The deafening quiet in the midst of a chaotic city has a profoundly moving effect on you as you walk into the The Tuol Svay Pray High School. Unlike other schools in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the sound of playing children doesn’t ring out from the gates.
40 years ago, in the year I was born - 1976, the Khmer Rouge renamed the high school S-21 and turned it into a secret centre of torture, interrogation and execution.
Like the Nazi’s before them, the Khmer Rouge meticulously documented their genocide; they carefully transcribed interrogations and created an incredibly haunting archive of inmates’ portraits. The photographs and confessions were collected by staff at the prison, fearing for their own lives, in order to prove to the Khmer Rouge leaders that their orders had been carried out.
Between the years 1975 – 1979, the Khmer Rouge killed an estimated two million Cambodians. At least 16,000 went through the gates of the converted school, including women and children; it’s believed that less than 20 people survived.
S-21 is now known as the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide.
In 1979, after the regime was removed by Vietnamese forces, two photojournalists entered S-21 to discover bloated, decomposing, tortured bodies chained to metal bed frames. The resulting photographs, which are on display, act as a stark reminder of the atrocities that happened here.
In the courtyard, the playground equipment, which was converted for torture, reveals a dark secret about the interrogators methods. The guards, interrogators and other prison staff at S-21 were generally between 15 and 19 years of age and were from peasant backgrounds. The Khmer Rouge generally discouraged torture that ended with death, this was discussed at length in a torturer's manual found at S-21.
Of the information and displays around the building, the photographic portraits are the most haunting. Each one tells a story of confusion, fear, defiance and resignation. The innocence of a child’s eyes are lost as they stare straight into the camera lens. One photograph features a shirtless young man whose number tag has been safety pinned into his pectoral muscle.
After the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, the leader Pol Pot retreated, but continued to lead the Khmer Rouge as an insurgent movement until 1997. He died in 1998 in a tiny jungle village, never having faced charges.
Like the Perm-36 Gulag camp in Siberia that closed in 1987 and the numerous sites we visited throughout the Balkans that had witnessed ethnic cleansing in the 1990’s, what is so shocking about this is the fact it all happened during my lifetime. A sobering thought.
Sadly the world has not learnt from it's mistakes… and probably never will.
The overlanding market has grown at an exceptional rate over the last 5 years and this is reflected in the increase of events being held globally. The Adventure Overland Show is the UK’s only dedicated show to cover all aspects of overlanding. It was however mostly attended by 4x4 owners and rather lacking in attendance from cyclists and motorcyclists.
Photo by Tony Borrill
We had the pleasure of giving two presentations and sitting on one discussion panel which was expertly hosted by Overland Sphere whose website and Facebook pages are fast becoming the ‘go to’ resource for overlanders.
The show featured many trade stalls and showcased numerous clubs and associations from around the UK. Mooching about the car park and admiring the extensive variety of vehicles led to meeting some interesting folk. Seemingly, the show was predominantly attended by people who’d made the first step of purchasing and prepping an overland vehicle. Most people I spoke with were in the process of planning their first trip outside of Europe, this again reflecting the recent growth within the community.
The real highlight for me though was finally meeting many of the people who have followed our adventure from its inception. We made many new friends and even found the time to interview a few of them for our Overlanding Podcast.
A great weekend, hopefully we’ll be within driving distance of it next year!
Ladies, have you ever wanted to own an outfit that seamlessly transitions from day to night?
Well, you need to move to Cambodia (or the north of England) where it is totally socially acceptable to wear your pyjamas 24/7.
The abundance of ladies in their PJ’s is astounding. At first we were bewildered, did they actually know what they were wearing? Maybe they thought they’d purchased a co-ordinating two-piece trouser/blouse combo!
Actually most Khmer ladies are fully aware that they are wearing pyjamas, but who cares? They are incredibly practical. The comfort factor plays a significant role in their nocturnal daywear. Elastic waistbands allow for a little expansion after lunch, the baggy light cotton is cool in the baking sun and Khmer woman are fairly conservative; a pair of pyjamas allows them to modestly cover up.
Pyjamas are available in a whole cornucopia of colours and designs, allowing the ladies to express their personality. Occasionally and rather ironically we’d spot Cambodia’s most stylish trendsetters parading around in the sweltering heat covered in penguins. Very occasionally we’d spot a sophisticated lady modelling colour coordinated pyjama/crash helmet chic!
Whether this colourful display is a subconscious stand against the communist Khmer Rouge who notoriously dressed all in black is not known. Either way Cambodia’s fascination with nocturnal attire is somewhat amusing but totally endearing. To be honest we are slightly envious!
This is the English translation of our interview with Matsch-und-Piste. You can view the original article in German here....
What was your inspiration to make a world trip?
Emma had previously travelled on expedition across Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Yemen as a production manager of a wildlife documentary series. In 2010, I needed a holiday and so we did a 10-day trip across the UAE and Oman. It became apparent quite quickly that we were good travelling partners. Later in the year via a Skype conversation the subject was raised of where we should go on our next road-trip. One of us jokingly said “lets drive around the world”. 1 and a half years later we set off!
How did you prepare for your trip? How long did the preparation take?
We spent about 1 and a half years planning. We spent a lot of time on the internet researching trips undertaken by other people. This is when we discovered ‘overlanding’, before that we were just going on road trips. We were unaware it had a name, websites and a whole community. Andy researched 4x4’s religiously and compiled a short-list of potential vehicles.
Why have you chosen the Toyota?
The second value of the Toyota Hilux Surf is very low, especially one that is 22 years old. The car has just a very basic ECU, so doesn’t require special software or a computer to fix it. One of the reasons we chose a Toyota Hilux Surf (apart from the fact we couldn’t afford a 70 or 80 series Landcruiser) for this trip was because of the availability of parts. The Hilux Surf shares many parts with other Toyota models including 4Runners, Hilux pick-ups, various Landcruiser models and some obscure models that are only available through South-east Asia. 4Runners are prevalent throughout Europe. Surfs and Landcruiser Prado’s (which share our 1KZ-TE engine) are widespread through Russia, Central Asia and South-east Asia. The only country we’ve travelled through where we didn’t really see many old Toyota 4x4’s was India.
How do you finance your trip?
We sold all our possessions, worked 2 jobs and moved back in with our parents to save money. We work a little as we travel, writing articles for magazines and doing the odd graphic design jobs. We prolong our money by doing work exchanges as we travel through websites like workaway.info
What does your trip approximately cost per month?
The cost per month varies depending on route, how much many work placements we do and other factors, but on average a trip like this costs about £0.25 a mile (or €0.32 per 1.6km)
How do you navigate? What equipment do you use to navigate?
Initially we had a Garmin Handheld GPS 60csx, this was stolen in Tehran when our car was robbed. We now use our smartphones. We use an app called Galileo for the iPhone (https://galileo-app.com). This works offline using opensource maps. We also use a similar app for Android called Maps.me (http://maps.me/en/home). Both are great, we might upgrade to a designated iPad for navigation soon. Another great map app and resource is iOverlander (http://ioverlander.com). We also carry paper maps which are much better for planning routes and overviews of the country.
How many countries have you been to? How many kilometres have you driven?
We are now in country 51 and have completed more than 140,000km.
What have been your most lovely experiences so far?
The real highlight for us was driving through Central Asia, especially the notorious Pamir Highway. Many overlanders have a holy grail; some want to drive the Bolivian Death Road others the Road of Bones in Siberia. For us, the infamous Pamir Highway in Central Asia had been on the top of our list for some time. It is the world’s second highest international highway; the surface is mostly unpaved. The road traverses the Pamir Mountains and travels through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan reaching an altitude of 4,655 metres.
Part of the highway requires a special permit as it passes through the autonomous region of Gorno-Badakhshan. The scenery was wild in every sense of the word. We experienced landslides, rock-falls, earthquakes, floods, high winds and political unrest; all factors that rate it quite highly on the ‘World’s Most Dangerous Roads’ list.
Have there been any set backs? Any situations where you have experienced fear?
Like all long term trips you are likely to face set backs. Our trip has had many. Whilst in Central Mongolia we received news that both Andy’s parents had been diagnosed with Cancer. We decided that the best course of action was to return home whilst our visas still allowed us to do so easily. We turned around and drove straight back to the UK in a pretty impressive 15 days. We had to put our trip on hold which cost us a lot of money in fuel, losing insurance, Carnet fees and other expenses.
In Turkey we cracked the cylinder head on the car as it overheated. This was a costly repair and set us back a couple of months.
In Iran our car was robbed and we lost most of the contents of the car.
We have never really experienced fear – we have had a few near misses and avoided several accidents mainly caused by bad drivers. We’ve encountered a lot of wild animals – snakes, leopards and elephants!
You were robbed in Tehran. What did they take and how did you manage to get back on the road?
In an ironic twist of fate, we were robbed whilst in Iran making an overland documentary film about how great the people are. Entrusting our security to our guides and sponsors, our few habitual self-imposed rules that had kept us safe through 45 countries were temporarily broken. We never drive at night, we never leave the car in the same place for long periods of time and if we stay in a hotel or in a city we make sure the car is in secure parking.
Unfortunately in Tehran our situation was different and somewhat out of our control. We were assured by our Iranian TV director that the neighbourhood was safe but regrettably we had no secured parking and much to our unhappiness we had no choice but to leave the car on the street.
Being woken at 6am to be told the window on your precious home has been smashed was not a nice experience. In my sleepy state it hadn’t dawned on me that we might have been robbed. For some reason, in my naivety I just presumed our car had been vandalised because we were British.
We called the police immediately, and then spent a heart-breaking hour and a half peering in through the smashed window trying to work out the extent of what had been taken.
Two Iranian motorcycle policemen arrived and, with a complete lack of compassion, promptly told us the robbery was our own fault for parking on the street! They wrote down my details, told me to go to the nearest Police Station and left without even getting off their motorbikes.
And then it began… the long, painfully slow, soul-destroying job of filing a police report in a foreign country. In total the whole frustrating procedure, with lengthy discussions in Farsi translated to only a few English words, took 4 full days with multiple visits to four different police stations to attain all the correct rubber stamps, forms and signatures before an investigation could begin. Annoyingly and somewhat expectedly we haven’t heard from them since!
The thieves indiscriminately took 6 Flatdog Wolf Boxes containing clothing, car parts, medical kit, camping equipment and personal items. Sadly, this included the box that contained Emma’s travel diaries, all our used maps and books plus every sentimental little souvenir and gift we’d acquired en-route. They also took a few larger items including my tool roll, our recovery equipment, pop-up toilet tent and the cooker.
In total it would cost approximately £6,500 to replace the items that were stolen. The financial loss was devastating but the inconvenience and time wasted was really problematic. When you travel in this way every item you carry has a purpose and we had specifically spent a lot of time researching the products we’d purchased. Trying to replace some of the ‘essential’ items in Iran proved to be near impossible especially as our visa was slowly ticking away. The stress in the days that followed was crippling, re-living every detail and not knowing if we could feasibly continue with our trip.
Thankfully the people of Iran and our friends back home proved how amazing they are and came to our rescue helping us source and replace many of the items that were taken. Our friends in England set-up a donate page for us and people donated enough that we could carry on.
Fortunately the robbery didn’t dampen our adventurous spirit and we have continued our trip.
What countries did you like most? What countries would you most likely not visit again?
We loved the wilderness off Mongolia. The driving there was amazing and the people are extremely friendly. Morocco is great because it is so close to home and has much to see and do. The landscape and terrain is also very varied from sandy desert to high mountains and the Atlantic coast to lush green valleys. The whole of Central Asia was amazing – The Pamir Highway! We also loved Thailand. Andy would really love to go back to Russia and explore the far North west!
May 1st was your 800th day on the road. Your web site is named "Around the World in 800 Days". Were the 800 days actually a goal? Why did you choose this name for the site?
The name of the trip was inspired by Jules Verne’s ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’. For us though we prefer to take our time and so we added an extra ‘0’; Around the world in 800 Days! Our goal is to visit as many countries as possible in our car, we’ve had setbacks so reaching 800 days was a big deal for us!
Is there an end to your trip in sight? Or is overlanding your way of life?
The current stage of our trip is nearing an end as we have nearly run out of money. We will be heading back to England in July. We have started making plans so that we can continue to South America but this depends on lots of factors. We have been on the road (on and off) since 2012 and we are both a little tired. We have lots of plans to earn money in the UK which are related to overlanding! The dream is to be able to make enough money as you travel to continue this lifestyle.
What character traits does an overlander need?
Persistent, stubborn, a good problem solver, a little brave, a little stupid and most definitely ambitious.
If someone wants to do a world trip. What advice would you give him?
Don’t wait. People find too many excuses not to follow their dreams. Just do it! Even if you don’t think you can and you don’t have enough money, just go. You’ll have an adventure or you’ll die trying!
Never drive at night.
Never leave the car in the same place for long periods of time.
Keep on top of car maintenance.
Andy is 40 years old, a practising artist who has exhibited worldwide. Along side this he is a keen graphic designer and has a healthy interest in all areas of creativity, especially architecture.
Emma is 38, a biologist specializing in fresh water fish, ecological conservation and has worked as a production manager for a wildlife documentary series, planning and managing expeditions across Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Yemen.
This article was originally posted on http://matsch-und-piste.de/
The ‘Secret War’ in Laos was a covert proxy war, fought in the shadows of the Vietnam War and was fuelled by the belligerent global Cold War superpowers. The war was fought between the Communist Pathet Lao which was effectively organised, equipped and led by the Army of North Vietnam under the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (which emerged under the Marxist/Leninist model of communism) and the Royal Lao Government backed (secretly) by the U.S. who wanted to quell communist strength across South-East Asia.
The wars in Laos and Vietnam were so intertwined that the CIA trained a guerrilla militia force of about 30,000 Laos tribesmen to disrupt operations along the Hồ Chí Minh trail, that was feeding communist forces in Southern Vietnam, without having any accountable direct military involvement.
From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. indiscriminately dropped over 2 million tons of ordnance over Laos in 580,000 bombing missions; the equivalent of one planeload every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years. Many bombs were haphazardly dropped, killing thousands of innocent people, simply to get rid of them following cancelled missions over Vietnam.
Due to the U.S.’s relentless bombardment of Laos, the Pathet Lao were forced to operate from an extensive network of caves at Viengxay in the Houaphanh Province in the northeast. Four hundred and eighty caves were used in total during the 9-year period housing a hospital, a school, offices, bakeries, shops, printing presses and even a theatre.
The secret location was home to 23,000 people: locals say that farmers had to farm at night to avoid bombing raids!
The Pathet Lao leaders lived and directed the war from the caves. In 1973 when the U.S’s aerial onslaught finished the leadership built houses outside their various caves from where they commanded their troops in the concluding stages of the war against the Royalist Hmong forces.
For many years the Laos government denied any existence of the cave network; however, since 2009 some of the caves have been opened to the public and have become a valuable tourist attraction in the province. Most of the caves are named after the Pathet Lao leaders who lived there. To visit them you must take a knowledgeable guide from the Viengxay Caves Visitor Centre.
Our sobering tour visited 5 of the major caves starting with the large cave of Kaysone Phomvihane, leader of the Lao Communist movement from its formation in 1955, he remained unchallenged as head of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic from its inception in 1975 until his death in 1992.
Phomvihane’s cave has multiple exits, an office, meeting rooms and sleeping quarters. Each cave also featured a re-enforced concrete emergency chamber, behind a hefty metal submarine-style door, in case of direct bombing and chemical-weapons attacks. The chambers still housed the working Soviet oxygen filters.
The cave of the Red Prince Souphanouvong was one of the most fascinating. Our audio tour informed us that the prince was allegedly the first person to gain contacts, and ultimately aid and help, the Viet Minh Communist forces in Vietnam. His wife was Vietnamese and he started working in Vietnam after he graduated from a French university.
The house outside the Prince’s cave was somewhat more stylish and well designed than any of the other houses. His taste may well have been influenced by his time spent in France.
The other cave of great interest is Xanglot Cave (AKA The Theatre Cave), a massive natural cave in the karst limestone rock which housed a stage and hall where political rallies, meetings and even weddings were held. Festivals, theatre performances and music & dance performances by visiting artists from China, Russia and Vietnam also took place here. The cave housed more than 2,000 soldiers in a huge army barracks and was the headquarters of the Pathet Lao military effort.
The Laotion Civil War, as it is officially known, like most other wars, was a complex melee of politics. Unlike the Vietnam War, it wasn’t fought under the gaze of the world’s media which resulted in a near futile, senseless and often unheeded outcome. As a consequence Laos remains, per capita, the most heavily bombed country on earth, a fact I was ignorantly unaware of before visiting. Decades later, unexploded ordinance (UXO) literally litters the entire country and has killed more than 20,000 people since the war ended in 1975! Today over 80 million live cluster bomblets still scatter the country.
Cleaning up the unexploded ordnance is agonizingly slow, thankfully organisations like MAG do incredible work in clearing UXO’s and helping the Laos population to reclaim their land.
In 2014 The U.S. Congress approved a $12 million grant for UXO clearance and related aid in Laos, bringing the total up to $82 million. To put that into context the U.S. spent a relative $18 million a day, for nine years, bombing the country; that’s approximately $60 billion.
Considering the current population of Laos is just under 7 million, the U.S. could have paid the entire population approximately $9,000 each not to be communists! Unfortunately war doesn’t work like that!
Sadly the daily lives of millions are still affected by the senseless bombing. Long-term development of the country has also been disturbed; farmers can’t work the land and construction of schools, hospitals and factories are constantly delayed.
Our visit to Laos was eye opening and often heart wrenching, unfortunately history proves that we don’t learn from our mistakes. Considering the phenomenal amount of money the U.S. spent pointlessly destroying a country, most have never heard of, they (politicians and the war machine in the “developed” world) continue to invest ridiculous amounts of money developing new technologies to eradicate people in fields on the other side of the world, with sickening effect.
On the 6th November 2006, the administrative capital of Myanmar (aka Burma) was moved, with minimal explanation by the military government, to an empty-ish plot of land (now named Naypyidaw) 200 miles north of Yangon (aka Rangoon), the previous capital.
Naypyidaw is an eerily desolate modern-day ghost town, not one that has been deserted but one that has never been inhabited. The city has one high school offering basic education, very few shops and virtually no public transport network with the exception of one taxi company which is operated by the military!
This lack of infrastructure makes the city less than desirable. The current population consists mainly of government employees and administrative officials who were forced to move there. Due to the lack of facilities in the city many families were split up when the government forced it’s employees to move.
As utilisation of the vast new city is very low the consequences of such an immense project have been criticised by the outside world. With an estimated cost of $3–4 billion the national economic impact of such a huge construction effort, over a relatively short period, in such a poor country must have been considerable.
Due to the location of the new capital the cost of doing business with government has increased, this is due to the excessive journey time from Yangon, where most business offices are based.
It seems crazy that such money was, and still is, being spent on a huge city that no one wants or uses!
The rationale for moving the city is debateable, some theorists believe that the capital was moved because Than Shwe, the previous head of state, wanted a ‘vanity project’ to compete with those of other authoritarian leaders, especially in Central Asia, who may be seeking to amplify their own personality cults.
It is more likely though that the move was tactical and initiated to secure the capital and relocate it centrally away from the country’s borders: Yangon is a coastal city and vulnerable to a nautical attack. The new central location lends itself to the city becoming a transportation hub adjacent to the volatile states of Shan, Kayah and Kayin. It was felt by governmental and military leaders that a stronger military and governmental presence nearby might provide stability to those chronically turbulent regions.
Sadly the most logical reason for moving the capital is much less interesting; Yangon had simply become too congested with little room for future expansion.
In stark contrast to Istanbul, Tehran or Delhi driving is easy on the empty streets. The massive vacant 20-lane highways were designed to future proof the city for expansion but are also rumoured to be able to accommodate military aircraft landing.
We stopped outside the Parliamentary complex and presidential palace at the site where the Top Gear team had played football on the motorway and drag raced! The architecturally Stalinist buildings are gargantuan and gaudy, the only thing that roots them in local culture are the faux Burmese roofs.
Up until the 2015 landmark elections, the Parliamentary complex and presidential palace actually held little authority. True power was (and possibly still is) located in one of the cities Crystal Maze-esq named zones; the Commercial Zone, International Zone, Residential Zone, the Ministry Zone and Military Zone.
The top ranking military officers and important government personnel live in the secretive military zone, conveniently located 7 miles away. The whole area is shrouded in mystery, is strictly forbidden and apparently consists of a complex network of tunnels and bunkers.
We obviously stayed in the Hotel Zone, in one of the 12 huge, unfinished, Soviet-esq hotels that loom from the wide, empty streets.
The International Zone caters for foreign embassies, so far only Bangladesh has moved in!
The residential zone is one of the most interesting. The apartments are allotted according to rank and marital status. The identical apartment blocks, of which there are 1,200, have colour-coded roofs; the Ministry of Health employees live in buildings with blue roofs, employees from the Ministry of Agriculture live in buildings with green roofs. High-ranking administrative officials live in mansions.
Like Milton Keynes, where Emma grew up, this new city is a ‘masterpiece’ of town planning. Naypyidaw’s genius, unlike Milton Keynes however is not centred around roundabouts but focused on quashing regime change and nullifying dissent through urban design and cartography. Historically the public square has been the epicentre of democratic expression, most revolutions have started from protests in public squares where statues of dictators have toppled. Naypyidaw has no public squares! The wide streets are harder for prospective rioters to barricade and easier for tanks, helicopters and even planes to manoeuvre. The enormity of the city is designed to dwarf the individual and supress active participation within the metropolis; the scale is intended to intimidate the citizens to feel subservient to the power of the state. The presidential palace even has a moat!
In stark contrast to the rest of Myanmar, with its humble, friendly villages, towns and rural roads, Naypyidaw sticks out like an urban sore thumb. A disparity so evident you feel like you have entered some kind of twilight zone, a hollow existence in a void of a city the previous government tried to force on a population where the majority still live modest, subsistent, family-orientated lifestyles. Hopefully the new, recently elected government, spearheaded by Aung San Suu Kyi will make wiser decisions for the future of the country.
Myanmar maybe a little tricky and expensive to drive your car through but it certainly is worth it. We timed our trip well, making sure we were there for the country’s New Year water festival.
Like most of South-east Asia, Myanmar celebrates it’s New-Year in April with a week long festival of water throwing, hosepipe soaking and beer drinking! During the celebrations it is impossible to walk down the street without someone tipping an icy cold bucket of water over you: great in the +40°C heat, not so great if you have your phone in your pocket!
To remedy this we purchased waterproof zip-lock dry-bags for our phones and armed with our waterproof Go-Pro we headed out onto the street! In under a minute we were drenched!
Thingyan, as it is officially known, originates from the Buddhist version of a Hindu myth. As we learnt in India, Hindu mythology has some pretty ‘interesting’ stories. Long story short… The King of Brahmas lost a bet to the King of Devas, Sakra aka Thagya Min, who then decapitated The King of Brahmas but then a head of an elephant was put onto the Brahma's body who then became Ganesha (The elephant god). The Brahma was so powerful that if the head were thrown into the sea it would dry up immediately. If it were thrown onto land it would be scorched. If it were thrown up into the air the sky would burst into flames. Sakra aka Thagya Min therefore ordained that the Brahma's head be carried by one princess Devi after another taking turns for a year each. The new-year henceforth has come to signify the changing of hands of the Brahma's head.
Thingyan truly arrives on the second day of celebrations when the King of Devas, Sakra aka Thagya Min makes his descent from his celestial abode to earth. At a given signal, a cannon is fired and people come out with pots of water and then pour the water onto the ground with a prayer.
A prophecy for the new-year will have been announced by the brahmins and this is based on what animal Sakra aka Thagya Min will be riding on his way down and what he might carry in his hand. Children will be told that if they have been good Thagya Min will take their names down in a golden book but if they have been naughty their names will go into a book made from dog!
Then the water throwing begins! The water festival is now symbolic of cleansing ones sins for the coming year, or an excuse to get drunk and act like a child! Which suits me just fine!
Truckloads of partygoers cruise around fully armed with a trough of icy water and buckets looking for unsuspected dry pedestrians. No one is spared! Many houses, workplaces and hotels, ours included, get into the spirit of things with huge sound-systems blaring the same two songs over and over. A huge water trough was placed outside and we duly took our turn at soaking anyone and everyone who passed: pedestrian, scooter rider and car!
All this merriment is great for the first two days, after that it all gets a bit tiresome. I must have committed a fair few sins last year for the soaking I received! In +40°C heat and with no air-con in Bee-bee we were forced to drive with the windows wound up in fear of 10L buckets of water being launched into our car as we drove past! With temperatures in the car over +50°C we were literally melting inside! From early morning into the darkness of night drunken partygoers are dancing dangerously on the edge of the road! Small kids, often unsupervised, are also throwing themselves, along with a bucket, into the road to try and soak you as you cautiously drive past. We were lucky, most scooter riders normally take a dangerous drenching regardless of sex, speed, age, whether or not they are carrying a small baby whilst sat sidesaddle or already saturated.
The whole fiasco goes on for 7 days, culminating in a huge party on the eve of the 7th day, which actually was a lot of fun! Most big cities organise huge street parties and stages, fully armed with water cannons where thousands of revellers come to enjoy the free show, get soaked and sink a few beers; slightly more fun than a drunken verse of Auld Lang Syne and watching fireworks on the TV.
Auto rickshaws, tuk-tuks or simply just ‘autos’ are everywhere in India! It’s not known how many there are but in some towns and cities the number is seemingly so disproportionate to the amount of customers that the rickshaw stands are often overflowing with hundreds of empty autos awaiting their next fare.
For many Indians being an auto driver is a good honest job, although with a new auto costing about £1800 we couldn’t fathom how it was a viable career considering the competition for just one 20p fare! We met numerous rickshaw drivers who lived by the meter, offered an amazing service and were truly happy to hear about why we were in India! To encourage meter use we always tipped these guys generously. The story was very different in Delhi and the other tourist hotspots where walking down the street actually becomes a tedious task as countless autos cruise past hawking for trade. As a tourist you are targeted and hounded and after bartering with at least 5 or 6 drivers you will still end up paying about 4 times the meter price (which they will never use).
For some drivers their auto is home from home, you will frequently see drivers asleep across the back seat and eating meals. Most autos are black and yellow or green and yellow, yet despite their uniformity there is still room for personality. Many drivers customise their ‘Tuk-Tuk’ by adding personal modifications, custom paint jobs, chrome accessories, sticker portraits of their favourite Bollywood stars and huge soundsystems.
Riding in one is akin to taking a jaunt on a ghost train, the scare factor is certainly equal! The auto can turn on a dime, you are open to the sights, sounds and smells of the city and you could be hit in the face at anytime by anything! Amongst the sea of green and yellow the autos tussle for space with just inches to spare. Inside space is at a premium and you certainly feel like sardines in a can. Typically an auto can carry 4 people, on one occasion we witnessed 14 people riding on one rickshaw!
India is a spiritually diverse country with 6 separate religions vying for the high percentages: by far though Hinduism has the majority share with 80% of the population being practicing Hindus.
Hinduism is an incredibly complex religion of which I’m not about to try and explain. One aspect that we found fascinating during our time in India was the extent of the religious devotion through acts of offerings, commitment and pilgrimage by Indians and Westerners!
Pilgrimages and festivals are common in India and we were lucky enough to witness several.
Unexpectedly in Kerala, we bumped into a procession of men in a trance like state hanging from meat hooks on moving vehicles! OH! That’ll be the Thaipusam Festival!
Thaipusam is a Hindu festival celebrated mostly by the Tamil community on the full moon in January/February. Devotees prepare for the celebration by cleansing themselves through prayer and fasting for approximately 48 days before Thaipusam. On the day of the festival, devotees undertake a pilgrimage along a set route while engaging in various acts of devotion, notably mortification of the flesh by piercing the skin, tongue or cheeks with skewers. It was pretty horrific. The procession starts with the village youngsters who have up to 40 little bells hanging from their chests and backs from fishing hooks. As the boys approach puberty they have skewers pierced through their cheeks and arms. When they reach manhood they are themselves hanging like Christmas decorations from trucks!
As we headed south through Goa, Karnataka and Kerala we witnessed hundreds of elaborately, kitschy decorated jeeps packed with sweaty pilgrims. After a little investigation we discovered they were all heading for Sabarimala. The Hindu Pilgrimage site is located on a hilltop in a dense forest. It is one of the largest annual pilgrimages in the world, with an estimated 100 million devotees attending every year. Traditionally these pilgrimages would have been made on foot now Hindu devotees spend a lot of money with tour operators to carry them across the country to attend!
Indian festivals, temples and pilgrimages are big business in India. Every temple has a huge notice board (a bit like a takeaway menu) with the price list for offerings and ‘puja’ rituals offered by priests; some larger temples even have a computerised payment system. In a country where the average daily wage is less than £2 it was staggering to see the amount of revenue generated by Shiva and Co. through fire waving and sweet offering!
The Rolling Saint
On the roads in India you can witness anything! So it came as no surprise to see a man rolling down one of the countries motorways. Mohan Das aka Lotan Baba or ‘The Rolling Saint’ is an Indian holy man who is promoting peace by rolling his body along the ground when he travels, sometimes whilst smoking.
With his unique approach to overlanding he’s covered a whooping 30,000km and even tried to cross the notorious India/Pakistan border where he was stopped and told he needed a passport and visa like everybody else!
Admittedly he is a pretty special guy, he once undertook penance for 7 years by standing in one place and eating grass.
Ardh Kumbh Mela
The Kumbh Mela is a mass pilgrimage where Hindus gather to bathe in a sacred river. The Kumbh Mela and the Ardh (half) Kumbh Mela are held periodically on rotation at four sites: Haridwar, Allahabad, Nashik and Ujjain. The festival is held at each site every 12 years, with a half festival every 6 years. Bathing in sacred rivers is considered to cleanse a person of all sins… The estimated attendance over the Kumbh Mela is approximately 120 million people – that’s a lot of sinners!
The main festival site is considered to be in Haridwar on the banks of the river Ganges. We caught the tail end of the Ardh Kumbh Mela in Haridwar and got to experience the full extent of how many people felt they needed their sins cleansed!
Just 20km north of Haridwar lies Rishikesh. In February 1968, the Beatles arrived here in North India, also known as “The Valley of the Saints” at the foothills of the Himalayas to study Transcendental Meditation. Rishikesh is roughly 7000km away from Bangor in North Wales, which is where the Beatles first attended a seminar by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
Being a huge music fan I was excited at the prospect of visiting Rishikesh and experiencing the place where the Beatles had one of their most productive times. A huge chunk of “the White Album” was written at the Ashram and whilst there I enjoyed learning about the context in which the songs were written. With fresh ears I listened again and again and read new meanings into many of the songs I had taken for granted.
I knew that the Beatles had shared their class with Donovan, Jane Asher, Marianne Faithfull, Flautist Paul Horn, Mike Love of the Beach Boys and with Mia Farrow along with her sister Prudence. The song Dear Prudence, composed by Lennon using a guitar picking technique taught by Donovan, was intended to lure Prudence Farrow out of her three week intense meditation!
It’s no secret that the Beatles time in India ended in controversy due to allegations of unfair business negotiations, allegations of sexual impropriety and drug use; the latter causing great tension between the Maharishi and the Beatles!
Western Devotees, Spiritualists and Yoga Disciples
The Beatles had travelled 7000km to India on a pilgrimage of sorts to ‘find themselves’, possibly with drugs, possibly with Transcendental Meditation, after the death of their manager Brian Epstein. In 2016 Westerners are still heading east in search of answers, they are easy to spot in Rishikesh despite dressing like the locals!
But surely Hinduism requires a life of dedication, not just a two-week holiday and a pair of white cotton trousers, to begin to understand the complexities of the numerous gods and deities, it is an incredibly tough religion to get your head around after all? An observation proven to us when we spotted a clearly confused western couple in Rishikesh who were taking part in a Hindu ceremony and drinking water from the Ganges who were then later spotted in a shop purchasing Tibetan Buddhist Thangka’s wearing Islamic style headdress’.
Emma: Do you want to go to Auroville?
Me: Sounds like a Lars von Trier movie!
On reflection after visiting Auroville and digging a little deeper it seems my nerdy film director remark was not too far from the truth. The idiosyncrasies of life in the microcosm of Auroville have many parallels with several of Lars von Trier’s movies.
Auroville is an experiment in the making - a “universal township” started in the late 1960’s to realise “human unity” for a population of up to 50,000 people from around the world.
Situated near Pondicherry in south-east India the township is now home to 2,345 people coming from 50 nationalities all working together towards peace, sincerity and truth; creating the ideal society beyond all social, political and religious conviction with an emphasis on education, self sustainability and creativity.
It’s a proposed utopia here on planet earth where the emphasis is less about capitalism and more about socialism. In Auroville money is no longer the “sovereign lord”, material wealth and social standing play no role with the focus being placed on individual worth: what you can offer as a human being.
Auroville, or the ‘City of Dawn’, was founded in 1968 by ‘The Mother’, whose image is unnervingly plastered on nearly every home, building, and public space around Auroville. She was inspired by her relationship with Sri Aurobindo, an Indian philosopher and yoga guru and in 1968 announced her 4-point Charter laying the foundations for her vision of “integral living”.
Now this is all starting to sound a little culty* and not to dissimilar to the synopsis of Lars von Trier’s movie ‘The Idiots’ where a group of perfectly intelligent young people decide to react to society's cult of an aimless, non-creative and non-responsible form of intelligence by living together in an alternative community. The film focuses on a new recruit, a lost soul, who is introduced to their megalomaniac leader. The Auroville website states “One lives in Auroville in order to be free from moral and social conventions”. In ‘The Idiots’ the group’s main activity is going out into the world of "normal" people and pretending to be mentally retarded! The Idiots view themselves with a self-righteous air of confidence that elevates them above “normal” people. They belong to something special and are protective of the group in fear of outside influences.
Auroville has it’s own printing press and in one of the many gift shops that visitors can access you can purchase many books about the Guru’s philosophy along with publications written by the residents. The cities Outreach Media Centre, an Orwellian-esq committee established to monitor press about Auroville, keeps a close eye on what is published about the community by its own press and certainly by outsiders.
A model in the visitors centre demonstrates how the town, designed by architect Roger Anger, will spiral out like a universe from the central Matrimandir, the ‘soul of the city’ through several planned zones with names seemingly inspired by ‘The Crystal Maze’: Industrial Zone, Residential Zone, International Zone, Cultural Zone and Green Belt.
Sadly the current reality doesn’t look much like the model with the exception of its centrepiece! The Matrimandir, a large golden sphere, is situated in a huge open area called 'Peace', from where the township radiates outwards. It’s a place “for trying to find one's consciousness” and not for a frenzied attempt at acquiring gold notes like in the Crystal Maze. The Inner Chamber in the upper hemisphere of the Matrimandir is akin to the set of a sci-fi version of an Indiana Jones movie, completely white, with white marble walls and deep, white carpeting. In the centre sits a pure crystal-glass globe which permeates a ray of electronically guided sunlight that falls on it through an opening at the apex of the sphere. The inner chamber is the heart of the city, but unlike the churches and temples of the past this space is devoid of images, organised meditations, flowers, incense, religion or religious forms. As an Aurovilian this space is about YOU and for YOU… but not your ego!
The gardens surrounding the Matrimandir are manicured and in stark contrast to the rest of India. The garden is divided into 12 parks each named after attributes we should all strive for "Harmony", "Bliss" and “Perfection" to name a few.
Ironically, the immaculate gardens are cared for by lesser-educated Indian workers from outside Auroville, working on a standard salary. They are not the only outside ‘help’; Auroville employs over 5000 villagers as cleaners, watchmen, masons, drivers, waiters and a whole host of other people generally in less-skilled, labour-intensive positions.
This is starting to sound a little neo-colonial now, where’s the Raj?
Well Auroville claims that where possible, when a clerical, supervisory or managerial position cannot be filled by an Aurovilian, it places a well-qualified local person in that position. Local people freely approach Auroville for work and the town does offer good rates of pay, great working conditions, pensions schemes and a whole host of other benefits.
Unfortunately, illiterate or unskilled people can only be employed in jobs they are capable of performing. As far as I could tell there are no programs in place to improve education amongst the employed locals despite Auroville doing practical work to improve the quality of life in the surrounding villages. It is true however that Auroville’s location has indeed brought a huge income to the surrounding area.
For ‘foreigners’ living in Auroville work is not a way to earn a living but a way to express yourself and to develop skills which benefit the community as a whole. Artists and writers are welcomed with open arms, and the arts are accessible to all. Obviously a place like this attracts humans of good will with sincere aspirations, so how do I sign up?
Well there is a waiting list to become an Aurovilian because of an apparent housing shortage (probably due to a disproportionate amount of yoga instructors to builders). The lengthy two-year application process requires you to prove you are dedicated to ‘the cause’. You must work for free as a contribution to Auroville and, from what I’ve read on the internet, you are not allowed to leave for two years! In the plot to Lars von Trier’s ‘Dogville’ Nicole Kidman’s character is reluctantly accepted into a small Colorado town. In exchange, she agrees to work for them. She finds out that their support has a price and the town's sense of goodness takes a sinister turn, as her freedom becomes a workload and treatment akin to that of a slave… That’s unlikely to happen in Auroville! After your two-year probation period you are asked to stand before a small group that reviews applications and ultimately decides if you can become an Aurovilian.
So is it still possible to live in 2016 using the ideals of hippies from 1968?
Some people move to Auroville to escape while others are clearly looking for answers, for some though I’m pretty sure it has become just something ‘cool’ to do. The town didn’t feel as ‘hippie’ as I was expecting, the gift shops and cafes had an air of wealthy East Dulwich about them and we spotted countless cool-looking 30-somethings eating overpriced organic salads. Sadly, I think moving to Auroville has possibly become the latest ‘thing’ for wealthy trendy ‘hipster’ families from Europe to do. One local woman told us the town is full of rich Europeans who desert Auroville during the hot summer months, which is not really embracing the spirit of the place!
On paper the dream still sounds inviting, but unfortunately, after nearly 50 years it’s clear that the experiment has exposed some flaws in the original philosophy. Auroville is seemingly a utopia with contradictions; this shouldn’t belittle the concept though. For a place that claims to renounce money, material wealth and politics there sure seemed to be a lot of it going on! History has proven that where there are people there are politics, India is a country bursting with bureaucracy (and corruption) to which Auroville is not immune.
For Auroville to exist it has to work closely with the Indian Government who partially fund the experiment. Under the umbrella of the Auroville foundation exist plenty of working parties and councils: Auroville Foundation, Advisory Council, Working Committee, Auroville Board of Commerce, Auroville Council, Residents Assembly, Executive Council and the Village Liaison Group.
Aurovilles income comes from NGO sponsorship, profits from commercial units within Auroville, from a number of 'Auroville International' centres around the world, from guesthouses, donations and from the Aurovilians themselves.
As an Aurovilian you can still access savings from your country of origin. If you don’t have any savings the community meets all your needs, and provides a cash allowance or 'maintenance' (a monthly sum, just enough to meet your basic needs), which you receive from the commercial unit or community service you work for. It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor there is no private ownership of land, housing or business in Auroville as you are constantly investing in the collectively owned land, housing and business. Ultimately the land still belongs to India and Auroville could be evicted at any time!
The cities aim was to become self-sufficient, at present Auroville can only produce adequate amounts of milk and some seasonal fruits. It produces only part of its total rice and grain requirements, and less than 50% of its total fruit and vegetable requirements. Maybe the artists need to spend a little more time out in the fields? Ironically most families in rural India are pretty much self-sufficient.
In Lars von Trier’s movie ‘Dancer in the Dark’, the lead character Selma (played by Bjork), an east European girl (of which there are 44 in Auroville) travels to America with her young son, chasing the ‘American Dream’ she expects it to be like a Hollywood musical only for the story to end tragically. So is there ever trouble in paradise?
Having spoken to several Indians living and working on the periphery of Auroville, the utopian vision occasionally turns sour. Conflicts between locals and Aurovilians (baring in mind a large percentage of Aurovilians are Indian) are frequent. The same typical disagreements arise that would happen in any organised society: bad behaviour, disproportionate workloads, non-payment of monies, etc, etc.
One main factor that agitates the surrounding villages is the sense of ‘us and them’. Seemingly, the residents of Auroville don’t want to share their knowledge with the locals. Again this attitude is not really embracing the spirit of Auroville. It’s easy to understand why though. Being an Aurovilian is something special, if all the surrounding villages operate in the same way; using the same water harvesting techniques, waste management, recycling, etc then Auroville is nothing special and all the westerners who want to move there are essentially just living in rural India and thus losing the superiority that comes with being an Aurovilian. This haughtiness in part possibly stems from this quote I found on Auroville’s website relating to evolution “Ultimately the people here believe they are helping humanity move beyond its present limitations”. If that doesn’t bolster your ego and give you an air of superiority then nothing will. Sadly, the Mother’s vision of a utopia based around spirituality where “One can unite with the Divine only by mastering one’s ego” has now possibly been resigned to the history books.
Auroville may not be perfect, but it is important for a place like this to exist. An alternative formula for a new way to live and think, where balance and harmony with each other and the environment are the focus. Obviously a daring experiment this bold faces enormous challenges and leaves itself open to criticism (as demonstrated above – at least I didn’t mention the suspicious death of an American student!) and after visiting the place it is very easy to be cynical, however as our world grows increasingly more consumerist it is still as a refreshing concept now as it was back in 1968. More people than ever still believe in the dream and want to flock to this, the world’s largest (and growing) existing spiritual utopia.
*As an internationally recognised township project, endorsed by UNESCO and supported by the Government of India Auroville is not operating as a cult!