Postcard - Indochina at a Glance
(Yangon & Phnom Penh) February 2008©Nigel Spiers

First Stop Yangon and I am met at the airport and taken to our client’s offices. There are no motor bikes in Myanmar! No this is the land of the Nissan Sunny and if you ever wondered where all those old Datsun 120Y’s went – wonder no more.
At the office I am greeted by my hosts Su Su Tin and Nwe Nwe Lwin. Feeling a bit underpowered in the name stakes I reply: “Good morning my name is Nige Nige”.

The late afternoon has cooled nicely to 32 degrees c. and its time for a look around with my camera. Big Mistake! Due to the lack of tourists following the 2007 popular uprising I am mobbed on the street by mothers thrusting naked babies in my face and demanding money. I retire to the sanctuary of a huge gold pagoda. A little girl welcomes me and as I sit down on the steps to take off my shoes she pulls out a tiny live finch from the pocket on the front of her dress.

“You want fitch sir?” she enquires and then adds
“You buy fitch and I give you snack” and she pulls a little green snake from her other pocket.
“Snack make you very lucky sir” she says.
“Not so lucky for the fitch if you put the snack in same pocket” I reply. She starts to loose interest at this point obviously aware of how much airport sniffer dogs love a good snack of fitch. But she lets me take her photo anyway.

Myanmar is a big country – larger than France, just a little smaller than Texas and probably the most diverse and exotic country in Indochina. The 55 million people comprise 67 racial groups and 250 separate languages and they can trace their history to 2500 BC. It is also geographically diverse with the Himalayas in the north and miles of unspoiled beaches in the south.
Guidebooks tell you that visiting Myanmar is a moral and political dilemma because it may endorse the ruling and highly repressive military junta. After the 1988 popular uprising first the U.S. under George Bush and later the U.K. under Tony Blair (moral rectitude of a Phillips head screwdriver) imposed trade and weapons embargoes on Myanmar. These restrictions had absolutely no effect on Myanmar because most Asian nations supported the junta and British and French oil companies simply moved their oil wells slightly off shore.

The next morning at breakfast the vast hotel dining room is empty, there are no queues at the airport and the aircraft is only a quarter full. This is the height of the tourist season but sadly the world has stayed away. The locals shrug their shoulders – “maybe next year the tourists will come back”.
On the way to the airport I ask Mr. Tan the taxi driver what he thinks about the ruling military and the boycott from the west. He tells me that there are many competing political factions in Myanmar and they are all corrupt. He also says that the Burmese people welcome tourists because the majority of their dollars go directly to the people rather than the military.

Next stop Phnom Penh
, capital of Cambodia, sandwiched between its too big brothers Thailand and Vietnam and one of the smallest and poorest countries in Indochina. In 1975 when the Khmer Rouge came to power the population was 7.2 million. The psychopathic madman Pol Pot and his henchmen in a tragic exercise in social re-engineering quickly reduced the population by an estimated 1-2 million people.

It is with some trepidation that I hire a Tuk Tuk to take me on the 35 minute trip south to the Killing Fields. There are no taxis in Phnom Penh – just motor bikes and Tuk Tuk’s. It’s the field burning season and I quickly realize I should have worn sunglasses and a mask. As we hurtle along at 25 km flames roar on both sides of the dusty road, clouds of smoke blot out the sun and our teeth are black with insects. When we arrive there are only a handful of visitors and a deathly silence pervades the fields. There are lots of tears but no one says a word because there is nothing to be said.

Some of the 8,500 unidentified skulls of “dissidents” and intellectuals recovered to date from the pits in the Killing Fields.

The Cambodians, being Buddhists don’t believe in retribution however in the case of Pol Pot they made a worthwhile exception when he was mysteriously found dead in the jungle in the late 1990’s.

Tourism here is booming primarily due to the comparatively recent discovery of the jungle clad ruins of Angkor in 1860. The Angkor period started around AD 802 and lasted until 1431. During that time the Khymer Empire also included a large part of Thailand. However by 1431 weakened and under pressure from the strong monarchy in Thailand the rulers simply abandoned the capital and moved to a new capital in the south at Phnom Penh. In both size and details the fabulous cities and palaces of Angkor dwarfed European capitals of the time. The crowning glory is Angkor Wat the world’s largest religious structure spread over 200 acres. Visitors fly into Siem Reap in the north and bus down to Angkor to see the gigantic serenely smiling face of the god-king Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara floating above the waters of the 190 metre moat.

Prices in Myanmar and Cambodia are still very reasonable. It’s safe, settled and the people are very friendly. English is widely spoken especially by children and young people as it has taken over from French in the schools as the language of international tourism and trade.

This is probably an ideal time to visit Myanmar and Cambodia.

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