Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Pym: The Road to Angkor

Christopher Pym (1959) The Road to Angkor Robert Hale, London; 185 pp.

Christopher Pym was a descendant of Francis Pym, the Whig politician of the early 1800s. The family had a long association with Trinity College, Cambridge, where Christopher was educated and where his father had been chaplain. His mother was a fellow of Girton College at the same university. During World War II, Christopher Pym served in south-east Asia and subsequently worked for British intelligence in Cambodia, becoming proficient in Khmer. This book is one of two personal accounts of life in Indochina, the other being Mistapim in Cambodia (1960).

In the 1960s, Pym became increasingly interested in politics and stood for election as an independent both for the House of Commons and for various county councils. He published two political tracts, Towards the Independent Member of Parliament (1963) and The £150 Deposit in Parliamentary Elections (1964). It was the £150 deposit issue that got him into trouble in 1965. He was convicted of collecting money in Cambridge to pay for his electoral deposit. He had managed to gather £1.7s.6d before being arrested by the police, and was fined £1. There is no record of whether he got to keep the change.

In the second half of the sixties, he returned to his interest in south-east Asia, but from a more academic bent. He edited an edition of Henri Mouhot’s diaries (Mouhot, a French explorer, is credited with re-discovering Angkor Wat in the mid-19th century) and published The Ancient Civilization of Angkor in 1968. He finally realised his dream of election and for many years served as a councillor in Milton Keynes. Committed to public life, a strong advocate of independent members of parliament, and an adventurer with a true affection for Cambodia, Pym was a man of diverse interests and talents in a world that increasingly glorified the specialist.

The Road to Angkor describes a remarkable journey on foot from Quy Nhơn in south central Vietnam to the ruins of Angkor Wat in north-west Cambodia. Pym was seeking traces of an ancient road that linked Angkor, the medieval Khmer capital, with the capital of the Champa kingdom in what is now central and southern Vietnam. Chams, modern descendants of this empire, are scattered over central and southern Vietnam, as well as eastern and southern Cambodia. Today they are mainly Muslim, but at the height of the Champa empire, the civilisation was part of ‘Indianised’ south-east Asia. The old Cham script, like Khmer, derived from a southern Indian writing system but has largely fallen into disuse. Yet many customs remain that echo a pre-Muslim past. Relations between Angkor and Champa were variable, and sometimes they were at war, but both shared a common Hindu-derived elite culture.

Pym had two other, lesser, objectives on his journey. He wanted to follow up on the discovery of Neolithic stone tools in the central highlands of Vietnam, hoping for evidence of a wider stone age culture there. And he wanted to visit a village in the highlands where people were descended from a leader named Pim, something that he had read in 19th century French travel stories and which had captured his fancy.

He began his journey just outside Quy Nhơn, the capital of Bình Định province and now a popular seaside resort for Vietnamese families. The town these days has a Cham museum with artefacts that would be very familiar to visitors from Thailand, Myanmar or the wider Hindu world. However, Pym makes no mention of Tây Sơn district just west of the town, where there are clusters of old Cham towers and which must have been a major centre for religious worship. Instead, he sets off from a village to the north which he calculates was the ancient Champa capital.

His initial challenge is the steep but spectacular road that runs up to the highlands from Bình Định. Today it is a good sealed road with stunning views over the coastal plain and the sea, but for Pym it was an arduous climb on a road that had badly deteriorated from years of war against French colonialism. He encounters Banar villagers and eventually finds the ancestral home of Pim, though realises he is dealing with a clan that is now divided along political lines as  a result of Vietnam’s internal and colonial conflicts.

His travels through Pleiku and further west run transverse to the journey from the south across these highlands taken by travel writer Norman Lewis and described in A Dragon Apparent (1951). Reading both accounts shows how dramatic the changes have been in this region over the past sixty-odd years. Pym’s search for Neolithic tools met with little success and his attempt to cross the border was discouraged by various Vietnamese officials. But with courage and tenacity he made a difficult journey and finally entered Cambodian territory. From the north-east of Cambodia, where hill tribes and Lao groups mingled with Chinese and Khmers, the journey took him eventually to Angkor Wat. Except for the area close to the temple, he found no evidence of sala or rest houses along the way that would confirm his route was the ancient road between Angkor and Champa.

Christopher Pym was not a great travel writer, and certainly not in the league of Norman Lewis, but he describes his journey well. His travels were astonishing given that they were all done on foot and at some cost to his personal safety and health. He also conveys snapshots of people and ways of life that are long gone, and evinces a true fondness for Cambodia and the Khmers.

This book has long been out of print, though some people in Cambodia have been lobbying a local company to re-publish it. Copies are still available from specialist and antiquarian booksellers, and there is an edition in the library of the Royal University of Phnom Penh in Cambodia. For those interested in Cambodia and the region, it is a minor treasure that deserves not to be forgotten.

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