Thursday, November 21, 2013

Destination Cambodia by Walter Mason

Subtitle: Adventures in the Kingdom

Why I Read This Book
          The travel literature associated with any one country could fill up a whole library, and Cambodia is no exception.  There are volumes of travelogues about Cambodia out there, and I have no intention of trying to read all of them.
            However, Cambodia is a bit of a special case.  Because the country has been changing so rapidly since the 1990s (as a result of increasing economic development and political stabilization) that any book attempting to describe Cambodian has a very limited shelf life.  For example Off the Rails in Phnom Penh (A), the classic tale of debauchery in Cambodia, is now completely out of date.  It was published in 1998, but the country has changed so much since then that the book might just as well be 100 years old.
            Destination Cambodia, on the other hand, is hot off the presses.  It only just came out this September, and (according to the author’s weblog LINK HERE) most of the travel and research for this book took place just last year in 2012. 
            This overlaps nicely with my own time in Cambodia.  (I have been living in Phnom Penh the past two years since arriving in 2011).
            So, when I saw this book in the bookstore, I was excited to find an up-to-date travelogue that describes the Cambodia that I know—not the wild lawless days of the 1990s, but instead the Angry Birds T-shirts, the national obsession with Facebook, the Phnom Penh yuppies, the constant addiction to cell-phones, and the Korean pop-music (all of which get mentioned in the book.)
            I thought it would be fun to read the observations of a professional travel writer, and then compare it with my own experience.

            As someone who has spent most of my life living in small - boring - towns that no one wants to write about, it’s a novelty for me to see my place of residence described in the printed pages of an actual book. It’s a thrill for me to think I live in a place that people would want to read about.  Just imagine, Sorya Shopping Mall, the very same mall I hang out in on the weekends, being described in a book that is being sold all around the world!
            And so, with all the excitement of a provincial, I read Walter Mason’s descriptions of places in Phnom Penh that I was already familiar with.
            On page 200, when Walter Mason describes Monument Bookstore, I got a little shiver of excitement.  “Monument Bookstore!  Why that’s the place where I bought this very book!”
            On the following page, Mason describes the Blue Pumpkin Coffee House.  “Why that’s where I am right now!” I exclaimed to myself.  “Here I am sitting at Blue Pumpkin reading a book that’s talking about Blue Pumpkin!”
            And I was like that all the way through the book.

            But of course that’s just me. 
            I’ll continue shortly with the overlap between this book and my own personal experiences, but first I’ll make some general comments.

The Review
          Walter Mason is a talented writer, and this book is very readable. 
            And I say that as the kind of person who usually gets easily distracted and takes months to finish a book.  This book however I knocked off in only a few days.
            The book has an easy going style that flows effortlessly from page to page, and it’s a very pleasant book to idle away an afternoon with over a cup of coffee.
            There’s also a lot of humor in the book.  In the tradition of - Bill - Bryson, the Walter Mason mixes in a lot of humor with his travel stories. 
            Mason’s not quite in the same league as Bill Bryson.  (This book is not bad, but not quite as funny or as memorable as a Bill Bryson travel book.)  But then, who is?  Bill Bryson is at the top of his genre.

          Another positive point about this book is that Mason does a good job of getting out of the expatriate bubble.
            Many of us expatriates live in a self-contained bubble here in Cambodia.  Yours truly is as guilty as this as anyone.  I work all day with other expats, and in the evenings I also find myself gravitating to restaurants and bars that cater to Westerners. I seldom patronize the local Cambodian food stalls.  (I’m not proud of it, but there it is.)

            Walter Mason, to his credit, has a lot more interaction with the local Cambodians.  Although he never manages to learn the Khmer language, he does hang out with a lot of English-speaking Cambodian friends.  (Almost exclusively it sounds like.  There’s barely any mention of interactions with the expat community in this book.)

            Walter Mason has been living in South East Asia for many years—mostly in neighboring Vietnam, but he’s made several trips to Cambodia over the years, and has built up some friendships and connections here. 

            And so, Mason gets off the beaten tourist track.  His Cambodian friends take him to provincial towns, and even hillside villages in the jungle. 
            Mason spends a lot of time hanging out in with the monks in the monasteries.  There are some not so subtle hints in this book that part of the attraction he feels for the young men in the monasteries is physical in nature, but he is also interested in Buddhism and the local Cambodian religious practices.  Much of the book is spent describing monastic life in Cambodia. 
            And so, through Walter Mason’s writing, the reader gets some insight into areas of Cambodian society most expats never get access to.

            The book doesn’t have an over-arching narrative, but is mostly a collection of different anecdotes, each one its own small chapters, often without any transition between stories.  (I’m not even sure the stories are in chronological order—such is the fragmented nature of the book.)  One chapter will be in the countryside, the next chapter will be in Phnom Penh, and the next chapter is likely to be in Angkor Wat.
            For those of us with short attention spans, the fact that this book is broken down into a series of bite-sized, easily digestible, short anecdotes makes it all the more appealing.

            However, because the book is composed almost entirely of different snapshots of life in Cambodia, there is the danger of “losing the forest for the trees” problem.  Through these little snapshots we get hints of what life is like in Cambodia, but there are no big descriptions of all the things that usually strike an outside observer entering Cambodia for the first time.
            When I think of all the things that surprised me about Cambodia during my first few weeks here most of these things don’t get discussed at all, or at most are just briefly mentioned in passing (the unpredictable traffic; the hazards of crossing the street in a country where red lights are optional; whole families crammed onto the seat of one motorbike; the incessant calling of the tuk-tuk drivers and the motordhups; the public urination; the building boom going on in Phnom Penh in which new coffee shops and restaurants are popping up everywhere; the incredibly cheap price of living in which, among other indicators, very luxurious Western restaurants are incredibly affordable—but often with poverty and squalor being visible right across the street; the huge gap between rich Cambodians and poor Cambodians; the hard, wrinkled, sun-darkened faces of the labourers on the streets which contrast completely with the smooth fair light skin of the rich young teenagers in any of Phnom Penh’s fashionable coffee shops; the many different skin tones in Cambodia in contrast to the homogeneous look of other Asian countries, the rain and the flooding; the strange group of expatriates who inhabit Cambodia and the huge contrast between their level of lifestyle and the lifestyle of most local people; the nightlife— the swanky clubs where the rich young Cambodians (and their ever present body guards) hang out and the beer stalls outside Sorya Mall; the discotheques; the love of music and the old Khmer pop ballads being played everywhere on the streets; the many Cambodians who sleep on the streets in Phnom Penh with just a mosquito net to cover them….et cetera, et cetera, et cetera….)

            It could be that Mason’s increased intimacy with the country has caused him to lose some of his outsider’s perspective.  He writes not as someone fresh off the plane, but as an old hand who knows the region well.
            It’s a bit difficult to say who the target audience of this book is.  But if you want the a travelogue to give you the surrogate experience of visiting the country yourself— if you want the narrator to describe the experiences of visiting a country as if everything were new and wondrously strange, and as if the two of you were experiencing all these wonders together for the first time—then this book may disappoint.

            But the golden rule of book reviewing is: Review the book that the author wrote, and not the book you wish he had written.
            If you take this book for what it is, not as an all encompassing description of life in Cambodia, but as some small snapshots of life, then I think it serves its purpose well. Particularly for us long-term residents of Cambodia, if you’re looking for a book that gives you some insight into some aspects of Cambodian culture that you may have missed, then I think this is a good read.

            My own experience in Cambodia is different than Walter Mason’s. But there are any number of places where he expressed observations I agreed with, or described things I could identify with.  Whenever this happened, I took out my pen and marked up the book accordingly with my own thoughts.  I’ll list through some of these now:

List of Things I Identified With:
[Advanced warning—this gets a little self indulgent, as this is basically just a long list of passages from the book that correspond to my own experiences, and is probably of little interest to anyone else.  You may just want to skip this section.]

* I mentioned the Blue Pumpkin above.  Walter Mason does a pretty good job of describing the place. Despite the fact that the Blue Pumpkin usually only attracts foreign customers, and I sometimes feel guilty for staying in the expatriate bubble, it is nevertheless a nice quiet place to go and read.  As Mason describes it: “It was quiet, as [it] should be, and as all places that cater almost exclusively to foreigners tend to be in Cambodia. The attendants would chat, gathered in small tight circles at some corner, but apart from them there was nothing but the occasional clatter of glasses being washing in a distant hidden kitchen” (p. 201)
            Funny thing about the Blue Pumpkin, though.  Sometimes when I’m there, I’ll start overhearing the conversations of the foreigners chatting next to me.  And then I’ll realize that I’m overhearing the conversations of missionaries, who are chatting about the progress of their congregation, or how so-and-so’s spiritual journey is going. (This is why I wrote in a previous review: Where I live in Cambodia, I occasionally overhear missionaries talking to each other about church issues at Western style restaurants and coffee shops, reminding me that there is still a whole profession of people who think converting others totheir religion should be their life’s work.)
            Well, wouldn’t you know it, Walter Mason is in a Blue Pumpkin, and all of a sudden he finds himself overhearing the conversations of American missionaries.  (He overhears their disastrous attempts at match-making with two Khmer members of their congregation.)
            He also mentions the trouble the missionaries can cause in the hill tribes in Cambodia, (something I’ve not seen first hand, but have heard about from other people): “In Rattanakiri, a tribal area in the northeast of Cambodia on the boarder of Laos, indefatigable Christian missionaries have managed to make their bothersome presence felt, in open hostility to the deeply held animistic beliefs of the Hill Tribe people. Tensions are created in communities when some family groups convert to Christianity, leaving those who stand by their traditional worldview feeling besieged, threatened and often patronized” (p. 202).

* Speaking of religion, Walter Mason spends a fair amount of time describing the various superstitions common among the Cambodians, and in South East Asia in general—magical garments and charms which are supposed to protect against car accidents and bullets, lucky bracelets, magic trees which absorb sicknesses, and supernatural events such as a beam of light from the sky that miraculously exposes a corrupt monk.
            This is something that’s really struck me about Cambodia as well.  The local papers are often full of stories of miracles, spirit possession, sorcery, and magical trees. 
            All this has made me reflect on how easily these type of stories can spring up among a superstitious population that is already pre-disposed to believe in miracles.  This in turn has caused me to reflect on my own religious tradition, and makes it very easy for me to imagine how many of the myths in the Bible might have originated in ancient, less rational, times.

* On page 116, when Mason is talking about Sorya Mall: One whole floor of Sorya is dedicated to the production and sale of pirated CDs, DVDs and games, and it is a film lover’s paradise. I think I can, without censure or legal action, admit to buying the latest movies there and watching them on my laptop at my hotel. For the fact is, it is actually impossible to buy licensed entertainment products in Cambodia, unless they are locally produced.  Anything foreign is available, in plentitude. All of the latest movies would be available at my favorite shop on the day of their cinematic release in America, if not a week or so before. The efficiency of the pirates’ distribution was admirable, and I would urge any of the big entertainment groups in the West to recruit the best people in Cambodia and learn from their speed, thoroughness and attention to public demand. All I had to do was make a breezy enquiry about a movie and, if they didn’t have it in stock, I would be accosted on the escalator a day or two later by a shop assistant saying, ‘Sir, your movie is here.’
            And not only movies, but also box sets of Western TV shows are available in Cambodia for very cheap prices—see for example my own sections of TVshow - reviews, which all come from DVD sets bought in Cambodia.
            I don’t believe the Cambodians themselves are manufacturers of all these DVDs—I’m told they come out of somewhere in China, and then are just shipped all over South East Asia—but as Mason points out, they really have quite an impressive distribution system.  (Not only available in Sorya Mall, but in DVD shops all over Phnom Penh.)
            I feel a little bit guilty sometimes for buying so many pirated DVDs, but as Mason points out you couldn’t buy licensed entertainment in Cambodia even if you wanted to.
            And here’s another thing that makes me think—in Cambodia the DVDs are only sold at $1.50 a disc.  And yet, they are obviously making enough profit on this transaction to motivate them to create this huge manufacturing and distributing system.
            It makes you wonder—when you spend $100 on a box set of DVDs back home, just exactly how much profit are they making off of you?

* Of course the violation of copyright in Cambodia doesn’t only extend to movies, but to books as well.  On page 54, Mason confesses to buying a pirated copy of David Chandler’s history of Cambodia.  “Should I ever meet Professor Chandler, I hereby solemnly promise I will slip him a couple of bucks in restitution.
            Indeed, I should probably make the same promise to Milton Osborne and William Shawcross.
            Destination Cambodia, however, I actually did pay full price for at Monument Bookstore (the only bookstore in Cambodia which sells imported books).  However I’m sure Walter Mason knows as well as anyone that it’s only a matter of time before his own book hits the pirated bookstalls in Cambodia (if it hasn’t already.)

* Although Walter Mason largely misses the chaos caused by the rains and the floods in Phnom Penh during the Monsoon season, he does a good job of describing how oppressive the heat can be.
            The daily average high in Bangkok that month was 40.1, and it wasn’t much lower in Phnom Penh. I was finding it increasingly uncomfortable, even sickening, to get around. By the time I made it to the newspaper stands outside Wat Langka at 7 a.m. my clothes would be soaked in sweat, clinging unflatteringly to my ample curves. ‘Hot, hot!’ would call the heavily pregnant woman who sold me my papers, looking completely refreshed and beautiful, not a bead of perspiration on her brow. (from page 225).
            I don’t know how they do it, but somehow Khmer woman just never seem to sweat.  I as well will often be literally soaked in my own sweat on a hot day in Cambodia, but the Khmer women will be completely unfazed.  They even cake-on lots of heavy face make-up, which I would have thought would be ruined once they started sweating, but then they just somehow never sweat.

* Given its international fame as a world capital, it’s surprising how small Phnom Penh is once you actually get here.
            As a consequence, as in all small towns, you keep running into the same people everywhere you go, and it’s very difficult to keep secrets or avoid certain people, as Walter Mason mentions on page 161.  One evening while waiting at the boat dock for his boat to arrive, Mason observes:
            Unnervingly, my presence at the makeshift wooden docks was frequently noted, not just by the boatmen, but by friends passing by. I would receive messages on my phone: “I saw you by the river,” or “So many friends! No wonder you never have time to see me.” It was at these times that I was aware of just how small Phnom Penh was, and how I could never, no matter how long I stayed there, hope to disappear into it as an invisible resident.

* There was one part of the book where Walter Mason was describing the buildings around his hotel, and I realized he had actually been living on my street!  (I have absolutely no memory of running into him, but given how small Phnom Penh is, if we were both living on the same street it’s very probably I might have walked passed him one day.)
            Not all of Mason’s descriptions of his residence in Phnom Penh fit my street, so I suspect he must have changed hotels a couple times while he was here.  But there is one unmistakable reference to the street where I leave on page 214-215
            On page 214, Walter Mason describes the Love Orange nightclub, which he says was just downstairs from his hotel room. 
            The Love Orange club is (or rather was) just literally right around the corner from my apartment.  (There’s my apartment, a noodle shop, a corner, and then Love Orange was just right around that corner).
            The Love Orange club is now no more—indicative of how rapidly the landscape of Phnom Penh is changing these days that clubs and restaurants will spring up out of nowhere, and then just as quickly disappear, and this is what happened to Love Orange club.  One day I went in there and it was packed with young Khmer teenagers dancing, and then a couple months later I went in there and it was absolutely empty, and then a month after that it was gone.  (My neighbors hint that there was some sort of scandal that caused the club to close its doors, but given how quickly rumors start in this city I’m skeptical.  Maybe, maybe not.  The hotel above Orange Love where Mason stayed, Sakura hotel, is also no longer standing.)
            The name of the club always confused me (although after so long in Asia, you do kind of stop worrying about all the strange English after a while), and it also confused Mason as well, because he writes about a conversation where he asked a friend about it.
            The name of the club had captured my imagination. I found it quite zen-like in its opacity. Could it be making some poetic, veiled reference that lost all semblance of meaning in English? Was orange love some romantic description of sexual obsession in Khmer? Finally I remembered to ask one of my friends as we walked past the sign in daylight. “What’s ‘Love Orange’ mean?” I asked, preparing myself to be educated.
            My friend studied the sign carefully and said, “It means ‘Love Orange’.”
            “Yes, but what on earth does ‘Love Orange’ mean?” I asked.
            My friend looked at me in confusion. “It means what it ways, ‘to love oranges’, you know, the fruit.
            This was no explanation at all. If anything, it deepened the mystery. “But why on earth would someone call a nightclub ‘Love Orange’?” I asked.
            “Probably the owner really loves oranges,” said my friend as we walked on. (p. 214-215)
            Next, Mason describes the Phnom Penh Mart down the street from Love Orange club—a place I know well because I’m there pretty much every night myself.
            So that night I was headed to the Phnom Penh Mart, the convenience store-cum-bar-cum-late-night refuge for insomniacs, drunkards and the criminally insane.” (p. 215)
            ….Um, yeah, I suppose it can have those elements late at night.  But you often just run into a lot of normal people there as well.  Cambodian teenagers will often just hang out there and flirt with each other over cheap cups of noodles.  The clerks there are all incredibly friendly and always eager to practice their English.  (In fact sometimes I almost avoid going there because I can no longer seem to just buy something and get out without getting drawn into a conversation.)
            As in convenience store all over the world, the Phnom Penh Mart was lit at theatrical levels, and could be seen from some distance. Planes could probably have navigated from the light pouring out of Phnom Penh Mart’s windows. It was really the most ghastly place to spend any time. That light guaranteed that anyone would look hideous. (p. 215)
            ….Some exaggeration going on here I think, but the place is admittedly pretty well light at night.
            (Walter Mason then goes on to describe meeting 6 Thai drag queens at the Phnom Penh Mart, an experience I have yet to have at this establishment, but maybe I’m just going there on all the wrong nights.)

* “I don’t know of any other place so oppressively lashed to its own history as Cambodia.  Cambodian people, from every social level, are convinced their country was once great though, as historian David Chandler points out...The historical glories of Cambodia are constantly invoked, in a way I have never noticed in other countries. The ancient temples of Angkor serve an immense psychological purpose for the Cambodians (p.66-67)
And from page 54: “Cambodians are possessed of an unshakeable conviction that every single thing of any quality has its roots in Cambodia, so if I dared to praise something Thai or Vietnamese or Laotion I would be primly informed that these things were actually Cambodian and had simply been stolen, copied or misappropriated.
            It is of course a stereo-type to say all Cambodians do anything.  I think every country has some chest-thumbing patriots, as well as some the more self-critical elements in their society.  (This is definitely true of the United States, and in my experience is true of Japan, and Australia, and Cambodia.)
            The people I've known who complain the most about Cambodia are often Cambodians, who are well aware of their country's faults.  (Just as the most prominent critics of America are often other Americans, just as it is in every country.)
             But there is also a strong nationalistic attitude at the same time. I hear not infrequently the attitude Mason describes above.
            For example, recently in a classroom discussion about ASEAN, some of the students expressed very vehement anti-Thai and Vietnamese attitudes, and one girl said, “I don’t understand it.  All the Thai culture comes from us!  Everything was created by the Khmer Empire.  So why don’t they show us more respect?  How can they take everything from our culture, but not respect the people who made it?”
            Of course to a certain extent national pride is never surprising.  David Sedaris, in Me Talk Pretty One Day points out that every country has a very positive self-image, and that this trait is not unique America despite the American belief that all other countries humbly acknowledge their inferiority to us: "Every day we're told that we live in the greatest country on earth. And it's always stated as an undeniable fact: Leos are born between July 23 and August 22, fitted queen-size sheets measure sixty by eighty inches, and America is the greatest country on earth. Having grown up with this in our ears, it's startling to realize that other countries have nationalistic slogans of their own, none of which are 'We're number two!'"
           It’s a surprising measure of how strong the psychological need is for every country to believe that they are the best.

* From page 110-111: One of the more disconcerting experiences of being in Phnom Penh is being trailed by a smiling tuk tuk driver once you go anywhere near one of the city’s main tourist sites. ‘Toul Sleng Torture Museum, sir, Killing Fields, very nice, I will take you everywhere, cheap price…’  Though it might be uncomfortable to confront, misery is business in Cambodia, and the horrific recent past has been recast as a truly unique tourist opportunity….It’s hard to arrive at a clear moral position on the way genocide has been marketed in Cambodia.  It is obviously important that the memory of such events be kept alive, and it even makes sense that sites of particular pathos, such as Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields, be preserved as memorials to the memories of the millions who suffered and died.  But the fact is, unlike at Angkor Wat, I very rarely saw Cambodians at these places. Despite a generation of education and intense government propaganda, most people I met under thirty had only the haziest idea of what actually went on during the Pol Pot regime. Indeed, people were more likely to invoke crazy anti-Vietnamese conspiracy theories than any actual historical facts, which left me wondering how effective all of this memorialisation has been.
            First of all as a sidenote, I don’t like using the word genocide to describe what happened during the Khmer Rouge.  I don’t dispute the number of people who died there, but I think genocide should be reserved for when one race of people attempts to exterminate another race of people, and I’m not sure what happened in Cambodia was racially motivated.  But, my personal objections notwithstanding, genocide is the word that has been adopted over here to describe the Khmer Rouge atrocities.
            That quibble aside, I agree with what Walter Mason has to say here.  When I first arrived in Cambodia I was similarly shocked at how aggressively atrocity was marketed as a tourist attraction in Cambodia.  As Mason says, anywhere you go Tuk-Tuk drivers will always be calling out to you to go and visit the Killing Fields, and children will be trying to sell you books on the Killing Fields.  It’s important, of course, that these areas are remembered and visited, but all sense of solemnity completely disappears as one gets the sense that these sites are more tourist cash-cows than places of reflection.
            The moral ambiguity of “atrocity-as-tourism-business” is further increased by the fact that the killing fields have been bought by a private company and are run as a for-profit venture.
            Because I was so disgusted at the way the Killing Fields were so aggressively being pushed as a tourist attraction, I waited almost two years before finally getting around to seeing them.
            When I finally did go, I found that, in spite of everything, it was very well done.  The audio tour is very informative, and the place is respectfully maintained. 
            So, I don’t know what to think now.

* When talking about Angkor Wat, Mason talks about the huge crowds you have to contend with: “These days Bayon is teeming with people: Koreans, Chinese, French, Singaporeans, all in unwieldy tour groups” (p. 37) And, “Paul Theoroux says that, more than deadly beasts or warfare, what every traveller fears most is the presences of other travelers, and that fear must be confronted head-on on one’s first morning in Angkor. You are instantly reminded that you are no longer special or uniquely adventurous” (p. 43).
            So true.  In fact not only true of Angkor Wat, but of South East Asia in general.  When travelling through Cambodia, Vietnam, and Malaysia, I was overwhelmed by the amount of other tourists I saw.  I expected these countries to be a lot more exotic and remote, not over-run by Western tourists.  (Even though I always kind of half knew that backpackers routinely visit these areas, I just wasn’t prepared to see so many of them.)  As Walter Mason says, you are very quickly disabused of the notion that you are somehow unique or special for visiting these remote areas.

* In the chapter, Phnom Penh’s Oldest Hooker (p. 148-153), Walter Mason has a story about being out drinking with his friends, and making a new acquaintance at the bar.  He goes with his new friend to several other bars, only for the night to turn ugly at the end, as his newfound friend turns out to be a male prostitute, and embarrasses Walter Mason by making a scene in his hotel lobby.
            It reminded me of some of my own embarrassing early days in Phnom Penh.  One of the problems with the night life, which often makes romance so dangerous in this country, is that not all the prostitutes wear name-tags identifying their profession.
            Before arriving I knew of course that prostitution was common in this region, but I had in my mind a stereo-type of the prostitutes being destitute run-down sad-looking women who only lurked in dark brothels in sketchy parts of town.
            Naïve as I was to the ways of Phnom Penh, I never expected to meet prostitutes in fashionable night clubs, or for them to look like ordinary girls dressed in stylish clothing.
            Thus, do to my ignorance as a newbie in Phnom Penh, I had a similar experience to Walter Mason.  I met a girl at a club, I was talking and drinking with her for much of the night, and then at the end of the night I attempted to say my good-byes and go home.  When she realized I wasn’t going to take her home with me, she exploded in anger, and screamed at me in public while I shuffled off in embarrassment as everyone watched me.
            As I walked away in shame, I reflected that none of the guide books on Cambodia  ever tell you any of the really important things you need to know.
            I had previously thought this kind of danger was only reserved for straight-men in Phnom Penh, but as Walter Mason’s experience reveals, it’s a danger for the gay community as well.

* From page 18: “I had already been a month in the city, and almost every time I headed down to get a bus ticket I would flick open one of the local papers and the front page story was invariably something like: HORROR BUS SMASH—5 DEAD….Cambodia was going through an epidemic of traffic accidents, and wizards, shamans and miscellaneous fortune tellers across the country were busy selling charms, talismans and special lucky pendants that would guarantee people safe passage.
            Yeah, very true.  Although it seems to have gotten better recently I think—Or at least I haven’t seen as many stories in the paper this year.  But there was a period where almost every week there was some report of some horrible bus crash on the provincial roads.
            It definitely gives one pause before travelling anywhere in Cambodia. I’ve been safe so far myself (knock on wood), but I have two friends who were injured on a bus crash down to Sihanoukville.

* Every expatriate has a love-hate relationship with their adopted country.  And foreigners in Cambodia are the same.  (See this post here on the Culture-Shock Cycle)
            Walter Mason does a good job of highlighting both the positives and negatives of Cambodia.  He talks about how friendly the Khmer people are.  [Cambodians] are shy, but once you have their trust they include you so completely in their lives that it can become bewildering. Cambodians have a passion for communication, and are happiest when surrounded with people. In this high-tech age people have extended that sense of communication to embrace all kinds of technology, and the frenzied connection continues via telephones and Facebook.  The poverty of most everyone I know causes them to be energetic and resourceful, but hardly anyone is willing to sacrifice friendship for any kind of financial gain” (p. xiii)
            At the same time, however, some of the frustrations of living in a 3rd world country, where quality control and customer service are not up to Western standards, are also present in this book.  From page 154-155: “There was a seamstress just downstairs, but my encounter with her proved hugely frustrating.  She overcharged me monstrously, took three days longer than promised, and then sent up several pairs that were woefully below par: some had not been stitched properly, others were unhemmed, in one she’d left out the elastic.  It was such a bad and botched job that I couldn’t imagine it was anything other than a deliberate slight. This plunged me into a depression that almost had me booking an early ticket home.  It was so representative of my life in Cambodia, where everything was a struggle, everything had to be fought and argued for, and nothing could be guaranteed.
            I think every expatriate in Cambodia can identify with that sentiment.
            Also, when writing about Lucky 7 Burger, Mason describes it as: “a singularly unsatisfying fast food joint that emulated all the very worst aspects of McDonald’s but added a peculiar extra layer of incredible inefficiency.  Never once was I given what I actually ordered at Lucky 7” (p. 117-118).
            This is actually true of several restaurants in Cambodia.

* From page 207, when Mason is describing how bad his Cambodian friend is at directions, he says, “Like every tuk tuk and mohto driver, he had no idea of street names or the names of any of Phnom Penh’s principal landmarks.
            It might be just my imagination, but I think this is getting better.  Two years ago none of the tuk-tuk drivers seemed to have a clue where any of the streets were.  Now, a fair amount of them are able to navigate with street numbers.  Perhaps the increasing number of Western tourists has finally impressed on them the need to be able to navigate using street numbers.
            But this was something that really frustrated me in my early days in Phnom Penh.  All day long, the tuk-tuk drivers would be incessantly calling out to me, and when I finally did engage their services, it was frustrating to find that they had never thought it worth their time to bother to learn the street numbers necessary for them to do their job.
            To be fair though, this is true not only of tuk tuk drivers, but even of many educated Cambodians.  A Cambodian friend told me that Khmers navigate around the city using landmarks, not street numbers.
            (I sometimes tease my educated Khmer friends by giving them directions with street numbers, only for the pleasure of making them say back into the phone: “You know I have no idea where that is,” and then I repeat the directions using landmarks.)
I have since found that if you tell the tuk tuk drivers the name of the temple nearest the street you want to go to, you generally do all right.
* One page 185, when visiting a female Shaman: “She said she was privileged to have me visit, and she asked after the cost of the tuk tuk. When we told her she looked pleased and said, ‘Oh, you were thoroughly cheated. I pay a quarter of that.’ People were always happy to hear I’d been ripped off.”
            Heh!  So true.  Foreigners in general usually have no idea what the going rate for most goods and services are in Cambodia, and it gives the Khmers a fair amount of amusement to hear what prices the foreigners end up paying.

* When talking about the influential abbot of Wat Botum, Mason writes: “Though sickly, he was still opinionated and had stirred up quite a fuss by asking the authorities to ban the display of rotisserie meats outside restaurants. A roasting calf’s carcass used to tempt diners was not, he felt, becoming to an avowedly Buddhist nation” (p.77)
            This was actually one of the few big changes I witnessed occurring during my short time in Cambodia.  When I first arrived, it was quite common to see cows being turned on a rotisserie over hot coals outside of Khmer restaurants.  Then, someone decided it wasn’t very Buddhist, and all of a sudden the government banned it, and all the cows disappeared to the back of the kitchen.

* From page 58-59: “The Cambodians don’t smoke nearly as much as their near neighbors, the Vietnamese.  All of my friends in Cambodia were non-smokers, and smoking in the streets was so rare as to be noteworthy.”
            True.  I’ve never understood why this is.  I mean it’s a good thing, obviously, but you wonder why the cigarette companies have been so successfully with their marketing campaigns in many other South East Asian countries, but somehow not in Cambodia.  What caused the difference?

* On page 60, Mason mentions how common electricity black outs are in Phnom Penh. So true.

* On page 61, Mason talks about the anti-Vietnamese sentiment in Cambodia.  It’s unfortunate, but true.  And actually it seems to have only gotten worse this past year with the opposition party blaming all of Cambodia’s problems on Vietnam.

* On page 56-57, Mason talks about the aggressive child vendors in Siem Reap, who yell obscenities at you if you don’t buy their products.
            I actually had more of a problem with the child vendors in Sihanoukville, but the same idea.  You simply can not enjoy the beach without being pestered by several children trying to sell you bracelets, and they turn nasty very quickly if they don’t get what they want from you.

* On page 141, Mason describes being stranded in a small Cambodian village at night because his taxi took off with another fare:
When the time came for us to leave the village, the booked car never arrived. Sina made a dozen animated and loud calls, but to no avail.  "No-one is coming," he said, his face creased in shame and fury. "People in Cambodia are not reliable! The driver found another customer and went to Phnom Penh without us."
This is also not an infrequent phenomenon.  We recently were inconvenienced on a holiday weekend trip because the taxi driver (who we had booked 2 weeks ahead of time, and confirmed with the day before) just never showed up and turned his phone off.  We're pretty sure he just found a better fare at the last minute.

….And et cetera, et cetera, et cetera…
            There is actually a lot more parts of this book I identified with, or parts I agreed with, but I’ll stop listing now before I end up copying out the whole book.

            I hope in the above quotes I was able to give a sense of how interesting and enjoyable this book was to read, and I’d recommend it to anyone interested in the region.

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Darrell Reimer said...

Tangentially: I'd be curious to hear what you make of John Burdett's novels. They're set in Bangkok (obviously) but I imagine some of his observations might apply to your situation. Also, I've found as the books in his series accrue that I'm increasingly skeptical of his "native" POV. Still, the fact that he got me on-side at all is keeping me there (for the moment).

Joel said...

I haven't really encountered those books before, but I'll put it on my radar now. Thanks for the recommendation.