Posts tagged ‘Year Off’
The speed train from London whisks me past the fertile green slopes of the midlands on my journey northward to Scotland. The flourishing green parcels of earth are divided by hedges and rock walls falling in on themselves. Sheep graze lazily on the unending feast before their eyes. Trees speckle across the land. It seems that dirt roads, which lead to no particular place, get little use as people are nowhere to be seen.
Suddenly fields of bright yellow waken tired eyes. Canola flowers are in full bloom and happily glisten in the afternoon sun. The train whistle blows as we approach a small village. On both the left and right water emerges on either side of the train….I know I am in Scotland and from that time on the presence of water on the land never really disappeared.
I continued on bus up through the highlands. There were freshwater lakes, flowing rivers or saltwater firths observable from almost any viewpoint. The peat moss marshland covering the highlands were sponges for all liquid and a mistake to step upon.
Just look at the landscape before you and keep your feet safely on the dry path. Imagine the heather that would bloom in the fall from the small clumps now sitting everywhere on the marsh. All the brown would turn to carpets of purple covering the hills. But I would have to return to see that glory. My treat for this season was the blanket of Scottish Blue Bells in the green meadows under the protective trees.
“The winter was long and it seemed we had no spring this year….So, all the blue bells came out all at once. They are glorious. Wouldn’t ya say?” Our guide relays to us as we watch the view pass by our window.
I loved every part of Scotland and it’s special geography. It is so open and quiet. I have never seen so many shades of green. Amidst the trees and on the hills mustard yellow scotch broom flourishes. Castles and stone towers remind us of ancient days. Dogs are happy at play in the forest or found walking themselves on well trodden paths. Paved roads are narrow and one vehicle must choose to pull over and give way to oncoming traffic.
Centuries ago it was considered a hard land to reach with unknown natural resources and a fighting people; therefore, the Romans decided to leave this “worthless” land to its “unruly” inhabitants. However, the Romans were mistaken.
It seems that the north did prove to be a challenge to live in without the modern conveniences of electricity and transportation; but, the Scottish were survivors. The people believed that they did not own the land but that they belonged to the land; hard working, resilient people who lived off the earth and created their own unique culture.
They are a people of story tellers and not “Disney tales” mind you. Most tales include mythological creatures such as elves, fairies or water creatures. The legends often explain geological formations or historical events. Often the stories do not conclude with happy endings. I learned from my guide that if I ever see an elf, who often does not have the best interest of others, it would be better not to trust what he had to say.
The people here were relatively free until the English decided to take an interest in the north. My heart ached as I heard their stories and the struggle for freedom and torture endured. In fact, it is a triumph to their people that anyone survived the mass cleansing of their culture after the last Jacobite uprising.
Scotsman were sold as slaves, forbidden to speak their language, play bagpipes or wear their traditional dress. They were not allowed to gather in groups of more then three, even among immediate family. The land, families lived for generations, was given to English Lords. Many, especially any that were part of the last uprising against the English, were killed. In fact, it was attempted to eradicate entire clans by death during that time.
Many immigrated to other countries such as America, Australia and Canada. Scotsmen continued to keep their traditions alive in other parts of the world. It is amazing that the people found a way to save and preserve their culture. I found that the people in this country are some of the friendliest in all the world. It is a culture that moves on from challenges or mistreatment and does not harbor grudges.
This fall people have an opportunity to vote to make Scotland a independent country separate from the United Kingdom. It will be interesting to see how the people choose to vote. A country that fought so long and shed so much blood over this land are now free to simply cast a ballot for independence. However, when I asked locals what they think of the upcoming vote the reaction is mixed.
Everyone will say, “we are independent” and then they will point out that they ‘have a separate educational system, their own Scottish courts and laws and they have their own Scottish pound.’ The Scottish people are very proud of the ways in which they are different and independent from England. On the other hand, they recognize some things “may be better together” when it comes to a standing army or banking system. From a political viewpoint, people will say that the atrocities of the English “was a long time ago” and the current system “works okay” for now.
Yet, it was curious that I was not on one walking tour that a guide would not tease, “Do we have any English here with us today?” As no one ever raised their hand the guide would add, “Well if there are, they would not admit it. If there are English here, welcome to the better side.” It was as if the Scottish tour guides joked about the English in the same manner that the English teased the French. Which demonstrates that even the most difficult wounds can heal and people can come together. Yet the slight tinge of “old rivalry” pokes through the teasing and serves as reminders of former enemies.
The history of Scotland is full of sad tales which can also be heard in the music they sing….and Scotland sings. Music is part of the culture. Once used to keep the beat of the work, such as in the long process of making tweed, now the music is everywhere. I was not in one place, small coastal village to large city, that did not have music happening somewhere every night. The quick playing flutist, the bag pipes, the fiddle or guitar….Every night something to lift the soul.
One thing I will miss about Scotland is the Seafood. It is everywhere. Freshest and best mussels I have had in my life. They do Fish & Chips better than anywhere I have tried in England. Beware of the seagulls if you are eating outside; they will circle around until they obtain the courage, and that won’t take long, to dive-bomb toward your meal and steal your supper. The fish on my plate was almost an inch thick and a foot long on a large bed of hand-cut fries. Fish & Chips in Scotland is on a whole new level and the seagulls expect your leftovers!
Scotland was everything I dreamed and more. The sheer cliffs down to the sea. The boats on the glimmering waters. The mist that appears out of nowhere, rises up from the water and overtakes the earth. The slow coal train chugs through the marshland and over arched bridges. The music of Caledonia makes one feel like they’re home in this magical, mythical, amazing land of Scotland.
When you buy a bus ticket anywhere in Southeast Asia you never really know what to expect. I find that I always serve myself better by lowering my transportation expectations by several notches in third world countries, even when the local travel agent makes assurances of air conditioning, your own seat, and bathroom stops…..Then maybe you will be pleasantly surprised.
Monique and I waited for our transfer vehicle only to find seven passengers in the back of the tuk tuk. My first thought was, “Here we go again.” After only a couple of issues at the bus station, such as the tour company forgetting to pick up the third companion in our group, we left Luang Prabang only a couple hours late.
After an interesting journey we arrived in record time to Nong Khaiw and hiked the rest of the way into town. We had reserved a lovely bungalow by the river. It is best to reserve accommodations up here, especially in high season, as there is a limited selection.
I was not sure what to expect in Nong Khaiw as my guide book only had two paragraph’s on this place. However, based on recommendations of fellow travelers we decided to explore on without guide book recommendations.
The mountains seem to keep folding one after another outside of this little valley. A river winds through. No one seems to notice or care there is a new tourist in town. When we arrived at our hotel the security guard was asleep. That would be our first real sign of the pace we would find here.
We mellowed out on our balcony and later rented inflated tubes to float down the river. We couldn’t find anyone to pay to drive us to where tourists put the floats in the river so we had to walk. It was the first time a tuk tuk ever refused to take a fair in all my world travels. “His day off.” someone said, as I tried to get the tuk tuk drivers attention. Then the man pointed the dirt road we should walk up.
I did not know why all the locals were smiling until I realized that we would have to carefully step down a steep muddy embankment full of overlapping greenery to get to the river. By the time we reached the water we were all laughing.
Later on we found a tour company to take us mountain biking up the valley the next day. We learned quickly that the gears on the bikes were in a bit of disrepair and only one of my brakes worked. But we figured we could survive one day on the bikes as we were excited to get in the mountains and to get some exercise.
We were able to visit four villages which, as always, were an eye opener and makes one thankful that we can afford to ride bikes in disrepair when other could not.
We saw children caring for children as their parents work in the fields. Other unaccompanied kids were picking up nuts on the side of the road to sell and eat. One of them had an untreated lazy eye. Some boys played soccer from a homemade ball. We found old women carrying heavy loads while many old men found ways to keep their hands busy. Other elderly starred off into the distance and seemed to observed the day away.
All the children seemed to be interested in the cameras we are holding as they, and some adults, want me to take a picture of them and then want me to show them photo. They want to know how they look.
We had asked our guide to fix a vegetarian meal for lunch. Somehow we thought it would be safer. We knew that he had purchase the traditional food wrapped in banana leaves from the market early in the morning. I figured the food was sitting in a warm backpack for at least six hours before lunch.
Our guide cuts down a couple banana leaves for a table and we sit beside the river. “Wow. What do we have?” We asked. “This is eggplant. Here we have noddles. This is sticky rice. Here is river weed. This is fish.” Our guide pointed to each unwrapped item in front of us.” I pick up my noodles and start eating until I notice something brownish. “What this?” “It’s water buffalo blood.” “I thought that this was a vegetarian meal?” I questioned. “It is….No meat.” “I generously offered up my portion of noodles to any takers.”
I think my mother would have been proud that I tried a small amount everything else. However, I must admit that I mainly stayed with the sticky rice for that meal.
That afternoon we would kayak back to Nong Khaiw. It was a pleasant paddle down the river with the green hills around us and the limestone cliffs above. Our guide decides that we should break for a swim. Shortly after pulling our boats on the sandy island we we realized that our guide was completely conked out in one of the kayaks. “What is it with this place? Everyone sleeps on the job.” Monique notices. We all laugh.
When our guide awoke we completed our paddle early enough to meet the sunset back at our hotel. The next day we choose to take the slow boat back down to Luang Prabang.
Several times I thought, “I could spend some time in retirement in this town.” It was one of the first places that I thought someone could get around with a cane or a walker. And well, it seems that it is perfectly fine to take a cat nap on the job. Now, that’s relaxed right there.
“You are going to love it here! Listen to that.” Monquie, a new friend from my Cambodia travels and who arrived a day earlier in Luang Prabang, Laos, stated enthusiastically. “What?” I questioned. “Nothing. No tuk tuk horns, no people asking you to buy anything. Isn’t it great! I feel so relaxed here and I have only been here a day.”
We walked through the night market together and I noticed that she was right. This was the most peaceful it had been outside of my hotel in over two weeks. Walking in front of the vender stalls, the busiest part of town, merchants would only ask if you wanted help if you had stood there awhile.
During my time in Luang Prabang, I spent idle time watching the river and fishermen casting there nets, made trips to see local Buddhist temples, visited local villages, watched the sunset from a wat on the hill (a fun 338 steps to the top) and of course attend another dance/theater performance.
I also visited the small cultural museum and royal palace. The throne room of the royal palace should not be missed, even if “you are not a museum person”. I believe that it rivals any other royal interior I have seen in Southeast Asia. The majority of the throne room is painted red and intricate colored mirrors cover the walls. The mirror images tell the story of the Lao people and their traditions. A grand crystal chandelier hangs from the center of the room. The throne and other furniture about the room are painted in brilliant gold. Unfortunately visitors are not allowed to film the palace but I am sure there are pictures of the palace online if you are interested.
An unexpected surprise in the palace was a gift from President Nixon of the United States to the people of Lao. It was a miniature flag of their country that had went up in Apollo 11, the first manned mission to land on the moon. Also in a glass casing on the plaque were moon rocks from that first mission.
We woke up early to give alms to the monks as is common in Luang Prabang. Every morning at six, monks walk silently down the street with their alms basin. Locals and tourist alike give food alms as they pass on their way.
My favorite three days were spent just outside of Luang Prabang. The first was a wonderful day spent hiking and visiting beside water that fell down into countless aqua pools. The water was perfect for a little swim in the afternoon heat. Monquie and I had also signed up for a Lao cooking class. We started at the market learning how to pick the freshest ingredients then we went to a lovely cooking school outside of town where we each had our own cooking station. I now know how to really roast vegetables and stuff a piece of lemongrass. My favorite day was spent in the jungle learning how to be a mahout or elephant trainer.
It seemed that most travelers had a hard time leaving this town. So many activies if you choose to do any at all. Luang Prabang is not to slow, not to fast paced, it was just right.
Beyond the Temples of Siem Reap are its people.
Hopeful merchants outside every temple parking lot encroaching on weary foreigners. Young children happily visiting until they notice someone entering or leaving a temple. Their eyes turn sad as they count the postcards for sale, “One, two, three…”
Other children in uniforms ride their bicycles to school. We also find locals driving the roads using a variety of mechanical contraptions. Tourist mix in, pedaling or riding tuk-tuk’s to the ancient treasures while others speed by in large tourist buses.
Outside of the main temple circuit, one can see more and more folks farming and going about their daily life away from the main attractions. In the country, families sell goodies they have created by the side of the road such as candy and sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves. Nearby their children play carefree.
This is Siem Reap, beyond the city, between the temples.
Siem Reap is best known for the twelfth century wonder known as Angkor Wat. However, there are more than one hundred temples dating from the ninth to the twelfth century built around this Angkorian capitol which was all but destroyed by the Thai Army in the fourteenth century. Angkor Wat was one of the last temples built during the during this period but is best known as it is both one of the largest and most detailed of them all.
As kings and religions changed over the centuries, so too did the purpose of the temples. However, the line between each religion becomes blended with old traditions and the importance honoring ancestors. Therefore, temples or monuments originally dedicated to Hinduism, Animism or Buddhism may be rededicated with the change in belief system over the years.
Locals break up the temples into three parts; The “Small Circuit” include Angkor Wat, Bayon which is nicknamed “Temple with the Faces” and Ta Prohm nicknamed “The Tomb Raider Temple” as is was made famous by Anglia Jolie’s famous movie, ‘Laura Croft: Tomb Raider’. The “Big Circuit” includes one of my favorites, Preah Khan, which is a very detailed temple with pink highlights and losing a battle against numerous banyan trees towering above the collapsing stones. Further away from the center is the “Roluos Group” which comprises of some of the oldest temples dating from the ninth century.
For the adventurous there are amazing temples further out from these three groups. The greatest of these is Beng Mealea. Here not only the trees but also the moss and jungle seemed to be claiming it for their own.
Most tourists come in groups and just seem to view the highlights. Coming for extra days with your own transportation, waiting for the groups to pass by make the journey more peaceful. It is common to rent a bicycle and pedal from place to place.
I snapped over a thousand photographs in my three day visit to the temples. In reviewing the photos I realize that nothing seems to capture the greatness of it all.
I, like many visitors, arrived early to witness the changing morning colors over Angkor Wat. I was quickly introduced to the steep narrow steps most temples possess. The steps lead up to holy sites that are built higher to be closer to god or heaven.
I must admit that I was nervous climbing up and down some of the steps. Some steps barely achieved three inches in width. A few times, I could feel my toes tighten to hold myself as my fingers gripped tightly to these narrow steps as I mind questioned why I decided to climb to the top.
By the second day of my journey, I notice little restoration work about me as I become more and more aware of the impact thousands of tourist a day are having on these sites.
At one temple, I see three workers vainly attempt some reconstruction without any heavy equipment. At the same site I notice bus loads of tourist crawling all over one of the oldest temples, Beng Mealea, in order to capture “that perfect photo”. The stones are not stable, but one by one they wait their turn and crawl over to the place for their chance at the same photograph and creating additional damage along the way. I begin to wonder why the government is not doing more restoration and blocking off areas to preserve the temples for future generations.
On the last day I hired a personal guide to help answer questions I have had about the temples and the people surrounding Siem Reap. At the end of the day I asked, “What do you want me to know about this place before I leave?” I was shocked to learn his answer. “Where is your ticket?” I reached in my bag and pulled out my three day Angkor World Heritage Pass. “Look at the symbol at the bottom.” He pointed to a pink symbol and under it had the words ‘SOKHA HOTEL Co., LTD’.
“What does that mean?” I asked. My guide explained that the government had a contract that allows most of the revenues from these Cambodian treasures to be claimed by this company which little, if any, goes to support reconstruction or to help the people of Cambodia. In my guides opinion, due to government corruption it is unlikely that these contracts will be changed to support the people of Cambodia or the temples located here.
I titled this blog, “Don’t Walk, Run To See The Wonders of Siem Reap”, because with little interest or financial resources to restore this structures, as the country is still rebuilding from the wrecking ball of the Khmer Rouge, I fear that the destruction of the temples will continue over time as the number of tourist mount. So, do come quickly if you are eager to see the temples as unrestricted as I have been able to enjoy. However, please be aware of your presence here and please do your part minimize your lasting footprint on the area.
The capitol of Cambodia is a raw and bustling entanglement of street venders, vehicles, businessmen, bicycles and sidewalk restaurants. Motorbike and tuk tuk drivers ask each passerby if they need a ride. Police sit in corner restaurants or stand by street intersections and observe the daily chaos.
As I walk around the city there is an unmistakeable friendliness that fills the air. Despite the poverty and long working hours of the people there are smiles everywhere. People want to get to know you. As I walked to the river one tuk tuk driver asked if I wanted a ride, “Tuk tuk?” “No, I am walking.” As point my index and middle finder down and move them back and forth as legs walking. “Oh….. Walking!” The driver pauses smiles and adds, “Walking is good too.”
Highlights in Phnom Pen include visiting the Royal Palace, National History Museum and walking by the river. It was a meaningful experience to visit the museums and memorial for the the victims of Pol Pots reign. Above all however, I enjoyed attending two Cambodian Living Arts (CLA) performances at the National Museum.
The CLA was formed in 1998 by Arn Chorn-Pond, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge genocide. About ninety percent of Cambodia’s artists were killed during the reign of Khmer Rouge and the traditional arts were at risk of extinction. The CLA was formed to keep the traditional Cambodian arts alive with a focus of providing opportunities for under privileged children to learn the arts and further pursue their educational endeavors.
My time in the capitol city proved that people are resilient and where there is a spark, a flame can be rekindled in the human spirit.