Monday, August 23, 2010

Friday, August 13, 2010

Keeping Afloat

Flying into Phnom Penh in the late rainy season had been like descending upon an aquatic planet. There didn't seem to be any land. Only water. Here and there a high road would cut across the surface. Apart from that there was only a silvery, glistening expanse.

A lot of Cambodian life takes place on or beside the lake and rivers. Many people actually live on houseboats, gathered together in floating villages with shops, post offices, temples and churches. Children take the boat to the floating school. Men drink beer in the floating bar. Even animals, usually pigs and chickens, are kept in floating stalls.

By Kampong Chhnang there is such a floating village. Its inhabitants, like many of the fisherfolk, are Vietnamese, living in uneasy proximity to their Cambodian neighbours who often don't like and distrust them. When I reached the waterside, I was at once surrounded: "Madame! Madame" - "Come with me, Madame! Three dollar!" -"Madame, two dollar!" The woman who got to me first held tightly onto my right arm. Another grabbed my left, but was pushed away by a pimply, obnoxious youth: "You come with me!" - Two other girls started pulling at my shirt, but Woman No. 1 was having none of it. Meanwhile, Pimpleface and Woman No. 2 were almost coming to blows. - Woman No. 1 led her prize ($ 2) down to the boats, holding my arm in a vice-like grip to prevent me from getting away at the last minute. Pimpleface scowled and hurled what could only be obscenities at us.

At this point I might as well admit it: I have a totally unfounded fear of sitting in small, wobbly boats. (Yet again and again on my travels, I find myself crouched, petrified with terror, in small, wobbly boats.) My victorious boat-woman poled her tiny craft, along with its panic-stricken passenger, past the homes of people going about their regular business, and I could look into what was basically their living-rooms and stare at them cook, clean, repair nets, do their homework, watch TV. Children waved at me. There were some pigs in a floating pigpen.

My relief at getting out of the boat at the end was worth a lot more than the two dollars it had cost me to get in. Back at my guesthouse, I saw that not only was the sleeve of my shirt half-torn-out, but my arms and shoulders were covered in bruises.

The Tonlé Sap is one of the great wonders of the natural world. Each year, during the monsoon and swelled by the waters of the Mekong, it turns from a shallow, brackish body of water into South-East Asia's largest freshwater lake and river system, actually reversing its flow and providing the people of Cambodia with an abundance of fish. Or so it has always been. From what I've heard, the fishermen are catching less and less.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Thursday, July 1, 2010


Even if you usually don’t get very excited about football (and yes, it is, and will always be, football, none of this ‘soccer’ stuff), it is hard not to get caught up in the spirit of the World Cup. Those vuvuzelas have been an annoyance factor this year, although last Sunday, when Germany beat England, I actually wished I’d had one!

So now Germany is gearing up to Saturday’s match with Argentina. Of course, everyone is saying the Germans will lose: Argentina, they will never win against Argentina! But in 2006 we won against Argentina, and I remember that game quite well. I watched it in my favourite pub, and a nerve-wracking business it was. Penalty shoot-out. Got me a lot more gray hairs, that one. But we won. And the city exploded in a frenzy of cheering, flags, and car-horns. Now that Germany has more or less officially adopted the auto-corso as it’s own tradition, we celebrate like Latin Americans.

Out on the street, I found myself next to a large South Asian family, the women dressed in colourful shalwar kameez, all of them, especially the children, enthusiastically waving little German flags.

“Isn’t it wonderful?” one of the women said, “we are from Pakistan but became German citizens yesterday, and now our team has won!”

Then two young men ran up to us, ‘Deutschland’ t-shirts, shaven heads, army trousers. And I thought: “Oh no, don’t let them ruin this moment!”

“Hey, we can take the little girls up on our shoulders, then they can see better!” And so they did.

Great day, that was!

Oh, and Paul the Psychic Octopus has predicted a victory for Germany this Saturday. Maybe I should get a vuvuzela….

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Cambodian Culture, Chinese-Style

After a couple of days in Angkor there comes a moment when just the thought of looking at another temple ruin is exhausting. But, fortunately, Siem Reap has other attractions to offer. For example the Cambodian Cultural Village. Here the discerning traveler can learn a lot, though not necessarily about Cambodian culture.

Typical buildings for each region, in Disney-esque pseudo-villages, are grouped around stages where, twice a day, young women in traditional, candy colored Lycra costumes perform traditional folk dances to traditional music, which sounds suspiciously like Schubert’s Trout Quintet performed on Chinese instruments.

There is also an educational section, in form of a little museum. The labels tell it all, and so they should: Chinese is first, Khmer second. English only here and there, after all, they are still around, those tedious English-speakers.
And, always my favorite, historical scenes in wax. Here there is even a Westerner: a touching tableau in which a huge, hulking, white UN soldier is dancing cheek to cheek with a chunky, excessively made-up Khmer girl. This takes up so much space that the (Chinese-supported) Khmer Rouge sadly had to be left out altogether.

One scene I found especially fascinating: an old gentleman, resplendent in a white, medal-decorated uniform, is sitting at a huge writing-desk in the process of signing an important document. Stretched out at his feet is an obviously murdered servant. Who is that? Why did he kill the poor flunkey? And how? With that ornate gold letter-opener? Suddenly, the supposed murder victim began to snore softly. It was one of the guards holding his lunchtime siesta.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010