The purpose of visiting Thailand was to attend a Thai Massage Course by Asokananda, who has since passed away. The idyllic Lahu villagers in the mountains outside Chiang Mai hosted us.
Pigs, piglets and dogs of various sizes roam around the Lahu village where it is considered impolite to show your knees but a woman can walk bare breasted. Asokananda instructed us on how to work the energy lines on the front, side and back of the body. The villagers served us their local fare of papaya, bananas, rice, oats, lentils, carrots, cabbage, sweet potatoes, beans, pumpkin and the incredible passion fruit.
Everyone in the course seemed to have gone to India at least once including Dieter, Oli and Cris. Some had practiced yoga for many years. Ananya, a girl from Canada, spoke about how she had lived alone in the Sinai Desert near the Red Sea and was taken care of by a Bedouin woman close to the millennium.
In the evening, sometimes we ate at a small cafe owned by a local woman, or we would walk down the dark road to Checkers, where we could dine on coconut soup, green curry, cheese sandwiches and spaghetti. We played many games of chess or talked with the owner and his family. In the straw huts where we lived, we heard the people in the neighboring huts and the pigs grunting and suckling their young.
In Chiang Mai we stayed at a guest house near Asokananda’s house. We spoke with Asoka about my OCD and my friendship with F---. He said that you should be sincere in your searching and the will to not harm others. On the last day we received our certificates and had a morose morning of theory class. That night we met at Taipei Gate. Most of the class members and some instructors ate at a vegetarian restaurant. Then we proceeded to the Rastha bar and shared a Pina Colada. More class members filtered in and I smiled at many and hugged those whom I knew when I left.
In Bangkok, F--- and I were separated when the drivers for our bikes lost each other. My driver returned to Pantip Mall Computer Center and there he received a call that she was waiting for me at the youth hostel.
We walked up and down Khao San Road full of Israeli tourists and cheap hotels until we found a bus to Cambodia.
We saw the skulls and bones from the civil war in Cambodia where they had been preserved for people to remember.
We were pushed back through the sea of boats, tightly woven together with hardly any space to maneuver. Everyone inside the boat used our hands and legs to push the boat out slowly through the fish and the children and the great vats of silvery colored thrashing. Then when we looked back and realized we had passed through nearly half a kilometer of boats. From that tangled mess, we approached the floating school and the markets and houses clustered along the river.
Angkor Tomb with F--- in a brown and red skirt next to me. We sit facing the smiling face with all the sandstone carvings and rubble from 800 years ago. The place is flooded with tourists but we have found a place in a small vestibule facing a broken and faded wall with a picture of events as they were. Apsaras adorn the entrance and Buddha, Vishnu and Siva, the walls white with moss around a carving of a turtle biting a man’s bottom, people drinking juice and going out to war.
The guide extols volumes about the history, yet we feel at home in this rocky and angular place where we offered 3 incense sticks to the Buddha. After the events of yesterday night, after events in the visa office on the Cambodian border where we cried a lot.
We climbed to the top of the steep Siva temple and held hands the whole way. We stood on a smashed column with nothing to hold us from falling and we sat at the very top on the tip of a staircase with steps hardly a few inches long. We crossed the uneven stones and the 3 elephants and the terrace and the victory gate.
Now we are in Takayo Siva Temple without any remnants of Siva. In fact, the heads have been hacked off most of the statues. F--- and I stood in the shrine and pretended to be the new gods. From the top of the temple a new Buddha, and four doors to all directions with the cool wind blowing in. We could see the jungle out there.
TAPROHM with the silk cotton trees growing within the walls. She felt that the temple had bad omens. We stood in the place to remove unhappiness, the pounding chest temple and we beat our fists against our chests and the walls echoed deeply. The trees lived on top of dead trees, the roots trailing down like fire hoses hundreds of feet. And we held hands and we breathed deeply and now she lays in my lap.
Angkor Wat where the carving on the walls looked so familiar to us. Bishma on a bed of arrows and the vast war. A 380 meter esplanade separated the entrance from the temple. We arrived in the morning by 2 motorbikes to avoid the cavalcade of Japanese, German and American languages. Angkor Wat seemed more preserved than the other temples and we fell in love with the finely chiseled doorways open to the four directions. We stood in the adjacent libraries, the entire area built in the middle of the 12th century.
We climbed to the top of the temple and could see the terrace, the front entrance surrounded by jungle on all sides and the uniform grayish green roofs and window panes. We could have lived here once I thought and we stood looking out over a ledge. We thought how quiet the whole atmosphere was, and how ancient and old.
Banteay Srei – Citadel of Women where the carvings appeared more intricate and a different shade than anything we had seen. We saw Parvati sitting on Siva’s lap and the colors, the earthern hues of gold and green. The carvings were so detailed, enhanced by the change of colors and the fading sunlight. F--- said she was in ecstasy and thought the temple was small and cute.
Taipei feels like a compact more innocent version of the other Asian cities. Scooters are the default mode of transportation, especially just out of the downtown area, where long lines of parked scooters can taper away as long as the street.
Taipei has another excellent metro system in the same league as Singapore, Tokyo and Kuala Lumpur. In the environment of the subway stations one can find extensive shops, access ways to malls and the hustle and bustle makes it all seem like a small city contained underground. The Taipei city mall is a circular underground promenade that twists on forever, finally doubling back on itself. The space vehicle noise emitted from the trains as they leave the station still rings in my ears.
Wading through the streets near the Taipei Main Station, like a small microcosm of Manhattan, can be bewildering because of the overtly westernized stores like Starbucks and McDonalds compared to the vaguely familiar shops like Ikari coffee house or Royal Host. 7/11’s and Circle K’s crop up at every street corner and generally, other than the people and the Chinese signs, I didn’t really feel any different from wandering around downtown Los Angeles.
Of note, is the unassuming vegetarian café just off the corner near the YMCA. Here you can self serve yourself a healthy plate of Chinese delicacies for just $4-5. Spring rolls, noodles, brown rice, and dozens of vegetable and tofu dishes line the buffet table and you sit elbow to elbow with the rest of the customers while you eat.
People were friendly and I encountered no problems asking for directions other than the English problem. However, information booths at the metro station are enormously helpful in finding streets, addresses and plying you with knowledge. I didn’t have much luck communicating with the taxi drivers. On two occasions I had to use written directions or hand movements to find my destination.
Longshan temple attracts a moving conglomeration of people from all walks of life. People stream in to pray with incense sticks and chant in front of the golden Buddhas. The temple is hardly camouflaged against the skyscrapers and night markets just outside. The sincerity of the prayers performed directly in the living heart of the city created a welcome citadel of peace.
YongKang Street has a glitzy feel with numerous eateries and boutique shops. According to happycow.com an organic restaurant is located on lane 32 #9 off YongKang St. I walked around in search of the place and encountered every lane before and after 32. When I finally discovered lane 31 (purely by accident), I saw shop #8 and #10 but no #9. Giving up on finding the restaurant, I resigned myself to exploring the outskirts of YongKang Street and ended up literally staring at the storefront of OE Life. OE Life is an organic store and the restaurant upstairs serves up an expensive but clean dining experience. The menus are in Chinese, so after much finger pointing, I finally ended up buying a six course meal that totally ravished my famished senses. An experience of this meal can be seen in the DVD.
Danshui reminded me a lot of San Francisco with the fisherman’s wharf and narrow avenues and alleys. Lined side to side with fresh food, juice, tea and bargain shops, the area is crowded and noisy, full of hawkers and table stalls. The waterfront promenade is nothing much to speak of, but as usual people watching and observing the fantastic looking food provided some entertainment. The areas above the shore contain several temples, a fort and beautiful laid back housing. I wish I had gone further up the hill.
The Chiang Kai Shek Memorial is a massive structure housing an underground historical museum. Walking into the plaza with the ornately designed concert halls on both sides and the CKS memorial in front, alleviates the claustrophobic feeling of the city lanes. I enjoyed watching the many dance troupes, bands and performing artists using the wide open space.
I also paid an overlong visit to Taipei 101, possibly the world’s tallest building and surrounded by more malls and shopping centers. The MOMA was closed the day I wanted to visit. If I had more time, I would have visited the snake market near Longshan temple, the hot springs and Palace Museum.
My friend Suki in Singapore used to work at the money desk on The Straits Times. When she offered her resignation, she continued to work for three more months before she could officially leave. We visited her catacomb-like office and it was here in the café where I spoke with the editor of Digital Life. Singapore is an air conditioned city and it was comical to see people walking around in jackets, scarves and sweaters inside the office.
There was something of the sleek lines, the sports car, a kung fu kinetic in corners of family trauma which made Singapore a return to an impersonal and largely night city. On street sides with plastic chairs spread out for eating, I wove my way through smells of ginger, jack fruit, durian and seafood. Young girls accosted me from inside massage parlors. Restaurants and food courts sprung up everywhere you looked. I didn’t venture into Little India but Suki said the crowds and elbowing can be worse than the real India.
The clutter of Suki’s apartment could have been an obsessive compulsive’s nightmare. The dozens of creams and scrubs in her bathroom, the thousands of books stacked unevenly on shelves, boxes and arrangements of colored stones, paintings in various stages of completion, stacks of cushions, unread letters, notice papers, a jumble of electrical gadgets . . .
Generally, we spent our time completing errands for Suki’s departure to India which took us through China Town, high rise centers, business districts, coastal roads and historical landmarks. Suki gave a running commentary to all of this and it was nice to watch her routine. Plans were usually centered on where to eat with numerous stops for snacks and drinks. We visited the botanical gardens where a brass band was performing. At several intervals we discussed what it must feel like for expatriate westerners to arrive in a country full of petite Asian girls. Expatriate men were considered suave compared to the gawky local men.
We usually started our day with brown rice porridge and miso soup, all freshly prepared in Suki’s kitchen. Once for dinner she made red bean noodles and there was always rooibos tea. One evening while I worked on the computer Suki continued updating me on the status of the meal.
“Dinner will be ready soon,”
“All right, time to tuck in,” said Suki five minutes later.
An amazing and nurturing person, Suki took for me a tour of the organic and vegan eateries in Singapore, which turned out to be quite a few. Yogi Hub, in two different locations, Whatever Café, Passion Organics and New Green Pasture Café. She was a preferred customer at all these places. On one occasion she even rang up before closing time so that the owner could prepare a special dinner for us.
Suki would often help out in clearing dishes and would recommend the restaurants to her friends. The glazed porcelain feel of the interior décor and cheerful staff accounted for part of the inner cleanliness of the food. The Yogi Hub, where we dined twice, served us brown rice, red bean noodles, vegan pizza, soy cappuccinos, etc. However, they had the type of “customer service” where the customer generally had to bring their plates and empty dishes back to the kitchen.
Trips to Bali, Melaka and Penang were thrown around but nothing materialized. I was tired from my tour through India and the incessant traveling from Rishikesh to Delhi to Chennai to KL to Singapore. Suki spoke of the Orang Asli, Organic Ong Boon Keong and her friends in Malaysia. Organic Ong apparently used to hold great organic dinners where eccentric and international visitors would join to cook and eat. Frazer Hill Station was a great place to interact with the the Orang Asli.
I already had my fair share of malls starting with the Funon Center and continuing down Orchard Road to Neon City. When Suki forgot to pick up a hat and water purifier she had bought at campus corner, and I accompanied her back to downtown. The next day we took the metro to the airport and I saw her off. Returning from Singapore Airport back to her apartment was a staid early morning affair. Across from me a young toddler was talking incessantly and molesting his mother. The mother beamed with an indulgent smile.
When Suki left she said that I did not have to leave and could spend a few days in the apartment. I used the 2 days to read and rest. I walked to Passion Organics near the apartment and chatted up with Chi, the manager, as she fixed a meal. Chi’s father was a cancer survivor which prompted her interest in organic food. Chi had the delicate and pale frame of someone who spent most of her time indoors, and her plastic black glasses made her seem younger than her looks. I wrote down my address and email in her book.
From the Golden Mile Complex I caught a bus to Kuala Lumpur, which turned out to be faster than the train. The somewhat filthy tiled floors of the complex, with endless stairs and floors, reminded of Kowloon in Shenmue 2. In the game there are literarily dozens of high rise mall you can explore, but they look the same with endless empty rooms and stairs. It was all sort of melancholy, as some of the shops and booths seemed to blend into the next, giving a certain imprisoned feel to the place.
In Tokyo I stayed with Anand, who lived near the Yokota airbase. We visited Shibuya and the fashionable Ginza district, meandering down lanes where we saw several love motels. Somewhere around there we stumbled upon a German pub and I had an Apple Schnapps while Anand had a beer.
The National Museum near the Imperial Palace displayed a German exhibit by Itten and in the galleries we saw Tokyo city spires tangled with dark clouds, fishes and snakes. How to describe the fine strokes, the light robes, or the “crafty” museum, or speaking to Anand in Tamil and Tokyo. In the evening we walked through a park which seemed full of little Japanese women wearing miniskirts and high leather boots. I saw pink knees and white thighs everywhere in the cold evening. We continued through round circular parks and promenades which would abruptly turn into thoroughfares with cars squeezing their way by. I looked up and was startled to see a casino on top of a convenience store, or a video game parlor built into a posh apartment complex. I learned Japanese words like Mizu, Tako, Gommenasaise, Wakerimasen, Konnichiwa and SumaSen Tako.
In the night we ate Ramen noodles at the truck stop restaurant, a scene right from Tampopo where weary individuals and families sat at the long table facing the cooks. Later Beers and tea arrived nonstop in the Karaoke room, and I belted out Elephant Stone and other rock songs.
For Kyoto, I booked a ticket on the Shinkansen, which can go in excess of 300 km/h. Riding the train I got the feeling my body was standing still and only my mind was racing through the scenery. After arriving in Kyoto station, I took an expensive taxi to the Utano Youth Hostel where I stayed for 2 nights.
The next morning I visited Kiyomizu, Ginkakuji, Sanjensangendo and Nanzennji. I remember Kiyomizu because it had a steep climb and huge pagodas. You can look out over Kyoto when you climb to the top. Most of the temples seem built into the hills and Nanzennji has a small footpath up the mountain. The air was crisp and lovely and with my two new Japanese friends, Shoichiro and Yusuke, we walked along the stone steps of the philosopher’s path. My friends introduced me to Yatsahashi, which are like crepes, flavored with beans, strawberry, green tea. Shoichiro told me that the rock garden at Ryoanji is a symbol of the Japanese soul.
Ginkakuji had fantastic moss, so many species, in a peaceful garden. The mountain path was lined with finely manicured trees covering still ponds. Nanzenji had even more mountain paths and an aqueduct. We walked inside seeing the tiger painted doors and stone garden. Sanjensangendo has Hindu influenced deities, but the statues looked unfamiliar to me. Hundreds of Buddha kannons with thousand arms stand behind these statues. Later I walked across the street to the Kyoto National Museum where I had coffee and ice cream at the Karafuneya Coffee Shop. At night Yusuke and I played table tennis in the youth hostel.
That night I organized a trip to the public bath with Yusuke, Shoichiro and John, the latter a Canadian who worked at the youth hostel. We undressed and bathed in front of several dozen Japanese men. I started by washing myself while I sat in front of a shower. Then there are various saunas, hot tubs with bubble jets, electric shock baths, scented steams and ice cold tanks to jump into. On the way back John wanted to stop at the Ichiban where we spent several minutes negotiating vegetarian items for me. John said he had been vegetarian until his hair started falling out. Meanwhile Shoichiro ordered tea for all of us and sneaked in a beer for himself. I had onions, little “sperm-like” mushrooms and Pima which is simply green pepper.
At the public bath we encountered a westerner who told me that I could see cherry blossoms at Kitano Shrine. Viewing the shrine was free and as equally pleasing as the temples. Numerous photographers and artists camped around the white and red cherry blossoms.
Back in Tokyo, I walked around Shinjuku in the Kabuki-Cho area, assailed by invitations for massages, porn and prostitution. Young school kids tittered on the street corners while grown men walked into hotels with geishas. That night I ran out of money and had to take a loan of 200 yen from the Japanese railway system.
The next day I visited Akihabra and Ueno, coming back to the Yokota Airbase early enough to have dinner with Anand who had sprained his ankle playing basketball.