Sunday, 25 November 2012
Votes & Views #29
Laos is not a well-known tourist destination. It is difficult to get information, both recent and accurate, and the People's Democratic Republic is neither particularly welcoming nor cheap for the tourist. We'd already gotten our visas in Singapore at a cost of abou R 1000 for the pair. There was nothing particular on our wish-list, but I'd read that Luang Prabang was a charming little mediaeval city. What more incentive did we need?
As we waited at Siem Reap airport for boarding orders, we suddenly became aware of the fact that there were only two planes on the apron; one an Air Malaysia A320 and a little blue job with two menacingly curved sets of propellers - our transport. With no messing about, some score passengers were hustled aboard, the doors shut and we were on the move. Five minutes from boarding to aloft is pretty snappy in anyone's parlance.
The flight was comfortable and particularly quiet compared to a jet, as we flew at comparatively low altitude over first the endless paddy fields, and then the ever more hilly country that was our target. Soon a mighty river twisted below us and we dropped down between the mountains to a verdant valley.
Our pilot may have only just woken up - he might only just have obtained his license - or there could have been a violent crosswind on this beautiful and calm day. Whatever, skyboy made a complete hash of putting us down. Touchdown wasn't bad, but he almost lost it when he tried to apply brakes, the plane yawed wildly one way, and when he overcorrected it, veered the other way. From my vantage point the wingtips looked only about a metre off the ground before pointing up at the big blue. It took an age - probably about ten seconds - to bring the plane under control and we could relax again.
A new airport building is under construction, so we had to be bussed off the bare landing strip to the old facility. Not many smiles here as the immigration collected your biometric data, but no hassles either. We were in. The pickup driver had no English, so we did not get a commentary. Town looked pretty bog-standard Third World South East Asian Economy, not as charming a Siem Reap, but uncrowded, with lot of building work going on as the nation is trying to recover from the unenviable epithet of the ‘most-bombed country on earth’. Many of the houses are half-timbered, that is to say the first storey is masonry, the second wood – which gives a curiously Alpine look to parts of the town.
Our guest house was not an iota less beautiful than its photo and website description. Their language skills were a little more precarious. The poor receptionist lad, Joy by name, was really keen to please - but he was giving me street directions to places I wouldn't recognize because I can’t read the Lao script, along roads with no names - on a map that lacked the full quota of streets, including the one we were located in. Their calling card, which gave their location among nameless streets, further confused matters in that the little map printed on the reverse, was entirely imaginary as even the river was the wrong one, which was actually on the other side of town. This was what they'd meant with 'Tourist Information' as advertised. In our preparations, we had also omitted to factor in the time of week, since we were under the misapprehension that in a Communist country, with strong Buddhist beliefs, the concept of 'weekend' would not apply - wrong. We would only be able to tap the local tourist bureau on Monday, the day we were leaving!
A balcony ran round the first storey, all timber, with massive beams, railings and posts. We had a good view of the neighbourhood, yet no landmarks were in sight except the spire of a small temple or large stupa, seemingly fifty metres distant. Our tuktuk man arrives. Kao Yang is his name, and he has a beaten-up little Chinese truck with a pipe-canopy and excruciatingly narrow bench seats, but at least a step at the rear to assist with getting up over the tailgate - and a little English. A very little English as soon becomes apparent, but beggars can't be choosers and we are forced into paying a fairly steep tariff for very little benefit. Still, we tell our charioteer to fire up his wagon and to take us on a ride through town.
There is a notable difference to Cambodia. The traffic, though still a matter of opinion as far as traffic rules are concerned (by our standards), seem much calmer; motorbikes are parked neatly, as are cars - the streets are cleaner, more buildings are better maintained. If I knew what a French country town with a large Asiatic population would look like - this could be it. All along the drive on the bank of the mighty river, the shaded lanes are lined with gracious colonial mansions, or copies of that theme. All seem to be hotels, restaurants and bars, for well-heeled tourists, mainly European. Kao drops us at an imposing restaurant. I recognise the name as an eatery of note, lauded in guidebooks. Their spring rolls are different and delicately spiced; the nori-like sheets of what is euphmistically called river moss, have an interesting flavour and are dressed with a very piquant sauce. I can disremember that I'm actually eating green algal slime scraped off the rocks on the banks of the muddy Mekong, which drains thousands of kilometers of Asia. The tempura prawns are just that, but the Mekong fish salad is a fiery concoction, indeed, so much so that I am forced to dilute it by generous addition of the local speciality - sticky rice. No misnomer that - try chipping off a mouthful with a spoon - like cutting glued-together rubber chips. Doesn't taste of much. either.
We let Kao know that this is not really what we're looking for and made plans to take a drive into the country, upriver to the shrine called Elephant Cave, or Tham Ting.. His vehicle is a far cry from what we were used to with Naga. The benches are excruciating, while the canopy curves down just enough to make you have to get a crick in the neck if you want to see the roadside scenery. Besides which, it was an ancient rattletrap, with a few necessary parts of the gearbox missing, a dicky engine, sans several doorhandles and it produced startling bangs, screeches and grinding noises from time to time, which didn't exactly engender confidence.
Still, the Model-T Chana truck deposited us in a vestigial village (for which pleasure we had to pay a trifle) on the banks of the Mekong. A crossing was negotiated by Koa for a further fee with an ancient in a low-slung scow, who had a young deaf-mute as a first mate, All went well though and we raced across the river in a few minutes. The steps into the cave we a tad more trying, and Fay had some bother with the varying heights and widths on the climb. Halfway up another dunner lurked to relieve you of a couple more thousand kip, as the local scrip is called. This piecemeal looting of tourists’ wallets is the common practice in Laos. Then upwards to a little platform ringed by chairs for the exhausted, like us. From there you could pick your view on the opposite river bank or some 2500 statues of Buddha in all stages of magnitude and decay, which extended far upwards into the dim cave. Apparently one could hack a further ten minutes up the cliff to another cave - but I've seen a lot of caves in my life and my desire to climb more steps was not strong on the sultry day. This was obviously a prime tourist destination, and boatloads of people arrived and departed continuously.
Our ill-matched boatmen brought us back in good shape, and after slogging back to our transport, we found our driver had evaporated. I made an effort to track him down by roaming through the ramshackle huts, but as it's considered the height of bad manners in Laos to shout, I desisted from roaring in wrathful terms, even when he did reappear half an hour later, Instead we had a civilised lesson in economics; ie, he was being paid to wait for me - he was not paying me to wait for him. Capiche?
Our ride back was a little subdued, but we asked him to pick us a lunch venue where the locals ate. He halted at a tatty thatched platform suspended on high poles over the riverbank. There was no shortage of gleaming Japanese 4x4's in the parking lot, so I was suspicious that we'd been led into another tourist trap. My fears were soon allayed. A large party of Chinese was having a four-generation family celebration of sorts, and there was not even a menu. The large, sweating bossman informed us that there were three dishes on offer, fish soup, fish salad or shrimps - and Beer Lao. I chose the latter two and we had some very ordinary, tiny prawns, some of that famous sticky rice, and with much difficulty I managed to get a touch of soy sauce out of the boss to, at least add hint at some flavour to the rubbery semisphere of rice that seemed to be following us everywhere. The view and atmosphere made up for the other shortcomings though. We had one of the great Asian rivers flowing past; while sitting on a thatched platform over space, and being drawn into a local celebration, with a bunch of toddlers having to be shepherded away from the gap-toothed railings that wouldn't have prevented their tumbling down the slope into the water, to great-grandmother mumbling her bowl of rice and slurping her soup messily.
Almost as an apology to the many reputedly splendid temples, or Wats, that the town is reported to have, we dragged ourselves onto our creaking chariot once more in the later stifling afternoon at the urging of Kao .The revenuers awaited us at the gate of the Wat Xien Thong and we were duly looted. On entry it almost immediately became apparent that it was a good investment. The main, reputedly 16th century, building, 'perched’ like a broody bird protecting her offspring with half-spread wings as a centrepiece of the scene. To the right an imposing, much newer temple vied for attention. This had a fully gilt-encrusted, carved front of splendid proportions and imposing craftsmanship. On inspecting the inside, we found a many-headed, gilded dragon boat of monstrous dimensions taking up almost the entire space, with a central enclosed glass casket, which had a spire atop that seemed to pierce the roof of the structure. Totally over the top. We peered behind the contraption, but found only a few dusty Buddha statues and some building gear. Obviously work in progress. Only as we exited, did we notice some heavy-duty truck wheels coyly peeking out from underneath the skirts of this gigantic vessel. So it could move! We read up on it later and found out that the vehicle was actually the transport for the last king's mortal remains to the funeral pyre. Some wheels - some garage!
Back to the main temple. We entered through a beautifully fretted portico, with alternating gilt or red on black - not just endless repetitions of the same themes of the Buddhist scriptures, as I, in my ignorance expected - no here were hundreds of cameos, each telling a piece of a riveting story, of war, death, punishment, love, salvation, sin and rebirth. The main temple was no less splendid, with double rows of great wooden pillars, girdled .with decorations which disappeared into the gloom of the ceiling. Just one youthful monk of a dozen years or so, stood watching us as we marvelled at the restrained splendour of this grand edifice. I beckoned him closer to a black, gilt encrusted wall, wanting to use his saffron robes as contrast, and he assented to being photographed quite unselfconsciously. Photo session over, he was quick to point me sternly at an offertory-box; funds needed for temple restoration, said the legend. After I'd dutifully inserted some dirty paper wearing an inordinate number of noughts, he nodded approvingly, but never smiled.
Fay had seen temples aplenty in India, Nepal and Leh, but even she was totally overwhelmed by the sheer taste, restraint, yet splendour and artistic flamboyance - all harmoniously combined in a way that touched perfection. A number of smaller structures still dotted the complex, as well as half a dozen stupas.. We looked into every one, and all at once a strange throbbing whine, almost like atmospheric interference would sound from a radio on steroids, started almost imperceptibly and increased over about a minute until you felt the fillings aching in your teeth. A patter of feet, and a bunch of boys in robes clattered up the steps as they shed their slops. Suddenly a drumbeat so loud and unusual in tone and quality, as I have never heard before. Then a staccato rattle of smaller instruments and again that whine and several crashing concussions. We stood closer to the side entrance of the temple and peered in to discover that both came from a huge bronze gong that was being used as a singing bowl and a drum. Some chanted prayers from the youngsters, another wild burst of percussion and a final boom ended the lesson. An unexpectedly profound and extraordinary sensory experience.
Our day was not over yet, as we were introduced to the night market. Sprawled along a street which was closed to traffic, traders had erected their gazebos under which they displayed their wares in three lines, creating two narrow walkways so that. two people could still pass each other. The goods on display were mostly textiles and jewellery, with a sprinkling of souvenirs and a few genuine collectables. Silk scarves, wraps, shawls and their lookalikes predominated. While not exactly cheap, they would be good value if the real stuff. Some of the ethnic hill tribe clothing was stunning in colours and varied design, but with our limited luggage room, we decided to give it a miss in that department. The silverware looked most inviting, but after having seen what could be done with a lot of copper and a breath of silver over the top in the Bali workshop which I’d visited, this was too risky for me. On the other hand, a couple of people had an eclectic mixture that spoke of cleared-out attics, grandma's old cupboards and maybe even the odd excavation. Among tigers' teeth and claws, boar tusk bracelets, tortoise shells and a few ivory objects (all illegal, .and you'd be nabbed when you left the country) there was stuff that made my heart rate soar.
I spotted a few motheaten canvas bags mouldering on the pavement. On top lay the remnants of a wad of pages, holed by rats, soiled by ages of neglect, but still, putatively, books. I paged through what was on offer; all were hand written, it seemed, and were crudely bound with cord and a rough spine of leather on the right. One was on well-thumbed cotton-rag paper, and the script looked different from the others, but on the other hand the condition was by far the worst. I decided to go for a middling copy, and expressed suitable disinterest in the lady-vendor’s wares. I love a fierce bargaining session; you ask for a price, recoil in horror, make a ridiculous counter-offer, to which she mimes the general hardness of the times and the numbers of her starving children. You are visibly saddened and gently put down the item, sigh and turn away with a last ditch offer. She refuses and shares in your sadness, so you switch tack and ask the price of a single old French Indochina coin for your collection. She brightens up and spreads her fingers - $5. I have her! I throw the coin onto the rejected book I had previously offered $30 on, while she wanted $2 more. '$32 for both' I offer. She agrees, and I have my antique book and coin for roughly the price of yesterday’s blockbuster paperback. Delight all round.
We meet Kao, coming from the opposite end, and he leads us off into an alleyway, lined with foodstalls. It's bedlam. Over a width of about four metres, you have rough tables and rickety benches jutting out from the left wall, a very narrow walkway, then troughs with glowing coals, gas fires and of course, trestle tables loaded with mortal remains of fish, chicken and pork in various guises, mainly cunningly skewered on or clamped between split bamboo spits. There were heaps of glistening sausages too, and on having been assured that they contained nothing more exotic than buffalo, pork and beef, I ordered a selection, Fay went for spare ribs and I loaded up with a huge plate of vegetables - none of which I was familiar with. For good measure the vendor lady chucks them all in a pan, gives them a quick stir about and a flash-flaming over the gas, and I go off with my dollar's worth to find a table.
We squeeze in, sweating shoulder to shoulder with tourist and local alike, with a solid queue of people still moving past, while the fires roar half a metre behind them. It's indescribably hot and uncomfortable, and so noisy you can hardly hear yourself think. Nevertheless Fay makes acquaintance with a blonde Dutch kid sitting opposite her. They manage to swap a few tips and tales, but I don't even try to get an ear into that conversation. Supper had been most satisfactory. Spiced anywhere between subtly fragrant to the sledgehammer effect of a mouthful of chillies. We returned to our home well satisfied with our excursion.
A slow-boat ride up or down the great river had been on my wish list, so Kao was given orders to find us a Charon who would ferry us around. In a trice the fair Soley was found willing and idle and in possession of one of those long covered boats with a dozen or two pretty uncomfortable seats in them. His asking price was horrendous for an hour's ride downriver - and two hours back. But here Kao intervened, as it turned out the guidebook had misinformed us - the Kuang Si falls were not a few minutes ride from the river village, but a good 37km on. Kao made an excellent suggestion; we could do our cruising down the river, while he drove to the village to pick us up there, then on to the falls and back home. Very good in theory, but that still left the boat at the wrong end of the journey without a fare. Soley said it cost money for petrol even if we didn't want the ride back - which was fair enough. So I knocked a hundred thousand off his asking price and told him that as it was already late in the morning, he could either take us and make a small profit, or sit on his rear for the rest of the day. He concurred, but needed the money to buy petrol, as there were no filling stations along the way. After a long wait, watching ferries crossing, loaded with locals, produce and jalopies, rafts, fishing skiffs with tiny one-lung putt-putts, as well as river steamers carrying hundreds of tons of cargo, we were finally under way in the broiling sun down the broad, brown Mekong. Altogether an enjoyable trip, until we landed. Luckily Soley got in touch with Kao by cellphone before abandoning us on a foreign shore. The latter was almost at our destination, it seemed. Our next goal meant that we had to hike up a steep and slippery bank. We were already pretty exhausted when we reached the so-called village, where at least we could get cold water (wonderful how you can find working fridges and satellite dishes in jungle bars, far from the beaten track, even in these parts). The solicitous Soley had helped and accompanied us as far as civilization. A further call elicited the alarming fact that Kao was presently stuck in the mud with his vehicle - so ‘could we start walking please?’ Not overjoyed with the idea in the 35 degree heat, we nonetheless set off trudging through the village along twists and turns we'd never have found without Soley.
Once in open country – actually on the main track through the jungle – our boatman phoned Kao for progress reports every few minutes, but the news only got worse. Now the latter was 'stucked in water, car dead'. Soley reckoned we might as well walk towards the debacle, so we plodded on while he ran ahead to see if he could help. It was a long couple of kilometers in the blazing sun until we reached the river to find that our transport was just in the last throes of being extricated from the watery grave it had landed in. Kao was quite distraught at our plight and kept apologising and berating himself, but for once I couldn't be cross with him - such things happen. We bade our new-found friend, Soley, a fond farewell and thankfully climbed into the tuktuk for the ride to the falls.
A looong time later we reached the falls, and recoiled a little, as it was not only crawling with tourists and locals alike (being said Communist holiday, Sunday) but it also had a parking lot that was ringed by all manner of stalls selling wares ranging from comestibles, through local handicrafts, to dross from Korea and China. Kao parked and promised to sleep on it while we disported ourselves at the falls. We paid our dues and set off once more in the steamy heat, albeit in the shade of the forest. No great distance from the gate we came to a bear conservation centre, sporting half a dozen miserable black bears in open enclosures, with a raised walkway running alongside the fence. We'd seen bears before, so the pleas to aid conservation fell on deaf ears and we walked on.
There was no great rushing or thundering noise, so it came as no surprise that these falls were really only cascades in a stream, but very pretty ones with tufa curtains and lovely blue-green pools, criss-crossed with seemingly fossilized trees that had fallen into the river. We were really tempted to have a swim, in spite of the crowds splashing about and picnicking in the forest all about us, but on dabbling my toes in the shallows, I found the going lethally treacherous over dissolving limestone covered with algae or calcium mud. We cast around for a place where Fay could get in without breaking a leg, but ended up sitting on a tree root at the water's edge with our feet in six inches of water and warm mud. Quite soothing for a few minutes but with limited long-term possibilities.
We strolled back and gladdened the hearts of a few foodsellers. As we ate, a short sharp shower first cooled things down, then made it even more steamy. Along the route home we were supposed to drive through some scenic ethnic villages where I hoped to get some photos of thatched palm leaf mat houses - but the weather played dirty for once. In no time we were driving through a full-scale monsoon downpour. Though the tuktuk had a top canopy, there was a hefty gap between the cab and roof, so the rain blasted in our faces through this. The side blinds, though unfurled, also helped little and in no time at all, we looked like drowned rats. I made Fay sit up front with Kao as she had a bad chest infection which did not need aggravating, but I had no choice but to grin and bear it. Those thirty or so km were very long, very uncomfortable and at the end, very cold. Not even the sights of bedraggled villagers, livestock and nut-brown kids dancing naked by roadside puddles, waiting for passing vehicles to give them a power-shower of muddy water - were diverting after a while. A hot shower and dry clothes was all I craved, and surprisingly, after an hour's lie-down in a cosy bed, all was restored and we were ready to have another go at the market.
Fay wanted a silk shawl, so that was the first priority - but what a range to choose from. Buyers were obviously in short supply, so the competition for her favours was fierce. Purchase finally made, we wandered through an aisle we'd missed on our previous visit. Now there were palm-leaf books, every thickness and length, with antique covers or without, all over the place. The bookseller in me just wanted them all - but I did resist temptation. Overall, this had been the best market yet, with a wide variety of goods, nicely displayed over the whole width of the street; well lit, with fruit-drink stalls at one end. Now we wanted something to eat, but for once we were completely disorientated and had different memories of the alley's location. Language problems arose and even mimicked queries gave conflicting answers. Our luck held and we bumped into our Dutch tablemate from the night before. She laughingly pointed us to the right alley just a few metres distant. The breeze had been blowing from the wrong quarter, or we'd have been lured by the aromas of roasting meat. Once again we had an interesting selection; squeezed in next to a Brit couple, with me sitting opposite a large Chinese with a big appetite for spare ribs and Lao by the liter. We finished off with some delicious fruit smoothie mixes and decided to call it a day, as the evasive early morning market awaited us on our last day.
This was in a different location, a much shorter street, but oh, what culinary treasures. As we were leaving the same day, we couldn't actually buy anything - but looking and tasting a bit here and there was great. There were a lot of greens on sale. Some obviously leaf vegetables that were fried or stewed, some herbs, not all for cooking either as we found out from the taste - though Kao's English was not up to translating medicinal uses for them. The sheer variety of mushrooms was amazing - on one table seven species were on offer - white, long-stemmed, dark brown, straw mushrooms over four inches long, oyster mushrooms, tiny brown buttons and a floppy purplish sprig of tree mushroom, which I'd never seen before. There was brown single clove garlic, the size of a thumbnail, green beans several feet long, numerous cucurbits and aubergines from pea-sized to almost that of a melon, that I wouldn't know what to do with, and a dozen varieties of rice, white, yellow, red and black - to mention but a few.
Among the fruit and veg were stalls of dry foodstuffs, neatly packaged in cellophane or plastic wrappers, but most bearing only Lao names, so we couldn't even guess what they contained. One item predominated though - rawhide - in blocks, sticks, strips and slices, as well as dark chips of what we would call biltong. For the life of me I couldn't figure out what one would do with all this 6mm-thick shoeleather in the kitchen. Kao was consulted. No, you didn't stir-fry it, nor cooked it in deep fat to turn it into crackling. You didn't make jelly out of it, nor stew. Somehow you did prepare it in the kitchen - and then ate it while on a beer drinking binge - with much effort, as Kao mimed gnawing and tearing at a strip of hide. As I am fond of spoonerisms, I had great difficulty keeping a straight face when Kao said the source of this rawhide were ‘fluffablows’. Laotians have some difficulty with their ‘p’s and f’s – thus ‘people’ can easily become ‘feefle’ in that part of the world. We had a good laugh when I suggested feeding the hide to a dog instead (as we might in SA) and then eating the dog - as they sometimes still do in Laos, but more often so in Viet Nam.
There was also a large number of fish from the Mekong on offer. Tiddlers, dried and looking like the kitten treats you buy for your cats back home, but also mean eyed monsters with wrestlers' necks, weighing in at 20-40 kilos apiece. Not much by way of jungle produce, but Kao assured us that if we came in early, there was plenty of wild fowl, hog and deer to be found. Both of Luang Prabang’s markets are fascinating places, which reflect the food of the region, customs and handicrafts of a large part of central South East Asia, especially since the trade highway of the Mekong passes through town.
We thought we might as well have a look to see how the royals fared before the revolution, seeing this was our last day, as the king's palace was also open on Mondays (and Sundays, not Tuesdays or Saturdays, mind you) From the outside the palace looked like any administrative edifice on a generous scale, but you were immediately ushered off to a small room where you could shed your shoes and other impediments. The moment one stepped inside one is blasted by the opulence of an oriental potentate; everything is gilt or solid gold, the furniture, walls, fitments and drapes just dripped with the stuff. Our last monarch must have fancied himself as a military man of note, as there were rows of cases of swords used by him or presented by powers ranging from all the kingdoms in the region, to many European powers. The further west the origin of the gift, the less gold encrusted hilt and scabbard became - until you got to the bottom shelf where a standard-issue ordinary cavalry sabre rested - presented by the French, who obviously held the monarch in the esteem due to him. The inner sanctums were closed to the hoi polloi, but one could peer in through the doors to view the royal bed, chamberpot, and the dining table complete with its Royal Doulton service.
The outer rooms contained more royal stuff, and more display cases with presents from the high personages and great nations of the world. A glittering display in the main, except for the crowning glory – the present from the United States – a plastic model of the Apollo Moon Lander! There was little of real interest until we chanced on a bunch of stelae, with different inscriptions from periods varying from 15th to 18th centuries. One such was a real Rosetta stone, with all of three different forms of script on it I would have given my eye-teeth for a rubbing of that, but a stolen photo had to be a distant second prize, cameras not being permitted; but smuggled in nonetheless. On leaving I located a dour museum official, who proved to be unexpectedly helpful when I asked him about the different alphabets. His take on this was that the aristocracy, the bureaucracy and the Buddhist church all had their own versions of script, a sort of closely guarded guild or class system.
Kao introduced us to a platform restaurant overhanging the steep bank of the Mekong, a fitting place to end our brief stay in Laos. We shared lunch and a beer with our man and the tiniest, most pregnant little squint-eyed tabby cat I've ever seen. Good to get some catty loving, even if it was table-based.
We said our goodbyes to Kao and paid him off. He was not a patch on our friend Naga in Siem Reap, but still, as time passed and we got better acquainted, he became more of an aide and tried to please us, so we had warmed to this rather dour character with his paucity of language skills. The Rattanakone pack also, we were sorry to leave. The place was spotless, well-run and Madame and her brood and employees were always keen to help within their very limited English capabilities.
The airport departure lounge was about the most cheerless place of that ilk that I have encountered, but its one advantage was that the hard plastic banks of chairs were actually comfortable! Some minutes after seating ourselves I suddenly thought I heard my name mispronounced in a 'calling for...' announcement. I went back through security, who sent me to check-in, who in turn marched me off to a room which was littered with luggage and a busy bunch of customs officials and some red-faced tourists. My minder pointed to our smaller bag and asked if it was mine. To this I replied, yes, but there was another, bigger bag. He didn't care about the latter, it seemed, but wanted me to open this one. I told him I couldn't, because we'd used cable ties to secure the zips and I didn't have a knife. He duly obliged and I opened up. "Whiskey, whiskey ?" he asked, and then I remembered our supply we carried in two small plastic water bottles. I pulled them out, explained that, yes, it was whiskey, which we were in the habit of drinking, and for good measure, I pulled out the bottle of palm wine I’d bought in Cambodia as well. He was most intrigued by this one's label, but obviously couldn't make much sense of it. The bottle was still sealed, so he grudgingly let me stuff everything back in again. I did manage to elicit a friendly grin when I asked whether I could trust him with my luggage now it had been broached. The Laotians were thorough, but quite businesslike and neutrally friendly, to give them their due. Nearly all passengers boarding were called to open up and please explain something or other in their cases. To crown it all, I set off the beeper at security for some strange reason when I returned to the boarding lounge and had to submit to multiple scans and pat-downs before being permitted to pass. DON'T ever try to smuggle anything illegal out of the country - these people take themselves seriously.
When our call came and we were carted off by bus to our little plane, it was crammed full within minutes and since there was no reason to tarry, we left, ten minutes early - surely a miracle of modern aviation.
Wednesday, 17 October 2012
Votes & Views #28
As our plane comes in to land, I scan the level, cultivated landscape for signs of monumental masonry and thick jungle. I see neither; but there is plenty of cultivation as well as habitations. Siem Reap airport looks like a charmingly modern, yet ethnic exhibition venue. Everywhere are stacked roofs with spike decorations on the peaks, red tiles and white gargoyles at the eaves. Picturesque is not the usual description for an airport, but most fitting for this beauty spot.
We run into problems with immigration. A mysterious misunderstanding - our carefully prepared E-visa applications, proudly bearing our photos, are brusquely refused and other forms are thrust into our hands and we are bundled off to fill them in. Bewilderment about describes our state - but argument would be futile, so best get on with it. Suddenly I have an official at my shoulder; he grabs passports, wrong forms, the partly filled in real McCoy, and wants to rush off. When I protest that Fay still has to do her thing, he just snaps 'enough' and gallops off, leaving us completely nonplussed. A few minutes waiting on tenterhooks to see whether we are to be summarily ejected - then he's back, grimly shepherding me to the front of the lengthy immigration queue. A young lady holds up a passport sporting a distinctly Chinese face and asks in an unknown tongue whether it is mine. I regretfully deny culpability and she finds another passport and repeats the query. All Europeans look the same. This time it's Fay's. Hastily I beckon the latter while nodding vigorously at the official. The matter is sorted, it is handed over - but still mine is nowhere to be seen. My dour minder runs along the counter and traces it; a few seconds later I affirm ownership and we're ushered off. Once more my Nemesis grabs the passports from me and gallops off to another part of immigration. Seconds later our papers are adorned with splendid visas, stamps and requisite Khmer squiggles. We are welcomed officially and cordially to Cambodia and told to have a good evening.
Wow. I don't know whether the crutches helped; the fact that we are getting on a bit; that I dropped a wad of dollars in the visa queue while scratching for the fee - or perhaps because I just looked like I could do with some help. Whichever it was - I would certainly commend this class of Communist officialdom to prospective visitors. We meet Chun Lee, our taxi driver, at the entrance - no problem. He is most solicitous about our comfort, health, family and wishes. The one thing that eludes him is our continent of origin. Despite numerous repeats and explanations, he is convinced we come from South America, because America is the only other geographical concept he has heard of besides Asia. Still, a lovely man – just his taxi is a little short of shock absorbers and the steering is a bit loose. We drive through Siem Reap - definitely lots of Thai influence on buildings. Much of it is in a poor state of maintenance and looks like a war zone, which it has been for decades. The roads occasionally interrupted by craters and refilled with sharp rubble between ordinary potholes and lakes. But then, we had been warned that we were going to arrive in the middle of the monsoon. As we flew in from the south, the huge lake, Tonle Sap had looked full to the brim and the surrounding countryside was a sodden network of rivers, canals and oxbow lakes. We were to learn differently later.
Our inn is located in an improbably narrow lane. Traffic noise should not be much of a problem, we think. The staff are charming and without exception, handsome young men. We are assigned to one Pieron as his English is pretty good. In no time we have sorted out the booking, finances and transport (he is happy to introduce us to his god-brother, Naga, of whom more later). We are shown to our room. It is dark at that end of the courtyard which is filled with lush tropical vegetation and swarms of mosquitos, besides which it looked like a welcoming place to sit in. Our room is disappointing, to say the least. There is hardly enough space to get undressed next to the bed, the tiles are stained, and one could do oneself serious injuries in both toilet and shower by bouncing off walls and sundry installations. We are somewhat disillusioned with the reality versus the pictures and happy descriptions we'd seen on the net when booking. Fay decides to ask for better accommodation - which might just be available elsewhere in the complex. After much searching on the computer by Pieron, it is discovered that there are two 'superior' rooms on offer, upstairs and on the ground floor, in the wing across the street. Downstairs proves to be similar to what we already had. At last, up a lethally steep and narrow, unguarded flight of stairs, we find a charming Rapunzel tower. An octagonal room with a high, pointed, tiled roof with no ceiling - just an occasional sunbeam peeping through the terracotta; a balcony overlooking the pool and restaurant; certainly a great improvement except that the steps were far from ideal for anyone on crutches. There is a paucity of furniture, the shape of the room is a little random, as are the concrete beams that cross off-centre above, with an afterthought of a post to hold up the roof supports - also off-centre. There is only a tiny window – just as an afterthought, but three sets of double
doors, main entry, balcony and bathroom. These are popular in this part of the world it seems, and grand entrances revealing the throne, as it were, are favoured. Still, it has charm, it's clean, freshly painted and there are few mould spores to set off asthma or hayfever attacks.
We take a test-walk down the neighbouring streets and peek in on local life, work, leisure, cooking, eating, bathing the kids - and whatever goes on at roadside in a third world country. We pop in at a chemist and find language barriers fade if you can write and know the active ingredients of your muti (medication) of choice. The promenade along the muddy channelled river that divides the town, is quite peaceful, and slowly, strollers and a streetfood hawker make their appearance. We stand closer to inspect what is on offer, but are not tempted as the contents of the duck eggs look suspiciously like half-cooked embryos, when a buyer takes a bite.
It has been a long day, so we return to our balcony, shout down to the bar for a couple of beers and a glassful of ice and watch the passing parade. The mosquitos pay us passing attention, but on the plus side, a tiny sunbird sips nectar from a huge, scarlet spike of an erthryna tree an arm's length away. Supper at the little terrace bistro is adequate and enlivened by competing geckos on the ceiling and a scrawny feline with manic blue eyes, a manky tail and a few ginger patches on milky grey flanks. She raucously requests a share of our meal and wolfs down anything including rice and chillies. She is joined by her two sprouts, one of whom gives me quite start by scooting up the trunk of a bushy potplant at my elbow - to disappear among the foliage, from where he peers out like a lemur. A homely place, with eager-to-please and friendly staff.
Here Naga must enter the tale, or Lim Yiv as is his proper name. A personable young man, in his mid-thirties, with remarkably good English skills, and an astonishing knowledge of his country, culture, history, politics and foods. He tells us that he had just taken the plunge, obtained a loan and purchased a somewhat roadworn tuktuk, ie a canopied trailer hitched into a post in the middle of the pillion of a moped. This is his pride and joy, and we are his first clients, he informs us beamingly - sure to bring good luck. It was more the other way round, for Naga and his shabby Rosinante carried us faithfully and securely through the mayhem of Cambodian traffic, through potholed and cratered roads, over rocks and through shallow ponds, in tropical sunshine and blinding downpour. Naga added a whole extra dimension to our stay, and we like to think that we found a friend.
Our first morning on the temple trail. It is cloudy and steamy. We rattle off over dreadful roads, through a fledgeling, skimpy jungle, which has been replanted just a few years ago to provide a fitting setting for the ‘lost temples’. The original giants have long been hacked down, bombed out of existence and converted to charcoal, so this is a very worthy attempt to remedy that sorry state. At the entrance gate of the archaeological complex we are welcomed by a bevy of exquisite young ladies in national dress and are duly photographed by the biometric camera, after which our personalised tickets are issued for a period of six days’ of unlimited access to my dream. After consulting with Naga, we decide to leave Angkor Wat for a better day when there is a possibility of viewing it from a balloon, in sunshine – perhaps? So we pass up on this icon – for today.
On to Angkor Thom, the large, walled city complex of some nine square kilometers in extent, in the middle of which is the Bayon, a temple known to the world by its giant, placid faces that adorn every face of each tower. It is an overwhelmingly emotional moment for me to walk among these mighty works and to revel in the fulfilment of a sixty-year old dream that I've harboured. An Asian paraphrase of Shelley’s line “I am Ozymandias, king of kings, look on my works, ye mighty and despair” comes to mind – except that his name was Jayavarman, and I rejoice instead. We make our laborious way through, up steps, along galleries; more steps, down, up – assimilating by touch and sight the ponderous magnificence and atmosphere of the place. There must have been crowds of other tourists – I don’t remember. Such is the scale and majesty of the complex that no reasonable person could want it to themselves alone. We emerge from this part of the city an hour later - wiped out, but Naga is to hand to steer us through the throngs of pleading children and hawkers. One stands shamed in one’s relative affluence, when you are faced with inability to make a difference to so many in this ravaged part of the world, so we harden our hearts to the impassioned pleas of hordes of children, each begging for ‘a dollar, just one dollar, to help me go to school’ or other phrases in English. Whatever action you take – it’s the wrong one on one or more levels.
We tuktuk past the platform of the elephants, an arena where parades were held and a vast area was enclosed between embankments for the spectators, off to another part of the complex, Baphuon, where our trusty steeds await and we get acquainted by means of a bunch of bananas. The Asian elephant is much smaller than those grey eminences we're used to and I am able to rub cheeks with the lady. Unexpectedly her face and trunk are as soft as velvet, and so is her fine body-hair. Nothing like her spiky, emery-board African cousins that I have handled during a relocation project some decades earlier. As we trundle off in our jerking, swaying howdah, the mahout reminds us that this is the 21st century by tucking his cellphone over his ear under his rattan hat and having a long, loud conversation while steering our behemoth. Once used to the sway, it is quite pleasant, especially if one '.posts' a bit at the hips. Certainly it is an easier way than walking to get round the outside of the complex and a good vantage point from which to view the temple and its serene portraiture. Not quite so easy to get your steed to stop when you want to take a photo – and reversing the elephant via two language barriers is too much to expect. It starts to rain softly, pleasantly. It stops as the ride ends. Our mahout removes his raincape to reveal a t-shirt with a little pocket in the centre of his scrawny back. ‘Tips are appreciated’ it says underneath, and I have to laugh while stuffing a couple of greenbacks into it.
Naga takes us out through the Victory Gate, which though impressive from inside, is absolutely magnificent if you enter the city by it. Across the river, two more smaller temples follow, left of the road Ta Keo, and right Chau Say Thevada, and I can't resist a short stop and rummage about. Then there are those romantic images of walls and towers in the grip of Nature, essentially Shiva the destroyer - where the rapacious denizens of the forest envelop and devour the works of man. These are powerful elemental forces, and in places the fig-tree roots have extracted blocks of stone weighing a ton or more, and cast them aside. In other spots, roots frame a section of masonry, holding it together, while all around the rest has crumbled. Some trees, like prehistoric octopus-like monsters, sit and lord it over the ruined edifices. The complex of Ta Prohm. Impossibly photogenic, of course, but you need to be there every day for a week or more, with a battery of cameras and lenses to capture all the moods and essences. I don’t even attempt anything but an occasional happy-snap. I can’t resist another roadside temple of the cluster at Bantey Kdei on my own, since Fay's knee has declared 'enough'. We recuperate a little on the slow, bumpy ride back to town and we are decanted at the edge of the old market to fossick about.
Another assault on the senses, mostly olfactory. As this is, at least in part, a culinary tour, our first visited stall sells spices, most of which are familiar, but there are a number of nuts, seeds and teas that Naga has to interpret for us. Then we dive into the dark, reeking inferno of alleyways scarcely wide enough to accommodate one set of Western hips. Markets can be fascinating, or just a collection of innumerable traders hawking a limited variety of tourist tat. This one was the real deal. Carcases - whole and dismembered, of pigs, chickens, ducks, tiny bird corpses, fruit bats, frogs and a large variety of fish, crabs, shrimps, squid, clams, as well as the odd heaps of crickets, ant-eggs and who knows what other insects. Stopping only to let Fay crunch a toasted cricket (I declined, having eaten numbers of roasted grasshoppers in my youth) we hurriedly shuffle past the protein section and get to the veg and fruit. For a very modest sum, our friend negotiates tasting exotic fruits like mangosteen, longan, jackfruit, durian, three varieties of lychees, dragonfruit, teab, madeinh, khavet, sanlak – by now they are just names and descriptions scribbled down on a limp sheet of paper – at the time they epitomized the flavours of the tropics, and we get a takeaway bag for later. In the midst of this cornucopia, a posse of steaming vendors labour over roaring, gas-fired, shallow, wok-like utensils, and the sight and aroma of some flattened objects browning reminds us it is lunchtime. We strike a quick deal, and in no time we are perched on dreadfully uncomfortable, low stools about six inches square, about the same distance off the ground. The food was delicious; apparently a simple fried dumpling with a green filling, made mainly of shallots, hacked up beyond recognition and mixed with other, anonymous ingredients, with an extra dollop of stir-fried vegetables and herbs as an accompaniment. We promised ourselves a return visit. Fay wanted a mani- and pedicure for some ridiculous sum, so we left her to it and hunted down a bookshop. This was quite well-stocked on the subject of Angkor-anything, but for my linguistics collection, a Khmer phrasebook and simple dictionary was the best we could find.
Another lesson on international economics. As we leave the market, a beggar on the pavement raises his hands in supplication. He’s missing an arm and a leg – it could have been worse if he’d fallen foul of the Pol Pot regime, it occurs to me, since we have already been asked if we wish to inspect the genocide museums and killing fields in the vicinity. I scratch in the nearest pocket and come up with some banknotes in the local idiom. I select a couple bearing between two and three noughts apiece, as well as an outline of Angkor Wat, and offer them to the man. I am taken utterly aback when he angrily refuses the money and snarls at me. Naga looks on with a blank face, and when I enquire as to what the matter was, he just replies “you can’t buy anything for that!”. That’s quite an indictment against a government, when a beggar refuses to accept the lowest denominations of his own country. Not that we should cast aspersions – shortly after my return, it was announced that all transactions would be ‘rounded off to the nearest 10 cents’, so we’re heading in the same direction. When I first arrived in South Africa, I could sneak off to the café round the corner and buy a packet of 50 cigarettes for that amount!
We retired early as a dawn visit to Angkor was planned. Up at 4.30 and we were dropped off in the grey, unpromising dawn with instructions for a seven hundred-odd metre walk, to a viewpoint which would give the best silhouette of the temple against the rising sun. Together with a hundred or two hopeful devotees we sat, on the western side of a smallish lake - but it never happened. The day was fated to be dull, so we set out deeper into the 80-odd hectare structure. This is not an architectural description, nor an archeological report. It was the achievement of a quest, and I was fulfilled – I could embrace my dream. Up, up and round the galleries and terraces we went. For all her knee problems and despite being on crutches, Fay hobbled along, equally entranced by the past glories of this mighty work. We were foiled at the very centre, on the sixth level, where the Bakan, or focal point of Angkor, which is supposed to represent Mount Meru, the spiritual home of the Khmer in south China, loomed skywards. The steep flight of some twenty stairs were closed, 'for cleaning', said the sign, though Naga later said it was for a Buddhist ceremony or special day. Not too disappointed, we soldiered on and took in the best part of a kilometre of finely executed carved murals that ring one level of the temple. After some four hours, we were sheer templed out and emerged on the opposite side to which we had entered the complex. Naga and his very welcome tuktuk awaited. We did some damage to a couple of coconuts and bartered fiercely with a charming young lady selling imitation silk scarves (in the tropics). We were off into a lovely, cooling monsoon shower - most welcome, since we were utterly soaked anyway.
A rest was indicated, but the indefatigable Naga was keen to show us more. A fishing village, complete with market, said he; a boat ride up the river to a village on stilts, a fishing expedition - you name it, he knew where to find it. So we were routed from our cool room and set off along a fairly good road through what became increasingly rural surroundings. According to our sage it was very dry at present, the rainy season (which was still to arrive) often brought the shores of the great seasonal lake Tonle Sap, within a few kilometres of Siem Reap. Certainly all the houses at the roadside were raised on stilts, 4-6metres off the ground, with an occasional foul puddle underneath, but mostly just heaps of garbage, waiting for the next monsoon to wash it clean. Not very attractive, but interesting nonetheless. Everywhere strange contraptions consisting of a square metre of plastic sheeting was hung in the breeze between sticks. Underneath another shallow basin constructed of the same material, but half full of scummy water – a mosquito farm almost certainly, but the best guess I could make was an insect trap of sorts - possibly to feed fish. Naga laughed at my guess, but said 'close, but not fishfood - crickets'. Seems like a light is shone on these at night; the crickets are attracted and drop into the scum, where they drown, to be fried up and served to the likes of Fay! Sometimes better to know less.
For once our friend got it completely wrong. The putative fishing village consisted of a raw, bulldozed dam a few hundred metres long, with a few score boats moored on the margins. A huge, spanking new tourist complex had arisen from raw agricultural land, there were shiny, painted landing stages, tourist barges ferrying a dozen busloads of top-end tourists into carefully choreographed 'ethnic' experiences, restaurants and curio shops galore. A bit like Ice-World in Abu Dhabi. We about-turned right there. Instead, we took a leisurely drive back, spent a little time with a lovely lotus-seed selling lady, and I got laughed at when I tried eating a seed without peeling it - which left me spitting with a wry face. I spied an itinerant hawker pedalling along the road on his tricycle business that looked as if he might have some edibles. Indeed, the man had a fine mess of dumplings, ready for the steaming. Naga looked sceptical, but as the man said his goods contained nothing more lethal than duck eggs and onions, I lashed out with 50c US and bought me a damned fine lunch, which was cooked on the vendor’s portable charcoal cooker in front of my eyes - though neither Fay nor Naga would touch it.
That evening another date, this time more cultural. We had read about shadow-puppet performance cum dinner at a restaurant, and asked Naga to organize it for us. It was interesting to a point, but as with any dramatic performance in a language one doesn't understand, it loses something essential. The orphaned children troupe who presented the show did a fine job of making the grotesque shadows dance on the backlit screen, as well as performing the voice-overs and music. Mercifully, it lasted under an hour - which kept it within the bounds of entertainment. Some of the printed text translation we had been issued with, however, caused us much hilarity when it claimed that ‘a pair of lovers were burnished out from their city of Ayuthaya'.
As I didn't expect to be passing by way of Cambodia any time soon again, I wanted to see the remaining and earliest of the temples, which had been built during the ninth century in a different area, farther east of town. So once more we girded our loins and went templing to the Roluous Group which formed part of the ancient city of Hariharalaya. These differed in execution from the later structures at Angkor as they were on a much smaller scale and partly constructed from brick. Again we were enchanted at the first temple, Lolei, which was tiny, but had some maginificent bas reliefs round the doors of the tottering walls, some of which had been propped up with timber to prevent further collapse. The next, Preah Koh, was the oldest of this cluster, while Bakong, as a sort of mini-precursor of Angkor Wat, fascinated both of us, and no heat, weary body or injury would hold us back from climbing the last triumphant steps to the top. We had done our temples, and absolutely exhausted, we were dropped off on a hot afternoon for a rest.
There was more to see, so Naga and I went off to the Angkor Museum - most grandiose, with large display areas and audio-visual facilities. However, devilishly difficult to navigate for this foreigner, who despite a map managed to get thoroughly lost inside the two-storey building. An added irritation was that most of the quite well-translated labels were beyond my visual range. Many beautiful artifacts had been preserved, but there was none of that sense of community of culture as in the temples themselves, only fragments in an alien environment. How much more beautiful if it had been practicable to leave them where they had been found. Still, impressive collections everywhere, like the 1000 Buddhas’ Hall, the Khmer kings and the display of ancient stelae, bearing inscriptions recording historic events and changes in the ancient language. This, I think, was the starting point of my fascination with the writing systems and the written word in South East Asia, which in turn, became another search within a quest for the rest of the trip. On the way back the monsoon let rip with intent. Naga joined us for drink and a bite at the bistro and finally, as it was getting late, he had to scoot off home into the downpour, while we were escorted by a platoon of umbrella-bearers up our own, impossible staircase.
The morning's weather wasn’t much better, so we slithered round a modern, large Buddhist temple but really found nothing to delight the senses, just buddha-bling. A better suggestion was to visit an artist's academy to see how some good replicas were made. I was fortunate to get a guide to myself and the young man was most informative and pleasant company. It seemed that we were fated not to have any luck with the Angkor balloon trip due to the weather, so decided on a last market-trundle instead. I had told Naga about my new interest in the Khmer writings I had seen at the museum, so his task was to find me some, preferably antique, sample of writing. He duly led the way straight into a curio shop - and to my utter amazement, some ten minutes later, after a little statutory bargaining, I was the happy owner of a handwritten palm-leaf Khmer poetry book in wooden covers for the price of a fat modern thriller. Our delight was further increased by finding our dumpling lady in place and being able to partake of her delicious wares as a last supper. Luggage packed, bills paid, we said our farewells to the lovely guys at the hotel and Naga took us to the airport, where we parted with mixed feelings of gratitude and regret. For the best part of a week he mothered us, translated, transported, educated, entertained and helped us in every way he could, and we, in turn, hope that we have made some small contribution to his future. If any reader should need a Cambodian Man Friday, try firstname.lastname@example.org or phone +85517592789 and ask for Naga.
Next time: Laos
Saturday, 29 September 2012
Votes & Views #27
The airport at Denpasar is pretty enormous. Certainly Cape Town International could be accommodated in it. As we spend a little quality time in immigration, I survey the passing parade. Beautiful humanity abounds – but so many of them! Within minutes another five planes have landed and the chaos intensifies as they disgorge their sweating cargo. The efficiency is not quite like Changi; everything is a little more laid-back.
Outside it’s cooler, but a heaving mass of vehicles and humanity greets the senses. Our hotel transport finally manages to fight his way through to us and after a while, extricates himself and us from the parking lot by sheer dogged bloody-mindedness, pushing himself into the streams of traffic. Might is right on Bali roads – but mind the mopeds – they could be carrying the whole family from baby to granny with everyone in between, all on one trip.
Streets are a warren, punctuated by building sites and evidence of civil engineering construction everywhere. Bali is on the move, and the first impressions are not exactly charming. The hotel is like hotels anywhere; rooms are passably clean, but musty. The aircon works, room service is slow and the food is a la the words of the immortal Crocodile Dundee – ‘tastes like s..t, but you can survive on it’.
Next morning reveals the charming architecture of the place though. Kampong-style would be about the best description. Double-storey, tiled buildings connected by leafy walkways, pillared verandas, ornate doorways, sculpted masonry at most extremities (totally surplus to requirements – utterly charming). The main dining hall - no, edifice, rather, is on the second floor of the reception block. Without exaggeration, it is spacious enough to accommodate a moderate herd of elephants. It brings to mind Robert Standish’s description of the planter’s huge mansion built of teak, in his book ‘Elephant Walk’. The roof trusses, which span some twenty metres of room, are massive timber baulks, held together with chains. A console without obvious purpose is crowned with scores of Javanese sika deer antlers. No table-top is thinner than ten centimeters of solid timber slab. In the reception area is an occasional table made of a single hunk of timber, over three metres long, thirty centimeters thick and a metre wide on a pedestal of equal thickness. The mind boggles at this largesse of timber everywhere.
After breakfast our Ricefield Villa driver, young Wayan, arrives and whisks us off towards Ubud. To our eyes, unschooled to Asian matters, city traffic is as chaotic and dangerous as it appeared last night. The rule seems to be that there is no rule – if you want to get into traffic, wait until someone appears that you can intimidate enough to push in front of. Be ruthless; do not give way unless someone has managed to stick a fender, or wheel in front of you, making your own progress impossible. Hoot often. There already seem to be too many people for this modestly sized island – judging by the number of motorbikes on the roads.
The city blends into towns. Shops, houses, factories, eateries jostle with living quarters. There is industry everywhere. Chunks of carved, monument-sized trees, slabs of timber, planks, spars, sculptures and even furniture made of cunningly sliced and sculpted rootstocks of jungle giants line the streets. A mind-boggling variety of furniture which testifies to the inventiveness of the human mind. One thing all local carpenters seem to have in common though, is their complete disregard to the proportions of the human anatomy. Their products are certainly not made to their slighter scale, but even our larger, European frames find especially seats fiendishly uncomfortable – statuesque though they may be. The ex-lumberman in me examines a set of four diningroom chairs, each carved out of a solid chunk of wood, in the form of a cupped, upturned hand perched on its wrist/pedestal. Four of these would need a cubic metre, or about a ton of hardwood as raw material. To while away the potholes I do a little mental arithmetic (which I have just checked on a calculator) and I come up with the astounding fact that even if one likes robust furniture, from that amount of timber, you can actually manufacture between forty and fifty chairs of the sort of design one sees in homes that we are familiar with.
A couple of hours later, our wild ride comes to an end in a back-street building yard, by the look of it. Not very inspiring. A crowd of women and children gather. Our host’s family, Kadek, Suarja’s sister, the wife, Nyoman, another unspecified female relative, confusingly named Wayan as well as our male driver, then Niva, a buxom lass of vague kinship and Kiki, the young daughter, who gives our Mia a warms welcome hug. We have arrived home.
Here I must explain that names in Bali get somewhat confusing. Each member is called by the number order in which they were born, Kadek, Wayan, Nyoman just mean something like first, second or third. Every family hierarchy has them. Most confusing to Euro minds. How they manage in classroom situations boggles the mind – presumably they have to take refuge in nicknames to distinguish between scholars, as you may very well have half a dozen or more all answering to the same numerical epithet.
Nyoman and Niva are our chauffeuses and as Fay and I are senior, infirm citizens, we get a ride to the villa; my relatives opt for a walk. Fay is an experienced biker, but I haven’t mounted an iron horse for almost fifty years. I view the slender Nyoman with skepticism and opt for the slightly heftier Niva to drive my not inconsiderable weight down into the unknown. Since we are barely acquainted, I hoist myself up behind her sturdy back, and clutch a thin metal grip-thing below the level of the seat, and we tear off down the path which dips and jinks between houses and a deep-set, but shallow canal on either side. I try hard to anticipate which way Novi will weave between pedestrians, chickens, potholes, builders pushing wheelbarrows and round right angle bends and T-junctions – but I wobble, so, in desperation I decide to risk being accused of indecent assault on a minor, and I clamp my knees firmly round her amplitude, while clinging on for dear life. Not as good as putting my arms round her waist and really snuggling up – but after all, we’re just getting acquainted. Later Kadek tells me it’s perfectly proper for complete male strangers to embrace nubile maidens while on the pillion seat of a bike. Ah well, later perhaps.
The path is perhaps a metre wide at best. There is oncoming traffic, pedestrian and motorized; farming activity and transport of produce, as well as building materials being carted or carried to a number of construction sites along the route. Choking clouds of smoke come from smouldering heaps of rice straw, and the odd duck, chicken, cat or dog joins the busy highway. In the midst of fields dotted with hovels of the workers, strange Italianate mansions or villas rise from behind high walls. Three minutes of sheer terror, then we are deposited at the Elysian Gates. Inside these imposing, carved gates, a deep narrow garden; a strangely harmonious blend of Balinese, Hindu, Buddhist and Japanese elements. Some bonsai look-alikes in pots are dotted around the grassed open space, strategically raised on low plinths ( which I later discover to be skylights of a whole underground series of storerooms and previously, the living-quarters for the family). A stepped watchtower to one side looks like a three-storey gazebo. The Buddha statue has a red hibiscus in its belly button. The house is hardly visible behind a huge jackfruit tree and other, diverse shrubbery.
It transpires later in conversation with our host, Suarja, that foreigners, though welcome, can’t own residential property in Bali. So they take a local partner, with whom they have a legal contract to permit them access to the property they purchase and develop, but it is a sort of lifetime-lease. The fixed property reverts to the Balinese partner once the alien has shuffled off – or it might even be stipulated that the contract ends after a number of years. So Suarja has a Japanese partner from Tokyo, who every year spends the odd weeks relaxing in these rustic surroundings after his hectic business life in the city. In between these times, Suarja rents out the villa and the services of his family to the likes of us, to pay for upkeep and also to earn a living.
The main dwelling may have a concrete core, but the impression is purely organic. Timber, bamboo and atap are the main elements – the glass is hardly noticeable – just the spaces between pillars and the rolled blinds at half-mast to keep the sun at bay. From the outside the roof looks like a haystack, from inside it’s a marvel of detailed, interlocking construction; an intricate landscape for roaming geckoes, who invertedly bark defiant challenges at each other as they scurry about in the evenings.
The sanitary department smacks of Japanese influence, cleanliness and sophistication. One needs to remember to drop the blinds before use – something that probably comes more naturally to a Tokyogi who is used to living in a glass cage three metres away from the neighbour in a similar, opposite apartment in the building next door. The toilet has triumphal, carved double doors – very chic, and a phenomenon we encountered a number of times during the next eight weeks.
The entire top storey is taken up by sleeping quarters and bathroom. Two large double beds in the huge room itself, an extensive porch out front, with similar sleeping arrangements outside, should one so wish, and another narrower veranda at the rear of the house, overlooking the pool and the ricefields surrounding the place. The view on all sides of the house at the lower level is confined to the formal, tropical beauty of the garden, the structures, swimming pool, koi ponds, statues and altars. From above, you have an uninterrupted view of the surrounding agricultural activity as the extended village gets on with their daily work. Paddy fields border on each other, occasionally interspersed with shanties where the farmers live during the harvesting season. The fields are demarcated by an intricate system of channels, through which the flow of water from the distant hills is directed by some, communally negotiated plan. Everyone has water for their fields; mostly enough for a harvest every hundred days – much needed for the ever-growing population.
We are surrounded by an agricultural settlement visible for 270 degrees around us, and though it may not sound very exciting, it is a delight to watch. Men armed with long-handled sickles, walk into a ripe patch of rice and almost casually, start slashing. The result is gathered in middens and when sufficient amounts have been accumulated between the fields, a few days of drying under the tropical sun seems enough and a little one-lunged threshing machine is dragged on site through the mud and the harvest is fed into it. A horde of women descend on the resulting heap of grain; they rake and gather it up, winnow it, and it is bagged, only to be carted away on the pillion seats of mopeds, stacked three high, for consumption or sale.
All this is done by the measured, constant efforts of less than a dozen people. In between food has been cooked in the field, children fed and washed, the stubble has been burnt over, and smoking, gossiping and visiting has not been neglected either. The livestock is tended; a few golden-eyed cows wander about, rafts of ducks are led into the fields by a man bearing a long bamboo pole with scraps of rags tied to it. Once the destination is reached, he plants the pole in the mud, and apparently the ducks accept that as a ‘mother protector’ figure or beacon, to which they will rally. Meanwhile they have to dabble in the mud for a living. All their minder has to do in the evenings, is to collect the pole and his flock and walk them home again. Scrawny, long-legged chickens range up and down the fringes of the ricefields, contesting any scraps of nutrients. They do not get fat (or tender) during this process.
At any time during the day, there are numbers of small, apparently waving objects floating in the skies on all sides. They are difficult to make out, but I suspect they are kites. This is confirmed during later excursions, when we get closer to the dwellings from which they originate. Kite-flying is a national pastime, and at times there are hundreds in sight, gaily dipping in the breeze. Many are dark in colour, with painted faces on them and fringes around the edges. They are rigged in such a way as to dip and nod eternally – which may have a religious significance. Certainly, there are huge examples of these flown above Bali; we saw one that covered the entire loading area of a small truck. Others again, show the Chinese influence, in that they have fancy carved or papier-mache heads of dragons, and long, sinuous bodies. Naturally we stop at a kite factory during one of our excursions, and invest in a half dozen gaily coloured pieces of aerial art for assorted grandchildren. Just a pity we have to limit ourselves to the smaller sizes so that they can fit into our suitcases. We are especially charmed by the ‘galleon’ kites, which are in the shape of a three-masted ship, with the sails cunningly rigged to give lift. I had actually seen one of these fly at a kite festival in Cape Town, and thus I was very happy to acquire one for my grandson. Just hope it flies!
We intend an excursion, so after another exhilarating pillion-ride, our driver Wayan takes off in the direction of Ubud. Almost immediately we land up in a gigantic traffic jam. It takes over an hour to progress a few hundred metres, down through a ravine, up the other side towards town. Not even the mopeds can get through, and scores of them start returning along the narrow sidewalks – on the wrong side of the road. We decide to quit and Wayan makes a ten-point U-turn by sheer determination and complete disregards for all other road users, and half an hour later we are back to where we started off from. From ‘sources’ we learn that there was a mega-funeral procession under way through the centre of town. Some thirty-five unfortunates were to be cremated. No, not a mass slaying, nor a bus accident, nor an epidemic. Local custom dictates that the deceased are buried for some five years to permit the soul to escape and find another host for its next reincarnation; then the remains are exhumed and cremated in batches. An eminently sensible idea, so as to minimize traffic disruption and the waste of fuel.
We laze about and are served on hand and foot by smiling, gentle people, eager to please. No great hardship. Once we have settled in, we decide to try our mobility despite Fay’s crutches. We venture out again, this time to a noted temple in a jungly ravine. Wall to wall tourists, of course, and we join in and have to don gaily coloured temple sarongs to hide our unseemly knees – most dashing. The main feature of the temple is a spring bubbling up through white sands in the walled temple pool. Next to it the water flows through a row of gargoyles into the public dip, where crowds of devotees (and hot tourists) line up in the waist-deep pool to be purified under the waterspouts. We wander about and admire the aged stone sculptures and lavish gilt and paint jobs in between. Here and there are small islands of peace, and some white-robed men and women attend to their prayers.
An early morning trip to the volcanic caldera of Gunung Batur is arranged. This is in the north of the island, right next to the massive Gunung Agung, the almost three thousand metre high volcano that last erupted some fifty years back and killed a number of people, as well as destroying numerous villages on its slopes. The road climbs steadily, but there is so much haze about, we can’t actually see our target. Everywhere are deep ravines, cut by erosion, through tens of metres of exposed strata, all rich, umber and fertile; legacies of tens of thousands of years of eruptions from the volcanoes in the north. Then, suddenly, we are at the edge of a cliff at Penelokan, looking down at a blue crescent of lake, curving into the crater walls on the opposite side – for we are now inside the caldera of Batur. On the right are the towering green-clad walls and spikes left by a giant explosion in the distant past. To the left a massive cone looms, with a number of smaller, half obscured craters, fresher slopes of volcanic debris, and several small plumes of steam, where the monster signifies that it is not yet dead by a long stretch. My heart beats faster – I am actually inside a ‘live’ volcano.
We descend along a narrow tortuous road, punctuated by fleets of crawling miniature trucks, grating along in extra-low gear. They are hauling volcanic sand, just tailor-made for construction, out of quarries with towering sides looming over them, all along the route. There is a building boom in Bali. The serene waters of the lake are punctuated by rafts of aquaculture. Numerous clones of a worldwide genre - luxury hotels and spa’s have sprung up around a number of thermal springs spawned by the volcano, yet poverty-stricken villages seem to stretch along the entire western shore. The road twists and turns among the houses, lean-to’s and shops and chickens and children scatter. Suddenly we are out in the country again. Not a house in sight, instead a jumble of rough, black boulders, scattered about, piled up, seemingly raked into ridges. No trees here, just wispy yellow grass, reminiscent of the African steppes. These are remnants of previous eruptions, the last only a few decades ago, while its hidden giant neighbour is still spitting at intervals. The road comes to an abrupt end and we turn around. So much for Lake Batur.
A visit to a market was included in our plans, so off to Ubud we go once more. Unfortunately this proved to be more of a tourist trap than the sort of thing we were interested in. Still, there were some pretty handicrafts on show, and we could not pass them all by. A mad scramble through dimly lit alleys with hawkers urging their wares on you from all sides. As the displays were mostly at knee-height close to the narrow walkways, and up to ceiling height further away, one needs exceptional vision to be able to appreciate all on offer. We quit this potential craft mine, hot sweaty and bothered, and we are glad to escape to a recommended, pleasant eatery down a little alley. It is relatively cool, well-aired and shady, and has a charming, beflowered fountain in the passage leading to the toilets.
Here I sample the only memorable dish in Bali; a jackfruit stew/curry, which strangely enough, is not served with the almost inedible (to us) large bowl of steamed rice that accompanies every dish for the islanders. I acquire some from my companions and ladle the stew on top – heaven. Faintly like artichoke hearts in texture, but with fragrant overtones of flavour. I’m a happy diner. Talking of food, that which was prepared for us by our staff at the villa was quite adequate, but the fish and shellfish were mostly overcooked, while the chicken and pork were tough, close to the point of becoming shoeleather. In the end I learnt to stick with fried noodles or rice, in which the tough bits are chopped so small that they became the garnish – only to stick between your teeth with dogged tenacity.
Another of my quite irrational desires was to see a hillside artistically draped with green steps of ricefield terraces. Our man Wayan was duly instructed to find these, and as usual, he managed magnificently despite it being a grey and drizzly day. Voila – rice terraces to order, and even a viewing platform, complete with a local bandit who wants to tax us for the privilege of taking some photos. With one hand he took our money, while already the other appeared from behind his back, offering a variety of so-called batiks and other geegaws.
Suarja pays us a ‘state visit’. He is a man of position in local and national affairs; a born diplomat and negotiator. Power exudes from his burly frame, and one gets the impression that this man’s word is law wherever he moves. We have an interesting evening in his genial company and learn a little about Balinese customs and culture that make this island such a different destination from the rest of Indonesia. He expresses a worry about food shortages that are looming for his people, and thinks that tourism is the only answer for that. Would I come back again, he asks? Like a shot, I reply – but it is a long way from South Africa. So why not come and live here, he suggests. In no time at all, he would fix me up with a local partner, we could build a house and he would find a family to look after me. It sounds most enticing, but there is a small matter of dollars or rupiahs to contend with. I have to explain that we are not all idle rich, and some of us have to work to make a living.
He urges us to witness a Kecak dance on the next day. This depicts a part of the Ramayana, the all-pervasive Hindu epic which influences everything from poetry to architecture from India to Indonesia and Cambodia. What makes it different from other dances is that there is no music, just the dancers chanting the hypnotic ‘chak, chak’ and depicting the scenery and elements while the main actors perform a depiction of a battle from the Ramayana where the monkey-like Vanara helps Prince Rama fight the evil King Ravana. It is a devotional activity as well as a tourist spectacle, which does not prevent some local children running in and out of the temple during the performance. A testament to the way their belief-system is integrated into daily life, like the ever-present shrines and offerings.
Wayan receives orders from the boss, Suarja. He is to take us to a woodcarvers’ gallery for a viewing of their finest products – not to buy, unless something should really take our fancy. We set off on what I perceive to be an unnecessarily lengthy trip, since there are woodcarvers everywhere. However, this must be something special, though my heart sinks when at arrival, we are accosted by a ‘pusher’, who immediately wants to shepherd us towards a couple of uninterested loafers who are desultorily chipping away at raw chunks of timber. As politely as possible, I tell him that we really do know how timber is shaped, and that we want to have a look at the real thing. Well, I am forced to change my mind. The inside of the gallery of crammed with a wealth of sculpted interpretations of human, animal, mythical and other forms of sometimes breathtaking beauty and artistry. Certainly, there are hundreds of items which are stereotypes that can be seen on every street corner and in every curio shop, but in between there are real treasures, unusual interpretations of deities and above all, sculptures with humour – from a gentle smile to a deep belly-laugh is evoked by these sophisticated depictions. My personal favourite was a Ganesh, the Hindu elephant god, sprawled on his back, obviously corpsing out with laughter, and looking as if he had just had an extra deep drag at a joint, the remnants of which he is holding between his fingers. Not easy to explain why this should be funny, but it is my most enduring image of the gallery’s products. If he hadn’t been so heavy, he would have found a space in my suitcase.
I wanted a closer look at a furniture factory. There are hundreds about, so we don’t have to search too hard. I look critically at these, imaginative and often monumental, timber constructions. They have grandeur and certainly presence. Their workmanship is sometimes quite good, sometimes poor, but what they all have in common is that they just don’t fit any human frame, and they are built with a complete disregard for economy of scale or use of timber. Who is going to buy all this stuff, one wonders? China? Europe? South Africa? If one looks at the thousands of tons of timber wasted in small factories on an island like Bali, it becomes clear why the rainforests are disappearing. None of this timber is grown on Bali; the local forests have long gone, I’m told. This timber comes mainly from Java and Sumatra, and other outlying islands. And still, they chop it down like there was no tomorrow. A sobering thought.
Another hot gallop down a warren of streets to find a bookstore. I was hoping to find something printed in that wonderful curlicued writing the Balinese have, which would at the same time give me an idea of what letters they used – just idle curiosity on my part, nothing academic. In Singapore I hadn’t been successful in finding anything more than slightly secondhand, so I didn’t have much hope in that department locally. Still, my luck was in and I bagged second prize; a modern book of local tales, written in Balinese script, transliterated into Roman characters , translated into both English and Javanese Bahasa in parallel. My day is made and I make my triumphant return on the motorbike’s pillion seat cosily snuggled up to the fair Novi.
After a number of cloudy days the sun finally makes its appearance, and I decide to sample the pool at the house, which proves to be decidedly chilly in contrast with the balmy air. A consultation of a website on the climate of the region, reveals that although theoretically almost at the equator, June and July are the coolest months of the year. Mostly it’s been hot, but not unbearably so, and we have enjoyed the change from a Cape winter. In addition, the expected clouds of mosquitoes didn’t arrive, even though we were totally surrounded by flooded rice fields, which should have been a fertile breeding ground for these pests.
Our last day, and we get our first taste of international finance at its worst. The Indonesian currency runs into many noughts, even when compared to our own, relatively puny unit of value. But Suarja wishes to be paid in greenbacks, which we are happy to oblige with. His sister Kadek however, can’t do anything with dollar bills, it would seem, so she needs obscenely large numbers of the local rupiah instead, to pay for food, housekeeping etc. Now we don’t have bundles of these on hand, so I have to exchange or draw some, always careful so as not to land up with bags full of wastepaper once you have departed from the country of your stay. Then there are small irritations like exit taxes, tips and the like. Always a headache – at each destination we were to visit. Somehow one was never quite certain that the correct number of zeroes had been applied to the calculation, since there were fifteen occasions on which I changed currency zones during the trip. A minefield!
We decide to visit the abode, workplace and gallery of the flamboyant local artist, Maestro Antonio Blanco. He aspired to be all things Dali, Tretchikoff and Picasso to all people, married a local dancer and proceeded to paint – her. You can see the fair (actually dusky) Ronji in all sorts of poses; standing, sitting, lying, smiling, scowling, drunk and sober, but you will see Ronji, mostly in all her nude glory. Quite decorative, but a little too much of a good thing. Loved the garden, and the over-the-top buildings, not to mention the three-storey sculpted serpentine entry arch in the shape of the maestro’s signature – largest in the world, naturally. Definitely worth a quick visit, and the parrots and other birds are so acculturated to Bali that they don’t even bite.
Farewells at the villa. We are sad to leave these gentle, humorous people – Kiki, Made, Nyoman, Kadek, Wayan and Suarja, our hosts. Our drive to the airport brings home to us how much we didn’t see, in part due to lack of mobility, partly because of the short duration of our stay. We barely sampled a few of the island’s attractions briefly – but that was going to be our fate wherever we went in the next seven weeks. Our luck holds and as our plane sweeps over the island, the massive peak of Gunung Agung pops up over the low cloud and lords it over his domain, while his smaller sibling, Gunung Batur with its aquamarine lake lazes in the bright morning sun next to it.