Book Review – Destination Cambodia

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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:

  1. Cambodia’s Curse
  2. A History of Cambodia

An unexpected moment in Cambodia

An unexpected moment in Cambodia

One of the things I love about being in Cambodia is the unexpectedness of things. I took this photo when I was on the road between Tonle Sap lake and Siem Reap. I had stopped for directions to a local pottery, which was just 100 metres away as it turned out. Suddenly there was a clanging and a commotion of chants, of motorbike horns and of singing.

I looked up and saw this colorful and good natured parade. I’m not sure what the occasion was – a wedding? a Buddhist ceremony at the nearby temple? I’m really not sure. But I was reminded that life in rural Cambodia may be governed by the daily rhythm of sunrise and sunset; of the morning crow of roosters and of the scorching midday sun – but life is seldom dull or monotonous.

Khmer society is richly textured with ceremonies and celebrations.

The Tiger on my Desk

The ethics of gifting

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I had a very thoughtful piece of feedback today from a woman whose opinion I greatly trust and admire. Lori works with the brilliant Ponheary Ly Foundation in Siem Reap, and she has immersed herself in Cambodia and in the business, if I may call it that, of promoting and funding a worthwhile cause. The PLF is one of the most efficient, ethical NGOs that I know of in Cambodia, and if Ponheary Ly or Lori Carlson raise a point of discussion, well these are two people who are expert in their field, realistic in their approach and focused 100% on the cause of education for disadvantaged children in Cambodia.

Lori very politely asked me if I’d thought through the ramifications of yesterday’s posting about collecting good used laptops and distributing these to needy students in Cambodia.

Here are two downsides she raised. And I can add more.

1) Imagine you were the up and coming retailer in Siem Reap setting up in the laptop retailing business. Suddenly, an overseas organisation dumps product into your market.  Where instead of purchasing locally, and having that money largely spin around the Cambodian economy, we help put a nail into the side of the local family business.

2) The economy of shipping used laptops to Cambodia is less impressive than you might first guess. Between collection, packing and then shipping the value depreciates – but used laptops will also attract sizeable duty in Cambodia also. (We found that with books three eyars ago – even second-hand books.)

Good points. I can add another downside. Supposed we give a laptop in good faith and, used baby that it is, it fails or has problems.  Could the poor Cambodian student afford the repairs? Are we giving a gift, or a burden?

The discussion is a good one.  After all, the concept of world aid has moved a long way from the sending of used blankets to flood victims overseas.  Every gifting dollar needs to add value to the recipient – the individual, their family, their village and ultimately their nation.

I’ve always felt that education, per se, is one of the most socially beneficial and efficient gifts we can can offer – but just as I point out to visitors that bringing felt tips from overseas is quite needless (you can get them cheaper in Siem Reap, and you support local enterprise) then Lori’s point about bringing in laptops is precisely the same.

Time for me to go back, have a think and to better develop my thinking around the gifting of capital items.  Thank you Lori.

Meanwhile, lest I cause any confusion, let me point out that the Laptops awarded to scholarship students last month were all purchased in Siem Reap – brand new, and I dare say at a price cheaper than you could find in Singapore. Win, win, win.