Saturday, 31 January 2009

confessions of a snorkeling virgin

Nobody told me the apparatus does not have to leak.
While others splashed around blithely and gazed intently, I endured a mask that rapidly took on sea water, triggering an allergic rhinitis; the meanly narrow breathing tube was soon bubbling and gurgling frothily, triggering off my worst fears of an ill-met death by drowning in some unkempt corner of a National Health hospital, courtesy of a poorly maintained respirator.

I retired to bed for a day to nurse my phobias and an alimentary indisposition precipitated perhaps by one banana fritter too many on a sub-stratum of papaya salad doused in fiery chili.
Then it rained torrentially for a day, and we wondered why we were there, and why no-one had told us the rainy season is not yet done.

And then the sun returned and I got my hands on proper snorkeling gear and what a revelation that was! Just yards off the beach the reefs began, fecund with piscine life and splendid corals and cucumbers and all manner of delight. A spell-binding phantasmagoria, in which I cavorted for hours. My new submarine friends did not seem the least put out. As curious perhaps as I was about them, they clearly were too about this large, very pink, visitor with ungainly flapping flippers huffing and puffing in greeting.

Here are listed some of my new friends, taken from a marine wallchart : Moustached thryssa, Obtuse barracuda, Starry emperor, Damsel fish, Painted sweetlip, Black-backed anemone, Ornate threadfin bream, Blackspot long tom, Lined silver grunt, Fourfinger threadfin, Areolated grouper and his unsalubrious friend Greasy grouper, Pomfrets both black and white, a very camp Yellow queen fish, Golden toothless trevally and his deceitful companion False trevally, monosyllabic Wrasse, Brushtooth lizardfish and the splendid double-barrelled Chacunda gizzad- shad. Aurevoir to you all, and your less resplendently named companions.

Tonight is our last on this lovely island . Tomorow we split. I return to the mainland and go my own way for a week or so, for an internal and private de-briefing.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

becalmed in bangkok

A day's delay, as Joanna was ill in the night, keeps us in Bangkok where the mercury soared to 34C today, and you could cut the air pollution with a knife.

A knocking at my door at 4.30 am, heard above the whirr of the lurching ceiling fan (God, they are scarey things: I feel a scarcely resistable desire to put my hand up to its whirring) and the din of an antiquated air conditioning unit outside my window, could only be a maniac.
As there have been lots of wild noises in the corridor (we are staying in a budget hotel), I don't open. Renewed knocking at 5 am reveals itself to be David with news of Joanna's indisposition. He had been the earlier knocker too, but become embroiled with a drunken Belgian next door to me.

I devote the day to air-conditioned museums. I have spent the previous few days long-distance walking around town.

I have booked a flight home for 11 February. David and Joanna will travel on for a while beyond that. My thoughts begin to turn toward London.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

momentous day

From my sweltering bed in Bangkok I watch events half a world away in frosty Washington, and marvel. I shed a tear or two, and hope for better things.

You, Erin and Sam, are probably recovering from another celebratory Embassy bash. I wish you and your country well.

Thanks Erin for your concern about my defunct camera. I'll try and get it fixed when I'm home, which isn't too long now. In the meantime I"m enjoying my possibly fake Leica\Lumix - I've been seduced by its zoom.

Off at 6am tomorrow to our island.

Monday, 19 January 2009


How I pine sometimes for an England and Englishness that possibly never existed except on celluloid, in black and white, and in my parents' fond imaginings, born of gratitude to a regime that did not slaughter. Tea and understated sympathy was what you got instead.

What kind of England do we return to in a few weeks? The credit crunch only set in after our departure. Woolworths for one is no more. The only time I have shop-lifted was at Woollies in Streatham. It was a kid's prank, and the dare a Milky Bar, in a dim and distant time when white chocolate still seemed a miracle.

Perhaps it was that illicit thrilling Milky Bar that inaugurated decades of assorted addictions, often involving the briefest of brief encounters, snatching pleasure at the limits of the law. My England became a fraught and unhappy place, without refuge or repose.

For two days now I have been walking around Bangkok in temperatures around 30C, visiting temples and following canals and seeking the shade of public parks. The temples are quite extraordinary, huge in scale with extensive precincts, and very beautiful. Its amazing what you can do with several million mosaic chips and bucketfuls of smashed crockery. Its giving me ideas for the garden back home. I have seen the famed Emerald Buddha which is in fact made of jade, and a golden reclining Buddha who was 41 metres long, and whose massive soles were inlaid with the most lovely mother of pearl decoration; a feat indeed of the inlayers' art. The Royal Palace here knocks most royal palaces into a hat.

We are all a little weary of travelling, and in a last gasp for me as I'll be coming home earlier than the others, we go down the coast in a couple of days to relax on an island in the Gulf of Thailand, where David and I will do a diving course!

Sunday, 18 January 2009

battambang to bangkok

Our last night in Cambodia we stay at delightfully named Battambang.
Would like to linger longer but Thailand tempts and tantalises.

Will we get across the border this time?
As we approach Poipet, scene of our previous debacle, my bowels begin to churn at the prospect of ever ping-ponging, like Sisyphus, between here and Phnomh Penh with improper papers.

We get through in seconds, and take a tuk-tuk to the nearest station from where we are to entrain for Bangkok. To my surprise we drive on the left side of the road for the first time in months.

Can this be the station, this charming wooden cottage in brown and cream, like a Pullman carriage? It looks like the set for a Thai "Brief Encounter". Surely Celia Johnson will soon emerge with her curious clipped vowels, bravely enduring the mote in her eye, and is Trevor Howard on hand to remove it, and spark off a tragic romance in dreary post-war English suburbia, the only glimmer of glamour being a Kardomah Coffee House to sip adulterous beverages?

All through the film Rachmaninov's 2nd piano concerto bursts in, giving soaring ironic voice to a passion that the stiff upper lip can never enunciate. Marvellous!

Closing time, damn and blast! More of Englishness tomorrow. Am I getting homesick?

Thursday, 15 January 2009

pharewell phnomh penh

I returned in the afternoon to the lovely national museum, which I have visited a few times now.

I wondered again at the colossal reclining Vishnu in bronze. Once he was six metres long and water spouted from his navel, a C12 Chinese visitor at Angkor Wat wrote. His eyebrows and moustache then were jewelled marvels, and he had gems for pupils. This is Vishnu Anantasayin, reclining in cosmic sleep on the back of the sea serpent Ananta - without end - on the surface of the cosmic sea.
As the story goes, Vishnu brings forth from his navel a lotus from which blossoms Brahma, four-headed and all-seeing, to whom it falls to set down the material world of time and space.
What a marvellous creation myth, primal sea and serpents! Am I becoming a Hindu?

This Vishnu, re-discovered only in 1935 , is now much truncated; the massive shoulders, head and brooding face, and two left arms (!) are all that remain, but what grace and beauty and sheer presence.

I linger long and alliterively around the lingam - Shiva in phallic guise - and regret the linga did not make it into Buddhist iconography, when so much else from Hinduism did.
Perhaps there is a case to be made for reviving the linga at the LBC - the Linga Buddhist Centre, why not?
I'm sure it would have its devotees.

I take chilled green tea in the garden courtyard, and converse in French with the elegant and charming lady who serves me from her little fridge in the shade. She is soon off to market to buy her evening meal - to eat alone in her room, or with her burgeoning family? I'll never know - so we take leave of each other elaborately.

I visit for a last time the room of fragile standing Buddhas. Their wooden arms, raised with palms towards me in abhayamudra- the gesture of fearlessness - seem to wave goodbye.

making a purse from a sow's ear

Bangkok beckoned, but here we are back in Phnomh Penh, phlummoxed!

Joanna, a Pole, is a British citizen - indeed I wept tears at her citizenship ceremony a couple of years ago at a town hall in Westminster, where a crowd of folk of all colours and creeds stood up and spoke out loud their name, swearing allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen; the mayor of Westminster dispensed glass souvenir mugs engraved with the coat of arms of his borough, and I thought of my parents who found refuge in this country, like generations of others, and became naturalised in the early fifties: in those more austere times a letter in the post from the Home Office was all you got, but I'm sure it was treasured as much if not more than a crystal mug.

Joanna's British passport, with its exhortations to allow whomever it concerns to go whither they will, 'without let or hindrance', on pain of incurring Her Majesty's Extreme Displeasure, languishes on the sideboard at Sugar Loaf Walk.

Joanna, for reasons of her own, is travelling on her Polish passport. Amongst the forty-one countries, including the UK, that have signed an accord allowing their citizens free and unfettered entry into Thailand, you will not find the name of Poland.

Hence, after extensive taxi-rides through the Kingdom, we are back in Phnomh Penh, where this morning we tuk-tukked out to the Thai Embassy to regularise the visa situation.

Most clouds have a silver lining, and I for one am quite content to be back here. I have a lovely view of the river from my window, and of the Royal Palace with its many gold-roofed pavilions. I have spent a pleasant morning walking around town, acquired three coloured-glass Buddhas which it will be a challenge to get home and, at an over-the-counter chemists, got my hands on further supplies of Simvastatin, a cholesterol-lowering drug I am required to take. Assuming they are not fakes I am now chemically furnished to stay away until the end of February.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

more of temples

And then another pre-dawn departure on bicycles to watch the sun come up at Angkor Wat.

Many thousands of others have had the same idea, and the lawns heave and all the best places by the northern lotus pond are spiked with tripods that groan with lenses, and there is a hubbub of idle chatter in many tongues, a veritable Babel.
Having seen a few sunrises in my time I amuse myself watching the crowds for a while, and then wander off to the eastern side of the complex where hardly a soul has ventured yet, and am soon warmed by the early morning sun; I sit admiring the splendid stone carvings through binoculars.

Then coffee, and pancakes the thickness of Victoria sponge, beckon.

We cycle on and visit more temples and palaces. Too soon David and Joanna retire fatigued.
I am alone to wander where I will, and I do, all day in a familiar ecstasy.

At the end of the day I cycle out on a rutted track, to the accompaniment of cicadas that could be mistaken for car alarms, to the Eastern Gate of Angkor Thom, little visited as it leads nowhere. Its other name is the Gate of Death. I try to reflect quietly as is appropriate, thinking of Padmasanbhava in the cremation grounds, but my skin begins to creep and crawl in this jungle solitude and I flee back down the track, jolted and jangled, as though a devil pulls at my shirt-tails, towards life. How pathetic, in retrospect.

Tomorrow at dawn - we have seen many dawns on this trip - we leave for the border by taxi (thirty dollars for three hours), where we cross over to Thailand and pick up a train to Bangkok.

Next blog from there!

a day off in siem reap

I go in search of a swimming pool.

I,m told that some of the big hotels have one. The first foyer I enter is as big as a palace, with marble floors that stretch for miles to the reception desk. I flip/flop noisily through the sepulchral calm. The receptionist, gliding silently on dainty slippered feet, leads me another mile to a huge pool with its own waterfalls. I am impressed, gob/smacked. I enquire why it is all so empty>not a soul in sight. The trade has been badly hit by all the trouble at Bangkok airport, quite apart from the recession.There have been cancellations in droves.
I go in search of somewhere peopled.
I look in at the Victoria Hotel, a marvellous french palais. Another perfect pool. I am sorely tempted, but my hairshirt complex kicks in and I,m soon back in the streets.

I pause in the Royal park to shudder again at sight of the bats. And wonder at the smell> a sour acrid odour with a touch of evil about it. They have the wingspan of albatrosses.
When several of these malodorous denizens of the treetops conspire to take flight at the same time, their translucent wings pale beigey=pink against the sunlight, and flap and flip and flop langorously about, my skin horripilates and I want to run from the Park and its loathsomeness.

If I don,t its because a young man in tight shiny trousers comes over and propositions me. In my confusion its a while before I realise he is collecting for an orphanage out of town, and he shows me photos and documentation. After a while, and a pleasant chat, I decide he is kosher and hand over a few dollars and my email address. God knows there is need enough in this country.

I am drawn to the sound of drums and flutes from a nearby temple. Standing across the street from it I start a short video. I have been collecting clips of music and sounds from our travels, and when you, Marcela, have taught me to edit, I hope to put together a little film. All of a sudden the palsied cripple at the foot of the temple steps, begging, gets up and lurches and hobbles hideously towards me, arms waving brokenly. I horripilate all over again, and grab another handful of dollars and pass them to him and make a quick getaway, chastened.

I walk for hours in the hot hot sun. I follow a main road out of town. I,m drawn to these arteries that change character gradually as they distance themselves from the centre, dwindling into shacks and workshops and plebean eateries with their tiny plastic chairs out on the pavement, in red and blue, purloined from a kindergarten perhaps. Motorbikes pass bearing huge sheets of plateglass, upright between driver and pillion. Shattering and bloody consequences if they crashed.

Turning away from the dust and clamour, I make a right into a quieter sidestreet, semi/industrial, karoake bars in improbably grand premises surrounded by small factories and more workshops. Lots of new buildings going up on tired dusty old fields.

I make another right after a kilometer or two, heading back into town along an unmade road of quiet villas and furniture workshops where women are applying varnish to cheaplooking beds and wardrobes. Its a sunday. They smile as I pass, and I wave and worry about the noxious fumes they inhale. I pass Medecins sans Frontieres, a quiet villa with parched gardens. A man collects dead leaves, and little dogs snap and snarl at me from beyond the wrought/iron gates.
I enter the precincts of a large wat on the outskirts of town. Around the central temple there are dozens of funerary stupas, painted in all colours, inscribed with names of the dead in a script I can,t read. Its a quiet place. There are few enough quiet places in Asia. Orange and brown robed monks, and creased old men in little more then loincloths, slumber in the shade. Only mad dogs and Englishman, and a few wide/eyed impervious urchins, are up and about in this midday sun.

Excuse some eccentric punctuation. This keyboard doeseccentric Swiss, thanks to Eric.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

early morning chez Eric

We wake at 4, and breakfast half an hour later. Its a somnambulist affair. The little boy waiters, who in daylight are wreathed in smiles, walk around stiffly, dead-eyed zombies dispensing scrambled egg and coffee. Then we leave in the dark, and with us the whole town it seems. Bicycles, motorbikes, tuk-tuks (motor-bike rickshaws), limousines battered or bright, converge from all corners and stream together out of town, towards the jungle and its ruins. There's a camaraderie de la route at this ungodly hour, and people wave gaily.

Yesterday we took the tuk-tuk, and travelled far afield visiting temple after temple, each more astounding than the one before. In a few it pullulates with crowds, Japanese, prosperous Hong-Kongers, creamy-white European widows. In most its almost empty, and you can easily be on your own, scarily so at times.

There's often the sound of music on the long avenues leading to the ruins. In the dusty shade of a tree you pass a little band of men playing old melodies on traditional instruments; its lovely haunting music. They are amputees, victims of mines, and play according to their abilities. Prosthetic limbs lie around to the side.

Cambodia is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. I'm ashamed to say I never knew. The consequences are everywhere to be seen.

We visit a Mine Museum, started up by a young man who as a boy-soldier in Pol Pot's militia planted hundreds and hundreds of mines up and down the country. A Damascene conversion later he now dedicates his life to eradicating mines in Cambodia, and teaching the world about this scourge. He is now an expert de-miner, first doing it his own way, and now more efficiently and safely, having done a special course with the military in Salisbury, England.

Behind the moving and revelatory make-shift museum is a school for child victims, and a whole community to look after them. They are the lucky ones.

We alternate our days at the temples with lazy ones wandering around this charming town. I lunch at the Blue Pumpkin. The boys and girls there, slender and white of tooth, are all so beautiful they are surely of ancient royal stock, reincarnate. I sit there transfixed, stupefied by the midday heat and mesmerised by strange music with droning vocals from the next door wedding party. Something in me melts, like a block of ice on the sun-struck pavement.

Every other shop here offers reflexology and massage, and spas abound, but I'm shy of such delights, although God knows I could do with a good rub-down; my back is sore, and bum numb, from cycling, tuk-tukking on rutted jungle tracks, and months of indifferent beds.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

siem reap

I step out into the Royal Gardens, and start a neglected regime of stretches and dog poses to release my strained back.
Overhead there is a racket in the tall trees. Looking up I see clusters of large blackened leaves hanging from the threadbare tops. Suddenly some of them drop away, and sickeningly spread their prehistoric wings and flap about. Giant bats, as large as seagulls, in great throngs! They are clearly relinquishing their typecasting as nocturnal creatures, and making a dreadful diurnal racket.

.............going for dinner.

angkor : wat can I say?

Yesterday, at the suggestion of our Swiss host Eric at the Prince Mekong Guest House here at Siem Reap, we had breakfast at 4.30 am and were on our bikes by 5 to see sunrise at a distant temple. We spent hours cycling around these stupendous ruins which disappear into the jungle at every turn.

Today, saddle-sore and ham-strung, I will do no more than flip-flop around town.

My ankles are being devoured by mosquitoes, so I will sign off.

Monday, 5 January 2009

pol pot

Sipping breakfast coffee with David on a lovely cafe terrasse we are approached by yet another hawker, in a wheelchair. He is selling books. This happens all the time. The man has no hands. A bond develops between him and David, who is missing a hand from birth. They touch stumps in greeting, in acknowledgement. A mine, the man says.

Phnomh Penh is full of amputees, new ones everyday. Unexploded mines all over the country are a legacy of an atrocious civil war in the first half of the 70,s and then of the Pol Pot years. The day after tomorrow the country celebrates the 30th anniversary of the demise of that crazy regime. No one, bar a minor functionary or two, has been brought to justice. Pol Pot died an old man, cremated in a forest on a pyre of used tyres and old mattresses - I saw it in a film just now.

We went to the Killing Field a few miles out of town, just one of almost 2000 places of execution excavated so far, all over the country. Thousands were killed here. Unlike the Nazis, the Pol Pot regime never perfected the art of disposing of bodies. Bones and skulls have been dug up in shallow pits. 8000 skulls found here have been put in a glass sided tower inside a tall stupa that dominates the site. Many more than that died here, as logbooks show. Large tracts of the site have not yet been excavated, and may never be. Funds are low.

Most of the people killed here, many of them women and children, were brought in trucks from the Tuol Sleng prison in Phnomh Penh. This was in a former secondary school building in a suburb. Classrooms became cells and torture chambers. There are gruesome displays, reminding me of Auschwitz, Teresin........images of violence I can,t get my head around. This place too lacks funding. The government has stopped its grant. Evidence, documentation, artefacts, moulder with neglect.
On my way out a man with a horribly burnt face asks me for money. I hurry on. I can,t look him in the eye. Perhaps he was here in its hideous heyday.

I flee in confusion, and walk for hours to take refuge at last in the beautiful Museum of Antiquities. I stay for ages in a room full of the most wonderful standing Buddhas, wooden, ancient and fragile. I sit in the lovely gardens till almost closing time. I watch a rat or two scurry between manicured hedges, waiting impatiently for us tourists to leave so they can reclaim their domain for nocturnal delights.

My camera goes through weird death throes. Do I imagine the wisp of smoke that puffs out with the flash? The autofocus fails. Everything more than a centimeter beyond my lens is a blurred haze, a pretty, impressionistic fog. Is this how I am to snap Angkor Wat, where we go tomorrow, the most stupendous sight ever I am assured? Necessity being the mother of invention, I reconcile myself to creeping about the ruins, nose to the grindstone as it were, doing microscopic closeups of Buddha follicles. This morning the camera breathed its last, with its dead eye stuck open, unseeing, unretractable. RIP.

I go to the market, a fantastic French building and buy a new camera. Is this a true Lumix, and can the lens be Leica as it says?

Its been lovely here, and sobering.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

a constant refrain of.....

......give money, give dollars.

This computer has an imp in it, and a dodgy computer that won,t allow proper punctation'[ppl;,[[9 !

phew! {phrom phnom penh}

We had a busy sweltering time on the Mekong, tripping on and off many kinds of watercraft, walking rickety gangplanks loaded with our rucksacks and wheelie bags, paddling down narrow channels overhung with dense palms in tight canoes, passing returning canoes shed of their tourist loads emitting a constant refrain of .

We have been serenaded by traditional groups singing delta shanties, which kept breaking into Auld Lang Syne.
Seen acres of Water Hyacinth, with lovely pale mauve blossom, grown to stop erosion of the banks, but largely broken away from the edges and floating all over the place. Tasted more tropical fruits than I could imagine.
Watched how rice paper is made for your spring rolls, and seen rice pop in superheated sand, into crispies, in huge metal cauldrons heated over fires made from fruit husks.
Lurched through rambling floating markets at dawn - wholesale, so one boat will be piled high with jackfruit, another only bananas.
Marvelled at the flash of giant kingfishers, and recoiled from pythons wrapping themselves around brave tourists. We have cycled along dykes and perspired in hammocks, chewing on pomelo dipped in salt and chillie. Examined bee hives and drunk honey tea.

All in tremendous sapping heat, and torrential rain which delayed us reaching our last berth, a hotel boat twinkling seductively out in the bay.

We retired early, New Years Eve, to our mosquito infested cabins, to avoid the sozzled Swedish and German celebrations and merrymaking that a cache of cheap wine and spirits portended.

Another early rise, to a brand new year, and more boats and buses to Phnom Penh.
Lovely place, sinister history.

More of that later.