Posted in travel

Siem Reap and Angkor Wat

Back in 2012, I visited Cambodia for the first time and immediately fell in love. It was Sihanoukville and the nearby coastline that captivated me, but I managed to squeeze in a day at Angkor Wat before heading to the airport and leaving the country. I loved it, and knew that one day I’d return. Indeed, I’ve been back to Cambodia several times since then (once to run a bar/hotel for a year) but last week was my first time back at Angkor Wat.

The bus ride from Bangkok was long and difficult, ultimately taking 14 hours instead of the 7 that was promised. Oh well. No harm done, except to my spine and sanity – and who needs those?

When I arrived at my hotel, the wonderful Tropical Breeze Guesthouse in the quiet southeast of the town of Siem Reap, the friendly lady at the front desk asked me if it was my first time in Cambodia. Skipping over my days in Sihanoukville and a visit to Kratie, I told her that yes, I had visited Siem Reap and Angkor Wat about 7 years earlier.

She replied, “Oh, you lucky. You come before Chinese destroy everything. They so noisy and rude!”

I laughed hard because it’s so true, and yet so few people are willing to say it out loud. The Chinese are awful. They behave like animals back in China but hey, that’s their country and that’s their prerogative. If your culture permits spitting on tables in a restaurant and then shitting on the floor, so be it. If it permits beating children, pushing strangers out of a queue, and shouting at the top of your lungs as a means of conversation, then fine. It’s your country, it’s your rules.

But when they bring their despicable ways with them when they travel, it crosses a line. And boy, do the Chinese like to travel now… Well, maybe like is the wrong word. Travelling is just something they now have to do. They are miserable most of the time, but Chinese society is all about checking the boxes and being seen to do certain things.

But I digress.

I was talking about Siem Reap…

The next day, I set about exploring Siem Reap, which is actually a nice little town. Many people overlook it entirely in order to see more of Angkor Wat, but Siem Reap is not without its charm:

After a day of exploring town, I got a good night’s rest and then woke up early for a full day at Angkor Wat. I rented a bicycle this time, whereas on the first visit I took the more conventional approach of hiring a tuk-tuk and driver.

I set off about 6am, although I had originally planned on 4am in order to see the sunrise. Upon waking, it occurred to me that – A) It’s dark out and cycling with no lights would be dangerous, and B) It’s cloud so the sunrise wouldn’t be that great.

Instead, I cycled and got there about 7am, when there was still good light. It was also pleasantly quiet then. At least, it was quiet for a while. I wandered around Angkor Wat first (confusingly, Angkor Wat is the name of the entire park area, as well as one of the many temples), and then headed on to the other temples.

Here are some of my photos:

I spent the whole day cycling and walking, cycling and walking… According to my phone, I cycled almost 40km and walked nearly 15km! Not a bad day’s exercise.

I was delighted to get some beautiful photos and it is always lovely to see a place of such massive historical importance, but honestly the woman at the hotel had been right – the Chinese ruined it.

There are several “main” temples around the Angkor Wat Archaeological Park and at each of the big ones, the Chinese swarmed like mosquitoes. They were loud and rude and disgusting. They spat in the temples and stuffed rubbish into cracks in the walls. They refused to speak a word of Khmer or English, and instead just screamed Chinese at the baffled Khmer staff, and then threw fistfuls of Chinese money at waitresses after their meals, even though that is not an accepted currency here.

At the temples, they pushed and shoved and acted like idiots. They even insisted on calling everyone around them, “foreigners”!!! One Chinese woman even had the audacity to speak to me in Chinese and then use “foreigner” in English. I refrained myself from using the wide arsenal of Chinese swearwords that I know.

Oh well.

This wasn’t meant to be a rant about Chinese people.

I got stuck in the rain for several hours, which rather hindered my exploration, and then at five-thirty the park closed and I headed back for Siem Reap. It was meant to be a relaxing, happy day, but in the end it was stressful and often unpleasant. Still, there were peaceful moments. There were quiet, lesser-known temples with no Chinese, and moments of serenity in the morning before it was hot and busy. And cycling there early in the morning reminded me of why I loved Cambodia in the first place – the red dirt roads and thick jungles, and kids zipping around on old bicycles.

Back in Siem Reap, I made the most of my hotel’s pool:

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It’s not a bad hotel for $4 a night! Check it out if you’re in town – Tropical Breeze.

Then I explored the town some more, finding wonderful little restaurants selling incredible dishes for dirt cheap prices… not to mention the ubiquitous $0.50 beers.

In the end, it’s good to be back in one of my favourite countries. I’ll just have to be careful and avoid those places the Chinese gravitate towards.

And so… next up is Kampot.

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Posted in travel

Confusing Colonialism in Cochin

I have long been interested in colonialism, and in particular the history of British India. Perhaps it was being raised in a culture that – although it no longer celebrates colonialism and, in fact, often looks back with shame – still venerates certain products of the era, like Rudyard Kipling and his beautiful stories from the subcontinent. Or perhaps it was because I studied history at university. Although it goes without saying that I cannot support the occupation of one country by another, there is still something oddly romantic about that time in history, and I often find myself thinking about it. I have travelled a great many of Britain’s former colonies, from the United States to Myanmar, and from Zimbabwe to Sri Lanka. I always find myself wondering what it was like back then.

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Much has changed, but the sunset would have been just as beautiful centuries ago.

Of course, it was not just Britain that had an empire, and it’s easy to forget that when looking very briefly at history. We tend to think of “British India” and of pompous white men in pith helmets and absurd mustaches teaching the “natives” cricket. Yet the French were here, too, and the Portuguese. The Dutch, naturally, had their own outposts, and even the Danish tried their hand at the colonial game. In fact, the British were merely the winners in a scramble for influence and power in a part of the world that was already being contested by various forces.

One can feel this mix of history in Kochi, formerly known as Cochin, and sometimes even known as Ernakulam. Its role as a port city, from which India’s bountiful supply of spices were shipped out to the world, goes back centuries to trade with the Arab states. In 1500, the Portuguese showed up, and three years later they took Kochi by force. It wasn’t long until the Dutch leveled the city and took it from the Portuguese, and later the British sent the Dutch packing and took it for their own – or rather, they manipulated the local rulers to make it essentially a vassal state. The result is, at least in the historical center of the city, a bewildering mix of cultures and monuments to the past. There are mosques, churches, temples, and synagogues. There are Muslim districts and a long street called “Jew Town.” There is British colonial architecture and a Dutch Palace that is neither a palace nor was it even built by the Dutch! It is schizophrenic town, a place with serious personality disorders, and yet it is absolutely charming.

My arrival in Kochi came after – you guessed it! – a long bus ride. By now I was very much used to these sorts of journeys and I actually quite enjoyed watching the scenery as we zigzagged through Kerala, a state that calls itself “God’s Own Country.” I arrived on the outskirts of town and needed to transfer via a local bus and a ferry just to get to the historic old town, where my hostel was located. Again, I was beginning to enjoy the hassle as a means of seeing more of India. At the ferry port, I was treated to the sight of a man beating a two meter long snake to death with a bamboo pole in front of a group of stunned children. Only in India…  or to put it in a more modern way, #indiaproblems

After checking in, I set out for a stroll along the waterfront, first admiring the huge Chinese fishing nets at the north of the island, and then watching the sun go down over the Laccadive Sea. Brought to India centuries ago by Mongolian traders who passed through China, the fishing nets are lowered by massive wooden levers into the water just off a small beach. It takes several men to lift them back out of the water, even if there are no fish inside. They are still operational, although it doesn’t seem like they actually catch many fish. Several operators charge tourists to help out with the lifting as a way of making some extra cash. “Come do my fishing for me, white man! It’ll make a great selfie for your Instagram!” Tourists cluster to take photos, although the background now is of a giant oil refinery, which rather ruins the ancient allure of the scene.

On the beach, people all pose for photos. I hate to sound like a crotchety old man, but I don’t understand why photos are now the point of any excursion, rather than a happy by-product of it. All across India, as well as most of Asia, it seems people now simply go to a beach or a park in order to take photos of one another. I watched a group of ten young men pose for more than an hour before leaving. They did nothing except take photos of each other. Half the time they were pretending to walk along the beach while a friend shot this nonchalant image, and yet no one actually bothered to do any walking just for the sake of walking! Back in Kodaikanal I saw families putting their children on trees and taking photos that will look oh so fucking adorable on Facebook, but it was all set up to make it look like they just caught the kid playing on the tree and captured the moment. The kids never actually got to play on the trees, though. I read recently that we are now in an “experience economy” where rather than collecting things, people collect experiences. This all sounds true until you realize that they aren’t even experiencing anything; they’re just getting photos to show off on social media the same way the previous generations bought new TVs and ornaments for their house.

The next morning I took a stroll around the town. Kochi is very different from other Indian cities in that its narrow streets are rather clean and quiet. They are not clean and quiet compared to, say, most cities around the world, but they are more relaxing to explore than most of this hectic land. Having already seen the northern tip of Fort Kochi, I ventured into the middle of the island and then over to the eastern shore. While the north is very touristy, most of the rest is just a normal town and most of the buildings are occupied by companies that deal in small-scale manufacturing. Halfway down the east side is an area called Jew Town, centered around Jew Town Road. I thought the name was rather offensive, myself, but then perhaps that is my delicate liberal sensibility. It just seems like they could’ve gone with something more neutral, like “Little Israel” or even “the Jewish Quarter.” Jew Town sounds a bit blunt to my ears.

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At the top of Jew Town is a rather non-descript building called the Dutch Palace. I wasn’t hugely interested, but when I saw that entry was only five rupees – incredibly, it was the same price for both foreigners and Indians – I ventured inside. It was now a museum, but once upon a time it was built by the Portuguese as a gift for the local nobility. (That’s right, the Portuguese; not the Dutch. They just restored it many years later.) This was intended to keep the peace between the Europeans and the locals, after the Portuguese and looted a temple and pissed off the Kochi maharaja. The building then is a mix of 1500s European and Indian architecture and art, and while it looks like a contender for World’s Most Boring Building from the outside, inside it is rather charming. It is also furnished with enough information, displayed in three languages, to keep you there for an hour or more, even though it is quite small.

As I walked around, I noted how each of the Kochi maharajas became less and less powerful as European influence grew. In the beginning, the Portuguese were eager to appease the local powers, but by the time the British came onto the scene, they had figured out how to play the politics game, and soon had the royals fighting among themselves while clamoring for British support. In the portrait gallery and other photographs, you can see how the royals became more influenced by British trends until, in the late nineteenth century, everyone took to wearing British clothing. It is funny that this actually occurred after the notorious Indian Mutiny, and not long before the move for independence began to take hold. It seems that the Brits were reluctant to Anglicize and Christianize India, and yet that’s exactly what happened, even after they took an official policy to avoid it happening. Independence has only sped up the process. Looking around India today, or at least the south where I have travelled, one could be forgiven for thinking that it is a Christian country more so than a Hindu one.

Posted in Photography, travel

Brihadishwara Temple, Thanjavur

After just an evening in Pondicherry, I was happy to move on to my next destination – Thanjavur. Located about 150km southwest, it is one of the most important destinations in Southern India because of its temple, Brihadishwara, which is also appropriately known as “Big Temple.” Thanjavur was once the capital of the Chola Kingdom, and was popular also with subsequent rulers in Indian history.

From Pondicherry bus station, I managed to get a bus to Chidampuram, and then onwards to Thanjavur. The journey was, honestly, quite difficult. The public bus was crowded and hot, and the noise from the constant sounding of the driver’s horn was difficult to tolerate. Indians are as bad at driving as people are in neighboring countries, and will overtake straight into oncoming traffic with absolutely no thought to the consequences.

After what seemed like an eternity, but what was actually more like six hours, the bus arrived in Thanjavur, and on the way in I could already see the history of the city. Ancient walls merged with slightly less ancient bus stops and shops. Thanjavur is interesting in that way, yet it is also a typical modern Indian town – busy, dusty, dirty. I stepped off the bus and went looking for a hotel. They weren’t in short supply but it did take a while to find a suitable one, which I did eventually on the main drag.

After checking in, I went out to see the “Big Temple” as I’d heard it was best to see when the sun was going down. I raced to get there but it was crowded and checking my shoes at the entrance took some time, so by the time I arrived, I had missed the sunset by a few minutes. Still, the sky was red and it cast a beautiful red light on the already impressive stonework. I managed to plug in the wrong settings to my new camera and so quite a few potentially good photos turned out not so great.

I stuck around the temple until well after dark, taking in the atmosphere. I was amazed how many people kept arriving. From all over India, folks in all sorts of traditional dress appeared. Most of them lined up to go into the main temple itself, while others prayed to the giant cow statue, or the smaller cow statues, and some just sat and talked with their families. Many lit candles or incense, and it felt incredible to stand in the middle of it all and just watch.

In the morning, I returned again. I wanted to take some better photos and to see the temple in the light of day. The magic of the previous night had vanished, but it was now easier to see the intricate designs on the temple walls.

After spending another hour and a half looking around Brihadishwara, I took a brief walk around the rest of Thanjavur and then jumped on another bus, this time heading further south to Madurai.

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