Dengue Fever wakes up Battambang

When my friend Katie posted to her Facebook about Dengue Fever in Battambang, her loved ones were concerned. Drink more water. Be safe. Do you need to go to the hospital?

Perhaps she should have clarified. We’re talking about Dengue Fever, the band.

I was pretty damn excited when I heard an internationally known band would be giving a free concert in Battambang, Cambodia. Battambang is perennially described as “chill” and “laid back” and “sleepy”. What, I wondered, would it look like when a big act moved in?

The day of the concert, a stage was set up opposite the riverside noodle and fruitshake stalls. As it got closer to the concert time, the road was roped off from passing vehicles. This was a nice and unexpectedly thoughtful touch in a country that seems widely unconcerned with road traffic safety.

No parking was provided, so most people pulled up on their motorbikes, formed a large semicircle around the stage, and sat on their motorbikes for the duration of the concert. The rest of us stood near the stage, surrounded by the protective contingent of bikes. Despite a decent showing of a couple hundred people, there was ample room to stand and dance without feeling claustrophobic.

The lead singer from Dengue Fever lives in Los Angeles, but was born in Battambang. When she came out on the stage, she pointed out her old primary school and told us in Khmer and English just how happy she was to be there.

She, and the rest of the band, knew how to work the mainly Khmer crowd. They played almost exclusively Khmer songs, many of which had a psychedelic Dengue Fever-edge to them. The crowd danced and sang along to many of the songs.

The only thing that marred the night was the advertising coup of the Cambodian mobile company, Smartphone. They had handed out inflatable green batons which many in the audience were using to slap together offbeat and playfully hit each other with.

So what does Battambang look like when it’s woken up?

Not a lot different, really. The concert ended by 9:30 p.m. and most people went straight home afterwards. Even twenty minutes later, the roads were empty again, save for the litter of flyers and fluorescent leaflets carpeting the ground.

But for a few hours, a crowd gathered in Battambang and danced and sang together, Barang and Khmer side by side.


Back in the Saddle Again. Plus, Endemic Corruption in Cambodia

It’s safe to say that after cycling 3000 kilometers through Cambodia and Vietnam last year, I was harboring some major cycling nostalgia. But after recently riding a bicycle the 100 kilometers from the Thai border into Battambang, Cambodia, I can confidently say that the best way to cure nostalgia is to revisit it in person. This acts as an antidote to rehashing it in your mind.


In other words, as I cycled up hill after hill, baking in the tropical sun, I often thought, “Oh yeah, cycling sucks sometimes. Hmm, I guess I had forgotten.”

Not to say that I didn’t enjoy myself. I did. The scenery, possibly because it was so hilly, was beautiful. Rolling green hills, luxuriantly green after the recent heavy rainy season. Fruit orchards on either side of a wide paved road. (Wide paved road? Where am I? Can this be Cambodia!?)


About 50 kilometers into the trip, I met a man who had lived in Minnesota, often passing through my home state of Iowa. He spoke with an American accent and while I lay in his hammock, exhausted and sunburnt, he regaled me with stories and cultural references related to the states.

What I remember most, though, is what he told me about Cambodia. There’s a saying I’ve heard bandied about here: In Cambodia, the system isn’t corrupt; corruption is the system. I could illustrate this point with a laundry list of examples, but instead, I’ll relate something that my new acquaintance told me.

There are police checks along every stretch of highway in Cambodia and it’s no secret that these policemen will often pull you over and fine you for any offense—real or imagined, big or small. A truck driver who owned his own transport company said that he regularly paid over $2,000 US in these roadside bribes just to pass through the country.

None of this is a surprise. But here’s what I didn’t know, those policemen have to pay their supervisors (in dinners, socializing, and under-the-table bribes) to stand on that road. They often must pay up to $1000 US just for the privilege of standing roadside and, of course, the busier the highway, the more the police officer must pay to be there.

This puts things into a bit of (depressing) perspective, doesn’t it? Of course the policeman is taking bribes from vehicles. He needs that money to pay off his supervisor and he must keep paying his supervisor to keep his position. The supervisor, in turn, needs the bribe money to pay his superior and to keep his lofty position. Etc. etc.

As conspiracy theorists are so fond of saying, the corruption goes all the way to the top.

These thoughts kept me company as I cycled the remaining and tediously slow 50 kilometers to Battambang.

Another though which kept me occupied: Why are there so damn many Toyota Camrys in Cambodia?


Flooding in Bangkok. Fear, Confusion, Evacuation

Two nights ago, determined to meet people in my new city, I took a bus from the suburb of Pin Klao to a Couchsurfing meeting in Siam, the heart of Bangkok. Due to thigh-high flooding on many stretches of the road, it took two hours to travel less than ten kilometers. Once we crossed over the bridge onto the eastern bank of the Chao Phraya river, though, everything was dry and organized, seemingly untouched by the water that had already chased me out of my apartment in the waist-high watery streets of Bang Kruai.


At the CS meeting, in addition to all the usual questions (“Where are you from?” “How long are you here for?”) and the usual light debauchery (drunkenness, socially awkward advances) talk of the flood permeated the dry room. Everyone exchanged ideas about what would happen next, either based on reports in the news or based on rumors. The two were often hard to tell apart.

What most people agreed upon was that the worst of the flooding was to come. The next five days could see enough water to flow over the floodgates that were currently keeping central Bangkok dry. And given that I was now living in an area unprotected by floodgates, it seemed likely, if not written, that where I was living would be flooded yet again.

My experience with the flooding thus far had been calm, despite the army-assisted evacuation on my street in which I and others were assisted out of our homes and out of the neighborhood in the back of a clunking army truck.


I was met with smiles, even as people waded through waist-high water with full plastic bags of their belongings balanced on their heads. But it would be a false assumption, I think, to conclude that Bangkokians were responding to the flood with Zen-like calm.

For one thing, losing face is a cliché, but very real concern in this part of the world. You very rarely (in fact I can’t think of a single instance) see a Thai person lose her temper or yell. As a friend of mine discovered when he got in a bad motorbike accident and was met with laughter and smiles, this can be a bit disconcerting.

So despite the calm exterior, I saw evidence of panic. Evidence in the empty shelves of every grocery store I walked into.


Evidence in the utter lack of bottled drinking water as I walked the streets, thirsty. Evidence in the television sets tuned into the news 24/7. Evidence in the mass exodus of people from the city after the Thai Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, declared a five-day public holiday and recommended that citizens leave the city.

Residents of Bangkok weren’t the only ones to panic. My mother sent me an email or two, politely but firmly requesting that I get the hell out of the city too.

So yesterday, after waffling about where to go, I made my way through the city to the eastern bus station, Ekkamai. I expected gridlocked traffic all the way to Ekkamai and all the way out of the city, but there was almost none. In fact, the most cars I saw were ones that were parked along the bridges, overpasses, and any other elevated stretches of road as people tried to keep their cars from flood damage. Other than these vehicles, the streets were eerily calm. Most people had left the previous day it seemed.

Now I sit, back in dry and sunny Chanthaburi, waiting for the flood waters to recede and the worst of the flood to be over. I hear the danger will have passed by the first of November, but as with the ideas tossed around at the Couchsurfing gathering nights earlier, it’s difficult to separate truth from rumor.


Water, Water Everywhere…

I feel the way about natural disasters I do about death. Yes, death happens, but it’s always happened to other people. It’s easy to be complacent. It’s also easy to see a pattern—I’ve never died—and extrapolate a false conclusion—I’m immortal.

And I had a good streak going, until I came to Bangkok.

I’m not dead! But I am experiencing my first natural disaster, up close and personal.

My first hint of flooding was when I was picked up and taken to my new apartment. “Which way should we go?”Acharn Lan mused aloud. “The longer way has traffic, but the shorter way is flooded.” In my mind the flooding was trifling, ankle-deep at most. But when we passed through those flooded streets, we left a wake behind us, as if we were in a motorboat. We turned a corner from a flooded street to a dry one, and there, less than 500 meters away, was my apartment building.

At the time, I just thought how lucky it was that I was on a dry street. Instead I should have been thinking about my street’s proximity to the flooded streets, but I was never one to look on the negative side. I can barely see the clouds; I’m looking at all those silver linings.

Imagine my surprise then, after exploring my new neighborhood, when I returned to my previously dry street and found it flooded with water up to my mid-calf. I tried to wade through it, but my flip flops kept creating drag, slowing each step. So I took them off and stumbled down the street, trying to avoid the hidden pitfalls. The water was already muddy and opaque. Still, seeing the silver lining again, I was glad the water didn’t smell like sewage.

I awoke the next morning, completely surprised to find that the water, instead of slinking away, had risen. I walked down the street to work and this time, the brown water sloshed around my knees. When I returned to my apartment, the water was above my knees and the building, previously dry, was now slicked with a thin layer of flood water. My apartment on the second floor was unaffected. The three biggies—electricity, internet, and plumbing—were still working so I hunkered into my tower. So far I was only mildly inconvenienced by the flood. The song theows, the only nearby form of public transportation, had stopped running. The water was too high for them. In fact, the water was too high for all vehicles except trucks and boats. That afternoon, the trucks were outnumbering the boats, but I noticed the ratio evening out in the evening.

That night, when I opened my curtains and went to bed, I noticed undulating soft patterns on my ceiling. The light from the street was reflecting off the water and sending those muted reflections into my room. I could even hear gentle lapping against the side of my building whenever a vehicle passed. It was like sleeping at a lakehouse.

When I awoke, I was again surprised to find that the water level had risen further. Where was all this water coming from? It seemed a mysterious prospect to me. We weren’t near the river, nor any canals. In fact, plenty of other places were closer to bodies of water, yet they were unaffected. A little googling soon gave me more information. Due to heavy rain during this monsoon season, water from all over Thailand was making its way to the gulf. Bangkok, of course, was on that path. But the city of Bangkok was largely protected by vast walls of concrete and/or sandbags. The government was diverting the water away from central Bangkok which meant that the water couldn’t pass quickly through on its way to empty into the Gulf of Thailand. Instead, the water was hanging out, just loitering in my neighborhood and others.


The first thing I checked that morning was electricity. Still working. Relieved, I brushed my teeth and peed. I flushed the toilet, but the water just filled the bowl and then gurgled. Right. No plumbing. I looked out the window and could see people wading by in thigh-high water. There were no trucks anymore, just boats and rafts and pedestrians balancing full plastic bags on their heads.

I got a call. It was time to evacuate. I gathered my things, repacked my bag, and waited. I hopped into a raft and from the raft into a large, lumbering army truck. Soldiers took my hands and took my bags and hauled us all into the back of the truck. There were about ten people and three chairs back there and after some quiet shuffling, we all tacitly agreed the elderly passengers should sit in the chairs. The rest of us squatted or stood.


At first I felt shy about taking out my camera, but I soon noticed that almost everyone in the truck and everyone on the flooded streets we passed had cameras or camera phones. Even one of the soldiers on the truck had a large, professional-looking Canon and he was snapping pictures and taking videos just like the rest of us.

I couldn’t help but muse on how technology is changing the world. Yes, it’s cliché, but bear with me for a minute. It’s a different kind of a world when people are tweeting about a disaster as it strikes them, when people are posting videos and pictures in real time.


Somehow it feels less desperate when you’re surrounded by people armed with camera phones, when a soldier helping you evacuate is taking your picture as he does so. Though some people may think that technology acts a barrier, keeping people at a distance from each other, in fact I found it was the opposite. All of us with cameras, we were speaking the same language. We were saying, “Would you look at this? Unbelievable isn’t it?”

Soldiers help a family onto the truck

Of course, you would expect camaraderie to form during a time of crisis. And it did. On that truck, there was an air of congeniality. There were jokes and laughter, none of which I could understand because they were in Thai. But I smiled at everyone around me, and they smiled back. And we all laughed when a man, a woman, and their dog stood in front of their flooded house and wanted to get on the truck. “Is there room for our dog?” the woman asked a soldier. “Of course,” he replied and quickly waded out to them, picking the dog up in his arms and carefully carrying it to the truck.

We all shifted our positions to make room for the new passengers.


From there, it didn’t take long to make it to dry land. Just crossing the border from Nonthaburi into Bangkok was enough.


But we’ll see what happens next. There are rumblings that the government will open the floodgates and allow all of Bangkok to flood. Sounds crazy, but it would probably be the best solution. That way, the water can freely pass through on its way to the Gulf of Thailand. In other words, the alternatives seems to be: 1. Keep the floodgates closed, thus (likely) keeping central Bangkok dry while condemning the rest of Bangkok to weeks, if not a full month of flooding, or 2. Open the floodgates and allow most of the city to flood, though likely just a few inches and just for a few days as the water empties into the gulf.

As for me, that silver lining is practically blinding. I can escape the water. I’ve no property to be damaged by the flood. Maybe it’s time for a trip to the beaches of southern Thailand?


The Road Well Traveled

There’s only one road between Battambang and Phnom Penh—the second largest and largest cities in Cambodia, respectively. Maybe I’ve been spending too much time in Thailand, with its broad avenues, lush medians, and lane-respecting traffic, but it seemed to me that this, er, highway had deteriorated since I traveled it last year.

Reststop on the way to Phnom Penh

I was on my way to Phnom Penh, but my visa run was feeling like a slow crawl; the heavy rain and flooding during this year’s wet season created hula-hoop-size potholes, potholes that I could curl up and got lost in. The bus driver was doing his best to avoid them, but the traffic on the road was not helping matters. And the range of traffic rivaled that of India. I saw water buffalo, bicycles, SUVs driven by government bigwigs, cows, pedestrians, motorbikes, dogs, and legions of Camrys. In fact, just a year or two ago, the roads in Cambodia were dominated by Camrys, so much so that every street looked, to a fanciful observer, like it was hosting a Toyota Camry parade.

I sat near the front of the bus and I could see our driver’s face reflected in the oversized rearview mirror. He looks like a criminal, I thought reluctantly, wishing I weren’t so judgmental. He wore Top-Gun-esque aviators which covered half his face but could not cover the permanent scowl he wore. His lips were tensed, pulled into a tight line, and he leaned on the horn as if it were his only ally against the traffic riffraff surrounding his bus.

At a narrow stretch of the road, our driver honked vociferously at two motorbikes in front of us. When they refused to yield the road, refused to pull over onto a graveled, muddy shoulder, our driver’s mood turned from dark to foul. Instead of whizzing by the motorbikes, he slowed down, tightened his mouth in concentration, pulled alongside the bikes, and slowly, gently inched over to the right. He inched over, taking his time, until the bikes were forced off the highway. Had a middle finger carried any impact here, I’m sure he would have flipped them off. Instead he looked over at the motorists and watched with a passive face as they precariously edged onto the muddy, potholed shoulder.

Minutes later, I really knew the driver’s mood was foul after a kid on a different motorbike lost his hat. His neon, bedazzled trucker’s hat found a gust of wind and flew into the middle of the road. The kid slowed down and looked back, trying to negotiate a u-turn. Casually, our driver drifted into the middle of the road and aligned the left wheel of the bus with the bright orange trucker hat. Smush. I watched in the rearview mirror as the driver’s face relaxed and his lips turned up into a smile.

I was surprised. I was initially sure he was trying to dodge the hat. When I realized he was aiming for it, I couldn’t hold back my laughter. This man had a stressful job—six hours of driving on terrible roads, amongst lousy drivers, surrounded by tiny buzzing vehicles, illogical pedestrians, and animals unable to grasp the finer implications of a highway. For six hours he needed to be on high alert, every muscle in his body tensed, every reflex on edge. If he needed to turn a garish trucker hat into muddied roadkill, I certainly wouldn’t begrudge him such a small pleasure.

Just get me to Phnom Penh in one piece.