21 April 2021
Happy New Year?
As I begin to write this episode, it is Songkran in Thailand, the beginning of a new year celebrated in Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar as well. This year it is not particularly happy.
Trouble In River City
On Bangkok's Khao San Road thousands of backpackers are normally soaked with water for several days over the Songkran holiday. This year, business are closed and most Bangkok streets are completely empty. However, the pandemic has not stopped the slaughter on Thailand's highways. As of today there have been 277 fatalities so far, due mostly to alcohol speeding. This year's bus accident (there is at least one every Songkran) killed five and injured twelve when it burst into flames.
Thailand is still struggling with its pandemic response. Restrictions were tightened in 18 provinces including Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Phuket on April 18th. Pubs are closed and restaurants will have reduced capacity for fourteen days. Schools are closed as well. 7-Elevens remain open. A work-at-home order is in place until 29 April. Domestic flights are cancelled for fourteen days. Gatherings of more than 50 people are banned. There are currently over 1,500 active Covid cases in the kingdom.
The AstraZeneca vaccine is now being manufactured under licenses in Thailand, which is good news. The bad news is that they will not be able to mount an aggressive vaccination effort until June. Only about 0.9% of Thailand's population of 700 million have yet been vaccinated.
And if the pandemic was not enough, a man was trampled to death when he tried to feed an elephant that was tethered to a tree outside a resort near Khorat. The beast was waiting to give rides to tourists. The man had a pickup truck full of freshly-cut sugar cane and thought the pachyderm might enjoy a snack. If you are frightened about Covid-19, being trampled to death by an elephant is one more thing to add to your angst checklist. Please remember to socially distance from animals bigger than you are.
Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen: "Stay Where You Are Or Else!"
Since I first started writing about life during the pandemic here in in March of last year I have reported the very low infection rates and a death rate of zero. Well, all that has changed dramatically. As of today, there are 7,444 confirmed case of Covid-19, and there have 49 deaths so far. Travel between provinces is now prohibited. Phnom Penh is in a total lock-down. People in Siem Reap are taking no chances. Streets are empty. Schools are closed and people are staying home. In certain "red zones" around the country (principally around Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville, and Kapot) people are completely sealed off from the rest of the world, and are subject to curfew. The government is supplying these zones with food and water. More than 30 markets have been shut down for fourteen days, mostly in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville.
How did it come to this? Most Khmer people live in or come from the countryside. When businesses (hotels, restaurants and giant garment factories) in cities close, people return to their villages, sometimes carrying infections with them. There have been several large religious gatherings in Cambodia and Malaysia at which there were many, many transmissions. Tourists continue to make a significant contribution to infection rates. Cambodia has an open-door policy with China and there are flights daily from several Chinese cities to Phnom Penh. I have heard several times, yet have no way to confirm, that there has been a "wink-wink" arrangement with some visitors to avoid too much supervision during quarantine. I can say that Hun Sen put his foot down in recent days about quarantine enforcement, which suggests that some tourists have enjoyed nights out on the town with big groups enjoying festive dinners.
The good news is that the massive Wuhanization projects that have had Siem Reap tied in knots seem to have slowed or even stopped. My electricity is not being shut off three or four times a day, sometimes for hours. The bad news is, the economy has come to a standstill and people are genuinely terrified.
Hun Sen got his second jab two days ago ahead of his trip to Jakarta for the ASEAN meeting (see below). He got the AstraZenica vaccine, and not the Chinese stuff that is not suitable to people of a certain age (including me) and that many people here do not trust or want. We're getting another 300,000 doses of the Chinese "stuff" this week, enough for about .88% of the population. That is almost exactly the same as the number of people have been vaccinated so far in Thailand, which is a frighteningly-small slice of the population.
No Holiday in Myanmar
So far, the Burmese military has murdered more than 700 people, including small children. Thousands have been arrested. Yet, the demonstrations have not slowed. In recent days demonstrators have fought troops firing at them indiscriminately with sling shots. In Bago, 65km north of Yangon, 80 were killed by men in uniform who loaded the corpses into trucks and hauled them away, depriving the dead and their families of funerals. More than 250,000 people have been displaced from their homes because they were destroyed in ground and air strikes. In several cities, red paint has been poured into the streets. Many hospital workers are not working. It is unclear whether they have been ordered to stay home or they are simply afraid.
ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, is scheduled to meet in Jakarta on April 24th to discuss the "crisis" in Myanmar. Early news reports mentioned that the Burmese junta had not been invited to attend, which was a resounding snub to the generals. However, it was announced last week that General Min Aung Hlaing would be attending. The result could be the complete unraveling of ASEAN, whose members are virtually powerless to bring about much change except a denunciation, and whose leaders include a few "strong men" who have been in power for years or decades, and whose hands are not particularly clean either. The meeting will also be seen diplomatically as an endorsement of the junta.
Meanwhile, a group of former Burmese government officials have formed a "National Unity Government". They were not offered a seat at the table in Jakarta.
The Bangkok Post called ASEAN "feckless."
Once again, speak up about Myanmar! Contact your country's foreign ministry about pressure on the Burmese junta:
Vietnam Dusts Itself Off
Vietnam's control of the pandemic in their country was one of the world's most successful efforts. About two months ago they suddenly went through a very rough patch and isolated their country much like Cambodia is still doing. It appears that they have recovered and are allowing visitors again--even tourists. Those who want to visit Vietnam must be tested immediately before arrival and go through 14-day quarantine, although the US Embassy in Hanoi warns that quarantines can be extended by the authorities for any reason. You'll also need proof of insurance adequate to cover treatment if you ultimately test positive.
Why Can't Other Countries Do This?
As of today, nearly 95% of the population of Bhutan have received at least one of two AstraZenica jabs. Not even neighboring India, which donated the vaccine, can come close. There was only one lock-down in the capital, Thimphu, in the last year. No demonstrations where masks were burned, or other undisciplined behavior. No whining about "liberty." No drunken college parties. (Well, Bhutan has no Spring Break.) No mass gatherings for senior citizens driving Harley Davidson motorcycles. Just a population that embraces its democracy and acts responsibly to themselves and to their countrymen. All Bhutanese people are required to vote, so they take civic duties quite seriously. Meanwhile, childish citizens of places like Texas and Florida are whining about their rights being taken away because they have to wear masks. Give Me Liberty AND Give Me Death. As I am fond of saying, stupidity is often self-correcting.
May thanks to all of you who filled up our brief questionnaire about how you are handling the pandemic. We are short of the 500 we really need for data to be meaningful, so please answer the questionnaire if you have not done so. (Just once, please.) If you already have, please share the page to your friends and on Facebook.
Where To Eat In Siem Reap
Around 30 years ago I was vegetarian for almost three years. That ended when I was awakened very late one night by a singing hamburger at Doggie Diner, which was then just a block north of the Opera House on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco. (Sadly, there is a condo there now.) It sang to me a song so potent that I dressed and drove there to declare my love.
If you are an American, a hamburger is part of your DNA. You can lose weight, get an eye lift, color your hair or even change your gender, but the hamburger gene will be part of you forever. Khmer people do not understand hamburgers. Englishmen understand fish and chips, bangers and mash, and a good curry, but not the subtle nuances that make a burger truly great. Only Americans have the burger gene.
There are a lot of burgers for sale in Siem Reap and Burger King gets higher ratings than almost any other restaurant. I have to admit that I have eaten there when I when my burger itch became out of control, but something always seems to be missing. Maybe it's the sea of Formica and paper crowns. Or maybe the meat isn't all that fulfilling because we don't really what parts of the cow ended up in the grinder, and how many months it has been frozen.
A brave young man from Los Angeles just opened Big Boy Burger Bar in Siem Reap. When I met John he was wearing an In-And-Out Burger polo shirt. I knew immediately that I had arrived in Burger Heaven.
What makes Big Boy Burger Bar so great starts with the thick, juicy meat patties that have never been frozen, and the buns that they have custom-baked for them. The rest is up to you. The menu has a dozen different designer burgers for those who are adventurous. And a full page describes all of the things you can dress your burger with if you want to build your own. There is way more than just lettuce, tomato, bacon and cheese, not to say there is anything wrong with those alone plus some special sauce. The fries are terrific, the beer is cold, and they have other things on the menu, like pork chops, ribs, a few Khmer dishes, and full bar. They are getting five-star reviews on Tripadvisor so far, most of them declaring Big Boy the best burgers in Siem Reap, and maybe the world.
Stay at Villa Khursani when sanity returns to our lives and I will gladly take you there myself. Maybe twice.
Tacos are another matter and a different American gene, especially if you are from California. The most benign purveyor of Mexican food here is Maybe Later, in Kendal Village in the CBD, which celebrates Taco Tuesdays with specials and discounts. Tacos are their specialty, although they also offer burritos and quesadillas. Their fish tacos are almost orgasmic and worth a visit when you are doing errands and need some air conditioning and a frosty beer or margarita. Missing: I like frijoles (beans) with my rice; fresh salsa instead of the uninspired stuff that has been sitting in a glass jar on the table for who knows how long; and, an authentic tortilla, not a 15cm communion wafer made of something that is not corn. But that's all restaurants can get their hands on here.
The best tacos used to be found at Oh Taco, which has probably closed for good. They made their own tortillas (both white and black corn) from masa di farina, a flour made from corn that has been "nixtamalized" with lime to create hominy. It's also used to make tamales. It's sad to see them go, especially since I have almost enough loyalty stamps for two free tacos.
The undisputed worst Mexican food in Siem Reap is at Viva! just off Pub Street. It's cheap and cheerful, but it's also slop. They do not know anything about Mexican food, but the place is so big that they do not care how long you occupy a table. And draft beer is fifty cents, so there are card games going on and a mostly-mature crowd hanging around for hours.
To alleviate the suffering of the many foreigners here who dream of a real taco, heirloom corn seeds are on the way to me from Oaxaca. I'm going to hire Veasna's father, a farmer knowledgeable in corn cultivation, to grow them for me, along with jalapenos. I will make my own authentic tortillas and operate a taco cart in the Old Market area where people can watch their taco being made beginning with carnitas, which I make regularly already anyway, al pastor, and maybe chicharon. Customers will eat them standing on the sidewalk, which is the custom in Mexico. Salsa made fresh daily.
If that makes your mouth water, check out the Taco Chronicles series on Netflix.
Jerry Falwell is still dead, but Jerry Junior is more than just unemployed now. Liberty University, the college founded by his dad, is suing Junior for $40 million for "failing to disclose" the torrid fling he and wife Becki had with the pool boy, and also failing to disclose his "personal impairment by alcohol." And they looked like such a nice couple.
And Juthamas Siriwan is still in a federal prison in the United States, along with her daughter. Maybe forever. Juthamas was the Director of the Tourism Authority of Thailand when my former partners John and Robert were arrested, imprisoned and eventually deported because we had a stack of gay magazines in our office--the same magazines that were found in most of Thailand's gay bars and other friendly businesses, and the very one that published Darika Watchalottaporn's advice column. Juthamas colluded with an American couple to put on a film festival in Thailand. She made a big pile of money for using her influence as a pubic servant to cut through the red tape to make it happen. I avoided being captured in the raids on our two offices by being crippled, only the second time that has ever been lucky for me.
The Final Word
Virtually every morning I am awake from three to five o'clock before my morning nap. That has allowed me to see most of the Derek Chauvin trial. It has ended. His true reckoning will come in eight weeks when he is sentenced to as many as 40 years in prison. Justice has been served to only one man, and he is still dead. Only one rotten cop will go to prison. My hope is that this murder and Chauvin's verdict will give real police reform a final push. Racism, brutality and murder are deeply embedded in the cultures of many US police departments. Defunding police is a pipe dream. But limiting what police officers can do and keeping the bad ones from wearing a badge anywhere else if they are fired for intolerable behavior is both practical and necessary.
Meanwhile, Republican legislators in several US states will be issuing get-out-of-jail-free cards to motorists who mow down demonstrators with their cars. Really. In Indiana, anyone convicted of unlawful assembly will henceforth be banned from employment by the state, or holding state office. According to the New York Times, 34 states have passed 81 pieces of anti-demonstration legislation. I am confused about why participating in a demonstration is not protected as free speech, while protecting ones self and the public from a potentially-lethal disease by wearing a mask is a heinous depravation of one's constitutional rights.
Thanks for reading, and thanks for all the love you send me.
On most days I really miss my job and the wonderful people who I was lucky enough to work with. After March's blog a couple in San Francisco contacted me on Facebook to reminisce about a trip I had planned for them in 2012. I remember meeting them and enjoying their company, as well as the two-pound box of Velveeta they brought me. I have followed them on Facebook ever since and have admired their gardening prowess. Over the years I have been reminded over and over about the lives Purple Dragon touched and changed, not the least of which was my own.
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