Author Walter Mason avoids dwelling on the well-trodden graveyards of Cambodia’s recent history, and instead shares with readers the palpable feeling of what its like to live in bustling, chaotic and sometimes frustrating Phnom Penh.
Australian writer Walter Mason loves Asia, is an astute scholar of Buddhist culture and makes for an entertaining dinner partner in his book Destination Cambodia: regaling readers with funny experiences but also insights into Cambodian attitudes and social conventions. He is astute, for example picking up on the Cambodian tendency to view achievements in a Cambo-centric way (quick to point out that Muay Thai was really invented in Cambodia,) in the same way that my country, New Zealand, seems anxious to lead the world at this or that. Call it ‘small country syndrome.’
Walter is part romantic and part cynic; happy to follow his generous heart, but sometimes quite biting with his comments, especially when he meets rip-off artists, or when – as most westerners do – he gets utterly frustrated by everything happening in “Cambodia time” where nothing seems punctual and where plans can easily be derailed.
He is self-deprecating as a narrator – and two gags run through the easily-read 266 pages. One is his “gay-ness” which some locals don’t recognise (single – he’d make some woman a good catch,) and the other is his size: considered plump and therefore blessed by good fortune. Cambodians are pretty blunt, not in an unkind way, about such things. As I find in my travels – I’ve more than once been patted on my belly and asked: “expecting baby?”
Still, like good travel writers, the author learns to reflect on his frustrations and admits that he has been infected by pragmatic earthiness of Khmer people as well as by the “casual wonder” of Cambodian thinking where spiritual beliefs, for example the presence of ghosts, are taken at unquestioning face value.
The book is at its best when Mason stands back and reflects on the state of Cambodia and its people: it synthesizes the author’s observations and his well-read understanding of the history and culture. I could have done with a bit more of this. The decision to write this books as a series of scarcely related incidents and adventures makes for an entertaining read, but at the expense of developing the richer thematic arc.
That’s a minor quibble. The book provides the would-be traveller to Cambodia a feel for modern life. When I first travelled to the Kingdom the only books were those that dwelt on the Pol Pot years. As Walter Mason says, Cambodia grapples with two pasts: the glory of Angkor and the tragedy of Pol Pot. “The Cambodian people are balancing the memories of the two.”
For two more book reviews:
- Cambodia’s Curse
- A History of Cambodia