Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Wait... What Was THAT?

A man peruses the titles on display... or is he thinking about those that aren't on display? Hmmm...

The tourist areas contain such a wide variety of "unusual" things for sale that you quickly become somewhat numb to things and not a lot of it gives you pause for a second look.

Walking along one afternoon in an area where I wouldn't have expected to see a stall selling the readily available pirated DVDs to begin with I passed this table.

I already had my camera out and on, but I was already late to meet a friend for lunch, so I hastily snapped this pic on the way by - hence the slightly blurry shot, sorry.  As a friendly word of advice, the folks selling such wares are rarely keen on having you take pictures of their wares to begin with, and not of them, especially. Not surprising, really.

It wasn't the "NEW PORNO" sign that caught my eye, though, as touts can be almost overwhelming with such news along Silom Road and in places such as Pantip Plaza - where the DVD touts can be actually be kind of fun, depending on how you approach the situation. You can read that story in a post from three years ago HERE.

No, actually it was the sub-headers that stood out when I was going through the photos back home. I mean, to me there's nothing odd or shameful about being Gay, but to only rate one step above sex with animals made me laugh!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Dinner Out: Ginger House In Chiang Mai

A portion of the dining room on a quiet night

 A farang friend who will be meeting up with me in Bangkok during my next visit was asking yesterday if I could recommend somewhere he could go exploring on his own and still remain within his comfort zone.  Previously he's only ventured off to Phuket, and even then he stayed in a specific area the entire four or five days. This time he was willing to be a little more adventurous, so I suggested Chiang Mai.

Wait Staff
In looking back through pictures to give him an idea of places to see and an idea for a place to stay I came across these photos of a nice dinner I had with a friend a few years ago: Ginger House. It was a reasonably short tuk tuk ride from PJ's Place where I'd booked a room for us, and seeing the pictures I was again reminded what a delightful meal and evening it was.

We haven't spoken much about Chiang Mai, and that's to my shame. The city itself is just one part of a much larger area of well over a million people, and while it can be chaotic (and smoggy during some agricultural seasons) I'd say it was one of the more picturesque tourist destinations. We'll return to it shortly, but this is about a dinner out, so let's get back to that...

Ginger House is a small place, but that's a good thing. The dining room seats less than 40 (should memory serve), but it's decorated to make you feel that it's even more intimate than that; the furnishings, accents, objets d'art and overall ambiance were, well... just delightful.

The rose petals were an unnecessary - but thoughtful - touch

We were seated near a window at a small table with a love seat on one side and two comfy chairs on the other. Seating for four, comfortably, but it was just the two of us that night. I think when I made the reservation they suspected my Thai friend and I were a couple and put us there rather than at a table, but that's fine - we were really able to be comfortable and enjoy the wonderful food.

Their macadamia crusted chicken entree

My Thai friend doesn't eat beef, so he suggested we try the set dinner on offer that evening, which began with a marinated salmon with lemon and orange segment salad, followed by a bowl of delicious creamed pumpkin soup. The entree (above) of a moist chicken breast topped by a macadamia nut crust, served on a bed of asparagus atop a serving of Japanese pumpkin, all surrounded by a ring of tomato salsa.

It was just enough to be full, but not overly so, which was fine with me... that left room for dessert. Dessert in the set included the chocolate espresso brulee (below), so we didn't take much of a look at the dessert table, although what I saw of it looked really good. The brulee was quite rich, and - fortunately for me - too sweet for my Thai friend!

I sincerely hope they're doing well, because I'll be looking for them when I get to Chiang Mai again. I'd have dinner there in a heartbeat.

By the way, the set dinner that night was Bt900, or about $30. More than I'd normally pay for a dinner out, but this was worth it. Their menu is available through the link below.

That evening's available desserts, out for perusal

Monday, February 25, 2013

"Soldier Boy... He's My Little Soldier Boy..."

None of these were Jari's friend... these were soldiers in Hua Hin.

Back in May of 1962 a girl group called The Shirelles enjoyed three weeks at #1 on the Billboard charts with "Soldier Boy," a sweet sounding song at the time, but one that hasn't aged all that well, although that could be said for a lot of us, I suppose. Nevertheless it comes to mind when I see military men in Thailand walking around with their girlfriends or wives. It came to mind a few times when I was in Bangkok a few years back and heard tales from a Norwegian friend named Jari. He had met the soldier while inside a larger department store and - as strange as it may sound - they'd formed a casual friendship and spent portions of the past few days/evenings together.

In all honesty the relationship between Jari and the soldier was more one of convenience for the both of them, I suppose; Jari was a single man on holiday, making the most of the end of his  "middle aged" years - I believe he was 59 - and the soldier was deeply closeted but appreciative of the attention of an older man.

That in and of itself isn't so odd (did I just hear a few of you say "thank goodness" out there?) but it's a little less likely for someone on holiday to meet a person merely by chance and not as part of a Rented Admirer arrangement, i.e. online sites, bars, clubs or in some parks, if one is a little more cavalier (or reckless).  Nevertheless, it had happened, and the two had spent a lot of time together over three days.  It would end when Jari went home, and they haven't stayed in contact.

This is, to the best of my recollection (and notes) is the conversation he and I had on the fourth morning:

Jari seemed more cheerful than usual when he walked up next to my table and said "Good morning!" I invited him to sit and have breakfast with me but he’d already finished his an hour or so before me. “Have coffee, then,” I suggested, and he sat down across from me, leaning forward with a somewhat conspiratorial tone to his voice to report “I met the soldier again last night." He rolled his eyes as though he was exhausted, but happy.

"And?" I asked.  “Oh, my God, he almost killed me! He may not be 'out' to much of anybody, but  he certainly made up for lost time last night.” “Serves you right,” I laughed, “he’s probably young enough to be your grandson.” “No, not that young,” Jari protested “he’s thirty two.” “OK, maybe your son, then,” I laughed. “Either way, you’re probably lucky your heart held up!”

Jari briefly feigned a heart attack, laughed and went on: “We went to MK… MKB… what’s that place called again?” “MBK,” I said “Mah Boon Krong mall.” “Yes, there. Well, we did some shopping and then he took me to the most delicious restaurant nearby, I didn’t see a name and I’d never find it again,” he said, stopping to savor the thought. “Happens to me all the time,” I assured him. “I follow along and enjoy the place - you just have to enjoy the moment while you’re there.”

A portion of the interior open area at MBK Mall

I was nursing a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice, taking small sips as he launched into an enthusiastic but discreet report of the portion of their evening back at the hotel. Evidently the young soldier had been without needed companionship for an exceptionally long time, and as Jari wasn't much for clubs and bars I suspect it was somewhat the case with Jari, too.

At 59, the pickings back in Norway for what would be “his type” were probably somewhat slim. Jari wasn’t what I’d classify as a sex tourist by any stretch, but he was appreciating - with sincere gratitude - the admiring looks of the Asian males here who can see beyond the wrinkles, so to speak.

"Where is he now?" I asked, and Jari replied "Oh, he was up by 05:00, on his way back to where he needed to be by 07:00 this morning. I came down to breakfast, went up to my room, did some reading and now I'm ready to head out and do some exploring. Do you have a favorite massage shop?"  "I do," I said. "We'll have to fill a couple of hours before my regular guy will be there, but I'm willing to go wander Lumphini Park beforehand, and I'll take another therapist so you can have the best." And that's precisely what we did.

A mild morning commute in Bangkok

That evening I rode along on the BTS a few stops out of my way to meet his new friend, who turned out to be a quite handsome and pleasant man. They headed off to dinner, I headed off to the movies.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Taking A Breather

Water lilies dot the surface of a moat in the Siem Reap area

After the posts about the genocide camp in Phnom Penh it's probably time for a break. We'll come back to Cambodia soon, but per a suggestion we'll return to Thailand for now.

Don't worry, the rest of the Cambodia posts will be much less traumatic and far more scenic; there's an enormous amount of beauty to be seen throughout the country, and we've just scratched the surface.

There's a family reunion of sorts this weekend, so I may not be back here until Monday morning. If I don't post tomorrow (Friday) I'll see you Monday. Just in case: have a great weekend.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Cambodia, Pt 5: Khmer Rouge Interrogation Techniques

Looking into one of dozens of classrooms that became a torture chamber

[Fair warning: today's post deals with the torture and murders of nearly all who passed through the Tuol Sleng interrogation center in Phnom Penh, and there are images that may be tough for some to see.]

A now-peaceful courtyard at the former Chao Ponhea Yat High School - a place that became Security Prison S-21

My visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh was disturbing... just as it's intended to be for anyone with any sense of decency toward their fellow man who goes there. If you didn't see the introductory post to the place, it's here. It's a reminder of what inhumane acts are possible in our world, then and now, if nobody stands up and shouts "stop".

When you're standing on an upper floor balcony there and overlooking an open area like the one above after seeing the displays it's a bit difficult to think of it as Chao Ponhea Yat High School, which it was until the Khmer Rouge took it over around 1975.

Then it was full of the chatter, laughter and activity of hundreds of adolescents about to cross the threshold into their adult lives; lives that were to be unexpectedly and forever changed by the circumstances and injustices imposed on many of them during the KR's reign of terror.

Shackles used to "greet" prisoners

If you happened to be thought to be an enemy of the "new order" you were brought to interrogation centers such as this one to confess your transgressions - whether you'd actually thought of or comitted any - and then killed anyway.  In other words, you were guilty... period.

The last 14 victims found after the Khmer Rouge fled the scene are buried in this courtyard

In the picture of the courtyard above you can see a frame. There are several large pots on the ground beneath it. To get "the truth" from the prisoners, some were hung upside down from this makeshift gallows-type frame and left there until they talked. If they passed out, they were dunked into the pots full of human urine and feces to revive them.

In larger rooms like this one long rows of prisoners could be shackled together, feet facing feet. There were no creature comforts whatsoever.

There were many other incarceration/interrogation points, but Tuol Sleng (aka S-21) has become the most notorious, possibly because of its proximity to the area known as "the killing fields" but perhaps because of the sheer number who suffered and died at the hands of their countrymen.

Photos taken by the Khmer Rouge were on the walls of the rooms they'd been taken in.

Upon arrival, prisoners were given a number, photographed, forced to give a detailed history of their lives and family information, and told what the rules were. You can see a version of one such  list in the photo above on the left.

They were then often shackled together at the ankle in long rows in some of the larger rooms to await their turn to confess. Nothing beneath them on the hard floors, no mosquito netting, and no talking was allowed. Oftentimes entire families were brought in together and subsequently wiped out.

Smaller rooms were more often used as the interrogation points, and many have been restored as a testament to what they were decades ago. A couple of examples follow; the "after" photos taken of the poster above the beds in each room. It was overwhelming.

The bed used to torture an alleged enemy of the state...
... and as he ended up after the "interrogation"
...and another bed...
...and another body...

As you walked from room to room you couldn't help but feel you were surrounded by the spirits of those who met their horrible fates in them, and it made for a somber journey, at best.

There was a large group of students there that day, and I stood outside the doorway of one room to await my turn while they looked from the bed to the enlarged image on the wall and back, not even whispering between themselves.

All but one of them (seen in the picture above) filed out past me, and he stood staring at the photo a couple of minutes longer. Finally he looked down at the floor and turned to leave the room, walking slowly with his arms hanging loosely at his sides. When he passed by me he looked up; a tear just beginning to make a trail down his right cheek.

Piles of skulls and bones found on the grounds of S-21

Well over 17,000 were imprisoned and tortured or killed at S-21, and those that managed to leave there alive usually ended up at Choeung Ek, a short distance away.  You're more likely to know that area as the Killing Fields, although it's a far less gruesome place today than S-21. We'll cover that area in the next Cambodia report, and then move on to the more pleasant stops on my visit... and there were many.

One last image from Tuol Sleng

Monday, February 18, 2013

One Man's Trash Is Another Man's Treasure

A boy on a mission - note the plastic bag - stopped repeatedly along Pattaya Beach one morning.

Although millions of "personals" ads seeking relationships use the tired old phrase "I enjoy long walks along the beach" - with all good intentions, probably - it's a pastime I honestly have long had high on my list of pastimes I enjoy, with or without anyone walking beside me. Not looking for a date here; I'm just stating a fact.

Small shells on the sand of North Pattaya Beach

Unless I'm somewhere that I shouldn't be doing so I tend to pick up interesting shells and items when I'm on these walks, and sometimes even bring one or two home with me to add to a large jar that sits in my home; each a reminder of a pleasant place.

While I was in Hawaii with my family one trip many, many years ago I was collecting shells along a  quiet beach when a local saw me and gave me a look to indicate I was lolo (crazy). I could imagine him saying to himself "I use that junk by the shovelful to level the stepping stones in my garden," but it didn't matter to me. A tiny jar of those shells still sits on my desk today; a memento of a happy time.

On my second trip to Thailand I was staying in a place nearer Banglamung, at the North end of Pattaya Beach (for reference, Walking Street is at the other end) so I had easy access to that lovely few miles of walkway and beach, and took frequent morning leisurely strolls along it.  I'd often walk on the sand, and, amid the junk tossed there by the inconsiderate I'd usually see a variety of shells.

Among the shells one morning were the ones pictured below.  Now, I have no idea what the beaches are like where you are, but along most of the California coast you don't often find much in the way of proper sea shells; bits and pieces, at best.  With the advent of so many beverages being in plastic now you don't even find much sea glass (called that where I live because of it's rounded edges and matte surface, caused by natural sanding while being tossed about for years - or decades).

My trash and treasures. It depends on your point of reference, I suppose. 

Marveling at my good fortune I picked up two bulging pockets-full and brought them back to my hotel room, laying them out on the table of my balcony and thinking what nice additions they'd be to the jar awaiting them back home.  Later that afternoon a Thai friend came to pick me up for an outing, and I proudly showed him my "haul".

He got an odd look on his face (which I later learned was caused by his discretely attempting to hold back a laugh) but he poked at them and then picked out a few, setting them aside.  "These are shells that washed up on the beach," he said, pointing to the few he'd pulled out "and these," he said quietly about the majority "are garbage."  He went on to explain that what I thought were specimens Nature Herself had brought to me as a gift were in fact the leftovers from snacks people had eaten on the beach and lazily tossed aside.

Seeing me smile at my naiivete he burst out laughing, which was a good thing because I think he'd have burst if he hadn't.  Still, the "refuse" shells were new to ME, so I did bring a couple of them home. When I see them I'm reminded of my morning walk... the day I did garbage detail while searching for treasure.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Mahjong On A Thai Beach... And Elsewhere

This pick-up game lasted almost all day on a beach in Pattaya

I'm far from the best Mahjong player I know - a country mile removed from it, truth be known - but it's something I'm getting to know, bit by bit.  

The game's origination is hazy at best, but many seem to agree it began in China during the Ming dynasty, somewhere between 1368 and 1644.  That means it's been played by a wide range of people, from casual aficionados to rabid fanatics of the 136-tile game for a good 500 years or so, and it seems to be gaining in popularity again the past decade.

While there is a solitaire version, it's normally played by three or four players - more commonly by four, like the quartet up top today that I watched play for a while one morning on a beach in Thailand.

The tiles used to be made from ivory, but thankfully now almost all are made from plastic, although more costly sets made from bone are still available. A Thai friend asked me bring him a higher-quality set a few years back, so I can tell you from experience that even nicer plastic tile sets (his came in a leather case) can be pricey. My set here at home is a far simpler plastic set. I figure all you really need is a basic set, the ability to form a strategy... and some luck!

Not much of a post for a Friday - and a day late, to boot - but I have family and friends in town this weekend and next, and mahjong may well be one of the items on the agenda.

Consider this to be a placeholder until I try again on Monday.  I'm going to have a fantastic weekend... may yours be as enjoyable.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Love Is Love Is ความรัก - Happy Valentine's Day

The Loft store in Siam Discovery mall, Bangkok, near Valentine's Day.

"Valentine's Day" has meant many different things to me over my lifetime. My guess is that it has for most of you, too. As school kids in the U.S. we exchanged simple single-sided cards with the others in our class, even before we had a glimmer of an idea what romantic love meant.

The onset of adolescence gave the entire concept of capital-L Love a whole new dynamic, one often fueled by raging hormones, and the holiday for some became merely a retail-driven means to an end.

If your first love was a lasting one, my hat's off to you. You're in a very distinct minority. For most of us there were a series of relationships that moved us along as we sailed our boats through the Tunnel of Love; some filled with happy memories we still cherish, but sometimes a few where the boat tipped wildly or capsized entirely, leaving us choking and sputtering in the water alone.

Over the years I've heard tales from excited friends in Thailand about new girlfriends, boyfriends and assorted beings in-between, and I've had my shoulder dampened with tears by friends there who were learning about the more trying lessons of love, too. It's another classic example of "same same, but different"... just not really all that different.

Love is love is love, I suppose. Everywhere I've visited on this planet so far I've observed people in love, and it never fails to give me at least a moment's pause to stop, smile and remember what it was like to be in that same sappy situation.

You don't need to know a word of the language and you don't need to know anything of the country's culture to appreciate it when you see it... all you need to know in your own heart is that love is, and acknowledge the proof of it right in front of your eyes.

Whether you already have it, inspire it, seek it or simply long for it today - I wish you love. Happy Valentine's day.

Repeating one of my favorite images in Thailand: young love on the beach

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

You Want A Break? OK... Cambodia Smiles

A mother and her sons

The last couple of day's tales have been on the heavy side, so let's take the break suggested in an email I read this morning while getting today's post about the interrogation rooms at Tuol Sleng ready. Louis in Pennsylvania wrote "Doesn't anyone in that country smile?", and the answer is, of course, yes - so I set the post in progress aside and put this one together instead.

Smiling on the grounds of the Royal Palace. 

The people I interacted with in Cambodia were much the same as the folks you'd meet in Thailand. Nothing so odd about that; cultures don't often understand borders, even if politics and some darker examples would attempt to show you otherwise. Most of the problems between Cambodia and it's neighbors have been fueled by greed from one side of the border or the other (as are many of the woes in our world overall) and, as in the case of the Khmer Rouge, sometimes within those very borders.

My tuk tuk driver was quite the joker

Children riding on motor scooters with their parents, folks out shopping in the markets, families selling food from their carts and stalls or knelt in worship at a temple - it's really a case of "same same, but different", but the difference is primarily the flag waving on the pole in the distance.

Two Cambodian monks smile as they walk along, chatting

So... here are some smiling Cambodians I ran across in Phnom Penh to lighten the week up a bit. We'll get back to Tuol Sleng and the "killing fields" soon enough.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Cambodia, Pt 4: Faces At The Genocide Museum

Seemingly endless rooms of victim's identification photos were eerily lit by the light coming in from outdoors.

[Note 1: There are images today that represent man's inhumanity to man, and some of them may be a little disturbing to a few of you. Fair warning.]

It was a pleasant morning, the day my Thai friend and I visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. We were staying in rooms just a short ride from the museum grounds, and we chatted happily away as I snapped pictures from the back of the tuk tuk, bumping along the streets of Phnom Penh.  We arrived at the front gates, paid our driver, and I soon noticed the faces on many of the people coming out of there.

The sun was shining and there was a gentle breeze blowing, but there was also something else in the air; a feeling that there was still somewhat of a pall over the entire place. Walking along beside me my friend was laughing as he related (for the fourth time that morning) something that had happened to us while we were out having dinner the night before.

Turning to him I put my hand firmly on his shoulder and whispered "I think we should be quiet now," and nodded my head in the direction of the people leaving the grounds; some of whom had obviously been crying recently.  He sobered up immediately, and we headed onto the grounds.

Entering through the front gate opening in a wall topped by wide loops of razor wire we stopped for a moment to take it all in.  It seemed kind of strange to think that a place that looked so peaceful - and yes, even kind of pretty - could be holding such terrible secrets.  We followed the signs over to the first buildings, where there were photographs of those who had (unfortunately) passed through this place.

Some couldn't withstand the torture and died in their "interrogation" rooms, some found a way to end the misery by their own hand.

Upon arriving at the camp, each man, woman, boy, girl and infant were photographed - most tagged with a number - although the people brought there had such an infinitesimally small chance of every leaving the area alive that it seems strange to keep paperwork.  Regardless, it was overwhelming.

Wired to another prisoner one young man stood with a defiant look as he came into the camp. I'd guess he didn't walk out of there alive, the poor soul.

Hundreds of pictures, thousands of pictures... room after room of them in displays 30 feet long, and more. Large images, 11" by 14", all the way down to 3" by 5". Even if you believed the low-ball figure of 15,000 souls lost in this place it meant that what were on display were only a tiny fraction of the images that must have been on file there at one time.

Some of the people in the pictures appear confused, some look dazed, some already bore evidence of beatings and injuries. There was obvious fear on many of the faces that looked directly at you as you passed bulletin board-type mass-framed pictures of people who would soon enough end up in mass graves not all that far away.

This young man managed to kill himself before he was slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge.

Stunned and slightly numbed by the visuals now behind us we left the display rooms and made our way to the interrogation rooms themselves. I don't know how I could have thought that the worst was over...  because it wasn't. The images today aren't the ones that have stayed with me since that morning.  Some of those will be in the next part.

Children were completely expendable, and I'm told 99% of them were put to death.

I don't understand how a child of this age could be guilty of any political crimes, do you?

I've edited the selection of photos today to be as gentle as possible, but there's no real way of candy-coating torture and murder on such a scale as that visited upon the people of Kampuchea. If the upcoming images are rough I'll warn readers at the start of the post.

[Note 2: The black and white images today are pictures of photos in the museum itself. I've adjusted and monkeyed with them a little, but there are still reflections and imperfections from the original prints. Best I could do. ]

Monday, February 11, 2013

Cambodia, Pt 3: The Genocide Museum In Phnom Penh

The barbed wire remaining on the site of "S-21" is no longer electrified, but can still raise unpleasant images.

Just as a fair warning: the posts over the next few days may be unpleasant for some of you to read. I thought perhaps this introduction might be a way to ease you into it, if that's possible.

Man's inhumanity to man is often difficult to face, but it's something you can't avoid when visiting a site such as Tuol Sleng, one of over 150 "interrogation" centers the Khmer Rouge used as what were, in essence, really nothing more than torture chambers and murdering sites while they ran roughshod over the men women and children of Cambodia (then Kampuchea) from 1975 until their fall in 1979.

Not perfect, but a pano showing part of the inner courtyard of the S-21 grounds

Tuol Sleng was a high school until the Khmer Rouge won the civil war in Cambodia in 1975, and in August it was converted into a prison and interrogation center, housing as many as 1,500 prisoners at a time. Estimates as to how many actually passed through Security Prison 21 (aka S-21) differ, but the number lies somewhere between 15 and 20 thousand. You can bet only a few handful walked out of there as free citizens.

Open office windows at S-21

When they began their reign of terror in 1975 the Khmer Rouge justified such centers as merely a means of locating and prosecuting those from the previous Lon Nol regime, but their means of gathering information began brutally and degenerated from there.

Most of those brought to S-21 ended up at Choeung Ek sooner rather than later; Choeung Ek being the site better known to the world as the Killing Fields, where over a million met their deaths in some of the most brutal ways imaginable. For the first year S-21 was open for business the bodies were buried on the grounds and nearby area, but they ran out of room.

A tourist comes out of a torture room on the second floor of one wing. 

If you take that figure of a million and break it down for the roughly four years of the regime's reign that comes to over 680 human lives snuffed out per day.  I suppose "snuffed out" is too gentle a term, as most of them came to a far more unpleasant and violent end, but that's a story still to come. Let's just say for now that ammunition for a quick kill was both expensive and in short supply, so they used whatever they could lay their hands on to do the job.

Although it's a tourist stop the current government endorses visitors to see - if for no other reason than to say "never again" - it was, naturally, a very somber and quiet place.  

For the boorish there were signs like the one above, advising visitors to show respect for the carnage wrought there by refraining from joking and laughing. I personally saw nothing but groups of somber folks - Western tourists, but also small school groups - moving slowly and quietly from room to room and display to display, each more disturbing then the last when you followed the course suggested by the arrows on the walls. 

Next we'll see some photos used by the Khmer Rouge to document the people who passed through Tuol Sleng, and then in the next post we'll move on to the actual processes themselves.

One young man who passed through the Tuol Sleng interrogation center. May he be at peace.