Heart of darkness

From the sleepy to the savage, to the sublime…

Vientiane to Phnom Penh is possibly one of the more drastic transitions one can make in this corner of the globe. Cambodia’s capital is dusty, noisy, chaotic, and hellishly hot (most of the country is situated within a basin, trapping the heat). It often feels like you’re in the Middle East, and yet is unmistakably Southeast Asian. There is an undeniable verve to Phnom Penh; it houses buildings of such beauty, but there’s a slight crackle of danger wherever you are. Perhaps it’s knowing about the parasitic levels of corruption in the government, perhaps it’s the proliferation of illegal goods for sale and ferocious and unmissable poverty that gives the place its edge. But there’s something to it, and for all the apparent negatives to the city, it has a combustible atmosphere which is curiously intoxicating.

I was pretty quickly forced to accept that I was going to be regularly confronted with people living in the most despairing conditions, and that speaks not only for their circumstances, but also their bodies. Cambodia was absolutely covered with landmines during the Vietnam war, and victims do not receive any assistance from the government. Therefore, they have no option but to live out in the street, begging for whatever may come their way. When a bus full of tourists pulls up at a popular destination, you can be guaranteed that someone who has been irrevocably damaged by a landmine blast will be at its doors, desperate to receive something, anything, from the people exiting the bus. You can’t avoid it so you have to accept it. After visiting a temple in Angkor today, I made a trek over to the toilets, accessed by a bridge. Standing at its start was a young girl whose face had clearly been melted by a blast. She was unable to move her mouth, and so communicated with passers-by simply by moaning. I could hear her the entire time I was in the toilet. I’m sorry if this seems unnecessarily abrasive or unpleasant, but that is the reality of life in Cambodia – and this is in no way intended as a slur on the country, only on the lack of effort to help people in these situations.
And yet…somehow, I don’t know whether it’s because of or in spite of these circumstances, Cambodia has wriggled its way under my skin. An outstanding tour guide in Phnom Penh certainly helped, and I could not have hoped for anyone better to take us around the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng (originally a school, then used as a prison during the Khmer Rouge regime, and now a genocide museum). I will not elaborate too much on these two places; all I can say is that one cannot help but feel crushed by becoming aware of what it is possible for people to do each other, to fellow human beings. Mindless barbarism is horrifying enough, but the creativity invested into the brutal methods of the Khmer Rouge is enough to leave you shellshocked. Perhaps it’s compassion for the endless suffering of its citizens that is tying me to this country…

So to the expected (and realised) highlight of my trip, which has been the time spent touring Angkor. Tomorrow morning will be the very highest point, with a trip to watch sunrise at Angkor Wat. Today has been spectacular enough, though; a good two hours at Angkor Thom in the morning, from its huge causeway lined with 104 seated statues, to its Bayon temple, a crumbling, mysterious behemoth of a construction. The faces on the towers have been a revelation for me, all smiling as if they know something that you don’t. It’s warming and unsettling at the same time. And this afternoon, an exploration of Ta Prohm – famous for being in the Tomb Raider film, and the one that is being slowly consumed by Banyan (or strangler fig) trees. Our tour leader produced a quote from the French writer Elie Laure: “With its millions of knotted limbs, the forest embraces the ruins with a violent love”, which perfectly describes the scene at the temple. It lies deep within the jungle, and is half filled up with blocks of fallen masonry. I seem to have discovered a sure-footedness that I wasn’t aware I possessed, and found myself scrambling up the haphazard piles of stone blocks with gusto – Ta Prohm’s detritus of damaged decadence felt like a playground, and for all the awe and wonder that it inspired in me, I never expected visiting it to be so much fun.

And that’s Cambodia for you – magnificent, charming, and saddening, but in possession of heart – albeit one that often seems to be battling with darkness.


Right. I’ve had some specific requests for information, so I will delve into my memory-sack and see what treats can be retrieved…

Firstly, the flight from Luang Prabang to Vientiane – no monsoon, the flight was actually rather smooth, and my first experience of a prop plane, which was rather exciting. Unfortunately the aisle onboard was so narrow that Jeremy and I both whacked our heads on the luggage compartment doors (plus…the planes aren’t made for people as tall as us. Neither are the showers – think of the scene in Lost in Translation where Bill Murray’s character is trying to take a shower; that was me yesterday morning).

So, Vientiane. It certainly feels more like a real place than Luang Prabang, so while there’s not the same sense of magic, you can appreciate it more on a day-to-day level. The wildlife is pretty similar – as I type there is a cockroach on its back twitching by my monitor (I’m in the hotel here – thankfully the bugs have the sense to keep out of the bedrooms and away from my size-10s). Unfortunately, there are no chickens running amok, which has been a staple feature elsewhere in Laos. But the city has a very enticing vibe, with the cosmopolitan energy of a capital wrapping around the horizontal stance of the Lao attitude. The country’s communist history is also more in evidence here; we visited a golden stupa this morning (said to contain a hair of the Buddha), which unfortunately was surrounded by a flea market. The first stall was a DVD place, which also had a TV shrieking out freaky fervant commie-music. It reminds me of a lot of what I heard in North Korea – ironically, I find it to be the McDonalds of music – a bizarre and off-putting simulacrum of what real songs should sound like, replete with a music video staffed entirely by glassy-eyed drones (“Hello, my name is Musician No. 1. How may I serve my country?”).

But that’s really the only cause for irreverance I’ve found here. Our morning’s touring finished with a visit to the COPE (Co-operative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise) visitor centre. The charity carries out amazing and crucial work in Laos, helping victims of UXO (unexploded ordenance), leprosy and road accidents. The project manager for the place, Jo, gave us a brief introduction to the problems in Laos with unexploded cluster bombs and other munitions; it’s an issue which is criminally under-reported in the West and seriously deserves more of our time and consideration. The bombing of Laos by the US during the Vietnam war is one of the world’s forgotten catastrophes, so please go to COPE’s website (http://www.copelaos.org/what.html) where one can at least start by learning a bit more about this overlooked part of modern history, and what is being done to help its victims.

Hopefully that’s given a flavour for what’s going on in the city. The grand French-colonial architecture is visible everywhere, of course, as are wats and typical Asian markets. However, it’s the presence of a relatively new elite which has led to the introduction of funky bars and cafes that really shoots Vientiane through with that moreish atmosphere. Of course, I can’t do it justice – you’ll just have to come and sample it for yourself (that’s aimed at two people in particular – you know who you are!)
I will try and plonk some photos on here this evening, promise…

The moustache is tiny squid roasts

The title of this entry is just one of the shining examples of Engrish on display at the night food market in Chiang Rai. Thailand has now, for me, sailed past Japan and China for the quality of its low-quality English.
A few days ago we left Thailand behind, and made the two-minute boat trip across the river to Laos. Our tour leader’s joke that we would need to set our watches back by 30 years was not far wide of the mark – time seems to have stopped here, and there is a peculiar, but charming sensation that everyone (and everything) you come across has just woken up from a particularly restful slumber. Looking at all the images of Buddha dotted around provides an interesting affirmation of this concept, as you can see the spirit of the country mirrored in his sleepy, benevolent gaze.

So…to the backbone of my trip, and sailing down the Mekong. Drifting idly down the river on a well kitted-out longtail boat and absorbing the first few days of the trip was a welcome antidote to the organised chaos of the Thailand part of the tour. It reminded me a little of the mood of train travel; having nowhere to go and nothing to do is not nearly as dull as it may sound, especially not when you are floating past riverbanks with the richest greenery imaginable cascading down towards the water.

All of which brought us to Luang Prabang, Laos’s (just-about) beating heart and a UNESCO world heritage site, largely thanks to a stunning 600 year old wat in the centre of the city. The mixture of people here makes walking the streets an endless delight; backpackers so stoned that they appear to be even more still than the natives, monks (resplendent in saffron robes) crowded round computers in internet cafes, and street vendors sparked out by the side of their stalls, with a backdrop of wats, stupas, French-colonial buildings and palm trees. This bizarre melange gives the place its own incredibly unique identity, and despite the fairly common sight of other Westerners, it feels like a just-unearthed gem. Laos as a whole also has that special air which comes with being landlocked in the middle of a vast continent; I had a similar sensation standing in the street in Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia, and I think it contributes to the feeling of being cut-off from the rest of the world. There are wonderful art galleries as well, and it goes without saying that the food is superb.

Tonight I will binge-shop at the night market, then tomorrow I will be getting up at 5am to watch the monks collecting alms, and then a final embrace with Luang Prabang will be followed by a flight to Vientiane. (I was in a temple yesterday when a plane flew overhead, on its way to land at LP airport. The entire building shook – it was rather special, in a intense kind of way). Apparently the French influence is even more apparent there, so it should be fascinating.

But, of course, the silhouette of Angkor Wat keeps lurking almost imperceptibly at the edge of my vision…

Thai me up, Thai me down

Asia keeps surprising me.

The diversity is not, perhaps, on a par with that of Europe. But this is my third (fourth if you count India) trip here, and I’m starting to appreciate the subtle nuances in flavour across the continent. However, there is a generic feel to most large Asian cities – hectic, smoggy and noisy, with personal space at a premium (except for Tokyo, where no matter how many people are around you, you always seem to feel utterly isolated).
Not Bangkok. Apart from that peculiar sticky city climate which is ubiquitous in this part of the world, the place could not feel more different from Beijing, Ulaanbaatar, Hanoi et al. It took me a while to realise that I wasn’t being deafened by constant hooting, and the simple reason for the comparative silence is the Thai attitude. The people here are famous for their laid-back approach to life, and yet their friendliness and enthusiasm means that this never descends into lethargy. The whole feel of the place is just infinitely more relaxed, and this rubs off on the visitor. If you want somewhere to ease you through the worst stages of jetlag, you could do a lot worse than Bangkok. The fact that you can wander along street markets and browse at your leisure, without being accosted every thirty seconds, removes that element of bewilderment which is so often a feature of the first few days spent acclimatising to a different culture and a different timezone.

The architecture is also vastly different from that of the Far East, yet you can still detect that region’s influence. Thailand’s geographical location is evident in the appearance of its buildings – the style is a true collision between Chinese and Indian, and the result is phenomenal. The intricacy and perfection is awesome, and the visit to the Grand Palace was a spectacular start to the trip. Everything sparkled, whether from gold leaf, glass inlays or glazing, and to boot, the gentle sound of chimes constantly filtered through the air, as hundreds of tiny bells hung from the edges of every roof.

Unfortunately I have to curtail this as the hotel charges by the minute for internet access and I’m in a race against my wallet…so there’s just time to recap the first comedy moment of the sort that only seems to happen when you’re far away from home. On a plane, somewhere between Dubai and Bangkok…A large woman is sitting next to me, sleeping ‘loudly’…as I rise to go to the toilet, a barely audible sound issues from the back of her throat, she shifts slightly and then punches the video screen on the back of the seat in front of her. I’m still not sure whether she was awake or asleep at that point, but she sure as hell had a mean right-hook.

Laos is on the horizon…