Claude Walker | Bicentennial-By-Buttons

Monday, March 21

After flying from Chicago to Seoul to Bangkok to Siem Riep, NL & I finally arrive at the Sofitel Angkor Hotel. En route to the hotel we can see the entrance to Angkor Wat, the towers and iconic causeway. Monkeys everywhere. Shantytowns, billboards promoting gun turn-ins.

NL was invited to Cambodia as a participant in the annual Williamsburg Conference, which enabled us to have interesting cocktail party chats with Cambodia's Prince Samdech Norodom Sirivudh about Chicago blues and his time in Hyde Park, Norm Ornstein about campaign financing and NCAA hoops, and Amb. Richard Holbrooke about the tsunami and weather-induced refugees.

For two days, we attend seminars on Asian-U.S. relations, eat dragonfruit & fish amok, and explore the temples at Phnom Bakheng ("Elephant Rides $15") and Preah Rup. Red clay, scrub forest, blazing sunsets.

We get good seats for Cambodia Prime Minister Hun Sen's address. The security presence in the hotel suddenly gets super heavy. Lots of machine-guns.

Hun Sen zooms in, gives Holbrooke a cold handshake, quickly reads a 20-minute monotone speech (confounding the translator), listens to Holbrooke for 10 minutes, then zooms out. No Q&A for the Prime Minister today, folks. No photo opps, either. We think he discussed water management.

Wednesday, March 23

4:45 a.m. NL is going into 3 days of intense conferencing, so I'm packing my bags. Couldn't sleep, so at 5:00 a.m., I wake up the startled front desk guy to rent a bike.

I pedal 45 minutes through jungle darkness towards Angkor Wat. My tiny flashlight illuminates the way, along with a night sky thick with stars. Worried more about monkey bites than mosquito bites.

I see the recognizable silhouettes of the Angkor Wat towers against the starry starry night. I pull up to the entrance. Nobody. Lock bike to a tree. Silent, except for crickets & toads.

I'm the first visitor to Angkor Wat. A sleepy guard with a machine-gun eyeballs my Williamsburg pass and waves me in. The flashlight is really coming in handy. I tip-toe through the first buildings in dark silence. Enter courtyard, scale the first pyramid; slippery, steep. Wet moss covers black rocks.

Atop the Gallery of 1000 Buddhas, heavy smell of incense, somebody chanting quietly. I stumble into a guy - a caretaker, I presume - crouching by a Buddha statue and a woman dozing in a hammock strung between two ancient columns. He gestures that an offering to Buddha is appropriate and hands me a smoking stick of incense. I bow before Buddha a few times, stick the incense in one can, drop a buck in the other can. No words exchanged.

I move on to final temple wall on the east side, where I climb to the top and perch myself for an hour, gazing at the carvings and towers, the hazy forest, the stars, Venus.

Except for my breathing and a few early-rising birds, total silence.

6:45 a.m. Getting light and steamy, but no sunrise yet. Birds & crickets going nuts.

I descend from my perch and am stunned to see hundreds of people with cameras and tripods gathering on the grounds to the west. I join a large group from Japan who had staked out a primo spot for the sunrise. Witnessing the dawn at one of the Wonders of the World calls for a party. Loose atmosphere. Aussies drinking beer, Italian hippies hackey-sacking, meat grilling somewhere. I chat with a t-shirt vendor who wants to visit New York and feels bad about 9-11. Monks yak on cellphones.

Suddenly, silence (except for camera shutters) as the orange sun peeks over the temple. It shimmers behind the tower, ascends quickly. The crowd is hushed until the sun is well on its way upward. A collective exhale, smattering of applause. Hundreds of tourists surge forward as I head for the exit.

I pedal back to the hotel, but now it's rush hour and the ride is harrowing. Cement trucks, ox-drawn carts, hundreds of motos.

I meet up with NL for a final breakfast and to synchronize itineraries. I see Norm Ornstein with his laptop in the lobby; he updates me about my NCAA brackets.

9:20 a.m. Crazy cab ride through Siem Riep. Billboards en route urge"Watch for Landmines". Quickflight to Phnom Penh. Fly over Tonle Sap, Cambodia's biggest lake (known for changing its size and shape).

10:30 a.m. Phnom Penh airport is clean, airy (but one of my suitcases is busted). Another insane cab ride from airport to bus station. Chatty cabbie named Tuoi offers to drive me to Sihanoukville for $70 (an OK deal if you've got 3 or 4 people with you and are in a rush). Tuoi chats about everything, but clams up when I ask about Pol Pot. Phnom Penh is breath-taking: ancient temples, broad boulevards jammed with motos, golden hues.

Bus ticket to Sihanoukville: $3.60. I sit in the busy bus station watching the wild, smoky street scene. Motos outnumber autos about 20-1. I'm the only westerner in the station...also tallest person. I buy a few Cokes, water, and a bag of squash seeds with red powder for the 5-hour trip.

The carbon monoxide in the bus station makes me woozy, so I stroll the neighborhood. French classical influence in architecture. People smile at me.

12:30 p.m. Bus leaves for Sihanoukville on time. Looks beat-up from outside, but the AC is working. Violent, loud, scratchy kung-fu video. Urban sprawl for miles, all the way to the next town, Kampong Speu. Dust, litter, density. Bus careens past motos, donkey carts, all sorts of vehicles. A motorcycle is welded to a row boat with wheelchair wheels ferrying 8 kids.

Miles of dried-up rice fields. A 100-mile long ribbon of trash (mostly blue plastic bags, but it doesn't resemble a Christo creation) adorns Freedom Highway, built by the U.S. in 1960 to connect Phnom Penh with the new French-built port in Sihanoukville. Litter is everywhere: pigs roll in it, cattle graze in it, babies nap in it. Burning garbage emits a toxic plastic smoky stench along Freedom Highway.

3:00 p.m. Pit stop at place with pits for toilets. Cheap Angkor and "Anchor" beers at lively rest stop near Sre Ambet. Nice chat with French couple heading to islands off Sihanoukville to dive. Elephant Mountains are hazy on the horizon; terrain is flat, brown, dry. Four creepy Eastern European guys board the bus, obnoxious jerks.

5:30 pm Arrive Sihanoukville. Intense entry into this coastal city, as frantic guys on motos tail the bus for miles, hoping to give rides to travelers, a dusty scene from Mad Max.

My cabbie - Tak - overcharges me (as it turns out) and immediately offers me my choice of Cambodian, Thai or Vietnamese girls for "sexy massage, guaranteed boom-boom!" Downtown Sihanoukville in rush hour seems lively. Every restaurant offers shark fin soup.

Sihanoukville, variously known as Kompong Som or S-Ville, has a short but storied past. In 1955, construction began here on the port for deep water access. The town was initially comprised of construction workers. Then the U.S. built Freedom Highway. In the early '60s, S-Ville was a notorious port of entry for arms from the U.S. China, and USSR to various combatants in Southeast Asia. And in April, 1975, Sihanoukville residents were forced to evacuate to the countryside by the Khmer Rouge; two killing fields were located between S-Ville and Kampot.

For three days in May 1975, Sihanoukville and neighboring Koh Tang captured world attention when the Khmer Rouge - in power for only a month - captured the SS Mayaguez, an American container ship carrying arms and a crew. A bloody Marine assault on the island (where they mistakenly thought the crew was being held), and bombing by U.S. jets of the port and other Sihanoukville targets led to the release of the crew. President Gerald Ford proclaimed it his proudest foreign policy moment.

Now Sihanoukville is touted for its beaches and relaxed tempo. My cab spins around the Golden Lions Traffic Circle, a landmark gateway between the city and beach zone.

I check into the Crystal Hotel, a small glass & steel building across from Ochheauteal Beach. Funky, no hot water, but roomy and quiet. I can see the sea. The TV offers CNN-Asia, Vietnamese volleyball and Edward Scissorshands in Khmer.

After a dip in the warm Gulf Thailand, I hike to the south end of Ochheauteal Beach, finding a rasta bar where Red Stripes are cheaper than back home.

7:00 pm I find a cove called Serendipity, where the beach nightlife is reportedly the hottest. Quiet tonight, though, a few French tourists. I gorge on some memorable prawns (with pungent pepper sauce) and icy cold Angkors at the Sea Dragon, an open air beachfront joint.

Very serene, reminding me of my all-time fave shrimp-and-beer-sunsets in Key West and the malecón in Progréso, Mexico. The sun dips behind the rocks at Sokha Beach, and hundreds of colored lights flick on along the beach and in town.

I witness a Cambodian sunrise (Angkor Wat) and sunset (Gulf of Thailand) on the same day in dramatic settings 125 miles apart.

Thursday, March 24

Morning After a fruit plate breakfast on Crystal's rooftop eatery, I set off on what turns out to be an all-day trek checking out beaches, Weather Station Hill and the central business district.

Sunny. I snorkel in the clear, shallow water, but not much to see. Then a dark cloud. Just as I spread my beach towel out on Serendipity, a pounding rain pelts me with sharp pellets. I take refuge under some trees with an elderly couple, but the rains continue so I hike. A moto zips by in this typhoon with a boy standing on the back doing karate moves.

After passing the shark fin soup joints (it just doesn't appeal to me), I head to Sokha Beach, hailed as the most "popular and beautiful" beach in S-Ville. Sadly, that was before the Sokha Beach Resort gobbled up the beach and restricted access. I'm chased from the beach by some hostile security jerks with guns. I think of the loss of great public beaches to private greed, such as the 100-mile stretch south from Cancun. Serene beaches hogged by gated communities. Hope that's not S-Ville's future.

Still pouring. I hike past another resort behind barbed wire. Then a creepy scene: one of the European jerks from the bus whips past on a moto with a naked girl (about 8) on the back. Did I just see child trafficking?

High on a hill is "Chez Claude", which requires a tram ride to the top of the hill overlooking Sokha. Claude is a legendary S-Ville figure of French-Polynesian descent whose restaurant is well-known. It looks forlorn, though, in the haze above a rain-drenched hill.

I walk through a fishing village (Kampenh?), and get many "hay-loos". Boats are already returning with crabs.

Over to Independence Beach; local kids having a blast with inner tubes. Another snorkeling attempt; see some white fish on a sandy bottom. At high tide, the beach narrows, so some rock-climbing is needed to maneuver upbeach. Glad to have my reef booties.

I spot military guys on a cliff above the beach patrolling the abandoned Independence Hotel, which once hosted Catherine Deneuve and then became a Khmer Rouge HQ. I tippy-toe under them, undetected.

But then I start getting paranoid about landmines. I cut up the steep banks and stumble right into a hamlet of open-air homes (most on stilts), startling roosters, dogs and someone cooking on an open fire. I hear "hay-loo!" many times as I walk through the village in my wet bathing suit. Soon I have an entourage of laughing kids, including a teenaged girl who points to herself and says "Latmi". I point to her and say "Latmi?" She nods. I point at myself, but "Claude" is hard for her to say. She points at me and says, "USA! Rambo!"

We all stroll together and a few dogs join us. I get to the main entrance of the hamlet, where a pistol-packing teenaged security guard asks how I got there (I came from the sea, I tell him.) He seems to know Latmi. He's eager to practice his English, offers me a rusty folding chair, and, seeing my Bulls shirt, asks about Michael Jordan. He tells me he plays basketball, but doesn't know baseball.

I say good-bye to my new pals, who wave and smile. I check out the Vietnam-Cambodia Victory Monument celebrating Vietnam's help in ousting the Khmer Rouge. It's sort of a forlorn memorial on a weedy, trash-strewn site with a nice view of the sea.

Then a steep trek up Weather Station Hill (aka Backpacker Hill), the highest point in town. I stop by the Sakal Bungalows to bring greetings from my Illinois pal Kurt to its proprietor Chit, but Chit's not around. Past the Blue Frog Guesthouse. I buy some ice water at Dannie's and just chill, taking in the busy pedestrian scene. I chat with a German couple & their 8-year old trilingual son; they've been traveling for a month. We're joined by a hilarious Japanese surfer dude and two hyper Italian women with bulging backpacks. I smell pot. Someone up the street is mangling "Jumpin' Jack Flash" on an acoustic guitar. Mellow scene.

Afternoon I hike back down past Independence Square, a colorfully glowing pagoda and billboards of a very youthful Sihanouk. He was a character, played sax...wonder if he spent time here?

I reach Ekareach, the main drag across town. From serene beaches, sweet hamlets and laid-back Backpacker Hill to urban din and toxic smog. A river of motos speeds by tire repair shops, internet cafes, massage parlors. No stop lights or lanes, just go! I find the bus station and confirm a bus is going to Phnom Penh the next day. $3.60.

Leaving the smoky bus shed, I hear live music from up the street. Chicago blues! Some gravel-throated singer is tuning his electric guitar to the sounds of "Hoochie Koochie Man". I stroll up to the Angkor Arms Pub, an outdoor-indoor joint with a small inn on top. I'm beckoned in by a smiling hostess named Chantu who says, "Hay-loo! Cold beer good food live music!"

Who could resist? And Angkor Arms delivers on all three promises, tho the live music is just a sound check for tonight's gig. The grilled barracuda is simple but perfect and 50-cent cold Angkors on tap keep coming. Owned by a father-and-son from Australia, Angkor Arms has a British pub-in-the-tropics feel. Walls adorned with nautical maps, antique opium pipes, Marilyn Monroe posters.

Nice chats with Aussie guitarist (he loves bluesman Howlin' Wolf) and a British expat who says there are 200 British, U.S. and Australian expats here.

The joint is empty except for us, so waitresses Srey Nid and Chantu try to teach me some Khmer words. We meet Jason, a 31-year old who left the Air Force to start a new life here, and now owns "Dusk-to-Dawn", a late-night bar. "We're on the other side of the world," Jason says. "Every step I take in Sihanoukville is a step closer to Kansas."

I chat with owner Leon and his congenial wife Rotha, who seem crazy in love. It's a wonderful life, he says, no worries. We are happy in paradise, adds Rotha. She gives me a limited edition Angkor Arms calendar featuring herself, Srey Nid, Chantu and other waitresses in both classical Khmer costumes and blue jeans. Later, I hear the Arms is for sale...$50K.

Evening Rush hour, rain letting up. Downtown is bustling, wet, noisy. I head back to Ochheauteal Beach where I started this trek hours ago. Refreshing swim in crystal clear water.

I'm approached on the beach by 5 vendors (3 local women, a stunning Thai girl who grabs my Cubs cap and puts it on her head, and a crazy hustler guy.) Not much action on the beach, so may they practice their English with me? They have varying degrees of proficiency, but each can speak basic words and phrases. They seem eager to learn and are funny. All took some English classes, they say, and one has an English tutor for $16 a month. I ask each how they learned English so well: MTV, American movies, tourists on the beach. Only one is familiar with the Internet.

Sreyon, the platano-seller, takes my pad & pen and starts writing: "Mister Claud is nice man." The guy, seeing my Bulls shirt, is the second person today to ask about Michael Jordan.

Pina, who sells mini-lobster tails cooking on a live BBQ grille slung over her shoulder, challenges me to tic-tac-toe in the sand. If I lose, I must buy a lobster tail for 50 cents. She's good and I lose many games. Ten, actually. I treat the whole gang to lobsters. Pina stirs up a green sauce and smothers the crustaceans. I think, "CW, this is where you get Sihanouk's Revenge," but hey. They are superb, perfect. Sreyon passes around pineapple chunks sprinkled with hot peppers. I share some fruit chewys from my backpack.

We talk about life here and in U.S. They're the first Cambodians I've met who are unafraid to speak openly about their nation's recent history. "Listen, man, I speak the truth," the hustler guy says. "Pol Pot was an asshole, bad man, but that was before I was born." Could it happen again? "Never," one woman says. "All the Khmer Rouge leaders are old men. Our generation is too busy for all that."

They all have a genuine sweetness about them despite tough daily conditions in paradise. The oldest vendor - a manicurist mother of two - says, "We need schools, food for our children. Why can't we get them?"

She and Pina then offer me a free manicure and pedicure. I've never had either, and my feet are too ticklish for a pedicure. In the interests of international friendship, though, I extend my hands and they both go to work. We keep chatting as the sun sets over the Gulf of Thailand. Time to go. Pina gives me a good-luck wristband she wove and a warm hug.

Friday, March 25

Noon Packed bus departs for Phnom Penh, 5 hours on Freedom Highway. Seatmate is young Buddhist monk yakking on a cellphone who glares at me. Another loud kung-fu movie. Blue plastic bag river of junk begins, an unbroken chain from coast to capital. Towering sugar palms. Elephant Mountains are more dramatic on the return trip.

3:00 pm Pit stop sort of like the other pit stop: pits to pee in. Bus engine is smoking, so the driver finds a hose and starts spraying. Monks from several buses converge in a circle and chant quietly.

I buy a skewer of grilled fish and an icy-cold Angkor, and watch some monkeys in trees above the monks. I'm reading Paul Theroux's "Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific", which makes me wish I had rented or borrowed a kayak in S-Ville. What a great place, what a great experience.

5:30 pm Arrive in Phnom Penh in PM rush hour. Raucous scene at bus station, luggage flung all over, food vendors, much jostling for taxis.

Wild ride on a tuk-tuk (half-moto, half-carriage) to the 3-roomed FCC Hotel (Foreign Correspondents of Cambodia Club) on Sisowatch Quay, the bustling riverfront street and promenade. The FCC is a throwback to the French colonial era and was a hangout for Western journalists in the early '70s. My room has a nice balcony; can see the street, river.

8:00 pm Nice dinner on FCC rooftop: grilled pork on sugarcane skewers & Tiger Beer. Then a marathon hike through Phnom Penh. Lots happening: people in pagodas, playing soccer, selling you-name-it, enjoying the river with their sweetie.

Shimmering in the sunset, the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda are eye-popping. The Cambodian Vietnamese Friendship Monument depicts two stony-faced soldiers flanking a small woman and child. Broad boulevards are knotted with narrow curving alleyways. Wide green spaces are islands of green shrubs and badminton players amid insane traffic flows. No stop lights, no protection for the weak or timid (like me!) You wait with a group of pedestrians until you get a critical mass to cross the street en masse, forcing traffic to flow around you.

I stick my head into a few popular foreigner bars such as Heart of Darkness and Freebird, but things are slow. I'm the only Westerner on the streets, more a subject of curiosity than scorn. I'm approached by several pimps, none too aggressive. One guy offers a Laotian girl. No? How about a Cambodian boy? No? How about some E? I get many smiles and "hay-loos". Never see cops.

Midnight The riverfront is rocking at midnight. All shapes & sizes of crafts on the Tonle Sap River are chugging past downtown Phnom Penh about to be swallowed up by the mighty Mekong River, whose confluence is a mile away.

I chug a Gatorade and sit on the riverbank. People are swimming in the river, doing laundry, fishing. Badminton. At midnight. Thousands of people stroll under the stars. How could this entire city have been evacuated by the Khmer Rouge?

Saturday, March 26

Morning At 6:00 a.m., I'm jolted awake by thousands of people downstairs ready for their morning group calesthetics. A mass exercise class gyrating to Asian pop, classic Khmer, "YMCA". The moves are intricate and rapid: tai chi meets Electric Slide.

Sunrise over the confluence of the Tonle Sap & Mekong Rivers. Heavy smell of incense, many Buddhist shrines. Royal Palace is glistening. Vendors are setting up stands with bizarre fruits. Masked workers sweep trash into the river. Badminton games are already underway, as is a hybrid game of volleyball & soccer (no hands allowed in getting ball over low net). Misshapen doggies, guys hawking caged birds, amputee landmine victims, monks in line, grilled frogs, a cigar-puffing pimp. The raging torrent of moto traffic has begun on Sisowath Quay and Saigon Boulevard.

I walk 3 miles to Toul Seng Genocide Museum, where 17,000 people were tortured to death by Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979 and dumped in nearby killing fields.

Once a public school nestled on a residential side street, Toul Seng was the most notorious death camp. I do a self-guided tour of the facility which is pretty much the same as it was when the Vietnamese army liberated it in '79. Windows covered with barbed wire to prevent suicides. Metal bedsprings wired to car batteries. Water tanks where "suspects" were dunked to death. Boxes for scorpions which were placed on women's breasts. Photos, meticulously documenting each death.

There's a brief film about the Khmer Rouge's rise to power, evacuation of Phnom Penh & death camps. A photo exhibit tells the story of some Khmer Rouge soldiers who were forced to work at Toul Seng and now live as farmers nearby. I sit in the dusty courtyard with some monks and Japanese tourists, and take it all in.

I leave Toul Seng in shock and stroll aimlessly around Phnom Penh. How could it happen? On such a scale? By political psychopathic nut-jobs? So methodical, arbitrary, stupid.

I'm lost and need to get back to the FCC. I keep walking through dead-end alleys & side streets. High density, open sewers, open-air homes, roosters, haze. Locals are surprised to see me, some offer a "hay-loo!" I finally spot the Royal Palace and know I'm near the hotel.

One last gaze at Tonle Sap River and Sisowath Quay from my balcony. The flow of humanity on both river and street is unceasing.

Another furious tuk-tuk ride back to the Phnom Penh Airport. Nice waitress offers to mail my postcards for me. Catch a flight to Saigon for the next leg of the Adventure.

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