Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Around Cambodia; Sihanoukville, Koh Rong, Siem Reap

Over the last few weeks I've had a chance to travel around the country a bit. Over Christmas Hermione and I traveled to Sihanoukville and Koh Rong. After New years spent in bed with a rather harsh respiratory bug and work not picking up much, I decided to head off to Siem Reap for a change of scenery and a chance to bike around some of the most spectacular ruins in the world; Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples.

Sihanoukville

So the original plan over Christmas was to go to Thailand, but some logistical issues surfaced last minute and we decided to head over to the Cambodian coast instead. Lucky for us it's just a bit over a 4 hour drive and were able to get there from a taxi we picked up near Central Market not long after Hermione got out of work. Some folks unacquainted with Asia may find a speeding taxi on Cambodian roads distressing, after spending time on Nepal's highways I was at ease and could have napped. After arriving we were able to check into a place right on the main road heading down to the pier on Serendipity beach.
Tropical Christmas
So Christmas Eve and day spent out on the beach in Christmas hats, to be at least a little festive. We had white sand instead of snow, but it's still a white Christmas, and this is the type I prefer. In Asia Christmas generally isn't so much a family holiday but is instead an excuse to hold lots of parties, and this seemed to be the case here. To be honest the party scene here was a bit too backpackery and the DJs playing on the beach were some of the worst I've tried to dance to in recent memory....and that's saying something. I've danced to some rather shit music over the last five years, but this was just dumb. You're a DJ, blend songs and eventually drop the friggin beat- it's not rocket science. It might take skill to be really good, but it doesn't take much to be passable. This was for the most part not.

Serendipity Beach
On the plus side, the beach was nice. lots of sand, lots of shaded spots, some decent surf, plenty of excellent food being brought around and cheap quality cocktails. For me this was the high note of the place. $2 well made Mojitos at one of the beach bars were a nonstop source of something worth smiling about. Grilled seafood is carted around the beach by locals and is quality and cheap. Ate plenty of grilled squid, prawn, and the local version of lobster. While on the food front it's worth noting that the places that do set BBQ menus with fresh fish and meat are by far the best food deal in the tourist area. Had some excellent barracuda, more prawn, pork ribs and wings. The places we enjoyed most were the ones set just one street back from the beach. 

Golden Lions at a Roundabout- why?
Because Asia
Something else worth noting is that Sihanoukville has this reputation as the kind of trashy part of Cambodia with a bit of a seedy underside. It very well may be, but I really didn't see much. Yes the tourist demographics tended a bit more toward the overweight and tattooed, a few more Russians than is probably good for any holiday destination, and there was a good sized backpacker contingent, but it all seemed rather chilled out. It's a beach side resort town and has a kind of cheap resort beach town feel. Nothing wrong with that really. And while there were certainly a few working girls about, they were fairly inconspicuous, and there was only one small area set back from the beach that had a concentration of girly bars, most of which looked fairly empty when we waked by. Pattaya (or any holiday location in Thailand) this is not. 

Lastly it should be noted that we ended up having to take medication for Giardia, a stomach ailment which comes generally when you've ingested fecal matter of some kind. Gross? Yup. But quite common in Asia. Recognized it quickly due to previous bouts of it in Nepal. Raw sewage gets into the ocean here, and though the ocean looks great, it may not be the cleanest. Could have also picked this up on Koh Rong, or it could have even been in food- but I suspect it was swimming off of Serendipity beach, even though symptoms didn't really manifest until just before leaving Koh Rong.

Koh Rong

Looking Down Toward the Pier at Sunset
So on to Koh Rong, which might be one of the most pristine islands I have ever spent time on. The sand is about as bleached white as I have ever seen it. There are not really any resorts and no airport means the island is thankfully free of large scale package tourists. It had a very backpacker vibe to the place, which is both good and bad. On the plus side I love the cheap accommodation (though more expensive than it should be for Cambodia now that I think about it), decent cheap food, and all in all a rather chilled out atmosphere. You do however have to endure late teen and twenty somethings trying to impress each other, binge drinking, talking about things like they know what they're talking about and hippies. Too many damn hippies. It takes all types I suppose. 

Some of the Best Beaches I've Been To
The pictures here are of Tui beach that is near the pier and the majority of the accommodation on the island. The coast line of the island however has a number of really great beaches. It does not however have any real roads, so to get to said beaches one must hike over the islands surprisingly steep trails that traverse the cliffs or take a water taxi (basically some guys fishing boat). This is highly recommended. Long Beach on the west coast of the island is just miles of some of the best beach I have ever been on. I don't have photos because I didn't bother bring my phone, but the water was perfectly azure blue, the sand was bright white, and there was so little sediment in the sand that it squeaks between your toes as you walk. It's just really spectacular. I say this as someone who has been to some really wonderful beaches in Mexico, Thailand, Fiji, Australia, etc. This very much vies as one of, if not the, best I have ever been to. Also due to how inaccessible the other beaches are, and how massive they are you'll likely have this spectacularly beautiful spot all to yourself. We also did some snorkeling at the north end Tui beach near the Treehut Bungalow place, and was actually quite surprised that it was decent. There are a few coral gardens out there and we saw a rather decent array of fish. I got to chase around a school of at least a hundred or so fish for a bit that had a mix of different species including a few really good looking parrot fish. Not a bad way to spend the afternoon.

Another note on this is that when we went over we took the afternoon speed boat, which is much much worse than the morning boats in comfort level. We were in rather calm seas and that thing was all over the place, I can imagine a few people get seasick if there are any decent waves. So when I was heading back and feeling quite ill, I was not looking forward to the ride at all. Thankfully the morning boat is a much bigger and much more stable boat that actually made for a rather comfortable ride even in my depreciated state.

It should also be noted that it appears there are some seriously grand plans to develop the island. Airports, golf courses, resorts, malls, and everything that ruins a destination like this. Sure there are other islands to go to, but if you want to see this island as a pristine gem, I advise going sooner than later. It's like the difference of a place like Phi Phi in Thailand 15 years ago compared to today, or Samui 20 years ago compared to now. Always best to get there before the resorts and airports, it all goes down hill once the people on planes start arriving.

Siem Reap

Looking for a change of scenery I'm currently sitting and writing in a Hotel in Siem Reap, which has to be the most visited city in Cambodia for tourists. I can't get over how many are here compared to when I was here five years ago. I arrived late and just grabbed a place that was a short walk from pub street. As I approach 40, I've noticed that I am in an odd demographic where I don't really want to hang out with all the retirees and if Hermione is not around I am just too damn old to go into a place full of twenty somethings dancing and drinking. So while multiple people recommended Angkor What? and Temple Bar, they just dint feel like a place for me. I stopped at Triangle(?) bar for a bit as the live singer was playing some excellent old Khmer music that I really like. 

Angkor Wat is Stunning
Relief on the Walls of  Angkor Thom
 Of course most people aren't here for drinking and dancing, they're here to see the temples of Angkor. Angkor wat remains one of the top destinations in the world for just spectacular ruins. Pictures don't do most of it justice. These are spectacular ancient temples spread over a rather large area of jungle. It should be on the bucket list of anyone who likes to travel, and probably for some that don't. Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Machu Picchu in Peru, Pamukkale in Turkey and Karnak in Egypt are my favorite ancient ruin sights I've been to, and of those Angkor is near, or at, the top of the list.
Having already spent days wandering around the ruins a few years ago I thought I would take a different approach. I rented a mountain bike and picked up a day pass. The sun is quite intense at this latitude, but most of the time you are cycling in the shade of the trees. It was really pleasant, and the ability to just stop anywhere I like and take in the scenery at whatever pace I liked was nice. Then it was back into town for another evening.

On the whole I remembered Siem Reap much more favorably then this experience. On the whole it has been pleasant, but the city has lost a bit of its charm. Pub street is kind of a subdued  version of Bangkok's Koah San Road, but without that element that makes it fun. The local food is mostly overpriced when you know what it costs to make, and the foreign dishes are mostly what you would expect, edible but mostly imitations of what they are trying to be. 

After having to change hotels due to not booking enough days I moved up to the north side of the highway to a much nicer place for almost the same amount of money. On the way I stopped at a restaurant named Abacus which is run by a couple of French guys apparently. Can't say enough good things about it. A little on the pricey side for Siem Reap, but the quality is there to make it very much worth it. Best meal I have had out while in Cambodia. The crab & mango salad was really excellent and the duck confit wasn't bad either. Will definitely go there again when visiting people inevitably want to come see the temples, glad I know about it now.

This north side of town seems ok, though as I write this I can hear a lot of Karaoke, which is entertaining now, but could be a bit much if it goes on to 2 or 3 am. There are not thousands of Chinese tourists up this way stopping in every part of the road for photos with everything at least. I get that Asians like their photos, but Jesus....when there are so many people stopped taking photos in congested areas it tends to get bothersome. Move on Folks! You can take a selfie with the menu some other time. Besides no one wants to look at that photo! Anyway, Khmer pub street is just around the corner and seems to be full of Khmer style beer gardens and plenty of KTV places. None of it is really my scene but may be worth checking out. Well not the KTV, that requires substantial amounts of alcohol and other people to go with. Regardless, will strongly consider staying up this way in the future. 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Rediscovering Practiced Philosophy

This is a bit of a detour into a completely different direction for this blog, but I think it is important as it lays the foundation of how I come to many of the views I occasionally express and even plays a role in things as simple as cooking and making cocktails. 

One of the greatest shames of the modern era is that philosophy by and large is no longer a practiced art. The modern form that you possibly take some classes in at university is not really philosophy but just some lessons in rhetoric, logic, history and lots of word games. Modern philosophy is mostly dominated by semantics, defining language in a certain way to make certain precepts to support an argument. This is not really philosophy, in the same way that reading about or arguing about judo does not make you a master of that art. There is a difference in practicing something and talking about it. You can not really know without doing, you may be better prepared by reading and discussing, but it is the act and experience in practice that brings real understanding.

Today there are a few monastic traditions that resemble practiced philosophy, mostly in Buddhism but that is essentially it. Prior to the advent of Christianity the west had a number of its own traditions from the Stoics to the Epicureans to the Cynics. With the domination of Christianity in the west anything resembling practiced philosophy was absorbed into Christianity. This isn't to say that nothing worth while was developed in the Christian Monastic tradition, but nothing I personally find all that useful. The injection of religion is often a lazy way to practice, as most of the heavy lifting is done by a supernatural being of whom the practitioner has no concrete knowledge of. The salvation of the individual relies not on his own hard work, but instead is a gift from the divine. 

The Enlightenment; When applying logic, and reason was trendy,
and probably got you laid.
When non-religious philosophy re-emerged during the enlightenment it was taken up by the
fashionable houses and discussed in salons as opposed to practiced in schools. This proved incredibly useful and in effect laid the groundwork the explosion of scientific discovery, liberal democracy, and a number of the better things in the last few centuries, but religion maintained a grip on practiced ethics and anything that could be described as "spiritual development" (as someone who doesn't really believe in souls or spirits I'm not a fan of this term, but it does encompass a certain meaning when it comes to developing certain traits in ourselves.) While this may work just fine for some people, it doesn't work for many of us. In the void of any coherent moral strategy or practice to strengthen our character, most people practice what can at best be described as a kind of lazy enlightened hedonism, in that we in measured steps seek out what seems to be the good with some forward looking toward the consequences. This is kind of our default mode, with the variation of different schooling and cultural teachings adjusting to some extent what and how we value certain things and just how disciplined we are in delayed gratification.This isn't really much of a strategy.

Of the three main branches of philosophy, logic, epistemology, and ethics, the core of it is really ethics. The other two are just support to assist in arriving  at making decisions, and the making of decisions itself lies squarely in ethics. For when we consider what it is we are going to do next we are in effect asking ourselves an ethical question, we are asking what is the right thing for me to do now. As all of us know from living as human beings, knowing what the right action to take is and preforming that action up to par are not one and the same thing. The role of practiced philosophy is to move you from unsculpted and undisciplined donkey chasing the carrot before you and fearing the lash behind you to a person that can see the decisions before them clearly and make the right one in even trying circumstances. The goal of practiced philosophy is to allow the practitioner to keep making decisions and taking actions that add up to create a better life for the practitioner. As Epictetus once put it, as the carpenter works with wood, so does the philosopher sculpt a human life.

This goat does not subscribe to deontological dogma.
When determining action there are two schools that have dominated the west over the last few decades, the first is deontology, which views breaking rules as always wrong. This has been what religious folk are essentially told and what the state would like us to believe when it comes to their laws. The other view has been consequentialism which believes that ends justify the means and has been by and large the ruling theory of state actors under such theories as utilitarianism. Both of these approaches have some serious limitations. Deontology just can't be taken seriously. There are just no simple hard and fast rules to life, and that is clear to anyone who has spent more than a few minutes observing things. Is it wrong to lie when hiding refugees from genocide? Is it permissible to murder if the state says it's sanctioned? Is it always wrong to steal if the corrupt horde resources? I personally think any theory that turns over moral authority to another agent, especially the state or other power structure is rather bankrupt on the face of it. Consequentialism has proven not a whole lot better. First, determining the worth of external outcomes is a tricky proposition, and often it leads to some really terrible circumstances. It is this line of reasoning that has lead the US to support some really terrible people over the years, and can sum up why I think our foreign policy is such a shambles. The ends justifying the means lead us to support Pol Pot in Cambodia in the misguided effort to counter the Russian influence via the Vietnamese. This simply creates untenable situations, and it asks too much of the participant, we simply never have enough knowledge to predict all of the consequences nor is there any way to correctly measure their worth. Consequentialism fails because it places value on things we can not control, on consequences we can not predict, and often supports horrible things in the hope that good things may follow which seems logically flawed on its face.

The remaining theory, and really what I actually wanted to talk about is virtue ethics, which is what most of the schools of practiced philosophy used, and I think it is clearly the superior choice. The gist is that by developing strong central character traits such as Wisdom, Courage, Prudence, Justice, Compassion and Temperance that the individual can approach each situation and make a better decision in the moment deriving the answer from the traits he has honed. Buddhism essentially sets out a theory of virtue ethics with its eight-fold path which is a list of virtues that if practiced result in the elimination of suffering. Ancient greco-roman philosophies had a similar approach where the focus what not so much on the action itself, but on how the action is a reflection of the inner character of the person making it. In short, if you can develop a virtuous character than your actions will also be virtuous. The reflection of this is that a poor choice in actions is the result of the presence of flaws of character. The arising of negative emotions such as guilt, anger, fear, jealousy are often seen as the lack of application of these traits to ones life, most often a lack of Wisdom when one creates expectations of the world in their head which is not met in reality. In all traditions, they did not look to coddle or make excuses, but to sculpt the individual to be able to deal effectively with the human experience in day to day living.

One of my goals over the last seven or so years has been to develop a practice of virtue ethics. It's been a bit hit or miss at times, and I've certainly been a more conscious practitioner at some points than others. It has however become a permanent fixture in my head, and over all I feel I have benefited greatly from it. While I would like to take credit for most of it, I simply can't as most everything I have stolen from a number of different sources, mostly from Stoicism, Buddhism, and Pyrrhic Skepticism. While I won't ever claim to have all the answers, I do think that we would certainly benefit from developing modern schools of practiced philosophy. While there is quite a bit of literature out there to piece some decent things together we do currently lack any kind of support structure that would come with a more organized school, and those like myself could benefit greatly from having older more practiced individuals to discuss things with or turn to for guidance.