Monday, August 23, 2010
Friday, August 13, 2010
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
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
Sunday, June 13, 2010
Phnom Penh in March 1998. The city was waiting, apprehensive. An election was coming up and people were worried it could turn ugly, as elections had before. Large parts of the country were still ruled by the Khmer Rouge. The railway was off-limits to foreigners, traveling overland by bus was ‚not advisable’ for most routes.
I was sitting on the balcony of the Foreign Correspondents Club, then as now a swanky place for tourists looking for that special colonial feeling. The sunset over the river was spectacular. The place was full of over-excited Westerners acting over-cool. What were they doing in this place? What was I doing here, for that matter?
Twenty-three years ago this once so beautiful and vibrant city had been emptied of its population, its citizens driven out to be worked to death building a perfect egalitarian utopia, a crazed ambition only stopped through the invasion by the hated Vietnamese neighbor country. The rest of world hadn’t wanted to know. Decades of war had followed, only now slowly coming to an end.
Looking down I could see an open army truck parked by the river promenade. A soldier was lounging on the back, a mounted machine-gun aimed at the street. Suddenly I felt a feeling of intense disgust. I wanted to leave this abused city, this wounded country, these people haunted by unspeakable horrors. Just leave, and never come back.
But I didn’t leave. I went to see Angkor Wat. Back in Phnom Penh, a week later, I was mugged, a pistol held to my head. Somehow, I wasn’t that surprised, shocked, yes, but not surprised. Foreigners were being targeted for attacks. Many companies and embassies were evacuating their staff until after the election. When it finally was time for me to depart, the hotel manager asked me when I would return. Making a weak attempt at a joke, I said what everyone was saying „After the election!“ Her answer wasn’t a joke, and her eyes were full of fear. „Please come back! Don’t forget us! Don’t forget Cambodia!“
Of course I came back. How could I not?
Monday, June 7, 2010
The train standing in Battambang Station was in a sorry state: the floor was full of holes and seemed to be held together only by rust and dirt, the few slatted seats were missing quite a lot of their slats, and the windows didn't have any glass in them. This last was probably for the better, because the smell in the carriage was bad, really bad. I mean really, really bad.
When the train left at 7.25, it was only about 45 minutes late. There were quite a lot of passengers. Some men, who at once got a very lively card game going, a couple of young women, all dressed up in their city-going finery, an elderly gentleman, in carefully ironed white shirt and beige trousers (obviously an optimist), carefully balancing a leather briefcase on his knees, and some market-women, along with sacks and sacks of rice, pineapples and other produce. These sacks were stashed everywhere, including in the obnoxious little cabinet with the hole in the ground. Well, I hadn’t expected any luxury in this department, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Of course, there was nothing in the way of a dining-car, either. But around 11.30 we reached Moung Roussey, the culinary highlight of the Royal Cambodian Railway. Vendors selling smoked and fried fish, cooked rice, fresh fruit, deep- fried cakes, grilled things on sticks…At once the overall mood brightened up considerably. Everybody started chatting and joking, food was passed around, and suddenly our rather glum little group had turned into an actual community.
The men resumed their card game with even more vigor and shouting than before. They also took off their shirts because the temperature had risen to sauna heights. This was an option not available to us women, so we had to follow the Victorian rule of “A true lady never perspires!” – Somebody had put a huge basket full of live ducks on board and their quacking added to the general mayhem. They also added an extra nuance to the already quite pungent aroma. And so the train rattled and shuddered and clanked (and quacked) its way through the lush Cambodian countryside.
I was really sorry to get off at Pursat, after almost ten hours. Well, almost.
Sadly, the last remaining railway service in Cambodia, the weekly train between Phnom Penh and Battambang, was stopped in 2008.
Thursday, June 3, 2010
Perfect moments in travel. They are not as often as we would like, but they exist.
The first time I came to Venice, I fell in love at first sight. With Venice. And Venice loved me back.
I had taken the night-train to Italy. Sleeper-travel surely isn’t what it used to be, uncomfortable, no dining-car, not even heating. When I finally got to Venice I was freezing, hungry and tired. To delay the moment of certain disappointment, I drank a cup of coffee in the uninspiring station café. Then another.
The station is right beside the Grand Canal. It was late morning, slightly foggy. The buildings on the other side were barely visible. There was a lot of traffic. A boat laden with vegetables chugged by, another was full of junk. And there were water-taxis. And more little boats. Out of the mist, a traghetto came over the canal. In it stood an elegant woman wrapped in a fur coat. She elegantly stepped out of the boat and just as elegantly strode towards the station.
I just stood there with tears streaming down my face, it was so beautiful.