the river is rising

A quick post from an air-conditioned internet cafe in Banglamphu, Bangkok, two metres away from a coffee machine (I wasn’t planning on finding one, I just must have a Melbournian magnet for them).  Bangkok and other parts of Thailand are facing the worst floods in decades.  The Chao Phraya River here is swollen and heavy – banks, jewellery stores, hotels and a few other businesses are quickly building little 1-2 foot high concrete barriers, or building barriers with sandbags at the storefront.  You step over them to get inside.  Unsurprisingly, no-one seems put out or panicked or angry about it.  It’s Thailand after all.

My hotel – Bhiman Inn – is a modest, reasonable small-ish mid-range joint about 10 mins walk from Khao San Rd.  Luckily.  That infamous strip is everything I’ve heard and worse.  Neo-colonial consumerist brothel.  Staff hold up signs that say they don’t ask for ID; every few steps someone is offering to sell you something (though they do tend to back off when you say no…); men of all ages and backgrounds walk around blankly arguing with their Thai “girlfriends”.  Fascinating to walk down, but I wouldn’t want to be there.

Bangkok is a mystery.  All cities are of course.  But this one feels experienced in presenting itself and hiding itself at the same time.  The typical pan-Asian concrete blocks and advertising hoardings, franchises, footpath traders, sizzling food-stalls, dogs and cats and motorcycles and more makeshift powerlines than you can imagine.  Pedestrian traffic-flow is smooth, polite and calm.  As are the roads.  And the parks are mysteriously meticulously clean.  There is a long history of cross-cultural engagement and tourism here; people of all backgrounds are here; Thais rarely bat an eyelid at outsiders, they just go about their lives.

I’ve visited a few temples, parks, the National Museum, bustling streets and back-streets, and missed a few things.  It’s only a 2-day stop really, so there’s not much I can see or understand in that time.  Today, I’ll try to find the Forensics Museum (!), and prepare for Chennai.  Speaking of medical tourism, an ad in the Bangkok Post (english-language) Classifieds offered breast enlargement, liposuction and other procedures, and said foreigners are charged the same as Thai people.  One of Bangkok’s local tourism magazines devote an entire column to medical travel.  How visible is it in India?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PS I found the Forensics Museum.  Truly fascinating on many levels – gruesome to the point of stomach churning, but haunting, mysterious and just plain odd.

new india tourism slogans

In Hampi, Rachael and I decided it would be a good idea to rent bicycles for a day, ride to a nearby village and back.  For reasons which will soon become apparent, on the way back, Rachael said the day was “a bit traumatic but interesting”.  That has now become our unofficial new tourism slogan for India.  I can see the advertisements now.  Incredible India just doesn’t capture it.  The other slogan we accidentally came up with is, “it gets hot and everything smells of poo”, but that’s got even less chance of getting up.

Anyway, Hampi.  We took an overnight bus from Hyderabad, ironically named a “sleeper bus”.  Someone must have slept, because there was snoring, but we didn’t really.  Still, fascinating to see the arid, red-earthed Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka countryside up close, even in a daze.  We stop at village chai stalls under moonlight – men smoke and drink chai, throw their plastic cups on the road, half the bus pisses next to it, stray dogs wander around us, sniffing.

Approaching Hampi is jaw-dropping.  Impossibly balanced arrangements of boulders rise up from the hills, hugging clusters of temples from around the 15th century, surrounded by vast fields of rice and coconut palms.  In a way, the terrain reminds me of the outback, but its also somehow tropical and lush.  Not surprising that temples are built, as responses to the place itself – very human attempts to concretise something hinted at in stone.  A guide we had at Konark quoted Tagore saying “the language of stones defeats the language of men”, referring to the Sun Temple, but here it is entirely accurate.  A few photos for proof…

 

Hampi's boulders and rice-fields
Hampi's boulders and rice-fields

 

Brooding Hampi monkey
Brooding Hampi monkey

 

Temple built into and from stone...
Temple built into and from stone...

 

Lotus Mahal, Hampi
Lotus Mahal, Hampi

 

 

 

 

 

So, partly because of the torpor-inducing heat, but mostly because of its seductive and haunting beauty, we stayed in Hampi for about a week.  Just to mention – if you’re planning on going, I’d recommend staying on the other side of the river – it’s quieter and less touristy, though in Hampi, it’s all a bit touristy.  It captures perfectlly the dilemma of tourism – a beautiful place draws people who can afford to come, the locals in their desperate poverty flock to sell souvenirs and rickshaw tours and familiar food, and the whole dynamic can feel unavoidably tainted.  On our bike ride, as soon as we arrived, we had children run up to us, begging to be given pens or bags for school, or chocolate.  A reflex action.

If you stay on the other side, avoid Mowgli.  Stay somewhere more intimate and personal, less of a business, if you know what I mean.  If you feel you want the manic energy of the bazaar side, I’d recommend Vishnu Guest House.  Beautiful people, simple basic clean rooms, and almost quiet!

Hampi was very nice to us.  We met some lovely fellow travellers, people we had real affinities with.  We took way too many photos.  But who could blame us?  Boulders created by sheer erosion, shaped in ways modernist sculptors would be jealous of.  Ochre earth, vivid greens, the sounds of frogs, and the sight of kingfishers, cows, oxen, and humans in all their ragged, absurd behaviours.  So many little stories…

 

A friendly army man at "Mango Tree" restaurant
A friendly army man at "Mango Tree" restaurant

 

The things you can fit on a ferryboat...
The things you can fit on a ferryboat...

 

Homes built into the ruins, Hampi
Homes built into the ruins, Hampi

gods and money

Bhubaneswar is the capital of Orissa, and is known as the city of temples – there were once thousands; now only a fraction remain, but that’s still a lot.  After a 7 hour train trip from Kolkata, arriving in Bhubaneswar was pretty much what I expected – hectic knots of traffic, noise, fumes, that melange of industry and poverty I’ve become almost used to.  So, after one night, Rachael and I decided to just spend one good day there, then move on.

So, of course, we had to see a few temples.  From our hotel to the closest group of temples was about 2 kms, but a long long way, swerving and ducking and ignoring touts and dust.  Every second man has a cycle rickshaw and wants to take you around.  We rejected quite a few, until we stopped for a breather, looking lost, and a gentle, scrawny, bespectacled, middle-aged man pulled over.  He kept insisting he’d show us where to go, no charge, no money, he knew Bhubaneswar.  So, we turned to each other with the same thought in mind – he seems like a genuine soul, let’s give him a few rupees, let his wiry undernourished body carry our able bodies around.  Yes, that strange combination of feeling guilty and supportive at the same time.

Orissan temple architecture is astoundingly complex, dense, detailed work.  The two buildings we saw are sandstone structures from the 7th and 11th century (correct me…); quite small, pyramid-like in shape, each square inch adorned with figures, scenes, animals, gods, and so on.  Astonishing.  We were shown around the first by a young man, who seemed quite devout, knew quite a bit about it’s history and significance.  He was also quite a fan of Ricky Ponting, and really wanted Australian coins (seems to be a phenomenon here…).

The second temple was our encounter with the other religion here.  Our self-appointed guide, I could probably sum up, was a sweaty man.  He spent most of his time pointing out the kama sutra scenes, asking if we knew what a lingum was, directing all his energy and talk towards Rachael, ignoring me.  He just kept talking and talking, sweating and leering.  Eek.  After quite a while, our rickshaw guy waiting patiently, we decided to go, and our guide kept wanting money, more money, no that’s each not for both of us, oh but I’m giving you a discoutn, etc.  We were tired, just wanted to go back to our hotel and take a shower, so gave him the 1,000 rupees he asked for, regretting it almost instantly.  The religion of ancient India, and the religion of money…

Don't take a tour with this man
Don't take a tour with this man

Our rickshaw man (wish I knew his name) asked what we paid, so we told him, and he said “he doesn’t work, I work!”, kept proudly cycling us along with the sweat of his brow.  We asked if he’d been doing it a long time, and from what I could make out, he’d only started recently – he used to work in the public service for the government, but got laid off.  We watched his sweaty back, his cracked and dusty sandalled feet, his straining limbs.  Heartbreaking.  We offered him water, he wouldn’t take it.  At one stage, as the road was getting harder, the sun hotter, he stopped, got off the bike, and pulled us along.  We wanted to get out, but kept feeling it was better to just pay him well.  In the end, we got out a block before our hotel, while he protested he could take us all the way.

We paid him the same as our guide.  Placing two large notes in his thin hands, we looked into his eyes, and he seemed really grateful, not just for the money, I think, but that there’d been some genuine human encounter.  I could almost weep now, remembering him.  Rachael and I just hope he used the money to take a day off, yet somehow I doubt it.

You encounter so much poverty and subsistence in India, you can almost get used to it.  You become hard.  I become hard, that is.  You have to.  But when it’s a real person, with a story, a life, struggling, who gazes into your eyes and is generous and proud, it puts a little crack in your armour.