Freesteel Blog » Cambodia and Vietnam – December 1998

One Night in London

When travelling, one thing you never ever do, except as a last resort, is stay in the hotel/hostel/guesthouse recommended by the taxi driver. You’d better believe that he’s either getting a kickback for it — which you’ll have to pay for — or, from the bottom of his heart, he’s got a totally misguided idea of your values and inclinations: there will be a much nicer, cheaper and more convenient place to stay in town, nowhere near the MacDonald’s and the majority of Americans, where you will experience a better overall quality of life.

When you land at the airport, or train station, or bus station, in a so-called under-developed, third-world- type country, everyone converges on you like an instant traffic jam. Newspaper sellers, drinks sellers, cyclos (tricycle taxis), motos (motorbike taxis), car taxi drivers, and hotel owners with “free” rides to the hotel of their choice all start pushing and shoving and shouting and trying to get your attention. You don’t look at any of them. You put your hands over your money belt and stroll down the road as far as you have to go until the crowd thins out a little. There are always one or two who hang on doggedly, knowing that you must catch a taxi ride at some point because it’s 35 degrees in the shade, the city centre is five miles down the road in a direction you do not know, and you might as well relax and stay in their hostel with air- conditioned double rooms at ten dollars a night with free Western breakfast complete with disgusting coffee. If you’re lucky you can shoo them off and they’ll give you just enough room to take your rucksack down and get The Book out. The Book has the facts. The Book may be out of date. In The Book, you look under “Hotels” for the city you are in, and It gives you an answer.

Pig in mud

In London, there is no Book. We live in England, so are unlikely to need a traveller’s guidebook for England with chapters on the idiosyncratic habits of the English because we have them already. London is also a developed city (not third world) so you have not got thousands of hawkers at the Airport trying to sell you things like hotel rooms because that would be untidy. No, there are other ways of doing it. For example, there’s the Tourist Information office which closes even earlier than the banks do and who will book you into a hotel if you want, and charge you a commission for the service (I didn’t call it a kick-back!). Sometimes you have a little notice-board beside the public telephones at the airport for hotels and B&B establishments to post up small ads. If that’s too untidy (which it is in Heathrow’s case), you could look it up in the Yellow Pages directory, an excellent resource that is so good that it has been banished from all public places in England as surely as chewing gum was from Singapore.

Our plane was to leave on a Sunday morning 21 December 1998, so we wanted to stay in London on Saturday night. Since it takes about an hour to ride the train from the city centre to the airport, a Bed and Breakfast somewhere within a couple of miles would have been ideal. (There is a sort of expensive high speed shuttle service thing, but for that money I’d rather hire a helicopter.) Of course I didn’t plan it in advance, it’s difficult to when you are starting off from Liverpool and you know you’ll have all day Saturday in London to sort it out. I mean, when you travel to interesting places in the world, you can arrive at ten p.m. at night in a city, have a good meal and find an adequate place to stay before it’s too late for bed. London: famous tourist city. Made sense… It was a disaster.

By eight p.m. we were at the Terminal 3 Arrivals Hall looking for some information. It was desperate. We were not interested in choosing the Airport 5 Star Hilton hotel at 150 quid a room, no thank you. How much money would you have to be paid to sleep on the street for a night? You’d do it for a thousand pounds, wouldn’t you? My figure is about a hundred quid cash, if the weather’s not too cold. By ten p.m. we caught the tube back towards central London a couple of stops and Becka parked me in Hounslow West station with our pile of bags opposite a group of rough looking teenagers hanging around in the row of phone cubicles. Then she marched up and down the main street and the parallel back streets looking for a place to stay. A couple of hundred metres on the left as you go out the station, is a shabby B&B with a lot of capacity, and that’s where we went. A double room cost 50 quid, which is a lot, but at least we were supporting the local economy rather than some big business hotel chain so- called “enterprise”.

I talked to the owner in the morning. He’s had the address of his establishment queued up at the Heathrow information desk for two years, and it shows no signs of getting onto the list of twelve recommended hotels (all of which are 3 Star or above at a minimum of 80 quid a night for a single room). Why only twelve? I’m sorry, those are the rules, according to the management. The alternative would be to let it all go loose and have five thousand on the list, they’d say. We wouldn’t be able to check up on the quality of each of them, and people might have a bad experience and complain to us because we recommended it. So, for your own good, we stick with the leading, successful brands, and a choice of only twelve. Yes, you do have to pay a little more for the quality and reliability, but that is what we know you people want.

At nine in the morning we were at the airport, but not off the ground yet. We checked our bags in, including twenty kilograms of Christmas goodies (cakes, chocolates, tins of biscuits, packets of mince pies, supermarket cheese, bacon and muesli) unobtainable at a fair price in Cambodia. These were for Becka’s parents to eat and to give away to friends as gifts. It was cold and raining outside. We bought a paper. Then we said, It’s boring out here, why don’t we go through the passport gateway thing into the departure lounge and wait for our flight there. Surely such a place would be more amenable to hanging around than this. Maybe they’ll have coffee machines and some windows or TVs to watch, you know, to help pass the time?

Water buffalo on dry land.

We foolishly entered the inner sanctum of the Terminal 3 departure lounge and were then unable to escape. One of the planes on the list was delayed by five hours. God knows how those passengers survived the ordeal. Even a disused bus station in Newport on a Sunday morning would have been more bearable than this dive. Some grey-haired jet-set-first-class-lounge- only director with share options in the Thatcherized- privatised British Airport Authority must have been told by some overpaid management consultant with a PowerPoint demo that should burn in hell, that profit per unit area was the key figure contributing to the share price. That’s how it is in the Shopping Malls. That’s how it is here. These waiting lounges where people were penned in due to the passport laws were just not earning enough money compared to the space they were taking up. That’s a Profit Potential, he realised. So he began renting it out by the square metre to the high earning retail outlets, such as fashion clothes racks, sock shops, watches, shoes, designer label sunglasses and other easy-to-carry expensive nick- nacks for the underfed. For the more downmarket people, there’s the obligatory duty-free (double-the- margin) emporium for the whiskey, fags, perfume, cigars. Food and drinks, a necessity, unfortunately, were a problem because they don’t earn so much money; people can more easily compare them to identical products outside and notice when they’re being ripped-off good and proper, like, hypothetically, nineteen pounds for a cup of coffee (but it’s a Gucci cappuccino– let it go cold, put it in your pocket and show it to your friends). Nevertheless, he made sure the seats were jammed in tightly and it was waitress/hassle service only, not self-service, nor vending machines, so you could not make the mistake of thinking that you just could sit at one of the tables and not buy anything. Next year they’ll charge you for the lavatory.

This process went on until it obliterated all the windows and spare walls with shopping space. The lights were turned up real bright so that you couldn’t possibly doze if you actually were stuck there for several hours. At some point the shop space and the hall space between the shops became optimal, as it is in a big mall, to facilitate the easy movement from one retail experience to another. In the middle of this space was a little leftover room for some measly rows of crap seats with metal arm rests which you know are NOT there to rest your arms on so much as to prevent you from lying down. These guys want you on your feet, man! There was no entertainment available at all, not even those old, noisy flipchart things with the departure details, just some boring VDU screens mounted out of reach in the ceiling. So you’d get up and wander round in circles. If you don’t watch out it’s easy to forget why you are there and turn into a zombie and start shopping. This was what most people did, responding to the stimulus, having been brainwashed for so long into believing that modern-day shopping (i.e. use credit, pay price, is good, no haggle) is a natural, wholesome activity for a living being. Terminal 3, I am sure, has been a wonderful success. It constantly strives to improve its service by having an information desk where you can tell them what shops are missing that you would like to be there, and offering a money-back guarantee on any of the products you have bought if not totally satisfied. No other comments are solicited. There is only one path to happiness here. And I never want to go there again.

Bicycle Lessons

Home in Phnom Penh with Stuart and Florence

The schedule of the holiday was complicated and tight. Becka’s parents, being more advanced than mere backpackers like ourselves, actually live and work for the good of people in obscure places rather than just pass through them, saying, “Oh, that’s nice.” They’ve been on VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) contracts in various places for nearly a decade and were in the middle of a two year stay in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Both are involved in teaching English as a foreign language at quite a high level (as distinct from a senior or management level). This tends to mean training those people who will teach English, or even training those who will teach the teachers to teach English. If you are a student it is important that your English teacher has at some point had contact with a native English speaker, otherwise you are probably being taught something that does not sound like English, which defeats the point of the exercise. It would be nicer if people who were going to make a career out of teaching English had the chance to live in an English speaking country for a couple of years at some point in their lives. It would be better for their education. But it might cost more money, or worse, those students might like our superior country and want to stay! They might even want to change their career and teach Khmer to the English people, and undermine our culture, or establish a Cambodian restaurant, and take our jobs flipping burgers in a MacDonald’s away from us!

Leaving aside the obvious colonial implications of foreigners breezing into third world countries to teach remote first world languages so they can more easily be influenced by CNN lies, rather than them learning the languages of their immediate neighbours (for example, Thai, Vietnamese or Malaysian), there is a demand to learn English because it is perceived that you can make a better living if you can speak the common lingo of rich foreigners who bring in the money in the form of tourists and/or aid workers. In Vietnam, under the communist era, children were taught communist- associated languages like Chinese and Russian in school. These may have been a serious waste of time since Russian tourists don’t want to go to Indochina when they have the money, they want to go to Disneyland!

So, as we were going to stay with people who were already there, we did not waste time finding our feet and getting oriented to the country. We were whisked around from place to place by Becka’s parents who knew exactly where and what they were doing. We applied for a Vietnamese visa at the embassy within two hours of arriving on the ground, then went to Sihanoukville on the coast by bus two days later, joined an organised three day diving trip on a wooden fishing boat from Christmas day to Boxing day, returned to Phnom Penh the morning after, collected our completed visas from the embassy, caught the bus to Saigon at 5am the next day, toured South Vietnam for a week, came back to Phnom Penh, rode the fast boat up the Tonle Sap river to Siem Reap the next morning, drove and walked around Angkor for three days with Becka’s parents, and then returned with one night spare before our plane left for England. The subsequent change from the heat of the tropics back to a miserable January in England was not nice.

The weird french built central market building from the 1920s

My first impression of Phnom Penh was dust. The back streets where Becka’s parents, Stuart and Florence, live have never been paved. The biggest potholes have broken bricks thrown in them to even them out, but this does not improve them. Cambodia was a French colony, so the streets are arranged logically in the form of a grid and named after numbers. East-West streets are given even numbers, and North-South ones are odd. Stuart and Florence’s house was on the south side of Street 306. After lunch, I tagged along in a daze after Becka who was apparently unaffected by jetlag. When I briefly came to my senses I noticed we were on Street 352. Yikes! I thought. We’ve come a long way: 46 blocks from home. It was actually only two blocks. The street numbering is monotonic, but non-sequential. And it doesn’t correspond to anything such as the number of metres North or East of the bottom left hand corner of the city, nor even to the number of houses along the block which, if arranged properly, would have been a damn good way of locating a house given a house number and its road number. No, the street numbers step up at random intervals, and the house numbers make no sense whatever. You need a map.

The outskirts of the central market

There was not enough time for all this walking. Stuart insisted we rode bikes across town to get to the Vietnamese embassy. They’d borrowed two extra ones specially from VSO so that all four of us could have one. It wasn’t far and I really would rather have walked as it involved going along Preah Sihanouk Boulevard and I knew this was going to be bad. The bikes were like ancient gear-free 1950’s women’s models made out of scaffold poles. The tires were ordinary fat things (not knobbly like a mountain bike’s) that were almost flat but miraculously didn’t puncture when ridden over glass and chunks of broken concrete. Although you are supposed to drive on the right on Cambodia, Stuart led us onto the Boulevard on the left and took us close along the curb, dodging around parked motos, fruit stalls and stationary cars. We faced the mass of oncoming traffic, mostly motor scooters with an average of three people on the back wearing flip-flops. Women pillion passengers ride side-saddle because if they put their legs on either side (as they do in the rest of the world, including, say, Vietnam, for safety reasons), they get called a “Vietnamese slut”. It was just terrifying. I can understand the sense in not crossing the road if you only have a few metres to go — I do it all the time in England — but under those circumstances I ride on the pavement. However, the pavement was totally uneven and blocked by the overspill of welding workshops making huge security gates with acetylene torches. We went through about three traffic lights on the wrong side of the road. I did not know what to do. It is true that in the countryside you are advised to walk facing the traffic so that you can see what’s coming at you, but not when you are on wheels. Numerous motor scooters joined in our contra-flow escapade and turned the road into four lanes of swirling traffic, each flowing in the opposite direction to its neighbour. When VSO people join up, they sign a form to say they will abide by the laws of the road, but at the bottom of the form someone put a hand-written caveat which says: “as long as someone tells me what the laws are!”

Cambodian Culture


Cambodia is famous for its Khmer Rouge. It’s exactly twenty years since they were removed from Phnom Penh by the Vietnamese invasion in 1979. (In fact, while we were there, they had a national holiday to celebrate this event.) The last remaining pockets of Khmer Rouge guerrillas in the jungle reputedly defected to the government last year, although they are still known to kill people who enter their territory on the border with Thailand and other places where they jealously guard their rainforest logging and gemstone mining rights.

The Khmer Rouge have had a rough deal over the years from the Western press for two reasons: (a) they tortured and killed a phenomenal number of people, and (b) they weren’t backed by the Americans when they did it, in contrast to, for example, Suharto or Pinochet. And they were communist. Communist revolutions have swept through almost all countries at some point in their past (maybe this century, maybe a centuries years ago), usually when the land-owner/aristocratic/upper classes/colonial government or what have you took too many liberties with their “rights” for too long that people began to realise that the rulers don’t deserve those “rights” anymore and it is necessary to remove them by force in the absence of any alternative democratic means. The problem with revolutions is that they are undemocratic; as a rule you don’t get to choose what replaces the regime which has been overthrown. When the replacement regime is clearly going to be a lot worse, the regime in power often takes advantage of this fact and doesn’t do anything to improve matters because they expect, somehow, that people will still behave rationally in spite of all the abuse they are taking. The Americans in their revolution of 1776, which they bang on about all the time to kids in their history lessons at school until not one of them gives a toss when they grow up, were just plain lucky. The French in 1789 killed their entire upper class, then had a much harder time and ultimately wound up with Napoleon. But in the Cambodian case, everyone got killed and no one had had any idea of just how bad it was going to be.

Ducks and Chickens well packed onto a truck on a ferry across the Mekong

On April 15, 1975 Pol Pot lead the Khmer Rouge victoriously into Phnom Penh. They had waged a war in the countryside against the government for 4 years. They had been bombed more heavily than Iraq by the Americans who supported the previous regime. They had gained increasing support from the common people, many of whom probably didn’t care which side won, just as long as the fighting stopped. Several hours later — to everyone’s surprise — they forced the city to evacuate. Phnom Penh had a population of three million at the time, mostly refugees from the fighting in the countryside, but they were all turned out and branded as soft city dwellers by the revolution and treated like rats. In the following weeks of chaos many died due to attrition since the Khmer Rouge, who had achieved their goal of now running the country, had lost all common sense and proved totally incapable of running anything more sophisticated than a massacre. When the mud had settled, people found themselves in agricultural labour camps ploughing the fields with their bare hands without even stone-age tools, while Pol Pot, the hidden leader no one knew anything about, designed extravagant plans for the economy based on three tons of rice yield per hectare, export quotas, the establishment of heavy industries on the money earned, and an entirely new education system without any teachers because they were all dead. It was all in his dreams, and based on the revolutionary techniques pioneered in China under Mao Tse Tung which had failed totally. Pol Pot’s grasp of economics was on the level of a mad 15th century surgeon who removes hit patient’s liver and kidneys because they aren’t made of muscle since only muscle does any work for the body.

While the Khmer Rouge were laying waste the country through sheer idiocy, the one thing they could organise properly was torture and killing. The main centre for torture was called S-21, or Toul Sleng, which was a school about 6 blocks away from Becka’s parent’s house. In here, people were kept up to six months for torture and interrogation until they were “smashed”. Twenty thousand people were processed, and only seven survived, rescued at the end by the Vietnamese invasion in 1979. Confessions were extracted and dictated, people were implicated including whole families, the party was purged and re- purged of its leaders and administrators until it was being run by children. At S-21, there was barbed wire everywhere. The classrooms had been partitioned into cells by very shoddily laid brick walls. There were no doors (too much effort to make), prisoners were kept in leg irons, and much of the security precautions were put in place to prevent suicides.

One of the seven survivors was an artist who has since painted garishly colourful pictures of the events that he witnessed. These are exhibited in one of the rooms. In other places, the walls are lined with black and white photographs taken by the Khmer Rouge of their prisoners for documentation purposes. Most were taken on arrival and showed clear signs of fear, and some were taken after torture. The mostly teenage guards were also photographed, smiling in their neatly tucked in Khmer Rouge peasant’s uniform. Many were later processed through S-21 when it was decided that they “knew too much”. Toul Sleng didn’t leave much of an impression on me at the time. It is more of an object than a place, like an executioner’s chopping block which, out of context, is just a slice of wood you could use for any purpose. It does now, when I think back to it. The Cambodians have done their best to forget.

Stuart and Florence arranged with some friends to visit the Elephant Bar, in the fancy Raffles hotel in the centre of town, for Happy Hour half-price drinks in a civilised surrounding. We cycled up there in the light, got drunk on lovely cocktails and cycled back in the dark with no lights like much of the other traffic. The buildings flew by with neon lights on the side and it was like being in a pinball machine in a dark room. I was frightened and exhilarated. The next time I come I’ll bring a bike helmet. It’s got to make sense.

The Urchins of Nowheresville

A batfish pair

For Christmas, many visiting Westerners went to the seaside at Sihanoukeville. Meanwhile, many Cambodians were leaving the area in fear of the new toxic waste dump that had been hitting the news. A Taiwanese company had been ordered to remove their toxic waste from Taiwan, so they did a three million dollar deal with a Cambodian government official and had the lot delivered to the port at Sihanoukeville, driven a short way inland and thrown on the ground. (Quite why they didn’t just drop it in the sea on the way over is anyone’s guess, as it would be more in keeping with these sorts of people’s attitudes.) The reports varied from ten percent to half the population of the town having cleared out.

Of course, we English are less backward about these sorts of things and know perfectly well that toxic waste dumps are totally harmless and nothing to worry about. We have them all over our countryside because we are a developed nation. And anyway, they don’t become dangerous for several decades until the chemicals have had time to leech into the groundwater and start poisoning things. By then people have forgotten all about it, and can’t easily tell what’s going wrong with their health. And anyway, if they did know what was happening, it wouldn’t do any good because it’d be too late to fix it, and the guys who put it there and made money out of the deal have grown old, died rich, and passed on their wealth to their children who won’t ever pay it back so as to become poor enough to actually have to live near the dumps because it wouldn’t be fair, would it?

After some protest marches at Sihanoukeville plus a riot that ended up trashing a VIP hotel on the waterfront which might have been owned by that certain government official, the Prime Minister said he’d look into the problem and bring the official to justice. Nothing more came of it, of course, except for some bungled attempts by the government to pick up the waste and ship it back. The whole three million dollars seemed to have disappeared straight into someone’s pocket where it was not, for example, invested in the local economy, now in tatters as it is mainly based on tourism. Sihanoukeville has been cut off from the capital intermittently for years due to Khmer Rouge activity on the highway from Phnom Penh (hijacking cars and killing people without even asking for money), and things were just becoming stable when this happened.

We arrived in the early afternoon and were collected by our hotel owner (pre-booked) who was French and had set up a whole cluster of wooden cabins on stilts on a rocky slope with a view out over the sea. Stuart and Florence were raving about how wonderful and relaxing it was here, but I couldn’t see what was so special. After escaping winter in Liverpool, their airy house in Phnom Penh was very nice, and this felt equally nice, although on the other end of a long bus ride. There was wildlife: a squishy purple frog that could jump from one wall of the cabin to the other in an almost horizontal trajectory, and the hotel owner’s pet monkey. We prepared for our great diving adventure (kindly arranged by Stuart and Florence via notes pinned up on notice boards months ago requesting information and collaborators) which set off at the crack of dawn and would not return for three days. Marc, the organiser of the trip, brought a dodgy French geezer called Pascal to help him out. They’d spent the day negotiating the hire of a fishing boat which, they finally discovered at 4pm, was too small. They had to start looking all over again, and eventually got another one. They then had to load it with all the gear and drinking water. For the amount of effort they put in, I think we got value for money.

We were supposed to bring our own food. On this front we did not do too well because we’d thought we’d have access to cooking facilities. The fresh fruit went rotten in about a day. There were six of us: Becka, me, Phillipa (a young VSO person), Bob (a very friendly ex-army British mine clearing person who made a lot of money in Kuwait clearing mine fields around oil fires left by the Iraqi’s because the oil men had been too cheap to fit taps in their oil wells when they built them), and Thierry, another French guy.

The fishing docks of Sihanoukville. The boat on the left is identical to the one we lived on.

We got to the fishing village. It was hard to tell where the land stopped and the water began because all the buildings were on stilts and closely packed between pools of stagnant water. We stepped along the rickety pier, past baskets of fish parts, and then climbed onto the wooden boat with our gear and spread ourselves out on the front deck. The roof of the deckhouse was obviously going to be too hot, and the crew seemed to have the inside and the rear of the boat to themselves. Later, our two armed guards showed up, one with an AK-47, and the other with a grenade launcher slung over his shoulder. They were here to protect us from pirates, or dodgy policemen/Cambodian soldiers on the islands. We didn’t want any trouble.

The boat made it out of the port before the clutch blew and we turned back and waited for them to put in a new one. So much for the early start. We sat in a sort of cafe with a loud television, waiting. Becka struggled through a glass of coffee which she had foolishly stirred before drinking, and thus dislodged the inch of sweetened condensed milk and extra sugar pasted to the bottom of the glass. You should never stir anything unless you know exactly what you are doing.

The boat drove for three hours. Our first dive was in a PADI style group in a heck of a current, shallow and with low visibility. It wasn’t too good. We went snorkelling in the evening when we anchored by an island, and it was actually more interesting because it was in an area that had clearly been dynamite fished. The sea bed was like a tray of eggshells — the broken coral — and there were pits which could have been the bomb craters. One or two of those huge spherical coral heads had broken off in one piece and had rolled over upside down. Surprisingly, if you looked, there were a lot of little fish, poking in and around the debris. They had no where else to go and they were perhaps elsewhere when the lazy fishermen used their explosives to stun the fish so that they could scoop up those that floated to the surface.

The water is not as warm as it looks.

We moved further up the shore and anchored for the night. Bob caught a lift to the beach on a smaller fishing boat and set up his tent and sleeping bag at the edge of the jungle. Becka and I strung up our string hammocks above the deck. Then another small boat came up with a whole crowd of Cambodian army guys who boarded our boat, sat in our hammocks, and argued at length over their radios about whether people were allowed to “promenade” on their island. Then their batteries ran down and they left, and we could reclaim our sleeping places. It was Christmas day. We’d managed only one dive, which was pretty good going in comparison to most Christmas days.

It’s such a romantic idea, softly drifting to sleep in the tropical night as the waves gently rock the boat side to side and you stay theoretically motionless apart from a slight lull, lifting and lowering your head. At two thirty in the morning, a cold wind picked up and blew like a sheet of ice. The string hammocks provided no shelter from it, and the boat rocked, slamming my head into the mast. No amount of extra clothes were helping. I got out and lay on the deck, but my bones pinched my flesh against the hard wood no matter which way I lay. I felt like I weighed three tonnes as I lay there. I had the choice of either wrapping my spare shirt around my body for warmth, or using it as a pillow for my skull. Sometime later I really gave up and huddled against the deckhouse and used the compressor as a windbreak. Becka joined me a little while later, even though there was not room for two.

The other fishing boat brought Bob back in the morning. We took a short ride on it for pleasure. It looked like a clump of shanty town that had snapped off and cast adrift like flotsam, with its eleven inhabitants. It was wired up for hookah fishing: the fisherman dives and stays underwater, breathing through a strawlike tube that he holds in his teeth. A small, smelly, unreliable compressor pumps air into the other end as he scoops out every living thing he can into a basket. They often work at night with underwater torches made out of lightbulbs taped up inside glass lemonade bottles with a cable running back to the boat. Becka noticed a mound of nondescript, jelly-like flesh flopped in one corner of the black, engine-oiled deck. On closer inspection, it turned out to be about two dozen “giant” clams that had been harvested out of their shells. Moments later, one of the women set to work on them. She put her thumb into each one and tore out the small stump the clam uses to grip onto its shell. It couldn’t be larger than a mouthful of pulpy meat each. The rest of the clam was tossed overboard as waste.

Proof by existence that anenomes, sponges, spiny sea urchins and rocks are entirely inedible (or they wouldn’t be here).

We did some nice diving, the two of us, not too deep, not too long. I was forced into playing the fussy customer and complain to Pascal about the airfills (“nothing wrong with them, I use this air all the time”). When you opened a tank across the deck it was like the smell from a dirty laundry basket. I tried out all the tanks to find which was least stinky, but by the end of the day they were all smelling pretty much the same, as whatever was rotting in the compressor filter had now been distributed into all of them. Becka only threw up once, and I avoided clearing my mask underwater because this required me to pass air through my nose and thus smell it.

We went to places that had not been dynamited. There were no drop-offs, just landscapes of bedrock and coral with big faded pink heads. Of particular abundance were Christmas tree worms which remind me of those tasselled toothpicks that American restaurants spike through their club sandwiches, and also black spiny sea urchins, the kind that normally come out only at night. These came in ones, twos and sometimes whole groups arranged in star patterns all over the sand. It was a miracle we didn’t get spiked. Other common items were grey barrel sponges crawling with cucumber worms. It took three dives before we began to resist the temptation to swim over and look into the barrels because there was never anything in them.

Scratching for food on the deck.

Back on the boat, we were beginning to run out of food. Our supply of French bread was eaten, and even if it hadn’t been it would have been stale by the second day, though I would still have eaten it. Whilst having a very fine dump off the back of the boat (there was a step just above the waterline on which you could squat and lean back, while safely holding onto the rim of the deck) I noticed the fishermen pounding together their Thai spices in a pestle and making a nice meal for themselves. The food wasn’t for us. Before we joined the boat Marc had suggested that he might be able to spear some fish for dinner on one of the days. Unfortunately he had miscalculated the abundance of fish. After a whole hour of swimming around he got one reasonable fish. Then, out of frustration, he caught a smaller one: a colourful parrot fish that had been bothering him. The fisherman took these both away and did their cooking on the one tiny wooden stove in the back of the boat. They ate the good fish. The small parrot fish came back to us half raw and Mark sent it back. It returned as charcoal and was anyway chock full of bones.

I set up my hammock a second time. During the night Thierry’s hammock broke at the head end and dropped him on the floor. The wind howled properly from about midnight onwards. Becka and I huddled for warmth on the pitching deck and watched the half moon inch across the sky. We ate some dry, emergency-food biscuits for breakfast before diving off the boat to explore the sea floor. I found one of my turds lying like a caterpillar on the sand fifteen metres down. When we returned, Bob and the others were worrying over the plight of a poor fisherman who had pulled up alongside in his boat the size of an upturned dining table with a small propeller pole engine. He said he had just been ripped off by pirates. All his nets and the fish in them had gone. Phillipa had a whip round and raised two dollars for him to buy new nets.

When they said “live-aboard” they actually meant “live-on-the-boards”

Because it was a long journey back to land into wind, we hurried to have a second dive in the same place. Mark kindly lent his underwater camera to me and Becka and I had a great time trying to teach Becka how to pose for it. In order to photograph a sponge/coral/anemone or whatever with a diver in the same frame, the diver has to put their head practically inside it. This was difficult to communicate and I had to give her the camera and demonstrate for her. She was also supposed to be navigating, but lost her sense of direction and kept trying to beach us. It was the most fun dive of all. It was followed by five hours clinging onto the deck of the boat, driving, driving, droning and driving, unable to read, unable to talk due to the noise, unable to sleep, until we finally reached the harbour at sundown. We passed the fishing fleet on its way out. Near the entrance a man stood on a police boat, holding out to each of the passing boats a little net on the end of a long pole, so that they could deposit their harbour taxes. It would have made a great picture as a silhouette against the sunset, but I didn’t have a camera, and anyway none of the pictures we took came out.

Back at the hotel, I was so hungry I ordered a Tom Yam straight away, even though we were to be going out to dinner to meet some people an hour later. Becka’s parents had had a relaxing few days (as intended) with the only excitement being that the monkey had unchained itself from its post and run up a tree. Apparently it did this regularly. The same old Jackie Chan video entertained us on the bus on the way back to Phnom Penh as it did on the way out. Foolishly I watched it again and missed the excitement when some pompous official in his pompous car, having had some difficulty overtaking our bus, finally got past, waving his gun at our driver. There is an oversupply of generals in the Cambodian army whose idle hands are free to do a lot of the devil’s work.

Mekong Delta

The pavement of De Tham Street in Saigon

The minibus picked us up an hour before sunrise. My body ached as it does when I have flu. The signs were not good. I persuaded myself that perhaps it would be better to be ill in Vietnam than in Cambodia since it is a slightly more advanced country. There are more people, more doctors, more Westerners, more money. The road through Cambodia towards Saigon deteriorated as it approached the border. The drivers swapped over when the first one bashed into too many potholes in a row at high speed. The border crossing into Vietnam took only one hour because it wasn’t very busy. It was composed of the usual pointless buildings full of officials in uniforms with gold braids over their shoulders. In no man’s land between the two national gateways people were milling around everywhere, some carrying ridiculous loads on the back of their push-bikes and wandering up and down the paths that led into the distance at either side. No one seemed to be taking much notice of the border except for us.

In Vietnam the fields were greener, the roads busier, and everyone wore cone-shaped hats like they do in the movies. How such a practical hat like that for the hard sun hasn’t spread elsewhere in the world is anyone’s guess. It is as Vietnamese as the baseball cap is American, and everyone wants to look like an American, not a Vietnamese. Every hundred metres along the highway there was a market stall selling what looked like tea-towels and table mats each in its own plastic bag to keep the dust off. How many towels did these people need? I marvelled. It was three days later on a tour round a rice noodle ‘factory’ that I worked out that they were rice pancakes. This factory was really only five women under a roof on the side of the river. Rice was cooked and pulverised in a big vat for an hour, then someone ladled the batter onto a steaming cloth stretched over a pot of boiling water, and spread it out like a crepe. Then two other women transferred the paper-thin result onto wicker mats which were left out in the sun all day. You could see these pancakes drying everywhere, on river banks and on roofs of houses in the right places. In the evening they take them down and slice them up into noodles somehow (we didn’t see this) to be eaten at just about every meal. We loved the noodles (chopsticks essential) which were sold as Phu (noodle soup) in every restaurant and street stall. They’d add some beansprouts to the water as well, put fresh herbs on top, and then mix in some indescribable samples of grey or brown meat whether you liked it or not. At the bottom of every the bowl there was always half a teaspoon of grit which I’d also eat if I was still hungry.

The place to go if you are a backpacker is De Tham Street, which is lined with cafes catering for tourists. These are not upmarket places, but are restaurants and bars with menus translated into English. Some have rooms upstairs accessible past the kitchen. They’re authentically local (the prices are generally the same) and the Vietnamese do use them. It can’t last. We must be catching this place in the brief moment when it is convenient but not yet spoilt. Unavoidably, there are some shops selling tack, but I did like the cramped galleries which sold painted copies of Van Gogh’s and Dali’s, where the artists worked on the pavements at night from crumpled postcards of the masterpieces. You can take your own photo to them and have it converted into a painting, if you are organised enough to carry photos. If I had been, I would have had a portrait done of my rat, and then had the artist draw a picture of a city around her like she was ratzilla or something. I got all these ideas after I left the area, of course. I will be more prepared next time.

Houseboats on a river in the Mekong delta. Many of these farm fish in cages underneath

We walked into the city centre many times to buy tickets and check off the items on the Lonely Planet map of places that might be interesting. Few of them were. The main streets, dual carriageways going nowhere, thousands of motorbikes swarming up and down them, lethal to cross, were lined with new hotel skyscrapers. Really big advertising billboards with lights on them were stuck up on skylines. In places, blocks with potentially interesting bars had been demolished to make way for the construction of new shopping malls. It wasn’t right. Back in De Tham Street and in the surrounding alleys we tried out vegetarian dishes in all the different restaurants, often spending less than a dollar each on a fill-you-up meal with a bottle of beer. Then we discovered the fruit shake shop across the road where for 40 cents you could get mango, papaya, banana, coconut, soursop (not very nice), strawberry (also not so good), apple or dragon fruit slushies made freshly (possibly with tap- water ice, but who cares when they’re that good) while behind the counter with the blenders Vietnamese children played computer games at full volume on a row of television sets. By the end of the week we were having at least four shakes a day at this place. Sometimes two at one sitting to pick us up after a long day.

When you sit at a bar out the outside tables of a caf‚, there is this endless procession of kids carrying trays of cigarette lighters for sale. Hundreds of them, circulating in succession, all bearing the same wares. One idea can go a long way in this place. You could have had key-rings, digital watches, bracelets, packs of cards, chess pieces, transistors, batteries, disposable cameras, calculators, rings, toenail clippers, marbles, razors, or anything else to make a whole panoply of variety. But no, just fag lighters. And young women sold photocopied guidebooks. (This has got to be the way to go if you don’t want to spend an arm and a leg on a slim Lonely Planet tome that was written on a shoestring anyway and is probably inaccurate. Pay the price it’s worth: a couple of dollars to a street kid. Does it matter if it falls apart after a year? They just don’t get it. Have you seen what that fine company has done with their Australia guide? They’ve split it into four volumes and now charge the same for each quarter as for their original one. Pretty handy, huh?)

I spent most of the first day in bed, trying to recover from this flu, while Becka marched the streets for miles until she came to the Black River. Nothing can explain how water can be so polluted it looks and flows like tar, staining the garbage on the riverbanks black. We booked into a three day tour of the Mekong Delta in the evening and left the next morning. It was 45 dollars each, and included everything except food, and was astonishingly good value. The bus was a bit crap, though, but apart from the long drive back on the third day we were never on it for more than three hours at a stretch. Much of the tour was happily on boats. Our tour guide was called “Hi”: short, ugly, voice like a rasp, and English surprisingly bad for someone who claims to have worked as an interpreter for the Americans during the war. I got an ear for it by the end, and he was a very professional guide. I don’t know how much skill and planning these tours take to run, but there was not a single noticeable cock-up along the whole way and I didn’t get bored at any time. Nor did I feel I was missing out on anything. In fact I saw a whole lot more than I would have planned to see, had I been doing it myself.

Rolling a doughlike mixture of sawdust, water, ground leaves and sandlewood with a palette onto a sliver of bamboo to make insense sticks

On the journey out, we caught a long boat ride up one of the many wide, intersecting canals leading off from one of the nine branches of the Mekong. The air was fizzing with dragon flies, there were numerous chunks of bulbous weed floating downstream, and people were doing things in the brown water all along the banks: casting fishing nets, diving for buckets of mud to build up their land, collecting snails, paddling their dugout boats piled with vegetables. Our destination was one of the main Viet Cong bases in the jungle where they kept their generals. The land was too wet to build tunnels, so they had had to make bunkers to protect themselves from the bombs and the shelling from the American and South Vietnamese armies as they were in what was known as a “Free Fire Zone”. They knew they were going to be there a long time; they planted Paper Bark trees for extra cover.

Hi gave us the tour around the area, and told us the story from the South Vietnamese / American point of view, since he had worked on their side for a long time. No communist propaganda here. The only people who know English well enough to make good tour guides are non-communists. “But,” he said, “look at the conditions these (VC) people were fighting in. This was a jungle full of leeches and diseases, and no way in or out except by foot. How could the Americans win when the enemy is capable of living in these conditions?” One problem was that the peasant farmers kept supporting the Viet Cong no matter what the Americans did: they gave them money, food, houses. It may have been a political thing, or it may be that the Viet Cong soldiers in the jungles nearby were more of a direct threat to them. In response, the Americans tried out a strategy known as “Strategic Hamlets”. Significant effort was made to keep certain small villages Viet Cong free. It didn’t work. When the Americans lost patience they bombed everything in sight and sprayed the jungles with Agent Orange defoliant so that the enemy could not hide so easily.

Agent Orange contains some quantities of dioxin as well as other chemicals, and its effects on people are not good (lots of nasty birth defects, etc). A lot must have got into the soil and might still be there, leeching out into the water, for all that we know. The official line by the Americans (who dropped the stuff) and the Vietnamese (who grow most of their food on the land and can’t do anything about it) is that it was all washed out to sea by the rains after a couple of years. If the facts are to the contrary, it’s unlikely either side is going to want to know. In other words, the story is too convenient to be unquestionable.

The melon boat with a melon on a flagpole buying melons at the floating market

Throughout the tour we had a lot of meals, and never once ate at the recommended restaurant. I was surprised that most people (who should have known better) did. The bus would drop us off at some horrible, overpriced cafe, and Becka and I would split off in the other direction and get some lovely food around the corner or a few blocks away, where we wouldn’t have to wait because there was no one else there. On New Year’s Eve, we joined an English couple for dinner in Cantho City at a restaurant along the waterfront recommended by Becka’s parents (they always get to good places before we do!) The bloke worked for Friends of the Earth and commented that Agent Orange was manufactured by our favourite biotechnology company who say “trust us, we make safe food”: Monsanto. We retired early (what’s the point of midnight on that particular night anyway, when you have to get up at seven the next morning) to our rundown hotel room with geckos on the walls.

The second day took us through the floating markets and temples, up Sam mountain for the sunset view over the hills towards Cambodia, and down to the Temple of Lady Chau Xu where everybody was praying and burning stacks of incense sticks making the air as thick as the smoke in an Irish pub. It looked as if disinterested janitors rather than monks were tending the temple, sweeping up the ash and dousing the sticks in water before throwing them away when the atmosphere got too heavy. The “Lady” is a statue which, according to the legend, sat on top of the mountain until forty virgins carried it down and left it on a spot where it got too heavy. The temple accepts donations. You can buy paper monopoly money from them (so as not to waste the real stuff) and symbolically set fire to it in the big urn out in the courtyard to ensure that you will be wealthy in your future. Many of the “boat people” or “economic migrants” made sure that they came here to pray before they left the country to set up new lives. If they succeeded they often returned the favour by sending more money back to the temple.

The hotel that night, just outside Chau Doc, was a bit strange. Brand new and all on one floor, with shiny tiles everywhere, it had one central hallway with the rooms leading off exactly like some stage set. The rooms didn’t have windows, only four glass bricks in the walls to show the colour of the light outside. There were ventilation slots above the doors so that every fart or burp could be heard across the hall by everyone else. It was like a slaughter house. Something horrible could happen to us during the night, and they would only need to hose down the place in the morning to prepare it for the next round of “guests”.

Insense sticks drying in the sun

The final day gave us the rowing boat ride (people stand up to row, and face forwards: far more sensible when you are manoeuvring on a crowded river), the fish farm (the place is fished out, so install fish cages under your house boats and raise them there), and the Cham village (one of the larger Vietnamese tribes that seems to have got converted to Islam). Then a long and tedious bus ride back to Saigon for a pineapple slushie and a big meal.

The Mekong Delta is in an unlikely situation in that it doesn’t get flooded Bangladeshi-style every time the rains come in the wet season. This is in spite of the fact that the Mekong is a huge river which drains water all the way down from China and Tibet. The reason for this hydrology is that there is a big lake in the middle of Cambodia called Tonle Sap. This flows down a fairly horizontal river to join the Mekong at Phnom Penh. When the water levels in the Mekong rise (due to the heavy rains further upstream), this river reverses flow and fills up the Tonle Sap Lake. The breadth of this lake means that the water levels can’t rise very high without requiring a truly enormous amount of water, and that is why the Delta doesn’t get flooded. Were anyone to be so foolish as to dam this river (to keep the lake levels high and provide more fish for Cambodia, say) things would take a turn for the worst. It’s a wonder that the World Bank hasn’t funded one already!

We toured Saigon for a day. Over at the American War Atrocities Museum we saw a neat performance of the Water Puppets before checking out all of the displays of bombs and pictures. A lot of Americans were there, and if you listen carefully you can hear them mutter: “It’s always the winners who write history,” as if they think it’s a bit unfair. Which it is. But it’s nothing to do with history books and having killed off all the other side’s writers in the process. (No one cares about them anyway.) It’s the plain logical fact that for any war, the whole damn experience is the “fault” of the losing side. If that side could have just seen in the first place that they were going to lose and given in right away, they would have saved a lot of aggravation. The result would have been the same, but with less suffering. You wouldn’t have wars if losers didn’t insist on fighting them out until the bitter end. Therefore it is their fault.

However, you’ve got to feel sorry for the Americans. They thought they were doing a good thing, propping up dictatorial regimes in South East Asia which nobody wanted, merely to maintain the “capitalist” system. They must have been worried that communism might actually be a better form of government or they wouldn’t have panicked so much. Just let everyone turn red. See if they care. If it’s such a bad system it will all economically collapse in twenty or thirty years and turn “capitalist” again by the necessity for the country to actually feed itself. So why fight a war for a political system that you believe is superior and inevitable anyway? Yet to hear Americans vaunt about the superbness of their economic system, you got to wonder the fact that they ever did.

Everywhere you look there are these paradoxes. You cannot explain what has happened unless you totally lack common sense or consider everything you have heard as a lie. Over at the Presidential Palace (renamed Reunification Hall) we got a tour round the quality 1960’s architecture with it’s basement of clanky communications equipment and war maps from the South Vietnamese army. This was the place where, famously, the North Vietnamese army finally took control and raised the Communist flag on 30th April 1975, thus ending the war. Now, 24 years on, the grounds were being used for the celebration of the 300th anniversary of Ho Chi Minh City (the new name for Saigon), of which one of the main sponsors was Pepsi Cola.

We took a shortcut through the hectic Ben Thanh Market where noodle stall holders were crawling over themselves to serve us because I looked a bit peckish. Across the main dual carriageway a motorbike swerved straight towards me. I froze. The pillion rider snatched at my camera, but fortunately I had one of its straps wrapped around my little finger and he didn’t get it. We tried some of the more upmarket bars in De Tham Street (after yet another banana slushie). Some of these cafes are nothing but rows of deckchairs in a garage space, all facing out towards the street with coloured lights and loud music in the background.

Dragon Spiral Stairs in Cao Dai temple

In the morning we took the Kim’s Cafe tour of the Cu Chi tunnels. This cafe, in order to serve the tourists, seems to have established an entire bus company with a network stretching as far north as Hanoi. You can get a ticket there for as little as 40 dollars. Because the Cu Chi tour would be a bit short for a day, they arranged to take you to the Caodai temple as well to witness their midday service. It’s very nice of the Caodai’s at their “Holy See” to let you in to see their garish temple because it looks like something out of Disneyland. All the priests sit on the floor in their different coloured robes positioned like balls on a snooker table and drum up a haunting chorus to the tune of a single-stringed violin and a collection of percussion instruments on the balcony. Theirs is the ‘Third Alliance Between God and Man’, whose sacred texts were composed during spiritual seances in the 1920’s when ghosts such as the then-dead French author Victor Hugo, now an official Caodai saint, came and spoke to them. Obviously, nowadays, that’s all stopped: official doctrine can only come through official seances, or it may prove contradictory.

The bus tour guide, ‘Skinny’ Thom, spoke good English and wittered into his microphone throughout most of the journey in quite an enjoyable way, and ended one of his speeches by speaking out the lyrics of the Tina Turner song, ‘It Takes Two’. He, too, was of the South Vietnamese army. When we stopped over at a great war memorial with all the names of the Viet Cong casualties listed on the walls in a way that mirrors the one in Washington DC for the Americans lost in the Vietnam War, he said: “Notice how there is nothing at all for all the South Vietnamese people who were killed.”

The Cu Chi area was a place of extensive guerrilla activity not fifteen miles from the centre of Saigon. In Saigon and the whole area around, the Americans had bases, conducted heavy patrols and dropped a lot of bombs, but could not rid of the Viet Cong, in spite of inflicting huge casualties and cutting off their supplies. Some of the hide-out tunnels have been widened and preserved for tourists to go down, but they are unfortunately without their traps of leg-mashers made out of bamboo spears smeared with excrement. Even so, the tunnels are pretty damn dreadful with an atmosphere like a rotting sauna such that you could not stay in them for more than an hour without suffocating. The VC soldiers spent most of their days hiding in covered pits just below the surface with reinforced roofs strong enough to support a tank passing over. Their cooking fires had to have special chimneys to vent the smoke some distance away, so as not to expose their position. Why did they do all this? Why did they not just surrender and go over to the Americans? At worst, they’d have had to put up with some corrupt, undemocratic puppet government backed by America, as in the Philippines, South Korea, Indonesia, Chile or Cambodia at the time. Surely it could not be as bad as facing napalm and phosphor bombs over breakfast, could it? Who knows? The Vietnamese seemed considerably less traumatised by the war than the American nation professes to be.

Maybe winning is so important that nothing else matters in the end.

Let Bayons be Bayons

Two faces of the Bayon

We spent a mere half a day back in Phnom Penh before we were whipped off at the crack of dawn down to the river on the back of a set of moto taxis to catch the “fast boat” up to Siem Reap to see the ancient city of Angkor beyond the northern banks of Lake Tonle Sap. As usual, Florence drove a hard bargain with the taxi drivers, leaving them looking a little disappointed until Stuart caved in and gave them some more money.

The fast boats look like aeroplanes without wings and were probably pretty cool in the 70s on some tourist river in Thailand before they got rid of them. We rode on the roof of this rusty jet liner in the wind and the sun for five hours at over thirty knots until we reached the tiny river inlet on the other side of the lake. There, people had parked their floating houses and fish farms in the narrow waterway without regard to river traffic. Our long boat had to make many three-point turns to skirt round these obstructions until we reached a place where the boats and houses were too dense to go any further. We were still a hundred metres from the shore which had no actual landing stage.

It was utter chaos as the passengers clambered off the boat onto pontoon houses, cargo carriers, fishing boats, and fought past all the Cambodians who were coming the other way, shouting about their taxis and hotel rooms they wanted to guide them to. One of them had a placard with the Lawson name on it (we had booked a hotel in advance), but there was a second person with a Lawson notice too! It had to be a decoy, possibly copied from the first, whichever the first one was. I thought it was a neat trick. Stuart was not having any of it; he knew the correct hotel manager’s name. We split off and made it to the muddy shore. It was like the river bank beside a cow field. We’d had to shuffle past an irate woman in her house boat before she started waving her boat paddle about in an effort to prevent any more tourists from trooping across her back porch and submerging it with their combined weight.

The drive from the lake to Siem Reap town was quite long. The gulleys alongside the road contained some abandoned boats left by the water since the last wet season (there had been no wet season this year). We claimed our rooms in our hotel off a cul-de-sac in town and looked among the thirty or so booklets of snapshot photos on the shelf in the common room. I was eager to see what Angkor looked like, since I had not done any homework whatsoever and was curious, but every last one was of people lounging around in the hotel having drinks, etc. We took the map out and toured round town, finding the market (half of which was devoted to tourist knick-knacks), the strips of restaurants, the river, Prince Sihanouk’s winter palace (not much really), and The Grand Hotel (for real rich people who are touring the wonders of the world in all the luxury they have come to expect). Not a bad town otherwise, but for the usual layer of fine dust. We had breakfast at the hotel the next morning at seven, then squeezed into the car we’d hired (with driver) to take the four of us around all the Angkor temples.

A fig tree holding together a wall of a temple

The admission charges are quite steep (about twenty dollars a day) and there is a trade in counterfeit tickets which retail at exactly the same price, so what’s the point? We saw the main temple, Angkor Wat, across its stupendously wide and picturesque square moat. There were intricate walls on the inside of the moat and, above them, in the distance, you could see the five pineapples of the central temple. Behind this whole area, further into the jungle, is the larger temple park of Angkor Thom, without moat, but with crumbling walls defining a rectangle three kilometres wide. The gateway in the centre of each of the four walls has a tower topped by a sort of four-way Buddha face. The roads leading to each is lined with beautiful balustrades of larger than person-sized gods and demons (fifty on each side) all kneeling on one knee and tugging a big, thick naga (a five, seven or sometimes nine headed cobra depicted everywhere in Angkor). This is part of the Hindu “Churning the Ocean of Milk” myth, of which more will be said later.

Most of the heads of these statues, and other statues in Angkor, are missing, stolen in the last twenty years to be sold in Thailand as valuable ancient artwork. In the rare event that they do get recovered (for instance, they accidentally get bought by a reputable museum, though how, then, did they know it was genuine?) they are returned to Cambodia to be kept in a safe museum so that they do not get nicked again. They can’t be put back: the damage has already been done. Sometimes, the conservationists have moulded new heads or statues out of concrete and put them on the old pedestals to recreate the effect. But even these sometimes get stolen by ignorant thieves who don’t know any better. A lot of the carved reliefs have also been damaged by stupid people attempting to steal them with no better tools than a hammer, because it doesn’t work.

The main attraction in Angkor Thom is the Bayon, situated on a large roundabout and looking like a pile of rocks around a Yorkshire scar. It’s very hard to resolve the faces in it from a distance amongst the jumble. But once you climb up the steps there are four-way Buddha towers all over the place. Each has the same blank eyes, huge nose, and enigmatic smiling lips as all the others. It’s like a hall of mirrors. A couple of men were climbing around on the very loose rocks on the central tower reaching into holes with a bent coat- hanger, probably fishing for bats. A couple of monks in saffron robes hung around in some of the darker alcoves.

Monks were everywhere, adding a much needed splash of colour to mottled grey and brown stones. I don’t know if they have any more claim to the temples than the druids of Stonehenge since they have not been tending them for many of those years. The temples were built mostly between 1000 and 1200AD and one of the prime responsibilities of anyone who is maintaining a structure over that time period is not to let a trees grow up in the middle! Even in a jungle this is not necessarily an overnight event. At Ta Prohm, an extensive complex to the east of Angkor Thom, the conservationists have left most of the trees in place since their roots have engulfed the buildings like an amoeba, crushing and holding them together. It’s quite a beautiful sight, but hard to preserve for future generations. When the trees die, perhaps the stones can be picked up and put in place.

Back in Angkor Thom we walked along the Terrace of the Leper King and the Terrace of the Elephants — an extended battle scene with a lot of elephants. And then, before the end of the day, allowed ourselves a quick whip round the inside of Angkor Wat. The avenues were lined with beggars and kids trying to sell you scarves/whistles/wooden toys/tee shirts, and they just wouldn’t go away. “Sir, you buy flute? One dollar. Sir. You want cold drink? Madam, you want scarf? Good scarf.” You had to practically wade through them. Children here only go to school for half the day, some in the morning, some in the afternoon, so they can get at you in shifts.

A steep flight of steps up the inner tower of Angkor Wat

Within the moat is the outer wall. Behind that is a huge grass area with naga-banisters. Then the inner walls and a further four levels to get to the top platform which is still far below the big pineapples. The stairs up to the last level are ridiculously steep: about three inches wide and eight inches high so it looks like people are ascending a vertical wall. The monks on top watched and laughed. The second level has magnificent bas-reliefs carved along the four inner walls, polished black by tourists and tour guides in some areas. Two main walls show enormous battles with gods and demons everywhere (all with faces that bear a strong resemblance to the Buddha — one gets the impression that the artists have carved him so often they cannot break the habit), a third has a long depiction of heaven and hell with the souls lining up for judgement to be raised into heaven, where there is a lot of boring kneeling and sitting around under umbrellas, or cast into hell, where all sorts of interesting tortures are depicted and everybody looks emaciated with their ribs showing. The fourth wall has a massive mural of The Churning of the Ocean of Milk: that ridiculous myth again. The demons and the gods are shown co- operating, encouraged by Vishnu, after a thousand years of fighting, and each is hauling on the end of a vast naga looped around the handle of some sort of whisk in the milk, I suppose, pivoted on a the back of Vishnu’s incarnation as giant turtle, in order to extract the elixir of immortality. Which took another thousand years… That’s as briefly as I can summarise it. There’s got to be more to it, since if they could do that, they must have been fairly immortal already.

Every lunchtime and every night we got driven back to Siem Reap to eat. We tried lots of different restaurants until food became a bit of a drag. A French couple came out of one place in apparent disgust and recommended that we stick with the cafes on the West side of the river. We all had a soft spot for the Thai places where you could get those hot, soupy coconut curries and wash them down with bottles of Angkor beer. In one restaurant the cactus and spider plants seemed to have cotton swabs wedged between their spikes and their leaves. Florence was convinced they were the seeds of a some jungle plant carried over in the wind, but no, they really were cotton balls put there out of a packet. The cardboard cut-out Santa reminded us that it was close to Christmas. These people had never seen snow.

The elephant terrace

The Grand Hotel d’Ankor had a “happy hour” in the Elephant bar on the same night as their weekly outdoor buffet dinner over the road which featured Khmer dancing. We tidied ourselves up and shuffled in past the restaurant full of well-dressed, rich people. Downstairs in the bar, we ate through eight bowls of complimentary popcorn and embarrassed the waiters by ordering five times from their long list of beers ones which they didn’t have in stock. They wouldn’t say what they did have, but we were willing to bet it was probably only going to be the Angkor beer. Becka and Florence went for gin and tonic which was a lot nicer, but after my drink I discovered there was a “happy hour rule”: your next drink had to be the same as your previous drink if you didn’t want to pay full price. Outside, the buffet was finished and we stood behind the perimeter ropes with the rest of the cheapskate crowd to watch the “dancing”. This was a sort of synchronised Tai Chi with lots of gold jewellery and funny crowns. It was fascinating for about the first thirty seconds.

The one temple we had had a strong recommendation to go to was over an hour’s drive north along a river of fine brown dust with potholes. Banteay Srei is small and looks nothing more than a group of small mausoleums, but the intricate carving is mesmerising up close. I am astonished that during the colonial period the whole thing wasn’t stolen. You could stare at the deep three dimensional scrollwork between the scenes of gods for hours. When I took out my dollar bill to buy a round of coconuts, it looked like cheap monopoly money.

We carried on with our gruelling tour of temples. There is very little architectural variation between a lot of them. Some have fewer carvings, and some are unfinished. In the entire complex there is not one true arch, which is an amazing fact. They had built all their structures with lintels and false arches. The strength of the latter comes from piling a whole load more stones on top of the walls to counterbalance the roof. The lintels are often cracked right through and you don’t want to touch or stand under them. Whereas the feat of engineering required to put the rocks into their places is amazing, the resulting structures are rather flawed from the same point of view. On plain walls, for instance, no effort was made to interlock the blocks. You can sometimes see nine or ten rows of stone, all with their gaps in the same place, so that when the wall bulges from the weight of earth behind it, it separates like columns of packing crates.

We concluded our tour with an afternoon back in Angkor Wat and the Bayon, the main attractions. Many of the carvings of the Wat seemed half finished now we were familiar with it all. The scrollwork on a doorframe could be complete on one side, and merely a series of scratches on the other. Some of the Apsara statues on the third level look like werewolves because the rough chisel marks that were meant to have been sanded down made the surface look like hair. What happened? Why did they quit when they were so near to apparent completion? The Bayon was crumbling but nice and we sat on the warm stones in the sunset, watched by the multiple Buddha faces, until it was time to go home. The hotel manager took our photo at breakfast to add to his collection on the bookshelf, and then we zoomed back down the river to Phnom Penh in a crosswind which blew the spray over the people on the roof at the back of the boat.

It was our last day. We could have done a bit more wandering around the city, but that would have been too idle. Instead, we all four did a cycle ride over the river on the Japanese bridge: a big, modern, steel and concrete construction like no other in the country. Several years ago, as part of their overseas aid budget, Japan apparently shipped all their machines and builders over from their country to do it. This must have been great for all the Japanese contractors, but all Cambodia got out of it was a single bridge, when they could have been given the technology to build bridges.

On the other side we did a circuit around the peninsula that sticks into the junction of the Tonle Sap and the Mekong Rivers. The day cooled off. There were water buffaloes, and at one of the wats a group of monks were burning down trees and demolishing a brick shed with a sledge hammer. We carried our bikes up the staircase to the top of the bridge rather than cycling up the long ramp by road.

No trip would be complete without a ride through town on a cyclo. In the evening Florence found a couple at the end of the road and put me and Becka on them for a tour down the boulevard for maybe ten minutes. I’m not sure they understood (or maybe they understood too well) because they drove us on and on and on into the night, past the funfairs down near the river, around darkened roundabouts full of traffic, and beside rows of fruit slushie and palm wine stalls on the pavement. After half an hour we were crying, “Enough, enough, take us back” and they executed an about turn in the road ignoring all the traffic as if it didn’t exist. As we approached home, and the less busy back streets, we exchanged places with the drivers and peddled them ourselves for a couple of blocks. It was worse than a penny-farthing, there was truly no steering and I followed mine into a sand pile. When we finally arrived back home, Florence was in the driveway ready to give them their fee. They tried that trick of not quoting a price which often works on western tourists who don’t know the value of things. Florence, of course, paid them what a ten minute ride would have cost, rather than the forty-five minutes they gave us. I was, unfortunately, cashless so I couldn’t slip them any more behind her back.

Julian Todd 14/4/99.