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.

Wat Phra Kaew – Bangkok

 

1108518276_G2G2E-M

 

In the grounds of the Grand Palace in Bangkok stands Wat Phra Kaew, the temple that houses the Emerald Buddha, a statue 45 cms tall depicting the sitting Buddha made of jade and clothed in gold. The image is thought to have originated in India and was moved from place to place before finally coming to Wat Phra Kaew in the 18th century. The image is said to bring prosperity to each country it resides and so is deeply revered and the protective image of Thai Society.

IMG_7476

 

 

IMG_7454

 

The buildings that house the image and surround it are exquisitely created with fine detail grandeur and the reverence that the image commands. Traditional Thai art did not distinguish between the artist and the artisan, seeking to depict the Thai sense of community and religion. These works of art were created to achieve some religious merit for the creators of the shrine and buildings.

IMG_7474

 

 

IMG_7473

 

The area is right in the heart of Bangkok near the Chao Phraya River around which Bangkok is built. It is away from the main bustle crowd and stresses of Bangkok but an important tourist site. THB500 buys you a ticket and there are endless guides to lecture you if that is your thing, otherwise just wander and absorb the magnificence.

IMG_7484

Given that you will have experienced the pollution crowds traffic and general stresses of Bangkok, it’s hard to believe you are in the same places despite the crowds of fellow viewers. As always in Bangkok ask the price of everything specially taxis and tuk tuks before you start since this is a prime hunting ground for transport looking for willing tourists.

IMG_7493

The tradional Buddhist colours, ubiquitous gold and terracotta create a sense of light and contrast that reflects the importance of the place and is in major contrast to the heat and greyness of most Bangkok streets. It is crowded but you can find your own space and absorb the wonderful detail and care that is taken of this place. Good to go with a local if you know someone Thai, they don’t pay to get in and can give you a great flavour for what it all means.

IMG_7495

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)

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.

 

The Killing Fields of Cambodia.

IMG_7205

 

A visit to the killing fields of Cambodia at the memorial park at Choeung Ek outside Phnom Penh is an eerie experience. You don’t really know what to expect drawn as you are to a place where some of the 1.3 million people executed by Pol Pot and his Khymer Rouge regime were found. When you add together those who died of starvation and exhaustion some 2m people, a quarter of the population died in that terror.

IMG_7207

As you approach the entrance to the park, after a tuk tuk ride from Phnom Penh through suburbs and villages, the sombre attitude and downcast eyes of those leaving strike you. The ticket price is $6 to include an audio guide, which takes you through the park, its history and the experiences of those who both survived and worked there. People were brought here from the infamous S21 prison, a former school, and a visit to that before Choeung Ek is a sobering enough experience.

IMG_7213

People were brought there from S21 prison having endured torture and horror simply to die and they were executed brutally and immediately at night. Every effort was made by the guards to make this exercise and cheap and as quickly as possible. You are struck by the simplicity of the place, there is nothing that immediately draws the eye there other than the Buddhist memorial set in the middle of the park which houses the remains of many of those 70000 people who were murdered in this place. The sense of quiet respect and reverence is palpable and embraces you as you wander through hearing the story. The site speaks for itself, these were indeed fields, and the graves, which have been excavated, leave hollow areas in the ground with still visible fragments of clothing and bone which appear most years when the rains come and the topsoil is washed away. In other places such items might just be litter, but here they have a very different significance.The undulations of the ground mark spots where mass graves have been excavated and left as simply as that. That simplicity throughout the site, is a very powerful exposition of what happened there, since it ignites your imagination in trying to visualise the horror.

IMG_7210

 

Outside, the area and village continues its modern day life, and the site is fringed with fields that are worked by the very people who at that time might have been brought here to die.

IMG_2747

The Cupola at the centre of the area, a Buddhist shrine to the memory of those who died, houses some of their remains, carefully excavated and recording the age gender and size of the person. It is simple and gives a strong sense of the sheer scale of the slaughter. The design is tall thin and simple, encased in glass with the skulls and bones visible to all who pass by or enter.

IMG_7214

Possibly the most poignant moment is to stand in the shade of a big tree out of the hot sun, just a big leafy tree in a park, and realise that this is the infamous killing tree against which babies and small children were smashed to death before being thrown into the mass graves. That really makes you think, and you too leave with downcast eyes. We are part of that same human race that did this.

The Travel Bore

IMG_6660

I learned a long time ago that when returning from a journey, heart and mind filled with reflections on the things I have seen, people met, the places explored, the scents, emotions, secrets and sensations experienced, its really not good to talk about it too much.

Camera loaded with amazing photos, tales of people met, places seen and dangers overcome fill you, as you sit comfortable in the knowledge that you have something very special to offer now that you are home again and with friends. There is a fine point between simply saying that the travel was great and being a travel bore. Even sitting with another traveller it can become a competition trading the most beautiful, the most ugly, the highest, longest and most dangerous, oh and of course the oldest. Comparing notes on outlandish activities you would not do at home, and the sensuality of travelling is not wise, its easy to become a travel bore.

How much people really want to know you have to gauge. How many times people say would love to see your photos, but still they are unseen by all but you, except for one with a fabulous beach which is all they seem to want to see. You wonder why, you are slightly hurt. You have the wonders of the world to lay at your audience’s feet, but somehow they dont really want to know. “They are envious” you whisper to yourself, “they don’t care, they don’t understand”, but in truth they know that if you start you will never stop, and they will have nothing to say because for them such things are abstract compared to the appalling weather we have been having lately. You can hope that one day they will come to you and say “tell me all about Timbuctu” and then you can expound, but in truth they just want to know where you were and whether you enjoyed it. You are safe returned, that is enough. To hear the rest would be unsettling. So here is an ode to the travel bore!

The Traveled Man

SOMETIMES I wish the railroads all were torn out,

The ships all sunk among the coral strands.

I am so very weary, yea, so worn out,

With tales of those who visit foreign lands.

When asked to dine, to meet these traveled people,

My soup seems brewed from cemetery bones.

The fish grows cold on some cathedral steeple,

I miss two courses while I stare at thrones.

I’m forced to leave my salad quite untasted,

Some musty, moldy temple to explore.

The ices, fruit and coffee all are wasted

While into realms of ancient art I soar.

I’d rather take my chance of life and reason,

If in a den of roaring lions hurled

Than for a single year, ay, for one season,

To dwell with folks who’d traveled round the world.

So patronizing are they, so oppressive,

With pity for the ones who stay at home,

So mighty is their knowledge, so aggressive,

I ofttimes wish they had not ceased to roam.

They loathe the new, they quite detest the present;

They revel in a pre-Columbian morn;

Just dare to say America is pleasant,

And die beneath the glances of their scorn.

They are increasing at a rate alarming,

Go where I will, the traveled man is there.

And now I think that rustic wholly charming

Who has not strayed beyond his meadows fair.

 

Ella Wheeler Wilcox 1896

 

Europe in Russia

 

IMG_6033

St Petersburg, set along the banks of the Neva River, dates back to the 18th when Peter The Great started to develop it as a major port for Russia. It was at one time the capital of Russia and the tides of history has seen 4 names, St Petersburg, Petrograd, Leningrad and now St Petersburg again.

St Petersburg  fascinates and you cant get bored. You can feel that mystical Russian soul, and sense the extraordinary suffering in Russian history, as well as its achievements and pride. St Petersburg inspires thought and hope mixed with the tragedies of history.

IMG_2324

The city figures in the great classical Russian novels. You can stand on the Kokushkin Bridge where the hero of Crime and Punishment stood at the opening of that great book, and, given how the city has retained its extraordinary character over time, you imagine yourself there at the moment.

 

It is a city where you cant escape the embrace of history. You see it all around you and you walk down streets and avenues that are still filled with its atmosphere, all around you the sights that give history a meaning face you.

IMG_6004

As well as the great museums The Hermitage and the great buildings, Church of the Blood, the city is filled with small very Russian museums which give a great perspective as to how Russians see history. The Museum commemorating the 900 day siege of the city by the Germans in the second world war gives a painful but fascinating insight into what life must have been like, and the small KGB museum intriguing specially for western people to see how people they thought of as traitors where heroes there.

IMG_2331

Some of the vistas of St Petersburg are mesmerising along the Neva; the old refurbished buildings along the banks of the river take you back in time. The centre is great if you like to walk cities, to soak up the atmosphere. Its easy to get around and a new journey every day brings you new experiences.

IMG_6011

It is also a very modern cultural city, galleries, museums, restaurants, theatres, clubs, bars, with huge variety. It’s a city that lives inside a lot of the time because of the cold of winter and the interiors reflect that, being warm and inviting Fascinating art and photo galleries are tucked away up staircases in old buildings on narrow streets, filled with intriguing exhibits.

IMG_1424

Dispute its overtly historical character the city is very alive energetic, filled with possibility. The people there, are very warm friendly and accommodating despite a somewhat serious demeanour on first meeting.

 

IMG_5979

Of the great Russian poets of St Petersburg Anna Akhmatova experienced and survived the deprivations of war and the Stalinist terror and wrote a great poem Requiem following the arrest of her son in the Stalin era.It says much of the place and its people and the inherent hope and strength that human beings use to survive.

Epilogue

1

I’ve learned how faces hollow down to bone,

How from beneath the eyelids terror peeks,

How cuneiforms cut by suffering show

Their harsh unyielding texts impressed on cheeks,

How curls that once were black or ashen-tipped

Can turn to palest silver overnight,

How a smile withers on submissive lips

And how a mirthless titter cracks with fright.

Not for myself alone, for all I pray,

All those who stood beside me without fail,

Alike in bitter cold and sweltering haze,

Beneath the brick-red blind walls of the jail.

2

Once more the hour of remembrance draws near,

I see you, I hear you, I feel you all here,

The one helped to the window—she barely could stand,

And the one who no longer will walk through our land,

And the one who stepped forward and tossed her fair hair—

‘‘When I come here, it’s like coming home,’’ she declared.

I wanted to read off each name in its turn,

But the list has been seized, and there’s nowhere to learn.

For them I have woven a mantle of words

Made up of the snatches that I’ve overheard.

Every day, every place, I’ll remember them all,

I’ll never forget, though new terrors befall,

And if torturers silence me, through whose one mouth

A nation of one hundred million cries out,

Let them all speak for me, mention me when they pray

Every year on the eve of my burial day.

And if ever in Russia I have such acclaim

That a monument’s set up to honor my name,

My consent to a statue I only would grant

With a condition on where it should stand.

Not down by the southern sea where I was born—

My last tie to the seacoast has long since been torn—

Nor in the Tsar’s park by the stump of that tree

Where an unconsoled ghost is still looking for me,

But here, where I stood while three hundred hours passed,

And the gates never budged, and the bolts remained fast.

Because in the blest ease of death I’m afraid

I’ll forget the harsh rumble the prison vans made,

Forget how that door slammed, its harsh banging noise,

And the animal howl of an old woman’s voice.

And as the snow melts from my statue each year,

From my bronze-lidded eyes may it trickle like tears,

And a single dove’s cooing be heard from the jail

As far off on the river the quiet ships sail.

 

Anna Akhmatova

Requiem

Tr Nancy K Anderson

Beach Life

Noordhoek_Beach

 

Many years of travels have taught me that there is something mystical about beaches. I don’t know anyone who does not love the beach. We can complain about crowds or pebbles or litter but we all love the beach.

 

For some it’s a place to chill, relax, do nothing, sunbathe, watch the world, feel at one with our friends, enjoy family, make friends, have a sense of luxury, feel we are “somewhere else”, surround ourselves with the sounds of the beach, the crunch of sand, the dull ring of pebbles, the whisper of the sea, the roar of the ocean and the whipping sound of the wind on water. It’s a place where we lose a bit of our sense of time, where we don’t feel guilty about doing nothing. It is as someone said the “apotheosis of loafing”

IMG_3787

For others it’s a playground, a place to swim, surf, sail, splash, run, walk, a place where we feel that we realise what nature gives us for pleasure and make use of it, all for free. We feel that we are part of nature and to see a surfer on an empty beach early in the morning is to see someone at peace, someone who feels a part of the beauty and tranquility of nature but knows its power.

IMG_2384

Then there are those who find solitude on the beach, they walk, feel and above all think. They are in the one place where all the very elements of life itself come together, the water, the sky, the earth and the air, they are at one with it, liberated from the world and able to think with a clarity that daily life does not allow. They feel free . “To go out with the setting sun on an empty beach is to truly embrace your solitude”

IMG_6619

 

We lie on beaches, we sleep on beaches, we camp on beaches, we walk to and from beaches, we endure crowds and jams to get to the beach, we travel far and wide to find the perfect beach for us, we anticipate for months in advance our next visit to the beach and when we get there we are never disappointed. We read of beaches, drool over photos of beaches, and long for that life free of the cares of the world where we can stroll out of our front door onto a beach of white sand, and then into crystal clear turquoise water that we seem to feel we can own.

Boulders

“In every outthrust headland, in every curving beach, in every grain of sand there is the story of the earth.” We just love the beach.