My travels in Asia – Bombay.

I refuse to call it Mumbai.

I have been here before but this time it was fun. Bombay is quite rich architecturally – it has one of the largest collections of buildings of Victorian Gothic architecture and Art Deco (2nd largest collection in the world after Miami) – so much so that it has made it to the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.

The railway terminus in Bombay – Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (formerly Victoria Terminus) and the Elephanta Caves are both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Ajanta and Ellora  caves are near Bombay and make it to the list too.

I have put a bunch of pictures here of Mumbai city.

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My travels in Asia – Cambodia.

They have a saying in this part of the world – “Same same but different”. The meaning of it … it means like it reads. Once told, the tourists keep on repeating the phrase frequently relating it to everything in the region from temples to food, much to the annoyance of many. To compare Laos with Thailand you can say “same same but different”. Cambodia however was very different.

As I landed at the Phnom Penh (the capital of Cambodia) airport and made my way through the immigration, I was stopped. I just had 1 blank page left on my passport – some countries would not let you in with that. However, I had pre-planned and asked the Cambodian embassy in Zürich if that was the case for Cambodia – the ambassador had assured me that it would be fine. I repeated the above to the immigration officer. He had a careful look at my passport and my visas … then in broken English asked me to pay 10 extra dollars. I had no intention of parting with a tenner and politely asked him if he would take the payment via credit card as I was not carrying any extra cash. That conversation was short and he handed back my passport without any eye contact.

Phnom Penh looks much like a suburban Indian town and as a matter of fact, the whole of Cambodia bears striking similarities with parts of India. It was hot, humid and like any peripheral Indian town, traffic was chaotic. I was living in a hotel right next to a market which had an eerie resemblance with Sealdah market – the smell and chaos made me strangely nostalgic.

S-21 and Choeung Ek

Now some facts. I realised that as I dug deeper into South East Asia, the recent history of the countries I visited just got progressively darker. For those of you who dont know this, a quarter of all Cambodians (yes 1 in every 4 people in the country) died in the 4 years between 1975-79 when it was under the Khmer Rouge regime. Most of the dead were intellectuals who were murdered by the regime, which had an utopian view of their country with an agrarian society. Remnants of their atrocities dot this country.

Tuol Sleng Security Prison 21 (S-21) was sort of a detention camp for the prisoners before they were sent off to be slaughtered. It was a school turned into a torture cum interrogation centre by the regime. The class rooms were split into small enclosures with one person per cell so that the detainees could not collaborate. The captives were chained to the ground so that if they moved too much it would make noise and raise alarm … I know it sounds horrible but it is exactly how it was. The school, which is turned into a museum now is quite well preserved – you can see blood stains on the wall. The history is only about 30 years old and it cannot be lost even if you try hard anyway. Out of thousands imprisoned at Tuol Sleng, there were only seven known survivors because individually they had some unique skills – like repairing cars or painting etc. Three of the survivors are still alive. If you ever visit the site you will probably bump into at least one of them – I met 2. One of them has written a book, which he is happy to personify should you decide to buy it. The other one was just hanging out.

A collection of mass graves is referred to as a Killing Field and the country has many of them. I visited Choeung Ek Killing Field near the capital. It was a Chinese cemetery converted to a killing field by the regime. About 10,000 people were murdered there. As you walk into the area you hit an imposing tower with glass windows stacked with skulls of the victims. It is extremely graphic and sort of a vision of hell. As you take the next step and enter the tower, the nauseating stench of rotting bones can only be overcome by holding a burning incense stick right next to your nose. Out of the tower, the management have cordoned off areas where they found mass-graves and noted the number of corpses in the graves. However new graves appear every year as the rain washes the mud away. You can see bones sticking out of the ground from those newly found graves and as a visitor, sometimes you walk over those bones as they have not been cordoned off. It was quite a moving experience and some tourists broke down in tears. Pretty much everyone I met in Cambodia was affected by the genocide. The following pictures cannot do justice to my experience … the sight, smell, touch … you have to be there in person.

The annoying thing about Cambodia is that a lot of the perpetrators roam freely as they were pardoned. As I had started writing the blog I was reading the obituary of Brother #3 Ieng Sary, who was the foreign minister of the country during the regime. I am not going to go into history lessons here. If you want to learn more about it, there is a lot of information freely available on the web – I am especially fond of this site. Additionally there are documentaries, books and I would recommend you to watch the Oscar winner namesake of Killing Fields. The film is based on a true story and one of the characters in the film (Dith Pran) coined the term Killing Fields.

Angkor

Cambodia however is not known around the world for its genocide. It took a big busted woman in a tank top and hot pants to put the country on the world map for tourists.  The most famous symbol of Cambodia is the Angkor Wat and I am sure you have all come across pictures of the monument in various places. The Angkor Wat is something that the locals take tremendous pride in and it is a genuine national symbol (more so than the Taj Mahal in India or the Pyramids in Egypt). The temple appears in the current Cambodian flag and it even appeared in the  Khmer Rouge flag – the Khmer Rouge regime was kind to the ancient monuments in the country.

The Angkor Archaeological Park is an UNESCO World Heritage Site situated in the town of Siem Reap. It stretches over 400 km2 containing the remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century. Angkor Wat is the most famous of the attractions inside the park, which also features the Angkor Thom and the Bayon Temple. The Khmer empire was mighty and massive encompassing countries from modern-day Vietnam to the Bay of Bengal in the width; stretching from China in the north to modern day Malaysia in the south in the 9th Century.

Anyway I think best not to go into history lessons here too – a pictorial blog is the best way to go ahead.

As I went through the history and visited the remains of the Angkor Archaeological Park, I could not help wonder what makes the monument popular. There are sites in India which are older and more impressive architecturally – if you are interested have a look at this list. The Khmers were first Hindus and then Buddhists – both of the religions originated from India. The Khmer architecture of the ancient and medieval world, with its religious bent, resembles various monuments in south India … and sometimes poorly so. Most of the structures are not standing for 2 reasons – they were not maintained over the years gone by and secondly just because they were just badly constructed. So why do so many tourists flock to Cambodia and not go to India instead for a similar but better experience? I could think of the following reasons: First the complex is massive – I have not seen anything as big anywhere else. Secondly, the temples in the middle of jungle adds to the romanticism which is pretty much un-paralleled – the fact that the structures were not taken care of works for them basically. Last but not the least, it is in the South East Asian tourist trail and Cambodia with all its mess is still cleaner than India overall.

Siem Reap

I quite liked this town. It was full of young travellers and the vibe was great with the night markets, food stalls and bars. I wandered around the town and ate street food – the local speciality is called Amok, which is ‘same same but different’ when you compare with a green Thai curry. I would recommend to walk around Arts Centre night market – it is touristy but nice. Truck loads of Japanese tourists come there hence stuff are a tad pricey. Siem Reap is on Tonlé Sap, the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia which links to the Mekong River – hence you can reach anywhere that is on the Mekong from there basically. There are many floating villages on Tonlé Sap and I visited one. One thing which is quite unique about Siem Reap and the surrounding areas is crocodile farming. There are many souvenir shops in town selling stuffed crocs and croc leather accessories in Siem Reap. Anyway there goes some pictures …

The people in Cambodia were not as nice as in Laos, streets were not as clean as Thailand and traffic was more chaotic than both the countries. It was the least tourist-friendly but the most interesting of the countries I visited in South East Asia. It was full of surprises – from genocides to jungle temples.  As I boarded my flight back to Bombay via Bangkok, I met an old Swiss couple. They did a road trip around Cambodia for about 3 weeks going from far north to the South … I pondered why not do that next time.

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My travels in Asia – Laos.

Laos (pronounced Lao) PDR (People’s Democratic Republic) is a landlocked country and the Mekong river is its soul. I entered Laos in Huay Xai crossing the Mekong river at the very north of Thailand near Chiang Rai.

Laos looked considerably less developed than Thailand at the very first sight. Thai people abbreviate the PDR (of Laos PDR) as Please Don’t Rush and quite rightly so – things looked relaxed and slow right as we crossed the river. After going through the visa process, we started our boat ride (commonly known in the backpacker circle as the 2 day slow bo’) along Mekong River and made our way to Luang Prabang.

I was lucky to be with a great group of people who would accompany me through Laos to Cambodia. However I would write here about my thoughts about the locals and places I had visited and hence skip my interactions with my companions.

I wanted to jump into the Mekong river and go for a quick swim as we headed out of Huay Xai but the current was too strong to do that. So decided enjoy the view and take a nap. The boat ride was relaxing and in a weird way, spiritual. We reached Pak Beng just before sunset.

Pak Beng

Pak Beng is a small town of only 200 people (with at least as many backpackers). Laos was a French protectorate since late 1800s. French influence across Laos is overwhelming especially in their culinary traditions. In the small town of Pak Beng you can find decent croissants and French pastry – was a pleasant surprise after eating Pad Thai as staple diet for more than a week.

Ok – first night in Laos came with some hard facts. Laos is a part of the Golden Triangle for drug trafficking – many locals as well as tourists died of drug overdose (and also doing stupid things like jumping head first into the shallow bit of the river). Here is a trivia: More Australians died partying in Laos than in Vietnam war – sums it up. The local government (at the behest of the Australian government I was told) is quite strict in controlling drugs in Laos. There is also a drinks curfew starting at 2330 – there is police patrol enforcing that. In spite of all these measures, it is very easy to buy drugs in Laos. The problem in Laos is two fold – not only there is/was a lot of drugs but also the healthcare framework is non existent. Pak Beng is about 8 hours away from the nearest hospital and there are quite recent stories of people dying of aforementioned antics.

Luang Prabang

Next morning we set off for Luang Prabang – the boat ride as pleasant and soothing as ever. We reached the town around mid-day which left us with plenty of time to check it out.

Luang Prabang is located in the peninsula of Nam Khan and Mekong rivers. It is a pretty little town of 50,000 people with lots Buddhist temples as well as cute French colonial buildings – the whole town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In my trip so far, it was definitely the prettiest place I had been. Went on a quick bicycle ride around town to check out Wat Xieng Thong, a local temple. Then just before dusk climbed up the Phou Si hill to watch sunset over the Mekong river – although touristy, it was a pleasant experience. Many people around the world and Laos itself come to Luang Prabang to become Buddhist monks – independent of your religion you can experience being a Buddhist monk for a period of time. Many foreigners become monks for periods as short as 2 weeks to a month; many locals choose to become monks after retiring. As a monk you learn about Theravāda Buddhism and lead a disciplined life as dictated by their code of conduct (227 rules). The idea of becoming a monk for a month did cross my mind … I will probably become one at some point of time in my life but it was not possible then. So, monks have to shave their head (and eye-brows) once every 2 weeks (probably more frequently for a hairy mofo like me) … if you indeed decide to become a monk make sure you grow your eye-brows back before you head to the border control.

The Kuang Si falls near town is a fun place to be. There is a big waterfall and there are many small ones in front of that. You can jump off a small-ish waterfall and do a rope swing to dive into the pond in front of the falls. It is very good fun and if you are not an absolute idiot like me, you cannot hurt yourself (doing something like landing on your back). There is a bear rescue centre on the way to the falls which is worth a visit.

Back in town, the night market in Luang Prabang needs mention. I had said before that I am not a huge fan of night markets in general but somehow the one in this town had a charm and I could not resist myself but roam around. The more fun bit was helping some of my co-travellers to bargain … my Indian genes came back to life there. The night food market was cheap, clean and delicious. You could always top-up your already full stomach with some street-side desserts – crepes and other French pastries are widespread everywhere in Laos. With a full stomach I had headed to Utopia bar by the Mekong River both the evenings that I stayed in the town. It is quite a sweet spot with a good view and pleasant breeze to cool you down after a hot and humid afternoon (depending on when you visit Laos). However, the curfew held in this town too … so we tried to find spots to head to after 2330. As per some recommendations, we ended up in a bowling alley just out of town. Quite an odd spot – they served alcohol but the ambience was non-existent as it was a huge well-lit hall with no music. I had no intention to prove my bowling skills to the intoxicated back-packers out there so I started talking to some of the locals who work there. It seems the Chinese (yes, the Chinese) had found ways to circumvent the local laws to find a loop-hole that would allow them to run the spot past the drinks curfew deadline. They served only Chinese alcohol there and stuff like the welcome sign etc were all in Chinese – odd as no one, neither the tourists nor the locals could read the language. Anyway, I got the feeling that it was generating employment albeit breaking laws (most of the employees there were students working part-time) and not causing any environmental or any major cultural damage … and the Chinese whiskey that they served was not bad either. The fun, however, ended there around 1-ish but there were other (less-legit) places to head to after that if one wanted to carry on.

Vang Vieng

Next stop was the small town of Vang Vieng which was first settled in the 1300s as a staging post between Luang Prabang and Vientiane (the current capital of Laos). The ancient Laotian way of life has not changed but just have been taken over by backpackers. The nature there was beautiful – the shallow Nam Song river winding past tall misty hills. There used to be lots of parties along the river and you could tube down floating from one party to another – all that is shut down because of this. I was not very lucky with the weather in Vang Vieng to make the most out of it. I had gone kayaking along the river and it was good fun – first time I had done this and it will not be the last. The town was dotted with hippy-esque joints to cater backpackers – food was cheap and people friendly. But playing beer-pong in one of the local bars was not the best of moves – I had fallen sick there and it took me out of action for about 2 days.

Vientiane

Vientiane is a short bus ride from Vang Vieng. It is the capital of Laos – a small tidy town of 800,00 people which feels very cosy. It is located on the Mekong river – Thailand on the other side. The town has quite a few tourist attractions – best described pictorially.

COPE and some history

One thing that needs separate mention here is COPE in Vientiane and the related history about bombing of Laos. Laos formed a vital part of the Ho Chi Minh trail for transport of weapons and other materials from communist North Vietnam to the US backed South. From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped over 2 million tons of ordnance over Laos in 580,000 bombing missions, the equivalent of one planeload every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years. At least 270 million cluster bomblets were dropped as part of the bombing campaign; approximately 80 million failed to detonate. Every year 100s of men, women and mostly children lose their eyes, limbs and even lives as they come across these unexploded bombs, locally known as bombies. COPE helps these innocent victims of a war that’s long over. You can donate money to help the victims – buy a limb, educate local doctors etc. It was a humbling experience – I donated some money for an artificial limb, sent a postcard to my mom with the details and moved on. If you are ever in Vientiane, you should make it a point to visit this centre …

Laos is a fascinating country – idyllic and peaceful. Most Laotians have gone through a lot in their lifetime and still their past haunts them as bombs explode out of the blue. But, they have not taken up arms against their past oppressors like many others would. They have forgiven them and moved on with their lives. They welcome everyone to their country from Indians to Australians and Americans with the same kindness and generosity. This forgiveness is the essence of this beautiful country and its happy inhabitants. If most citizens of this world will think and behave like a typical Laotian, I believe that the world’s going to be a very peaceful place.

A lot of their calm, I found, is down to their Buddhist way of life. I want to come back to Laos again and be a Buddhist monk for a period of time … don’t know when this will happen but I have noted it down in my bucket list.

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My travels in Asia – Thailand.

I have been travelling across South East Asia – Thailand, Laos and Cambodia for about 20 days in February and March. I left Europe on the 13th – conveniently to take myself away from my memories on the ever-popular Valentines day. First stop was India – I had gone there for my sister’s wedding, which was on the 17th of February. I will eventually put up some pictures of the wedding on Facebook. I left home on the 21st – only to return in Switzerland after mid March. I think it is a bit of an overkill to document every single day here as I am writing quite after the events/experiences actually happened – so I will give you a gist of my thoughts.

Bangkok

I arrived in Bangkok, Thailand very early in the morning – around 0300. Indians can get a visa on arrival in Thailand these days and there were plenty of them to take advantage of that. Some of the tourists looked dodgy enough to leave no room for imagination about their intention to visit Thailand. However to benefit the regular Thai tourism industry there were a lot of families and couples queueing up for the visa I noticed. I wish I will live to see the day when Indians can travel without a visa anywhere. The visa process was well organised and hassle free although the visa office looked like a Thai food take-away joint inside a swanky airport which can outshine most European airports. As you will realise that my experiences in Thailand were extremely pleasant but I was confronted with one of the ills right when I landed. It was a taxi-driver trying to take me to the hotel on a fixed price and not what the meter indicated. Anyway the friendly Tourist Information woman had warned me of that and I negotiated with the cabbie to turn the meter on.

I had put myself on a decent hotel to start the trip as I knew that I would not get much sleep during my sister’s marriage. I caught up on some sleep and made contact with a friend of a friend (Richard) who was co-incidentally in Bangkok at the time. The next 3.5 days in Bangkok were sleepless and intoxicating … but I managed to squeeze in a fair bit of sight-seeing.

After this trip, Bangkok has become one of my favourite cities. The city has a lot to offer, the infrastructure is good, it is clean, there is an inherent history/culture and locals are friendly – quite a feat for a city of over 8 million people in developing country, if you want to call Thailand that (I don’t). The street food in Bangkok is amazing and I don’t know anyone who fell sick eating them … so I embraced any food I saw and had a bite (ate some worms too just for the banter). There are lots of stuff to see in the city and I am not going to write a tourist guide for an extremely touristy city here – so I am posting some pictures below.

I am not saying that you will recreate Hangover II every weekend in Bangkok, but after dark the city turns fairly crazy. Talking of that movie, the Lebua Skybar at State Tower is a good place to be around sunset – you gotta time it right. The drinks are a tad expensive (550 Baht or 19 USD I paid for a cocktail) there but hey you pay for the view which is worth it – really. In Bangkok there is a strong undercurrent of sex tourism with brothels, strip-clubs and ping-pong shows … but if you can take those with good humour, the city opens itself up to some amazing venues. Khaosan Road is popular among backpackers but I preferred the Sukhumvit Area with the VW buses turned street-side bars. Bangkok like any other big city has websites telling you what’s going on at nights and what events are on.

A Thai lady said : “All sexy women in Thailand are lady boys and all handsome men are gay”. I do personally know many good-looking Thais but the line above is a good word of advice during a nightout in this region.

Some random 10 year olds dancing in Khaosan Road. Wannabe lady boys? “Mom I am a fairy”

I also had the opportunity to go to a Thai kick boxing (Muay Thai) match at the Lumpini Stadium. Some people I know are quite into it and themselves practise the sport. However, if you are not, still it is a good experience. The time I was in Thailand, apparently, the season for “finals” was over i.e. the big boys were resting – so had to watch a light weight version instead. It was an interesting atmosphere with a typical traditional music playing at the background and locals betting on the match right by the ring.

I was sad to leave Bangkok to be honest – but I did make a promise to myself that I will come back. It is only a 2.5 hour flight from Kolkata where my parents are based.

Chiang Mai

My next stop was Chiang Mai, which is about 700 km north of Bangkok and very close to the borders of Laos, Burma as well as China. The 14 hour overnight train to Chiang Mai was fairly uneventful. The gay cook put up a show in the restaurant coach late at night, which was entertaining. The day we were travelling was some Buddhist holy day (was a full moon day too like most Buddhist holy days are) and the shops would not sell any alcoholic drinks. However it is Asia and there were ways around it. I did not sleep very well in the days preceding the train ride and was not sure if I could sleep while on the train, so I tried to knock myself out with some allergy pills (good old Cetrizine). I was reading about its side effects later: “Dryness of the mouth, nose and throat, drowsiness, urinary retention, blurred vision, nightmares and stomach ache are commonly reported side effects of this drug”. The drowsiness did hit me hard and I did not remember any nightmares when I woke up quite fresh after a good 7 hour sleep.

Chiang Mai is a small town where, like many other similar towns in South East Asia, people are obsessed with pick-up trucks especially Toyota Hilux-s. They do not have Tuk Tuk-s in Chiang Mai but only converted pick-up trucks which form a graveyard for the old-timers from the 80s. To be very honest, I somehow preferred Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Saying that, I feel the same when I go to most small towns in India – I always prefer a big city than a smaller place in most of Asia. This preference of mine, however, would change when I go to Laos (will write about it later).

Near the town there is this place called Tiger Kingdom which houses tigers of various ages who you can take pictures with. This is a very common thing to do in Thailand and I am sure you have seen Facebook profile photos to envy. I decided to follow the crowd … the Pantha meeting the tiger. A bit hyped before the encounter, I was sad and disappointed by the whole thing – they have sedated a bunch of beautiful wild creatures and are using them to make money. The authorities deny that they drug the tigers but it is a blatant lie. Even the very young new-borns (they cost more to take a photo with), who look like little puppies, were sedated. I had bought a ticket to take photos with the largest and the smallest of their tigers but decided to return the ticket for the smallest ones. I will not do this again but I gotta say that it was quite an experience being close to these creatures.

Back in town, Chiang Mai had a decent night market which I had no interest in. The night life in Chiang Mai was more vibrant that what I would have expected it to be and I did not get much sleep that night (thanks to Richard who had come up to Chiang Mai a day before I had).

Chiang Rai

Chiang Rai was the next stop and more of a pit stop before moving to Laos. Chiang Rai is another small town even a bit further north than Chiang Mai (near to the same countries). There is a night market in Chiang Rai too – every city I had visited after Bangkok had one. But the great thing about Chiang Rai was the massive rectangular courtyard with food stalls all around and a stage in front where the locals performed. Food was great lasted 2 performances – one of a local band who had songs similar to the bands that are bullied in the high school and the second one was one performed by lady boys. The latter, quite honestly, was enjoyable – these lady boys look exactly like women and they were miming to some Thai songs and put up an entertaining show.

A short albeit representative video of the show.

The next day had to say goodbye to Thailand – I really liked the place. Liked the people, liked the food, liked how things worked. It is an easy place to be for a foreigner and is bang in the middle of Asia – no wonder it attracts so many tourists from all around the world. It is a model that India should emulate (India received around a third of international tourists that Thailand got in 2012).

The people reminded me of Indians in many ways but they were not. The culture and the history are interlinked with India, so there is no escape – there are figures from Indian mythology everywhere in the temples (like Garuda and Ananta Naga). The Thai Emblem is that of Garuda (same is true for the majority Muslim country, Indonesia surprisingly) – I got a Garuda stamp in my passport at immigration counter while entering Thailand (picture below).

What I liked most about the Thai people is their tolerance to anything and everything under the sun. People talk openly about sexuality and the tweaks of it – I have met many straight people who can call a lady boy their best friend and are not afraid of it. However, as I realised, to be a gay is still a taboo in Thailand (but to be a Lesbian is not) … this could probably be a reason for the urge of an unusually large number of men in this region to be lady boys when compared to the rest of the world. I do not know and have to read more about this.

A few things to note here – although not an ex-British colony, Thailand (like India and other ex-British colonies) drives on the left side of the road – tried to find out why and this is the best answer I got. Also in Thailand people love their King (quite vocally and in practise so) – you will find pictures of the king everywhere (similar to that of Kemal Ataturk in Turkey). Their love reminded me of the Satyajit Ray film Hirok Rajar Deshe, where the king had brainwashed all his subjects. In line with public sentiment, lèse majesté is illegal in Thailand.

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