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

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Cambodia, 1998: "Please, Don't Forget Us!"

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 Last Train in Cambodia

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

Venice loves me

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 cafĂ©. 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.