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  • Writer's pictureJonathan Slade

South East Asia, Part II

Luang Prabang & Cambodia

An elderly man walks behind a display of old religious relics at a market in Tbilisi
Luang Prabang, Laos

Walking through the ancient centre of Luang Prabang, you feel your pace slowing to a stroll. Perhaps it's the influence of the Lao people: laidback, easygoing, warm. Perhaps it's the rich abundance of green leaves and colourful flowers tumbling out between the whitewashed walls and exquisite temples that flank its quiet streets. Perhaps it's the Mekong itself, the gentle inevitability of its procession through some of the world's most remarkable landscapes and cultures. Or perhaps it the privilege of knowing you are in a place quite completely unlike any other.

An ancient city in the secluded hills of Northern Laos, Luang Prabang was given UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1995 in recognition of its immaculately preserved centre, its beautiful temples and unique architecture, a fusion of French colonial and traditional Lao influences.

The historic heart of Luang Prabang lies at the confluence of the mighty Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. The latter is spanned by a precarious-looking wooden footbridge, with hanging lanterns lighting the way to a restaurant and local craft workshop on the opposite shore. When the summer rains come, the bridge will be swept away. Each year, the modest fees collected from those who cross in winter are used to patiently rebuild it once again.

On our first day, we climb Phou Si - a hill in the heart of the old town - to the gilded temple of Wat Chom Si, as it catches the sun's dying rays and ignites a beacon over the whole city. It's one of the only places in Luang Prabang that is truly packed with tourists. The wall of smartphones and selfie sticks that we hit at the summit persuades us our time is better spent at one of the more peaceful, stunningly ornate temples near the foot of the hill.

Luang Prabang, Laos

These temples demonstrate the richness of Luang Prabang's history, the painstaking cumulative work of ancient kingdoms and dynasties. But even the most casual observer cannot fail to notice glimpses of Laos' more recent, troubled past: the rusted military shells serving as signs or decoration, the market vendors selling ornaments made from riskily extracted bombs.

The US may have declared war on Vietnam, but across the border in neutral Laos, it dropped more bombs than the combined total detonated during the entire course of World War II. It is estimated that 30% failed to explode, ensuring a legacy of appalling death and injury, frequently to children, that continues to this day.

Top: UXO Lao Visitor Centre; Bottom: A young woman sells ornaments made from decommissioned American explosives

The extent of the suffering caused by America's "Secret War" and the sheer scale of the challenge to make Laos' countryside safe for its people is laid bare at the UXO Visitor Centre in Luang Prabang. It's a small, vital museum with a donation box in lieu of an entrance fee, with funds raised contributing to the country's ongoing bomb clearance projects.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

In neighbouring Cambodia, authorities are wrestling with a similar problem, albeit from a different cause. Millions of landmines, laid over decades of brutal conflict and civil war, have led to one of the highest amputee levels in the world. As in Laos, the work to clear the land of explosives is chronically underfunded and painfully slow. In Siem Reap, a town more well-known for its nightlife and proximity to the temples of Angkor, we find an organisation with an extraordinary new approach to dealing with this problem.

Run by the charity Apopo, this centre is dedicated to the training and deployment of giant African pouched rats to detect landmines in affected countries around the world. Working far more quickly than humans using traditional methods, their extraordinary sense of smell enables them to detect explosives up to 10m under the surface. The staff give us a demonstration, during the course of which an enormous rat called Sophia promptly identifies a decommissioned shell buried under the sand. It's all incredibly impressive and I'm delighted to have the chance to cradle Sophia in my arms a few short minutes later. She's surprisingly friendly.

Kampot, Cambodia

Siem Reap is the most tourist-oriented stop on our journey. As the evening approaches, the centre erupts in lights and noise, serving cheap beer, food & nightlife to its visitors. You have a sense of a place that has hardened to its increasing reliance on foreign money. We stay away from the notorious Pub Street, but glimpse flashes of the sex tourism to which the authorities seem to be turning a blind eye.

It is with some relief that a street food tour takes us out of the city centre to a traditional market into the suburbs. Guide books imply that Cambodian food is rather less interesting than that of its neighbours, but we eat consistently well here. Less thrilling were the attentions of several large crickets, jumping without warning onto my legs & into my lap. I am able to exact some kind of revenge at the end of the tour by eating several of their brethren (light & tasty, if you're wondering).

Kep, Cambodia

Ultimately, the tourists of Siem Reap are all here for the same reason. It is the reason that we find ourselves, in the small hours of the following morning, clinging to the bars of a rickshaw speeding us northwards. We've been told that the colours of the sunrise above Angkor Wat have to be seen to be believed. Our sunrise, sadly, is delivered in shades of grey thanks to some poorly-timed cloud cover.

As the small crowd of disappointed tourists pushes through the front entrance of the main complex, we spot an opportunity. Following the outer wall around to the temple's northern face, we climb the stairs quite alone and witness the sun's first rays cutting a golden path across this remarkable scene.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Our hosts set us up with a guide for the day, an eccentric older gentleman whose enthusiasm for and knowledge of the temples is undimmed by the passing of time. It isn't until later in the day that we come to learn that his rickshaw is more than his livelihood; it is also his home and only real possession. The welfare system in Cambodia is fragmented and its reach highly limited. The pandemic had a devastating effect on the livelihoods of the many who rely on tourism for their income. Some, like our guide, continue to struggle.

We travel south on one of Cambodia's night buses, arriving in the coastal town of Kampot just after dawn. After the intensity of Siem Reap, Kampot promises a quieter, more sedate environment, and the chance to enjoy food complemented by its famous local pepper.

A trip to a French-owned plantation proves to be worth the truly punishing tuk tuk journey over the potholed country roads. The organisation prides itself on giving both employment and educational opportunities to local Khmer people whilst showcasing the highest quality ingredients. The highlight of the day, though, is the stop in nearby Kep, to a sandy beach and a place that serves us freshly-caught crab cooked in an exquisite Kampot pepper sauce.

Kampot, Cambodia

The owner of our hotel in Kampot, a charismatic, moustachioed man in his late forties with a bit of a belly and a broad smile for all of his guests, offers us a tour of the area: a small island of rice paddies, salt fields and vivid red dust roads. This island isn't just his home, he explains, it's his constituency. Choosing his allegiance was the easy part; the People's Party is literally the only game in town. He joined and now represents the villages we're driving through. Locals greet him warmly several times during our tour and his pride is obvious.

The following day, a tour guide reveals a very different perspective in an unguarded moment. Between cheerful anecdotes about Khmer food and culture, he tells us in an anguished aside that government repression is so bad he can hardly stand it. It isn't hard to see why he feels this way. Since the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, an era that still casts a long shadow over Cambodia's young population, the country has been sliding from fragile democracy to de facto autocracy, with opposition parties banned or disqualified and dissenters intimidated or prosecuted.

Our guide loves his country, but is palpably fearful for its future. He clearly doesn't want us leaving with what he would consider a distorted picture of life for everyday Cambodians. "But please don't mention this if you leave a review," he adds. "I could lose my job."

We spend our final day in South East Asia back in Bangkok, inching through the seething throngs in Chinatown's intoxicating Sampheng Market and numbing our mouths with a final green curry before reluctantly heading back to the airport.

What a privilege it was to explore just a little of this astonishing, beautiful, complicated part of the world. Over a year has passed since we returned, but every now and then I'm reminded of it, usually in my kitchen, as the fragrant scent of steaming jasmine rice gradually fills the air, or as the pungent fish sauce hisses in the wok. Each time my heart aches a little from the gratitude of having been and from the longing to go back.

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