Saturday, 9 March 2013

The Historically Explosive Luang Pra-BANG!

After an interesting and enjoyable time in Cambodia, it's time to tick off the next country in our I-Spy Spotters Book of The World. We're off to Laos, and specifically the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Luang Prabang. Given that we live 10 minutes walk from another UNESCO World Heritage Site, Saltaire, we can sometimes get a bit blasé about visiting places around the world who proudly boast about their UNESCO status. We've been to the ancient city of Petra in Jordan, and seen the stunning treasury facade carved into the pink rocks, but did it have Salts Diner serving delicious home made burgers and a range of refreshing ales from the Saltaire Brewery? No it didn't. And we've "scuba'd" around The Great Barrier Reef, but failed to find a pub anywhere along its colourful coral watery depths to rival the cosy Fanny's Ale House. And The Medina of Marrakech was noisy and exciting and exotic, but does its railway station afford easy access to Skipton or Bradford Forster Square? Ha, thought not.

So you see, when it comes to UNESCO World Heritage Sites, we are quite demanding customers, and have much higher expectations than most tourists who might be impressed by, for example, a massive lump of red stone, sticking out of the desert, in the middle of "nowhere" (or Australia as it's sometimes known).

I've got to say though, Luang Prabang (aside from its funny name) is a very beautiful place, much quieter, calmer and more relaxed than anywhere we've been so far on this trip. Can't argue with UNESCO on this one. And you wouldn't have the slightest inkling that Laos is Communist. Actual Communism, not the wishy-washy pretending to be an open democratic multiparty free-market system whilst still making sure only one bloke ever wins the election for the last 30 years kind of "apologetic communism", as practiced in some countries. No Laos is openly and unashamedly single party, no elections, Chairman Mao-ist kind of Communist. It was dragged into the Vietnam War when the North Vietnamese used it as a supply route, and as a result was heavily bombed by the United States - It has been reported that Laos was hit by an average of one B‑52 bombload every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, between 1964 and 1973. U.S. bombers dropped more bombs on Laos in this period than were dropped during the whole of World War II. In fact it is reckoned that Laos is the most heavily bombed country per-capita in the world.

Wandering around Luang Prabang these days, you couldn't imagine a more chilled out, friendly, happy environment. The traffic mainly consists of cyclists, mopeds and Tuk-Tuks, none of which seem in much of a hurry to get anywhere and for the first time since we left home, crossing the road feels like a perfectly safe activity. Even the market traders are chilled out. We walked through the seemingly endless night market and actually enjoyed the experience of looking at things (including some interesting bottle openers made out of the shells of unexploded bombs which are still to be found in areas of the country). Not one person even vaguely suggested we might buy something from them, indeed, some stall holders seemed to be asleep! In most other places we'd be ensuring we avoid eye contact with anyone or anything, for fear of being dragged into a store, force-fed mint tea and not being released until we had paid a sizeable ransom, before emerging with a full-size elephant statue or a complete set of brightly coloured new carpets.

So, take UNESCO's advice and visit chilled-out Luang Prabang, a great advert for Communism.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Waterworld

The highlight of our visit to Siem Reap was not our visit to Angkor Wat, though that was certainly well worth seeing. But after a day sitting by the pool doing nothing (a holiday I believe some people call it) we travelled with our guide to visit the great lake of Tonle Sap. This lake feeds the river of the same name which flows down through Cambodia, eventually joining The Mekong in Phnom Penh. We'd already seen the lake as we flew from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap - it really is immense at 2700 square kilometres, which is equivalent to nearly 4000 football pitches (I think that's the sort of thing you're supposed to say when quoting big statistics like that, though the football pitches themselves would be very muddy indeed, probably unplayable). Currently it's the dry season so it's at its smallest - it will be 16,000 square kilometres in June when the rainy season starts - to put that into perspective, that's almost as big as Robbie Savage's ego!

The thing we've really come to see is not the lake but the villages in and around it. Higgledy-piggledy towns have grown up all along the banks of the river with wooden houses on huge stilts, some 10 metres tall, to ensure that they are not flooded, while other residences are on rafts which float on the fishy water.

It's like nowhere we've ever been before and as we are taken out in a boat ourselves we can see everything close up. On the river banks men stand with nets at the ready, dressed only in their underpants - I've heard of fly fishing", but I don't think this is quite what J.R. Hartley had in mind! Having cast their nets these scantily clad chaps wade waist, or sometimes neck deep into the river - something I've never seen Jack Charlton do dressed only in his Y-Fronts. Meanwhile other (fully dressed) fishermen jump into long boats with huge outboard motors and zoom up and down what is essentially "the high street".

After half an hour or so up the river everything opens out and we are on the lake which goes as far as the horizon and presumably further. And here there are thousands of houses, shops and even a school, floating in this watery city. I can't imagine a more bizarre place to live than in the middle of a huge lake where you have to row to the corner shop, swim to school and where staggering home from the pub is likely to end up landing you in the drink.


Thursday, 7 March 2013

The Power of a Thousand Wats

Every nation has one outstanding tourist attraction that is a "must see" for visitors. France has the Eiffel Tower, Brazil has the Christ The Redeemer Statue on Corcovado Mountain, China has its Great Wall, Germany - something to do with sausages probably and of course in England, Bradford's very own Valley Parade. In Cambodia, tourists flock to the town of Siem Reap, which exists almost exclusively because of the nearby ancient city of Angkor and its temples.

At 5am we were picked up by a driver and a guide who took us to see the sunrise over the most famous of these temples, Angkor Wat. I'm not entirely happy with the idea that there are two 5 O'Clocks in a day and was barely conscious as we rattled along the bumpy road and our cheerful guide gave us some historical details. The key points are that it was the seat of the Khmer Empire about 1200 years ago, until some Siamese hard-cases came along and the Angkor occupants legged it down south. The city gradually fell into ruins, was consumed by the jungle and largely forgotten about. It was in the 19th Century that the site was "re-discovered" by the French. Given the scale of the site, it must have been an amazing day for the person who took a stroll through the jungle (presumably with a baguette in one hand and a bottle of Piat D'Or in the other) before stumbling across an ancient city containing the biggest single religious monument in the world. "Zut Alors" I assume they exclaimed, before clearing an appropriate space for a long lunch of "pain, vin et Boursin".

Over 100 years later another famous archaeologist of French descent, Angelina Jolie, came here to film the documentary Lara Croft:Tomb Raider and when people saw this documentary they wanted to come and see the temples of Angkor too - two million people visit this place every year. Hence as the sun rises at an ungodly hour I find myself jostling for position at the edge of a lilly-covered lake which sits in front of the iconic Angkor Wat. It's not easy, there are a lot of people who must have risen even earlier than us to get here first and I have to settle for a position behind a posse of Japanese girls who are among the few people shorter than me, and hope my sunrise photographs are not affected too adversely by the paparazzi scrum I'm now part of. Despite all this it was worth it, and of the hundreds of photos taken, I'm expecting at least one to be OK.

Given the early start, we've pretty much explored Angkor Wat by 9am and our guide takes us back to the minibus so we can be driven to some of the other highlights - there are over a thousand temples spread around the 390 square mile site so it would be difficult to explore properly in a day without transport. For me the highlight was not Angkor Wat with its recognisable towers, but Ta Prohm, which still retains the "walking through the jungle, suddenly found this temple" feeling. Huge trees have twisted and burrowed their way through the walls of this little temple to the extent that both trees and stone have become permanently combined. This is a site which featured heavily in the Tomb Raider documentary and you can understand why, it's a fantastic sight.

By early afternoon, we've seen everything that our eyes and legs can handle and return to our hotel to chill out by the pool. And incredibly, as I sip my cold Angkor Beer I spot the famous archaeologist Angelina Jolie applying Ambre Solaire to her long adventurers legs, who'd have thought... oh wait, no it's not, it's the German bloke from the room next to us. No more Angkor Beer for me I think.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

The Grand (but modest) Palace

Like Bangkok, Phnom Penh also has a grand palace. It's grand, there's no doubt about it, but its not as bling as the one in Bangkok, it feels more refined, spacious and regal - far less colourful and in-your-face. And because of that, visiting it, having already been to the one in Bangkok, felt a bit like enjoying a chilled glass of Chablis with David Attenborough immediately after coming in from an all-nighter spent downing Tequila Sunrises and pints of "Blastaway" with Austin Powers.


Tuesday, 5 March 2013

The Penh is mightier than the sword

The people of Cambodia are incredibly welcoming to tourists and genuinely appear to want people to come and see their country and then to tell their friends and families that it is a safe place to visit. Maybe it's down to the overwhelmingly Buddhist population, or maybe a recent history of genocide and conflict has caused an equal and opposite reaction, but everyone has been so (and I can't come up with a more appropriate word), nice.

I hope that things go in the right direction for them, there are certainly still issues. The current Prime Minister was a Khmer Rouge soldier, there seems to be the hint of dark forces in the shadows, a suspicion that neighbours and historic enemies Vietnam have much more influence within the country than people would like, even the implication that much of the revenue earned by Cambodia ends up in Vietnam. You get the feeling that Cambodia is a democracy on the outside but not on the inside, that it is not entirely free. Corruption and bribery are apparently a normal part of getting government officials to do things, and people are reluctant to talk politics in public.

One group is trying to use the power of performing arts to show visitors a much more positive side to Cambodia and aims to make people associate their country with art and culture, rather than its darker recent past. So "Cambodian Living Arts" puts on cultural performances in the grounds of The National Museum in which young people bring to life traditional Khmer arts and use them as a force for good. I am aware that I'm straying into middle-class Guardian-reader territory here, but if the cap fits...

So it came to pass that Justine persuaded me to attend one of the Plae Pakka performances called Mak Therng, half Khmer Opera, half ballet. Oh and... half pantomime. Musically this was... how to put this delicately... unlistenable. And that's coming from someone who wrote the cacophony that is "The Spirit of Bradford City", so I know a thing or two about discordant noise. The dancing was probably very good, but I'm a bloke, so I don't understand anything about that sort of thing... I'm not supposed to - it's not aimed at me. On the rare occasions I've seen Strictly Come Dancing, to hear Phil Tuffnell trade insults with Bruce Forsyth, or to look at Victoria Pendleton's legs, I have never had a clue what was going on - everyone seems to be doing things I couldn't do, even if I wanted to (which I don't) and when the judges declare the scores, I have no idea why they are good or bad. The rules are a complete mystery to me - a bit like Rugby Union in that respect.

Where was I? Oh yes, Mak Therng. Strange discordant music in a completely alien scale combined with dancing - it doesn't sound like a reason to leave happy hour at the Foreign Correspondents Club does it? But then you become immersed in the plot. There are subtitles displayed on a big screen above the stage (which is good, because my Khmer is coming along, but its not up to understanding light opera yet), and so the story is easy to follow.

Spoiler alert - if you're about to see
Mak Therng for the first time and don't want to hear the ending, stop reading now. Or if you're just bored, same advice.

Basically, a poor farmer is married to a hot girl who sells spices in the market. A bad dream involving dragons and stuff makes them worry that their blissful existence is not going to last and they're right. The King's son comes to the market (on the pull), spots hot wife, thinks "she'll do for me", drags her back off to the palace, two peacocks dance around a bit, before one of them gets shot.

I'm outraged at the Prince's arrogance, and from then on I have to stop myself from boo-ing every time he walks on.

Anyway, the farmer is not going to put up with this and manages to get an audience with the King who is also outraged that some geezer has nicked this bloke's wife, irrespective of how hot she is. It then becomes clear to the King that it is his son who is accused, but despite the family involvement, he is a fair and just king, so we are now flung into a courtroom drama.

There follows some slightly odd stuff where the plaintiff and the accused have to carry a drum around on a big stick, but the court finds in favour of the farmer, the Prince gets in a right old huff and thinking "if I can't have the hot wife, no one can", brutally murders her in full view. The King clearly feels let down by his spoilt brat of a son, orders his arrest, and they all live happily ever after... except the hot wife... and the farmer... and the Prince.

I don't know if they will succeed in exporting this to many other parts of the world, or if Cambodia will become known primarily for its performing arts, but I can honestly say it was the best Khmer Operaballetpanto I've ever seen.

The kid who didn't appreciate how lucky he was

Back in the days before Kim Wilde moved into landscape garden design, Cambodia was not a place that foreigners could visit (unless they were armed to the teeth and trying to overthrow the incumbent communist regime). People had been forcibly relocated from towns out into the country, separated from their families and required to produce rice at levels which would have been impossible to achieve even if the workforce were not starving and unhappy.

We were taken by our guide, Nara, one of the nicest, gentlest people we've ever met, to an area about 20 minutes drive from the city centre, along dusty, bumpy, and incredibly busy roads, through former rice fields now turned into clothing factories. When we arrived at Choeung Ek, we entered a compound which is now a museum of sorts. We were walking in to "The Killing Fields", one of many hundreds of sites in Cambodia where intellectuals, opponents of the Khmer Rouge, ethnic minorities, people who refused or were unable to farm, or simply innocent citizens who gave any reason to be disliked or suspected by local leaders, and their wives, husbands and children were brought. They were killed and dumped in mass graves. As we walked around the pathways there would be glimpses of bone which had become exposed by the feet of visitors and in display cases were vast amounts of items of clothing which had been found at the site.

This place was clearly intended to act as a memorial to honour the quarter of the population lost to the Khmer Rouge regime, but also, I think, to allow people to move forward. I found it incredible that Nara was able to show us around, but even more so when it became clear that as a child she had herself been forced by the regime to work all day and most of the night with very little food. She pointed out a small orange lizard which she says she used to catch, dry out and eat simply to try to survive, and she would steal sweet potatoes from the ground and eat them raw, all the time making sure that she wasn't spotted.

There were no schools, some of those had been turned into "security centres" (torture prisons to use the less euphemistic term) such as the infamous S-21 which we also visited and which has been kept as it was found when the Khmer Rouge were overthrown. There were no hospitals or medicine, there was the risk of malaria, and it became apparent that Nara and her Grandmother were probably the only members of her family who had survived that relatively short-lived period of her country's history. She doesn't know how old she is for sure but thinks she is a similar age to me, so while I was complaining about potted meat sandwiches in my school dinner lunchbox in the safe tranquility of Northern England she was trying to survive on dried lizard and a few hours sleep before being forced back into farm labour fearful of being one of the victims of The Killing Fields.

We finished by lighting incense and placing flowers at the large memorial, and for the first time on this, or any other trip, felt no desire to take photographs. The lasting image in both our minds didn't need to be digitally captured, we'll never forget, in a glass case containing rags and fragments of clothing, the sight of a small child's pair of purple shorts.

Monday, 4 March 2013

The Wilde East

As a kid who grew up through the late 70s and early 80s, I learned everything I needed to know about world affairs from pop music. The Human League's "The Lebanon" gave me a real insight into the complex and often volatile situation in The Middle East, Frankie Goes To Hollywood taught me the political nuances of the ongoing cold war, U2 kept me up to speed on Northern Ireland and the lovely Kim Wilde released "Cambodia" and introduced me to a country under the influence of a regime known as The Khmer Rouge with the infamous Pol Pot at the helm. No need for The Guardian or Newsnight for me, Top Of The Pops and The Tube kept me in the loop.

32 years after Kim took Cambodia to number 12 in the charts, I'm there, in the capital Phnom Penh, in a hotel room overlooking Wat Langka, a colourfully decorated temple complex, populated by Buddhist monks.

After the Dalai Lama's well publicised declaration that he is a Bradford City supporter I was hoping to see many fellow claret and amber clad Bantams fans going about their monk-y business whilst reflecting on our recent moral victory at Wembley. Sadly these guys must have a different allegiance as their robes are all tangerine - must be Blackpool's lot, meditating over a brief but entertaining stint in The Premier League last season.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Wat on earth?

The Grand Palace in Bangkok is a riot of colour, gold, silver and other shiny-ness, Buddahs, huge statues, pointy monuments, mosaics, incense, and a complete contrast to the concrete city outside its walls.

It's more than a palace - though it is where the Thai equivalents of Liz & Phil used to hang out - but it's also like a Hindu-Buddhist theme park. Each ruler has added a few more temples (known as Wats) and tombs to the site, to the point where you wonder how many more they can squeeze in.



We dodged in and out of the intermittent rain downpours and had plenty of practice at removing our shoes and socks before we entered each Wat. The incense didn't completely mask "The Smell of a Thousand Feet"!

Conveniently then, the next site we visited (Wat Pho) also houses a famous massage school and we were able to treat our toes to a 30 minute foot-massage which, once I'd got over the embarrassment of a stranger experiencing the aroma of my shoes, was very pleasant indeed. Unfortunately the socks and shoes had to go back on as we headed off to see more wats and whatnots.