Thursday, March 27, 2008

Fret not so (if you were)

In this case, no news is good news. After arriving from Siem Reap, we spent a few days in Bangkok renewing old acquaintances, meeting new ones, and are now on the dive island of Ko Tao - meaning diving for J and snorkelling for me (given the tubes in my ears!). It's an interesting study in how a location develops over the years to a point where, like Luang Prabang and Siem Reap, it may be reaching its carrying capacity - which then, says the cynic, will be exceeded. Back to BKK on Sunday; J flies on Monday; I leave KL on 10th but before that I have some IELTS help to give to the daughter of an old flame. Nuff said!

Monday, March 17, 2008

Blank cheque for posterity

It could not have been in the mind of Suryavarman II in 1150 when he was planning Angkor Wat (any more than it was in the mind of Shah Jehan when he was planning the Taj Mahal in the mid 17th century - or the merchants of Venice in their time) that what was to be created would one day become - in the time-honoured phrase - a licence to print money for people undreamt of. It wasn't even in the mind of people here 39 years ago how important the ruins just up the road from the town of Siem Reap ("Thailand Trounced") would become for the economy of Cambodia. ($40 for a three day pass - and most of that goes to the government. Multiply by around 1.5 million visitors a year, with 5 million predicted!) Back then, it felt as if I was the only visitor, although of course there were a few others: now the feeling is that a distinct slice of the world's tourists are here, including many from the menacingly huge potential source of China. Nor can it be said that it has no impact on the experience - it has a great deal. After all, an important element for many of us in such places is the chance to try to think / feel our way back to how it might have been at its inception. Now the priority is to think our way towards the places and times when the crowds will be the thinnest.

And the hot end of my mistaken choice of route is now being felt: too cold in Northern Laos in mid-February, too hot in inland Cambodia in mid-March. Still, it didn't stop us cycling 20 miles yesterday in pursuit of the remote and uncrowded corners - starting with sunrise at the many-towered temple of Bayon, the one with sublime faces on the four sides of each tower. Today, a tuk-tuk took us to the distant temple of Banteay Srei, a small jewel of intricate sandstone carving 35 km. north of the main group, but not far enough and not large enough to save us from the crowds. Two later temples, Banteay Samre and Preah Khan, though less celebrated (or because), provided a much more serene experience.

Still, mustn't grumble! The phenomenon of a totally tourist town is interesting and the heat, when dry, is exhilarating. And if the slightest temptation to grumble should arise, the town has a significant population of land-mine victims, working under the slogan "not begging but trying to work". Their presence in town, and around the sites, selling books and postcards, playing traditional Khmer music, brings our minds very frequently back from imaginings of the 12th century to consciousness of a history only too recent.

We have often asked ourselves/each other why it was that Guardian readers recently voted Cambodia their top holiday destination. Given the readership of that revered journal, perhaps the astringency of the reminders of recent war and genocide had a role. Cambodia is hard to ignore, either for those reasons or for the charm of the people and the countryside. And then there's Angkor. By comparison, Laos is relatively insipid and Thailand extremely westernised - and commercialised, too.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

On the rebound inbound

Rabbit Island looked idyllic and back-to-naturesome (bamboo huts on stilts, mattresses on floors, rudimentary sanitation, hammocks, excellent fresh seafood, nowt to do but beachcomb and laze) but alas was viewed through the blurred lens of some kind of tropical rheum. Regaining the mainland, we returned to favoured Kampot for one more night (inbound no 1) and are now back again in Phnom Penh at the same hotel (inbound no 2) but doing some different things. Tomorrow we move on to visit Tania, volunteering in Kompong Chhnang, then to Battambang and finally on to Siem Reap by boat.

[Health warning: the rest of this is not for the squeamish....]

The principal Different Thing today was a visit to the Genocide Memorial south of the city. It took a bit of agonising over our motives before we felt OK about going to this site of one of the Khmer Rouge's Killing Fields and its memorial tower of skulls. We've both been reading "First They Killed My Father"and it seemed appropriate for us to show our respects.

We weren't really ready for it though - and the emotional impact of just being on the site of mass graves, even before being confronted with the layers and layers of skulls in the Tower, was almost too strong. Certainly it silenced us for some while, and J could only approach the Tower at the very end of our visit. It is set in just a simple garden with signs giving the locations of parts of the operation: arrival, processing, detention, execution. Just the plain statements of what happened where were quite powerful enough, without the lengthy denunciation in one of the roofed enclosures. The mute testimony of the depressions in the ground where mass graves have been cleared contrasted unfortunately with the less than mute behaviour of some visitors who, without being really noisy, seemed to imply by photographing everything that this was just another tourist destination. I couldn't think of taking one, myself - not being pious, just silenced and passive.

There is another location that the books recommend to be visited "for the sake of historical completeness" and that it is interrogation centre through which many of the victims of the Killing Fields passed. Having seen the pictures, I felt I didn't need or wish to see it in fact: even my poor imagination is enough to fill in the rest. You don't need to know, I think.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Way back in '69 (tropical boring continued)

Now down on the south coast of Cambodia, in Kampot - a charming town with a bright future - lots of old colonial architecture, a river, excellent bookshops, cafes, guest houses, shops, internet, "Seeing Eyes" Shiatsu massage, and even a make-your-own-necklace shop with glass beads from Murano (Venice)! The place is well laid out , spacious and green and seems confident yet calm. It's a very welcome contrast to the hothouse madness of Phnom Penh! Nearby are two significant attractions: 1. the seaside resort of Kep (utterly devastated by war and very little rebuilt - but off whose residual beaches is our destination for today and the next few: Rabbit Island) and 2. the hill resort of Bokor National Park (also devastated by war - see below - and only now just starting to be revived).

This is where the tropical bore raises his grizzled head: "Way back in '69, I took a (free) taxi ride from Phnom Penh to the casino hotel in Bokor. The idea was that we the passengers would gamble away all our worldly goods - and then maybe leap to our deaths over the precipitous edge of the mountain plateau. In my case, I just watched in fascination as Chinese (mainly) studied the sequence of cards on the gaudy displays and bet on the next in sequence - as well as betting on other more familiar games. I remember little else of it, except the hotel's location at the top of a steep one hour climb from the coastal plain." We took the trip yesterday and viewed the various derelict and burnt out buildings, including the Catholic church and the hotel on facing hills, between which the Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge slugged it out for several months in the early 80s, I believe. The hotel is now just a shell, but a strong one - it was possible to climb the stairs and view the rooms, trying - in my case - to wonder which one might have been mine (no idea!) and which rooms on the main floor might have housed the various gambling games. It isn't every day you can explore the ruins of a place you once were - and not one to be repeated too often, either. On the way down, we had a short trek through jungle and, in the plain, a river trip back to town.

Today the desert-island experience (ahem!) of Rabbit Island (Koh Tonsay). No internet there, or much at all but sea, sand and vegetation! Well, someone has to do it! A bientot!

Monday, March 03, 2008

"I was here in '69"

As old tropical bores might say ...

In '69 en route to Angkor Wat, where I felt like I was the only visitor, I stayed at the old colonial "Hotel de la Paix" - ironically named indeed when just six years later the Khmer Rouge took over the city and turned everyone out at gunpoint and force-marched them off to rural workcamps and, for many, death. The city today shows no sign of this trauma that I can detect beyond books in the shops retelling many aspects of the tragedy and photos on the wall of the Foreign Correspondents' Club (which features in The Killing Fields) of the events in '75. Today the spirit is all bustle, energy and a tinge of desperation, including a desperation to please - and be hired.

We got a taste of this in our first stop in Cambodia: Kratie (''Krachey'') when we were whisked away by a young entrepreneur on bikes to see the Irrawaddy Dolphins some 15km. north of town. A very endangered species which might be saved in this location if the income from tourists coming to see them (at a distance) outweighs the environmental controls (on local fishing techniques and on pollution) that are needed in the attempt to save them. [However, when the same young man wanted to sell us bus tickets at 20% over the normal price, we said we'd buy our own (and get to choose the seats).]

The motorbike ride and the two bus trips so far have given quite an insight into Cambodia today - apparently full of activity, opening up of agricultural lands along new roads in the north-east close to Laos (some loss of forest, of which there seems to be lots in the east), large industrial-scale plantations (esp. of rubber) further south towards the capital, and all the way people working and making do in a host of ways. Things look more prosperous now than in '69 - hardly surprising except for the huge step backwards from 1975 and the loss of an estimated 2 million people (Yale University research figures) in the interim. Of course, there has also been a big aid push from donor countries, the UN and NGOs, and signs of that are frequently visible. It is also a highly politicised country with party billboards everywhere but the ruling clique of the Cambodian People's Party, having finagled their way to pole position by a range of techniques, some borrowed from the Khmer Rouge, are not on the point of surrendering it to anyone less corrupt and more competent. Au contraire, the regime is busy consolidating itself by strategic marriages among its scions with a view to power into the next generation.

For us, no great love of cities means a swift move south tomorrow and the first view of the sea from Kep in two days time - the previous glimpse was 6 weeks away in southern Thailand.