Tag Archives: khymer rouge

A Noodle abroad: Thailand versus Cambodia

7 Jan

lanternsHow did you spend your New Year holidays? For me it was a return to Thailand and Cambodia on a whirlwind six day trip. It was a tale of two countries which bloody hate each other but have a mutual friend – the big spending flabby white tourist.

Mutual mistrust and hostility have characterised relations between the two countries since the time when they weren’t nation states at all but the kingdoms of Siam and Khymer.

The animosity is still invoked by modern day politicians to rally the people of both modern states and popularise their policies – most recently evident in a century-old border dispute which was finally resolved last year by the UN.tuktuk bangkok

In many ways Thailand is a canary-down-the-mine portent of what might be for neighbouring Cambodia – a country decimated by the bloody tyranny of the Khymer Rouge in the ’70s and the decades of instability that followed.

But after revisiting both places, I rather hope that doesn’t happen.

Yes, Bangkok has built up and out massively since even a decade ago. Skytrain, MRT, airport rail links and other big infrastructure projects have brought it well and truly into the 21st century, thanks in no small part to a steady stream of tourist cash.

soi cowboy

Soi Cowboy – Bangkok

Yes, its people are friendly, its beaches lovely (even though they’re packed with dreadful Russian oligarchs and their trophy wenches) and its 5-star hotels cocooned us in air-conditioned comfort.

But if I had the choice I’d probably go back to its near neighbour. I’ve said it before but Cambodians haven’t yet been worn down and made cynically acquisitive by a never-ending barrage of rudeness from arrogant tourists.

The service industry may be haplessly incompetent in some of the bars, restaurants and hotels you visit but just get over it; you’re paying a fraction of the cost you would elsewhere and there’s always a sincere smile when all’s said and done.

Plus Siem Reap*, our base for exploring the epic Angkor Wat, is possibly the nicest SE Asian town I’ve ever visited. Lovely low-rise colonial-era buildings housing cafes, bars and decent restaurants, and a main entertainment thoroughfare called Pub Street. What’s not to like?

Well, Korean and Chinese tourists who treat the whole Angkor wonderland like a theme park, for one. On my visit they managed to shout, bawl and litter their way around the temples like neo-colonial overlords, getting in the way of any good photo opportunity and turning a place of beauty, wonderment and silent contemplation into downtown Shenzhen.

That said, witnessing a tour group in which some of the girls are dressed in boob tubes and ripped jean hot pants only serves to highlight the gentle dignity of the Khymer people.

So tip big – they locals your money more than Thailand – and enjoy it.

*(Siem Reap means “Siam defeated” in Khymer … told you they didn’t get on)

lanterns

Ko Samed beach, Thailand

tuktuk bangkok

NYE tuk-tuk-ing, Bangkok

angkor wat

Angkor Wat

angkor wat

Bayon

Bayon, Angkor Thom

bayon temple

Bayon temple

Ta Phrom

Ta Phrom

Ta Phrom

A bit more Lara Croft action, Ta Phrom

pub street

Better…

angkor night market

Electro Siem Reap

pancake stall

Always time for one last pancake…

 

Camb-Okinawa: darkness and light in Asia

22 May

s21 museum“Does the genocide museum have a dress code?”

It’s not a phrase I’ve ever typed into Google, certainly not on holiday, but it was necessary research a couple of weekends ago in Phnom Penh. Cambodia isn’t really like any other SE Asian country I’ve ever visited but it doesn’t take long to realise that a sombre trip to the Killing Fields and the notorious S21 prison are essential, if harrowing, stops.

I’m not going to prattle on like a sententious twump about why they’re important, you can figure that out for yourself. But reading a forced confession of some poor sod from my old school in NE England whose life was abruptly terminated at the hands of the Khymer Rouge does rather focus the mind. Reading all about the horrors of the ’70s and the turbulence that followed for decades afterwards, it seems churlish to complain about the food (pretty terrible) or the horrific sex tourism (the Heart of Darkness club is aptly named) in Cambodia. That didn’t stop me, of course.

I didn’t make it out to the Angkor Wat wonderland but the highlights for me were the smiley, smiley locals – you’ll never meet more polite hustlers in your life* – the dirt cheap beer, and the other worldliness of a city which was almost entirely depopulated during the late ’70s.

As lovely as Cambodia was, however, it was eventually time to pack away the Gary Glitter costume and head somewhere slightly closerkaraoke to home, culturally at least: Okinawa. Now there are two types of people in this world: those who see a five day forecast of torrential storms and brave it to the beach anyway, like IDIOTS, and those who decide to cut their losses and spend their entire weekend eating and drinking. So it was we discovered that the delights of Okinawan nightlife are even more delightful perhaps than Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto.

Naha is more chilled, more friendly and more accessible for the gaijin tourist than virtually any place in Japan proper I’ve been. That’s probably down to the fact it isn’t really Japan at all but part of the ancient kingdom of Ryukyu – the locals don’t much look like Japanese and they’ve a different dialect and even separate languages, although the two distinct cultures seem to have found a pretty sweet balance on these sub-tropical islands.

awamori

Cue lots of counter-stool-beer-izakaya action; plenty of chopstick competence-related comments; complementary shots of local firewater awamori; and the odd lock-in listening to the owner’s Led Zeppelin collection. Food = as good as you’d expect from Japan; beer = ditto; random events = cracking; brothels = surprisingly un-hidden; amusing Engrish signage = in abundance.

All in all an excellent quick-stop weekend destination from HK, especially thanks to Abenomics and the weak, weak yen.  The only dud was Black Harlem, a bar chocked full of over 10,000 vinyl records playing the most beautiful soul music but with the most miserable customer/bar staff combo known to man. In an irony which did not escape us as we exited post haste after one drink, it simply had no soul.

(*99% of the time anyway. My mate did have her flip flops nicked outside the Killing Fields museum. Who does that??)