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From Cambodia to Kathmandu . . .

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From Cambodia to Kathmandu . . .

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Dear Client,

     Apologies for any inconvenience or order delays between March 25th and April 11th 2000, when I was away from the office. This trip took me to 2 very interesting countries not previously visited - Nepal and Cambodia.

     First up the 8 hour flight to Bangkok Thailand, and then a fairly good connection right through to PHNOM PENH the capital of Cambodia. Have always wanted to visit this fascinating country but in the past my travel agents have simply considered it far too dangerous. Attacks on tourists are now reasonably unlikely. However, even today some 350 people a month DIE there from landmine explosions, and obviously hundreds more lose limbs. Cambodia was THE most heavily land mined country on earth. You really are conscious about straying off marked walking paths whilst there.

     Phnom Penh is a rather ramshackle, run down city, sited on the Mekong River. The Cambodian people look very much like the bordering Laotians, and all seem very serene and peaceful. This makes the Pol Pot 'Khymer Rouge' era of terror ever harder to comprehend. Some 2 million of the 6-7 million Cambodian population were exterminated in this insane killing frenzy, from the mid to late 1970s. An agrarian based 'ideal society' concept gone mad. Despite this genocide, the world looked on, and in fact Pol Pot received much aid from the USA in particular during his reign of terror. The official thinking was apparently that he was preferable to those "nasty commies" in neighboring Vietnam. Nazi War Crimes trials are STILL being conducted, 60 years since the start of WW2, but Pol Pot was left quite alone by the world, so sometimes one really does wonder about our priorities.

     Whilst in Phnom Penh I visited the high school at Tuol Sleng that was a torture and detainment centre. It contains very chilling photographs and actual implements used. Out in the countryside at the KILLING FIELDS many mass graves were found after the Pol Pot era ended. Bullets were scarce and expensive so those murdered there met their end in ways not polite to outline here. A large, tall, glass sided memorial stupa (paid for by the Russians) in the centre of the Killing Fields houses some 8,000 skulls found in nearby fields, neatly arranged by size, sex, and age. Very chilling stuff.

     An internal flight then to Siam Reap, the gateway to the fabulous Khymer civilisation temples in the Angkor Wat vicinity - the largest area of religious structures existing on earth. I've been fortunate to have visited most of the key centres of ancient cultures on earth. From the marvels of the Egyptians, the Nattabean rock city of Petra in Jordan, Byzantine and Crusader forts, to all the major Incan, Mayan and Aztec ruins in the Americas, the great sites in Israel, and of course all manner of Roman and Greek legacies. The entombed Terra Cotta Warriors at Xian China and many famous ancient capitals and legendary cities etc.

     In my opinion the scale and detail of the 900 year old work of the Khymer civilisation tops them all. The sheer quantity and skill of work has to be seen to be believed. The much photographed Angkor Wat temple itself has as much stone in it as the giant Cheops pyramid at Giza. However unlike the pyramids, which are, and were always externally unadorned, nearly every square inch of the Angkor Wat stonework is carved. High walls 100s of feet long covered with superbly executed 3D bas relief scenes - very complex work, on a vast scale. Most of the temples in the area were overgrown by jungle until quite recent times. The sizes are huge the nearby Angkor Thom complex I visited is for instance 7 times larger than the better known Angkor Wat.

     I wish I could invest in land around this Angkor Wat area - it could be THE boom tourist site of this century, now the country is a lot safer to visit. In February 1999 only 3000 foreign visitors arrived there. By February 2000 it was up to 18,000 - you do the Maths! A figure of 50,000+ by next year would not surprise me. Maybe double that. What a place to own a hotel! Cambodia is cheap to visit. When I visited it was about 4,000 Rials = $US1, and yet 100R notes are widely used. Thai Airways sells tickets from Australia to Phnom Penh (or Burma/Vietnam/Laos) for as low as $A900 round trip, with a free Bangkok hotel night, so the cost of visiting Cambodia is hardly an issue. Go see it NOW before Pizza Huts, Macdonald's and Sheratons dot the landscape!

     Then, subjected once more to the totally chaotic cancelled/delayed and confused Royal Air Cambodge 'schedules' and red tape, and back for more time in Phnom Penh, and onwards then to the relative 'civilisation' of Bangkok where the big Asian stamp exhibition was being held. Next day, the 3½ hour flight to KATHMANDU - capital of Nepal.

     Kathmandu, despite the romantic and evocative name is hot, chaotic, humid and dusty - not unlike any larger Indian city. I had imagined it to be rather chilly there, but not so, as it is not too elevated at 1300 metres above sea level, and it never snows. Indeed if you look on a map Kathmandu is closer to the equator than Miami, Casablanca, Cairo or Johannesburg, or indeed hot Ozzie cities like Perth or Brisbane! If you or someone you know is ever flying in make sure you book seats on the RIGHT side of the plane - spectacular 'eyeball level' views of the snow capped Himalayas greet you for a LONG time. Quite a memory.

     Kathmandu may have been a charming, romantic, medieval town when the 1960s/70s western Hippie crowds 'discovered' it, but that is an ancient memory now. Indeed, until only 50 years ago almost no westerners had ever visited the country of Nepal. The population of Kathmandu and surrounding areas is now about 750,000, or double that of a decade ago. All 750,000 seem to be on the road at all times, in dilapidated trucks, buses, bikes, carts, and other weird contraptions, all making non-stop racket and DUST. The dust covers everything and gives many visitors (me included!) the "snuffles" for weeks afterwards. The population of tiny Nepal is way more than Australia at about 25 million, amazing when one considers how little habitable land exists there. A visit to nearby Bhaktapur provides more of a glimpse of how Kathmandu apparently once looked. A very relaxing place by comparison, with wonderful centuries old wooden buildings everywhere, and is MUCH less frenetic.

     Later a flight to POKHARA located in the centre of Nepal via Buddha Airways (I kid you not - and there is also a Yeti Airlines!) The entire flight has the Himalayas at 'eye level' from the RH side - stunning. Pokhara is a lovely escape from the madness and chaos of Kathmandu. Far smaller, greener, cooler, and with most hotels set around a beautiful central lake. From here you look directly at the snow capped Annapurna range, which are in turn perfectly reflected in the lake. A lovely place - this is the sort of Nepal I think we all mentally picture - until a few decades ago this town had never seen a tourist.

     I dragged the body up one morning way before dawn to journey to the top of a nearby peak SARANGKOT to view the sun rising over the mighty Annapurna range - very surreal and peaceful. From Pokhara a 3 hour vehicle ride over the bumpy roads to the fabled Royal Chitwan National Park situated on the lowland or terai of Nepal. This area has only 6 lodges inside the park proper including the famous "Tiger Tops". I stayed at 'Gaida' - 'Rhino' in Nepalese. Alas, there are few tigers present today - estimated to number only 80 in all Nepal. Their glorious sporting Majesties, King George V and his son (KEVIII) shot 39 Bengal tigers and 18 rhinos in ONE safari in 1911 alone. That is obscene and wilful slaughter in my view. The rhino has recovered far better - about 500 now survive, and I was lucky enough to see about ten of these in the wild, and all at very close quarters.

     The Asian Rhino is larger than the African black rhino, and unlike the African version, they have amazing outer skins like welded plates of steel as outer armour - very prehistoric looking beasts. To locate the rhinos you mount a platform atop an elephant and majestically lurch through jungle, over rivers, and high grass Savannah for hours. The rhino have no fear of the elephant and allow them within 5 metres or so, where they both then happily graze on the lush grasses. Stunning photos ensue from the safety of the elephant back! A wonderful experience that does not harm or threaten either giant - indeed it ensures each other's survival. 'Shoot photos, not bullets' - idle British Royals (and other trophy hunters) please take NOTE!

     From the candle lit jungle camp at Chitwan next morning it was into a long hand hewn dugout canoe for a few hours down the Rapti River, and then an hour's hike to a tented jungle camp. I saw LOTS of large crocodiles metres away on this hike, basking in the sun. Monkeys, wild pigs, and loads of birds. Marijuana grows wild in Nepal. There was LOTS of it around this camp, big bushes in fact, and some of the very small group of tourist guests at the tented camp caroused until 2am by a roaring log fire, enjoying these free and unexpected 'fruits of the forest'. Not me of course, I went to sleep early.

     More elephant back safaris, and a visit to a native village and then bid the jungle camp farewell, and off on another 4 hour drive on medieval roads to the Everest Panorama Resort. The name really says it all. This place was built 10 years ago half way down a vertical cliff. It is located 1000 feet higher than the peak of Mt. Koskiusco, Australia's tallest 'mountain'! The guest rooms of EPR have balconies that look right out at mountains. This balcony view takes in EIGHT peaks of more than 8000 metres, from Annapurna #1 at one side to Mt. Everest at the other. One looks in fact at 8 of the 10 highest peaks on earth (the other 2 are in Pakistan). This Daman region is supposed to be the only place that all 8 peaks can be seen from the one point. I went for a 2 hour walk one morning to a remote Buddhist monastery, via basically steep goat tracks across the cliff face. At this altitude walking up 10 or 15 steps takes your breath away. The "locals" almost jog up these same tracks, bent over double with 50kg of firewood on their tiny backs. Often it is a 20kg round trip each day to collect wood and water along these goat tracks - mostly the women.

     April 8th marked the largest national strike ever called in Nepal. Initiated by the Maoists (communists) they threatened violent armed response to anyone who used ANY vehicular transport anywhere in Nepal. Cars, buses, taxis, cyclos, tuk tuks, even bicycles were banned. They meant it, and the country basically stopped. Nine police were killed and dozens injured. If you unluckily flew in on April 8th you WALKED the long, hot dusty road to your hotel, dragging your cases. Some arrival welcome!

     Democracy is a new concept in Nepal, commencing only in 1990. The government in those 10 years has changed many times, basically annually. All kinds of oddball alliances and coalitions get formed, then disintegrate. The roads still remain in terrible shape, and a decent wage is $US1 a day, so there is a LONG way to go. The GDP is officially $US210 pa, making Nepal one of the poorest countries on earth, and literacy rate is only 25% or so. Back in Kathmandu, and to the chaotic airport, and sadly, like everywhere else these days, needed to fork out a month's wages of a local to pay the ever escalating 'departure tax/airport facility fee/admin change etc' rip-off, and waved Goodbye and headed to Bangkok. In Thailand they demand about $A25 but take it ONLY in Baht, so you need to waste 10 minutes changing hard currency (at poor rates!) at some bank, into Baht, just to leave the country after a few hour stopover even. Some of my holidays now cost more in these 'fees' than the actual airfare!

     Bangkok must be the hottest capital on earth - no matter WHAT month of year I've visited, or time of day you arrive, it is seemingly 100º temperature and 100% humidity! I always stay in the Sukhumvit area. Lots of nice tourist goodies - leather shoes are $A30 a pair, and a decent hotel room the same price. Food is incredibly cheap, very fresh and safe, especially if you like it HOT, which luckily I do! One place I'd never visited before in central Bangkok is the Royal Palace area, in the downtown River area. Superb buildings in that unique and beautiful Thai traditional style, probably the worlds most immediately distinctive national architecture. Back home to Sydney to be greeted by the usual mountain of mail, faxes, phone messages, and 100s of emails, so apologies for any delay in responding during this period. Certainly is nice to be able to clean your teeth or take a tablet and not need to do it with mineral water - no sane person would dream of drinking tap water where I've been!

     A lot of clients have asked me about the situation with the "Australasian Stamps" magazine. I resigned as a director just before I flew out. I've cancelled all advertising, and my 'Market Matters' columns as well. Many other dealers and previous columnists have also cancelled their support it seems clear by looking at the last magazine. I still hold shares in the magazine, and am very concerned at the potential value of them given recent events. All I know is that some $50,000 appears to have been incurred in legal bills involving a bitter Supreme Court battle over control of the magazine - a very large slab of this sum was paid personally by myself. The majority of the individual shareholders are stamp industry people and include Max Stern, Ernest Weiner, John Mowbray, Alan Pitt, Gary Wanstall, Rex Knight, and you may find their own views interesting if you are speaking to them.

     I wish to advise that I was the Executive Editor of the ‘February’ magazine, which came out as usual, on time, with the normal columnists, advertisers, and format, but stress I have NOT been involved in it since then. If you do not like it, there are others to voice your opinions to - I am NOT responsible! In the meantime, if you want to receive my usual two pages of ads, simply E-mail me, look them up on my very successful Web site, or send me a handful of SAE’s and I’ll post them to you!! They will NEVER appear in ‘Australasian Stamps’ whilst the current directors remain. Many collectors know of the new directors, Judy and Eric Dixon, from their ‘Stampfinder’ inner cover ads. I discovered only in late 1999 that Eric had been an insolvent person under administration, Bankruptcy Act, Part X between 1992-96, and that is when the trouble started. GLEN



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