Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Cambodia

Bought an old book made of palm leaves with a long wooden cover back and front. It was in Sanskrit and was, presumably, a Buddhist text, as I’ve seen pictures of them being used in temples. Dinner was in the Vicies – delicious chicken with fried ginger, and mango with sticky rice. The restaurants here are fantastic. Recommend Khmer Kitchen, The Old House, Vicies. In some ways I prefer Khmer cuisine to Thai.
Ankor Wat
I’ve waited a long time to get here and here I am, in one of the greatest architectural monuments on the planet. The Khmer Kingdom’s temple complex, built over 700 years from the 8th to 15th centuries. You can’t really come here and get much, other than wonder, out of the experience without understanding something about why they were built and the ideas behind them. These are no palaces but deeply religious buildings. Angkor Wat, just one of over 100 temples in the area, is a complex cosmological representation of Hindu beliefs, and earthly model of a cosmic world. The five towers are Mount Meru, a mythical mountain that lies at the centre of the Universe and the walls the earthly realm and moat the surrounding ocean.
It helps to get familiar, at least with the Trimurti of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, the Gods of creation, preservation and destruction. Ganesh, Indra and Yama along with the atavars of Vishnu are also useful. Hinduism seems to have failed to abandon its pantheistic past, as well as fail to have a definite philosophical position on anything. The history is interesting, the iconography is interesting but the religion is a mess. In addition to its pantheon of odd gods, it has promoted ‘caste’ as a sort of predestined hierarchy in a hierarchy of reincarnation. This has been, and continues to be a profoundly disturbing facet of Indian culture, even today.
In its favour it has produced some wonderful art and architecture, the Khmer civilisation being one of its architectural and sculptural highlights. While England was wallowing in Anglo-Saxon mud and wattle architecture, this civilisation was constructing enormous water projects, huge brick and stone temples and creating the largest pre-industrial cities in the world.
The Khmers transitioned into Buddhism, first by holding both sets of beliefs, then abandoning Hinduism, so as you explore, you need to be aware of what period and to what religious goals were each temples built.
Hired bikes at a dollar a day (3 for a geared Mountain Bike) and headed off out of town with the Tuk Tuks and motorcyles towards the entrance gate ($40 for 3 days). The first thing you hit is the enormous moat, and it is enormous, then across the causeway to the temple itself. You then hit the huge walls and enter a green area with lakes and then the temple. The outside walls of the temple have a gallery that runs round the whole outside of the building and is almost completely covered in high quality Bas-relief, everything from historical battles, to mythology and horrific images of heaven and hell. Inside are the enormous towers. The climb up to the higher levels reveals the enormity of the project.
Pol Pot’s huge irrigation projects were similar to the Khmer projects we see here and clearly used massive amounts of labour in a similar way, albeit to religious, rather than Marxist ends. Even the atrocities seen reminiscent of the murals on Angor and Baynan. Indeed, there is evidence that the Khmer Rouge wanted to emulate this older world of massive irrigation, with rice as the hard currency of the economy. In a curious twist of fate, on 1975 the remnants of the Khmer Rouge held out here, as they know the world would condemn an outright attack on the temples.
Angkor Thom
Again you hot the moat, then the southern gate of Angkor Thom is enormous and has a face on the outside. Here’s Gil cycling through one of the gates. Then to Banyon, Terrace of the Elephant, Phimeanakas, Ta Keo, Ta Prohn, Banteay Kdei. Chillout day swimming before wandering into town for some food at The Old House.
Election
There’s an election running here, and there’s lots of noise on the streets for the Cambodian Peoples’ Party but when I speak to working people they are quick to mention corruption and excesses. Most are in favour of the opposition. I have seen a hell of a lot of police and army around. Every temple has phalanxes of guards with rifles at the ready. Huge convoys of police vehicles pass. There’s something wrong here. Human rights seem to be getting worse as opposition politicians are arrested and demonstration suppressed. As Burma comes out of its authoritarian shell Cambodia seems to be going in the opposite direction. In a country that was almost destroyed by ideology, we now have rampant corruption and a new form of fear.
Preah Ko
Tower brick temple with six towers each with a Linga and Yoni inside. Yoni is Sanskrit for vagina and was seen in Hinduism as the origin of life. The Yoni is a phallus and the two together represent the transcendence of duality. There’s barely a room in the Angkor complex that doesn’t contain these., mostly smashed by the Khmer Rouge.
Bakong
A pyramid temple with elephants on corners. There was literally not another soul here apart from a couple of deaf kids and a feisty girl selling coconuts. We bought one each.
Lolei
Small temple, that used to be an island temple. Went into the monastery, where a monk was teaching a class of lads English. He invited me to join in, so I did, asking the class a few questions, hindered by the ceiling that was so low I had to hold my head at an angle to teach. It was fun. It was basic with a dirt floor, outside but inside I noticed something odd, a row of computer screens all plastic wrapped. It was a sorry, sight. The computers had been donated but they didn’t have enough electricity to run them. Same old story. The kids I met were attentive and keen to get on. One had lost both parents and his twin brother, others had come to the monastery as it was the only way their family could afford schooling.
Pol Pot
From1975 to 1079 Pol Pot headed up Angkar, the Communist Party that took class warfare to surreal levels. He turned young against old, students against teachers, country dwellers against city dwellers. Children were separated from parents, husbands from wives and whole groups of society were tortured and killed, all in the name of ideology and collectivisation. This was the real end of communism, a murderous abyss into which all humanity disappeared. Our tuk-tuk driver had lost his father and older brother. He was five to nine at the time, and hung his head as he related these simple facts to us. This is very recent history, everyone suffered and everyone remembers. There are all sorts of explanations for Khmer society ending up in such a genocidal mess, from inherent violence in Khmer history to an oral tradition and slavish obedience. My own view is that the old Hegelian dialectic, an idea mentioned in book 150 years earlier. Popper saw him as one of the chief architects of authoritarianism, with his idea of dialectics, taken literally by Marx, Engels, then Lenin and applied through political ideology to create class warfare that swept the globe, ending in the bloody cul-de-sac that was Cambodia in the seventies. Revolution stopped right there and Marxist dialectics became an academic pastime.
Third day of temples, by tuk-tuk, this time in the north east. These are less visited, more set in the trees and quiet. The Buddhist temple near our hotel was buzzing at dusk with families, incense and the sort of relaxed approach to religion one experiences out here, with kids running around the temple. Back to the L’auberge des Temples for a swim then out for dinner at The Old House, some shopping, a pedicure and remarkably, we found a bar (The Warehouse) showing Murray’s match at Wimbledon, so we ensconced ourselves at the bar and watched Murray win in straight sets to the sounds of the Arctic Monkeys and Kings of Leon. Only time we took a tuk-tuk home.
Last day and as I was swimming on my back I looked up and saw a perfectly circular rainbow with the sun at its centre. It was spectacular. The light from the sun is, of course, conical, so that the refraction into separate colours would of course be in concentric circles. Managed to get a few photographs of something I’d never seen before. Then last lunch of green Cambodian curry and beef lambok with lemon and pepper sauce and a big bottle of Angkor before taking a tuk-tuk to the airport. Nice way to leave this wonderful country.

Final night in Bangkok with son, before he heads off to Vietnam. He’s getting the same experience we got 30 years ago when we were here and also headed off to Saigon, which had no cars and almost no foreigners. As two tall tourists, one blonde, we were followed by people everywhere. Different now but I’m sure Callum will enjoy the trip and good luck to him. We’ve seen him grow up a lot here. He’s already been to Africa, Central America, China the US and much of Europe with us, but here he’s done his own thing, negotiated, travelled, found accommodation, met lots of new people, spent time on his own, fought in bars, dived, stayed in dives. Way better for a 19 year old than writing essays and sitting yet more exams.

Koh Chang: Island

A six hour bus journey from Bangkok then a rust-bucket ferry against a head-wind to the island and a sawadee (sort of open-truck) to the Koh Chang Paradise Resort. We’re cashpackers, so a little luxury (still under $50 a night) was in order.  Pretty stormy for some time but then the sun would break out. This is monsoon season and I like the thunder, lightning and boat loads of rain. The food here is something else – cheap and tasty. I haven’t eaten any western dishes since I arrived, apart from a few fried eggs at breakfast.
Walked a few kilometres to a waterfall in the centre of the island which was blue and cool. After walking through sticky jungle, it was a joy. The pool was deep but as you swam to the foot of the waterfall the current was so strong it was impossible to get under the water.  There’s elephants here for treks into the jungle but I’m not sure I like to see them tethered.
Interlude - Daoism
Water is a recurring metaphorical image in Daoism, where its ability to go under, over and around obstacles is seen as illustrative of the ‘Dao’ or the ‘way’, taking the path of least resistance. It has its origins in the 6th century BC, from Lao Tzu and is centred around one concept the ‘Dao’ or the ‘way’. The idea is to go with the flow, leading not by intervention but example and light touch.  It is largely a Chinese religion or perhaps better described as philosophy or belief system. It’s familiar to most people as the ‘balance of ying and yang’ or’ feng shui’. In fact, it’s a complex philosophy with a dualist ontology and strong moral dimension. This means balancing the opposing forces, represented abstractly as ying and yang. This is taken very seriously and members have been excommunicated for using animal parts from endangered species just because of the imbalance it causes in nature.  There is this move, identified by Nietzsche as the foundation of the Abrahanic religions, from a dualist ontology, or at least a description of how nature or things are or become, to a normative ethics and guides to behaviour. Curiously it may have laid the conceptual soil for Mao and others form of dialectical materialism, but was in fact crushed by the Communists, especially during the Cultural Revolution. It is now flourishing with over 26,000 temples in China.
Thirty years ago these places were full of Germans, now it’s Russians. This gives a certain ‘Gulag canteen’ feel to breakfast rooms and restaurants, as they’re a pretty serious bunch. The guys all look like bouncers, their wives/girlfriends like small blonde Russian dolls. Another obvious phenomenon is the older guys with younger Thai girls. Not much dinner conversation between them either. Our waiter, or should I say waitress, was a ladyboy, with a rather diffident, take me or leave me, manner.  It made a change from the overwhelming, and genuine, friendliness of Thai people in general.
Drove around the island, and stopped off in the police station to get a ‘loss form’; for my glasses. They were ripped off by a large Monsoon wave when I was swimming. It also ripped down my shorts to my ankles and nearly drowned me. All I felt was a hit on the back of the head and the feeling of being dragged under and back out to sea. I had to swim like hell to get back on the other side of the breaking waves. The police were amused, as they spoke no English at all – so we used Google translate to explain the whole farrago, which caused much hilarity, one coming up with ‘transgender environment’. God knows what the previous tourist inquiry had been about. They were laughing away, shaking their heads at my nose a couple of inches off the page when I wrote my statement.
Monkey business

Stopped to see the expected monkeys at the side of the road, although this one seemed to enjoy the electricity wires a little too much, I’d say. Is there any other species that is so determined and pleased to show and play with its genitalia?

Bangkok: Cashpacking in Thailand

Last time we were here was 30 years ago, as backpackers. This time we’re here as ‘cashpackers’ with the freedom to stay in more comfortable gaffs, eat wherever we want, even take a flight if it takes our fancy.  We want to relive this a little but ain’t seeking out discomfort, so we’re staying in the flash Eastin Hotel, near the river for the local ferries, even has its own walkway into the station. It’s so posh it has an infinity pool on the 14th floor!
Nice travelling by boat in Bangkok, as the traffic’s a nightmare. Cars are killing these far east cities. The river’s fresh and the breeze counters the humidity but most of all you get a great view of the temples, longtail boats and heart of Bangkok. First up, a walk in Banglamphu, as we were meant to meet our wayward son. He’s been up to a few things out here, like saving a lad from drowning, fighting in bars for drinks (he’s a martial arts guy) and diving. Trying to find him is next to impossible. Never has anyone with so much expertise in communication devices been so bad at communication. In the meantime, we had a great lunch and a walk down the ever amazing Kho Sahn road where you can buy everything from a degree from Oxford (openly on sale) to a few scorpions to eat. The trip back on the ferry at night was spectacular with temples lining the riverside and boats plying their trade up and down the river.
Wat Arun
At Wat Arun where a bunch of Indonesians on the cross-river ferry wanted to take snaps of us, then the strange sight of five monks kitted out with smartphones, tablets and top-of-the-range cameras. I asked them if they ever studied sacred texts from screens – no, but wondered how these consumer devices squared with the stilling of desire, desire to consume, own, capture the impermanent world? Also seen a fair few monks in taxis. Stilling the desire to walk?
Wat Arun is covered with seashells and porcelain, used as ballast on ships from China. It’s not that old (early 19th C) and its three levels represent all existence, gratification of all desire and the top the six realms of happiness. I climbed to the top with the aforementioned monks. The Ordination Hall next to the temple has a fine Buddha and excellent murals.
Huge area of tents next to The Grand Palace is a sort of ‘occupy’ protest. It’s said the King’s a moderating force, but journalists and comedian’s get jailed for years here for the slightest so-called insult. At 85, he’s on his last legs, the red and yellow shirt battle may erupt again. The Crown Prince is no angel, apparently. A 61 year old was jailed for 20 years for sending four text messages. Even a ‘like’ on Facebook is an offence. Every country has its dark side.
Bar fights
Met travelling son and took him, and his mate Suhah, for a huge meal, as he’s been budget backpacking for six weeks. Tales of derring-do, as he was fighting in a bar down south for free drinks. He won all three fights, even against a street brawler and others 20k heavier. It’s all in the technique as he’s a 3rd degree Black Belt in Tae Kwon Do. Sounds like a boys’ own adventure, as he also saved another lad’s life on a river trip – got him out, pulled out his tongue, prone position. Has been offered crystal meth, cocaine, heroin and a gun since he was here.
Wat Pho
Monks and mobiles
Thailand, and Bangkok are full of beautiful temples and monks a common sight. But the monks, like most things in Thailand are a conundrum. I’ve seen them on smartphones, tablets, with huge expensive cameras, wearing sunglasses, smoking, drinking coffee. Doing all the desirable things their religion suggests they should deny. It is expected that most Thai men become a monk for some time, usually before they marry or get a career. So the religion and the attitudes it instils are institutionalised in the culture. This is partly why Thailand is such a nice place to visit – the people are so laid back and rarely show anger or frustration, which is regarded as shameful.
Wandering around the Wat Pho with my son we went to a more obscure temple of contemplation, free from tourists, containing one Thai girl and a solitary monk, completely lost in meditation. The stillness of the monk was remarkable. I’ve taken time to try this while I’m here but my mind is like a washing machine in full spin.
Interlude – Buddhism
The Buddha appears in the 5th century BC in north eastern India , a married man with a child, who then decides to become and ascetic but that is not enough and so he turns to meditation for enlightenment. What I don’t see are the several facets of Buddhism that seem at odds with the stilling of desire, exemplified by the monks on mobiles. Philosophically, they see the world as impermanent, a world of appearances. This throws up the problem of what lies behind appearance and the answer seems to be a form of transcendental realism, a Kantian view. More accurately, a Schopenhauerian philosophy that sees ‘becoming’ as the ontological substrate. For Buddhists, it is the stilling of desire and dissolution of the active mind that leads to enlightenment and a state of oneness with everything and the ultimate state of stillness – nirvana.  Greed, hatred and delusion are the source of suffering, and suffering is seen almost as a disease. Attachment, sense of self are all delusional, as is yearning for happiness, also a form of attachment. Even words are delusional, fixing that which is impermanent. Nothing is permanent, everything changes. Meditation is the cure. Note also the absence of a creator God or prime-mover. The world is simply an endless cycle of living, dying and decay. This is a highly sophisticated philosophical position, spoiled by some rather worldly additions.
Hierarchy of reincarnation
The hierarchy of Reincarnation includes, animals, humans, ghosts in heavenly and hellish realms. We are in a cycle of reincarnated states, determined by our behaviour. Some are even reputed to remember past lives. This is symbolised by the Lotus flower, that goes through several states, starts as a bud and eventually opens into a flower. Is reincarnation is a mechanism introduced into a set of beliefs to drive moral behaviour? It teaches you to see other sentient beings as worthy of sympathy – there but for the grace of reincarnation go I but in order for reincarnation to work, it needs a redeemable currency – enter Karma. The calculus of Karma, the credit and debit account that is Karma, is the causal factor in your reincarnation progress . Note that there is no ideal, timeless ‘heaven’ here, as your Karma runs out and you’re back in the cycle of time and the universe of becoming. Buddhism is not nearly as utopian as Judaism, Christianity or Islam. And what’s with the glitz? Why do major world religions, that promote contemplation, reflection, prayer and inner stillness, spend so much time and money on colour. In Thailand the temples are spectacular sites of gold, green, red, orange and white. Monks wear bright orange robes. It’s a sensual riot. Finally we have the Buddha as idol. In a religion that encourages personal inner peace and stillness, I’m not sure why so many images of the Buddha are necessary. Why focus on another when the inner consciousness is the aim?
Chinatown

This I loved – alleys and streets packed with stalls. Tattoos everywhere. Chinese temples, much more garish than their Thai equivalents. We were caught in a monsoon thunderstorm, always something to behold, so holed up in a little café, before catching the boat home.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Boyz on Bikes or Pychopaths on cycle paths

Day 1 Cambodia to Darlington
Off the plane from Cambodia and straight on train the next day to Darlington, for a four day cycle trip in North Yorkshire. I have to say that the transition from exquisite Thai and Cambodian cuisine to the Toby Carvery (only restaurant within walking distance of Travelodge) was harrowing. Had to sleep with our bikes in our rooms and we all had the experience of feeling as if we were sleeping with our horse. It was there, in the corner, a sort of presence.
Day 2 Great Ayton
The group from Scotland, met the group from Brighton at Darlington Station, we reared our trusty steeds and off we sped. Now ideally, on a bike trip, you only need one thing, apart from a bike, and that’s a map. Between the five of us – not one map. It wasn’t long before our strung out group came a cropper by missing the tiny signs and bifurcated. We’ll stick together a group – no we didn’t. If you come to a junction and see a small sign, stop and wait – no we didn’t. Not so much a team pulling together as the cycling equivalent of the French 2010 World Cup squad.
Nevertheless, having added a fair few extra miles, we arrived exhausted at the pretty village of Great Ayton, where we split into a group of three for the Traveller’s Rest and two for Suzie Ps on the outskirts of the village. Tony and I chose Suzie P and very nice it was but when Suzie P asked where our mates were staying, she laughed. The Travellers’ Rest was notorious, run by two women who are known, not so much for their customer service skills as ability to anatgonise visitors and locals. Sure enough, just as we were setting down to watch the tennis on the TV, Suzie P knocked on the door with the telephone saying “It’s your lawyer”. This is a ruse Ronnie uses to get action on the other end of a telephone. “We rang the bell and they didn’t even open the door, just said clear off until 4pm” said Ronnie, “so we’re in The Kings Head watching the tennis”.
So Tony and I made our way to The Kings Head to watch Murray sail into the final, then a pub grub meal – ok but they should stop trying to play about with the basic fare. My steak pie was hollowed out and sat on top of a layer of mash, making the whole thing look like a Norman Motte – big mistake.
Day 3 Up and down dales
Hard day cycling the dales – literally up and down hills most of the way. You quickly learn that ‘what goes down must come up’. There were tons of serious cyclists on the road on time trials, which made us feel our age. Major bifurcation halfway through the morning that led to one half of group taking a long detour to rendezvous with us at “Voted one of The Guardians Top 10 Pubs in North Yorkshire”. Shandies and Ploughmens’ all round.
But what we were not prepared for was ‘cinder alley’ a very long stretch of old railway line from Whitby to Scarborough, that literally claws to your tyres and that’s when there’s no ruts, stones and other debris. The views down to the sea were spectacular but we were so knackered we couldn’t enjoy them.
Day 4 - Coast
Bridlington, despite its new found Hockney fame, is a dump and on a hot weekend it’s even more of a dump. It was like a cartoon, all fat folk, chips and motility scooters. We skedaddled and cycled due west. One interesting stretch was when we had to run a gauntlet of gypsies in a narrow country lane. Both sides of the road were lines with caravans, piebald ponies and traps – ready for some illegal trotting. It was quite tense, but they were friendly enough, even asking our tail-ender if he needed some more ‘horsepower’.
To Cloughton and The Blacksmiths Arms. Usual pub fare. I asked the waitress what Scampi was, a and she said ‘Well…. it’s scampi – from Whitby”. I’m 56 and have never know what scampi is – now I know – it’s langoustine.
Day 5 – Little England
Now here we were treated to the worst of little England – while Murray was winning Wimbledon, we were subjected to a whole load of what they thought was ‘banter’ and we though was ‘bollocks’. Boy did they hate Scottish people. Then again they seemed to hate everyone who wasn’t sitting in that one bar. The only woman at the bar and the barmaid were apologetic, but the drinkers didn’t care. They were Little Englanders at their worst. We celebrated by shouting as loudly as we could, then headed somewhere else to eat.
York was our destination, although we took the long route and ended up on the main road before stumbling upon a pub where we devoured huge plates of pub grub. Then into York and a look beneath and around the Cathedral. It has a fascinating basement where remains of the Roman Basilica are still visible and the history of the building is unpacked – for a tenner of course. We met Tony inside, although he had only just started the tour, as he had to unpack both panniers to get his wallet, resulting in a pile of well-worn underpants and sweaty socks and tee-shirts on the Cathedral cash desk.

Great trip. Our third bike trip and two lessons learnt – always take a map and stick to 30-35 miles a day!