I don’t know of another book on Cambodia quite like this. Walter Mason (“writer, scholar, dreamer”) is well read, adventurous, a man of good humour. All in all the ideal travel companion. He’s been visiting Cambodia since 1996, off and on, and his very solid grounding in the country allows him to escape the usual tourist circuit – Angkor gets a mention, but I got the impression that it was because his editor told him to. (“Look Walter my lad, you just can’t write a travel book about Cambodia and not even mention the bloody temples!”) But his primary interest and preoccupation is the people.
Things happen to Walter that never happen to me. An impromptu get-together with some friends turns into a 20-minute address on Buddhism, live on national television. An 800 year old Angkorean princess asks him if he can find a job for her shaman’s unemployed graduate son. Or did you ever wonder what bull’s penis soup tastes like? I didn’t dream that such a delicacy was available in Phnom Penh, but Walter finds it. It tastes like you’d expect bull’s penis to taste like, says Walter – chewy and slimy and fairly disgusting.
If this were all there was to Destination: Cambodia it would be just a succession of funny but forgettable incidents, but Mason has an ability to really get into the heart of Cambodia. I keep reading things and thinking, “Yes, I knew that, but I never actually *knew* it!” Like the fact that poor Cambodians live “according to a complex series of debts and loans.” This is how you live on a dollar a day: you borrow from your friends when they have money and you don’t, in the expectation that some day soon the roles will be reversed. That’s fine, except that quarrels over piddling amounts destroy friendships and families – this is one basic cause of another factor of Cambodian life that Mason notes, the fact that family bonds are extremely weak, so that society is atomised and “community” is a word that has very little meaning. (As a personal comment, one of my best Khmer friends is a lady who converted to Christianity, not because she believe in it, but because the church has a sense of community lacking elsewhere).
One reviewer has likened the book to a collection of short stories, as it’s written in short chapters without an overarching narrative. True enough, but the discontinuous structure makes it ideal to just dip into at random. The same reviewer also says that Destination is “Destination Cambodia is a sensitive, intellectual read for anyone interested in travel to one of the world’s most fascinating countries,” and I agree.
(For collectors of trivia, Walter was interviewed for an on-going column in the SMH where they ask people about their travel habits – it pretty well lines up with the impression I got from his blog and book. I also looked got this page of quite beautiful photos under his name on google images, but I don’t think they actually have anything to do with him).