A new chapter is starting in my life... but I have no idea yet what it will be called, though perhaps this is always the case unless one is blessed with uncommon prescience or cursed with absolute predictability in life. I will be travelling to Latin America (via San Fran) and then back 'home' to Southeast Asia (via Dubai) over the course of 5-6 months. I hope to share (some of) my stories with you as they unfold.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

...ke Pulau Pinang
...a La Isla de Penang

Penang, the island of my birth. I very rarely feel sentimental about any place that I might call 'home' but I will admit to the odd twinge of fondness whenever I return to Penang. What brings it on? It could be the charming old streets of Georgetown, or the (relatively) laid-back pace of life, or the indescribably amazing food, or the dramatic sunsets that draw each day to a close. Or perhaps my memories of raising hell with my cousins around my grandad's old shop in Perak Road and his old house in Mount Erskine (both long since obliterated to make way for new development) with his amazing collection of stuffed beetles and snakes, of trundling down Macalister Road in a rickshaw, of building sand castles at Batu Ferringhi, of mammoth Chinese New Year banquets and kaleidoscopic lantern festivals, of incomprehensibly shrill performances of Beijing opera at makeshift streetside theatres. Much of the Penang I remember is already gone, thanks to rapid and poorly managed development -- beautiful old buildings have disappeared, the popular beaches are much dirtier, the views to the hills now interrupted by mushrooming tower blocks -- but much of it is still as it was and it remains a truly special place.

Someone else's photo of a beach in Penang. I hear that the only good beaches are the ones that are in out-of-the-way places, unsurprisingly, with names (like 'Muka Head') that I don't know because no one ever went there when I was little.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Dari Sumatera...
De Sumatra...

The immense and beautiful Lake Toba, set in the highlands of Sumatra -- lacking the spectacular volcanoes of Atitlan but with a massive island larger than Singapore in the middle -- was the perfect place to chill out for a few days... and occasionally indulge Christian's competitive nature with games of various kinds, aided by cheap bottles of local "Seahorse" whisky and not-so-cheap bottles of wine!

El Lago Toba, inmenso y lindo, situado en las tierras altas de Sumatra -- sin los volcanes spectaculosos de Atitlán pero con una isla enorme más grande que Singapur el el centro -- era el lugar perfecto para relajarnos por unos días... y a veces satisfacer los deseos competitivos de Christian con algunos juegos, ayudado por unas botellas baratas de whisky local que se llama "Seahorse" y unas botellas caras de vino también!

The villagers trying to launch a new boat by pushing it sideways onto the lake, which struck us as perhaps not the textbook approach. They succeeded eventually.
Los aldeanos tratando a botar un nuevo barco al lago empujandolo de lado, lo que nos pareció quizas no la técnica usual.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Indonesia. That very populous 'Malay' country next to Malaysia that, before Monday, I'd only known through its films and its migrant workers, two of whom work in my parents' home in Kuala Lumpur. It's good to finally see it, meet more of its people, begin to understand its diversity, and get a sense of what is shared between it and my country, and what is not.

It is fair to say that my Malay language skills are pretty rusty and that I have never really had to use Malay in casual conversation in any case as I was surrounded by English speakers for most of my time in Malaysia. So these past few days have seen a somewhat extraordinary burst of Malay on my part! My range of expression is limited, and my comprehension of others somewhat hampered by the substantial differences in vocabulary between (Malaysian) Malay and Indonesian, but still it feels fantastically fluid and easy -- after the communicational disabilities I experienced whilst travelling through Vietnam (and to a lesser extent Cambodia), I am finding this absolutely amazing, to be able to speak to people in their own language, to negotiate the mundane but sometimes tricky business of travelling with ease, to strike up random conversations with fellow passengers or conductors on buses.

One storekeeper remarked that she liked the sound of Malaysian Malay, "lembut... macam orangnya juga" (gentle... like its people) -- I'd never thought I could feel as proud to speak Bahasa Malaysia as I did at that moment.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

The highlight of our visit to Java was, unsurprisingly, the temples at Borobudur and Prambanan. Borobudur was impressive, even to two travellers still reeling from Angkor-shock, and it was great being there as dawn broke over the massive temple and the steaming forests around its base.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Sunrise over Angkor Wat. I cannot begin to describe how utterly overwhelmed Christian and I were by what we saw at Angkor, the centre of the Khmer empire between AD 900 and 1200. I had previously thought there was just a single ruined temple here and how wrong I was -- this is an entire imperial city-state, with huge and impressive temples scattered over an area of many many square miles. The proportions are staggering, the natural setting sublime, the artistry highly sophisticated, and the craftsmanship astonishing, such that the overall impact is of both deep spirituality and jaw-dropping awe. I am unused to gushing in this way but even so I am convinced that neither my words nor my photos here are doing it justice.

The ascent to the central sanctuary at the heart of Angkor Wat, topped by five towers symbolising Mt Meru, the home of the gods in Hindu mythology.

The view of the main outer gate of Angkor Wat (and its central towers in the distance) across the moat that surrounds it. The moat itself is a staggering 190 metres wide, and the outer walls are 3.6 kilometres long. The three pointy towers you can just about see in the hazy distance (at the centre of the photo) are the giant towers at the CENTRE of the temple. This is a BIG temple.

An unusually two-storied, and rather Greco-Roman-looking, building at the temple of Preah Khan.

At the temple of Ta Prohm, now best known for being a set for the Tomb Raider film.

The captivating, wild beauty of Beng Mealea, more forest than temple really. Most of the temples at Angkor will have been in a state similar to this when first found by European discoverers at the turn of the last century. Restoration work is now beginning at this site, but I can't help feeling it would be a great shame to lose the incredible atmosphere it has in its presently ruined state.

One of over a hundred faces of Jayavarman VII (ruled AD1181-1220) carved into the towers at the temple of Bayon, in the ancient city of Angkor Thom.

A very rare toothy smile on the face of one apsara (celestial maiden) at Angkor Wat. There are over 1000 apsaras at Angkor Wat but each wears a different facial expression, posture, hairstyle etc. Incredible.

Frequent caresses from the punters have led to a rather incredible level of polish on some of the more popular apsaras.

Christian in action, whipping out his big black um camera. Makes my dinky little ixus seem even smaller than usual.

The photo below shows Christian in his usual tuk-tuk riding gear, set to be the next hot trend in HoxDitch.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Dusk at the lavish Royal Palace complex in Phnom Penh, where a procession of fabulous Khmer buildings with those trademark multi-tiered roofs and pointy gable-ends is interrupted by a bizarre iron house, a gift from Napoleon III.

As the sun sets over the Royal Palace, the Phnom Penhois come out to play, chat, hang out, eat, have their fortunes told etc on Sisowath Quay, by the confluence of the mighty Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers. Many of the locals are amputees (as seen here in the foreground) as a result of landmine incidents. Landmines continue to be a great problem in this country, with an estimated 8 million mines still out there and a further 2000 mine victims every year.

But at least the amputees are still alive -- thousands of other Cambodians lost their lives in the Khmer Rouge years between 1975 and 1979, tortured at S21 and then systematically killed at Choeung Ek, known to the rest of the world as "The Killing Fields". There is now a hollow stupa at Choeung Ek containing some of the skulls excavated from mass graves there. The information pavillion on the site rightly points the finger of blame at "the clique of Pol Pot criminals" but then interestingly goes on to say that these people "have the human form but their hearts are demon's hearts" which I think wrongly attributes evil to an Other that sits outside of our shared humanity, when in fact the potential for such great wrongdoing is wholly human, just as is the potential for great goodness. Which is why we need always be vigilant.

My obligatory "steamy market scene" photo, taken at the Russian Market (Psar Toul Tom Poung) where we had lunch today.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Mention Saigon and it doesn't take long for thoughts of the Vietnam War to come to mind. And so it was yesterday, our last full day in Saigon (or, officially, Ho Chi Minh City), when we visited the War Remnants Museum, an incredibly moving reminder of the horrors of war generally, and of the atrocities perpetrated during the Second Indochinese War (i.e. the Vietnam War) in particular -- the unbelievable cruelty, the widespread environmental devastation, and the immense loss of life on all sides, as well as the continuing suffering of the many thousands severely deformed as a result of exposure to Agent Orange.

It was on one level a civil war, Viet against Viet, but really it is the tremendous American intervention that one remembers, and for good reason, as the war would almost certainly not otherwise have been so bloody and so protracted. What is not often recalled is the role of American allies (amongst others, the Australians, New Zealanders, South Koreans and Filipinos) who contributed forces stationed in the south -- one cannot help but see the parallels with the present-day campaigns of the United States and its current coalition allies.

Guarded optimism in contemporary magazine coverage of the war -- again, not at all dissimilar to much of the coverage on Afghanistan and Iraq more recently.

There is a photo of a GI holding a disembodied piece of a VC girl soldier up and apparently laughing, and the caption by the reporter wonders if this was a man or a monster. Perhaps the sad truth is that war makes monsters of all its boys and girls -- how else would you be able to kill and maim every day, and keep yourself together?

Also worthy of a mention before we leave Vietnam (in a few hours) is our visit to the Holy See of the Cao Dai religion. The very grand "cathedral" at Tay Ninh is a confused confection of styles, in keeping with its syncretism of Taoist, Buddhist, Confucian and Abrahamic beliefs -- the universe is ruled by the Jade Emperor, who has made several revelations to Man (including to Moses, Lao Tzu and Buddha) and the aim of adherents is to cut through the cycle of rebirth and proceed directly to Nirvana. I suppose as a set of beliefs it is no more or less ridiculous than any other, but I will admit to finding it less than compelling. I think I am reacting especially badly to the adoption of a formal structure modeled on the Church of Rome!

The building itself is a classic basilica in plan and in basic structure, but the end result is much wilder than anything in Rome -- dragons swirl up tall oriental columns topped by Corinthian capitals, holding aloft a sky-blue vaults embellished with clouds and even more dragons. Below, a bewildering array of geometric tile designs jostle for dominance, creating a violent visual vibration that is rather at odds with the airy, quiet serenity you might experience were you to keep your eyes closed. Entirely dominant at the far end of the nave is the all-seeing Divine Eye, mounted on a huge blue-green sphere, behind gilded altars and piles of fresh fruit, whilst keeping watch overhead are what appear to be reliefs of Buddha, Lao Tzu, Confucius... and possibly Victor Hugo (revered as a pre-eminent saint amongst Cao Daists)!

Menciona Saigon y después de un poco normalmente piensa sobre la guerra de Vietnam. Visitamos el "War Remnants Museum" (el Museo de los Vestigios de la Guerra) en Saigon (o, oficialmente, Ho Chi Minh City), un recuerdo muy commovedoro de los horrores de guerra en general, y los atrocidades de la Segunda Guerra de Indochina en particular -- la crueldad increíble, la devastación del medio ambiente, y la gran pérdida de vidas de todos, además del dolor que continua hoy de las muchas miles con deformedades severas a causa de Agent Orange.

En cierto modo fue una guerra civil, Viet contra Viet, pero es la gran intervención de EEUU que se recuerda, y por buena razón, porque si no la guerra no habría ser tan sangrienta o extensa. Lo que no es se recuerda a menudo es la papel de los aliados de EEUU (entre otros, los Australianos, los Neozelandeses, los Koreanos y los Filipinos) que enviaron soldados -- es claro el paralelo con las campañas actuales de EEUU y sus aliados corrientes.

Además, vale la pena mencionar nuestra visita a la capital de la religión de Cao Dai. La gran "catedral" en Tay Ninh es una confección confusa de estilos, como su syncretismo de creéncias taoistas, budistas, confucianas y abrahamicas -- el universe se gobierna por el emperador jade que ha dado unas revelaciones a la humanidad (incluso a Moses, Lao Tzu y Buddha) y el objetivo de sus partidarios es acortar el ciclo de renacimiento y ir directamente a Nirvana. Supongo que no es más o menos ridículo que otras colecciones de creéncias, pero confieso encontrarla poco convincente. Pienso que estoy reaccionando mal a la adopción de una structura formal que se basa en la iglesia Romana!

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Tengo un nuevo hobby - ir de compras para trajes y abrigos. Hoi An es un pueblo muy lindo que lleno con satrerías expertas para hacer ropa de etiqueta a precios bajos. Hay decenas de sastrerías aquí, por todas las calles y en el mercado, cada una con una copia obligatoria del "Next Directory" y muchas revistas de moda. Sus diseños no son los más últimos o sofisticados, especialmente para hombres, pero la calidad de confeccionar parece ser alta y es difícil quejarse ya que se puede tener un buen traje de lana hecho a medida sólo por US$60-$70!

I have a new hobby - shopping for suits and coats. Hoi An is a charming little town that is full of tailors skilled at making formal clothing at low prices. There are scores of tailors here, on every street and in the market, each with an obligatory copy of the "Next Directory" (bizarrely) and loads of fashion mags. Their designs might not be the latest or the most sophisticated, especially for men, but the quality of tailoring appears to be high and it really is quite hard to complain when a decent tailor-made wool suit can be had for just US$60-$70!

Christian being measured (read: molested) by the "flamboyant Mr Xe" (as accurately described in the Rough Guide).

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Looking on. Monks at a Buddhist temple outside Hue in central Vietnam, and their bemused audience this morning.

Earlier in the morning, I happened upon the abbot at another temple, who complimented me on my fine choice of hairstyle. A nun in his party kept saying "dep lam, dep lam", i.e. looks good. The European tourist whom they seemed to be accompanying looked bemused.

Bemusement is a popular look here.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Hanoi is cold in January. Cold, grey and hazy, with a dull, flat light that takes much of the gratification out of photography, whilst increasing the degree of challenge involved. Despite this, there are simple pleasures to be found here – hearty bowls of pho’ bo, dirt-cheap glasses of bia hoi, very friendly people (though possibly excessively so in the case of our hotel staff!), and street upon charming street of pleasant bustle in the Old Quarter. And even though the thousands of little limestone islands in Ha Long Bay seemed as ghosts through the grey mist – not the stunning field of rocky outcrops advertised in the tourist brochure – it was hard to sit on the prow of our boat as it cut across the calm emerald waters and not enjoy the beautiful serenity of it all.

I am still getting used to relying on a combination of hand signals and assorted visual aids (often the bowl of food at the next table) for communication, with a good measure of smiling thrown in for good measure. I find it somewhat ironic that I am facing much greater communicational barriers in Vietnam and Thailand, two countries geographically proximate to Malaysia, than I did in Mexico and Guatemala – at least in terms of verbal rather than non-verbal communication. The fact that Vietnamese, unlike Thai, is written in Roman script is barely helpful, mainly because it is a tonal language (with 6 tones) with a plethora of indecipherable accent marks, all devised unhelpfully by the French.

The difference with Thailand, I suppose, is that one would not even begin to entertain any hope of reading anything in Thai – street signs, menu items, public notices – the way one might in Vietnam. Interestingly, this complete inability of mine to even attempt to pronounce never mind understand the great majority of signs, reminds me that it has been some time since I travelled through a ‘developing’ country with no history of colonisation by a European power (who might have left their language or their script or both) and in fact that there are not many such countries in the world. One finds modern developing states all throughout Southeast Asia and Latin America but these all bear the imprints of their former colonial masters, not just in language but also political institutions, and systems of knowledge and learning – these ‘invisibles’ that many developing nations take for granted were never imposed on Thailand and so the Thais have had to find their own way. That they remained independent is remarkable enough, and their success (by the standards of the developing world, at least) at adapting to modern times and conditions is even more so.

Hanoi está frío en Enero. Frío, gris y nebuloso, con una luz apagada que reduce el placer de fotografía mientras aumenta el desafío. Sin embargo, hay placeres simples aquí – cuencos sustanciales de pho’ bo, vasos muy baratos de bia hoi, la gente muy genial (aunque posiblemente excesivamente en el caso de la personal de nuestra hotel), y muchas calles llenas con el bullicio de vivir en la Ciudad Vieja. Y aunque las miles de islas en la Bahía de Ha Long se parecen fantasmas por la bruma gris – no la colección bonita de piedras que se muestra en la publicidad turística – fue difícil no disfrutar la serenidad mientras el barco se deslizó a través la agua esmeralda.

Todavía se estoy acostumbrando a depender de gestos de mano y algunos medios visuales (a menudo el cuenco de comida en la próxima mesa), y sonreír mucho, para comunicar. Me parece un poco irónico que me enfrento más grandes barreras linguísticas en Vietnam y Tailandia, dos países cercanos a Malasia, que en México y Guatemala. El hecho de que vietnamita, no como tailandés, es escrito en una escritura romana, no es útil, porque es un idioma tonal (con 6 tonos) con muchos acentos, todos concebido por los franceses.

Supongo que la diferencia con Tailandia es que no se espera leer cualquiera en tailandés - señales viales, cartas de restaurante, anuncios públicos - mientras en Vietnam se puede intentar. Mi incapacidad aun para tratar a pronunciar la mayoría de las señales me recuerda que fue hace mucho tiempo la última vez viajé por un país en desarrollo que no tiene historía de colonización por un poder europeo (que podía dejar su idioma o su escritura o ambos) y que no hay muchos países así en el mundo. Por lo general, los estados modernos por toda Asia Sudeste y America Latina tienen los sellos de sus ex jefes, en sus idiomas, sus instituciónes políticas, y los sistemas de conocimiento y aprender - estas 'cosas invisibles' que muchos países en desarrollo dan por sentado nunca se impuso a Tailandia y entonces los tailandeses había tenido que buscar su vía propía. Que ellos mantenieron su independencía es bastantemente notable, y su exito (según los criterios del mundo en desarrollo, al menos) en adaptar a las condiciones modernas es aun más extraordinario.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

El viaje continua, en una tienda de Internet muy ocupada al lado del Khao San Road en Bangkok. Mientras trato de usar mis dedos tiesos de frío por el air-con aquí, las condiciones a fuera continuan ser sofocantes -- calientes, húmedas, congestionadas y increíblemente turísticas en el modo más repugnante. Pero es el Khao San Road al fin y al cabo.

Me sentió un poco extraño esta mañana cuando ponerme mi mochila otra vez después de quedarme por casi tres semanas en casa, no tengo que re-empacarla cada noche, no tengo que decidir cada mañana si sería el día de salir, no constantemente preguntarme a donde ir el próximo. La oportunidad para tener un descanso relajado por navidad con la familia y una ronda suficiente (pero no excesiva) de salir a fiestas fue bienvenida, pero definitivamente es bueno por empezar viajar otra vez. Un poco inquietante, como es siempre al principio de un gran viaje, pero bueno.

The journey continues, in a busy Internet café off the Khao San Road in Bangkok. As I struggle to press my air-con-frozen fingers into action in here, conditions outside continue to be oppressive -- hot, humid, congested and unbelievably touristy in the most off-putting way. But it is the Khao San Road after all.

It felt a little strange this morning to hoist the old rucksack onto my back again after almost three weeks at home, not having to repack it every night, not having to decide every morning if it would be leaving day, not constantly wondering where to go next. The opportunity to have a relaxed Christmas break with the family and a respectable (though not excessive) bout of partying around New Year’s was welcome, but it definitely feels good to be on the move again. A little discombobulating, as it always is at the beginning of a proper trip, but good.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The awe-inspiring Atlantes standing at the ruins of Tula, outside Mexico City

The church is all that remains of the village of Paricutin, hemmed in on all sides by lava

The new volcano of Paricutin, which emerged in the 1940s

Teotihuacan, an impressive ancient site just outside Mexico City, with some seriously large pyramids