Notes from Thailand and Cambodia
November 7 – December 7, 2019
Igor’s riot of tattoos looked like bruises under the dim lights of the restaurant where he and I and the other denizens of Sea You Place had gathered for dinner. Each of us at the table had just given an account of ourselves: where we were from, how long we’d been in Thailand, when we were going home, and that sort of thing. Igor was excited to hear that I’d come to Thailand after trekking in Nepal.
“Nepal!” he cried. “I love Nepal. It is my other home. I cannot go trek, though. I am alcoholic.” He admitted to alcoholism with the casual air I might use to say I had once gotten a parking ticket. “I was in India, but I was evicted, deported, because I wrecked my motorcycle, many broken bones, sticking out of my skin, you know, and I had no license for a motorcycle, so I went to Nepal. A family let me live with them. Such beautiful people. I had to withdrawal from heroin in their house, on the floor, and the daughter took very good care of me. She is my wife now, but I never, we never, you know. No no no. No no. It was only for the visa. I bought one square meter of their farm, so now I am Nepali citizen. Someday I will go back.”
Cece, the woman who ran Sea You Place, was sitting next to Igor during this story. She absorbed it without any obvious change in her demeanor. Her partner, Zod, a skinny Thai with one-inch gauges in his ears and a particularly impenetrable way with the English language, had not arrived at the dinner yet; he had been bitten by a centipede two nights earlier and, now that the incapacitating agony of the first night had been beaten back with morphine, and the swelling had gone down, he felt sure he could negotiate the 100 yards between See You Place and this restaurant – although he’d have to ride a scooter to do it.
Sea You Place is at the southern tip of Ko Chang island, which is at the northern end of the Gulf of Thailand, close to the border of Cambodia. I had chosen to go to Ko Chang because it had a reputation for having been relatively unsullied by the boom in tourism that has reduced many of Thailand’s islands to green, sun-drenched places where thousands of Westerners lurch from bars to the beach and back again, indulging their ugliest instincts.
“So why don’t you go back now?” I asked Igor.
“Oh, well. You know,” he said, smiling around the table and shrugging his shoulders. I didn’t know at all, but it was clear that he didn’t want to elaborate.
“Zod!” said the beautiful Parisian woman across the table from me. She and her boyfriend jumped to their feet and waved their bottles of Leo beer at the darkness beyond the patio. Zod came limping up the stairs, to loud cries of welcome. He smiled at everyone and said something that I couldn’t make out.
“We should drink to Zod’s arrival!” said Igor. Do we have something stronger than beer? Whiskey? Do they have Hong Thong whiskey here?” The German guy to my left said that you’d have to be desperate to drink Hong Thong.
“Maybe you should try Finn Finger Hong Thong,” said Cece.
“Absolutely I will try it,” said Igor. “What is it?”
“Did you hear about the Finnish guy who chopped his finger off?” asked Cece. “No? About a month ago there was a guy staying down there at the other end of Klong Kloi beach, at the YuYu. He was weird when he arrived, but after about a week it had gotten worse. So one night he went to dinner at the Lazy Loaf, ordered his food, and chopped his finger off! When the owner asked him why he’d picked his restaurant to do this to himself, he said, ‘Because you have the sharpest knives on the beach.’ So anyway, they put the finger into a bottle of Hong Thong, and Dave bought it from him.”
The man who had been standing behind the bar appeared at the table and slammed a bottle down in front of Cece. “One drink, one hundred baht!” Dave roared.
“Hooray!” everyone yelled. We passed the bottle around the table, so that everyone could get a good look. That was a finger at the bottom, all right. There was dirt under the nail.
Igor tossed off a shot without a moment’s hesitation. The German guy looked disgusted, the French couple and I gloated quietly at having unexpectedly found ourselves in a David Lynch movie, and Cece simply watched, with the psychic distance of someone who has seen absolutely everything and found most of it not to her taste.
I spent more than three weeks in bungalow #5 at Sea You Place. My routine was almost unvarying. I would go to breakfast at Mister A’s coffee shop, where my order was so predictable that Mister A would see me coming down the road and sing out, “Fruit PAN – Cake! Cap – PUC – Cino!” “Ha ha,” I would reply. “And yes. That sounds good.” After breakfast I’d go to the common room at Sea You – an open-air veranda with cushions and rattan mats, three big fans, a couple of low wooden tables, and one small sofa, padded with stray cushions – where I established myself with my laptop and a big bottle of cold water. Between the late morning and late afternoon I worked on my science-fiction novel. Then I would go for a swim or walk the local roads, and then I would find dinner at one of the half-dozen reasonably well-trafficked places between our dirt road and the beach. After dinner, I’d retire to my cabin to read and watch television on my laptop. I was usually asleep by 10:00.
I devoted one day to a snorkeling expedition, but otherwise I wasn’t a tourist in Thailand. I never explored Koh Chang island. I never rented a scooter, I never visited a town I couldn’t reach on foot, I never climbed into the green mountains at the island’s center. I watched the geckos streaking for the safety of the shadows and I helped Zod throw sticks at the monkeys that stopped by to raid our kitchen and I scratched the ears of the cats that sprawled in the dust. I put the biggest fan just a few feet away from the sofa and leaned forward so that the air might move behind me while I worked. By the time my Thai visa was about to expire, I had pushed my manuscript through the climax of the story and thought that I might have no more than a few thousand words of clarification and summary to write before I could raise a toast to myself, take a deep breath, and begin the second draft.
My long trip was coming to an end. I wanted to be back in Seattle a few weeks before Christmas, so I had only about a week and a half left to spend in Asia. I reluctantly abandoned my idea of visiting Vietnam and decided to concentrate on Cambodia, and particularly on the temples around Angkor Wat.
The city of Siem Reap is the base camp for everyone who visits Angkor Wat and the other ancient Khmer temples in northwestern Cambodia. I found a hotel down by the river, in a part of town where the streets were so narrow that even the tuk-tuk taxis couldn’t enter them. On my first morning, I walked out to one of the main boulevards, wondering how to proceed. “Taxi, sir?” asked a Cambodian man of perhaps 35 years, gesturing at his tuk-tuk.
“How much for the small circuit?” I asked. I had done my homework the night before; I knew that Angkor Wat and a few other essential temples could all be seen on a relatively short loop trip from Siem Reap, and that hiring a tuk-tuk to take me on this loop might cost up to 20 American dollars.
“Fifteen dollar,” he said.
“Let’s go,” I said.
On the second, third, and fourth of December I visited twelve different temples and ancient religious sites north of Siem Reap. Angkor Wat, my first stop on the first day, is the world’s largest religious monument. Its elaborate carvings and elegant walkways and the curves and stairways of its buildings are all open to the air; I walked slowly through the grounds, gaping and taking photographs, for hours, while Sam, my driver, waited for me back in the parking lot, among the touts and the thieving monkeys. And then we went to Bayon, the most notable temple at Angkor Thom, where enormous carved faces wear smiles like French tourists who have just watched someone take a shot of Finn Finger Hong Thong. And then Baphuon, and the Terrace of the Elephants, and the Terrace of the Leper King. And then, on the following days, many more. I will not list them here; I will give their names in the captions of the photos, in case you’re interested. After three days of this, I was dizzy with the beautiful ambition of this vanished civilization, and aghast at how little I know about it. I bought a book on the subject of the temples at and around Angkor Wat, but it didn’t answer any of the questions that I found so troubling. How could the economy of 10th-century Cambodia have supported a building program like this? What might the ecstatic religious experience of walking through these buildings have been like for the worshippers at the time? What was it like for visiting Hindus today? How did the people live in the wooden cities that have left no trace in the forest around these ruins? What was it like to be those people? What, besides La Sagrada Familia, has been built in the last century that can match any of these sites? How is it that the greatest economies in the history of humanity have produced aircraft and microchips and the Chunnel but nothing that approaches the monumentality and profound spiritual resonance of these temples? What did we abandon when we abandoned this goal?
I was already feeling some despair for the modern world when I arrived in Phnom Penh on December fifth. My flight to Seattle was scheduled for two days later. This gave me a single day in Cambodia’s capital city, which I spent touring the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum at the site of the Khmer Rouge torture prison, S-21, and the museum and Killing Field of Choeung Ek.
The Khmer Rouge controlled Cambodia between 1975 and 1979; their efforts to turn Cambodia into a socialist agrarian paradise led them to slaughter something like two million people – a quarter of Cambodia’s population at the time. I had noticed while touring Siem Reap that I wasn’t seeing many Cambodian men of my approximate age, but I hadn’t understood the implications of this idle observation until I saw the genocide museums of Phnom Penh. I think the important forces of human history are mostly matters of technology, microbes, weaponry, and luck – the Guns, Germs, and Steel paradigm – but my visit to Phnom Penh made me reconsider the Great Man theory of history. It’s hard to imagine that the disaster that befell Cambodia at the hands of the Khmer Rouge would ever have happened without Pol Pot.
In 1979, after the genocide, something like 5.5 million people remained in Cambodia. Forty years later, the population is 16.5 million. Cambodia’s economy has grown at 8% a year for the past 20 years – one of the fastest growth rates in the world. The global markets that have opened to Cambodian garment factories, reductions in child mortality, and the establishment of regional peace have converted the Cambodian genocide into a demographic footnote.
I don’t mean to imply that Cambodia’s recovery from the Khmer Rouge lessens the horror of the genocide. The tower of skulls at Choeung Ek is not a commentary on demographic change; it is a monument to individual loss. Each of those skulls belonged to a person whose life is available to anyone with an imagination. All of these people were ambitious for themselves and their children, concerned about their families, outraged by injustice, delighted by small bits of luck, beleaguered by illness and unfulfilled hopes, comforted by memories of laughter with friends and grappling with lovers in the dark, and terrified by the implacability and senselessness of their approaching deaths.
The world is vast and the past is deep. I spent most of 2019 trying to come to grips with the scale of both. Everywhere I went, thousands of people shared the cities with me, and every one of those people had an interior life that was very much like mine. In Oaxaca and Quito and Cuenca and Lima and Cuzco and Copacabana and Bruges and Paris and Venice and Split and Korčula and Dubrovnik and Athens and Thera and Kathmandu and Ko Chang and Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, I recognized in everyone I met a murky reflection of myself. And at the Zapotec ruins of Monte Albán, and at the Mixtec ruins of Mitla, and in the wonderful archaeological museums in Mexico and Ecuador and Peru, and at the Inca ruins at Saqsaywaman and Pisaq and Machu Picchu, and at the Moche pyramids at Huaca de la Luna, and among the unexpected columns of Diocletian’s Palace in Split, and at the Greek sites at Athens and Delphi and Akrotiri, and at the incomparable Khmer temples in and around Angkor Wat, I did everything I could to incorporate the ghosts that crowded around me, walking with me among the toppled stones and standing at my side as I tried to reproduce in myself the aesthetics and devotion that produced these marvels, and to feel as a personal loss the tragedy of each culture’s dissolution. I was never more than partially successful, but, on the other hand, I was always partially successful. My imagination is imperfect, but time and again it was good enough to make me ache.
I have been back in Seattle for almost two months. It hasn’t been easy to begin this last essay in my “Out” series of 2019; it has seemed to me that the exercise of writing it is necessarily futile, because of the amount of time it covers, because of the absurd necessity of summing up a year that could hardly have contained a greater diversity of experience, and because the effort of writing it is so wildly out of proportion to its readership. But writing it has been necessary. I am proud of many of the essays I’ve written here; I couldn’t abandon the series without dishonoring the work I have already done. Also, I needed to finish this last entry before turning my attention back to my novel, whose first draft, to my shame, is still several thousand words short of completion.
I will be going back to Mexico in 2020, to resume Spanish lessons and to take long walks through warm, colorful streets. I’m not sure when I’ll be leaving; in the spring, most likely. This will not be another globe-trotting expedition. I will go to ground in Oaxaca, or perhaps in the central highlands, or perhaps in the Yucatan, where I will establish myself and my laptop in a little apartment. The language lessons will go slowly. I will work less effectively than I’d hoped. I will spend too much time alone.
Mexico is full of surprises and difficulties – that’s why I’ll be going back. My imagination is good enough to make traveling feel essential, but it isn’t so good that it allows me to stay home. I can try to imagine the mind of a balloon seller on the Zocalo, or the hands of the person who made the exquisite pottery in Quito’s Casa del Alabado, or the mind of a pilgrim at Delphi as the fires were lit at sunset, 2500 years ago, but I can’t surprise myself. I couldn’t have invented Finn Finger Hong Thong, or the Nepalese kid who built a helicopter out of an apple and scraps of wood, or the papier-mâché turkey that a dancer in a Oaxacan wedding procession held over his head as he twirled in the street. And, even if my imagination were better, and I were capable of inventions as vivid as those, I wouldn’t be able to reproduce the visceral experience of being there. I need the heat that makes me lean toward the fan, and the smell of the grass at a temple complex, and the frigidity of the winds coming down off the glaciers, and the fatigue at the top of a long climb. I need the emotions that I can’t get otherwise, too, even when they are insecurity and fear and loneliness. Even despair is better than stupefaction.
I will keep traveling. If there is a better way to remain conscious, I don’t know what it is.