Book of wonders
Ditch the run-of-the-mill guidebooks and discover the majestic mountains, offbeat adventures and delicious flavours that define the Kingdom in the new book, To Cambodia With Love.
Falling in love with Cambodia can take just a moment. “People ask me why I travel or what makes me go where I go, and it is days like these. Just a few days in a hot wooden house in a faraway forest. Just a few days in a dark kitchen with stoves of fire and the women who tend them – and the bond that forms so quickly. They speak no English; I practise my sketchy Khmer. But all we need to get started is the language of food,” writes journalist and author Karen Coates.
Her curiosity about Cambodian flavours was piqued by breakfasts while staying with a family on a birdwatching trip to Tmatboey in northern Preah Vihear province. Other visitors have fallen in love with the country while scrambling through jungle paths to reach ruined 11th-century temples, watching children dance their way as apsaras out of the urban slum of Tonle Bassac, talking with legendary elderly dancer Em Theay, crunching spiders in Skuon or hunting for Khmer music with chapei musician Kong Nay.
More than 125 short adventurous tales have been collected in a new book, To Cambodia With Love, edited by Phnom Penh’s well-known blogger and temple hound Andy Brouwer (ThingsAsian Press, $20 from Monument Books). Subtitled A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur, this is a book to dip into at random and a marvellous compendium to give to visitors. These tales are often adventures off the beaten track, as Brouwer likes to do when searching for forgotten Angkor-era temples in his spare time.
“We chose essays by people who genuinely love the country as much as I do, people who had some insight. It’s a mixture of well-known names and lesser-known writers. The book’s been a long time in the making. But the series editor Kim Fay was brilliant because she made me pull my finger out and finish it,” Brouwer says.
Blogger at www.andybrouwer.co.uk, he’s a former English banker who chucked in his job and comfortable life after 31 years behind the desk to move to Phnom Penh full time, three years ago. His own love affair with Cambodia began with a five-day trip in 1994. “Five of the most exhilarating, nerve-jangling and frightening days of my life – and that was it. I was hooked, completely, by a country and a people who’ve subsequently enriched my life to a degree I never thought possible,” writes Brouwer in the book’s introduction.
“I truly feel at home, I belong, I love every day of my life here, and I want to share my passion for this country with everyone.”
Adventures in the book include being rescued by Cambodian four-wheel drive – an oxcart – from a river that claimed the motorbikes of travel guide and location scout Nick Ray and his companion while they were trying to find the ruined Angkorian city of Preah Khan in Kampong Svay province. “All I could see was a handlebar sticking sorrowfully out of the water,” Ray writes in the book. “Stripping off, we hauled my bike out. John swam the river and trekked in search of his bike. Remarkably, it started, and he came roaring out of the forest. Mine, on the other hand, was paraded around Ta Seng in search of a mechanic or magician. After taking it apart with the precision of a surgeon, the local mechanic reassembled it and beeped the horn triumphantly. It wouldn’t start, but face was saved. We eventually made it out on a combination of ox carts and motorbikes. It was time to return to civilization.”
Another rescue in remote Ratanakiri province is described by Bangkok-based American traveller Peter Walter, whose rented motorbike broke down in a rubber tree plantation miles from Ban Lung town. “After walking more than a kilometre, I was heartened by the sight of two young men approaching in the distance on a motorbike. They stopped and took a look, quickly identifying the culprit – a worn-out sparkplug. Without my needing to ask for help, they devised a rescue plan,” Walter writes.
“Tying my limp bike to theirs with a rope, they signalled for me to ride on the back of their bike, while one of them would steer my bike as it was towed behind. Given the treacherous conditions of the dirt trails we traversed, it was an incredible feat of control and balance for both of them while I just held on for the ride. We finally reached a small repair shack, and within minutes, my bike was purring again with a brand-new sparkplug inside. I asked for the bill and almost fell over upon hearing that the total charge for the tow and repair was a mere 19,000 riel – not even $5.
“Before getting back on the road, I thanked my rescuers profusely and reflected on my good fortune. However, as I continued riding, it struck me that I hadn’t actually been lucky at all, for it was typical – this Cambodian spirit of hospitality – in this remote and fascinating corner of the world.”
Brouwer says the book is designed as a companion for curious travellers, with pieces chosen to give people an insight into aspects of Cambodian lives. One of the most surprising contributions was from Canadian sci-fi writer Geoff Ryman. He’s more recently known for his scholarly work on King Jayavarman VII, and wrote a highly readable novel based on his research called The King’s Last Song.
“So he wrote a terrific piece about Cambodian rap music,” laughs Brouwer delightedly.
This is Ryman on pop icon Kong Nay: “Kong Nay plays a traditional string instrument, the chapei, to which he improvises with a howling gravely voice verse that is both classic and modern. If anything, he sounds like a Delta bluesman.
“Kong Nay is often heard at the Sovanna Phum Theatre in Phnom Penh at one of the regular Friday or Saturday night shows. I highly recommend that you go to Sovanna Phum, whatever is playing, whether it’s the company’s own shadow puppet extravaganza or traditional theatre. The first time I went, I was battered by a performance by Kong Nay, and then elated by a dance piece that blended traditional Cambodian ballet and Indian classical dance with big-band jazz sampled from a French film.”
To Cambodia With Love is organised into seven main chapters covering feasts, sightseeing, secret discoveries, wilderness experiences, living like a local, how to give back while you’re on the road, and further resources.
Reading this book, you’ll discover what to do at a Khmer wedding or funeral, how not to bet at a kickboxing competition and how to get a free visit to Angkor Wat. Expatriate Cambodian-American Socheata Poeuv finds out how this works on a visit to the temples with her Texas-based parents. “My parents, being the frugal immigrants they are, insisted that our family take advantage of the ‘Cambodian discount.’ For Cambodians, a day pass to the temples is free. For everyone else, it’s $20,” she writes.
“To prove our Cambodian-ness, my father told us that there were certain rules we had to abide by or we would be found out. First and foremost, we could not dress like Americans. Although it was at least 30 degrees Celsius and steam-room humid, we had to wear long pants and long sleeves just like proper Cambodians.
“The second rule was that we could only speak Khmer when we were at the temples. Easy for my parents, but for my brother and me, who had grown up in America since ages five and two respectively, it was difficult. Embarrassingly, our vocabularies had been reduced to the most essential communications like ‘I am hungry’ or ‘You’re crazy in the head.’ Although in our 20s, we were only able to sound like bratty three-year-olds.”
Fact boxes at the end of each essay make it easy to plan your journey using the latest information. Fellow temple lovers like Brouwer will want to follow him to the remote temple city of Banteay Chhmar – “the most amazing place with massive giant faces carved into the ruins.” He predicts this will become a major tourist attraction if it wins world heritage status, and conservation work on the temples is already underway by the Global Heritage Fund. Sixty kilometres north of Sisophon in Banteay Meanchey province near the Thai border, the temples are an oasis of calm, unlike the crowds at Angkor Wat.
Hiring a 15-year-old machete-toting guide, Brouwer returned six years ago to try to find other temples nearby. “The path into the complex of Prasat Samnang Tasok was easy aside from the ferocious red ants, but the floor of the temple was covered in thick bushes, so it was best to clamber along the walls and roof of the outer gopura to make our way to the inner sanctuary, which was topped by four more giant faces and other carvings,” he writes in the book.
“Like the majority of the hidden gems I’d located, not another soul was anywhere to be seen, and the only sounds to be heard were birds and the occasional rustle of a lizard amongst the undergrowth. On the way out, I was perched precariously on the lintel of a gateway when two red ants bit into my stomach after crawling up my trousers, reminding me that temple exploration has an occasional downside.”Reproduced by kind permission of 7Days Copyright Post Media Limited.