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Meeting the Khmers

Posted: 2007-05-19 05:56:38, Categories: Travel, Cambodia, Cycling, 645 words (permalink)

Monks at Rohal pagoda watching me changing a snapped spoke. Border crossing from Thailand to Cambodia was easy, at 7:40 in the morning I didn't have to queue at all. The 160 km ride from the border to Siem Reap took three days and traveling by bicycle once again guaranteed many many smiles from locals. All kids happily greeted me by shouting "Hello" which reminded of India, but they usually didn't run to surround me here. The road was bumpy almost all the way and partly muddy but not so muddy that vehicles would get stuck in it — in other words okay by Cambodian standards. Scenery was mostly fields but very beautiful ones, covered by a layer of water as far as the eye could see.

When I arrived to Sisophon 50 kilometers later there was a wedding party going on. They invited me to join so I had a jump start into Khmer culture and a great chance to taste many kinds of local food. Drinking habits had common ground with Finland: when somebody wanted to have a toast with you the desired way to go was bottoms up. It was done with beer instead of vodka though. Partying was intensive, including almost rave party style dancing, but short. The whole thing ended already by late afternoon and everybody went home.

Following morning I pushed through the mud about 30 kilometers and arrived in a village called Rohal. There was a pagoda or a wat as they are called in Cambodia (essentially a buddhist monastery) and I went to take a look. Some people on the yard waved that I should go inside a building, where a group of young monks were studying buddhist scriptures. My arrival obviously disrupted the class, but it seemed to be a pleasant kind of disruption. The teacher spoke some English and started teaching me Khmer in return.

I was asked if I'd like to stay at the pagoda and I answered I'd be happy to. They gave me a private room which had a basic bed with a mosquito net and a small table. I washed out the sweat of the day and entertained everybody by changing a snapped spoke from the rear rim of my bicycle. There was only one older monk and a group of about 30 children and teenagers, I'd guess most of them were between 12 and 16 years old. In Cambodia it's quite common that boys become monks for a couple of months during that age, returning to normal life after the period of monkhood. In this particular pagoda some of the boys were apparently orphans and lived there for a longer time.

The teacher interestingly was not a monk but a married man who stayed outside the pagoda in the village with his wife, father-in-law and his family. He invited me there for a dinner. The food was rice, some fish and a green-coloured soup containing many different kinds of herbs. The soup had a quite distinct flavor from anything I had eaten in other countries, but it was really good. In Cambodia that kind of soup seems to be fairly common as I've come across a similar dish in a couple of roadside cafes, but the one at the teacher's house was the best I've tasted.

Life in the pagoda started early. I got up at around 5:40 and was certainly the last one. Beginning at around seven there was some kind of ceremony in the open space with a couple of hundred villagers gathering at the site. It was about paying respects to the Buddha but if I understood correctly (the teacher's English skills were quite limited) the reason for so many people that day was connected to someone having committed some kind of fraud. People brought various kinds of food which were then eaten together after the worship. After that I continued my trip towards Siem Reap, a city located close to the world famous Angkor temples.

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Rain and rainforests

Posted: 2007-05-13 14:35:49, Categories: Travel, Thailand, 583 words (permalink)

Looking up in a rainforest at Ang Pak Nam, Thailand. It has been rather rainy during the last two weeks, with showers every day and a couple of days of more continuous rain. It seems that the rainy season has started a few weeks earlier than normally, at least that's what my Thai friend Phisit says. The good news is that there's not much risk of getting a cold after becoming wet. A good alternative for raingear is to simply wear light clothes and sandals — they'll get dry later. Just after rain is also the best time to go for a walk in a rainforest.

Phisit's brother took me about 50 kilometers east from Phanatnikhom to Khao Sha An cave and Ang Pak Nam waterfall. Neither of them are likely to be prominently mentioned in most travel guides, so there were few other people around.

The cave consisted of two large halls, one with a small shrine and another, darker one which had thousands of bats hanging from the roof. Even during daytime there was constant traffic around a hole leading to the open air, at night it must be quite a busy place! Fortunately all the activity concentrated near the top so it was safe to observe the bats from the floor.

The waterfall wasn't very spectacular, but the narrow path leading there through the rainforest was fascinating. I walked slowly admiring the amazing variety of vegetation around. There were large trees with lianes and other plants hanging from the branches, wild bananas and other treelike plants with large leaves, and of course many smaller plants filling the remaining space. When the rain stopped and sunlight entered where it found its way through the trees, butterflies woke up and were flying all around. The picture of this blog entry is from Ang Pak Nam and you can also take a look at a short video (about 5 MB) of walking through the forest. The section in the video is an easy one, in some places the path was quite slippery and you had to push through the bushes.

A few days later we went to Khao Yai national park, which is the most famous national park in Thailand. There the waterfalls were larger and we saw more animals. The most numerous were leeches, which tried to climb up our feet and legs to find a place where to suck blood. Fortunately they weren't too difficult to cast off. We saw also many other insects and worms, plenty of deer, a leguan and a fox, but no specialities such as big cats and wild elephants which also live in the park. It was interesting just to stop somewhere in the middle of the path and listen to the concert of animal sounds, some of them quite loud. However, for the plants I think Ang Pak Nam boasted a larger number of species in a small area. Besides, it didn't cost anything whereas at Khao Yai they charged a hefty 400 baht (9 euros) foreigner fee.

After two weeks of mainly sightseeing by car and staying at Phanatnikhom I finally resumed cycling on Saturday 12.5. The roads in Thailand are generally in good condition and I was able to travel 200 km easily in two days. However, that may change soon as I'm posting this in Aranyaprathet which is only six kilometers from the Cambodian border. According to Tales of Asia the road to Siem Reap and further to Phnom Penh should be in reasonable condition now, but there might be some muddy detours or other surprises on the way.

Thailand sightseeing in Japanese style

Posted: 2007-05-07 16:17:53, Categories: Travel, Thailand, 1039 words (permalink)

The world's largest reclining Buddha in the Wat Pho temple, Bangkok. I started my stay in Thailand as a guest of Phisit, a friend I had met during my exchange year in Japan. Just two days after my arrival the parents of his Japanese host family came for a four-day visit, and Phisit invited me to travel together with them. I hadn't taken a single guided package tour during my trip, but this time the itinerary was set, hotels were reserved in advance and we had a car to move around. I switched to extra shutter-happy mode (averaging more than hundred photos per day), tried to blow off the dust on my Japanese and joined in.

We began by picking up the Japanese couple at the Suvarnabhumi airport near Bangkok and driving south-east to Chanthaburi, an area famous for fruits. It was the beginning of harvest season and a friend of Phisit had a large fruit garden just outside the city. We spent a couple of hours eating as many durians, salaks, mangosteens, longkongs and rose apples as we could. Durians are the favourite fruit of many Thais, but I preferred mangosteens and longkongs. To be sure not to run out, at least twenty kilos more were loaded in the trunk before we moved on. On the way back we took a short walk in the tropical forest in a national park and in the evening had a feast at Phisit's brother's house in Phanatnikhom, about 80 km from Bangkok. Bananas and mangoes from his garden were added to the fruit plate.

On Tuesday the 1st of May we had again some fruit for breakfast and headed to Pattaya, one of the most popular beach resorts in Thailand. Tourism is already the most important source of income for the country and in Pattaya there was absolutely no doubt about it. Streets were lined with guesthouses and high-rise luxury hotels, restaurants, cloth and souvenir shops and Thai massage parlors. The beach was full of sun chairs most of which were empty due to the rainy weather, but a few speedboats and jet skis were still buzzing in front. At night time the main road was converted to a walking street, signs advertising go-go girl shows were lit, touts started competing with lines such as "Naughty girls, draught beer 55 baht" and bars filled up.

Phisit had arranged us a stay in four-star Pattaya Park Beach Resort. With off-season discounts just less than 20 euros per head bought us a suite room for four, including a sumptuous breakfast buffet and access to the hotel's large waterpark with different pools and slides. In the evening we took the elevator up to the revolving restaurant in the hotel tower and enjoyed a dinner buffet 170 meters above sea level. After that we still had time for a cabaret show in club Alcazar in the center of the town. The costumes and decorations were superb and the choreography also fairly good, but dancing was mediocre and songs mostly playback instead of live performances.

From Pattaya we drove to Ayutthaya, the ancient capital of Thailand about 70 km north of Bangkok. The temple ruins of Ayutthaya are on the Unesco World Heritage list and there are lots of them. We only had time to see part of the ruins, but it was enough to get a good overview of how Buddhist temples were built hundreds of years ago. My favourite was a Buddha head near the ground, surrounded by the roots of an old, still growing tree.

After walking around at the ruins we had Ayutthaya style noodles for lunch, went for some shopping in a large handicrafts center (I wandered around in the exhibition halls while our Japanese friends did the shopping) and drove to Bangkok. Phisit had asked his brother's friend's travel agency to book a perfect room for a reasonable price and they came up with two deluxe rooms in the five-star Montien Riverside Hotel, facing the Chao Phraya river which flows through Bangkok. There wasn't Internet access in the room or even in the lobby, and the sauna was out of order, but otherwise there wasn't much to complain. I was pleased to note that instead of the "Don't throw water on the stones" sign too common in saunas abroad, there was appropriately a bucket and a ladle for that very purpose.

Following morning we took a boat up the river to the Royal Palace which had just as much gold and impressive ornaments as you'd expect. From the palace we crossed the river to take a look at the local market and have lunch at about half the price from what it would have been on the other side, and then continued to the famous Wat Pho temple. The world's largest reclining Buddha was magnificent and the other halls were also worth seeing, but the Thai massage was a slight disappointment. It wasn't outright bad, but I didn't particularly like the way my masseuse went over the bones and she forgot to do the right side of my neck. The program contained less of the stretching movements — a particular feature of Thai massage — than I expected and overall I didn't have the same kind of good feeling afterwards as after the Kerala style massage in India. Wat Pho hosts a famous massage school so maybe I was just unlucky and got one of their less talented graduates. I might try again in another place and go for a full two-hour session instead of the one hour at Wat Pho.

When leaving Bangkok we were stuck in a traffic jam for a couple of hours; trying to move around in the city by car seems to be a really bad idea. However, we still reached the airport early enough to have time to stop in a cafe. We added together all the expenses of the four days including hotels, meals, fuel, highway tolls, entrance fees and entertainment ending up with a total of 21333 Baht (about 450 euros). To be honest, the final sum excludes a few items which everyone paid separately or the Japanese couple insisted to take on their tab, but it was still very reasonable. After saying good bye to the Japanese I and Phisit returned to Phanatnikhom — my stay in Thailand is not over yet.

Farewell to India

Posted: 2007-04-29 09:14:30, Categories: Travel, India, 976 words (permalink)

A palm on a windy day next to Vagator beach, Goa, India. I'm in Thailand now. Before delving deeper in this new country it's a good moment to write about the last moments and feelings in India. After my stay in Arambol, I rode south along the coast for a while, then turned inland for a brief stop in Panjim, the capital of Goa, checked out a few churches in Old Goa and finally rode to Margao from where I took a train back to Mumbai. The train arrived at eleven in the evening and I had an exhilarating ride speeding through the night to my friend Gaurav's place 25 km north. A couple of days later I took a plane to Bangkok, Thailand.

In Goa, Anjuna was another place where it would have been fun to stay longer. A network of small streets and dirt paths leading to both guesthouses and private homes created a fun alternative style village athmosphere. Paradiso was a cool club which would have been still better during season with a larger crowd and the main outdoor stage open. South from Anjuna the resorts started to become more polished and to look like a package holiday destination. My guidebook said that the more luxurious hotels would have been still further south, I didn't go there to check them out. Panjim was a pleasant small city, based on what I can say after spending just a few hours there. Old Goa is famous for its old churches which made it worth a stop, but otherwise it didn't have any life or identity of its own.

India has many faces. One of them is misery, which is emphasized by the fact that luxury is also available for those who can afford to pay. You can almost see it in front of your eyes by reading this story written by a friend of mine. However, independent of the social class, Indians seem to be generally proud of their country. National flags are displayed prominently and the army is looked towards with respect. People have a competitive attitude towards China and are happy to mention that the population of India is predicted to surpass China during the next 20 years. The problems of overpopulation are not in their minds. Those with higher education are also quick to point out how much world-class research is done by Indians abroad.

Indians love bright colours: fabrics, clothes, houses, temples, vehicles, everything is colourful. They are curious, which any traveler will immediately notice: stop anywhere, in particular outside major touristic centers, and you'll be surrounded by people, many people. Curiosity is complemented with hospitality — nowhere else have I been as many times offered tea, meals and places to stay. The hindus have a saying "Guest is God" and the way they follow it makes you humble. Finally, there's sprirituality which is present everywhere: during festivals, at religious places, in daily life.

Since ancient times India has had gurus which have been drawing a large following. It continues still today, ranging from centers with traditions and long heritage to more controversial contemporary figures such as Osho. There are so many different religions living in peaceful coexistence and so many different sects of them in India that you can be certain to meet multiple different views. Unlike the Christian church in most of Europe or Islam in the predominantly muslim countries there's no one single powerful organization which will feed you its answer. You'll have to put your own thought into it. You can of course ignore the spiritual aspects if you like, but they might just draw you in.

The biggest difference in India compared to the culture in Finland is the concept of a joint family. It's not only that three generations live under the same roof and cousins next door, it also means that you are what your family is and vice versa. Stay in line and you'll have the full family support through the hardships of life, but make your parents angry and you may become a social outcast. For example, marriages in India are usually arranged by parents instead of the young couple finding each other themselves. I met a man who was considering to flee with the girl he loved because her parents didn't accept the marriage, a tough choice. Most surprisingly, an Indian friend of mine told that love marriages are actually again in decline after a rise in the eighties and nineties.

My only real culture shock hit during my stay in Jhankri, a small village in Rajasthan. My host, the primary school teacher about whom I wrote three months ago, wanted to introduce me to all his relatives and friends. To be more exact, he wanted that I introduce myself individually to everyone in hindi, which meant several dozen introductions during one day. It was a bit tiring but still okay. However, then he started putting words in my mouth, wanting for example that I personally invite his cousins to Finland because they were his family and now my friends — people I had met just five minutes ago and barely remembered the name. I tried to be polite and play along, but it was a clear clash of cultures. I'm generally happy to welcome people at my place but it's my choice when and how I decide to issue the invitation.

I spent three and a half months in India but still feel it wasn't enough. In Europe, Romania and Moldova were the highlights of this trip but India left an even stronger feeling that I need to come back some day. I started to love the chaos which somehow amazingly works. Being again out of the country will hopefully give some perspective of what really was important and what not, but my intuition tells me that India has still something in its treasure trove for me. I don't know how soon, but I'll be back.

Beach paradise in Goa

Posted: 2007-04-19 20:25:39, Categories: Travel, India, 1256 words (permalink)

My beach hut in Arambol, Goa, India. I reached Goa and stopped to enjoy the beach paradise at one of the northernmost beaches, Arambol. I rented a bamboo hut with a direct view to the sea, climbed on the hammock on the terrace and watched life on the beach while the sun slowly descended below the horizon. I was the only customer at Samsara, one of the groups of beach huts. I had complete privacy whenever I wanted but people to talk with, all the necessary services and live music almost every night just half a kilometer away in the center of the tourist village.

Goa is India's smallest state and the most populated by foreigners. The difference between Arambol and the geographically similar Konkan coast I had been following earlier was striking. Less than 100 km up north I had been among natives, all signs had been written in local script only and often even mobile phone coverage had been missing. In Arambol the main road by the beach was lined with guesthouses, restaurants, travel agencies and touristic shops. There were more than a dozen Internet cafes for one kilometer of road.

However, Arambol wasn't a line of polished faceless luxury apartments and hotels like I had seen by the Black Sea coast in Romania and Bulgaria. There were bamboo huts, a mix of newer and older slightly cramped buildings scattered around and a happy chaos of haphazard signs and posters everywhere. April was already considered to be off season so it was easy to get rooms and negotiate good deals. The downside of off season was less choice in activities and music nights, but there were still enough people to keep the village alive. Many foreigners (and of course locals) had been staying already for several months or years which gave the place a relaxed feel. And as far as the weather was concerned, I had nothing to complain about: sunshine and temperature above 30 degrees, but a pleasant wind blowing from the sea.

For the first couple of days I went for walks around the area, checking out the nearby sweetwater lake and a small shrine at an old banyan tree in the middle of the forest. Then I concentrated more on swimming, playing with the waves, reading, listening to music, thinking about what I want to do after this trip (I want to enjoy the summer in Finland but after that I don't know yet), meditating and relaxing. I thought I'd have a good opportunity to work on my writings and arrange my photos but time passed quickly and I didn't progress much with them. Due to the good availability of Internet connections I did catch up with some pending mails.

Two days of my ten-day stay I spent at a big music festival, Big Chill Goa, which was held on another beach about 5 km from Arambol. Ten years ago Goa was famous for wild all night rave parties on the beaches, but then a law was introduced which banned playing any music through amplifiers after ten in the evening. According to a long-term resident, the attitude of the police raiding parties more or less killed the underground scene also a few years later. That doesn't mean that there wouldn't be any music any more, but it went to smaller scale. Also, Arambol apparently never had been as active in the party scene than some of the more southern resorts such as Anjuna, which should still have several clubs to make partygoers happy. Big Chill Goa was a British commercial undertaking to create a big outdoor festival again, adhering to the current laws: they really did stop the music before 10 pm both nights.

The main stage was set up just away from the beach under palm trees creating an atmospheric arena with enough shade and a cool breeze coming from the sea. There was a dance stage with generally faster music and less shade, and a chill out area with guitarists, singers and dj's playing ambient tunes. The overall atmosphere was laid back and the music matched well with the surroundings. People were dancing without shirt on, many were smoking and/or drinking but I didn't see anybody getting too drunk or stoned and start disturbing others. It was possible to roam around freely between the festival area and the beach — despite the strict wording at the back of the ticket and guards at the gates there weren't any intrusive body checks and even carrying your own water and snacks in was okay.

The lineup was a bit too British but there were some Indian artists as well. The best of all was Sapthaakshara, a group of seven Indian virtuosos who put together an amazing show using just a few jars, drums and their voices. The Bays which was the final act on the main stage on Saturday was great too, and other groups I liked included Mad Professor, Jalebee Cartel, Raghu Dixit and Hexstatic. Coldcut, which was advertised as the top name on Sunday, didn't impress me too much. The total number of visitors was probably between one and two thousand people, less than the organizers wished but enough to make it feel like a festival.

Due to the large tourist population, most of the restaurants in Arambol were serving a mix of western and Indian dishes. Italian seemed to be the western food of choice: almost every second shop advertised pizza and pasta. Restaurant Sea Breeze served delicious portions of muesli, youghurt, fruits and honey, filling veg-cheese sandwiches and great fresh banana juice — magnificent breakfast topped with a great view to the beach. Hotel Manjunath looked unattractive but did superb fish thalis, including rice, vegetables, pickles, two sorts of curry sauce and some freshly grilled fish for just 30 rupees (0.5 euros), unbeatable value for money. Loekie's cafe was only place with live music almost every evening even during off season (their food was okay too), and Psy Bar deserves credit for keeping up the goa trance beat all night long. Despite the low volume I heard they got visited by the police on Saturday so the mood on low on Sunday, but at least before that it was the place to hang around late, either dancing or simply lying on the mattresses, listening to the music and chatting with people.

Next to Loekie's cafe there was a lady advertising Kerala style ayurvedic massages and treatments. I went for a one-hour full body massage which was very enjoyable. It got even better when combined with Kirhi (or Elakizhi as it seems to be called in some other places), a treatment with cotton bags containing a hot herb and oil mix inside. Although achieved using a different method, the resulting feeling was quite similar to that after a good Finnish sauna bath with vihtas, bunches of small birch tree branches which you use to hit yourself and other people in the sauna. Encouraged by the good experience I decided to try something more weird, Sirodhara, which consisted of lying on the back while cool oil was being poured on the forehead. I didn't quite reach the kind of deep relaxation advertised by some descriptions, but it was a pleasant feeling and satisfied my neverending curiosity.

Goa is most famous for the beaches, but there are also some interesting places in inland Goa. My next step will be to hop on the bicycle again and explore some of them before saying goodbye to this country. I already booked a flight ticket to Thailand and have only one week left in India.

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