Category Archives: Cambodia

Cambodia wrap up

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.


Cambodian riel as an inexpensive souvenir

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.



Old school communist propaganda in present day Vietnam

The above picture is from Vietnam where I have just arrived. Next post more of Vietnam.



Angkor Wat illustrations II

Understand: Angkor Wat is the name for the whole complex of many temples as well as the name for one particular temple which is regarded as the paragon of Khmer architecture. This iconic sanctuary is reputedly the largest religious building in the world. That said, I’d like to stress that medieval cathedrals in Europe were built around the same time (twelfth century) and are more impressive in terms of towering height and architectural skill. Angkorian architects didn’t know about arches and therefore many of the corridors are very narrow as they sought the walls to come together, a technique known as corbelled arches, which resulted in rather cramped rooms, reminiscent of the cheap hotels in the modern day town. However, the sheer scale is overwhelming and it must have been a cheerful place at the time.

History: Tons and tons of it. Including quite a bit of crackpot gobbledygook.

Angkor Wat: The biggest pile of stones in the area. It’s known for its reliefs, its size and the mindboggling number of Chinese tourists swarming around it.

Angkor Thom and the Bayon. After Angkor Wat this is likely the most prominent temple, featuring the famous two hundred and I don’t know how many faces of the Bayon, its main building, that look in the four cardinal directions. Enigmatic is the word you’re looking for.

If you know what that  means.

Ta Phrom: The ‘Tombraider’ temple. Where Angelina Jolie disappeared underground to reappear in totally random places much like James Bond in The Spy  Who Loved Me. In this movie, the secret agent ran around the pyramids and suddenly appeared in the Temple of Karnak, which, in reality, is located some 700 kilometres south of the pyramids…. Poetic license or a glitch in the fabric of Hollywood space time.

Ta Keo: Impressive temple but abandoned and never finished by the ancient Khmers . Luckily, the Chinese have taken over and are now finishing it in a joint development project. Expect concrete slabs and a karaoke bar…

Ta Nei: This temple is hidden in the jungle and only accessible by a narrow path. It was still and pristine. Nobody else had taken the trouble to come and I had a good time clambering over the ruins… Don’t feed the gibbons.

Ta Som: stands out for the tree that grows out of the east gate. Otherwise more of the same in terms of Jayavarna VII’s Disney empire. Aggressive selling of soft drinks and ugly wood carvings.

Bat Chum. Some forgotten temples from the early period. The three small towers were in a sorry state, but it was a nice bicycle ride through the country side with cows, buffalo and termite hills. Close to the temple stood a  little shack with chickens pecking around, piles of garbage, empty soda cans and a faint smell of diesel… Bucolic is I think the expression, other people might suggest forgettable.

At some locations people sell paintings of the temples. Because I had done some myself, I easily saw how creative some (most) of the work is. Some of it is very bad and a lot is very routinely made. Many of the works have some randomly orange clad buddhist monks thrown in and introduce elephants and non-existing lakes with stilted villages in front of temples. Some include all these themes in rather muddled compositions. Others show optimistically restored temples, almost as they would have been drawn by the architect…. Amazingly, one even featured an African elephant!



Not so happy about the lower left corner. Too dark.

Practicalities: The temple complex is extensive and about 10 to 15 kilometres north of Siem Reap. Or maybe east, it actually felt more east then north. I don’t know. The first two days I rented a bicycle for a dollar a day, but it had many spokes missing and the brakes weren’t working.
At all.
After that I decided to go more upmarket and for an extra half dollar I got a much better bicycle. Even so, they were still battered and way to small. As I didn’t do much more than around 30 to 40 kilometres a day, this was alright, even though the heat and the humidity were very oppressive.
On the first day I bought a pass for seven days which was to be used within a month. Most people buy the three day pass and even that is pushing it. After seeing a few temples they really all look the same and I quickly found out that it hardly pays to actually go inside the buildings. They are dark, gloomy and a dour smell pervades most of them. On one occasion I got trapped inside such a monstrosity when it started to rain and the water came running down the through the leaking ceilings. It was a rather disenchanting experience.

With the materials that I use, as in many other aspects of my life, I am a minimalist. The results shown in this and the last blog post are done with  just an aquabrush, one little pan of black paint and a sketchbook.


A lot of time was spent finding suitable locations around the temples. This is not as easy as it sounds. Not only is an aesthetically pleasing subject with an unobstructed view thereof desirable, it is also essential to find a convenient place to work. Often was I looking at scenes of outstanding artistry, but at the same time utterly unable to find a place in the shade, free from mud, safe from ants and not overrun by camera toting tourists….

Back at the hotel I dabble a bit more and when I think it is good, I make a photograph. Then upload the picture and experiment a bit with GIMP. So far, I’ve only used some automatic functions under the colour tab: white balance, colour enhancement etc.


Original of the technicolor version above.

Then I bought some extra colours: white, permanent yellow, cobalt blue, red, brown, pale orange and viridian. Till that day I had led a happy existence without ever knowing there was such a colour as viridian. My life will never be the same again…


First experiment with colour

The above watercolour was originally a failed drawing, but I decided to turn it into a watercolour to try out my new coloured paints. The result is very crude and it appears I have a lot to learn! Sadly, it resembles the quality of many of the little artworks that are for sale at the temples.


This is a somewhat more satisfactory result. The original is with patches of colour and it does look quite nice, but it doesn’t translate to digital very well with my camera. After a lot of experimenting it still didn’t come out the way I wanted it, and so I have reproduced it here in black and white. In this rendering the only extra colour that I had used and that shows favourably, is white. White is difficult to use with watercolours because it is translucent and fades to grey, but it worked out very well to show the sun bleached lichen on the weathered rock.

Next Phnom Penh and after that to Vietnam.


Angkor Wat illustrations

Sometime ago I downloaded GIMP on my laptop, a free graphics editor and a good alternative to Photoshop. Before that, I used MS Paint to crop photos and perform other minor adjustments to pictures. GIMP allows you to use layers and I thought that would be useful when making animations where it would save a lot of work. So far I haven’t been very successful as it doesn’t seem to work very intuitive. In other words: it never did what I wanted. Not ever. When I was playing with some colour options, however, I found out that I could easily manipulate the photos i took of  my water colours with some astounding results:


It was all like: how’s this? and I was all like: Wow!!
Not all water colours came out better with GIMP….

These, for example, became very blotched after the process. Maybe they weren’t very good to begin with….


This one, on the other hand, improved a lot after the paint job. The original looked like a sick mummy with a skin disease….

Still, I’m not very sure about those ‘effects’, it somehow seems ethically flawed and it makes you realise that all those fabulous pictures on so many travelblogs might look a lot better than in reality. Maybe that’s why I prefer writing as an art form… Although, undoubtedly, some day you will be able to download some AI software and  upgrade your writing. Maybe it will feature options like Hemingway cool, Jane Austen dialogue or Oscar Wilde wit. If you think it crashed, you might have accidentally chosen James Joyce mashup…

Next post more about Cambodia…

To Cambodia

From Bangkok I took a bus to Cambodia, but before I left I had researched the border crossing online and so I knew about what scams to expect. Close to the border somebody entered the bus and tried to sell us his visa service. For an additional 10 dollars. I politely declined the offer. The passport photo requirement is another laugh. If you don’t have one you pay and that’s the sole reason for the requirement: to ask for money. At the border they actually take digital photos… I don’t know what they do with the passport photos they collect. Maybe  they play games of Memory with them. I don’t know. When I paid my 30 dollars, the clerk wanted another 100 baht service  charge. I smiled and said I thought 30 dollars should be enough. He smiled back and took the money. That was easy.

The border itself was a beggar infested fleahole, dusty and chaotic. After completing the border formalities, I entered a gambling palace and asked if I could use the toilet. It was all smiles and straight to the back, then right, walking past arrays of slot machines. Thanks, more smiles. To avoid the touts and beggars,  I went back to the bus and enjoyed the air conditioning.

In the late nineties I had travelled from Siem Reap to the Thai border on the back of a pick- up truck. It was very wild then: a dirt road with enormous holes, many roadblocks where money changed hands faster than fleas from my fellow passengers. The journey took all day and on arrival, my hair was caked with sweat and dust and my shirt was covered with mud stains. Now, it took a mere two hours on a nice surfaced road in a comfortable bus. I want my money back….


For one dollar I rented a bicycle for a day and set off to Angkor Wat. When I arrived at the first check point I was told that the tickets were now sold at someplace else which meant  I had to cycle 10 kilometres extra. It reminded me of my cycling days. In the afternoon it started to rain and soon I was drenched. This too reminded me of my cycling days.


If you want to see really beautiful pictures of Angkor Wat,  you have to visit National Geographic or other professional we-try-to-make-you-jealous sites.



Angkor Wat, detail of mural.

Next blog post will cover more Angkor Wat and Tomb Raider.