Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Cambodia Part 2 - I Love Those Elephants!


Pack a bag, it's Pachyderm time

A miserable bus ride makes for an even more joyful arrival. We disembarked in a red dirt town that had one main street that looked just like Carson City 1887. Sem Monorem is the capital of the Modulkiri province. This is the wild eastern frontier that borders Vietnam. We came for the elephants.


Our elephant’s name was Nam Koon, but we called him Mr. Baggy Pajamas. He’s a working elephant. That means he hauls lumber in the jungle until some tourists show up in this godforsaken dustbowl of a town and cough up the money to rent him. Here’s what I learned about elephants: 1.) They are extremely graceful. They can maneuver their enormous bodies through the tightest openings in the jungle flooring. 2.) They are incredibly strong. The elephant’s owner is Chranh. When he says “Mai Pai”, MBP renders useless whatever obstacle is in our way. He rips it out by grasping it with his trunk, shoves it out of the way using his head as a bulldozer, or crushes it beneath his feet. 3.) MBP loves Nature Valley Granola bars. When we ran out, he roared like Tarzan and peed his pajamas in rage. I’m guessing his message was something along the lines of, “That was the best thing I’ve ever put in my mouth. Don’t you dare tell me you ran out!” 4.) An elephant eats 23 hours a day and sleeps for only 1.

I'll Take "Pronouncable Vowels" for $600 Alex

At this point you need to know that the Cambodian’s have their own alphabet. It looks nothing like ours. I can’t even begin to understand it. Further – they make sounds that my nasal passages won’t permit. Given enough time I can learn anything, but remember – I’m a “weeker” now.

Changrom was the man I spoke to on the phone when I called from Phnom Penh. He wasn’t the lowest price but his English was better than the others I spoke to. I told him I’d agree to his price ($120 for 2 people for 2 days with food & hammocks included. They use US currency) if he accompanied us the whole time. He did. He walked behind MBP for 2 days. As an added bonus, Phnong or Flak (we were never sure what his name was); who is the elephant owner’s 9 year old son, tagged along on foot for those 2 days as well. That kid never spoke to us. I don’t think he even spoke to his dad. I did hear him singing to himself once, so I know he isn’t mute. They belong to one of the minority clans of people called the Phnong. Wait – now that I see it in print - I thought that was the kid’s name. No one really speaks English and they just give you the quickest & easiest response to any question. Damn it! I actually thought we were communicating. Guess not. Talk about being an ugly American – Not only did I call that kid by the wrong name for 2 days, but because I can’t really differentiate their “ch” sound from their “tr” sound, I changed his dad’s name from “Chranh” to “Jurong” (it’s the mall closest to us in Singapore. Someone should just cane me now). It gets worse – I got tired of guessing whether it was “Changrom” or “Chamrong” or “Trangrum” or whatever the “walk behind guys” name was, so I renamed him Ron. “You will now be called Ron”. He was fine with that.
Time To Feed

We stopped for lunch and Chranh anchored the elephant. Just like me, he uses 3/8 inch chain and drops it right off the big boys shoulder in the same way I use my bow roller. He ties one end to his ankle and the other to a tree. Getting off and on the elephant necessitates finding a fallen tree to climb. Mr. Baggy Pajamas won’t hoist you onto his back with his trunk even if you offer to pay extra.

We ate beside a river and snoozed in the shade while the elephant ate everything in his radius. We climbed back in our box and pushed on. His lumbering motion takes some getting used to, so we rearranged our nest and settled in for the trail ride. I’m not sure if we were lost, if Chranh likes to blaze trails, or if the jungle just grows back that quickly, but MBP had to smash our way through the lower canopy. He was very “passenger conscious” and exercised courtesy in not ducking a branch and wiping us clean off his back, which is exactly what I would have done if 3 humans were riding on me. Occasionally the owner would reward him by allowing him to stop and annihilate some banana trees. Chranh says he likes bamboo leaves and banana tree stalks the best. Those do seem to be his favorites when he can’t get Nature Valley Granola bars.

Hammock With Mozzie Netting

We stopped to make camp for the night by a beautiful waterfall and swimming hole. The men cooked and the silent kid with the mystery name washed all the dishes. As the sun dipped lower, Chranh prepared MBP for the night. He “hobbles” the elephant by putting a figure eight device made of rattan around his front 2 feet. MBP then just shuffles around breaking and eating everything green, and it’s all green. First thing he does is rip the top off the bamboo branch and use it as a fly swatter on his flanks and underside. He then discards the self flagellating device and gets to work stripping the leaves. I pick up the swatter and smote his flies for him. We have a relationship.

Here's the video: Swatting Mr. Baggy Pajamas

I awoke in my hammock a couple times throughout the night due to the ferocious cracking of giant tree limbs. I smiled as I remembered where I was, and then drifted back to sleep happily dreaming of a hungry pachyderm. If only I had more granola bars.

They tracked him the next morning by following the drag mark the chain leaves on the jungle floor. Before we saddled up, the owner bathed him in the swimming hole. Here’s the video of MBP getting a bath. The photos are of a different elephant with some French girls that we met on the bank of a river. Damn tourists are everywhere.

Here's the video: Elephant Bath
GoodBye to MBP

We returned to MBP’s dusty village of round houses that looked like Navajo Hogan. We said our goodbyes as we stared one last time into that giant eye. The overnight elephant trek was a brass ring experience that’s better than any circus you could ever go to. I highly recommend it.

Before we left Sem Monorem we spoke to an ex-pat who told us how horrible it is to ride the elephants. After listening to his reasoning I’m sure he’s right. You should never ride an elephant. I cannot recommend it. We kept our mouths shut and asked about worse criminals. I wanted to know about the murderers who live amongst him and how they live with what they did in the 1970’s. His answer was brief and stark, “They survived by learning to lie, cheat and steal. They still do.” We abused an elephant and tortured the names of our guests. In the history of Cambodian offences – we’re practically civic heroes.

In Conclusion

As I read what I have written here, and in the previous dispatch about Cambodia, I think I am coming to the conclusion that it might be one of those places on earth that will break ones heart, while compelling one to marvel at the resilience of the human spirit. I won the lottery at birth in so many ways, and these people have been on the losing end of history for most of their lives, but they persevere. What else can they do? They struggle and suffer but they hold out hope that the future will improve. And it looks like it is improving.

From the red dirt of Cambodia to the sterile austerity of Singapore – It’s good to be back on a sailboat, even if it is parked in a boat yard.

Next Dispatch: Singapore – One Man’s Opinion

Capt Bob

Friday, March 5, 2010

Cambodia Part 1

I Travel By Plane Now


Flying into Cambodia we saw only swamps and rice paddies. And let’s be honest – rice paddies are just cultivated swamps.

Life in a hostel is a bit different than life on a sailboat. All the feral backpackers have kennel cough. We under packed our bags and over packed our itinerary and ran around like 2 week tourists, which was exactly what we had become. Ah – “weekers”: Those working stiffs who think they are going to “do” a country in 14 days. I’ve frowned at them for 4 years, and now I had become one of them. It’s the antithesis of what I signed up for when I bought a boat, sold my car, and graduated from my previous life. Don’t tell my fellow yachties.

I have always said that when I go to Vietnam I’m going to pick a fight with someone just so I can say, “I fought in Nam”. Well, we never made it out of Cambodia, but I did get beat up by a blind man. Now, before you think I’m a complete sissy, please note that it was an over aggressive massage and that I had volunteered. It’s charity, and the massage wasn’t all that bad. This country has more handicapped people than any other place I’ve ever been. We can blame the landmines for that.

And Now, For A Short History Of The Misery That Is Cambodia:


I’m glad I went to Cambodia. I’m even gladder I wasn’t born in Cambodia. These people have had a ghastly existence for 3 decades. From 1970 to 1975 the Khmer Rouge (Pol Pot’s guerilla forces) fought Lon Nol’s (that palindrome usurper of power) government in a civil war. In 1975 Pol Pot took Phnom Penh and thus control of the whole country. He emptied the cities and sent the inhabitants into slave labor death camps. He killed as many as 1.7 million (the estimates range from 1 to 2 million. I think 1.7 might be the most accurate) of his own people in the next 3 years. If you spoke another language or wore glasses or had an education you would be tortured and killed. In 1979 the nightmare subsided when the Vietnamese invaded and pushed Pol Pot into Thailand. The fighting didn’t end until 1999 when the last of the Khmer Rouge communist guerillas defected to the government forces. Pol Pot died in 1998 of old age.

In those 30 years of carnage it is estimated that as many as 10 million mines were laid. That doesn’t even take into account the amount of unexploded ordinance that is still in the ground from the half a million tons of bombs the US dropped on them during the Vietnam War. Cambodia is one of the most heavily mined places in the world, and not surprisingly, has one of the highest disability rates. There are 40,000 amputees living in the country and at least another 40,000 have been killed by the mines. Every month, another 30 people step on a mine. That figure was 300 a month, back in 1996. It’s getting better, but one should be very careful about where they wander off the trail. It makes relieving oneself behind a tree a terrifying prospect. A man once asked a social worker what percentage of Cambodians suffer from post-traumatic-stress-disorder. “Stupid question – it’s 100%”

Before their protracted civil wars commenced, the French used to run the show. So just like Vanuatu – they have delicious baguettes and 2 hour lunches. It’s fun to hate the French, but everywhere they go they do improve the gastronomic abilities of a locale (that was for you Sabine).

And even though Cambodia expelled the French and spent years as a communist regime they are now, of course, a capitalistic society. One might even say “they have embraced capitalism with a vengeance”. If you ever doubt the power of capitalism, please note that there is a Diary Queen in the Phnom Penh airport. A Butterfinger Oreo Blizzard is going to trump Mao’s little red book every time.

I don’t know if we can contribute this next anecdote to the French. My hunch is it’s based on abject poverty: We saw a happy Chihuahua prancing around a parking lot as we drove past in the tuktuk and made a mental note to drop by on our way back to the hotel so that we could pet that little dog. When we arrived I approached the tallest man (almost always the decision maker), and said, “There was a nice little dog here earlier and we would like to pet it”. He leaned closer and in a hushed, but knowing tone said, “Oh, you want to eat that dog.” “NO! NO! Just pet. Only pet. Please mister, don’t cook that dog.”

I did eat crocodile and snake. Reptiles now fear me. When you see beef on the menu – just know that it’s water buffalo. I never saw a moo cow the whole time I was there. Their food is delicious. I am in love with their “dry” curry. We took a cooking class in Battambang and it was a very worthwhile affair. Our translator had only lost one sibling to Pol Pot’s murder factories. That was considered “very lucky”. The depressing stories of these people continually surface.

But It Wasn’t All Bad.
Remember, we’re tourists; we scratch the surface until it gets uncomfortable, and then we go for an ice cream. The first highlight of our trip were the temples of Angkor Wat. They look like giant sand drip castles. We bribed a crooked cop $5 and had the inner sanctum of the largest temple to ourselves for about 20 minutes. It’s impressive on a scale that rivals the pyramids of Egypt. Better get their fast though, because like the Galapagos Islands – this high level of tourism can’t continue unabated.



Most of the structures were built about 800+ years ago but some are over 1,000 years old. Every surface is carved. The amount of detail is just stunning. Angkor Wat was a city of over 1,000,000 people when London had 50,000.

















It seemed to me that the only 3 subjects worth snapping a shutter at were the dead and disabled, the ancient temples, and the bright orange robes of the monks. We had our own monk assigned to us as we entered Phnom Penh. That’s not really true – it just felt like it. Sary is a calm young man who accompanied us and explained the Buddhist teaching in fairly accomplished English. I think he broke a few rules by eating fruit after 12 noon, and casting his eyes towards Megan, but we’ll forgive him since he lives in the big city. Besides, who can go that many hours without eating? He simplified the Dharma into 3 pillars: 1). Do wholesome things, 2.) Don’t do unwholesome things, 3.) Purify your mind.


And I Used To Live In Phoenix


It was so oppressively hot that I bought a shirt made of gauze. I’ll be lucky if it survives one washing. That first blast of cold air when you open the door to your air conditioned hotel room after 8 hours in the dusty, parched heat of Cambodia is a magnificent feeling. It’s frosty and it punches you in the chest as it sears your lungs. Delicious.



We gave up the delights of our climate controlled hotel room for an overnight elephant trek. But first we had to get there. It was an 8 hour drive (each way) on a horrible road, with the ever honking bus drivers, and the vomiting ladies in the seat behind me. Screaming children and their stinking diapers didn’t help much and the high volume headache inducing music is so intolerable that we nearly made an eardrum pact; you perforate mine and I’ll perforate yours. But it was all worth it.

Next Dispatch – Cambodia Part 2 / The Elephant Trek

Your man on point,

Captain Bob