Though a straight line appears to be the shortest distance between 2 points, life has a way of confounding geography. Often it is the dalliances and the detours that define us. There are no maps to guide our most important searches; we must rely on hope, chance, intuition and a willingness to be surprised.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Nepal - Kathmandu

(Local girls under the watchful eyes of the Buddha.)

Kathmandu is another of those place-names that's managed to retain some exotic feel to it, post-mass tourism, like La Paz, or Addis Ababa, or Timbuktu.
It is a very special place, dirty, dusty and incredibly noisy, but definitely, definitely unique. It was also my first introduction to Indian style poverty on the trip. I'd been to Sri Lanka before but wasn't fully ready for the onslaught of hawkers, wise-guys and scams.

It's in a different league to Belize and Bolivia.

It is possible to lose your patience and compassion when you are constantly targeted. I found myself a bit worn out, especially after my really positive experience in Cambodia.

But then I had to remind myself that more than two-thirds of Nepal's 25m population live on less than $2 per day. What would I do? With a good proportion of the tourists arriving in the country making 100 times as much, I think I'd do pretty much the same thing.
(Temples in Nepal are a mixture of Buddhist and Hindu, just as in Cambodia. The inside of some of the temples was quite earie and beautiful.)

It's the incredible disparity in incomes that's the real driver for this experience. I have been constantly reminding myself of this both in Nepal and since arriving in India. It makes me feel better and worse at the same time!
(I had the good fortune to arrive in Kathmandu the day a public demonstration by the communists was taking place in the centre of the old town.)
(Shiva and his consort Parvati look down on the residents of Kathmandu. On this occassion, they are watching a communist rally, the relevance of which would surely have escaped the original builders of the temple.)

The temples here are 400+ years old, and provide perfect grandstands for public gatherings. RIGHT: though communism in Nepal is of a religiously tolerant type, not everyone seems convinced by the political rhetoric.

As fantastic as Kathmandu is, after 2 days the noise and hassle gets a bit wearing. The car horns were getting me down, and keeping me up, until i didn't know whether I was coming or going.

I had an urge to see the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas up close and had heard great things about Pokhara, a town sat right at the foot of the famous Annapurna range. So, on the spur of the moment, I booked a flight with the wonderfully named 'Yeti Airlines'.

There were literally a bus-full of passengers on the flight and as the bus drove away from the terminal building I imagine that every one of my fellow passengers was, like me, nervously and silently speculating on which of the jumbled assortment of small aircraft would carry us between the highest mountains in the world.

There was widespread relief when we pulled up at a modern looking turboprop plane. A relief, I didn't share as I recognised it as a Jetstream 41, an aircraft built - in part - by friends and relatives of mine at Prestwick airport...

...friends and relatives who had mentioned on a few occassions that they would never fly on them!
Obviously I arrived fine, otherwise I wouldn't be writing this. And Pokhara turned out to be a very mixed experience, but with some fantastic moments - pictures to follow!

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Cambodia (Part 2)

(Monks at Bandei Srei temple)

The variety of architectural styles and the endlessly different and interesting sculptures, carvings and engravings are what make the temples of Angkor such a huge draw for tourists. Thirty kilometres to the north of the main cluster of temples lies one of the smallest but most beautifully carved buildings of all.

Bandei Srei was built towards the end of the temple building period, after which the Angkorian empire collapsed, in large part due to environmental disaster - over-development led to a fall in the water-table and insufficient water supplies to support the local population. Isn´t it sobering how often this type of story is repeated wherever I go...

To get to Bandei Srei, I had to hire a Remorque-moto (and driver). This is a bit like a motorbike with a covered cart attached to the back (kinda like the local version of a tuk-tuk - I should have taken a photo of it). It took more than an hour to get there, which works out at about 15 mph, so I probably wasn´t imagining things when we were overtaken by kids on Bicycles on the downhill stretches.

The slow journey gave me a great view of the countryside though. From the very limited parts I saw, Cambodia is clearly a very beautiful country. I would absolutely love to have spent some time in the more remote parts. On the plus side, at least I have that to look forward to in Africa when I will have a chance to really get out into the middle of nowhere.

On the trip back from Bandei Srei I visited the Landmine Museum. Cambodia perhaps more than any country has suffered from the evil of landmines. They were laid all over the country in the 1970s and 80s by both sides in a series of bloody wars. I wasn´t aware that landmines are actually designed not to kill, but to maim, the idea being that a wounded soldier on the battle field takes up more of the enemy´s resources than a dead one. With that kind of mentality, it´s maybe not surprising that no regard was paid to civilian casualties. Unbelievably, many landmine sites weren´t even mapped or recorded with the result that it´s not just the cost that prevents removal of landmines these days, but also the fact that no-one knows where many of them are.

At the landmine museum there is also a rehabilitation centre for children injured in landmine explosions. There are pictures on the walls with stories of individual kids. The landmines may have been laid in the 1970s, but the dates of birth for these children are mostly in the 1990s. Can´t imagine a clearer definition of the term ´innocent victims´.

I met someone who works at the museum and made a donation of $50 from my fund towards the work that goes on there.
(This photo came about because the monks asked if they could have their picture taken with me, rather than the other way around. They were very excited (for monks) and queued up one after the other, while their friend took pictures with his camera. Maybe they had never met someone from Bolivia before!)

(I absolutely love this engraving. The whole temple was covered in similar art forms, all made 800 years ago. Nothing quite like this elephant though, which is just superb. )

(Ta Prohm - incredible sights as the jungle steadily takes back ground that was lost over 800 years ago.)

(Dawn at Angkor Wat)

Monday, June 11, 2007

Cambodia (Part 1)

(A monk from the temple stands in front of the incredible engravings around Angkor Wat)
Regular readers may remember the trouble I had recently with visas. An online application form required some swift work with paint-shop pro to manufacture a passport photo. After all this work, I got to Cambodian customs and immigration only to find that I'd left my visa in Australia. Thankfully, after watching me rummage fruitlessly through my rucksack for 10 minutes they just smiled and waved me through.

This was a pointer to the great hospitality of Cambodian people. Being there was an awesome feeling and the best possible start to travelling again.

Overall I though it was a very 'easy' country to visit. Even though there is poverty and the Siem Reap area is largely dependent on tourism, I found people to be good-natured, friendly and relaxed. There was none of the cynicism and exploitative attitude to foreigners that I would soon find in other parts of Asia.

The big attraction of Siem Reap, and of Cambodia generally, is the temple complex at Angkor Wat. It's hard to describe the physical extent and cultural importance of these sites without talking in numbers.
72 major temples covering 100 square miles, built between 900 and 1300AD.
Angkor Wat - the largest of the temples - alone had a population of 80,000. Next month, a much smaller figure will sum up Angkor Wat´s rise in popularity and importance.

On the seventh of July this year (7/7/7), the New Seven Wonders organisation will announce in Lisbon the result of a lengthy process to select the new seven wonders of the world. From a shortlist of 21, including the Easter Island Statues and the Sydney Opera House, the top seven will be ranked in order. I'd be surprised if Angkor Wat wasn´t in the top 3.

The temples are now coming under a new threat though, from the number of visitors. Tourism has exploded in Cambodia, since it emerged from the horrendous instability and mass murder of the 1970s and 1980s. As recently as 1994, Khmer Rouge terrorists were abducting tourists and the tourism industry was negligible. In the last 10 years it has taken off to such an extent that Siem Reap is awash with building projects - hotels, museums, shopping centres. I arrived at one temple just as they were taking the covers of 5 new sets of binoculars.
(Above Right - The temples have been an inspiration to artists and film-makers for eons. More recently, computer game designers are said to have pinched parts of the temples for game design. I could definitely recognise Prince of Persia, Serious Sam and of course Tomb Raider (mis-spent youth, and not in a good way!). It was an uncanny and surreal feeling walking around...)
I hope the amazing growth rate in tourism doesn´t destroy the fantastic atmosphere and friendly nature of the local people. This is another place you just can´t get to soon enough...

One last figure - I took 500 pictures in 3 days. And could have taken more. Here´s a few.

The variety in architectural styles could keep you coming back for years. I am still amazed at how Scottish this particular scene looks. The only place in Scotland where you´d get the same heat and humidity would be in a Glasgow tanning salon though.

(Left - climbing up the temples is definitely at your own risk - often quite high risk! This is about 80 feet up. A bit of unnecessary risk in this case though as - right - I found there were stairs on the other side when I got to the top)

The temples were built in devotion to both Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. In more recent times, newer beliefs have sprung up - such as the belief that by touching the breasts of one of the thousands of temple nymphs, you will have great fortune in love. I touched the boobies of the one on the right in this picture. Here´s hoping it will bring me the love of a good woman. (Maybe not one with such a high-maintenance hairstyle though).

Angkor Wat, Bayon (above, and the picture with the face) and the other temples are just a joy to photograph. What a place!

A traveller's tales

Wat Po temple in Bangkok

Here's a few random thoughts on being a traveller again:

The Ultimate Form of Transport?

You'd think that air-travel was a singularly technology-driven industry these days. What with instant telephone reservations and internet bookings and even being able to check-in online these days. Erm, not always.

Despite their appalling reputation ("It is worth flying with any other airline if at all possible" - Lonely Planet Nepal) and poor safety record (but then flying is the safest form of transport I thought*), I was attracted by Royal Nepal Airlines' cheap prices and decided to book a flight with them for the Bangkok to Kathmandu leg of the Bigtrip. However, deciding to do that and doing it were two different things. Firstly, RNA has no booking facility online. Secondly, travel agents in Australia won't deal with them.

The only solution was to go to the RNA office in Bangkok myself on the morning of the flight to pay for and pick up my ticket.

Finding the office was easier than I thought. Then the bad news. Flight cancelled. Technical problems. No flight until Friday. Maybe I should have expected as much. When the King of Nepal took a tour of Africa in 2005, half of Royal Nepal's flights were cancelled at short notice! Luckily, the beauty of not having booked and paid for a ticket was that I could go to the Thai airways office and book a flight for the next day with a serious airline.

MORAL: if an airline isn't organised enough to allow online booking, you probably shouldn't rely on them to get several hundred tonnes of metal and gadgetry up and down out of the sky to anything resembling a reliable timetable.

*I've since checked - flying is not the safest form of transport. Train travel is safer.

So what do you do when you have an unexpected 24 hours in Bangkok?

Dye your hair blonde and go clubbing with the locals of course. Now I know this is really a Japan thing, but in the spirit of the craze of peoples from Asia with dark hair dying it blonde, i thought "when in Rome..."

I was a bit disappointed to have a day less in Nepal but I had a great day in Bangkok. Really didn't think I'd like this city, but - in spite of the appalling traffic - it was a really great, lively place to visit. The temple pictures on this page are all from Bangkok.

In the evening I went to a local bar where a band played Thai music and passable covers of western tunes. I had a beer and then ordered a whisky and coke, not realising that when you order whisky and coke you are ordering the whole bottle. This mistake seemed to impress the locals. Obviously I got nowhere near finishing the bottle, but it still cost about the equivalent of 3 whisky and cokes in Edinburgh - result!

Weirdest thing in Bangkok happened at the airport. Survabhaiyam (sp) airport opened at the end of 2006 and is an ultra-modern airport intended to cement Bangkok's position as a key hub in Asia. Not that I appreciated that as I had to get up very early for the flight, which always kills me. At the airport I went to have some breakfast at a Thai restaurant. The waitress was the strangest person I have ever met. She kept singing bizarre songs and wanting to touch the bottom of my trousers while I was eating my Chicken Noodle Soup. Then when I asked her not to, she sat behind me having an imaginary conversation with her mother about how she met this man one day and only wanted to touch his trousers because they were magical. I was so tired I could have wept. Luckily my flight was called and I managed to escape with my trousers...

MORAL: if you build the second-largest passenger terminal in the world and have to staff it in a hurry, don't expect to pick from the top of the job-seekers' pool.
(Thailand is famous for its massages. An invigorating hour-long massage is just $3. An aromatherapy massage, including foot-washing, for 90 mins is only $5. You can have a sculpture made of yourself being massaged for just $10. Ok, I made that last one up.)

Out of all the restaurants I could have gone to at the airport, I happened to choose that one. Just chance or, when the coincidinces start piling up, do you need to ask if there is something else at work...?

What are the chances?

It's a big big world. And there are now 6,500,000,000 of us milling about on it. I worked out that, if you said hello to one person every second, you'd have to live to be 175 to meet everyone on earth*. I have had a lot of time on my hands recently now that they force you to check in 3 hours early.

I got onto thinking about that when I was wondering about going to visit the Dalia Lama in India (a visit to the hills around Shimla could be a perfect antedote to India's June heatwave). He must be the individual alive today who has met more ordinary people than any other.

(Modern art or the back of the Buddha's head?)

Anyway, for all the numbers, I actually want to make the point that this is a small world. Bear with me here...

Coincidence 1: I often get the funny feeling of seeing a familiar face when I'm travelling. Bizarrely, sometimes it's someone of a different race who happens to look like one of my friends. (Graeme - it's not just Jools Holland I'm concerned about!) However, this feeling was stronger than usual when I arrived at Siem Reap airport in Cambodia last weekend. As I waited at the luggage belt, an English-looking guy (you can spot travelling Brits a mile off, they tend to look a bit pasty and uptight at airports) seemed very familiar. Eventually we were next to each other in the taxi queue. After a mumbled hello he apologised for giving me the wrong directions when I asked him how to get the tram to the beach in Melbourne three months before! Really, what are the chances...???

Coincidence 2: The other day I emailed my friend Adrienne and happened to mention that I was just about to fly to Nepal for a week. She emailed back to say that she had just changed her plans and would arrive in Kathmandu a couple of days before I was due to leave. This will be second time our paths have crossed since we met in South America. And when was the other time...? When we were both in Melbourne and that guy gave us the wrong directions of course!!

* In fact, with about 20 people born every second, you could never actually get through the 6.5bn at all. (talking of which, if there's not 'one' but one-thousand 'born every minute', doesn't that mean that 99.9% of us should be quick-witted and not gullible...?)

(Lastly, this is a picture of my expensive Merill sandals just before I threw them in the bin in Cambodia. The rot set in way back in January when I wore them to walk across the salt plains in Uyuni, Bolivia. That stuff is incredibly corrosive - it basically ate through my sandals over a period of several months. Travelling can be hard on your feet but even harder on your footwear.)