By the time we arrived in Rome itself, we were hooked on Roman Antiquity. I was already several hours deep into the LibriVox audiobook of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and Rachel was taking an Open Yale Course on the rise of the barbarians. Our budding fascination with Romans obliged us to pay our respects to the Colosseum and Forum. They rang the bells to herald our arrival.
Our arrival in Turkey was culture shocking. There were no trash fires in the street. Or free range cattle munching on mounds of garbage and producing mounds of runny dung. There were great garbage collecting machines roaming the streets of Istanbul, painted in a uniform fashion and driven by uniformed gentlemen. Even the filthiest back alleys smelled clean to my scoured nostrils. Don’t get me wrong, I love India and it takes the crown for the most exciting and vivid place I have ever visited. But all this new convenience and hygiene was disorienting.
The urban fauna we’d grown accustomed to in Asia was altogether absent. Cows, goats, camels, swine, elephants, and other domestic animals were nowhere to be seen. No macaques, langurs, or any other monkey for that matter (despite the abundance of fez available). Suddenly, our entire arsenal of mosquito repellent became a burden when we discovered there were no mosquitos to speak of, and even if there were, there was no malaria, dengue, and other life threatening pathogens to dread. Even stray dogs were hard to come by. Apart from the odd pigeon here and there, the only animals prowling the streets were stray cats (in abundance, in one afternoon we counted almost forty).
The big city traffic seemed timid and silent in comparison with the horn-please blind-corner-passing livestock-clogged mayhem of small town India. Even though it’s one of the biggest cities in Europe, the skies of Istanbul were blue and the air fresh. India, by contrast, was always smothered in a haze of smog, no matter how remote the location. I still suspect permanent lung damage, to be honest.
We decided to take one of those touristy double decker city sightseeing buses to scoot around town and get the lay of the land. I remember turning to Rachel and saying something like, “This is starting to feel like a vacation” as we glided pleasantly past Hagia Sophia, the warm springtime sun glinting off her sunglasses. It was only then that I started to appreciate the amount of effort it took to get by day-to-day on the subcontinent. At some point I’ll be struck by nostalgia for the endless surprises and adventures of India, but up on that bus, I think I actually relaxed for the first time in months. A little comfort and predictability never hurt anyone.
I have never encountered as confusing an array of switches and power outlets as I have in Indian hotels. The Ginger Mysore is a great example of what you can expect from electricians almost anywhere on the subcontinent. As you enter the room, you will see a slot by the door to slide your magnetic key card in order to enable power in the room. Next to this there is a switch that apparently does nothing. Moving further into the room, there is a pair of switches in the hallway outside the bathroom. One switch turns on a bathroom light over the sink, while the other controls the hall light. Once inside the cozy little bathroom, there are two more switches which independently control two additional lights over the toilet and shower respectively. A single light would do the job just fine, but somebody at some point wanted to give me more granular control over bathroom illumination while splitting the controls into two locations, outside and inside. Hidden behind the television is a power switch connected to the outlet that the television is plugged into. Next to the bed is a sconce light set in the wall and next to that is a switch. Intuitively this switch would control that light, but the lighting designer was thinking outside of the box. The switch by the sconce activates the light above the window. To turn the wall light on and off, you need to locate the bank of four switches underneath the little desk in the corner. One switch is clearly marked “AC”, but the other three require experimentation to discern functionality. The first switch controls a light in the far corner of the room. Next to that is the switch for the wall sconce. And finally there is a switch to the ceiling fan. Something tells me there are other switches hidden somewhere, but we’ll survive.
When a Hollywood film is shot “on location”, it sometimes leaves the locals with a legacy, even a fixation on their moment of limelight. Growing up in Napa, California, we could only claim a couple of scenes from Howard the Duck, but this was still enough to warrant a shout out each time we drove past the “restaurant” on the Carneros Highway. Similarly, Astoria on the Oregon Coast will forever self-identify with the Goonies. This is hardly an American phenomena. The guides at Angkor Wat in Cambodia all knew at least two words in English: “Tomb Raider”. Udaipur, the City of Lakes in the southern part of Rajasthan, has institutionalized their nostalgia for the racy, pun-riddled, cold war schlock action extravaganza, Octopussy.
I remember seeing Octopussy with my father in 1983, parental discretion exercised in the usual manner (he took me to see Zardoz, after all). This was James Bond in his Roger Moore incarnation, running about and sexing it up in India as he pursued nymph-like jewel thieves and nuke-wielding Russian madmen. Though never mentioned by name in the film, Udaipur was selected to represent India in general, and this town certainly has a wealth of Indian showpieces. Prominently featured in Octopussy are Udaipur’s magnificent Venice-esque waterfront and dreamlike Lake Palace, teeming bazaars with absurd cow-and-rickshaw choked traffic congestion, and the dramatic mountaintop Monsoon Palace perched on a bare and jagged ridge overlooking the city. This is romantic India of a caliber that Hollywood could not hope to recreate artificially, and thus the town caught a sliver of international exposure that, almost thirty years later, the inhabitants still cling to.
At some point in the indeterminate past, a local entrepreneur began screening the film at their restaurant as a lure for tourists in search of familiar, comforting, mindless entertainment. The idea evidently caught on, and the movie is now run nightly at scores of rooftop cafés. Though the signage for “Octopussy Show” can be unwittingly reminiscent of those for “Ping Pong Show” in Thai red light districts, these are wholesome establishments full of washed and weary young Westerners looking for a little cultural anchor amidst the swirling Indian commotion below. In a sense, navigating Udaipur’s narrow lanes and tightly coiled backstreets was, for me at least, assisted in no small part by the ordered sequence of Octopussy venues.
What struck us most about “India” as it was portrayed in the movie was how little things had changed, at least in Udaipur. All the grand and noteworthy monuments aside, this town was stuck in the 80’s, parts of it in the 1880’s. The street fashion had not changed perceptibly from Octopussy to the present day, though this is not really news in the land of turbans and saris. The tuk-tuks looked identical, down to the black and yellow color scheme. Indeed, the same rickshaws on screen may very well still be operation today. The garland baskets and fruit carts and even the incidental advertisements plastered on stucco walls held a timelessness that is baffling. Udaipur is Udiapur, and that’s that.
We watched it twice, happily reclining on broad bed-like cushions that ran along the outer edge of the rooftop patio. On the second viewing, our waiter kindly translated a key phrase uttered in the local tongue during one of the many fight sequences in the film. Bond had judo-flipped one of the bad guys onto a bed of nails, and the baba whose bed it was shouted “Get out of my bed!” incredulously at the would-be assassin. We got the joke! Ha ha.
The beer we sipped was dubiously legal to serve, or so we learned from our ever helpful waiter. He cheerfully explained that our proximity to the massive Jain temple across the street prevented the business from securing a formal liquor license. The beer still appeared on our receipt, but we were enjoined with a literal wink to consider it “juice” as the waiter neatly placed our empty bottles over a low wall onto the neighbor’s roof. The Jain temple, theatrically lit up in the gathering dusk, loomed above us as an unmistakable reminder: Octopussy was all around us.
Our Lao guide’s name sounded enough like “porn” that he made a joke out of it and suggested we all call him Porn Star. Porn made jokes about green snakes spooking him while he squatted to pee, and shook with laughter as he delivered the punchline to our packed bus: he wet his pants. And I thought this was the land of conservative behavior and modest dress.
Rather, this is the land of naked children bathing in the Mekong. They scream at you from the banks as you float by in the slow boat, but when you look over, they’re all smiling and waving. These same naked boys are at least wearing t-shirts when encountered in the tiny roadside villages, but their lack of pants still jars my Western sensibilities, a learned discomfort at child nudity that compounds into self-consciousness of my gringo priggishness. Their screams become a high pitched repetitive “bye-byes” as you float closer, with the inflection of “hello”. Maybe they’re actually saying “bai bia”, whatever that means.
They are Hill People. Or more politically correctly, the “minorities”, Laos’ famed and diverse hillbilly population that has, for good or bad, emerged as a critical tourist draw. Trekking to a “hill village” on the back of an elephant is among the most common offerings you can encounter on Luang Prabang’s tourist strip, billed on every chalkboard alongside Mekong kayaking and regional bike tours. Dozens of distinct microcultures flourish in the weird sculpted hinterland, tribes that have retained their identities for generation after generation because it is precisely a giant pain in the ass to get to them. My ass endured this pain along “boom boom” roads that wind narrowly through the countryside, never wholly paved or uniformly dirt for more than a hundred yards. I’ve never been bucked so far out of my seat on four wheels in my life, let alone in a bus with twenty other people.
Even the Chinese-sponsored freeway (i.e., the fully paved stretch near the Thai border that runs to China) was so tortured and twisty that I can appreciate why the conquering empires of yore weren’t especially thorough when it came to the backwoods here. The Chinese connection runs deeper than a self-serving road project, though. Porn explained that a number of these highland tribes are the remnants of tiny vanquished Chinese kingdoms who fled for their lives into the Laotian bush to avoid certain doom at the hands of bigger, badder armies, in the days of yore. They settled down here and, while not exactly left in peace, were sufficiently marginal to the regional fracas going on all around them. They have held out in these rugged folds of jungle, at times hiding in the cave-riddled cliffs when necessary, when people dropped bombs on them “secretly” during other peoples’ wars.
Now, in peacetime, the ubiquitous rusty satellite dishes and rows of Honda scooters under the stilted homes prove they have survived into the modern age. Thus, they are all now members of a dwindling and exclusive club of cultural outliers, not quite the Kalahari bushmen, but definitely exceptions to the one-world rule. Creeping modernity may be transforming their lives in a way that the conquering empires of yore couldn’t hope to contrive. But they’re still here. And my guide wants us to bear witness.
Porn explained, in his animated if broken English, that the Laos government requested certain villages be moved closer to these barely paved roads, ostensibly for their own benefit. We were driving on one of these roads, and we’d be making a stop to say hi. The government evidently offered free electricity as an incentive to relocate their villages, admission to the grid in exchange for easier “access”. Whether or not this mattered to the village elders, the tiny hill town we visited was one of the moved.
I tried to appreciate the scope of effort involved. Dozens of families’ homes, farms, and routines uprooted, though something tells me this was not the first time. I tried to visualize the exchange between the government agent and the local Big Man.
“You’ve got to move.”
“Because if one of you gets malaria, we want to be able to get an ambulance out there easily.”
“This never mattered before. Why now?”
“We’ll give you free electricity. And the government needs you to move your village.”
Meaningful glance. Shrugged shoulders. Done deal.
It’s so hard to tell how long they had been in the “new” location, and I regret not asking Porn for dates or historical context. It could have been in the 70’s or the 30’s for all I know. I climbed to the top of a knoll and looked for indications of newness or ongoing development. It all looks like it had been there for ages. Cute baby pigs and chicken families running around freely in modest gardens and leveled dirt yards, weathered bamboo huts alongside timeless brick barns spilling over with cobwebbed crappola and broken equipment. There were bundles of hay hanging from thatched roofs and women beating tall grass on the road to thresh it free of the tiny green hayseeds. It’s hard to believe that this was not the same town they all had grown old and died in from time immemorial.
It’s hard to dispute the fascination. And it’s hard, for me at least, to justify being there. But it was part of the package, though, and was tastefully brief and surprisingly uncommercial. Porn showed us around a tiny, desperately poor village as if it was a craft fair, yet no one offered to sell me anything. We were introduced to some village women who wove the traditional clothes and made their own paper from local bark, but I was not given the option to buy any. Mixed feelings arose, part of me wanting to advise them about tourist economies and the practical availability of my easy eager dollar, part of me wanting to beg them to remain forever poor and precious in the name of cultural preservation. They probably just wondered what I could possibly think was interesting.
Except, of course, the children, who pantlessly waved bye-bye.
I was caught completely off guard by Wat Rong Khun, the White Temple. Brainchild of contemporary visual artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, it is beyond a doubt one of the most singular architectural efforts I have ever seen, ancient or modern. It was like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, if Clark Kent were a psychedelic warrior and devout Buddhist. Uniformly stark white to symbolize the Buddha’s purity, this was a shocking departure from the typical Technicolor temples I’d encountered thus far. It’s hard to process the mad tangle of ornate tendrils, from the spire and the nested gables of the roof all the way down to the foundation. I’ve seen freezing rain encase the entire city of Olympia in Washington State, where crazy icicles protruded in impossible direction from pretty much every surface. It was kind of like that.
Visitors must first cross a long slender bridge to reach the doors of the main temple structure. Guarding the head of the bridge, a pair of fierce demons raise fantastic weapons, poised to strike down the those who would dare confront them. They had a slick, contemporary feel, like we’d stepped into a black and white manga comic. As we ascended the stairs to mount the bridge, we passed between two pits bristling with hundreds of tortured white hands groping blindly heavenward. The intent was to remind the faithful that one must rise out of this sea of suffering in order to approach enlightenment. Very creepy, very effective.
If the lead-up to the chapel was unconventional, then the murals on its back wall was practically beyond the pale. As you step through the doorway, you are confronted with a large, more-or-less traditional Buddha set against a tableau of serene monks and heavenly pagodas. It’s impressive and definitely exhibits Kositpipat’s style, but at first glance it is nothing out fo the ordinary. It’s when you turn around that the fun begins.
Opposite the representation of classical Nirvana is a depiction of pop culture hell. Instead of fearsome birds of diabolical origin, there are Angry Birds from Rovio. Instead of the prince of darkness, you get the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. This wall is crowded with references to Western icons, fictional and real, “evil” and “good”, from Batman to Keanu Reeves. These characters are set against a world in turmoil, earth in flames as seen from space. As you begin to take in more and more of the bigger picture, you finally notice the huge demonic face encompassing it all, with two haunted eyes staring you down. These eyes contain shadowy faces that are easily identifiable: George W. Bush in one, and Osama bin Laden in the other. The symbolism of the murals was explained to me. Inside the temple, the faithful seekers of truth are enjoined to turn their backs on the false heroes and endless phantoms of news and entertainment. I’m not sure Kositpipat is reaching the average Thai Buddhist here, but he certainly pushed my buttons.
The two opposing murals, transcendence versus insipid bullshit, are separated by nothing. Or rather, the two side walls are incomplete, mostly blank. Scaffolding and sketches indicate that work had clearly begun, but no one was working that day. This is where the great secret will be unveiled, the path from the back wall to the front, the way to redemption from earthly illusion and bondage. It occurs to me that maybe this is an installation piece symbolizing “work in progress”, a postmodern ellipses in place of traditional exposition. Oh Kositpipat, I hope this was on purpose.
“Templed out” is a phrase I encountered very shortly after our arrival in Thailand. It’s essentially a state of architectural exhaustion; a fatigue induced by overexposure to Southeast Asia’s most abundant cultural resource: the Buddhist wat. With a practically endless variety of sects, styles, and influences, any attempt to see them all is quite possibly an impossible endeavor. It could take a lifetime, yet so many tourists fall prey to their impulse to at least try. The sheer number of “must see” temples can create a certain pressure on the average schedule and many a hapless backpacker has found their days strung together with little more than temples and sleep … with no end in sight.