At home in Cambodia

By Jennifer Ennion

Walter Mason's book, 'Destination Cambodia' touches on people's beliefs in the spiritual and magical, their cultural habits, and tourism. Photo / Thinkstock
Walter Mason's book, 'Destination Cambodia' touches on people's beliefs in the spiritual and magical, their cultural habits, and tourism. Photo / Thinkstock

Cambodia is not a tragedy, says Australian author Walter Mason.

"It's not this living, breathing, sad thing that is there for us to go to so we can feel bad as well," he says.

Cambodia is much more than that.

"I think it's really important that we can grow to understand that this is a place that is actually alive and it's trying to move forward."

Mason, who lives in Sydney, has released his latest travel memoir, Destination Cambodia. It's a look at everyday life in the small Southeast Asian nation, seen through Mason's relationships with locals.

Mason has been obsessed with Cambodia since he first visited as a young man.

Since then, he has travelled in the country nine times, and his familiarity shows in his writing.

"I really want people to know what people's lives are like now - how people are actually living in Cambodia and what their attitudes are," he says.

"I wanted to say to everyone, Cambodia's not a tragedy."

Mason spent four months in Cambodia doing research, and then returned a year later for another four months to write the book.

He has a deep knowledge of modern life and issues there, and his book touches on people's beliefs in the spiritual and magical, their cultural habits, and tourism.

He writes that he "despises" the way travellers so often glamorise the poverty of places such as Cambodia.

"We are all of us guilty of romanticising squalor and imagining that a simpler life must be happier and more content than our own. It is simply not true ..."

Pressed further, he says he hates hearing people say things like: "It's a shame their lives are changing, it's a shame this beautiful way of life has to stop."

"I just think, 'Yeah, it's a shame for you 'cause it's not so picturesque, but it means access to schools, to medicine, to reliable wages, and all of the things that we take for granted'."

In Destination Cambodia, Mason touches on the Khmer Rouge atrocities, but through friends' eyes. He considers how locals have turned sights such as Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, in the capital Phnom Penh, into tourist attractions.

The author is sympathetic about people visiting these places, and understands their desire to make sense of past human behaviour.

"I think 90 per cent of the time when tourists first arrive in Cambodia, they've got a vague idea of what happened (under Pol Pot) but no real knowledge ... so they're discovering as they go."

Destination Cambodia is a refreshing look at the country, and Mason's writing is sophisticated but never dry or overly academic.

The book takes the form of small individual stories rather than traditional chapters - a format that allows a complex country to be digested easily by those unfamiliar with its nuances.

And Mason has noticed a growing curiosity about his subject.

"Cambodia's one of those places where people have started to go to and tourism's increased incredibly in Cambodia in the last couple of years," he says.

"So many people are really interested about what's happening there, and that makes me so happy."

Mason's strong affinity with Asia shines through his writing. His first travel book was Destination Saigon, about Vietnam.

Mason acknowledges that personal religious beliefs drew him, and continue to draw him, to the region.

"If you believe in karma and reincarnation, which I do, there is a sense that you've been there before, that you're home."

Destination Cambodia, by Walter Mason, is published by Allen and Unwin.

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