Sunday, January 31, 2010

Boat Trips!

Just before I came to Camb
odia, my wise and much-travelled uncle sent me a copy of an old map of Cambodia. The original, printed on parachute silk, had been inexplicably found amongst my late granny’s possessions – none of the family was aware of any connection she had with Cambodia.

Much has changed since the map was made, maybe 70 years ago, with towns, roads and even names evolving. But despite all this change, two clear constants remain - the country’s great waterways, the mighty Mekong river and the huge Tonlé Sap lak

The Mekong is great and beautiful – 4,200km in length and up to 5km wide in places, springing from way up in Himalayan foothills of Tibet. It has already flowed though Thailand and Laos before its 500km journey through Cambodia, from where it continues through Vietnam before it finally empties into the South China Sea.

Several key Cambodian towns line the banks of the Mekong, from Stung Treng, past Kratie's famous dolphins, and on down to Phnom Penh. For my first 8 weeks in Cambodia I studied Khmer language in Kompong Cham, on the west bank around 2 hours north of Phnom Penh, a fantastic chance to spend time by the great river.

One Saturday, the enterprising John chartered a brightly-painted wooden boat for a group of inquisitive volunteers, and we headed out on the water. After floating downstream on the strong current, we headed up a tributary to a group of small villages, home of some impressive temples and groups of traditional weavers.

From the boat we saw just how essential the river is to the lives of the people here: for water, food from water-plants and irrigation as well as fish, transport in all manner of wooden boats, cleaning of bodies, clothes and possessions (including cows) – and of course fun, with a good number of splashing children, and dragon boats carefully tended in the local pagoda.

The Tonlé Sap is similarly breathtaking. A vast freshwater lake, by far the biggest in SE Asia, it is also something of a natural wonder in that its river part flows in different directions depending on the time of year. This is because it is linked by a 100km channel up from where the Mekong reaches Phnom Penh, and during the wet season water backs up this ‘river’, increasing the level of the lake by four or five times and inundating nearby land and forests. However, when the wet season ends the Mekong waters reduce, and water starts to flow back south – so the river has effectively reversed its flow.

Another weekend, another adventurous volunteer, the lovely Katja, arranged a trip to see the Tonlé Sap, in particular the high-stilted village and flooded forest of Kompong Phhluk. As it is now dry season, it was quite a journey to reach the retreating waters – 20km or so by tuc-tuc from Seam Reap, a hair-raising moto journey along a muddy track, and finally a wooden boat through the swamps.

The forest was impressive, with the lowered water level revealing petrified trees, trunks encrusted with shells. The boat also took us out onto the Tonlé Sap lake itself, a great inland sea with water stretching to the horizon in every direction.

The village was quite a sight - houses on stilts are impressive and somewhat romantic for us outsiders, but I’d never seen anything like this – as the water level can rise so much (from around 2m to a whopping 10m), the houses are built astonishingly high. Platforms, bridges, pumps and stairways towered above us, a whole community in the sky high above the dry-season water level below.

I’m intrigued by my granny’s map, but I guess the story behind it will remain a mystery. I can at least be confident that, as someone who liked nothing better than “messing about in boats”, she would have thoroughly approved of my recent sorties on the water.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Love and marriage, Khmer-style

Weddings are great, aren’t they? As we head into February it’s marriage month here in Cambodia, and we’re truly mired in matrimonial merriment.

An ordinary road the night before becomes a wedding venue the next morning, courtesy of colourful tents and plastic chairs.

And if you don’t spot the change, you’ll certainly hear it. The noise (music?) is seriously loud, with even the most modest reception requiring concert quantities of speaker stacks. The importance of your nuptials is clearly directly related to your decibel count. Sadly it’s also inversely proportionate to the value you place on the future aural health of your guests, not to mention the present mental health of your neighbours.

I confess that I haven’t yet learned to appreciate the aesthetic qualities of either the repetitively plinky plonky pre-dawn wake-up or the unrelenting late-night thudding bass. And yes, the noise is mornings, nights, all and any time: if this isn’t quite the romanticised account of wedding bliss you expected (from me?!) – in fact on re-reading I accept it’s positively grumpy – then please remember I was forced to start celebrating at precisely 4.30 this morning. And at 4.30am yesterday.

It’s not even limited to weekends – half the staff at work disappeared even earlier than usual last Wednesday, and it transpired they had a more important appointment at a ceremony across the village. A colleague explained that couples often take advice from fortune-tellers on which day is most lucky, and it seems the stars have little respect for hospital timetables. Interestingly, I’m told that most Cambodian weddings are arranged, which keeps astronomers busy and I guess saves on internet dating subscriptions.

Much as I’d like to, there’s no way I can beat (or avoid) weddings here, so I’ve succumbed on a couple of occasions and joined in. And I have to confess, whilst not exactly fun, weddings are certainly interesting places to observe aspects of the country’s culture.

For example, these celebrations of joining men and women are actually where I’ve observed most acutely the palpable separation been men and women in Cambodian society. Tables are uniformly single-sex, with little or no interaction between men and women. My most recent experience was therefore sitting with a bunch of guys drinking repeated rounds of icy lager, whilst those girls who weren’t fetching us the beers were sat at the other side of the room looking pretty, giggling and sometimes giggling prettily.

Similarly, whilst the girls / women looked amazing in silky costumes, immaculate make-up and dressy shoes, the boys / men looked basically like we always do, lounging in creased open-neck shirts and beige pants. An exception to this was the groom – he looked immaculate, managed to keep a fixed grin for a whole weekend, and I understand endured 4 changes of costume – though his blushing bride probably had twice as many.

Apparently the full celebrations of Khmer weddings can be extraordinarily elaborate, stretching from a morning exchange of food and presents at the groom’s home, to a procession to the bride’s home for ceremonies of tea-drinking, hair-cutting, foot-washing, and vow-exchanging – not to forget being ritually bound by silken cords. Maybe there’s something to be said for this after all.

Sadly I haven’t seen any of the above yet - apart from walking a gauntlet of bowing family on entry and a short stage presentation, my whole time at weddings has been spent eating and drinking. The provisions have always been plentiful, and I got away with chewing salad, nuts and bread, avoiding the Thmar Pouk speciality of deep-fried baby frogs.

I thought I was on safer ground with the drinks - copious quantities of ice with some lager mixed in. However, I was clearly remiss when drinking without first clinking glasses, and equally unimpressive when repeatedly failing to empty the contents at once (I tried to pretend I didn’t really understand, but unfortunately there’s a fairly clear and universal sign-language for ‘down it in one’).

With all the music, I had hopes of a bit of a boogie, but there was little in the way of dancing – at one wedding we did get to the front for some slow, formal waltz-type shuffling – the guys with other Khmer blokes I should add - and at the other some daring boys stood up from their tables and engaged in some rhythmic swaying. I figured this was not the place to show off my Flashdance routine.

And then you can go home. But not so fast! These weddings don’t pay for themselves you know. You’re not expected to bring a present, but you are provided with a handy envelope in which to put a compulsory voluntary contribution before you leave – the going rate at the moment is a whacking $10. Paid for the privilege? Ok, you can go home now, and pray to the stars for a wedding-free night’s sleep.

A romantic p.s. – I’ll try to redress the balance of the accompanying photos by including one of me and my new special friend, the lovely Katja who is a volunteer nurse in Stung Treng, handily situated nowhere near Thmar Pouk – happy days!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Animal Kingdom

One big advantage of living and working in the rural north west of Cambodia is that I’m right in the middle of beautiful countryside, which I share with all sorts of interesting creatures!

Normally I’m a dog-lover, but here they must be my least favourite animal - menacing packs who love snarling at nervous foreigners. I’ve been out on my bike a fair bit now, but have been put off running for fear of being bitten. Worse still, they bark and howl (proper, full moon wolf-wailing) long into the night, and early the next morning – bring your earplugs. Apparently the locals are immune to this, or (I have heard) put up with it as dogs scare off ghosts. Personally I’d prefer a few ghoolies to that racket.

My favourite animals are cows and particularly water buffalo. Paddy fields are graced with their presence, and as beasts of burden the buffalo do much of the ploughing, though noisier and more prosaic ‘machine cows’ (mini-tractors) are now appearing. Water buffalo are big animals with sharp horns - I cycled thorough a herd the other evening and seriously wobbled. They sometimes get freaked out by cars and the like – we’ve seen a couple stampeding along the road, and you wouldn’t want to be in their way - but for the most part they are a stately and serene part of the countryside.

Water is a crucial part of Cambodia’s landscape, and there is plenty of aquatic life to enjoy. There are even dolphins in the Mekong river at Kratie – though the nearest I’ve seen is the 2010 Dolphin Calendar, which is light on water life and more focussed on hunky ‘Dophin Men’. I assume my invite was lost in the non-existent postal system. Fish have a pretty bad time as Cambodians spend a lot of time trying to catch and eat them, though the smart ones – and the turtles – hang out near temples, where they enjoy some kind of protection.

Which makes me wonder about Cambodians’ relationship with animals. It seems to be close, living mainly in rural villages, often housing chickens, cows and pigs under their stilt-houses. And it also seems to be practical – with the exception of a few kittens and puppies, animals are there to be used not petted.

But I don’t get it: in theory, nearly everyone here is Buddhist, so believe that when we die we are reincarnated as another creature. So clearly we're not going to kill and eat other creatures, as they could be our friends or relatives. Sadly, this logic is honoured more in the breach than the observance, with Khmers tucking into all manner of creatures without apparent concern for their immortal souls.

Whilst I find this all rather confusing (I resist saying hypocritical, for now at least), I guess it’s no more inconsistent than my fellow countrymen who claim to love animals but find it ok to kill and eat them (or rather get others to do the killing). Cambodians are at least consistent – they happily slaughter and feast upon cows, pigs and chickens like many Western folk, but also kill and eat horses, dogs and rats, whilst we seem to think this is somehow different – how exactly?

Ok, soapbox moment over – let’s talk about creepy-crawlies! My morning toast was delayed last week for repatriation of a giant beetle, and there are some lovely butterflies, which I think shows that despite all the plastic bag burning the air quality is pretty good. I've walked to work across the temple island with a long, bright green serpent, and my nurse colleague Alison and I also found a snake in the hospital meeting room. I am hoping word of this will discourage the cleaners from sleeping on the boardroom table.

I suppose mosquitoes come under the creepy-crawly category too – and you can forget all that bleeding-hearted veggie talk above, these bastards are to be splatted with extreme prejudice. In my (self) defence, they are a direct threat to me (night ones with Malaria, day ones with Dengue – and all of them with annoying buzzing and infuriatingly itchy bites). I’ve therefore closed their favourite local breeding ground (the ‘gurney’ in my bathroom, now safely drained). The good old lizards (I think strictly geckos) also do a good job on mozzie control, though they do make a disturbing squeaky sound at night, especially when trodden on.

Finally, my animals of the moment – a happy couple of birds (species to be ascertained) have taken up residence on my bedroom windowsill. Maybe I should have taken action when I first saw twigs arrive, but now there’s a fully-formed nest I haven’t the heart to evict them. It will be fun to see a new household emerge – I just hope that, as with some young families, they don't rival the dogs for late night and early morning wailing.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

First day at work: stick to Plan A?

1. You pitch up promptly for your first day at the hospital at 07.30 as instructed. It’s deserted. You find a little cupboard /office where the last volunteer was based. You turn on light – then turn it off again as it roars like a dentist’s drill. What do you do?
a) Relax, have a look round, wait it out, it’s early days
b) Stress, cry, take it all as a personal insult, stomp home

2. Keeping with plan a) for now, you’re pleased to see the head doctor arrive. He’s welcoming and happy to give you an impromptu Khmer language lesson (pitched way too high, but a nice gesture). People start arriving – there’s a meeting! You don’t understand a word, but the head doctor kindly translates the odd thing – it seems this is a monthly gathering of leaders to report on how many women are registered (to give birth?) at local health centres. 4 hours later it’s still going. Time to escape?
a) Stick with it – getting to know key colleagues is important, and you may even soak up some of the language
b) Make your excuses now, before you die of hunger, boredom or piles from the hard wooden bench

3. You’re lucky you stuck it out – at the end the head invites you to his house for lunch, how nice! He turns to the HIV co-ordinator and asks him to take you there on his motorbike. What do you do?
a) Gently explain that you’d prefer to walk there with the head – you’d need to have a helmet to ride a moto, and you like walking anyway
b) Go with it, probably only round the corner anyway, who’s to know - and you’re hungry

4. Walking round the corner to the house you suddenly realise that this isn’t a personal invitation – the whole of the meeting is decamping to the cafe. And laid out before you is a lovely feast - of the pig trotter / goat eye / prawn gut variety. The chief of the main health centre beckons you over and smilingly asks how you like khmer food. Tuck in?
a) Gently ask if you could have a plate of (lovely Cambodian) veggies instead
b) Don’t risk offending at this stage – surely you can hold down a few entrails to keep the peace?

5. Your luck holds – a reassuringly green plate arrives, along with a couple of fried eggs – result. Now the beers come out – clearly nobody is intending to work this afternoon. Toasting and drinking get going in earnest – this could be a long afternoon... A DVD is inserted into the telly, smoochy k’mai ballads emanate, a microphone is produced. After a few songs, it’s edging in your direction. Time to sing?

Yeah, too right I left at that stage! – I’m not going to inflict my karaoke skills on anyone just yet. What do you think then – was sticking with plan a) the right thing to do?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Angkor - what all the fuss is about...

The gods and demons are churning an ocean of milk using a giant serpent, trying to produce an elixir to make them immortal. But it’s not going well – the mountain they are using as a pivot starts to sink, the sickening motion makes the serpent spew a mortal venom, and when the god Shiva drinks up the poison, it just burns through his throat. Oh dear.

But things get better: with the help of the god Vishnu in the guise of a giant tortoise and then a four-armed human, and with another 1,000 years of churning, they eventually succeed. Their reward is not only immortality, but also a three-headed elephant, a milk-white horse, a victory shell and a cow of plenty - so probably worth it?

I’m entering Angkor Wat, admiring the wonderfully carved stone ‘bas relief’ friezes which ring the outer wall of the temple complex, animating scenes from Khmer mythology. And this is only the entrance - I hadn’t realized how extensive or intricate the buildings would be - this is, after all, the largest religious building in the world (a religion, incidentally, which whilst now Buddhist, from the story above is clearly has Hindu roots).

It really is pretty stunning, particularly early in the morning, as the sun rises over the lotus domes which make this the most recognizable of Angkor’s monuments. I’m beginning to understand what all the fuss is about.

And beautiful as Angkor Wat is, it’s only the beginning - Angkor is a great city, the centre of the Khmer empire which at its height stretched hundreds of kilometers from Thailand to Vietnam. Even the present site covers 300 square kilometers; walking round it in a day is not an option.

It’s old too: Angkor thrived for 600 years, from around 800 and 1400, with a population of around 1,000,000. (And as you insist on playing international top-trumps, at that time London had a paltry 50,000 people and took another 5 centuries to come up with poxy St Paul’s!).

Cycling to a second area of temples in the ancient city of Angkor Thom I approach Bayon, centred round a huge sculpture of a head with four faces, beautifully preserved, strange and enigmatic. The image is probably King Jayarvarman VII, with the multiple faces representing his ‘omnipresence’. It would seem that big-brothery police-states have a long pedigree here.

Once away from the tour parties I had a blissful time scrambling over monuments on the two stone causeways, the Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King. I feel a bit guilty about climbing about on an ancient moment, and maybe one day it won’t be allowed, but I have to confess I loved the freedom to roam over such an amazing site. (Incidentally I had drinks later on the rather opulent Terrace of the Elephants balcony in Siem Reap – no sign of a Leper King pub though).

A brisk bike ride brought me to a third group of monuments, including the ‘lost temple’ of Preah Khan. This illustrates the recent history of the Angkor Wat city rather well – when it declined along with the Khmer empire in the 1400s, it was gradually overgrown, and by the time the French colonials ‘rediscoverd’ it in the 1860s many buildings had been completely reclaimed by the jungle.

Angkor is certainly a man-made wonder, but here it is also a natural spectacle too - the jungle has grown back and huge trees have taken over and slowly overcome large parts of the buildings. To their credit, the teams looking after the monuments appear to appreciate that both the man-made and the natural elements contribute to the special atmosphere here, and the ongoing preservation efforts seem to be sensitive to trunks and branches intertwining with sandstone.

I spent a full day at Angkor Wat - only a day, so there’s plenty more to see (and the tantalising prospect that more will be discovered). It was actually my second visit here - I came in early December to run a 10k, which was a great experience. Admittedly on that occasion I spent as much time contemplating tightness and timings as temples and tombs, but it was a great introduction all the same. I was chuffed to get round in 50 minutes, though was put in my place as Trish, the volunteer I replaced, won the women’s race in 40 minutes. Even more impressive were the many amputees who made it round the 10 and even 20k races, an impressive achievement, but also a sobering reminder of this country’s more recent, less celebrated history.

So now I know what all the fuss is about, I will certainly be back for more. Returning to my modern-day chores of shopping in the nearby town of Siem Reap, I’m delighted to find that here is one of the few places in Cambodia where you can buy butter, a true god-send. Perhaps all that demonic churning in the ocean of milk was worth it after all.