Travel – Architecture and Cities

 

img_6028

I love it that every city I visit is different. Sometimes people ask me what is my favourite city out of all those that I have visited, and of course that’s an impossible question, but I sometimes try to work it out.

img_3099

There is a big difference between cities that were built as cities and those that simply evolved over centuries, from settlements beside rivers or the sea, into those that exist today. There are the great cities of the world, London New York Paris etc, and then there are cities, none the less great to those who live there, but not one of the places that everyone feels they must go to.

img_0791

 

img_2953

London is a city that has evolved over centuries from a small settlement in Roman times to the metropolis of today. The City of London is formalised architecture the result of the great fire in the 17th century which led to the city being laid out but for the rest it has grown and evolved over centuries resulting a whole mixture of styles uses and inhabitants, some would say a whole series of villages strung together.

img_0906

img_6001

 

As a contrast the centre of St Petersburg was planned and built and preserved, despite wars and changes, such that even today you can get the feeling of being just a step from the world of Tolstoy and the characters of War and Peace. Sometimes that purity has an almost big chocolate box feel about it, almost too good to be true, but such a pleasure to explore, and a living cultural museum.

img_7220

img_7221

Eastern cities reflect the rises and falls of their history and culture and have become a world of enormous contrasts, where ancient powerful histories have faded and been replaced by new modern recoveries of prosperity, interlaced with the growth of informal settlements resulting from the migration of poorer inhabitants from the countryside to the city in search of a better life.

img_0496

img_1437

Some cities are defined by nature, the physical environment dictating the shape and limits of the city, and nature itself being the limiter of its expression. Then there are the new, purpose built, modern cities of the 21st century, pragmatic, functional but none the less appealing for the imagination of their design.

img_1953

img_1457

Which are your favourites, well you pay your money and you take your choice but for me, despite my efforts to analyse, I don’t know, I still love them all because what ever they look like, however planned organised or random and chaotic they are, it’s the inhabitants that define them

sam_0288

Cultural Contrasts.

 

IMG_7183

 

It is a statement of the obvious but of you travel then outside your own land, your own place and way of doing things you will travel to another culture. It is part of the nature and experience of travelling. It is one reason why we go in the first place. But when we do and we find this other culture and we enter it how do we treat it? Do we accept the culture or what it is, do we shrink from it, do we try to impose out own culture on that which we find, do we adapt to it, or do we reject it? Of course we go with an open mind, but then a new culture can attack our senses and confuse us. And when we come with our own culture and enter another one, what happens to ours, have we left it behind?

IMG_7185

In Asia some of the most beautiful monuments and sights are Buddhist. An ancient religion still very prominent, revered and practiced by the people who live there. We want to see these buildings, temples, icons, and so we do. Some like Angkor Wat are historical, empty relics, large stone constructions that give us an image both of something extraordinary but also an image of a bygone era. Some on the other hand are alive and part of the everyday lives of the communities around them.

IMG_7179

Enter a Buddhist temple filled with people having removed our shoes and watch what people do. The dress code is sometimes serious and perhaps it irritate us that we are not appropriately dressed. So do we ask ourselves why on earth do they have these rules, or do we accept this as just part of the culture and comply? Sometimes we stand to one side quietly, trying to be unobtrusive so that we don’t interfere in what is happening. Or maybe we deicide we want to be a part of it, we might buy some incense sticks or a piece of gold leaf for the Buddha, or sit and meditate.

IMG_7196

Unless it is our own religion we are always outsiders but accepted as such by the people at the temple. We may, discreetly, take a photo, or ask a question and we are careful not to impose either ourselves or what we think and how we act. Having sampled, we wander outside to be met by the sight of a monk standing at a souvenir stand sipping from a can of Coke through a straw. It’s a jolt, we don’t expect it, and it’s amusing but why not? There is our culture and his culture coming together and neither one is the less for it.

IMG_7173

In times gone by cultures rose and fell on war, attrition and the supremacy of one over the other, now perhaps they start to blend and we can hope that the best of both is what the traveller carries home.

Wanderlust

IMG_2384

I don’t make long term plans about travelling a journey. I like to ponder where I want to go and then other than taking time to deal with the formalities of travel, visas tickets and satisfying the official permissions of life, I like to just go and do it. There is this edginess in side me that needs to get moving. It is as if life at home, however pleasant, familiar, comfortable and enjoyable it is amongst the familiar, ones family and friends, is unsatisfying. That edginess starts, you become distracted the next destination looms. I am addicted to cigarettes and chocolate but even they don’t create that same edginess, they are mild and comfortable compared to the need to get moving again.

IMG_1782

I need to decide where to go. At the end of many journeys has been the sense that I want to go back to where I have been to see and learn more, to take advantage of what I have seen and learned already and delve deeper into that world. But inevitably I go somewhere new. It’s rare to retrace my steps. Travelling is a bit like a life lesson that you know, that the first joy of a place or an experience can never be repeated, it feels pure and new only once and so you don’t retrace your steps but you go to new places all the time.

cape_town900_1238845c

I wonder often when I come back from a journey what the most satisfying and enjoyable moment is, and I often think that the most exciting moment of a journey is the beginning, the moment you set out on that road to who knows what. You close the door behind you and are gone, the world maintains its daily routines but at that moment you seem to detach yourself, start to look and watch things that you do every day as if you are detached from them.

IMG_2072

Travelling is not all easy. You face difficulties, disappointments and even dangers and you know that is going to happen again, but you learn never to expect the easy outcome, the place you are going is not designed to make you happy, it’s designed to make the inhabitants happy. You know that on your journey you are going to bump into things, and see with open eyes things that you take for granted, see the extremes of kindness and misery that you don’t need to face at home.

IMG_1662

Does this urge to wander, to move, to travel to experience change you? I think so. When I return to the familiar to the people and things I love, I know I am different to the person who walked out the door some time before. It does change you. Travel and you realise that there is little in life that is black and white however convenient it may be. Nothing is ever quite the same again.

IMG_5978

Then, satisfied you get your feet under the table, you ruminate on what has gone before and try to put some words together to describe it and before you know it that edginess is back, the wanderlust is rising up again. Why? I think its because the greatest joy in travel is to be able to experience all the time everyday things as if for the first time. To be able constantly to rediscover that feeling of not taking anything for granted and finding novelty everywhere.

 

IMG_1944

Buddharupa

IMG_7065

 

Buddharupa is the Sanscrit name given to statues of Buddha or those who have attained Buddhahood. Images of Buddha abound throughout Asia in various shapes forms and postures. Normally gold or at least partly having the gold colour they sit, stand, lie in temples and every community.

IMG_7115

Each posture has a meaning the most common being that where Buddha is sitting with legs crossed his left hand in his lap and his right pointing downwards, this being Calling The Earth to Witness and depicts the moment of enlightenment for Buddha. In some places each day of the week has a Buddha pose associated with it and that pose attaches to the day you were born.

IMG_7035

The noticeable thing also is the variety of facial expressions. The gentle smile the beam and the laugh. These you see also depicted on the many statues that abound. Its not enough to see a statue of Buddha and assume its is the same, many places show the varied styles and messages of the statues.

IMG_7164

 

 

IMG_7153 (1)

 

Some statues are tiny, some enormous, some you will see with covered in small pieces of gold foil as a mark of requesting fortune or good luck. These small pieces are attached by those offering at the temple and cover the statue. For those suffering pain the gold leaf is placed on the statue at the place where the pain exists in the supplicant.

IMG_7179

As well as being central to the lives of the people who live around them, the statues are beautiful; works of art in varied states varied presentations and varied settings. To us they can simple be that, a work of art but to others who follow the religion, they are at the core of their religion and life.

IMG_7132 (1)

Phnom Penh -The Royal Palace

IMG_7233

IMG_7248

Phnom Penh sits astride the great Mekong River, a city with a long history of greatness, war, famine, poverty, genocide and re-emergence. The city reflects its history in its daily life with broad streets lined with trees from the French colonial era, to modern developments of office blocks and condominiums, to tight narrow old streets lined with small shops and roadside traders selling food and souvenirs, and huge covered markets with stalls selling food clothing and everything imaginable. The roads hum with gridlocked traffic and the driving attitude that is the tradition in Asia, where every small inch of road is occupied, and drivers manoeuvre so close to one another that one wonders how and why the scooter riders survive. It’s a mystery but the driving is a culture that all observe and no one complains of.

 

IMG_7220

The city is busy energised and at times frantic, but it all works with a sense of purpose and style. The restaurants that line the edge of the Mekong thrive at night with every food imaginable with sellers, performers and buskers everywhere. Bright neon lights contrast with dark side streets most simply carrying a number to identify them. An old lady walks down the street leading an old man by a rope around his neck while he plays a Tror a Thai stringed instrument and they collect money. There is always something going on.

IMG_7242

 

IMG_7246

 

In the midst of all this seeming chaos sits the serene peace of the extraordinary Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. Dating back to the 19th century when the capital moved back to Phnom Penh the Palace sits alongside the Mekong and is the residence of the Cambodian Royal family today. They live in a part of the Palace shut off but the rest you can wander in. This includes the throne hall, a magnificent enormous room of gold and white still used today for religious and ceremonial functions. The detail intricacy and the symmetry of the buildings are beautiful and although they have similarities of design they are unique.

IMG_7252

 

IMG_7269

 

The Palace reflects the place of Buddhism in society with the silver Pagoda sitting alongside the palace buildings. The Palace is walled so that the endless noise of traffic and daily life does not intrude and is like entering another world. The Palace reflects how Cambodia has both retained its links with its historic past of the Khmer kingdom down to the present day and Cambodia’s emergence into the 21st century.

IMG_7267

 

The Temples of Angkor, Cambodia

 

IMG_7360

A 5-hour drive north from Phnom Penh brings you to Siem Reap, the home of the temples of Angkor, the most famous and best known being Angkor Wat. Built near the Great Lake with its supply of water fish and fertile soil these temples and buildings date as far back as the 6th century reflecting the mix of Hinduism brought by the Indians and Buddhism in an extraordinary array of temples which are even now emerging from the jungle that overwhelmed them.

IMG_7350

 

IMG_7328

 

IMG_7382 (1)

The Angkor Temples have become a major global tourist attraction with the sleepy provincial ton of Siem Reap now housing an array of large and luxurious hotels that accommodate the vast numbers who come to see this fascination every year. But for those less disposed to western hotels in Asia you can still find great accommodation more in tune with the area close to the site. Entry costs $20 for a one-day pass brought from a huge modern ticket office near the site.

IMG_7352

 

IMG_7311

The sheer scale of the buildings and their sophistication given the period when they were built is hard to express. Built of stone, intricate, tall, beautifully designed. They are filled with passages, rooms, staircases and views over the surrounding lush green countryside. Built over a long period period of time these buildings are testament to a sophisticated society. Angkor was the capital city of the Khmer empire from 11th century. At its zenith it was the largest pre industrial city in the world and incorporated the Hindu religion until the 12th century when Buddhism took its place. The development of the magnificent buildings was achieved over 300 years from the 9th to 12th centuries.

IMG_7419

Some of the temples are simply piles of stones, other remarkably preserved and restoration happens all the time. Surrounded as you are by the lush vegetation of the area it seems and almost secret place each temple seeming to emerge from the jungle as you reach it.

IMG_7347

To get the true sense of time and scale you see that some of the temples have blended with nature and formed the foundations for trees that have grown into and onto the buildings, sometimes appearing to be some enormous triffid that has consumed a building. That vision gives you a sense of both the power of the natural world and the ability of man made structures to survive the revages of time. The area has survived nature, war destruction the Khmer Rouge and endless attempts to loot the place, but survives in all its grandeur and splendour.

IMG_7433

The site is hidden from Siem Reap and the contrasts between that town of modern Cambodia and the wonders of Angkor tell lots about the march of history. Anyone in Cambodia has to go. There are many extensive books about the history of the area and the site but I think good to read after you have felt the atmosphere of this extraordinary place.

IMG_7365

 

Journeying in Cambodia

IMG_7293

 

Memories and emotions from journeying in Cambodia are, for the most part, triggered by colours, also water and of course people. Outside the urban sprawl and tourist areas it is the consistency of colours everywhere that strikes you. The land is flat with the odd seemingly misplaced hill, a world of farmed fields rice paddies, a couple of cattle in the flat fields, and the odd farmer pushing his bicycle to or from his work. The villages that dot the landscape are consistent and small with wooden houses on stilts, subsistence shops, the ubiquitous scooter, food sold beside the road, and a real feeling of timelessness.

IMG_2753

 

IMG_2758

In the landscape the earth is brown and the water is brown, the cows are brown and the houses mostly brown, and growing alongside those every shade of green tree, plant, and bush. The varied shades of green highlight the vivid colours of the flowers, and even a very tiny butterfly as yellow as you ever saw, takes its prominence when seen in contrast to all that green and brown.

IMG_7294

 

IMG_7282

 

IMG_7285

 

The colours that are the most vivid are those of the ubiquitous Buddhist temples. Deep terracotta tiled roofs and bright shining gold embellishing the symbols. If the sign of the extent of religious belief is to be found in temples and churches them for sure Bhuddism thrives in Cambodia. The poorest village will boast a beautiful temple and even in the middle of busy roads are shrines at which people pay devotion as they pass by. The nature of Buddhism is not to impose and you never feel imposed on but the beautiful temples and statues can’t be ignored. Those colours offer a vivid and vibrant contrast to the brown and greens of the landscape.

IMG_7291

Water is everywhere, big wide deep rivers and tributaries starting with the Mekong, no small streams, irrigation ditches, dykes and of course the rice fields providing that staple diet. It rains lots in Cambodia in season and that rain disturbs no one. A violent downpour drives people inside but within minutes of it ending the world is alive again, life continues as before, the torrents of water just a normal part of natural life. Someone cooking with a wok stops for the rain but barely has it gone and he is at work again. The rain is just rain, its not even an inconvenience.

IMG_2752

And the people? Gentle smiling ever friendly, they have not acquired the hard edge of some people of the countries of south East Asia. The people are family orientated, conservative, hardworking and very cool. The best way to know them is to eat with them at an open air restaurant where the food is real, the price almost embarrassingly low and the flavours divine. Enjoy that hospitality and curiosity and be part of lives that, whilst very simple, fulfil everyone. A Cambodian driver for your journey ensures you will pass the time with the people and enjoy them.

IMG_7287

Cambodia is a proud place, and a growing place, but away from the centres of change and construction and the increasing western facilities it’s a beautiful warm friendly and unassuming country to bring a person back down to earth.