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Southern Thailand and Cambodia

Festive greetings from the Cambodian city of Kampot and if you've managed to sit through my previous tedious analyses of the politics of countries you've no interest in out of some outdated sense of loyalty (e.g. you're related to me) then you might find this email a bit easier as it's largely about getting drunk on the beach in Thailand. After a few semi enforced months of abstemiousness in Muslim countries it really was an easy, almost epicurean couple of weeks where I did no sightseeing, got up at 12 every day and consistently went to bed around 4am. Thailand receives some 15 million tourists every year and I would have to rate it as the most touristy place I've ever been- but of course for good reason. From all the famous islands (Phuket, Samui, Phi Phi etc) that everyone knows to the incredible coastal rock formations on the mainland it surely ranks as one of the single most beautiful coastlines in the world. Both the Andaman and Gulf coasts boast huge numbers of basically perfect white beaches and whether you want awesome nightlife to quieter slices of paradise it really has it all. I was worried before I went that Thailand wouldn't be my sort of place but I should have known I'd fit in in any country where nearly everyone is tattooed and it's a crime to criticise the monarchy in any way. However, even if I bought a Thai bride there's no way I could live there simply because of the portion sizes. They don't so much eat like white men as eat like white mice and we constantly found ourselves having to order another meal as soon as we'd finished the first one. However, quite a few people are able to bridge the food gap and Thailand now has one of the biggest expat communities in the world (75,000 Brits alone). Life in Thailand is very, very easy for an expat; a great climate, good food and supremely friendly people mean that if you have the money it's one of the best places on earth to live (for an expat). For the British expats a pretty common story was making a fortune selling their house at the right time in the property boom then living abroad far more cheaply off the earnings Seeing most of them doing little more than going to the beach and drinking all day you do feel sorry for the locals surrounded by them. The average wage for a 'normal job' (eg working in a restaurant) is about $6 per day whereas a 'bar girl' can earn 7 times that in one evening. So of course aside from its beaches Thailand is also famous for sex tourism. The reason why sex tourism is biggest in Thailand and the Philippines is due to the recent history of the region, in the late 1950's and early 1960's America needed air bases in SE Asia in order to combat the domino effect and the only 2 friendly countries at the time were Thailand and the Philippines. Suddenly you had thousands of young men with plenty of money and free time arriving in countries that were still extremely poor agricultural societies and products like razor blades and toilet rolls were still luxuries. In Dominica I stayed with a guy who'd served in Thailand in the late 50's and he said they played a game of what's the cheapest you can get a girl for (and free didn't count), the base record was a single stick of Wrigley's and seeing some of the 'couples' matched up around you do see things that despite Thailands mid ranking economy things still haven't changed much. I once got a '1001 things to do before you die' style books for Christmas and many of Thailand's natural wonders were included; what weren't included however were listings of nights out in Thailand- 2 of which really were some of the most memorable I can remember. Some of the best nights out of my life have involved nothing more than drinking on the street and doing nothing in particular. A night out in Patong, Phukets 'nightclub' district definitely fit that bill as along with a couple of Danish lads I've been travelling with we did nothing specific all night except be very mischievous towards the thousands of prostitutes (and clients) that are wandering around. However, my favourite night out was definitely the famous full moon party on Ko Pha Nga; it's a huge dance party on the beach and really should be something ''you do before you die'. For the first (and let's face it probably only time in my life) I wore bright pink and coloured my hair and various parts of my body in the same colour and just had an epic night. You drink a mixture of Thai whiskey, coke and the local red bull equivalent (which is firmly banned in the EU) out of a bucket and head to the beach. Several buckets and hours later and I found myself passed out on a construction site. Magic. Unfortunately we then had to do a 30hr journey to get out of Thailand before our visas ran out and via pink stripes still in my hair I was happily a source of great amusement to the immigration officers as we entered Cambodia. Unsurprisingly, Cambodia was a rather different experience after the laziness of Thailand. We started off in perhaps the single biggest attraction of the entire region at the awesome temples of Angkor. They are an incredible site being the remains of a thousand yr old city of a million people, in contrast at the time London was just 50,000 strong. The setting was perhaps not as spectacular as I imagined, Cambodia really isn't the best looking country as 90% of it is pancake flat and rather than jungle surrounding the ruins (like in the cinematic masterpiece Tomb Raider) it's centuries old agricultural plains. However, this meant renting a bike for 3 days and easily ambling along visiting amazing temple after amazing temple was just fantastic and emphasized quite what an amazing spectacle they are, spread out over a huge area. From the temples we headed to the capital Phnom Penh and got a heavy dose of Cambodias more recent, much less glorious history. The Khmer Rouge state would have to rate as having one of the strangest political philosophies I've ever come across, the aim of the state was to turn the population into illiterate peasants who could do little more than bring in the rice crop in the hope that this would lead to a ''├žlassless society''. They abolished education, healthcare, transport, money and all kinds of other things which we'd normally regard as essential to make a country work. They famously killed anyone with any education and to be even suspected of being an intellectual (e.g. wearing glasses) was often enough for a a death sentence. Between 1-3 million people were killed in just 3 and a half years and their legacy has screwed the country up for decades afterwards. We first visited the notorious S-21 prison and as you may have seen on the news in the last few weeks, the camps commandant '├çomrade Duch' has been on trial for his role in the genocide. At the end of the trial he begged forgiveness and asked to be let free, he personally ordered the deaths of around 17,000 people and as you looked round the former school classrooms of photos of prisoners having their heads smashed in (they were ordered to save bullets for army use) it's not surprising that most Cambodians don't feel he should be released. By killing so many of Cambodias talented people, the Khmer Rouge left a nation with no skilled professionals or people who were remotely able to lead the country effectively and a dangerously skewed population ratio of 70:30 women to men. They turned the population into terrified slaves and the only reason the regime collapsed was due to Pol Pot's obsessional hatred with Vietnam, after declaring a futile war against it's far bigger neighbour Cambodia lost and the Khmer Rouge were forced to retreat to the countryside. It's to the West's shame that because it was Communist Vietnam (rather than say capitalist Thailand) that liberated the country, the West refused to acknowledge that the Khmer Rouge weren't the government and as late as 1990 they still held Cambodias seat at the UN. More importantly though it has meant that up until Duch no one has been brought to justice. The enigmatic Pol Pot died in his countryside hideout in 1998 and all of the other top leaders have died one way or another. Cambodia is now run (notoriously poorly) by ex-Khmer Rouge members and it still feels like a wild country that's almost lawless in places but there are plenty of grounds for optimism. Angkor Wat is very much the symbol of the country, appearing on the national flag and its very easy to view it as a metaphor for the country as a whole. Cambodia is far too poor to afford expensive renovation programmes on the temples but funding has come flooding in from abroad due to the sites importance. Similarly, due at least in part to romantic visions of Angkor Wat and of course sympathy for what the nation has gone through, Cambodia has been very successful at attracting aid and everywhere there is evidence of NGO support and overseas help. Through this and the tourism boom that has blessed the nations recent freedom and it's a nation that's looking forward. On a more negative note, I've also never been anywhere where children are more put upon than Cambodia. The country can afford for children to go to school for half the day, after which children are expected to work from as young as 4 or 5. In most places this involves helping out with their Mums market stall or selling drinks to tourists but nowhere in the world is paedophilia a greater problem. Whilst the likes of Arthur C. Clarke and Gary Glitter have obviously greatly raised public awareness it's still a massive problem, in a country with so many orphans it's not hard to see why it's such a problem here. Another major problem are the 3-6 million undiscovered landmines still claiming 10 victims a month and the amount of guns that are around. Another tourist activity you may have read about in Cambodia is the opportunity to shoot all kinds of weapons at live targets for a fee. So you can start off shooting a pistol at a chicken (about $20) and end up shooting a rocket launcher at a cow (about $200). Whilst in itself this is a pretty controversial way to make money, the fact that its often part of 'the killing fields' tours makes it just tragic. A couple of the most famous killing fields (basically mass graves) have been turned into 'genocide awareness museums' ala Auschwitz. After walking round the graves for a couple of hours it's quite surreal to hear the local touts trying to get you to then shoot at live animals. I asked a couple of them do you not think its wrong and the answer they gave were ''Yeah but I've gotta get paid''. Aside from being tragic it is also an indictment of quite how poor the country is too. The last couple of days have been much more relaxed renting a motorbike and ambling among French colonial towns on the south coast and the odd pepper plantation. Another of the key ideas of the Khmer Rouge was that cities were 'wrong' and urbanites were worthless inferior people. They marched everyone out to the countryside and left the cities as empty shells. Whilst most were repopulated gradually there are still quite a few ghost-towns around and spookily investigating abandoned hill stations was definitely a great way to end my time in this fantastic country. Tomorrow I leave for Vietnam as I follow the mighty Mekong down to the sea. It's also the last time I'll write before Christmas so I have the slightly bewildering prospect of Christmas in a Communist country. Hope you get snow and have a great time off work.
From Kampot,
Barney

Posted by carlswall 12:48 Archived in Cambodia

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