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.