Cambodia, Siem Reap; the temples of Angkor.

Angkor is a stunning complex of temples found in the North-west of Cambodia, proudly holding the title of the largest religious monument in the world with Angkor Wat in its heart! The ultimate fusion of creative ambition and spiritual devotion are a source of inspiration and profound pride to all Khmers (Lonely Planet, 2010). Construction works are estimated to have started in the early 12th century during the dynasty of King Suriavarman II. Angkor Wat was originally a Hinduist temple dedicated to God Vishnu ( Buddhism is the official religion today). The mountain-temple with its surroundings is a representation of the universe with Mt Meru (home to Gods in Hindu mythology) in its center. A surrounding moat that forms a rectangle of 1,5 km by 1,3km dimensions represents the oceans, while an 800m long series of bas-reliefs depicts in anti-clock-wise direction the celebrated scene of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk (Gods and devils, holding the opposite sides of a gargantuan serpent are churning the oceans to extract the elixir of immortality, in a fierce battle). Angkor Wat, almost as large in expanse as many modern European cities, is not only to be admired for the human architectural and artistic ingenuity, but also for the jungle’s fecundity and power: the muscular embrace of century-old trees have entrapped the walls of the Ta Prohm temple ruins for ever, while the 54 towers of the Bayon temple are decorated with 216 gigantic carved heads of lord Avalokiteshvara glaring down at every angle of the horizon.
It seems that Angkor Wat is more than an emblematic monument appearing on the Cambodian flag, hotels names, beer and water bottles as well as innumerable products on the supermarket shelves. It is a symbol to hold on to, for a people who has gone through a lot: the Khmer Rouge is a dark page in their history, still bleeding as much as the memory of the Nazi concentration camps in Europe, and if the Cambodians are not that smiley as other Asian peoples would be, is because of the memory of famine, a civil war, loads of decades of oppression and political instability in a country that managed to have parliamentary elections only in 2008. They say that quality of life has improved, but food is definitely not to be taken for granted for everyone here, inflation is extremely high and social inequalities very obvious.

Vietnam: Hoi An, City of Lanterns.

This is the most captivating, most picturesque, romantic and chic Vietnamese city – no doubt! The Thu Bon River used to be a glorious international trading port back in the 17th century. Traces of the Chinese, Japanese and European influence are omnipresent – “written” on the splendid, local architecture. We’re in the South now and the visitor can sense the difference in the air between the cities of he North and the Southern ones; communication can be a challenge; hardly do people speak English, but they are easier to approach, more friendly and welcoming. This is a city of good taste: Excellent cafes and restaurants,  a very interesting night market, food, crafts, arts and entertainment. Hoi An makes the traveler wish to pay their respects. Walks across the river can be rather annoying at nights – the river banks can get inundated with tourists but the lantern-lit Hoi An streets are not to be missed. The entire Vietnam seems to be an adventure travel experience, but Hoi An is the gentle face of it..

Vietnam, Cat Ba: The floating Van Gia village.

This was not in the guidebook. It was a discovery that gave us a very blissful afternoon! We had only heard of it and only assumed it exists on a kayak the same morning, rowing to the Monkey Island. The Van Gia floating village lies a few meters away from the southernmost port of Cat Ba island. We rented a little engine fishing boat for only a few dollars and the old gentleman who sailed it was so kind as to give as a full tour across the whole area. What we discovered was a real revelation! An entire autonomous community of 733 people sharing 176 households lives there, earning their livelihood almost exclusively by fishing. The houses look clean and well taken care off: the well-off households even have TV sets and are fully equipped but still humble and far from the tourist frenzy that seems to have somehow “corrupted” the locals-unsure of how to behave before this upcoming, rather violent tourist development. And this brings to the sad story: Vietnam is in S.O.S. The area of Halong Bay (gate to the islands which are supposed to be protected by UNESCO) is suffering from the greedy development of the hotel industry which is literally eating off what would otherwise be a real paradise: massive hotel constructions with absolutely no respect to the culture and natural surroundings, neon lights everywhere, noise pollution from bars and clubs, cheap drinking tourism and terror spreading over the nearby islands. Never before have I seen so much rubish in the sea and coasts. What’s even more alarming is that nobody seems to be concerned either on behalf of the authorities or the locals. It looks like a parody to see happy travelers swimming care-free among plastic bottles, sanitary napkins and plastic bags. It seems that the locals lack environmental awareness and business ethics, the government probably lacks ethics of any kind and the tourists visiting alike. It appears that the paradise will shortly be gone. I’ve got photos which I’d rather not show. I’ll just share my Van Gia shootings to wash bitterness away.

Vietnam: Everybody plays in Hanoi!

 Wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning and don’t miss this miracle unfolding before your eyes! People wake up before the city does (shops, morning shifts etc.) and reach for the Hoan Kiem Lake to meditate, take their morning exercise, play: dance, yoga, cycling, fishing, aerobics, weight lifting, chess, massage! Same at dusk! Children inundate the streets to share their toys or improvised game. Children truly play here. You see, video games and technology have not really reached Vietnam yet. The locals are very humble people, very discreet and hard working. They love animals and respect plants. They seem to be tolerant to the western code and they will respect the visitors if the latter leave their attitude back home. It feels that to the Vietnamese there is ritual in everything. The Hoan Kiem Lake, which means “Sword Restored”, is the liquid heart of the Old Quartier (Lonely Planet 2010) with its tiny but emblematic to the city Thap Rua (Tortoise Tower). There’s a beautiful legend around it: in the 15th century the Gods sent a heavenly sword to the emperor Ly Thai To, which he used to drive the Chinese out of Vietnam. One day while he was resting in the banks of the Hoam Kien lake, a giant tortoise swimming on the surface, grabbed the sword and disappeared into the waters! Now you know why the name!

Singapore: Gardens by the Bay.

In the middle of a city, which is in the middle of the jungle, one will not miss the splendid tropical “Gardens by the Bay”! 

Back to Singapore after four years. This was not planned. There was a nine-hour wait at the Changi airport on a transit flight to Hanoi/Vietnam. It was very early, six o’clock on a Sunday morning. The city would remain quiet anyway for the rest of the day. Literally under the shadow of the iconic Marina Bay Sands Hotel lie those magnificent botanical gardens and it’s not only the stunning variety of tropical flora they boast- it is also the comprehensive sustainability efforts that make the gardens set an example of environmental awareness. Everyone has seen those amazing super-tree, iron constructions, which provide the park with energy via photovoltaic cells. Two glass conservatories occupy glass biomes that would explicate the Mediterranean and Tropical climate. Strolling around the gardens one will see the Dragonfly Lake and Kingfisher Lake which water irrigates the whole expanse of 130 acres.

This metropolis-no doubt, as clean as a city can be, is there to teach everyone that sophisticated technology can be very sexy when holding hands with ethos and awareness.

July 23, 2017.

India’s Caste System.

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India is probably the most complex society in the world. The country is growing fast but traditional views that would appear as rather obsolete today still persist. Among those, and when it comes to the caste system even though outlawed ever since the 1950s segregation and discrimination are still in place, looming above perceptions about class.

Τhe Caste System, or else Jati System has existed in India for more than 2,000 years with its roots holding in ancient Hinduist traditions. According to those, four distinct social classes constituted society with the Brahmins (Priests and Scholars) in the most prestigious place, followed by the Ksatriyas (Nobles and Warriors), the Vaisyas (bussiness owners) and Shudras (workers and servants). But distinction does not stop there; there is this fifth caste under the name Dalit (or else Untouchables), ostracized from the rest of society, considered impure not to be touched limited to heavy undesirable jobs outside the urban centres. The Dalit are disgraceful, suffering their fate, punished for the nasty life they led in their previous incarnation. Themselves, they suffer their stigma, fully aware of their condition, stoically accepting their present as a passage to the next incarnation, longing for the end of their martyrdom. Under no circumstances would a Dalit marry a spouse from another caste or share neither private nor public life with them.

The caste system was written into the laws of the British India during year 1947 and became even more rigid ever since its acquisition of formal institutional status. It was in 1955 when the caste system was outlawed  and integration of the Dalits into society became part of governmental planning. In the meanwhile large numbers of the Dalit population had converted into Islam in quest of escape from the stigma.

Since 1950s, the country has enacted many laws and social initiatives to protect and improve the socioeconomic conditions of its lower caste population. A 2003 article in The Telegraph claimed that inter-caste marriage and dating were common in urban India. Indian societal and family relationships are changing because of female literacy and education, women at work, urbanisation, the need for two-income families, and global influences through television. Female role models in politics, academia, journalism, business, and India’s feminist movement have accelerated the change.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caste_system_in_India

Asian Gothic: Nepal.

If Gothic had been conceived and cultivated in Asia, it would have been under the blessings of Nepal! Reddish and dark subdued colours, fog, carnivorous Gods, elaborate architecture with complex ornaments, stupas with the Buddha’s eyes omnipresent, under the shade of the Himalayan Mountain range, and this terrible memory of the dark 25th of April, 2015 when a massive earthquake stroke the whole country turning everything into ruins and debris. But grief and misery do not belong here and the gods would not have allowed this. The Nepalis are optimist people, modest and decent, working hard to rebuild their fascinating country from its ashes.

Kathmandu is a captivating capital with a magnificent historic (Medieval) centre (Durbar Square). The pavilions and shrines constitute an open-air architectural museum and hidden backstreet courtyards surprise the visitor, same as the vivid festivals and everyday rituals do. The population in Nepal is predominantly Hindu but the Buddhist tradition prevails. Nepal (Lumbini) is the birthplace of Buddha but also home to a wonderful people who warmly receive the traveler and captivate them with their kindness and a smile that comes directly from the heart!

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