Tuesday, 28 January 2014

A rose by any other name

I'm on a Thai train. I think I know where it goes.

But the announcement doesn't help. Krung Thep. Where the hell is that?

It turns out to be Bangkok. Only we call it Bangkok, and the Thais call it Krung Thep, which is the same as Los Angeles - "city of angels". I'm glad that Krung Thep is actually where I wanted to go, even if I didn't know it.

But the past masters of multiple naming are the Khmers. And while there's a good reason for the Bangkok/Krung Thep double naming - Bangkok may have been a local nickname, but was adopted by foreigners, while to the Thais the city has always been Krung Thep, a title it inherited from the kingdom's previous capital at Ayuttaya - I can't find out why on earth some Cambodian towns have as many as four different names.

For instance, Sisophon. This is the jumping-off point for the massive, abandoned Khmer temple of Banteay Chhmar, so it was definitely where I wanted to get off the Poipet bus. Problem; I never saw a single road sign for Sisophon. It's referred to on the road signs as Banteay Meanchey, which it isn't - it happens to be the capital, but Banteay Meanchey, properly speaking, is the province. (Imagine if all the road signs to Birmingham simply said 'West Midlands'.) Its proper name, apparently, is Svay Sisophon, or Serei Saophoan.

That's why I ended up nearly in Poipet before I queried whether the bus driver had missed my stop. And despite the fact that he'd been deeply amazed at the very idea of a foreigner wanting to go to Sisophon at all, he'd completely forgotten to drop me off. Screeching to a halt, he jumped out of the bus, ran across the road, and flagged down a bus coming in the other direction to get me back to the place I thought I was going to. A fairly normal fuck-up for Cambodia.

Then there's Preah Khan, another huge Khmer temple in the middle of jungle -  a fascinating ruin, though unfortunately the central structure collapsed after modern-day tomb-robbers used bulldozers and pneumatic drills to steal most of its sculptures. It's not to be confused with the Preah Khan temple at Angkor. Scholars refer to Preah Khan (the jungle one) as Bakan Svay Rolay; in Siem Reap, to distinguish it from the Angkor temple, it's called Preah Khan Kompong Svay (Kompong Svay being the name of the administative district in which it's found); and locals call it Prasat Bakan, or so I've been told (though my information was from Kompong Thom, a good few hours away by motorbike).

Prasat Preah Vihear isn't easily confused with any other temples, though it has a double name by virtue of its site on the Cambodia/Thai border, the Thais calling it Khao Phra Wiharn. But it is confused with a town 110 kilometres away. Tbeng Meanchey has a perfectly good name of its own, but it's more often known as Preah Vihear. (Like Sisophon, it seems to have taken the name of its province as its own. So there's still more confusion, as you never know whether someone is talking about the town or the province when they say a place is 'in' Preah Vihear.)

So; a warning if you're heading to south-east Asia. Just because is a place is called one thing, doesn't necessarily mean it's not called something else.

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