Monday, January 30, 2006

Indonesian Vignettes

Our time in Indonesia has been quite random so far. As have my sleeping patterns. Up at 4am this morning then slept for 4 hours this afternoon, so now I'm typing instead of going to bed at a sensible time.

Here are some of the choicest moments so far, I'll post about the splendours of our almost-dawn trip to Boro Budur and almost-noon trip to Parambanan next time.

The smallest, cutest, airport I've ever seen
Foreigners queue up to buy a 'Visa On Arrival' visa at a separate counter as the locals (South East Asians) form an enormous, snaking queue to the two actual immigration officers. Each VOA Visa takes what seems like an age to process, all the time the immigration queue is not moving. I finally get my VOA then the clerk tells me to go to the front of the queue. I push past all the waiting locals, lend my pen to the head immigration officer (so he can cross out the bit on the rubber stamp that says 'valid for 7 days' and write 'valid for 30 days' instead) and on (two metres) to the baggage reclaim. A counter separates we-without-bags from the flimsy looking girl with all the bags strewn around on the floor behind her. I give her my baggage tags (the stickers you always get given at check-in, but I've never had need for before today) and point out Harvey's bag (he's still queueing - remember the long and static queue for locals? And he was so happy before that Malaysians didn't need a visa!). Mine is nowhere to be seen. After some gesturing I manage both to convince her that I really do have two backpacks and that the missing one is green. She smiles a lot, then pushes over a green suitcase to reveal mine hiding underneath. Struggling a little she lifts it up and passes it over the counter to me - it's only 12kg. How does she manage the really heavy ones?

Real rain. The first we've seen this holiday. Man-sized drops of monsoon rain pour from the sky. But only for a few minutes, as the celestial orchestra goes through it's overture, warming up, as people on motorbikes and cyclo taxis cower under plastic sheeting we are warm and dry in our taxi from the airport.

A narrow alley and a wide courtyard
Our taxi turns into an incredibly narrow alley, less than twice the width of the car. The rain is still falling. We think this is the right street, but you're never sure when relying on a Rough Guide...

Halfway down the alley we stop. The driver sounds his horn and a smiling face appears, with an umbrella, to undo the gates. The gates open from what was a narrow and uninviting alley into a wide courtyard, surrouded by open fronted buildings. It's not the Ritz (the rooms are basic) but they have a pool, a variety of bizarrely ornate furniture, their own Gamelan orchestra room and very friendly staff, who inform us that it's Javanese (and muslim) new year's eve and there's a procession in town if we hurry.

The mysterious artifact
We found the procession in the end. It was just a crowd of people waiting when we arrived, and then they started. A man in what appeared to be a flowery skirt (not so unusual here - it was a batik sarong) and high heels (unusual everywhere) led the procession, walking slowly. Very slowly. Almost wedding march style.

Behind him came a variety of groups. A group of teenage martial artists in blue tracksuits. A group of men in sarongs walked barefoot on the wet roads. A group carrying an enormous spear, wrapped and horizontal, on their shoulders. A group carrying kris knives tucked into their belts. Near the back a group carried, sedan style, a glass box with curtains. We couldn't quite see what was inside. Harvey tried asking some of the locals, but nobody gave a clear answer - 'a weapon', 'the power', 'royal thing' were the mysterious half answers.

Two days later I saw a mention of the procession in the paper. Apparently it was a royal waistcoat.


Time to try and sleep - although we've got a lie in tomorrow. No need to get up until 8am.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Reflections on Cambodia

I don't have much time to type up explanations at the moment, but wireless broadband in Harvey's house is a luxury and we're flying to Indonesia tomorrow so I've just uploaded them for now. Will type something intelligent when I get a chance.

In summary, even though you cannot go far in Cambodia without being reminded about the horrors of the recent past, we really enjoyed our time in this country. There are beautiful buildings and countryside to warm the soul and capture the eye again after staring into the abyss of human possibility every time you find out more about the Khmer Rouge. There are beggars, often with less than the full compliment of limbs, everywhere (landmine victims, with no state support or benefits, what other choice do they have?) - but also children playing in the streets and people going out of their way to help you out. Surprisingly, there are even great bars and clubs in Phnom Penh - we had some fun nights out.

I believe that everyone should visit Cambodia. See the grandeurs of its past at Angkor, learn about the recent cultural and physical annihilation under the KR and see the steps people are taking to put the country back on track today.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Malaysia (truly Asia)

After spending all day yesterday in a room with no windows and feeling VERY ill, I dragged my sorry self out and on to a plane today and find myself in Kuala Lumpur. Still not feeling 100%, but first impressions are:
- it's very hot and sticky outside (33C and 70% humidity)
- it's very cold and breezy inside (fans and aircon everywhere)
- Harvey's family have a very nice house (with pool on the balcony)
- everyone here is obsessed by food (and I thought it was only Harvey)

I look forward to making a complete recovery soon so I can enjoy the culinary delights without plotting the course to the nearest facilities every 15 minutes or calculating whether the flavours are enough pleasure to justify another bout of stomach cramps...

German efficiency

Where would the world be without a little German efficiency every now and then? I know it's a stereotype, but sometimes it so true - and so useful! I'd just like publicly to thank Ralf for sending me a copy of all the emails I sent after I met him in Central Asia. All I'm missing now are the ones from before (ie. Uzbekistan).

To view these old messages, and relive my central asian and middle eastern wanderings, click the 'archive' links on the right of the page to view the 2002 and 2003 postings, or use these links:

October 2002

November 2002

April 2003

Thanks again, Ralf!

Wednesday, January 25, 2006


We began before the dawn of time. Beyond the very edge of the universe itself. In darkness, surrounded by the chattering of demons, we collected our thoughts and set off. Past the lions and snake-like seven headed naga we strode and on to the celestial causeway, barely visible by the light of distant stars.

We maintained our course, straight and true, on this bridge between the darkness beyond the universe and the universe itself. We crossed the oceans of dark, pausing at the very threshold of the world to see the first light lift the sky - allowing us, for the first time, to see our goal: Mount Meru, sacred mountain and home of the gods.

But, standing still at that threshold, the chattering demons once more began to gather and vex our souls. We had to press on. So, once more, we set off, striding in the half light, towards our goal. We neared the earthly continents and found a quiet spot to pause and witness the dawn of man, the sky like cold fire above the gods' abode.

In that early morning light we contemplated the beauty of creation, the continents, the central peaks, the majesty, the beauty and grandeur of it all. It awed us. It filled us. It drove us on. But we stood at the western edge, the side of death, and no way to enter the sphere of man's domain. So we passed to the south, navigating around the world, to enter from the East, the morning sun at our backs. And what greater wonders we beheld close up! How beautiful this creation, every man like a legend carved in stone.

I had lost my companion, but onward tread. Past the realm of man to the very foothills of the Mount. Call it what you will - Mt. Meru, Mt. Olympus, Valhalla, heaven... the names are many but, in physical form the imposing, fractal, splendour is pure joy to behold. Peaks upon peaks, each a smaller represention of the larger whole. Enormous, yet infinitely detailed.

I was now alone, but so close. The foothills were steep, like steps for a giant, but I could make it if I tried. So I shouldered my pack and began the climb - daring to go calling on the home of the gods themselves. As I ascended I dared not look down - from heaven to hell is but one unsure footstep - but up I scaled until...

Such splendour.

Corridors and courtyards, open spaces, the central peak. Everywhere I looked were angels, beautiful smiling angels with slim waists and firm flesh, dancing enticingly around. Such beauty, peace and tranquil, meditative, calm. I am in heaven.


Angkor Wat is no less than a representation of the universe itself. It's outer moat the ocean that surrounds the universe. The outer buildings represent the continents and the inner quincunx of towers is Mount Meru - which can be ascended by clambering up giant sized stairs. I have been to many places in the world, but the temples of Angkor are the most breathtaking I have ever seen.

It is enormous - the largest religious structure in the world. It is intricate - every tower adorned by angels, creatures and flowers, every wall carved in bas-relief. It is colourful - different colours at different times of day, as the sun proceeds across the sky. It is symbolic. It is spiritual - despite the crowds of tourists and lack of connection to the religious (Hindu) influence, the complex retains a sense of tranquility and calm.

And then there are the other temples. The eerie, smiling, faces of Bayon. The overgrown mysteries of Beng Mealea and Ta Promh. The intricate, detailed, beauty of Bantea Serai. All beautiful. All worth visiting. Photos cannot do justice, nor can words. I really am in heaven.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The temples of Angkor

A magical dawn - sun rise over Angkor Wat (see 'Heaven' below for more about this).

The dancing angels, or 'Apsaras', of Angkor are carved everywhere. The combination of grandeur and detail at Angkor is breathtaking, and there is not just one temple, but more than a dozen, spread over numerous sites and built in a number of different styles.

In my life I have been fortunate enough to visit many wonders, the combination of temples and buildings at Angkor is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful, most interesting and most moving.

Look at the details in these Apsaras - each has a different expression, many have different postures and hairstyles. And all this 1000 years ago when one million people lived in this complex - and London was struggling to count 40,000 inhabitants.

Angkor Wat was originally dedicated to the Hindu pantheon. Later kings adopted Buddhism and modified some of the carvings to match this change. When Angkor was abandoned, Angkor Wat became a Buddhist Monastery until it was 'rediscovered' by Henri Mouhot in the 19th century.

There is a constant struggle between man's fixed stone buildings and the ebb and flow of nature's jungle here. Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom have been cleared and cleaned up since their rediscovery, but others such as Ta Prom and Beng Mealea are still relatively overgrown (the latter is almost wild). It's fascinating to see how trees grow on, in and through brickwork when given a century or two to do their work.

As well as the enormous, grandiose, famous temples there are smaller (but equallly beautiful) temples all over the site and other types of construction too - like this enormous rectangular reservoir. Originally thought to be used for irrigation of nearby paddy fields, more recent studies have shown that there is no outlet for the water and archaeologists have concluded that there is no purpose, other than as monumental figurative expressions of the celestial oceans, for the reservoirs.

Friday, January 20, 2006

S-21 Toul Sleng prison

Preface: Harvey and I arrived in Phnom Penh a few hours ago. After a late lunch we decided to go to S-21, the former school that the Khmer Rouge turned into a detention centre.

Cambodia. I have read passing references in history books about Pol Pot. I have seen the documentaries about the Khmer Rouge, the killing fields and S-21. But visiting the scene of the crime... nothing has prepared me for that.

I have heard people talk of ill feelings from buildings and objects, usually people of particularly spiritual or religious inclination. I have always dismissed this as ludicrous, until now.

The feeling of eerieness, of suffering. The silent screams ringing in my ears - of prisoners long since tortured to death. All magnified, somehow made even worse by what we are reading. The guards were mainly aged 10-15. The torturers were from all parts and backgrounds. The prisoners were of all ages - babies killed instantly, children, adults and the aged held, starved, interrogated. And then killed.

Made worse by what we are seeing. Bed frames used to tie prisoners down, the implements of torture sitting silently, innocently, on the mesh. Floors stained black by blood. Photos of the victims, lying dead after interrogation on the very frames we now stand in front of. Barbarity, suffering and cruelty of the darkest kind.

And, as the regime became more and more rotten, and increasingly paranoid, not even party members and soldiers were safe. Trumped up charges of conspiracy or treason or planning to flee to a neighbouring country were enough to condemn a man. Or woman, or child.

The Khmer Rouge kept before and after photos and meticulous records of all of the prisoners. More than 12,000 in all, kept in small cells or chained together in mass dormitories. 30 people with their feet shackled to an iron bar, lying on the floor with their arms tied to a similar bar by their heads. Then another row and another - feet-to-feet, arms-to-arms - unable to move. Punished with electric shocks or lashes if they dared to talk or move without permission.

More than 12,000 prisoners. Perhaps a dozen survivors.

It used to be a school. It became the Khmer Rouge's main detention and interrogation centre. It is now a museum and an eerie, scary place - but children still play in the grounds and some boys were playing volleyball with the attendants at dusk.

Classrooms were turned into interrogation rooms. Each one with a single bed frame, to which the prisoners were tied. And tortured. As we walked through the rooms, our footsteps echoed loudly in the bare rooms - the reverberating cries generated when more than a dozen people were simultaneously interrogated here must have been unbearable to hear, restrained in the holding cells, waiting for your turn. Your turn to scream, and then die. Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate.

When the Vietnamese soldiers found Toul Sleng, they photographed what they found - a corpse on each bed, the implements of its torture strewn around the room. The museum now displays these artifacts in situ, along with a copy of each soul-sapping photo. The bodies of the 14 victims they found are buried in the school yard.

Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge kept detailed records of every person processed at Toul Sleng. This included before and after photos as well as biographical details and the prisoners' confessions.

The before photos are haunting, children and adults peering out from behind the glass of history. Racks and racks of them. The after photos are chilling - this museum has not been designed for a squeamish audience.

These long poles with shackles were used to pack the prisoners into the dormitories. Side by side, not allowed to move or talk, or drink or fight off the mosquitos. Hands of one row tied to the hands of the next.

This second photo is an artist's impression of the dorm.

Luxury. An individual holding cell. It's dark because the sun is setting outside. Harvey and I hurry on, seeing and reading what we can until there is nothing left. We leave in near silence, emotionally exhausted. Quietly appreciating anew that we were born in the years and countries that we were. These poor souls did not share our fortune.