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Thursday, November 23, 2006


Noticing the differences

Coming back to Thailand after spending nine months in Cambodia is an amazing experience. When I go to Thailand straight from Australia I become aware of what Thailand doesn't have. Coming from Cambodia I become aware of what Thailand has.

The first thing I notice of course is the big, new, modern airport. Yes, Pochentong airport has been modernized but the new Bangkok airport makes Phnom Penh look like a country town. Even before I left Bangkok airport I was noticing in the car park the bulkier looking cars that are apparently the latest models. I guess these are not being sold in Cambodia yet or if they are, they're not very common.

Bangkok has super-highways and multi-level expressways. It also has major traffic jams. Phnom Penh's roads are pot holed. Back streets are simply not sealed at all and most of Cambodia's highways are no more than two lanes.

Bangkok and many of Thailand's cities have footpaths that are meant for pedestrians to walk on. Occasionally they are cluttered with vendors stalls. But in Phnom Penh footpaths are where drivers park their cars. Pedestrians have to mix it with the traffic on the busy roads.

The first time I visited Bangkok, some years back now, I was amazed by the high rise buildings that from the raised expressway extend as far as I can see. Now I'm amazed at how many new ones are going up. Phnom Penh is still mostly only a few stories high.

Bangkok has prosperous-looking businesses everywhere. I used to think Bangkok was a dirty city but compared to Phnom Penh it's amazingly clean and green. In Bangkok big Western-style shopping malls, supermarkets and department stores are everywhere. Phnom Penh has just a few small supermarkets.

In Bangkok I have a choice of cinemas showing the latest English language movies. I've not discovered any such thing in Phnom Penh.

Yesterday I caught a bus from Bangkok to Khon Kaen. It was a two level bus but passengers only sit upstairs. I got the front seat which meant I had an empty area in front of me where I could not only keep my bags safely but also stretch my legs fully. Such luxury.

I spent last night in Khon Kaen, in an army camp, believe it or not. And by the way, I have seen no sign of the military outside the camp and the country is going about its business smoothly and with enthusiasm. Post-coup Thailand is much the same as it was before.

Now I am in Mahasarakham. There is much new building going on in both the towns and the countryside. Everywhere I'm reminded of the prosperity of Thailand. And I read that the Thai baht is at its highest level in eight years. This, of course, means my Australian dollar doesn't go quite so far as it did when I was here before.

Living in Cambodia long-term, the poverty becomes less obvious. Now, when I think of my friends in Cambodia I feel sad for them. And yet, I wonder if this is misplaced. Despite their poverty, on average the people I know in Cambodia are no less happy than the people I know in Australia which is of course even more prosperous than Thailand.


After the slow internet connections in Phnom Penh I was pleased to be able to connect to the network in my friends' Bangkok home and use their broadband. When I lived in Mahasarakham previously I found only one internet cafe that would allow me to connect my laptop. This afternoon I caught a sorngtheaw out to that cafe. It seems to be under new management but they were still happy to allow me to connect. Unfortunately this connection is s-l-o-w, slower than the one I used in Phnom Penh.

Sunday, November 19, 2006


Goodbye, I'll be back later

I have come to realize that one of my greatest joys in Cambodia is to get on my bicycle and take a ride through some of the villages in Kompong Chhnang province. Many of the houses have just one room. There might be three generations living in the one house and everyone sleeps in that one room. Cooking and bathing and most other activities are done outside. And on hot days of course everyone is outside.

As I ride my bicycle past them, almost everyone says 'hello'. They don't often get a Westerner riding through their village. Some beckon to me to stop and we have a conversation as best as we can with my limited Khmer. At least I can say more than most of them can say in English. Apart from 'hello', most only know 'What is your name?'

My response these days is to reply in Khmer, 'Kngnom ch'mor John. Joh neak ven?'

They enthusiastically engage in conversation and it's not long before the Khmer goes way beyond me.

On the day I took this photo I had my camera around my neck. I managed to pick up the word 'tort' and asked 'Twer roop tort?' Which I later discovered was very bad Khmer. But they understood so this lot all posed for a photo.

I'm moving on now. I'll miss these people but I'll be back.


On the way in to Phnom Penh on Friday I noticed that the floodwaters on the Tonle Sap have dropped by about three metres from what they were just two weeks ago—still a long way to go.


I spent Friday night in Phnom Penh. The guest house arranged for a tuk tuk to pick me up Saturday at 6.30 am. When it hadn't arrived by 6.45 pm I took a motorcycle taxi. Between the two of us we managed my three bags. That sort of overloading is normal in Cambodia. He drove flat out through the busy morning traffic with his horn blaring, stopping for only one red light. He drove through the others. I even managed to find a free hand when my phone rang—one of my students saying goodbye.

We arrived at Pochentong airport and I was surprised to see that it has been modernized since I arrived in February. I flew with Air Asia which I recommend for anyone on a budget. The planes and service are better than at least one other airline that charges many times more. I was a little concerned about the weight in my pack as they have a 15 kilo limit. Fortunately it came to 14.7. No hassles.

I flew into the huge new Suvarnabhumi (say Su-wa-na-phum) airport in Bangkok. It is very efficient. Immigration gave me no trouble and did not even ask to see the ticket for my onward flight. Customs was equally as simple. My friend, Ead, arrived to collect me soon after I was cleared.

So now I'm back eating Thai food and trying to not speak Khmer, which seems to be coming out of me automatically. I plan to see a bit of Thailand over the next few weeks and should be able to report no less often than I have from Cambodia.

Sunday, November 12, 2006


Maybe we're not so bad

I have mentioned in this blog, a few times recently, a book I was reading, Philip Short's 'Pol Pot, the history of a nightmare'. I found this book to be quite depressing and it left me with some quite negative feelings. I decided to read something more uplifting next. However in the bookshop I found myself drawn to 'The Gate' by Francois Bizot, another book on the Khmer Rouge.

But this book is quite different. In my view, Short has a bias against both the Khmer people and Theravada Buddhism. Sure his reporting is thorough and overall I would say it is balanced but to me the bias still shows. On the other hand Bizot appears to have a positive bias towards the Khmer people and an in depth knowledge of Theravada Buddhism (which Short lacks).

Short's book covers the whole history of the Khmer Rouge and as such is very thorough. But he is relying on other people's accounts. Bizot's is a first-person narrative. He was there! And tells what he experienced. Apparently he is the only Westerner to have been arrested by the Khmer Rouge and released. The others were all executed, probably after being tortured.

Bizot, a Frenchman, was in Cambodia researching Buddhist monuments and traditions. He was originally based at Angkor Wat. In 1971, the Khmer Rouge were still fighting their revolution. Bizot's research into Buddhist practices had brought him, along with two Khmer assistants, into the south-west (not all that far from where I am now living) when they were arrested by Khmer Rouge soldiers and taken to a jungle prison.

The officer in charge of the prison was a young man named Douch, who later became infamous as the principal torturer of Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh. Short's book lists characters with a brief biography. Many, who were loyal supporters of Pol Pot, met their end in Tuol Sleng. Because of Pol Pot's paranoia they were sent there to be interrogated and were never released. In Tuol Sleng it was the job of Douch and his assistants to gain confessions. Any method was acceptable. Once the crimes were confessed execution followed.

What sort of person was Douch who could inflict these nightmarish tortures? Pol Pot only gave the orders. Douch was the one who carried them out.

Bizot got to know the young Douch quite well during his imprisonment. He paints a picture of him as being a man with principles and perhaps even a little compassion. It was Douch's belief in Bizot's innocence that led to Bizot being freed. The Khmer Rouge had little respect for human life as shown by the saying 'Keeping you is not profitable to us. Discarding you is no loss.' Bizot's release was no small thing.

Bizot stayed in Cambodia after his release and was in Phnom Penh at the time the Khmer Rouge took control of the country in 1975. (My understanding and enjoyment of the book is increased by my knowledge of the city that is the setting for this part of it.) His description of life in the capital is not a pretty picture. However, he is still able to see the good in people. Nhem, one of the commanding officers of the area, is also depicted as having some humanity.

I have a reluctance to take on Short's biases. I believe that whatever is true of the Khmers is also true of the whole of humanity, given similar circumstances. And that's the scary part. If we are all that bad or at least potentially that bad, it doesn't speak well of humanity in general. However, Bizot is able to see the good in some of the worst characters in the worst situation. I'm not saying it's a nice read. There are many characters who we are left wondering—just what did happen to them? As Bizot doesn't know, he doesn't say. But considering the situation, there is little chance they survived. Even so, 'The Gate' restored my faith in humanity that was so shaken after reading Short's book.


Where are they now?

Bizot lives in Paris. He is the Director of Studies at Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes and holds the chair in Southeast Asian Buddhism at the Sorbonne.

After the collapse of the Pol Pot regime Douch worked for international aid organizations for many years under assumed names. He is now in prison awaiting trial for crimes against humanity. He has converted to Christianity and says that he is not concerned by his imprisonment. 'They can have my body. Jesus has my soul.'

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


The wedding

On the morning of the wedding I was walking through the market. I stopped to say 'hello' to Vana's sister. She was sewing some needlework onto a crimson traditional woman's top.

'That looks very pretty,' I said.

'It's for the wedding.' The wedding was only an hour or so off and she was still working on her outfit.

I would love to bring you photos of a traditional Khmer wedding. However...

I have written here often about the noise that issues from weddings, funerals and other celebrations in Cambodia. I am aware that, generally speaking, Asia is more noisy than Australia. I cope with that.

For a total of seven months I lived in Chinatown in Melaka in a street with a mosque and several other temples. There was also another mosque within hearing distance. And just a few doors down a shop sold Buddhist chanting tapes. I was often woken by prayers from the mosque before 6 am. But it wasn't all that loud and it stopped a few minutes later. The tape shop also broadcast their stuff from time to time. It was never a problem to me.

After almost nine months in Cambodia I have still not come to terms with the noise that is broadcast at regular intervals for the enjoyment or otherwise of anyone within a kilometre or two radius of the venue. Someone tried to explain it to me, 'They increase the volume to make up for the poor quality.' I still haven't figured out Khmer logic.

I'm not the only one who complains. Here's an extract from a posting to a Cambodian expat forum :

'At my own marriage I tried to have the guys running the music tone down their act. Hell, who's paying, right? Who'd slept three hours in the last 60, done a few hundred wais, been through half a dozen hellish changes of clothes, stood for hours starving and sleep deprived and semi-comatose from thirst and the heat, waiting for all the guests to arrive and be seated? You'd think you are entitled to a little say in the running of things, right? That a splitting headache would be reason enough to shoot the singer and blow up the boomboxes, whereas all you aspire to is to lower the volume a bit. Perfectly legit and reasonable, you'd think. "Please turn this thing down"

'Fat chance—there was no way my requests were being put through and it almost created a diplomatic incident as I felt compelled to leave the premises to go breathe some fresh, quiet air.'

The writer of the above must have been lucky. From what he says, he was on premises that he could leave. Weddings in Kompong Chhnang, and in many other parts of Cambodia, are usually conducted in the open air. There are no walls to contain the noise. It is shared with the entire community—and at times when people in most other societies are sleeping.

The family I am perhaps closest to in Cambodia is the family of Seinee and Seinah, the twins. Their Dad, Chieng, calls me his brother and their Mum, Yieng, is always threatening to find me a wife.

A few months ago one of the brothers told me he was looking forward to having me come to his wedding. And ever since, Seinee has been saying she is looking forward to dancing all night with me at her brother's wedding. I try to explain my position. But none of them speak enough English to understand and my Khmer is less than their English.

What do I do? I don't want to offend these people. I had planned, for other reasons, to be out of the country at the time of the wedding. But that didn't happen.

I talked to Vana about it. His best suggestion was that I make an appearance, stay a short while, then make my apologies and leave. Perhaps that is the Asian way of doing things but, even after spending almost four years here, it is not mine. I don't believe you change something you disagree with by participating in it, even at a reduced level.

To me this means that (a) I must not go to the wedding and (b) my friends must be told why I am not going. No point in making some wimpy excuse and they say, 'Poor John, he missed out on all the fun.' I want them to know why I'm not there.

Vana was rather concerned about this. He did not know how the family would take it. I wrote a letter of apology. After reading it, Vana decided it wasn't so bad. He translated it and wrote it out in Khmer for me.

In the letter I explained that I was surprised that in Cambodia, a Buddhist country, people could have so little regard for others when Buddhism is a religion of compassion. I was even able to quote scripture to support my argument. I said that as a follower of the teachings of the Buddha I could not allow myself to attend a wedding that I knew would be disturbing the peace of others. I also said how much I appreciated their friendship and that I did not want to offend anyone and I wished the bride and groom much happiness. In an envelope along with the letter I included a sum of money which is the usual wedding gift in Cambodia.

The wedding was on Friday. Vana suggested I deliver the letter on Thursday. As I expected, the family stall was closed when I got to the market on Thursday. After I had done my shopping I went to their house. Many members of the extended family, mostly women, were sitting around, wrapping sticky rice dishes in banana leaf to cook for the wedding feast.

I gave my letter to Chieng, with two hands, following Khmer tradition. He accepted it with the smile that rarely leaves his face. I waited, giving him time to open it. They brought me things to eat. I sat and chatted but Chieng seemed in no hurry to open my letter. After ten minutes I decided to go on home.

I went about my business during the day, occasionally wondering how they had reacted to my letter. In the evening I had just undressed to take a shower. This requires me to go down the backyard with just a towel around me. I heard Seinee's voice calling my name. 'Wait a minute,' I called. I quickly dressed and went downstairs.

Seinee had brought me some of the sticky rice delicacies that I had seen the family preparing. As I was not coming to the wedding they didn't want me to miss out on the feast entirely. My apology had obviously been accepted.


I just got my usual spam report from Optus telling me that 43% of my mail was spam. This doesn't count the 40 spam that got through and still ended up in my mail box. But Mail (the program) picks up some of that. Included in what it identified as spam was the Optus Spam report.


The flood has definitely turned. I can now walk to the tofu factory without getting my feet wet. Sarun confidently tells me there will be no more rain and being full moon, there was even a little festival at the end of my street to send thanks to the 'rabbit in the moon'. Yes, it was done with the usual extremely loud speakers. And no, I did not attend.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


Why the flood

The source of the Mekong River is in the Himalayas. It begins with melted snow and ice. During the monsoon season floods occur regularly in southern China and this adds to the flow of the Mekong. The river forms part of the border between Thailand and Laos and also flows through Cambodia before emptying into the South China Sea near Ho Chi Minh City in southern Vietnam.The total length of the Mekong is 4,180 kilometres.

During the rainy season there is so much water coming down the river that the delta in southern Vietnam cannot cope with the flow. Huge amounts of water are forced to flow back into the Tonle Sap, a tributary or perhaps appendix, in Cambodia.

The Tonle Sap is both a river and a lake. The river joins the lake to the Mekong. Even in the dry season the lake is huge. In January last year I travelled by boat from Siem Reap near the lake to Kompong Chhnang on the river. On the lake, I seem to remember that it was not possible to see one side from the other. That was in the dry season.

From the river bank in Kompong Chhnang in the dry season it is easy to see the other side. In the wet season water coming from upstream in the Mekong backs up the Tonle Sap river. The shoreline of the river and the lake can move as much as 50 kilometres and the depth increases by seven to ten metres.

When I look at the Tonle Sap here now it is hard to believe that it is usually a river. Even here it has become a huge lake. Likewise when I travel into Phnom Penh, there is often water on both sides of the road, sometimes as far as the eye can see or perhaps to the foot of the mountains in the distance.

People who live on or near the river either live on houseboats or in houses built on extremely tall stilts. When the water rises these people are surrounded and have to come and go by boat.

Now, the rainy season is almost over and the water is starting to run out again. As the water runs out rice will be planted.

Since I arrived here in February this year, I have taken many photos showing different aspects of the river and river life at various stages of the water flow. The links on the sidebar will lead you to many of them.

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