Tag Archives: Raffles Hotel

Flesh & Devotion in KL

29 Mar
Singapore skyline with Merlion fountain righthand corner - (2008)

Singapore skyline with Merlion fountain lefthand corner – (2008)

The shared southern border between Myanmar and Thailand separates the Andaman Sea from the Gulf of Thailand and is a sliver of tropical paradise and sporadic guerilla fighting that ultimately ends in the bulbous Malay peninsula. The city-state of Singapore is an island at the tip of this peninsula where the Strait of Johore sets it apart from Malaysia. Although geographically it is part of Southeast Asia, Singapore is very different from the rest of the region. I arrived there in 2008 and my plan was to use the city as my jumping off point as I traveled by bus to the old colonial town of Melaka in Malaysia, then on to Kuala Lumpur (KL), and from KL I would fly to Jakarta — the goal being to travel to central Java and visit Borobudur. The pyramid-like, walk-through mandala structure of Borobudur is one of the most incredible creations of the Buddhist world, and interestingly, is found in Indonesia — the most populous Muslim country in the world. While most of the big cities of Southeast Asia are busy putting up skyscrapers, investing in public transportation, and leveraging their natural resources for economic gains, there is still a noticeable push-pull between the old and the new — and in most of these cities, the Theravada Buddhist tradition provides a (usually) progressive socio-cultural heartbeat. Remarkably, the tension between the old and the new is not present in Singapore. Given its small size and the vision of its founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore is a gleaming testament to modernity without the baggage of the past.

Raffles Hotel - (main building completed in 1899)

Raffles Hotel – (main building completed in 1899)

Singapore does contain remnants of the colonial era as evidenced in the hillside residential quarters, the Raffles Hotel, and in old government buildings. There are also certainly economic disparities between newly arrived immigrants and the established majority population which consists of Malay people who have mixed with the descendants of Chinese merchants and traders — many of whom decided to remain in the area after the Great Wall was built and sealed off their overland return to China. Singapore also has many distinct religio-ethnic quarters such as Hindu, Muslim, Christian, and even has its own Chinatown. I was able to walk to the Chinatown district from the city centre of Singapore and saw some interesting Tao-Buddhist temples. As I walked further into the Chinatown area, I came across a sparkling building. It was four-stories tall and perfect in its design and symmetry. This was the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple which had just opened one year earlier. The temple had been built by contributions and endowments from prominent Singaporeans and Chinese Buddhists and it contained a tooth relic said to have belonged to the Buddha which had originally been enshrined inside a pagoda in Burma. Similar to the sad fate of other pagodas in Burma [see post: Bones of Reverence at http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-qv], this unfortunate pagoda was destroyed by a WWII bombing raid and found in its ruins was a small reliquary containing the tooth relic.

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple - Singapore

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple – Singapore

The relic was thereafter kept in the care of the Burmese sangha for decades until it was brought to Singapore. In contrast to its arresting exterior, the inside of the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple seems a bit too museum-like and artificial — not much mystery. On the 4th floor of the temple, one can see a gold 2-meter high stupa where the tooth is kept [no photos are allowed inside the temple].  I was happy to have found the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple while in Singapore, but it brought to mind no comparison at all to the history, majesty, and spiritual power of the Temple of the Sacred Tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka [see post: Ecce Dens (Behold the Tooth) at http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-kB].

Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya - Temple of 1,000 Lights

Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya @ Temple of 1000 Lights – Singapore

Another Buddhist sight of a note in Singapore is the Thai-influenced Temple of 1000 Lights. This temple was built in 1932 and contains a large (15m high/300 tonnes) seated Buddha. As recounted in my previous post [see post: Remains of the Wat-age at http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-F6], the features of this large Buddha are strikingly reminiscent of those of the Standing Buddha of Wat Intharawihan in Bangkok. The 2 faces are like mirrors of one another — although constructed out of different materials and built over 3 centuries apart.

Christ Church (built in 1753) - Melaka, Malaysia

Christ Church (built by Dutch in 1753) – Melaka, Malaysia

From Singapore, I hopped on a bus north to Melaka in Malaysia. Melaka — like Goa, Galle, and Macau — is a former Portuguese (later Dutch, then British) colonial enclave in Asia. The food and people there have a mixed ancestry and the old colonial center is bathed in roseate colors which pop out. The passageway of ocean that lays in front of the town is called the Strait of Malacca which is one of the busiest trade waterways in the world — and full of piracy. After a day’s worth of exploring the town, it was time for me to get to the capital. KL is a bustling, fun metropolis — not quite on par with all the efficiencies of Singapore, but gaining traction each day and also not as sterile. In contrast to the secular nature of Singapore, KL is the capital of Muslim-majority Malaysia. The skyline is dominated by the minaret-capped Petronas Towers and the KL Menara (Tower).  I began in the old city center — Merdeka Square — and strolled towards KL’s Chinatown district where I walked along a major street called Medan Pasar.  Along this road stands a small group of 5 or so weathered early 20th century buildings — out of place with the rest of the area given their coloring and Victorian-influenced design, but there is something organic about them — as if they could belong nowhere else.

Sri Maha Mariamman - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (2008)

Sri Maha Mariamman – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (2008)

After continuing south in this area for about 10 minutes, I stopped and looked across the street at the Sri Maha Mariamman. This is the oldest Hindu temple in KL and dates back to 1873. Its front entry has a 5-tiered tower that is 23m (75ft) high and filled with all sorts of colorful Hindu deities which look to be climbing all over one another and clamoring for attention. This temple is dedicated to the Hindu goddess Mariamman who is venerated as the protector of Hindus during their travels in foreign lands. But, the temple also serves as the launching off point for the annual “Thaipusam” festival and procession that began in KL in 1892. It originated with those Hindus — mostly from the Tamil state in India — who the British had brought to Malaysia as indentured servants to provide the workforce that built the roads, buildings, and homes throughout the British imperial realm.

Entry Gate to Batu Caves

Entry Gate to Batu Caves – 15km outside KL

“Thaipusam” comes from the combination of the Tamil word “Thai” which is the time of year that corresponds to January/early February (when the festival takes place) and “Pusam” which is the name of a star that is at its highest point in the sky during that time. The focus of the festival is Lord Murugan (a son of Lord Shiva) and it allows the faithful to both physically and spiritually re-enact and remember the moment when Murugan was given a special spear by his mother (Parvati), so he could defeat an evil demon.

Lord Muruga Statue and stairway into Batu Caves

Lord Murugan Statue and stairway up to Batu Caves

Inside Sri Maha Mariamman is a silver chariot which is used to carry statues of Lord Murugan and his 2 consorts through the streets of KL all the way to the Batu Caves — which are about 15km outside of the city. The devout follow the chariot and pierce their torsos with crescent-shaped metallic objects while carrying heavy containers of milk on their shoulders or by hand. This milk is then poured as offerings made at the shrines found inside the Batu Caves.

Step 211 - getting there...

Step 211 – getting there…

Thaipusam is a festival that smacks of pain above all else. It is extremely punishing and long (lasting up to 8-hours), and because it was designed for the specific purpose of worshipping the super-masculine traits of Lord Murugan, the displays of strength and endurance are integral and cannot be shirked. I had to take a local bus from the temple to the Batu Caves which appeared before me like an unnatural monolith soon after the urban sprawl of KL had faded. After passing through the entry gate, the first thing I saw was the giant statue of Lord Murugan and at 43m (140ft) high it is the world’s tallest statue of him. To the left of the statue is a wide staircase consisting of 272-steps — each step is numbered so the faithful know exactly where they are as they put one foot carefully in front of the other while nearing the end of their difficult march.

Inside main chamber - Batu Caves

Inside main chamber – Batu Caves

Needless to say, many people pass-out or collapse on these stairs during Thaipusam. So, there are many medics and ambulances ready to whisk away the afflicted or injured. The Batu Caves are like a limestone amphitheater with prowling monkeys and eye-catching statues sitting in crevices and outcrops of the Caves.

Ganesha, Vishnu, Shiva, Muruga, Nandi

Hindu Holy Family: Ganesha, Shiva, Parvati & Murugan with Shiva’s Nandi (Bull)

The nerve-center and focal point of the Caves is the shrine containing the “murti” of Lord Murugan – which is  considered by Hindus as the literal embodiment of the divine spirit of Murugan himself. This small image — made of silver and adorned with garlands — was consecrated over a 100 years ago. Even though I visited the Caves when the Thaipusam festival was not taking place, I still had to maneuver through a ravenous pack of pushers and shovers  — each vying for a look at the murti.  I tunneled my way through the throng, got close, and raised my camera above the rest in order to take a photo.

Murti of Lord Muruga

Murti of Lord Murugan – Batu Caves

Jockeying for position amidst the crowd made for a not so steady hand when snapping the pic. Besides, my legs were still wobbly from the walk up all those stairs. I could not fathom the stamina and steely resolve necessary to complete the procession during Thaipusam. An uninterrupted, 8-hour march with one’s flesh flayed like a fish and bleeding — all the while having to carry heavy jugs of milk?!?! AND THEN, the pay-off for having made the 15km walk is facing 272-steps of vertiginous torture?! Even if I were to be ensnared by the pageantry of the festival and motivated by the fervor of the faithful around me, I don’t think I would be able to complete this rite. So, my only photo of the murti of Lord Murugan came out a bit shaky — O, me of little faith.

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Massage Road

29 Jul
Border crossing from Aryanthrapet, Thailand to Poitpet, Cambodia (2006)

Border crossing from Aranyaprathet, Thailand to Poipet, Cambodia (2006)

A sense of unease marked my approach to Cambodia. My pre-trip research had revealed that while crossing into the Cambodian border town of Poipet from the Thai entry point of Aranyaprathet was no sweat, the trick would be getting from Poipet to Siem Reap – gateway to the ancient Khmer capital of Angkor. There were only 3 choices for available transport: (1) hitching a ride on a pickup truck; (2) hailing a taxi-like Toyota Camry, or (3) finding a bus. But, there were no reliable timetables for any of these options, so I had no idea what I would find once I got to Poipet. My preference was to go with #2 — the Toyota taxi. This option would cost more, but at least I would have some control over where it was going. The contrast between exiting Thailand and entering Cambodia was immediate. Thailand has an efficient infrastructure of roads and rail with a wide network of public transport running on fixed timetables. Cambodia was horribly ravaged by the Khmer Rouge for decades and is still trying to piece itself together. As I crossed over the border and entered Poipet, paved roads vanished and were subsumed by clay and rubble. I was told Poipet had a certain rhyme-like quality to it that brought to mind “toilet” and within a few strides into this desperate and grimy border town that was evident. But, I didn’t get much time to absorb the delights of Poipet because the skies quickly darkened and I was soon pelted by a hard beating rain. The clay under my feet transformed into a churning sludge and I ran fast to the first place I saw in the distance which had a roof. While waiting for the rain to stop, I met some other backpackers who were also headed to Siem Reap. They told me that they had a guide who had arranged for a bus to pick them up at 1pm. I was skeptical, but because I saw no sign of any other transportation and I thought the rain may have scared off other drivers, I decided to hang with them. I walked with the group over to a bus depot, and to my surprise, a vehicle entered and parked alongside us within a few minutes. However, it wasn’t a bus — mini-mini bus is more apt. How we fit 20 backpackers and 2 guides into that bus still boggles my mind (although years later I would be crammed into another mini-mini bus with 16 others for a 12hr journey in Laos that rivaled the drive to Siem Reap; to be described in an upcoming post).

The approach to Angkor Wat temple complex - Angkor, Cambodia

The approach to Angkor Wat temple complex – Angkor, Cambodia

It was 2006 when I travelled to Siem Reap and at that time the “road” from Poipet to Siem Reap consisted only of packed red clay with some iron panels laid flat in certain areas. Maybe the road has since been paved, but I experienced it at a time when it was called by locals as the “massage road” — a euphemism for the deep tissue pounding wrought on any individual who had the privilege to drive over it.  The numbing effects of the massage road took on further visceral meaning for me since I was lucky enough to be sitting on this mini-mini bus, which was packed to the gills with people, bags, and basically dragged its chassis on the ground during the entire time. I had studied a map and estimated that the journey would, at most, take 4 hours. Siem Reap was only around 165km away from Poipet.  But, the guides on the mini-mini bus had other ideas. The bus maintained a top speed of 30km/hr, which I could understand was necessary in spots where the road was filled with holes, trenches, or boulders, but the fact that we kept getting passed time and time again by other trucks and cars made me skeptical of what was really going on. We also stopped twice — once for a food & bathroom break — the second was by force when the bus suddenly veered off the road and pulled into a small village. The guides told us that the bus had a flat tire and so we had to get off the bus and wait until it was fixed. Everyone filed off the bus and I looked on incredulously as the bus then drove away with everyone’s bags still on board! The other backpackers were shaking their heads in disbelief and were all questioning the mysterious flat tire. It had been around 5 hours of torture so far. After about an hour of waiting around, the bus returned and the guides happily explained the tire had been fixed. The remaining hours of the trip unfurled in uncomfortable silence broken only by the occasional “ooouch” and “aaargh” of moaning coming from passengers who hit their heads on the roof of the bus or crushed one another when the bus hit another rock or went over hole. Nightfall had also cast us in an eerie blackness and there were no lights whatsoever along the way. So, a nervousness and fear of accident filled the bus. I was miserably cramped in my seat, stinking in my own sweat (no a/c on the bus), and had no feeling in my legs since my backpack rested on my knees and had cut off circulation. I had images dart in and out of my feverish mind: I saw myself skimming along the road on one of those Toyota Camry taxis, settling into my room Siem Reap, taking a shower, having a cold glass of water… My headed bobbed every now and then as fatigue forced me to shut my eyes, but then I would be violently jerked to a full state of alertness when the bus inevitably lurched in some direction.

Macaque stalking the ruins of Angkor

Macaque stalking the ruins of Angkor

After one particularly nasty jerk of the bus, my eyelids flew open and I saw a faint glow in the distance. These had to be coming from Siem Reap!! I would soon be getting off this bus! We got closer and closer, and then, inexplicably, we continued past the town and sank back into darkness. Some of the people in the front of the bus loudly asked the guides where we were going. One of the guides said that the bus was taking us to the station which was outside of town. But, when the bus finally stopped it was clear what had happened. The guides had hijacked us to some out-of-the way guesthouse. They dropped us off there and in a humdrum manner declared that this guesthouse had the best rates. They obviously would get a cut of all the room bookings from the owner of the guesthouse. I told them that I had reserved a room back in town, but they insisted my guesthouse was closed. At this point, my patience with the guides had run out and I just turned my back on them and walked away. Luckily, I found a tuk-tuk driver sitting outside the guesthouse. Two Japanese backpackers who had been on the bus with me walked over to me and asked what I was doing. I explained that I had a place to stay in Siem Reap and was going there. They told me they also were staying in Siem Reap and asked whether they could ride into town with me. So, we struck an arrangement with the tuk-tuk driver to take the 3 of us to our respective lodgings in Siem Reap. When I arrived at my guesthouse (actually called Mom’s Guest House), the proprietor, Mrs. Kong, who was expecting me came out to greet me. The room I was staying in was $5 a night, but it was the best $5 I had ever spent by far in my life. It was 10pm, I had been on that bus for over 8 hours and was wiped out. My neck and shoulders were twisted up in knots and I was sore everywhere else. I had 3 days to immerse myself in Angkor, so I tried not to dwell on my maddening massage road ordeal. I thought only of the next day and the sights awaiting me.

Dancing Apsaras - Angkor

Dancing Apsaras

In the morning, I took a bike from Mrs. Kong and rode through the center of Siem Reap before I found my way to the entrance of Angkor — the last stretch of which passes by huge luxury hotels like Raffles and Le Meridien before the archaeological area begins. I purchased a 3-day pass (which requires a passport-sized photo for non-Cambodians) and spent the morning to dusk of each day exploring as much of the Khmer capital as I could. As described in a previous post (See “At The Dawn of Happiness” at http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-Du), Angkor was founded as the capital of the Khmer Empire in the early 9th century and was the most populated city of its time. The first Khmer Kings were adherents of Hinduism and so stories from the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, along with celestial beings like Apsaras were carved throughout the walls of the city. With each new Khmer King, new temples and structures were added to Angkor. In the early 12th century, the Khmer King Suryavarman II constructed the world’s largest temple complex known as Angkor Wat which was originally meant to capture a microcosm of the Hindu universe where the supreme-god Vishnu would be able to reside in quiet contemplation of all creation. Buddhism was not adopted as the dominant religion of the Khmer Empire until King Jayavarman VII ascended to the throne in the late 12th century. He ruled for 30 years (from 1181 to 1218AD) and is considered by most historians as the greatest Khmer King. He was a devotee of Mahayana Buddhism and one of his most important acts was to rededicate Angkor Wat as a Buddhist temple. He also actively expanded the city centre of the capital and constructed several new temples. Some of his most well-known additions to Angkor include Ta Prohm, Preah Khan, Bayon (Jayavarman’s face is built into the sides of many portions of this pyramid-like temple since he sought to depict himself as a bodhisattva of compassion), and Angkor Thom. Interestingly, within a few decades after the death of King Jayavarman VII, the practice of Mayahana Buddhism within the Khmer Empire was largely replaced by Theravada Buddhism. One of the reasons for this shift to Theravada practice is that King Jayavaraman VII had a son who went to Sri Lanka to study Buddhism and became a monk in the Sinhalese Theravada tradition. When the son returned to Angkor, he espoused the Theravada teachings he had learned which quickly spread through the capital and throughout the Khmer Empire.

Silk Tree at Teah Prohm - Angkor

Silk Cotton Tree at Ta Prohm – Angkor

The Khmer Empire ultimately came to an end when the Thai Kingdom of Ayutthaya invaded and conquered Angkor in the 15th century. Thereafter, the inhabitants of Angkor began to leave, the creeping jungle slowly swallowed it up, and it became lost for centuries. But, what was not lost was Theravada Buddhism which had taken root after King Jayavarman VII’s death and became further entrenched as a result of the conquering Thai. Today, Theravada Buddhism is still the dominant religion of Cambodia notwithstanding the fact that the Khmer Rouge did their utmost to eradicate its practice. At the end of my first day at Angkor, I climbed up a hill called Phnom Bakheng which is located to the north of Angkor Wat. Many tourists and villagers go up to the top of this hill to watch the sunset and see how the fading sunlight changes the color of Angkor Wat which one can see below. From the hilltop, I was able to comprehend how enormous Angkor was and saw the boundaries and moats which the Khmer had so methodically engineered in order to protect and sustain its large population (ironically, one prevailing theory today as to why people ultimately abandoned the capital was that problems with proper irrigation for farming led to its collapse). I took several photos which captured the light dancing off Angkor Wat in all sorts of different shades. It was mesmerizing and I was rabid in anticipation of many more incredible scenes and photo ops that I would certainly experience over the next few days. Then, a funny thing happened. As I was pedaling on my bike and turning to exit the archaeological park which was closing, a small car with an attached food cart trailer came up on my left side. I tried to be sure that the car had a wide berth so it could pass me cleanly, but somehow my front wheel bumped a wheel on the trailer and I went flying over my handle bars. I don’t remember the pain of my fall. I only remember looking up and blinking at the face of someone staring down at me with concern. It was the driver of the car. He spoke a little English and asked me if I was OK. I stood up with a shakiness and tried to get my bearings. I saw the bent front frame of my bike a few meters away from me. I then looked down and saw my dented camera near my feet. I think somehow the impact of my fall was absorbed by my camera which I had strapped around my torso. I slowly wrapped my mind as to what had just happened and then I realized I was not seriously hurt. I exhaled in relief and looked at the man. I could only smile. He smiled back. I started to laugh and shake my head. I told him I was OK and shook his hand goodbye.

Female Monk - Angkor Wat

Female Monk – Angkor Wat

I was touched that he had stopped his car and come over to see if I was OK. He could have easily driven off, especially if he thought he had hit a tourist who was seriously injured. I picked up my camera and inspected it. It was dented, but the roll of film inside seemed unharmed and the camera appeared to still function. Little did I know that my camera was basically useless. Something inside the lens or shutter had cracked, and although I took over 12 rolls of film over the next few days, only a handful of the pictures were able to be developed. There you have it then — I had arrived via a ridiculously long and nerve-wracking journey and then found myself busted flat on the road during my first day at Angkor. I’m not sure I learned any lessons. I just picked myself off the ground, fixed the bent frame of my bike, and hopped back on. When it was time for me to leave and get back to Thailand, I did make sure to take one of those Toyotas back to the border. So, I guess that was a lesson learned — there was no way was I going to repeat the massage road experience. And you know how long the drive back to Poipet from Siem Reap took? 65 minutes.

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