Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Expedition Cambodia

How does one create a portrait of a place? What images are essential? Which tools should be used? Whose stories must be told?

Our place is Cambodia’s forgotten coast, the wild country between the Thai border and the booming tourist town of Sihanoukville. Our goal is to explore, to turn over rocks, to listen to both people and the sound of waves and to fashion a document showing what we find, so that ten, twenty and one hundred years from now, when the forgotten coast has shifted and changed, there will be a record of what once was there, a sculpted collection of memories in a handful of photos and a few thousand words.

That the forgotten coast we describe will be different from the place experienced by others is inevitable. Perhaps some will look at our portrayal and find it impossible to recognize. We will try to tell the truth, but it can only be one truth among many, colored and constrained by our perceptions and limitations. A feverish man, out of fresh water and trying to decide if oozing red spots mean malaria or dengue fever, might justifiably dream of escaping the hellish beach where he is camped, while across the cove his companion spreads his arms and shouts that he has discovered paradise. We will try for honesty, not objectivity.

We call the coast forgotten, but this is not quite true. Forgotten by whom? Cambodians know it is there, but most have never visited. The Khmer nation, which is far older than the country called Cambodia, was born from the fertile floodplains of the Mekong River. These plains end at the foot of impassable mountains in Southwestern Cambodia. These mountains are borderlands, a refuge for thieves and exiles. Even today, the dark jungle is feral and untamed, newly scarred by logging, but still more hospitable to tigers and crocodiles than men. On the far side of this wilderness is the forgotten coast, where no roads lead.

In planning this expedition, we knew that the coast was about to change, that the outside world would take notice before long. That this would happen in the context of tourism seemed obvious. Tourism is the lifeblood of Cambodia, by far the biggest source of cash. In high season, dozens of Westerners pass by the coast on the fast boat to Thailand; surely some will remember what they see and contrive to return. Development could not be far away.

But as we prepare to set out, testing the water filter, getting the last prick of rabies vaccine and double wrapping cameras in plastic bags, the forgotten coast is improbably in the news. Headlines fill papers from Bangkok to Beijing, men in suits pore over reports in Houston and Cambodian politicians open briefcases filled with crisp, new hundred dollar bills. Beaches are the furthest thing from anyone’s mind.

Billions. Trillions. Gallons. Barrels. The numbers are meaningless. The only word that matters is OIL. Massive oil and gas deposits. With the adrenaline rush of an addict, the fitful attention of men and markets has focused on the forgotten coast. The race is on.

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