Thursday, July 12, 2007

movin' on up!

like a gift sent from up on high, i received an email from a friend two days ago asking if i wouldn't mind house-sitting for an acquaintance of hers. "it's a nice place," she assured me, "you should check it out."

as it turns out, nice doesn't begin to descibe it. behind a private gate, monitored by a 24-hour guard, lies the 4-story villa of a spanish u.n. employee and her family. beautifully designed and tastefully appointed, this is the kind of house you imagine a proper high-end expat occupying. so what am i doing there? and where did i even come from?

i didn't take the time to explain earlier, but in my first weekend in phnom penh, i secured a sweet little apartment for myself in a neighborhood endearingly referred to as "ngo-land." the area consists primarily of development organizations and the homes of the people who run them, but it is still dotted with khmer enclaves. i happened to find just such a building: a slightly run-down three-story structure with a top-floor apartment available for rent. none of that frilly expat business for me, i thought. i was gonna live the way khmers in my neighborhood did. the apartment had no air conditioning, only basic furnishings and was on a block with no other foreigners in sight. i was comfortable enough there, but a few of the bonus features started slowly to wear at my resolve.

first there was my neighbor's prize-winning cock-fighting rooster, who was given free run of the grounds. all day and all night (NO EXAGGERATION), the lil pest would strut about proclaiming his champion status to all. even when miles away, out with friends or busy at work, his prideful crow would still be ringing in my ears.

then, there were the noodles. on the corner, right at the bottom of the building, was a popular moto driver hangout that started frying up khmer eats at 6 in the morning and continued til all hours. the first week or two, it was kind of nice waking up to the aroma of noodles crisping in a pan. but once the novelty wore off, all i was left with was a closetful of clothing that smelled like week-old chinese take-out.

worst of all, though, were the ants. oh, the ants. tiny in size but impressive in number, they marched all about the apartment in constant search of any thoughtlessly discarded crumb. everything with even a hint of edibility was kept in the fridge and the after-dinner sweep became a necessary ritual. the back-breaking straw came three days ago during my morning face wash. i had just rinsed off and, with eyes half-shut, groped for my washcloth and gave my mug a good wipe. leaning into the mirror to survey the results, i noticed a single teeny ant smushed on my cheek. confused, i looked down at my once-blue washcloth only to find that it was now a mottled brown--swarming with ants! if a girl can't even complete a simple skin ritual in peace, then you know it's time to go.

but who am i to complain? that apartment provided me shelter from the rain, plenty of room to store my things and a safe(ish) place to rest my head at night (albeit on a bed with craters so big you could sit in them). compared to most, i was sitting pretty. oh by the way, did i mention that to counteract the heat, i had to open the windows, which let in mosquitoes that made a ghazaleh buffet out of me every night? yeah, there was that too. but i digress...

point being, when i got the offer to housesit for someone in a much better position, i jumped at the chance. within ten minutes of the email, i was making copies of the housekeys and running off to pack my things. i moved in yesterday and have wasted no time in making myself at home. the great thing is that the owners will be returning on my last night in town, so i won't ever have to go back to my old place.

despite my obvious glee, there is a tinge of sadness to this story. i'll miss the two little girls next door that hung around practicing their english with me, i'll miss the simplicty of the place (that went rather well with the "development chic" style that i'm sporting these days) and i'll even miss the stupid rooster and his incessant cawing (um, maybe). but i'll do my best to be strong and not cry myself to sleep in my new huge, comfy bed.

Monday, July 09, 2007

taste of bangkok

the two weekends' sandwiching my trip to india (to be detailed in a later entry) were spent in bangkok, fulfilling the pent-up consumer hunger that had built over my month in cambodia. it's true phnom penh has plenty by way of restaurants, bars and the like, but when it comes to familiar flagships of good ol' material life in the states, it's a vast empty terrain. no mcdonald's, no starbucks and no multiplex cinemas.

in some ways it's been refreshing to live a life devoid of any monuments to western capitalism (besides, i eat mcdonalds once a year, don't drink coffee and see about one movie a season), but there's something strangely comforting about being in the presence of those familiar symbols. while in bangkok i succumb to my every material want and was astonished at the city's ability to satisfy, no matter the level of my rapacity. from the chaotic chachutek weekend market to the refined siam paragon mall (with stores so high end i dared not even enter them), bangkok was my greedy respite from the "development" life in phnom penh. i shopped to the point of fatigue, i took in a v.i.p. showing of shrek three (you pay extra bucks to enjoy the film from a love seat with blanket at all) and i helped myself to some burger king fries. and my, how good it felt!

not to be overlooked: i also visited a few famous spots (like the reclining golden buddha and chinatown), did my fair share of gay clubbing with a good friend and got the most exhilirating traditional thai massage (complete with elbows, knees and spine-twisting maneuvers).

best of all was the street food. in cambodia i shy away from most food served off wheels or in alleys, but in thailand i couldn't take the variety of offerings down fast enough. every kind of satay, fried noodle dish, curry and soup was at my disposable and you better believe i ate it all. hands-down best thai food i've ever had was in some back alley of chinatown (see photo below). mm-mm!

being as enraptured by the sights and commodities as i was, i again failed to concentrate my photographic efforts ( i swear i'll have to make the rounds again someday solely to capture everything on film), but here are a few shots i managed to snap amid the frenzy.


wat arun temple

bangkok nightlife

the reclining buddha (notice the size compared to the doorway)

buddha face

spirit house

chinatown alley

street food

bangkok taxi

behind the docks

street curry--MMM!

Friday, July 06, 2007

and the count-down begins...

i could hardly believe it when i realized that today marks my one-month count-down back to the states, which means: not only will i be leaving here in 30 short days but i've already been here six weeks!

in the time that i've spent in and around cambodia, i've grown to really love the region. it is admittedly a little ignorant of me to refer to a complex array of peoples, cultures and histories as "a region," but i think you gather my meaning. there's a warmth and ease to life that's refreshing - albeit unique to my situation (i am well aware that i'm on a glorified vacation here) - and i'm not so certain that come august 6th, i'll be ready to be back on u.s. soil. there's still so much to learn, so much to see and (surprise) so much to eat!

not every day is sparkling; some days i could do without pushy moto drivers, the incessant crowing of my neighbor's rooster and the thin layer of sweat and dirt that encases me wherever i go. and being the sap that i am i miss my friends and family dearly. but were i an island unto myself i wouldn't mind drifiting through southeast asia for a few more months (or even years). the "lifers" i've met around here all have the same soft spot in their heart and caution against the infectious allure of this part of the world.

i know there are still many things to be seen and experienced in the remainder of my time here, but i can already feel the calendar gaining on me. ready or not, it'll soon be time to go so i guess the best i can do is enjoy every unconsumed moment as it comes my way. and, of course, share it with you.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

angkor what? (i'm sooo original)

as it's been quite some while since i've written a proper entry, you'll notice that i'm on a bit of a time delay. today i'll be recounting for you my breathtaking trip to siem reap (home of the ancient angkor temples) , which took place over three weeks ago. oops.

to make up for my tardiness, i'll keep the writing to a minimum (lucky break!) and instead cram it full of pictures.

here's a brief summary: back in mid-june i made a solo journey to the north of cambodia where the intricate system of temples reside. though there are numerous sites to see (each king having tried to outdo the one before him), i had only time to take in the dazzling top picks: angkor wat (the largest and most famous), angkor thom (the one with all the mysterious smiling faces), banteay srey (the meticulously detailed pink temple) and , of course, ta prohm (known to many around the world as the "tomb raider" temple). each temple had its own form of beauty; angkor wat's is its symmetry and scale, angkor thom in the sly expressions of the scores of statues, banteay srey in its intricacy and ta prohm in the eerie creeping of nature over man's creation. by some stroke of luck i would arrive at a site minutes before the busloads of tourists and had at least a few peaceful moments at each location before being overrun by the noisy crowds.

though the temple visits themselves were awe-inspiring, the real beauty of the trip came in the form of my guide, mr. thy. on the advice of those who'd tread there before me, i hired a personal tour guru to take me around and explain every exhausting detail (you can only imagine what nerdy glee it provided me!). the information was nice, the personal attention even better...but the most edifying piece was in talking to mr. thy about his life in cambodia. over the course of two 8-hour days he described in great detail the struggles, fears, hopes and joys that he and his kin face in modern times.

in the shadow of angkor wat, he recounted tales from the dark years of pol pot; he told of how his parents were forced to marry in the labor camps, how dozens of family members were killed and how the legacy of that pain is still carried by many cambodians today. he beamed with pride at the glories of old kampuchea and emanated a resilient optimism for the future. we talked about corrupt governments, the burden of history and the capacity for the human spirit to thrive in even the most dire of situations.

as a bonus (at my insistence), mr. thy taught me a spate of khmer phrases to use during the rest of my time here. we covered all the basics: i'm hungry, i need a nap, i love to eat, etc...and i can even count to 999,999! i've impressed many a taxi driver with my budding language in the days since my trip but of all the information mr. thy gave me, the glimpse into his personal life has been the most rewarding.

and on that sappy note...some pics!

(i apologize if they're a bit on the generic side. i was so engrossed in our discussions that photography became almost an afterthought.)

ta prohm (tomb raider temple)

ta prohm doorway

ta prohm entryway

outside angkor thom

faces of angkor thom

more faces of angkor thom

bridge to ankgor thom

praying at angkor thom

apsara dancers at ankgor wat

statue at angkor wat

doorway of baneay srey

banteay srey detail

angkor wat

Sunday, July 01, 2007

sneak preview

hello! hello!

i'm finally back from a ten-day stint outside of cambodia and am gearing up to write a host of entries for you.

here's a lil sneak preview of what's coming up:

- weekend at angkor wat temples
- gay nightlife in bangkok
- 3-day wedding celebration in india
- 12-hour whirlwind tour of bombay
- and some day to day happenings here in phnom penh

i've taken a few pictures here and there as well (though not nearly as many as i would have liked) and i'll be sure to post some of those soon too.

get excited!