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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

South Africa - Part 2 - The Garden Route

There were ten of us, five canoes and that meant one thing – time to pick a partner. I took a deep breath and looked around. The German couple had already taken the brightest looking canoe, the best oars and were practicing their strokes. The youngsters obviously hooked up according to their age. That left me and Spain. Well, we are a natural fit, I thought. We were the eldest singles in the group, I don’t swim, have never canoed, and have a morbid fear of water; she said she was an excellent swimmer, and as she confided later on, loved water sports. Great, someone to drag me ashore if the canoe capsized, I thought, thanking all those million gods I never believed in, but tend to remember when in trouble. We were at a glistening river in the small town of “Wilderness” after a 6 hour drive from Capetown. Someone chose the name well. Calm backwaters, the ocean within hearing distance, a light mist coating the river, the air as fresh as my lungs could ever remember, terns diving for fish of which there seemed to be plenty, and the gently setting winter sun warming our backs. 
But there was a race to be won, four canoes took off, while ours struggled to get going – I couldn’t get either the timing or the direction right, and the Spaniard desperately struggled to hold our course, she had badly misjudged how ignorant I was of the fine art of canoeing. But we found some rhythm as my fears subsided, the beauty of the setting and the drive not to get embarrassed by the kids kicked in, and soon we were overtaking the first, then the second canoe and miraculously, we were second, surely that wasn’t the script. The goal was to reach a small island about 2 kms away, the German pair had already won, but our canoe just wouldn’t stop. Spain had taught me how to row but not how to maneuver and bank. It took three circles round the island, and an immense struggle just to anchor, and we ended up last, and the laughing stock of the group. But I was not only alive, I had actually loved every minute of it. The group were already frolicking in the water. It was 5 PM the first evening. I watched the sun go down over the far end of the river, and it was a beautiful sight.
The tour had not started well. “Z” was late in picking me up from the hotel, and by the time we had rounded up the rest, it was 9 AM and we were hungry. When I got (http://takeabreak.in/) and the wonderfully patient Kamal to draw up an itinerary for a week in South Africa, I had given him two don’ts: No Indians, and no rules. It turned out that among the nine in the coach plus the guide, there was me – the Indian, a mid-40’s German couple from Dresden, three more German girls 17, 20 and 27, a 25-yr old blonde from Denmark who reminded me of Bjork, a 50-yr old Spaniard, and another 20-yr old from New York. What were the chances of that? 7 women in a randomly drawn group of 9 across the world, and 5 of them German, and another who could also speak the language! The initial rounds of introductions were, as they usually go, hesitant. The drive from Capetown to Wilderness passed through some stunning locales with strange sounding names, Swellendam, Riversdale, Mossel Bay, George, along the “Garden route”. The scenery oscillated between mountains and farmland, long straight stretches punctuated by small towns and way more cattle than people, till we hit Mossel Bay where the first sight of the ocean for almost 4 hours sent us in to raptures, and a brief high-fives and excited oohs and aahs. But the girls chatted non-stop which as usual gave me a headache, it was a long drive, the lunch was at a farm house that specialized in aloe vera products, and it seemed even the food was full of it.
And we just couldn’t remember names, and after a couple of tries, gave up and started calling out nationalities; India, Spain, New York, Denmark, German 1,2,3, Mom and Pop (reserved for the couple) and Z were ringing out in the coach, and I was trying to drown it all out by reading Charles Darwin and humming U2 and Coldplay. It didn’t feel right, here I was, a mid-thirties guy trying to fit in with girls half my age, aka Charlie Sheen in Two and a Half Men, with neither the looks nor the money. Wish I was 10 years younger! The Lion walk mid-afternoon was something that I, New York and German-2 skipped, and the only exchange we had was “I’d rather see it in the wild rather than walk with one that behaves like an over-grown cat”, but the rest of the group seemed to have fun, and looked at us three outcasts with a crooked eye. Came all the way to South Africa but didn’t participate in the first activity, I imagined them saying. It was first at Wilderness and the canoe race, and later that evening at Myoli beach after a mix-up with the rooms, that the first coherent sentences were exchanged with Denmark and German-1, and the rest. There was a cozy little pub and a lovely fire, and dinner was pizza by the side of the beach. Maybe it was the lovely fire, or the warm Indian ocean, or just the sand in our slippers, and the moon overhead. Over a couple of beers, moonlight, and semi-drunken personal stories, I actually liked the girls calling me “Indian guy”. It seemed the feeling was mutual; over the rest of the tour, our nationalities became our names. Except mom and pop, who remained mom and pop.

The kitschy sounding “Garden route” has several variants, but the general rule is that one moves from the Western cape to the Eastern cape; ours was from Capetown to Jeffrey’s Bay. 700kms of wild natural beauty that encapsulates the country at its best, and ranges from low brown mountains and grey misty clouds, golden rolling farmlands and vineyards, lush dark-green forests, wonderfully picturesque stunning blue coastline, lakes, lagoons, estuaries and some of the prettiest laid-back coastal towns one can imagine. Strange names dot the landscape as one moves from the west to the east; a mixture of Dutch, German and several local dialects they tell me. Mossel bay, George, Knysna, Sedgefield, Wilderness, Jeffrey’s bay, Plettenberg bay. Even stranger weather followed us, and it seemed to change every hour. Z laughed it away saying the closer we got to the coast, the more mercurial it would get. Welcome to South Africa.
As all famous routes go, the garden route is dotted with “things-to-do”. Want to spend a couple of days in the silent backwaters with spectacular views of the those tongue-twisting mountains Swartvlei and Outeniqua, stay at Sedgefield, where I stayed the first night at “Purple Heron” (http://www.purpleheron.co.za) and woke up to sounds of birds chirping and a glorious sunrise. Jenny actually had herons wandering on her lawn, while she rustled up a wonderful breakfast, although I didn’t see anything purple. Fancy a swim or surf, make way to the lazy beautiful town of Jeffrey’s bay, where we stayed 2 nights, amid a huge swell, a thunderstorm and 10 metre waves on the first night, the highest in the last 10 years, said our host Michele at Sea Whisper (http://www.seawhisper.co.za/). And then all those adventure activities, the bungee-jumping at Bloukrans, the zipline at Tsitsikamma, or kayaking at Knysna. All within a few hours’ drive from each other. South African tourism sure knows how to package its attractions, the route is dotted with innumerable guest houses, wildlife ranches and beach towns, each more attractive and interesting than the other, the local folks are laid-back and helpful, and the tourism infrastructure is more than adequate. Value for money too, or maybe that’s the advantage of traveling in off-season. But someone explain to me why the “Garden route?”
We whistled through Knysna and marveled at “The Heads”, the infamous gateway where the lagoon joins the ocean, and marveled at the beautiful lakes and the gorgeous cottages carved in to the hills surrounding the lagoon. The girls bungeed from “Bloukrans”, the self-declared highest in the world (highest cantilever bridge it may be, that connects the Western and Eastern capes, but my geeky alter-ego says it is the Macau tower, from which, nine years, a gawky young man had conquered his fear of heights, and then like Seinfeld declared “I choose not to jump”!), while the men chickened out (we were old you see, and our time had passed). Surprisingly, the sentry said they have about 70% women jumpers. And all the men waiting for their women chuckled and said “now you know who’s smarter”. So it’s decided then, women are braver and men are smarter. 
We zip-lined across 200m long and 50m deep gorges at the Kruis river, an exhilarating experience that left me breathless and wondering why I hadn’t done it before. Inspiring company said pop, just before we slid across the longest of them, 211m and really scary, with our clothes splattered with dirt and grime, and our helmets dark and slimy. Atleast here the men displayed true bravery, while the women chickened and shouted their hearts out; some got stuck mid-way, ignoring the guide’s instructions on where and how to brake (one can either listen or exchange notes on nail-polish and boyfriends, not both) and had to be rescued mid-way. German-1 and German-3 managed to collide mid-way, and both miraculously survived without broken bones; first time man and I’ve been doing this for 6 years, said Tete, our zipline guide. “How do they do it man, how do they screw up something so simple?” But we still love them man, don't we?
There is one activity though that defines the garden route, the trail through “Tsitsikamma national park”, part of the much larger “Garden route national park”. The advantage of being with a group of such assorted characters is that you can always find someone who shares your interests. When Z announced the second morning that we would spend the morning hiking, two groups formed in the coach; the oldies which included me, mom and pop, and Spain who let out an enthusiastic “whooo” and the youngsters, which cried “ahhhh”. But the rules of the group, which we had all agreed to in our drunken stupor sometime the previous night, demanded that even a single yes would outweigh all other nos’ and everyone would end up with the same activity. So with Z leading, off we went trundling along the several trails across the Storms river. The name comes from one of the indigenous languages, and means “clear water” said Z. “Will we have to walk a lot?” asked New York. Me and Denmark rolled our eyes, and desperately tried to hide our laughter.
The most famous is the “Otter trail” and takes 4-5 days, and another German couple (too many Germans in a short span I agree!) I met at lunch said it was worth the effort and pain. But the easier and shorter “Suspension bridge and lookout” trail which leads from the west side of the river, across the river mouth and the two suspension bridges, is quite charming and passes through several look-out points and waterfalls. A large number of birds, some beavers, some otters, large variety of flora, wonderful colors, and very few humans make it a great 3 hours for those willing to put in the effort. The young girls were huffing and puffing, while the golden oldies were chugging along, me humming, Spain clicking, mom and pop talking, and Z running at times. It is a lush temperate forest, with several endemic flora and fauna of which we saw a lot and didn’t understand many. The waters surrounding the park are apparently teeming with otters and dolphins, and at times whales; while we got no sighters, I can imagine why they would belong here. The park is one of the most visited in the country, yet manages to remain calm and spotlessly clean. The scenery is spectacular, with massive cliffs, rocky shores pounded by the swells of the Indian ocean, green as far as the eye can see with proteas, and teeming with life; you see a bit of it, but you can hear all of it.

While the hike was thoroughly enjoyable, the group dynamics came into full play. The first day was merely sizing each other up, and the second was when we started enjoying each other’s company. Silly questions were asked and crazy answers were given. I remember telling German 2 and New York that “music was in my genes”, when queried on how I managed to hum something or the other all the time. I might have also invited Spain to India. Mom built a stone pyramid on the beach and confessed it was something she had always wanted to do, but never got the opportunity – children and society! Dad laughed at mom and was yelled at, and ignored through lunch. German-1 went in to a yoga pose at one of the cliffs, and we got in to an argument and a demonstration of who was more flexible – the land which invented yoga surely won. And a contest that continued right till the end of the tour, at all possible occasions, including toilet breaks, and remained unresolved. Spain confessed her Buddhist leanings and demonstrated her unflinching love for meditation, at the most illogical of times. Denmark wondered why we were talking, when we could have more fun jumping up and down the suspension bridge, and scaring those at the center. New York, meanwhile wondered when the next sleeping break was. Z ran up and down the steep climbs, but then threw it all away, lighting up at every available opportunity. 
As the rainbow emerged at the far end of the cliff while we were at lunch, punctuated by spells of heavy rain that seemed to come in from nowhere and bright sunshine that promised to melt away all biases, that existential query began to resolve itself, just as the mist vanished behind the golden sun. “Will I fit in?” And now the group was teaching me, it doesn’t matter, as long as one lives in the moment. The group selfie on the suspension bridge led to another legend that continued through the trip – “Will there ever be a decent snap with the Indian guy in it?” The answer, ladies, is no. Check your smart phones. Some guys just can't pose, but surprisingly, all women can!

Saturday, May 16, 2015

South Africa - Part 1 - Capetown, the Mother city

I landed one bright sunny morning in Capetown. The immigration officer was cheerful, looked at my passport and said “India, we are getting a lot of you here in winter. Looks like you brought your weather with you!” “Nice to hear that ma’m, but we got a plane full of my countrymen waiting in the queue now, so do practice your namaste and dhanyavaad”, I almost blurted out. But years of hard-earned experience had taught me not to speak when your passport is getting stamped, unless you are asked to. The group was now making enough noise to drown out the din of a Boeing taking off from the runway, and tempers were getting frayed. Charles, the mysterious looking tour guide with his French origins and a perfectly trimmed goatee, looked jolly. “It is bright today, no haze”. Two references to the weather in the first 15 minutes, and I thought only the British were obsessed with it. I still didn't get the drift, it is difficult not to take the sun for granted when you have so much of it back home. “We must get to Table mountain as soon as we can”, he said. “Can I take a shower and get something to eat, it’s been a 20 hr flight”, I asked. “No, no, this is the first sunny day in a week, we must get there right now”. The urgency in his voice was striking. And it sounded even more sinister when he switched to Afrikaans with his colleague, the language has some fluency. “Are you ready to explore the mother city and her iconic landmark?” Wait, weren't we in Capetown? And with these delightful exchanges started my South Africa trip; when you begin like this, it was bound to go well.
And after a fortnight of roaming around the country, way too short when you consider its size and diversity, I found South Africa to be a land of great contrasts and amazing beauty, best described by the 3,000 km long coastline that is crafted in turns by the cold Atlantic current and the warm Indian current, which conspire to produce such wonderfully abundant sea-life. Or the diverse landscape, dominated by the imposing Cape Fold mountains with their rich natural beauty, along which passes the “Garden route” ranging from the Western to the Eastern cape, and the Karoo with its high-altitude bush land and Mediterranean feel, which dots “Route.62” with its iconic mountain passes and vineyards, and the exceptional quantity of land life, chief among them being the “Big 5”. But what encapsulates the country best is the wonderfully strange sounding Afrikaans with its two widely spoken dialects, an amalgamation of Dutch, German, Portuguese, Malay, Bantu and god knows how many others. And a curious mix of governance that necessitates three capital cities for its various branches – Capetown, Pretoria and Johannesburg.
It is this duality and contrast, along with the rugged natural beauty and unparalleled biodiversity that makes South Africa, the second largest economy on the African continent, such a fascinating land. Capetown is a stark exhibit. While the beach facing condos sell for as much as USD 4Mn making them some of the most expensive properties on the continent, a great majority of the country lives on less than USD 2 a day, giving it the dubious distinction of having the highest Gini coefficient worldwide, and widespread income disparities. And as the western media loves to sensationalize, crime and social ills, and they are probably right. But people who are helpful, ever-smiling, and have music in their blood, are difficult to reconcile with violent crime and xenophobic attacks. Especially for a twitchy outsider like me, who is more likely to generalize based on first impressions, and disperse them with abandon. What is surprising though are the many parallels between India and South Africa. Both are emerging economies, have a large middle class which is slowly gaining in stature, place great emphasis on family and relationships, were shaped by two of the towering leaders of this century in Gandhi and Mandela, arts, music and culture are deeply ingrained within the society, and there is an obsession with cricket that is only topped by love for food. We even drive on the same side of the road, and here the South Africans are way ahead – they follow rules and believe in giving pedestrians right of way, both concepts alien to an Indian. No wonder Indians now form the largest contingent of tourists after Germans. You wouldn't miss IPL here, the tv screens are all tuned to cricket.
Charles did allow us a leisurely lunch, but pointing towards the clock all the time. That seemed to be the way of life in the “Mother city”, so called apparently since anything takes nine months in Capetown, which he said is known for its quality of life and a general disdain towards anything to do with deadlines. We first passed Newlands and then the gorgeous white football stadium, which Charles calls the “white elephant”. A stadium built for the world cup and now used almost exclusively for concerts! But Newlands does justify Sunny’s claim to be the most picturesque cricket settings one can ever set foot on, along with Galle. Capetown basking in the winter sun looked pretty as a picture. It is very clean, neatly arranged, full of fly-overs (some of which miraculously vanish mid-way, and reappear after a distance), smells great and has some gorgeous beach-fronts.I wanted to explore the stadiums, but Charles shot me down with a glare. “Do you know how lucky you are to go up Table Mountain on a sunny day man?” he growled. And pushed me into the cable car that zooms up to the mountain. “Trust me, the views up there are to kill for, don’t waste the day”. And with that, we crowded on to the cable car, jostling for space to get a clear view. They kept shouting on the PAS, “it spins 360 degrees, don’t worry about catching a view”. But tourists and especially Indians can’t help jostling for space, it is in our blood to throw some elbows.
As the cable car zoomed up, a collective gasp broke out, accompanied by several of those deep-throated “hmmms”. No matter how well-traveled one is, it is impossible not to feel your heart beat that bit faster, and a lump go up your throat, when the first aerial view of Capetown reveals itself. A shiver goes down your spine and you have to pinch yourself to check if it is true. I had my camera on, ready to hit the button, and so did everyone else, but when that view first hits you, the blue of the sea shimmering against the bright rays of the sun, set against the backdrop of the grey and white reflecting off Table mountain and downtown Capetown, it is such an awe-inspiring moment. All you are capable of is stand there and gape, and let out child-like shrieks of wonder. The excitement in the cable car was palpable; it is the same emotion that drives sport addicts to sing anthems and cry. And after what seemed like an eternity, some sanity returned to the inhabitants, who now got very busy trying to take as many pictures as they could. And those annoying selfies and groupies, which I can never understand. You are at one of the most scenic places in the places, and all that is important is a selfie? There is yet no camera that has yet been built that can rival the human eye, and the ride to the top feels agonizingly short.
At just over 1,000 meters, Table Mountain dominates the landscape and presents some of the most spectacular views of the Cape Fold mountains, the Atlantic coast, and the sprawling city of Capetown. At the top is a perfectly flat plateau with several hiking trails into the rich biodiversity that is the Table mountain national park, a World Heritage site with several indigenous flora. As the eye sweeps from the left to the right, one sees the Lion’s head, Signal hill, Robben island, the city of Capetown, Table bay, the blue Atlantic, and the Devil’s peak at the far right. Every direction you gaze is either green or blue and white, or some indescribable combination in between, with the golden sun splattering off the grass and shining brightly off the sea. Charles was right, you want to believe in divine creation here, but with a tug and a smile, he reminds me that it was nature at work over millions of years. And reiterates how lucky we are. A couple from Germany, who had shared in my tears and very audible gasps up the ride, had been in Capetown for 4 days, and they had been thwarted by the legendary table haze each day. I thought it was so called because the top of the mountain was as flat as a table, but Charles insists it is due to the “table cloth” like cloud that forms around the edges. The crisp mountain air felt fresh in my lungs, and the sun felt good on my back, the hours spent here felt too short and a twinge of regret hits you when stepping back in to the cable car for the ride back. It took 500 million years to get this view right, and all I had was a few hours.
The beauty of Capetown is that there is so much to see in and around, and a lot more to do. The abundance of beaches ranging from the cold on the Atlantic side and warm on the Indian ocean side, with their pretty waterfronts, restaurants and cafes, supposedly justify the multi-million dollar price tags that the condos wear, especially those on Clifton and Camps bay. The most popular tourist attraction though, is the Victoria and Alfred waterfront, right at the docks. Colonial buildings in bright colors, shopping centers, coffee shops and restaurants make the whole area a visual assault on the senses, and getting lost in these activities for as long as the knees hold feels just about right. I spent more time on the hop-on hop-off tour, which is incredibly educative and affordably priced, and passes through most of the sights in the city, and the history walk and monuments at the waterfront. It feels the whole of the town descends here every evening, and the atmosphere is buzzing.
Take the gorgeous drive along Chapman's Peak Drive that links Noordhoek with Hout Bay, for stunning views of the ocean and mountains. Tag along the ferry to Hout Bay, Simon's Town and the Cape fur seal colonies on the Seal and Duiker Islands, those ugly and huge, vile smelling and loud creatures, that are yet absolutely cute. A male sea-lion chasing away an intruder and strutting around among the females may not seem fun, but it was incredibly hilarious. Walk along Boulders Beach near Simon's Town which hosts a thriving colony of African penguins, those cute little fluffy beings and that delightful penguin walk. These birds seemed smaller than their counterparts in Australia and it is a small colony, complete with nests and sea-gulls hunting for eggs and chicks. A huge conservation success, that a thriving town can host an endangered species at a busy beach. Jump on the ferry at the waterfront for a sunset over the ocean. Not for ones with motion sickness though, our ferry was large and yet the swells were so huge and the wind so bustling that we had to drink gallons of beer and cover up with a couple of blankets just to feel our toes. Or get over to Robben island, an emotional yet powerful story of what the human spirit is capable of. Capetown seemed bustling with tourists; in the middle of winter. Apparently it wasn't so till a couple of years ago, when Apr-June would be the off-season and Charles would take off on his family vacation to Europe. But now, thanks to a few strategically placed billboards in India and a couple of prime-time ads on the telly, hordes of Indians ensure the winter for the tourism industry is not a washout. Yes, and all those Germans too contribute. Danke says Charles.
If Table mountain was the entree, the dessert was the “Cape of Good Hope”, an hour’s drive from the city. It is spectacularly scenic, with the rocky hills and the rough seas throwing up a cloud of mist and fog, adding to the several legends that dot the locale. The sea is very rough here, and the swells very large. The plaque at the rocky beach sees a long line of tourists wanting their pictures taken, and the cable-car and the steps to the lighthouse are worth the effort, for these are some of the most spectacular sights one can ever chance upon. The guides usually say at the lighthouse, “look at the right, the Atlantic is rough and green, while the Indian ocean is calm and blue”, and the excitement and wonder of the moment usually makes one believe whatever you want to. How does it matter then if, geographically, the Cape is not really the Southern-most tip of Africa? The two sides of the ocean do look and feel different, and the place is really magical and feels disconnected from the rest of the world. The drive to and back passes through the Cape floristic kingdom, the smallest and the richest as Charles pointed out, and most of the flora here is found nowhere else in the world. Maybe it is the folklore, or the locale, or the fine mist and the sweeping winds, but there is an aura to the cape. I didn't get a glimpse of the “Flying Dutchman” but a mere nudge would have convinced me it was round the corner. Legends and myths come alive here, and so do some of our keenest senses.
Xenophobia was the buzz word in the two weeks leading up to my visit, and the western media had gone to town with the various incidents in Durban and Johannesburg. So had the tour company and the hotel, our “orientation session” on the first morning lasted half an hour, contained a multitude of don’ts and literally no do’s. Don’t walk on the streets after 6 PM, stay with the group, don’t be flashy! How, then sir, do you behave like a tourist in Capetown? But at the risk of generalizing, safety does seem to be an issue in the city, the first day we were here, a bank around the corner from the hotel was robbed at 1030 AM. In broad daylight. The news was met by our porter at the hotel with a shrug. “Happens all the time man, just be safe”. The streets empty as the sun sets around 6 PM and by 630 PM, the normally busy Victoria waterfront wears a desolate look, which I was to discover the third evening.


Two men approached us as we were trying to find our way back to the clock tower at the Waterfront from one of those annoying little jaunts to the nameless side-roads that only gullible tourists are capable of. The crowd had mysteriously vanished into thin air, it was 630 PM and in half an hour, the area had switched from densely populated to one resembling a ghost town. One of them said “Hello brother, how are you, don’t be afraid, I am a good guy, I study, work, and am trying to support my family. Can you spare some rand, god bless you”. The instructions from Charles though were crystal clear; quickly find a crowd and don’t stop or chat. So we quickened our pace and ignored them. They followed us, and kept asking for money. We nodded, and kept walking. Where were the damn crowds when you need them? Then the cursing began. “I could mug you brother and you wouldn't have a choice, all I am asking for is a few rand to feed my family”. We were practically running. “You sicken me, you rich tourists, you are disgusting, you have no reason to be here”. I wondered what would come next, the mind began to play tricks and imagined worst-case scenarios. And as the road turned, out of the corner of my eye, there was a cab, and a few people, and as I turned around – the two men weren't there. Did it actually happen or was it just my imagination? I shrugged, and joined the group at the clock-tower, and pretended it never happened. One bad incident among several great experiences doesn't ruin a trip, but it does prick the bubble a bit. Capetown is easily one of the most gorgeous cities I have been, and I get why it is the most visited on the African continent. There is more to do here than you can possibly imagine, and three nights seemed too early; Charles has lived here all his life and claims he is still discovering parts of it, but when the wallet decides, arguments are futile. Thank you Charles for being so patient and informative. May we Indians keep ruining your winter vacations, it seems we need each other more than we realize.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Melbourne - At the "MCG"

We got on to the train at Ormond. I was wearing my lucky red shirt, and it had never let me down over the past couple of years. When it comes to sport, and especially Indian cricket, all kinds of superstitions apply, and they seem to work too. Atheists pray, teetotalers drink and the non-social gather in crowds. It was an 11km journey to Richmond, a ride that on a normal day takes 15mins. But today was not a normal day in Melbourne. Stops at platforms were longer. The train was crowded and noisy, so un- Aussie. And somewhere between Hawksburn and Yarra stations, the train came to a complete halt for about 10 minutes, and it felt like an eternity. Something must have surely broken down, and what a day to for that to happen, I moaned. By this time, the train was buzzing. Blue shirts, flags, bandanas, wrist-bands and even kerchiefs fluttered. Excited murmurs were agog, and bets on who would win, MSD or AB, India or South Africa kept going round (obviously India, duh). Mercifully, the train started before the crowd lost patience.
We reached Richmond, got off the train, and walked in to a sea of blue. Within minutes, train after train dumped more blue shirts on to the platform. Where did so many come from? Flew in all the way from India like me, or were they settlers in Melbourne like Cooks? Richmond for once resembled Mumbai, elbows were thrown, the young and the old were pushed, and there formed massive disorderly queues into the subway and at the exit turnstiles. There were enough police at the platform who kept appealing for calm, but calm isn't what you expect when it comes to cricket and India. The turnstiles promptly broke down, there simply weren't enough and the ones present couldn't handle the crowds. Couple of impatient youngsters promptly jumped across them, others tried, and there was more pushing and shoving. Imagine a herd of wildebeest trying to cross a river, driven by the lure of fresh grass, with only a narrow path leading up to it. A smart lady among the police suggested they open up the turnstiles, lest there be a stampede, and the crowd roared in approval. The station emptied in a jiffy.
The first look of the MCG was from the walkway at the station. It had me swooning, I had goose bumps, and out came the camera. Replicated by almost everyone else, most paused to click those incredibly annoying selfies and groupies. And so we walked, clutching our tickets, and searching for the gates. Where was Gate 6? Obviously after Gate 5! A few groups started singing, others chanted “India, India”. Amid a parade of blue. Would they let me pass through, with my backpack and my camera, two of the most “high profile” security concerns at an Indian stadium? And what about the lemonade I had carried? Typical Indian questions, for sport aficionados like me, who put up with having to discard all their baggage, and body-searched at every sporting event in the country. And learn the hard way to walk in empty-handed. But here it didn't matter. Turnstiles were quick, baggage search was even quicker, the helpers waved the crowd in with a smile, and walking in through the gate was a piece of cake.
What wasn’t easy though was the search for Level 4, Great Southern stand, Bay Q13, Row N. What do I search for, the level, the stand, the bay or the row? So along with a group of other confused Indians, we asked for directions from an elderly sentry. He said you are at level 1 mate, walk up to level 4, then keep walking to your left. The circular stairs that went from level 1 up to 4 were the quickest I had ever run, and there were a host of others running with me. And at the first sight of the lush-green ground and the hallowed brown pitch, I barged in to the first entrance, which turned out to be Q3. Keep going mate, the sentry said before throwing me out.
At this precise moment rang out the Indian national anthem. Strangers stood next to each other and produced the loudest full-throat rendering I have ever heard, and I have been to a few. I had tears streaming down my face, and shamelessly so. So did the lady next to me, and the next guy and the next. We hugged before resuming our search for the seats. It never ceases to amaze me, the way normal people react to “Jana Gana Mana”, I cry every time and a lump rises up my throat. There was something indescribable about it that day; the Indian anthem reverberated much louder than the South African one. Surely we out-numbered them. “India, India”, we shouted as we settled in to our seats. A group of Sardars in the row behind me were dancing to Bhangra music. The ground looked green and the crowd looked blue. Easily the most beautiful sight I had seen in Australia by a long mile.
20,000 kms for a view of the MCG must be the most illogical uneconomical decision ever. As a life-long cricket fan (so are most Indians), and having seen countless matches on the TV from 1991, this was not any other trip. I was a late convert to the “live sport” category, economics, laziness and a firm (and absolutely incorrect!) belief that it looks better on the telly than at the ground, left me glued to the sofa for the first 29 years of my life. Till a chance encounter and an incredible series of coincidences found me at an RCB match, at the Chinnaswamy stadium in 2010. That match changed my life, and  left me with a significantly lower bank balance. But how do you put a price on that incredible sense of joy, all those tears and those bragging rights? MSD at Wankhede, Roger and Novak at Delhi, Lee and Bops at Bangalore, Stan at Chennai, Saurav at Eden, Yanni and Metallica at Bangalore.
Australia took a year of planning, starting with booking the tickets to the four games in March 2014. It was a pilgrimage, and MCG stood at the center of my cricketing universe. For years, I have heard breathless commentators describe it as the “Mecca of cricket” and bristled, believing that our own Eden Gardens, Wankhede or my beloved Chinnaswamy were as good, if not better. How could an Aussie stadium compete with an Indian crowd? No way mate. The world cup provided the perfect opportunity to test the thesis.
The seats were slightly to the left of the side-screen and directly behind long-off. The first 10 minutes went by just gazing longingly at the turf which looked too green to be true, luckily the “drop-in” pitch was too brown to be true! MSD promptly won the toss and AB promptly ran Rohit out. The crowd gasped, and went silent while Shikhar and Virat rebuilt. We were hopeful but this was Steyn and Morkel, the most lethal combination in world cricket. A kid behind me asked his father “dad, we are going to lose na?” I gave him the half-turn and glared at the father. How dare he? Sachin waved as the camera caught him at the pavilion, and the crowd chanted “Sachin, Sachin”. How does the crowd always get the timing right? It must be instinct, and India built a good platform.
Virat went, so did Philander, and Dhawan flicked Morkel over long-on. Oh, how effortless, he made the giant look gentle. It was a reflection of the pitch too, there was no swing and the ball came along beautifully. Perfect batting conditions. Amla dropped a sitter, and he was jeered. And then Shikhar upper-cut Parnell over third man, and raced to his century. The crowd sensed we were on the rise and could win. And when Rahane blitzed Parnell and Steyn, the Mexican waves and the roars were so loud that the PYT in the row ahead couldn't hear her boyfriend on the phone. Rahane tonked Steyn over mid-off, in that classical elegant scoop of his, almost apologetic in the way he was treating the great man. It sailed ten rows back. The Sardars went nuts, I went bonkers. The loudest cheer and the most silent hush were reserved for MSD. He didn't deliver, but he didn't have to. Once the psychological 300 mark was breached, there was only one winner. The belief was palpable, and a couple of beers did nothing to diminish the enthusiasm. Getting AB out quickly was the key, said practically the entire stadium.
South African openers went cheaply, but Faf and AB looked like settling in for the long haul. And then it came, that one magical moment when the match turned. AB played to deep cover and quickly turned for the second. Surely it was on. Mohit swooped down, and delivered the knock-out punch, a direct throw. MSD jumped up and down and the crowd was on the edge of their seats. Had we run-out the quickest man in cricket? AB looked shocked. The umpire drew a square, oh, can the review be any slower? The first angle suggested AB made it back, but barely. The crowd made a racket and grew angry. The second angle was inconclusive. There were groans. And then, the third angle, he was short, he was short, the Indians knew it, they were mobbing Mohit, AB left dejected, shaking his head, he knew he had thrown it away. The crowd certainly knew, and it was the most deafening roar Melbourne had ever heard. 86,876 voices, all Indian it seemed. We knew it was just a matter of time now.

Cook’s friends left, and so did some other crazy unpatriotic souls midway through the African innings. Kids, do they realize what they were missing? There is nothing called a dead game. She came over to my seat, with half the row watching her every move, and wondering how such a thing even knew me! 147-4 was when she sat down, and what followed was a procession. Bad shots, tight bowling by Ashwin who seemed to have suddenly discovered the magical art of flight and loop, and another run-out. The match was over in the next 10 overs, barely 45 minutes. I made her promise to wear the same short striped dress to every Indian match at Melbourne; she saw a side of me that only emerges when I am immersed in sports. I wailed like a child and cried myself hoarse at the fall of every wicket, blew high-fives with the kid, and that nameless guy with the pretty girl in front. It didn't matter, it was delirium and I was high. The old Indian couple next to me asked where I was from, I said Bangalore. He said I live 5 mins away and I have been to the ground for the past 25 years, and I have never seen something like this. You flew all the way from India for this, he asked, incredulity written all over his face. Can anyone be so crazy, he seemed to think? Yes I did, and yes I am, and so did so many, where do you think 85,000 turned up uncle, I asked? Tiwary, turn in your grave, you missed this game for what?
One final act remained. MSD had to thank the fans, our boys must have felt right at home, and the crowd knew it had played a key role in the win. We were waiting, and on cue, MSD says, the support was wonderful. Thank you Mahi, thank you for the joy, the pain, the agony, tears and all these years. We had Sachin and now we have you. We know you will retire if we win the cup, that is the price we will pay. And oh we will cry those happy tears. On the way back, Richmond station resembled an enormous dorm party. Some were drunk, some were high, and most others were plain delirious, but all were loud and crazy, how did anyone have a voice left after the match? The national anthem and India chants continued through the 20 min ride. At Ormond, cars were honking in to the night, was there any suburb in Melbourne that wasn't celebrating? Streets of India must be a riot now, but I would rather be here. Time and place.
What is it about sport that makes grown-ups behave the way they do? Makes us laugh, cry, jump for joy and despair in agony, and brings out the best and the worst in us? Is it the primitive urge to bond and believe in something larger than the individual, feelings that are conspicuous by their absence in the materialistic society we have so proudly designed? Does it appeal to some part of the brain that we hardly use in our day-to-day life, some hidden crevice that wakes up to the right stimuli, and releases those “ooh and aah” moments? Or is it just the outlet to connect with our childhood again, feel those emotions and joys we get used to suppressing as we grow in to mature adults? The Romans had their gladiators and Indians have their cricketers. I discovered the magic of sport 5 years ago, and it has me hooked for life. Raw, primal emotions are so rare, they have to be cherished.
And I agree, MCG is magical. Maybe it is the capacity crowd, and the vibe. Or the enormity of the ground, compared to the silly 60 meters boundaries we are so used to. Or the way the stands rise almost vertically from the ground, making one feel right on top of the action. Or is it just the history and the fabulous, yet very expensive beer and food? It must feel very intimidating to the visiting team, as South Africa discovered that night. How did India become the home team? That's the Indian fan for you. No wonder the Aussies lose so little here, Boxing day at MCG with 100,000 screaming for blood would probably be one of the greatest sight in sports today. As amazing as the 110,000 in the old Eden gardens. I have been to the second, maybe it’s now time for the first. For now, bragging rights of being part of the second largest crowd ever at a one-day international will do. And the look on that kid’s face when I grabbed him and shouted “we won, we won”, high-fived his dad, and then hugged the old man next to me, with his wife blushing at all the silliness. Oh, cricket, what would I do without you!

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Cambodia - Part 8 - Phnom Penh - Fascinating city of many faces

It looked alright, a proper 10-seater with Wifi, AC, TV and bottled water. Cambodians are known for their punctuality, and promptly at 730 AM, Mekong travels picked us up from our hotel in Battambang. It was either the road for USD12 or a flight for USD65, so the choice was obvious. And the roads seemed well paved, the driver was chatty and kept to under 80, we were soon passing through beautiful countryside with rice fields that glistened under the bright sun. We stopped at Pursat for breakfast around 930AM, delicious flavored rice with chicken and lovely tea. And then the road roughened up, turned from 2 lanes to 1, there were running repairs all along (the three local grumbled that it has gone on for ages), the sun kept getting higher, the potholes and pebbles got bigger, and the mini-bus started lurching and rolling. This was what the locals had warned, don't extrapolate they said. But the real torture was the last hour and a half, the closer we got to Phnom Penh, the dustier and pebblier the road became until we were literally hanging off our sockets, tightly gripping the rails and praying we would get there in one piece. The driver, to his credit, never let the smile disappear; kept saying in that typical Cambodian english "road construction, very bad".

The first signs of the capital were the floating villages on the river; then the shanties and the markets. I start calculating, if the capital extends up to 50 mins from the CBD (as per AP's google maps), it must be large. And probably crowded and polluted. The traffic and the noise added a couple more negatives to the check-list. By the time the bus dropped us off just outside the city, my hyper-active mind (AP swears I am getting crankier with age) has imagined the worst - the heat and the hunger surely contributed. It was a relief the hotel had sent a tuk-tuk, we would have been otherwise lost. The luggage were loaded and tightly bound, and the tuk-tuk had a wire grill around the seating area - to ward off thieves and bag snatchers, the driver said. My heart sank. I wore the backpack on my stomach and leaned as far back as the seat would allow, and kept my leg glued to my suitcase. AP looked unperturbed as usual, but he took out his ipad and kept checking the route every minute.

It turned out we had no reason to worry. PP (as it is called by most visitors, since the pronunciation is complicated) is the largest city in Cambodia, has a 2Mn population, and like every capital, attracts a large number of migrant workers, which combined with the villages along the Tonle Sap that runs all the way to Siem reap hosts the bulk of the populace. It is also the economic, political, cultural, and architectural power center. What it isn't though, is a metropolis, which is what my worst-case imagination had painted. The tuk-tuk passed through the downtown, the beautiful river-front,  clean neat and wide roads, and orderly traffic, and by the time we checked in to the "one-up banana" hotel, my fears were dissipating. Lunch and beer down the throat, and a friendly chat with the hotel manager, and they were almost gone.

Phnom Penh is first and foremost a city dominated by its rivers; "Chaktomok" - the city of four faces located at the intersection of Mekong, Tonle Sap and Tonle Bassac rivers, that shape much of the capital, and give rise to the beautiful river-front. The royal city has a rich legend surrounding its origin and has a history dating back to the 14th Century. Sisowath Quay, the river-front stretches from Wat Phnom (from which the capital derives its name) in the South all the way to the Royal palace up North, and an assortment of historical and cultural sites, hippest restaurants, bustling pubs, and trendiest hotels all line up along this one road, about 2-2.5kms long. The river-front bursts in to activity in the evening and gets quite glitzy with great food and drink, while the several parks and gardens around the Royal palace are inundated by locals, who turn it in to a happening picnic place. It seems the whole city literally steps out on to the river-front every evening; the pubs and restaurants are full, the cruises have hordes of tourists, kids are out playing on the streets, container ships fly up and down the river, and the streets are young and bright. The capital seems perfectly safe, we walked back all three nights late and drunk, there were single women selling food and fuel on the streets, we hardly saw any violence or unruly behavior, and there were very few cops around. It is a strange marriage of deeply Buddhist beliefs, a society that revers the king who towers over it as a father figure, yet permissive and open enough to accept modern life and the attending ills that tourism brings. The dazzling royal palace and the trendy river-front are barely 20 meters apart, and the two worlds seem to be in a state of blissful co-existence. Phnom Penh grows on you.

PP is a shutterbug's delight. Beautiful architecture, brilliant sunshine, lots of open spaces, large squares styled after the great european cities, wide open streets and boulevards, and all within a 20 min walk of the river front. It is usually 30'c but with the sun and humidity feels like 40 - a slight breeze hovers over the city till it gets stifling hot around 1PM, so the first half of the day is not to be wasted sleeping, said our helpful hotel manager. So, we took a walk. And ended up walking all the three days - up the riverfront and the sights, and down back to the hotel in the nights.

The Independence monument sits at the centre of the largest traffic roundabout in the city, at the intersection of Norodom and Sihanouk boulevards, and when lit-up at night, looks quite spectacular. A huge open square and a park serve both as lung-space and a meeting point for the adolescents, especially in the evenings, when the side roads are full of eating joints, large number of youngsters and is a melting pot of locals and tourists. Built in 1962 to celebrate the country's independence, most of the political celebrations are held here.

We were told the National museum opens up really early and is a must-visit to learn about the country's architecture and history. For USD5 per person, and after the positives we had heard from a couple of Brits the previous night, I really looked forward to this - but it turned out to be disappointing. Yes, it has lots of artifacts (numbering 5000 in total), chief among which is the famous statue of the "leper king" from Siem reap, has well-written descriptions of Khmer architecture and mythology, but focuses more on Khmer empire building rather than culture and history. I for one thought the rust red building that houses the museum was more a piece of art, built in 1920 and heavily derived from French architecture. The arrangement and audio narration could be much much better, crowd control is non-existent, and if you have visited the museum at Siem reap, there isn't anything new you would learn here. Worth a visit only if one is really keen.

What I would't miss though is the majestic Royal palace, which looks grand and elegant with its high walls, and is lit up brilliantly in the evenings, and together with the riverfront, is probably the core of Phnom Penh. We had passed along the palace the previous night, and what is striking is the rather limited and non-intrusive police presence; the guards smile, and allow photographs, people mill around the front-gate and actually open up their picnic baskets and laze around the palace gardens - a wonderful sight. It is a difficult place to get in though, open only from 730-11AM and 2-5PM, and a long queue builds up an hour before the gates open. While in the queue, one gets a glimpse of the classical pagodas, sloped tiled roofs, gold-plated spires and glistening motifs, and the excitement builds up, it is a mad rush to the ticket counters and a race to get in.

Once you do get in, the mind goes in to hyperactive mode. There is so much grandeur on display, and each structure looks so dazzling that the camera goes in to overdrive, and it takes a conscious effort to calm down and begin to enjoy the brilliant display of opulence. The really confusing map and the afternoon sun do not really help matters; what is for sure is the palace, constructed in phases from 1866-1920 and which serves as the residence of the king, is a truly unique exhibition of royalty and classical Khmer architecture. Everything here is grand, but if I have to pick one, it would be the "Silver Pagoda" which has 5,329 silver tiles, each weighing 1.125kg lining the floor, and where the king meets the monks. It houses the "Emerald Buddha", a resplendent jade statue that sits atop a gilded dais, along with several other historical objects. At the entrance stands a golden Buddha statue, made of 90kg of pure gold and studded with 2,086 diamonds. Clearly, it is a rich dynasty, proud to display its wealth and dazzle with its splendor. The mythical "Mount Meru" also makes its appearance, along with a scaled replica of "Angkor Wat". The map does play an important role, and the history and function of most of the buildings is well-described, and it may be useful to actually follow the path in the map; we didn't. I followed my camera and AP followed the crowds, and we both hung around till they shooed us out promptly at 5PM. It was with a twinge of regret, I could have stayed here for a lot longer and my camera could have taken a coupe of thousand more snaps. Truly one of the highlights of the city and a glorious reflection of its history and cultural richness.

We ended up following the river-front and found ourselves that evening at "Wat Phnom", the legendary temple from which the city of Phnom Penh derives its name. The temple stands on top of a small hill at the southern end of the river-front, and is dedicated to Lord Buddha, housed in a large room with high-ceilings that are painted with bright colors, and tell several traditional tales. A large stupa that contains the remains of the king who first moved the capital from Angkor to Phnom Penh  in the 15th century stands tall outside the temple. A large park surrounds the Wat on all four sides, it is a great location to hang around, and watch the sun set over the river. The place is bustling with a steady stream of devotees, some of whom the priest told me, offer their prayers every evening, locals who play some really distinctive board games on one of those park benches, and an array of hawkers and vendors. 

On one of those impulsive buys, I got conned at the national museum into buying tickets for an evening show, staged by the Cambodian Living arts. It was USD15 per person and the show was "Mak Therng". For that money, it better be good, I could get three whole meals. Turned out to be an age-old ballad, re-imagined and reinvented, set on a small stage with an audience of about a 100, mostly foreign; brilliant lightning, amazing music and orchestra, superb coordination, stunning lead acts, a vibrant support cast, and in all, a very cohesive and tightly strung performance, that left most of the audience, and me, in a spell, in spite of the fact that we understood nothing of the language, and had to rely on the subtitles to make sense of the story. Great art has a way of breaking through all barriers.

Did I mention the river-front? I sure did, but let me do that again. Phnom Penh is a great river-front city, and the choices one has is amazing. It seems there is enough to do every evening; take a cruise up the river, watch a play, walk along the river-front and breathe in that fresh breeze, get drunk at any of the watering holes that serve freshly brewed beer for USD2, and oh the sea-food! Some of us truly faithful EPL fans (mostly Brits) ended up watching a Chelsea game an an Irish pub. It was a cool evening, there were beautiful women around, lots of beer and lots of great food, and Chelsea won. Did I mention we took a midnight walk along the river-front? What a night and what a locale, surely I must be back here sometime. PP is such an amazing place, one could easily get by on USD35-40 a day without cutting corners.

There was just one more thing to do the next day; revisiting Cambodia's dark past and the genocide orchestrated by the Khmer rouge. For four years from 1975 to 1979, the communist dictatorial regime headed by Pol Pot tortured, maimed and killed anything between 2-3Mn of their fellow Cambodians (historians disagree on the numbers, but it is really irrelevant how many actually died), 20-30% of the population, in one of the worst genocides of the later 20th century. Some governments even accepted and supported the Pol pot regime, till it crumbled and withered away in 1979. Cambodians have chosen to remember the horrors of that era and build memorials to ensure the surviving generations do not forget; not that it is easy. The Killing fields and Toul Sleng genocide museum are two stark reminders of the depths to which humanity can descend.

When I was researching the trip, there were conflicting advice on the killing fields; some said it was not worth the long drive, others said it was too horrific to stomach, but when so much of the country's history is tied-up with those four years, it is difficult to let it go. AP and me took a coin toss to decide, as we usually end up doing, and the coin has been a great judge over the years.

"Choeung Ek Memorial" or the aptly named "Killing fields" lies about 18kms or 45mins away from the city, through some rough and narrow roads, and small villages. A small pathway surrounded on three sides by water and paddy fields brings one to the most notorious of the more than 300 killing fields in the country. It is hard to imagine that the location was once a sleepy, beautiful orchard, located in the picturesque country-side and a Chinese cemetery till the Khmer rouge began its brutality in 1975. It is today the largest site of programmed executions, mass-graves, and killing areas found in Cambodia and is visited by thousands of tourists every day. The tour (if it can be called one) is brilliantly organized right from the moment one buys the USD6.5 ticket and steps in to the premises, complemented by some truly informative voice-overs, incredible stories by the few survivors, commentary by prison guards, and some of the most authentic analysis of the history of the Pol Pot regime. 

Your stomach churns as you hear the narrations of the survivors and your blood boils as you hear the cold, almost philosophical explanations of the guards and the officials of the prison at that time; I found the recording of the infamous "Duch", the highest ranking Khmer rouge official tried in courts, very vexing. The tour is not for the weak-hearted; many enter the killing fields in groups, smiling, happy and chatting away, and in the two hours or so it takes to walk around, turn gloomy, silent, an introspective, as if they are trying to gather their thoughts as to how mindless and senseless those four years were. It took ages for the world to recognize the genocide, and more for the Khmer rouge to be brought to trial. 2 hours is too less to digest the depths of inhumanity that occurred here, but the tour bravely tries to paint a picture, and does a great job of it. If you can stomach the horrors, do visit. 

And the other part of the picture is found in "Toul Sleng genocide museum" or S-21, right next to the Russian market, which didn't catch my fancy. A school gets converted in to a heinous torture chamber, an orchard turns in to killing fields, and a Buddhist monastery into a place for organized torture, execution and burial grounds. What perverse form of cultural and moral decay was the Khmer rouge trying to impose, will remain one of the great mysteries of this generation. Hard to imagine that the peaceful, reticent, and simple Khmer population had to face such horrors, and have to live with it every minute of their lives. If the Killing fields were the end-game, the Toul Sleng was where it all began - an ordinary high school with tall walls, that became torture chambers, and from which only 7 survived. Seven, out of the countless thousands who passed through it. 

Toul Sleng has four sections, all of them in 2-floored buildings. Section A is the interrogation and torture chambers, section B is where the inmates were locked-up, section C is the solitary confinement rooms and the ghettos which are protected with barbed wires, and section D are still being deciphered. In the courtyard stand the hanging ropes, used both for torture and the actual hangings. The prison has immaculate records of the more than 17,000 prisoners who passed through its chambers, and most of them and the prison itself has been left in very much the same way as it was found in 1979, giving us a great perspective of what transpired here in those four years. It belongs to movies and nightmares. It is a really brave society that decides to let these two monuments of torture stand as they were, rather than tear them apart. Speaks volumes of the tenacity and resilience of the society, and is a symbol of the Cambodia today, recovering from its past, and looking to its future.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Cambodia - Part 7 - Battambang - Distinctly French, and wonderfully under-explored!

Knut was back-packing across Cambodia and passed through Battambang. Stayed a couple of days, liked it and kept coming back over the next couple of years. One day, the owner of the Khmer restaurant where he usually ate offered to sell it to him, she couldn't afford to keep the place open or pay her staff. So Knut, the tall German, sold his business in Germany, bought the ramshackle place, redecorated it, and opened up "Woodhouse", a nice little pub serving French & German food, along with some local cuisine and excellent beer. Says he may end up buying a house up in the countryside and live here for ever.

Wei, the second generation Chinese-Cambodian was born in Battambang. His uncle owned a seedy hotel which catered mostly to backpackers, till his luck turned and he went broke. Wei's mother took over the "Hotel Royal", and he is now the manager. Speaks excellent French (most of the local folks learn French in school), has renovated the hotel and plans to expand. Says the laid-back nature of the town will never let him leave.

Battambang has an allure, a little something one can't place. Maybe it is the distinctly French colonial architecture, high triangular roofs, and the wide clean roads arranged in neat parallels and perpendiculars. Or the exceptionally calm river Sangkae that runs right through the center of the town, and gives it a whiff of fresh air, and all those evening stalls with the great street food. Or as Wei said, maybe it is the nature of the town itself, delightful in the way it is laid-back and inviting, with only a little whiff of tourists. Or the gorgeous country-side passing through some of the prettiest rice fields in the country. It is hard not to fall in love with it.

But we nearly skipped it, it was really a compromise, since we didn't know where else to camp. We didn't fancy Sihanoukville the popular beach resort, owing to an acute overdose of sun and sand over the past couple of years, and had already penciled in 4 days at Siem reap and 3 days at Phnom Penh. So looked up a map we did, and there it was, right in between the two cities. And AP loves everything French, wine, women, architecture, language. Well, we thought a rural town would be good for a couple of days of recuperation, coming after the hectic temple mapping at Siem reap. And ended up taking a cab from Siem reap to Battambang one fine sunny morning, about 200kms, 3 hrs and USD33 lighter. 

Kal saw us checking in to the hotel, and asked us if he wanted to be shown around the town on a tuk-tuk. Oh, not really, we are just here for 2 nights, we just want some rest, we said. So Kal says, have your lunch, I will be at the hotel around 2.30 and then you decide. We ordered an aubergine, a beer, and a schnitzel, and he was there at 2, smiling at us. So, instead of taking a nap, as was the original plan, we ended up poring over a map of Battambang, reading up over AP's ipad, and "expertly" negotiating a USD22 fee for a tuk-tuk ride in to the sights for the rest of the day.

For a town that prides itself on its history (established in the 11th Century), centrality (connecting Phnom Penh to the Northwest and close proximity to Thailand), and agrarian economy (rice granary of the country), Battambang does a fabulous job of underselling itself. Nearly every tourist goes to Siem reap and Phnom Penh; not many turn up here. A blessing in disguise if you will, we saw a few intrepid backpackers around the town, and a few more at some of the temples, but not many. Much of the sights are under-explored, and the two most important are the Phnom Banan and Phnom Sampeau.

Phnom Banan lies a picturesque 45min drive from the city, through roads that wind through the lush country-side, and is a 11th Century mountain-top temple, similar in style to Angkor era, but almost in ruins. The 5 towers (prasats) are arranged in the 5-pointed form, made of brick and heavy rocks, and mostly crumbling. Reaching the temple requires a bit of a heavy climb, about 150 steps and a good 300-400 in height from the base. But the climb is well-worth the effort, for one gets a great view of both Sampeau, on the other side of the hill range, and the lush green an amazingly flat Cambodian countryside.

30 mins through a bone-rattling dirt track from Banan, and passing through some stunning locales, small dispersed villages, and totally off the beaten track lies Phnom Sampeau. Either Kal took us through the back alleys, just to give us the "true Cambodian experience" or he got lost. Either way, after some anxious moments where he didn't seem to know where we were, and had to ask the locals for direction, the mountain and the Wat that sits perched on it came in to view. You can't miss it though, the tallest hill in the area with a Wat whose bronzed roof shines brilliantly in the evening sunshine. It is called the Boat mountain, and has a wonderful legend of a girl that lends it the name. 

At the base of the hill, one hops on to a bike and halts at the first stop, the mid-way point up the hill, where three killing caves from the Khmer rouge time reside. The scariest of them is the one with a deep dark hole with a tiny opening through which the sun shines down; victims were hit on the neck and dropped down the steep cave, and were never heard again. A sleeping Buddha statue in the adjacent cave smiles serenely, as if asking for forgiveness and peace. A horrific and spine-chilling location.

After a while, the biker picks you up and takes you to the second stop, the top of the hill, where resides a rather unexceptional pagoda, but spectacular view of the countryside. Picture perfect setting and some great evening snaps. And on the third and final stop, the "bat cave", two of them rather innocuous looking giant openings by the side of the hill. But apparently not, as we ran in to a group of around 100 tourists, eagerly pointing at the cave and speaking in hushed voices. It was 530PM. There started a low buzz, first a light uncharacteristic sound, growing louder by the second, then a single bat flying out through the cave, then some more, all in a single file; then the explosion - a loud noise, and there they were, uncountable black wings flying away for what seemed an eternity. A million gasps and even more flashes, and the spectacle continued for a while, till the last bats were out of the cave. A mad rush then ensued with the tuk-tuks competing with each other to get other to get to the one vantage point a km away, where the bats can be framed against the setting sun and the dangerously perched Wat. What a sight! And we initially planned a nap. The best experiences are sometimes the most unexpected and unplanned.

We hired Kal for the next day too, for USD12. He said he would show us two of the oldest monasteries around the town, the killing fields of Battambang, and the bamboo train. The drive itself was worth the money. A single lane road twists and turns through several small villages, passes right through a small rivulet for about 15kms till Ek Phnom. There are acres and acres of stunning green rice fields, as far as the eye can see; surprisingly even in the dry season, they all seemed well-irrigated and all the rivulets seemed full. No wonder this is the rice heartland. Battambang has a large number of brightly colored pagodas, all of which lie on one single road through the city to Ek Phnom, which is a rather dilapidated early 12th Century temple, prettily located next to a small lake and what seems to be a rather recent pagoda. 

Wat Samroung Knong, though, has a rather grizzly past; it is the oldest monastery in the Battambang area, an early 18th Century temple. In 1975, it was taken over by the Khmer rouge and converted in to a prison; the prayer hall became prisoners barracks, the main complex turned in to the execution chamber, and the surrounding paddy fields became the "killing fields of Battambang". It is estimated to be the largest execution area outside of Phnom Penh, and a memorial to the more than 10,000 human remains found in this area serves as a stark reminder to the horrors of the Khmer rouge regime. Interestingly, a temple stands here now, and a school operates in the area. Maybe forgiveness and education are the way to ease the painful past.

When Kal said the final stop for the day was the Bamboo train, we were generally disinterested. And balked at the USD5 per person charge. The station-master (sort of!) though said it would be great fun, and winked in the typical Cambodian style. So, we got on to the mini-train, it is really a wooden dismantle-able carriage on four wheels, with a motor and a driver. Remember those long endless train journies you took when you were young? The roll of the train, the steady clickety-click of the wheels, the jar and the jump at the intersections of the rails? It all came back in a hurry.

The bamboo train runs on narrow gauge, surrounded by thick vegetation and wonderful smelling trees, and occasionally opens up vistas of the featureless, endless rice fields. And what happens when trains have to pass? The drivers get off, lift one car from the tracks, roll the wheels to the other side, and put it back on, all in exactly 30 seconds. And it can get pretty rough out there - we refused to get down, and hollered at the other side, they gave us the hee-hoo, all in good fun. There is something about a train journey that brings out the child in everyone, for the one hour we went up and down the 15kms of the narrow gauge, I was a child. Innocent, joyous, and easy to impress in a world full of wonders. Easily the best money spent so far. And reflective of Battambang. We came here with no expectations and thought there was nothing to do, and ended up loving every minute of it. The town grows on you, and you want to keep coming back. I now know how Knut feels.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Cambodia - Part 6 - The town of Siem Reap

I always wondered how first impressions are formed. Malcolm Gladwell says they are an evolutionary trait, a survival mechanism. Our minds are geared towards making snap, instinctive judgments and more often than not, they are right. Airports play a crucial role in such first impressions, and the first adjective on getting off the flight at Siem Reap was “laid-back”. It is an international airport, and the most popular tourist destination in Cambodia. Yet, the airport is old-world, one walks across the tarmac to the immigration under the hot sun, where a friendly officer greets you and hands over a couple of ugly looking forms; we gathered round a couple of distinctive wooden tables to fill them out, and then noisily stretched out in to a long queue. At the counter, a voice in broken English said “Oh, India, Bollywood, Mumbai, Cricket” and waved us through. All in barely 10 minutes. And as Rei loaded our luggage on to his tuk-tuk, and the winter sun started burning our faces (it was 30C and 90% humidity), AP remarked “if the airport is any indicator, the town will be sleepy”. How prescient he was!
When Angkor was rediscovered in the 1900's, Siem Reap's fortunes turned overnight, the sleepy town became the gateway to the now world famous Angkor temples, with “Grand Hotel d'Angkor” being the first “tourist resort” built in 1920's. Today, the town is connected by unnaturally wide and empty roads all the way to Bangkok, has several upscale resorts on the drive from the airport to the town (about 7-8 kms and 20 mins), a vibrant nightlife clustered around the ubiquitously named Pub-street and its namesake river-front, and boasts of multiple options for visitors, ranging from the glitzy to the downright seedy. The town survives on tourism and almost everyone is directly or indirectly connected to the moolah, the busboys, guides, tuk-tuk drivers, the restaurants, hotels and pubs, even the pimps and the prostitutes. Perry, the honorary Cambodian, told me of a time in the 70's when the town was just two streets, and a couple of hotels. Tourism sustains but also breeds several ills, a choice most emerging economies have already made, without fully understanding the implications.
We stayed at the “Golden Temple Villa”, a 5-minute walk away from Pub street in the quieter part of the town. Not exactly a backpacker's paradise, but budget at USD20 per night, basic amenities, and a great restaurant. Siem Reap is best covered by walk or on a bicycle, one can still see the French overhang on the old buildings, the neatly arranged river-front along which most of the commercial establishments lie, the clean and well-laid out streets that stretch parallel to the river; Pub street in contrast seems a modern addition, is loud, lively and gets crowded with its loud music, abundance of pubs and roof-top restaurants, street food and dazed tourists looking for a good time.
While the chief attractions, the Angkor temples and Tonle Sap, are out of town, the town of Siem Reap does have its attractions; Angkor national museum (about which I have already raved in Part.2) is a lesson in history and a great delight, while the town's several Wats, evenly spaced from north to south along the river are a must-see, chief among them being the attractive “Wat Preah Prohm Rath”.
The largest and the oldest Buddhist monastery in Siem Reap, the Wat has a history dating back 600 years. Built somewhere in the early 15th Century, and dedicated to an early 13th century monk who has several legends about him, the Pagoda is built in bright colors, has beautiful archways reminiscent of the Khmer architecture one sees in Angkor temples, and is today a practicing temple. Monks dressed in orange and golden robes, along with a few devotees in white, pray at the courtyard, while tourists are conspicuous by their absence. But what draws attention is the huge, seated Buddha on an elevated pedestal in the main temple, along with the serene, giant statue of a sleeping Buddha at the back. Surprisingly, over the next two hours, I was the only tourist on the premises, a bit of hand signals and broken english with a couple of devotees helped me figure out that not many actually visit the Wats, except the locals. The other Wats (and there are more than 10 of them around town) are similar in style and expression, but smaller. Temple overkill maybe. 

On the last day, me and AP covered almost the entire town of Siem Reap over a leisurely walk spanning an hour along the river front. It is amazingly clean, well-organized in typical French parallels and perpendiculars, bright at night and looked straight out of a movie set, not a speck out of place. A calm breeze blows across the river-front in the evening, the street food is appetizing, the Colonial buildings glean under the lighting, and the moon shines brightly on the slow-flowing waters. Barely young lovers gaze in to each other's eyes, while older tourists wander around, hand in hand. Pub street meanwhile is loud and full of vices, and can be heard a mile away. Stark contrasts. The town of Siem Reap is sleepy and retains an old-world charm, barely clinging on to its past in the face of unrelenting change, while Coldplay blares loudly from one of the many pubs right next to Wat Prohm Rath. Modern tourism anyone?