Monday, July 30, 2007

UTA Issues, plus some comments on Media Pied Pipers

It's always a little hard to explain my current work assignment without revealing findings that need to remain at least temporarily confidential. Here's an article from the Deseret News explaining some of the issues that the Legislature is concerned about.

As a side note, I've grown increasingly disappointed in the media's willingness (or ability) to accurately report all the facts. As a result, they rarely paint the landscape sufficiently so as to provide readers with a good feel for what's going on. I have my own opinions for why this happens, but most of it can be boiled down the media's lack of access to all information, the need to "sell" news and stories, and the irregular or nonexistent meticulous review of information sources.

I guess what I'm saying is that people need to be cautious of forming immovable opinions of important issues based on reading of news analysis. You might find yourself being led astray. That doesn't mean people shouldn't keep themselves well-informed. I myself am an unrepentant news junkie. But I think we should allow ourselves leeway to change our minds. So I'm really just making an argument for flip-flopping. Give those politicians a break, man.

But the Desnews article isn't half bad.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The New Cold War?

With all the stink about the curious state of Russian foreign and domestic affairs, I found the following article from the BBC to be extremely helpful in putting things in to perspective.

It goes without saying that this is a particularly interesting time to be returning to Russia. I find myself wondering how much I will involve myself in local issues. My job will obviously preclude me from participating in certain activities, but it will no doubt open doors for some truly unique opportunities.

It should be a lot of fun.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Khmer Rouge

Click on the pictures to view them in higher resolution in order to read the text.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Bangkok Reloaded... and home again

We took a rather arduous boat ride from Batambong to the tourist Mecca of Siem Reap. I really don't have much to say in words about Siem Reap. It's much better in pictures. I'll post them on the internet as soon as I get home. Or ask me to see them. That would work, too. I find the Achievements quite fascinating that ancient civilizations attained to with their seemingly limitless peasant populations. In spite of all the grandeur, it's quite sad, really.

Oh, and we also went to a cultural village/museum in Siem Reap. One of the shows we attended was a Cambodian wedding. They picked me to be the groom. So I pranced around in really fancy doodads in front of a mostly Cambodian heckling crowd. And bowed a lot. Afterward, my "bride" requested a tip for the honor of allowing me to look like a stooge. I turned her down, because I've grown a little tired of people shaking me down for money after they perform "services" that were ostensibly provided gratis. After the "wedding", we attended another show that turned out to be a fiance choosing exhibition. So Mom, my trip wasn't entirely fruitless: I learned how to get a fiance and I got married! But not necessarily in that order.

Additionally, I ate a silk worm at a local silk farm. Tonya and I had determined to eat bugs before the journey's through. At least one of us isn't all talk.

So I then took my leave of Tonya and Whitney to return home. I felt a little melancholy to bid them good-bye, as I will be returning to the regular hustle-bustle of the States, while they will remain in that beautiful country for a little while longer. But unfortunately, I do have to work (well, marginally, anyway) for a living, so it's back to auditing. But those two young ladies will be on their own, now, without me to "protect" them. So keep them in your prayers.

I hopped on a bus to head north to cross the border in to Thailand. In typical fashion, my 7 am bus didn't depart until around 9. The bus itself was curious enough to deserve mention in the Blog. It looked like a carrot in that it was bright orange flecked with dark green. And it had bright red and green Christmas colored lugnuts. So a bunch of tourists and I went bouncing along this rural road that is the only overland connection between the capitols of two countries. There's a rumor out here suggesting that the airline company that runs the route from Siem Reap to Bangkok pays off the Cambodian government to keep the road huddy in order to encourage people to fly. But I'm a tough (i.e. cheap) little traveler. So I took the bus that averaged around 30 kph through Cambodia. The bus stopped about every hour for a "break", but I've grown quite accustomed to the bus drivers providing the local cafes with some western business. Anyway, we covered the 200 km in a tidy 6 hours. After clearing passport control, a sleek little Toyota minivan picked us up on the Thailand side, and whisked us off to Bangkok in about 2.5 hours, covering the same distance.

So I'm back in Bangkok. I was going to pull the same little trick and spend the night at the airport, but I met a fellow American on the bus ride who'll take my same flight to Tokyo, and we decided to go halfsies on a little room in the Downtown. I don't care much for the bed or sleeping here, but it sure felt nice to clean the layer of dirt off me. I'll hop a shuttle at about 2 am for my flight.

So that's it. Barring any other incendiaries (I mean incidents), my little adventure has drawn to a close. I'm extremely grateful for the opportunities that I've had to step at least a little bit outside of my comfort zone and see this big beautiful world that we live in, and rub shoulders at least a little bit with the beautiful people in it. I do not know why I am so blessed to be provided with the circumstances to do these things. I hope that I will never tire of the desire to meet new people and try new things, as such experiences tend to moderate my perspective on life and other people, and allow me to realize that maybe there are other people outside of Jeremy's bubble who live interesting and relevant lives.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


So we spent a couple of days in the capitol city of Phnom Penh. I have nothing to report except that we went to two LDS branches on Sunday, including a local one and the international (English-speaking) one. It was great to go to church, and I was quite impressed with how many members there are out here. The local branch was eerily similar to Russia: an elderly woman nattered on for about half an hour about nothing in particular, and the District High Council speaker was left with about two minutes. It felt like being back in the womb. Most of the people in the international branch were visiting from either BYU or BYU Hawaii, so that meeting was quite packed, though not quite as fun as the local one.

You well may ask: Why my egregious omission of our visit to the Killing Fields just outside Phnom Penh? I don't quite know what to say about it, at this point. I will definitely get around to it. But later. It was extremely sobering.

Monday evening we hopped a bus for a ride up to Cambodia's 2nd-largest city in the north-central part of the country. After a review of our various options for adventure, we settled a tour of the region. I thought that we were buying a bare-bones little excursion, since the price was only $8 for the whole day. We were pleasantly surprised to find 3 motorbike drivers waiting for us at the crack of dawn, this morning. We each hopped a bike and off we bounced in to the Cambodian bush. As one of our drivers pointed out, many of the area is still littered with land mines, so they were careful to stick to the dirt roads.

We stopped briefly at a little village elementary school. The wee younguns there flocked and oggled Tonya and Whitney. They inexplicably always seem to ignore me. Perhaps it's my swart and glowering looks. Anyway, our first main stop was at a place called Phnom Sampeuo (Boat Mountain). This is a place with some old temple ruins. The Khmer Rouge also used the temple to house some of their soldiers, and an old cave that was once (pre-Khmer Rouge) used as a theater has been renamed the Killing Cave. Again, more on the skeletons and torture in a later posting. We hiked to the top of the mountain (750 steps!) and gazed out at the lovely view of the scenery around Cambodia. It's interesting how flat this land is, with a few conical mountains rising seemingly randomly out of the rice paddies.

Did I mention the rice paddies? A veritable sea of them meets one's gaze throughout this lush country. One could probably walk the length and breadth of Cambodia without ever stepping on solid ground. My driver explained to me as we drove along how the rice is planted, harvested, replanted to space it out, and finally harvested for consumption/selling. He was an extremely helpful driver who answered my myriad of stupid questions about Cambodian agriculture, lifestyle, economic conditions, political landscape, motorbike market, and on and on. He did such a good job, in fact, that when the trip was finished, I upped his fare to $10 plus my sunglasses. They proved more effective in keeping the dust out of his eyes than his hand. What good will they do me? I don't even own a motorbike.

Anyway, we stopped at another spot where we climbed 350 steps up to 5 old Angkor Empire temple ruins. As we hiked, a cute little Cambodian woman and 3 kids walked along with us and fanned us to keep us cool. Try as we did, they stubbornly kept to their fanning, all the while providing valuable advice on where to take the best pictures. A couple of the kids asked me whether I wanted to see "boom boom". I responded that I don't know "boom boom", but wouldn't they be so kind as to introduce me? They showed me to the back part of one of the temples that had been completely blown away, apparently by artillery shells. The culpable party? You guessed it: our friends the Khmer Rouge. So I'm apparently getting all free and easy with my hard-earned money, because I gave Mom 500 riel (about 10 cents) plus 100 riel to each of the kids for their fanning services. They seemed satisfied, so I was too. What a softy.

To finish off our trip, we arrived at what the locals call the "bamboo railroad". "A railroad made of bamboo?" you ask. Almost. It's a small rickety metal railroad track on which the locals place two sets of metal wheels. On top of this they attach a bamboo scaffolding with a 5 hp sideshaft lawnmower engine. They run a rubber belt to the rear wheels, and for the tidy sum of 10$ invited us to climb aboard. Throwing our hard-earned money to the wind, Tonya, Whitney, I, plus our three drivers and their motorbikes all hopped on. With an imaginary toot toot, off we went. The ride was pretty jarring as the rails were not laid exactly evenly, but it was remarkable how fast that little bamboo deathtrap on wheels go going. I'm guessing about 30-35 mph. We motored along for about half an hour to a little railroad "stop" not far from town, and hopped off. It was all great fun.

So it was all in all a great day. Plus, we made it in just before the rain really started to fall. It's pouring down right now, and I've got nothing better to do but write in this here blog. So everyone wins.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Miss Saigon

Hmm. Well, it's been a few days, now. Since our little shopping fling in Hoi An, we've traveled the length of Vietnam all the way down to the little Burg of Ho Chi Minh City, formerly and still commonly known as Saigon. I am submitting this posting from a riverside internet cafe in Phnom Penh, the capitol of Cambodia. More on Cambodia later. First things first.

The bus ride to Saigon took about 26 hours. One would think that this would be extremely uncomfortable, and yet it wasn't too bad, as the weather was pleasantly cool and rainy, and the bus was relatively empty. Both Tonya and I each got two whole seats to ourselves, so we could put our feet up and sort of sleep through the night. I woke up every hour or so when my legs and feet would cramp. Tonya zipped herself up in my sleeping bag, and I don't think she made a peep all night long. The following day we stopped briefly at a beautiful beach resort for lunch. We might've been tempted to stay there and enjoy the warm tropical breezes, but destiny in the form of a big loud city called. I made a homemade Risk game, at which Tonya effectively demolished me. She proved equally adept at making short work of my navy in a similarly notebook-paper-contrived game of Battleship, so I spent the remainder of the trip in sullen silence. It was all extraordinarily bad luck. My strategery was impeccable.

So we arrived in Saigon and were forced to pay the extortion-level rate of $7 per night for our rooms. The next day we took a little bus ride out to the village of Cu Chi where Viet Cong guerrilla soldiers fought the Americans during the Vietnam War. We started off by watching a little 70's-era patriotic video championing the brave soldiers of Cu Chi and how their most faithful ones won the glorious American Killer Medal honor. I somehow felt a little uneasy. We then took a little tour of the town and saw how the people literally lived underground for a period of several years. They used an elaborate tunnel system to sleep, cook food, and quickly move around the jungle to places where they could appear out of the ground at any given time and make life generally miserable for the American Invaders. The tunnels were intentionally built to be claustrophobically small so that the larger Americans couldn't fit in them (when they could even find the entrances). Additionally, they were booby trapped on the interior with all sorts of unpleasantries so as to discourage intrusions. We were shown a homemade weapons and trap area where all sorts of meat-grinding-type weapons were displayed that would be camouflaged on the jungle floor. American soldiers who fell into them would be maimed in the most inventive ways (even our tour guide - a former Vietnamese soldier - just shook his head as he described them, saying terrible, terrible). They were intentionally built so that the injured soldiers would stay alive long enough to be able to scream to their comrades for help, who would be promptly mowed down as they tried to drag the injured from the pits. Of course, the Vietcong had their own nightmares to deal with, as they lived in constant fear of carpet bombings if even a wisp of smoke escaped from their cooking rooms in the tunnels. And they could rarely spend more than a few minutes above ground. Pretty much a hellish nightmare from hell (I don't think I'm being redundant) for everyone involved.

So on the following day (last Friday), we determined to combine a Mekong River Delta tour with an exit to Cambodia's Phnom Penh. The tour description painted a picture involving a trip to a native coconut candy making village, a bee-keeping farm, tropical fruit tasting and folk music performances, followed by a horse and cart ride and a hike to the top of a scenic mountain. All this would be followed by a short boat ride to Phnom Penh. What fun. Well, the day began ominously as the rain started falling before we had even arrived at the harbor. We purchased glorified garbage sacks to use as rain ponchos for about 33 cents (a rip-off). Tonya tore hers in half as she was putting it on. She's been working out. We then went motoring around the Mekong River Delta to various islands. We spent a few minutes at a place where our tour guide showed us a metal grinder, and told us that it is utilized for the production of coconut candy. How quaint. I bought like 4 kilos of candy, so that at least wasn't a waste. We then went to another island. Tonya and I got to hug a python (or rather it hugged us), and as we were walking out, the tour guide pointed to a box while informing us that some of them hold bees. At this point, we realized that we were witnessing a genuine mail-in performance from the tour guide. We determined that he didn't really like westerners, as he would abandon us and find some locals to chat with for the few minutes when we stopped at the islands. It also occurred to us that we had never seen a horse and cart in all of Vietnam, so we couldn't figure out where the legendary horse and cart ride would come in. But whatever. We were wet, riding boats (some of them long oar-driven ones) through dense narrow jungle rivers, and imagining what it was like to be soldiers doing the same thing 30 years ago, but waiting for the plants on the shore to explode into machine gun fire. It was a good time. When we got back to Saigon, we waited almost two hours for a van that we thought would take us to our boat ride to Cambodia. When it finally arrived, our tour guide tossed us on the bus, and as he was closing the door, yelled that the van (packed to the gills with locals) would take us 5 hours to the border, where we would spend the night. This was certainly not quite what we bargained for... a free overland bus ride over semi-finished roads was included with our tour! We missed out on the horse and cart and mountain climb, but this was truly special. I actually mentioned to Tonya as we were pulling away that it would have been better perhaps to just take a bus to Cambodia, but it was too late. No one on the van spoke English accept for an Irish touristing couple who had been similarly duped. They were, to say the least, frustrated, and we spent a little bit of time cajoling them and convincing them that we were going to have way more fun with unexpected adventures on our unanticipated bus ride than we would've on another.... bus ride. Anyway, they settled down after I gave them a cliff bar.

The next morning we were up at the crack of dawn in a little town on the Vietnam-Cambodia border. We were treated to a tour of a local minority village (Muslims who trade in woven silk... Tonya got the chance to work on a silk loom and nearly break it), as well as a fish farm. We then hopped on another boat which would ostensibly take us 3 hours to the border. First we had to give up our passports and visa application fees ($22) to a little Vietnamese girl who promised to reappear at the border with our visas nicely processed. We smilingly relinquished our only proof of identification and hopped on a shifty water craft with several other tourists, and off we went! Thankfully, our little Vietnamese friend reappeared as promised at the border with our passports. We hopped through customs, and sat our little selves down on another boat that would take us up the Mekong all the way to Phnom Penh. I need to add here that our tour brochure promised a speed boat and a 3-hour ride to Phnom Penh. Perhaps the speed part of the boat was an extra added fee, or maybe they expected us to get out and kick to hurry things along. Anyway, since we sprung for neither of those options, we ended up spending roughly 10 hours on a boat. But we had a great time. Tonya was sunburned on one arm due to her lounging under the tropical solar rays. I choked on outboard motor fumes, as I was sitting on the inside (she had the window - ur, I mean hole - ... as usual).

But we got to Phom Penh safe 'n sound. We met one of Tonya's colleagues from last year who took us to the airport to meet Tonya's cousin, Whitney, who flew out to join us for my final week here. Now I've got two females to keep an eye on. I'm actually bigger than just about all the men out here (it's true! I'm not lying) - so I should be able to still pound anyone who messes with them. (Pardon me while I pound my chest and shout out a few feral yells and wails).

I should take a minute to just mention the guy who picked us up. He is a Cambodian who fought with the Khmer Rouge back in the late 70's and early 80's. When he was wounded, he escaped from their hospital to Thailand and lived in a refugee camp so that he wouldn't have to rejoin the Cambodian army. He lost contact with his entire family, whom he hasn't seen since. He studied dentistry at the Cambodian camp and returned to Phnom Penh after the war. He now works as a dentist in an orphanage. I told him that he needs to write down his story. He agrees that this is very important. I volunteered to help, and told him that my Father is a professional writer. He smilingly agreed, and promised to keep in touch. So there you go, Dad. I've enlisted you as an involuntary participant in a personal biography. As we drove out of the airport, I paid for our exit fee from the parking lot. I gave him approximately 50 cents extra. When he protested, I just reassured him that he can pay me back from his future book proceeds.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Hue, et al

It appears that Vietnam's electronic infrastructure lags a wee bit behind its western counterparts. I'm therefore experiencing some difficulty in gaining access to the internet. I've also noticed that although I can edit posts, I haven't been able to actually open and view my site for some time, now. I'm suspecting that the internet censors in Vietnam keep local users from freely accessing the bloggernet. The lousy capitalists might impose an insurrection. Rest assured that all snarky comments to postings still safely arrive in my email box.

Today we arrived in Hoi An, our third city of the Vietnam trip. We got to Hue (pronounced Who-Aye) Friday morning after what seemed like an interminably long bus ride. We became quite familiar with the other tourists on the bus; not that we talked at all, but people were sprawled out in the aisles, draped over the seats in front of them, and generally in the attitude of rather making themselves at home. It's interesting how self-contained the tourist industry is in this country. Each city along the coast is accessible by buses that essentially only tourists ride (there are local buses for the Natives). When we arrive in a city, we are dropped off on streets lined with hostels at rates ranging from $4-20/night. At the hostels, friendly solicitous people (all, seemingly, under 30) in broken English recommend options for excursions and tours of the city and various natural or historical sites in the countryside. I could actually spend my entire 2 weeks in Vietnam without interacting with any Vietnamese outside the tourist industry. This all seems remarkably well-organized; we suspect that all the hostels and tourist companies are in cahouts with each other, and perhaps even just run by the government. It occurs to me that perhaps some smart characters in the Vietnamese government decided a few years ago that they wanted to create a bustling tourist industry, perhaps as a poor-man's alternative to the crazy hustle-bustle of Thailand. They therefore set things up to attract foreigners out here while minimizing said tourists' overall influence on the country. Vietnam is still a marginally communist country, and in typical broken-down communist fashion, they could still be trying to maintain a semblance of ideology while all the same getting their hands in the international touristing cookie jar. Also interestingly enough, just about all the tourists are Europeans... as I alluded to in my previous posting, Americans haven't seemed to have warmed up to Vietnam, just yet.

So we arrived in Hue, rented a couple of bicycles, and spent a day traipsing around the city and countryside. It's pretty fun riding with all the local traffic through the packed streets, though it definitely takes some getting used to. No one really stops at intersections, and doing so would actually potentially cause at best a minor traffic slowdown, and at worst an accident. We are advised to just make eye contact with oncoming traffic, whereupon everyone mutually swerves, and then it's off to the next near-death experience. Definitely a study in organized chaos. It's actually not so bad, since people ride motorbikes here almost exclusively in lieu of cars. So accidents are less likely to involve impacts with/between large metal vehicles. Additionally, since the streets are so packed, the maximum speed limit for any vehicle is usually significantly under that which your grandma pedaling on a bicycle could manage. So it's cool. We were joking that it really seems that most people have a family motorbike out here, and a teenager will ask his Dad for the keys to the bike to take his girlfriend out for a night on the town. But it's also notably progressive; one sees as almost an equal proportion of men and women on motorbikes.

So back to our bike ride. Within 5 minutes of our riding on the street, a woman pulled up to Tonya and started chatting with her. This little mobile conversation continued for some time, as we drifted the streets of Hue. We were attempting to take a ride outside the town to see a tomb/palace place of an ancient emperor of a bygone royal era (or something like that). But this woman said that she lived on a pineapple farm not far from the tomb, and wouldn't we like to have her show us the way? Perceiving a response in the negative to be the pinnacle of rudeness, we followed her along (or rather, I followed, while Tonya and the woman chatted). On a side note, I've found that many people spontaneously approach Tonya out here to chat/take pictures, etc. Just last night, 3 young girls wanted to take a professional picture in front of the Royal palace, and asked Tonya to join them. We've determined that while they're interested in becoming acquainted with a blonde-ish foreigner, I'm far too swarthy (or perhaps just ugly) to pique their interest. Anyway, so we went riding out to the tomb, and it turned out that the woman lived, in fact, a fair distance from our destination. She took us to her little homestead and treated us to fresh pineapple and Ramen noodles. Her husband was particularly excited to chat, as he had learned English while serving with the Americans fighting in the Vietnam war! He fought for a couple of years down in the south, and moved up north to Hue after the Americans pulled out. So all in all, that was quite fascinating.

Now we've arrived in Hoi An. Today's Sunday, so we'll lay low for the day, and tomorrow hit the touristy stuff. Apparently this city is a huge Mecca for foreign shoppers. The local tailors are rather renowned; I'm hoping to get a suit tailored for the tall sum of $40. Sweet.

On a food note, it would be truly impossible for me to starve in this country, due to the overwhelming availability of fresh fruit (including pineapple, mango, bananas, and all things tropical). It seems, however, that I once read somewhere "Man shall not live by mango alone". I feel reluctant to reveal that I've actually moved two sizes smaller on my belt since arriving here. I hope I don't need to emphasize that this is not necessarily the optimal direction for my belt buckle to be moving. But so far, the intestinal diseases seem to be well conquered, so I therefore conclude that my shrinking girth is due merely to water loss. I drink about 4-5 liters a day, but it still seems insufficient. But I'm hangin in there, Mom. Don't worry.

Finally, in response to John P.'s request, my traveling buddy is a one Tonya Tripp. She and I did a little excursion to Mali back in the fall of 2003. She it was who clued me in to the delights of a potential jaunt through SE Asia. She spent last summer in Cambodia working on an internship, which she will continue after I leave in about 2 weeks. She's keeping her own little travelblog updated at
Asia Adventure (Part II). She might make an appearance as a guest contributer in some of my own posts, later on.

Goodness. That was a lot of writing.