Dynargh dhe'n Blogofrob

Tuesday 17th February 2004

Deft manipulation of public holidays and available leave meant that Claire and I enjoyed over two weeks respite from work and an opportunity to venture further into Hong Kong and South East Asia.

The dawn of the year of the monkey proved auspicious, and we found ourselves with one of the best views in Hong Kong of the territory's massive and impressive firework display, watching a curtain of stars fall into the harbour, as jealous diners craned over our shoulders.

The new year's public holidays last for three days - most Chinese retreat into their homes or visit relatives, but not before heading for the nearest temple to ensure the best possible fortune for the coming lunar year. Hence the Wishing Tree, a short drive from Tai Po in the New Territories. This enormous tree sits in the grounds of a large temple complex, its branches groaning under the weight of wishes, scribbled on paper, attached to oranges and hurled into the branches of the tree. Having spent some time formulating a wish, I cautiously made my way through the crowds of people, successfully avoiding the oranges thudding to the ground around me, and sent my wish flying through the clouds of incense, towards the branches. The orange, with my wish streaming behind it, flew straight through the tree, missing its mark, and landed amongst a heap of other failed wishes. It was swept up and incinerated before I could retrieve it and have a second go. Claire's however, caught and hung safely amongst the other successful attempts, destined to come true. I wasn't too worried about my broken dreams - prior to trying the tree a wander around the temple, past a high energy dragon dance, had brought us to a fortune teller, who read my palm without too many unpleasant comments, although I was rather hoping for a longer life.

The following days took us to some of the SAR's most colourful and intriguing sites - such as the 10,000 Buddhas monastery in Sha Tin, the number of Buddhas in which comfortably exceed its name; and the walled villages of the Hakka tribe, antique fortresses, over which the tower blocks of the new towns loom, while within, the clacking of mah-jong tiles echoes through the dark alleyways and corridors. The outlying islands also proved fruitful - twilight one day found us on the wrong side of Cheung Chau, amongst the cemeteries built into the coastal rocks, rather than the heavily populated town a mile or two across the car-free island. We quickened our pace, not wanting to be caught out by the darkness. Walking past the crematorium as the sky turned an inky shade of blue, we noticed small fires burning in between the memorial tablets. A gentle sweeping sound turned out to be an ancient woman, sweeping up ashes amongst the flames. She cackled and babbled to herself as we hurried past. Thankfully 20 minutes later and we were deep in the lively lanes of Cheung Chau's market. As well as the outlying islands, a ferry also took us to Macau, Hong Kong's dilapidated older brother, a would be Vegas of the east. Full of character, years of Portuguese rule fashioning the area in the Iberian style, in a way the British never really managed with Hong Kong.

But, despite the delights of Hong Kong (and Macau) I was looking forward to the three days in Cambodia that were, more or less, to bring the holiday to a close. Looking out of the plane window as we descended into Siem Reap airport, the jungle and paddyfields stretching out of view, filled me with a sense of calm that the shiny glass towers of Central could never achieve. The country's beauty though, tragically, hides the sinister legacy of Democratic Kampuchea - the jungle and paddyfields are still largely riddled with landmines. In Hong Kong the amputees begging provide expats with a diverting exercise in speculation - some say that when borrowers can't repay their debts to the Triads, the Triads cripple them, then make them beg to pay off what they owe. No such speculation in Cambodia though - the reason for the plastic arms, the wooden poles and the distorted stumps is plain enough.

But Siem Reap has tourism to pull it away from the darkness of the '70s. The place is now solidly on the tourist map - our fellow passengers stepping off the plane in the baking sunshine seemed to belong to Belgium's equivalent of Saga. In the car park of the airport, a gravel area that reminded me of the carpark in a provincial English railway station, we found Rith and Smee, to be our guide and driver respectively. They were, like almost every local, good-hearted and seemed genuine, with none of the tired smiles I've encountered in other tourist areas, whether on the package or the backpacker trail. Perhaps the charabancs simply haven't got to them yet.

That afternoon we rattled down a dirt track, past clutches of one-room huts on stilts, their walls made of palmleaf mats, outside of which mud-covered pigs fraternised with naked children. Smee skilfully avoided huge holes in the road to bring us to the edge of a village by a river. We buzzed up the river on a small boat, and I felt more and more like Conrad's Marlow (or I would have done, had the boat boy not been wearing a Beckham top). As we neared the end of the river, we passed a floating school, the open doorways affording a brief glimpse of children, quietly attentive at their desks, pencils poised. And then the river opened up into Tonle Sap, the great lake of Cambodia. Our boat made its way through the floating village, at least a hundred houses built on rafts, to a fish farm, the size of a canal barge, on the very edge of the settlement. Beyond this there was only water, which simply disappeared into the horizon. The farm was crammed with tourist junk for sale, much the same as I could get back in Hong Kong at Stanley market, but it also contained more unusual items. As well as a pen of large hungry fish there was a line of cages and tanks containing various lake creatures, a python and a wide-eyed monkey, swinging himself maniacally in his miniature hammock - he would later run riot across the farm when released from his cage. Down at water level, on a platform under our feet, 30 or so crocodiles were lazily enjoying the sunshine.

The next morning found us in the world heritage site of Angkor. Our first stop Angkor Thom, the ancient capital city. It wasn't hard to ignore the hawkers ("Lady, lady! you want guide?") or even the elephants to admire the first giant stone face, looking out of the South Gate of Angkor Thom. Inside, we discovered that our visit had coincided with a national festival, in which monks from throughout the country travel to Angkor to benefit from the public's charity. Lines of orange-robed bald-headed young men stood in lines, holding pots, receiving food and money. We made our way through the crowds to the remains of the Bayon. Well preserved bas-reliefs tell the story of the city of Angkor (and provide one of the only contemporary clues to the history of the place - and therefore the country) while above them, from the tumbledown towers, the benign smile of Jayavarman VII looks out in all directions. Wandering amongst the stones, we eventually made our way under the towers. Above us, chirruping bats were suspended, faint grey shapes in the gloom. Despite myself, old Apocalypse Now/Heart of Darkness fantasies began to resurface - something reinforced later in the day: a distant flock of unidentified birds rising from the depths of the jungle as Claire and I sat on the hill of Phnom Bakheng, watching the cloud smudged sunset over the plain of Angkor.

In the afternoon - Angkor Wat. From the far side of the moat, its five towers, like giant lotus buds, sitting over the long corridors and levels of the temple, present a familiar image - but the pictures and the films do not do it justice. As with Angkor Thom, Angkor Wat is awe-inspiring. Almost every inch of stone in the sprawling complex is covered with intricate engravings, including long corridors of bas-reliefs depicting Hindu stories. The temple exists over many levels, and scrambling across ledges and up steep stairs, occasionally a nerve-wracking endeavour, only presents more to marvel at - whether surveying the views from the temple, the structure as a whole or the details of a doorway or window. Only the sweat drenched t-shirts of fellow tourists tempered the atmosphere - but even they can't really affect the place.

In Ars Poetica Horace states that a writer should 'leave out what he knows will not look polished if written', and although, as is evident, I frequently break this rule, I despair of success in describing Angkor. Plus I'm a little lazy. It's a stunning, mysterious place, but I'm afraid of sounding patronising, or merely flat in trying to do it justice. But I hope to get back soon - I wonder how the increasing numbers of visitors will affect Siem Reap. Will it be completely overrun in five years, destroyed by the ravages of insensitive tourism? Or will it manage its growth as successfully as it seems to be doing at the moment?

I was sickened by an American backpacker I saw assuming he could openly bribe a policeman outside Angkor Wat, and perplexed when I saw a couple of Western tourists tip a monk after chatting with him. But is my tourism anymore responsible? I hope so - and I think so - but at the same time, I greedily stare at the third world villages, feeding my senses, while I pay my money instead to the posh hotel in town, live out my Conradian fantasies and then fly out - fly out to, as it happens, a foot spa in Ho Chi Minh City Airport. And my tip for the day is: if you have ticklish feet, don't have a foot massage.

43 - posted at 01:54:07

Comments (5)

Wednesday 11th February 2004

A quick note to remind myself I still exist. I've just returned from a colourful and fascinating holiday (more about which soon), but now I'm once again imprisoned in the mental and physical misery of the glass box where I have engage myself in frivolities in order to remain sane.

In this spirit, this site is a disturbing introduction to the shabby world of celebrity lookalikes, demonstrating what happens to those poor fools who take that 'all my mates reckon I'm a dead ringer for Robbie Williams' syndrome a little too seriously. As well as some of these 'artists' being shockingly unconvincing (see, for example, Ant & Dec) - but oddly compelling - the site raises some fairly searching questions. Such as, how much demand is there really for a Bella Emberg lookalike (etc)?

And from that topic, where else to go but to another tedious entrant into the gallery of miscreants cursed with my name?

Robert Allen

This saucy fellow was a shipmate on the USS Nassau, a battleship, during the Second World War.

42 - posted at 13:29:22

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