Sunday, July 02, 2006

Lucretia Stewart's Lotus Season

Author and travel writer Lucretia Stewart penned the 1992 travel book, Tiger Balm: Travels in Laos, Vietnam & Cambodia, which alongwith Sue Downie's Down Highway One, were the first couple of modern travel books I'd read about Cambodia around the time of my first-ever trip to Cambodia in November 1994. So I was intrigued to find a travel article she wrote in 1997 called Lotus Season, that appeared in an anthology and a radio programme called Amazonians at the time. I was particularly intrigued because it was the story of her friendship with Tan Sotho, the managing director of Phnom Penh-based travel company Hanuman Tourism and mum-in-law to Nick Ray, and mother to his wife, Kulikar Sotho. I'd been friends with Nick - he of Lonely Planet fame - and Kulikar for a while before I met Mrs Sotho way back in December 2000 when she invited me to an evening meal in Siem Reap, so to read Stewart's bio of her was absorbing.


Andy said...

To read an article from The Sunday Times in the UK dated 2 July 2006 that highlights temple-safari tours organised by Nick Ray, go to:,,2100-2250490.html

Andy said...

Lucretia Stewart's @Lotus Season'

The day before I arrived in Phnom Penh, there was an attack outside the National Assembly. Four grenades had been thrown into a demonstration organized by the Khmer Nation Party; the demonstrators were protesting against judicial corruption. As my flight was announced at Bangkok airport, I made a quick call to my sister in London. "Tell Mummy I'm OK, will you?" I said. My mother sleeps very little, even less since my father died three years ago; she lies awake at night listening to the radio. I was concerned that she might have heard about the massacre (as some journalists were calling it) on the World Service, then imagine that I had been injured or killed. If I - a Westerner - had been hurt, it might have been headline news. As it was, I don't think the attack even made the British papers despite the fact that 150 people were badly injured and nineteen were dead.

I arrive at Pochentong airport on the last day of March, 1997. I haven't seen my Cambodian friend Sotho for almost five years. I have no way of knowing if she has even received the fax which told her that I was coming to Cambodia. I worry that she won't be at the airport. I am anxious that I will not recognize her. I also worry about Princess Bhopary Norodom, the granddaughter of King Sihanouk. The princess is an additional, unwelcome complication. A Cambodian friend in London with close links to the royal family has kindly arranged for her to meet me with a car. Now I'm afraid that Sotho will be offended that the princess has come to meet me and think that I don't want her there.

Sotho and I have communicated erratically over the past five years. I have sent messages and occasional letters via people who were going to Cambodia, and the odd postcard from wherever I happened to be. Some years ago, a Frenchwoman who had set up an orphanage in Phnom Penh brought me a beautiful antique brass Khmer teapot which Sotho had sent as a present. My letters to her are usually rather stilted, because I have to write them in French and that restricts me (though somehow it doesn't when we talk). The more time goes by and I don't see her, the more difficult it becomes to write.

Seven months ago, in October 1996, I received a letter. It arrived out of the blue, written from Kuala Lumpur where, it seemed, she had some business - which, in itself, was a startling piece of information. She wrote, 'Je vais attendre de nouveau de pouvoir repenser au moment où tu peux venir. Ne fais rien, annonce seulement ton arrivée ...' As I read these affectionate, tentative words ("I will wait once more to be able to think of the moment when you might come. Don't do anything, simply announce your arrival . . ."), I realized that I could no longer delay going to Cambodia. As soon as I had booked my ticket, I sent a fax with the date and number of my flight.

At Pochentong, Sotho's elder daughter, Kulikar, is waiting at the gate. There is no sign of the princess (I later learn that she has fled the country). Kulikar takes my passport, the completed visa application form and a $20 bill and hands them to a uniformed man behind a high desk; she speaks rapidly in Cambodian, so speeding up the whole slow process. While we are waiting, she tells me that her mother has been ill, that she has had an operation, just three weeks ago. “Oh, no,” I say. I think that she is going to tell me that Sotho is dead. “Is she all right?” “Yes,” says Kulikar, “yes, she's all right now. She has had cancer.”

As I hear the word "cancer", I feel my eyes fill with tears. The thought, not just that Sotho has been seriously ill and that I have known nothing about it, but that she could have died and I would have found out only by coming to Cambodia, is terrifying. I don't know why not having known seems so dreadful. What could I have done thousands of miles away in England? But I keep thinking that I should have known and, more importantly, that I should have come earlier, that I shouldn't have left it so long, that, if I had come sooner, perhaps Sotho wouldn't have got cancer. “She's waiting in the car. She can't walk very well,” says Kulikar.

I met Sotho in 1990 when I went to Cambodia to research a book. No-one had turned up from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to meet me at the airport (in those days, travel was much more difficult and journalists had to be accompanied by official guides and interpreters). I was standing, sweaty, anxious and with no clear idea of what to do next, when a pretty, elegantly-dressed woman in her early forties, asked if I needed help. She recommended a cheap hotel, the Asie, and took me into town in a yellow bus.

In the days that followed, we became friends. We were roughly the same age and managed to transcend the usual barriers of language, culture and experience. Our friendship began perhaps out of mutual self-interest - loneliness, need, curiosity - but then we found that we liked each other, got on and could talk as if we had known each other for years instead of mere days. She was fascinated, not only by my possessions (clothes, cosmetics, personal items, including tampons which she had never seen before), but also by what I told her of my life: of my long-term boyfriend who didn't want to marry me and our make-ups and break-ups, about my cats and the way I earned my living. And, over and above what she could tell me about Cambodia, I found that I could ask her anything and be sure of a truthful and illuminating answer. We trusted each other. Our friendship made me realize how much I missed my friends at home, particularly women friends, with whom I could speak freely, when I was away; our friendship made all the difference to my time in Cambodia.

But I haven't seen her since I was last in Phnom Penh in 1992. My book about Indochina was published that year and since then my life has changed. I also have written a book about the Caribbean; I have turned forty; I have been forced to accept that I am not going to have children; I have left London to live in the country, have left the country and returned to London; I have taken a job because I could no longer afford to write full-time; I have lost the job. Insomma, as the Italians say, I have moved on.

Sotho's life has changed even more. When I first met her, she was working for the Ministry of Tourism. She had very little money - $20 was a fortune. Like everyone else in Cambodia, A dusty, amorphous city of scrappy buildings and anonymous concrete blocks, each looking as if it had been barely completed before being taken over by ten very poor families
she was still recovering from what Cambodians call 'Pol Pot time', when the Khmer Rouge controlled the country, from 17 April 1975, which they proclaimed 'Year Zero', to 7 January 1979. This period, as every Cambodian over the age of twenty knows, lasted exactly three years, eight months and twenty days. Now Sotho has her own business, organizing tours for foreign, mainly French and Japanese, tourists and making travel arrangements for many of the NGOs (non-governmental organizations) based in Phnom Penh. She employs six or seven people; she owns two brand-new, air-conditioned minibuses; she has a fax machine, a mobile telephone, a refrigerator, a fluffy, white lapdog; as well as KL, she has been to Bangkok, Singapore and Paris. As a sideline she deals in antiques, bric à brac that she has found in Tuol Tom Pong market or in Siem Reap; hotel decorators, of whom Phnom Penh is suddenly full, come to buy from her. She writes "Mon petit commerce va très bien". Yes, she is very successful, but, along with the prosperity for which she has worked so hard over the years, has come sadness and hardship. She has lost more than half her family to the Khmer Rouge. Now she has had cancer.

Sotho was born in Cambodia in 1947, five years before I was born in Singapore where my father, a diplomat, was stationed. Her father and her mother were both Sino-Khmer - born in Cambodia, but originally from Fukkien. She was the third of seven children, three boys and four girls. Her father spent his life working for foreigners, mainly the French, and she grew up on the rubber plantation at Chup near Kompong Cham in central Cambodia - which the French had built in 1927. The family lived a comfortable bourgeois life, with plenty of privileges. Every day they were given two big loaves of bread and could order butter and jam, and cloth - calico and poplin - to make clothes.

Sotho's parents wanted her to marry a Chinese man, preferably a Fukkien Chinese, but she met and fell in love with a pilot from Air Cambodge. This handsome man with his classic, dark-skinned, Khmer good looks, wooed her with copies of ‘Vogue’ and ‘Paris Match’ which he brought back from Paris. Her father made her wait a whole year before he relented and said, 'If you want to marry him so much, go ahead'.

Forty years ago Cambodia was a cheerful, peaceful, little country ruled by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who had succeeded in gaining independence from the French in 1954 (Cambodia had been a French protectorate since 1863). Sihanouk was determined that his country should remain neutral and stay out of the Vietnam War; to this end, he had broken off diplomatic relations with the United States in 1965. In early 1969, the Americans, convinced that the National Liberation Front guerrillas of South Vietnam were taking refuge over the Cambodian border, began to send B-52s on bombing missions over Cambodia. Meanwhile, dissatisfaction with the corruption, favour-swapping and patronage of Sihanouk's rule led, in March 1970, to a successful right-wing coup; this had been instigated by the army and the urban middle class, and is now widely believed to have had the tacit support of the United States. The Americans intervened, deposed Sihanouk and installed General Lon Nol at the head of the country.

Cambodia slid slowly into chaos. Lon Nol's government was extremely corrupt and shored up by American aid. Between February and August 1973 the Americans launched a six-month intensive bombing campaign, during which they dropped 257,500 tons of bombs on Cambodia - nearly twice as many as they had dropped on Japan during World War II. The guerrillas, whom Sihanouk had nicknamed the 'Khmers Rouges' ('khmer' simply means Cambodian and 'rouge' was a comment on their political leanings), gained increasing control of the country. People were starving. The Americans pulled out at the beginning of April 1975, leaving the field clear for the Khmer Rouge, who emptied the cities and drove the people, like pack animals, to the countryside.

In 1975 Sotho was twenty-nine. Kulikar was two. Sotho had a job in the administrative section of Air Cambodge and was studying law in her spare time. Her elder sister was married to a general in the Lon Nol army. Her father was the accountant at the rubber plantation and factory at Chup.

When the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh, Sotho, her husband and her daughter were taken to the countryside, to Kandal province just south of Phnom Penh. In January 1976, nearly nine months after the Khmer Rouge take-over, Sotho's husband was imprisoned. She was allowed to visit him three times and then not again. Months later she learned that he had been killed. Meanwhile her eldest brother died at Tuol Sleng, the converted high school where the Khmer Rouge interrogated and tortured people; her elder sister was killed, too, during this period, along with her husband, the general. Sotho's father also died. She never saw his corpse. She only heard about his death from a cousin: he was taken away on a charrette, a wagon. All that remained of him were his clothes.

During the day, like everyone else, Sotho worked in the fields. Kulikar, who was too small to work, was cared for by the elderly women who also did the spinning and weaving. The women were often hungry and would get the children to steal food. Sotho was terrified because she knew that if her daughter was caught stealing, Kulikar would be killed, though she was too small to know better.

One day Sotho was bitten by a scorpion. Feverish, she was taken to what passed for a hospital. As she lay, delirious, on the filthy floor, with only an old, dirty krama (the traditional Cambodian cloth that serves as scarf, turban, towel and even hammock) to cover herself with, she dreamt that she was in the hospital in Phnom Penh where she had given birth to her daughter. "J'ai rêvé de mon mari qui m'avait portée dans ses bras jusqu'à la salle d'accouchement et des draps blancs où j'ai accouché de Kulikar".

She had been very much in love with her husband, who had carried her in his arms to the delivery room. I guessed from things that she had said that hers had been a happy and passionate marriage. She once told me that her husband had been born under the sign of the Dragon and that he would joke that, as a result, he was 'très puissant', which has the double meaning of 'powerful' and 'potent'.

One afternoon in late 1978, while Sotho was out working in the fields, a couple of cadres came to talk to her. They said, "Angkar (the mysterious all-powerful organization to whose rule the individual had to submit completely) wants you to re-marry." She knew that she could not refuse outright and answered, "The time is not yet right. The country is not profitable. It is better to wait." But they wouldn't listen to her and she was taken in a cart drawn
by a water buffalo to a village ten miles away where she met her future husband. He was the camp cook who had seen her and chosen her to be his bride. He belonged to the Khmer Rouge but was not, according to Sotho, a 'killer' or even a bad man, just coarse. They were married - which, under Pol Pot, involved making a vow to Angkar, rather than before one's parents and one's community - two months before the Vietnamese arrived in January 1979. Sotho said that the nights were the worst and that she could remember nothing about the wedding night. A year later, she gave birth to a second daughter whom she named Vaddhana, meaning 'progress'. The marriage did not last. Sotho was so shamed by this union that she brought Vaddhana up to believe that she had the same father as her sister, the dashing, 'puissant' Air Cambodge pilot. Her elder daughter, Kulikar, knew the truth.

Today Kulikar is a competent young woman who speaks almost fluent English. She has an Australian boyfriend, who works for a NGO, whom she plans to marry soon. Vaddhana, having sat her baccalauréat, has refused to continue her studies. Instead she has trained as a beautician and also works in a boutique.

The airport is crowded and very hot. As I stand in line waiting for my visa, Sotho comes very slowly into the Arrivals Hall. She can barely walk and is leaning heavily on Kulikar. She seems tiny - but then Cambodians are tiny people. I can't tell if she is smaller than she was. She looks incredibly fragile, like a china doll, as if she will break into little pieces at any moment and with any sudden movement. She says, "Je ne pouvais plus attendre". She could not wait. I put my arms round her. I am at least a foot taller than her. We are both crying as if our hearts will break. For the rest of my time in Cambodia, whenever Sotho and I are together, she holds my hand as a child might.

At first sight, Phnom Penh seems unchanged from five years ago. It is still a dusty, amorphous city of scrappy buildings and anonymous concrete blocks, each looking as if it had been barely completed before being taken over by ten very poor families. None of the buildings appear to have been decorated, or even painted. I have never known the Phnom Penh so beloved of foreign correspondents in the Sixties and early Seventies with its 'flower-scented streets', its 'indolent charm' and 'schoolgirls in white blouses and blue skirts pedalling past with dazzling smiles, offering garlands of jasmine to have their pictures taken'; I never saw the city of broad boulevards and graceful colonial buildings that was, in the words of one nostalgic writer, a 'perfect fusion of French and Asian cultures'. So I cannot really imagine what I have missed.

When I first went to Cambodia in 1989, Phnom Penh was a grim place - though undoubtedly better than it was under the Khmer Rouge (a former Vietnamese ambassador to Bangkok who went in with the so-called Liberation Army in 1979 compared the city they found to Oran, the Algerian town which is the setting for Camus's La Peste, saying "there were rats in the streets, corpses everywhere.") Ten years later there were rats but no corpses - at least, not that I could see. Nor was there hot running water, street lighting, rubbish clearance or a reliable supply of electricity.

Today, in 1997, Phnom Penh still lacks these amenities but now there are literally dozens of new hotels and restaurants, most of them with generators to supplement the erratic electricity supply and guarantee the air-conditioning, without which most Westerners seem unable to function. It takes me two weeks to find my old hotel, the Asie, because it has changed out of all recognition. Sotho says it has become a brothel. It now has a vast neon facade, a restaurant and a barber shop.

These days you can eat extremely well in Phnom Penh - French, Italian, American, Russian, Tex-Mex, Thai, Indian, Japanese, Malaysian, Vietnamese (reflecting the huge influx of foreigners), and Cambodian. Food is cheap too by Western standards. In the gleaming Bayon Supermarket on the Boulevard Monivong, there is every kind of imported delicacy from Russian caviar to Australian beef, English biscuits and American ice-cream, but the special Vietnamese sauces come from California, rather than from across the border. There is an old, bitter history of enmity between the Cambodians and the Vietnamese which even the arrival of the self-styled Liberation Army in 1979 did little to alleviate, but perhaps I am reading too much into the origins of these jars.

Phnom Penh has become a get-rich-quick city, full of foreigners hoping to cash in. One afternoon in the Hawaii hotel where I am staying, I meet a portly Nigerian; he is visiting from Hong Kong where he is in the export business. "I'm here as a tourist," he says unconvincingly. "Can we go out for dinner one evening?" That morning he had been to visit the 'Killing Fields', the former 'extermination camp' of Choeung Ek where 8,985 corpses, victims of the Khmer Rouge were found, many headless, many of naked women and children. "Are you going to Angkor Wat?" I ask. "What's that?" he asks. I explain. "I am if you are," he beams.

There are more motos than cyclos. They rush around town at high speed, spewing carbon monoxide, while their passengers perch on the back, clinging to the moto driver. I prefer cyclos which proceed at a more leisurely pace and remind me, probably subliminally, of being in a pushchair. Phnom Penh must be one of the few cities in the world where there are more than enough taxis (or their equivalent).

New shops proliferate. Opposite the Hawaii I can see the Happiness Haircut Shop, the London Tailor and the Cowboy Selling Modern Clothing & Shoes. These, to Westerners, jokily named businesses exist throughout the Third World, outlets for the aspirational - but in Phnom Penh today you can also buy clothes by Armani and Hugo Boss. Years ago I purchased an old automatic Omega wrist watch for $40, from a man with a stall near the central market. It has been going strong ever since: I never take it off. Now I could buy - if I could afford it - a brand-new, state-of-the-art Longines or Rolex or Patek Philippe or even another Omega, from anyone of myriad jeweller's shops stocked with foreign goods. The television in my room has four or five channels, at least three of them showing the US Open golf tournament. But the most common items for sale in Phnom Penh are videos, video games, generators and mobile phones. Everyone, but everyone, has a mobile phone.

It is strange to see Sotho whip out her mobile and punch in a number in Paris or in Taipei. As we drive along - very slowly because of the poor roads and because, in her frail state, everything hurts - suddenly, deep in her handbag, the phone rings, and I listen to her chattering away in French about groups of ten or twenty tourists who will shortly be converging on Phnom Penh and demanding tours to Angkor and luxury accommodation. Somehow, for me, these telephone conversations in a foreign language with someone very far away, epitomize all the changes that have taken place in Phnom Penh.

When I remark that so much has changed, Sotho says, "L'amitié n'a pas changé". No, but she has. Terrifyingly. The cancer has shrunk her, aged her and the pain from the operation has caused her to bend almost double. She walks - hobbles actually - with one arm pressed to her abdomen, as if she is holding in her guts to prevent them from spilling out.

Below the surface, however, many things in Phnom Penh are just the same. Sihanouk's return was supposed to herald a new dawn for Cambodia. He was going to make everything all right, heal the wounds and unite the people. Six years later, the same old in-fighting, the same old corruption, the same old poverty are still in evidence. On the morning of my departure for Phnom Penh a report in the Bangkok Post claims that Pol Pot is "alive, well and commanding troops in Anlong Veng" and that he and his deputy, Ta Mok, have taken control of the troops to stop them defecting to the government. Sotho tells me that corruption is rampant, "une vrai anarchie". The roads both inside and beyond the capital are still in a dreadful state of disrepair. Sotho says that sometimes they are mended but then the rains come and, as there are no drains, they are wrecked again immediately. Around my hotel there are great mounds of rubbish, and the streets smell sour and rotten. People sleep in hammocks, slung from buildings or lampposts over the pavements. Pavements? Worse than the streets, these are composed of broken slabs of masonry, puddles of fetid water, piles of garbage. Throughout Asia poor people live their lives in full view of the world but conditions on the pavements of Phnom Penh are those of the worst sort of slum. It is hard to believe that the standard of living of most Cambodians has improved. The hospitals certainly haven't improved. Sotho's cancer was ovarian; she had to go to Bangkok for the operation, because in Phnom Penh the facilities do not exist to treat any type of cancer. She is lucky that she was in a position to borrow $4,000, the cost of her surgery, from the bank.

In the central market there are still mounds of gold and silver and precious stones - sapphires from the mines in Pailin in the west of the country, an area which is still controlled by the Khmer Rouge; rubies from Burma and pale watery emeralds from India. It used to be known as le marché jaune because it contained so much gold. The air around the flower stalls is redolent of tuberoses and the lotus blossoms are being swaddled into tight bunches wrapped with hemp, their stems stiffened with fine wire to prevent the heavy heads of the flowers from drooping. Buddhist New Year is only a few days away, and people are making their preparations. I buy an elaborate flower arrangement, swathed in orange cellophane, (orange is the Buddhist colour) and then walk to the Bayon supermarket for a tin of imported chocolate biscuits to take to Sotho. The lid of the tin shows an English Victorian family enjoying a lavish tea - scones, crumpets, three different kinds of cake - in front of a log fire. I hail a cyclo and ride down to where Sotho lives, near the river and opposite the National Museum. I have learnt, from frustrated experience, that not a single cyclo or moto driver in Phnom Penh knows the whereabouts of the National Museum, a large and beautiful building near the Royal Palace. Even though Kulikar has painstakingly taught me how to say 'National Museum' in Khmer and written it down in Cambodian snails' trails script, still the driver doesn't know where it is. So now I just ask for "FCC" (the Foreign Correspondents' Club which is nearby) and we both know where we are.

Sotho places my offerings on a makeshift altar just inside the front door of her house, next to small piles of fruits, cosmetics and tinned and dried foods. There they will stay until after New Year. The tinned and dried foods are there because she does not feel well enough to cook. Then she tells me that she still dreads New Year, because it falls just before 17th April, the day that the Khmer Rouge took power. Upstairs, in Kulikar's bedroom, there is a photograph of a handsome man in uniform. It is her father, the pilot. In Vaddhana's room there is no such photograph. Sotho eventually told her the truth about her parentage but says that Vaddhana does not accept it.

We climb aboard one of the air-conditioned minibuses and go to visit Vaddhana in her boutique. On the way Sotho tells me that it gives her a strange - and not particularly pleasant - feeling to think of her daughter doing manicures and facials. Vaddhana's boutique adjoins a beauty parlour and is on the corner of one of the broad boulevards that run through the city. Vaddhana is wearing tight bell-bottom hipster jeans in thick lime-green corduroy and a skimpy striped top. On her little feet are white patent sandals with three-inch platform soles and her toenails are painted light blue. Her dark hair has been given red highlights and has been lightly permed; the perm is a cheap one and it has made her hair frizzy and dull (Sotho has also had a haircut, tint and permanent wave, courtesy of Vaddhana; the results are not brilliant). Vaddhana sports bright orange lipstick and heavy Sixties-style black eye make-up. As a little girl, she was so beautiful it took my breath away (in one of Sotho's letters she wrote, "(Vaddhana devient de plus en plus belle, ce qui me fait très peur"). Now she looks dreadful, like one of the Spice Girls, but then my English goddaughter, of about the same age, looks rather the same. The boutique is stacked with hideously garish clothes - just like those that Vaddhana is wearing - which, Sotho says, the young of Phnom Penh rush to snap up as fast as Vaddhana can get hold of them.

This is the first time I have seen Vaddhana since my arrival. She doesn't seem particularly pleased to see me; as a small child, she always hid her face in her mother's lap and refused to speak to me. Now, as Sotho pushes her forward, she bows her head and puts her hands together in the traditional greeting, the sampeah. She does not, however, thank me for the present which I brought her from London, a sleek, shiny, white shoulder bag from a trendy, mirrored shop in Knightsbridge. I spent some time choosing it, at least twenty minutes, discussing with the young shop assistant whether it was likely to please a sixteen-year-old. "Yes, she'll love it. They're the latest thing," she told me. Irritated by the memory and Vaddhana's present gaucheness, I ask her if she likes her present. Vaddhana hangs her head and nods. When she was little, she always preferred whatever I had given Kulikar. Not on this occasion. This time, Sotho tells me, Kulikar wishes that I had brought her too a bag like Vaddhana's instead of the scarlet Fifties-style vanity case which was her gift. I promise to send her one when I get back to London.

Vaddhana's behaviour now is annoying, bordering on bad manners, but it is hard to be cross. I remember the photograph above Kulikar's bed and the absence of such a photo in Vaddhana's room. I think how difficult it must be for her to understand the way things are, to accept the difference between herself and her sister, a difference which, through no fault of hers, has the potential to affect the course of her life, and I feel a sense of overwhelming pity for her.

We leave Vaddhana and proceed slowly out of town to a restaurant on the banks of the Mekong. The countryside is ravishing: the pools are brimming with lotuses, the water buffalo are wallowing in the mud and the sun is shining. Sotho and I eat our lunch - wafer-thin pancakes stuffed with bean sprouts and herbs and some kind of spicy minced meat - in a deserted restaurant. We are the only guests; the restaurant is one she uses for her tour groups and quite expensive. She will not let me pay. After lunch, we walk - hand-in-hand - to the pagoda.

Sotho begins to talk about her illness. The hospital in Bangkok and the operation evoked memories of Pol Pot time and of the earlier, happier time when her husband carried her in his arms from the delivery room for Kulikar's birth. For three nights after the operation she had dreamt that she was lying in the mud in the ricefields, searching in vain for her house, sure that she had a house with stairs up to a second floor. This, to me, makes a kind of horrible sense: an operation is an ordeal, just like childbirth, the pain of which is only made bearable by the prospect of the baby. Torture and surgery are the two sides of the same coin. Sotho had not felt able to talk to anyone about these nightmares, certainly not to Kulikar or Vaddhana, because she felt that it would be too upsetting for them. Though Kulikar was a mere baby during the Khmer Rouge period, Pol Pot remains a bogeyman to Cambodian children. Finally, Sotho asked Kulikar to light sticks of incense to the Buddha and the nightmares stopped.

During the following weeks I develop a theory that Phnom Penh now is - superficially at least - how it used to be in the good old days, when the war was on and when foreign correspondents loved it so. Sipping a pastis in the Foreign Correspondents Club, a wonderful old colonial building with high ceilings and big, wooden fans and deep chairs, I think: 'This is how it used to be': ex-pats, pretty native girls, reasonable Western food, cheap drink. South East Asia is a great place for a man. In the evenings, over a pizza at Happy Herb's down by the river on Sisowath Quay I see the young male NGOs with their delicate Cambodian girlfriends and feel an odd sense of déjà vu, a sense that I have no right to feel, in that the former Phnom Penh is something I have only read about. The Lonely Planet guide describes Herb's as "as close you get to a Phnom Penh institution". It has only been open for two years. Are people already forgetting the past?

Sotho's brother thinks they are. One evening we drive out to see him. He lives on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, in the countryside, in a beautiful wooden house. He is a professor of archeology and spent the Khmer Rouge years in Paris. Sotho says, "Mon frère ne sait pas comment vivre en Cambodge". Certainly he is angry and upset. He says, "Not only have people not progressed, they have regressed. Ten days ago there was a massacre. Nobody is talking about it now". The innocence that apparently characterized the city in the past has gone.

I notice that many houses in the countryside bear hand-made signs which read "For Rent" or "For Sale". "Why are all the signs in English when we are far from the centre of town?" I ask. "C'est la mode," Sotho says, laughing, and adds that it makes her brother furious.

Angkor is the spiritual heart of Cambodia. It was Angkor which inspired the Khmer Rouge. Their policies were intended, in theory, to 'recreate' the past greatness of the Angkor period ("If we can build Angkor," declared Pol Pot, "we can do anything"). But, by using forced labour to construct a network of canals, in imitation of that which existed at the time of Angkor and harnessed the monsoon waters to create a constant water supply, one which supposedly provided for 'the permanent irrigation of ricefields', Pol Pot actually dragged the country back into the dark ages. Most of the 'intellectuals', including the doctors and anybody who spoke a foreign language, either fled or were killed.

Angkor is also now the touristic heart of the country; it is the reason most foreigners want to visit Cambodia. "Did you see Angkor Vat (pronouncing the 'w' like a 'v' as in German)?" tourists ask - most of them have heard its name even if they don't know what it is. And Angkor is the one, real opportunity that Cambodia has to make some money. A day pass to the temple complex costs $20. But it is worth it. A woman in Saigon once told me, "Nothing we have can compare with Angkor" and, of course, she was right. Nothing that anyone has can compare with Angkor.

I fly to Siem Reap, over the vast milky-brown expanse of the Tonle Sap, the Great Lake, whose waters, fed to bursting point by the Mekong, miraculously reverse during the rainy season and start to flow north. Sotho is too unwell to come with me and I am travelling with Philip Jones Griffiths, a Magnum photographer who covered the war and now spends much of his time in Cambodia. You can get there by boat but the journey takes hours; sometimes the boats sink. As we fly over Angkor Wat, which is visible from the sky, Philip tells me that a Malaysian development company, YTL, has plans to turn it into a theme park with boat races and water-skiing on the moat, son-et-lumière and re-enactments of events from the Ramayana in the ruins. Philip says that, if this actually happens, he will join the Khmer Rouge and blow up the whole place.

The last time I was here, I stayed at the Grand Hotel d'Angkor, formerly the Grand Hotel des Ruines, a large, shabby, cream stucco edifice built, presumably, by the French, in 1937. The UN troops were here in full force and a number of them were billeted at the hotel. One night, as I was climbing the stairs after dinner, a huge man with a moustache stopped me.

"Where are you going?" he asked.

"To bed".

"Oh, don't do that. Come and have a drink in the bar".

His name was Paul. He came from Samoa and he was the Staff Sergeant. It was Saturday night - date night - and he was determined that the men should have a good time. There were seven of them in the bar, standing in a semi-circle, all spruced up in clean shirts and pressed trousers, newly-shaved, their hair slicked back, still glistening from the shower. They were exquisitely polite, courteous, gallant even, in a way which was positively old-fashioned. After a few minutes Paul said, "You stay here. The boys will look after you. I'm just off to find some other women". He returned with two French nurses from Médecins Sans Frontières. Soon the bar filled up; there was a journalist and his girlfriend, a couple of backpackers (rare then, in Cambodia), some aid workers. The last to arrive was a pair of handsome mine-clearers.

Land-mines still present a terrible problem in Cambodia: the number of mines strewn around the countryside is estimated to be between 600,000 and four million and every day there are hideous accidents. Mine-clearing is slow and dangerous - a letter I later received from one of the men described his work: "For the past two weeks I've been running a team of 20 de-miners, clearing a road to the west of Sisophon. Progress is however painfully slow. We have advanced some 150m and of around 2000 readings on the detectors only 3 have actually been mines. All the rest were bullets or metal fragments - and each one has to be carefully excavated and removed. Patience is a virtue and all that, but at least we can call our limbs our own".

The party began to warm up. People were talking, tapping their feet, gently, unconsciously, moving their bodies to the music, relaxing. The room was hot and filled with smoke. The lights were low. I gave the bartender a $20 bill and asked for a bottle of Johnny Walker. This seemed to be a signal for Paul to jump over the bar and insert his personal tape into the hi-fi; the Doors circa 1969. The acid-fuelled sound filled the room; I was in a time-warp, in a real-life still from Apocalypse Now. The same sort of déjà vu which I have experienced again on this visit to Cambodia came over me. I remember it, though, as being more intense. The music and the whisky probably helped.

Today the Grand Hotel is covered with scaffolding, as the entire roof is about to be replaced. The hotel has been acquired by the Singapore Raffles Group, which will re-vamp it until not a trace of the old place remains. Sotho has got me a room in a medium-priced hotel, the Bayon, on the banks of the Siem Reap river. It is the end of the dry season and the river is low but none the less full of small boys splashing and laughing, rinsing their motos and their cattle. In the past, in the intense heat, I have envied these bathing children, but now the water looks so polluted that I don't feel a pang. The hotel has a garden by the river's edge all decked out with fairy lights in honour of New Year. I sit here, drinking a cold beer and reading. It would be heaven if it weren't for the insects. Sotho has bought a small piece of land in Siem Reap and plans to build a little wooden house - for her old age. At least, that was her plan.

A man at the helm of a conveyance made of a sort of pram attached to a motorcycle takes me round town. It is the only such vehicle in the place and I feel like the Queen sitting high up in my open carriage. People ask, "Your first time here?". I have been here several times before and so the correct answer is "No". However, Siem Reap looks so different that I feel I should answer "Yes". There are many new hotels and restaurants and dozens of souvenir stalls and shops. We pass one with a long, vertical sign which reads:


In the market I buy an egg-shaped stone made of some mineral which glows like a sunset when you hold it up the light. I ask what the stone is. "Egg stone" comes the answer which leaves me none the wiser. I also buy 100 10mg tablets of Valium which cost 18,500 riel, about $8, and a small book of English-Khmer popular proverbs.

Angkor is now as busy as a Middle Eastern bazaar with dozens of hawkers competing in the sale of souvenirs and cold drinks. As visitors get out of their cars, the salesmen swoop, chattering like magpies. "You buy cold drink from me. Only one dollar. You buy film. You buy souvenir. Very cheap." It is exhausting. I think nostalgically of my previous visits, when there was almost no-one else here. Now, if the hawkers don't get you, the beggars will. The broad, sandstone causeway which leads to Angkor Wat is lined with begging victims of land mines. One is a middle-aged woman who has lost both arms. She looks away, as if ashamed, as I stop to give her a dollar. Amputees with prostheses usually wear Wellington boots over them.

As we walk towards the central temple complex of the most perfect building in the world, it begins to pour with rain. Within minutes we are soaked to the skin. We take shelter and ten or so small children appear, out of the grey stonework, like the spirits of Angkor, to look at us. They bring bunches of lotuses and other flowers. The monks in their saffron robes seem to float by; they move as if by divine right. The moat is liberally carpeted with lotus blossoms. When the rain stops, after an hour of downpour, the air is clear and luminous and most of the tourists have gone.

We drive back to Siem Reap where I find that I am chilled to the bone by the rain. I walk to the row of shops opposite the hotel and buy an extra-large t-shirt. It has a painting of Banteay Srei temple on the back. The following morning we are to go to Banteay Srei.

It is my first visit to the tiny, exquisite temple which was vandalized by André Malraux in the 1920s. The future Gaullist Minister of Culture visited Cambodia in 1923 and made straight for Angkor where he had planned to Would you like to comment on this article, or contribute an article or review of your own? Get in touch below
plunder "some little-known, overlooked or forgotten shrine in the jungle". He wanted antiquities to sell to American museums. The remote, tenth-century, rose-pink sandstone temple of Banteay Srei seemed ideal. The Cambodian authorities caught up with Malraux and arrested him. He was sentenced to three years' imprisonment but never actually went to jail.

All through the Khmer Rouge period and afterwards, it was impossible to visit Banteay Srei. It is one of the outlying temples, about 25 kilometres from Angkor Wat; the road was strewn with land-mines and there was also a danger of attacks from Khmer Rouge soldiers. A British mine clearer Christopher Howes was abducted in Siem Reap with his Cambodian interpreter in March 1996. He is still missing. Unless you had an armed escort and were able to pay a small fortune, you couldn't even consider going there. And even if you were able to pay for protection there were no ultimate guarantees: in late 1994 a American woman tourist was shot and killed there. Her armed guards fled.

Today it is possible to make the trip. It costs about $40 a head but it is worth the price. A very young soldier accompanies us. He sits up front next to the driver. He has a gun and looks as if he knows how to use it. When we arrive, even though it is early, we see that a great many Cambodians have got there first; they are visiting in preparation for New Year, happily photographing each other. They want to have their photograph taken with me. And I am happy to oblige though I know I must appear enormous next to them, even more enormous than in fact I am. I feel safer in Cambodia than anywhere else I have ever visited. How can one be scared in a country where one is twice the size of everyone else?

After the vastness of Angkor Wat, the smallness of Banteay Srei comes as a surprise. Its ‘petitesse’ commended it to Henri Parmentier, head of L'Êcole Française d'Extrême-Orient in Hanoi (whom Malraux consulted before his expedition); he also admired the sheer perfection of its buildings. We wander through the ruins which create a sort of hall of mirrors effect: doorway upon doorway, as if you are seeing double or triple; bas-relief after bas-relief, until you are almost dizzy. Much of the stone is blackened; some is green with lichen, and in places the original rose has turned beige, then orange and finally grey. Over half the apsaras - the celestial dancers - have had their faces gouged, or half-gouged, out. The garudas, the hommes-lions, the mythical creatures which are half-animal, half-god, are all damaged. Malraux isn't the only one to have left his mark on Angkor. Every site has been vandalized, if not by the Khmer Rouge, by looters who have hacked away at the statues and carvings, to satisfy the demands of eager collectors. The police have done nothing to stop it. Rather they colluded with the thieves. The Conservation, where such items as are recovered are kept under (often ineffectual) lock and key, is now policed by a special force.

In the end, I am not sad to leave Siem Reap. I wonder if I will ever return. Every time I come here I find myself wondering if I will come back; but the formal perfection of Angkor Wat is hard to resist. Sotho sends the car to Pochentong airport to meet me and a note saying that she does not feel well enough to leave the house. In Phnom Penh it is terribly hot with the kind of oppressive heat you only get in cities. The combination of intense humidity and imminent departure produces a sensation akin to pre-menstrual tension. I feel swollen and anxious. That evening, outside Happy Herb's, the young mine victim, who has had both his legs blown off at the groin, is waiting patiently in his usual place. As usual I give him a packet of Camel Lights and a dollar. Unlike some of the beggars in the market he neither pesters nor menaces, but then he is not exactly mobile. He comes from Kandal province but was wounded in Pailin.

I see Sotho, briefly, twice more. She is angry with Vaddhana who stayed out, without permission, till after midnight on New Year's Eve, running round Phnom Penh with her friends. She also feels terrible; her insides hurt and she tells me, again and again, that she is having major problems going to the bathroom. She is normally so fastidious and reticent that I know she must be in terrible pain to confide such details. Soon she will go to Bangkok to consult the specialist there. I tell her that it will take time for her body to heal, that she must be patient and rest. She says she will try but her anxiety is too great. She hopes to go to France in the summer but doesn't know if she will be well enough.

On the morning of my departure, I go to Tuol Sleng. This is in the nature of a pilgrimage, or possibly as penance. I do not expect to enjoy myself. It is just as I remembered it. Here are the torture rooms with the rusting bedsteads to which the prisoners were chained; here are the leg-irons and the hand-cuffs; here are the instruments of torture; here are the twenty-year-old blood stains. Here are some paintings of massacre and torture scenes; they were done by Heng Nath, who survived his time there. Here are the lists of the victims who were exterminated daily and the lists of those who were arrested daily. Here are the photographs of the victims, young, old, male, female. Sotho's elder brother, whose face I do not know, is among them.

At home in London, I receive a fax from Sotho. "La situation politique ne va pas très bien, cela va beaucoup affecter notre business. Tout les gens Khmers vivent actuellement dans l'inquietude et l'incertitude". Anxiety and uncertainty remain the order of the day and Sotho's business, built up so painstakingly over the years, is threatened by the continuing unrest. I go to the shop in Knightsbridge and buy a shiny bag, like Vaddhana's, for Kulikar. The bag comes in red, yellow and black, as well as white. Kulikar has asked for a black one. In a chemist I buy a vial of Vitamin E oil for Sotho to rub on her scar. The oil is supposed to help the healing process. I pack up the bag and the oil and send them via a friend to Phnom Penh. I wonder if they will arrive safely.

In my little book of proverbs, I find four proverbs on friendship:

"A life without a friend is a life without a sun"
"Misfortune tests the sincerrity of friends"
"A friend is proved in distress"
"Everything is good when new, but friendship when old"

But the proverb that sticks in my mind is one that stipulates: "Fear not the future, weep not for the past". I ask myself, in Cambodia, is that possible?

Andy said...

From The Sunday Times
July 2, 2006
Camping it up in Cambodia

A new tented jungle tour sidesteps Angkor to find the real riches of Cambodia: just mind those arachnids, says Vincent Crump.

But these are not hairdos at all; the girls have metal platters on their heads — platters brimming over with fist-sized spiders. Their dreadlocks are not dreadlocks, they are hairy legs.
The spiders are dead. They smell so pungent because they’ve been soaked in soy and deep fried. And now I’m expected to eat them.
I am in Skuon, home of the world’s most repellent roadside snack: a thing even less palatable than the 3am doner kebab. I hand over 500 riel for an incy-wincy portion — one arachnid — and finger it uncertainly, wondering if it would be rude to put it in my sunglasses case and take it home to scare the milkman. The legs are the size and colour of a Cadbury’s chocolate finger, though if your chocolate finger was as hirsute as this, you’d definitely take it back to Sainsbury’s.
Just then another car pulls up and a German named Ulli jumps out. Ulli is not pussyfooting about. He buys a dozen spiders, hands his girlfriend the camera and takes a great big bite. It’s even worse than I feared: brown gunk explodes down his chin, and he’s spitting and choking. Tra, my safari guide, turns away and winces.
“Never eat the abdomen,” he whispers. “Eggs or excrement.”

Skuon is the first staging post on my sally into undiscovered Cambodia, and a taste of things to come. Until a decade ago, the phrase “undiscovered Cambodia” was travel tautology — but then Pol Pot died, the Khmer Rouge was finally vanquished, and the world, its wife and a busload of in-laws flocked here to visit Angkor, lost capital of the god-kings, the most humdinging archeological site in Asia. Now, a million tourists pitch up each year, including Korean coach parties wielding megaphones.

Angkor must be seen, certainly — but if you wonder what the 1,000-year-old civilisation of the Khmers looked like before it got “discovered” by French colonists and tarted up for the megaphone masses, you need to strike out beyond Siem Reap into Cambodia’s steaming, spidery highlands. Here lie the outposts of Khmer empire: Sambor Prei Kuk, a religious complex even older than Angkor; Koh Ker, jungle stronghold of the usurper king Jayavarman IV; and especially Preah Vihear, a cathedral-sized monastery chipped into the top of a 2,000ft crag. A new “temple safari” promises to take travellers with intrepid urges to find them — and that’s what I’ve signed up for: just me and my tent (and my driver, my tour guide, my cook and my factotum).
The brains behind the safari is Nick Ray, Lonely Planet author and self-styled temple-hunter, whose love affair with Cambodia has gone from collecting bottle-tops for Kampuchea to unearthing Angkorian citadels for Angelina Jolie to romp through in her Lara Croft hot pants.
“People think the places you’ll be going to are just for the hardcore dirt-bike community and Mick Jagger in his helicopter,” Nick tells me. “It’s not an easy ride, but once you arrive, you get to spend dusk and dawn alone in your own personal temple — no hawkers or hassle, and a feeling of spiritual communion that’s hard to find nowadays at Angkor. It’s a blast. That’s what I love about Cambodia: it’s still as much an adventure as a holiday.”
Spider savouries are only the start of it. The big worry with back-country Cambodia is not coming home with too many legs but too few. During decades of murderous civil war, the northern hinterland was sown with 4m landmines, and the road to Preah Vihear is staked out with grinning skull and crossbones — which mean step off the trail and you’ll end up like Long John Silver.

We bid goodbye to 21st-century Cambodia in Kompong Thom, a one-horse, two-horsepower town full of kamikaze mopeds loaded with chickens and children. The high street is like a life-or-death Dodgem rink, and I see one chap with a full-grown pig strapped sideways across the pillion of his scooter — which is funny, but not as funny as when I realise the pig is alive.
Soon we’re out in the country and space-hopping north along vivid red-sand roads through the rice paddies and sugar palms, where babies and buffalo bathe together in the levees. Mopeds dwindle away to ox carts, pick-up trucks to ploughshares, and Tra points out a woman baking fish inside a mud oven by the road: “This is the way of cooking that’s depicted in the bas-reliefs at the Bayon temple in Angkor,” he says. “Life hasn’t changed for 900 years.”
Our temple pilgrimage begins with impeccable chronological logic at 7th-century Sambor Prei Kuk, a prototype Khmer capital from 200 years before Angkor. It is so far gone in forest that I don’t see it coming. A monstrous octopus is eating the gatehouse — Tra says it’s a strangler-fig tree — and beyond, crumbling brick shrines scatter like stamped-on sandcastles through the jungle. The only other visitors are two backpackers, and the tourist infrastructure amounts to three ragged boys with scarves draped over their forearms, who trail behind us from temple to temple like pages — steadfast and silent, never once begging a sale.
We wander between the sanctuaries, dipping into their cool, kiln-like interiors, inhaling the solitude. The sun-spangled woods feel curiously English, more Christopher Robin than Mowgli — though, as far as I know, Christopher Robin never grappled with huge female pudenda. These are the yoni — suggestively shaped altars secreted inside each shrine, and originally pierced by the sacred phallus of the Hindu deity Shiva.
The stone members have long since been plundered, but inside one sanctuary we find evidence of continuing worship: a shapeless boulder draped in a scraggy orange krama, the Cambodian scarf. Tra thinks it’s a totem set up by villagers to the spirits of health or harvest — their flyblown offering of rice and incense speaks of the animist beliefs of the Cambodian countryside. Asia’s earliest temple city may be tumbledown but it seems nobody remembered to tell the locals it was “lost”.

We jolt on northward on bomb-site roads, the scarlet skulls multiplying, the jungle pressing in. To the west lies tomorrow’s target, Koh Ker, where I’ll scramble to the top of a 120ft pyramid on a rickety ladder and find myself sole overlord of a 10th-century settlement almost as big as Angkor — a hundred of its monuments still lurking, unclaimed by archeology, somewhere in the undergrowth.
But tonight we plan to camp at the furthest-flung wonder of the lot: Prasat Preah Vihear, the “Great Temple in the Sky” — three centuries’ worth of super-intricate gods and monsters chiselled straight into a cloud-snagged mountaintop by successive Angkor emperors. The journey time is unpredictable: it depends how many plank bridges are down and how many stops you make to drag crumped Land Cruisers out of a ditch. On our trip it turns out to be one of each — plus one mini-monsoon that soaks us through as we batten down the roof rack. Six hours in all, by which time our driver, Siha — button- collared and bespectacled when he picked me up at the airport — is bare-torsoed and bulging-eyed, with his krama knotted round his forehead like Ben Gunn.
The last half-hour is straight up the side of the Dangrek mountains on hair-whitening hairpins, the road crumbling under our wheels like in a Hitchcock car chase. A hilarious three-inch kerb separates us from gory oblivion.
It’s worth it. At the top, mist froths mythically around a mighty pink causeway, pedlars wobble under the weight of milkmaid-type yokes, and a few Thai day-trippers from the other side of the mountain straggle back to their cars. Yes, there are other people around — but that’s where our tents come in. It is four o’clock, two hours till dusk: time to spend completely alone with the Angkorian ancients.
While Siha and the rest of our retinue make camp, Tra and I set off to climb the staircase of broken-topped sanctuaries towards the temple summit, swarming hand-over-hand across a terrifying rubble of Hindu iconography: writhing serpents, gaping birdmen, mad-eyed demons. This is Indiana Jones made real: along shadowy corridors, into flooded vaults, never sure whether you’ll find Buddhas or bats. We finally emerge onto a craggy balcony 2,000ft above the jungle, where kings once came to greet their gods. Sunset seeps across the plain; the roar of the cicadas is lion-loud. It’s quite incredible.
As we descend again, Tra points out pockmarks in the temple ramparts: “Gunfire. The Khmer Rouge retreated here in the 1990s. Preah Vihear was their last stand.” When we get back to camp, now perfumed by tree-resin torches, Chung the cook is dishing up chicken with lemongrass. It’s the most astounding camp site I’ve been to, knocking Happy Valley Caravan Park and Silage Plant, Porthmadog, into a cocked hat. I feel privileged to be here, and very well looked after. Time to crack open my sunnies case and hand round the spider legs.

Travel details: Audley Travel (01869 276360, has nine nights in Cambodia from £1,895pp, including flights from London, a two-night temple safari, four nights in Siem Reap and two in Phnom Penh. Or try Regent (0870 499 0911,
The safari can be booked independently through Hanuman (00 855 23 218356, the two-night tour, starting from Siem Reap, with a guide and meals, costs from £350pp.