Angkor Wat, Banteay Srei, Battambang, Cambodia, Cu Chi tunnels, Danang, Europe, Grand Hotel, Hanoi, Henri Mouhot, Ho Chi Minh city, Hoi An, Khmer Rouge, Kim Do Hotel, King Sihanouk, Laos, Luang Prabang, Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville, Ta Prohm, Vientiane, Vietcong, Vietnam
Most of my foreign travel during this period was to French Indo-China, with which I had fallen in love after my first trip to Cambodia in 1991. I had friends in Phnom Penh as well as Hanoi, with whom I could stay as long as I liked, writing and reading, while going off on excursions.
I had been to Vietnam way back in 1984, but only to Hanoi where a great friend was Deputy at the Australian Embassy there. But I only got to Ho Chi Minh city in 1991, when I stayed at the Kim Do Hotel, and even crawled into the Cu Chi tunnels where the Vietcong had hidden in its extraordinary overcoming of the Americans. I thought I was stuck, and nearly developed claustrophobia but the guide saw me out.
That year I went to Laos too for the first time, and loved Vientiane, the most laid back capital in the world, with a fountain with coloured lights as its centre. From there I flew up to Luang Prabang, the return journey being in a tiny old Russian plane, which brought the jungles below incredibly close. Luang Prabang was magic, lovely old temples where young monks played in the courtyards and seemed terribly pleased to talk for hours with anyone who knew English. I went to the beautiful wooden Royal Palace, and had a river trip by myself past lovely waterfalls. It was also nice to enter into the spirit of the place, seeing an old Western film in the decrepit theatre where youngsters came to smoke cigarettes.
In 1991 I also went back to Hanoi, and walked round the little lake I had loved back in 1984. It was much more tranquil than the lake in Cambodia, where the guide who had picked me up on a motorbike and stuck with me for the rest of my stay, and also future visits, took me to see the taxi girls who thronged the boat restaurants.
They would walk round the boat in a circle past the diners’ tables, doing the hand dance I was told was characteristic of the Khmer culture. They invited one to get up and dance with them, and Lundy as my guide claimed he was called (born on a Monday he said) persuaded me to join them, claiming they would be hurt if I kept refusing. He then burst into peals of laughter, since it seemed that that was how one chose one’s companion for the night. I was rather sad, when I went back a decade later, to be told that Hun Sen had sold the lake and the taxi girls no longer danced there. But I am sure they were performing with the same verve, for much greater profit, somewhere else.
In 1991 the highlight of my journey had been Angkor Wat, one of the greatest sights I have seen. I was very lucky for it was still uncrowded, and there were only three people in my group. We stayed at the old Grand Hotel, decrepit now but beautiful and evocative of the flamboyant days of King Sihanouk. And I was lucky too in my guide, who was the only old one left, the others having been killed by the Khmer Rouge which distrusted anyone who knew too much. He described how he had fled into the mountains and stayed in hiding for many years.
He was fantastic, and decided to indulge me when I explored behind a statue and fell into a deep pit. I did get scolded when they finally managed to haul me up, but he then decided that I deserved to see more, and even took me out at dawn the next day to see the sunrise from the roof of one of the buildings, a privilege that I cannot imagine being extended to the tourists who now flood the place. When I went back to Angkor Wat a decade later I made it a point to see Mr Huy, who still remembered me. I also went out on that occasion to the older temple at Banteay Srei which was exquisite, and had very few visitors. But the main sites were hopelessly crowded, including Ta Prohm which had been left unreconstructed so that trees grew out of the temples. Back in 1991 it had been deserted, a couple of soldiers looking forlorn when one left a site at sunset, and I imagined fearful too, because they could not be sure the Khmer Rouge had quite gone away. In those days one could imagine the amazement of Henri Mouhot when he came across such marvels in the jungles way back in 1860.
It was only in 1994 though that I saw the equivalent glories of Vietnam. They were of much later provenance, for the Vietnamese had only established a grand empire a couple of hundred years previously. The imperial capital Hue then had its heyday only in the 19th century, but it was glorious enough, the range of imperial tombs, including the magical Tiger Garden. One had to get to the different tombs by river, my boat being paddled by a youngster barely in his teens, who was an expert however and willing to wait ages while I explored the different tombs, only getting impatient when I was detained longer than I should have been, exploring unexpected nooks and crannies in the Tiger Garden. On that trip I went down too to Danang, famous during the Vietnam War, and to the old Portuguese trading centre of Hoi An.
Most on that journey was by train, but I also did much travel by road in those parts, including in 1991 to Ho Chi Minh City by bus from Phnom Penh, with numerous halts to unload what I thought must have been contraband. A year later I did the trip in the car of the travel agent who had first looked after me in Phnom Penh in 1991 and with whom I maintained contact for years. And early in 1994 I crossed to Thailand from Cambodia at a border crossing reserved for natives, after going up to Battambang, Cambodia’s second city, in a shared taxi with Lundy, by now my constant guide in the country.
I had met him on my second day in Phnom Penh in 1991, when he picked me up outside the old Royal Hotel when I was walking back from Wat Phnom. He was on a motorbike on which he was game to go anywhere, including in later years several kilometres north to some of the old Khmer sites. When I came back In 1992 I could not find him though I took another motorbike out to his village, to be told that he had gone away. But on January 1st the next year, after seeing the New Year in with champagne overlooking the Victory Monument along with a British friend, I found him in his village. Back in Phnom Penh he showed me how to find his sister’s house in the city, though in later years I had to go down to Sihanoukville to see him, for he had become a lieutenant of police there.
It was a year later that he took me to the border at Poipet. The guards on either side hardly looked at me, assuming that I was a native of Cambodia. But my host in Bangkok, the Australian Deputy Head of Mission, told me I would be in great trouble unless I got myself regularized at the immigration office. That took much time, and involved some drama when the chap in charge said he would have to arrest me. But he calmed down, realizing perhaps that I had no intention of offering a bribe, and in the end had my passport duly stamped, so I was able to leave.
I went back regularly too to England and Europe. While I was at Jayewardenepura the British Council kindly paid for me to go to Leeds to attend a Conference on Commonwealth Literature, and the European Commonwealth Literature Association took me to their triennial conferences in Oviedo in Spain and Tubingen in Germany. In between they also had me to smaller conferences in Freiburg and Aachen, for which I duly produced papers. All this permitted me also to see old friends and new places, including Barcelona, which was magnificient with its Picassos and the crazy Gaudi buildings. From Leeds I went to see my old Senior Tutor, in retirement and drinking too much, which was a salutary lesson in how not to grow old. In Andorra, on the other hand, Andrew, who was younger than me, had evidently invested satisfactorily, and married a wonderful cook, which suggested how to age gracefully.
Despite all this travelling, and an intense schedule in Sri Lanka too, I found the little time I spent at home wearying. It made sense, I realized, to get away, before my mother and I irritated each other beyond measure. My father, understanding how bad things were, and I think sympathizing with my feelings, provided an answer. He had taken on the responsibility for the servant of his old friend W J Fernando, who had left his house in Suleiman Terrace to the servant’s twin sons. They were very small at the time, and their father had died young, so my father essentially kept them going, having provided them with a tenant for the main part of the house.
This was Mrs Baker, the wife of my old British Council boss, Rex. They had spent four years in Bombay, after their stint in Colombo, and when he retired she decided to embark on a career in designing jewellery in Sri Lanka. Rex, the most tolerant and intelligent of men, remarked that he understood that Maj Britt needed to fulfil herself after having spent years as a dutiful Council wife. So he let her stay on when he went back to England, coming out regularly himself in the winter months while she went back for the summer. In between she pursued her profession, and he travelled widely, visiting his children who were in various parts of the world and all the places he had kept on his list to see on retirement.
Maj Britt decided however in 1996 to find anotherplace, and my father therefore let me move to Suleiman Terrace, which was blissful. It was a short enough trishaw ride to the UGC, and near enough to Nirmali’s for me to walk there when I had work or needed feeding. A good half of the month of course was spent in wandering the country on GELT work, and also on visiting lectures at the former AUCs which had now been transformed into universities. Codipilly would provide transport, because I had told the UGC Chairman that I could not cope with his drivers, who were rarely on time, and refused to carry the books I had to distribute to GELT Centres. Tilakaratna, who was a very practical man, told me that it would be much cheaper for the UGC for me to hire a vehicle for which they would pay mileage.
It was certainly cheap for them, for they paid much less per mile than Codipilly charged, but I was able to combine my journeys with project work so I was not much out of pocket. By now I was used to Kithsiri, and found it irritating when occasionally Codipilly sent another driver, though in fact they were all extremely obliging. On one occasion I certainly could not object, for Kithsiri got married, in the middle of 1996, to his longstanding girlfriend. I had reason to be thankful to the family because once, when we found the Teldeniya Resthouse full, they had put me up in their home nearby, where her younger brothers obligingly drew water from a freezing well for me to bathe. The younger of them, a couple of years later, developed a torrid affair with a girl from Kithsiri’s village, which culminated in an elopement.
Kithsiri got on extremely well with the relations I stayed with in the course of my travels, my aunt Ena at Aluwihare, my father’s brother and his wife down at Getamanna, Derrick and Ayra Nugawela in Kandy. Ena of course approved thoroughly of the family’s romantic escapades, in particular the elopement, and assured Kithsiri, reasoning from what had happened in her own case, that all would be well when a baby appeared. This duly proved to be the case. She approved also of Kithsiri’s driving, which was a great thing because it meant he was acceptable at Yala and Wasgamuwa, which we went to frequently in those days.
Ceylon Today 24 Sept 2016 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20160701CT20161030.php?id=6060