Douglas Thompson's Gay Asia Blog

23 September 2019

How I Got Here, Dueling Funerals and CD, and the Zen of Lawns

How I Got Here

No, this is not a story about the birds and the bees. You know from our the previous episode that I have uprooted myself from Bangkok and have set up housekeeping in Siem Reap in a rather huge, old French-Khmer farm house. Siem Reap is only about 400km (around 250 miles) from The Rotten Mango,  yet worlds apart. Western Cambodia is still laid back, relatively unspoiled, and very inexpensive. Luxury comes with a low price tag, but you still need to shop occasionally in Bangkok. The cheese scene here is appalling. More about shopping later.

Bangkok and Siem Reap are separated by a border, which means you can't rent a U-Haul (they do not exist here anyway) and move all of your stuff from one place to the other. I  had crossed the border by road several times already, most recently about six years ago to take a piece of sculpture* to Bangkok that I did not trust an airline with. I had already made the trip in the other direction just to see what it was like. I saw trucks queued up to cross the border, so I thought moving my household goods to my new home would be as easy as hiring a trucking company.

After talking to a lot of trucking companies, none of which were interested, I finally learned that the only way you can ship household goods to anywhere in Cambodia from Thailand (or anywhere else) is by sea freight via Sihanoukville. This takes about a week from Bangkok and, in my case, costs about $6,000, not including the rental of the container or any of a number of other hidden costs.

"Just buy new stuff," several friends told me.

Shopping is my religion. I lived twenty-one years in my Bangkok condo and practiced my religion frequently on trips to the places where we worked. Beside an art collection, one of the largest collections of retired water puppets from Hanoi's Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, a lot of books, a collection of 33rpm vinyl operas, and an entire kitchen full of things I could not possibly part with, I have bought antiques and other decor in Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and China. Lots of it.  In every case it is art. Absolutely none of it came from a department store. And I was sick at the thought of leaving any of it behind.

A month before I was due to move out of the condo, I found what is now Villa Khursani and needed to make a trip to sign the papers. I decided to take the Nattakan bus from Morchit Station (near the Weekend Market) because they are relaxed about the amount of luggage you can take (I took eight pieces), and it stays in the bus when you cross the border. It's a miserable nine-hour trip, but it made me think there could be other options.

Then I found a company online that offered a "VIP van" to the border, assistance crossing, and private transport on the other side to Siem Reap. The company agreed that if I chartered the whole van I could fill it with as much stuff as will fit. I did that three times. The company was incompetent and the vans were hardly "VIP," but the assistance crossing the border with lots of stuff was invaluable. But what if I hired a truck to the border and a truck from the Cambodian side to Siem Reap and one of those guys who helped me at the border? That worked beautifully, and in three more trips I was able to move what was left in Bangkok to my new home. If I had only figured all of this out at the beginning.

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Dueling Funerals and CD

Villa Khursani is located in the Bel Air of Siem Reap, at the north end of the city, in the last "village" (neighborhood) before a forest separates the city from Angkor Wat. We are surrounded by those huge walled tracts of virgin land filled with big trees that the government has set aside to prevent them from being developed. One such "urban forest" is across the street.

There are probably twenty houses in the village--mostly walled and gated, mostly affluent. I have the only lawn, which neighbors do not quite understand. Others have lush tropical gardens. One small strip of land next to mine is working class and unadorned.

We are almost exactly half way between Wat Enkosai pagoda and another temple/monastery about one kilometer apart, both on River Road. Both temples are popular for funerals of middle class and wealthy Khmer people. There is also a crematorium on the opposite side of the urban forest that faces my house, so we are spectators to many souls on their way to the hereafter and the ceremonies that see them off.

There are funerals going on relatively frequently on either side of us. I really do not mind them. I can usually hear chanting or music when I am working in the garden, and it is not entirely unpleasant. Often there is a Khmer folk orchestra, which is similar to Javanese gamelan. Then there are the "funeral singers" who specialize in unaccompanied dirge and angst. We've heard sixties disco funerals and Indian music.

A few days ago I woke up to something entirely new. There was a lot of activity at the house on the other side of my wall. They were relocating about 10,000 beer cans from their holding pen, a very large tent was being erected, and a large loudspeaker was hung in a tree. From my upstairs veranda I could see a casket. I knew that this was going to be endlessly noisy.

Funerals here can last seven days if the family can afford it. Rich folks hire mourners, mostly middle aged women who dress in white tops and black skirts, Cambodia's uniform of death. They get free meals under the big tent, and mad money.  The people who began to show up next door seemed to be genuine friends, not hired mourners. Many brought their children, and the senior monk who presided seemed to be someone they all know personally from Enkosai Pagoda. He made them laugh several times. Nothing about the five-day event was somber, except for the funeral singers.

Most days followed the same routine. A team of about five monks came and went, a cooking staff worked constantly to feed the 60-70 people two or three meals a day. Chanting monks begin at 05:00 and they finally call it quits at around 21:00, despite torrential rain a couple of nights. It finally ended yesterday morning. After breakfast, chanting and some extended words from the senior monk they loaded the casket under the canopy on a wagon laden with flowers, and pulled by friends and family. Monks who did the chanting rode in tuktuks before the wagon with family members closest to the deceased. Four more sat at either corner of the casket. About sixty people, each carrying a lotus flower, followed behind the wagon. They made a 30 minute procession the long way around to the place where my driver Mot calls "where  they barbecue people." I'm really glad my neighbors did not opt for an at-home cremation.

I am sure that the two temples realize that they have to be careful that the sound they broadcast does not conflict with each other. Night before last both temples had funerals that extended into the evening. With a particularly loud funeral half way between them, it seemed that the other two events turned up the volume a bit, leading to the dueling of the monks. Five were chanting next door about from about 19:00 on. During each pause you could hear the monks at least one of the other funerals chanting. It was bizarre. Or maybe I'm just crazy. You decide after you read the next bit.

In January we will relive the entire experience again with the "100 day" festivities. Another tent will be erected to celebrate the 100th day after the death. The cooks will go back to work. Instead of black and white, friends and relatives will come in their party clothes, with envelopes containing cash gifts. I'll be serving Negronis on the upstairs veranda if you care to come by to witness the event.

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The "CD" Part

In a month I will probably read this blog again and may think it is pretty bizarre. If you are thinking the same thing as you read along, you may be right.

Over the past five weeks I have not been quite myself. To some people in my life I have been (even more than usual) an asshole, a bitch, asleep, hysterical, absent-minded, abrasive, rude, cruel, sobbing, constantly-distracted, or not there at all. That was not me. That was the Douglas of 32 years ago. To be fair, I was recovering from my second bout with dengue fever of the year during part of this time, and I was exhausted.

Every morning for the last 32 years I have taken a little pill to make me nice, focused, and composed. Five weeks ago I ran out of those pills, and it has been a horrific nightmare since then.

I have CD, clinical depression, a disease that is more common than you might realize. Most often it goes undiagnosed and untreated. In those cases people suffer the loss of friends and self esteem, lose their jobs, lose their homes, commit crimes that cause them to be incarcerated, and about ten percent commit suicide. Years ago, I was not afraid to see a psychiatrist and be tested. I tried several drugs on for size and reacted badly to all of them until I tried Wellbutrin (buproprion). I take it once a day. No side effects. It became my new normal.

Shortly after my move I had my first of two bouts of dengue fever in June, while trying to get settled. (There are three different kinds and you can  have all three. After that, you can't be infected again as long as it did not kill you the first time around.) I was already stressed, and there were a lot of people in and out of the house for me to keep up with.

When I ran out of pills the second week of August, I thought I would be OK. It took a week to prove me wrong. I began to fall apart. One casualty was Narith, the young man who I hired as a housekeeper and cook. It did not take long for our relationship to take an unexpected turn down Lovers Lane, and he moved into the house, initially to take care of me while I was sick. I was really in love with him for a lot of good reasons, despite his volatile mood swings. I am pretty sure he has CD, absent any diagnosis or little morning pills. I threw him out, for which I will suffer for the rest of my life. I was not in my right mind at the time.

My little pills are not available in Cambodia. There are no psychiatrists in Siem Reap. The private psych clinics in Phnom Penh had never heard of my magical little saviors. As I searched for a way to get my life back I began to panic, and I began to deteriorate seriously. I was not able to work or to function normally. However, I was able to do stupid work like housework and gardening. (More about that below.) The at-home funeral next door did not help my state of mind much. I was not in any condition to travel to Bangkok to shop at a pharmacy.

After five weeks without medication I received a month's supply of pills by EMS three days ago from Dr. Donn, a very old friend who had been practicing medicine in Bangkok under a Red Cross program, although he had very recently moved back to Seattle. It will take me a few more days to revert to the 2019 Douglas. A few days ago I published an apology on Facebook for people might have offended, frightened, disgusted or evicted. I have been forgiven by all but one person, and I am trying to live with that.

"Clinical Depression" is not about feeling sad. "We all feel sad once in a while," several friends have told me before they dismissed my condition as they would a cold or a bad hair day. Clinical depression is serious. Read more about the symptoms here. If that sounds like what you or anyone close to you is experiencing, see a doctor, preferably a psychiatrist. You may feel better with one little pill every morning.

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The Zen of Lawn

sandy soilHeaven must smell like freshly-cut grass, or so I imagine it. My gardener was here this morning to cut the lawn after a week of relentless rain and light flooding. It could not look or smell more glorious.

Nearly every morning, before I have coffee or speak to another human being, I spend an hour, or often two, working in my garden. As I said, this is "stupid work," but it is also mindful contemplation. For me a lawn replaces a cushion for my practice of meditation. In the garden I am only in the moment, not thinking about a conflict at work, what I would make for lunch, or what's going into the next blog. Living "in the moment" is an important Buddhist precept that is very difficult to learn and apply to every part of your life. I am trying.

I grew up in California's Mendocino County "wine country" in a house with a big vegetable garden,  then lived in a San Francisco Victorian with a small garden with two greenhouses. For the past twenty years I have been in a tenth floor condo, where I tried to grow tomatoes. I fell in love with the villa, but a garden in serious trouble was the deciding factor.

Nobody seems to know who decided to lay down a lawn in front of this house and its lovely sala. It is not a very Khmer thing to do. There are probably no more than a dozen private residences with lawns of any significant size in this city of around 150,000 souls. Some of the biggest five star hotels here have them. The Royal Residence and Raffles Grand d'Angkor face a park with a lawn that is an eyesore. Except for Angkor National Museum's lawn, I think mine is the most beautiful, best kept lawn in town. But not so six months ago.

The piece of land upon which the Villa sits has probably been in use by humans for as long as 900 years. The 10th century Preah Enkosai temple (the only Khmer ruin within Siem Reap city limits) is just a long block away. I have seen enough paddy land here to know that rice was grown here in this century. The soil is very depleted, not much better than plain sand. The photo above shows the condition of the lawn days before I moved in. The video is from a couple of weeks ago. The tinkley music in the background is from the temple up the road.

Every week for the last five months we have carefully applied four bags of compost to the lawn, working a thin layer in with a broom. It is tedious but I have a nice tan now and I am getting a lot more exercise than I did sitting at a desk for twenty years. By November the entire lawn will have risen about three centimeters. That's more than an inch. I've also done a lot of planting and have plans to do more. As it matures it will be truly gorgeous.

The second floor has two en suite guest rooms, a lounge/TV room and veranda where I will put some furniture when the rains end. Rooms are available to guests who will be a good fit with me and the house, and who are looking for more than a hotel experience. Our coffee is better and I make scones for breakfast. Do you like home-made jam? We have two mango trees, a kefir lime and lots of passion fruit, which we make into a frozen confection.

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The Asterisk Points Here

sculptureNow here is a really strange twist in my relationship drama.

Narith is one of thirteen children from a village about an hour from Siem Reap. His family is close but far-flung. One brother is suffering from an undiagnosed disease. He is slowly losing the strength and control of his muscles. He cannot raise his arms above his chest and his heart is not pumping enough blood. He has had to sell everything he owns to pay doctors and is no longer able to work as an artist. He sculpts local sandstone, and much of his work goes on sale at Artisans d'Angkor, very high-end stores here and in Phnom Penh.

He has regular appointments at a hospital in Siem Reap. Through Narith I invited his family members to gather at the Villa before he goes to the hospital so they can all stay in contact with him and each other. It's a peaceful place and they enjoy the garden and giant kitchen. He spent three nights in one of the guest rooms with his wife and 18 month old daughter in July.

As he was being carried up the stairs the first time he said to Narith "I carved that" when they passed the sculpture I had carried by road from Siem Reap. Of all the works of art I am blessed to be able to enjoy until they are passed down, his "Musicians" is one of my very favorite. On his last visit I asked him to sign it.

The sad post-script is that Naran died at the end of August. He was a good man, a wonderful father, and a great artist. I was lucky to have met him. I am so fortunate to have one of his creations.

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Your own bedroom at Villa Khursani. Interested in spending part of your year in Siem Reap? You can have your own bedroom at Villa Khursani for one to three months (need not be consecutive) a year for as long as I live here. I spent 20 years in my Bangkok condo and 25 in my Victorian San Francisco townhouse, which tells you how much I love moving. And people in my family live to be very old.

Unlike a hotel, where you are insulated from most culture and community, spending time in a place like Villa Khursani us a genuine slice-of-life experience, although we cannot promise a funeral next door to everyone.

Pub Street is about eight minutes away. Transportation around town is only a phone call away. We have a tuktuk and a "PassApp" (Indian-style mini taxi) that are operated by close friends and never far away. If you are interested shoot me an email.

If you are considering retiring here, we have a way to save you a lot of time, money and grief beginning in September:

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View and follow Villa Khursani on Facebook or visit the Villa's new website: