Sorry to have been so out of touch, but the e-mail services have been appearing to work, then not. Apparently it's a go from this cafe.
I’m not really sure what’s gotten through, but suffice to say I've been having a great time in Cambodia, and am now in Phnom Phen.
There was one particularly funny little thing though. Back when I was in southern Laos years ago, the women would take a look at my size fifteen feet and break out giggling and chattering, none of which I could understand, but I got the general gist of it. Apparently the Khmer share the same assumption of a correlation between foot size and other physical attributes. In Battambang I was visiting a fish-paste factory with my moto-driver who spoke very good English. One of the women glanced at my feet and burst out with exclamations as she fanned herself madly, to the great entertainment of the other women working. When I asked my driver to translate, he explained that she had said just the sight of my feet nearly made her faint, so she couldn't imagine what the real thing would do. Who said Khmer women were shy? . Fish Paste Factory
I should be in Vietnam in a couple of days. For now my biggest decision is whether I have the stomach for a visit to the killing fields museum.
I hope all is well, and I hope you're all enjoying the December weather. Heh heh…
Phenom Phen II
Going through the National Palace here in PP, I stopped to rub the pot-belly of a Ganesh statue, for luck. A stunningly beautiful young Khmer woman, who was there with her family, turned, pointed to the statue and then to my (mild?) paunch, and said "same same" with a smile. Ah, a crushing blow to my ego. Maybe I should go back to Battambang and try my luck with the fish-paste matrons.
With the street-side stalls being pretty filthy, the best place in PP to get a shave is at the hair salons that are also fronts for brothels. Got an early morning shave today, softest I've ever had, with a room full of women looking on either smiling shyly or leering suggestively. No, I didn't get anything other than a shave.
Went ahead yesterday and saw the genocide museum at Tuel Sleng, a high school that the Khmer Rouge turned into a prison and torture center. Really grim. The KR were so fanatical that even as the Vietnamese were closing in on the city, they continued to work over the final fourteen prisoners, killing seven of them. Of the 17,000 men, women, and children who spent several months each being tortured there, only those last seven are known to have survived.
If you happen to run into Henry Kissinger, go ahead and toss him in a gunny sack for me. The carpet bombing that he instigated in the early 70s clearly precipitated much of the insanity. Just deliver him to The Hague, there's an outstanding case against him at the world court.
Phenom Phen III
There's an organization here in PP called Friends, which offers a full range of services to the estimated 10,000 kids living or working on the streets. They have an excellent restaurant, that is used to train kids in job skills, where I've had lunch everyday. If anybody is looking for a charity for a holiday donation, I would highly recommend them. Their website has information on an affiliated tax-deductible U.S. group that you can make your donation through:
Phenom Phen IV
As if to highlight the need for the services the Friends organization provides, shortly after I wrote that last e-mail, a moto-driver sidled up to me as I walked down the street and asked me if I wanted "girls, young girls, twelve or thirteen years old". The urge to drag him off his bike by the collar was strong, but I don't know what I would’ve done with him after. I doubt the police would have had much interest. Offers of "massage" or "lady museum" are so common as not to be worth a mention, but this was the first child sex offer I've seen or heard of directly. Obviously there is a market for it, if the moto-drivers are offering it.
It happens at least once every time I come to Asia. I come upon a toddler who is playing happily, smile in what I think is an engaging fashion, and the kid runs screaming and crying to the nearest adult, pointing at me as they sob uncontrollably, then turning their head to keep me out of their sight. Ah well...
Just returned from a four day trip to the Mekong Delta. It was basically the first group tour I've ever done in my life, which is the only practical way of seeing the Delta with as little time as I have, but still really amazing to see the variety of ways people have adapted to their lives on the water. The first three days were spent in the company of a Canadian couple from Whitehorse (Keith and Terri) and their three really lovely kids, eleven-year-old twins Gavin and Erin, and nine-year-old Heather. They've gone on the road for a year in Asia and Australia. Keith is a teacher who's contract allows him to work three years at 3/4 pay, and then get this fourth year off. I found their trip pretty inspiring. It was also really fun to be around them because of the way that the Vietnamese responded to the kids. Walking the streets, one local kid would catch a glimpse of the Canadians and go off yelling and raising the alarm that children were coming, then all the locals would turn out to see the wondrous sight of western children. Really pleasant generally although Heather gets her cheeks pinched more than she might like.
I spent my fourth day on a "homestay" in a small village, which is actually just a rustic hotel set up in somebody's house, but was a really good time in that you could walk or bike around at your leisure. Incredibly friendly folks would continually invite me in to have tea and try to work through a conversation in broken English. I was nearly married off several times. Went to the local beer hall that night and became very popular when I pulled out the Cuban cigar I’d bought in Saigon. I smoked most of it with the mafia-don-looking owner of the bar, who like everybody else in the place didn't speak a word of English, but tried to teach me Vietnamese without much success.
If the idea of getting your lower extremities beaten to a pulp by a smiling tart in a mini-skirt is appealing, you should beat a quick path to Saigon for a foot massage. Watching the other travelers grimace in pain/pleasure is nearly as fun as the massage. The image of me with my arms stretched out behind me, my smiling masseuse with her foot in my back and pulling on both my wrists with all her strength should bring pleasure to some of you. More extensive "massage" services were refreshingly not on offer (a point which an older Frenchman was complaining about loudly out front as I entered) but flirtation was definitely on the menu. Good fun.
I'm back in Saigon now, with a train ticket to Hoi An (mid-way up the coast) for tonight. It's a seventeen hour trip, so I splashed out for a soft sleeper. I've heard it's a beautiful trip.
Hope you're all doing well,
Just got the obligatory handmade stamp made for myself here in Saigon. The unlimited ability to stamp any surface with my first and last name as:
Kevin "Who's Your Daddy?" Perry
just seemed like such a bargain at $4.00.
Of all the pleasant moments I've had on this trip, the two hours I spent waiting for my stamp in the Saigon central market, eating pho and drinking cold coconut juice straight from the shell, were possibly the most pleasant. I was quickly surrounded by a gaggle of ladies who were trying to marry me off to various matron "aunts", seemingly a theme on this trip. One of the aunts was tiny, and begged to be excused because, as we calculated, at thirty kilos she was exactly one quarter my weight. In general they were none-to-impressed with the little patch of hair on my lower lip. The oldest of the lot would reach out and grab at it with force, trying to tug it off. When I took her forearm and gently rubbed my patch against it to demonstrate the advantages, she struck me a glancing blow with the back of her hand for being fresh.
Vietnam is good.
Must be some sort of Karmic slap down for my jibes about the weather, because I seem to have unwittingly walked right back into winter here on the central coast of Vietnam. It's cold and wet out there. Okay, only 65 degrees, but still cold for my by-now-reasonably-acclimatized candy-ass.
I spent a couple of rain-soaked days in Hoi An, an ancient and picturesque town that has also become a bit sterile now that it is so tourist saturated. Think Leavenworth, but with genuine local history. Enjoyable though, to haggle with the numerous tailor and shoe shops there. Funniest bit was when a shop lady pulled a crucifix from around her neck, invoking a hopefully common religion in her efforts to grossly overcharge me. Bad move.
I did have several pairs of flip-flops custom made, as well as a corduroy jacket for my now winter trip. Unfortunately the $45.00 suit that I put a $15.00 deposit down on was such crap at the fitting that I decided to cut my losses and not pick it up.
I had my smallest moto-driver yet for my tour around Hue today, 45 kilos. The top of his head came to just below my chin as I rode behind him. Apparently, judging by the amount of pointing and laughing, loads of people thought we made a funny sight.
I take a train to Hanoi this afternoon, where supposedly it's not raining. We'll see about another suit there.
Really loving Hanoi.
I went to visit Uncle Ho this morning. Pretty wacky scene. I (along with thousands of Vietnamese) was forced to march in double-file across the large mausoleum grounds as we approached his posh marble digs. We then shuffled solemnly past very stone-faced guards in fancy formal attire, which included fixed bayonets. After being instructed to remove our hats and keep our hands out of our pockets, we moved into the cool darkness of the building itself, and then on a slow circuit around his glass enclosed day bed. He is just back from his annual two-month spa treatment in Moscow (the Ruskies have a certain expertise), so he was looking relaxed and refreshed, but didn't have much to say.
Afterwards, I rushed over to make my appointment to get measured for my next try at a suit. This time I'm taking no chances. I'd seen this tailor recommended in the NYTimes before I left home, and when I asked a Canadian who is living here where she went for her clothes, without prompting, she recommended the same place. It won’t be super cheap, but dark chocolate-brown raw silk is just the thing for me.
I then took a moto out to Le Mat, the village where they raise the snakes for the restaurants in Hanoi. As much as I hate (aka: am terrified of) snakes, I couldn't stomach the idea of having a king cobra slaughtered so that I could gulp down its blood and still-beating heart in a glass of whiskey. Instead I settled for cobra spring rolls washed down with shots of whiskey taken from a bottle that had whole cobras soaking in it. I topped it off with a shot of whisky that had been soaking in King Cobra penises, which was promised to make me very "strong". Like a bull I suppose.
I went to the midnight Christmas service at the cathedral here last night. Hanoi has a large Catholic population. Turns out that the Christmas service attracts such a rowdy crowd they don't even open the doors anymore. In fact there was lots of drunken cruising for chicks going on in the huge throng around the cathedral. First time my size has come in really handy this trip, as I easily managed to subdue and part the crowd in front of me, much appreciated by the entirely female contingent I was traveling with.
The shopping is really good here, and the limits I imposed on myself because I didn't want to haul things overland are no longer in play. It's taxis and airplanes for me from here on out.
I'm taking a three day side-trip up to Halong bay the day after tomorrow, but that's really it for me until I fly home.
Somehow I seem to have tapped into the Vietnamese psyche. For the last few days the song "Knock Three Times" has been running a relentless circuit in my head. Despite my best efforts to expel it, I still find myself humming it on street corners. Last night I went to a swank nightclub. Multiple levels, smoke machines, laser lights, extending stages, really the state of the art works -- circa 1986. There happened to be performing an apparently notable Vietnamese star, kind of all five backstreet boys rolled into one. Really a pretty good voice, despite the overwrought song selection and smaltzy stage moves. The crowd went wild for him. Girls bringing up big bouquets of flowers, and then nearly swooning as he touched their hand to take them. Boys bringing up paper song requests for their girlfriends, to big applause from the crowd. Anyway, as you might have guessed his forth or fifth song -- and a clear crowd favorite, judging from the screaming-squealing response -- was a Viet cover of "Knock Three Times". I nearly fell off my chair.
Another funny thing was that all of the fifty-plus wait-staff were dressed up as Santa Claus. Funny became surreal and hilarious when a drunk got out of hand, and fifteen Viet Santas piled on to subdue him.
See some of you soon.
Sitting here in a cafe, picking the dogmeat out of my teeth and sipping my cafe chon (coffee berries fed to a weasel-like creature, coffee beans then "harvested" from it's scat, and prepared as usual) I have a chance to reflect. I've lingered here in Hanoi for over a week, because it's really a city that generously lends itself to lingering. My three-day side trip to Halong bay with its karst formations was spectacular, especially the day of sea-kayaking. But now I think I'm ready to be home. Good timing on that, because I fly to Bangkok in the morning, and Seattle a day-and-a-half later. My only remaining task is to figure out how big a suitcase I need to buy to carry all of my shopping loot.