Coups, Kicks and Settling Down

Settling down. A phrase most commonly preceded by “find a nice girl and…”

Not that there haven’t been more than a few nice girls to be found on this trip, but I still don’t reckon I’m there yet.

Well the Conquest has “settled down” for a least the foreseeable future. I’ve taken a gorgeous apartment at Lanta Gym to “settle down,” do some serious writing, get in shape while learning some Muay Thai, and do a little detoxing after the thousand or so cheap beers I’ve consumed since entering SE Asia.

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I was ready for a place to call my own for a while, to completely unpack my bag, leave all of my things laying around without the concern that someone might make off with one.

Deflating my Ziplock clothes bags

Deflating my Ziplock clothes bags

I was ready to be in 1 bed for more than 3 consecutive nights, to slow the pace which has put me in 53 beds in the past 100 nights.

So far, I’ve:

Flown 88% of the way around the world (21,829 miles over 45 hours)

Bussed 3300 miles (roughly 146 hours)

Trained 400 miles (12 hours)

Spent 3 days on the Mekong River on a boat from Saigon to Phnom Penh

I’ll risk a little moss growth. This stone is tired of rolling at the moment.

**************

But boy oh boy, what a detox it will be.

I got dropped off after a 3 hour van ride from Krabi, which included 2 ferry rides to finally get to Koh Lanta, a largely undeveloped island in the Andaman Sea. I accidentally left my flip-flops in Bangkok, so I’d been barefooting it exclusively for 3 days.

I’m sure there are a fair few people who would’ve paid good money to see Chris Moorman, former buttoned up, Young Republican Wall Streeter, standing on the side of a Thai island road barefoot wearing a Buddha ring, singlet/tanktop, “hippy pants,” and ankle bracelet. All of my worldly possessions strapped to my back like some “goddamned dope smoking hippy.”

Life is a strange thing. Some days tuxedos, some shoeless weeks.

I stepped into a roadside stand, where I grabbed a sandwich and some free WiFi to get my bearings. I walked down the gravel road to Lanta Gym, where I met the crew and signed up.

They showed me the gym, the luxurious accommodations and the pool. I looked at them and said, “Sign me up.”

View from my front door

For 3 weeks of private Muay Thai training, an all marble 1 BR apartment (cable, AC, dual shower heads, all cleaned daily) 3 steps from an Olympic swimming pool, daily made to order breakfast, motorbike rental, and access to their full Western style gym with steam room and unlimited yoga classes I was charged the grand total of…

 

 

$800 USD.

By comparison, for a flex 1 BR (one bedroom split in half by a fake wall) in Manhattan, I was paying $1575 a month. That didn’t even include utilities, which ran another $150 a month.

Good to be in Thailand for low season.

I got my bearings, found the nearest 7/11 (of which there are approximately 1 for every 4 human being in Thailand) and put on my preposterous looking Muay Thai shorts. I walked the 30 yards down to the open air gym, with a few stray dogs and cats following behind me like I was the Pied Piper.

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Then the sweating started.

My instructor, Anglicized name Zac, was great. He put me in the ring with Ko, one of the other instructors for an “IQ test.”

I probably have 35 lbs and 3 inches of arm reach on Ko, but I’ll be damned if I landed more than 3 punches in the 3 minutes that he danced around and laughed at me. He caught me with a couple sharp jabs to the jaw, laughing merrily as he did.

“Han UP! Han UP!”

Smack!

“Han UP me say!”

Smack!

He yells something in Thai as everyone laughs, then puts both gloves over his ears.

“Falang no HEE me!”

At this point, I thought I saw my opening to finally get him with one in the guts.

I “almost” got him.

SMACK!

“HA HA. Falang IQ no GOO.”

Zac finally ended the mild humiliation, putting his arm around my shoulders and saying “One WEE, we’ll make you good. And you hab twee WEE.”

He then proceeded to work me like a borrowed mule for the next 75 minutes. He patted the finely marbled American flesh that I hold around my midsection and laughed.

“You hab vewy nice one pack. Vewy nice. No wowwy. We make 6 pack in no time.”

I will chalk that up to good news.

I got through it and walked across the road to catch one of the fabled Thai island sunsets. I was far from disappointed.

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I jumped on the motorbike to find a roadside stand for some food. Found one where I got a huge pile of sticky rice, a couple chicken breasts, and a few skewers of some very chewy “beef” for $1.50.

I’m going to keep telling myself it is really beef. Not exactly the ribeye a la Johnny Zarse that I’ve become accustomed to, but yeah, “beef.”

I came home and checked out Thai cable, where I found a station with a very mournful music video going on. There were English subtitles, so as I chewed through my “beef” I continued to watch. The whole thing was basically a promotional video from the National Committee for Peace and Order (NCPO), which is the proper name of the military coup which is ongoing in Thailand.

The videography was completely professional, mostly scenes of positive interactions between uniformed soldiers and civilians and the subtitles in English read things like “Trust in us, we will restore your country. For the people. Order and peace will come. It will take some time, but the Army is on your side.”

I’ve been trying to read as much as I can in the English language press here, mostly picking up newspapers like the Bangkok Post and The Nation. I can’t really tell the level of censorship going on, but the people I’ve spoken to are generally in favor of the coup from what I can tell.

Military coups are largely a way of life here in Thailand. Since the abolition of absolute monarchy in 1932, there has been a military man in power for 54 of the subsequent 82 years.

This is the 12th coup the 62 year reign of King Bhumibol Aduljadej.

It is a concept that an American could no more wrap his head around than the possibility of a talking dog.

Other than the military presence in the big cities that I’ve encountered, I can’t really tell that anything is going on. Even that “military presence” seems to be nothing compared to some days when I’ve walked down North End Avenue or into Penn or Grand Central Station in NYC and seen 50 police cars or 35 National Guardsmen with M-16s patrolling the area. (My negative thoughts on the militarization of the American police force could fill volumes.)

It is pretty funny to see music video propaganda though, and I’m very glad that they were kind enough to put English subtitles up for me. Really made me feel like part of the team.

Well I’d love to write more, but I’ve got to find some bananas to recharge before my 4PM session.

 

Horror and Hope in Cambodia

On a trip like the Conquest, there are countless moments that take your breath away. Whether a sunset on a deserted Australian beach, a pristine waterfall in the middle of no where in Vietnam, or a 9 year old firebreather on the streets of Saigon, the world has endless wonders with which to surprise and amaze.

Young firebreathers

Young firebreathers

Unfortunately, the cosmic scales don’t tip endlessly to the wonderful. The other, darker side of the coin exists, balancing out the good with the most reprehensible evil imaginable. Here in Cambodia, I saw one of the most horrific atrocities that humanity has ever perpetrated against itself.

A few levels of bones, they go 17 levels high.

A few levels of bones, they go 17 levels high.

I still remember vividly the day that Pol Pot died. It was my 11th birthday, and I was in the car with my dad who invariably had NPR tuned onto the radio. In the crackling monotone of AM radio, a voice came across and said “Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge and perpetrator of one of the worst genocides in history is reported dead in near the Cambodian border with Thailand.”

I had never heard of him, and when I asked Dad who he was, he simply replied, “Crazy bastard in Cambodia who killed almost half the population. Sure as hell didn’t deserve to die of old age.”

It was a sparse but totally accurate depiction. 16 years later, after exiting the boat in Phnom Penh after a 3 day ride up the Mekong from Saigon, I found myself in a position to deepen my understanding of one of the most nightmarish periods in human history.

Pol Pot was born the wealthy scion of an upper class family in Phnom Penh. Educated in traditional French Colonial style, he was sent onto further his education in Paris, where he studied Radio and Electronics. During his time in Paris, he became enamoured with the local Communist group, and took up their ideology.

After his failing his exams 3 consecutive times, he was forced to come back to Cambodia. There he took up teaching, a profession which he would later attempt to exterminate. He kept in contact with a close set of associates that he had come upon in Paris, and worked to further Communist aims back home.

In 1963, the French language and history teacher was voted the head of a Communist organization of less than 200 members. From this humble beginning, he forged the ferocious killing machine known as the Khmer Rouge.

S21. Former school turned torture facility. Barbed wire to keep prisoners from killing themselves.

S21. Former school turned torture facility. Barbed wire to keep prisoners from killing themselves.

The aims of the Khmer Rouge were to throw off the yoke of colonialism/monarchy that they felt through King Norodom Sihanouk. They held the peasant farming class as the ideal of a Communist society, and actively fought against modernization of any kind, which they felt only exacerbated class distinctions.

After waging guerilla warfare against the monarchy and subsequent democratic government, the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975. An estimated 3 million Cambodians would be killed over the next four years.

Rooms and rooms full of the faces of the victims.

Rooms and rooms full of the faces of the victims.

Cambodia’s total population was approximately 8 million when Pol Pot seized power.

Choeung Ek was merely one of many “killing fields” where the Khmer Rouge disposed of “enemies of the regime.” Enemies of the regime included urbanites, the upper and middle classes, the educated, anyone with glasses, and towards the end, those whose hands were not “hardened from honest labor.” As a part of the Khmer Rouge’s rural utopian plan, the cities were totally depopulated, and citizens of every stripe were forced into near slavery conditions, laboring unproductively in the countryside.

In 1990, Choeung Ek was designated as the primary memorial site for those lost in the genocide of the Khmer Rouge. Now a “stuka,” with the bones of the dead stacked in 17 levels, stands in the center of the now peaceful countryside which saw so many horrors a mere 35 years ago.

Sunset near the Killing Fields

Sunset near the Killing Fields

This was not merely men, but women and babies as well. A popular propaganda phrase among the Khmer Rouge was “to destroy the grass one must dig the roots.” Tactically this translated into bashing the heads of babies against a tree before throwing them into a mass grave.

The tree where they dashed babies

The tree where they dashed babies

The horror of that can’t be overstated. To stand next to a tree where men held babies by their feet and smashed them head first was one of the most guttural and brutal feelings I have ever received.

This was pure, unadulterated evil on the most base level.

The Khmer Rouge was eventually overthrown after 4 years of genocide by the Vietnamese, however the rest of the world still treated the Khmer Rouge as the government in exile until 1990. The perpetrators of this horror were granted a seat at the UN, strolling the streets of NYC with diplomatic immunity.

Justice apparently only has a place in the world of international politics when it is convenient.

Cambodia has largely recovered after losing 2 generations to the nightmare that was the Khmer Rouge. Phnom Penh is the most modern city I’ve seen since leaving Singapore, and the unfailingly positive attitudes of the Cambodian people is a big reason why. Like Vietnam, they refuse to let the past define them, but they demand acknowledgement of the horrors that happened in this beautiful country.

See the Killing Fields stuka in the background

See the Killing Fields stuka in the background

The day after I went to the Killing Fields, I took a sunset 4-wheeler ride around the area. The peaceful serenity was punctuated with the smiling faces of little Cambodian children, waving and screaming hello as if I were some movie star. There were women in brightly colored headscarves driving cattle, and groups of men huddled around laughing at the Cambodian dubbed version of Baby Got Back.

As we neared the end of the trip, I noticed a large group of kids playing soccer with some homemade goals. I pulled off the road to stop and watch, and snap a few pictures. Within a few minutes, one boy, named Chanra, came over and asked if we’d like to play. I’m certainly not my brother’s equal with a soccer ball, but I figured what the hell.

Damn it was hot

Damn it was hot


We played with the kids for about a half an hour, sweating our brains out in the slowly dropping sun. I looked over, and saw the stuka at Choeung Ek looking back at me.

Of all the moments I’ve had on the Conquest this far, this was the most powerful.

Literally in the shadow of a place which saw some of the most gruesome crimes against humanity a mere 8 years before I was born, we played soccer together. Khmer, American and British Indian, laughing and horsing around.

The soccer crew

The soccer crew

It was yet another lesson in not letting the past define the present.

There is only one day that we have control of, and that day is today.