Indian visa

September is a wonderful month to be in Europe. The weather was still beautiful, but the crowds were gone. After packing some gear on my bicycle I set out to visit friends and family. They lived everywhere.

Pencil and paper and renaissance examples.

At my father’s house I sat down to apply for my Indian e-visa. An e-visa, or electronic visa, is a visa that can be obtained over the internet. After the visa is granted it can be collected on arrival at the airport in India. It is much faster than the standard bureaucratic procedure. It took me most of the afternoon and I was still struggling with it after dinner. At first the questions were straightforward and even then there were many surprises. Gender had three options and the form also allowed for a name change. When it came to your country of birth the list to choose from was comprehensive. It contained Wallis and Futuna and even Pitcairn was featured which, according to Wikipedia has only 50 inhabitants. It also provided Tibet and Taiwan as options which I was sure would anger the Chinese but the Indian bureaucracy, apparently, is afraid of no-one. As to the choice of the level of my education I had to look up what the word matriculation meant,  though illiterate was an option too.  Then more challenging questions followed and you have to be careful, because once your application is refused you lose your money and you will have to try again. So I searched the internet to see what the right answers were on some of the tougher questions. For example the one as to what my profession was. Obviously telling them I was unemployed wasn’t a good idea and would invite other, more difficult, questions, like, if I thought being lazy and hanging around on the sofa all day was such a wonderful life, and maybe I should do something back for society. So I chose the option self employed / freelance and even then they wanted to have a name of a company as if they were doubtful anyone would ever hire somebody like me as a freelancer. So I had to come up with a name and after ample consideration I  gave them the name of this blog. Then my session expired and I could begin again. My father’s place of birth, my mother’s place of birth, their birthmarks, favourite toys and other stupid questions. The countries I had visited in the past ten years, complete itineraries, hotels I had stayed at, restaurants I had eaten at, travel agencies I had used, receipts of the above in US dollars and corrected for inflation. Unfortunately, the names of the countries I had visited in the past ten years didn’t fit in the box so I left out the ones that I thought might be looked upon unfavourably. My religion was asked and, yes, in India you must have one. It’s unthinkable not to have one. Who created you? You think you come from apes? Ha ha. Had I visited India before? All details must be given, dates of entry and dates of exit, visa numbers, all people I had met, their addresses and the addresses of their holiday cottages and so on, and so I decided I had never visited India before. Not ever. Inexplicably, my session had expired again. In the end came the really dumb questions: whether I had ever been caught trafficking Plutonium, did I know what it looked like, what it smelled like or where you could buy some? Whether I had ever worked for Pakistan’s Intelligence Service, if so, please provide a list of undercover names including all passport numbers and credit card numbers. Whether I had ever been operating an illegal drugs laboratory and was it really that easy to make a lot of money with that. And of course these are all trick questions and if you answer ‘yes’ your  visa will be refused. In the end you have to state that the answers you have provided are all to the best of your knowledge and well, um, let me think… Yes. Now please give me the visa.

MuchaDetail

Sketch after Mucha

After that I cycled around the country some more. Then my visa came through and I could fly to India.

 

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Sukhothai

The journey by train from Bangkok to Phitsanulok in the north of Thailand was a cheap and thoroughly enjoyable experience. The day before my intended departure I went to Hua Lamphong station to book my ticket with all the important info I had collected online. It had to be Train 51, Chiang Mai bound, upper berth, no air conditioning, for the sum of 409 baht. Upper berth was fine. It is the cheapest category. It has no window and limited space but as I would travel at night that was of no concern. The booking was a breeze with a minimum of red tape and after that I had lunch at the air conditioned food court inside the station which did a fantastic pork noodle soup.

The next day I checked out and took the river taxi to Hua Lamphung. After boarding the train I found my berth and made myself comfortable. Not long after the train left, the conductor checked my ticket and it wasn’t before long that the monotonous noise that is typical of train travel sent me to sleep.

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The night train to Phitsanulok

I arrived in Phitsanulok very early in the morning and I waited at the station till it got light. From there I had to walk to the bus station where I took a bus to New Sukhothai. So far everything went according to plan.

Sukothai was formerly the capital of Thailand (1238 – 1438) and is famous for its architecture and classical Thai art. For less than a dollar I rented a bicycle that was really only fit for children, but with my knees all over the place, it got me around. The grounds were nicely kept and some shady trees made for a nice picnic area where I ate my lunch of deep fried chicken. It tasted awful.

Old Sukhothai photos. Another UNESCO world heritage site.

Life in Sukhothai proved to be cheap. Sticky rice with minced meat for 15 baht. Lunch and dinner averaged between 30 and 40 baht. Deliciously soft durian pieces for 100 baht. After the first day I moved to a cheap hotel where I paid 200 baht per night and it proved great value for money. It was clean, quiet and spacious. It even had a small coach and I was provided with towels, toilet paper and reasonable wifi. It was the kind of hotel that made me happy.

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Custard apple or sweetsop

At a small roadside stall not far form my hotel I bought some fruit that I thought was soursop. But if you google it a lot of images turn up that look very different from the one above. I’ve eaten soursop before in Malaysia and Indonesia where it is known as durian belanda because is resembles a rather large and prickly fruit not unlike the true durian. The custard apples, which are related to the soursop, were smaller and had no soft spikes. The flesh was deliciously sweet and creamy. It was very soft. Something I only noticed when I got up and found out I had accidently sat on one and had squashed it.

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Cycling among the rice fields that surround Old Sukhothai.

From Sukhothai I took a night bus back to Bangkok’s Mo Chitt bus terminal. From there I took the subway to the city centre.

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Old photograph in the MRT station showing a rickshaw in front of Hua Lamphung station

Some weeks before, I had bought a flight back to the Netherlands for a short sojourn to visit family and friends. I would fly with the budget carrier Norwegian Air. It was very cheap, but I kept receiving ominous, almost threatening, emails, warning me that I had not reserved a seat and in that case the airline would assign me a seat. The general gist was it wouldn’t be a nice one. Possibly in the middle of the aircraft, in between screaming children and fat people next to me, falling asleep, leaning over me and drooling in my lap… No meals were included so I had brought some chocolate bars and peanuts. To be on the safe side I had filled a water bottle in the transit area of Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok. In the end the flight was rather painless and even comfortable. I had a layover in Stockholm and from there it was cattle class to Amsterdam where I arrived tired but with a minimum loss of money.

Thai times

From Battambang in Cambodia I first travelled to Poipet with a sleeper bus. The bus was run by cowboys. They were raucous young men. They laughed and played loud music over the speakers. So loud that tremors ran through the whole bus that left everything and  everybody in it vibrating with the singsong of Cambodian celebrities who were jubilating their new found love. I asked them politely to turn it down as I wasn’t really ready to share the joy of Cambodian love making that early in the morning. After they had complied with my request, I lay down again and looked some more at the Cambodian countryside even though I’d seen a lot of Cambodian countryside by then.

Poipet is a Cambodian border town and synonymous with corrupt officials and an extortionate taxi mafia. But this is mainly a problem coming from the Thai side. Travelling from the Cambodian side, the border crossing was a painless affair with just the usual queueing, the filling out of forms and officials stamping documents. At the Cambodian side they wanted my fingerprints which I generously granted and at the other side the Thai wanted my photograph and so I tried to look my best. Welcome to Thailand.

From the border to Bangkok I travelled in a minibus but the driver was the worst ever. When we got closer to Bangkok the roads became more congested and our driver sped over the shoulder lane overtaking left and right. Several times he attempted shortcuts and once we drove over quiet country lanes until we came to a standstill before a lake. Then we turned around and drove back to the highway. In Bangkok we were unceremoniously dropped off far away from where I wanted to be. It was probably close to where the driver lived…

MySisterAndMe

Me and my sister

In Bangkok I met my sister and her family who were on holiday. They had a wonderful hotel with air conditioning, a swimming pool and rooms that contained more than one piece of furniture. Together we walked through the city and I bought a durian because I thought they wouldn’t like it so I could eat the whole delicious fruit by myself, but they did like it and that made me very proud. Most people wouldn’t even try it because of the smell. Then we had dinner and we had green curries and pad thai.

It was a great success.

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watercolour tuk tuk, digitally pimped with GIMP

 

Next: Sukhothai

More Battambang for your buck

The next day I rented a bicycle. It was one of those crappy Chinese bicycles which seemed more suitable for children than as a serious means of transportation. It was way too small for me. But then it cost only one dollar for a day and the temple I wanted to visit was only eight kilometres or so away.

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Cat in a temple, watercolour

The temple was called Wat Ek Phnom and was built next to a lotus pond. Very atmospheric and access was only one dollar. Inside the dangerously crumbling building there were some offerings of lotus flowers. Some children were holding out a small dish to me and urging me to put some money in it.  Then an old woman came in and chased the children away.

After having exhausted the possibilities of exploration I had lunch in a small stall next to the entrance. Not far away, on the grounds of a modern day temple, there were some girls and young men gathering the drying rice together with wooden rakes hoping to get it in before the rain would come. Barefoot, with their straw heads and wooden rakes, they looked very much like actors in a historical tableau vivant.

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After a few more days in Battambang, I travelled onward to Bangkok.

Bats, temples and catfish

From Phnom Penh I took a bus to Battambang.

It’s one of those conundrums of travelling: how long to stay somewhere? If you want to visit A, B and C in, say, fifteen days, what would be the best way to allocate your time? You arrive at A and you think it’s really nice, so you might be tempted to spend more than the average five days, but maybe you will find out later that B or C, or maybe both, were in fact much nicer and you should’ve stayed longer there. It is impossible to know beforehand.

To bring some maths to travel you could have a look at this numberphile video. It is about how to optimally choose a toilet when visiting a festival. You don’t have to be a genius to see it is easily applicable to a wide range of other decisions we have to make in life, like the one I mentioned above. If we rank the attractiveness of several destinations, for example,  then we can look at all possible permutations and come up with a good method to optimise spending our time in the right places.

Maybe if I had paid more attention to that video I would have spent more time in Battambang rather than in Phnom Penh. It was just quieter, friendlier and easier to move around and to have a look at the countryside. The reason I stayed in Phnom Penh was its allure because, after all, it is the capital, where everything is happening. An old Lonely Planet guidebook described it as laid back, the Pearl of Asia, blah blah blah, whereas I thought it was frantic and chaotic.

cowcolour

Cambodian cow, watercolour

The first day in Battambang I took a remork (the Cambodian style tuk-tuk), to get around to the more outlying sights. There was the fishing village where there wasn’t really anything to see or to do. We stopped at a small bridge where we got out and crossed the river. Then we looked around. Nothing. We walked back to the tuk tuk and drove back to the main road. Nothing there either but a tiny food stall that sold rice with catfish. The fish was fresh and delicious. When I had finished most of my fish, I asked my driver if I could eat the head. He took the head of my fish, put it in his mouth and ate it. Yes, very good, he said, smacking his lips.

In a nearby temple I walked around and took some pictures. The ones above show three statues with together six faces that I thought were really nice. Much of the iconography in Cambodian temples has come with early Indian scholars who brought Buddhism together with Hindu customs and folklore. The one on the left with the blue face I thought must be Vishnu. The one on the right with the four faces could be Brahma, the Hindu creator god. I don’t know who the bloke in the middle is.

Then we drove to Prasat Banan, an Angkor era temple on a hill. It was a bit of a climb up the stairs but on top there was a good view of the surrounding countryside and a nice breeze. Later I read that one should explore with caution as parts of the mountain are not as of yet demined and there might still be unexploded ordnance lying around.

feeding_catfish

feeding catfish

When we left, my driver showed me a small section of the pond where he threw some fodder in the water. In no time the water was crawling with catfish. The only aim in life for a catfish is to grow as big and as ugly as possible.

Then we drove to Phnom Sapeou where I walked around. It is famous for a cave where the Khmer Rouge committed some more atrocities. I wasn’t particularly interested, but I had to wait till about six o’clock anyway for the bats to come out of their cave.

This swarming of bats from the nearby cave was a neat natural phenomenon. Everybody was sitting, many with a beer in their hands, chatting and waiting. Then the bats started coming out in a long ribbon. People pointed with their fingers and cameras started clicking. Then more bats. And more. It just went on. Then after ten or fifteen minutes people got up and started to leave. My driver told me the swarming would go on for another hour and there were about 6,5 million of them. That’s a lot of bats.
Go back? he said.
Yeah, let’s go back, I said.
And we went back to Battambang.

batswarm

A lot of bats.

 

Phnom Penh sights

Wat Ounaloum is an important temple with a stupa that is said to contain a hair of the Buddha’s eyebrow. It would be economical, so I thought, if they would have cut the hair in ten pieces and distributed the holy relics throughout the country. A hair or half a hair or, indeed, a tenth of a hair would not diminish its holiness I should think, and it saves worshipers a lot of running up and down the country .

Wat Phnom is a pleasant shady hill in the centre of Phnom Penh with a temple on top of it. Online I found some worthless information with among others a
TripAdvisor review that ran: Old temple – Locals believes a big flood 500 years ago bring a  head of Budah to the top of this small hill from Vietnam, and it means he want to have a temple over there. So they make one.
It was nice to sit there under the shady trees for a while with the pleasant smell of incense and a good book in my lap. For some time I was distracted by two chickens and I observed that they were lean and athletic, and that they had very few feathers and were able to climb up a tree. How different they were from European chickens. Sitting on my bench I was trying to imagine what it would be  like to be a chicken: having two eyes at both sides of my head looking in opposite directions. Impossible. Then I tried to imagine walking with my knees bent backward and that almost did my brain in, till I realised that those were probably not its knees but its ankles. So it’d be more like sitting on your haunches and walking at the same time. Odd, but not impossible.

Then I saw a butterfly that fluttered in the shadow of a tall tree. It knew not of death. How could it? And it rose and rose. Fearlessly.

electricBuddha

Plastic electric fantastic Buddha

The Tuol Sleng Genocide museum, formerly known as State Prison 21 was a school before 1975. During the regime of the Khmer Rouge, that started in that year, it was changed into a prison where an estimated 20,000 people were tortured to death. Only 12 had survived when it was found in 1979 when the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge regime. There are a few cases documented of western prisoners, some of them sailors who inadvertently strayed into Cambodian waters and were apprehended. Bad luck for them as they all died in a horrible way. Tuol Sleng was first made into a museum by the Vietnamese when they ousted the regime of Pol Pot, but it was not the only such prison. There were around 150 to 200 of these prisons throughout the country. It is thought that during the Cambodian genocide 1,5 to 3 million people have died.
In Kuala Lumpur I had picked up a copy of the Killing Fields and it told of the madness of the Pol Pot regime.  After the Khmer Rouge had taken over, they marched the inhabitants of Phnom Penh, all of them, out of the city, to make them work on the land. It was to become an agrarian society. Money was no longer necessary and the building of the National Bank in Phnom Penh was blown up. No worries about inflation anymore, no banking crises anymore, it was all gone. Interestingly, Pol Pot in an interview months before his death, told he didn’t feel responsible and that he was widely misunderstood. This sounds mad, but then, nobody thinks of him or herself as a bad person. He undoubtedly had a vision of an agrarian utopia where people would live merrily and prosperous, without worries, enjoying sunsets on summer evenings with smiles on their faces, listening to their children playing in the fields. But it just didn’t work out and somewhere along the line something went terribly wrong and Cambodians ended up killing each other on a massive scale.

There must be a lesson in there somewhere.

When I walked passed Tuol Sleng I realised it would be utterly depressing and I had no need for that so I didn’t go in. I took a photo from the old entrance and turned around.

tuolsleng

Genocide, barbed wire

Not far from the museum I found a simple restaurant which looked more like somebody’s kitchen and for a dollar I was served a plate of rice  with some sauce that had more fragments of bones in it than I have ever seen outside a Natural History museum.

Transport within Phnom Penh has changed over the years. When I first travelled to Cambodia in the late nineties, there used to be only cyclos (bicycle rickshaws) and motos (motodups, or motorcycle taxis). Now the cyclos are an increasingly rare phenomenon as they are almost entirely replaced by remorks. These, from the French remorque, or trailer, are small coaches that are hooked up on motorcycles. A fairly new form of passenger transport is the Indian style auto rickshaw. These are now in their turn slowly replacing the remork as they are more economical in fuel.
There are only a few city buses and I’ve never seen one in the direction I wanted to go. Hopefully that will change as for now I ended up doing a lot of walking because forking out a few dollars every time you take a remork adds up. Getting around in Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, for example, is a lot cheaper, especially if you stay a bit longer and figure out how the buses work.

When I tried to learn something about the Khmer language I was delighted to find out that they had a biquinary counting system. That means it is based on five, so they have separate words for the numbers one to five and then six is represented as five [plus] one, seven is five two, and so forth. From 30 to 90 the numbers closely resemble Thai numbers. Then, when you’ve finally figured it all out, it happens that if you were to buy fruit they actually use a different set of numbers for that. Good luck

One day I saw a hornbill. It flew over a small convenience store where I was sipping a can of soursop juice. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Then it was gone.

Next Battambang

 

Phnom Penh

In Kuala Lumpur I took a bus to the airport. During the flight to Phnom Penh there was some heavy turbulence.

In case we land on the water there will be an emergency raft. But not from exit B. Repeat, not from exit B. Must you leave from exit B then you will fall into the water. Repeat, the water. It’s not likely to be cold, but there will be sharks. We think. We don’t know. Life jackets under your seats, except seat 31B. Repeat, except seat 31B.

That was my seat.

At Phnom Penh international airport there was a promising sign that showed the way to the train and I followed it, keen as I was to make use of this new mode of transport in Cambodia. The drawing on the sign gave the impression of it being one of those high speed trains that traverse France, but when I reached the small station, it appeared that it consisted of only a single carriage that was pulled by a diesel locomotive. Thanks to its novelty, the train was free of charge to the public, but the public wasn’t very much interested which was understandable as it took almost forever to reach the city. The Royal Railways have apparently only one train in operation on this line, but still, the service provides the unexpecting passenger with the opportunity to see some of the couleur locale before being released into the mayhem of central Phnom Penh. At every railroad crossing a multitude of cars and motorcycles were waiting behind the barriers that were manually operated by personnel of the Royal Railways.

loco

Walking from the railway station to my hotel was far from pleasant what with the simmering heat and the jungle of steel that were the parked cars, motorcycles and the myriads of food stalls that were blocking the pavement constantly forcing the weary walker, that was me, into the murderous traffic. That I didn’t like.

One thing that had changed since my last visit were the traffic lights. They are all the rage now.

Later, after I had checked in, I walked along the promenade that lines the confluence of the Mekong and the Tonlé Sap river. Here I saw many small birds in cages waiting to be released by their capturers upon a small payment by the pious or the pitying. They are the ever so many more victims of mindless religion as it is traditionally thought praiseworthy to give these birds back their freedom. Till then they sit twittering and fluttering in the midday heat with only some murky Mekong water to keep them alive. Somebody told me they are trained to fly back to their owners after their ‘escape’. I don’t know if that is true, but many, weakened by their captivity, fall prey to cats and children as I was later able to witness on several occasions.

The Tonlé Sap river is remarkable in that it reverses twice a year the direction in which it flows, depending on the season, and it was with interest that I observed that the water was now going back, that is, not toward the ocean but land inward, as was evident by the direction of the floating rubbish that the Cambodians obligingly had thrown into the river.

 

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Phnom Penh by night

In the late afternoon a gentle breeze brought some refreshment and it was pleasant to sit on a bench and watch the passersby. A middle aged man jogged along the waterfront, his wife walking next to him. They were not much later followed by a man with an enormous camera on his considerable belly and fashionable sunglasses on his Mediterranean nose. He walked hand in hand with his girlfriend. He bald and smug, she much younger and endlessly graceful so that one should wonder how these qualities had ever found each other.

Walking back to my hotel I bought some lotus fruit from a small girl in the street for one thousand riel. As I had never eaten this before, I turned to the internet for instructions, then took it apart and nibbled from the fruits that tasted a bit like fresh peas.

 

How to eat lotus fruit.

Another culinary curiosity I discovered by accident. Sitting down at a small food stall I had ordered three eggs, but then I found out that I had only a few thousand riel in my pocket, so I changed my order to two eggs. Not much later I was glad that I had done so when I found out that I had unwittingly asked for pong tia koon, which are fertilised duck eggs with half grown embryos inside. They are regarded a delicacy, served with laksa leaves, black pepper and lemon. I decided it was best not to think about it, but just to scoop the brown aborted growth up with a teaspoon, sprinkle it lavishly with black pepper, munch it and swallow it.

And so I did.