Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Reflection on my visit to Cambodia

It is now several months since I visited Cambodia but recently I got around to buying a frame for some artwork I bought while I was there. This action prompted me to think back to when I bought the piece and what motivated me to buy it. With all due respect to the artist this is probably not a great painting it is however a piece of work that I like and a reminder of the events that led to its creation.

In the years following the U.S. withdrawal of troops from Vietnam in 1975 the Khmer Rouge (Red Cambodians), led by Pol Pot, effectively took control of Cambodia which was renamed the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea. A very dark period dawned and the regime set about systematically dismantling the old ways and implementing an extreme form of communism based on peasant powered agriculture. Staples of society such as health care, education, cities, money, religion, families were not tolerated.

So how does a single painting spark these memories? Well, among the plethora of forbidden activities were cultural activities which included art, literature, music… Among the literally millions (estimated ~2million +/- 1 million) of victims of this genocide were pretty much all the artists which destroyed not only the lives of individual artists but the teachers, role models and reservoir of local traditions.

While in Siem Reap I was asked if I was interested in a visit to the circus, at first I wasn't that enthused but my interest was piqued when it was suggested that circus skills were another example of activities that were banned by the Khmer Rouge and whose practitioners had been killed. A short tuk-tuk ride west of where I am staying is Phare, The Cambodian Circus.
Phare, The Cambodian Circus - Siem Reap
It had been a long time since I had been to a circus and had no idea what to expect… I may have started out rather unenthusiastic but after sitting through the performance I was a convert, the entertainment value was outstanding. There were certainly some familiar circus skills displayed as part of the performance but the blend of music, dance, story telling, humour and athleticism combined to give tremendous entertainment.

The common factor between these two examples of Cambodian culture, i.e. painting and circus, is the resurgence of interest and practice in these activities that were almost completely eradicated by the Khmer Rouge regime. More than a simple resurrection of the original practices modern Cambodians have sought help from their neighbours to regain some of the old skills but have also invigorated the old with more modern and experimental techniques. The results may as yet lack polish but are very exciting and even inspire admiration in artistic philistines like myself.

The painting that prompted this post was sold to me by the artist at Preah Ko, a small temple about 15 kilometers south-east of the Angkor temple.

Saturday, 20 October 2018

"Where is everybody?"

This post is another that stems from a coincidence. I have been quietly reading my way through the excellent trilogy Remembrance of Earth's Past by Liu Cixin and had reached the final volume The Dark Forest when I also chanced to read an article in the Economist entitled Where is everybody?.

Both of these publications deal with the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations. The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) has been underway in one form or another for a long time and has, as yet, been unsuccessful. Along side SETI we also have METI (Messaging to Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence). While there has been some disquiet about our unintended broadcasting by virtue of electronic communications intended for others humans leaking out into the wider universe we have not stopped broadcasting to the far flung, unintended potential audience. At a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2015, Active SETI (METI) was discussed and questioned whether transmitting a message to potentially intelligent extraterrestrials elsewhere in the Cosmos was a wise.

The Economist article summarises the Fermi Paradox and then briefly discusses an assessment of our progress with SETI in the search by a trio of astronomers at Pennsylvania State University. In a few words, our progress amounts to... not much.

The fictional trilogy on the other hand is more focused on METI and how a lone researcher send a powerful message out into the Cosmos and gets a response, I will not spoil your pleasure should you care to read it for yourself. There are extraterrestrial intelligences out there but they may be quiet for a reason.

Also in 2015 a statement was released, signed by many in the SETI community, advocating that a "worldwide scientific, political and humanitarian discussion must occur before any message is sent". I would agree with this position but honestly do not know whether I would be in favour of any such message or not.

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

"Overtourism"


A new word, overtourism, has started to show up in the travel lexicon. The meaning of the term seems to be pretty self descriptive but has been used in subtly different ways, the proposed definition in the Collins Dictionary is short and pretty good but I prefer the wordier definition used by Responsible Travel.

While in Southern Thailand earlier this year I came across an example of overtourism. We were travelling from Bangkok to Singapore and one our stopping points along the route was Ao Nang, a town on the Andaman coast. Several of our travel companions took the opportunity to visit some of the nearby islands either by kayak or farther away by boat. Without exception everyone who went out to the islands encountered such a mass of tourists that the journeys were considered dismal failures. The problems were not simply the numbers of tourists but the behaviour of a non-trivial minority was sufficient for some to abandon the visit and head back early.

Ko Liao from the sand bar, Ao Nang.
So my earlier experiential claim is not really true, I was fortunate that my wife was unwell for a couple of days and didn't feel up to the required boat travel to get to the islands she really wanted to see. Instead I suggested that we walk north-west along the coast to Nopparat Thara Beach. It would seem that most tourists head off to the famous islands that feature in the must see lists or are not prepared to walk a few kilometers. We enjoyed our walk and found that there were very few people at Nopparat Thara Beach, at low tide you could just walk across to a number of small islands. Just off the beach you can find memorials commemorating those who died in the tsunami on December 26th 2004.

While this modest little beach will hopefully never make on to one of the numerous Places to See Before You Die lists or Top [nnn] Beaches, I would rather spend my time here than at any of the cool places on these lists. To be fair this fascination with lists is not a new phenomenon and I guess this is something else we have to thank the ancient Greeks for since they are the ones credited with compiling The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

I may return to this topic at a later date, I have been able to visit some famous sites and avoid the crowds but do I want to share how to do it …

Saturday, 30 November 2013

The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks.

book cover

I've just completed reading The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks.

This book is one of The Culture series and centres on an aspect which has appeared in other novels but only explored in detail in this one, the notion of subliming. Like other novels in the series reading them is not an effortless exercise, there are many complex characters with difficult names engaged in a number of threads which eventually weave a compelling story. Along the way the notion of subliming is explained and provides some sort of alternative view to that provided by many religions.

The background to the novel is the final days of the Gzilt civilisation before they are scheduled to sublime and some ancient intrigue as well as the actions of actions civilisations who want to exploit what is left after sublimation.

While reading the novel I realised that this would be the last new science fiction novel by Iain that I would read since it is the last one that he wrote.

I've read all his science fiction novels and a couple of his other mainstream fiction novels (as Iain Banks). I met him once at the Cheltenham Literary Festival and was wryly amused at his response to someone who questioned why he wasted his considerable talents writing science fiction.

I knew that he was a contemporary of mine but it was only when he died of cancer earlier this year that I realised that he was born in the same year. Got me thinking…

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Back to Europe


The fifth, and final, part of this summer's travels has begun. I'm sitting in seat 1L of an Airbus 330 on Finnair flight 52 from Beijing to Helsinki drinking a very pleasant glass of San Polo Brunello di Montalcino 2005 and looking out the window at the Gobi desert below and thinking how different it looks from 12,000m.

Over the next eight hours I will retrace most of the 12,000km outward journey that took me eight weeks. The real difference between the outward and return legs of the journey isn't the speed, it is the experiences along the way.

I feel oddly relaxed but I shouldn't be surprised since aeroplanes are a familiar environment. I have spent thousands of hours travelling millions of miles in them over the last three decades.

Today will be a long day, I was up at 05:30 (Beijing time) and will not finally stop until I've met up with my wife at Stockholm's Arlanda airport and arrived at our hotel which should be about 22 hours of travel time.

I should pace myself but I think I will also sample the Château Malescasse with my lunch…