Sunday, December 07, 2014

Dubin / Madrid - A Wild Goose at Christmas

This article was first published in The Irish Times newspaper

I deserted the windy Irish shores for a land locked Madrid almost 12 years ago. Many Spanish summers have passed since then and now thirty-six, I have slowly come to consider myself a product of both cultures. However while that may be so, La Navidad never really feels the same in my adopted country. I simply can't seem to tune in. Perhaps it is because the Christmas carols don't sound the same.

That said, I no longer look at Spain with Irish eyes and nor do I expect to find Madrid on the streets of Dublin. I therefore know only too well that the only place for me to be at this time of year is back home in County Meath. It is only here that I can roast my feet at the fire while I get to grips again with milky tea and the newer flavours such as Niall Horan and Love-hate.

Nonetheless, no matter how happy and unrepentant I may be about my life as a Wild Goose, the trip home for the festive season always manages to knock me out of kilter.  It is the easy flow of conversation, the neighbour's backdoor, the courtesy on the streets and that intangible sense of belonging. Of course given the season, all of this is nicely accompanied by marzipan, mince pies and Fanning's Fab 50.  Acting as a well drilled team, these aforementioned delights never fail to rekindle that debate in my mind about the pros and cons of my self-imposed exile. I suddenly become all too aware of what I am missing here or would possibly miss there. It is also when I return for my much needed annual recalibration, where friends merrily take their amigo down a peg or two. 

Experience has taught me that when you are at peace with yourself and your roots, life on foreign soil is always easier. In Spain, as in Ireland, locals will always gravitate towards the foreigner who is most comfortable with who they are and where they come from. In other words, the more at ease you are with kin and country, the better equipped you are to thrive abroad.  Without question there is no better time for us wanderers to access and appreciate our Irish essence.

Sadly however, for my siblings and I this has been our first Christmas without parents at the end of the table. That in itself changes the dynamic that one living overseas has with their homeland. And so it is that the festivities suddenly came to act as an unexpected tool for rebuilding my recently disoriented relationship with Irlanda.  Perhaps spending Christmas in Ireland has functions and meanings for the Irish émigré that those based back home might fail to see.

I only ever begin to feel the festive spirit in Madrid airport on the Friday before the celebrations. This has oddly become for me as much a part of Christmas as midnight mass once was. One year older, the same familiar faces turn up at the departure gate. While waiting to board, we all compete on who will be home for the longest and who managed to get their flight for the best price. Defeated, we then share theories on when is the best time to buy our December tickets.

In this same queue there is always a rookie who in his first year tries to bring back the full leg of cured ham (not knowing that Irish humidity will soon give rise to mold). There is also the red haired five year old who makes us all feel inadequate by her ability to slip seamlessly between two languages. Interestingly this is also the date when expatriates tend to bring the newest, newly found love home for the very first time. It is quite an amusing sight as these love-struck foreigners wear expressions of lost children as they take in all around them.

Finally the EI flight number is called and the epic battle to squeeze and reshape solid presents into equally hard overhead lockers begins. This year, as in every other year, the aircraft successfully managed to defy both gravity and Christmas generosity. It was certainly a turbulent flight home due to bad weather all over the continent. The only difference was that the wind only chooses to speak to me in Ireland.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Los San Fermines


Friday, August 15, 2008

Madrid - A flag and an identity crisis

Spain have just won their first European football trophy since 1964. At this stage we have all heard on numerous occasions about Fernando Torres' winning goal, the ominous absence of Raul, the outspoken manager and of course the triumph of the glorious Spanish passing game. How and ever something that has passed most people by was that the real story was never on the pitch, in the stadium or even on the training ground. It was instead on the narrow streets of the capital city. Afterall this was the first time that the country as a fully fledged "democracy" has had reason to celebrate such a prestigious victory on the world stage. Indeed on few occasions since the fall of the Franco dictatorship has Spain had the opportunity to collectively celebrate itself as a triumphant nation.

Just as Ireland but on a far greater scale, Madrid has experienced an unprecedented influx of immigration. As can be expected of course but not necessarily condoned, there has been quite a negative reaction from a large part of the native public who don’t believe that Spanish economic prosperity is there for the sharing. All of this has only served to marginalise the immigrant communities whose Spanish born children are already reaching their late teens. These youths are therefore slow to identify with their european country of birth and yet at the same time they are also quite unable to feel Moroccan or Ecuadorian given that they have never even been to these distant lands for which their parents so often pine.

However while the new Spaniards of foreign ancestry have been shy and perhaps prohibited from embracing the Spanish flag, so too have the Spaniards themselves. Modern Spain is a complex country that has never been very comfortable with their red and gold standard. Furthermore it has in recent years become increasingly and exclusively associated with fascist ideals and nationalism…two very dirty concepts in today’s Spanish society. It therefore follows that any celebration of flag or colours stirs the innate fear in many that the sleeping beast might be awoken yet again and make a successful return to national politics. Consequently simple and well meaning patriotism is frowned upon as it invokes uncomfortable memories of despotic propaganda and oppression.

Thus the curious combination of teenage identity crisis in immigrant neighbourhoods, ghosts of a regretful political past and a cynicism due to traditional Spanish under-achievement in soccer tournaments all resulted in a very subdued build up to the Eurocopa. Nonetheless when Spain suddenly did advance dramatically to the semi-finals the city began to get excited and the shared mood on the streets began to change.

Nowhere is the multi faceted Spanish society more visible than on Line 3 of the city metro which serves the military neighbourhoods at one end and the typically Puerto Rican and latino barrios at the other. Hence on the afternoon of one match I watched as two young Indian sisters with faces painted yellow and red spoke enthusiastically to their uncle in Spanish while he replied happily from under his red hat and in his native Indian tongue. A few stops later a Brazilian mother hauls her two young sons clad in Spanish jerseys onto the carriage. With the usual taunts that an older brother inflicts on his younger sibling, he challenged his frustrated brother to choose between Brazil or Spain.

The European cup final became in essence a “Spaniard Factory”. Suddenly every child and teenager of Moroccan, Peruvian, Columbian or Puerto Rican descent was declaring himself to be ESPAÑOL. The new all encompassing Spanish spirit was also quite evident amongst the adult immigrants as they competed just before kick-off with their Spanish neighbours for the last remaining "warm" beer in the local Chinese corner shop. It seems it took an international football final to tackle in many ways a question that the government has been too inept and too aloof to deal with. Amazingly no amount of social integration programmes could ever have been as effective as the Iker Casillas penalty save against Italy!

Meanwhile on the streets after the game the public righteously stole back their national flag which for too long had been considered the private property of the exteme right. This time however the flag belonged to everybody just as did the night of celebrations ahead. As can only be expected there were always a few resurrected Falange flags on display but they were drowned out, ignored and hardly noticeable amongst all the colour and honest, uncorrupted patriotism that excuded from ecstatic city streets.

Spain had finally come to terms with itself. At least for one night anyway.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Spain -Guidelines on how to be good wife in the Franco era

Translated excerpts from the "Female Section" of a Spanish Falange Manual (edited 1958) which was used as a text in universities for the teaching of Home Ecomonics

Always have ready a delicious meal for when he arrives home from work. His favourite dish would be appropriate. Offer to take off his shoes and speak in low , pleasant tones.

Prepare yourself: Touch up your make-up and put a ribbon in your hair. Make yourself a little more interesting for him. His long work day may need some cheering up which is one of your core duties.

During colder days you should light a fire so that he can relax in front of it. Afterall, caring for his comfort will give you immense personal satisfaction.

Minimize all noise. At the time of his arrival home eliminate all washing machine or vacuum cleaner sounds. Greet him with a warm smile and show that his comfort is your prime concern. Listen to him, let him speak first, bearing in mind that his topics of conversation are more important than yours. Never complain if he arrives late, if he goes out to dinner or other enjoyable places without you. Instead try to understand his world of stress and his real needs. Try make him feel at home in an armchair. Have a hot or cold drink ready for him. Never ask him to explain his actions or question his integrity. He is the man of the house.

Encourage your husband to pursue his interests and support him without being excessively pushy. If you have any interests of your own try not to bore him with them, as female interests are very trivial compared to those of the male. At the end of the evening clean the house so that it is in good order the following morning. Always foresee what your husband might require the next day. The breakfast is vital so that your he can confront the world in a positive manner.

Once you have both retired to the bedroom, prepare yourself for bed as soon as possible not forgetting that while female hygiene is of maximum importance, your husband does not want to have to wait to use the bathroom. Remember that you must look impeccable. If you need to use facial cream or hair rollers you should wait until he is asleep as they might be off-putting for a man at this late hour. With regard to intimate relations with your husband it is important to remember your matrimonial obligations. If he desires to sleep, let it be so and to not try to stimulate intimacy. If your husband suggest union, then submit humbly taking into account that his satisfaction is more important than that of the woman. When he reaches the moment of climax, a small groan on your part is sufficient to indicate that it has been enjoyable for you. If your husband requests unusual sex, be obedient and do not complain. It is most probable that your husband will then fall into a deep sleep, and so you can fix your clothes, freshen up and apply your facial cream and hair products. You can should then set the alarm clock in order to get up a little earlier the following morning. This will enable you to have a cup of tea ready for when he awakes.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Marrakech - The final piece in the puzzle

You cannot claim to fully understand the Spanish nation without first making a trip across the straits to that other continent that people once believed began at the Pyranees. Nonetheless although the Iberians would have you think that Morocco is a very distant land, my visit proved to me that it is in many ways a lot closer to their European neighbours than political geography might suggest. Modern times dictate that this is the point where Europe ends and Africa begins. However this was not always the case.

Marrakech is a chaotic, noisy and dusty city. It is also a quaint, likeable and searingly hot Moroccan metropolis where the predominant colour is yellow, the typical animal is the donkey and the principal form of transport is the screeching moped. Even so, while walking about the narrow streets I could not help but notice that the city’s soundtrack was frighteningly similar to that of nearby Spain. In the end it was a very distinct human “hiss” sound that sent my mind jumping randomly and confusedly between Europe and Africa. Until now I had only ever come across this very particular manner of calling someones attention on the Spanish streets of Granada and little did I expect to come across it in the Arab labyrinth of Marrakech. Furthermore as I wandered on observing the natives and hunting for that ever elusive perfect portrait I came to realise that I was at times looking into the faces of my very own friends. If it had been Madrid I would have presumed it to be an uncle, grandfather or even brother? How could it be that this Muslim holy man can look so similar to the priest who drinks his morning coffee in the same Malasaña café as I. But then again why should this surprise me when the forever vilified Moors who settled in ancient Spain arrived without any women.

I naively expected Marrakech to fit my ill informed, preconceived notion of what such a Muslim city would be like. Still and all it was a misconception that did not last long as I immediately witnessed local women speeding about on mopeds sporting fancy cleavage and fancy jeans. However that said, invariably cycling in the opposite direction would be a girl of equal age peeping through her consersative Muslim attire. While most Moroccan girls would never dare to converse with you in public , they would instead stare with their dark piercing eyes and slip you a forbidden smile in a manner that most Spanish girls would find too forward. It was all just a Moroccan game of tease that I naturally enjoyed given the astonishing beauty of the Marrakech ladies. Meanwhile the truly ugly side to this is that their glorious females are treated as lesser individuals and indeed one of the most absurd sights were the separate queues at cash machines, one for women and another for men.

Morocco is not a democracy and I therefore expected a far more visible uniformed police presence than turned out to be the case. Furthermore road rules did not seem be of much importance although I do recognise that they would be impossible to enforce as driving through Marrakech is a veritable game of “dodge the donkey”. Afterall how does one incorporate unpredictable mules into the "safe-cross code" of an African nation! Thankfully however the Moroccans are not aggressive drivers and of course it goes without saying that there is no drunk-driving in a Muslim “dry state” such as here. Thus as safely sober cars wormed rapidly between the kasbahs and bizaars with arabian-french rap blaring through the windows I smiled to myself as the words of Joe Strummer came to mind and with the new found insight that it was not about Morocco that he sang;

"By order of the prophet, We ban that boogie sound, Degenerate the faithful, With that crazy Kasbah sound."
One of the most interesting features of Marrakech were the Riads which were the ancient homes with closed gardens dotted about the city. All rooms of these wealthy residences opened out onto the central garden, thus providing private shade from the sun and no doubt shelter from religion. It was in these exotic walled oasis and adjoining quarters that the ever polygamous owners energetically enjoyed their many wives. Hence as I sat marvelling at the splendour of the ceramics I recalled the common theory that the Moors lost their 800 year hold on Spain after their overflowing harems slowly smothered their soldiering prowess. Furthermore exploring these opulent refuges it was easy to identify the origins of the modern Andalucian homes common throughout southern Spain. The only difference is that in Cordoba there is no 5 am calling to prayer in which each mosque tower duly competes on a daily basis to be heard above their nearby rivals. Conclusion: No such thing as a lie-in in downtown Marrakech.

In only a matter of days it became quite evident to the eye that the history and culture of Spain and Morocco are undeniably intertwined. In spite of the contrasting fortunes, political predicaments and recent histories of the two nations it was nonetheless possible to see that common gestures, words, sounds, foods, music and architecture still mirrored each other to an incredible extent. It is not unusual to read the ancient history of nation without necessarily being able to identify the traces in modern cotidian society. This was not the case. Afterall, what is 12km ?

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Burma - Amongst the people

Susan Sonntag once wrote that the early success of the photographic apparatus could be attributed to the fact that it invented “class tourism”. By this she meant that the camera provided the wealthy for the first time with a safely distant view of the lives of the poorer classes. Indeed when looking back over my photos taken in Burma, I often think that this same description could apply to my time spent there.

There is no denying that Rangoon is at first quaint and exciting in its dingy and crumbled state. Certainly most striking is the endemic decay of the buildings whose surviving beauty and majesty is testimony to how Rangoon should, could and did once look. It is only natural therefore that one gets excited when the surrounding buildings resemble King Louis’ palace in “The Jungle Book” but it is a thrill that quickly dissipates when a barefooted and scraggly child emerges through the brittle unhinged front door. It seems that pretty urban decay was simply a prelude to equally photogenic human plight.

Every Rangoon street is dotted with food stalls whose aromas reflect the ethnic mix of the city. Indian, Chinese and traditional Burmese cuisine braised noisily alongside the energetic shouts of child waiters. Such eateries would normally consist of a makeshift mobile cooking assembly with about twenty small plastic tables and chairs that I last recall using in my first infant year at school. That said, I also remember quite clearly that in those days it it all seemed a lot less lilliputian and felt a lot more comfortable. Nonetheless unnaturally crouched as I was, it was the perfect location to let the Burmese hours and the Burmese city pass quickly by. Gladly at times like these the people were as curious about me as I was about them and so it was easy to strike up conversation with large gatherings at miniature tables. Nevertheless enthusiastic as they may have been, conversation in public was limited to trivial subjects as my acquaintances skillfully made sure to not allow the chat ever drift off the safer lines. Afterall one in ten of the population are said to be police infomers and behind all those beautiful smiles I could strongly sense the silent fear.

To enter the nation they now call Myanmar is to take a giant step back in time. It is a nation where children drag pick-axes bigger than themselves, fields are ploughed by buffalo, and horses trotted by with cart loads of newly felled teak. So little has been the advancement that the scenes I witnessed were no different to those seen by George Orwell in his time spent here as policeman in the 1920's. Almost a century later the footpaths and streets are a veritable obstacle course yet again and have become nothing more than dirt and rubble after decades of neglect. The thought struck me that while the grandmothers of Southern Spain proudly recall the days before the arrival of roads, in tark contrast the old folk of Rangoon must surely be regailing nostalgically the days of asphalt and markings. Indeed not even the route between Mandalay and Rangoon is surfaced and at times the road completely disppeared, leaving only dirt tracks or flattended scrub for our battered bus (with gerry-cans as seating) to negotiate.

There is no effort made whatsoever ever to hide the fact that Burma is under the complete control of the military junta. This was my first time to see at first hand a despotic regime in action and unsurprisingly the most disturbing aspect was the incredible gap between the ever more rich and the truly hopelessly poor. It was most visible in one particular mountain village known as Kalaw which had an electricity supply only every second day. That was of course unless you lived on the hill in the new military dwellings where they and their families enjoyed endless power without stoppages. This was most noticeable at night when the entire town was in complete darkness without a street lamp in sight while not so far away in lavish brightnesss was the forbidden world of commissioned officers.

The absolute abundance of Pagodas throughout the South East Asian nation is hard to fathom and nowhere was this more so the case than in the countryside surrounding Mandalay. Every hillside in sight was littered with gold painted, if not gold plated, Buddhist shrines which are built by the wealthy in order to gain merit, a central theme in the Buddhist crede. Looking across the valley at this odd spectacle I recalled a cruel and corrupt character named U Po Kyin in George Orwell’s “Burmese Days" who believed that his life's wrong doings (which were many) would be easily compensated for by his building a Pagoda. I can now see that Orwell’s novel was not so much a work of fiction afterall and little has changed since as all still believe that such self indulgent guilded constructions gain more merit than would helping the poor who wash, drink and cook on the river banks that lie in the shadow of theses golden pins.

When I did finally leave Burma, I did so without any sense of optimism or hope for the abandoned nation. While in Vietnam I could see a corrupt communist regime on the verge of democracy and in Cambodia I felt a sense of relief due the upcoming Khmer Rouge trials and the falling number of mine victims, my sensations for Burma were quite the opposite. But what can I do or change ? Afterall I was nothing more than a useless "class tourist".

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Burma - Transparent Rhetoric of Fools in Power

(Taken from the The Mynamar Times - the English language, Government controlled , propaganda publication )

Four Political Objectives

  • Stability of the State, community peace and tranquility, prevalence of law and order National reconsolidation
  • Emergence of a new enduring State Constitution
  • Building of a modern Developed nation in accord with the new State Constitution.
Tour Economic Objectives

  • Development of agriculture as the base and all round development of other sectors of the economy as well.Proper evolution of the market-oriented economic systems
  • Development of the economy inviting participation in terms of technical know how and investments from sources inside the country and abroad.
  • The initiative to shape the nacional the national economy must be kept in the hands of the State and the national peoples.
Four Social Objectives

  • Uplift of the morale and morality of the entire nation.
  • Uplift of national prestige and integrity and preservation and safeguarding of culture heritage and national character.
  • The initiative to shape the national economy must be kept in the hands of the State and the national peoples
Four Social Objectives

  • Uplift of the morale and morality of the entire nation.
  • Uplift of national prestige and integrity and preservation and safeguarding of cultural heritage and national carácter.
  • Uplift of dynamism of patriotic spirit.
  • Uplift of health, fitness and education standards of the entire nation.

Friday, April 20, 2007

The Burmese

Everything about this forgotten nation seems and feels different to the rest of South East Asia. The people are no exception.

But how is it that a population can be so isolated and yet so worldly? However while this may be so I do not believe that such worldliness is necessarily due the legacy of a colonial past which only came to an end in 1958. Afterall the whole of the Indo-China region was at one stage or other occupied by the European superpowers of yester year and yet the citizens of the neighbouring states are not in any way as cultured as the shut-off Burmese.

On arrival it was to my great surprise that bookstalls are dotted throughout the streets of Rangoon and be it the roof of a truck, bus stop, tea shop, or military checkpoint, everybody is to be seen reading. This in itself sets Burma apart as I don't recall such a sight in Vietnam, Cambodia or even Laos. Unfortunately however the "photocopied" book world is strictly censored with Jeffrey Archer being presently the only “contemporary” English author whose translated titles are permitted on the shelves. Likewise all hotmail and yahoo acocunts are blocked out but many thankfully get around this using a server aptly known as "freedom". The situation is perfectly described by Burmese autor Pascal Khoo Thwe who recalls his university literature class having only one copy of a core text to share amongst an entire literature faculty.

The Burmese in general have also managed to become superior English speakers despite the fact that the teaching of the language was banned for so many decades. Curiously however the law was changed when the daughter of former dictator General Ne Win was denied a place in Medical school in England on the grounds of her lack of English. I have always believed that to speak a foreign language is not just knowing how to comunícate in a different tongue but also a priviledged and clear insight into a foreign culture that no amount of social commentary or history books can properly provide. Such is therefore the case here where the ability to speak English has subtely enlightened an oppressed people and enabled them to learn and know of an outside world that sadly does not wish to know of them in return. Perhaps therefore you might dare to say their language skills only serve to increase their frustration and awareness of the ludicrous situation in which they find themselves abandoned.

Walking through the streets it is very easy to ascertain the main religions of Burma. As in Laos and Thailand, Buddhist monks are omnipresent in their saffron robes, shaven heads and bare feet, but also recognisable are the muslims with their tradicional head wear and long beards. The Hindus whose parents and grandparents were stationed here as soldiers of the English Empire are also distinguishable, if not by their Indian features then surely by their turbans. I can't say that I have a knack for recognising Christians or more to the point Baptists, but they tend to have very English names such as Jeffrey or James and in any case invariably inform me of their crede very early on in the conversation. Curiously they say it in such a fashion that seems to be telling me that they too are very European....that we have something extra in common that their fellow country men do not. Perhaps this may be explained by the fact for many years the Baptists were prejudiced against by the despotic authorities of the phony socialist era. In fact the present regime gave religious tension as the primary reason for changing the name of the state but this is something that I fail to sense on the steets. Furthermore it is not unusual to spot a mixed group of middle aged men of varying religions joking or engagedly discussing world soccer over chinese tea. Of course more often than not you would also spot a young Buddhist novice sitting at a nearby table reading newpaper reports on the same subject and making sporadic contrabutions to the animated discussion within earshot.

Without a doubt the Burmese people are quite simply mad about football. Most nights the local tea shops and stalls fill up as crowds gather to watch which ever European football league is to be televised in that evening. The most popular teams are without doubt AC Milan and Manchester United but no matter what the team or league, the enthusiasm and turn out is the same. This is noticeable not only in the main cities of Rangoon and Mandalay but also in the small towns and mountain villages. Writer Pascal Khoo Thwe describes how a good footballer is given hero status among his native Paduang people who are especially well known for the players they produce. For many tribal people such as his it is their life ambition to play for the local township team.

The National sport however is known as "Chinlone" although in converation they referred to it perhaps for my benefit as as “caneball”. The game is played by four to six people who stand in a circle tour to six feet apart and pass the ball as gracefully as possible using any part of the body except their hands. There is no winner and the objective is to keep the ball in the air as long as possible while the players walk in a cirlce. The ball is hollow and made of plaited reeds or bamboo skin. Quite spectacular to watch, I gave it a try and found to no surprise that I simply cannot raise my feet above my shoulders to the amusmement of the agile and forever young locals.

Unlike Thailand and Laos where the Buddhist monks are gentle and pious, the saffron community here seem to be of a very different breed. For example as in the rest of the region, the monks pass through the town collecting food from locals in their "alms bowls". However to my sleepy surprise this happens in Burma at the more civilised hour of 11am as opposed to the misty 5 am start in the rest of Buddhist South East Asia. Furthermore if you fail to make an offering of food or alternatively neglect to place money on the lid of their bowl, you can expect the young tattooed monk to curse at you under his breath as he turns and walks away. At the time this can be quite annoying and in fact something completely unheard of and truly inconceivable in the Loatian or Thai communities. However I will stop short of condemning such monastic malice as I am fully aware that these are the same brave monks who led the democratic demonstrations in 1988 which tragically ended in a blood bath.

The Burmese have not yet been exposed to many foreigners and so there are certain habits that truly baffle them. For example I am a hopelessly doomed "Irish citóg" who has never even mastered the proper table etiquette of using a spoon with the right hand. And if this is the case it goes without saying that chop sticks and dipping burmese food in the sauces are all performed by use of my more deft left hand. How and ever, waiters, school girls and monks stop and stare with a mixture of fascination and I dare to say, disgust at my eating habits. The same goes for when I write. Luckily however I have been able to adapt to the practise of always “handing over or taking” with my “right hand only, while my left must touch the right inner fore-arm”. This I found would endear you to the people very quickly and “almost” make up for my brutish dining. It is also central to Buddhist belief and hence Burmese thinking that the head is the highest and most sacred part of the body. You therefore never pat someone on the head, not even babies as I learned through experience when I met the children of an exiled Burmese karen tribe in Thailand. The head commands anosloute reverence and it therefore follows that the feet are the dirtiest and lowliest, never to be touched in public…that is to say not even scratched or dusted depite the fact that you are walking in sandals in a country or dirt tracks not asphalted roads. The local people are a respectful people and never would you get a hint of sleaze even in the city. As one guide book put it, the men are more likely to offer to carry the bags of a girl than to whistle or look her up and down. That said, a woman must never stand over a man and for this reason the men will cling to the back of the overcrowded buses and pick-up trucks rather than be seated.

All men smoke Burmese cheroots which are short, slim, untapered cigars. Burma is the home of the cheroot and their factories are a principle source of income for many Burmese women in the Mandalay area. However when not puffing on their famous local product the men will more than likely be chewing on “betel nuts”. These nuts, also popular amongst women , are mixed with tobacco and are wrapped up in banana leaves into a matchbox-like shape and size. The leaves are unravelled and discarded with the tobacco coated betel nuts chewed upon and spitted out for hours on end. The vice causes the gums, lips and teeth to become a luminous bloody red which is a very ugly and dirty sight to me but surely harldy noticeable to the burmese themselves. Meanwhile a far more pleasing sight is what appears to be a white paint on the cheeks or often the entire face of the women and children. This is Tanaka, a native wood which they grind on a wet stone or hard surface and then apply as make-up. They tell me that it is a perfect sunblock that also stops the complexion from ageing. This authentic, primitive and yet superior cosmetic is sold as a piece of log which slowly wears down over use. All bus stops and public toilets will normally have tanakah and grind stones for use. Amongst men on the other hand, body piercing and tattoos are widely popular with the games of games of caneball providing the perfect opportunity to show off the dragon like body ink.

Walking through the markets I could not at first get my head around the number of stalls selling microphones. I could not see how there could be such a demand for an item that I have never desired to own in my life. In the end the mystery was solved when I was invited to the house of locals and being the perfect burmese hosts they started to sing karaoke! I would have joined in but for the first time ever my getting kicked out of the school choir has come back to haunt me. Music is important to the Burmese who have little else and almost everyone can sing or play the guitar. Nobody appears embarrassed to break into song on the streets be it amongst friends or as they go about their daily business. The youth all sing western tunes but often with burmese lyrics. However while pondering over their love for music I suddenly realised that I have not yet seen any night clubs in Burma. I don't know what is the case in the larger cities but I am told that they all closed in the smaller towns and villages as the government forces kidnapped youths in the night and forced them to carry their amunition or walk ahead of the soldiers in the jungle in order to set off the land mines. Likewise the rebels did similar and forced the kidnapped to fight alongside. Thankfully this is no longer the case.

People here are extraordinarily polite and enthusiastic in Burma. Not only do they possess the smiles and manners of the Thais, the gentle nature of the Laotians, the humbleness of the Cambodians but also a charm and air of incredible optimism. The delightful Burmese are excellent conversants and always ready for a chat within of course the parameters deemed safe in a country where 1 in 10 are said to be police informers. These are the unsung heroes of South East Asia. I unwittingly left the best to last.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Different Name, Same Game.

In 1988 the normally apathethic Burmese polulace rose up in hunger and despair at the complete collapse of their economy and against an incompetent and corrupt socialist government. Unsurprisingly of course the revolt was cruelly crushed leading to the bloody deaths of 3000 people and the immediate introduction of martial law.

Nonetheless the popular demonstrations did manage to cause paranoia that the social disquiet would continue to ferment and in time have greater effect. As a result the authorities thought it wise to avoid further exclusive identification with the Bamar ethnic majority and set about changing not only the name of the nation but also rename many towns and oddly enough, rivers.

The orignal name, Burma, stems from the English corruption of "Bamar". However as you well know this has been changed to the "Union of Myanmar". Nonetheless as one cultured, English speaking trishaw driver (bicycle taxi) pointed out, the new name always existed and the country was even referred to as such by Marco Polo in his writings in the 13th century. Interestingly however I have found that regardless of race or creed many use the old name as a personal protest against the regime.

The population is made up of 65% Bamar, 10% Shan, 7 % Karen and 3 % Mon . The are also Indians and Chinese minorities.

Burma - Mynmar
Burmese - the adjective is referred to as Myanmar i.e Myanmar people.
Rangoon - Yangon
Pegu - Bago
Irawaddy River - Ayeyarwady River
Akyab - Sittwe
Ava - Inwa

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

North Vietnam - Subjectively Speaking

What I have enjoyed, hated or found most interesting about every country in South East Asia to date has rarely corresponded with what I had previously been told. When on the move I have therefore tried at all times to maintain a very open mind and come to expect the unexpected. Likewise while most people I have spoken to as I have made my way south down the Mekong have done nothing but sing the praises of Vietnam, I tried to pay little heed so as to not set myself up for a big unexpected anti climax. However regardless of whether I had listened properly or not , North Vietnam could not possibly have turned out to be more of a disappointment than it truly was.

While my tour of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam is slightly less comprehensive than in the neighbouring countries it is still thorough enough to make my own informed opinion. Indeed I have always known that no matter where you travel in the world you are bound to meet some undesireable characters and it is always difficult to not allow this odd minority influence your final views of the entire host population. However what should have been a minority in Northern Vietnam turned out to be the absolute majority, thus making for very different conclusions.

For some reason everything was a problem in this country. To ask for a bathroom in restuarants where I was eating would usually provoke a roll of eyes up to heaven along with a scowl and a sigh to boot. Of course normally such encounters are easily forgotten but when each day is a series of unpleasant deja vú they become more engrained and representative in your memory. Such was also the case whenever handing over money to the natives as it seemed a fantastic challenge to the Vietnamese psyche to return the correct change due to you. Strangely on being caught out by me each and everytime they usually shouted back in furious indignation. Who insulted who?

I will say that I enjoyed the flavours there but I stop short of referring to it as "food" as it was consistently served in incredibly small portions, more akin to primary school snacks than proper meals. On one particular occasion a side order of chips to accompany a cheese burger could not have even made up half a medium sized spud. In fact there were 9 french fries on the "saucer" in total. So what do do you when you have already promised half of your side order to the girl sitting opposite you?

North Vietnam holds no charm for me whatsoever. The warmth that they do show if ever quickly evaporates once they realise that there is no more money to be made from you. Such attitudes are common in over touristed zones and often justified by the deplorable treatment towards locals. However to be off handed is one thing but to be blazenly disrespectful is another. Of course in such situations the usual answer is to get off the beaten track and visit the less frequented hamlets of the country. Unfortunately however this is virtually impossible here as the government have carefully planned the services so that there is little or no chance of venturing toward the interior and one finds themselves with little option but to travel along the coast. What´s more, travelling over land also meant that you could not even skip towns and instead unexpectedly were forced to overnight in places with little to offer other than more bad manners and "flavours".

Nonetheless, despite my grievances I do not at all regret having visited Vietnam although it could never have captured my imagination as did the neighbouring states. Still and all I acknowledge that no matter how badly people could have talked to me about the country I would in any case have had to come and see it for myself. I also do believe that I reached Vietnam five years too late as those who were in Vietnam before this period have very different experiences to recount and look at me incredulously when I tell mine.

It is said that Vietnam became the obvious alternative in the years following the tragic Tsunami that hit the more famous and frequented of the South East Asian coast lines. Perhaps therefore Vietnam has been spoilt by the sudden surge of tourism that grew as a result of a natural disaster in the region as opposed to having had to win over the favour of world tourism. I am inclined to think therefore that it is a tourism industry that has evolved in a very different and unorthodox manner to the usual, in others words...without the need to smile.

Certainly not on the top of my list for return trips.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Formerly known as Miss Saigon

The inhabitants of Ho Chi Minh City are said to be a lot more friendly and far more accustomed to foreigners than their northern compatriots who were of course isolated from the outside world for a good many years. However this being my first stop in Vietnam I do not at all consider myself very qualified to comment on the subject although I would readily agree that the people here seem charming, full of energy and polite. Furthermore I am most surprised by the fact that the bycyles taxis (cyclos) who constantly canvas their services are good humoured and oddly gracious in their peddles not being called upon. Indeed the town they used to call Miss Saigon is perfectly pleasant to stroll around and people watch although I might add that I never once felt the urge to reach for my camera.

Of course like everybody who passes through here I made sure to visit the infamous and forever recommended "War Remnants Museum" which to be frank turned out to be quite unrevelatory and small with me spending much of my time watching on bemusedly as foreign lovers took photos of each other beside tanks, M16 rifles and other shining arsenal. However the museum did cover the tragic effects of "agent orange" on the civilian population although I admit to being somewhat desensitised by what I have witnessed in Cambodia and came away relatively unaffected.

It is a pleasant change to be in a modern bustling city after the last weeks spent in a struggling and raw Cambodia. I am now highly curious to see how it compares to the northern situated Hanoi.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Let`s Call a Spade a Spade

I now realize that not even the loyal congregation of Ho Chi Minh are immune to the appeal of “New Labour” and Mr Blair. Up until recently I had thought that the only people susceptible to Tony´s political gospel were left leaning politicians who have been sitting for too long on the cold opposition benches. I was obviously very wrong.

I also naively believed that among other things the foremost characteristic of a communist regime was the introduction of social equality. Am I therefore just plain stupid for being surprised when a tour guide wearing Dolce & Gabana jeans rushes us through an area in the Mekong Delta where the half clothed and shoeless children beg for money with plastic cups. Is this what the “Socialist Republic of Vietnam” amounts to?

“Scapered Skylines, glitzy shopping malls and get rich quick lifestyles” is the description of one in-flight magazine feature. I am certainly no expert on communism or socialist mantras for that matter, however it does seem odd that a present day Vietnam city should be described as such. Furthermore having a read a plethora of such insightful articles and in light of what I can see for myself on the Vietnam streets I truly cannot see what differentiates the economic policies of this country from those of any European or American fiscal models.

Hence I am starting to believe that not so very long ago Vietnam sent 3 million of their soldiering sons to their untimely deaths for a mere happy medium if even that. So what was their so called “American War” all about? Communist or capitalist, nobody in their right mind can seriously deny that the war now seems to have been for nothing. In my view it would have been better to welcome the American troops with open arms. Ultimately it would have been the same result with the same quantity of coca cola consumed, the same quantity of dollars in circulation but also of course 3 million less grieving mothers.

After the soap operas of European politics and from what I have seen on my travels, I no longer know where I stand in terms of left and right. In fact I find both camps equally pathetic. I do however know that I am unequivocally anti-war but nonetheless try to convince myself that those who fight ideological wars do so because whether mistaken or not they find themselves incapable of betraying these closely held ideas. Clearly such reasoning is of little use in pseudo communist Vietnam where the only hint of red is on their ever more irrelevant flag.

I readily admit that no system is perfect. All have their failures. However what irks me is the complete and enthusiastic abandonment in such a short space of time of something for which they shed so much blood of their own and others. Perhaps it was all just a ruse to gain unopposed political power. After all nothing will line your pockets better than a good old political monopoly with a touch of rouge and some sporadic hard handed oppression.

in a country where hotels and food are cheap, life is even cheaper.

Sunday, April 01, 2007


I eventually had the chance to sit down in the non-descript Hanoi café that had acted as my landmark since my arrival in the northern city. Delighted and truly surprised to find that for once I was the only foreigner in sight I then proceeded to order myself a strong black Vietnam coffee.

While waiting on my drink I couldn´t help but notice the photo, upside down from where I sat, that was laminated to the table top. Without even looking too hard I could tell easily from the colour and poses that it must surely be an Asian "boy band".

Pondering the subject I despaired that not even a heavy handed Communist regime chose to suppress such musical crimes against humanity. I asked myself would the world ever be free of them? But then it occurred to me of course that maybe they were indeed a creation of the regime, an instrument of propaganda aimed at today´s impressionable Vietnamese youth.

With these very thoughts in mind I inspected in a far more critical fashion the now not so innocent girlish faces that grinned up at me from between the sugar and ashtray.


Sunday, March 18, 2007

Bottled Water in Asia

“Reverse Osmosis Ultravioleted Ozonated”

Can someone who paid attention in science class please throw some light on what it is exactly that I am drinking?

Saturday, March 17, 2007

"To keep you is of no benefit, to destroy you is no loss"

Almost 3 million Cambodians perished under the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. It is also one of the poorest countries on the globe with 35% of the population living below the poverty line and sits in twelfth place on the United Nations list of world “hunger hotspots”.

However the unfiltered smell of poverty is a lot more shocking than the above statistics that usually appear in the European press along with some descriptive journalistic prose. The truth is that when actually here one simply cannot escape the sad and stark reality that presents itself on every potholed street of Phnom Penh and beyond. Nonetheless in spite of such hardship it is also humbling to see that the populace remains so upbeat, polite and to my astonishment, grinning. Indeed this basic ability to smile seems a super human feat as the nation has suffered enough hardship to send Cambodian smiles into extinction for another one hundred years. Still and all, I cannot help but ask myself how such an apparently gentle people could do the things that they did to each other?

Most of you will be familiar with the fact that the living conditions under the Khmer Rouge were absolutely horrific with the main causes of death being execution, work exhaustion, illness, starvation and displacement. Furthermore slave labour of 12 to 15 hours a day was enforced and acts such as picking wild fruit or berries was seen as private enterprise and hence punishable by immediate death. Anyone with connections to the former government or with foreign authorities were likewise deemed enemies of the state and therefore brutally tortured and killed. So too were intellectuals, professionals and most absurdly, people wearing glasses. Meanwhile anybody lacking agricultural ability, usually the city folk, were executed for “economic sabotage”. Naturally those who did survive could only have done so by hiding their past and pretending to be of peasant rearing. In the book, ”First they killed my father”, writer Loung Ung vividly recalls her childhood experiences under the Khmer Rouge and tells of entire families disappearing over night, teenage girls being raped, and how one man was executed for killing a dog and not sharing the meat with the rest of the village. Loung also recounts mothers running out of breast milk and entire families dying of hunger in the space of a month. Such starvation was often due to rice shortages that occurred whenever the soldiers needed extra rations, or as was more often the case, when the crop was sent to china in exchange for arms.

Having said that, travelling through present day Cambodia is at times not much rosier than journeying through their past. Nowadays it is not only tragic poverty, hunger and apparent lack of justice that one finds extremely frustrating but also the incredible number Cambodians who are missing limbs. I required no explanation whatsoever for me to recognise the legacy of the world’s largest minefield courtesy of English SAS expertise. Depressingly, it is said that on average 35 people a month are maimed by mines in Cambodia though it was only 5 years ago that a staggering 400 victims a month suffered the same tragic fate. The vast majority of the mutilated and now stigmatised have to survive by begging. For them the memory and legacy of the Khmer Rouge is not as easy to forget as it has been in the United Nations, Thai Governments and Cambodian parliament.

Another less spoken about consequence of the Cambodian nightmare is the absolute absence of grandparents. They are the missing generation that was swallowed up by the civil war and the regime to follow. However it is clear that a people who lost everything and who were even banned from the simple act of loving their own kin have come to treasure their infant offspring like I have never before seen. Eyes light up and mouths hang wide open while entire families or even markets are spell bound by the mere magical presence of a single toddler. But yet again that same question pops into my head…is this really the very same race of people?

Everywhere you go you still feel the dark shadow of the Khmer Rouge looming over a country that did not even regain the ability to produce enough rice for its own needs until the mid 1990's. Nevertheless having said that, the future augurs well for Cambodia as only last year oil deposits were discovered beneath Cambodia's territorial water and when commercial extraction begins in 2009 or early 2010, the oil revenues could have a phenomenal impact on the future of Cambodia. That is of course if the proceeds are not swallowed up by the endemic corruption that is presently causing radical thinking youths to talk to me of the need for a return of the Khmer Rouge. After all, when in recent history have the Cambodians ever enjoyed true justice?

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Khmer Rouge - The rise and fall

In 1941 King Sihanouk inherited a throne without a Kingdom when his supposed territories pertained to the French who at that time also reigned supreme in neighbouring Vietnam and Laos. However World War II was in full swing with Japanese and Thai forces temporarily occupying the entire Indochina region. Of course unsurprisingly France had hoped at the war end to fully regain their former colonial lands only for their efforts to be thwarted by a successful 1953 “royal crusade” for Cambodian independence.

Hence with sovereignty now secured the politically active monarch then somehow saw fit to waste his time filmmaking rather than concentrate on the delicate affairs of his fledging nation. Nonetheless he did find the time in 1953 to dissolve parliament and declare martial law with political dissent strictly outlawed and a policy of repression implemented against the left. Meanwhile while conducting this purge of Cambodian socialists Sihanouk ironically nationalised rice and all other core industries. However such an ideological “pick´n´mix” did not go down well amongst the right wing factions or military for that matter. Unsurprisingly it would not be long before all classes were fed up with the royal incompetence, despotism and corruption.

As far as the Cambodian King was concerned the arch nemesis of his nation were North Vietnamese communists (Viet Cong). However unlike President Eisenhower who considered the enemy of his enemy to be his friend, this royal idiot equally disliked and mistrusted Thailand and South Vietnam, enemies of North Vietnam and hence staunch allies of the United States. This paranoia of threats to the security of the Cambodian nation grew to the extent that in 1965 Sihanouk broke off all diplomatic relations with the US and worse still, refused any further US aid that had accounted for much of the military budget. He meanwhile declared his country neutral in the neighbouring conflicts but secretly permitted the Viet Cong to use Cambodian territories in their battle against South Vietnam and the USA. As a result in 1969 the United States embarked on a 4-year secret B-52 bombing campaign of suspected Viet Cong bases inside of Cambodia that led to the death of at least 250,000 innocent civilians.

The national assembly finally voted to remove the God-King from Prime Ministerial office in 1970 with the tacit consent of the United States. However shortly after the ousted King formed a government-in-exile in Beijing and realigned himself with a “communist indigenous Cambodian revolutionary movement” which he nicknamed the Khmer Rouge. This militant group had been slowly gaining territory in the remote mountain regions and Sihanouk urged his followers to help overthrow the puppet government in power. Such score settling by Sihanouk certainly pushed Cambodia ever nearer civil war as thousands of enraged citizens who had lost family members in the air assaults signed up to fight for the Khmer Rouge and against the US. Sadly however many others who joined out of loyalty to their King had no notion of a man named Mao, nor had they ever heard of a Marxist movement. Many were simply fighting for the restoration of the monarchy. Royalists rather than communists.

The United States finally ceased their bombardment of Cambodia in 1973, four years after they had started. This time frame also coincided with the gradual withdrawal of ground forces from Vietnam and clearly suggests that Cambodia like neighbouring Laos was sacrificed in order to buy time for the Republic of Vietnam who now had to go it alone in their civil war against the North Vietnamese communists. The exit of the United States from the region also meant a suspension of aid to Cambodia, thus allowing the Khmer Rouge to make sweeping gains across the country against the greatly weakened government forces. Thus by the middle of 1973 the Khmer Rouge controlled almost two thirds of the country and half the population. It was now only a question of time and two years later the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh fell to communist control. A staggering 100,000 Cambodians had already died fighting in this civil war period between 1970 and 1975.

The man commonly perceived to have been the principle leader of the infamous Khmer Rouge is Pol Pot, also known as Blood Brother No.1 Born in 1925 he won a scholarship to study in Paris where he came into contact with communist Khmer students with whom he began to share their political thought. This ex-patriot Khmer congregation soon developed their unique brand of communism which began to take shape in their thesis and dissertations and often espoused the view that Cambodia had to become self reliant in order to end its economic dependency on the developed world. Unsurprisingly therefore many of this Paris group later returned home to take up key positions in the party apparatus. It is sadly ironic that this vibrant Paris movement was made up of students with classically middle class backgrounds and therefore moderately wealthy. Nevertheless these are the same people who later went on to ban education and execute those suspected of good schooling despite the fact that they themselves were not only the educated elite of Cambodia but also without doubt the most academically accomplished leaders in the whole of Asia. Indeed Pol Pot himself was a teacher of French literature at a private school.

In the years of the Khmer Rouge Cambodia became what was in essence nothing other than a “slave state”. Currency and religion were completely abolished while all hospitals, schools and factories were shut down. By the same token private property was confiscated and the country isolated from all foreign influence. The end objective was to create a new purified people, where emotions or family were to have no place in the newly named “Democratic Kampuchea”.In keeping with their Maoist notion that peasants were the true working classes, the Khmer Rouge implemented what has been termed, “Extreme Maoist Agrarianism”. They therefore attempted to turn Cambodia into a classless society by depopulating cities and forcing all urbanites into agricultural communes. This was despite the fact that Pol Pot and most Khmer Rouge leaders had no working class experience whatsoever. Even so they still felt qualified enough to idealise peasant life and justified enough to turn the entire nation into farmers. However due to an understandable lack of agricultural knowledge, especially amongst the former city dwellers, famine set in.

The Khmer Rouge deeply resented the arrogance and superiority complex of the Vietnamese communists. As a result a large part of the barbaric Cambodian communist model, that has no precedent, was due to the determination of the Khmer Rouge to establish a form distinct from the Vietnamese design. Furthermore the Cambodian communists disdain for the Vietnamese was amply displayed over the years both before and during their ascendancy to power through numerous cross border attacks. However after over ten years of provocation Vietnam finally all lost patience and declared all war on Cambodia on 25th December 1979. In the space of only 2 weeks Pol Pot’s men were forced to abandon Phnom Penh city after 3 years, 8 months and 21 days in power. They retreated north towards the Thai border and unofficially protected by Thailand who was more than happy to use the Khmer Rouge as a buffer between themselves and Vietnam, while also of course making money from the of channelling arms between China and the Khmer Rouge. Meanwhile both the Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge destroyed every rice crop in sight so that the other could not avail of the food. At the same time with the fall of the regime thousands of displaced Cambodians now abandoned their farm duties and went in desperate search of their loved ones, of whose whereabouts and fate they knew nothing. However this now meant that what rice escaped sabotage remained completely unharvested, thus leading to widespread famine.

Thousands of Cambodians citizens now fled to the Thai border where the UN sponsored an international relief effort. However spineless Thailand demanded that as a condition for allowing international humanitarian aid, food also had to be supplied to the Khmer Rouge.

Vietnam imposed a puppet government of their own but which was made up of ex Khmer Rouge leaders who had escaped Pol Pot’s internal party cleansing that took place over the previous two years. However I am most gob smacked at the idea that the Khmer Rouge, proven enslavers, torturers and murderers, were allowed to retain their seat on the United Nations Security Council. On that account the crimes of the KR were conveniently looked over to suit the world powers. The odd logic applied was that it was preferable to sit at the same table as the Khmer Rouge than it was to have to deal with Vietnam in their place. The resulting situation was that genocide criminals were now representing their victims in New York. Furthermore the United States opposed the occupation of Cambodia by Vietnam to the extent of giving financial aid to any insurgent groups against the Vietnam appointed government. US money was therefore indirectly feeding and re-arming the Khmer Rouge.

Eventually a peace process was called and the United Nations confiscated weapons from villages who needed to defend themselves against the Khmer Rouge, thus leaving them vulnerable to attack and further killings by the KR, who used the peace process as legitimacy for their continued guerrilla activities. The continued activities of the KR resulted in 150,000 refugees by 1990.

UN administered elections were eventually held in 1993 with the party made up of the old Khmer Rouge losing the election, but threatening civil war if they were made to hand over power. Their threats succeeded and Hun Sen, a former minister of defence under Pol Pot and former Prime Minister of the Vietnam appointed Government was now leader of a supposedly democratic Cambodia. To this day he remains head of government.

Although Pol Pot died in Khmer Rouge custody in as recently as 1998, his true cause of death is remains unknown. Meanwhile his fellow founders of the Khmer Rouge doctrine, namely Ieng Seng (Brother no.3), Nuon Chea (Brother no. 2), Khieu Sampahn (Brother no. 5) and Ieng Thirit all live comfortably in private compounds under armed guards. Unsurprisingly the Khmer Rouge organisation was therefore not outlawed until 1994 and by early 1999, the movement came to an end. Today the nations wealthiest and most influential people belonged to the inner circles of the Khmer Rouge.

Monday, March 12, 2007


The long overdue trial of the surviving
Khmer Rouge leaders will soon get under way in Cambodia. These octogenarians, responsible for the deaths of almost 2 million people, have until quite recently lived freely and comfortably with complete impunity in an opulent neighbourhood of Phnom Penh. However the former communist leaders of the so called “Democratic Kampuchea” will soon face a litany of indictments for acts of genocide committed during the Khmer Rouge reign from 1975 to 1979, although it can be expected that they will continue to claim to have had no knowledge of the crimes at issue.

Still and all I am far less concerned about how the defendants plead than I am about the exact charges that are being brought against the said perpetrators. Genocide, as successfully applied in 1998 by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, is defined as the
“deliberate killing or mistreatment of a group of people due to their ethnicity, religion or nationality”. Understandably therefore most people are confident of the far reach and effectiveness of the above interpretation as given the scale of death and horror that took place in Cambodia, it does seem on the surface that the same verdict will be passed this time round. Afterall it is a well known and proven fact that Pol Pot and those at the top of the Khmer Rouge imposed a slave state, carried out widespread torture and killed en mass. However be that as it may the bare facts of the case also show that the regime did not set out to wipe out an entire people, their own people. There are many who might therefore argue that genocide cannot be committed when the perpetrators and the victims are of the same racial, national or religious group.

The term “genocide” was perhaps first pinned on Cambodia by a foreign media lost for words but in desperate need of a headline. Furthermore it surely suited many more of the international community to apply such a spine chilling label and thus draw attention away from the impact and scale of the secret US bombing carried out on Nixon’s watch.

In conclusion, the bottom line is that the barbarous acts do not in my mind fit very well with the said crime tag unless the definition to be relied upon in the Cambodian law chambers is a lot more encompassing than that familiar to us. Moreover to call the said acts genocide hides the ludicrous nature of what went on, for there still exists no definition, explanation or even comparison. Food for thought.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Identity Crisis?

I have come across few countries that have undergone so many name changes in the short space of 30 years. One only needs to glance at the various names of Cambodia to get a sense of the policitial chaos that riddled what is today the most hunger stricken nation in South East Asia. Each new name was to bring a new and prosperous beginning although more often than not the ensuing reality was the complete opposite. Evidently a mere name change is never enough to instill in people a fresh and permanent identity. Moreover despite the present peaceful Cambodian chapter I must question the validity of the term "Kingdom" which honours a pathetic monarchy who put power and wealth before all else, even if it meant supporting the Khmer Rouge in the 1970's or a royal prince being sentenced in absentia last week to 18 years in prison for corruption.

Nonetheless while the names may on their face seem radically different they are all ironically of the same derivaton. KAMBU is the mythical founder of the nation and "Kambuja" means "all those born of Kambu". You can therefore easily identify the same root in Cambodge, Camboya, Camboxa, Khmer, and of course Cambodia...

The Khmer Republic (1970 - 1975)

Democratic Kampuchea
( Khmer Rouge Rule 1975 - 1979)

The Peoples Republic of Kampuchea
(Vietnam backed Pnomh Penh Government 1979 - 1989)

State of Cambodia(1989 - 1993)

Kingdom of Cambodia (1993 - Present day)

Thursday, March 01, 2007


The small town of Kratia is South East Asia in it's rawest form. Dirty, poor, friendly and noisy, you cannot get more authentically Cambodian than this.

When I first arrived here it was with great difficulty and effort that I finally found a room and bed. However unlike many of the other towns that I have visited, the Kratia guest houses were not full up with dollar touting tourists but rather with players and fans of the provinces best football teams who converged on the Mekong town for a popular weekend tournament.

While the town seems in many ways to be lagging a good fifty years behind even what you would expect, it does seem to be better laid out and more intact than all of the other Cambodian towns that I have passed through. Indeed the truth is that if your eyes can penetrate the black coating of soot you can tell that Kratia posseses a hidden architectural treasure that will one day be the celebration of all Cambodian tourist offices.

Like Laos, Vietnam and the rest of this very nation, Kratia was for many years occupied by the French which amply explains the colonial character to the buildings. However what makes the place stand out nowadays is that it somehow escaped firstly the onslaught of American B-52's as well as the subsequent Vietanmese bombing offensive. Furthermore in between all of this tragic chaos Kratia had the odd luck (architecturally speaking) to have been taken by the Khmer Rouge very early on in the regrettable civil war, thus leaving the town as precious standing evidence that Pol Pot failed in his primary objective to create "Year Zero" and make a complete break with the Cambodian past. Kratia is in other words the great survivor of foreign bombs and a nations attempt at self destruction. Nonetheless survivor as it may be most of the buildings, both occupied and abandoned, are on the brink of collapse with many of the facias and balconies already having crumbled away. It is thus very clear that the priority in this town is to put food on the table with tidy town judges still being a very long way off.

There is a permanent market in the center of town that begins each morning at 5 am. Farmers and merchants alike gather here to buy and sell the fresh produce on offer. Those who do not have a permanent stall, sit instead behind their bamboo baskets of wares and weighing scales on the surrounding streets. Fish, meat, lotus buds, rice, fruit and more rice are the principle goods although also available are bricks of ice that are chiselled away from a larger piece and then wrapped in a ribbon or string which serves as a handle.

Heads turned at the sight of a foreigner wandering about in the early morning and all the children would run along beside me trying to hold my hand and pointing me out to their mothers. After one or two older kids greeted me in English the younger ones were not slow to pick it up and began shouting "hello" incessantly to their own delight. The same enthusiastic reception cannot be said however of a local dog who somehow sensed that I did not fit into the bustling surroundings and hence took an immense disliking to me, following me about barking but never brave enough to approach.

I am told by locals that up until 2 or so years ago there were no roads to the town. However I take that to mean that there was of course some from of dirt track in existence. And so it seems that yet again the mighty Mekong acted as the umbilical chord for yet another South East Asian town. The river front on the town is now a large empty open space but one can easily imagine the daily chaos that the area once hosted. One person spoke of how he always went to school here by boat whereas his younger brother now has the luxury of a pick-up truck. Nonetheless while roads, scooters and buses may have descended upon the town, banks seem to have gotten lost along the route with the closest being located over four hours drive away.

My next stop is Pnomh Penh which I imagine will be a different world to the one I now occupy. I have fond memories of Kratia and have no doubt that easier days lie ahead for the people and their architectural inheritance. Moreover given their present predicament, I will prefectly understand when the fruit and lotus buds in the market are replaced by postcards and kitsch chinese made souvenirs. A sad but neccessary development.

Monday, February 26, 2007

A Day in the Life

When I refer to the monks of Buddhist monasteries in South East Asia, I talk not only of grown adults who have dedicated their remaining days to prayer and meditation but also the novice monks who make up at least half of any given monastic community. These novices vary greatly in age from as young as 8 up to 23 years old and the reasons for their early noviture are many and varied. However more often than not they relate to the unfortunate individual situation of the young monk who receives from the monastery the basic assistance that government cannot or will not provide. Thus in many ways the Buddhist monasteries endeavour to make up for the shortcomings of society that are the result of idealogical wars, aloof politicians, indifferent regimes and just plain and simple inescapable poverty.

In Laos just as in bygone Ireland the monastery serves as an orphanage for a large number of male children, although the vast majority who I came into contact with live there as many village families either live too far from a school, are too poor to provide an adequate education or of course because this free education is commonly believed to be the best available in the so called socialist state.

Still and all while a home, companionship and education are thankfully provided, it does not change the fact that the daily life of the young monk is an extremely austere one, especially when seen from my cushioned point of view. With their shaved heads, orange garb and astonishing humbleness it is easy to forget that the adolescent novices are not at all different to any other random teenager to be found in Laos or even Ireland for that matter. It is only after much conversation that they eventually discard their monastic mask and you see the very proof of this. Indeed I am inclined to think that the reason that it takes so long for them to revert to the personality and behaviour that truly befits their age is that the devoted public never give them the slightest opportunity to do so. It seems they hold them in such high esteem that a monk is never ever to be touched and to the absolute extreme, women stop to bow as they pass.

The day begins at 4am when the monks rise and gather for an hour of prayer and meditation. Later come 5 AM they reach for their alms bowls and begin the street rounds which may last over an hour before finally sitting down to eat at about 6:15 with the food being prepared and served up by the loyal local "merit makers". At 7:15 the novice monks join those of the other monasteries for class which continues until 11am and they are then free until five in the evening. However the last opportunity to eat until the following morning is this one hour between eleven and twelve noon and for the remainder of the day only liquids are allowed which fortunately includes coca cola and coffee. Nonetheless while that may be so whenever I visited they quickly produced crackers and chocolate from their hidden stashes that they secretly raid in times of extreme late evening hunger. It is only later at 4pm when the sun has calmed down that the bell sounds which in yesteryear called on local housewives to prepare rice for the evening meal but which nowadays only calls on the monks to wash. Another prayer session takes place at 5pm which leads right up to the resumtion of class at 5.30. School finishes at a quarter past seven and all are asleep, dreaming of food no doubt, by 9pm.

While the life of the Buddist Monastery fascinates me so, I recognise that it is the last place on earth that I could ever reside. Aside from the fact that orange doesn't suit me, there is also the issue of too many early mornings, too much rice, too little hair, and far too little tactile contact!

Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Opium of the People

Thus far in Asia the Laos people are without doubt the most gentle that I have come across. I am convinced however that a large part of this uncorrupted goodness is not necessarily down to their Laotian genes but due rather to their Buddhist creed that seems to pervade every facet of their daily lives.

Of course this said religious consciousness is made all the more evident by the omnipresence of Buddhist monks with their shaven heads, bare feet and orange robes. Indeed nowhere has this been more so the case than in Luang Prabang, second city of Laos. However what makes it all the more interesting is the fact that the ruling communist government of "The Popular Democratic Republic Lao" which came to power in 1975 had made it their mission to oppress the Buddhist religion until as late as 1992. Did the powers that be soften or was it the realization that their efforts were in vain? I have no idea. Nonetheless while the Laos socialist experiment embraced the market economy in the 1980's, freedom of religion did not return until the nineties, just in time for the opening of their borders and the birth of a vital tourism industry. Incredibly nowadays the very same undemocratic government has absolutely no qualms about filling their tourist publications with image upon image of Buddhist temples and waxing lyrical about their monks and monasteries. Still and all, what is important is not the motive but rather the fact that the people have their beloved religion back and I might add, as strong as ever.

The form of Buddhism practiced in Laos and the surrounding territories is known as Theravada Buddhism which remains unchanged and true to the founding principles which date from the time of Buddha (483BC). Of course as with any religion it would be impossible to fit the essence of the faith into a few paragraphs. Suffice to say that the ideal situation is to reach “Nirvana” without going through reincarnation. It follows therefore that a core belief is the concept of rebirth and one’s direct influence on one’s future lives. Likewise our own past actions are the causes of what we experience now, meaning that every daily action has an effect on our future. Perhaps it is from this that stems their soft nature and enthusiasm which I little deserve but which fascinates me so much.

“Merit” is what we accumulate in past lives and the merit earned in the present life has a bearing on our fate. Judging by my experiences to date it seems to me that the faithful are forever conscious of the merit they have earned. However while that may be so, “intention” is the key and the degree to which the action is performed for purely selfish reasons, the merit earned will be correspondingly less. So perhaps I am wrong after all as there can be no fooling Buddha! Maybe the kindness really is genetic.

Much like the rules under the Kyoto protocol, credit can also be transferred or better said, dedicated to loved ones including the deceased. I am told that in fact this is more often than not the practice. For example when a man temporarily becomes a monk be it for 1 week, 3 months or even years, this accumulates merit for his mother and father, living or dead. Notably, doing so for the deceased is considered to be of utmost importance as the departed spirits are no longer in a position to gain merit for themselves. In Laos and apparently in Myanmar, all Buddhist males temporarily ordain as monks at least once in their lifetime. In Northern Thailand I spoke to a 29 year old cyber café employee who has already done so 3 times.

At 5 am every morning in Luang Prabang well over 1000 monks set out in single file from their respective monasteries, each armed with a large empty sphere-like “alms bowl”. It appears that every temple has their own regular trail although given the size of the town parts of the route are shared with other monasteries. This certainly makes for the most spectacular sight on a typically misty Asian morning when up to 3 orange battalions converge at crossroads in perfect silence. The purpose of the alms round is for the monks to collect food from believers who stand sleepy eyed outside of their homes. Many, invariably a female, get up before sunrise to prepare the food though nowadays in a fast changing society there are some who buy the same pre-packaged offering such as sticky rice (a morning favourite) , curry, soup, spices or even milk. However in true fairness all is not dumped into one alms bowl but rather a fistful or similar of food is placed into the bowl of each monk as he files by. The popular practice of providing grub for the monks is held in very high regard in terms of “merit making” as in assisting the monks one is helping to ensure that the Buddhist teachings live on. This daily food round by the monks is not at all looked upon as begging but rather that theirs is a charitable act in that they provide laypeople with the opportunity to make merit for themselves.

Coming from an Irish or Spanish society that until recently had little or no experience of the non Christian faiths, it is understandable that Buddhism might be a difficult one to grasp. However as one American monk put it to me,

“Merit making is simply an effort to make the world a better place, that honour the dead and that preserve Buddhism for future generations."

I can’t really argue with that now, can I?