I thought it might be fun to do a tandem blog post every now and then, where I review someone’s book, and they review mine, and we put them up at the same time. My idea was for it to be a kind of ‘two of us’ of books/authors, where we find the connections between our work — and our lives. First up, I chose Walter Mason and his travel memoir, Destination Cambodia: Adventures in the kingdom.
Walter has been a wonderful mentor to me in many ways. We first met when he rocked up to my book launch in Sydney and, since then, I’ve seen him launch his own book too (from afar) and we spent an afternoon together at the NSW Writers’ Centre’s Open Access seminar, talking about marketing as a creative act.
Walter is someone you don’t forget. He fills a room with his quiet (wicked) humour and grace. While he’s an expert promoter, he also spends a lot of time helping others with their writing.
In 2005, I desperately needed to leave the country. I was fed up with working in a bureaucracy, I was creatively stifled, and I needed out. I had never travelled internationally on my own before. I wanted to go somewhere in Asia. I chose an Intrepid tour in Cambodia — and it was one of the best experiences of my life. The tour did more than just fly in and out of Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat. We tracked some of Walter’s journey. Phnom Penh to Battambang to Sihanoukville. Although I only went for a quick two weeks (and Walter went for months), I was forced to continually readjust my idea of how I was positioned in the world (as a traveller, and as a white and privileged person). I came back to Sydney with a deep sense of loss, an acute awareness of how structured and wealthy my position was, and wanting to return immediately and live near the ocean there (unfortunately, like many travel dreams, this wore off and got lost).
What I like best about Walter’s book is his sensitive rendering of the characters and friends he makes along the way. This is not an overarching look at the history of the place but a cultural assessment, based on the small things and day-to-day of people’s lives and, really, isn’t that what makes engaging history anyway? I visited Cambodia with a Lonely Planet list of all the books I needed to read but, when I landed, I was so electrified and confused, and too switched on to every detail, that I was reluctant to read a set of facts and figures.
But Walter paints a clear picture of the devastation and beauty of Cambodian lives. When describing the Pol Pot regime, and the complete lack of care for the general populace, he comments:
In Khmer Rouge hospitals, untrained nurses were, according to journalist Joel Brinkley, ‘injecting patients with Pepsi or coconut milk’.
Images like that, and there are many, are impossible to forget. They mix with my own: a three-year-old, living in cardboard, begging for pizza from my table and returning to share it with other children, no older than five; a local guide laughing at moments when revisiting his past (losing family) to reassure us; finding a quiet place in the grounds of the Tuol Sleng Torture Museum to rest my head on my knees and breathe and cry after seeing the photographs: documentation of a generation tortured and murdered; a group of men on motorbikes taking us on a tour of rice paddies, and then to a Battambang nightclub, where they treated us with great respect under the strobe-lights, and screamed ‘Oh my Buddha’ in joy as they raced us back to our hotel.
Like the best travel writing, Walter’s book reveals as much about him as the Cambodians he writes about. I’m always drawn to writers on the outside looking in (my characters tend to be like that too). Walter is a curious mix: he describes himself as having ‘few inhibitions’ (which is why he tries to avoid alcohol) and yet he can be shy. People seem drawn to him, to open up in his company, and yet ‘[he] had been brought up never to ask difficult or personal questions, even if [he] was burning with curiosity’. I’m like this too, hampered by my own politeness. A difficult trait for a writer keen to engage with the world.
But one of the best things about travelling is that you are often forced to communicate, especially if no-one speaks your language. I remember days of agony on my first trip to Europe, trying to get up the guts to approach hotels with my execrable French.
Walter also knows how to keep you on the edge of your seat. One chapter details a huge event that Walter is invited to (with hundreds of people waiting expectantly), where he gradually realises, with dawning dread and fear, that he is the key speaker on the topic of Buddhism (to a parade of venerated monks). It’s like the worst of my nightmares where I’m completely unprepared, and exposed to the world. I won’t reveal the final outcome – it’s too excruciating; I just can’t go there. But Walter does.
The book is also centred on the sacred. Walter’s friend Panit ‘recognises the forest as sacred in many ways, fearing certain spots and glorying in the beauty of others’. My Japanese character Tadashi (in just_a_girl) observes his mother’s Shinto religion, and sees everyday objects, and nature, as having kami, or spirits. Walter comments:
I had learned to not laugh at such statements, or to launch into a rationalist lecture about the absence of spirit realms. Friends spoke casually of spectral presences, of visitations by dragons and angels, of possession and trance … When faced with the possible alternative existence I felt only curiosity and a willingness to indulge in the possible wonder of multiple worlds.
Where Walter is in his element is turning his sharp focus back on Westerners and how they approach different cultural encounters. I particularly loved his writing on Angkor Wat, on how a spectacularly beautiful place is pretty much ruined by the sight at dawn of thousands of photographers perched for the perfect shot which, ironically, will be mainly of other photographers. I was lucky in 2005 to have a lot of this place to myself at certain moments. But I do remember sitting in the early morning behind some British backpackers, one loud girl in a see-through white mini-dress that revealed a bright pink thong, and wanting to push her off the edge of the temple to an untimely death. Walter contrasts the ‘Westerners strolling through [the sacred site] dressed as though for a day at the beach – a bad day at that’ with his friend, Panit:
Panit had taken a half-hour that morning to select the clothes he was going to wear to Angkor Wat, that proudest symbol of the Khmer people. All of the Cambodians we encountered were dressed neatly, respectfully.
And Walter is not afraid to expose himself to the light either. As a very camp and large man — the locals call him ‘fat’ (often favourably) — he often longs to be able to just fit in, be a part of the crowd. His description of the raucous encounter with a nasty masseuse who grabs his flesh and calls him names is a reminder of the pitfalls of travel, of trusting someone, of cultural differences where not everyone is ‘polite’ and it’s customary to comment on someone else’s body. At another point, two men get off their motorbikes and spontaneously grapple with and stroke his flesh. Through it all, Walter steps back, is passive, let’s things happen. This is disturbing and exhilarating for the reader, and something I understand well: being frozen by an extraordinary moment, unable to think, let alone act.
One night in a beach bar in Sihanoukville, I shared a joint with a friend. The next thing I knew, after falling asleep, I woke up, unable to find friends. Disoriented, I stumbled down the beach, stopping every now and then to have a little lie down, gradually becoming aware as I moved that I had no idea where my hotel was, had no idea how to get there, and couldn’t even remember its name. All I could hear was my mum’s voice saying ‘what were you thinking?‘. I strolled up to a road. It was about 3am. No-one around. I heard a putting motorbike coming my way. I hesitated as it approached me: do I flag it down? I’d never do it in Australia. I decided to take the risk.
The man stopped. I got on the bike. We didn’t say a word. He drove me through the streets and straight to the gates of my hotel. He refused my offer of money — a very generous offer.
It is my enduring memory of Cambodia. Along with eating a tarantula.
Walter’s Destination Cambodia is a collection of memories that offers an open and generous perspective of what it is like to confront another culture head-on.
Read Walter Mason’s review of just_a_girl.
WHAT ABOUT YOU? WHAT ARE YOUR FAVOURITE TRAVEL BOOKS?
OR HAVE YOU BEEN TO CAMBODIA? PLEASE SHARE YOUR MEMORIES OF THE PLACE…