Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Quickie Weekend In Bali

Sunset from Ayana Hotel, near Jimbaran, on the way down to the Rock Bar

I just got back yesterday from a quick trip over the weekend to Bali. After almost 8 months to the grindstone with almost no weekends off I decided that my staff needed a break. The good thing about having a small work force is I can pamper them a little bit more. We pulled in some favors to get a decent hotel where we got upgraded to suites and of course with AirAsia the flight tickets were cheaper than 2 jugs of beer at Zeta bar.

Since this was a staff trip and some of them brought their families I decided to keep it as free and easy as possible. We just had one official meeting over breakfast and an official dinner at the chic Kudeta in Seminyak. The rest was free and easy but I said the company would sponsor anyone who wanted to have lunch with me at the famous Bebek Bengil (Dirty Duck) restaurant in Ubud (about an hour plus from Nusa Dua where we stayed) and also happy hours at the very cool Rock Bar at the Ayana hotel.

First time i left my hiking boots and Camel Bak home. This trip was just to make sure my staff had a good time. I may not be able to pay them well but I'll sure as hell will feed them and get them drunk in style.

Rice fields next to Bebek Bengil restaurant in Ubud

Bali is everything that Malaysia wants to be and can't. Bali can't even be considered to be a country of South East Asia. This is the playground for the rich and tanned. Where the homes of millionaires perch on cliff top overlooking oceans. The designer villas lay snuggled among oceans of green rice fields and the opulent hotels open their doors to those wielding cards in platinum and black.

Bali is a staunch Hindu enclave in the largest muslim nation in the world. The people are blessed with artistic talents which they translate to their everyday lives. Even the most humblest of Balinese homes are quaint and beautiful with statues, paintings, and lush plants growing from the entrance to the inner sanctums of their living space.

In Malaysia - we WANT to be chic. We THINK that our batik is cool. We WISH the shitty mass produced wooden carvings will be bought by blind tourists. We WISH that more foreigners will flock to Malaysia to make it their second home. 

We've lost our soul. Malaysia can be as much as Bali is. We have the beaches, the endless padi fields, the mountains, the inner friendliness/chincai Asian mentality. But we've lost our soul. What we do now is for the sake of money. The eternal chase for richness that sacrifices a bit of a better future of quality for all, with every little move towards a larger bank account.

Anyway, back to the trip.

One of the many restaurants at the Ayana hotel

The Ayana hotel is gorgeous. It is filled with all manner of pools and infinity pools on a cliff side over looking the Indian Ocean. Restaurants pepper the grounds amid lush greenery. We head there for my own selfish reason to have an ice cold Bintang beer from the Rock Bar while watching the sun set beneath a calm ocean.

The super cool Rock Bar at the Ayana Hotel

The Rock Bar is the coolest chill out bar that I've been to. Perched on rocks just above crashing waves with an ocean spread out in front of you is the best way to end a long day. The service is excellent and the beers expensive. It is worth it.

Kudeta in Seminyak.

The Kudeta dinner is of course lovely because of the ambience in this party place for beautiful people. Picture lean tanned bodies sipping wine and beers, lounging on deck chairs as waves crash on the shore nearby. Music from Ibiza plays over the green lawn and quite chatter mingles with the wind and the dancing of leaves from the coconut trees. Bloody expensive but good for a special occasion.

Bali Art and Design.

Wood carvings at Melia Benoa Hotel in Nusa Dua

Hindu deity (Vishnu) stone carving 

Business center chill out area at the Melia Benoa hotel.

This trip opened up my eyes. Bali is great for honeymoons and romantic dates. I'm in that mood now. Need to find some silly girl who can put up with my shit. Any takers out there? Bali calls again and the next time I'm not going solo.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Banteay Srey

Winnie (not Winnie Chan The Foul Mouthed Sailor) had told me sometime back that since her life revolved around work, work, the pub, work, work, pub and the occasional work she has chose to live her life vicariously through me. Chindiana. The grumpy fu...., um... (this Winnie is a gentle soul unlike the OTHER one).. soo..

Anyway, here you go. I give you first hand experience as if you're sitting on my shoulder on my visit to Banteay Srey loosely names the "Citadel of Women' or the Citadel of Beauty'. It doesn't matter. You women are all beautiful.


Banteay Srey.

The wind is cold against by bare legs as the Tuk Tuk buzzes down the small roads in the early morning. The air is chilly and fresh as Mr Stal our driver makes his way to Banteay Srey about 38 km from Siem Reap.

It is only about 7.30am and we hope to get to the little temple in about an hour. We skirt past the Angkor Archaeological Park and head towards the outskirts. We pass by smaller villages and dried up rice fields. The terrain all around us is flat with brown fields waiting for the rainy season to transform them into oceans of green.

The morning sunlight lends a golden sheen to the terrain as the winds from our little trailer with seats pulled by a 'cub chai' bike picks up speed on the quite morning roads. Occasionally a bus overtakes us nosily - some tourists making a beeline towards Banteay Srey. We see more i feel from the open carriage of the tuk tuk - the slightly slower pace lets us absorb the countryside and it's people - old ladies boil steamy somethings in large cauldrons along the road, a pregnant woman holding an umbrella with one hand and guides her bicycle across a busy road with another, men cycle along the road with at least 15 feet long of plywood strapped to the bicycle.

We pass by an army training center on the right and Mr Stel says that we can try out shooting some guns later if we're up for it.

We pull up to the visitor center for Banteay Srey and are surprised by the number of buses already there.

Damn tourists. Old ones too. They REALLY don't need that much sleep it seems.

I like Banteay Srey. One - the tourist, visitor and information center are very contemporary with a local touch. Its simple yet tastefully done. And compared to the other sites that we've visited at the Angkor Archaeological Park, it has an information center.

The second thing about Bantey Srey. Its pretty. Its small and unassuming compared to the other temple but it is delicate with intricate carvings. The pink sandstone contrasts against blue skies and the green of trees and the overgrown lake behind.

The two girls from the APSARA Authority - tasked with ensuring that the temples are not fucked up by stupid inconsiderate tourists or locals.

The entrance to the the temple.


Quick facts - It was built in the late 10th Century. It is made of pink sandstone. Unlike other sites in Angkor it was not a royal temple. It was built by King Rajendravarman's counsellor Yajnavaraha who was also the future guru/mentor/yoda jedi master to King Jayavarman V.
The best time to visit the temple is before 10.30am and after 2pm as the sun is not too harsh and colors are stronger at these times.

I took this picture from the information center showing the temple from a birds eye view. I've tried to add some landmarks but the red font i chose is crap. Don't strain your eyes too much.

Another photo from the information center.

Early 20th century conservation/restoration work on Banteay Srey

I walk out and spend time around the temple again. The red earth much similar to the earth in our oil palm estates crunches beneath my shoes. I like this place. It is quite and it's simple elegance is in contrast to the noisy, congested bedlam at the larger monuments close to town.

I walk past the outer walls of the temple. A local cultural band plays local music which to me sound as monotonous as crickets at night. The German and French tourists seem fascinated and gather around to take the music in. I walk along the path that skirts the temple leading me back to the entrance. The path is shaded by tall trees on either side. I see a flash of blue between the foliage and make my way down to this lake by the side of the temple. I assume it must have looked beautiful in its heyday. It is now choked by weeds.

Manly Men and their Secret Urges.

We ride up to the shooting range about 20 minutes from Banteay Srey. All illusions of machoness of pumping rounds from automatic weapons evaporate when we see the prices on the 'menu' - the cheapest is USD40 to shoot off 30 rounds from an AK 47. That would almost buy me 35 jugs of beer in Siem Reap. I tell Nex I'll pass. Nex wants to take some pictures but the mercenary fukers at the range want to charge us USD10 bucks for taking the pics. Since we're there, Nex pays up to remember the day he almost went Rambo in a little country in Indochina.

Bomb casings.

More AK47s and a Sten (?). I'm prob wrong ...

Nex looking down the barrel of a gun.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Angkor Wat, A Loner's Review

So the Angkor adventure begins with a blind scramble at 5.am in pitch darkness, across a bridge spanning a huge moat. Of course there are not barriers so unless you've got Spier senses its best to follow the torch lights of others near you. Or else you're going to be in for an early bath. Folks, bring torches. You WILL need them. There are no lights in Angkor Wat if you wish to catch the sunrise. If by some reason you forget to bring a torch, get your survival skills in gear and just latch on to any other tourists with a torch or better yet with a guide who has a torch AND also gives running commentary on the temple's history, facts etc. Its OK to be a parasite.

The sunrise was anti climactic of sorts. But a sun rise is unpredictable, like a box of chocolates, you just never know what you'll get. Since it's the dry season now the sky was cloudless and as featureless as an Englishman's underwear. Its shit. trust me. I get a better sun rise from my toilet window back home. Just that i dont have some almost thousand year old temple staring at my ass through the window.

OKOK, lets just get this out of the way.

You scramble in the dark, make your way to the the lake on your left. FInd a spot. The hotels will tell you to get there by 5.30A fuckingM. The sun only wakes its ass up at 6.45am. For photographers I assume you get there early to pick your spot but with everyone investing in telephoto lenses i dont see any drama. I dont photog so i just get annoyed when i'm stuck for almost an hour and half with some clown trying to sell me weak coffee for USD1. And a sandwich. AND a pony ride. I mean if you really want to kill time i guess you can try to chat up some of the cute Japanese tourists who travel in girl groups.

HIGHLY recommended are WIDE angle lenses. You would want that shot of the gateway and the road to Angkor Wat from the entrance. 

One of the sections at the Northern part of Angkor Wat

Moat at the West gate.

A worker chilling at sunrise.

What I Enjoyed At Angkor Wat

The East entrance.

Its quiet as the dry leavies rustle underneath my Nikes as I work my way around the ruins. We're shaded by the canopy from the towering trees above. Birds chirp overhead and ducks break the post dawn silence with hungry quacks. We are a world away from the cacophony of touristy chaos that is the Angkor Wat's main building and temple. It is peace. And quiet. And in this little corner for a while I can call this place my own.

I've had Lord of the Rings moments before. It was a book that pandered to my restless childhood urges of exploration. Always dreaming what was over that next hill or around that corner. I would dream restlessly of just hitting a never ending path that took me to all sorts of wonders.
This dream was put to rest after my trip to Nepal. In climbing the Thronglar Pass I was Gandalf and the dwarves (from The Hobbit) going over the Misty Mountains, walking out of the beautiful village of Tal, I was in the fellowship that followed Strider out of of Bree on a rocky small road edged by stone walls and now, on the grounds of the Angkor Wat, I discovered suddenly I was Frodo and Sam, working our way past the monuments of the great kingdom of Minas Tirith - memories of a grand empire now only see in age old rock and battered statues and buildings.

I don't really remember why I did not go into Angkor after sunrise. I just remember walking around it. Nex was accommodating to follow me (prob scared that I would throw a grumpy fit!). We worked our way around the Northern side and that was when i saw this path leading away from the temple into a low forest. Path's call out to me. I had to follow it. We went out back to the Eastern side for Nex to get some pictures of Angkor bathed in the morning sunlight and that was when i saw another path. I walked down it and discovered the eastern entrance and realized that there was another path that followed closely to the outer wall battlements. I just walked. I just wanted to get away from people.

The air is still a little cool. The trees on both our sides are still. The only sounds are our voices and the rustle of leaves from our shoes. The path goes ever on following the outer wall that is at least 15 feet high. There is a breach in the wall ahead. I barely see it. The rocks have tumbled down probably from the ravages of time. We scramble up and see the moat before us. Workers in the moat look up and wave. Probably startled into a friendly reaction from an unexpected touristy visitor in the lonelier part of Angkor.

Corridors within the entrance at the Northern outer walls.

View from window of the moat from the Norther guard house/entry point

We find the north entrance and I make my way out. Fantastic. There is just no sound. Nex is still inside, taking some pictures. I just flop down near those blocks you see outside the window and close my eyes. I could be any where in the world. I hear ducks in the distance. A child laughs across the moat. There is some splashing from a worker in a boat. The grass is dry and warm under my head. Above me branches of green leaves stretch across the sky as the trees umbrella me from the growing warming sunlight. I am alone. Lying next to stones with memories of a thousand years. I came here for this. I didn't really need anything else from the Angkor Archeological Park.

My stomach rumbles a little. Time to head back.

The overgrown road from the North entrance to Angkor Wat.

Nex shooting the path that encircles Angkor Wat,
running alongside the outer wall.

Nex framed by the door. The path in the background is the same overgrown road that leads back to Angkor Wat. We would take this path back to the temple after encircling the temple grounds along the wall battlements.

Workers cleaning the moat near the Northern shore.

Workers on restoration duty.

The moving scaffolding on rails - amplifies the amount of care put into the restoration work.

Inner walls of second section of Angkor Wat

Photographers wet dream - endless corridors. well sorta...

Bemused monks pose for a picture

Angkor Wat in the evening.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Best Deal In Town

Wrong spelling and grammar make a very 'convincing' pitch... Seen on the streets of Siem Reap.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Siem Reap Ramblings

This post started out as a quick summary of my trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia. Instead, as i tapped away on the laptop on the flight back to KL, I found the thoughts jostling to the forefront was more about what the country meant to me, just as every other country that I have visited has imbued me with a different feelings and emotions. Laos was peaceful,  it was of sleepy hamlets amid tropical forests where Buddhists monks prayed along the banks of the murky Mekong. Manado was a raw simple beauty and with a restless giant of fire under the earth threatening to boil over in flame and lava.

Cambodia gives me this:

It’s a wonder what you discover when you step out of an airport with no expectations. All I wanted was to wander around the Angkor Archaeological Park and follow in Angelina Jolie’s footsteps. I wanted some peace amid ruins and a forest after the crazy year that I’ve had.

One of the iconic  Buddha heads at Bayon. 

It was when I became more immersed  with Cambodian culture and history that I realized that what fascinated me about Siem Reap and Cambodia was not so much the Angkor Wat or the surrounding ruins but its rich magnificent history blighted by a mad idealist who destroyed a quarter of it’s population.

French conservationists at Bayaen Srey early 1900s. I took this photo of a poster at the Visitor Center near the temple

It was also about the old romantic inspirational explorers, adventurers and historians from the past, Khmer,Chinese and French alike, who documented the history on paper and stone, the incredible French conservationists that over a hundred years have worked tirelessly and selflessly to lovingly restore the grand beauty of a long lost empire that was once the greatest in South East Asia. It is about the ongoing conservation work and the many countries such as China, the United States and India have now joined to French in the preservation of Cambodia's magnificent past.

Cambodia is about the richness in religion, almost coming across as a distant province of India, and the different Buddhist teachings. The walls resonate about the Churning of the Milk Ocean, Krishna, Brahma and Vishnu, Indian gods of old, Champions in my wee years before Spiderman and the Fantastic Four introduced to me spandex heroics. The stories of Garuda and Indra. Indian mythology decorates the walls, encompassing temples of kings. Buddha in his early form as an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, gives way to Buddha from more oriental leanings. The serenity remains in his meditative smile from the early Hindu inspired statues from more than a thousand years ago to the more Oriental features that begin around the early 17th century.

It’s about grand wars and battles, it is about military might fueled by the most sophisticated farming and irrigation techniques of its time that created a huge rice bowl in the territory. It is about arch enemies and feudal war lords, stealthy attacks from the rivers under the cloak of a dark night. Battles over mountains and plains. The building of an empire that stretched from Myanmar to Vietnam and down as far as the Malay peninsula to the edge of the borders of China.

King Jayavarman VII the greatest and last of the Khmer Kings

It is about kings of old who deigned themselves god and created monuments that could only be worthy of immortals and rulers of the world.

The French deserve much if not all for the preservation of Angkor which indirectly preserves many parts of the country’s rich past.  We would not see the beautiful museums, the lovingly conserved temples, the architecture in Siem Reap, the huge conservation infrastructure around a area that can be seen from space.. Even walking down the street, fresh baked baguettes greet a hungry stomach on a dusty tropical morning. Little cafes pack up beside one another as tree lined streets give reprieve from the burning noon time sun.

Pol Pot and his twisted vision of communism kills an estimated 2 million, or a quarter of his population of 8 million in the hope of creating a communist Utopia. Every Cambodian will never be the same.

Cambodia now lives on the brink. Besides rice exports, tourism holds a key to their economic sustainability. A post Khmer Rouge nation now needs the monuments of the mighty kings of Khmer of old to feed their children.

A country with no other resources shows its desperation in some of it’s people. Tourists are over charged, hidden charges abound, a culture of fleecing the ignorant runs contrary to every Buddha and praying monk statue seen about the town. ‘Get away with what you can’ seems to be the credo in the tourist industry. To visitors wielding the mighty Euro, pound, dollar and Yen these costs may not seem a lot. But to South East Asian travelers a USD10 mark up are meals for 2 -3 days.

The French have set the standard of preservation of the past with patience, selflessness, and a dogged stubbornness in their beliefs to achieve their goals.

Can the Cambodians do the same for a better future?

* all pictures copyrighted to Chindiana Trails and the grumpy photographer who took them!