The Other Side of the Coin

There is no doubt that each of the countries we have visited that make up the area once known as Indo-China has had a gruesome recent past.

Those of us old enough to remember participating in student anti-Vietnam war demonstrations will need no reminder.

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But some of the worst atrocities happened after the Americans left. Cambodia entered into year zero from 1976 to 1979 under Pol Pot and the Khmer rouge. The most extreme form of social engineering of modern times, to be compared only with the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust, led to the death of over two million people.

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Despite the fact that the majority of the population of these countries is too young to remember these facts young people will be reminded of what happened from their surviving parents and grandparents. As visitors to these countries we have to constantly remember that these areas were more intensively  planted with land mines that even Angola, that three times as many bombs were dropped on them than in the whole of WWII in Europe and one’s got to be aware that when trekking in the idyllic Indo-chinese hill country, with some peaks reaching in excess of 10,000 feet, there is constant danger, despite large-scale schemes to rid the area of these insane abominations, of returning home with, at the best one leg missing (as not a few of the inhabitants we met were witness to.)

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Deforestation is a real problem in Laos with loss of natural habitat for such animals as tigers and rhinos. Child exploitation and prostitution is an ever present disgrace and we all know about the golden triangle which covers the area where these countries meet.

Perhaps the worst hazard is the over-exploitation of the tourist industry – not a bad idea if equably managed but clearly prone to uneven wealth distribution and even more environmental degradation if left to itself.

Eco-tourist projects are increasing and poverty is decreasing. Certainly, Laos doesn’t feel like it was the poorest Asian country just twenty years ago and Vietnam shows no economic slow-down like China has recently displayed.

The big problem is that super powers like nearby China (who wants to built a high speed rail link to the area) and even Russia (who was holding a trade fair in the same hotel we stayed at in  Hanoi) have got their sights set on vast investments in the last areas of Asia to retain something of the charming seduction of the east.

We’ve visited craft centres for young people disabled by preventable diseases or the aftermath of wars. We’ve seen a prosperity in some areas which is astounding but we’ve also read in today’s Hanoi times that urban pollution is at its highest and we’ve  invested in mouth masks.

So what else can I add? Enjoy this magical part of the world while you can and while it can too!

The Floating Villages of Tonle Sap

Cambodia’s topography can be simplified if one considers the country as a giant saucer. In its centre water collects into what is south east Asia’s biggest lake, Tonle Sap. During the monsoon season excess water from the Mekong river enlargens the lake diverting its outlet into a reverse flow into the lake. When the rains subside the waters begin to flow out of the lake and it’s then when the amazing variety of fish are caught in traps set out by fishermen who live in floating houses along its banks.

I’d noticed the immense spread of Tonle Sap when landing at Siem Reap airport and on our last afternoon in Cambodia we took a boat ride down a lake inlet to visit one of these floating villages.

Needless to say, there was a strong fishy smell permeating the settlement but I was immediately attracted by the idea of being able to have a truly moveable house which could fixed at any point by a series of stilts. The village was certainly picturesque and the inhabitants were very amenable towards us.

I only hope that that madcap ideas of damming parts of the lake for hydro electric schemes won’t go through, that its precious ecosystem will be safeguarded  for future generations and that the world’s biggest freshwater fish, the giant catfish, which grows in excess of ten feet in length will still be able to breed there.

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I’m sure the siamese crocodile which we spotted on a lake farm will have a better chance of survival.

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Angkor’s Most Beautiful Temple

Not all Ankgor’s temples impress by their size and complex geometry. Angkor Wat’s sculpture, for example, is often repetitive and stereotyped. One of the temples we visited today, the Banleay Srei, is one of the smallest ones and yet it totally enchants by the transcendental beauty of if its sculptural details.

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Built in 967 it’s unusual in not having been ordered by a king but by two courtiers, Vishnukumara and Yajnararaha. The entrance passageway is lined on both sides by phallic lingaram showing that this temple was dedicated to Shiva. The lintels and columns are wonderful in their delicacy and in the representation of tales from the great Hindu epics of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. One could spend days rather than the few hours we had at our disposal to make sense and meditate on the intricate book the temple unfolds.

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Banleay Srei has left an indelible impression on me and showed that the inordinate celestiality of Angkor’s thousand plus temples isn’t just a matter of scale but of intimacy. It was a fitting conclusion to our short overview of the world’s greatest (in all senses of the word) religious site.

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The City of Temples

Ever since as a small child child I’d seen pictures of a heavenly building with lotus towers stretching into a tropical sky and with walls slowly strangled by giant tree roots I’d wanted to be be there.

Now that early dream had become reality and yesterday I climbed up on of the five great towers crowning this largest of religious buildings in the world.

I had finally seen and touched the Angkor Wat!image