January 12, 2013

Angkor Wat

I explored the sprawling grounds of the Angkor temple complex in Cambodia with my parents over three days. The largest collection of religious monuments in one location on Earth, Angkor started of as a Hindu place of worship in the tenth century. It was later augmented with some Buddhist additions, as the religious leanings of Khmer kings who sponsored the construction changed through the centuries.

On Day 1 we focused on the main temples, beginning with the famed Angkor Wat and then moving on to Bayon and Angkor Thom. Angkor Wat is located a little over 5km from Siem Reap, to the north of Tonle Sap. In Ta Prohm the trees have rooted themselves around the temples and become one with them, like tattoos on flesh.

On Day 2, we moved to the outer ring of temples. Drawing two million visitors a year, it is still easy to escape the crowds as there are over a thousand temples scattered around Angkor. It is seventeen times the size of Manhattan, and was the largest city in the world before the Industrial Revolution.

In a swampy forest, trees rose directly out of the murky waters. An elevated wooden path ran through the swamp to a temple. I inadvertently crushed a green object, the loud "Splat!" sound echoing through the forest. Its innards were splattered on the wooden walkway. The force of the impact was so great, the remains were unrecognizable. To this day I do not know if it was an insect or a fruit.

On Day 3, we woke up early to see the sun rise behind the magnificent triple stupas of Angkor Wat that appear on Cambodia's national flag. A heavy contingent of tourist and monks was also present. As has been the case every time I have woken up early to see a sunrise, there was none perceptible to the human eye as the sun was shrouded by a heavy cloud cover.

We visited an area where the temples had some vague resemblance to Roman ruins, with successive floors of the temple supported by pillars rather than the standard walls. A policeman was moonlighting as a tour guide here. He told us to stand at a certain spot to witness something special. Sure enough, from one vantage point the sun shone through the ruins at such an angle that the form of a candle was clearly visible, with the sunlight standing in for the flame.

We drove a lengthy distance to see a small set of temples in Banteay Srei. The miniature structures hold the best preserved wall carvings in Angkor. It was highly underwhelming, although there were a lot of carvings of monkeys. The beauty of Angkor lies not in the details, but in the scale and variety of the temples and its intricate embrace of the nature environment around it.


"It is not possible to describe it with a pen, particularly since it is like no other building in the world. It has towers and decoration and all the refinements which the human genius can conceive of." - António da Madalena

January 08, 2013

Wandering Wando

Around new years time, the temperatures in Seoul hovered around -17 degrees celcius. I tried to escape the cold front by going as far down the peninsula as possible on land. I took a six hour bus ride to Wando, which is an island near Jeju connected to the mainland by a bridge. On the first day the weather was about 10-15 degrees warmer, but by the second day the temperature nosedived and along came the snow. On the way back to Seoul, I saw that the entire country was covered in the white powder.

I sat beside an ajumma on the bus. Ajummas are older married women who have developed a tough skin due to the hardships of life and having to tolerate living with Korean men. They often have frizzy hair. Their hobbies include hiking in colourful clothing and elbowing fellow passengers on the subway. Despite their fearsome reputation, the ajumma on the bus was very friendly. She kept me well fed with corn, oranges, and other food stuffs during the duration of the journey.

After arriving at the bus terminal in Wando, I started walking in the general direction of the seaside. A young man spotted my meandering ways, and asked in English whether I need any assistance. He was a university student, back in his hometown to visit his parents for a couple of weeks. Despite being around my age, he seemed to have no inclination to work. He mentioned after graduation he wanted to spend a year in Japan to study the language.

We walked to the port of Wando where I checked in at a hotel on the main strip. He asked for a room with a view, so I could see the whole coastline from my balcony. Right in front of me was Judo, a famous islet packed densely with evergreen foliage as the Joseon kings had forbidden deforestation on that island through the centuries.

I was in the mood for seafood, so the hotelier suggested a visit to the local fish market and told us the stall number where his relative worked. The waters around Wando are exceptionally clean. 90% of the abalone and 80% of the seaweed in South Korea come from this place. After picking up some fish from the market, I ate some sashimi. The Korean guy had already had lunch, so we enjoyed a beer before he went on his way and I went on mine.

I headed up the hill to Wando tower, from where I could admire panoramic views of the coastline and the many islands dotting the horizon. The outline of Jeju was visible in the distance. After losing my path, I asked a group of girls for directions to the tower. They repeated what I said slowly, blushed, and then giggled uproariously as if I had just said the funniest joke in the world. No directions were provided.

The next day I spent exploring the rest of the island, stopping at a beach and a drama set. I was the only person at Gugyedeung, a pebble covered beach that had formerly been enjoyed by Korean royalty. The tide has left behind nine tiers of rocks over ten thousand years. One of Korea's original drama sets, Changpogo is a recreation of an ancient village that was used as the backdrop for many television and film serials, none of which I have seen.

January 06, 2013

Conversations with K-girls: Handsome Men

K-girl: Why are all American men sooo handsome?

Me: No, no, no. First of all, I am not an American. I am a Canadian and I am out of the ordinary. Not everyone is handsome. 

K-girl: But... all American men are so handsome.

January 04, 2013

The Basque Country

Alain, a friend of mine, hosted me in Bilboa for a couple of days. I had first met Alain in China, while sailing the Li River near Yangshuo. We met again in Beijing to feast on some balls. He met me at the Bilbao train station as I rolled into town from Barcelona. Bilbao is the largest city in the Basque Country, which spans several provinces in Spain and parts of France.

We spent the first day exploring the city proper. Bilboa has buses, trams, a metro system, and even a funicular that transports passengers up a mountainside. Bilboa's most noteworthy landmark is the Guggenheim Museum. The titanium sheathed masterpiece was designed by the Canadian architect Frank Gehry, who is also the man behind the Experience Music Project in Seattle. The museum revitalized Bilbao's riverside, brought in millions of tourist euros, and set a new standard for contemporary architecture.

On the second day we explored the surroundings in Alain's car. Castillo de Butrón is a fine medieval castle tucked away amidst some hills, while Bermeo is a quiet fishing village with a picturesque port. We crossed the oldest operational transporter bridge in the world at Portugalete. My favourite part of the road trip was exploring San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, a 10th century hermitage perched atop an islet.

We dined at some of the finest restaurants in the region. Lunch was at a traditional restaurant that oozed character, housed within a former mill. Dinner was in the exquisite beach town of San Sebastien. The former royal resort is located only 20 kilometers from the French border. Like plastic surgery clinics in Seoul, Michelin starred restaurants can be found on almost any street corner in San Sebastien.


“Travel only with thy equals or thy betters; if there are none, travel alone.” – The Dhammapada

January 03, 2013

Lingua España

Minutes before the clock struck midnight (GMT+1), I landed in Barcelona. I caught a bus to Plaza Catalunya, the epicentre of the city. My hostel was less than fifty meters from where I was standing, but no one had a clue when I asked them for the street on which it was located. The English skills were painfully lacking, mirroring the level found in China and South Korea. 

However, there were some people who spoke English to me that night. Among them were the hostel staff, African guys offering to sell me drugs, and Pakistani guys offering to sell me everything else. All the inhabitants of Spain are not monolingual though, as many languages are in use within the country. 

In Barcelona, Catalan is the language of choice. The majority of the nation speaks Castinal, which is what is commonly referred to as Spanish. Both these Romance languages are easy to understand, or at least to read, for a man of my linguistic capabilities. By combining my vaunted English skills with the rudimentary French I had learnt in school, it was simple enough to make out what was written on the signage.

Bilboa is Basque country. The Basque language, Euskara, is completely unrelated to the Romance languages. It is a language isolate like Korean, as no identifiable ancestor language from which it could have descended from has been pinpointed so far. There are tales of Viking marauders leaving behind traces of their language in the Basque region, but many other theories about its origins are also in circulation. 


"You have the same birthday as me! You must be a good person." - Portuguese beauty staffing the hostel check-in counter