When people read some of my more seemingly irascible rants written about a topic like the travesty to the visual imagination that is the 100th anniversary of the Holy Grail that is Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain”, and before the caffeine from my first sips of coffee have bathed my neurons, I wonder what sort of curmudgeon they imagine pounding away at the keyboard. Don’t do a search ’cause I haven’t written that article yet, as it deserves a detailed dismantling, which means I should make an outline and not just make impromptu music on the keyboard. As it turns out, I’m a fairly agreeable human who prefers to make light humor of most situations, and so occasionally I see fit to show my face, so to speak.
Nope, that’s not me, but evidence you can get a good picture by cropping out everything around something, in this case the only restroom in the area, and one which many a foreign guest was too afraid to enter. Kind of a thing about photography – you can selectively make any place idyllic, or a garbage strewn nightmare, depending on your objective. Most places I visit in SE Asia are a bit of both, but the former far outweighs the latter or I wouldn’t still be here after over a decade in four different countries. This pic was taken on Bokor mountain in Kampot, Cambodia.
If you don’t know already, and aren’t one of the 1,833 followers on my blog (which, if you divide by 100 is 18.3, and the much, much more accurate number), I’ve been living in Cambodia for a couple years, and before that lived in Thailand, and before that for a long time in China. In the last few years I’ve devoted myself mostly to art and ranting about art, which is how I’ve amassed my 18.3 real followers. Cheers to you folk and here’s my attempt at making a cup of coffee bigger than it really is, because I really like big cups of coffee.
So, if you aren’t one of my 18.3 followers you probably don’t know that I’m an artist which you probably need rather refined tastes to appreciate (or not, but you might like my stuff more if you get to flatter yourself in doing so). This enables me to use words like “foreshortening” to describe the unsuccessful attempt to make the cup of coffee into a dream cup. I’m also 51. This is something I’m supposed to NOT tell people, because, y’know how it is, everyone wants to support YOUNG artists, not middle-aged white dudes, especially painters, and among that crew particularly digital painters. If an artist should be shot on site for being unfashionable in today’s art world, it’s me. Except I don’t believe any of that myself and only believe in the intrinsic merit of the vision (and I mean visual vision) of an artwork, which seems eminently obvious. Also, people over 50 start to have enough experience that they have a thing or two to say about a thing or two (and that can include knowingly quoting a cliche).
Just between you and me I thoroughly believe that all it takes to be a real artist, even a great artist, is just one painting (or digital painting). Nowadays THAT is considered ridiculous and even offensive, probably stupid on top of it. Everyone knows you have to move up through the proper channels, or the ranks, with the permission of the guardians of the art institution. You need to be accepted. You can’t just arrive on the scene like Rocky Balboa and take on Jeff Koons or something. You need to start with small shows and whatnot, get a review here and there, and play the game as set up by those running the show. The art world is owned and operated by powerful individuals with boatloads of cash, and if you want on that boat, you gotta’ make a damned good case for yourself. Some would say you have to grovel and do as you’re told, like an employee, make marketable, commodifiable objects in a signature style (brand) in accordance with what’s already popular, but with a twist. Buyers, which means rich folk, may be the ultimate decision makers in what you make. And I say fuck all that, the art universe is run by the imagination of the individual artist. and anyone who thinks otherwise is on the wrong boat to begin with.
If you’re curious about my art, here’s a series I’m working on now. These are relatively quick pieces done from my imagination and unpremeditated. See the screen-show or move on.
I’m rambling and drinking coffee, but that’s my mood. I should be praising the glorious sites I had the privilege of seeing on my recent trip, but unlike many travelers I didn’t drop more than a grand to alight on this soil (like my first real eye-opening trip to Thailand maybe 15 years ago), this has been my home for a while and I get more culture shock when I go back to the states for my so-far once a decade visits. I DO highly recommend coming to see Angkor Wat in the off season, incidentally, as it just doesn’t get any better, only different. So, a funny story about my girlfriend which might offend some people who are overzealous about their identity politics and such.
A couple days ago we went to a cave in Kampot. We have a running joke, or I do, because she was born in America – Hawaii to be specific – but is half Chinese and half Thai, so, people are always greeting her with “Ni hao” and trying to talk to her in Chinese. This is doubly amusing for me because I used to be quite good at practical Chinese, having lived in the middle of China for about 4.5 years, in un-touristed towns where I could count every other foreigner on my fingers without including my thumbs. In those places if you don’t speak basic Chinese, you use gestures, which calls even more attention to your outstanding and riotously comic appearance.
I was laughed at so often in China that it was only after I moved to Thailand (where the culture shock is so mild I kept forgetting I still lived overseas) that I realized I suffered some sort of psychological malady from it. Nothing too big, but, after I was in Thailand it took a while for me to fully appreciate that whenever I heard people burst out in peels of laughter it had nothing the F to do with me. That’s how often I was laughed at in China. There’s that thing where people are relieved if there’s someone else, someone different, some freak who is more freakish then they themselves are, and can be the butt of all jokes. When you are the “lao wai” or “wai guo ren” in China, that’s you. So many funny things can be said about you that you can’t understand. And, you can be certain if there are two or more boys they will prod each other and dare each other to say something stupid to you and then snicker up a storm. It’s huge fun. After a while when gales of laughter perpetually follow you it becomes just like a shadow or an echo. You might react to it a little, like ducking under a low branch of a tree, but it ceases to gain your full attention.
Point is my Chinese was once pretty good, but you can only really have one Asian language in your head at a time, or I can only have one. I’ve subsequently learned Thai and Khmer, so, the Chinese is sorta’ dormant.
So, when we arrived at the cave we had to sign in: Name, plus Country of Origin. For me I wrote America and for my girlfriend I wrote China. I still think this is funny. No, no, no, it’s not racist. Maybe nobody else would really understand why it’s funny, like how nobody else understands SOME of my art. I’m the one who lived in China, and taught there, taught little kiddies and college students, traveled all over, lived in shitty apartments even by local Chinese standards (generously provided by the school/private business), squatted for years over seat-less toilets, choked down apocalyptic levels of pollution, and had dozens upon dozens of lung infections. Sometimes I miss China so dearly it’s painful to think about. But, yeah, I find it endlessly amusing that most everyone here just assumes my girlfriend who’s never been to China, is an English teacher, loves classic rock and metal, and only knows Chinese words I taught her (though her pronunciation is uncannily good) is fresh off the plane from Beijing. It’s just the difference between the reality and the perception that is so comical. And, no, it’s not the same as someone making that sort of mistake in America or Western country of choice. When you see an Asian person in LA, you don’t automatically assume he or she doesn’t speak English and just arrived straight from mainland China to see one of the great wonders of the world on your doorstep. You don’t say, “Ni hao”. At least I hope you don’t.
The Cambodians, by the way, don’t give us any problem about being a mixed couple. I can’t recall anyone taking any notice, though occasionally, more in Thailand, some older dudes might make some assumptions even though we are “age appropriate” and stare a bit too long before and after we pass, at which point I would generally stare back with as wide eyes as possible, and a stupid expression, something about like this:
Speaking of her uncanny Chinese pronunciation, we had some quality pulled noodles and dumplings in Kampot, and she relished them more than any of our much more expensive and much less Chinese meals. Now, I’m not a biological determinist of any sort, but neither will I discount biology entirely. I’m meaning to listen to some online courses on evolutionary biology because it seems interesting and a useful counter to the more excessive and utterly subjective conclusions of postmodern critical theorists (the type of intellectual who cooks up a theory in her or his head and if it sounds good it IS good, but could also be utter tripe). Thus I will merely note that the more authentic the Chinese food is (and I would know), the more my girlfriend gobbles it up with utter relish, and this is not the case with other people who prefer Americanized versions of Chinese food. Probably she just likes good food. Yeah, that’s it.
In truth that Chinese food was maybe 85-90% authentic. Most any Chinese food you have in the West, by the way, has nothing to do with real Chinese food. When you are ordering off a menu with no English, in a restaurant that has never seen a white patron before, that’s going to be the real deal, and real Chinese food is about the best thing about China, other than the people.
If you are here from a Google search and wanna’ know about traveling in Sihanoukeville, Kampot, and Kep, here are some cursory tips.
Otres Beach, Sihanoukeville
If you are interested in the nightlife and sewing what’s left of your wild oats before it’s too late, look elsewhere. By elsewhere I meant besides this post. You can probably find everything you are looking for in Sihanoukeville, which has an absolutely abysmal reputation or stellar one, depending on where you are coming from and what your motives are. We went to Otres beach, which is a little further out, mellow, and minus the sleaze you may be looking for or to avoid. Note that my girlfriend was stung by a jellyfish. I was kinda’ jealous because it wasn’t a terrible sting and is a sensation I’ve never encountered. What the hell does if feel like to be stung by a jellyfish?
The swimming was pleasant. Not a wave one could body surf in, and I probably made myself look a bit dim by repeatedly trying. But, you get out there and swim around and just enjoy yourself. Bring along a girl that attracts all the jellyfish and you will be left alone (more on this to come).
The accommodations along the beach were pricey, in the $50-100 range, so, I’d recommend if you don’t have the budget to stay a bit further out and bike in to the beach or take a tuk-tuk. Might wanna’ bring your own snacks as well if money’s tight.
This is a sleepy sort of town like Battambang minus the French colonial architecture. It’s main feature for me is the river with three bridges traversing it, all of which you can walk over. It’s a good place to relax if you are a teacher in Cambodia and need to get off the teaching/lesson-planning treadmill and take your mind off of your school and its likely transformation from a once place of learning into a pretext for filling someone’s ever deepening pockets. Well, that’s pretty much every place I’ve ever taught at anyway. At first you might occasionally be reminded the school is ALSO a business, and then you find yourself reminiscing about when the business was sometimes still a school, and then you are finally laughing at the idea of the school providing an education at all. Your school may be an exception. But, either way, Kampot is a good place to let all that go and renew to commit yourself to teaching those young minds, and being a good role model. [Note to schools. Um hum, a school is like a restaurant, and without good chefs your business will tank no matter what your promotions and meat substitutes and whatever other gimmick you think is so F’ing brilliant. Anyone who’s ever taken a foreign language class or eaten in a good restaurant knows this piece of wisdom, but like most wisdom, it’s painfully obvious and the opposite is what requires all the pyrotechnics and back-flips through flaming hoops to justify. Truth be simple. Lies be convoluted. ]
Just on this note, I once taught at a school in Vietnam and we imported this guy as a sort of PR guy to help out. Well, me and him and some other folk were downtown knocking back a few brews and he’d observed that some other school was promising fluency in one year. I’d taught long enough already to know that was impossible and said so. I may never forget his response: “It doesn’t matter because by that point we’ve already got their money”. And so I taught my heart out for a school in which such a thought was not only acceptable, but admirable. And I had a beach trip during that time, and it really did help. I came back with an attitude like, “Fuck ’em. In my class the education provided is my own, and I’m not ripping off these students”.
Of the touristy things to do the best (and I’ve heard at least one other person with the opposite experience) was the $5 river boat cruise, which also comes bundled with the $10 all-day tour to Bokor montain. They call this boat ride the “Firefly” cruise, but anticlimactic is too dignified a word to describe the 7-8 faintly blinking lights off up in the trees one finally gets to see. I’m assuming the fireflies are seasonal and at some opportune time one is treated to a natural light show. Not this time. Better to just think of it as a river boat ride at dusk with a free beer, in which case it’s fine.
Most the river looks about like what you will see below, which is rather soothing:The Pepper Farm and the Salt Fields are more educational than anything else, if you wanna’ learn a little bit about how those things are cultivated and partake of them. They did taste, to my pallet, exceptionally good.
Bokor Mountain is most likely and economically going to be a day trip in a mini-van. There are some old buildings that are mostly interesting for where they are rather than what they are: a church, a casino, a temple, and a former vacation building for a King but now a graffiti-covered innocuous building that could fool the less discerning tourist as being a dilapidated restroom that once charged a pittance to use.
As usual with me my favorite things are free and might be something nobody else even notices. At the latter stop it was a puddle with a bunch of large tadpoles in it, some with back legs already, and a giant brown frog floating toward the edge. I didn’t take a snap.
Sometimes it’s a cow in the street.
Sometimes it’s the entrance to a bridge with its signs about what can’t enter and its poles to prevent the larger things that might anyway if nobody was looking who could do anything about it:
It won’t be the building itself that fascinates me, but the lichens growing on it:
Or the plants and mosses growing along the edges:
There was a waterfall which was sorta’ the highlight of the mountain tour, but I won’t spoil the suspense so you have nothing to discover on your own for the first time. But don’t expect to swim in it unless you go on your own, and somehow manage to find a way down to a pool at the bottom, and I don’t even know if that’s possible and am not recommending trying. There are more than a dozen venomous snakes in Cambodia for starters.
We didn’t have a looooong and luxurious vacation, the kind where I like to get lost on a bicycle and lost against and wander into temples and ask the monks where the hell I am (which I did really quite a lot in Laos). In fact my favorite thing to do while traveling is get on a bike and explore. Kep seems like the type of place where I’d want to do that, but we only had a few hours there, just enough time for my girlfriend to get stung by another jellyfish and for me to swim around until I felt guilty and went ashore to determine what condition my partner was in.
Everyone goes to eat the crab there, which is supposed to be tops, but, I’ve got issues with eating crabs because I just like them too much, and when you eat one you really know what you are eating. You’ve gotta’ relish devouring it limb by limb and sucking the juices out of it like slurping through straws. Sure, sure, if I were hungry enough I could fully get into it. But, if not, well, it’s kinda’ like ducks. I’d much rather eat a chicken than a duck, and a shrimp than a crab. Better to stay away from octopi altogether if you know how smart they are.
The swimming at Kep was as good as at Otres beach, which is just pleasant, but very pleasant.
For me this was a sort of sauntering around, lollygagging, people-watching short vacation. I could have researched it at all before going, but left this one entirely up to my girlfriend. I don’t think much planning is necessary. Maybe find out the major scams, make a few mistakes, get some tips from other travelers, and not worry about or expect too much. It’s the little things, the free things, the unexpected nuances that made it all worthwhile.
And now back to our regular programming. I’m working on an article about the new-ish heavy didacticism in art and art criticism, and why I think it sucks. It’s another of those things where the truth is blindingly obvious, but we’ve been hoodwinked by the subterfuge and hidden agendas for at least two generations to the point where you have to very carefully and clearly lay out the plainly apparent before people can see it, and even then they will most likely reject it because it’s not what they were taught. This is kinda’ like what I mentioned before, about how clever and persuasive you have to be to unburden people of the assumption that Duchamp’s placing a urinal in an art exhibition (or trying to) is NOT actually on par with Michelangelo’s Pieta.
Stay tuned folks, and a special thanks to my 4 supporters on Patreon.