Language, linguistics and travel. A blog that tries to bring them all together.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Mouly Loth - My Khmer Language Assistant

It has been very difficult trying to get the project of revamping the Khmer Phrasemaker under way. Jasmine has been much too busy to help and I was accomplishing so little that I started making plans to return to Phnom Penh in the hope of being able to hire someone there. Then Eric, Mark's business partner in the hotel enterprise, showed up with an older Khmer gentleman he'd just hired to act as his interpreter. I had a chat with Eric about the possibly of my using Mouly as my own interpreter as he has all the necessary qualifications: he speaks passable English, knows the Phnom Penh dialect and has the time. We started work a couple of days ago and the results have thus far been very satisfactory. Most important of all is that I now possess the missing template sentences I'd been unable to figure out before. This nearly doubles the amount of phrases I can now concoct. I'm also getting a much better handle on the elusive system of pronunciation. Some of the sounds are so bizarre that I'm as yet unsure exactly how I'll be able to describe them so someone else can pick them up easily. Take the Khmer word for "go"( "dteuv"), for example. It starts with a very soft "t" that is halfway between a "t" and a "d" and is followed by a vowel sound that I can only describe as being somewhat like an Australian the version "ow" that finishes off with rounded lips.

Mouly is quite an interesting fellow. He possesses an extraordinary knowledge of history and Khmer folklore and is perfectly happy to bend the ear of anyone in that direction. A little while ago I sat down with him to learn his personal history.

He was born in Phnom Penh in July, 1946, the first of six children. He describes his family as being upper-working class as his father worked at the palace at that time as a manager of construction projects. When the King died and was replaced by his son, Prince Sihanouk, Mouly's father had to leave his job as, in Mouly's own words, "there would be trouble stirred up by jealousies if he stayed". Using his knowledge, his father started a construction company building houses in the French style of the time.

From high school Mouly went to Phnom Penh University where he studied both English and German literature. His brothers and sisters managed to attain scholarships to study abroad and all went off to France. After graduation he went to work with his father. It was a couple of years later that the Khmer Rouge came to power. He was in Phnom Penh on April 17th, 1974 when they took over the city. At the time he was elated. The government of Lon Nol had been exceedingly corrupt and inept; the victorious Khmer Rouge offered a suggestion of a better times. Almost immediately the entire population was forced to leave the city on foot. Mouly became separated from his father and has never seen him again. For four days he and thousands of other Khmers were marched to Kompong Cham Province. War was still going in that part of the country, corpses of people and animals littered the roadside, the smell was atrocious. From the very beginning Mouly realized his life was in jeopardy; if the Khmer Rouge ever found out that he had a university education or came from a wealthy family he would have been shot. In a bold attempt to evade such a fate he pretended to be deaf and dumb. For four long years he pulled off the charade. It was a grueling time of overwork, very little to eat and continuous fear.

Liberation finally came in 1979 when the Vietnamese Army invaded Cambodia. Unable to return to Phnom Pehn, as hostilities were continuing there, he ended up finding work in a village. There he met his first wife. They had a child and for nine years Mouly scratched a living from the land. Then he heard of good job opportunities in the far west of the country. Leaving his wife and child behind, he went to Battambang where he got work as a porter carrying supplies across the Thai border. He returned to the village two years later. In the interim the Vietnamese had been battling the Khmer Rouge in the area around the village. His wife, child and inlaws had fled. He looked for them everywhere he could think of and asked everyone he met if they had seen or had news of them. He failed. He has never seen them again and doesn't know if they are alive or dead.

An American church mission took him in. He worked for them as a translator and a school teacher for which he received room and board but no salary. There he met his second wife. They were married in the church but shortly afterwards, in 1996, the mission was dissolved and left Cambodia. Before leaving they gave Mouly and his wife the remaining medicines they possessed. He sold them to a pharmacy in his wife's home province of Kompong Chanang then together they went into the handicrafts business. His wife made them; scarves, purses and children's hats, then Mouly would go to capital and, using his English skills, sell them to foreigners for a small profit. For several years they followed this pattern before finally making the decision to move to the capital to continue the business there. By this time a daughter had been born the them. In Phnom Penh they had another. Eric met Mouly while having his car washed and was impressed by his English skills. He'd been looking for an interpreter and hired him on the spot. Now he has also found temporary work with me. After nearly forty years his life is back on track.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Kampot, Cambodia

I've finally gotten started on revamping the Khmer Phrasemaker. It has been useful in helping remind me how the Khmer language is set up but beyond that it's proved to be quite frustrating because of the inadequate pronunciation system I decided to employ. Now I realize I have to change the entire thing to make it fit better with the actual sounds people use here. I worked out a different system this morning and, all being well, I'll be able to double check this evening with Jasmine, though I already know it makes a lot more sense than the last one.

Fireworks at Bodhi Villa
A couple of days ago we went to a party across the river at a popular backpacker hideaway called Bodhi Villa. It's very well run thanks to the administrations of two very capable couples. It's set in a beautiful old building that bears a soft resemblance to a Buddhist temple. The roofs double off one another with each apex protruding a decorative spike of wood. Under the eaves and wrapping around much of the building are long sculpted facias sporting Khmer designs. All of this is rendered even prettier by a flood of purple bourgainvilla brightening the entryway.

We were transported to the party by fishing boat. It was Mark's idea and a very good one as it meant we wouldn't have to suffer use a shuttling system on Martin's motorbike to get us there and back in the dark. It also meant that we would be able to watch the fireworks that Hugh, one of the Australians, was planning on shooting off to celebrate the New Year. When the time arrived for the fireworks display we had the fisherman move his vessel further towards the jetty to try and get us out of the line of fire. We could hear Hugh at the edge of the water preparing the rockets, then one of them leaped dramatically away from the river bank and made a fiery arc across the water, exploding in a shower of light. The boom echoed back from the tin roofs on the other shore and everybody cheered. He lit the second - whoosh, boom, cheer. When he lit the third, we suddenly heard him yelp "Oh! F**k!" and scramble back hurriedly. There was an incredibly loud bang and a great flash of white light.
"Hugh, are you okay?" someone yelled.
There was a moments hestitation, then "Yeah! But the bloody PVC pipe is f**ked".
He had a spare tube and before long sent another firework over the river. Several of the following ones raced out of the tube erratically and all of us on the boat started to wonder just how safe our position really was. Then another malfunction occurred sending a firework right into the water by the boat. We'd seen one hit the water earlier and instead of going out it had sprayed an umbrella of colored fire up into the air. As a group we flung ourselves down on to the deck causing the hull to tip away from the line of fire. There was a huge bang but fortunately the firework must have sunk far enough toward the bottom to prevent a disaster. Hugh deemed it wise to stop the show and we all drifted back into the party.

A Side Trip to Kep
Martin asked me if I'd like to go to the beach at Kep. He described it as being unspoiled and very relaxing. We put on our boots and climbed on to his dirt bike for the twenty mile journey. He warned me to wear sunglasses to keep the bugs out of my eyes and apologized for not having a helmet for me to use. He put his own on, a sturdy Western model, and we took off. The rural scenery along the road, dry paddy fields and rugged, jungle covered hills, would have been very meditative and restful if my mind hadn't been reeling with thoughts of Khmer driving habits. Fortunately Martin is in the habit of driving very defensively and before long I settled my thoughts and began enjoying the ride.

We got the first inkling that the beach ahead might be busier than we'd suspected when we ran into long line of cars sitting under the baking sun at the wrong side of a river crossing. The bridge had collapsed long before leaving the Khmer's no choice but to build a makeshift, wooden plank affair until such time as it can be reconstructed. That was when the bike came into its own. With expert hands and feet, Martin guided us around the traffic and across the wobbling, temporary bridge. It was plain sailing after that.

We ran into a second lot of traffic where the coastline started. "I've never seen it like this," Martin gasped. All along the shore there were thousands upon thousands of people milling about or lounging under temporary shade structures. The braver ones had paddled into the water fully clothed and were joyfully splashing about in the surf. Once again Martin guided us through the snaking lines of cars eventually pulling over by a concrete shade structure.
"I'm not sure I want a stay here," he moaned. I was of a like mind. Despite the disruption to our plans it was nice to see the Khmers enjoying themselves like this. In this country the recent history is never far from one's mind and thinking how impossible this scene would have been a dozen years before gave pause for reflection. It also showed that the shattered economy is picking up, even it is marred by the constant menace of corruption. According to Martin, Cambodia has gone from communism to opportunism without a pause in between. But the long and short is that people do have more expendable income than they've had for many yeara and are now able to afford a day at the beach.

Off to the Woodpile
Last night we went to a riverside restaurant for supper. We had meant to go to Bodhi Villa where the quality of the food is excellent but that was out; their second go at fireworks had proved even more disastrous than the first one. One of the yahoos staying there had tried to set off one of the big fireworks himself. It had sprayed out a waterfall of fire on to another lot of fireworks, setting them all alight. Everyone had dived for cover. They were incredibly lucky not to burn the place down nor have any injuries. Apparently some of them did in fact shower the inside of the building.

The restaurant was about a ten walk from the lodge. That was too far for Mark, Jasmine and Martin; they preferred taking the motorbikes. Jasmine had been working hard all day cleaning up the lodge in preparation for the Tuesday opening. She was tired and after dinner became so sleepy it was deemed wise for her not to ride the motorbike back. Mark had been her passenger and felt he didn't have enough recent experience to manage the machine. Like a fool, I said I'd try. Martin gave me quick tour of the bike, showing me where and how the gears and brakes worked, then started it up and made a little circuit of the compound to make sure it was running properly. ThenI mounted the bike, stepped it in to first gear and revved up. It jerked forward more quickly than I'd imagined. I tried finding the brakes but forgot to take my hand off the trottle. The bike and I raced in a straight line into a woodpile.Everyone burst into laughter. I was lucky the woodpile was there otherwise I would have run straight into the wall. I didn't hurt myself but there was some minor damage to the bike. I'll have to pay for that. Fortunately it won't cost much as labor is astonishingly cheap here.

Accidents are fairly common in Cambodia. There are so few rules. When something does happen the last thing you want is getting the police involved. They are basically state sanctioned thieves. There is also no proper system of justice set up to deal with blame in the case of accidents. When any two groups get involved in one it is invariably the one with the most connections who is in the right. I've been told many stories of well-positioned Khmers breaking all the rules of the road resulting in the deaths of people. The end of each tale has the perpetrator walking away suffering no indemnities. If a foreigner is involved in an accident he or she is always deemed in the wrong and has to pay the damages. Martin told me one of his stories. He'd been pulling out on to the road when a kid on a motorbike raced out of an entryway without looking and ran straight into him. Using his cellphone the youth called his faher. A Mercedes quickly arrived and a general got out. It didn't matter that his spoiled son had obviously been the cause, Martin had to pay. The general was irate and wanted $1800 for a new bike despite the fact that the only damage it had suffered was a few minor dings. When an English-speaking Khmer tried to help out by providing translation, the general told in no uncertain terms that he would be killed if he continued. The translator blanched and quickly disappeared. Fortunately another English-speaking Khmer happened by. He wasn't as easily cowed as he occupied a higher position in society and finally it was decided that Martin would only have to pay $50 for being the victim of an accident.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

On to Kampot - Blog2

It turned out that it was best to stay in Bangkok for the night. In the morning I dashed around the areas of the city I know and bought a ticket on Bangkok Airways; the "boutique airline", as the company likes to call it. It all worked out very smoothly.

Bangkok's international airport is a paradigm of the modern world. It is the hub of South-east Asia and wears that mantle well. At all moments a jet is taking off and landing while on the margins of the runways a wild assortment of curious vehicles races around purposefully like ants managing a nest. By contrast Phnom Penh's airport consists of single runway and one longish building. After the plane landed it turned 180 degrees and drove to the terminal along the center of the runway; no other plane would be landing for a while. The disproportionate cargo of white, hard-edged, middle-aged males disembarked and made for customs. Visas for Cambodia can now be obtained at the airport. The process for getting one is accomplished efficiently by eleven smartly uniformed customs agents sitting in a row behind a long, yellow counter. Each part of the visa operation is done factory style. It starts with the passport-sized-photo-handler at one end and finishes with the passer-back at the other. All the other jobs are hidden from view behind the counter with the one exception of the visa-decal-peeler-offer-and-sticker-in-passport. Apparently this position had been forgotten about when the plans were drawn up, making this the only standing job in the operation. Once the visa has been obtained, one of twelve smartly uniformed customs agents then stamps you into the country. Welcome to Cambodia.

I ended up not being able to get down to Kampot to celebrate Mark's birthday. I probably could have done it if I were willing to spend the $30-40 on a private taxi, but I'm at the very beginning of my journey and I'd prefer to husband my resources. I don't think I would have been much fun at the party anyway as in Phnom Penh I went immediately to bed after an early supper.

I got to Kampot the following day crunched in the back of a mini-van with two blind masseurs and an interesting intern journalist from New Zealand. It's the beginning of the hot season which made it very hot and sticky in the over-crowded van, especially when we pulled over to stop for a variety of reasons. The road itself wasn't too bad; three years ago it was leveled out and blacktop laid down. But the New Year holidays have in fact already begun. During this time the Cambodians all head home to be with their families, which made for extremely crowded conditions on the road. Most of the traffic was comprised of the local version of the family car, namely motor-scooters that can fit four adults in very close discomfort. All of the expats have complained of Cambodian driving habits and there does seem to be very little idea of safety on the road. It seems the only concrete rule is that most of the vehicles should drive on the right. Apparently accidents are abundant. I can quite imagine that to be the case.

Kampot is lovely town. It was obviously a popular spot with the French when they were here. The center of town is very French in appearance, replete with shutters and an elongated central park area in the Gallic style. Years of neglect and a lack of funds and drive have given it a handsomely decayed look that faux finishers would die to achieve. According to Martin, a photographer who has been in Cambodia since the end of the Khmer Rouge era, Kampot was one of the latter's last holdouts. The town is starting to revive, new or renovated hotels, like the one Mark is currently working on, are beginning to open, as are restaurants and even a store selling souvenirs. It's still a long, long way from becoming a tourist haunt but that type of a future is most certainly visible.

When I walked into the Bokor Mountain Lodge for the first time, Mark was sitting at the bar tapping away at is laptop, while Jasmine looked over his shoulder. I suppose I could have said something profound a la Stanley to Livingstone, instead I offered a prosaic, "Hi, Mark. And you must be Jasmine." I gave them the suitcase I'd been carrying and they immediately opened it to discover the cornucopia of items that Mark's mother had sent. All of them were things that Mark had found very difficult to find or of substandard quality: linen table napkins, Dr. Bronner's soap, woodfiller and spackle to name but a few. Jasmine was delighted to receive the gifts from her future mum-in-law: two blouses that fit her perfectly, a pair of earrings and a beaded necklace that Mark's mother had made herself. I got a tour of the hotel right afterwards. Construction has been a slow process and by all accounts an exercise in endless frustration. Most of the plumbing hasn't been put in yet, the electricity has come on then gone out in one place then another and the quality of paint and workmanship leaves something to be desired. Apparently when the tile setters came to do their bit they managed to burst the water pipes and short out the electricity in every bathroom they worked in. But what has been finished is very nice. The building is from the French colonial period and has an elegant flair of old world charm. It promises to be a marvelous place when it's finally finished. They're hoping that will happen within a month's time.

Mark and Jasmine invited me and the photographer Martin to go up with them the following day to Jasmine's village to celebrate the impending arrival of the New Year. We're going to be taking a toilet along with us to the village as it has no sewer system of any description. I've been told that the bathroom is behind a bush. This will not do for Mark's mother when she and his father go there for the wedding later on this year. So for $50 a genuine toilet will be installed, the first one in the village. Jasmine also plans to bring along a banquet's worth of food. from the local market to take up with us. I went along with her and one of her cousins to the local market to buy it all.

Kampot's market is invitingly rambling, crowded and colorful. The non-stop activity renders it forever interesting. It's split up by shopping category with the butchers holding suzerainty over one area, fruits and vegetables over another; tailors, shoe-sellers, clothing, all have their own distinct place in the daily plan. We started our expedition in the realm of the fishmongers where women sit on small stools facing one another with huge bowls in front of them filled with shrimp, squid or live fish. We loaded up on the flat, sexily pink squid and then bought a large, dripping bag of translucent shrimp. The level of our rattan shopping filled further with clumps of good looking vegetables and finally a great wad of beef accompanied by a long and disturbingly unrecognizable innard of a cow. The cousin and I hefted the bag around after Jasmine. Our snaking path lead us to the shoe section. "Shoes are much cheaper in Kampot than in Phnom Penh," Jasmine assured us, "They smuggle them in from Vietnam." She quickly decided on a pair that suited her, to my great relief, and the shopping trip was over.

Back at the hotel five off us piled into a small car along with the driver and headed north. Jasmine's home village is about two thirds of the way to Phnom Penh. It was a repeat performance of the day before for me only in reverse and was made decidely more comfortable thanks to the cars air-conditioning. Once again the road was filled with traffic as the Cambodian made their way back to their families and like us would end the afternoon by visiting the local pagoda.

The village was linked to the main road by a red, dirt lane. Her family's house was just like all the surrounding ones being made of wood with stilts holding up part of a second storey that had a wide area below where the village could conduct the daily chores in the shade. After being greeted by the elders of the family in a flurry of handshakes and hands held together as though in prayer, we were ushered upstairs to sit as honored guests on the upper balcony. Mats had been laid down for us to sit on. Cushions were then brought for the foreigners to make us more comfortable and tea poured. This was followed by beer and attempts at conversation. One of Jasmines older uncles settled down with us. He was becoming helplessly drunk and Jasmine felt the need to apologize to us for his behavior. She must have been feeling quite nervous as she apologized for just about everything including for things like the heat and the loud talking style of her family. Naturally we forgave everything. One of the neighbors joined us to help break the ice. She was pretty, young, spoke passable English and had just returned from Phnom Penh where she is studying law at university. I was startled to hear this; Cambodia is such a poor country it seems nothing short of a minor miracle that a poor farm girl would be able to accomplish so much.

Eventually lunch arrived on a large tray. It was absolutely delicious. The squid were a delight, especially when lightly doused in the local, green pepper sauce. The beef had also turned out wonderfully. It sat in a rich sauce along with slices of onion and tomato with not a trace of the mystery innard in sight. The shrimp soup was a local delicacy made with generous helping off onion, lemon grass and a leafy herb I'd never seen before.

Jasmine and Mark dressed up to go to the pagoda. She was little embarrassed and asked me if her traditional costume made her look like an old woman. Naturally I assured her it didn't.

The trip to the pagoda turned out to be a photo-op. In two, threes and variously shifting knots, everyone took their place in front of the camera. The backdrops were supplied by the odd Buddhist/Hindu mix that defines the Khmer version of religion. One statue in particular stands out; a blue four-faced man with a Siva-like octet of arms, a weapon clutched in each hand. He stands on two tigers and is, I presume, the guard of the temple.

We had to hurry to leave the village. Twilight was arriving and driving at night in Cambodia is said to be quite dangerous, one of the biggest problems being untethered cows wandering absentmindedly on to the road. Fortunately the driver did a good job at keeping the speed down and us out of harm's way.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Phnom Penh to Tokyo - Blog I - Los Angeles Int'l Airport

I just bought Truman Capote's classic, In Cold Blood. I could have bought Memoirs of Geisha instead and ostensibly done some kind of research reading for my eventual arrival in Japan. I prefer not to. This journey is going to very involved and Mr. Capote will provide a perfect place for me to escape to when the need arises.
For those of you who are just tuning in, I'm at the very beginning of a seventy-five day journey that will take me to Cambodia, through South and North Vietnam, across China to Shanghai and over the China Sea to Japan toward my eventual return home from Narita Airport near Tokyo. The entire journey revolves the idea of being able to speak the basics of each of the languages of the countries I'm visiting. In order to this I've put together a system that combines color-coded template sentences with color-coded word lists. These creations, known as Do-It-Yourself Phrasemakers, give me the ability to create thousands and thousands of basic sentences in each of the languages. You can get a rough idea of how the system works by visiting the how to page of the Fetch-a-Phrase website.
The Phrasemaker for Khmer, the main language of Cambodia, is only 75% done; I'll be using my three weeks in country to finish it off and test out the results. I'll also be visiting my friend, Mark Norris. He's currently residing in the seaside town of Kampot and has just become engaged to local lass called Jasmine (you can see photos of the happy couple on Mark's blog, The Far-East Asian Review or F.E.A.R. for short). Mark's family gave me a small suitcase to give to him that's chock full of little things he's been unable to find in Cambodia - plus a few extras; gifts for his wife-to-be from her prospective parents-inlaw.
During the next twenty-four hours I have to decide whether or not I'm going to go directly to Kampot. It's not as clear cut as it might seem. I arrive Bangkok fifteen minutes shy of midnight after 25 hours of flights and connections. From there I need to catch a plane to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. I don't have a ticket yet and there won't be any way of getting one until morning comes. Should I then decide to make it a go, I fly to Phnom Penh then need to track down the share-taxi stand for the three hour ride to Kampot. I have been warned to carefully check the condition of the vehicle as a bad one may not make it. If it does, I will arrive just in time to celebrate Mark's birthday. There is one more thing I need to remain aware of - it is one week to the Cambodian New Year. In the lead up to it, people celebrate by throwing water-filled balloons at each other and anyone else who crosses their path. Re-packing everything inside plastic bags might not be a bad idea.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Laos to Cambodia and Back to Thailand

The road from Luang Prabang to Phonsavan is a marvel; it sinuously winds through low-slung mountains, carves red embankments into steep green slopes and races through unassuming farming villages before finally straightening out and arriving in Xieng Khuang Province. The province is known for two things: the mysterious six foot high, stone cups that dot the so-called Plain of Jars and the amount of munitions dropped on it during the Indochinese, AKA Vietnam, War.

A tour of the jars is funto visit but is invariably made more interesting when bomb disposal experts are in the next field over diligently passing metal detectors over every inch of farm land. Laos, with the possible exception of Afghanistan, has the dubious distinction of being the most heavily bombed country in the history of the world. This nugget of information is made all the more disturbing by the fact that Laos wasn't actually at war with anyone when it happened. To try and prevent operations along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the United States relentlessly bombed Laos. One of the major weapons they used was the cluster bomb. During my time in Laos I became quite familiar with them to the point of being able tell anyone willing listen how many bombies were inside each type of cluster bomb unit (CPU), how the CPUs opened and released their caches of bombies, how the bombies spiraled as they fell in order to arm themselves, then exploded en masse showering the ground with hundreds of small ball bearings, each moving at twice the speed of a bullet. It is estimated that 10% to 30% of the bombies didn't explode for a variety of reason. Up to 10,000,000 of them are thought to be alive and active somewhere in Laos. Apparently, they are everywhere and it is not uncommon for people to be killed or maimed by them. Vast swatches of land are still considered unsafe for farming even though it is over thirty years since the cessation of hostilities. Fortunately there are organizations that are trying to help clean up this mess. If you'd like to donate some money to a worthwhile cause you can send it to these guys - MAG - they're the ones clearing the area around the Plain of Jars. If you'd like to know more about the cluster bombs and the devastating long term effects of them visit itvs.org - WARNING - ITVS is not pulling punches; on the page I've linked to there is a really gruesome picture of a child killed by a bombie.

The prevalence of bombs became a constant theme for the rest of my time in Laos. I ended up in one village being given a tour of the bomb craters. Around Paksong in southern Laos I went for a walk in the country with a man from Holland and remember casually warning him to stay on the path because of the bombs. It didn't register, until after the words had slipped from my mouth, what an odd thing it was to have to say and do.

After three weeks in Laos I had a handle on how the Laotian language was working. It did get a bit strange at times when tone patterns shifted slightly in the different dialects; for example the word "elephant" adopted a different tone in one of the southern dialects and became "engineer". This was an instant a source of amusement for the local population when I said I'd like to go for a ride on one. Nonetheless, they understood what I was trying to say and before long I was loping through the jungle on the back of an elephant.

I deliberately hadn't made a Phrasemaker for Khmer because I wanted to be sure that I wasn't deluding myself into thinking that they were doing more than they were actually capable of.

From Laos I crossed the border into Cambodia. I'd added it to my itinerary as a final testing ground for the Phrasemakers. I'd been in three countries already, Thailand, Burma and Laos and spoken the language in each of them, now I would find out whether or not I'd just been deluding myself. The difference was that I didn't have a Phrasemaker for Khmer, the principle language of the country. How quickly would I be able to pick up the language? What would it be like to enter Cambodia without knowing a single word of the language and having absolutely no resources to help me communicate beyond signs and gestures? It sucked! I sat next to the driver for four hours all the way from Stung Treng to Krateau and couldn't say word one in Khmer. It was like being struck dumb. When we arrived in Krateau I immediately tracked down a foreigner with a guidebook then sat in a restaurant for the next couple of hours deciphering and rewriting the limited Khmer it possessed into a more usable system. Despite that fact that there wasn't nearly enough data to work with I was still able to concoct a variety of template sentences. At the end of the session I ordered a pack of cigarettes and the bill in Khmer.

The make-shift phrasemaker was certainly useful. In Phnom Penh the next day I went somewhere on a motor-bike taxi. At the end of the ride I asked the driver in Khmer if had change for a 5000 rial note. He did and gave it to me. The American friend I'd come to visit was amazed. "They always say they don't have any change," he said shaking his head. Speaking a little of the language always helps.

The amount of information I'd been able to glean from the guidebook quickly ran out of steam. I hadn't been able to properly format it and was missing vast quantities of words and vital information. It didn't have the potency the actual phrasemakers have. For this reason I'm heading back to Cambodia next week along with a copy of the Phrasemaker that I made when I returned home. It's only three-quarters ready but it should still pack a punch. I looking forward to seeing how well it works.

I only stayed in Cambodia for a single week, which gave me just enough time to visit the gut-wrenching hell of Tuol Sleng Prison Museum, where 17,000 of the Khmer Rouge's victims were starved and tortured before being executed, and after that see the incomparable remains of Angkor Wat. From Angkor before heading back to Thailand. In Thailand I picked up Thai again for the last day and a half, then flew home.

The journey had been a great success. I left with three Phrasemakers in three different languages and each one in its turn had proved to be exactly what I'd hoped it would be. What made the experience even better was the knowledge that whenever I go back to any of these countries I will be able to pick up my Phrasemaker and jump right back in. It may be a dilettante's approach and I never will learn any of these languages fluently but I have spoken them and I understand how they are constructed. Through them I have had a special glimpse inside the various cultures I visited and gathered an understanding of how people interact with one another verbally. It's a strange and wonderful place to have been.

Now I'm readying myself to take off on another journey. I will be visiting Cambodia, Vietnam, China and Japan. In Cambodia I will speak Khmer, in Vietnam I will try out both the northern and southern dialects of Vietnamese (I finished the beta version of Vietnamese two days ago), in China I will speak Mandarin Chinese, and once I get to Japan I will have finished the outline for the Japanese version. It is going to be a very interesting journey and I will be keeping up this blog to describe how everything proceeds.

Watch this blog; this is going to be good!