31 March 2013

Armoured Elephants

It has been a day of new experiences and I have had several so far. I ate a spider today - a fried one. I am aware that many of you who know me will doubt that I ate it so here are the photos to prove it. My guide Johnny witnessed the eating and took the photographs with my Blackberry camera.

You will see a sequence of images captured on my Blackberry camera. There are spiders cooking and a picture of the spider that I ate and one of me actually eating it.

Here they are:

The other new experience I have had is the discovery that I can upload photos here into this blog. I have taken many on my Blackberry. I am going experiment with visualizing things a bit now. For a while anyway.

Eating the spider wasn't that bad. It was like eating crispy noodles fried in a bit of chilli. I only ate the legs though. I wasn't game to eat the plump body as I suspected it would be full of cooked spider guts juices and I imagined in my minds eye that such juices would be warm and yellow or green and would feel like pus in my mouth. I did not think that I would like the texture or experience at all so I just ate the legs. 

There were eight of them.

I also saw a very large dead pig being carried on a motorcycle this morning. I hadn't seen that before either. Here is the photograph for you to also see this. I am fairly certain that the pig was dead. Or else he was a very good sleeper.

I anticipate having several more new experiences both today and in the two remaining days that I have left in Cambodia. It is a very interesting place.

The French have been in Cambodia for a while and their influence is visible in some of the architecture in the cities. You could well imagine you are in an early twentieth century Parisian back street in some sections of both Siam Reap and Phnom Penh. The French impact on Khmer cuisine is also tastable as much as it is delectable. On street corners of Phnom Penh and Seam Reap local children sell fresh-baked and still-hot baguettes to passing motorists in the peak hours of the early morning. The motorists devour them. 

As would I.

The French Protectorate of Cambodia was established in 1863. The then King of Cambodia King Norodom asked the French government to move in and protect them from potential military threat from their neighbors. Particularly Thailand.

In ancient times Cambodia and Thailand and some parts of Vietnam were once merged as a mighty kingdom called Siam. They split apart a long time ago. Angrily and Bloodily. Siam is mostly Thailand now and the Kingdom of Siam has shrunk and all but disappeared. History has shown us that such splits are rarely amicable. Ask the Soviets and the Bosnians and the Serbs and ask the Yugoslavians. These disputes inevitably end in conflicts and tears.

They end in Wars.

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the fighting factions that constituted the Kingdom of Siam rode armoured herds of elephants into battle against each other. They blew on trumpets made from elephant tusks and were ridden by fierce tattooed warriors armed with sharp and wicked spears and swords. Territorial rights to land and boundaries were disputed and settled in great battles and carnage. They nearly always are and they still are. Ask the Israelis and Palestinians or any of the Northern or Southern Irish. 

They will tell you.

Battles of charging herds of war elephants ridden by tattooed and screaming warriors would have made for a pretty spectacular sight and I am surprised that more Hollywood movies haven't been made with this scene.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the French helped the Cambodians out in their separation from Siam. The French had always wished to establish a French Indochine trading region in south east Asia and they supported it with their military and naval forces. The French cultural influences still survive and in fact still flourish in Cambodia and in Vietnam. Trade agreements between Cambodia and France are also still very strong.

Despite the long and strong French influence the US dollar is the main and preferred currency in Cambodia. Not the Euro and it was never the French Franc. The local Cambodian currency is the Riel. At the time of writing this there are about four thousand two hundred Riel to one American dollar. I asked my driver Johnny what was the smallest Riel note is and he told me it was a fifty. He told me that the biggest note was a 100,000 Riel.

I asked Johnny what you could buy in Cambodia for 50 Riel and he told me that you could buy nothing. He said this with a raucous laugh. Johnny then told me in all seriousness that Cambodians like US dollars the best and he also double checked that I was going to pay him in dollars. I assured him that I was. Johnny told me that Cambodians still like US dollars the best even though they know they are not worth anywhere near as much as they once did.

They may never be.

Here is a picture of a 50 Riel note. The building that is printed on the note is the Angkor Wat:

This is a photo of the actual Angkor wat and it is where I am now.

Here is a picture of me standing in front of a bit of Angkor Wat. I am adopting the spiritually influenced pose that I typically assume when I am in front of the camera and am in ancient and holy places of any faith or religion. I have been photographed in this pose in many holy temples of Kathmandu and Delhi and Bombay and on the banks of the Ganges and I have also posed in this manner in such Christian enclaves as Lourdes and Notre Dame and in pagan places like Stonehenge and Lindisfarne Island. 

My pose is a respectful one I think and is intended to be nondiscriminatory to any faith or religion.

I think that you would agree that from where I am standing it is a million Riel view.

Brothers in alms

I would have expected to have seen more monks today. It was surprising. I am still in Siam Reap and Temples abound here. There should be saffron robes everywhere. When I asked a guide at my hotel where all the Cambodian monks were he told that they were the primary victims of the Khmer Rouge party during their reign of terror in the 1970's. He told me that Pol Pot tried to wipe Buddhism out of Cambodia and he very nearly succeeded.

The Cambodian people are predominantly followers of Therevada Buddhism. Monks from local monasteries in Cambodia collect alms once daily from their local communities. Alms are food and the daily feeding of the monks is called Pindacara in Cambodia. The English refer to alms as money or food that is given to poor people.

From 1975 until 1979 Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge party slaughtered every Cambodian monk and religious intellectual they could get their hands on. Some monks managed to escape across borders into neighboring Vietnam and Thailand. Groups of monks even donned weapons and fought back against Pol Pot's troops. There were small bands of resistance monks with machine guns. The Khmer Rouge overwhelmed them in numbers and weaponry though and they annihilated them. Then they blew up the wats.

Pol Pot destroyed temples and ancient Buddhist libraries that were more than a thousand years old. Hundreds of thousands of sacred Buddhist icons and artifacts were lost and holy scriptures and teachings were burnt to cinders. Whole temples were razed to the ground. 

It must have been devastating.

It did not surprise me when I read that the US government had supported the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. The Americans helped arm and train them through the CIA. The CIA is an acronym for the Central Intelligence Agency. I believe this acronym is also an oxymoron for history tells us that there is barely a shred of intelligence in any of the action taken by this Agency.

The US government have interfered in other countries politics many times before and they still do. They have both funded wars and aided the wrong sides. We need only look at Suharto in Indonesia and Mobutu in Zaire. The Americans also trained and funded Al Qaeda in Afghanistan as well.

Here is a picture of some monks with some guns.

The guide at my hotel told me that there are now less than 3000 Buddhist monks in Cambodia however he said that their number are slowly but steadily rising.

Here are some pictures I took of some of the wats in Siam Reap. They are ancient and they are stunning. 

They really are.

In most of the wats that surround Siam Reap there is a battle going on between stone and wood. Giant trees are slowly growing through the temple rock constructions that have stood for more than ten centuries. Many of the trees look like they are merged with the stone blocks of the walls and the ceilings of the temples. They are not merged but the trees and their roots are pulling the wats apart. Wood is winning.

I knew that the Angkor wat complex was big but I had no idea just how big it is. It is humungous. Temple buildings go on and on and they are enormous. The stone carvings of lotus flowers and Buddhas and other deities are intricate and they are beautiful. They are incredible. My guide informed me that 6000 elephants, 10,000 horses and 300,000 men were used in the construction of the Angkor wat and it took thirty five years to build.

That's how big it is.

On my drive to the temples of Angkor Wat today my driver Johnny asked if I was interested in shooting some guns or blowing some things up whilst I was in Cambodia. I told him that I hadn't given the matter any thought but I wasn't really into guns or bombs. 

I have never fired a gun before nor have I blown anything up.

Johnny assured me that shooting guns was very popular for western visitors to Cambodia and he could easily arrange for me to shoot an AK47 if I wanted. This is a type of machine gun. He also said that he could get me hand grenades to throw if I wanted. Real ones. Johnny told me that it would be very simple for him to organize for me to also shoot a rocket launcher into the jungle and that he had done it many times before. The going rocket launcher shooting rates are one shot for a hundred dollars or three for two hundred dollars. This is in US currency and payment is by cash only. Johhny told me that there was a good discount rate available for multiple launchings.

I asked Johnny if he thought whether it would be possible for me to be able to drive a tank and shoot from it into the jungle. Johnny told me that he would have to ask his brother Rambo - but he didn't think that it would be a problem. He told me that he thought that they could quite easily sort it out for me.

I am struggling a little with the appropriateness of driving tanks and throwing hand grenades and firing rocket launchers in Cambodia as it is a place where such weapons and violence has caused so much death and destruction.

However I have never driven a tank before nor have I blown anything up and I am not sure if I will get another opportunity to do this. I told Johhny that I would not want to shoot or blow up buildings or animals or monks but I would perhaps like to do some harmless bombing and shooting of plants. The idea is certainly beginning to appeal. Three shots of a rocket launcher for two hundred dollars too seems like a bargain basement price and I guess I would be supporting the local economy.

Here is a picture of a rocket launcher.

I think I would be crazy to let such a chance pass by.

29 March 2013

Which wat is that?

After twenty four hours in Phnom Penh and Siam Reap it is very difficult to know what wat is what. A wat is a temple - a Buddhist one. This is not just in Cambodia, wat's are Buddhist temples in Thailand and Nepal and Laos as well. 

In Siam Reap - where I am now - they are everywhere.

Siam Reap is a north Cambodian city close to the World Heritage listed Angkor Wat complex. Angkor Wat is a 1000 year old city of temples that was built by the Khmer people. There are dozens and dozens of both crumbling and preserved temples enshrouded - and in some cases - engulfed by the jungle. It is a sight to behold. 

It really is.

My driver and guide for my stay in Cambodia is Johhny. He is the younger brother of Rambo who I had initially booked and found on the Internet. Rambo had another gig and so he called in his little brother Johhny to be my driver and guide. I didn't mind.

I like Johhny a lot.

Johnny met me at Phnom Penh airport. He had a sign with my name on it. Johnny’s air conditioned car whipped me to my hotel in the city. I had made a reservation at the Raffles Hotel. It is obviously not the same Raffles Hotel as the one in Singapore but there is some connection. The Raffles hotel in Phnom Penh is a very beautifully maintained building from the mid nineteenth century. It is grand and opulent. It is classy colonial.

Sir Stamford Raffles is best known as being the Founder of Singapore - where I live. English historians often refer to him as the "Father of Singapore". I doubt very much that the Chinese and Malay ethnic Singaporeans would refer to him as such.

Prior to serving as the Governor of Singapore for the British occupiers of the Island, Raffles worked for the British East India Company. They were the mega global wholesale traders of their time.

When Raffles was Governor of Singapore he cracked down on the illicit opium trading activities that were rife on the Island. Raffles shut the trade and the opium dens down. The British made a fortune off the opium industry though out the nineteenth century. They were a monopoly cartel. They were wholesale smack dealers. Raffles cleaned it up though in Singapore.

The first temple I went to today was called Beng Mealea. It was a two hour drive from Siam Reap. Rambo drove me to Beng Mealea. I already knew Rambo's brother Johhny quite well after our long drive yesterday to Siam Reap from Phnom Penh. I know that he is one of six brothers and there are also two sisters in the Rambo and Johhny family. Rambo is the eldest brother and there is another one named Tony who lives in Germany - with his German wife. Johnny has a law degree and he is the father of an eighteen month old baby. Johhny’s girlfriend is his high school sweetheart. Johhny told me that he is waiting for a position to open up in the Cambodian government so he can work as a human rights lawyer but in the meantime he is working for his brother Rambo.

Both Johhny and Rambo are very nice blokes.

The word Beng Mealea is Khmer for "Lotus pond." The temple is a bit of a mystery. It is known that it was built sometime in the 12th Century under the reign of King Suravaman the Second but no-one seems to know exactly who constructed it. The temple was originally a Hindi temple but it became Buddhist sometime in the last 700 years. The temple grounds are very big and the jungle has now reclaimed much of it. Huge tree roots have cut through the walls and rubble. There were the echoes of jungle birds shrieking while I was there and it was very hot and steamy but it was eerie and ancient and a wonderful place to be.

Here is a picture of a very small part of it:

The Beng Mealea temple has only been accessible to tourists like me over the past couple of years. During the 1970's the Khmer Rouge littered the area with land mines. There is a large sign just outside the access track declaring that the area has been cleared of all explosive devices.

The Cambodian Mine Action Centre was established in the year 2000 to enact a program of landline clearance. Cambodian Mine Action Centre have declared that they estimate there was in excess of five million anti personnel land mines laid by the Khmer Rouge across Cambodia. Much of it is still unfound and unexploded and casualties occur on a daily basis. These casualties occur mostly amongst farmers and children. It is horrific. Here is the sign saying how many mines were cleared in the Beng Mealea temple area. 

I had a walk around where many hundreds of mines were found and cleared and I felt quite safe.

I have seen many stupa and pagoda today. My use of these terms is plural and not singular. When a word ends in the letter 'a' you may use them this way. 

One stupa, two stupa, three pagoda, four. 

Pavlova is another example of such a word. A pavlova is a delicious but very-difficult-to-make-properly Australian dessert. I can make a very good one but I cheat because I use something called a pavlova magic egg. I just add water and sugar to the mixture that is contained within the pavlova magic egg and then I cook it very slowly in an oven set at a very low temperature. 

Here is a picture of a pavlova:

I also ate Amok today for my lunch. I asked Rambo what the national dish of Cambodia was and he told me it was amok. The English use the same term to describe a state of madness that is associated with uncontrollable rage. The term is most commonly used in the expression 'to run amok'.

The Cambodian national dish Amok was delicious. It is a slow-cooked fish curry served inside a green coconut. I could taste coriander and papaya and lemongrass in a rich fish sauce with big hunks of white fish. 

I ate it all.

Here is a picture of the amok that I ate. There is also a picture of me eating it and then a further picture of me with an empty coconut shell. It is all pictorial evidence of me eating my amok.

I have also seen many statues and stone and wooden carvings today. I have seen many phallus which the ancient Khmer people seemed to be fond of making and displaying. The phallus were made of both stone and wood. Phallus are enormous penis-shaped sculptures that were created to portray fertility and power. These are common decorations found in the wats of both the Hindi and Buddhist faiths.

Both practices teach that the world was created in a type of birthing following a galactic consummation. The phallus or dick is essential in this consummation – as is the vagina.

It is a very loving big bang theory. 

I think it is nice.

The phallus that I saw today reminded me of my brother Richard. I was reminded of Richard not just because he has a big dick - but primarily because I wrote about it recently and my mum got upset. Actually I didn't write about it - I just mentioned it. I think my Mum got upset because I wrote about it and not by the fact that he has it. Even when I reassured her that my brother Richard liked the fact that I wrote about it she still seemed a bit upset.

Anyway, that's why I was reminded of my brother Richard - when I saw the phallus. 

Don't worry I am not going to put a picture of my brother's phallus on here. I haven't got one and I certainly do not want one. Sorry Mum but he really does like me writing about it though. 

Ask him yourself.

Interestingly phallus is also one of those words that are both singular and plural - like stupa and pagoda and pavlova.

Even though it doesn't end with the letter 'a'.