Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Cambodia at last! Part I

Cambodia... it was such a rich experience... we saw so much, and what we saw was so complex... I need to talk to you about my favourite temple (Bayon), about Angkor Wat, and the extremely delicate and exquisite Banteay Srey, about our balloon ride, and our visit to Tonle Sap lake... about the jungle and Ta Phrom, and about the jungle, waterfall, lying Buddha, butterflies and monks at Phnom Kulen... as well as about shadow puppet theatre, traditional dances, and maimed and poor people. Too much.

So, we have to start somewhere, right? During our first day (well, actually second, but on day 1 we didn't do much except walk around town, Siem Reap) we visited the most famous temple of all at the Angkor site: Angkor Wat. It's the biggest temple in the area, it's the best preserved, it's imposing, and it's surrounded by a huge moat that puts most European medieval moats to shame.

We approached the main entrance, to cross the moat through a bridge flanked by the long body of a naga (a mythical serpent), into the west porticoes, where Vishnu, with his multiple arms, welcomed us into a world of apsaras (nymphs, some 3000 of them all in all, carved in every possible niche), of intricate flowery patterns, of towers and architectural magic rising from the jungle.

From there, we proceeded towards the main temple, passing to ancient libraries on both sides, and a lily pond which offered probably the best picture I could imagine of Angkor. It was almost as if someone had decided that the pond should go exactly there, and that lilies should have grown just like they did... It offered a beautiful spot to stand, relax, and take in the grandeur of the building, in preparation for entering it...

Once inside, it was just walking around, gawking, amazed at not just the size of the place, but the exquisiteness of the figures carved: the nymphs, their skirts, their faces, the patterns of flowers, scenes of gods and battles from the Ramayana, kings... The closer you got to any part of the temple, your eyes would grow wide in amazement at the amount of detail you'd discover: like some fractal, you had a complex and beautiful figure to start with (the whole of Angkor), and whenever you selected a part of it to look closer, you'd discover more richness, more detail, again, and again, and again. Until finally, we reached the peak and centre of it all, at the top of the temple, where your view opened to the jungle outside, encompassing the whole of the place, from within.

Angkor Wat could keep you busy for hours (well, it does, but I mean, hours and hours and hours...), and yet, after this wonder, we still headed for our second stop: Bayon, the temple that would become my favourite one of all we saw in our 5 day trip to Siem Reap...

But that'll be next week!

Monday, June 18, 2007

Wonderful Singapore! Part II

Time to get writing, I haven't even got to the Cambodia part of our trip! But there's TWO things I want to mention about Singapore before that:

- Vesak. On Vesak day (which happened to be the very first day we spent in Singapore this time), Buddhists celebrated the enlightenment and death of Buddha. For such an occasion, they were inaugurating a new temple: The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, which contains (we are told), a tooth from Buddha. Hmm. So, Buddha taught something about detachment... pain suffering from attachment... and we have a temple to house his tooth, which is housed in a stupa made out of 250kg of gold. Got it. Anyhow, there was a great feast in progress: before the official inauguration of the temple, some 20 floats from different countries or regions, each with small dancing troops, stopped before the temple and each, in turn, gave a small performance. You had floats from India, Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand, China, Taiwan, Tibet (whew! aren't you glad I added the word "regions" after "countries"? I was in for big trouble here!)... It was really nice, and it's a shame my camera really sucks for night shots without a tripod (well, the fact that the streets were packed and that I would have needed a tripod 2 meters tall to be of any use was also a factor), but the colours, the dances, the music, the floats... Check out the ELEPHANTS from Myanmar, taking on the tradition of Chinese dragon dances, but with elephants!

The vids: The floats aligned on the street, followed by the procession with Indian, Tibetan, Cambodian and other floats:

And this one is a very chaotic one, walking down the street of our hotel towards the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. There's a dragon dance (with a PINK dragon), and lots of firecrackers. Remember, it's the atmosphere that counts, not the quality! LOL

Fortunately, our hotel was a mere half block away from the Temple, so we took a small break from the crowds, and came back for the dragon dances and fireworks! Those were LOUD LOUD LOUD. And voila! The Temple had been officially inaugurated, and throngs of people got ready to be the first to go in. It was quite a special first night in Singapore, we had NO idea we'd encounter this, and so close to where we were sleeping! It makes you think, you know? all these religions sharing such a small place like Singapore: Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity... plus a number of smaller ones. Actually, my reflections may spark some reactions, so maybe I'll leave that for another post...

So, that was ONE, Vesak. But TWO is... FOOD!

Singapore is a fantastic place just for eating, and you could spend hours talking about all the kinds of food you can get there, but since salivating for hours is no good if you can't get the food, I'll stick to two experiences:

- Vegetarian Chinese fare. What, doesn't sound good, you meat eaters? ;-) Well, let me tell you, my habib IS a meat eater, but we found this place just a block from our hotel, a very simple restaurant, Chinese, Buddhist. They did some terrific noodles, but they also had the best red potato curry Chinese buns EVER (weird description, but couldn't come up with anything better!). Well, I'm not quite sure what was inside, which anyhow happens with many curries. But it was just slightly spicy, and DELICIOUS.

- Indian fare. For the first time ever, we tried southern Indian cuisine. And we did it at a place where everybody was Indian, so it was pretty authentic: at Komala Vilas, in Little India. A big leaf for a plate, lots of different curry-like things, chick peas, lentils, sauces here and there, rice... and your beautiful fingers to mix, mash and eat! Well, only the fingers of your right hand, as we all "know" our left hand is for "dirty stuff" and should be kept nicely tucked away from sight. Not as messy as you think, and very tasty. Oh, and to cool your spice-laden throat: coconut juice. That is, the whole coconut, with the top chopped off, and cool, sweet liquid inside. And as a dessert you could just scrape the flesh inside with a spoon! It was the best coconut I've EVER had. The place is vegetarian, but believe me, you'd have to be nuts not to feel full and happy after a meal here.

- And we achieved yet another culinary Indian nirvana, at Annalakshmi. Komala Vilas was very tasty, and fun. Annalakshmi was a different kind of Indian food, in a very different setting (this was a restaurant proper, whereas Komala is more like an eatery). There we enjoyed (and that's the word, "enjoyed") a buffet that included curries of many colours and bases, plus legumes, greens and pulses prepared in a number of typical Indian ways. Yes, this one is vegetarian too, but the variety is fantastic. Once you eat to your heart's content, you're ready for the next surprise: getting up and approaching the cashier to pay for your meal. As you take out your wallet and ask "How much is it?" you'll hear this most unlikely of replies: "What you feel." I stood there, dumbfound, trying to understand, and then it came to me: this was the restaurant I had read about in our last visit to Singapore, a restaurant we couldn't find because they had moved and we didn't have the new address, the restaurant where all workers and cooks are VOLUNTEERS, where the philosophy is that food should be prepared lovingly, as a gift, and therefore it has no price, and you simply pay what you want. And mind you, it's a lovely restaurant, and the food is fantastic; we couldn't believe that such a nice place and good service could rely on people paying "what they felt". And so, we payed what we felt was right, and left, utterly charmed by the whole experience.

OK, enough about Singapore (well, not enough, but I want to get to the Cambodia part!). Next post: Angkor!

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Wonderful Singapore!

The poster for Dreaming of Kuanyin, Meeting Madonna

I've written about Singapore before in a previous post. This time, we came with a very different agenda: to watch some performances during the Singapore Arts Fest, to see a friend of ours (Mark Chan, who was going to have a performance), and to watch the Vesak celebration, the most important Buddhist festival, which commemorates the birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha. And, of course, we would have to take advantage of Singapore's superb Kinokuniya bookstore, delicious multi-ethnic food, and great shopping.

So, the performances:

- "Optical Identity", by Theatre Cryptic and T'ang Quartet. We watched this violin quartet play at the fantastic National Library, a multi-story, modern, spacious building. Now, before emitting any opinions, let me acknowledge that I'm no expert, no art critic, and that anything I say is a most personal, subjective opinion. Having said that, I regret to say I didn't quite enjoy the concert. The violinists were darn good. Behind them complex digital images (and sometimes even sounds) played on a huge screen, images which I could tell required a great deal of expertise to develop and which reacted to the violinists music. And yet, it didn't quite mesh together. Somehow, the "choreography" didn't seem (to me) to be at a par with the quality of the concert or the technical abilities of the digital artist, and the overall effect fell somewhat short.

- "Dreaming of Kuanyin, Meeting Madonna", by Mark Chan and the Arts Fission Company. We met Mark last time we visited Singapore, and we had kept in touch. So, when it was time to find a "substitute" for our Tibet trip, and I realised that he'd be performing during the same dates we were supposed to be travelling, we decided we'd visit Angkor via Singapore instead of Bangkok. As for the performance, well, it's hard to describe... how about just letting the following images flow: sutras, Latin prayer, a strong male dancer imbued with Ramayana imagery, pop-Buddhist music, an interview with Guanyin the sex-changed goddess of mercy, six female dancers expressing conflict, prayer, eroticism... OK, now that I've written this, I realise how completely useless it is for understanding Mark's work, LOL. I apologise. Anyhow, we thoroughly enjoyed it, and we had the chance of having dinner with him, his mother (a tech savvy woman that spent a whole month in Mexico with Mark and family, as he was chosen to represent Singapore at a child art exhibit during Mexico's Olympic Games of 1968), his friends and partner. For an interview of Mark Chan which MAY give you a better insight than me into his work, click here.

- Tan Dun with Singapore Symphony Orchestra, "The Map & Paper Concerto". We were so glad we could attend "The Map", as we had bought the DVD some time ago and simply never thought we'd had the opportunity! The full name of that part is "The Map: Concerto for Cello, Video and Orchestra", and that pretty much describes it: a fantastic cellist, an orchestra, and a concert intertwined with videos of different ethnic minorities of Hunan province performing traditional songs, dances, and playing local instruments (some as simple as... pebbles!). Now, as for the "Paper Concerto for Paper Percussion and Orchestra", THAT was something completely new to us: Tan Dun had the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, and three women playing different "instruments" made entirely of paper of different lengths, textures and shapes. Crumpling paper, tearing it, or pulling and pushing (like a sail) a several metre long paper sheet hanging from the ceiling suddenly acquired an artistic and musical quality you could not foresee. Just enthralling.

- Noridan. And to top it all, and completely out of the blue, when leaving the theatre after Tan Dun's concert, we came upon a group of young South Koreans doing a percussion performance, with some strange moving machine they had built. So much energy! It was really refreshing seeing so young people from a country six hours away performing so energetically in front of the crowd. Really really cool.

Wow, I still want to talk about Vesak, about our impressions of Singapore on this second visit, about the food... so I think I'll stop now and write about that next time. Yes, I know, what about Angkor! All in due time, I promise!

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Tibet... NOT! Singapore and Cambodia???

So, here I am, writing from our hotel in Siem Reap, in Cambodia. No, I'm not writing from Lhasa, Tibet. So, what happened? Well, simple (I've re-edited this post heavily, as it provided too much BORING information):

- Because of my work, to enter Tibet I am required to have my itinerary approved and then arranged by the Chinese government. The compulsory arrangements imply: higher costs (as you MUST hire a car and a driver, through the government, for your whole stay, whether you require their services or not, PLUS you're charged a service fee that, in this case, amounted to about 200% of the cost of accommodation), restrictions (on the hotels you can stay at and the sites you can visit), less freedom (as the guide and driver are supposed to escort you, even if you just want to go for a stroll), and more uncertainty (as your itinerary and accommodation will be changed if authorities deem something sensitive has taken place).

- As an ordinary person with a love for travel and a love for freedom of travel, and after receiving notification that two key elements of our trip were being substituted with far less romantic alternatives determined by the government, we decided we could not compromise (especially since we would still be paying for a driver and a guide we didn't want, plud forget the service charge I mentioned, for a tour that didn't look anymore like what we wanted) and cancelled. It was very disappointing, as we had been planning this trip for months, but it was clear that the planning was not in our hands anymore and that it was not going to unfold as we had dreamt. And so, we decided to...

...make a trip to one of the marvels of the world I had dreamt of visiting for a decade: Angkor. And we'd get there via Singapore, as a friend of ours (Mark Chan) was going to give a performance as part of the Singapore Arts Fest. It was a tough choice, saying no to Tibet, but in the end we felt we made the right choice.

So next post... Lhasa NOT. Singapore, YES!!! more than shopping?