The Jesada Technik Museum is the quirkiest car museum we have attended, essentially a motor museum, it does however house a few planes and boats too.
What makes the museum so unique is that the collection focuses on micro cars. The extent and growth of the collection is nothing short of miraculous, Mr Jesada Dejsakulrit purchased his first vehicle in 1997: a German Messerschmitt KR200 microcar. This early purchase set the tone for his collection and within 10 years he’d purchased over 500 vehicles. In 2007 Mr Jesada opened the museum to the public.
The collection is predominately micro cars although there are other vehicles on display. What is nice about the museum is the juxtaposition of typically classic cars you’d expect to find in a motor museum like a Ford Mustang next to an excellent example of a late 70’s “everyday” popular car like a Honda Civic.
The museum also has a DeLorean DMC-12, the iconic vehicle made famous from the Back to the Future film trilogy. The main attractions though are the smaller cars: Mini Mokes, a VW Type 181, Citroën 2CV’s, Bond Bugs, BMW Isetta bubble cars and numerous other micro cars.
The museum is free to enter with the purpose of public interest, preservation of history and heritage of these unique vehicles.
After Cambodia’s auspicious independence in 1953 the country began a period of transformation. This new social and cultural vision for Cambodia included numerous building projects in the capital Phnom Penh. This new architecture, integrating the ‘international modernism’ with local tradition and materials, became known as ‘New Khmer Architecture’, culminating in the construction of the National Sports Stadium, built in 1963 for the Southeast Asia Games the following year. Ironically the stadium never hosted any joyous unifying sporting events as the games were cancelled with the Vietnam War looming overhead. Instead it accommodated huge nationalistic political rallies!
During these prosperous times, these large, modern, angular concrete buildings became a symbol of Cambodia’s modernization. As the decade came to a close, dark clouds circled Cambodia as the Vietnam War started sucking in its neighbouring countries. Later the oppressive Khmer Rouge regime did little in progressing the countries vision of modernization. Miraculously, despite it’s recent history, numerous buildings constructed during the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, many designed by one architect, Vann Molyvann, have survived.
Institute of Foreign Languages
What is now The Institute of Foreign Languages was originally the Teacher Training College. The original ‘Lab Buildings’ and ‘Library’ are two of the cities most interesting buildings. The group of three buildings by Vann Molyvann were his last work of the 1970s.
The Lab Buildings
The sophisticated lab buildings ooze 70’s panache, dynamism and chic. These structures are by no means style over form and function; but rather the perfect combination of all three.
The structure is a glorious demonstration of concrete ingenuity, a striking form that executes its function perfectly. Inside, the four elevated classrooms are joined by a long hallway, screened on one side by unglazed masonry lattice blocks allowing for fresh air to blow through.
Inside the raised space-age classroom pods, the cantilevered sloping floor supports stepped seating, originally tubular roof lights focused daylight onto each lab desk. The classrooms are small to encourage focused learning, a point re-enforced by vertically louvered windows that allow natural light in but restrict the view of the distractive world outside.
The Central Courtyard and Surrounding Buildings
The complex of buildings at the Teacher Training College centre around an open courtyard and raised walkways, bodies of water unify the site.
In his blog about the architecture of Vann Molyvann, Rémy Bertin writes “within the central courtyard is a beautiful old tree with an incredibly wide canopy, I think that the tree has to be older than the 35 year old campus, meaning that the buildings were composed around it.”
This approach to architecture respects the existing nature and incorporates it into the surroundings.
The courtyard, walkways and surrounding vicinity offer shady areas where students can gather and socialise. The large expanses of water have a cooling effect on hot summer days whilst reflecting light into what typically would be gloomy areas.
The Library at the Teacher Training College was built in 1972. Its unique appearance is an example of ‘form follows construction’ (if that’s a thing?). Like the Richard Rogers designed Lloyds building in London and the Pompidou Centre in Paris the structure of the building is integral to the aesthetic. The exterior columns encase the building like a ribcage.
Vann Molyvann created the Tardis-like building that accommodates offices at its core on the ground floor. A curved staircase leads to the 1st floor where the library is located. From the exterior of the building it is impossible to comprehend the complex workings of the circular roof. Inside, the construction of the roof becomes apparent as the complex geometry and concrete assembly is clearly visible and offers the same degree of sculptural form as the exterior. What looks like a concrete encased building from the outside is deceptively light and airy inside.
National Sports Complex
Like many stadiums around the world the National Sports Complex in Phnom Penh was built in hope. Sadly, like its would-be Olympic bid winning counterparts the stadium has never really fulfilled its potential. As previously mentioned the Southeast Asia Games in 1964 never took place. Luckily, despite very few major sporting events being held at the site, the buildings have survived and have been adopted by Phnom Penh’s natives as a central recreational ground.
The Olympic sized swimming pool and diving pool are now filled with screaming kids, quirky impromptu aerobics sessions are held trackside and kids fly kites from the top of the stadium stands.
Like a modern-day temple to sports, the National Sports Complex was built using east-west alignment inspired directly by Cambodia’s most famous, and slightly more visited architectural site, at Siem Reap.
The original sports complex contained several giant pools, a sly nod to the lake that once stood on the site, and a homage to the temples at Angkor, which are often surrounded by moats and pools. Unfortunately the government sold off the surrounding land and these watery features have been lost, detracting from the overall feel of the site. The diabolical apartments that have replaced them have now obscured the view and lessoned the impact of the symmetrical array of buildings. The symmetry of the complex typifies the architectural layouts of the great temples such as Angkor Wat and Preah Khan. The indoor stadium, the structure of which also supports some outside stadium seating, sits centrally, nestled into the raised horseshoe earthen mound which houses the concrete stands of the stadium. The stadium, which has a capacity of 80,000, is similar in construction to the Azadi Stadium in Tehran, which I visited last year.
Inside the indoor stadium Vann Molyvann’s mastery of light is clearly apparent, he utilises numerous techniques to great effect. Underneath each of the stadium stands natural light is beautifully diffused through consistently spaced windows underneath each seat.
Institute of Technology of Cambodia
The Institute of Technology, on the aptly named Russian Boulevard, is an immense building of Soviet proportions. It comes as no surprise to discover that the designers were in fact Russian. Nothing instils communist pride like an imposing +400 metre long, 3 storey high, concrete dynamo of creativity. Built with Soviet funds, the building was a gift to Cambodia. Like many of its contemporaries the complex optimises the use of air-flow, a masterful display of ingenuity, constructed to allow natural light while also keeping out heat and rain, through screened open cavities that extend over the entire façade of the main building.
The building was completed in 1964 and used until its abandonment during the war in 1975. After the war the French rehabilitated the school and many of the classes there are still taught in French.
Other Notable Buildings
Other notable buildings include… The Royal University of Phnom Penh with it’s undulating roof, which somehow seems to defy the laws of physics and engineering, The 100 Houses Project and the White Building; an innovative socio-cultural housing project for Phnom Penh’s growing urban population of the 1960’s. The scheme included the iconic Chaktomuk Theatre, designed by Vann Molyvann alongside ‘The Grey Building’, an Olympic Village for the Southeast Asian Games, also designed by Molyvann.
Unfortunately the buildings virginal paint-job has long deteriorated. It does however continue to be at the forefront of cultural importance and is now the focal point of a photographic project that centres on many of the 2000 artists, families and individuals who still live and work there! The White Building has garnered somewhat of an iconic reputation, despite its cult following amongst Phnom Penh’s cultured youth the building faces an uncertain future.
If you are interested in New Khmer Architecture and are visiting Phnom Penh please check http://www.ka-tours.org for a guided tour. They come highly recommended! Unfortunately there were no regular public tours whilst we visited and we couldn’t afford to organize a private tour! They also have a great FREE walking tour map, which is available here! Most of the buildings mentioned in this blog are open to the public and accessible without prior permission.
With all the planning, spreadsheets and lists in the world it is impossible to always climatically be in the right place at the right time. We found ourselves in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos for the onset of the monsoon; a time of heat, humidity and torrential downpours. However, we overlanders are/should be predisposed to enduring the elements and despite the climatic and logistical challenges presented by monsoon travel we found enormous benefits to touring during this season.
Temperatures were a sweltering +40°C in the lead up to the start of the monsoon but once the rains actually arrived, showers reduced the temperature often by 10°C. Humidity was high but the accompanying monsoon breeze made the stickiness bearable and by 8pm the temperature had fallen to below 30°C, which was the crucial difference between a good and a sweaty, restless night’s sleep in the roof tent.
Rain itself presents obvious challenges when you are overlanding in a 4x4 and live outdoors. We learned to read the skies and approaching cloud formations when deciding if we had the necessary 45 minutes dry period necessary to rustle up and eat a stir fry for dinner. Our awning has attachable sides which are perfect if the rain is not accompanied by strong winds, in which situation the awning is more hassle than it is worth with sides flapping towards the stove and water being blasted by gale-force winds through the many gaps. On this occasion we take comfort that our fridge still delivered our beers at a refreshing 3°C and that SE Asian countries sell an amazing array of beer snacks- dried squid and pea crisps for tea-time in a steamed-up, front of the car, substituted dinner on more than one occasion.
An unavoidable downside to monsoon conditions is the surge in blood-sucking critters, particularly mosquitoes (everywhere) and leeches in the jungle. It’s never a pleasure to have to smear thick, pungent insect repellent on when your skin is already sticky with sweat and covered in sand and salt but it does work. Camping away from swamps and long grass reduced the numbers dramatically.
The last thing you want to do when the day eventually cools off slightly is to put clothing layers on, but this is when the worst aerial assault begins. Generally long sleeves and trousers kept the biters at bay. A small price to pay when watching the evening illuminated dance displays of emerging fireflies, which also increase in numbers during this season and gracefully light up the night sky.
Persistent precipitation leaves clothing, blankets and towels damp for days but the sun does eventually come out and then everything is dry within an hour. Rainfall is typically short and sweet and only lasts for a few hours of each day.
There is something beautifully wild and romantic about sitting on a deserted beach with waves crashing on the shore and dark storm clouds swirling in the sky. We witnessed some incredible lightning storms from the (relative) safety of our roof tent and the gentle pitter-patter of early morning raindrops can be as soothing as a lullaby when there is no work to get out of bed for.
We adventured through Cambodia and South Thailand in June, described by travel guides as the ‘low season when visitors melt’. The plus side of visiting at this time is that most tourists are far more sensible than us and follow this advice, leading to an empty Ta Prohm temple at Angkor Wat early in the morning. The surrounding beaches of Krabi and Phuket region, with sands crawling with tourists in the high season of November to February, were abandoned. We could wild camp undisturbed and wander endless stretches of empty sand gazing at an uninterrupted horizon of waves and karst limestone rock islands.
National Parks were deserted so we could enjoy wildlife trails all to ourselves, with numerous sightings of normally crowd-shy animals and birds. Camp sites were uninhabited and in many we were the only occupants, with the exception of sharing the site with wild deer and the shower block with the odd water monitor lizard. Paradise. Most chalet and beach-hut resorts are closed but now and again they let us camp there for free and use the facilities. On one occasion we were invited to join the builders for sundowner beers and fresh crab and shrimps after a day of cabana restoration preparing for the next season. If it’s peace and not parties you’re after, off-peak travel in Thailand is bliss.
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!
The first thing that hits you when you wander into one of Laos markets is the smell; the pungent aroma of fish sauce, for me, will forever be synonymous with Southeast Asian bazaars. Added to this, an olfactory fusion of garlic, frying shrimp paste, spices, chilli, mango, coconut, honey and fresh herbs and your senses are overwhelmed.
Meat and fish form a large part of Laotians diet, in the market your dinner couldn’t get much fresher (if a tad unhappy) with cages full of ducks and chickens. Plastic sinks and concrete tanks writhe with Catfish and Tilapia, traders dipping nets in and trying to contain the flapping, protesting catch on archaic weighing scales before tipping the ill-fated fish into a plastic bag. Breathing purchases are not just limited to everyday livestock; frogs, lizards, crickets, cicadas and even some very unlucky rodents are lined up in boxes for the more exotic Lao tea-times. No part of an animal is wasted in Laos, women meticulously pick the meat from a pig’s ribcage while the trotters and snouts are piled high. Piles of tripe are folded carefully for sale alongside severed buffalo hooves and entire pig’s heads. A woman cuts slices from a huge plastic bowl containing bright red congealed blood, as always the butchers section is not for those with weak stomachs!
Colourful canopies of overlapping parasols and awnings shade the piles of fruit and vegetables from the strong Laos sunshine, creating a rainbow of light over an already vibrant display of lychees, passion fruit, strawberries, cherries, oranges and apples. The midday heat starts to hit the stall holders busy since dawn and women doze head-down on piles of cabbages or snooze stretched-out on loungers next to their flapping fish stand.
The Laos snack-of-choice, fried pigskin, is portioned in bags sitting alongside rows of mystery powders, dried plants, obscure berries and roots and clear bottles of unidentified liquids and oils.
The market is not just a practical place for supply purchase, it’s the pulsating hub of the community, a place where livelihoods are made and the rewards of hard work are earnt. Families work together and friends catch up over coffee and noodles, children run between the stalls and young people meet on scooters.
If all the browsing makes you hungry, every market has snack stalls serving endless portions of the ubiquitous noodle soup- a steaming bowl of clear chicken broth into which additions are ladled from plastic containers under the bench; fish balls, shredded chicken, spring onions, bean-sprouts, rice noodles, cabbage, fried garlic, chilli and fish sauce. It takes some skill to work the small ladle/chopstick combo but once mastered this dish is a delicious shop-stop and a healthy fast-food bargain at less than £1 a bowl.
We spent most of our time in Laos driving the small mountain roads, particularly in the north of the country. Remote and rural, at times we found ourselves bumping along pot-holed surfaces or driving in billowing clouds of dust on half-finished tracks. The scenery was magnificent and often the roads followed the routes of Laos’ many rivers, climbing high into the hilltops, then dropping down through lush jungle fringing the watercourse. One of the highlights of taking such minor roads was the chance to experience life in the hill tribe villages. At times it was like driving through a National Geographic article; men in traditional tribal dress, women weaving bright patterned cloth on ancestral wooden looms, timber houses balanced on carved stilts and children chasing chickens and piglets.
Old ladies gossip under the shade of Hibiscus trees while men in woven bamboo hats herd lumbering black water buffalo uphill along the road. Hammocks swing in the stifling midday summer heat, gently swaying snoozing occupants in the shade under wooden stilted houses.
Self-sufficiency is vital, villagers trek back to the village from the surrounding fields, straps round their foreheads balancing bamboo-woven baskets piled high with vegetables and green leaves on their backs. Small, terraced paddy fields fringe the valleys, bare-footed rice collectors paddling through the bright green swathes.
Freshwater fish is the Laotians main source of protein and fine nets are thrown from dug-out canoes on the rivers, while youngsters wait patiently with handmade rod and lines. Small fish are neatly tied in lines on sticks, fried and sold from small roadside stalls, while live catfish and snakehead fish squirm in buckets hours away from a spicy sauce and sticky rice.
A menagerie of livestock pecks, waddles and lounges beneath the timber homes; ducks, chickens, geese, boar, buffalo, cows and goats wander through every village. Without mains water, families gather around communal taps, women modestly washing under sarongs while children scream naked, splashing each other.
Sadly, it’s not all romantic crafts and cute kids, the villagers face very real threats from logging operations in the surrounding hills- deforestation is a massive problem and on a few occasions while driving the road was filled with acrid smoke from ‘slash and burn’ land clearance as entire hillsides smouldered. The US bombing campaign in the 60’s and 70’s has left an ugly legacy with unexploded ordnance still a risk to villages, particularly children who find the deadly, small cluster bombs. Water shortages are frequent and water quality is often poor, access to education and health care is also a problem in the smaller, more remote villages.
Despite the poverty and struggles of a rural existence, the villages have a warm and welcoming atmosphere; betel-stained mouths smile and wave as you drive into each settlement, people filled with both curiosity and warm hospitality.
India. It’s the ‘marmite’ of overlanders; you love it or hate it. With the exception of a huddle of vehicles in Goa, we saw very few overlanders and the common consensus was to transit fairly quickly between Iran, Pakistan or China and Southeast Asia.
For us, we love India, but at times we also loved to hate this colourful, crazy and chaotic country with cultural differences as wide as the Ganges. It’s a nation with the biggest extremes we’ve ever encountered, a rollercoaster of adventures, sights, smells and sounds. As an overview, we think these are some of the biggest factors, both positive and negative, when considering whether to overland in India.
Roads and Driving
It’s all about the horn. Remember the simple rule that every road user only looks forward, therefore you need to use the horn every time you pass a pedestrian, ‘2 wheeler’, car, truck, tractor, rickshaw, bus, ox cart or pilgrim procession. Apart from cows. Cows take no notice of anything and by default have priority owing to stubbornness and sacredness. The road-worthiness of most vehicles are a hazard; bald tyres, overloaded pickups, entire families wedged on underpowered scooters and trucks painted so elaborately they obscure the drivers peripheral vision. Take your time and assume every person, vehicle and animal may stop, swerve or pull-out without warning. Bus drivers with tight schedules, particularly in Kerala, are notoriously dangerous drivers and will overtake mercilessly, forcing oncoming traffic off the road- give them a wide berth.
Road surface conditions are generally OK, it’s the turmoil of traffic which can cause problems. Most roads are wide enough for 2 lanes of all vehicles but factor in street stalls, parked tuk-tuks, makeshift shelters, kids playing and dogs sleeping and often you’re left with just enough room to squeeze a slim camel through. The main highways crossing the country are excellent, they are monotonous toll roads but worth every rupee if you want to gain some ground quickly. Speed bumps are everywhere but unpainted and unsigned; expect many “Ooooooff’s” as you hit them without warning.
When you do have the luxury of dual carriageway, expect other drivers to use the wrong side of the road- it’s not uncommon to have a scooter or tractor coming towards you in the overtaking lane. It’s an unofficial global overlanding rule that night driving is avoided, but in India this really is essential as very few people use lights, hazards in the road are numerous 24 hours a day and there is hardly any street lighting.
One of the biggest attractions in overlanding is wild camping but unfortunately this is extremely difficult in India owing simply to a huge population, lack of accessible wild places and curiosity (sometimes suspicion) of locals. Other people we met had camped, only to be woken by the police and moved on to a ‘safe’ place (hotel or area near the station). India’s stunning National Parks are off-limits for camping, mostly vehicle access is strictly by park Jeep and when roads do cross these magnificent landscapes the authority-loving rangers are on your tail in minutes if you as much as stop for a sarnie. Park periphery’s are worth checking out- we managed a few stealthy sleeps on the quiet boundaries of reserves.
We did manage to find some wild camp spots, far easier in the less populated states of Gujarat and Rajasthan and in the North-eastern states, but it takes some hunting. Often we would find a spot, go for dinner, then come back and pop the tent when it was dark, leaving early in the morning. This keeps your budget down but is not the most relaxing camping style. Many times we asked guesthouses with gardens if we could camp there, with the benefit of both security and access to an outside toilet/washroom and always for a small or no cost. Truckstops were OK for the end of a long day if travelling on highways, with the bonus of a roadside restaurant and basic facilities. Not the quietest night’s sleep but we had no problems. Occasionally hotels are necessary, we were paying around £6-10 a night which is not super cheap but they had safe parking, Wi-Fi (sometimes working) and all-important showers.
Scamming and Cheating
It’s the tourist destination’s disease, if somewhere is frequented by foreigners in India, the hassle you will get multiplies dramatically. In towns and villages off the ‘trail’ you will pay the rest as everyone else but in areas of unofficial ‘tourist tax’ it can become arduous when faced with deliberate over-charging, made-up fees, service price increases and blatant asking for money.
We found that karma always brought a balance, for all the aggressive Tuk-tuk drivers, light-fingered shopkeepers, change-ignorers and price inventors were so many genuine, wonderful people who wanted nothing more than to chat to visitors to their country. We were invited for meals, cups of tea, people let us camp in their gardens and land, we were guests at weddings, given discounts and gifts for no reason other than people were fascinated by our travels. One petrol station owner in Manipur even filled the car with Diesel as a present and a hotel owner in Gujarat gave us unlimited free food and drink for our entire stay. Deep breaths, roll your eyes at yet another attempted scam and focus on the truly amazing generosity and welcome of the majority of Indian people- we rarely experience hospitality to strangers like that in the west.
Even after a long time on the road, the cultural differences coming to India can hit you like a soggy Paratha to the face so let’s deal briefly with the ones that us foreigners struggle most with.
Personal Space - Stop the car for more than a couple of minutes and people will be staring, hands cupped, through your window, opening doors and crowding around you and your vehicle. Although only simple curiosity, weeks and months of this can become suffocating and exhausting, especially when people are just staring constantly and not engaging. For those people that greet and chat to us, we are the happy ‘thumbs-up-posing-foreigners’ in literally thousands of photos and selfies (some holding reluctant Indian babies). Privacy is rare so al fresco cooking, relaxing, washing and ‘bathroom activities’ become extremely tricky.
Rubbish - There’s no escaping the fact that India is simply one of the dirtiest countries; poor waste collection and management services plus a vast population mean streets everywhere are littered, rivers are polluted, beaches are filthy and wherever you stop you seem to be stepping over debris and refuse of some sort. It’s an enormous problem for visitors and locals and one which is difficult to adjust to.
Bureaucracy - India loves archaic paperwork, reams of it, complete with a multitude of signatures and rubber stamps for everything. Give a man a uniform and a whistle and he will use it with vigour. The endless rules and regulations can become draining, whistles being blown for parking a metre too far to the left to pointing your camera too far to the right. Corruption is rife and dealing with any authority a painful test of patience of Dalai Llama-like levels. Console yourself with the fact you only have to endure with this infuriating bureaucracy temporarily, unlike poor Indian citizens who have to deal with this every day.
We Say Yes!
But the culture is exactly why you should adventure the highways and byways of India! Where else in the world would you be stuck in a traffic jam caused by pilgrims rolling themselves along the road, pass groups of wild Elephants, see cows with more decorations than a Christmas tree and visit multi-coloured, flashing fairy light-covered temples where thousands of rats are worshipped. Food is incredible, inexpensive and diverse (once your stomach has ‘adjusted’) and people and customs change enormously with each distinct state. Temples, palaces, forts, colonial architecture. Wildlife is fantastic and landscape varies from the mighty Himalaya Mountains, dense jungle, pine forest and rolling desert dunes to idyllic palm-fringed beaches, wide rivers, vivid green rice paddies and rolling tea plantation hills.
Despite the challenges, overlanding is a great way to see the real India, to get off the backpacker-beaten track and experience a country and culture like no other on earth. One thing’s for certain, there is never a dull moment and no other country has left us with such beautifully bizarre memories, even after over 4 months in the country we were still witnessing things on a daily basis which made our jaws drop.
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’.
My hands-down (hands-in!) favourite feed in India was the Thali. These ‘set meals’ were always the best value and represented an assortment of typical, local food of the area, varying enormously between states and regions. Thali’s were always the most popular choice in cafes and restaurants so you were eating the freshest food, albeit often a mystery as to what would appear on the table in front of you. Thalis are incredible value, in Thokkilangadi, Kerala, we paid the equivalent of 45p for a Fish Thali, with as much as you could eat.
The word ‘Thali’ can be translated directly as the Hindi word for ‘plate’ or ‘tray’, on which the set meal is served. The only choice you generally have is Veg, Fish or Non-Veg, with vegetarian being the most common. As everything is prepared and bubbling away in huge pots in the kitchen, your meal is presented in minutes.
The meal is like a colourful, symmetrical, work of art; sometimes the selection of curries and dahls are ladled into small, round, individual, metal bowls, sometimes piled carefully directly onto a round metal tray or banana leaf, occasionally into pre-formed plastic trays. On the side, pickles, chutneys, sauces, salad, salt, fresh chillies, onion and yoghurt raita are carefully placed. Some Thalis include a desert also, a tidy portion of syrupy Gulab Jamun, sweet semolina rice, ice-cream or sticky Jilabi.
If you’re hungry, the Thali is a delight as once you’ve emptied one small bowl, it is re-filled; in busy restaurants men with narrow metal buckets filled with Sambar, Dahl and Curry fly round the floor ladling out top-ups to every table. Cutlery is not an option, locals expertly mix the components of the Thali together with deft fingers- food unanimously tastes better when eaten by hand.
Variations are endless, in the south rice is a more common accompaniment whereas breads feature more heavily in the north. Thali’s reflect the wide-ranging cuisine of the country, coconut-based down south with fish, and creamy, meaty curries in the north, every time is a surprise and a delight with no tough menu decisions to be made.