A real museum piece

For your cycling pleasure, here is the Vietnamese edition of the Flying Pigeon. It is identical in all structural and mechanical aspects to the bike I rode across Cuba, except that this version has a more modern system of brakes and levers. The fact that in Vietnam this is a certified Viet Cong relic, given its own two square meters of red carpet and a plinth, whereas in Cuba hundreds of thousands of these are still on the road today, tells you much about the countries' two very different strategies for dealing with their post-Soviet growing pains.

The bicycle is on display in the museum at the site of the "Peace Bridge" over the Ben Hai river, the official dividing line between North and South Vietnam, at the center of the DMZ, the poorly-named "Demilitarized Zone." In this context the metaphorical importance of the bicycle is obvious. The centerpiece of the one room museum is a diorama of struggling, pajama-clad villagers raising battered AK-47s and triumphantly charging a phalanx of Imperialist Running Dog tanks and helicopters. The authentic, humble, cast-iron, one-speed Chinese bicycle serves the same role as would a pair of sandals made from an old tire. It represents the modesty of the tools at the disposal of the North Vietnamese and the dire limitations of their resources, which they nonetheless overcame with their perseverance and dedication, despite the tremendous odds against them.


The Bird Wave

The catchment pond at "the dam" at Ta Nung Valley, which likely fills up during the rainy season.

I'm not saying I'm better than you. Far be it from me to grip you off, as the Australians say, but I've just seen four Gray Crowned Crocias. You're impressed, I know, although you may never even have heard of a Gray Crowned Crocias before. I had, but I'll be the first to admit I haven't the faintest idea how it's pronounced. Is it CROW-SEE-UHZ? That seems the most probable, but CROWshus sounds reasonable and even CROAK-EE-US is plausible. Birdwatching is full of obscure family names like this, ones which no birders actually know for certain how to pronounce. That's right, we're talking about a bird, here. But as my brother might once have said: what does it matter, for a name is just a social construct. The point is, I saw it.

I cannot claim to be the Christopher Columbus of Crociases (Crociae?). The groundwork had been done for me. After much consulting of the internets, I located the world's most famous, number-one top spot for viewing these cuddly, charming, and oh-so-very endemic feathered amigos, a place known as the Ta Nung Valley, just twenty-minutes motorcycle ride from my hotel in Dalat, in the province or state or department or whatever they call them of South Annam, Vietnam. The only state, province or department in the world in which Gray Crowned Crociaii are to be found, skulking about quietly and discreetly in the dense foliage.

The Ta Nung Valley is a rather grandiose name for a heavily wooded creek-bed, one which has, however, miraculously escaped the worst of the mad third-world woodchopper's chainsaw, at least so far.* The development of an "eco-resort" seems to be proceeding there. Sadly, in the Vietnamese context, this means cutting lots of things down and creating a sylvan but sterile park-like environment, usually complete with cement giraffes and over-manicured topiary. For now, however, the far wall of the Ta Nung Valley is still thickly forested with a lovely diversity of massive trees. There is enough jungle left to make finding the Crocias no easy matter.**

An as-yet-unlogged giant of the forest

As I will demonstrate in a future post, Vietnam is no place to be a bird. In the public perception here, if they have any purpose at all, our feathered friends of all shapes and dimensions are for keeping at home in cages, for eating, and for small boys to target with slingshots. I had forgotten, in the ten years since my last serious birding foray in Asia, in the nearby Philippines, just how skittish and nervous birds in the region tend to be. Even the smallest, most curious and confiding species keep at least triple the usual distance between themselves and any human intruder. Numbers are generally low, and the birds keep well hidden.

The Ta Nung Valley is in this regard a pre-industrial relic. Some trip reports I consulted suggested that a slow day there could be dismal and unrewarding, an exhausting tramp through a silent, birdless forest, especially if one missed the crucial morning chorus between 6 and 8AM. But on my first visit, a sort of scouting mission, I arrived at the very unbirdy hour of two in the afternoon, and found the place humming and chirping with activity. Every birder's dream is the unexplained phenomenon known to birders from Britain and its former colonies as a "bird wave," and to the less romantic Americans as a "mixed flock." One theory is that because many eyes and inclinations make it much easier to spot predators, birds of multiple species, with different diets, habits and sizes will often band together in disorganized parties, moving through the forest together in a gang, so that a patch of jungle that one moment was silent and still will minutes later be alive, a veritable hive of activity. Although there are notable species that never participate in such waves, this phenomenon is consistent across the globe, from the New Jersey woodlands of spring migration to the Andean slopes, the African forests (what's left of them), and the Asian jungles.

 Hey baby, mind if I quickly check your leaf structure?

The avid birder wandering the forest waits and hopes to stumble into a bird wave the way a man crawling the Sahara seeks an oasis. Nonetheless, coming upon a bird wave is an anxiety ridden episode. Consider, as we discuss waves, surfing. The surfer waits patiently, paddling, watching the horizon, letting innumerable opportunities slide beneath her surfboard, before identifying the wave worthy of being ridden, committing, and then trying to make the most of it with grace and finesse. Will all that time be wasted, with a flubbed ride, or the realization that just behind lurked a bigger, better wave? So too, the birder, when the long-awaited wave arrives, must seize the moment, efficiently, remaining calm under pressure. Suddenly, the surrounding trees will be thick with activity. Dozens of flitting shadows and chirps divide the attention of the binoculars. It is crucial, in these situations, to know what one is about. It is easy to waste your time on commonplace species and find the wave has moved, dispersed to who knows where, before you have managed even a handful of identifications. One tears one's hair in frustration. Some waves are small, and hold only the more populous species. Others are gargantuan, multi-level affairs, involving ground-loving species, canopy dwellers and a frenzy of mid-story activity that remains with you until you are sated.

Ta Nung, on that first afternoon, was one big wave from start to finish. Set after set of perfect rollers, crashing in on the beach. Arriving at the dam, I found the surrounding trees pulsating with avian activity. I scarcely dropped the binoculars onto my chest for two hours.

The ideal in a wave is to be able to identify the more common species from the quickest glimpse of a feather, in order to move on, to look for something rarer. Not to be confused by the mass of activity. To recognize a shape, a flit, a motion, as something new and unusual. Here, species like Mountain Fulvetta and Ashy Bulbul may be represented in a bird wave by dozens of individuals. White Throated Fantail and Gray Headed Canary Flycatcher attend virtually every wave. One must not be distracted by their ubiquity, or the shy and retiring prizes will slip away while you are sorting through the hoi-polloi. The Crocias is such a prize, a sluggish and gentle forager that moves calmly and imperceptibly through the foliage of the upper middle story. I did not see one.

But the goal for the afternoon was met, and I saw many exciting species new to me. More importantly, I left feeling prepared for the following morning. I knew the Ashy Bulbul from the quickest flash of its olive-yellow wing panel. The Mountain Fulvetta would never distract me again; virtually any smallish gray and brown shape within ten feet of the ground, I knew, would prove to be one. I would look past the background noise.

The dam
Although this looks like a flower, fallen to the forest floor, it was in behavior something more like a mushroom. Dense and fleshy, it appeared to have sprung open from a red bulbous growth something like a red croquet ball, attached firmly to the ground. I have no idea. Anyone? UPDATE: It's Rafflesia. Thanks, Dodo!

At 5:30 in the morning, the sky still black, I slipped on my helmet and threw a leg over my rented motorbike,  revved the engine and turned on the headlamp.*** Twenty minutes later, when I arrived at Ta Nung, the sky was rapidly going blue-gray. I found the gate at the top of the trail, open the day before, locked. I parked the bike, jumped three low strands of barbed wire, and hiked fearlessly past the frenzied barking of the guardian's dogs. He emerged, did not look happy to see me, but said nothing. I gave him a smile and a wave. Less than a hundred meters below his house, the day began in earnest with a massive single-species flock of at least forty White Cheeked Laughingthrushes, a bird I had not seen the day before. A very good omen. From there, it went on, one blaze of glory after another, one vast tidal wave of frenzied birding until 11:30 in the morning when the sun was blisteringly high in the sky and the activity finally lagged. Today I'm exhausted. I'm taking the day off, internetting and eating noodle soup. I don't want to grip you off, but yesterday was the tsunami of bird waves.

Oh, and the Crocias? You must be wondering. A major accomplishment, to be certain, but still only one episode in a glorious ornithological orgy.**** For a moment, despite the waves upon waves, I thought they would elude me. In an early monster wave I saw a largish white belly with black streaks, leading a cuckoo-like tail, peering and poking its way through an impossibly dense tangle overhead. I knew immediately that this was my bird, but the wave was on the move, and before I could see anything more it was gone, an unsatisfactory sighting in every way. But not ten minutes further along the trail, the one that goes downstream, below the dam, I found another, a bit lower in the trees, and saw it well as it moved through the leaves overhead. Well enough that I moved on to look at other things. Then looking once again overhead, I saw it again, then three together, sitting tightly packed on a branch, as if for warmth. Some people would call this cute. I call it triumph.

The burbling stream, not far from where I saw not one, not two, but three Gray Crowned Crocias cuddling together, cheek-by-jowl, just under the mid-story canopy, in a tableau something like an inspirational kitten poster on the wall of a dentist's office.

*The use of the term "third-world" seems to be steadily sliding out of vogue. "Developing world" is now to be preferred. While some will imagine this semantic shift has everything to do with political correctness, I suggest they are wrong. The reality is that as the United States slides inexorably downward on the lists that used to define third-worldness--quality of education, healthcare, nutrition, income disparity, etc.--it has become preferable to de-emphasize the competitive aspect implied by the designations of "first" and "second" and "third" worlds. The US will never be "undeveloped," and therefore will never lose ground to "developing."

**As some very recent trip reports on this site have noted, the ecotourism project at Ta Nung is quickly altering the landscape, eliminating landmark trees and making it difficult to find trails. I used a GPS, so any birders needing GPS data leave a comment and I'll get back to you with more details. 

***100,000 VN Dong, or $5, to rent one for the entire day. Are you kidding? How does anyone make any money out of that? 

****For those counting, at some point yesterday I broke 3,000.


Anti-ghost Platoon

As usual on trips so densely packed with new and exciting experiences as this, I'm falling savagely behind on my blog posts. Combine the constant onslaught of new sights and sounds with the sentiment that "I didn't fly halfway around the world to sit in an internet cafe" and you will begin to understand the backlog. I've been back in Vietnam two weeks already since Laura and I visited Angkor Wat, but I'm still blogging my way through Cambodia. Expect to be hearing about Southeast Asia for weeks after my return....

Regular readers know that I'm always interested in the supernatural interventions people across the globe choose to put their faith in. My sister-in-law, Melanie, is a foremost world expert in South Indian techniques for avoiding the "evil-eye," and I share her fascination for these sorts of vernacular expressions of superstition, magic and belief. The sociology of the ways in which talismans, amulets, altars, shrines and so on are manifested across the globe is often obscure, but in Cambodia, driving in the countryside, we again and again encountered houses protected by "scare-ghosts," whose genesis and form seems to make obvious sense in the wake of the Cambodian genocide. There is scarcely anything metaphorical about them.

Invariably constructed at the gateway to the front yard, the Cambodian anti-ghost version of a scarecrow is impressively humanoid. An old shirt, torn trousers and some sort of head are usually enough to construct one, but these protectors, stand-ins for an armed guard at the doorway, often have an evident militaristic aspect. They often sport bits of old military uniform, and sometimes a weapon.

Our Tuk-tuk driver, the incomparable Mr. Boret (well, we considered him incomparable until he stood us up the next day when we had scheduled a ride to the airport) explained that these "puppets" (a loaded word in and of itself in Southeast Asia, as it historically described local collaborators with the Imperialist Yanqui) are placed in front of homes to protect against ghosts, who come at night and take people away. Cambodia, obviously has many of them.


A small taste of Angkor

Not to barrage you with globe-trotting braggery, but I've been to Tikal in Guatemala, Copan in Honduras, Chichen Izta in Mexico, Machu Picchu in Peru, Delphi in Greece, Chile's Easter Island, and the Empire State Building. The breathtaking expanse, the countless temples and the millions of square yards of intricately carved rock of the multiple complexes at Angkor Wat puts them all to shame. Compared with the demented stone-carvers of the Khmer empire, the Mayans seem like tropical layabouts with too much time on their hands. If Angkor Wat is Manhattan, Machu Picchu is Piscataway. The Ancient Greeks might've come up with something if only they had been able to develop a work ethic. The loons of Easter Island, who destroyed their own civilization by devoting all their manpower to building gigantic heads, are like a small village of basketmakers by comparison. And so on.


No, the "Huguito" is not a new model of Yugoslavian car...

Last night the Vietnamese news broadcast was on in the open-air dining pavilion while I was replenishing myself. I couldn't understand a thing the fetching, silk-clad anchorwoman was saying until I heard the words "Venezuela" and "Colombia" come out of her mouth. Oh, no, I thought. The only reason those two distant nations could possibly make the Vietnamese news is if they have finally gone to war. Relations between these two neighbors are not the warmest, and minor spats seem routinely to threaten to develop into a full-blown slap-fest.

This morning I googled, and found it may not be so grave after all. I certainly hope this was in the news in the United States, because it has to be my favorite story of the week. Colombia is a major exporter of tele-novelas, those over-the-top latino soap-opera epics of deceit, romance, and riches. Venezuela and Cuba even run them on their television networks, despite certain political differences (in fairness to the Venezuelan government of Hugo Chavez, most networks in that country are privately owned, often by opposition elites).

The current diplomatic debacle was launched because a current Colombian soap offering features a secretary (a lower-class citizen) named Venezuela, and a dog (a dog!) named Huguito, the diminutive for Hugo. The Chavez government has complained bitterly, and from what I can understand the novela in question has been removed from the Caracas airwaves. I hope the situation is now stable, but wars have been started for less.

They say it's your birthday...

I want to thank the many dozens of facebook friends who have extended best birthday wishes to me on this fine January day. I had hoped by being in Vietnam to minimize the publicity and hooplah attending my inexorable slide deeper into middle age, but thanks to the magic of the internets, so very many fond wishes have found me here on the edge of an 8,000 hectare lowland tropical forest at the beachfront crossroads of Ho Coc, Cochinchina. Greetings have poured in by email, voicemail and facemail, or whatever that's called.

I'm expressing my gratitude here rather than on the faceplant because the prescient communist Vietnamese government, well aware that facebook is a Big-Brother-like information-gathering surveillance and affiliation-tracking operation, and therefore a direct competitive threat to all other authoritarian systems, has blocked access to the website throughout their country. (Thankfully my facebook messages are delivered directly, via normal email).

Many, many Thank Yous for your thoughts and greetings, highlights of which included a link, from Dairo in Barranquilla, of Prince Nico Mbarga singing Happy Birthday, and, from Wolfgang in Manhattan, spectacular self-portraits of his face after a recent bicycling pothole-faceplant injury on New Year's Day.

And thanks to Laura for failing to inform me that I had suncream all over my nose.


Please eat your stinky fruits elsewhere...

Not only are taxi-girls in barred from your room at the Green Garden guesthouse, you're not even allowed to bring home your Durian fruit.


Cambodian Land Mine Victims' Orchestra on NPR's "The World"

This news may be a bit late, since I've already heard from an old friend in Los Angeles that she heard me on the radio while she was driving to work, but PRI's "The World" had my audio postcard from the market of Siem Riep on their Wednesday program. In case you missed it, such things are archived, thanks to the glorious internet. They've credited my photograph of the Cambodian flag to my long lost (imaginary) brother Peter, but I think that's just a typo. Or they've mixed me up with my fellow travel writer, the late author of the superlative Brazilian Adventure. Company I'm happy to be confused with.

The "audio postcard" includes my recording of a Cambodian land mine victims' orchestra. Such orchestras, composed of disabled players, are numerous in the touristy Siem Riep area, and at various temples in the vast and impressive Angkor complex. They are intended to tug at your heartstrings, as well they should. Some of the disabled players are war victims from Cambodia's savage 1970s, but the sad reality is that mine victims in Cambodia can be of any age and may have sustained their crippling wounds at any time in the last 40 years. Cambodia remains one of the most heavily mined countries on earth despite constant efforts at removal, and many, many people are killed and wounded each year by ancient mines that have long outlived the heinous military conflicts that saw them installed. Imagine living in a country at peace, trying to forget the horrors of the past, while living with the constant threat of being exploded in your own rice paddy.


Gently up the Mekong

hitch a ride on the riverboat queen...
The Mekong River is so central to the life of Southeast Asia that some people refer to the Lao, Cambodians and Vietnamese collectively as "the people of the Mekong," despite the tremendous racial diversity spread across these three countries. Picture everything south of Cairo, Illinois, in Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri, western Kentucky and Tennessee as an isolated peninsula jutting into the South China Sea, transpose the Mekong for the Mississippi, and you will begin to grasp the prominence and significance of this vast watery artery.

 home, sweet floating shack...

Like the Mississippi of  Twainian yore, the Mekong is simultaneously home, harbor, highway and horror, its inexorable flow the lifeblood of commerce, agriculture, transport and the creative imagination. From its banks the Khmer Rouge ambushed transport ships bringing supplies up to embattled Phnom Penh from Saigon before either city had fallen, and down its waters floated countless bodies, victims of the genocide. But without it Southeast Asia would not be the rice basket of the world, one enormous system of paddies providing tons of food to millions of people.

moveable tourist beach...

And just as in the glory days of the Mississippi Riverboats and that river's seething, teeming commerce, the Mekong is a place some people are born, raised and grow up without scarcely going ashore. Last week we and a horde of other tourists hoping to experience the romance piled into a sleek speedboat for the five hour journey upriver from Phnom Penh to Siem Riep, on the far side of the Tonle Sap, the vast inland sea that is an appendage of the great river. The boat was narrow and claustrophic, like an airplane fuselage without wings, and we and many others opted for the airy and exhilarating "top deck". A sunburn waiting to happen.

 just paddle up and knock on the door...

One need not fear the annual floods, which spill the banks and flood vast expanses of the land, when one's house floats. Along the Mekong there are entire floating cities. Fishermen raft together in family groups in mid-stream, working their fish traps. Towns built on the banks spill into the river; what were once docks become watery neighborhoods. We zipped past it all.

the Cambodian flag flies over the Tonle Sap...


Genocide Tourism

“You want Tuk-tuk?” It is a question familiar to anyone who has visited Cambodia. This is the battle-cry of the entrepreneurial motorized tricycle driver, stationed outside of every hotel in Phnom Penh. A Tuk-tuk is a brightly painted miniature caravan, pulled by a motorcycle; walk a block or two here and you will be offered four or five chances to take a ride in one. You shake your head, no. “You want Tuk-tuk?” The driver asks again. He has a smiling, friendly, underemployed face. “You want to visit the killing fields?”

The Killing Fields? One thing to understand about Tuk-tuk drivers is that they offer their most popular excursions first. The way the driver says these words makes the place sound like a boutique for shopping, or perhaps the latest trendy restaurant, somewhere one would surely like to go. A destination. In Phnom Penh, the killing fields, that gruesome piece of real estate synonymous with the Cambodian genocide of the late 1970s, is a major attraction, even while its scars still run deep. Welcome to disaster tourism, Cambodian style. 

No Tuk-tuk is needed today; the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is just across the street from the hotel. It is a former school complex, four three-story buildings that once housed a primary school and a high school in the center of the city, before being converted by the Khmer Rouge into the torture center known as S-21. For this space to have been repurposed once again as a place for learning, even about such a grim history, is already a powerful metaphor. The Khmer Rouge cadres massacred intellectuals, students and professors, treating knowledge as dangerous and subversive. They exterminated as much as a quarter of the population.

On a recent afternoon, most of the visitors to Tuol Sleng are tourists, many of them passing briefly through Phnom Penh on their way to Siem Riep and the temples at Angkor Wat. There are many of them, making their way through this very simple and very powerful exhibition. It is little more, really, than a terrible place left virtually untouched since the Vietnamese forced the Khmer Rouge out of power in early January of 1979. The former classrooms crudely divided into tiny cells not fit for animals. Walls now crowded with headshots of the victims.

What brings people here? Why take time out of a hard-won vacation to wander through these unremittingly grim rooms? Posted on the walls of the buildings at Tuol Sleng in the style of “No-Smoking” signs are drawings of a grinning man, covered by a red circle with a bar. They mean “please don’t laugh, or smile.” It’s not a welcome directive on a holiday. But horror, empathy, curiosity and incomprehension combine to form the most powerful of emotions; these are the same ingredients so often exploited by Hollywood to have the maximum impact on moviegoers. 
Inside, nobody is smiling. The most chilling and evocative spaces are in the first building, where neither the torturers nor the museum curators did anything to change the layout. The rooms are large, with unforgettable checkerboard patterned floors of alternating white and yellow tile. They would have been cheery classrooms. In each room is a simple steel bed frame and a few of the mundane props of torture: a shackle, an iron bar. On each wall is a single photograph, impossibly faded and grainy. It is an old and weathered blow-up of one of the images made here by the combat photographer Ho Van Tay, of what he found after the arrival of the Vietnamese. The fourteen bodies left by the fleeing Khmer Rouge are buried in the courtyard outside, in plain white vaults, but until Van Tay arrived, their corpses were still chained to the beds. 

The photographs are murky, almost pitted, and perhaps past due to be reprinted, but upon close inspection one realizes that the exact bed sitting in the center of the room is the same one in the photograph hanging on the water-stained wall. In the image, the checkered floor tiles are gray and white, but they are clearly the very same tiles that are under your feet. One understands suddenly that the room, the floor, and the bed all match, and that only the body, twisted in its final agony, is missing from the current reality of the scene. It is a visceral, emotional moment. One visitor felt it was intensely private. “You feel you are a voyeur, looking at something you shouldn’t be seeing,” she said. “And so for someone else to come into the room when you are there, it’s as if you’ve gotten caught.” But the point, of course, is that one must see, and must not forget, and the feeling of are bearing witness is another of the reasons so many visitors come here. 

Back out in the sunshine, under the barbed wire and the swaying palm trees, the Tuk-tuk drivers are still waiting and hopeful, but they seem to have mercy on the contemplative mood of the departing museum guests. "Maybe tomorrow?" one asks quietly. "The killing fields?"


Happy New Year!

A handful of hours after takeoff on December 31st, which is to say at about noon New York time, we celebrated New Year's with a brief announcement from the Cathay Pacific cockpit that it was countdown time in Hong Kong. Given the sun shining outside the windows as we flew north over Ontario, it was a bit difficult to get too excited about it, but the chief steward promptly handed out dunce caps to the crew. All tried bashfully to refuse to wear them, but a directive had been issued from somewhere, and on went the hats. Four minutes later, there wasn't a single one to be seen. In the brief interval, I took photos, perhaps adding to the stewardesses' sense of unease.