Watching the World Series in Cambodia and Korea
Story and photos by Michael Shapiro



A writer who has derided travelers for being too attached to home finds himself in a quandary when his favorite sports team enters the championship.


Cambodia travel

"Luang Prabang, full!" exclaimed the young Lao boy as I hiked up from the riverside dock to begin searching for a hotel room. About eight years old, he was standing on a pillar, looking down at the scraggly gaggle of travelers who'd just invaded his city.

It was a few weeks into the year 2000, and I'd just taken a two-day ferry trip down the Mekong River from northern Thailand to Laos' most appealing destination. As I walked through Luang Prabang seeking a room for the next week, I thought: That kid doesn't know what he's talking about—this city isn't full of tourists.

And then I turned a corner and ran smack into what may have been the largest Net cafe in Laos—dozens of travelers hunched over keyboards, staring at CRT monitors as monks in bright robes strolled by, on their way to some of Southeast Asia's most elaborate temples.

These travelers had come thousands of miles but seemed to be spending hour after hour in the confines of the Net cafe, as the wonders of this ancient city unspooled around them.

"That'll never be me," I vowed, but I wouldn't be Net-celibate. I'd written books about how travelers could use the Net, the first published in 1997. Since the nascent days of the internet, I've embraced technology, in moderation. But when I saw those backpackers gaping vacantly into their monitors, I told myself that I'd never give up hours of exploring an exotic land to stare at a screen.

Fast forward almost 15 years to last October. I'm on assignment in Cambodia to write a story for a national magazine about an upscale river cruise. While the San Francisco Giants, who I've rooted for since the 1970s, are playing in the World Series.

Cambodia travel

Searching for a Cambodian Sports Bar

I spend my first night in Phnom Penh walking through the city's dark streets, keeping an eye out for a bar where I might watch Game 1 of the World Series. Near the Old Market, hundreds of people, too poor to afford shelter, are camped by Freedom Park.

Some of the city's poorest residents (wages for market workers are typically less than $1 a day) restlessly try to sleep on thin wicker mats in the steamy midnight heat. Others grill strips of pork or crack open mussels pulled from the river, their kids playing quietly nearby.

From hostess bars young women call out "Hello, sah, how ah you." One of the taller ones approaches me and says, with a too-deep voice, "You want boom-boom?" I say no and she grabs me but I pull away, becoming aware that the person accosting me, despite the high heels and short skirt, isn't a woman.

Walking back to my hotel I see a pretty young woman who looks like she's on the verge of tears as plaintive Khmer music, filled with longing and yearning, flows out of her cellphone. It's been a long day of travel; I decide to get some rest and wait until tomorrow to find a place to watch the baseball game. Tonight it seems so far away.

As the skies lighten at daybreak, I walk down palm-lined Sisowath Quay, the main boulevard along the river (the Tonle Sap, which flows past Siem Reap to the shores of Phnom Penh). Heavy rains had scoured Phnom Penh during the night; the boulevard looks fresh and clean. When the sun rises, it casts a rainbow over the river to the south.

river

The chants of Buddhist monks float across the Tonle Sap as a young man casts a net into the river in pursuit of fish. In the dim pre-dawn light, a truck full of coconuts bears an eerie resemblance to the piles of skulls found a few miles away at one of the Khmer Rouge's killing fields.

The boulevard has changed noticeably since my first visit here in 2007, when Phnom Penh still felt a little lost in time. Now a towering digital clock, sponsored by LG, shows the time in bright crimson numerals, and a gargantuan hotel is rising across the river.

Cambodia bar

As I reach 136th Street, I see a long awning with the words, PADDY RICE IRISH SPORTS BAR. It's open early in the morning, the first good sign as game time is early morning in Cambodia. When I approach the Cambodian bartender and ask about the World Series, he says sure, he should be able to find the game. Most patrons watch soccer there, but he'd be glad to put the World Series on for me. I tell him I'll be back in 24 hours, as first pitch is 7am in Cambodia. I spend the day wandering through Phnom Penh's markets and strolling by the graceful architecture of the Royal Palace. The gleaming galleries and trendy shops near the palace belie Cambodia's recent history when it was virtually emptied by the Khmer Rouge. From the mid- to late '70s, an estimated 1.5 million Cambodians were killed by the Khmer Rouge, almost 20 percent of the country's population.

In this haunted city, it seems especially trivial to care about millionaires playing a kid's game. But our family's Giants roots go back a long way. My father followed the Giants starting in the 1930s, when both he and the team were still in New York. And if my grandfather (born in 1892) became a baseball fan when I did, at about 6 years old, that means our family may have been rooting for the Giants since the 19th century.

The Giants left New York for San Francisco in 1958, but my father, who died in 2003, didn't get to see them win a title after the team moved west. The Giants won the World Series in 2010 and 2012, and now had a chance to make it three titles in five years. This was special.

Hitting the Bar at Sunrise

Just before 7am on October 22, I walk down Sisowath Quay to watch America's pastime in an Irish pub in the heart of Cambodia. A Khmer bartender who calls himself Johnny surfs the satellite until we find the game. I don't order a pint of Guinness. I know it's 5 p.m. somewhere, in San Francisco as a matter of fact, but I just can't drink so early. Instead I order a plate of eggs and toast with OJ and some rich local coffee.




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