui

As in Cambodia, I had booked a room and an airport pick-up.

I got off the plane, got my bags, and cleared customs. Then I walked through the pick-up area and read all the signs the drivers were holding. My name wasn’t there.

I called the resort place where I had booked, and the owner answered. Her name was Valerie (she was French, so the accent was on the last syllable). She sounded like a real featherbrain. She explained how I had arrived on the driver’s day off, so she was going to pick me up herself, but she ended up forgetting.

The short of it was that I had to catch a cab to the bottom of the hill where the resort was. The resort itself was a jungle resort, not a beach resort, and it was up a huge hill that overlooked the sea. The road was steep with deep fissures, and regular cars couldn’t make the trip.

I took the taxi and Valerie met me in her truck and drove me up to the resort. It was dark when I arrived, but the compound was still nice-looking.

Valerie, as I mentioned, was French. Her boyfriend, It, was Thai, and they had 2 children, a daughter, Chili, who was maybe 4 and an infant son, Pauwi.

The daughter could speak Thai, French, and English. She tossed a few questions at me, including the old, “Why do you have a beard?” I wasn’t sure if her question was why did I choose to have a beard, or – since most Thai men couldn’t grow beards if they wanted to – if her question was about how I physically came to have hair growing out of my jaw.

I told her that I had the beard cause I felt like it, and she was satisfied.

Valerie’s family and the staff were totally cool.

My first night, I sat by the pool and had some Thai beer. The mosquitoes had a field day.

My hut was a small, unair-conditioned deal. The main room was mostly filled with the bed and mosquito netting. Then there was a separate bathroom and shower.

That night, without A/C, I roasted.

I wasn’t sleeping that well, so I got up and watched the sun rise over the bay.

Later, at breakfast, Valerie and I were talking. It turned out that she knew a Frenchman who worked for the UN in Islamabad. I didn’t know him. She was going to have me look him up, but there was really no point since his tour was nearly over.

At breakfast, she suggested that I take a tour of the island. A friend of hers ran a touring business, so she recommended him. It sounded good and well to me, so I went for it. And half an hour later, I was in a jeep on Mr. Ung’s Magical Island Safari Tour.

My group consisted of 2 jeeps and about 20 people. The twenty people were not a single group, but several small ones. Oddly enough, though, they were all German. Evidently, Koh Samui is a huge German vacation spot.

What luck! I hate the sound of spoken German, and I got to listen to it all day.

Other than the Thai guide, no one spoke to me the whole day, except at lunch when one of the German ladies told me I looked whitish. Her friend clarified that they thought I looked ill. I told them that I was fine, just naturally pasty.

Of course, to be fair, I didn’t initiate any conversations with them, either.

It was on this jeep safari that I came to the realization that Koh Samui was not a good way to finish my vacation. The reason was twofold. Koh Samui is a beautiful island, and as such, a magnet for couples and honeymooners, in particular. I was there for 3 days, and I was constantly asked – in a mixture of amazement and pity – if I was there alone. I think I was the only party of one on the whole island.

That wasn’t so bad compared to the second problem. The rainy season kicked off while I was there, and it rained for most of my visit.

So getting back to the safari, our first stop was to some rock formations that looked like male and female genitalia. Not too impressive.

Next we went to a wildlife park, where we watched an elephant show and a monkey show, and then rode elephants around a loop.

The elephant show was painful to watch. The elephants looked totally miserable and the tricks they were made to do didn’t look natural or safe – and they weren’t. On a lot of the tricks, the elephants would shakily get into a position and hold it for a brief second before dropping back to all fours. Half the audience was horrified, and the other half was cheering.

After the tricks, the trainer brought the elephants over to the crowd and people posed with them for photos. One lame guy had bought a bunch of bananas at the food table outside the entrance to the show area, and kept acting shocked that the elephants were frisking him down to get them. What did he expect to happen when he brought the bananas over?

After the elephant show, there was a monkey show. It consisted of a monkey on a long tether climbing up a coconut tree and twisting off a coconut. It was a real snooze since the tree that the monkey was climbing was hardly visible from the bleachers. Like the elephants, the monkey didn’t seem to be having a real good time. He was straining at his leash, as if he were trying to go the wrong direction just to cheese off his trainer.

After the tree-climbing deal, the trainer was like, “Now I will show you how we train monkeys to get coconuts in Thailand.”

He held up a coconut by its stem, and the monkey started twisting it with his little hands. After several twists, the coconut broke off, and some people cheered. Most didn’t.

I thought it was lame – he wasn’t showing us how they trained monkeys. He was just showing us a monkey that was already trained.

With the animal shows finished, it was time to go “elephant trekking”. The trek was just a 20 minute walk around the animal park, often times with a view of the backs of the cages.

I boarded my elephant and my elephant handler looked like Martin Yan (from the cooking show Yan Can Cook that used to air back in the day). He didn’t look like the Yan of today, but rather the young one that I saw on TV in the 80s when Mom would watch his show.

So me and Martin Yan were on our trek, and he asked me the usual questions. When he heard I was from the U.S., he started singing a little song: “America has all the money; I have no money”. Then he would smile at me and sing his song again.

Call me culturally insensitive, but he was really annoying me.

At one point, he offered to take me on a detour to see something. I couldn’t understand what, but it didn’t matter. I told him to just take me back to the loading ramp.

We got to the ramp and I got off. And his song remained true – he got no tip. America left with all the money.

Before the group left the animal park, we took a short walk up to a small waterfall. Some people jumped in the pool at the bottom. I didn’t bother. It was a cold rainy day and I didn’t feel like getting soaked.

The next stop on the tour was lunch, and the restaurant was high in the hills. Up to this point, it was drizzling. Now it started raining much harder.

This ride up and down the hills was the highlight of the tour. The terrain was so bad and wet to boot that the drivers had to time everything – the shifting, the steering, the gas – perfectly. The vehicles were military jeeps. Supposedly regular 4-wheel-drive vehicles couldn’t have made the trip.

Since I was the one who didn’t fit in with the group and since I was alone, the tour guide had seated me up front in the passenger seat. At one point we couldn’t get up a slope, so most of the Germans in the back had to get out. We drove up in the jeep, and they had to walk up the hill in the mud and rain and meet us.

Through the course of the drive, we passed several overlooks. We didn’t stop at any of them since it was completely cloudy.

By the time we got to the restaurant it was raining buckets. Lunch was served family style, and it was good. Unfortunately, the sun was hidden and everyone was wet, so we were all freezing.

After lunch, we continued 4-wheeling down and out of the hills.

Next we went to a Buddha garden, where some guy had devoted his life to landscaping and building structures around several pieces of Buddhist statuary.

Some of the German girls took pictures posed as if they were licking the breasts of a female statue. Classy!

Our last stop was to the Big Buddha beach, which is famous for the Big Buddha. None of us cared to approach for a closer look, so we all photographed from the bottom of the stairs leading to it. It was still raining, and no one much felt like taking off their shoes.

And thus ended Mr. Ung’s Magical Island Safari Tour.

Not to sound ungrateful for Valerie’s suggestion, but I wished I had opted for Mr. Ung’s Magical Deep Sea Fishing Trip instead.

After the tour, I had the driver drop me off in town.

The main drag on Samui is along Chewang Beach, and it’s like a mini Bangkok. There are shops, bars, restaurants, tailors, and, of course, massage parlors.

I did a lot of walking, had some food and drink, and bought a few things. Then I called it a night and went back to my hut.

I had some good Thai food at the resort restaurant, and the mosquitoes feasted on me. When they finished sucking my blood, they looked like grapes. They were too fat to fly, so they would just crawl away. There were tons more than the night before.

The next day was my last full day, and I went back to the strip. I didn’t stay long, and spent the remainder of the day at the beach. The water was warm and clear. Unfortunately, it continued to rain all day long.

That evening, instead of calling Valerie for a pick-up, I decided to walk back to the resort. I found my way easy enough, and I started hiking up the monster hill. I believe she told me the road was 2 kilometers from top to bottom. Anyhow, it was a beast to walk. The steepest part was at least a 45-degree grade, and it was the only paved portion. As I was chugging up this section, It passed me driving down the hill on his way to the store.

That evening, I had drinks with the other 2 guests who were there. They were Australian.

The next day, I did pretty much the same thing – I puttered around town for a bit and went to the beach. I didn’t walk home though.

Back at the resort, I decided to finally use the pool.

I jumped in and was having a nice relaxing soak. Then I realized that I still had my wallet in my pocket. It was a cryin’ shame.

I got out of the pool, and walked up to the bar. I asked the bartender, who was also a general go-to guy, if he had a hairdryer I could borrow, and I don’t think he even knew what one was. I did a gesture to describe a hairdryer, and he thought I was worried about my hair.

I showed him my wallet, and he finally caught on.

The best he could do was provide towels, so he spread two bar towels across the bar. I laid out each bill and card from my wallet, and it was kind of embarrassing.

I have traveled and exchanged money in several countries. When I leave a country, I rarely change my money back since I never have more than the equivalent of 50 U.S. dollars, and I kind of like keeping all the foreign money. The dumb part was, though, that I had all this money, much from previous vacations, still in my wallet.

I was carrying over 60 bills, in 6 currencies. I had American greenbacks, Pakistani rupees, Cambodian riel, Thai baht, Chinese RMB, and Indian rupees, and everything was soaked.

I laid all the bills out, and the whole staff came over to look. Valerie and Chili also came for a look.

There were hands everywhere, grabbing bills for a closer look. I didn’t mind and mostly watched to make sure that my American dollars, which were hundreds, didn’t walk off. All the different monies lead to some questions about where all I had traveled before.

Then they started judging the money based on two categories: best looking person and best overall look. They decided that the Thai king was the most attractive person. They thought I would stick up for Benjamin Franklin, but I told them that we respected him for his mind, not his looks. For the best overall design, they picked one of the smaller-denomination Chinese RMB.
The bartender was very interested in the money. I gave him some of the worthless denominations (those worth less – sometimes, much less – than a dollar) from all of the currencies except the Thai and American, and he looked like a kid in a candy shop.

After a bit, the money was pretty dry, so I put the bills in the pages of a book to dry the rest of the way.

As it was my last night, I had dinner and settled my account.

Valerie and It dashed off shortly before I did, on the way to the doctor. Earlier It had stepped on some spiky plant that went through his foot. It was now infected and he was in some serious pain.

The driver dropped me off at the airport, and it was still rainy and cloudy. The plane I was supposed to catch was late. All the flights for the day had gotten pushed back though, so they changed my ticket and put me on the next flight that was departing. Traveling alone was to my advantage in that situation.

It was another bumpy ride, but we landed back in Bangkok without much drama. The flight landed at the time I was scheduled to land had my original flight gone on time, so I was happy enough. Unfortunately for the people who were ticketed on the plane from the start, it was an hour and a half late.

A delay of an hour and a half shouldn’t normally cause that much havoc with connections, but one young French couple clearly had not allowed enough time. The wife was making a big fuss. The flight attendants were calling all around, and they managed to have the connecting flight wait and to get their bags immediately transferred. The woman was totally ungrateful and kept whining, “We aren’t going to make it. We aren’t going to make it.” If we had been in a movie, someone would have gone over to her and slapped her several times. She could have used it.

I got my stuff and caught a taxi to my hotel.


Bangkok was just as busy and dirty and hot and sweaty as I remembered it. In reference to Gotham City in the first Batman movie, Joker shouts, “This town needs an enema!” Well, that goes double for Bangkok.

I arrived on a Saturday night, so I checked-in to my hotel and then walked around town. I had dinner at a bar among the bar girls and called it a night.

The next day, I went to the weekend market on the edge of town. This particular market is huge, and is said to be the largest shopping area in the world.

I didn’t buy anything since I didn’t want to lug anything else around in my luggage, but this was definitely my kind of place. I spent a few hours looking around and elbowing my way through walls of people. Then I rode the skytrain back downtown.

By now, my time was nearly up, so I hit the mall and had a Dairy Queen Blizzard. It would have to tide me over for possibly 9 more months.

Then it was back to the hotel and on to the airport. Since it was Sunday, traffic was lighter than usual.

We loaded up and took off, and I slept for most of the flight. A quick four hours and forty minutes later, I was in Lahore – back in Pakistan.

The way the flight schedules fell, I couldn’t get back to Islamabad from Bangkok without overnighting in Lahore.

We got to Lahore close to midnight and the driver from the Avari Hotel was there to receive me and a few other passengers.

The Avari was a swell way to end my vacation. In Bangkok, I had stayed at a junky property. The Avari was a much nicer hotel, and the staff was much more friendly. I watched a little TV, and sent some text messages to my friends in Islamabad, since my cell phone now had service again. It was late, but I got some immediate responses.

The only downside of my brief stop in Lahore was that it was too brief. I got there after midnight and left by 6:00 AM so I could catch the first flight to Islamabad.

In no time flat, I was back in Islamabad, and my vacation was done.

As always, it was great to return to my house. My guard was glad to see me and asked how my family was. That is one of the few things he can say in English.

I dropped my bags at my house, and then it was straight to the office. Oh joy!

All told, over the course of 3 weeks, I spent 55 and a half hours with my butt in coach on 14 different flights. And I circled the globe in the process.

The germs in my gut accomplished the same feat!

Anyhow, I got to hang with some of my favorite people, see some neat stuff, and do some cool things. So even with a snag here or there along the way, this vacation was not too shabby. Not too shabby, indeed.

No comments: