Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Walter Mason wins again with Destination Cambodia

 Dr Stephanie Dowrick reviews - glowingly - Walter Mason's new, wholly successful travel book, Destination Cambodia.

At its best, travel writing is a glorious excuse to study human nature at close quarters, but from the outside in. When the culture or country that's being written about is sufficiently "foreign" to the likely readers, travel writing offers both the writer and his or her readers a kind of permission to stare intimately and not necessarily politely! What we are wanting, I suspect, is to discover what's specific, odd and admirable about a particular culture while also reassuring ourselves that however diverse we are within our vast human family, we also share some very recognizable passions, needs, emotions and values.

Monocultures - relatively speaking - make for the best travel writing. And "exotic" still pulls most of us in. Cambodia wins on both counts and in making that country his focus, Walter Mason has once again demonstrated his rare breadth as a writer. Readers of his earlier Destination Saigon will know that he is a master of noticing: small events that most of us would pass by or forget within hours become utterly memorable, often riotously funny but as often genuinely touching anecdotes in Walter's hands. He is a very funny writer - I laughed out loud many times - but he is also a compassionate one. What's more, he has an instinctive cultural fluency that means his books go way beyond entertainment, as delightful as that is. He never reduces complex human beings to mere ciphers on his pages. Each is allowed their vulnerability, depth and contradictions.

Outdoor Buddhist shrine, Cambodia
Walter likes to be surprised, and likes to surprise his readers also. He is fascinated by people and clearly they are more than fascinated by him; they trust him.  They trust him in part because of his quite exceptional familiarity with Asian life and diverse cultures, including languages. They also trust him because he is innately trustworthy. That's a quality that can't be bought or sold. And it means that the stories people share with him are worth hearing.

This is a writer, too, who is constantly aware of what he is receiving from the people he's living among and intimately alongside. And not from the people only: also from their culture including their religious and spiritual practices. He is amused by, occasionally appalled by and mostly intrigued by the rampant superstitions that run through life at every level. He's open to something far more subtle, though. Very late in the book, when he has left Cambodia and is in that quite different nearby country, Thailand, he writes: "After months in Cambodia, and a great deal of time spent in solitude, I found I had cultivated a type of silence that had never really been mine before.... I was accustomed to being almost invisible in Phnom Penh."

A shrine to the Lersi Hermit
As a large man who makes his size - and the disarmingly frank (rude?!) Asian responses to it - a particularly comedic feature of his travel reporting, this "invisibility" has a particular poignancy. He goes on: "For these past months in Cambodia I had learned to mask any extreme feelings, to return to myself for answers, comfort and solace instead of seeking explanations outside."

Walter Mason on location in Cambodia
This also means he refuses easy "explanations" or analysis of the extreme paradoxes within the culture of Cambodia itself. Here is a nation of mainly Buddhists who are capable of great sweetness, hospitality and almost super-human endurance, yet the years of the Khmer Rouge were as cruelly gruesome as any nation has had to bear. Walter gives many examples of the repugnant  commodification of Cambodia's "horrific past" - including the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum - yet it is in Cambodia he learns to "bless what is - not what should be, or what I wanted to be".

There continues to be a great deal of hardship in countless Cambodian lives. "Gambling and drinking [are] the overweening sins of Cambodia..." There are also many - far too many - who have grown to adulthood without parents: their parents are dead, lost or were forced to abandon them. Despite those hardships or perhaps because of them, "Cambodians are constantly romantic about most things," and Walter frequently found himself the focus of their fascinated questions about his own twenty-some years' partnership, as well as about his freedom to travel.

This last point is stark. Walter is free to travel in Cambodia and bring his experience of that country back to us in his marvelous book. His Cambodian friends, though, are not free to travel. Poverty is one impediment; so is the unavailability of tourist visas to countries like our own Australia, except for the extremely rich. No trust there.

A little like Cambodia itself, Destination Cambodia can be read at many levels. This book is witty, clever, and vastly entertaining. But I also admire its author's humility and patience. A man who has studied and lived in several Asian countries, who speaks at least three or four Asian languages well or "passably", who is deeply interested in Eastern spirituality in its diverse forms, is well-equipped to resist making any Asian country, or its people, a mere passing parade. He is also quick to resist any false homogenization of Asia in Western eyes: some of his most acute observations arise out of showing how different Cambodia is from its neighbours, as well as where there is perhaps more common ground than they - or we - might immediately recognize.

Do you need me to say buy Destination Cambodia, read it, love it?! If you do, then I will. Buy it! Read it. Love it! And let us know in the comments box below what you enjoyed most. We always love to hear from you - and especially on this. You can buy your books with FREE POSTAGE using the bookstore link, above right. This is one to buy in multiple copies: for yourself, and for all the armchair travelers in your life.

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