This is an abridged travel blog of a trip taken in 2005 published over several weekly posts, covering Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. Click to enlarge any images. Further explanation in a previous post.
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At the end of a delicious fishy meal at the local restaurant, the singing and dancing children began their performance. Orchestrated each week by the restauranteur, this involves around a dozen children entertaining a largely western audience with traditional singing, dancing, music and dress in a small, narrow room.
If described beforehand, I would have scoffed at the suggestion that this could move me. So contrived! But the music, instruments and singing combine in a demanding, measured way that doesn’t take long to connect with. Tastefully decorated dress and make-up for the girls; who order the dancing in a businesslike way over their tiringly unruly partners, the unfailingly amusing, bumbling boys. Wide smiles at the close of each dance make the heart melt completely.
Donations to the children’s war-torn families are not aggressively demanded; a meagre moneybox is positioned in the corner if you wanted to donate. It isn’t even passed around. Generously donating was virtually a reflex.
The performance reflected and perhaps even exaggerated my sense of the Cambodian people. Given the terrors of their extremely recent history in the 1990s – the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot’s regime, the constant danger of scattered landmines everywhere – it would be understandable for them to be defensive, cautious, cold, nervous – especially the children. Or for them to carry weighty chips on their shoulders. But they are largely delightful, enchantingly warm, disarmingly open and generous people with characters that suggest nothing of their history. Instead there’s a brave, just-get-on-with-it attitude which is forever cheerful and, to outsiders, absolutely humbling.
The post-dinner entertainment was not so profoundly moving that I didn’t easily revert to type, watch football and guzzle beer with a new travel buddy.
Subsequently, I felt horribly ill walking around Khmer Rouge torture prison S21 the next day. These are barren, cold, blocky buildings, like the creepiest, most distant, derelict department of your school or college. Parts are empty but for torture weapons, wasted beds, and galleries of images which didn’t serve to slow my somersaulting stomach. I recovered a little with the aid of sleep on the minibus and by the time we reached the Killing Fields I was able to speak again.
The surprisingly underwhelming Fields offer little indication of the atrocities it has hosted. Various swampy ponds cover mass graves within one large field, a modest stone monument at its centre. Children played on a makeshift rope-swing over a muddy puddle, giggling when one was brave enough to pick his feet up from the floor.
As we went to leave, I offered the remaining quarter of my stale bottle of water to a small gathering of children working in a neighbouring rice-field. Proffering the bottle towards a small girl at the centre of the group, I gestured that she should share it with her clamouring friends. Retrieving my empty hand back through the wire fence, I was ashamed to feel like a zoo visitor.
It’s difficult not to feel that the stunning temple complex near Siem Reap could be considerably improved by culling all the tourists. If you accidentally stumbled across any temple, deserted, its magic would increase ten-fold. Entirely impossible today, of course.
Detailed ninth-century stonework of variously imposing monuments is as staggering as the detail on the Vietnamese pagodas. Ta Prohm feels the most eerie, atmospheric and obviously impressive. It features in the Hollywood film, Tomb Raider, which I haven’t seen but could imagine false assumptions being made about post production. Twining trees spindle in and out of broken stone, reaching improbable heights where birds caw in the heavens of the forest; a forest which dwarfs everything beneath. An utterly beguiling place.
Our setting for sunset was the final temple in a long day, which had seen an early domestic flight from Phnom Penh. This extremely tall monument – the name of which I shamefully forget – affords far-reaching views and appears to be the second home to swarms of children who pounced on our arrival, selling drinks, postcards, and any general tourist memorabilia. Initially urgent in their sales pitches, they calmed once we’d settled in our places at the top of the monument. With the onset of dusk, a more relaxed atmosphere descended and we began chatting, playing Frisbee with the children: simple fun and warm laughter.
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