From Sihanoukville to Bokor Mountain the hard way

Our local villagers put their heads together and planned a Big Day Out for Pchum Ben this year, wat hopping from Sihanoukville to Bokor Mountain (Phnom Bokor), near Kampot. It was a good plan, but we ran into some unexpected potholes. Here’s how to get from Sihanoukville to Bokor Mountain the hard way.

monks at Wat Krom, Sihanoukville Cambodia

Our day started off auspiciously enough with a visit to Wat Krom

After an auspicious start to the day at Wat Krom, our two car, three motorbike caravan headed out Route 4 to Battrang village, near Sihanoukville Airport. The wat at Battrang was the first of four we stopped at before reaching the turnoff to National Highway 3. With four rest stops in just 50 kilometres, we were still in good spirits when we reached the turnoff. What wasn’t there to be cheerful about? Even the humblest Cambodian wats are beautiful and when Pchum Ben is on, everyone is in a festive mood.

Village wat somewhere on the way to Bokor Mountain, Kampot

Village wat somewhere on the way to Bokor Mountain

Under normal circumstances, the 100 kilometre drive to Kampot takes a leisurely two hours. Since we were nearly at the halfway point when we reached the turnoff, we reckoned the rest of the trip to Bokor Mountain would be a cruise, so we decided to press on and have lunch on the rocks beside the waterfall on top of the mountain. Less than a kilometre after turning south on a bend in the road on Route 3, we ran into the first of a series of potholes created after torrential monsoon rains and that’s when our whole day turned south.

I can take potholed roads in my stride, but when the car is packed to the rafters with six adults and four children, many of whom have rarely if ever ridden in a car before, things can turn ugly as passengers succumb to car sickness and start throwing up unexpectedly. After three such occurrences, one of which happened to occur on my shirt, turning around was briefly discussed, but a stretch of good road encouraged us to soldier on. Alas, those stretches of good road were regularly interrupted by short but excruciatingly slow pot hole crossings and it took over two hours to reach the turnoff to Bokor Mountain.

The last time I went to Bokor was in 2006. At that time, it was only accessible by 4WD. I’d heard about the new road to the top of the mountain, but still wasn’t prepared to be greeted by a world-class highway. Nevertheless, our party was too tired and hungry to press on to the top, so a less-than-idyllic spot about half way up the mountain was chosen as our picnic spot. The view to Kampot was great, but the rough gravel parking area we chose to lay our mats on left something to be desired.

view to Kampot from halfway up Bokor Mountain

View to Kampot from halfway up Bokor Mountain

Cambodians are nothing if not resilient and by the time everyone was fed, they were as keen as ever to get to the top of Bokor Mountain. As the only ones in our party who had been to Bokor before, our car took the lead. Big mistake. After searching for the narrow jungle path to the waterfall we remembered from years before, we ended up finding the falls just 100 metres or so from the first parking lot we had stopped at on top of the mountain an hour previously. Not to worry, though; along the way we re-discovered this magical little Chinese pagoda perched on the edge of a cliff. The pagoda was built in 1924 and seems to have just gotten better with age.

Pagoda atop Bokor Mountain

Not all the magic has left Bokor Mountain

As serene as this looks, it’s only minutes away from the beginnings of what’s going to be Thansur Bokor Highland Resort. Whether building a massive resort/casino on top of this magical mountain is a good thing or not is a matter of opinion, but that’s what’s happening. Fortunately, Bokor National Park covers an area of some 140,000 hectares, so the city sized development centred around the casino isn’t likely to spoil it all for those of us whose idea of heaven (thansur means heaven in Khmer) isn’t Las Vegas.

casino on top of Bokor Mountain, Kampot Cambodia

Thansur? I don’t think so

Finally, after taking two or three accidental side trips on the new Bokor road system, we found the stream that feeds the waterfall. By then, everyone was hungry again, so they settled down on a big rock at the water’s edge for a second meal while I went on an exploratory mission. Unlike the last time, when I picked my way over fallen logs to reach the waterfall, this time a wide concrete path took me to the edge of the falls and my personal idea of thansur: cascading falls surrounded by untrammelled jungle.

Bokor waterfall, Kampot Province, Cambodia

The waterfall, at least, remained as I remembered it.

Would I visit Bokor Mountain again? Probably not, unless it was on a day trip from Kampot. When we were there last time, the old buildings had a kind of magic to them. Whether it was black magic or white, I can’t say, since the ghosts who are said to haunt the old casino can’t be too happy. It is said many of them jumped to their deaths off the cliff after losing fortunes at the gaming tables. The waterfall and the old Chinese pagoda had white magic that you can still feel, but it’s hard to immerse yourself in their magic with all those imposing new structures breathing down your back.

I hate to leave on a negative note, so I’ll leave you with one last photograph. You tell me: Which is more beautiful — this or the new casino? Fortunately, views like this remain and they haven’t managed to cut down all the jungle yet. Now that I think about it, maybe I will go back to Bokor. Next time I’ll get away from the main road on motorbike and explore some of the undeveloped parts of Bokor National Park.

view from the top of Bokor Mountain, Kampot Cambodia

This is more like thansur, if you ask me



Pchum Ben, the Festival of the Dead in Sihanoukville

As I reported this morning on Travelfish, we’re right in the middle of the Pchum Ben season here in Sihanoukville. I say “season” because although Pchum Ben falls on the 15th day of the waning moon in the 10th month of the Cambodian calendar, it actually lasts for over two weeks. Sometimes translated “Festival of the Dead” and sometimes “Festival of the Ancestors,” a lot of Westerners liken it to Halloween and others to All Souls Day. I like to avoid such comparisons, though, because Cambodians and other cultures don’t see the world through Western eyes.

Wat Krom, Sihanoukville Cambodia

Wat Krom

Pchum Ben is a big event in our household every year. When the day approaches, the family gets a stack of 100 and 500 riel notes, cooks a ton of food and sets out for not just one, but up to five wats. This is after having gone to all three of our local wats individually in the two weeks leading up to the big day. Often, we pitch in with the neighbours, pack into rented trucks and go to distant wats.

On the way back from Wat Phnom Tuit, Pchum Ben, 2008

This year, Pchum Ben is of even more significance to my family and neighbours than usual, if that’s possible. The reason is because a lot of people died last year. Most recently, a village neighbour died. Her death highlights the difference between our Western perception of reality and the average Cambodian villager’s well. To us, there’s a yawning gap between life and death; to Cambodians just a thin veil. Just days after her death, her immediate family started seeing her wandering around the upstairs sleeping area of their house. They became so frightened, they all started sleeping together downstairs. Since then, many of our neighbours have seen her walking up and down our street after dark.

I’m not going to speculate about “superstition” or “hallucination” versus reality because in my opinion, reality is largely a matter of perception. What’s noteworthy to me is that observing Pchum Ben is as important to the average Cambodian as income tax time is to the average Westerner. Just as income taxes are taken seriously because of the consequences of not paying them, Pchum Ben is taken seriously because of the consequences of not appeasing deceased relatives, friends and acquaintances.

The income tax analogy is only half the story, though. Pchum Ben is not just about appeasing the dead; it’s also about honouring the dead. One of my most egregious oversights in the eyes of my Cambodian family has been in failing to hang photographs of my deceased parents on the wall of our home. To them, it’s as if I’ve turned my back on my family. I’m making up for it this year by getting some photos printed up today.

Pchum Ben at Wat Samathi near Ream, 2009

Pchum Ben at Wat Samathi near Ream, 2009

If the idea of seeing the dead and believing they are as real as you and I seems primitive or superstitious to you, consider this story. We had a housekeeper living with us during my first year here. She was a sweet girl until one day she was possessed by the spirit of her dead sister. Of course, we awesomely wise Westerners would call it something else, like multiple personality disorder. Call it what you like, her personality changed so much that one day she threatened me with a knife. In my Western way, I tried to “reason” with her. Fortunately, Sopheak stepped in. After whacking me across the head and telling me the obvious, that it wasn’t Sokha I was trying to speak to, she called in her brother and some of the guys who were building my house. After subduing her, one of the workers performed a ritual his father had taught him. That temporarily appeased the sister and she withdrew. It took a few visits to exorcists to finally get the sister to leave for good, but whatever they did, it worked. Compare that to the success rate of shrinks trying to treat “multiple personality disorder” and you can see why I have a lot of respect for traditional “psychology.”

As much as I wish I could have used some of this week’s windfall from some pre-Christmas work I’ve picked up towards buying a Kindle ereader, the money is going to go towards appeasing the dead over Pchum Ben. I don’t resent it, though, because I’ve seen for myself that the “festival” is not just an excuse to take a day off work or go trick-or-treating. It’s deadly serious.

Related posts:

Bon Pchum Ben or Festival for Ancestors

The Trouble with Travel Blogs about Sihanoukville


New Road to Otres Beach

Moorea restaurant, bar and bungalows, Otres Beach

After a week or more of rain, I woke up this morning to clear blue skies. A perfect morning for breakfast at the beach, we set out early for Otres Beach. Thanks to the new road to Otres Beach, this was a lot easier than it used to be. As you can see, it’s been gravelled and tarred.

New road to Otres BeachOkay, they’re still working their way down the road, but it’s a lot smoother all the way than it used to be and by the time the hordes come in November, work will be finished.

Working on new road to Otres Beach, Sihanoukville CambodiaMoorea restaurant, bar and bungalows, Otres BeachI knew where I wanted to go for breakfast already. The last time I tried to go to Moorea Beach bar/restaurant/bungalows, I couldn’t find a place to sit, but on this early morning in the rainy season, it was still quiet there. So far, Moorea Beach is the classiest bar on Otres, but my guess is that its popularity is going to lead others to lift their game.

While we waited for breakfast to arrive, Sopheak and Kelly got to work on a sand sculpture while I took some photographs. A picture-perfect morning, it was pretty hard not to get some good photos of Otres Beach. In a bit of a photographic rut, I took a bunch from the usual angles. Luckily, Sophie grabbed the camera and got this more original shot of the first boats heading out to the islands. I wish I could share the Buddha Bar style music that was playing in the background with you. It would give you a better idea of how mellow and idyllic our breakfast at Otres Beach was.

Boats heading for Sihanoukville Islands

Artist's rendering of open space at Otres Beach, SihanoukvilleBefore we left, we took a short ride down the beach. I wanted to take a photograph of the billboard that was erected in 2009 showing the artist’s rendering of the open space plan for Otres Beach. As I think some of you who visit my blog regularly know, I have a real problem with many of my fellow expats in Sihanoukville, who choose to live here, but constantly complain. One of their complaints is that all the plans for city never come to fruition. They said the bridge to Koh Puos would never get built, but it did. They said the road down to Serendipity Beach would never be improved, but it was. They said the airport would never become operational, but it did. They said the road to Otres Beach would never be improved, but as you’ve seen, it has been. They also said the artist’s rendering of the open beach would never come to fruition, but work is being done right now. In an upcoming blog, I’ll give you a progress report.

Finally, here’s a photo of Sophie and Kelly’s masterpiece in sand:

Crocodile sand sculpture on Otres Beach, Sihanoukville Cambodia

Sihanoukville Medical Services

If you’re a regular visitor or get my RSS feed, you’ll have noticed quite a gap in posts this past week. It began with a busy work schedule that included some copywriting for the newly formed Foreign Business Owners Association of Cambodia (FBOAC), but ended with three days of tending to our one and a half year old son in the local clinic.

With 3 and now 4 young children living in our house plus assorted adults, we spend an inordinate amount of time visiting doctors, so I guess you could say I am somewhat of an expert on Sihanoukville medical services. Here’s a partial list of my first hand experience with Sihanoukville doctors:

  • We’ve had two babies delivered here and both came out safe and sound.
  • We’ve taken two very sick children, at least one of whom we were sure was going to die, to a local clinic and had them return healthy and strong.
  • Sopheak, my wife, has some fairly serious health problems that stem from a very poor diet when she was young and has received very good care here.
  • As mentioned in my post, Dengue Fever Sucks, I, too spent some time at a Sihanoukville doctor’s office and received very good care.
  • When a young girl broke her arm, a nearby Thai traditional doctor/healer set her arm and it healed in record time.

I have no complaints about Sihanoukville medical services, but there is a trick to finding the right one at the right time. For foreigners, CT Clinic on CT Road is always a safe bet and that’s where Kelly spent the weekend. The doctor and clinic owner has trained in Europe and Australia and makes regular visits to Australia for further training and to attend seminars. He speaks excellent English and is as competent a doctor as I have ever met. However, even he does not have the facilities for serious illnesses or injuries, so there are limits to what he or the members of his staff are able to treat. He used to have the only ambulances in town, but a couple of newer clinics that have recently opened now also have ambulances.

If I had to rate Sihanoukville medical services, I guess it would go something like this (out of 5):

  • Competence: 4
  • Conscientiousness: 5
  • Services: 4
  • Value: 5

If you’re used to having medical insurance, the price of medical care here can be a worry, but when you add it up, in most cases it’s very affordable. Kelly’s 3 days in the clinic with a private downstairs room, drip feeds, 3 times daily antibiotic injections and oral medications cost a total of $200. For an extra $15 or $20 per night, we could have had a private upstairs room complete with TV and private bath. Personally, I worry about the fact that we have no medical insurance and if something happens to me, I hope it happens after FBOAC gets off the ground and I have affordable medical insurance.

As a visitor to Sihanoukville, if you do have to see a doctor, you will probably be told to go to CT Clinic. I really can only recommend one more, but I’ll have to write down its name and come back to you on that. It’s a smaller clinic, but is less well-known than CT, so you are likely to get more personalised service there. These are the only two clinics I know of with a doctor who speaks excellent English.

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Bon Pchum Ben or Festival for Ancestors

Today is the last day of Bon Pchum Ben, also known as the Festival for Ancestors or Festival of the Dead. For Cambodians, the dead are as alive as we are and they honour them throughout this period. Unfortunately, I was unable to go to the wats this year, but the family went several times and made an offering on my behalf. Here are a couple of articles about the festival. One of them talks about similar festivals throughout the world. I find it remarkable that western cultures and religions are the only ones that see a distinct line of demarcation between life and death.

The Cambodian Pchum Ben Festival. Posted by ecambodia at 9/16/2011. Bon P'chum Ben is the remarkable celebration of Cambodian annual gathering. On the 15th day of the waning moon(Ronouch) during the tenth month of the Khmer calendar, … Ben event (the Festival of the Dead or Feast Festival for Ancestors). This celebration usually falls in the first half of September in the western calendar. This year it falls on September 22. It is called P'chum Thom(big festival). … — Fri, 16 Sep 2011 02:12:00 -0700

Celebrating the Bon Festival During this festival, people usually return to their ancestral family houses and visit their ancestor's grave, similar to what Chinese people do during Qing Ming Festival. It has been celebrated in Japan for more … P'chum Ben, or more commonly known as Pchum Ben, is a Cambodian religious festival, culminating in celebrations on the 15th day of the tenth month in the Khmer Calendar. In 2008, the national holiday fell on the 28th – 30th of … — Tue, 17 Aug 2010 15:00:00 -0700

Surfing in Sihanoukville Cambodia

Sunday in SihanoukvilleSundays have been kind to us here in Sihanoukville. For the past several weeks the rain has let up enough for us to spend time outdoors. Last Sunday we went down to Otres Beach and Ochheuteal Beach. It was super windy and for the first time this year I was able to go body surfing on the wind slop. Not only that, but it was the best day of “surfing” I’ve had in this normally waveless country. I spent a good hour in the water and got some waves all the way to the beach. Since so few people were there, we also got to ride our motorbike on the sand, which is always a joy.

Waves in Sihanoukville!This Sunday has turned out to be the best ever. Overcast but dead calm, there was still swell from earlier winds and for the first time ever I was able to see what it would be like if ground swells were able to find their way to Sihanoukville. As expected, the best beach break was Otres. There were a couple of great sand banks and I was actually able to imagine myself surfing fun waves all the way to shore. Alas, imagine was all I was able to do, but one little 2 foot righthander took me through 2 fast sections followed by a short bunny hop into a final shorebreak reentry. I was as stoked as if I had actually ridden the wave.

On the way to the beach, we stopped off at my new favourite cafe, Douceur du Cambodge. Sometimes I really miss the little cafes and patisseries that are tucked away here and there in Sydney. Well, I don’t have to any more. This one is as good as they get, with great French pastries and fantastic cappuccinos. It’s located downtown, between Samudera Market and Psar Leu and is easy to miss, so if you’re ever in the area, walk or ride your moto slowly from Samudera towards Psar Leu and keep your eye out for it on the right. It’s well worth the effort.

On the way home, we stopped off at Serendipity Beach to check out a yoga class I’d seen advertised at the cafe. Sopheak took yoga for awhile and loved it, but the teacher moved back to Canada. Unfortunately, this yoga teacher had left, too, but a fisherman came out of the water with a full net and we scored fresh fish for dinner. This puffer fish was his prize catch. Sopheak is just showing it off to the crowds – the fisherman was keeping it for himself. Apparently Cambodians know how to cook them, because they are deadly if not prepared correctly.

And that has been our day so far. It’s not over yet. Now it’s time to take the kids to the park. See you later.

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Random Recent Events in Sihanoukville

I haven’t been able to update this site as much as I’d like to recently. For one thing, I just finished up a book I’ve been working on. Called The Curse of the Internet, it is basically about the jobs crisis in America. The brief I was given was to establish the case that the internet and related technologies were eroding the U.S. job market, recession or no recession. I was told to write and some some cases edit a series of articles covering every sector of the economy.

I started off thinking this would be a hard task. After all, the internet was no curse to me: I owed my livelihood to it.  In fact, I found the assignment online and I was getting paid to co-author the book. After I got started, though, I was amazed to discover the Saeed was right: IT in general and the internet specifically are destroying far more jobs than they are creating. In the end, I had over two hundred solid references to back my arguments.

Life in Sihanoukville didn’t stop in the meantime. A woman up the street was arrested and taken to jail. The reason is still unclear, but she is certainly an unlikely candidate for jail. From what I can tell, she is a loving mother who never does anything to harm others. Several neighbourhood women got together to visit her in jail. My wife was amongst them. When she came home, she was in tears, not just for our neighbour, but for all the others she saw languishing in the SV jail.

Among all the people packed together in cells were “200 barang.” Whether or not the number was that high, I can’t say.  Sopheak may have been so overwhelmed by the numbers she exaggerated them in her mind. At any rate, it was a lot. She ended up going to a money changer and getting a stack of 5000 riel notes from a $20 bill. She came home with nothing. Since $20 works out to around 80,000 riel and she gave one to each inmate she met so they could buy cigarettes and water, there were at least 16.

Why did she give money to barang instead of Cambodians? It was because the Cambodians in the jail had friends and family on the outside and the foreigners did not. She recognised a few of them. A couple were in jail for drugs and another was in for having sex with children, so it wasn’t as if they had been rounded up and jailed for nothing. What the others had done or not done, I can’t say, but it’s pretty shocking that so many were in jail.

So much for the claim that all you have to do is give the police some money and you will get out of jail. If you want to come to Sihanoukville because you want to get away with things you can’t get away with at home, forget it. It doesn’t work that way anymore.

A Picnic in Sihanoukville: A Perfect Day

Yesterday was a landmark day for me: I finally finished the conclusion to the book I’ve been commissioned to write. No only did I finish it; I finished it to my satisfaction. That was a tough one, because, although the subject (still top secret until published – don’t ask me why – it’s part of the contract) is not precisely about the economic mess  we’re in, my research frequently took me down that road and as I wrote, I became increasingly angry, primarily with America. I wanted to come to an inspiring conclusion, but was having trouble finding an angle until I stumbled across this article in, of all publications, The Economist: The year of hope 2.0.

I woke up this morning in a positively ebullient mood (I love that word) and wanted to do something special, but couldn’t think of anything that wasn’t expensive. As so often happens, Sopheak came up with the answer without even having to be asked. She announced that we were going “mui tak” (swimming), but not “mui tak samot” (swimming in the ocean). She cooked up a bunch of fresh fish, a nice vegetable dish and, of course, a lot of rice and then loaded up the motorbike with hammocks and other picnic necessities.

“We’re going on a picnic?” I asked. After explaining to her what a picnic was (she had never heard that word before), she grinned broadly and answered in the affirmative. We then headed off to parts unknown, since Sopheak hates to tell me where we’re going beforehand. She likes surprises.

First stop was to pick up Sopheak’s friend, Shre Reht. By the time we got to Reht’s place, “picnic” had turned into “romantic”, a word Sopheak vaguely knows the meaning of. So our picnic turned into a “romantic.”

Before I take you with us to our picnic spot, I’ll take a little diversion. Yesterday I ran into my friend Joe for the first time in weeks. He’s been working as an architect out on an island, designing what sounds like a 5 Star + resort. He told me about the swimming pool they were working on for the “A-List” villa: 30 metres long X 10 metres wide, but not rectangular. It is designed to look like an organic part of the landscape and have little spas tucked away here and there. Then he told me about all the amazing landscaping that was going on. The place sounds incredible and I know I’ll never be able to stay there, since it’s something like $3000 a night just for the “ordinary” villas. God knows what the A List villa will cost.

After meandering up a dirt road that finally degenerated into a single track path for about 10 minutes, we arrived at our destination; a pond tucked away on the outskirts of town. Like the A-List swimming pool Joe described to me, it was about 30 metres long and 10 metres wide, but not rectangular. There were little nooks and crannies that were as warm as a bathtub and other spots were cool and refreshing. The “landscaping” was superb. The pond even had an infinity edge, since it had a spillway and had three diving boards in the form of some concrete overhangs above the spillway.

After setting up the hammocks and laying out our picnic blanket, we ate our delicious freshly cooked fish and then went for a swim. I couldn’t help but think about the A-List villa and how I had felt a pang of envy when Joe described it to me. I wasn’t envious anymore.  It couldn’t possibly be better than our little “romantic” spot on the outskirts of Sihanoukville. It was a perfect day.

Dengue Fever Sucks

14 May 2011

Three days ago. I woke up with such a high fever, I didn’t even protest when my wife insisted we go to the doctor; something I am always hesitant to do. I felt so bad, I didn’t even complain when he put me on an IV drip and gave me a couple of shots in the butt. He then sent us home and told us to come back in the afternoon, after the blood tests came back. Holding that bag of electrolytes up in the air throughout the 3 minute motorbike ride home was exhausting.

At 5.00pm, we went back to the clinic and the doctor confirmed that I had dengue fever. At that point my temperature was 38.4C (101F). I was given more shots, another bottle of electrolytes and told to come back in the morning. That was easier said than done, because by the morning, all the joints in my body ached so much I found it almost impossible to straddle my motorbike. With the help of most of my family, I managed to get relatively safely perched on the back of the bike while Sopheak drove. By then, my temperature was up to 39.3 (almost 103F). That afternoon, my temperature topped out at 40.2C (104.36F).

Dengue fever has been my worst fear. Back in 2004, I met someone who had gotten it in Timor. She was bed ridden for three years, so I was a little surprised when the doctor told me that if complications didn’t arise, I would start getting better in two or three days. I just looked it up on Wikipedia. Now I understand. According to Wikipedia:

“In a small proportion of cases the disease develops to the life-threatening dengue hemorrhagic fever (bleeding, low levels of blood platelets and blood plasma leakage) and dengue shock syndrome (circulatory failure).

I did have low levels of blood platelets and the doctor wanted me to stay at the clinic for observation. Since we live so close to the clinic and it’s not really very conducive to rest there, he said I could go home, but had to come back first thing in the morning and call him immediately if anything happened.

21 May 2011

Fortunately, no real complications arose. By the 16th, my temperature was back down below 38C (100F) and my blood platelets were improving. It still took a few days before I felt normal, but I was able to do a little work and started to get my appetite back. In her uncanny intuitive wisdom, Sopheak bought me some corn flakes. I can’t remember the last time I had eaten corn flakes and really can’t say I normally like them, but they tasted like ambrosia. For the next three days, they were my breakfast of choice.

Dengue fever rash

Typical Dengue Fever Rash

I am now permanently immune to the strain of dengue fever I had, but only temporarily immune from the other three strains. Some sources say the danger of contracting dengue hemorrhagic fever increases when you get a second bout of the fever. Children usually get milder symptoms than adults, but are more susceptible to the dangerous complications. There are three stages to the disease:

  1. The Febrile Stage is the fever stage. The disease usually incubates for 7-14 days before this hits. That’s why many people return from a vacation feeling fine and then show symptoms.
  2. The Critical Phase occurs after the fever passes. Learning this made me understand why the doctor wanted keep monitoring me for several days after my fever dropped. Fortunately, I only had mild symptoms throughout this period.
  3. The Recovery Phase is when the leaked fluid is re-absorbed by the blood stream. There can be severe itching and a slowed heart rate during this phase, but usually the patient feels remarkably better. You’re not out of the woods during this phase, because “fluid overload” can occur and lead to “decreased consciousness” if the brain is infected, organ damage and even (in a very small percentage of cases) death.

It’s hard for me to tell from my experience how close I was to getting the severe symptoms. All I can say is that dengue fever sucks. While it came and went within a week, I was still pretty lethargic for several days afterwards and only today feel like my normal self.

If my little story is making you think twice about visiting Cambodia, let me tell you that the disease is endemic in 110 countries (including 1st world countries like Singapore and Australia), that an estimated 50 to 100 million people get it every year and that most of them survive. I can’t imagine living my life avoiding travel for fear of disease. That’s not living: it’s just existing.

Now that I’ve educated myself about the disease, I can see that my doctor handled my case very competently and conscientiously. We only discovered him by accident when the doctor we chose to deliver Luna was unable to handle the delivery when complications arose and rushed Sopheak to his clinic at 2:30 a.m. in the back of his Camry. Since then, we have gone to him for all our medical needs. With four children under the age of 5 in the house, we see him regularly. He doesn’t have a flashy clinic and I rarely see a foreigner there, but I trust him more than the preferred expat doctor, who Sopheak refuses to see anyway because he’s kind of a snob and gives preferential treatment to wealthier patients. When he go to see our doctor, we have to wait our turn, just like everybody else, unless, of course, it’s an emergency. To our way of thinking, this is a sign of a good doctor.

Surrealistic Pillow: A Cambodian Story about Spirit Possession (Part One)

I wrote this in April of 2006, while we were building our house and waiting for our daughter Luna to be born:

Surrealistic Pillow: Spirit possession in CambodiaSometime shortly after Sopheak and I moved out of the guest house and into the small house on our property she received a phone call from Phnom Penh. Her cousin Sokha was in trouble. Sokha’s mother and father had both died when she was only four and since then she had been cared for by a succession of relatives. An uncle in Phnom Penh had most recently taken her on but when he remarried his new wife decided there wasn’t room enough in their small home for her any more. One possible “solution” was, if no one wanted her, Sokha, now 15, could be sold to a brothel. What could I say? We took a bus to PP and picked up her and her small bag of belongings and brought her home to live with us.

Sokha is a sweet girl. She’s a willing helper and always returns a smile with a smile. On good days she’s just one of the girls, sitting around with the others and gossiping (I assume:  I don’t understand a word they say) while they do their chores. On other days she’s silent and withdrawn. She still does her jobs, but does them silently, in a world of her own. No one bothers her on those days. They all know she’s lived a very troubled life.

One day in April, in the middle of the week-long Khmer New Year celebrations, not long after our fateful trip to Shray Rinh (see Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride), Sokha “complained,” if that’s the word, of having a headache. “OK?” I asked, seeing the pained expression on her usually placid face. “Choo kabal” she replied with an apologetic smile, as if she was doing something wrong. In my infinite Western wisdom I gave her a Panadol.

A little later she went up to the loft to sleep. A short time after that Sopheak’s brother Rah went up to fetch something and found her lying on her back staring at the ceiling. But she wasn’t staring at anything. There was nobody home. Her body was lying there, head propped up on a dirty silk cushion. It was breathing, but Sokha was gone. Rah called everyone up to have a look and to try to bring her back. Words like “catatonia” and “catalepsy” ran through my mind, though I couldn’t remember which was which. I thought about zombies and wondered if some of the New Age voodoo I’ve learned over the years would be of any help. But especially I thought about my sister, who at the age of 19 was sent home from college in exactly the same shape. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, she spent her life one of the unhappiest people I’ve ever know.

I flicked my fingers in front of her eyes. Not so much as a blink in response. Her hands and feet were cold. “She go inside,” I offered as my diagnosis. “She have too many problems,” Sopheak explained knowingly, “her spirit (“proh-leung”) go.” Sounded like as good an explanation as any. Half and hour, give or take, passed by with various failed attempts to revive her. I was just beginning to wonder if this was going to be a permanent condition and if so what were we going to do about it when she closed her eyes. At last! I thought with relief as I watched her eyes twitch and roll beneath their lids: REM, Rapid Eye Movement. She’s dreaming.

“She’s dreaming,” I said softly. The others nodded. It was obvious to them as well. I was not privy to special knowledge, just a little fancy Western terminology.

A few minutes later she opened her eyes and sat up. Sokha was back! Groggy, but she was with us. She said a few words that I didn’t understand, changed her position and lay back down, facing east for what that’s worth. “Her mama wants to visit,” I was told. Not comprehending, I assumed they were saying she had been dreaming about her mother and wanted to go back and dream about her again. But not long after she opened her eyes, sat up and began to speak and I realized there wasn’t a problem in translation: Sokha’s mother was paying us a visit.

When I tell you her demeanour changed completely, just believe me. You had to be there. Yes, it was the same teenage face, but the person in front of me was not Sokha. She was older, worldly-wise, with the confidence of a woman who has seen and endured enough that she doesn’t care anymore whether her words or actions are approved of or not. The face was Sokha’s but the personality that expressed itself through her simply was not the shy and retiring teenage girl I knew.

“She’s back,” I offered despite the evidence to the contrary. “This not Sokha. This mama for Sokha,” Sopheak corrected me. As I watched her speak to the others with confident authority, I knew that Sopheak’s words made more sense than mine. Then I caught her eye. She looked at me quizzically, the way some older Khmer had in the country, where Western faces are rare. She pointed at me and said, “Scoot” (crazy). I was neither insulted nor troubled by the statement. Most Cambodians think Westerners are crazy and when I see us through their eyes I can see why. I smiled in return. “Scoot,” she repeated, this time with a smile in return. “Her no see barang (foreigner) before,” Sopheak offered apologetically.

Some more words were exchanged and then the woman offered each of us in turn the traditional palms-together gesture that represents both hello and goodbye. Then she lay back down on the small silk pillow and closed her eyes. Mama’s short visit had come to a close.

Thinking the strange crisis had ended, I went downstairs for a smoke. I hadn’t finished my cigarette when I was summoned again. Sokha was awake again. No, let me be more precise. Sokha’s body was consciously inhabited again, but not by Sokha. This time it was inhabited by a bright-eyed baby. By the time I got to the loft she was sitting up close to Sopheak pulling at her shiny gold jewellery, a look of absolute delight and fascination on her glowing face as she giggled like a baby.

And that, it turned out, is what she was. When Sokha’s mother died she left a seven-month-old baby girl behind as well as the then four-year old Sokha. The baby died three months later. Still breast-feeding when her mother died, the baby endured her final months without the comfort of mother’s milk and she told our assemblage she was starving for milk. Rah went straight downstairs and poured her a full glass of milk which she drank down greedily in one gulp. It’s worth noting here that I’ve never seen a Khmer drink milk and that I’ve never seen Sokha drink milk since.

Sokha’s baby sister then said her goodbyes and Sokha’s body laid down again. When she got up a few moments later, Sokha was back. She had been visiting her mother while her sister was in her body and her mother had told her to go back to the wat in Shray Rinh for a water blessing. So the next day, accompanied by Sopheak’s oldest brother Rote, she did just that. When she returned, she was fine – for awhile.

It’s no wonder Khmer have their “superstitions” and almost universally consult cards, astrologers and oracles of all kinds for direction. We barang like to write all this off as “primitive beliefs” but we don’t have a clue. Our minds are fixed on the crazy idea that the Newtonian physical world is the “real” world. Alternative perceptions are aberrations to be analysed and rationalized into something our limited perspective can grasp and, if possible, eliminated. It’s a world-view I understand, having been there myself. But personal experience has led me to believe that we’re babes in the spiritual woods. Indeed, Khmer don’t consider ghosts, spirits or other non-material beings to be “spiritual” in the way we do. They are a part of ordinary reality. Being physically incarnate, their understanding is limited and so some of their methods of dealing with them are less-than-perfect. While our science quite happily calls its failures “experiments” that same science self-righteously dismisses the trial-and-error methods of shamans and priests as “superstitious nonsense.”

And so Sopheak’s recovery was not complete. It was to be expected, because, in Sopheak’s words, “her spirit so small small” that she continued (and may continue) to be subject to possession. She was fine for a couple of weeks. Then one morning she had another headache and became pensive and withdrawn as she had before. I saw her sitting and staring at a photograph I’d taken of her. I noticed the symptoms, but failed to become alarmed enough to tell Sopheak or Mal (Rah’s wife) when they came home from the market. By the time they returned, Sokha had been upstairs for about an hour and they found her as she had been before, lying on her back staring blankly into space. Next to her was the photograph of herself and she’d written something on the back of it. Sopheak read it while Mama, Mal, Rah and Ana (Sopheak’s sister) worked on reviving Sokha. This time it took only a few minutes and this is where things get complicated. She “woke up” and everyone believed it was Sokha, but as it turned out, it wasn’t. It was Sokha’s oldest sister.

The note on the back of the photograph was worrying. She had written that she was not destined to live in her current body much longer and wished to be reborn as Sopheak’s and my next baby. That brought tears to my eyes and I told Sopheak to tell her she could be our baby in this lifetime, but she already had. Nonetheless, everyone feared that Sokha might simply lose the will to live and die (violent suicide would be unnecessary – she would simply die), so they called in a priest from Wat Leu.

I didn’t know they’d called a “loke” (priest or monk) and thinking everything was OK, I left. When I returned, he had come and gone. In Sopheak’s words, “Her want kill Buddha (the loke). Her change. I see black black and her have this ones (pointed to teeth) like monster we see inside tv (a vampire).” The “monster” was Sokha’s jealous sister. Sokha remembered her oldest sister, but was unaware she had died. But she had, and she was furious. Not only had Sokha been their mother’s favorite, Sokha had gone on living and found a loving home while she had died. Determined to “set things right” and enjoy life again, she had inhabited her body, written the heart-rending note and acted like the sweet and gentle Sokha we knew. But the priest had found her out.

He was able to make the sister leave Sokha’s body, but for how long he wasn’t sure. He told everyone to watch her and if there was another episode to bring her to the wat for an exorcism. That would drive her sister away for good. Sokha had no recollection of what she had written but agreed with the sentiments when she read it.

to be continued . . .