Thanks to the judges from the Centre for Travel Writing Studies and to all of the entrants who submitted a worthy collection of wonderfully evocative and well-written pieces (see previous post for more details). Now, sit back and let these three winning entries take you far away.
First Prize: Robert Rayner of Ponteland, Newcastle upon Tyne
The Conundrum of Cambodia
Someone says they’re ‘Templed out’. It is day three of our trip to Cambodia. I am in a group of twelve Aussies and Brits. We stand in a semi-circle sipping water at Banteay Srei. Camera clicking has dwindled to a listless halt – interest in celestial carvings stifled by the torpor of two o’clock heat. Someone feels obliged to ask an intelligent question. Suddenly there is the incongruous pah pah of brass. By the exit, under a shading canopy a band plays, ‘All You Need Is Love’. Even from distance you can tell the players are disabled. ‘Victims of land mines and Agent Orange,’ says Youk, our guide.
I watch a small figure nearby stir, uncurl in response to the tourists trickling out. He catches my gaze with his black, shiny eyes and walks bare-footed towards me. He must be all of four or five. ‘One dollar,’ he intones. I survey his wares — insect husks. I feel the role of observer and observed shift. I cannot now recall the answer to that intelligent question, yet still I see his face. Some days our eyes are opened to the hellish reality of other people’s lives.
How is it that a nation can regress? Eight hundred years after the construction of Angkor Wat, the zenith of the Khmer civilisation’s architectural and sculptural genius, came the nadir with the tyranny of the Khmer Rouge’s barbaric regime. This is the conundrum of Cambodia which my wife and I were eager to explore.
Siem Reap is the established base for visiting Cambodia’s famous temples. Walking down Bar Street and Pub Street, gaudy booze strips which could be anywhere in the world, we feel some doubts. But these dissipate as swiftly as the mist next morning as we enter the south gate of Angkor Thom to be greeted by the huge, imposing carved heads of Avalokiteshvra facing in the four cardinal directions on the thirty seven towers and the sense of wonder begins.
Later, we climb the steps at Bapuphon, symbol of mythical Mount Methu — home of the Gods. We scrutinise the detailed carvings of epic Hindu battle scenes and the reclining Buddha in wonder at the ancient skills.
Before returning to the hotel we call at the Landmine Museum to hear the story of Aki Ra. A boy soldier at ten, forced by the Khmer Rouge to fire a rifle he could barely carry, he has dedicated his adult life to atonement, removing thousands of landmines he helped plant and which still reap their terrible harvest today maiming and killing innocent victims. The hands are the same, but the man has changed.
Next day we are dropped off at the main western entrance next to the long causeway over the moat (representing the ocean and the outer world) leading to Angkor Wat. At this moment a yellow hot air balloon drifts by to complete this model universe by the addition of its sun. Whilst the image of the world’s largest religious monument is familiar, we are unprepared for the wondrous experience of the timeless, sublime harmony of Angkor Wat which flows throughout the site to its central tower.
I feel a mixture of pride and humility to pass the naga at the bridge for humans to reach the home of the Gods. Many statues were decapitated by the Khmer Rouge and only vestiges of rich red and yellow paint survive on the pillars but nothing detracts from the glory we witness.
Ta Prohm, known as the ‘Tomb Raider’ temple since the film, is our afternoon stop. Rediscovered in the jungle by French explorers in the 19thcentury it is enthralling to see the giant fingers and roots of banyan and kapok trees embedded in the crumbling walls and roofs of the temple, producing enigmatic features like the ‘snake’ coiled above a lintel.
When we have some free time we take a tuk-tuk ride out to Lake Ton Le Sap. The sight of sewage discharging directly from wooden shacks into the river is a reminder that most lead a life of poverty here. The ‘crew’ for our boat trip to the Floating Village comprises two cheeky young teenage boys who laugh raucously as they cut across and overtake other boats. The houses are built on stilts and the nonchalant domestic activities of the resident, cooking and cleaning, take on an extraordinary quality in this setting. As we pull in at the island a woman paddles a small canoe towards us and drapes a huge snake around her daughter’s tiny frame. We know that a demand for money will accompany any photos taken. She is displeased when we decline the snap but we know payment will only encourage her daughter’s absence from school. On the island itself, a bunch of crocodiles writhe in a pit only yards from a shop selling postcards. Having earlier seen people perilously hanging onto the rear of moving trucks and a live pig strapped to a motorcyclist’s back, it fails to surprises us.
A couple of days later on the bumpy road to Phnom Penh our group stops at the roadside to see sticky rice prepared in the traditional way over charcoals. A mixture of sugar cane water, coconut milk, rice and black beans is cooked slowly in a bamboo wrap and proves a deliciously stodgy snack
Lunch is at a silk farm and we all anticipate a soft sell. Bud, an elderly American and veteran of the Vietnam War, demonstrates the entire process from placing the silk worms on the mulberry leaves through to the finished silk scarf. When his former employer ceased trading he bought the business from them to retain employment for the weavers, including his second wife, and they continue to work the ancient looms. It is altruism with a shrewd business head. He only pays piece rate for good quality work.
At Skun market, deep fried insects are the specialty. One stall holders’ sales gimmick involves placing an enormous, live black spider on tourists for them to take photographs. Some pose with a locust at their mouth, although few are consumed once the picture is taken.
The following day we forgather at Toul Seng genocide museum and learn that Pol Pot (an abridgment of political potential) entered Phnom Penh in April 1975 to unleash a maniacal reign of terror in the name of social re-engineering. This school was transformed into a prison where over 20,000 people were tortured and murdered. Prisoners were tied to metal beds to facilitate the flow of electric current. Only seven prisoners escaped death. One was a sculptor who glorified Pol Pot. We meet another – Chum Mey, a mechanic whose life was spared because he repaired the typewriters used to record prisoners’ forced confessions of collaboration with the CIA, of which they had never heard.
His aptly entitled book, ‘Survivor’ is the testimony of an indomitable spirit able to forgive the captors who killed his family and friends, knowing they were forced to commit these acts or die themselves. The extent of the terrifying power of Pol Pot perhaps explains the paradox that these atrocities were committed as well as suffered by earth’s most innately gentle people.
The Choeng Ek Memorial, a few miles outside the city, contains a stupa of 8,000 skulls at the infamous Killing Fields. The savage and horrifying executions of mothers and babies there stain the human race for eternity.
Our sombre mood is lifted at the Royal Palace, where we learn of a brighter period in Cambodia’s history. The symmetries of the richly coloured, elegant buildings are resplendent in the sunshine. The Silver Pagoda dazzles. Along the Mekong waterfront there are further fine examples of French colonial architecture.
In the evening after drinks at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (where journalists socialised in the seventies), we enjoy an end of tour meal at Friends restaurant. This venture, established before Jamie Oliver’s ‘Fifteen’ gives street kids a way out, in a country where so many exist on just one dollar a day. A staff portrait gallery displays photographs of happy faces shining with optimism about their future, the antithesis of those haunted faces at Toul Seng we had seen that morning. Yet Cambodia has no tiger economy, it desperately requires vast investment to develop and improve living standards. Tourism alone is insufficient.
We depart for Vietnam on a motor boat down the Mekong Delta the following day. I see fishermen in conical hats in old rowing boats cast their nets, and continue watching a skinny young boy lead a large water buffalo down the bank to drink the cooling waters, as they recede into the distance.
Second Prize: Anne Howkins of Newark
Fire and ice. Much like the marriage I’ve escaped. Geysers of explosive temper and icy indifference. I allow these thoughts to mizzle away as I fly towards Reykjavik on a dark starry night. I’m accustomed to solo travel, usually for business, but this time it’s different – no fixed itinerary, I can do as I please. My ex-husband would research our travel destinations with a fine toothcomb, planning our time to the very last detail. I’ve skimmed through a couple of guidebooks and booked a couple of ‘must-do’ tours. He would have approved of my pre-trip shopping – kitting myself with the right waterproof and warm clothing and buying a little digital camera. I’ve done no real ‘finding out’ about Iceland, I want to travel with wide eyes, see a new perspective.
Hunger, rather than my phone’s alarm, wakes me. Showering in geothermally heated water reeking of sulphur washes away the vestiges of dreamless sleep — already this country feels different. I wake up properly with mugs of excellent breakfast coffee, bread and a boiled egg. I finish dressing with waterproof layers, grab my rucksack and head out onto Laugavegur, Reykjavik’s busiest shopping street, following the salty air towards the harbour.
Disappointingly, the planned whale watching trip is cancelled – the remnants of a tropical hurricane leaving the city shiny wet and windswept, and the sea choppy mercury, although there is a possibility of tonight’s trip on the water in search of the Aurora Borealis as some recompense. I shed momentary dissatisfaction and opt for a morning exploring, walk to Hallgrímskirkja, the starkly beautiful church sitting like a spaceship ready for launch, towering above its parish. If ever a church was a sanctuary, it is here. I sit amidst the simple white granite coated concrete calm, just being. Breathing crisp clean air, letting the quiet thrum of other visitors wrap me in unassuming companionship. I’m not sure how long I sit – I groan the stiffness from my back and legs as I take the lift to the top of the tower. The 360° view of Reykjavik reveals unexpected flashes of blue, red and yellow, amongst the squat grey buildings huddled together, as if ready to take on the ravages of the winter. The Harpa concert hall looms above the harbour like a beached angular iceberg.
Irresistibly, the sea pulls me from Hallgrímskirkja, as it tugged at the explorer Leif Eriksson centuries ago. I follow the focus of his greened bronze statue down towards the shoreline. As I walk, my gaze drifts up alleys and side streets, catching unforeseen flashes of feminist graffiti and surprising sculptures. This city holds the promise of unexpected delights.
The startling silvery metal bones of a Viking long-boat rest close to the water’s edge. It intrigues, takes my breath away. Stunningly, simply, beautiful, it is one of the most exquisite man-made objects I have ever seen. Touching the sinuous curves sets my mind sailing free, wanting to explore the possibilities of a life without coercion. I perch on a wall and eat my purloined breakfast buffet lunch of bread and cheese, staying as close to the skeleton boat as I can. I pull out the guidebook, read the story of the Sun Voyager, a fitting name for this beauty. In this windswept October, even before winter sets in properly, it is easy to understand why the islanders would launch themselves away from their strange land. My eyes follow the bow, look out across Faxaflói Bay towards Mount Esja. The designer, Jón Gunnar, wished his Voyager to represent the tantalization of adventure, a desire for discovery, the need to move forward, and the bridge between the realms of dreams and wakefulness. I silently thank Jón for his vision and craft as I photograph his glorious Voyager, my ineptness with a camera momentarily cast aside.
I bid góða ferð, bon voyage, to the spirits of Icelanders who sailed away from their land, risking the worst an ocean can inflict, and head back into the city centre, hobbling as my feet complain about old walking boots that have languished in a shed for several years. A change of footwear and advice from the hotel’s receptionist sees me on a coach heading through lava fields, a ubiquitous element of Iceland’s tempestuously birthed landscape. One which emerges from and retreats into a frustrating cloak of mist as we motor inland. I seem to be the only solo traveller on the coach, this suits me well.
Our destination is Raufarhólshellir, a lava tube created as slow moving lava hardened on the edge of the flowing molten core. We are given hard hats, head torches and yellow waterproofs before we single file after the guide, leaving grey daylight, clattering from the carved stone steps onto a metal walkway. As we enter the tunnel a pale light washes over our heads, glimmering through three breaches of the cavern ceiling. We progress along clanking walkways and down staircases, our head-torch beams revealing ridged bath-tub walls and splashes of red iron stains on the incredibly folded lava. Dagur, our guide, points out the mats of microbes adding patches of pallor to the dark grey ripples and creases. I run my fingers along the rock, like a child stroking metal railings. In a cavern at the end of the tunnel Dagur asks us to turn off our torches. The darkness is absolute, the blackest black imaginable. Then he sings for us. His voice holds the memories of generations, releases them in words I cannot translate, but there is no need. Understanding comes from the sound. Simultaneously it is a lament, an elegy, a hymn, a love song, a lullaby, a cradle-song. His notes land in my heart, I love this man without the need to know or to touch him.
His voice fades, we turn on our torches and clank our way back to the surface. I am insulated by a saga I can’t retell, alone, yet not alone, unloved, yet loved. The mist is clearing as we drive back to Reykjavik, revealing little but hummocky moss-topped lava as darkness descends.
Two boats chafe against the harbour wall. The crew hand out waterproof overalls and lifejackets, point to the bar. I stay on deck, wanting to taste salt on my lips. Our boat heads away from the harbour, lurching as the waves increase as we move further into Faxaflói Bay. The weather forecast is not promising for viewing the Aurora, although there are starry gaps in the grey and white above us. Being on the water energises me, as my sea legs remember how to let hips roll with the boat as she heads northwards. We sail towards Friðarsúlan, Yoko Ono’s Imagine Peace Tower sited on an island. She created the tower as a memorial to John Lennon, a symbol of eternal love. A column of blue light accelerates away from its white stone base, carved with ‘Imagine Peace’ in twenty-four languages. The light mesmerises with its clarity and intention. I think of Lennon’s later songs, the post-Beatles lyrics I sang tunelessly while ironing shirts a lifetime ago. We steam on, futilely looking for larger breaks in the cloud cover, until the captain calls it a day, and steers the bow towards the city’s twinkling lights.
Before retreating to my immaculate and cosy room, with its faint sulphurous tang, I go into a rustic café just off Laugavegur to nurse an extortionately priced mug of hot chocolate and ponder my day. A young English couple come in, and sit at the counter, bickering about ice-cream – much loved by Icelanders, and as good as the best Italy can offer. He speaks as if he’s used to be obeyed. She is pale, uncertain, deferring. They share an ice-cream and leave before I do; the girl following in his footsteps, offering an apology as the closing door sends her words tumbling into the night. I want to chase after her, tell her to go to Raufarhólshellir and ask Dagur to sing to in the blissful dark. To sit by the Sun Voyager and imagine freedom.
Third Prize: Maria Dziedzan of Normanton on Trent, Newark
The last ten kilometres to Ouistreham take the traveller along the D35 north from Caen. On the final approach to the port, and situated at the first roundabout on the outskirts of the little town, there is the Riva Bella Seasonova campsite, its curiously Italian name confusing visitors to Normandy for decades. However, this September there is a new campsite on the wide grass verge. Beneath the trees, on the yellowing grass, there are more than a dozen young men lying in the shade as they pause on their journeys from Africa to the Promised Land. Some lounge and chat in a desultory fashion; others play volleyball without a net. Tall, slender, energetic, they call to one other in the late afternoon sunshine.
Otherwise, there is little change in Ouistreham. The single carousel in the centre of the promenade circles to its tinny tune; the bars and cafes, catering to locals and holiday-makers alike, line the front; and the source of the little town’s wealth, the car ferry to Portsmouth, dominates the northern point of the town. A walk along the path between the ferry terminal and the beach reveals a riot of late summer colour in the flower beds which line the road on the left: purple salvia and yellow rudbeckia, lilac verbena and pale pink gaura. But on the right, the fence to the ferry has been doubled. There are now two parallel rows of fencing three metres high with a strip of No Man’s Land three metres wide between them. Coils of razor wire have been added to the barbed wire, its wicked blades drawn against the sky like so many tiny cleavers ready to shred palms and fingers.
But the path remains the same. Three generations of the same family bowl along on bicycles, tricycles or in baby carriages, calling encouragement to one another. Young couples rollerblade, their long tanned legs stretching towards the bright future. All make their way to or from the benign French beach with its baguette picnics and cidre du Normandie.
When the sun begins to go down the African boys congregate on a corner between the hotels. Their young bodies are all hidden in the same uniform: hoodies, jeans, trainers. They’re like teenage boys everywhere, posing for each other, teasing each other. Their loud laughter and horseplay continue until the night ferry sails and then all is quiet. Even the seagulls have flown in convoy towards the same roost for the night.
Queueing for the morning ferry, there is the usual crowd of retirees returning from their French breaks. The security officers and the Douane patrol the lines of vehicles with their German Shepherds on short, taut leashes and peer with bright torches into every van and lorry. In the cold morning light, a single youth cycles past, his head and face hidden in his white hoodie, his black hands gripping the handlebars. Where does his mother think he is? In her hot, dusty home, does she wonder where her boy has got to on his journey towards work and wealth? Does she wonder if he is hungry? Whether he has got a warm bed for the night?
The ferry, the Mont St Michel, fills with cars and lorries. The passengers hurry towards the buffet with its hot coffee and croissants. As the wash below the window signals departure, the huge ship slips out to sea beyond the buoys, which bob and sway with their cargo of cormorants, who wait between sea and sky.