Sunday, January 18, 2009

Hong Kong

This time, Hong Kong on the way out of Asia was much better for us than on the way in. The uncertainty of the Bangkok airport closure last November and where we would go next and how much money we’d lose was replaced in January by a relaxed return to my favorite (and one of Leslie’s favorite) cities in the world. Photo: the way out of the airport to bus stop for the A21 into Kowloon

As we have for the last few years, we stayed in the Dragon Hostel in Mong Kok, the most crowded area of one of the most crowded cities in the world. After 6 weeks of travel we were pretty tired and spent much of our time in Mong Kok just experiencing the experience. We continued to find good and cheap places to eat and amused ourselves with new blocks, new streets, new sights. At this point of the trip neither of us are motivated to write and our daily stuff kind of merges and I’m unsure of what happened when.

Or room was even smaller than usual – I came about 6-8 inches short of being able to touch both walls standing with my arms outstretched. But the Dragon is a good place, clean and run with great professionalism by Stanley Fan and a crew of no-nonsense women. Stanley speaks excellent English and the women profess to speak no English – uh-huh. It’s a constant parade of backpackers and budget travelers of all ages and all nationalities, and these days, more and more people from the mainland packing 4, 5, 6 people into the 3 and 4 person rooms. Photo above and below: Fa Yuen Market in Mongkok

Of course we took the Star Ferry back & forth across the harbor to visit the Peak to have espresso at Pacific Coffee with a panoramic view of Hong Kong below. We used to take the Peak Tram (a cable-hauled funicular railway straight up the side of the Peak), but several years ago switched to the less expensive and more scenic double deck bus from the Star Ferry terminus to the Peak Tower. We took the bus back down, getting off at the massive IFC shopping mall/office complex and walking out and down to Connaught Road to Tsim Chai Kee, our favorite shrimp wonton noodle shop – only to discover that, alas, it closed in December.

Back across the harbor, taking the #2 or #6C bus from the Star Ferry terminus up Nathan Road to the Sincere House (where the Dragon Hostel is) we found the Good Hope Noodle cafĂ© where we drowned our sorrows in (what else) shrimp wonton noodle soup. Good Hope isn’t incredibly good like Tsim Chai Kee, but it’s as good as First Chinese BBQ here in Dallas, which is far better than anything else we’ve had in the states and when I went back to Good Hope for more later, the wontons were different (containing – I guess – shreds of some kind of fermented fungus or vegetable). Why would anyone get excited about shrimp wonton soup? All I can say is that it’s not anything like what we usually get in the US. Photo: the people's dim sum

From The World of Suzie Wong on the Star Ferry: “The ferryboat came churning alongside and the crowd moved forward. We jostled together down the gangplank and chose one of the slatted bench seats on the lower (2nd Class) deck … we had hardly sat down before the water was churning again, the engines rumbling, the boat palpitating – and we were moving off busily past the Kowloon wharves …” toward the Island, with its jumble of skyscrapers along the waterfront stretching for miles into the haze of a Hong Kong explored by very few visitors. Photo: the people's dim sum

For dinner we had take-out meals in our room – splitting big servings of char su (BBQ pork) on rice for $22HKD or pork and duck for $26 and an order of steamed vegetable with oyster sauce for $10 or spicy satay drowned in peanut and pepper sauces and assorted buns from one of the bakeries found on almost every block. This time through we didn’t make it to any of the big dim sum places or to our old favorite, Big John’s, but no problem – it’s all good in Hong Kong. Photo: the harbor, Star Ferry headed toward Central

On our last time through I made it up to the 4th floor of the Fa Yuen Market, past the fish and meat areas, past the vegetables, the fruits, the ethnic stalls (Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, etc.) – not to mention Chinese stalls – and up to the people’s food court. So this time through Leslie and I went and found some of the cheapest food in Hong Kong – for breakfast, big portions of dim sum (sui mai and shrimp dumplings) with hot tea for the 2 of us, $24HKD – less than $2USD each. There were about 10 big stalls selling food and all the customers sharing tables. Really a scene and we had a good time eating and checking it out – and some of the people there also seemed to have a good time, eating and checking us out. One of the food stall guys gave Leslie a Beer Chang bottle opener. Photo: good food right there

One last wandering walk in the Hong Kong night, through the neon streets, among vast crowds with people flowing like magic, people eating who knows what all, walking arm in arm, walking alone and playing a video game or reading anime, smoking, push a cart, striding fast, ambling slow, passing out flyers, gazing into girlfriend’s/boyfriend’s dark eyes, and no jostling, no bumping, all in the flow and at least one love hotel on every block & noodle shops & phone shops & clothes for sale & dried foods fragrant & fishy & stairways leading up to a whole other world & we aren’t even in the market area yet. Photo: Leslie sitting in Pacific Coffee on the Peak

Email from Leslie: Well Charles, Hong Kong just keeps getting better! You asked if we should research a better hotel for our next trip - I think I like Stanley's more every time we stay there. This current room is the best we've ever had here - since it's new, the air conditioning works great and is the new model. Stanley also added an extra exhaust fan, one in the room itself in addition to the usual one in the bathroom, which is great for sleeping and also seems to dry clothes much faster. This room seems smaller, I agree, but is better arranged (or we've finally gotten the hang of how to stash/store everything under the beds/a tiny vanity table/etc) so we seem to have more living space. At least we can both stand up at the same time which wasn't the case in a room we had once before. And finding the little table to add to the room really helps. I think next time we should stick up some removable hooks (or ask Stanley if he'd like to keep them) which will help even more. I noticed that the Japan Family Store has the hooks so we know where to go!

Three neat things have happened here this time, completely unexpectedly. I've looked for a cool bottle opener in every country we've visited and bought a Tiger Beer opener in Hanoi. But it's really plain, not cool at all. So in the People's Market (Fa Yuen?) I saw a great Beer Chang opener on a shelf at a food stall that also sells lots of beer. I asked the owner where I could buy one which led to a lengthy pantomimed conversation about his being sold out of Beer Chang but has every other kind I might want and a trip to the stand up cooler to show me each kind, bottle by bottle. I finally convinced him that it was the opener I wanted to buy, not a beer so he just gave it to me! I tried to pay him but he just waved bye to me and went back to work. As an aside, the beer companies give good promotional items to their vendors - our little Dim Sum shop had 4 unopened Tsing Dao plastic buckets in their trademark dark green color. I covet 1 of those buckets and I know that lady would have given me one (she was really delighted to have us I think - we attracted so much attention just being there that we surely brought in more customers!) but I couldn't figure out a way to bring it back. A bucket added to the 50 pound head just seemed too much.

The second neat thing happened at the Japan Family Store. We bought coffee filters there for our Vietnamese coffee maker but the coffee just plugged it up completely - I had to lift it out and gently squeeze to get any coffee into the cup. So I took them back (receipt in hand) and the lady let me exchange them for 2 great little ceramic glasses that we'll use in the bathrooms (the last thing on my list of must have souvenirs). So that's the 2nd time anyone has ever returned something in Hong Kong, I bet. I was the first as well as the 2nd - the water heater we still have came from Yue Wa Department Store and replaced the 1st one we bought there when it blew out the fuses in the hotel the first time we plugged it in. That exchange left the employees with their mouths gaping - the Japanese store though has a cash register that works just like ours to scan a return if you have your receipt.

Third, we went to a middle class shopping mall that had a grocery store in it (looking for coffee that would actually let water thru the filters) and found a huge food court - these are very common in Bangkok but this was our 1st in Hong Kong. So it took us awhile to decide what to order - most of the food was too ethnic for us. We ordered with the assistance of a young lady who insisted on helping us and then joined us to eat. Her name is Cindy and she is the production engineer (the only female in such a position) at a large furniture company. As such, the company furnishes her a room (with shared bath and kitchen) on the mainland during the week and transportation to and from Hong Kong for the weekends where she stays with friends who are still in college. She graduated early with a Master's degree and was hired straight out of school. Her Dad is a physician and now hospital administrator and her Mother a 7th grade teacher in China. They are so proud of her, as well they should be. Women do not have an easy time getting high level positions in Chinese businesses - I'm sure she works much harder than her male counter parts to make a place for herself. This bright young lady visited with us an hour or more and then walked us out to a money changer (open on Sunday when the banks were closed) so we could cash a traveler's check. We enjoyed her company so much - maybe we'll see her again next trip!

I know there's more but I'll write again later. Even though my typing is finally getting faster, I'm still painfully slow so better get to work.

Great trip Charles - I can start packing again any time you say!

Love, Leslie

PS I forgot that Mimi's brother (at our breakfast place) gave us one of his toothpick holders. We really wanted the Ovaltine miniature but they were all used and he wanted us to have a new one. Thoughtful but we needed the one that's reminiscent of a Seinfeld episode - maybe next time.

We rediscover Bangkok

Leslie writing in email to me: I'm at Stanley's while you're out changing money and getting into who knows what at the Chungking Mansions. I wanted to get some thoughts down about Bangkok and Hong Kong before I forget everything.

CK: We got into Bangkok around 7pm. The airport was packed with big lines at immigration. After immigration we tried to call a couple of guest houses, but couldn’t get through. So we went to the “Taxi Meter” stand where there was a huge line – 100s of people waiting. We then went upstairs to where taxis let people out for departure and negotiated a decent price with a driver while the hurry-up traffic guy tweeted and waved him on. We started out at the Miami, but with David there it just seemed too seedy, so after one night we moved to a smaller boutique-type hotel (which Leslie talks about below). Photo: from front patio of hotel - our quiet shady street

Leslie again: Bangkok was the best it's ever been - and since I've always loved it, that's saying something. The weather was amazing - mid 80's instead of the usual sweltering heat which makes being on the go a pleasure. It was a thrill to get back on the people's buses after all these years - GO OLD TOURISTS! We got to the US embassy with no problem and had pages added to my passport free of charge - all for a 32 Baht round trip bus fare (less than $1). Plus on the way back we found a TOPS Mart, a chain that I've heard about but never seen before. It seems they're in the basement (or sometimes the top floor) of the giant shopping malls so you really have to know where to look. Now we have their ad that lists all the locations and found one near our hotel. The main attraction for us is the spectacular and very cheap food courts in each store. We had curry x 2 + rice (40 B); tom kha ga (80 B); mango with sticky rice (40 B); pad see yew (45 B); pad thai with prawns (45 B); satay ( 10 B); and more. Then we discovered we could get lettuce and asparagus, etc. at the salad bar for less than $1 to go and had salad with grilled chicken (45 B) and sticky rice (5 B) and fried bananas (10 B) for dinner in our very cool room. So TOPS goes in the permanent record for sure! Photo: Spirit (Phi) house* next to hotel

We also used the bus to get to China Town, no small feat! We took # 48 from the hotel and with the help of a fellow passenger actually got off at the right place and walked 2 blocks into the middle of China Town. I shopped hard for some 22 K earrings at the Chinese gold stores and did well enough I think @ 3100 B (roughly $91 for 2.98 grams) for some beautiful filigree hoops. However, he gave me a 70 Baht discount off the original price and said "Happy New Year" so I suspect I still overpaid. Oh well - you do the best you can, right? Getting back turned out to be a challenge - I got help from the assistant manager at a Standard Charter Bank who assured me (such tact and face saving!) that it was not I who was lost but Bus # 48. She told me to take # 40 instead right outside the bank door and it took us back to the stop at our hotel - amazing! Photo: pad see yew around the corner from hotel

We also discovered the best way to cross the street on Sukhumvit - TOPS and other large stores connect via sky walk to others across the street so you can take an escalator to the cross over floor and just walk across - no traffic, smog, horns, or 3 to 4 flights of stairs. Wow! When we tried this the first time, we entered at Tines Square, another huge mall near Soi 13 on the other side of the road. I had wanted to look in there when we were staying at that end of the street but you thought it would be "just another mall." Well surprise, it was!- but the escalator dropped us at the door of a Tibetan/Himalayan shop that we'd never have found on our own. How sweet it is - we now have prayer flags and some wonderful Tibetan amulets that we really "needed." And you gave me the Pathfinder's Award of the day for finding TOPS and this store on the same day. That too goes on the permanent record! Photo: coffee lady - stand next to pad see yew lady

Finally for now we met a darling couple from Hong Kong who were on a short vacation in Bangkok and stayed at our hotel. Vivian and Jack took an interest in us and we them so hope to have time to see them in Hong Kong. They came to see us off for the airport when we left Bangkok and had the hotel manager take pictures of the 4 of us.

We really need to do a section on mid-range hotels in Bangkok - they are the devil to find but so wonderful once you do. We stayed at the Drop Inn on a mini sub soi of Soi 20 and it was fantastic! It's a tiny 1 block street, beautiful and full of flowers and normal people (read not scuzzy sex tourists and their prostitutes totally in your face). It was quiet, cool and in a terrific location. I found it while we were in Phnom Penh (lots of hours in an Internet cafe, searching and emailing places) because I couldn't bear to take David back to the Miami and that whole sordid scene. Their rates listed online were too high for us but I offered to take a room for several days if they could give us a cheaper room and they accepted! So we had a lovely room with wireless Internet (heaven for David); a computer downstairs for us old people traveling without a laptop; cable TV with only 4 English language channels (but who's complaining?) The Miami had only Al- Jazeera which really didn't count for me!); lovely breakfast buffet with coffee; and a freezing cold air conditioner. It was perfect as they say. And on the same tiny street, we found the Queen Lotus and the Baan which are both very nice and a bit cheaper (we renegotiated our rate after this discovery so never be afraid to bargain/make an offer. It works).
Well better run and see if you've returned. I'll try to start Hong Kong tomorrow - more new places and another darling new friend, Cindy. Photo: elephant in downtown BK - they bring the elephant to town and sell goodies to people to feed to the elephant - animal rights people don't like this.

I love you Charles - you're the best travel partner ever!


CK: After we moved from the Miami to the Drop Inn, Bangkok began to remind us of the place we used to visit – people friendly and helpful, some quiet lanes, less prostitution. We also relearned how to cross the death race/congestion of Sukhumvit Road: going directly across at safer places, going into a building to take the escalator to the Skytrain level and inside another building to take the escalator down. A lot of doo-dah to save walking a few stairs? Well, brothers and sisters, we’ve walked a lot of stairs in SE Asia where the risers are a little or a lot higher, the steps narrower, and the sidewalks (sometimes even in Bangkok) often a jumble of loose paving stones, randomly poured concrete, dirt and dog duke so you have to keep your eyes on the path and that can lead to problems, especially for the unhaired, running my head into random stuff hanging down like a corner of a tin roof (Oh! Oh! Man, that hurt. Oh good grief, now I’m bleeding, though thankfully not much) or a the splintered wood of a broken sign (Ow!). It’s tough, ain’t it. Photo above: crustaceans for sale in China Town

We settled into a relaxing – yes, relaxing in Bangkok – pattern: up at 6:30 or 7:00, brew up some strong coffee, shower, downstairs for an okay breakfast buffet (fried egg, bacon, toast, marmalade, fruit, coffee), around 9 take off on the day’s expedition – like the US Embassy, Tops Mart for another feast, coffee from the coffee lady, nap, internet, back out walking to Japanese area or Villa Market or whatever, and back to the hotel around 6 or 7, eat in our room (salad, BBQ chicken, etc.), collapse. Photo: on the people's bus

There was a late loud party across the street from our hotel and we were reluctant attendees trying to sleep. In the morning we told them we wanted to move rooms, but they said no rooms available for what we were willing to pay. Okay, I walked away and took off to get room at the Baan Hotel or Queen Lotus Guest House. I reached an agreement with the Baan, but by the time I got back the Drop Inn had made a decent deal with Leslie, so we stayed.

So we’re hanging out in a Japanese area off Sukhumvit, in our quiet neighborhood, in various food courts – ahhh, food courts. In the former times in Bangkok there were many restaurants either open on one side to the street or on the sidewalk where they had pans of curry and related foods set out on a table or counter. You would get 1 or 2 curries on rice for a great price (I remember in one place in Chiang Mai where they had great curries and the best prik nam pla and there was this dog …). And there was the same thing with noodle and soup shops and carts. Now there are still innumerable street food vendors, but there are also quite a few food courts attached to supermarkets and department stores and there are usually at least 30 or 40 vendors in the food court – curries, soup, noodles, grilled meats, BBQ duck, steamed stuff, fried foods, fruits and vegetables, desserts, coffee stands, etc., etc. – pretty amazing. We have the idea that they wash the dishes a little better than they do on the street. Photo: Chinese temple

A meal for the 3 of us: red curry, green curry, fried fish with sweet chilis, ground pork with lots of spice and sharp taste, pad Thai, green papaya salad, rice. All for less than $7USD. At Villa Market (where many expats shop) we had “happy hour” Indian curry, tandoori chicken, garlic naan, and yogurt. Lunch at street stand near hotel where we had pad see yew (flat noodles, vegetable like bok choy and pork in oyster sauce) several times. At Tops Mart we got tom kha ga (spicy coconut chicken soup), satay, pad see yew. Also salad to go to have with BBQ chicken and what not in our room.

On our last morning in BK, we were having breakfast on the little patio in front of the hotel around 7:30 and across the street there were 2 guys still dancing with the bar girls. They were inside and we could barely hear the music, but could hear enough to tell that it was, what can I say, pretty dorky music – music to get jiggy to, no doubt. Photo: a sterile and uncomfortable departure "lounge" in the Bangkok airport - one of many reasons to dislike this airport

We finished packing and got out on the street one more time, then checked out and left our bags with the hotel while we went for one last pad see yew and iced coffee. By-By.

* Spirit houses are part of a mix of Buddhism and Brahmanism called Phram. Offerings of food are to spirits (Phi) and offerings of food are to Phram.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Phnom Penh

One day we were in the ever-growing and dense Phnom Penh traffic and I flashed on: 30 years ago this was a ghost town. No doubt that's far from an original thought, but what an amazing transformation from the horror of Year Zero and the emptiness of 1978 to a big, sprawling Asian city!

The bus from Saigon took 7 hours and was a comfortable, easy ride with Leslie talking to two young women from Manchester. Goofily we didn't bring anything to eat (food packed in the bus hold) and it's been awhile since we've been tempted by bus stop food in SE Asia. The border crossing was easy with the bus guy (kind of like a tour guide) having collected $25 from everyone for visa and his services. So we were among the privileged having a short wait. As in our 2005 Poipet crossing they let us out on one side of the border for us to walk across, then picked us up on the other side, but this time, no dealing with immigration scams. Photo: countryside

Got into Phnom Penh around 2:45 to a bus station near the Central Market. Leslie got a tuk-tuk driver to call our hosts (Samnang and his family - where we stayed last time) and we took off in the tuk-tuk for the Russian Market. Another not bad ride. When we turned on to our street we were shocked to see it is now paved. Pulled up in front of the house, where Samnanng, Sokhom, Jeudy, Da, Chanmony, and Sophea greeted us. It was a wonderful homecoming. Our old room was ready for us and there was a Christmas tree in the living area. Everyone looks great. Samnang looks as strong as before, so that's a relief.

Mony's website:

We settled into the old routine of Mony and Sophea hanging out in our room, talking, playing games and so on; great meals fixed by Jeudy & eaten with Samnang, Sokhom, Mony & Sophea; walking to the Russian Market and internet cafe; relaxing; having our morning coffee on the balcony, watching the world go by: people selling ice, charcoal, brooms, eggs, flowers, coconuts, fruit; school children walking, holding hands, riding bikes (holding hands), school teachers, people going to market, coming from market, trash pickers, old guys sitting across the way and upstairs, on the balcony, really old people stooping around, and here comes three teen girls walking along, holding hands, talking; motos, cars, trucks, and lots of carts. Photo: Samnang & David

The first time I was in Phnom Penh I experienced it as dark and dangerous. When we went to the Russian Market (a block from where we're staying now) there was a man lying face down in the mud, a man with no face (just an open, infected wound), children with the red hair and sores and big bellies of malnutrition, beggars every few feet, and in a place where we were eating on the riverfront we saw a woman beating one of the vendor children with bamboo like a whip (I intervened) and it all seemed, like I said, dark and dangerous. Now it seems (1) definitely better and (2) like maybe I was misperceiving the degree of darkness before, or (3) all the above. Photo below: outside Psar Tuol Tom Pong (Russian Market)

Following from an email from Leslie to her sisters: I think it's Christmas Day or night where all of you are now so Merry Christmas to all. It's 9:00 am on December 26th here so we celebrated yesterday - our little family 1st thing after getting up, and then a huge feast and party in the evening with our family here. The food was unbelievable - 3 people cooking all day to produce a fabulous Thai soup, egg rolls, rice paper wrapped spring rolls, grilled chicken, pork satay grilled outside, fried rice, special Cambodian salad, and more. It was topped off by a mocha almond cake covered in whipped cream from a French bakery! Then we sang - karaoke with the girls. "Oh Carol" is the one they always want me to do but use Charles' name instead and "Hotel California" for Charles. The girls sing with us and also backup + many songs for just the 2 of them. It is really fun and we laughed till we cried. Charles pantomimed poor Tommy dying on the race track singing "Tell Laura (Leslie in this case) I love her," etc. Too funny and he lays cut and bleeding clutching his poor heart which is broken in more ways than 1. Everyone just exploded in laughter and applause! Of course we miss all of you, especially during the holidays, but this trip has been a really special one. The timing is perfect for our friends so I'm glad we can be here.

CK again: we've also spent time at two western-oriented places: Sister's, a coffee shop with good pastries (not too sweet!) and coffee (French press, no less). Also Jars of Clay, a Christian place with more good coffee and good pasties and a decent used bookstore upstairs. Both are near the Psar Tuol Tom Pong (Russian Market). Food thoughts for our return: shrimp with lemon grass and chillis served with cha gio from BistroB along with green papaya salad. I also want to fix more bun Cha - really, mine is almost as good as the best we had in Hanoi.

I just finished reading Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. Heavy stuff and the parallels between Chris McCandless, the protagonist and my mate Jeff are just astonishing - life at the edge, life into the wild, along yet understanding on a deep level that in the end, "happiness is only real when shared" (Chris McCandless shortly before he died). Photo: geckos in the Coco Cafe

Right now I'm sitting on the bed with Leslie, David, Mony, Sophea and their cousin Thol and yes, we're happy.

Some years ago I decided that basically I'd seen just about all there was to see site/attraction-wise. I thought, in terms of photos that I would enjoy in the future and that I liked to see taken by other people, that what I saw day-to-day was of greater interest to me and to some other people. Maybe I've gone a little far in the direction of market, street, and related photos. But that's mostly what I'm taking and enjoying.

I began to get cabin fever in our nice little place in Phnom Penh. So, it's a two day trip to Kampot (with a long o) for us: up at 4:45, throw some coffee, meusili, banana and milk down and downstairs for the tuk-tuk (arranged for yesterday) that would take us to the Okay guesthouse, our departure point except the tuk tuk driver wasn't there so I headed up the dark street toward the market where there were several tuk tuks parked with sides down and hammocks strung inside for the driver to sleep. I saw an awake driver a little farther and we quickly reached an agreement on the fare to the Okay and went back to Samnang's and picked up David and Leslie (and the food Sokhom had packed for our journey) and away to the Okay where we waited for 30 minutes and were then bundled into another tuk tuk to the bus station - which is the people's and backpacker's bus station as Kampot and Kep are apparently not big enough stops for a tourist bus and here I am, sharing a seat with a pleasant old woman having her morning iced coffee in a plastic bag. Photo: David & Sophea

One nice thing that happened was that four kind of scruffy (and entitled) backpackers had appropriated the four best front seats, but the young Cambodian woman in charge of checking tickets and assigned(!) seating moved them to their assigned seats in the back of the bus and put the people with the front seat tickets in the front seats. Bus into the rush hour traffic and Neil Young's Thresher on the iPod - pretty good road song. The bus is only partly full. All the actual seats are taken, but there are only a couple of people sitting on those little plastic stools are in the aisle and now it's All Over Now, Baby Blue - the primo Grateful Dead version and we're driving past the slums where Chavilet and I went in 2007. It looks like some of the people (squatters) have been moved - Dust in the Wind. Strike another match Go start anew And it's all over now, Baby Blue. Out of the city on a narrow road and it sounds like a cocktail party behind and around us except nobody is speaking English. We watch it all unfold: lotus and water lilies, squatter's shacks, houses of all sorts, laundry on fences, rice padi with people working in the last fields harvested and cows grazing in the fields already harvested and later the people will spread the newly cut rice out to dry on plastic sheets in front of their houses (many already with rice drying), and except for the few still growing green fields (small patches in the Texas sense of fields) the prototypical Cambodian countryside sere with tall sugar palms, thatched roof one table stores all selling pretty much the same things and stuff hanging from the eaves, gas for sale in 1 liter pop bottles - you got your red gas and you got your yellow gas, and periodically the bus stops to pick people up and when we were closer to Kampot stopping to let people off. Somewhere along the line we stopped in the middle of nowhere (great phrase, eh) behind a long line of cars, buses, trucks, etc. with a constant flow of motos around the sides of the stopped vehicles. A truck up ahead had "collapsed" and we would be waiting for one hour." We found a bench under a tree and waited there, enduring jealous looks from the benchless masses of backpackers smoke-smoke-smoking (Do all Europeans smoke?) them Gitanes, etc. But we only had to wait 30 or 45 minutes. We made the regularly scheduled bus stop restaurant stop a few miles up the road.

One thing is certain: bus stop restaurants are a lot better now than in the former times. The worst bus stop for us was a huge shed of a place in the middle of the night between Bangkok and Chiang Mai, where they slammed down bowls of jook (sp?), i.e., rice porridge with gristly meat and garlic included in the bus fare and the air thick with mosquitoes and all sorts of other insect life, not to mention the concrete floor, well, nevermind.

The old woman next to me (still wearing her green sweater) is doing up some aromatherapy and the TV above the driver is featuring yet another Cambodian variety show (brought to us by and a prime example of some things never ever change) and I'm grateful for the iPod and though Robert Earl and REM can't compete, the Black Angels finally win the battle of the bands.

The road is running between some hills, climbing now . Turn left off the main 2 lane highway onto a narrow 1.5 lane road which soon becomes dirt and the bus the bus shaking, swaying rattling and creaking along and after a few miles of dirt/gravel the road is paved and into Kep on the sea with ghostly deserted villas all moldy on the sides of hills and by now all the foreigners except us and a young Chinese woman from Taiwan are off the bus.

It's a short distance between Kep and Kampot and as we are stopped to let someone off on the edge of town there is a kind of gasp from several people at the front of the bus and I look to see a motorcycle and bicycle and two people lying in the road. The moto guy gets up quickly, gets on his moto and takes off without a glance at the girl lying on the pavement. The girl is just lying there and now moving and someone is helping her up and she crumples and they pull her up and help her off the road. The Chinese woman says, "But he just rode away!" There's no answer to that.

We got to the bus stop in Kampot and there was the usual press of moto, etc. drivers. We went with a guy in a white Tico (remember this, Kampot travelers) who took us to a smelly place in a bad location and then refused to take us elsewhere though he had said he would if we didn't like the first place. So we started walking and about a 1/4 mile up the road found a nice guesthouse (Long Villa) that was full, but they had a nice restaurant, so Leslie and David waited there while I walked on and 1/2 block away found a new GH (Popok Vel) that was clean, nice desk guy, aircon, etc. They had a balcony room available, but we've been down that road noise road before, so to the desk guy's puzzlement, chose a very nice back room overlooking (this is a first for us) a pig sty with 3 really big ones + some chickens and a rooster. Cock-a-doodle-doo. Photo: Kampot riverside

Got a tuk tuk to "downtown" along the river, which was very nice. Had a Beer Lao at an outdoor cafe, then to the Coco Cafe for tom yum, garlic bread, luc lac and french fries. Great collection of geckos - chuk chuk, chuk chuk. All of this on the riverfront and the river and mountains very beautiful at sunset.

This whole scene reminded Leslie and me of Burma - specifically Moulmein: very tropical, people friendly, non-harassing, beautiful, run down, cooled out for sure. In the morning we walked to a big market about 1/2 block from the GH - again, reminiscent of Burma, like the riverside, like everything else in this town. We could definitely see ourselves coming back as we too friendly, non-harassing, run down, and sometimes cooled out.

On the way back to Phnom Penh the next afternoon we passed 20, maybe 30 trucks totally packed with mostly young women, standing, really packed in, coming home from a factory we guessed.

Somewhere along the line we've come to enjoy bus rides - short ones, that is, like 4-6 hours and especially, through the Southeast Asian countryside - though I'm sure through the Rockies or Sierras or New England would be good too. This ride was no different - a constant unfolding of people and places - buffalo carts, motorcycles loaded beyond belief, girls with their long black hair in pony-tails on bicycles, pig selling guys coming back from market with empty baskets that held a trussed up pig on the way into market, spirit houses, haystacks, monks, chickens with trailers of chicks dashing off the road and on and on unfolding like a movie.

Back in Phnom Penh there's a wedding set up down the street. Big pink tents, tables and chairs, and in the afternoon monks chanting just like the many weddings we went to in Dallas. For the chanting part, here as in Dallas, it's the monks, the middle-age and old men and women joining in (and where I always was). Photo: Kampot

This evening it started raining again, drumming on our metal roof, now roaring on the roof. It's 3 of the last 4 evenings in this, the dry season, cooling things down, making sleeping a rare experience. Perfect weather except for the bride and groom up the street.

In the morning we went downstarirs to see Mony off to school, side saddle on Uncle Da's motorcycle and Saly, a small/medium size dog, perched on the seat in front of Da with her paws over the handlebars, wearing earrings, pearl necklace and sunglasses. Saly couldn't wait to hop up on the moto for her frequent ride. Photo: Daly, Da, Mony

It's been good to be in Phnom Penh with Samnang's family. Samnang and Sokhom are well. Mony is doing extraordinarily well in school. Sophea remains a lot of fun and will be going to a new school in February. Jeudy and Than are well and the food fixed by Jeudy - better than any we've ever had anywhere in Cambodia - just brilliant. Uncles Da and David are well and now there's a dog and cat in the house. Good times.

We're leaving tomorrow - off to Bangkok for a few days. David will fly back to San Francisco and on to Houston for Peter and Brandi's wedding. We'll stay a few more days in Bangkok, on to Hong Kong and then back to the US.