What’s Wrong with Poetry?

Dec. 1996

rick_mugI like poetry. But only as a participation sport. Baseball is the same way, enjoyable almost only when you are at the plate.

I’ve tried to enjoy reading poetry, listening to poetry, even speaking poetry aloud. Pitiful. It’s almost always a letdown.

One authority said that poetry “involves a precise choice of words that will have implications and suggestions that go past the words themselves”. OK. I like an intellectual challenge.

One authority went on to say that through poetry you “experience the radiance, the epiphany … a showing through of the essence.” Shake your head! Typical poetic hyperbole.

Now, poetry put to music is a far, far richer soup. Recall Patti Smith’s Horses. I love Van Morisson’s Rave on, John Donne. Neil Young is a genius people’s poet, better, in my mind, than Bob Dylan who is too often self-indulgently cryptic. Dylan’s best song is Hurricane which, for a welcome change, he delivers with a sledgehammer. Lately? I was impressed with Sheryl Crow’s debut.

Best singer-poet? I guess it would be the “eternal hipster” Leonard Cohen. When he gets it right, it’s really, really right. Though even his poetry pales on the page compared with disc.

And Cohen is an honest poet. He said that his songs really have no meaning for most people; but they have an effect on many, “like putting an icecube in scotch”.

The reputation and significance of poetry is far over-rated. Let me be clear. The emperor has no clothes. (And don’t get me started on classical music.)

Rave On, John Donne
– Van Morrison

Rave on John Donne, rave on thy Holy fool
Down through the weeks of ages
In the moss borne dark dank pools

Rave on, down through the industrial revolution
Empiricism, atomic and nuclear age
Rave on down through time and space, down through the corridors
Rave on words on printed page

Rave on, you leftist infinity
And well pressed pages torn to fade
Drive on with wild abandon
Uptempo, frenzied heels

Rave on, Walt Whitman, nose down in wet grass
Rave on fill the senses
On nature’s bright green shady path

Rave on Omar Khayyam, Rave on Kahlil Gibran
Oh, what sweet wine we drinketh
The celebration will be held
We will partake the wine and break the Holy bread

Rave on let a man come out of Ireland
Rave on on Mr. Yeats,
Rave on down through the Holy Rosey Cross
Rave on down through theosophy, and the Golden Dawn
Rave on through the writing of “A Vision”
Rave on, Rave on, Rave on, Rave on, Rave on, Rave on

retreat solo

Oct. 1996

rick_mugIn the early winter of ‘96 I enjoyed a solo retreat at Emma Lake, Saskatchewan. It was glorious. An ideal idyll; remote, quiet, in a beautiful wilderness setting. The lake froze over while I was there. I watched the first ice fishers of the season.

I retreated in order to finally finish the first draft of a book (actually a teacher’s lesson plan resource) which I’d been working on for the previous two years. It was wonderful to have all day (dawn until 3:00 AM) to work uninterrupted. I slept when I got tired. No phone, no TV, no undesired distractions. Luxury!

I’m cock proud to report that I returned home with a the book draft completed. (note — that “book” was not launched until June 2014, in video format. 18yrs later)

I was happy with my diet there. Most healthful. Fortunately there were no food reserves in the cabin; no tantalizing cookie jars. I sipped unending decaf and Earl Grey tea.

I loved it and now advocate that everyone should plan a solo retreat. Spend some quality time with yourself at least once each year. What would you do? Exercise? I ran every day down deserted forest paths, rural roadways, and on the lake. Nice. Swim? Cross-country ski? Stretch several times every day? (I’ll bring dumbbells next time, I think.)

Consider your inner life; meditate, or simply contemplate the sunset. Do some goal-setting. You’ll have enough time to read, finally, dammit, to get into those books you’ve been intending. Write letters. What else would you do with oodles of free time?

I listened to CBC AM radio most of the day, but I also took a whack of cassettes, CDs, and books on tape. You can play your favourite song over and over again at high volume while (hypothetically) dancing around nude, like a poet on payday.

I like a Spartan, minimalist experience (with no real discomfort, understand) … but you may want enough toys to really indulge.

Retreat solo. That’s solo, by the way. Any retreat with kids, family, or friends is some sort of holiday, and doesn’t count. (I’ll let you take your cat, that’s it.)

Solitude is the difference. Can you handle solitary confinement? Would you feel interred?

Find out.

Retreat solo.

travelogue – Sri Lanka

May 20, 1996

I spent a month teaching gymnastics & leading coaching clinics in the fabled Serendib. Great food, great beaches and some wonderful people.

Sri Lanka mapMarco Polo considered Sri Lanka the finest island of its size in all the world. I’d agree. It should be a paradise on Earth. Anything will grow here.


But in 1996 when I was there it was still wounded by the previous 25 years of civil war. The majority Buddhist indigenous population told me they were under terrorist attack by the minority (15%) Hindu population.

In the West we called the terrorists the Tamil Tigers. Indeed, the Tigers had blown up the central bank in Colombo in January 1996. The roads were still barricaded near my hotel, a few blocks away.01z

The capital of Sri Lanka, is not popular with tourists. Most flee as quickly as they can to higher, cooler territory.

02colomboI spent some weeks in Colombo but never really got a handle on the largest city on the island. 

Breakdowns, snarled traffic and power cuts characterize the town.

Security was tight in 1996.

Highlights of Colombo include colonial buildings, the clock tower, a former lighthouse & the president’s residence (known by incorrigible traditionalists asQueen’s House).

The National Museum & Art Gallery are good. More interesting to me are the many mosques, Buddhist and Hindu temples.05

Perhaps I learned so little about Colombo because I spent most of my free time at my Hotel, the Hilton!

There was hardly any need to enter Sri Lanka. Private Hilton cabs were at our beck and call.

Staying in a 5 Star hotel in a developing country is novel for a while. But Darcy (track coach roommate from Saskatoon) and I eventually tired of the imported buffet meals/Fitness Centre/Outdoor Pool/Tennis/Squash 6 Specialty Restaurants/Bars/Discotheque — even if the Canadian taxpayer was shouting our tab.

We mostly drank in the karaoke bar (singing Springstein when other patrons insisted).

On arrival in Sri Lanka I was sent immediately to a meeting at Robinson Club beach resort reputed to have the best food on the island. Free booze!


One night there it was rumoured that Michael Jackson would stay at the resort. Staff hinted that he might play a free concert by the pool. Indeed, he did! A terrific impersonator.


The resort was a big step up from my accommodation of the last couple of months on the backpacker trail through Asia. I wasn’t complaining.


In jeans! is Michel Gagne (CSDP organizer) who arranged our coaching sessions and deep sea fishing.


The beaches south of Colombo are gorgeous, packed with resorts. Sri Lanka was a favourite destination for East Germans.

I was in Sri Lanka as replacement volunteer for Mr. K Russell and his wife Judy who had started a gymnastics coach training the year prior. I was following up with part 2 of those sessions.


The coaches were wonderful, polite and much more concerned with happiness than worldly goods. I was impressed by the solo Muslim coach in my class who ran to and from Friday prayers in a full suit through stifling heat, humidity and pollution. His devotion was inspiring.

The courses went great, I thought. I played a larger-than-life cartoon character of a teacher, which helped minimize the language barrier.


Negombo, a fishing village not far from the International Airport was a lovely spot. I was taken there by an enthusiastic coach who wanted me to see his home gym.

The entire school turned out to greet me, a visiting dignitary in their village.

I had been emphasizing coaching ethics — quite a western concept not easily grasped in this culture. The coach clarified a point, How could he teach if he was not to hit the students? To illustrate the point he cuffed the head of one of the boys standing at attention in the parade ground!

It was his son.


This is one of my favourite travel photos. I took it with a disposable camera.

Cows incongruously lounging on the beach like tourists. There was nothing to eat or drink here.

On our day off, my students piled in a van and took me on a tour of sites near Colombo.


My strongest memory is a perverse petting zoo for dangerous animals! Unable to escape my excited hosts, I petted drugged lions, tigers, leopards, hedge hogs, various alligators, raptors and snakes.

A big Boa constrictor was loaded on to the shoulders of 3 tourists. A German woman in a bright yellow dress was in the middle, I on one end.

I learned that pythons defecate infrequently — but when they go, it’s a shit rain. The German woman was drenched. But when I inspected myself, I did not get a drop.

Milroy was my main Sri Lankan host. A wonderful guy, I visited his house, met his wife and his brother, a Christian priest.


He was proud of his new Toyota van with which he delivered me to my various engagements. Here we stopped to enjoy the elephant orphanage.

Milroy is an excellent but terrifying driver, always pushing the limit of safety. Unfortunately for me, one day we travelled was Buddha Day, a celebration where communities provide free food and drink. Drivers are flagged down by drunks who insist we stop and join the party, every few hundred meters. Milroy simply tried to run them down as we were on a tight schedule.


Kandy is the charming name of this town, very popular with tourists.

Buddhist pilgrims come here to visit the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, reportedly one of the Buddha’s teeth.

When I was here in 1996 Kandy was especially popular because terrorists had never attacked the holy town. It was later a target of terrorists.


The highlight of my time in Sri Lanka was the week spent at Sri Pada Teacher’s College near Adam’s peak, 1800m high in the tea plantations.

Tea workers are mostly Tamil as are employees of the school. I had a personal servant who delivered me bed tea each morning — 2 cups of hot chai as a wake up call. What a terrific tradition.

I saw the tea pickers every day. At 7:30 AM we started class and the ladies left for the fields. There they are poor, but healthy; smiling & laughing all day. The climate is fantastic up here.

My students were handpicked PE teachers from across Sri Lanka who did not necessarily have a strong gymnastics background. Lovely people.


Sri Lanka is far more British than Indian. Old school traditions persist. I did everything I could to shatter the class system traditions which were illogical & comic.

My only problem came when I did evaluation of the coaches. Of course I wanted to give students fair and impartial feedback on how they were doing. That’s a no go in Sri Lanka! Firstly, everyone must pass every test. Cheating is tacitly allowed. Secondly, it is impossible for a lower class student to get a higher mark than an upper class student. There was some grief over my evaluation scheme.

On our one day off my students took me to the local waterfall. We had trouble scrambling the jungle. I learned that bamboo is impenetrable. At one point my guides told me to climb like a tiger, on hands and knees. I got irked for the first time on this trip when the guide later told me to wiggle like a snake, on my stomach.


Somehow we eventually found a route to the Falls.

This day was the first I ever got leached. I was lucky only to get 3 of the small bloodsuckers. Sri Lankans go bare foot so they can see and remove them quickly. I wore shoes which are a comfy refuge for leaches.


Milroy drove me to Galle, on the south end of the island, a World Heritage site.


I worked with gymnasts and goats at an outdoor gymnastics club. The baby goat in my arms was most skilled on beam!


Sri Lankan kids are natural gymnasts, of course. They are lean, light and seemingly never have ankle injury. Coaches told me that walking barefoot your entire life made your ankles strong!


Many of the top coaches in Colombo wanted to develop gymnasts to compete in the Commonwealth Games, a goal I cautioned them on. To me it seemed unrealistic.

For one thing, the girls (and their families) were uncomfortable with girls wearing a traditional gymnastics leotard.

Instead of Commonwealth Games I insisted they teach every child in Sri Lanka a cartwheel.


I was astonished (much later) to hear that Sri Lanka had a full team at the 2003 World Gymnastics Championships. Imagine that!

As complete underdogs, they were fan favourites. 🙂


I must return to Sri Lanka one day as I missed the famous Buddhist sites in the North. One day I got a chance to chat with a Buddhist priest at a Colombo retreat.


travelogue – India

Racing through India in less than 4 weeks was frustrating, trying to do too much in a short time. …


My Lonely Planet tells me that India is a litmus test for travellers. I was excited arriving — but it wasn’t easy.

I bussed from Nepal via the unpleasant border town of Sunauli. Crossing can be a drama, but I was lucky this time.


Towns in the north of India are generally dusty and polluted.


Travellers come here to visit the Holy city of Varanasi (Benares).

I did too. And had a surreal experience, a good introduction to the sub-continent.

The famous temple city Khajuraho though, is lovely. A hot, dry, flat, peaceful little town.


It survived the Muslim invasions by being smack in the middle of nowhere.

I had a luxury room with tub at Yogi Lodge for $4 / night. Free yoga lessons from a master on the roof every morning. Breathing and stretching with a view of the temples.

I was here like most other visitors to see erotic carvings. Actually they are carvings of daily life including loads of sex.

Unfortunately it is difficult to see the details of the Kama Sutra from below.


Entrance to the park cost me C$.02. Postcards were $.04 or less.

Prices have gone up in India. But it was cheap in 1996.

The craftsmanship (950 – 1050 AD) is amazing.


A desert climate preserved the works.


Already rushed, I decided to fly as much as I could to save time.

20India is not the country to see in a short visit.

Highest priority was the Taj Mahal.

And it did not disappoint. 🙂

Even the most jaded traveller comes away impressed.

The detail is gorgeous; finely cut marble screens, astounding pietra dura, semi-precious stone inlaid in marble.

Experts from Iran, France, Venice and the rest of the world collaborated on construction.

The Taj looks great from any distance, in any light. I sat on the Taj Khema restaurant with a rooftop view, listening to a sitar player, and drinking (illegal) beer sold in teapots.


24Shah Jahan built the Taj as tribute to his wife of 17-years, Mumtaz. She bore him 14 children but died in childbirth.

The Shah is supposed to have considered building a black marble Taj for himself!



One of the great love stories of all time.


My favourite view of the Taj was from across the Yamuna river. The flood plain on that side was astonishingly undeveloped.


The Agra Red Fort, built by Akbar, greatest of the Islamic Moghul rulers, is much less visited than the Taj, but I was very impressed with it too.


I played with monkeys for much of the time I was there.


The Taj seen from Agra Fort.


Shah Jahan was eventually deposed by his son, and spent the next 8 years, until his death, in the Red Fort prison. Jahan had the consolation of a view of the Taj Mahal from his window, which would comfort him until he joined his late wife.

A short distance away is another astonishing site built by Shah Jahan, Fatehpur Sikri, a perfectly preserved abandoned city. Fantastic.


He housed his harem here, using slave girls as pieces on a giant parchisi board.

It’s a popular spot for weddings.

I bypassed Delhi to Rajasthan which I knew to be the place to be in India in 1996.

I arrived in Jaipur at 4 AM but was a bit disappointed with the famous Palace of Winds. It’s just a facade.


Much better was Jantar mantar (observatory) one of 5 such installations built by Jai Singh.

He was an inventor and an astronomy nut who built his own giant equipment for studying the sky. These devises were remarkably accurate.


I moved on to Udaipur to see the luxurious Lake Palace Hotel in the middle of Pichola Lake, formerly the residence of the rulers of Udaipur.



Best of all was Pushkar, a dreamy little pilgrimage town famed for it’s Camel Fair.


The colors and energy are wonderful. The air resonates with music from exotic rural instruments, melodious music, folk drama and dance. Villagers arrive in their most colourful garb. Sadhus meditate on the lakeside.

Pushkar has perhaps the only Brahma temple in the world today too.


The Rajputs are an indigenous warrier class with a strict code of chivalry and honour. They fought to the death. When all was lost the female children were burned in a pyre.

They reminded me of the proud Bedu of Arabia.

The Rajputs are the most visually impressive people I have ever seen. Men have pastel-coloured turbans and soup-strainer moustaches.


The women’s festival costumes are stunning.


I was embarrased to tell fellow travellers how long I had to travel India. (It was two and a half weeks, I believe)

I vowed to return to the Gates of India with more time. (Four months in 1999 as it eventually turned out.)


To the tourist, Bombay (Mumbai) is a modern, affluent, clean world city. I liked it staying at the Salvation Army close to the Taj Hotel.

The highlight of my stay was being offered an extra’s role in a Bollywood film. I was keen to go but, alas, I had a flight to catch.


Don’t go to India unless you have lots of time. It will just frustrate you.

And be sure to bring your Lonely Planet guidebook. It’s indispensable.




travelogue – Nepal

When people ask where to travel in Asia, I list Nepal as the best destination.


South of the Himalaya, Nepal is a land of sublime scenery, time-worn temples, & an engaging history. It’s a poor country, but rich in the western imagination.

I’d wanted to go since E de la Nord told me of his Freak street experiences back in the hippy days. 🙂




I was convinced the girls & women of Nepal are the prettiest in the World. Many are exotic with traces of China, India and Thai.

Many Tibetans look AmerIndian.

Kathmandu is wonderful, popular with tourists. I stayed at Tibet Guest House in Thamel for $6 / night. Excellent!

I hung out mainly at the Blue Note jazz bar.

But Kathmandu is a polluted, congested mess. Frustrating at times.

The city is in an unusual, isolated valley in the foothills of the Himalaya. It almost never snows here.


Kathmandu’s city structure is a series of interlocking public squares. In places nothing has changed for hundreds of years.

Times were still tough. Life expectancy in Nepal was 52-years in 1996.

Mountain people sling woven baskets suspended from jute headbands. Valley people suspend loads on bamboo poles. Tourists sling packs from their shoulders.


08It was tough to find a good e-mail cafe in Asia in 1996. The best I found was in Kathmandu.

There seemed to be only 1 bank available for tourists.

A store had recently installed the first escallator in Nepal while I was there, quite the attraction for Nepalis. I watched with amusement as people happened upon this most amazing invention. Many were too nervous to ride it.

Bhaktapur was my favourite square; timeless, clean, spacious. Back lanes filled with kids and monkeys, brick makers, potters, laundry. Dyed bright yarns hung out to dry.


I cycled there.

Kathmandu is close to the Himalayas, but you cannot see the big mountains easily. I was keen to get closer.


I first saw fascinating sadhus, Hindu holy men, at Pashupatinath, a busy pilgrimage site, one of the holiest places for Hindus.

Here too I saw my first burning ghat, the corpse covered with wet straw to slow the burn.

Surreal. James Brown played on a public address system.

The smell of sewage overwhelmed the smell of burning flesh.


The same day I first visited the great stupa of Bodhnath, an impressive Buddhist shrine. It too is a pilgrim spot of Buddhist Tibetans, Sherpa and other highland peoples of Nepal.

I shopped for Buddhas here too — but eventually found the one I wanted at the Golden Temple in Patan.


Mount Everest was a big draw.


I had just started reading the first of dozens of mountaineering books at that time. I picked up several in Kathmandu. Just weeks later the May 1996 Everest climbing season turned to disaster. Krakauer’s book was read & discussed ad nauseum by just about everyone I know.

I signed on for a US$99 flight seeing tour to Mount Everest. We were slightly disappointed in Everest — the black pyramid quite distant. Other mountains more impressive from our vantage.


On the other hand, flight seeing was an amazing experience and one I would recommend. You get personal with the highest mountains in the world.


Pokhara, Nepal. Wow. I could live here.


I was disappointed not to have time to hike Annapurna which I had first heard of from EG. The Annapurna Circuit is possibly the best trek in the world.

I vowed to return one day … and did. 🙂

Pokhara offers wonderful hostels and restaurants. I stayed at Garden Rest House though everyone was sick there. Seemed to be water related. A nurse told me the most common way to get sick is to drink drops of water on the rim of a rinsed coffee cup. I’ve been very cautious ever since.

Pokara is a surprisingly quiet place on a tranquil lake.


Royal Chitwan National Park in the Terai was my next stop, perhaps the premiere park in Asia.

To get there I survived the most dangerous bus ride by far I’ve ever suffered. At least half the passengers vomited en route.


Poorly maintained vehicles, terrible mountain roads, suicidal over-taking manoeuvres, animals, children, cattle and unmarked roadworks. You name it. Seemed like a nightmare.

Signs implore drivers to Use Horn Please.


I was psyched for the rhino search on elephant back. Cool!


(I was reading the book Travels on my Elephant at the time.)

I am so impressed with elephants. What a marvellous, useful beast.


Due to cost they are being phased out all over Asia, unfortunately.

Up to 4 tourists sitting in Howdahs set out with cameras looking for Tiger and Rhino.


In 1911 one hunting party here killed 39 tigers and 18 rhino in 11 days.

One guide had only seen 2 tigers in 6 years working in the park! He saw more rare sloth bears than tigers.

I saw a mother Rhino with baby. And later this male who had been wounded in the rear end — punctured by the horn of another male, no doubt.


The park was terrific. I nearly sat on a scorpion, went early morning birding with a guide & learned the marvels of dung and straw as a building material. It sets like concrete.

Another day we went rhino spotting on foot! Our guide had trained us to scramble up a tree if we came upon a rhino. They are dangerous.

When I spotted one about 20m away, a British doctor in our group refused to climb the tree as instructed. The guide threw his body on top of the doctor to protect him in case the rhino charged.

The doctor was most ungrateful when it turned out the rhino did NOT charge.

99Nepal is one of the last great places on Earth. I’ll go with you any time.

It lingers in your dreams long after you leave.



travelogue – Cambodia


I had never heard of Angkor Wat in Cambodia before I saw John Fair’s amazing photos. It was too Indiana Jones to be real!


John had visited while a civil war raged with the Khmer Rouge. This was a war zone. John had a military jeep escort.

In 1996 I visited during a lull in hostilities. No major problems though I watched the mine sweepers every morning. The few tourists were swallowed up by the massive site.


Angkor is the best known of about 100 temples, the remains of a huge centre sprawling over 75 square miles, perhaps the largest religious site in the World. The temples were built between the 9th and the 13th centuries.

Large artificial lakes, the barays & a sophisticated canal system made possible 3 rice harvests per year.

Most of Angkor was abandoned in the 15th century. The temples became cloaked by forest & were lost for centuries.

Angkor is a living temple, not a museum. We enjoyed this annual festival where HUGE vats of food were prepared.


The mighty Khmer Empire, which ruled much of what is now Vietnam, Laos, Thailand & Cambodia is forgotten, but Buddhism persists much the same as hundreds of years ago.

I spent 3 days at Angkor with this lovely British couple. We flew in together.


Our first meal in Siem Riep was memorable. Some sort of cold mush with slightly cooked chicken. When I went back to see the outdoor kitchen I noted the stove was wood fuelled! Electricity was not reliable.

When not touring the ruins, we chilled in their air conditioned room watching World Cup cricket. (Sri Lanka shocked everyone that year defeating Australia in the final.)

For security & safety, it was still required that every tourist have their personal motor scooter escort. Every morning I hired a bike guy for US$5 for the day.


The people were wonderful in 1996. Happy, smiling, laughing. They knew very few words of English. Charming.


The Cambodian people in 1996 were about 95% Buddhist. But the ruins are largely Hindu in design.

angkor_trickMost tourist including myself wandered randomly, a surprise found around every corner.

My favourite ruins were those not cleared of jungle trees.

Strangler Figs and Kapok trees entwine themselves around the ruins of Ta Prohm. Their roots burst apart even the thickest of walls, yet their clinging embrace prevents the walls’ collapse.

Everyone speaks of the victory of nature over the works of man.

My last day I convinced my motorbike driver to take me out to Banteay Srei Temple 25 km north of Angkor.

I was certain there would be no other tourists there. In fact, I was the first tourist there in a week.


However, locals still jumped me with Coke, cheap tourist knickknacks & offers as tour guide.

I normally chase them away, but this day I enlisted a 10-year-old boy with astonishingly good English and a complete mastery of Khmer history. The site was excellent.

Cambodia is poor. They have none of what we consider essential for civilization. Yet they survive.


One of my favourite countries visited.

After 3 days tramping Angkor for as many hours as possible, I caught the boat to Phenom Penh. It was a mad scene trying to disembark without being knocked off the rotted dock by vendors.


I knew where to go — Cloud 9 — a righteously named backpacker hostel with a bar floating on the lake. Bowls on every table filled with free weak marajuana!

… but everyone there was too stoned-lazy to clean and roll any more joints. Almost none ever left the restaurant.

Cambodia was the least developed country I had ever visited. People were unspoiled. There were no electric street lights.

At the hostel I heard that an Australian known as AK Ray (a gun runner) had been killed & dumped in the centre of town as a warning.

For a rush I decided to wander deserted streets in the dark. Scary. The highlight was watching fat pigs eat garbage on what I assumed was a dirt road behind the hostel.

Next morning I noted it was the MAIN STREET of Phenm Penh.


I read the horrific history of Cambodia. The Killing Fields I opted not to visit — but the Museum of Genocide disturbed me.


Of more than 20,000 brought to this interogation / torture jail only 7 survived: sculptors who had to produce busts of Pol Pot

If you want to know more, read on. This is a Lonely Planet summary:

The French arrived in 1863. After some gunboat diplomacy and the signing of a treaty of protectorate in 1863, the French went on to force King Norodom to sign another treaty, this time turning his country into a virtual colony in 1884.

In 1941 the French installed 19-year-old Prince Sihanouk on the Cambodian throne, on the assumption that he would prove suitably pliable. This turned out to be a major miscalculation as the years after 1945 were strife-torn, with the waning of French colonial power aided by the proximity of the Franco-Viet Minh War that raged in Vietnam and Laos. Cambodian independence was eventually proclaimed in 1953, the enigmatic King Norodom Sihanouk going on to dominate national politics for the next 15 years before being overthrown by the army.

In 1969 the United States carpet-bombed suspected communist base camps in Cambodia, killing thousands of civilians and dragging the country unwillingly into the US-Vietnam conflict. American and South Vietnamese troops invaded the country in 1970 to eradicate Vietnamese communist forces but were unsuccessful; they did manage, however, to push Cambodia’s leftist guerillas (the Khmer Rouge) further into the country’s interior. Savage fighting soon engulfed the entire country, with Phnom Penh falling to the Khmer Rouge in April 1975.

Over the next four years the Khmer Rouge, under Pol Pot’s leadership, systematically killed an estimated two million Cambodians (targeting the educated in particular) in a brutal bid to turn Cambodia into a Maoist, peasant-dominated agrarian cooperative.

Currency was abolished, postal services were halted, the population became a work force of slave labourers and the country was almost entirely cut off from the outside world. Responding to recurring armed incursions into their border provinces, Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978, forcing the Khmer Rouge to flee to the relative sanctuary of the jungles along the Thai border. From there, they conducted a guerilla war against the Vietnamese-backed government throughout the late 1970s and 1980s.

In mid-1993, UN-administered elections led to a new constitution and the reinstatement of Norodom Sihanouk as king. The Khmer Rouge boycotted the elections, rejected peace talks and continued to buy large quantities of arms from the Cambodian military leadership. In the months following the election, a government-sponsored amnesty secured the first defections from Khmer ranks, with more defections occurring from 1994 when the Khmer Rouge was finally outlawed by the Cambodian government.

The uneasy coalition of Prince Ranariddh’s National United Front and Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party fell violently apart in July 1997, and when the dust settled Hun Sen assumed sole leadership of Cambodia. Elections in mid-98 returned Hun Sen to this position, despite grumbling from opposition candidates about dodgy electoral practices. While his democratic credentials are far from impressive, the one-eyed strong man has proved to be something of a stabilising force for Cambodia.

Pol Pot’s death in April 1998 from an apparent heart attack was greeted with anger (that he was never brought to trial) and scepticism (he has been reported dead many times before). The UN has pulled out of trials of other surviving ‘top level’ Khmer Rouge leaders on war crimes charges because the independence of the tribunals is doubtful. Future stability is also tied to improving the country’s notoriously dodgy economy (dealt a body blow by the devastating floods of 2000), eradicating the entrenched culture of corruption, reducing the size of the military and answering the troubled question of who will succeed King Sihanouk, the last in a long line of Angkor’s god kings.

Rush hour in Phenm Penh.


Much of the wealth of Cambodia was siphoned away to Bangkok. Cambodians aspired to the western ways of their Thai neighbours.

In the heat of the day I hung out at the Foreign Correspondents Club. At night I hired a motorcycle taxi to take me to the Heart of Darkness bar, the main expat hangout. Few tourists risked the streets after dark. I sat most nights with Hal, an Irish raconteur who explained the scene.

Many expats were there for the cheap prostitutes, an industry much patronized by UN peace keepers. Best deal in town? US$4 for a beer and a BJ.

One morning to the Cambodian Circus School & my route happened to bisect the red light district. It was interesting the see the girls just waking up, washing clothes, chatting like the kids they were. They all waved cheerfully.

Later I toured the tourist sites with one of the girls from the hostel.


The National Museum is one of the most memorable I’ve visited. A gorgeous building. Limbless landmine victim beggers were stationed on the walk up.

An estimated 1 million bats live in the roof of the museum. They stink and squeal but no one wants to remove them as they control the insect population in the capital.

Australia sent a work crew to build a sub-ceiling so the bat guano would not soil precious heirlooms and tourists. The Aussie workmen reported that every night trucks would loot relics from the collection.

Many are disappointed with Phnom Penh, but I liked it. When I was there the roads still had no names.

We visited a Buddha factory. One of my favourite travel photos ever. 🙂


This is another French colonial city. As usual, the French legacy left little … but they do have wide boulevards and good French bread!

The Royal Palace was not open to tourists, though we could look in from outside the fence. The Thai and Khmer architecture is evocative.

A tourist couple I was travelling with took me to the market. Huge bales were displayed. We were unable to communicate with the sales woman.


Eventually one tourist offered her a US$1 bill. She proceeded to stuff a plastic bread bag with herb.

I still look back fondly on Cambodia. More tourists are travelling there since overland transport opened.


No one leaves this unique country unmoved.

travel – Fair-Ace Memories of Europe 1976

March 1996

Jots from the 20 year reunion party of 4 friends who traveled Europe when they were 18-years-old.


• Four highschool pals went to Europe in 1976; Rob fell in love on the plane. I was excited; sleeping only 4 of 44 hours on that flight.

• Rob’s uncle rented an orange (“Drifters”) VW van (what else?) with 8-track! In short order Ron crunched it into a parked car. “Don’t worry Ron. We won’t have any more than the usual objections to your driving”, quipped Rob. (Actually, my diary reveals that the main accident-waiting-to-happen was Glaze driving TOO far on the right side of the road.) The driver chooses the tunes; Ozark, Doobies, or Mott the Hoople?

• Holland; Raw Herring mit onions, Potat Frits with Mayonaise, Emannuele 2. The stunning Monique.

• Germany; Munich, Deutches Museum, Dachau, German beer, 10 CC.

• Austria; Vienna, Innsbruck, skiing, and a blonde hitch-hiker from Mad city, Wisconsin.

• Rich; morning horks and vivid dream tales. One even had a title: “The 500 Million Dollar Bet or The Man Who Beat God”

• Italy; Karen (the Tigress) from Bawston at Florian’s Cafe, San Marco Square, Venice. Easter Diner in a rich Italian villa near Verona, the “King Kong” dance and, later the “Sift”. Calzone. Florence!!; Ufuzi, Michaelangelo. Urbino!. Rome; Saint Peter’s was too grandiose to Grok. I rode the city on a rented Vespa wearing ski goggles. Hey! Ron bumps into Mary Forest! Wow! Flaming Arrows to celebrate!

• Greece; the highlight. Corfu, fireflies, Domestika. Wonderful breakfast. The freedom of our own co-ed dorm. Rob Dunn Kirk Wanvic’s solo dance to Kung Foo Fighting. “Jesus, he’s going to be better than Bruce Lee.” The Greek “snake dance” followed. Kirk later showboated his rented motorbike over a bridge.

• The Bazooki bar with stolen Cami; her brother’s finest. Scotch and smashing plates. Surreal.

• Rob and Kim and a slimy sleeping bag …. The “points race”.

• Papa said, “I love everybody from the orange van.” Of course the Greeks loved Ron best. Fishing trips. Free meals. Beware Greeks bearing gifts?

• Ron kissed the ticket-girl Mary Beth good-bye leaving Corfu. A nice touch excepting that she was passed-out drunk.

• Ron declared, “If I don’t get laid before I get to Den Haag, I’ll cut my wang off.”

Ron waxed poetic …

Whether Blonde or Brunette
Whether sink of Bidette
Man it’s all the same to me,
Whether skinny or fat
I’ll be hanging a rat
And baby it’ll be aimed at thee.

• Cut-offs, tanned youth splashing in white breaker waves.

• Athens; Plaka, Acropolis light show, the BEST way to hold hands, souvlaki, Tiger balm. The night we were were wined, dined and feted at the Discotek until 3:00 am?

• Olympia; who won that race, again? Glaze was Adonis for the admiring Greek tourist girls.

• Ask yourself seriously —
is there life after youth?

• Italy; I remember leaving Pompeii. It was the first time in over a month that the four R’s had the van to themselves again. The exhilaration of freedom.

• Glaze and I searched for the “perfect meat”; marble in the famous Carrara pits. A spooky hostel on the Italian Riviera. My first ugly close look at alcoholism — the ex-patriot anarchist philosopher.

• France; Nice, Driving the Grand Prix de Monte Carlo track with Alice Cooper “Under My Wheels”.

• Remember Ron’s French bread baget sandwiches? Fresh tomatoes, mayo, 4 eggs!, with creamy melted butter.

• Best is the naive enthusiasm of youth. I still love to travel, but I no longer promise to write every person I meet.

more poetry


Silent fading shadows of what we were
they are our substance
wilting ever
fading never
they always will be there.

when we meet again
and search
for treasured memories
the sunshine
will still make me cry.

– Ron, Europa (1976)

James Taylor

Long ago a young man sits
and plays his waiting game.
But things are not the same, it seems,
as in such tender dreams.
Slowly passing sailing ships
and Sunday afternoons.
Like people on the moon, I see
are things not meant to be.

Where do those golden rainbows end?
Why is this song I sing so sad?
Dreaming the dreams I’ve dreamed my friend
Loving the love I love to love is just a word I’ve heard
when things are being said.
Stories my poor head has told
cannot stand the cold.
And in between what might have been
and what has come to pass,
a misbegotten guess, alas,
and bits of broken glass.

Where do your golden rainbows end?
Why is the song I sing so sad?
Dreaming the dreams I dream my friend
Loving the love I love to love to love.

Only dreams, it seems;
to hesitate
to pause and think,
to alter fate.

Faces to save,
but more to lose,
a saving grace,
another bruise?

– Rick, ‘76