Dynargh dhe'n Blogofrob

Tuesday 17th February 2004

Deft manipulation of public holidays and available leave meant that Claire and I enjoyed over two weeks respite from work and an opportunity to venture further into Hong Kong and South East Asia.

The dawn of the year of the monkey proved auspicious, and we found ourselves with one of the best views in Hong Kong of the territory's massive and impressive firework display, watching a curtain of stars fall into the harbour, as jealous diners craned over our shoulders.

The new year's public holidays last for three days - most Chinese retreat into their homes or visit relatives, but not before heading for the nearest temple to ensure the best possible fortune for the coming lunar year. Hence the Wishing Tree, a short drive from Tai Po in the New Territories. This enormous tree sits in the grounds of a large temple complex, its branches groaning under the weight of wishes, scribbled on paper, attached to oranges and hurled into the branches of the tree. Having spent some time formulating a wish, I cautiously made my way through the crowds of people, successfully avoiding the oranges thudding to the ground around me, and sent my wish flying through the clouds of incense, towards the branches. The orange, with my wish streaming behind it, flew straight through the tree, missing its mark, and landed amongst a heap of other failed wishes. It was swept up and incinerated before I could retrieve it and have a second go. Claire's however, caught and hung safely amongst the other successful attempts, destined to come true. I wasn't too worried about my broken dreams - prior to trying the tree a wander around the temple, past a high energy dragon dance, had brought us to a fortune teller, who read my palm without too many unpleasant comments, although I was rather hoping for a longer life.

The following days took us to some of the SAR's most colourful and intriguing sites - such as the 10,000 Buddhas monastery in Sha Tin, the number of Buddhas in which comfortably exceed its name; and the walled villages of the Hakka tribe, antique fortresses, over which the tower blocks of the new towns loom, while within, the clacking of mah-jong tiles echoes through the dark alleyways and corridors. The outlying islands also proved fruitful - twilight one day found us on the wrong side of Cheung Chau, amongst the cemeteries built into the coastal rocks, rather than the heavily populated town a mile or two across the car-free island. We quickened our pace, not wanting to be caught out by the darkness. Walking past the crematorium as the sky turned an inky shade of blue, we noticed small fires burning in between the memorial tablets. A gentle sweeping sound turned out to be an ancient woman, sweeping up ashes amongst the flames. She cackled and babbled to herself as we hurried past. Thankfully 20 minutes later and we were deep in the lively lanes of Cheung Chau's market. As well as the outlying islands, a ferry also took us to Macau, Hong Kong's dilapidated older brother, a would be Vegas of the east. Full of character, years of Portuguese rule fashioning the area in the Iberian style, in a way the British never really managed with Hong Kong.

But, despite the delights of Hong Kong (and Macau) I was looking forward to the three days in Cambodia that were, more or less, to bring the holiday to a close. Looking out of the plane window as we descended into Siem Reap airport, the jungle and paddyfields stretching out of view, filled me with a sense of calm that the shiny glass towers of Central could never achieve. The country's beauty though, tragically, hides the sinister legacy of Democratic Kampuchea - the jungle and paddyfields are still largely riddled with landmines. In Hong Kong the amputees begging provide expats with a diverting exercise in speculation - some say that when borrowers can't repay their debts to the Triads, the Triads cripple them, then make them beg to pay off what they owe. No such speculation in Cambodia though - the reason for the plastic arms, the wooden poles and the distorted stumps is plain enough.

But Siem Reap has tourism to pull it away from the darkness of the '70s. The place is now solidly on the tourist map - our fellow passengers stepping off the plane in the baking sunshine seemed to belong to Belgium's equivalent of Saga. In the car park of the airport, a gravel area that reminded me of the carpark in a provincial English railway station, we found Rith and Smee, to be our guide and driver respectively. They were, like almost every local, good-hearted and seemed genuine, with none of the tired smiles I've encountered in other tourist areas, whether on the package or the backpacker trail. Perhaps the charabancs simply haven't got to them yet.

That afternoon we rattled down a dirt track, past clutches of one-room huts on stilts, their walls made of palmleaf mats, outside of which mud-covered pigs fraternised with naked children. Smee skilfully avoided huge holes in the road to bring us to the edge of a village by a river. We buzzed up the river on a small boat, and I felt more and more like Conrad's Marlow (or I would have done, had the boat boy not been wearing a Beckham top). As we neared the end of the river, we passed a floating school, the open doorways affording a brief glimpse of children, quietly attentive at their desks, pencils poised. And then the river opened up into Tonle Sap, the great lake of Cambodia. Our boat made its way through the floating village, at least a hundred houses built on rafts, to a fish farm, the size of a canal barge, on the very edge of the settlement. Beyond this there was only water, which simply disappeared into the horizon. The farm was crammed with tourist junk for sale, much the same as I could get back in Hong Kong at Stanley market, but it also contained more unusual items. As well as a pen of large hungry fish there was a line of cages and tanks containing various lake creatures, a python and a wide-eyed monkey, swinging himself maniacally in his miniature hammock - he would later run riot across the farm when released from his cage. Down at water level, on a platform under our feet, 30 or so crocodiles were lazily enjoying the sunshine.

The next morning found us in the world heritage site of Angkor. Our first stop Angkor Thom, the ancient capital city. It wasn't hard to ignore the hawkers ("Lady, lady! you want guide?") or even the elephants to admire the first giant stone face, looking out of the South Gate of Angkor Thom. Inside, we discovered that our visit had coincided with a national festival, in which monks from throughout the country travel to Angkor to benefit from the public's charity. Lines of orange-robed bald-headed young men stood in lines, holding pots, receiving food and money. We made our way through the crowds to the remains of the Bayon. Well preserved bas-reliefs tell the story of the city of Angkor (and provide one of the only contemporary clues to the history of the place - and therefore the country) while above them, from the tumbledown towers, the benign smile of Jayavarman VII looks out in all directions. Wandering amongst the stones, we eventually made our way under the towers. Above us, chirruping bats were suspended, faint grey shapes in the gloom. Despite myself, old Apocalypse Now/Heart of Darkness fantasies began to resurface - something reinforced later in the day: a distant flock of unidentified birds rising from the depths of the jungle as Claire and I sat on the hill of Phnom Bakheng, watching the cloud smudged sunset over the plain of Angkor.

In the afternoon - Angkor Wat. From the far side of the moat, its five towers, like giant lotus buds, sitting over the long corridors and levels of the temple, present a familiar image - but the pictures and the films do not do it justice. As with Angkor Thom, Angkor Wat is awe-inspiring. Almost every inch of stone in the sprawling complex is covered with intricate engravings, including long corridors of bas-reliefs depicting Hindu stories. The temple exists over many levels, and scrambling across ledges and up steep stairs, occasionally a nerve-wracking endeavour, only presents more to marvel at - whether surveying the views from the temple, the structure as a whole or the details of a doorway or window. Only the sweat drenched t-shirts of fellow tourists tempered the atmosphere - but even they can't really affect the place.

In Ars Poetica Horace states that a writer should 'leave out what he knows will not look polished if written', and although, as is evident, I frequently break this rule, I despair of success in describing Angkor. Plus I'm a little lazy. It's a stunning, mysterious place, but I'm afraid of sounding patronising, or merely flat in trying to do it justice. But I hope to get back soon - I wonder how the increasing numbers of visitors will affect Siem Reap. Will it be completely overrun in five years, destroyed by the ravages of insensitive tourism? Or will it manage its growth as successfully as it seems to be doing at the moment?

I was sickened by an American backpacker I saw assuming he could openly bribe a policeman outside Angkor Wat, and perplexed when I saw a couple of Western tourists tip a monk after chatting with him. But is my tourism anymore responsible? I hope so - and I think so - but at the same time, I greedily stare at the third world villages, feeding my senses, while I pay my money instead to the posh hotel in town, live out my Conradian fantasies and then fly out - fly out to, as it happens, a foot spa in Ho Chi Minh City Airport. And my tip for the day is: if you have ticklish feet, don't have a foot massage.

43 - posted at 01:54:07

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Wednesday 11th February 2004

A quick note to remind myself I still exist. I've just returned from a colourful and fascinating holiday (more about which soon), but now I'm once again imprisoned in the mental and physical misery of the glass box where I have engage myself in frivolities in order to remain sane.

In this spirit, this site is a disturbing introduction to the shabby world of celebrity lookalikes, demonstrating what happens to those poor fools who take that 'all my mates reckon I'm a dead ringer for Robbie Williams' syndrome a little too seriously. As well as some of these 'artists' being shockingly unconvincing (see, for example, Ant & Dec) - but oddly compelling - the site raises some fairly searching questions. Such as, how much demand is there really for a Bella Emberg lookalike (etc)?

And from that topic, where else to go but to another tedious entrant into the gallery of miscreants cursed with my name?

Robert Allen

This saucy fellow was a shipmate on the USS Nassau, a battleship, during the Second World War.

42 - posted at 13:29:22

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Sunday 25th January 2004

Kung Hei Fat Choy!

Year of the Monkey

41 - posted at 05:39:29

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Monday 8th December 2003

Two vaguely interesting (for me) stories on Roll on Friday this week. The first of these offers further confirmation that, at whichever firm an aspiring solicitor trains, being used as a useful strategic pawn (whether it be in a legal capacity, a marketing capacity or a 'verbal-punch-bag-allowing-a-superior-to-vent-his-frustrations-at-his-home-life capacity) with obligatory humiliating and degrading results is the norm. I suppose this type of treatment should be looked at as pre-emptive punishment for a life of being qualified to practice law.

The second concerns more abused employees - this time in a department store. In Austria, the website reports, shop-workers are demanding that they be compensated for the 'psychological terror' of having to listen to Christmas music throughout their working day. Apparently, this treatment has left the workers 'aggressive and confrontational', and makes them 'completely lose their temper at the slightest mention of anything to do with Christmas.' This story attracted my attention, because, like the oppressed Austrians, I once had to endure 6 months of Christmas music whilst working in a department store. You could argue that I asked for it, as I was flogging Christmas decorations, but it may explain why my ears start bleeding everytime I hear Paul McCartney jauntily imploring everyone to have a 'Wonderful Christmastime', or John Lennon tunelessly droning on about how war is over. That said, there are six or seven Christmas songs to which I'll happily listen, and I certainly don't lose my temper at the slightest mention of Christmas. I was even grateful for the two cans of shop branded lager and a Christmas pudding the store gave me as a 'Christmas bonus'. In fact, this year, I haven't looked forward to Christmas so much since I was eight years old.

One man who may have been spending too much time listening to the piped music in the store he owns is David Tang, proprietor of Shangai Tang. I quote below from his letter to the South China Morning Post:

'Looking at the utterly ghastly Christmas tree in Central, I just wonder if it is not too much to ask for the vapid Hong Kong tourist board at least to engage someone with even a modicum of style or an amoebic degree of taste so as to present Hong Kong with the slightest hint of sophistication.'

He's got a point actually, but perhaps he should stay out of the city as Winterfest kicks off.

Ho ho ho.

40 - posted at 07:36:14

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Friday 28th November 2003

I was in Tokyo for two days and scratched the surface only to the extent that a piece of raw fish being dragged over Sony's latest plasma screen would. But, sitting on the train during the long journey from the airport to the city, the hoards of dark-suited businessmen and short-skirted schoolgirls (complete with knee length white socks) I glimpsed on the passing platforms tempted me to think that perhaps I did know the place in a way, that perhaps the cliches were true.

And then of course, as soon as I got into the city, even in its appearance Tokyo surprised me. For me, and perhaps my fellow travellers, it was, at least for a couple of days, the perfect antidote to Hong Kong. The weather was cold, a gently crisp wind lightening the air - a relief from the pollution-heavy humidity back in China. The atmosphere was relaxed and placid - although the streets thronged with people there was a calm quietness to them: for example, on the underground, as in London, no-one spoke. The Japanese cars hummed smoothly by with none of the chaos and belching fumes of Central. And the city itself reminded me of a modern New York or Paris, with wide boulevards and street cafes, complemented by intriguing alleys and lanes.

It was down one of these that we wandered searching for supper. After several tentative but ultimately cowardly attempts to choose a suitable restaurant I eventually took the initiative and slid open the door of an establishment - I should add this was only because I had been peering through the window and noticed two kimonoed women laughing at me. I had no idea, even when we were being led into the place, whether this was even a restaurant. Luckily it was, and we were shown into our private room, where we sat at our table which was only a few inches from the matted floor. We pointed at a set menu on the basis of the price, since there was no English to give us an indication of what we were to have, and then spent a couple of leisurely hours eating, amongst bowls of food I couldn't identify, sushi, sashimi, tempura and sea snail, neatly accompanied by sake.

Then it was off to Rappongi, via the underground. Despite the hideously complicated tube map, which looks like the vomit of someone who's eaten a bit too much multi-coloured spaghetti, we arrived without any trouble. Actually finding somewhere to drink that wasn't a grotty American style bar playing over-loud cock-rock or cheese was more of a difficulty. After trying various places we moved onto Shinjuku and it was here, in the underground station, that we met Hero.* Nicely suited, in a three-piece and with a grinning but mute sidekick, Hero was a young professional who liked the English. He told us he knew a bar nearby, and although a slight reluctance had begun to set in, we followed. Fifteen minutes later and still walking, the patience of some was being tested. But Hero had excitedly called his wife to join us, and he was so polite and friendly, that we persevered. The bar we arrived at was plush and quiet and a pleasant change from the ex-pat dross of Rappongi. Unfortunately there was also a high cover charge that led to a boycott of the bar and three of the group escaping to the hotel. The three of us remaining were eagerly led by Hero to a nearby sports bar that he promised would have drinks. But sadly, despite it being relatively early, they had stopped serving. Hero was devastated - he couldn't go on. He warmly shook our hands, repeating, 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry'. I'm sure I could see the tears start to prick his eyes as he left. We briefly discussed the possibility of him committing Hari-Kiri, before heading for the nearest clutter of neon signs, which turned out to be the Red Light District.

After a few more drinks and futile attempts to find off-the-wall Japanese weirdness, as shows like Adam and Joe Go Tokyo had entitled us to expect (there was an especially concerted effort to find a mythical 'Cabbage Bar' which to my relief we never stumbled across) we headed towards the nearest Capsule Hotel.

Spending the remaining hours of the night in a rectangular box was a peculiar experience - the two-high rows of units lining the large room reminded me of photos of chickens encased in battery farms. Having piled my clothes in a locker, and avoided the tipsy businessman swaying back and forth, I crawled into my capsule and pulled down the blind. It was slightly too short for me, but the ceiling was just about high enough to semi-sit up in. On my right a little control panel gave me a light switch, a radio and an alarm clock, as well as control of the compact television suspended from the ceiling. There was also an enigmatic coin box near the opening of the capsule. I didn't try it, too tired and newly hungover to do anything but sleep, but the next morning I was reliably informed that it made pornography (albeit censored) come on the T.V..

The following day and a half brought further confirmation of some cliches (four streams of pedestrians crossing an intersection under giant neon signs, cameras the size of a flashbulb in the Sony Centre) and further fascinating and novel sights (a procession of men with Samurai Swords, the park and moat surrounding the Imperial Palace, Mount Fuji just visible as a silhouette through the clouds), as well as a considerably more successful night out, fuelled undoubtedly by a glorious rugby match.

As I rushed through the underground system, trying to work out how not to miss my flight back to Hong Kong, I realised that it was the first time I had felt under pressure or harassed in Tokyo. I've no idea if the Tokyo I briefly experienced was anything like the real thing, but hopefully before too long I'll get the opportunity to return for a bit longer and find out.

[*June 2006 Edit: On reflection this gentleman's name was probably the common Japanese name 'Hiro' and not the unheard of 'Hero'. However I choose to believe, despite seeing no written evidence and contrary to rational thought, that the latter was accurate in this case.]

39 - posted at 09:57:39

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