High Rises, High Season and Handicrafts (More Notes from Cambodia Trip)

Some missing stuff from the previous post.

  • The government doesn’t allow construction of anything higher than Angkor Wat in the nearby areas. So Siem Reap is pleasantly free of high rises. Even if it is some coercion on the part of the government, the outcome is not bad.
  • Online research led me to believe that as far as the tourism season is concerned, October is the border month, and the high season starts from November. But going by what local people in the business said, November is more of a border month and December is when the high season starts. So, pretty much by accident, we landed at a good time. It rained a little and sometimes relieved us from the heat. But not so much as to disrupt the plans. Tourist places were not shut down, but the crowd was not at its peak. And so on…
  • A curious difference between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. They call out to women as “Lady” in Siem Reap, but as “Madame” in Phnom Penh.
  • Cambodian food is rather bland. As if to compensate for it, a Thai restaurant we went to had overdone the chilies even for Indian taste-buds.
  • They don’t seem to believe in using salt in food. It was practically missing, not just from the Cambodian cuisine, but also from things like Pizzas we tried.
  • Most restaurants, quite annoyingly, do not serve water. So you end up buying packaged water.
  • In one strange case, we were not served water when we ordered the main course. But two glasses came when we ordered desserts later. I wonder if there was a minimum bill value constraint!
  • For some reason, I had a better time understanding people’s accent there than Abhaya and I was better at adapting my language and accent to theirs as well. By the end of it, I was pronouncing dollar as “dollaaaar”. In a proud moment, I even managed to negotiate the taxi prices down while talking in single words and short phrases on phone. The key was to ask “best price?” with suitable interrogative emphasis.
  • The middle-class penny-pincher in us was having a difficult time shopping there. Because handicrafts (or claimed handicraft) is what you can majorly shop for as souvenirs. And they looked so much like what you would find in India that we had a hard time shelling out dollars for them, even though prices might have been comparable to those in India.
  • Still, we did pick up some souvenirs and gifts including a couple of bottles of Sombai. Those who to our Christmas party can have a taste 😉

Hammocks, History and Horrors: Notes from Cambodia Trip

A quick list before I forget some important observations 🙂

  • For a long time to come, in a word association game, when someone says Cambodia, I won’t respond with Angkor Wat, but with hammock. Hammocks are everywhere. In front of their houses, at the back of their shops, on the tree next to a street vendor’s stall, on the specially placed hooks of their tuk-tuks and perhaps a bunch of other places I failed to notice.
  • Indians could learn something from Cambodians in the matter of traffic. That it is possible to have total disregard for all traffic rules and etiquettes, and yet not honk! Yes – they do everything we do, overtake precariously, jump signals, drive on the wrong side to save a “U” turn, but they don’t honk. In that matter they are completely western. Honking is reserved for dire circumstances, and the definition of dire far surpasses what the westerners or even us Indians would consider so. A lot of near-accident situations are let go of without honking or fighting.
  • Sometime in the course of history, they seem to have replaced horses with two-wheelers. Tuk-tuk, the most common form of transport for the tourists, is essentially a buggy hooked to a two-wheeler instead of a horse. But it doesn’t stop at that. They hook load-carrying carts, sometimes pretty long, street side stalls and even entire shops to the two-wheelers.
  • Small cars are rarely seen. Sedans and SUVs dominate
  • The tourist places are kept spectacularly clean and convenient. No equivalent of kurkure packets strewn around. Do the locals not visit, or do they have better civic sense than Indians is something I don’t know. Tourists just fall in line seeing that everything is clean and there are enough dustbins available. There are special, well-maintained toilets near most temples in Angkor that tourists with a valid pass can use for free. Toilets are fairly usable, with access to toilet paper, in other tourist places too.
  • Everything is cheap for westerners, but Indian tourists are not too badly placed either. If you are used to Bangalore restaurant prices, food is budget-friendly, although the prices near Angkor temples are almost double of that available in Siem Reap markets. Portions, especially of local food, are big and the desis should consider sharing.
  • Transport cost, however, hurts. Every time we stepped into a tuk-tuk it cost at least 2 USD, even for a very short ride. That’s 140 Rs. approximately.
  • Desi bargaining and haggling habits can help a lot.
  • Tips are not necessary or expected but are welcomed. Most workers, even in the tourism industry with its dollar prices, do not seem to make much money.
  • Angkor Wat and other places are amazing. After a long-long time seeing a historical place gave me a feeling of awe. The scale of everything is just unparalleled.
  • Despite all the other convenient arrangements, the onsite information is severely lacking on all Angkor sites. So, you better go with a detailed guidebook (if you have time to explore) or a guide so that you understand what you see around you. Other sites like Landmine museum, killing fields, genocide museum, and national museum in Phnom Penh have functional and well-produced audio tours, which are helpful for those with time to spare.
  • An Indian visitor’s (or those who are well-travelled in India) experience would be markedly different from a typical westerner’s experience. Cambodian religious beliefs are a strange syncretism or mishmash (depending on how you choose to see it) of Hinduism, Mahayana Buddhism including Vajrayana, Theravada Buddhism, and the ancient local religions. Sometimes when I found the guides or locals pronouncing Sanskrit names in strange accents, it felt like their tongues are working so hard at that. I felt like telling them that it’s okay. They don’t need to work so hard. I will pronounce it for them. I know that they mean “shayan” or “abhaya mudra”, when they are uttering some weirdly difficult words.
  • The same mishmash is visible in the temples, bas-reliefs, and most historical artifacts. At times, it can get funny. They have Hanuman and Ravana leading devas and asuras respectively in samudra-manthan!
  • They have some deep affinity for serpents going by their overuse in the temples, statues, and bas-reliefs. Perhaps the Khmer royalty was supposed to be associated with the Nagas in some way.
  • It feels like Indian religion and spirituality got exported in the same mish-mashed form to Cambodia a thousand years ago as it is getting exported to the West now. The spiritual tourists today happily hop from a Buddhist meditation center in Dharamshala to an ashrama in Rishikesh, feeling spiritually fulfilled, experiencing no dissonance that would arise from the awareness of the fundamental philosophical differences. Then they carry an overall idea of Indian spirituality with them back home which accommodates everything together the way it can’t be done in the land of origin of these religions. Intellectually it might be baffling, but people are emotionally happy with many Gods and paths to nirvana and fail to see any contradictions or inconsistency.
  • All the dancing female figures on the temple walls and artifacts are clubbed under a single name ‘apsara’, pronounced with typical Khmer laboriousness as ‘apsaaraa’. But we did manage to locate an obvious darpan-sundari in Angkor Wat.
  • Very strangely, the female dwarpalas are called ‘devata’. And perhaps so are the male figures which are not identified as any specific God or mythological figure. Perhaps there is an explanation, but I can’t figure it out.
  • Even though it felt like everybody around me has already visited Cambodia, the number of Indian tourists there seem minimal. Their tourism scene is dominated by the Chinese and the Korean tourists, followed by the Japanese, Australians, Europeans and Americans. More Indians should visit Cambodia. There is a shared cultural heritage which could be eye-opening to look at. And there is much to be understood about the modern political situation too.
  • Angkor-era temples in Cambodia are like Hoyasala temples in Karnataka. You can go on seeing one after the other and it will never end. But we were fairly happy with our four full days of stay in Siem Reap in which we covered areas near Angkor Wat as well as made a day trip to Prasat Preah Vihar near Thai border. We also had another half a day in which we just strolled through the Old Market, Pub Street and oriented ourselves to the place and its prices apart from seeing the McDermott Photo Gallery.
  • Cambodian history had to be pieced together in a way very similar to that of Indian history. From the archaeological evidence, inscriptions and Chinese travelers’ accounts. (Bless the ancient Chinese travelers!)
  • It is curious that the country first imported Mahayana Buddhism and then shifted to Theravada. I wonder how that happened. Perhaps some reading of history is in order.
  • It is also a weird coincidence of history that they brought back monarchy (even if strictly nominal) in 1990s to hold the country together.
  • But people are quite playful about the status, especially poverty, of their king. “Cambodian king must be the poorest king on the earth today,” joked one of our guides. “Thai king is the richest,” he informed us in the same breath, “I checked on Internet. And the richest business man is this guy called…. Yes… Bill Gates, right?” Another guide laughed when I expressed wonder at the amount of gold and silver housed in the Silver Pagoda. “The king who built it must be rich,” I said. “That was then,” she replied, “Now the government pays salary to our king.” Even in the rich days back “then”, the king was really a stooge of the French.
  • The landmine museum near Siem Reap (on the way to the exquisitely beautiful Bantey Sree), the killing fields near Phnom Penh and the genocide museum bring alive the horrors of 20th-century history.
  • At first, I wondered what could inspire one to make a tourist spot out of their miseries. Perhaps desperation to get those tourist dollars for a poor economy. Perhaps a noble sense of responsibility towards the rest of the world, warning them about the evils of violence even at the cost of disturbing your own peace of mind. But as I listened to the extremely well-produced audio tours of the killing fields and the genocide museum, another stark and sad reality hit me. For the current regime, keeping the horrors of Khmer Rouge alive is a propaganda tool. It is like warning their people and the rest of the world: Do you want to go back to that? If not, let us be in power. Irrespective of how disappointing we are in many other areas.
  • With that realization, the horrors of killing fields depressed me even more. It’s like people are being victimized again and again.
  • The current regime – despite a pretense of democracy – is still authoritarian. People aren’t allowed to protest. The new generation is not happy with corruption, lack of opportunities, poverty. But older people are content just to have no war. This is the summary of the current situation from one of our guides, and might be simplified to sound attractive to Western tourists. But from what I read and heard, it is not necessarily too far off the mark.
  • I am supposed to say that I return with happy memories from the vacation. But I return with a strange mixture of awe and fear and questions. I am happy I did this trip. I came to bear witness, my Cambodian brethren. Difficult as it feels to hope so, may all our futures be more peaceful than the past.
  • We ended our trip on a sweet note with some Cambodian desserts from Teuk Skor in Phnom Penh. I was disappointed with the lack of local desserts in the menus of most restaurants and was happy that I found them.

Read more in High Rises, High Season and Handicrafts (More Notes from Cambodia Trip).

Israel

And the third country which drives on the right side of the road is Israel. Having missed it for long in China, I was on a lookout from the very beginning here. I don’t know if I was just tired and imagining, but from the bus Israel appeared to be mix of things I am familiar with, but no one thing. At one time I saw those dull coloured houses, all alike, like the houses provided by some government department. At other time I saw shiny buildings like in the electronics city in Bangalore. While walking up the hilly areas it reminded me of the drive in the lower regions of Himalayas. And some of the areas this bus took us through one morning reminded me of the markets in my hometown.

The breakfast at a place beside a port was cool. What is it with beaches though. Either terribly humid (like most beaches in India and here in Israel) or extremely chilly like in bay area. I wish there was something more moderate somewhere.

Whatever be the political complications, I’d not be surprised if Israelis started driving on the right side of the road, just because Americans did. Probably its an effort to separate their identity from the rest of their middle eastern neighbours, or probably its just the mighty thing US is in the present day world, Israelis work hard to portray that they are very much like Americans. But at the same time, given their turbulent history and the need for an Israeli identity, Hebrew as a language has a very good stronghold. Given the fact that Hebrew had become a dead language for a very large period of time in History, this situation seems extraordinary. And people use Hebrew in professional circles despite the fact the most of them are fairly comfortable with English. This is unlike Japan or China, where using local language is a compulsion because people do not know English.

The mind-blowing part of Israel was, however, Jerusalem tour (surprise! surprise! :D). While being an Indian, exposure to other religions is hardly an issue, what we always miss out on is the lack of history of religions other than Hinduism in India. If there is an ancient religious place I would think of, it’d invariably be a Hindu temple. The historical sights in Japan were also restricted to those of Buddhism, which with its roots in India, hardly gave me any new feelings. But Jerusalem opens the door to the things completely different. It tells the history of all major religions other than Hinduism! Jews, Christians and Islam – all can come here in search of their roots. Seeing the church made of old-world stone walls was what made me realize as to how I could never see anything historically related to these other religions in India. Churches, and to a lesser extent mosques, seem like a modern day phenomenon in India with brick and mortar structure. The religion and politics are so intermixed in the history of Jerusalem, that you could easily spend your whole life analyzing it.

Jerusalem is divided into four quarters. Jews’ quarters, Moslem quarters, Christian Quarters and Armenian Quarters. Although Armenians are also essentially Christians, they have their separate quarter for some historical reason. Western Walls and The Church of Holy Sepulchre are the two major sites we visited. Two temples were built in the history of Judaism on the Temple Mount. None exist now, having been destroyed by the attackers at different points of time. What exists is a mosque built by Moslems called Al-Aqsa mosque. When the temple was still around, it had different parts. The innermost part called the “Holy of holies” is considered the most holy spot for Jews and with years of foreign occupation etc. Western Wall is the closest one could get to the the “Holy of Holies”. Hence, its importance. As to the story of the construction of the wall itself, it was explained well using models by the tour guide in the tunnel besides the holy wall. The wall is essentially is a result of trying to build an artificial plateau on the top of the hill to have space for a huge temple. It is not a wall around the temple, rather a wall of the raised platform on which the temple was built. It appears as a wall from the valley besides the platform. Obviously there are four walls like that, but the importance of Western Wall comes from the reason stated above that this is closest to the “Holy of Holies”.

When Moslems came to live in Jerusalem and built the Al-Aqsa Mosque, they wanted to be able to see the mosque from their houses. So, they tried to raise their houses being built beside the wall so that the mosque could be in sight. To do this, they built arches over arches, until it got higher than the wall and they could see the mosque from their houses. The houses still exist, and the tunnel that one takes to walk near the Western Walls indeed pass from under those houses.

The guide also told us some other tidbits about the things in those tunnels. Arches built by the Moslems were clearly visible. And there were arches beneath us too, as visible from the transparent glasses they had put at some places on the floor. Although not constructed for this purpose originally, the tunnels were fitted with Aqua-ducts at times to carry water. There was also a place used as a water pool by the Romans. Also, the Western Wall apparently was constructed in a way so that the successive layers of stones were put few centimeters away from the valley. This was supposedly done to let the wall seem like leaning away from the valley, so that people walking on the street in the valley did not feel scared that this huge wall could fall on them.

There was also a market place surrounding the area, which was used to exchange money by the pilgrims who came there to buy the sacrifice and of course to buy the sacrifice too. I would guess other implements of worship would have been available as well. Much like the market outside temples in India! We also walked through a place where a street was being constructed in the market place, but then the construction was halted. Either because they ran out of money or because the kind Herod, who was constructing it, died.

Like almost all the ancient buildings across the world, even the Western Wall has its share of one heavy, huge thing, about which people wonder as to how was it ever fitted in there. This is a huge stone in this case. It apparently weighs as much as 150-200 Asian elephants.

When we came out of the tunnels beside the wall, we were in Moslem quarters. And for some reason, we were supposed to walk between two armed guards. Although the reason was not at all clear. All the Israelis around us refused to accept that we were in any kind of danger. Apparently, this is just a regulation. Not sure why this is so. Once they had escorted us out to the Western Wall Plaza, we were fine. It is this Plaza, where people go up to Western Wall to pray. There is a tradition of writing your wish on a paper and stick it in the wall there. Thousands of paper chits can be seen stuck in the wall all over. There are separate prayer areas for Men and Women.

The idea of armed guards in the Moslem quarters is not quite as simple as requiring protection in the Moslem quarters because we did pass through the Arab Markets later on. Not quite sure what was going on there.

The most interesting story came out in front of the Church of Holy Sepulchre. The ownership of church by different sects is quite a messy issue. Currently the different chapels and parts in the church are occupied by the different sects. But since they could not decide on which sect should hold the key to the church, the key is held by a Muslim family. Actually there are two of even those. One keeps the keys, the other opens the lock! There is also an interesting story of a ladder kept near one of the windows on the upper floor in the church visible from outside. This was taken there probably for some kind of renovation, when it was decided that nothing could be done to the church because of the feud between the different sects. So, the ladder lies there for almost a century and a half in the same position.

Wikipedia article gives more details on some of these stories. There are 14 stations of the Cross, which trace important places where thing happened to Christ starting from the trial to the burial. Apparently we crossed some of them when we walked out of the tunnel near Western Walls and were protected by armed guards. Last 5 are located in this church. these are the places where he was stripped of his possessions, where cross was put upon him, where he died, where he was prepared for burial and where he was finally buried. Since, I used the 45 minutes time we had on our own to go back to the church with the guide, I could see the tomb believed to be that of Christ by most sects, except for some Protestants. The guide also took us to one Chapel, in fairly decrepit state, that of Syrian orthodox sect, where through a really small entrance you could go in and find some tombs. These are believed to be of some other Biblical figures, whose names I do not remember because I do not know much of the Biblical stories.

Inside the church is a place where Helena, Constantine’s mother, is supposed to have found the real cross and hence built the first Church. The Church had been built and re-built over time by various sects of attackers, and the guide showed us a place where different kinds of pillars were there. Apparently old remnants were used in one of the renovations. Overall the experience was rightly summarized by one of my American colleagues, “These are almost as entertaining as your temples”. I nodded vigorously!

And while I was thinking about Jerusalem on our way back to Tel Aviv, I suddenly realized what a religious bombshell lies in that old city. If Ayodhya or Mathura are so sensitive with temple and mosques next to each other, just how sensitive Jerusalem would be, to which the claim of various religions is so well historically grounded. Now that it is under Israel, Jews only have to try to rebuild their temple… Thank God, they aren’t!

Japan After Day 1 – II

The third day in Japan was much better with respect to the weather. Although the earthquake happened that day. We did not feel it though. We only got to know about it when our train got delayed by 15 minutes once.

We visited Kamakura this day. Like on the the colleagues familiar with Japan had told me, that looked more like the Japan you see in the movies. No high rises. Wooden houses and shops. Many were selling some souvenirs. I bought one more, but no luck with Kimonos here.

Kamakura has this huge Buddha Statue, which is hollow from inside (you can pay 10 yen and go inside). Apparently the insider was used to keep the money and gold. From what the tour guide told us (it did not look like that to me), the posture of Buddha there is slightly forward bending. This means that he is eager to meet you; does not matter who you are – rich or poor, healthy or sick. Also, Buddha has long ears there, which supposedly means that he is there to listen to everyone.

Then we visited the Hase Temple Garden. Its a beautiful garden and has a Buddha temple inside. In the temple, there is an impressive statue. We were not allowed to take photos. There was the usual praying routine of throwing a coin and bowing. There was also this ritual of writing one letter of the Buddhist Sukta on a stone and put it in a box. Essentially each devotee writes one letter and so everyone together completes the sukta. Each letter was written on a page and you turned the page after writing the letter and depositing the stone in the box, so that the next person could write the next one. Neat, isn’t it?

The temple also had an exhibition, much of which was not understandable, as the labels and descriptions were in all Japanese. But they had an exhibition which showed all different forms Buddha has taken. I do not remember the number, but I guess it was in 30s. Not sure if Buddhism in India has any such concept. But does this not look terribly similar to the “avatar” concept of Buddhism. The status depicting all the form had all kinds of weird stuff including laughing Buddha and one with a devil’s head. There was also a concept of different devilish looking people protecting Buddha. Do not know where does all this come from. Buddha, we know of, was more human and down to earth- not so divine and royal.

We had seen this even in Meji Jingu shrine. There is this custom of writing your wish on a wooden plate and hanging it at a designated place. Again looks very similar to the custom of tying a thread around a tree for your wishes at many places in India.

I ate some wonderful rice cake in a small restaurant there. You also get a wonderful view of Pacific ocean from one of the points.

If Sony and Panasonic showrooms are impressive for their functional and useful innovations, NTT Museum of Communication was fascinating for the playful kid in you. You could play games where you touch the shadow and they disappear. Where you touch something and a different kind of shadow get projected. I am not able to describe it picturesquely. Not quite my area of expertise I guess! You have to see it to feel fascinated.

And then Akihabara – the electronics market that absolutely blows you off. I managed to buy a car audio system for my dad, which he really wanted to come from Japan/China. But I did not have time to buy some more stuff I’d have liked. (Cheap, cheap – external hard drive and some other cool, affordable stuff). Like Kimono – some other time – 😦 At dinner, folks enjoyed a particularly strong form of Japanese Wine (I forget the name)!

On Day 4, we visited fish wholesale market, where auction of Tuna is carried out. With rains pouring in again, it almost reminded me of vegetable markets in the the towns I have lived in, only much bigger in scale of operations!

More in next post.


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Japan After Day 1 – I

Before we move on to day 2, let me make some random observations. There does not seem to be a concept like free left turn in Japan at the traffic signals. Also it seems like the left and forward side of the traffic opens simultaneously for traffic from opposite directions and then the right side separately (again simultaneously for traffic in opposite directions). Further I always found it difficult to locate rest-rooms in Japan. Not that they were not there. Just that there weren’t obvious signs about where they are. Is is something cultural?

Day 2 was tough to navigate with typhoon and hence continuous rains. We had started the day early and went through the empty markets as most of them open only at 10. We waited about 15 minutes for Kiddy Land to open, which is the most famous toy shop in Japan. My American colleagues were quite excited, I did not share the same excitement. and I grudged it even more later, because we were given very little time at the Buddhist temple, where lots of cheap souvenirs were available for low prices (including Kimonos) and I’d have liked to shop more there 😦 We visited Meiji Jingu shrine. This is dedicate to the emperor called Meiji and the empress called Ichijo Masako. Japanese temples have this practice of purifying yourself before entering the temple which is very similar to Indian practice. They wash their hands and rinse their mouth. In Indian temples you would do that and even wash your feet. But they do not seem to care about the purity of legs or taking off your shoes. The process of praying involves offering a coin, bowing and clapping twice. This is the only place, where I think coins of value less than 100 Yen is of any value. This shrine, besides its cultural importance, is particularly famous for its garden. Although heavy downpours are not exactly conducive while visiting a place like this. We also saw part of a marriage ceremony, where the priests marched up in a line and performed some rites on a covered platform. We could not wait to see the bride and bridegroom. We did see a picture of a traditional wedding, in which bride wears a headdress besides a Kimono. Apparently the headdress is to hide the horns that women grow when they are jealous!! And by wearing the headdress, the bride is supposed to promise that she will be patient in her married life. “Although”, our tour guide quickly noticed, “they never wear the headdress after the wedding these days.”

After that we visited a Buddhist temple (I need to see the schedule to recall the name). This was an excellent place to buy souvenirs from. Kimonos were available for as little as 1000 Yen (that would be about 400 INR). I quickly bought something from one of the shops, but did not have more time 😦 There was a fortune telling ritual there. You basically put in a coin and pick out a paper with your fortune in a fancy way (I could not quite figure out). I did not take it, but most people who did, figured out that they have a rather dark future! I was glad, I did not do it. In some cases it became darker due to the translation issues.

The dressing habits of the Japanese are completely western and has been so for quite sometime now, I guess, because I saw even elderly women in Pants and Skirts only. Kimono is almost a dead dress, except probably for being worn on weddings. But surprisingly, while the dresses of the tradition have been left behind, the language and culture has not been. To such an extent that most people, in the capital city, did not understand even keywords from English!! Although I had heard about it, the extent of language difficulty we faced, totally surprised me. Is it really possible in this age of globalization for people not to know English in the capital city of a country? But difficulties aside, I secretly felt happy about it. Its a question of whether the business should adjust to the culture, or whether the culture should adjust to business. The right option according to me is the former. And that seems to be happening in Japan. I was really happy to see some of our American colleagues, based in Japan, fluently speaking Japanese. Once again I feel guilty about not learning Kannada despite being in Bangalore for one year. I never needed to. English works fine!

So, how does it work? Despite couple of old-time examples like Dhirubhai Ambani, you can not think of a present day hi-tech entrepreneur/successful business-person in India, who is not fluent in English. How come the CEOs of companies in Japan seem to manage fine without even an ability to understand spoken English?

When I visited SONY and Panasonic showrooms, what I observed very quickly was that despite being well known global brands and having presence almost everywhere, there is just so much they develop for Japanese market specifically. Japanese market it being served well and even the start-ups look at Japanese market. Indian market is not sufficiently explored in the hi-tech world. We are still seeing adapted product coming here, rather than product developed for India (and then hopefully go out to the rest of the world adapted). And even in services, where we excel, rather than in products, how much is being done for Indian consumers? How many call centers recruit people not knowing English, but one of the local languages. We are serving the markets outside India (nothing wrong with it), but are not serving the Indian market enough.

Its a more nuanced situation. So, there is more to be said about business and technology in India vs. Japan. But later…


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