From Siem Reap I took a bus to Phnom Penh, the capital of the country. During the journey I must have seen a hundred karaoke videos with a hundred lovers walking in slow motion through rice fields. It seemed a very popular theme.
My first watercolour with more than one colour. It’s a part of the National Palace. I think. I am not sure, but only that part that is visible from over the wall. In the photo you can see the messy little plastic pillbox that I use as a palette. Only after I have been enthusiastically painting away for a while, did it occur to me to read some tutorials for beginners and I have done everything wrong! Start with a drawing…..apply washes…. work from light to dark….keep your colours apart on your palette…. and keep them clean…. maybe that’s why my watercolours suck. But it is fun this way. It was when I was sitting on the grass, absorbed in my work that, at some point, I found myself surrounded by Chinese tourists, making pictures of me (I am going to be a celebrity) and street children trying to steal my paint.
Some things I have learned about Cambodia.
Politics: Cambodia’s prime minister is Hun Sen. Earlier this year media outlets were told that they should refer to the prime minister as Lord Prime Minister and Supreme Military Commander. His wife has a title too and should be referred to as Celebrated Senior Scholar. According to Wikipedia, she is trained as a nurse.
The ministry that issued these guidelines warned that failure to comply could lead to action. It clearly felt that it was important to show respect for Cambodia’s leaders. Even if they had been robbing the country blind for the last few decades. Hun Sen and his family are worth 200 million dollars and those are only their listed assets. Their total fortune is estimated by some sources to be as high as 4 billion dollars…
In an effort to boost his popularity, Hun Sen has gone online to establish contact with a young and increasingly digital generation. Unfortunately, he has been rather clumsy in his efforts to buy Facebook likes, which he vehemently denied, even though research published in the Phnom Penh Post had shown that more than 80% of his recent likes came from abroad, principally India. When The Lord Prime Minister and Supreme Military Commander Hun Sen was confronted with these findings, he simply acknowledged his Indian fanbase and generously expressed his gratitude to the ‘recognition he has received from Indians’. Or, at least, their click farms.
Language and ethnicity of Cambodia is referred to as Khmer.
Counting in Khmer is five based. That means numbers go to five and then six is something like five-one, seven is five-two and so forth. So now I can count in Khmer and I can say ‘thank you’ and ‘Hello’. This makes for interesting conversations.
Hello, 2000, thank you, hello?, 3000? thank you. Hello?
The Cambodian money is the riel. It was abolished by the Khmer Rouge who blew up the central bank. They thought money was a very overrated article and got rid of it. The same with city life and they marched the entire population out of their comfy homes into the countryside. Who needs a home? They said. Turned out most people did.. The riel was reintroduced after the Vietnamese liberation in 1979, but the people had such little confidence in the paper that they practically had to give it away.
These days, the importance of the riel as a currency is growing, but the American dollar is still dominant in large purchases and in dealings with tourists. This is a pity as the Cambodian money is much prettier than the American money.
History: As most other countries, Cambodia’s history started with cavemen living in caves (ahem) who were hunter gatherers and generally died from malaria or eating rotten fish or dying from hunger when the hunting and gathering didn’t go as prospected. Around the first century AD, a culture known as Funan came into existence which was culturally influenced by India bringing Hinduism, Buddhism and a general drop in hygiene. Following the decline came the Angkorian culture and the endless dragging around of enormous big stones for no apparent benefit at all.. This lasted several hundred years and created the biggest empire South East Asia has ever seen. Inevitably, decline set in and Cambodia became the favourite battleground for the Burmese, the Siamese and the Vietnamese. Then the French came (in 1860 mumble something) and taught the Cambodians how to bake baguettes and told them to drive on the right hand side of the road. Most of them still do. Thanks France. Cambodia became independent in 1953, so now they could do what they wanted. For ten years or so everything went fine and the country blossomed. Then the United States of America decided to pick a fight with the communist threat in South East Asia and Cambodia was dragged into it. Civil war erupted and the US started Operation Freedom Deal. This deal purported the carpet-bombing of large parts of the country and an estimated 100.000 Cambodians died. Since 1969 till the end of the bombings in 1973, 539,129 tons of bombs were dropped on Cambodia, this is roughly three times the 180.000 tons that were dropped on Japan during the Second World War. But the worst was yet to come. In 1975 the Khmer Rouge took power and a dark veil fell over Cambodia as its leadership started to reach for the ultimate level of insanity. Their aim was to implement a form of agrarian socialism which had to exterminate all corruption and exploitation of workers and farmers. Women were to be liberated and society from then on was going to be strictly egalitarian. It sounded wonderful. In less than four years, however, they managed to kill an estimated 2o to 30 percent of the Cambodian population in what became a ferocious genocidal campaign. The numbers were even worse for minorities as the Cham moslims (around 50%) and the Vietnamese (virtually 100%). After several incursions of the Khmer Rouge into Vietnam, the latter decided to put an end to it and invaded the country, putting an end to the genocide and driving the Khmer Rouge into the jungle. It is striking that the resentment of much of the international community against Vietnam was such that many countries demanded a ceasefire and evacuation of the Vietnamese from the country. The war had interrupted the rice production or what was left of it and famines broke out starving many thousands of Cambodians. In an unprecedented show of cynical real politics, western countries kept supporting and financing the guerrilla warfare of the Khmer Rouge till well into the nineties.
More history: Cambodia has never won an Olympic Medal. They also never competed in the Winter Games. This is hardly surprising as most Cambodian have never seen any snow or ice other than in their drinks.
The above picture is from Vietnam where I have just arrived. Next post more of Vietnam.