#3£9/12/16 -The journey begins
So the team is assembled in Thailand (this isn’t a photo of us although jet lag can do strange things). Ed met us at the airport, and we had a great first evening bonding over delicious Thai food in a local restaurant, and a few Singha beers. Yannis and Ed have met for the first time and are getting on well with each other – a good start. Today we took the public boat down the Chao Praya river to Wat Arun (the Temple of the Dawn), covered in glass tiles that catch all the light. We then crossed the river to Wat Po, the home of the reclining Buda and the Thai Massage school. The two wise people in the photo are demonstrating all their learning by doing some self massage, the one on the left working on the main pressure points in the arm, the one on the right doing the correct stretch for the back – you see, we have learnt a lot already.
9/12/16 – Good luck
Thai people say that for a person who has never been before to Thailand it is really important to visit a temple for having good luck in his/her life. Michael has been several times in Thailand, and Ed all his life, so it was I (Yannis) the only one who needed to get a good luck aura… So as you can imagine the first deed of the day was to visit a temple, there are so many in Thailand and really you can’t decide which one to choose, one more beautiful than the other (:D) Our first was the Temple of the Dawn (Was Arun) which is auspicious for starting something new. We are not here to talk about religion or to support any, everything is a part of our lives and it is always nice to respect the beliefs of others whatever they are; we need not be prejudiced at all. Don’t forget you can learn from a new culture, ethos and customs. Why not? That’s the magic of travel, and one of our goals, not only to explore but also to learn.
11/12/16 – Monkey business
At What Khao Tapiak (also known as Monkey Mountain) in Hua Hin. As we climbed higher into the temple complex you first see one, then two and suddenly monkeys everywhere, climbing on roofs, grooming each other, mothers looking after babies, and even having sex. They are long-tailed macaques and are used to humans and on the whole do not bother you unless you have food on you, in which case beware. Some people fed them nuts and were rewarded by a swarm of monkeys surrounding them. If you stay still for a while they accept your presence and just get on with their lives. Their noisy behaviour is in contrast to their tranquil surroundings of Budhas and meditation halls. But they have a sacred status, connected to the monkey god Hanuman, who keeps the temple free of demons.
12/12/16 – Nong Ya Plong hot spring
We were the only farang (foreigners) here today. Thai people love hot springs and water falls and love to bathe in them more than the sea. We went to the water source to dip our feet in the hot water and we were met by two kids, one fat and fascinated by Michael’s belly, and one with an American dad and Thai mum (the one on the photo), and who spoke English, fascinated by Yannis and his camera. We were joined by two monks in yellow robes who taught the first kid to say “you are fat”….all in good humour. We then went to a spa pool further down to soak in less hot water. What you might call a typical Thai day out. At the end of the day a taxi truck gave us a ride and the kid in the picture followed, smiling at smile us and kept questioning us about the camera, the tripod, and how thinks worked. Finally he introduced us to his mum and we told her what an exceptional kid she had. Waving at each other at the end, the kid kept smiling at us and that was the precious gift of our day.
Reclining Budha, Ayutthaya – 14/12/16
Among the outstandingly beautiful temple ruins of Ayutthaya, the capital of Siam from 1350 to 1767 before it was razed by the Burmese. By 1700 it was the largest city in the world with over 1 million inhabitants, and was at the hub of trade between China and the rest of Asia. We forget how the cycles of history work, what was the centre becomes the edge. But where once was a trading city is now a spiritual centre with many monasteries, with mainly Thai visitors. This became very real for us today when our tuk tuk driver gave us budhas for round our necks and wished us luck in our lives, an unexpected and heart felt gift. Some healing happened for us today, and we hope it will flow to some friends who need it right now.
15/12/16 – Thai Market
Thai people love markets and we found one next to a rural school seemingly in the middle of nowhere. As usual the main items were food ready to eat, on sticks or packed in small plastic bags; fresh meat and vegetables; inexpensive clothes and recycled spare parts for anything from cars to washing machines. Thais also love to eat, it is hard to see how they stay so slim. They eat all parts of animals, and all sorts of creatures. We learned that in rice growing areas they eat the rats that would eat the rice. In our photo is a guy selling all sorts of grubs and insects which he was keen for us to try.
16/12/16 – Spiritual day
Today was the monk ceremony for Ed’s grandmother who died recently aged 83. This was a celebration for the extended family, including all those who could not make the cremation. It took place at her house. Preparations started the day before to prepare lots of food. Then at 10.00 am the monks from the local monastery arrived and sat inside the house with the closest family. The rest of us sat outside. For the first hour they chanted prayers in Pali- Sanskrit, ending with a more personal prayer in Thai for the family which moved all of those around us. In true Thai style the atmosphere was both formal (we all sat with hands in prayer position) and informal as peopled also chatted with each other and children played together. Next came food. We all put rice into the monks’ rice bowls and all waited for the monks to eat first. Then it was the turn of everyone else. The delicious home cooked food was laid out in buffet style…and innovation by Ed after his experience in hotels, now an innovation copied apparently at all local ceremonies. After food more prayers. Then paper flowers were thrown for people to catch for good luck, all in a rainbow of colours. Then the senior monk came out and blessed us each individually by sprinkling water on our heads. At midday with great care taken the monks left, the senior one touching Yannis on the arm and wishing him good luck for his future, a special moment he will remember. As soon as they had left loud Thai music began to play, time for a party with beer and whiskey, lots of joking, fun and warm connection. All in all Ed’s grandmother had a very good send off from her family and friends, and we were priviledged to be welcomed so warmly and genuinely by the family to share it with them.
17/12/16 – Ed’s farm
Staying at Ed’s (Nucha Ngamsom – our travel organiser) fish and prawn farm. It is such a beautiful location, the sky is immense, and the tranquility immediately relaxing. Although Ed has a new house and homestay, the old house pictured is still used by family or farm workers. We have been made so welcome here not just by Ed, but by his mother and father, and his 11 year old son. In the ponds he is growing sea bass, a process taking four months before they reach local restaurants. Although the sea is close by, with tourists and restaurants, the farm seems part of a different world where time stands still and there is time to just stop the busy feeling of the world and feel the peace of this beautiful spot. If you ever have the chance, come and stay here.
18/12/16 – Free spirit
Another day finished, time is flitting so quickly, the sunset again is playing with the horizon, creating its personal colour palette. So many blues, so many reflections, I was thrilled, I guess my friends were too, it is impossible not to be anyway. Walking along the beach people was looking at the sunset too, probably thinking something personal or having reminiscences from their past, who knows? They had some inspiring in their eyes. The boy… the kid was absorbed in playing with the sand, he didn’t even take a look at the sunset, he was just playing and maybe I know why .. no worries, no reason to be sad, carefree, happiness it is called. My click froze the moment in time where, graceful as a dancer, he threw sand into the air as if part of a choreographed piece.
(zoom in suggested)
20/12/16 – Ethical Elephant Camp
Visiting Baan Kwan Chang (Elephant Conservation Centre) in Koh Chang (Elephant Island). We made a new friend, an elephant called Kintala, she is 35 years old, and loves eating and splashing in water. She has been here for 5 years after being retired from agricultural work in Surin Province. After their working lives have finished it is not economical to take care of them anymore. Her Mahout (the person who takes personal care of the elephant) is called Tui. He is in his early 20s and has taken care of Kintala for five years. They have a special language for talking to elephants and it was obvious they have a strong bond. This camp is one of the good guys (from what we learned from the local people) who actively work to take care of the animals. We saw saw the huts where Mahout and elephant eat and sleep together.
21/12/16 – Sunset at Kai Bae
Sometimes you look for a photo and sometimes a photo finds you. This evening we had already taken photos of the sunset and then came to a beach bar to chill and then came many dramatic colour changes as the sun made its final descent. To the last the sky never failed to amaze. Thailand is an afordable place to relax, only 6€ for a Thai massage, 1.60€ for a beer, 3€ for a Pad Thai with prawns. Even a good simple room with air conditioning is typically only 9€ per person. That is the pleasure of off track travel, enjoying simple authentic experiences and meeting local people. People here smile all the time and are genuinely friendly and welcoming. Day by day the european grumpiness begins to fade.
22/12/16 – Being friend with the fishing nets for a long time
In Thailand people literally live very simply, you understand that from the time you arrive and even more if you have a Thai friend. They always have a big smile and they are very kind, and when I say kind I mean it, I’m still trying to get used to it, they have a very strong bond with their traditions, for example young people do not start eating till the eldest starts first (fair enough), youngers refill your glass of whatever you drink, I tried a lot of times to convince my friend Ed not to do that with me but he couldn’t accept it, this is what he has learnt in his life he said. Why I am telling you that story? Because in Thailand they have strong bonds with everything, the old man who is working on the photo has been doing that work maybe for years or maybe all his life. We visited this small fishing village to see how people live, and how they have built up their floating wooden houses. Simplicity again, traditions, and maybe they are more happy than us who live in big busy cities. I was thinking, in big companies there is always chaos, screaming, anxiousness, complicated situations between co-workers, and the salary is still low (unhappiness). This man was just doing what he knew to do, calmness for him, working with passion that’s what I saw, he is not a rich man, he lives simply in a wooden house next to the river. We let the man continue his work, wasabsorbed by his thoughts and we didn’t want to disturbed him by our presence.anymore.
23/12/16 – Koh Mak
It is the dream of many to find the ideal off track Thai Island. A bit like the search in Alex Garland’s The Beach – an archetypal beach paradise. Eighteen years ago in eastern Thailand it was Koh Samed, ten years ago Koh Chang. Now to find that sort of peace you need to go to Koh Mak or Koh Kood. You can’t take a car with you, there is no ATM machine, just the basics. Thailand has also learnt from past mistakes and permitted development is now strict. Even the journey here is difficult. Ferrys go from about four different piers and the last one from Laem Ngop is at 16.00. At 15.40 we were at Leam Sok, the wrong pier and it looked like we wouldn’t make it. Ed called the place we had booked, and in really Thai style they got the ferry to wait for us, and with Ed’s fast driving we were just 20 minutes late. Everbody was good humoured about it. So we got here and what a beautiful place to be.
Mr Bae – 24/12/16
We have been typical visitors…time at the beach and seeing the nightlife in Pattaya City. Everywhere we went over the last couple of days we saw Mr. Bae pictured today. It was just a coincidence but it became funny. Even when we were lost he bumped into us and showed us where to go. He is one of those people who talks to everybody and seems to be a familiar presence wherever he goes. We found later he has special needs but that people take care of him. We talked to a long term visitor on the beach who was arranging for him to go to the dentist. He also finds fun in whatever he does. In some way he represents the spirit of Pattaya.
25/12/16 – Pattaya
Pattaya is one of the best known cities in Thailand. It started as a fishing village until American soldiers and sailors on leave from the Vietnam war needed a place for R&R (rest and recreation). And that is its main function still…R&R for both Thais and foreigners. It has the buggest ex-pat community, and is now such a favourite with Russians that Russian has replaced English on many menus. In times of easier money, foreigners seeing a good opportunity and less environmental awareness Pattaya quickly filled with high rise hotels and condominiums and general over development, a mistake that was not repeated on other Thai beaches. It has contributed to many problems. The drainage system is terrible and makes for a distinctive smell. Cutting trees has caused beach erosion. However is has a busy and optimistic vibe. It is a city that never sleeps.
26/12/16 – Simple Thai Life
Another photo from Salak Phet fishing village on Koh Chang. It is the epitome of a traditional way of living virtually unchanged over the years, except for the arrival of flat screen TVs and mobile phones. It is populated by all from the very old to the very young. Community life is very important. This is based on certain core principles. The first is to be kreng jai which means to be ‘considerate’. This is a great notion, which can also be frustrating to outsiders, people say yes so not to offend, but cannot do what is asked; they wait for others to make decisions usually with the phrase in Thai which says “up to you”, and then explain why your decision isn’t a good one. The second principle is to be supahp, which means ‘polite’, and Thais will go out of their way to be so, trying to talk softly, not getting upset or angry (although you can sometimes see things simmering under the surface). Politesness also extends to clothes – going to many places requires ‘polite shoes’ which cover the feet and ankles. People of substance show their politeness by wearing suits and ties or uniforms even on the hottest of days. The third principle is to be sa-at, which is ‘clean’. This especially relates to the body, and people will shower several times a day, as the lady in the photograph has just done, using the traditional water tank and scoop to do it. All of this helps with community life and the peaceful atmosphere we experienced here.
28/12/16 – Haew Suwat waterfall, Khao Yai
Haew Suwat waterfall was made famous as the one Leonardo di Caprio had to jump off in the film The Beach. Now jumping and swimming are banned. It is a 20 meter drop into a deep pool below. The visitors are mainly Thais who have a love affair with waterfalls and hot springs. The sound of the water is certainly calming. The waterfall is inside Khao Yai National Park famous for its free roaming wildlife, including tigers, which we never bumped into. Khao Yai is cold…even we had to put on jackets. Some visitors are serious photographers and birders with impressive zoom lenses and anti leech leggings. Others just seek the fantasy of a European winter and stay in hotels with Italian names…or one to look like a mini Scottish castle. The waterfall is really worth seeing whether or not it has been in a film. Yannis courageously made his way across slippery rocks to take the photo from behind the falls.
29/12/16 – White Budha, Wat Theppitak Punnaram, Nakhon Ratchasima
This is one of the most photographed in Thailand, but is actuall not in any main tourist centre. It is off the southbound carriageway of busy Highway 2 in northeastern Thailand. But impressive it is at 45 meters tall (representing the 45 years Budha spent teaching), surrounded by lush green vegetation on the side of a mountain at an elevation of 112 meters. Pilgrims climb the 1250 steps to reach with each one a higher level of consciousness (and exhaustion!). The temple is a busy place where Thai visitors (I am sure we were the only foreigners) spend the day, bringing food or buying some from a food stall, asking questions to one of the monks, and generally being sociable. In Thailand even the sacred can be fun.
01/01/17 – Happy New Year, from Travels Off Track!!!
New Year on Patong Beach in Phuket. It was spectacular. The sky was filled for hours with a constant stream of khom loy or khom fai, paper lanterns released into the sky with a wish for the future. The sky was full of good wishes. The celebrations we were told would be more low key because of the period of mourning for the king, but in the end nothing gets in the way of a party as thousands of revellers made their way to the beach, many spraying annoying sticky string on all around them for fun. Once at the beach everybody was good natured and all joined in the countdown to the New Year 2017 and the fireworks began. We hope the lantern here brings good wishes to you for 2017.
02/01/17 – A strong bond between a man and his boat
By longtail boat to Khao Phing Kan, one of the many small islands in Phang Nga bay northeast of Phuket. They are volcanic limestone towers which have become an iconic image of Thailand. Khao Phing Kan was made famous by the 1974 James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun where it became the secret base of Scaramanga. The location team chose well. With a hidden beach and many caves you can still imagine it as it was in the film, except that where the entrace to the secret base one one is now a toilet. It is an amazing setting. Rather than take a group tour we made our own way to the pier and hired our own boat at a fraction of the cost. It meant we could decide where to go and how long to stay. Because most tourists come in organised groups the boat owners speak little English. But they are skilled boat men, navigating us smoothly over a choppy sea. While we got off to look around time was taken to clean the boat and share stories with friends. It wasn’t James Bond that stuck in our minds, but the bond between boat and owner. The local village sits on stilts by the mangrove fringes of an estuary. The longtail boats are also used for fishing. We took our time and were the last people back to the pier.
26/12/16 – Throwback
The sheer commercialisation of Phuket made us think back to the simplicity of Salakphet on Koh Chang. On the beaches of Phuket there is not much of real Thai life left. Locals don’t have the usual smiles. Just a barrage of “Welcome, welcome”, “Where you go?”, “You want to buy?”. Prices here are at least 30% higher than elsewhere. Even Thais are being driven out by cheaper workers from Burma and Cambodia. Only Phuket Town where we stayed has a feeling of normality. It is interesting to see what happens when ‘money’ becomes the overriding purpose of a place rather than finding a balanced way of living.
I am sure the fishing village has a lot to teach us.
2/01/17 – Say Cheese
Thailand is often called The Land of Smiles. The boatman here has a great smile – he seems to be proud of his teeth. But the Thai smile (yim in Thai) has a greater set of meanings than the European one, and you can soon spot different ones. According to Working With The Thais: A Guide to Managing in Thailand by Henry Holmes and Suchada Tangtongtavy, the ‘top 13’ identified Thai Smiles are: 1. Yim thang nam taa: The “I’m so happy” smile. 2. Yim thak thaai: The “polite” smile for someone you barely know. 3. Yim cheun chom: The “I admire you” smile. 4. Fuen Yim: The stiff smile, also known as the “I should laugh at the joke though it’s not funny” smile. 5. Yim mee lessanai: The smile which masks something wicked in your mind. 6. Yim yaw: The “I told you so” smile. 7. Yim yae-yae: The “I know things look pretty bad but there’s no point in crying over spilt milk” smile. 8. Yim sao: The sad smile. 9. Yim haeng: The dry smile, also known as the “I know I owe you the money but I don’t have it” smile. 10. Yim thak thaan: The “I disagree with you” smile, also known as the “You can go ahead and propose it but your idea’s no good” smile. 11. Yim cheua-cheuan: The “I am the winner” smile. 12. Yim soo: “smiling in the face of an impossible struggle” smile. 13. Yim mai awk: The “I’m trying to smile but can’t” smile. A few of these could be a candidate for The Hotel Receptionist Smile, “I can’t find your booking but if I smile you might leave and go to another hotel” or the “I have no idea what to do” smile. The boatman’s smile was the genuine happy one and it lit us up.
Everything can be a piece of art
Everything can be a piece of art, boats, buses, lorries, ordinary things. We are not talking graffiti here, but a real expression of beauty. In fact even Thai graffiti is beautiful. Sometimes it expresses the spirit of the object, sometimes for protection (too beautiful to be harmed), but mostly it is art, just aesthetically pleasing to the eye.
Klaeng has a unique beauty
The sky is big today,
Big clouds touched by winter sun.
A sky bigger than the sea
or the small islands.
It lets us feel how small we are,
how small our worries and fears.
We are not the centre of the world.
In minutes all will change.
And I am reminded of the old adage
“This too shall pass”
09/11/17 – At the end of the monsoon
We have had a week of monsoon rain both in the south of Thailand and until today in Bangkok. As everybody will tell you, this should be the dry season, but every year the rain encroaches more, this year with severe flooding, and many cancelled flights, trains and buses. But at least the rain is not the hanging grey of Europe and brings out unexpected colours and smells, flowers you have never seen before, and in the hot weather not uncomfortable to walk in. In fact like taking a refreshing shower. Rain also changes people’s relationships as people huddle together, and as the rain subsides people again venture out into a clean and refreshed world.
10/01/17 – China Town
Located in the Yaowarat district this is one of the most traditional area of Bangkok and is in fact the oldest.There was a Chinese trading community before Bangkok became the capital in 1782. Like many diaspora communities, it is probably more traditional than modern China. It is a delight to all the senses especially the distinctive colours and smells. The shop houses have their original wooden fittings of dark wood which gives a timeless feel. The merchandise is often stored in wooden draws or big pots. It is buzzing with trade, spice shops with sacks full of exotic smells, herb and tea shops, coffin makers, endless markets and many gold shops. Also there are second hand stalls selling old stuff for next to nothing. So different to the air conditioned shopping malls taking over central Bangkok. The many Chinese street signs and the appartment blocks covered in washing give the feel of Hong Kong. In the side streets are many old houses like the one pictured today, which still have a feel of an unbroken link to the past.
11/01/17 – Traditional way of selling
Alongside the new glossy buildings of Bangkok are street sellers, very important to locals. Many are various types of food, and favourites include noodle soup, pad thai, rice dishes, fruit, fried insects, and many sweet dishes. Others include shoe menders, cosmetics and lottery tickets. The means of selling varies from well kitted out carts and stalls to two baskets suspended from a bamboo pole as here. As far as we have experienced food has been fresh and delicious, and often better than restaurants. Sellers bring life to the streets and a cheaper option to modern city life.
Throwback – Koh Chang, the light blue place
Piers and jetties always attract the eye, especially empty ones with no signs. What type of boat comes here? What is its destination? Maybe a boat from a magical realm or from a scene in an action movie. Jetties always have a sense of promise, or hope or escape. Always a sense of future. This one is a substancial construction in the middle of nowhere in Koh Chang. Probably part of a development that didn’t get built yet. Meanwhile it can be a gateway to our dreams.
16/01/17 – Floating market
Taling Chan floating market is not as well known as some of the others. In fact two taxi drivers refused to take us there and the third one had the savvy to ask his office for directions. There aren’t many markets left on the main Bangkok canal system, in fact some are many kilometers from Bangkok centre. Taling Chan is a local weekend market and locals outnumber tourists. Many of the stalls are fresh vegetables, and the lady here was sellibg live snakes, tiny turtles and frogs for cooking Thai delicacies. Even the homemade crafts are individual, not the familiar items you see in most markets this season. The local temple is simple with a few young monks and a couple of older ones, a couple of ancient dogs and lots of chickens.
17/01/17 – Something unexpected
In the beautiful province of Uthai Thani on the borders of Thailand and Burma. We spent the morning jungle trekking in the footsteps of dinosaurs. Then after a visit to a hot spring and a traditional silk weaving village we had an arrangement to meet a guy who would take us to meet people from a Karen hill tribe. The Karen people live in a region that spans Burma and Thailand. They have their own culture and languages. They have not had an easy time, particularly in Burma, and keep themselves apart. The best known are the Padaung tribe whose women wear numerous neck rings, often referred to as the long neck people. We waited at the meeting point by the side of a main road for some twenty minutes as the guy was buying chillies in the market. He arrived and we left in convoy. It was never certain that we would meet them. Maybe it woul be too dark to drive up the mountain. Maybe they would still be at a Karen craft market. We were on the trail. We stopped from time to time for the latest on where we could meet. In the end we only met these two lovely girls in their traditional costumes who were still at the Karen market with their father. We couln’t have found more charming representatives of the Karen.
Cyclists in mourning
Many Thai people wear black in mourning for the death of their much loved king. We have noticed this a lot in rural Thailand. The Grand Palace in Bangkok is closed to normal visitors and is just open to prople who want to go inside to sign a book of condolence. It can take up to three hours in the slow moving queue. Free water and juice stations have been set up to keep people going in the hot sun by the white painted walls of the palace. It is a moving pageant in black and white. People come by the bus load from outlying provinces, starting very early in the morning and probably visiting a temple on the way back. Amongst all of this a group from a cycling club pedalled in, of course with black cycling helmets, to pay their respects together. They looked like they had somehow strayed in from a cycling tour. In mourning the old world and the modern world come together.
21/01/2017 – A tribute to experience
This beautiful lady is a tribute to many Cambodians of her generation probably born into a newly independent Cambodia (Independence 1953), the partial occupation by the North Vietnamese in the 1970’s and carpet bombing by President Nixon leading to support for the Khmer Rouge. From 1975 to 1979 she must have survived the totalitarian dictatorship of Pol Pot, who made urban dwellers move to the countryside to work in collective farms and forced labour. Executions, hard working conditions, malnutrition and poor medical care caused the deaths of approximately 25 % of the Cambodian population, an estimated 2 to 3 million people (out of a population of slightly over 8 million). She is a survivor. She now lives in a more prosperous and hopeful Cambodia which has only existed since 1993. We hope her experience is now a peaceful one.
24/01/17 – The fisherman
Tonle Sap (Great Lake) is a seasonally flooding freshwater lake at the heart of Cambodia. It rises from 2700 sq. km to 16,000 sq. km at its peak. Its varied and extremely productive ecosystem is of vital economic importance to Cambodia as it was at the height of the Khmer Empire. Taking a wooden boat from Siem Reap you can see houses on tall stilts to accommodate the floods and the floating villages of many ethnic Vietnamese and Cham communities, with their own floating chuches, schools, markets, library and even floating basketball court. People make their living by fishing (The lake produces about 400,000 tonnes of fish per year). As we are now in the dry season people can fish from the dry banks that emerge from the mangroves, skillfully throwing nets and from what we could see, bringing up a haul of fish every time. A hard job in the hot Cambodian sun and the muddy brown water. A timeless picture linking past and present.
26/01/17 – Serenity
Over time Siem Reap has become more and more commercialised, people literally chasing a dollar. Tuk tuk drivers persistently ask you if you need one, even if they have just seen you get out of another one. We were in a night market when a power cut plunged us into total darkness, out of which came a voice “You want to buy something”. This goes right to the very top. Much of the key tourist infrastructure is outsourced or leased to private companies (like Angkor Wat ticket sales, or the pier for Ton le Sap), so ordinary people often feel that they are not getting their fair share of tourist income, so they need their own ways to get as much as possible. From next month Angkor entry tickets will rise from $20 to $37 for a one-day pass, and from $40 to $62 for a three-day pass. Other prices are sure to follow. Pub Street used to still have a certain elegance, bars with great decor and traditional restaurants. Now it is dominated by noise from dance bars, street sellers and even more guys offering tuk tuks or numerous other services. In amongst all of this the lady in the picture emanated serenity, an inner core of peace. She asked for nothing, but gave much. She represents another way of being which we have been lucky to find, something of the best nature of Cambodia.
Phnom Kulen was once the site of Mahendraparvata, ancient capital of the first Khmer empire. Now it is mainly jungle through which flows the sacred river of a thousand lingas, and many temples and monuments are still hidden. At its high point there is a working temple with a reclining Buddha carved into the peak with a monastery built around it. As you walk around the back of the carving a sign says “Please do not write on the Buddha”, of course this is an open invitation for it to be covered in messages, some spiritual and some profane. The temple attracts pilgrims and beggars alike. You can change dollars into small denomination Riel to distribute to the forty or so beggars who line the long flight of steps…it is good kharma for pilgrims to do this. The pilgrim will not be disappointed, there is a ‘footprint’ of the Budha, an outsize outline of a foot carved into concrete; there is water from the sacred river which (for a donation) a monk will pour over a linga, with which you annoint your head; another monk will offer a personal blessing. A senior monk gives teaching with microphone and loudspeaker. Children run around and the more enterprising will “look after” your shoes (for a tip). We imagine working temples were always like this, vibrant lively places with quiet meditative places within, not the peace and quiet of a modern spa which aims to create a spiritual experience. The pilgrim in the photograph looked very pleased with all she was experiencing.
In most working temples in Cambodia you will find beggars at the temple gate or on the flight of steps leading up to the pagoda. People have lots of opinions about begging, but the connection with temples is centuries old. Even in European monasteries there is a tradition of giving alms. It is a symbiotic relationship. For the giver you make merit by donating, and ensure you do not reincarnate as a poor person. The act of giving, as well as compassion, is important in Buddhism. The receiver is often on the edges of the community, disabled, older widows with no financial support, mothers with children but no money. There is no state support available. Being a temple beggar is an honourable thing. Some say ‘stop giving and they will stop begging’, but for these people asking for alms and receiving help from the monastery is the best they can do in a poor country.