26 February 2009

On some of the many stupidly long bus journeys that we have so far taken on this trip, my travel buddy, Nick, and I sometimes play game to stave off the boredom. No not 'Hide the Sausage' but 'Where Am I?'. I won't pretend it's anything more than an incredibly dull game that helps stav off boredom that bit longer but it has been useful on certain trips. The game is simple, you think of a place, name some landmarks in that particular place and the other person has to guess where in the world you are talking about.

Let us play a game now. I am in a trendy restaurant. I am sat on cushions with a tray-like table folded across my lap. The man on the table over from me is on his laptop using the Wi Fi service that is available in the particular eatery. Think you've got it yet? What were your guesses? Paris? London? Heck, even somewhere in Eastern Europe?

The answer ladies and gentlemen...Cambodia. Yes that's right that country that few of you have probably have heard of and if you have you are sure it is to do with some genocidal campaign here sometime in the twentieth century. I am not mocking you, dear reader, for lack of geographical awareness because this was my view of the country once known as Kampuchea before I arrived here one sunny January morning.

Cambodia is a country on the rise. It is not at the top, nor is it anywere near, but it has recovered incredibly strongly from one of the most murderous regimes ever experienced and in my opinion will continue to climb. Ironically it is interest in the infamous Pol Pot regime that is attracting tourists to the country and therefore helping the people recover. But first, for those not aware of the Khmer Rouge, a little history lesson.

Pol Pot's regime - Democratic Kampuchea- came into power in Cambodia in 1975 after the American War (yes there was an American war in Cambodia as well as Vietnam,using that war to blame the current government and convince the public that they were the best people to run the country. Which, of course they were not. Within a few months of being in office, Cambodia's capital city, Phnom Penh, was evacuated and the habitants forced to move (and by move I mean walk) to the countryside, promised by the authorities that they would be able to return once the 'American bombardmet of the city' had ended. Once again, you can probably guess what. There was no American bombardment of Phnom Penh. Soon the evacuees were forced to begin work on the countryside, as the Khmer Rouge (yet another name for Pot's party) began to ban anything that represented a stabilised country. Religion, currency, education. Everything was wiped out.

But this was not the worst of it. Then the killings started. Over the next four years, 1.7 million people were killed. Some by guns, others by being slammed so viciously against trees all in order to save bullets. It was barbaric. Vietnam entered Cambodia in 1979 managing to overrun Pol Pot and his regime. Yet even now, 30 years on, the worst perpetrators have not been bought to justice.

Pol Pot's aim was to wipe out order and class in Cambodia. Beginning the calendar at the Year Zero and starting the country from scratch. One of the main points of his campaign was to rid the nation of corruption that is so often existant at the top of many governments. Due to this, the majority of the victims were either in the upper classes or well educated. But by the end it appeared that even the lowest ranking people were killed.

Which is why it is so strange that tourism forms such a large part of the country's growing economy and why tourist's interest in the S-21 prison- whre many prisoners were held in dreadful, sickiening conditions before being carted to the Killing Fields - and the Killing Fields themselves are one of the main drags for people visiting Cambodia. And it is based around these thousands of tourists that restaurants like the one I m currently sat in exists.

But a morbid recollection of a disturbed past is not all Cambodia has to offer. Although admittedly a tight schedule and badly sunburnt back prevented me from visiting, I am informed there are some of the most beautiful beaches around. And the Angkor Wat temples, incredibly impressive 12th and 13th century article, that may or may not be one of the Seven Wonders- I couldn't be bothered to look it up.

If he could see the state of the country now, Pol Pot would be turning in his grave. And too f*cking right.

13 February 2009

Thailand: Sold to the Highest Bidder

The Kho Sahn Road is perhaps most famous as the opening scene for Alex Garland's novel 'The Beach'- or as it was described to me 'that Leonardo di Caprio film where he sh*gs the girl in the water'. The books main character, Richard, describes the infamous road as a place teeming with neon lights, tackiness and Thai salesmen, and he could not be more accurate. Whether your opinion of the road is a good or bad one- and believe me I have met people whose views go from one end of the spectrum to the other- there is no doubt that this place is as loud, dirty and noisy as any other place on earth. All those who have done a night in Cardiff, imagine Chippy Lane in the early hours of a Sunday morning, multiply it by ten, add a few sex shops, and fried cockroaches for sale and even then you are about halfway there.

Mates of mine will be suprised to hear that this particular element of Thai 'culture' did not make a positive impression on me. Recently, in fact, up until less than a year ago, this street filled with cheap beers and hot young women (not all hookers, but certainly a high majority) would have had me rushing there everynight but I left the place, and Bangkok overall, a little disappointed.

I'm going to be blunt here, and the title of this post gives this away, but Thailand has sold it's soul. A country that has as much natural beauty as most other places on the planet and friendlier people as well seems more keen on promoting the ugly drink and drugs scene that so many travellers seize on it for. On the beautiful island of Ko Samui, the original 'backpacker island' has replaced the untouvhed beauty of the beach with more flashing lights and KFC, Burger King and McDonald's within a few yards of each other. Locals on the even more stunningly attractive Ko Phi Phi who once used their boats for fishing trips to feed local people have become the most annoying people on the planet that bug every passing Westerner whether they would like 'taxi boat, I take you, very good, very cheap.'

But let me point out that this is not as negative an article as the first few paragraphs suggest. As with a country so large and diverse, it is impossible to put one country into the same bracket. There are places in Thailand that have held onto their traditions.

Kanchanaburi is just two hours outside of the capital city, but for the difference it offers it might as well be an overnight train journey, then a twelve hour plane trip. While Bangkok is fast, frenetic, crazy and smelly this small-town is laidback, slow-paced and a pleasant place to be. The tuk tuk drivers are still their in their droves at the bus station, but once you have hoped aboard with the most friendly looking one, it is pure laidback lifestyle. The place is most famous as the scene of the 'Bridge over the River Kwai' much glamoroused by yet another book-turned-film but what is refreshing is that most of the monuments are free to use and, unlike Bangkok, you never get the feeling that every person that passes you in the street and even shakes your hand- as many of them seem to want to do- wants to part you with your hard earned, or in my case just earned, cash.

Another example of this is the island of Ko Tao. Not nearly as attractive as it's Adnaman neighbours Ko Samui and Ko Pha Ngan but this is no doubt a good thing. It seems that Thailand's money hungry have not caught on to this diving mecca, which keeps the prices down and the atmosphere friendly.

And finally Krabi, the launching point for many trips to Ko Phi Phi, is the most laidback town I have ever experienced. Tourists, and mostly backpackers, fill the streets but there is still a real feel for local Thai people about the place. Not the types that will hassle you in the street until you literally have to scream at them to "F*ck off" but the ones that will smile at you in the street and perhaps shake your hand as you pass, asking where you are from, but not once mention that one word that seems to be tearing the heart out of this country "money."