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Sailing on the breath of a prehistoric yawn. Notes on Cambodia and Thailand

By February 16, 2019No Comments

I said goodbye to Scotty a few days ago, he left for Australia to see his father, and I’ve spent the remainder of my travels in the Northern Thai city of Chang Mai. I had a little cry on the sidewalk as his taxi turned the corner. Certainly our travels brought us closer, quite literally over the last week, where we shared a scooter for days, and I fastened myself to his back, like a Koala suffering from chronic separation anxiety. Spooning vertically like this, we traversed 900 k’s of the Mae Hong Son loop which runs along the Thailand/Myanmar border. Since Scott’s departure, I’ve spent the last few days wondering around the walled city of Chang Mai. Christmas-eve saw me drunk at a gay bar watching perky breasted, lady-boys’, lip-sinking to Maria Carey Christmas carols, while backup dancers (dressed as Santa’s salacious little helpers) ensured it snowed glitter for daaaaaaaze.
It’s only in this hiatus, that I have a moment to take stock of the last month. A blur of tuck-tuck rides, airports, temples, street-foods, hotel check-ins and outs, cross-country scooter sprints and the like. Together, a Gemini and Libra are terrible at ever arriving at a decision. The Libra, tends to get caught up in a lady-justice limbo, weighing up the pros and cons, cons and pros while the Gemini must consult his contradictory selves, both of whom desire completely opposite things. Our way around his, was to say YES to everything and NO to nothing. We succeeded”¦. mostly”¦.though it did cost us in sleep and sanity.

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After the majesty of Cambodian temple Angkor Wat, and neighbouring Angkor Thom, her smaller and no less magical sister temples (and there are many) while seen, are not really seen at all. When saying yes to everything, by the end of the week, one’s awe and energy levels tend to run low, and one starts to muse less on the miracle of each precariously placed rock, opting for brusquer, parameter strolls. While the guide-book is at pains to point out, that hundreds of fingers were rendered arthritic in the chiseling of that mural depicting the samundra manthana (The churning of the ocean of milk), towards the close of the day, the over-saturated (not to mention less sophisticated) eye tends to write ancient allegories off as a bunch of blokes playing tug-of war with a giant phallus. One of the most memorable parts of our visit to the temples, was the cacophony of monkey chatter, parakeet ca-caw, ca-caws, croaks and shrieks which mingled with the cicadas mid-day screams. One would be forgiven for thinking this is the same ambient SFX Jungle mix, Sol Kerzer pipes into his “Lost City” resorts via speakers concealed under fiberglass rocks.

Since Scotty left, I haven’t ventured very far beyond my hotel-room. It’s here that I’ve confronted my bank statement and realize how far I’ve plunged into the nine-circles of over-draft hell. I suppose I’m ready for home now, ready to contribute my time and attentions to more tangible outcomes”¦whatever that means. I’m aware, it’s a question of time before those homely certainties become oppressive in their every-dayness”¦. their every- grayness.

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I’m reminded what a privilege it is to travel like this, propelled by curiosity. To witness each city, cultural oddity, landmark, mountain, monument or temple because they exist, and that is what one has come here to do. There are moments when I’ve participated in such sight-seeing a little guiltily, lumped in as one is, with all the bright, young backpacker things. Youngsters pouring into South East-Asia to muddy their Nikes, vomit on (no longer) pristine beaches and snap selfies with incarcerated elephants. On cross-country bus trips, I had the misfortune of being trapped behind one too many American girls, yakking on for hours about spicy Asian food and unrequited hostel love-affairs, their adjectives always preceded by elongated sooooooooooooooo’s and sprinkles of like.
*Footnote: It seems twenty-something American girls are incapable of using the word Amazing without “like soooooooooooooooo” attached before.

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While I’m no veteran, I’ve lived long enough to recall an age of traveling when smart-phones did not exist and where one’s intuition, wits–or lack of– had to suffice. During this trip, I did wonder how we survived without such devices pre-empting and prompting our every turn. Satellites the constellations that now lord over our destinies. I miss that age of technological innocence, a time when fax-machines felt like the pinnacle of communicative progress.

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But I digress. It’s far easier to dwell on Cambodia’s mythical past, than to confront the horrors of it’s more recent one. I had been apprehensive about visiting the notorious Tuol Sleng museum in Phnom Penh. No one, I imagine, wakes up in the morning, excited to embark on a bout of genocide sight-seeing! Tuol Sleng was a children’s school, which during the height of the Khymer Rouge led revolution of the 70’s, was transformed into holding cells and a detention facility. One visits the classrooms to find blood-rusted, iron beds where prisoners were chained. It was within this compound that thousands of men, women and children were tortured, starved and cross-questioned until confessing to crimes they had played no part in. A majority of them were murdered here for offenses as menial as wearing spectacles, having overly soft hands or for loving their families too much.

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One story which continues to haunt me, is the story of a twenty-something Kiwi traveler named Kerry Hamill and his companion John Dawson Dewhirst, whose sail-boat, travelling from Malaysia to Thailand, was thrown off course by a storm. The boat drifted into Cambodian waters, where Hamill and Dewhirst were arrested under the charge that they were undercover CIA operatives. The men were kept at Tuol Sleng, where they were tortured for several weeks until fabricating confessions. After the torturer had obtained what he needed, both Hamill and Dewhirst were burnt alive on a pile of rubber tires. The only clues to Hamill’s time in Tuol Sleng, is in his written confession which hangs in the museum alongside his portrait. What makes this testimonial so heartbreaking are the in-jokes disguised in his account. Without any real-life CIA conspirators to implicate, Hamill cherry-picked the names of “operatives” from a variety of pop-culture figures who happened to have military abbreviations in their names. This is how Colonel Saunders of KFC fame and Sgt Pepper came to be enlisted as enemies of the Cambodian revolution. At the nearby killing-fields, there is monument of human skulls piled several-stories high. I couldn’t help but wonder which of these skulls, if any, belonged to Hamill and Dewhirst. I imagine their family members confronting this fortress of empty eye-sockets, the sadness that arises with never truly knowing. It was here, that hundreds of thousands were transported on the back of cattle trucks to die. Here, that jovial marching-band music perpetually played from loud-hailers mounted in trees, to drown out the sounds of slaughter.

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While visiting these fields, it chilled me to think about the global re-emergence of the “far-right”. How our deepening fatigue, and silence tends to normalize, even legitimize, the fundamentalist bile spewed from podiums the world over. In Cambodia, the genocide was orchestrated by a handful of men and fueled by a feverish paranoia. No one saw it coming. No one imagined that over two million sets of bones would mingle in the wake of Rouge’s brief but brutal four-year reign. When I arrived at the Killing fields, the grasses over the mass graves, were teeming with hundreds of butterflies. Out of all of the memorials, it was this delicate and incidental dance that moved me the most. One sees so many remains during this excursion (with monsoon rains frequently unearthing new ones) that as we were returning home that afternoon, I thought I glimpsed yet another exposed grave on the outskirts of the city. On closer inspection, what I thought to be bones, turned out to be porcelain fragments of broken toilet-parts.

After Cambodia we journeyed to the Khao Sok national park in Southern Thailand. Khao Sok is a misty, Jurassic landscape, which in a virtual reality simulation, might have been imagined and conceived by James Cameron and Werner Hertzog (part Avatar, part Fitzcarraldo). Emerald jungle curtains’ drape themselves from chalky, limestone skyscrapers. Some of the evolutionary oddities we were to encounter included cobras, flying-lizards, gibbons, bush-pigs, leaches and piranha like puffer-fish who are fond of nibbling on swimming tourists. The malodourous jewel in the crown of this carnivalesque eco-system belongs to a flower known as the Rafflesia. This plus”“size, parasitic monstrosity weighs around ten kg’s, and is nicknamed the corpse flower by locals because of the rotting- flesh Eau de toilette it secretes.

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From Khao Sok we flew to the capital city of Northern Thailand known as Chang Mai. Here we hired a scooter to complete the fabled Mei Hong Son loop. It was over this leg of the journey, that we experienced the sort of freedom we had yearned for from the start. Finally, we could determine our own itinerary and diverge from it at whim. There were no busses to miss, no tour-guides to traipse behind, no selfie-taking Chinese tour-groups to be trapped in narrow corridors with, or Yanky backpackers complaining about the transport taking “like soooooooooo long!” or being “like sooooooooo uncomfortable!” Just us, the open road and lungs full of oxygenated forest air. On this loop we traversed 900 km of mountain and jungle. In the evenings we would lie in bed, still dizzy from the tilting and dipping sensation of the scooter curving around hundreds of hair-pin bends. My favorite time out on the road, was the early mornings when the sun would peek out from behind the misty canopies and illuminate the path ahead. I clung tightly to Scotty, dozing on his shoulder, my earphones in. The world whistling past to Verdi’s Marcha Triunfal (perfect for scoring death-defying flights down mountain sides) while Faure’s Requiems, Ravel’s Allegro’s and Rachmaninov concertos accompanied the onset of twilight and close of each day. Along the way, we would stop to swim in rivers or soak our scooter-numbed-bums in hot springs. On this loop, we visited remote Alpine towns’ (on the border) that would not be out of place in a David Lynch series featuring midgets and murdered cheerleaders. One town appeared to have been designed to suit the half-pint perspectives of a six-year old’s and left us feeling like Gulliver’s marooned in a Lilliputian land. In this same town, life seemed to unfold in slow-sluggish motion, a pace mimicked by the overfed carp–ubiquitous to the many rivers of the region –who appeared to be swimming on the spot, moving without really moving at all.

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Prior to this travel, and towards the close of 2018, I had grown a little disillusioned with the world and my place in it. The carps slow-sluggish motion, I mentioned a moment ago, seemed to mimic my own malaise. Would anything surprise, move, truly excite me again? It took a visit to the Tham Lot cave to rekindle the wonder and it is a feeling I hope to hold onto throughout this new year. Stranded in the cavernous belly of this mountain, with only a kerosene lantern to light the way, I experienced the awe of Jonah. A giddy, childlike awe. An awe that made me acknowledge what an extraordinary, horrifying, beautiful, confusing, rare and fleeting thing this life is! One moves through the Tham Lot cave on foot, and for the final leg, rides on a bamboo raft buoyed along by the currents of a subterranean river. Oversized catfish and carp nudge the flimsy vessel along. It’s as if Miyazaki has animated the whole sequence. For some time, you drift in this darkness, until finally the exit emerges as a distant pin-prick of light. The sound of a million chirruping swifts and squeaking bats grows more and more deafening as the speck enlarges into the cave’s expansive gape.
This is how I returned.
Sailing on the breath of a prehistoric yawn.
Regurgitated from guano infused darkness to mauve dusk
wide-eyed
reborn.

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