Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Cambodia part I: Phnom Penh

The first thing I have to say about Cambodia is that you should go if you can. The second thing is that if you go you should try to use Buffalo Tours. The country is fantastic: very different from the world I'm used to and just like somewhere Tin Tin would have an adventure. (Of course that raises questions about my relation to the exotic, but perhaps being here will reduce any corruption in my soul that there might be of the colonialist kind.) Our guides have been incredibly friendly and helpful, and the itinerary has been designed in such a way that we see very few (other) tourists and have experiences like a private lesson in traditional Khmer dancing on the grounds of a rural monastery as opposed to the more obviously touristy experience of going to a Vegas-style show of Khmer dancing. I think the idea of discovering the real Cambodia is something of a myth (there is no real world, as Tracey Thorn says), but we've come much closer to the mythical ideal than most visitors do. What follows is going to be a cross between a diary entry and advice for other travelers. I'm traveling with a friend and a group of his students, so technically I'm not a tourist. But I am touring. And I'm not, so far, having to do a lot of work.

Phnom Penh is not very popular with tourists, at least not compared with Siem Reap. But I loved it. The people are poor, but they don't seem to be starving in the cities. It seems at times like an economist's fantasy: literal markets are all over the place, and every street seems to be lined with small businesses, open till long after dark (although it gets dark fairly early here). Even in the country, where poverty is more severe, I saw one street lined with beggars too old or too young to work on the farm, and so getting money the best way they could. And they do get money, because the local people believe that if they give to beggars they will get good karma. So the spiritual economy helps the earthly one. Most country roads are not like this, but this particular one leads to a monastery, so it must get a lot of Buddhist traffic. 

These monasteries are everywhere too, about as common as churches in Europe. Typically they seem to be like small villages, with an outer wall, impressive entrance, magnificent pagoda or temple, a dining hall for the monks (serving breakfast and lunch only), and various other buildings for the monks to sleep in, perhaps a graveyard, a school, etc. Being a monk or nun is not necessarily for life, and access to education (and food) seems to be a big motivator. The man who gave me a lesson in meditation spent seventeen years as a monk but is now getting his MBA so that he can earn money to help his family. This is all part of his life plan, and monkhood was the key to his getting the education he wanted. When I asked him what monks did all day when they aren't meditating he said they study: Pali, Cambodian literature, English, etc. 

A typical rural scene: dirt road, cow, ornate religious buildings.

Here's how to meditate. (Warning: no big surprises ahead, although the very simplicity of it all kind of surprised me.) Sit with your right foot on your left knee, or thereabouts, and your right hand palm up on your left hand (also palm up). Keep your back straight. Close your eyes. Do not let your mind leap about like a monkey. Instead focus on what you are doing: I am sitting, I am breathing in, I am breathing out. Breathe slowly. That's it. You can also do it lying down, a position I found much easier to attain. Getting my legs into the sitting position was like trying to refold a map that's been creased wrong. Why do this? To train the mind not to want so much, to achieve liberation from incessant desire. The mind is like a cow and will follow its own path unless trained to go where you want it to go. Meditation is the training that would stop someone like Bill Gates from always wanting to have more wealth. (The ex-monk's examples, which I like partly because the choice of animals gives you a sense of the country. There are lots of humped, white cows and a fair number of wild macaques in Cambodia.) I can see the appeal of this in a poor country, but also the political convenience of it. It's not hard to imagine kings liking a religion that encourages acceptance of one's lot among the peasants, and that promises rewards in future lives. I suppose getting rid of all this superstition is one of the things the Khmer Rouge wanted to do. 

It didn't work out so well.  

Of course we have similar things in the West, but it's either more blatant in Cambodia or else just easier to see it when it's not your culture. Not that religion is all just superstition. There's nothing superstitious about the kind of meditation I was taught: it works or it doesn't, and both cause and effect belong to this world. And I doubt it's simply that a non-superstitious teaching or core is covered by a popular web of superstition. The sleeping  lying down meditation is done with your head toward the Buddha, feet away. This is out of respect, not superstition, but it isn't anything to do with cause and effect. There's an elusive ethical area between worldly calculation (means-end reasoning) and supernatural bargaining (superstition). I like the fact that so many schools literally occupy the area between the pagoda and the market, but within the walls of the monastery. Schools should be closer to temples than marketplaces.

A young monk (most of the ones here looked to be of school age, which is largely why they are here) heads into the temple. The school is just off to the right.

Within the city there are monasteries too, and lots of markets. I have no night pictures, but I have vivid, almost nightmarish memories of coming across a crowded, moon-related celebration at a small shrine one evening, across the street from a small market where piles of fried tarantulas and other bugs were sold. We were not at the Foreign Correspondents' Club any more. Another time I wandered into a monastery and was led by a limping monk (one of his feet was at about ninety degrees to the other) to a locked, low, dark chamber, where I sat sweating before a gold Buddha with an electric, technicolor halo, while another man repeated "Ounalom Temple. Eyebrow Buddha," to me and my friend, pointing at the Buddha's monobrow and sensing our incomprehension. We bowed as if we knew what we were doing (I think he was laughing, at least at me), offered our incense sticks to the Buddha, and accepted a water blessing. Then the man indicated that we should leave money for the Buddha and, when we got back into daylight, the limping monk asked how much we gave. Had the ounalom business been hocus pocus designed to get our money? There was no knowing. Until we got on the internet and found that it's a genuinely old monastery said to house a hair from the eyebrow of the Buddha. Not a scam, in other words. And yet still really a scam, I suppose. The relic isn't likely to be real, and venerating it is nothing to do with non-Buddhists like me. Also prices should be advertised upfront. But that's the wrong kind of thinking for this kind of occasion. You have to let go of your usual mindset. Or at least relax it a little. Open up. It's like a mental massage.

Gateway to Ounalom.

There is something to be said for wandering around, in other words. At least if you want to feel as if you're in a 1930s adventure story, or on LSD (in a down-the-rabbit-hole-but-not-quite-sure-this-was-a-good-idea kind of way). It is a mind-altering experience. The smells are different from the smells at home. Often for the worse (there's a sewagey smell that I can't identify (stagnant water, perhaps), and I saw an average of one man or boy pissing by the side of the street for the first few days of the trip), but then the better smells are all the more welcome and heady: jasmine from a garden or on a stick to give to the Buddha, and incense burning for the Buddha. The sounds are different too. Loud music plays in public at odd hours of the day, sometimes sounding Indian, sometimes Chinese, sometimes Arabic, usually Cambodian. There are bands that play in temples and bands of landmine victims that play for tourists outside ruined temples, and my hotel in Siem Reap seems to pipe in this sound, even to the point of waking me up with it. No one seems to think that music is anti-social. And I suppose it isn't. 

The sights are different, of course. The landscape is mostly flat, made up of rice fields (mostly dry), red dirt roads, stilted houses (usually made of wood and palm fronds, often hosting advertisements for beer), and spiked with sugar palm trees. There are geckos on the walls and ceiling (especially in the Foreign Correspondents' Club, where the food is bland and expensive), dogs everywhere (all the same breed and size: medium), a fair amount of garbage (mostly tied neatly in carrier bags), not many buildings more than two or three storeys high, temples, lots of motorcycles and tuk-tuks, and lots and lots of people selling things, or wishing they could sell things, or sleeping off the heat, or begging, often with small children or landmine injuries. Your heart might bleed or break if your mind wasn't so busy exploding, or just trying to process everything. And the signs are all hopeful: surely the economy will grow now the war is over, and surely tourists will flock here in flocks (why did I nearly say droves?). Signs can mislead though. The government is not all it might be, and if anything holds this country back it will surely be corruption. 

Poverty and prosperity side by side. There is more poverty though. By far.

The tastes are different too. The national dish is fish amok, which is a curry made with coconut milk and banana leaves. The combination of seafood, curry, and tropical sweetness pretty much hits all my buttons. In general the food is both like Thai food (and therefore good) and unique (and therefore interesting). There's a lot of rice, a lot of (pretty mild) curry, a lot of stir-frying, and a lot of unfamiliar ingredients (the mysterious and ubiquitous "river fish," morning glory, dragon fruit, etc.). The mangoes are double good. Of course it isn't all great, but it's all been at least OK. 

And even the feel of the place is different. It is hotter than Virginia, and so very sweaty. An Englishman I met told me that even the Cambodians say this is the hottest summer they can remember. So it's not surprising that for people with money there are all kinds of delightful ways to cool down. Every time I enter the hotel lobby I'm given a scented towel from the fridge. Our tour guides have a constant supply of water bottles, kept cold with huge blocks of ice bought on the street. Ice cream, smoothies (it's mango season), and beer help too. For the poor there's dumping a bowl of water over your head, which also works, or just staying in a hammock in the shade (it occurred to me that "fish amok" might mean fish in a hammock--it's served in a kind of basket made from banana leaves. That would be a very suitable dish for this country).

Two days is all it really takes to see the main sights of Phnom Penh, but more would be better. On the first day we saw Wat Phnom (a temple on an artificial hill, with a shrine to the city's legendary founder, Madame Penh, outside it), the Royal Palace, the National Museum, and the central market. On the second we visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the killing fields at Choeung Ek. I didn't take many pictures that day, wondering what I would do with them if I wasn't going to invite likes on Facebook. But on the first day I was pointing and clicking left and right. The temple is cooler than the outside world, full of color, music, incense, and Buddhas. Here there is usually one big Buddha surrounded by lots of smaller ones. It's a place to make offerings of incense and cash, but also a different world. You take off your shoes and hat before going in. You try to ignore the tourists. You are elevated mentally and physically, literally and metaphorically. It is nicer in here, more interesting, better. 

The golden Buddha of Wat Phnom.

The Royal Palace is also magnificent, but also more open-air, so no incense and no music. There is an emerald, or jade, or crystal Buddha, but not one you are allowed to photograph. Nice buildings though.

There are several buildings like this at the Royal palace, some containing national treasures.

The National Museum was a good surprise. No pictures there either, but it's a bit like the British Museum in terms of seeing massive, ancient, religious statues. There are also people selling jasmine flowers on sticks to offer to the Buddha, so these are not just ancient relics. My favourite piece was the remains of a statue of Vishnu:

The divine hammock is implied.

The central market is a good place to bargain for cheap goods and dare your friends to eat deep-fried tarantula. Not a good place to eat tarantula though. Nowhere is. 

Visiting the genocide museum and killing fields is a weird experience. There is a gift shop at the museum, and survivors encourage you to pose for pictures with them. It reminded me of Alan Bennett's thoughts on visiting concentration camps (where do you have lunch?):
On a different level the discussion of the Holocaust in The History Boys relates to Hector’s dismay that Auschwitz has become just another station on the tourist trail, with Hector concerned about the proportion of reverence to prurience among the visitors. This recurs – and to my mind more harshly – in People, with the comment that there is ‘nowhere that is not visitable. That at least the Holocaust has taught us.’
But not visiting these places seems like an evasion. (By "these places" I mean the ones in Cambodia--I would not visit Auschwitz, although perhaps that can be done decently.) I didn't go to pay my respects but to learn (and because it was on the itinerary, of course). People have tried to pay their respects: at the museum by writing messages of hope, peace, anger, and religion; at the killings fields by leaving bracelets by the tree against which babies' heads were dashed. God. I think all of these attempts fail, and some are not even meant well (I'm thinking of the ones that say things like, "Don't worry, Pol Pot will burn in hell," as if that would make everything all right, and the ones that see mass torture and murder as an opportunity to proselytize). Other people have simply written their own names here. I'm not sure that they really qualify as people. The ones who mean well, though, at least have good hearts. As Wittgenstein said on a related subject (the attempt to say something about the absolute good): "it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it." I wish I'd taken a picture of the graffiti. Others have:

A decent try

Less good

It wasn't until 1999 that the Khmer Rouge effectively ceased to exist. The whole country is scarred by the killing that has characterized its recent history, as well as the extreme poverty that many continue to live (and die) with. It's a disconcerting place to be a tourist. But knowledge seems better than ignorance, and tourist dollars seem better than none. So I think more people should come here. Just not in the Kevin from Ireland kind of way. What the right way is seems to me impossible to specify, but it would involve learning about the country and its people (which is fun, not a guilt-ridden chore), practicing responsible tourism, and helping where you can by buying from NGO-related groups and adults in need, without haggling too much over the price. Mostly it calls for sensitivity, I think, so that when you learn you change your behavior appropriately. But that's about as specific as I can get. 


  1. now this is a proper travel journal.

  2. Thanks! Apparently it makes it sound like an unappealing place to visit, at least to some people. That's not how I feel at all. I hope that comes through in the next one or two posts.

  3. Right Guard cannot help you here!

    Looks fascinating. Just make sure they don't have to send Martin Sheen to assassinate you while you gasp "The horror! The horror!".

  4. I've avoided assassination so far. Fingers crossed.