Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Death by Chocolate

It is a truth universally acknowledged that any one setting foot in the musical capital of the universe must at some point eat a slice of Sacher Torte at the Sacher Hotel Café.  So universally acknowledged is it, in fact, that 360,000 Sacher Tortes are sold each year by this hotel (so boasts their little blurb) making it a national industry almost on the level of, say, the marijuana industry in California.  

Thus it was that after making several agreements with our party to meet at the Café, none of which were kept, some of us did end up straggling down to the coffee house opposite the opera where we ordered "original" Sacher Torten and "big brown" coffees.  Taking pictures frantically, of course, like the oriental tourists we so clearly are.

The Sacher Torte in the Sacher Hotel has some kind of "secret recipe".  I don't want to seem sacrilegious, but the "fake" recipe serve by Bangkok's Oriental Hotel did not seem to pale by comparison.  Indeed, it might even have seemed a bit better to some.  There is a citrusy tang to the real Sacher Torte which to me is the main distinguishing feature.   And of course the enormous piles of whipped cream, which the Oriental Hotel does not serve up with their version of this cake.

We spent the day mostly failing to be tracked down by the paparazzi who had come to Vienna with us on the assignment of make a photo record of Somtow's musical journey in Central Europe....

I forgot to mention rifling through the piles of used music at Doblinger, where I managed to find vocal scores in perfect condition of operas I've been looking for for a while, like Pfitzner's Palestrina and Gottfried von Einem's Dantons Tod as well as those gigantic old Fürstner editions of Strauss operas which I remember from my youth.  I  managed to spend about 800 Euros on music in a couple of visits, including some gifts like a vocal score of the Hummel B flat major mass (for Trisdee) and the Stravinsky violin concerto for Jay.  A nice new copy of the study score of Lulu and a new critical edition of Mahler 2 and a pile of mediaeval music thrown in as well.  This is a picture of the first batch of music I bought but I went back and picked up the Fürstner Strauss vocal scores and some Haydn masses.   It seems clear now that I will have to mail all the music back because it weighs a ton. 

This afternoon Martin and Nikolai, friends of Trisdee and myself from the Haydn-Quartett, met us for coffee and Martin wisked Top off for a quick violin pep talk.  Then we set off for the Staatsoper where there was going to be a well-reviewed production of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra....

Monday, May 30, 2011

Opera mit Schlag

... well my memory misserved me again, and of course the Volksoper wasn't where the Magic Flute was first performed ... I think that theatre is long gone. In fact, according to Wikipedia, it only existed for 14 years, yet was the site of the premieres of something like 300 works.

Still, seeing The Magic Flute in an ancient theatre is a thrill; the performance sits squarely in the middle of Magic Flutes I've seen throughout my life, from wonderful ones in Glyndebourne and the Met (the Chagall designed one where I saw Anna Moffo sing 40-odd years ago) to a really weird one in Hanoi.  Stylistically the orchestra is very up-to-date (if still middle-of-the-road compared to "authentic" period orchestras); the singing is uniformly acceptable and there are some striking moments: "Tamino mein, oh welch' ein Glück" in the second act, for instance.  The production is slick and unexciting.  I found myself missing our own eccentric Bangkok version with the three boys in a tuk-tuk and a festive Chinese dragon made of garbage.  For me, this is an opera that is always moving no matter what the production is, because you hear, in the background, a mélange of every other Flute you have ever experienced and deeper down still you hear a sort of idealised, perfect Flute that has probably never been.  I once saw a production of The Magic Flute with Guildhall students in Britain, in English, that ranks among the most moving events in my life, though technically it was less than perfect.

Times have changed: the Volkstheater audience accidentally applauded in the middle of the overture (would that have happened 30 years ago?) ... there is a Tibetan restaurant just outside the theater which I desperately wanted to sample, but alas no one in the party was interested.

So, after Zauberflöte what then?  Sunday.  In Central Europe, of course, everything is closed on Sunday ... and I mean everything.  But we caught many interesting snippets of life in Vienna.  For instance, dropping by the bit of church land where Mozart lodged briefly (and where we'd seen a somewhat hideous concert the previous night) we caught a church service in full swing.  I noticed on the wall of the front courtyard for the first time a plaque memorializing the German-speaking people kicked out of Brno (now in the Czech Republic) after the second world war.  (It made me think of Thailand and Cambodia, but that is perhaps for a different blog.)

Later in the day we ran into Anders Nyqvist, a prominent trumpet player here who plays in a contemporary music ensemble, has worked with such greats as Stockhausen (and told fascinating stories about Stockhausen raving deludedly about his birthplace on Sirius) and Ligeti.  Wants to come to Thailand to play a Ligeti trumpet concerto with our orchestra.  Should be exciting and bewildering at the same time.  Had a nice drink in a parklike setting outside part of the old palace, and some delicious duck.  Earlier that day we consumed Schnitzel at a local street cafe.  It wasn't as big as my head, but there were two of them on each plate.

I also saw Mahler's death mask, and purchased a few batons at the museum of the Vienna Philharmonic.  (Famous conductors' batons were on dusplay as well ... I noted that Toscanini's had snapped.)  I needed batons badly as mine have all disappeared except for the precious one once owned by Leonard Bernstein, which I'm reluctant to use for just any old concert....

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Schnitzel and Symphony

Here I am in the city that makes and unmakes musicians.  We arrived at 5 am after a rather bumpy ride and had to wait in the hotel for ever until the rooms became available, but managed to entertain ourselves with a four hour breakfast in the hotel coffee shop.  We're staying at a modest but very conveniently located place, the Europa on the Kärntnerstraße, very close to a huge sheet music shop, the opera house, the EMI shop, and a lot of schnitzel.  And absolutely no Thai politics ... indeed, no one here has really heard of Thailand, and the people dressed as Mozart wandering around the square keep asking us if we're Koreans.

I had planned to spend the first day in bed, but the idea of seeing the VSO play Mahler 5 at the Musikverein was irresistable, so I went to the show along with the irrepressible Top and the irascible Panprapha, who is the owner of a travel TV station and the upscale magazine "Anywhere".  They're planning some kind of feature piece about me wandering through Central Europe and standing around looking at various iconic vistas of classical music.  I hope it will be more entertaining than the infamous facebook page "Kim Jong Il looks at things", but I doubt I will ever achieve so iconic a status.

So, we went to the Musikverein ... I was able to get fairly decent seats though distant, but with those wonderful acoustics it doesn't matter much where you sit.  The VSO and  Hungarian trumpeter Gabor Boldoczki played through the Hummel with a lot of elan though one had the feeling that the Mahler was weighing on them, making them unable to relax.  A Telemann opus provided as an encore was played with such astonishing rapidity that it was over before it started.  

The Mahler started off with great brilliance under Fabio Luisi, their regular conductor, and the second movement was pretty much the best live performance of that movement I've ever encountered.  But the third movement was curiously directionless and the Adagietto was very strange, as though the orchestra and the conductor had never really come to terms on a mutually acceptable tempo.  The last movement was very exciting and brought the audience to its feet.  I was a bit surprised that the tempo for the fugato-like passages near the end was so brisk that even the Wiener Symphoniker lower strings couldn't quite get away with it, but what the hell, it was thrilling.

It felt good to be at a concert where one could indeed be this picky and still have a wonderful time.  Though I have to say that things aren't what they used to be here in Vienna.  For instance, there was a Chinese family in box seats, standing to camcorder the whole event.  When other concertgoers berated them, they started chattering very loudly (in a soft part of the first movement) and when berated again, they promptly fell asleep for the duration of the concert.  I have to admit that I was a bit bewildered to see this and other examples of bad behaviour.  Times really are changing.

The next day I wanted Khun Jae, my journalist friend, to see something "touristy" so we took in a chamber concert in a subterranean vault belonging to some religious order where Mozart had once had a room, while composing Figaro, in fact.  Lovely atnosphere, a little frescoed room with an audience of about 20 people who had all paid 39 Euros to hear Mozart played in the very room where he had once walked around.   A string quartet in eighteenth-century costume played, but the costumes were as close as they managed to get to the historical Mozart.  A frumpy matron led a quartet through an assortment of divertimenti and other baubles.  Stylistically the performance was almost as atrocious as a quartet you might hear in an upscale Bangkok hotel.

Halfway through this concert, I was starting to get very irritated by the fact that the lady was flat throughout the entire thing, and I glanced down at the programme to see that she wasn't actually the leader of the quartet but the second violinist; she had changed places with the leader, who was her own son.  The violist was the dad, and the cellist someone else - an uncle?  All of them had Hungarian names.  The real leader, relegated to second fiddle, was playing with great determination, but couldn't save his family.

It was a bit horrifying to see Mozart being played in such unauthentic style right here in the heart of Mozart's kingdom ... perhaps it was simply the demonic influence of the Archbishop of Salzburg who kept Mozart in thrall and who once owned this very chamber.  Anyway, we were compelled to leave after the first half, because my grimaces at the bad intonation were probably more entertaining than the concert.  Politeness demanded that I retire, so we popped into an Italian restaurant and had a delicious dinner of veal, lamb, and other delicacies.  The waitress only spoke Italian so we were forced to converse in that language.  Perhaps it was incongruous in a German-speaking city, but in Mozart's time, Vienna was a completely cosmopolitan place and Italian was certain spoken in parts of the Empire....

During the day I sampled the joys of rummaging through stacks of second-hand music at the well known music store Doblingers, where I soon racked up a 700 Euro bill (mostly not in the second-hand section, mind you.)  It was great to pick up a critical edition of the 3-movement version of Mahler's Das klagende Lied and used vocal scores of Pfitzner and von Einem operas for our Bangkok collection.

Tonight we're all going to see The Magic Flute at the very theatre where Mozart first performed it.  That should be quite something....

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Tomorrow and Tomorrow

The Rapture has been put off till October 21, so I still have time for a few decent meals.  In hell, one eats only shit.

Tomorrow I am going to experience a scaled-down version of the rapture; I won't go to heaven, but to Austria.  I'll finally get to see a production of The Magic Flute in the very theatre where it was first performed, visit the Esterhazy Castle and so on so forth ... and I'm travelling with a gaggle of journalists who intend to follow me around as I myself follow the Mozart/Haydn/Beethoven trail.  It will be very lovely and it'll all culminate in my being one of the judges in this wonderful choral competition held every year in the Moravian town of Olomouc.

Yes, I can still be reached and I will still be running the opera from my iPhone ... so please don't panic.  Exciting things are happening!

Especially in Thailand, where I won't be!

A wild election campaign is gearing up.  And even though we have the proverbial 40 days left before casting the vote, no one is waiting that long to cast the first stone!

The signs are fascinating.  A hitherto unknown young woman is soaring in the polls ... as frequently happens when an interesting new element is suddenly thrown into a all-too-tired mix.  No one seems willing to make the prediction ... not a taxi driver, not a pundit, nary an astrologer, not even the sacred bulls.

However, I'm willing to wager that there are Machiavellian plans afoot.  The Election Commission has cleared Ms. Shinawatra to run for prime minister because, in a court case in which property was seized, the property was demonstrated not to be hers but that of her brother.  It's illegal to run for office if your property has been seized by the government — so far, so good.  The problem is that Ms. Shinawatra testified under oath that the property belonged to her.  If she told the truth, then she can't run for Prime Minister.  If she lied, however, that would be perjury and if convicted, she wouldn't be able to run either.  And if she were tried for perjury and acquitted, it would follow that she must be presumed to have told the truth, and therefore her prime ministership would automatically be invalidated.  There doesn't seem to be a middle way between these polarities.  The only way to solve this problem is, in fact, to ignore it — which is exactly what we're all doing.

Why hasn't the evil establishment filed that case right away, to get this Poster Child of Nepotism off the ballot?  I'm sure they've considered it.  I mean, what better way to rid oneself of a threat?  It worked with Samak, did it not?   Didn't GourmetGate put the present administration in power?  But it would surely look bad, and it would certainly not make for a squeaky-clean image.

I believe that if the present government thought that the election results were a done deal and that all is already lost, the criminal case would already have been filed.  It's clear therefore that they subscribe to the theory that the rise of Yingluck is a double-edged sword, and that in the end she may lose as many votes as she gains.  Indeed, amid the hype about Thailand's first female prime minister, I sense that the Democrats detect a ray of hope.  And, given the way popularity can nosedive, given the fact that forty days is an eternity in politics, they may well be right, even though the latest figures aren't promising.

It would seem to me that the perjury trial, therefore, is being set aside for the time being, to be used as a secret weapon should the gamble be a flop.  In the arsenal of possible "dirty tricks" it is at least a perfectly legal maneuver.

I'll be following the news avidly from my box seat at the Staatsoper!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Rapturous Times

I believe it's today that's been slated for the Rapture.  Of course we're in a different time zone, so it may take a while.  But one must always beware of Julius Caesar's smugness---

The Ides of March are come....
Aye, Caesar, but not gone!

If, indeed, 144,000 or so extremely righteous people have been snatched up to heaven today, who are we to second-guess God?  I mean this is such a small percentage of the world's population that we might be forgiven for not noticing.  I mean, serial killers function unseen in our neighborhoods, nabbing victims and eating their livers ... and there's nary a blip on our radar.

What if all the truly righteous people in the world could be found amongst outcasts and the homeless, the unseen people who live at the periphery of society?  After all, many of them talk to God all the time and any army of psychiatrists won't convince them otherwise.  Didn't Jesus himself point out that the last should be first?

Is it possible that our friend the big American televangelical star has predicted the Rapture correctly, but arrogantly assumed that he was one of the raptured ... when he is simply too high-profile to qualify?  Pride cometh before a fall, does it not?

God works in mysterious ways.  That is a given.  "Invisibly" certainly qualifies as a "mysterious way."  Therefore it is entirely possible that the Rapture has taken place, that the real righteous, all living in total purity and utter obscurity in various hovels, caves and abandoned subway stations, have all left already for the great homeless shelter in the sky.  The rest of the world is of course now in hell, for what is hell but the absence of God?

Anyway, I'd like to believe that it came and it went, and that no one saw, and that a hundred years from now there'll be a few clues here and there to tell us happened ... a lightning scar on a tenement wall ... a wisp of cloud still clinging to the antenna on a skyscraper ... a smear of unconsumed manna on a dingy carpet ...

Of course, the Rev Camping could be wrong, and by midnight the rapturites might well be decamping.  But I don't want to abandon the idea of a divine sleight of hand.  I mean if a hunk of bread can simultaneously be the living body of a divine being, surely a normal-looking planet can also be an apocalyptic wasteland  in its spiritual essence.

I'm starting to convince even myself....

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Scylla and Charybdis

To help my foreign friends understand what's happening in this country, I'm going translate the salient parts of these two campaign posters.  I believe that the choices of image and slogans sum up the opposing sensibilities quite well.

... go further forward with policies for the people
... convenient transportation
- 12 mass transit lines - high speed trains - quality buses, free for the handicapped, students, and seniors - uniform ticketing for trains, buses and boats

... I am ready to serve my brothers and sisters of the people

... a man riding a great big engine into the future.  No enigma here.

... a woman.  Your sister, your cousin.  The expression is ambiguous: smiling but a little smug.

The blue poster is about precise targeting, clear promises and detailed programmes.  The red poster is about sibling relationships and sentiment.

There's a clear attempt to grab the populism agenda on both sides, and simultaneously a completely different approach to how to "do" populism.  The blue poster is about concrete things; the red one is about emotion alone.

Which direction are the two candidates looking in?  Although "right" is used in political parlance to symbolize conservatism, you will notice that Abhisit's body is turned to the left.  Yingluck's body language is leaning towards the right, but like Abihsit, she turns to face us, her potential voters.  I suspect that the directions that their bodies face hide a subtext.  In Abhisit's case it may be something like "You say I'm an elitist, but I'm more left than you think."  Yingluck's body, on the other hand, leans towards the right wing, as though populism could be a shield for autocracy - the very problem of which her brother has been accused.

Apart from their political connotations, left and right also have other meanings.  In graphology, for instance, a leftward slope tends to suggest a pull to the past, and right slant the future.  The arrow at the top of Abhisit's poster points rightward and the words speak of the future ... yet Abhisit stands in the other direction.  Could it be that they didn't have a trained image consultant who would immediately see that there might be a conflicting signal there?

Like the man himself, Abhisit's poster is thick with facts and figures to bolster his message.  Yingluck's is a Rorschach blot - you can see anything you want in it.  To appreciate Abhisit's poster, you must be able to read.  I believe that an illiterate person would, however, be able to get something out of Yingluck's.

Which approach will win?

One tends to think that vague and emotionally-charged slogans tend to carry the day, but to think that is often to underestimate people's intelligence.  So I suppose we shall simply have to see.

Bluebeard's Castle

In my novel Bluebeard's Castle, first serialized in The Nation 1990s, I satirized Bangkok in 90s and L.A. in the 90s.  One of the pivotal events in the novel is a production of Bartok's opera Bluebeard's Castle in Bangkok that features a chorus of reformed prostitutes directed by a high-society lady who turns out to be an insane serial killer.  As there is no chorus in the opera, they have to go through some convoluted staging to have the young ladies of the night appear.

Later I decided that the title was a little too on the nose and the book has been reissued as The Other City of Angels.  Indeed, while I'm in a huckstering mood I might as well add the link to purchase this book ... http://www.amazon.com/Other-City-Angels-S-Somtow/dp/0980014905/  Try it!  Who knows?  You too may want to grow up to be a transvestite serial killer.

Joking aside, we all felt that to get a Thai orchestra to play this incredible music, nothing like they had ever encountered, was an absolute thrill.  Despite the almost insurmountable obstacle of trying to get the acoustics of the newly refurbished National Theatre to work (in the end we had to mike the singers) the audience was mostly unaware of the pain we'd gone through.

I thought I would share the opera with you ... the whole thing, without any of the mistakes edited out ... because it was just such an experience for everyone and I wish more people could have been there and that we could have done more than one performance.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Why My Mother Ought to be PM

Madonna and Child Image of my dear Mama from about the year  1953
Now that the opposition has officially fielded Ms Shinawatra as its prime ministerial candidate, many of my friends have turned off the radar, assuming that this is a miscalculation of Sarah Palin-like proportions and that the election is more or less a joke from this point onward.  To dismiss this out of hand, however, would be a serious underestimation, and could be right up there with some people's underestimation of Cambodia.

It is true that on the one hand you have a highly educated, savvy politician with an articulate manner, high intelligence, and proven ability to navigate extremely Machiavellian waters, and on the other hand you have a young woman whose political track record is unknowable and who, by virtue of her relationship to the tainted ex-premier is bound to alienate half the community.

But to go from these statements to assuming that the election is already over is to ignore the tremendous power of sentiment.  Sentiment, not logic, is going to sway the balance in July.  And the idea of the first woman prime minister, the "breath of fresh air", is a powerful PR tool, not to mention the image of the little sister of the wronged, wounded Titan rushing to the rescue.  One may consider whether the current government has not moved further towards implementing the spirit of Thaksin's reform rhetoric than Thaksin's own government did, or other such arguable issues ... but will such finely tuned arguments hold up against the soap opera?  It is hard to say.

Personally I would love to see a woman in the position of P.M.  However, I don't imagine the current candidate would be my first choice.  After all, number one on my personal priority list would be the building of a proper opera house.

Therefore, I would like to suggest that my mother be nominated.

My dear mama has a more substantial history of being pitted against the current government than Ms Shinawatra.  After all, there is now a daily cartoon in Thai Rath which uses her TV show and its social climbing starlet to lampoon the government.   Her work has been the subject of a censorship debate.  My mother has had experience in the diplomatic corps - her husband was ambassador in a number of significant territories, and everyone knows that it's actually the ambassador's wife who does all the real work.  She's also produced a low-budget Hollywood movie, so she knows how to squeeze the most out of creative people.  She's translated my books into Thai, and therefore it's clear that she can deal with the intricacies of language.  She has an air of authority, a to-the-manor-born way about her, and is feared by all, from housemaids to cabinet ministers.  She calls privy counsellors by their nicknames.  I think this country would probably do a lot worse than to have her in the driver's seat.

And we'd have a proper opera house, too.


I can't access my own blog on this server, although other blogs on the same account, such as thedragonstones blog which advertises my forthcoming novel, are intact.

I can't imagine I have said anything worth censoring, so maybe it is just some weird glitch.

Could this be the long arm of Ms. Shinawatra, already exercising itself before the election has even been called?   Or someone in some ministry who has mistranslated something I said?   Or just a random glitch?

It seems I can write, but can it post?  And if posted, can anyone read it?

Paranoia reigns supreme this morning....

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Elections and Bulls

We have recently had the sacred ploughing ceremony, in which sacred white bulls predict the annual harvest by choosing between different concoctions of grain.

It's a lovely ceremony, though I doubt whether the cost of rice futures is much influenced by the bulls' predictions.

I wonder whether they could be trained, instead, to predict the result of an election?  The paper today says there are four real possible outcomes: a big win for the current government, a big win for the opposition, or a squeaker which will throw the balance of power to the little parties who will then tilt the balance either towards, or away from, the current batch of people.  The four possible results come with various levels of predicted protests by redshirts, yellowshirts, and the like.

The traditional barometer of Thai politics is the taxi driver, but I've not taken one in a month or so because I do have a driver.  I asked him who would win the election.  He is, after all, far more capable of an informed opinion than a bull, however sacred.  He said, "Oh, it's obvious.  No one will win, and everyone will be unhappy with the result."

My housekeeper, Pa Daeng, who I praised as a hero of the proletariat last year for making up her own mind and going off to a political rally, recently, while I was away for the weekend, sold the set of La Boheme to a scrap metal merchant and skipped town with a couple of my microwaves and an electric fan.  I am probably the only opera intendant in history to whom this has happened — I mean having an opera set sold off for scrap metal by his housekeeper — though I probably won't list it among the "hstory-making" achievements in my resume.

When the dragon's neck was delivered to Beirut instead of Bayreuth, I believe that Wagner made do with a neckless dragon.  I've had to make do with a messy house, slightly less inconvenient than a neckless dragon in the scheme of things.  Luckily, the set of La Boheme doesn't need to be used in some time so there's time to find an alternative.  Perhaps the next production of La Boheme will be set in one of the sets that we still have.  Bluebeard's Castle, for instance.  It would certainly be interesting to set La Boheme in Dracula's hangout, which that set was designed to imitate.

With the venerable Post and my driver both hedging their bets, it's tough for me to make any sort of prediction myself.  One can always hope, however, that all these politicians will grow up and start looking at the big picture.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

What's in a Map?

Several of my friends overseas have asked me to "explain Cambodia."  As if she could be explained in the space of a couple of hundred words.  But certainly there is a lot of propaganda, prejudice, and preconception going on about an argument that appears to be about a relatively insignificant chunk of territory located on the very edge of a cliff upon which an arbitrary border appears to fall.

So what follows is a highly oversimplified overview for the benefit of those friends of mine abroad who have been sending me frantic emails.  They seem to think that there's something going on here akin to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

The only real expert on this subject is my dad, the only surviving member of a legal team that represented Thailand before the International Court almost half a century ago.  He's been on TV quite a lot lately, analysing the niceties of the legal situation at length.  My dear mama has also jumped into the fray, publishing a book that also "explains all" of the legalistic morass in layman's terms.  An interesting adjunct to the confusion is that Thailand's Prime Minister has publicly stated that my father agrees completely with his own position on the issue ... a declaration with which my father has taken issue.

My mother's book is being launched on Thursday, but every indication is that it will sell out before the launch and have to go back to press.  Bravo to her!

Almost all of this discussion has been in Thai, whereas Cambodia has been first out of the gate on the international front; I think that certain prejudicial attitudes in Thai society towards Cambodia and Cambodians in general may have caused Thailand to underestimate the impact of Cambodia's PR skills.  Something I hear a lot is "But surely those farangs realize that Cambodians always lie."  This sort of bias isn't, in the end, very helpful to one's own case.

I think that to understand this conflict one must appreciate that the little bit of land under dispute is not the main issue and in a sense, isn't even the issue at all.  There are in fact centuries of angst underlying all this and there is really nothing that can be done about the piece of land that will really assuage the underlying angst.  I think we have to step back and consider much more fundamental issues such as: What is a country?  What is an ethnic identity?  What is a culture? and we cannot ignore the biggest elephant in the room: colonialism —  France and Britain, and the damage inflicted on the Southeast Asian peoples in terms of their sense of who they are, who they think they are, and who they think they ought to become.

For much of the last 800 years or so, the history of Southeast Asia has been one of a group of city-states, each trying to expand its hegemony over as many other city-states as possible. At different times, different city-states were in the ascendancy.  Control of what is now Cambodia was, during the nineteenth century, hotly argued over by Siam and Vietnam ... But the notion of there being "countries" in the region, each one consisting largely of a homogenous people sharing a culture and language, would have been an alien idea in those times. Even in Europe, this idea is not terribly old.

King Rama IV had studied Britain and France very thoroughly, and he understood that for Siam to be able to hold its own, it too must be a "country" in the sense that Britain and France conceived the word.  Britain and France had "empires", and it therefore followed that there was a "Siamese Empire" as well, one that encompassed many ethnic groups and many cultures.  The very idea of Siam, therefore, was forged in the image of a western nation, and the fact that this idea of "a nation" existed made it much more difficult for Britain and France to simply draw a line through the middle of Siam and split it in two.

They could, however, and did, come charging in with their big guns and demand territorial concessions ... pieces of this "empire" ... because, as a junior "empire" in its own right, Siam presumably had possessions and could hand them over in order to protect its own sovereignty and integrity as a nation.  Around 1906, it did hand over some territories to France and Britain.  Essentially, at gunpoint.

One of those possessions was a very large chunk of what is now Cambodia, including such important locations as Angkor Wat.  The French attached a map delineating the new border, which, through incompetent surveying, did not agree with the actual text of its treaty.  The treaty clearly stated that the waterline was the new border; on the map, a slip of the pen sliced off the edge of one particular cliff, stranding the temple in Cambodia.  But Siam signed.  When your survival is at issue, you do what you have to do.

Now, during the Second World War, the Japanese occupied Southeast Asia and Siam did what most countries do when threatened by superior force of arms: it collaborated.  As a reward, its borders were miraculously restored to pre-1906.  So during the war, those territories were in Siam again.  Indeed, as a child I knew a number of people who had grown up in what is now Cambodia, who never felt that the places they lived in were anything other than Thai.  After the war, the territories were not returned to the people of those territories ... they were returned to their colonial owners.  Thus, Angkor Wat was now in France again.   When independence came, France and Britain did not return any territories to Siam.  These territories were nowimagined to be "countries" in the western sense, and as such, they were born as countries for the first time.  But their borders were not based on any logic of culture or ethnicity — purely on the boundaries of whatever Britain and France had been able to steal before.

The little temple on the cliff's edge is therefore a symbol.  It stands for everything that the people of the region have suffered not only at the hands of colonial powers but also at each other's hands.  As a symbol, it's much more than a patch of dirt with an ancient building on it.

The International Court's ruling was an extremely narrow one, pleasing no one and heavily favoring the colonial status quo.   Thailand was excoriated for not objecting to the map in the first place, though how one can object with a bunch of cannon pointed at one I do not know.  The little ledge was to be part of Cambodia, but at the same time the court refused to rule on the validity of the map even though the map clearly disagreed with the treaty, and the court also allowed for all sorts of loopholes for future rulings should "further facts come to light".

Why does Cambodia care so much about this ledge?  Because the temple is built in an architectural style, and belongs to a historical epoch, in which the Khmer culture held sway over a far greater territory than today's Cambodia.  In that sense, it is a "Khmer temple" they say, and Cambodia is the land of the Khmers.   By the same token of course you could say that Hadrian's Wall is a Roman artifact, and therefore England should be in Italy.

And why does Thailand care so much?  Is it not the same reason that England clung to Calais for centuries?  So much territory has been swallowed up ... this little piece, so tantalizingly accessible (and so difficult to access from the Cambodian side) has come to stand for the entire loss.  It is bitterness and anger over having had so much snatched away at gunpoint.  Getting this little piece of land would seem to finally close up the gaping wound left by France.

In both cases, the final issue is not the land, but face.  As long as these feelings run so deep, and as long as we don't even bother to acknowledge the ancient causes of this quarrel, it will never really matter who actually possesses that ledge.  Only the resentment will matter.   None of the usual solutions: political, legal, or military, can really satisfy everyone.

I can imagine a solution.  It's an artist's vision of a way out, therefore, and probably could never happen, but I propose it anyway.   It is to do away completely with all borders within the region.  There are some who would read the above solution as simply an underhanded way to restore the Siamese Empire to its former size and beyond, but really the concept of "empire" is a bit passé by now, isn't it?

Rather, I mean it would be nice to have a Greater Southeast Asia in which the various regions retain their identity and culture, but citizens travel freely and governments work jointly to preserve all historical sites no matter which region they're located in.  In which people acknowledge that the past is a shared past.  In time, people should no longer care what country things are in, and begin to think regionally ... and, eventually, globally.

No doubt we will have all destroyed ourselves before the advent of such a utopia.