Category Archives: Writing

An exchange

A roadside stall in Kalaw, displaying dozens of dust bottles, gleaming in the dwindling sunlight.  The sky is grey-blue in the east, cinnamon in the west; it is a gloomy, but dignified wet-season sunset.  I screech to a halt in the slush, position the front doors of my beige hatchback over dry, rather than wet, mud and hoist my longyi.  Albert follows as I assess the area.

“Pineapple wine? Apple wine? Plum wine?” I ask, pointing to the array of bottles.  A young boy scurries out from the gloom within the stall nodding.  “What’s that one?” I ask, pointing to a bottle with more dust than usual, obscuring the writing and image on the label.  The boy replies with a word I don’t understand.  We go back and forth until realisation dawns: damson.

“Do you know who makes this wine?” I ask.  The boy doesn’t know.

“Where do you buy these from?” I ask.  The boy doesn’t know.

“Is it a company or a family?” I ask.  The boy stares at me.

“Is this all you have?” I ask.  The boy hesitates, then ducks inside.  He is gone twenty seconds.  Yes, that’s all they have.

I ask Albert, my partner in wine business, which he would prefer.  An enthusiastic drinker, he declares that they all sound wonderful.

“We’ll buy one of each.”

The boy calls out and is joined by another, older teenager, who looks around for something.  He pulls out six gleaming white cardboard bottle bags, the kind ubiquitous in Australian and high-end Yangon bottleshops, and carefully puts each of the dusty, dirty, aged bottles into their own crisp, clean gift bag.  As he does so, I go through the basics.

“Do you drink wine?” I ask.  The boy does not.

“Do you drink beer?” I ask.  The boy does not.

“How about cigarettes?” I ask.  The boy thinks for a moment, and then says no.

A motorcycle splutters past.  Then another.  Kalaw’s rhythms are foreign to me, but it is a town of domestic migrants, of opportunity and of tourists.  I can categorise it: and Albert and I at least fit in here, there is a role to play, unlike many other idiosyncratic villages and towns across the country, down potted roads and one-lane “highways”.

The sun descends.  Cinnamon turns to peach.

We load the boot of the Kia up with our mysterious wine, pay and leave.

A Rooster as Big as a House

This is the eighteenth in a series of posts about living, teaching, traveling and studying in Southeast Asia during my twenties. This entry is about a friend of mine and his many motorcycle accidents in Laos.

In November 2009 I motorcycled around the southern part of Laos for a month with a close friend who I will call Greg.  It was a trial by fire for Greg, who had never ridden a motorcycle before.  He was very keen to learn and I thought there could be no safer place in Southeast Asia than the beautiful dirt roads of Laos, blessedly free of the traffic that chokes so much of the region.  We landed in Vientiane, rented our motorcycles and headed into the suburbs for his first lessons.

This is a story of three motorbike accidents.  It is a story of fortitude and perseverance in the face of repeated bruising, a story of the human spirit overcoming an increasingly broken body, a story of lessons learned.  But mostly it is a story of luck – that Greg didn’t shuffle of this mortal coil deep in the Laos jungle, wrapped around a twisted metal heap that used to be a two-wheeled vehicle.

The first crash happened somewhere near Thakhek, only a few days into the trip.  Greg and I were putting merrily along a dirt road on the way to a lake for a swim.  I had a passenger at this time, a lovely Australian named Ricky who was on a worldwide tour for a year.  I was confiding to him at the time that I was a little worried about how Greg would go riding.

“But, he seems to be quite safe,” Ricky said to me.  “He’s not going fast or anything.”

It’s true; we were cruising at about forty kilometres an hour, a pretty tame speed for the empty dirt roads of rural Laos.  But as sure as the sun rises, as soon as Ricky said that, Greg sped past us.  He gave a knowing nod and smirk as he did so: catch me if you can, it communicated.

But before I could attempt to catch him or not, Greg pushed his bike into a ditch, smashed the wheel into the corrugated dirt and catapulted himself onto the road.  It was a perfect sequence of events from our perspectives: he zoomed past Ricky & I, came in full view of us and only then promptly crashed the bike.  I shook my head and skidded to a halt.  There he lay, this friend of mine, just gaining his confidence on two wheels, only to be dashed against the hard earthen reality of over-enthusiasm.

The second incident occurred a few days later, further south near Savannakhet somewhere.  I forget where we were headed, but it was just the two of us by now, Ricky having departed for his next destination.  This was before I had a smart phone or GPS and we were relying on print maps.  I knew we had to make a right hand turn somewhere but wasn’t sure where, so I took the lead, ducking through the paddocks checking left then right at each intersection.

Then HO! I spotted the turn.  It was too late to make it, so I put the brakes on after crossing the intersection and turned my head – once more, just in time to see Greg’s face contorted in shock as he applied his front bake, skidded into the dirt and crash out alongside me.  I just stared at him in disbelief.  If he had used his back brake he would have been fine, but for some reason he panicked, and instead of cruising past me or initiating a rear brake skid he opted to put all pressure on the front – and on these red dirt roads, that was a recipe for disaster.

Greg slowly rose to his feet.  Somehow his pants had fallen down.  He stood on the road in his boxer shorts, breathing heavily.  Dust and steam surrounded him as our motorcycle engines purred.  Three farmers, who had seen the whole thing, approached from the fields, and another motorcyclist pulled up to ask if we needed help.  Greg stared at them.  They stared at his naked legs and boxer shorts.  I stared at the whole scene.  Then we all burst out laughing.  Thankfully Greg and the bike weren’t too hurt; but his pride was taking a slow, sure, beating.  After righting the bike I took a quick photograph and we moved on.

The third and final crash was a doozy.  It beat Greg down and could have been quite serious.  Unlike the other two, I didn’t witness it.  Greg and I were descending a steep hill deep in a national park.  After five minutes of riding I realised I hadn’t seen him in my rear view mirror in a while, so I stopped and waited for him to catch up.  Ten minutes passed with no Greg passing me by.  I turned around and rode back up the mountainside.

There, in a small village, sat Greg, despondent, clothes ripped, skin slashed, surrounded by local peasants.  His motorcycle was not exactly a tangled heap, but the clutch had snapped off and there was significant cosmetic damage.  Oh dear, I thought.

“What happened man?” I asked.

“Rooster,” Greg said.  “As big as a house.”

I nodded.  Plenty of animals came at you on these roads.  I had been lucky to never hit anything.  I guess Greg was faced with the prospect of killing the rooster or hitting the brakes – and he went for the front brake again.

We didn’t say much.  He got on my motorbike and I nursed his own clutchless wreck down the hill and towards our accommodation.  That night I tended his wounds, using basically my entire first AID kit.

Did Greg have a good time in Laos?  Yes, he did.  He and I went on to take many more bicycle and motorcycle trips in Asia, and I am proud to say his vehicular stability is now peerless, with nary a stack or a skid for years.

But that trip in Laos in 2009 was a close call – and it could have gone either way.

Yangpu Park

This is the seventeenth in a series of posts about living, teaching, traveling and studying in Southeast Asia during my twenties. This entry is about a park I used to walk in daily.

Yangpu District (杨浦区), a concrete suburbia balanced on silt in Shanghai, sustains a vast swathe of people. It is a large urban area by
any standard, clocking in at sixty square kilometres, and as a result of a population density over six times higher than the Australian city of Melbourne, it has a population in the territory of millions.

In 2010 this inner-fringe corner of Shanghai had 1.24 million residents to be exact, all spread throughout hundreds of apartment buildings built up along the west bank of the Huang Pu river, four kilometres north of the famous Bund heritage area of Shanghai.

The name Yangpu means poplar bank, giving rise to a very different time in China’s history, evoking images of clean rivers, blue skies, and branches rustling in the wind, whispering serenity. The average visitor to urban Yangpu would be hard-pressed to feel the name justified, however, as very few poplars are in sight and the riverbank is dominated by industry.

What Yangpu lacked in serenity it makes up for in factories, firmly entrenched in the eastern and southern quarters, heaving rocks and spewing waste about the place; production, production, production, fueling the latest addition to the suburb – the Shanghai shopping malls; gleeful, shining-bright kingdoms of consumer chaos.

But when I lived in Yangpu, there was a place where one could go to attempt escape from the relentless rush, from constantly inhaling fumes, from the congested crowds of pedestrians. It was a place that gives a million people the chance to achieve that old elusive serenity, to reflect on poplar trees, golden banks, on what has been and could
be again. Smack bang in the centre of Yangpu district, hemmed in by concrete walls, iron gates and steady traffic, lies the Yangpu Park.

It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but venture within the arched gateway and you will find yourself in a surprisingly huge, tightly manicured, twenty-two hectare green space. The Shanghai Municipal Government published an English manifesto listing the qualities of the park in the early 2000s:

Originally built in 1957, Yangpu Park has been renovated three times, most recently in 2008, and offers a wonderful interactive experience with abundant wildlife. The Yuhu lake is at the park’s heart and is completed by exquisite pavilions, corridors, bridges and ornamental buildings, among other forms of garden architecture and botanic attractions in different sections. The rock garden and waterfall near the main entrance hold special appeal, the fragrant pond of water lilies and the fish pond by the waterside promenade offer amazing views. The botanic zone boasts a complete and juxtaposed collection of vegetation featuring the four seasons and the fitness centre provides a wonderful, highly integrated functional space for recreation, sports and entertainment.

Although delightfully hyperbolic, as most English government prose in China is, the manifesto is a decent summary of what the park offers Yangpu residents. There are huge lakes, meandering streams, arched bridges, traditional pavilions, open green spaces, a rose garden, an outdoor public gym, a chi ldren’s play area and more. The approach is strikingly artificial, with a strong human influence exhibited by the standard asphalt paths, colour-coded flowerbeds, carefully shaped hedges, and in one corner of the park, a roller-coaster and tennis courts.

At the main entrance is a brilliantly awkward presentation of the park rules in English.

Pursuant to the regulations of Shanghai Municipality Administration of Public Parks, visitors are advised to observe that ethic and moral codes should be duly honoured:

  • Visitors are expected not to urinate or shit, post advertisements or posters, write or carve around in the park, expose one’s top, lie about, wash or air clothes.
  • Scavenging or begging from others is unallowable; climbing artificial hills is objectionable, ball games and kite-flying are impermissible unless in a designated area.
  • Visitors are not supposed to tease, scare or capture birds, crickets, fish or shrimp, or cicada (except for commercial purposes).
  • The visitor to the park should discipline himself instead of making himself a nuisance to others; any group activity in the park shall be subject to the administration of the relevant department of the park; public speech or public meeting of any nature is inexpedient.
  • Activities of feudalistic and superstitious nature and gambling are prohibited; peddling about, practicing medicine or distribution of propaganda sheets is not allowed.

Walking through the park reveals an enormous number of people recharging away from the hostile city, many in blatant disregard of
the above rules (though thankfully rarely the first one). People stroll aimlessly, people stroll with great aim, people sit, people stand. By the rivers and streams sit solitary men, seated on plastic stools with fishing rods in the water. They don’t read, they don’t listen to music and they certainly don’t talk to other people. They simply stare at the water and concentrate on fishing.

I once asked an elderly fisherman if he had caught any fish that day. He slowly moved his head, stared at me for ten seconds like I just didn’t get it and then said no. Conversation over. Representative of solitary fishermen everywhere, perhaps.

Spread throughout the park are groups of people gathered around card tables playing Chinese poker. These are the stragglers, the not-so-serious players, for everyone knows there is only one corner of the park where the real action is at. Tucked away by a pond, and a decent walk from both entrances, is a concrete and cobble-stoned space that teems with enthusiastic gamblers. At any one time there will be upwards of a hundred people playing poker, exchanging their hard-earned yuan among each other. It is not uncommon to see twenty onlookers for a game with four participants as local reputations are solidified and liquefied, relationships are tested, and (some) people achieve their own form of $erenity.

By the banks of the lake stand the saxophonists, the flutists and the brass bands. It is common practice to claim a lake-side space by nailing a music sheet to the trunk of a tree, then unloading your instrument of choice and letting loose with no inhibitions. Music notes of all flavours float across the Yuhu lake, meeting and mixing in the middle to form a mighty confusing medley. The only people who hear the performers from this vantage point are the boaters, usually young families, plying the green water in plastic rentals. They lounge around the centre of the lake in between tackling the narrower canals, where they regularly bump into each other causing merriment for all – unless you fall into the murky green depths. Then you go to the hospital.

People come to the park to fly kites, feed the pigeons, perform tai chi and sing karaoke. Portable karaoke amplifiers can appear at any pavilion or lawn and it doesn’t take long for a crowd of admirers to applaud participants – and then join in with their own takes on the classics. Towards sunset the park brings its sound-scape into its own hands, playing traditional, if slightly repetitive, instrumental songs over a park-wide speaker system. At the same time every night, the park empties itself out to the same eerie tune, set on merciless repeat.

As the residents of Yangpu finish their serene sojourns through the gardens, other creatures begin their own. Perhaps the most peculiar aspect of Yangpu park is that it is habitat to a burgeoning population of feral cats … and they all come out at night (… mostly). Tabbies, gingers, big fellas, little kitties, all ranges of cats prowl the park after dark, on the hunt for rodents, fish and left-over picnic tucker.

Clearly only a couple of generations away from domesticity yet still entirely freaky, strolling out of the park at dusk with all the other humans gives one the feeling of being part of a defeated army abandoning an outpost. At every turn the cats watch from the shadows, licking their lips, waiting for their chance … perhaps wondering about the taste of a different kind of flesh … God forbid an abandoned toddler estranged from its parents, wandering the paths in twilight … But I digress.

Yangpu park. For a time it was my local. A strange place, but a beautiful one in its own way, and I am still very fond of it, and for what it gave to me. Serenity now.

Big Bertha

This is the sixteenth in a series of posts about living, teaching, traveling and studying in Southeast Asia during my twenties. This entry is about riding up to a militarised temple.  Its style is in the present tense as it was originally written eight years ago.  I thought it would make a nice change of pace as a stand-alone entry, a Big Bertha blast from the past, without any banal reflections from the other end of my twenties.

I unfold the wet, deteriorating map of Cambodia onto the makeshift plank table and anchor it down with a mug of steaming leaf tea, spilling a little in the process. The map gets a little soggier, but is at least prevented from flapping in the lakeside wind. Athy eyes me quizzically and shakes her head as she blends fruit into juice. Athy is the domineering matron of the Lazy Fish guesthouse, my temporary (and her permanent) home in Phnom Penh; a space of conflicting culture. She is old – at least fifty – and that means she lived through the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese occupation. I want to bring this up but never do.

“You check out? Always you are going!” she cackles, slightly bitterly.
Adam and I had rolled into Phnom Penh the night before, well after midnight, exhausted and  filthy from our jungle ruminations in the Cardamom Mountains. This is the third time we have descended upon the Lazy Fish guesthouse in such a manner, always returning from our methodical explorations of Cambodia’s corners to this fragrant bungalow, nestled on rotting stilts above the filthy Boeng Kak, a foulwater lake being desultorily filled in with sand to make room for the plusher, staler forms of accommodation Chinese developers supposedly prefer.

“Yes, but we’ll be back! You have the best guesthouse in Boeng Kak,” I respond, quite pleased with my rhyming compliment.

Athy grunts and chops a banana. Once my departure has been confirmed she loses interest in me and yells in Khmer at one of her staff. He scampers from a hammock-induced doze across the open veranda. The plank floor flexes and vibrates dangerously. I sip my tea and wonder how much he gets paid. It is peaceful poring over the map, listening to the whooshing of the Chinese sand being pumped under my feet. Deciding on an initial route is important, but as most of the roads in Cambodia are unmapped, improvisation always supersedes preparation.

Today is an exciting day – Adam and I are riding to Prasat Preah Vihear. We have impulsively decided to visit the heavily disputed 11th century mountain temple on the insistence of a bald English man we met in a grease-pot bike shop in Koh Kong.

“There’s nothing there, nothing!” he had exclaimed – not marvellous incentive for sightseeing. But he wasn’t referring to the beauty of the place; rather the very real danger of bullets, mines, conflict. He was answering his fellow Western thrill-seekers with another excuse to tempt fate. We knew Preah Vihear had been the centre of fighting for over six months and visiting would be risky. Located on the Cambodia-Thailand border, both countries lay sovereign claim to the ancient structure and are in a perpetual military stand-off. Thai and Khmer soldiers are being periodically killed in skirmishes; a few Thai in their Kevlar and helmets, a few more Khmer with their silk krama scarves and tattoos. The hostilities have worsened in the past year, but the old man convinces us it’s safe. What can I say? We are receptive.

The trip takes longer than we expect. We spend a night in Sisophon, a dust-swept crossroads, to drink and regenerate our vigour. We visit several temples along the route – wounded but not forgotten, obscurely hidden down tiny paths behind villages, whetting our appetites. They are glorious and awe-inspiring, but a single slithering python doesn’t quite have the same presence as an embattled squadron of the military. We’re after action; the incongruity of modern warfare in ancient places. Preah Vihear is attaining mythical proportions as we joke and hypothesise about what we will find there, clunking along pot-holed roads, dodging chickens, weasels, children.

We arrive at Prasat Preah Vihear on the cusp of sunset. The Dângrêk Mountains gaze at us ominously, a formidable natural border, miniaturising us in an instant. High, high above, a speck of rock is almost visible, defiantly exhibiting over the Cambodian plains.

“Danana! We made it!” I shout to Adam over the whirring 4-stroke, slamming my bike into third gear to mount yet another wood-plank bridge.

He coasts along, nods, face unrecognisable from nine hours of caking dust. We have pushed ourselves today, nearly to the limits of human exhaustion – over 400 kilometres travelling through inhospitable terrain, not a sealed road in sight, with only wildfires, mine fields and Pol Pot’s ashes for company.

My motorbike is running low on fuel, and I have emptied all my Fanta bottles, but I judge there is enough left in the tank to reach the settlement at the base of the mountains. After all, the bike has already led me through four weeks of highway terror, mountain clefts, jungle paths and river crossings. By now I am truly in love with the beast. We understand each other. No mountain is unsurpassable, no minefield unnavigable, no Wat unreachable. Sometimes, when Adam isn’t looking, I hug the bike, being careful not to burn myself in the process.

Adam and I splutter into the market town at the base of the mountains. It resembles other markets in the north-west, but with a definite military presence. Soldiers are lazing, stumbling drunk or drinking, AK47s slung nonchalantly over shoulders, yelling, laughing. As usual, we are the only westerners in sight, and are appropriately gawked at – I feel a little uneasy, like we are a dangerous anomaly, rather than a mere curiosity, but I convince myself the mood is still merry. Adam and I hustle over to an aromatic petrol seller and fill up.

“Preah Vihear? Ki-lo-met?” I fumble in English. The seller smiles and nods.

“Pram pi ki-lo-met!”

Great. Six kilometres is ten minutes. We’ve got a killer temple sunset coming up (the photos will be great) followed by sleep, sweet sleep… I pay the seller and turn to Adam. He is staring upwards towards the dim summit prosaically, murky fragmented reflections in his spectacles. He always was a stoic. Two firm kick-starts, a few competitive revs, and I am chasing the sunset trail, hooting. The soldiers are bemused by the spectacle. What better way to spend your R&R than by goggling at the Other – that’s why I’m here, after all.

After a few minutes the market dwindles, the wooden shacks regress to sugar palms and we eventually arrive at a kind of improvised barracks. A large number of Khmer soldiers are concentrated in the area, squatting in the shade, milling about in bunkers, huts and tents. There are two sandbag dugouts with heavy machine guns installed, pointing up the looming Dângrêk range. Three soldiers are standing in the middle of the road, blocking our entrance to the Holy Grail, guns on their fronts. Adam and I kill our engines and dismount. As we do so, the craziest of the three points at us and yells.

“NO!”

He is sweating profusely – not unusual in Cambodia’s climate – but he appears to be far slimier than his comrades. He has no sign of rank or authority, so I am initially reluctant to accept his decree. Adam is silent, paralysed next to me, confronted by the profuse weaponry. It dawns on me that he has probably never been this close to people with arms before. Joking is one thing.

“Sok-sabay,” I clumsily greet the person of perspiration. He narrows his soaked eyelids, with an accompanying moist sound effect.

“NO!” he yells again. I see smiles on some of the other soldiers’ faces, but my negative friend isn’t playing. The sky gets darker by the second.

“We want to go up Dângrêk, Preah Vihear,” I motion upwards, point to the motorbikes, to the sun. Some soldiers nod, but most have at least one hand on their weapons.

“No, finish, no,” my antagonist asserts. English is obviously not the game, and my Khmer is horrible, so I attempt a new tact, admittedly my last resort in bilingual relations – physical clowning. I point to the machine gun nest and mime shooting.

“Br-br-br-br, Thailand!”

Is there fighting preventing ascension? All the soldiers find my display hilarious – except for the ring-leader.

“No, no Thailand,” he maintains. So maybe there’s no fighting. Why can’t we go up? I try the pity card. I drop to my knees, do the Wai and moan pathetically.

“Please, we’ve been riding all day, we’re exhausted, we look and feel like shit, we just want to see the temple, the sunset …” I peter off. My physical begging raises more cackles – maybe the majority are on my side by now – but I still fail to ingratiate myself with the perspiratory elitist. I roll into the foetal position and swear. Guffaws.

“No,” the boss shakes his head. He then confers with his (much happier, much more reasonable) colleagues in Khmer. I take this as an encouraging sign and stand up to receive their deliberations in a more dignified manner.

He turns to me and holds up seven fingers. I mime sleeping. He nods. 7AM! He grins. He grins! Our sunset dream is defeated, but I don’t care – tomorrow’s sunrise beckons, and after this awry encounter it doesn’t seem too punishing to eat, curl up and drift off, dreaming of ancient civilizations, AK47s and petrol in Fanta bottles.

Riding up the mountain in the early mist is surreal. Light pierces the fog and illuminates the odd lonely, loaded machine gun nest bordering the winding mountain road, their turrets pointing over forested valleys into Thailand. We see rocket launchers idling against trees, not a soldier in sight. Adam could crack at any second and blow me up in an instant. He doesn’t. This is what friendship is about. Occasionally we pass groups of soldiers doing exercises, but they are few and far between.

Arriving at the summit and glimpsing Prasat Preah Vihear is a defining moment. The human joy of gaining altitude is matched by our feelings of a deserved reward; and as we explore, by the rough, Spartan enormity of the temple itself. The military are present, along the temple causeways and up to the edge of the cliffs, smoking, listening to the radio and gazing out at the punishing Cambodian plains. Some of them draw water from a millennia-old baray (reservoir), Khmer doing what Khmer have done, a thousand years of evolution and divergence deteriorating into the depths. Splash.

The temple is spectacular: chiselled stone, lush vegetation, surreal proliferations of bullet holes, and a defiant, nation-building statement on a giant twenty-metre placard, drawn tight over a section of the temple towards Thailand and the rest of the world.

“PROUD TO BE KHMER,” it says, in capital bold red English type. I would be proud too.

Yet there is something so sad here. Like nearly all of Cambodia, I just don’t know how to take it.