Sunday, June 8, 2008

An Englishman abroad

English comedian Stephen Merchant on location at Angkor Wat (Photo: Nic Dunlop)
A face well-known to British tv audiences but anonymous to anyone in Vietnam and Cambodia, Stephen Merchant paid a visit to the two countries recently. Travelling first-class, his view on his first venture into Asia can be read in today's Observer newspaper online here. Here's an extract that relates to his time in Cambodia.

As we sip beers under the whirring fans of the Foreign Correspondents Club and look out over Phnom Penh, it is hard to imagine that in 1975 this entire city was evacuated and the population moved into enforced labour camps in the countryside. While Vietnam remains poor, it has had several decades to clear away the debris of war and build up a thriving tourist industry. In neighbouring Cambodia, violence and bloodshed stopped only in the past 10 years or so. Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge were still operating as a guerrilla movement well into the 1990s.

With the Khmer Rouge now disbanded and a relatively stable government in place, the country has done an impressive job of plastering over the tragedy and unrest of its recent past. Phnom Penh is full of bustling street-cafes and tourists in rickshaws visiting the glittering royal palace. The people are charming and friendly but behind the facade the country's scars are still there. The Killing Fields are now gruesome tourist destinations and Toul Sleng prison, a former school that became a place of torture and death under the Khmer Rouge, is now a museum. It's a chilling and deeply moving place with hundreds of haunting photographs of the victims hanging on the walls. Everyone you meet has their own story. Our tour guide cheerily tells us his extraordinary tale of life under the Khmer Rouge and it's as gripping as any Hollywood thriller. We're so enthralled we send the taxi round the block a few times until he's finished.

We had hoped to take a boat up the Mekong river to Siem Reap but the water level is too low so it has to be a short aeroplane flight. At Siem Reap we are picked up from the airport in a vintage stretch Mercedes that used to belong to King Sihanouk. Left to rust during the Khmer Rouge period, it was rescued by the owners of our hotel, Amansara, which was formerly the king's residence: he entertained the likes of Jackie O here in the 1960s. Under Pol Pot it became a weapons dump and was left to ruin. Now it's been restored to its former glory and is the very model of elegant 1960s designer chic. Private butler, private plunge-pool, free cakes and mini-bar - outrageous luxury and our home while we visit nearby Angkor Wat. No words can do justice to the beauty of the vast 12th-century temples so I won't even try. Just look at the pictures. And try not to be too distracted by my amazing hat.

Tourists flock to these temple complexes, so we get up at 6am and spend an hour or so exploring them with only a blissful soundtrack of local wildlife. I am terrified of getting bitten by a mosquito because my mum says I will get malaria and die. I cover myself in a thick sheen of insect repellent. I want to bring a mosquito net with me from the hotel but Claire says it will look silly with my hat. As other tourists start to arrive, we venture down a jungle pathway and 20 minutes later find Ta Nei, a smaller temple rarely bothered by visitors. It's private and beautiful. I need a wee. I am about to go behind a tree when my guide reminds me that there are still between 4 million and 6 million unexploded land mines in Cambodia and I should be careful where I tread. I hold it in.

Next day we take a boat ride on Tonle Sap lake and stare at the families of fishermen who live on the water in floating villages. This makes me feel guilty again. I am peering at poor people like they're animals in a zoo. I am disgusted with myself so I make sure I've got enough photos and then ask the boatman to take us back. This is the agony of holidaying in developing countries. Some say you are bringing welcome cash into the economy, others that you are exploiting the impoverished locals. Have I seen the real Vietnam and Cambodia? I haven't ventured off the tourist trail, so not really, but if you're like me and you want to see far-flung places without getting your hands dirty, it can be done, and in great style and safety. And even if I wasn't very adventurous, one evening after dinner I did utter the words: 'Hmm, I think that gekko is repeating on me.' Now you can't say that after two weeks in Devon.


Anonymous OurExplorer said...

Interesting experience. :)

July 2, 2008 4:30 PM  

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